Last Tuesday might just have been my best night at the festival this year.
First up was a pair of docs ostensibly about surfing, but really about much more. First the short, "Surfing Thru". As in, three women surfing through the pain of treatment for stage 4 cancer. It's not so much just about surfing (although there's plenty of that) as it is about clinging to what life you have left. And really, it's not about that as much as it's about clinging to as much enjoyment of life as you have left.
And then there was the feature, "Sliding Liberia". Every year, there's a movie that completely surprises me. I just skim through the schedule and figure out how to see everything, and maybe I'll go into a screening with a one sentence idea of what the movie's about. So often I'll go into a movie with low (or no) expectations, and the movie will just blow me away. I call this "my reward for seeing everything". These are the movies that keep me addicted to film in general and Indiefest in particular. Well, to make a long story short, "Sliding Liberia" is the early candidate for my reward for seeing everything. Again, it's ostensibly a surfing movie--and there is plenty of surfing footage--but there's also a lot more. The first thing you have to realize is this isn't about a bunch of crazy kids who want to surf strange lands where nobody's surfing now. Producer/star Nicholai Lidow was a volunteer for a peace organization in Ghana, where he met many Liberian refugees. After he returned home and the Liberian civil war ended, he kept in touch with some of them as they were returning to Liberia. So he decided to visit them, and happened to take his surfboard along. He's gone back for several years, and finally dragged his surfing buddies with him. So this sets it apart from your typical exotic surfing documentary, in that the reason to go to Liberia is not the waves, it's the people. The surfing is almost incidental, and most compelling in how it affects the lives of the local people. This is a war-torn, economically devestated, dirt-poor country, and the possibility of surf tourism gives them some hope. Far and away the breakout star is Alfred Lomax, the first black man to surf in Liberia. He was looking for food down at the harbor (he had found bags of rice the last two days), and found a bodyboard. He didn't know exactly what it was, but he took it home, and learned how to "slide" on the waves with it (they didn't know the word surfing). Not only does he enjoy it, he sees the possibility of an economic future based on surf tourism. That might or might not be realistic (Nicholai and director Britton Caillouette were there for the screening, and pointed out in the Q&A that while regular tourists wouldn't go to Liberia, surfers would). And by the end of the movie, when there's a whole beachful of natives surfing, you can believe that this could actually change their world. Incredible.
Next up was a program that I knew I'd like, so no matter how much I liked it, it's automatically ineligible for my "reward for seeing everything" award. First up was the short "Dating in LA", by Sean Young. I had seen her just recently as the world's hottest robot in "Blade Runner". She's...significantly older now. And she makes fun of that, as she tries to find a young, sexy date online. They all gripe about how she doesn't look anything like her picture. Pretty funny, and pokes fun at the celebrity obsession with youth.
And then the feature, poking way more fun at celebrity obsession, was "Being Michael Madsen", a mockumentary that eats itself. Michael Madsen is the tough guy actor from several movies, most memorably the psychotic Mr. Blond in "Reservoir Dogs". His tough guy intensity makes him a target for the tabloids, and especially a really, really annoying paparazzo Billy Dant. Dant connects Madsen to the disappearence of a young starlet who was a background extra in a Madsen film, and starts accusing him of murder. Michael loses his defamation lawsuit, so he decides to turn the table and hire a documentary film crew to follow and harass Dant. This is a documentary about the events that took place around those documentarians (I'm not sure exactly how many levels of film-within-film this ends up going to, but it's at least three). It uses interviews from Madsen himself along with celebrity pals Darryl Hannah, David Carradine, Harry Dead Stanton (awesome!) and his sister Virginia Madsen (from "Sideways", and she steals the show). Eventually it all starts eating itself when it cuts to celebrity TV shows talking about the movie Michael Madsen is making about the whole mess (and editing up to the last minute) called "Being Michael Madsen". At this point I almost expected there to be hidden camera footage tacked to the end of the audience watching the start of the movie. Well, that doesn't happen, although it would've been awesome! But the movie's pretty darn awesome without it.
And finally, the last film is also my favorite so far, Stuart Gordon's "Stuck". You may remember a few years back there was a news story about a woman who up until that time was considered a very nice person. She was driving home drunk (and high) from a party when she hit a homeless man who got stuck in her windshield. Instead of taking him to a hospital, fearing the consequences she took him home, left him in the garage while she slept it off and he bled to death, and then got her boyfriend to take to car out of town and burn it. She's currently serving something like 50 years in prison. Well, this movie is "inspired" by those events, but take a big (and welcome) detour in the name of justice. I have to say, as much as I love "Re-Animator", it is a pretty schlocky horror comedy, and for a long time Stuart Gordon looked content to do well-made schlock. But with "Edmond" and now "Stuck" (not to mention his work on "Masters of Horror"), he's one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. I don't know if he got more interesting or if the times changed so that his sensibilities became more interesting, but now I really hope "House of Re-Animator" happens (one note that should get you excited, the "House" in the title is the White House).
In "Stuck", Mena Suvari plays Brandi, a nurse assistant drunk/high behind the wheel for the fateful incident. More ingeniously, the movie also focuses on the homeless man, Tom (Stephen Rea, with the perfect sad-sack face for it) and how he became homeless just that day. It's brutal, and has some pointed messages about how little we care about our fellow man. A recurring theme early on is "your choice". When he's evicted, he can leave (without his suit) or his landlord can call the cops--"your choice". When his appointment at the employment agency is lost, he can fill out the paperwork again or they can't do anything--"your choice". When the cops hassle him in the park, he can walk across town to the mission or he can be driven to the jail--"your choice". I could make some pointed conclusion about a cruel, uncaring culture that offers the unfortunate no help while masking it in the language of independent self-determination. For that matter, I could make a point about how the only person who tries to help him once he's stuck in the car is the child of an illegal immigrant. But heck, you should just see the movie, because Stuart Gordon says it much better than I do. Finally, once he's stuck in the car windshield and bleeding out, Tom makes the most important choice--to live. And this is really where reality leaves and justice enters, but justice is a welcome guest in this movie.
Now I want to direct the rest of this review directly to Stuart Gordon. So unless you are Stuart Gordon, please stop reading.
Okay, I think they're all gone.
Mr. Gordon, you are one sick motherfucker! How dare you make me laugh while watching such horror!? I love you, and I will never forgive you!
And that was day 6 of Indiefest.