Although the big ballyhoos for this film are usually doled out to Meryl Streep's Oscar-a-la-accent turn as Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowska, don't forget to give director Alan J. Pakula his due. First, there's his Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Sure, some critics complain that the film is overwrought, melodramatic, and pompous, but what do you expect when you're adapting William Styron's overwrought, melodramatic, and pompous novel? Pakula executes the plot faithfully and actually shows some signs of restraint when he could have over-milked the sentimentality. (The milking of it is a given.) Second, he makes masterful use of Nestor Almendros' gorgeous cinematography, allowing the film to resonate, even though it systematically trumpets that there's a whole lot more to the term "Sophie's Choice" than whether she should stick with her tumultuous lover Nathan or choose the new-found Stingo. The beautiful photography is reason alone to see this on the big screen. But, if you need more motivation, keep in mind that Pakula gets memorable performances from more than just Streep with both Kevin Kline, in his big screen debut, and Dallas native Peter MacNicol (recognizable to Ally McBeal fans), personifying, respectively, the hurt and the humanity of film. (SKJ)

Hacks
Writer-director Gary Rosen and actor Dave Foley are scheduled to attend.
Saturday, April 18; 7:30 p.m.

A McGuffin is Hitchcockian terminology for a narrative device that sets a movie's characters buzzing like honeybees, but in fact has little significance to the audience's interest in the movie. The script idea at the center of writer-director Gary Rosen's arch, verbally adroit satire Hacks is a McGuffin with all the trimmings, a vague but possibly sinister mystery pursued by a group of unemployed TV writers in order to co-opt it for a television script. Stephen Rea, whose eyes are bleary and soulful at the same time, gives a typically engrossing performance as a pill-popping, emotionally wrecked network writer-producer who witnesses the mystery and is propelled into the arms of a sarcastic, possibly endangered woman (the always priceless Illeana Douglas). The promise of employment by Rea invites the participation of his treacherous TV writer friends Dave Foley and John Ritter. Hacks is a furious, impressive tap dance of one-liners flung by damaged, desperate egomaniacs who attempt to convert the movie's every little plot twist into a script element. Foley is, as usual, a skillful smart-ass, and Ritter is unexpectedly effective as a bearded, tinted-specs sleazoid who defends the power of institutions like marriage, religion, and syndication. Tom Arnold, once again proving he was genetically predestined to play wisecracking movie sidekicks, steps in as the agent who's courting them all. When you're perusing the USAFF schedule for the best places to spend your money, mark the hilarious Hacks as a best bet. (Jimmy Fowler)

Shopping for Fangs
Directors Quentin Lee and Justin Lin are scheduled to attend.
Saturday, April 18; 10:15 p.m.

Amazing. UCLA film-school grads can make a decent film. Quentin Lee and Justin Lin's Shopping for Fangs may be uneven, but it's often worth the rocky ride. It's a loose, Cassavetes-like look into the lives of three very disparate individuals floundering in contemporary Los Angeles: a housewife who suffers frequent memory loss, an accountant who believes he may be turning into a werewolf, and a blonde lesbian bombshell waitress who won't reveal her identity. By the end, their paths have crossed in some comically volatile ways. While we could all do without the Tarantino-like gunplay standoff that wraps it up, this oft-meandering and predictable tale boasts some solid laughs, genuine warmth, and two excellent performances by leads Jeanne Chin and Radmir Jao. If anything, go to see Jao's ongoing creative responses to finding coarse body hair sprouting aggressively over his once-smooth body. (Christina Rees)

Thugs
Texas Filmmaker's Showcase
Director Blake Calhoun and cast are scheduled to attend.
Saturday, April 18; midnight (12:15 a.m.)

When screening a writer-director's first feature film--especially a director's low-budget, locally made, first-time feature film--you don't have high expectations. In fact, you have no expectations. You just look to see if there's something--anything--on screen that shows promise. You ignore the flat acting and low production standards. You don't care if the lighting is off or the sound mix hasn't been sweetened. All those things--actors, crew, equipment--can easily be improved with money. What you do look for is something priceless, meaning something that the movie world can't get enough of. You look for vision. If you're lucky, there's some inspired scene composition or good pacing. But that's rare. Usually, you have to turn to the basics: the script. And if a writer-director can write a good movie, he may have a chance to someday direct one. Out of 70 pages of script, surely there's some snappy dialogue, or an interesting character, or, at the least, a minuscule plot twist for a tired genre. Unfortunately, there is nothing like that in Blake Calhoun's Thugs, a so-called darkly comic tale of a longtime mobster who wants more out of life. The story is pedestrian, with all the character development of a porn flick with the naughty bits cut out. The only reason you won't guess the plot line is because you are too bored to bother. Calhoun makes the mistake of trying to liven up the non-action with Tarantino-esque "quirky" dialogue peppered with observations about the mundane world. So, the thugs discuss how they keep their hair manageable by rotating shampoo brands and debate how their lives parallel with J.R. and Bobby Ewing, proving that sometimes the mundane world isn't quirky--it's just mundane. Calhoun hints that he knows better. At one point just before the introduction of the only slightly interesting character--a greasy, long-haired hood with a terminal bald spot--the camera lovingly pans over a copy of the screenplay for Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers' great comic crime caper. Now there's a vision. (SKJ)

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