Phoenix Film Festival Review: Closing Night Screening of Middle Men, Complete with Celebs

Last night the Phoenix Film Festival came to a close. Finishing out its 10th year, the fest decided to go out with a bang. The closing screening was of a new movie starring Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, James Caan, and Gabriel Macht titled Middle Men, which won't be released until August.

While there wasn't actually a red carpet, the event was a bit of a "red carpet situation," if you will. While I was relegated to the fringes of society in the dreaded stand-by line -- waiting desperately for nearly an hour and a half for a ticket while praying someone got a bad case of food poisoning and couldn't show up -- the beautiful people arrived and were whisked off to be interviewed and photographed, right there in front of the theater.

Luke Wilson, Rade Serbedzija (who plays the head of the Russian mob in the film, and also was in Guy Ritchie's Snatch), actress Laura Ramsey (who plays a love interest of Luke Wilson's character), director George Gallo (perhaps best known for his work as writer of the 1988 film Midnight Run), writer Andy Weiss, producer Chris Mallik, and even Miss Arizona USA were all in attendance. Additionally, model/Playboy Playmate/actress Summer Altice made an appearance, and several other centerfolds showed up to catch the film. A few of them had bit parts in strip clubs or the orgy scene.

The film is based on a true story and is about a man named Jack Harris (loosely-based on producer Chris Mallik and played by Wilson) who, in a business to help people revive businesses, accidentally gets tangled up with the very first online venture which allows one to pay for porn. And he ends up with the Russian mob as partners. While he tries to maintain his status as a family man that simply works out a business model for two idiots (Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) who are always coked-out and in way over their heads, slowly but surely Harris gets pulled in to the surreal and over-the-top world of sex, drugs, and organized crime.

The film is full of comedy, even in its most dramatic or frightening parts. Wilson's character is constantly repeating the phrase, "Let's focus on why we're here," to get himself out of tough situations. Eventually, every time he's about to say it, you can hear the audience snicker. Ribisi's character though, is full of zingers. Played in what I would consider awfully similar fashion to Johnny Depp's portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not only is he always wearing an outdated pair of sunglasses both in and outside, but he has frequent outburstsof phrases like, "Tits are like bells," or my favorite, "I feel like an anaphylactic polar bear with a bunny rabbit up his ass."

To create a world in which most of us will never experience, the film is shot in a chaotic fashion to mimic the kind of lifestyle lived by its characters. It's often difficult to orient yourself in a room or understand who else is present and where they are located.

Perhaps one of the most exciting things for us locals is that it was shot entirely in Arizona. Gallo said in the Q&A session after the screening that this was largely because of the Arizona Motion Picture Tax Incentive Program. What this also means, though, is that local people and businesses were involved in the making of the film. The Valley Ho was featured in one of the final scenes, and locals appeared both in the cast and crew. The filmmakers also said that Arizona was advantageous because it was possible to make it look like anywhere else, and according to Gallo, "You people were wonderful. I'd love to make another movie here." The film was shot in 37 days with a budget of $20 million. (On a separate note, though Luke Wilson was scheduled to stay afterwards and chat, we were told that he was shy, and that's why he slipped off.)

While it was really interesting and exciting to hear what everyone had to say about the making of the film, what was bothersome was the way that the filmmakers and actors discussed women in the adult entertainment industry. When answering questions about meeting and talking with strippers and women in porn, there was always a condescending tone, and an "us and them" dichotomy was clearly present. While Ramsey tried to be thoughtful by saying, "These girls are some of the smartest girls I've ever met," it was clear that her expectation was that they wouldn't be smart. Then she had to convince everyone, (likely herself included) of the same. The worst, though, was Andy Weiss' description of the mind of a porn star. According to him, these women are business women first and foremost. What does that mean, exactly? Well, he said, "They will do 20 more disgusting things for 10 bucks." These offensive assumptions and ways of talking about women, some of whom may have been in the room, really left a bad taste in my mouth after what was a wonderful film.

Middle Men won't actually make it out until August, and coming from someone who doesn't even care for action films all that much, I still found this one really enjoyable. The characters were interesting, it maintained a lighthearted feel which balanced out all of the violence that occurred, and in the end, your feelings for several people become ambiguous. To me, there is nothing better than a film where you know that someone made bad, selfish, horrible decisions that hurt others, and yet you still have feelings, sympathy and caring for him/her in the end. These actors do it, and the film is unique, exciting, and beautifully made. Though it could have ended up really crass, it took a more sophisticated approach for the most part, and leaves you contemplating the less dirty aspects when it's all over. The music in it is a perfect companion, and Gallo even said that the songs used, which include several Rolling Stones hits, drive the film, so much so that music actually becomes like a character in the piece.

The event was a really nice way to end a really cool festival, and I'm looking forward to seeing what tricks they have up their sleeves for next year.