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MARCH 23, 1998: 

Wild Things

There are more twists and turns in the steamy, hot-and-bothered Wild Things than even the lurid trailers prepare you for. High-school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) has quite the student body to deal with in South Florida's upper-crust town of Blue Bay. Dope-smoking, wrong-side-of-the-swamper Suzie Toller (Neve Campell) and social-elite prom queen/porn star Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) both cry rape and point the finger at Sam. And Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon, who also produced the movie) is on the case. But this is just the beginning of a sexy, darkly comedic suspense thriller that seems to be making fun of suspense thrillers. Jawdropping lines, cheesy threesomes, cat fights, a jungle-beat background, and a great sleazeball attorney for Sam (Bill Murray) make for an over-the-top story -- kind of Baywatch-meets-Heathers. Halfway through this quirky, self-mockingly clever roll in the hay, you'll have no idea who's going to screw who -- in any sense of the word.

-- Rachel O'Malley

The Man in the Iron Mask

Writer and director Randall Wallace's remake of the 1939 classic, itself a remake of 1929's The Iron Mask, catches up to the Musketeers in the throes of midlife crisis. With France under the tyranny of bratty King Louis XIV (a bland Leonardo DiCaprio), the retired royal guards (Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Gérard Depardieu) mope about like downsized executives. Only d'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) remains plumed as captain of the Musketeers. But just as the quartet sigh that they'll never en garde again, a risky mission reunites them: they must unlock the identity of a prisoner (an even blander DiCaprio) trapped in an iron mask.

The result is all ruff and no tumble. Surprisingly, given that Wallace wrote Braveheart, the blade clashes bore, and Dumas's tale of undying allegiance dulls into puerile farce and ludicrous derring-do. Byrne, Irons, and Malkovich are hopelessly vapid, and comic-relief Depardieu nuzzles his schnoz into too many hiked-up bosoms. Even the double dose of Leo won't keep the Tiger Beat crowd happy; his stubbleless cheeks, of course, spend much of the film behind heavy headgear.

-- Alicia Potter

The Jew in the Lotus

Writer Rodger Kamenetz was in a bad space, rejected by publishers and mourning his infant son, when a friend asked him to tag along to India and record a meeting of rabbis with the Dalai Lama. His Holiness had one key question: how did the Jews survive their exile and remain spiritually whole? Kamenetz's life was transformed after meeting the Tibetan leader; this film chronicles that transformation and Kamenetz's ultimate rediscovery of his own Jewish heritage by way of Buddhism. He also wrote a bestselling book (the weak pun of the title was appreciated by the DL) and suddenly found himself successful and sought after. You may find Kamenetz coming off as needy and self-absorbed at times, but his story is touching and powerful, particularly his exploration of his own grieving process.

Filmmaker Laurel Chiten photographs urban India with an eye hungry for hyperbole: crippling poverty and heartbreaking beauty, grand temples alongside filthy slums, starving children who are smiling and playful, astonishing images of Buddhist and Hindu culture clashing and intermingling. The ubiquitousness of the Dalai Lama in contemporary cinema notwithstanding, her film offers a special look at the exalted, exiled holy man through the eyes of a mensch who could be any one of us.

-- Peg Aloi

Mr. Nice Guy

Jackie Chan is Mr. Nice Guy, the cuddliest character in cinema today. But if he weren't so damn cute flying through the air and busting badniks like the latest video-arcade hero, his fast-paced cheesy comedy-actioners would be mere Velveeta.

Like the bulk of his flicks, this one's thin on plot but packed with goofy one-liners and visual humor that's so far over the top it out-camps the Seagals and Van Dammes. Come to think of it, those guys are serious. Sweetly smiling Chan never makes that mistake. So acting and dialogue as wooden as Washington's teeth become a standard his fans expect -- no, demand -- and reward with peals of laughter.

In Mr. Nice Guy, the fortysomething king of Hong Kong cinema plays a chef who spends so much time bouncing up walls, soaring across canals, and diving in and out of trouble that flubber must be a staple of his diet. Caught up in a struggle among a journalist, mobsters, and a motorcycle gang over cocaine and an incriminating videotape, Chan rockets through nine fight scenes. There's also a chase on a runaway horse-drawn carriage and a struggle with a Euclid dump truck -- a malevolent Tonka toy gone way, way bad -- that provides the most hair-raising sequence as Chan lies on his back pedaling his feet against a 10-foot-tall tire aiming to turn the diminutive hero into shrimp paste.

The best acting turn is a cameo by the movie's plump, pop-eyed director, fellow Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung. He plays a nosy bicycle messenger who gets slugged and run off the road by the bad bikers, but he gets his own licks and yuks in before he's done. It's a bit of comic relief in a film that's, well, all comic relief.

-- Ted Drozdowski

Mother & Son

In Russia, director Alexander Sokurov is hailed as the filmmaking heir to Andrei Tarkovsky, since he wears proudly the mantle of high modernism in his pure, rigorous, loftily ambitious exercises in visual-aural cinema. For some Westerners, however, his films are maddeningly slow and self-conscious, the most rarefied, decadent, overripe kind of "genius" elitist art. The arguments can only continue with Mother & Son, the "breakthrough" Sokurov feature that has American distribution.

As always, there's minimal dialogue, and narrative is frozen. In a mountain cabin, a mother (Gudrun Geyer) lies dying. Her devoted adult son (Alexei Ananishnov) tries to bring comfort to her final moments. In his arms, he carries his mother into nature for their last walks together. Despairing, he takes a walk alone onto mountain paths. That's all.

Expect a flushed-out story and you'll be frustrated. Agree to be transported into a cloistered netherworld of mountains-and-valleys greenery and Sokurov's film is something else! It's an extraordinary trip to a terrain of hushed mystery bobbing below your consciousness. Using anamorphic camera lenses in groundbreaking ways, Sokurov creates one of the most painterly features of all times. Mother & Son has been compared to the 19th-century German Romantic works of Caspar David Friedrich. Closer to home there's an amazing affinity to the misty forests of Boston artist Robert Ferrandini, whose ethereal landscapes are at the Naga Gallery, on Newbury Street, through March 28.

-- Gerald Peary

Moon Over Broadway

A cross between Noises Off and Faust, this delectable little documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker chronicles the fraught 1995 journey of the troubled farce Moon over Buffalo to Broadway via Boston. I admit I liked Ken Ludwig's green-room door slammer better than most critics did. But the filmmakers have succeeded in making it look almost perversely unfunny here. Which sets a mood of taut, tiptoeing backstage desperation as director Tom Moore tries to steer a diplomatic course between the shoals of megastar Carol Burnett's salvation-by-shtick approach and the deep water of playwright Ludwig's distress, while such trademark Burnett bits as Shirley Temple impersonation find their way into his limping, 1950s-set farce. The best character is co-producer Rocco Landesman, who demonstrates the nerves double dipped in drollery and steel that must be necessary in his business. Told during the New York previews that a dead body has been found draped between the roofs of the O'Neill and Walter Kerr Theatres, he replies, "It's not Tom Moore, is it?"

-- Carolyn Clay

Don't Look Back

Bob Dylan was 23 years old when D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, The War Room) accompanied him and his entourage on a 1965 tour of England and made this legendary, shaky, black-and-white, "home movie" vérité. It remains a revelation. The movie observes Bob Dylan at his most volatile -- creatively and personally -- as he was changing the face of pop music. Although he works the British tour as an acoustic solo act, he had already begun his move to electric rock (the now famous flash-card rendering of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a precursor to MTV, opens the movie). There's Dylan being bratty, taunting the press -- in one extended sequence he wails on a college newspaper correspondent, in another he reduces a Time magazine reporter to a sweating mess. He faces down upstart rival Donovan in a hotel room as the two trade songs. There are great filmed performances; there's a wonderful sequence with a teenage fan. And there's the Mother of All Deals, as we watch Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, work the phones with a slimy booking agent. Don't Look Back captures the artistic and commercial birth of modern rock.

-- Jon Garelick

A Night to Remember

James Cameron's Titanic isn't the first Titanic movie. (It's not even the first movie named Titanic -- that would be Hollywood's 1953 fictionalized version of the disaster starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.) Based on the Walter Lord bestseller, Roy Ward Baker's A Night To Remember (1958) tells the story in sober, almost documentary fashion. The Brattle is showing it Oscar afternoon and evening so you can compare it with this year's likely Best Film.

Don't expect Baker's movie to blow Cameron's out of the water -- for all the meticulous detail, this Night is almost as confusing as the real one must have been. There are nearly 200 speaking parts, and hardly anyone is identified. The film jumps from the Titanic to nearby ships the Carpathia and the Californian without explanation. And the noir-like black and white gives little sense of the White Star liner's luxury. Only when everyone starts to fight over the lifeboats does the drama kick in. High marks to Kenneth More as the heroic Second Officer Charles Lightoller; to Laurence Naismith, stoic as Captain Smith; and to a pre-Man from U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum as wireless operator Harold Bride. But they'll never replace Kate and Leo.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

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