Now Playing: Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With summer nearly upon us and movie fare turning lighter, if not brighter, special screenings have dwindled in number this week--as might be expected. But they've also sailed into somewhat deeper political waters than usual.

Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Iron" (1980), both an undisguised paean to the Solidarity movement and a revisionist look at Polish repression, screens tonight at 7:30 as the next-to-last film in the Look at Revolution series. At the UC Irvine Film and Video Center in the Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100 (West Peltason Road, near Pereira Drive), Irvine. $4-$6. (949) 824-7418.

The picture combines documentary footage of the Gdansk shipyard strike led by Lech Walesa (who makes a brief appearance as himself) and a fictional story about a mediocre radio producer ordered to prepare a report on the 1980 worker revolt that "exposes" the striking ship workers as counter-revolutionaries funded possibly by the CIA.

"Man of Iron," which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is a sequel to Wajda's "Man of Marble" (1977), about a film student who investigates the life of a forgotten and discredited bricklayer once named a Hero of the State during the 1950s. In the sequel, the radio producer meets the film student, who is now married to the bricklayer's son, the man of iron of the title and the chief dissident of the uprising.

Taken together, British critic and film scholar David Robinson has noted, "Marble" and "Iron" represent an epic piece of filmmaking bearing witness to the radical idea that filmmakers can participate in revolutionary events as "an instrument of history."

Also in Irvine, the UCI Film Society screens a trio of short political Israeli films, "Echoes of Conflict," made between 1986 and 1989, Friday at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Crystal Cove Auditorium of the UCI Student Center (on Pereira Drive, near West Peltason Road). $2.50-$4.50. (949) 824-5588.

The first, "In Night Movie," tells of an Israeli soldier handcuffed to a young Arab while they are stranded in nighttime Tel Aviv. The second, "Don't Get Involved," is a psychological thriller about an Argentine activist who suspects he is going to be persecuted for his past political actions. The third, "The Cage," is about a Tel Aviv bartender who is called up for military service during a Palestinian uprising.

Lightening up, the Fran Drescher comedy "The Beautician and the Beast" (1997) screens Friday, outdoors at dusk, at the Newport Dunes resort, 1131 Backbay Drive, Newport Beach. Free, parking $6. (949) 729-3863.

Drescher (of TV's "The Nanny") plays a beauty school instructor who is "talky, sexy, inappropriate and smart," Times reviewer Kevin Thomas has noted. "And until director Ken Kwapis allows sentimental seriousness to overtake the humor, so is the movie."

Also screening Saturday at Newport Dunes, same time: "Rocket Man" (1997), one of Disney's lesser efforts, about a nerdy genius who has designed the operating system for the spaceship Pathfinder. Free, parking $6. (949) 729-3863.

In L.A. and Beyond

Leslie Neale and her husband's (and former Doors drummer John Densmore) hourlong, incisive and important "Road to Return" summons the barrage of statistics common to other documentaries advocating prison reform. But it goes further to demonstrate forcefully that it's cost-effective to rehabilitate convicts rather than building more penal institutions designed simply to mete out punishment.

Too many American prisons, "Road to Return" suggests, treat prisoners with no respect and then turn them loose with no skills to enter the work force and then expect them to respect the law, society and themselves.

To show a better way, the filmmakers focus on New Orleans' Project Return, a 90-day program designed to equip ex-cons to break the cycle of a life of crime and become law-abiding, self-sustaining citizens. Project Return was created by Tulane professor Dr. Bob Roberts and Nelson Marks, an ex-convict, and it involves group therapy and job training and placement. It costs about $4,000 per individual, far less expensive than the cost of sending a con back to prison. Roberts says that out of 600 graduates of Project Return only 32 are back in prison when "statistically 450 should be."

Without being heavy-handed or preachy, "Road to Return," narrated by Tim Robbins, makes the case that if most people had an opportunity to get sufficient education to get a job to support themselves and their families, they wouldn't turn to crime in the first place--and they wouldn't return to crime if in prison they had the chance to get counseling and job training.

Sister Helen Prejean, whose prison activism was dramatized in Robbins' film "Dean Man Walking," says that if crime is to be dealt with effectively, we all have to stop thinking that the lives of some members of society are expendable. "Road to Return" will premiere tonight at 7:30 at Peltz Theater, the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd. It will be followed by a panel discussion with state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and other social activists and experts. A second screening has been added on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (310) 459-7914.

Smith's 'Normal Love'

Filmforum's invaluable retrospective of underground filmmaker Jack Smith continues Friday at 8 p.m. at the Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, with "Normal Love" (1963) and "The Yellow Sequence" (1963), which will be repeated Sunday at 7 p.m. at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd.

Who would ever have thought that there could be a connection between the artificial world of Josef Von Sternberg's lacy "The Devil Is a Woman" and the leafy, richly colored nature imagery of early Stan Brakhage? Yet that is precisely what Smith accomplishes in "Normal Love," often with no more than a swath of paisley-printed chiffon floating over a New Jersey swamp of waterlilies by a meadow where his drag queens and the occasional "real" women gambol in their thrift-store finery.

And when Smith applies his exquisite images created from bits and pieces of detritus to outdoor settings, we are able to perceive the exotic in nature--a drag queen bedecked with sequins, pearls and rhinestones becomes much like a dragonfly.

"Normal Love" is an epic journey through Transvestsylvania that may be taking place in the imagination of the Mermaid (Mario Montez) as she takes a milk bath. Its six sequences open with the Red Scene, in which the Mermaid, who worships at the altar of '40s star Maria Montez, has a prophetic encounter with the Black Spider.

Camp sensibility has rarely, if ever, been expressed with such wit, delicacy and affectionate understanding of the innocent yet eternal power of kitschy Hollywood archetypes. "The Yellow Sequence," intended to be part of "Normal Love" but never inserted by Smith, is a rambling bit notable mainly for the presence of Tiny Tim in drag, strumming his ukulele, and leaning on an abandoned car while Francis Francine has a dying scene in field of golden rod flowers. (213) 526-2911.

Kato Gets His Due

Among the films in the final weekend at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, of the American Cinematheque's Tai Kato retrospective, which has rediscovered a neglected major Japanese director, are a pair of pictures that push the limits of form to sustain content.

"I, the Executioner" (1968), which screens Friday at 9:30 p.m. following a 7:30 p.m. screening of another installment in Kato's "Red Peony" female gambler series, is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

To be sure, Kato is an artist who lets us complete horrifying events in our imagination, but he's left precious little to it this time. Even so, it is a most provocative thriller of disturbing psychological insight. Makato Sato, a specialist in playing scary macho types back in the '60s, stars as a Tokyo construction worker who waves from a high-rise under construction to a teenage laundry delivery boy as he rides by on his bicycle. Not long afterward, the boy jumps to his death from an apartment building, where earlier, on his rounds, he was invited into an apartment where five hardened, middle-aged bar hostesses are watching a porn film. An innocent 17-year-old from Hokkaido, he is subjected to what amounts to gang rape, with sexual tauntings on the part of the women giving way to savage beatings.

When the construction worker, who has a dark past and who is also from Hokkaido, learns of the incident, he becomes so unhinged he decides to rape and murder each of the teenager's attackers. In the midst of his rampage, he meets a gentle waitress (Chieko Baisho), who has her own terrible incident in her past, and who might just be his salvation. "I, the Executioner," which understandably was one of the most controversial films of Kato's career, is thankfully a work of style and discipline with a film noir look and mood.

"The Ghost of Oiwa" (1961), which screens Saturday at 7:15 p.m., is pretty savage, too, but in a highly theatrical way, as it was written for the Kabuki theater in 1825 and filmed many times. A samurai, Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama), fallen on hard times, is married to Oiwa (Yoshiko Fujishiro), the daughter of an impoverished old samurai family. When a rich merchant becomes the miserable couple's new neighbor, he cannot deny his beloved beautiful daughter her inexplicable desire to succeed Oiwa as Tamiya's wife.

With the dowry such an alliance would bring him, Tamiya feels sure he could bribe his way back into a high government position. The way in which Oiwa meets her inevitably dire fate is lurid in the extreme.

Kato's direction is masterly, and amid the bloodshed he evokes heroic performances from his cast that allows him to elicit the catharsis of classic tragedy. That "The Ghost of Oiwa" is a period piece, and a handsome, stylized one at that, allows it a saving distance. Both of these films are best left to Japanese cinema aficionados, yet it must be said that Kato is up to dealing with the most extreme material in a responsible, non-exploitative manner.

"The Ghost of Oiwa" will be followed at 9:30 by lighter fare, "Samurai Vagabond" (1964), a ninja action film that was one of Kato's biggest hits. Hashizo Okawa stars as a carefree samurai caught up in countless battles in his search for a priceless map and a kidnapped beauty. (213) 466-FILM.

Notes

The Sunset 5 commences Friday and Saturday midnight screenings of Manuel Toledano's "Shampoo Horns," about the search for love and meaning by the drag queens who perform at a Manhattan disco, and the young people, many on drugs, who flock to the place. The film unfolds from the perspective of a drag performer, older than the rest and confronted with the onset of AIDS, who flees the scene for Atlantic City, where he pours out his heart in letters to a young woman with whom he has formed a close tie. Not a bad premise, but the increasingly tedious film unfortunately is hopelessly trite and amateurish. (213) 848-3500.

The Los Angeles Conservancy's 12th annual "Last Remaining Seats" continues Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the the Palace Theater, 630 S. Broadway, with the restored version of Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937). There will be guest interviews conducted by Leonard Maltin. (213) 896-9114.

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