In Deep

Undertow flirts with the mainstream without getting pulled under

Word on the street was that David Gordon Green had finally thrown in the towel.Green, a young filmmaker previously known for specializing exclusively in deeply poetic and doggedly uncommercial films like George Washington and All the Young Girls, was supposed to have finally taken a stab at a "real" movie. And, in a sense, that's just what Undertow turns out to be.

There's a healthy chunk of aggressive, plot-driven action on the screen this time — some might even call the movie a thriller — and some of it might actually connect with mainstream movie audiences. Still, Undertow is miles away from by-the-numbers Hollywood. The movie represents more of a shift (a beefing-up, if you will) than a marked change from the languid, largely improvised mood-pieces that Green's given us in the past.

The distinctive tone and tenor of Undertow let us know there's a real live artist's hand pulling the strings here. What Green seems to be up to this time is a stripped-down re-imagining of Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's classic tale of two small siblings playing a life-or-death game of hide and seek with their seriously twisted stepfather. In Undertow, the siblings are a little older and a lot more fractured — one brother is a sickly 10-year-old, and the other is an agitated teen teetering on the cusp of adulthood — and the hymn-singing, psycho-preacher stepdad of the earlier film has been transformed into an oily, ex-con uncle in a muscle car.

Other than that, Undertow could be a dead ringer for Hunter with its elegant, sometimes ominous fairy-tale atmosphere and its almost mythical pitch. The movie is crammed to the gills with primal stuff like greed, lust, murder and terrifying blood rivalries between brother and brother, father and son. There's even a long-lost treasure of cursed gold coins — the coveted McGuffin that sets in motion the movie's deadly chase.

Green again sets his movie in the beloved, rural South of his previous films. Reflected through the eye of the director's longtime cinematographer Tim Orr, an overgrown field or a rickety shed or an old pick-up truck rusting in someone's yard becomes the object of a dreamy sort of beauty, rather than something to be snickered at. It's a little early to be calling Green a visionary, but this is clearly a filmmaker whose particular way of looking at the world seeps into everything he does. It may not even be possible for him to make a conventional movie-movie, at least on the evidence of Undertow, a blank slate inexplicably transformed into something meaningful by little more than sheer will. * * *

Undertow is everywhere this week, by the way. The film opens Friday at local theaters in Tampa, but it's also one of the many films being presented at Sarasota's annual Cine-World Film Festival, a whirlwind sampling of some of today's most acclaimed foreign films.

This year's Cine-World is already halfway through its 10-day run, but some of the festival's biggest draws are yet to come, including Pedro Almodovar's much-anticipated Bad Education (Nov. 11, 8 p.m.; Nov. 12, 2:30 p.m.); Beyond the Sea, starring Kevin Spacey as bad-boy lounge lizard Bobby Darin (Nov. 12, 10 p.m.; Nov. 13, 5:50 p.m.); and A Very Long Engagement, the new one from Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Nov. 13, 2:45 p.m., Nov. 14, 8 p.m.). The festival has also managed to snag bookings of the Christian Bale psychological thriller The Machinist (Nov. 11, 12:30 p.m., Nov. 13, 10:20 p.m.), and Les Choristes (Nov. 10, 5:50 p.m.; Nov. 12, 7:45 p.m.), the brand new romantic comedy that's tearing up the box office in France this year.

Some of the highlights of Cine-World '04 include the simple but haunting Russian drama The Return (Nov. 11, 8:10 p.m.), reviewed here last week and highly recommended. Ditto for the hypnotic and utterly original Waiting for Happiness (Nov. 11, 5:30 p.m.; Nov. 12, 3 p.m.). This is one of those slice-of-life movies, but a slice so exotic that it has the effect of science fiction, like some sort of scrambled ethnological study beamed in from outer space. The setting is a small village in the African desert country of Mauritania, where tribal custom and scattered traces of modernity collide in subtle yet curiously meaningful ways. The screen fills with gorgeous, languorously paced imagery and one fascinating, funny and frequently mystifying vignette after another.

Also from Africa is Moolaade (Nov. 13, noon; Nov. 14, 8:15 p.m.), the new film from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, a man often (and rightly) referred to as the father of African cinema. Sembene, who is now 81 years old, has over the years dazzled us with the ability to make wise, funny and thoroughly entertaining films out of such unlikely topics as colonialism, class struggle and Islamic imperialism in Africa. His latest, Moolaade, tackles the immensely off-putting subject of female genital mutilation, but don't let that dissuade you from checking it out: Moolaade is one of Sembene's very best, and that's saying a lot. African films almost never show up around these parts, so the Cine-World screenings of Moolaade may be your only chance to ever see this fascinating work.

Another winner being screened at this year's festival is Dolls (Nov. 10, 3 p.m.; Nov. 12, 5:30 p.m.), filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's exquisitely visual treatment of a famous Japanese tragedy about two young lovers torn apart by an arranged marriage. In Kitano's version, the story is presented first as an elaborately conceived Bunraku puppet play, and then by dolls that magically come to life and wander the world seeking redemption. The movie can be maddeningly enigmatic, but it's never less than heartbreakingly lovely.

There's much more, too. The Phantom of Henri Langlois (Nov. 14, 12:30 p.m.), a four-hour documentary on the founder of the French Cinématheque, may be a bit too academic for some, but dedicated cineastes will be in heaven at this exhaustive history lesson. At the other end of the pop culture spectrum, Cine-World will be screening a restored print of the original 1954 Godzilla, otherwise known as Gojira (Nov. 13 and 14, 10:30 p.m.). This misunderstood classic has been restored to its original gleaming black-and-white splendor, and will be presented in its original Japanese language with English subtitles (as the good Lord intended), and shorn of those idiotic inserts of Raymond Burr that helped turn the American dubbed version into such a joke. From high art to hallucinatory camp, it's enough to have movie buffs convulsing in fits of ecstasy, and that's only the tip of the cinematic iceberg that is this year's Cine-World.

The Cine-world International Film Festival, through Nov. 14, Burns Court Cinemas, 506 Burns Lane. Individual tickets or multiple film passes available by calling 941-364-8662.

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