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JULY 6, 1998: 

Out of Sight

Out of Sight is as quirky as a mainstream movie can get and still remain a polished, poster-friendly package. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel put together by screenwriter Scott Frank and producer Barry Sonnenfeld, who teamed up on the bracing hit version of the author's Get Shorty, the film benefits from the subversive touch of director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, King of the Hill). Throw in a savvy, sexy turn by Jennifer Lopez and a breakthrough performance by George Clooney (who brings a little of Cary Grant's élan to Mel Gibson's Moe, Larry, and Curley) and you have, well, not L.A. Confidential, but at least the classiest and most intelligent summer movie since The Truman Show.

Clooney is Jack Foley, a veteran bank robber with a romantic streak. Breaking out of a Florida prison, he and his buddy Buddy (Ving Rhames) take as hostage federal marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez). Pressed together in the trunk of a car, Jack and Karen discuss work and the films of Faye Dunaway. Later, after Karen escapes, Buddy is incredulous to learn that Jack dreams of one day sharing a cocktail and more with the plucky Sisco.

In the hands of any other director, the scenario would seem unbelievable to audiences as well, but Soderbergh's sly, understated recognition of the vagaries of desire -- not to mention his playful way with chronology -- propels Out of Sight far beyond the nominal plot line involving the uncut diamonds of Wall Street buccaneer Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks without hair somehow loses his edge) and the treachery of former prison mate Maurice "Snoopy" Miller (Don Cheadle, one of the best supporting actors in Hollywood). As coy and unsettling in its violence as in its sex -- the carnage is abrupt, ugly, and very funny -- Out of Sight keeps facile formula out of mind.

-- Peter Keough


I Went Down

If not for the impenetrable accents and a gift for the blarney that begins with the multiply punning title, it would be difficult to peg Paddy Breathnach's I Went Down as the latest entry in the Irish filmmaking renaissance. Where are the alcoholics, the IRA, and the oppressive Catholic Church? This blithely noirish buddy movie forgoes the typical Ould Sod trademarks for a diverting, if contrived, shaggy-dog story about loyalty, greed, and the general absurdity of it all. Engagingly acted and adequately told, it's a diverting slice of Celtic Twi-lite.

Young Git Hynes (Peter McDonald) has returned from a bum prison rap dismayed to find that his best friend, Anto (David Wilmot), has shacked up with his girl, Sabrina (Antoine Byrne). That does not prevent him from putting out the eye of one of the goons pressuring Anto for a loan. As punishment, mob head Tom French (Tony Doyle) has Git "go down" with Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson), a loser whose slash sideburns and sweet-tooth suggest a broken family, defiant ineptitude, and a sad and unsavory secret. Their assignment is to kidnap Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey), a mobster who supposedly owes French a lot of money.

What makes this film a charmer is the down time of conversation in between bouts of slapstick violence, mountingly hilarious dialogues between the obtuse and indignant Bunny and the morose but principled Git, or between the pair of kidnappers and their wheedling but ingratiating victim. The over-complicated plot proves largely irrelevant; the characters make I Went Down a plunge worth taking.

-- Peter Keough


Gone with the Wind

Some movies endure despite, or perhaps because of, their shortcomings. For all that the American Film Institute has just named it the fourth greatest example of American cinema (after Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather), Gone with the Wind is still looking for credible characters (Scarlett most of all) and a believable plot (just for starters, there's no way Scarlett's father would have let her marry Charles) -- and never mind lines that should have won Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable Oscars for delivering them with a straight face ("You should be kissed often, and by someone who knows how"). The gift of better dialogue won't be forthcoming, but for its almost-60th-birthday re-release GWTW is getting restored Technicolor and digital sound -- no small thing for a movie whose greatness so largely rests on how it looks and sounds. The restored Technicolor is not just gorgeous but natural: the fields of Tara, far from being postcard perfect, could use some rain, and the camera creates an almost three-dimensional realism in the subtle way it blurs backgrounds. Yet there's no want of pyrotechnics in the flames that consume Atlanta.

Besides, GWTW can be shocking as well as silly -- the sight of hundreds of men laid out on the ground in neat rows after the siege of Atlanta, with just a single doctor in attendance, is more horrific than ever. And the four hours slip by pretty quickly. Scarlett and Rhett are messy, complicated dreamers who never give up hope -- maybe that's why we never give up on them. This is, after all the film that never ends: tomorrow is always another day.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


Buffalo '66

Palookaville's Vincent Gallo does it all in this surrealist fable -- he directs, writes, acts, even composes the score. The result is a darkly funny day in the life of Billy Brown (Gallo), a lifelong loser who returns to the industrial gloom of Buffalo after five years in the slammer. Desperate and lonely, he plots revenge on the man who he believes ruined him: former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Wood (read: the real-life Scott Norwood), whose botched field goal (Norwood missed wide right in Super Bowl XXV) robbed the Bills of the championship and Billy of a $10,000 bet. Along for the caper is a jiggly tap dancer (Christina Ricci), whom our hero has kidnapped to pose as his wife.

Gallo skulks with unnerving effect as Billy, a raw-boned bundle of pathos in too-tight pants. As director, he infuses his allegory of alienation with unswerving candor, inventive visuals, and a parade of cameos, including Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, Ben Gazzara, and Anjelica Huston. However, Ricci's role is woefully underdeveloped; her unblinking kewpie absorbs Gallo's angst but never blossoms beyond a trite fantasy of instant love. Without this emotional edge, Buffalo '66 ends up like the hard-luck football team at its center: it just misses. At the Kendall Square and in the suburbs.

-- Alicia Potter


Armageddon

Not long into Armageddon's two-and-a-half-hour length I found myself thinking, "Let the planet go -- nothing is worth this aggravation." Dull, crass, cliché-ridden, and vaguely racist and jingoistic, the film offers no evidence of human life worth saving from the Texas-sized asteroid that's hurtling earthward to put a merciful end to things.

Unlike the turgid Deep Impact, which morosely pondered issues of hope and reconciliation in the face of annihilation, Armageddon celebrates the perceived blue-collar virtues of beer, broads, and baldly manipulative emotional schmaltz. Mankind's saviors are a dirty dozen or so cartoonish oil-rig roughnecks headed by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis, looking unnervingly like Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan's Express) enlisted by NASA head Dan Truman (a bemused Billy Bob Thornton) to fly a pair of space shuttles to the celestial intruder and nuke it. "Talk about the wrong stuff," says one observer in a training sequence that shamelessly rips off Philip Kaufman's adaptation of the Tom Wolfe classic. Indeed.

After a journey whose suspenseful mishaps more resemble the annoyances of a long commute, the motley team go to work on a set worthy of the original Star Trek. Interrupting the tedium are intermittent meteor showers (There goes Shanghai! There goes Paris! How is it these objects always manage to find a major metropolis?), low humor with an addled Russian cosmonaut, and a close-up of Steve Buscemi's teeth that's the most frightening thing in the movie. With its climax focused on computer keyboards and Ben Affleck operating a drill ("792! 795 . . . !"), this doomsday scenario is literally a bore.

-- Peter Keough


Henry Fool

The desperation of the characters in Hal Hartley's new Henry Fool is not so much quiet as monotone. That, of course, is a trademark of Hartley, whose work ranges from the incisive and moving in Amateur to the pretentious and empty in his previous outing, Flirting. Fool falls somewhere in between, benefitting from a wry comic absurdity, outstanding performances, and Hartley's commitment to its themes of the creative imagination, the pitfalls of the marketplace, and the anxiety of influence.

James Urbaniak is intense and pathetic as Simon Grim, a garbageman stifled into silence by his family and community until given a composition notebook and pencil by the title character (Thomas Jay Ryan in a memorable screen debut), himself an itinerant ex-con, dissolute satyr, and monomaniacal budding author. Fool recognizes Grim's voluminous jottings as a Whitmanesque outpouring in iambic pentameter (we have to take his word for it, as we never get to hear the verse), and he sees his protégé's subsequent success and notoriety as a means to his own advancement.

The conflicts of loyalty, integrity, and taste that follow are not much developed by Parker Posey's standard turn as Grim's flighty, nymphomaniacal sister, or by an unconvincing, melodramatic third act that drags the film on about a half-hour too long. Even-handed and unpedantic, grossly scatological, Henry Fool has the wisdom to recognize that genius often springs from what is most despised and condemned.

-- Peter Keough


Leila

It's not a scenario that most Western audiences will identify with -- a young bride proves incapable of bearing children and is compelled to find her husband a second wife -- but veteran Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui's Leila proves a subtle and ultimately devastating exploration of love's perversity. Deeply in love with husband Reza (Ali Mosaffa) -- who insists that he doesn't want children and is more than happy with her alone -- Leila (Leila Hatami) is prevailed upon by her harpy of a mother-in-law (Mohammad Reza Sharifinia) to collaborate in arranging a series of interviews between Reza and prospective new mates. Despite her beaming innocence and her ingenuous voiceover narration, Leila is no victim but the unwitting perpetrator of an act of self-destructive vengeance, perhaps against the intransigent misogyny of her society, perhaps against her own compliance and her husband's spinelessness. With its limpid performances accented by unassumingly brilliant images -- a single pearl from a broken necklace against blue tiles, the rustle of a wedding gown on a staircase -- Leila transforms a cultural anomaly into a universal tragedy.

-- Peter Keough



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