It’s always difficult to judge a film festival by its capsule reviews, so characterizing the 12th Annual Washington, D.C., International Film Festival in advance is a tricky proposition. But Washington City Paper’s critics have previewed a higher proportion of films (or film programs) this time than in any previous year36 of them, prompting a rash conjecture: This may the best Filmfest yet.
To be sure, the selection includes many well-meaning but rather dull films from around the globe, typical second-rate Filmfest fare like the Czech Republic’s Dead Beetle, Argentina’s Sin Querer, Brazil’s Little Book of Love, and Germany’s Leaand that’s not a complete list. Indeed, City Paper reviewers Arion Berger, Jessica Barrow Dawson, Mark Jenkins, Dave Nuttycombe, Joel E. Siegel, and Virginia Vitzthum couldn’t conjure much enthusiasm for most of the films from Germany, one of this year’s two featured countries. The new generation of mainstream German movies is prospering at the box office, but then so does a lot of assembly-line American product. Of the previewed German films, only Wintersleepers is recommended. The most interesting German entry will almost certainly be the one from aging New German Cinema veteran Werner Herzog: The unpreviewed Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a documentary about a German boy who survived American bombings of World War II only to fly for the U.S. (and be shot down) over Southeast Asia during the ’60s.
This year’s other featured country is Iran, and there the story is very different. Despite low budgets and government censorship, such Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi are making some of the most beautiful and provocative films of the ’90s. Two of the fest’s six Iranian offerings were previewed, and they’re both exceptional: Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Panahi’s The Mirror investigate the relationship between cinema and reality while telling very different sorts of stories. Iranian movies may seem exotic and even slightly threatening to some Americans, but ironically they’re quite commercial in Washington, which has a large Iranian-émigré population. Filmgoers who don’t speak Farsi, however, should also check out some of these entries.
Filmfest always presents some music documentaries, but this year there are only a few, including Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, which we recommend, and the Woody-Allen-as-jazzman opus Wild Man Blues, which we, well, don’t. Although anything but musical, The Farm: Angola USA offers a compelling documentary view of life at the nation’s largest maximum-security prison.
As usual, a few Filmfest offerings will soon get commercial runs. David Mamet’s latest con job, The Spanish Prisoner, opens this week, a day after its Filmfest bow. It will likely be followed by openings of the British working-class boxing drama TwentyFourSeven, the going-postal Norwegian black comedy Junk Mail, the ’80s-Jersey-girl-comes-of-age drama Whatever,
the mediocre German rock-band-on-the-lam flick Bandits (this year’s closing-night film), and, well, Wild Man Blues.
Several other fest films (including The Children of Heaven, A Friend of the Deceased, Lawn Dogs, Marie Baie des Anges, La Vie de Jésus, and Will It Snow for Christmas?) have American distributors, but that’s no guarantee of a Washington booking, especially with the current shortage of art-house screens. Among their number are two that have been knocking around for a while, the excellent A Self-Made Hero and Ken Loach’s Glaswegian-Nicaraguan romance Carla’s Song, which has gotten mixed reviews. It might be a good idea to see them now if you’re interested.
With 30-some films under our collective belt, we still expect to be visiting the Foundry and the other Filmfest theaters to catch such unpreviewed entries as Majid Majidi’s The Father, Tsai (Vive L’Amour) Ming-liang’s The River, and Benoit (A Single Girl) Jacquot’s The Seventh Heaven. This year, though, that list contains but a few of the many promising possibilities.
In the West, the best-known Indian films are intimate and naturalistic, exemplified by the work of Satyajit Ray. Most of the movies produced by the world’s largest film industry, however, are crowd-pleasing epics, which often combine singing and dancing with action and torrid (but chaste) romance. What’s extraordinary about writer-director Mani Ratnam’s films is that he addresses serious political and social issues within the sweeping style of the mainstream Indian movie. His Bombay, shown at Filmfest in 1996, used its lighthearted account of a romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman as the prologue to a horrifying depiction of the city’s 1992-93 sectarian riots.
The Duo offers an equally complex blend. It begins as the tale of the friendship between fledgling actor Anandan (Mohanlal) and screenwriter Selvam (Prakash Raj). The latter is less interested in the movie biz than in the politics of the twosome’s native state, Tamil Nadu. Residents of this southern province often feel ill-used by the country’s rulers in the north, and Selvam channels that resentment into the creation of a new political party. The party doesn’t become a major force, however, until Anandan is established as a cinematic hero and uses his celebrity to further it. Anandan’s stardom and Selvam’s oratory make a powerful combination, but when the former overshadows the latter, the friends are torn apart. Ultimately, the actor and the idealist become political rivals.
Since the movie business is one of the film’s two backdrops, Ratnam has a credible pretext for integrating musical numbers into his political story: They’re scenes from Anandan’s own movies, which range from horseback battle epics to something that looks like a left-populist Tamil version of Singin’ in the Rain. Some of the epic compositions are also from films within the film; others depict the fevered pageantry of Indian politics. Add a beautiful, headstrong love interest (former Miss World Aishwarya Rai), and Ratnam has all the traditional elements of Indian melodrama.
Anandan and Selvam are reportedly based on actual figures from Tamil politics, but the intricacies of the film’s ideological conflicts will probably be lost on most Americans. Viewers of The Duo need nothing more, however, than Ratnam’s delirious style, which features dramatic low-angle shots, dizzying 360-degree pans, and massive crowd scenes. What other director would stage a political dialogue between the two principal characters with one in the courtyard of an ancient temple and the other 100 feet above him on the temple’s parapet?
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
Downtime is a small-scale, surprisingly effective Irish attempt to replicate a contemporary big-budget Hollywood action picture. Its structural template is Speed: a tense, extended central sequence sandwiched between two shorter suspense episodes. Like its prototype, director Bharat Nalluri’s thriller is laughably implausible but undeniably gripping.
The film opens with suicidal Chrissy (Susan Lynch), a young single mother, about to leap with Jake, her young son, from an upper floor of a rundown Liverpool high-rise housing project. She’s saved by ex-cop Rob (Paul McGann), an asthmatic crisis-management specialist mourning the death of his child and the collapse of his marriage. Rob returns to the nearly deserted projectwhere a handful of remaining tenants are terrorized by the nastiest band of disaffected teenagers this side of A Clockwork Orangeto look after Chrissy and Jake. Echoing the opening scene of Speed, the trio find themselves trapped with an epileptic old man in a stalled car in a blazing elevator shaft. Nalluri devotes an hour to their escape efforts, then devises a climactic confrontation in the hospital following their rescue.
Although stuffed with outrageous narrative contrivances, Downtime is compulsively exciting, offering a series of absurdly perilous physical feats and pulse-pounding cliffhanger chills. Its depressive characters and setting provide a more substantial social context than its American counterpart. The actors are clearly overqualified for their functional roles. McGann, a handsomer, graver Pee-wee Herman, has moments of quiet eloquence, and Lynch, a sentient Andie MacDowell, is remarkably intense as the angrily profane but tenderhearted Chrissy.
Far too intelligent to be squandering their energies on this live-action Road Runner cartoon, Nalluri and his cast let us know that they are slumming by playing the hospital denouement for laughs, a tacit admission that they regard Downtime as an elongated joke. Although they deserve a project worthier of their talents, this over-the-top guilty pleasure marks them as forces to reckoned with.
Joel E. Siegel
At 7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Sin Querer, an Argentine-German-Swiss-Spanish co-production, sends its Ubermensch hero all the way to Patagonia. The end of the earth, howeverthe well-trod Latin landscape of magical realism and lurid melodramalooks strangely familiar. The film opens with handsome engineer Mario Rojas (Daniel Kuzniecka) stumbling upon a crucified eagle nailed to a post. Tied to the post is a lamb, which Rojas puts in his pick-up truck before driving away through the desert.
Rojas arrives in drought-wracked San Lorenzo at the same time as the flamingos, which, we are reminded frequently, are both harbingers of rain and symbols of lust. He has been sent from Buenos Aires to the small southern town to find an overland route for a huge luxury ship. The yacht is going to an inland lake nearby, and the townsfolk expect their dull lives to be transformed by the coming resort. The local businessmen want first look at the route to capitalize on future tourist traffic; the women want Rojas. He takes up with the sexiest wife, been-around-the-block Gloria (Angela Molina in a radiant performance). And that’s only the beginning of what he stirs up in this Patagonian picnic; but, unlike William Holden, Rojas is a whirlwind of pure good. He spurns a younger but less soulful babe, foils the town bad guy, and helps the native Indians stake a claim to the gold on their stolen land. Rojas’ warm yet manly friendship even helps the town homosexual accept himself. Rojas’ adultery, like Bill Clinton’s, only makes him more appealing.
First-time director Ciro Cappellari throws out so many life-affirming story lines that the movie often seems like a collage of public-service announcements. Besides the gay man’s journey of self-discovery and the Indians’ fight for their land, there’s the story of Gloria trying to keep 13-year-old Juanita from her own fate, an unhappy marriage to a much older man. Cappellari does, however, get good performances from his actors, and the score by Gustavo Beytelmann is fine when it steers clear of whimsy. As if the menagerie of Meaning (countless flying flamingos, two dead eagles, a tortoise, and that dumb lamb) weren’t enough, the movie’s climax takes place under a total eclipse of the sun. The sun comes back out, of coursewhat else is the hero going to ride off into?Virginia Vitzthum
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, April 25, at 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
A black comedy dressed up as a thriller, Pål Sletaune’s film is set among a thoroughly disreputable set of Oslo residents, many of them postal workers. Sloppy, surly Roy (Robert Skjærstad) is every postal service’s nightmare: He dumps most of his mail in a downtown railroad tunnel, opens letters addressed to people he dislikes, and, upon finding the keys of one of the women on his route, uses them to explore her apartment. Although Line (Andrine Saether) is a mild-mannered, hearing-impaired dry-cleaning-shop clerk, she’s also implicated in a robbery with her brutish accomplice Georg (Per Egil Aske). Wracked by guilt when she learns that their victim is in a coma, she attempts to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Roy just happens to be snooping in Line’s place at the timeand saves her life, although he leaves before she revives to see who her rescuer is. Thus begins an unusual romance, one complicated by Georg’s assumption that Roy is interested not in Line but in the proceeds from the robbery.
Like Aki Kaurismäki’s, this film presents an unexpected view of tidy, prosperous Scandinavia: The characters are often brutal, frequently drunk, and usually dirty and unshaven. Roy’s charmlessness is a problem in a romantic comedy, since viewers are less likely to be identifying with his love for Line than to be wondering if their own mailman has any of Roy’s unprofessional characteristics. Sletaune and co-scripter Jonny Halberg provide a surprisingly tight narrative framework underneath the seemingly haphazard events, but the plot’s contrivances are ultimately less interesting than such offhand moments as the one in which Roy’s mildest co-worker sings a karaoke version of “Born to
Be Wild.”Mark Jenkins
At 9:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, April 25, at 9:45 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
La Vie de Jésus
The protagonist of this aimless-youth drama is not a Christlike figure: Dough-faced Freddy (David Douche) is a teenage layabout in a small town in northern France. His interests include riding his motor scooter and having seemingly joyless sex with his compliant girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). His equally indulgent mother (Geneviève Cottreel) runs a small cafe where the highlight is the local finch-owners’ weekly trilling contests; once, she dares to ask Freddy when he’s going to get a job.
Aside from the occasional epileptic fit, Freddy’s principal difficulties are the imminent death of a friend’s older brother, who has AIDS, and the presence in his town of a few Arabs. Then Freddy goes too far in his teasing of a female classmate, and Marie gets angry. While the two lovers are feuding, Marie exchanges a few friendly words with Arab teenager Kader (Kader Chaatouf). This development is more than Freddy can handle.
The first feature by industrial-film veteran Bruno Dumont, La Vie de Jésus is set in the director’s hometown, Bailleul, and was inspired by his experience teaching adolescents. Young love, small towns, teen violence, and motorcycles have been glamorized in many movies, but writer-director Dumont’s view is doggedly unromantic. The film depicts Freddy and Marie’s lovemaking explicitly but unerotically, and Marie’s response to Kader’s gentlemanly advances is distinctly unladylike. Although Freddy does have a saint’s interest in mortification of the flesh, none of this dismal town’s inhabitants are in a state of grace.Mark Jenkins
At 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Wild Man Blues
Could there be a more sobering illustration of the insidiousness of celebrity culture than Wild Man Blues? Filmmaker Barbara Kopple, whose Oscar-winning documentaries Harlan County USA and American Dream stirringly set forth the plight of American laborers, has been hoodwinked into collaborating in the public reclamation of Woody Allen.
Attempting to restore her brother’s tarnished reputation, Letty Aronson invited Kopple and her film crew to tag along on Allen’s 1997 18-city European concert tour with his New Orleans jazz septet. Kopple was promised unlimited access to Allen and his entourage, including his de-facto-stepdaughter-turned-mistress Soon-Yi Previn. The resulting documentary dishearteningly demonstrates how badly Kopple was duped.
Without Allen’s status as a celebrity actor-writer-filmmaker, he would never have been invited to tour as a musician. Although he professes to practice every day, he is, by his own admission, an amateur clarinetist; his anemic tone and rusty timing barely qualify him to perform at synagogue socials. Neurotic and withdrawn, he’s temperamentally unsuited to play freewheeling New Orleans jazz. (One cannot help noticing that Allen’s septet, devoted to the revival of early African-American jazz, contains no black players.) The musicians in Allen’s band, especially trombonist Dan Barrett and trumpeter Simon Wettenhall, have made spirited sounds in other contexts, but when appearing with Allen, they repress their spontaneity and imagination to avoid upstaging their fumbling leader.
The slackness of Allen’s playing disqualifies Wild Man Blues from serious consideration as a concert film. The performance excerpts, which constitute roughly one-third of the 104-minute running time, will embarrass viewers familiar with New Orleans jazz and stupefy those who aren’t. Allen is shrewd enough not to risk touring the United States with this enervated ensemble. The resulting critical and public response would devastate his bloated ego.
The movie’s covert agenda is to repair the damage caused by Allen’s highly publicized liaison with Soon-Yi. In a society that paid more than lip service to moral and aesthetic standards, Allen would be regarded as a pariah. No excuses, however generous, can be fabricated to defend his unconscionable personal behavior or his most recent film, the odious Deconstructing Harry.
Publicity material for Wild Man Blues promises to reveal Allen “in a way he has never before allowed himself to be seen.” In truth, the documentary presents him as he has always been seen, but with the bedroom scenes scrupulously excised. Superficially, he opens himself to Kopple’s camera. We observe him initially kvetching on an overseas flight, and subsequently acting out his phobias about dogs, bathrooms, gondolas, sunlight, and other phenomena. These hardly qualify as candid revelations but merely as extensions of the persona he’s developed throughout his films.
We are not afforded any insight into Allen’s alliance with Soon-Yi. They interact so formally one might reasonably conclude that she were his secretary or ward. (Occasionally, she assumes a motherly role, reminding Allen to remember people’s names and to praise his musicians for their artistic contributions.) Apart from one chaste kiss as the tour ends, they display no physical or emotional intimacy. Without knowing otherwise, we would never guess that, not long ago, Soon-Yi was the subject of her foster mother’s lover’s pornographic snapshots. Late in the film, Allen jokingly introduces her to concert promoters as “the notorious Soon-Yi Previn,” confident that their relationship has been officially sanctioned and sanitized.
Wild Man Blues ends with a characteristically sour Allen coda, a post-tour visit with his nonagenarian parents, to whom he condescends and whom he callously mocks for the delectation of Kopple’s camera. Was she a knowing participant in this shifty, unpersuasive refurbishing of Allen’s image, or was she so starstruck that she didn’t realize she was being played for a chump by Aronson and producer Jean Doumanian? Whatever the answer, it’s distressing to have to add this hitherto uncompromising filmmaker’s name to the list of women ill-used by Woody.Joel E. Siegel
At 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
Little Book of Love
In Little Book of Love, Brazilian filmmaker Sandra Werneck stretches to feature length a feeble premise that could barely sustain a 15-minute short. In several dozen brief vignettes (labeled “Attraction,” “Happiness,” “Love Affair,” “Fear,” “Nostalgia,” “Revenge,” etc.), she chronicles the bumpy amatory relationship of an architect (Andréa Beltrão) and a divorced biologist (Daniel Dantas). Mixing dramatic scenes and monologues addressed to the camera by her protagonists and their confidants, Werneck compiles a tedious lexicon of bromides about men and women, freedom and commitment, tenderness and alienation. Lacking sufficient charisma to breathe life into the screenplay’s suffocatingly schematic design, Beltrão and Dantas ploddingly progress from flirtation to marriage to estrangement to reconciliation without engaging empathy or compassion. Even the music used as soundtrack commentaryrecordings by the late Antonio Carlos Jobim and the underrated songstress Nana Caymmifails to enliven Werneck’s shallow, pointlessly segmented, pseudo-Brechtian narrative. As long as Filmfest continues programming movies as unrewarding as Little Book of Love, it cannot expect to be taken seriously as a world-class festival.
Joel E. Siegel
At 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Monday, April 27, at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
Also screening April 24: Vertical Love (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Leila (7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Paul Robeson Centennial Tribute: Song of Freedom (7:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater).
Rosebud Film and
Video Awards 1998
From 20 nominees, and many more submissions, five works have been chosen to receive the coveted Rosebud Award for 1998. The Rosebud organization has remained true to its mission of honoring the “innovative, experimental, unusual, or deeply personal,” and while in years past this has often meant presenting the deeply annoying, this year’s crop was uniformly confident in communicating the varied visions of artists working beneath Hollywood’s radar.
But what does it mean that the suburbs made a clean sweep? Winning filmmakers call Hyattsville, Gaithersburg, and Arlington home; the top honor went to a Baltimore crew.
When screening the nominees, I somehow did not watch Kirsten DiAndrea’s A Cultural Object: The Tampon, which appears again as a winner. Shame on me, I guess.
Also unviewed, for reasons of time, was Gifts From My Father by Kim McNabb, which explores “basketball, alcoholism, and sexual identity in a father-daughter relationship.”
Matt Kovalakides’ Abusive Parental Guidance Suggested, a mock PSA, seems a surprising choice. Not for lack of quality, but I recall works of more substance.
Weti’s Poem by Lucy Gebre-Egziabher is a visualization of 12-year-old Weti Enkie Solomon’s poem, titled “Sadness,” that managed to avoid the inherent problems of visualizing a 12-year-old girl’s poem titled “Sadness.”
Best of show was awarded to Entrepose, by Jason Hubert, Matt Pittroff, and Jeff Schmale. Visually intriguing and languidly paced, the film examines one man’s afterlife in a style highly evocative of Eraserhead.
At 3 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. There will be a “Meet the Filmmakers” panel discussion following the screening.
This program of four 30-minute films is best when it stays closest to reality. That would be in Strong at the Broken Places: Turning Trauma into Recovery, a series of interviews with four people who have used their devastating early lives as the basis for social and political activism. The only well-known subject is Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam; also included are a man who survived Cambodia’s holocaust as a young boy, a woman who turned to drugs after being sexually abused as a 7-year-old, and a South Boston man who became an anti-gun activist after two older brothers died. All four have interesting things to say, although directors Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich don’t add to our understanding by relentlessly cutting between the interviews.
Also powerful is Chris Tashima’s Visas and Virtue, an Oscar-winning docudrama about the Japanese envoy to Lithuania who saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jews in 1940 by issuing them transit visas via Japanin defiance of his government’s orders. This vignette offers an interesting footnote to the history of World War II’s “righteous gentiles,” although the merely adequate acting conveys little psychological insight into the event.
The two fiction entries, about a mother trying to save her son from the Harlem streets and a flirtation between a French tutor and his student, are slight. The former, Drive By: A Love Story, seems indebted more to music video than to drama, while the latter, La Leçon, is all downhill from the opening sequence, in which the tutor imagines himself in Paris as he rides a bus through a charmless American town.
At 5 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
The title of this parable from 18th-century Mali translates as “skirt power,” but its sexual politics aren’t especially radical. Angry that her husband is about to wed a second wife, Yayemé (Fanta Berete) stalks into the bush at sunset, that dangerous time when the territory outside the village is bristling with demons. Yayemé does encounter some evil spirits, but she conquers her initial terror and manages to take a mask from one of them. The next day, wearing the mask, she instructs the village’s terrified men that they must switch places with their wives.
Soon, the women are enjoying their leisure while their husbands awkwardly collect firewood, prepare meals, and care for the children. The two genders even switch their traditional attire, much to the astonishment of visitors from neighboring villagesincluding the delegation bringing the new wife. The film’s voice of reason, though, is Yayemé’s preteen daughter Kouni (Ramata Drabo), who refuses to switch places and aids the true owner of the mask. After the film’s ultimate crisis and reconciliation, the villagers accept Kouni’s wisdom: that the women should seek equality, not power.
Writer-director Adama Drabo mixes naturalism and fabulism, interrupting the story with a folkloric aside about how women used to snatch stars from the sky for children. The film engagingly depicts a world where myth and reality mingle, but its candid depiction of gender conflict is undercut by the plot’s bland resolution.Mark Jenkins
At 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Sunday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
A warm, earnest, and utterly predictable culture-clash parable, Harish Saluja’s film recounts a visit by retired Indian headmaster Kishan Singh (Roshan Seth) to his son’s family in Pittsburgh. Workaholic doctor Raj (Antony Zaki) is too busy to pay much attention to his widowed father, but family friend Audrey (Betsy Zajko) and 5-year-old granddaughter Jenny (Nora Bates) are charmed by the gentle, cosmopolitan, aristocratic old man. Only blonde daughter-in-law Laura (Carrie Preston) is upset by Singh’s presence, offended by his spitting and smoking, his taste in music, and his unwillingness to pick up after himself.
It’s easy to understand Laura’s antipathy to having a stranger in her house, especially after Singh decides he’s going to stay permanently in order to properly educate Jenny. (Her parents are too harried to read to her, Jenny tells her granddad, although their lives look pretty relaxed.) The script, however, is stacked in Singh’s favor. Despite a few hygiene quirks, he’s portrayed as both an impeccably cultured man and a principled voice for tolerance. At a party thrown by one of his son’s Indian colleagues, the host denounces African-Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs; Singh promptly tells the man off and leads a walkout. And how long can Laura, a poet and literature professor, resist the charms of a man who quotes not only Sanskrit classics but also Rilke?
Singh is also supposed to be a holy innocent, which is particularly hard to credit. He’s perfectly vulnerable to con men and utterly fascinated by Christian evangelistsas if a man who’s lived his whole life in India could have never encountered a hustler or a religious zealot. He’s the father from another planet, as demonstrated by his tiresome misadventures with a remote control, a sealed bag of potato chips, and the security system at a book superstore. Singh is depicted as admirable, but not fully human. But then neither are the other characters in this well-meaning, glib movie.Mark Jenkins
At 7:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Sunday, April 26, at 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Kalthoum Bornaz’s modern Cinderella story has loads of charm and deft comic moments. When we first meet pretty, rebellious Nozha (Rim Turki), she is struggling absurdly against the captivity of customtrying to dial a phone with her nose, as her hands are covered in drying henna. It is her brother’s wedding, and she has returned to Tunisia after divorcing one wrong man only to find her busybody relatives trying to set her up with another. Lotfi (Lotfi Achour) may profess to be in love with Nozha, but he did her a monstrous turn years ago and she rightly will not forgive him. (“Why is there so much hate?” he simpers. “Serbs and Bosnians don’t get along.” She glares at him with all the contempt this ploy deserves.) Add to that the banning of her best friend from the house and her family’s insistence that she wear a “ton of metal,” the keswa of silver thread proper to Tunisian brides. Outfitted in this cumbersome gown and tight silver shoes, Nozha can’t get out the door with the rest of the wedding party.
The first half of the film is a comic and apt depiction of a modern Muslim family, in which jeans, miniskirts, and television sports have as much place as hand-dyeing and the groom’s seclusion in the hammam. The film keenly observes how the family deals with modernity and adversity, especially in details such as a goldfish in a bag they pass around and the chicken that Nozha’s mother has outrageously named after the woman who tried to take her husband. The second half is a fairy tale told in a series of comic set piecesNozha’s journey around Tunis in the back seat of a pumpkin-colored taxi driven by the genial Salih, who gallantly removes her shoes. Nozha and Salih bicker and bond, running from one reception hall to another (where Nozha is invited to sit on the bride’s platform or hold a stranger’s baby), and the princess loses bits of her distinctive gown along the way, leaving a shiny trail for the rakish violinist Khalil (Ahmed El Hafiane). Like Cinderella and dreaming girls of every culture, Nozha understands what it means to be a secret princessit doesn’t matter what she wears, as long as she alone can set the terms.Arion Berger
At 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Sunday, April 26, at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 25: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (2 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); Long Twilight (2 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art; free); The Witman Boys (3:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art; free); Leila (6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Beyond Silence (7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); Doing Time for Patsy Cline (9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); The Perfect Circle (9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy).
Short Stuff Program
This year’s shorts program is good news: Not only is it speckled with winners, but half of the filmettes were directed by women. Ranging from Call Me Fishmael, two-plus minutes of goofily bad animation in which a little slug-shaped creature pitches an absurd sea adventure (successfullyin the last shot it’s being filmed live-action in a bathtub full of Blue Thunder Gatorade), to a 16-minute black-and-white music-video meditation by producer Don Was, the shorts vary in style as well as in length.
Grit your teeth through Susan Smith-Pinelo’s A Modern Day Hottentot Venus, a wordless look at a voluptuous black woman who wakes up dressed, then spends the day naked. At best it’s pointless; at worst it’s appallingly racist. There isn’t a lot to love in Elise MacAdam’s A Cure for Serpents, the story of a normal girl living in her very abnormal mother’s germ-free environment, but there is plenty of intrigue. And Jenni Olson’s Blue Diary is blandly wistful, a voice-over in which a female narrator muses on a baffling, painful liaison with a supposedly straight girl, played over interesting but not mind-blowing San Francisco street scenes.
But Double D is just delightful. Laura Bennett posits a lonely 16-year-old girl who finds escape, not to mention God, in her enormous breasts. Abby idolizes Dolly Parton and all the empowering self-determination that goes with her; Dolly’s Christian tunes and rousing, romantic chin-ups play in Abby’s head while her parents fight like rabid animals and cajole her into taking sides. Sweetly sad-faced, unspectacular except for those double-D’s, Abby is an ordinary girl who knows she’s on an extraordinary mission. She finds release by forcing a showdown with her folkswhich they ignoreand embarking on a new life as a glittery Nashville swan.
The narration for Catherine Edwards’ Mother-Daughter Love sounds like a bijou short horror story brought unnecessarily to life on the screen; turns out she wrote it herself. The imagesfairly literal onesare well-chosen but don’t add much to an amazing tale: An unnamed man finds himself ferrying a beautiful mother and daughter in the back seat of his car. He grows uneasy with their presence as he realizes fuzzily that he knows them and that they’ve been dead for 20 years. The trio stops for tea, looks at the small town’s sights, and, after the driver drops his passengers off with “a friend”a scary-looking man holding a spadereunites for a glorious finale. Edwards’ language is lilting and uncanny; like the best short horror, it seems to muffle worse terrors than the ones it reveals.
Francis Ford Coppola “presents” everywhere-at-once music producer Don Was’ Forever Is a Long Time, a handsome bit of lowlife piffle in which Kris Kristofferson plays the ghost of Hank Williams, who smokes crack with and gives an inspirational message (via Dante) to a reprobate player named Sweet Pea. Was’ jazz score skreeks and skronks above the dialogue, but that’s okay; like most of his projects, Forever is about style.
Mildly amusing and ultimately touching, David Fourier’s Des Majorettes dans l’Espace is too arch for its own good. Faux educational-film narration details the vagaries of love and sex, digressing endlessly into other subjects and somehow looping them all back together: condoms (preservatifs), cosmonauts, the Pope, invisible beings, trees, AIDS, vodka, and, of course, majorettes. Cute but sad, as only the French can pull off.
Let’s hope that elsewhere in the festival there’s no feature-length film as reprehensible as Jacques Rey’s Cusp, a lavish piece of misogynist garbage in which a talentless female painter is transformed by a vicious attack into a better, successful artist and a more confident, sexually desirable woman. This repellent male rape fantasy revels gleefully in the extended attack sequence, and the men in the artist’s life, from the abetting observers to the heartless boyfriend, turn
out to be giving her just what she needs.
Steve Box has seen too many Wallace & Gromits, but there are worse influences for a British claymation director than Nick Parks’ suburban madness. Stage Fright is the story of vaudeville dog-juggler Tiny and his band of intrepid Chihuahuas facing the last days of the music hall and the soul-dousing encroachment of cinema. The animation is not as smooth as Parks’, but the characters are wonderfully detailed, and everything from the films-within-the-film (black-and-white silent comedies and melodramas, they’re even “aged” convincingly) to a celestial visitation is meticulously modelled
and consistent in tone. A lovely, heart-felt effort.
At 5 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 5 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
In Lea, Czech-born director Ivan Fila’s first feature-length film, the fairy-tale princess is a young Czech girl so traumatized by her abusive father that she falls mute and is then tossed helplessly from a foster family to a complex relationship with a melancholy man with whose love she briefly reclaims language and laughter. The film’s romantic componentshyper-real anger, exasperation, joyoccasionally sink supporting characters and scenes into caricature. But Fila restrains the adversarial and, finally, loving relationship between Lea and her keeper-husband, Strehlow, to right the story and avoid tear-jerk tragedy and candy-shop banalities.
The film’s opening scenes, fraught with young Lea’s antic despair over her traumatic family life, explicate her muteness with emotions so blunt they’re alienating. Lea’s maniacal father grunts and trudges about with inexplicable anger bordering on the pathological: He spitefully cuts the child’s kite string as she plays with it, indiscriminately throws Lea to the ground, and repeatedly rapes her mother. But next to her father’s rages, Lea’s retaliation looks lame: As her father rapes her screaming mother, she plunges a dinner fork into his back with all the vehemence of a child inspecting her first Brussels sprout. Years later, Lea proves she’s still prone to whiny behavior even when she’s mute: To express indignation when her state-assigned foster family announces she’s being sold to the German man Strehlow, she drops dinner cups to the floor and storms
Despite, or perhaps because of, the broad strokes of these early scenes, the central relationship between the adult Lea (Lenka Vlasá#ková) and the furniture restorer Strehlow (Christian Redl) who buys her from her adoptive family and makes her his wife is comparatively full of subtleties. The relationship is played with sparse dialogueLea is, after all, muteso Fila conveys his characters’ inner worlds through sound: A fire cracks with anticipation as Strehlow spends a sleepless night waiting for the obstinate Lea to emerge from his car; in her first resentful days with Strehlow, Lea nearly scrapes through the floorboards as she polishes them.
Vlasáková# is prone to occasional overwrought tantrums and facile beaming, but Redl toasts his callous cabinetmaker just right: crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside.
Strehlow, initially an inexplicable bundle of rage just like Lea’s father, seems a demanding ogre who considers Lea his servant. But hidden boxes of photos reveal that his spirit has been dark since his wife’s freak death and his subsequent 20-year enlistment in the Foreign Legion.
Like Lea, Strehlow trains his anger at his wife’s fate on himselfshe is mute, he cannot laughand the couple gradually recognize the commonality of their suffering, coming to a brief love truncated by Lea’s tragic death. That’s a trite story-line if ever there was one, but when told with delicacy through expressive sound and fine acting, as it is here, it has the aspect of universal truth.
Jessica Barrow Dawson
At 6 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Monday, April 27, at 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 26: Will It Snow for Christmas? (6:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); The Perfect Circle (6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); The Children of Heaven (7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley); Doing Time for Patsy Cline (8 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); The Seventh Heaven (8:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Beyond Silence (8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); Lawn Dogs (9:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater).
A Directors’ Roundtable starts at 3 p.m. at Borders Books & Music, 1800 L St. NW.
The Farm: Angola, USA
Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus’ contemplative portrait of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola contains none of the sensationalistic elements (cellblock riots, shower-room rapes) one expects to find in a prison documentary. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the struggles of six inmates to survive the rigors of life (and probable death) behind bars.
Bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, Angola is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the United States. It houses more than 5,000 convicts, 77 percent of whom are African-Americans and 85 percent of whom will never be released. The prison was a slave plantation until the end of the Civil War; its 18,000 acres are now worked by inmates who receive between four and 20 cents an hour for their labor.
The Farm presents a rounded view of Angola. It neither propagandizes for prisoners’ rights nor questions the morality of life sentences and capital punishment. Stack and Garbus dwell on how a half-dozen individuals convicted of serious crimes find the strength and spirit to survive incarceration with minimal hope of release. Ashanti Witherspoon, serving 75 years for armed robbery, has achieved trusty status and is permitted to travel throughout the state teaching CPR classes. During his three decades in the joint, Eugene Tannehill has become a minister, preaching fiery sermons that would give Robert Duvall pause. Twenty-two-year-old George Crawford, convicted of first-degree murder, is beginning a life sentence without parole. John Brown, guilty of a double murder, has spent 12 years on death row and, having exhausted the appeal process, faces imminent execution by lethal injection. Vincent Simmons, sentenced to 45 years for aggravated rape, proclaims his innocence and sustains faith that newly discovered evidence will secure his freedom. (Simmons’ parole board hearing is particularly unsettling. The persuasive case he presents indicating that he’s a victim of racism is casually dismissed by officials.) Logan Theriot, who killed his unfaithful, child-abusing wife, is dying of lung cancer. His burial on the prison grounds serves as the film’s prelude and touching coda.
The filmmakers never indicate how or why this sextet of prisoners was selected to represent life in Angolaquestions they should have addressed. But their choices offer a cross-section of inmatesyoung and old, black and white, some resigned to their fates and other still hoping for freedom. Rigorously photographed, with a painter’s eye for composition, texture, and detail, and sensitively scored by jazz bassist-composer Curtis Lundy, The Farm contains many memorable sequences, among them Crawford’s tearful mother’s first visit to her son, Theriot’s friends gathering around his deathbed to say farewell, and the surrealist vision of a clown entertaining inmates on Christmas Eve. By turns cautionary and uplifting, it transcends reportage to become an existential meditation on captivity and redemption.
Joel E. Siegel
At 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Tuesday, April 28, at 8:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
A Self-Made Hero
A bookish young man in a provincial French town, Albert (Hate director Mathieu Kassovitz) is astonished at the end of World War II to learn that his in-laws have been part of the Resistance without ever telling him. In shock, he leaves his wife Yvette (Sandrine Kiberlain) and goes to Paris, where he meets a gay Free French Army veteran who gives him lessons in dissimulation. By subscribing to the right newspapers and memorizing a London tube map, Albert turns his landlord’s contempt to admiration, which is just the dry run for more important deceits. Soon, he’s skillfully crashing resistance reunion parties and reminiscing about exile in London with real veterans, some of whom profess to remember him.
Albert’s ruse works so well that he’s given a job in Paris, then the rank of lieutenant colonel and an assignment in the French occupation of Germany. He’s a success there, too, although one of his subordinates suspects him. So does notorious female officer Servane (Anouk Grinberg), who nonetheless becomes his lover. When Albert’s story collapses, however, the consequences are hardly what heor the viewermight expect.
Presented as a mock-documentary by director Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote the script with Alain Le Henry, this satire has perfect pitch. Kassovitz makes an utterly believable liar, and the various Brechtian touchesat one point, a character complains that he’s just going to die in Indochina in 1953 anywayare never jarring. (Albert himself survives to be played by Jean-Louis Trintingnant as an older man.) In a sense, of course, Albert is France itself, unwilling to admit that it didn’t spend the years 1940-45 in bold defiance. Although A Self-Made Hero can been seen as a wry commentary on the actor’s craft, it’s also a meditation of the political attractiveness of deceit. As Albert’s career demonstrates, a clumsy but heroic lie is often preferable to an uncomfortable truth.Mark Jenkins
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy. Also screens Wednesday, April 29, at 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
How I Spent My
Local director John Fisher is a Howard University graduate with a keen ear for dialogue and a loose, lovely way with the camera. His short feature film checks in on Perry (Ronreaco Lee) and Stephanie (Deanna Davis) as they break up, obsess over each other, tell lies to themselves and the camera, and absorb reams of bad advice from well-meaning friends. Swingers with a hiphop beat, this good-natured slice of love life gets all the right shades of a soured first romance. In 73 short minutes, Fisher convincingly fills in the details of the couple’s two-year relationship, so Perry and Stephanie’s every subsequent move seems hilariously, heartbreakingly real. The script is light and funny, with Perry’s roommates Joseph and the eternal-student layabout D’Angelo weighing in with faulty analogies. (“Love is a drug, man.” “So,” Perry says confusedly, “I’m in withdrawal?”) The breakup is mostly from the boy’s point of view, so we watch, cringing, as he returns again and again to Stephanie, each time seeing her drifting farther away. Anyone older than college age will recognize the futility of the confrontations that lead, sadly, to the first seeds of sexual bitterness masked by bluster. Fisher is onto something refreshinga new black cinema that’s about good moviemaking and not special pleading, far from the faux-celebratory pep talks of Soul Food or teen-comedy sex romps like Ride.
At 7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Tuesday, April 28, at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Like horseradish, cologne, and cocaine, Bill Plympton’s animations are best experienced in small doses. His short films showcase his considerable graphic skills, developed during his early years as a cartoonist and caricaturist, without focusing undue emphasis on the insalubrity of his vision.
Mondo Plympton, an anthology of the filmmaker’s work, exposes this mirthless misanthropy. The Oregon-bred animator has mastered a variety of visual styles, but he’s a one-trick pony, obsessed with gruesome manipulations and metamorphoses of the human body. Although it’s tolerable in snippets, 80 minutes of this stuff is hard
Plympton opens with Your Face, one of his strongest efforts. In it, a singer croons a dated, sentimental tune while his face undergoes surreal permutations. A lexicon of synonyms for “breasts” follows, illustrated by a panoply of mammary variations. One of Those Days chronicles one day’s calamities seen from the perspective of the hapless victim. 25 Ways to Quit Smoking offers an assortment of Swiftian solutions to that nasty habit.
Represented by photographic and artistic self-portraits with animated mouths, Plympton narrates the anthology, including pertinent biographical details. He’s at his best in Faded Roads and Dig My Do; these lively music-video visualizations of songs provide him with relatively amiable pre-existing subject matter. Left to his own devices, he reverts to repellent corporeal contortions. In an excerpt from the live-action feature J. Lyle, a man converses with his heart, brain, lungs, spleen, and intestines. Nose Hair, heavily indebted to Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck, meditates variously on the titular nasal filament. Plympton brags that the penultimate sequence, an excerpt from How to Kiss that makes clear the contempt for the body and loathing of women implicit in his earlier work, is designed to offend everybody. I can’t speak for others, but it certainly left me feeling queasy.
Joel E. Siegel
At 8:45 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Shane Meadows’ scruffy, convincing comedy about a youth boxing club that temporarily resuscitates the go-nowhere kids of a dying British village is the latest in a line of low-budget seeds of hope, from Brassed Off! to The Van to The Full Monty. The very existence of these movies, in which scrappy men with nothing to lose pull some project together but are inevitably sucked under by gray skies and relentless joblessness, proves that England must be in much worse shape than when Jimmy Porter first lashed out at the country’s stifling postwar complacency. Bob Hoskins plays Darcy, a down-on-his-luck inhabitant of the nameless town who tries to cobble together a boxing club like the one that provided exercise and inspiration for himself and his pals back in the day. But the complexion of the village has changed (literally, since dark- and light-skinned wastrels alike kick around soccer balls and hoist lagers); England’s youth needs more than self-esteem and impermanent shelter from the streets. Darcy’s project envelops two feuding groups of young men who don’t even have enough spunk to fight each other with any conviction. Meadows shows them training and bonding and finally falling apart after an ill-fated match with another club, without undue seriousness or lapses into cliché. The film is well-shot and acted, tightly constructed with realistic, nonpreachy dialogue; it never descends into the yobbo mouth-tennis of the sub-Ken Loach school.
If TwentyFourSeven is typical of the indie end of this spectrum, then British film isn’t in straits as dire as those of British industry.
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Thursday, April 30, at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 27: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program III” (12 noon at the American Film Institute Theater; free); The Seventh Heaven (7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); The Children of Heaven (7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley); The Father (9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); The River (9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry).
Triumph of the Underdog
In its opening reels, Don McGlynn’s cine-biography of bassist-composer Charles Mingus is disappointingly conventional, the familiar mix of abbreviated performance clips interrupted by talking heads. But as the film progresses, Mingus’ indomitable spirit fires the writer-director’s vision, inspiring him to find fresh formal solutions to the challenge of capturing and conveying the mercurial musician’s artistic and personal complexities.
Born in 1922 to parents of mixed ancestry (Swedish, Asian, American Indian, African-American), Mingus, like his music, defies categorization. He grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he was inspired by jazz giants (Ellington, Parker) and contemporary classical composers (Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg.) In 1953, following a stint with Ellington’s orchestra, he formed his first ensemble, the Jazz Composer’s Workshop, and, with drummer Max Roach, founded Debut, an independent record label designed to give musicians artistic and financial control of their work. Subsequently, his albums released on major labels, including Atlantic, Columbia, RCA, Candid, and Impulse, won him international critical acclaim. In the mid-’60s, a variety of circumstancesthe dwindling market for jazz, eviction from his Manhattan apartment, the death (at 36) of his brilliant multi-instrumentalist bandmate Eric Dolphy, as well as emotional problemsled to a period of semiretirement. With the 1971 publication of his scabrous, stream-of-consciousness autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus rebounded and received overdue recognition as a jazz master until he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease.) Hoping to find a cure, he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he died in 1979.
McGlynn spent eight years assembling material for his film, researching archives to uncover rare footage of Mingus performances and interviewing members of his bands. (Tuba player Don Butterfield, trombonist Britt Woodman, and saxophonists John Handy and George Adams provide eloquent insights into their leader’s musical strategies.) Mingus’ ex-wife Celia and widow Sue, affectionately exchange memories of their husband’s often volatile yet deeply romantic nature. Snippets of Mingus’ best-known compositions”Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Meditations on Integration,” “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”illustrate the unique fusion of structure and freedom that informs his music.
Since her husband’s death, Sue Mingus, who co-produced McGlynn’s documentary, has carried on his legacy, managing the Mingus Dynasty Band and releasing previously unissued recordings of his performances. Although fiercely protective of Mingus’ reputation, she does not flinch from representing his darker sidehis mid-’60s nervous breakdown, his wild rages (including the infamous incident when he knocked out trombonist Jimmy Knepper’s front teeth), his disastrous 1962 Town Hall big band concert. Mingus intended the gig as a public rehearsal, but it was promoted as a formal presentation. Copyists were still transcribing the music as the performance began. The musicians were understandably bewildered, and outraged concertgoers exited in droves. Mingus rightly predicted that the ambitious compositions he planned for
that evening would never be heard in
After his death, manuscripts of music written for the Town Hall concert and other unperformed scores were found among Mingus’ belongings and were assembled as Epitaph, a two-hour suite premiered by conductor Gunther Schuller and an all-star ensemble at Lincoln Center on June 3, 1989. Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog ends on a high note with this event. Listening to Epitaph’s densely layered harmonies and daunting polyrhythms, one is disinclined to challenge Schuller’s assertion that Mingus is “one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.”
Joel E. Siegel
At 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Wednesday, April 29, at 9 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
A Moment of Innocence
Anyone who saw Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s extraordinary docudrama about a man who pretended to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, knows that Makhmalbaf is a celebrity in Iran. It’s important to understand something about the director’s background to appreciate his stunning new A Moment of Innocence, which is a very different sort of film from its predecessor, the lyrical Gabbeh.
As a teenage anti-Shah radical in 1975, Makhmalbaf tried to steal a policeman’s gun; the incident ended with the cop stabbed and his attacker in prison, where he was held (and sometimes tortured) until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Makhmalbaf was initially a fervent supporter of the new order but gradually became a critic. While the director has disowned his early, political work, some of his recent films have been banned in Iran.
For 1994’s Salaam Cinema, Makhmalbaf turned his camera on everyday Iranians who wanted to be movie stars; one of the people who showed up for the auditions was the policeman he’d stabbed. Rather than include him in that film, Makhmalbaf proposed making A Moment of Innocence: The cop and the director would each get to cast a young man to play his ’70s self, and each would film his own version of the events.
Makhmalbaf is no longer much interested in politics, and in retrospect both the victim and his attacker tell stories that have less to do with ideology than with the desire to impress a young woman. Meanwhile, the young actors don’t fully comprehend the motivation of their older counterparts. The play of reality and re-enactment leads to some gently comic moments, but also to a devastating realization. At 78 minutes, A Moment of Innocence is a simple, delicate film with a powerful kick.
At 7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Thursday, April 30, at 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Glamorous Prague looks a little tattered in first-time writer-director Pavel Marek’s youth-culture drama about a fledgling actor’s fling with a mental patient. Martin (Jan Zuska) has a few leads on small roles in films and TV commercialsin one of the latter, he plays a corpsebut otherwise his life is a shambles: He’s split with his girlfriend and lost his job at a metaphysical teahouse, and he faces eviction because his ground-floor apartment would be more valuable as office space. So he gets drunk and into a fight, and ends up in an asylum for observation. There he meets gentle, pretty Marteka (Paulina Jirásková), who’s suffering the psychic aftershock of a family trauma.
The two embark on a hippie-ish romance, smearing each other’s facesrespectively, in three separate sceneswith paint, mud, and shaving cream. It all seems rather Zabriskie Point, but without the Vietnam-era politics or the elegant visuals. Marek ultimately admits that his latter-day flower-child hero is a bit of a cad: Martin soon loses interest in Marteka, to disastrous effect. Martin and Marteka are never as intriguing, though, as the depiction of their overall scene, which seems like an Eastern European acid flashback of the American late ’60s.Mark Jenkins
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Thursday, April 30, at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Carla’s Song, British director Ken Loach’s latest socialist-realist tableau, invites the director’s working-class leftism on a rambling, two-hour-plus Nicaraguan idyll replete with Harlequin-type Romance and pretensions to politicking. Robert Carlyle, once again the golden-hearted working-class-sot-with-attitude he played in Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty, stars as George, a cocky Glaswegian bus driver who falls for Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a beautiful Nicaraguan freedom fighter adrift in Scotland. We never understand what has attracted Carla to this soggy town so antithetical in climate and temperament to her homeland, but it’s safe to assume her escape from the past is a convenient excuse for Ken Loach to direct a film about Sandinista strife. Set in 1987, the film is ostensibly about Carla’s tormented sojourn in Glasgow and her return with new love George to Nicaragua, where she exorcises the ghosts of her past and regains her place with the freedom fighters. But it’s hard to believe her conviction when her most profound feat of activism while in Glasgow is mooning over landscapes of the Nicaraguan countryside taped to her bedroom wall. Hapless George isn’t much more impressive: His pinnacle of dissidence is getting fired from a government job driving Glasgow double-deckers for letting sexy, penniless travelers like Carla ride free. But at least the cramped, oppressive streets of Glasgow challenge George; cockiness is his flotation device.
Too bad the film’s second half takes place in Nicaragua, where George dissolves into doe-eyed adoration of Sandinista history lessons and socialist sloganeering. Like Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World, whose edgy opening scenes in Berlin disintegrate into navel-gazing in the Australian outback, Carla’s Song loses vitality without the gloomy backdrop of high streets and lochs. While Carla confronts her past and the demons that dog her, pasty George, more comfortable eating haggis and dodging rain, gets washed out in the warm hues of the equatorial clime. He’s clearly befuddled by the gangs of sweaty Sandinistas but overlooks his displeasure for his one-dimensional love of Carla. Any remnants of his brusque nature melt inexplicably into unquestioning awe of socialism; he listens intently as lachrymose Carla recounts cold-blooded Contra attacks on Sandinista schoolchildren. Enter Scott Glenn, as the square-jawed and lame-brained American relief worker Bradley, whose pedantic diatribes about the evils of the CIA- and Reagan-financed Contras inspire little more than a puerile desire to launch spit balls.
Loach insists that his actors read only the segments of the script being shot each day. Here, a technique successfully employed by director Mike Leigh to generate spontaneous emotion appears to limit the actors’ sense of their characters’ trajectory. Robert Carlyle is as surprised as we are to learn one morning that George has had his fill of Contra violence and will return to Glasgow without Carla. As tragic as it is for George to confront political violence, Carla’s Song proves that among the Contras’ greatest evils was the driving of our heroine from Nicaragua and into the arms of Ken Loach.
Jessica Barrow Dawson
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy. Also screens Wednesday, April 29, at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
Also screening April 28: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program III” (12 noon at the American Film Institute Theater; free); With Closed Eyes (6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Marie Baie des Anges (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); A Friend of the Deceased (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Little Dieter Needs to Fly (7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Nargess (8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry).
Some Nudity Required
Some Nudity Required opens with a hand-held shot of the HOLLYWOOD sign, then cuts to a clip of a driller killer skewering a pneumatic, thong-clad B-movie scream queen. Director-composer Odette Springer, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, recalls in voice-over her arrival in Tinseltown to score low-budget sex-and-splatter features produced for video stores and late-night cable airing. Her initial impulse is to walk away from the job, but she feels inexplicably compelled to remain and write “the music that drives the violence even harder.”
In an blend of autobiography and reportage, Springer intercuts interviews with exploitation-picture actors, directors, and producers with her ambivalent reflections on her own contributions to that genre. She juxtaposes profiles of two B-picture queens: unselfconscious, Amazonian Penthouse Pet Julie Strain, whose exhibitionistic performances have led to financial success and an advantageous marriage, and Maria Ford, who feels conflicted about and embarrassed by the features she has made. Courtly producer Roger Corman, blunt-spoken director Jim Wynorski (who asserts that he got into B-movies “to get laid”), and husband-and-wife filmmaker team Andy and Arlene Sidaris defend their erotic thrillers. Others admit they have compromised their standards and artistic principles to obtain a toehold in the film industry. Excerpts from Midnight Tease, Angel of Destruction, Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold, and other cheapies illustrate the primal appeal of exploitation pictures.
Springer’s confessions act as counterpoint to her documentary material. She discusses the insidious appeal that composing soundtracks for B-movies holds for her, her insecurity about her own sexuality, and her attraction to dominant, sadistic men. In an introspective nude sequence, she expresses anxiety about the size of her breasts and reveals that she did not experience orgasm until she was 28. She sympathizes with Ford, who feels victimized and vulgarly objectified by her screen roles and yearns to be acknowledged as someone who loves science and God as well as sex. Near the film’s ending, Springer recovers a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse by relativesa realization that allows her to liberate herself from the sleaze biz. In the final sequence, we witness her, free at last, conducting a children’s choir.
Gimme a break! Some Nudity Required disingenuously presents itself as a feminist tract, but its formula mimics the films it condemns75 minutes of titillation followed by 15 minutes of psychobabble redemption. The performers, directors, and producers who crank out cheesy T&A slashers are adults capable of making choices and old enough to take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Although they retroactively portray themselves as preyed upon by a dirty business that demeans women and caters to the vilest male fantasies, their mea culpas ring hollow. Unless Maria Ford is mentally defectiveand there’s no reason to assume soare we really supposed to believe that she appeared nude in 40 features (including Stripped to Kill II and Slumber Party Massacre III) before it dawned on her that her job was degrading? Springer may have deluded herself into thinking that her film is a cleansing gesture, but it’s merely another self-justifying contribution to the culture of victimization.Joel E. Siegel
At 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Friday, May 1, at 10:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is the linking device for three generations in this film, adapted from Göran Tunström’s novel by Swedish TV veteran Kjell-åke Andersson. The narrative begins with the untimely death of Solveig (Lena Endre), an exuberant presence and gifted singer who meets with a freak accident before she can fulfill her desire to have the choir of her small country church perform the difficult work. Left behind are her husband Aron (Peter Haber) and son Sidner (Johan Widerberg), both haunted by her death. Eventually, Sidner travels to New Zealand to court Tessa (Fiona Mogridge), the woman who has long carried on a pen-pal romance with Aron. Finally, the task of performing the oratorio falls to a member of family’s next generation, unborn when Solveig dies. Like many films based on novels, Christmas Oratorio has more story than it can handle; like many Scandinavian films, it features icy weather, cold religion, and chilly fate, as well as repressed sex and circus performers. The film, which screened at the American Film Institute last year, is a bit overwrought, but it does benefit from a sweeping style and dramatic imagery.
At 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Thursday, April 30, at 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 29: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (12 noon at the American Film Institute Theater; free); Nargess (6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); With Closed Eyes (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Destiny (7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley); The Father (8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); A Friend of the Deceased (9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Will It Snow for Christmas? (9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry).
Kings for a Day
François Velle’s frothy Kings for a Day offers a refreshing relief from typically somber Filmfest fare. Several years after the collapse of Communism, two Polish brothers, Edek and Roman Kowalski, relocate to Paris in search of a better life. Their dream fails to materialize and, reduced to subsisting on dog food in a squalid room, they decide to return to Warsaw. At the airport, they embark on one last fling by commandeering a stretch limo waiting to escort Olaf Nielsen, an Icelandic movie director, to the Reims Film Festival.
Ensconced in the Festival’s palatial hotel, the brothers initially keep a low profile, terrified that their ruse will be discovered. But unworldly Edek, posing as Olaf (with Roman as his interpreter), gains confidence when “his” movie, White Nights on Ice, is well-received. Soon the Kowalskis are living like kingsswilling champagne, holding press conferences, and cutting distribution deals. Edek catches the eye of Elizabeth Adams, a reclusive international movie star, and appears to be a shoo-in for the Festival’s top prize when the real Olaf belatedly appears.
The screenplay, written by director Velle and Mariusz Pujszo, is reminiscent of Preston Sturges’ mistaken-identity comediesan engaging blend of satire, farce, and romance. Trim, dark Stephane Freiss is endearing as Edek, and glamorous Maruschka Detmers radiates charm as Elizabeth. Velle offers an insider’s view of film festival machinationscantankerous jury deliberations, pretentious critics trying to second-guess each other, producers attempting to peddle foreign rights to third-rate pictures, journalists and audiences sucking up to celebrities. Smoothly paced and elegantly photographed, Kings for a Day is so winning, only a curmudgeon could object to its Hollywood-fairy-tale coda involving a brace of stretch limos and a promised meeting with Steven Spielberg as
“California Dreaming” cheerfully blares on the soundtrack.Joel E. Siegel
At 7 p.m. at the Embassy of France. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 30: “Cinema for Seniors” (10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); Traveling Companion (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); Little Dieter Needs to Fly (7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Destiny (7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley); Marie Baie des Anges (9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); Somersault in a Coffin (9:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater); My Secret Cache (9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry).
Contemporary Iranian films frequently breach the line between realism and reality. At first, Jafar Panahi’s latest film seems merely a sequel to The White Balloon, his tale of a 7-year-old girl’s first adventure on the streets of Tehran. This time, protagonist Mina (Mina Mohammed Khani) finds herself alone after school when her mother doesn’t show up to get her. So the girl sets out to find her own way home.
But Panahilike Abbas Kiarostami, who co-scripted The White Balloonhas moved from wry tales of daring but perplexed youngsters to something much more complicated. Halfway though the film, Mina throws off her costume and declares that she doesn’t want to act any more. The second-grader heads for her actual home, having the same sort of modest adventures her character had in the first half of the filmthus the film’s second part “mirrors” the firstas the camera crew shoots from a distance.
It’s impossible to determine how much of this strategy was worked out in advance. (Panahi has admitted that the idea of the actress’s quitting was his, not hers.) Like many Iranian films, The Mirror was shot in real time, with no concessions to the storytelling techniques of mainstream commercial movies. Yet certain themes emerge nonetheless: A female on the loose in Tehran is a problem, even if she’s only 7 years old, and various male authority figures are utterly bewildered by Mina’s presence. As Mina travels, the babble of the streets divides neatly into male and female. The former is mostly about an ongoing soccer match (also a unifying device in Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On…); the latter is about women’s place in society: A palmist advises a woman on how to keep her husband from straying, a grandmother laments that she’s barred from seeing her grandson because his parents think her rural accent will coarsen him, and a female passenger argues with a male taxi driver about the proper role of women’s work in and out of the home.
The film’s most poignant sound is the patter of Mina’s feet as she runs in the direction that she hopes is home. But Panahi has said that the film was initially inspired by the sight of a woman like the dispossessed grandmother, sitting in a park. After Mina “quits” the film, she stops in a park to ask the grandmother about her speech earlier in the film. Everything she has said, the woman tells Mina, is true of her real life.
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
In The Underground Orchestra, Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann explores a fresh, intriguing subjectthe exiled musicians who perform for spare change on and beneath the streets of Paris. She begins with portraits of artists working on subway cars and platforms: a Venezuelan classical harpist, a soulful African vocal-instrumental trio, a Sarajevan violinist, and a Romanian accordion-cymbalom duo. When increased security following terrorist bombings prevents Honigmann from continuing to shoot underground, she ascends to film other musicians, from Zaire, Algeria, Vietnam, Argentina, and Mali, on the street and in their homes.
Having abandoned their homelands for political and economic reasons, these gifted outcasts endure a hardscrabble existence. Some are in France illegally; many pay exorbitant rents for cell-like apartments. But all find freedom and salvation in their music, a universal language that liberates their spirits and allows them to communicate and survive in an alien environment.
Honigmann juxtaposes lively, sometimes haunting musical sequences with interviews that probe the deprivations and persecutions that forced these artists into exile. Cinematographer Eric Guichard contributes vibrant images that mirror the film’s aural richness; seldom have the streets and rooftops of Paris been so strikingly photographed. Despite the adversities its subjects have suffered, The Underground Orchestra is an affirmation of transcendence through art.
The film’s sole weakness is its lack of momentum. Honigmann fails to find a formal solution to the inherently episodic nature of her material. In 108 minutes, she presents too many musicians in too little detail. Her climactic device to draw the film’s diverse elements togethera montage of musicians returning to the Métrocomes too late to resolve the documentary’s scrappy, sometimes arbitrary continuity.
The Underground Orchestra would be more effectively structured as a miniseries composed of half-hour profiles of the life and art of each musician. But even in this less than ideal feature-length form, it delights the eyes and ears and stirs the soul.
Joel E. Siegel
At 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
One of the few American features in this year’s fest, first-time writer-director Susan Skoog’s Whatever is also one of the few recent releases from Washington’s Circle Films. Set in the early ’80s in Kevin (Chasing Amy) Smith’s lower-middle-class New Jersey hometown of Red Bank, this is yet another inquiry into the sexual awakening of teenage girls (see last year’s All Over Me and Ripe). Art school-bound Anna (Liza Weil) is a virgin, and her flashier best pal Brenda (Chad Morgan) is not, but both are busy looking for trouble with booze, drugs, older men, and ex-cons. Ultimately, though, the two girls are going in different directions; whereas Brenda has an abusive stepfather and a terrorized mother, Anna has a well-meaning mother and an encouraging art teacher (Frederic Forrest).
The film starts authoritatively and includes a few carefully observed scenes, notably Anna’s first sexual encounter, which is a disappointment both physically and emotionally. Once the girls skip school for an adventure in New York, however, the narrative starts to meander. Probably a half-hour too long at 112 minutes, Whatever is short on style and drive. Skoog, who used to work at VH-1, tries to substitute musical energy for directorial propulsion: The film includes a score by the Silos’ Walter Salas-Humara and songs by the Ramones, the Jam, Patti Smith, the Pretenders, and Roxy Musicnone of which ring true in this nonhipster context. Besides, Whatever’s most convincing moments are quiet ones.Mark Jenkins
At 7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Out of the Past
In 1995, Kelli Peterson, a 17-year-old Salt Lake City lesbian, became embroiled in controversy when she attempted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. Reacting to homophobic pressure from parents and legislators, the school board decided to ban all after-class clubs to block the formation of Peterson’s group. Following a massive student protest, Peterson prevailed.
Documentary filmmaker Jeff Dupre’s Out of the Past places Peterson’s battle in historical perspective by interweaving it with the little-known struggles of earlier generations of American homosexualsPuritan clergyman Michael Wigglesworth, 19th-century novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and her socialite lover Annie Adams Fields, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, and gay activists Henry Gerber and Barbara Gittings. In the film’s triumphant climax, Peterson embraces Gittings at the 1997 New York City Gay Pride parade.
Earnest and uplifting, Out of the Past will no doubt provide comfort for troubled gay teens and enlightenment for any homophobes who can be coerced into watching it. But Dupre’s schematic intercutting of present and past soon becomes monotonous, and his film lacks the emotional punch of Word Is Out, The Times of Harvey Milk, and other groundbreaking pro-gay documentary features.
Suitable for educational screenings and public television airing, Out of the Past is too conventional in form and theme to warrant film-festival showcasing.Joel E. Siegel
At 8:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 9:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Wintersleepers, co-scripted and directed by Tom Tykwer, is the kind of movie that film festivals were invented for. Audiences are likely to be divided on the merits of this hallucinatory, highly stylized psychological chess game, but even its detractors will have to admit that they’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Tykwer opens with seemingly arbitrary, enigmatic glimpses of five people who inhabit a wintry, isolated Alpine village: three men (a randy, irresponsible ski instructor; a reclusive, brain-damaged movie projectionist; a bankrupt farmer with a comatose daughter) and two women (an earthy, unfulfilled literary translator; a melancholy nurse who moonlights as a community theater actress). Desire, loneliness, and fear, triggered by a fateful highway accident, bring these isolated individuals together to form a mosaic of love, betrayal, misunderstanding, retribution, and redemption.
Wintersleepers is a cinematic tour de force, worth watching merely for its visual pyrotechnics; it combines dynamic compositions, idiosyncratic editing devices (lap dissolves, superimpositions), and abstract color schemes. The result is a contrapuntal movie, the visual equivalent of a fugue. The film’s emotions mirror its form, with characters revealing secrets and longings that
gradually blend into a grand, unpredictable design.
Like The Sweet Hereafter on Quaaludes, Wintersleepers demands a patient, attentive viewer. It is fragmented and, at times, willfully obscure. One can barely grasp what Tykwer and his gifted acting ensemble are up to until the film’s midpoint. Then the pieces fall into place, leading to a dreamlike climax that abandons chronological realism and leaps into allegory. In an era of formulaic filmmaking, this uncategorizable, strikingly accomplished production restores faith that the expressive possibilities of cinema are far from exhausted.
Joel E. Siegel
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
“The characters in this film are real,” coyly announces the opening title of Nicholas Barker’s investigation into the mating habits of disheartened New Yorkers. In between stolen glimpses through the bedroom windows of their unidentified neighbors, we meet four people, three of them past their dating prime: a divorcée with a teenage daughter and an intractable debt who says, “I don’t need dick. I need cash”; an aging swinger with a “fuck cave” who protests, “I don’t go out with mutts”; and a bitter, homophobic guy who’s 5 foot 4 in a world where all the personal ads ask for men over 5 foot 10. The fourth is a woman, 28 and blonde but not exactly svelte at 220; she wants to be married by 30, but confesses that she was recently “dumped by a submissive.”
Like most gossip, the four losers’ revelations have a certain fascination. The arty insets, leisurely pace, and burbling art-jazz-rock score manage to slow things down, though, and some may feel cheated that the director actually scripted and directed the film based on his characters’ accounts of their lives. “I’d say 90 percent of the script was based on the actual behavior and language of the four principal characters,” notes Barker, an anthropologist turned BBC documentary maker. “The rest is a pack of lies.” That’s problematic, but whether the divorcée’s lines are scripted or not, it’s hard to resist her. She proudly strips to show off her fortysomething body, contemplates marrying a green card-seeker for $10,000, and announces that she shoplifts all the food for her dog because, “They’re God’s creatures. I shouldn’t have to pay.”
At 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Onibi: The Fire Within
Heavily stylized gangster flicks are a Japanese tradition, as the National Gallery’s 1995 retrospective of ’60s director Seijun Suzuki demonstrated. The latest renaissance, however, takes a cooler, almost contemplative approach. Rather than Suzuki’s Day-Glo colors, Rokuro Mochizuki’s Onibi: The Fire Within opens and closes with a shot of a grassy field. (Wait till the end of the credits, though, for a small payoff.) This is the story of a man who tries, but fails, to keep his distance from the yakuza underworld.
Kunihiro (Yoshio Harada) is a laconic ex-con who doesn’t want to return to his former work as a hit man; he’s a tough guy with a hot temper, but he’s also got a gay roommate and a taste for classical music and literature. Well-regarded in yakuza circles, Kunihiro is offered a job as a gangster’s chauffeur. In this position, he proves he’s still willing to use violence to defend his colleaguesor to protect the honor of beautiful lounge pianist Asako (Reiko Kataoka), who asks him to help her avenge herself on a callous philanderer. Kunihiro and Asako put the fear into the guy, but he too has yakuza connections. Kunihiro takes a job with a printer and moves in with Asako, but a quiet life eludes him.
Rokuro is a former porno director, and in this film he seems more interested in the power of images than of guns. Kunihiro, offered money by a fellow gangster when he first returns from prison, asks instead for the guy’s camera. Later it’s revealed that Asako is especially anxious to destroy her ex-lover’s cache of nude pictures of her. If this theme seems abstract for a gangster movie, that’s not inappropriate. More melancholy than cathartic, Onibi is hardly a genre picture at all.
At 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 2, at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening May 1: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m. at the American Film Institute Theater; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (12 noon at the American Film Institute Theater; free); Somersault in a Coffin (6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater); Traveling Companion (6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); The River (7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry); Whatever (7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley); Little Miracles (9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy).
Bruce Chatwin is best known for his travel books, but before he hit the road he worked for a London auction house, appraising art and other collectibles. That’s the background for his novella Utz, which was adapted as a film in 1992 by Dutch director George Sluizer (The Vanishing). Capturing the flavor of the book is a difficult proposition, and Sluizer’s effort is merely workmanlike.
A Polish former aristocrat living in Communist-run Prague, Kaspar von Utz (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is obsessed with collecting Meissen porcelain figures. He buys them while traveling in the Westwhere his family fortune is hiddenand smuggles them home, where everythingincluding his marriage to Marta (Brenda Fricker)has been arranged to further his collection. Utz sometimes acquires pieces from American dealer Marius Fischer (Peter Riegert), who watches the collection carefully in anticipation of the day when it will all be for sale. That occasion, however, may not work out to Fischer’s benefit.
Although competently made, Utz is notable mostly for its depiction of Prague before it became an American-youth-culture tourist attraction. This is one of eight entries in a mini-festival of Mueller-Stahl’s work, and the actor is scheduled to discuss the film after its screening. Otherwise, Utz is a curious choice for the festival, since it played commercially at the Biograph several years ago. A more interesting choice would have been On the Black Hill,
the one film adapted from a Chatwin novel that’s never been shown
At 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Virginia filmmaker Paul Wagner’s first fiction feature opens with self-consciously poetic images of Tibet but soon reveals that it’s made of stronger stuff. Filmed in Nepal and Katmandu with some footage shot clandestinely in Tibet itself, this compelling family drama depicts in microcosm the travails of living in Chinese-occupied Lhasa.
Two members of a Tibetan family’s youngest generation have adapted in very different ways: While Dorjee (Jampa Kolsang) wallows in bitterness and drink, his sister Dolkar (Dadon, who contributed to the score) is an aspiring singer who hopes her Chinese boyfriend (Richard Chang) will make her famous; she’s not concerned that her first big gig involves celebrating the Tibetan people’s alleged love for Chairman Mao. Then the siblings’ cousin Pema (played by one of the many Tibetans involved with the project on a “name withheld” basis) is arrested for calling out “Free Tibet!” in a public street. Beaten so badly that the authorities assume she’s going to die, she’s released to the family, who then have in their midst an inescapable reminder of China’s cruel repression. While Dolkar prepares for her TV debut, Dorjee enlists an American tourist (Taije Silverman) to tape Pema’s account of her arrest and torture.
Engaging the contemporary reality of Tibet that was avoided by both recent Hollywood movies about the country, Windhorse captures both the absurdity and the brutality of Chinese rule: Pema decides to mount her small protest after one of her fellow nuns is arrested simply for possessing a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Veteran documentarian Wagner, who scripted this film with Julia Elliott and Thupten Tsering, obviously couldn’t have made a nonfiction feature that would convey Tibet’s plight as powerfully as this drama does. What he and his collaborators have done, however, has the force of bitter reality.
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Embassy.
Also screening May 2: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (10 a.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum; free); “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program III” (12 noon at the Hirshhorn Museum; free); Faust (3 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art; free), Little Miracles (6:30 p.m.
at Cineplex Odeon Embassy); My Secret Cache (7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry).
In this German tough-girl musical, four hardened women’s prison inmates form a rock group called Bandits (that’s “band” plus “tits”) and then use their first outside gig as an opportunity to go AWOL. And just how tough are the Bandits? Well, I wouldn’t put any bets on them in a mud-wrestling match with Josie and the Pussycats.
Singer-guitarist Luna (Jasmin Tabatabai, who wrote many of the band’s sedate light-rock tunes), bassist Angel (Nicolette Krebitz), pianist Marie (Jutta Hoffmann), and drummer Emma (Katja Riemann) keep their edge as long as they’re behind bars. As soon as the women hit the road, however, director and co-writer Katja von Garnier starts making excuses for them. The biggest trouble Luna and Angel can get into is fighting over the affections of West (Werner Schreyer), the male model-type “hostage” the women pick up at a nightclub, while brooding, tormented Emma soon offers an utterly exculpatory reason for her murder rap. After a record company releases the quartet’s demo tape on CD, the Bandits become stars in Germany. This would be a sharper indictment of the rock business’s lust for novelty if the Bandits really were dangerous, but they’re about as big a threat to public order as ABBA; their harshest song is the slightly punky arrangement of “All Along the Watchtower” that accompanies the opening credits.
Von Garnier’s film is equally mild. In a series of montages derived from A Hard Day’s Night via the Monkees and MTV, the Bandits frolic in the ladies’ room, fantasize themselves as torch singers in sultry red dresses, do a dance number in a traffic jam, and recreate the final-concert-on-a-rooftop scene from Let It Be. The Bandits aren’t the Beatles, though, let alone Thelma and Louise. The movie is lively enough, but as a radical critique of pop music celebrity, it can’t even touch Spice World.
At 4 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.