I saw low-budget documentaries in the smallest theater at Austin Film Festival on Thursday, so I thought that on Friday, I would see the big-name movies showing in the biggest theater. I like film festivals in which you have both options and can alternate between the films that you might never have another opportunity to see, and the films that you get to see a couple of months before everyone else does (or better yet, as a rough cut way before the release date).
Once again, work prevented me from attending the conference part of AFF—well, sort of. The fact is that the conference panels are meant to appeal to screenwriters and filmmakers and right now I am neither. AFF does not include panels for film critics, bloggers, or essayists, perhaps because no one wants to encourage that kind of behavior. I probably would have been able to make it downtown earlier for a panel on the business of film writing, perhaps including Joe Bob Briggs.
I ran into some friends in line at the Paramount for The Ice Harvest. The lines were pretty long, although I think Shopgirl still holds the record this year. I find that the long lines are often a great way to meet people or to spend some time chatting with people you already know. We managed to nab some good seats, which was lucky because the theater ended up being so full that people were sitting in the limited-view box seats.
Cinematical will post a detailed review of The Ice Harvest when it is released in late November. I didn't know anything about the movie before I saw it, except that it was directed by Harold Ramis and starred John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, and that it was set around Christmas. I loved Bad Santa, so the combination of Thornton and Christmas was appealing. Turns out this movie has very little in common with Bad Santa apart from sharing a composer, David Kitay. (The soundtrack to The Ice Harvest is fabulous, by the way; excellent use of Christmas music.)
I had no idea what genre or tone to expect, and the film doesn't telegraph this information, so it took me a while to get into the movie. Ramis, who attended Friday's screening, described it afterwards as "retro existential noir." I think if I'd known that beforehand, it might have helped.
I found The Ice Harvest awkward at times because of the jarring changes in tone. I described it to a friend later as "Blood Simple with hilarious bits from Oliver Platt added at intervals." (After the movie, Ramis described it as, "like a Coen brothers movie, but with heart.") Platt's character caused the audience to laugh so loudly and long that it was difficult to hear the next lines. He stole every scene he was in, shamelessly. On the other hand, Cusack looked and acted as if he were made of ice at times, which was quite appropriate. I'm still not sure if the combination of broad comedy and bleak noir worked. It reminded me at times of The Cooler, which had a more consistent tone and worked much more effectively.
Afterwards, director Ramis took questions and discussed the movie at length. He noted that this is the first movie he has directed that hasn't been a big Hollywood comedy. The script was adapted by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, and Benton had originally planned to direct it himself but changed his mind. Ramis decided to take over because the script was so strong that he could have shot it immediately with no rewriting.
Someone in the audience asked about Connie Nielsen's character Renata, who was as noir a female as you might see in a Forties film. Ramis replied, "I thought Connie was virtually channeling Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake ... but when I asked her, she said she based her character on Jessica Rabbit." She did sound a bit Kathleen Turner-ish to me, although I was thinking more of Prizzi's Honor.
After the Q&A session, I got back in line for The Dying Gaul, which was also screening at the Paramount that night. I'll post a full review of this movie on Cinematical closer to its release date. It's going to be a difficult movie to review. I'm still not sure whether I liked it. Of the two movies I saw that evening, I preferred The Ice Harvest, probably because it was a little less grim than The Dying Gaul. (If you want to decide for yourself, check out the free screenings for The Ice Harvest.)
Again, I didn't know what I was getting into, which is one difficulty about screening movies before the marketing hype kicks in. I knew that The Dying Gaul had Peter Sarsgaard and Campbell Scott in it, two actors whom I always enjoy watching. And I knew the premise: a screenwriter is offered a lot of money for his script about gay male lovers, one of whom dies from AIDS – on the condition that he change one of the characters into a woman, making it a heterosexual love story. That premise could work as comedy or as tragedy, or anything in between.
I was surprised that the movie didn't spend a lot of time directly addressing the premise. It's not as much of a movie about moviemaking as you might think from that summary. It's about relationships, and dangerous things to do to a relationship. I also didn't realize that the movie's writer/director, Craig Lucas, had written Longtime Companion (which also stars Campbell Scott) and Prelude to a Kiss. Like those movies, The Dying Gaul started as a play, which Lucas adapted for the screen. This is his first time directing a film.
By the time I left the theater after The Dying Gaul, I felt completely wiped out. While I might recommend both movies, I absolutely don't recommend seeing them as a double-feature – way too draining.