Today we saw Fall from Grace (a documentary about Rev. Fred Phelps), Annabelle and Elvis (a new feature narrative with Mary Steenburgen, among others), and Manufacturing Dissent (a sort of expose on Michael Moore).
Fall from Grace was engaging, if only because of a lot of mesmerizingly horrific footage, of Phelps and his congregation (which apparently is made up mostly of his family). But it was repetitive, maudlin, and shallow. The two phases of Phelps career are 1) picketing of the funerals of people who died from AIDS (the "God Hates Fags" phase), and 2) picketing of military funerals ("God Bless IEDs"). The more recent military funerals phase was given much greater emotional weight in the film (a good ten minutes of a sobbing teen bride of a soldier who was killed in Iraq), while the AIDS funeral protests were barely mentioned. It's a student film, which could explain its shortcomings. The film failed to connect Rev. Phelps with a larger cultural context, instead making it seem like Phelps and his family were just a bunch of lunatics on the side of the road holding signs.
Elvis and Annabelle was disappointing. The film was made partly by Burnt Orange Productions, which is the hybrid company in which U.T. film students work on professional indie films. It was beautifully photographed right here in Austin and central Texas. And the acting was good considering what they had to work with. I like Max Minghella (Art School Confidential), and he's appealing in this film. Joe Mantegna was wonderful, in a very moving and funny performance as a brain-damaged, hunchback mortician, a role that very easily could have been awful.
But the story was forced, obvious, dumb. I was giving it the benefit of the doubt (because it really was gorgeous to watch, and it was supposed to be sort of a fable, so I was forgiving the super-neat plot) till about the last 15 minutes when it all just started to fall apart. One of those films where you can see the writer at his desk saying, "Oh, and then this can happen!"
Manufacturing Dissent made up for any letdown we were experiencing from the previous two films. Both J. and I wondered if it was a bit long, but decided we probably felt that way because it was our third film in one day. I've never liked Michael Moore much, always thought he was smarmy and untrustworthy, and now I feel vindicated. I often agree with the stances he takes on issues, but he's a manipulative celebrity-hound who is willing to lie to make his point, and he's the wrong spokesperson for progressive causes because he is so easily discredited.
The film laid out point by point the instances in which Moore has either misrepresented context or chronology in his "documentary" films or, in at least one case, completely fabricated an event. And cases in which he's lied about past events in his own life. An eye-opener.