FILM REVIEWS : A Look at the New Works of USC Students

Times Film Critic

Advanced student film makers from USC's School of Cinema-Television will offer three separate programs open to the public over three different nights, beginning today. All told, it's a varied and rewarding mix, well worth seeking out.

Today's films will be screened at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills at 7:30 p.m. Other screenings will take place at Bovard Auditorium, USC, at 7 p.m. Monday and next Wednesday.

In "Clash," writer-director Thierry Notz handles a threadbare theme in a precise and almost refreshing manner with an enormous sense of style that permeates every detail. His nuclear holocaust survivors are a soldier from each side, nicely played by Joseph Hardin and Ester Spitz. What sets his film apart, even with such romantic cliches as abandoned merry-go-rounds and mannequin factories, is Notz's firm directing hand and his visual sophistication, clear in the film's cinematography, its costuming and its casting.

With "Summer Lessons" writer-director Lissa Leff tackles the idealism and sibling rivalry of adolescence. As her parents pay more attention to her beauty-contestant sister than to her, the neglected daughter (Lihanna Jones) takes acting lessons on the sly from a seedy theater star (William Lithgow) summering in their small town. We may be able to guess the denouement, but Leff handles her young actress nicely and makes sensitive choices about when not to show her actual performances, even if her choice of camera angles is melodramatic and her notion of alcoholism has the heavy-handedness of a John Barleycorn skit.

"The Blue" is a mysterious desert area in World War II, created by screenwriter Mark Ritcheson, who may carry more of its secrets in his head than he has cared to reveal to us. Director Adam Simon has a sense for the grand visual gesture and a nice sense of movement but there's an infernal amount of posturing here, in addition to a muddled story. The outstanding performance comes from David Sinaiko as a character billed only as the Italian. "Out of the Water's" writer-director Mary Kury creates an overwrought and feverish brew: suppressed eroticism, mother-daughter rivalry and the onset of puberty, mixed with scenes of a handsome young drug dealer who resembles Christ. Kury lights and photographs crumpled bed-sheets and draped linen with the sensuousness of Imogene Cunningham, but it's not enough to save this much ardent pretentiousness.

In "The Courtyard," writer-director Cynthia Kaplan reveals a (perhaps unconscious) attitude toward Hispanics roughly equivalent to the Yellow Peril view of Asians in the 1920s. When a young, nosy, self-styled journalist takes a room on a beautiful and mysterious courtyard in a Latino neighborhood, his best friend worries that he'll hear that "Cesar Chavez has wrapped you in a tortilla and served you to an angry mob." Overall, "The Courtyard" is the night's unintentional hilarity.

Yet with "The Long Walk Home," set in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, the program's unevenness is smoothed over in a moving close to the evening. Director Beverlyn Fray has staged John Cork's fine screenplay with the greatest care and subtlety. As a pair of mothers, black and white, struggle with the deepest implications of the bus boycott, each side is given the fullest measure of empathy. Production values here are exceptional, as is the entire cast and especially actresses Irene Nettles as Odessa and Deborah G. Dalton as her not-entirely insensitive employer.

Threaded through this program are four short films, of which the most remarkable are "Agnes Escapes From the Nursing Home," a cel animation by the extremely gifted Eileen O'Meara, whose colors and images are delicate and mysterious, and the elegantly funny "Suspicious Minds" by Amanda Ford Neal, set to the Elvis Presley recording. Alternately sleek and raunchy, "Suspicious Minds" is a masterly example of style matching content with perfect synchronicity. Most MTV productions should be this smooth.

Information (213) 938-5673.

Los Angeles Times Monday April 25, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 5 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction In Wednesday's review of "Out of the Water," USC student writer-director Mary Kuryla's name was misspelled.
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