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MARCH 30, 1998: 

Wide Awake

Just what I need, a film that embodies two of my worst phobias in one role: Rosie O'Donnell as a nun. She's Sister Terry, a wise, irreverent nun with a sports fetish in an idealized Catholic junior high school, and like M. Night Shyamalan's Wide Awake, in which she stars, she's a lot less excruciating than expected. The film's premise sounds dreadful: cherubic 10-year-old Joshua Beal (an ingratiating up-and-comer named Joseph Cross) has a crisis of faith when his beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia) dies of cancer. Sustained by Grandpa's assurance that "God will take care of me," Joshua nonetheless wants to make sure. So he sets out to find God -- through signs, alternative religions, confrontations with his ministers on earth -- to see to it that the old man, not to mention the whole world, is still okay.

So far it sounds like something John Hughes might have pulled off after ill-advisedly attending an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. But Shyamalan, for whom this story is loosely autobiographical, glows, for better and worse, with earnestness while retaining the skewed trace of apostasy typical of Catholic-school veterans. The latter sensibility is embodied in the weirdo student whose kidnapping of a portrait of the pope leads to one of Joshua's epiphanies. It's furthered by O'Donnell, whose appearance is brief, restrained, and thornily hilarious in a tête-à-tête with Joshua about his quest.

-- Peter Keough


The Newton Boys

Director Richard Linklater, the king of the whiny but witty "hanging out" movie (Dazed and Confused, suburbia), at last introduces a Gen X ensemble with ambition to burn. As it happens, The Newton Boys is his weakest film yet.

Far from Linklater's usual turf of strip malls and tract housing, this banjo-pickin' 1920s Western resurrects the true story of America's most successful bank robbers, the Newton Boys (Matthew McConaughey, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, and Skeet Ulrich). As the brains behind this chisel-cheeked posse, McConaughey delivers a truly oily performance. In fact he's too slippery: even in the most mawkish fraternal moment, he sounds suspiciously glib.

Still, Linklater tips his 10-gallon hat to the genre with style, reveling in velvet-painting vistas, hoky opening credits, and near-sensual close-ups of the brothers' secret weapon, nitroglycerine. But for all its yee-haw antics and good-ol'-boy banter, this latest portrait of youth on the fringe is no Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's more like The Dukes of Hazzard.

-- Alicia Potter


The Leading Man

John Duigan, the Aussie auteur of such quirky bits as Sirens, Flirting, and The Wide Sargasso Sea, adds to his eclectic résumé with this pouty drama about a theater troupe and its emotional entanglements off stage. Felix Webb (Lambert Wilson), "England's greatest living playwright," has immersed himself in the casting process of his latest piece in order to be near his mistress (the sensuous Thandie Newton), a relatively unknown actress in contention for a leading role. Meanwhile his wife (Anna Galiena), a once aspiring playwright, simmers in emotional and physical neglect. Robin Grange (rocker Jon Bon Jovi), a brash American movie star cast in the title role of Felix's play, offers to free Felix of his marital obligations by seducing his wife. But after Felix reluctantly agrees, the dubious agenda of his "leading man" tears at the heartstrings of all involved.

Virginia Duigan's script lays a provocative foundation; unfortunately Bon Jovi lacks the requisite range and physical emotion to propel the plot. He's stiff in a fluid role, and the situation is exacerbated by the full-bodied performances of his counterparts. Yet The Leading Man finds a degree of redemption in its camp factor, even if that's unintentional.

-- Tom Meek


Meet the Deedles

Identical twins Stew and Phil Deedle are the surf-bum equivalent of the dimwits from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. After they get busted for skipping school on their 18th birthday, their millionaire dad ships them off to a survival camp in Yellowstone Park. Through a series of comical mishaps they end up parading around as Park Ranger rookies before running into psycho Dennis Hooper trying to steal Old Faithful on its billionth birthday.

The film is peppered with political jokes, bikini-clad babes, and fart gags, as if it couldn't decide what audience it's aiming at. As the Deedles, Steve Van Woemer and Paul Walker have the requisite good looks, but their acting abilities are confined to skateboard riding and surfer speak. There's a cool scene where they shoot the rapids on surfboards, and A.J. Langer shows promise as a fellow ranger and love interest, but like Old Faithful, Meet the Deedles predictably blows.

-- Tom Meek


James Ellroy: The Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction

Filmed on the fly in 1995 -- that is, before the movie version of his L.A. Confidential made him a household name -- James Ellroy: The Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction is a chatty, padded, dead-pooch-boring documentary about the former petty-larcenist whose tales of institutional corruption and shaky redemption, with their meticulous, elliptical plots, gave the hardboiled crime genre a new, ahem, orifice. A hand-held camera follows Ellroy through his suburban childhood haunts: El Monte, where he lived with his floozy divorcée mom, and LA, where he went to live with his Hollywood bottom-feeder dad after his mom turned up strangled to death. But Ellroy has less to say about his upbringing -- and says it less eloquently -- than in his critically acclaimed memoir, My Dark Places, or in the interviews he gave thereafter. Next to the jazz-inflected rim-shot rhythms and clipped vernacular of his prose, he comes off here like a wet napkin. It's essentially 45 minutes of subpar interview turned into a 90-minute film.

-- Carly Carioli


Grease

No plot to speak of, mismatched leads, songs that are whiter than white, humor that's sophomoric instead of snappy, and a sensibility that keeps trying to buy into the '50s when it should be parodying them -- gotta be Grease. Randal Kleiser's film version of the Broadway musical is enjoying a 20th-anniversary re-release from Paramount, with Danny (John Travolta), Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), Rizzo (Stockard Channing), and the rest of the gang at Rydell High (Bobby, not Mark) hotter than ever, even as they make Fast Times at Ridgemont High look like Rebel Without a Cause. Travolta's posturings and Newton-John's Pollyanna act seem to come from different planets, but these two are both softies at heart, and that's what greases Grease's wheels. The film appeals to the romantic in us all, as once more we're hopelessly enchanted by "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and find ourselves shaping up for "You're the One That I Want."

-- Jeffrey Gantz


'Films of Guy Maddin'

In the 1920s, the Marx Brothers, playing Winnipeg, went one night to see Chaplin there on stage. Imagine, all of them! That vaudeville merriment still dances in the Manitoba air, since Winnipeg has produced some of the funniest screen humor in the world. Too few Americans have been exposed to the hilarious movies of John Paisz, Richard Condie, the Winnipeg Film Group. Or to Guy Maddin, a one-man Monty Python of cinematic absurdity, who'll be in town this weekend for a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Maddin stands tall as one of three world-class contemporary English-Canadian filmmakers, alongside David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. He's a comic surrealist/symbolist and an old-movie freak, whose ingenious features, complete with Méliès-like, magical, home-built sets to offer shimmering echoes of silent classics. The MFA series starts Friday at 7:15 with Noam Gonick's engrossing documentary of Maddin on the set, Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight (1997), with narration by Tom Waits, a devoted Maddin fan. It's followed at 8:20 p.m. by the filmmaker's latest, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), which is set on the ostrich-filled island of Madragora. Shelley Duvall is great in what is Maddin's most heartfelt work, but, alas, Ice Nymphs may be too private for general appreciation. An easier entry is the marvelous Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Saturday at 11:45, which combines mock Icelandic sagas with Teutonic flashbacks to Sunrise and Dr. Caligari.

Maddin will appear in person at Archangel (1991), Saturday at 3:30, a screwy World War I story of Arctic amnesia and obsessive love. Make time this weekend for this visionary filmmaker down from the Great White North.

-- Gerald Peary



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