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OCTOBER 11, 1999: 

Superstar

No one smells sweat quite like SNL comedian Molly Shannon -- that tension-fraught moment when she, as her neurotic parochial-school alter ego Mary Katherine Gallagher, burrows her fingers deep into her armpits and then whips them out for a calming sniff. But even with the help of a dead-on imitation of Sybil and some intimate moments involving trees and stop signs, Shannon's twisted approach to aromatherapy can't carry what amounts to another skit-to-screen humdinger, this one directed by Kids in the Hall alumnus Bruce McCulloch. The film -- which finds our horny heroine entering a talent show and fantasizing about a Hollywood-style kiss -- strains hard to sustain its feature length, tacking on a clumsy back story and doling out a dual role to fellow SNL trouper Will Farrell (he plays both the class hunk and a groovy God). Sure, Mary Katherine may flash her panties (a lot) and kibitz with her breasts, but what's truly freaky here is how these desperate spinoffs keep getting made.

-- Alicia Potter


Plunkett & Macleane

Trainspotting pals Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller reteam as stick-up artists routing the streets of 18th-century England. Loosely based on historical characters, Plunkett & Macleane is less a period piece than it is a buddy film about unlikely partners from opposite sides of the tracks. Plunkett (Carlyle) is an impoverished apothecary who's lost his wife and longs for a life in America. Macleane (Miller) is a financially fallen aristocrat with a taste for women and the high life. A botched robbery-turned-jailbreak throws the two men together: after buying their way out of jail -- by shitting a ruby -- the two join forces, employing Miller's social connections and Plunkett's gritty knack for thievery to hijack wealth from the rich. Their derring-do gets them a romanticized notoriety, along the lines of Bonnie and Clyde, and with it the wrath of authority.

Jake Scott's film looks fantastic (it's obviously been influenced by Jake's father, Ridley, the visual genius who gave us Alien and Blade Runner), but its tempo and texture are disconcerting -- think Merchant Ivory thrown into an MTV blender. The soundtrack is a strange yet alluring mix that toggles irreverently between chamber music and contemporary techno-rave. And the drama is too prickly to embrace comfortably: the heroes steal for their own gain, and when womanizer Macleane falls for Lady Rebecca (the ever lovely Liv Tyler), it takes a leap of the heart to get on board with the film's romantic angle. As for the up-and-coming Alan Cumming (looking a bit too Pee-wee Herman-esque for anyone's good), he's employed far too sparsely as the delectably foppish Lord Rochester.

-- Tom Meek


Forbidding title aside, this film by Quebec's Robert Lepage has a positive attitude -- though it opens with an example of the stark traditional Japanese theater it's named after, in spirit it takes after the Feydeau farce that is its centerpiece. In 1970 Montreal, Michel (Alexis Martin), a radical writer, harbors three Quebec Liberation Front friends hiding from a police crackdown. Meanwhile, at the Osaka World's Fair, Michel's girlfriend, Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux), an actress in a theater troupe with the Quebec pavilion, discovers she's pregnant and debates whether to return home. And so goes, bouncing from one country to another, with Japan in color and Canada, on the verge of martial law, in black and white. Michel points out spelling errors in his terrorist friends' manifesto and contributes a clock to their time bomb; Sophie goes out to dinner with the boorish cultural attaché and his wife and drinks too much sake; and Lepage explores issues of independence and collectivism, theater and life. Sometimes the symbolism gets glib: a Buñuelian stage moment, an automatic-photo booth that snaps pictures of each of the main characters at key moments, and a coda set in 1980 in which the word "no" takes on broader political implications all edge from quirky to coy. But the sly, subdued performances (the lanky Cadieux is like a combination of Vanessa Redgrave and Lucille Ball) make worth saying yes to.

-- Peter Keough


Happy, Texas

This American independent directed and co-written by first-timer Mark Illsley has such a skilled, genial cast and is made with such an easy professionalism that Miramax sensibly swooped it up at the 1999 Sundance Festival. But perhaps Miramax also recognized the essential squareness of this seemingly offbeat movie and spotted the potential for a mass Hugh-and-Julia audience.

What starts off as a zany, lunatic farce -- three prisoners stuck together on a chain gang, one of them a mass murderer -- turns slowly into a bland, middle-of-the-road romantic comedy. The best part is the stupid stuff early on, when two of the convicts escape in a van and assume the identities of the van owners: a gay couple who travel through the Deep South putting on children's beauty pageants. There's real comedy-team potential with Jeremy Northam and Steve Zahn as a kind of oily Dean Martin/Anglo Cheech Marin duo who hang out in small-town Texas waiting for a chance to rob the local bank. But both are soon enmeshed in amour (Ally Walker, Illeana Douglas), whereupon the laughs deplete. And only the most straitlaced audience will find much humor in the coming-out of a local cop (William H. Macy) and his unrequited love for Northam. Meanwhile, if you're going to call a place Happy, Texas, then build around it some ha-ha jolly jokes.

-- Gerald Peary


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