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SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

The Mirror

See enough Iranian cinema and you'll start to believe that we're all little children lost in a movie, or a movie within a movie, and so on. In The Mirror, Abbas Kiarostami protégé Jafar Panahi has taken the elements of his mentor's films and his own delightful The White Balloon -- a waif stymied by a mundane problem; the indifference, incompetence, and occasional malice of adult society; and the Heisenberg "mirror" of cinema -- and crafted them into a touching and politically sly if sometimes muddled fable.

As deftly established in an opening 360-degree pan of a busy intersection (Panahi has learned well from Welles's Touch of Evil), first-grader Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani) has been left in the lurch by her mom, who fails to show up to fetch her after school. So Mina sets out on an odyssey through Teheran, little aided by clueless adults, and observing and overhearing the lives and limitations of the society around her. Much of what she encounters seems subversive -- conversations about tragic arranged marriages, a discussion between a cab driver and a liberated woman about gender roles. And after confronting an officious bus conductor who throws her off for using the men's entrance, Mina revolts. Which destroys the artifice, with mixed results -- the movie to this point has been heartwarming and wrenching, and Mohammad-Khani a charming spitfire. Despite breaking his Mirror, though, or perhaps because he does, Panahi succeeds in reflecting both a society in conflict and our own struggle to contemplate it.

-- Peter Keough

Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation

The animation world has evolved a lot since Spike and Mike began their festival over 20 years ago. No doubt, they paved the way and helped launch such mainstream crudities as Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, and MTV's current Cartoon Sushi (where some of this year's films have already aired). But with all that competition, are Spike and Mike still valid? This year's festival doesn't make a strong case in their favor.

One of the few highlights is the hilarious "How To Use a Tampon," where a young girl attempts creative methods of insertion. Other selections range from mildly amusing (in "Karate Dick Boys," ninjas fight with their "swords") to confusing and gratuitous (in the impossibly long "Animalistic Times," a claymation jerk imagines sex and yells insults like, "Why don't you take a shit?"). The nadir is reached with "Sick & Twisted Special Games," which spends so much time congratulating itself on being un-PC that it forgets to be funny. Without humor, it's just retard-bashing, which isn't even amusing for the Farrelly brothers.

The funniest piece here, a series of vignettes called "Beyond Grandpa," keeps the humor sick and twisted yet accessible and somewhat understated. But Spike and Mike seem to be on the decline: whereas old standbys like the two South Park precursors and "No Neck Joe" are among the best of the fest, most of the rest are just cuss words and animated genitalia.

-- Dan Tobin

Permanent Midnight

Drug addiction may be hell on earth, but it's a hell of a lot of fun on the screen. Following in the tracks of such horsing-around romps as Sid & Nancy and Trainspotting is former Quentin Tarantino collaborator David Veloz's high-spirited and acidic Permanent Midnight. Veloz's acridly hilarious and insouciantly horrifying slice of the glitz entertainment underbelly is based on the confessional memoir by high-priced TV writer turned junkie turned reformed memoirist Jerry Stahl, and it benefits from a brilliant performance by Ben Stiller, the reigning sado-masochist on the screen today.

The film begins with a voiceover conversation between Stahl (Stiller) and another recovering junkie (Maria Bello), who picks him up at the fast-food drive-in where he's working out his rehab. Their relationship goes nowhere ("I wish I were high!" he tells her when it ends prematurely), as do the episodic flashbacks he relates to her about his attempts to ease with the needle the transition from impoverished New York writer of serious fiction to overpaid Hollywood hack. The latter horror stories, though, are perversely illuminating, with Stahl's drug-addled, pant-splitting wooing of his green-card-seeking wife, Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), and a truly awful escapade involving a search for a fix and his infant daughter. Harsh as it is on the drug culture, Permanent Midnight is even tougher on the opiate of the people that is pop culture: a scene in which a high Stahl gets fired after invoking Fritz Lang in a story conference stings. So does what he says in the film's epigraph: "What's the worst thing I ever did because of heroin? Appear on Jerry Springer."

-- Peter Keough

One True Thing

Columnist/novelist Anna Quindlen's portrait of a family affected by cancer and dysfunction is brought to the screen with opulent flair by director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move). Unfortunately, Franklin's efforts can't lift the manipulative material above its melodramatic flatness and Terms of Endearment pretensions. Renée Zellweger (Jerry Maguire) is Quindlen's fictional alter ego, an up-and-coming journalist in New York City whose career is stalled when her controlling father (William Hurt), a small-town college professor, beckons her home to nursemaid her cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep). Both Zellweger and Hurt lurch through the film with the curl of resentment on their lips: she wants to pursue her career; he wants to carry on with his professorial duties, as well as his mysterious, late-night dalliances. There's a lot of Oscar timber here, and Streep and Hurt do well by their roles -- it's just unsettling to watch them project the same personas they've been recycling on screen for the past decade. Zellweger turns in the film's one true thing as far as performances go, emoting the pain of loss and sacrifice while harboring ambition and her desire for self-fulfillment on the inside.

-- Tom Meek

A Merry War

It's fitting, perhaps, that a film about mediocrity be mediocre itself. Based on George Orwell's 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a down-and-out, bromidic romantic comedy with class conflict and the meaning of art at stake, this adaptation by Robert Bierman is rooted in the obvious and the sophomoric, with neither shades of irony nor glints of passion. Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant, no Withnail here) is a big hit in his art deco PR office as he produces such gems of copy as "New hope for the ruptured," but his true calling is poetry. When his chapbook Mice gets a mildly glowing review (written by his jaded, upper-class publisher), he quits his job, moves into a forbidding rooming house with an aspidistra plant, and becomes a Poet. His staid girlfriend Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter, playing a drudge) looks on helplessly as he sinks deeper into squalor, idealizing the lower classes, believing they will bring him closer to his muse. Bierman doesn't seem sure whether his film should attack middle-class complacency or vindicate it. Instead, like Comstock, A Merry War flails at the poor plant of the title, a symbol here not of conformity but of a failure of the imagination.

-- Peter Keough

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