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MAY 15, 2000: 

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III

The '70s is a period Penelope Spheeris limned unforgettably in her documentary of punk-rock nihilism, The Decline of Western Civilization. After taking a detour with heavy metal in The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II, Spheeris returned to the scene with Part III, and one hopes that there's no place to go but up. The music sounds much the same, but it barely registers as background noise for the benighted squalor of what remains of the LA punk scene. These are not the pierced, mohawked, leather-clad kids who hang out in Harvard Square and then go home to the suburbs -- they're homeless, alcoholic, abused children who live on the street and in squats and whose beatific, furious despair is utterly convincing. -- Peter Keough

The Big Kahuna

Kevin Spacey is making a career out of depicting losers who are disillusioned with their careers. On screen with American Beauty, on stage with The Iceman Cometh, on both with Hurlyburly, he's the model of arch desperation.

The persona strains a little in stage director John Swanbeck's screen debut, an adaptation by screenwriter Robert Rueff of his own play Hospitality Suite. Spacey plays Larry, sales representative for an industrial-lubricant firm (just the first indication of Kahuna's tendency to lay it on a bit thick) who along with his associates, old pal Phil (a surprisingly sedate Danny DeVito) and neophyte Bob (Peter Facinelli), is attending a business convention in Wichita in hopes of landing a big account, the "Kahuna" of the title. Basically three guys in bad suits in a tacky hotel room talking, the film puts the burden on the actors, who carry it with varying grace. Spacey is impeccably venomous as the cynical, brutally honest Larry; as one of the film's producers, he gets all the best lines. DeVito shows depth as the despairing Phil, and Facinelli is fittingly callow as the newcomer whose innocence conceals a more sinister bill of goods. Despite a few ambiguous quirks -- is Larry coming on to Bob? why does Phil dream of God in a closet? -- Kahuna comes off as an exercise combining The Company of Men with Waiting for Guffman but without the bracing misanthropy of the former or the goofy pathos of the latter. -- Peter Keough

Human Traffic

Drugs encourage delusions of self-importance -- and that's true not only of the characters in Human Traffic but of the movie itself. The first feature from Welsh filmmaker Justin Kerrigan begins with a buzz but quickly deteriorates into grandiose posturing and sloppy sentimentality. It's a typical weekend in the grim industrial city of Cardiff, and Jip (John Simm), LuLu (Lorraine Pilkington), Koop (Shaun Parkes), Nina (Nicola Reynolds), and Moff (Danny Dyer) are keen to shed their drab weekday routine for a 48-hour rave of drugs, drink, bad conversation, and loud music. Maybe the problem is that I wasn't loaded on lager and Ecstasy, but Kerrigan's obvious wit and pseudo-profundity had me wanting to pound on the ceiling and demand quiet. This level of debauchery needs to be justified by some moral point, of course, and so Jip suffers from impotence, Koop from jealousy, and poor Moff from despair at ever finding any meaning in life through the morning-after haze. They discover their answers not in drugs but in the more palatable opiate of platitudes. Although it's been compared to Trainspotting, Human Traffic is strictly pedestrian. -- Peter Keough

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