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Mind Over Mobsters

Takeshi Kitano's complex, award-winning 'Fireworks' will open at the Port.


Takeshi Kitano's "Fireworks" (1997), which has its Orange County premiere Friday at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, is the first Japanese movie to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival since Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" did it in 1950.

Kitano, who started out as a comedian, has become at 51 possibly Japan's biggest celebrity. He is an author (50 books), auteur director (seven pictures since 1990), actor (under his stage name Beat Takeshi), screenwriter, painter and was Japan's favorite TV star (from 1990-95).

In "Fireworks," which he wrote and directed, Kitano plays a good cop with a violent streak who gets into a mess of noir-ish trouble while on a stakeout of yakuza (gangsters). But it's only "nominally a crime story," Times critic Kenneth Turan says.

The movie tells the story of two ill-fated veteran Tokyo cops, one (Kitano) with a wife dying of leukemia--he's also deeply in debt to the yakuza--and the other (Ren Osugi) confined to a wheelchair after being shot. Kitano's movies, whether droll or serious, have considerable visual and psychological complexity.

"Fireworks" runs through April 2 at the Port, (2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar) with screenings at 5, 7:20 and 9:40 p.m. plus Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:40 p.m. $4.50-$7. (714) 673-6260.

Elsewhere in Orange County:

Saddleback College again shows its appreciation of Italian comic Roberto Benigni by spotlighting his most recent work, "The Monster," in the campus' ongoing International Film Festival. Series organizers screened Benigni's "Johnny Stecchino" (1991) a couple of years ago at the Mission Viejo college, one of the few places you could see it. The same holds true for "The Monster," which had very limited release here and elsewhere when it came out in 1996. The movie screens Friday at 7 p.m. in Saddleback's science/math building, Room 313, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Free. (714) 582-4788.

This time, Benigni plays Loris, an inconsequential Everyman who has a knack for shoplifting and mooching off others. As so often happens in one of his films, bad luck turns Benigni on his ear; Loris is mistaken for a sexual psychopath and murderer now tracked by the cops hoping to catch him in a crime.

From this gruesome premise comes wild humor. Benigni is an inventive pratfaller with moves that remind you of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers. In fact, he played Inspector Clouseau in a "Pink Panther" sequel in 1993 (he may also be recalled as the tourist who finds love in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law").

Clouseau's obliviousness to his own buffoonery are what make Sellers' performances so rich, and Benigni follows the same path in his better comedies, such as "The Monster."

Times film critic Kenneth Turan, in his review of "The Monster," had this to say: "Benigni is so gifted he makes every scenario he touches inevitably funny. Whether it's trying to learn Chinese or coping with a lit cigarette that has dropped down the front of his pants, Benigni creates hysteria whenever he appears." He continued, "To experience Benigni at his most persuasive, you have to see him in one of his frenetic, hyperventilating, borderline ridiculous Italian farces, of which 'The Monster,' the highest-grossing film in that country's history, is the latest and most successful."

Eric Khoo's stunning 1997 "12 Storeys," set in one of the high-rise government apartment buildings that are home to 85% of Singapore's residents. Khoo's special gift--he's also adept at a touch of the supernatural--is to find the comic in nonstop rage: as an elderly woman submits her overweight Filipina maid to incessant ridicule; as a disillusioned, materialistic Beijing bride shrilly humiliates--also incessantly--the husband who loves her but who exaggerated greatly his wealth and position; as a pretty 18-year-old is deluged by the hysterical puritanism of her possessive older brother. Screens Monday at 2 p.m. at Captain Blood's Village Theatres in Orange and April 2 at Edwards Newport Cinemas in Newport Beach as part of the Newport Beach International Film Festival. $6.50. (714) 546-3456.

Irvine Valley College continues its "Discipline and Punishment" series today with the award-winning documentary, "Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary," at 3 p.m. in Room B-209, 5550 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Free. (714) 451-5376. This 53-minute documentary by Laura Angelica Simon was one of the winners of the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival last year. It tries to show the impact of Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative approved by voters in 1994 to deny public education and health care to illegal immigrants.

Simon, a fourth-grade teacher at Hoover Elementary School in Los Angeles, clearly thinks it was a mistake, a move that disrupted the relationship between teachers and students and parents by essentially turning instructors into immigration agents.

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