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Ox to the Slaughter: Nice-guy Cory Acabee gets double-crossed by Jon Polito (right) in 'Charlie the Ox.'


Cinequest 2005
Cinequest's 15th anniversary
Capsule reviews (part 1)
Capsule reviews (part 2)
Capsule reviews (part 3)
Ben Kingsley
Harold Lloyd
Suzanne Lloyd Q&A
'Charlie the Ox'
'Missionary Positions'
Festival schedule
Preview (from February 2)


Cinequest: The Sequel

A second week of our film festival coverage: from local indie 'Charlie the Ox' to Harold Lloyd and beyond

By Richard von Busack

SINCE the early 1930s, the movies have cross-pollinated with gangsters. Their crimes filled the screens; in return, Hollywood gave the gangsters lessons in behavior, speech and what to wear. Local director Scott Smith, whose Charlie the Ox is premiering at Cinequest, makes the actor-gangster relation clear.

This serio-comic, sometimes brooding, slightly bitter film concerns a hapless would-be safecracker. Charlie is drawn to heists for the adventure of the thing, more than for the money itself—money he doesn't have the heart to steal.

"I'm a big guy," Smith says—built like a football player, Smith seems at least 6-foot-6. While he never considered acting the lead, he'd written the story of the oxlike Charlie with himself in mind. "It's a kind of a fable about being in a profession that doesn't want you."

Smith, who grew up and still lives in the valley, has worked in film-related industries for a couple of decades. He was the founder of Rez magazine and one of the founders of the international digital film festival Rezfest. Smith had originally been an animator, and at age 17 had been accepted at Cal Arts, right at exactly the wrong time in the history of animation; after debacles like The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound, Disney had temporarily withdrawn its scholarship money and wasn't hiring much new talent.

Turning to feature film, Smith won an award at Sundance for a short film, and then wrote his screenplay for Charlie the Ox. Christian Slater was interested but didn't have an open spot on his dance card for two years.

In the end, Smith filmed his script himself in surprisingly warm-looking high-definition video, using the talented Cory McAbee of the band the Billy Nayer Show as the nice-guy lead.

Smith filmed his caper all over the valley last September, illustrating it with murals and graffiti by artist David Choe. The director/writer staged an attempted safecracking at the bank vault inside the former Café Leviticus. To create a visual motif, he shot scenes at a local laundromat and the Santa Clara train station. The final payoff/betrayal takes place at a construction site underneath the Mineta Airport flight path. The idea, Smith said, was for us to see Charlie always waiting for his break, as the world moved on without him.

In a two-scene part, Maverick Award honoree Jon Polito looks dapper, apple-cheeked and avuncular in a smooth brown suit. He does a classic double take registering the sight of a bottle of rum. Polito plays Freddy Boon, an actor hired on to pretend to be a gangster in an effort to double-cross the Ox. "Show him his motivation," says the villain (hefty D. Michael Kane) about Freddy, as he flashes a roll of bills.

The motivation for Charlie the Ox wasn't money, but the chance to show that a professional-looking and soulful movie could be made in the area. Smith says, "If this screening at Cinequest turns out to be our last hurrah, it's proof that we could do it. It cost us a lot of money and time, but it was a lifelong dream."

Charlie the Ox (93 min.), directed by Scott Smith, plays March 5 at 5:15 and 10pm at San Jose Rep and March 6 at 4pm at Camera 12. Jon Polito will be honored as a Maverick Spirit Award winner by Cinequest at both of the March 5 screenings.

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From the March 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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