Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Film Guide

OCTOBER 27, 1997: 

AIR FORCE ONE Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Tom Clancy should sue the makers of "Air Force One." In this pro-forma actioner, Harrison Ford reprises his Jack Ryan role lock, stock and resourceful-in-peril -- even though he's portraying a different character, Vietnam vet-turned-Boy Scout President James Marshall. The main problem with this leaden-winged movie is that it recycles more elements than the astronauts on Mir. (Frank Sennett)

BOOGIE NIGHTS Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson's epic-length portrait of a surrogate family -- damaged souls seeking a little dignity while churning out porno movies in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s is nonjudgmental, but there's a keen intelligence at work in shaping the gaudy set pieces and potentially trashy drama. Offhandedly witty and sleekly paced, it's a terrific, energetic commercial picture. "Boogie Nights" is about shallow people with shallow dreams. They wouldn't know what to do with their fantasies if they came true, because they do, and everything goes crazy anyway. What does Anderson think? It takes some time to figure it out -- and probably a lot of heated discussions, a sure side effect to an almost-certain hit. "Boogie Nights" takes place between the late 1970s when porn was shot on film, and the early 1980s when cheap, fast video took over. Burt Reynolds, grave yet wry, is Jack Horner, a maker of smut who somehow thinks he can elevate the form. Julianne Moore is his troubled wife, using the nom de porn Amber Waves. Their coterie of cast-and-crew misfits grows by one when Horner encounters nightclub busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). Horner sizes Eddie up as a prime prospect for exotic stardom, a confused young man with a particular gift to whom Horner says, more businessman than hedonist, "I bet you have something wonderful in your pants wanting to get out." The greatest strength of Anderson's work is perhaps the earnestness of his characters, their clueless desire to somehow better themselves. They dream, they scheme, they fail." As Anderson puts it, "They're just fucking trying to scrape something up from this life." 154m. (Ray Pride)

CONSPIRACY THEORY Directed by Richard Donner. With Mel Gibson in the central role of Jerry Fletcher, a conspiracy-buff-stalker-patsy-punster given bad headaches by the day's news and memories of a dark past and obsessed with Justice Department attorney Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), "Conspiracy Theory" is less serious drama than a remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" with Daffy Duck in the central role. Donner's New York is a delirium of intense sensation -- from the ready clichs of Soho's cobbled streets and the towers of sewer steam at each corner -- to memorable, if sometimes pat, visual strokes such as Times Square being a continual tectonic event, or having Jerry's front door line up perfectly with the World Trade Center in the near distance, where the kind of conspiracy he believes in resulted in a notable explosion a few years ago. Donner, whether bored with storytelling or growing in ambition, has followed up the ponderous, yet zestily shot "Assassins" with another great-looking movie, filled with gorgeous compositions and strikingly stylized lighting. There are moments, rain-drenched sick-soul-of-Europe art-movie moments, where "Conspiracy Theory" attains an almost Tarkovsky-like level of visual density. It's just not infused with any meaning. The result is less cynical than blissfully absurd, with the galloping incoherence driving out of mind the concern that much of the movie's exceptionally potent imagery, drawn from the culture's shared century of blood-drenched history and media overload, is being wrongfully invested in mega-budgeted pulp.135m. (Ray Pride)

CONTACT Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Moving from the crackerjack mix of narrative confidence and special-effect integration of "Back to the Future" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" to the worldwide audience acceptance of the not-so-sunny "Forrest Gump," Zemeckis has become the prime practioner of a kind of speculative fiction that is both icy and warm, that tickles at satire while struggling to find plausibility for the events on screen, however outlandish or unlikely. "Contact" looks toward the stars and suggests but one simple notion: The face of God is the face of those you love. What a great place to start. Panavision.150m. (Ray Pride)

COP LAND Directed and written by James Mangold. "Cop Land" is something mournful, elegiac, a taut, action-driven movie with stylized dialogue, an overriding concern with ambiguous motivations and some scenes told almost entirely through striking and sometimes grandly bold images. (Ray Pride)

DEVIL'S ADVOCATE Directed by Taylor Hackford. At the end of "The Godfather," when Al Pacino takes on the responsibilities of his dark and damaged family, a door closes. The deep, sensitive eyes of the young actor were revealed instead as black pools of malice, treachery, corrupt potential. Years, and "Godfather" sequels, pass. In 1983, who would have thought, watching Al Pacino go coke-crazy, method-mad as Tony Montana in "Scarface," that he was only beginning the steep ascent toward the performance style that would mark his late career, toward his most grandiloquent role-Satan in "The Devil's Advocate." Let's start on the right hoof with "The Devil's Advocate." It's ripe, rollicking trash, brazen, shameless, a hoot. Nuts. Shockingly funny. Bad. The story is ostensibly about the great tests faced by a cocky young man. Keanu Reeves is a never-beaten young Florida defense attorney tempted into choosing a jury for a New York law firm. (Reeves' attempt at a Panhandle drawl is actually kind of sweet.) He brings along his equally pretty and ambitious wife, the statuesque Charlize Theron, despite baleful warnings of the city's evil and iniquity from his weathered, religious mom, Judith Ivey. Once this southern-bred Ken and Barbie arrive on the sleek streets of Manhattan, the city glistens alongside them. As in his last movie, "Dolores Claiborne," director Taylor Hackford works with bright lights, big colors, bigger moments. Endless opportunity awaits those who sacrifice themselves to the demands of the law firm. The pair wind up thrown, not to the wolves, but to nattily dressed John Milton (Pacino), barrister to the dark side, counsel to murderers and arms merchants. Pacino is still capable of playing dodgy little men -- his work in "Donnie Brasco" shows signs of acting, rather than performing. But when he plays broader strokes, Pacino relishes the chance to start at an eye-popping, "r"-rolling, arm-waving freak-out in order to blow the top off over-the-top. What's bracing is what a ride the director makes of this low-ball high-concept-Satan as the greatest, most evil lawyer of them all, a silver-tongued maker of mischief and destroyer of virtue. Pacino brings both colossal vanity and lack of shame to his characterization of the farthest fallen angel. I don't know if his work in "The Devil's Advocate" is brilliant or just crackpot, and I doubt I'll ever have the curiosity to see it again to decide. The script is filled with perverse twists and turns. There is murder and mayhem, masturbation and reckless sexual fantasy, twists and double-crosses, nudity, mutilation. And blood. There is shock as well in Pacino's Milton's stream of unconsciousness, a level of invective, of sheer, profane blasphemy that is jarring in a studio release. The words pour from the devil himself, yes, but the scorch is audible in an audience's shocked, uneasy laughter. There's a carnal, carnival sideshow to every aspect of "The Devil's Advocate," but once we're in the game, we simply watch and wait for Pacino to be consumed by a pillar of id, ego, bellow and brimstone. Pure fire. We are not disappointed. (Ray Pride)

THE EDGE Directed by Lee Tamahori. Tamahori recovers nicely from the shambles of "Mulholland Falls" with this David Mamet-written boy's-own adventure in the wilds of Canada. After a plane crash, Rupert Murdoch-like billionaire Anthony Hopkins is pitted against the wilds and Alec Baldwin, a fashion photographer and competitor for trophy wife Elle Macpherson's affections. Hopkins' billionaire works with a writer's mind, dredging up anecdotes and untested theories to figure out the next step that may get them out of the forests before starving or being eaten by grizzlies. (Mamet's mogul brings to mind Henry James' dictum, "A writer is someone on whom no fact is ever wasted.") Tamahori and Mamet work simply, quickly tearing away the flimsy layers of social rhetoric and misrepresentation between the men. Baldwin is also a hoot with his playfully freakish delivery of Mamet's trademark cadences. After a while, they're like a couple of privileged brats, bickering like Siskel and Ebert in the wild. The action is reasonably compelling, and the result seldom descends into macho delirium. 122m. Panavision. (Ray Pride)

THE END OF VIOLENCE Directed by Wim Wenders. With his exquisite sense of composition and color, of camera motion and musical accompaniment, Wenders' movies make plot and characterization seem almost beside the point. Unfortunately, in a movie as lushly imagined and seductively photographed as "The End of Violence," when story rears its shaggy head, most audiences will smirk or even laugh aloud. Bill Pullman plays a successful producer of violent movies whose personal life is falling apart; wife Andie MacDowell needs more attention than he can provide. A robbery turns into a carjacking, then a multiple murder, and he's thrust into a real-life intrigue. Unfortunately, it's not very convincing. A second strand of story, with Gabriel Byrne as a surveillance expert setting up a grid of video cameras around Los Angeles, provides the potential for many striking ideas about the entire idea of watching, of voyeurism, of the passive consumption of violent images. But not enough is made of this congruence -- or incongruence -- between the lives of the two characters. Wenders' film references are wide and catholic. The banks of monitors are reminiscent of his countryman Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse character, one of the great intellectual versions of the all-powerful boogieman in film history. And the observatory building is site of some of the most famous scenes from Wenders' one-time collaborator Nick Ray's "Rebel Without A Cause." Without this information, some of the choices of location and imagery may puzzle the average audience. Perhaps not. The pulse of the movie is lush and satisfying, but Nicholas Klein's ambitious script simply doesn't add up. "The End of Violence" opens with a bravura sequence that demonstrates the separation between the portrayal of violence and violence itself that's an utter knockout, but when Wenders attempts to engage larger ideas as his simplistic story progresses, he's far less successful. (Ray Pride)

EVENT HORIZON Directed by Paul Anderson. We learn right away via the old print-out-on-screen technique, that the Event Horizon is a deep-space (which means to the edge of our solar system) starship that was lost seven years ago near Uranus (Beavis is still laughing). Laurence Fishburne, whose presence gives the cast its only credibility, is a spaceship captain sent on a top-secret salvage mission after the Event Horizon reappears orbiting Uranus. Without giving away too much, we soon learn the Event Horizon was much more than just a deep-space vessel, and it has been somewhere much worse than Uranus. 97m. (Dave Chamberlain) ;

FACE/OFF Directed by John Woo. Woo seems at last to have reclaimed the delirious of his Hong Kong-made operas of honor and gunfire. After a couple of fairly straightforward movies, Woo rediscovers his form as the Bob Fosse of hand-to-hand apocalypse. Let the ballet of carnage begin.135m. Panavision. (Ray Pride)

FAIRY TALE: A TRUE STORY To see fairies, say the two schoolgirls in "Fairy Tale," you must believe. But it's never clear what is so unbelievable about "Fairy Tale" that prompted its makers to tag on the claim, "A True Story." Is it that two English schoolgirls took -- or doctored -- photographs of fairies during World War I? Or is it the uproar those photographs created after notables such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini entered the fray to determine the photos' authenticity? In fact, director Charles Sturridge's "Fairy Tale" doesn't ask the audience to accept anything especially extraordinary in Hollywood terms: What are a few fairies to moviegoers used to believing in Jurassic Park? The movie focuses on cousins Frances (Elizabeth Earl) and Elsie (Florence Hoath), who debate fairy lore in a night-lit attic bedroom, then spend their days at a small creek, playing with Queen Mab and her winged minions. Elsie's brother, Joseph, who dies of pneumonia before the film begins, spent his short life engulfed in fairies; his heartbroken parents, Arthur and Polly Wright (Paul McGann and Phoebe Nicholls), discourage serious-minded Elsie's pursuit of the little ones. But Polly desperately wants to believe, and mischievous Frances, staying with the family while her father fights in France, steals Arthur's camera to take photos of herself and Elsie cavorting with fairies as a gift to Elsie's mom. Eventually, Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole) catches wind of the photos and enlists Houdini (Harvey Keitel), known for debunking false claims of theosophists and mediums, to investigate the girls' claims. Despite all this hoopla, though, the movie lacks dramatic focus. (Although the beautiful, recurring fairy-cam effects following a buzzing creature's flight through the florid woods by the brook and spying displaced fairies crossing a busy road, recall the floating feather at the beginning of "Forrest Gump.") The diffuseness defeats any hope of "Fairy Tale" attaining the child-adult crossover appeal of "The Little Mermaid" or "Babe." The result is a patchwork quilt: children will cuddle in its magical moments, while the less wee might at times feel the temptation to visit the land of nod. 99m. (Sam Jemielity)

FIRE DOWN BELOW Directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala. Steven Seagal, he of the long smooth forehead and long oily ponytail and long-fringed jacket thingies that wouldn't look half-bad on that god-of-girth Marlon Brando, returns in yet another eco-philosophical revenge pic. This time 'round, he's Marshall Jack Taggart, an EPA operative "out to avenge the ruthless killing of a trusted colleague" in "the tiny hamlets that dot the hills of Appalachia." Soon, to his horror, or (as the case may be) squint, Steven discovers hazardous waste is being dumped into abandoned coal mine shafts, "an irrevocable ecological catastrophe that will turn this idyllic land into an uninhabitable wasteland for generations to come." With Marg Helgenberger, Kris Kristofferson as a "local tycoon," Stephen Lang and native Kentuckian Harry Dean Stanton as "Cotton." ;

4 LITTLE GIRLS Directed by Spike Lee. Lee's first documentary, an HBO production, is worthy work with can't-miss emotional material: the story of the lives shattered when a pipe bomb killed four young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963 at the height of the battle against civil rights in the South. Lee assembles witnesses to a crime that was intended to put an end to integration in Birmingham, as well as family members and cultural figures such as Walter Cronkite, Jesse Jackson and Bill Cosby to comment on the broader implications of the terrorist murder of the four children. A shoo-in for Oscar consideration. (Ray Pride)

THE FULL MONTY Directed by Peter Cattaneo. Local zeroes make good. A hilarious treat, "The Full Monty" is a directorial debut of rare confidence. Cattaneo, an old hand at British television comedy and short films, has turned what sounds like terminally jokey material into something quite wonderful, a deadpan comedy of character that plays like a sparkling successor to the best moments of Bill Forsyth's comic work. I had avoided seeing the movie at Sundance because of its reported plot -- unemployed steelworkers in Sheffield in the north of England turn to Chippendale's-style stripping to make money. Robert Carlyle, wonderfully different from his threatening Begbie character in "Trainspotting," hatches the plot only after we've seen both comic and touching illustrations of the depths of anguish in the lives of each of his pals. Stripping in front of every woman in town becomes a comic metaphor for mad, fucked desperation. Along the way, each of the half-dozen men hesitates according to their own eccentric logic, and the language is a cloud of comic slang. (Ray Pride)

THE GAME Directed by David Fincher. "7 1/2"? A successful businessman gets the gift from hell from his brother. Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger. 134m. Panavision.

GANG RELATED Directed and written by Jim Kouf. Jim Belushi and the late Tupac Shakur are street detectives who go into the drug business, under the hand of the co-writer of "Operation Dumbo Drop" and "Another Stakeout." With James Earl Jones, Lela Rochon, David Paymer, Gary Cole and "Dennis Quaid as William.";

GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE Directed by Sam Weisman. Watch out for those abs! Disney's inflation of Jay Ward's TV cartoon character is embodied by buffed-up Brendan Fraser, whose sweetly lithe and mostly naked form, judging from the stills, should appeal to the 14-year-old closet queen in all of us (to paraphrase another critic from another context). Aside from the memorably bone-headed title song, this version has a script by Dana Olsen ("It Came From Hollywood"), gentled by a rewrite from Audrey Wells ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs"). "George," which Disney's calling a "live-action family comedy-adventure," was a small kid's movie until a marketing tie-in with a fast-food chain led to a few tens of additional millions being poured into the budget. With Leslie Mann, Greg Crutwell, Richard Roundtree and John Cleese "as the voice of an ape named 'Ape.'";

G.I. JANE Directed by Ridley Scott. "G.I. Jane"'s concept is as high as Demi's cantilevered breasts. (Annabelle Villanueva)

GOOD BURGER Directed by Brian Robbins. An inflation of a sketch from the popular teen-oriented Nickelodeon series "All That," in which two "offbeat high-school teens," Ed and Dexter (Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson) pitch in to help a burger joint called Good Burger become the hottest fast-food spot in town. Can Megaburger's merger offers be far behind? 94m.

HERCULES Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements. Disney's animated "Hercules" never hits the nitrous highs of Robin Williams' maniacal spiels in "Aladdin," but as consistent craft, it hits a standard for brisk, shapely entertainment rarely matched by live-action Hollywood fare. Co-writer-director-producers Musker and Clements showed their mettle with "Aladdin," and set out to mold a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges screwball comedy out of the elements of the Hercules myths. The endless anachronisms, including an extended series of riffs on the merchandising of heroes and celebrities, never chafe. (Even a gag like "Zeuuuuusy! I'm home!" in a Desi Arnaz intonation works in these capable hands.) Notable among Hercules' obstacles to returning to Mt. Olympus from earth are Hades, voiced by and animated in the style of James Woods; a hundred-headed Hydra's nightmare for the kiddies; and smart adult comedy that never gets too racy, yet includes a zesty one-liner about Oedipus' troubled home life. Even the big thumbs of Disney co-workers Siskel and Ebert come in for some flaming satire. (Ray Pride)

HOODLUM Directed by Bill Duke. Epic Harlem gangster saga (but shot in Chicago) with Andy Garcia as Lucky Luciano, Laurence Fishburne as Bumpy Johnson (the gangster on whom his "Cotton Club" role was based) and Tim Roth as Dutch Schultz. With Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III and Queen Latifah.

THE HOUSE OF YES Directed bu Mark Waters. Waters' adaptation of Wendy MacLeod's long-running San Francisco stage hit is still rife with hothouse theatricality, but it boasts one of the most nuanced performances of the year, by Parker Posey. Medicated and no longer completely deluded, she still only answers by the name of her favorite identity: Jackie O. Posey is a sparkler in all her roles, yet in collaboration with Waters and his editors, her Jackie O. can balance between hysteria and calculation in every moment, just shy of twirling into the void. She's obsessed with her namesake, the Kennedy assassination, and all too fond of her twin, Marty (Josh Hamilton). When Marty comes home for Thanksgiving with fiancee Lesly (Tori Spelling) the scene is set, as mom Genevieve Bujold puts it, "I'm going in the kitchen to check on the turkey and hide the knives." (Ray Pride)

I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER Directed by Jim Gillespie. A new stalker-shocker from Kevin Williamson, writer of "Scream," starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillipe and Freddie Prinze, Jr. 100m.

THE ICE STORM Ang Lee's chilly, exquisite portrait of two families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, 1973 is a triumph of mood over material, a work of intense texture and rewarding behavioral acuity. Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver are among the adults; the adolescents include Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Byrd, and in a marvel of a performance as a driven, disturbed, sexually precocious 14-year-old, Christina Ricci. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes and the music by Mychael Danna dazzles. Take one elegant, enigmatic shot for example: from the perspective of a commuter train reaching its stop-signed end of the line, Danna's score sprinkles bell-like gamelan music of great beauty as we see a row of middle-aged white men, hats clamped to heads, clutching briefcases, swaddled in identical tan Burberrys. The elegiac forward motion, the fantastic choice of music, the sudden register of the morbid plight of the men-haunting. Marvelous stuff, and certainly not to be typed as a "seventies backlash" picture. Lee and his screenwriter-producer James Schamus are after something much more mysterious and may have grasped it. (Ray Pride)

IN AND OUT Directed by Frank Oz. A one-joke premise -- what happens when movie star Matt Dillon accidentally outs one of his Indiana high school teachers while accepting an Oscar? -- is enlivened by screenwriter Paul Rudnick's deft gagwriting. While the film seems slight at even a modest 90 minutes, there are many, many smart laughs. Kevin Kline's the teacher; Joan Cusack his unknowing, chaste fiance; and Tom Selleck is on hand as a pushy, openly gay TV-tabloid reporter looking for the story -- or kiss -- of his life. (Ray Pride)

IN THE COMPANY OF MEN Directed and written by Neil LaBute. The most powerful, uncompromising, unrepentant film of the year so far. Chad (Aaron Eckhart, handsome in a boldly neo-Aryan fashion) and Howard (nebbishy, easily misled Matt Malloy) are angry. They are not two 32-year-old men who would work in an office, but in an office environment. They do not talk, but interface. A low buzz of jargon to keep the meaninglessness at bay. Strong coffee. Long breaks in the toilet. But then a fracture in the routine. Stuck in a faceless airport-Fort Wayne, Indiana's actually-they compare notes on their recent disappointments in the arena of love and lust. "Somebody rejects me, a woman, it just makes me-ah!-I can't stand it." Grumble, grumble. Howard's hurt is less articulate, despite a broken engagement, but Chad fills in: "If we were in India, we could burn that fiancee of yours on a pyre in the village square. "All first films could earn the title of Kubrick's suppressed first feature, "Fear and Desire." "In the Company of Men" deserves it. LaBute speaks the unspeakable, thinks the unthinkable, and makes compelling drama of it all. This is not Adrian Lyne dandling the zeitgeist and telling it to cough-"Flashdance," "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal"-but a piercing drama delineated with keen moral intelligence. The brilliant, unrelenting nightmare about to be visited on their victim, on Howard, on the audience, shows us how shocking a first feature can be. This is not meanness for meanness' sake; this is a voice, fully formed, announcing itself in clear, bell-like tones. Skirt-staring, bottom-line-hugging, job-fearing middle-class white guys. Corporate communicators in their most malefic essence. Every kind of indignity comprises their day. "You can kill somebody just once," LaBute likes to say. "But in work, a relationship-you can torture them everyday of the week." In between their swinging-dick competition in washrooms, boardrooms, offices where bold humiliations are visited on interns, we see the siege mentality of corporate-speak. And we see love as a commodity that one man believes can be cajoled and coerced and bullied out of someone. A dissection of misogyny and evil, not just a taking of the white male pulse with a backlash tract, "In The Company of Men" is amazing work. (Ray Pride)

INTO THE DEEP The last ocean-exploring Imax film I saw had a score by Sting. With the pretty pictures and music, it attained what I believed at that time to be the highest calling of the Imax technology: It shut the kids up for forty minutes and gave the adults beautiful pictures and soothing music during the moments when they woke up from the stupor induced by plush seats and heavy air conditioning. Although the music wasn't quite as good for "Into the Deep," the 3-D undersea exploration now playing at Navy Pier, I actually found it to be a gripping theatrical experience. Even though my family, including a 13-year-old brother, was in town, and even though we'd spent the better part of the weekend visiting various tourist haunts, I could not fall asleep no matter how hard I tried. Just as my eyes would droop, a crazy lobster would be molting his shell down there in the forest of giant kelp. My breathing would slow -- only to be quickened by the marauding attack of the sea star, or the spawning frenzy of the squid, or the teeth-cleaning rituals of the sea lions. By the end, I was tired, but exhilarated. There's always the spin cycle down at the laundromat, I guess. (Frank Sennett)

KISS THE GIRLS Directed by Gary Fleder. "Seven" meets "Silence of the Lambs" in a new thriller starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL Directed by Curtis Hanson. Hanson's unlikely distillation of James Ellroy's vigorously plotted novel "L..A. Confidential" is a slashingly-paced 140-minute thriller starring Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, a pair of Australians, as two complex cops in a 1953 Hollywood intrigue. It also stars James Cromwell as the silkily menacing L.A. police chief, Kevin Spacey as a Dean Martin-cool cop who's technical advisor to an early television show much like "Dragnet," Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake-like siren and Danny DeVito as a gleeful dervish of dirt who collaborates with Spacey in digging out the lowdown among the Hollywood highlife for his Hush-Hush sleaze-rag. Panavision. (Ray Pride)

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY Let's make this simple: "A Life Less Ordinary" is a promising first feature, ideal as a modest "lifestyle accessory," to take a phrase from one of its characters. But when you realize that it's the third feature from the creative combine that brought us "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting," it's a tepid disappointment. Director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald have starred Ewan McGregor in each of these three films with a stolen bag of cash at the center, and they repeat most of their technical crew as well. With "A Life Less Ordinary," one wonders if they thought after the great success of their first pair of pictures, they owed themselves one. A chance to stretch. A chance to explore. A chance to wallow in whimsy in the snow-peakedWasatch range of Utah. The lush snickers of "Shallow Grave" and the brilliant momentum of "Trainspotting" are little in evidence. Producer MacDonald is a grandson of Emeric Pressburger, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed several great films with Michael Powell, including "The Red Shoes" and "Stairway to Heaven (A Matter of Life and Death)." While Boyle's sense of decor remains strong, and Powell-Pressburger are among his admitted influences, "A Life Less Ordinary" is blemished with a subplot that is a cartooned-out rendition of "Stairway to Heaven." Mismatched angels Delroy Lindo -- tall, dark, perplexed -- and Holly Hunter -- short, snarled in long blonde hair and perpetually horny -- are dispatched by the archangel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) to force, by any means necessary, the union of Scots migr, janitor and would-be trash novelist McGregor and spoiled heiress Cameron Diaz. Hunter has a grand time behind a machine-gun, tumbling off car crashes like a tiny Terminator in a Coen Brothers remake of those movies, smoking, getting punched, chewing tobacco, dressing in a suite of high-heeled zip-up knee-high boots (white vinyl, black leather, brown leather). McGregor plays the tousle-haired, passive waif-boy as charmingly as can be; as the peppery kidnap victim turned kidnap mastermind, Diaz is both funny and often dazzlingly lovely. Her prim and petulant heiress, living a life transacted in David Hockney-blue swimming pools in coronas of sunshine, in ebony Town Cars, dressed Audrey Hepburn-style in form-fitting black cashmere sweaters and body-hugging pants is suggestive but never developed through the script's arbitrary events. Oh yeah, comedy -- you don't need consistency! Pump in another pop song there, will ya, Danny boy? Energy, that's it, energy. Bit parts are interestingly cast -- Tony Shalhoub dazzles, as always, as a bar owner where he actually invests wit and pathos in a few lines where his character imagines "a heaven for glamorous pussy"; Stanley Tucci gets to act up as a demented dentist whose engagement to Diaz ends when she shoots him in the head after the opening credits. A fast-cut trailer for the movie led me to anticipate something special, but, oh well. Hodge has worked as an M.D. and the level of gore and extreme violence bears some fascination, but never the weight of the work of say, George Miller, another doc whose first two "Mad Max" movies seldom stepped wrong (in the context of the years they were made) in conveying the intensity of violent possibility. There are scattershot flickers of invention and wit throughout -- it's never dull and often charming -- yet the scenes that sing are only blissful kinetics, no subtext, no dread, no especially big laughs. "A Life Less Ordinary" is closer to rock video than anything Boyle has done yet -- images and ideas, clattering in a pop-drenched void, anxiously lying there, awaiting a fresh draft never to be written. Once the movie ends, we're treated to a spoken-to-camera duologue by McGregor and Diaz, followed by a lengthy Claymation sequence under the end credits. Don't some people know when they've had too much of an indifferent thing? (Ray Pride)

THE LOCUSTS Directed and written by John Patrick Kelley. Dark stuff on a cattle ranch: Delilah Ashford Potts (Kate Capshaw) works her "widow's frank sensuality" on drifter Vince Vaughn while mute son Flyboy (Jeremy Davies) watches. Enter the free-spirited local girl, Kitty (Ashley Judd), and the press release and intrigue in 1960s Kansas is complete. "The Locusts" originally got an NC-17, not, apparently, for its share of sexual steam, but for a graphic bull castration.

THE MATCHMAKER Directed by Mark Joffe. Janeane Garofalo plays a Massachusetts Senator's assistant who's shipped off to Ireland to dig up any long-lost relatives or ancestors of her boss who might enhance his re-election chances. Garofalo arrives in the tiny town of Ballinagra during (wouldn't you know?) the annual Matchmaking Festival! A comedy, they say. With Denis Leary, Milo O'Shea, Jimmy Keogh. 96m.

MEN IN BLACK Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld's amiably surrealist sf-detective comedy -- think "Ghostbusters" directed by former cinematographer Sonnenfeld's old bosses, the Coen Brothers -- is best enjoyed if you lower your expectations. Don't expect the world. (Don't expect other worlds.) And don't let anyone give the jokes away. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are strong as the mismatched duo of detectives who keep track of the aliens living in our midst, or more precisely, on the island of Manhattan. Everything's less than a shrug to the characters. Wouldn't it make sense if your weird neighbor turned out to be from another planet? Aliens live amongst us and some of their faces turn out to be very familiar. The broadest reactions come from the pair's boss, in the form of the national treasure that is Rip Torn's left eyebrow. Rick Baker's featured creatures are smoothly integrated into their scenes, and Bo Welch's inspired production design is a consistent delight, mingling recognizable, comically abused New York City locations, with sets of a cool retro-futurist look, able to suggest steely contemporary office design, 1960s Scandinavian furnishings in the style of Eero Saarinen and the iconography of flying saucers, all at once. What could be more logical, for instance, than an alien seeking shelter to run into the dizzyingly involuted whorls of the Guggenheim Museum? While Ed Solomon's script, based on the comic book series of the same name, is less inspired after a terrific first forty minutes or so, this is still slick, enjoyable stuff. 95m. (Ray Pride)

MIMIC Guillermo del Toro made an impressive debut with the vampire movie "Cronos," and "Mimic" extends his knack for creating an oppressive atmosphere filled with dread and a Cronenberg-like fascination with damp and goo and fluids that should not be loosed from the body. As genre pictures go, "Mimic" is gorgeous and glistening, a triumph of atmosphere suggesting itself as a menacing machine of unnamable dread. But once the menace is named -- those damn man-sized flying cockroaches taking advantage of science's DNA-splicing experiments! -- "Mimic" devolves into formula. But it's an eyeful along the way with better-than-average "AHHHHHHHHHH!"s. In the accustomed fashion of Miramax's genre divison, Dimension Films, good actors take the busman's holiday and grin or shriek at the appropriate explosive or eviscerating cues, and Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Josh Brolin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton and an eyebrow-and-toupee-raising F. Murray Abraham are among those going to splat for the Miramax team this go-round. (Ray Pride)

MOST WANTED Keenan Ivory Wayans stars in an action thriller based on a coming attractions trailer of the same name. Jon Voight is on hand as, well, an honored actor sliding through middle age playing whatever wild-ass roles he can find the time to put teeth marks into. Previewed after press time.

MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Directed by P.J. Hogan. If there's any genre that suits the package of personality we call "Julia Roberts," it would surely be Hollywood's classic screwball comedy. Among actresses working today, Roberts is probably the one most suited to the style of smart women such as Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn, who could talk a mile a minute and move faster and be forgiven almost anything for their brassy yet charming wiles. Nutty or daffy, bewitched or bewildered, there are all sorts of comic states this wide-eyed, big-haired, elastic-lipped, horse-laughing, pratfalling filly could run through with quicksilver deftness. But from the alternately charming and appalling results of "My Best Friend's Wedding," we would have to deduce that screwball comedy is lost, and audiences have as much to lose as the still-so-young Roberts. Although Hogan displayed an offhand camp sensibility in his rambunctious, gaily-colored Australian import, "Muriel's Wedding," taking on a big, shiny Hollywood star vehicle shows an ambition that exceeds his devilish bad taste. The most charming character is Julianne's gay, second-best friend, played by Rupert Everett, who wittily underplays a series of hilariously smart, common-sense interventions. Still, I'll remember the exquisite last scene, in which all concerned manage to have their wedding cake and eat it, too, and Everett gets to ask, "Will Cinderella dance again?" and moments later, answers his own question, "By God, there'll be dancing!" (Ray Pride)

THE MYTH OF FINGERPRINTS Directed and written by Bart Freundlich. A J. Crew Cheez Doodle. To paraphrase Tolstoy, while happy families are all alike, all unhappy-family movies, when done poorly, are alike as well. Something's missing in "The Myth of Fingerprints"; something's slipped away and it's not the lives of the characters, who exist mostly as shadows of performances past from the talented actors given an arbitrary, uninteresting script to inhabit. (We won't even bother with the act of drawing one's title from the lyrics of a Paul Simon song.) Thanksgiving in New England after a family's been thrown to the winds for three years. Everybody shares the same dumb secret. Dad got drunk at a party once and snuck a kiss from somebody else's girl. Motivations are either cardboard or so elliptical they're incomprehensible. The only actor on screen who burbles with the repressed rage seemingly intended to motor the movie is Julianne Moore. Her character, Mia, is an asshole and Moore is magnificent. Then other characters talk: take James LeGros' neighbor, who's changed his name to Cezanne. Please. Roll call! Taciturn dad: Roy Scheider. Bulwark mom: Blythe Danner. Simple-hearted, soft-headed yuppie brother: Noah Wyle. Stick of wood fiance for Mia: Brian Kerwin. Sweet young sister: Laurel Holloman. You could go on. Freundlich does. "The Myth of Fingerprints" is too, too precious. 90m (Ray Pride)

NOTHING TO LOSE Directed and Written by Steve Oedekerk. Tim Robbins is a yuppie adman who believes his frisky yuppie wife, Kelly Preston, is cheating on him. Hitting the road in a haze of rage, he's carjacked by out-of-work, slapdash thief Martin Lawrence. What does he care? He kidnaps Lawrence, intending to dump him in the Arizona desert. Complications ensue, some clever, some inane, but their growing alliance and eventual dependence on one another charms throughout, without ever unduly pushing racially-charged gags. Still, Oedekerk's slack pacing, meandering gags -- check out Oedekerk's own cameo as a relentlessly gyrating night watchman -- and a fondness for the sentimental diminish the genuine ease Robbins and Lawrence demonstrate between their duo of unlikely buddies. If you make it that far, be sure to stay after the credits: There's a world-class punchline you won't want to miss. (Ray Pride)

THE PEACEMAKER Directed by Mimi Leder. The first rocket out of the Dreamworks SKG plant is a snazzy yet superficial action drama. Nuclear scientist Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman), who's turned from designing nuclear weapons to thwarting their proliferation, joins forces with her military liaison, Col. Thomas Devoe (George Clooney), after the Russian Mafia steals a warhead. Their world gleams, all shiny high-tech. There are clever script machinations that clunk as often as click, and the action is punctuated by on-screen titles reminding us that our dynamic duo is jetting around to keep the globe safe for our children. Devoe fights with his fists and his dirty underworld contacts; Kelly fights for what's right. It's reasonably gripping, but there's far too much sketchbook-sanctimony, such as near the end, when a Sarajevan piano-teacher-turned-terrorist moans about his dead child while clutching an LED-timered nuke, sprawled across an altar in a central Manhattan cathedral. 122m. Panavision. (Ray Pride)

PLAYING GOD Directed by Andy Wilson. David Duchovny puts down the blank stare and takes up a shotgun in the role of Dr. Eugene Sands, "a surgeon who is forced to abandon his career and is lured deep into the underworld of mobster Raymond Blossom." Ray B. is played by Timothy Hutton, with that bleached hair he's got in the coming attractions, boy, we're scared. Still, Wilson was the director of the British television series, "Cracker," and that's not a bad credit. Full-lipped actress Angelina Jolie plays "his seductive girlfriend Claire." With Peter Stormare, Tracey Walter and John Hawkes as "Flick."

ROCKET MAN Directed by Stuart Gillard. The director of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3" helms a kid's outer space story, wherein "astronut" Harland Willaims finds himself on the way to Mars. Complications, as well as "grizzled veteran astronaut Bud Nesbitt (Beau Bridges)," ensue. 93m. Previewed after press time.

SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET Brad Pitt sports Ralph Fiennes' yellow hair and his own honey skin in this lustrous but lifeless adaptation of Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer's experiences in the Himalayas. Ducking out on Fatherland and fatherhood, cocky Nazi Olympian Harrer purposefully deserts his pregnant wife in 1939 to scale a Kashmiri peak but winds up tramping around the Himalayas (sans Lonely Planet) and befriending the young Dalai Lama years before Richard Gere. Pitt plays Harrer adequately, owing less to his tight-lipped monotone than to his gift for exuding snot-nosed arrogance. You'd like to think his stiffness is a conscious emulation of Aryan reserve, but it's more likely he's just trying not to make any quick, jerky moves in one of the first movies that doesn't compel him talk like a flamboyant hick. To be fair, no one, not even Pitt, can compete with the breathtaking scenery (much of which was shot in Argentina). Against a crisp blue sky, climbers with frost-encrusted beards dig their crampons into gleaming white walls of ice. Crimson-robed monks rustle into toasty rooms of wood and gold so vividly dressed, you can almost smell the incense. Couched like a jewel amid all of this splendor is the excitable boy Lama, played expertly by Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, with that improbable blend of spunk and placidity seen in the real-life Lama's latterday persona. Too bad the story of Harrer's transformation retreats into the charming East-meets-West scenes we've come to love in which those bald-headed, child-like Buddhist monks flail and gurgle over ice skates, film projectors and other such Western toys. By the time the Chinese mount their offensive against Tibet, the story of self-realization has given way to a history lesson and not even John Williams' lovely orchestral swells can fill in the gaps. (Ellen Fox)

SHALL WE DANCE? Directed by Masayuki Suo. Suo's movie starts with the feel of cliche in motion, heightened only by a sense of being a "Hello Kitty" edition of Jacques Tati, where merely pointing a camera at a cryptic urban wonderland like Tokyo's allows so much to be read into the story. Shohei (Koji Yakusho) is a stiff-lipped accountant, the embodiment of Japan's long-suffering "salaryman" who works to fulfill the expectations of others. Taking the train from the city to the suburbs each evening to his hunched square of a house and small green patch of lawn and tiny red car that suggests a sewing machine more than horsepower, Shohei's face is blank. When his train pauses at a station one evening, he looks up into the neon of night and spies a melancholy face, a doe-eyed slip of a woman staring out a window into fathomless distance. Charmed. Another night. Fascinated. Finally, he gathers the nerve to climb the stairs of the building, where he discovers that the woman teaches ballroom dancing. She is Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a dancer who looks down on those she teaches. He joins, watching her from a distance as he becomes as obsessed with the tango and waltz, the fast-step and the rumba, as he is with her mysterious form. The teachers and classmates are all types -- a word I use to suggest keenly acted stereotypes -- yet the predictability of some situations and jokes is leavened by charm and compassion. Shohei also discovers that he shares a secret with his eccentric office co-worker, Mr. Aoki. Naoto Takenaka gives a comic performance of such utter grotesquerie, charm and heart that the jaw drops.118m. (Ray Pride)

SOUL FOOD Directed by George Tillman. A shot-in-Chicago family drama, centered around the ritual of Sunday family dinners. With Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Jeffrey D. Sams and Irma P. Hall. 115m.

SPAWN Directed by Mark A.Z. Dipp. On a superhero badass scale, Spawn ranks as the one demonic mofo who could take Superman or Wolverine before they even had the time to contemplate how he shoots chains from his head. But as a movie, especially bearing the PG-13 gloves, can Spawn be the vindictive, general-in-training of Satan's army that creator Todd McFarlane made into a lasting comic book? Without focusing on the gorier aspects of Spawn's routine, Dipp succeeds by applying a comic-book framing style between scenes for a quick pace, allowing no time to catch the occasional misfire in logic. (Dave Chamberlain)

U-TURN Directed by Oliver Stone. Even as you admire the ambition, the sweat and blood that goes into a picture like "U-Turn," you have to wonder what it all adds up to. To prove himself as a commercial director, despite his many awards and the great success of "JFK," Stone picked up young screenwriter John Ridley's "Stray Dogs," based on his own novel. Sean Penn plays Bobby Cooper, a con-man on his way to Las Vegas to settle his gambling debts, but his car breaks down in Superior, Arizona, a hellhole filled with hobgoblins like Billy Bob Thornton's fat, filthy, stupid car mechanic, Nick Nolte as a scrawny, leering, murderous husband, Jennifer Lopez as Nolte's plush young wife recoiling from a lifetime of abuse. Penn plays a perfect patsy, the long leg of fate always situated to trip him up. Powers Boothe, Claire Danes, Joaquin Phonenix, Julie Hagerty and Jon Voight pop up from time to time, cruel cartoons all. Whatever Penn does, he gets beat down. Whenever Penn thinks he can escape, he gets the shit beat out of him. God may be laughing at him, but what about the audience? Working with cinematographer Robert Richardson and crews of editors that usually include Hank Corwin, Stone has been developing a dense, kaleidoscopic, punishing visual style for several years now. Fractured consciousness or splinters in the eye? Opinions tend to one or the other. In mingling desert oddballs and noir brutality in this plot resembling "Duel in the Sun," Stone's style has never been more vivid, more vigorous, and more confounding. Ennio Morricone's lovely, sproing-y score blasts the movie into yet another level of fever-dream. "U-Turn" seems like a young man's movie, with a young man's frantic style, a young man's go-for-broke energy, a young man's mistakes. This post-"Postman Rings Twice," bone-dry, blood-red ending $20 million, back-to-Hollywood-basics production belies everything Stone's chatted up lately. In his prologue to his novel, "A Child's Night Dream," Stone writes about his late-in-life Buddhist beliefs, and his acceptance that "all time is illusory, that are things are circular... The bad parts of life, I find, blend into the good parts, because we can never appreciate the good parts had we not experienced the contrast between good and bad -- all of it illusion in the end... the great circling wheel of life... in which we abide until enlightenment comes." Then we are faced with the sultry "U-Turn." Where is the thoughtful Stone? He's beaten the younger film brats with a picture that has not a gram of flab, but its cruel, hallucinogenic comedy does not seem to reflect the results of any kind of philosophical search, just more splashing, thrashing, wrestling with the indomitable self. John Ridley's script gets off a few good lines, and one of the best, placed in the mouth of a pseudo-mystic huckster is the throwaway, "Your lies are old but you tell 'em pretty good." Under all the fury of "U-Turn"'s style, you can hardly discern Stone's wink beneath that line.124m. (Ray Pride)

WASHINGTON SQUARE Directed by Agnieszka Holland. An adaptation of the Henry James novel, made once before in 1949 as "The Heiress" by William Wyler. Heiress Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is considered plain and awkward, and when she falls madly in love with handsome young wastrel Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), her father, played by Albert Finney, fears for her virtue and her fortune. 115m.

WISHMASTER Directed by Robert Kurtzman. A portmanteau of horror tales, "presented" by Wes Craven. The Djinn -- a wicked genie -- takes on three enemies, played by Robert Englund (who played Freddy Kreuger) Tony Todd (The Candyman) and Kane Hodder (Jason from the "Friday the 13th" series). Canadian producer Pierre David asserts in the press notes, "With 'Wishmaster, we're really pushing the envelope, but with a team like this, what else would you expect?" Well, previews for critics, for one thing.

YEAR OF THE HORSE Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Neil Young and Crazy Horse play through the years in shaky, grainy super 8 and Hi8 video

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