The Reader's Guide to the 23rd Chicago International Film Festival | Festival | Chicago Reader
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The Film Festival begins winding down this week with three top-heavy days of new films, reviewed here. Then comes a week of reprises: festival award winners; critics' picks, selected by the festival on the basis of published reviews; and audience favorites, as determined by a computerized system of lobby balloting.

Screenings are at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box offices on the day of the screening; at the Film Festival stores at 1551 N. Wells and 1157 N. State; and by phone at 644-3400 (credit cards only). General admission to each program is $6.50, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members, except for all weekday 5 PM screenings, which are $4 general admission, $3 for Cinema/Chicago members.

For daily recorded schedule updates, including programs for the final week of repeat screenings, call 644-5454. More elaborate questions can be answered at 644-3400. WBBM (78 AM), WNUA (95.5 FM), and WMAQ TV (Channel Five) will carry updates and coverage.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30

She Done Him Wrong

A superior Mae West vehicle from 1933, based on her stage success and filmed by Lowell Sherman, a director whose skill in subtle suggestiveness was rendered obsolete by the arrival of the Production Code. There's nothing subtle, though, about West's rendition of "Where Has My Easy Rider Gone?"--a number sometimes accused of single-handedly bringing back censorship. With Gilbert Roland, Louise Beavers, Noah Beery, and a callow young actor named Cary Grant. (DK) (Music Box, 5:00)

The Color of Destiny

Chilean filmmaker Jorge Duran has become a leading scriptwriter and director in Brazil, where he has lived since the Pinochet coup. (He wrote Gaijin and Pixote, two of the best Brazilian films of the last decade.) The Color of Destiny, which he wrote and directed, focuses on the cultural and personal meaning of dictatorship and exile. An adolescent boy in a Chilean exile family growing up in Brazil must come to terms with his own family memories when a Chilean cousin persecuted by the Pinochet regime comes to live with them. The true subject of the film is not primarily politics, however, but the channeling and distorting of adolescent energy and imagination. The young boy is a budding, petulant artist, and the film displays his angry creativity and explores his fevered dreams in surreal sequences that contrast with the brightly lit frivolity of a Brazilian high school. That blithe sociability, it becomes clear, is the mask of a profound alienation among Brazilian children whose roots are in a fiercely repressive era of dictatorship. A complex and ambitious film, elegantly presented, The Color of Destiny grounds its personal drama in the cultural context of authoritarianism. (PA) (Biograph, 6:00)

High Tide

Kicked out of her job as a blond-wigged backup singer for an Elvis impersonator, the feisty been-around heroine of High Tide finds herself stranded in a backwater Australian town that, unbeknownst to her, harbors her long-ago abandoned teenage daughter. What follows is a brakes-off ride through just about every emotional variation in the book, as she tries to cope with her never-resolved grief over the premature death of her husband and her unexpectedly strong pull toward this kindred-spirited offspring she barely knew. Basically about coming to terms with life, High Tide nevertheless manages to avoid--thanks to its drifter-heroine's defiant, quirky nonconformity--most of the TV-movie pitfalls of its plot. And the reunion of the director (Gillian Armstrong) and star (Judy Davis) of My Brilliant Career sets off a few unexpected, but very welcome, sparks along the way. (RS) (Biograph, 6:00)

The Terrorizers

This film has a low-key sense of the exotic that partly derives from its faithful adaptation of a western cinematic model. The title may conjure up images of violence and chaos, but its true meaning in this context is more accurately subliminal. Director Edward Yang (Yang Dechang), who studied film in the U.S., is heavily influenced by the work of Antonioni. The Terrorizers is built from long, long takes and interior machinations that seem to move at a somewhat faster pace than the exterior action. Take a few deep breaths and let the film work on you and it will definitely provide some rewards. The plot starts with three separate stories that will eventually become related. The most complicated of these revolves around a woman terrorist hiding out after the rest of her cohorts have been arrested. She kills time by making anonymous phone calls and starts on a course with many repercussions when she tells one woman that she is pregnant by her husband. Of particular interest is the way Yang uses textures and light to isolate his characters in their surroundings. The film is set in Taipei but the locations feel like nowhere. (BS) (Biograph, 8:00)

The Whales of August

There's nothing worse than a cynic turned sentimental. Lindsay Anderson (If . . . , O Lucky Man!) directs a remarkable cast of veterans (Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern) in this tawdry look at remaining graceful in one's graying years. Gish and Davis are two near-octogenarian sisters who have spent the past 60 summers on an island off the coast of Maine. Gish is a romantic at peace with her past and complacent about the future, while Davis, blind and ill-tempered, bears witness to the effects of a lifetime of disappointments and frustrations. Their silent struggle is temporarily interrupted by the intrusion of a flirtatious neighbor (Sothern) and a mysterious "czarist" count-on-the-make, but the main event is what goes on between the sisters themselves. Anderson must expect that everyone will be so in awe of his cast that they won't notice how painfully thin his material is; with little to play off of, the principals resort to merely acting cute. Davis is little more than a droning monotone, her way perhaps of removing herself from a film that must have been a chore to make. Gish, at least, does have her first real chance to act onscreen in years, and there are moments in which the still-marvelous expressiveness of her face is a joy to behold. (RP) (Biograph, 8:00)

Comrades

At this film festival almost ten years ago I watched British director Bill Douglas's previous films--his trilogy of My Childhood, My Ain Folk, and My Way Home--at a late-night show at the Village theater with an audience of about a dozen. While I liked the films--slow, tortured, and self-conscious as they were--I could see why they weren't for everyone. It was hard to visualize what Douglas might do next after a set of films so clenched and introspective. After an eight-year gap he has made his next film, Comrades, a work of wonderful compromise. In Comrades Douglas directs his need for minute observation and slow rhythms to a historical story and a milieu in which those qualities create an easygoing pleasure for the audience. Set in 1834 in rural England, the film follows six Dorset farmers, "the Tolpuddle Martyrs," the nucleus of an early labor movement who were eventually transported to Australia for sedition. It's didactic in the most enjoyable sense. If you can settle in and give yourself over to the film's pace it's not the least bit boring. Douglas often captures rural life in the same way Thomas Hardy's novels did--building a picture of the English village as a place ruled by class bondage and by a mysterious, romantic, and unbreakable relationship with the land. (BS) (Music Box, 9:30)

Dudes

Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia) has made a reputation as a raffish independent filmmaker, an affectionate, sympathetic chronicler of American punkdom. Dudes is what she describes as an attempt to make a mainstream comedy, and it's a disaster. In this episodic, arch gloss on the western film genre and its demise, two New York punkers head for California and encounter death and adventure when they run into malevolent bikers and a saintly, horsey girl gas-station owner. There's wit and anger buried somewhere in this film, but what ought to be campy and outrageous just looks strained and silly. (PA) (Biograph, 10:00)

Traveling North

Much to the horror of her grown children from an earlier marriage, a woman decides to run off to live with an older man in the north of Australia. They seem to be most angry because he exploits her while they can no longer do so. She's all sweet competence and deep understanding. Her lover is an egotistical grump. Obviously based on a stage play, the film uses scenery to provide "scope" and depends upon its performances for power and charm. Alas everyone in the cast is doing a star turn, and it's too bad for the characters if they get in the way of the performances. (DO) (Biograph, 10:00)

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 31

Signed: Lino Brocka

One excellent reason to go and see Christian Blackwood's documentary Signed: Lino Brocka is simply to find out who Lino Brocka is. An outspoken but modest man who is the Philippines' foremost film director, he seems to be one of the world's genuine good guys--a courageous political activist who works within the confines of the commercial film industry, subverting script material often derived from popular comic books into gutsy humanist dramas that deal with poverty and the exploitation of essentially powerless people. Brocka spent time in prison while fighting the Marcos government and organizing fellow artists, and is a severe critic of the censorship still practiced by the Aquino government. One of the biggest favors Blackwood does the audience is to just let Brocka talk, as well as to show him directing. He discusses his life, his homosexuality, politics, and filmmaking. One of the projects he is shown working on is a film called Macho Dancer, which will portray the life of a young male prostitute and bar dancer in Manila. Blackwood can be criticized for filming the scenes relating to Macho Dancer in such a way as to suggest questions about Brocka's own exploitation of his subjects, any trace of which one would be hard put to find in the work itself. Blackwood has not contributed any new insights about Brocka, but his subject is more than fascinating enough to make this exposure to him worthwhile. (BS) (Music Box, 2:00)

The Tree We Hurt

Set in Chios, Greece, during the summer and autumn of 1960, Dimos Avdeliodis's Greek film describes the fluctuating friendship of two little boys, in a style that has been described as poetic and nostalgic. (Biograph, 3:00)

Manon

As its title might suggest, Manon is a 20th-century Venezuelan update of Manon Lescaut, Abbe Prevost's 18th-century French classic. The novel updates with surprising ease, director Ramon Chalbaud apparently experiencing no difficulty in finding clever and often quite funny equivalents for the naive high-born chevalier, his unforgettably amoral mistress, and her assorted rich lovers. But it is this very facility that proves the film's undoing. Chalbaud is so busy matching the novel that he has very little energy left over for the film. Locked in tightly to the logic of its reconstruction, Manon never takes off--no character-actor virtuoso bits, no playing around with form or content. Its humor is strictly by the book, creating a claustrophobia quite different from the fevered obsession of Prevost's love-struck hero. (RS) (Biograph, 3:00)

Same to You

Fresh and funny, this romantic comedy set in Berlin follows a young couple struggling to bring some magic back into their relationship. What had been a great passion has now cooled, and all that's left is finding a way to make the inevitable breakup tolerable. Then one day while wandering around the city the couple come upon a corpse, a discovery that suddenly plunges them into a dangerous world of mystery and intrigue; pursued by gangsters, the couple learn to patch up their differences and work for mutual survival. Although it's an idea that's been done before, the story comes alive through the energy and charm of the players (the two leads also happen to be two of the film's three directors). Clearly made on the cuff, the film turns the restrictions of its low-budget production into advantages, as the images exude a certain rough, almost slapdash quality that serves to underline the sense of being on the run. (RP) (Biograph, 5:00)

Manila by Night

Marcos's censor first demanded the title be changed to "City by Night," and then banned the film anyway. Imelda tried to get Lino Brocka to stop filming slums (which she claimed didn't exist) and was angry when Ishmael Bernal portrayed Manila as a city of lost hope and doomed souls despairing under a thin facade of hypocritical respectability. Two sons of a "nice" family run away from the overdecorated morality of their middle-class home to find sex, drugs, and a good deal else in the city streets. The film is somewhat crude in technique, but that somehow adds to its power. (DO) (Biograph, 5:00)

The Trouble With Dick

You know the movie's got problems when the funniest thing about it is its winking title: The Trouble With Dick. The Dick in question is a science fiction author shuddering under a massive writer's block who adds to his depression by moving to a boarding house where his ex-girlfriend (Susan Dey) lives. She keeps her distance, but the writer has his hands full fending off his more voracious housemates; first a tasty bit of teenaged crumpet (Elizabeth Gorcey), then a landlady (Elaine Giftos) who considers sex a horizontal extension of aerobics. Interspersed with this are scenes from the writer's developing sci-fi story, The Galactic Chain Gang, which is set in a dusty alien landscape but displays obvious reflections of its author's crisis. Gary Walkow's film shows much of the roughness and some of the charm of independent cinema, the latter especially in Dick's imaginative delusions near movie's end. But it's more often witless, and fatally burdened by its central actor, Tom Villard, who makes a ragged Dick indeed. Villard's large oafishness can't begin to suggest the writer's supposedly ravaged intelligence, to say nothing of his presumed sex appeal. (Or is that part of the joke?) The movie did draw an enthusiastic response at the Seattle International Film Festival, and, amazingly, was cowinner of the Grand Prize at the U.S. Film Festival in Utah. (RH) (Music Box, 6:30)

Melo

With the exception of the equally passionate and exquisite Trouble in Paradise, this is probably the only film in the festival that can be regarded as an unqualified masterpiece. But it is bound to baffle spectators who insist on regarding Alain Resnais as an intellectual rather than an emotional director, simply because he shares the conviction of Carl Dreyer and Robert Wesson that form is the surest route to feelings. In his 11th feature, easily his best since Mon oncle d'Amerique, he adapts a 1929 boulevard melodrama by a forgotten playwright named Henry Bernstein, and holds so closely to this unremarkable play that theatrical space and decor--including the absence of a fourth wall--are rigorously respected, and shots of a painted curtain appear between the acts. None of this is done to strike an attitude or "make a statement": Resnais believes in the material, and simply wants to give it its due--to respect and realize it for what it is. Yet in the process of doing this, he not only invests the original meaning of "melodrama" (drama with music) with so much beauty and resonance that he reinvents the genre. He also proves that he is conceivably the greatest living director of actors in the French cinema, and offers a way of regarding the past that implicitly indicts our entire era for myopia. (Melo is certainly a film of 1987, and not an antique, but it may take us another 20 years to understand precisely how and why it is.) Using the same talented quartet that starred in his two previous films, La vie est un roman and L'amour a mort--Andre Dussollier as a gifted concert violinist, Pierre Arditi as his suburban friend, Sabine Azema as the latter's wife who falls in love with the violinist, and Fanny Ardant (in a smaller role) as her cousin--Resnais cuts and moves his camera with impeccable dramatic logic that helps to give their performances maximum voltage. But it is largely his special relation to the past that imbues his material with profundity. Insofar as the tragedy of the present period is its incapacity to perceive the past with any breadth or complexity--a narcissistic disability that usually translates itself into nostalgia, camp, or pious formaldehyde in movie terms--Melo's concentrated treatment of the 20s, while never less than modern, retrieves that era in all its mysterious density. After collaborating on all his previous films with contemporaries, Resnais joins forces here with an author of over half a century ago, and a genuine symbiosis takes place. For a comparable marriage between the minds of two periods equally far apart, one may have to go back to Dreyer's 1964 Gertrud, which adapted a play written in 1906--a film whose very lengthy takes, privileged musical interludes, and renderings of time and passion in a mode at once classic and avant-garde are periodically evoked here. I can think of no higher praise. (JR) (Biograph, 7:00)

Looking for Eileen

That hunk from The 4th Man, Thom Hoffmann, once again (as in White Madness) proves that he is a first-rate actor. Here he searches for a woman who resembles a woman in his past. She turns out not to be the same person, but lots more mysterious and dangerous--with an ex-husband and sinister forces after her with guns. It's a solid thriller with specific political implications, as well as a marvelous portrait of Amsterdam. From the director of Bastille and the writer of Herman Drurer: after a short hiatus in leading the New Dutch Cinema, both men are back in form. (DO) (Biograph, 7:00)

Mascara

Halloween can be the only excuse for the inclusion of this tawdry exercise in retro-camp. Described by its director as "a tribute to femininity in all its forms," the film follows a police inspector who spends most evenings patronizing "Mister Butterfly," a private club in which the rich and famous can indulge in their private pleasures. Meanwhile, his devoted, widowed sister (Charlotte Rampling, who must have better things to do), who knows nothing about her brother's secret life, falls in love with a costume designer. There's a wild party, strange and sudden revelations, and a murder, and soon the inspector's carefully separated worlds come crashing together. Style pretty completely overwhelms any lingering vestiges of a plot, and new scenes are included more for design effect than for logic. (RP) (Music Box, 8:30)

Good Morning Babylon

Six years after The Night of the Shooting Stars, the Taviani brothers turn their gaze to turn-of-the-century America when the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair was the wonder of the world and silent cinema the undisputed king. Two inseparable brothers, gifted artisans, come to the U.S. hoping to make enough money to save their family business of generations--restoring the cathedrals of Italy. Through a set of truly unbelievable circumstances, they become valued associates of D.W. Griffith and use their skills to create magnificent elephants for the set of Griffith's Intolerance. Despite the production efforts of three nations, an international cast and crew, and beautiful lighting and scenery, Good Morning Babylon falls strangely flat. The acting seems as stilted as a Steve Reeves Mediterranean epic. Even the American actors sound dubbed. The Tavianis' touch at making the small moments magical, as in Shooting Stars, is sadly missing. Good Morning Babylon tries to be the stuff of which movies are made, but in attempting to be larger than life, Babylon is only unbelievable and overly long. (NR) (Biograph, 9:00)

Night Angels

The trouble with Brazilian director Wilson Barros's Night Angels is not that it's a sleazy exploitation pic. Some of the greatest movies ever made have been described, quite aptly, as sleazy exploitation pics. The problem with Night Angels is that it's a pretentious sleazy exploitation pic, pivoting around the nothing-is-as-it-seems hall of mirrors that purports to be the lot of the working transvestite. A multimedia extravaganza (there's a stage-set bathtub murder that turns into a real one, a space-defying, old-time-movie pas de deux with an aging sex symbol in a tight red dress, and a flickering collection of day-in-the-lowlife expose-type videotapes), Night Angels strips away layer after layer of variegated illusion to reveal a perfect hard core of nothingness within. The film does possess a kind of what-next fascination. Unfortunately, what's next, though always unexpected, is never really worth the trip. (RS) (Biograph, 9:00)

The Outsiders

The curious thing about The Outsiders, Taiwan's first gay film, is the way it takes the nuclear family as its model in fantasizing a modestly scaled gay utopia. The film, director Yu K'an-p'ing's adaptation of a notorious Taiwanese novel, allegedly caused a scandal, but it must have been due to the mere fact of gay subject matter, for in terms of content The Outsiders is a rather chaste and touchingly naive film. A teenage boy, Ah Ching, is driven from his home when his father discovers his homosexuality. Later that night in the park he is picked up by Master Yang, a middle aged photographer who only wants to take him to a safe place to stay. At this point the film veers into comedy to portray the impromptu shelter Yang has created in his home for several homeless youths, with himself as father and his aging actress landlady as mother. The Outsiders continues to indiscriminately mix bone-rattling domestic violence and gay romantic comedy. Ah Ching's bad father and weak mother appear in flashbacks and dream sequences played off against the wise, warmhearted pseudo-parents of his present. The search for a strong father is a theme that particularly emerges in several guises. The idealism that underlies the plot culminates in a musical interlude at the nightclub Yang founds, during which each man magically meets the lover of his dreams in the course of a dance number. If this were a heterosexual story it would be unbearably sappy, but there's force in the sheer hopefulness of all these fervent romantic dreams of true love in a perfect gay society that makes it quite interesting. (BS) (Music Box, 11:30)

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 1

Chicago/Illinois Filmmakers

A selection of prizewinning entries from participants in the annual Chicago/Illinois Filmmakers competition; the filmmakers will be present at the screening. (Music Box, 1:00)

Valhalla

This expensive Danish animated feature at least looks right: it's lush, robust--the kind Disney studios used to make. It sounds right, too, conveniently dubbed into English. The story, however, proves muddled enough to confuse most adults, let alone children. It begins in the titular castle of Nordic gods, with two Viking children, Chalfe and Roskva, summoned to perform household chores for Thor, the beer-guzzling god of thunder. It is not clear whether Thor and his cunning sidekick Loki (of unspecified godly powers) are supposed to be decent chaps, but they must be, since the whole entourage soon embarks on a lengthy trip to duel the Giants--a truly nasty assortment of local thickheads. Along tags a mischievous troll kid named Quark, by far the most appealing character in the film. To understand exactly what happens during the duel requires more than one viewing of the film, but the gods--and the children--do return home safe and sound. In all fairness, there are a lot of ingenious scenes scattered throughout Valhalla, but the incongruity of the final product effectively dilutes their power. The film's reputed worldwide success, if true, is a sad commentary on the dearth of competition in the field of full-length animation. (ZB) (Biograph, 2:00)

When the Wind Blows

The project of director Jimmy Murakami and screenwriter Raymond Briggs's rather original English animated feature is to get us to think the unthinkable--to imagine the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust. But rather than force this on us as a bitter pill to swallow, they create a very funny and believable elderly English couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, still mired in memories of World War II, but, when nuclear war hits, eager to do all the proper things and follow the instructions in the government booklets correctly. And rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, the filmmakers make all their essential points by sticking to this isolated couple in their country cottage, following them step-by-step through the experience. Aided by a realistic style of animation that incorporates some live action, and occasional stylistic changes that allow for more abstraction in certain fantasy interludes, as well as the expert speaking voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, the movie succeeds impressively. It's rare that a cartoon carries the impact of a live-action feature without sacrificing the imaginative freedom of the pen and brush, but this one does it--and does it so well that it even persuades us to accept the didactic framework. Comedy and horror intertwine in this domestic, kitchen-sink version of Dr. Strangelove, and our involvement in the two characters keeps us glued helplessly to the screen. (JR) (Biograph, 2:00, and Music Box, 7:00)

Housekeeping

The plentiful admirers of Bill Forsyth are in for an unpleasant surprise. Housekeeping, the Scottish director's first North American venture, is a dispassionate film that bears little resemblance to his charming Glasgow-set comedies. Set in a small Idaho town in the early 50s (though shot on location in Canada), the film revolves around the childhood and adolescence of two sisters who, following their mother's suicide, are raised by a succession of overprotective relatives. The girls' situation changes dramatically with the arrival of Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti), an eccentric young woman who approaches her newly found parental duties with a curious blend of irreverence and genuine love. But her carefree life-style proves to be a burden in a provincial town, and in time causes an irreparable rift between the sisters. Marilynne Robinson's novel, on which the film is based, is full of fragile, carefully crafted episodes that bring essence to each of the central characters. In contrast to Robinson, Forsyth shies away from probing the evolution of emotional bonds, concentrating instead on an elegant presentation of the eventful story line. He does it with crafty professionalism, piecing together a soulless film of startling physical beauty. The characters remain distant and enigmatic--down to the very last scene--a major deficiency for which even the brilliance of visuals does not provide a sufficient compensation. (ZB) (Biograph, 4:00)

Ticket

There's a story behind each pretty face in Madam Min's Tea Shop, the little bistro where "take out" refers more to the waitresses than the comestibles. Take waiflike "Baby," for instance. Despite her airs of being from Seoul, she really hails from a backwater hamlet and is saddled with supporting not only her wastrel dad and brother but her haughty college-bound boyfriend as well. Though her new trade repels her, soon she too swaps her sailor suit for fuchsia leotards and earns her wage being slapped by fishermen in public restrooms. But the saddest tale is that of flinty Madam Min herself. Separated from her boyfriend for decades after he was jailed for writing seditious poetry, she is horrified to find he has married an industrialist's daughter. No wonder she charges the girls for extra coffees: Clearly South Korean director Im Kwon Taek has a way with cliches: he invests the most hackneyed material with such energy and earnestness that whenever he slips into something more original and poetic the effect is almost breathtaking. Ticket thus lurches with frenetic abandon from the sublime (a flashback to Madam Min bringing her imprisoned lover two eggs kept warm by her body) to the ridiculous (the same guy justifying his incarceration with such "poetic" insights as "life is like a bus--once you miss it, it never returns"). Taek appears to be a fan of Mikio Naruse's Flowing (1956), of which Ticket is very derivative. Unfortunately Taek does not approach the Japanese master's aching austerity and lacerating precision, nor does he share Naruse's feminist inclinations: a woman's alternatives to marriage, Ticket implies, are prostitution, homicide, and madness. (PK) (Biograph, 4:00)

It

A department-store clerk (Clara Bow) tries to live according to the tenets of Elinor Glyn's book about sex appeal (also known as It), and winds up marrying her boss. This fast and funny comedy of 1927 has one of the great lines of the period--"Hot socks! Here comes the boss!"--and as Dave Kehr has pointed out, this movie "launched Clara Bow as a star of extraordinary dimensions (most of them around the hips)." Directed by Clarence Badger, with Antonio Moreno, William Austin, Jacqueline Gadson, a young Gary Cooper, and author Glyn herself, who worked on the script with Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. A real treat. (JR) (Music Box, 5:00)

The Serpent's Way

The barren landscape of Swedish countryside provides a perfect background for The Serpent's Way, a film that deals with the desolate lives of impoverished farmers in the middle of the 19th century. The film focuses on just one household, but one that seems burdened with a disproportionate share of miseries. It is headed by Tea, a young woman who discovers after her husband's suicide that the family house no longer belongs to them. Unable to scrape up enough cash for rent, she pays the landlord off with sexual favors. The "arrangement" is repeated the next year and in many of the following ones, with the passage of time marked by the changing seasons, births, and deaths. Placing faith in the premise that the suffering of others can be understood only through the experience of pain, director Bo Widerberg has filmed this tragic saga in a way that is torturous on the senses. For its entire 112-minute duration, The Serpent's Way stays consistently within the narrow confines of Widerberg's austere aesthetics, exemplified by dramatic monotony, minimal camera movements, and sparse dialogues (often muttered in half-whispers). The cyclical nature of the farmers' lives is documented through a series of repetitive scenes; over time, every painful variation on the basic setup seems to be included. Although The Serpent's Way does provide a generous emotional payoff near the end, watching it until that moment requires the kind of gritty determination that only the film's victimized protagonists appear to possess. (ZB) (Biograph, 6:30)

The Great Race

It took six years--and Gorbachev's glasnost--for Jerzy Domaradzki's Polish 1981 The Great Race to reach the screens. Certainly, it's not the cynicism of Feliks Falk's brilliantly corrosive screenplay that explains the delay; The Great Race is a hell of a lot less cynical than most of the scripts Falk successfully directed himself. What probably damned The Great Race is less the disillusionment it fosters than the illusions it shatters. For in this 50s-set saga of a grueling three-day, patriotic Foot Race for Peace, where few of its participants are really up to such exertion (qualification is based on work quotas, fine moral fiber--anything and everything but athletic skill), there can be no winner. This truism has not yet become apparent to the film's two heroes--an opportunistic prole who's in it for what he can get (money), and his idealistic newfound friend, who's in it for what he can't (justice for his wrongly accused father). But try as they may, the two can never imagine, much less approach, the unvarnished chutzpah of the state as it pulls off an "Emperor's New Clothes" number bold enough to end all social fiction. Visually, The Great Race is a curiously ugly movie. Yet, perversely, that's almost a plus in this bleak coldwar evocation of ready-made truth. (RS) (Biograph, 6:30)

The Glass Menagerie

Paul Newman's direction of Tennessee Williams's first play and one of the great works of the American theater aspires to make this film version as definitive as Sidney Lumet's 1962 film adaptation of Long Day's Journey Into Night, but it is seriously marred by some unfortunate decisions. This production grew out of a stage version mounted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Long Wharf Theatre by Nikos Psacharopoulos, starring John Sayles (and later Treat Williams) as Tom, Joanne Woodward as Amanda, Karen Allen as Laura, and James Naughton as the Gentleman Caller; Newman has retained all of this cast except for Sayles, whom he has replaced with John Malkovich. Perhaps the biggest problem he has to cope with is that, despite certain claims that The Glass Menagerie is Williams's most "filmable" play, it is in fact one of the most fundamentally stagebound in overall conception, and to translate its essential textures into film requires a bolder stylistic approach and a more precise feeling of place (and space) than anything Newman has attempted, despite some rather adventurous and successful uses of camera movement in the latter portions of the film. But the most serious problem here is the way that he directs the performances of Woodward and Malkovich, which seems predicated on what might be termed the Meryl Streep Fallacy: encouraging or allowing the sort of showboating that draws more attention to the actors than to the characters they are playing. Both Woodward and Malkovich are consummate professionals, and they work mightily at their parts, but too much of this effort is made visible; and in Woodward's case, the same sort of shameless Oscar-mongering that destroyed the latter portions of The Color of Money, in which Newman's actorly ambitions apparently overwhelmed Martin Scorsese's directorial judgments, are allowed to wreak some havoc here. (Malkovich, one should note, reinterprets the role of Tom with certain suggestions that the character is gay--a plausible reading of the part, but unfortunately Malkovich's performance is too mannered to allow us to forget that he is acting.) In the cases of Karen Allen and James Naughton, however, the casting and direction are sheer perfection, and in their long scene together, the film is every bit as good as it wants to be. Henry Mancini composed the original music (to go with Paul Bowles's theme, which was written for the original stage production), and Michael Ballhaus is the cinematographer. (JR) (Biograph, 8:45)

Year of the Rabbit

Fernando Ayala's feature, produced and cowritten (with Oscar Viale) by Hector Olivera, follows an ordinary middle-class Argentine couple who, taking a tip from the Chinese horoscope, which predicts that the "Year of the Rabbit" will bring about individual changes and economic improvement, decide to separate and pursue their untapped skills. To be shown with Monty Diamond's First Thing Monday, a 40-minute short about two strangers who decide to get married for a weekend. (Biograph, 8:45)

Crazy Boys

Two years ago director Peter Kern put on the Munich stage a production of Women Behind Bars rich in irony, bite, wild comedy, and authentic emotions. The play also used highly cinematic devices to keep it flowing along and to reinforce the narrative's reliance on movie cliches that have entered our lives as reality. Strangely, then, Kern's films (he was always brilliant as an actor for Daniel Schmid and Fassbinder) have always been lacking in that very cinematic grace. This one is a Germanic comedy (emphasis on the Germanic: every gag chunks to the bottom of your stomach like a Bavarian potato dumpling); a failing nightclub picks up business with male strippers who service the female customers for a fee. Had this been a gay club it probably wouldn't have been any funnier, but at least Kern would have brought a bit of heart and authenticity to it. For those who care, Germany's hottest new singing and acting stud, Zacharias Preen, strips. (DO) (Music Box, 9:15)

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