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AUGUST 23, 1999: 

The Emperor's Shadow

Harmony, in art as in politics, can be deceptive. As the goal of Ying Zheng (Jiang Wen), who became the first emperor of a united China in the third century BC, it can be downright genocidal. Zheng's rollicking, obsessed, bloodsoaked career gets an Asian-style, Cecil B. DeMille treatment from veteran Chinese director Zhou Xiaowen (Ermo) in The Emperor's Shadow, a film so unclear in its political and artistic point of view, it was banned and then released by the Chinese authorities twice. Fortunately it squeezed by: brisk and hoky, it's sometimes stunning and always entertaining.

A key to Zheng's plans for conquering China's disparate kingdoms and winning "the hearts and minds" of his subjects is the composition of a national anthem. For that he turns to his boyhood friend Gao Janli (Ge You), a master of the zither-like gu'qin (the music sounds like Ry Cooder's). To obtain Janli's services, however, Zheng must first conquer his friend's country, enslave his people, behead thousands, brand, torture, and imprison the stubborn musician, and finally blind him with horse piss (record companies take note).

Complicating matters is Zheng's flighty, paralyzed daughter Yueyang (Xu Qing), who takes a shine to Janli when he rapes her and restores her ability to walk. That doesn't sit well with Yueyang's fiancé, the son of Zheng's chief general, or her retinue of eunuchs, and it sets up a climax as gruesome as that of Titus Andronicus. Reminiscent of Kurosawa's Kagemusha in its dynamism and audacious imagery, Shadow may not say much about the nature of art, loyalty, power, and harmony, but its jarring dissonances and dark mirth ring true.

-- Peter Keough



Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Scream scripter Kevin Williamson sure wants to teach something in his directorial debut (titled Killing Mrs. Tingle before the Littleton massacre made high-school homicide déclassé). Something about integrity, or morality, or being true to oneself. But this effort is not true to Williamson's own penchant for trashy, cynical teen-slasher violence, and the result is a stodgy hodge-podge of sleaze and self-righteousness.

Giving the picture backbone is Helen Mirren in the title role, a basilisk-like history teacher whose only apparent pleasure for the past 20 years has been flunking the best and brightest of Grandsboro High School -- such as Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes), an A student from the other side of the tracks whom Tingle accuses of cheating. With her pals, dumb but hunky Luke (Barry Watson) and trampy wanna-be actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlin, diverting in her re-creation of a scene from The Exorcist), Leigh Ann winds up holding Tingle hostage and unsure of what to do next. Blackmail? A bolt between the eyes from a crossbow? Williamson is similarly bewildered, so Tingle finds itself longing for the glib moralism of a latter-day John Hughes while itching for the cheap thrills, bad taste, and crass plagiarism of a Scream 3. You just can't teach a new dog old tricks.

-- Peter Keough



Mickey Blue Eyes

Once the epitome of illicit power, the post-Gotti mob has declined into a laughing stock of bumbling ineffectuality. That's a boon not just for law enforcement but for Hollywood comedy, as the Sopranos-inspired Analyze This and now Mickey Blue Eyes attest. Once again, lovably flawed professional hit man bonds with lovably flawed professional wimp, and clever comic play with the rich cinema traditions of gangsters and luckless losers ensues.

Phlegmatic, stuttering Hugh Grant takes on the splenetic Billy Crystal role as Manhattan art auctioneer Michael Felgate, whose self-depreciating British stodginess has melted before hot-blooded Gina Vitale (Jeanne Tripplehorn). She's hesitant to marry, though, because her father Frank (an uncharacteristically subdued James Caan) is a crime boss for the Graziosi family. Sure enough, once they're engaged, Gina's Uncle Vito (an emaciated Burt Young) begins to ingratiate himself with Michael, laundering money through his auction house. Hapless bumbling gives way to homicide, and the film's tone switches from good-natured farce to feel-good black comedy as Michael and Frank join forces to extricate themselves from family ties.

In his second film, director Kelly Makin (HBO's The Kids in the Hall) shows the kind of inventive whimsy that characterized Andrew Bergman's earlier mob parody The Freshman; Grant being coached by Caan in pronouncing the Donny Brasco-ism "fegeddaboutit" (he sounds like Schwarzenegger doing Bugs Bunny) is typical of the film's delight in cultural absurdities. With its spoof of conventions deepening into genuine suspense and irony in its hilarious conclusion, Mickey Blue Eyes is a surefire hit.

-- Peter Keough



Illuminata

In his second outing as director, the affably edgy actor John Turturro strives to capture the bawdy essence of turn-of-the-century theater life. Based on Brandon Cole's play, Illuminata is a delightful if ramshackle comedy along the lines of Cousin Bette and Shakespeare in Love, where players and artisans extend their theatrical roles beyond the stage in pursuit of their muse. Turturro centers the near absurd universe as Tuccio, an embattled playwright trying to maintain his artistic integrity while satiating a pack of sharply opinionated critics -- led by a deliciously over-the-top Christopher Walken. Pulling on Tuccio's sensibilities, Susan Sarandon is devilishly radiant as Celimene, a Gloria Swanson-eque temptress, and Turturro regular Katherine Borowitz is ingratiating as Rachel, the romantic anchor in his life and mainstay of the ragtag troupe.

The ensemble cast includes rich performances by Bill Irwin as the reluctant object of Walken's desire, Ben Gazzara, Rufus Sewell, and the ageless Beverly D'Angelo. There's a lot going on in Cole's play within a play -- indeed, the cinematic adaptation is so busy, there's little space to develop the multitude of subplots. In his 1992 debut, Mac, Turturro effusively encapsulated the struggle of three working-class brothers, but here, challenged by Cole's eclectic array of characters, he seems overwhelmed. When the highbrow high jinks stop whirling, only opulence and some ingeniously haunting puppetry resonate.

-- Tom Meek


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