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AUGUST 2, 1999: 

A Stranger in the Kingdom

Tinnily acted and spasmodically edited, this new Jay Craven (Where the Rivers Flow North) film still doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. Set in 1952, the story about a young Canadian woman lured to Kingdom County, Vermont, by a fake personals ad only to meet her bloody demise is not quite a love story, not really a comedy, and not by any means a courtroom drama, though it tries to be all three. Newcomer Jordan Bayne is Claire, a Quebec native with "moxie" that endears her to almost every male in Kingdom and an accent that flits from French to Swedish to Eskimo. Claire ends up staying at the home of the film's other "stranger": a new preacher who shocks the town by being black. Ernie Hudson brings a jolt of life to the screen as the cigarette-smoking, gun-toting minister and the only character who doesn't appear to be reading from a TelePrompTer. Maybe that's why the town's two-dimensional folk -- and the smarmy big-time lawyer played by a bored Martin Sheen -- immediately suspect him when Claire is found shot dead. Adapted from Howard Frank Mosher's novel, the film's ill-paced storyline and cliché'd dialogue ensure that no viewer will ever know what the hell is going on. But the landscape sure is pretty.

-- Jumana Farouky


Deep Blue Sea

Jaws in triplicate and with brains -- that's the hook behind this horror-adventure vehicle that packs a few good thrills and sleek FX behind its nonsensical premise. Director Renny Harlin, back from the dead after the abysmal Cutthroat Island, places his cast of chum on a techno-cool atoll called Aquatica. The rig is an isolated research facility where the beautiful and brainy Saffron Burrows (The Loss of Sexual Innocence) enlarges the cerebellums of three sharks in search of an Alzheimer's cure. After one of the lab sharks gets loose, the man with the money, Samuel Jackson, drops in on the clam shack to see how his dollars are working. A storm cripples the structure and everyone sits around waiting to become shark hors d'oeuvres.

The battery of piquant characters includes Stellan Skarsgård as the head scientist with a perilous desire to smoke and Michael Rapaport as the nervous technician. As the shark handler, up-and-comer Thomas Jane is an intriguing Mel Gibson-esque variation on Kevin Costner's mariner from Water World; Burrows is in fine form doing Sigourney Weaver's Alien bit in her undies; and rapper turned actor L.L. Cool J plays the preachy chef with enough mess-hall ingenuity to take on the watery wolves.

Harlin does keep the suspense strung tight, but the über-sharks' omnipotence borders on cheesy, unintentional camp -- though not to the degree of Jaws author Peter Benchley's made-for-TV flop, Creature. If you want shark-with-smarts guffaws, try to catch the mid-'70s Saturday Night Live skit "Land Shark."

-- Tom Meek


The Haunting

Robert Wise's 1963 horror classic (itself based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House) gets a retooling by Speed director Jan de Bont, who trades the edgy, eerie moodiness of the unknown for grandiloquent, Poltergeist-esque FX. The result is unintentional camp and some of the worst character motivation in recent film. Liam Neeson is the behavioral scientist who invites a trio of test subjects -- Lili Taylor as the virginal introvert with spiritual connectivity, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a sassy, bisexual body painter, and Owen Wilson as the group's over-analyzing, wisecracking clown -- to a retreat at Hill House, a sprawling gothic mansion in the New England countryside. Neeson claims to be doing insomnia research; actually he's out to examine the primordial essence of fear, but his manufactured psychological ploys take a back seat when the cavernous mansion comes to life. The ornate statues of children, demons, and griffins play parts of their own, the set designs are ingeniously opulent, and there's plenty of nifty camera work, but other than that, the admirable cast is awash in a horror show of inane dialogue and flaccid suspense -- even the hokum of The Amityville Horror had more bite.

-- Tom Meek


Runaway Bride

Garry Marshall's new Runaway Bride not only reprises the casting of Pretty Woman, it also repeats the formula of one of the first romantic film comedies ever made. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere play the film's title character and an unemployed journalist, the same roles as Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. There comparisons cease -- far from approaching the Frank Capra masterpiece, this bit of treacle doesn't even reproduce the meager virtues of Marshall's tawdry 1990 hit.

Here Roberts switches from ambivalence about prostitution to misgivings about that other bastion of institutionalized sex, marriage. She's Maggie Carpenter, a small-time girl with the distinction of having left three grooms hanging at the altar. Playing Mike Barnicle in his wildest dreams is Gere as Ike Graham, a columnist for USA Today desperate for an idea. A barfly tells him about Carpenter; Graham writes the story up with fabricated facts and gets fired when his subject blows the whistle. Seeking vindication, Graham shows up in Carpenter's home town on the eve of her fourth foray at marital bliss; what follows is as inevitable as it is implausible.

Actually, none of this rings true, from the quaintness of the setting (Graham compares it to Mayberry, and indeed the whole film is a boob-tube simulacrum from former TV maven Marshall) to the cutesy hate/love relationship of the two leads. And whatever chemistry the two had before has faded into caricature. Gere looks gray and bored; Roberts's lips seem to have expanded to the size of a catcher's mitt. Joan Cusack, as Maggie's best friend and the best thing in the movie, says it best: "I'm weird; you're quirky." And in this business, quirky is a synonym for phony.

-- Peter Keough


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