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MARCH 9, 1998: 


It's hard not to regard the title of this tepid noir by Robert Benton as prophetic of the legendary careers of stars Paul Newman and Gene Hackman. In a role reminiscent of Harper and The Drowning Pool, Newman is Harry Ross, private investigator, now retired after an incident involving an accidentally discharged handgun that opens and is the best part of the film. These days he's a live-in assistant at the palatial Hollywood estate of old pal Jack Ames (Hackman), a famous actor now stricken with cancer -- keeping company with his host's still nubile wife, Catherine (Susan Sarandon), who teases Harry by swimming nude in the pool, and their daughter, Mel (a blithely topless Reese Witherspoon), the object of Harry's ill-fated opening-scene adventure, who treats him with disdain.

Jack asks Harry to look into some people who are blackmailing him; What follows is breezy, predictable, and incoherent, with the legendary cast evoking past greatness long enough to underscore the present movie's inadequacies. Among those is Sarandon, who is just too nurturing, too damn liberal, to be a convincing femme fatale. Benton gets the sun-faded LA look down right, but with its inconsequential and sometimes tasteless plot dodderings (was Harry castrated? what will that numbnuts Hispanic chauffeur do next?), Twilight will probably ease its way into early box-office retirement.

-- Peter Keough

The Education of Little Tree

Lacking fight scenes, explosions, and special effects, this movie is as charming as the Native American lifestyle it portrays. Eight-year-old (an adorable and energetic Joseph Ashton) Little Tree is a Cherokee orphan who lives with his Cherokee grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal) and white grandfather (James Cromwell) in the Tennessee backwoods, where Granma and Granpa teach him "The Way" of the Cherokee people and survive the Depression by making and selling whiskey. In about one year of his life, Little Tree learns about prejudice, violence, and death. But the loving relationships he builds with his grandparents, his friend Willow John (Graham Greene), and the Earth keep him smiling.

Based on the novel by Forrest Carter, this movie is gentle and simple. The mountains often echo with singing or laughter. The script uses a minimum number of words to maximum effect. Cromwell (Babe) speaks volumes with a look; Cardinal complements him with her solidity and kindness. Director Richard Friedenberg relies on the power of silence, keeping his scenes quiet and smooth, and he puts the focus on Little Tree's peaceful life, forsaking the evil-white-man-versus-Native-American route that would have been so easy.

-- Jumana Farouky

Mrs. Dalloway

Now that we've seen E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and even Henry James on screen, why not adapt Virginia Woolf? One answer is this self-important piffle from Marlene Gorris, which reduces all that was mysterious and aching in the book to Masterpiece Theatre set designs (the screenwriter, actress Eileen Atkins, was co-creator of the series Upstairs, Downstairs), kneejerk flashbacks, relentless voiceovers in lieu of artful subjectivity, and mannered acting that translates conflicted feeling into portentous ejaculations punctuated with exclamation points and repeated. ("What a day! What a day! For my pah-ty!" as a senselessly beaming Vanessa Redgrave observes in the title role.)

So it's a beautiful June day in London in 1923, and Mrs. Dalloway, aging and ailing hostess to the well-heeled and powerful, sets about buying flowers and what-not for her aforementioned party. Troubling her reverie are intrusive recollections of another June, in 1890, when she was 18 and the world seemed grand (youthful passion indicated by lots of running in starchy period clothing) and she bonded with her coltish, iconoclastic pal Sally (who actually takes off her starchy period clothes and runs around the house -- naked!)

But then there was young Peter (Alan Cox), poor dear, so brash and idealistic, who did seem to draw the best out of her but then was just, too too. Should she have forsaken him for the stuffy, safe solidity of the rich-as-Croesus future MP she finally married? Life is full of tea-colored regrets -- but what a day for her party!

Meanwhile, Mrs Dalloway's path is paralleled by that of shell-shocked veteran Septimus (a haunting Rupert Graves), who flees ghosts of his own past through London's brittle streets. Accompanied by his desperate wife, Lucrezia (Amelia Bullmore), he's besieged by flashbacks of a different kind -- the recurrent specter of fellow soldier Evans advancing despite warnings and being blown to bits. Lost in this adaptation is the suggestion that Evans and Septimus made their pointless sacrifice to let the well-appointed yearnings of Mrs. Dalloway endure, and his uncontrollable alienation bespeaks the anomie she represses. He is not a dark mirror of the torn psyche beneath Mrs. Dalloway's elegant composure but a reproach to her trifling superficiality -- and the film's.

-- Peter Keough

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