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Movies on the edge


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

[Photo: Sony Pictures Classics]
From left, Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Bonnaire and Erwan Baynaud in East-West, nominated for best foreign language film of 1999.
EAST-WEST (PG-13) (121 min.) -- After World War II, Josef Stalin invited Russian emigres to return home. Many who accepted the offer, except intellectuals with skills to share, were jailed or executed as traitors.

Spared lives were under constant surveillance, creating tension that director Regis Wargnier shapes into leisurely melodrama.

Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is French, married to Alexei (Oleg Menshikov), a Russian doctor who fled during the war. Alexei wants to return to the U.S.S.R. with his family.

Marie agrees, with the provision that they will return to France if things don't work out. Before long, they are trapped in a nation of informants and poverty, always under suspicion because of Marie's foreign heritage.

Deprived of her freedom, Marie quietly rebels with adulterous temptation and notions of escape. A famous actor with left-wing political views, played with grace and guile by Catherine Deneuve, becomes her ally.

East-West operates in the grand tradition of films such as Doctor Zhivago, in which tiny lives are thrown into turmoil by grand historical tragedy. Wargnier takes a methodical approach to Marie's growing dissatisfaction, lingering on each detail of her oppressed life. The pace quickens in the final act, when political intrigue replaces social commentary.

Bonnaire keenly balances Marie's devotion to family and her own independence, both of which are crushed under Stalin's regime. However, Menshikov can't make Alexei's decision to return anything more affecting than blind patriotism. The husband is more villain than victim, as the screenplay seeks some tangible antagonist for Marie.

East-West was nominated for best foreign-language film at this year's Academy Awards. Shown with English subtitles. Opens today at Tampa Theatre and Beach Theater. B

SPIKE AND MIKE'S SICK AND TWISTED FESTIVAL OF ANIMATION (Not rated, probably NC-17) (100 min.) -- Another gross-out cartoon collection. But this time, the most unsettling footage is live action. An introduction provides a peek at Spike Decker, one-half of this underground team, guzzling whiskey and blasting Teletubbie dolls with a shotgun. Grotesquely drunk and pleased with himself, Decker's short film erases any previous consolation that this series is done in good fun.

A feeling of disgust carries over to 21 short films showcasing bad taste. Everything is fair game, from birth defects and sexual perversion to amputations, cannibalism and crudely drawn genitalia. Nearly all cartoons feel longer than their brief running times. None convey the inspired anarchy of South Park or Beavis and Butt-Head, former Spike and Mike festival alumni.

Instead, viewers get obvious punchlines, including Mike Tyson meeting Vincent Van Gogh, Foreskin Gump, an urban gerbil-sex legend, electrocuted ballerinas and freeing a tongue from a frozen lamppost. Sick and twisted, to be certain, but this time they left out "funny."

Tampa Theatre only, 10 p.m. today and Saturday; 8:15 p.m. Sunday. D

UP AT THE VILLA (PG-13) (115 min.) -- As an actor, Sean Penn can successfully convey many traits, but propriety isn't one of them. Penn is terribly miscast as Rowley Flint, a suave American playboy in pre-World War II Italy, his familiar rough edges muted by the era's etiquette.

Even more puzzling in her behavior is Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a British visitor and possibly the future wife of wealthy diplomat Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox). She has three days to decide if she will marry him.

Mary and Rowley meet at a dinner party hosted by Princess San Fernandino (Anne Bancroft, fine as ever). Rowley is attracted to Mary, but she rudely resists. Instead, she beds Karl (Jeremy Davies), a grimy Austrian refugee, out of pity for his poverty.

Karl takes that night of affection seriously, killing himself when Mary refuses his later advances. Frightened by the potential scandal, Mary enlists Rowley to dispose of the body and concoct an alibi as gossip and Fascist oppression close in.

Scott Thomas has an affinity with these repressed roles, so much so that it approaches type-casting. The chill of her role and Penn's inability to locate some heat under his tuxedo makes them a bland duo. Up at the Villa looks great under Philip Haas' direction but plays flat as a crumpet.

Held over at Beach Theater. C

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