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FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

The Replacement Killers

Hong Kong's Chow Yun-Fat is surely the most charismatic actor on the planet. Even in such by-the-numbers fare as The Replacement Killers, his star quality is apparent. The leading man of such John Woo favorites as Hard Boiled and The Killer, Chow makes his American debut in this vehicle produced by Woo but directed by first-time feature director Antoine Fuqua, who shot the gothically grim music video for Coolio's Gangstas Paradise. As the title suggests, Fuqua xeroxes Woo's style (his Peckinpah-esque staging of balletlike violence), but without Woo's depth of feeling (his Sirk-like spectrum of operatic emotion).

Still, Replacement is a decent introduction to the magnetic Chow, in a typical role as a hitman with a conscience. Sent by a Chinese-American crimelord to kill a Los Angeles cop's little boy (in revenge for the cop's killing of the gangster's adult son during a drug bust), Chow decides instead to hightail it back to Shanghai and protect his own family from the boss's wrath. He enlists the help of a passport forger (Mira Sorvino), who soon finds herself on the lam with Chow. No time in this brisk thriller for romance; Sorvino's underwritten dyspeptic-buddy character is just along for the ride. This is Chow's show, and even amid the picture's relentless gloom and bombardment of clichés, his subtle fury and eerie grace hold the screen. Let's hope Hollywood lets him stretch next time.

-- Gary Susman


Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End

The creation of an identity for those whose nature is denied by society is the problem at the heart of Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End. Shot over three and a half years, right up to the author's death from AIDS in 1995, it's largely a talking-heads memoir featuring interviews with Monette and his family and friends. Although conventional in form, Monette is subversive in content and triumphant in spirit, demonstrating how a person of courage and genius can transform plague, prejudice, grief, and illness into a testament to the human spirit.

"Paul wrote because he wanted to be a writer," recalls one speaker. "He didn't at first have anything to say." That's not quite true, as the film points out: Monette was reluctant to defy the strictures of society and write about who he really was. That wouldn't happen until the early '70s, when his novel Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll established him as a gay writer. But it wasn't until his long-time companion died, in the '80s, that he began to write about what most deeply afflicted him: the scourges of AIDS and homophobia.

His last books, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, the National Book Award-winning Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, and the posthumous Sanctuary: A Tale of a Life in the Woods, recorded for today and posterity the ordeals and triumphs of the gay struggle for freedom and vindication. The extent of his success and those of his fellow gay artists and filmmakers will depend in part on whether the current love affair with things gay is an exploitative fluke or an expansion of awareness.

-- Peter Keough


Ma vie en Rose

Why is it that so many films about being different are all the same? French director Alain Berliner's often cloying trifle Ma vie en Rose has a lot of the right ideas but dresses them up in such flimsy, feel-good frills and candy-colored flights of fancy that he softens them to a powder puff.

Ludovic (Georges DuFresnes) is a young boy who believes he's a girl. He dresses up in his mother's clothes and proposes marriage to a another little boy, which does not go over well since his neighborhood is a stereotypically uptight, conformist suburb and the other boy is the son of his father's boss. His parents, though, prove extraordinarily tolerant of his gender preference, to the point where Ludovic's search for self-expression seems more like self-indulgence. Ma vie en rose creates some emotional involvement as the family begins to break down under the social pressure, but as with the Barbie-like Pam doll about whom Ludovic has charmlessly kitsch fantasies, Berliner finds too-easy refuge from its tough issues in glib camp and political correctness.

-- Peter Keough


Illtown

This ambitious third feature from Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity, New Jersey Drive) is a surreal exploration into a neon South Florida world of stylish drug pushers and junkies. It's told in a languid, abstract way that conjures up an often hypnotic mood -- but mostly it just feels self-conscious. Michael Rapaport is a veteran drug dealer who wants to escape the addiction business and settle into family life with his pregnant girlfriend (Lili Taylor). Naturally his fellow dealers have other ideas. Gomez, whose previous efforts were more straightforward Scorsese-inspired forays into gang-related crime, infuses Illtown with jump cuts, a confused nonlinear narrative, and sequences that may or may not be dreams. In stylistic terms, this is the type of modern gangster film that Antonioni or Buñuel would have made. Gomez, though, isn't quite up to their caliber.

-- Danny Lorber


Four Days in September

Brazil's official entry for the 1997 Academy Awards, Four Days in September, is the kind of controlled, ideologically coherent, true-to-history political drama nobody makes any more. Filmmaker Bruno Barreto (Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands) returns to 1969, when a group of idealist college-age citizens, revolted by life in a military dictatorship, went underground and formed a Marxist guerrilla cadre called the October 8 Revolutionary Movement. At first they robbed banks. Then they kidnapped the American ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick, and held him captive, demanding the release of 15 political prisoners.

Barreto sticks close to the life of one of the kidnappers, Fernando Gabeira, which may explain why the scenes among the young revolutionaries feel so credible, and so claustrophobic. Particularly effective is actress Fernanda Torres as Comrade María, the most strident and ideological of the cadre. There's also a winning performance by American comic actor Alan Arkin as the Republican ambassador, who proves a model prisoner.

The real-life Gabeira suffered many years of forced exile, and menial jobs, for his part in the kidnapping. Today he's an active member of Brazil's Green Party and an avowed pacifist. Ambassador Elbrick has died in the interim, but his daughter stated at a Four Days press conference at last year's Berlin Film Festival: "My father felt close to those who abducted him. He was treated well. He was impressed by their idealism and felt an enduring connection."

-- Gerald Peary


Desperate Measures

Unlike recent failures to script scheming psychopaths and their nemeses (Kiss the Girls, Switchback), Barbet Schroeder's Desperate Measures offers a viscerally engaging bad guy and gives him intellectually engaging things to do. The screenwriter, of course, intended us to empathize with FBI agent Frank Connor (Andy Garcia), whose kid has leukemia. Naturally an urgent marrow transplant becomes necessary, and naturally the only genetic match is maximum-security offender Peter McCabe (Michael Keaton), who has enough jail time to last him well into the afterlife. McCabe agrees to the transplant, gets transferred to the hospital, and plots a brilliant escape from the ER. Connor's dilemma: if he -- or anyone else -- kills McCabe, his son may die.

We may feel for Connor, but this is McCabe's story. Keaton shows a maleficent strength when he's mobile (igniting ER personnel, taking the random hostage, etc.); when he's subjected to Schroeder's soul-probing close-ups, however, he can't quite maintain his hollow gaze or relay that freak spark of humanity. Still, analyzing Keaton's struggle with McCabe's moral void is more involving than the spectacle of Garcia choking back tears and then trying to justify breaking every rule in the FBI handbook. It's fun to watch Keaton swim in uncharted thespian waters, if only to see whether he'll drown.

-- Robert Furlong


Deep Rising

Another pleasure-ship disaster flick -- they had no choice but to hype this one with the phrase "And you thought the passengers of the Titanic had problems . . . " But a shady, self-serving ship owner, a band of torpedo-wielding terrorists (most of them foreign, of course), a sexy woman jewel thief, and a number of gigantic, super-intelligent bloodthirsty sea monsters can't match the villainy of a good old-fashioned iceberg. Neither can they stop Deep Rising's hero, Finnegan (Treat Williams), a bland version of Han Solo with his own piece-of-junk vessel and an all too goofy sidekick (Kevin J. O'Connor) who talks exactly like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. All the humans, in fact, plus a subplot about how the ship owner, Canton (Anthony Heald), is trying to pull an insurance scam, just weigh down credible performances from some genuinely spooky and disgusting monsters. And in case you thought Hollywood was running out of ideas: these monsters don't eat humans -- they drink them, leaving far too many blood-stained skeletons lying on deck.

-- Mark Bazer


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