Film Reviews

USA Film Festival

Page 5 of 8

* 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.

9:10 p.m.
* 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)

9:15 p.m.
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.

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Jimmy Fowler
Arnold Wayne Jones
James Mardis