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JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Swept From The Sea

Based on the short story "Amy Foster," by Joseph Conrad, this adaptation by Beeban Kidron (Used People, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar) is set in 19th-century Cornwall, where storm-ravaged cliffs and windy moors provide a thrilling backdrop for the tale of a beautiful servant girl who marries a Ukrainian wayfarer. Strapping, swarthy Yanko (Queen Margot's Vincent Perez) is the sole survivor of an immigrant ship that washes up on the shores of a tiny village. He stumbles inland and onto the farm where Amy (the beguiling, otherworldly Rachel Weisz) works, and since he is filthy, raving, and speaks no English, he is believed to be a lunatic. Amy herself is thought to be a simpleton, or possibly a witch, because she rarely speaks, dances in the rain, and collects debris from the sea. They fall instantly in love but are forbidden to see each other. Kindly Dr. Kennedy (Sir Ian McKellen in a flawless performance) befriends Yanko, teaching him English. Despite being ostracized by most of the village, the two lovers eventually marry.

Although the screenplay occasionally descends into sentimentality, the film looks authentic and is brilliantly acted (though Perez's Slavic accent does falter at times). Sumptuous cinematography and a subtle, pervasive sensuality make Kidron's first foray into period drama a memorable one.

-- Peg Aloi


Star Kid

Star Kid doesn't steal from the best; it steals from everything. Spencer's a 12-year-old nobody until he discovers a cybersuit that, after a rocky start, turns him into an invincible fighting machine (The Greatest American Hero). The robot suit has a personality (Knight Rider), looks like C-3PO on steroids, and sounds like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Spencer tries to teach it how to be cool (Flight of the Navigator), though cool is a relative term, since his classmates use words like "gnarly" and "radical" (The Endless Summer).

The suit gives Spencer confidence (Teen Wolf), and he battles an evil alien in an abandoned junkyard (Superman III). After losing at first, Spencer prevails (the Rocky series), crushing the bad guy in a trash compactor (The Terminator) and summoning the suits' alien creators (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In the end, Spencer realizes that the suit is his only true friend (Terminator 2) but that even without it he's still special (Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood). Star Kid also steals from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (terrible special effects, choppy editing), My Dinner with Andre (really boring), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (it sucks). By the end the whole thing seems like highway robbery.

-- Dan Tobin


Oscar and Lucinda

Water and glass are the dominant metaphors of Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda, and though the film captures the superficial beauty of these materials, it doesn't penetrate beyond their glistening transparency. This is partly the fault of the novel, which despite its lofty themes of obsession, faith, and fate, its splendid prose, and its elfin absurdity, is essentially a lengthy caprice. Armstrong's version emphasizes the cuteness and farce at the expense of the substance.

Set in the 19th century, it's the story of Oscar Hopkins, only son of Theophilus (Clive Russell), a bearded and fulminating fundamentalist preacher in a small town on the Devon coast. In brief episodes that are among the film's most magical moments, Armstrong blithely recounts Oscar's childhood. In an astonishing scene, he pursues his father to the sea after his mother's death, where Theophilus in maddened grief hurls the dead woman's clothes into the surf -- the origin of Oscar's water phobia. Later, after being punished for eating the "Devil's food" of Christmas pudding, young Oscar determines that his father is "in error," and after a hopscotch-like exercise in thaumaturgy decides to join up with the diminished flock of Reverend Hugh Stratton (Tom Wilkinson), Theophilus's Anglican rival.

Such games of chance prove fateful for Oscar, played as an adult by a goofy, carrot-topped Ralph Fiennes. As a student at his adopted father's college in Oxford, he's introduced to gambling by Wardley-Fish (Barnaby Kay, in one of the film's few non-caricaturish supporting roles); he's a natural at it, to his embarrassment and spiritual horror. As penance, he volunteers for service in the primitive Outback of Australia. En route aboard the ominously named Leviathan, he meets his soulmate and downfall, Lucinda Leplastrier (an earthily ethereal Cate Blanchett).

An heiress who has spent her fortune on a Sydney glassworks, Lucinda shares Oscar's gambling addiction and innate nonconformity. She's a pre-feminist (she wears bloomers; when matched with Oscar in his ill-fitting hand-me-downs they look like a beanpole Raggedy Ann and Andy) whose socially unacceptable attitudes and nightlife have already earned the exile of her friend Reverend Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds) to a remote, church-less parish called Never-Never. She proves Oscar's undoing as well with their high-stakes unconsummated dalliance. Apropos of little, Oscar vows to prove his love to Lucinda by transporting a glass chapel over dangerous terrain to her seeming swain Hasset's new residence.

Such a belabored metaphor has been attempted before -- the opera house on the Amazon in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. And as in that film, the conceit succumbs to its own self-conscious contrivance. As Oscar and his party plunge deeper into the wilderness, the film bogs down in the weighty issues of imperialism and genocide -- the clash with its earlier tone of whimsical cartoonish satire is jarring. Although the epiphanic image of a somber Oscar seated in the elegant glass church as it floats down a river makes the ordeal nearly worthwhile, it's too fragile a craft for the film's weighty symbolic cargo.

-- Peter Keough


Half Baked

Part of the fun of seeing Half Baked is listening to the crowd ooh and aah every time an elaborate bong comes on the screen. "Gimme some of that," yelled one ambitious teen at this past Saturday's 1 p.m. showing at Fresh Pond, when our modern-day Cheech & Chongs opened the door to a medical-supply closet full of pot. Director Tamra (Billy Madison) Davis's film may look like a waste of time, but it stars four of the country's hottest up-and-coming comics plus a slew of cameos from famous comedians and Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tommy Chong.

Dave Chappelle (a co-writer), Guillermo Diaz, and SNL's Jim Breuer play stoners who must rescue their lovable stoner friend Kenny (Harland Williams) from prison after he kills a diabetic police horse by feeding it munchies. The plot, of course, hardly matters -- it's the fond send-up of pot culture that's right on target. Steven Wright is perfect in the role of "the guy on the couch." But there are also sexist and homophobic streaks running throughout; seeming more juvenile and ignorant than cruel, they nonetheless keep the film from being fun for the whole family. Add a mess of miscellaneous, unfunny stupidity and the movie is definitely half-baked; it's up to you to provide the other half.

-- Mark Bazer


Gummo

Written and directed by 23-year-old Kids scribe Harmony Korine, Gummo makes Kids look like Saved by the Bell. The film depicts a white-trash Midwestern town apparently cursed by God -- nothing else, not the tornadoes, not the squalor, not the parental neglect, explains why the kids are all zombies bereft of any human quality save the desire for sensation.

A plotless series of vignettes, Gummo is narrated by Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), who kill stray cats to sell to a butcher, spending their earnings on glue to sniff. With his cast of mostly amateurs, who look like the mutants of Diane Arbus photographs, Korine presents a human sideshow of equal-opportunity exploitation. The director himself plays a youth making a drunken pass at a gay black encephalitic dwarf, implying that no one, including the audience, is fit to pass judgment.

As its details accrete, Gummo (named for the forgotten Marx Brother) appears less a cynical act of calculated outrage than an affirmation that, even amid the endless spectacle of cruelty and horror, life can offer some isolated, poetic moments of weird beauty. Still, it's hard to imagine who'll want to sit through Gummo waiting for those moments to arrive.

-- Gary Susman


Fallen

Gregory Hoblit's supernatural thriller is a twist on the world's oldest excuse: "The devil made me do it." Denzel Washington plays an amiable, straitlaced detective plagued by a demon; in fact, the sadistic, singing succubus is framing him for a crime and possessing everyone who comes into contact with him -- his fellow cops, his young nephew, strangers on the street.

Fallen is based on a delightfully shuddersome premise: demons can pass from person to person when we bump into each other on the subway or shake hands. This supposition lets suspense prevail over gore for a couple of cases of real heebie-jeebies. As always, Washington delivers a valiant performance, and John Goodman tosses off amusing precinct badinage as his partner ("Someone's playing with my dick, and it ain't me," he growls).

But the film baldly rips off Seven and The Haunting for ho-hum effect. It's further bedeviled by a folksy noir voice-over, narrative dead ends, and the inevitable urge of most thrillers to hurtle into a risible, over-the-top climax. When Washington starts gibbering in Biblical tongues and pondering the Big Questions, it's high time to ring up the Exorcist.

-- Alicia Potter


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