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Just the kind of rectal self-massage that only pop icons habitually allow themselves—albeit of a kinder, gentler nature, given Phish's high-but-low profile and relaxed lack of hit-making ambition—Todd Phillips's Bittersweet Motel is as homey as old sweats. For rock docs, though, something historic or anarchic is usually required. It's Phish's film, literally—like Sting, Madonna, and U2 before them, Phish decided they wanted a film made about themselves and actively sought out the right filmmaker to follow them on the road. By all lights they seem to enjoy the attention. Still, that Trey Anastasio and his bandmates don't exhibit Sting-like vanity doesn't mean there's much else on view, or that the reasons for their phenomenal popularity become crystal clear.

In any case, Phish-heads will forgive a great deal, which is of course what makes them what they are. Defined in the press that notices them by their Dead-like following, and likewise the honor of a Ben & Jerry flavor namesake, this aw-shucks group of middle-road musicians manages to be nearly as dull as the Dead. (A certain frumpy, Rorschach-like blandness might be an essential specification for the building of a full-on band cult.) Following the band on its 1997 tour from Europe to Limestone, Maine, Phillips (who went on to make Road Trip) buttresses the concert footage with de rigueur interviews and backstage shenanigans, and even the fans seem like recycled Deadheads. Anastasio spends a good deal of time responding to magazine reviews, and the claims for Phish concerts being explosive, anything-can-happen free-for-alls turn out to mean they simply don't follow a playlist.


Details

Bittersweet Motel
Directed by Todd Phillips
An Image release
Cinema Village
Opens August 25

Godís Army
Written and directed by Richard Dutcher
A Zion release
Opens August 25

Fastpitch
Directed by Jeremy Spear
An Artistic License release
Village East
Opens August 25

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Bittersweet Motelmay not be a vision from deep within the cult-mold hothouse, but Richard Dutcher's God's Armyis. One of the new "niche-marketed" Christian indies that get rolled out in a theater-by-theater, city-by-city distribution scheme, Dutcher's film lacks the conspirational creepiness of the Trinity Broadcasting Network-produced idiocy, The Omega Code, but—made by and for Mormons—it's no less out of this world. An earnest, professionally shot comedy-drama about a wise, seasoned Elder showing his fresh-faced, Kansas-bred "companion" the ropes of putting on black ties and shirtsleeves and knocking on strangers' doors with a backpack full of pamphlets (in L.A., yet), God's Armytries to show the oh-so-human side of Gospel-hawking, His Word, the Path, and so on. The preachifying and cliché wallpaper may prove a believer's point, but for the number of Mormons in New York, you wonder if it's worth the UPS bill from Utah. As for Dutcher, it's easy enough to respect his faith, as H.L. Mencken said, "only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."


From the artless, intriguing gist of Jeremy Spear's doc Fastpitch, it seems that at least the fading sandlot sport of fastpitch softball might be worth going all squirrelly about. A neglected subculture that inhabits the vast badlands between American cities, fastpitch is a rough game, with briefer-than-pro-ball pitch visibility for the batter (due to a shorter mound-to-home stretch). An ex-Yale ballplayer and conceptual artist who dropped out of the gallery scene to pursue athletic glory for the last time, Spear encounters all manner of demigods, including the Ojibway pitching megalith Darren Zack and Maori home-run icon Shane Hunuhunu. As it is with so many clear-eyed documentaries of American substrata, Spear's portrait of unpaid, passionate fastpitchers could give filmmakers of all budgets a notion of how real Americans speak. Fastpitch may be a matter of faith by this point, but the believers aren't obsessives—just working stiffs with a vocation.

 
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