This `Imelda' is no laughingstock

FILM

British gangster film `I'll Sleep ... " is also at the Charles

December 17, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In two surprise openings, the Charles offers five-day runs of films that provide terrific holiday-season counter-programming.

In Ramona Diaz's remarkable documentary Imelda, the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, emerges as an improbable blend of Jackie Kennedy and Evita Peron, with (at least in her own mind) a bit of Mrs. Santa Claus mixed in.

A singing beauty who helped her husband Ferdinand to the presidency and increased her support and personal power as he moved from democrat to dictator, she's a remarkable character. Exploiting what used to be called "feminine wiles" on a global scale, she presents herself as a high priestess of "beauty" ("love made real"); she puts into flossy words and barely scrutable diagrams her own risible philosophy of an aesthetic human order. When she pours money into a national arts center, you can't help gasping at the disconnect between the spectacle of moneyed First World culture and the reality of Third World poverty and illiteracy.

But the movie never permits us to view the Marcos regime as just a Bizarro-world version of the Kennedys' Camelot. The director doesn't let us forget that Ferdinand is rounding up and torturing political prisoners. And Diaz opens up the mysteries of national identity, linking even Imelda's famous and fabulous assortment of shoes to shared strains in Philippine culture - the woman who guards the collection in a museum admits to trying a pair on. Imelda reminds us that even established democracies can be prone to heroine-worship when a first lady embodies a new kind of patriotic allure, makes an international fashion splash and raises attractive children in the public eye. Of course, there are also moments of appalling and divine absurdity - such as ever-tan George Hamilton warbling "I Can't Give You Anything But Love (Imelda)."

Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a near-great British neo-noir, harsh yet hypnotic. Its psychological vortex can suck you in and leave you reeling.

Clive Owen brings bales of impacted grief and fury to Will Graham, a former gangster who doesn't trust himself in normal circumstances - at least as "normal" is defined in the drug-ridden London neighborhood of Brixton. His only hope of leading an ethical life is to exile himself to the country. But when his brother becomes the victim of an unexpected atrocity, Will echoes the Michael Corleone who said, "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in."

What's fascinating and potent about Hodges' work is the way it crosses expectations at every turn. Will looks like a bum when he wages his moral crusade, and like a prosperous businessman when he teeters on the edge of violence. The movie overflows with rue and wisdom about subjects as different as lapsed love, male rape and bad communal bonding. Both spare and voluptuously atmospheric, Hodges' direction makes a thugs' hangout register as a haunted ballroom and brings the Brixton streets a terrible, night-blooming beauty.

Seemingly random episodes, such as a brutal rural beating, tap into Will's feelings of guilt and impotence - and reverberate throughout the movie. In one of the picture's many surprises, the lines of aggression and revenge don't always connect. But emotionally, the film is all of a piece. Hodges holds it together with the help of that mature siren Charlotte Rampling as Will's disappointed lover and an unusually restrained Malcolm McDowell as a deceptive, dapper villain. And Owen is superb as an actor and re-actor. He brings new force to the phrase "poker face": he wields his like a weapon.

Atypical Hitchcock

The Charles' revival series (noon Saturday, 9 p.m. Thursday) this week showcases Rope (1948) - one Hitchcock movie that's distinguished less by suspense than by a peculiarly modern and neurotic ghoulishness. Hitchcock based Rope on a 1929 Patrick Hamilton play inspired by the Nathan Leopold/Richard Loeb case of two brilliant homosexual teenagers killing an innocent 14-year-old for the intellectual thrill of it.

In the screenplay by Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn, Leopold and Loeb are now Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), a couple of Manhattan dandies; their victim, David, is another member of their social set. Rope is no whodunit - the murder is the first thing we see after the credits. It's not even a will-they-get-what's-coming? The two dump the corpse into a chest that, minutes after the killing, becomes the centerpiece of a dinner party for the dead man's family, his fiancee, his closest rival for her hand, and their former prep-school teacher (James Stewart), who soon suspects his ex-pupils of foul play.

Rope is mostly a virtuoso essay on foreboding. Hitchcock creates an illusion of continuously flowing action (the film is shot in 10-minute takes, with editing serving only to connect them), an illusion compounded by the play's unfolding in "real" time: the 80 minutes of the murder, the party and the aftermath. The effect is to put us in Brandon's shoes, letting us soak up adrenaline while icily evaluating disaster.

And Dall, as Brandon, puts on quite a show of his own. His oily solicitude barely disguises his malice toward all.

For information: www.thecharles.com.

SUN SCORE 3 1/2 stars (***1/2)

SUN SCORE 3 1/2 stars (***1/2)

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