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APRIL 13, 1998: 

The Spanish Prisoner

Writer/director David Mamet returns to House of Games land with this insubstantial but entertaining drama about a byzantine con game. Naive Campbell Scott has just invented a MacGuffin that could earn a bundle for his company, though boss Ben Gazzara has yet to assure him of a bonus for his work. Often derided by himself and others as a boy scout, Scott's the perfect patsy for a ring of industrial spies out to separate him from the sole copy of the formula.

Who can he trust? Mysterious millionaire Steve Martin, who offers to help him get his due from the company? Fawning secretary Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife)? Wily pal and company lawyer Ricky Jay (the cardsharp and House of Games co-star)? Federal agent Felicity Huffman? If the triple-cross plotting is less cunning, or the emotional stakes lower, than in House of Games, Prisoner is still a lot of fun, with its cast clearly enjoying the artifice of scam-as-theater as much as audiences will -- and afterward we'll all lie about how we figured out the scheme and the players long before the clueless Scott did. Actually, there are surprises all the way to the ending, which manages to make the Logan Airport water shuttle look as colorful and exciting as the locale of a Hitchcock finale.

-- Gary Susman

The Players Club

Rapper Ice Cube's debut as a director/screenwriter results in the most negative portrayal of African-Americans and women seen on the screen in years. Dreaming of a career in broadcast journalism but strapped for cash, single parent Diana Armstrong (Lisa Ray) takes a job stripping at the upscale-yet-sleazy Players Club, where she's forced to take part in previously unthinkable acts. Cube offers us a couple of obvious do-gooders, and in the end he allows Diana redemption and a future, but most of The Players Club's world thrives on torture, bloodshed, and the irresistible urge to commit rape whenever the opportunity presents itself -- to say nothing of the playful way in which these actions are represented.

-- Danny Lorber

The Odd Couple II

After 30 years, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon reunite as bickering buddies Oscar and Felix in the belated sequel to Neil Simon's screen adaptation of his play. Actually this should be Odd Couple IV, since the Grumpy Old Men movies have featured Matthau and Lemmon in the same roles -- the sardonic Jew and the anal gentile. But this official reprise is blander than the Grumpy outings. Oscar's son and Felix's daughter are tying the knot, and Simon takes the opportunity to send the two parents on a misadventure through the California desert as they're traveling to the wedding. There are some giggles (almost every California town is named San or Los something) and the pair seem hip to what makes their partnership work (Lemmon is still the straight man; Matthau is still one slyly droll, hilarious cat). But there's not much more to this film than whining about growing old and the repetitive sort-of-funny squabbling. Whatever was odd about the original Couple has become all too familiar.

-- Danny Lorber

The Mother and the Whore

Nowhere is the malaise and pessimism of post-1968 Paris, when the revolution was lost, mined so deeply as in Jean Eustache's 1973 classic, The Mother and the Whore, which is being revived for the first time since its original release, and in a new, full-length, 215-minute print.

Eustache begins by shredding the 1960s French New Wave: actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, the icon of exuberant French youth for his seminal roles in Truffaut and Godard treasures (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Masculine/Feminine), resurfaces here, a sour few years older, as Alexandre, a charmless, skirt-chasing, 1970s freeloader. Terminally unemployed, he reads Proust, listens to Weimar-era records, and hangs out with a dubious, heavy-drinking, nameless friend (actor Jacques Renard) who devours books about the SS. Although cursing "women's lib," Alexandre spends his days prowling cafés for women to fall for intensely, to talk at interminably, to obsess about night and day, and occasionally to fuck.

The sex talk, and there's lots of it, is astonishingly frank for 1973, and there's nudity. But the actual sex is offputting (the first screw results in a pushed-in Tampax) or estranged (a threesome that never quite happens because someone always resists, or attempts suicide).

As for the title, the classic male-defined female schism isn't so clear. Is Alexandre's 30ish live-in mistress, Marie (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont), the symbolic "mother" because she's the one waiting home for the film's psychologically arrested protagonist? Is his new girlfriend, Veronika (the Anaïs Nin-like Françoise Lebrun), a promiscuous nurse, the "whore"? It's Veronika, after all, who in the film's most passionate soliloquy expresses pity instead for those who (like herself) have fucked themselves silly and declares that sex with true love is the only thing worthwhile, sex between lovers who are trying to have a baby.

Is Veronika mouthing Eustache's secretly conservative, spiritual, sacramental message? Hardly. When an actual pregnancy is announced, a promise of marriage is followed by acute vomiting. A bleak postscript to this avowedly anti-transcendent film: Jean Eustache committed suicide in 1981.

-- Gerald Peary

The Last of the High Kings

Not all whimsical coming-of-age tales set in a quaint, period Ireland are deserving of screen time. Unlike Neil Jordan's rollicking and assaultive The Butcher Boy (which arrives next week), David Keating's Last of the High Kings is bland, bloodless, and easy to watch. In a 1970s Dublin, teenage Frankie (Jared Leto) endures the vague trials typical of his age and of listless storytelling. Chief among them are his boozy, absentee actor father (Gabriel Byrne, who co-wrote the screenplay) and his spitfire, borderline-delusional mother (Catherine O'Hara contributing the film's only splash of liveliness), who suffers from a severe case of Irish Nationalism, which includes a rabid hatred of Protestants and a belief that her brood are descendants of the mythical High Kings.

What follows is episodic -- Frankie and his friends want to get laid, he falls for a Protestant girl, has to escort an adolescent American visitor (Christina Ricci, forgettably), he and his brother get the guests at their mom's victory party for a Fénian candidate (Colm Meaney) drunk on poteen. Oh, and Elvis, the real King, dies. Pointless and pleasant, with halfhearted platitudes and a faint evocation of '70s atmosphere, High Kings could have used a shot of poteen itself.

-- Peter Keough

No Looking Back

Originally titled Long Time, Nothing New, Edward Burns's new film might as well have been called Long Time, Nothing Happens. In an attempt to move beyond the Irish-American dysfunctional families of The Brothers McMullen and She's the One, he's relocated to the ethnically generic New Jersey shore of Bruce Springsteen songs (ludicrously over-represented on the soundtrack). The result looks moody and convincing, with its triple-deckers weatherbeaten both inside and outside, all its streets empty but for the characters' beat-up Detroit gas guzzlers, and all of them cul-de-sacs. It's a place where it rains every day, and the characters and their stories are as vacant and dead-ended as their hometown.

Like Claudia (a drab Lauren Holly), who toils in a diner in a greasy spoon and heads home to carry the empty trash cans from the sidewalk to the backyard and to face yet again her unfulfilling relationship with Michael (Jon Bon Jovi, showing some range), who wants to marry her so they can go nowhere securely together. This is the kind of movie where the dramatic turning point arrives when someone refuses to carry a trash can to the backyard, and Claudia gets her chance when her raffish ex-love Charlie (Burns striving for charmlessness and attaining it) returns and resumes hitting on her. Burns strains for a feminist resolution at the cost of his sardonic humor; this is one case where looking back might have been a good idea.

-- Peter Keough

My Giant

Michael Lehmann (The Truth About Cats & Dogs) appears to have in mind here the feel-good lesson that quaint foreigners can teach us to stop and smell the roses even as we still benefit from materialism and greed. But what begins as a dumb and lackluster comedy about selfish talent agent Sammy (Billy Crystal), who crashes his car in the countryside of Romania and is saved by the 7'7" giant Max (Washington Wizards Gheorghe Muresan), turns into a tale of human cruelty.

Sammy wants to repay Max for saving his life, but he also wants to cash in on this freak of nature. So he persuades Max to come to America and promises to get him into the movies. Instead Max winds up wrestling dwarfs. Only when Sammy finds out Max is dying from a weak heart does he realize there are more important things in life than getting your giant a deal in a Steven Seagal film (Seagal plays himself). Geared toward kids, this movie won't make the little ones laugh too hard, but that may be its strength.

-- Mark Bazer

Mercury Rising

In a film where puzzle-book mazes and other brain strainers figure prominently, director Harold Becker (City Hall) gets lost in a snarl of sorry narrative turns. The chase begins when Simon (Miko Hughes), a nine-year-old autistic savant, cracks a top-secret government code to piss off a National Security big wig (an insipid Alec Baldwin). Now a moving target, the boy shuffles into the care of a renegade FBI agent played by Bruce Willis with the proper scowl-to-squint ratio.

Thanks to the autism twist, Simon is conveniently fearless -- he walks toward hurtling trains, navigates ledges -- and allows Willis some dramatic heroics. Hughes as the not-so-simple Simon is convincing, even touching, but he's undermined by a laughable techno sound effect whenever he's crunching code. And once the film has taken its jabs at government and technology, it chucks its thematic ambitions for the same old glass-smashing, crowd-shrieking shootouts. In the end, Mercury plummets.

-- Alicia Potter

Lost in Space

This glossy makeover of the '60s TV series pays homage to its roots while jazzing things up Hollywood style with sleeker duds and a Jupiter 2 that literally sheds its unhip, boxy skin. The Robinsons are still out on an intergalactic mission to find a suitable new habitat for humans. And all your favorites are here: Professor John (William Hurt), wife Maureen (a fiery Mimi Rogers), and their strong-minded children, Penny (an annoying Lacey Chabert from Party of Five), now full of '90s teen angst; Will (Jack Johnson), the ship's computer hack; and Judy (Heather Graham, playing the sexual opposite from her Roller Girl in Boogie Nights), who keeps the drama interesting by maintaining an on-again off-again flirtation with the ship's pilot, Don West (Friends' Matt LeBlanc fitting well into a macho role).

Then there's stowaway Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman, forced to play the conniving coward as a maniacal meanie), whose malevolent meddlings maroon the Jupiter 2 in outer space and fuel the film's thin hodgepodge of "out of the frying pan and into the fire" conundrums. None of it adds up to much, especially after the perplexing and convoluted "time bubble" sequence. About the only thing that's presented with any purposeful consequence is the pandering set-up for a sequel.

-- Tom Meek

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