After nine years, Filmfest DC’s lack of definition has become its definition. Although the festival still seems a somewhat awkward cluster of impulses and events, it’s been doing the same thing long enough to be recognizable: There’s an assortment of films from around the world—some about to open commercially, some never to be seen again—buttressed by a few music documentaries, some kids’ flicks, a showcase of contenders for the Rosebud Award for best local film, and other special events. As always, there are highlights and disappointments, although Washington City Paper‘s writers—having seen fewer than half of the approximately 50 features—can only identify some of each.
The festival actually began on Wednesday with Funny Bones, a film that opens this week. (Other Filmfest entries scheduled to open commercially include Picture Bride and Double Happiness.) For the first time, it includes movies chosen by some of the other local fests, including Women in Film and Video, Reel Affirmations, the Jewish Film Festival, the Americas Film Festival, and the Asian-American Artist Media Festival, and will reprise a few films already shown here by one of these. Also to be reprised is “The Decalogue,” Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-hour treatment of the Ten Commandments, shown by Filmfest in 1990 and still without commercial distribution in the U.S.
In the past, Filmfest has made a special effort to get films from Africa, but these days most of the movies come from the traditional film-fest sources: Europe, indie America, and the Chinese diaspora. The latter have frequently been the freshest, so naturally the mainstream industry has moved in. John Woo, once a Filmfest staple, is a Hollywood director now, and the Filmfest entry with the biggest buzz—Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express—was pulled from the schedule after it was acquired by Miramax. Still, Filmfest’s programmers did manage to line up the compellingly overambitious Red Lotus Society, as well as The New Legend of Shaolin and two likable Asian-American films, Picture Bride and Double Happiness. (There’s also Brit-Asian screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, but with the emphasis on the “Brit.”)
This year, City Paper fielded nine reviewers: Pat Aufderheide, Eddie Dean, Reuben Jackson, Frank Kuznik, Dave Nuttycombe, Nathalie op de Beeck, Hanna Rosin, Joel E. Siegel, and me. Among the Filmfest offerings they recommend are Amor Propio; Black Is…Black Ain’t; The Buddha of Suburbia; Double Happiness; The Eye of the Third Reich; Flesh Suitcase; My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud; Picture Bride; Red Lotus Society; We Love You Like a Rock: The Dixie Hummingbirds; and Wild Reeds. Other noteworthy (but unpreviewed) possibilities include the controversial Indian docudrama Bandit Queen; Arizona Dream, Emir Kusterica’s first American film and a European success that lacks a stateside distributor; Sundance drama prize winner The Brothers McMullen; “queer” provocateur Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation; Family, based on a Roddy Doyle script; and The Silences of the Palace, a Tunisian film that was a hit at Cannes last year. As always, it’s a somewhat motley selection, but not an unpromising one.
We Love You Like a Rock: The Dixie Hummingbirds
While countless black gospel performers have fled to secular music in search of fame and fortune, the Dixie Hummingbirds have remained true to the church—and become an American institution. Sometimes justice really does prevail. Ashley James’ joyful documentary works as both a portrait of the legendary ‘birds and a parable about the simple rewards of faith.
Formed in 1928 in South Carolina, the group has included nearly two-dozen members in a career that spans six decades. But it was its post-World War II incarnation—led by Ira Tucker and James Walker—that established the ensemble as the most electrifying act on the gospel circuit, known for swooping, hair-raising harmonies, ultra-intricate arrangements, and counterpoint guitar accompaniment. Rock‘s archival footage reveals just how radical the quintet’s sound really was (this in an era when the guitar was still condemned as the devil’s instrument): It inspired a doo-wop-loving nerd named Paul Simon and several generations of soul singers, some of whom offer testimonials in the film. Simon’s 1973 hit, “Love Me Like a Rock,” featuring the ‘birds on backup vocals, brought the group a brief moment of mainstream success, but failed to tempt them from the fold.
Lively clips of recent performances show the aging group members in admirably fine form, Tucker and the irrepressible Walker still leading the way. But the film’s best moments occur offstage: members piling into their old Sportsman van, which has worn out three engines on the group’s endless road trip; Tucker with his kin at a fishing hole near his South Carolina homeplace; and Walker shunning any thoughts of retirement (“[Gospel singing] has been a part of me all my life and I guess it will be until the Good Lord says, “Well done’ ”). Walker died during filming, but the ‘birds—with a young Walker-groomed replacement in tow—continue to perform in churches up and down the East Coast.
At 1 and 10 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Shown with Jordan Dietch’s
Wild Reeds (
In this quintessentially French coming-of-age film, three young men (students at a boys’ boarding school) and a young woman (the daughter of their teacher) become friends. Set in 1962 to the strains of “Runaway” and “Barbara Ann,” director/co-writer André Téchiné’s episodic, unhurried tale unfolds in the shadow of Algeria, which the French have just reluctantly granted independence. Maite, whose mother is a Communist, and her longtime friend François support Algerian self-determination; Henri, who grew up in Algeria, feels betrayed; farm boy Serge blames Henri for the loss of his brother, a soldier who recently died in Algeria after Maite’s mother refused to help him desert.
As might be expected, the tensions are not all political. François thinks he might be gay; Maite is attracted to Henri, but doesn’t want to have anything to do with a “fascist”; Serge decides to marry his brother’s widow. The mix of politics, romance, and youth rebellion suggests the content of early Godard (The Little Soldier, Masculine-Feminine) in the style of early Truffaut.
Though the political speeches are sometimes strident, this is not a political film; the Algerian controversy is just one arena for these questing kids to establish their place in the world. François is just as concerned with getting a local shoestore owner to explain gay life to him as Henri is with revenging himself on France for its abandonment of Algeria’s French residents. In the manner of adolescence, anything and everything can be urgent, at least for a moment.
Téchiné weaves these outbursts of urgency into a loose, modestly unpredictable narrative. The effect is subtle, but more powerful than the film’s seemingly casual early scenes would suggest. Reeds doesn’t reinvent the ’60s rites-of-passage picture, but it does reinvigorate it.
At 5:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I. Also screens Sunday, April 30, at 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II.
Two drug runners, their insides bloated with multicolored balloons of heroin, fly from Malaysia to L.A. and check into a seedy residential hotel. Despite their efforts to maintain a low profile until the booty emerges, they can’t escape interacting with the hotel’s peculiar denizens—a lesbian go-go dancer dreaming of “maximum rotation on MTV,” and a young, David Koresh driven religious freak awaiting the Apocalypse.
So begins director Paul Duran’s strange, bleakly comic thriller, which he co-scripted with Jayne Caeneddi. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and intense, a shotgun wedding of early-Pinter austerity and Jim Thompson nihilism. Time stands still in the shabby hotel room, appropriately decorated in flesh-tones and alimentary reds, as the drug mules await the expulsion of their contraband. Breaking the code of his trade, bald, veteran smuggler Michael (Kai Ephron) samples the merchandise while attending to suffering, metaphysical (he has the Hindu goddess Shiva tattooed on his back) novice Craig (Corey Parker), who fears that one of the heroin packets will disintegrate in his system. Their situation grows increasingly desperate, necessitating a menacing emergency visit from their employer Taka, a seductive ice goddess who, accompanied by her goons, precipitates an explosive bloodbath.
With scalpel-like precision, Duran builds a mood of darkly ironic humor. Each shot, artfully composed by cinematographer Arturo Smith, economically adds another incision of anxiety. The narrative is punctuated by some tricky flashbacks, more daring than Pulp Fiction‘s overpraised juggling of chronology. From the leading players to the minor characters, the cast is uniformly accomplished. Unlike the vast majority of independent features, Flesh Suitcase is sleek and self-assured. Duran’s control slips only in the climactic carnage sequence, which is marred by sometimes bewildering continuity and an excess of implausible contrivance.
Filled with weird moods and even weirder revelations, Suitcase keeps you guessing what will happen next. If you have the stomach for this sort of nastiness, you won’t be disappointed.
At 6:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Also screens Saturday, April 29, at 7:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Shown with Sylvia Michel-Casey’s
Zappaphiles won’t find much new in this brief BBC gloss on the musical career of “the man who put the sneer into rock.” But as an intro to the shockmeister’s freaky oeuvre, it’s intelligent and understated in the way that only British documentaries can be—especially considering the subject matter. And even hard-core Zappa fans will find some some gems amid the talking heads and familiar concert footage.
In an interview conducted shortly before his death in late 1993, for instance, Zappa recounts his aborted appointment as Czechoslovakia’s minister of trade, tourism, and culture. His foray into international diplomacy came to a screeching halt, Zappa claims, when then-Secretary of State James Baker jetted into Prague and told Vaclav Havel, “You can deal with the U.S. government or with Zappa. What’ll it be?”
And there’s a tantalizing look at Zappa’s private archives: four underground vaults of tapes, including the masters of such early studio releases as Freak Out!. Here’s betting that Zappa issues more work posthumously than Selena and Jimi Hendrix combined.
The film captures Zappa’s customary affront to everything Americans hold sacred, starting with the name of the band—the Mothers of Invention, lengthened to placate record company executives who objected to the Mothers, a reference, the musician acknowledges, to “motherfuckers.” Framed as a musical bio, Frank Zappa follows the various incarnations of the band and the evolving mix of Zappa’s multifarious influences, all the way back to adolescent idols ranging from Johnny “Guitar” Watson to Edgard Varèse, whose classical dissonance left an indelible impression on Zappa’s young ears.
“I like these chords,” he recalls thinking upon hearing Varèse for the first time. “These chords are really mean.”
Zappa once again proves to be his own most insightful commentator. Snips of interviews with former band members Ruth Underwood, Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood, and Steve Vai barely amplify the narrative. And comments by cartoonist and Zappa fan Matt Groening are all but pointless.
The most interesting thing about the interview footage with Zappa is its perhaps unintended portrait of the artist as a dying man: the sharp angles gone, the manner uncharacteristically soft-spoken and accomodating. The attitude, thank God, never changed. “I’m unrepentant,” Zappa says in response to the outrage and criticism he stirred. Evidently that was true of his personal habits as well. In a jam session that closes the film, Zappa sits contentedly with a guitar in his lap, chain-smoking his life away.
My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud (
About as charming as 90 minutes with a cranky, opium-addicted megalomaniac can be, this is based on the writings of poet Jacques Prevel (Marc Barbé), who befriended Artaud (Sami Frey) in 1946. At the time, the vastly influential and enormously difficult actor, playwright, director, and theatrical theorist had just been released from a nine-year stint in a provincial asylum—“locked up with mad shepherds,” he gripes—and was by no means prepared to live an average life. “All the opium in Paris must be at Artaud’s disposal,” Prevel’s new pal insists, and the younger man tries to oblige, one vial of laudanum at a time.
Though given to such grandly apocalyptic pronouncements as “every time a child is born, it draws blood from my heart” and “700 to 800 million people need to be annihilated,” Artaud is actually at his most violent in his work; the one time that he and Prevel get into a screaming match, it turns into a theater piece. Indeed, Artaud is sort of gallant, complimenting Prevel’s wife, Rolande, on her cooking and counseling the fledgling, impoverished poet to abandon his mistress, Jany. (Despite his deference toward Artaud, Prevel does not follow this advice. In his way, he’s more of a monster than his hero; he even spends the night with Jany after learning that Rolande has gone into labor with their second child.)
Shooting in grainy black-and- white and employing a spare, bluesy soundtrack, director and co-writer Gérard Mordillat effectively conjures both a bygone Paris and an anecdotal feel that’s presumably faithful to Prevel’s memoirs. Equally impressive is Frey’s powerful, understated impersonation of Artaud as a severe yet humane visionary; his Artaud has such a prophetic authority that it seems altogether apt when he, his death imminent, starts recounting his “memories” of his crucifixion.
At 8:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Also screens Saturday, April 29, at 5:45 p.m at AMC Union Station 9 and Monday, May 1, at 5:45 p.m at AMC Union Station 9.
Also screening April 28: We’re All Stars (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), Ryadom (Side by Side) w/The Pineal Mouse (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Sister, My Sister (8:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), See How They Fall (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), and The Doom Generation (10:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
Frank and Ollie
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston met in art school in 1931. They remain friends to this day. In fact, they remain neighbors, having built houses next to one another. When Frank got a job as a Disney animator in 1934, he brought Ollie along the following year. How close are these two? As bachelors, they shared both an apartment and an electric razor.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are the last of the “Nine Old Men,” Walt’s affectionate characterization of his ace animators. In their 43 years at the “dream factory,” the pair helped pour a Technicolor bedrock upon which much of America’s pop culture is founded. While their styles differ in slight and subtle ways, they are both masters of what is called “personality animation”—giving life to two-dimensional squiggles. Though their work is in fact an optical illusion created by combining pencil drawings and recorded voices, such “actors” as Dopey, Jiminy, and Bambi seem more human than modern works of sculpture like Sly, Arnold, and Demi.
With Thomas’ son Theodore directing, the film not surprisingly falls closer to devoted homage than clear-eyed examination. At times, Frank and Ollie has the cloying cutesyness of a home movie. There is no dirt dished, nor is there much drama. The pair’s 60-year friendship seems never to have been tested or strained. The pals have led simple, decent lives working at their craft and have been justly rewarded.
Still, it is fascinating to watch this lively pair of octogenarians acting out scenes they created decades before—Pinocchio’s lies, Grumpy’s tears—and then see the ink-and-paint versions. The effect is particularly revealing, both in regard to the appeal and success of the Disney product, and as a glimpse of the creative process. If nothing else, Frank and Ollie and Frank and Ollie prove the value of enjoying one’s work.
At 3:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Also screens Sunday, April 30, at 4:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9.
Amor Propio (Self-Respect)
If anyone’s an expert at producing tasteful entertainment for the discriminating filmgoer, it’s Mario Camus: His art-house hits of the last decade or so include La Colmena (The Beehive), Los Santos Inocentes (Holy Innocents), and La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Camus, who has been scripting and directing for film and television since the early ’60s, is a master of slightly arch, often ironic, exquisitely well-produced Spanish cinema (a style against which Pedro Almodóvar appears to be in perpetual, adolescent revolt). With Amor Propio (Self-Respect), Camus has crafted another sure-fire winner.
True, it’s a windup clock of a movie, but just trying to keep track of its gears and levers is engaging. Juana (Verónica Forqué) is a sweetly hapless bourgeois matron who is suddenly abandoned by her two-timing, embezzler husband. To make matters worse, the business associates he stiffed start harassing her and the police put her under surveillance. Finally, Juana’s last remaining possession, the piano she inherited from her mother, is sold. The piano is the catalyst that sets the victimized housewife in motion: Step by step, Juana devises a grand plan with which to win back the self-respect that provides the film’s title.
Feminist parable or old-fashioned potboiler, Amor is a lot of fun in the hands of Camus and company. The breakneck plotting—Camus’ area of expertise—is relentless, and the acting is expert. Bleak colors and dark shadows create a suitably somber backdrop for the astonishing sight of Forqué’s slightly bucktoothed smile, which breaks through the gloom like a flash of sunlight. There’s something delightful about the way Juana’s childlike pleasure and exuberant passion flower despite the insufferable propriety of her environment.
At 5 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I. Also screens Sunday, April 30, at 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I.
The last film by Marlon Riggs, the brilliant African-American filmmaker who died in 1993 of AIDS, Black Is…Black Ain’t explores one of the United States’ most controversial subjects—the culture of black America.
Wading courageously into ongoing arguments about identity, racism, and multiculturalism, the film showcases Afrocentric and Africanist approaches, contrasting them with the complexity of today’s African-American culture. Poet Essex Hemphill, dancer Bill T. Jones, author bell hooks, and Riggs himself all testify against simplistic and self-righteous forms of Afrocentrism.
The film successfully avoids the bitter tone of many of the debates in today’s “culture wars.” It handles the “rulers” of a re-created African village in North Carolina with as much dignity as it does Angela Davis, who describes early years rich in European culture.
But Black bears the scars of its embattled production history. Although Riggs began it and, as several scenes demonstrate, counseled its direction from his hospital bed, editing had not yet begun when he became too ill to participate. With help from public TV’s innovative Independent Television Service, Riggs’ loyal and expert production team went on to complete the film. Black employs many characteristics typical of Riggs’ work: delight in other artists’ performances, bold use of titles that force the viewer to rethink categories, and the unapologetic inclusion of the director’s own artistic process. Yet these efforts to evoke his distinctive vision are inevitably heartbreaking: One cannot help missing Riggs’ savage wit. He would surely have pared the final product down to a more provocative, less indulgent whole.
Yet the film’s daring confrontation with issues that desperately need a vocabulary, and its fearlessness in leaping over the boundaries of formal expectation, make it a must-see for anyone who wants to flex and stretch the documentary medium. Watching Black Is…Black Ain’t reminds us what we’re missing now that Riggs is gone.
At 5 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Wednesday, May 3, at 8 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
The Buddha of Suburbia
This smart, lewd, ferociously paced BBC miniseries resurrects the flagging career of screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, who—reeling from the unexpected international success of My Beautiful Laundrette—went into a nosedive with the smug Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and the botched London Kills Me. Director Roger Michell co-scripted this four-hour adaptation of Kureishi’s 1990 novel, which—like the late Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective—sets a bold newstandard for television drama.
Boasting the extravagant production values customarily squandered on middlebrow James Michener adaptations and tacky Jackie Collins rubbish, The Buddha of Suburbia is a wicked, liberating comic chronicle of pre-Thatcher Britain. The protag onist is aspiring actor Karim Amir, the pansexual adolescent son of an Indian father and an English mother, who functions as Kureishi’s mouthpiece for addressing a spectrum of subjects including race, class, politics, art, sex, drugs, and spirituality.
It’s impossible in this limited space to summarize, let alone analyze, Kureishi’s narrative, which encompasses more than three dozen complexly drawn main characters and a half-decade of English social and cultural history. Roughly half the plot involves Karim’s Indian relatives—his philosophical father, his old-fashioned uncle, his radical feminist cousin, and her pathetically funny mail-order husband—all struggling to reconcile the conflicting values of two traditions. (Unlike Karim, who in the novel’s first sentence introduces himself as “an Englishman born and bred, almost.”) The balance of the story deals with Anglos—Karim’s melancholy mother and her family; his father’s randy, socially ambitious mistress; an assortment of political and thespian activists; and Karim’s procession of lovers, including a blond schoolgirl, a neurotic actress, and a self-destructive male rock star.
The large, culturally diverse cast offers a gallery of unforgettable performances so vivid and accomplished it’s difficult to decide which to single out for special praise. Lanky, dark-eyed Naveen Andrews’ Karim is simultaneously cruel and compassionate as the anchor of this surging ensemble. For me, the standout is Harish Patel, who plays the mail-order husband, an indolent, sweet-natured glutton with a deformed hand who arrives in London, his head stuffed with Wodehouse and Conan Doyle expectations, only to find that junk fiction and prostitutes open to erotic experimentation are his adoptive country’s only cultural advantages. He must also contend with the sorrows of a bitter, unconsummated marriage: “I would give up every John Wayne sexual position,” he sadly confesses, “to kiss my wife on the lips.” More than any of the other characters, he proves unafraid of adapting to change, without which, as Karim’s father wisely observes, life is “a living death.”
Broadcast in England two years ago, Buddha has yet to secure airtime in the U.S., and once you’ve seen it you’ll know why. Unlike Tales of the City, the innocuously amusing soap that scandalized the religious right when it was shown on PBS, this transgressive miniseries pulls no punches in its use of nudity and explicit language, not to mention graphic depictions of, among other things, various forms of sexual intercourse, masturbation, incest, orgies, and bondage. (The MPAA would undoubtedly rate it NC-17.) Since no American broadcast company has the guts to air this gleefully subversive program, catch it now while you can. The presentation of this swirling pageant of ideas and emotions—with its striking production design, glowing cinematography, and spirited pop/punk/jazz score—alone validates the existence of this year’s Filmfest DC.
Parts 1 & 2 screen at 5:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Also screening Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Parts 3 & 4 screen Sunday, April 30, at 4:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II and Tuesday, May 2, at 5:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II.
An earnest study of one small segment of the Japanese diaspora, writer/director Kayo Hatta’s fiction-feature debut recalls Gaijin, an account of Japanese agricultural workers overwhelmed by new lives in Brazil. The Hawaiian-born Hatta’s tale of life on a Hawaiian sugarcane plantation, however, focuses on a single woman, and is ultimately blander: The overseer brandishes his whip but never uses it, and the principal tragedy is routine soap-opera stuff.
Stigmatized in her native Yokohama by her parents’ death from tuberculosis, Riyo (Mystery Train‘s Youki Kudoh) agrees to marry a man she knows only from a picture and a haiku he sent; after arriving in Hawaii in 1918, Riyo discovers that the picture was 20 years old and the poem was written by someone else. Riyo marries but otherwise snubs Matsuji (Akira Takayama), refusing to sleep with him, while developing a close friendship with Kana (The Joy Luck Club‘s Tamlyn Tomita); after working in the fields together all day, they do laundry at night to make more money.
Riyo announces her intention to return to Japan as soon as she can afford it, but it’s clear that she will gradually become closer to Matsuji. He’s a drinker and gambler who complains that she makes “city food,” but he’s not a brute; most notably, he never attempts to force her to have sex with him. Eventually, the opportunity will arise for him to demonstrate some courage as well.
Bride was inspired by Hatta’s discovery of the field-work songs once sung by her Japanese-Hawaiian ancestors, but the film owes more to melodrama than to social history. It touches only briefly on political issues, and turns rather mystical in its final scenes. Though the brushoff of history seems a missed opportunity, the mysticism is not a bad thing: The scenes depicting rituals of O-Bon (the festival for honoring dead ancestors) are lovely, and—along with a cameo by Toshiro Mifune as a traveling samurai-film promoter—are reason enough for Japanophiles to see the film.
At 7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I. Also screens Sunday, April 30, at 7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I.
Trouble Man: The Last Years of Marvin Gaye
British journalism was engrossed in what we now call “tabloid-style” reportage long before folks like Oprah and Sally cluttered the airwaves, so the sensational tone of the BBC documentary Trouble Man: The Last Years of Marvin Gaye should come as no surprise. The film chronicles a period in the singer’s life filled with financial, emotional, and substance-abuse problems of startling magnitude, a period that ended when the Washington native was fatally shot by his father on April Fools’ Day 1984.
But the occasional bloodstained bed and other such gaudy symbols shouldn’t deter viewers from this film. In addition to presenting provocative interviews with former Gaye lawyer Curtis Shaw and the singer’s guitarist brother-in-law Gordon Banks, Trouble documents Gaye’s near-triumph over drugs and depression during his self-imposed exile in Ostende, Belgium. Footage of Gaye during this all-too-brief era captures his fleeting return to emotional and artistic equilibrium in the early ’80s.
Ironically, Gaye’s improving health resulted in the record contract that convinced him to leave the haven of Belgium and embark upon his final U.S. tour. Trouble Man‘s footage from this 1983 trek chillingly highlights the drug-induced paranoia that enveloped the singer before his death. Yet Marvin Gaye the consummate vocalist is also pres ent in this film, and must-see/hear performances like his a cappella rendition of the Lord’s Prayer (performed in an equally stunning Belgian cathedral) bear out Shaw’s assessment that the emotional scars documented in Trouble Man did nothing to assail the lyrical majesty of Gaye’s art.
At 7:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Tuesday, May 2, at 8:45 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Lost in Transit (
French writer/director Philippe Lioret’s feature debut starts out in Kafkaland and ends somewhere over the rainbow. Arturo Conti (Jean Rochefort), a French-Canadian iconographer, flies from Montreal to Paris just before New Year’s Eve. Because his passport was stolen prior to boarding his flight, he is refused entry by French Customs. While waiting for officials to process his case, he is befriended by an international band of stateless, homeless people dwelling in an airport-corridor no-man’s-land. His companions include Zolaemile, a Guinean boy who can’t locate his street-sweeper father; a young Colombian woman deported by the military; a French petty thief who served in Algeria and Indochina and has written a 1,500-page memoir called 30 Years Up Shit Creek; and an enigmatic African who speaks a dead language and has been lost in transit for nearly a decade.
Like the mannequins in John Collier’s story, “Evening Primrose,” who come to life when their department store closes, these refugees reap the nighttime amenities of the airport—showering in the public bathrooms and snitching foie gras and fine wines from the duty-free shop—but are too frightened to flee for fear of imprisonment. Arturo’s ill-tempered Spanish wife Suzanna (Marisa Paredes) waits in an automated airport hotel for him to be liberated while he bonds with his rainbow band of “phantoms.” On New Year’s Eve, he leads them on a risky outing to Paris to fulfill little Zolaemile’s dream of riding a bateau-mouche on the Seine. By the preposterously upbeat ending, Suzanna has gotten her just deserts, and Arturo and Zolaemile, who have become surrogate father and son, march off into the sunrise.
Intellectually, Lost in Transit is pure popcorn, a somber premise utterly betrayed by Lioret’s shameless mugging of his audience’s hearts and tearducts. Thanks to a gifted, appealing ensemble, it’s easy enough to sit through. The debonair Rochefort, one of the screen’s most endearing performers, is consistently amiable company, especially in his scenes with little, wide-eyed Ismaela Mette, an uncommonly self-possessed child actor. But do panderingly commercial feel-good movies like this one merit film-festival showcasing?
At 8 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Also screens Monday, May 1, at 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Shown with Matthew Modine’s
Red Lotus Society (
Contrasting the serenity of martial-arts mysticism with the hysteria of late capitalism in bustling Taipei, writer/director Stan Lai’s comedy-action-drama tries to do so much that there’s no way it all can add up. It’s clear from early in the film that it can only end in narrative collapse, but there’s so much of thematic (and visual) interest along the way that the meltdown hardly matters.
The son of a traditional-cures healer who’s not above a little lucrative fakery, Ahda (Ying Zhaode) is dedicated to learning the art of “vaulting,” a sort of jumping virtually indistinguishable from flying. When not practicing, he listens to an old man’s stories of the Red Lotus Society, a group of vaulting masters destroyed 30 years before. A few of the society’s members supposedly still live in Taipei, and when Ahda searches for a vaulting instructor he hopes he’ll find one of them. Meanwhile, he must remain pure, which means rebuffing the advances of his beautiful friend and classmate Dan (Chen Wenwing), who’s about to choose between finishing her exams or entering an international Chinese-woman beauty contest.
Though the Red Lotus Society’s exploits are depicted in sequences of near-monochromatic elegance, the film is full of such reminders of the garishness of contemporary life: Fast-food restaurants and car crashes are among the motifs, and when Ahda finds what may be the remains of the Red Lotus Society it’s in the offices of a ruthless high-powered investment firm where he briefly works. (His other temp jobs include computer salesman and “blind” masseur.) The red glow that bathes Ahda as he travels the city’s roofs comes not from mystical sources but from a JVC sign, and the final outposts of the Society end up, like Ahda’s father’s own clinic, just more small businesses crushed by callous market forces.
Society is as overloaded with moods as it is with incidents, and its fairly cataclysmic ending is as disconcerting as its mix of occultism and comic relief. The thematic and narrative pileup is fascinating, though, and Lai’s strong sense of visual style holds things together; even when the film’s satirical points are obscure, its imagery is lucid.
At 9:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Also screens Sunday, April 30, at 8:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9 and Saturday, May 6, at 2:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II.
Also screens April 29: “Filmfest for Kids, Program 1” (11 a.m., Hirshhorn Museum), “Rosebud Awards” (1 p.m., American Film Institute), We’re All Stars (2:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), See How They Fall (3 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), and The Brothers McMullen (9:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
Velasquez’s Little Museum (
Director Bernar Hébert recycles the venerable iconography of 75 years of avant-garde filmmaking—magical mirrors, multiple exposures, enigmatic keys, mysterious corridors—in this blend of dance and pantomime, featuring Montreal’s LALALA Human Steps troupe. A mysterious woman enters (or dreams that she enters) the titular museum, which is stocked with canvases by Spanish Renaissance painter Diego Velasquez. The museum’s galleries, its hallways, and the paintings themselves—notably the celebrated portrait of the Infanta Margarita—serve as backdrops for dance sequences. These pas de deux, clothed and nude, and ensemble movements showcase LALALA’s Louise Lecavalier. The energetic, disciplined company adeptly executes Edouard Lock’s angular, demanding choreography, which, however, lacks sufficient variety to sustain interest in this 50-minute cine-dance. Although handsomely photographed and supported by a pulsating musical score combining Spanish guitar, brass, and electronics, Velasquez’s Little Museum will prove interesting mainly to devotees of this sort of thing, who will recognize it as the sort of thing they are devoted to. Others who don’t use the film as an opportunity to catnap are likely to find it ponderous, pretentious, and banal. Screens with LALALA Human Sex Duo.
At 3:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I. Also screens Monday, May 1, at 5:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II.
The Eye of the Third Reich
The early projects of Walter Frentz show far fewer National Socialist tendencies than do those of Leni Riefenstahl, for whom he helped shoot Triumph of the Will and Olympia; the cameraman came to prominence with a white-water kayaking film so thrilling it was bought by Universal, and he then made a documentary about German workers in a frankly “Communist” style. Unlike Riefenstahl, though, once Frentz started working for the Nazi elite he never stopped; officially a member of the Luftwaffe, Frentz went to the Eastern front with Himmler, whose pederast proclivities he captured on film, and served as Hitler’s private cameraman until the final days.
Jurgen Stumpfhaus’ documentary is only an hour long, yet it fixes Frentz in Hitler’s orbit definitively. In fact, it does the same for Riefenstahl, who’s shown in footage shot at the same time as some included in the pusillanimous (and much longer) The Wonderful, Terrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl; as Frentz and another cameraman blithely implicate themselves with recollections of their dealings with top Nazis, Riefenstahl agitatedly tells them to shut up.
Interviewed as he pontificates about his own and other peoples’ photographs—like Riefenstahl, Frentz turned to still images after the war—the former cameraman offers a familiar litany of justifications: “I only reproduced things, I didn’t produce anything”; “a poet obeys no commands”; “it was my profession”; “that’s all in the past.” Unlike the cannier Riefenstahl, however, Frentz can’t resist repeating anecdotes that demonstrate how close he was to the high command; “Russia will be our India,” Frentz says Hitler told him in the heady early days of the war. When he finally stopped filming his boss it was not because he had re-evaluated him but because the Führer, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, didn’t want his shaking frame recorded on celluloid.
At 6 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Monday, May 1, at 8:45 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater and Thursday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Half the World (
In a dystopian future where the sun’s rays have become deadly, alarm sirens announce the sunrise and people caught on the streets rush for shelter. That’s not all that’s gone wrong, though: This “half world” is run by a fascistic corporation called Luna, which has banned all imagery of fun-in-the-sun; a black market circulates what’s left of the once-vast stores of photographs, postcards, and videos that show people gamboling in the formerly benign light. The most subversive citizens, boldly if suicidally, actually expose themselves to the sun.
Austrian director Florian Flickner’s low-budget sci-fry film is more premise than story, and shows a pronounced weakness for leftist- academic gags. The criminalization of banal vacation snapshots is a joke designed only for those who have contemplated the devaluation of images in the age of mechanical reproduction, and punkish stylistic posturing substitutes for high-tech special effects. The film glories in artificial light, neon colors, harsh exterior bleach-outs, and even some black-light glow, which provides a heady alternative to Hollywood blue-screen techniques. Unfortunately, Flickner has failed to devise an alternative to Hollywood storytelling; though it ends with a big showdown between Luna and the resistance, the narratively lackadaisical World lacks propulsion, continuity, and involving characters.
At 6:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Shown with Philip Hunt’s
The Cow (
Every time the man goes up the mountainside to his remote cottage, he carries a heavy load of topsoil; every day he works in a quarry where he hauls rocks and stones; every time he accumulates enough money to buy a cow, crisis strikes and he must sell it. For the Czech peasant protagonist of director/co-writer Karel Kachyna’s film, life is brutish, cyclical, and archetypical. No wonder the guy, who’s forever falling from grace, is named Adam.
Better that than Sisyphus perhaps, but all of Kachyna’s symbolism and repetition is almost as wearing on the viewer as it is on poor Adam (Radek Holub)—who, it turns out, really is a brute. The tormented child of a prostitute, Adam sells the first cow to purchase morphine for his ailing mother. Upon the mother’s death, a local woman, Rosa, ascends the mountain and begins to take care of the household; Adam responds by beating and raping her and, when Rosa accepts this, allowing her to stay. Eventually they marry and Adam must sell a second cow, this time to get medicine for Rosa after a difficult childbirth.
Since Adam and Rosa are depicted as victims of bourgeois opinion and the local gendarmes, perhaps Kachyna thinks his film is sympathetic to them. Yet the director seems to prefer his bleak life-goes-on schema—and his misty mountainous location—to his characters, who are allowed little humanity. Though made in 1993, The Cow is in the spirit of socialist-realist epics about the Bad Old Days; Kachyna’s simply excised the final reel, when the revolution traditionally arrived, leaving Adam trapped forever in the machinery of exploitation and despair.
At 9:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Also screens Monday, May 1, at 6 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I and Saturday, May 6, at 5 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley I.
Also screening April 30: Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Gender and Genre: Women in Film in the ’90s” (3:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), and Cry of the Heart (5 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
The Flying Camel
The Flying Camel is yet another casualty of the Middle Eastern peace process. Though billed as an absurdist comedy, the film earnestly ponders Arab-Israeli relations, and this agenda sucks the life out of its punch lines and its characters. The movie deals with the budding friendship of Herbert Bauman, an eccentric, German-born history professor, and Phares, a Palestinian garbage collector. They are thrown together when Phares squats in Bauman’s shack, and the Odd Couple-style fun begins. Bauman, Felix to Phares’ Oscar, serves his Arab housemate watery coffee in a dainty demitasse. Phares gruffs, “What is this, civilized coffee?” Then, Phares brews dark Egyptian grounds, which Bauman spits out in disgust. Add to the mix a seductive lapsed nun and a flock of sexy feminists, and you have the makings of a one-season sitcom.
The symbolism doesn’t get much subtler or funnier. Professor Bauman, who rides around Tel Aviv on a rickshaw collecting architectural treasures, is on a desperate mission to preserve the city’s Bauhaus structures, which the mayor wants to destroy. Bau Man likes Bau Haus (get it?) because it celebrates rather than awes people, and “puts man’s needs in the center.” Yet he seems blind to the plight of the homeless Phares, whose family lost its farm near Tel Aviv after Israel became a state. Bauman’s gradual softening and Phares’ eager, although wholly inexplicable, efforts to please him are the film’s only human elements.
This is where the flying camel comes in. When he’s not hounding the mayor, Bauman is reconstructing a statue of a winged camel. For this he needs help from Phares, who once studied engineering in Lebanon. Because of a complicated history involving distant relatives of both men, the statue represents—you guessed it—Arab-Israeli cooperation. They steal the wings from a vengeful Sephardi shish-kebab merchant, who returns with his meathead sons to burn the scaffolding down (right-wing extremists scuttle peace process?). But the statue flies away into the night (there’s still hope!). None of this is explained or much marveled upon. Bauman, in fact, completely ignores it, yet warms up to Phares and invites him to help restore a building to true Bauhaus, the universal style, and plant some orange trees (indeed, there is hope).
At 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Tuesday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
The cultural and generational conflicts of Chinese-immigrant families in North America have inspired films as idiosyncratic as Chan Is Missing and as mainstream as The Joy Luck Club, and writer/director Mina Shum’s semi-autobiographical first feature doesn’t really have anything to add. Once the amateurishness of some of the performances is accepted, though, this tale of Chinese-Canadian fledgling actress Jade (Sandra Oh) and her uncomprehending parents (Stephen Chang and Alannah Ong) is reasonably ingratiating.
Jade still lives at home, and is dedicated to appearing to be the daughter required by her parents (especially her strict security-guard father, disappointed in his own station in life). She refuses to give up her dream of being an actress, however, and has no interest in the young Chinese men her parents insist she date. (Predictably, their hottest prospect turns out to be gay.) Instead, she begins a surreptitious and inexplicably torrid relationship with a nerdy white grad student (Callum Rennie).
Jade organizes this double life with aplomb, only occasionally giving her parents an inadvertent glimpse of her non-Chinese world. She fails to manage her acting career quite so well, and is constantly finding herself too Chinese for literal-minded Canadian casting agents—and, once, not Chinese enough for an imperious Hong Kong producer who finds Jade can speak but not read Cantonese.
Shum doesn’t treat these culture- clash issues with any depth, riding them instead in the playful spirit of the film’s surf/spaghetti-western score (by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet). Jade alternates rehearsing the lines of Joan of Arc with singing a few verses of “Kung Fu Fighting,” and seems generally as amused as she is tormented by her hidebound family. Happiness would have benefited from a few fresh insights, but, failing that, the film takes an engaging, appropriately eclectic tone.
At 7:45 p.m. at AMC Union Station 9. Also screens Thursday, May 4, at 5:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II. Shown with Lara Shapiro’s
Also screening May 1: “Filmfest D.C. for Kids, Program 1” (4 p.m., Shepherd Park Public Library), See How They Fall (7:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “CineCafe: Life Cycles” (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), and Arizona Dream (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
“Filmfest DC for Kids, Program 2”
“Filmfest DC for Kids, Program 2” includes six films, but only three were available for preview. Of these, 66 percent appear promising.
Salsa, featuring cut-paper animation, effectively suggests music’s ability to cheer even the most morose person. As a man—a dead ringer for Mr. Potato Head—trudges down a dreary street, he notices dancing stars pouring from an open door. He peeks in, and is surrounded by veggies and fruits that are grooving to salsa. A banana chorus line and a couple of mangos sing in Spanish, their wide eyes and mannerisms approximating Betty Boop; pink-striped worms munch litter and chase a bunch of grapes. In no time, this world charms the unhappy visitor, whose frown turns to a smile as he steps back into the street. At seven minutes, this energetic, improbably Swedish-made short is just right.
Less enjoyable is Those Elementary Years, a Canadian-made film by Aki Shigematsu, based on a story by Angelique Crowther. Its wispy, pencil-crayon on paper animation appears diluted, and although this style works for the wispy “I remember when” story line, it may not be bold enough to hold audience attention. Here, a grown woman narrator recalls a day when her third-grade classmates placed a tack on the chair of an unlikable new kid, and immediately regretted their cruel prank; Years‘ heavy-handed moral lesson—told from an adult point of view—will likely have both young and old attendees squirming before the film’s six minutes are up.
Racial and cultural tolerance is the message of Another Story, a live-action film that starts in the present day and goes back to a time when peasants—distinguishable only by their black fingernails—were persecuted by an evil king. By firelight, a woman tells this tale to her elementary-school-age granddaughters, who also act the lead roles of two peasant girls. Created by Brooklyn-based Lisa Wood Shapiro, this film’s costumes and settings create a sort of Renaissance-faire ambience that will entertain fairy-tale fans. Scenes in a woodland cottage and a dungeon seem borrowed from children’s own imaginations, allowing the film to slyly address serious issues while maintaining a sense of play. And at its end, a subtle glimpse of the number tattooed on the grandmother’s wrist places the tale in a modern context; director Shapiro handles her difficult material with sensitivity.
At 9:45 a.m. at the Anacostia Museum. Also screens Wednesday, May 3, at 4 p.m. at Francis Gregory Public Library and Thursday, May 4, at 4 p.m. at Mount Pleasant Public Library. All screenings are free.
Also screening May 2: “The Decalogue, Parts 1 & 2” (5:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Arizona Dream (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), Family (8:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “CineCafe: An Exemplary Tale” (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), “The Decalogue, Parts 3 & 4” (8:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), and We’re All Stars (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
The title of writer/director Harriet Wichin’s documentary refers to the landscape of two Nazi death camps, Dachau and Auschwitz, through which her camera tracks in obvious imitation of Shoah (which in turn emulated Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog). Fortunately, not all the witnesses in the film are silent; the ponderous, stylistically secondhand passages are interrupted by the testimony of some interesting people who work and live in and near these grisly landmarks.
Wichin gives a lot of screen time to Carmelite nuns who live adjacent to Dachau or at a notorious Nazi prison site in Berlin (but not to the ones at the controversial convent at Auschwitz); their comments may be of interest to the mystically inclined. More compelling, however, are the camp survivors who have dedicated their lives to maintaining the places where they were incarcerated as historically (and spiritually) instructive sites. Wichin would have done well to let these witnesses talk more, and to have trimmed her own predictable flourishes.
At 7 p.m. at the Embassy of Canada. (Advance sales only.)
Also screening May 3: “The Decalogue, Parts 5 & 6” (5:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Rhythm Thief (6 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Silences of the Palace (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), Searching for My Wife’s Husband (8:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “CineCafe: Global Cinema” (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), “The Decalogue, Parts 7 & 8” (8:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), and Bandit Queen (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
Screening May 4: “The Decalogue, Parts 9 & 10” (5:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Bandit Queen (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (7:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), Vive l’Amour (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Silences of the Palace (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), “The Decalogue, Parts 1 & 2” (8:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Rhythm Thief (9 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Postman (9:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II).
A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde—political activist, lesbian mother, author of 18 books, beloved teacher, once the official New York state poet—was such a prominent public figure in the movement for gender rights that many people might have been intimidated by the idea of telling her story. Not Washington, D.C., filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and producer Ada Gay Griffin.
Director Parkerson (But Then, She’s Betty Carter; Gotta Make This Journey; Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box) has earned a deserved reputation as a gifted biographer of African-American women. Her latest, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, depicts Lorde as a woman vibrantly engaged by life at many levels.
“We had grown up inspired by Audre Lorde,” explains Griffin. “And we wanted to ensure that her power and presence were available to future generations.”
Parkerson and Griffin visited Lorde repeatedly in the years before her death in 1992 at age 58, and these sessions form the backbone of Litany. Although some of the film is composed of traditional interview footage, the filmmakers also capture the intensity of Lorde’s interaction with others, whether reading her poetry, talking to her daughter about her illness, or leading a seminar with German feminists. Fleshing out the portrait are observations by colleagues and commentators including poets Adrienne Rich, Jewelle Gomez, and Sonia Sanchez. Litany thus becomes a portrait not only of Lorde, but of a movement and an era during which civil rights, gender rights, and social justice were vivifying themes.
At 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Also screening May 5: Searching for My Wife’s Husband (5:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “The Decalogue, Parts 3 & 4,” (5:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), The Jar (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (7:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “CineCafe—Raves, Raps, and Rants: Your Turn” (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Cry of the Heart (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), Vive l’Amour (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), “Reggae Under the Stars” (8 p.m., Freedom Plaza), “The Decalogue, Parts 5 & 6” (8:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Postman (10 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), The New Legend of Shaolin (10:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).
Deadly Maria (
A trapped German housewife finally goes sort of wild in this unsurprising example of the genre. Maria (played by Nina Petri in the bulk of the film, but two other actresses in the flashbacks) is little more than the domestic servant of her callous husband and her cranky father, who’s lived upstairs since he had the stroke that partially paralyzed him.
The shellshocked Maria is apparently supposed to feel implicated in her plight: Her mother died in childbirth and her father had his stroke upon walking in on Maria’s first kiss. Soon after, he exchanged his daughter and his apartment for the promise of permanent care, leading to Maria’s loveless marriage. Lately, though, Maria has been feeling feisty: She’s been flirting with the eccentric scholar who lives across the courtyard, and the small African fetish in which she hides what little money she can save seems to be taking on a life of its own.
Director Tom Tykwer presumably knows both the arch feminist (Chantal Akerman) and goth modernist (Roman Polanski) precedents for his tale, but isn’t capable of expanding either tradition. Though much too low-key for Hollywood, this is in the mainstream American tradition of perfunctory films that try to sustain interest with the expectation of violence.
At 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley II.
Also screening May 6: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program 1” (11 a.m., Mount Pleasant Public Library), “The Decalogue, Parts 7 & 8” (2:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), The Jar (3 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (4, 6, 8, & 10 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Family (4:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “The Decalogue, Parts 9 & 10” (5:45 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), Lonesome (6 p.m., National Gallery of Art), Searching for My Wife’s Husband (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I), Cry of the Heart (7:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley II), “The Decalogue and Issues of Morality in Modern Life” (8 p.m., AMC Union Station 9), The New Legend of Shaolin (9:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley I).