Film Reviews

Independents' Day

For founder and director J. Hunter Todd, WorldFest Houston isn't just a job, it's an adventure. And over the past 13 months, it's been even more of a cliffhanger than usual.

"Last year, we were booted out of our Galleria offices by the new management company," Todd says. "We had to move just a month before the festival started. We figured, 'Things couldn't get any worse than this.' And then, sure enough, they got worse."

Thanks to an unfortunate confluence of bankruptcies, corporate downsizings and post-9/11 economic downturns, Todd claims, he has lost approximately $280,000 in financial contributions and in-kind donations: "We lost Compaq, Perry Ellis, American, Continental -- and that little energy company downtown, you may have heard of it, called Enron." Budgets were slashed; paid staffing was cut.

So much for the bad news. The good news -- the maybe even miraculous news -- is that, on the eve of WorldFest 2002, Todd claims to have a stronger-than-usual schedule of shorts, documentaries and dramatic features. "In fact," he says, "the shorts program -- we have 136 of the suckers -- is the strongest we've ever had in the entire history of the festival."

But wait, there's more: Houston-born actress JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist, The Big Chill) is scheduled to be on hand for the festival's opening-night attraction, The Rose Technique, Jon C. Scheide's indie comedy about an offbeat psychiatrist eager to launch her own TV series. And on closing night, Dennis Hopper is expected to introduce a retrospective screening of his groundbreaking Easy Rider.

In between, Todd promises a diverse array of regional and world premieres. "When you get right down to it," he admits, "we're showing weird foreign and independent movies, most of them starring no one that anybody's ever heard of, directed by no one that anyone's ever heard of, the titles of which no one has hardly read anything, anywhere about."

But, hey, that's exactly what draws folks to a film festival. The list of then-unknown auteurs who brought their first films to WorldFest includes Ang Lee (Pushing Hands) and Joel Coen (Blood Simple). And the list of then-unknown movies that were launched after winning major WorldFest awards includes Miracle Mile, Cutter's Way, Salvador and Night on Earth. Be adventurous, and you just might discover the next big thing.

The 2002 WorldFest Houston International Film Festival unspools April 5 through 14 at the EFW Meyerland Plaza Cinema, 610 Loop at Beechnut. -- Joe Leydon

Editor's note: Not all of WorldFest Houston's films were available for screening. Below is a complete list of the feature films showing at this year's festival; some are short reviews, others offer only a synopsis. Reviews are by Lauren Kern, Dylan Otto Krider, Joe Leydon, Craig D. Lindsey and John Suval. * designates a film recommended by the Houston Press.

Alexandria Decades after moving away from Egypt, a wom-an returns home to hear her mother's story of a long-ago love affair in Maria Ilioú's romantic drama. Saturday, April 6, 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 7, 5 p.m.

Amnesia Dutch newcomer Martin Koolhoven's first feature is a psychological thriller about a reunion between estranged twin brothers that brings disturbing secrets from the past bubbling back to the surface. Monday, April 8, 3 p.m.; Sunday, April 14, 3 p.m.

*As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me The recounting of this real-life, three-year journey of an escaped Nazi soldier after World War II takes Clemens Forell (Bernhard Bettermann) an astounding 8,000 miles, mostly on foot, from a Siberian prison camp to his wife and children. (He has a brief affair with an Eskimo girl along the way, but what can you do?) In a brilliant stroke of storytelling, director Hardy Martins conveys the isolation of this labor camp by dwelling for some time on the train voyage there. Huddled in crowded cars, with daily rations to sustain them, many don't make it. When they finally arrive, one prisoner marvels, "No fences, no watchtowers -- where would you go, anyway?" The film lulls you into believing it's simply the story of a man wanting to go home, but the irony of Nazis in near-concentration camp conditions can't be ignored. Forell is helped on the last leg of his journey by a Polish Jew who offers not forgiveness -- he's blunt about the fact that Forell's justifications of ignorance and following orders don't cut it -- but assistance. In order to condemn, he must prove to himself that he would never make the same excuses. Saturday, April 6, and Monday, April 8, 9:30 p.m. (D.O.K.)

Be My Valentine Taiwanese filmmaker Yankee Zhou's comedy-drama deals with the complex relationship between two brothers sent to live with their aunt after the tragic deaths of their parents. Wednesday, April 10, 5 p.m.; Thursday, April 11, 7:15 p.m.

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Joe Leydon