Pre-synthesizer, the Theremin supplied weird movie sounds

Movie reviews

November 03, 1995|By Stephen Hunter 'Total Eclipse' takes no poetic license Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter 'Total Eclipse' takes no poetic license Stephen Hunter,Knight-Ridder News Service

Consider this a moment emblematic of the political and cultural turmoil of the second half of the 20th century: In the late '50s, a musicologist appeared on "The Mickey Mouse Club," where, bathed in the admiration of Bobby, Doreen, Jimmy, Darlene and even big ol' Roy, played an instrument called a Theremin, a weird electronic thing that used the latest in solid-state electronics to issue sounds like the violin of Jupiter. Half a globe away, the inventor of the Theremin, one Lev Sergeivich Termin, was working in the KGB acoustics laboratory, trying to clean up illicit recordings for Soviet espionage use.

That's just part of the odd "electronic odyssey" covered in "Theremin," a documentary opening today at the Charles. The Theremin is a first-generation electronic instrument by which the player's hands, moving in and out of an electromagnetic field, control pitch and loudness. The instrument has some classical potential, but was most useful to the movies in creating spooky sounds that underran such films as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Spellbound." It formed the basis of a more subtle and responsive instrument by Robert Moog, the famous Moog synthesizer.

But the movie isn't just an account of electronic instrument culture; it actually finds the 90-odd-year-old Termin in Russia, retired after KGB service (and seven years in a Stalinist labor camp), and follows him to New York, where he reunites with the people he knew and loved in the '30s. It's superbly directed by Steven Martin, who will appear to answer questions about the film after tonight's 8 o'clock screening. Thereminist Wesley Botts will also perform afterward. Unrated ***

'Coldblooded' lines up a shot at the top

"Coldblooded" is a work of deadpan comedy in which the pan is so dead it's practically turned to petrified bone. The film, directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky after having seen "Reservoir Dogs" too many times, follows Jason Priestley in a performance as mannered as a lacquered Chinese doll. He's a young mob bookie who is promoted to hit man, teamed with an old pro (Peter Riegert) and begins a meteoric rise on account of his natural marksmanship and his seeming sangfroid. But he's not coldblooded at all; he's just a nerd.

The joke of the film is that killing is presented without moral judgment, as just another business tool. The murders take place without a smidgeon of emotional investment. At one point, Priestley offs a young accountant and his wife after having breakfast with them and talking earnestly to them about his new girlfriend. "Oh, I just remembered something," he says, pulling his gun and firing, then walking out without a wrinkle in his brow.

"Coldblooded" never achieves much in the way of tension because it unfolds at that plodding, literal pace of the disengaged. Its humor, which is only in its tone, grows tedious after a bit. Though occasionally amusing (particularly because of Riegert's bonhomie), it's probably another sin Quentin Tarantino will have to answer for when he dies. R **

That fun couple Verlaine and Rimbaud titillate the bourgeoisie again in "Total Eclipse," at the Rotunda. In Paris in the early 1870s, Verlaine was the very model of connected career versifier, playing the long-term game of schmooze and snivel, lick and grovel. One day he received some anti-verse verses from a provincial teen-ager named Arthur Rimbaud and knew in a flash that the poetic landscape had changed forever. What he didn't realize was that his own emotional and sexual landscape had also changed, and in a matter of years he'd be living with the boy in a London garret.

In Agnieszka Holland's version of the story, from a script by Christopher Hampton, the very American Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fiery boy genius and David Thewlis his more conventional lover. Holland seems to use DiCaprio's Americanness as symbolic of his rustic rural ways, while Thewlis' Englishness stands for his Parisian cosmopolitanism. But somehow, this doesn't quite work: The two seem so different, one a rangy, loud B-ball player, the other an effeminate, delicate-fingered aristo, that the movie never becomes terribly coherent.

Of course, truth is a much messier story-teller than fiction, and the Hampton script never invents but rather plays out the whole messy, endless, despairing thing over the long years, veering this way and that as Verlaine leaves his wife (Romane Bohringer), reconciles with her, leaves her again, and on and on it goes. R **

Stephen Hunter

'Lie Down With Dogs' is charming if unpolished

"Lie Down With Dogs" is a funny, rough-around-the edges summer vacation movie, set in the gay enclave of Provincetown, Mass. It opens as a late show at the Rotunda this weekend.

Director Wally White stars as Tommie, talking to the camera in droll asides, a near-innocent in enthusiastic search of lust and love between working bad jobs, looking for a decent place to sleep (ahem) and recovering from hangovers.

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