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NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

John Carpenter's Vampires

There's probably nothing in it, but with this film and the upcoming Elizabeth, anti-papism and priest-bashing seem on the cinematic rise. By far the biggest offender is Vampires, whose targets range from the mightily mitered to a monastery full of squealing friars. Throw in a wearisome misogyny, witless dialogue, an inane plot, tedious special effects, and a total lack of suspense and the only reason to watch this farrago from the overrated horrormeister is the occasional wisecrack from James Woods.

He's Jack Crow, head of a Vatican team of vampire hunters. Armed with a combination of high tech and medieval weaponry, they prowl the American Southwest (inviting unfortunate comparisons with Kathryn Bigelow's far superior Near Dark), raiding nests of revenants and dragging them snarling out of the darkness to sizzle and burn in the daylight -- over and over again. Crow's nemesis, a heretic priest from the 14th century turned undead by one of those pesky exorcisms gone wrong, has surfaced with a scheme to make his kind invulnerable to the sun. Helping Crow is his partner, played by a Daniel Baldwin on the descending evolutionary scale from Jim Belushi and Tom Arnold, plus Sheryl Lee as a hooker/vampire victim and a greenhorn priest who's the butt of most of Woods's wit. "Hey padre," goes a typical riposte, "did you get any wood sticking that broad with the stake?" If so, he'd be the only one to get a rise out of this rubbish.

-- Peter Keough


The Waterboy

Only Adam Sandler can get away with beaning little kids at dodge ball and punching the daylights out of Bob Barker, and that's the kind of cartoon violence that made his Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore so hilarious. The kinder, gentler, infinitely more dull Sandler in The Wedding Singer was a box-office success but disappointing to his true fans. This latest effort, directed by The Wedding Singer's Frank Coraci, crosses that film and Happy Gilmore, as Sandler mixes equal parts lovable oaf and crazed mauler to create a movie as uneven as his character's moods.

Sandler is Bobby Bouchet, a water-obsessed mama's boy fired from his job as waterboy for a high-profile Louisiana college football team. He finds a down-and-out team led by Coach Klein (a bored Henry Winkler), who urges Bobby to stand up for himself. Surprise surprise, the waterboy turns out to be the world's greatest tackler once he channels his negative energy, and soon Sandler is doing what he does best -- beating on everyone around him. It's repetitive but funny, as he mumbles through his trademark speech impediment, then screams and tackles his foes, even executing a jackknife power-bomb (yes, the Waterboy's a wrestling fan, and a scene with the Giant is one of many well-executed sports cameos).

Of course, each bang gets a little less exciting, and many gut-busting scenes are spaced out with wearying stretches of filler. Also, Bobby's psychotically restrictive mother (Kathy Bates in overbearing Southern mode) is more sad than funny. But if Sandler is truly determined to soften his image, his persona in here is an acceptable compromise.

-- Dan Tobin


The Siege

Of all the images of nightmare and violence in Edward Zwick's timely, tense, ultimately unconvincing The Siege, perhaps the most jolting is that of President Clinton in a TV broadcast declaring war against terrorism following the recent bombings in Africa. Didn't this really happen? Like Clinton's appearance last year in Contact, not to mention his videotape deposition in the Lewinsky case, this blurring of fiction and what was once quaintly referred to as "reality" is probably more subversive of our way of life than any jihad. But The Siege has other issues on its mind as it walks a fine line between exploitation and genuine insight while exploring how efforts to eradicate outside threats to our system can end up being worse than the threats themselves.

Denzel Washington is energetic as Anthony Hubbard, head of the FBI anti-terrorism unit in New York, who's beginning to realize that he's up against more than just a few cells of Arab fanatics -- namely, our own government. A covert operation kidnaps a bin Laden-like Islamic leader, whereupon his followers lay siege to New York City with an escalating series of bombings. Despite an uneasy alliance with shadowy CIA figure Elize Kraft (a sexy and barbed Annette Bening), who takes the concept of sleeping with the enemy literally, Hubbard can't crack the case quickly enough for the disparaged chief executive, who sends in Oliver North-like general William Devereaux (a post-Armageddon, low-key Bruce Willis) with an Army division and the carte blanche of martial law. Little of this holds together in retrospect, and all ends in dutiful speechifying, none of which compares in impact to the stunned horror in Washington's eyes as he witnesses a busload of innocents obliterated, or the sight of a naked man in a lavatory singled out to pay the price.

-- Peter Keough


The Alarmist

One scene in first-time director Evan Dunsky's largely forgettable adaptation of Keith Reddin's Off Broadway play finds Heinrich Grigoris (Stanley Tucci) kicking in the door of a house where's he just installed a security system, to show that it works. The faked break-in builds business and also sets the tone for this blandly black comedy, which indulges in sirens and whistles that generally signify nothing.

Tucci is suitably reptilian, in a lovable way, as the owner of a shady home-security company who tries to seduce his idealistic, naive young salesman Tommy (an unctuous David Arquette) into some of his more underhanded dealings. Tommy is ambitious but honest, though he's not above celebrating a sale to his first customer, Gale (Kate Capshaw), by sleeping with her. Gale's suspicions of Heinrich add some tension -- which is heightened by a double murder and an elderly man whose notion of home security is an AK-47. The film pushes on such hot-button subjects as middle-class paranoia, younger man/older woman romance, and the ethics of greed, but like the door-kicking incident, it's all a false alarm.

Free Tibet

In their most recent incarnation as hip-hop crusaders, the Beastie Boys formed the nonprofit Milarepa Fund with the royalties from two songs on their Ill Communication album, setting off a string of massive-scale benefit concerts, live albums, and now a film to raise awareness about the plight of the Tibetan people and their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama. Although Milarepa's heart has consistently been in the right place, its products have been flawed -- a tradition that continues with Free Tibet: The Motion Picture.

Purportedly a documentary record of the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco in 1996, it doesn't work as a concert film. The performances, by the Beasties, Sonic Youth, Rage Against the Machine, the Foo Fighters, Fugees, John Lee Hooker, and others, are few and far between, sometimes heavily edited, and otherwise perfunctory (Björk, her sublime weirdness in full bloom, and Beck, doing some of his One Foot in the Grave material, are the notable exceptions). And as a piece of propaganda it's only half-successful: video footage of Chinese human-rights abuses against Tibetan monks is affecting, but the Milarepa folks don't explain why a rock concert represents a solution.

What we end up with is a disconnected sales pitch with a neat soundtrack. Framed by copious talking-head footage that chronicles the birth of Milarepa and details the tenets of Buddhism, Free Tibet most resembles a late-night infomercial peddling the Dalai Lama -- who doesn't really need the publicity now that his face is plastered all over those Macintosh billboards.

-- Carly Carioli


Belly

Belly is fat. Not phat, as in funky, fresh, and cool, but fat as in a waste of time. First-time feature director Hype Williams, famous for his moody videos for Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, has created a film with a tenuous storyline, almost no character development, and bad acting. It could have been saved by a pounding soundtrack and plenty of gratuitous violence -- but though the film has some of today's best rappers, it doesn't have nearly enough music by them. And though the violence is frequent, it never seems very real. Williams would benefit from checking out Sam Peckinpah or at least the Hughes Brothers.

Tommy (DMX) is a bad-ass hustler from Queens looking for dosh. He and his sensitive partner Sincere (Nas), who finds Islam but has a hard time losing his drug-dealing lifestyle, set up an interstate heroin ring. The feds bust in and then the fun begins. Problem is the plot and pacing feel as if they'd been worked out by someone who was blunted. The rich background colors and weird camera angles are appealing, but only Orson Welles can carry a film with camera angles.

-- Nicholas Patterson



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