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
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
*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.
Denise Calls Up. A comedy about six friends, one of whom has just received a sperm donation. Not available for review.
*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)
*They Shoot Horses, Don't They? This exhausting, downbeat story, populated as it is with a seamy, diverse collection of disgusting losers and hopeless wannabes--there are fewer outright likable characters here than in most Scorsese pictures--is as sweat-producing and tiring as the dance marathon during which it is set. This was Jane Fonda's first film after Barbarella, the sex sci-fi trash-wallow that nearly canned her career before it really got started. She was stunning as the nihilistic Gloria, but it was Gig Young, in the greatest departure of his career, whose role as the sleazy emcee won him an Oscar. (AWJ) Sydney Pollack in attendance.
Shopping. Every second of British director Paul Anderson's high-adrenaline teen-age gangster flick Shopping pants with envy at America's more glamorous problems with youth violence. Check out the soundtrack, loaded with insipid Anglo "rap" songs that parrot last year's gangsta material. Note the way filmmaker Anderson always traces his post-apocalyptic view from a skycopter, like the newscams that preserved the Los Angeles riots. Notice how the post-adolescent urban hellhole of video arcades, punk clubs, and abandoned buildings echoes the later, equally insipid American thriller Hackers. Indeed, Shopping offers a painfully sincere, shepherd's-pie version of the bubblegum sugar highs in Hackers, but without a similarly overwrought art design as compensation. (JF) Paul Anderson in attendance.
Saturday, April 20
Follow the Bitch. Six male friends, who have been playing poker together every Friday night for years, get a bit of a shakeup when one friend announces he's getting married, two others confess infidelities, and for the first time a woman joins the group, all to the dismay of the party's host and only spiritual constant, Bill. Although Bill is an obnoxious, pompous blow-hard--Eric Bogosian as played by Tim Curry--some of the other characters are surprisingly well-drawn, notwithstanding the tendency toward caricature. (The Krameresque roommate is the most odious, derivative example.) But while the dialogue is occasionally right on target, the entire episode feels fake and cheap. Like those to Village Idiots and Stonewall--also featured in the Festival--the musical score is simply terrible; not only is it repetitive and totally out of sync with the tone of the scenes it is meant to complement, it sounds as if it were written by a $99 Casio synthesizer set on "auto-compose." Normally bad music alone wouldn't necessarily sink a film, but the score is merely a symptom of a more serious disease: a presumption that affable, sometimes funny, fairly slick-looking drivel like this is what a feature-film festival audience is seeking. (AWJ)
The Way We Were. One of the weepiest tearjerkers Hollywood has yet produced, this 1973 Barbra Streisand-Robert Redford love story relegates the theme of blacklisting to a minor subplot, but all the actors are at their most earnest and sentimental. The Prince of Tides, directed by Streisand, seemed like a weak-willed tribute to this minor classic. (AWJ) Sydney Pollack in attendance.
Trinity and Beyond. The title may be suggestive of Buzz Lightyear's battle cry from Toy Story, but Trinity and Beyond is something very different: a compilation of declassified government film of nuclear testing from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. What's remarkable about the movie is that for 90 minutes it does not become boring watching dozens of nuclear blasts go off--in the air, the ocean, in deserts, and over Japanese cities. There's a primal horror to watching these events; you don't need a degree in physics to get chills thinking about the awesome power of the atomic bomb. But while relevant even today, Trinity and Beyond is better as an idea for a documentary than as a film itself. The director, Peter Kuran, has taken the footage and assembled it for presentation, but notwithstanding lip service to the technological developments that led to each new bomb's creation, there's precious little analysis going on here. There's a feeling of incompleteness to it, and you can't help but feel you're missing the real story in favor of a chilling episode of the old SCTV sketch, "Farm Film Blow-up." (AWJ)
Late Bloomers. This bittersweet comedy by the Dallas-based sibling team of Gretchen-Julia and Stephen Dyer was championed by local media, especially after this year's Sundance accepted the film for competition. The filmmakers, however, received positive notices but few substantial bites from distributors; Late Bloomers still languishes without a deal for commercial release. One suspects the cool reception to this tale of a love affair between the married principal's office secretary (Dee Hennigan) and the gym coach (Connie Nelson) of Eleanor Roosevelt High was triggered by the film's "square" (read "nonpolitical") treatment of lesbian love. Crap like Kids and The Brothers McMullen wins raves at Sundance for deliberate overstylization, while Late Bloomers tells a well-acted, patented shaggy-underdog story with a straight face--and gets screwed. (JF) Gretchen, Julia, and Stephen Dyer in attendance.
* Tootsie. Hands-down the funniest, most perceptive comedy of the 1980s, Tootsie is a masterpiece of precise comic timing, beautifully wacky plotting, zinger dialogue, and dead-on performances (including one by director Sydney Pollack as Dustin Hoffman's harried agent). After the screening, co-star Teri Garr will present Pollack
with his Great Director award. (AWJ) Sydney Pollack and Teri Garr in attendance.
* Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern. "What is success and failure in a life, and how do you tell the difference?" This is the question posed at the conclusion of Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, a documentary by the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Jean Jordan and Steven Ascher. Troublesome Creek takes its name from an awkwardly winding, twisting creek behind the Jordan homestead. The title is befitting this odyssey of the Jordan family, which hails from the outskirts of Atlantic, Iowa, a small farming town. Four generations of Jordans--spanning 100 years--have lived a sometimes modest, oft-times successful family life on this land. Now, as the fourth generation nears its natural closure, a new economic reality threatens its farming tradition. The usual villains inhabit this tale of farming woes in the late '80s and early '90s. Each of them--bankers, loan officers, siblings, and, if the natural course of things can be villainous, life itself--earn the viewer's disdain in this saga involving the filmmaker's family. In a remarkable testament to the farming community's respect for traditions, friends, families, and a host of others try to rally in the Jordans' 11th hour. On the day their farm is to be auctioned to repay bank loans, one old neighbor travels 120 miles in a snow storm to show his support. From this, a viewer would never suspect the final outcome of the Jordan family's ordeal. (James Mardis) Steven Ascher in attendance.
Ed's Next Move. A comic romance set in Manhattan. Screened with the short film, The Spartans. Not available for review. Director John Walsh and actor Matt Ross in attendance.
* In a Strange City. Director Chi Yin charts more sorrowful emotional terrain between the personal and political in Taiwan's evolving national identity with In a Strange City. Almost devoid of music, shifting between the morose and the hopelessly passionate, the film concerns a schoolteacher (Kuei-mei Yang) and a businessman with political ambitions (the dashing Winston Chao from Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman) who conduct a torrid affair in the middle of a campaign season. The film builds from a slow, luxurious exhalation to a sigh. In between, you may think Chao and Kuei-mei are the most beautiful creatures you've ever seen on a movie screen. (JF) Chi Yin in attendance.
Stonewall. A fictional story based on the seminal 1969 event that kicked off the gay-rights movement in America. See Jimmy Fowler's review, "This history's a drag." Actor Guillermo Diaz in attendance.
Back to Back. A bitter ex-cop and a Japanese gangster become unlikely allies when both are the targets of corrupt policemen and the L.A. mob. Not reviewed. Michael Rooker, Lloyd Keith, and director Roger Nygard in attendance.
* Brain Dead. Filmmaker Adam Simon, whose terrifically entertaining Sam Fuller tribute The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera also screens at the Festival, will be honored with a revival of his 1989 feature-film debut. This wickedly suspenseful psychological thriller cleverly manipulates two great strains of American cinematic paranoia--the technology-gone-mad warnings of '50s sci-fi and Hitchcock's persecuted man-on-the-run. Bill Pullman, a compelling Everyman long before While You Were Sleeping hit big at the box office, plays a shy neuroscientist tapped by his sleazy college buddy (who else but Bill Paxton?) to operate on a homicidal mathematician (Bud Cort) so the killer's former employees can tap his formulas. Simon is skillful enough as a filmmaker to poke fun at hoary suspense techniques while wringing out their last drops of effectiveness. (JF) Adam Simon in attendance.
Sunday, April 21
* Husbands and Wives. Woody Allen's midlife-crisis film--about two New York couples and the farcical, poignant ways they define their relationship--is probably most noteworthy for Judy Davis' sophisticated, emotionally volatile performance. But Sydney Pollack, as the man from whom she is separating, is simply great: confused, petulant, pretentious, sad, vulnerable, and testy. (AWJ) Sydney Pollack in attendance.
Short Film and Video Winners. For the 18th time, the USA Film Festival presents its National Short Film and Video Competition awards, selected by a special jury. Winning shorts and videos not available for review.
* Cadillac Ranch. Three estranged sisters (Suzy Amis, Caroleen Feeney, and Renee Humphrey) find themselves abandoned by a criminal father only to be reunited with him in his waning years. His parting gift to them is a host of trouble in the form of a corrupt former lawman (Christopher Lloyd). A silly, juvenile chase ensues, as the girls traverse the Texas landscape while searching for their father's hidden riches. Cadillac Ranch borrows from 1995's Boys on the Side--as well as many other clichs--on the way to daddy's gold, but it's still Texas. Somehow, that fact and the attractive cast make up for all of Cadillac Ranch's whining, poetic misdeeds, pseudo-psychological and -sexual situations, and that busty woman who thinks she's still in fourth grade. (JM)
The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blache. Another in the Festival's "Cinema on Film" series, this hourlong documentary by French-Canadian filmmaker Marquise LePage traces the all-but-buried contributions of Alice Guy-Blache, who at the turn of the century was not only the first woman writer-director in cinema history, but very likely the first individual to record a story: Her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, was a fantasy about childbirth that sold 80 copies. Narrated by Guy-Blache's granddaughter, The Lost Garden is tender, eloquent, but adamant about Guy-Blache's blazing trail, later walked by the likes of Leni Riefenstahl, Ida Lupino, and Dorothy Arzner. (JF)
* Who is Henry Jaglom? A documentary about the willful underground filmmaker. See Jimmy Fowler's review, "Basket-case studies." Jerry Workman and Alex Rubin in attendance.
Nightjohn. The latest drama from acclaimed director Charles Burnett, about a slave child who learns to read. See James Mardis' review, "Bitter roots." Charles Burnett in attendance.
Ruta Wakening. Several tales of love, lust, betrayal, and employment overlap at an Austin coffeehouse. Not available for review. Director Steve Bilich in attendance.
* The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera. A documentary about Samuel Fuller, who made some of the toughest films Hollywood ever saw. See Jimmy Fowler's review, "Basket-case studies." Screened with the Samuel Fuller-directed feature China Gate, about an attack on Communist munitions dumps in Indochina, which stars Angie Dickinson and Gene Barry. Adam Simon in attendance.
* Hate (La Haine). A French film that follows 24 violent hours in the lives of three friends. See Arnold Wayne Jones' review, "Intolerance."
Sleepover. This no-budget feature looks at adolescence, dispensing with the usual "teen movie" cliches. Not available for review. Director John Sullivan and producer Jim McNally in attendance.
Monday, April 22
Bandwagon. A comedy-music road movie about a North Carolina band on its first tour. Not available for review. Director John Schulz in attendance.
Last Summer in the Hamptons. Before you see the newest comedy-drama-confessional by self-proclaimed "male lesbian" Henry Jaglom, attend the April 21, 7 p.m. screening of the documentary profile, Who Is Henry Jaglom? That will help the uninitiated decide whether the 50ish Jaglom is a male-feminist pioneer who preserves the secrets of American women's lives, or a jive-talking poseur with a desperate need to control. Last Summer in the Hamptons features a cast of dozens, all of whom gather for a summer at the Long Island country home of a New York theatrical legend (Viveca Lindfors, who died after filming last year). In its mixture of interfamily sexual escapades and ceremonial tensions, the film suggests a bohemian version of Robert Altman's A Wedding. The screen magnetism of stage legend and '40s film star Viveca Lindfors--all square jaw, excitable eyes, and shock of snow-white hair--has not dimmed a bit, although director Jaglom records the performance not as a character study but more as a bull session from a legendary theatrical mind. Her role is entertaining either way. Gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz (The Substance of Fire) pops up as a playwright with shy Woody Allen mannerisms. Jaglom is a joy or a torture, depending on what you expect a movie to deliver. (JF)
Men of Reenaction. This routine documentary on Civil War reenactors seems almost formless, never rising much above what you might expect by turning a camera on at any event and having people talk into it. The film works best when its director, Jessica Yu, portrays the drama and theatricality of the weekend warriors in Confederate and Union garb as they storm the fields, march in unison, or talk about how acting the part of a soldier sometimes transports them. But Yu's silence, her not commenting directly on the activities--there is no narration, only interviews with the participants--imprints her seeming skepticism on the motivations of these people. There's a frustrating sense that Yu has oversimplified the deeper motivations of some of the people who enjoy reenacting, or at least relegated them to the background in favor of the odd radicals on whom she chooses to concentrate. Men of Reenaction is the documentary from Yu not to see at the Festival; opt instead for her exquisite piece among the "Short Stuff II" compilation, Breathing Lessons, showing Tuesday, April 23. Men of Reenaction is screened with The Hard Ride: Black Cowboys at the Circle 6 Ranch. (AWJ) Jessica Yu in attendance.
* The Hard Ride: Black Cowboys At The Circle 6 Ranch. Hard Ride opens to the mythic rhythms of a blues guitarist and a patchwork rhyme on the mysterious, less-than-legendary black cowboy. Both images, one of Texas bluesman Alfred "Snuff" Johnson and the other of real-life cowboy Albert Franks, are testaments to the undefiled world portrayed in this documentary about the people and traditions of the Circle 6 Ranch in Redwood, Texas. A.J. Walker Sr. established the working ranch and rodeo in 1947 for the benefit of other black cowboys who were not welcome on the established rodeo circuit. Since that time, the ranch and rodeo have become somewhat of a black cultural Mecca--where the teachings and skills of a bygone era are extended to weekend crowds of black families by present-day black cowboys. Hard Ride covers a lot of ground in a short time through the stories and images of Circle 6. Most impressive among the cultural offerings is the preparation of a gumbo feast. Alan Govenar, however, has concocted an awkward sketch of the black cowboy's modern-day world. His 26-minute documentary skips and sometimes saunters through lives deserving much more. To Govenar's credit, Hard Ride leaves the viewer with many lasting impressions. In fact, it seems you just haven't lived until you've seen cowboys--young and old--battling each other in a contest that involves wringing the necks of chickens. Screened with Men of Reenaction. (JM)
The Gate of Heavenly Peace. A new documentary about the 1989 events in China's Tiananmen Square. Not available for review.
* From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Mark Rappaport's quasi-documentary about the beleaguered movie star's sad career. See Arnold Wayne Jones' review, "Goodbye, normal Jean."
* Short Stuff I. This set of three shorts is probably the most compact and diverse collection of interesting films the Festival offers. The first short, Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier, written and directed by Illeana Douglas, is a lean, funny little number about a needy actress (played by Douglas) and the cruel boyfriend who betrays her for a part in a movie. You can see where the film is headed well before it gets there, and the boyfriend is so broadly drawn as to seem unbelievable, but Douglas attacks her screenplay as late in the story as possible. The film feels almost like a scene from a larger movie, an audition piece, and that's probably the point, since it draws a smile while commenting on how actresses are treated in Hollywood. The Day I Shot President Kennedy has some of the best dialogue of any Festival entry--and an authentic period setting in Dallas. Stephanie Taylor portrays a mousy, disturbed dishwasher whose descent into madness sets in motion a chain of events so bizarre as to make Oliver Stone take pause. But the big treat of the compilation is A Close Shave, animator Nick Park's most recent Oscar-winning short. Park is the reigning king of stop-motion comedy shorts, and all his films feature the same delightful characters: a dotty inventor named Wallace and his sophisticated dog, Gromit. Park supplies A Close Shave with an endless variety of clever, subtle sight gags and creative plot twists, and his ability to present characters with clear personalities makes it the kind of short you could watch over and over and always get something new out of. (AWJ)
Only in America. This locally produced satire of Dallas life is crowded with a variety of topics to lampoon, and one of the treats of the film is that it leaves no sacred cow untouched. Directors Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin have fashioned a structure designed to skewer everything: media, shallow Highland Park housewives and their empty volunteering, the casual damage wrought by gossip mills, suburban hysteria over adolescent drug use, and televangelism. Although frequently not truly outrageous, Kirr and Martin seem to have conceived of the film as a cheeky poke at numerous social conventions: It's Repo Man as directed by John Waters. At times Only in America hits its target better than many films in the Festival--but just as often, bad acting damages it. Orson Welles once said that the most important ingredient in a successful film was the acting. This makes a lot of sense: No matter how interesting a film may look, a bad performance can destroy the necessary illusion from the outset, and the audience won't get involved in the story. That was true of Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III, and virtually every film in which Ali MacGraw has appeared. Only in America contains so much amateurish acting, entire scenes are nearly derailed. The best performers are the many idle teen-agers who smoke joints and exchange subversive ideas while their parents meet at the club for lunch in between attending M.A.D.D. meetings; they are the tightest, most fully formed characters, and their energy gives the film momentum. When the teens aren't around, the pacing becomes lurching, and some unwelcome scenes linger like a fart in a phone booth. Only in America isn't cerebral enough to be taken as a thoughtful meditation on hypocrisy; it aims somewhat lower, and aside from a self-conscious, cop-out ending that practically moots all that came before it, it's the perfect teaser for those who like their satire served lukewarm. (AWJ) Directors Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin in attendance.
Tuesday, April 23
* Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick. William A. Wellman may not be as well-known as John Ford, but he was, along with Ford, one of Hollywood's scrappiest directors, the kind who would insult a studio head to his face, or dump a truckload of manure in his office to protest the lack of quality of the scripts he was assigned. He was also one of the most prolific directors in the studio system, guiding 76 films, among them Wings, The High and the Mighty (the first airline-disaster film), the original version of A Star is Born, and Battleground. He was a walking clich of the macho director, a real tough guy and war hero who tempered his steel in the skies of Germany during World War I. This documentary, produced by his son, is a suitable tribute to him--if perhaps too loving as it looks at its subject through the forgiving lens of a child. In fact, aside from his notorious temper and rascally mischievousness, Wellman seems wholly vice-free, a family man who found time to make dozens of movies in between attending school plays. But whether it's a whitewash or not, Wellman directed some of the top films Hollywood produced during the '30s and '40s, and his films have left a lasting imprint. His gangster epic, The Public Enemy, most famous for the grapefruit-in-the-face scene, shot James Cagney to stardom in 1931, the year after Edward G. Robinson made Little Caesar and a year before Scarface. And The Ox-Bow Incident, a chillingly accurate profile of mob violence, has stuck with me since I saw it at age 11 because of its emotional power and sincere, affectless acting. While not groundbreaking, Wild Bill covers all the bases in showing the enduring quality of its subject's work. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Wellman's birth; it's about time for a reevaluation of his films, and this is an excellent beginning. Narrated by Alec Baldwin. (AWJ) Director Todd Robinson and producers William Wellman Jr. and Kenneth Carlson in attendance.
* Boom!. Mysteriously, there is only one film included in the Festival's new feature, "John Waters Presents." I suggest an entire festival chosen and personally introduced by Waters, long pigeonholed as a trash auteur but deserving recognition as a droll, whip-smart cinematic historian. Imagine Martin Scorsese as an articulate gay man who's honest about his Catholic love for violence and depravity, and you have some idea of how high Waters places on the ladder of independent American-filmmaking history. The writer-director stops in Dallas to introduce a personal favorite among truly monumental messes--the hilarious 1968 Joseph Losey-directed, Liz-and-Dick debacle Boom! Universal Pictures, which shot Boom! on a lavish budget, prayed that the success of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be carried over to another work by a great American gay playwright. Unfortunately, the Edward Albee of Virginia Woolf was on his way up, and the Tennessee Williams of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore had already drowned in the near-psychotic sentimentality his brilliant characters warned about. (JF) John Waters in attendance.
* Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. New York documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky won the audience award at Sundance for their 1992 feature debut Brother's Keeper, which profiled the squalid rural lifestyles of the three brothers Ward. Past middle age, the illiterate Ward brothers ran a small dairy farm inherited from their parents, and were thrust into the national spotlight when a fourth brother died mysteriously in bed. The documentary featured the perplexed, disgusted attitudes of residents of an upstate New York county who suddenly wanted to defend the brothers when they saw uppity national correspondents invading their business. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a second enthralling analysis of "white trash" America as it reacts to national TV's lust for sensationalistic stories. The tabloid press descended on West Memphis, Arkansas, after the bodies of three second-graders were discovered in a ditch beside the highway--naked, beaten, sodomized, mutilated, and repeatedly stabbed. When three local teen-agers who'd confessed an interest in Satanism were charged with the murders, the town began to generate wildly false rumors about homosexual orgies and dismembered penises in jars. Paradise Lost follows the trial of each teen-ager and spares no one involved--including the tiny community--from the damning details of their behavior. (JF)
My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports. "Remember" is the operative verb in the recent spate of Holocaust documentaries, and the way it's used, it's clearly intended to be an action verb. The two documentary Oscar winners this year--the feature Anne Frank Remembered and the short One Survivor Remembers, and even the recent after-school special, Children Remember the Holocaust, join this film, subtitled Remembering the Kindertransports, in reminding us, "Shame on you for not thinking of the Holocaust today!" There's nothing wrong with remembering that tragedy, of course, but the constant barrage of documentaries on the subject presents some interesting dilemmas for a film critic: How do you criticize elderly former refugees recounting the horrors of concentration-camp survival or, in the case of the kindertransports, small children (now grown) telling of how they escaped the Nazi regime by abandoning their parents in favor of political asylum in Great Britain? Is it wrong to say the movie was a bit too long to fully sustain my interest, or that the facts and statistics director Melissa Hacker recounts--while relevant and sometimes astonishing--have long since become old hat? Am I some kind of monster for feeling the slightest bit of indifference to this movie? (AWJ) Director Melissa Hacker in attendance.
* Mouth to Mouth (Boca a Boca). This farcical comedy from Spain, about a male phone-sex operator (Javier Bardem) and the intrigue that follows him, goes right in every place that Spike Lee's recent fiasco Girl 6 went wrong. The similarities in the setup for both films are remarkable: An aspiring actor in need of money accepts the job of talking dirty to closet perverts, and convinces him/herself this is just another role to perform; complications ensue. But where Girl 6 was pompous and preachy--as well as stylistically bankrupt--Mouth to Mouth revels in a serious wackiness. Bardem, whose sexy performance in Jamon Jamon was the best thing about that film, plays the lead with aggressive passivity. He's pretty much a dupe in the classic film-noir vein, a likable loser so easily manipulated by women smarter than he that the clue to his real charm lies not in his cleverness, but in his fearsome resilience. Bardem looks like a cross between Raul Julia, Antonio Banderas, and Dean Cain, and the look is intentional. Director Manuel Gomez Pereira spends a good deal of time spoofing early Pedro Almodovar films, especially those in which Banderas played a dull, sexually ambiguous cypher. Pereira alternates the tone of the film between thoughtful drama, perceptive satire, and screwball comedy--it's the kind of film that Almodovar used to make. It's one of the most fun foreign films to come around in a while. (AWJ)
* Notes From Underground. Praise the heavens writer-director Gary Walkow chose not to muddle Dostoevsky's hilarious, bleak short novel with a lot of technical tricks. He remains acidly true to the source, even lifting whole paragraphs and conversations from the text, in this tale of a city employee (Henry Czerny) obsessed with his own, mostly unrealized potential for cruelty and his tentative relationship with a needy prostitute (Sheryl Lee). Walkow pays tribute to a warped classic, finding stark, simple visual equivalents to an already compelling narrative. (JF) Gary Walkow in attendance.
* Short Stuff II. The best reason to see the second part of the short-film collection is good enough to recommend the entire program: the documentary Breathing Lessons, by Jessica Yu. The subject of Yu's film is Mark O'Brien, a poet and journalist from Berkeley, California, who also happens to be confined permanently to an iron lung, having contracted polio 40 years ago. O'Brien looks like little more than a disembodied head floating at the end of a giant metal tube, and his faint, dreamy voice cuts through the air like a dull hum. But the beauty and pristine economy of his words, revealed in the story of his life and poetry steeped in painful truths, trumps his physical limitations quickly. His story transforms you: It's a pure "cinema moment," and maybe the best 35 minutes you'll enjoy during the Festival. (AWJ) Jessica Yu in attendance.
Voices. A documentary about the world of barbershop quartets, including Dallas' own Vocal Majority. Also screens on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Not available for review. Director Daniel Bushnell in attendance.
Wednesday, April 24
Village Idiots. The premise of Village Idiots sounds more contrived than the movie actually is: The star (Elon Gold) of the popular sitcom Mr. Mitch returns home to Lawndale, New Jersey, to make what appears to be a pretentious and pointless documentary about the darker side of a comedian. It pretty much goes off in every direction after that, hopping from one small-town resident to another with little rhyme or reason. The film is occasionally nicely rude, and for a short while captures the essential sitcom clichs of the Mr. Mitch show, but mostly it's random and patchy. Director Jonah Meyers too often draws attention to needlessly restless camera movements and marginal acting (though Gold does a great impersonation of Jeff Goldblum), so that the atmosphere he achieves never seems quite wild enough to sustain the movie through the rough spots. (AWJ)
Palookaville. A comedy, a la Bottle Rocket, about three friends who plot a heist. Not available for review.
Celestial Clockwork. A comedy in Spanish about a Venezuelan woman who runs off to Paris to become an opera singer. Not available for review. Director Fina Torres in attendance.
August. An adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Anthony Hopkins. Not available for review. Kate Burton in attendance.
* The Toilers and the Wayfarers. The Festival screens BBC director Nigel Finch's godawful Stonewall the same year it offers this humble coming-of-age story produced by Marc Heustis (responsible for the wildly successful 1992 documentary Sex Is). Shot in black-and-white, The Toilers and the Wayfarers was written and produced by German native Keith Froelich, who solves his own cultural-literacy deficiencies by setting the tale in the American-German town of New Ulm, Minnesota. The sexually charged friendship between two first-generation Americans (Matt Klemp, Andrew Woodhouse) is complicated by the arrival of a twentysomething German alcoholic (Ralf Schirg) whose relationship with a young man propels their pursuit across Minneapolis slums by the police. All three youthful characters float in a cultural nether world that parallels their sexual alienation from traditional families. The Toilers and the Wayfarers reinvents young gay love as a Godardian fugitive crime, and in the process reawakens our interest. (JF) Keith Froelich in attendance.
International Shorts. This is easily the least interesting collection of short films the Festival has to offer. The best of the lot is the first, En Garde, Monsieur. Basically just an excuse to mount some swashbuckling fencing scenes, it's full of the energy and flourish of the old Errol Flynn classics, with a trace of irony thrown in. (AWJ)
* Things I Never Told You. Performed in the key of indigo, Isabel Coixet's Things I Never Told You is a romantic comedy for people who have just kicked their anti-depressant pills. The mood is mellow, occasionally morbid, and the performances bring to unnerving life a series of characters utterly lonely and isolated by the decisions they've made. The central duo is an electronics-store employee (Lili Taylor) and a real-estate agent (Andrew McCarthy) who meet accidentally during a desperate phone call on a suicide-prevention line. There's also a disgruntled transsexual (Debi Mazar), and a thieving Federal Express employee (Alexis Arquette) who adores his neighbor. Things I Never Told You generates ample art-house appeal from its low budget because Coixet knows how to use basic film techniques to achieve painterly on-screen effects. (JF) Isabel Coixet in attendance.
Thursday, April 25
Heaven's Prisoners. The Fest concludes with what may be its weakest entry: the screen adaptation of novelist James Lee Burke's Heaven's Prisoners. The buzz on this film has been miserable for a long time, and with good reason: It's a dreadful mess. Director Phil Joanou's latest is a thriller for those who are easily scared and don't like to be challenged at the movies. (AWJ) Phil Joanou in attendance