Love is the Devil
Written and directed by John Maybury

In 1964, as art legend and John Maybury's Love Is the Devil would have it, East End tough George Dyer dropped through the skylight of preeminent painter Francis Bacon's London flat to rob the place. Bacon caught him in the act and, instead of calling the police, offered a situation. If Dyer would come to bed, Bacon lured, he could have anything.

So not only was Bacon one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, he had a sympathetic way with handling an intruder. If only the dullards who came up with Proposition B could be so imaginative.

It's the best scene in a film that relies more on visual style than it does dramatic action. Derek Jacobi, as Bacon, confronts the would-be burglar in the artist's toxic dump of a studio (Bacon's studio was notoriously layered with the detritus of his creative activity, and Love Is the Devil doesn't do it justice). Jacobi plays Bacon as absolutely fearless -- the artist was an Irish rough himself -- and one who cooly estimates each move. To watch Jacobi shift from confrontational to calculating to appraising (he's like a chef who's been given a prime cut of beef) to seductive to nearly tender is a treat. Maybury would have been well advised to allow the veteran actor to supply more of the same throughout the film.

Maybury, a devotee of the late Derek Jarman, is after something other than character exploration. As the subtitle, "Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon," signifies, this is a film made up of parts of Bacon's world, a series of vignettes and images that may move toward the subject without presuming to ever fully realize him.

This approach to Bacon may have come about because Maybury was working under the constraints of the artist's estate, which refused to allow any of Bacon's work to appear onscreen -- something to do with the sullying of the artist's reputation. As if Bacon's reputation is anything other than what it was -- that of a sometimes petty, sometimes cruel man who drank and gambled to extraordinary excess (the fact that Bacon lived to 83 is one of the great feats of hedonistic endurance in this century). He was homosexual with a taste for S&M. He could be sharp-tongued, a crashing bore, extravagant with his friends, even tender. As an artist he was at times possessed by genius, as much as any has been this century. He's one of the few painters of our time of whom you can speak in the same breath as Ingres or Velasquez or Rembrandt and not feel you're being silly.

Without Bacon's paintings at his disposal, Maybury creates a world made from the vision the paintings suggest. Faces are elongated by the chrome of beer taps, bodies are distorted by cheap barroom mirrors. Dyer, the thief who becomes Bacon's lover (played as a sad, doomed, desperate and wholly sympathetic character by Daniel Craig) becomes one of the artist's principal subjects in the paintings of the 1960s and early '70s. Maybury finds ways to frame Dyer in poses found in the paintings: a crumpled mass in a dark suit on the floor after a bender; in profile showing a jaunty jaw-line and a beefy grin; and, ultimately, a husk of a man retching over a toilet, as Dyer died of an overdose of pills in Paris in 1971 -- the night Bacon's triumphant retrospective opened at the Grand Palais.

If you don't know Bacon's paintings, you won't appreciate the ingenuity with which Maybury transforms lurid portraiture into film reality. However, even it you do know Bacon's work, the cinematic replication of the artist's visual style is not enough for Love Is the Devil to succeed. What Maybury has here, for all his craft and daring, is the story of a doomed love affair. Bacon is kind, then Bacon is cruel to the unsophisticated Dyer. Dyer doesn't fit in with Bacon's quick-witted friends at the infamous Colony Club (roughly parallel as a sordid haven for mean artistic spirits to the Cedar Street Tavern in New York in the '50s). Dyer fades in Bacon's bright, unforgiving sun.

The sentiments, naturally and unimaginatively, go to Dyer here, with Maybury exposing Bacon at his worst. After Dyer's death, artist (and rival) David Hockney appears at Bacon's dinner table to give condolences. In reply, Bacon blows his nose on a napkin, "Oh, I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he says in bitter mockery of Hockney's sympathetic gesture.

To Maybury's and Jacobi's credit, Bacon remains more enigma than monster. Jacobi is an actor dead-on in every moment: The small gestures of vainly tugging at the forelocks of his hair, slurping a glass of wine, checking the fit of his black leather jacket, posing in a photo booth -- all accumulate to give fascinating glimpses of a complex man.

But choosing Bacon's affair with Dyer as the central narrative through which to compose a "study" of the artist's life is taking the most trammeled course. Films about artists' difficult and tawdry lives are tedious. They give us the experience and not the meaning, to borrow an idea from T.S. Eliot. A painter who saw humanity as the sum of teeth, meat and bone and yet portrayed it as both horrendous and beautiful deserves more than the standard movie simplifications.

A film of the life of Jackson Pollock is in the works, directed by and starring Ed Harris. What is there to be discovered in such an enterprise: the appalling cruelties, the tormented addictions, the psychic agonies? This is the most worn and unrevealing territory. Filmmakers cling to these stories because the artist's life is easy. The art is too hard.

Opens April 16 at the Tivoli.
-- Eddie Silva

Children of Heaven
Written and directed by Majid Majidi

The last decade has been an extraordinary period for Iranian cinema: Restricted by minuscule budgets, filmmakers have been forced to fall back on exactly those qualities that Hollywood thinks it can afford to ignore -- character insight, social analysis and unadorned storytelling. The success of Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's best-known moviemaker, at international film festivals has increased interest in his work and that of his countrymen. His A Taste of Cherry turned up on a number of 1998 Top 10 lists, and Kiarostami's protege Jafar Panahi enjoyed widespread acclaim for his 1995 The White Balloon. Additionally, films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1993's The Actor, 1992's Once Upon a Time, Cinema) and Dariush Mehrjui (1993's Sara and 1990's Hamoon) have been well received critically.

Such is the explosion of quality filmmaking in Iran that at last year's Singapore Film Festival -- which I attended, sitting on the critic's jury to choose the best Asian film -- the stylistically more familiar films of Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China were all outshone by the Iranian entries. The best of those was Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1997), which has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Miramax. Of the Iranian movies that have shown here in recent years, it is The White Balloon that Majidi's film most resembles; those two, as well as Panahi's most recent film, The Mirror (1997), center on the world of children, perhaps the most popular subject in recent Iranian cinema. Makhmalbaf provides some insight into the matter: "Since the 1979 revolution, the population of Iran has more than doubled.... So half our society is made up of children. Naturally they make up a large portion of our filmgoing public, and when they go to the movies, they expect to see themselves," he explains in the press kit for Children of Heaven. "When you make films about children, you don't have to deal as much with censorship issues (dress code, for example) ... and political issues. Finally, children are the visions of our dreams. They are the embodiment of life more than anything else."

The plot of Majidi's film is simplicity itself. Ten-year-old Ali Mandegar (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) lives in poverty with his parents and his little sister Zahra (Bahareh Seddiqi). One day he picks up Zahra's shoes at the cobbler, but he loses them on the way home. Given the family's financial straits, he is sure his father (Mohammad Amir Naji) will beat him if he finds out. So Ali convinces his sister that they should share his sneakers until the family's cash flow improves.

Zahra wears the sneakers to school each day, then runs to rendezvous with Ali and gives him the shoes so he can run to his school, which starts after hers ends. Their scheme works none too well: Despite his excellent grades, Ali is constantly late for class and finds himself in trouble with school authorities. To make things worse, the sneakers are taking a beating. So when Ali learns that third prize in an upcoming race is a new pair of sneakers, he determines to enter and, rather than win, to come in third.

Children of Heaven owes a lot to its antecedents, both Iranian (The White Balloon) and European (Vittorio De Sica's 1949 The Bicycle Thief). (Actually, its story, but not its style, is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Landon's autobiographical 1976 TV movie The Loneliest Runner -- presumably a coincidence.) It skews toward the light tone of The White Balloon, which makes it easy to understand why Children of Heaven has been such a hit with young children.

At the same time Majidi is true to the potential for tragic seriousness in a child's perceptions of life, and his portrait of the family is far from pleasant. Mom is a chronic invalid, and Dad's dreams seem to far exceed his skills or intelligence. It's clear that Ali and Zahra are the Mandegars' best hopes.

Because Majidi made his film with Iranian audiences in mind, there are some cultural aspects that might not be clear to U.S. moviegoers. For example, he took pains to cast an actor of Turkish origin as the father; that way the character's accent would tip off viewers that he is a member of Tehran's sizable Turkish community.

It could be argued that Children of Heaven veers into Rocky territory toward the end, but Majidi never goes for cheap uplift or sentimentality. Indeed, Ali's experience in the race is presented with more than a little irony, and the film as a whole finds a balance between optimism and bleak social realism.

Opens April 16 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Life
Directed by Ted Demme

Imagine, if you will, one of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's classic road movies that never leaves the terminal, and you have pretty much described Life, the strikingly uneventful new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It's their Road to Nowhere.

Life, which was directed by Ted Demme from a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, begins in the present as a tall tale told by an old convict named Willie (Obba Babatunde), who reminisces over the graves of two old friends -- Rayford Gibson (Murphy) and Claude Banks (Lawrence). Then the film flashes back to said friends in Harlem some 65 years ago: Ray is a fast-talking hustler with slippery fingers who meets Claude when he relieves him of his wallet in the men's room of Club Spanky, a swank speakeasy owned by a notorious gangster of the same name. Predictably, the result of this petty crime is that these transgressors must appear before Spanky (Rick James) himself, and we find out that both men have already made the gangster's acquaintance. Because neither Ray nor Claude is able to pay back the money they owe, Spanky threatens to take it out of their hides when Ray hurriedly suggests the gangster join him in a little business venture. Ray, it seems, has access to the best moonshine in the state of Mississippi. If Spanky will spare the lives of Claude and Ray, they will travel down South and bring back a truckload of the stuff.continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageTo their amazement, Spanky jumps at the deal, setting up the second act of what is already a long prelude to the film's real story. While the two men are down in Mississippi, they are wrongfully prosecuted -- and convicted -- for the bloody murder of a local gambler. The sentence? Life. As the men arrive at the Mississippi State Prison, the film's real story begins, but even at this early point, the film already feels stagnant and pointless. Life may be the film's title, but it's also what the picture lacks. Murphy has called the film "a big prison-escape film but with comedy." However, with the exception of one short breakout -- during which nothing particularly funny or dramatic occurs -- the characters remain in prison for the film's duration. There are, at least, some bright spots. In what is perhaps the funniest scene, Murphy loudly proclaims what will happen should anyone try to snatch his cornbread. By the time we figure out that Ray and Claude are going to remain in prison, interacting with the same dull roster of characters, the film loses whatever little dramatic tension it had managed to accumulate.

Watching The Nutty Professor or Doctor Doolittle, you can't help but be impressed by Murphy's range and diversity as an actor. In Life, though, much of that raw ability is wasted. Not only are Demme and the screenwriters unable to come up with much of a character for Murphy to play, they also can't seem to find ways for the two comedians to interact with one another. Of the two characters, Murphy's Ray is more clearly drawn. (He gets the better part of the jokes, too.) Before Ray was arrested, he had dreams of someday opening up a club called Ray's Boom Boom Room -- a nightspot that in terms of riches and class would put the Cotton Club to shame. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Ray fantasizes out loud about the club, giving each of his fellow inmates a job to fill. Claude's dreams are the most prosaic: All he wants to do is put this lousy episode behind him and go back to work at his job as a bank teller. Unfortunately, these tiny bits of characterization are about all the filmmakers have given the actors to work with, so naturally the heroes come across as vague and underdeveloped.

By comparison, their fellow inmates are mere one-note wonders. A late arrival to the prison is a young mute who because of his speech impediment is given the nickname Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine). In addition to not being able to speak, Can't Get Right is a naturally gifted baseball player who's able almost literally to knock the cover off a baseball. From the moment Claude first sees this phenomenal talent, he conjures up a plan to make himself so instrumental to the young man's future that when he leaves prison to become a professional ballplayer Claude will have to be released along with him.

When this last hope is finally dashed, Claude proclaims to Ray that their friendship is finished and withdraws into himself. By the time they begin talking again they are old men, and with the help of makeup wizard Rick Baker they certainly look old. Unfortunately, they also look as if they have rubber Halloween masks glued to their faces. Instead of enhancing the actors' expressivity, the makeup reduces it.

What's most baffling about Life is how someone with Murphy's obvious gifts can produce pictures like The Nutty Professor and Doctor Doolittle but then falter and come out with duds like Metro or this new mediocrity. There are indications scattered throughout Life that Murphy wanted the film to be more than just another shallow laughfest. As the director of The Ref and co-producer of Rounders, Demme has experience with a more realistic brand of movie comedy than the kind Murphy is known for. At the same time, though, the movie depends all too often on dumb gags far below the actor's ability. As a result, the film doesn't seem to know what sort of comedy it wants to be. In the end, it comes across as more confused than funny. In the long run, the title is a bit unfortunate as well. No film titled Life should remind us so often how much of ours it is wasting.

Opens April 16.
-- Hal Hinson

Hurricane Streets
Written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman

Hurricane Streets comes on like a tough cookie but ends up just plain stale. First-time writer/director Morgan J. Freeman (no relation to actor Morgan Freeman) plies the kind of beat-up, trash-can naturalism that went out with Sal Mineo films like 1957's Dino. Set in New York City's Lower East Side, Freeman's picture of latter-day Dead End Kids has a doominess that can pass for integrity and a hero so opaque that audiences can read anything into him -- which is presumably why it won the audience award (among others) at Sundance last year.

Brendan Sexton III plays Marcus, who lives with his bar-owner grandmother and leads a multiracial gang devoted to shoplifting CDs and running shoes, then selling them on the street to schoolchildren. The story picks him up at a hopeful moment: He expects to get a plane ticket to New Mexico from his uncle. But his life swiftly careens from trauma to catastrophe. Marcus finds out the awful truth behind his father's death and his mother's long-term incarceration. He falls in love with a fresh, pretty 14-year-old (Isidra Vega), only to have her abusive father (Shawn Elliot) toss him into the East River. And a volatile buddy (David Roland Frank) threatens to rip the gang apart. Unlike Marcus, he wants to graduate from impulse crimes to car theft and home invasion.

If it were possible to climb inside Marcus' brain, we might be able to experience this downward spiral as a horrifying vertigo or even a black-comic spree. Too bad Sexton's all-purpose brood and slouch lock us out. In general Freeman practices an indie version of the Hollywood moral shuffle: We're asked to identify with Marcus because of what he won't do, not what he will.

Freeman makes Marcus more cautious and clean-living than his friends, and gives him asthma to suggest emotional vulnerability. The romance is pretty much just puppy love.

There's something vaporous about this antihero, and about the entire movie, too. Sure, it's full of '90s references to, say, Hootie & the Blowfish. But the buddies' clubhouse, the grandma's cozy bar, the sage advice of a ramblin', guitar-strummin' guy named Mack (L.M. Kit Carson) -- all these bits, settings and sideshows play like hand-me-downs from hard-teen tales of the past. This film is afunhouse-mirror version of a classic juvenile-delinquent saga -- except that it isn't any fun. Freeman even turns "Stayin' Alive," the Bee Gees' paean to working-class energy from Saturday Night Fever, into an anti-anthem of despair. "Stayin' Alive"? A more apt title for Hurricane Streets might be Better Off Dead.

Plays at 7 p.m. April 15, with visiting producer Gill Holland, at Webster University.

-- Michael Sragow

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL: PROGRAM 3

Some truly admirable men and women refuse to succumb to adversity, however unfair life becomes. Under pressure that would overwhelm and defeat the average person, these exceptional individuals exemplify the essence of character -- without fanfare, without complaint and without the expectation of recognition. Such rare and real heroes dominate the third program of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Beyond Barbed Wire: Untold Stories of American Courage juxtaposes details of World War II Japanese-American internment camps with the phenomenal heroism of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regiment, the most decorated unit in all American military history. This factually rich, calmly devastating film contrasts one of our government's most shameful sanctioned activities (as directed by Executive Order 9066 and upheld by the Supreme Court) with the unparalleled record of the 442nd and of the Nisei in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific. While patriotic Japanese-American citizens endured camp imprisonment, the "pineapple soldiers" (first based in Hawaii) were first dismissed (January 1942), then recalled, combined with mainland Japanese-American soldiers and used as virtual cannon fodder during campaigns in Italy (1943-44) and France (1944).

Earning close to 10,000 Purple Hearts, they became known as the "Purple Heart Battalion." Thanks to Terri DeBono and Steve Rosen's labor of love, many of these Japanese-American soldiers talk about their heartbreaking recollections for the first time, and their children sit stunned, tearful at their fathers' quiet heroism. Through interviews, newsreel footage, period musical pieces and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita's narration, Beyond Barbed Wire pays homage to great Americans.

Another unheralded World War II hero is Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara, Japanese consul general stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania. In August 1940, as Jewish refuges streamed to his office, Sugihara wrote more than 2,000 visas, each good for an entire family. He persisted even after directed to cease. Through a prolonged, lovely, black-and-white flashback sequence, "Visas and Virtue" dramatizes Sugihara and his wife's efforts. Declared righteous among the nations, Sugihara had a tree planted in his honor on Jerusalem's Mountain of Remembrance. Co-writer, director and star Chris Tashima received the 1998 Academy Award for best short film for "Visas and Virtue."

In the second half of this program, producer/director Sturla Gunnarsson's Gerrie and Louise shifts our attention to a more contemporary story located in South Africa. As an investigator for the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, the journalist Louise became acquainted with Gerrie, an Afrikaner and a colonel for more than 10 years in an apartheid hit squad that "neutralized" ANC leaders or whomever the squad accidentally captured on their dead-of-night raids. After Nelson Mandela's release in 1987, Gerrie changed, was himself targeted by hitmen and became the source for a rare insider's view of the brutal system. Louise and Gerrie's gripping story defies categorization as they negotiate their own reconciliation and love.

Ellie Lee's six-minute animated video "Repetition Compulsion" conveys emotional and psychological imprisonment of another sort -- the abused women who believes there's no way out and that things will never change. In fact, Gerrie and Louise and "Repetition Compulsion" prove that there is hope for change and that truth frees us.

Beyond Barbed Wire and "Visas and Virtue" show at 7 p.m. and Gerrie and Louise and "Repetition Compulsion" at 9 p.m. April 20 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

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