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METHOD FEST 2005 – An Introspective

- by Paulington

Often times, the news will hit like a truck full of Plexiglas at the corner of my hopes and dreams. It's like asking if I "want" to go to the dentist. Film Festivals are always a lofty proposition. The pain, the torture, the torment. I don't think I will ever forget some of those long drawn out nights under a tent, watching someone's malnutrition baby try to wailer around on my soul. Some of the diluted, craft-kitchen wares that are peddled here, at these cinematic fly-by-night circuses, are liable to scare Grandma into an early rigor mortis. I'm talking, real nails-shoved-into-your-eyeballs type stuff. Anyone that's been on the circuit long enough knows what I'm talking about.

There's always this heavy sigh screaming, "Why?" Why would I, a busy individual that only likes prepackaged, commercial garbage, want to waist my time viewing the handmade works of a bunch of premature, untested talents? Sometimes, the so-called film festival feels about as legitimate as a Mexican Flea Market, or an Arts and Crafts fair being held on the sidewalk of some beach town. That painted donkey napkin-holder just ain't what it could be. I think I'd rather purchase one mine at the Target Superstore…

Still, for some odd reason, I always feel like I need to take the chance. Maybe, just maybe, I'll stumble upon something so stupendously amazing; it will take my lungs and squeezes them into a tiny little pea. Leaving me gasping for air. A fresh piece of homegrown fruit on a toothpick. A vision of things to come. Some hidden auteur or trinket that I can boast about at parties...

"Man, I saw the coolest movie the other day. It's called Pee Stains and Other Disasters. You should really check it out if you ever get the chance." Knowing damn well they probably never will.

That's the only reason I go to Film Festivals. Bragging Rights; or at least the hope for some. Walking into a scheduled selection of free-form short films and feature length micro-budget disasters is not a very healthy way to exercise. You need that small bit of optimism circling your soul. Otherwise you'll die sitting straight up in your chair; both ass cheeks number than the hand you fell asleep on.

It's been two years since I ventured into an Independent Film Festival. Now, I'm not talking about one of these big whooptie-doos like Sundance, or SXSW, or Cannes. I'm talking about these low rent "let's throw a party and have everybody come" type of deals. As you can probably guess, the last one I attended left me feeling a tad underwhelmed. It was with great trepidation that I accepted an invitation to the Method Fest. It's a cinematic hoedown held within Calabasas city limits. Its focus is on "the actor". And it was named for the so-called Stanislavski Method, which some individuals say brought truth and realism to the World of Acting. I can get behind that. Even though I may not like thespians on a personal level, I sure do enjoy watching them cavort around, all bug-eyed and sh*t. That's called Entertainment, my dear Watson. The kind of stuff most of us live for.

I told the guy in charge that I was interested, but that I couldn't go. Then I took a look at their scheduled list of events. And, wow, they actually had a pretty good line up this year. So I rethought my options. I decided to test out some of their peddled wares. With a heavy heart and a worn out pair of Converse All-Stars, I wandered down to the Edwards Cinemas in Calabasas to get a look at The Method Fest's opening night fiesta.

This year, on April 1st, those in charge chose to christen their Festival with Melissa Painter's somber coming of age drama STEAL ME. They all but smashed it against the side of the theater in a gush of ruptured champagne. Described as a beautifully simple, yet deeply complex film about growing up, innocence lost, and family love, I literally feared for my life going in. The narrative came on like a pinched nerve. It read more horrifying than the plot synopses of a horror film. Why? Because innocence lost and family love are themes often explored in Independent Cinema, but the director in charge hardly ever pulls it off without rupturing every cornea within site distance.

I clutched my seat, prepared for the worst. Well, a few hours later, I walked out of the theater with a small smile on my face. The reverse of an April Fool's joke had been played on me. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed the piece. It's a flawed stretch of arthouse abuse. Yet, at the same time, it's an infectious bit of amateur cinema that swept me into its peaceful world of teenage friendship.

STEAL ME was a great choice for Method Fest's opening night gala. It perfectly captures everything that is both good and bad about this off-branded type of Festival. On one hand, the finished film is technically off putting. It looks like something someone made in a basement somewhere. It's incredibly lucid and gray. The atmosphere is drab and boring to the point of being hypnotically yawn inducing. On that note, it's also sweet and honest. And inescapable watchable. I didn't roll my eyes once. I felt connected to the narrative, and wouldn't have missed a minute of its teenage revelry. It's a conundrum of sorts. The exact type of film I'd never want to watch, but at the same time, the sort of thing I'm glad I didn't miss.

Even though STEAL ME has a startlingly incompetent tone, like something you might have caught on Showtime between feature films back in the early 80s, it does embark on a strong, suspicious course that's comparable to some of Hollywood's better coming-of-age touchstones like The Man in the Moon and Summer of 42. It almost reads like the O.C., only it takes place in Montana and carries a hefty weight of authenticity that Fox's Late Night Soap could never hope to achieve. The plasticity is non-apparent. These are real kids, for the most part. And that aspect is refreshing.

The plot focuses on Jake, a fifteen-year-old kleptomaniac who befriends a small town teen after trying to steal his car stereo. Tucker, not overly concerned that one of his prized material possessions was almost kiped by Jake, decides to take the wayward thief into his home, where the family slowly accepts this seemingly abandoned kid. Jake tells this average, All-American clan that he is searching for his Mother, whom he was supposed to meet in Montana. After discussing the matter, Tucker's mom and dad reluctantly agree to let their newly acquainted con artist stay in the barn out back (they don't have pool houses in Montana). Things start out innocently enough, but Jake can't seem to stop stealing. At first, He takes little things from the house. By the end of the film, he's practically stolen Tucker's entire family from underneath him.

The film will never win any technical awards. As far as structure and execution go, Painter's project has not advanced itself forward by any means. It's a by-the-numbers project that, simply put, shouldn't be as good as it is. And its saving grace is this wonderfully accurate cast Melissa Painter has put together. Though, that's exactly what I'd hope to expect walking into a celebration of acting: Something just left of center and nailed to the board of spectacular analyses.

Danny Alexander plays the lead. His sneaky klepto-character is the glue holding each individual piece of the plot together, and the kid really shines in this role. He's a charismatic find, and tends to carry the picture for a great stretch of its hour and forty-minute running time. Equally pleasing is Paz de la Huerta, STEAL ME's love interest of sorts. She perfectly embodies the formation of a love crush and almost caused me to wreck my remote. Playing second lead is Hunter Parrish, best known thus far for playing one of the kids in last summer's SLEEPOVER. And some of you might recognize the Dad, played by John Terry, for his recent turn on the popular ABC series LOST. STEAL ME is essentially an ensemble piece, and deserves its place in this Festival dedicated to celebrating the thespians of the world.

As far as Independent Film Festivals go, I give it an A.

The next film I checked out didn't rate so lucky, and neither did I. MY BROTHER'S WAR comes as the main reason I hate Festivals of this type. A period piece shot on digital video is my worst nightmare. Civil War epics never work on the cheap, and I don't care how many people you get to show up for your Union Army reenactments, there's going to be a real disconnect between the audience and the screen. The actors involved all seem capable, but the dialogue as written by Whitney Hamilton is stilted and laughable. It's supposed to reek of the Old South, but it can't escape the cliché of the genre. The last thing I want to do is pick on someone's barn-crafted work, especially considering the budget and other physical constraints placed upon a project such as this, but people need to learn that these types of narratives usually don't work, even on a grand scale.

The story is in interesting one, and it could very well be turned into an epic award winner, or a ratings earning mini-series for the Discovery Channel. As it stands now, it's almost impossible to watch without collapsing into a coma. The main plot revolves around Grace Kieler, who finds her family divided on political matters. Upon her father's death, she cuts her hair, dons her brother's uniform, and joins the Rebel Army. It's sort of like a Confederate version of Shakespeare in Love. Basically, it's a history lesson sold on the power of a used textbook. MY BROTHER'S WAR is ruined by the medium upon which it has been branded. For this, I do not fault the filmmakers. I acknowledge the effort that has gone into making this thing. I just can't stand by and recommend it to you, my friend.

I give the film a D+. Sorry about that, Whitney.

Another notable Saturday film I'd like to mention real quick is LOVE, LUDLOW, which stars one of my favorite contemporary actors, Brendan Sexton III (whom you may remember from Boys Don't Cry and Welcome to the Dollhouse). Sexton plays a young finger painter who is confined to his sister's apartment because he is prone to fits of manic behavior. The hub of this film revolves around his 36-hour ordeal to ruin his sister's last chance at romance. It's a great little comedy that should see a wider release sometime in the near future. It gets an A+ (I'd actual wandered into this because I thought it was based on a novel entitled Finger-Banging in a Murphy Bed. The real title of the novel is Finger Painting in a Murphy Bed. Non-the-less, I wasn't disappointed.)

Along with these three feature films, I was also able to catch some of the short programs on the roster. Most of these were superb. And short. I guess that's why I liked them best. The most notable entries included: Wear Something Nice, about a fat girl that wears a wedding dress to a blind date (A+). Eating, about a fat guy's flashback to an episode of child molestation that causes him to become a compulsive eater (B+). Easter Sunday, about a little girl enamored with the art of taxidermy (B-). Rainbow's End, about the capture of a leprechaun by a bunch of third-rate criminals (C+). And, finally, The Bounce House, about a party clown dealing with neurotic parents at an eight year old's birthday party (A+).

I must say, overall, I'm glad I ventured down to this year's METHOD FEST. There's been some really exceptional acting work on display. The overall quality of the films are a little dubious, but still worth the effort. Without question, this has been one of the best Independent Film Festivals I've attended in some time. Considering that this salutation lasts a total of 7 days, I'm sure I'm bound to hit a few more bumps in the road.

I will return with Part II of this Festival Introspective shortly, offering reviews of such films as It's All Gone, Peter Tong, DJ Hound Dog, Pee Stains and Other Disasters, Nickel Children, The Good Humor Man, and Fighting Words.

Make sure to checkout for more information concerning this highly regarded celebration of Method Acting.