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AUGUST 31, 1998: 

THE THIEF

D: Pavel Chukhrai; with Vladimir Mashkov, Eketerina Rednikova, Misha Philipchuk. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

The theme explored in the Oscar-nominated Russian film The Thief is a familiar one in American film lore: an impressionable young boy's/young man's fear and awe of a scoundrel father figure. (Think Hud, for example.) Here, the youngster is Sanya (Philipchuk), a six-year-old Russian boy in Stalinist Russia who longs for a masculine presence in his life so much that the silent apparition of his biological father, a soldier killed in World War II, frequently comforts him when he is lonely or troubled. The surrogate paterfamilias is the roguish, handsome Tolyan (Mashkov), who sweeps Sanya's naïve mother (Rednikova) off her feet -- both literally and figuratively -- only to make her and her son unwilling accomplices in a life of crime. For Sanya, the allure of a father figure is overwhelming, despite the cruelty and abuse Tolyan inflicts on Sanya and his mother. The scene in which Tolyan and Sanya connect for the first time is a powerful one: Fascinated by Tolyan's body, Sanya gingerly squeezes the man's biceps upon Tolyan's invitation to do so and then slowly traces the outline of a faded tattoo on a shoulder blade. Enraptured by the experience, Sanya (terrifically played by Philipchuk) is able finally to touch his "father", a flesh-and-blood being who is more than just a mute ghost. It is also a telling moment for Tolyan, who demonstrates for the first time a hint of humanity otherwise obscured by a tough exterior. The young boy's fascination soon evolves into an emotional dependency, made all the more treacherous by the duplicitous Tolyan's insistence that Sanya call him "Daddy" for reasons wholly unrelated to any paternal bonding. Of course, as you might guess, the ultimate consequence of the relationship forged between the two is nothing short of tragic. On an allegorical level, one can read The Thief as a commentary on the reign of Joseph Stalin, whose constant presence is felt in the film. (Tolyan has another tattoo -- one of the Communist despot -- on his chest, and he confides in Sanya the "secret" that he is the son of Stalin.) The ruthless, self-serving manner in which Tolyan uses others is not too different, albeit on a different scale, from the way that Stalin betrayed and maligned a country that looked up to him as its father. On whatever level viewed, The Thief is an experience that is often profound and seldom contrived.

3.5 stars

Steve Davis


New Reviews:

CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL

D: Trey Parker; with Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, Jon Hegel, Jason McHugh, Toddy Walters. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

Before there was South Park, Baseketball, or Orgazmo, there was this Rocky Mountain freakout from the fevered imaginations of Parker and Stone, a rousingly lowbrow retelling of the legend of Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer and his bizarre culinary gifts. Shot in and around the duo's Denver home base (in 1996), Cannibal! is rife with the same kind of elbow-in-the-groin humor that has made Cartman and his wee pals household names, with Parker not only directing and writing, but also acting the role of the little carnivore nobody loved. Heartwarmingly low-budget, Parker does wonders with the Colorado scenery and the acting chops of a cast of mostly unknown locals. In fact, if you took the gore out, you'd almost have Oklahoma Part Deux! (But then, if you took the gore out -- and there's a lot of it -- what would be the point?) Beginning with a grizzled Packer safely tucked away in his Denver jail cell, the film relates the tragic tale from Packer's point of view. As he sees it, the whole unfortunate series of events stemmed from the theft of his beloved horse LeAnne by a trio of larcenous trappers. Packer has been nominated by default to lead a group of miners from Utah to Colorado in search of gold. After the loss of LeAnne, Packer mistakenly leads the group into the Rockies' frozen wastes and, one by one, they succumb to the inclement weather patterns (as well as each other). Along the way, they meet up with a bizarrely Asian group of kung-fu Ute Indians, a giant Cyclops with a seriously nasty ocular-drainage impairment, and the aforementioned trappers. As if the sheer outrageousness of Parker's tale weren't enough for you, the film is peppered with a genuinely warped series of musical numbers that make Rodgers and Hammerstein sound like, ah, Stephen Sondheim. Showstoppers like "A Shpadoinkle Day," "Hang the Bastard!," and "Let's Build a Snowman" crop up when you least expect it, bringing the incessant stream of body parts and their corresponding fluids to a sudden, thankful halt. And surprising as it may seem, the songs aren't half-bad. Why the film has more or less been shelved until Parker gained fame elsewhere is anyone's guess, but Cannibal! is a gooey, hilarious winner nonetheless. Budgetary constraints aside, the film flows evenly from beginning to end, with Paker's bookended, jailhouse explanation serving as the framing device. Both Parker, and to a lesser degree Stone, are excellent, with Parker playing Packer as a befuddled, horse-lovin' naïf and Stone mastering the art of annoyance well before South Park hit the scene. It's a ridiculous, over-the-top carnival of gore, sophomorically sly humor, and cheese-whiz choreography that manages -- above all odds -- to be cheerily invigorating as well. Here's hoping for an Ed Gein-inspired sequel to show up soon.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


54

D: Mark Christopher; with Mike Myers, Ryan Phillipe, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward, Breckin Meyer, Sherry Strinfield, Neve Campbell, Ellen Albertini Dow, Heather Matrazzo. (R, 92 min.)

Disco may suck but it's certainly not dead, as evidenced by the recent spate of Seventies revival films. From Boogie Nights to The Last Days of Disco, everything old is new again, much to the chagrin of those of us who found the decade lacking the first time around. With this loose bio-pic of Manhattan's famed Studio 54, debuting director Christopher seeks to rub our Nineties noses in that famed culture of hedonistic excess -- ostensibly as a warning, one assumes -- but the morality tale onscreen is such a vapid take on the real thing that it's akin to watching a 90-minute slide show chronicling someone else's vacation: If you were there, you'll never forget; if you weren't, you'll never know. Actually, as far as 54 goes, the mantra is: "If you remember it, you probably weren't there." That's a fair assumption judging from all the drugs and sex and more drugs on the screen, and Christopher doesn't flinch from the epicurean overload that made the club the party nexus during its troubled eight-year span. Phillipe plays Jersey boy Shane O'Shea, who longs for the exciting nightlife of the Big Bad Apple from his blue-collar home across the river. Tall, bland, and handsome, he gains entrance into the club one night after being spotted by owner Steve Rubell (Myers) while queuing outside the velvet rope one night. Once inside, he's hooked on the club's druggy, anything-goes atmosphere and returns the next night only to be hired as a busboy by the leering Rubell. From here on in, Shane ascends the narcissistic ladder, slowly working his way into Rubell's confidence and gaining a toehold on the slippery slope of 15-minute celebrity. He's woefully uncultured, though, and virtually lost amidst the staggering cognoscenti; when someone hails the arrival of Truman Capote one night, Shane's reaction is a puzzled, "Truman who?" He's a naïf in sheep's clothing and the club slowly begins to eat him alive, body and soul, despite some (very) occasional moral support from new friends Hayek and Meyer as married 54 employees, Anita and Greg (she's an aspiring disco diva, he's an aspiring drug dealer). It's Myers, though, who resonates the most (the rest of the cast could have been played by anyone, really, and perhaps should have been). From the moment he hits the screen, Myers nails Rubell's creepy manic giggle and desperate need for affection and never once lets up. It's a career-defining role, and Myers clearly has far more up his sleeve than the archly comedic talents he's displayed so far. Still, 54 as a whole is grossly lacking in character -- there's little of the pent-up madness the club engendered, and Christopher too often descends into vague condescension. We already know the horrors that killed off this wildly creative crowd (although the film ends before AIDS begins), but Christopher keeps coming back to beat us over the head with the "bad, wrong, bad, wrong" hammer again and again. It's a noble effort, but aficionados and the mildly interested are recommended to seek out VH-1's excellent Studio 54 documentary in lieu of this shallow morality play.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov


THE GOVERNESS

D: Sandra Goldbacher; with Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Harriet Walter, Florence Hoath, Bruce Myers, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (R, 124 min.)

This starring role is something of a change of pace for Minnie Driver, the British actress who of late has become best known for always playing the "best-guy's gal" in such American movies as Sleepers, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Good Will Hunting. Here she returns to Britain to play the title role of "the governess" in writer-director Sandra Goldbacher's first feature film. The film is an atmospheric work, a period piece set in the 1840s during the dawn of the Age of Photography with a dense and moody visual style that befits its Brönte-esque subject matter. Driver plays an independent-minded young woman named Rosina, who is the eldest daughter in a family of Sephardic Jews in London. The film's opening scenes of the cloistered, almost subterranean lifestyle of the city's sizable Jewish population are fascinating to observe. Living within the heart of one of the world's greatest cities, the Jewish community walks a fine line between urban assimilation and a sequestered but vibrant religious and cultural identity. Rosina's family is plunged into sudden financial debt when her father is murdered and his estate is discovered to have been eaten away by a secret gambling habit. The situation prompts Rosina to seek employment in order to support her family. Securing a job as a governess for the Cavendish family, who live on a remote Scottish island, Rosina uses the best of her play-acting skills to don a new identity as Mary Blackchurch (of swarthy Italian descent). It is a world completely alien to her -- from the rough-hewn landscape to the icy reserve of the Cavendish household. Her young charge Clementina (Hoath) is a little brat, the lady of the house (Walter) is a frustrated spouse, the older son (Rhys Meyers) is a disgraced university student who becomes immediately smitten with Mary, and patriarch Charles Cavendish (Wilkinson) is a man exclusively absorbed in his scientific studies in which he seeks to discover a chemical fixative that will commit photographic images to paper. Mary becomes intrigued by his experiments and the man himself and in time she not only becomes the one to accidentally discover the salt-water fixative process that furthers his work but also engages in an illicit sexual liaison with her employer. In many ways, The Governess is standard-issue bodice-ripper, although to its credit the resolution of the story's central untenable situation is uncommon and its intriguing coda sets up Rosina/Mary as a proto-feminist heroine who has reclaimed her Jewish identity. The themes established in The Governess resound throughout: the conscious assumption of identities, the gap between "fixed" images and reality, and the search for a fixative that will secure the elusive qualities of art and love. At times, The Governess slips into too modern a tone and language to be completely believable, and Driver's facial expression conveys more inscrutability than emotional range, making sequences dally along with little gained knowledge or narrative advancement. Yet, the film remains in the mind like a snapshot, immutably fixed and evocative.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND

D: Brad Anderson; with Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, Victor Argo, Jon Benjamin, Cara Buono, Phil Hoffman, Roger Rees, Holland Taylor, Callie Thorne, Jose Zuniga, Robert Klein. (R, 107 min.)

When Harvey Weinstein of Miramax distribution fame bought Brad Anderson's new, low-budget romantic comedy Next Stop, Wonderland for the overinflated sum of $6 million, he was quoted as saying that the company wasn't just buying a movie, it was "going into the Brad Anderson business." Well, no one's ever called Mr. Weinstein stupid. Next Stop, Wonderland may well be the most charming film of its type since Sleepless in Seattle. The story, about two would-be lovers who would be so right together if only they could meet instead of crossing paths anonymously, is gracefully told and acted. The premise works despite its inbred hokiness due to Anderson's sure direction and the lovely central performances of Hope Davis and Alan Gelfant. We've all seen enough of these meet-cute modern romances to last a few lifetimes, so when one of them sticks with you longer than an afternoon quickie, you can tell that it's already a few notches above the standard romantic fare. As the film opens, Davis' Erin is being dumped by her extremely PC boyfriend (Hoffman) so that he can go off and save some Indian sacred ground. Erin, a night-shift medical worker, is left to deal with her sense of being alone without being lonely. Her interfering mother places a personal ad for Erin, describing her as being, among other inaccurate things, "frisky." The film's funniest sequence revolves around her series of meetings with the ad's respondents. For his part, Gelfant's Alana is also shown going about his daily routine as a volunteer at the aquarium and as an older-than-average student who is trying to make a break from their family trade of plumbing. Rich in Boston landmarks, Next Stop, Wonderland is also steeped in Brazilian bossa nova music, an unexpected but thematically appropriate choice. Davis, who starred in The Daytrippers, is an unforgettable actress. Her ability to convey the character's intelligence and detachment are critical to this movie's success. But the supporting performances are marvelous as well, from the earnest foolishness of Hoffman to the amusing hauteur of Taylor, the quiet stolidness of Gelfant to the blustery pomposity of Klein. Anderson shows the skill of an expert games player as he moves his characters over the Boston landscape with the sinewy skill of a choreographer. His first film, Darien Gap, explored the intersecting lives of a bunch of twentysomethings, and though Anderson's follow-up Wonderland is more of a fine-tuned affair, you still get the sense that the director's romantic comedies are a lifelong work in progress. There may be no ignoring the "Brad Anderson business" a few more years down the line.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS

D: Tamara Jenkins; with Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan, David Krumholtz, Eli Marienthal, Carl Reiner, Rita Moreno. (R, 101 min.)

It's 1976 and Viv Abramowitz (Lyonne) has all the typical problems of a 15-year-old female adolescent. On top of that, there's her flaky family life which consists of being the only female in a household of two brothers and a divorced father and living the life of "divorce nomads" who move from one crummy apartment with an elegant name to another (usually in the middle of the night). They're like the "Jewish Joads," says her dad Murray (Arkin), who always makes sure that their address remains within (but just barely) the Beverly Hills zip code because, "Furniture is temporary; education is forever." And if things weren't difficult enough, Viv has suddenly become "stacked like her mother" and she not only has to deal with her own ambivalence about these mutant lumps on her chest but also with brothers who like to gape at them and an overbearing father (who could pass for her grandfather) who takes her out shopping for a brassiere in the film's hilarious opening scene. Her next-door neighbor Eliot (Corrigan), a sweet-natured pot dealer who dresses in Charles Manson T-shirts, is also smitten with Viv and her breasts. Slums of Beverly Hills is a very funny and well-acted comedy about the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescence. Few films have come this close to accurately depicting the particular mortifications of female adolescence while also maintaining a fulsomely comic tone. If Slums seems a bit reminiscent of Maria Maggenti's buoyant teen-girl comedy of a few years back, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, it should come as little surprise that Maggenti and writer-director Tamara Jenkins were NYU classmates. According to Jenkins, her film is semi-autobiographical, although the script was incubated at the prestigious Sundance Director's Lab. Oftentimes, however, the excellence of the script and several performances outshine the film's camerawork and pacing. Lyonne (who also served as the central narrator of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You) delivers a memorable performance here, as do Arkin, Corrigan, and Krumholtz, although Marisa Tomei's embodiment of the troublesome, pill-popping cousin who comes to live with the Abramowitzes is more caricature than character. Moreover, Tomei's performance is given little directorial assist from such scenes as the overly long and badly staged interlude that has her and roommate Viv dancing funky with her vibrator. Technically, Slums stumbles in many places, although the script's wisdom and humor and Lyonne's unifying authenticity make its shakier qualities seem like mere potholes on a desirable road. And it's no doubt a more realistic depiction of Beverly Hills womanhood than Pretty Woman or 90210.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE

D: Gregory Nava; with Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Lela Rochon, Vivica Fox, Paul Mazursky, Little Richard. (R, 115 min.)

This isn't exactly the most unique story in rock & roll history. A naïve young black singer hooks up with a parasitic white manager who snakes him out of most of the profits from his chartbusting singles. Then, after the singer's rapid decline and untimely drug-related death, figures from his past converge like hyenas to scavenge the bleaching bones of his estate. But even though Gregory Nava's embellished biopic about Fifties hitmaker Frankie Lymon offers no new perspectives on the pop music biz's already well-exposed dark underside, it's still a revelation in terms of Nava's capabilities as a filmmaker. Based on Nava's past work (El Norte, Mi Familia, Selena), I've always pegged him as an overrated screenwriter-director whose stilted, earnest-unto-death writing undercuts the power of his impressive -- if derivative -- command of film's visual language. But from the opening blast of orange-and-chartreuse credits and turbocharged doo-wop music to the closing close-up of Little Richard's devilish, mascaraed mug, there's no trace here of the tedious, myth-mongering Nava of yore. The obvious explanation is that, for the first time in any of his major features, Nava has turned the writing chores over to someone else -- in this case, talented first-timer Tina Andrews. As a result, the dialogue and pacing have a new snap and suppleness and the movie takes flight like a balloon that's jettisoned a few hundred pounds of damp sandbags. Plenty of credit is due to the actors too. Tate (love jones, Menace II Society) is close to Academy Award territory with his portrayal of Lymon, a white-hot young orb of ball lightning who's utterly lost in any context where he has to confront the basic emptiness behind his angelic face and electric stage persona. Rochon (Waiting to Exhale), Berry (Losing Isaiah), and Fox (Soul Food) are equally delightful as the wildly diverse trio of ex-wives battling it out in court for $4 million in unpaid royalties that Lymon's manager (Mazursky) owes the estate. They're especially wonderful in the down-and-dirty personal confrontations that occur late in the court battle, veering abruptly from amusingly specious female bonding moments to full-pitched verbal catfighting. But most of the credit for this movie's ability to sustain energy and interest despite its marginally interesting subject matter has to go to Nava. Ditching the noble sepia-tone kitsch of Mi Familia for vibrant, solarized colors, relentlessly imaginative shotmaking and a giddy narrative surge that he gracefully integrates into a flashback-driven story, he often generates a level of rock & roll vibrancy that one associates more with young bucks like Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) than fiftyish veterans. Why Do Fools Fall in Love? probably won't be remembered as the best film Nava ever made. The story's a bit too commonplace for that. But with its intriguing hints of untapped creative energy it may well be something just as important in the long haul: a turning point.

3.0 stars

Russell Smith


WRONGFULLY ACCUSED

D: Pat Proft; with Leslie Nielsen, Richard Crenna, Kelly LeBrock, Melinda McGraw, Michael York, Sandra Bernhard, Aaron Pearl. (PG-13, 87 min.)

I was wrong: There are worse things than Mr. Magoo. With any luck, this parody of The Fugitive and other on-the-lam thrillers will sound the death knell for the once-talented writer Proft (Naked Gun, Hot Shots!) and stall his nascent directing career in mid-inanity. Resoundingly unfunny, this is a film compiled out of the worst short ends and lame gags from, one presumes, better, more humorous films. Regardless, Wrongfully Accused's not-even-90-minutes running time elicited not a single chuckle from the audience I attended it with, instead producing a protracted series of groans and the sonorous shuffling of feet heading toward the exits. It's that bad. Nielsen, who seems to be sleepwalking through this, his comedic stock-in-trade, resorts to perpetually painful mugging, assaulting the camera with an uninspired series of rubber-faced grimaces, and displaying none of the inspired comic rhythms that got him this gig in the first place. As concert violinist Ryan Harrison, he's accused of the murder of Michael York's art patron Hibbing Goodhue and is subsequently pursued by an aging Crenna as police Lt. Fergus Falls (Crenna as Tommy Lee Jones is, at best, constipatory). There are dozens of cues lifted from The Fugitive -- none of which work -- and one North by Northwest gibe that I suspect will have Hitchcock twirling in his grave. The pantheon of forgotten stars who make up the rest of the cast only goes to explain why we forgot them in the first place: LeBrock as the evil temptress Lauren Goodhue evokes a horrid fascination in much the same way as a traffic accident, and York, well, it's been a long time since The Three Musketeers, and it shows. Relentlessly unpleasant, this is the sort of film that gives parody a bad name in general. After all the Airplanes, Naked Guns, and Hot Shots that have come out in the last decade-and-a-half, perhaps it's time for something new, i.e., a comedy that relies on plotting or characterization to drive its humor, and not just on a steady torrent of flatulence gags. The Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) may be the saviors of millennial comedy in that respect, although their obvious penchant for bodily functions exceeds even that of the Proft/Zucker/Abrahams camp. Que sera sera; still, Wrongfully Accused is a misstep of terrific proportions, the cinematic equivalent of biting into an Eskimo Pie and finding half of Rip Taylor.

0 stars

Marc Savlov


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