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NOVEMBER 3, 1997: 

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"Whoever done this knew what they were doing," a cop reverently announces with a splayed female corpse behind him. Too bad the same can't be said for writer/director Jeb Stuart and his pseudological thriller. He does have all the requisite plug-ins from his storyboard. There's the serial murderer, Bob (Danny Glover does his best despite the material), who crosses state lines into a small town. There's Buck, the paternal sheriff of said small town up for re-election. And look, there's stone-faced FBI Special Agent Frank (lockjawed Dennis Quaid), who's going all out on this case because the murderer kidnapped his son. Screenwriting by the numbers.

The problem is that Stuart doesn't know how to add them up. Prototypes of characters won't move your story from A to B, so Stuart works from B to A, cutting and pasting plot elements as needed to fulfill the pat resolution Hi-Lited in his notebook. You want a guy's medical backstory? Have a stranger drop at his feet. Plan to incapacitate your villain? Have him tell someone where the kid is in a "by the way" aside. Need your villain to remain above suspicion? Make him beloved and cherished wherever he goes (Hey, it's Bob!). On the other hand, you will be thankful for the febrile flashback used to ziplock the plot -- it means this seemingly endless film is grinding to a halt.

-- Robert Furlong


Red Corner

Now that Brad Pitt has lent his good looks to the mounting Tibetan craze with Seven Years in Tibet, one can only imagine that Richard Gere -- the Dalai Lama's biggest spiritual fan in Hollywood -- saw this thriller trashing China's legal system as an oblique propaganda tool to buoy Tinseltown's call for the release of Tibet from the Eastern Tiger's oppressive grip.

Gere unleashes his usual cocky smugness as Jack Moor, a media maverick trying to cut a blockbuster telecasting deal with the powers that be in the Chinese government. Trouble finds Jack in the form of a beautiful model who sets his loins on fire. After a night of steamy passion, which he can barely remember, he winds up in jail for murder.

From there the film rambles along as a weary courtroom drama, with Jack trying to prove his innocence against a totalitarian process. But the biggest injustice in Red Corner stems from the script, which infuses the bureaucratic proceedings with preposterous action sequences. Bai Ling is a delightful new face as Gere's court-appointed attorney, but even her effervescence is dissipated by the wooden, ill-placed, almost risible dialogue.

-- Tom Meek


Gattaca

In his new sci-fi drama, writer/director Andrew Niccol creates a "not so distant future" where genetic engineering reigns supreme -- at the expense of human diversity. In a world where petri-dish babies are manufactured for perfection, less-fortunate "god children" -- those conceived without the benefit of scientific intervention -- are automatically destined for failure. People born naturally suffer a new kind of discrimination: genoism.

Enter Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a perfect specimen of a man: intelligent, healthy, athletic, good-looking, ambitious, well-adjusted, and well-endowed. He's a "faith child," however, so to achieve his lifelong dream of space travel at the Gattaca Corporation, he has to buy and assume the identity of a genetic "superior" -- a chainsmoking alcoholic who has been paralyzed and is now willing to sell his DNA on the black market. But when Gattaca's mission director is murdered a week before Vincent, now an elite navigator, is scheduled for take-off, police threaten to brand him a killer.

Unfortunately, despite all the advances of modern science, predictable one-liners and full-circle scenes of corny machismo haven't been fully weeded out of Hollywood's gene pool. At least Gattaca has some positive traits: an aesthetic vision of the future that's stunningly realized through Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and 1940s-inspired costumes; a genuinely suspenseful plot that relies more on complex ethical ideas than on big chase scenes; and a character (the gene sellout played by Jude Law) whose charm, wit, and tragic status steal the show from the seemingly superfluous Uma Thurman and even the talented Hawke.

-- Lorelei Sharkey


Fairy Tale: A True Story

Harvey Keitel playing Harry Houdini says, "Children expect nothing, and therefore see everything." It's doubtful, though, that the children at my screening saw much of Fairy Tale -- they turned the theater into Romper Room. So leave the little ones home and enjoy this delightful "true story" of two girls, one saddened by the loss of her brother and one worrying about her father fighting in World War I, who seek comfort from the fairies living in their backyard. Their photographs of these fairies spark a national debate in England when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle prints them in his magazine. Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), whose son died of illness, embraces the fairies' existence as a way of coping with his loss. And so do the throngs of people who rush to the girls' backyard. Yet their search manifests itself as pathetic greed and drives the fairies away.

In brief debates with Conan Doyle, Houdini doubts the photos' authenticity while understanding how important it is for people to succumb to illusion and forget the emptiness of their lives. Like the great magician, director Charles Sturridge (Where Angels Fear To Tread; TV's Gulliver's Travels) asks us to consider what is real. Maybe that's why the kids were so bored. They -- like the two girls, Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) and her cousin Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl) -- already know that fairies exist. It's we adults who need to start opening our eyes.

-- Mark Bazer


Eye of God

Maybe it was the similarity in names that led actor/writer/director Tim Blake Nelson to reshuffle actor/director/writer Billy Bob Thornton's overrated Southern Gothic sudser Sling Blade. Whatever the case, he's improved on the original, investing it with subtle performances, a chronologically skewed narrative that is more engaging than gratuitous, a metaphorical structure that is more taut than heavy-handed, and a resonant, if overstated theme. It almost makes you forget how overwrought and hackneyed the story is.

The theme is intoned early on in a craggy voiceover from leathery Sheriff Rogers (a note-perfect Hal Holbrook), of the waning oil town of Kingfisher (just one of a flock of religious references). How can there be evil if God is omniscient and omnipotent? How can we know His will? These theological queries take on flesh-and-blood implications when Rogers's officers find 14-year-old Tommy Spencer (Nick Stahl in the Jeremy Davies role) wandering in the night, mute, in shock, and drenched in blood.

The circumstances leading to this grisly visitation Nelson unfolds with a flashback/flashforward razz-ma-tazz that doesn't quite disguise its predictability. Six months earlier, local waitress Ainslie Dupree (Martha Plimpton in one of her best performances) impulsively married paroled convict Jack Stillings (a defrocked Kevin Anderson). Their coupling seems liberating and idyllic for both, but there are problems, such as his religious fundamentalism and her clueless vulnerability. Plimpton's heartbreaking performance arcs from innocence to independence, and her character deserves a less generic fate. Regardless, Blake's eye for drama, though not divine, still rises above the mediocre.

-- Peter Keough


Critical Care

Despite being steeped in timely controversy (do hospitals give preferential treatment to the wealthy?), this latest offering from Sidney Lumet is as bland as hospital fare. James Spader is Werner Ernst, an overworked, undersexed MD with all the rebellious integrity of M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce, but inclined to think with his little brain and not his big one, sort of like, oh, ER's Doug Ross. When the daughter (a tackily dressed Kyra Sedgwick) of an elderly patient seduces him and threatens blackmail, Werner must think fast. She wants her brain-dead father's life support terminated so she can inherit big bucks; Werner may lose his career if he doesn't pull the plug. His mentor, the single-malt-Scotch-quaffing Dr. Butts (a hilarious Albert Brooks), wants the vegetable kept alive as long as he keeps paying; the Head Nurse/Angel of Mercy (Helen Mirren) has her own methods for discharging terminal patients.

The impressive cast notwithstanding (it includes Anne Bancroft, Philip Bosco, and Basquiat's Jeffrey Wright), Critical Care disappoints. The screenplay sags into melodrama, with righteous monologues on healing, and poorly realized gimmicks that are inscrutable and unfunny (picture Wallace Shawn as the Devil, who, predictably, eats takeout from Arby's). Although not as torturous as watching, say, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, this film is still far less entertaining than a dose of Demerol.

-- Peg Aloi


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