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JULY 5, 1999: 

Wild Wild West

In The Addams Family and Men in Black, Barry Sonnenfeld suggested he could be a promising surrealist if he indulged his imagination and sense of humor more and his special-effects budget less. Even a dull clunker like his new Wild Wild West has its moments of Magritte-like visual punch -- a bisected man in a Toulouse Lautrec get-up attached to a tiny steam engine, and, of course, the film's signature image, an 80-foot-tall mechanical tarantula. The man is Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh, giving the consummate half-assed performance), a Confederate veteran who was grievously wounded during the Civil War, and the tarantula is one of his many inventions designed to overthrow the federal government of President Grant (Kevin Kline, in the better of his dual roles). Opposing them are those artifacts from the '60s TV show of the title, secret agents Jim West (Will Smith, looking like a guy in a cowboy suit) and Artemus Gordon (Kline again, prissy and unfunny). West does occasionally address race, including one flat take-off from Blazing Saddles, but given the colorless characterizations overall, that issue becomes moot. With its pretty señorita (Salma Hayek, showing her butt) and its Victorian science-fiction decor, West seems at times like Zorro by way of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it has neither the charm of the former nor the vigor of the latter, and none the insouciance or wit of the original show. This West is tame indeed.

-- Peter Keough

Summer of Sam

Everyone is pissed off at Spike Lee for his new film about the 1970s serial killer, including the culprit himself, David Berkowitz, and the filmmaker's own fans. Summer of Sam is a misconceived mess, with enough flashes of brilliance to make it seem truly criminal. The idea is smart, bold, and provocative -- how the killer's rampage in blue-collar neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx instigated and illuminated the intolerance and violence underlying those communities. But Lee's treatment is at best a rehash of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and overall a listless mishmash of sloppy narrative, erratic tone, phony verisimilitude, and smug platitudes.

Among the residents of the country-club section of the Bronx whose life is altered by the "Son of Sam" is Vinny (a whiny John Leguizamo), a local hairdresser who can't stay faithful to his straitlaced wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino, surprisingly feisty). At least Vinny feels guilty about his strayings; his long-time friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody) revels in the transgression of punk culture, sporting a spiky mohawk, playing in a rock band, and, on the sly, baring it all for a few bucks at a Manhattan gay club. When the neighborhood forms vigilante groups to hunt down the killer, Ritchie gets fingered as a suspect, and Vinny has to choose between loyalty and conformity.

Lee almost succeeds in drawing a parallel between Berkowitz, who blamed his crimes on Satanic messages from his neighbor's dog, and his characters, who seek out scapegoats for their own vices. Too bad Lee's writing isn't as effective as Berkowitz's: the letters the killer sent to the police and the media during his rampage provide some of the film's creepiest moments -- unlike Lee in this movie, Berkowitz at least had a vision. Despite an ending that evokes some of the power of Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam is way off target.

-- Peter Keough

South Park

A new Canadian film opens in South Park: "Terence and Philip in Asses of Fire." The South Park children learn naughty language: "f*#k off you donkey-raping s#@t-eater." Terence slaps Brooke Shields on Conan O'Brien: "I farted once on the set of Blue Lagoon." The South Park moms form M.A.C. (Mothers Against Canada) and become militant: "I just don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die." Kenny goes to Hell and discovers that Satan and Sadam Hussein are lovers: "Rub my nipples while I torture this little piggy." South Park plans to execute Terence and Philip: "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay as long as nobody says any dirty words." Canada declares war: "This is aboot democracy, it's aboot freedom of speech . . . " The children band together to save Terence and Philip, and Cartman gets all sensitive: "Kyle, every time I said you were a big dumb Jew I didn't mean it -- you're not a Jew." The army and the kids face off: "Stand down, children. You can still see fart jokes on Nickelodeon." Kenny removes his hood, stops Satan from taking over the world, and brings peace to South Park. And it's a musical.

-- Jumana Farouky

My Son the Fanatic

The clash between religious fundamentalism and secular humanism gets a rare charge of common sense and compassion in this moving and hilarious gem directed by Udayan Prasad from a script by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). Parvez (Om Puri, heartbreakingly comic) is a middle-aged Pakistani immigrant in London whose dream of success has been reduced to driving a cab and occasionally hooking customers up with call girls when his mortgage payment is due. His son Farid rebels against his dad's decadence by hooking up with a fundamentalist Islamic cult. Embodying Farid's worst nightmares are the aptly named Schitz (a dourly brilliant Stellan Skarsgård), a ruthlessly hedonistic German entrepreneur, and Bettina (Sarah Jane Potts), the prostitute whom Parvez pimps to him. As Schitz regards Parvez as a kind of enabling Gunga Din, and Parvez begins to see Schitz as the great Satan, a Mona Lisa-like relationship develops between the harried hackney and Bettina. Although Fanatic's resolution may be a bit pat, and for a film about tolerance a little intolerant of Farid's fundamentalism, this is an uncompromising and uplifting affirmation of decency in the face of human extremes and extremism.

-- Peter Keough

Lena's Dreams

In the spirit of John Cassavetes's Opening Night comes this feisty New York story about how a closely held dream can sour into all-consuming desperation. The woman on the verge here is struggling actress Lena (Marlene Forte), who, on her 32nd birthday, realizes she's dogging auditions the way a junkie does a fix and is nowhere close to balancing career with house, husband, and health insurance. Fed up with the rejection and the humiliation, she embarks on a day-long emotional rampage that reels from catharsis to cliché.

Melodrama aside, the film is uncompromising in its truth about the siren call of acting, or for that matter any artistic pursuit. Husband-and-wife directors Gordon Eriksen and Heather Johnston heighten this feeling of starving-artist urgency with a jangly cinéma-vérité style and plenty of zoom shots. Yet it's the well-named Forte who fires up the tale's volcanic intensity. Indeed, Lena's Dreams is at its rawest and most complex when its heroine hurls her confusion, frustration, and disgust at one person only: herself.

-- Alicia Potter

Bury Me in Kern County

No one has been able to recapture the raunchy outrageousness of John Waters's films of the early '70s, least of all John Waters. Many, though, have imitated the squalid characters and milieu, affectless acting, and minuscule production values. For most, the trash has been willing but the spirit has been weak, as is the case with Julien Nitzberg's debut feature.

"Timid" Sandra (Mary Sheridan) and rawboned Dean (Judson Mills) are a couple in a redneck town trying to make ends meet by selling drugs. Their lives are ruined when they're busted by the local sheriff and their arrest is broadcast on a Cops-like TV show. Dean's mother kills herself under the strain, and the lovers are hard-pressed just to come up with Dean's bail, never mind the funeral money. Their struggles are wearisome and noisy. Injecting tension and comedy is Sandra's flaky sister Amanda (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and at times the two siblings do create some of the loopiness of the sisters in the brilliant Australian comedy Love Serenade. Nitzberg's humor is of the grave kind, however -- in keeping with the title, two attempted burials are at issue, but Kern County never digs deep enough to uncover anything new or worthwhile.

-- Peter Keough

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