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OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

The Story of Us

Think of director Rob Reiner's latest relationship riff as "When Harry and Sally Started Hating Each Other." Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer are Ben and Katie, a once-cute couple whose 15-year marriage now oscillates between frosty silences and rehashed recriminations. To split or not to split is the question, as these self-absorbed whiners contemplate their compatibility in a veritable scrapbook of chronologically challenged flashbacks.

American Beauty it's not. Banal and maddeningly cliché'd, the script, penned by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, reduces matrimony to a fatuous, penis-versus-vagina battle of the sexes. And what the film lacks in insight it doesn't gain in humor, mining laughs from a memory lane of outdated 'dos and the ample ass of Reiner, who, along with the borderline-offensive Rita Wilson, plays one of the pair's gibbering pals. Even Pfeiffer, in her big crying scene, snivels like a bad imitation of Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar speech, and Willis, in V-neck-sweater mode, coasts through, a caricature of distress. Here love hurts all right -- it hurts to watch.

-- Alicia Potter


The Living Museum

From Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons) comes this compelling look at the artistic endeavors of the mentally ill. At Creedmor Institution in Queens, "The Living Museum" was conceived as a place where patients could create art, without constraints and with professional support. This film profiles a number of artists whose conditions range from schizophrenic to suicidal. The primary narrator is psychologist/artist Janos Marton, who founded the museum with artist Bolek Greczynski (who died of AIDS at 44). Marton is both mentor and doctor, aware of his patients' limitations even as he marvels at their talent and dedication.

There's Issa, kept at Creedmor by the courts, whose brief bout of criminal behavior was born of drug-induced psychosis. Handsome, articulate, prolific, he's a Jean-Michel Basquiat look-alike whose work is fiercely focused, technically proficient, and amazingly diverse. John, a pragmatic artist who suffers grandiose delusions, creates sculptures that are erotically charged and whimsical. He recently exhibited his work at a SoHo gallery with Helen, a trained artist suffering severe depression.

It's said that the greatest artists hover at the brink of madness and some topple into the abyss. Yu's film does not romanticize mental illness but rather illuminates the continuum of artistic inspiration, from the seemingly divine and otherworldly to the torturously mundane. Consider David, a monk-mannered sculptor of extraordinary talent who has been diagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to psychosis to PTSD. He loves Beethoven, and his insights can be astounding, as when he says, "Living with mental illness as a bedmate is pretty horrendous, and there may be no hope of a cure. But life is still worth living even with it, life is heaven and we just have to wake ourselves to it."

-- Peg Aloi


Random Hearts

Sydney Pollack's uncomfortable, unconvincing, anti-climactic romantic thriller is hardly romantic and even less thrilling. Harrison Ford is Bill "Dutch" Van Den Broeck, an Internal Affairs investigator whose wife dies in a plane crash. When he discovers she was sitting with another man, he becomes obsessed with finding out all he can about his wife's extramarital activities. (It wouldn't be a Ford film without some testosterone, so he's also investigating a crooked-cop scandal that gives him the chance to throw men against cars and kick open doors.)

Turns out the other man was married to New Hampshire congresswoman Kay Spencer-Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), who apparently didn't like her husband much but thinks Dutch is quite hunky. Their romance is sullied by Kay's distrust of politics, Dutch's distrust of everyone, and the inability of both to leave the past behind. Even with two hours to work with, the character development is minimal, so Ford comes off as a self-absorbed asshole and Thomas closely resembles an infatuated teenager. Torturously adapted from a novel of the same name, the story goes nowhere really slowly: the most exciting part is the mad rush to the restrooms when the theater lights go up.

-- Jumana Farouky


Lucie Aubrac

That Lucie Aubrac (Carole Bouquet) is one tough broad. When her husband Raymond (Daniel Auteuil), a Resistance leader in Lyon in 1943, is picked up by the local magistrate for black-marketeering, she pays the Vichy swine a call. With her ice-green eyes narrowed and her square jaw set, she'd give Clint Eastwood pause, and Raymond is released.

Unfortunately, no one else in this movie based on a true story is as tough as its subject or Bouquet's performance. Raymond, of course, is picked up again, this time by the more formidable Gestapo headed by Klaus Barbie, and once again Lucie has her work cut out for her as she employs subterfuge, womanly wiles, pleas of unwed motherhood, cyanide-laced jam, and a lethal little handgun in her remorseless plot to set her husband free. Director Claude Berri, whose previous works included the breathy period pieces Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, generates all the suspense of a bedroom farce -- even the cockroaches crawling over Raymond in his squalid Montluc cell look photogenic. Fans of Robert Bresson might note similarities to that great director's A Man Escaped -- both films are set in the same infamous prison. Now Bresson -- there's the kind of tough director a woman like Lucie Aubrac deserves.

-- Peter Keough


Earth

The second in a trilogy beginning with Fire, Deepa Mehta's film is far more elemental than its predecessor. Eight-year-old Lenny enjoys privileged circumstances in 1948 Lahore as India achieves independence. Although stricken with polio in a country about to boil over with the internecine Muslim-Hindu warfare of the partition, she is a member of a wealthy, neutral Parsee family and seemingly above the fray. Her beloved nanny Shanta, though, is a Hindu whose beauty spurs the passion of two charismatic Muslim men. When the carnage breaks out, Lenny gets to see the horror of partition first-hand in a jolting scene of violence; through the misfortunes of Shanta she learns the dark recesses of love and hatred, and the frailty of the individual when confronted by the forces of history. Although it starts out like a creaky Merchant-Ivory costumer, Mehta's film gathers momentum and gravity.

-- Peter Keough


All the Little Animals

The moral(s) of this English story: the meek shall overcome the strong; it's the little things that count; all you need is love. A long-ago car accident has left 24-year-old Bobby (Christian Bale) with the mind of a young boy and a deep-seated love for animals. When Bobby's mother dies, his evil stepfather (played by Daniel Benzali as a cross between Darth Vader and Daddy Warbucks) plans to send him to a home, so Bobby runs away, hitchhiking from London to Norfolk. He gets a lift in a truck, but when a fox runs out into the road, he grabs the steering wheel, the truck flips over, and the truck driver is killed.

Enter John Hurt as a man obsessed with saving small animals; he and Bobby become friends and partners, and when Bobby's stepfather tries to destroy them both, the fate of those who harm little animals becomes all too clear. Despite its in-your-face approach, Jeremy Thomas's film is a comfortingly gentle call to respect life, as well as a charming peek into the mind of a boy who has been too little for too long.

-- Jumana Farouky


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