This Week's Attractions

The Dennis Nyback Forbidden Animation Festival

8 p.m. Fri., March 19–Thurs., March 25, at Little Theatre

One of my favorite moments in Ghost World occurs when Thora Birch's and Steve Buscemi's characters sort through his collection of racist old fried-chicken ads. Noting one particularly offensive image, she asks if the present is better or worse than the past. He responds: "I don't know. It's complicated."

Vintage film archivist Dennis Nyback, formerly a Seattle resident, tends to support Buscemi's position with this touring omnibus festival of mostly racist, mostly animated shorts from the '30s and '40s. Each of the seven nights has a different theme. He claims we can't mention individual titles by name for fear of his being pursued by "the copyright police." To keep him out of copyright jail, I'll try to be circumspect.

Two kinds of historical events seem to resonate most in the present: the triumphs and the embarrassments. World War II gave rise to plenty of both, as Nyback's Friday-night program, "Strange and Vicious War Cartoons," amply illustrates. In one propaganda short, a squeaky-voiced bear in a prop plane wreaks havoc on Japanese forces, depicted as hyper­active monkeys. In another, Popeye (yes, that Popeye) sinks a Japanese warship populated by some of the most racist Asian caricatures I've ever seen.

What's fascinating about these war 'toons is how cannily their animators wedded entertainment and propaganda; the goofy sight gags and cute little animals force us to consider where laughter ends and demonization begins. Which raises the question: Might Dubya's re-election campaign soon be hiring all those unemployed Disney draftsmen for some TV ads? Thus, last century's Japs might be reincarnated as this century's towel-heads, if these films are any indication. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

Good Bye, Lenin!

Opens Fri., March 19, at Seven Gables

Wolfgang Becker's gently nostalgic satire of the fall of East Germany has the fondness of Garrison Keillor's odes to the dear hearts and vanishing provincial culture of Lake Wobegon. I'm afraid you have to be European to go gaga over the intermittently sharp, funny flick (and Europe did, in a big way). Over here, Becker's TV-director roots show. Lacking local resonance, the story seems longer than it is deep, and a bit afflicted by the dishonest sentimentality common to totalitarian regimes and TV execs. Becker is no Communist stooge; he's more of a TV functionary—a fernsehenapparatchik. I'd call him a Sitcommie.

Protagonist Alex (Daniel Brühl) narrates the Rip Van Winkle tale: East Berliner Christiane (Katrin Sass) falls into a coma just before the Berlin Wall is torn down. Warned by docs not to stress his mother when she awakens a few months later, Alex stages an elaborate charade to convince her that nothing has changed. She was a true believer in the Socialist state, so he confines her to her sickroom at home and gets a friend who shoots wedding videos to fake East German newscasts, which Alex surreptitiously slips into her VCR. Other gags have Alex scouring Dumpsters for defunct brands of pickles to convince Mom that shoddy East German consumer culture still tastelessly reigns.

When Alex's newscasts finally admit that the Wall has fallen, they claim that Westerners flocked to the East to escape soulless capitalism for Communist gemütlichkeit. There is some poignancy and charm in all the shenanigans. Sass has the affectingly mournful puss of a grieving museum Madonna, and Brühl the faintly subversive yet put-upon air of Griffin Dunne in After Hours. But if you don't know the taste of Eastern Bloc pickles, all the lampoons will be largely lost on you. Lenin starts well, then wears out its welcome. Shorn of its Proustian associations, East Germany's pop-culture past comes off as stale as bread baked on the Five-Year Plan. (R) TIM APPELO

The Nest

8 p.m. Fri., March 19–Sun., March 21, $5–$7at Consolidated Works, 500 Boren Ave. N., 206-381-3218

You could imagine Canadian cultist Guy Maddin having a lot of fun with the sci-fi conventions that form a plodding pastiche in this murky little 16mm art film (seemingly lit with a 40-watt bulb); he'd know not to treat them straight. Unfortunately Chicago director James Fotopoulos, who'll introduce the screenings, takes a relentlessly literal approach as he borrows tropes from The Blob (an alien space rock brings contamination and menace to Earth), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (something's not right with other people), and The X-Files (ominous men in black come knocking to investigate a paranormal disturbance). Relentlessly claustrophobic, The Nest takes place in an anonymous yuppie pad, where a husband and wife cling to a boring off-to-work routine gradually subsumed by alien visitors, physical transformations, and mounting paranoia. There's a nauseous sense of pregnancy, cribbed from Alien and Rosemary's Baby; something evil is going to be born of these unwitting human hosts. The over-amped and self-consciously Eraserhead-like soundtrack is all clanging dissonance and dread. To break the mood, the couple asks things like, "What have we done to deserve this?" and, "Do you wanna get take-out?" To this, viewers will reply, "Nothing," and, "Yes—right now." (NR) BRIAN MILLER

The Reckoning

Opens Fri., March 19, at Metro

Forget knights in shining armor; medieval England was all about serfs in stinking leather dreading the Black Death and preyed upon by vicious thieves. The latter included knights, priests, and even feudal lords. But even serfs lorded it over actors, who performed Mystery Plays—Bible stories—first in churches, then, by the 14th century, in town squares, supported by the rich town guilds. Guild actors in turn looked down on traveling players, who rode oxcarts through the mud, performing Mystery Plays and passing the hat from town to town prior to passing out in filthy inns or filthier haylofts.

They had to please an audience, not church or guild authorities, so they began to ditch the liturgical script, improvise, and devise a new form: the Morality Play, starring Everyman—the ordinary Christian in the rowdy crowd. Eventually, morality plays led to Shakespeare, modern drama, kitchen-sink realism, and Friends. As Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play fascinatingly suggests, such plays helped herald the end of the feudal order.

Director Paul McGuigan's adaptation has the authentic stink of muck and leather, and it preserves some of the cool ideas in the book. A defrocked priest on the lam, Nicholas (Master and Commander's Paul Bettany), joins a ragtag troupe whose leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), yearns to get modern. They arrive in a miserable village just as a mute woman (Elvira Minguez) is condemned to hang for murdering a boy. Martin revolutionarily decides to replace the troupe's usual Adam and Eve bill with a tale about the murderess and the boy. The crowd yells, "It didn't 'appen that way!" Nicholas and Martin sleuth out the true killers, restage the play to indict them, incite a serf riot, and get in trouble with corrupt village officialdom.

It's easier to hide the true killer's identity in a book than a movie. As a detective tale, The Reckoning is merely mediocre. But the medieval sense of place is palpable, the acting is solid, and the stagings of the murder mystery and the Mystery Play are terrific. As Satan tempting Adam and Eve, Brian Cox out-hams Gene Simmons of Kiss. (R) T.A.

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