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AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Dr. Akagi

In his pristine linen suit and natty straw boater, the village physician at the heart of Shohei Imamura's Dr. Akagi cuts an eccentric figure. He never stops moving, racing from appointment to appointment, as he's called to handle marital problems and wayward daughters as well as medical needs. "Being a family doctor is all legs," reads a sign in his clinic.

Imamura describes the film, his 25th in a career that includes two top Cannes Film Festival prizes, as a tribute to his own doctor father, but an idiosyncratic tribute it is. Set in the waning days of World War II, when Japan wouldn't face facts and surrender, Dr. Akagi chronicles the battles on the ground to keep the civilian population healthy. Although others brand him a quack, the doctor insists that hepatitis is ravaging the nation, and he sets out to make his case without the help of the medical establishment. He's joined in the effort by a band of outsiders with little in common except devotion to the doctor. There's Sonoko, a young prostitute whom Dr. Akagi takes under his wing as a promise to her dying father; there's Toriumi, the morphine-addled surgeon, and Umemoto, a bizarre and horny religious leader. A Dutch POW secretly nursed back to health in the clinic offers guidance as the doctor cobbles together a working microscope to understand the disease better.

All this may sound like the stuff of medical thrillers, but Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, The Eel) is too perverse a filmmaker merely to champion an underdog. Militaristic Japan is under the microscope here. Thuggish army officers call the shots, and under their noses sex and gossip fuel the seaside community. Portrayed by Akira Emoto, Dr. Akagi is a remote and formal presence, not the genial man of the people a genre film would provide. The shrill Sonoko inappropriately announces her love for the doctor during an air-raid drill. Medical procedures, like the removal of a liver from a fresh corpse, are garishly filmed and set to the incongruous beat of "American"-style jazz.

Compared with The Eel, Imamura's last film, Dr. Akagi feels strained and unresolved. The film denies us the uplift of seeing a problem solved or a man redeemed. That's fine -- it's Imamura's choice not to repeat himself or other directors. But he offers an odd brew instead: black comedy, political critique, and, in rare sequences like the doctor's reaction to the news of his son's death, cinematic poetry. It's an audacious prescription, but it doesn't go down very easily. At the Museum of Fine Arts this weekend and next. -- Scott Heller


Bowfinger

In the press kit for Frank Oz's Bowfinger, Eddie Murphy's bio reads: "At times, Eddie Murphy can be a very funny man." This isn't one of those times. The pairing of Murphy with fellow comedic Goliath Steve Martin (who wrote the screenplay) should elicit gales of laughter, but instead it seems to have neutralized their ability to be witty or outrageous, forcing them to aim for the lowbrow chuckles. The result: laughter comes only in puffs.

Martin is Bobby Bowfinger, a loser director who tricks a big-time action hero into starring in his last-chance flick, Chubby Rain. Said hero is Kit Ramsey (Murphy), a paranoid egomaniac who's obsessed with flashing the Laker Girls. Kit's scenes are shot without his knowledge, and all the close-ups star Jiff, Kit's painfully dorky look-alike brother (also Murphy). Some parts are actually funny, like Jiff's audition and the final kung fu scene, both trailer staples. The rest of the film is a great idea foiled by jokes that fall flat and just lie there. In one of the few scenes worth recalling, Kit lambastes his agent for offering him a script that asks the audience to think too much: "We're trying to make a movie here. Not a film!" Obviously. -- Jumana Farouky


Detroit Rock City

Detroit Rock City opens with a comic vignette about an uptight, chainsmoking mom who's preparing to relax with a nice stiff drink and a little Donny and Marie. Just down the street in this particular 1970s suburb, as we'll soon discover, her stoned son is belting out "Shout It Out Loud" with the neighborhood Kiss cover band. Mom picks out an LP, carefully slides the vinyl from the paper sleeve, and places the album on the turntable before settling back into a recliner. Even if you don't happen to notice the Casablanca label on the album she's chosen, you'll see this slapstick gag coming from a mile away -- someone's hidden a Kiss album (Love Gun) in her Donny and Marie jacket.

They do make horror films that start out like this. And very occasionally they even make clever comedies that begin this way (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Detroit Rock City is neither. It would certainly be giving the film too much credit to call it willfully idiotic, yet no one involved, except perhaps the members of Kiss themselves, seems to have taken the project too seriously. And so the four hapless teens stumble inevitably forward, from one moronic gag to the next, on their way to the big Kiss-concert finale. The result isn't quite as terrible as it probably should be, but wouldn't a simple Kiss concert film have made a lot more sense? -- Matt Ashare


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