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MARCH 1, 1999: 

The Other Sister

Two trends in recent "women's" movies must be stopped. The first is the scene in which mom dances with the kids, usually in the bedroom with pillows, to some pop song and all differences are resolved. That has never happened in real life and, barring the influence of these films, never will. The second is having actresses portray characters with mental disabilities by talking like Crazy Guggenheim. It's a condescending and sentimental practice that strips them of their dignity for the safe amusement of audiences. And it's very annoying.

The Other Sister, from Garry Marshall, who's already responsible for debasing the image of women with Pretty Woman, is guilty of both trends. Juliette Lewis commits the second offense as a mentally challenged woman returning to her family home after spending time in a special school. Although Lewis mugs and sing-songs hideously (how cute she is when she says "penis!" How brave she is when she tells people to stop laughing at her!), she's not half as irritating as Diane Keaton as her mother. Controlling, whiny, and suffocating, Keaton almost seems posed as the cause of her daughter's disability, not to mention the drinking problem and Republicanism of hubby Tom Skerritt (the best thing in the movie).

To the rescue comes Giovanni Ribisi, who suffers from the same handicap and acting disorder as Lewis's character (his favorite movie is The Graduate; you wonder what he'd make of Rain Man). Their courtship is prolonged through three holidays, two weddings, and more than two hours of screen time; by the end I was longing for a sensitive portrait of the disabled like There's Something About Mary.

-- Peter Keough


Another Day in Paradise

Another day in Paradise, another indulgence in heroin chic from photographer-turned-director Larry Clark. This one lacks the rush of his controversial Kids of a couple of years back, and most of that film's relevance. It's a sentimentalized exploitation of squalor, a romanticizing of the druggie outlaw scene in the '70s Midwest that was covered with style and subversive insight 10 years ago by Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy -- and by Clark himself in his classic photo essay Tulsa.

Bobbie (emaciated Vincent Kartheiser, shot more often than not with his butt exposed like a baby with a drooping diaper) is a street kid with a taste for dope who does in an obese, vicious security guard (the film's only nod to official authority) while breaking into vending machines. Recuperating from injuries and on the lam, he and girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Warner Gregson, nodding out in her underwear) move in with aging junkie and thief Mel (James Woods, taking his producer credit as a cue to overact) and his moll Sidney (Melanie Griffith, miscast but engaging) to form one of those alternative families that movies so love to coddle as they set off on a Bonnie and Clyde spree of misdeeds and high spirits. Some low and high points along the way include Griffith wielding a shotgun and a hypo with equal devastation, gratuitous shots of unclad teenage bodies in the rictus of sex and drugs, a few worthily sardonic asides from Woods, and an arms-dealing preacher who seems to be straddling Taxi Driver and Wise Blood. After this stint in Paradise, it looks as if Clark, recently returned to rehab, might have lost it.

-- Peter Keough


8MM

Further proof that everyone in Hollywood is insane arrives with the release of the thoroughly loathsome 8MM, which several of the town's best-paid artisans actually think has a swell premise for a Friday-night popcorn movie. Ambitious but not-too-bright private eye Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) thinks he's hit the jackpot when he's hired by a tycoon's widow to investigate a reel of film found in her late husband's safe, an apparent snuff film depicting the slaying of a teenage girl. To identify the girl and the film's makers, Welles spends weeks immersing himself in an underground of violent, illegal porn rings. The eager Virgil guiding the dour detective through smut hell is adult-bookstore clerk Max (Joaquin Phoenix, giving the movie's only lively performance). Moviegoers spend two hours vicariously wallowing in degradation before Welles tracks down the villains, loses all the evidence, then tracks them down again for the cathartically lethal climax. Bring a date.

How to explain this colossal waste of talent? The filmmakers seem to think they're being bold and controversial by exposing a scandal that even they assert is an urban myth, but nothing could be less risky than tantalizing viewers with glimpses of illicit thrills, then puritanically condemning those thrills. A director as preoccupied with glossy surfaces and pretty people as Joel Schumacher (the last two Batman movies) is ill suited to the grimy world of Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who's apparently working his way through his fingers to come up with his movie titles. But whereas the mystery in Seven involved larger themes and actual plot twists, everything in 8MM is prosaically just what it seems. The film really is a snuff film whose killer admits to Welles that he lacks a dysfunctional childhood or other trauma to explain away his crimes -- he simply enjoys killing. Welles also learns that the millionaire commissioned the film simply because he had the money to get away with it. Perhaps that was also Columbia Pictures' rationale.

-- Gary Susman


200 Cigarettes

Independent filmmakers have been developing a lot of bad habits lately, and the carcinogenic 200 Cigarettes, a lame La Ronde of losers looking for closure on New Year's Eve 1981 in New York, is one of the results. Contempt passing for hipness, clichés passing for cool, glibness for innovation -- not to mention the misogyny and self-loathing from a director and a writer (Risa Bramon Garcia, Shana Larsen) who are women.

What could be in these Cigarettes to draw the talented and seemingly smart people involved? Like Ben Affleck, who plays a hunky bartender drooled over by most of the film's pathetically desperate women until he reveals he's a law student into Reaganomics instead of an "artist" into self-promotion? Or Courtney Love, in the closest thing to a dignified performance, as a self-acknowledged "slut" willing to service roommate Paul Rudd in mourning over his break-up with anal Janeane Garofalo? Or Kate Hudson (a charming ringer for her mother, Goldie Hawn) as a virginal klutz whose humiliations climax with her getting smeared with dog shit?

These and other equally tedious tales interweave through the devices of ubiquitous, wise-ass cabdriver Dave Chappelle, a party thrown by whiny Martha Plimpton, and a morning-after post-mortem in which we find out who ends up sleeping with whom, as if we or they cared. That one of those late risers is '80s icon Elvis Costello makes the prognosis for independence and integrity in film or any medium look grim indeed.

-- Peter Keough



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