Film Reviews

Aimin' High

Shooting Gallery, the independent film company best known for the Oscar-winner Sling Blade, has introduced a new wrinkle to the movie biz. After producing and distributing such projects as Henry Fool, Laws of Gravity and The 24 Hour Woman, the company has launched the Shooting Gallery Film Series, a sort of semipermanent film festival, now playing at the Loews Cineplex Spectrum.

Nationally the six-film series opened simultaneously in 19 cities, ranging in size from New York to Tucson. The films, which each have two-week runs, include the American independent Judy Berlin, which has just finished its run at the Spectrum; the Scottish Orphans, which opens on Friday; the Canadian/Indian co-production Such a Long Journey, opening March 24; the Irish boxing documentary Southpaw, April 7; the UK's Croupier, April 21; and the Japanese Adrenaline Drive, May 5.

Shooting Gallery CEO Larry Meistrich, who founded the company in 1990 at the tender age of 23, says he got the idea from hearing film festival patrons complain that the movies they like best never turn up at a multiplex for extended runs. He is determined to prove that moviegoers could also be filmgoers, if given half a chance.

"If you're building 25 screens," Meistrich says of multiplexes, "you should have art movies in theater 24." That way if people "show up to see The Beach and the line is too long, they can see Judy Berlin instead," he says. "It's just snobbery on the part of people in New York, L.A. and San Francisco to think that people in other parts of the country don't want to see the same [art] movies."

Meistrich called Loews, the nation's largest theater chain, on a lark, thinking he'd practice his pitch on them, get rejected and then move down the food chain. He was pleasantly surprised that the pitch worked, and that it wasn't a hard sell at all. "It turns out that the people who run Loews like movies."

In addition to the six films, Shooting Gallery has programmed a series of Film Club Nights. The Monday before each film opens, local film industry types will host an advance screening and chat session in the theater. Former Houston Post critic Joe Leydon is Shooting Gallery's man in Houston, and for Judy Berlin his guest was Marian Luntz, the Museum of Fine Arts's film program director.

This hybrid of film festival and mainstream movie theater is compelling, but commercially risky, particularly in a city as diffuse and distracted as Houston. If history is any indication, getting Houstonians to turn out for something new is a difficult task. Getting them to see art movies at the Spectrum, rather than at a Landmark theater or the Angelika Film Center, might be harder still.

After struggling with poor attendance for years at the MFA, Luntz is skeptical about the series's chances in Houston, especially after only ten or so film buffs turned out to hear her and Leydon discuss the pleasures of Judy Berlin.

"I think the concept of the discussion is good," she says. "People ask if we can do more of that [at the MFA]." But she points out that the Club Nights are pricey: They run $18 a session. When the promoter of the local Polish Film Festival, which ran earlier this year at the MFA, wanted to charge $18 for an evening with an acclaimed Polish director, Luntz thought he was asking for trouble. To her surprise, the director's visit drew a large crowd. But, Luntz points out, the festival had "a targeted audience," the local Polish community, which was willing to pay extra for an event near and dear to its heart.

But since the series's films do not target one particular audience, either in programming or with speakers, Shooting Gallery will have to rely on hard-core film buffs to fill the auditoriums, especially on Club Night. And since there's no shortage of art films in Houston -- the megaplexes do sometimes offer "gourmet cinema" on screen 24 -- the series has a high mountain to climb. "People can easily get free passes to art film openings here" on an almost weekly basis, Luntz adds. To that, Spectrum manager David Ganim adds, "You can pay $18 to go to the Film Club, or wait until Friday and pay $6.50 to just see the movie. For most people that's an easy choice."

It's not surprising that Houston's turnout for Judy Berlin, both for Film Club Night and general attendance, lagged behind the turnout in other cities. New York had a strong showing, but Manhattan is cinephile country, and director Eric Mendelsohn himself was there for Club Night. On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Spectrum, there were as many people watching Judy Berlin as Wonder Boys, but still Ganim says that the film's attendance was woeful. (And Wonder Boys isn't looking so good itself.) During five screenings on the opening Saturday, the day after positive, even glowing, reviews ran both locally and nationally, only 79 filmgoers bought tickets for Judy Berlin. In the film's second week, daily screenings were cut from five to three.

Ganim is disappointed in the turnout. "We would have hoped for 400 to 500 at least [on that Saturday], since no one else is showing the movie." And word of mouth should have been good, since Ganim heard only positive comments about the film.

It will be interesting to see if the other five films fare any better. I screened three of them (and Judy Berlin) and was somewhat surprised to see that, for good or ill, they actually feel like film festival fare. That is, technical standards aren't state-of-the-art, and some of the stories are overly familiar.

While Judy Berlin shows clear signs of its director's potential, it is not a polished film. The black-and-white photography has a poetic feel for Long Island places, but Mendelsohn's abilities with characterization are uneven. You get the idea that his next film might be interesting, which is a feeling you often get at a film festival. After seeing Judy Berlin, I wasn't all that surprised that no distributor had picked it up following Sundance, even though Mendelsohn won the directing award there.

Such a Long Journey has an interesting backdrop: Bombay on the verge of the 1971 war with Pakistan. But director Sturla Gunnarsson hasn't fleshed out the story in credible ways. The film's key conflict -- whether the main character's son will go to the college his father has chosen for him -- just about defines "old hat." And the film strains for colorful effects, especially when the village idiot starts to gyrate and declaim. The wonderful actor Roshan Seth, who played a frustrated traditional Indian father to much subtler effect in Mississippi Masala, is largely wasted here.

Such a Long Journey is the weakest of the films I previewed. Southpaw is a well-made and touching documentary about Francis Barrett, an Irish traveler (Ireland's equivalent to a Gypsy, equally despised) who became an Olympic boxer. But again, this isn't fresh territory, as the blurbs themselves suggest: "half Rocky, half The Commitments," according to one commentator.

Orphans is by far the best of the films I saw. Its story of how four bereaved siblings rage through the Glasgow night just before their mother's funeral is an original vision of human suffering, endurance and solidarity.

So let's check the batting average here: Of the four films I saw, Shooting Gallery hits one home run and a couple of singles, and pops weakly to right. Which is nothing to be ashamed of. It probably makes for a higher slugging percentage than that of the upcoming Worldfest Houston, which sends far more batters to the plate than Shooting Gallery. Still, for the launch of a project such as this, I expected more.

According to Meistrich, this year's series was rather hastily assembled and promoted, largely because he was able to sell the idea much faster than he had expected. Maybe the next series, which opens in the fall, will have stronger promotion, and even stronger films.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis