By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Note: The 25th Annual USA Film Festival runs Thursday, April 20 through Thursday, April 27 at the AMC Glen Lakes theater, 9450 North Central Expressway (except for The Stars Fell on Henrietta and Panther, which will be screened at the General Cinema NorthPark III-IV, North Central Expressway at Park Lane).
Tickets will be available at the theater box office beginning at 1 p.m. on the day of the program you'd like to see. All tickets are $6.50 per program, except for opening night tickets, which cost $10. Seating for all programs is general admission. Call 821-NEWS for more information. The following notes are by Jimmy Fowler, James Mardis, Edith Sorenson, and Matt Zoller Seitz.
* denotes a film the Observer recommends.
Thursday, April 20
The Stars Fell on Henrietta. You read about the making of this movie last year in Dallas Morning News writer Jane Sumner's industry column, which seemed to run four or five blurbs a months while the picture was filming in and around Austin and Abilene. Here's your chance to see the finished product. The film by actor James Keach, which makes its world premiere at the 25th annual USA Film Festival, concerns a Depression-era wildcat oilman (Robert Duvall) who tries to convince a destitute farm couple (Aidan Quinn and Frances Fisher) that they're sitting on a very crude patch of land, if you get his meaning. (Matt Zoller Seitz) Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, Frances Fisher, James Keach, and producer David Valdes in attendance.
Friday, April 21
The First 100 Years. Not available for screening at press time, this new feature from the Academy Awards producers' unofficial imagesmith-in-residence, Chuck Workman (Precious Images), combines over 800 clips to give us an overview of cinema's first century. World Premiere. (MZS) Chuck Workman, film critic Roger Ebert, USA Film Festival founders L.M. "Kit" Carson, Bob Porter, and Don Safran in attendance.
*Coldblooded. A tightly crafted, involving strangely sweet black comedy, Coldblooded bears an executive production credit by faded '80s star Michael J. Fox, who also makes a brief appearance. If Fox continues to oversee movies as brisk and charming as this one, he needn't worry about his waning status in front of the camera. Writer-director Wallace M. Wolodarsky strives for a deliberately poker-faced approach to this tale of a witless bookie's secretary (Jason Priestley) who suddenly finds himself promoted to hit man by the new boss of his organization. Trouble is, Priestley is a TV-addicted loner who's never held a gun, much less fired one. He receives training from a philosophy-spouting, alcoholic professional killer (Peter Riegert, whose unforgettable motto is "Guns don't kill people, we do") who discovers his inarticulate protege possesses the aim of an expert marksman but still has trouble justifying the merciless nature of his new career. Priestley is further bamboozled when he falls in love with a yoga instructor (Kimberly Williams) who believes her string of bad relationships has ended once she meets this shy, sweet-natured dolt with the mysterious job.
Coldblooded shines with the kind of droll dialogue that's only possible when the relationships in a movie are fully realized. That the film contains several fairly graphic contract killings doesn't upset the tender mood so much as establish a loopy alternate universe in which the protagonist can commit murder and still sweat the details of first love with virginal enthusiasm. Jason Priestley lets his sweetly confused spaniel eyes carry much of the role, but he's effective enough to whet your appetite for his next film. Shown with Karen Young's short film "The Pesky Suitor." (Jimmy Fowler) Karen Young in attendance.
*The Sum of Us. Sift through the recent avalanche of gay-themed motion pictures and you'll find a conspicuous omission--stories about how gay men and lesbians function within their biological families. For this reason alone, Kevin Dowling's movie version of Australian playwright David Stevens' comedy-drama The Sum of Us seizes our attention with the brashness of a trailblazer.
Even more provocative, Stevens and Dowling bypassed the predictable mother-gay son scenario to focus instead on how a widower father (Jack Thompson) and his grown gay son (Russell Crowe) maintain a live-in relationship. Thompson and Crowe are roommates, drinking buddies, combatants, best friends, and most of all, enthusiastic supporters of the other's search for true love. The jolly, laid-back Thompson has long ago accepted his son's same-sex proclivities and even works (albeit a bit too hard) to secure a monogamous partner for his boy.
Thanks to two robust, lived-in lead performances and a script by Stevens filled with authentic verbal roughhousing and poignant moments of compromise and confession, the relationship never feels like a movie contrivance. Unfortunately, Dowling didn't find a way to transcend the stage-bound structure of the conversations, and having Thompson and Crowe intermittently speak directly to the audience sometimes disrupts the rhythm of the story. The three-hankie hairpin turn toward tragedy during the film's final third feels tacked-on, but for all the rough edges that steal some of the greatness from The Sum of Us, you've never seen a father-son relationship like this one before. (JF) Director Kevin Dowling is in attendance.
Pom Poko. Japanese folklore says that the raccoon is a trickster who possesses a human intelligence to plan, and supernatural abilities to carry out its tricks. This is the basis for the full-length animated Japanese feature Pom Poko, a bittersweet fable that begins as a plea for environmental restraint à la Watership Down and then turns into an examination of the messy politics that motivate a community under oppression.
A civilization of raccoons living in the forests and mountains surrounding Tokyo find their land is being leveled by Japanese government officials, who want to build apartment settlements. The raccoons wage a war of illusion against the humans, transforming themselves into talking inanimate objects, ghost children, and other phantasms to scare off the developers. When that doesn't work, they seek the leadership of mountain elders, who encourage them to concentrate all their illusion-making skills to create a massive hallucinatory spectacle that recalls the explosion of an atom bomb.
Pom Poko is far too talky and sophisticated in theme for little kids, and many adults, for that matter, but it's a must-see for Japanimation fans who crave that unique blend of science fiction, mysticism, mythology, and social commentary in which Japanese animators specialize. (JF)
Clean, Shaven. Actor Peter Greene seems to be on his way to Dennis Hopper status. In the past few years, he's played a number of baroque character parts with terrifying conviction, including Denis Leary's savage lieutenant in Judgment Night, the philosophical street hood protagonist of Nick Gomez' Laws of Gravity, and the hillbilly rapist Zed in Pulp Fiction.
His role in this independent horror film by director Lodge Kerrigan makes those other guys look like pretty well-adjusted individuals: Greene plays a rootless schizoid pursued by the authorities for murder who drives inexorably across country in search of his daughter, enduring disturbing hallucinations and equally disturbing encounters with average Americans along the way. Kerrigan makes your skin crawl via atmosphere, music, composition, and subtext rather than cheap shocks and gore (although there are a few of the latter in the movie, including an astoundingly graphic self-mutilation scene that will ensure that you never look at a pair of pliers the same way again). The film is fascinating at first but off-putting because it just slimes steadily and monotonously along rather than building in intensity. (MZS) Writer-director Lodge Kerrigan in attendance.
The Wife. From writer-director Tom Noonan (What Happened WasE) comes this tale of a dysfunctional marriage. Not available for screening at press time.
Haunted Symphony. This Roger Corman-produced sleazetravaganza was rescued from the direct-to-video market by its unusually tight direction and a series of low-budget special effects. In 18th century France, a na•ve composer (Ben Cross) is commissioned by a "classic beauty" (Jennifer Burns) to complete, for her impending wedding, the symphony begun by her uncle, a man torn apart by an angry mob that believed his music was written in praise of the devil.
Problem is, the piece really is damned (the title on the score sheet, "Satan's Symphony," gives us our first clue), and finds a protector in none other than Beverly "My Three Sons" Garland, who portrays a kind of devil-worshipping Mrs. Danvers. The composer begins to finish the symphony, kills Burns' groom in a swordfight, and then enlists her in seeking more victims for his hellish obsession.
Haunted Symphony moves briskly, but you'll probably wish you'd rented it for three bucks on a Saturday night. (JF) Director David Tausik is in attendance.
Mars Needs Women. In this 1966 camp classic from Dallas-reared schlock filmmaker Larry Buchanan, Tommy Kirk, of all people, plays a Martian scouring the earth in search of curvaceous concubines. Co-starring Yvonne DeCarlo (TV's Batgirl). Larry Buchanan in attendance.
*Spider Baby. The jewel in the crown of the Festival's Joe Bob Briggs Midnight Series, this cannibalicious 1964 horror comedy from director Jack Hill features Lon Chaney as the chauffeur guardian of a family suffering from Merry Syndrome, a degenerative brain disease that causes its victims to regress into a violent primal state. The last living relative of the kids' father comes to claim them, and all hell breaks loose. Spider Baby transcends the genre of "bad" cinema by being smart enough to know it's an exploitation flick, and using every trick necessary, from low-brow humor to some surprisingly scary images, to hold the viewer's attention. Expertly directed, hysterically funny, and graced with a great turn by some spastic bald guy who looks and acts like Jerry Lewis cross-bred with a rhesus monkey. A must-see. (JF) Jack Hill is in attendance.
Saturday, April 22
*Taxi Driver. (1976) See article "Magnificent Obsession" for more about Schrader. Schrader and Roger Ebert in attendance.
Frank and Ollie. In one of this movie's first scenes, old, bald-headed Frank Thomas does a stiff-but-enthusiastic monkey dance. Then we're shown a scene from The Jungle Book--a red monkey doing that same boogie, a monkey animated by Thomas.
Thomas and his partner Ollie Johnston started working at Disney Studios in 1934 and 1935, respectively. During this documentary, we see several examples of them working out characters by acting out scenes, and through their actions, the old men, making faces and testing postures, are thoroughly charming. Of course, the animated clips are familiar--Frank and Ollie worked together on all of the Disney classics from Snow White on up.
Although writer and director Theodore Thomas, son of Frank, indulges himself by letting this movie go on too long, he doesn't present an annoyingly sentimental version of his father's career. The vignettes, interviews, and archival footage are put together with a pleasant rhythm and, as a whole, offer a wealth of technical and historical information about Disney Studios. For those who are not Disney or even animation fans, the story of Frank and Ollie still works as a thoughtful and moving documentary about being creative, and about teamwork. (Edith Sorenson)
*Salvaged Lives. Edward James Olmos narrates this terrific documentary about a unique rehabilitation system in California's Chino State Prison, where hardened cons are put through a fantastically rigorous program that trains them for careers as industrial divers.
Director Barbara Liebovitz doesn't allow an excess of technique to come between herself and her material, choosing instead to follow a representative group of trainees from the beginning of the program through its emotional finale in a series of clean, direct, simple scenes. (Since developing upper body strength is a key ingredient in gaining success as a diver, a large portion of the film consists of images of men doing hundreds of pushups and pullups, crabwalking through mud, and having long conversations with their instructors while balancing on one arm and one leg.)
In its own unobtrusive way, Salvaged Lives says more about the failures of the correctional system than any number of speeches. The proof of the program is in the statistics: where 60 percent of Chino's regular prison population returns to jail within a few years, less than 5 percent of the industrial diving program's graduates become repeat offenders. (MZS) Barbara Liebovitz in attendance.
*Party Girl. Everyone give a raucous round of applause to writer-director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, who has created the wittiest, most insightful, least self-conscious Generation X comedy yet. Indeed, slapping the label "Generation X" on her delirious but tender comedy Party Girl does it an injustice. Although the film deals with self-enraptured, aimless twentysomethings who rely on their own community of friends to make it in cold, unpredictable New York City, it recognizes a world far wider and richer than the pop trivia-soaked setpieces in Reality Burns or the amateur philosophizing in Before Sunrise. Indie film fave Parker Posey plays a rave veteran whose drug-addled public parties eventually get her arrested. To pay the fine, she's compelled to work in the New York Public Library with her stern godmother--a woman with many regrets that prove educational to Posey. At the same time, she falls in love with a Lebanese street sandwich vender who's appalled at the frivolousness of her life. Parker Posey is an extremely graceful actress to whom the word "statuesque" easily applies. She and von Scherler Mayer escort the character through a hilarious series of changes which reflect the exigencies of that process we call "growing up."(JF) Daisy von Scherler Mayer is in attendance.
*American Gigolo. (1979) After the screening, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert will present Schrader with the USA Film Festival's Great Director award. See article "Magnificent Obsession" for more on Schrader and the film. Ebert and Schrader in attendance.
Tie-Died: Rock 'n' Roll's Most Deadicated Fans. A documentary about the Grateful Dead's devoted coterie of followers. See article "Dead on arrival" for more. Shown with Ira Israel's short film "Hungreed."
Light Sleeper. (1992) Writer-director Paul Schrader's kinder, gentler reworking of Taxi Driver, about a fortysomething drug dealer (Willem Dafoe) struggling to find some kind of direction in life. See article "Magnificent Obsession" for more on Schrader. Paul Schrader and Roger Ebert in attendance.
Organized Crime and Triad Bureau. From Hong Kong filmmaker Kirk Wong, the director of Jackie Chan's acclaimed melodrama Crime Story, comes this action-adventure about the ongoing war between a ruthless fugitive (Anthony Wong of Hard-Boiled) and the driven squad of lawmen who are determined to bring him back to justice (they're led by Danny Lee, who played another obsessive lawman in The Killer). Not available for review at press time.
Road Kill. A surprisingly reserved, predictable low-budget road "thriller" about a dumb college kid hitchhiking to California who gets hooked up with a homicidal maniac and his dim-witted girlfriend. Although the film features rape, mutilation, and death by superglue, Road Kill isn't violent enough to entertain us, and it never quite musters the sleazy mood appropriate to the white-trash antics on display. (JF)
Trailers from the Crypt. Joe Bob Briggs' midnight series spotlights the twisted tastes of Dallas-area special effects maven Tom Rainone, who will preside over an assortment of cheesy horror movie trailers.
*Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even bloodied-in-the-wool splatter fans have reason to dread yet another sequel to the 1974 low-budget smash: the last couple of entries have been lackluster, to say the least.
But this one, scripted and directed by Kim Henkel, who wrote the first film, is more than competent; in fact, it's terrific--possibly the toughest, nuttiest, most artistically committed horror comedy to come screeching down the pike since Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2. And as the leader of the band of incestuous killers, Austin-bred actor Matthew McConaughey (who played the eternal high schooler Wooderson in Dazed and Confused) gives the looniest, scariest, most inventively whacked-out performance since Jack Nicholson went way over the top in Batman.
This film is living proof that with a handful of chump change, a cast of talented actors, and enough burning vision, it's possible to fire up an old saw so that it roars like new again. (MZS) Kim Henkel in attendance.
Cyberstalker. The Festival presents the world premiere of this slick, surprisingly well-written high-tech thriller about an army of cybernerds ordered through some ringleader named M.I.C.A. to change the world into an alternate universe where flesh fuses into pure information energy. The special effects are strictly '80s science fiction TV show, and the film itself has that not-quite-convincing aura of one of those USA Network original movies, but it moves along briskly enough. It's also got a supporting role by B-movie great Jeffrey "Whoever heard of a talking head?" Coombs (Reanimator). (JF) Christopher Romero in attendance.
Sunday, April 23
Odile and Yvette at the Edge of the World. It's hard to issue a blanket judgment about the quality and intentions of this peculiar little movie, because whether you judge it a success depends entirely on how willing you are to embrace its very mannered style. Shot on location in the East Texas Piney Woods, this feature from writer-director Andre Burke takes a page from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and blows it up to feature size when a couple of junior high-age sisters impulsively jump out of their dad's car during a cross-country road trip and wander into a woodsy dreamland where their fantasies and wishes appear to come true--although not always in the manner they expect, as the sudden and vaguely troubling appearance of a sexy young man attests.
Burke tells the girls' story without narration and music and with a bare minimum of dialogue, letting their journey into paradise unfold in a series of amazingly long takes and even longer setpieces broken up by evocative shots of silhouetted treetops, verdant meadows, and rushing water, and backed with a soundtrack of twittering birds, whirring insects, and rustling leaves. There's a lavish Freudian picnic going on just beneath the pastoral surface of this movie, but the narrative is so spare, and developed with such obsessive slowness, that you'll either be too hypnotized or too bored to keep a mental list of symbols and signs. If you thought Heavenly Creatures would have been a lot more interesting as a silent picture, you'll probably like this one. (MZS)
Short Film and Video Winners. The USA Film Festival is keeping the winners of its annual short film competition a secret until the very last minute, but if the heavy-hitting lineup of judges is any indication, they're bound to be interesting: the panel includes Advocate film critic David Ehrenstein, Daily Variety critic Emmanuel Levy, Marian Luntz of the Museum of Fine Art s/Houston, humorist Joe Queenan of Spy and Movieline infamy, and director Todd Haynes (Poison, Dottie Gets Spanked). All the judges will be present to discuss the future of cinema after the screening. A pretty tall order, but they can probably fill it--especially when you consider the presence of the indomitable Queenan, who can write 11-page articles about actors with bad hair and never bore his readers, and Ehrenstein, who once penned an appreciation of Francis Coppola's Dracula for Film Comment that was as long as the New Testament and even more serious. (MZS)
It Was a Wonderful Life. There's no special filmmaking excitement in this very traditional nonfiction feature by director Michele Ohayon, produced by SMU graduate Tammy Glazer. Mostly, the film is content to sit back and let its subjects, homeless women from a variety of races and classes, tell the tales of how they ended up on the streets and what they do to survive and stay sane.
Like last year's more formally innovative documentary Dialogues with Madwomen, the message of this film is that the external factors implicit in throwing women out on the street--financial woes, domestic strife, mental and emotional trouble--are just sociological distractions. The real problem is the way our male-dominated society socializes women to live unsatisfying lives that place them in positions where they can be easily victimized and broken.
Ohayon's straightforward approach works because her subjects have such compelling stories to tell. The only drawback, oddly enough, is a too-emphatic narration by actress Jodie Foster that tends to render edgy, intense, disturbing information in PBS-friendly tones. It probably helped get the film released, but it often tends to soothe liberal sympathies when it ought to stoke viewer outrage. With a tough, spare, terrific soundtrack by Melissa Etheridge. (MZS) Writer-director Michele Ohayon in attendance.
Magic in the Water. Not available for screening at press time, this ecologically conscious family adventure is about a divorced dad who takes his children to a Canadian resort town, where they discover that the supposedly fictitious lake monster might be real after all. World Premiere. Star Sarah Wayne and director Rick Stevenson in attendance.
The Maestro/My Old Fiddle/Blues Highway. Three medium-length documentaries celebrating folk art. They deal, respectively, with Gerard Gaxiola, the California writer, sculptor, musician, and prankster; two fiddle-playing siblings named Julie and Tommy; and the epic journey of millions of African-Americans from the Deep South to the industrial North, and the impact of the music they brought along with them. (MZS) Filmmakers Maureen Gosling (The Maestro) and Bill Guttentag (Blues Highway) in attendance.
*Mishima. (1987) Writer-director Paul Schrader's elliptical, eerie retelling of the life of controversial Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. See article "Magnificent Obsession" for more on Schrader. Paul Schrader in attendance.
Search and Destroy. Not available for screening at press time, Dennis Hopper's latest foray behind the camera is about a businessman on the verge of bankruptcy (Griffin Dunne) who believes he can save himself by making a movie from a book written by a famous self-help guru (Hopper). With Christopher Walken, John Turturro, and Ethan Hawke. Dennis Hopper in attendance.
Stealin' Home. The heroine of this new film from Dallas-based writer-director John Carstarphen has a serious problem: following a nasty breakup with her boy-friend, she returns home one day to discover that nearly everything she owns has been stolen, and that the dastardly dog that did it is selling her possessions all over town.
As she goes about her daily life, vainly struggling to recover from this setback, she keeps running into familiar knickknacks and pieces of furniture at the homes of various friends and acquaintances--infuriating proof that her ill-fated relationship was a gift that keeps on taking.
Shot in 16mm black-and-white and stocked with a cast of talented local performers, this frenetic, funky, upbeat piece of African-Americana has some of the same charm that made She's Gotta Have It a breakout success. It's paced a bit unevenly, some of the subplots aren't developed satisfactorily, and the low budget definitely shows, but Carstarphen and his collaborators have approached their subject with such enthusiasm that even doubters will probably be won over.
The film also functions as an unabashed star vehicle for lead actress Phyllis Cicero, a true screen gem who has Angela Bassett's wiry frame, Alfre Woodard's bullshit-detecting eyes, Bette Midler's gift of fury, and Jamie Lee Curtis' Swiss-watch slapstick timing. Her tough, sweet, sexy performance turbocharges every frame she occupies. She could sit in a chair reading TV Guide for two hours and still make me laugh my ass off. (MZS) John Carstarphen, producer Rebecca Rice, and cast members in attendance.
*Black Is, Black Ain't. Premiered at last year's Dallas Video Festival, Black Is, Black Ain't is the last film of the late video director Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied, Color Adjustment). Completed by associates after AIDS took his life in 1993, this is Riggs' most ambitious and courageous work, a terse, confident video essay that lifts the robes of the civil rights movement and invites us to peek at the wounds underneath.
Black Is, Black Ain't starts with a simple goal in mind--a call for the African-American community to stop emphasizing Anglo racism and start dialoguing about the internal sexism, homophobia, skin-color prejudice, and bitter class conflicts which reign, for the most part, unremarked upon by African-American leaders. Using (thankfully) less poetry this time out but a standard combination of talking heads and famous quotes, Riggs guides the viewer through a series of conflicting opinions about the role of history, identity, and gender in black life. Resolving them, Riggs knows, is not only impossible, it's counterproductive. Social progress happens when forces oppose each other and establish common ground.
But it's the refusal among many African-Americans to acknowledge any problems not associated with institutionalized Anglo racism, Riggs implies, that has stymied their political and economic development. With the current debate over whether the NAACP should be abolished and Civil Rights-era dependence on government programs overhauled, Riggs proved himself a prophet once again, although his homosexuality will likely resign him to the fringes of black culture in death as in life. Black Is, Black Ain't maneuvers deftly between the personal and the political, including scenes from the rural Louisiana of Riggs' youth, as well as taped commentary from his death bed. (JF)
Crucero/Crossroads and The Novice. In Crucero/Crossroads, director Ramiro Puerta and performer-writer Guillermo Verdecchia have successfully adapted a stage effort to film, creating a comical exploration of one of America's favorite pastimes: "Where do you fit in?"
Verdecchia and his various alter egos (including creations named Fechundo, "The Barrio Tiger," and Wideload McKenna) muse their way through 28 minutes of border zone survival, chasing themselves through the identity-splitting experiences of Latino life both in America and abroad. Everywhere is nowhere as Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, Panamanians, and Mexicans are melded into the same stereotypical identity.
Along the way, Verdecchia offers some amusing observations about "Saxons," the Wideload character's term for Anglos around the globe. "I like going down to the clubs and watching you dance," he proclaims. "You guys are so free. Nothing gets in your way...not the beat...not the rhythm...nothing!"
In The Novice, director Judy Hecht Dumontet has crafted an almost complete tale of a novice nun, Teresa, and her scandalous illegitimacy that stirs a small town; I say "almost complete" because Dumontete's story begins in the middle, leaving the viewer to discover the ideas and realities of the plot. Teresa's mother goes to her grave asserting that her daughter's child was fathered by the Holy Spirit; after her death, her daughter seeks the solace of a life in the convent and after many years is conditionally accepted into the order.
In no time, however, Teresa's earthly desires are being played out through a series of actions and confessions that tests the resolve of her fellow convent members. It seems that she was so busy pursuing her dream of becoming a nun that her sensualities were simply stifled. The film approaches the issues surrounding a lifelong vow of chastity from a provocative perspective, but at the expense of drama. (James Mardis)
Kontum Diary. From documentarian Steven Smith comes one Vietnam story you almost certainly haven't heard before. A quarter century ago, a young American soldier from North Dallas named Paul Reed found a rucksack in Vietnam containing various personal items belonging to an enemy infantryman, including personal photographs and a book of autobiographical poetry. He mailed it home to his mother, then forgot about it.
When she presented it to him upon his return to the states, Reed became obsessed with the man's memory. He was convinced that he was personally responsible for the man's death. But a news crew managed to locate the Vietnamese soldier, who was actually alive and well and acting as the patriarch of a large family, and arranged a meeting between the two former combatants. Their emotional encounter, which was filmed last year in Vietnam, is an object lesson in the absurdity of war, and forms the centerpiece of this simple, reflective, but quite profound addition to our collective history of that painful conflict. (MZS) Paul Reed in attendance.
The Comfort of Strangers. (1990) From filmmaker Paul Schrader comes this dark, playful, and astonishingly perverse tale of a hapless young married couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) who fall under the spell of a mysterious German millionaire (Christopher Walken) while on vacation in Venice.
Adapted by Harold Pinter from Ian McEwan's novel, it's basically an extended shaggy dog joke with an infuriating punchline, but the performances and a few terrifically gothic thrills make it worth checking out. See article "Magnificent Obsession" for more on Schrader. (MZS) Schrader in attendance.
Monday, April 24
Ballot Measure 9. Writer-director Heather McDonald's documentary Ballot Measure 9 crackles with emotionally explosive scenes, creating a harrowing portrait of the 1992 Portland-based battle by gay and lesbian activists to prevent the passage of a measure that would deny homosexual citizens legal recourse against discrimination in housing and employment.
It's difficult to say which is harder to watch--the horrendous instances of intimidation and violence suffered by Measure 9 opponents both homo and hetero, or the mind-boggling campaign of cheap lies and unblinkered hate talk spewed by ministers, elected government officials, grandmothers, and children who seem to sincerely believe that recognizing tax-paying gays and lesbians as full-fledged U.S. citizens will lead to the collapse of America.
Of course, the filmmaker's sympathy tilts toward the "No on 9" activists, which is the central problem of Ballot Measure 9. While moments in the film are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure, you finish feeling not so much outraged as perplexed at the preposterous positions taken by the Oregonian homophobes. We get scenes of marches, protest sing-alongs, brainstorming sessions, and a tense election-night count-down on the pro-gay side, but there's no in-depth exploration of the peculiar paranoia that propels so many of the homo-haters to outright persecution. Ballot Measure 9 turns everyday people who fight gay discrimination into heroes, but it's the passionate villains, so sketchily portrayed here, that will intrigue some viewers more. (JF) Heather McDonald is in attendance.
Open Season. You know you're in for a long haul when the opening credits proclaim Open Season as "A fable by Robert Wuhl," and such gags as a network adventure series about a kung-fu-fighting nun ("Kicking the Habit") and a parade of whiny liberal public broadcasters, stuffy TV critics, and cigar-chomping network bigwigs are presented as the height of comic invention. As a director, Wuhl (an actor who had supporting parts in Bull Durham, Batman, and Cobb) hammers each punchline home with the oddly distanced zeal his sportswriter character in Cobb displayed while cursing out a baseball hero.
It doesn't help that Wuhl has cast himself in the lead as a righteous, fidgety, and decidedly humorless ratings company employee who rides public television's improbable breakthrough toward a journey of self-discovery. In terms of watchability and viewer sympathy, compared to Wuhl, Kevin Pollak is Jimmy Stewart. In case you're wondering, the character's last name is "Sane." It's that kind of movie. (MZS) Robert Wuhl and soundtrack composer Marvin Hamlisch in attendance.
Sony Pictures Classics Sneak Preview. The good folks at Sony Classics won't reveal what new movie they're going to show, but suspense isn't the only appeal of this program. There's also supposed to be a substantive discussion of the early years of the USA Film Festival, featuring Sony Pictures chair Marcie Bloom and festival co-founder L.M. "Kit" Carson. Co-presented with the Irving, Texas Film Commission. (MZS)
12 Steps to Death. Joe Queenan is a humorist best-known for his extravagant, archly observant essays on film trends in Movieline, so fans will be eager to see Queenan's first foray into low-budget filmmaking. Sadly, his debut as producer-writer-director, 12 Steps to Death, displays the cardinal sin of satirical cinema--an unfunny script that lurches on its course like a flatulent snuffalufagus, pausing before each target and expelling noxious gas that lingers unpleasantly in the air but never quite achieves the necessary rudeness.
Indeed, Queenan bludgeons the culture of codependency, recovery, and the Catholic Church with such monomaniacal clumsiness that the only sound you hear is an axe being ground till it's blunt. Stick to the word processor, Joe. (JF) Joe Queenan is in attendance.
Give a Damn Again. In the year of Newt Gingrich, whose ideas about social reform are based on movies like Boys' Town, this documentary proves a much more valuable addition to our collective list of cinematic sources. The film tracks down 10 participants in a 1968 New York City television campaign against ghetto poverty, in which a single question was posed to participants and viewers: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Filmmaker Adam Isadore, whose father worked on the original project, has sought out the children for a present-day comparison of their lives and their one-time dreams. In the process, he asks for and receives a plethora of answers to a deeper question: "Why has nothing substantive changed in the inner city during the past quarter century?"
Like last year's acclaimed Hoop Dreams, this film pokes holes in the American stereotypes about the monolithic inner city and points out that there is as much success and failure in the ghetto as in the rest of society. The difference, Isadore argues, lies in the mainstream media's portrayal of inner-city life; to their way of thinking, even boundless successes are presented with a fatalistic tone. Isadore's images are accompanied by academic and cultural commentary from professors bell hooks and Cornell West. (James Mardis) Filmmaker Adam Isadore in attendance.
The Plutonium Circus. This marvelous low-budget documentary about the effects of the Pantex nuclear weapons plant on Amarillo, Texas, borrows its look from the deadpan American Gothic stylist Errol Morris, its cheeky sense of humor from Roger & Me, and its mix of archival footage and old bluegrass tunes from The Atomic Cafe. Although its contents are erratic and disorganized, it manages to treat a serious issue--the fate of nuclear industry-based cities after the Cold War--with a pleasingly light touch. It's ultimately not a political tract about a nuclear facility and a surrounding city, but a humorous portrait of the people who live and work there. The film's gallery of quirky faces includes ranchers, farmers, PR flacks, a big-game hunter and memorabilia collector, a mournful cowboy poet, and a group of retro-'60s activists who charge Pantex with polluting the Oggalla aquifer, which supplies water to eight states. Director George Whittenburg Ratliff--an Amarillo native whose prominent, old-money family is continually ridiculed by one of the movie's recurring interviewees, a white-bearded, cantankerous, doom-talking anarchist who runs the world-famous Cadillac Ranch--displays a fine eye for sociological observation, allowing his subjects to display their eccentricity while steering clear of condescension. (MZS) Director George Ratliff in attendance.
Wigstock. Drag is a love-it-or-hate-it affair--either you adore the preening, posturing artifice of men in cartoonish female attire, each one trying to outvamp the other, or you find the whole enterprise a patience-trying test in exhibitionistic superficiality.
Accordingly, director Barry Shils' feature-length documentary of the 10th annual Wigstock celebration, an outdoor New York cross-dressing extravaganza, has pretty much secured its supporters and detractors before the first scene even rolls. But to the credit of Shils and company, Wigstock offers enough truly informative between-performance interviews to establish a surprising diversity inside a community of attention-seekers. There are the drag queens who emulate famous women vs. those who create original characters, the real singers vs. the lip-synchers, the part-timers vs. the way-of-lifers. And then there are the hilarious moments--such as when Wigstock organizer Lady Bunny calls New York City Hall to ask if they can temporarily crown the Statue of Liberty with a gigantic wig in honor of the festival, or the ceremonial flight of a wig heavenwards on a bouquet of balloons in honor of a past performer who's died of AIDS. (JF) Co-star Jackie Beat is in attendance.
Tuesday, April 25
*Crumb. Director Terry Zwigoff's documentary about underground comic master R. Crumb. See article "This Crumb takes the cake" for details. Zwigoff in attendance.
Silent Witness. Director Harriet Wichin and producer Christine York have managed to make an important but oft-traveled subject--the life of a concentration camp town decades after the end of World II--come alive with fresh details. The key to the success of this nonfiction feature about Dachau and Auschwitz is the director's skillful choice of editing rhythms, compositions, and sound clips; cannily stretching out disturbing moments and haunting images, she creates a visual fugue that envelops the testimony of concentration camp survivors and other experts in a cocoon of poisoned memory. This is an elegant, understated, very fine piece of work. Co-presented by the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies and the Jewish Community Center of Dallas. (MZS)
Picture Bride. Evocative, funny, and touching, this historical melodrama from director Kayo Hatta stars Youki Kudoh (best known to American audiences as the Elvis-loving Japanese tourist girl in Mystery Train) as a Japanese teenager brought to Hawaii to marry a sugarcane plantation worker (Akira Takayama). The situation is awkward enough, but to complicate things, the husband sent an old photo of himself when arranging the deal, and the revelation of his true age repulses and alienates his young spouse, who already misses her homeland and hates the hard life of rural labor demanded from her in Hawaii.
But in a series of subtle, uninflected, sometimes achingly perceptive scenes, the two characters slowly build toward a position of mutual respect and trust. The progression is so natural you hardly sense it happening--which is why, when the story's emotional finale arrives, the flood of sentiment feels completely earned. The film is also worth seeing for Claudio Rocha's rapturous cinematography, which evokes some of the same pristine yet richly textured grandeur of Nestor Alemendros' work on Days of Heaven. Watch for veteran character actors Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Tamlyn Tomita (The Joy Luck Club), and Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune in supporting roles. (MZS) Director Kayo Hatt in attendance.
Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life. Dorothea Lange was a photographer long before she picked up a camera. This careful examination of her work by filmmaker Meg Partridge reveals the tender realism of her account of life in America's underbelly. Her happenstance capturing of a Depression and World War II-era society can't be accurately captured in words. She is no mere picture-taker clicking away at the downtrodden as they clump along country roads. The woman who emerges from the film's wealth of details is a giant of wills, passions, visions, and great warmth, and her work is presented as a triumph over the rotten memorials of written history. When, at the film's close, Lange says, "One really should use the camera as if tomorrow you will be stricken blind," one senses that lesser photographers are already reaching for their canes. Shown with Jane Gilooly's film "Leona's Sister Gerri," which examines a single woman's life in the era of illegal abortion. (James Mardis) Jane Gilooly and Meg Partridge in attendance.
The Postman (Il Postino). Not available for screening at press time, this sentimental Italian comedy tells of the friendship between an exiled poet (Phillippe Noiret) and his postman (Massimo Troisi).
Relatively Speaking. Writer-director Peter Sime's film is set at a party for five very messed-up North Dallas "friends" in which a series of revelations will change their lives forever. Not reviewed. Peter Sime in attendance.
Joe's Rotten World. One of the most welcome surprises of the 25th annual USA Film Festival is the world premiere of this terrific comedy from Los Angeles-based writer-director Richard Labrie, which comes on like A Confederacy of Dunces as directed by Albert Brooks and scripted by Tom Robbins.
The premise is too complicated and bizarre to detail in this short space, but a few key details should tell you what kind of movie you're in for. Joe Seymore (Ramsay Midwood) is a doctoral student who's steadily losing his grip on sanity. For the past few years, he's been so obsessed with completing his 3,000-page dissertation on the perversion, decline, and collapse of America that he's turned into a pop-eyed, hostile hermit who harangues his long-suffering wife, Annie (Jessica Hecht), and everybody else in his life with endless, angry, scatological harangues about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Annie decides she can't take it anymore, packs her things, and heads out into the desert, where she falls in with a fertility cult consisting of 13 very pregnant women, a sexually insatiable patriarch, and his chief henchman, who has a large, pointy-tipped firecracker permanently impaled in his skull. (He's an adaptable guy, though--aside from having to wear the same hat his whole life and give up smoking, he seems none the worse for wear.)
Meanwhile, back in the semi-real world, Joe's two best buddies, fellow doctoral students Bobby (Ricky Dean Logan) and Curtis (Blair Shannon) try to bring their disturbed pal back to sanity. Their task isn't easy: Joe recently got stung by a gigantic, unclassified wasplike bug, and the pustulant wound on his chest and the insect venom coursing through his bloodstream have made him prone to sudden bouts of clairvoyance and time travel.
If filmmaker LaBrie's grip on this loonybin material was anything less than masterful--and if his cast were anything less than brilliant--Joe's Rotten World would seem arch, precious, and pointless. But he and his superb actors manage to imbue even the most bizarre characters with warmth and humanity.
And amid all the visual, temporal, and cultural shenanigans (including a pill-addiction subplot, numerous jokes about smelly underwear, profane apocalyptic rants, geodesic domes, and a cameo appearance by Albert Einstein), the film somehow manages to become a truly touching love story. The ultimate message of the picture is that yes, the world is headed for hell in an ox-cart, but if you have faith in your own ability to love and be loved, life ain't all that bad after all. Joe's Rotten World is a treasure. Don't miss it. (MZS) Director Richard LaBrie in attendance.
Wednesday, April 26
The Band Wagon. (1954) One of the definitive light comic musicals of the Eisenhower era, this backstage melodrama about a middle-aged stage star (Fred Astaire) making a Broadway comeback opposite a gorgeous but icy dancer (Cyd Charisse) has beguiling songs, breathtaking dance numbers, and plenty of showbiz snap, and the chance to enjoy its Technicolor splendors on the big screen is reason enough to go. Add personal appearances by Cyd Charisse and lyricist Betty Comden and you have a spectacle too marvelous to pass up. (MZS)
Bar Girls. Director Marita Giovanni's story of young, attractive lesbians in search of sex, love, and companionship isn't quite as polished and sharp as it could have been; some scenes give you more information than you needed and others don't give you nearly enough. But it's a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless. With its stylish, sometimes scatologically bitchy dialogue, it actually owes more to old Hollywood "women's pictures" like Three on a Match and All About Eve than to a contemporary arthouse excursion such as Go Fish, and the cast, comprised mostly of unknown actresses, is uniformly fine. (MZS) Marita Giovanni in attendance.
Short Stuff. See article "Gut punches" for more information.
South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices. Documentarian Maxi Cohen gives this new feature its United States premiere. It's an intercut series of post-riot interviews with survivors from a number of different ethnic groups. Cohen in attendance.
Destiny Turns on the Radio. Not available for screening at press time, this road movie about an escaped convict (Dylan McDermott) traveling to Vegas to collect his share of a bank heist and reunite with his lost girlfriend features the debut of director Quentin Tarantino as a lead actor. He plays a mysterious radio DJ named Johnny Destiny whose machinations cause the hero to get hooked up with his ex-partner in crime (James LeGros) and confront a big-time crime boss. James LeGros in attendance.
Drawn from Memory. Animator Paul Fierlinger created and narrates this stylized account of his childhood during World War II, during which he was shuttled from city to city depending on where his father, a Czechoslovakian diplomat, was stationed at the time.
Understated and sweetly funny, the film manages to illuminate the shifting allegiances of a war-torn country (Fierlinger's father is uncertain whether to back Russia or America and keeps hedging his bets) and to recreate the enchanted but limited perspective of a very young child. The animator's simple line drawings, which shift perspective, texture, and color according to the narration's mood, are an understated pleasure. (MZS) Paul Fierlinger in attendance.
*Hell's Angel and Tracking Down Maggie. A double bill of British indignation. The first entry is a nonfiction essay about Mother Teresa by Vanity Fair columnist and globetrotting leftist gadfly Christopher Hitchens, who has always lent a certain relaxed urbanity to his tirades against political hypocrisy and the ravages of world power monopolies.
What in the world could Hitchens find to criticize about Mother Teresa, the Angel of Calcutta and advocate for the poor and wretched all over the world? Quite a lot, actually, as his half-hour first-person video essay Hell's Angel proves. Hitchens' acerbic observations cut deep, and he's out to draw blood from the hide of Mother Teresa, a woman he characterizes as a spotlight-hogging hypocrite who accepts awards from murderous dictators; ignores the atrocities committed by right-wing military regimes because she claims to be "apolitical," yet still campaigns tirelessly against abortion and contraception in nations where overpopulation kills thousands of children every year; and actively condemns the efforts of almost anyone, from moderate relief workers to left-wing activists, who wish to improve the economic plight of the poor.
The hard-line Roman Catholic philosophy that says suffering must be eased, not prevented, until the sufferers can graduate to their heavenly reward, has been bred deep in the bones of Teresa of Calcutta. But Hitchens goes so far as to question the woman's convictions, suggesting she enjoys her international celebrity so much she lets herself be used by America, England, and other Western nations to obscure their unofficial policies of apathy toward Third-World misery. Hell's Angel is one hell of a brave, thought-provoking ride. (JF)
In Tracking Down Maggie, British documentarian Nick Broomfield continues his bemused redefinition of gonzo journalism. His last movie, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, found our surrogate skeptic on the prowl throughout the American South, trying to secure interviews with America's only known female serial murderer and the people who knew her. As in Roger & Me, the film became progressively more hilarious, insightful, and unique the more apparent it became that Broomfield had a snowball's chance in hell of getting close to the truth of his subject.
His follow-up employs pretty much the same format. Broomfield, whose movies have the handmade, insightful, spontaneous feeling of personal essays, sets out to make a documentary about ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her alleged influence peddling on behalf of her munitions-rich son, Mark, in international diplomatic circles. As he and his crew follow the Iron Lady across the United States during a book signing tour, the sad-eyed filmmaker finds himself on the receiving end of a seemingly endless series of rebuffs, flanking maneuvers, and strategic humiliations by Maggie's assorted minions, who have no use for any reporter who isn't awed into ass-kissing complacency by the former leader's supposed aura of greatness.
As in Aileen Wuornos, Broomfield ends up deconstructing his subject, his techniques, and himself as he goes along; the result is a marvelously informative movie about making movies, as well as a cautionary essay about the way the images of politicians are shaped and obscured by government agencies, PR flacks, and suck-up journalists. Without the benefit of many one-on-one interviews with significant people, Broomfield is once again forced to fall back on news clips, factoids, rumors, anecdotes, and reams of personal observations, and the end product is almost certainly more thought-provoking than it would have been if the filmmaker had been given everything he wanted at the start.
If he keeps making marvelous documentaries like this one, the image of Broomfield on the phone playing befuddled straight man to various low-level flacks, flunkies, thugs, and liars will become as familiar to documentary fans as the sight of Michael Moore shambling across America in his moth-eaten gimme cap. (MZS) Hitchens and Broomfield in attendance.
Among the Dead. Dallas filmmakers Glen and Kay Bay made this surreal, black-and-white, Hollywood-Eats-Your-Soul movie mostly on location in Dallas, with guerrilla-style exterior shooting in Tinseltown, where they had to duck the fuzz to avoid having to pay their way through the Los Angeles' Film Commission's spiderweb of red tape.
Although it was filmed at approximately the same time as Tim Burton's Ed Wood and shares the same seedily desperate milieu, it's a far bleaker movie, chronicling the pathetic life of an arrogant, self-destructive, chain-smoking, hard-drinking projectionist named Randy Calhern (Craig Dupree) who professes to have a production deal at Paramount and uses this bit of information to manipulate the lives of those around him, including a former "B" movie actress (Louanne Stephens) and an old cinematographer buddy from New York (Peter Lovett).
Exactly what Randy gains by promising his pals the moon and delivering nothing is unclear. One possibility, backed up by the character's trips to a celebrity-packed Hollywood cemetery and his occasional forays into Golden Age fantasizing, is that he's so obsessed with the fame he'll never have that he subconsciously treats other people as if he were some up-and-coming phenomenon instead of a burned-out loser.
The film is, frankly, rather tedious overall, since it consists mainly of two kinds of scenes: Randy humiliating other people and Randy being humiliated. But Russell Blair's rapturous 16mm photography and Kay Bay's resourceful and inventive production design (which locates the time period somewhere between Hollywood's past, present, and future) make it worth a look. That and the lead performance of Craig Dupree; despite being saddled with an irritating, one-note character, he somehow manages to maintain viewer sympathy throughout an overlong movie, and his unnerving resemblance to the young Robert Mitchum makes him far more visually intriguing than the celebrity-not-quite-lookalikes his character consorts with.
Keep one eye peeled for local stage treasure Phyllis Cicero in a small part as Randy's boss at the movie theater; in one welcome scene early on, she rips the irresponsible little whelp a new asshole with such righteousness that she makes you wish the movie were about her. (MZS) Glen Coburn and Kay Bay in attendance.
Hell Bent. Alienated youths who use violence to break the monotony of their ennui-deadened souls have been portrayed with sophistication and revolutionary shock from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange through Tim Hunter's The River's Edge, but it took Canadian filmmaker John Kozak to turn adolescent nihilism into a snicker-inducing clichŽ with Hell Bent, a wretchedly acted, poorly directed snapshot of three naughty kids who break into the home of a helpless elderly couple and torture them for kicks.
Pardon me for revealing the plot, but there are ticket buyers who'll be deeply disturbed by watching a wheelchair-bound old man beaten to death with a cane and his wife doused in Irish whiskey and set aflame. Save your offended sensibilities for a worthier film, because that's pretty much all that happens in Hell Bent. For those of us hardened to movie violence, it's difficult to suppress giggles during the poorly choreographed scenes of brutality, especially the burning old woman, whose wigged stunt double looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the maternity clinic scenes from Junior.
The cultural roots of vicious juvenile crime deserve serious film treatment, but Hell Bent provides no cultural context and no convincingly drawn juveniles, just a lot of pointless destruction that never justifies the time we spend watching it. Big-screen cruelty has never felt so tedious. (JF)
Thursday, April 27
Panther. Mario and Melvin Van Peebles' drama about the beginnings of the Black Panther party. See article "Shooting blanks" for details. Courtney B. Vance and Melvin and Mario Van Peebles in attendance.
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