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NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Train of Life

This French entrée in the growing genre of Holocaust comedies (exactly when did that become an acceptable phrase?) is a tale told by an idiot. The village idiot, to be exact -- Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski, bearing an appropriate resemblance to a pared-down Robin Williams), who opens the film by telling us a story in which he finds himself incapable of telling his fellow villagers another story: he's just witnessed the liquidation of a neighboring shtetl by invading Nazis. It's one of the film's few moments of any eloquence.

His listeners catch Shlomo's drift all the same, and they also seize on his suggestion that they might escape a similar fate by devising their own mock transport train, with phony guards, to take them to safety. Much low humor and crude parody follow, with the mock Nazis taking their roles too seriously and a mock communist movement springing up and turning the transport into a microcosmic train of fools. Director Radu Mihaileanu's trifle about the unthinkable has its artlessly moving moments, and its reliance on the fabulist frame tale to excuse its frivolity makes more sense than the same ploy in Life Is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar. Given such evil, a story may be the last resort, but maybe someone other than an idiot should tell it.

-- Peter Keough


The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

This latest from Fifth Element director Luc Besson once again finds Milla Jovovich intent on saving the world -- or France, anyway. What she can't rescue, however, is this ill-conceived epic. As the 15th-century butt kicker who led the French army to victory at Orléans, only to be later burned at the stake, the armor-clad Jovovich does little more than scream at the troops, her aquamarine eyes bulging as she waves her sword around . . . and around . . . and around.

The rest of the turgid two hours alternates between limb-lopping bloodbaths and regal subterfuge involving a twitchy John Malkovich and a headwear-bedecked Faye Dunaway. The film is a mush of distracting inaccuracies and anachronisms: the French speak unaccented English, the Brits are all cockneys, and when the intrepid Joan starts talking about voices in her head, one of her compatriots chuckles, "She's nuts!" And then, just as it seems the virgin warrior will never take to the stake, Dustin Hoffman shuffles forth as the personification of her conscience. Enduring this movie: now that's martyrdom.

-- Alicia Potter


The Bachelor

After two tepid outings as the Boy Wonder, Chris O'Donnell gets to perform beyond his boyish good looks. Here he plays Jimmie Shannon, a perennial bachelor who meets the woman of his dreams (Renée Zellweger) before he's ready for matrimony. Further complications arise when his grandfather (Peter Ustinov) passes away and leaves Jimmie $100 million provided he marries within the next 24 hours. Also at stake is the family business and the livelihood of all its employees. With key phrases like "you win" and "shit or get off the pot," Jimmie botches his attempted reconciliation with Anne and is forced to cycle through a tawdry assortment of old flames and money-hungry brides-in-waiting.

As a romantic comedy, Gary Sinyor's update of Buster Keaton's Seven Chances is sprightly and hits the requisite chords, and though O'Donnell is no Keaton, he's passable as the romantic lead. It's the once infallibly cute Zellweger who comes off as rumpled and awkward -- at times it seems as if she were talking with a mouthful of marbles. What gives the film its punch is the eclectic supporting cast, most pointedly Brooke Shields as a ghost from Jimmie's dating past.

-- Tom Meek


Pokémon: The First Movie

The cute, cuddly creatures from the Nintendo game (the craze that spawned a TV series and a merchandising empire) get the big-screen treatment as kid trio Ash, Misty, and Brock are invited to a mysterious island to partake in a Pokémon-trainer contest. (The Pokémons -- each a different aberration of animal with special powers, some cute and benign, others hideous concoctions -- are stored in small orbs and released by their trainers during Pokémon jousts). The island is controlled by a maniacal über-Poke -- cloned and genetically enhanced from a telepathic cat -- who wants to take over the world and destroy mankind in the process.

The Pokémon Movie is loosely Enter the Dragon with sweet-and-low mutants. The animation is crisp, and the plot moves along at a Saturday-morning pace, ideal for children. The main feature is preceded by the less engaging Pokémon Vacation, a series of googly vignettes laced with insipid Pokémon banter and trippy imagery. Oh, and Warner Bros. and Nintendo shamelessly commandeer the programming seams for some hardcore ad placement.

-- Tom Meek


Light It Up

Call this one "Breakfast Club in the 'hood." Six inner-city kids, comprising a politically correct cross-section of race, gender, and culture, barricade themselves in their beloved institution of education and take a hostage (Forest Whitaker) when a deaf-ear principal and poor schooling conditions push them to the brink after the resident cool teacher (Judd Nelson) is fired. When the kids demand to know why, an armed standoff with police ensues.

Light It Up sets forth an admirable agenda dealing with the plight of urban education, the bane of stereotyping, and the panacea of "Can't we all just get along?" But it bogs down in contrived melodramatic minutiae, and most of its rainbow coalition cast come off as caricatures. There's the bad-ass hood, the beauty with brains, the slacker punk, and the merchandiser. Only the pistol-wielding point guard (Usher Raymond) whose father was wrongfully shot by police and the abused son (Robert Ri'chard) who's afraid to go home actually illuminate the screen. Light It Up throws off a lot of smoke, but there's no fire.

-- Tom Meek


Finding North

At first, Rhonda (Wendy Makkena), the bouncy, gum-chewing Brooklyn woman who still lives with her parents, and forlorn Travis (John Benjamin Hickey), who is mourning the death of his lover by contemplating suicide, seem an impossibly odd couple. But when Rhonda, thinking Travis is straight and lonely, follows him onto a plane bound for Texas, the two strangers slowly develop a friendship that is honest, equal, and refreshingly sex-free.

Makkena and Hickey have an energetic on-screen chemistry that, with the help of first-time director Tanya Wexler, lets them skirt the already overdone straight-gal/gay-guy issues and set out on a universally familiar journey of self-discovery and companionship. Their mission -- to complete a scavenger hunt based on audiotaped clues left behind by Travis's AIDS-stricken lover, Bobby -- opens the door to a natural, subtle comedy that softens their struggle with loneliness, dependency, and loss. Ultimately, their relationship is more of a comfort than the dreary statement on death, homosexuality, or AIDS it easily could have been. By the end of the film even Bobby, who is only a voice from a tape recorder, feels like an old friend.

-- Jumana Farouky


Dogma

Despite the sound and fury surrounding its release, Dogma doesn't signify anything beyond the truth of Kevin Smith's repeated insistence that he's not much of a filmmaker. Basically a catechism with comic-book illustrations and foul language, this is the Miltonic tale of Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), two former avenging angels exiled to Earth for questioning the vengeful will of God. They see an opportunity for salvation when Cardinal Glick (a humorless George Carlin) offers a plenary indulgence to anyone who enters a local church. What the fallen angels don't realize is that by doing so they'll unravel all Creation.

To stop them, Metatron (Alan Rickman, in the film's only semblance of acting), the Voice of God, enlists Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), Christ's last living descendant and an abortion-clinic worker, plus 13th-apostle Rufus (Chris Rock) and the tiresome team of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith). There's much, much more, none of it amusing or enlightening. Smith's filmmaking strength is dialogue; here that's all wasted on exposition and explanation. Its leaden tediousness only emphasized by its puerile whimsy and scatology, Dogma is like the shots of tequila Metatron downs but spits out -- all bad taste and no kick.

-- Peter Keough


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