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'Carlos Castaneda: Enigma of a Sorcerer,' 'The Manson Family,' '800 Bullets'

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Torjan's trippy documentary, "Carlos Castaneda: Enigma of a Sorcerer," provokes more questions than it answers about the bestselling author and New Age guru who died under mysterious circumstances in 1998. The film primarily consists of interviews with followers and skeptics who discuss the legitimacy of his teachings.

First-time director Torjan, a onetime student of Castaneda's, places the interviewees against a colorful, pulsating background that has the same effect as staring at a psychotropic screensaver.

Although the film provides several contrarian views — notably authors Richard de Mille and Richard Jenkins — its main purpose seems to be to serve as a primer to the master's mystic realm. It most successfully provides a sense of what Castaneda was about in Peter Coyote's readings of excerpts from texts done previously for audio books.

Despite the insider nature of the interviews, "Enigma of a Sorcerer" does little to unravel the riddle of the title. Unless you are already a fan of Castaneda, the film is likely to leave you feeling as though you've just watched a very long, lost episode of that old TV series "In Search of ..." — and you'll be wondering, "Where's Leonard Nimoy when you really need him?"

"Carlos Castaneda: Enigma of a Sorcerer," unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869, and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

Sex, drugs and reenacted gore "The Manson Family" is one bad trip. Filmmaker Jim Van Bebber spent years attempting to create an ambitious, impressionistic portrait of Charles Manson and his followers, culminating in the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders of Aug. 9 and 10, 1969, which are reenacted here in bloody, excruciating detail.

The less-than-persuasive result is like mediocre leftover psychedelic '60s underground cinema. Van Bebber doesn't add to the story of an ex-con attracting a bunch of unstable flower children to his San Fernando Valley commune for a seemingly endless orgy of sex and drugs, from which many apparently emerged convinced that Manson really was Jesus Christ incarnate.

Fueled by a failed recording deal and convinced that a race war between blacks and whites was imminent, Manson commanded his drug-addled followers to go on their notorious killing spree.

Since the film lacks context and is simply Van Bebber's imagined reenactment plus a bit of fictionalizing, "The Manson Family" seems destined to be a cult item — like Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 film "Blood Feast" — for those who enjoy graphic depictions of human slaughter.

"The Manson Family," unrated. Graphic depiction of savage murders, sex, nudity, drugs, language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

Manly men, shooting guns You can always count on the movies to misrepresent history, even their own. Most of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were shot not in Italy but in Almería, Spain, an arid southern province where Old West facades are still visible from the highway. The oddball history of these desolate ghost sets has inspired a fantasy by Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia.

"800 Bullets" is the story of a city kid, Carlos (Luis Castro), who runs away from his mother, Laura (Carmen Maura), an embittered businesswoman, and goes south in search of his grandfather.

Meanwhile, Julián (Sancho Gracia), who once stunt-doubled for Clint Eastwood until movie work dried up, now gets by, putting on live shows for a smattering of tourists.

Into this sad scene arrives Carlos with his mother's credit card. But when Laura, who blames Julián for her husband's death (and is working to build a theme park on the site of the town), gets wind of the kid's whereabouts, an actual showdown ensues.

As fantastical as it is mean-spirited, "800 Bullets" feels like a weird tribute to a cinematic time when men were violent drunks and women were either angelic prostitutes or workaday harridans. It thinks it's cute, but it's as charming as an old drunk going on about how he knew Eastwood back in the day.

"800 Bullets," unrated. Nudity, sex scenes, gun-fighting, lots of swearing, although not really translated in subtitles. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Exclusively Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (323) 655-4010.

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