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MAY 8, 2000: 

Up at the Villa

The great upheavals of the 20th century, to judge from Tea with Mussolini, The Last September, and now Philip Haas's perfunctory adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novella Up in the Villa, merely provided the backdrop for the unwise affairs of overheated women in fading mansions. Here, Fascist Italy and the onset of war nicely set off the fine teeth and cheekbones of Mary Panton (a gaunt Kristin Scott Thomas, scarcely recovered from The English Patient), a penniless British widow housesitting the title Florentine villa who's given a second chance when bloodless bureaucrat Edgar Swift (a sour James Fox) pops the question. Before she can accept, however, Mary is wooed by ne'er-do-well Rowley Flint (Sean Penn, who looks a bit like Cagney or Garfield but sounds like Sean Penn), Fascist functionary Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini), and Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), a desperate political refugee. This last pairing toys with genuine pathos before degenerating into the creaky stage business of a melodrama involving an inconvenient corpse, switched guns, and incriminating documents. -- Peter Keough


The Virgin Suicides

For her first movie Sofia Coppola sure took on a challenging book to adapt: Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicide tells its fey tale with a first-person plural narrator. That's hard enough to manage in prose (in the book the "we" voice is precious, offputting, and occasionally poetic); in a movie, it's simply weird. Nonetheless, Coppola makes the most of it, employing the engaging off-screen voice of Giovanni Ribisi to intone the Greek chorus of boys who are beguiled and bewildered by the five Lisbon sisters, tow-headed teenagers growing up in a Michigan suburb in the '70s who decide, for some reason or other, to end it all.

Maybe it's the drab and tacky decor and costumes; that was one ugly decade, and this film's cinematography does it justice. As for the female mystery, the enigmatic girls (Kirsten Dunst is the most memorable, as the slut) turn out to be ciphers, and neither is much light shed on the collective male psyche trying to come to grips with them. Multiplying the elusive girls and the voyeuristic boys only underscores their vapidity. Kathleen Turner brings some feeling to the girls' mother, a Bible-thumping, repressive stereotype, but James Woods steals the show as the befuddled and increasingly balmy dad. As for Coppola, she shows a lot of her father's audacity but as yet not much of his talent. -- Peter Keough


The Flinstones in Viva Rock Vegas

The first live-action treatment of the popular 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon was largely bland and uninspired. At least in this sequel (which is really a prequel) there are a few snappy plot conventions. Viva Rock Vegas spins through the prehistory of the Flintstone clan, namely the wooing of Wilma (Kristen Johnston) and Betty (Jane Krakowski from Ally McBeal) by those infamous blue-collar Neanderthals Fred (Mark Addy) and Barney (Stephen Baldwin). Who would have guessed that Fred asked out Betty before she married Barney, or that Wilma was a socialite slumming in Bedrock?

The stop-and-guffaw plot, which bounces the principals from Bedrock to Rock Vegas, unfurls pedantically. The dino-FX are impressive but don't wow. It's Dino, as a pint-sized, purple pup with a dinosaurian reservoir of hyperactivity, who's the scene stealer. Plus, Joan Collins (does she ever age?) is elegantly haughty as Wilma's manipulative mother, Thomas Gibson (of Dharma & Greg fame) is equally smug as Rock Vegas philanderer Chip Rockefeller, and the always affable Alan Cumming pulls double duty as bubble-headed space alien Gazoo and Mick Jagged, the swanky rock star who wants Betty for a groupie. -- Tom Meek


The Blur of Insanity

Touted as the next inductee into the pantheon of stoner/college flicks that includes Dazed and Confused and Animal House, The Blur of Insanity is not as good as those films. More than that, I can't really say. I was so baked when I saw it. KIDDING! But, wow, are there ever a lot of drugs! The movie's crowning achievement must be one of the more extended and involved (realistic? how should I know?!) LSD scenes in film history. Add omnipresent cigarettes, a healthy dose of bong hits, and enough booze to kill a football captain many times over and hilarity ensues. Thrill as five burnouts toss a candy machine off the roof! Marvel as they try to get 4.0s without doing a lick of work! Delight at their ingenious cheating techniques! Jeer at the evil professor who stalks the boys in their forest hideout! Cheer as they beat the system! Throw in some high-powered shotguns, a few explosives, and some tempting ladies of the night and you've got a really dumb but pretty funny motion picture. And though Blur deals almost exclusively in clichés, this jaded critic more than once brushed aside a wistful tear when reminded of his own heady college days. (Without the stolen candy machines, the cheating, the drugs, the explosives, and the ladies of the night, of course). -- Mike Miliard


I Dreamed of Africa

The true story of one woman's journey from Italian high society to the African plains is certainly one that deserves to be told. Kim Basinger is exquisite as Kuki Gallmann, who leaves behind costume balls and Gucci shoes to follow her new husband (Vincent Perez) and run a farm in Kenya, a country she's heard about only from her father's stories. The communion between humankind and nature seems like a fantasy come true for Kuki and her young son, until the reality hits . . . Venice is half a globe a way and now comfort takes a back seat to survival.

The sprawling Kenyan landscapes, complete with galloping impalas and elephants circling a watering hole, are glorious, and the soundtrack, filled with drums and African voices, is enchanting. But director Hugh Hudson doesn't allow himself, or us, to enjoy the setting. Determined to fit a lifetime's worth of experiences -- lion attack, devastating storm, several deaths, and much more -- into two hours, he speeds through every event, giving equal time to the significant and the less so. Whenever Kuki feels frustration at the slow pace of life in Africa, her friends remind her, "It's a different rhythm." She finally gives in to that rhythm and learns to appreciate the beauty of the land she lives on. Too bad Hudson never affords us the same opportunity. -- Jumana Farouky


Divine Trash

These days, John Waters is probably the nicest living being in show business, and why hasn't he been up for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award? However, in this ambitious '70s time capsule, which takes us back to the delirious, dog-shit-eating days of Pink Flamingos, it's comforting nostalgia to see Waters as a stringy-haired 25-year-old behind impossibly haughty shades and with a Dylan-in-Don't Look Back sneer. Those who don't know early Waters might do better by a night of prime videos, with Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living among the must-sees. But for long-time Waters-ites, Steve Yeager's Divine Trash is mondo paradiso.

Shown discussing his movies, Waters is expectedly charming and ever-amusing, but what unexpected stuff do we get? Well, shots from Waters's never-shown early short "The Diane Linkletter Story" and from the never-completed (actually, barely started) Dorothy, Kansas City Pothead. Interviews with Divine's kindly mom, Mrs. Milstead, and with Waters's arrow-straight, camera-shy parents, who seem to have stepped out of a 1920s Sinclair Lewis novel. A visit with Boston's merry booker George Mansour, the first to dare screen Pink Flamingos, in a Combat Zone gay moviehouse. Best of all, a zany interview with America's last censor, Mary Avara, who fought to keep Waters's filthy films out of Maryland theaters. Still unrepentant, still grossed-out after all these years, praying on screen to "Lord Jesus, to give me strength," Avara is so over the top, so Lana Turner-campy, that she turns -- hallelujah! -- into a full-fledged John Waters screen character. -- Gerald Peary


Committed

In recent movies -- Boys Don't Cry, Girl Interrupted, 28 Days -- the girl usually rebels against the traditional female role and has to pay for her sins. In Lisa Krueger's Committed, things are a little different. Joline (Heather Graham, her bug eyes matching the striking graphics of her T-shirts) is the thriving owner of a Manhattan rock club who gives it all up when her useless husband, Carl (Luke Wilson, which is about as useless as it gets), runs off to get some "space." Does she celebrate? No, Joline is committed to being a wife, so, defying common sense and the advice of her friends (Casey Affleck as her vaguely incestuous kid brother is especially annoying), she heads for the deserts of the West in search of the bounder. Krueger, who demonstrated a promising if half-baked quirkiness in her debut, Manny & Lo, shows commitment too -- to a kind of laid-back picaresque where eccentric characters like a hunky French papier-mâché artist, a psychotic trucker, and a canny Mexican witch doctor and his hip daughter come and go and the plot seemingly goes nowhere. Although it sags from its own preciousness in the middle, the film rewards the viewer's commitment as well, as its genial diversions freeze into genuine subversiveness. -- Peter Keough


Bossa Nova

Finally a romantic comedy for adults that doesn't star Meg Ryan. Amy Irving's Mary Ann is an American widow living in Brazil who divides her time between teaching English as a second language and swimming in the ocean that claimed the life of her husband two years earlier. She falls for Pedro Paulo (the dashing Antonio Fagundes), a divorced Brazilian lawyer enrolled in her ESL class even though he's already fluent; and director Bruno Barreto surrounds the couple with a lively cast of characters: the soccer player who gets hot for Mary Ann when she teaches him how to swear in English, the know-it-all law intern who never turns off her Walkman, the sweet elderly tailor who listens to cloth before deciding what to make from it. With so many strong personalities, each one more eccentric than the next, the door was open for offbeat intelligent humor. Unfortunately, Barreto takes the road more traveled, stringing together mix-ups and miscommunications (all set to a bossa nova soundtrack) that are charming enough to amuse but too predictable to create any kind of climax. So we end up with just another romantic comedy. -- Jumana Farouky


Adrenaline Drive

Here's another Japanese fantasy about a couple of typically repressed/oppressed citizens racing away to a free and exciting life. A young man, Suzuki (Ishida Hakari), who's picked on and bullied by his passive-aggressive boss, moves into a totally new sphere after his car hits the auto of a yakuza and he's forced to go to mobster headquarters and apologize. While he's there, the yakuza den suddenly explodes, blowing up all but one mobster, and Suzuki, a miraculous survivor, bolts with 320,000 yen of gangland green. His partner in crime is a studious, bespectacled nurse, Shizuko (Ando Masanobu), and they run away to a fancy hotel, rent the best suite, and for the first time in their dull, chained-in lives spend money extravagantly: on clothes, haircuts . . . and contact lenses! Meanwhile, the leftovers from the mob give chase, and the surviving yakuza from the explosion, the mean and sadistic Kurowa, escapes from the hospital and also comes for the missing money. It's all inconsequential and too familiar. Shinobu Yaguchi's film is intermittently entertaining, but Hitchcock he's not. -- Gerald Peary


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