Mia & Peter & Liza & Mazursky

The USA Film Festival offers an unapologetic orgy of movie delights

Saturday, April 19, 10:10 p.m.

Salon Mexico. Gorgeously photographed by Carlos Markovich, Salon Mexico deepens the mythology of love surrounding the Mexican ballroom culture, which was elaborated four years ago in the perversely funny, melancholic Danzon. The lure of the tangos and flamenco rhythms propelled a woman on a search through life-altering obstacles to find a legendary dancer. Salon Mexico, a richly visual, kinetic romantic tragedy from Mexico that achieves a Bertolucci-quality visual splendor--reportedly at a budget that the Italian master himself might require. But to these eyes, this story of a double murder (or was it double suicide?) inflamed by sexual possessiveness strongly resembles Mike Newell's 1985 Dance With a Stranger, right down to Maria Rojo's tightly wound, Miranda Richardsonian portrayal of a deeply passionate woman whose class shame aggravates a murderous rage. Rojo is a salon dancer and sometime petty thief who steals a man she cannot handle. The murders of her and her lover, committed either by each other during a confrontation in a dressing room, or by a third party, are investigated by a slick-haired, tough-talking detective. The dots are connected by Blanca Guerra as Rojo's chief sexual competitor, who recounts the triangle that culminated in a bloody duet.(JF)

Sunday, April 20, 7 p.m.

Letter From Waco. "For most people, Waco is famous for two things," says filmmaker Don Howard. "It's either the home of Dr Pepper or David Koresh." A wacky companion piece to the controversial documentary Waco: Rules of Engagement, Howard's cheerfully self-deprecating love letter to his hometown, Letter From Waco, finds the director/narrator combining the edgy folksiness of Jean Shepherd with the pop-cult archivalist instincts of Atomic Cafe's Jayne Loader, applied to Errol Morris' suspense goals. Letter From Waco manages to keep a lot of different balls in the air, a tribute to both the rich history of a town that even Texans are loath to claim and to Howard's clear-eyed understanding of how personal and civic histories connect. Waco was described at the turn of the century as "the old South slamming up against the wild and wooly West," and this charming first-person essay achieves the near-impossible--makes you want to visit a not particularly scenic city with a fresh knowledge of what formed the surroundings. (JF) Don Howard in attendance.

Tuesday, April 22, 7 p.m.

Naked Acts. Following hot on the heels of Cheryl Dunye's Jesse Helms-approved feature Watermelon Woman, writer-director Bridget Davis' sparkling Naked Acts explores media representations of black women in a more intimate way. Whereas Dunye created a search for a fictional black actress of the '30s, Davis directs her drama from the point of view of Cicely, an ambitious black film actress who's peeled off the 57 pounds that kept her from succeeding in auditions. She's such a hit, in fact, that a producer asks her to do a nude scene as part of a role, and Cicely finds herself an unlikely and not altogether willing pioneer for her race and gender. Naked Acts implies that there may be an upside to the dearth of erotic images of black women in the media--the fact that they're allowed more room to navigate their body images than white women, who're assailed with impossibly thin and beautiful ivory bodies from TV, movies, and magazines. Naked Acts stays focused, dragging in cultural baggage only when it accentuates the powerful inner struggle that Cicely is conducting over whether to show her body. (JF) Bridget Davis in attendance.

Saturday, April 19, 5 p.m.

Battle for the Minds. Last year's decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to boycott Disney because of its same-sex domestic partner benefits and to convert Jews to Christianity because, well, the Bible says so, was met with a good deal of bemusement by the American media, which has generally accommodated the religious right's viewpoint (Joe Klein, please take a bow) since Dan Quayle's highly effective family values campaign was launched. Steven Lipscomb's powerful documentary Battle for the Minds is required viewing for anyone who's alarmed by the fundamentalist dogma that has seized the Southern Baptist Convention with renewed fervor since the Republican Revolution. Lipscomb trains his eye on a woman who suddenly realizes that, after a lifetime of being a devout Baptist, she's suddenly something of a heretic for her views that women should be ordained as Baptist ministers. But is she fighting against a bureaucracy of ultra-conservative males that has ascended relatively recently, or the Bible itself, which can be plundered to support all manner of sexist propositions? Battle for the Minds is affecting because it doesn't assume the moral superiority of this woman warrior's quest for gender parity in the church; her conflicted heart is eloquently explored in Lipscomb's thoughtful analysis. (JF) Steven Lipscomb in attendance.

Tuesday, April 22, 7:15 p.m.

Afro Promo. Curators Jenni Olson and Karl Bruce Knapper have figured out that the best way to score political points from discussion of ethnic representation in American movies is not to examine the movies themselves but the trailers, whose stereotypes are compressed and intensified for hilarious consumption. Afro Promo tours 30 years of African-Americans in American commercial cinema during 75 minutes. You're left with the impression that while the names have changed, the identities really haven't. The jump from Shaft to Boyz N the Hood is really the difference between high camp and Greek tragedy, and they own lots in the same neighborhood. Besides reveling in the joys that only movie trailers can provide, Afro Promo smartly reminds us of a lesson we forgot somewhere in the '80s--free market capitalism, of which the film industry is a prime example, doesn't dare insult audiences by speaking over their heads, so it aims everything at crotch level.(JF)

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