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Mind Over Mobsters

THE ORANGE SCREEN

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

March 26, 1998|JAN HERMAN and MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The American Cinematheque's "Recent Spanish Cinema" commences its final weekend Friday at Raleigh Studios' Chaplin Theater with the 7:15 p.m. screening of Catalan director Ventura Pons' "Actresses" (1996), followed by Joaquin Oristrell's "What Makes Women Laugh." Pons' stylish, theatrical--in the best sense--film offers tour de force portrayals by four vibrant Barcelona actresses. A young actress (Merce Pons), up for a role in a play about a legendary actress, interviews three middle-aged women who studied with her. One (Nuria Espert) is a grande dame of the theater, another is a popular TV comedian (Rosa Maria Sarda) and the third (Anna Lizaran) is a respected film and TV dubbing actress/director. "Actresses" delves deeply into what it is to be a woman as well as an actress as Pons gradually uncovers how an incident in the three women's student days affected their entire lives.

"What Makes Women Laugh" is one of those shrill comedies that don't travel at all well. Reminiscent of the infinitely superior Brazilian picture "Don~a Flor and Her Two Husbands," it tells of a woman, a former nightclub entertainer (Candela Pen~a), whose writer-husband, on the way to meet another woman, is suddenly killed but whose ghost hangs around to advise his widow on her love life. It's too bad the husband died because Pen~a returns to show-biz in a crude, stupid act with two other women with no talent but familiar romantic problems of their own. "What Makes Women Laugh" will be be followed by a repeat of the delightful "Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health." The festival concludes Saturday at 9:30 p.m. with another film, "The Quince Tree Sun" (1992), not previewed, from the major director Victor Erice.

Preceding "The Quince Tree Sun" at 7:15 p.m. as part of the Cinematheque's Alternative Screen series is Marina Zenovich's 54-minute "Independent's Day," which offers a witty take on the Sundance Film Festival, held in snowy Park City, Utah, every February. It is must viewing for neophyte filmmakers, who will be able to ask questions of various participants in the documentary when it is screened by the American Cinematheque on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Raleigh.

Interweaving comments from filmmakers with glimpses of their films, "Independent's Day" is chock-full of good advice and wise observations from everyone from festival founder Robert Redford, who admits the festival has become a monster "but a good monster" to the backers and participants of two counterfestivals, Slamdance and more recently, Slumdance.

By now Sundance's star-making power is legendary, yet both critic Roger Ebert and a festival staffer agree that 80% to 90% of the films shown don't deserve to be seen. Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore observes that too many filmmakers, having striven so hard to get a picture made, more often than not turn out movies that are merely derivative of other movies.

Even so, "Independent's Day" is a winning chronicle of pure gumption, revealing a tremendous crosssection of individual sensibilities combined with an equal determination to succeed. The last apt words belong to Peter Fonda: "Never let anybody say you can't do it." (213) 466-FILM.

*

You have to wonder what people will make of James Ellroy's hyperbolic bebopping monologues in Reinhard Jud's illuminating "James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Fiction" (Nuart Friday through Monday; April 4 and 5 at noon) if they have never read his novels of the dark side of L.A.--novels that have redefined the mythology of the City of Angels and, in the process, redefined the L.A. crime novel itself.

The film, shot in 1992 when Ellroy was 44, shows the nonstop storyteller's overpoweringly imaginative vision, which brilliantly sustains his outrageous wit and wry compassion for LAPD cops who he believes are all ultimately "toadies of a corrupt system." Ellroy, whose "L.A. Confidential" became arguably the best American film of 1997, goes to the core of human behavior at its most obsessive while evoking an era of the city before his time with an aura of authenticity that confounds us native Angelenos substantially older than he.

By now Ellroy's story is well-known. Born to hard-drinking divorced parents, Ellroy lost his mother to a murder--she hooked up with the wrong man in an El Monte bar--when he was 10, and he became as much obsessed with her unsolved killing as he did with the notorious Black Dahlia case that occurred a year before he was born. Living with his father in a shabby apartment bordering Hancock Park, Ellroy tells of his long bouts of drugs and alcohol, homelessness and burglary and ultimate sobering up by 1979, which at last allowed him to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

The kind of writer he would become was determined when his father gave him as an 11th birthday present "The Badge," Jack Webb's uncritical history of the LAPD; early on, Ellroy, fueled by "zillions" of crime novels, sensed that his mission was to explore the nightmares the police department, local government and society at large kept under cover in the '40s and '50s, when L.A. still considered itself "a white man's town."

Ellroy keeps talking as he takes us on a visit of the key locales of his and the city's past. Jud's ability to give us a graceful, constantly moving panoramic view of today's Los Angeles is both an inexpensive and artistically effective way to present a man with an exceptionally strong and voluble presence. If only Jud could bring us up to date on one of the great novelists of our time.

Also on the bill: Tim Arnold's short, "Great Poets Die," adapted from a Charles Bukowski story. (310) 478-6379.

Times staff writer Kevin Thomas contributed to this report.

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