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AUGUST 10, 1998: 

Western

If recent movies are any indication, France may be replacing the United States as the multicultural melting pot of the world. Take Manuel Poirier's Western, an offbeat, genial, unexpectedly moving road movie that's a low-key endorsement of the policy of us all getting along.

Set in the Mild West of Brittany, Western follows the misadventures of Spanish-born shoe salesman Paco (James Grodin look-alike Sergi Lopez), which kick off when he's lured into picking up Russian-born hitchhiker Nino (an elfin and engaging Sacha Bourdo) through a ploy reminiscent of It Happened One Night. Nino steals his car, and Paco is picked up in turn by Marinette (Elizabeth Vitali). They fall for each other, but in fairy-tale fashion Marinette orders Paco to leave her for three weeks to determine whether they really love each other.

More serendipity: Paco bumps into Nino, and after putting him briefly in the hospital he bonds with his one-time nemesis and agrees to travel with him on the road until the three weeks are up. Much of this time is spent -- with disastrous results -- trying to get Nino laid; along the way they have farcical encounters with a chainsaw, an Ivory Coast émigré in a wheelchair, and several attractive women who are inexplicably attracted to them. Although the badinage is at times forced and the pace at times listless, Western offers its share of warmth and wisdom before riding off into the sunset.

-- Peter Keough


The Pelvis of J.W.

The Portuguese auteur João César Monteiro can be his own worst enemy. Leaden, talky stretches wear out even that rare moviegoer who'll warm to the idea of a two-and-a-half-hour philosophical comedy about God and Lucifer, theater and cinema, dirty old men and fetching young women.

Monteiro often gives himself star billing, and as long as he's on screen, The Pelvis of J.W. is repellently compelling. He has a dual role: an actor in a white linen suit playing God in a Strindberg drama that opens the film, and a rascally sailor who stows away on the set. The sailor's obsession with John Wayne's manly strut sparks debate within the arid coterie of actors putting on the Strindberg, and it gives the film its wonderful title.

In both parts, Monteiro is shameless -- lewd as a hyena yet carrying himself with the elegance of the last true gentleman in Europe. Unfortunately, the director keeps the actor at bay, shooting the film mostly in long, static takes. It works beautifully in the film's opening tableau, as we slowly realize we are watching actors rehearse inside a converted performance space. But a second rehearsal -- simply three actors (no Monteiro), a table, and a script -- is deadly. Without the face of Monteiro, The Pelvis of J.W. is a long walk indeed.

-- Scott Heller


Safe Men

It's a few days before the bar mitzvah of Providence Jewish gangster Big Fat Bernie Gayle's son, and tailors are outfitting both father and son in matching warm-up suits for the service. But what should have been the funniest moment of the film is ruined by writer/director John Hamburg, who's already let us know about the formal athletic gear through some uninspired dialogue 15 minutes earlier. Jewish Mafia played out as comedy is so potentially ripe, it's easy to overdo. Putting a New York Islanders yarmulke on Bernie Jr. at his bar mitzvah is keen suburban Jew parody. The refrain of gangsters getting on Bernie Jr. to practice his Hebrew seems forced.

But if dialogue's not Hamburg's strength, his cast help him create lovable characters who, in their bumbling ways, make safe-robbing silly. Big Fat Bernie (Michael Lerner), his henchman Veal Chop (the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti), and rival Leo (Harvey Fierstein) are clueless, mistaking two piss-poor young musicians, Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn), for expert thieves. Without a choice in the matter, these two quirky misfits -- the neurotic, romantic Eddie, and the easily agitated Sam -- unsuccessfully try to rob safes for Bernie. Bernie thinks Eddie and Sam are holding out on him, but he can't kill them -- after all, he promised his son they'd play at the bar mitzvah.

-- Mark Bazer


Halloween: H2O

It's been 20 years and five ineffectual sequels since John Carpenter tried to capitalize on the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho with Halloween, and in the wake of Scream and its coyly reflexive progeny, the timing of this reprise seems especially irrelevant. Neither as viscerally bold as the original nor as hip nor as slyly irreverent as the upstart new generation of teen-slasher knockoffs, this anniversary issue is nonetheless an efficient if grimly produced exercise.

It boasts not only the Queen of Scream herself -- Jamie Lee Curtis is back as Laurie Strode -- but the archetypal victim of Psycho violence, her mother, Janet Leigh, in a teasing but substanceless cameo. The past two decades have been hard for Laurie: though she has a good job as headmistress of a boarding school, a callow teenage son (Josh Hartnett), and an understanding boyfriend in the school's guidance counselor (Adam Arkin), she still wakes up screaming. With Halloween coming on and her 17-year-old son now the same age as she was when the masked knife wielder first struck, she realizes what we knew all along -- Michael Meyers is back.

To its credit, H20 taps into the pathology underneath the mayhem -- Michael is, after all, Laurie's brother, and most of the victims are sexually active. For the most part, though, the film's only dynamic lies in who does, or doesn't, get it. As for what evil lurks behind that death-white mask, maybe in another 20 years some filmmaker will get it right.

-- Peter Keough


Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss

Tommy O'Haver's giddy, glib romantic comedy walks proudly on the wild side, and though it bats its eyes at high melodrama like a shameless hussy, the director's stylistic verve and carefully barbed wit keep it on the straight and narrow. Sean P. Hayes stars as O'Haver's alter ego, Billy, a struggling photographer more concerned with his prospects in love than his career. Both get a jumpstart when he meets Gabriel (Brad Rowe, a dead ringer for Brad Pitt), a buff coffeeshop boy who dabbles as a bassist and model. Gabriel agrees to pose for Billy's "Hollywood Screen Kiss" photo spread, but as Billy quickly learns, Gabriel is straight -- or so he thinks. What ensues is a comedic series of erotic misfires and tempered miscommunication.

As a visual artist, O'Haver stretches his small production-budget dollar to impressive lengths, creating witty and lush side imagery that suggests Priscilla, Queen of the Desert trapped on the set of Austin Powers. But as a storyteller he layers the film with too many heavy-handed diatribes about gays, straights, and "Can't we all just get along." Hayes and Rowe create a genuine chemistry, and Carmine D. Giovinazzo is delightfully outlandish as a stoned-out cabin boy. There's a lot of good work here -- perhaps next time O'Haver will be less straight with his vision about being gay.

-- Tom Meek


Jazz on Film

Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor and Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know are compelling documentaries made by Don McGlynn about late, great American sax players, one white and one black, whose lives were wrecked by drug addiction and debilitating prison terms. They came back, though indelibly wounded, to play with soaring elegance and power. Jazz as survival.

Art Pepper (1925-1982) was a leather-jacketed punk, an On the Road Dean Moriarty type, into women and, even more, into junk. "If this is what the devil's got, that's what I want," is how he described the ecstasy of first shooting up. "Heroin is this thing at the end of a rainbow. It warms your stomach, like lying you down in a meadow." He ran over several wives, committed dark crimes to feed his habit, and landed in San Quentin.

He was rescued by his third wife, Laurie, who became his business manager, helped him to hold his drug habit more or less in check (he was known to supplement his methadone with cocaine in later years), and lived comfortably with his brash ego. "I'm a genius. I can't think of anyone who plays better than me," Pepper declared to the camera for this historic 1982 documentary. He proves it in some soulful alto-sax solos with his quartet, all recorded live at Pasquale's in Malibu.

In contrast Dexter Gordon was a gentle, sorrowful man weighed down by his hard breaks, with the sweetest, saddest smile. For this 1997 documentary made for Danish television, McGlynn slides through Gordon's half-century of tenor sax, from breaking in at age 17 with the Lionel Hampton band to late days (he died in 1990) living and playing in Copenhagen. There's some wonderful Gordon music in this film, from straight-ahead bebop to warm, melodic tunes, but everything feels tragic: McGlynn puts Gordon in the context of black giants of jazz -- Ben Webster, Bud Powell -- who staggered about in exile in Europe.

Does anyone recall that Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award for his autobiographical role in Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight (1986)? A highlight here is Gordon's audition for the film, in which he told a World War II story about punching out his captain and being dishonorably discharged from the military. "In the army we were in a Negro unit with pink officers," Gordon began, a masterful opening sentence for a novel.

-- Gerald Peary



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