American Potluck

If there's anything that binds the American films presented at this year's WorldFest, it's that they offer derivative pleasures. There is no common mythos in the 15 domestic features I saw (out of 25 scheduled for the festival). Gone, to a large degree, are the implications of the American spectrum: the frontier, the small town, the big city; class struggles, racial struggles, gender struggles; concerns economic, environmental, nuclear; Vietnam, Watergate, Kennedy. A few of the films are expressly contemporary, but most of those gathered for exposure here are as random as the new-release section at your local video store. Without any predominant tones, topics or themes, the samplings feel potluck.

One might argue, I suppose, that this cinematic melting pot is exactly what makes these films truly American. After all, the right to have a film gaze wherever it wants is as American as Frank Capra. But then again, self-reliance, that most American of traits, is conspicuously lacking in this year's crop. No Welles, Cassavetes or Hartley here. (Disappointingly, no Wiseman, Maysles or Kopple, either; as of deadline, WorldFest hadn't scheduled any documentaries.) The assembled filmmakers are not individuals -- rugged, eccentric or otherwise. Instead of coming up with their own unique visions and techniques, they (democratically?) depend on what's already in the public domain. At best, they put as much of their own spin on things as possible; at worst, they ineptly follow formulas.

Of the films I saw worth recommending, The Last Seduction, a slick, sexy film noir, is at the top of the list. Linda Fiorentino stars as a big-city, high-powered femme fatale who knows what she wants and has the brains and the body to get it. After stealing the ill-gotten gains her medical-student husband garnered in a pharmaceutical drug deal, she goes on the lam to a Mayberry-esque hamlet while hubbie (Bill Pullman) interviews sociopaths to track her down. Flaunting long legs, short skirts, high heels and black stockings, Fiorentino seduces a local insurance adjuster (Peter Berg), who wants to be bigger than the small town he lives in, into helping her. "I'm starting to feel like a sex object," the patsy objects. "Live it up," is her smoldering reply.

A dame with moxie so perverse that she elicits rape for her own devious purposes, she calls murder a sign of commitment when she's done it and the patsy hasn't. A director on the rise, John Dahl fills The Last Seduction with phone calls, double-crosses, private eyes, scams and plot twists. The result is something stylish, erotic and funny, and Fiorentino is oh-so-gorgeously cool as a villainess who turns a driver-side airbag into a weapon when pistol-whipping fails her.

There are no failures in the truly hysterical The Making of "...And God Spoke," except that the mock-umentary is This is Spinal Tap adapted to B-moviemaking. A fictional account of the making of a Biblical epic, the film follows "director" Clive Walton (Michael Riley), "producer" Marvin Handleman (a terrifically smarmy Stephen Rappaport) and crew as they discover that Eve has a body tattoo -- of a snake, no less -- that Noah hates animals, and that they can get only eight disciples. "Is it possible," the filmmakers wonder, "to bury pertinent social commentary underneath the guise of a B-movie structure?"

With a target audience of 4 billion people, the ersatz auteurs' logic goes, the film should be a smash. But when budgetary problems arise, they decide to skip the depressing parts of the Bible and "trim down Jesus." Adam isn't afraid to be typecast as a nude guy because the role gives him a chance to be seen. Soupy Sales plays Moses and Lou Ferrigno, Cain. The ark gets stuck in the soundstage. "Isn't Paradise wonderful?" says Eve as the sounds of planes roaring overhead and cars motoring down a freeway are heard on the soundtrack. The hilarious ending redefines what midnight movies are for. First-time director Arthur Borman scores big with this copycat satire.

Twenty Bucks, an amusing lark with the pacing of Slacker and the ensemble approach of Robert Altman, might be most notable for its screenplay: written in 1935, it was passed by co-screenwriter Endre Bohem in the 1980s to his son, Leslie (bass player for the rock band Sparks). A gentle, whimsical coincidence of a movie, Twenty Bucks follows a $20 bill around, from birth (cash machine) to death (shredding), bemusedly watching it pass colorful hands and be used for good and evil. The movie playfully drifts with the flow of the currency, from, among others, a harmless derelict (Linda Hunt), to a practical stripper who moonlights at a mortuary (Melora Walters), to a diner waitress with literary aspirations (Elisabeth Shue), to a swift petty thief (Christopher Lloyd) and a slower one (Steve Buscemi). Keva Rosenfeld, a heavy-handed documentarian, is light as air in this, his first feature.

Veteran filmmaker Henry Jaglom's Babyfever is worth seeing if you like the talkative approach he showed in Eating (1991). Babyfever is to women and their biological clocks what Eating was to women and their stomachs. This thoughtful movie (made by the only entrant to have an identifiably unique standpoint) presents intimate portraits from a gathering of women in their thirties and forties, some funny ("I'm ovulating now: attention shoppers"); some serious ("I will feel completely robbed of my womanhood if I don't express my body that way"); and some pained ("What if the most remarkable thing I do is being somebody's remarkable mother?").

Michael DeLuise (21 Jump Street) is creepily riveting as a 19-year-old murderer in the confused Midnight Edition, an unrealized thriller about a sicko's relationship with an obsessive reporter. In Floundering, a social comedy about the aftershocks of the L.A. riots that's less subversive than it intends to be (though it has great cameos), James LeGros is very appealing as a scruffy Venice Beach nice guy. With a body of work that includes Drugstore Cowboy, My New Gun and Gun Crazy, he's one to watch.

But don't watch Fresh Kill. Featuring fish with lips, TV wastelands, condom-wrapped fruit, accordion-involving cunnilingus and lots of gibberish, this "eco-cybernoia" film supposedly has something to do with a Staten Island landfill. Two Small Bodies, made by New Waver Beth B., is a claustrophobic, unearned cat-and-mouse study of a macho cop (Fred Ward) and a self-loathing mother of missing children (Suzy Amis). A monotonous dance that strips away the characters' souls as well as their clothes, this movie taints the actors' otherwise impressive track records. Top of the World, with its strained, truth-telling thirtysomething couples sharing Thanksgiving in Colorado, is The Big Chill without the soundtrack, humor or acting skills. Houstonian Eagle Pennell's Doc's Full Service is a woeful attempt to make a bunch of Texas goobers at a small-town gas station interesting. Pennell's script is full of lame Aggie jokes, conga lines, a big-spending floozy, a slick car salesman, a sweet young thing and a plump momma's boy named, of course, Pee-Wee.

The November Men, a thriller about an obsessive filmmaker's preoccupation with assassinating the president, had the potential to be interesting in a Manchurian Candidate sort of way. But the film -- which is sometimes a movie about a real assassination plot and at other times a movie about a movie about an assassination attempt -- mentally masturbates too much over its art-versus-life motif. Natural Causes is a conspiracy movie that dies such an early, suspenseless death that not even its Bangkok setting comes across as exotic. Plughead Rewired: Circuitry Man II is a low-budget, cheap chills and thrills midnight movie that'll make you grateful that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still around. (It has one good gag: ex-jailbait porno queen Traci Lords plays a barren scientist.) There are also two tame comedies ready for cable and as obvious as their titles: Men Lie and Acting on Instinct.

After viewing all these new releases, it was interesting -- and gratifying -- to once again see A Streetcar Named Desire. This 1951 classic has been rereleased in a director's cut complete with four extra minutes not found in the familiar version, though the only addition I immediately noticed was a close-up of Stella (Kim Hunter) returning hungrily, even lasciviously, even triumphantly to a repentant Stanley (Marlon Brando) after he's slapped her around and wailed his "Stel-la!" remorse in the streets. It may be unfair to contrast the other Worldfest films with this masterwork, for which Hunter, Karl Malden and Vivian Leigh won Oscars but Brando, director Elia Kazan and writer Tennessee Williams incredibly didn't. But with nothing remotely potluck about it, Streetcar is a reminder of what American films are capable of. It shouldn't be missed.

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