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Film Reviews

Around the World, Take II

The 16th Miami Film Festival continues this week with even more international fare. On the must-see list are Thursday's presentation of a sublime offering from French newcomer Erick Zonca that created quite a stir at Cannes, The Dreamlife of Angels. Friday Buena Vista Social Club showcases famed German director Wim Wenders' surreal view of a legendary group of Cuban musicians as they assemble in Havana, create a spellbinding album, and dazzle audiences around the world. All foreign-language films include English subtitles. All screenings take place at the Gusman Center For the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Call 305-372-0925 for ticket information. Four full-length reviews follow. See the listings below for a schedule of screenings.

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

The French New Wave of the late '50s and early '60s stands revered by cineastes not just for the extraordinary body of work produced by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but also for its liberating influence on a succeeding generation of American directors -- men and women who took to heart its message of movies as an articulation of personal vision. A new French New Wave is currently cresting, with directors such as Olivier Assayas (1994's Cold Water), Claire Denis (1996's Nenette and Boni), and Arnaud Desplechin (1997's My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument) making distinctive pictures, sharing a common pool of actors, pushing their visual styles to the limit, and putting fresh spins on existential questions about life and love.

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

When 20-year-old Isabelle (ƒlodie Bouchez, who dazzled in both The Wild Reeds and Full Speed) is first introduced, she is shown selling homemade greeting cards for spare change on the gray streets of Lille. With her entire life strapped to her back, she's a gangly waif, wide-eyed and drowning inside an oversize sweater. She moves from town to town, reveling in her freedom to drift. In Lille she slides into an assembly-line seamstress' job, where she works with a bleak collection of hard-bitten women -- aged beyond their years -- resigned to a fate that Isabelle considers only temporary. There she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier), also 20, the only coworker who seems similarly at odds with her surroundings -- a young woman who smokes a cigarette as if it were a middle finger outstretched at the world.

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

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

-- Brett Sokol (Thursday, February 25, 7 p.m.)

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

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

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

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

-- Robin Dougherty (Saturday, February 27, 9:30 p.m.)

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

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

Most puzzling of all is the decision to set the film in New Orleans, a milieu the sole purpose of which seems to be to force the cast members to speak in ridiculous faux Cajun accents. Meanwhile the screenplay (by Gutierrez and Deanna Fuller) conjures none of the city's fabled sinfulness. Judas Kiss does, however, recall The Big Easy (1987), which told a similar tale of cops, robbers, and corruption with considerably more panache.

-- Brett Sokol (Saturday, February 27, midnight)

For those of us trying to piece together the reality of the various civil wars in Yugoslavia from unemotional news reports, Goran Paskaljevic's 1998 The Powder Keg is a maddeningly difficult story to navigate. The director wants to give us something more than mere headlines, but it's obvious he no longer lives in the same universe we do. From the first scene, which depicts a seemingly ordinary fender bender, we're plunged into a relentless landscape of aggression. A teen who runs a stop sign is attacked by the driver of the car he hits, who then proceeds to kick in the boy's windshield. When the kid runs away, the driver shows up at the teen's house with a friend. Together they smash the furniture and terrorize the boy's father. People's nerves, it would seem, are monstrously on edge.

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

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

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

-- Robin Dougherty (Sunday, February 28, 4:30 p.m.)

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Robin Dougherty
Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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