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Viva la Vistas

Worth the trip: Side Streets, above, and Road Dogz are among Vistas' notable entries.

We should be ashamed for overlooking the Vistas Film Festival last year, its first in existence. In our haste to cover those in Deep Ellum and Fort Worth, and in our haste to once more bury the USA Film Festival, this four-day celebration of Latin film fell between the cracks, and we hate to think of what we--and you--might have missed. We say this only because after watching much of this year's lineup, we're astonished by the quality--such depth, such charm, such substance, such range, such wonder. It's unfortunate we don't have the room to write at length of all the films showing in the Vistas Film Festival, if only because so much of what we have been able to see has so delighted us that at least three movies--Under California, Side Streets, and Road Dogz--have restored our faith in the art of filmmaking. Any festival would be proud to contain a single one of the three on its roster; Vistas, bless the heart of organizer Rita Meno, has them all.

The 24-year-old SMU graduate has, all by her lonesome, assembled a roster that should be the envy of any local fest; the USAFF would be wise to consider Meno as its new artistic director, if she's fool enough to take the gig. The executive director of Vistas attended various Latin fests around the country, including those in San Antonio and Chicago and New York, on a tiny budget, and she came back with quite the bounty. Most of the films playing Vistas have no U.S. distribution; see them here, or miss them entirely. Meno estimates that 90 percent of the films screening at the festival have yet to appear on a screen in Dallas, despite the fact some are three years old.

"The basic goal of Vistas is to promote Hispanic film and culture in the film industry, but it's also to rally support for minorities in the film industry," Meno says, in between answering phone calls four days before opening night. "Latinos are lucky if one big film comes out a year. There are so many films being made by and about the Hispanic community, and they're not being seen by the right people. By making people excited about these films, hopefully it will change what's happening in Hollywood. Eventually, there won't have to be film fests to make these films more popular."


Cuban Women: Branded by Paradise This sometimes harrowing documentary by Mari Rodriguez Ichaso begins with the discovery of two tiny, decaying bodies on a small islet called Dog Key between Cuba and Florida. One of the survivors of this escape attempt related how the two unlucky girls had to drink salt water and eat raw meat that had been ripped from seagulls before they died of exposure. Its an explicit introduction to Cuban Women: Branded by Paradise, in which old and young, famous and obscure Latinas whove fled the island for various reasons relate their experiences with their native land. A dual morality is the psychological fatalism of all Cubans, says one woman, an expatriate writer living in France, to explain the effect of being asked as a young Catholic by Revolutionary leaders, Do you want to be Gods daughter or Fidels daughter? Another complains that Castros name always comes up when she mentions her heritage: I carry the whole Cuban tragedy with me everywhere I go. The two most famous interviewees are Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz, who was branded a non-Cuban by the regime along with all others who didnt return by 1960 (Im as Cuban as palm trees! she sniffs) and denied permission to see her dying mother; and Alina Fernandez, one of Castros numerous daughters out of wedlock. When asked if she has even a smidgen of reflexive affection for her father, she says without blinking, No. But I do pity him, the way I pity all evil people. October 13, 6 p.m., Medallion; October 14, 3:30 p.m., Medallion. (Jimmy Fowler)

Flight of Fancy Gorgeously shot, sumptuous in every aspect, Flight manages to soar despiteperhaps even because ofits broad brushstrokes. Even when this family film telegraphs where its headedand it does so often enough that you may want to brush up on your Morse codethe mood of magical realism is so charming and sincere, you forgive it completely. (Well, not completely. A line like, It will take a miracle for us to be a family, guarantees miracles aplenty in the last half-hour, but, trust us, it works.) Director and co-writer Noel Quinoneswith an assist from Tom Musca, best known for his collaboration with Ramon Menendez on the Stand and Deliver screenplaytells a pat tale, but hes smart enough to set it in on a wondrous location (a small Puerto Rican isle...weve already booked a flight) and embrace the corny, heartwarming aspects instead of trying to downplay them. It opens with a wedding between the widow Mercedes (the stunning Talisa Soto) and local plantain-field owner Frank (Miguel Sandoval). Meanwhile, Mercedes son, Gabriel (Kristian de la Osa) is distraught that his mother is remarrying, so much so that he and his young cohorts drive a truck through the outdoor ceremony. Tension builds as the wedding is postponed. Enter Dean Cain, a pilot whowith the help of a white-bearded spirit-Shaman guy...dont askloses control of his turbo-prop plane and is forced to land in said plantain patch. Cain, the Mysterious Stranger With a Past, must stay on until they can get his plane airborne again. Not surprisingly, Mercedes and Cain make illicit kissy-face. And Gabriel talks to his plane. Which talks back to him. And his friends find evil spirits. More magic ensues. It sounds hokey, butdidnt you read what we saidtrust us. It works. When that plane emerges from the gorge, flying straight up to heaven, you cant believe youll get tingly. But have faith: You will. October 14, 3:15 p.m., Medallion; October 15, 1:15 p.m., Medallion. (Eric Celeste)  

King of the Jungle Writer-director Seth Zvi Rosenfelds follow-up to A Brothers Kiss is filled less with performance than it is riddled with Oscar clips. John Leguizamo, playing the more-than-mildly retarded half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican Seymour, so overwhelms King of the Jungle its plot is a moot point; its like watching Leguizamos one-man show populated with big-name extras who only get in the way, among them Julie Carmen as Seymours activist mother and Rosie Perez as her lesbian lover, Cliff Gorman as his dead-beat-beat-poet dad, Michael Rappaport as his hustling best friend, and Annabella Sciorra as the mother of an assassin. (Marisa Tomei and Kids star Justin Pierce, who hanged himself last July, also appear. Even Spike Lee, who directed Leguizamo in Freak and Summer of Sam, makes a cameo from the sidelines of a Knicks game. Seymour fancies himself a would-be NBA star and hijacks the Madison Square Garden court during one of the films rare moments of warmth and humor.) Leguizamo is all twitches and spasms; theres not a bit of subtlety in his high-wire performance. By the time you get past itthat is, by the time you merely accept the stunt and stop looking for the wiresthe film bogs down in dime-store potboiling. Seymours mom, a woman who has devoted her life to protesting police brutality, gets offed by the most likely suspect, and Seymour spends the rest of the film on the run from everyone weve met during the movies first half. No critic should tell a filmmaker how to do his jobthis is Rosenfelds vision, his mission, for better or worsebut as soon as King of the Jungle slips from character study to lukewarm thriller, it stops being engaging. Its rare moments of quiet and contemplationwhen, say, Seymour sits at a bar, listening to and ignoring his fathers demands that he begin acting like a grown-upbecome lost in the tumult. You wish Rosenfeld would have ditched the second half and resolved the first half, but no such luck. In the end, the film with the biggest cast is also the festivals biggest disappointment. October 13, 9:30 p.m., Medallion; October 15, 5:15 p.m., Medallion. (RW)

Lenas Dreams Buried just beneath the surface of this charming, if slight and slightly predicable three-year-old film, is a Latino version of Hollywood Shuffle; only writer-directors Gordon Eriksen and Heather Johnston have made their satire more subtle. We get the point, without having it drilled into our brains: Just as filmmakers continue to cast African-Americans as prisoners and pimps, Hollywood (or, in the case, New York) relegates Latin women to parts that demand they be sassy and sexy, even when playing housekeepers accused of abuse. Lena (Marlene Forte) will take any bit part she can get; shes 32, and forever insisting shes one year or five years or a tomorrow away from ditching the actors life of waiting tables and sweating auditions and wondering if she got the role opposite Andy Garcia in the Broadway production of Castro. Her boyfriend Mike (Gary Perez) has already called it quits; better a gig selling insurance and buying a little stability than living check to check. Lena resents Mikes resolve: She knows hes right but feels hes given up; she sees his quitting as her own. Forte summons equal parts rage and sadness, and shes almost hypnotic, perhaps because Forte, like Lena, is a talent who deserves better. Shortly after this film was completed, Forte appeared in the unseen avant-garde film Bury the Evidence, billed only as The Naked Woman. And she was. October 13, 5 p.m., Medallion; October 14, 7:45 p.m., Medallion. (RW)

Our House in Havana Stephen Olssons documentary, perhaps the best at Vistas, is filled with ironies as gorgeous and educational as the film footage of Cuban high society in the 1950s it generously employs. Olssons star is Sylvia Morini, a voluble, theatrical 68-year-old woman given to fast judgments and sweeping arm gestures. The daughter of one of Cubas most prosperous sugar planters, she and her family-along with many others of the formerly wealthywere forced to flee their homes and possessions shortly after Fidel Castro rode victoriously atop a tank through the streets of Havana in January, 1959. A camera crew follows Morini and her photographer sonwho was 9 years old when they left the islandback to see what four decades of Communism have done to their old neighborhood. Our House in Havana has a nifty formulashow stock footage of, say, the lavish Havana Yacht Club in the 1950s, then scenes of its new guise as a littered public beach club, and finally a shot of Morinis horrified face. Interviews are conducted with the womans former butler, and employees in the punishing sugar cane fields of her fathers plantationthey have surprisingly flattering memories of their former employers but also confess that, for whatever theyve lost in intellectual and spiritual freedoms, their lives have been a good deal easier since the Revolution. Contemporary comments by anonymous youth at the bottle-strewn Havana Yacht Club indicate theyre on Sylvias side about state ownership: If you dont work for something, if its just given to you, its worthless, and thats how you treat it. This is what Sylvia tells one youthful beachcomber, and the fact that shes probably never washed a dish in her life, while lost on her, gives us viewers something to savor. October 14, 1 p.m., Medallion; October 15, 1 p.m., Medallion. (JF)  

Road Dogz Its both completely accurate and wholly inappropriate to label this film Dogz N the Hood. Yes, it has all the trappings of John Singletons (quick aside: What the hell happened to him?) wonderful 1992 urban drama: homies chillin, tilting back 40 ounces, talking shit, forever on the lookout for disrespect or some bitch upon whom a nut must be busted. But even though the structure is the samethat is to say, the lack of structure is much the same fashion as in Boyzthe differences are so numerous, albeit subtle, that they help make the film stand on its own. Dogz focuses on Danny (Jacob Vargas) and his two best friends, Raymo (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Alfonso (Greg Serano). Danny has weathered the drug-lovin lifestyle of his East L.A. neighborhood, and wants desperately to live his life right. He begs for a job at a bakery and shows up to work every day at 4 a.m. He councils his dimwitted friend Raymo to stay away from the new drug lord, Gramps, to no avail. But when his girlfriend, Lucy (a stellar Priscilla Garita), is accepted to NYU, he becomes tornsure he avoids the dead-end life of his neighbors, but its his hood, his friends, his family. He spends much of the film looking for guidance, which he gets from his grandfather, who tells him he could be a statue or a pidgeon, and from Big Joe, the laconic former convict who tells him to ignore his machismo and overcome his fear of a new, unfamiliar world. The tragedy that marks the films final moments is obvious but rings trueknocking the scene for its similarity to one in Boyz would be like cursing a sitcom for having chirpy white people in it. Besides, the films best moments, the scenes of real grit and humor and angst, come in its most intimate scenes. Having heart doesnt count for shit, Dannys father tells him. You still come out a loser. Its a sentiment that Danny and Dogz writer-director Alfredo Ramos disprove with style. October 14, 7:30 p.m., Medallion; October 15, 5 p.m., Medallion. (EC)

Side Streets You want to second-guess the Vistas schedule organizers for making Side Streets, cofinanced by Merchant Ivory Productions, the events opening presentationafter this remarkably assured, engrossing little comedy, hopes will be high enough to trigger nosebleeds in festivalgoers. First-time director Tony Gerber collaborates with scriptwriter Lynn Nottage (whose play Crumbs from the Table of Joy received an equally stellar treatment on the Dallas Theater Center stage this year) to present 12 hours spanning several New York boroughsStaten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattanand even more ethnic neighborhoodsJamaican, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Italian, and Indian. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson and any of a score of recent filmmakers who have used everything from raves to the five human senses to randomly intertwine the lives of strangers onscreen. Short Cuts and Do the Right Thing will inevitably be invoked when discussing Side Streets, but Gerbers jolly and poignant look at urban family life is more cohesive than the former and not one whit as exhaustingly strident as the latter. With a percolating soundtrack of world rhythms, Gerber guides a cast of unknowns into tender and frantic plights. An obese, dictatorial former star of Indian cinema hijacks the household of his meek, worshipful cab-driver brother; a Jamaican man sells his wifes family china to buy a Cadillac, only to have her lock the car keys in the empty dining room cabinet, with the key to that safe deposit box carried around her neck; a Puerto Rican butcher-shop clerk convinces his girlfriend that he is a high roller who can buy her a designer dress for a Latina beauty pageant; and a would-be Italian couture designer struggles to crawl from under the shadow of her world-famous high-fashion mother. When was the last time you saw a writer and a director who actually seemed to like the characters they created? Sympathy and unforced sweetness abounds, and something even more unusual occursa film overflowing with faces of color that doesnt take the state of race in America as its subject. Thats a valid topic, of course, but its nice to have that debate subsumed on occasion to the state of humanity. Dont miss this lovely, lovely film that has no U.S. distribution; it may be your only chance. October 12, 7:30 p.m., DMA. (JF)  

Split Decision A tragic boxing story seems redundant, like saying a tale about puppy dogs who survive a tornado is heartwarming. It cant be anything but. The sport is the last refuge for the poor kids too short to play football, too stupid not to take up baseball (utility infielders are millionaires, for goodness sake), too white or brown to play basketball. Its a sport with a great history, the event to which our grandfathers used to gather to listen on Friday nights, the sweet science that gave us the 20th centurys most important athlete, Muhammad Ali. It provides the drama of a first-round charity tennis tournament. Quick, name three heavyweights. One lightweight. That this movie makes you remember the name of featherweight Jesus El Matador Chavez is a testament to his amazing story more than to superb filmmaking, but its important nonetheless. Chavezs talearrested after a promising start in Chicago, shipped back to Mexico, smuggled back in by his dad, then moved to Austin, where he became a world-champion featherweight before being deported againis at once mystifying and terrifying. Its also one set firmly in the real world, where there are no easy sides to take and where even Chavez admits hes rightly paying for the sins he committed. All of which make his forays into the world of the ring, a world he mastered seemingly before he ever saw boxing gloves, all the more powerful. His cool savagery and elegance between the ropes make his halting, confused life outside the gym even more haunting. When his grandmother, living in Mexico, says of Chavezs desire to return to the states, such is life...they grow, and they fly, you hope shes right. You hope Chavez hasnt been shot down for good. October 13, 8 p.m., Medallion; October 14, 5:15 p.m., Medallion. (EC)

Under California: The Limit of Time The most striking and stirring film of this year belongs to last year: An award-winner on the festival circuit in 1999, Carlos Bolados work is that rare movie that lingers days after it ends, if only because its so easy to forget how elegiac and poetic this medium can be in these pedestrian, superficial times. To watch it is to wake up, to tingle, to bask in a filmmakers vision and joy; Bolado has made painting and poem, using celluloid only as a starting place. (Rare is the film that inspires such hyperbole, much less withstands it.) Under California is the tale of an artists journey south and beyond: Damien (Damian Alcazar) has loaded his truck, left Laguna Beach, abandoned his patient and pregnant wife, and driven to Baja California to find the grave of his grandmother in San Francisco de la Sierra, home of legendaryif not downright mythicalcave paintings. Hes chasing ghosts and running from them: He cant erase the image of another pregnant woman slamming against his windshield; though the accident was no fault of his ownshe was very likely sneaking across the border in the dead of nighthes overcome with guilt, and this odyssey is his penance. Even his wife demands he make such a trip: You have to come back to yourself, she tells him in a cassette shes inserted into his car stereo. She wants him to return, but not as half a man. The films first half contains dialogue enough to fill, maybe, a handful of pages; Bolado, who makes his directorial debut, lets the sights and silence fill in the blanksthe chasms in Damiens broken heart. (Alcazar, sporting a circular tattoo on his forehead, need say little; his damp eyes communicate just enough.) But Damiens journey doesnt follow a straight line: He torches his truck on the beach (as though he were making a sacrifice, he destroys it in a ring of fire) and walks along the sand and sea, leaving sculptures made of shells and whale bones along the way; its as though he leaves behind him a trail of shrines that, when complete, make him whole once more. Not surprisingly, Bolado has been compared to the likes of Buuel and Wenders along the festival circuit; he deserves such accolades for his ability to reveal what he need not say. Like Buuel and Wenders at their best, Bolado is a poet speaking only between the lines; we fill in what we bring, and we revel in what we take away. October 13, 7:45 p.m., Medallion; October 15, 5:15 p.m., Medallion. (RW)  

We Shall Not Abandon A sterling illustration of the difference between being religious and being spiritual can be found in We Shall Not Abandon, Jeffrey and Tanya Reschkes quietly compelling documentary that illustrates a mid-90s Chicago cultural clash. The filmmakers flash a discriminating skill for building fact on tasty fact as though they were the authors of a prize-winning newspaper series. The conflict we speak of here is not between ethnicities, but between the aloof and bureaucratic Roman Catholic Church and the Latino congregation of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral. On the west side of Chicago, the citys Mexican-American population sprung up around this institution beginning in the mid-1920scommentators assert that its fame spread to Mexico by the 1950s, and actually drew people with promise for support while an American life could be established. When in 1994 the Chicago archdiocese wanted to close St. Francis and merge it with Holy Family Church down the street, the congregation rallied, first with 4,000 signatures and then with live demonstrations outside the mansion (yep, they call it a mansion, and it looks like one to us) of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, Chicagos thin-skinned archbishop. We Shall Not Abandon incorporates a surplus of TV news coverage of the two-year battle to save St. Francis, as the congregation is at first ignored, and then outright lied to by the archdiocese. A demolition crew begins work surreptitiously, in the middle of the night, after parishioners have been promised a stay of execution, and dozens rush to plant themselves in a twenty-below winter inside the building. For those of us whove always been suspicious of The Church (any Church) as both business and administration, We Shall Not Abandon is a rousing reminder that the soul of religion is in the individual. October 13, 5 p.m., Medallion; October 14, 6 p.m., Medallion. Screens with Forgotten Americans both days. (JF)


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