Fest intentions

USA Film Festival: Amargosa, Committed, The Devil's Swing, Dropping Out, Hamlet, Lush, The Natural History of the Chicken, Split Decision, The Target Shoots First, Steal This Movie

The Devil's Swing
Saturday, April 29, 4 p.m.There are those who view the Rio Grande as a divider, as the border that separates Texas from Mexico. For them, the river is a protective barrier, the thin blue line on a map that keeps out those who want in. Alan Govenar chooses not to see it that way: For him, the Rio Grande is a unifier, the thing that makes those who live alongside it on both the U.S. and Mexican sides the same people. After all, they sound the same, look the same, and believe in the same things; they're identical, from the same land, and, yes, the same water. And so they're both Texans and Mexicans -- and neither, as one resident puts it in this lyrical documentary about one river crossing that joins, not separates, "us" from "them." They're something other, people who live in the netherworld separating countries, traditions, time itself. Documentary Arts founder Alan Govenar, the transplanted Yankee who has done a better job of preserving our heritage than the rest of us native-born Texans, has spent years working on this film about life along La Junta de los Rios, the beautiful wasteland between Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Mexico, where the border patrol lets things slide, where West Texas becomes the end of the earth, and where time stands still. The result is a postcard from the edge of the world. (R.W.)

Dropping Out
Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m.Emile (Kent Osborne, also this film's writer) wants one thing out of life: to spend it in front of his television, where everything has a happy ending and a laugh track. He's more than a couch potato: All of Emile's memories are rendered as sitcoms, even his birth, which he recalls in hyper-vivid colors (as he remembers it, Emile was born a fully developed 3-year-old, complete with a sailor suit). But Emile realizes his life will never be as good as the version he "sees" through the TV. He's not even fit for a commercial, much less his own series. When a squirrel gnaws through his cable, Emile is left staring at nothing but static. Left without purpose, he decides to take his life by running a razor blade across his wrist. But Emile doesn't die. His blood spurts and burbles like Dan Aykroyd as Julia Childs on Saturday Night Live, until finally he gives up and bandages the wound and takes a job working the graveyard shift at a San Fernando Valley hotel run by Adam Arkin. Emile is indestructible -- that, or lucky. But his desire to commit suicide -- and film it, no less, in hopes of sending the tape of his death to an ex-girlfriend -- so interests co-worker Henry (David Koechner, a former SNL-er who speaks out of the side of his mouth and recalls Bill Murray in Caddyshack) and his pal Andy (Vince Vieluf) that they decide to turn Emile's death quest into a full-blown feature film, complete with studio backing. Ah, but what happens when the subject decides that, well, maybe he doesn't want to kill himself after all? Without Emile's death, the film has no...happy ending, and that just won't sell tickets. Osborne, whose brother Mark directed Dropping Out, comes dangerously close to treading in familiar waters. A movie about the greed and cynicism of moviemaking is hardly novel. But the Osbornes pull it off with a handful of nifty performances (if anything else, John Stamos' turn as the porn-editor-next-door with the Cheech Marin moustache proves the dude might be able to act) and their relentless sarcasm. In real life, if such a thing exists anymore, these guys probably would have killed off Emile, just to sell the picture and please the studio (if not the audience). As Emile, Kent Osborne barely exists: He's bland and handsome all at once, flashing a Tom Cruise grin beneath blank eyes. He lives on a diet of pot pies and Punky Brewster reruns. It's enough to wring the life out of any man, so much so that his desire to commit suicide is almost redundant. It's a film built upon sick jokes (such as when Henry helps Emile draw a diagram illustrating the proper way to slash one's wrists in front of a hotel guest) and David Lynch tricks (Emile gets such a high in the frozen-foods aisle, he literally floats through the blindingly lit grocery store), and when it ends, the punch line's obviousness isn't muted so much as underscored. (R.W.)

Hamlet
Thursday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.
Olivia Newton-John plays a tough ex-con singer in Sordid Lives, Wednesday, May 3, 7 p.m. She's expected to be at the screening.
Olivia Newton-John plays a tough ex-con singer in Sordid Lives, Wednesday, May 3, 7 p.m. She's expected to be at the screening.

Details

Tickets available at the box office at 1 p.m. each day, or call (214) 631-2787
April 27-May 4

AMC Glen Lakes,
9450 N. Central Expressway

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The Prince of Denmark looks suspiciously like the lead character in Reality Bites and Before Sunrise, perhaps because Ethan Hawke (actor and author, as we were reminded on Oscar night) has yet to change clothes, shower, or grow into that half-assed goatee all these years later. Four years after Kenneth Branagh sucked it up and filmed the complete Hamlet, down to the last gasp and last semicolon, here comes yet another expurgated version -- this one, cast out of a very back issue of Interview magazine. Hawke's the latest Prince of Denmark, sporting greasy locks and a wool cap and Bono specs; this Hamlet gazes at the world through video camera and TV screens, living his life in digital flashback as he watches his now-dead dad (Sam Shepard) cavort with his mother (Diane Venora). Hawke doesn't act; he mopes, runs his hands through crispy hair, stares at images of himself videotaped by his own hand. He's the ultimate narcissist, his own mirror. We care nothing for him, because he cares only for himself. Writer-director Michael Almereyda has transplanted Shakespeare's tale into modern-day Manhattan and turned Denmark into the Denmark Corporation, which is now headed by Claudius (Twin Peaks' Kyle MacLachlan), who murdered Hamlet's old man and stole away his mother. The notion that the job of running Denmark belongs to Hawke's Hamlet is as ludicrous as listening to Bill Murray (as Polonius) reciting Shakespeare's gutted dialogue; the kid couldn't get a job at a Starbucks, much less run a corporation. He is no hero, just a hipster club kid who whiles away his empty moments in discos and coffee houses. You get the sense this guy talks to himself just to hear the sound of his own voice; his words have all the impact of a jelly doughnut. Hawke and his castmates (including Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz) seem to have no idea what this play's about. They recite dialogue like grade-school children dying to get to recess. Planting Shakespeare's works into modern times is an old, tired gag: It didn't work for Baz Lurhrmann in 1996, barely worked for Julie Taymor last year, and certainly doesn't cut it here. Almereyda has made a Hamlet in which the prince's "To be or not to be" speech takes place in a Blockbuster store, where The Crow plays silently on the monitors. The kind and pretentious would say it's a postmodern commentary on some bullshit; the rest of us just call it bullshit and leave it at that. (R.W.)

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