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.
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.
USA Film Festival
April 27-May 4
AMC Glen Lakes,
9450 N. Central Expressway
Tickets available at the box office at 1 p.m. each day, or call (214) 631-2787
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)
It's 597 days after Jolene (Heather Graham) and Carl (Luke Wilson) got married, and suddenly, Carl's out the door, disappeared into the who-knows-where. Carl has left behind no clues as to his whereabouts; all Jolene knows is that her new husband has grown frustrated with his job shooting pictures of food for a New Jersey newspaper, and now he's gone west to clear the fog rolling in his head. Just like that, Jolene ditches her job booking a New York City rock club and heads to Texas, where the fates have told her Carl's gone (actually, she drops a photo of Carl on a map, and he points to West Texas -- lucky!). She arrives in El Paso to find her husband employed at the local newspaper -- and shacked up with Carmen (Patricia Velasquez), a waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant. But Jolene doesn't confront Carl. Rather, she stalks him, insisting the whole time she's doing nothing more than keeping watch over the man she vowed to love, honor, and protect till death did they part. Writer-director Lisa Krueger has attempted to make a film about how easily love turns into obsession; Jolene is committed, yes, but to the point that her vows have given her permission to stalk Carl, who clearly wants no part of their marriage. The film's almost too cute for its own good. In time, Jolene's brother (Casey Affleck) winds up coming to Texas and falling in love with Carmen, and Jolene strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Neil (ER's accented Clooney clone Goran Visnjic), an artist who lives in the prefab home next to Carl's...didn't see any of that coming. Krueger's tried to make a film about the thrill of taking a leap of faith -- the rush of hurtling into the unknown, hoping only that it all works out for the best -- but instead, she's made a movie about a woman too dense and self-absorbed to notice that the whole world doesn't revolve around her. Jolene's the narcissist as eternal optimist: She wants Carl back, but only because she's never failed at anything. And, of course, because she's a woman of her word, in sickness and in mental health. Graham's engaging enough to keep the film from falling apart (she's in damned near every frame, unlike Luke Wilson, who barely warrants a cameo), but she's a menace disguised as a hippie chick; that gleam in her eye isn't that of the sane. This movie has a happy ending, of course, but it really needs a restraining order. (Robert Wilonsky)
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.)
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.)
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.)
This morning, I stopped by a seedy bar on my way to work (long story), spent 10 minutes inside, and met a woman convicted four times of DWI who describes her profession as "running over people." I was also introduced to an incredibly attractive, quite erudite woman drinking a beer at 8:30 a.m., wearing a straw cowboy hat, who could not get through a sentence without cursing in the most disgusting/appealing way. What I'm trying to say is, even though much of the movie Lush deals with supposedly eccentric characters, bars, and alcoholics, spend a few minutes inside a real bar and you'll be far more entertained than you would be spending two hours with this film. Lush, filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (cuz it's so Suth-en, honey child), tries to get you intrigued about the story of Lionel Exley (Campbell Scott, equally annoying here as he was in The Spanish Prisoner). Exley is a drunk golfer (thin, unlike John Daly) who is busted trying to bribe his way out of a DWI. Upon his release, he returns home to Louisiana, where he hooks up with friends old (in particular, Laura Linney, easily the best thing this movie has going for it) and new (Jared Harris as Firmin, a drunk suicidal richboy lawyer, the kind of guy with nothing but mustard in his 'fridge and vodka in his freezer). Through a series of mishaps and binges, Exley is accused of killing Firmin, who has suddenly turned up missing after a night of debauchery; coincidentally, Firmin had signed over his life insurance policy to Exley the night of his disappearance. (Zounds!) The movie then degenerates -- can a movie that is already unwatchable "degenerate"? -- into a series of scenes in which Exley runs through town in his undershirt. (Quite a feat for Scott, an actor so lightweight and wooden, you want to tie a triangle of fabric to his torso, attach a string, and fly him while running through the park.) Linney, the wife in The Truman Show, manages to shine despite the poor material she's given. She's the only one in the cast who deserves a drink, if only for the headaches this production surely caused her. (Eric Celeste)
Documentarian Mark Lewis has garnered a reputation for filming people who are happy to make fools of themselves for the animals they love (Cane Toads, which featured the title creatures in various stages of human drag, remains his most beloved opus). Meanwhile, those of us who caught numerous episodes of the prime-time "Freak of the Week" newsmagazine Real People in our childhoods may still feel the lingering hangover from overconsumption of bestiophiles, and Lewis' new The Natural History of the Chicken, hardly as exhaustive or even informative as its title suggests, only makes our heads throb further. Although you may not personally know anyone who blow-dries, diapers, and swims pool laps with a pet rooster, if you're like us, you already feel like you do, so actually watching such a woman is shorn of the novelty Lewis probably expects it will hold for audiences. Ditto the woman who gave mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a frozen hen and rescued it from imminent death (although she's grounded enough to realize why the U.S. media swarmed to her farm to cover the story -- it happened during the ongoing O.J. Simpson trial, and she figures people were hungry for a "Cinderella" story, even if it involved poultry). But there's another, genuinely bizarre story in The Natural History of the Chicken that we think deserves a documentary all its own -- the Colorado rooster who was decapitated but survived to prowl the farm, apparently healthy, for months in the '40s. The luckless married couple who owned him traveled around the country showcasing the headless fowl, believing that they would become rich from their pet oddity but receiving instead a torrent of negative mail and publicity for not "finishing the job" on one of "God's creatures." (J.F.)
A tragic boxing story seems redundant, like saying a tale about puppy dogs who survive a tornado is "heartwarming." It can't be anything but. The sport is the last refuge for the poor kids too short to play football, too stupid not to take up baseball (utility infielders are millionaires, for goodness' sake), too white or brown to play basketball. It's a sport with a great history, the event our grandfathers used to gather to listen to on Friday nights, the sweet science that gave us the 20th century's most important athlete, Muhammad Ali. Now, it provides the drama of a first-round charity tennis tournament. Quick, name three heavyweights. One lightweight. That this movie makes you remember the name of featherweight Jesus "El Matador" Chavez is a testament to his amazing story more than to superb filmmaking, but it's important nonetheless. Chavez's story -- arrested after a promising start in Chicago, shipped back to Mexico, smuggled back in by his dad, then moved to Austin, where he became a world-champion featherweight before being deported again -- is at once mystifying and terrifying. It's also one set firmly in the real world, where there are no easy sides to take and where even Chavez admits he's rightly paying for sins he committed. All of which make his forays into the world of the ring, a world he mastered seemingly before he ever saw boxing gloves, all the more powerful. His cool savagery and elegance between the ropes make his halting, confused life outside the gym even more haunting. When his grandmother, living in Mexico, says of Chavez's desire to return to the states, "such is life...they grow, and they fly," you hope she's right. You hope Chavez hasn't been shot down for good. (E.C.)
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No matter that this appeared at the Dallas Video Festival two years ago. Only now is Christopher Wilcha's documentary about his tenure at Columbia House making the rounds, so much so that music-biz and rock-crit colleagues have begun hording it as a bootleg, a sacred totem. Less a scathing behind-the-scenes at the mail-order corporation (co-owned, despite the name, by both Sony and Time-Warner) than a question mark at the end of the sentence "Whither alternative rock," Wilcha's film begins as Nirvana's Nevermind is starting to work its way down the charts. Needing a job (the band's done, school's out), Wilcha goes to work in the Manhattan offices of Columbia House, where he brings his video camera and films the mundane day-to-day bullshit, all of which adds up to a prescient peek at a confused industry trying to reinvent itself in flannel and ripped T-shirts. When Wilcha moved into Columbia House in 1993, the record club's sales were dying: Mom and Dad had stopped buying Neil Diamond records, while the kids were out at their local indie stores buying Sub Pop product. What's a multinational to do but get, uh, hip? So it's up to Wilcha -- who winds up in the merch-marketing department -- to teach the old farts how to sell young. Meaning, he has to rewrite the catalog to figure out how to sell Beavis and Butt-head compilations and Alice in Chains discs for one low, low price. As it turns out, Columbia House isn't such an evil place: The consumer ends up spending about eight bucks a disc after penny deals and freebie giveaways get you in the door. The real victim, if that's the right word, is the artist, who receives discounted royalties through the record club's sales...and, hey, tough luck, Garth. Wilcha's film succeeds not because it blows the lid off the bulk-sales biz or because the filmmaking is first-rate or because Wilcha's a riveting narrator, but because it serves to remind us of the exact moment "alternative" became commonplace, mainstream, irrelevant. And, let's face it, it is kind of thrilling in a naughty, voyeuristic way to watch the way nine-to-fivers live and work; no doubt you could make this kind of movie about your job. You know you want to. (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