Festward Ho! Take 2

The second half of the fourteenth Miami Film Festival, which concludes this Sunday, February 9, volleys from sweet (Argentina's Wake Up, Love) to bittersweet (Spain's Balseros), with most of the entries falling somewhere in between, including new releases from Richard (Slacker) Linklater and Stephen (My Beautiful Laundrette) Frears: subUrbia and The Van, respectively.

Also on tap, the re-release of two films that caused tremendous controversy when they first appeared: Roberto Rossellini's 1946 Italian neorealist manifesto Open City, assailed at home because of its frank portrayal of Rome in full thrall to the Gestapo; and Arthur Penn's 1967 violence-as-chic bullets ballet Bonnie and Clyde, which unabashedly romanticized the real-life outlaw title characters while catapulting leads Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to stardom.

Full-length reviews of four new films appear below; capsule commentaries on several others can be found on page 64.

Short on irony, long on wit, writer/director Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers (Thursday at 7:00 p.m.) breaks with the pack of recent thumbsucking U.S. indie productions to fashion a funny and frolicsome feature that scrutinizes the much poked and prodded American family. Working from what seems a slight premise, The Daytrippers, through economic storytelling and sharply drawn characters, slowly snowballs, picking up speed as it adroitly sucks you in to gladly accompany its amateur sleuths as they attempt to solve a marital "mystery."

Mottola's directorial debut wastes no time in, as it were, cutting to the chase. Judging from the film's opening scene on Thanksgiving night, Eliza (Hope Davis) and Louis D'Amico (Stanley Tucci) seem to have a loving marriage. He works in the publicity department of a Manhattan publishing house; she teaches elementary schoolkids on Long Island, where the couple lives, not far from Eliza's parents Jim and Rita Malone (Pat McNamara and Anne Meara). The morning after that opening scene, with Louis already off to work, Eliza finds a note that appears to have slipped from his clothes -- a beautiful note written by someone named Sandy that quotes seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell about impossible love, love that can never be.

Eliza, understandably troubled, drives to her parents' house, where she consults meddling Mom and put-upon Dad, plus her street-smart mall-chick younger sister Jo (Parker Posey) and Carl (Liev Schreiber), Jo's likably nerdy wanna-be novelist boyfriend. Convinced that direct confrontation is the best approach, Rita takes command of the situation, and the five of them pile into the Malones' engine-knocking Buick station wagon and head toward New York City, whizzing past Long Island's endless sea of strip malls en route to Louis's office.

Once there, however, they learn that Louis has been given the day off -- news to Eliza. Incriminating evidence mounts. Rummaging through her son-in-law's desk, Rita finds snapshots of Louis with an attractive brunette: One photo shows the pair holding a cake that reads "Happy Birthday, Sandy." Then when Eliza punches in the speed-dial numbers on her husband's desk phone, one of them yields the answering machine for "Monica and Sandy." Using the photos as a guide, the quintet locates Monica and Sandy's apartment building, from which Louis and the brunette emerge and hop into a taxi. Jim, Rita, Eliza, Jo, and Carl follow in pursuit (Jim's inept driving precludes hot pursuit).

Never subject to the intervention of gratuitous plot contrivances, The Daytrippers itself hurtles along without exceeding the speed limit, propelled by its own genuine forward momentum. While Mottola's film may remind some viewers of Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours at times, it lacks the latter's episodic nature. And while sure, Mottola skids into Quentin Tarantino territory when he has Carl periodically recount the plot of his novel -- a "spiritual allegory" about a man with a dog's head -- it provides insight into Carl and the others. (Ditto Carl's overt philosophizing about the advantages of an aristocracy over a democracy: "At least the aristocrats had taste. They did things with class," he informs Jo as he noisily slurps his coffee.)

Ultimately, Mottola has created much more than an entertaining road-movie-cum-mystery (or mystery-cum-road movie), because he uses Louis's apparent infidelity as a catalyst to test the strength of the relationships of all of his characters. And to his credit, unlike most filmmakers, Mottola never tries to resolve these relationships, even at the end of his movie. Instead, he wisely allows them to dangle. Just like real life.

Hard to say whether first-time French director Gilles Mimouni was elated or pissed when Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was revived for limited release last year, accompanied, as it was, by beaucoup de media attention. After all, the final two-thirds of Mimouni's L'appartement (The Apartment, Friday at 9:30 p.m.) liberally quotes from Vertigo. But will Mimouni's film benefit from the association or suffer from comparison to the Hitchcock masterwork?

Not that L'appartement begins as a Hitch homage. Its first third comes across more like a stylish French take on an episode of the old Seventies TV staple Love, American Style. Handsome young Parisian yuppie businessman Max (Vincent Cassel) seems to have it all. He's poised on the brink of two major milestones: the really big trip to Tokyo to seal the really big deal, and marriage to Muriel, his boss's sister. But just before he jets off to Japan, he accidentally overhears his old flame Lisa (Monica Bellucci) -- the beautiful, enigmatic, free-spirited actress/Winona Ryder look-alike who walked out on him without an explanation two years earlier, way back when he had long hair, wore boho clothes, and didn't work in business -- having an intense phone conversation in a cafe phone booth; then he briefly glimpses her as she rushes out of the place.

Uh-oh. Unbeknownst to his fiancee and boss, Max blows off the Tokyo trip to go i.s.o. Lisa. Earlier that same day, on his way to the aforementioned cafe for a farewell drink with Muriel, his boss, and two Japanese reps, Max has also run into his best old friend, the cavalier Lucien (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), owner of a tony shoestore -- whom he hasn't called in ages. (Such chance meetings -- or, conversely, two people just missing each other -- occur constantly in L'appartement, right down to people literally bumping into each other.)

Meanwhile, as Max attempts to track down Lisa, working from clues she leaves behind like bread crumbs on the forest floor, he repeatedly flashes back on how he met her (he stalked her until she turned the tables and cornered him in Lucien's shop), how they were so in love (dancing around her apartment together), and how, unaccountably, she suddenly disappeared from his life (he asked her to move to New York and live with him; she flew the coop for Rome). Meanwhile, back in the present, he learns that his successor in her life was Daniel, a wealthy Parisian art dealer, who, it would seem, has iced his wife by making it appear she perished in a car accident -- at least that's what Lisa thinks, and what she accused Daniel of during that phone conversation Max overheard.

Meanwhile, Lucien and Max bond -- "I just have to find her," Max earnestly tells his chum. "Don't try to understand. Help me" -- and the love-'em-and-leave-'em Lucien uncharacteristically falls for Alice, a stage actress who, weirdly, plays a role we saw Lisa read for during one of Max's dreamy flashbacks. Double rut-roh. (In case you're wondering about poor old Muriel the fiancee, don't bother. Mimouni signals right from the get-go that she doesn't matter because she wears sensible, unrevealing clothes -- unlike Lisa and Alice. Ergo, Muriel vanishes after speaking nine words at the outset, never to be seen again until she becomes a final-scene convenience.)

Meanwhile, Max finally locates Lisa's incredibly posh apartment by following Daniel, who's also still crazy about her. Max hides in one of her closets but emerges just in the nick of time to save her as she throws herself out a window. But wait! It isn't Lisa after all, just a woman who resembles Lisa and whose name is also Lisa. (Jumping out of windows, look-alikes -- enter Vertigo.) He winds up staying the night, and, of course, they have sex, with Mimouni subtly choreographing the scene to thunder and lightning.

Meanwhile, Max, Lucien, Lisa, Alice, and Daniel gambol all over Paris, just missing each other, and one of them -- sacre bleu! -- turns out to be something and someone wholly other than he/she has led all the others to believe. These proceedings aren't so much confusing as they are overly convoluted, and only the most forgiving and patient viewers will still give a hang by the time Mimouni trots out his slo-mo fiery climax -- foreshadowed earlier, natch.

In addition to invoking Vertigo via the two Lisas, the director tosses in some stunningly high staircases to bolster the comparison, and then, totally out of control, he briefly quotes Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train in a scene involving Max and a key. A clear case of style over substance, L'appartement nonetheless begs its audience to take it and its hollow men, women, and themes (the role chance plays in our lives; we're not always who we seem to be) seriously, a task that would've been made considerably easier with a less overripe script and characters who live instead of posture.

Just when it seems as if the Seventies revival has finally sputtered and expired, along comes someone to exhume one of its best-forgotten totems, like, say, the made-for-TV miniseries. You remember: connect-the-dots scripts, dollops of discreetly portrayed sex, boldface-type messages, and hard-fought, life-affirming victories. Roots. Rich Man, Poor Man. With Desnudo con Naranjas (Nude with Oranges) (Sunday at 2:00 p.m.), Venezuelan director Luis Alberto Lamata has managed to trash-compact a three- or four-night epic into a tight, speed-of-light 102 minutes. And no commercials!

Based on a story written by the godfather of action-adventure yarns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Desnudo con Naranjas takes place in nineteenth-century Venezuela, where a series of revolutions has left the nation ravaged. The current conflict pits federal troops against a ragtag guerrilla army led by the swaggering, aristocrat-hating General (Manuel Salazar); as the film opens, he and his men are taking delight in plundering a plush estate. Well, all except the unsmiling, misanthropic Captain (Daniel Alvarado), a Venezuelan Indian resigned to a soldier's life. He just goes about his duties without emotion. Another year, another war.

Before he and the men under his command split off from the General's posse, the Captain spies a large religious painting, The Blue Virgin, on a wall in the estate. He cuts the canvas from its frame, rolls it up, and takes it with him. Shortly thereafter he and his troops come across a mute, starving white woman (Lourdes Valera) -- a displaced aristocrat -- in the ruins of yet another pillaged estate; when his men appear ready to rape her, he intercedes to save her. Good guy. The men move on, only to run afoul of the federal army, which wipes out all of them except the Captain, who stumbles across the scuzziest of his men, Cupo, just as the latter is about to shuffle off this mortal coil. Cupo asks the Captain for a handful of pesos, and, in exchange, hands over a bilongo, a magic talisman that enables its owner to win at any game of chance. But it comes with a major caveat: If you die while in possession of the bilongo, you go straight to Hell. No passing "Go." No collecting $200. So Cupo, in effect, has just saved his sorry-ass soul from eternal damnation by tricking the Captain into buying the bilongo.

Thus begins the Captain's sometimes-Heaven, sometimes-Hell wanderings, wherein he: quickly hooks up again with the mute white woman; deserts the army with her in tow (he rescues her again, this time from a sadistic officer); barely eludes the General's clutches by escaping with the woman on a schooner run by a tough-talking but tender-hearted Turk (Alexander Milic) to the lush island of Curacao; cleans up at the local casino; falls in love with the woman; lives the good life; attempts to tap into his childhood fondness for painting; curses the bilongo; embraces the bilongo; experiences discrimination at the hands of just about everyone because of his Indian heritage; and undergoes more dramatic epiphanies than a bushel of Dr. Zhivagos.

Told in flashback by a very old woman -- she relates the tale to a museum official seeking to acquire The Blue Virgin, which he's convinced she owns -- Desnudo con Naranjas, at its core, functions as a love story, but the script, co-written by Lamata, suffers from cardboard characterizations and a cliched narrative. And too often it uses the woman's deafness as a pretext to invoke the moldering movie convention of the protagonist launching into random talking-out-loud exposition jags in order to fill in his background or allow him to spin dimestore philosophy about this crummy world. Finally, in the spirit of the American TV miniseries, at its conclusion the film ties up every loose end, right down to what painting the old gal has hidden behind a drape -- as if you won't be able to guess.

Film festival director Nat Chediak notes with a shrug that he's taken a lot of heat from the women in his office for selecting Spanish writer/director Bigas Luna's Bambola (Saturday at midnight) to be part of this year's shindig, adding that one woman friend even walked out on the feature when she screened it. Well, based on Bambola's depiction of its title character, Luna won't be accepting a lifetime achievement award anytime soon from the National Organization for Women. But you may be tempted to walk out on it not so much for its political incorrectness -- Luna has no pretensions about making a statement here -- as for its soap-operatic turgidity.

Shapely Bambola (Valeria Marini, who bears a passing resemblance to singer Deborah Harry) and her gay brother Flavio (Stefano Dionisi) help their hard-drinking, shotgun-toting harridan mother (Anita Ekberg) run a seaside trattoria in Italy. (Although his previous films have been almost exclusively Spanish-language, Luna made Bambola in Italian.) Mom checks out of the proceedings in a first-scene accident when some gas canisters at the restaurant blow her to kingdom come, but her shotgun will make a fateful return before the film ends.

With the financial help of Flavio's oversize chum Ugo (Antonino Iuorio), the siblings turn the struggling trattoria into a successful pizzeria. Then Ugo, who adores Bambola, dies accidentally when he flies into a jealous rage and picks a fight with megahandsome Settimio (Manuel Bandera), with whom Bambola has been flirting at a water slide amusement park. That lands Settimio in the local Big House, run by a hulking, menacing-looking inmate badass named Furio (Jorge Perugorria, taking a cue from the ex-con character Ray Liotta played in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild). Bambola and Flavio pay Settimio a visit, and Furio, having set eyes on her, vows he must have her; he goes so far as to carve her name into his arm with a knife and to order a squad of his in-stir goons to gang-rape Settimio just to take the pretty-boy prisoner's mind off his woman. Oh, and Flavio confesses to his sister that he loves Settimio. Enough soap for you yet?

To help make things easier for Settimio inside, Bambola agrees to visit Furio -- you know what that means -- and he goes about his business brutally. (Earlier, Furio has told his head lackey, "Women need fucking and beating all the time.") But despite the disgrace, Bambola admits to her brother that she enjoyed the experience. "He was under my skin," she sighs in voice-over narration. No doubt Chediak's friend exited the theater at this juncture, which means she never learned that that first conjugal visit resulted in Bambola getting pregnant.

Furio is released from prison and heads straight for the pizzeria, where he and Bambola have lots of potent sex. "I want to be treated like a human being, not an animal," she tells him. "I'm an animal. I love you," he tells her. He wreaks havoc at the restaurant, locks her in her room, and tries to kill Flavio. The suds level rises higher and higher, eventually bubbling over and engulfing everyone during an extremely overheated climax involving Bambola, Furio, Flavio, and Mom's shotgun.

You don't need a degree in psychology to realize that Luna is dealing with archetypes here: Furio represents brute force, the primitive male; Bambola is raw female sexuality; and Flavio, in a twist, embodies the nurturing maternal instinct. But presenting your characters as archetypes makes no sense when you have no point to make other than that obsessive love can consume and destroy, a theme that has been explored more compellingly -- and less hyperbolically -- by countless filmmakers. To make matters worse, except for that opening sequence with Ekberg, which echoes midperiod Fellini, Bambola has little artistic merit.

To get the lowdown on the Mr. Wrong phenomenon, read Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. And to see a primo sudser about a woman (Suzanne Pleshette) who's gotta have it, seek out 1965's wonderfully over-the-top A Rage to Live on video. For the record, Bambola is the first installment in what Luna terms his "trilogy of women." Take that as a promise, a threat, or a warning.

All screenings take place at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts (174 E Flagler St). Admission is $7. For a complete schedule of films and seminars, consult "Calendar Listings" or call 377-

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