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Roll the Credits

The New Orleans Film Festival continues with showcases of award winners and more films

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The 19th annual New Orleans Film Festival continues with three showcases for movies winning festival awards. There also are more feature, documentary, short and experimental film screenings. Dark Streets starring Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips and Izabella Miko is the closing night feature. See the festival Web site (www.neworleansfilmfest.com) for a full schedule. Below are reviews of some of the films screening Tueday, Oct. 14, through Thursday, Oct. 16.


The Pussycat Preacher
Directed by Bill Day
9:15 p.m. Tue., Oct. 14
Canal Place Cinema

Maybe this film should be called Virtue-ly Blonde. It's hard to get past the titillation and the charm of Heather Veitch, the film's subject (object?). But the believer with the boob job and bleached-blond hair offers a sweet and compelling story of salvation.

Director Bill Day succeeds in presenting Veitch's transformation from stripper and sex addict to lay minister in more than a skin deep fashion. Whether you take it to heart may depend on your sensitivities about religion or sex workers.

Film and literature are full of whore-with-a-heart-of-gold characters. It's a powerfully seductive, though typically flawed, archetype. In The Pussycat Preacher, Day offers Veitch as the true coming of that spirit. She was born to teenaged irresponsible parents. She was raped at 14 years old, became a mother at 18 and was married to an abusive thug by 20. Close to broke, she fled to San Francisco and got a job as a go-go dancer. That career path led to bikini dancer, pasties dancer, topless dancer and then Las Vegas stripper and fetish porn star (trampling flicks and dominance work). Personally she became a sex addict, engaging "everything but children and animals."

She was fortunate to meet a kindred soul in hairdresser Jon Veitch, her then future husband. After they wed, she announced that she wanted them to go to church. She found God.

The Veitches had a child and become regular, active members of the Sandals Ministries in southern California. Pastor Matt Brown, who grew up as a Baptist, started the ministry and it seems to take a progressive approach. The large congregation meets in a university gymnasium and music from what looks like a rock band set-up is part of the services.

Veitch is in no way the only attractive woman in the congregation, but she's not shy about her bust line, makeup or mane of big blond porn-star hair. Suspicion and anxiety ripple through the membership. The first few theological problems are trifling and easily dispatched: a Christian woman can be hot; and she can even teach other wives in the group how to strip for their husbands.

Then Veitch hears her true calling: to reach out to strippers and porn stars. She consults with Brown and leads other women from the congregation into strip clubs to reach out to dancers. Rather than pressure the women to renounce their lives and convert, they peddle a softer message of non-judgment and promise the church doors will be open.

Based on her early success, Veitch creates a Web site to reach out to more sex workers. The group's name, J.C.'s Girls Girls Girls, is a little racy, but the site is designed to look like a porn site. Veitch reasons that a pinup pose with a Bible would be more tempting to the women than a prim-and-proper or unglamorous look. After it garnered media attention (and Veitch went on TV, like Bill O'Reilly's cable program, as the Porno Preacher), the site attracted hundreds of hits per second and things started to change.

Like Veitch's Web site, Day's camera focuses most heavily on glitz, glamour and curves. But Veitch also prefers her stripper-inflected beauty. Scenes of her walking around her home in sweats seem barely different than a clip from The Girls Next Door. There's little reason to question her sincerity, but it left me wanting to know more about her conversion and personal struggles. It's easy to believe she has had more than enough temptation in her life, and she didn't find most of it satisfying. By the same token, hypocrites are easy to find, and it's too bad that the men of the congregation and critics are not asked about their own use of porn or liaisons with sex workers.

As the ministry becomes associated with the outreach, the congregation is tested again. Some believe the effort is importing too much temptation into the church. Others wonder if the congregation's faith is shaken or whether it is defending false principles — casting judgment, blaming temptation exclusively on women, promoting homogeneous outward appearances over forgiveness. There is strong backlash from outside Christian groups who hear about the ministry and even cryptic threats against Veitch. But she becomes more devoted than ever and pushes the group to send a team to Las Vegas to do outreach at an adult entertainment conference.

She's not likely to be martyred on a stripper pole, but she can take solace that Jesus wasn't readily accepted by many people during his own times. And he spent time with sex workers, too. — Will Coviello

The Man Who Came Back
Directed by Glen Pitre
7:15 p.m. Wed., Oct. 15
Canal Place Cinema

The Man Who Came Back, directed by Louisiana's own Glen Pitre, feels like a cross between High Plains Drifter and Rosewood — inserting a Western thriller into a historical story of racial violence.

If that sounds a bit discordant, Pitre does his level best as a filmmaker to find common ground between genres. As Louisiana's John Sayles, Pitre has a storyteller's gift for developing rich characters, and even richer atmospheres, as evident in the intriguing history lessons of Belizaire the Cajun and The Scoundrel's Wife.

Here Pitre, in collaboration with co-screenwriter/co-producer Chuck Walker, sets a tale of revenge against the backdrop of the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887. The assault, which killed anywhere from 30 to 300 people, was sparked by a labor dispute involving black sugar-mill workers on strike.

Curiously, the focus of the violence isn't between the strikers and strike-busters, which would bring Pitre's Sayles-like storytelling style more in line with the similarly themed Matewan. Instead, the firepower comes from Reese Clayton (Eric Braeden), a Confederate Civil War veteran. As an overseer, he is sympathetic to the ex-slaves now working essentially as indentured servants on the plantation of Judge William Duke (George Kennedy).

When Reese puts himself in between the strikers and the judge's evil son Bill (James Patrick Stuart), he finds himself framed for murder and his family destroyed as he is sent to prison. Reese spends the better half of The Man Who Came Back coming back, and with a vengeance. He wreaks havoc on all those who ruined his life, and his rampage is wrapped around the true-life events of the massacre.

At first glance, Braeden would seem a perfect choice for Reese. Over his lengthy career, Braeden has played heroes and villains, mostly on TV, and most notably as Victor Newman in the soap opera The Young and the Restless and as the German officer Hans Dietrich in the 1960s' Rat Patrol. Even at his most conniving, the German-born Braeden always has possessed a certain dignity about him, his European accent between British and his native land.

His face is a map of graveness, and when his family and the workers suffer their various fates, the magnitude of the danger — and his anger — wears on him well. You wouldn't want to get between him and his bloodlust.

But, at 67, Braeden seems a curious fit for avenging angel and, yes, lover. His tryst with a sympathetic prostitute, played by Jennifer O'Dell of TV's Lost, borders on creepy given their 33-year-old age difference in real life. And while Pitre tries to judiciously edit the many fight sequences, Braeden looks more like a grumpy old bear than a snarling panther, lumbering through one tussel after another.

Pitre more than makes up for it with a strong supporting cast that features the Oscar-winner Kennedy, Belizaire's Armand Assante and Sean Young. There's also the endless array of luminous shots of the countryside — swamps, bayous, forests and skylines all come to life under the lens' gaze, reminding us that Pitre knows better than most about a people and their place. — David Lee Simmons

The Sweet Lady With The Nasty Voice
Directed by Joanne Fish and Vincent Kralyevich
9 p.m. Wed., Oct. 15
Prytania Theatre

In December 2006, a longtime fan of Wanda Jackson spotted an advertisement for a concert by the mid-century singing sensation, suitably dubbed by many the "Queen of Rockabilly" and the "First Lady of Rock "n' Roll." Wide-eyed, he appealed to his wife: "We gotta go." At New Jersey's Asbury Lanes, the fan beamed sheepishly from the back of the bowling alley-cum-punk club when the Queen deigned to mention him by name.

'Let's just do another song for Bruce Springsteen," Jackson said between breaths, letting loose a throaty growl and launching into her 1960 hit, "Let's Have a Party."

Seeing the Boss play the role of red-faced super fan is just one small pleasure of The Sweet Lady With The Nasty Voice, Joanne Fish and Vincent Kralyevich's road film/biopic about Jackson's recent resurgence and her criminally unheralded legacy. Springsteen isn't alone: Impassioned testimonials to her genius come early and often in the documentary, from rock heavyweights like Elvis Costello, Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister and the Stray Cats' Slim Jim Phantom to, ironically, Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has thus far deemed Jackson's body of work unworthy of admission, her parade of expert witnesses notwithstanding. (She appears on the ballot again this year at age 70.)

Fish and Kralyevich's evidence in support of Jackson is overwhelming. Plucked from the Oklahoma plains by country singer Hank Thompson in 1954, she went on to single-handedly break the gender barrier in a forbidden genre that was, at the time, still considered taboo even for men. The directors present her rise chronologically, from sweet-singing 17-year-old to Elvis Presley paramour to rockabilly and country stardom as a Capitol Records recording artist from 1958 to 1973. The film hits its highest notes with grainy, black-and-white footage of Jackson, petite and barely of age, touring with Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and belting out roadhouse classics like "Mean Mean Man" and "Hard Headed Woman" — sensational performances marked by the preternatural growl that earned her the "sweet lady with the nasty voice" moniker.

After a poky middle section detailing Jackson's working relationship with husband/manager Wendell Goodman and their two-decade detour into proselytizing gospel, The Sweet Lady finds second life in its subject's second wind. In 1995, she was lured back to secular music by Rosie Flores, an alt-country songstress and Jackson acolyte with whom the singer agreed to collaborate. Fish and Kralyevich spent two years documenting international tours, and it's from there they pose several probing questions about the pioneer's odd obscurity. Most notably, how could such a prototypical U.S. icon be better appreciated abroad? (Jackson's lone chart-toppers, "Fujiyama Mama" and "Santo Domingo," came in Japan and Germany, respectively.) "In America, we eat our history raw," offers NPR's Nick Spitzer, one of the film's recurring insightful voices.

But perhaps Jackson's biggest fan puts her appeal best. "There's an authenticity in the voice that conjures up a world, a very distinct and particular place and time," says Springsteen. "It's not something that can be developed. And it's so specifically American." — Noah Bonaparte Pais

Pageant
Directed by Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern
9:30 p.m. Thu., Oct. 16
Prytania Theatre

The men of Pageant want one thing more than anything else: to be crowned Miss Gay America. With 52 contestants vying for the title, the competition is fierce and so are the heels, the lashes and the struts down the runway. But for all their individual drive, the contestants featured in this documentary of the 34th annual female impersonation competition are also remarkably supportive and accepting of each other. It's their engaging personalities and distinctive stories that make Pageant a success.

Following five contestants and their families, the film emphasizes the hard work and the financial investment that goes into competing for the crown. Talent routines often include backup dancers and elaborate props; the evening gown segment requires knock-out costumes and the confidence to pull them off. The important "male interview," in which contestants dress down (and drag-free) to meet with the judges, can throw off less poised competitors. "Does the contestant have to be gay?" asks one judge. "No, but it does help."

Because the pageant forbids the use of surgery or hormones, the art of illusion is paramount, and the film celebrates the makeup, padding, wardrobe and other techniques used to transform the impersonators.

Hailing from around the country, the contestants represent a diverse mix of age, ethnicity and family circumstances. Some work full-time as female impersonators while others do it on the side. One competitor has his mother and younger brother in attendance to cheer him on (his extended family throws him a good luck send-off party); another notes how outraged his family was to find out he was gay. The film explores an array of issues including the root of contestants' interest in impersonation ('I do drag for the attention," says one man. "Growing up, I was the unattractive person in my family."). But the competition itself is clearly the focus, and tension builds as the field is narrowed to 10 finalists. Of particular local interest: One contestant is a recent evacuee of Hurricane Katrina. — Caroline Goyette

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