Legend has it that the first time he visited a Hollywood movie set, Orson Welles, a posthumous honoree at this year's WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, described the amalgamation of magic-making machinery as the greatest toy train set ever designed.
And then, with all the rash, breakneck enthusiasm of a child captivated by a new plaything, Welles set the machinery a-spinning. Already a living legend at the age of 25, he blithely disregarded the advice of his elders whenever they told him something was simply impossible to do. In his case, ignorance wasn't bliss -- it was exuberance.
Much like some indulgent father who continually signs the checks and brings home newer, more lavish toys, RKO Pictures gave Welles carte blanche to pull the levers, blow the whistles and chug-chug down the tracks as recklessly and rapidly as he desired. Just as long as he delivered the final product he promised: a new and exciting motion picture titled Citizen Kane.
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Employing the best technicians Hollywood had to offer, the finest actors he could import from New York, and the most dazzling effects from the triumphant theater and radio dramas that had attracted RKO's interest in the first place, Welles broke most of the moviemaking rules, and even a few that had not yet been made.
What's that? You say you never show ceilings in a room because it's easier to light a scene with nothing overhead? Balderdash! Put the camera down, way down -- hell, bolt it to the floor! -- and tilt upward. Then you'll have to have a ceiling! You'll have to have lots of them!
Say what? You have to break a sequence into individual shots so you can propel the narrative and direct the audience's attention? Hah! Meet Gregg Toland, ace cinematographer and maverick risk taker. Welles knew Toland could shoot entire scenes in deep focus, enabling the audience to see foreground objects, middle-ground drama and background activity all at once, all with equal clarity. That way, Welles knew, he wouldn't have to cut -- entire sequences could be played out before an immobile camera, and the audience could decide what to watch, much as it would during a stage play.
(Check out the scene where young Charlie Kane's mother and her lawyer are in the foreground, deciding the boy's future, while Kane's father huddles in a corner and, outside, on the other side of a rear-wall window, Charlie plays in the snow, blissfully unaware his childhood is about to end.)
Citizen Kane appears to have been made in one single, spontaneous burst of creative energy by collaborators -- Welles, Toland, co-scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz -- clearly intoxicated by the sheer power of their medium. Intoxicated, yes, and impatient with their era's customary niceties of film narrative. Right at the start, Citizen Kane shocks by cutting immediately from Kane's somber, highly stylized death scene to a shrill, March of Time-style newsreel. The transition is audacious, but no more so than the clever use of the newsreel itself -- it provides, highly compressed, all the exposition the audience needs to make sense of the flashbacks that follow.
The newsreel ends, journalists banter in a shadow-streaked screening room, someone mentions "Rosebud" -- and the chase is on. Whether you're seeing it for the first time or savoring it again after dozens of viewings, you're hopelessly, helplessly hooked on following the movie wherever it races. (Should you lay out cash to watch Citizen Kane one more time? See page 36.)
It's altogether appropriate that Citizen Kane is being screened (as a benefit for KUHF-FM) during the 2001 edition of WorldFest/Houston. Indeed, you could make the case that Welles's masterwork should be screened as a public service at every film festival to inspire both the filmmakers attending and the would-be auteurs in the audience. François Truffaut said it best when he claimed Citizen Kane is "probably [the film] that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers."
But another Welles classic on the WorldFest/Houston program, Touch of Evil, is in some ways every bit as instructive as Citizen Kane. The latter film launched Welles's career. The former pretty much wrecked it.
Citizen Kane may very well be, as a recent American Film Institute poll proclaimed, the greatest movie ever made. In its time, however, it was a box-office fizzle that received wildly mixed reviews. (The worst reviews, not surprisingly, appeared in newspapers owned and operated by William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon who recognized himself as the real-life role model for Charles Foster Kane.) The RKO brass quickly decided to stop pampering their boy wonder. While Welles was off on location in Brazil for It's All True, a project he would never complete, the studio seized his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, and drastically recut the drama after a disastrous sneak preview. Approximately 45 minutes of footage were irretrievably junked, without Welles's input or approval. The movie remains, even today, tragically incomplete.
During the next 16 years, Welles -- burdened with a reputation for unreliability, high-handedness and reckless free spending -- found only sporadic work as a film director. And the few films he managed to complete -- including the brilliantly bizarre Lady from Shanghai and the small-budget, high-concept Macbeth, both released in 1948 -- did little to wash away the stigma of being box-office poison. Although rarely at a loss for work as an actor, he continued to be viewed as a tarnished golden boy who couldn't or wouldn't direct movies that significant numbers of people wanted to see.
Touch of Evil was his last best shot for a comeback.
The 1958 film, loosely based on a long-forgotten novel by Whit Masterson, originally was intended as a star vehicle for Charlton Heston. According to Hollywood legend, it was Heston who suggested that Welles, already cast as the villain of the piece, be allowed to direct. The studio bosses readily agreed, since Heston, then a hot property in the wake of The Ten Commandments, carried considerable clout. They panicked, though, when they saw how the creator of Citizen Kane had turned a conventional thriller into an impressionistic "art film." The movie was recut, and several scenes were reshot (by contract director Harry Keller). Worse of all, Welles was rebuffed when he desperately tried to regain control of the project. For all practical purposes, the misadventure marked the end of his American directing career.
To be sure, Welles continued to make movies one way or another, in Europe and elsewhere, until his death in 1985. (He financed many of his projects with acting gigs and TV commercials.) And more than a decade after his passing, preservationists working from Welles's notes were able to cobble together a new and improved version of Touch of Evil that is as close to definitive as we're ever likely to see. Even so, the desperate struggles and bitter disappointments that Welles endured for most of his professional life should serve as a sobering object lesson for the first-time filmmakers and eager wanna-bes who will flock to WorldFest/Houston.
Consider: You live by the hype, you can die by the hype. Just ask Michael Cimino, the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter director who has never recovered from the self-indulgent disaster of Heaven's Gate. Check with Steven Soderbergh, who earned top honors at the Cannes Film Festival with sex, lies & videotape in 1989, then dropped almost completely off the radar until the double-barrel comeback of last year's Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Investigate the stalled careers, sad declines or near-complete disappearances of the dozens of hot properties who cooled off or burned out.
Early in Welles's first masterwork, an impudent young Charlie Kane explains why he wants to take over the moribund New York Inquirer: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." Watching Citizen Kane, it's easy to think it would be even more fun to make a movie. Trouble is, the fun doesn't always last.
Check the schedule for dates and times. All screenings are at the Meyerland Plaza Theaters, located at Loop 610 West at Beechnut. Capsule reviews are by Joe Leydon and Joanne Harrison.
Amy -- Rachel Griffiths, currently on view in Blow as Johnny Depp's monstrously overbearing mother, plays a much more sympathetic parent in Nadia Tass's family drama about an Australian girl who's shocked into speechlessness by witnessing the accidental death of her rock musician father.
Babe -- The little pig who could is back on the big screen for a special SPCA benefit screening.
The Blue Children of Perm -- Galili Smolinsky's documentary focuses on the medical and moral dilemmas facing doctors who must chose eight of 1,000 Israeli children for life-saving heart surgery.
Blue Tower -- Forget about Mt. Fuji and the Ginza. If you've ever wanted to experience the real Japan, this is your chance. Here is an up close and personal view of the lives of another culture's ordinary people. But you must be patient with Katsumi Sakaguchi's film, an excruciatingly detailed depiction of the depressing life of Toru, a 19-year-old social misfit whose only interest seems to be his water flea collection. For those who speak the language, there is lots of languid, repetitive voice-over in which Toru slowly quotes his own teen-angst diary. He finds an abused schoolgirl on a derelict canal boat and takes her home to live. No one seems to find this odd. His downtrodden mother works nights as a legit masseuse. When she tries to make small talk with a client, the man casually belts her. No one seems to find this odd. Eventually Toru and the girl liberate the water fleas to accompanying metaphysical musing. No one seems to find this odd, either. Shot on digital video in the long-shot, long-take style in vogue among young Japanese filmmakers, Blue Tower has a disconcertingly immediate quality. It also has a disconcertingly murky narrative. (J.H.)
The Bread, My Sweet -- All grown up since Happy Days, Scott Baio makes a personable impression as the lead in writer-director Melissa Martin's sentimental drama. The plot revolves around Dominic (Baio), a Pittsburgh-based mergers-and-acquisitions executive who somehow finds time to operate a neighborhood bakery with his brothers Eddie (Billy Mott), a hungry womanizer, and Pinio (Shuler Hensley), a mentally challenged gentle giant. Dominic's favorite customers -- and, apparently, closest friends -- are Italian immigrants Massimo (John Sietz) and Bella (Rosemary Prinz), an elderly couple who rent the apartment above his bakery. When the sweetly maternal Bella confides that she's dying of cancer, Dominic impulsively decides to make her final days happier by marrying her footloose daughter, Lucca (Kristen Minter). Initially dubious, Lucca reluctantly agrees to the setup to fulfill Bella's dream of a lavish wedding for her only child. Nothing that happens next is surprising, but much of it is surprisingly affecting. (J.L.)
Buck Naked Arson -- If John Hughes had attempted a remake of Rashomon during his Brat Pack period of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, the result might have resembled writer-director Amy Snow's indie comedy-drama -- except that Hughes's version likely would have been funnier, better acted and more tonally consistent. On the night of their high school graduation, two couples are apprehended in a wooded area after the dousing of a minor fire. An authoritarian forest ranger (William Russ), determined to discover the cause of the blaze, grills Grant (Shiloh Strong), a straight-arrow type who's bound for a military academy; Becca (Christine Lakin), his would-be actress girlfriend; Janey (Azura Skye), a cynical smart-mouth; and Willy (Rider Strong), the sort of hyperactive geek that Anthony Michael Hall used to play. Who started the fire? Who cares? Snow switches points of view from one interrogation to the next, which does little to generate interest in thinly written characters, and almost nothing to enhance the trite and predictable story. (J.L.)
The Canary Yellow Bicycle -- A teacher from the provinces accepts a position at an Athens elementary school, where he takes a personal interest in an almost illiterate youngster. Dimitris Stavrakis directed and co-wrote this Greek family drama.
Chen Bao -- Shinichi Nakada's Japanese-Chinese co-production deals with a Japanese war veteran who's invited to a reunion with members of his former unit in Guilin, China.
Citizen Kane -- If you've never viewed Citizen Kane on the big screen, you owe it to yourself to catch the WorldFest screening, because this is the way Orson Welles wanted you to see it. And, indeed, this is the best way to see it. Like its central character, newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, the movie is most impressive when it appears larger than life. Critic Pauline Kael has described Welles's 1941 debut feature as "the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened." She's right, and that, more than anything else, is what separates it from others that have been labeled classics. Unlike Potemkin or The Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane has nothing of the stale or stately about it, nothing that smacks of required reading or museum artifact. It's a bold American masterwork, with a rude vigor in its vernacular and an indefatigable zest to its storytelling. It's a whoopee cushion slipped under the seats of those grim-faced academics who would insist that art is serious stuff. (J.L.)
City Paradise -- From China, a drama about an ambitious young man who leaves his wife and family behind in the countryside while he seeks his fortune in the big city.
The Compensation -- An elderly Sri Lankan man, distraught over the recent death of his wife, confesses to a triple murder that occurred decades earlier. It's up to the police to decide whether he's been driven mad by his bereavement or if he's indeed telling the truth.
Dieu Seul Me Voit -- Winner of a 1999 Cesar (the French equivalent of an Academy Award) for Best First Feature, Bruno Podalydes's romantic comedy deals with the trials and tribulations of a befuddled young man who operates a boom microphone at a television station.
Dinner and a Movie -- An idealistic young filmmaker, eager to direct a documentary about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, tries to finance her project by producing a reality-TV show about dating. Marianne Hagan, Mike Dooly, Anita Gillette and the late Paul Bartel are featured in Lisa Kors's indie comedy.
Everything for a Reason -- Greek-American filmmaker Vlas Parlapanides spins a seriocomic, semiautobiographical story about a writer who lives with his parents, turning out screenplays while waiting for his big break. He's determined not to be distracted from his goals, even when he falls in love with a virginal young woman who agrees to a no-strings, no-sex relationship.
Face the Music -- After being dumped by their record label, members of a struggling band desperately vie for attention by faking the death of their lead singer. Tyler Christopher and Elena Lyons head the cast of Jeff Howard's indie comedy.
Friends and Family -- Offering a slightly different definition for the term "made men," Kristen Coury's comedy focuses on two gay lovers who just happen to be a mob family's top hit men.
F-Stops -- In this movie-within-a-movie, a recent film school graduate takes drastic steps to prove his genius by making a "half fiction, half real-life gangster road picture" with a cast of eager young unknowns.
The Great Dance -- One of the highest-grossing documentaries ever released in South Africa, Craig and Damon Foster's film details a desert tribe's struggle for survival in the Kalahari.
The HMS Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition -- Documentarian George Butler (Pumping Iron) figured just one film wouldn't be enough to document the astonishing adventures of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew aboard the HMS Endurance. So he made two: a 40-minute, IMAX-format version for those content with a Cliffs Notes account, and this longer, more richly detailed feature, eloquently narrated by Liam Neeson. In 1914 Shackleton set out to be the first to traverse the Antarctic continent. Six weeks into their journey, however, he and his 27-man crew were trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. Drawing upon diaries of crew members and the extraordinary still photos and movies shot by photographer Frank Hulrey, the film vividly details daily life aboard the immobilized ship. After ten months, the pressure of the ice crushed the Endurance, and the men were forced to pitch camp for five months on a massive ice floe. Then their real problems began. Through sheer force of will, every member of the Endurance expedition survived. Butler refrains from facile speculation but suggests a provocative explanation for this miracle: Some men simply refuse to die. (J.L.)
A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio -- It's almost impossible now to understand the impact that polio had on America's psyche, but everyone over a certain age remembers when "polio season" was to be feared more than hurricane season. This disease, which now seems as remote as the Black Plague, appeared out of nowhere each summer, leaving thousands of dead and crippled young people in its wake. It couldn't be stopped, not even by wealth: Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and historian Geoffrey Ward were among the lucky ones; though impaired, they survived. So did FDR, who'd lost the use of his lower body. Listening to Bradlee, Ward and other survivors tell their stories in A Fight to the Finish, and hearing the memories of the medical pioneers struggling to heal them, is fascinating. There were lots of false starts, promising treatments that didn't pan out and bitter scientific rivalries. We see all this, as well as archival footage of the late Dr. Jonas Salk, whose first successful vaccine made him the most famous man in the world. The war against polio was the closest thing America has ever seen to a peacetime national mobilization; that all-out effort's stellar success changed the nation forever. This excellent documentary, produced by the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, will show you why. (J.H.)
Invocation -- Federico Fellini owned tangentially connected images of dwarves, freaks, malevolent circus clowns and extras clad as Venetian carnivalgoers from the 18th century. There is little need for anyone else to "sample" his vocabulary, and there is absolutely no need for anyone to destroy an otherwise valuable documentary about Argentina's desaparecidos with unsubtle film-school metaphors done in the manner of Fellini. We get the point when the dwarf couple keeps losing each other, and the preadolescent boys try to re-create a lost Super 8 short from the 1970s dictatorship era. But whatever power the film possesses comes from the simple talking-head interviews with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women whose young adult children were stolen, tortured, murdered and left in unknown graves. Many of these brave women, who demonstrated daily against a vicious dictatorship, are now grandmothers of young adults. Their stories of trying to find the babies born in torturers' cells, and their heartbreaking stoicism in the face of horror, deserve much more than what Invocation gives them. (J.H.)
The Investigation Must Go On -- From here in Houston it often seems as if every crime committed in Israel were somehow politically motivated. This hard-boiled police drama says otherwise. Shot in a documentary style, the story takes place on the mean streets of an Israel that doesn't appear on tourist posters. A daring daylight robbery of a wealthy jeweler becomes more violent than the perps had planned. From here, the plot snarls around what happens when the cops round up the usual suspects. Enter Shalom Shalom, a low-rent gangster whose bit on the side, Sylvie, has dropped a dime on him. Shalom's wife, Zohar, still loves the fool, but is fed up with his lies. It's obvious why this woman would attract more than the professional attention of detective Micha Stein. All of the cops are under a lot of pressure to clear the high-profile case quickly. Trouble is, their prime suspect refuses to cooperate. He actually thinks he can hold on and wait for the legal system to spit him out. While other, more psychopathic criminals set their own plots in motion, the charming, calculating and infuriating Shalom continues to insist on his innocence. In turn, investigators resort to tactics that, in this country, would prompt an immediate call to Johnny Cochran. Not a pretty picture, but a good one. (J.H.)
Is It Clear My Friend? -- If Paul Newman's classic convict Cool Hand Luke had been born in the Balkans, this would be his story. Looking at recent history, from Sarajevo all the way to Kosovo, it's clear that the former Yugoslavs have a pretty serious "failure to communicate." But this scary prison drama, based on the life of director Tatjana Acimovic's friend, an accountant who spent six years in one of the worst prisons in Yugoslavia, takes place before the communist state shattered amid ethnic chaos. The guards and prisoners are a mixture of the ethnic groups Tito had welded together through fear. What worked for the head of state works equally well for the warden and his minions. What makes this gritty, accomplished work so fascinating is the universality of certain experiences. Acimovic has done a fine job of kicking off an industry. His film is the first independent, full-length feature in the history of Croatian cinema. (J.H.)
Jericho -- There's an undeniable novelty to director Merlin Miller's unabashedly retrograde Western, a handsomely photographed sagebrush saga that neither satirizes nor transcends genre conventions. Mark Valley is modestly engaging in the lead role of an amnesiac who's dumped from a train and left for dead after a payroll robbery. The unfortunate fellow is nursed back to health by Joshua (Leon Coffee), a deeply religious ex-slave who believes in turning the other cheek, then throwing a right hook. Joshua dubs the stranger Jericho, after a nearby town, and tries to help his new friend unlock the secret of his past. As they ride together, however, they uncover clues that indicate Jericho is a fugitive outlaw who's wanted for killing a sheriff. Coming off as a throwback to Saturday matinee fare -- there's even a bunch of very non-P.C. Mexican banditos -- this filmed-in-Texas indie occasionally recalls the lesser star vehicles of Audie Murphy or Randolph Scott. But those guys usually worked with directors who knew a thing about pacing and camera placement. (J.L.)
Kill Me Later -- Dana Lustig directed this darkly comical romantic thriller about a suicidal bank teller (Selma Blair) who's taken hostage by a fugitive thief (Max Beesley) in the wake of a botched heist.
Kirikou and the Sorceress -- French animator Michel Ocelot created a new version of a traditional African folk tale with his 1998 adventure about a young hero's battle against a wicked sorceress.
Lakeboat -- The film is based on an early David Mamet play, and actor-turned-director Joe Mantegna obviously doesn't care that you know this. Indeed, except for adding some stylized flashbacks to illustrate a few anecdotes, Mantegna does next to nothing to disguise the theatrical roots of this freewheeling collage of monologues and conversations aboard a freighter on the Great Lakes. Essentially plotless, Lakeboat unwinds through the eyes of Dale (Tony Mamet, David's brother), an Ivy League college student who gets a summer job aboard the Seaway Queen. He's a mostly mute witness while his more experienced shipmates -- played by Robert Forster, Peter Falk, Charles During, Denis Leary, George Wendt and frequent Mamet collaborators J.J. Johnson and Jack Wallace -- argue, wax philosophical and otherwise tear into the red meat that is Mamet's foul-mouthed dialogue. The end result plays like a loosely connected string of verbal arias and duets. If you're not a Mamet fan, the film may seem shapeless and pointless. But if you're an admirer of his work, you'll recognize the first soundings of key themes he would examine more fully in later plays. (J.L.)
Life Sentence -- Director Andy Graydon grabs attention with an intriguing premise and a palpable sense of foreboding throughout the first half of his debut feature. Somewhere around the midway point, however, things start to unravel, and suspense gives way to tedium, then confusion. Even so, there's something fascinating, and more than a little creepy, about the symbiotic relationship between Richard Barrow (Patrick Clear), a burned-out, middle-aged Chicago book critic, and B. Rian Garrity (Andrew Rothenberg), a brilliant but unstable young author. Five years ago Garrity published a first novel, Life Sentence, that was greeted with universal raves. Since then, however, he's been too busy with boozing, and too immobilized by writer's block, to even begin a follow-up. Slowly, insinuatingly, Barrow worms into Garrity's life, taking on the roles of editor and mentor while contriving to remove "distractions" -- like Maddie (Mariann Mayberry), the writer's amazingly patient girlfriend. Early on, it becomes obvious that neither Garrity's novel nor Graydon's movie is likely to have a happy ending. Unlike Garrity, though, Graydon relies on an unconvincing plot twist and a few melodramatic flourishes to wrap things up. (J.L.)
Lightmaker -- Yes, sadly, that is once-great actor Rod Steiger's disembodied head presiding over this monstrous assemblage of the detritus from several cultures. If you ever wanted to see an audio-challenged music video created by the production designers for the X-Files after they spent an acid-fueled night watching Fellini, this is the movie for you. This disaster allegedly tells the story of a young violinist lured into King Osso's underground realm by Mira, the king's daughter. There he is supposed to play the magic strings that create life and light. You see what can happen when Swiss techno-pop star Dieter Meier (conceptualist and librettist for Yello, which perpetrated "The Race," a.k.a. the biggest Euro-dance theme of all time) gets to live out his filmmaker fantasies. (J.H.)
Looking through Lillian -- Jake Torem's silly psychosexual drama would be good for at least a few laughs if it weren't so ponderously and pretentiously serious. Newcomer Jade Henham, who co-wrote the lame screenplay, plays Lillian, the vaguely discontented mistress of a stressed-for-success business executive (Joseph Bottoms). You can tell Lillian is unhappy because of the moody music and endless close-ups that, in this kind of movie, are unmistakable indications of deep, pensive thought. Maybe she's worried about her uncertain future. Or maybe she's simply tired of servicing a guy who gets his kicks by dressing up in Marilyn Monroe drag. Either way, she's emotionally vulnerable enough to fall for the smooth moves of Luke (Robert Glen), a hunky poet who takes her for long walks on sandy beaches. But when he reveals his true colors, she gravitates back to the business executive, who asks her to try "something different." That something turns out to be sodomy, with Lillian wearing a strap-on. No kidding. (J.L.)
Love Inventory -- Not exactly a home movie and not exactly a theatrical production, this strangely engrossing documentary by filmmaker David Fisher takes his sister and three younger brothers on an emotional journey in search of their long-lost elder twin siblings. It begins inauspiciously with what appears to be home video footage from the hospital where the Fishers have gathered at their father's deathbed. It's not really clear exactly what's going on at first, but once the relationships are sorted out, the film takes off. David virtually harasses the others until they agree to look for the grave of their brother, who died in infancy, and to search for information about his twin sister, who disappeared shortly after their births in 1951. The Fishers' parents, Eastern European refugees from the holocaust, told their children little about their lives. The only things the siblings have to go on are rumors and bits of information that their mother periodically let slip. In the course of what amounts to a shaggy-dog story, we get to know the brothers and sister. (J.H.)
Maral -- Improbably, some of the most interesting films in the 1990s came from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Clearly, folks in the West aren't the only ones struggling to understand what it means when people live in a 21st-century theocracy. Maral (which is also the name of the virtually mute character around whom the plot revolves) is in the grand tradition of films from cold-war Eastern Europe, where profound observations are made from skewed angles. Here Rezvan, a faded middle-aged woman, has thrown herself into religious fanaticism and ostentatious acts of charity in a desperate attempt to make Hadji, her still-handsome husband, pay attention to her. After an earthquake in another part of the country leaves thousands homeless, Rezvan harasses Hadji into temporarily marrying one of the homeless women -- in order to give her food and shelter. Rezvan envisions a widow, a woman much like herself. Instead, she gets Maral, a 20-year-old beauty. Naturally, Hadji is smitten. Proud of his youthful vigor, he sees in Maral a second chance. Rezvan sees all her chances disappearing. This is a subtle and truthful vision of a simple human relationship in all its complexity. (J.H.)
Meet the Mosaics -- The latest in a seemingly endless line of small-budget indies about struggling rock bands, writer-director Richard Brunton's debut feature is mostly unremarkable but mildly diverting. Brian Groh is almost too credible in the key role of Dave Smoker, an obnoxious self-styled maverick who's obsessed with maintaining his artistic purity. Dave thinks performing in conventional venues, or even having a name for his band, would be selling out. So he and other members of his no-name group give guerrilla-style concerts in parks and on street corners. Dave is more than happy to be subsidized by his live-in girlfriend, Rose (Christine Gonzales). When the band's lead singer decides to seriously pursue a musical career by joining another band, Dave reluctantly enlists a new vocalist: Kate Shaw (Molly O'Brien), a free spirit who's also a clear-eyed pragmatist. Not surprisingly, Dave doesn't immediately embrace her. Despite the abundance of clichés, Meet the Mosaics manages at least one novel twist: Right from the start, Kate identifies herself as a lesbian, and it's no big deal as far as her bandmates are concerned. (J.L.)
Morning -- Writer-director Ami Canaan Mann takes a few unpredictable detours while covering familiar territory in this lightweight but likable comedy-drama. Early scenes are decidedly unpromising, as Mann pushes too hard to establish a philosophical clash between two longtime friends: Trick (Kieran Mulroney), a workaholic executive for a Manhattan ad agency, and Johnny (J.R. Richards), an easygoing, guitar-strumming layabout from Trick's North Carolina hometown. Things get more interesting when Johnny "borrows" Trick's pricey car to drive back to Reidsville. Trick follows, accompanied by Lily (Annabeth Gish), his live-in girlfriend, and King (Steven Schub), their wisecracking neighbor. Unfortunately, Trick and his companions arrive a little too late, after Johnny is killed in an auto mishap that likely isn't an accident. Johnny's relatives are so embarrassed by the apparent suicide, they refuse to approve a public funeral. But Trick and his friends have other ideas. Morning doesn't generate many belly laughs, but it does evoke a few smiles as it proves that, sometimes, the best way to get on with your life is to give someone else a decent burial. (J.L.)
Mr. Rice's Secret -- Onetime glam rocker David Bowie is now old enough to play "the elderly and enigmatic Mr. Rice" in this middling Canadian-made tale of learning to deal with loss; it seems more like a strange after-school special than a theatrical feature. Twelve-year-old Owen, who suffers from a form a cancer, is in remission and denial. Together with his preteen pals, whose girl-free club awards points for the weirdest and riskiest achievements, Owen goes out of his way to shun another boy who's more seriously ill. Naturally, this has to change. The lessons here are doled out with a heavy hand, but Bowie, who appears all too briefly, lights up the screen with his quietly authoritative portrayal of an unworldly neighbor. (J.H.)
Nicolas -- Reportedly the first full-length feature to be shot completely digitally, Peter Shaner's thriller focuses on a young woman who gradually realizes that the man appearing in her dreams is her lover from a past life.
No Man's Land/Hell on Earth -- Niemandsland, Victor Trivas's 1931 German antiwar drama, was long thought to be a "lost film," since most prints were destroyed by Nazi censors after Hitler's rise to power. Newly restored, the film is an allegory about five soldiers from different countries who set aside their differences and refuse to fight each other.
Or Forever Hold Your Peace -- Kenneth August's indie comedy-drama deals with a unique type of wedding-bell blues. After a disastrous rehearsal party, the groom is kidnapped by his best friends, who decide to forcibly "deprogram" him.
Peppermint -- Costas Kapakas's 1999 Greek production is a bittersweet comedy-drama about a man's reunion with his beautiful cousin 30 years after the abrupt end of their high school romance.
Peroxide Passion -- A social-climbing young man is crestfallen when his rich fiancée walks out on him. So he sets out in pursuit of his lost love, accompanied by a kooky performance artist who moonlights as a phone-sex operator. Monty Diamond directed this offbeat indie comedy.
The Pilgrimage of Students Peter and Jacob -- Peter is a Czech law student in Prague, and Jacob is a Slovak philosophy student at the university. The two are best friends until a young Romany (read: gypsy) crosses their path during summer vacation in the countryside. Something terrible happens, and the rest of the story is spent dealing with the fallout. The film is confusing in structure, but rich in cultural detail. Pilgrimage manages to deal with ethnic friction, friendship, morality and the law as it shows the two students' very different reactions to a crime of passion. The narrative roars along, making often mysterious quantum leaps, leaving little room for a learning curve. If you're willing to accept a certain amount of confusion, Pilgrimage provides admission to several worlds Americans never see on screen: the almost Medieval Romany village life of rural eastern Slovakia, and the high-energy university scene in Prague, where the brightest young people of central Europe party, pose and philosophize. (J.H.)
Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey -- Veteran documentarian William Greaves offers an admiring portrait of Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche (1903-1971), the legendary African-American scholar-turned-statesman who played a key role in drafting U.N. guidelines and international peace treaties during the post-WWII era.
The Rising Place -- Jackson, Mississippi, native Tom Rice wrote and directed this period drama about a young woman's journey of self-discovery in a Deep South town during the 1940s.
Sandstorm -- If this polemical but rewarding film doesn't energize support for women's rights activists, nothing will. Framed by the research trip of a British-born, ethnic-Indian reporter, this docudrama is based on the 1990 true story of a rural, lower-caste female who got a much-needed job with the Indian government's women's development program -- and destroyed the status quo. Already unpopular for speaking out against workplace discrimination, this illiterate woman was campaigning to wipe out the custom of child marriages, when a group of upper-caste village men beat her husband half to death then brutally gang-raped her. Most people would have given up, but Savitri and her husband sought justice. It's hardly surprising that they never find it. What they find instead is a maelstrom of conflicting political interests, widespread corruption and an international media circus. That the perpetrators were ostentatiously put on trial -- and acquitted after years of shady dealings -- surprised few in cynical, sophisticated India. That Savitri was sent home to live among her rapists surprised even fewer. That this brave woman continues to fight for all Indian women's rights should surprise no one. (J.H.)
See Jane Run -- People keep interrupting Jane's suicide attempts, thus bouncing her off in different directions like some psychotic bumper car. After another attempt to kick the bucket goes awry, Jane realizes she "is meant to be a criminal." The film ping-pongs back and forth between absurdity and subtlety as this troubled, lonely woman tries to find a place for herself. The story is often unintentionally disturbing -- there's little to laugh at in mental illness -- and it's too violent and sad for many tastes. But See Jane Run does exhibit flashes of gallows humor that kind of grow on you. (J.H.)
Serial Lover -- Claire, a writer on the anxious side of 30, invites three lovers to her apartment for dinner, hoping to choose a likely husband among them. Unfortunately, she accidentally kills each of the guys. Even more unfortunately, she's hard-pressed to hide the corpses before other friends drop by. James Huth directed this dark French comedy.
Seven Girlfriends -- Tim Daly of The Fugitive goes on a different kind of cross-country chase in filmmaker Paul Lazarus's indie comedy. Daly plays a compulsive womanizer who's driven to introspection by the accidental death of an old girlfriend. Determined to discover why he can't ever make a long-term commitment, he sets out to interview former lovers.
The Surprise Party -- Garrett Rice's romantic comedy focuses on Oscar, an ordinary guy on the brink of 30. He plans to celebrate his passage by asking Penny, the woman he loves, to marry him. Within 24 hours, however, Oscar must face a shocking parade of surprises.
Tangier: Legend of a City -- Filmmaker Peter Godel blends fact and fiction, drama and documentary, in a film about the fabled Moroccan city's past and present.
The Testimony of Taliesin Jones -- In his last film role, the late Ian Bannen (Waking Ned Devine) plays an eccentric faith healer-turned-music teacher who serves as a mentor to a troubled 12-year-old boy. Martin Duffy directed this Welsh-produced comedy-drama.
This Is My Moon -- Like other festering sores on the world's body politic, the civil war in Sri Lanka seems inexplicable to outsiders. This Is My Moon gives a Sri Lankan version of what's happening. Alone in a bunker under fire, a Singhalese soldier finds a Tamil (enemy) woman scrambling over the sandbags. She trades him sex in return for her life. He deserts and returns to his poverty-stricken village at the edge of the war zone. The Tamil woman follows him home where, naturally, the inhabitants view her with hostility. Nothing truly hopeful happens. This isn't exactly entertaining, but in an anthropological sense, it could be thought of as enlightening. (J.H.)
Total Love -- A globetrotting shaggy-dog story with an amusingly anticlimactic payoff, this Israeli-produced comedy-drama plays like a tongue-in-cheek, slacker-skewing version of Return to Paradise. Director Gur Bentwich skillfully juggles time frames and points of view while focusing on the misadventures of four twentysomethings who dabble in petty drug peddling. Haim (Israeli pop singer Maor Cohen) concocts Total Love, an aphrodisiac he shares with a partner in crime, Renana (Tinkerbel), who becomes his lover. But Haim is incapable of long-term commitment, so Renana flees Tel Aviv with a stash of Total Love. When Haim hears of her incarceration in an Indian prison, he follows her route through Amsterdam and Bombay, learning along the way about her romantic dalliances with his two friends. Since each guy still loves Renana, all three agree to rescue her. Bentwich keeps the mood light and lively, even during fleeting bits of melodrama, and the overall lack of seriousness enhances the movie's low-key appeal. (J.L.)
Touch of Evil -- One of the greatest B movies ever made. There is more mood than matter here, as Orson Welles's flamboyant style overwhelms this flimsy melodramatic plot about crime, corruption and overzealous policing in a U.S.-Mexican border town. Charlton Heston is ludicrously miscast yet undeniably effective as a Mexican police detective who, while honeymooning with his American bride (Janet Leigh), runs afoul of a sleazy cop (Welles). Bad things happen, worse things are implied -- and everything, including Marlene Dietrich's cameo as a fortune-telling madam, appears larger and more lurid than life. It's hard to shake the suspicion that, for all its darkly dazzling technique, Touch of Evil is nothing more than sly sleight of hand by a master movie magician. But it's even harder to remain unimpressed by the sheer virtuosity of this brilliant trifle. (J.L.)
Une Affaire de Gout -- Bernard Rapp's French thriller, which received nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Bernard Giraudeau) at the 2000 Cesars, deals with a handsome young waiter who's hired by a wealthy industrialist to become his own personal "taster." But the dream job turns into a nightmare when the industrialist's obsessive nature encroaches into every aspect of the young man's life.
Uncle Saddam -- French talk-show host Joel Soler takes a scattershot approach to his sardonic exposé of Saddam Hussein, cramming a wealth of unique archival material and interviews into a 63-minute documentary.
Unwitnessed Memories -- Athena Xenidou's documentary examines the lives of eight individuals who have managed to thrive under a repressive regime in Cyprus.
Varian's War -- Set to premiere on Sunday, April 22, on Showtime, Lionel Chetwynd's World War II drama focuses on Varian Fry (William Hurt), a wealthy New York editor who risked his life to establish an underground network in Marseilles to smuggle prominent European artists away from Nazi persecution.
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Voyous Voyelles -- French writer-director Serge Meynard's drama revolves around three teenage girls who take drastic steps to get even with various men in their lives.
Without a Net: Creating NYPD Blue -- Although technically part of WorldFest's program of shorts, this video production really stands out. The vast majority of the other 88-odd shorts run less than 30 minutes each. This 66-minute documentary is more like a feature in that it has a dramatic arc, fly-on-the-wall access to one of America's favorite TV shows, and an unforgettable lead character. The original premise was to document the last two weeks in co-creator David Milch's final season with the show -- and it does that. But it also draws an unforgettable portrait of a man who makes fictional madmen look tame. Milch won't let other people write the scripts on schedule, and he won't do it either. Instead, he dictates whole scenes off the top of his head to a pressured co-worker, who hands the lines to the actors only minutes before cameras roll. Needless to say, this management style creates chaos. Undoubtedly all this made for a lousy work environment, but it sure makes interesting viewing. (J.H.)
The Woman Every Man Wants -- Writer-director Gabriela Tagliavini's debut feature is a sci-fi farce set in a 2025 world run by women. Chronically unlucky in love, a bumbling plastics designer programs an android to be the girl of his dreams. Complications arise when he's drawn into a mysterious crime caper with his high-tech girlfriend.
Wrong Number -- Eric Roberts, superstar of made-for-video features, is the main attraction in Susan Wichman's thriller about greed and murder in the tumultuous world of Internet stock trading.