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DECEMBER 1, 1997: 

Beaumarchais, The Scoundrel

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais left an indelible mark on history. As a playwright he penned The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. As an adviser to Louis XV and a spy, he averted a war between Britain and France. And as a merchant, he surreptitiously supplied the American Revolutionaries with crucial arms shipments. Unfortunately the dark, lavish production by director Édouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles) isn't as titillating as its subject. The film, which unfolds during the decade preceding the French Revolution, begins as a bawdy good romp, but rather than articulating the unrest of the commoner or extolling the humorous exploits of the protagonist's womanizing ways, it wallows in the effete malaise of the bourgeoisie and a languid stagings of Beaumarchais's plays.

What keeps Beaumarchais light and engaging is Fabrice Luchini in the title role. He casts an inexorable exuberance as the morally ambiguous wit who impishly dances between the comforts of the monarchy and the politically perilous efforts to subvert its rules of censorship and birthright privileges. Sandrine Kiberlain makes a delicate addition as Marie-Thérèse, Beaumarchais's wife, and Florence Thomassin is a sassy treat as the most-desired nymphet in Versailles.

-- Tom Meek


The Rainmaker

Which do we hate more, lawyers or insurance companies? Francis Ford Coppola's genial adaptation of John Grisham's simplifies the choice by making his hero such an idealistic goodie-goodie that even he can't stand the legal profession. Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon, who comes across as a young James Stewart -- say, age 12) is a recent law-school graduate who gets his start chasing ambulances for the sleazy law office -- complete with a fish tank full of pet sharks -- of Bruiser Stone (an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke). With paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito, stealing scenes just by eating his lunch), Rudy opens up his own business, taking on bottom-feeding cases like that of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place), whose son is dying of leukemia because her insurance company refused to cover his treatment.

Call it The Infirm. Of course, the plight of the dying boy plus the plush corruption of the insurance company's attorney (a splendidly oily Jon Voight) transforms Rudy into a crusader. Coppola manages to subdue the melodramatics and platitudes and shameless sentimentality with as much cornpone -- a derelict car in a backyard harboring cats, Dean Stockwell as a catarrhal hanging judge, and Rudy's sardonically drawled voiceover narrative, written by Michael Herr -- as was dished out in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's slight material, certainly not sufficient to carry the domestic-violence/love-interest subplot involving Claire Danes as a battered young wife. Even Coppola slumming (and what else has he done in the past two decades) is worth a look, however -- the work of a once world-class filmmaker deserves respect.

-- Peter Keough


Never Met Picasso

This is a sweet and generous first-time feature by local writer-director Stephen Kijak, and thoroughly professional. But it suffers fatally from the thinness of its narrative. Not that much is supposed to happen in this story of lethargic gay slacker Andy (Alexis Arquette), who lives with Mom (Margot Kidder) and whose oil paintings are blocked. He obsesses about being rescued by a mail contest that would allow him to paint away in Kenya. Unfortunately, his floundering is neither funny nor saddening. You're not likely to care whether Andy can achieve his art, or whether his love relationships fail or succeed.

For a time, Andy has an affair with a bearded, pompous historian returned from Poland (Toronto actor Don McKellar), but in Kijak's treatment it's hard to tell whether their coupling means anything. It simply passes time in the movie. Ditto a relationship between Andy's lesbian pal Lucy (Georgia Ragsdale) and her spacy, channeling girlfriend Ingrid (Onewenne). Ditto Lucy's eventual cruising of Andy's actress mother.

There are some humorous moments surrounding Mom's Off Boston stage production of The Naked Tenor. What Kijak's film establishes best is the rapport between Andy and his equally dreamy gay uncle Alfred (the ART's Alvin Epstein), who's also a painter. Alfred invents for himself a life in Paris in the '20s, though as the title insists, he "never met Picasso." Just as his nephew, stumbling about Boston, never met Basquiat.

-- Gerald Peary


Mortal Kombat: Annihilation

Forget the good guy's tournament victory in the first Mortal Kombat. For some inexplicable reason, Kahn (Brian Thompson) has broken the omnipotent Elder God's rules, and he's promising the end of the world in six days. For some other inexplicable reason, our pack of heroes, including the new Jax (Lynn Red Williams) in the role of Black Guy ("You want to go to Kahn's crib?"), aren't yet ready for battle alone. So who's going to help save Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto) from the clutches of Kahn and her evil mother, Queen Sindel (Musetta Vander)? Lord Rayden (James Remar) is up to the challenge, but that means he must relinquish his powers and become mortal (we've run out of inexplicable reasons, so you'll have to supply your own). Meanwhile, the seductive Outworld refugee Jade (Irina Pantaeva) says she wants to help the cause, but we have our doubts. In the end, of course, it all comes down to one thing -- tourney champ Liu (Robin Shou) engaging in Mortal Kombat!

True to the video game on which it's based, Mortal Kombat Annihilation features evil ninja monsters popping out of nowhere. If at first these villains appear absolutely unbeatable, just wait a minute and you'll see them cower before our determined, team-oriented good guys. An eight-year-old walking out of the theater filed this review: "That was the bomb!"

-- Mark Bazer


Forgotten Silver

This inspired mockumentary comes to us courtesy of New Zealand director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures). Appearing on camera, the beerhall-bellied Jackson immodestly claims to have discovered the missing works of a New Zealand silent-film director who rivals America's champ, D.W. Griffith, for his astounding artistic output. We're talking the amazing Kiwi auteur Colin McKenzie.

The movie is filled up with straight-faced pseudo-interviews with stolid New Zealanders tracing McKenzie's nonpareil career, in which he discovered sound and color long before their time. There are also pseudo-testaments to McKenzie's international stature, including talking-heads words from movie historian Leonard Maltin and Miramax Films boss Harvey Weinstein. Forgotten Silver climaxes on Jackson's H. Rider Haggard-like trip into the New Zealand deep to uncover the lost cine-city constructed by McKenzie for his silent masterpiece, New Zealand's bombastic answer to Griffith's Intolerance. It's Heart of Darkness lite.

-- Gerald Peary


Flubber

The new Flubber started out as fun. The film's promoters sent out containers of green gunk and a press kit with a spring-loaded Flubber on the front. Hours of enjoyment can be had by just flicking the little critter around. The film itself -- Disney's remake of its 1961 hit The Absent-Minded Professor -- is considerably less entertaining.

Robin Williams plays an inventor so scatterbrained he forgets to show up for his own wedding, but so inspired he invents Flubber, a form of pure, mischievous energy that can endow anything it touches with the gift of flight. As soon as Williams sets his goo loose on the world, mirthful chaos is inevitable.

Flubber, though, seems to have been coated with a substance of entirely opposite qualities. Every joke rises like a bag of wet sand; every flight of fancy seems weighted with a ballast of crap. The only real laugh comes when Williams kneels sobbing over the battered casing of his computerized companion, Weebo. Otherwise, this "comedy" is a sad, sad affair.

-- Chris Wright


Bent

Years before the actual Holocaust, Hitler re-enacted an obscure German law declaring homosexuality illegal. His Gestapo stormed Berlin, murdering and imprisoning those who "disobeyed." Bent unspools the story of Max (Clive Owen), a suave Jewish playboy who breaks this statute by tumbling into bed with a German soldier. He's captured and tossed on a train to Dachau, where he's driven to near-insanity by the Nazis' torture. But Max survives the train journey with the help of a sparrow-like boy (Lothaire Bluteau) whom he meets again in the labor camp. Although the prisoners are barely allowed to speak to one another, never mind touch, the two fall in love.

First-time director Sean Mathias, who directed the award-winning play of the same name, conjures images of jolting intensity. The opening bacchanal (featuring a lithe-limbed Mick Jagger in drag) smolders with reckless lust and brandied decadence. In contrast, the labor camp chills with near-monochromatic austerity -- often these scenes include just Owen, Bluteau, and two piles of rubble. Yet the film's painfully stagy script usurps its visual power. The men sound more formal than fervent, as if they were belting their lines to the back row. In a story that upholds passion as the key to survival but emits no palpable heat, Bent educates but doesn't awe.

-- Alicia Potter


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