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The Big Joke 

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
Film festival audiences in search of some chuckles have rather thin fare to select from this spring. Alice Nellis' Some Secrets is typical: The laughs are tepid as a dysfunctional extended family takes a two-car caravan from the Czech Republic into Slovakia, with the goal of disposing of the ashes of a deceased patriarch. Neither satire nor slapstick is on the agenda. Nellis instead pursues a wan realism, revealing some secrets of bad parenting and infidelity. There are small flashes of the sharp observations of human behavior associated with the '60s Czech New Wave (a flabby husband checking himself out in a mirror, a mother's obsession with having clean toilet paper on hand), but little of the verve.

Also auto-oriented, but better and funnier, is Martín Rejtman's Argentine Magic Gloves, a quirky tale of the interacting lives of strangers, a magician and a taxi driver. This interaction is a common theme, evidently, in contemporary international comedies, although Rejtman works his variations more cleverly than most. The cabbie's obsession with his Renault 12 is just one of the film's appealing running gags.

By contrast, Veit Helmer's Gate to Heaven is a forced, sentimental item about the romance of a cleaning woman from India and an illegal Russian immigrant hiding out in the bowels of the Frankfurt Airport. (Security there seems very lax; the airport evidently harbors a colony of illegals kept as indentured servants to toss baggage.) The couple meet cute when he (who wants to be a pilot) and she (who wants to be a flight attendant, and to further that dream has swiped a uniform from every extant airline) encounter each other on a jet they've snuck onto. It gets cornier from there. Gate to Heaven would have worked better with Don Ameche and Annabella in an ocean liner at Paramount in 1937, although that version would have lacked the faux Bollywood musical number.

Another multicultural romance, and a rather better one, is Srdjan Karanovic's Loving Glances, about refugees from warring factions during the Yugoslavian civil war. The film's Belgrade video-dating service for the displaced is a mildly amusing setting for the tender encounters of a dogged Serb and a lonely Albanian, whose uneven road to love should charm. Charming no one, however, will be our protagonists' incessant haunting by the ghosts of parents and lovers past, who harass both the boy and the girl with their monologues and bickering. The portrait of a bombed city stirring back to life is appealing, but the Fellini-derived figments are not.

Last and perhaps least is the Swiss That Day, the latest slice of indigestible whimsy from perennially overrated Chilean refugee Raoul Ruiz. A psychopath's escape from a mental institution is paralleled by the misadventures of an insane heiress, her father (veteran actor Michel Piccoli), and a pair of lackadaisical detectives. Ruiz's games with narrative reality are less interesting here than they were in such earlier projects as Three Lives and Only One Death -- but even more exasperating.

On a more positive note, Buster Keaton's great silent comedy The General screens with a live score by the Alloy Orchestra. It's really just a movie about a man and a train, but the gags are brilliant and splendidly set off by the propulsive narrative. That level of filmmaking may be a lost art.

Some Secrets: Tuesday, April 27, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 29, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Magic Gloves: Friday, April 23, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 27, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Gate to Heaven: Sunday, April 18, 8:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 20, 5:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Loving Glances: Saturday, April 17, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 18, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 20, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

That Day: Saturday, April 17, 8:50 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 19, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 21, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The General: Tuesday, April 20, 7 p.m., Castro

About The Author

Gregg Rickman


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