Film Fests Archive for March, 2009

AFI Dallas: The Burning Plain

Last night at AFI Dallas we caught the Centerpiece screening of Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, starring Charlize Theron. I first saw this film at Toronto, where I was a little lukewarm on the pacing of film, but liked the structure of the plot overall and the performances. I wrote back then that I wanted to see the film a second time, and this is the first chance I’ve had to catch it.
While I don’t believe the film has undergone any editing changes since I saw it last September, I did like it considerably more this time around, though I’m not sure if that’s because I was overly tired and festival-grumpy the first time I saw it, or because I already knew what was going to happen and was therefore able to focus more on the subtleties of the writing and the performances. Oh, and the cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton), who shot the Mexico sequences, and John Toll (Gone Baby Gone, Vanilla Sky) who shot in Portland, is completely stunning.
I thought the performances were strong the first time I saw The Burning Plain and now, after seeing it a second time, I’m even more impressed by both Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. Theron never overplays her part; her eyes are haunted, vacant; her face is a carefully constructed blank slate, but there’s so much constrained emotion playing under the surface in every scene. She’s really a remarkable talent, and this is exactly the kind of role she shines in. As for Basinger, this is her best performance in years; she’s rock solid as the housewife whose affair spins the events of the story.
The storyline revolves around a convoluted plot structure in which Arriaga reveals only bits and pieces at a time before finally tying it all together in the third act. The first time I saw this film, it took me awhile to figure out how it all fit together, but on a second viewing it was more obvious to me early on where the reveals were. I’m sure there are plenty of people who figured things out much sooner than I did on a first viewing, but hey, it was Toronto, I was tired, and it truly did take me a while to figure out where the whole thing was going.
Arriaga is a brilliant writer, one of the best, and this is a solid directorial effort with some minor flaws here and there that don’t, overall, detract from the power of the film. Magnolia will release the film in September.

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Sex and the Movies

So I’m participating in this panel at AFI Dallas on sex in the movies. No demonstrations/re-enactments, so far as I know, so don’t get too excited about that bit.
Here’s the description:
Women in Film – Wednesday 4/1 5:30PM
Last year saw a blockbuster smash in TWILIGHT that featured a romance between a teenage girl and a young male vampire that was a chastity parable by a practicing Mormon. THE READER featured an affair that traumatizes one of the characters for years to come. Meanwhile, THE READER and TOWELHEAD held May/December romances as story lynchpins with typical negative reaction to the appropriateness of the older male/younger female version (TOWELHEAD), as opposed to the relative acceptance of the older female/younger male version (THE READER). So, have we progressed at all in the way we view these relationships? Traditionally, older man/younger girl = creepy and against the law, while older woman/younger guy = lucky young guy. Have things changed at all with how we view the boundaries of portraying romance and relationships on screen or are we dealing with age-old preconceptions and prejudices? And bottom line: Why are the movies so afraid of sex in the first place?

…If you were listening to this panel, what would you want to hear discussed? Toss me any ideas you have, or questions you’d be interested in hearing addressed, and I’ll try to work them in. And if you’re in Dallas for the fest, feel free to drop by for the discussion.

SXSW Award Winners

And the winners are …

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SXSW Review: Splinterheads

Splinterheads — which will, inevitably, be compared to Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, which also screened here at SXSW — is a generally entertaining film about Justin (Thomas Middleditch) a 20-something, directionless guy whose humdrum life of practicing karate moves and mowing lawns with his friend, Wayne Chung (Jason Rogel) is shaken up by the arrival of a traveling carnival and a beautiful con artist named Galaxy (Rachael Taylor). Justin first encounters Galaxy when she cons sixty bucks out of him at a gas station, and they don’t at first seem to be a great match, particularly given Galaxy’s possessive, bullying boyfriend, who works with her at the carnival.

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SXSW Dispatch: The Super-Secret Screening of Todd Haynes' "Superstar"

I was going to go back to my hotel and crash early after my final jury screening tonight, until I got a text message from a friend that the 9:30 TBA at the Alamo Ritz was something worth sticking around for — an exceedingly rare opportunity to see Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story on a 16mm print in a theater. Wow.
The film, one of Haynes’ earliest works, was made in 1987 and has been generally out of circulation (at least, outside of places like YouTube) since 1990, when Haynes lost a lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Karen Carpenter’s brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter. Superstar is both a re-telling of Karen Carpenter’s descent into anorexia and early death at the age of 32 in 1983, told through the use of Barbie dolls as the main players, and a darkly fascinating exploration of the perfectionism and cultural factors that lead young women to anorexia. What’s most tragic about the film, though, is that over 20 years later, we haven’t made much progress culturally with regard to the kinds of pressures — particularly in the media — that lead young women to starve themselves to death.

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Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" at SXSW


SXSW Dispatch: Brüno and Drag Me to Hell

Tonight at SXSW brought two treats: a sneak peek at Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, Brüno — aka … “Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt,” and a “work-in-progress” cut of Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre with Drag Me to Hell, starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long.
With Brüno , Cohen continues to push boundaries in exposing the raw, honest societal truths through subversive comedy. Based on the twenty or so minutes of footage we saw tonight, it looks like Bruno could, perhaps, be even more shocking than Cohen’s previous film, Borat, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, and once again it’s the responses of the people Cohen’s character interacts with that elicit reactions that are painful in their honesty.

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"Grace" at SXSW

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"Make Out with Violence" at SXSW

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Thoughts on SXSW's Opening Night Film, "I Love You, Man"

SXSW 2009 Dispatch: Opening Night

opening party crowd.jpg
After a hellish day of flight delays, planes with mechanical problems, luggage not being loaded on the plane in a timely manner, and assorted weather-related issues here in the southwest, I finally made it into Austin tonight five hours or so later than planned.
I got to my hotel room around 10:30 and after longing lookss at both the lovely, deep bathtub and comfortable-looking bed, both of which were giving me “come hither” glances, I sucked down some coffee and mustered up the energy to hike the few blocks over to the big Opening Night party at Buffalo Billiards.

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The Opening Party is, like most fest parties, hot and very crowded, but it’s always a great first fest stop for seeing all the other fest circuit refugees, filmmakers, and talent. Fest regulars at the party tonight included the indieWIRE crew, represented by Eugene Hernandez, Brian Brooks and Eric Kohn ; B-Side’s Chris Holland; Keaton Kail, Ryan Werner and Alison Willmore from IFC, publicists David Magdael and Winston Eammes, former SXSW head Matt Dentler, and new SXSW head honcho Janet Pierson. Also ran into the team from Make Out with Violence, one of my fave films from the Oxford Film Festival.

eug and keaton.jpg
janet pierson opening party.jpg

I heard Paul Rudd was there tonight, though I think he left before I got there, but I did see Mark Duplass, who has a film in the narrative competition film in the fest, and then a few minutes later was accosted by a friendly, if rather inebriated actor who’s in a short film playing here. He apparently thought that petting my hair was a good way to introduce himself. Fortunately, the film’s director more or less got him under control, so I won’t hold that against him or his film.
Since I missed the opening night film, I shot some flipcam video of several folks talking about both the film and the audience response. Hope to have both that video and another of the Make Out with Violence crew up shortly, once I navigate the mysteries of uploading it to YouTube.
Tomorrow’s my first day of screenings of the films in the narrative competition — three of them, back-to-back (but thankfully all at the Alamo Ritz, so I’ll be able to eat better than my usual fest diet of protein bars and 89,000 shots of espresso (hellllllooooo, milkshakes!) More later from SXSW, stay tuned.

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Quick Look at AFI Dallas

I just got the press release with the full schedule for the AFI Dallas 2009 International Film Festival, and I have to say, in their third year with this fest the programming team seems to finally be settling down in figuring out just what they want AFI Dallas to be. The lineup is a pretty solid mix of some good films from the fest circuit, especially Sundance, with a nice highlighting of films from Texas filmmakers to give the fest some local flavor and flair.
The fest will open this year with Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, and the “Dallas Premiere Series,” mostly comprised of strong fest circuit films, includes Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Adam Resurrected, The Burning Plain, Hunger, Lymelife, Moon, Peter and Vandy, Sugar, Valentino: The Last Emperor Lightbulb, which just world premiered at Santa Barbara in January, and Sundance hit 500 Days of Summer. That’s a pretty impressive lineup right there for a smaller regional fest, even one that’s bolstered by being a part of AFI, and kudos to the fest for bringing such a strong slate of fest circuit films to the Dallas market, where they otherwise might not be seen for months, if at all.
I’ll be going to AFI Dallas to do a panel, and plan to catch some good films while I’m there; I always try to make room to see a couple films in the Texas competition. I’m not familiar with anything on that slate, but I’m always hopeful I’ll stumble upon the next great indie filmmaker in regional competitions like this one. The World Cinema slate brings Dallas geekboys and geekboys a chance to see the long-awaited Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, which I just saw at its Santa Barbara world premiere; fans of the Evangelion series will likely be happy with the film, while those not familiar with the series may find it hard to wrap their heads around the vast amount of information presented in a compressed format. Dallas audiences will also get a chance to catch films like Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth, Kassim the Dream, and Sundance hot pick Rudo y Cursi, which is slated for release in May.
Dallas horror fans will also have the opportunity to catch Sundance zombie baby flick Grace, which left me traumatized for several hours after I caught it in Park City. It’s definitely worth catching for serious horror buffs, and even folks like me, who are not necessarily into blood and gore, will likely find enough to intrigue to make it worth their while. To be honest, it’s a pretty ballsy programming decision for a fest in a town like Dallas, but I like that the fest is pushing the envelope and obviously working hard to ensure that AFI Dallas is a film fest worth attending, not just a mediocre regional fest offering whatever scraps they can grab. This is a solid lineup for any fest, and I’m impressed that in three short years the AFI Dallas team has accomplished so much.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon