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Houston On Screen

The Museum of Fine Arts' First Look: New Films Made in Houston is essentially a well-intentioned attempt to support local filmmaking. On view are four independent features, all made in and around Houston, primarily by first-time directors, who mostly used local casts and crews. Participants earned experience more than anything else, since budgets were minuscule -- in one case, $7,000. While Hollywood won't be knocking on anybody's door, there are reasons for more than family and friends of those involved to attend. Two flicks suggest potential. Two think they do. Buffs and would-be artistes can go to school on these.

All four filmmakers deserve some recognition simply for completing their projects under severe monetary and logistical constraints. Two serve as their own writers, with another credited as co-writer, but none have the makings of an auteur. Storylines aren't particularly original, much of the acting is amateurish and the press kits tend to reveal more about character and plot and theme than the films do. But with the longest of the four movies clocking in at only 94 minutes, they're essentially painless watching.

Actually, the 94-minute The Man with the Perfect Swing is the most effective. Writer/director Michael Hovis' affectionate comedy is the "mostly true" story about Anthony "Babe" Lombardo, a lovable schlump of a Houston duffer who, as the title suggests, thinks he's discovered the perfect swing. Though it relies on dubious developments as Babe strives to cash in on his invention, the movie has the satisfying feel of a TV movie. This means characters are one-dimensional, but it also means production values pass muster, both counts due in no small part to Hovis being a veteran of educational films and industrial shorts. He's particularly good at creating the clubby, insider feel of the hackers' world, and he elicits an endearing performance from Alley Theatre regular James Black, who fills Babe with the charm of John Belushi in his sincere mode. Swing is on par with its modest ambitions.

Kyle Henry's ambitions are big in Pop Love, a black comedy about a doomed love affair between a neurotic young woman who plays the flute (she refuses to call herself a flutist) and a failed pop-songwriter with a messiah complex. Henry's script is too portentous and far-fetched to be the sly psychological puzzle he intends, but he pulls out an impressive array of film-school techniques. An inventive opening credit sequence involving popped-up toast and rear-view mirrors; non-linear dialogue; jump cuts and flashbacks and flash-forwards to suggest characters' fragmented minds -- he succeeds at many of the substantial risks he takes, even if the film looks worth no more than the $10,000 it cost. His less effective machinations are like watching an unharnessed talent pay homage to influences; it's no surprise that Henry is a recent graduate from the Rice film department.

Tim Thomson could use a film department: his No Resistance is replete with ineffective camera angles and transition problems. This futuristic high-tech thriller wants to be a hip story about a cyberpunkish, black marketeering information broker. But the lingo about scoring and distributing and conspiracies and viruses rings false. And, computer graphics aside, the production values are so cheesy that they rival those of Ed Wood. About the only thing worth mentioning is that Channel 13 anchor Dave Ward plays a gun-packing bartender who says stuff like, "You're incommunicado, got it."

Since director Soodabeh Oskoui Babcock didn't write Someone Special (Herman Kluge did), she can't be faulted for how unfunny this romantic comedy is. It involves a nerd, computer dating, psychic connections, manliness retreats, hypnotherapy, infidelities and impotencies, and happy endings. What Babcock can be faulted for is encouraging cliched slapstick; falling into the beautiful-people casting trap; and making seemingly every Houston business venue into an advertisement. Like furniture polish, the film is glossy, but only deals with surfaces.

"Practice is everything," says the flute player to a student in Pop Love, "but if you don't develop any discipline you'll never be any good." That's the rub in First Look.

First Look: New Films Made in Houston plays through April 30 at The Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 635-7515.

 
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