Film Reviews

USA Film Festival Schedule

Page 8 of 12

9:15 p.m.
The Plutonium Circus. This marvelous low-budget documentary about the effects of the Pantex nuclear weapons plant on Amarillo, Texas, borrows its look from the deadpan American Gothic stylist Errol Morris, its cheeky sense of humor from Roger & Me, and its mix of archival footage and old bluegrass tunes from The Atomic Cafe. Although its contents are erratic and disorganized, it manages to treat a serious issue--the fate of nuclear industry-based cities after the Cold War--with a pleasingly light touch. It's ultimately not a political tract about a nuclear facility and a surrounding city, but a humorous portrait of the people who live and work there. The film's gallery of quirky faces includes ranchers, farmers, PR flacks, a big-game hunter and memorabilia collector, a mournful cowboy poet, and a group of retro-'60s activists who charge Pantex with polluting the Oggalla aquifer, which supplies water to eight states. Director George Whittenburg Ratliff--an Amarillo native whose prominent, old-money family is continually ridiculed by one of the movie's recurring interviewees, a white-bearded, cantankerous, doom-talking anarchist who runs the world-famous Cadillac Ranch--displays a fine eye for sociological observation, allowing his subjects to display their eccentricity while steering clear of condescension. (MZS) Director George Ratliff in attendance.

9:20 p.m.
Wigstock. Drag is a love-it-or-hate-it affair--either you adore the preening, posturing artifice of men in cartoonish female attire, each one trying to outvamp the other, or you find the whole enterprise a patience-trying test in exhibitionistic superficiality.

Accordingly, director Barry Shils' feature-length documentary of the 10th annual Wigstock celebration, an outdoor New York cross-dressing extravaganza, has pretty much secured its supporters and detractors before the first scene even rolls. But to the credit of Shils and company, Wigstock offers enough truly informative between-performance interviews to establish a surprising diversity inside a community of attention-seekers. There are the drag queens who emulate famous women vs. those who create original characters, the real singers vs. the lip-synchers, the part-timers vs. the way-of-lifers. And then there are the hilarious moments--such as when Wigstock organizer Lady Bunny calls New York City Hall to ask if they can temporarily crown the Statue of Liberty with a gigantic wig in honor of the festival, or the ceremonial flight of a wig heavenwards on a bouquet of balloons in honor of a past performer who's died of AIDS. (JF) Co-star Jackie Beat is in attendance.

Tuesday, April 25
7 p.m.
*Crumb. Director Terry Zwigoff's documentary about underground comic master R. Crumb. See article "This Crumb takes the cake" for details. Zwigoff in attendance.

Silent Witness. Director Harriet Wichin and producer Christine York have managed to make an important but oft-traveled subject--the life of a concentration camp town decades after the end of World II--come alive with fresh details. The key to the success of this nonfiction feature about Dachau and Auschwitz is the director's skillful choice of editing rhythms, compositions, and sound clips; cannily stretching out disturbing moments and haunting images, she creates a visual fugue that envelops the testimony of concentration camp survivors and other experts in a cocoon of poisoned memory. This is an elegant, understated, very fine piece of work. Co-presented by the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies and the Jewish Community Center of Dallas. (MZS)

*Valley of the Dolls. See article "Lip Glossy" for details. Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello in attendance.

7:15 p.m.
Picture Bride. Evocative, funny, and touching, this historical melodrama from director Kayo Hatta stars Youki Kudoh (best known to American audiences as the Elvis-loving Japanese tourist girl in Mystery Train) as a Japanese teenager brought to Hawaii to marry a sugarcane plantation worker (Akira Takayama). The situation is awkward enough, but to complicate things, the husband sent an old photo of himself when arranging the deal, and the revelation of his true age repulses and alienates his young spouse, who already misses her homeland and hates the hard life of rural labor demanded from her in Hawaii.

But in a series of subtle, uninflected, sometimes achingly perceptive scenes, the two characters slowly build toward a position of mutual respect and trust. The progression is so natural you hardly sense it happening--which is why, when the story's emotional finale arrives, the flood of sentiment feels completely earned. The film is also worth seeing for Claudio Rocha's rapturous cinematography, which evokes some of the same pristine yet richly textured grandeur of Nestor Alemendros' work on Days of Heaven. Watch for veteran character actors Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Tamlyn Tomita (The Joy Luck Club), and Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune in supporting roles. (MZS) Director Kayo Hatt in attendance.

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James Mardis
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Edith Sorenson