Jackie Brown (1997)

The legions of Quentin Tarantino imitators always seem to miss the essential characteristics of a Tarantino film. Focusing on violence, Tarantinoesque movies are frequently more violent, both quantitatively and qualitiatively, than the genuine article. Violence in actual Tarantino films is oblique, suggested more than seen. Strongly suggested, granted, but it always occurs just outside the frame, or off at a distance, signified by a sound or a splatter of blood -- no victims clutching at blood-spurting arteries, no bullet-riddled dance of death. Someone's talking, and suddenly, they are not. A fine moment in *Jackie Brown* is a case in point: A gun dealer needs to eliminate a talkative employee. Convincing the gullible fellow to crawl inside the trunk of his car, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) drives around the block and disappears as the camera pulls way, way back. At a distance, a car appears and parks in a vacant lot, cloaked in darkness, only the song on the radio identifying it as Ordell's car. Shots are fired, but only two small flares are visible. Ordell drives away, as the same song ("Strawberry Letter 23") continues. No blood, no body, just two pops, and an old, innocuous pop tune with a fresh coat of taint.

*Jackie Brown* is full of fine, true Tarantino moments like that, moments built on small, cunning details. The director's first feature since the influential *Pulp Fiction*, *Jackie Brown* is based on Elmore Leonard's novel *Rum Punch*. It's a seamless adaptation (Tarantino has long acknowledged Leonard as an influence), full of the writer-director's distinctive, hyperactive hyperbole and visual flair. *Jackie Brown* makes obvious what is suggested by the handful of films written, but not directed, by Tarantino (*True Romance*, *Natural Born Killers*): Tarantino's unique and subtle visual style, his uncommon ability to pick out unlikely talent, his sense of timing and ear for the rhythms of speech and street dialects, and his immersion in film history are inimitable, elusive qualities that only emerge when all the elements are together. It isn't just the writing, or the acting, or the directing, but the whole magilla.

*Jackie Brown* is a dense, complicated, and thoroughly entertaining crime caper. Jackie (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant for Cabo Air, the worst airline in the industry. To make ends meets, she acts as a courier for Ordell, who keeps his funds in a Mexican bank. When she's busted by the ATF, Jackie, knowing that Ordell's plans for her don't include longterm survival, schemes to steal half a million from the gun dealer while pretending to sneak his money past the ATF. ATF agents Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and Dargus (Michael Bowen), meanwhile, think she's working for them.

*Jackie Brown* takes its sweet time getting to the heist, which is almost incidental to the elucidating, detailed study of the characters. The movie doesn't even get to Jackie for a good half hour or so, instead spending time with Ordell and his minions Louis (Robert DeNiro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda). With the exception of movies about criminals (*The Godfather*, *Goodfellas*), it is the rare film that is so lavish and languorous in its devotion to the bad guy. Too many movies spend precious little time establishing any characters, and opt for off the shelf villlains with scars and accents and other telltale features that are supposed to substitute for personality and character. Ordell has a long ponytail and a skinny little braided beard, which give him the look of a kung fu movie villain, but he's more than a haircut baddie. Forever talking about guns, gun buyers, and the small fortune he's got stashed south of the border, Ordell is not psychopathic but frigidly businesslike -- he kills troublesome employees with all the conscience of a CEO plotting a round of layoffs. With a wink at anti media violence crusaders, Ordell is also a media-savvy entrepreneur: his top selling weapons are always the ones featured in the latest movies and TV shows.

Louis is none-too-bright, staring blank-faced while the garrulous Ordell pontificates. When she isn't provoking Ordell and Louis, Melanie, a beach bum stoner, gets high and watches TV all day in Ordell's beach-side condo.

All the time spent with Ordell and company doesn't make them remotely likable, but it makes Jackie so very likable by contrast. In Ordell's dog eat dog milieu, Jackie gets to be the crook *and* the heroine. Knowing Ordell so well, ethical shortcomings, quirks and all, reveals just how much Jackie is risking by double crossing him, and adds an excruciating sense of tension to the story once her scam finally gets under way.

Aiding Jackie is Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman Ordell hires to spring her from jail. Max, world-weary, ultra-cool and street smart, has a sweet spot for Jackie, which prompts him to help plot her early retirement with benefits. The complex sting, with Jackie scamming Ordell and duping the ATF has her risking life and freedom should anything go wrong. But Jackie, aside from being quick thinking and cool (even Ordell is a little intimidated), is desperate. She's middle aged and watching her already limited options get fewer and fewer, and she understandably feels little remorse about ripping off Ordell. The scheme she devises is so deliciously, deviously complicated that it is never entirely clear that she's really pulling it off -- it frequently looks like things are going terribly wrong.

*Jackie Brown* promises to resurrect the careers of Grier, 70's blaxploitation queen (*Foxy Brown*, *Coffy*), and Forster, who, for the most part has seen action in B movies. Grier, far less glamorous then usual, is really terrific as Jackie, playing a woman whose days as a hip, hot action babe left her smart, steely and tired. Forster is marvelously entertaining as a weary businessman, less ruthless than Ordell, but dealing with the same lowlifes. The two characters together, people with as much time behind as ahead of them, are fascinating in their maturity, their well-earned fatigue, their patience and self-possession, and their middle age cool.

Tarantino's love of crime genre literature and film is evident in *Jackie Brown*. Less flashy than Pulp Fiction, and slightly less perfect, *Jackie Brown* is nonetheless consistently entertaining and engrossing, a brisk, stylish film full of wit, smart writing, and shrewd, telling details. Accept no substitutes.


Titanic (1997)

A band of latter-day pirates plunders a ghost ship, invading its lonely, watery grave with cameras, lights and robotic submersibles. The ship lies still in the serene waters of the ocean floor, looking for all the world like a decaying green corpse, its skin falling slowly away in mossy strands. A silent piano grins like a skull with 88 crooked teeth. Here a footless boot, there a decapitated doll's head, haunting reminders of the 2,200 souls who once waltzed and skipped and swabbed the decks of the Titanic.

The pirates are modern treasure hunters seeking a legendary blue diamond called the heart of the ocean. Instead of the gem, they find the girl who wore it, now 101 years old. As Rose DeWitt Bukater (Gloria Stuart) recounts the voyage of the Titanic in flashback, hers is as much a tale of colliding worlds as of colliding ships and icebergs, an engrossing, mythic, fiercely romantic tale of young love and social class.

Writer-director James Cameron perfectly recreates the ocean liner Titanic with exacting, obsessive detail, but far from being merely a spectacular replica of the ship, a precise but detached reenactment of her first and final voyage, Cameron's film is devastatingly personal, a unique recreation of the full horror and human tragedy of the ship's sinking. Where once the unsinkable Titanic was an abstraction, an example of human hubris and its consequences, in *Titanic*, Cameron, a brilliant technical innovator infamous for his own hubris (as well as spectacular, expensive films), achieves, through a virtuosic accumulation of meaningful details, the individualization of virtually every passenger aboard the ship, creating a dense, rich tapestry of human experience, of passion and love, greed and selfishness, and terrible loss.

Amid the hustle and bustle of Southampton, as excited, awestruck passengers board the "ship of dreams," young Rose (Kate Winslet) is a virtual prisoner, boarding the Titanic in symbolic chains. She is being pushed by her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) into a loveless marriage with Cal (Billy Zane), destined to be the trophy wife of this callous, controlling and cruel man who is wealthy beyond imagination. Rose bristles at the restrictions of high society as much as the steerage passengers object to the pre-boarding lice inspections. Among the third class passengers is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond artist who won his ticket to destiny in a card game. Jack is the resident dreamboat aboard the Titanic, charming, independent, carefree, and everything Rose, wilting in the hothouse atmosphere of a first class existence, wants to be. Like the proverbial two ships in the night, they will collide, with the desperate intensity of emotion only young lovers know.

From the start, *Titanic* is a story of the incompatibility of love and class distinction: the privileged rich are shallow and dull, obsessed with manners and appearances, while the poor are lively and down to earth. The decks of the ship recreate the strata of society, a microcosm for the larger world. Below decks, men sweat and toil in an inferno, shovelling coal into the fiery furnaces that will drive the massive engines. Above them, steerage passengers are crammed into tight quarters; second class is above them, and above all, the elegant accomodations of the first class passengers, the state rooms of Astors and Guggenheims. Rose will bring Jack up to her level, and he will take her down to his, their romantic union hinting at the dissolution of class demarcations that will come as the ship sinks and the literal barriers between the classes are crushed. Even the tragedy of the Titanic, the film makes clear, might have been avoided if not for class-conscious conspicuous consumption: laden with the luxurious trappings of wealth, the ship has too few lifeboats for its passengers and too small a rudder for its fast, powerful engines.

The swoony romance between Jack and Rose is the pure, old fashioned stuff of movies, but it effectively personalizes the disaster to come. Knowing that the Titanic will inevitably sink, knowing that Rose will surely survive the night of April 14, 1912, does not diminish at all the terrible sense of dread and suspense that permeates the film, for even before the catastrophic collision, there is a mood of aching and longing for these young lovers, two people for whom the very thought of separation is almost unbearable. Winslet and DiCaprio carry the full, enormous weight of the story ably -- from the first stirrings of love to fierce devotion and faith, Jack and Rose anchor the Titanic tragedy, reducing the scale of an almost incomprehensibly huge event, transcending history with experiences and emotions that are intensely personal and real.

When the iceberg finally rips into the ship, we know something about the other people on board the Titanic that night as well, something that transcends the abstractions of socio-economic class. There are parents and children, old couples well past the first hot blush of love; there are people in love with their own power, wealth and social position; and there are those who love the Titanic, men whose faith in technology and their own marvelous achievement is easily ripped asunder by the mountain of ice floating in the calm, dark sea. The destruction of the Titanic is excruciatingly played out, almost in real time, as the ship fills with icy water, slowly sinking into the North Atlantic, and the passengers remain largely oblivious to their impending doom. Early in the film, a computer animated recreation of the ship's sinking is studied by the treasure hunters -- it is a chilling portent of things to come, and one that will later guide the audience through each step of the sinking with terrible clarity.

For well over an hour, the horror of the Titanic disaster escalates, finally reaching a crescendo of hysteria and terror, the desperate screaming of passengers and the groaning of the ship, in her extended death throes, the only sounds in the eerily calm night. The flooding decks, the bursting of glass, the destruction of all the lovingly recreated details of the ship become merely symbolic -- what was once the soul and substance of our experience of the Titanic, a sort of detached, historical, technological perspective is made terribly real, replaced with a romantic ferocity as Rose and Jack fight to surive not for themselves but for the sake of true love and each other, as parents try to save their children, as the poor fight the rich for seats on the lifeboats, as the crew try to save the last vestiges of class that their ship once symbolized. As the ship of dreams goes down, crumbling, as the band plays "Nearer My God To Thee," *Titanic* remains fixed on individuals -- the enormity of the total loss is almost unfathomable, but not the loss of each and every person who falls into the icy North Atlantic. As Rose and Jack cling to the sinking ship, cleaving to each other, they come to represent everything that can be lost, everything that was lost that terrible night.

*Titanic* is a technical wonder, and a gorgeous, elegiac and poetic film that is haunting, moving and terrible to behold. This is art that makes life more real, that transforms historical facts and numbers into a meaningful, evocative and resonant accounting, a full measure of what was really lost to the dark sea that night.


Scream 2 (1997)

Absolutely no time is wasted in getting to the point of *Scream 2*: the first two actors to appear on screen are Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps. They're waiting in line for the sneak preview of *Stab*, the movie based on the book based on the Woodsboro murders (which were the subject of *Scream*), while Pinkett's Maureen complains that slasher films historically exclude African Americans, in addition to being sexploitative and too violent. Maureen, needless to say, is not long for this movie, but her death will be memorably twisted and chilling, and one of the sharpest, most ingenious bits of mayhem ever committed to celluloid.

But there's more. Before her untimely death, Maureen was a coed at the very college where *Scream* survivors Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) matriculate their days away. And thus, *Scream 2* exploits two stinky cheese trends in slasher movie history: college girls and sequels (e.g. *Sorority House Massacre* and *SHM 2: Nighty Nightmare*). "Sequels," Randy reminds his film studies class, "suck. The horror genre was destroyed by sequels." He's right, of course, except that *Scream 2* doesn't suck.

In the same way that *Scream* both skewered and profited by the rules and conventions of the horror genre, *Scream 2* successfully manipulates the trademarks of the subgenre of horror sequels: the body count will be higher, the death scenes bloodier and more elaborate, and someone will survive to make another sequel. And, as in *Scream*, ignorance of horror conventions inevitably leads to death while a firm grasp of the rules (never, never, never run up the stairs!) offers only scant protection to the potential victims of the psycho du jour.

Having proved with *Scream* that the combo of movie smarts, humor and horror could work in a big way, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven are free to take the whole concept even further with the sequel, and they run like mad with it. *Scream 2* is even funnier and more self-aware than the original, hacking away at both the conventions of the genre and the motifs (like ubiquitous cell phones and media obsessed youth) of its progenitor.

A serial killer isn't the only one stalking fair Sidney this time: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), chilly, hard-as-nails reporter who wrote the exploitative book that inspired the movie that inspired the copycat killer that killed the coed, etc. is also on hand, sniffing for a new story. She's being stalked herself by an idol-worshipping wannabe reporter (Laurie Metcalf). Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), now sporting a John Waynesque limp courtesy of the original killers, arrives on campus to protect Sidney, while Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), once falsely accused by Sidney, now politely pesters her in a desperate bid for his 15 minutes of fame. They're all possible killers, naturally, in addition to Sid's roommate Hallie (Elise Neal), a sorority pledge (which in itself makes her suspect), new boyfriend Derek (Jerry O'Connell) (the boyfriend did it last time) and film freak Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) (never trust the film buff). *Scream 2* belongs as much to the murder mystery genre as to the slasher-horror because it so adroitly juggles all of these characters, setting them up as suspects so effectively that only by being murdered can they eliminate themselves from the list of possible killers, which is a poor bargain given the lucrative potential of *Scream 3*.

The cast, fortified with a few ringers (*Buffy the Vampire Slayer* star Sarah Michelle Gellar is a doomed sorority sister), is whittled away by a knife-wielding maniac in most clever and imaginative ways as *Scream 2* hacks through idyllic Windsor College's list of future alumni donors. To reveal more would spoil the frightful surprises, but suffice it to say that *Scream 2* will, if nothing else, condition a Pavlovian response to the familiar electronic ring of the telephone through the most negative reinforcement imaginable.

As the climactic final scene is played out on the very college theatre stage where Sidney plays Cassandra, *Scream 2* achieves an elaborately over the top frenzy of meticulously plotted violence, self-referentiality, intentional staginess and hugely hammy acting (psycho killers always being the talkative type given to theatrical histrionics). Were it not for its acute pop culture hipness and the awareness on the part of the players that this is one of those weird life imitates art moments that only happens when art imitates life imitating art ("Life is life. It doesn't imitate anything," Randy boldly and foolishly declares), the scene might crumble under the weight of its own cleverness. Instead, it's a deliciously cheeky and smart denouement that dares to wink and nail the audience to their seats at the same time. In other words, it doesn't suck.


Eve's Bayou (1997)

The narrator of *Eve's Bayou* begins her tale with a startling confession: "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old." Louis Batiste will indeed die before story's end, but in the potent family drama of *Eve's Bayou*, Louis is but a catalyst, a ghost who haunts his family even before he dies, inspiring in his own child both great love and the desire for murderous revenge.

Novice writer-director Kasi Lemmons has crafted a rich and intense drama in *Eve's Bayou*, mixing elements of classic tragedy and Creole Southern Gothic with the many and opposing spiritual influences at work in this dreamy tale of feminine power, of memory, love and family bonds and the slippery, mutable nature of truth.

In a Louisiana backwater, where the cypress trees are draped in Spanish moss and human emotions run as hot and thick as the steamy summer air, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) catches her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) *in flagrante delicto* with Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis is the town doctor, a smooth talking philanderer and charming rogue irresistible to every woman in the parish but his angry, betrayed wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve is the first in her family to discover what everyone else in town knows, and what her mother already suspects: Louis' housecalls aren't always medically necessary. The discovery marks a turning point for Eve -- she views her father with growing suspicion despite his calm reassurances and easy, blameless manner, ready to believe the worst of him, feeling acutely his betrayal of her mother, and sensing in the man both his sexual strength and masculine vulnerability.

Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), her father's favorite child, finds her own relationship to Louis changing and growing more complex as she gets older. She assumes the wife's role, abandoned by Roz, of waiting up for the husband and father who always returns home late. As Eve is fiercely devoted to Cisely, Cisely is fiercely protective of Louis. Most protective of all is Roz, on the verge of a breakdown as she watches over her children with a knowing eye. Roz is aided by Louis' sister Mozelle Batiste (Debbi Morgan), a thrice widowed woman with the gift of sight, who is always tragically blind to her own future. Eve, too, has the gift of seeing the future, but it is her sister Cisely who has the more potent power, inherited from her father, of twisting lies like yarn and weaving them into self-serving new truths. And, like her father, Cisely's weakness is a sexuality she can neither understand nor control.

This already incendiary situation of opposing family loyalties and powers is further inflamed by the introduction of voodoo, practiced by both Mozelle and Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a fearsome, swamp-dwelling voodoo witch. Through the eyes of young Eve, the corporeal world and the spiritual world are seen as inextricably mixed -- the dead walk, invisibly and at will, in the world of the living, working their unseen influences. In the matriarchal world of *Eve's Bayou*, it is both the irresistible allure and the powerful wrath of women that will be Louis' undoing, but it is also clear to young Eve that voodoo, hatred and desire are potent enough to murder her father. There is little doubt that Eve has a hand in killing Louis, although exactly how she accomplishes the deed is left ambiguous.

That Lemmons keeps *Eve's Bayou* from veering into a simplistic, overwrought melodrama is quite an accomplishment. She guides the film, with its psychologically complex characters and atmospheric setting, with real delicacy and a Bergmanesque touch. There are no villains in *Eve's Bayou* -- each character is drawn with such loving precision and understanding that no sin, no weakness or abuse of power is unforgiveable. It would be too easy, given the early prediction of Louis' death, to simplistically draw him as an evil man in order to justify a preordained death. Likewise, to make of Eve a simple child unaware of her own abilities and actions. But both Eve and Louis are weak and strong, knowing and unwise, reckless and full of regrets -- it is Louis' ability to craft a lie and Eve's ability to believe one that ultimately results in a tragedy neither has the power to prevent.

Smollett's performance is fine and open -- her acting lacks the self-conscious cuteness of many child actors, and there's a real maturity, complexity and sense of understanding to her portrayal of Eve. Jackson's smooth, easy manner makes him an appealingly flawed man, a man who is hard to hate despite his infidelities and weaknesses. Debbi Morgan's performance is fiery and vivid -- she has never exhibited such force and vigor on screen. Mozelle has a pivotal role as a conduit between the living and the dead and Morgan plays it with serious conviction and without hamminess.

With cinematography by Amy Vincent, *Eve's Bayou* is visually rich and atmospheric, the gorgeous, dreamy landscape of the bayou echoing the otherworldly visions of the women who live there. It is also rich with intricate, complex drama, and suffused with tragedy and magic, spirituality and sensuality, as the Batiste women confront their weaknesses, exorcise their demons and embrace the strange powers that are their birthright.


Alien Resurrection (1997)

*Alien* was a movie experience I remember more vividly than most. Arriving at the theatre at the last minute, we were forced to sit in the front row where it looked and felt like the monster's acid saliva was dripping right on us. We were appropriately terrified, grossed out and thrilled. That film was full of striking images and characters that have since become part of the science fiction movie vernacular: blue collar space travellers, the dilapidated, low-tech ship, the creepy-crawly sci-noir atmosphere, and screaming baby aliens exploding out of chests at the dinner table. *Alien* in 1979 was a cool, dark, exhilarating reaction to the wholesomeness of *Star Wars* and its space cowboy imitators, and it succeeded in carving out a place in both pop culture consciousness and the crowded wrinkles of my brain.

*Alien* also succeeds where so many movie franchises fail, with sequels that are as good as, even better than, the original. While most sequels eventually lapse into unintentional self-parody, the *Alien* movies have always featured fine writing and influential directors who leave distinctive, frequently divergent stylistic imprints on the series. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (*The City of Lost Children*) is the latest director to make his mark, with one of the most original and thoughtful of the bunch. *Alien: Resurrection*, the fourth coming of the alien, is both stylishly creepy and surprisingly poignant, a scarifying and emotionally resonant film.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) died in *Alien 3* (1992), sacrificing herself rather than allow the alien queen incubating inside her to live. Thanks to the endless possibilities of science fiction, she's back, 200 years later, in *Alien: Resurrection*, having been cloned by the United Systems Military. USM wants the alien fetus Ripley's clone incubates, and after eight cloning attempts, they succeed. There is, of course, a catch: during the cloning process, Ripley and the alien exchanged a bit of DNA, leaving Ripley a strangely predatory human with animal strength, blood that can melt metal, and a creepy psychic and emotional connection to the aliens.

A freighter ship, peopled by a crew of heavily armed smugglers, arrives with an illicit cargo just as scientist Gediman (the always weird and wonderful Brad Dourif) learns that the aliens he is breeding are quick to learn and difficult to tame, having picked up a few nasty traits from the genetic soup in which they were spawned. It isn't long before the aliens run amok, people are eviscerated, and Ripley and the smugglers are forced to fight their way to escape through the dark, deadly space station where metal grill walkways, with the attendant something-under-the-bed foreboding that is a hallmark of the *Alien* series, are still a prominent architectural feature (apparently ship designers are not troubled by alien infestations).

*Alien: Resurrection* revisits the maternal theme of James Cameron's *Aliens* (1986), and revisits it with a vengeance. Written by Joss Whedon (*Buffy the Vampire Slayer*), a twisted thread of freakish maternity runs throughout *Resurrection*: Ripley is surrogate mother to the alien queen, making her grandmother to all the alien spawn. Ripley wants to kill the patriarchal military figures who created both her and the aliens (the computer that controls the ship is known as "The Father"); the aliens want to kill their human progenitors, and every other biped on board, as well. It all makes for a very Greek family tragedy, as the severely dysfunctional alien clan battles to the death with the ersatz family of smugglers, Ripley caught in the middle, her loyalties divided and sorely tested. The consequences of patriarchal hubris are surprising and wrenchingly poignant: killing aliens is, for Ripley, no longer a simple matter of life or death because the line between humans and aliens has been blurred by human intervention.

Whedon's script is funny and witty, and loaded with surprising, imaginative moments of skin crawling dread, gory violence and inventive revelations about the aliens. After three movies, one might think that the ways in which aliens and humans kill each other had been exhausted, but this is apparently not so. *Alien: Resurrection* features devious, thinking aliens who plan ahead, lay traps, and, as always, unexpectedly emerge from under the floors. The cast of characters is also fresh, from the self-conscious, self-loathing auton (a rebellious robot built by other robots) to the lowlife smugglers. Particularly memorable are two *City of Lost Children* veterans: Ron Perlman, commandingly nasty as the testosteroneous, explosively capable brute Johner, and Dominique Pinon as the paralyzed Vriess. Weaver is striking, tough and fascinating as the ever-evolving Ripley. By comparison, Winona Ryder is a bit too pixie-ish as her doe-eyed nemesis-turned-compatriot -- she isn't very commanding squeaking orders at a crew of high caliber thugs.

Jeunet, with cinematographer Darius Khondji, maintains the visual obfuscation that enhances the sci-noir scariness of all *Alien* movies, but adds memorably freaky, Bosch-like images (a cloning lab scene is especially arresting). The director adds a soupcon of teasing, artful dread to the gory, gooey, deadly primordial moisture motif used effectively throughout the film. Whereas the often reviled but highly underrated *Alien 3* was extremely stylish but cold and austere, *Alien: Resurrection* is, despite the nifty stylization and slimy innards, the most emotionally charged and touching film of the series, a soulful family freakshow with a dark, broken heart.


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

In Savannah, the lunatics don't wait for the moon to come out. They carry on night and day, partying, drinking, casting voodoo spells and walking invisible dogs. Or so it seems from the portrait of Savannah painted by director Clint Eastwood in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Based on John Berendt's best-selling book, the main plot of *Midnight* concerns the true crime story of antiques dealer Jim Williams, a wealthy, flamboyant smoothie who murdered his lover, a young hustler. But plots aside, and the plot is mostly an aside in this film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* celebrates the colorful characters of Savannah -- Jim Williams included -- in a series of vignettes that highlight the high life of the eccentric Southern town.

John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in the cypress draped town to write a magazine article about Williams' notorious annual Christmas party at Mercer House, former home of Savannah's own Johnny Mercer. A New Yorker, Kelso (a creation of the movie, and not a character in the book) mostly stares, stupefied, at the quirky antics of Savannah's drunken, heavily armed citizenry as they chatter, guzzle punch and produce small pistols from their party gowns. But when the party's over, Williams (Kevin Spacey) has shot and killed Billy Hanson (Jude Law), claiming self defense. (Savannah parties so relentlessly, even the crime scenes are catered.)

The murder supplies Kelso with an excuse to poke around town. It doesn't take much poking to turn up something weird and wonderful, and for the rest of the film, Kelso acts as an ersatz guide on a tour that includes layabouts and lounge singers, a toothless voodoo priestess (Irma P. Hall) communing with the dead Billy Hanson and a show stopping performance by drag queen The Lady Chablis (playing himself).

A breezy but sprawling and messy film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* is enjoyable as a fanciful portrait of Savannah, but as courtroom drama or murder mystery, it's pretty lightweight. When it comes out that Williams is gay, he is excoriated by the town that once coveted his favor, a fact that is neither played up nor down, in particular. Ably defended by his sharp, good ol' boy lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), and junior detective Kelso, Williams stands trial, but the trial itself, aside from the presence of Williams' cat Shelton as a defense witness, is mostly boilerplate stuff, neither especially exciting nor surprising. Likewise Williams' moral slipperiness -- he tells different versions of his story to suit changing circumstances. This disturbs Kelso's moral compass, but is otherwise not very compelling because Williams is always more sympathetic and likable than his trashy, menacing victim. All of which makes for surprisingly little drama in a potentially highly dramatic story. *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*, scripted by John Lee Hancock, is a stone soup of a movie -- little supbplots are thrown into the pot as they are found, but there's no particular recipe, and neither the plot nor the soup ever thickens. The murder story seems almost an afterthought, a little salt thrown in at the very last.

Most of the performances are highly mannered in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. When someone as outrageous as The Lady Chablis (think RuPaul without inhibitions) is in the house, everyone else is practically forced to ham it up, and ham it up they do. Spacey's Williams is an astute combination of languor and alertness, a sleeping cat ready to spring into action. Cusack's role is largely reactive -- he's a wide-eyed innocent trying to make sense of a freak show. The rest of the cast includes a lot of actors low profile enough and talented enough to look and sound like authentic Savannahians. This adds immeasurably to the fun of *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Take away the boilerplate courtroom plot and what's left is something like an Errol Morris documentary -- a potboiler set in a strange, colorful little Southern town whose most famous citizen used to be a bulldog named Uga.


The Jackal (1997)

There are certain adjectives associated with political thrillers. They are the kinds of words, often followed by an exclamation point, that are featured prominently in advertisements for these films, words like "Taut!" and "Suspenseful!" and "A rollercoaster thrill-ride of edge-of-your-seat excitement!" None of those words apply to *The Jackal*. Not one. There are really only two words that acurately describe this soporific movie: BORE and ING. I would add an exclamation point to that, but it might give the misleading impression that there was something even remotely exciting about *The Jackal*. And there isn't.

A comatose remake of *The Day Of The Jackal* (1973), a taut, suspenseful, political thriller about an assassin hired to kill Charles DeGaulle, *The Jackal* features Bruce Willis as an assassin hired to kill the director of the FBI. Exciting, no? The director's name is Donald Brown, which is one of those generic names a writer would ordinarily use until he thinks of something more interesting. Apparently the unusually named screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer forgot to change Donald Brown's name to something interesting and exciting, and forgot to do the same for the movie as well.

"The Jackal," as the assassin is known, is a so-called master of disguises. He possesses a lot of wigs and an assortment of fake mustaches and phony identification papers which allow him to cleverly elude capture even though he always looks exactly like Bruce Willis in a bad wig. He is hired by a Russian mobster, disgruntled because his mobster brother was killed during a sting operation in a discotheque by Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora), a Russian operative working with the FBI in Moscow. "It's never easy taking a life..." the wise and noble FBI agent Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) tells Koslova. So, after the brother kills one of his own henchmen by embedding an axe in his skull ("I took no joy in it..." he mopes), he hires "The Jackal" to exact his revenge.

Meanwhile, after exciting side trips to Helsinki and Montreal, the FBI and Koslova are back in the States after somehow uncovering the insidious plot to kill the director of the FBI. They enlist the help of Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), an IRA sharpshooter imprisoned in Massachusetts on a weapons charge. Mulqueen and "The Jackal" have a history, having something to do with Isabella Zancona (Mathilda May) a beautiful Basque separatist. According to Koslova, "Basques live by the vendetta. If they hate someone, it is to the death. It is the same when they love someone." These are important facts to remember, because Isabella hates "The Jackal," and she loves Declan, so somebody is bound to wind up dead.

After about two hours of mind-numbing boredom, during which "The Jackal" carefully but impassively plans his job, and Declan attempts to figure out what his next move will be (something he does with amazing skill, but always about ten minutes too late), *The Jackal* finally lurches into second gear, where it stays until the bitter, boring end. The less than exciting climax features a textbook subway tunnel chase, a shootout with hostages, and a not very surprising surprise.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones (*Rob Roy*), *The Jackal* is really a very bad movie. The dialogue is preposterous and the action is bloody but anemic. "The Jackal" is a totally formless character -- the movie is a lot more interested in his great big gun and minivan than in exploring why he is such a cold-blooded and passionless zombie. Willis could have played this one in his sleep, and one suspects he did. Gere's Irish brogue is serviceable, and he's appealing enough as Declan, but he doesn't have much to work with here -- the passionate IRA man has been done, and this movie covers nary an inch of new ground with the character. Basque separatists, on the other hand, are something you don't see a lot of in movies these days.

*The Jackal* is prime cheese -- Swiss cheese, with plot holes big enough to drive a minivan through, which makes for an insensible, pointless story full of meaningless details. If you can keep from nodding off, the movie is easy to follow, but that's only because *nothing ever happens*. You could sleep through the first two hours, wake up for the last five minutes and have no trouble figuring out what's going on, but that would only ruin a good nap.


Boogie Nights (1997)

There's a weird temporal convergence to *Boogie Nights*, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's chronicle of the rise and fall of a porn star. On the one hand, *Boogie Nights* attempts to recapture the hedonistic heyday of the late 70s, the pre-plague years when sex and drugs could seemingly be indulged without consequence. On the other hand, *Boogie Nights* as a *film* is very much influenced by the 90s, recalling both *Pulp Fiction* and *Trainspotting* (through which 70s film influences are filtered), with the attendant moral relativism, matter-of-fact decadence and depravity, and de riguer violence. In that world, only stupidity is a punishable sin. Then again, aspects of *Boogie Nights* have the moralistic ring of the 50s, with appropriate chastisement meted out to all wayward sinners.

This strange, anachronistic conflation of movie Zeitgeist and historical Zeitgeist is unsettling, because *Boogie Nights*, although largely about the 70s, is a film that never would have been made *in* the 70s. It leaves in its wake lingering questions about the relationship between movies as pop culture, and society. It's a chicken-and-egg quandary -- which came first, pop culture or Zeitgeist, or are they the same thing? It gets even more dicey when you jump back two decades and are forced to consider the changing social influence of cinema. Can a movie that is stylistically and narratively shaped by one era accurately reflect the psychological mood of another? *Boogie Nights* doesn't provide a conclusive argument for either side, because what starts out as a fresh, exciting, ecstatically stylish film eventually loses its way.

*Boogie Nights* begins on a night in 1977, with a visual plunge into the darkness of a California discotheque, where all the players are assembled. It is there that high school dropout Eddie Adams (Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg) first catches the discerning eye of porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in a terrific, solid performance). Eddie's only talent is a generous natural endowment that Horner can readily appreciate ("Everyone is blessed with one special thing," Eddie modestly tells his admiring girlfriend). Horner, weary and paternal, is surrounded by his surrogate family: leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), sad and dysfunctionally maternal; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never removes her skates, even during her many sexual escapades; and porn stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), and Becky Barnett (Nicole Parker). What these characters all have in common is the guileless perspective of the big fish in a little pond-- they don't seem to realize that theirs is, at best, a low-rent, third-rate celebrity. Eddie shares their capacity for self-delusion. Oddly wholesome, gentle and polite, he's also familiar with Horner's work, and eager to be a star. When his Mom kicks him out of the house because she doesn't like his girlfriend (a very 70s, movie-of-the-week plot device), he gets his chance, and is quickly absorbed into the adult entertainment demimonde of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The wholesome California boy renames himself Dirk Diggler, drops his pants, and a star is born.

Dirk's career hangs on his hang, (extraordinary enough to attract attention even among Horner's jaded, seen-it-all film crew), and he quickly rises to the top of the skin flick scene, remaining boyishly wholesome despite the permanent house party atmosphere of his new life. As the decade winds down, Dirk's star continues to rise -- he's soon got his own bachelor pad and sports car, and life is a hedonistic joyride.

The decline begins on New Year's Eve, 1979, as drugs and violence assume a more prominent role in the lives of Dirk and company. This second half of *Boogie Nights* loses steam as it chronicles the rapid decline of the whole dysfunctional family (except Horner who is only forced to compromise his artistic integrity to the fiscally obsessed 80s, by switching from film to video). Part one of the movie is a giddy, camp-free slice o' life that, although about a small subculture, neatly captures the spirit of the late 70s and the post-war, eat, drink and be merry mood reflected in the pop culture of the period (whether life on Main Street was ever like that is an entirely different question). The nostalgia trip of *Boogie Nights* is far more titillating than the fairly discreet sex and nudity. The film is exacting in all its details, from Qiana shirts and platform heels to 8-track Hi-Fi and disco music, and seeing the horrible form-fitting pants and gigantic collars, the hideous furniture and ankle-spraining heels displayed with such earnestness, such conviction, is rather intoxicating. There's not a hint of condescension about all that tacky glitz in Anderson's film, and there's something strangely touching about the genuine fondness for, and sense of innocence about, these far from innocent fashion victims. That same sense of fondness and utter lack of camp pervades the often hilarious filmmaking scenes, with their amateurish acting and production values -- the movie respects the artistic pretensions of these pornographers, even while it fully exposes their aesthetic shortcomings. Thus, when the lives of these characters hit the skids, it is less tragic than disappointing -- there's something retributive about it that is out of place, as if Anderson forgot that their lives were already pretty sorry, that the glamor was just a facade plastered over empty, lonely lives.

This second half of *Boogie Nights* feels rigged from the start -- from the way the movie is neatly bisected into the last three years of the 70s and the first three years of the 80s (which it treats as mostly a 70s hangover, the inevitable morning after, with all the attendant regret), to the familiarity of the sudden, downhill path taken by virtually all of the characters. The story feels preordained in a way that mitigates against surprise, and almost negates the freshness, vividness and vibrancy of the first half of the film by creating a sense that it was there only to portend inevitable doom, as if time and history looked backwards and set these people up. This second part of *Boogie Nights* just doesn't ring true -- it *feels* like a movie (this is especially true of the tidy coda), whereas the first and far better half feels exuberantly real.


Wind in the Willows (1997)

One might expect a bit of imaginative anarchy, a touch of licentiousness from a movie featuring the Monty Python crew, even if it is a movie made wth kids in mind. And that's just what one gets in *The Wind In The Willows*, Pythoneer Terry Jones' adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic novel of anthropomorphic woodland dwellers. Many liberties are taken with the text, but it is altogether a fitting, if loose, adaptation that captures well the spirit of the book and its mix of human and animal characters, forest idyll and mechanical menace.

Jones is Mr. Toad -- just barely. Leaving less to makeup and more to the imagination, Toad and his mates Mole (Steve Coogan), Ratty (Eric Idle) and Badger (Nicol Williamson) are realized as mostly humanoid creatures. Toad has only a touch of green in his skin, although his tongue is quite long and adept. Ratty the river rat has a long, hairy tail and whiskers that jut out from his mustache, but his tweeds are always tidy, and he is uncommonly fond of picnics. Sad, timid Mole wears glasses, while bristly Badger sports big mutton chops and a bushy tail. The various humans in the tale generally occupy positions in law enforcement and motor car sales. One of the delights of *The Wind In The Willows* is the way that the distinction between humans and animals is so fuzzy -- at times, a big bushy tail peeking out from under hoop skirts is the only hint that a fair lady isn't quite what she seems. Nine out of ten residents in this neck of the woods is a rabbit, and although the species is equipped with long ears and cotton tails, they are most recognizable for their always amorous and forever multiplying ways.

*The Wind In The Willows* concerns, as does the book, Mr. Toad's utter obsession with motor cars. He's an appalling driver, which results in a great many crack ups, and the frequent need for new cars. T'is there the movie diverges rather sharply from the book, as Mr.Toad's financial salvation, the local weasel gang who are only too happy to assist him in funding his extravagant lifestyle, turn out to be somewhat more menacing than your average collection agency. The weasels, it seems, are woodland loan sharks, and they have plans to build a dog food factory on Toad's soon-to-be-forfeited ancestral estate. Naturally, being weasels, they are dangerous villains, with nasty little teeth and plans for world domination. Their black and red W logo looks suspiciously like the emblem of the Third Reich.

So while Ratty, Mole and Badger try to cure Toad of his motor mania, the fascist weasels scheme, laying waste to the woodland while they're at it. (A side trip to the local court features a hilarious apperance by John Cleese, demanding, as Toad's defense attorney, that the book be thrown, quite hard, at his car thieving client.) Adventures ensue, as adventures must, when the friends try to save Mr. Toad's home, and eventually, Mr. Toad himself, from a dog food factory fate.

Does *The Wind In The Willows* make trenchant, even educational points about protecting the environment and fighting totalitarianism? Does it advocate loyalty and friendship over narcissism, gluttony and materialism? Well, of course it does, but it has a great deal of fun doing it, which is to say, this is no *Sesame Street* outing. The unexpected frequently occurs, although, this being a movie mostly for kids, certain plot points are, like Toad's titanic tongue, rather obvious when revealed.

*The Wind In The Willows* makes fine and fanciful use of English scenery, castles and all. The cast, heavy on Pythoneers (Michael Palin is luminous and loopy as the know-it-all Sun) is kid-friendly, but the performances have a fun, devil-may-care audacity about them, coupled with an unexpected quantity of conviction for a bunch of blokes wearing tails and whiskers.


Fairy Tale (1997)

World War I rages in Europe, and wounded soldiers return to England by the trainload. Harry Houdini thrills London crowds with his spectacular stunts and illusions, while at the York Theatre, enthralled children clap heartily to save Tinkerbell. That's the psychological setting of *FairyTale: A True Story*, a charming and delightful film about the 1917 controversy surrounding two Yorkshire girls who took photographs of what appeared to be real fairies. The incident sparked an international debate that left many prominent figures genuinely convinced that fairies do exist.

*FairyTale* takes the position that the fairies are real, but the "true story" of the movie is less about sprites than about spirits -- human spirits, that is. England in 1917 is a country deeply wounded by the horrors of war. Many have lost loved ones, many more have lost their youth and their limbs in battle -- there is a great need to recapture the joy and innocence of childhood, to find something good in which to believe. The fairies of Yorkshire Beck, real or not, fulfill that need.

Frances (Elizabeth Earl) comes to Yorkshire to live with her cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) after her soldier father is declared missing. Elsie and her parents, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls) and Arthur (Paul McGann) are themselves mourning the death of Elsie's young brother Joseph. Although the concerns of the world are thrust upon Frances, she refuses to allow her childhood to be stolen. She believes that she, like Joseph, can call out the fairies that live in the garden. Elsie is old enough to be slightly skeptical, but she is soon swayed by Frances' boundless enthusiasm. Not so the elder Wrights, who caution the girls against believing in the unbelievable. "Grown ups don't know how to believe," Frances tells her aunt.

But Polly, shattered by the death of her son, is quickly disabused of disbelief when the girls photograph the fairies. Through her, the pictures land in the hands of renowned Theosophist E.L. Gardner (Bill Nighy), who has them authenticated. Gardner shows them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who is convinced they are true. He, in turn, shows them to his friend Houdini (Harvey Keitel), an illusionist who knows too many tricks to be anything but a skeptic. But Houdini also knows and respects that people want and need to believe illusions much more than they want or need to know the truth.

Sir Arthur makes the girls and their fairies a cause celebre, and soon all of England has fairy mania (which, incidentally, doesn't go over well with the fairies). In the midst of the sometimes comical fairy-hunting, *FairyTale*, as directed by Charles Sturridge, doesn't lose sight of what the people are really hunting. *FairyTale* doesn't dumb down on the assumption that children (and adults) aren't smart enough to follow a story with a real point. Although *FairyTale* is a movie about children who see fairies, it is about much more than that, including *why* they see fairies. Frances and Elsie, while they live in an idyllic world of fairy rings and bubbling becks, also live in the world of war and loss and death, and they need, no less than the adults around them, to believe in childish things. Whether their photographs are authentic or not is really beside the point.

With a minimum of special effects (there are probably not enough fairies in the film to satisfy very young children), *FairyTale* focuses most on real people, the somewhat mysterious and secretive Frances and Elsie, and the skeptics and believers around them, instead of the wee winged people of the woods. The top drawer cast gives fine and insightful performances all around, while the script by Ernie Contreras nicely juggles different points of view in a perceptive and illuminating way. Despite the sometimes melancholy tone of *FairyTale*, the movie is sweet and utterly charming, capturing both the broken spirit of the times and the infectious, appealing Peter Pan spirit of childhood. Mixing genuine magic and illusion, knowledge and naivete, hope and despair, philosophy and faith, *FairyTale: A True Story* movingly touches on human truths, with a few wild assumptions about fairy folk thrown in just for fun.


Sunday (1997)

*Sunday* opens with a chaotic blur of sights and sounds reminiscent of the way the world feels when you're only half awake -- nothing quite makes sense, voices and noises are explosively loud then fade into obscurity, photons stab through the slit of barely open eyes, and none of connections in your brain close all the way. It's the most confusing, annoying part of the day, and the way the world looks on a particular Sunday morning to Oliver, skulking under covers at a homeless men's shelter. Oliver is a misfit in this place of misfits -- he doesn't quite belong among these particular down and outers.

Out on the street, Oliver (David Suchet) encounters Madeleine (Lisa Harrow), an unemployed British actress, toting a half-dead palm tree, who mistakes him for film director Matthew Delacorta. He plays along -- something about Madeleine's hungry desperation forces him to embrace the falsehood for her sake, if not his own.

For the rest of a strange, emotionally charged Sunday, both Oliver and Madeleine cling to deception, wallowing in denial out of a persistent need to believe that the circumstances they find themselves in are not really their own, that the aimless Sundays of their everyday existence don't really belong to them. They are merely playing roles, like actors trapped in an Italian neo-realist movie, lying to each other, and to themselves, investing their considerable egos in the belief, against all evidence, that they are only pretending at lives that are beneath them. He's not really a homeless man, just an unemployed IBMer down on his luck, or, perhaps, a famous film director researching a film on a down-and-out IBMer. She's not really an unsuccessful actress, just a displaced Brit stuck in Queens, far from the footlights of the RSC.

*Sunday* is full of secrets and half-truths, mysteries that are never fully illuminated. Both Madeleine and Oliver, with their slight touches of gentility, are so out of place in their settings that it's easy to believe that they really do belong somewhere else, in some other life. Yet, they often reveal their true desperation in hungry sex and passionate conversations. Vignettes of the aimless lives of other men from the homeless shelter, rather than providing contrast, tend to emphasize how much Madeleine and Oliver really are lost, how much they are like the people they can't bear to associate with.

*Sunday*, written by Woodstockers Jonathan Nossiter, who also directs, and James Lasdun, took the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Cramped locations and natural, wintry light add to the gritty realism and bleakness of this emotionally stark film, but persistent problems with boom mics dropping into the frame are an unwanted distraction, a telltale sign of this otherwise accomplished film's low budget.

What *Sunday* does *not* suffer from is amateurish acting. The performances of Harrow and Suchet (best known as TV's Hercule Poirot) are rich and engrossing, poignant and mysterious. Both actors crawl inside the skins of their sad, lost characters, investing them with a dignity that fuels deceptions and self-delusions that are, under the circumstances, almost heroic.


Seven Years in Tibet (1997)

You might think, from watching *Seven Years In Tibet*, that Heinrich Harrer disliked Nazis as much as he disliked his pregnant wife. You might think that young Heinrich was escaping not only impending fatherhood, but the relentless march of Hitler's armies as well, as he boarded a train bound for Tibet. As Harrer heroically scales the treacherous heights of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, it is abundantly clear that he is an egotistical, heartless and cruel bully, but it is never mentioned that he was also in Hitler's SS, and one of the Fuhrer's Aryan elite.

That inconvenient little truth came out while *Seven Years In Tibet* was being filmed, so it is not altogether surprising that this movie, based on Harrer's memoir, pretty much glosses over the fact, with naught but a vague reference to an unenlightened youth.

Instead, *Seven Years In Tibet* depicts Harrer (Brad Pitt) as a troubled, headstrong young man who eventually stumbles across the path to enlightenment with a little help from his friends. One of those friends just happens to be His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who was but a boy when Harrer and fellow mountaineer Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) found their way to the holy city of Lhasa. Goodbye Hitler, hello Dalai!

Unfortunately, Harrer doesn't get to Lhasa until about an hour and a half into the movie, and once he's on the path to true enlightenment, he takes a sharp detour. Before that, however, there's a lot of boilerplate mountain climbing drama as he attempts to scale Nanga Parbat. Then he is imprisoned in a British POW camp. After escaping that boring and uneventful place, he begins an arduous journey across the Himalayas, braving harsh weather and starvation. After reuniting with Aufschnaiter, he slowly makes his way to Tibet, where the Tibetans rightly perceive him to be a devil and attempt to shoo him out of the country. Being an arrogant Aryan, he is not easily shooed. Mind you, Harrer's journey thus far is merely a physical one involving endless climbing and trekking and thieving, during which little changes but the seasons and the shabbiness of the mountaineers' clothing. The spiritual journey, such as it is, occupies the hurried final hour of *Seven Years In Tibet*, during which Harrer experiences a change of what little heart he apparently possesses, thanks to the wise guidance of Kundun, the boy Dalai Lama.

Pitt's Harrer is a callow fellow, and his purported enlightenment isn't especially deep or convincing. That isn't just because Pitt is not an especially deep or convincing actor, although once again, he belabors a feeble accent, this time a vaguely Austrian one that is no better than the Irish brogue he mangled in *The Devil's Own*. Pitt looks the part of the arrogant Aryan at the start of *Seven Years*, but after a few years in a POW camp, and a few more in the wilderness, he begins to look just like Brad Pitt the scruffy, unwashed rebel movie star.

Thewlis fares far better as Aufschnaiter, a character who starts out more generous of spirit and so must travel a shorter spiritual path, thus making a more convincing go of it. Thewlis' Aufschnaiter, who eventually marries a Tibetan woman and embraces Tibetan culture and custom, is a quieter character who changes in deeply spiritual yet perceptible ways -- his story is far more intriguing than Harrer's, even without the Dalai Lama's presence.

Jamyang Wangchuk is wonderfully charming as the charismatic boy leader of Tibet who craves information about the larger world. He exudes gentle spirituality, childish playfulness and wisdom beyond his years in the role, and exhibits far more maturity as an actor than Pitt has managed to pull off.

The central problem of Seven Years is the point of view. Without the Dalai Lama, there's nothing very compelling or remarkable about the unlikable Harrer's life, and the His Holiness is too small a part of the movie, as scripted by Becky Johnston. Tibet's pacifist culture, guided at all times by their devout Buddhism, is not illuminated any more by being filtered through the consciousness of an Aryan pretty boy. Neither is the tragic tale of Tibet's violent occupation by China -- the subject is worthy of a movie, but it need not be seen through Western eyes, as it is here, to be appreciated. Harrer's outrage over the annexation rings a bit false, even when he confesses his own shame in an elliptical reference to his own role in similar atrocities.

But Tibet isn't really the subject of *Seven Years In Tibet*. Like other movies about Westerners in exotic lands, the setting is largely irrelevant to the actual story, and that's especially true here. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud seems to model his film after the sort of explorer movies that were fashionable during Harrer's years in Tibet -- *Seven Year* even features that silly old device, nowadays used exclusively for comic effect: a map with dashed lines showing the path taken by an intrepid explorer. To be sure, *Seven Years* doesn't have the obvious racist overtones of those old jungle adventures, although an air of amused bemusement surrounds a scene in which Buddhist monks take great pains to safeguard earthworms.

Harrer may have helped usher the Dalai Lama into the modern world, but it is Kundun's role as Harrer's surrogate son that is central to this story. Adding a modern spin to the hoary old explorer's tale, Harrer is, at least according to his voiceover diary readings, wracked by guilt over abandoning his only child. Kundun shows him the way to a father-son reconciliation that is striking mostly for its utter lack of emotion. Like Harrer, *Seven Years In Tibet* just can't fake sensitivity, compassion or spiritual grace.


The Full Monty (1997)

What's so funny about men taking their clothes off? Women taking their clothes off isn't funny, although recent movies on the subject (*Showgirls*, *Striptease*) have been laughably bad. Why should it be any different when the strippers are male?

It shouldn't, and that's really what makes *The Full Monty* such a delightful and winning movie. The men in *The Full Monty*, a ragtag group of unemployed steelworkers in Sheffield, England, are already stripped of their pride and dignity by life on the dole. Conceived as a plan to make quick cash, stripping unexpectedly becomes a means of empowerment and liberation for these blue collar blokes, a way to recover their manhood by, of all things, baring their manhood. They've got nothing to hide because they've got nothing to lose.

Led by Gaz (Robert Carlyle), who gets the idea when he sneaks into a Chippendales show, each of the men has his own desperate reasons for this most desperate measure. Gaz is about to lose custody of his son Nathan (William Snape), unless he can come up with child-support; Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), the lads' former supervisor, can't bear to tell his free-spending wife that he lost his job six months earlier, even when the repo men are knocking at the door. Lomper (Steve Huison) is depressed and suicidal, a lonely security guard watching an idle steel plant; Horse (Paul Barber) has a bad hip; Guy (Hugo Speer) is without means and without talent, although he is apparently spectacularly well-endowed; chubby Dave (Mark Addy) is impotent, racked with insecurity and feeling unlovable because of his ample love handles. Each man feels obsolete, emasculated and exposed -- with the comical logic of the desperate, they conclude that they, like the buff, well-oiled Chippendales, have what it takes to drive the employed women of Sheffield into a money-throwing frenzy.

One major source of comedy in *The Full Monty* is that the men are not traditional beefcake types (as they no doubt will be in the Hollywood remake of this movie). Pasty and flabby, they are absurdly bad dancers as well. Guy fancies himself another Donald O'Connor, but his footwork is more fanciful than fancy. Horse, a bit on the old side as exotic dancers go, can manage naught but the funky chicken these days, and as for the rest, the rhythm kings they are not. With young Nathan watching in horror, they attempt, with comical gravity, to put together their Hot Metal Revue, rehearsing to old disco tunes in the last place where they felt like real men: the abandoned steel mill where they were once employed. They have little to offer but their willingness to bare all, and there's some doubt in the ranks about the wisdom of that.

Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Peter Cattaneo, *The Full Monty* (Brit slang for butt-naked) is surprisingly heartfelt and sincere, a comedy tinged with real melancholy. The laughs are not really at the expense of these downtrodden blokes -- they're laughing themselves, after all, through the tears. But even while the g-string men are prancing about in ludicrous imitation of exotic dancers, this comic gem never loses sight of what brought them to this unlikely juncture -- the socioeconomic realities of modern-day England, which relegated them all to the scrap heap. Once the nuts and bolts of their working class town, now they're just the nuts, and rusty ones at that. In that context, their baring endeavor is a triumph over a failed economic system, unexpectedly liberating and, shall we say, uplifting.

The fine performances by Carlyle (best known as the psychotic Begbie in *Trainspotting*), Wilkinson, and Addy, in the three central roles, really reveal the not-so-quiet desperation of these working stiffs, and give *The Full Monty* its tragicomic edge. Despite the absurd circumstances in which they frequently find themselves, the characters in *The Full Monty* always ring true as more than the sum of their quirks, foibles and troubles. They bare their souls, and when the curtain finally goes up on their performance, it is an exhilarating moment of drama, comedy and relief as they bare something that, it turns out, is far less revealing.


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

*Lawrence Of Arabia* was first released the year I was born, so I never saw it in its full Panavision glory. As an adolescent, I discovered this film, by then a late-night TV staple, and sat mesmerized, on countless occasions, watching it in all it's truncated splendor, in the wee hours of the morning. The sweeping desert vistas, the epic battles, Peter O'Toole's incredibly blue eyes -- no television could ever do these things justice, and yet this movie put a spell on me. I absolutely loved it, and was ready to throw off Levi's and turtlenecks for flowing white bedouin-wear.

My obsession with the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence began shortly thereafter, and lasted about as long as my obsession with the enigmatic Marilyn Monroe and the mysterious Kennedy assassination, and a variety of other things linked only by the fact that they were newsworthy back when I was in swaddling clothes.

The movie, on the other hand, remained a lifelong favorite. Restored and re-released in 1989, *Lawrence Of Arabia* is now playing in Manhattan at the Paris Theatre, with a beautiful new 70mm print. Watching it there last week, I was struck by how well this remarkable, passionate film has held up over the years.

An unusually literate film, *Lawrence Of Arabia* has a wonderfully witty script by Robert Bolt, and deals with complicated psychological and political issues succinctly but with depth. The dark complexity of Lawrence, the gnarly entanglements of politics, British imperialism and racism all add to the unapologetic ambiguity of this epic tale of an unapologetically ambiguous man.

The cinematography is magnificent, as is the general artistry of this David Lean film. Naturally, the stunning Arabian landscapes, oceanic in scale, help, but more than that, Lean used the landscape as a dramatic tool, influencing countless future films and filmmakers in the process. He loads the landscape with emotions so acute and grand that even the mountains of sand can barely contain them. The sheer, austere vastness of the settings and the brilliant intensity of the light in this movie lead to a sort of hypnosis -- and a psychological understanding of the appeal that the forsaken place had for Lawrence, a man accustomed to the damp greenery of Oxfordshire, one of that breed of Englishmen in love with the desert. The massive scale of *Lawrence Of Arabia* would be unimaginable today, when far less ambitious movies cost half the GNP of Saudi Arabia -- the sheer magnitude and ambition of such an artistic undertaking rivals the hubris of Lawrence himself.

O'Toole's complex portrayal of Lawrence is splendid. He reveals Lawrence as a man both in love with himself and horrified by his own impulses and megalomania, an arrogant masochist who tested himself in the crucible of the desert, and found himself lacking. While most epic adventures like this focus on battles and horses and glinting swords, *Lawrence Of Arabia* contains some of the most psychologically intimate and acute scenes -- however cryptic they were -- ever committed to celluloid. And there are, of course, glinting swords and horses and great battles, although these are presented with an almost pacifist ambiguity and horror of war.

The cast of *Lawrence Of Arabia* featured the cream of the crop at the time: Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrar. Most surprising is Guinness' portrayal of Prince Faisal. Despite obviously blue eyes and black eyebrow dye, Guiness really, truly pulls it off and is utterly convincing as the Arab sheik. That's a bit of casting that would be a howler of political incorrectness today, but Guinness' performance is a reminder that great acting transcends race, while it also, perhaps inadvertantly, echoes the anti-tribalist theme of *Lawrence Of Arabia*.

Much of the complexity, the dark mystery, of *Lawrence Of Arabia* was no doubt lost on me as an adolescent. But one thing was not: *Lawrence Of Arabia* was the first adult movie that I loved, and it was the movie that made me love movies forever. Seeing it again, and on a big screen, was like seeing it for the very first time. Stirring, magnificent and gorgeous, it reminded me, after a summer full of assembly line movies, what movies should be, and what they can be. If you have any reason to be in New York City in the next two weeks, and even if you don't, do not miss *Lawrence Of Arabia*. I'm thinking of becoming obsessed all over again.


Excess Baggage (1997)

Alicia Silverstone, so engaging and energetic in her starmaking role in the ingenious *Clueless*, has a dud on her hands with *Excess Baggage*. Silverstone produced the film, in which she plays Emily Hope, a poor little rich girl who stages her own kidnapping in order to get some attention from her cold, unfeeling father, a shady business tycoon. Emily's plan backfires when a car thief steals her BMW, with the heiress still tied up in the trunk.

This is known as "meeting cute" for a movie couple, and there's little doubt that Emily and her unwitting kidnapper Vincent (Benicio Del Toro), the affably daffy car-thief-with-a-heart-of-gold, will be coupled by the end of *Excess Baggage*. This contrivance occurs because Emily, for reasons that are not entirely clear, refuses to leave Vincent despite his many efforts to ditch her, eventually winning him over with her pouty, bratty, clueless ways.

There is very little left to doubt in *Excess Baggage*, and few surprises in this by-the-book, couple-on-the-run, road trip romance. The biggest surprises in this lacklustre film are the performances, some surprisingly bad, some surprisingly good.

Silverstone's Emily is a generally unlikable, spoiled brat. Emily gets lots of close-ups of her big doe eyes and pouty lips, but little that makes sense is revealed about her character, except that everything she does is a desperate cry for attention. One minute she is a high kicking karate black belt, the next she's a whining, fearful little girl who smokes constantly, drinks even more, and suffers some pretty wild mood swings.

Del Toro (*The Usual Suspects*) easily walks away with the film. His oddly mannered performance, a sort of mumbly, Methody, monotonously comic James Dean riff, is utterly mesmerizing and hilarious. Del Toro's Vincent underreacts to everything (including ye olde groin kick), and wanders through *Excess Baggage* in an apparent state of constant bemusement that is the perfect counterpoint to Silverstone's erratic, overwrought performance.

Christopher Walken, as always, is another scene stealer, this time playing (no surprises here) Emily's menacing and mysterious "Uncle" Ray. Ray is Dad's Mr. Fixit, called in to take care of the inconvenient kidnapping situation so that the tycoon can attend to his important business meetings. Walken's gift is his ability to take seemingly innocuous statements and deliver them with such slippery venom that the very molecules in the air around him are malignant with dread, and he uses that talent to great effect in *Excess Baggage*. Walken and Del Toro, with their equally mannered and quirky portrayals, play off each other wonderfully, and supply all of the energy and interest present in this otherwise drab movie.

Uncle Ray somehow manages to track down Vincent and Emily just as Vincent runs afoul of a pair of venal henchmen out to recover a satchel full of money that was paid to the car thief for the stolen cars that were never delivered because Emily burned down the warehouse. This belabored plot twist provides *Excess Baggage* with some excess baggage of its own: Harry Connick, Jr. as Vincent's shifty pal Greg, and Nicholas Turturro as a fast talking thug. Another turn of the plot allows Emily's Dad (Australian actor Jack Thompson) to prove what a considerable cad he is -- even Uncle Ray is disgusted.

Directed by Marco Brambilla (*Demolition Man*), *Excess Baggage* is erratic and uneven, occasionally cute, occasionally funny, but mostly a baffling, inconsistent mess punctuated by spurts of violence and somewhat creepy romance. *Excess Baggage* would be a good video to watch with one's thumb on the fast-forward button; Savor the slippery, offbeat charms of Del Toro and Walken, and skip everything else.


She's So Lovely (1997)

Hard drinking, hard living Maureen totters around on high heels in search of her absentee husband Eddie. Eddie has been making himself scarce ever since Maureen got pregnant. This is obviously not a politically correct couple. They smoke, they fight, they hang around in dark, seedy bars, then stagger home to the fleabag hotel they call home. Maureen and Eddie are crazy in love, though, and quite possibly, just plain crazy.

*She's So Lovely* is a crazy movie. Penned some two decades ago by the late indie film pioneer John Cassavetes, and directed by his son Nick Cassavetes, *She's So Lovely* (originally titled *She's Delovely*) is filled with incomprehensible characters who do incomprehensible things without apology or explanation. Maureen (Robin Wright Penn) and Eddie (Sean Penn) don't even understand themselves -- all they know, all they need to know, is that they love each other truly and madly.

When Eddie attempts to make sense of his irrational life, he launches into strange ruminations that lead him into genuine madness. And when he discovers that, during one of his absences, Maureen has been roughed up by a neighbor, he really goes off the deep end, dragging *She's So Lovely* right along with him. Eddie spends ten years in a mental institution, only to discover, when he's released, that he's in an entirely different movie.

Maureen has abandoned her urban lowlife ways and settled into suburban housewife mode with her successful husband Joey (John Travolta), and three daughters (one of whom is Eddie's). Despite the veneer of apparent normalcy, Maureen makes no secret of the fact that she still loves Eddie with most of her heart. Joey, in his own way as volatile and insensible as Eddie, sets up a confrontation -- Maureen will have to choose between Joey and the kids and Eddie.

In any other movie, it would be pretty obvious what Maureen's choice must be. But She's So lovely isn't any other movie. Maureen expects nothing less than acceptance of her choices, however illogical or immoral they might seem. The right thing to do is what feels right to her, and that might change from moment to moment. The same goes for this movie, which asks only two things of an audience -- suspend judgment, and enjoy the ride. It's an amoral sentiment that, back when this movie was written, would have been more or less accepted. Nowadays, however, it seems outdated and quaint, especially in movies, where snap moral judgments are all but demanded by characters who are obviously right or wrong, good or bad, and have the soundtrack music to prove it. Certainly, few films would dare to demand that Maureen, Eddie and Joey -- hard cases who make their own choices harder -- be accepted for who they are. These are the kind of people who, in 1997, would end up on a daytime talk show -- "My wife still loves her crazy ex" -- seeking public approval of their alternative lifestyles. Perhaps the most likable thing about Maureen and Eddie is that they don't need anyone's approval -- they only need each other.

*She's So Lovely* doesn't quite exist in 1997, or any other year, anyway. It's a fable, an oddly charming little tale of unbounded, undying, uncritical love that has no concern for consequences. The main pleasure of *She's So Lovely* is its complete unpredictability -- you never know what anyone in this quirky movie is going to do or say at any time.

The performances are superb -- Penn's Eddie, bewildered and bedeviled, is almost tragic, a puppet controlled by his own heartstrings. Wright Penn's performance is raw, daring and reckless -- Maureen is as wrongheaded as she can be, having neither beauty nor brains, but she has an open heart. Travolta wrings a lot of hurt, anger and humor out of a small role, and Debi Mazar, Harry Dean Stanton and hKelsey Mulrooney (as Eddie's daughter Jeannie) are fine in supporting roles.

Fittingly, Gena Rowlands, who starred in many of John Cassavetes' films, and is mother to director Nick, has a small supporting role in this Cassavetes family film. A unique collaboration between father and son, written with a unique voice, and directed with style, h*She's So Lovely* is a witty, funny and unsentimental movie of romance without rhyme, reason or regret.


Career Girls (1997)

*Career Girls* hones in on that unfortunate tendency of humans to remember most vividly and inescapably the most painful and unpleasant things. So it isn't misty watercolor memories that Hannah and Annie, reunited six years after college, dwell on, but painful memories. They don't remember the good times, if they ever really had any. Instead, their psyches pick at the scabbed-over traumas of their volatile friendship in a series of sharp and poignant reminiscences, revealing, in the process, that it wasn't fun and games that solidified their friendship, but rather that they stuck together as they stuck it out through difficulties and emotional travails that are painfully familiar and ordinary.

The signature traits of a Mike Leigh film -- the writer-director seemingly feels no obligation to entertain as he tells a story, nor does he seem inclined to stray from the everyday matter of human existence -- are what make his films so fascinating and, oddly, entertaining. *Career Girls* is an engrossing, peripatetic little comedy that is far more bitter than sweet. Its laughs, tinged with regret, irony and disbelief, are the sort shared between friends who have seen the worst of each other, and, often enough, the worst of the world. Spending time with Hannah and Annie really is like spending time with old friends, people you know too much about and who know too much about you -- the sort of people who are altogether missing in the artificially attractive fantasy world of movies. *Career Girls* smacks of realism like a smack in the head.

Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Linda Steadman) meet when the latter answers an ad for a roommate in college. It's an umpromising start. Hannah, tall and gawky, tends to angrily spit out streams of words in a hyperkinetic rant. She's as indiscriminate as a volcano, spewing destruction in all directions, but at the same time, she's not intentionally vicious. Anger seems to rise up out of her and explode before she can stop it. Squeaky-voiced little Annie is nervous and twitchy. Unlike Hannah, her traumas erupt not in words but in physical symptoms -- she is quite literally an open wound. Allergic to everything, her face scarred by dermatitis, she nervously smokes between puffs on her asthma inhaler, carrying her head tilted downward, never making eye contact. Somehow, Hannah and Annie connect through their woundedness. Their friendship doesn't produce any radical or artificial transformations of character -- they are not altered by each other, but sustained by each other.

The slim plot of *Career Girls* involves their reunion six years after college, as Annie visits Hannah in London. At first uneasy, just as they were ten years earlier, they gradually, over the course of a weekend, become accustomed again to each other's quirks and rhythms, settling into the yin and yang of their relationship. The reunion brings back a flood of memories for both, and in the course of their travels together, they stumble upon old friends and enemies from their college days, most notably Ricky (Mark Benton), who is more painfully screwed up and unstable than Hannah and Annie put together.

The title *Career Girls* is a doubly ironic reference to unfulfilled hopes and gradual maturation. Neither Hannah, a college Engligh major, nor Annie, a psychology major, have careers. Neither are they still girls, having grown up as they grew apart, in mutually surprising transformations. Hannah and Annie have settled, without satisfaction, into office jobs, but both have a desire to move on to better, less ordinary lives. Their reunion, however, causes them to move in the past -- and not in order to effect some dramatic character change by film's end. In moving backwards more than forwards, *Career Girls* shows the tortured path by which two friends gradually arrived at who they now are -- as they catch up on six years apart, we catch up on their four years together.

*Career Girls* doesn't have the mawkish weepiness of Leigh's last film, the mother-daughter reuinion tale *Secrets and Lies*, nor does it share the soapish qualities of that film's story. *Career Girls* is simpler, and therefore much sharper in its focus. It is more satisfying as well, even though nothing dramatic happens, nothing in particular is resolved by film's end. *Career Girls* is an acute, brilliantly acted slice of life, rich and insightful, bright and witty, as it follows two remarkably unremarkable women through years of ordinary misery. A quietly moving film about the small victories and setbacks that serve as signposts on a journey without end, *Career Girls* leaves a lingering sense of emptiness when it's over. It is precisely the same feeling that accompanies saying goodbye to friends.


Cop Land (1997)

Remember when Sylvester Stallone used to act? It's been a while. Sometime back before he became a one-man sequel machine, before *Rocky VII* and *Rambo XIV* and all the variations on the theme of big, bellowing invincibility. About twenty years back, in fact, when he had a surprise hit in an influential little film about an underdog boxer achieving the American Dream. That was before the actor swapped character roles for caricature roles.

Stallone has gone big to go small in *Cop Land*, adding about 40 pounds of flab to his superhero frame to play Freddy Heflin, a small town sheriff with big city problems. This bit of stunt-casting backfires on both the actor and the film in this case, because Stallone has done such a thorough job of creating a movie persona around his pumped up physique that to see him flabby and ineffectual is a constant distraction -- one can't help but be conscious of his obvious bid for thespian respectability.

The search for respect is something Stallone has in common with Freddy, so it's a bit surprising that *Cop Land* isn't more effective and engaging. Freddy is the shambling, paunchy sheriff of Garrison, a tiny New Jersey town colonized by cops from New York's 37th Precinct. Appointed to his sinecure post by Garrison's founder, a shady cop named Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), Freddy is an NYPD wannabe; he lost the hearing in one ear after rescuing a girl from drowning, an act of heroism that cost him his dream. Now he's put down and pushed around by Garrison's clique of cops, shuffling about town doing good deeds and turning a blind eye, and a deaf ear, to the dirty deals going down around him.

Freddy is a sad, lonely man, an outsider in his own home, creeping around the edges, watching, but never participating. He spends most of his time under the George Washington Bridge, staring across the Hudson at the bright lights of the big city. All that begins to change when Garrison's tribe of cops starts to cannibalize itself. When Murray "Superboy" Babbage (Michael Rappaport), an off-duty officer, wrongfully shoots two joyriding teens after a traffic incident on the GWB, his precinct pals, including uncle Ray, make it look like he jumped from the bridge. From that point on, *Cop Land*'s plot meanders all over the map, turning on insurance fraud, murder, mobsters, marital infidelity, cops on the take, cops on the lam and cops on drugs. Freddy isn't so much in the middle of this muddle, but on the outside, trying to jam all the pieces together with his big sausage fingers.

The pieces don't really fit, making *Cop Land* disjointed and alienating. Writer-director James Mangold (*Heavy*) crafts a superficially precise story with *Cop Land* -- every tangent has an obvious set-up and follow-through, and all are weighted equally, as if a neat resolution could possibly tie everything together at the end. There are no red herrings here, no trails that don't lead precisely where they should, no incidents that don't point to some obvious wrongdoing. There's a whole lot of malfeasance in Garrison, all unrelated, much of it unlikely, but somehow, Freddy stumbles onto the whole shebang while looking for Murray.

All the complicated overplotting serves mostly as a distraction that tends to trivialize the real story of *Cop Land*, which is Freddy's internal struggle for truth, justice, redemption and self-respect. Freddy, suffering mightily from an inferiority complex, mopes and mopes until he's pushed into action. Even then he doesn't exactly spring into action, but sort of waddles into it, eventually realizing that he's more than equal to the big city cops, that he's actually better than they are. This character-driven part of the story is reminiscent of *Heavy*, Mangold's first (and better) feature about an overweight pizza chef who blossoms in crisis. *Cop Land* is a bigger film, but it lacks the quiet power of *Heavy*.

Freddy is the kind of role that requires really good, psychological acting. It's a subdued, subtle role where most of the action takes place behind an expressive, revealing face. Stallone only scratches the surface of the part, but he does achieve a touching humanity, which in itself is a refreshing change from the personality-free slabs of muscle he typically plays. With his hangdog face and nerdy uniform, Freddy is sad, sympathetic and likable, but Stallone never really comes alive in the role until the sheriff rather abruptly becomes a gun-toting, justice-wielding Old West-style lawman in the imaginative, nicely staged finale. Likewise Mangold's directing, which is fairly bland and workmanlike throughout the film, but finally sparks briefly to life at the end.

*Cop Land*'s all-star cast also includes Robert DeNiro as the jaded Internal Affairs investigator who stirs Freddy from his lethargy; Ray Liotta is Freddy's pal Figgis, a conflicted, one-man good cop/bad cop routine; Annabella Sciorra is the girl Freddy once rescued, now married to dirty cop Peter Berg. Stallone is the only actor in the bunch doing anything against type in *Cop Land*. DeNiro, Keitel and Liotta, in particular, are playing parts that they could do in their sleep.

The feeling that everybody is just going through the motions permeates *Cop Land*. The movie is essentially a modern-day psychological Western, complete with saloon, set in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. But *Cop Land* lacks the power, vitality and drama of that genre -- a drab raised ranch is a poor substitute for the OK Corral and there isn't a Gary Cooper in sight.


Spawn (1997)

In the earliest days of cinema, audiences would sit through anything just because moving pictures themselves were so new and fascinating. Thus, folks actually paid to see the Kinetoscope *Fred Ott's Sneeze*, in which one of Thomas Edison's mechanics sneezes. *La sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumiere* (*Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory*) is a primitive 1895 film, historically significant, somewhat lacking in drama, and a regular blockbuster in its day. Although the visual language and narrative conventions of cinema, which we now take for granted, were still being created in those early films, cinema then was limited more by primitive technology than a lack of imagination on the part of pioneer filmmakers.

Today, the reverse is true. A few years ago, a film with really spectacular and innovative special effects could get away with a fairly marginal story and still be visually exciting, because the technology was new enough that there was something on screen that had never been seen before. Computer animation has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling. Unfortunately, as often as not, film stories have failed to keep up with advances in special effects technology. Ironically, the technological innovations are usually ushered in by pretty good films (*The Abyss*, *Toy Story* and *Star Wars*, for example), only to be exploited by bad films which rely entirely on special effects to shore up a dull, vacuous story. *Spawn* is in this latter category.

The prologue to this yawn-fest is some silly claptrap about an army from hell burning down the gates of heaven (as if they wouldn't be fireproof -- please!). The Devil is apparently a sort of administrator who chooses to delegate rather than lead the army himself, so he sends his minion Clown (John Leguizamo) to recruit someone on Earth. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is the unlucky winner. A government assassin, he is set up by his evil boss Wynn (Martin Sheen), a nutjob bent on world domination. Burnt to a crisp in a biological weapons factory explosion, Al dies and goes to hell. End of story? Oh, to be so lucky.

After five years in the fiery pit, which looks exactly like a computer generated cartoon version of Hell as Sid and Marty Krofft might envision it, Al is sent back to Earth, where a battle for his soul ensues. Clown wants him mad and evil and bent on revenge. An annoyingly cloying mentor type, a Saxon assassin named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), tries to steer him away from the dark side, so he can use his necroplasmic body armor for good. Assuming that the audience isn't sharp enough to get the *Star Wars* reference, the script makes a point of mentioning it. Likewise the references to *It's a Wonderful Life.* The influences this derivative movie doesn't mention are *Darkman*, *RoboCop* and *The Crow*, to name but a few.

So Spawn, as Al is now called, is all mad and irritable, and his skin hurts a lot, and Clown and Cogliostro keep pestering him, and his faithful dog Spaz follows him everywhere. Like everybody else from Hell, Spawn has a bad case of the vapors, and green fumes emanate from his body whenever he gets really steamed. Clown farts green fumes, which, of course, is the height of hilarity. Or at least, the height of hilarity in *Spawn*.

Based on the comic book series by Todd McFarlane, *Spawn*, written by director Mark A.Z. Dippe and Alan B. McElroy, shores up the confusing plot by relying on a comic book convention that is inappropriate to movies, even bad ones: characters who explain what's going on by talking to themselves out loud. Another handy source of plot exposition is the omniscient voiceover provided by Cogliostro, who also talks to himself rather a lot. These distracting bits of exposition are necessary to understanding *Spawn* because most of the action in the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the various plots. Spawn is supposed to kill Wynn, but he mostly flies around and admires his own neato necroplasmic abilities (a subtle hint to the audience that they, too, should be filled with admiration and awe). Meanwhile, Wynn is being used by Clown in a plot to release a killer virus that will wipe out the entire planet. Clown goes to an awful lot of trouble to do something that should be quite simple to do for a demon beast such as himself. And I don't know what the Devil's problem is, but he's so lame his mouth doesn't even move when he talks. It just hangs open and his big grey tongue wiggles a little. Which is exactly what a Sid and Marty Krofft Devil puppet would do, which is why the world of the Kroffts was so morally simple, and all of their shows were a half hour long.

*Spawn* is substantially longer, and has lots and lots of sophisticated computer-generated special effects, some of which are almost interesting. I liked Spawn's big red cape, which looked a bit like molten lava, or cinnamon ribbon candy. But most of the special effects in *Spawn*, like the silly scenes of Hell, are not only unbelievable, they're totally unimaginative and uninspired. The technology is squandered in service of a dumb story and dimensionless characters who are given absolutely nothing interesting to do or say. I would rather watch Fred Ott sneeze.

The opening and closing title sequences of *Spawn*, designed by Imaginary Forces, deserve mention. Jiggly, off-kilter and hard to read, they were visually aggressive and assaultive. The film stock itself seemed to be disintegrating, creating an unsettling sense of instability and descent which, coupled with the fiery images, were genuinely hellish and much more interesting than the movie sandwiched in between.


Air Force One (1997)

Harrison Ford brings an unimpeachable sense of integrity to all of his roles, even the President of the United States. As *Air Force One* begins, President Jim Marshall, sobered by the suffering of war refugees, publicly vows that the US will actively crush dictatorships, and will never negotiate with terrorists. "It's your turn to be afraid," he warns the villains of the world.

Apparently, a certain group of die-hard Communists weren't listening, because only hours later, they hijack *Air Force One*, taking hostage the first family and half the cabinet. The President is hustled aboard an escape pod by his Secret Service agents, and presumably parachutes to safety. But this is Harrison Ford here, not Gerald Ford -- rest assured that he would never leave his wife and daughter, his loyal staff and the fate of the free world to a bunch of wild-eyed Soviets. No sir. President Marshall, decorated war veteran, devoted family man, patriot and liberal idealist is no waffler. He doesn't consult the polls first, he isn't crippled by indecision. He springs into action, crawling around in the bowels of the impressively realistic 747, picking off terrorists with his bare hands when he has to. This chief executive can execute.

It's surprisingly fun to watch a world leader beat the tar out of the bad guys. This is something we'll never see in real life, of course, not even when we elect some withered old third rate movie star as president. But wouldn't it be a far better world if our leaders duked it out themselves rather than sending in the troops and killing a bunch of civilians? (I doubt that Clinton would win many fights, what with his bad knee and all, but I bet he could take Newt. Hillary could whup Milosevich. And should the need arise, Chelsea could easily make mince meat of Yeltsin.) Fear of nuclear weapons could be replaced by fear of black eyes and broken noses. Presidents would have to train for summits with punching bags and push-ups, the Marquess of Queensbury rules would replace the tired old rules of diplomacy. George Foreman would eventually be president, Evander Holyfield might be vice president. The major drawback is that Mike Tyson would have the president's ear.

In the mean time, Ford gets my vote. This is an inspired piece of casting, with Ford embodying all the attributes we would like to see in our dream president: brains, ideals, conviction, an inability to knuckle-under, and a mean right hook. So much of the satisfaction of *Air Force One* derives from the perfection of this presidential fantasy, from the pleasure of seeing a president do the right thing, or do anything, for that matter. Although it could easily lapse into rah-rah patriotism (and veers close to it at times), *Air Force One* is effective because it doesn't get red-white-and-blue-faced, because sets very high *personal* stakes for the President as a human being, putting the father-husband-friend at odds with his own role as head of state, where the stakes are only slightly less personal for him, and no less important.

Top terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) is an ultra-nationalist who dreams of reuniting Russia under the rule of strongman Alexander Radek (played by Jurgen Prochnow with icily effective silence), currently imprisoned in Kazakhstan. Ivan gets all misty-eyed when he speaks of "mother Russia." He gets positively verklempt when he hears "Le Internationale." He gets apoplectic about Kapitalism -- the very word seems to leave a bitter taste in his mouth as he spits it at the Pres. And, although he is a raving lunatic and an arch villain, he makes some valid points about American foreign policy and government sanctioned aggression. But of course, the President isn't negotiating with terrorists today.

*Air Force One* is hardly the first movie to posit a hostage situation on an airplane. But director Wolfgang Petersen, whose *Das Boot* was an early model of the tube thriller, manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense and emotion out of a well-worn plot device. *Air Force One*'s plot is not especially innovative or surprising -- the restricted space of a jetliner imposes limits on action and story -- but the characters are developed well, putting the emphasis here on the psychological aspects of terrorism. Marshall and Ivan are engaged in a hearts and minds battle, a test of wills, where it is always obvious that Marshall has the most to lose. The President may have drawn a political line in the sand, but Ivan has no qualms about stepping over it and dragging real humans along with him -- he is true to his word about killing hostages, and the executions are jolting and dreadful. The President feels their pain, and so, it seems, does Ivan.

Back at the White House, another test of wills develops as loyal, stiff-as-starch VP Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) engages in a Constitutional tussle with an ambitious Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) who quickly and comically declares "I'm in charge here!" It's a dandy subplot, contrasting the ineffectual political maneuvering on the ground with the highly effective, nonpolitical (though highly dogmatic) action in the air.

Even though it mostly develops exactly as expected, *Air Force One* is rich and satisfying, taking an unlikely circumstance to every possible extreme and making it paradoxically convincing and highly entertaining. There are moments of real dread, a sense of genuine personal and national violation in this movie that keep the tension high, while the characters are real enough to make their fates matter. There are lighter moments as well -- apparently even presidents have problems with surly telephone operators and cell phone batteries. One of the most stirring moments, one of the most deeply patriotic moments in *Air Force One* occurs when a very important fax goes through -- the very personal joy of fax and minor technological triumph colliding with collective patriotism in a breathtaking instant that is both moving and hilariously low-key. I've sent faxes too, and doggone it, I'm an American! (I think it was a Sony fax machine.)