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.