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JUNE 29, 1998: 

Deconstructing Harry (1998, written and directed by Woody Allen)

In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a man – the Harry of the title – who can easily settle in for drinks with the Devil. It’s a joke on top of a joke on top of a joke. You see, Harry is a really bad person, and Harry is also a novelist who’s made his name through semi-autobiographical works. It does sound familiar.

In playing off his real-life rep, Allen presents a film that’s more in line with his Husbands and Wives-type work. There’s coldness there and a harshness that doesn’t so much work in something like Everyone Says I Love You. But given the giddiness of the last four films (Everyone, Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway, and Manhattan Murder Mystery), Deconstructing Harry’s bitterness feels nearly soothing with its assault of four-letter words and its sometimes sexual explicitness. It’s Allen’s version of As Bad as I Wanna Be – it opens with a blow job and jumps to the wonderful Judy Davis shouting, “I ought to cut your fucking head off!” to which Allen asks, “Are you upset?” and on and on.

Woody Allen
The film follows an interesting elliptical line. Harry, who declares he’s no good at life, is apparently good enough at writing to be honored at a college in upstate New York. Not wanting to go alone, he looks for someone to go with, but he’s met with a barrage of ill will from former wives and lovers, many of whom are upset about their appearances as thinly disguised characters in his novels. It seems his past of cheating, whoring, boozing, and being all-around unlovable has finally caught up with him. When Harry looks upon his deeds, they come to him in bits and pieces and blurring fact and fiction, so that his wife, Joan, played by Kirstie Alley, may be represented in his fiction as Helen played by Demi Moore, or that Stanley Tucci and Richard Benjamin may appear as Harry’s book self.

In the end, Harry makes it to the college in a crowd – that of a kidnapped child, a hot-pants-clad Amazonian hooker, and a dead body. Yet, it’s not all that grim. In fact, the conclusion is outright mushy, making Harry the luckiest bad person and in exactly the sort of spot he’d be in if he wrote it himself. – Susan Ellis

Air Force One (1997, directed by Wolfgang Petersen)

This is one kick-ass movie.

Never mind that there’s almost no character development, or that a couple of scenes stretch credulity to the breaking point (fistfights in the open cargo bay of an airborne 747 – yeah, right). This film works because it’s exactly what it sets out to be – an expertly crafted action thriller – and doesn’t aim for anything else. In the hands of director Wolfgang Petersen, Air Force One grabs you with the opening scene and doesn’t let up until the final frame.

Aside from shrewd direction, the movie benefits from near-perfect casting. As James Marshall, Harrison Ford is the man we all wish we could have elected President of the United States. The Medal of Honor he earned in Vietnam makes him acceptable to conservatives, and he won the support of liberals by choosing a female vice president (Glenn Close). Moreover, he dares to do to a Kazakhstan tyrant what many Americans believe Clinton should do to Saddam Hussein.

But Marshall paints himself into a corner when he announces, during a speech in Moscow, that the United States will never negotiate with terrorists. Wouldn’t you know it, immediately afterward his plane is hijacked by Russian radicals who demand the release of their imprisoned hero, the fascist General Radek. Marshall can’t acquiesce, so his only alternative, it seems, is to watch these fanatics systematically shoot his family and Cabinet members.

Ah, but the terrorists, led by the zealot Ivan Korshunov (a dangerously intense Gary Oldman), didn’t count on the dogged resourcefulness of this president. The two clever men engage in a cat-and-mouse game in the claustrophobic belly of the airplane (reminiscent of Petersen’s 1981 submarine drama Das Boot). Oldman is a convincing Russian, and Ford does his best acting without saying anything at all.

Back at the White House, Close is equally impressive as a V.P. who’s both intuitive and strong. When Korshunov tries to bait her with sexist comments, she pretends not to hear, and when the Secretary of Defense (Dean Stockwell) tries to pull an Al Haig-like takeover, she resists. Though she has little to do but sit in a conference room and give orders, Close gets maximum mileage out of every line.

Actors of this caliber keep Air Force One from descending into cartoonland, despite the wham-bang special effects and occasional comic-book-level dialogue (i.e., the now-classic “Get off my plane!”). And the smart pace will keep you Super-Glued to your seat for two hours. It’s definitely a flight worth taking.

– Debbie Gilbert

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