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AUGUST 3, 1998: 

Un air de famille

If happy families are all alike, then movies based on plays about unhappy families tend to be the same in their formulaic staginess. Cédric Klapisch's adaptation of a theaterpiece by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also star) struggles to free itself from its origins, and it does manage some moments of poignance and absurdity, not to mention those little shocks of recognition that anyone with parents and siblings will register.

The occasion here is a family birthday get-together set in "Sleepy Dad's Café," a threadbare small-town bistro run by Henri (an anal and affecting Bacri). He's the less favored of two brothers; Philippe (an anal and unappealing Wladimir Yordanoff) is a successful and insufferable businessman who's just appeared on the TV news. The celebrant is Philippe's meek, long-suffering wife, Yolande (Catherine Frot); in attendance are the boys' shrewish mother (Claire Maurier) and their loose-cannon, over-30-and-unmarried sister Betty (Jaoui). Serving as objective point-of-view -- and sly erotic interest -- is Henri's mellow counterman Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whose insights into the clan's pathology are largely ignored, though a glint of liberation shines in the end.

Less than liberated is Klapisch himself. He shows inventiveness in his use of the single set (à la Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean) and in his periodic flashbacks to younger but not necessarily more innocent days. Yet the shadow of the proscenium makes one long for the serendipity of his previous effort, When the Cat's Away.

-- Peter Keough


The Saltmen of Tibet

Unlike the recent films about Tibet (Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun) that have come out of Hollywood, The Saltmen of Tibet boasts no famous actors or celebrity protagonists. Instead, the film follows the three-month pilgrimage of four men to the holy salt lakes of the Changtang region. This trip is both a religious experience and an economic necessity for these men, who still follow the ancient traditions of their Tibetan nomadic community. Although director Ulrike Koch does not espouse any overt political message, her contrasting the slow progress of the saltmen with the loud, fast trucks of modern salt gatherers hints at the fragility of the saltmen's way of life, and her deliberate pace conveys the meditative serenity of their lives. Pio Corradi's graceful cinematography frames the saltmen and their yak caravan against the stunning colors and landscape of Tibet.

-- Nicholas Patterson


The Negotiator

Although it draws on elements from Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, the only thing F. Gary Gray's The Negotiator has in common with those cop/caper classics is its inordinate length and an outstanding cast far superior to the material. Samuel L. Jackson brings nuance and energy to the sketchy role of Chicago Police hostage negotiator Danny Roman, who finds himself framed for the murder of his partner. To unravel the conspiracy against him he takes his own hostages, including Internal Affairs Inspector Niebaum (the late, great character actor J.T. Walsh, brilliant just rolling his eyes while handcuffed to a chair). Holed up on the 20th floor of police headquarters, he haggles with fellow negotiator Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey, slick and mostly ill-used) as his fellow hostage-team members maneuver to take him down.

Built on the slender premise of a misappropriated retirement fund, this implausible, turgid, suspenseless storyline resists both fine acting and Gray's overwrought MTV chops. Jackson and Spacey, who demonstrate the kind of crisp chemistry that once sparked Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon, should try to negotiate a better vehicle.

-- Peter Keough


Polish Wedding

The women of the Pzoniak family inspire much head turning -- and head shaking -- in their Detroit neighborhood. Matriarch Jadzia (a feral Lena Olin) trysts the night away with her burly lover (Rade Serbedzija); meanwhile her wild-child daughter Hala (Claire Danes) is discovering that she too sends men panting. But when Jadzia's cuckolded husband (Gabriel Byrne) gets suspicious and Hala's licentious streak lands her in trouble, the hot-blooded Pzoniaks threaten to combust.

In the tradition of Moonstruck, first-time writer/director Theresa Connelly strives to limn a wacky yet passionate ethnic clan. What she achieves instead is a family portrait of crudely etched stereotypes set to accordion music. Worst of all is the film's risible innuendo: as Hala makes love to a doltish cop (Adam Trese), Connelly cuts to a traffic light flashing red, then yellow (Stop! Caution!). Between the overwrought symbolism and the leaden dialogue, this saga settles more heavily than Jadzia's pirogi.

-- Alicia Potter


Mafia!

Despite having, at the very least, one gag in every frame, Jim Abrahams's Mafia! (whose title remains Jane Austen's Mafia on the screen) won't make you laugh so hard that you actually miss jokes, as with his and the Zucker brothers' Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Still, as they say in family circles, he's put a hit out. From the opening credits, a goofy parody of De Niro's character suspended in flames at the beginning of Casino, this movie has fun with 'em all: The Godfather, GoodFellas, even a little Il postino. Abrahams's standby, Lloyd Bridges, in his last role, is brilliantly and affectionately out to lunch as the Mafia boss; the rest of the cast (including Jay Mohr as the boss's son and Christina Applegate as the WASP girlfriend) play it straight and solid. Abrahams doesn't poke fun at the genre's clichés so much as he just copies scenes (the result is the film looks really good), and, perhaps sensing the mood of the day, he falls back a little too much on grossout humor. Still, at this movie's heart is an intelligent goofiness, parlayed through clever ideas ("Everybody dies, but in the Mafia people die more often") and terrible puns (the Forrest Gump parody is shameless). As for the terrific sight gags, giving them away might be more criminal than anything's the Mafia's ever done.

-- Mark Bazer


Ever After: A Cinderella Story

This revisionist Cinderella tale not only ditches the pumpkin and the mice but swaps the fairy godmother for . . . Leonardo da Vinci? Yes, co-writer/director Andy Tennant (Fools Rush In) makes some curious choices in this radical adaptation, the least of which is his decision to favor chutzpah over hocus-pocus.

Drew Barrymore's hearth maiden is clearly not as fragile as her footwear. She quotes Thomas More, parries like a pirate, and tells her wicked step-relatives (Anjelica Huston, Megan Dodds, and Melanie Lynskey) to screw thee. Alas, the love of a good prince (an unmemorable Dougray Scott) still doesn't come easily for this plucky child of the soot. Barrymore aces her 16th-century elocution, but her vampy magnetism -- always her dominant charm -- is snuffed in this goody-goody role. Likewise, tedious derring-do and the flat slapstick of the misplaced Signor da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) make the stretch between "once upon a time" and "happily ever after" drag like Rapunzel's hair. Despite the feminist twist, this Cinderella story is still Grimm.

-- Alicia Potter


Disturbing Behavior

Our new-to-town hero, could-be Gap model Steve (James Marsden), is informed by his ghoulish classmate Gavin (Nick Stahl) that Cradle Bay High has a strict hierarchy. Over the social serfs -- skaters, nerds, car freaks -- reign the "Blue Ribbons," a clique of good-looking, clean-cut, neatly dressed athletic types. After a school-sponsored "Weekend Enlightenment Seminar," these "toxic jocks" (girls included) get great grades, toast smoothies in the yogurt shoppe, and go absolutely berserk when sexually aroused. And they're looking to recruit Steve.

Katie Holmes, as beautiful white-trash gal Rachel, does the tough-girl routine she's mastered in Dawson's Creek, but she has about two lines in the entire film -- and one of them is "razor" (translation: cool). There's a trite scene in a psychiatric institution where the mentally ill are screaming caricatures, and in what is supposed to be a gutsy move, Rachel slugs a "crazy" girl in the face to get her to quiet down.

Razor? Not really. Despite an appealing angle (when aren't worried parents trying to smooth out teen rough spots?) and The X-Files' David Nutter in the director's chair, Scott Rosenberg's choppy, chintzy flick fails to deliver the thrill the promos promise. The realization you've paid money to see this silly quickie (83 minutes) may result in some disturbing behavior when the lights go on.

-- Rachel O'Malley


BASEketball

BASEketball stars the uninteresting South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone plus Jenny McCarthy, who's been telling interviewers that she improvised a lot. Well, there are always going to be movies like this. But this particular piece of trash is directed by David Zucker, one of the geniuses who brought us Airplane! And that can only mean the end of the world is near.

After a promising opening deadpan sequence about the downfall of sports, Zucker hands over the reins to the two South Park morons, whose idea of cutting-edge comedy is swearing a lot and French kissing each other. Parker and Stone play Joseph Cooper and Doug Remer, the stars and inventors of a new sports sensation. A mix of basketball and baseball, BASEketball is like one of those games that you dreamed up as a kid and that's never meant to be seen by anyone, especially in scene after scene of a motion picture. The South Park guys are supposed to keep us entertained, but there's nothing inspired about their gross behavior. As for Mr. Zucker, just one question: what happened to the jokes?

-- Mark Bazer



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