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JUNE 1, 1999: 

The Love Letter

In a scene in The Love Letter, a couple attend a "Keaton Festival"; when they discover that the honoree is not Michael or Diane but Buster, they walk out. So much for the Golden Age of Comedy. Not that this shaggy-dog romance, helmed with an off-kilter, Keatonish charm by Hong Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan, is such a poor substitute. Although it's contrived and by-the-numbers, its crotchety performances and goofball dialogue prevail over the schmaltz.

Harried, divorced bookstore owner Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw) finds the unaddressed, unsigned title missive between her sofa cushions -- and suddenly the small town of Loblolly-by-the-Sea (actually a generic Rockport) sprouts daffodils and potential soulmates. The device creaks, especially when the letter is left lying around, and it has the same general effect as the love potion in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The chief victims are Helen and summer temp Johnny (Tom Everett Scott, looking more and more like Tom Hanks's sexier younger brother), though stodgy old local fireman George (Tom Selleck) finds his torch for Helen rekindled too.

The older-woman/younger-man dynamic is a refreshing change, though it seems inevitable Helen will be punished somehow (life with Tom Selleck?). Very much a love letter from Capshaw, who produced, to herself (the locals jaws drop when she jogs through town), this saltwater candy might not be the equal of Buster, but it gives Diane and Michael a run for their money.

-- Peter Keough


The 13th Floor

The Matrix, eXistenZ, Open Your Eyes, and now The 13th Floor, from German director Josef Rusnak -- this life-is-a-dream motif is turning into a recurring nightmare. Computers once again are the culprits in this new take on virtual unreality, which is not quite as flashy, stylish, or ambitious as its recent peers but does score points with its affable characters and performances. Craig Bierko brings a warm smile to his David Duchovny-esque deadpan as Douglas Hall, who with fellow hacker Whitney (a freaky Vincent D'Onofrio) and mentor Hannon Fuller (a creepily avuncular Armin Mueller-Stahl) is developing a computer game that's a virtual re-creation of 1937 Los Angeles. Fuller is found murdered, however, and as is often the case in movies of this type Hall is the prime suspect, though he can't remember a thing. To learn the truth he logs into the game, and though the near-monochromatic, computer-generated period sets are rich and sinister, the surprise twists he encounters are the expected ones. With Gretchen Mol adding another level of intrigue as a generic femme fatale, and Dennis Haysbert doing a poor job of making sense of things as a gumshoe, Floor has charm, atmosphere, and some wit but blurs the illusion/reality line into a snore.

-- Peter Keough


Southie

Okay so we all know South Boston has some tough characters (calling Whitey Bulger?), but in John Shea's stark, Irish GoodFellas wanna-be, everyone's either a dick-scratching hood or a distressed woman tethered to one. Former New Kid on the Block Donnie Walhberg is credibly sympathetic and cathartic as Danny Quinn, the fallen son who returns home to patch together his deteriorating family structure. His mother (played with warm grit by Anne Meara) suffers from a stress-related coronary condition, his brother can't hold a job and has a mounting gambling habit, and his sister (Rose McGowan showing a surprising ability to emote) is a hard-drinking alcoholic. To make matters worse, Quinn's buddies are deep into the local mob faction for setting up an "after-hours" club, an old rival has an ax to grind, and a turf war hangs heavy in the air.

The crisp, on-the-street feel of Southie is stylistically alluring, and the eclectic soundtrack, which commingles punk, rap, Celtic folk, and rock, provides a poignantly subtle energy, but as a novice director Shea, in his rush to paint "his" Southie as a dark and foreboding underworld, aggrandizes each scene with looming tragic circumstance and overheated conflict. What begins as a well-intentioned gangster flick heads south for regions that are bombastic, scattered, and one-dimensional.

-- Tom Meek


Notting Hill

And on the subject of love letters to oneself: watching the opening few minutes of Roger Mitchell's Notting Hill is like reading somebody's megalomaniacal diary entries. It's a montage of magazine covers glorifying superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), who, like the woman who portrays her, is the highest-paid and most-hyped actress in movies. She'd be insufferable if bumbling bookstore owner (what's with bookstore owners in romantic comedies these days -- is this Hollywood's notion of an exotic location?) William Thacker (Hugh Grant at his pasty, twitchy best) didn't have a crush on her, which he nobly suppresses when she wanders into his establishment in the flaky West London neighborhood of Notting Hill. Another dubious accidental encounter lands her in his squalid apartment, and despite the hackneyed premise and threadbare plotting, this confection captures some of the thrill of impossible love realized and the rarefied realms of fame brought to earth. Grant and Roberts have little chemistry, but they do banter well. And she brings a sinister edge to the sexually aggressive if confused Anna, whose whims cause the passive William to wilt. Such role reversal can't endure, but until Notting Hill ends curled up on the park bench of comfy conventions, it sticks closer to the eccentric environs of its title than to the inflated ego of its star.

-- Peter Keough



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