Reel People

It's about the artists, not the stars at the 31st annual USA Film Festival

El Rey de Rock 'n´ Roll
Monday, April 30, 9 p.m.

Even though he looks more like Little Richard than Elvis Presley when he takes the stage as El Vez, Robert Lopez might be the only Elvis Presley impersonator who matters. Except, of course, for the fact that he calls himself a translator rather than an impersonator, and his act is more or less a tribute in name only. Much of the time, Marjorie Chodorov's hour-long documentary plays like a lost Behind the Music, though Lopez's life (he started out in L.A. new-wave band The Zeros, which led to a stint as curator for folk art exhibits, which led to El Vez) isn't really controversial enough to warrant that treatment. More often, El Rey de Rock 'n' Roll is trying to be too important, such as when University of Washington professor Michelle Habell-Pallan is explaining the social significance of El Vez's act, calling it "part striptease, part Chicano studies course, part labor history and part history of popular culture." Yes, Lopez is more than just a guy in a silly get-up with a Sharpie mustache, but that might be taking it a bit far. At best, El Rey de Rock 'n' Roll is Mariachi Parking Lot. At worst, it's a serious look at one man's rise from "Mexican't to Mexican." Which is still worth watching. Screened with The Laughing Club of India. Director Marjorie Chodorov and Robert Lopez are in attendance. (ZC)

Monday, April 30, 9:15 p.m.

Writer-director-illustrator Bill Plympton and a scene from his feature Mutant Aliens
Writer-director-illustrator Bill Plympton and a scene from his feature Mutant Aliens
Writer-director-illustrator Bill Plympton and a scene from his feature Mutant Aliens
Writer-director-illustrator Bill Plympton and a scene from his feature Mutant Aliens

You can tell that Elke Rosthal is fairly new to this country--she moved to New York from Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1991--because she doesn't seem to realize that Lonesome has already been made a few dozen times, and there's probably a version of it playing on Cinemax or Showtime right now. The setup: Disaffected rich girl, who claims she's "going to be the first woman in her family to think for herself," runs away from home. She finds herself out on the road with an older country singer who, of course, doesn't like her at first, but gradually melts under her sullen charm. Rich family assumes the worst and works to remedy the situation--not for her benefit but for their own. Chaos ensues. As irritable runaway Lily Randolph, Aleksa Palladino proves she has more talent than the material she's been given to work with. As cowboy crooner Tom Lawless, John Pyper-Ferguson proves that he does not. Makes you appreciate the subtle charisma Charlie Sheen brought to the same role when he played it (pretty much) in The Chase. Screened with short film Closure. Writer-director Elke Rosthal and writer Sidney Brammer are in attendance. (ZC)

Tuesday, May 1, 7 p.m.

Like Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel, writer-director Henry Bromell's Panic exists in, well, a neitherworld: It's neither comedy nor drama, but one of those in-between concoctions that sticks somewhere between your throat and chest. Panic, which is surely an ironic title, is played for wry, wicked grins until, at the end, you're struck by how overwhelmingly sad it's become; the tears have weight, perhaps because you've been set up all along. At first, Panic plays like Grosse Point Blank (or, for that matter, the inexplicably reviled Gun Shy) as written by David Mamet after a weekend bender of Sopranos episodes: Alex (Mamet regular William H. Macy) is a hitman who wants to stop killing, and he starts seeing a therapist (John Ritter) to help ease his pain and smooth his transition. (He's suffering the ultimate midlife crisis: to kill or not to kill.) Problem is, his mother and father (Barbara Bain and Donald Sutherland) are incapable of letting their boy out of the family business; Alex's dad, a mean old fuck with a heart of lead, trained him to be a killer when he was but a child--it's seen in eerie flashback, the day Alex popped his first squirrel--and worked too hard on building the business to let it collapse now. (It's the logical, exaggerated extension of the oldest family conflict in the book: Just when does the father let the son become a man?) Besides, Alex is the perfect hitman: He's serene to the point of being mundane, nearly catatonic; he feels nothing, except for his 6-year-old son Sammy (David Dorfman), who fills his every moment of screen time by asking question after question about life, death and the nature of the universe. Alex is only alive when in the presence of Sarah (Neve Campbell), whom he meets in the therapist's office; she allows him to bury his middle-aged crazy in her own neurosis, at least until Alex's wife (Tracy Ullman) catches on. Bromell, who used to write for such shows as Homicide and Northern Exposure, gives us yet another criminal with a conscience, yet another hitman with a heart, but Alex is no Tony Soprano; he's willing to pay for what he's done, which makes him almost heroic. No, just tragic. Writer-director Henry Bromell is in attendance. (RW)

Losing It
Tuesday, May 1, 7 p.m.

One of the most amusingly frustrating anecdotes about the challenges of modernity butting into contemporary life I ever heard came in an anthropology class when a classmate shared her Orthodox Jewish grandparents' dilemma in their New Jersey township. Seems the street where their synagogue was located had, over the years, turned into a busy thoroughfare, and crossing it made these older folks quite nervous. The city responded by installing a traffic light with a pedestrian crosswalk button. Of course, the city never considered the fact that on the Sabbath her grandparents would not be using such modern conveniences. Facing that sort of poorly informed benevolence is at the heart of director Sharon Greytak's Losing It, a cross-cultural examination of how physically challenged people live day to day. It's a testament to the determination of the wheelchair-bound filmmaker Greytak. She travels to Siberia, Hong Kong, Italy and New York and crafts a powerful document that blends her own experiences in a foreign land--navigating streets and sidewalks in cities that don't have ramps, getting into and out of small hotels that aren't equipped for wheelchairs--with the first-person accounts of the people who have lived there their entire lives. Unfortunately, Losing It unfolds at a glacial pace, and the lugubrious tone is only heightened by an omnipresent, solitary piano soundtrack that makes the New Age ruminations of George Winston look like a jolly ragtime tune from Scott Joplin. But if you can overlook such shortcomings, Greytak's documentary offers a moving portrait into the world of socially defined disabled people told in their own words. Writer-director Sharon Greytak is in attendance. (BM)

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