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AUGUST 28, 2000: 

Steal This Movie!

There's a great movie somewhere in the life of Abbie Hoffman, the yippie provocateur wanted by the FBI as much for his anarchistic sense of humor as for his anti-establishment politics. The closest Robert Greenwald's Steal This Movie! gets to its subject's playful and subversive spirit, however, is the title. Humorless, plodding, and strident, this would-be homage to a past era of American political involvement is deadlier than the Democratic National Convention.

Played by a wildly miscast Vincent D'Onofrio, Hoffman comes off as a self-righteous asshole and bore, and his attitude is pretty much taken up by the rest of the cast, including the usually ebullient Janeane Garofalo as his long-suffering wife. Told in grinding flashbacks, the story begins as Hoffman, long forced underground by the FBI and set-up drug busts, spills out his tale to a skeptical reporter. What follows reduces the great political and social upheavals of the '60s -- the civil-rights crusade, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the 1968 Democratic Convention and Hoffman's subsequent trial as one of the Chicago 8 -- to a pontificating montage of soundbites set to a cheesy greatest-hits soundtrack. Stunningly obtuse about the complexities of Hoffman's private life -- he lived for a while with both his wife and his mistress in the same apartment -- Greenwald reduces this personal and political turmoil to mawkish pop psychology. Stealing its title from one of Hoffman's own books, Movie is a total ripoff. -- Peter Keough

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack

This bittersweet documentary chronicles the life and times of a folk-music legend that almost wasn't. Ramblin' Jack Elliott was born in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish doctor. At age 15 he ran off to join the rodeo; he reinvented himself as a cowboy and played guitar at rodeo stops and honky-tonks across the country, eventually coming under the tutelage of folk icon Woody Guthrie. Elliott emulated Guthrie in his music; he also plucked chords with Johnny Cash and later became mentor to a young Bob Dylan.

But Jack was a ramblin' man, and ramble he did. He was notoriously late (if he showed) for gigs and skipped through four marriages. His daughter Aiyana, who made this homage, captures her father's rich personality and the essence of folk (Arlo Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson toss in some amusing blips), but about halfway through, the narrative itself begins to ramble as it turns into a "Why weren't you there for me, Daddy?" therapy session. -- Tom Meek


Akira Kurosawa's 30th dramatic feature, which he produced in the 50th year of his career, is an endless stream of tributes (134 minutes of them) to his legendary main character, a fictionalized version of the real-life Japanese teacher and novelist Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971). The film follows Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) from the day his university retirement is announced to his shocked students. Never fear: his students attend him home, sing -- and dance! -- songs of tribute, laugh at his corny jokes, and rebuild his house (it's World War II) when the Allied forces burn it to the ground. Finally, they turn their love-for-teacher into an annual birthday party in which the guest of honor guzzles down a gargantuan glass of beer and announces, "Madadayo!", which means, "Not yet!" He's not ready to meet his maker.

Madadayo is the kind of personal, sentimental movie of old age (Kurosawa was born in 1910, so he made it in his early 80s) that advanced Kurosawa-ites may love but few others will warm to. Western audiences may be appalled, too, by the movie's old-style, unapologetic sexism. Uchida's worshippers are a kind of boys' club; his wife sits near him through the movie, very obediently, almost silently. I liked about 25 minutes of the film, when Uchida's world falls apart because his cat, Nora, is lost. The desperate search for the missing feline proves heartfelt and touching. -- Gerald Peary

Cannibal! The Musical

The crème de la crème of the Troma Pictures series of midnight flicks currently screening at the Coolidge Corner is this pre-South Park 1993 comedy tour de force from multi-talent Tray Parker. Not only did he write and direct and think up the clever, funny songs (the best is "Shpadoinkle Day"), but he gives a capable performance (credited to "Juan Schwartz") as the real-life Alfred Packer, the only person in American judicial history to be tried, and convicted, of cannibalism.

Parker's Packer is no pervert but a totally nice guy who's deeply in love with his horse, LeAnne. It's 1874, and he's leading a group of miners into the Colorado Territory in search of gold, but they get very, very lost, and after one man is shot and killed, the others sit around the campfire and eat him, casually chewing on an arm or leg, though all reject as gross his butt. The black-comedy scenes are deadpan hilarious, and Parker directs in a winningly classical style, rejecting fast cutting and barrages of bad jokes for knowing parody of both Westerns and slasher movies. There's a stylish gallows-humor finale, with dancers and singers joining in for the production number "Hang the Bastard, Hang Him High." And watch for experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage in a bit role. -- Gerald Peary

The Crew

Since the passing of Walter Matthau, Hollywood's consummate grumpy old man, there's been no shortage of actors trying to take his place. First there was the quartet of aging astronauts in Space Cowboys; now we have the geriatric goombahs in The Crew. Director Michael Dinner, though, is no Clint Eastwood, so what The Crew lacks in wit and subtlety it makes up for in vulgarity and offensiveness.

Richard Dreyfuss as Bobby, the brains of the outfit, and Burt Reynolds as Bats, the muscle, see their careers go into the toilets in this one -- headfirst and literally. Dan Hedaya as the dumb Brick and Seymour Cassel as the mute Mouth get off easier for good behavior. Long past their '60s heyday, the four hole up in a retirement hotel in Miami, a Dantesque purgatory where they are punished for their previous vices: the horny Mouth has a prostate condition, the short-tempered Bats has a pacemaker, etc. It's hell for the viewer, too. The Crew doesn't start cooking until it abandons all semblance of taste and Reynolds farts or the four quail at the prospect of shooting a corpse because it looks even older than themselves. The latter is a ploy to scare their landlord into extending their lease, and the inadvertent results include a gang war, a kidnapping, gratuitous parodies of Scorsese, Coppola, and De Palma, and, for the warmhearted, a father-and-child reunion. A guilty pleasure, The Crew makes a strong case for second childhood. -- Peter Keough

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