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MARCH 9, 1998: 


"Soft porn," moaned a woman I met recently, "but I can't wait to see it!" She was talking about "Dangerous Beauty," the true story of Veronica Franco, who, as a poetess and courtesan, was considered a national asset in sixteenth-century Venice. Produced by the same team that brought us "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," the film is conscientious about explaining Veronica's plight: with no dowry or social standing, prostitution was the only viable path to the education and comfort level she desired. This eased some of the guilt I felt while lapping up the requisite scenes of makeovers and sex ed (all presided over by that old hand at whoring, Jacqueline Bisset), but that's really not what makes the film so enjoyable. Nor is it the inclusion of weak references to Veronica's literary skill: the courtly toasts and cunning barbs she shoots off are never as clever as they're intended to be. No, what makes "Dangerous Beauty" such a delightful prostitution fantasy is that it skirts the fundamental ingredient of prostitution altogether: gross, hateful johns. Nearly all of Veronica's men are handsome, clever bucks who cherish her wit and vie for the honor of her sexual mastery over them. When she wakes up that first morning (after a night with a fatherly hunk), the look on her face is sunny, like the look Scarlet had the morning after Rhett carried her up the sprawling staircase, the look that let us know she was not in fact raped, but ravished. There's really not much sex at all, but--like in a soap opera--there's an awful lot of talk about it. With a sex goddess set squarely as the narrative's subject--not object, for once--the real piece of meat becomes her true love Marco, he of the romantic hair and bulging brown eyes. "Rufus Sewell," purred my companion, finding the actor's name in the credits. "There are so few men who justify use of the word 'smoldering.'" (Ellen Fox)


Shamelessly risible, "Hush" is a husk of a middling Gothic struggling to pass as an upscale thriller. The plot's on the poster: horse-breeding mom Jessica Lange gets perniciously peevish when son Johnathon Schaech returns from Manhattan with nasal, sparkling will o' the wisp girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow. There's not much more to it than that, if you discount the labor-inducing strawberry shortcake. Variously retitled, its release long-delayed, the film betrays many telltale signs of hopeful tinkering: a great deal of dialogue spoken off-camera, apparently added in several stages of re-editing and dialogue replacement; a whippet-thin running time; agile leaps from one cardboard complication to another, yet retaining a panoply of establishing shots that gratuitously crane-up and capture meaningless vistas or tableaux. Ripe yet overly genteel gyne-guignol, the story's lowlights include cross-cutting a painful birth and a horse race ("I am pushing, you bitch," brays Paltrow); the saucy Nina Foch, as an elder family member in a nursing home, remarking on a framed amniocentesis offered as a gift, "This'll be a big hit around here; nuns love a fetus"; and of course, a ludicrous denouement courtesy of the would-be killer who 'splains it all for you, Lucy. Anyone hoping to take pleasure from the thrills and chills of "Hush" may want to check out here, but for everyone else, be reassured that Paltrow's character, unlike the filmmakers, gives a live birth.


There is a remarkable book by the young English photographer, Richard Billingham, called "Ray's a Laugh." Billingham takes seemingly unstudied portraits of the squalid home life of his mother and his chronic alcoholic father. The disorder and familial violence both appall and fascinate--binges in progress; one morning, a baleful bruise beneath Mrs. Billingham's tired eyes. Billingham only watches, a family member crouching, not judging, keeping needful distance. Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth," a fierce, stylish, even grandiosely dismal paean to sobriety, dedicated to the memory of his father, is as harrowing an account of the effects of alcoholic degeneration as Billingham's startling work. The feeling of no-feeling is all that the battering Raymond (Ray Winstone) seeks. He is a charmer, he is a coward. His abuse of the pregnant mother (Kathy Burke, astonishing) of his daughter escalates from the verbal to the worst kind of battering. Set in an indistinct South London working-class neighborhood, Oldman says, "This film tells the blues of my memory." There are hints of Ken Loach (unflinching directness) and the great Terence Davies (patriarchal terror, public celebrations), but Oldman fuses them into something fresh. The semidocumentary look of "Nil by Mouth" has a questing acuity, the handheld shots as nimble as Hi-8 video. There are zooms within long-lens shots, shimmery motions that flick at the heart, little visual revelations posing as accidents. Colors are sometimes so bright, so saturated, they parch the eye: toxic blues, hot neon oranges, washed by viscous sheets of chill rain. Behaviorally, Oldman's writing is a marvel of diligent observation. There is a keen and moral mind behind the script, the incessant profanity, high-octane dissipation, torrents of verbal abuse, the downward spiral of unwitting self-annihilation, all mask a searing sorrow. Oldman's story is not of the working class, although it is set plausibly in that environment. More importantly, he captures the paranoia, the slow yet inevitable degeneration of the addict, studiously charting the industriousness of the addict's necessary steps, the ritual required, desired, to spasm into that short-lived bliss. Nor are jealousy and possessiveness restricted to any one class, any one family. The poet Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" famously suggests the universal pain: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you." Watch the small daughter's eyes. They are large, grow larger, as she observes one intimate cataclysm after another. The unaccountable violations pass before her. Perhaps wisdom will come, the next generation. Oldman's film breathes hope.


Hollywood ages badly and does aging badly. But "Twilight" shows an uncommon, if self-serving, sympathy for an elite labor force loosing its edge. Writer-director Robert Benton observes a seasoned quartet of pros--Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner--playing pros no longer in top form. Their respective games, as retired private investigator, a screen star he falls for, her terminally ill husband, and a studio cop who does the couple's dirty chores, unravel engagingly in this tasteful noir. Benton and screenwriter Richard Russo plot a tangle of desire and regret with dialogue that occasionally overplays: "I'm curious: what kind of man fucks his dying best friend's wife?" Cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, who shot three Kieslowski features, keeps the title in mind with nearly every lucid frame. Especially eloquent is a conversation that starts in a squintingly dark shadow, then resolves the story's only surviving friendship into a blazing California morning stroll. Elmer Bernstein adds an understated jazz score that suits the film's cardigan-and-slippers demographic. (Bill Stamets)


In "U.S. Marshals," Tommy Lee Jones doggedly backtracks over the ground he covered in "The Fugitive." Jones, a gifted actor of the first rank, can't overcome a leaden script that once again has him calling for "hard-target searches" and barking out speeches eerily similar to the famous one from the first film in which he exhorted his team to check out every "farmhouse, outhouse, hen house," etc. While no one wants a sequel focusing on Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Girard's home life, the least this movie could have done was fill in a few of the personal blanks about this iron-willed, razor-sharp law-enforcement superhero and his intrepid band of manhunters. As it is, we're left to sift through an overly convoluted plot involving bad-guy-on-the-run-who-may-really-be-a-good-guy Wesley Snipes and a group of shadowy government agents who seem to be operating on both sides of the law. This film leaves one wondering if Girard has ever chased a guilty fugitive. Oh wait, there is that completely meaningless subplot concerning the team's tough take-down of two nasty escaped cons in Chicago (one played convincingly by Tony Fitzpatrick). When a "Con Air"-style plane crash later puts Snipes on the loose, these two tough characters could throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. But no, the creeps who earlier almost creamed Girard and his crew now roll over and play dead for the guards. Sheesh. And the presumably drug-addled Robert Downey Jr. sleep-runs his way through an empty performance as a sinister Fed. Almost all of these gaffes could have been forgiven in a movie with pacing as crisp and energetic as "The Fugitive"'s. Sadly, though, "U.S. Marshals" is badly outgunned on that score as well. At least the stunts--sandwiched between meaningless scenes featuring minor characters reading in bed and the like--are top-notch. (Frank Sennett)

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