This Week's Attractions

Connie and Carla

Opens Fri., April 16, at Metro and other theaters

Or, My Big Fat Drag Musical. After the massive soccer-mom embrace of her Big Fat Greek Wedding, former Second City improviser Nia Vardalos is back to follow up (atone for?) her runaway hit with a female buddy flick that doubles as a gender-bending musical. (At the pitch meeting, the phrase "Thelma & Louise meets Yentl" was likely uttered.)

Essentially a series of drag gags strung together with subplots (estranged brothers reunite, Russian gangster acquires taste for Mame, etc.), C&C starts out embarrassingly broad, then develops into an amusing, frothy showcase for its divalicious leads, Vardalos and Toni Collette (who play Connie and Carla, respectively). If these women couldn't put on a slam-bang show, the film would be as bad as it sounds: Our heroines witness a Mafia hit (à la Some Like It Hot) and flee to L.A., where they turn a gay cabaret on its ear by (gasp!) actually singing instead of lip-syncing. They win a regular gig at the club by pretending to be drag queens, which complicates Connie's budding romance with a shy guy (David Duchovny) whose tentative efforts at hanging out with his cross-dressing brother (Stephen Spinella) aren't going so hot, either. Vardalos' script is full of body-positive speeches with all the subtlety of Oklahoma!, and the love story feels forced, but she and Collette make every musical number shine. Bottom line: If a film with a Debbie Reynolds cameo in the finale is your kind of thing, you already know who you are. (PG-13) NEAL SCHINDLER

Hukkle

7 and 9 p.m. Fri., April 16–Thurs., April 22, at Little Theatre

Before seeing this odd little Hungarian movie, I was unaware that dirty fingernails could be so beautiful. Or that the hiccups of a wrinkly old man could sound like an exquisite symphony. It's clear why this complex, innovative, and visually rich film by György Pálfi was a favorite at SIFF last year. The story essentially relates the fragility of the living and the perishable nature of the organic: a pail of milk about to tip over; a fawn about to be crushed by a plow; an already ill man about to be murdered. It's also a bit of a murder story, both fascinating and perplexing, as we try to understand the mysterious demise of the community's elderly men. Meanwhile, the women's behavior is equally confusing as they dart around in the shadows, conferring suspiciously between iron fences like the members of some secret society.

Hukkle—a kind of Magyar transliteration for hiccup—is devoid of dialogue but rich in the raw noises of life. The sounds of animals and of the natural world smother the disruptive racket made by humans, while also indicating the similarities between the beasts in each realm. The steady hum of machines also betokens the clash between the old world and modern society. Detailed shots of microwaves, stereos, and an arriving jet capture an encroaching new culture as it cracks the ceiling of this small Hungarian hamlet. With quietly powerful insight, Hukkle shows us the reality, and the resiliency, of life within a precious ecosystem fractured under the weight of modernity. (NR) HEATHER LOGUE

Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Runs Fri., April 16–Thurs., April 22, at Varsity

There are a lot of photographs in this music-world documentary in which subject Rodney Bingenheimer poses with celebrities. In all of them, he looks straight into the camera. Those eyes—big, black, gloomy—seem goofy at first, then sweet, then haunted. Abandoned as a teenager by a starstruck mother in mid-'60s Los Angeles, the small, sweet-tempered Bingenheimer became a major scenester in the city's emerging rock scene, palling around with Sonny and Cher, working as Davy Jones' double on The Monkees, and living off the women he charmed, before bringing British glam rock to the U.S. in the early '70s via his famed nightclub, Rodney's English Disco. Soon after, he became the most influential DJ on L.A.'s—and soon America's—most influential radio station, KROQ, where the punk, new wave, and alternative rock bands he championed would form the backbone of the "modern rock" radio format.

What Bingenheimer spends most of Mayor doing, though, is hold onto his own waning fame—chiefly by mingling with pop stars as his radio show is relegated to increasingly obscure hours. Bingenheimer maintains that his primary gift is to act as "a bridge between the famous and not-so-famous," but that bridge plainly hasn't seen much traffic of late. ("I think they're afraid to fire him," one colleague bluntly puts it, because of what Bingenheimer has previously meant to the station.) When his protégé (and Mayor co-producer) Chris Carter gets a job at a rival radio station, and Bingenheimer loses his temper, ordering the camera turned off, it's jarringly truthful—the one moment of the film where the strain of keeping a good-guy facade finally comes to the surface.

It's not as if George Hickenlooper (who previously directed the painfully candid Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness) doesn't give Bingenheimer plenty of opportunities to break through his blank facade. There are a couple of heartbreaking visits to his father and stepmother's house, where the famous son's photos are shunted off to the bedroom wall. On several other occasions, when his snapshots with famous friends are passed around, the name Kato Kaelin is mentioned. It's a good laugh line—the O.J. Simpson gadabout who got on the A-list for basically doing nothing—but Kaelin is also the movie's bad conscience, the guy Bingenheimer could have easily turned into had he proven something less than merely charming. Mayor doesn't back away from examining harsh truths about that charm, and it certainly casts him as a representative L.A. type. Yet the film isn't mocking or heartless; it renders Bingenheimer deeper and more poignantly than you'd have any reason to expect. (R) MICHAELANGELO MATOS

The Punisher

Opens Fri., April 16, at Varsity and others

These days, a good, rare, bloody cut of Hollywood revenge isn't so much about what's taken from the hero and what the hero takes back (the formula is generally "loved ones" in exchange for "armada of supervillain's sadistic henchmen"); it's about how cool the hero looks taking it back. Two of our finest eye-for-an-eye, new-school bloodbaths, Desperado and Kill Bill Vol. 1, are clearly works of visual, not conceptual, innovation.

In eschewing CGI–tweaked, chopsocky cartoon-tortions for its comic-book source material's no-mercy, bone-crunching realism, The Punisher must scrape by Spartan-style on mood and story; unfortunately, well-meaning writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh chose the wrong one. The ultrapopular, ultrabuff Marvel vigilante isn't really renowned for his "origin story" (wife and son brutally slain), the preferred, safe narrative approach for Hollywood's comic-book revampings. No, what makes Frank "the Punisher" Castle intriguing is his rigid, ritualistic obsession with not just meting out street justice, Batman-style, but actually offing criminals who have not directly affected his life.

So there's nothing too shocking in watching Tom Jane—yes that's now Tom "The New Charles Bronson" Jane, not Thomas "Bit Player in Paul Thomas Anderson Ensembles" Jane—mow down John Travolta's goons for slaughtering his entire bloodline, save for a few delightfully morbid flourishes. Hardly the steak-head that Dolph Lundgren portrayed in the little-seen, awful early-'90s Punisher, Jane manipulates Travolta's family and friends, Othello-style, into self-destruction. And the obligatory armada of sadistic henchmen is actually great fun, particularly Will Patton in fully wacko Postman mode; wrestler Kevin Nash as a mute, bleach-blond behemoth; and—in a sly Desperado/Johnny Cash nod—singing guitarist/ assassin Harry Heck.

Mainly this is just a showcase for Jane to challenge the Rock as America's baddest celluloid hard-ass, set to the tune of screeching rap-metal. That's almost more punishment than any viewer should endure. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and spring

Opens Fri., April 16, at Seven Gables and Uptown

If a one-set film that follows, by seasons, an aged monk and his young acolyte and roughly embodies Buddhist principles sounds like an invitation to a good long nap, be warned. Shot through with director Kim Ki-duk's flashes of visual inventiveness, Spring is both exquisite and earthy, simple and mysterious, and as riveting as any thriller. (Kim Ki-duk? Director of The Isle, whose fish hooks, ice picks, and general misogyny got him branded the bad boy of South Korean cinema? The same. He's turned a page.)

The setting is a jaw dropper: a simple wooden temple the filmmakers built to float on tiny Jusan Pond, sitting jewel-like in the middle of a Korean wilderness preserve. On its shore, a pair of ornately carved, free-standing doors open silently to usher us into each segment. They also underscore the inherent theatricality of this monastery. Floating this way, it seems unreal. Yet in true Buddhist fashion, what the unnamed monks wrestle with in this idyll is the stuff of everyday life: love, death, and the whole damn thing.

Every inch of the temple, even the floorboards of its deck, are used in the story's five episodes, which begin when the Young Monk is a shaven-headed 6- or 7-year-old, missing a front tooth, living and learning under the unsurprised gaze of Old Monk (Oh Young-su, a powerful, thoughtful theater veteran).

In the first "Spring," the master simply watches as, in an act of unthinking cruelty, the little monk ties a heavy pebble to a snake, a fish, and a frog, laughing at their efforts to move. Next morning, after a particularly apt object lesson, the Old Monk's words are prophetic: "Find them, but if any of them is dead, you will carry the stone in your heart."

We won't know how deeply the boy grieves over his actions until much later. Meanwhile, these three creatures, and a menagerie more, become a mute chorus of observers. (Diva among them is an unbelievably patient white cat who allows the Old Monk to use her tail for calligraphy.)

In "Summer," as a young woman is brought to the monastery to be cured of a suffering within her soul, the Young Monk, now 18 (and played by a new actor), discovers love, lust, and devastating loss, causing him to quit the temple. The outside world is rarely felt in this solitude. When it is, in "Fall"'s fierce sequence as the Young Monk returns to the lake following an off-screen act of violence, it's startling. Yet not even these transgressions are beyond the understanding—and the stringent judgment—of the Old Monk (quite old by now, and ready to push off from his floating home on his last private journey).

The breathtaking gorgeousness of "Winter" and the final coda "Spring" are a reminder of Kim's beginnings as a painter, as is the sensual imagery that runs under all this contemplation and enlightenment. "Winter"'s mysterious woman who makes her way across the ice, her face wrapped in vivid lilac silk, is pure Magritte, while the half-naked monk (now played by Kim himself) who carries a huge millstone to a mountaintop in a physical and spiritual act of contrition, is an echo of the Old Monk's earliest teachings.

Like his central character, Kim achieves full maturity with Spring after a period of violence. Here, he uses cruelty as a lesson in the encompassing humanity that pervades the film. It's all part of the movie's rich sense of harmony and the natural order of life. (R) SHEILA BENSON

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