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Tucson Weekly Double-Dose Of Evil

A look at two new, and totally unrelated films -- 'Wicked' and 'Cookie's Fortune.'

By James Di Giovanna

APRIL 19, 1999:  JULIA STILES, WHO recently appeared in 10 Things I Hate About You and the miniseries The '60s, should be a big star by the end of the year, at which time the producers of Wicked will be kicking themselves for not keeping this film in the can for a wider release to capitalize on her success.

Instead, they've gone the festival route. This works out well for us dusty Tucsonans, as it means we get a peek at it before everyone else on earth is finished talking about it.

Wicked is delightfully derivative: its style, lighting, subject and especially its penchant for cold, distant camera work are so Hitchcockian that it could have been directed by Brian DePalma. (The alternate joke here is "so like a Hitchcock film that Gus Van Sant is planning a shot-for-shot remake," but I'm tired of people kicking Gus Van Sant, dammit.)

Beginning with a scene ripped off from Psycho (a single woman in a tailored dress driving to ominous music), Wicked's plot begins in one of those expensive planned communities surrounded by a golf course and populated by people who have become so understimulated by green grass and no tides that they either turn into robots or swingers.

Ben Christianson and his wife Karen have both found alternate love partners to break up the monotony of their Danish modern décor, with Karen opting for trashy neighbor Lawson Smith, and Ben trashily opting for their Danish au pair. But neither Ben nor Karen have much personality, having ceded that function to their daughter Ellie, who makes Electra seem like one of King Lear's less savory daughters. While loving dad, Ellie hates Mommy so much that when Mommy is mysteriously murdered after (a) telling dad that she's leaving him, (b) telling her dangerous boyfriend that she's dumping him, and (c) forgetting to bring cookies to the neighborhood meeting, Ellie is still the most likely suspect.

But it wouldn't be a Hitchcockian mystery without the other possibilities, and in an archly comic role as the police investigator, Michael Parks (making his 62nd film appearance, but only his seventh turn as a police officer) makes neighbor Lawson Smith his top suspect. When asked "Do you think it was him?" by a junior officer, Parks deadpans, "Him...or somebody else."

In spite of Parks' fun and campy performance, the film really belongs to Stiles, who plays the Hitchcock femme fatale to a tee. After Mommy dies, teenager Ellie starts to wear her dresses and make-up, cooks for dad, fusses over him, and sleeps beside him. Sleeping turns to other pursuits as Ellie follows her dream of having daddy to herself, and littler sister Inger, though only 10, starts to grow a bit suspicious, in more ways than one.

Still, to give away too much would ruin the fun, so it's best to note that there are a dozen more plot twists waiting, and that Wicked, while perhaps too professional and slick for the festival circuit, might just be the highlight of this year's Arizona International.

I USED TO argue with another reviewer about whether Robert Altman was a genius or a very lucky idiot. The evidence for genius would be films like Nashville (possibly the greatest American movie of all time) and The Player. On the idiot side are such embarrassments as O.C. and Stiggs and Quintet (possibly the worst American film of all time). Further support for the latter view comes from his recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, where he claims that all of his most egregious movies were simply misunderstood or ahead of their time (he says of critical disaster Kansas City, "I predict that in a few years it will wind up appreciated"; and he excuses his celebration of the sexist degradation of the character "Hot Lips" in the truly awful and overrated movie M*A*S*H* by saying, "That isn't the way I treated her, that's the way I see her being treated.")

However, in Cookie's Fortune he shows again his formidable talent at filmmaking, hinting that the genius tag might just fit after all.

The titular Cookie is an elderly white woman in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where she decides it's time to join her deceased husband in the afterlife. Unfortunately, her evil niece (played as Cruella DeVil of the South by the increasingly annoying Glenn Close) finds the body. Not wanting a suicide attached to her family name, she arranges things so they look like murder. This leaves Cookie's only friend, a black man who lives in her house and takes care of her, as the suspect. The man, Willis Richland, is played with such seamless subtlety by Charles Dutton that it's jarring to have him transposed against the more theatrical acting of Close, and Altman wisely keeps them in largely separate scenes.

Joining them are Julianne Moore as Close's mentally deficient sister, and Liv Tyler as Moore's anomic daughter. Both give strong performances, but Moore's is truly outstanding--she shines when her character appears as the lead in the Holly Springs Easter production of Oscar Wilde's Salome. Here you see Moore's background in classical acting; and since her character is supposed to be a bit insane, she's able to bring this stagey style into the more subtle cinematic scenes without becoming camp.

Its strong performances aside, it's the small touches that make Cookie's Fortune: a roll of police tape unraveling to indicate a love scene, a cabinet door repeatedly creaking open, Glenn Close's guilt comically symbolized by her hand in a cookie jar full of sensitive documents. All of these images, and the slow, steady and inventive camera work that are an Altman trademark, set Cookie's Fortune apart from most movies, which use--even if skillfully--a standard set of shots to convey their stories.

Perhaps Altman's wisest decision in making Cookie's Fortune was in not aiming too high. His attempts at broad social commentary have lately fallen flat, and here he takes a small story, with no pretensions to greatness, and executes it with extreme care. Maybe that's what genius is all about.

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