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JANUARY 25, 1999: 

Virus

Remember the computer virus that Will Smith used to kick alien ass in Independence Day? Well, in this sci-fi disaster flick, the aliens "are" a malevolent electronic infestation that takes over a high-tech Russian research ship caught in the eye of typhoon. The aliens' conduit to the ship is a data transmission from the Mir space station as it is engulfed by the lifeform's dreamy blue mass. Also in the eye of the storm is a sinking tug. Her crew are delighted to find dry ground aboard the ghost ship, which promises a salvage mother lode, but then the power gets switched on and the mammoth vessel springs to life -- literally. First come the little electronic scatter bugs, which look like something out of Errol Morris's Fast Cheap and Out of Control. Then the gory half-human, half-machine assassins, ridiculously tethered by power cords.

Based on the Dark Horse comic-book series, the plot itself is a gory concatenation of Hardware and Event Horizon -- two of cinema's more forgettable sci-fi thrillers. The cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin, and Joanna Pacula, put in a yeoman effort to little avail. Even Donald Sutherland in the potentially juicy role of a self-serving old sea dog goes down with the ship in this suspenseless big-budget "thriller."

-- Tom Meek


Port Djema

As much as Westerners would like to distance themselves from the natural and manmade catastrophes plaguing Africa over the past several years, the guilt from a colonialist past and a realpolitik present lingers. To his credit, French producer-turned-director Eric Heumann confronts that guilt, but his Port Djema provides more mannered opacity than hard-hitting insight.

Pierre Feldman (Jean-Yves Dubois) is a complacent Parisian doctor who journeys to the civil-war-torn fictional African country of the title (apparently Eritrea) on a quest to learn the fate of his friend, a missionary doctor murdered by one of the warring factions. He retraces the dead man's fatal itinerary and, escorted by a cryptic cabdriver, meets with Alice (Nathalie Boutefeu), a young Frenchwoman who may have been his friend's lover, and Jérôme (Christophe Odent), a shady French functionary who may have been involved with his friend's killers.

It's an arty, murky descent into hell related with the deliberation of Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (which Heumann produced) and punctuated by jolting and eloquent images of brutality and pathos. The doctor witnesses atrocities and comes to grips with his nation's guilt and his own personal responsibility but somehow remains the same ineffectual sad-sack he started out as. Port Djema is a needful, non-preachy corrective to such kneejerk tracts as John Sayles's by-the-numbers Men with Guns, but the air of existential anomie and the vaguely sentimental conclusion seem yet another evasion of Western responsibility.

-- Peter Keough


Playing By Heart

The title of Willard Carroll's film lets you know what you're getting yourself into. At the outset of this cleverly interconnected (sometimes annoyingly so) tale of six different relationships, the youngest of three sisters, Joan (Angelina Jolie), tells us that her musician friend equates "talking about music" or "talking about love" with "dancing about architecture" -- it just can't be done. Love, of course, is the focus here, and even though they supposedly can't talk about it, these couples give it quite a go.

A horde of big-name stars populate this chick flick, from Sean Connery, who mimics a puppy dog at one point (scary), to Jon Stewart, who ends up in bed with Gillian Anderson's monster dog (better). The pace is quick and the cuts from romantic situation to situation keep the momentum going. But the characters who aren't already attached produce the necessary "I love you" ASAP -- like, after a single date. And as will happen in a movie that combines mini-stories, some are better than others. Dennis Quaid as the schizoid storyteller and Madeleine Stowe as the cheating wife are among the least appealing of the bunch. Playing by Heart has its share of mush, but it's smooth enough to go down easy.

-- Rachel O'Malley


L'Avventura

Michelangelo Antonioni's first full-blown masterpiece (the title means "The Adventure," but with sexual overtones) was hissed when it premiered at Cannes in 1960; it went on to be hailed by newspapers as disparate as the New York Mirror and the London Times. (There was some uncertainty in the center: the New York Times said the film was "too far out"; the Herald Tribune thought it was "too far in.") Today, at the edge of the millennium, Antonioni's approach to film looks as revolutionary as it did back then. He gave us, for the first time, the cinema of a Copernican universe, where humans are no longer the center of the cosmos. Often they're not the center of his shots: the camera will be looking at a landscape or building and someone will wander into the frame. His use of widescreen lets him show two persons in close-up without bringing them together. What would bring them together? God is conspicuously absent (the only churches we see are closed), just as in real life. So are families.

The plot is disarmingly simple. Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Anna (Lea Massari) are lovers, but whereas Sandro is glib and self-satisfied, Anna seems restless and uncertain about the relationship. During a visit to the Lipari islands (north of Sicily) with some friends, including Anna's chum Claudia (Monica Vitti), Anna disappears. Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film combing Sicily, and then Italy, for her, in the process falling in love with each other -- or something like love. In the end, though, they're left with something quite different: each other.

Antonioni's characters are not so much alienated as isolated, left to puzzle out their role in a world that doesn't seem to need them. They fumble toward self-knowledge, often in real time rather than with the "unimportant" moments edited out -- this director's way of asking us to reconsider what's important and what's not. As opposed to Hollywood movies, which are illustrated novels (close your eyes and you won't miss much), his films could almost be silents; Antonioni wants us to look as well as listen, to consider that what his characters do -- what they gaze at, how they move, how they react to one another -- is as telling as the words they speak. In short, this is interactive moviemaking: we're asked not to watch passively, to be manipulated, but to join in the director's painstaking -- and sometimes painful -- investigation of who we are.

-- Jeffrey Gantz



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