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APRIL 3, 2000: 

The Terrorist

It's the old motherhood-versus-career conflict in Santosh Sivan's roughhewn, occasionally visionary first feature, The Terrorist, though taken to extremes. Malli (the protean beauty Ayesha Dharkar), a 19-year-old guerrilla fighter for an unnamed Indian revolutionary group, is one tough cookie, whether she's coolly executing a traitorous colleague or hacking a nosy government soldier to death with a machete. Recognizing her ferocity and her zeal (her older brother was a martyr to the cause), her superiors enlist her to become a human bomb to assassinate a "VIP," and she wholeheartedly accepts. Holed up in a safe house with a garrulous old man ignorant of her mission, however, Malli gets time to reflect.

So does the movie. At first formulaic and clumsy, The Terrorist grows in originality and inspiration as Malli gropes with her decision. An intricate set of flashbacks to a tryst with a doomed comrade and enigmatic conversations with her doddering host suggest she might be pregnant. Reflecting her state of mind is Sivan's jolting imagery, which verges on the revelatory. Confined to a room full of photographs taken by its former occupant, Malli notices that one of the faces is real -- that of an old woman seen through a niche. Such epiphanies and a truly suspenseful dénouement make The Terrorist an incendiary debut. -- Peter Keough


The Skulls

At least three presidents, so claims the prologue to The Skulls, have been members of secret societies like the fictional one of the film's title. Maybe that's why we've had such idiots in the White House. This ludicrous exercise in half-baked paranoia from Rob Cohen should have been called The Numbskulls. Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is an ambitious blue-collar student at an Ivy League school who fears his advanced rowing skills (or maybe the film should be called The Sculls?) won't suffice to get him a law degree. His dream is to gain admittance to the Skulls, an elite, secret fraternity that apparently rules the world and pays for its members' higher education.

After stealing a weathervane, Luke and blue-blood scion Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker) are admitted, but the classic cars, Rolexes, mumbo-jumbo rituals (think Eyes Wide Shut in the Bat Cave), and white-collar shindigs with brandy and babes come at a price -- one's freedom and morality (they'd realize this if they'd ever bothered to read the rulebook they're given, but that's the problem with college kids these days). Before you know it, Luke's nosy roommate is found hanging from a pipe, his snooty girlfriend won't talk to him, and a police detective is giving him the third degree. Cohen tries to tart up this drivel with arty camerawork and editing, but that only underscores the portentous idiocy. At least William Petersen is amusing as a sleazy, Clintonesque senator; otherwise The Skulls is empty-headed piffle. -- Peter Keough


Romeo Must Die

If you judge The Matrix producer Joel Silver's new kung fu flick, Romeo Must Die, by the standards of porn -- with plot and dialogue existing only as filler between lots of action sequences -- it's a great movie. In this latest nod to the Bard's classic tragedy, Han (Jet Li) and Trish (Aaliyah) are two children from rival gangster families involved in a real-estate war. When Han's brother is murdered, an act that compromises the tense truce between the families, Han escapes from prison in China to avenge his death. With the help of some slick graphics, Han kicks some serious ass getting out, lands in America, and keeps on kicking ass. When Trish's brother is killed, she helps kick some ass too.

So many people get beaten up, in fact, that by the end of this two-hour movie, the only casualty you're apt to care about is the silver Mercedes that gets shot up. The hip-hop beats pumped throughout the film maintain its pulse even when the actors are doing boring things, like talking. There are racist undertones -- a gong punctuates almost every grave remark uttered by a Chinese actor -- and the film looks every bit as polished as DMX's soundtrack rap makes it sound. Romeo Must Die is about as subtle as the title, but what were you expecting, Shakespeare? -- Leslie Robarge


Onegin

Yevgeny Onegin, Alexander Pushkin's great "novel in verse," is already a great opera (Peter Tchaikovsky) and a great ballet (John Cranko), so why not a great movie? This Fiennes family affair (Ralph plays Onegin, Martha directs, and Magnus is listed as composer) is, to my knowledge, the first cinematic adaptation of Pushkin's poem, and though it's not great, it deserves better than the limited distribution it seems to be getting. Ralph Fiennes makes a convincing transition from bored (and boring) St. Petersburg socialite to a man who's touched by Tatyana's letter even though he can't return her feelings, and then to the born-again disciple of Venus who falls for Tatyana after she's married his cousin. Liv Tyler is a heavy, intense, monochromatic Tatyana who's nonetheless moving in her artlessness; Lena Headey as her sister Olga walks a delicate, imaginative line between superficial and sympathetic; Toby Stephens as Olga's beloved Lensky is appropriately boyish and obtuse.

What's more, Martha Fiennes gives unsettling life to the idea that poet Lensky should have fallen for Tatyana and that it's the flighty, even worldly Olga who suits Onegin. I just wish it weren't all so arty (Tatyana's silent scream after the fatal duel, for example) and brooding and, well, British -- this Onegin calls to mind the Anna Karenina that Masterpiece Theatre gave us some 25 years ago, a masterpiece in its way but in no way Russian. The actors butcher their names from time to time, we don't hear the whole of Tatyana's letter (one of the great passages in all of Russian literature), and as for the score, why compose drivel when Tchaikovsky is available? In an ideal world of multiple filmed Onegins, this one would be just better than average; in the event, it's in a class by itself. -- Jeffrey Gantz


Here on Earth

This is the stuff teen dreams are made of. Samantha (Leelee Sobieski) is a nature-loving small-town girl and Kelley (Chris Klein) is a money-loving prep-school boy. The two meet when Kelley and his button-down pals wander into a local diner. Samantha's long-time boyfriend doesn't take kindly to the stranger and challenges him to a race -- which ends in a tie when they smash their cars into the diner. A judge sentences both boys to help rebuild the eatery, and Kelley has to stay in town for the summer. It's hot, Kelley takes his shirt off a lot, and that's all Samantha needs to fall in love.

The two do everything young lovers are supposed to: recite poetry to each other, chase each other through the woods, gaze longingly into each other's eyes. Unfortunately, no matter how many times director Mark Piznarski makes the couple kiss (in the rain, in a greenhouse, on a baseball diamond), nothing clicks. Sobieski, talented beyond her years, makes Samantha bright, loving, and radiant, even after she's stricken with terminal cancer. God knows what she sees in Kelley, who, thanks to Klein and his vapid gaze à la Keanu Reeves, is a stiff -- too bad he's not the one who's dying. -- Jumana Farouky


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