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The Gaslamp 15 still bears keeping an eye on. Hopefully this won’t turn into a deathwatch, though I note that the hours of operation have been scaled back on weekdays to a late-afternoon start, a worrisome sign. Under the new management of Reading Cinemas, however, the theater continues to be what it was under Pacific, if not more so: a shelter to prolong the shelf life of the mainstream film (e.g., 21 and 88 Minutes, still lingering as of this week), as well as an outlet for alternative films, oftentimes hand-me-downs from Landmark (The Counterfeiters, Before the Rains, In Bruges, et al.), sometimes even first-run ones, to chip away at the Landmark monopoly. I missed the blink-of-an-eye engagement of the American indie, Meet Bill, a couple of weeks back, but this Friday’s offering of Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman was screened ahead of time. (The concurrent offerings of Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely and Christopher Zalla’s Sangre de Mi Sangre were not.) It bears a closer look.

Tornatore’s name imprinted itself on the filmgoer’s consciousness twenty years ago with Cinema Paradiso, and, riding that tidal wave, each of his half-dozen films in the interim (counting his one-third of an anthology film) has been blessed to see the light of day, or light of projector, at one or another of the Landmark houses, Malena most recently. The Unknown Woman, dated 2006, and now saved from the orphanage by the Gaslamp, keeps us abreast of developments. Which in this case means deviations. His made-in-France crime thriller, A Pure Formality, had once before taken the filmmaker out of the syrup and into the slime, albeit with some cerebral-absurdist-surrealist pretensions. In his latest one, he has ventured again into the thriller realm, without such pretensions. The cognoscenti might even be tempted to dust off the term giallo, Italian synonym for dime novel, penny dreadful, the pulps, série noire (to the French), and, in its particular incarnation on the Italian screen, heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, the erotic thriller, or, in awkward but graphic translation, the “sexy-thrilling.” Dario Argento, one of the pillars of the genre, has a film currently in production titled bluntly Giallo, strict equivalent of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

The Tornatore film begins in a fog of intrigue. Its first shot, a lascivious stunner, is a rear view of three women in thongs and bras, symmetrically lined up in a vague cavernous interior. A disembodied male voice gives them direction: turn around (revealing the women to be wearing masks), strip, and send out the next three. He selects the one in the blond wig on the left: she’ll do fine. Do what? We then drop into the chosen one’s life, sans wig, as a Ukrainian immigrant looking for work as a maid, bedevilled by brief, almost subliminal flashes of flesh and rope, too quick to make out, but redolent of S&M. She sets her cap for a specific apartment building, kicking back thirty percent of her salary to the super for the privilege, turning down other jobs, and setting her cap anew for a specific apartment in the building, befriending the elderly nanny of the accident-prone little girl in residence, and then ruthlessly getting the nanny out of the way, in a pool of blood. (The fog thickens.) What’s she up to? Are we supposed to sympathize?

One senses, one smells, the possibility of a revenge scheme, although the insidious insinuator proves to be not in perfect control of the situation. After a while one gets a whiff of something sweeter, a protectiveness towards this bruised little girl, a benevolent regimen to toughen her up. Any tentative hypotheses you might form are sure to fall short of the full story. And yet the plot twists are not so loopy as to overpower centripetal force and to send credibility hurtling off into space. It requires a tight rein. At times Tornatore could stand comparison with Hitchcock. (In lieu of his usual point of comparison, Fellini.) One of those times, an excruciating exercise in subjectivity, perhaps just a bit rushed, would be the heroine’s lifting of a set of keys from her companion’s purse at the movies, her excusing herself to the ladies’ room, and her frantic dash next door to get copies made, only to find long lines at the counter and to draw ticket number 51 when they’re now serving customer 37. Nor is Tornatore afraid to make a stab at upmanship: the denigration of the scissors as a lethal weapon can be seen as a deliberate snub of the Master’s Dial M for Murder. The Bernard Herrmann-esque score of Ennio Morricone, in the pulsing, revving, driving vein of North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, invites more of this comparison than Tornatore can truly stand.

All the same, the high polish of his technique goes far to counteract the luridness of the material: the couple of strong-arm thugs in Santa suits, the veteran character actor Michele Placido as a hairless ogre called “Mold,” the gradual fleshing-out of those fleshy flashbacks, tawdrier and tawdrier. (The fog clears.) And the Russian-born leading lady, Ksenia Rappoport, with her haunted and hunted look, starved face and bug eyes, smoldering fire and subtle shading, makes a very strong showing. She, all on her own, merits a look. The unforeseen coda spirits her, and us, back to the Tornatore of old, a step into a puddle of syrup.

* * *

The Indiana Jones preview screening this past month was held at the brand-spanking-new AMC Plaza Bonita 14 in the South Bay, roughly at the junction, as I peer at my Thomas Bros., of National City, Chula Vista, Paradise Hills, and of course Bonita. That’s a ways off my beat, and since the lineup of movies is pretty much the same lineup as at any other multiplex, it looks unlikely that I’ll be returning there often or ever. Nonetheless it seems incumbent upon me as a gracious guest to say that all those who live within a reasonable radius have themselves a nice new place to see the big new movies.

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jomama June 12, 2008 @ 2:58 p.m.

Once again proving Duncan Shepard is the Robert Hilburn of movie reviewers.

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