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‘R Xmas’ skips the yuletide nostalgia

Admirers of director Abel Ferrara may be relieved that his latest feature, “R Xmas,” marks a modest if encouraging return to form. Based on a story by Cassandra de Jesus, and written by Ferrara and Scott Pardo, “R Xmas” tracks some 24 tense hours in the life of a New York City couple known only as “the wife” (a peroxided, very watchable Drea de Matteo) and “the husband” (Lillo Brancato).

It’s Christmas Eve 1992, and the couple are busily shopping for presents and tending to their drug empire. In between bagging heroin, the two behave like any other nesters with an enviable ZIP Code: They worry about the cost of private schooling and teach their daughter how to pronounce Guggenheim. Then the husband is snatched by kidnappers, and a stranger (Ice-T) warns that unless the wife comes up with a sizable ransom, she’ll celebrate the holidays as a widow.

That’s about it for the story, which isn’t calamitous because with Ferrara what happens next is rarely as important as what’s happening now. An impressionistic blur of scenes and fragments of scenes, “R Xmas” is a film in which nothing much matters but room tone, atmosphere and the way De Matteo stands in a kitchen nipping booze.

Despite the frenzy that sometimes fills his frame, Ferrara is a virtuoso of anti-action: Few directors can put loneliness on screen as persuasively or capture the eerie quiet of people waiting for something, anything to happen. It’s in moments such as these, when all sense of time disappears and all that remains are bodies in motion and Ken Kelsch’s limpid cinematography, that you remember just how good Ferrara can be.

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“R Xmas” never reaches the highs (and lows) of a “Bad Lieutenant,” but unlike the director’s last feature, “New Rose Hotel,” neither is it inexplicable. If you look through the new film’s haze of mood, past a narrative that disintegrates with every scene, you can discover an unlikely fable about New York. Squint and you can even see traces of the great movie that could have been. (The French seemed to agree: “R Xmas” premiered at last year’s Cannes film festival.)

Then there are the flashes of the director’s grotesque humor and pockets of pure weirdness, which are always something to see. It is, after all, hard to imagine anyone else getting as much mileage out of a ceramic baby Jesus, a velvet clown painting or the terrifying image of a “Party Girl” doll caught in a rearview mirror like some ghost of Christmas past.

Manohla Dargis

“R Xmas”: Rated R for strong language, drug content and some violence. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 617-0268. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

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‘Leela’ a deft bicultural portrait

Somnath Sen’s “Leela” represents a worthy departure from the culture clash comedies that have marked an emerging Indian American cinema. The film is not without humor or conflict, but it is a complex coming-of-age story that places a premium on independence and attacks sexual hypocrisy. The film also celebrates the seductive vibrancy of Indian music, with songs written by the eminent composer Gulzar and sung by another maestro, Jagit Singh.

The arrival of the striking, regal Leela (Dimple Kapadia) on a Southern California university campus to teach a course in world culture studies will have unexpected repercussions for herself and one of her students, Kris (Amol Mhatre), the 18-year-old son of another professor, Chaitali (Deepti Naval).

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Being far from home in a more relaxed society inevitably brings Leela a fresh perspective on her unhappy marriage to Nashaad (Vinod Khanna), a renowned singer-poet and middle-aged roue, an unabashed womanizer whose wife nevertheless remains his muse. Kris enters Leela’s class with a firmly “more American than American” attitude, ignorant of his cultural heritage and proud of his ignorance. Yet Kris is beguiled by this beautiful, lonely woman who opens up to him the world of his ancestry; at the same time she’s eager to learn all about American culture.

She and Kris are often thrown together because she and his mother become friends, but while Chaitali is an inspiration to Leela as an independent woman who sent her own wealthy but unfaithful husband, Jai (Gulshan Grover), packing years ago, Chaitali is not nearly the free spirit she believes she is. For his part, Jai, who has remarried and has little to do with his son, assumes that respect from his son is automatic.

Production values are first-rate, and Sen, in his feature debut, makes good use of his locales. Best of all, “Leela” reveals Sen to be capable of directing a large cast with ease and of unfolding a complicated plot within a well-paced 96 minutes.

-- Kevin Thomas

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“Leela”: Unrated. Mature themes, some language. Exclusively at the Naz 8 Cinemas, 6440 E. South St., Lakewood, (562) 866-2444. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

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‘Rising Place’ falls victim to nostalgia

Based on the David Armstrong novel, “The Rising Place” is a deeply felt but flat and unimaginative rendering of a young woman coming of age in the Mississippi Delta as Pearl Harbor looms. By then Laurel Holloman’s white, titian-haired Emily Hodge has embarrassed her rural parents (Tess Harper, Gary Cole) and scandalized the community by becoming pregnant by a soldier who’s soon off to war. Although she agrees to give her baby up for adoption, Emily refuses to go away or seclude herself during her pregnancy. After the war, Emily’s lifelong best friend, Wilma (Elise Neal), an African American teacher, persuades her to take a stand against racism as the civil rights era looms.

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The film unfolds in the present as the dying Emily (Alice Drummond) is comforted by her niece Virginia (Frances Fisher), who has just uncovered a cache of letters that reveal her aunt to have been a more courageous and unconventional woman than the content spinster schoolteacher she has known. Emily, in turn, reveals without bitterness a cruel, ironic secret.

Certainly there are possibilities here, but writer-producer-director Tom Rice is too pedestrian a filmmaker to bring any edge or personality to “The Rising Place” that would set it apart from other Deep South stories. The film’s strongest assets are its actresses, who include Frances Sternhagen as Virginia’s mother, S. Epatha Merkerson as Wilma’s mother and Beth Grant as a kindly cafe owner. (Jennifer Holliday performs several songs of her own composition, and one can only wish she had had a real role.)

The ability of women to support one another, even across racial lines, gives the film its strongest moments, yet even tragedy, injustice and loss are undercut by “The Rising Place’s” impenetrable coat of sentimental nostalgia.

-- Kevin Thomas

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“The Rising Place”: Rated PG-13 for elements of violence. Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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