SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST!! MORIARTY Spends A Week With The Dude: GIGANTIC; BETTER LUCK TOMORROW; THE LAST GAME!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Jeff Dowd, the one and only venerable Dude, is in Austin already, gearing up for South By Southwest. I wish I was there, getting ready to OD on Texas barbecue and good movies, hanging out with Tom Joad and Harry and Annette Kellerman and Johnny Wadd and, yes, even Quint. I wish I was going to get to enjoy the live music that's going to be just as plentiful as the movies. But I've got things going on here in LA that are going to keep me busy, and so there will be no South By Southwest for me.
Well... almost none, anyway. The Dude spent last week hooking me up with screenings of films that are going to be showing during the festival in Austin this coming week, and I thought I'd give you guys a sneak peek at some of what festival goers can expect next week, and what you can expect in the months ahead.
Let's do this chronologically. It started with a phone call from The Dude asking me to meet him at the Egyptian...
GIGANTIC: A TALE OF TWO JOHNS
When I came walking up to the front of the Egyptian, all I saw were posters for BLACK HAWK DOWN. I knew Ridley Scott was supposed to be appearing with Jerry Bruckheimer that night to show the film and discuss it, but I didn't really have an interest in sitting through it a second time. The Dude told me we were here for something else, though, and steered me into the building, then away from the main lobby towards the second smaller lobby outside the Steven Spielberg Theater, a secondary screening room used for smaller events.
There were a few people already in the second lobby, and The Dude steered me over to one of them right away. He made a few cursory introductions, but I didn't really need one. I recognized John Flansburgh right away as one-half of the band They Might Be Giants. He doesn't really look any different now than he did back in the days of LINCOLN, when I first discovered the band. Their song "Ana Ng" was a pop obsession of mine for one semester of college, one of those songs you can't shake. My college roommate and I started calling the Dial-A-Song service once or twice a week, amazed at how these guys could come up with new and different songs every time. Getting the chance to chat with Flansburgh was an unexpected delight, and he turned out to be just as witty and articulate as the songs that he and his partner, John Linnell, are known for. I asked him if he thought MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, which they wrote the theme song for, had brought them a different type of audience or acceptance. Flansburgh explained that the crowds at They Might Be Giants shows never really seem to age, so he hadn't noticed much change. "They're always pretty young. We're a lot of people's first concert." By this point, Linnell had joined us, and we continued to chat before the film, talking about their work, Austin, and more. This was the night before the duo won their Grammy for the MALCOLM theme, "Boss Of Me," but you'd have never known they were up for any awards or thinking about this movie being played at SXSW or anything at all. They were both relaxed and approachable.
Eventually, I wandered into the theater and waited for about ten minutes, listening to a sampling of They Might Be Giants music played from the overhead speakers, thinking back on who I was when I heard each of those songs for the first time. Whether you like the band or not, you have to admit they've endured where a lot of bands have not been able to, and they've definitely contributed a number of classic tunes to my personal playlist over the years. The theater filled up quickly, and the film finally got underway. AJ Schnack, the director of the film, gives the entire thing a slick, quirky look and feel that benefits the story being told, and GIGANTIC gets one thing right from the moment it starts: it's funny. Damn funny. And anyone who's a fan of They Might Be Giants will tell you that's one of the things you notice about them first. They're funny.
Not that the film is a joke... far from it. This is a sincere, smart attempt to place the Giants in the proper context to make a case for them as one of the most important bands in the alternative movement of the '80s and '90s. It may seem hard to believe that a band who wrote a song about the war between Triangle Man and Particle Man could be "important," but after watching the film, I'd be curious to see how anyone could argue against the idea. Schnack and his producer/wife Shirley Moyers have assembled an interesting cast of characters for the interviews that make up much of the movie, including THIS AMERICAN LIFE's Ira Glass, Gina Arnold, Michael Azerrad, Frank Black, Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, Syd Straw, Mark Hoppus, and Joe Franklin. They also have performers who read the lyrics of the Giants in filmed interludes, and the somber nature of many of the lyrics is interesting to observe removed from the chipper, almost deliriously upbeat music that frequently accompanies those lyrics. Harry Shearer, Janeane Garafolo, and others all nail their interpretations of the lyrics, with Michael McKean's sad, wry reading of "End Of The Tour" a particular standout. Finally, there is performance footage, and plenty of it. Highlights from a four-hour show at the Polish Home in Brooklyn forms the centerpiece of the film, but there's plenty of archival material as well, showing the Giants as a two-man outfit playing along to a tape deck. In some places, Schnack intercuts an old performance with a current one, just to highlight the evolution their sound has gone through, and it's an effective technique. The "Band Of Dans" that backs them up now (Dan Miller, Dan Weinkauf, and Dan Hickey) are not only a great complement to the playing styles of Flansburgh and Linnell, they also come across as guys who genuinely liked the Giants before ever playing with them. This looks like a happy group of performers, enjoying what they do together. It's a relaxed, intimate portrait of the work process as they put together the album MINK CAR and release it, playing various dates and doing the promotional circuit.
What makes this film accessible to non-fans is the story of Flansburgh and Linnell as friends, not musicians. These are guys who have been together since junior high school. Their creative collaboration is one of respect and an almost chemical-level communication. I was fascinated by this element of the film because I've been working with the same partner writing screenplays since I was sixteen years old. That's half my life so far. And people often ask us how we manage to still work together. Now I can point them at GIGANTIC as a way of helping them understand. Schnack had exceptional access to Flansburgh and Linnell, and the result is something very intimate and revealing. It's an affectionate film, too. Schnack loves these guys and makes no bones about it. GIGANTIC is not a hard-hitting expose, and it's not meant to be a gritty examination of the way the music business works. It is a film about friends who make music together, and the way that music has changed over the years, even as their relationship has stayed the same.
If you get a chance to see them when they play this coming week in Austin, you're catching them at a great moment, and I hope you enjoy the hell out of the show. I wish I was there with you.
The night after this screening, I found myself on my way to another one, this time with John Robie in tow...
BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
Here's what I knew walking into this screening: BETTER LUCK TOMORROW was shown at Sundance, where one post-film Q&A turned into a shouting match between Elvis Mitchell, Roger Ebert, and someone in the crowd. The film had been picked up for distribution by MTV Films, a bit of a surprise. I saw that as an interesting attempt to shore up their image a bit and position themselves as a serious company. ELECTION remains their company crown jewel, as far as I'm concerned, and I remembered Harry saying some nice things about this film in his pre-Sundance review. Seemed like an easy call for John Robie and I to make. We went to the Regent Showcase, catty-corner from Pink's in Hollywood, for the cast and crew screening. As we sat waiting for the film to begin, a beautiful Asian girl in her 20s stopped to talk to the people sitting in front of us, a ten year old boy and his mother. We could tell from their conversation that they were all in the movie, and that they were excited to see it. The girl, who said she'd seen it at Sundance, warned the mother that some of it might be sort of rough. Both Robie and I were sort of shamelessly checking out this girl, trying to at least pretend to be decent upstanding members of society. Finally, she took her seat in the middle of the theater, and the producers of the film came up to introduce Justin Lin, the director. He seemed very pleased and excited as he basically just thanked everyone and promised to "party hard" after the screening.
The film starts with two guys, Ben (Perry Shen) and Virgil (Jason Tobin), side by side, eyes closed, soaking up the afternoon sun. As they talk, sort of half-awake, half-dazed, something begins to beep, chirp, chime. Ben checks his pager. Virgil checks his. They look at each other, and now they're awake. Dawning horror on their faces, they both get the same idea, and then they're down, scrambling across the lawn, and they're both listening to the ground, and the beeping... it's getting louder. They begin to claw at the earth, pulling dirt and sod loose, and they dig deeper, until Ben curses and draws back. We see a hand, some worms, and now we can hear the ringing of a cell phone clearly.
Whose hand, though? And who's on the other end of that call? These questions are the framework to draw you through the story of Ben Manibag's senior year of high school, starting four months before that scene. Ben's at the top of his class, but he's bored. He pushes himself, does things that could ruin his future, scamming money off of office supply stores for kicks. He pines for his beautiful classmate Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), who turned out to be the girl that Robie and I were watching before the movie. She's my favorite thing about the movie. She's the Asian Katie Holmes, with that same clenched fist of a smile, and she manages to play an object of desire with real and recognizable rough edges. She's got a boyfriend, but their relationship is complicated and largely one-sided. Ben idolizes her, and when they do interact, she proves more interesting and prickly than he expected. She gets mad when he underestimates her. I knew girls like Stephanie in high school and college, and I give Justin Lin and his co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez credit for creating such a specific and well-observed female character. It's not easy, but they got her right.
And if the film had just been about Ben's complicated journey into Stephanie's affections, I might be more fond of it. Instead, the film focuses on Ben's rather unbelievable flirtation with a life of crime. He gets involved in a cheat sheet ring headed by Daric Loo (Roger Fan), then brings Virgil in on it as well. Considering that the film's events all have to take place within four months, the film moves incredibly fast, with characters going through rather remarkable changes in such a short time. From this cheat sheet scam, suddenly Ben and Virgil and Daric and Han (Sung Kang) are all carrying guns and selling drugs and doing coke, and by the time Ben wakes up in a pool of his own blood from his ruined nose, I was wondering how much ground they were going to try to cover. Ben tries to get out, but Stephanie's boyfriend Steve (John Cho, who you might recognize as the guy who peed on Stifler in AMERICAN PIE 2) involves the four guys in a scheme that leads to a big tragic ending.
I mean, it's certainly tragic for one character. But for the most part, everyone walks away intact. There are no repercussions for their actions. And I'm not one to demand that a movie moralize. It's just that there is nothing that happens at the end of this film. I don't care if they get away with the thing... I just want to see some sort of result, even if it's positive. Instead, the movie simply peters out. It's not focused enough to make its big point, whatever that may be. I don't think the film will be controversial, because I don't think it cuts deeply enough for that. It's too glossy... too easy. Justin Lin has a certain energy as a director, and I think he's got a lot of potential. This particular story just isn't sharp enough for him to make it all come together. It also doesn't help that much of the film feels like Andrew Gurland's CHEATERS, which I saw last year, and which is still languishing on a New Line shelf somewhere. CHEATERS never tipped over into the unbelievable for me, with guns and drug-running and all of that, but it was about the friendships that result from doing something wrong together and getting away with it. In the end, I prefer CHEATERS, and the similarity may not have done BETTER LUCK TOMORROW any favors, unfortunately.
I give the young cast credit. They're all good in the film. Perry Shen works his ass off as Ben, the lead character, and he does a nice job of letting you into Ben's head. He is given strong support by Jason Tobin's Virgil, who is given the always-difficult job of playing the crazy friend, the one who seems to invite trouble. Tobin doesn't overplay the role, and he has some moments where he is heartbreaking in a John Cazale sort of way. I hope we see more of these performers in other films, and that Justin Lin moves on to better films, growing with whatever comes next. As it stands, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW should be an interesting challenge for the MTV Films marketing arm, since it would be hard to encapsulate in a 30 second spot, and it will have to carry an R rating for violence, language, nudity, and drug content. That means there's a whole lot of TRL viewers that aren't going to be able to spend their allowance and babysitting money on the film.
When I got home from BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, there was an envelope waiting for me, with The Dude's return address on it...
THE LAST GAME
Here's the letter The Dude sent along with the film:
Over the years I have had the pleasure to help market and distribute many films that have had strong support from the public and media but didn't necessarily have big stars in them. Some of these films were the BLACK STALLION, CHARIOTS OF FIRE and HOOSIERS. In essence I was a "bridge builder" between the filmmakers and the public. I have also worked with the Coen Brothers on BLOOD SIMPLE. Years later, they based the character "the Dude", played by Jeff Bridges in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, on what they thought I might have been like in the seventies.
A few months ago two young filmmakers from Pennsylvania, Alex Weinress and Tim Murray, showed me an early cut of THE LAST GAME. Because of new modern digital cameras they were able to get close up and intimate situations and capture a story with incredible dramatic detail. THE LAST GAME is the true story of Coach Mike Pettine, the winningest high school football coach in Pennsylvania, who is struggling to keep his dynasty in tact. Temperamental players and a community with unrealistic expectations are just a few of the obstacles facing Coach Pettine throughout his drive to win a third consecutive State Championship. Not to mention the #2 ranked team in the state. North Penn. Coached by Mike Pettine Jr., his only son. There may be thousands of high school football teams in America, but the story of Mike Pettine and his CB West Bucks, is one in a million.
The attached flyer and website, www.thelastgame.com, will give you more information about the movie THE LAST GAME and the filmmakers.
I have been coming to the SXSW Film Festival for many years both as a speaker and with movies. Last year I was there with SCRATCH which Premiere Magazine called "an amazing life-affirming movie." I love the SXSW festival, Austin and the audiences. That is why we are coming to premiere THE LAST GAME at SXSW in Austin.
We will be showing the film three times at the Austin SXSW Film Festival.
Monday, March 11, 4:00PM
Convention Center - Q&A w/ Filmmakers & Jim Lampley and Jeff Dowd
Tuesday, March 12, 1:30PM
The Hideout - 617 Congress Street
Friday, March 15, 10:00AM
The Hideout - 617 Congress Street
THE LAST GAME is one hour and 30 minutes long.
At the 4:00pm, Monday, March 11 Convention Center screening I will be there with the filmmakers, Alex Weinress and Tim Murray, and my fellow executive producer, legendary sports caster Jim Lampley, (11 time Olympic Anchor and Emmy Award Winner for HBO Sports Journalism/ Writing). We hope you will join us Monday afternoon for what promises to be a wonderful discussion after the film.
Executive Producer (with Jim Lampley and Kip Konwiser)
A film like THE LAST GAME is what makes it so much fun to know The Dude.
The version he sent me is on two separate DVDs. Each one has about 45 minutes worth of film. The chapter encoding is psycho. The label of the disc is hand-written. It's about as rough as a rough version can be.
And the film is fucking magic.
I'm not a big sports freak, but I can appreciate the poetry of each particular game. Baseball has its distinct charms. I've always been partial to watching basketball, myself. And then there's high school football. For much of America, it's not a sport; it's a culture, a way of life. High school football is what makes it all go around. Towns rise and fall based on how their team does. There are great stories told every year, with every new season, all over the country. This is one of those great stories, and it was captured and assembled with astonishing finesse by Alex Weinress and Tim Murray. This film takes us through the last year in the head coaching career of Mike Pettine, the man who gave CB West High School a 45-0 record during his last three years, who delivered three state championships in a row in addition to all the titles his teams won before. A documentary like this ultimately either works or doesn't based on how much you want to watch the main character, and Pettine is endlessly interesting. He's a ball of fire when he's coaching, yelling and browbeating his players, terrifying when things aren't working, but he's also shown with his grandson in some sweet, quiet moments. His relationship with his grandson, still just a toddler, is uncomplicated, a marked contrast from his relationship with his son, called "Junior" by everyone, who is the head coach for North Penn High School's football program, one of the main rivals of CB West, and the final regular season opponent they'll face in the season.
If someone were to have written this story as a screenplay, you'd never believe it. The cast of characters is too rich, too well-defined. The makers of ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and REMEMBER THE TITANS may have been after very different things as filmmakers, but they both could have learned valuable lessons from this film. Here, the storytelling involving the characters is clean, simple, precise. We learn a lot from the smallest of moments. The players themselves are a constant surprise, and I'm not going to ruin it by describing them to you. They are all remarkable kids in their own ways, and getting to know each of them over the course of the film is a joy. The games themselves are very well-shot, and they are cut so that even if you don't understand football, you'll understand what's going on here. CB West is awesome to behold at their best moments, and they roll through the 1998 season without looking back. On the few occasions they find themselves up against genuinely demanding teams, they rise to the occasion in ways bordering on the miraculous.
It all comes down to a game on a field in Hershey, Pennsylvania that is an emotional roller-coaster. Watching the way it unfolds is one of the purest film pleasures I've had in a while, and the ending is a powerhouse. I'd love to see this with a crowd of people who really got into it. To me, this is the sort of ending that every weak-ass ROCKY rehash of the past 25 years has been trying to accomplish, and it's real. Once again, I find that a great documentary manages to give me a rush that fiction simply can't match. These are real lives we see unfolding in this film, and the accomplishments they manage as a team are inspirational. If you have the chance to see this at South By Southwest, I cannot urge you strongly enough... see it. Seek it out. It's a great movie about family and community and success and the price of dreams, and it was easily the highlight of my week.
So in one week, The Dude manages to send me on three pretty radically different trips. And now he's in Austin, enjoying himself, and sharing two of these films with crowds in one of the most film-literate towns I've ever been to. Sounds like the life, eh? If you happen to see him down there, buy him a Caucasian, and tell him thanks from the Evil Genius.
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March 9, 2002, 9:15 a.m. CST
March 9, 2002, 9:16 a.m. CST
Damn alarm clocks
March 9, 2002, 10:47 a.m. CST
by Mr Sinister
March 9, 2002, 12:23 p.m. CST
I've got all of their albums. I was introduced to them by my friend Matt Saunders back in high school. I don't know what it is about them but they have this very infectious groove to them. Mink Car is one of their better albums in a while. My all time favorite is still Apollo 18.
March 9, 2002, 2:06 p.m. CST
by Sith Witch
Everybody go see this film!!
March 9, 2002, 2:28 p.m. CST
THE LAST GAME sounds good though!! although i don`t like these bad sport flicks that have always the same content! let`s hope it`s no one of these
March 9, 2002, 3:40 p.m. CST
This is the best football documentary ever made! Take the Dude's advice. Go see it now!! It will change your life!
March 9, 2002, 6:54 p.m. CST
This is one of the most under-rated and misunderstood bands around. I can't wait to see this documentary tomorrow night. I want to see this 'Last Game' film, but I'm either working or committed to other things the only times it's showing. Alas! - - - - - - - - - - - - - There are a TON of good looking documentaries playing this week. I'm giddy with excitement about it. GOD BLESS AUSTIN, TX.
March 9, 2002, 10:23 p.m. CST
by Cash Bailey
Don't make me he-bitch man-slap you.
March 10, 2002, 12:30 a.m. CST
It's scheduled to be at the Paramount theatre on March 10th (Sunday) at 7:00pm. It's also at the Convention Center on Tuesday, March 12th at 12:30pm and the Millenium Theatre on Thursday, March 14th. Those are the dates they gave, but they also said they were tentative.
March 10, 2002, 1:24 a.m. CST
by otis von zipper
Good Lord, we're now 2 days into SxSW and a whole lotta nuthin' yet. If I don't see sumthin' tomorrow, I don't know what I'll do.
April 17, 2002, 7:56 a.m. CST
I discoverd TMBG one day in the early-mid 80's when I saw "Don't Let's Start" on MTV, you know back when they played innovative music videos and not shows about slackers, losers and posers, with very little video that's not rap oriented. Anyway I love these guys, have seen them several times and wish I had some kind of arthouse theater near me so I would have a chance to see this movie. Alas, I'll have to wait for the DVD to come out. The 2 Johns say it should be out in the fall, Huzzah ! More power to TMBG they keep growing in talent and wit to this day.
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