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FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

The Swindle

Among recent Hitchcock ripoffs -- Brian De Palma's overblown Snake Eyes, Gus Van Sant's redundant Psycho -- Claude Chabrol's The Swindle is less of a cheat than the rest. Derivative of the master in his less suspenseful, more romantic mode -- say, To Catch a Thief -- this is the story of a pair of small-time grifters who stray "out of their league," as Victor (Michel Serrault), the éminence grise of the team, puts it. His accomplice Betty (Isabelle Huppert, in blancmange mode), tired of duping dentists at conventions, sets them up with Maurice (François Cluzet, whom Betty asks to remove his sunglasses because he "looks like Peter Sellars," thus eliminating his personality), a high-finance type with a valise full of Swiss francs. That MacGuffin involves them with nasty characters in a picturesque Caribbean resort and a much-telegraphed double and triple cross. The relationship between Betty and Victor is more compelling and mysterious than their scams; he's old enough to be her father, and she calls him "daddy," so maybe he is. Like the valise's combination, this is by the numbers, but twisted and atmospheric enough not to leave you feeling robbed.

-- Peter Keough


Pumping Iron

He's big, he's burly, he's buff, he's beefcake, he's ARNOLD circa 1975. This surprisingly good documentary from George Butler and Robert Fiore chronicles the participation of several professional bodybuilders in the contests for Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, including Schwarzenegger, who was trying for his seventh title before officially retiring from competition. Given the muscular Austrian's recent penchant for right-wing politics (at the GOP convention a few years back he referred to "these Democrats" as "a bunch of girlymen"), it is a treat to watch him in the days when he was merely a self-important, arrogant Neanderthal, as opposed to a talentless movie star rubbing elbows with Reagan and Bush. Watch him smoke a post-victory joint! Hear him compare bodybuilding to sex! ("It's as satisfying to me as coming is; I am coming day and night, it's fantastic!") He describes his tendency to cut himself off from his emotions and become "totally cold" when in training, to the point where he refused to attend his own father's funeral. Perhaps most disturbing of all, a grinning Schwarzenegger (whose name means "black plowman") admits to psyching out his opponents in order to make them lose: giving bogus advice to amateurs, and endlessly tormenting a hapless young Lou ("The Incredible Hulk") Ferrigno.

-- Peg Aloi


Payback

Hollywood is chasing its tail again. Payback is a new version of Donald E. Westlake's novel The Hunter, which was brilliantly filmed in 1967 as Point Blank. Mel Gibson takes the Lee Marvin role of a heister who, left for dead by his double-crossing partner (Gregg Henry) and wife (Deborah Kara Unger) after a big job, comes back for revenge and his share of the loot. In pursuit of the latter, he eventually confronts the three leaders (William Devane, James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson) of the local mob.

First-time director Brian Helgeland (who co-wrote L.A. Confidential) has made Payback an entertaining neo-noir, self-conscious and stylized but not too cute, respecting the tradition while delivering for those who just want to see the kind of movie where Mel Gibson shoots some people. People in this film also get bumped, whacked, smashed, hammered, upsided, battered, beaten, and blown up. The hyperbolic violence is '90s; the music is '50s to late '60s (plus, "President Nixon" is mentioned and Gibson smokes a lot); the cars, costumes, and decor mix periods from the late '60s to the present. Payback's city is a group of oblique Cinemascope studies in steel gray, less a real place than a movie set of Downtown Nowhere.

Point Blank made its system-beating hero a remote icon, modern man as zombie. Payback tries to bring him closer to us by giving him a cliché'd voiceover narration and a big I-need-you scene with the helpful hooker who befriends him (Maria Bello). Helgeland doesn't succeed in this endeavor, and neither does he need to: both movie and hero work effectively on a purely mechanical level.

-- Chris Fujiwara


Children of Heaven

The Iranian cinema may have reinvented the children's movie, but for a little while into Majid Majidi's generically titled Children of Heaven, it seems Iranian filmmakers might be starting to recycle it. The scenario is familiar from Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? and Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon and The Mirror: adorable Teheran urchins struggle against Sisyphean obstacles and unhelpful, insensitive adults to achieve mundane goals. In this case the problematic item is a pair of pink shoes. Eight-year-old Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) gets distracted at the grouchy fruit peddlar's stand and the newly repaired slippers he's bringing home for his younger sister Zahra (Bahare Sediqi) are appropriated by a rag picker. Afraid to tell his parents, he and Zahra work out a scheme by which they share his battered sneakers.

A lot of time seems spent following earnest children running through back alleys until Majidi opens his film up with a Bicycle Thief-inspired interlude that gives Ali and his dad (Amir Naji) a chance to bond and see how the other half lives when they seek gardening work in the rich quarter. Majidi opens it further when Ali enters a state-sponsored road race with hopes of winning not first prize but third -- a pair of running shoes. With TV cameramen adding an element of self-reflexivity, Heaven ends on a note of gentle but resolute irony: aspiration meets with frustration even when it succeeds, and true peace and joy, like the goldfish in the pool into which Ali sinks his blistered feet, lie under the shifting surface of our daily cares.

-- Peter Keough



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