Mind Over Mobsters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

The filmmaker interviews several people on both sides of the issue, and the result, as one Times' writer said, "is a series of mini-dramas that pack an emotional wallop."

Film historian and author William Moritz introduces "Experimental Film and the Beat Era," a program of short films from San Francisco filmmakers Tuesday at noon at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Part of the Tuesday Talks at Noon Series. Free. (714) 759-1122.

Museum personnel don't know which films will be shown, and Moritz couldn't be reached. But they will be from the 1950s and '60s. If Moritz is on his game, he may show vintage films or excerpts by such filmmakers as Robert Frank, Bruce Connors, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Wallace Berman and others associated with the Beats.

"Ayn Rand--A Sense of Life" (1997) had its Orange County premiere at the Port Theatre this week and can be seen tonight at 5:15 and 8:15 before closing. The Port is at 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. $4.50-$6. (714) 673-6260.

Michael Paxton's documentary traces the life of the novelist and screenwriter who developed objectivism (a philosophy espousing individualism and self-interest) from her early years in Russia to her days in Hollywood.

"The Fountainhead" (1949), the screen adaptation of Rand's most famous novel, will be at the Port on Saturday and Sunday at noon. It stars Gary Cooper as an architect unwilling to compromise his ideals. $4.50-$6.

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In L.A. and beyond:

The five films of USC's Asia Pacific Media Center's 1998 series, which will tour the country this spring, screen Saturday and Sunday at the university's Norris Theater. Admission is free.

As before, the selection is outstanding, including "12 Storeys" (see entry above). Setting the tone for the films' unifying theme of spiritual fulfillment in the modern world is Kei Kumai's 1996 "Deep River," which screens Saturday at 3:30 p.m. A slow-paced, demanding film, it is nonetheless a richly rewarding odyssey of several Japanese on a tour in India of the sacred sites of Buddhism.

The travelers include an unhappy young woman (Kumiko Akiyoshi), who cynically seduced a sensitive Christian youth (Eiji Okuda), propelling him into a seminary in Lyons, a Jerusalem monastery and finally a Hindi ashram in Benares in his search to resolve Western and Eastern concepts of God and morality; a middle-aged widower (Hisashi Igawa) whose beloved wife (Kyoko Kagawa) held a belief in reincarnation that has sent him seeking a little Indian girl in whom her spirit may reside; and a World War II veteran (Yoichi Numata) who wants to redeem the tormented spirit of the recently deceased war buddy (the late Toshiro Mifune) who saved his life in India during a battle by resorting to cannibalism.

Kumai, best known for the 1970 "Sandakan No. 8," in which the incomparable Kinuyo Tanaka played a former World War II "comfort woman," accomplishes that most difficult of tasks on the screening: evoking a sense of genuine spiritual awakening.

As beautiful as it is bleak, Park Kwang-su's 1995 "A Single Spark" (Saturday at 6 p.m.) is an account of a law school graduate (Moon Sung-keun) researching a book on a brave youth (Hong Kyo^ng-in) who, from 1965 to his death by self-immolation in 1970, agitated for better working conditions for Seoul's virtually enslaved garment workers. Since the writer, already known as an anti-government activist himself, is beginning his work in 1975, just as President Park Chung Hee has established a military dictatorship, he and his factory worker girlfriend are in constant danger. "A Single Spark" is grueling but also impassioned, having striven so hard to get a and greatly accomplished.

Penek Ratanaruang's experience as a New York graphics designer shows in his 1997 debut film "Fun, Bar, Karaoke" (Sunday at 3:15 p.m.), a highly stylized account of a pretty young Bangkok girl consumed with superstition in dealing with her fears for the life of her widowed father, a reckless, hard drinker who has become dangerously involved with a bar hostess, the mistress of a Chinese mafioso. Ratanaruang is a dynamic, go-for-broke filmmaker in the spirit of Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta will appear at the screening of his evocative 1997 "The Red Door" (Saturday at 5:30 p.m.), winner of India's National Film Prize. Dasgupta has a great opening: His hero, a paunchy, 47-year-old Calcutta dentist (Subhendu Chatterjee, superb) blithely ignores a woman who has just been shot down in the streets. The dentist is a man in whom all feeling has evaporated in his pursuit of a life of comfortable big-city routine, but his wife's growing resolve to leave him propels him to try to reconnect with the happy rural child he once was. Simultaneously, he becomes intrigued with his happy-go-lucky driver, who seems to have no trouble keeping two wives content.

Every one of these films is worth seeing. (213) 743-1939.

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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.

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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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