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JULY 24, 2000: 

BOSSA NOVA. If you hear Buena Vista Social Club in the title, you're at an entirely different movie. This Brazilian romantic comedy, directed by Bruno Barreto (Four Days in September), is the sometimes silly sometimes heart-breaking saga of an American language teacher (Amy Irving) who falls in love with one of her students while on vacation in Rio de Janeiro. When her attempts to seduce the man of her dreams misfire, her romantic fantasy turns into a tragicomic nightmare of being pursued by the wrong guy. True to its title, however, all the trials and triumphs of "love versus amor" are set against a who's-who soundtrack of Latin rhythms. For the musically appreciative but romantic-comedy challenged, the combination may have a Clockwork Orange effect (remember the classical music--the toothpicks--the violence?); but for the rest of humanity, it's just another opportunity to see how the mediocrity of commercial cinema transcends all cultural boundaries. In English and Portugese. --Mari Wadsworth

COTTON MARY. Against all expectation, the most experimental movie on the Loft marquee is this Merchant-Ivory production. In any other movie, illicit sex, despicable characters, swearing and shoddy production values might be taken in stride. But can this be the same Ismail Merchant, executive producer? (His lily-white creative partner appears in the credits in franchise name only.) The 64-year-old filmmaker lights out from the expensive and tepid waters of the trademark English epic to return to his cultural and cinematic roots in India. Set on the Malabar Coast in 1954, this complicated narrative about racism and class begins with a Catholic Anglo-Indian nurse, Cotton Mary, who befriends a frightened Englishwoman who can't breastfeed her newborn daughter. Cotton Mary offers the same elaborate sets and panoramic views audiences have come to expect, but there's nothing genteel or restrained about this snapshot of Indian society in its first decade of independence from Britain. This rather dark tale of desire and vengeance (adapted from the eponymous play by Alexandra Viets) is doled out slowly and effectively over the course of 124 minutes. While not exactly enjoyable, it's a wholly unexpected and challenging experience. Starring English stage actress Madhur Jaffrey, her daughter Sakina Jaffrey (as niece Rosie), Greta Scacchi as the wealthy former colonial, Lily, and co-starring an errant boom microphone that must've had a really good agent. --Mari Wadsworth

LUMINARIAS. If there's one thing I learned from growing up in Los Angeles, it's that the closest biological thing to a neutron bomb is an empowered East L.A. Chicana. I don't know why or how, but few people (and none of them Anglo) possess and turn into cultural identity that level of passion and presence. Luminarias attempts to harness that formidable energy into a very mainstream plot about five Chicana-Latina women and their relationships with men and with each other. While it's wonderful to see this vibrant minority culture acknowledged in the marketplace (the empty but official Seal of Existence in American society), these five stories of love and family attempt to claim and tame every cultural cliché, stereotype and archetype under the sun. Andrea is a divorce lawyer with an unfaithful husband. Her main client is a bright but undereducated young mother, fleeing her abusive boyfriend. Lili is a naïve spritualist, part Mexican and part Native American, who falls in love with a Korean 7-11 owner. Sophia is a light-haired, perky-nosed yuppie therapist who emphasizes her Anglo accent when speaking Spanish. Irene is a bigoted fashion designer who's given up sex for Lent and Anglos for life, and thinks her gay brother is just "confused." Their arguments and insights are saturated with color, humor, and sentiment, but one is left with the feeling a more powerful story is chaffing under the straightjacket of this Hollywood formula. --Mari Wadsworth

SUNSHINE. KXCI used to play this novelty folk song called something like, "I Am My Own Grandpa," the lyrics of which were a rhyming recitation of the singer's convoluted family tree. Having that pedestrian song running through your head while viewing this ambitious, amber-hued epic is sort of like laughing through somebody's funeral, but hey. One hundred years in the life of the Sonnenschein family clocks in at three hours, leaving exactly two hours and fifty minutes for the crime to become its own punishment. Adding injury to insult is the utterly two-dimensional Ralph Fiennes in a triple leading role, as fictional narrator Ivan, his father Adam, and grandfather Ignatz. While this will make some women swoon and some men indifferent, it makes me think that even had I suffered a traumatic and permanent head injury, I couldn't smile upon the endemically repressed, fish-eyed Fiennes as romantic hero. Nonetheless, playwright Israel Horvitz's multi-generational tale has the allegorical feel of Tolstoy or Kundera, covering the same socio-political territory of love and war with literary insight and director Istvan Szábo's lingering cinematography. The fate of "A Taste of Sunshine," a secret elixir passed down from father to son, is the metaphorical prism through which we view the extraordinary lives and events--namely, 50 years of fascist, socialist and communist revolutions in Eastern Europe--shaped and suffered by one Austro-Hungarian Jewish family. Sunshine is like three one-hour movies that add up to a masterful allegory about the human condition, as disease. Though a bit of an endurance test, it's a moving and powerful saga. --Mari Wadsworth

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