By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Among the so-called highlights of this year's USA Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs through April 29, is Napoleon Dynamite, which sold for some $5 million at the Sundance Film Festival in January and offers further proof that what plays in Utah sometimes ought to stay in Utah. It's as woefully condescending as it is willfully quirky, and if you can spend more than 15 minutes with its maddening cast of Midwestern freaks and geeks who think sounding funny is the same as being funny, God bless you; there's a job for you at an indie film distributor yet.
But there's no reason to bother with annoying fictions when the fest, among the best in years, offers so much fact worth celebrating (along with Charles Durning, cinematographer Owen Roizman and editor Dede Allen). Twenty of the 34 movies screening at the annual shindig proffer true-life tales, with their subject matter ranging from the rising levels of salt in a lake located in Southern California's desert to the selling of used cars to the difficult lives of Hollywood stuntwomen to the memories of those who grew up singing and dancing on the Broadway boards to the Navajo code talkers of World War II. There's something for everyone, especially if you like your docs to rock; so many of the fest's best entries deal with music, be it one man's love for old-timey country-blues or one band's attempt to use a therapist to keep it together.
And that doesn't include two movies that take their cues from familiar headlines. One is Death & Texas, which opens the festival and is a deadpan mockumentary about a football hero named Bobby "Barefoot" Briggs (The Practice's Steve Harris) on Texas' death row for committing a murder during a convenience-store holdup. Briggs is trying to get a day pass to play in his league's Mega Bowl, and director Kevin DiNovis' film is a wry and occasionally overly sincere commentary in which nobody comes off particularly well, including the well-meaning abolitionist attorney representing Bobby (played by Durning) and cynical pro-death penalty politicians (the governor might grant Briggs clemency if his team wins). Still, the poker-faced jokes sting, and the cast, including Andy Richter, Corbin Bernsen and Mary Kay Place, gets the joke; nobody tries too hard to sell it, so we'll buy it.
Also screening is Nancy Hower's Memron, a mockumentary about the dissolution of "the greatest company in the world" and its impact on employees who've lost their paychecks and purpose. "What I miss most is the monotony," says one former employee; another misses the opportunity to fire other people. Meanwhile, their former boss suffers in a prison where everybody has to use the same lone golf club. The movie is loose and nasty and populated by familiar character actors riffing off each other; everybody gets a good solo, and it's a short, sharp kick to the head.
But you don't need satire to put that sad, knowing smile on your face. Harry Thomason's The Hunting of the President does that simply by retelling the story of how Republican operatives set out to tank Bill Clinton. Yeah, yeah--it's that old "vast right-wing conspiracy" thing that Hillary used to talk about and everyone else used to snicker over, but Thomason, working from the best seller by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, makes a compelling case for conspiracy, despite his standing as one of the Clintons' best friends. Of course, it preaches to the converted; doubtful a Republican's going to be swayed by the testimony of David Brock, the former American Spectatorreporter who tried to sink Clinton till he realized he was being manipulated and played a fool, or a broken Susan McDougal, who's the heart and soul of the movie as she tearfully and fiercely recounts being threatened and finally jailed for refusing to play ball with Ken Starr.
John Landis' Slasher, which airs later this year on the Independent Film Channel, is a bona fide delight--and maybe the best thing he's done since Animal House. That's because his star, Michael Bennett, may be the most out-of-control character in a Landis film since Belushi's Bluto. Bennett is a real-life "slasher," a mercenary hired by auto dealers to move stale inventory in just a few days by any means necessary. He's part carnie barker and part hustler, a drunk in a bowtie who travels from town to town to deal wheels to people who can't afford them or shouldn't buy them, especially the $80 hunks-o'-junk used to lure in the suckers. The cars are as broken down as Bennett, who guzzles beer and sucks down cigarettes and tries to forget the fact he never sees his wife and kids. You may not like the guy, but by movie's end, you sort of love him, because his is a life you would wish on no one. Landis has made a modern-day counterpart to Al and David Maysles' legendary Salesman, and it's a remarkable achievement.
Bennett's the kind of guy about which the best docs are made, someone who'd be otherwise forgotten about if a filmmaker hadn't turned a camera on him and turned up the volume on his quiet desperation. Take Mary Trunk, who tells the tumultuous, heartbreaking story of her own family, which was destroyed by a father who left and a mother who retreated into debilitating alcoholism. Trunk's movie The Watershed, in which she interviews her remorseful father and resilient siblings, is a family album with all the nostalgic, heartwarming photos removed and destroyed. Or take the participants of Julian Petrillo's Word Wars, the Scrabble fetishists who wield their alphabet tiles the way soldiers fondle their guns.
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