Sarratt Pack 

Spring at Nashville's college arthouse

Spring at Nashville's college arthouse

While the Watkins Belcourt is currently swamped with upscale multiplex fare—like we need another theater in town playing Good Will Hunting—the Sarratt Cinema continues to expose Nashville to movies we wouldn’t see otherwise. Over the years, Sarratt has alternated well-publicized successes with more obscure, esoteric titles. This, along with a detailed schedule that gives moviegoers advance warning about upcoming screenings, has helped the theater build an identity and an audience for foreign and indie films. It’s a recipe the Belcourt might examine, especially if it’s about to butt heads with Regal’s 100 Oaks enormoplex.

The spring schedule for the Vanderbilt student cinema is a tantalizing mix of foreign films, revival screenings, mini-festivals, and documentaries, all buttressed by popular commercial films and midnight shows on the weekends. Even better, some screenings will feature post-film discussions with professors Samuel Girgus or Thadious Davis—a good, inexpensive way to stimulate attendance and discussion. Best of all, at $4 a ticket and a buck for popcorn, it’s a great cheap date. These are a few of the highlights:

The Killer (Jan. 16-17, midnight). In the role that made him an international action hero, Chow Yun-Fat plays an assassin who accidentally blinds a nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) in a shoot-out; he accepts one last job to restore her sight, fully aware that a doppelganger cop (Danny Lee) is stalking him. John Woo’s 1990 extravaganza brought the new Hong Kong cinema to world attention, and it established the dominant themes of Woo’s thrillers: the thin line between law enforcement and lawbreaking, the divided nature of self and identity, the supremacy of masculine loyalty. The first 10 minutes alone sling more lead than the entire Charles Bronson oeuvre.

Love Serenade (Jan. 18-20). Shirley Barrett’s hit Australian comedy (which never played Nashville theaters) concerns two sisters (Miranda Otto and Rebecca Frith) who clash over the affections of the new man in their sleepy town—a jaded DJ (George Shavtsov) with a taste for seduction and Barry White records.

Give a Damn Again (Jan. 21). For the 1971 “Give a Damn” public-relations campaign, 16 Harlem schoolchildren were asked their dreams for the future. After 25 years, Adam Isidore, the son of the campaign’s creator, revisited the people who participated in the ads to see how their dreams actually turned out.

Back-Alley Detroit (Jan. 22) The experiences of more than 15 men and women who lived through the era of criminal abortion in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s form the basis for Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg’s documentary, which concerns the physicians, clergy, and women’s health activists who risked jail to provide safe abortions for women of all classes.

Year of the Horse (Feb. 1-3). Director Jim Jarmusch rides with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, mixing concert footage from two decades with backstage interviews and odd glimpses of life on the road. A Nashville premiere.

Contempt (Feb. 9-11). The collaboration of director Jean-Luc Godard, robber-baron producer Joseph E. Levine, and Brigitte Bardot resulted in this prankish yet deeply moving 1963 meditation on art, movies, and fidelity. Screenwriter Michel Piccoli agrees to script a new version of The Odyssey for director Fritz Lang and a crass American producer (Jack Palance goofing on Levine); as casually as he sells his talent, he dooms his marriage to Bardot. Tense, ruminative, and filled with cinematic in-jokes and references—as when Bardot sunbathes nude except for a strategically placed Lang book.

Anthem (Feb. 16-18). Using a Rolodex, a laptop, and two video cameras, 26-year-old directors Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn set off in a borrowed car to find out if the American Dream still exists; their search leads to diners and gas stations, Michael Stipe’s hotel room, the White House, Studs Terkel’s Chicago, and a visit with Hunter S. Thompson.

Bent (March 16-18). The film version of Martin Sherman’s drama about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, with Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau as concentration-camp prisoners whose love defies deadly retribution. Mick Jagger appears briefly as a cabaret performer.

Happy Together (April 13-15). A butcher and tango-club bouncer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is stranded in Buenos Aires with his promiscuous ex-lover (Leslie Cheung) in the award-winning new film by Chungking Express director Wong Kar-wai.

Other screenings include Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (Jan. 27-28); Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (Feb. 8); an evening of films by Women in the Director’s Chair (Feb. 12); Tim Burton’s Ed Wood accompanied by a live Theremin concert (March 25); a two-night festival of Israeli film (April 8-9); and midnight shows of Slacker, Strange Brew, Austin Powers, and Superfly. Schedules are available from the Sarratt main desk. For more information, call (615) 343-6666.—Jim Ridley

Life after pulp

After the dizzying heights of Pulp Fiction, some of us wondered if Quentin Tarantino had more than one story in him. Jackie Brown answers “yes” to that question—not with force, but with gentle confidence. Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, it’s populated with small-time hoods and snakebit losers looking for redemption. When hard-boiled fiction of this type succeeds, it does so by making its audience overcome its moral qualms and root for the lowlifes.

That identification isn’t easy to achieve, when the characters are as marginal as Jackie (Pam Grier), an airline stewardess smuggling cash into the country for gun merchant Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), and Max (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman in a paneled storefront catering to petty criminals. When Jackie gets caught with a bag of money, she decides to string along Ordell and the ATF alike, enlisting Max to help her empty Ordell’s offshore bank account.

But Jackie Brown isn’t about the bag of money that gets passed from hand to hand in the film’s final hour. It’s about claiming power you didn’t know you had, to seize a way out that may never open again. Grier’s Jackie is aging, tired, barely making do; during the credits she has to run through the airport to make her flight. Forster’s Max is sick of the facile lies he hears every day from the Ordells of the world, and he sees in Jackie the initiative and daring he could never summon on his own.

Tarantino takes so many wild chances with style, structure, and pacing that it’s easy to pick at the ones that don’t work. The major flaw in Jackie Brown is Ordell, who dominates the first 90 minutes with a nonstop, profane monologue. With his tyro’s bravado, he’s the classic Tarantino character: a riff on the writer-director’s own boyish enthusiasms. Perhaps as a concession to expectations, Ordell is overused, and after we get the point of his shallowness, he quickly grows tiresome.

The film’s solid core lies in the long, meditative shots of Grier—walking, driving, looking at herself in the mirror. Her strength and resolve impress us gradually, as her situation grows more precarious. She makes this scam work on sheer will, rather than on cleverness or wit. Max’s shy worship of Jackie is exactly what we feel for her; but they make a most unlikely couple, except in crime, a land of strange bedfellows. Tarantino imagines a perfect ending, one that reveals the point where his obvious love for these misfits meets the unyielding brick wall of reality.

Romance, from Tarantino, master of the gun battle and the mundane conversation? It’s not so implausible. Jackie Brown is so encouraging because it shows that Tarantino hasn’t been fooled by his press clippings. He knows that his strength lies not in the flash, but in the heart. If it takes another four years for him to write characters like Jackie and Max and lovingly bring them to the screen, it will be worth the wait.—Donna Bowman

The beating goes on

As the title character in Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer, Daniel Day-Lewis returns home to Belfast after spending 14 years in prison for an IRA-related crime. He finds his gym disassembled, his best girl married, and his old friends disgusted with him for turning his back on “the struggle” during his incarceration. Everyone advises Day-Lewis’ Danny Flynn to leave the country and try his fists in the boxing clubs of London, but Flynn is determined to rebuild his old life without the violence that stole his youth.

The Boxer is the third film that director Sheridan has made with Day-Lewis (trailing My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father), but it’s the first to deal directly with daily life on the front lines of the fight between Irish Protestants and Catholics. Strangely, it is also the least compelling of the films. There are some thrilling boxing sequences and a vivid theme, but the moments between the action are surprisingly inert.

The fault for this does not really belong to Day-Lewis, who delivers another in his repertoire of heartfelt, fully realized performances; and it certainly doesn’t belong to Emily Watson (as Flynn’s old flame), who follows up her Breaking the Waves triumph with a simpler but no less engaging take on wide-eyed romanticism. The problem is the script (by Sheridan and Terry George), which fails to give either character anything interesting to say. No matter how much rich inflection Day-Lewis gives Flynn’s words, he can’t quite explain his character’s conflicted attitudes toward fighting.

That said, there is much in The Boxer worth praising. As previously mentioned, when Flynn rebuilds his gym and starts boxing again, Sheridan films the matches with a kineticism that rivals Raging Bull. More important is what the bouts stand for. As the integration of professional sports in the U.S. helped soften long-held prejudices, so Flynn hopes that fighting in a non-sectarian gym will help unite Ireland. The film takes place during an IRA cease-fire, and there is some question as to whether two factions that have been killing each other’s children can reasonably be expected to sit down together over a pint. But if they can’t, will there ever be peace in Ireland?

For all its fitfulness, The Boxer gets this detail exactly right. “The troubles” have been going on so long that they have become less about a cause and more about vengeful tit-for-tat. At one point, the mother of an IRA casualty asks what her son died for, since she is now being asked to forgive and forget. The better question for the mother to ask—the one that wrinkles Flynn’s face every time he steps into the ring—is not what her son died for, but why he fought in the first place.—Noel Murray

Stupid pet tricks

First things first—anyone who leaves Wag the Dog saying that it’s a precise, insightful satire of modern American politics is even dumber than the filmmakers think we are. Barry Levinson’s biting comedy (scripted by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin) shows a Washington policy wonk and a Hollywood producer conspiring to concoct a staged war with Albania to distract the American public from a presidential sex scandal two weeks before election day. That the characters would try this is not unbelievable; that they could succeed is ludicrous, and pretty insulting.

Which doesn’t mean Wag the Dog isn’t funny. It’s actually hilarious, so long as you look in the right place for the joke. The filmmakers’ simplistic perception of the voting populace is tired material; what works is the spectacle of D.C.’s and L.A.’s most arrogant thinkers coming to a consensus.

Robert DeNiro plays Conrad Brean, a dirty-tricks specialist called in to help a White House press liaison (Anne Heche), whose job is to plant stories in the press. Dustin Hoffman is Stanley Motss, the boffo movie producer (modeled on Robert Evans) whom they employ to shoot realistic battle footage to be leaked to the news.

The first hour of Wag the Dog—which consists mostly of DeNiro, Hoffman, and Heche making beautiful music out of Mamet’s rapid-fire dialogue—is crackling entertainment, especially when Motss brings in a musician (Willie Nelson) to write a war anthem and a “fad king” (Denis Leary) to craft war-related trends. The rhythm of these self-important folks thinking out loud and applauding their own brilliance has the sparkle of some of Mamet’s finer plays (Speed-the-Plow especially).

The film starts to turn sour after Brean and Motss actually hatch their scheme and it flourishes. Leaving aside the question of whether the American public would jump on the anti-Albania bandwagon so quickly, Wag the Dog makes the larger mistake of underestimating the global media. Sure, the press may be easily led, and its pundits may often miss the truth of a situation, but it doesn’t take long for the media to ferret out untruth. The odds that no one would call the schemers’ bluff on what’s happening in Albania, exactly who their concocted hero is, and where the mysterious “Troop 303” comes from is just silly. (Besides, too many people know about the plan for it to remain a secret for long.)

Granted, Wag the Dog is no documentary, but so much about it is so smart (including Levinson’s muted direction, which encourages the actors to underplay) that when the film tips its hand and predicts how the world will react, the outrageous presumption gets, well, boring. Wag the Dog is better when it’s riffing on bullshit, not producing it.—Noel Murray

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