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FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

Tupamaros

"The Tupamaros is a feeling, not just a political line," explains a Uruguayan rebel in this moving homage to Latin America's most notorious urban guerrillas. Through graceful portraits of Tupamaros leaders, the documentary sweeps the group's successful, 30-year effort to topple Uruguay's dictatorship, from their 1963 raid on the Swiss Gun Club to their current status as a legal political faction.

Directors Heidi Specogna and Rainer Hoffmann most artfully capture the marrow-deep passion of the guerrillas in 62-year-old Pepe Mujica. Still the picture of rebellion with his silvery mane and motorcycle, the flower farmer/parliament representative weaves arresting anecdotes about his political past, including a brutal 13-year imprisonment as a hostage. The scene in which Mujica visits the prison site, now a gleaming shopping mall, unsettles with particular poignancy.

The documentary relishes such bittersweet ironies, framing the Tupamaros' tales with postcard-pretty Uruguayan tableaux. Although the film's presentation of the group's early days is fuzzy, it limns the Tupamaros' current state of flux with stinging clarity: their Robin Hood days are over. As the rough-hewn Mujica admits to being more of a figurehead than a force among the suits and ties of parliament, he's the very definition of a rebel without a cause.

-- Alicia Potter


Phantoms

No sooner has Ben Affleck indied his way into film superhunkdom than he's starring in the kind of bomb that traditionally marks the twilight of an actor's career. Go figure. In Phantoms (adapted from the 1983 Dean Koontz thriller) Affleck plays a superhunky small-town sheriff singlehandedly fending off the forces of unspeakable evil. Well, not quite singlehandedly: he has a pair of unflappable sisters to help him, and Peter O'Toole in the unspeakably implausible role of an epidemics expert turned tabloid journalist turned co-savior of humankind.

Phantoms is derivative (Tremors and Aliens are well represented), and dumb enough to be more hilarious than scary. There are some creepy moments, especially in the first half, but the film soon slips into a kind of grim silliness, reaching a toe-curling climax when the unspeakable evil turns out to be, in effect, a very old, publicity-seeking oil slick (no, it's not played by Burt Reynolds) that's defeated only when O'Toole double-dog-dares it out of hiding. Or is the evil defeated? This is the question Phantoms dares to ask but can't be bothered to answer.

-- Chris Wright


Great Expectations

How can you tell whether something you remember really happened, or how, or why? These are some of the questions posed by Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke), the Pip stand-in in Alfonso Cuarón's visually lush, snazzily stylish, and emotionally inert updating of Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations.

Actually there are more compelling questions that come to mind. Why make this movie at all after it had been consummately adapted by David Lean in 1946? Why dump the original's richly nuanced, endearing characters for stereotypes, or its superbly crafted plot for a clumsy MTV farrago of a narrative? Why boggle minds with a novelization of a movie based on a novel (Great Expectations, not by Dickens, now available in paperback)? Wouldn't the film be more compelling had Robert De Niro and Anne Bancroft exchanged parts? And why the heck didn't they just take a cab in the film's ridiculous climax?

Not that this Great Expectations is a total disappointment. Mexican filmmaker Cuarón's A Little Princess is one of the most magical adaptations of a children's book, and this film has a painterly sense of color, composition, and mood and the grand sweep of an over-orchestrated piece of minor music. That's evident from the first scene, when dreamy, 10-year-old budding artist Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) sits in a dinghy in the Gulf Coast sketching the local pastoral splendor. A blood-red smear in the surf transforms into Lustig (Robert De Niro), a manacled convict, who demands that Finn help him with his escape. It proves a brief, intense adventure, leaving Finn suspicious that he too might have manacles he must break.

That feeling grows when Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft, mugging and winking brutally in her gaudy togs, impossible wigs, and cigarette holders), a wealthy old woman gone mad with a broken heart, invites Finn over to be the playmate of her pretty ward, the cold and haughty Estella. In a splendidly shot scene bordering on kiddie porn, she kisses him at a drinking fountain, and Finn is hooked. Years pass, they continue to play together, growing up into Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. After one last tease, Estella abandons him, breaking his heart.

Finn resigns himself to the beer-swilling fisherman's life of his dumb but lovable guardian Joe (Chris Cooper) until a mysterious benefactor pays for his introduction into the Manhattan art world. Cuarón's parody of the pretense and splendor of this demi-monde dims before his delight in it: Finn poses as an idealistic rebel before the greedy cynicism of the gallery owners and rich collectors, but his subsequent callow ambition is more convincing. But Life and mishandled plotting has its surprises -- Estella returns, and following the inexplicable and unfortunate trend that has surfaced in Titanic and As Good As It Gets, poses for some bad nudes (Francesco Clemente provides Finn's artwork, a wry commentary on the character's cartoonish one-dimensionality). After some messy, unnecessary complications, all ends with perfect teeth and great clothes on a beach at sundown. It may not be Dickens, it certainly isn't great, but what did you expect?

-- Peter Keough


Zero Effect

In Hollywood, where nepotism reigns supreme, it's easy to understand how an underwhelming detective spoof like Zero Effect would get the green light -- it's helmed by first-timer Jake Kasdan, son of writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado, The Big Chill). The younger Kasdan stages each scene handsomely, but as a writer he stretches potentially witty snaps into disagreeably languorous melodrama.

Bill Pullman anchors the spectacle as Daryl Zero, an introverted but highly-sought-after private investigator who spends his down time in recluse, surfing the information highway and guzzling gallons of Tab. To compensate for his social ineptitude, Zero employs the reluctant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) as his sidekick and go-between. The set-up promises something goofy and humorous along the lines of Austin Powers or Get Smart, but when the duo are hired on by a corporate tycoon (a portly Ryan O'Neal) who's being blackmailed over his dubious past, the gags dry up fast and all that's left are Pullman's prosaic voiceovers. Kasdan's literary deficiencies aside, the nonchalant Pullman and the neurotic Stiller should have exchanged roles. Kim Dickens adds a spark as a possible suspect and the object of Zero's desire, but it still all adds up to zilch.

-- Tom Meek


Conspirators of Pleasure

Conspirators of Pleasure has no dialogue, but each of its characters has his or her own unique form of private sexual self-expression, usually involving homemade autoerotic gizmos. A shopkeeper enjoys being caressed by robot arms while watching his favorite TV news anchorwoman. She likes having her toes sucked by fish. Her husband mortifies his flesh with devices that rotate feathers, bristles, and nails. A woman tortures an effigy of her neighbor; he does the same to her effigy while he's dressed as a chicken. All are served by a postal deliverywoman who rolls chunks of bread into dense pills and stuffs them into her nose and ears. These six cross paths without realizing that each is a member of this furtive fraternity of fetishists.

Czech director Jan Svankmajer, best known for his stop-motion animated shorts and his surreal updates of Alice in Wonderland and Faust, takes his view of the human body as an arbitrary and malleable social construct (Kafka by way of David Cronenberg) into Buñuel territory. His cheerful, inventive satire on bourgeois sexual morality (if everyone is a deviant, then no one is, and no one need be ashamed) looks at all the creativity and hard work that goes into self-gratification and dares to call it art.

-- Gary Susman


Deceiver

First-time filmmakers Joshua and Jonas Pate take The Preppie Murder and twist it into a jagged little mind game that unfolds through a series of polygraph tests. Tim Roth carries the film as an effete Ivy League grad who's linked to the heinous butchery of a high-priced call girl (Renee Zellwegger doing an about-face in her follow-up to Jerry Maguire). Bearing down on him are Michael Rooker and Chris Penn as the ace lie-detector dicks assigned to crack the case. They seem to have Roth dead to rights, but as the interrogations wear on, the sly cunning of the epileptic yuppie turns the cops' weaknesses against themselves and obscures the truth. Unfortunately, the Pate brothers are so enamored of the hip allure of their craftsmanship that they omit character development. Roth's morose exuberance -- reminiscent of his foppish swordsman from Rob Roy -- keeps things entertaining for a while, but in the end it's only the audience that gets deceived.

-- Tom Meek


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