Spike Lee's Big Score

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spike Lee's career got going in a big way in 1986 with the release of "She's Gotta Have It." The movie followed his initial feature effort, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads," a New York University film school project, and brought the filmmaker critical attention, most of it gushing. The sex comedy screens tonight at 7:30 at Chapman University's Argyros Forum, Room 208, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Free. (714) 997-6765.

"She's Gotta Have It," part of the "Black on Black: Recent Black Independent Cinema" series, involves Nola (played by Tracy Camila Johns), a sassy woman with three lovers. There are Mars (Lee), a joker; Greer (John Canada Terrell), a self-loving actor; and Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a mature, stable type. What they've gotta have is Nola. What she's gotta have is sex--and lots of it.

As Nola romps with all of the above, we see Lee's skill at turning simple situations into streetwise comic opera. Shooting mostly from Nola's point of view, he seems to delight in her quest for sexual power, but "She's Gotta Have It" ultimately becomes a kicky lesson in bedroom equality. The language is hip and playful, and the grainy black-and-white imagery has a loose quality. Even when Lee fails to pull everything together, as in an out-of-place rape scene, the movie looks fresh, even today.

Also screening in Orange County:

* "Murder and murder" (1992), 7:30 p.m. today as part of the continuing "Out on Screen: Queer Film and Video" series at the UC Irvine Film and Video Center, Humanities Building, Room 100 (on West Peltason Road) on campus. $4-$6. (714) 824-7418.

Yvonne Rainer's film centers on two lesbians--one in her 50s, the other in her 60s--whose life together is threatened when breast cancer is diagnosed in one of them.

* Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" (1955), 7 and 9 p.m., Friday, UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Pereira Drive and West Peltason Road. $2.50-$4.50. (714) 824-5588. The film, the first in Ray's "Apu" trilogy, focuses on the early days of the young Apu and his family in a poor Bengali village.

* UC Irvine's "Post-Colonial Classics of the Korean Cinema" continues Saturday in the 100 Humanities Instruction Building at 4:30 p.m. with the U.S. premiere of Yun Yong-gyu's exquisite 50-year-old "Home Is Where the Heart Is," a humanist masterpiece comparable to the finest Japanese classics. It has a timeless theme, much cherished in the Asian cinema: that of sacrificial mother love.

A 12-year-old boy, left at a remote Buddhist temple by his mother when he was only 3, longs only for her return. In the meantime, a rich young widow from Seoul, mourning the loss of her son, becomes eager to adopt the boy. Other complications ensue, but the temple's head priest emerges as a kind of stern, judgmental tyrant. "Home Is Where the Heart Is," with its remarkable portrayals and compassionate vision, emerges as a triumph of the spirit.

It's followed at 7:30 p.m. by "Our Twisted Hero" (1992), 7:30 p.m. "Our Twisted Hero," based on a novella by Yi Mun-yoi, focuses on a fifth-grade student who uses cunning and intimidation to become his class' president. Festival information: (714) 824-1992; tickets and parking: (714) 824-7418.

* The Port Theatre continues its series on Academy Award winners tonight with "On the Waterfront" (1954) at 5:30 and 9:50 p.m. and "From Here to Eternity" (1953) at 7:30 p.m. at 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. $4.50-$6. (714) 673-6260.

"West Side Story" (1961) will screen at 7:20 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus a Saturday matinee at 2:15 p.m.; "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), at 5:15 and 10:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, plus a 12:15 p.m. Saturday matinee; "Ben Hur" (1959) will screen Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

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In L.A. and beyond:

In 1989 the UCLA Film Archive presented a series of six outstanding films from Vietnam, whose cinema had not been seen in the U.S. since the Vietnam War. The films were seen not only here but at various cities all over North America.

Now the archive and the Vietnam Cinema Assn. are launching "Contemporary Films From Vietnam," a collection easily as impressive as the first, and one that will also tour. They are accomplished works dealing with real-life issues in the best tradition of the Asian cinema. It is composed of eight films, screening this weekend and next.

Highlighting the series is the work of Dang Nhat Minh, regarded as Vietnam's finest filmmaker. His "Hanoi--Winter 1946" opens the series Friday at 7:30 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion with Dang and other directors whose work is represented in the series. Its focal point is Lam (Ngo Quang Hai), a young interpreter for Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Tien Hoi), and it covers the period when the French, in the wake of World War II, have reasserted their sovereignty over Vietnam.

We watch the systematic military provocations of the French gradually convincing Ho, who has identified his nation's three greatest threats as famine, illiteracy and foreign intervention, that the last on the list is going to require a guerrilla war against the colonial forces. "Hanoi--Winter 1946" is a hauntingly poetic and stirring work in celebration of a nation's struggle for independence.

Wu Xuan Hung's "Misfortune's End" (Saturday at 7:30 p.m.) offers a fresh wrinkle in reworking the "woman's picture" kind of melodrama. After four years abroad, a young man returns home to his native village to ask his wife (Le Van) for a divorce, offering her gold worth $4,000 in compensation and explaining that he wants to marry his partner in a Hanoi electronics store. Naturally, she's devastated, refusing him a divorce on the advice of her mother-in-law and subsequently discovering within herself the entrepreneurial instincts of a Donald Trump.

Eternal problems within human relationships play out against the treacheries of Vietnam's free-market economy to create a picture of a country in which ancient spinning wheels and the latest video equipment co-exist. The connection between life and work is rarely explored so thoroughly.

Following the Sunday 2 p.m. screening of Dang's 1987 "The Girl on the River," about the hypocritical treatment of an ex-prostitute, is a showing of the director's 1993 "The Return," a gentle, flowing film that depicts the evolving self-reliance of a beautiful young teacher (Thu Hien) from North Korea who is sent to teach in a village outside Ho Chi Minh City. She first falls in love with the handsome married brother (Tran Luc) of her best friend at the school, only to have him abruptly escape from the country. She settles for a former high school boyfriend (Nguyen Manh Cuong), only to find herself once again deserted as his ruthless business ambitions and roving eye start to consume him. We discover Dang's longing for the simple pastoral existence and concern for values and self-respect in a rapidly changing Vietnam. (310) 206-FILM.

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The American Cinematheque's "Recent Spanish Cinema" continues tonight at 7:15 in Raleigh Studio's Chaplin Theater with Geraldo Herrero's "Comanche Territory," which is set in Bosnia but could be taking place in any war zone. What really concerns the filmmaker is the mythologizing of war correspondents who become addicted to covering battlefields. It's not a bad picture, just overly familiar; it leaves you with the feeling that the people of the former Yugoslavia have been given short shrift.

Screening at 9:15 p.m., however, is one of the masterpieces of the Spanish cinema, Victor Erice's 1973 "Spirit of the Beehive," a sublime reverie in which everyday life is juxtaposed against a sensitive child's acutely sensitive imagination, which has been fired up by having seen "Frankenstein." The remarkable Ana Torrent stars.

Antonio Resines and Maribel Verdu, seen last week in the memorable "Backroads," appear in another powerful film, Ricardo Franco's highly affecting "Lucky Star" (Friday at 7:15 p.m.). Resines, an actor with understated presence, plays a middle-aged bachelor, solitary on account of a humiliating accident, who rescues a desperate young woman (Verdu) from her violent boyfriend (Jordi Molia), only to have his life transformed. We've seen this basic situation many times before, but Franco makes it extraordinary with an ability to create characters who learn to be open to life and human nature's myriad possibilities and surprises. A terrific, totally accessible 1997 film, which swept Spain's Oscars, the Goyas.

It will be followed at 9:45 p.m. by David Trueba's "The Good Life," a coming-of-age tale of uncommon richness and idiosyncrasy starring the formidable young Fernando Ramallo (who played Resines' canny son in "Backroads") and Luis Cuenca, unforgettable as Ramallo's frail, free-thinking grandfather. At 110 minutes, this debut feature is too long, too anticlimactic, and it loses momentum. Yet the intense quality of its feeling and commitment is so moving that you want to stick with it.

That's not necessarily the case with Juanjo Bajo Ulloa's off-putting "The Dead Mother," in which a girl is permanently traumatized by witnessing the murder of her mother, then is kidnapped as an adult and chained to a bed by her mother's killer. This is Spanish cinema at its notorious blackest. "The Dead Mother" screens Saturday at 8:30 after the 6:30 p.m. sneak preview of Bigas Lunas' new comedy, "The Chambermaid on the Titanic." Screening after "The Dead Mother" is Ulloa's "Airbag," Spain's biggest box-office hit of 1997, a free-for-all road movie whose humor and references don't travel too well. It involves a bridegroom's attempt to retrieve an awesomely expensive ring, just presented to him by his mother-in-law but lost while he dallies at an opulent roadside brothel. Ulloa is an acquired taste. (213) 466-FILM.

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The Nuart opens Friday a one-week show of two separate programs, "General Chaos: Uncensored Animation" and experimentalist Matthew Barney's "Cremator 4 & 5." Although there is considerable humor and abundant imagination in the animation collection, it's such a paean to violence, with and without sex, that it becomes monotonous. As a curtain-raiser it presents Tyron Montgomery and Thomas Stellmach's "Quest," a stunning Oscar winner about the fate of a thirsty clay man following the sound of dripping water through the worlds of paper, stone and iron.

"Cremator 4 & 5" are works of a dazzling, utterly distinctive visionary who blurs gender and suggests sexual mutation. He also blurs inner and outer worlds while creating enigmatic rituals and odysseys as unsettling as they are beautiful and sensual. Loaded with symbolism, they have invited endless interpretation.

Filmed on the Isle of Man and incorporating its ancient mythology, "Cremator 4" cuts back and forth between one of the island's famous sidecar races and a dapper half-man, half-sheep (Barney) tap-dancing on thin ice at the end of a pier and falling into an undersea world. In "Cremator 5," set primarily in Budapest's ornate opera house, the Queen of Chain (Ursula Andress), seated in the royal box, sings an opera-like dirge--apparently a lament about the impossibility or loss of love. Meanwhile, in three guises, Barney courts her. As the Diva, he slowly climbs a garland-entwined rope outlining the empty stage's proscenium. Later, in homage to native son Harry Houdini, Barney becomes the Magician, handcuffed and posed like a statue on a pediment on the Lanchid (Chain) Bridge. Ultimately, he becomes the Giant, object of a vague erotic ritual at an indoor pool, where, half-submerged, he's worshiped by a flock of water sprites. Barney leaves us to make of all this what we will. (310) 478-6379.

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Susan Morosoli's affectionate 55-minute "Loners on Wheels," opening Friday at the Monica 4-Plex (where it will screen daily at noon only), offers a sketch of doughty 86-year-old Duchess Grubb, who belongs to Loners on Wheels, a group of single seniors who live in their RVs at a camp in Mojave and enjoy taking trips caravan-style. "Freedom, Friendship and Fellowship" is the motto of these people, who've learned to enjoy their life to the fullest. (310) 478-1041.

Times staff writer Kevin Thomas contributed to this report.

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