The Mayor of the Sunset Strip

dir. George Hickenlooper

Plays Fri-Thurs April 16-22 at the Varsity.
"What do you think is so special about mingling with celebrities?"

That question, and the failure by any of this film's many interviewees to answer it even partially, is the bleeding heart of a great documentary. Though the nominal subject of this piece is faded Los Angeles deejay Rodney Bingenheimer, the movie is a lot more interested in Bingenheimer's tattered Hollywood milieu than in presenting a simple has-been's biography. Since his arrival on the Strip in the mid-'60s, Rodney Bingenheimer has been, variously, a teen-scene face, Davy Jones' body double (!), a sycophant to the rich and famous, an impresario/pimp for glitter-era rock stars, and the unquestionable avatar of punk and new wave music on the SoCal airwaves. Now he's a relic, a token weirdo relegated to a tiny corner of the corporate-radio graveyard, with nothing to show for a life spent in service to the star-maker machinery but an extensive autograph collection. And while Rodney's story is definitely sad, the film doesn't quite ask you to feel sorry for him (even though you can't help but pity the guy). What it does instead, fortunately, is peer into Bingenheimer's vacuous soul, digging for insight into what is so goddamn special about the proximity to fame--or conversely, what is so goddamn terrible about distance from it--that a man could dedicate his entire existence to being what he calls "the bridge" between the glamorous few and the not-so-glamorous rest of us.

The answers are as intriguing as they are predictable; director Hickenlooper's delicate handling of personal matters that could easily have become maudlin exploitation testifies to his real area of interest. (He also has a laser eye for irony, as when he frames professional corpse fuckers like Danny Sugarman and Ray Manzarek talking about how "Rodney buys into the whole 'rock star' myth.") Rodney is essentially a metaphor for late-20th-century America. His obsessive belief in celebrity as a way of filling the holes in his own self-conception has led him to a melancholy twilight... but, you know, at least he met David Bowie. SEAN NELSON

Connie and Carla

dir. Michael Lembeck

Opens Fri April 16.
It's been a couple of years since the mind-boggling box-office success of writer-star Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, so the reception of her new effort, Connie and Carla, will be taken as evidence that she is either tapped into the throbbing aorta of American culture or devastatingly out of touch. My bets are on the former.

As anyone who watches television knows, gay is in. Best friends Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette), the female title characters, are not gay, but they witness a crime and (given their mutual love for dinner theater) quickly conclude that they must go into hiding as drag queens. The first 20 minutes of Connie and Carla, which attempt to demonstrate how this solution could possibly seem obvious to anyone, are awful. The rest of the movie--an inspired blend of Shakespearean gender-bent comedy, show-tunes cabaret, and vaudeville slapstick--more than compensates for those initial squirm-worthy scenes.

Vardalos and Collette make passable drag queens (give or take an Adam's apple), so it doesn't strain credulity that David Duchovny, who plays the homophobic brother of one of Connie and Carla's drag-queen friends, would be taken in. Connie and Carla's drag cohort is another matter, but the (mostly sad) gay characters aren't really the focus of the film--a cold and shrewd demographic calculation on Vardalos' part. David Duchovny's character is actually a shrewd calculation unto himself--his endearing homophobe functions as a hand-lettered invitation to this wacky drag subculture for all the homophobes of Middle America who go see this movie on accident.

But if you can get past--or even admire--Vardalos' astute assessment of the present zeitgeist, Connie and Carla is packed with excellent physical comedy, exuberant performances, and lots and lots of your favorite show tunes. Just take your time--say, oh, 20 minutes--finding parking beforehand. ANNIE WAGNER

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

dir. Kim Ki-duk

Opens Fri April 16.
Each segment of this unusual Korean film corresponds to one of the seasons in the title, and each season, in turn, describes one phase in the life of the main character. At the outset, the character is a child monk, and at the end, he's an adult monk, but the progress of his life is far from predictable or smooth.

The cyclical action takes place in a fantastical setting: a tiny yet elaborate floating monastery (built especially for this film), which drifts on the surface of an artificial lake (constructed in 1721 as a large-scale reflecting pool to mirror and exaggerate the beauty of the surrounding mountains). The meditative cinematography flirts with the picturesque, but the sharp delineation between nature and artifice prevents the lovely images from becoming facile or uninteresting.

The five seasons are governed by very different generic conventions--meaning, it's entirely possible to enjoy one and abhor the next. "Spring," a dense parable in which an older monk teaches the child a Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, introduces an ominous strain of violence. The film doesn't assign blame for what happens next--perhaps aggression is a human quality that can't be scrubbed away with ritual, or maybe some people just aren't made for asceticism. But in "Summer" and "Autumn," a tiresome coming-of-age vignette and a cop drama, respectively, the young monk strays from his upbringing.

Elements of magical realism creep in at the end of "Autumn," and then "Winter"--by far the most successful segment, and the only full episode to feature director Kim Ki-duk as the adult monk--explodes into an astounding ode to labor and atonement. The soundtrack, which has been subdued throughout, vibrates with the wild energy of a traditional song performed by Kim Young-im. You could lose yourself in "Winter," and it's worth wading through a few stretches of mediocrity to get there. ANNIE WAGNER