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AUGUST 17, 1998: 

Return to Paradise

When Westerners suffer draconian punishments for drug violations in developing countries, we back home often find ourselves experiencing opposite and equally satisfying reactions. The first, of course, is outrage at the primitive judiciary of these Third World backwaters and smugness about our own superiority. The second is a kind of envy: these punks deserved it, and if our courts had any gumption they'd hand out the same medicine.

Both responses are exploited in the glib, dreary, suspenseless Return to Paradise, a tepid '90s throwback to the inflammatory '70s hit Midnight Express (in fact it's a loose remake of the French film Force majeure). Three loosy-goosy American college graduates -- cynical Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), latter-day flower child Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), and reserved Tony (David Conrad) -- score women and drugs in the tropical splendor and squalor of Malaysia. True to his name, Sheriff comes to the rescue when the other two are lured into an alley by local toughs. He also embodies their devil-may-care spirit: on their last day, he tosses their rented bicycle over a cliff. The three then dump their remaining hashish into a garbage can and part, Tony to a high-powered architecture job and Sheriff to a chauffeur's uniform, with high-minded Lewis remaining behind to save the orangutans.

This is the kind of film that relies on title cards for dramatic tension. "Two years later" reads one, and lawyer Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) suddenly appears to inform Sheriff and Tony that Lewis will be hanged in eight days -- it seems the owner of the trashed bike dropped by later with the police and the hash was found. If Sheriff and Tony take part of the blame and serve three years in gnarly Penang Prison, they can save Lewis's life.

What to do? For director Joseph Ruben, it's a matter of flashing "seven days left" on the screen and building a tenuous erotic tension between Sheriff and Beth (both Vaughn and Heche rise above their confused characterizations). Then there are the cuts between luxury hotels and a blubbering Lewis eating rice balls (as for Phoenix's performance, you may find yourself rooting for the gallows).

Is the Malaysian justice system inhuman? Must Americans just say no or face the consequences? Ruben plays both sides, and to be extra safe he throws in the media as a scapegoat with Jada Pinkett Smith as a reporter. Although the film touches on the ironies of actions and their consequences, and though Vaughan does almost make you believe in his ordeal of redemption, this is a Paradise of diminishing returns.

-- Peter Keough

Air Bud: Golden Receiver

We'll skip the commentary on the mise-en-scène and just mention that the original Air Bud is up in doggie heaven so they had to find a new mutt with the skills to pay the bills. Last time around, Air Bud played basketball. Now his owner, Josh (Kevin Zegers), is taking up football, and the pup again wants in on the action. But matters turn dark: Josh's dad has recently died in an accident; his mom is dating a man Josh thinks is having an affair, the football squad is lousy, and a pair of Russian animal thieves (one played by Nora Dunn) are after Air Bud. Just when it seems that matters can't get any worse, Air Bud dies of a rare viral infection and the movie ends. No, no, the damn dog wins the game, saves the day, teaches everyone a lesson, licks his owner, blah, blah, blah. Stay tuned for Air Bud: The Next Generation.

-- Mark Bazer

Shock Corridor & The Naked Kiss

Samuel Fuller's death last October marked the end of the era of "tough guy" directors (including John Huston, John Ford, Robert Aldrich, and Sam Peckinpah) who broadened the definition of film noir. His screenplays, steeped in facile, innuendo-strewn dialogue, morally ambiguous situations, and crystal-perfect epiphanies, seem dated now but were liberal and daring in their time. This weekend the Brattle is presenting two of Fuller's 1960s classics in beautifully restored 35mm prints.

Shock Corridor (1963) gives us Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as a cocky reporter determined to solve a murder at a mental institution. Getting his stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister, he feigns incestuous urges, is committed, meets the locals, undergoes electro-shock, and by gum exposes the killer and gets that Pulitzer -- but at the cost of his own sanity. The surprisingly good special effects (including gorgeous color sequences that have been unavailable for years) and Fuller's intricate construction of a dystopian "America" make this a stunning tour de force.

Less disturbing but more socially challenging is The Naked Kiss (1964). Towers now plays a prostitute in a role that perfectly showcases her classy (Hepburn) looks and her quirky (Bacall) animal grace. Egged on by a small-town vice cop, Griff (the wonderful Anthony Eisley), she quits the biz and nearly marries the town's handsome benefactor . . . but prostitutes don't get to live happily ever after. Fuller's indictment of sexual hypocrisy is impressive, at least for 1964. Cinematography by Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Three Faces of Eve) helped make this an instant classic.

-- Peg Aloi

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