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MAY 4, 1998: 


In his directorial debut, Shane Meadows targets Margaret Thatcher's socio-economic legacy by illuminating its ill repercussions in England's urban housing projects. Bob Hoskins gives a rich performance as Alan Darcy, a self-appointed social advocate who opens a boxing club to provide the neighborhood's dissolute youth with a safe haven. Employing tough love and preaching the discipline of self-control, both in and out of the ring, Darcy reaches out to the troubled lads and gives them a spark of hope while exorcising the demons from his own cloudy past. The melodrama rolls along predictably until the climatic boxing match, when the pressure of cynicism uncorks and Darcy registers as the most self-destructive of the lot.

Shot in gritty black and white, TwentyFourSeven is a fantastic-looking picture; what undoes the film is its languorous tempo, absence of character development, and dyslexic narrative. Meadows demonstrates enough stylish muscle to be a contender -- he's just not ready to go the distance as a storyteller.

-- Tom Meek

The Truce

In his critically acclaimed writings, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi feared that time would compress the horrors of the Holocaust into a neat chapter of history. It is with unfortunate irony then that director Francesco Rosi traces Levi's odyssey from the concentration camp to his hometown of Torino in a patchwork of affecting but ultimately disjointed vignettes. John Turturro plays the owlish chemist and writer (who committed suicide in 1987) with a quiet yet complex mix of irony, fragility, and tenacity. So subtle is his portrayal that at times he's almost blown away by the bloated score.

But Levi's brilliant, deeply psychological recountings of his survival, published in a 1963 memoir of the same name, seem too intricate for film. And taken verbatim, his trenchant observations about torture and loss ring discordantly pious as dialogue. Like the epic atrocities of the Holocaust itself, the tragically haunted Levi eludes cinematic adaptation.

-- Alicia Potter

The Big Hit

This ripe, noisy action flick is loaded with block-clearing explosions and testosterone-charged showdowns. In short, it's right out of a page of Jerry Bruckheimer or John Woo -- who happens to be one of the film's executive producers.

Hot Boogie Nights star Mark Wahlberg anchors the action as Melvin, a hit man with a heart who's exploited by his compatriots, led by Lou Diamond Phillips in a campy, over-the-top performance, and by the two women in his life, his sassy girlfriend (Lela Rochon) and his borscht-belt fiancée (Christina Applegate showing some acting range in clingy garb). All they want from Melvin is his money, and he doesn't have enough to go around. That's why he agrees to go on a rogue assignment with Phillips to kidnap a Japanese billionaire's daughter (a devastatingly sensual China Chow). The job goes sour and Phillips and Wahlberg end up in a bullet blazing, mano-a-mano duet, much like Woo's Face/Off, but without its stylistic edginess. This is an obvious box-office vehicle for Wahlberg, but the complex, sensitive nature of his character detracts from the high-powered stuff. He looks beleaguered in the contrived comedy-action mix, not knowing whether to kick ass or kiss it.

-- Tom Meek

Tarzan and the Lost City

It's 1913: Tarzan (Starship Troopers' Caspar Van Dien) has returned to England from Africa and is about to marry the beautiful Jane (The Lover's Jane March). But on the very eve of his wedding he's sent a vision from an African shaman beseeching him to return to the jungle. It seems that Nigel Ravens (Steven Waddington), a scholar/explorer and poacher, has stolen an amulet that can lead him to the ancient city of Opar. Naturally Tarzan goes back -- and of course Jane packs up her bags and follows him.

Director Carl Schenkel has created an old-time action-packed adventure in which Tarzan, Jane, his African friends, and numerous wild animals work together to defeat Ravens and his evil cohort. The violence is more in the style of a Tintin comic book than a John Woo thriller -- but it's still pretty convincing. And a number of enlightened ideas help the film fit into the 1990s. March's Jane is a cigar and whiskey aficionado who packs a gun and saves her mate-to-be on a number of occasions. And Van Dien's Tarzan is a green avenger who faces off against the Indiana Jones-like Ravens as the movie shows how roving archaeologists help destroy ancient civilizations.

-- Nicholas Patterson

Les Misérables

The musical version of Les Misérables has so imprinted itself into the collective consciousness that, even when viewers get swept up in Bille August's solid new adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, they may be disappointed that Liam Neeson's Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush's Inspector Javert allow grand dramatic moments to pass without bursting into song. Neeson does make a fierce Valjean, who finds doing good a constant struggle that never goes unpunished. Rush, too, humanizes the implacable Javert with inner torment, unable to reconcile the ex-convict Valjean's righteousness with his own limited moral imagination. As Fantine, Uma Thurman gets to expire glamorously. Fantine's daughter, Cosette, who becomes Valjean's ward, is played nicely by Claire Danes as a rebellious teen chafing under her guardian's seemingly overprotective paternalism.

Prague makes a convincing 19th-century Paris, and the production design and costumes are vividly grim. Rafael Yglesias's screenplay does a decent, largely faithful job of distilling Hugo's sprawling, digressive novel, though the deliciously venal Thénardiers, dispensed with early on, are missed later. August's film won't make you forget the musical or the many previous movie versions, but an entertaining, stirring version of Hugo's tale of social justice is always welcome. Still, you may leave the multiplex wishing for something to hum.

-- Gary Susman

He Got Game

After a romp in the hay with two naked white college women with porn-star breasts, high-school-basketball phenom Jesus (Ray Allen) mugs for the camera and lets out a cartoonish grin. This silliness is presumably writer/director Spike Lee's over-the-top way of trying to make us laugh as he juxtaposes Jesus's life with that of his father, Jake (a brilliant Denzel Washington), a convicted murderer. Yet if you strip away the gratuitous sex, unfunny recruitment scenes, well-intended but inappropriate Aaron Copland score, pointless NBA player cameos, and moralizing, stilted dialogue, Lee has a compelling story to tell about a difficult character.

Jake is given a week out of jail to try to persuade his estranged son to attend the governor's alma mater, Big State; if he succeeds, the governor will grant him a release. Meanwhile, Jesus is also being hounded by his seedy uncle, his cheating girlfriend, and his pathetic coach -- each hoping to profit from his skills. The pressures Jesus and Jake are under lead to painful father-son scenes that culminate in a gripping one-on-one game. Too bad this small story gets lost between those gargantuan breasts.

-- Mark Bazer

Déjà vu

Henry Jaglom has made a career out of quirky little films built on robust dialogue and droll situations. Here Dana (Victoria Foyt, Jaglom's piercing wife and co-writer) finds herself in several surreal entanglements as she hopscotches across Europe to meet her fiancé for their "pre-honeymoon." In Jerusalem she shares a table with an older woman who speaks passionately about a lost love before disappearing. Then in Paris Dana has a premonition of a romantic figure that's realized when she later meets artist Sean (Stephen Dillane) in Dover. After that it's no surprise that Sean and his wife turn up at the English villa where Dana and her fiancé are staying. Then there's Skelly (the always elegant Vanessa Redgrave), who drops in to inform her brother (the villa's owner) that she cannot attend to their ailing mother because she has to travel the world and pursue the fruits of life. Jaglom layers these dramas with enough romance, compassion, and sophistication to make them provocative. You know which side of the argument the director leans to -- it just takes a lot of roundabout banter to get there.

-- Tom Meek

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