Film Reviews

Raising the Bar

It had become sport in recent years to dismiss the USA Film Festival for what it wasn't rather than what it was becoming. No, it is not a South by Southwest Film Festival or an Austin Film Festival, where would-be independent filmmakers gather each year to discuss a project or debate the process of filmmaking outside the studio system; and, no, it is not a Sundance or Toronto, a fest doubling as an auction house where art-house impresarios pay dollars on the quarter for prestigious product they can push well into awards season. It is, instead, what it is: "a city festival," in the words of its artistic director Nancy Fallen; meaning, something for everyone who loves nothing more than going to the movies.

In recent years the fest has accrued a reputation as a haven for Highland Parkies who could afford to be part-time cinephiles. Throughout the 1970s, the USAFF played first and best host to some of the greatest films of the era, among them All the President's Men, M*A*S*H, The Last Movie, Shampoo and Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express. Throughout the '90s it was where Hollywood product stopped off just before it arrived in theaters or on the Blockbuster shelves.

Maybe, some locals believed, the USA Film Festival had become a moot point: Where once Dallas was an art-house wasteland for the parched cinephile craving more than Hollywood fodder, the city overflows with indie offerings. The Angelika, a New York import and home to this year's festival, and the homegrown Magnolia, which doubles nicely as a revival house with its dense sked of Rialto restorations, and the part-time indie house the Regent Highland Park now duke it out with the venerable Inwood for off-Hollywood offerings, shuffling the latest from indie distributors on and off their screens so quickly patrons can barely keep pace with the celluloid parade. The Magnolia's also programming the screen at the Modern in Fort Worth, and come October the Collin County resident jonesing for an indie fix will have to drive only to Legacy Road and the Dallas North Tollway, where the Angelika is building its Plano-Frisco-South Oklahoma annex.

Ironically, when the Angelika opened two years ago and the Magnolia followed a year later, it was believed by some film-bizzers there wasn't enough of an audience to sustain a dozen art-house screens within a few miles of each other. Yet the expansion of the so-called boutique cinema in Dallas has been only a good thing for audiences, who are exposed to more quality films than ever before, and the theaters and distributors, who make more money in Dallas with some films than in any other city. (One-Hour Photo and The Quiet American grossed more locally than in New York City, and those are but two of many examples.) "There has been an increase in business," says Magnolia's Tearlach Hutcheson, "and an increase in interest."

This year's USAFF schedule reflects that: It's more vibrant and varied than any in recent memory, perhaps a result of distributors taking Dallas more seriously as a film center and audiences realizing they need not suffer what Hollywood offers. The opening-night film--one of two, actually--sets the tone, suggesting a fest that values quality over the quantity of stars it could gather for a first-night shindig: Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas (April 24, 7:30 p.m.) is the filmmaker's funny and profoundly touching film about a Lower East Side kid (Victor Rasuk) who thinks he's all dat but realizes he's not much of a man without the respect of his grandmother and would-be girlfriend. Sollett has it both ways: The movie's sweet and funny, touching and tough on Victor; the filmmaker doesn't let the kid off, but doesn't punish him too severely just for being a cocky teen who commits no crime other than being too big for his baggy britches and tank-top tees he can't keep on in the sweltering summertime.

Though Raising Victor Vargas opens in Dallas on May 2, its screening at the festival is a special occasion: Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, the object of the Brillo-padded Victor's affections, will attend a post-screening Q&A session, which ought to be special. The two appeared in Sollett's short film Five Feet High and Rising and have become the filmmaker's young stand-ins; they're also the kind of rookies you insanely root for, because theirs is a rare and special kind of promise.

"And I think that's where the live cinema element comes in," Fallen says. "We try as much as we can not to program a film that will have a theatrical release unless we have a filmmaker in attendance. We're not serving the community that way, if a guest isn't here and the audience can see the movie two weeks later."

Fallen laughs when it's suggested to her that the USA Film Festival this year is a celebration of oddballs, but certainly there's a loose strand binding some of the filmmakers coming to town and being honored over the next few days. The fest pays homage this year to misanthropic auteurs (Neil LaBute, maker of In the Company of Men and the brand-new The Shape of Things, screening April 30 at 7 p.m.), forgotten filmmakers (Paul Wendkos), lowbrow visionaries (Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Entertainment), stubborn geniuses (Alan Rudolph, bringing The Secret Lives of Dentists, screening May 1 at 7:30 p.m.) and late-great influences (Italian horror director Mario Bava).

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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