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APRIL 10, 2000: 


Despite (or perhaps because of) the centuries of oppression they've suffered, the Irish are -- as one character in Liam McGrath's superb documentary puts it -- "as hard and racist as anyone in the world" when it comes to the Travelers. Existing on the fringes of Irish society, living in communal enclaves outside of cities, with their own language, literally spat upon, the Travelers are outcasts in their own nation.

Francis Barrett is a Traveler. He's also one helluva boxer. Southpaw follows this kid, whose face and demeanor are so earnest, they almost make you wonder how anyone could fight him at all, as he battles his way, with the help of saintly and bushy-eyebrowed trainer Chick Gillen, to the '96 Atlanta Olympic Games. When we see Francis carry the Irish tricolor and get an enthusiastic wave from Bill Clinton, the historic magnitude of the moment is obvious. One onlooker likened it to the black-power salute given at Mexico City's '68 Games. Frank's mile-wide grin proves he has nothing so confrontational in mind.

Although Frank's time at the Games was short, the 15 months it took him to go from "knacker" -- a vicious slur on the Travelers that he calls "not very nice, y'know?" -- to Olympian was phenomenal. And it couldn't have happened to a better guy. As a fellow Traveler says, "Francie proves dreams happen." -- Mike Miliard

Rules of Engagement

According to Colonel Hayes Hodges, a recently retired Marine played by a well-weathered Tommy Lee Jones, the life expectancy of a soldier dropped into Vietnam's combat zone was 16 minutes. According to director William Friedkin, any man who survives those 16 minutes is granted a permanent license to kill. In this anticlimactic courtroom drama, Samuel L. Jackson is Colonel Terry Childers, a proud, stubborn Marine court-martialed for ordering the annihilation of 200 Arab civilians protesting outside the American embassy in Yemen. He asks Hodges, long-time friend and part-time lawyer, to represent him, and thus begins a trial brimming with loose ends and inflammatory stereotypes.

Childers claims the crowd was firing at his men, but neither we nor his squadron see any evidence of this until a security tape is discovered revealing the entire crowd armed to the teeth -- the men point pistols, the women pull machine guns out from under their skirts, even a six-year-old girl is packing heat. It's a cheap, obvious trick that assumes the audience isn't intelligent enough to unfold a series of more subtle clues, and it plays right into the hands of Hollywood's overbearing Arab-as-terrorist motif that films like The Siege and Three Kings sought to destroy. The Jackson/Jones partnership has been a long time coming; it's a pity their first joint endeavor is swallowed whole by racist propaganda and blind American patriotism. -- Jumana Farouky

Return to Me

One heart, two loves is how this stop-and-go romance unfurls. Chicago construction mogul Bob Rueland (X-Filer David Duchovny) and his adored Jane Goodall-esque zookeeper wife, Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), are striving to build a new habitat for her simian subjects when a tragic car accident takes her life. The heart is donated to needy recipient Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver). One year later, at an Irish-Italian restaurant, Bob encounters Grace. He's on a tedious double date (with David Alan Grier) and she's working the floor as a waitress. Fate and something "bigger" pull at the two and an awkward courtship ensues. There's Grace's self-consciousness about her scar and Bob's fragile emotional state -- and the path to romantic bliss is further obstructed when Grace realizes that Elizabeth was the source of her cardiopulmonary transplant.

Actress Bonnie Hunt, who appears in a supporting role, also writes and directs. As a first-time filmmaker, she can't decide whether Return to Me is a straight-up love story or a romantic comedy. The laughs, which are far too sparse, are supplied with blazing aplomb by a quartet of Cupid-playing old geezers led by the venerable Carroll O'Connor (a/k/a Archie Bunker) and Robert Loggia. -- Tom Meek

Price of Glory

The blood, sweat, and tears of Rocky have been resurrected in Price of Glory, sort of. Based on a play by New York Times sports columnist Phil Berger, Carlos Avila's film stars Jimmy Smits (of NYPD Blue fame) as Arturo Ortega, a former star boxer from a border town in Arizona whose career was cut short by a devastating knockout. Unfortunately for his children, he never recovered from the final blow, and after a series of flash-forwards we find a middle-aged Ortega inflicting his dream upon his three sons: Jimmy (Clifton Collins Jr.), Johnny (Ernesto Hernandez), and Sonny (former Golden Gloves champ Jon Seda). His wife, Rita (Maria Del Mar), is concerned that he might be pushing too hard, and her fear proves prophetic (albeit obvious) as the film goes the rounds of the agonizing and predictable boxing careers of Ortega's sons. Of course, no dysfunctional family would be complete without death, drug use, and rebellion -- which as this film proves are the true prices of glory.

Glory climaxes in squabbling between father and sons as each offspring tries to impress with his ring prowess. A final title fight decides which son will become champion, but long before then the film has hit the canvas. -- Shannon Coyle

Home Page

In this personal documentary, New York filmmaker Doug Block finds his midlife crisis leading him away from his wife and daughter and toward his son at Swarthmore University, where he entangles himself, and his video camera, in the already snarled and complicated life of the campus's most controversial Netmeister, Justin Hall. Hall's infamous home page -- 5000 hits a day -- is filled with the nasty details of his swarming-with-coeds Swarthmore love life. Is he a sadistic, self-absorbed gossiper or, as many of his cyberfans contend, the new geek Kerouac?

Hall self-consciously goes on the road, dropping suddenly out of Swarthmore (where he teaches a course in "media ethics"!), and Block follows after. They settle down for a time in San Francisco, but instead of Kerouac's North Beach and subterranean jazz, we get Hall becoming an employee of on-line guru Howard Rheingold at a Web magazine. There, three of the executives have a kind of Jules-and-Jim affair and report all the sexual cheating on the Web.

Block's documentary is alternately fascinating and creepy -- there's something seriously amiss and self-deceived about his Net-obsessed characters, who take their computers into their beds with them instead of the family dog. Talk about unreliable narrators! Block never explores the weirdness of his ignoring his own son at Swarthmore (too boring?) to take up with Hall, his surrogate crazy boy. Meanwhile, Block's wife, interviewed back home in NYC, explains, with the angriest of faces, how new-age-happy she is. -- Gerald Peary

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