Film Reviews

One Little, Two Little, 40 Little Indies

If it's April, then Worldfest-Houston -- Houston's biggest annual film festival -- must be back. Never mind that after 30 years here, Hunter Todd, Worldfest's eminently quotable director, was musing publicly about making Charleston, South Carolina, the number-one wife in his cinematic harem; he now says that Houston is safely ensconced in that role. In fact, he says he's considering leaving Charleston -- the site of the autumn Worldfest -- claiming that the city has "never met their financial commitments" to Worldfest. "Not once in five years. It's kind of amazing," he said recently. He's now looking to make his fall home in another city -- most likely Flagstaff, Arizona.

But in Houston this year, Todd will continue with his bold plan of a year ago: showing fewer films (around 40) and "only films that don't have distribution." In other words, if you don't see Santo Luzbel in the festival, where the exciting Mexican film is making its American debut, you probably won't see it at all. Todd says he got tired of being an unpaid part of the studios' publicity machine, and now only wants to show films whose makers will be grateful for the exposure. It seems that a Miramax functionary in New York became the last straw when she cursed Southern gentleman Todd for not corralling a large-enough audience for Sling Blade's screening in Charleston. "I hung up the phone and thought, 'I never want to deal with these people again,' " Todd says.

Saying no to an industry heavyweight like Miramax takes nerve. Todd was rewarded, he says, when the attendance at last year's festival was "up 10 percent." It's not clear whether that trend will hold this year: There's no sure-fire, crowd-pleasing equivalent of '97's Kurosawa screenings. Australia is the featured country this year, but its low-key offerings will create little buzz. On the other hand, Todd brags, cinephiles should appreciate the chance to rub shoulders with people who make films: He says the grateful directors "of almost every film" will be on hand to mingle with festival-goers; they'll even be available for movie chat at the Black Swan Pub in the Omni Hotel. Todd boasts that he's got "the friendliest film festival in America" (also "the only festival run by filmmakers" and the "only truly independent" festival).

But in today's film world, can friendliness and independence substitute for hype and glamour? For the next two weeks, you can judge by the lines -- or lack of them -- outside the General Cinema Meyerland.

All films described below will be screened at the General Cinema Meyerland, in Meyerland Plaza at Loop 610 and Beechnut. Opening-night screenings $7.50; other evening screenings $6.50; matinees $4.

Short-subject, student and 16-mm films will also be screened at Anderson Hall, on the campus of the University of St. Thomas. Those screenings are free of charge. For a schedule or more information, call the festival at 965-9955.

In Brief
Burnt Eden
Canada, directed by Eugene Garcia (Not reviewed).
This very low-budget film attempts to convey a vision of an urban hell.

Ivan, the point-of-view character, takes us on a tour of various dens of iniquity, including his own mind, where he wavers between lying to women and dealers, begging to creditors and going soft over a hooker. By movie's end, maybe he's dead. Or then again....

Noted: This $12,000 feature is Montreal cinematographer Garcia's first feature.

United States, directed by Andrew Frank (Not reviewed).
This is a reunion tale, but with a twist. Three high school pals get together many years after graduation; the catch is that they're still living and dealing with the consequences of the stunt they pulled to celebrate their diplomas: One of their pals was permanently damaged. Now the men are trying to break the ties that bind them, and him, to each other and go on about their lives.

Noted: This is Frank's second feature. His first, Friends & Enemies, won Best First Feature at a previous Houston Worldfest.

Wales, directed by Ceri Sherlock.
The story is fairly straightforward, and in and of itself will raise few eyebrows. A Welsh soldier goes AWOL from the Brit army during WWII. He hides out from the MPs in his old village, moving from house to house, changing his own life and the lives of his protectors as he moves along. At times he's something of a double agent, hiding both from the military police and the husband of the woman he's having an affair with. This is a reasonably engrossing, tidily made film, with this kicker: It's filmed in Welsh, and so joins the long line of recent U.K. films that provide subtitles for an American audience.

Noted: Director Sherlock has a background in opera, which you wouldn't necessarily guess from the domestic intimacies he seems to concentrate on here.

Confessions of a Sexist Pig
United States, directed by Sandy Tung.
This one reminds me of the country and western musical Take This Show and Shove It, in that its title says it all. The movie would have us believe that it's breaking the news to us about how men think, the bastards. I suspect that by the movie's end, the Pig has learned a thing or two about how women think, as the actress he appears in a soap opera with, and whom he wants to add to his scorecard, is surely going to shake the Pig up. But by the time that did or did not happen, this viewer had tuned out.

Noted: Tung started out in physics, but used his scholarship money to make his first films. Brad Pitt appeared in one.

Canada, directed by, well, six directors (Not reviewed).
It appears that the six directors have gone for the mosaic effect here, weaving together their strands of story held together by the figure of Cosmos, a taxi-driver philosopher who helps his passengers navigate the "urban jungle."

Noted: Like I said, there are six directors.

Deja Vu
United States, directed by Henry Jaglom.
This one begins with a fair amount of promise. A young (mid-30s or so) American woman in Jerusalem on business has a mysterious encounter with a Holocaust survivor who doesn't believe said woman is really in love with the man she's about to marry. The old woman starts a strange chain of events in motion by allowing the younger woman to admire the beautiful pin the old woman was once given by the eventually elusive love of her life. Then she disappears. When the young woman tries to track her down to return the pin, really weird stuff starts to happen. She meets her honest-to-God soul mate, for one thing, and has to deal with that whole can of worms. This is interesting for maybe 45 minutes, then suddenly becomes nerve-wrackingly precious. Vanessa Redgrave is largely wasted in a role that isn't the one of the mysterious old woman.

Noted: It's a shame that a director as established, if sometimes irritating, as Jaglom can't find a distributor for a movie with Redgrave's name in the credits.

Every Dog Has Its Day
United States, directed by Marc Chiat.
This is one the staff at Worldfest seemed rather high on, but for me it was just one more story about an annoyingly sensitive young man whom the world simply refuses to understand -- even though he's an artist, and deserving of all kinds of understanding. I liked the part when the down-and-out young artist observes and comments on the work of a sign painter at a doughnut shop; liked it less when the sign painter became Sign Painter and started making pronouncements.

Noted: This is Chiat's first feature. He directed commercials for years, and is himself a working artist.

Five Wives, Three Secretaries & Me
United States, directed by Tessa Blake.
This one is of particular interest to us Houstonians. Blake is the daughter of filthy rich local oil man Tommy Blake, and this documentary is her attempt to come to grips with her father's looming presence in her life. The movie doesn't work, largely because her method is ill-chosen. We mostly get a series of interviews about her father, and scenes with the old man himself. But he's a bit on the inscrutable side, and the interviews aren't very illuminating, because we don't really know the character -- the old man -- that everyone is talking about. We don't have enough context for the stories, so they can't resonate. Blake herself is quite appealing, however, and the scenes that include her are the film's best. I might be willing to read her memoir of growing up Tommy Blake's daughter, of being a debutante who went on to work in avant-garde theater.

Noted: Blake (Tessa, natch) worked with Keith Curran on his award-winning play The Stand-In, which is now being developed for the screen.

Grey Areas
United States, directed by Jason Sklaver (Not reviewed).
This one at least sounds intriguing. It tells the story of a young artist who can't bring himself to marry his fiancee until he's finally settled accounts with the "soul mate" he loved and lost years before. So he looks her up, to try to tidy up their unfinished business, but the young artist is stuck, come closure time. Haunted by thoughts of Willem de Kooning, he has to struggle on.

Noted: This is Sklaver's first feature. His short Ten Musicians was an homage to his grandfather, a big-band musician.

Heart's Lonely Hunters
United States, directed by Daniel Kuttner.
This one felt like it would be irritating. In it, a German journalist arrives in Charlottesville, Virginia, to "write about Thomas Jefferson." Just what kinds of magazines do they have in Germany, anyway, that send out reporters on such earnest assignments? Once in C-ville, the German has trouble getting to work because he wants to write about "a story dear to his heart" instead. (Yikes -- really bad things can happen to a guy once he starts writing about stories dear to his heart.) But Hans-Jsrg Assmann (cool!) is a very sympathetic, vaguely Liam Neeson-ish presence, and his potentially aggravating wanderings and questings feel surprisingly touching and inviting.

Noted: Kuttner was born in Munich but moved to NYC in 1975. He has worked with David Lynch, and apparently lived to tell the tale.

Honey and Ashes
(country not listed), directed by Nadia Fares.
This film takes us into the lives of three Islamic women living in an unnamed North African country. They're caught between tradition and modernity; in particular, the young woman is turned out by her father after insisting on seeing the boy she loves, even though he's been pledged to his cousin. The fact that she then turns to prostitution to work her way through prep school is presented in refreshingly matter-of-fact terms. And though there is a feminist polemic here, it's presented in dramatic and human terms, rather than as a harangue. It loses steam toward the end, but is still one of the festival's stronger films.

Noted: Director Fares is half-Egyptian, half-Swiss. This is her first feature.

Hurricane Festival
United States, directed by Chi Y. Lee (Not reviewed).
This sounds like fun: A street musician stabs the host of a party and winds up in a jail cell with a retarded kid with a great sense of smell. The magician decides to work the kid into his act, and both dream of becoming rich and famous.

Noted: Chi has an M.A. in psychology from UCLA. The script for Hurricane Festival previously won a screenwriting award from Worldfest.

The Inner Sanctuary
Australia, directed by Chris Clarke.
In this earnest little number, a very yuppie accountant makes fun of a co-worker who happens to be his boss's son-in-law, and so the yuppie is taught a lesson. He's sent to balance the books of a hopelessly unbalanced Catholic social-service center, where the good father cares less about cleaning up his books than about cleaning up the vomit his misfits squirt forth with alarming frequency. Not surprisingly, the accountant's eyes are opened -- there's more to life than a balance sheet. But his humanization happens too fast, and he doesn't resist the process hard enough. Too unsubtle by a mile.

Noted: Before this, his debut, Clarke made documentaries and commercials.

Katuwira: Donde Nacen y Mueren Los Suenos
Mexico, directed by enigo Vallejo-Nagera (Not reviewed).
This one sounds like an exercise in magical realism. It concerns the efforts of a computer scientist and a botanist who are looking for a supernaturally potent flower. The conflict is simple enough; one guy wants to help the world; the other just wants to get rich.

The Lesser Evil
United States, directed by David Mackay (Not reviewed).
In yet another old-friends-bound-by-a-tragic-youthful-error tale, we have a priest, a cop, a lawyer and a businessman reliving the bloody events of a night now 22 years old. A clue has surfaced, and one of them is going to be in big trouble.

Noted: Mackay has a B.A. in economics from Stanford, and worked in the American Stock Exchange before taking up filmmaking. He's currently shooting a film with Kyle MacLachlan.

Lilian's Story
Australia, directed by Jerzy Domaradzki (Not reviewed).
Lilian was unjustly locked away in a mental institution for 40 years; now she's out and trying to win back her father's love, coaxing him with lines from Shakespeare. Father is unresponsive, and the harder she tries to win him back, the more clearly she understands what happened to her all those years years before.

Noted: Domaradzki graduated from the celebrated film school in Lodz, Poland, in 1974.

Greece, directed by George Lazopoulos.
This is a thorough updating of the Medusa myth, and a fairly interesting one, even though it feels more like a Hammer horror film than a Greek classic. In the Greece of today, realistic, fully dressed marble statues of men are turning up everywhere. Turns out that these men had the misfortune to look into the eyes of the old hag herself. She still looks pretty good, actually, until she takes those dark glasses off. The film has a compelling subtext; Percy (though he keeps saying, "Don't call me Percy") mysteriously lost his parents when he was just a child. When he and some partners in crime break into Medusa's house to rob her, he recognizes it as his old homestead. He may recognize some of the statues in the unusual art garden, as well.

Noted: Lazopoulos studied economics and psychology in Zurich, and filmmaking in London.

Mixing Nia
United States, directed by Alison Swan (Not reviewed).
Young Nia is both white and black, and if that isn't angst-provoking enough, she's quit her day job to work on a novel. In a writer's workshop, she meets an Afro-centric writer and falls in love with him. He wants her to disown her white half, and multicolored sparks fly.

Noted: Swan has an M.F.A. in film from NYU, where she won a Spike Lee Fellowship.

Mr. Jealousy
United States, directed by Noah Baumbach.
Perhaps the highest-profile film in the festival, Baumbach's effort will surely find distribution at some point. Eric Stoltz plays a young writer who doesn't have what it takes to finish the novel he's been working on. He also has the jealousy problem mentioned in the title, especially when he finds that his new girlfriend (played appealingly by Annabella Sciorra -- too bad she doesn't work more) once dated a novelist now touted as "the voice of their generation." Jealousy and other perversions lead Stoltz's character to adopt a false identity and join the novelist's therapy group. At times the script feels like Seinfeld material (and worse, suffers from the comparison). But as Stoltz's character and the novelist become close, the story deepens and takes on interest.

Noted: Baumbach's first feature was the very well-received Kicking and Screaming.

Ocean Tribe
United States, directed by Will Geiger.
Think Free Willy, only with a human hero. Four surfer buddies get together to kidnap a fellow dude from the hospital, where he's undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and isn't given long to live. After the breakout, they head for Baja, where the buddies' love and the righteousness of the waves might bring the cancer patient back to health. The plot sounds goofy, but it's apparently based on a true story, and is in fact more sweet than anything else. Not bad.

Noted: Geiger spent time in Italy working in film.

Origin of the Species
United States, directed by Andres Heinz.
This one plays as a shadow to Ocean Tribe. Both are about pods of twentysomethings looking for meaning in the face of the Big C. Where Ocean Tribe takes its philosophy from the workings of dolphins, Origin aims higher, trying to base a new theory of evolution on the not-so-interesting goings-on at a Little Chill weekend. Suffers by comparison.

Noted: Heinz has worked on some studio movies, including Eraser and Everybody Says I Love You.

Paradise Falls
United States, directed by Nick Searcy.
A familiar tale: In the depths of the Depression, an Appalachian family is about to lose its farm to the bankers. Better turn to a life of crime, the boys decide with tragic consequences. No, it's not original, but it's very well observed, touchingly acted and beautifully photographed. Recommended.

Noted: Searcy, who also appears in the film, has acted in Fried Green Tomatoes and is a series regular on HBO's current From the Earth to the Moon.

Reluctant Angel
United States, directed by John Helliker (Not reviewed).
Another tale of desperate young artists, this time joined by con men and the ubiquitous offbeat philosopher. Following a car wreck in which no one is hurt, a starving young artist is taken for a guardian angel.

Noted: Helliker is making his feature-film debut.

Rubber Carpet
Canada, directed by John May (Not reviewed).
Four young friends pursue wildly varying visions of personal greatness, ranging from art glory to finding a more comfortable bed.

Noted: May has mostly worked in children's television on PBS.

Santo Luzbel
Mexico, directed by Miguel Sabido.
My festival favorite, this Mexican film is made from deep inside indigenous Mexican culture, and exudes the kind of authenticity for which John Sayles can only nobly and mightily strive. The film is richly informed by Mexico's history of cultural colonialism and racism, but makes its points economically, at times even comically, as it follows a town's preparations for festivities in honor of St. Michael. But -- who is St. Michael, anyway? The old-school Catholic priest says he isn't a god. But in that case, ask the villagers, why honor him at all? Of course he's a god, and of course the Christian pantheon has to make room for him. There's far too much here to be capsulized; Santo Luzbel makes even the best of the other festival films look intellectually anemic. Spanish takes a back seat here -- Nahuatl is the lingua franca.

Noted: Sabido, the founder of the Nahuatl Theater Company, which has done much to restore pre-Columbian Mexican ceremony and art, is himself Mayan.

The Secret Life of Algernon
Canada, directed by Charles Jarrot (Not reviewed).
The Algernon in question is the grandson of a famous Egyptian explorer. He's eventually joined by a no-doubt beautiful Egyptologist who believes grandpa left a fabulous treasure somewhere on the premises.

Noted: Jarrot directed such films as Anne of a Thousand Days; Mary, Queen of Scots and The Other Side of Midnight.

The Setting Son
United States, directed by Lisa Satriano (Not reviewed).
The story of a potential Olympic star who is sucked into his dysfunctional family's problems.

Noted: Satriano has worked as assistant director on movies such as Speed II and Free Willy.

The Size of Watermelons
Canada, directed by Kari Skogland.
A perhaps too whimsical coming-of-age story. In search of a new identity, Alex the nerd moves to Venice Beach and meets eccentric characters, including one Gnome, who is planning to run for president. Somewhat forced hilarity.

Noted: Skogland is working on a film about the love life of William Faulkner.

A Stranger in the Kingdom
United States, directed by Jay Craven.
Into a small Vermont town of the early '50s comes a black minister (Ernie Hudson) and his son. Their fish-out-of-water presence, and that of a mysterious and beautiful French-Canadian woman, reopen old town wounds, including a murder mystery. This is nice to look at, pleasingly eccentric rather than over the top, and well acted.

Noted: Craven has his own film-development and production company in Vermont.

Sweeney Todd
United States, directed by John Schlesinger (Not reviewed).
Yes, this film, a nonmusical version of the story, will soon be shown on Showtime, but this will probably be your only chance to see Ben Kingsley play the bloody butcher on a big screen.

Noted: This will be one of the opening-night features.

Time Enough
United Kingdom, directed by Foster Marks (Not reviewed).
This tells a rather straightforward-sounding story. A drifter takes a room in the house of a woman farmer; they start an affair; he seems like the man of her dreams; she is deceived; he eventually has to make a choice.

Noted: No director information.

Too Much Sex
United States, directed by Jeff Howard (Not reviewed).
Beneath the too-catchy title, there appears to lurk a sensitive story of a brother and sister who have survived an abusive family -- one more healthily than the other. One sibling tries to help the other find healing.

The Well
Australia, directed by Samantha Lang.
This slow-moving (all right, tedious) tale of a very odd duck finding love, repression and horror when she's taken in by a lonely farm girl and her prickly father works too hard at being grim, and becomes ugly. I'd say 'Gothic' if it were American.

Noted: Lang has worked in Australian television.

The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit
United States, directed by Stuart Gordon (Not reviewed).
One of the opening-night films, this one apparently tries on magical realism for size. A handful of L.A. vatos come upon a magical suit that will bring out the wearer's innermost desires and make his dreams come true.

Noted: Gordon made the cult classic Re-Animator, based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. On the other hand, he was co-creator of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis