USA Film Festival

Mardis
Note: The 26th Annual USA Film Festival runs Thursday, April 18 through Thursday, April 25. All screenings are at the AMC Glen Lakes Theatre, 9450 North Central Expressway at Walnut Hill Lane. All tickets, available exclusively through Ticketmaster, are $6.50, except for opening-night tickets to The Grass Harp, which cost $10 each. Seating for all programs is general admission. Call 821-NEWS for more information.

The following program notes are by Dallas Observer film critics Arnold Wayne Jones, Jimmy Fowler, and James Mardis.

* denotes a film the Observer recommends.

Thursday, April 18
7:30 p.m.
The Grass Harp. TV-movie director Charles Matthau helmed this bloodless version of Truman Capote's short novel as a tribute to his father Walter, a rejuvenated box-office draw thanks to the Grumpy Old Men movies. Walter acquits himself with predictable curmudgeonly charm as the soft-spoken suitor of a slightly daft Southern woman (Piper Laurie) who markets a cure-all-ills tonic. Maybe Walter could help rescue the career of Charles, which, based on this meandering, frumpy version of a beautiful Capote tale, seems destined for every Southern Gothic script offered by the production team at Hallmark Hall of Fame. For genuinely affecting Capote-on-film, check out Geraldine Page in the remarkable late-'60s TV adaptation One Christmas. (Jimmy Fowler) Charles Matthau in attendance.

Friday, April 19
7 p.m.
*Belly Talkers. The director of this documentary, Sandra Luckow, is a professional ice-skating teacher and amateur ventriloquist (or "belly talker") who seems to have taken it upon herself, as a lark, to make a film about ventriloquism. The result is a charming and quirky profile of what drives the likes of Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, and a surprisingly large and devoted subculture of "vents" to entertain themselves and others. Luckow seems to cover all the bases, and one of the revelations of this film is the variety of people who ply the ventriloquist trade, including evangelists, dummy makers, and a delightful young girl who uses a live "talking pig" as her dummy. Luckow doesn't ignore what most people associate with ventriloquism: the spooky dual-personality syndrome. It can be disconcerting to think it, but ventriloquists' dummies are like viruses: Neither manifests any signs of life on its own, but when exposed to a host--a live cell or culture in the case of a virus, the hand of a performer for the dummy--they spring to life, and there never seems to be any way to shut them off. There is something about vents that goes beyond mere eccentricity: They can seem downright creepy, and Luckow doesn't shy away from putting herself in that category. (Arnold Wayne Jones) Director Sandra Luckow, with her "special friend" Juanito, in attendance.

*Out of Africa. Sydney Pollack's most ambitious effort--his only film that could be called an epic--is satisfying as travelogue and drama. The script is a bit messy, but Pollack assays the plot with genuine skill. The film tracks the life and career of Baroness Karen von Blixen (Meryl Streep), who wrote novels about life in Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer (as "Blix" Blixen) deliver warm, emotional performances, but Robert Redford is miscast as the stoic adventurer Denys Finch-Hatton. (AWJ) Sydney Pollack in attendance.

The Perfect Candidate. A documentary about statewide elections in Virginia in 1994. Not available for review. Directors R.J. Cutler and David van Taylor in attendance.

9 p.m.
Denise Calls Up. A comedy about six friends, one of whom has just received a sperm donation. Not available for review.

9:10 p.m.
*Carried Away. The movie versions of Jim Harrison novels tend to deal with sweeping archetypes instead of actual characters. From the mythic, golden-haired hero Tristan in Legends of the Fall to the dopey, hateful lover in Revenge, Harrison traffics in characters with legendary emotions in expansive rural settings; it's as if the confines of a city couldn't accommodate all the passion his characters feel. Carried Away starts at a point in the emotional life of its protagonist, Joseph Svenden (Dennis Hopper), when he hasn't quite developed the place in his heart for such passion. He's been in love with a fellow schoolteacher, Rosealee (Amy Irving), since they were kids, but his love was truncated by her brief marriage to his best friend. After six years of dating, Rosealee and Joseph--now in their 40s--should be getting married, but then Joseph falls for the sexually predatory young student Catherine (Amy Locane). Carried Away takes a while to get where it's going--there are times when it lingers on extraneous scenes longer than the plot can justify--but it's a movie of deep emotion, and director Bruno Barreto conveys these emotions through a rich atmosphere. The small town of Howardsville isn't just lazy, it's absolutely stagnant--as are the lives of its residents. It's no wonder Joseph welcomes the opportunity to fool around with a high-school senior: She's the first new, positive thing to enter his life in ages. This is perhaps the best leading performance of Hopper's career, and if he didn't have to play so many scenes opposite the talentless Locane--whose efforts at coquettishness are so unconvincing as to recall a particularly laughable episode of Melrose Place--you could appreciate the craft of the movie even more. (AWJ)

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