By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
After some hectoring and pleading, the Dallas Observer got another crack at USA Film Festival coverage. And if we get our face slapped again, we just hope good intentions and honest impatience justify our impudence.
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Last year, as you may recall, the Festival chose to deny access to the Observer after 1998's withering depiction in these pages of infighting, lawsuit threats, extortion allegations, and a USAFF logo striking and sinking at the edge of an iceberg. Although we never invoked that straw bogeyman "censorship," one unlikely source did -- The Dallas Morning News, whose small piece in the "Overnight" section compared The Met's selection as "official" USAFF weekly to the official publications of totalitarian states. Chivalrous, if a tad exaggerated.
Frankly, we were a little perplexed that the perfectly understandable two-step many major Dallas arts institutions perform for Observer dealings -- kiss us on the cheek, stab us in the back -- wasn't used by the USA Film Festival. Bad publicity is still publicity, a lot of Dallas readers don't agree with our opinions anyway, etc., ad infinitum. But the festival seemed to betray its own self-awareness by keeping videos and screenings away from us. They knew they'd be giving us the opportunity to deliver a swift kick in the ass, because the schedule itself was such a big, white, inviting target: the dregs of other, more relevant festivals; films already on video or destined for direct-to-video or -cable release; inexplicable omissions from tribute programs; films with national opening dates just a whisker's length away from their USAFF debut. Vigorous conversations with friends, neighbors, and colleagues suggested we weren't the only ones to spot these vulnerabilities; we were just alone in planting our footprint there.
The year 2000 brings a new festival artistic director, Beth Jasper, and a new opportunity to make kissy-face. Well, sorta -- we got smashing access to two of the USAFF headliners, but more limited exposure to the films themselves and to Jasper. In terms of availability of its product to the press, the Film Festival ought to take a lesson from Bart Weiss, artistic director of the Dallas Video Festival; not only do we usually receive a near-complete selection of DVF programs well within deadline, we're still trying to get him to come and pick up the 1999 and 2000 tapes. As far as Beth Jasper goes, we were permitted to e-mail her interview questions. She is, by all accounts, an amiable woman who's been involved at various levels of film production and scriptwriting. Her debut year with USAFF is neither revelation nor disintegration. Just more putt-putt-putting down the treacherous middle of an increasingly crowded road.
Addressing some of our complaints, Jasper's faxed reply insists: "Of the 60-100 films screened each year, less than 25 percent have distributors which may play Dallas-area theaters. These films are included because they generally have a filmmaker in attendance, giving audiences a 'live cinema' experience that they cannot get at the local cineplex when the film goes into regular play. Also, it is not uncommon for films without distributors to be booked for USAFF play and achieve a distribution deal before the USAFF play date."
Fair enough. And on the plus side of this year's festival, the "live cinema" experience includes tributes to two tireless Hollywood craftsmen -- director Norman Jewison and cinematographer Conrad Hall -- and a Women in Film evening presentation with Kimberly Peirce, whose Dallas-shot film Boys Don't Cry was heavily feted for its performances but, unjustly, not for the vivid and inexorable way Peirce guided its well-drawn characters through tragedy. There's a fine line between honoring the forgotten and the forgettable; just like Peirce, the photography and direction of Hall and Jewison are often recalled chiefly for the way they benefit the actors. Pausing to recall the disparate and lively collection of movies the latter two are responsible for feels like an overdue discovery, the kind the USA Film Festival is in a perfect position to make on the nationwide festival circuit.
But festival organizers have chosen unfortunate bookends for the event -- Michael Almereyda's Hamlet with Ethan Hawke to open, a Tribute to Blake Edwards for the closing. The Almereyda take on Shakespeare's Danish prince is not only about to be released, but has endured weeks of mediocre-to-disparaging publicity from previous festival-circuit appearances. As for the Edwards tribute -- well, once again there's no accounting for taste, but strolling back through film-book synopses of his career, we see that his last feature was 1993's Son of the Pink Panther, the movie that almost put federal agents on alert at international airports to confiscate any further film stock containing Roberto Benigni. (Hey, a couple of the Pink Panther movies are still gutbusters, but they're nowhere to be found on the schedule, and the real reason for their success, Peter Sellers, is, um, booked up for the foreseeable future). Toss in honors for filmmaker-turned-Kmart-shill Penny Marshall, and you have an 11 o'clock Friday-night tour of the Blockbuster shelves.
It's sad enough that by 1998, the year of our last USA Film Festival coverage, Austin's South By Southwest and Heart of Film had already surpassed the 28-year-old USAFF in programming ingenuity. And while Jasper insists many festivals we've compared hers to are "market/industry" event models -- in other words, they're devoted as much to producer-distributor-exhibitor shoptalk as they are to audience pleasing -- they attract many non-industry folks with subjects/presentations for multiple audiences. So our by count, that means the USAFF is ill-serving two groups -- film professionals on the Dallas scene and laypeople.
And those laypeople are being courted like the last man at a Sadie Hawkins dance. As the USA Film Festival turns 30, annual film festivals in Fort Worth and Deep Ellum as well as niche-market movie events (Latino, gay and lesbian) have been launched, and the Shooting Gallery Film Series takes acclaimed indies to most major U.S. cities. Landmark and Angelika plan to open Dallas art-house multiplexes in the next 12 months. These realities, plus the fact that the burgeoning DVD format contains more in-depth, behind-the-shoot coverage than a live, 30-minute Q&A with a visiting director, make us wonder how Beth Jasper and the USA Film Festival staff plan to surprise us in the future. Like many movie fans, we've grown accustomed to having our most arcane fancies tickled by a variety of providers. The USA Film Festival needs to find a way to sweeten the deal before they can lure us back to making them a habit.
Don't be put off by the ponderous, "inner-journey" therapyspeak narrated by Mary McDonnell in the opening moments of Amargosa, director Todd Robinson's sweet and sad documentary about Marta Becket, a 76-year-old dancer and painter who operates a theater in the punishing heat and isolation of California's Death Valley. While the voice-over introduction prattles on about artists following their own light to the exclusion of worldly distractions, it's the details of those distractions that make Becket's story so poignant and, when layer upon layer is revealed, rather disquieting. Born and raised in New York City by a smothering mother and a vindictive father, Becket danced on Broadway and in nightclubs before happening upon an abandoned opera house surrounded by a modest settlement that used to house coal miners in the desert of Southern California. Becket and her husband decided to change their lives in mid-stream, from the morass of New York to the ominous emptiness of Death Valley, where she settled in to paint eerie, Renaissance-era audiences on the walls of the opera house. He eventually couldn't tolerate her obsession with the one-woman dance shows she choreographed and performed, at first to empty houses, and left her. Becket became even more insular, aligning herself with animal preservation causes (she freely admits humans are low on her preferred mammal list) and documenting the ghosts of the miners she believes haunt the settlement. Although Becket's talent for painting is obvious, we never get the sense of how good she is at her first love, ballet. Ultimately, director Robinson suggests it doesn't matter, and once Becket's past unfolds before us -- she has been abandoned by most of the important people in her life -- we get a firmer understanding of this eccentric loner than such documentaries usually offer. (Jimmy Fowler)
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.)
By the time I met Abbie Hoffman in the fall of 1987 -- at a music conference in Manhattan, where he delivered the keynote address with help from Billy Bragg -- he was a cuddly vestige. The '60s were well past him, yellowed pages in a scrapbook and a dozen FBI files; the '90s were just around the corner, though Hoffman wouldn't live to see them. I don't recall what he said (he was, at the time, promoting his new book, Steal This Urine Test), only what he wore (a shirt cut from the American flag) and what he looked like (a color picture slowly fading into black and white). And his handshake was soft; his smile gentle and welcoming. By then, Hoffman was nothing more, nothing less than a celebrity -- a survivor, really, who went underground 15 years earlier and crawled out of the sewer as a beloved icon. Those who knew what he stood for in the 1960s (liberty and justice for all, be they male or female, black or white, American or South Vietnamese) admired his beliefs. Those who knew what he suffered through in the late '60s and 1970s (nearly 50 arrests, the last of which forced him to go into hiding for more than five years) couldn't believe he still existed at all -- or that he would not exist come April 12, 1989, when, at the age of 52, the Yippie founder overdosed on Phenobarbital and alcohol at his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Director Robert Greenwald (previously known as the man who made Xanadu) wants to know, more than anything else, how a man so vibrant and powerful as Abbie Hoffman could commit suicide after decades of government harassment; how could he give up after so many years of refusing to cave in? The answer is not a difficult one: Hoffman, a manic-depressive diagnosed with bipolar disorder, found strength in his own torment. He was happy only when he was stirring up the shit, when he was giving Nixon and Hoover the finger, when he was standing trial, when he was falling in love, when he was on the run. Greenwald presents us not with the Yippie icon, but with the tragic hero; his Abbie is a beautiful mess, a tortured soul, a revolutionary who sought to bind a nation while he fell apart. Steal This Movie! is hardly flawless -- it plays like JFK-lite, with Greenwald as Oliver Stone's less talented younger brother tossing out camera tricks and conspiracy theories as if he's afraid he'll disappoint otherwise -- but it's compelling nonetheless. Perhaps this is because as Hoffman, Vincent D'Onofrio is never less than persuasive; as always, he demands you watch him, because he never wastes a single word or movement. Look away, and you will miss his casual genius. He acts the way most people breathe, with such little effort that even his outbursts seem natural, frank. As wife Anita, Janeane Garofalo finally lands herself a part that doesn't demand that she wisecrack and smirk -- even though Anita is often forced to play the Penthouse wife, only too happy to put up with her husband's shit. (Garofalo and Jeanne Tripplehorn, as Abbie's "underground" girlfriend Johanna Lawrenson, are often shown together, consoling their lone lover. If nothing else, Greenwald does show us the Abbie Hoffman who thought the world revolved around him, whose power often morphed into m
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