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JULY 20, 1998: 

Small Soldiers

Director Joe Dante has had a penchant for making films where masses of marauding mites assault arrogantly unwary humans -- Piranha, or Gremlins. Small Soldiers is a kind of Toy-Story-goes-berserk strung to the plot elements of Gremlins, where two teenagers engaged in a blossoming romance (a pre-pubescent Gregory Smith and a maturing Kirsten Dunst) must stop a renegade horde of mutant invaders before their secluded slice of suburbia is overrun.

Denis Leary kicks things off as a tyrannical corporate exec who commands his obsequious game designer (Jay Mohr) to make a kick-ass toy that can play on its own. The result is the Commando Elite figure, a GI Joe pumped up on testosterone and equipped with a nuclear-powered computer chip hocked from the military's supply room. The Elite's sworn enemies are the Gorgonites, a docile race of alien misfits programmed to serve as fodder for their juiced-up counterparts. The slapstick mayhem -- "Toys are hell" -- shifts into gear when a pre-release batch of action figures lands in Smith's lap. Once activated, the Commando Elite, led by Tommy Lee Jones (rekindling his Fugitive days) as the voice of Chip Hazard, set out to destroy all Gorgonites and their allies, which leads up to a climactic Precinct 13-style siege of Smith's abode.

The live-action/animation mix by FX master Stan Winston is jaw-droppingly impressive, but what makes Small Soldiers so thoroughly entertaining is the spiked wit layered into the film's fabric by Dante and his talented team of writers. They deconstruct and spoof the war (Apocalypse Now and Patton) and horror/sci-fi (Frankenstein, The Road Warrior, and even ET) genres so effectively, there's something here to give everyone a satiating chuckle. Sadly, Small Soldiers marks the last film in the career of comedian/actor Phil Hartman.

-- Tom Meek

Marie Baie des Anges

For all the growing fascination with the sexuality of barely pubescent girls, the results on film have proven dreary, strident, and pretentious, like the recent repertoire of Christina Ricci and this debut feature from French director Manuel Pradal, a kind of Kids by way of Last Year at Marienbad. Even a fragmentary, non-chronological narrative and disjointed imagery can't obscure the story's basic lack of originality or point.

Set in present-day Nice, the film takes its title from its 15-year-old heroine Marie (a pouty, limber Vahina Giocante), who's nicknamed after the local Bay of the Angels by the Yank sailors she fancies -- drunken louts who seem refugees from a Jacques Demy movie gone horribly awry. Vying with them for her attentions is Orso (Frederic Malgras), the most sullen of the street punks who prowl the city on motorbikes. He seems more smitten by his handgun, however, and so the three escape for a brief Badlands-like idyll on a rocky island in the bay. Laboriously circling in on its focal moments of random violence and ennui, unconvincingly tied together by a legend about the "angels," killer sharks that once protected the bay from invaders but now must be placated by the sacrifice of children, Marie is an exercise in pointy-headed pedophilia.

-- Peter Keough

Lethal Weapon 4

One of the few encouraging signs in an increasingly glum summer was the appearance of just one sequel in the release schedule. Lethal Weapon 4 argues for banishing them altogether. Whatever vitality this series might have had lies buried beneath crass gimmicks and astounding inanity. It takes Danny Glover's Sergeant Murtaugh only a matter of minutes to humiliate himself: he's tricked by Mel Gibson's thuddingly unamusing Sergeant Riggs into stripping down to his skivvies and screaming like a chicken in the asinine opening action sequence, which sets the stage for a series of sourly homophobic gags.

The new bad guys are Chinese mobsters (how many Chinese-food jokes are you up for?) involved in slavery and forgery and headed by charismatic but misused Hong Kong martial-arts star Jet Li. Another new face is Chris Rock as Officer Lee Butters, whose uprightness is belied by jive talking that's the only bright spot in the film. Back again is Joe Pesci, more high-pitched, irrelevant, and annoying than ever, and Rene Russo, who's pregnant and eats a lot. The story inexplicably takes more than two hours to relate; not only are they getting too old for this shit, as Danny Glover's Sergeant Roger Murtaugh complains, this shit is just getting too old.

-- Peter Keough

Eisenstein: The Master's House

How such a mercurial visionary as Sergei Eisenstein produced such ambitious, experimental films in Communist Russia may always remain a mystery. Eisenstein: The Master's House chronicles his career from his boyhood, where he was influenced by his father's work as an architect, through his theatrical training with Meyerhold and on to his whirlwind days in Hollywood, his frenzied collaborations with Prokofiev, and eventually his relationship with the increasingly repressive Stalinist regime.

Using titles to indicate various "houses" ("Mama's House," "Teacher's House," "Glass House," "Valhalla," "The Cathedral"), the filmmakers trace the labyrinthine trajectory of Eisenstein's life and work by examining its historical context -- a method Eisenstein himself employed. With rare archival footage (including one documentary on filmmaking with hilarious outtakes), still images, animated storyboard drawings, and clips from directors Eisenstein particularly admired, as well as his masterworks Ivan the Terrible, Strike, and The Battleship Potemkin, the resulting montage is at once a tender tribute and a harrowing newsreel. The most remarkable thing about The Master's House, indeed, is that nothing of the sort has been attempted before now. Its release marks the 100th anniversary of Eisenstein's birth, the 50th anniversary of his death. The film shows how, passionate to the end, despairing under Stalin's tyranny, he literally worked himself into his grave.

-- Peg Aloi

The Mask of Zorro

Plodding and overlong though it may be, The Mask of Zorro captures some of its hero's panache, wit and ebullience, not to mention hokum. This pleasant potboiler from Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) offers not one but two masked avengers of the downtrodden. The aging, elegant original, Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins waiting for his stunt double), is shown at the beginning getting captured by nefarious California governor Don Rafael (Stuart Wilson), who also murders his adversary's wife and steals his infant daughter. Now it's 20 years later: Don Diego has escaped, and he's training as his successor the uncouth bandito Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas) in order to prevent Don Rafael from buying California from Mexico and setting up a dictatorship. The real point of the movie, however, is to show us our hero somersaulting over squads of bumbling Mexican soldiers and zinging out a "Z" with his sword. That Zorro accomplishes nicely, with clever physical gags, a perky chemistry between the dour Hopkins and the bumbling Banderas, and a spirited Catherine Zeta Jones tossed in as Diego's now impressively grown-up daughter (they should give her more screen time with a saber). Cheesily atmospheric with its grungy, painterly vistas resembling a cross between a Sergio Leone Western and a Mexican restaurant, Zorro makes its mark.

-- Peter Keough

Broadway Damage

Marc (Michael Shawn Lucas) is a gay aspiring actor who's looking for love after graduating from NYU. You'd think his best friend, Robert (Aaron Williams), who secretly digs him and also wants to make it in show biz, would be an ideal candidate. Unfortunately, Marc goes only for 10s, and Robert, with his bowl cut and lack of definition, is a 5 even on a good day. While "auditioning" potential significant others, Marc is living with fellow graduate Cynthia (Mara Hobel) in a funky Greenwich Village walk-up. This Long Island princess, who's never worked before, spends her days harassing New Yorker editor Tina Brown for an interview (maybe she'll have better luck with David Remnick) and promising Marc she'll look for a real job. When Marc falls for David (Hugh Panaro), a Jakob Dylan-esque neighbor with rock-star aims and a shady romantic track record, and Daddy shuts off Cynthia's cash flow, the situation in that well-decorated Village apartment gets rather touchy.

Victor Mignatti's fairytalish flick, ridged with reality, is about being young in a city where seeing your name in lights is the dream, and making the "grand gesture" (a/k/a spilling your guts) toward your beloved doesn't always work the way you planned. Despite a show-tune-cutsie tendency (with a touch of Friends on the side), there's enough catchy dialogue, quirky characters, and city scenery to make Broadway Damage a worthwhile trip through NYC.

-- Rachel O'Malley

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