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DECEMBER 28, 1999: 

Sweet and Lowdown

After demonstrating in Celebrity how out of touch he was with contemporary tabloid culture, Woody Allen retreats to the 1930s in his 28th feature film. Sweet and Lowdown is among the director's most negligible efforts in what has become the weakest act in a brilliant career. Allen recycles one of the conceits of Zelig in fashioning a mockumentary portrait of Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist who made beautiful music and mistreated everyone around him. Sean Penn gives his all as the irascible scuzz, and he's ably supported by Samantha Morton and Uma Thurman as the contrary women he beds, a mute laundress and a chattily pretentious writer. New to the director's artistic team, Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei swabs the film in luscious lemony tones. But the familiar whiff of late-Woody self-justification wafts over the whole affair, with Emmet claiming that a true artist can't worry about who gets hurt along his way. The waiflike Morton supplies the film's one truly magical scene. Down on her hands and knees to fix a flat tire -- on Emmet's car -- she is suddenly transfixed as he lazily spins a tune on the guitar. For a minute, you can understand how Emmet's artistry takes her to a faraway place. It's only one minute, though, and the underwritten, underpopulated Sweet and Lowdown has 94 more to fill.

-- Scott Heller


Cradle Will Rock

Given the never-ending hullabaloo over arts funding, Cradle Will Rock is timely. Writer/director Tim Robbins weaves together several stories of Depression-era New York arts battles, including Nelson Rockefeller's demolition of Diego Rivera's anti-capitalist mural at Rockefeller Center and composer Mark Blitzstein's attempt to stage his pro-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project at a time when Congress was investigating the program for its allegedly communist leanings. Robbins is capable of explaining complex political material (Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking), but here he is strident and patronizing. It doesn't help that the cast of contemporary actors seems smaller than life and that Robbins compounds the problem by reducing most of the characters to cartoons: fatuous plutocrats (including John Cusack's Rockefeller), egotistical artists (Rubén Blades's Rivera, Angus MacFadyen's boorish Orson Welles, whose actions in staging the musical were more heroic than Robbins gives him credit for), and salt-of-the-earth saints (Hank Azaria's Blitzstein, Emily Watson's Olive Stanton, the homeless waif who starred in the play). Stirring and incredible as the climactic, against-all-odds staging of Blitzstein's play is, it serves to remind (as does the film) that anti-authoritarian art is much easier to defend when the artist doesn't ruin it with shrill polemics.

-- Gary Susman


Any Given Sunday

Oliver Stone's football fantasy is in some ways a locker-room rendition of All About Eve. Dennis Quaid plays the loyal, aging quarterback, Jamie Foxx is his cocky understudy, and holding the team (the fictitious Miami Sharks, ostensibly fashioned after the NFL's notorious bad boys, the Oakland Raiders) together is Al Pacino as the old-school coach. Shades of Pete Carroll: the team struggles to make the playoffs and the coach's leadership is challenged, both on the sidelines by the flashy upstart QB and from above by the franchise's brassy new owner (a wonderfully bitchy Cameron Diaz).

Stone, for all his frenetic edginess, does a decent job of forging credible relationships among the leads -- though Quaid's QB uncharacteristically steps outside his persona to fuel the plot trappings. Foxx demonstrates a surprising range, and Pacino brilliantly toggles between tenacious warrior and beleaguered once-was. The ensemble supporting cast boasts a who's who of Hall of Famers including Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, and Johnny Unitas. Stone indulges too much of his nauseatingly grandiloquent editing style, which takes some of the zip off the gridiron action. But if Any Given Sunday isn't quite in the same league as North Dallas Forty or The Longest Yard, it's good pigskin entertainment. Be sure to stick around for the credits; that's when the film goes into OT and delivers the kicker.

-- Tom Meek


Anne Frank's Diary

Perhaps no account of the Holocaust is more universal than the diary left behind by a young girl who, with her family and several strangers, hid in an attic for more than two years, only to be captured by the Nazis. In film and stage versions of the story, Anne has always been portrayed as a meek but intelligent, well-behaved girl. Julia Wolff has made an animated version that includes some events that were originally edited out of the published diary. Wolff's version explores Anne's struggle to stand up for herself, as well as other emotional issues not portrayed in more saccharine versions. We see Anne's concern over her sister Margot's jealousy; her time with Peter, the shy teenager cooped up with them; her joy at experiencing her first period, and her frustration as she outgrows her clothing, the boredom that eclipses her fear. Most of all, the heartbreaking naïveté of a teenager whose dreams of becoming a journalist are dashed when the SS finds the family. Wolff's compositions of exteriors and interiors are painterly and evocative, and despite clumsy dialogue and melodramatic characters, this version of the Diary is moving and accessible, even though we know how it all turns out.

-- Peg Aloi


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