Film Fanaticism, Take Two

The sixteenth Miami Film Festival continues this week with even more international fare. On the must-see list are Thursday's presentation of a sublime offering from French newcomer Erick Zonca that created quite a stir at Cannes, The Dreamlife of Angels. The same day Buena Vista Social Club showcases famed German director Wim Wenders's surreal view of a legendary group of Cuban musicians as they assemble in Havana, create a spellbinding album, and dazzle audiences around the world. All foreign-language films will include English subtitles. All screenings take place at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St. Call 305-372-0925 for ticket information.

If your love of film still isn't sated after two weeks of movie-watching, make your way to the Wolfsonian (1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) on Sunday, February 28 at 2:00 p.m. Some of the nation's leading film critics will assemble for a roundtable discussion titled "The State of Things," an examination of current trends in the cinema. Panelists include the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris, Film Comment's Harlan Jacobson, and New York's Peter Rainer. Admission is free.

Director Maria Ripoll's feature debut, Twice Upon a Yesterday, might be described as a midlife-crisis movie about a man in his twenties. For reasons that don't entirely make sense, Victor (Douglas Henshall), an unkempt and self-centered young London actor, tells his live-in girlfriend Sylvia (Lena Headey) he's having an affair. She leaves him and eventually becomes engaged to another man. In the meantime Victor realizes he's made a mistake. Forlorn and near despair, he wanders into a bar, where an especially charismatic bartender (Elizabeth McGovern) comforts him. She also gives him a tattered umbrella to weather the storm that's raging outside.

The umbrella, it turns out, has magical powers. No sooner has the now-drunk Victor braved the downpour than he meets up with a pair of unusual rubbish collectors who give Victor what he really needs: a second chance. Before he knows it the guy finds himself transported back in time, plopped down just minutes before he confessed his infidelity to Sylvia. He chooses a different fate and, as is the way with whimsical tales, a different fate chooses him.

This English-Spanish production (the director and screenwriter are Spanish, the film was made in London, and the leading man has a pronounced Scottish accent) also features Spanish actress Penelope Cruz as a woman who falls for Victor as he's trying to put his life back together. But the picture's prevailing personality is that of musician and first-time screenwriter Rafa Russo, on whose real-life love affair the story is based. Russo's experience may have been heartbreaking and fascinating to him -- it always is when it happens to you -- but despite the fact that he introduces elements of magical realism, Russo hasn't made this account of failed love anything but generic.

It doesn't help that Henshall isn't a particularly compelling actor. We never understand why any of the women Victor encounters would find him appealing. (Is it just coincidence that all three of them are drop-dead gorgeous while he's a schlub?) Set in London's ethnically diverse Notting Hill neighborhood, Twice Upon a Yesterday isn't the first film in which the production design -- with interiors painted in bright mango and Caribbean-yellow, and exteriors reflecting the dappled, rain-swept streets -- is more interesting than the story. Rather, it's one of countless mediocre movies during which you stop paying attention to the characters and start wondering where they bought their furniture. (Saturday, February 27, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

A van full of German tourists, a car-jacker, the car-jacking victim, an expectant couple, and a man dressed as a rabbit are all driving around Madrid on the last night of 1999. (Your punch line here.) The car-jacking victim, who happens to be the father of the pregnant woman, has been picked up by another motorist. The man dressed as a rabbit (and his friend, who is dressed as a lobster) are on their way to a New Year's Eve party. The car-jacker is taking his "new" vehicle to pick up his girlfriend (she thinks he's rich). While waiting for him the girlfriend meets the guy whose car her boyfriend stole. The First Night of My Life (in Spanish with English subtitles) is the road movie's answer to Grand Hotel (1932), with a story whose sprawling plot lines trace the misadventures of characters whose fates casually and profoundly intertwine.

The directorial debut of Miguel Albaladejo (and written by Spanish New Wave-ist Elvira Lindo), this 1998 film can't be described as a fresh take on a familiar formula. No one will be surprised to learn, for example, that as these people wander around Madrid, losing their rides for various reasons, the same cab picks them up sequentially. Or that the entire group ends up at the same place just at midnight. Or that the couple's baby is born at the stroke of ... well, you can figure that out. A bigger problem is that long before the film was made the thrill of entering the new millennium had expired. In fact the characters' conversations about their hopes for the future already seem a few years out of date.

Nonetheless the movie has a few charms, not the least being its depiction of a shanty-dwelling family that lives on a hill above the city and occasionally interacts with the different travelers. The older son is the car-jacker. Joselito, the younger son, is an elfin schemer who has figured out how to rewire the streetlights to provide electricity for his family's New Year's Eve celebration. While out on the street he crosses paths with a homeless man who turns out to be a relative of another character. A separate amusing subplot involves two gas station attendants who obsess about their love lives, their respective breast sizes, and the propriety of drinking the champagne kept in the cabinets behind the cash register.

Details such as these are far more interesting than the musty symbolism of throwing together rich and poor, young and old, parents and children, to indicate the universality of human experience. Also engaging is the cinematography, which shows off the seedier areas of nighttime Madrid to effervescent effect. We may wonder why young Joselito bothers to use his ability to manipulate electricity for the benefit of his obnoxious parents ("I'll throttle you," his mother growls when he can't get the wiring to work to her satisfaction), but we're glad he finally turns on the lights. The slums never looked better. (Sunday, February 28, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

For those of us trying to piece together the reality of the various civil wars in Yugoslavia from unemotional news reports, Goran Paskaljevic's The Powder Keg is a maddeningly difficult story to navigate. The director wants to give us something more than mere headlines, but it's obvious he no longer lives in the same universe we do. From the first scene, which depicts a seemingly ordinary fender-bender, we're plunged into a relentless landscape of aggression. A teen who runs a stop sign is attacked by the driver of the car he hits, who then proceeds to kick in the boy's windshield. When the kid runs away, the driver shows up at the teen's house with a friend. Together they smash the furniture and terrorize the boy's father. People's nerves, it would seem, are monstrously on edge.

As the saying goes, the Balkans are the powder keg of the world. We may have learned that catch phrase in history class, but Paskaljevic (1992's Tango Argentino) wants us to experience it firsthand. His film (in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles), which won the Critics' Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, takes place in Belgrade on a single night in 1995, by no coincidence, the same day the Dayton peace agreement that settled the Bosnian civil war was signed. Paskaljevic uses an episodic structure, taking us from one group of aggressors and victims to the next. (The screenplay, by Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski and others, is structured after Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 stage play La Ronde, about immoral behavior.) In this way we see that -- presumably because of the war -- all antisocial inhibitions have been dissolved. Rape, torture, and humiliation are the methods by which people now interact with one another.

The problem is it's nearly impossible to put into context the horrific violence that's become an everyday occurrence for Yugoslavians; it simply doesn't make sense outside the world in which it exists. (The Powder Keg is Yugoslavia's 1998 selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.) Some of the episodes, however, are fascinating: A cab driver follows a limping man into a bar and elicits from him the story of how he was beaten with a crowbar by someone he couldn't see. Then the cab driver confesses he broke the guy's bones in retaliation for a similarly savage beating the man had given him earlier. Then, incredibly, the cab driver offers his victim a ride home, and the man accepts it. Can we really understand a transaction such as this? Probably not, unless we've lived through something of the same magnitude.

For that reason sitting through The Powder Keg is like watching a movie about a dozen Travis Bickles, none of whom we get to know as well as we do the troubled protagonist of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Witnessing story after story in which people brutalize each other doesn't necessarily make us more sensitive or more knowledgeable. In a way the film's own structure undermines its power. Instead of leading us through the characters' lives, Paskaljevic just gives us glimpses of the circumstances that set off these people. After three or four violent vignettes, the movie begins to feel exploitative. One of the many tragedies of Yugoslavia is that the rest of the world can't fathom it. For all its good intentions, The Powder Keg never lets us get inside the nation and its seemingly endless difficulties. (Sunday, February 28, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

One of the the primary precepts of any good film noir is that the movie's characters should be oblivious to the unwritten rules that dictate the conventions of their hard-boiled, black-and-white world. Crime may not pay, but the criminals aren't supposed to realize that. So having a grizzled cop read a paperback by famed noir novelist Jim Thompson is just one revealing sign that director Sebastian Gutierrez's by-the-numbers debut feature Judas Kiss seems ill-conceived. From start to finish Gutierrez rolls out mossy cliches from virtually every bank-heist film ever made. Although his intention might have been to concoct a loving tribute, or perhaps a tongue-in-cheek sendup, the result nonetheless is pure tedium.

The story opens with Junior (Simon Baker-Denny, from L.A. Confidential) and Coco (Carla Gugino, from Snake Eyes), a sultry pair of con artists expressing weariness with their routine of extorting cash from philandering husbands after setting them up with compromising photos. "I'm tired of faking orgasms for pocket change!" exclaims Coco. Then the ticket to an early retirement presents itself: the kidnapping for ransom of a young Bill Gates-like computer wunderkind. From there several subplots ensue, including one with a trigger-happy hired gun, another that concerns two craggy but endearing veteran F.B.I. agents (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in roles far beneath their talents), and a third that involves an intrigue with a vengeful U.S. senator (Hal Holbrook) that strains credulity. It all amounts to nothing you haven't seen already on any TV cop show, complete with earnestly delivered pearls of wisdom such as "Everything happens for a reason, mostly because life is fucked."

Most puzzling of all is the decision to set the film in New Orleans, a milieu whose sole purpose seems to be to force the cast members to speak in ridiculous faux-Cajun accents. Meanwhile the screenplay (by Gutierrez and Deanna Fuller) conjures none of the city's fabled sinfulness. Judas Kiss does, however, recall The Big Easy, which told a similar tale of cops, robbers, and corruption with considerably more panache. (Saturday, February 27, midnight)

-- Brett Sokol

The French New Wave of the Sixties stands revered by cineastes not just for the extraordinary body of work produced by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but also for its liberating influence on a succeeding generation of American directors -- men and women who took to heart its message of movies as an articulation of personal vision. A new French New Wave is cresting, with directors such as Olivier Assayas (1994's Cold Water), Claire Denis (1997's Nenette and Boni), and Arnaud Desplechin (1997's My Sex Life ... Or How I Got into an Argument) making distinctive pictures, sharing a common pool of actors, pushing their visual styles to the limit, and putting fresh spins on existential questions about life and love.

To their ranks add Erick Zonca, whose 1998 feature The Dreamlife of Angels (in French with English subtitles) is an astonishing portrait of youth, friendship, and the unyielding barriers of the French class system.

When twenty-year-old Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez, who dazzled in both The Wild Reeds and Full Speed) is first introduced, she is shown selling homemade greeting cards for spare change on the gray streets of Lille. With her entire life strapped to her back, she's a gangly waif, wide-eyed and drowning inside an oversize sweater. She moves from town to town, reveling in her freedom to drift. In Lille she slides into an assembly-line seamstress's job, where she works with a bleak collection of hard-bitten women, aged beyond their years, resigned to a fate that Isabelle considers only temporary. There she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier), also twenty years old, the only co-worker who seems similarly at odds with her surroundings -- a young woman who smokes a cigarette as if it were a middle finger outstretched at the world.

These two are drawn to each other, and a warm reverie ensues. We watch them move in together, hit the local bars, and goof off, drawing strength from one another whether they're picking a fight or simply relaxing. They aren't children any more, yet they refuse to make peace with adulthood. Agnes Godard's cinematography perfectly captures these caught-on-the-cusp moments, letting the camera linger lovingly as Marie rages at a nightclub bouncer three times her size, or stepping back to allow Isabelle to break into a toothy, innocent smile that lights up the entire screen.

Into this dreamy spell steps Chris (Gregoire Colin), a haughty, self-assured club owner and the junior member of what passes for the local landed gentry. He isn't a complex figure: "He's an asshole," Marie notes. Still, she's drawn to him, or rather to the wealthy Prince Charming path he represents. It turns out to be a destructive fling, though, one that drives a bitter wedge between the two women, particularly when it becomes apparent that for Chris, his relationship with Marie amounts to just another sexual conquest. "I hope you find the life you dream of," Isabelle tells her friend, providing parting words that become Dreamlife's coda. That line serves as both a fervent wish for the future and a note of protest sounded by this exquisite film. (Thursday, February 25, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Brett Sokol

Despite the vast range of stories that have been mined from the Sixties, a crucial one that's been neglected is that of women who came of age before the Pill. A Walk on the Moon (1999) is the rare movie to take on the subject. The directorial debut of actor Tony Goldwyn (The Pelican Brief, Nixon), Moon is set in the summer of 1969, coinciding with the first moonwalk and Woodstock, two watershed events that have been so often employed as metaphors that their power has been horribly diluted. That's too bad, because as sentimental as it is, this picture contains the right ingredients to distill a compelling drama about the complexities and contradictions of women's lives.

At the story's center is Pearl (Diane Lane), a 31-year-old mother who has an affair with a free-spirited salesman passing through the working-class Catskills resort where she is vacationing with her family. Pearl wouldn't describe herself as unhappily married, but as the summer progresses she is pulled toward the freedom she sees younger women enjoying. (She is practically the only person at the resort who doesn't find hippies skinny-dipping in the lake to be scandalous.) Pearl is also envious of her fourteen-year-old daughter, who is dating for the first time and entering womanhood at the dawn of the sexual revolution. But her envy is tinged with genuine concern: She doesn't want Alison (Anna Paquin) to become pregnant and married too early, as she was at age seventeen.

Neither Pearl nor her daughter can possibly imagine how women's lives will change when birth control becomes commonplace. In its best moments the movie shows how middle-class women were punished by the consequences of their own sexuality, often becoming mothers before they were grown up themselves. Moon also examines how the limits placed on women hurt their families. To her credit Pamela Gray did not write a screenplay (it won the Samuel Goldwyn Award at UCLA's film school) that blames men. Pearl's husband Marty (Liev Schreiber) saw his chance to go to college extinguished when he got Pearl pregnant. A TV repairman who works in the city while his family vacations, he, too, has experienced the curtailing of his dreams.

Unfortunately the movie demures from placing Pearl's dilemma in a distinct historical context, relying instead on mere allusions to Vietnam and other touchstones; its characters don love beads and take a side trip to Woodstock. Lane (TV's Lonesome Dove) gives an appealing, down-to-earth performance as Pearl, and Paquin is powerful as Alison -- not easy roles to pull off in a movie that looks and feels so artificial. Its well-appointed sets (every shot calls attention to period details) are drenched in nostalgia. As is the score, a collection of Sixties chestnuts, including the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." (A wrong note: Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh, who infuses Pearl's mother-in-law with a tiresome saintliness.)

As the guy Pearl falls for, Viggo Mortensen drips with sex appeal. He'd attract almost any woman. But without a more complex rendering of what she's going through, Pearl seems like, well, any woman. (Saturday, February 27, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Given the way the film opens -- a young African woman watches as soldiers kidnap her schoolteacher husband from his classroom -- you might assume the title of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1998 film Besieged refers to a political situation. Actually Shandurai (Thandie Newton, from 1998's Beloved) is overwhelmed by an emotional siege that occurs much later in the story. By that time she's left her home in an unnamed African nation and traveled to Rome to study medicine. She lives in the maid's apartment of an antique-filled home owned by Kinsky (David Thewlis, from 1994's Naked), where she cleans house. One day her landlord, a reclusive English composer, surprises her with a passionate, almost obsessive confession of love. He doesn't know that she has a husband back home in a military prison.

Bertolucci's best-realized film in years, Besieged is also his smallest-scale work, a three-character chamber piece that unspools with the delicious landscapes and exquisite patina-stained interiors we've come to expect from the director of The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990). The film was shot in Kenya and Rome, with both locales providing spellbinding imagery. When Shandurai has recurring dreams about home, we see a gigantic, grass-covered volcano crater, an aboriginal musician sitting alone under a mansion-size tree, and a gaggle of political posters slapped up on village structures. It's hardly surprising that Bertolucci can transform Africa into a land teeming with Third-World mysticism and medieval brutality alike; what's astonishing is that he can make Rome, perhaps the most overused of cinematic settings, look new again. (Fabio Cianchetti served as cinematographer.)

Despite the way it plays off the contrasts in Shandurai and Kinsky's backgrounds, Besieged is more interested in the ways the two connect. They size up each other, for example, through the hypnotic perspective offered by an ornate spiral staircase. Kinsky, in love with Shandurai long before she realizes it, watches his housekeeper come and go through second-story windows and catches glimpses of her through half-opened doors. He's a voyeur, encroaching on her territory by sending tokens of love to her via the dumbwaiter that connects their two apartments: The first is a piece of sheet music with only a question mark at its center. Gradually Kinsky divests himself of nearly every treasure he has so he can give Shandurai what she most desires.

For her part Shandurai sneaks up on Kinsky to listen to the Beethoven and Chopin he plays on his piano, reacting to the pieces as if they were exotic and disturbing. The music that comes out of her radio, after all, is the Afro-pop and soukous of Salif Keita and Papa Wemba. Indeed Besieged has an extraordinarily unsettling soundtrack, though no one song or composition seems out of place. With its disparate tones and harmonies, the home Kinsky and Shandurai share comes to seem like a tiny yet complete universe.

Meanwhile the actors make much of the nebulous characters they're given to play. (The screenplay, by Bertolucci and his long-time collaborator Clare Peploe, is based on a story by James Lasdun.) Kinsky is something of a cipher, but Thewlis nonetheless gives a muscular, defined performance. And despite the fact that Newton looks like a grown-up cherub, she manages to infuse Shandurai with the complexity of a mature woman. Shandurai's med-school friend Agostino, played by the appealing Claudio Santamaria, shows up as the third (and minor) character.

Besieged features little dialogue. That's fine, because Bertolucci -- not always an economical storyteller -- knows that in this case the less his characters talk the more they have to say. (Sunday, February 28, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty


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