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.

Boy meets girl when she hails his cab. When fate throws them together for several more meetings, she at last succumbs to his charms. The affair grows from raw sex to tender love, to conflict when she finds out he's not really only a taxi driver.

The heavy-featured DeCadenet seems too characterful to be a supermodel, but that's not something to complain about. She's entirely plausible as a woman weary of being noticed only for her striking looks. And if the ferrety Schaeffer is miscast (to be fair, his casting may have been a budgetary matter), it does add a comic edge to sex scenes. Certainly, he's a better choice than some smoldering hunk.

With a straight face, Schaeffer dedicates the film "to the celebration of all slain hope." (Didn't I read that in Dante's Inferno?) Yet despite this risibility, Fall raises one's almost-slain hopes for Schaeffer; certainly the film is, by far, his best work yet. Still, for all the heartfelt lift of the hero's passions, the dramatic question of whether a supermodel and a cabbie would end up together just wasn't one I could take seriously. This is, I'm sure, a reverse-elitist bias on my part, but that doesn't bother me: The victims of reverse elitism have compensations no other minority can claim.

The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson and The Last Big Thing--Two Hollywood satires, both flawed, both fascinating. To clear up an obvious question, the KJ of the first title is not the beloved Sun--he's a well-heeled British businessman who wants to break into the movie biz, and who always seems to be surrounded by gorgeous young women. When he goes missing, a documentary crew from British television begins probing the shady side of his life.

A fictitious mystery, Kevin Johnson is presented as a mock documentary. It was directed by Francis Megahy, a real-life veteran of Brit TV, who also "plays" the off-screen director, asking nervy questions of his squirming subjects--the producers, agents and other cronies and sycophants in KJ's circle. Each of these hangers-on--played by Michael Brandon, Richard Beymer, John Hillard and Kari Wuhrer, along with amusing, relaxed turns by Pierce Brosnan, James Coburn and Dudley Moore as themselves--is given long single-take scenes in which to squirm.

The film truly achieves the authentic feel of a politely lurid Brit doc, like Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam. How much of an artistic triumph that is may be debated, especially since the point is the same one that most Tinseltown expose films make--that in Hollywood, surface beats substance every time. Not exactly a stop-the-presses revelation, but The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson is still an ingenious, often impressive moviemaking stunt.

Even better is The Last Big Thing. This freeform lampoon of L.A. culture, and of the cranks who study it obsessively while proclaiming their hatred of it, may be the most stylistically original film to play at Saguaro this year.

The protagonist, played by writer-director Dan Zukovic, calls himself Simon Geist. He lives with his jumpy, addled girlfriend Darla (the wonderful Susan Heimbinder) in a featureless tract house in the L.A. suburbs. Claiming to be an interviewer for a new magazine called The Last Big Thing, Simon sets up meetings with rising actors, models, comedians and bands. The magazine doesn't actually exist, however, and Simon's only purpose in the meetings is to confront and insult his subjects about their vapidity and cultural toxicity.

Simon Geist feels that a cultural apocalypse is imminent, and must surely happen in L.A. He's been suckered by the feeling all of us have from time to time--that this shit can't go on much longer.

The Last Big Thing is fueled by genuine, hilarious, unnerving spleen. It's clear that at some level, Zukovic shares his hero's outraged disdain for junk culture, and it gives the film a startling, freaky fervency. But Zukovic is too honest a satirist to stop with mere ridicule, however justified. As Simon and Darla's nonproject "develops" (financed by Darla's father), Simon's own hypocrisies are explored, and we see what the film is getting at: that to define oneself culturally as heroically opposed to crap is, nonetheless, to define oneself by crap. The real target of The Last Big Thing is nicely communicated by the name of the production-company slug line at film's end: "A Byronic Pose Production."

Also scheduled for this year are three intriguing documentaries: Mary Works' Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, about the Charlatans, a key band from the '60s rock scene in San Francisco; Ronald Levaco's wistful Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom, about Europeans who embraced Mao's revolution in China; and Edward James: Builder of Dreams, a portrait of the oddball English surrealist architect. Shekhar Kapur's harsh, hard-edged Bandit Queen, about the bandit and lower-caste heroine Phoolan Devi, is also among this year's offerings, as is the cyberspace film Synthetic Pleasures, although both movies have had brief Valley runs already.

The program is rounded out by two Gen-X comedies, Fritzi Horstman's Take a Number and Kari Skogland's The Size of Watermelons; a drama, Drunks, with Richard Lewis as a 12-Stepper on a bender; Pure Race, an actioner about a black kid and a white kid menaced by white supremacists, made by Valley-based filmmakers Rocco DeVilliers and Dan Urness; and, on Thursday, an evening of Arizona-made shorts, featuring Chris Lamont's Jimmy & Frank Rob a Bank.

Scheduled guests at this year's festival are Stefani Ames and Tom Epperson, Ron Levaco, Kevin Johnson producer Scott Wolf and director Francis Megahy, Fall producer Terence Michael, Dan Zukovic and Fritzi Horstman, among others.

Saguaro Film Festival runs Thursday, May 1, through Sunday, May 4, at Valley Art Theatre and Arizona State University's Neeb Hall, both in Tempe. Tickets are $5 for individual events, with all-movie passes available for $35, $25 for students.

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