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MAY 10, 1999: 

The Empty Mirror

Picture Hitler like any other human being. Drinking tea. Painting his self-portrait. Dictating his memoirs. Bleaching his hair. Making love to Eva Braun. Picture Hitler, had he lived, forced into hiding. Endlessly watching newsreels, critiquing his media coverage. Getting psychoanalyzed by Freud. Tutoring Hitler Youth. Being tortured by visions of immaculate blonde women, a legion of Stepford hausfrauen.

Director Barry Hershey's award-winning debut asks what if Hitler had been forced to face the evidence of his own evil? The cinematography by Fred Elmes (Wild at Heart) meshes surreal imagery and archival footage, creating a dreamscape "dungeon" wherein Hitler lives and reminisces, reinventing himself. But his passion for architecture, literature, and Wagnerian opera cannot distract him from confronting his own demons.

At its most verbose, this film idealizes Hitler (British stage and screen veteran Norman Rodway, in a profoundly affecting portrayal) as a failed genius. But in its silent moments of visual horror, many of them enduringly haunting, The Empty Mirror transcends its ambitious erudition, becoming a work of beauty and emotional depth.

-- Peg Aloi

SLC Punk

Yesterday's radicals are today's mainstream -- or as a former hippie tells his punked-out son, "I didn't sell out, I bought in." That's essentially the anthem of James Meredino's SLC Punk. The SLC in question is Salt Lake City, capital of Mormon Utah. The punks are a pair of hair-challenged transplants who seek to define themselves against the waning 1980s and the constraints of their stodgy surroundings.

What begins as a poetically offbeat comedy full of energy and verve turns woefully mundane as the protagonists become introspective and enlightened. Matthew Lillard and Michael A. Goorjian play the colorful thrashers; they've just graduated college, where they failed to bring down "the system," and are now content to shelve themselves as the ushers of anarchy. There's not too much to their caricatures except a smattering of acerbically witty diatribes and a handful of raucous misadventures, each instigated by drugs and resulting in physical altercation. Lillard, who brought his likable, frenetic presence to Scream and She's All That, is pretty much on the money here. The rest of the cast (including Annabeth Gish and Christopher McDonald as Lillard's dad) get some gleefully black moments too, and the edgy, in-your-face soundtrack is one infectious adrenaline rush. It's just too bad that SLC Punk has to get sober, serious, and self-reflective.

-- Tom Meek

Dry Cleaning

The middle class aren't featured much in French cinema, so it's heartening to see in Anne Fontaine's film that they're as clueless and uptight as the rest of us. But, being French, perhaps sexier and more tragic. As austere and crisp as the title suggests, performed with poignant nuance, Dry Cleaning takes a familiar tale of repression and release and makes it seem fresh and lightly starched.

After meeting with some fellow business owners in their charmless provincial town of Belfort, Nicole and Jean-Marie Kunstler (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling), proprietors of the local dry-cleaning establishment, take a walk on the wild side by visiting a drag show. There they meet Loic (Stanislas Merhar) and his sister Yvette (Nanou Meister), who augment the gender-bending appeal of their act with a soupçon of incest. The Kunstlers botch the artistes' offer of an after-hours foursome, but once Yvette has disappeared into the night with some rough trade, the humdrum spouses can't quite shake Loic from their fantasies or their lives.

As the loyal wife who's tired of spending her life cleaning up other people's shit, Miou-Miou is demure and winsome, sensuous and tough as nails. As the stiff-limbed, anal husband who's not sure just what he wants from the endearing, ambiguous Loic, Berling (who bears a disarming resemblance to John Waters) generates annoyance and pathos. Despite a messy ending, Dry Cleaning does justice to its dirty laundry.

-- Peter Keough

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