What follows are brief reviews of some highlights from the USA Film Festival, arranged chronologically. The festival runs Thursday, April 16, through Thursday, April 23. All events take place at the AMC Glen Lakes, 9450 N. Central Expressway, except for the Master Screen Artist Tribute to Christopher Walken, which will occur at the Lakewood Theatre, 1825 Abrams at Gaston. Call (214) 373-8000 for tickets. This list is not comprehensive; consult the festival's official program for descriptions of events not listed. The capsule reviews were written by Dallas Observer staff writers Jimmy Fowler, Christina Rees, Scott Kelton Jones, and Robert Wilonsky.

Rat
Goodfriends
Geri's Game
Director Mark Lewis is scheduled to attend.
Friday, April 17; 9:30 p.m.

There's a wise axiom to keep in mind when going to a film festival: Go short, and at least it won't suck for as long. That doesn't mean that everything you see is going to be bad, but if it is, you know you won't have to waste as much of your life watching it before there's a chance to see something actually worth a damn. Case in point is this collection of short films. Only one of them falls into the nefarious suck zone. The others are respectively OK and good. Rat is the middle-of-the-road-er. It's an animal documentary, but not the typical fare you'll find while watching Animal Planet on the Discovery Channel. Director Mark Lewis tells the classic battle of humans versus nature, played out by four New Yorkers and their battles against rat infestations. Although the film doesn't take sides, it does make a solid case against New Yorkers. The movie is offbeat, creepy, and surprisingly funny, especially when dishing out "Pop-up Video"-like factoids. For instance, as one visibly upset woman worries about a rat biting her child, a caption reports that in 1996, 184 people were bitten by rats in New York. Then, after waiting a beat, it goes on: "In 1996 there were 1,102 reports of people biting other people in New York." Or while showing rats mating, the film calmly reports that male rats have been known to mate with a female rat until she dies of exhaustion. "Even then they have been known to keep mating." And, "like man, rats will sometimes display homosexual behavior when members of the opposite sex are not readily available." Ultimately, the biggest problem with Rat is that it's an hour film about, well, rats.

Unfortunately for the makers of Goodfriends, hearing some documentary talk about rats mating is more interesting than hearing the characters in this film talk about the women they are screwing, which is basically the gist of this short movie. Apparently styled after the Kevin Smith-school of cool, young guys rapping about life in the candid, vulgar way that cool, young guys do, this film, shot in Greenville, proves--if nothing else--that the word "motherfucker" isn't as funny as it used to be and that an audience can actually tire of hearing it.

The final piece is the Academy Award-winning animated short Geri's Game. Geri plays a tough game of chess, and when he takes on himself, he's determined to win, even if he has to cheat. Another dazzling display of computer-generated animation from Pixar, the folks who gave us Toy Story, this film packs more character development into a few minutes than the other two shorts could in 90. Be careful you don't miss it, because the entire film runs under five minutes. If you can't pop your head into the theater for a look-see, you can check out a sampling on our Web site. (Scott Kelton Jones)

The Parallax View
Great Director Tribute to Alan J. Pakula
Pakula is scheduled to attend.
Saturday, April 18; 5:00 p.m.

You think director Oliver Stone is paranoid? Step inside Alan J. Pakula's 1974 suspense thriller The Parallax View. Hack reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) stumbles upon not just what may be a conspiracy behind the recent "crazed lone-gunman" assassination of a U.S. senator and the "innocent" deaths of six witnesses, but a plot by a mysterious self-help foundation to bring potential assassins into the web of intrigue. Make sense? Of course not, and neither do the plot points, but that's 'cause just like Joe Frady, you can't see the big picture. You can't see the figures behind the scenes pulling the strings. You can't outthink the movie, because you don't even know what the movie is really about. Open your eyes! Pakula is playing the audience for a patsy! Anyway, The Parallax View is a steaming melting pot of mistrust. If there was something worth fearing in the early '70s--the rise of "senseless" violence, including the murders of our nation's would-be leaders, government cover-ups, mind-control cults, Warren Beatty's sex drive--you can find an allusion to it here, and it's all sponsored by a sprawling, faceless corporation. Considering we've had almost a quarter of a century to hone that dread--and heighten our love of action over logic in our movies--The Parallax View is still an absorbing view. (SKJ)

Sophie's Choice
Great Director's Tribute to Alan J. Pakula
Pakula and actor Peter MacNicol are scheduled to attend.
Saturday, April 18; 7:20 p.m.

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)

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
Director Michael Paxton is scheduled to attend.
Sunday, April 19; 4 p.m.

The late best-selling author Ayn Rand--The Bolshevik Revolution survivor turned Hollywood screenwriter turned pop philosopher--was a lot of things, many of them contradictory but none of them boring. To make a watchable documentary about her eclectic life isn't hard; to fully examine the implications of her controversial philosophies of "objectivism" and "individualism" and how they intersected with her devout atheism, rabid anti-communism (she endangered the lives of her own family when she denounced totalitarianism), and fervent pro-capitalism is a more formidable task. At two hours and twenty minutes, Michael Paxton's Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, narrated by Sharon Gless, zips right along with a combination of news footage, line animation, and interviews with Rand throughout her life, and with the assistants and disciples who knew her. The film, however enlightening to those who know little about the intellectual underpinnings of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, is a little creepy in the way it accepts--almost promulgates--her slippery attacks on altruism and the ironically fascistic underpinnings of her cults of individuality and masculinity. The unchallenged reverence of the project makes her look more like L. Ron Hubbard than Bertrand Russell, and the movie itself feels like it could double as conditioning propaganda in some future world ruled by macho, hyper-rational, narcissistic CEOs. Come to think of it, maybe Rand's revolution is already under way.(JF)

Disoriented
Director-actor Francisco Aliwalas is scheduled to attend.
Sunday, April 19; 7 p.m.

Filipino-American debut director Francisco Aliwalas plays Filipino-American pre-med student West Cordova, who juggles his domineering mother, drag-queen older brother, and shallow Japanese-transplant girlfriend while he studies for finals. Lighter than air, impressively acted, and often genuinely funny, Disoriented is a powerful testament to what can be shot on 16 mm film in less than a month on a tiny budget. It looks good. It feels good. We care about West's journey to solidify his identity in the midst of affectionate chaos. It has a professional quality young film grads aspire to, but seldom achieve. So it may be more a testament to Aliwalas' talent as a writer, actor, and filmmaker. Look for more from him in the future. (CR)

Between Marx and a Naked Woman
Sunday, April 19; 9:15 p.m.

Well, at the least, you'll get what's advertised in Between Marx and a Naked Woman (Entre Marx y Una Mujer Desnuda). This comedy about young communist revolutionaries in 1960s Ecuador (how's that for a premise?) does indeed begin with the narrator adoring a lovely bare-breasted woman and end with him engaging Karl Marx in a casual bench-side confession. Whether you get anything out of the Between part is another story altogether. The film is dense and often confusing, running the gamut between tedious realism and mesmerizing fantasy. In essence, the film is the narrator, a guy known simply as The Author, describing the book he is writing about his friends and himself, their lives, their loves, and their politics. One of his friends is Galvez, the dynamic leader, a paraplegic man of not only deep thoughts but also decisive actions--as long as there is someone to either push his wheelchair or piggy-back him around. Throw in a few more paradoxes (Galvez's desire for extreme government control versus his desire to satisfy his fiancee's reckless passion despite his damaged, therefore uncontrollable body; his call for revolution versus his party's political bureaucracy), and you have some fairly large billboards pointing out how ironic it is that romantic dreams never live up to the realities of life. But big billboards can be good, especially if you aren't well acquainted with the political climate of 1960s South America and need some sort of marker to assure you the movie is, in fact, funny. Ultimately though, as The Author finally acknowledges in the book he is writing, the story is much more entertaining when set against a backdrop of impossible fantasy than cold reality. (SKJ)

Susan Slade
Connie Stevens is scheduled to attend.
Monday, April 20; 7 p.m.

Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, and Bert Convy in a "racy" 1961 film about sexual passion, single motherhood, and mountain climbing? Sign us up for this installment of the USAFF's "Bad Movies We Love." But a videotape preview of the film reveals that, despite a sprinkling of hilarious dialogue throughout (doomed mountain-climbing husband to dove-shy Connie Stevens: "Oh, Susan, don't be jealous of a mountain"), Susan Slade isn't bad in the throbbing, compulsive way that leaves viewers aghast as they descend through each cinematic ring of over-ambition and misfire. Rather, the film is bad in a flat, dry, overlong, camp-gets-old-really-quick way. To top it off, a young Connie Stevens is actually rather touching, at least in the first part of the film, as a timid but sexually curious young woman who is propelled among a variety of bad-boy types, but repeatedly collared by her domineering mother (Dorothy McGuire, who's kinda chilling in the way she mixes affection and control). The little flashes of genuine talent that blink through Susan Slade diminish rapidly as the film careens toward its soapy ending, and a full house of trash aficionados might just provide the chemical reaction to turn this film from plodding to truly, beautifully wretched. But after a spin in the ol' VCR, Susan Slade proves it just isn't bad enough to love. (JF)

The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit
Director Stuart Gordon and actor Edward James Olmos are scheduled to attend.
Monday, April 20; 7:10 p.m.

If you've ever wondered why the works of Ray Bradbury only occasionally make it to the big screen, you haven't read any of his amazing fiction: In two paragraphs, the guy can describe a raging tyrannosaurus rex or a hovering spacecraft with all the conciseness (and more pure poetry) than any computer animator. But his flights of fantasy wriggle underneath our skin so successfully because that's where they came from: Bradbury is a moralist, in the sense that he's concerned with how people's behavior affects the quality of their lives. Who knew that director Stuart Gordon, creator of the hilarious gorefest Re-Animator, could not only figure it out, but also corral a top-drawer ensemble of comic actors to execute it gracefully on screen? The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit may sound a little too sweet to you, but it's a hilarious fable about a group of unemployed Mexican-Americans--including a dreamer (Joe Mantegna), an intellectual (Esai Morales), and a Latino version of Pig Pen (Edward James Olmos)--who pool their money to buy one beautiful, gleaming vanilla-ice-cream colored suit. Each man sees his dreams come true while decked out in the suit, which eventually turns the sartorial conspirators against each other. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit is a rich, charming surprise, especially for the revelatory comic skills of tough-guy characters actors like Mantegna and Olmos.(JF)

Strawberry Fields
Director Rea Tajiri is scheduled to attend.
Tuesday, April 21; 9:05 p.m.

Road trips. Acid trips. Dynamite. Hippies. Japanese internment camps. Wha?
Set in the early '70s in Chicago and the Midwest, this Japanese-American tale starts awkwardly but builds slowly in hypnotic effect. The dramatic narrative debut of noted video-film artist Rea Tajiri, Strawberry Fields posits an emotionally multi-layered problem: the rebellious teenager, Irene (Suzy Nakamura), a pyromaniac whose younger sister died a few years earlier, becomes obsessed with finding out about her Japanese ancestry--especially her grandparents' stay in an American WWII internment camp. At the same time, she's being haunted by the ghost of her sister and she's discovering her sexuality with her sweetly passive boyfriend, Luke. Her jerky swings between sullen quietude and explosive tantrums make her a shrill and unpredictable protagonist, but over the course of the film's 90 minutes, you begin to sense that her torment springs from a place far deeper than even she can grasp. Well-acted by the entire cast and beautifully scored, this is a low-budget gem of thoughtful, organic moodiness.(CR)

Where the Boys Are
Paula Prentiss is scheduled to attend.
Wednesday, April 22; 7 p.m.

Any excuse to get woefully undersung Eve Arden-heiress Paula Prentiss back into the spotlight is fine with us, but did USAFF have to schedule her appearance with the 1960 cult classic Where the Boys Are as part of "Bad Movies We Love?" While this year's other trash selection, the Connie Stevens vehicle Susan Slade, is just bad enough to be boring and no more, Where the Boys Are is rather revolutionary pop ephemera, dated in its hairdos, lingo, and music but evincing a frankness about how young women are expected to juggle sexual desires and gender role-playing. Throw in references to condoms and menstrual cycles as well as a soundtrack by Third Eye Blind and The Wallflowers, and you could transplant stars Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux, Connie Francis, and Dolores Hart onto the Fort Lauderdale shores of the '90s with relative ease. The fact that Where the Boys Are was packaged as teenage celluloid diversion makes it seem even more subversive, all the talk about imminent wifely duties included. This fascinating post-'50s fluff is still a smarter beach babe bonanza than Baywatch, currently the most-watched TV show in the world. (JF)

Tell About the South
Wednesday, April 22; 7:10 p.m.

Some of us, like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, have always known that despite (or perhaps because of) the South's tradition of institutionalized bigotry, that American region has produced the greatest prose work of the 20th century. So fans of emotionally complex, mythic Dixie letters will be reassured, but not really informed, by Tell About the South, a literary documentary that mixes interviews with contemporary writers like Pat Conroy, Reynolds Price, Rita Dove, and Shelby Foote with narrated profiles of Southern wordsmiths as diverse as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston. Faulkner is undoubtedly one of the great novelists of the 20th century, but because everybody already knows that, the length at which the filmmakers dwell on him is unnecessary. More impressive is the way in which Tell About the South strings blues legend Johnson onto the same jeweled necklace as chronic over-writer Thomas Wolfe and makes them seem perfectly reasonable companions in the Southern tradition of storytelling. Toomer and Hurston had to leave their birthplaces and make their literary names during the Harlem Renaissance, yet both continued to make black life in their home states their primary subject. They inadvertently served as ambassadors for a tradition that wouldn't let them flourish. Tell About the South feels ambassadorial too, a documentary designed for anyone who still believes, as blowhard H.L. Mencken did, that the American South is a "stunning vacuity." (JF)

Somewhere in the City
Director Ramin Niami is scheduled to attend.
Wednesday, April 22; 8:50 p.m.

Manhattan on screen usually looks cleaner, brighter, and friendlier than it is: Woody Allen's New York, Neil Simon's New York, Jerry Seinfeld's New York. Sure, there are exceptions, like Martin Scorsese's Big Rotten Apple, so grim it's almost stylized. But the metropolis of Somewhere in the City, a modern-day Manhattan without filters or added dirt, looks like the real thing: complex, frenetic, abrasive, and occasionally inspiring. Based loosely on Maxim Gorki's The Lower Depths, this mid-budget debut of filmmaker Ramin Niami follows the overlapping lives of six residents in a tenement building. Sandra Bernhard plays Betty, a therapist who talks at length about her own screwy and disappointing love life during patient sessions; Marta (Swann in Love's Ornella Muti) exchanges her body for rent with the building's superintendent; Marta's swanky, thieving lover Frankie (Robert John Burke from Thinner) plans a heist that would allow their escape from the city; Graham, an aging, frustrated-yet-gifted actor (Peter Stormare) thinks he may be on the verge of his first big movie break; young Che (Paul Anthony Stewart) hides in the basement organizing a communist revolution; LuLu the beautiful Chinese student (Bai Ling) hopes to secure a green card through a quick contractual marriage. Not quite formulaic, but every element a bit too familiar, Somewhere in the City's best moments spring not from its screwball plot elements but from the even, engaging performances by all the leads. But the uncredited star is the city itself, looking more immediate and textured than usual: smell it, hear it, taste the air--and be happy you're only visiting. (CR)

Hijacking Hollywood
Actor Mark Metcalf is scheduled to attend.
Wednesday, April 22; 9 p.m.

Henry Thomas starred in one of the most personal and most popular films ever made, a little something called E.T.--which, in the end, was bound to make the rest of his resume seem pretty lame by comparison. But when Thomas turns up in low-budget yawners such as this one from first-time director-writer Neil Mandt (who made his bones covering the O.J. trial for ABC-TV), you're reminded just how far the fall can be. Thomas stars as Kevin Conroy, a Detroit moviemaking wannabe who lands a production assistant gig on Moby Dick 2: Ahab's Revenge and figures out he can finance his own film by holding the film ransom. A cross between Swimming with Sharks and Secret of My Success--but with a twist, as they say in pitch meetings--this is one of those movies about movies that every waiter in L.A. dreams of making. Too bad they sometimes make them. Hijacking Hollywood, which also stars former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson and Animal House's ROTC Nazi Mark Metcalf, has been available on video since February but never opened in Dallas, which should give you some idea of its...quality. (Robert Wilonsky)

A Fish in the Bathtub
Tribute to Joan Micklin Silver
Silver, along with writer-director Ray Silver and actress Anne Meara, is scheduled to attend.

Thursday, April 23; 7:15 p.m.

Joan Micklin Silver has made one great, maybe even classic film--1975's Hester Street, which featured a stunning performance by Carol Kane as a turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant struggling to adapt to America--but that's not part of the USAFF tribute to Joan Micklin Silver. Included in the tribute are Crossing Delancey and Chilly Scenes of Winter--two Silver movies so light, you have to pull the film cans off the ceiling before you can thread the projector--and her latest effort, A Fish in the Bathtub. Watching this sitcommy film reminded us of an old joke about nothing being more boring than watching old people have sex. Well, it's not true. Watching old people break up their 40-year marriage over cigar smoke in the house and then spend 90 minutes of screen time figuring out if they want to put it back together again is far more tedious, at least as presented by Silver. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but Fish plays more like a TV show plopped between syndicated reruns of The Golden Girls and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than a feature film. The cast doesn't help the correlation. Long-time comedy (and life) partners Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara star as Sam and Molly Kaplan, and the rest of the cast is peppered with other familiar faces from the boob tube, including The Jeffersons' Mr. Bentley, Paul Benedict. Stiller does the same eccentric, brash loudmouth character that he does as George's father on Seinfeld. But he doesn't have the sitcom's Emmy-winning writers backing him up here, just first-time screenwriters who are "zany" enough to have him dump a giant fish into his bathtub in the opening minutes but uninspired enough to let it flounder underused the rest of the film. Puny side stories involving the love lives of the Kaplans' adult children make sure the younger audience can relate, but from the tone you know all the misunderstandings will work themselves out nice and neat right before the credits roll--just like on

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