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FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

The 24-Hour Woman

From indie maven Nancy Savoca comes this hyper-real glimpse at the motherhood/career conundrum, by way of daytime television. Grace (Rosie Perez) is the producer of a quirky cable talk show called 24-Hour Woman, co-hosted by her sexy husband (Diego Serrano) and a way-too-perky sidekick (Karen Duffy). When Grace's pregnancy is announced on-air, the show's mercenary executive producer (Patti Lupone) wants it all televised, from ultrasound to breast-feeding. Ratings soar, and the show goes corporate. After a brief maternity leave, Grace returns to work but is quickly overwhelmed -- where has her orderly upscale life gone? Meanwhile, the show embraces every nightmarish cliché, from Good Morning America's chummy condescension to the pro-wrestling matches of Leeza, Jerry, and Jenny.

Perez is quite good here (not her usual profane, whining waif), and Lupone pulls out all the stops. But the chemistry between Perez and Serrano is weak (he looks a bit too comfortable in red pumps and Vamp lipstick), so the dissolution of their marriage seems beside the point. The film's strength is its funny but scathing look at the merciless gantlet endured by working mothers -- and at the self-help TV shows that love them.

-- Peg Aloi


Office Space

After the scatology and nasty attitude of his first film, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Mike Judge, creator of the original TV series as well as the more genteel King of the Hill, turns surprisingly civilized in his first live-action feature. Based on "Milton," his animated shorts that predated reigning cubicle king Dilbert in lampooning the contemporary corporate wasteland, Office Space makes a case for common decency with scarcely a fart joke or gratuitous tit shot (there's one -- a breast-cancer exam shown on TV). Sure, it's funny, but its humor springs not so much from gross-out shock as from the shock of recognition.

Most, for example, will sympathize with Judge's hero, Peter (Ron Livingston, ideal in his bewildered blandness). Lost in the partitioned rat-maze of Initech, bedeviled by his passive-aggressive boss Lumbergh (a satanically breezy Gary Cole), and haunted by the thought of doing the same job when he's 50, Peter takes advantage of a hypnotherapy session gone wrong to reclaim his life. Blessed with newfound indifference, he ignores his superiors, seldom shows up, hits on a cute waitress named Joanna (Jennifer Aniston, a plot addendum), and comes to the attention of the two consultants brought in to downsize the company. They see him as management material and have him promoted.

Midway through, though, Judge declines to make Office Space a slacker version of Being There, instead opting for a half-assed revenge of the nerds as Peter and fellow drones Michael Bolton (David Herman; and yes, the obvious jokes on the name are made) and Samir (Ajay Naidu; and no, the obvious ethnic jokes are seldom indulged) plot a computer rip-off. The real subversion, however, comes from the original Milton (Stephen Root), the ultimate persecuted Everyman. Muttering, terrified, swelling with rage and acne, he may be squeezed into the background, but he gets the last laugh.

-- Peter Keough


October Sky

This small, well-crafted coming-of-age docudrama is a real-life Revenge of the Nerds by way of Stand By Me. Set during the late 1950s in a sleepy West Virginia coal-mining community, the film revolves around a quartet of high-school geeks who, after being awe-inspired by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik, spend their after-school hours immersed in rocketry.

Based on the autobiography of former NASA technician Homer Hickam, the simplistic plot works to the film's advantage, highlighting the intimacies among the characters without getting maudlin. As the young Homer, Jake Gyllenhaal is delightfully earnest; he dreams of space flight, college, and a life beyond the suffocating confines of the coal mines that have sapped the lives of men such as his indomitable father -- played by Chris Cooper. Cooper (who was so poignant in Lone Star) is gauntly noble here as the controlling traditionalist caught between compassion and male pride as he confronts a labor insurrection at the mine and his son's break from the family path at home. Laura Dern is the schoolteacher who gives the boys the necessary encouragement to enter the big national science fair.

-- Tom Meek


My Favorite Martian

For all their bright colors and cheeriness, so many recent live-action kids' movies have been rather lifeless affairs. And let's face it, another film based on an old television show doesn't seem likely to break the mold. But as the condescending (to earthlings) but bumbling and lovable Martian "Uncle Martin," Christopher Lloyd's patented zaniness is contagious. Everyone involved, from Wallace Shawn as the neurotic, greedy scientist to Ray Walston (the original Uncle Martin in the '60s TV show) as an alien investigator, seems to have a lot of fun parodying and kid-ifying science-fiction conventions. Director Donald Petrie (Grumpy Old Men) sets the appropriate tone with plenty of immature but harmless sight gags and the most cartoonish aliens you've seen this side of the Teletubbies (Jerry Falwell, be warned). Jeff Daniels (as the news reporter who discovers Uncle Martin) and Elizabeth Hurley (as his love interest) acquit themselves respectably.

-- Mark Bazer


Jawbreaker

No gratuitously hip soundtrack, no spillage of ripe flesh, not even the screen debut of Marilyn Manson can rescue this Heathers knock-off, which sends the teen-comedy/slasher-flick revival plunging to its nadir.

In a birthday prank gone awry, snarling sexpot Courtney (Scream's Rose McGowan) and her tyrannically popular coterie (Julie Benz and Rebecca Gayheart) accidentally kill their pal (Charlotte Roldan) by choking her with the title sweet. Then, in one of many gleefully macabre, smugly self-conscious swipes at "Irony," the trio cover their stiletto tracks by making the death look like a rape/murder.

Writer/director Darren Stein, whose first film, Sparkler, also debuts this month, strains to make his parody of popularity many things -- irreverent, stylish, sinisterly comic -- yet recoils from the pathos-laced emotion that gave Heathers its bite. Palpably self-loathing and just plain unfunny, this film's as embarrassing as dropping your tray in the school cafeteria. On second thought, at least in the lunchroom, everybody claps.

-- Alicia Potter


Foreign Land

The excellent Brazilian cinema series, which plays in the next months at the MFA and the Coolidge Corner, gets off to an indifferent start with Foreign Land (Terra Estrangeira), a predictable international crime melodrama in the Wim Wenders vein (brooding characters, obsessive music, melancholic landscapes). The reason for starting with Foreign Land is obvious: this 1996 picture, which eluded American distribution, is co-directed by Walter Salles, responsible now for Central Station, which is up for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and a Best Actress nomination for its star, Fernanda Montenegro. Salles's talent is sometimes on display in the earlier film, especially in his undeniable feel for settings: much of Foreign Land takes place in Portugal, which boasts such dramatic yet underutilized backdrops as the white, hilly city of Lisbon and the dramatic cliffs towering over the Atlantic. Still, there's little that can be done with a background story of drug dealers, jewels hidden in violins, and guys with shades and ponytails on the chase. At the center is a maudlin love story, a Sleepless in Seattle tale in which a guy in Brazil (Fernando Alves Pinto), unhappy at the death of his doting mother, and a woman in Lisbon (Fernanda Torres), tired of her sordid life with a heroin addict, are going to gradually meet up. They do, they fall in love, and the bad guys chase after. Not exactly Central Station.

-- Gerald Peary



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