Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 24, 2002
Festival Five

Fort Worth’s film showcase is smaller than ever, and its founder is pleased.


Last year, Fort Worth Film Festival director Michael Price looked at his event, suddenly scaled down due partly to the events of Sept. 11, and said, “Most film festivals start small and then get so big that they forget their roots. We started out big. Let’s see where we go from here.” The fifth installment of the showcase, which mostly unspooled in a single screening room at AMC Sundance 11 theaters last week, turned out to be the smallest in its history. Many people wouldn’t take this as a sign of progress, but Price pronounced himself pleased with his brainchild’s most recent incarnation: “We’ve gotten back to the nuts-and-bolts, no-budget, get-stuff-done filmmaking. Of all the festivals I’ve done, this is in many ways the most satisfying.”

The weekend began with The Emperor’s Club, a much-less-happy opener than last year’s Waking Life. Michael Hoffman’s movie about a great teacher (Kevin Kline) at an exclusive upstate New York private school who locks horns with a rebellious student (Emile Hirsch) showed its literary roots all too well. Everything seemed preordained — adolescent hijinks, meddling administrators in the pockets of rich alumni, platitudes on the value of education. The film was based on Ethan Canin’s short story “The Palace Thief,” and its one dramatic surprise plays much better on the page than it does on the screen.

A couple of features played heavily on their local ties. Matt Kurtz’s Falling Hard was filmed entirely in Arlington in many recognizable locations. Its story about a guy torn between his long-time girlfriend and a new acquaintance made for an impressive debut, fluidly directed and filled with easy, natural dialogue. The film sorely needed a better cast, however — the actors weren’t up to the emotional demands of the script. Moving down I-30, Joffre McClung’s Best Wishes was set in Fort Worth in the 1950s. The packed house loved the film’s period detail, but the writing and direction were clumsy, and the female empowerment message was pushed too hard.

Female empowerment was also the theme of Jürgen Vsych’s Ophelia Learns to Swim, a comedy that also got a large crowd. The director was a constant presence at the festival, making sure everyone got the spelling and pronunciation of her name correct. Her tireless promotional efforts got her an award for her marketing. In accepting the award, she thanked Star-Telegram staff writer Alyson Ward for writing an advance on her. It’s too bad this wasn’t in the service of a better film, as Ophelia’s satire was extremely scattershot and often wide of the mark.

In contrast to these, some films had acute problems attracting viewers. An audience of two (including this writer) showed up for Dischord, Mark Wilkinson’s thriller about a New Age music star who walks out on her career for a quiet life on Cape Cod with her husband, only to find trouble when his unstable, violent brother suddenly shows up. Romantic notions about artists and badly written conversations about “talent” and “genius” sank that film.

The auditorium was completely empty (except for this writer) for Cyber Crime Freaks 1.0, which was too bad, because in many ways it was the festival’s most interesting entry. A title card proclaimed the film “100% the product of one person,” as Kingsville’s Sherwin Jet Yuyungyuen was credited as director, writer, star, cinematographer, editor, composer, animator, and special effects supervisor. The movie was a fascinating indication of how a film might be made by one person. Mostly, though, it was worth checking out for the way it cast doubt on the sanity of its creator. Yuyungyuen played Jet, a maverick computer programmer about to launch a revolutionary system superseding the binary code after 10 years of labor. The film proved even crazier than its central character. Rants about the binary code’s hegemony were interspersed with Jet playing billiards, taking a shower and waxing philosophical about his ablutions, and his explanation of why he wears socks with the toes cut off.

A highlight of the short films was Greg Chwerchak’s The Quarry, a murder mystery about the death of a Scandinavian handyman while partying with three beautiful New Jersey suburbanites. The obviousness of the premise (the three women’s different stories showed themselves in the best possible light) was redeemed by the director’s light touch and bumbling cops who added their own hilariously overheated theories to the mix, conjuring catfights and four-way sex. The most entertaining short, called Stars & Stripes in the program but Festival Holidays on its title card, featured can’t-miss material: the war stories of various people working as New York City tour guides.

Historical retrospectives were noticeably absent from this year’s festival. The only historical item on this year’s bill was George Cukor’s 1940 romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story. Price noted that this was one area of the festival he would like to expand, but he’ll continue to concern himself with the event’s artistic direction more than its growth. As he says, “I’d much prefer to create a little pool of talent and see who shows up to splash around in it.”

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