Indie Mood

Fourth annual Saguaro Film Festival offers cinema toast

For the fourth time in as many years, Arizona Film Society presents the Saguaro Film Festival. As in previous years, this year's selections are a mixed bag, but a rewarding one--along with the usual batch of slackers-trying-to-get-laid comedies, there are such real gems as an enchanting, imaginative riff on the film noir genre, a comic-erotic modern love story, and a jugular-ripping attack on L.A. culture. This year's in-person guests and panelists are a low-glamour--but probably more interesting--assortment of producers, screenwriters and directors.

Of the scheduled films that I was able to prescreen, the following were the most remarkable:

A Gun, a Car, a Blonde--The hard-boiled detective thriller may be the most overparodied of all movie genres. But here's an homage to the genre that works on its own terms.

Half of A Gun, a Car, a Blonde consists of a black-and-white detective spoof as stripped-down and generic as its title. What gives the film its charm is the way director Stefani Ames, working from a script she co-wrote with producer Tom Epperson, uses the genre material to counterpoint the other full-color half--a touching contemporary story.

Richard (Jim Metzler) is a wealthy Brentwood businessman whose spinal cancer has left him in pain and confined to a wheelchair. Adding to his affliction is the presence of his leechy sister (Kay Lenz) and her creepy boyfriend (Billy Bob Thornton), who hope to replace his kind housekeeper (Norma Maldonado) and in-home nurse (Victor Love) in his affections--and in his will. On the advice of a New Agey friend (John Ritter), Richard tries fighting his pain with "objectification therapy"; by fantasizing himself pain-free in a scenario that delights him. An old-movie buff, he imagines himself as cool gumshoe "Rick Stone."

Figures from Richard's real life play appropriate roles in "Rick's" story. A blonde (Andrea Thompson) he sees sunbathing on a nearby patio plays his enigmatic client. The car is a classic convertible Ritter is procuring for a wealthy dentist, and the sister's boyfriend carries the gun.

The two strands loosely feed off each other, subtly developing a unified theme of the soul-healing power of love and acceptance. The film's rather sweet suggestion is that it's possible to live the sexy pose of the hard-boiled idiom without succumbing to cynicism.

Metzler is a bit stiff, but he's capable enough in the lead role(s), and the rest of the cast is better still. Thornton has a terrific, blandly unctuous quality as the boyfriend, and Lenz's performance makes the prospect of having her as a sister-caregiver truly distressing. Thompson has a fine voice to go with her elegant features, and Ritter is first-rate--as in Sling Blade, he plays an effusive mensch who's superficially somewhat ridiculous but deeply decent where it counts.

Screenwriter Epperson collaborated with Billy Bob Thornton on all of his other screenplays except for this one and Sling Blade, in which the script tellingly includes a preacher named "Brother Epperson." This time out with Ames, the dialogue sometimes goes way over the top, but it does so knowingly. In one scene, the heroine deadpans to Rick Stone, "I can't hold anything against you when you hold me against you." As if on cue, a knocked-out heavy nearby moans as he regains consciousness. There are more than a few such groaners here, but at least the filmmakers also supply the groans.

Fall--"He sex-talk-fucked a supermodel into coming without touching her in his kitchen. . . . If anything, the guy's up for some sort of award." So remarks a character about the hero of Fall. Well, yeah. And who has writer-director Eric Schaeffer chosen to play this sexually dominant dynamo? A slight fellow with a lean-and-hungry grin by the name of Eric Schaeffer. He probably deserves some kind of award, too--for what is variously known as audacity, or chutzpah, or cojones.

Everyone has known unprepossessing people who nonetheless have strong sexual magnetism, and in real life Schaeffer may well be such a person. But the ability to project it onscreen is another matter. Bogart and Cagney had it; Schaeffer, who suggests a scroungier version of Rob Schneider, doesn't.

It would be easy enough to laugh off Fall as a wishful-thinking vanity production, except, oddly, it's a halfway-decent picture. Until the curiously masochistic final act, this love story between a cabdriver (Schaeffer) and a married supermodel (Amanda DeCadenet) weaves together fairly successful humor and fairly potent Nicolas Roeg-style eroticism with a fair amount of deftness, and some surprisingly impassioned and poetic writing.

It's particularly surprising to those who know Schaeffer's earlier work. In 1994, he and cohort Donal Lardner Ward debuted with My Life's in Turnaround, a pretty lame slacker comedy about two clueless ding-a-lings who decide to make a movie. Next, Schaeffer soloed with an abysmal attempt at romantic comedy called If Lucy Fell, which traded Turnaround's few witty moments for cameos by David Letterman's stooges Mujabir and Sirajul.

In both films, Schaeffer's aesthetic diversion seemed to have been fixing himself up with foxy ladies--Dana Wheeler Nicholson in Turnaround, Elle Macpherson in Lucy. In Fall, he gives himself over to this interest. The secondary characters, though well-drawn, are shuttled to the background so that the focus can be kept on model-conquest. The result, if no less transparent than the earlier films, is much more honest, funny and absorbing.

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