Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Simple Tales

New releases offer straightforward plots with much broader implications

OCTOBER 25, 1999: 

On the wall-- recommended new releases

Children of Heaven This Iranian neo-realist fairy tale has a story so basic and affecting that it would be easy to distrust it. A 9-year-old boy named Ali loses his younger sister's shoes, and knowing that their family is too poor to replace them, the two siblings conspire to get to school and back without their parents or teachers learning the truth. The film ends at a big long-distance race, where third prize is a new pair of sneakers, but before the big moment there's a string of meaningful little ones. The similar (and slightly better) Iranian film The White Balloon got behind the eyes of a child and showed how the world can be alien and scary; Children of Heaven is more objective and more accessible to all audiences. By dealing in dashed hopes and deep determination, filmmaker Majid Majidi takes the specific and makes it universal--which is what neo-realism is supposed to do. And like his Ali, he's pragmatic enough to understand that sometimes life is better for those who come in third. --Noel Murray

Woman in the Dunes Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 masterpiece opens with a magnified shot of a grain of sand, then pulls back into a beautiful and impossibly vast desert sea. It's hard to conceive of a more effective introduction to the film's overwhelming textural beauty or to the existential crisis that engulfs its main character, an amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) stranded in the rolling dunes. When he misses a bus back to Tokyo, the locals lead him to a rope ladder that descends to a house in a giant sand pit, where a primitive widow (Kyoto Koshoda) offers him shelter for the night. Come morning, the ladder is gone. Teshigahara's simple, economic setup is complemented by the uncluttered detail of his images, which intensify the extreme isolation that leads to erotic and spiritual conflict. Wrestling with issues of identity, community, and free will, Woman in the Dunes bears a heavy metaphorical load, but its glistening, ever-shifting surfaces are so hypnotic and absorbing, the viewing experience is akin to osmosis. --Scott Tobias

God Said Ha! Saturday Night Live alumna Julia Sweeney joins the ranks of comedians who've put together one-person shows for the legitimate stage. The difference between these "monologues" and routine stand-up comedy is that: 1. The comedian can try to be overtly profound, and 2. The comedian doesn't have to tell actual jokes. In God Said Ha!, Sweeney covers the year just after she left SNL, when her It's Pat! movie bombed, her brother was diagnosed with cancer, and her parents moved in with her. The humor in Sweeney's routine comes from the surreal turns her life took: having to relive her childhood in her mid-30s while simultaneously trying to restart her stalled career. And though the film of Sweeney's performance is not as funny as one would hope, Sweeney herself is so likable and earnest that her frankly unexceptional story is surprisingly entertaining. There's real drama in Sweeney's elliptical narrative, and a keenness of observation--especially about the absurdity of trying to plan around our mortality--that's just profound enough. --Noel Murray

Unmade Beds In British director Nicholas Barker's mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind feature debut, four desperate N.Y.C. singles star as themselves, a gimmick that brazenly straddles the well-guarded border separating fiction and documentary. Adopting a style guaranteed to have verit purists burning their VCRs, Barker selected his "actors" from over 400 personal ads, asked them to describe their dating experiences over a six-month period, and constructed a script based on these interviews and his own embellishment. Their performed conversations and monologues, captured over multiple takes and gorgeously framed to mimic Edward Hopper's melancholic paintings, make up in aching truths what they lack in authenticity. All long for stability and companionship as they approach middle age, but the clock is ticking mercilessly. A scene in which the liveliest subject, an ex-lap dancer in her 40s, cruelly assesses her fleshy lumps and crevasses speaks to the common insecurities that this novel film carefully illuminates. --Scott Tobias

I'm Losing You Bruce Wagner's caustic Hollywood novel was praised on its release three years ago for its bite and its style--the author designed the book as a collection of overheard cell-phone conversations and junked e-mail that detailed a West Coast culture in which people searched for meaning everywhere but in their own homes. Wagner has adapted his own work to the screen as writer and director but has lost the edge that defined it. He's stripped the story down to its most sympathetic characters--a dying TV producer (Frank Langella), his recovering-addict actor son (Andrew McCarthy), and his suicidal, Kaballah-obsessed adopted daughter (Rosanna Arquette)--and has reduced the action to a series of deaths that touch all three. Also, the cell-phone and e-mail framework is gone, which makes the newly straight conversations appear somewhat mundane. Still, the film is worth renting both for its specificity of character and as an illustration of how a seemingly high-profile Hollywood project can end up on video no less than three months after its theatrical premiere. As proven by the straight-to-video coming attractions that lead off the tape--laughable concoctions starring Oscar-winners Ben Kingsley, Marlon Brando, and Cuba Gooding Jr.--talent alone can't make movie magic. --Noel Murray

Off the wall-- alternatives to new releases

After Hours With so many recent movies being compared to Martin Scorsese's 1983 curio--especially the new-to-video and highly overrated Go and the also-new-to-video and appropriately ill-regarded 200 Cigarettes--the time has come to revisit the movie that established the visual vocabulary for a thousand stylish indie films. Along with the studio assignment The Color of Money, After Hours was one of the films Scorsese made while trying to get the financing for The Last Temptation of Christ. But while the Hustler sequel was an attempt to show that he could deliver a hit, this black comedy was purely about flexing his cinematic muscles. In his first collaboration with master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Scorsese zoomed the camera up, toward, and around every possible surface, object, or face. The story may be about a man (Griffin Dunne, at his peak as a neurotic prick) surviving a hysterically hellish night of detours on his way back home, but the movie is about the potential of cinema trickery to delight and unnerve us. The ultimate difference between After Hours and its imitators is that Scorsese sees style as a way to generate a feeling, not merely to distract. --Noel Murray

Mickey One The blockbuster thriller Enemy of the State is still doing brisk business on video, where viewers are undoubtedly responding to the film's theme of technological paranoia (a theme that might be more meaningful if director Tony Scott didn't digitally enhance nearly every frame of film). At any rate, there are at least a dozen better films about paranoia, including kindred pictures The Conversation and The Parallax View. A truly distinctive entry to the genre is director Arthur Penn's pre-Bonnie and Clyde high point, Mickey One--a genuine art film in which Warren Beatty, as a stand-up comic on the run from the mob, finds himself arguing with a bright light that may or may not be God. Before that final scene, Beatty suspects that everyone he meets is part of some inescapable conspiracy, especially the show business promoter who thinks his act is brilliant and wants to make him a star. Penn's film could be read a dozen ways--as a statement about the co-opting of art by commerce, or the perils of censorship--but mostly it's a portrait of one man's spiritual breakdown, as every pair of eyes seems to spy some stain on his soul that can't be removed. --Noel Murray

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