The Wild, Wild Fest

Had the plot revolved around the aging beauty queen and the unhappy policeman, briefly energized when the idol of their younger days passes through on his way somewhere (it doesn't matter where), Dogtown might have pulled itself out of the dust. But instead the focus is on Philip and his depression, which is never fully explored or developed. Why was he a failure? Like a film noir hero, was he disillusioned by Tinseltown? Or was it a lack of acting talent? (Trevor St. John's performance gives some evidence that this may be the case.)

Hickenlooper cannot come close to re-creating the arid black-and-white landscape amid which Bogdanovich's characters, young and old, struggle to breathe. While The Last Picture Show captures the full spectrum of small-town life, Dogtown stays much too intensely with its young hero, using the older generation either as quaint local color in the case of Philip's mother or as one-dimensional villainy in the case of Dorothy's abusive, alcoholic father -- both of whom are nonetheless more interesting than Philip. Though the film's title suggests that the town itself is the main character, as indeed it is in The Last Picture Show, that promise is not kept.

Hickenlooper, to give him his due, has some gift for quick characterizations -- a gift that's necessary, ironically, so he can keep the focus on brooding and slow-moving Philip. There's enough in Dogtown to suggest that future growth is possible, but not unless, among other things, he rids himself of cinema cliches, such as the slow-motion sexual encounter between Philip and Dorothy, set to inevitably lyrical music. In fact, most of the cinematography is of a studied sententious quality that reminds one of student work. But any good film student ought to know that you don't put the word "dog" in your title unless you're pretty confident of the product.

Also suffering from an inept title is A Further Gesture, a multinational entrant from Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, directed by Romanian Robert Dornhelm, who was trained in Vienna. Dornhelm is perhaps best-known for the Oscar-winning 1977 documentary The Children of Theatre Street, narrated by the late Grace Kelly. One assumes he's more seasoned than Hickenlooper, and despite its unpromising title, his film shows it. What I liked best about this film is its pace. Without sacrificing rhythm, Dornhelm unfolds his story slowly enough and in such minute detail that we cannot help becoming involved in it -- a pleasant change from the often bewildering freneticism of some recent American films.

Sean Dowd (Stephen Rea), an IRA soldier torn between loyalty to the cause and a distaste for violence, reluctantly takes part in a daring escape from a Belfast prison. The scene is rivetingly filmed, low-key compared to similar scenes in other prison movies. Dornhelm's pacing lends credibility to even a spectacular crash survived by all of the escapees. The power of the scene is enhanced by a contrasting use of quiet music rather than the ear-splitting soundtracks to which we've grown accustomed.

Outfitted with a bogus passport, Sean travels to New York in search of a new life. In a cheap hotel he comes to the aid of a woman who is being brutalized by her boyfriend, only to be stabbed by her for interfering. Since he's a fugitive, he cannot seek medical treatment; he's nursed back to health by a friend (Alfred Molina) and his sister (Rosana Pastor). Unknown to Sean, they have come from Guatemala seeking to avenge the murder of their father at the hands of an underworld czar who's now hiding out in the Big Apple. The unspoken sexual chemistry between Sean and the sister is a strong indication that the nonviolent hero will be forced once again to abandon his desire for peace and engage in a dangerous coup.

At this point the plot picks up momentum, with more twists and turns than a bobsled chute, but despite Rea's understated Irish tones, it is never confusing. Rea is one of the best actors working in films today, a master of the meaningful stare; and despite his penchant for mumbling softly, we always know what's going on inside him. What a contrast from the vacuous expressions of Philip in Dogtown.

Dogtown is ineffectively imitative of an earlier, better film. A Further Gesture, though thematically related to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, stands quite on its own. Ronan Bennett's taut screenplay does not borrow from so much as avail itself of a universal theme: There comes a time when one must surrender personal needs and desires in the larger interest of the human family. I won't give away the ending, but if you know your Hemingway, you won't be surprised. Sean Dowd is hardly a Robert Jordan, and his destiny is less inevitable than superimposed by the author, but between Rea and Dornhelm the climactic moment is reasonably believable. A Further Gesture won't be a classic, but it is a well-intentioned, nicely told, and nicely paced melodrama. These days that's a lot.

We have definite literary influence at work behind Bad Manners, the work of independent American filmmaker Jonathan Kaufer, with an equally taut screenplay by David Gilman (from his own play), in which viewers will catch unmistakable echoes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The setting: a house near a college campus, in this case Harvard. The main characters: a cynical middle-aged professor with a scorn for declining educational standards and for American society in general, denied tenure because he cannot relate to students; his still-attractive wife, who has not known sexual intimacy with him for quite some time; a houseguest, a fellow academic the professor secretly fears is on the brink of achieving distinction in his field; and the guest's sexy girlfriend. As in Edward Albee's play, the quartet starts off civilized, if not warmly connected, but as time wears on, the veneer of academic propriety deteriorates into the "bad manners" of the title.

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