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MARCH 2, 1998: 

"The Cinema of Andrei Konchalovsky"

How did the brilliant Soviet director of such lyrical gems as The First Teacher and mammoth epics as Siberiade end up in Hollywood churning out the 1989 Kurt Russell/Sylvester Stallone turkey Tango & Cash? The retrospective of Andrei Konchalovsky's work showing this week -- February 27 through March 5 -- at the Coolidge Corner does not answer that question, but it does vindicate a filmmaker who has drifted into unfortunate obscurity and erratic productivity.

Certainly his debut feature didn't portend a future shaping the comic nuances of Homer and Eddie. The First Teacher (1965; screens Sunday and Wednesday at 9:15 p.m.) is a fable of pristine simplicity that recalls the work of such recent Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami. The film opens with bleak images of the Mongolian landscape and a primitive village -- the rustic equivalent of Michelangelo Antonioni's montage of technological anomie at the end of L'eclisse. Into this wasteland comes a young teacher appointed by the then fledgling Soviet government to enlighten its denizens. His only sign of authority is a hood with a homemade star; the villagers greet him with laughter.

Neither is he much of a teacher (instruction consists in part of chanting "Socialism! Socialism!"). But through sheer bullheadedness, and a disconcerting flirtation with a student (he's no Sidney Poitier from To Sir with Love), the teacher perseveres, sort of -- the climactic cutting down of a towering tree is symbolically ambiguous, though strangely resonant.

As critical as Teacher is of its village, the film demonstrates one of Konchalovsky's supreme virtues -- as the retrospective's title puts it, "the poetry of place." In Asya's Happiness (1967; Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at 5:45 and 10 p.m., with a Saturday matinee at 1:30 p.m.), the star of the show is not the pregnant lame woman of the title but the stunning vistas of rural Russia and the tradition- and history-rich lives of the people who labor therein. With a cast of nonprofessionals from the area, the semi-documentary tapestry that emerges is poignant, impassioned, politically astute (which explains why it was banned for 20 years), and never sentimental.

The setting figures prominently in Konchalovsky's adaptation of Uncle Vanya (1970; Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at 3:30 and 7:50 p.m.) -- its decaying dacha is an objective correlative of the fettered characters of the Chekhov classic. Here the director exercises another of his strengths: his skill with actors. With the exception of Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, it's the finest version of the play on screen.

Siberiade (1971; Sunday at 2 p.m.) may enjoy just a little too much space -- and time -- for its own good. Clocking in at more four hours, it made me feel every verst and generation of its six-decade saga of the winning of the wild East. It's kind of a cross between Bertolucci's 1900 and George Stevens's Giant -- but the relentless low comedy and the mugging performance by Konchalovsky's brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, put it in the deep freeze for me.

Not so one of his earlier Hollywood productions, and in many ways his masterpiece, Runaway Train (1985; Monday and Thursday at 3:30 and 8 p.m.). Starring Jon Voight (who initially lured Konchalovsky to Hollywood) as an escaped convict who stows away on a train with knuckleheaded sidekick Eric Roberts, it's the epitome of American genre filmmaking, triumphing as drama, spectacle, and harrowing allegory. The final image is one of the most beautiful Hollywood has produced; too bad they rewarded the filmmaker with Whoopi Goldberg.

-- Peter Keough

Krippendorf's Tribe

Hollywood must have run out of plots if it's making wacky comedies at the expense of indigenous cultures. Which it is. Here, Richard Dreyfuss stars as James Krippendorf, an anthropologist raising a family with grant money. When he realizes the fraud could send him to jail, he poses his kids as a previously undiscovered tribe in New Guinea. In typically zany bad-comedy fashion, the hoax snowballs with madcap antics. It's sort of like Wag the Dog as done by the Discovery Channel, except that Krippendorf's Tribe offers almost nothing in terms of entertainment or education.

Worse, the film lacks any attractive characters (once you get past the inevitable sympathy toward Lily Tomlin for being involved in this mess). The cast seems to be having a contest to see who can be the most annoying. Dreyfuss offers his trademark whine as a heavy-handed single parent. Jenna Elfman (Dharma and Greg) is relentlessly cute as his love interest, most gratingly during her cliché-ridden drunk scene. Yet the most painful moments arise whenever the camera turns to Krippendorf's daughter: Natasha Lyonne is even more unbearable than she was in Everyone Says I Love You, if that's possible. By the end of the film, you hope Krippendorf goes to jail, along with Lyonne, director Todd Holland, and pretty much everyone else responsible for this disaster.

-- Dan Tobin

Kissing a Fool

This is a darker, more self-indulgent variation of My Best Friend's Wedding that finds two friends pursuing the same woman. Max (David Schwimmer of Friends) and Jay (Jason Lee) have known each other since childhood and remain close even though Max is a womanizing sportscaster while Jay is a sensitive writer still licking his wounds from a traumatic break-up. Being a good pal, Jay sets Max up with his editor, Sam (Mili Avital); and after only one date, romantic clichés like "love at first sight" and "opposites attract" are being batted about freely. The two get engaged, whereupon Jay realizes his love for Sam. Things really get complex when Max attempts to test Sam's fidelity by insisting Jay try to seduce her.

Schwimmer plays his two-dimensional egotist with the perfect degree of testosterone, and Avital is a sensual delight as the woman caught in the middle. But Lee, who was so hilarious in Chasing Amy, indulges in too many hyperbolic rants to be convincing as a sensitive romantic. Bonnie Hunt adds a juicy performance as Jay's dicy publisher; that and the lush, cinematic framing of Chicago helps keep this romantic comedy a notch above its formulaic roots.

-- Tom Meek

Dangerous Beauty

Dangerous Beauty doesn't know whether it wants to be a lofty historical drama or a crass Zalman King-style sexploitation flick (that is, one that thinks it's lofty but isn't), so it ends up being neither very intelligent nor very sexy. Catherine McCormack (Mel Gibson's ill-fated wife in Braveheart) plays Veronica Franco, a 16th-century Venetian who learns that the only way for a woman of her low station to get what she wants -- money, an education, freedom, and studly aristocrat Rufus Sewell -- is to become a courtesan servicing Venice's noblemen. (Instructing her in the art of pleasure is Jacqueline Bisset, naturally.) This proves a wise career move until, reeling from war, plague, and the Inquisition, Venice's old-boy network scapegoats her for its own sexual hypocrisy (plus ça change!). She is saved from the stake, however, in an absurd "I am Spartacus!" finale. McCormack is nice to look at and game for anything, including swordplay and Renaissance poetry slams, but the movie's stone-faced silliness does a disservice both to its star and to the surely more intriguing true story of Victoria Franco.

-- Gary Susman

Caught Up

All ex-convict Daryl Allen (Bokeem Woodbine) wants is to straighten out his life. Fate, however, isn't cooperating. Fresh out of jail, he beds a tarot-card-reading temptress (Cynda Williams) who nabs him a job as a driver at a shady limo service. Soon it's clear that this mystical babe's dealt Daryl quite a hand, as he dodges bullets and ducks a sadistic Rastafarian (Basil Wallace) with a really bad accent, mun.

In his directorial debut, writer/producer Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood) takes his cues from '70s blaxploitation flicks. With its broad parade of freaky white guys and 'hood-hardened black dudes, this comedy/thriller isn't afraid to poke satirical jabs at urban life; more important, it isn't afraid to uphold the benevolent over the bad-ass. Daryl, played with a winning mix of incredulity and spunk by Woodbine, steps out as the parable's archetypal hero, a victim of circumstance in a society salivating to slap a pair of cuffs on him. Genuinely funny at times, the film does get snagged on its attempts to ply an overly twisty plot. The fallout is messy, and though cameos by Snoop Doggy Dogg and L.L. Cool J add a dollop of hipness, Caught Up never quite catches up.

-- Alicia Potter

An Alan Smithee Film -- Burn Hollywood Burn

"Alan Smithee" is Hollywood's dirty little moniker inserted into a film's credits when a disgruntled director doesn't want his name associated with an inevitable dud. So what happens if your name really is Alan Smithee? That's the kind of dumb fun this mockumentary aims for as it spoofs the inner circle of Hollywood's notorious film biz.

Eric Idle is a delightfully discombobulated mess as Smithee, the British import who jumps hook, line, and sinker at the chance to direct a mega-budget actioner staring Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, and Whoopi Goldberg. Entitled Trio, the film is an overproduced dog that strands Smithee behind the camera as little more than a pawn. Humiliated and left with no legitimate way to strike his name from the picture, the neurotic auteur steals the film and goes on the lam, leaving the crew of mockumentarians and his bullish producers frantic and in the lurch.

Written by the king of Hollywood overindulgence, Joe Eszterhas (Show Girls), Burn Hollywood Burn is surprisingly coherent, but a handful of insider chuckles and a bevy of star-powered cameos can't hide this slapstick emulation of The Player from what it really is: a shameless exercise in self-flagellation.

-- Tom Meek

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