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NOVEMBER 2, 1998: 

The Last Big Thing

Those weary of pretentious band names and bad stand-up comics' references to '70s sit-coms should feel vindicated by Dan Zukovic's sly, ingeniously self-reverential pop diatribe The Last Big Thing. The title refers to the name of a fictional publication headed by disgruntled cultural apocalyptic Simon Geist (yes, as in "zeit" -- one of Zukovic's few lapses). In fact, the magazine is a front; it allows Geist to set up interviews with artistic poseurs -- actors in soaps, models, etc. -- and to vent his spleen at the decline in taste and aesthetics.

Zukovic's rants are often brilliant and hilarious, and they're delivered with an insinuating drawl that's kind of like Jack Nicholson imitating Alan Alda. His gift for metaphor is keen too: the film's central motif is a trash barrel that distorts the reflection of Zukovic's face into a likeness of Edvard Munch's The Scream. The story, involving his impassive relationship with a disturbed woman who wants to start her own magazine titled Geist Has Fallen, is a sometimes creaky vehicle. But overall, The Last Big Thing surges on a tidal wave of exuberant bile. It deserves to be seen, if only for Geist's funny foray into music videos.

-- Peter Keough


American History X

One of the most troubling and overlooked of recent social developments is the skinhead, neo-Nazi movement, but the only lesson you're likely to learn about it in first-time director Tony Kaye's clumsy and exploitative American History X is to avoid public rest rooms and shower facilities. Young Danny Vinyard (a bland Edward Furlong) has shocked history teacher Murray (Elliott Gould) with his shaved head and research paper on Mein Kampf. So the school's idealistic principal, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), tutors him in a course he dubs "American History X." Danny's first assignment is to write about his brother Derek (Edward Norton), who's about to be released from prison for killing a pair of black carjackers.

Told in awkward flashbacks (the past is in black-and-white with clumsy voiceovers), X relates how Derek metamorphosed from a bright student inspired by Sweeney's classes on Native Son to a racebaiter and charismatic leader inspired by his dad's ramblings about affirmative action at the dinner table. It's a jury-rigged pastiche of a character, and though Norton is suitably malevolent and fascinating as the swastika'd stormtrooper, no one could bring conviction to Derek's contrived conversions. Brutal in its depiction of street and domestic violence (a scene in which Derek berates mom Beverly D'Angelo and Murray, who's her boyfriend, is especially chilling), this History perversely becomes coherent only when Derek articulates his racist ideology -- arguments, according to the film's press notes, culled from California governor Pete Wilson's diatribes against Proposition 209.

-- Peter Keough


Soldier

From the pen of David Webb Peoples, acclaimed scripter of Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Twelve Monkeys, you'd expect something edgy, macabre, and titillating. Instead, Soldier is a disarmingly unimaginative sci-fi thriller that lifts plot elements from other genre hits (Terminator, Road Warrior, Universal Soldier) and even the Western classic Shane.

The futuristic, interplanetary showdown pits an outdated career commando (an awkward but endearingly taciturn Kurt Russell) against his beefier and more lethal successor (a bald, buff Jason Scott Lee). In round one -- a deadly training demonstration -- Russell's conditioned-from-birth sergeant gets his ass handed to him by Lee's genetically engineered über-trooper. Left for dead on a barren, deep-space junkyard, Russell is taken in by the planet's raggedy inhabitants, who nurse him back to health and get him in touch with his human side. Of course there's a round two, when Lee and his legion of robotic exterminators storm the planet and Russell, recharged by his new-found emotion, goes on the warpath, proving that the older model can still blood-let like there's no tomorrow. Soldier does offer a few good mano-a-mano testosterone moments, and the set designs are ultra-cool, but there's too little character development and no reason to care.

-- Tom Meek



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