By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
"We do provoke," Weiss says. "That's part of what we do...in a good way. We want people to have talks in the lobby after screenings, and if they're yelling at each other, that's fine with me. To me, the images mean something. You might not like them all, but if they affect you, if they're able to talk to someone about something in a different way, well, we want that to happen. We don't want the media to just massage your heads."
For years, he's had to answer the inevitable question: What, precisely, is the theme of this year's festival? He's never had a simple answer, because the dozens upon dozens of entries are not bound by an unswerving thesis or common purpose. This year's collection, which boasts some highlights of festivals past, does feature a handful of films dealing with the terrorist attacks of September 11 and its hangover, some of which are infuriating in their use of footage of those planes crashing into those buildings; no doubt people will leave those screenings debating such things as recontextualization vs. misappropriation. There will also be a day spent celebrating two of television's earliest and best pioneers, including Ernie Kovacs, whose wife, Edie Adams, will arrive bearing an hour's worth of rarely seen footage displaying her late husband's absolute genius, and local icon Icky Twerp, host of Channel 11's long-departed Slam Bang Theater. The Kovacs and Twerp tribs will even be paired with a collection of Moe Howard's home movies, presented by his son, which offer a glimpse into the domestic life of a Stooge.
The fest will also debut recent, little-seen offerings from Leaving Las Vegas' Mike Figgis and The Pillow Book's Peter Greenaway; theirs are two extremely challenging works that will divide their respective audiences between those who will love and those who will absolutely loathe. And it will host a 24-Hour Video Race, during which 60 teams made up of novices and veterans will be given a prop, a setting and a theme and, yeah, 24 hours to complete a three- to five-minute digital-video short, to be judged by panels of local film-bizzers.
No doubt, some of the best entries tend toward the documentaries, among them Blue Vinyl, Larry v. Lockney, Demon of the Derby, Daughter From Danang and Tribute, the latter of which was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and languishes inexplicably without distribution. To be able to gather at the Kalita Humphreys Theater and see but one of these films, much less all, only serves to remind how valuable such a festival can be even in a town flooded with so-called alternative cinema houses and other, more narrowly focused fests.
"When we started, it was us and the USA Film Festival, and part of it was we showed things they weren't interested in," Weiss says. "Now it's a different, cluttered field where you have all of these festivals that are ethnic-specific. We're broad and touch on a lot of bases in the way they don't. To me, the kind of beauty in our fest is it's not singular, so you can't just say it's about this or that."
What follows are some of the high, and low, points of the festival--though, as Weiss will happily point out, your worst is someone else's best, and for proof look no further than Figgis' all-star circle-jerk Hotel, discussions about which could fill a night's worth of happy hours. As Weiss likes to say, "Everything may not be of interest to one person, but the conglomerate's very powerful. One thing somebody will hate, somebody else will love, which is a great thing."
Blue Vinyl If nothing else, Judith Helfland's documentary explains why Louisiana always smells like a lit fart: That's where one-third of the nation's PVC is manufactured, in cities like Lake Charles, where the trees don't grow so well anymore. Similar in spirit to Michael Moore's Roger and Me, though certainly less confrontational, Blue Vinyl begins simply; Helfland's parents decide to replace their house's rotting wood exterior with vinyl siding, amid protest from their daughter--not because, as her mother assumes, her parents are dismantling her childhood home, but because Judith's rare form of cervical cancer (brought on by some questionable medical advice and bad prescriptions) has caused her to question pretty much everything. She wants to know how dangerous vinyl siding is to the environment and the people in it, so she goes to the source, interviewing Louisiana plant workers and the residents in the cities surrounding the factories. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, what she finds there confirms her worst fears. Equal parts enlightening and entertaining, Blue Vinyl plays like a great episode of TV Nation. (Zac Crain)
The Case of Jonathan Pollard Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst with top-secret clearance, has been imprisoned in various federal facilities since 1987, when he was convicted of passing surveillance photos and weapons information to Israel--a rare instance in which a spy was caught handing over classified docs to an ally. His case has been well-documented in a handful of books, beginning with one written by Wolf Blitzer in 1989; yet another, Miscarriage of Justice, appeared only last summer. Pollard has been portrayed as many things: devout Zionist, greedy stooge, true believer, do-gooder schmuck. His supporters would have you believe he was betrayed by the Israelis and too severely punished by the U.S. government; his detractors would insist he belongs in prison for life. Eran Preis is sympathetic to Pollard's cause, but not necessarily his case; the director lets his family and attorneys plead for his release, and his prosecutors, through old news clips, condemn him to eternal imprisonment. The film presents a fully realized portrait--from a boyhood obsession with the Holocaust and Israel to an adulthood spent thinking he was doing the right thing even when horribly wrong--and lets you judge. (RW)
Confessions of a Sociopath Joe Gibbons plays a fictionalized version of himself in this autobiographical (or is it?) film, detailing a life lived on Super 8 projectors and plenty of drugs and alcohol. "This helps me understand," Gibbons says near the beginning of the 40-minute Confessions, talking to a huge mug of beer he promptly drains. Clean and sober now, Gibbons steps back into the gutter to guide viewers through a ticker-tape parade of old mug shots, arrest reports and psychiatric hospital records, detrimental detritus picked up after "some kind of dark force" came out of him in his teens. Never shying away from his past pratfalls into addiction and jail and God knows where else, Gibbons employs the psychiatric jargon that was used to lock him up to point out that the only problem he really had was bad luck. (ZC)
Dances on the Prairie It's just like Dallas to locate something as grand as a privately funded, open-to-the-public garden of sculptures by living Texas artists next to an office complex. Luckily, the art--which towers and sways and shines deep in the heart of Frisco in the Texas Sculpture Garden--looks worth the drive. Patricia Meadows curated the composition, which includes postmodern metalworks and pieces crafted from Texas' own fossil-filled rocks and piney woods. Meadows, gushing about how "the rest of the world is about to see the wealth of talent we have in this state," shares equal screen time with the artists who get to talk about their own inspirations and visions, the real heart of the project. (SS)
Daughter From Danang Heidi Bub, a Vietnamese woman brought to the United States in 1975 during the so-called Operation Babylift that uprooted orphans out of alleged concern for their safety in the ravaged land, is torn between two cultures, two mothers and two identities (neither of which quite fit, because she was told she didn't, either). She's Tennessee Suth'n by way of North Vietnam; hers is a sunny optimism tempered by the pitiless reality of the past. Heidi, you see, was no orphan, but a 7-year-old girl torn from her mother, Mai Thi Kim, who was bullied by Ford administration officials to give up her little girl. "It's better for everyone," she was told (we see the moment, and it horrifies); it was a lie, of course. But Heidi's reunion with her mother is not necessarily a pleasant one; there's too much distance and anguish between the two for the tidy, loving resolution Heidi had hoped for, and we feel the ache that keeps--and rips--the two apart. Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's 80-minute doc isn't easy to watch--it's so intimate and sorrowful you feel guilty for the invasion--but this film, which won the top-doc honors at Sundance, won't be easily shaken. Fact is, you may never forget it. (RW)
Demon of the Derby: The Ann Calvello Story How do you best describe roller derby? "Like angry squirrels, the derby skaters endlessly circle 'round their wheel," offering fans release from the tensions of their own squirrel-cage jobs, says one derby announcer in a fit of tortured simile. Somehow "angry squirrels" doesn't quite capture the strange appeal of a bygone "sport" that essentially put professional wrestling on wheels. For that, you need Sharon Marie Rutter's entertaining biography of Ann Calvello, "the meanest mama on skates," who devoted 50 years of her life and countless broken bones to a game that eventually abandoned her. Rutter tracks Calvello, who supports herself by bagging groceries, as she tries to break into a revived version of roller derby at age 69. A punk long before there was such a thing as punk rock, Calvello wants just one thing out of life--to skate for her fans, a strange mix of fey men, children and aging devotees who truly love this independent woman with the tricked-out 'do and unwrinkled "tickets" (Calvello's word for breasts). Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, Demon of the Derby is a moving depiction of a working-class proto-feminist who spent her life giving far more to her sport than it ever gave back to her. (Patrick Williams)
From High on the Hilltop and Life After Death From High on the Hilltop is a dry but fascinating look at the early history of Southern Methodist University. (Well, fascinating for an alum. You, maybe not so much. Go Ponies.) From its unlikely birth (once they lost Vanderbilt to future hell-dwellers, the Methodists established SMU and Emory to compensate) throughout its first 40 years or so of achievement and frustrations, this documentary looks at the school largely through the accomplishments of its presidents, from Robert Hyer to Umphrey Lee. They took it from a one-hall university and prairie college to its post-World War II acceptance as a true national university. Most compelling is the look at how, even from its beginning in the early '20s, the football team had been alternately a source of pride and anti-academic shame, foreshadowing the school's 1980s national triumph to its near-collapse after the death penalty in 1987. Two quibbles: The film relies too heavily on a few (articulate and compelling, but still) voices, and it ends rather abruptly. Life After Death , which looks at SMU's football program pre- and post-death penalty, begins as the worst sort of hero worship. The angelic score, the endless slow-motion shots of Doak Walker and the Pony Express--it's almost too much for even this graduate to take. Although there is much time given to professors and writers who explain how damaging the pay-for-play scandal was to the school, the overarching theme seems to be that football is what made, and can once again make, SMU great. As much as I love the school and the sport--I was news editor of the school paper when the SMU team won its first post-death penalty game, and wrote the 1A banner headline "Mustangs Win!" in we're-going-to-war point size--this film stands more as testimonial than documentary. (Eric Celeste)
Guy Stories Three shorts that ostensibly have similar "guy" themes but have as much in common as do a dog, a frog and a hog. Pillowfight is the worst sort of hack stand-up humor: A dude's gal snores, steals his covers, hits him in her sleep and screams through nightmares. Stephanie Etie as the sleepy annoying woman is very good, actually, but it's a concept that's funny perhaps only in a commercial. Perhaps. The New Brad begins with much more promise. It's the day before Christmas Eve, and Brad (Mark Duplass) travels 600 miles from Atlanta to New Orleans to chase down his girlfriend Kelly (Rachel Harris), who has just left him. Why does he think this will win her love? "[Because] when you lock in, and when you're, like, you know, say, 'We're going to choose each other and no one else,' that, like, brings it to the next level. I think if we could get on that level, we'd get along better." Shot in a semi-verité fashion, Brad works best when it's just stoner Brad riffing in front of the camera about why the relationship went wrong and what he'll do to make it right. The staged scenes of chasing Kelly and staking out her parents' house don't hold the same slacker charm. Invisible Man is just insane. A man goes to a hotel, someone keeps anonymously leaving him presents (a Sharpie pen, a toy wind-up train, a bottle of wine and a wine glass), he gets naked, cleans his bathroom, orders food, scares off the young woman who delivered it by showing her his hangy-down, masturbates, takes a bath and rips out one of his teeth. I was not high when I watched this. Perhaps you must be for it not to seem silly. (EC)
Headcheese Trippy, moody, nonsensical, black-and-white, pretentious, devilish, stylized, spiritualized, Elvis chops on a suede-jacket-wearing dude who eats flowers, throws tires, drinks beer, smokes, wears shades, talks like Vincent Price funneled through Freddie Prinze, screws a cow's head with a drill before drilling himself in the head. What's not to like? (EC)
Hell House The only shocking thing about Hell House--a documentary about the controversial "alternative" haunted house in Cedar Hill that depicts botched abortions, teen suicides and date rapes--is that it refuses to smirk. To date, most of its reviewers have expressed faux horror at the thought of normal American teen-agers believing in anything as intellectually embarrassing as hell, demons and the like. But director George Ratliff plays it straight with good reason: He was granted unlimited access in 1999 to the teens and adults of Trinity Church of the Assemblies of God as they planned Hell House X, complete with a Columbine skit, and the camera doesn't judge. Ratliff does a great job of creeping into the subculture of evangelical Christianity and letting his subjects explain their world as they compete for such roles as "Abortion Girl" and "Suicide Girl." The kids' acting is hilariously over the top--"It's too late, you killed your baby--you're a murderer, Jan!" shrieks one stringy-haired girl--but when Ratliff follows one family, the Cassars, you begin to understand where all that passion is coming from. (Julie Lyons)
Hip Pocket Theatre on Exhibit at the Kimbell I love Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theatre troupe, and I think the Kimbell in Fort Worth is easily the best museum in North Texas, if not the Southwest. Put one inside the other for a documentary about preparing for the performance, and what do you get: The most god-awful home movie ever shown outside a living room. Endless shots of rehearsals. No care to tell us about the personalities of the players involved. Minutes upon minutes upon years of scenes about designing their damn costumes. Go to the museum. Support Hip Pocket. Don't see this unless you are a family member of someone on screen, in which case you may pretend you like it. (EC)
Hollywood Inferno (Episode One) Laura Parnes' recasting of Dante's Inferno into the fluorescent-lit hell of suburbia follows Sandy, wannabe actress and candy-counter clerk, as she trails shoe-fetishist screenwriter Virgil through a bargain-basement world of effed-up high schoolers and whatever else she could swipe from a Gregg Araki flick. Which is probably the point, for all I know, since Parnes brazenly brandishes her thievery throughout Hollywood Inferno; much of the dialogue is cribbed from other films and cut up for her own purposes, whether it's American Beauty ("Sometimes, there's so much beauty in the world...it makes me totally want to fucking puke," Sandy says), A Clockwork Orange or "anything with Willem Dafoe or Christopher Walken in it," as she points out in the credits. It all leads up to a scene where Kel O'Neil (playing a famous director, like it matters) does his best Walken doing his best George Lucas doing the best drugs while wearing a mask of Dafoe's face. But of course. (ZC)
Hotel Mike Figgis, Oscar-nominated a mere six years ago for directing Leaving Las Vegas, further slides into self-indulgent oblivion, irrelevance and, most of all, incoherence; if there's a point to Hotel, his latest shot-in-digital-video botched experiment, it's on the top of the filmmaker's head. This all-star shambles renders his previous film, the four-paneled Time Code, almost quaint by comparison; at least one could tell where it was going, if only straight down the commode. No doubt, Figgis lured his cast--including John Malkovich, David Schwimmer, Lucy Liu, Selma Hayek, Rhys Ifans, Julian Sands, Saffron Burrows, Valeria Golino and, in a hilariously deadpan-nuts performance, Burt Reynolds--with the promise of partying in Venice, where the story takes place; everyone appears out of it, hungover and disinterested. A film within a film, Hotel ostensibly documents the Dogme-styled adaptation of John Webster's 1623 play The Duchess of Melfi, directed by Ifans' manic Trent Stoken and produced by Schwimmer's disheveled Jonathan Danderfine, who plots his helmer's assassination. At one point, Schwimmer and Ifans bark at each other, literally; it's dog-eat-dog, till they start dining on people. Documentary filmmakers, fronted by a grating Hayek, tag along, proving as pretentious as Ifans' motley crew. The random inside jokes elicit the cheap smirk (Jason Isaacs, one of the stars of Black Hawk Down, begs out of Melfi early to shoot a Ridley Scott movie, har har). And, with its pointlessly gratuitous sex scenes (including one in which Burrows buggers her man from behind, just as she, ahem, gives birth) and gratuitously pointless references to cannibalism (Malkovich, inexplicably behind bars, dines off a plate of human carapaccio), the damned thing's screwy and senseless enough to hypnotize. Or maybe it's supposed to be ludicrously wretched and laughably twisted, in which case, bravo. (RW)
Independent Spirits: Faith Hubley/ John Hubley The animated films of John and Faith Hubley--the best known of which aired during The Electric Company, rendering them one of the most unwittingly influential filmmakers on a generation--would often feature the voices of their children (among them Emily, currently an animator, and Georgia, lead singer of Yo La Tengo) and jazzers (Dizzy Gillespie was a blessed constant). But theirs were often grim cartoons that dazzled even as they dealt with such topics as overpopulation, disease, war and death; the Hubleys were satirists with enormous hearts. John began as a Disney animator working on the likes of Snow White and Dumbo; he left after the acrimonious Disney strike of 1941, moved to Columbia, wound up on the underground all-star team of animators at, of all places, the Army's First Motion Picture Unit and went on to co-found the filmmaking collective United Productions of America. Faith came to filmmaking through a more circuitous route, beginning as a messenger on the Columbia lot. The two married in 1955, and theirs was a fruitful partnership: They won Oscars, made commercials (which Faith didn't much care for) and animated The Doonesbury Special in 1977--the year of John's death at 62 years old. Faith would continue making more experimental films; hers were almost line drawings, abstract enough to let the viewer fill in the myriad, magical blanks. Faith died last December, but the Hubleys left an extraordinary legacy; without them, says one fellow animator, there'd be no Simpsons, as one small instance. Sybil DelGaudio and Patty Wineapple's doc is wonderful but frustrating; it leaves you wanting to see more of the couple's films. (RW)
Kimono Ostensibly made for a collection of erotic shorts, this 27-minute offering from Hal Hartley (whose latest feature, No Such Thing, is so terrible it's going straight to home video) isn't erotic...or even fathomable. The apologist might refer to it as a cinematic tone poem; the pragmatist will damn it as a monotone poem, rightly so. A Japanese woman in a wedding dress is booted out of a car, presumably by her new husband, and wanders the woods in her gown. After a while, she stumbles upon a cabin, falls asleep in its comfy bed and awakens in a different outfit; she's tended to by two women (apparitions, perhaps) who set her in a bath and pour milk on her legs. More stuff happens, by which I mean absolutely nothing happens; it's a dream, it's not, who cares. By then, the apologist is asleep. (RW)
Larry v. Lockney When the people of the West Texas community of Lockney decided to require mandatory drug testing for public school students, no one there thought anyone would kick up a fuss. In a tiny, tight-knit town where "everybody knows everybody," the majority wanted the tests, and the majority rules. Well, not quite. Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck's documentary tracks the battle that ensued when lanky, laconic farmer Larry Tannahill decided to stand up for the Bill of Rights and, more important, his boys. "The way I feel about it, it's telling my son I don't trust him, [that] I don't believe in him, and I believe in him with all my heart," Tannahill says. Tannahill's principled stand eventually leads to an alliance with the American Civil Liberties Union--and costs him his job and his home. It would have been easy for Birnbaum and Schermbeck to vilify the people of Lockney for trampling on civil liberties, but instead the filmmakers take an evenhanded approach. Yes, Lockney created a policy that was as misguided as it was well-intentioned, but the town also gave us people like Tannahill, who, the film suggests, is both a patriot and hero. Turns out there are worse places than Lockney to weigh the balance between freedom and public safety. (PW)
The Last Record Store Jeff Liles (an occasional Dallas Observer contributor) knows that any film about music has to at least get that part right, so he stacks the deck, showing live in-store performances by Daniel Johnston and James Hall and loading up the soundtrack with songs by such locals as Centro-matic and Hydroponic Sound System. And that's not all he gets right in The Last Record Store, showing at the fest as one of the Substance TV selections. This is only a 13-minute snippet of Liles' unfinished documentary about Bill Wisener and his store on Coit and Spring Valley, Bill's Records and Tapes, but it's more than long enough to prove that the store is as much about the people who walk through the door as the man who opens it every morning. One of the largest independent record stores in the country, Bill's attracts a variety of oddballs and record geeks, and by the end of this glimpse into Liles' work-in-progress, you get the feeling that everyone who shows up on screen deserves his own documentary. Maybe he'll get to that next. (ZC)
Late Nite Pleasure Sex--or something like it--is what binds together three short films in this compilation. Ladyporn , by Austin student filmmakers Maggie Carey and Elena Carr, is a documentary detailing their efforts to make a hard-core porn flick for women, followed by the movie itself. What do women want in porn? In this case, no cum shots, more foreplay and women on top. (Surprise!) The documentary half of the offering is the better of the two, as the students struggle to find normal people willing to bare all for the camera. "It's not about size; it's about personality," they tell the men. (Show of hands, who's heard that one before?) The resulting movie resembles a late-night offering from Cinemax, only one in which the camera actually pans down to where the action is. Hello, willy. There's plenty of willy--in plaster, not in the flesh--in My Legendary Girlfriend , Braden King's interview with confessed groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster, who memorializes various male rock stars' members in plaster castings. Is a mold of Jimi Hendrix's semi-erect penis, on display in an art gallery, really art? If you can get past the underlying silliness of the image and listen to Caster's explanation of how she wishes to memorialize musical artists whose work moved her, you might actually say the answer is "yes." Finally, there is Bryan Poyser's Pleasureland , a sort of soft-core anti-porn film. The short's unnamed star is a young man who wants nothing more than to be alone with a rented hard-core video for an evening wank, only every movie he rents ends up transmogrifying into a flesh-and-blood porn actress willing to service him as she would in the movie. Sounds sweet, except for the fact that after they do the deeds, the actresses, who remain plugged into a cable attached to their navels, disconnect, die and vanish, leaving our hero alone, frustrated and facing late charges for the missing rented videos. Pleasureland is well-acted and neither as silly nor as prurient as it sounds by the description, and the final image of the young man snared in his own web of TV cable may provide viewers a different perspective on the power and effect of porn. (PW)
The Legend of Leigh Bowery Leigh Bowery, a statuesque Australian, lived his life as a work of art, bouncing from fashion design to performance art to music to club-owning to dance as his overactive imagination saw fit. While friends and biographers use Charles Atlas' biography to try to keep Bowery wrapped in enigma after his sudden death in 1994, Bowery's designs, especially his outrageous clothing, truly secure his immortality. He strove to make physical appearance into something transformable, wearing S&M-like masks and padding to enlarge and draw attention to neglected body parts such as the feet, belly and shoulders, and creating his own "cult of artifice" that only painter Lucian Freud, who used Bowery as a nude model, seemed to crack with his literally stripped-bare portraits. (SS)
London Intl. Advertising Awards Always a crowd-pleaser, which is ironic since most of this compilation consists of bathroom-break art or must-skip-TV. Many of these ads have been seen on American television: the Budweiser spot with aliens asking "Whassup?" (stale, but clever); the Fox Sports Net clips featuring, among other things, a slapping contest and a cliff-diver who strikes dry land; and others familiar to prime-time viewing. But the highlights are jarring, including an anti-smoking spot from TheTruth.com that breaks out into a garish musical number "celebrating" Big Tobacco and two drunken-driving PSAs that all but turn you off the booze completely. One's violent and heartbreaking--a perfect narrative, in which a father grieves for a daughter seen gruesomely killed when her drunken boyfriend's car plows into a trailer. The other's darkly comic, as young men and women visit a wheelchair salesman and a plastic surgeon in preparation for a night of drinking and driving; they're planning ahead, sadly. (RW)
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra Spoofing '50s B-movies is a tricky proposition. Why make fun of a medium that's already so inherently amusing? Writer-director-star Larry Blamire's Cadavra pits feuding scientists, alien invaders and an evil skeleton against each other in a race to obtain the rare radioactive element "atmospherium," with a big, foam-rubber mutant and an animal woman running around in there somewhere. Blamire has his deadpan dialogue parodies down pat ("All skeletons are against me--they always have been!"; "Mysterious...and yet still perfectly understandable!"), but he falls in love with the script a bit too much; the endless talking slows down the film's pace. It also would have been better shot on film than digital video and could use a deliberately poor mono sound mix (cf. Ed Wood). Still, the skeleton's a hoot, and the score, credited to the solo-monikered Valentino, is pitch perfect, adding a crucial atmospheric element lacking from similar films. Andrew Parks is particularly retro as the alien "Kro-Bar," and despite the slack pacing, the movie's frequently very funny. (Luke Y. Thompson)
Make Me a Match Desperate Jewish singles don't look much different from desperate singles in general, except they're willing to try just about anything to find a mate, from Web sites (Jewish Quality Singles, among hundreds more) to dating services (including Profiles, which boasts of producing 100 couples and 43 babies) to old-school matchmakers such as Pearl Lubovic and her rabbi husband and Simshon Stock, who's been "nudging people to go out" for 30 years. They'll even travel from as far away as Alaska for the Nationwide Jewish Singles Convention in Dallas, where they indulge in such Jewish delicacies as guacamole. And it's clear from Allen Mondell and Cynthia Salzman's often fascinating documentary that it's a buyer's market for Jewish males; their religion alone bumps all the overweight or balding (and often, both) men who show up early and often in Make Me a Match to prime-catch status, and they know it all too well. Doesn't help much that Stock's main method for successfully setting up couples is convincing women to wear clothes two or three sizes too tight on dates: "That's how you get him." Genius. (ZC)
Matinee Idyllis Interspliced with B-movie footage produced in the San Francisco Art Institute's Studio 8 film laboratory are scenes of the lab professor's mission to track down his former students and assistants as they play with their cats and watch porn. It proves that the lives of filmmakers aren't always as interesting as the films they make. (SS)
Metrocomplex Stories Compilation Espresso Con Panna : Shot like porn or, at best, a Mexican soap opera, Kevin Nash's Espresso Con Panna explores the intersection of art, commerce, coffee and opera, and gets there just in time for a four-car pileup. There are jealous lovers, tax dodges, pistachio biscotti and, of course, the titular beverage, but what's missing from Nash's romantic comedy is most of the romance and all the comedy. Kung Fu Teenage Bigfoot : Just a trailer for the (presumably) forthcoming film of the same name, Kung Fu Teenage Bigfoot features plenty of slo-mo footage of a hirsute Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham and more than its fair share of bad puns. No telling if this will actually be filled out into a proper feature, but it's just fine as is, a two-minute glimpse into the life of the last remaining sasquatch. And, more than likely, the basis of another Corn Mo song. eMALE: Daniel Roebuck (The Late Shift's Jay Leno) stars as Dale Fortunato in director Bryan Harston's short about a man who agrees to barricade himself in his loft--no food, no furniture, no anything--and live only on what he can order online. Believing he's "heroic"--that's what he tells whoever will listen--Fortunato is welded inside; if he can make it through the entire year, he'll win $100,000. But thanks to some naughty e-mail and a vengeful soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Fortunato loses his Internet connection. The whole thing looks and feels like a beer commercial. Only, you know, not quite so fun. Lie to Me : Lonely businessman hires an escort so he can act on the feelings he's had since high school for a classmate nicknamed "Ocean"; the escort who arrives just happens to be the very same "Ocean." Not a bad idea, but not a single good performance, and the camera was apparently operated by a drunken child. Luckily, it's a short that lives up to its name, in and out in 16 minutes. The Tunnel : Ramzi Abed's bit of dime-store David Lynch is a mess of dreams and memories, held aloft by the twin poles of certain death and short-lived love. Abed likely flinches when watching The Tunnel, figuring it's too personal or something like that, that too many of his thoughts and feelings are on the screen, but he shouldn't worry, because who knows what anyone's talking about anyway. And for some reason, American Movie skewer Mark Borchardt and The Toxic Avenger director Lloyd Kaufman are in it. (ZC)
Money for Nothing: Behind the Business of Pop Music More than ever before, the music industry's under siege from all sides: the record labels who insist peer-to-peer piracy is killing their biz, the artists who insist their contracts are tantamount to slavery and the consumers who're buying more blank discs than prerecorded CDs. It's gotten so bad millionaires are holding benefit concerts for themselves; one can only imagine the next step, the Labor Day Don Henley Rock Star Telethon featuring Courtney Love and the once-and-future Eagle singing "Hotel California" while Sheryl Crow rings the tote board and Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks man the phones. For the mildly interested (those who read Entertainment Weekly, not Variety), there's nothing particularly revelatory about Kembrew McLeod's abbreviated doc; it's inflammatory and infuriating and loaded with charts and graphs (befitting a film made by an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa), but never more insightful than a long magazine article in which the usual suspects (Ani DiFranco, Chuck D, Michael Franti, etc.) rant and rail against the corrupt system. McLeod stacks the deck too high in her and her subjects' favor. It would have been nice to have heard about this sordid biz from the labels' perspective, skewed though it may be; it also would have been better had narrator Thurston Moore stopped reading off cue cards and started talking about how his own band, Sonic Youth, was screwed into major-label oblivion when its label, Geffen, was swallowed whole during the Unigram merger some years back. And, look, you sign to a major, you know you're just asking to get bent over a chair. So, like, deal. (RW)
Murals of Magic City Magic City was what folks called the Texas Centennial celebration at Fair Park in 1936. In the middle of the Depression, the esplanade at Fair Park housed this World's Fair that energized the city and, in turn, the Southwest. The murals of the title refer to murals painted on the buildings for the Centennial, and the current restoration of them mirrors the restoration of Fair Park. (One delicious note from this fine documentary: Dallas had no business hosting this event. It marked 100 years after Texas gained its independence from Mexico, not 100 years after statehood. But in 1836, Dallas wasn't even a city yet. Houston should have been the site of choice. But, in typical Dallas fashion, the planners were offered the Fair Park acreage to construct their fair and, oh yeah, 10 million bucks. That's all it took. Some things never change.) FDR is seen saying that the Centennial wasn't just for Texas, "but for all the other 47 states as well." Although the story begins without much context, it gives an informative look at the history of one of Dallas' few civic treasures. As the film puts it, the murals are "replaceable legacies of an unforgettable era, standing as monuments to the faith and hope of the past." (EC)
Prize Whores People wearing freebie T-shirts shouldn't make fun of people wearing freebie T-shirts, but that's just what Austin DJ Jenn Garrison does in this irksome documentary about folks who come to radio-station remotes in search of giveaway goodies. Garrison's is the worst sort of documentary: judgmental and self-serving, less an attempt to understand people who literally live for free movie passes and concert tickets and rock-band T-shirts than a chance to bad-mouth and humiliate them in front of the camera. Prize Whores ought to run about 10 minutes, which it would have been had Garrison not wanted to make a movie about how condescending, self-righteous and inarticulate she could be. Her crew, who eventually discovers how much fun it is to win free junk, shows up to denounce the film's troubled trio of "prize whores" as "vultures"; they're oblivious to the fact they're equally as culpable, picking over the lives of three people who clearly need these remotes as a way to fill their empty lives and messy houses that are stuffed with little more than autographed posters and assorted effluvia picked up along the way. You'll come away hating only the jocks and radio marketing folks who bad-mouth their listeners and apparently hate their jobs and themselves; they're the real whores. (RW)
Rock Star Parking A handful of filmmakers explore and explode the myths of being disabled in Rock Star Parking, compiled by Houston-based Carlos Lama and Denise Ramos. Much of the film focuses on people living life to the fullest despite physical limitations, whether it's athlete Mike Haynes hooping it up in a wheelchair ("Passion: The Game of Life") or dancer Bruce Jackson deftly incorporating his handicap into his performance ("Bruce") or a paraplegic who refuses to give up on sailing ("Sea Legs"). The highlight, though, is Shin Hee Park and Theresa Shih's "Access Disabled," a trip through the good, bad and ugly public rest rooms with wheelchair-bound Megan O'Neil, which will have you demanding wheelchair-accessible facilities if there's any life left in your cold, black heart. Actually, the highlight is Haynes playing practical jokes with a prosthetic leg. But I don't want to spoil the fun. (ZC)
Rosa, The Death of a Composer Maybe the smarties will get it, but the rest of you (by which I mean, the rest of us) will be left confounded and bored; such is the usual response to the films of Peter Greenaway, which are often as brilliant and intoxicating as they are baffling and infuriating. A 3-year-old film of an 8-year-old opera--with libretto written by Greenaway, director of The Belly of an Architect and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and music by Dutch avant-garde composer Louis Andriessen--Rosa tells an intricate (if not downright daft) tale linking the mysterious deaths of composers real (Anton Webern, John Lennon) and fictional (Juan Manuel de Rosa, of the film's title). It's engaging only in fits and starts, never as a whole; Andriessen's monotone, minimalist music, which recalls Joe Jackson's ill-advised forays into "classical," wears thin, and Greenaway's multilayered visuals hypnotize and nauseate all at once. With its scrolling text and background videos and naked singers and on and on, there's just so much going on about seemingly so little. The plot, such as it is, deals with the murders of Rosa, who dreamed of writing for Hollywood westerns, and his would-be wife Esmeralda (Marie Angel), who's abused emotionally and sexually by the composer; he reserves his intimate love for his horse, forcing Esmeralda to become a four-legged creature as the piece progresses. Ultimately, she's entirely nude (it's remarkable Angel can keep singing in such a prolonged vulnerable state) and entirely mad; she's rendered human sacrifice by film's end. It maybe be brilliant. It may be awful. It's probably both. (RW)
Slam Bang Theater No doubt this will be the highlight for those who grew up in Dallas-Fort Worth in the '50s through the early '70s, back when Icky Twerp introduced the Three Stooges--and his own trio of monkey men--to the locals on Channel 11. This two-hour compilation, assembled by Paul Camfield, reminds that there was a time when local television was as exciting and as experimental as the network feeds; Twerp, "played" by Camfield's screwy pop, Bill, was the area's Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs and Milton Berle, an unkempt lunatic (black wig, ill-fitting fedora, etc.) willing to do anything for a laugh or half of one. He didn't always succeed--in retrospect, some of this stuff plays cutesy and quaint--but when Camfield was on, he was as much a subversive as TV's best ringmasters. One sketch, in which Icky Twerp and a TV repairman futz with the picture, recalls Andy Kaufman and David Letterman's later attempts at screwing the tube; another, in which two politicians debate each other for the job of porn inspector, remains viable and glibly profound (Q: "How long do you think politicians should serve?" A: "Till they're caught."). If only Channel 11 would rebroadcast these gems late at night, maybe after Craig Kilborn; then, we'd never get any sleep. Appropriately, this trib falls between Paul Howard Remembers Moe Howard , during which the son of Stooge will proffer a peek at Moe's home movies, and Edie Adams' presentation of The Best of Ernie Kovacs . Icky'd be proud. (RW)
T-shirt Travels According to Barney Lehrer, an American export agent, "95 percent of Salvation Army clothes aren't even unpacked." Instead, they're sold for 10 to 15 cents a pound to dealers who ship them to Africa so they can sell them to entrepreneurs like Luka, the young man hustling to make a better life for his brothers and sisters. Luka and his fellow street-level businessmen buy a bale of T-shirts for 360,000 kwatcha ($180 U.S.) and then sell them out of the secondhand shops, which seem to be the only successful businesses in Zambia. The largest export to Africa, the T-shirt trade is a multimillion-dollar operation that has put Mickey Mouse and X-Men and Kurt Cobain tees on the backs of the African people. And it has almost single-handedly crippled the economy of countries like Zambia, where Shantha Bloemen's documentary sets up shop and pleads its case. It's a strong one: The influx of "dead white man's clothes" (as they're known to some of the secondhand shop owners) has killed Zambia's own textile business, the industry upon which many African countries once based their economy. In its absence, Zambia and others were forced to take out loans they'll never pay back; between 1990 and 1993, Zambia spent $37 million on primary school education and $1.3 billion paying back its debt to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Bloemen provides the nuts and bolts to back up Bono's passionate speeches, and while it's difficult to grasp all the facts and figures and charts and graphs she tosses out, it's no less gripping for it. (ZC)
Tales of the Weird Two shorts make up this compilation, and, once again, this writer suggests drug use beforehand. Nitwit Predelick (you heard me) concerns a hick boy and his girl. They pour juice on pictures of horses and lick it off. Between scenes, floating pictures of baby heads and birds narrate transitions. Her man shaves while talking to the hick girl on the phone about playing "hot damn"--we then cut to them squatting over each other in a field yelling, "Hot damn!" (No, I'm not making this up. And, yes, it's pretty damn funny.) The horse-lickers then decide that there is "a whole house full of stuff" to lick, which they do. A clump of hair laughs and freaks out in a corner. It's completely horrible. I loved it. Transgenic Hairshirt , meanwhile, is shorter and more horrible, and I'm not sure what I think of it. Again with the hair: While we watch a chest protector made out of human hair and worn by a cat, we hear a man argue with his girlfriend. A choir sings. The end. It's probably brilliant. (EC)
Tribute How Tribute has gone for so long without distribution is incomprehensible, because it's a remarkable film--a years-in-the-making glimpse into the lives of fetishists and fanatics who live out their rock-star dreams by becoming their favorite rock stars. Filmmakers Kris Curry and Rich Fox, making their debut with a film exec-produced by Steven Soderbergh, aren't out to belittle their subjects but to sympathize with them, to explain precisely how someone can fall so deeply in love with an icon it's only inevitable he'd want to crawl inside his skin. We're presented with five bands that re-create, from look to sound, Journey (Escape), the Monkees (The Missing Links), Queen (Sheer Heart Attack), Judas Priest (Bloodstone) and Destroyer-era KISS (Larger than Life)--and, more poignantly, the toll such worship can exact upon its practitioners and their followers. Larger than Life's original Gene Simmons so loses himself in the character he goes mad, setting each room in his house on fire on his way to finding God and renouncing the band. The Missing Links' Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith part ways and form competing Monkees tribs, neither of which lasts long; Davy's too busy being George Harrison, anyway. The Queen trib nearly busts up when its Freddie Mercury departs for a stint in the German Cats, almost killing "superfan" Mark, a lonely soul who lives to hear his dead hero's voice every weekend. Funniest and saddest of all is the lead singer of Bloodstone, who forsakes family to be Rob Halford and can't stand that Tim "Ripper" Owens (made famous, barely, by Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star) got the Priest gig when Halford was booted from the band. The auditions scenes with Larger than Life and Sheer Heart Attack are hysterical; the interviews with superfan Mark are heartbreaking. And the whole thing's done without a whiff of condescension; sometimes, Fox and Curry seem to be saying, all you want to do is close your eyes and pretend you're somebody else (or with somebody else), which for some people is just enough. (RW)
Welcome to New York The problem with filmmakers pushing a liberal agenda is too often they believe it means merely making fun of the conservative ideal, which gets you only so far; it's easy to mock the solutions of others when you have none of your own. Norman Cowie's 23-minute doc, made pre-September 11 and part of the fest's compelling and often infuriating Reframing 9/11 collection, reveals the immaculate Manhattan of Rudy Giuliani as little more than a police state that carries out acts of "terrorism on the poor," in the words of one community activist, and "a campaign of racism and classism," says another. Giuliani often talked about bringing a "quality of life" back to New York City; his greatest achievement, he used to say, was cleaning up Times Square, replacing the old porn palaces with strip-mall outlets hawking Disney trinkets and overpriced CDs at the Virgin Megastore. He did so by enforcing seldom-used laws restricting street artists and the homeless alike; the result, insists one New Yawkah, was "an erosion of civil liberties and questionable street justice," and there's no question Rudy put a happy face on a grim situation. But Cowie insists on mocking those who hang themselves, including the head of the City Journal, a policy-making arm of the right-wing Manhattan Institute whose advice Giuliani too closely heeded. The filmmaker drowns out the debate by not only preaching to the converted, but shouting at them; the derision is deafening. (RW)
Women in Black Director Claudia Sherwood examines the image of Catholic nuns as ruler-carrying, knuckle-cracking spinsters who get their holy molies off by terrifying kids with whacks to the head and thoughts of eternal damnation. Unlike their male counterparts, the nuns seem only to have contributed to generations of very punctual but guilt-ridden and bitter adults who look back in anger and fondness at their years spent in school rooms learning reading, writing and religious devotion. But, as Sherwood points out, these Brides of Christ often had lousy marriages, some having been forced into the order by parents out of poverty, lack of marriage proposals or mental illness, and they take out their frustrations on the children they're supposed to steer toward godliness. While some former students reminisce about those wacky sisters, others relate horror stories about what they call institutionalized child abuse committed in the name of Jesus. (SS)
World of Photography Artists Michael Smith and William Wegman host this introduction to the basics of photography made in 1986. Smith plays the novice photog to Wegman's seasoned pro (as evidenced by his safari jacket, comically fake black moustache and goatee and smarmy mannerisms) as Wegman works through 10 rules of professional photography, including "Looking Good is Important" and "Keep Your Darkroom Door Locked." (SS)
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