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MAY 24, 1999: 

Trekkies

Paramount strikes back! Except that the studio doesn't have a new Star Trek entry to send out against the Lucas mega-movie, so it's had to settle for this Roger Nygard-directed documentary about Star Trek fans who are truly fanatic. Nygard interweaves talking-head commentary by crew members from all four Trek generations (but mostly the original series) with a look at various Trekkies (or "Trekkers" -- yes, the distinction is discussed) who devote their lives to the world that Gene Roddenberry created. You'll meet the Whitewater juror who wore her uniform (she's the "captain" of the Little Rock Federation "starship" Artemis, one of many such starships around the country) to court every day; the dentist who turned his office into Starbase Dental and put his receptionist and assistants into Trek uniforms; the world's most devoted "Spiner Femme" (for Brent Spiner, who plays The Next Generation's Data); the cat "Bones," whose owner has dolled him up in a Leonard McCoy scrub top.

Denise Crosby -- The Next Generation's Tasha Yar -- is the on-camera presence who ties all this together, and she navigates skillfully between appreciation and bemusement. At 100 minutes, the film does go on, and you might wish that the original cast wouldn't take it all so seriously, or that more thoughtful questions would be asked, like how Star Trek fanatics differ from Star Wars fanatics. But it's hard not to be moved when Kate Mulgrew (Voyager's Captain Janeway) explains that when they ask you to visit a child in a hospital, you go, because you know he won't be there next time around. Trekkies is dedicated, we learn at the end, to "Bones" (the cat, not DeForest Kelley), who passed away after his footage was shot.

-- Jeffrey Gantz



A Place Called Chiapas

Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild wears her biases on her sleeve. Providing her own voiceover narration of her five-month expedition to the troubled southern Mexican state of Chiapas, she sometimes comes off as a First World romantic revolutionary voyeur. "In Canada, we debated the North American Free Trade Agreement -- in Mexico they went to war over it." And she jacks up the drama with a spooky, evocative soundtrack score and theatrical editing. Sometimes she seems gullible, sometimes merely unclear (the complicated issues get a cursory explanation). But she's brave and relentless, and revealing in spite of herself. The romance of black-ski-masked armed revolutionaries on horseback and their mysterious city-bred leader, Marcos, gives way to the everyday realities of an impoverished Mayan Indian population living in near-ungovernable chaos, and the contending forces of Zapatistas, the paramilitary right-wing Peace and Justice group, and federal troops. The film is exquisitely shot and edited, and in the end you come to trust both the tale and the teller.

-- Jon Garelick



Dancemaker

Matthew Diamond's new documentary about the Paul Taylor Dance Company avoids the gush and the complacency of the rest of its species. This is neither a record of choreographed dances -- Taylor has made several good ones already, for PBS -- nor a flattering, pseudo-intimate peek inside the studio that tries to make dancers seem like regular guys.

The 90-minute film shows the world of a great choreographer as a multi-layered, fragile but intense web of near-fanatical people. In rehearsals and choreographing sessions, business meetings, parties, and hotel rooms, they struggle with pain and anxiety. Will Paul choose them for his next dance? Could they somehow falter and jeopardize the company's season or end their career? They hunch over cigarettes in hallways, talking about the glowing moments when they connect with Paul, their punishing regimen and their terror of a layoff, and their unappeased need to dance. At the center is Taylor, a pixie, a demon, a recluse, a genius, an exhausted, over-60 father figure and employer who says he hates going to the studio every morning but can't think what else he'd do.

Diamond's collage editing and agile camera give us a remarkably big picture of the Taylor company, which inadvertently or maybe inevitably became a family over its 40-year history. Breathtaking archival sequences of early Taylor performances and lost dances I still remember get spliced in, not just as scrapbook mementos but to illustrate an ongoing art-life. Former company members reminisce -- but Taylor's not in the room.

The film begins in black and white at the first rehearsal of a new dance, Piazzolla Caldera, and ends with technicolor bows after the premiere. By that time, we know how much those happy smiles have cost.

The Taylor company returns to Boston next fall (October 29 through 31) as part of the BankBoston Celebrity series. There couldn't be a better introduction than Dancemaker.

-- Marcia B. Siegel



Black Mask

This 1996 Hong Kong action thriller has been dubbed and dumped on the American public now that its star, Jet Li, has hit it big in Lethal Weapon 4. In this futuristic comic-book adaptation, Li is a member of a covert corps of cyber-engineered super-cops. When the experiment goes sour, the units are processed for termination, but several escape during a last-minute insurrection. Li assimilates into Hong Kong society as a meek librarian and befriends a rough-and-tumble police inspector (Lau Ching-Wan). The remainder of the kill-happy militia, under the hand of their psychotic commander (a gaudy, John Lennon-ish Patrick Lung), embark on an ultra-violent -- and gory -- campaign to take over Hong Kong's underworld. Realizing his cop buddy doesn't stand a chance and looking to protect his new identity, Li dons a Kato-esque costume -- replete with the celebrated object of the film's title -- and goes at it with his former stablemates.

The plot is sheer techno-garble, but when it comes to action, The Black Mask delivers with an adrenaline-pumping kick. The flashy, martial-arts fight sequences, choreographed by Yuen Woo-pin (the brains behind the stylistic kung fu work in The Matrix), are Jackie Chan caliber. Behind the mask, or in the restrained demure of the librarian, Li is charismatic, Lau exudes an über-cool machismo, and as the Mask's former and present love interests, a bondage-clad Françoise Yip (Rumble in the Bronx) and a ditzy, cute Karen Mok are wonderfully spicy.

-- Tom Meek



The Beggar's Opera

In 1728, at the behest of his friend Jonathan Swift, the English composer John Gay turned out one of the first ballad operas, a trenchant satire of Hanoverian England in which the rascally highwayman Captain Macheath (read: Prime Minister Robert Walpole) endeavors to stay one step ahead of the gallows while dallying with the likes of Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit, and Jenny Diver. Gay's hit was adapted by Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill for their Threepenny Opera, which in this century has eclipsed the original; but it turns out that back in 1953 Peter Brook directed a film version of The Beggar's Opera for Warner Bros., and that's getting a rare screening this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive.

Don't expect Masterpiece Theatre -- this glossy color adaptation, with additional lyrics and dialogue courtesy of playwright Christopher Fry and music by Arthur Bliss (obscuring the Handel-like flavor), serves up Laurence Olivier as a Robin Hood of a hero who even does his own singing (the other characters are doubled). A degree of period flavor infiltrates the Hollywood haze, but Olivier is somewhat brittle (Sean Connery or Roger Moore would be just right), and his singing, though passable, is hardly operatic. At least you can understand him; the singing voices for Polly and Lucy emerge as shrill and the words are often unintelligible (blame in part the bad sound). And it's hard to forget you're watching a studio film, right down to the dreadful rear projection. No lost masterpiece, then, but when Macheath's ladies swing into "Youth's a Season Made for Joy" and the dancing starts up, it's a curiosity well worth your time. At the Harvard Film Archive this Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22.

-- Jeffrey Gantz



Endurance

This docudrama directed by Britain's Leslie Woodhead follows the rise of Ethiopian runner and Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie. Bookended by the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where Haile wins the gold medal for the men's 10,000-meter run, the bulk of the film looks back to Haile's adolescence in the Ethiopian countryside. Running through dry fields, six miles to school, spending another three hours a day fetching water, and witnessing his mother's decline, Haile (who is played by the runner's real-life nephew, Yonas Zergaw, until later scenes, where Haile plays himself) gets the ruler from his teacher for being late, a whack from his father for not focusing on farm work, and still he hangs on to his dreams of running with a humble tenacity.

The imagery of the film is impressive, with the wide-open African countryside and the congested streets of Addis filling the screen. Haile runs (and I mean runs) through these landscapes in his American-style running shorts, his breath reverberating in our ears. The film lags a bit in the second half, perhaps because we know where this runner is headed (even when he comes in 99th in his first marathon, even when his father tells him again and again that running is not a good idea) and we'd like him to hurry up and get there. An hour and a half with Endurance may make you want to try harder, complain less, and hell, maybe even run.

-- Rachel O'Malley



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