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Smaller, and with shorts, WorldFest/Houston cranks up its projectors

Once again, the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival is offering more of the same, only less. Continuing its evolution into the "lean, mean festival machine" promised two years ago by director J. Hunter Todd, the 1996 edition of the annual extravaganza will showcase approximately 44 features. That's more than 100 fewer than WorldFest '92 -- and maybe that's all for the best. This way, Todd insists, he can continue to be more selective about his lineup. And festivalgoers will not be frustrated by a schedule that offers too many choices in too short a time frame.

For the second year, WorldFest will unspool at the Meyerland Cinema (excepting, that is, some shorts and the 16 millimeter feature Seeking the Cafe Bob to be screened at the University of St. Thomas), a centrally located venue that -- in marked contrast to the Greenway 3 Theatre, the festival's former home -- is within walking distance of several restaurants, coffee shops and fast-food outlets. The action begins Friday with the Houston premiere of Jane Eyre, and continues through April 21 with the familiar WorldFest mix of foreign-language imports, American independents, potential sleepers -- and, of course, films you won't see again until you spot them at your friendly neighborhood video store.

If this is your first WorldFest, keep in mind a truism that veteran attendees have long taken to heart: sometimes the best movies are the least hyped. More than a decade ago, back when the event was known simply as the Houston International Film Festival, Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant Blood Simple played to an embarrassingly puny audience, simply because no one had heard of it yet. More recently, most festivalgoers ignored a quirky little 1992 comedy-drama called Pushing Hands -- the debut feature of Ang Lee, the filmmaker who went on to make The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility. Two years ago, the crowd wasn't much bigger for The Last Seduction, the deliciously nasty film noir that became both a cult favorite and a modest box-office success.

One change Todd has promised to institute this year concerns the short films. As in past years, one day -- Saturday, April 20, this time around -- will be turned over in the morning to showing the sort of movies that few people other than serious film buffs ever see. A couple of WorldFests back, shorts fans could have caught Bedhead, a comedic quickie by Robert Rodriguez of Desperado fame. This year, to give the shorts more exposure, Todd intends to show some with a number of the features. The short planned for opening night is 100 Years of Cinema, a black-and-white film in which a small boy, a la Cinema Paradiso, watches films, and the duties of a projectionist, in a rural South American theater. Though only eight minutes long, 100 Years of Cinema reviews in that time the history and power of Latin legends and Latin movies.

So take a long, hard look at the schedule before deciding exactly what you want to see. If you're venturesome -- and lucky -- enough, you just might uncover something special long before any of your friends.

(The films below are arranged by day and time of performance. Movies available for screening by Houston Press critics Joe Leydon and Edith Sorenson have been reviewed, and the critics' names follow their reviews. Films that were not available for screening are described from press materials and are followed by "Not Reviewed" in parentheses.)

Friday, April 12
JANE EYRE (U.S.A., 8 p.m.) In his quest to put some of the best of English literature on the screen, director Franco Zeffirelli (known for Shakespearean adaptations such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet) has moved forward a few centuries to light on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Since Brontë's name is occasionally tossed in with that of Jane Austen by the literarily unaware, some moviegoers might think they're in for another arch romp in the vein of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Hardly. Charlotte Brontë was a dark writer, and Jane Eyre is a dark book, one in which, among other things, little children die because people are mean to them. There's no way Zeffirelli can make Jane Eyre a bright romance. It can, though, be made into a good movie, and it was once before, in 1944, as done by writers John Houseman and Aldous Huxley, director Robert Stevenson and actors Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Agnes Moorehead, Margaret O'Brien and (briefly) Elizabeth Taylor. It'll be hard for Zeffirelli to match that lineup, but he does have William Hurt as Mr. Rochester along with Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane, not to mention Joan Plowright, Elle MacPherson and Anna Paquin, the youthful Oscar winner from The Piano. (Not Reviewed)

Saturday, April 13
DAVY JONES' LOCKER (U.S.A., 3 p.m.) Bil Baird's marionettes, who launched their career on the Ziegfeld stage and went on to such triumphs as "The Lonely Goat Herd" number in The Sound of Music, star in this wholesome and slightly addled pirate musical. Kids who enjoy the wholesome Wishbone program or stories from slightly addled grandparents will enjoy this undersea adventure. The moral is: money can't make you happy, but books can. (Edith Sorenson)

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