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JULY 17, 2000: 

American Pimp

Like a fast-food meal that leaves you full but unsatisfied, this slick documentary is both entertaining and troubling. Filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes cast a cold eye on the allure of the ghetto gangster in the feature films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Here they turn to another larger-than-life figure in black mythology -- the pimp. This kind of documentary depends on locating the right talking heads, and the Hughes brothers couldn't have found a better clutch of braggarts and borderline psychos through central casting. Among their stars: Kenny Red, who boasts, "My mouth is an Uzi, and I'm armed and dangerous"; and the elegant Fillmore Slim, a relic of the old streets of San Francisco.

With music-video panache, American Pimp covers all the expected territory, from financial arrangements to street style. Yet the shrewd directors have more in mind. In capitalist America, they argue, a pimp lurks inside every tailored suit; as one procurer proclaims, "The street game is the only game the white man can't control." Featuring more exterior shots of DC landmarks than a West Wing episode, Pimp unfolds stealthily. You can't help laughing at the sheer ballsiness of these hustlers, but after an hour of self-justification, you're more likely to be cringing. By then the filmmakers have introduced the voices of the "bitches" and "ho's" in indentured servitude. Rather than ask the toughest questions directly, American Pimp lets abrupt editing or a lingering close-up do the job. It's a subtle strategy -- too subtle for men who don't know the meaning of the word. -- Scott Heller

But I'm a Cheerleader

There's something about Megan (Natasha Lyonne) that just isn't right. She's turning vegetarian. She has a Melissa Etheridge poster on her bedroom wall. And she can't stomach her jock boyfriend's wet kisses. Could she be a lesbian? Her parents and friends stage an intervention, at True Directions, a re-education camp for teenagers straying from the straight and narrow. Enter as a gender-bending skinhead, a goth girl, or a big sissy and under the watchful eyes of RuPaul and Cathy Moriarty, you'll leave rehabilitated as a "happy heterosexual . . . or else."

Jamie Babbit's glossy comedy runs out of plot way too soon but ekes out just enough laughs to serve its terrific premise. The film slyly suggests that repression, not recruitment, will swell the gay and lesbian ranks. Megan doesn't think she's a dyke until she's trained not to be one at True Directions. Dressed up like pink bobby-soxers, the girls learn to cook, clean, and kiss the right way. (Boys are taught to throw a football and chop wood.) Yet sparks start to fly every time Megan shares a scrub brush with Graham (Clea DuVall). Other familiar faces in the colorful cast include Mink Stole, Bud Cort, and TV hunk Eddie Cibrian (as Moriarty's swishy son, Rock). The film also brings back to the screen Melanie Lynskey, whose wonderful performance as the sullen murderess in Heavenly Creatures was overshadowed by co-star Kate Winslet's subsequent fame. I imagined Lynskey back in New Zealand overweight and fuming. If we're to judge by Cheerleader, she's blossomed into an unusual beauty and a fine actress. -- Scott Heller

Blood Simple

Ethan and Joel Coen would make more artful and ambitious movies over the years, but their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, was the purest expression of their filmmaking essence: auteur as sadistic, wise-ass punk. Misanthropic, ostentatious, and utterly self-confident, Blood Simple is film noir as a Rube Goldberg torture device, and its protagonists and villains, though benighted and doomed, earn their moments of pity and terror.

Laconic bartender Ray (John Getz) is having an affair with willful Abby (Frances McDormand), whose husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), owns the backwater Texas joint where Ray works. Julian hires a detective (M. Emmet Walsh), first to confirm his suspicions about the pair and then to kill them. In an excruciating chain of misapprehensions and misinterpretations and pure dumb luck, everyone's intentions, both base and noble, are thwarted, and most everyone suffers hideously and pointlessly. It's hilarious cruelty, and the Coens rub your face in their showoff style (toned down in this re-edited re-release, which may be the first director's cut ever that's shorter than the original). Blood Simple introduced McDormand, later Joel's wife and an Oscar winner for the Coens' Fargo; and it offered the Walsh what's been his greatest role. In his cheese-colored leisure suit and sweaty Stetson, Walsh redefines the comedy of corruption and the horror of death. -- Peter Keough

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