Sticking to Schedule 

Belcourt's upcoming calendar

Belcourt's upcoming calendar

With its second three-month calendar, the Watkins Belcourt is starting to become a serious arthouse theater—as well as an alternative to megaplex mediocrity. After the first schedule’s unexpected success, both the Belcourt’s screens will now run on a three-month calendar. The screens will be divided between traditional revival fare (Marx Bros., Bogart, etc.) and current arthouse releases, each playing one week only; a printed calendar will list synopses and show times. This is exactly how an arthouse should be operated: The audience can plan its trips to the theater in advance, and it doesn’t have to wait a month for a new movie to appear.

After months of constant losses, the Belcourt’s struggling “commercial” first-run screen is switching to a strong lineup of smaller independent films, foreign releases, and restored classics. The schedule through September includes buzz indies like Clockwatchers (July 31), a look into the lives of office girls starring Parker Posey and Lisa Kudrow; and Mr. Jealousy (Aug. 14), the new romantic comedy from Kicking and Screaming writer-director Noah Baumbach, with Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra.

In addition, some prestigious rereleases should please the Belcourt’s core audience of cinephiles. Among these are a double feature of Truffaut’s filmmaking salute Day for Night and Godard’s ironic Odyssey update Contempt, which opens this Friday; and Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1975 mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock (Sept. 4). If the Belcourt’s management can sustain this type of programming—we suggest carefully chosen previews to build crossover between revival fans and younger indie viewers—more power to them.

The problem with keeping up this one-a-week schedule is that it’s hard for the Belcourts of America to survive without eventually giving in to the current distribution system. By opting not to compete for high-profile, high-yield foreign and independent films, the Belcourt has avoided for the moment the demands of distributors—which include running a movie as long as it is profitable, picking up dud titles, or accepting a film that has already played the ’plexes. But as much as patrons hate to have a screen tied up for a month by a single film, it’s hard for a theater to make money without those monster hits. And that often forces owners to concede to distributor demands on every film, large or small. I applaud the Belcourt for bucking the trend; if its approach works, other theater owners may get some leverage over the Miramaxes and Sony Pictures Classics of the world.

If the Belcourt’s first-run screen represents all an independent theater should be, its repertory screen is only about half of what it could be. The calendar is chockful of crowd pleasers and well-known classics, but it has almost no challenging or lesser-known pictures. The theater gets off to a good start Friday with “Summer Camp,” three solid weeks of ’50s science-fiction double bills. Don’t miss the classic Forbidden Planet (soon to be remade in a James Cameron production), paired with Roger Corman’s carrot-like alien from Venus in It Conquered the World. Other sci-fi highlights include the indispensable The Day the Earth Stood Still (next Wednesday through Aug. 1), George Pal’s production The War of the Worlds (Aug. 5-8), and a bevy of Ray Harryhausen favorites like First Men in the Moon and 20 Million Miles to Earth (Aug. 2-4).

A program like this is great for the theater owner: The prints are dirt-cheap to rent and can make a lot of money if well promoted. But three weeks of sci-fi movies may be too much of a good thing; we’ll see how many moonheads get burnt out before the Aug. 13 screening of Cat Women of the Moon. But please, no matter how tempting the cat women might be—try to refrain from emulating the wiseacres on MST3K.

After the giant monsters relinquish the screen, the Belcourt will attempt to build on the success of its recent Lawrence of Arabia engagement with two weeks of David Lean films, including 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, and 1984’s A Passage to India. Whatever you do, don’t miss 1955’s sublimely romantic Summertime, Lean’s love letter to Venice through the eyes of Katherine Hepburn. It’s one of my favorite films, and it plays Aug. 24-25.

After festivals and themed programs fill out the summer, September offers a slew of double features, most of them taken from the touring Warner Bros. 75th-anniversary retrospective. A few of the double bills are downright ingenious: Pairing the sunny Superman with the gloomy Batman (Sept. 16) illustrates the changing attitudes toward superheroes from the ’70s to the ’90s. Other combinations are a natural fit: Casablanca appeals to the same audience as The Maltese Falcon (Sept. 4-5). But some of the double bills make no sense at all. Why not pair a western with Blazing Saddles instead of GoodFellas (Sept. 22)? And I refuse to speculate about the bewildering combo of Driving Miss Daisy and Dial M for Murder, except to warn the audience not to expect the original 3-D version of the latter.

The one rationale for the populist, “greatest hits” nature of this program might be to build an audience, which will then trust the theater to take on more daring or more unfamiliar fare sight unseen. I’ll be watching the Belcourt’s next calendar to see whether this is indeed its plan. If the hit parade continues, however, without giving the audience a chance to make some new discoveries, the Belcourt will simply be entertaining its patrons without expanding their horizons.

—Donna Bowman

Rude boys

Watching There’s Something About Mary is like having someone sit in front of you for two hours chewing with his mouth open. Every five or 10 minutes, the sheer infantile grossness will send you reeling with mad laughter; the rest of the time, your gaze may wander toward the exit.

A slob farce with about a six-pack of lowbrow highlights and a whole case of empties, There’s Something About Mary stars Ben Stiller as a mopey would-be writer who’s obsessed with finding the girl who left him on prom night 13 years before. To that end, he hires a sleazy private eye—Matt Dillon with a porn-star mustache—who promptly tells him his Mary’s now obese and bedridden, with several kids by as many different fathers. As Stiller discovers, however, Mary is actually lithe, wealthy Cameron Diaz, and Dillon is using all his research to worm his own way into her good graces.

The directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly—the brain trust behind the spotty Dumb and Dumber and the execrable Kingpin—score some cathartic belly laughs on effrontery alone. Their talent is for gross-out sex gags and hyperbolic cruelty, and as long as they stick to defibrillating drugged-out dogs and swapping jism for hair gel, they really know how to tickle your inner 13-year-old. But the constant retard jokes and gags about cripples are irredeemably sour—especially combined with the Farrellys’ grotesque sentimentality. It’s awful to wring yuks out of Mary’s brother’s mental condition; it’s worse to make him a lovable pet, so that the audience says, “Aw, bless his heart,” every time he appears.

In interviews, the Farrellys take the obvious dodge that they’re sending up “political correctness” by ridiculing people in wheelchairs or people with mental disabilities. That wouldn’t be the first time somebody confused political correctness with common decency. The reason the gags don’t work, though, isn’t some self-righteous liberalism on the audience’s part; it’s that mockery is a weapon, a leveler, and only a creep would use it against underdogs of any stripe. Here, as in the snarky, coldly calculated The Opposite of Sex, no zinger is too risible as long as it’s delivered by an unlikable character: That way nobody can accuse the filmmakers of being bullies (or homophobes, or racists), but they can still get their cheap laughs. That also effectively makes the movie’s critics seem uptight, which may explain the hysterical overpraise that There’s Something About Mary is getting—including marks for the Farrellys’ “bravery.”

As filmmaking, There’s Something About Mary is so dull and functional it could’ve been shot by surveillance cameras: The directors’ idea of staging a conversation is ping-ponging back and forth between talking heads. (Their major influence must’ve been Atari.) The ramshackle staging sometimes leaves you unsure even how to respond, as in a poorly constructed subplot involving a suitor in leg braces (that amazing clown Lee Evans).

But better moviemaking might only have dampened the explosive crudeness of the gags that work. And give the Farrellys credit for two very astute casting choices. Well on his way to becoming the funniest straight man in movie history, Ben Stiller makes a brilliant shtick of thwarted politeness: To me, he gets the movie’s biggest laughs trying to make small talk with a hitchhiker who’s plainly a few beans shy of a burrito. And as a running musical chorus, like Nat King Cole in Cat Ballou, that rockin’ leprechaun Jonathan Richman sounds a welcome note of sweet, innocent mischief every time he appears. Maybe that’s because you wouldn’t hear Jonathan Richman making retard jokes.

—Jim Ridley

A sense of adventure

Adventure movies almost always strike us as throwbacks to an earlier era of filmmaking, the era of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and The Great Train Robbery. For every moviegoer, there seems to be an archetypal memory of some rip-roaring yarn from their youth—a movie that defines the adventure of the movies themselves. For me, it was The Mark of Zorro, which I saw at a drive-in theater when I was 8 or 9. The grace of Tyrone Power and the evil Basil Rathbone made such an impression on me that ever since, I’ve been subconsciously comparing all subsequent adventures to this one movie.

That’s why The Mask of Zorro, the latest movie version of the Zorro legend, strikes a deep chord in me. Now this is a movie, I feel in my bones, as I watch Zorro dispatch Spanish flunkies with a witty flourish. Minimally updated with modern filmmaking techniques, The Mask of Zorro relies chiefly on the tried-and-true staples of swordplay, stunts, and leading-man charisma (adding only the occasional massive explosion so we’ll know we’re in the ’90s). And with swooningly romantic Antonio Banderas and arrestingly intense Anthony Hopkins as the leads, the movie catches fire long before evil Stuart Wilson lights any fuses.

The Mask of Zorro is also a throwback in the sense that it has plenty of plot to sustain and drive the action. Hopkins plays the original Zorro, Diego de la Vega, whose fight for the peasants of Mexico lands him in jail as the movie opens. Just before Diego is imprisoned, the Spanish governor Raphael Montero kills his wife and takes his baby daughter. Twenty years later, as Montero lands on the shores of California to start a new kingdom on the backs of enslaved peasants, Diego escapes. To save the Californians and to take his revenge, he takes as a pupil Alejandro (Banderas), a thief whose brother was killed by an American cavalry captain in league with Montero.

The brief training sequences reveal the sheer star power of the two leading men: Hopkins with his interior brooding and Banderas with his rambunctious athleticism both exhibit perfect control over their physical screen presence. In an extended scene at a party in Montero’s mansion, Banderas turns on the blinding full wattage of his allure to seduce the villain’s daughter Elena, played by the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones, while Hopkins, barely in focus in the background, still commands our attention with the merest flick of his eyes.

There are some narrow escapes that stretch credibility, and the pacing leading up to the final battle occasionally falters. But in an age when stars too often act by goggling at invisible computer graphics, there’s something deeply satisfying about watching acrobatics on horseback at a full gallop. And most satisfying of all is the appearance of actors with that old-time star quality—actors whom woman want and men want to be. May The Mask of Zorro spawn a thousand throwback projects, and may Banderas long reign as king of the masked men.

—Donna Bowman

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