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South by Southwest Film Festival 2006

A Scanner Darkly Still     Fooey to the narrative-film judges at Austin, Texas's 13 th South x Southwest Film Festival, for bestowing awards on suffocatingly conventional movies. The Best Narrative Film prize went to Live Free or Die, a mediocre New Hampshire-shot crime flick, made by ex-Seinfeld writers. The Best Ensemble prize went to Americanese, slick LA actors in a manipulative, Pan-Asian love story. Both prizewinners felt like Sundance rejects, not the way to go for the buoyantly alternative S X SW Fest.

      Why not the $2000 Best Narrative prize instead to LOL, a film made for $3,000 by my Chicago-based young friend, Joe Swanberg? LOL is a witty, mini-satire of post-collegiates trying to connect romantically and erotically (at least, the women are) in a tangle of up-to-the-minute technology. Swanberg plays an impish version of himself who, even in bed with his girlfriend, longingly pines to check his e-mail. Seek out LOL at April's Independent Film Festival of Boston.

      S X SW's big American premiere was Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, a nice, cozy little picture from the US's greatest living filmmaker. Here's the tiny (and thin) story: the St.Paul, Minnesota, theatre which has housed the Prairie Home Companion radio program for thirty years is to be shut down by an unfeeling, Texas-based CEO (Tommy Lee Jones). Meanwhile, let the show go on! Garrison Keiler does his Wobegon radio stuff with aplomb, tongue-in-cheek Lawrence Welk/Arthur Godfrey for the boomer set. Hollywood actors--Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly- pipe in as country-singer regulars on the show. It's Nashville without the savagery and cynical politics. Altman's an old guy now, 81, and his new movie is a mellow celebration of traditional music, a fan's note to   Keiler, and a valentine to veteran actors. Everyone has a grand goofy time--except Lindsay Lohan, stiff and icy as Meryl Streep's daughter.

      The other big SXSW movie was an unannounced screening of A Scanner Darkly, from Philip K. Dick's sci-fi-and-drugs novel, and directed by Austin local hero, Richard Linklater. The film is still in post-production, so I won't say much . In its present incarnation, however, it's confusing in its Burroughs-like storyline and, for the most part, perfunctory in the rotoscoping, utilized brilliantly in Linklater's earlier Waking Life.

      The film at S X SW with the best chance to break out is Al Franken: God Spoke, an enormously enjoyable hang-out with the sharpest commentator in the US. Is the Super Bowl more fun that watching Franken debate the blonde, leggy Reifenstahl of the Far Right, Ann Coulter? Or piss off windbag Bill O'Reilly? Franken is larger than life like Michael Moore, but seems a genuinely nice fellow. The film, co-directed by Nick Doob and The War Room's Chris Hegedus, is pro-Franken in every way. "Al's a really decent person," Hegedus said at Austin, "so fair with us all tagging around for a year-and-a-half."

      My other favorite documentary: Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, the filmmaker putting a bold camera on his quietly estranged parents. Made in the same suburban Jewish milieu as Capturing the Friedmans, it's gentler, kinder, less pathological, but no less effective in shaking the family tree   Finally, take note of Vermonter Jay Craven's Disappearances, an extraordinary accomplishment as a Depression-era period piece on a sub-shoestring budget. Grizzled Kris Kristofferson, in this gentle, sincere Peckinpah-like Eastern-Western, stars as an ex-moonshiner on a last quest, an optimist forever. "Just the opposite of me," Kristofferson said at Austin.

(Boston Phoenix, March 2006)


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