Our correspondent, Wells Dunbar, with the first in a series of reports from this moment's hotspot of cinema: Austin, Texas.
Like a plague of well-coiffed locusts, they come to the Capital City each year, fearless with their badges, determined to keep Kinko's in the green for fiscal '07 through the sheer plethora of their promotional materials. What's up South by Southwest?
Yes, the storied, successful, and ever-expanding festival launched its interactive and film festivals yesterday. As a mark of its burgeoning buoyancy, opening night had not one, but two premieres of films slated to go wide: Rear Window by way of the WB thriller Disturbia, and The Lookout, an affecting and efficiently constructed thriller from Scott Frank. Aside from their visceral, popcorn-munching satisfaction, the films are similar in that they're tales of young men trying to redeem themselves after life altering tragedy.
The Disturbia premiere went down at the original Alamo Drafthouse downtown. With a comparatively scant 190 seats at the famous theater, badgeholders wrapped around the block 50-minutes to showtime, your humble, pass-holding narrator feared he'd be denied entrance. Luckily, he and a few other lucky plebes made it in, a small forest of flyers felled for his troubles: Manufacturing Dissent, a doc critical of Michael Moore (He presents a slanted message! No shit!); The Gits, about the influential female-fronted Seattle punks, and singer Mia Zapata's murder, and Twisted, a documentary about ... wait for it... balloon animals. Worst offenders were the Confessions of a Superhero team, passing out their postcards in Superman and Incredible Hulk garb. Making my way in, the Man of Steel misstepped and fell, eating shit. Not a good omen.
In the theater, Ain't it Cool News impresario Harry Knowles described Disturbia as "boy meets girl next door; can't go next door." He was still especially excited that the serial killer in the film arrives in the 'burbs following a killing spree in...where else...Austin!
Directed by D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea, Two for the Money), to call Disturbia a light distraction is not to discredit it. On house arrest for the summer after a disastrous chain of events, our heartthrob Kale (20 year old Shia LaBeouf) picks up the surveillance habit and starts snooping on his neighbors, including the new girl next door, Ashley (Sarah Roemer). Her skimpy bikinis initially make for a vicarious PG-13 answer to Swimming Pool, but suspicious of our prying eyes, she makes her way to Cale's house to toy with the boy. She then joins in Cale's obsession with another new neighbor (David Morse), who he suspects of being the abductor the news is always talking about.
With its furtive peers out of windows, Distrubia is clearly an homage to Rear Window, complete with nods to inquisitive dogs, and Cale's intimate knowledge of his neighbors' quirks and peccadilloes, a la Jimmy Stewart. Hell, he's even homebound 'cause of something on his leg - not a cast in his case, but an ankle bracelet. It's easy to see the pitch here: Hitchcock for the information age or, as Cale says of his new pastime, "reality TV without the TV." But all the techno-fetishism - including, but not limited to YouTube, iTunes, iPods, iMovie, ringtones, and X-box Live - threatens to derail the proceedings, as does the requisite pounding score and tight shock shots. (When the refrigerator door covers the whole screen, you know there's going to be more than a bag of groceries there when it closes.)
Still, Disturbia is an efficient and scary ride, with an icy, rattling performance from Morse and a solid one from LaBeouf selling the teen spirit. Too bad Carrie-Anne Moss (as Cale's mom) was underwritten and underused.
After Disturbia, it was only a quick sprint from the Warehouse District, up Congress Avenue, to the turn-of-the-century revival Paramount Theater, for The Lookout premiere. "A movie is only as good as the least talented person associated with it," said director Scott Frank. It's the veteran screenwriter's (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report) first directorial foray. "On this movie, that person was me."
Another one in his recent string of solid performances, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a high school jock with a charmed life and bright future, until a brain injury riddles him with memory, disinhibition, and sequencing troubles. Dividing his time between a janitorial graveyard shift, his apartment with a blind roommate (a worldly-wise and weary Jeff Daniels), and the neighborhood bar where he nurses the occasional near-beer, he meets Gary Spago. An old friend of his sister - or is he? - Spago and friends play on Pratt's weaknesses, roping him into a robbery. As you'd expect, Pratt makes for an extremely unreliable narrator; the film's most powerful and affecting scenes put the audience in the elliptical feedback loop that is his world. But at its heart, The Lookout is a caper-actioneer - and a very crowd pleasing one at that.
Report and Reviews by Wells Dunbar