Cluttered by too many subplots and further hampered for American viewers by the frequently impenetrable Jamaican dialect (the producers should have followed the example of The Harder They Come and provided subtitles), Dancehall Queen is nearly redeemed by the fresh performance of Audrey Reid as Marcia, a single mother who decides to escape from poverty by donning hot pants and metallic wig and entering a dance contest.

Shot on digital video, Dancehall Queen has a raw look that is well suited to its rough locale, but the film is overcome by a script that is clumsy and sentimental in equal parts. It's never clear why the maternal Reid decides to enter the sexually charged dance competition (or even if there are more than two contestants), and the crime-oriented subplots only make it more confusing. Directors Don Letts and Rick Elgood (the former a member of the band Big Audio Dynamite) are surprisingly good with actors, but they're also seduced by the color and exoticism of the island. They're more interested in watching the writhing dancers than in exploring social content. The music and the energy are fine, but it's hard for a film to make much of a point when the camera frequently seems to have become stuck at crotch level.

Dancehall Queen is the first of a series of independent films sponsored by the always ambitious folks at Nebula Communications. Even if you don't like Dancehall Queen, they deserve your support, so watch for news about future programs.

Opens April 23 at Union Station.
-- Robert Hunt


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival hopes, according to its announced intent, to "advance public education on human-rights issues and concerns using the unique medium of film." In choosing from more than 600 films and videos, the selection committee "concentrates equally on artistic merit and human-rights content," balancing countries and concerns. Three superb programs have appeared as part of this year's series, each consisting primarily of documentaries so extraordinarily well made and factually rich they linger emotionally and intellectually long after the screening ends. Sad to say, then, the fourth program's two fictional feature films don't meet the previous high standards. Important subject matter certainly need not be relegated to analytical nonfiction works. But these two narratives strain for impact, overstating and even undermining their cases.

The first of the two features, Carlos Siguion-Reyna's They Call Me Joy, was made and immediately banned in the Philippines, later becoming a huge hit in 1997 when authorities allowed its release. Well intentioned though it is, They Call Me Joy exploits the very sexual victimization it condemns while, ironically, targeting the hypocrisy of government and church officials. Stagy, preachy, forced and trite, it offers no new insights.

Here's lovely young Ligaya, a 17-year-old virgin sold by her aunt to a whorehouse for 5,000 pesos. The girls, and they are teenage girls, comfort Ligaya and each other when the madam beats them or johns abuse them. Routinely raped and ridiculed, they survive through their fighting, often flagging spirits and their pipe dreams. Hope arrives in the figure of Polding, a handsome young peasant who works hard and falls in love with Ligaya, a given name meaning Joy to replace her real name -- Dolor, sorrow (it's that heavy-handed.) Polding wants to marry Ligaya, his righteous stepmother objects, his bawdy stepfather rapes her, the priest and the mayor figure in, and so on -- all very melodramatic, not very convincingly acted, and sloppily photographed.

The second half of the program also lacks appeal. In the Czech film Marian, a gypsy mother abandons the title character (a man, not a woman) at age 3, leaving his socialization to one institution after another. Unfortunately, writer/ director/producer Petr Vaclav uses a style so elliptical that the story lurches forward; it's difficult to follow and, at times, to see, so dark are several scenes. Photographed with numerous lingering closeups, the incarcerated individuals become brooding ciphers when specificity and clarity would increase our interest, if not our empathy.

Marian's self-loathing culminates in one harrowing moment of self-laceration, especially powerful because most of the film's previous violence takes place offscreen or is partially obscured onscreen. We get the point -- a heartless system creates an emotionless criminal. But Vaclav's low-key style invites a numbing detachment from the two-dimensional characters. Several effective, symmetrical shots -- of stairways, buildings and hallways -- do convey a terrifying solidity and resistance to change. With a slightly more dynamic style or a more coherent exploration, Marian could have avoided its own despondency to provide fresh insights.

They Call Me Joy plays at 7 p.m. and Marian at 9 p.m. April 27 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

Directed by Roland Joffe

Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) directed this comic noir, which stars Patricia Arquette as Sandra, a femme fatale for whom seduction, murder and double-crossing are as natural as her severe blond China-doll hairstyle is artificial. It's a routine black-comedy/mystery, tricked out by an ambitious director, a classy cast and a first-rate cinematographer (Dante Spinotti).

The gag behind the characterization of Sandra is that she goes through the motions of being a good girl. She plays the charming wife and the churchgoer in public while cheating on her drunkard husband (Dermot Mulroney) with his brother and co-worker (Don Johnson). This is the filmmaker's notion of a rich, stinging irony. But Arquette's acting -- and, more important, her presence -- transcends the plot clumsiness and the yawny satirical ideas. With her half-awake eyes, her face somehow angular and infantile at the same time, and her placidly sexy voice, Sandra is compelling even if the plot that's been built around her is purely Cinemax-at-3-in-the-morning stuff. There's something essentially sweet, almost maternal, to Arquette in every role she plays, and this quality makes her especially amusing as deadly female. A fatale should always be attractive, of course, but Sandra is more -- she's likable.

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