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DECEMBER 14, 1998: 

Waking Ned Devine

Struck perhaps by the spectacle of naked old men riding a motorcycle, the distributors of Waking Ned Devine hope to have another Full Monty on their hands. This Irish tall tale has neither the comic nor the social edge of that hit, but it does sport a pair of genial performances. Sweetly cunning Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and sweetly gullible Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly) are trying to learn who among the two-digit populace of their tiny coastal village has won the National Lottery. Their ruses include sending invitations to a chicken dinner that gathers the usual local eccentrics: an elderly shopkeeper with the hots for Michael; a single mother and her pig-farmer suitor, who smells of his trade; an arrogant big-city returnee; and a nasty crone in a wheelchair. Only old Ned Devine is missing, and our heroes' ploys to separate him from his ticket range from the mordantly hilarious to the tiresome. Although framed by a prologue and a coda that are small comic gems, and sparked by the breezy charm of the two leads, Ned Devine mostly just lies in state.

-- Peter Keough

Somewhere in the City

Based on Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths and writer/director Ramin Niami's own experience of living in the Big Apple, Somewhere in the City plays for dark comedy as it follows the depraved, intertwined travails of residents in a Lower East Side tenement building. The offbeat cast of characters includes a loquacious therapist looking for Mr. Right (Sandra Bernhard looking strained against her persona), a subdued Chinese immigrant (Bai Ling) trying to arrange a fixed marriage in order to obtain a green card, a sexy maid (Italian bombshell Ornella Muti) who for some reason services the building's fat slob of a superintendent daily, the dapper thief (Robert John Burke) who botches every job, and a crew of revolutionaries in the basement searching for a cause.

Niami's low-budget romp offers a few peaks of smart witted humor -- be it the kidnapping of former mayor Ed Koch or Ling's English barrier with her suitors -- but for the most part it's a series of loosely connected vignettes that lack character development and tempo. The film is simply a goofy house of games; as a result Somewhere in the City goes nowhere.

-- Tom Meek

Long Time Since

Remember Lindsay Crouse in House of Games? Or Greta Scacchi in The Player? Coldly beautiful, castratingly aloof, Paulina Porizkova in Long Time Since makes them look like a couple of surfer chicks. In ex-Bostonian Jay Anania's second feature, the ex-supermodel plays Diane Thwaite, a woman haunted by a violent event that occurred on New Year's Eve 24 years ago. Now a successful artist (but a repressed, uptight one who draws botanical specimens for scientific journals), Diane becomes increasingly distracted as sensory fragments of that night begin to coalesce. She leaves messages on someone's (boyfriend's? therapist's?) voicemail describing dreams full of symbols; she ponders whether that horrific night in 1972 was merely a dream she had. But Diane's search (including an unconvincing session with a hypnotherapist) leads her to the brooding, solitary man (Julian Sands, less affected -- and thereby handsomer -- than usual) whose wife and infant daughter disappeared that night.

Anania's command of image and sound is impressive, with lilting a cappella strains of "Auld Lang Syne" punctuating Diane's dreams and snippets of memory. His clean, simple, often arresting mise en scéne conjures Mapplethorpe or Derek Jarman and sometimes resembles what a bloodless, sexless David Lynch might see. But the acting, perhaps intentionally, is excruciatingly soulless -- which makes this film about memory one that is memorable for the wrong reasons.

-- Peg Aloi

Les Milles

The French don't have a lot to look at with pride when it comes to the fate of their Jews in World War II. Sébastien Grall's engrossing if halting 1995 film Les Milles might ameliorate that image a little.

Based on a fascinating historical footnote, Grall's movie tells the story of the title camp, in which refugees from German aggression (including such cultural figures as the painter Max Ernst) were held in the days before and after the Nazi invasion. The camp is a logistical and political embarrassment for the French, who are torn between setting the enemy nationals free and releasing them to certain death at their countrymen's hands.

The problem becomes a low priority when the blitzkrieg slashes through the Maginot Line and Commandant Charles Perochon (a masterful Philippe Noiret, conveying both officiousness and essential decency), a Great War veteran drawn out of placid bourgeois retirement, is left to dangle in the wind as the military bureaucrats cynically abandon him. No Schindler in charisma, Perochon proves nonetheless resolute and resourceful as he endeavors to load his inmates on a train and deliver them to possible safety. It's a more rigorous version of Von Ryan's Express, but less thrilling, as the director sacrifices suspense for longueurs of thoughtful dialogue and unclear exposition. Nonetheless, Noiret's performance is heartfelt, unsentimental, and humane, embodying, in a complement to Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, the banality of good.

-- Peter Keough

Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth

Lenny Bruce's reputation as a visionary comedian has been all but overshadowed by his legend as a free-speech martyr. Unlike his progeny -- George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne -- Lenny left no defining document of his work (his was the era before the HBO Comedy Special). So latter-day fans have to construct a composite Lenny -- from his sanitized albums (available on Fantasy), his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bob Fosse's pious bio-pic with Dustin Hoffman, Albert Goldman's jazzed-up biography Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!! (both from 1974), and a couple of sketchy documentaries.

Robert B. Weide's Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth offers the most complete film Lenny yet: with rare footage from the comedian's early career and interviews with Sally Marr (his über-Jewish stage mother) and Honey Harlow (his stripper wife, a shiksa icon in his autobiography and in the Fosse movie, but here somewhat woozy and opaque) plus lawyers, managers, even a prosecutor from the New York DA's office that managed to convict Lenny of obscenity in 1964 -- and ended his career. But there's only a flash of what Lenny fans might hope for in some previously unshown footage from the Steve Allen TV show (it was never aired). Here's Lenny as we imagine him: hot, hip, and darkly handsome, oozing confidence and charisma, spieling in a beat-perfect rhythmic patter, a Jewish-American prince of comedy.

Unfortunately, aside from Marr, there's not another great character in the movie. You can see that Bruce didn't help himself in the last two years of his life (he was drug-addled and paranoid and insisted on taking charge of his own legal affairs). But just as clearly you can see how methodically he was hounded by the legal system (he was once arrested for saying "schmuck" on stage), until he died of a drug overdose in 1966, at the age of 40.

-- Jon Garelick

Jack Frost

The idea of a magical snowman befriending a child during the holidays is cute -- and it's the cartoon Frosty the Snowman. The idea of kid's dead father coming back to life in the form of a snowman is unfortunate -- and it's director Troy Miller's new movie. Michael Keaton is Jack Frost, a struggling musician who's been neglecting his familial duties in order to make it in the biz -- until he dies in a car crash. When he returns from beyond as a chunk of packed snow -- which his son, Charlie (Joseph Cross), builds in the front yard to the beat of Stevie Nicks's "Landslide" -- he wants to make it up to Charlie by helping him beat the bullies in a snowball fight, teaching him tricky hockey shots, and other dad-like duties. Naturally, when Jack in snowman form comes calling, Charlie acts as if Freddy Krueger were knocking at his front door, but soon he's dragging dear old dad through town on a sled, his friends joking to one another, "He's talking to that snowman again."

Despite relentless cliché and corn, Jack Frost will probably keep kids occupied -- there's a snowboarding scene with catchy music, a couple of snowball fights, and Michael Keaton coming to terms with his snowman status. ("Is it the name," he wonders? "Nah, it can't be. That isn't even clever.") But though Charlie's snowball-fight rival suggests that "a snow dad is better than no dad," a therapist might differ.

-- Rachel O'Malley

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