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Slices of Americana, Old and New

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Landmark Theatres has two major upcoming events: Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” opens a 16-day run at the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills on Wednesday, and the Nuart on Saturday and Sunday at noon will premiere an important documentary called “The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.”

“Citizen Kane” (1941) has long been widely regarded as the greatest of American films, and it is equally well-known that Welles’ ambitious but deeply flawed Charles Foster Kane is really legendary newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. A tour de force of style and an ultimately tragic epic of a quintessentially American captain of industry, it is timelessly brilliant and incisive.

Yet it is useful to remember that Dorothy Comingore’s Susan Foster Kane, Kane’s failed opera star, alcoholic second wife, is not one and the same with Hearst’s longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies. Although Davies did develop a serious drinking problem, she was a greatly gifted comedian, one of the brightest talents of the silent cinema, despite Hearst’s tendency to steer her toward elaborate costume dramas. Susan Foster Kane was more clearly inspired by Polish prima donna Ganna Walska, who had a tempestuous relationship with Chicago newspaper magnate Harold McCormick, who backed her in a disastrous 1920 production of the opera “Zaza.” Director Henry Jaglom will speak before the 7 p.m opening-night screening of the film. Call (310) 652-1330.

Winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance earlier this year--and many other awards--Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus’ “The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.” (Nuart, noon only Saturday and Sunday and again Aug. 1 and 2) is a great documentary on life and death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest. It’s a great work because of its remarkable blend of detachment and compassion, its breadth and depth, as it acquaints us with a cross section of inmates. We meet a 22-year-old newcomer facing life imprisonment, a man on death row, another man dying of lung cancer and long-termers hoping for parole.

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Immaculately maintained, light, airy and spacious, Angola has clearly moved way beyond its familiar image as America’s bloodiest prison, and its canny, sagacious warden is eager to show us that. Indeed, we receive plenty of evidence that the institution has become a place where rehabilitation is possible, but it’s well-nigh impossible for most inmates ever to leave. Indeed, the warden himself says that 85% of his prisoners will die there.

What hasn’t changed is that, according to the filmmakers, Louisiana maintains the harshest sentencing in the country and has a governor loath to sign pardons, no matter how well-deserved. A meeting of a parole board shows it to be outrageously perfunctory, biased and racist.

Working with co-director Wilbert Rideau, inmate editor of the unique and prestigious Angolite magazine, Stack and Garbus know they don’t have to preach, but only to take us into Angola to remind us of the enduring role racism plays in ensuring that poverty, ignorance and injustice continue to nurture crime. “The Farm” is in every way an important work. (310) 478-6379.

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Alas, the majority of the movies in “Dances With Films . . . Festival of the Unknowns” (Monica 4-Plex, Friday through July 30) are likely to remain in obscurity, hobbled by a lack of skill or originality--or both--on the part of their makers. Yet among the dozen features there are three solid exceptions to the rule and two that suggest real promise.

Momchil Karamitev’s beautiful, unusual “The Insurance” (Friday at 4:30 p.m. and Monday at 1:45 p.m.) is set in a superbly evoked Sofia of 1930. A young prostitute, Margot (Deljana Hadjiankova), who works in one of the Bulgarian capital’s most luxurious brothels, finally manages to locate her brother, Stefo (Karamitev), and spring him from an orphanage that seems more like a penal institution. A kindly movie exhibitor (Ilia Karaivanov)--and underground communist--gives them shelter and Stefo work, but Margot’s profession and Stefo’s dangerous naivete make them vulnerable to a powerful but dying police inspector (Todor Kolev, a formidable veteran actor) who has suffered financial reverses and who schemes to ensure his young son’s future.

Bulgarian-born, Italian-trained--the film is in Italian--and now L.A.-based, Karamitev has a compelling way with a tale of innocence and corruption set against a leftist protest of a monarchy indifferent to the poor. “The Insurance,” which has an easy, seductive style, is sometimes hard to follow but is always worth the effort.

It’s altogether fitting that John Huckert and John Matlowsky’s “Hard” (Wednesday at 11 a.m.), which was one of the best films at Outfest ’98, shows up in this festival. It is the kind of punchy entertainment firmly within the action-suspense genre that has crossover appeal beyond gay audiences. It envisions a gay cop (Noel Palomaria) with the LAPD who is out of the closet everywhere but work, and who inadvertently becomes the target of a macho but self-hating gay serial killer (Malcolm Moorman).

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Production notes for Darryl Lemont Wharton’s powerful “Detention” (Wednesday at 1:45 p.m. and July 30 at 7:15 p.m.) right up front describe the film as an “urban ‘Breakfast Club.’ ” A young teacher of exceptional intelligence, dedication and strength of character (Charisse Brown) at a well-groomed Baltimore high school with a virtually 100% black student body detains five students on a Friday afternoon because she believes they have potential they are not developing. Brown’s teacher is a veritable Superwoman in breaking through layers of despair and low self-esteem--and Wharton leaves us feeling that no less a paragon could hope to succeed with these young people.

Wharton, who has worked as a substitute teacher, first wrote “Detention” as a teleplay, then mounted a stage production of his script and has now brought it to the screen with a grace and ease rare in a first-time filmmaker. Wharton plays one of the students, and he and others--Justin Black, Keisha Harvin, John Hall, Kiatenae and Regi Davis--are all excellent.

Festival coordinator Michael Trent’s “Indemnity” (Saturday at 7:15) is an exceptionally professional effort, but it’s overly familiar as a tale of a kidnapping that has unexpected complications. The romantic comedy “The Scottish Tale” (Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and Monday at 11 a.m.) is long on charm, but also on talk, talk, talk. (213) 656-1974.

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The Laemmle Theatres’ “Summer Series ’98" will present eight new films Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. Saturday through Sept. 13 at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. A weekend later, the entire series will be repeated Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd. St., Santa Monica. Kicking off the series in high style is Adam Boucher’s informative and beguiling “Tango: The Obsession” (Sunset 5, Saturday and Sunday; Monica 4-Plex, Aug. 1-2). As seductive as the tango itself, Boucher’s film celebrates Argentina’s national pastime, a timelessly elegant and intricate dance that can be performed gracefully by all ages and absorb an infinity of interpretations. Surprisingly, the tango, which emerged in the last third of the 19th century, was initially danced by men only; not so surprisingly, its rhythms are derived from black music.

Tango was the dance of the gauchos, and it had to travel to Paris before it became socially acceptable in Buenos Aires not long before World War I. Initially, women served simply to show off male machismo, but that started to change with the arrival of an enduring beauty named Carmencita Calderon, who at 90 is still tangoing--and in high heels with high kicks. While Calderon pioneered equality in dancing the tango, it has been enriched over the decades by legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel, the introduction of the accordion-like bandoneon and the contributions of such major composers as Astor Piazzolla. Sunset 5: (213) 848-3500; Monica 4-Plex: (310) 394-9741.

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“How to Be Loved” (1962) kicks off the second weekend of films by the Polish master Wojceich Has on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena. The film offers a captivating portrait of an aspiring actress (Barbara Krafttovna) who hid at considerable personal cost, in her apartment throughout World War II a celebrated actor (Zbigniew Cybulski), only to win his bitter ingratitude. This splendid, intimate film has more to do with female strength of character than with the toll exacted by war.

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On 9 p.m. Monday, the Palms, 8572 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, will screen two amusing shorts: Sundae’s “Harley’s Angels,” a spoof in the form of a trailer of “Charlie’s Angels” that features drag performers, and Todd Corgan’s “Have You Seen Patsy Wayne?,” a vignette written and starring Jamie Tolbert as a wacky young woman convinced she’s the child of John Wayne and Patsy Cline. (310) 652-6188.


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