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*** (Out of four), 19 November 2000

Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to fame playing the immortal Terminator, a character with the emotive skills of a mop. Why, then, does he appear so effective in roles like "The Sixth Day"? Here he's an everyman-type (albeit with a much larger body frame) who loves his wife, adores his child, and even has a bonding moment with a cat. What's happened to everyone's favourite Uebermensch?

"The Sixth Day" presents Schwarzenegger as an eager family man in "the very near future" with a healthy helicopter-piloting job on the side and a sick dog on the couch. Although Arnie pilots state-of-the-art chopper/plane hybrids while his partner (Michael Rapaport) talks about the benefits of his virtual-reality girlfriend whose vocabulary rarely exceeds bad double entendres, his thoughts focus less on his maneuverablity than on the moral trepidations of ordering a genetically cloned dog after the original is put to sleep.

The movie then progresses into mayhem as Ah-nuld exchanges places with his partner on a helicopter trek overseen by a malevolent geneticist (Tony Goldwyn). The partner's killed, Ah-nuld's cloned, and the real Schwarzenegger comes back to his house with a creepy "syn-pal" baby doll and discovers his clone has replaced him as head of the household.

"The Sixth Day" erupts into a display of laser-fights, political commentary and of course, Schwarzenegger's surprisingly deft comic skill. Inevitably Ah-nuld meets his clone, and as they join hands to stop the evil geneticist with a fetish for playing God, the result seems less like a narcissistic bargain (two-Arnies-for-the-price-of-one!) than an opportunity for the Austrian strongman to send his own image up yet again ("Last Action Hero" attempted to do this seven years ago, albeit less successfully).

The fascination with the best Schwarzenegger movies is not in the choreographed action ballet that he provides, but in the sound philosophical explanations resonating below the violence, presenting a mirror of the conflicts of the age. "The Terminator", released in 1984, demonstrated the futuristic uncertainty of the Cold War, while its 1991 sequel offered a more optimistic outlook as the Soviet bloc collapsed. 1990's "Total Recall" set the tone for the cynical psychology that would pervade the ensuing decade; even "True Lies" had something to say about marital rejuvenation. "The Sixth Day" addresses the cloning wars with direct parallels to the abortion debate; in the film's case, the "Fundamentalists" who oppose genetic cloning use violence as a weapon to get their message across. A subplot involving Schwarzenegger's indulgence for a good cigar in a society where tobacco is illegal reminds one either of the increased fervour of the tobacco companies' prosecution or the current outcry for marijuana legalisation.

This is the second Schwarzenegger film that offers a showcase role for a former "Godfather" player. "Eraser" had James Caan; this has Robert Duvall. Playing a genetic engineer who justifies his profession through the constant resurrection(s) of his disease-ridden wife, Duvall's wrinkled face brings an unexpected amount of emotion to the film. His presence within the film connotes that either his judgment of a good script is deteriorating (like "The Scarlet Letter") or Schwarzenegger is picking his projects with a keener emotional maturity than before. This time I'd opt for the latter.

In the end, "The Sixth Day" belongs on the second tier of Schwarzenegger opuses. Less intoxicating than his earlier action-packed romps but with more coherence than anything he's made in the last six years, the movie provides a little extra serving of philosophy to wash the curiously stale PG-13 battle scenes down. Indeed, as demonstrated by this and last year's "End of Days", Schwarzenegger has been trying to broaden his range as an actor. Whereas "End of Days" misstepped in trying to pair him with an absurd Satanic struggle, "The Sixth Day" finds just the right balance. Like "Total Recall", this is the kind of film that is less a "Schwarzenegger vehicle" than an action film where Schwarzenegger is just as incidental as everyone else.

**** (Out of four), 9 November 2000

"Some guys have all the luck/ Some guys have all the fame/ Some guys get all the breaks/ Some guys do nothing but complain." --Rod Stewart

Ah,the 80s. The decade of Reaganomics, Iran Contra, the Challenger explosion, and the emergence of AIDS. Yet Adam Sandler maintains in this movie that it was also a decade of innocence, of New Wave rebellion, of exotic pastel colors that were intentionally garish, and of Wall Street brokers who, at least if not the epitome of Republican sleaze, were the antithesis of all things romantic. It certainly is a vast generalization of an entire decade, yet in an era where "over-the-top" was not part of the national vernacular, I'm tempted to agree.

"The Wedding Singer" takes place in a New Jersey suburb in the dog days of summer 1985. It chronicles the relationship of a nuptials entertainer (Sandler) and a waitress (Drew Barrymore) who serves at his ceremonies. Sandler is engaged to the quintessential Bananarama-inspired dress fiend and Barrymore has an ineffable low-life businessman for a beau. Together they figure out, through the course of the movie, how right they are for each other.

Movies like "The Wedding Singer" should not be judged by storyline alone. Nor should they be analyzed through such dire necessities as screenplay, set design (although the movie's is fabulous), cinematography, or out-and-out "acting". The film is a nostalgia piece, an "American Graffiti" for the 80s child, and while those cynics out there (paging Roger Ebert) are tempted to dismiss it as another hodgepodge of geriatric love cliches, those who grew up and fell in love with life during this era will most likely smile when the John Hughes-esque villain gets his comeuppance, or when the "unattractive" teenager gets to dance with the beautiful girl, or when a pre-wedding montage is set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True".

I was a small little ball of wonder during the 80s, and indeed the terms "cocaine", "narcissistic" and "Nirvana" were inutterably foreign to me. Yes, I wrote letters to Punky Brewster, I danced to such trendy acts as Nu Shooz, and I went to a Midwestern drive-in where silly sci-fi's like "Lifeforce" played while the speakers blared Stacy Q songs during intermission. "Childhood" would be one way to describe it; another would be "magic".

"The Wedding Singer" placed me into that state of mind, so much so that I felt depressed after reality hit me with a swift uppercrust as I slogged out of the theater after seeing this the first time. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore were nothing but a gawky high-school nerd and a drug-addicted child starlet during the "real" 80s, yet they retained a love for the decade that shows up in this movie. The 80s may have been garish and embarrassing for some, yet it remained primarily the last decade where America functioned as a whole, rather than being split down the middle with "independent" subgenres in the worlds of politics, film and music. The spirit of the times reflected a "one last bash" attitude, where established songwriters like Rod Stewart produced their fluffiest hits. Some call it "selling out"; I call it having fun. "The Wedding Singer" takes a snapshot of the suburban innocence of an era, where cynicism had yet to filter into the middle class. Girls just wanted to have fun, computer geeks had yet to make their millions, and boys had a crush on either Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy. Ebert asks if the screenwriters ever stopped to think about the plot of this movie; no they didn't, Roger. That would have brought in all of the unpleasantries of the decade. For those of us far away from it all, "The Wedding Singer" is how we twenty-somethings like to remember our childhood: sweet, beautiful and substantial.

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**** (Out of four), 24 October 2000

Ah, "Saturday Night Live". One of those recurring thorns-in-the-side that, like a fine wine, grows better with age. I remember my first SNL-induced experience, as a young nine-year-old ball of innate curiosity catching a first-run episode hosted by Wayne Gretzky and the Fine Young Cannibals that featured the first of many laugh riots in the form of a "Wayne's World" skit. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's irrepressible twosome challenge Gretzky to a hockey duel, the reward being Gretzky's wife. As the skit developed, I began to chuckle profusely at the absurdity of a Gen-X slacker with the requisite Led Zeppelin fascination and long hair protruding inelegantly from his hockey mask challenging a jock of such golden-haired charm and lean affability as Gretzky. I then burst into uproarious laughter as the "hockey game" highlights were intercut with a static framing of Gretzky's wife looking lovingly on as Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" played on the soundtrack. Of course Wayne scores (both literally and figuratively), Gretzky is stuck in a loser's dementia, and Garth moves his hands to denote the wipe that so clearly distinguishes this dreamworld from the character's alternate reality.

Yet in the end "Saturday Night Live" has become in itself an alternate reality, a way for teenage homebodies to rationalize spending an hour-and-a-half watching television on a non-school night while their more popular peers engaged in drinking parties they probably wouldn't remember the next morning. I started watching these episodes during the autumn of 1989, and thanks to SNL I learned what "masturbation" was (from the parody "Attack of the Masturbating Zombies"), was able to display my "coolness" quotient in school by describing a Nirvana performance I saw, and told my younger sister I knew who Adam Sandler was years before "Big Daddy" (or "Billy Madison", for that matter). I admit the early episodes were pioneering, yet I find the fondest memories from the 1989-98 years. During my middle school years, my friends and I would gather around the water fountain during Monday morning homeroom and recite our favorite lines from approximately thirty-six hours before (for some reason, the biggest laugh always used masturbation as a punchline, a la Christopher Walken to Julia Sweeney: "I think of you when I masturbate"). For years I garnered my newsfix not from Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, but from Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon and Norm MacDonald. As this same pack of Monday-morning friends grew into a close-knit group of high school loners, the one thing we shared in common was a Saturday-night gathering where we would watch the ABC Saturday Night Movie, Mad TV and SNL all in rapid succession. We discovered alcohol during these years, and I, thanks to a little movie called "The Wedding Singer", went on an 80s kick that I have yet to fully outgrow. The skit with Goat Boy--"Hey, Remember the 80s?"-- was one of my favorites during this period.

The inevitable happened two years ago, as I packed up for college and said goodbye to Monday-morning conversations and Saturday-night gatherings with the same group of people. I saw them recently a few months ago, all ironically enraptured in a disposable SNL-related film vehicle, yet the sense of camaraderie was not there. Frazzled about the loss of youth, I sat forlornly this summer by the tube on another restless Saturday evening and watched a rerun where Garth Brooks plays an aspiring songwriter who sells his soul for the ability to record a hit. Will Ferrell shows up as Lucifer, decked out with horns and heavy-metal regalia, all the while strumming corny ballads that would've been out-of-place at a Poison reunion tour. I laughed long and hard; "Saturday Night Live" had comforted me again. And yet, I thought to myself, perhaps this is not a good thing...

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*** 1/2 (Out of four), 11 October 1999

Fairy tales are measured upon a sense of humor too sophisticated for its core audience but just self-reverential enough to entertain adults. Although "The Dark Crystal" takes itself perhaps just a bit too seriously for its own good, it doesn't affect the overall quality of the film. Directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz have exhaustingly combined their resources to result in one of the most visually remarkable landscapes, puppetry or otherwise, to have ever graced the wonders of the celluloid strip.

The film follows the misadventures of a heroic fawn-like character named Jen, a "gelfling" raised by the righteous Mystics during a time of darkness. Indeed as the film begins Jen is advised by his shaman-like surrogate father to retrieve the crystal shard to restore a sense of good to the universe. Unfortunately his efforts are blocked by the evil ostrich-like Skepsiks, slovenly overgrown dodos in opulent dress which remind us of the surreal vision behind Henson's imagination. With the help of a senile old lady witch-doctor who looks inspired more by the drawings of Gerald Scarfe than by the cutesiness of Henson's Muppets, Jen embarks upon a tale told a thousand times before but hardly with as much visual panache as attained here.

As the movie progresses, we are introduced to even more ornate caricatures. Of course there are the enchanting female gelfling Kira and her small Toto-like pet (inevitable reminders of "The Wizard of Oz"), a creature resembling a carnivorous plant whose digestive stomach lies embedded in the ground (one of the most wonderful effects I've ever encountered in cinema), and a bunch of beetle-like captors whose appearance in the film continues the comparison to "The Wizard of Oz" in their purposeful similarities to the flying monkeys.

Although the film cannot attain its sense of magic throughout (the ending seems perfunctory), "The Dark Crystal" nevertheless takes the casual movie-watcher to a plane so dimensionalized that it is almost a shame that latter-day movies have replaced this tangible feel with a more automated digital computerization. The film came out in 1982, and bombed badly...this is too bad, because it really is the most evident relic of Henson's bygone genius. Of course one can't blame the film, but we can blame the filmgoers of that year. This was the same year which brought us the feel-good sentiments of "E.T." and "Tootsie". Spurned were the likes of this movie, "Blade Runner" and "Pink Floyd: The Wall". The bond which links all of these films is their darkness, one which exposes the shadowy side of man's nature (or Nature in general) in an almost delicate manner. Although "The Dark Crystal" does not possess the poetic somnambulance of another overlooked children's film with dark undertones, "Babe: Pig in the City", this film would mark an extraordinary opportunity to try something new when bored by the generic harmonics of such recent Disney fare as "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

Mona Lisa (1986)
22 out of 26 people found the following review useful:
**** (Out of four), 11 October 1999

"Mona Lisa" is one of those weird Neil Jordan dramedies which resound with more ferocity upon afterthought than while actually watching it. Like "The Crying Game", I was left with no immediate impression of the movie, but days after watching it, I became haunted by the film's ingratiating reality. You can tell you're watching a good movie when you can describe it as "atmospheric" without the film trying overtly to reach for that effect.

Bob Hoskins stars as George, and as we first see him, he is lulling along a dismal London apartment neighborhood with a plastic bag and a fistful of flowers. As he reaches his destination, the audience soon realizes what a heartbroken journey this man's life has been. Indeed his good intentions at seeing his wife and daughter are mired by the wife's stubborn, yet understandable reaction of slamming the door in her ex-convict husband's face.

Soon George is hired by the callous gangster Mortwell (Michael Caine) as a chauffeur for the high-class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). He is at first repelled by the "tall black tart", as she remarks about his slovenly appearance. In a subplot structured like a revisionist feminine "Pygmalion", George is made over by the prostitute into the appearance of a "gentleman", a contempestuous appearance which only magnifies his good-hearted nature in comparison with the cold-blooded Mortwell.

Soon, however, George and Simone strike a bond seemingly based on a mutual affection for the souls lurking beneath each facade. Simone details to George an old blonde friend named Cathy still working the streets and implores him to rescue her. Jordan builds upon the elements of "Taxi Driver" here and even pays homage to that film in one scene depicting the front end of George's automobile backlit by a seedy district filled with peep shows and pedophiles.

Of course George is starting to fall for his elegant charge, but his feelings are more of a fatherly nature than anything. Simone seems to feed off this affection, as she states that she does no more than drink tea at the behest of her clients and even provides snapshots of her doing so. This is why it comes as even more of a shock to George when he accidentally discovers a porn video featuring Simone at the provocation of things which her innocent demeanor had previously rendered him incapable of imagining.

Much of "Mona Lisa" is built around human desperation, and indeed one can sense that George, like Travis Bickle or Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo", is attempting to erroneously place the puzzled-together image of the perfect woman into the jagged emotional contours of his love interest. Of course the title implies this, and Jordan reinforces this symbolization with not only the Da Vinci painting and the Nat "King" Cole ballad, but with the incandescent statues of the Virgin Mary which his friend (Robbie Coltrane) collects. This is unarguably Hoskins' best performance, in a career entirely overlooked by even the most driven of film fanatics. After roles in "The Long Good Friday", "Pink Floyd: The Wall", this, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", and the upcoming "Felicia's Journey", one can deduce the sheer emotional vicissitude which compelled him to aim for, let alone attain, the raw power that comprises his characters.

** (Out of four), 9 October 1999

Air-traffic controllers are probably one of the last candidates for cinematic enshrinement, but in Mike Newell's "Pushing Tin", these control-tower pencil-pushers finally get their due. Of course the movies have not foresworn the use of air-traffic control characters altogether: those of the movie-going public who fondly look back on Renny Harlin's action-packed "Die Hard 2" can remember the background scenery which periodically ganged up against Bruce Willis in his efforts to pop a cap in the finely-tuned proverbial asses of the elite corps using the airport operations against them. "Pushing Tin" tries to take a more realistic approach to the situation, portraying the chronic fatigue and dastardly human on-the-job interferences which even John McClane can't protect us against. It's a good idea (apparently inspired by a New York Times article), yet "Pushing Tin" has decidedly unoriginal things to say once its various protagonists leave the office.

John Cusack inhabits the high-strung, talkative liberal main character which has been his trademark performance since "The Sure Thing". Indeed he has a beautiful wife (Cate Blanchett) and a reputation for being the best and brightest of the tower, but hence it's not enough once the foreboding Billy Bob Thornton steps in. Thornton's character represents a challenge for Cusack, one that eventually relegates itself into Cusack's bed-hopping with his alcoholic loose-cannon of a wife (Angelina Jolie). Indeed, as in most movies of this calibre, such an action spells doom for Cusack's marriage, just another visible stumbling block in a comedy which applies its plot conflicts with a trowel.

Written by Glen and Les Charles (the creative forces between one of television's finest sitcoms "Cheers"), the film retains a meanderingly enjoyable tone its first hour before its mechanics set in. Indeed Cusack is a likable character, and the chemistry he exudes with his buddies seems to be genuine. But just like the inevitable sounds of a failing propellor, one begins to suspect the film's real intentions even while Jolie (a presence so dynamic she deserves more screen time than all the other characters put together) illuminates the screen.

The film builds up to its climax with--of all things-- a bomb at the airport. This is obviously where the "Die Hard" motif comes in, as I was half expecting good old Mr. Willis to burst through the door armed with a pair of tweezers and that "Sixth Sense" kid proclaiming the dead reception he prognosticates with this utter cardboard-cutout of a plot.

Mike Newell's career has been built into breathing fresh air into the most overdone of plots. His "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (though a tad overrated) used the standard romantic conception as a backdrop for Hugh Grant's bashful witticism. And his "Donnie Brasco" (one of the better recent Mafia movies) refused to simplify the guidelines of that specific genre by shaping it as a philosophic tragedy of conscience. How ironic it is, then, when he's unable to purvey the original concept of "Pushing Tin" above anything other than a standard sitcom. Of course this is understandable due to its screenwriters' backgrounds, but in the end excuses do not make up for shallowness. There's a certain preposterous ethic when making a movie about normal characters "Pushing Tin" claims to be about that requires a multitude of spice in order to render the material more palatable to Hollywood. Unfortunately, I would have virtually no problem with simply holding up a mirror to regular characters: I've always sympathized more with the disheveled guy on the sidewalk bench than any phony movie-star confection. Unfortunately, the fundamental problem with "Pushing Tin" is that it goes out on a limb looking for the extraordinary when the ordinary would have done just fine.

*** 1/2 (Out of four), 9 October 1999

While watching Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run", I was inevitably reminded of Mike Myers. Any closet fan of "Saturday Night Live" will remember Myers as the Post-Modern German Expressionist Dieter in one of the show's most bizarre creations, "Sprockets", where the characters would be garbed in tight black spandex and would implore others to "Touch my monkey!" Indeed even the Kraftwerk-like theme song of this skit in its own little way prognosticated the extent to which the Germans had revitalized themselves through their art. Of course the Germans have always been on the cutting edge of civilized culture: how else can one explain the great Germanics Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart, and to another extreme, their Austrian cousins Freud and Schnitzler? But recently their milieu has been stretching into a more experimental dabbling into the boundaries their art can push. If anything, one can call "Run Lola Run" a satisfactory entry into this fascinating German subculture from which sprang technopop and such acclaimed directors as Wolfgang Petersen and Werner Herzog.

"Run Lola Run" opens with a metaphor which would be considered cryptic if it were taken seriously: "The ball is round" and "The game lasts ninety-minutes" (well, actually only 81, but who's counting?) The gorgeous waif Franke Potente portrays the energetic Lola, a cross-blend of Japanese anime and post-modernist fashion whose frantic restlessness is called into action when her lover Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) runs into trouble when losing 100,000 DM to a subway loiterer. The camera follows Lola on three alternate realities, each dependent on how she chooses to evade the snarling dog at the corner of her apartment stairway. Whether she remains intimidated or barks back (which she literally does in one episode) determines the final fate of her ultimate destination.

Of course the plot is a loosely hinged clothesline on which to display Tykwer's breathtaking imagery. Manni owes this lost cash to a drug dealer, and it is up to Lola each and every time to bail out her boyfriend. But as long as the film seems to be breaking the cinematic narrative standard, my mind began to wander through other propositions: what would the situation be if Manni had not lost his cash, or if Lola had been able to meet the original transaction on time? All of these questions are basically fruitless, since the film's success is interdependent with the comic-book lyricism it aims for. Tykwer amalgamizes the super-heroine archetype so often found in the pages of graphic novels with a similar German stereotype emphasizing the paradoxical pseudo-masculinity of their women (indeed Potente possesses a sort of luminously chic warrior ethic which shines throughout her performance).

Indeed whereas most movies will only go so far, "Run Lola Run" relishes its own over-the-top nature. Pulsating techno-beats, the lively animation of its main character made explicit in the film's use of mixed media, and a gimmick for a plotline all point to this film's reflection of an emulation of the impatient visual style of American influences. Although this may not be a good sign for the artistic future of Germany's film industry, it certainly serves as a catalyst in comparison to the jaded assembly-line manufacturing of supposed American action movies. "Run Lola Run" is essentially exotic eye-candy with an almost disposable atmosphere, but it winks at the audience with unabandoned glee. As the film reached its third (and happiest) conclusion, I was again reminded of another Mike Myers project: "Wayne's World". That film made fun of the contrasting tendencies that separates some cinematic patrons from others: some are fans of ironic, existentialist resolutions; others like everything wrapped up in a neat little bow; and still others get a kick out of a nonsensical narrative break in action induced probably more by drug-induced hallucinations than true artistic merit. "Run Lola Run" has its cake and eats it too, and it expects its audience to do the same.

*** (Out of four), 8 October 1999

I wish I could recommend "Three Kings" more highly than I finally am, for that three-star rating does not give the film enough justice in recommending its propulsive drive and unique visual scheme. However, it seemed to me that director David O. Russell, who has previously directed a movie on incestuous relationships ("Spanking the Monkey") and a wild romp about a New York Jew romping across the country with his incompetently sultry psychologist, his nursing wife and a couple of gay police officers in the search for his parents ("Flirting with Disaster") would at least be able to milk the standard war-movie dry of all cliches with this incantation. And while a lot of it exudes the mind-blowing cinematic fascination which any movie-lover is sure to appreciate, it has some trouble reconciling the more serious elements of its plot with its own fast-paced recklessness.

George Clooney (a man who I always thought had movie-star potential, regardless of what the critics say) stars here as Archie Gates, the macho group leader of a 1991 Desert Storm platoon with multitudes of testosterone and few Iraqis to use it on. Utilizing the old saying "Necessity is the mother of invention" to the point of action, Gates takes three of his troops (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) to a destination where stolen Kuwaiti bullion awaits them. The Clooney character claims that a handful of such riches would be able to buy them happiness, and the story cuts to Wahlberg's wife and child back home and Cube's airport luggage job as a clue to how desperate these characters are.

Of course as many other war movies have told us before (albeit not in nearly as interesting a style as "Three Kings"), such a venture will prove disastrous to our protagonists. Already subjected to pulling a map out of a prisoner's posterior, the soldiers encounter a group of Iraqis whose culture proves not as barbarian as the many CNN reports inclined one to believe, as these people seem to be in the midst of a vast Western influence with boxes of stolen cellular phones and stereo systems blaring out mindless Eddie Murphy tunes of yesteryear (at one point Wahlberg's character proclaims this as "bad music" and indeed I was expecting his very own "Good Vibration" to be played for an additional ironic effect).

Inevitably the film leads to Clooney leading a group of Iraqi refugees through the desert in the Iranian borde; these scenes seem like a jarring shift of tone from the anarchic style of the film's first hour, as Clooney and the main Iraqi engage in pseudo-philosophical conversations while the rest of the cast statically stands around in circles feigning interest at the faux-wisdom of the main character's words.

And yet Russell's caustic wit comes rushing back for an utterly enjoyable, if predictable, finale which culminates in the use of a long gone Peter Cetera ballad for one of the finer uses of irony exhibited this year on celluloid. (The movie revels in portraying the distinction of the more urbane early-90s mood with its schmaltzier-in-comparison 80s counterpart.) While the film's final five minutes exhibit a "seen-that-before" kind of nobility which nary a war film has failed to employ, one can find a plethora of things to appreciate in "Three Kings".

Although David O. Russell's script finally succumbs to the very pretensions its own theme is trying to send up, at its best it is an acidic piece of writing. It is backed up by Newton Thomas Sigel's innovative cinematography, which features glorious strips of celluloid illustrating the glamorous cinematic dessert deserts have always provided, from the super-wide lensing of "Lawrence of Arabia" to the creamy mounds of sand in "The English Patient". Add a career-best performance by Wahlberg, surprisingly effective as the character with the most heart, and one could proclaim "Three Kings" as a highly effective movie.

Yet its very intentions of eliciting emotion from its audience cannot succeed with the style the film is presented in. Indeed the two halves of the film do not mesh well, and perhaps that is why so many people are labeling this movie as "weird". Many critics are comparing this film to Coppola's "Apocalypse Now": of course these claims are unfounded. "Apocalypse" operated as an entirely cerebral movie apart from the conventions of any particular genre; at times "Three Kings" shows the strain of its action-movie roots. Indeed I wish that the movie would have had the ambition of its journalist character (Nora Dunn). She shows integrity and gumption even at the most inopportune of times. One could only realize what a pioneering work "Three Kings" could have been if it would have stuck to this mentality.

Swept Away (1974)
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**** (Out of four), 8 October 1999

Oh, damn all those pretentious artistic Italian film projects of twenty-five years ago! They possess a certain freedom of dialogue which was altogether lacking in American film then and still is undeniably lacking in even the best-written States projects. Here is a very interesting little film from female director Lina Wertmueller...a film of clashing passions, yes, but also a very beautiful film with an ironic foothold on its material on one end and a dervishly melancholic view on the other.

Simply put, this film is about the hunger developed between two Italians of differing social castes. One is a bearded Communist with a serenly blue pair of eyes (Giancarlo Giannini), and the other is a spoiled, slender blonde made rich through methods of capitalism (Mariangelo Melato). Of course at first they can't stand each other, but as time goes by, the Communist lies hold of the woman (both figuratively and physically) and practically forces himself upon her.

The film reminded me of Jonathan Demme's equally overlooked "Something Wild" in the two vastly different tones of its sections which seamlessly fit together at the end. The first half of the movie portrays life aboard a yacht as the capitalist woman and her husband sun bathe on deck while those who prescribe to socialist practices do the manual labor underneath. This part of the film is as bright and witty as any I've seen, not lacking the slightest inhibition at using such words as "proletariat" and commenting on the various evils of capitalism that would scare off many an American producer when faced with a similar project.

However the dynamics of the story are soon set in place, as man and woman are placed out at sea, amidst the sparkling incandescence of the water as captured by Giulio Battiferri, Guiseppe Fornari and Stefano Ricciotte's gorgeous cinematography. Eventually they find themselves on a deserted island, where the man turns the woman's capitalism against her by making her wash his underpants for food. Later the man pushes the woman past her economic facade into a primal state of sexual ecstasy interspersed with the man's vicious slappings equating himself as the "master" over the woman. Such a film leads to its inevitable conclusion, and one finds oneself exhausted at the allegorical nature of the situation.

Although I don't look at "Swept Away" with any sort of agreement on its sympathetic view of the Communist proletariat, I find its symbolic interpretations fascinating. Indeed the movie gives capitalism the slinky, seductive form of Woman, and equates the marketplace as whorishness of the worst kind. On the other hand, the film portrays Communism as some sort of untamed beast irresistable in its muscular masculinity. As the film ends one is reminded that two different perspectives can hardly live together, but at one time they were able to coexist. Of course those sympathetic to the Communist cause have less to worry about now then they did in 1975 when "Swept Away" was released, but nevertheless it remains a mesmerizing find essaying the ideals of such a state of mind.

*** 1/2 (Out of four), 4 October 1999

Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" is one of the most sumptuously saddening looks at suburban decay ever made. Although for my money it lacks the even-handed emotional resonance of Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm", "American Beauty" one-ups the previous film by trading the irreplaceably funny Oscar winner Kevin Kline for yet another irreplaceably funny Oscar winner by the name of Kevin, Mr. Spacey. Of course many Americans have seen Spacey chew the scenery in such dynamically lively roles as "The Usual Suspects", "Seven", "A Time to Kill" and "L.A. Confidential" without ever being able to identify him by name. "American Beauty" should remedy that situation right away.

Spacey plays put-upon advertising executive Lester Burnham, a man with a penchant for masturbating in the shower, "masking his contempt for the a****les in charge" at the office and sitting spinelessly at the supper table listening to the insomnia-curing dementia of Tin Pan Alley tunes preferred by his rigid realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening). Indeed he no longer communicates with his daughter Jane(Thora Birch), a rebellious young cheerleader playing a nondescript game of follow-the-leader with her model-wannabe colleague Angela (Mena Suvari). Of course Angela awakens Lester out of the apathetic hellhole he had been entrenched in before, and with the help of his new teen-age next-door neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), Lester tries to overcome his encroaching middle age through a cycle of working out, smoking pot and fantasizing of Angela in a heap of rose petals.

Ricky's life indeed is no picnic, as he tries to escape the demented militance of his ex-Marine father (Chris Cooper) through a gallery of videotapes which include everything from a dead bird to a plastic bag blowing gently in the breeze. Although labeled as an outcast at school, young Jane looks past the superficial ramblings of her "experienced" best friend and proceeds to look beyond Ricky's initial facade.

As framed by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ("In Cold Blood"), "American Beauty" has the same falsely bright, almost dizzyingly surreal colors which have defined such similar films as "Blue Velvet" and "The Truman Show". Unlike those two films, however, "Beauty" doesn't try to evade its material through metaphor or Lynchian vision; instead, it stares unblinkingly into the lives of a group of people, each with their own little hang-ups. Indeed what forty-year old man wouldn't identify with Lester as he flips the finger to his malcontent superiors and shrugs off all responsibility in returning to that haven of simplicity, the fast-food chain? And who wouldn't admire the sheer combination of bravado and insight Ricky contains as he provides his inspiration for Lester? These identifiable characters form the core of Sam Mendes' debut film, an exquisite find which at times manages to expose an inherently mechanical processing behind its plotting through unbelievable shifts in logic. One scene in particular essays this (READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE!): Ricky's father sees what he believes is his son performing oral sex on Lester when in reality all he's doing is supplying him with pot. This is a low point of Alan Ball's screenplay, which sketches this character almost to the point of stereotype (were it not for Cooper's masterly performance, one would be inclined to write this mistake off as bigger than it is).

Yet this is one of the few flaws which periodically punctuate Alan Ball's biting screenplay. Although millions of Americans live in the suburbs even now, very few have the courage to admit their own narcolepsy resulting from such deceptive terms as "comfort". By the end of "American Beauty", Spacey's character begins to merit a sort of predestined glory which makes his inevitable destiny seem both heartbreaking and, finally,life-affirming.

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