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The 30th Chicago International Film Festival

The Schedule: Week 1

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FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7

Palms

Russian director Artur Aristakisijan delivers two hours and 21 minutes of black-and-white scenes of maimed and demented beggars in the streets, swamps, and shanties of his hometown, Kishinev, Moldova. His oblique narration, with its Dostoyevskian undertones, shifts between speaking to, for, and about his silent, destitute subjects. Passages from Verdi operas fill the sound track, and Aristakisijan's visual style evokes both the freakish stare of Diane Arbus and the piousness of Lewis Hine, a hybrid that implies a murky agenda: despite hostile references to the "system" and the "social order," his perspective is apolitically apocalyptic. Inserting scenes of lions eating Christians lifted from silent-era Bible epics, Aristakisijan interprets the misfortune of today's beggars through a premodern rather than a postcommunist lens; instead of reflecting Russia's current disarray, his subjects hark back to the czarist era when Dostoyevski channeled social criticism through outcasts, idiots, and martyrs. (Stamets) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Tokyo Cowboy

Those who view our northern neighbor as a land of utter blandness will find plenty of reinforcing stereotypes in this tepid comedy from first-time Canadian director Kathy Garneau. Set in a small town in British Columbia, Tokyo Cowboy follows the tribulations of a young Japanese man, No, who travels across the Pacific to fulfill his dream of becoming an old-fashioned cowboy. Contrary to his expectations, the provinces turn out to be devoid of any frontier romance, populated these days by spiritually crippled, intolerant people engrossed in consumerist life-styles. The traditional polarization of characters (on the "oddball" side are a lesbian couple and a white mail carrier who thinks he is an Indian) results in a few genuinely funny and touching moments, but there are many more stretches that are completely dull, and ultimately the film collapses under the weight of cardboard personalities, wooden dialogue, and uninventive, relentless close-ups. Tokyo Cowboy's high moments come whenever it drifts into black-and-white renditions of No's fantasies, replete with familiar scenes from classic westerns. Regrettably, these forays into cinematic creativity are all too brief and infrequent, as the film repeatedly reverts to the monotonous landscape of its base story. Supposedly a feature-length project from its inception, Tokyo Cowboy has the aura of a made-for-television pilot--one that stands little chance of ever being picked up as a regular series. (ZB) (Fine Arts, 7:00)

Floundering

An American independent feature set in postriot LA about an idealistic but penniless and powerless hero whose life and grip on reality are slipping. Directed by Peter McCarthy; with James LeGros (My New Gun), John Cusack, Ethan Hawke, and the omnipresent Steve Buscemi. (JR) (Music Box, 7:00)

From the Snow

Sotiris Goritsas's powerful film follows the adventures of two friends who illegally cross the border from Albania to Greece, their ancestral homeland. But the pair soon find that you can't go home again ("In Albania they called us Greeks, and here in Greece we're Albanians"). Achilles and Thomas set off to explore the land of their roots with a ten-year-old orphan they "adopt" as their brother. But soon the two friends become separated, and the film relates one's story in detail while the other's travels are summed up in a single sentence as the camera uneasily explores the hospital room where they're reunited. Goritsas, coming to feature films from documentaries, has a true appreciation of the unexpected, and the interaction between parts of the world that didn't communicate for decades, cast by the cold war as opposites, provides some pretty hilarious cross-cultural exchanges. In one segment a Greek businessman with a not-so-secret agenda of exploitation invites them up to dinner after they've been hosed down by cops preventing the homeless from dossing down in a railroad station. After sharing their similarities over noodles ("We had a dictatorship here too"), he treats them to a dessert of their differences: a spaghetti western on his VCR, with instant replay for the good parts. (RS) (Fine Arts, 7:30)

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Wes Craven resurrects Freddy Krueger one more time, and for the first hour at least he gleefully wreaks havoc on the all-too-familiar conventions of the series. The stars from the original film are back, only this time they play themselves: Craven is rumored to be preparing a script for a new Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, but everything he puts down on paper comes horrifyingly true for the cast members, especially Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played the heroine in the original film. This blurring between the "real" and the cinematic allows Craven to make the film work on a variety of levels--as a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of filmmaking, as a humorous (if all too easy) dig at the film industry, as a poke at the cult of Freddy fandom, and as a tribute to past horror films ranging from Roman Polanski's Repulsion to Nosferatu and The Exorcist. But Craven appears to have bitten off a bit more than he can chew, and the movie often treads too uneasily between farce and horror; he builds up some good psychological tension only to resolve it in a disappointingly conventional manner. Too bad he didn't have the imagination to see the game through to the end. But it's a great deal of fun, and certainly the best of the sequels. (RP) (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

The Abadanis

Inspired by Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, Kianush Ayari's The Abadanis is a moving, well-constructed rendition of a simple story. The battered jalopy and sole means of support of a gypsy cabdriver is stolen; with his young son in tow the driver wanders through Tehran in search of it; and in the end he is driven to become a thief himself. Sound fills this black-and-white film. The man screams, cries, engages in long talks with old friends and people met by chance, and exchanges insults with possible suspects; everybody--even the people insulted--are aware that this is just a way of assuaging his grief, like the yelling of the mourners in traditional funerals. A stronger noise drowns out his powerless cries: that of the Iran-Iraq war, its sirens and random bombings. But while there is plenty to hear, there is little to see: the bombs are invisible, the car is gone, the clairvoyant consulted on the case does not succeed in making it appear in his mirror, and the young boy's glasses are stolen by a man who had promised to help his father, a sort of ragpicker driving a broken-down tricycle and burdened with a large family. There's not much to say, either: when the boy finds his glasses on the ragpicker's daughter, he asks her, "Where do these glasses come from?" "My father gave them to me," she says. "You want me to give them to you?" "No. Keep them," he replies. He understands that the words used to insult other poor devils are as useless as the bombs thrown by "these idiots who waste their ammunitions on rubbish," as the ragpicker grumbles. With the elegance of his Italian model, Ayari teaches us a beautiful lesson on the abjection striking the inhabitants of the third world--who have nothing to see, nothing to say, but are constantly flooded by the noises of others. (BR) (Fine Arts, 9:00)

Clerks

The ghosts of Stranger Than Paradise and Slacker seem to have conspired to produce this strange, funny, low-key, and low-budget black-and-white baby. Director Kevin Smith has worked for several years at a convenience store in his native New Jersey, which inspired the fast-moving dialogue of Clerks; the film later made history as the cheapest film ever presented at Sundance. Neither linear nor narrative, it chronicles 24 hours in the life of two loafers who work, respectively, at the seediest convenience store and worst video outlet in their Jersey neighborhood. While some sequences fulfill their comic potential quite well, other situations fall flat seemingly on purpose, not unlike some of the deflected gags of the later films of Jacques Tati. But where Tati's subtle humor rested on the visual, Smith relies heavily on dialogue--sometimes witty, sometimes demonstrative, sometimes pointedly inane. Smith is a filmmaker to follow. (BR) (Music Box, 9:00)

Exotica

This may be the best of writer-director Atom Egoyan's slick, Canadian carriage-trade productions (the other two are Speaking Parts and The Adjuster), though it's also a regression, both formally and thematically, in relation to the low-budget Calendar, his previous feature. The central location--a triumph of lush, imaginative set design--is a sort of strip club where young female dancers sit at male customers' tables and verbally cater to their psychic needs; at the center of this faux-tropical establishment is an odd little house where the club's pregnant owner hangs out with the jaundiced announcer (Egoyan regulars Arsinee Khanjian and Elias Koteas), voyeuristically overseeing the voyeuristic clientele. The main customer is mourning the death of his young daughter; other significant characters include a dancer who sits at his table, a baby-sitter, and an eccentric smuggler whose path briefly crosses that of the bereaved father. As a narrative, this is something of a tease building toward a denouement straight out of textbook Freud; its structure both benefits and suffers from Egoyan's customary splintered focus and compulsive repetition. But as mise en scene it's rich and accomplished--for better and for worse, a place to get lost in. (JR) (Fine Arts, 9:15)

Le buttane

The title of this uneven little film by Aurelio Grimaldi can be translated as "Whores." Atmospheric in black and white, it's part Felliniesque caricature, part cinema verite portraiture. Revolving around the lives of seven low-priced, low-class prostitutes, male and female, who ply their trade on the fringes of a seaside town, it spins slight comedy from incidents that mostly bear grim undertones of tragedy and debasement. A fair amount of cautionary sex is on view--a joyless ritual that involves sweaty, grunting Neanderthals humping limp, shrewish hookers. This film has good intentions and some poignant moments--several of the women sitting around on Christmas Eve, for instance, wordlessly communicate a girlish and barely perceptible hope that the holiday might bring them something wonderful. But the film also veers into darkness and violence of a sort that doesn't mesh well with the obvious affection the filmmakers convey for their characters in lighter-hearted and more foolish moments. It's as if they couldn't decide whether to make a wry provincial comedy or a hard-hitting social document, and so tried for both. (Scharres) (Pipers Alley, 9:30)

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 8

Palms

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 2:00)

Le buttane

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 3:00)

Young at Hearts

A group of Jewish women in their 70s and 80s talk about their life experiences with an engaging mix of elan and perception in a variety of social settings: card games, water aerobics, mud baths. In this straightforward semidocumentary by Don Campbell, there's almost a complete absence of the kind of cloying sentimentality or shtick that often sinks projects like this--that is, attempts to portray the elderly in an honest fashion. Weaving snatches of autobiographical information about each of the half-dozen or so women into a loose narrative tapestry, the film is short on story line but long on character development, combining scenes that are at least partly improvised with others that are more tightly written. After barely more than an hour, we feel we've gotten to know these women, including 82-year-old Freda, a loving, strong-willed earth mother who loves music and takes singing lessons twice a week; Fay, Freda's friend, also 82, who talks candidly of overcoming suicidal tendencies and rediscovering an appetite for life; and 81-year-old Edna, who wants to buy a red car, believes passionately in reincarnation, and meditates twice a day. Also on the bill is a short from the United Kingdom's Tim Watts and David Stoten called The Big Story (JK) (Pipers Alley, 3:00)

Cinema's Emerging Talents: Student Shorts II

Shorts from the United Kingdom, the U.S., Poland, Germany, and Australia. (JR) (Music Box, 3:00)

Law of Courage

A true story from Italy, directed by Alessandro di Robilant, about a judge fighting a losing battle with the Mafia. Based on a book by Nando della Chiesa, the son of a general murdered by the Mafia in 1982. On the same program, an Italian short, Werther Germondari and Maria Laura Spagnoli's A Straight Long Road. (JR) (Pipers Alley, 4:30)

Tokyo Cowboy

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

Starting Place

An American radical based in Paris since the 70s, Robert Kramer is an important independent filmmaker who has been almost completely ignored in this country for the past two decades. His work includes such ambitious fiction features as The Edge, Ice, Milestones, and Route One, as well as a number of documentaries, including The People's War, which he shot in Hanoi during the height of the Vietnam war. Kramer recently did something few Americans, hawks or doves, have ever thought of doing: he went back to Vietnam. This personal essay film, narrated by the filmmaker, dares to confront and reflect on the implications of such a visit, and shows us the people he encountered there--a varied crew of Vietnamese and Americans. Beautifully and evocatively edited, with a grace that recalls Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the film has a thoughtful, provocative, and moving engagement with a subject that's been an enforced blank spot in this country's consciousness--a denial made more obvious by such ersatz "Vietnam" movies as Casualties of War and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Unlike most of his compatriots, Kramer has managed to maintain a complex, multifaceted continuity with his earlier concerns, and the results have the force of revelation. (JR) (Fine Arts, 5:00)

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

Essential viewing for fans of Sam Fuller, Jim Jarmusch, or Mika Kaurismaki (who's the director here), this is part fiction, part documentary, and all entertaining. It accompanies the wry, unerringly hip 30-ish Jarmusch and the bombastic, cigar-chomping 80-something Fuller up the Amazon in a canoe (Jarmusch paddles, Fuller smokes). They're revisiting sites Fuller had originally traveled to in 1954, seeking a story to go with Tigrero ("white hunter"), a book Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox had purchased essentially for its title. He ended up with color footage of the Caraja Indians--painted, tattooed, and performing fertility rites--and ideas for a story intended to star Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, and John Wayne. Insurance companies' unwillingness to insure the principals in such a remote and dangerous location led Fox to drop the project (bits of the footage showed up later in Shock Corridor). Forty years later Jarmusch and Fuller find that while the jungle has been cleared and electricity and the promotional T-shirt have made their way up the Amazon, the Caraja still remember and welcome Fuller and are moved to see themselves and their long-gone relatives in a screening of Fuller's original footage. (MB) (Fine Arts, 5:00)

International Shorts I

Short films from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Russia, and the Netherlands. (JR) (Music Box, 5:00)

What Happened Was . . .

Actor Tom Noonan turned writer-director for this exploration, "in real time," of a first date between two people (Noonan and Karen Sillas) in a New York City apartment. The situation is rife with possibilities, from fatal attraction on the one hand to fatal mortification on the other. At first Noonan's character controls the conversation, thinking he's intellectually superior. But the abyss finally opens, and the class-sex axis of the film radically shifts. The script was painstakingly worked out both in front of audiences and behind the camera, resulting in a visual style of pure functionalism--camera angles and movements work as punctuation and intonation. Fittingly, the film won a screenwriting award at this year's Sundance festival. (RS) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

The Light From Dead Stars

French director Charles Matton attempts to construct a Proustian memory piece about the disruption of a French boy's idyllic life by the German occupation during World War II. The country manor where young Charles lives is suddenly occupied by a small contingent of the German Wehrmacht, whose commander agrees to let the family continue living in the house. While the family, the house staff, and the troops live side by side for two years, one of the soldiers takes a liking to Charles; the two strike up a friendship, the soldier taking the role of the older brother Charles never had. But as more and more of his Jewish neighbors are deported, Charles begins to realize the horror and reality of the war. Despite an exquisite production design and handsome cinematography, Matton fails to invest the film with the deep emotional or psychological resonance a memory piece like this needs; instead of insights into the protagonist's inner life, we get distracting, heavy-handed symbolism about how war corrupts innocence. (RP) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Lamarca

Sergio Rezende's film is based on the true story of Carlos Lamarca (played by Paulo Betti), who served as a captain in the Brazilian army in the late 60s, during the reign of a ruthless military junta. Lamarca is a model soldier until he has a change of heart, sending his family to Cuba and joining an urban underground whose goals are to return Brazil to a constitutional democracy. He becomes the lover of Iara (Carla Camurati), another freedom fighter, as they fight side by side to overthrow the junta; later the powerful military forces, enraged at their turncoat, pursue him through the jungles. Despite the help of his friend Zequinha (Eliezer de Almeida), Lamarca eventually finds himself in isolation and becomes aware of a lack of support from many of the people whose future he was fighting for. He is finally caught by a zealous major and killed in 1971. (The same major was seeking the presidency of Brazil in Monday's elections.) This somber page in Brazilian history, skillfully presented by Rezende and his remarkable cast, is given added dimension by Antonio Luiz Mendes's cinematography. (S&HR) (Fine Arts, 7:00)

Blessing

Paul Zehrer's impressive first feature addresses the problem of how you keep 'em down on the farm when the father turns violent and the family dysfunctional. The oldest son has already left; the mother is drifting from reality into jealousy, religion, and bingo; the 10-year-old boy fruitlessly makes every gesture to save the farm; and the 23-year-old daughter, who's sleeping with a dairy-truck driver moonlighting as a computer astrologist, wants to run off to study whales. The film centers on the daughter, torn between guilt at leaving her baby brother and her need to make a life of her own. Blessing is above all a believable film, firmly anchored in the muck and manure of a functioning Wisconsin dairy farm. The father takes to climbing the silo with camera and rifle, viewing the farm from a height at which all seems unchanged and at peace. When he starts a mad shooting spree, the neighbors who gather below the silo duck only when absolutely necessary, recognizing the scene for what it is--a targetless expression of frustration, not the "inevitable" bloody ending to a mainstream movie. A million miles from Hollywood and its sentimental depictions of the heartland, Blessing infuses its realism with genuine emotion. (RS) (Fine Arts, 7:00)

Bright Day

A first feature from Germany by director Andre Nitzschke, shot in black and white, about the hallucinations and memories of a dying man (Bruno Ganz). (JR) (Music Box, 7:00)

Chungking Express

Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who proved his talent with 1991's Days of Being Wild, made this light, playful, quasi-improvised exercise in less than three months, as a "break" during the filming of Ashes of Time (1994). Like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express has an almost tactile quality, suggesting the randomness, cruelty, and stealthy eroticism of encounters in the muggy and crowded labyrinths of Hong Kong: motion so slow it's almost viscous, dimly lit nightclubs and snack bars, popular songs that match the principals' feelings. Like Ashes of Time, it's a film about doppelgangers and transference of identity: there are two women in blond wigs, two girls called May, two broken-hearted cops, two lost loves, two scenes in which a man's eroticism is focused on a woman's feet, two airline stewardesses, two pairs of sunglasses. And thousands of steps, punctuating the wanderings of the principals through the city. The first cop roams the city looking for a girl to talk to; the second walks to forget the girl who left him. And a young waitress plays tricks with her boss in order to secretly slip into the apartment of the cop she loves. With supreme ease Wong plays with cinematic codes, sketching out a story (the blond, the gun, the dope) that then branches off into another (the crafty waitress), all the while evoking the vagaries of desire. A near masterpiece for the 90s, Chungking Express elegantly creates a new form of postmodern romanticism. (BR) (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

Cold Water

Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) is the too-intense daughter of a couple of Scientologists; Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) is from a more staid, middle-class family but tries not to show it, shoplifting records and disrupting his high school classroom out of love for Christine. When Christine gets packed off to a nuthouse and then escapes, Gilles hooks up with her at a bonfire-lit party, and at that point Cold Water takes off from the realm of anecdote into something purely visionary. A hand-held camera reels among the dancers, spinning through its own choreography; early 70s hits by Creedence Clearwater and Bob Dylan come thundering out of the darkness; Christine and Gilles, embracing before the bonfire, suddenly seem to burst into flame; and you realize director Olivier Assayas has pulled you beyond the specifics of the setting--the beige suburbs of Paris in 1972--and into the seemingly absolute world of the emotions, in which kids like Christine and Gilles love each other with true desperation. Not to be missed. (SK) (Fine Arts, 9:00)

Muriel's Wedding

Yet another film drawing on the seemingly bottomless well of Australian kitsch, P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding was proclaimed this year's Strictly Ballroom at the Cannes film festival. But under the easy-laughs surface this is an ugly and deeply misogynist film, without the consistency or cleverness even of Strictly Ballroom. Cheap shots and ill-conceived plot devices pass as satire, and the audience at Cannes, whipped into a frenzy by the pulsing, blaring Abba songs on the sound track, didn't seem to notice the suicide, terminal illness, or humiliation galore in the second half of the story. Muriel is an eager, ballsy, horse-faced 20-year-old whose life in the tacky town of Porpoise Spit has taught her that getting married, with all the fairy-tale pomp and bride's-magazine romance she can muster, would be the pinnacle of female achievement. Unfortunately for her, she's a social pariah with little chance of achieving her goal or triumphing over the arrogant bimbos who are her former schoolmates unless she learns some dirty tricks. Needless to say she does, but the film's feel-good ending strikes a sour, unreflective note. (Scharres) (Music Box, 9:00)

Nightwatch

This sleeper by Danish first-time director Ole Bornedal chronicles the experiences of a college student working as night watchman in a morgue during the reign of terror of a necromantic slasher. Reminiscent of Blood Simple, the Coen brothers' first outing, it boasts a lot of stylistic flash and savvy, but the filmmaker's exuberance has no place to go; a kind of wiseass hipness takes over because there's so little play in the treatment or evolution of the main character. The best scenes in the movie revolve around the hero's strange sidekick and his outrageous dares. He flings insults at aggressive bullyboys in a bar, barfs up his communion wafer at the first service his minister girlfriend has conducted, and arranges a date between his friend and an obvious prostitute in a nice restaurant, where he deliberately humiliates her, perhaps in an effort to make her strike back. There's an edge to his restlessness that begins to hint, at least, at a real relationship between action and character. (RS) (Pipers Alley, 9:15)

Whispering Pages

Although I've only seen a video of Alexander Sokurov's fever dream about 19th-century Russia, the layered visual textures and cavernous immensities were so enthralling that I was still able to lose myself in its meditative drift through the Russian past, Dantean visions, and endless urban catacombs. For long stretches of this film (even, I'm told, on the big screen), you can't be sure what you're watching, or even whether it's in color or black and white, until the slow dissolves, light changes, or other transitions gradually reveal the specifics of the awesome grottolike images. Despite the nonnarrative and experimental sides to the film, there is a plot of sorts, mainly consisting of undigested chunks from Crime and Punishment, served up with Sokurov's customary humorless reactionary pretensions. Happily these function mainly as passing interludes. (The film is said to be derived from several other classics of Russian literature as well, including works by Gogol, but I couldn't detect them.) This is the only film I've seen by this lugubrious Tarkovsky disciple that I look forward to seeing again, thanks to its kaleidoscopic, painterly pleasures, musically timed and orchestrated. (JR) (Fine Arts, 9:15)

Last House on the Left

Ruthless, poundingly violent horror film (1972) directed by onetime English professor Wes Craven. It isn't artistically adroit, but if success in this genre is counted by squirms, it's a success. (DK) (Music Box, 11:00)

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9

From the Snow

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 1:00)

A Great Day in Harlem

This hour-long documentary by Jean Bach investigates the making of Art Kane's 1958 group portrait for Esquire magazine of jazz musicians then active in New York. On the same program, Vince Dipersio and Bill Guttentag's half-hour documentary Blues Highway, about the black migration north in the 40s and 50s and the relationship of this movement to the development of the blues. (JR) (Music Box, 1:00)

Starting Place

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 1:15)

Lamarca

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Fine Arts, 2:30)

Clerks

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 3:00)

Silent Witness

A Canadian documentary by Harriet Wichin about the contemporary preservation of World War II concentration camps in Germany and Poland. (JR) (Music Box, 3:00)

Chungking Express

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 3:15)

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Fine Arts, 3:30)

The Light From Dead Stars

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

Whispering Pages

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Fine Arts, 5:00)

International Shorts II

Short films from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. (JR) (Music Box, 5:00)

Blessing

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 5:15)

Ossessione

Luchino Visconti's first solo effort and the first great Italian neorealist film (1942), Ossessione has remained virtually unknown because of legalities involving the novel on which it was based (James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice). Visconti transforms the story's sexual tensions into something almost musical. Where would neorealism and its imitators have gone if this film had reached America ahead of Rossellini's Open City, if the tone for filmmaking in the 40s had been set by the lyricism of Visconti's reading instead of the bitter, misunderstood matter-of-factness of Rossellini's? (DD) (Fine Arts, 5:30)

Federal Hill

Michael Corrente grew up on the fairly mean streets of Providence, Rhode Island, in a blue-collar Italian section called Federal Hill run under the thumb of the mob. This movie, effectively written and directed by Corrente, is fairly autobiographical, and reminiscent of early Scorsese in the intensity of the male ensemble. It's a knowing take on life among a bunch of Italian American rowdies and punks--homophobic, violent. One of them (Anthony DeSando) gets out through involvement with a Brown University preppy (played charmingly by Corrente's wife, Libby Langdon). But the craziest of the bunch (acted to the hilt by NYPD Blue's Nicholas Turturro) gets as enmeshed in loony crime as Robert De Niro in Mean Streets. (GP) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Ladybird, Ladybird

Bulling his way ahead as if nobody had ever made a "true-life" drama before, Ken Loach comes straight at you with Ladybird, Ladybird, eschewing narrative conventions and easily overpowering your emotions. Crissy Rock (who won the best actress award for this role at the Berlin film festival) plays Maggie, a hard-luck, working-class Englishwoman who is all but destroyed, step-by-step, by the social service agencies that are ostensibly helping her. The comparison that comes most readily to mind is Gena Rowlands's classic performance in A Woman Under the Influence; but it falls apart as soon as you recall that Rowlands, for all her commitment to that role, looked like a movie star. Crissy Rock doesn't (think of Roseanne with no cosmetics and a black eye). She throws herself into Maggie's emotions as if they were the ocean and the soundstage just a convenient cliff--furious, radiant, raving, fierce, despairing, defiant, sometimes all within a single take, often without pausing to catch her breath, Rock is like an athlete playing a once-in-a-career game. (SK) (Fine Arts, 7:00)

Gates of Heaven

Errol Morris's widely admired first documentary feature (1978) is a detailed look at pet cemeteries. There's a lot more to his talking-head interviews in terms of form and attitude than first meets the eye, and the apparent cruelty of the deadpan satire gradually gives way to something more compassionate, as well as deeper and stranger. (JR) To be shown as a "critic's choice" of Roger Ebert, who will be present to discuss the film. (Music Box, 7:00)

Vive l'Amour

Cowinner of the Gold Lion at this year's Venice film festival, where films from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China were pitted against each other in competition for the first time, Vive l'Amour is strong work from young Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. His first feature, Rebels of the Neon God, the edgy, violent story of adolescent Taipei hustlers and drug dealers, was profoundly influenced in its visual composition by his mentor and producer Hou Hsiao-hsien; with this film Tsai has clearly found his own style. Three young urbanites, adrift and lonely in Taipei, become squatters in the same huge, starkly empty high-rise apartment. All of them--real estate agent May, punky street vendor Ah-jung, and morbidly shy salesman Hsiao-kang--are self-absorbed and pathetically deficient in communication skills, qualities Tsai exploits to advance the plot. There are times when the film has the feeling of a postmodern silent comedy, but this ironic humor is only a small aspect of the story. Tsai's statement about isolation, despair, selfishness, and love may become a landmark film for his generation, important not only for what it says but for the fact that it represents the voice of Taiwan's next wave of directors. (Scharres) (Pipers Alley, 7:15)

Le buttane

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Exotica

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

Floundering

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Fine Arts, 9:00)

What Happened Was . . .

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Music Box, 9:00)

Cold Water

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 9:15)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 10

The Abadanis

See listing under Friday, October 7. (Pipers Alley, 5:15)

Ossessione

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Pipers Alley, 5:15)

International Shorts II

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Music Box, 5:15)

Bellissima

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Luchino Visconti's early films is this hilarious comedy, tailored to the talents of Anna Magnani, about a working-class woman determined to get her plain seven-year-old daughter into movies. A wonderful send-up of the Italian film industry and the illusions it fosters, delineated in near-epic proportions with style and brio (1951). With Walter Chiari and Alessandro Blasetti. (JR) (Fine Arts, 6:00)

Muriel's Wedding

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Young at Hearts

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Fine Arts, 7:00)

The World of Animation

Short films from Germany, Bulgaria, Canada, Mexico, France, Hungary, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Sweden. (Music Box, 7:00)

The Third Bank of the River

The latest effort by Cinema Novo pioneer Nelson Pereira dos Santos is somewhat disappointing, full of unreadable symbolism in which confusion ultimately sems to be the whole point. One morning a father leaves his family by rowboat never to return, though family members keep the absent father apprised of important events by yelling at the river, and the devoted son leaves food, which always disappears by the next day. The son soon grows up and embarks on his own odyssey, complete with a trio of armed thugs and his magical daughter, who dispenses candies and miracles to the poor living in the shadow of Brasilia. The film has its moments, its unexpected turns and quirks of character. But in its alienation from all systems of belief, the story is too disjointed to become either comic or tragic or, preferably, both. Instead it shuttles, tensionless, between reality and allegory. (RS) (Pipers Alley, 7:30)

Where Is My Friend's Home?

If you've already seen Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's subsequent masterpieces Close Up and And Life Goes On . . . you may well find this 1987 feature disappointing. It's a cutesy and rather conventionally manipulative comedy-drama about a grammar-school boy in northern Iran who journeys to a neighboring village to try to find the home of a fellow pupil whose notebook he mistakenly picked up. Neither of the young actors was professional, and in 1992, after a massive earthquake hit the region, Kiarostami returned to look for them, recording his search in And Life Goes On . . . In the process he wound up remaking this film in certain aspects--developing visual ideas and shooting methods further, invariably in a way that made them more effective and more interesting. His later masterpieces are strong enough at times to suggest major Rossellini, but this earlier effort at best suggests minor De Sica. (JR) (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Bright Day

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

The Servile

Didactic cinema is seldom seen in the U.S., though it's common in cultures where moviemaking has become an extension of oral tradition. In the hands of a master like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, an instructive tale of good and evil doesn't have to sacrifice individuality, humanity, or entertainment value. Take The Servile, which charts the moral destruction of Tommi, the timorous tenant farmer of Patelar, a cruel rural land baron. Patelar humiliates Tommi for sport in a variety of ways, from stripping and beating him on a public street to raping his wife and making her his mistress. Tommi's decision that his salvation lies in total submission proves to be a fatal one, for there is no vile act that the landlord will not carry out with the help of his servant. But the story's predictability becomes an asset rather than a liability: viewing the characters as black and white--one representing innocence, the other consummate evil--frees the viewer to appreciate the subtlety and detail with which Gopalakrishnan renders the story. (Scharres) (Fine Arts, 9:00)

Nightwatch

See listing under Saturday, October 8 (Music Box, 9:00)

Law of Courage

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 9:30)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11

Starting Place

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

Bellissima

See listing under Monday, October 10. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

A Great Day in Harlem

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Music Box, 5:00)

White Nights

Long dismissed as a footnote to Luchino Visconti's career, this 1957 film, from the Dostoyevski story, actually appears to have been a crucial turning point, the link between Visconti's early neorealist manner and the obsessive stylization of his late films. Shot on forthrightly false sets entirely within a studio, the film brings a lonely stranger (Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his first important parts) together with a surrealistically detached woman (Maria Schell) for a brief, enigmatic affair. Robert Bresson treated the same material in his Four Nights of a Dreamer. Curiously, it became one of Bresson's most socially oriented films, while for Visconti it is one of his least. (DK) (Fine Arts, 6:00)

Federal Hill

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Fine Arts, 6:30)

Ladybird, Ladybird

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Ermo

While Zhou Xiaowen's Obsession was awarded the jury prize at the 1989 Hawaii film festival, the Chinese government tried to censor it for its use of female nudity. Ermo, Zhou's ninth feature, is also a magnificent portrayal of a woman too obstinate for her own good, but a less erotic one. When one night the peasant woman Ermo and an obliging neighbor start making love in a truck, Zhou cuts to a long shot of the truck in the middle of the mountains. Another cut brings us to the following morning: now a beautiful foreign car is incongruously parked next to the truck and a bunch of executive-looking men are appraising the landscape (a metaphor for the censorship committee?). "Now Chinese people are thinking of two things," says Zhou. "Money, once synonymous with filth, and sex, still a forbidden zone." Indeed, such are Ermo's concerns. Yet apart from the scene in the truck and a few sessions in a cheap hotel room, sex is missing in her life, since a mysterious disease has crippled her childish and tyrannical husband. Her main obsession is the money she earns making twisted noodles, weaving baskets, even selling her blood--and her most sensual activity involves unfolding, smoothing out, and counting the bank notes she hides in a piece of cloth. Her heart's desire is to buy "the biggest TV set in the whole county"; exhausted and bloodless, she eventually does, and the monitor proves too big to fit anywhere other than on the thin conjugal bed. She finally falls asleep in front of it, and when she wakes up, the program is over and the picture is gone. The image of Ermo alone, silent and perplexed in front of the realization of her desire--reminiscent of the last shot of Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju--seems to represent the fear of a whole generation of Chinese filmmakers: not only that it might become forbidden to show anything, but that, as television is invaded by ball games and American soaps, Chinese images might one day disappear. (BR) (Music Box, 7:00)

Silent Witness

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Pipers Alley, 7:15)

And Life Goes On . . .

The best Iranian feature I've seen, this masterpiece by Abbas Kiarostami (Close Up), which appropriately won the Rossellini Prize at the 1992 Cannes film festival, uses mainly nonprofessionals to restage recent real events in the approximate manner of certain Italian neorealists. (Perhaps a more accurate translation of the original title would be "Life and Nothing More.") Accompanied by his little boy, a man from Tehran drives into the mountainous region of northern Iran shortly after an earthquake has devastated the area, killing more than 50,000 people. He's looking through various villages for two child actors who appeared in Where Is My Friend's Home? (a 1987 Kiarostami feature), but what he finds is a great deal more open-ended and mysterious: the beautiful landscape, the overlapping and alternating viewpoints of his son and himself, the resilience, and in some cases surprising optimism, of people putting their lives back together. A picaresque narrative with a hypnotic sense of presence and transcendence--helped along by strains of Vivaldi and a sense of the long shot that occasionally calls to mind Tati--this is a haunting look at what does and doesn't happen to people confronted by a natural disaster. (JR) (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Rio's Love Song

A feature by Carlos Diegues set in Rio de Janeiro and composed of four sketches inspired by contemporary Brazilian pop music. (JR) (Fine Arts, 8:30)

Vive l'Amour

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

Wild Reeds

The year is 1962, the place is the south of France, and the character at the center of events is a pretty, coltish teenager named Maite, the daughter of a communist schoolteacher. Her closest companion, Francois, sometimes pretends to be her boyfriend, but his real love interest lies in the next bed at boarding school: Serge, the hunky son of a local farmer. The simple Serge goes along with Francois' groping for the sake of friendship, but he's really interested in Maite. Henri, the son of displaced French Algerians and a proud advocate of right-wing terrorism, observes all three from an embittered distance, scorning everyone else while looking to them for a hint of love. Summarized this way, the adolescent quartet might sound diagrammatic; but as played under the direction of Andre Techine, they provide happy evidence that the humanist tradition of Jean Renoir is not yet dead. This is a film where political events are big but characters are subtle; the settings are lush and sunny and the faces all lovely, but the underlying sense of dread is cold and inescapable. Accumulating force with each small betrayal, Wild Reeds is a complex, heartfelt, and intelligent work by a highly assured filmmaker. (SK) (Music Box, 9:00)

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 12

Vive l'Amour

See listing under Sunday, October 9. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

White Nights

See listing under Tuesday, October 11. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

International Shorts I

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Music Box, 5:00)

La terra trema

This 1948 film by Luchino Visconti, an exercise in a kind of operatic neorealism, was to be the first part of a trilogy on the crushing economic burden carried by the Sicilian poor. Unfortunately Visconti never got beyond the first episode. Still, in its lyrical grandeur, masterful compositions, and impressive achievement, this is a genuinely poetic social document. (DD) (Fine Arts, 5:30)

Rosine

A first feature from France by writer-director Christine Carriere, described by the filmmaker as "a love story between a mother and a daughter." The daughter is 14 and dreams of becoming a singer; the setting is a town in northern France. (JR) (Fine Arts, 6:00)

Strawberry and Chocolate

Celebrated Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment, The Last Supper) and codirector Juan Carlos Tabio trace the adolescent awakening of a straight-arrow virgin named David. A firm believer in the sober virtues of Castro's revolution, David is seduced by the outrageous, aesthetic, and hedonistic Diego. Diego doesn't manage to physically seduce David (though he would dearly love to), but he introduces David to the concept of choice. "They had chocolate, but he chose strawberry," David marvels. The ice cream is only the first in a veritable cornucopia of options. David's adventures eventually lead to Diego's friend Nancy, a neighborhood vigilante who's not above threatening the Virgin Mary if she doesn't get her way. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming, funny, and, one suspects, courageous film to make. If it errs, it does so on the side of gentility, of an unrelenting sense of good taste and acceptable behavior as determined not by the state, but by that other monster of limitation, the public. (RS) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Blue

Part one of a loosely connected trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique) related to the colors of and abstract qualities associated with the French flag--in this case liberty--this is a beautiful and inspirational tale of a woman (Juliette Binoche) reassembling and reinventing her life in Paris after her composer husband and her daughter die in an auto accident. Working with his regular cowriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieslowski has become a master at conveying raw emotional states with a pristine economy of means; in this case, as the dialogue is all in French, which he barely knows, these means have little to do with language. He's a bit less adept in working out a dreamy allegory about European unification. (An unfinished concerto left by the heroine's husband that she and a colleague eventually decide to complete is meant to be played in all the EU capitals at once.) But the film's grasp of the moment-to-moment fluctuations of experience is extraordinary, and Binoche's performance never falters; with Benoit Regent, Florence Pernel, and Charlotte Very (1993). (JR) (Pipers Alley, 7:00)

Ryaba, My Chicken

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky returns to the village of Bezvodnoye, where he filmed Asya's Happiness, 26 years and one political revolution later. Ryaba, My Chicken takes up the story of a group of peasants, now middle-aged, who used to live on a slapdash collective farm and now scrape by under a slapdash "democracy." Spitting the D-word over her right shoulder, addressing the camera as if it were God, Asya (Inna Churikova) looks a bit like a female Harpo Marx but still has a heartbreaker's smile, which remains irresistible to the wily, salt-of-the-earth Chirkunov (Guennadi Yegorichev). He has shocked the entire village by setting up a private enterprise--a sawmill--and actually making a profit. It turns out that his motive is to win Asya's heart, but she clings to a more traditional Russian attitude, tolerating wealth only when it shows up as if by magic, as it does one vodka-soaked night when her bosom companion, a chicken named Ryaba, grows to monstrous proportions and lays a golden egg. As postcommunist fables go, this one could have turned out to be as sparkling as wet cement. But the cast is so good and the direction so unforced (except for a couple of miscalculations--you'll know 'em when you see 'em) that Ryaba, My Chicken unexpectedly succeeds, achieving the droll whimsy it aims for. (SK) (Music Box, 7:00)

The Light From Dead Stars

See listing under Saturday, October 8. (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels

A brand-new, hour-long film from Chantal Akerman, which premiered at the Locarno film festival in August. It was made for the same excellent French TV series about adolesence that has yielded Cold Water, Wild Reeds, and Too Much Happiness, all playing at this festival. The full French title of Akerman's film indicates that it's set during the late 60s, and friends who made it to Locarno tell me it's great. (JR) (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Ermo

See listing under Tuesday, October 11. (Pipers Alley, 9:00)

The Third Bank of the River

See listing under Monday, October 10. (Pipers Alley, 9:15)

Hwaomkyung

A Korean feature by Chang Sun-woo, adapted from Buddhist scripture but set in the present, about an abandoned little boy searching through Korean cities and countryside for his mother, hearing stories from various people he meets, and eventually finding enlightenment. (JR) (Music Box, 9:15)

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 13

The Servile

See listing under Monday, October 10. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

La terra trema

See listing under Wednesday, October 12. (Pipers Alley, 5:00)

Rocco and His Brothers

An epic (180-minute) piece of postneorealism from Luchino Visconti about five brothers (Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Spiros Focas, Rocco Vidolazzi, Max Cartier) who, with their widowed mother (Katina Paxinou), leave their impoverished farm in southern Italy for the corruption of Milan. This looks today like a primary source for the overheated operatic style, homoerotic intensity, quasi-incestuous delirium, and casual conceptual misogyny of Scorsese (Mean Streets and Raging Bull), Coppola (the Godfather films), and Cimino (The Deer Hunter, The Sicilian)--and you may have to hold the cruder elements of those filmmakers in higher regard than I do to consider this florid precursor a genuine classic rather than a mannerist touchstone. (It's no surprise that Scorsese was responsible for the film's 1992 reissue.) Visconti is an incontestable master in films as diverse as Senso, The Leopard, and The Innocent; but those films don't employ women as unconvincingly or as insultingly as this one does, and if memory serves, Visconti's upper-class view of poverty in La terra trema is considerably less myopic than it is here. Still, if you don't mind the unpleasantness of the boxing and rape scenes, you may be swept along by the sheer grace and stamina of Visconti's mise en scene, not to mention Nino Rota's music. Based on Giovanni Testori's novel The Bridge of Ghisolfa; with Annie Girardot, Roger Hanin, Suzy Delair, Claudia Cardinale, and in a smaller role Adriana Asti (1960). (JR) (Fine Arts, 5:00)

The Cow

Karel Kachyna's feature from the Czech Republic focuses on a love story between two social outcasts--the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who tries to keep his syphilitic mother alive by selling the family cow, and a younger prostitute from the same village. (JR) (Fine Arts, 6:00)

Stagecoach

It's fashionable nowadays to put down John Ford's 1939 classic; certainly it's the weakest of Ford's major westerns, burdened with a schematic and pretentious Dudley Nichols script (the "cross section of society" on board the stagecoach), but its virtues remain intact. The visual contrast of claustrophobic interior spaces (the coach, the various way stations) with the expanse of Monument Valley provides a vivid physical correlative to the film's thematic push for freedom, and the linear plot has a captivating metaphorical quality in its progress from a dying city through the wilderness to a city reborn. The film moves from east to west, with all that implies. With John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and the incipient Ford stock company. (DK) Selected as a "critic's choice" by the Tribune's Michael Wilmington, who will be present to discuss the film. (Music Box, 7:00)

Wild Reeds

See listing under Tuesday, October 11. (Pipers Alley, 7:15)

White

If Red provides a satisfying capstone to Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, this black comedy set mainly in and around Warsaw is in most respects the least effective of the three movies. A Polish hairdresser living in Paris (Zbigniew Zamachowski), whose French wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him after six months of marriage because he's impotent, is stripped of his job, his money, his passport, and his dignity and winds up returning to Poland hidden inside a trunk. But taking advantage of the new everything-for-sale economy, he becomes wealthy and hatches a perverse revenge plot. The hero is named Karol Karol, which not only recalls Lolita's Humbert Humbert but refers to Charlie Chaplin ("Karol" is Polish for Charlie), who's one of Kieslowski's avowed reference points. As good as Zamachowski is in the part, his character, like the others in this mordant Polish allegory about "equality," seems tailored to fit the message. The message, moreover, that capitalism gives you a hard-on (and that working in a foreign culture, even Paris, leads to impotence), is rather glibly and cursorily spelled out by the slender plot; if we accept it at all, we have to do so mainly on faith. And for all his mastery as a visual storyteller, Kieslowski seems too cynical to believe in his own cynicism--as Andrew Sarris once remarked of Billy Wilder--making way for a sentimental denouement that shortchanges his characters and his audience alike. With Janusz Gajos and Jerzy Stuhr--both of whom turn in very able performances. (JR) (Pipers Alley, 8:00)

Too Much Happiness

Like Wild Reeds, Cold Water, and Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels (all playing this opening week), Too Much Happiness is part of a French series called "All the Boys and Girls in Their Time." The premise: various directors tell stories set during their teenage years, featuring the pop music of the period. This contribution, by Cedric Kahn, puts us in the south of France in the 1980s among an uneasy quartet of high school students. One of them--the filmmaker's alter ego--is funny, awkward, bright, and of Arab background. He is hopelessly stuck on a blond girl from his school whose biggest virtues are her breasts and a go-along personality and whose best friend, more angular in both looks and personality, despairs of having anyone become similarly crazy over her. One night everyone gets together for a big, disorderly party, the gaudier-looking girl launches into a hot mid-party romance (though not with our future filmmaker), and all the stages of teen heartbreak get played out--a little too predictably, but with wonderfully vivid performances by the young cast and wonderfully truthful direction by Kahn. This might not be the most substantial work of art in the festival, but it's bound to be one of the more reliable date movies. (SK) (Fine Arts, 8:00)

Rio's Love Song

See listing under Tuesday, October 11. (Fine Arts, 8:15)

Rosine

See listing under Wednesday, October 12. (Pipers Alley, 9:30)

The Red Lotus Society

Everybody in The Red Lotus Society has something to conceal--a business fraud, a political association, a questionable past, or (in the case of the hero) an ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The setting is Taipei, a city of jumbled old tenements and shiny new skyscrapers, where a young person today apparently has two options: pass the university entrance exam with the help of a less-than-honest cram course, or abandon such worldly concerns in hopes of learning the legendary art of vaulting. To American audiences, vaulting may be just one of those unbelievable feats from old kung fu movies. But to the hero of The Red Lotus Society it's part of the romance of China's past, which he imagines in atmospheric black and white--a striking contrast to the full-color mess of his daily world. Director Stan Lai has crammed pretty much everything he knows into this movie, which is less a drama than a whimsical, episodic survey of Taiwanese society. With a lesser filmmaker, the result would probably be self-indulgence; with Lai, it's go-for-broke entertainment, which flags only when you no longer have the energy to accept what the movie is so generously giving. (SK) (Music Box, 9:30)

Strawberry and Chocolate

See listing under Wednesday, October 12. (Pipers Alley, 9:45)

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