Yes, it’s that time of the year again – time for yet another edition of the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, H-Town’s long-running and improbably resilient cinematic exposition.
The 47th annual WorldFest kicks off Friday evening at the AMC Studio 30 with the world premiere of The Legend of DarkHorse County, a supernatural thriller starring Lee Majors, Michael Bien and Chachi Gonzales, and continues through April 13 with the usual smorgasbord of American-produced indies, foreign-language imports and time-tested classics.
Here’s a purely subjective guide to the 10 most promising offerings on tap for the few first days of WorldFest 2014.
Houston native Damon Shalit did triple duty as producer, screenwriter (working from a play by Reza de Wet) and co-star for this drama set in South Africa during the apartheid era. Two siblings (played by Shalit and Chella Ferrow) living on isolated farm – and caught in an incestuous relationship – risk losing everything to a big-city lawyer, whom they fear will uncover a dark family secret. Not surprisingly, they are very eager to keep their skeletons in the closet. (9 p.m. Saturday)
As a tribute to the late Wendy Hughes, the great Australian actress who passed away last month at the ridiculously young age of 61, WorldFest/Houston is screening director Carl Schutz’s acclaimed adaptation of the Sumner Locke Elliott novel (which had its H-Town premiere at the 1984 Houston International Film Festival before settling in for a lengthy run at the old Greenway 3 Theatre). Hughes won an Australian Film Institute award as Best Actress for her subtly nuanced performance as a wealthy woman who sues for custody of her young nephew, the son of her late sister, only to find that the child is an apt pupil when it comes to learning the dark art of emotional manipulation. (7 p.m. Monday)
Conceived in haste, produced in chaos and launched with more than a little last-minute trepidation, Casablanca has survived — no, make that thrived —for over seven decades, defying changing tastes and remaining forever fresh. It is the type of grand romantic gesture that filmmakers rarely attempt in this irony-obsessed age. And yet it is the very sort of intoxicating hokum that drew most of us to movies in the first place. At once cynical and sincere, hard-boiled and softhearted, worldly wise and dreamily romantic, it the sort of classic most movie buffs are thinking about when they complain: “They sure don’t make them like they used to.” Credit WorldFest/Houston for giving local audiences another chance to see it up on the big screen, the way God intended us to see it. (7 p.m. Saturday, 9 p.m. April 12)
Maverick animator Bill Plympton (I Married a Strange Person) spins a fancifully sexy tale about a newlywed wife who’s driven to desperate measures when her husband, wrongly suspecting her of infidelity, leaves her to pursue other women. (9 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. April 12)
Five college students travel to a small Texas town to investigate the local legend of a vengeful Comanche spirit – and discover the reality is far worse than the myth. Director Kirk Loudon, who co-wrote the spooky screenplay with Kevin P. Coleman, shot this indie thriller on location in Fayetteville and H-Town, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself seated next to someone who appears on screen, or worked behind the scenes, during the world premiere. (9 p.m. Saturday)
Reportedly the first feature film ever shot on an iPhone, with a storyline that consists entirely of telephone conversations, writer-director Jay Alvarez’s black-and-white indie dramedy focuses on a neurotic young man who moves from his small town to the big city in search of romance and adventure, only to find more reasons to be, well, neurotic. (9 p.m. April 9)
Dallas-born filmmaker Mario Kyprianou’s indie production, recently showcased at the Slamdance Film Festival, offers a comic take on the real-life 1997 misadventures of Rick McLaren, the radical leader of Republic of Texas separatists who agitated for the secession of the Lone Star state. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. (7 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. April 12)
No less august an organization than the American Film Institute has proclaimed this 1952 masterwork to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever made. And with good reason: Co-directed by Stanley Donan and lead player Gene Kelly, it is splenderifous movie magic. But wait, there’s more: The wonderfully witty screenplay by Betty Comen and Adolph Green artfully commingles spoofiness, sentiment and showbiz mythos while vividly conveying the heady atmosphere of panic, promise and improvisation that prevailed in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, often alluding to real-life mishaps and missteps that have become the stuff of legend. (Note the hilarious struggles to camouflage microphones and record audible dialogue.) Indeed, Singin’ in the Rain may be the most joyously entertaining history lesson ever offered to audiences. (7 p.m. Saturday)
In the world according to writer-director-actor Lonzo Liggins, only three African-Americans live in the state of Utah. And all three of these guys know each other. The good news: A beautiful black woman has moved to the area. The bad news: The three buddies worry that, because they’ve been living around white folks so long, they may no longer be black enough to impress the newcomer. So they seek guidance from the eponymous Pepper Palmer, a disreputable street hustler, in an indie comedy that’s reportedly a personal favorite of at least one WorldFest/Houston insider. (7 p.m. Monday, 9 p.m. April 11)
WorldFest/Houston has always taken a “big tent” approach to programming, so it’s not altogether surprising that, in recent years, faith-based films have occasionally figured into the mix. Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart, Saw III), Amarillo-born Bradley Dorsey and Houston native Haylie Duff co-star in writer-director Roger Lindley’s drama about a Christian couple whose faith is put to the test when they’re forced at gunpoint to drive a vengeful ex-con to the town where he plans to murder his son’s killer. (7 p.m. April 10)