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FEBRUARY 15, 1999: 

Dance With Me

D: Randa Haines (1998)
with Chayanne, Vanessa L. Williams, Kris Kristofferson

Think Dirty Dancing with a more passionate soundtrack and Strictly Ballroom with less smarts, and you get a dance-romance that's as captivating as it is cheesy. Set in Houston (an unlikely choice of cities for a romp like this), we met Rafael (Chayanne), who has just traveled from Cuba to find the man he believes to be his father. That happens to be an unwitting and very crusty John (Kris Kristofferson) who gives the handsome immigrant a job at his dance studio, the Excelsior. Before long, we meet a collection of cha cha-ing misfits (the most charming of whom is feisty Joan Plowright as Bea) and a former pro dancer turned instructor, Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams). Rafael tries to find the right moment to confront John about their relationship, but spends more time charming everyone with his good looks and boyish smile. After a shaky start, he and the beautiful Ruby hit it off, and by their second date he teaches her that dancing is more than just step counts and technique, it's about feeling the music. A nice club scene follows and the film plods on a little aimlessly before hitting its final mark. There is some fine dancing throughout the film (enough to make the audience sign up for mambo lessons), but unfortunately the climactic dance contest loses some much-needed steam. Williams and Chayanne share a wonderful chemistry on and off the dance floor and the supporting cast complements the simplistic but thoughtful screenplay. In all, an extremely competent take on Latin dancing with vibrant choreography and a charismatic cast. --Mike Emery

Midnight Express: 20th Anniversary Edition

D: Alan Parker (1978)
with Brad Davis, John Hurt, Randy Quaid, Irene Miracle

Twenty years ago the plot line was simple enough: William Hayes (Davis), a naive young American vacationing with his girlfriend (Miracle) in Istanbul, Turkey, tries to smuggle a couple of kilos of hash out of the country and back to the States. He is caught and thrown into a Turkish prison to serve his sentence of four years on the charge of possession. There, he is tortured, raped and forced into the brutal state of survival one must attain while doing time in any prison, much less a Turkish one. He buddies up with other Americans and foreigners who have been imprisoned, most of them caught for smuggling hash, and soon discovers the only way out of the jail is through death or by "the midnight express" (a prison term for escape). That train, says Hayes' friend and fellow prison mate Max (John Hurt in a standout performance), doesn't run around here. But ultimately Hayes does escape, makes it over the Turkish border into Greece and arrives back in America, almost six years after his original incarceration. Although this may sound like a Hollywood plot line, the story is entirely true. A talented new writer named Oliver Stone revealed Hayes' attitude as another ignorant American, thinking he is above the law because of his nationality and difference in culture. The national hate for foreigners, especially Americans, is also well-diagrammed throughout the film; the Turkish call them "ayip," which means sinful, evil. Brad Davis (Chariots of Fire, Sybil) gives a career-best performance and Randy Quaid is superb, one of the few roles where he draws our attention with his acting ability rather than being plain obnoxious. Director Alan Parker, better known for other powerful films like Mississippi Burning and Pink Floyd: The Wall, milks naturalistic performances out of his small cast and creates a brutal intensity rarely matched in cinema today. Michael Serensin's cinematography is oddly sedating yet intense, giving the prison and the whole country of Turkey a frightful, alien sort of feel. This digitally re-mastered 20th anniversary edition gives a clearer look at a classic film about the clash between American pomposity and violent government corruption. --Eli Kooris

Zero Effect

D: Jake Kasdan;(1998, DVD)
with Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller,
Ryan O'Neal.

Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller in Zero Effect

One of the most tragically overlooked and underseen films of 1998, Zero Effect is really the only decent detective movie to come along in quite awhile. DVD is the perfect place to discover the flick, along with its many charms. First is Pullman as Darryl Zero, a reclusive, ultra-paranoid, heavy amphetamine addict who also happens to be the world's greatest private eye. Pullman is clearly deep within the role here, singing to himself and twitching like a hummingbird. The only thing keeping Zero sane and on track is his faithful assistant Steve, with Ben Stiller at his deadpan funniest. Even Ryan O'Neal is good! Amazing! Director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) does a remarkable job in his writing and directorial debut, but it is unclear if the dismal theatrical performance of Zero (under $2 million gross) will leave room for a second shot. The DVD features all the usual goodies in sound and screen, plus a commentary track that ranks among the most curious since Roger Ebert provided his own drivel track to Dark City. Kasdan, it seems, doesn't think people ever listen to commentary tracks, so he's encoded a secret phrase on the disc. Should you piece the phrase together and repeat it to him in person, he'll donate $5 to a charity of your choice and give you a hug. Now if you can only find his favorite bar. --Christopher Null

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