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The Boston Phoenix Boston Phoenix

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

Tumult

In 1960, in Ethiopia, a thwarted coup d'etat was staged by members of an almost-invisible aristocratic elite. The revolt was quickly squashed by government spin doctors, not to mention military thugs, and monarch Haile Selassie, far from being overthrown, was whisked away to Brazil (eventually, in 1974, he was ousted by a junta). This film by Yemane Demissie offers a fictionalized narrative from the perspective of those who lived the coup while providing a compelling glimpse into the little-seen milieu of Ethiopian feudalism.

The story follows Yoseph, a charismatic young aristocrat who becomes a hunted fugitive, begging for asylum anywhere he can get it, and finally confronting the demons of his hated wealth and position. Shot in Southern California and with thrilling Ethiopian stock footage, in color and black and white, Tumult gets off to a slow start but by the end is one of the finest chronicles of political unrest in recent years, reminiscent of those Costa-Gavras films that make the hugeness of social upheaval intimate and immediate. Demissie lays down a complex mosaic of sensual landscape images and haunting indigenous music, a stunning backdrop to a subtle, powerful film.

-- Peg Aloi


Ringmaster

This amounts to an elongated episode of Jerry Springer's notorious tabloid TV talk show, where the audience gets to go behind the cameras and discover how Springer and crew panhandle for dirty laundry. The faux drama revolves around a trailer-trash mom, her fellatio-feasting daughter, the man of the trailer (the employment-challenged stepfather, whom they both sleep with), and the farm-boy fiancé -- who unwittingly takes his fiancée's diaphragm for a test drive with his mother-in-law-to-be. That's good enough to get them on Springer's show, along with a couple of hip-hop sisters from Detroit who have dogged their best friend's man. Things get even dicier when the rednecks and the Motown crew get set up in the same LA hotel, where a whole lot of bed games and selfish depravity goes down.

Fans of Jerry will be ecstatic over the unbridled use of profanity and gratuitous servings of T&A. The writers even try to make the trashy characters likable, though everyone dwells at the same level of contemptuous amorality. But the most reprehensible act in the film comes from Springer himself: not his being in bed and having sex to his favorite episode, or his weary, "above it all" scowl, but his outburst of moral vindication in the wake of an emotional fracas that was carefully incited by his salacious muckraking.

-- Tom Meek


Home Fries

The greatest suspense in this dunderheaded romantic comedy comes from trying to guess what Drew Barrymore will do next. Will she smile and bite her lip? Or will she bite her lip, then smile?

Yes, director Dean Pariscot's debut reduces Barrymore to a near-parody of her sunny coquettishness. Here she waddles about as a pregnant fast-food joint worker whose middle-aged, married lover mysteriously dies. Shortly after, she crosses paths with the man's stepsons, one of whom wants to kiss her (Luke Wilson) and one of whom wants to kill her (Vanilla Ice look-alike Jake Busey).

Written by head X-Files scribe Vince Gilligan, Home Fries congeals into a pointless and predictable exercise in inanity. The Texas-set story exults in boot-slappin', suspender-snappin' stereotypes; meanwhile, the two boys vie for the affections of their mother (a shrewish Catherine O'Hara) like psychotic Smothers Brothers. Only Daryl Mitchell as a high-strung burger flipper cooks up any laughs. Otherwise, Home Fries inflicts some serious cinematic indigestion.

-- Alicia Potter


Gypsy Heart

I recall descending into the pit-like basement theater of the Boston Park Plaza for a scheduled performance last year by Omayra Amaya's flamenco troupe and thinking, "Oh-Oh! Tourist trap! Cats with flamenco boots!" Instead, I was treated to a riveting evening of virtuosic, authentic, no-compromise dance by an ensemble wildly, ecstatically emotional in their rhythmic attack -- and, in the spotlight, the queenly Omayra Amaya, a mesmerizingly gorgeous whirl of Spanish gypsy-in-motion. Bells in the rafters for this sensuous Esmeralda!

Joselyn M. Ajami does everything right in a compact 40 minutes in her excellent video documentary about Amaya, Gypsy Heart, from her proper camera placement for lots of exuberant dancing to being a back-of-the curtain witness to Amaya's heartbreak behind the performance I saw: financial loss, mental and physical exhaustion, and extreme damage to her marriage. Ajami also shows Amaya's contribution to the cultural life of Boston and Cambridge, from her spirited dance classes with flamenco amateurs to her dazzling performance at a community fair in Central Square. When toward the end of the video Amaya announces regretfully that she's leaving Boston to teach in Arizona, everyone watching Gypsy Heart will feel a pang of loss.

-- Gerald Peary


Enemy of the State

Nobody seems more concerned with civil liberties these days than Hollywood. Joining the specter of martial law raised in The Siege is the threat of government invasion of privacy in Enemy of the State, a glitzy, thoughtful, overlong paranoid thriller by Tony Scott that suffers from derivativeness and a surplus of satellite imagery, car crashes, and hammered keyboards.

Will Smith is plucky and vulnerable as Robert Dean, a smooth corporate lawyer drawn unwittingly into becoming a bastion of the Fourth Amendment. The inadvertent recipient of a tape of a political assassination plotted by rogue National Security Agency administrator Reynolds (Jon Voight, oddly resembling Ken Starr), he's stunned as his plush life collapses. He's implicated in scandal, his wife dumps him, he loses his job, his credit cards are rejected, people try to kill him. More insidious and powerful than the CIA, the NSA has access to mind-boggling espionage technology -- bugs, computers, satellites, nerdy hackers -- that make every citizen's life a Truman Show.

Only Brill (a crotchety Gene Hackman) -- a shadowy surveillance expert -- can help Dean fight back. Enemy's debt to Coppola's brilliant The Conversation is acknowledged not just by the casting of Hackman but by a painstaking, if gratuitous, re-creation of that film's opening scene. Wim Wenders is less lucky, though Gabriel Byrne from his The End of Violence -- which Enemy copies in style and subject -- has a bit part. And Scott filches from himself with the True Romance-like ending. Although clever and provocative, Enemy is hardly state of the art.

-- Peter Keough


A Bug's Life

Whereas Antz finds some of its edgy inspiration in Kafka by way of Woody Allen, A Bug's Life is mired comfortably in the pastel mediocrity of Gumby. Made by the same people behind the tauter and more entertaining Toy Story, Life re-creates the treacly, sunlit world of a colony of Pez-colored, four-limbed ants whose workers' paradise is besieged by the ravages of a gang of freeloading grasshoppers. As in Antz, it's the non-regimented misfit who proves the hero. Bland Flik (voiced by Dave Foley), whose labor-saving inventions invariably backfire, seeks respect when he volunteers to journey beyond the colony to enlist some warrior insects to combat their foe. He returns instead with a company of flyspecked carnies who think they are hired to put on a show.

Shades of The Seven Samurai and The Three Amigos. Unfortunately, the film matches the panache of those two classics only when it sheds its G-rated timidity and spreads its wings a little. The carnival sequence shares some of the funky humor of the bar scene in Star Wars, but the carnival performers -- a venomless Black Widow, a Lady Bug uptight about his masculinity, a tiresome Praying Mantis magician -- have little bite. The less wholesome bugs have a lot more sting -- Hopper, the Grasshopper chieftain, is suavely articulated by Kevin Spacey. And the houseflies end up with the best line -- "Who ordered the pupu platter?"

-- Peter Keough



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