By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Get ready, film fans. The indie invasion of Houston is under way.
The curtains go up Friday, April 9, on Three Seasons, but it will begin the 32nd season for the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival. The opening film, an unexpected classic of moral simplicity and cinematic beauty, marks a grand return for filmmaker Tony Bui. Only two years ago he left the Houston festival with his first prize anywhere for the short Yellow Lotus; now he has the likes of Harvey Keitel in his cast.
Bui's screening jump-starts nine days of independent filmmakers displaying 40 feature films, and twice that many shorts. Plan on an ending that is satisfyingly Wicked, Michael Steinberg's closer about incest within the confines of a gated community.
While the festival touts a salute to its five Canadian films, Poland has as many movies on display. The special attraction is a Polish import, director Agnieszka Holland, who crafted the 1990 cinema classic Europa Europa. As part of Poland's new wave of filmmakers, she has captured an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe award and major honors at heavyweight film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Montreal.
Among her works receiving widespread United States notice are Angry Harvest, Olivier, Olivier and The Secret Garden. Her most impressive film at this festival is Fever, an intriguing if murky look at bomb-tossing radicals of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.
Filmgoers can find other international stops within the festival screens at General Cinema Meyerland. Bombay is the setting for The Sixth Happiness, a daring and delightful tale of a sardonic boy battling handicaps as well as his family's fascination with all things British.
Paulina awaits to usher viewers into an unusually powerful examination of rural Mexican society, while My American Vacation melds the Far East with the American Midwest. In that one, a colorful Taiwanese grandmother takes the trip that makes peace with her Americanized daughters.
Spliced in with the screen action are several seminars focusing on the finer arts of filmmaking. But the movies make the festival; these selections were culled from about 400 cinematic candidates.
Most entries lack the gloss of Hollywood. Some of them had budgets that would not even buy a respectable gown for Oscar night. While many of these films arrive as unknown quantities, that same quality of not knowing is present at almost every film festival, which, of course, is part of their appeal.
In these days, when moviegoers can feel bludgeoned by PR companies into seeing movies they'll live to regret, there is real delight in walking curiously into a darkened cinema and simply taking a chance on art.
WorldFest runs from Friday, April 9, to Sunday, April 18, at General Cinema Meyerland Plaza, West Loop 610 at Beechnut. (Where noted, some films will screen at St. Thomas' Episcopal School behind the Meyerland theater.) Matinee $4, evening $6.50. Multiscreening passes available at varying prices. (713)965-9955.
The delightful My American Vacation captures the warmth, tenderness and total raving lunacy that make for the most intimate family relationships, and it does it all without the goopy cheese factor that often characterizes so many films about the ties that bind.
The story centers around Grandmother (we never know her actual name), who is flown to the United States from her native Taiwan by her extremely Americanized daughters: the bossy and recently divorced Ming Yee (Kim Miyori) and the artsy, funky writer, Ming Na (Deborah Nishimura). In celebration of their mother's 70th birthday, they decide to go for a trip in an RV camper (they choose the star-spangled "Bicentennial Special"). Along for the ride are Ming Na's husband, Henry (Dennis Dun), and Ming Yee's preadolescent daughter, Melissa (Sasha Hsuczyk).
As the characters drive through the beautifully shot American Midwest, they bicker and chat, explore and make fun of one another. And, as time goes on, the film becomes less about a vacation and more about an examination of the various parts of their complex family web. Ming Na thinks her mother always liked Ming Yee better. Ming Yee can't explain her philandering ex-husband to young Melissa. Grandmother can't forget her dead husband, who visits her in luscious dream sequences throughout the movie. And so on.
Tsai Chin as Grandmother is reason enough to see this film. Chin, also superb in The Joy Luck Club, is tough and hilarious as the sassy, peacemaking, tai chi-loving matriarch. She is the bond that holds the family together, but she's no soft-spoken old woman. The cautionary comebacks she uses with her fighting daughters ("I am old and will die soon") provide much of the film's dry humor.
The entire cast is excellent, but Sasha Hsuczyk is outstanding as the precocious Melissa. Her character is young enough to fearlessly explore and ask questions, yet old enough to sense not all is right with her family. It is especially moving to watch her try to understand why her bitter mother now so publicly hates her father. She is not a "child actor" in that rehearsed miniadult way but is instead remarkably real and one of the film's many highlights.
As the family works through various issues, the gentle mix of American and Taiwanese cultures also adds another layer to the film. Also notable is that, despite Henry's presence, this is a very female-oriented movie that honestly explores what are often some of the most strained of family relationships (mother/daughter, sister/sister). However, it's no "chick flick," in the pejorative sense. Instead it is a very special "human flick" with a real sense of freshness. (Jennifer Mathieu)
My American Vacation Sunday, April 11, at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 7 p.m.
Fever is the most impressive of the Agnieszka Holland films on display. It follows a series of circa-1905 radicals and bomb-throwers on their difficult daily rounds in an unnamed Eastern European country. The specific politics of this Polish film might be a little murky for American viewers, but lines such as "It is so stirring to kill evil with a bomb" speak for themselves.
Unlike Europa Europa, this is not a tightly plotted film. It drifts from one knot of radicals to another. You're never quite sure when one little story is over and the next one is about to begin, which leaves the viewer feeling appropriately unsettled. The bombers are virtually nameless and are reduced to psychological states. "I bomb to give the masses a sense of power," says one. But Holland humanizes her characters by investing the film with a sly sense of humor.
Particularly touching is her story that follows Wojtech (the fact that he has a name makes him unique) as he comes to the city (we don't know which -- is it Warsaw?) in search of the revolution. Everyone tells him that, following a police crackdown, the revolution has gone so far underground that it might as well be buried. But Wojtech insists so loudly on becoming a radical that he gets himself needlessly hung. His execution is carried out in distancing, matter-of-fact detail and is unlike any cinematic hanging I've ever seen.
The film ends rather arbitrarily and isn't quite at the level of Europa Europa, but it's still an intriguing look at an era that now seems as distant as King Arthur's court. In both content and style, this is the most "foreign" of the films on view in WorldFest. (David Theis)
Fever Saturday, April 17, at 9 p.m.
Count on the Germans for efficiency, even with emotions. Writer/director Michael Bartlett has come through in grand style with the compelling tour of methodical madness in The Little Girl Who Fell from a Tree.
Bartlett opens with a woman systematically cleaning up after her massacre of a family at a chalet in a lush German forest. The scene shifts to an urban apartment house, where Ben, a gynecologist, and his bubbly wife, Jenny, befriend a quiet tenant, Lisa.
Watch out, an elderly woman warns Lisa about her new companion. Jenny has been to the psycho ward. She needs medication, slips in and out of sanity. In her obsession to have a child, she has even resorted at times to padding her tummy to fake pregnancy.
Jenny is neurotic, naturally, but she turns out to be vulnerable rather than villainous. Lisa emerges as the psychopath in grand style befitting 1987's Fatal Attraction and 1992's Single White Female. As Jenny innocently continues their relationship, Lisa seduces her weak-willed husband, dragging him ever deeper into her diabolical desires. She packs Jenny's suitcase with cockroaches and even fabricates a sinister baby-for-sale scheme.
Bartlett takes the film beyond a one-dimensional trek through terror. Flashbacks reveal the roots of Lisa's twisted psyche: a childhood of hiding in the safety of a huge tree until her drunken father takes her down in his own sexual depravity.
While the unmasking of Lisa is a bit abrupt, the film's pacing builds effective tension for the final jolting twist. It is believable and efficient -- Bartlett would have it no other way. (George Flynn)
The Little Girl Who Fell from a Tree Friday, April 16, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 9 p.m.
Naturally Native is the first feature film to be funded by a Native American tribe, the Mashatucket Pequot of Connecticut. Given its frankly didactic purpose -- the film wants to make points about the way American Indian people are viewed and treated, by corporate America, by New Age America and by other Native Americans -- the film is surprisingly engaging.
Directed by Jennifer Farmer and Valerie Red-Horse, it tells the story of three sisters who were adopted out of their reservation when their mother died of alcoholism. Twenty years later, the three sisters are still coming to grips with their Indian-ness, which each feels to a different degree. One sister is a newly minted MBA, and another knows how to make herbal remedies and beauty products the Native American way. The third sister, badly in need of a new self-image, tags along as her siblings try to start a business marketing their beauty products.
There are moments of great sincerity and a welcome dose of humor (especially in their clash with an insensitive New Ager). The acting isn't terribly strong, but the film is certainly worth a look for its level of insight. (David Theis)
Naturally Native Saturday, April 10, at 3 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 9 p.m.
Seasons to Savor
Opening night could scarcely be stronger for WorldFest. Vietnamese-American filmmaker Tony Bui will be on hand for the screening of his ravishing Three Seasons, which is apparently the first United States film to be shot entirely in Vietnam. The Bui-WorldFest connection is a strong one. Two years ago, he took to honors in the festival's short-subject competition (his first prize anywhere). That short, Yellow Lotus, blossomed into Three Seasons, his first feature.
Shot in and around Ho Chi Minh City, Three Seasons interweaves four stories, beginning with that of a Vietnamese woman who picks lotus blossoms in an area pond and later sells them downtown. She sings as she works, and one day the Teacher, the mysterious owner of the blossom pond, calls her into his forbidding home and tells her that her singing has reawakened memories of his childhood. This is particularly poignant for him, as he's about to die of leprosy. His fingers have fallen off, so he can no longer write his lyric poetry. The young woman volunteers to be his surrogate fingers and to copy down the poems he has continued composing in his head. In doing so, she gives the Teacher a last taste of life before he shuffles off the mortal coil.
The other stories are redemption tales as well. Harvey Keitel is on hand as a veteran of the war who has come back to Saigon in search of the daughter he has never met. Another story has a cyclo (a sort of rickshaw) driver winning back the soul of an embittered prostitute. And, finally, there's the street kid who can't come in out of the rain until he finds the crate full of trinkets that has been stolen from him.
Not all of the stories get resolved with equal grace. The Keitel strand, for example, is left slightly dangling. But in the film's moral simplicity and its aching beauty (Lisa Rinzler is a cinematographer to remember), Three Seasons is that rarest of treats: the unexpected masterpiece. (David Theis)
Three Seasons Friday, April 9, at 7 p.m.
Like The Sixth Happiness, Paulina is the kind of film that really needs a festival. An engrossing combination of fiction and documentary, it opens with an actress playing Paulina Cruz Suarez, who in real life was the Mexico City maid to director Vicky Funari's family. As Paulina sinks her choppers into a man's hand as he tries to molest her during a bus ride home -- and as she remembers how her mother advised her to visit the dentist to keep her teeth strong for just such occasions -- the actress morphs into the real Paulina.
The film then becomes a journey down a dark memory lane, as Paulina remembers her early exposure to the perfidy of men. When she was just a nine-year-old, the village strongman was already coming on to her. When an otherwise innocent childhood fall ruptured her hymen, her family announced that she had been raped by the strongman. Everybody believed them, and just like that Paulina became an outcast: a woman. She was rejected at school "because now she was a woman, not a girl," and the strongman's wife taunted her by asking how she'd liked her husband's great big chili, which made Paulina's mother burst into laughter.
Director Funari and Paulina take unflinching looks at Paulina's humiliation as a "woman," and her coming to strength as a woman. This film is also an unusually powerful portrayal of rural Mexican society. (David Theis)
Paulina Saturday, April 10, at 5 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 9 p.m.
The Sixth Happiness starts out as an Indian version of My Left Foot. Taken from Firdaus Kanga's novel Trying to Grow, the movie also stars the writer. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing the role of Brit (short for both brittle and British), a Bombay boy who grows up misshapen both by "brittle bone disease" and by his middle-class Parsi family's love of all things British.
The disease has made a dwarf of Brit, and his bones break at the slightest provocation. His handicaps inspire love in his mother, who is Anglophile number one -- she's thrilled by Bangladesh's war of separation, as it allows her family to huddle in the basement and imagine the Battle of Britain is raging overhead. But they repel his father, who is humiliated by the sight of his son. Brit's sister is a lovely character who adores her brother even more than she loves spouting Shakespeare. As a Parsi, she's allowed to marry for love, but woe to the suitor that comes for her hand without boning up on the Bard.
Brit is swept off his feet by Cyrus (since Brit looks like he weighs 40 pounds, this isn't much of a physical claim), who has abandoned the demands of the violin and now wants to simply hang out as the family's boarder. Brit also has a lovely and empowering teacher, who overcame the "handicap of poverty" to study in Oxford and at the Sorbonne. She encourages Brit to write, though the film doesn't make very much of his artistic endeavors.
Bombay is also a lively character here. This was my first good look at the attractive coastal city, which, under veteran director Waris Hussein's light touch, looks romantic and inviting.
But more or less playing himself, Kanga is the real revelation. His Brit is almost (but not quite) devoid of self-pity, and he's a sardonic little fellow, though he'd give me a tongue-lashing for calling him little. The film parts company with My Left Foot and lesser ailment flicks when it begins to explore Kanga's sexuality. By its final third, The Sixth Happiness has become both daring and delightful, an unusual combination. (David Theis)
The Sixth Happiness Saturday, April 10, at 7 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 5 p.m.
Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is being shown in retrospective. Those who caught the classic when it was restored and rereleased a few years ago are probably dying to see it again. There is no other movie quite like Umbrellas, and not just because it stars an almost unbearably radiant Catherine Deneuve in her debut role. Umbrellas is even more notable as perhaps the most down-to-earth musical in the history of film.
Every line, including the homeliest bon jour, monsieur, is sung, which is actually a bit off-putting until the film gathers steam. But as it enters its very straightforward love story between the fabulous Deneuve's Genevieve and Guy, a neighborhood mechanic who manages to successfully woo her, the local angel, Umbrellas plunges into very dark waters for a musical.
Guy is called to war in Algeria and leaves not knowing Genevieve is pregnant or that her anxiously bourgeois mother is pushing her into a more suitable marriage. Guy doesn't write as often as he should, and Genevieve allows herself to be convinced by her mother. Guy comes back crippled by the war and is now faced with heartbreak when he goes looking for his love. Then, as he struggles to accept his fate, the film plunges into an even darker depth of understanding, before coming back up to the light.
Beautifully melancholy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece which looks and sounds great in its newly restored form. How it fits into WorldFest '99's program I can't quite say, but I'm just glad that it's here under any cover. (David Theis)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Sunday, April 11, at 1 p.m.
Wicked, as the closing-night film, sends WorldFest away on a darkly rousing note. The movie is the latest graduate of the school film founded on the premise that "when you get right down to it, aren't people just naturally nasty." It's also one of the best films on incest, an unhappily trendy topic.
Written by Eric Weiss and directed by Michael Steinberg, Wicked is a cruel study of life in a gated community. The developers should have locked out virtually every resident presented here.
Wicked focuses on the betrayals and travails of one family, headed by philandering parents and home to two very dark girls. One by one, starting with Mom, family members begin to fall, bludgeoned to death by -- whom?
This film is also a satisfying whodunit, as there are plenty of candidates. Is it Lawson (Patrick Muldoon), Mom's cretinous lover next door, the guy she just dumped? Or is it Dad (William R. Moses), whom she has also presented with walking papers. We're supposed to believe it's daughter number one, Ellie (Julia Stiles), who is most believably transformed from a typical 14-year-old to a man-killing vamp after Mom is out of the way. That transformation is chilling, and it makes her father's pathetic weakness, in falling for her, grotesquely believable.
The film works so hard to confound our expectations vis-a-vis the actual murderer that it winds up beyond the pale of credibility, but not before it has made some blood-curdling points. (David Theis)
Wicked Sunday, April 18, at 9 p.m.
Kick begins with a prep-school sports victory so cliched it seems like a dream sequence. Poor-boy-made-good Matt Grant, against all odds, takes the Lawley College rugby team to victory in an improbable end run. His hot blond girlfriend (from the neighboring girls' school) kisses him. His classmates cheer and lift him onto their shoulders. It's not a dream, but poor Matt, he just doesn't seem to be enjoying perfection. The conflict in this Australian movie, directed by Lynda Heys, centers on Matt's really deep-down desire to be ... a ballet dancer. But can he face the ridicule of the pack of male Neanderthal latents that he counts as his classmates? Should he let them see him wearing tights? Well, duh.
If the plot is dismally simplistic, the ride is just okay. Kick has a spark of passion and some nice bodies doing some nice dance steps, but the leads (Russell Page as Matt, Rebecca Yates as his dance partner, Claire, and Radha Mitchell as his girlfriend, Tamara) lack the necessary magnetism to make a movie like this work, if there is a way to make a movie like this work.
Matt, especially, seems to earn neither his school's adulation, nor his lead role in the ballet Romeo and Juliet, nor the trust of his dance partner, Claire, who is the only one bordering on a real character. Instead, he squeaks by the way you would expect a school sports hero to squeak by, and the ensuing private-school mischief misses almost every opportunity for true humor.
Still, if you're feeling romantic, screenwriter Stuart Beattie picked up the right formula in screenwriting class. It's still possible to sort of enjoy this movie -- if you're not expecting Spicoli or Baryshnikov. (Shaila Dewan)
Kick Sunday, April 11, at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 9 p.m.
Some girls stick with the wrong guy, wishing that it will work, but it never does. That's because the guys are fucking losers, writer/director Jean-Mark Valee says in Loser Love. But there's another message in the movie:Something's severely warped and wrong with the girls.
The film opens at a fancy party thrown by the parents of Lily (Laurel Holloman). When she and her loser boyfriend, Tim (Andy Davolt), go upstairs to have sex, his friend is watching in the shadows -- her boyfriend forgot to mention that. She gets mad, he cheats on her, but she stays with him. He ties her up for some unfun 60-second sex and then turns on the television to Sports Center.
At the outset, this seems to be a girl-power movie where the woman acknowledges her insecurities -- the fact that she can't ever express her anger and is stuck with this miserable man -- but learns to get over him and lives triumphantly ever after. There are moments where it appears that Lily might grow and change. She has a fun, feminist friend, Kilo (Rachel Robinson), who cares for her and wants to do girl things, but the evil boyfriend keeps interfering. Kilo openly hates him for hurting her friend, and he decides she's a lesbian.
Lily stays with the loser until he rapes her anally on her birthday. That's when things finally change. She locks herself inside. Kilo comes over and nurtures her with hot baths, tea and togetherness, candles and comfort.
Meanwhile, Lily's mom is in a parallel relationship with another smarmy, abusive guido (Lily's father) she won't leave because he was her Stanley Kowalski. So she drinks and takes diet pills.
Lily and Kilo plot to kill Lily's loser and frame her father in the murder. Kilo realizes that murder is wrong and psycho so they drift apart. But Lily feels free. So does her mom.
This is an unhealthy movie that takes women a step back. It's written by a man who obviously doesn't think much of women. Lily is whiny and stupid throughout the movie; her mother simply suffers, and Kilo is annoying with her anger. (Wendy Grossman)
Loser Love Saturday, April 10, at 9 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 5 p.m.
Love Songs, a compilation of three short films about a tight-knit African-American community in Philadelphia, is a sweet but uncomfortably hokey movie redeemed only by Louis Gossett Jr.'s strong performance as the local bartender and peacekeeper.
Rober Townsend, who wrote the three vignettes, stars in the first one as Otis, a car mechanic who fancies himself a champion boxer. He has a pregnant wife who wishes he would keep out of the ring and worries about how to make ends meet. It's a classic man-versus-himself story line, as Otis struggles with being true to his dreams or choosing the safer route of conformity.
The second segment focuses on a cautious romance between Mister Ellis (Andre Braugher), the local fruit seller, and Miss Jean (Lynn Whitfield), the local cutie. It's a tender story, but the back-and-forth "I hate you but I love you" romantic tension is contrived and has been done hundreds of times before.
The strongest of the pieces ends the movie and stars Gossett as a tough family man and local bartender who is simultaneously dealing with a misbehaving teenage son and a wife-beating brother-in-law. Although the barkeep could easily take on the evil brother-in-law, he tries to prove to his son that violence is not always the best approach. It's a fascinating dilemma, although the story ends abruptly. The mood is killed by a silly attempt to tie everything up, and we are left clueless as to what will happen to the characters.
The story lines are simple, which is not necessarily bad, but the sappy sentiment is often harder to swallow than a mouthful of Cheese Whiz. The dialogue is predictable and strained, the facial expressions exaggerated. Whitfield as the sassy and strong-willed Miss Jean rivals Gossett's acting abilities. Rachel Crawford, as the boxer's nervous wife, has strong talent. But the story line has her rubbing her belly and looking concerned so often that we don't get to see much of it.
In the end, Love Songs is sticky-sweet, and if you're the type of optimistic, bright-eyed person who cried at The Lion King, then you will probably like this movie. (Jennifer Mathieu)
Love Songs Friday, April 9, at 9 p.m.
As the central crazy in the psycho-loaded, surrealistic Pure Killjoy, Fred Derf fights -- or flees -- all manner of inner and outer mayhem. He locks himself in his spartan apartment and bangs on a boxing body bag while the white-hot searchlights of clattering police helicopters sweep through his windows.
Airborne cops are trying to find the notorious "Khameleon killer," who has claimed 27 victims in as many days in this Los Angeles of the near future. Fred, though, has already found the serial slayer in mental images, along with those of his own sordid past.
This first film outing by director/screenwriter Aaron Downing, a former runner for the Beverly Hillbillies series, blends bizarre scenes and subjects. He uses the bartender at the Lucky Club to bare his primary theme, that the slayer and seemingly civilized humans still need their "pure kill" to purge their destructive demons of the past.
"What happens when we cease to fear fear?" the barkeep ponders.
Pure kill is an intriguing theory. But Fred (Gregg Rubin in an impressive performance) has amassed so much emotional baggage he would have to slaughter half the city to clear his soul for a fresh start.
He has changed his name and knocked up a teenage girl back in Illinois. When a pickup from Lucky's waits for him in her bed, Fred opts to whack off in the bathroom. He stalks one woman and harasses another by telephone, all the while dodging calls from his mother.
Fred is a freak, but he's definitely not one-dimensional. He's a seven-year CPA and comedian-in-training. And he shows remarkable tenderness and stability in a romantic encounter with an old friend's sister, Angela. Rubin and Christina Gulino team admirably for that most believable episode. Then the sanity jumps ship for a helter-skelter alter-ego finale. He answers the ultimate question in this reality warp: whether he himself can be a killer.
Downing cleverly parallels the edgy pace of the energized mind-game thriller Pi, and he adds a predictable touch of Taxi Driver to the bedlam. Credit his sharp dialogue for the ultimate staying power of this film. But he seems to have overdosed à la David Lynch on the visual presentations; rather than eerie, call it irritating.
He may be saved only by a keen sense of humor, as heard on the background radio broadcasting zany impacts of a two-year drought. Like the khameleon killer, the film itself falters in establishing a true identity. (George Flynn)
Pure Killjoy Saturday, April 10, at 9 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 7 p.m.
I almost lost patience with October 22 but was ultimately glad I stuck with it. The Richard Schenkman film opens with a 911 call from an L.A. restaurant where a gunman has opened fire on unsuspecting diners.
From this rather gory opening, which ends with the police drawing on the apparent gunman, ready to blow his brains out, the film flashes back to the beginning of the day and follows the paths of the various diners and waitresses as they wander into harm's way. There's a strong cast, including Colm Meaney, Amanda Plummer and Ernie Hudson, who plays against his usual nice-guy type to terrifying effect. The film stumbles in the beginning, as films that try to tell too many stories often do, but finds its stride about halfway through and ends with a satisfying twist. (David Theis)
October 22 Thursday, April 15, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 3 p.m.
You'll need more than a bottle of rum to get through this Treasure Island. Writer/director Peter Rowe takes things that are good, does them again and messes them up. He's the guy who's directing the unnecessary, unfunny The New Addams Family. It's not Star Trek; he didn't even give them a next generation. It's just the same characters, but uglier and boring.
That's basically what he did with Treasure Island. He didn't remake it; he just made it again. It is hard to speculate why -- there's already the 1990 version starring Charlton Heston, not to mention the muppet movie.
The film starts off on a random island where a pirate is burying his treasure. A few pirates are hanging out on the beach making smart remarks. Long John Silver says something Billy Bones doesn't like and -- wham -- his sword slowly slices through Long John's leg.
Five years go by and Billy Bones stumbles into Jim Hawkins's Inn singing, "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum." (That's how we know he's a pirate.) Then some guy comes and stabs him.
The doctor says he doesn't have time for leeches, which we already watched him put on Jim's grandmother's 80-year-old arm, and he just slowly slices into Billy Bones's mushy skin and bleeds him. That scene encapsulates the whole movie; it's slow, painful and something I didn't want to watch.
A bunch of pirates storm the inn wanting the map to the treasure (which Billy Bones somehow has -- we don't know why or how). All the ensuing fight scenes are horribly slow. Maybe they were trying to be true to the time with everyone loading their guns, stumbling and taking forever to react. But that's where artistic license comes in. Pick up the pace, people. Even the music was slow; people are killing people and they're playing something akin to Enya.
The cast features Patrick Bergin, Kevin Zegers and Jack Palance as Long John. Palance won the Oscar for his supporting role as the cowpoke in 1991's City Slickers, and he still looks more like a cowboy than a pirate in this movie. Despite his presence, the only compelling moment in the film is when Long John Silver starts philosophizing to Jim about who's the real pirate -- the men who worked hard and wanted a share of the treasure, or the squire who stole it.
Long John Silver is supposed to be the most fearsome man to sail the sea. But at the end, the old, tired sailor couldn't remember the names of sails. Jim laughed and looked happy for no apparent reason; he was probably just glad it was over. (Wendy Grossman)
Treasure Island Friday, April 16, at 5 p.m. and Sunday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
You get the feeling Angel's Dance was supposed to be a studio release -- it stars James Belushi. The film, directed by David Corley, is the story of Tony (Kyle Chandler), who is a contract killer in training, his Zen-ish mentor (Belushi) and Angel (Sheryl Lee), the woman/target he falls in love with.
At his hit-man graduation ceremony, Tony is required by "The Rose," Belushi's hit man extraordinaire, to choose a victim at random from the phone book and off her. Just Tony's luck -- he chooses the wrong woman. His first attempted whacks fail and frighten the originally addle-brained Angel into becoming a tough-minded self-defense expert who winds up doing a little killing of her own. Turns out she likes murder much more than Tony does.
This reads as if the film were a rather nifty black comedy, and it does wind up being worth watching, but only after putting its viewers through quite a bit of foolishness. (David Theis)
Angel's Dance Thursday, April 15, at 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
Chocolate for Breakfast, directed by Emily Baer, is the story of the lives and loves of four young women living together in New York City. One's a Wall Street whiz about to have an out-of-wedlock baby, which is taken as a direct affront by her freedom-loving roommates.
There are good things here, including the now-familiar sex-talk-among-gals scenes. And their communal lives, especially the sharing of the bathroom, are nicely observed, as is the women's fierce sense of intimacy, so awe-inspiring to a male viewer such as myself. So this is worth a look, even though it also feels a bit like a boyless episode of Friends. (David Theis)
Chocolate for Breakfast Thursday, April 15, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 5 p.m.
The Canadian films that wind up in film festivals tend to be rather small, bloodless affairs. At first I was afraid that description would also apply to Conquest, directed by Piers Haggard. It tells the story of a small Saskatchewan town that is so down-and-out it's on the verge of drying up and blowing away.
But this town called Conquest, and the movie itself, gets a blast of energy from the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious young woman, Daisy MacDonald (Tara Fitzgerald), whose disabled car strands her among the gloomy locals. Even though he's a banker, it doesn't take Pincer Bedier (Lothaire Bluteau) long to fall in love with the mysterious stranger.
Local women are attracted to her as well, seeing as how they're all too old to be threatened by her. Especially taken is Grace, who is inspired by Daisy's Alfa Romeo to dream about Rome. She has always wanted to escape Conquest but never quite got the nerve. This is familiar material, except in its United States version Grace would not be haunted by her memories of the death of Ernest Hemingway, to which her farmer husband was curiously indifferent. After seeing Bluteau suffer spiritually as the Jesuit priest in Black Robe, and as Jesus of Montreal, it was nice to see him get the girl. (David Theis)
Conquest Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 18, at 5 p.m.
Shiloh Season is the best of the festival's children's movies. It begins badly, with an entire novel's worth of voice-over narration, but then settles into a satisfying story. A bitter, alcoholic old man wants back the pup he gave to a young boy. The boy resists, eventually wins the old man over and helps him regain his will to live. The film is directed by Sandy Tung and has a fine cast, including Rod Steiger and Michael Murphy. (David Theis)
Shiloh Season Friday, April 16, at 5 p.m. and Sunday, April 18, at 3 p.m.
A Short Story About Love is an episode from Krzysztof Kieslowski's monumental Dekalog series, in which he made ten short films, each one illustrating a "Thou Shalt Not" from the Ten Commandments. In Short Story, a young man spies on the promiscuous woman living next door to him. Observing what appear to be her loveless couplings, the young man becomes so depressed that he attempts suicide. Moved by his gesture, the woman turns her attentions to him. Kieslowski can be heavy going, but this film is a wry, sly take on the vagaries of love. (David Theis)
A Short Story About Love Wednesday, April 14, at 9 p.m.
Bland Black Bean
I wanted to like Catfish in Black Bean Sauce more than I did. It has recognizable faces, including the tragically underused Paul Winfield, mixed with total unknowns, and a potentially engaging story line. Winfield's character is a Vietnam vet and father to two grown Vietnamese kids.
As the story begins, their long-lost Vietnamese mother is about to reappear in their lives. That doesn't thrill their stepmother (Mary Alice), who feels threatened by this blast from her husband's past. This is potentially juicy, culture-crossing fare, but it's all so badly executed by director Chi Moui Lo that it's impossible to care. None of the scenes rings true. One in particular is a flashback whose time change is supposed to be indicated by a very bad wig worn by Alice. It is a cinematic disaster, and her character in general is a disaster, and she's pivotal to the film. (David Theis)
Catfish in Black Bean Sauce Wednesday, April 14, at 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
Wrestling with Alligators certainly sounds like an independent, low-budget film: It's a coming-of-age story set in 1959 America, as both a young girl and a country get ready for momentous changes. It plays a little better than average, with some good performances, but this female-bonding tale is ultimately weighed down by too much talk.
Writer and director Laurie Weltz obviously has her heart in this film, the story of a runaway tomboy who escapes to a boarding house where she finds a new family among her eccentric roommates. She has a first romance with, of all people, a carnival worker, and her adopted family endures such problems as an unwanted pregnancy.
Far be it from us to use the term "chick flick," but you pretty much are getting what's advertised here. If you like this kind of film, you'll probably get wrapped up in this one; those for whom a little of this goes a long way are not likely to be persuaded otherwise. (Richard Connelly)
Wrestling with Alligators Saturday, April 10, at 5 p.m. and Sunday, April 11, at 9 p.m.
Heaven's Almost Here
The festival had no advance review copy of Seventh Heaven, the penultimate by French director Benoit Jacquot. But if its quality is within shouting distance of his A Girl Alone, which appeared on local screens a couple of years ago, this is a must-see.
It is the kind of film which should have found a local booking a year ago, so be glad it has turned up even for one night.
According to the festival synopsis, the film involves a pretty, young woman married to a successful surgeon. She is undergoing an identity and sexual crisis. When through hypnosis she is able to find a solution to her problems, her husband, who is used to dealing with illness in a clinically rational and logical manner, begins to have an identity crisis of his own. With Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon. (David Theis)
Seventh Heaven Sunday, April 18, at 5 p.m.
Rose's is one of the festival's weaker entries. The Frank Patterson film attempts to be a colorful slice of Southern life. It follows a flower-shop owner's befriending a recently released murderer and then asking him to help her dispose of the body of her recently murdered husband (do I detect a whiff of Faulkner's A Rose for Emily?). But the movie founders on its weak acting and poorly drawn characters. The lead actress, Leslie France, is a nonentity in a role that calls for hidden depths. (David Theis)
Rose's Saturday, April 10, at 7 p.m. and Monday, April 12, at 9 p.m.
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God ... Be Back by Five is a film directed by Richard Schenkman, who also made the more successful October 22. This film begins poorly -- it's as heavily voiced-over as an episode of The Wonder Years and features a very intrusive soundtrack. Its story about two former high school buddies out to rescue a third pal, who now lives on the streets, unfolds far too slowly and unconvincingly. (David Theis)
Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God Friday, April 16, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 5 p.m.
Jon Reiss's debut feature film, Cleopatra's Second Husband, is a harrowing yet delicious and often wickedly funny study of power and submission. What begins as a dark romantic comedy soon morphs into a nightmarish psychological horror film. With Paul Hipp and Boyd Kestner. (not reviewed)
Cleopatra's Second Husband Sunday, April 11, at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 9 p.m.
The Climb is a story of bravery, friendship, death and courage. A 12-year-old boy and a dying man form a unique bond and end up teaching each other about life. Directed by Bob Swaim. With John Hurt, Gregory Smith and David Strathairn. (not reviewed)
The Climb Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 11, at 5 p.m.
In Le Coeur au Poing ("Streetheart"), Louise is a woman with a thirst for life who devises a game which allows her to enter other people's worlds. At random, she stops passersby on the street and offers herself to them, to do with her as they please for one hour. This Canadian film is directed by Charles Biname, with Pascale Montpetit, Anne-Marie Cadieux and Guy Nadon. (not reviewed)
Le Coeur au Poing ("Streetheart") Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. and Thursday, April 15, at 5 p.m.
In La Deroute, Joe Aiello is the father of a mentally handicapped son and a 23-year-old daughter who wants to distance herself from her authoritarian and possessive father. When she runs away and marries a South American refugee, Joe is completely distraught and feels that his hopes have been betrayed. Joe finds himself descending for the first time into a profound state of solitude and despair. A Canadian film directed by Paul Tana. With Tony Nardi, Michele-Barbara Pelletier, Hugolin Cheverette, John Dunn-Hill and Richard Lemire. (not reviewed)
La Deroute Wednesday, April 14, at 9 p.m.
In The Fair, a young woman pursues her dream of becoming a singer. She is forced to confront her mother's death, her unsupportive father and her crippling stage fright. Directed by Sarah McAnally. With Brigid Brannagh and Neil Vipond. (not reviewed)
The Fair Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 3 p.m.
Harvest is the story of what happens when a DEA agent arrives in a small farming town to investigate the suspected growing and selling of marijuana in the area. The lengths to which the farmers have gone to preserve their lives is revealed to the people who love them, and the local sheriff is forced to choose between the law and his friendship with the local farming community. Directed by Stuart Burkin, with Mary McCormack and John Slattery. (not reviewed)
Harvest Sunday, April 11, at 5 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 7 p.m.
Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang is a Canadian children's film directed by George Bloomfield. In this story, Jacob Two Two is arrested for insulting an adult and sent to a children's prison where he must face the Hooded Fang. With Gary Busey, Mark McKinney, Miranda Richardson and Ice-T. (not reviewed)
Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang Saturday, April 10, at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 5 p.m.
Jinnah, directed by Jamil Dehlavi, is a drama telling the story of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. It follows his dream of freeing the people of India from the burden and insult of foreign rule, a mission twisted and tempered by the realities and cruelties of politics. (not reviewed)
Jinnah Friday, April 16, at 9 p.m. and Sunday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
Only the Lonely
Polish director Agnieszka Holland will be present for the screening of her Kobieta Samotna ("The Lonely Woman"). In this 1981 production, a poor middle-aged woman who lives alone with her eight-year-old son is forced to steal when she is faced with the funeral costs rather than the inheritance of a relative she was caring for. (not reviewed)
Kobieta Samotna ("The Lonely Woman") Sunday, April 18, at 1 p.m.
The Long Road Home is directed by Craig Clyde. After his mother's death, a boy is tested in spirit and mind by the cruel grandfather who disowned his mother years before for marrying a Native American marine. With Michael Ansara and T.J. Lowther. (not reviewed)
The Long Road Home at St. Thomas Episcopal School on Friday, April 16, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 9 p.m.
The Life Jacket Is Under Your Seat is a film from Uruguay directed by Leonardo Ricagni. Using wildly colorful visuals, off-kilter compositions and music, it tracks Tuleque, a modern-day Jesus. He tries to save the Great Holy Water Sanctuary from drug lords and a corrupt government by winning top prize at the annual rock and roll contest. With Jorge Esmoris and Pastora Vega. (not reviewed)
The Life Jacket Is Under Your Seat Sunday, April 11, at 9 p.m. and Tuesday, April 13, at 5 p.m.
Por Si No Te Vuelvo a Ver ("If I Never See You Again") is a Mexican film by Juan Pablo Villasenor. Five elderly men who have formed a musical group escape from a nursing home in search of their dream to play for a live audience. Along the way, they confront the city, nursing-home authorities, the police, their families and everyone who is determined to destroy their only chance to perform. In Spanish with English subtitles. (not reviewed)
Por Si No Te Vuelvo a Ver Wednesday, April 14, at 5 p.m. and Friday, April 16, at 7 p.m.
In Snake Tales, a young woman is arrested for running over an endangered snake. In defense, she must spin an elaborate tall tale. Directed by Francesca Talenti, with Amalia Stifter and Rupert Reyes. (not reviewed)
Snake Tales at St. Thomas Episcopal School on Friday, April 6, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
At press time, no synopsis was available for Our God's Brother, a Polish film directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. It screens Saturday, April 10, at 1 p.m.