But in a series of subtle, uninflected, sometimes achingly perceptive scenes, the two characters slowly build toward a position of mutual respect and trust. The progression is so natural you hardly sense it happening--which is why, when the story's emotional finale arrives, the flood of sentiment feels completely earned. The film is also worth seeing for Claudio Rocha's rapturous cinematography, which evokes some of the same pristine yet richly textured grandeur of Nestor Alemendros' work on Days of Heaven. Watch for veteran character actors Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Tamlyn Tomita (The Joy Luck Club), and Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune in supporting roles. (MZS) Director Kayo Hatt in attendance.

9 p.m.
Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life. Dorothea Lange was a photographer long before she picked up a camera. This careful examination of her work by filmmaker Meg Partridge reveals the tender realism of her account of life in America's underbelly. Her happenstance capturing of a Depression and World War II-era society can't be accurately captured in words. She is no mere picture-taker clicking away at the downtrodden as they clump along country roads. The woman who emerges from the film's wealth of details is a giant of wills, passions, visions, and great warmth, and her work is presented as a triumph over the rotten memorials of written history. When, at the film's close, Lange says, "One really should use the camera as if tomorrow you will be stricken blind," one senses that lesser photographers are already reaching for their canes. Shown with Jane Gilooly's film "Leona's Sister Gerri," which examines a single woman's life in the era of illegal abortion. (James Mardis) Jane Gilooly and Meg Partridge in attendance.

9:15 p.m.
The Postman (Il Postino). Not available for screening at press time, this sentimental Italian comedy tells of the friendship between an exiled poet (Phillippe Noiret) and his postman (Massimo Troisi).

Relatively Speaking. Writer-director Peter Sime's film is set at a party for five very messed-up North Dallas "friends" in which a series of revelations will change their lives forever. Not reviewed. Peter Sime in attendance.

9:30 p.m.
Joe's Rotten World. One of the most welcome surprises of the 25th annual USA Film Festival is the world premiere of this terrific comedy from Los Angeles-based writer-director Richard Labrie, which comes on like A Confederacy of Dunces as directed by Albert Brooks and scripted by Tom Robbins.

The premise is too complicated and bizarre to detail in this short space, but a few key details should tell you what kind of movie you're in for. Joe Seymore (Ramsay Midwood) is a doctoral student who's steadily losing his grip on sanity. For the past few years, he's been so obsessed with completing his 3,000-page dissertation on the perversion, decline, and collapse of America that he's turned into a pop-eyed, hostile hermit who harangues his long-suffering wife, Annie (Jessica Hecht), and everybody else in his life with endless, angry, scatological harangues about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Annie decides she can't take it anymore, packs her things, and heads out into the desert, where she falls in with a fertility cult consisting of 13 very pregnant women, a sexually insatiable patriarch, and his chief henchman, who has a large, pointy-tipped firecracker permanently impaled in his skull. (He's an adaptable guy, though--aside from having to wear the same hat his whole life and give up smoking, he seems none the worse for wear.)

Meanwhile, back in the semi-real world, Joe's two best buddies, fellow doctoral students Bobby (Ricky Dean Logan) and Curtis (Blair Shannon) try to bring their disturbed pal back to sanity. Their task isn't easy: Joe recently got stung by a gigantic, unclassified wasplike bug, and the pustulant wound on his chest and the insect venom coursing through his bloodstream have made him prone to sudden bouts of clairvoyance and time travel.

If filmmaker LaBrie's grip on this loonybin material was anything less than masterful--and if his cast were anything less than brilliant--Joe's Rotten World would seem arch, precious, and pointless. But he and his superb actors manage to imbue even the most bizarre characters with warmth and humanity.

And amid all the visual, temporal, and cultural shenanigans (including a pill-addiction subplot, numerous jokes about smelly underwear, profane apocalyptic rants, geodesic domes, and a cameo appearance by Albert Einstein), the film somehow manages to become a truly touching love story. The ultimate message of the picture is that yes, the world is headed for hell in an ox-cart, but if you have faith in your own ability to love and be loved, life ain't all that bad after all. Joe's Rotten World is a treasure. Don't miss it. (MZS) Director Richard LaBrie in attendance.

Wednesday, April 26
7 p.m.
The Band Wagon. (1954) One of the definitive light comic musicals of the Eisenhower era, this backstage melodrama about a middle-aged stage star (Fred Astaire) making a Broadway comeback opposite a gorgeous but icy dancer (Cyd Charisse) has beguiling songs, breathtaking dance numbers, and plenty of showbiz snap, and the chance to enjoy its Technicolor splendors on the big screen is reason enough to go. Add personal appearances by Cyd Charisse and lyricist Betty Comden and you have a spectacle too marvelous to pass up. (MZS)

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