As the first day of Fantastic Fest ends and I prepare to take a quick nap before diving into my second full day of programming, I want to take a quick look back at what we've already seen in the first day.
I got into town around noon, picked up my car, and then immediately drove straight to the S. Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, where badge pickup takes place. I love the Alamo staff, and the volunteers, and the festival programmers, and the audience... it's one of those happy collisions where everyone seems to be in the same general spirit, everyone here for the same reason. There's no other festival anywhere that works so hard to keep so many people so happy, and as soon as I walked through the doors of the theater, all the stress of the last few weeks started to melt away.
A quick lunch at Threadgill's, an hour or two of unconsciousness, and then I was up and on my way downtown for the opening night movie at the Paramount. I adore the Alamo, but over the last year, I've begun to warm to the particular charms of the Paramount, a true movie palace that's been an Austin fixture since the vaudeville days. It's a very different vibe than the Alamo screens, but as soon as Tim League took the stage tonight, he made it clear that he is ready for this year's party to get started. His special thanks were particularly poignant tonight, with his mention of his awesome wife Keri, who is so obviously a big part of Tim's ongoing success. For a guy who is slowly but surely taking over the world, Tim still seems like he's not about anything other than entertaining an audience.
[more after the jump]
To that end, he programmed a comedy as the opening night film of Fantastic Fest for the second year in a row. Last year, it was "Zack & Miri Make A Porno" to kick things off, and that went incredibly well. As much as Tim loves Jared Hess and as much as that crowd tonight went into the screening pumped up and ready to start the festival, I think this year's opening night film may have landed with a more pronounced thud than last year's, and the reasons have a lot to do with where Hess is headed as a filmmaker.
Like Wes Anderson, Hess is a guy who has a very particular comic style that he seems to be cultivating from film to film, and like Anderson, there is a danger that the style could calcify and turn his films into exercises in empty design. I seem to be in a minority in that my favorite of Hess's films is "Nacho Libre," which I liked because it was aimed so squarely at kids. Here, Hess aims at the world of sci-fi fandom and struggling authors, and the results are wildly uneven. There are some real laughs in the film, and there are some great random images and moments, but overall, this film just plain feels too arch, too willfully wacky.
The funniest things in the film are Jemaine Clement as pompous hack Dr. Ronald Chevalier and Sam Rockwell playing various incarnations of a character in a book that was written by Benjamin (Michael Angarano) and then plagiarized by Chevalier. There's a great title sequence using SF paperback cover art as a motif, and the various visualizations of the books being written by both Benjamin and Chevalier are suitably deranged. I also really like the way the film wraps up, with an act of parental pride becoming a major plot point. Justice is served in the best possible way, and any writer should appreciate the way things wrap up.
But the film is uneven, and for the first time, Hess seems to really wallow in the American Grotesque that he's so drawn to. I know he's made his career by making films about misfits, but everyone in this film is so ugly on the outside that it's hard to look at. I don't mind ugly in my comedy... John Waters has made a rich and disturbing career out of it... but there's no point to what Hess does here. He's not illuminating. Instead, he seems to just be pointing and laughing, something I didn't get from his first two films.
In the end, "Gentlemen Broncos" is a film that will appeal directly to a very small and specific audience, but I suspect most people will find themselves worn out by Hess and his general take on the comedy of standing around in awkward silence. This is going to be a hard sell for Fox Searchlight, but I admire the effort if not the execution.
I just hope Hess is ready to prove soon that he's got more clubs in the golf bag. Right now, it's starting to wear thin.
I'll have more on Fantastic Fest after a quick bit of shut-eye, and I'll have my guest reviewer sending in his first report sometime today, too.
Busy, busy, busy, and loving every second of it.
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