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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

The Trial

In 1962, American filmmakers weren't supposed to be intellectuals. For Orson Welles to do Kafka was thought pretentious and perverse, and the result was dismissed as a travesty. With its re-release in a print struck from the rediscovered negative, perhaps The Trial -- arguably Welles's masterpiece, and one of the privileged experiences the cinema affords -- will get its due.

Welles called it "the most autobiographical movie that I've ever made, the only one that's really close to me. It's much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I've ever made." He put all of himself into The Trial: not just his visual and aural brilliance and his love of astonishment, but also his humor, anger, eroticism, and tenderness. Joseph K is Anthony Perkins's other great role: he's warm, responsive, and complete in this performance, which is the more deeply pleasurable because the world Welles builds around him (shooting in Zagreb and in Paris's Gare d'Orsay) is so terrifying and sad. And every movie should have Albinoni's Adagio on the soundtrack. The Trial is an amazingly rich and complex film, but it can be appreciated simply, as an opening-up of life as mystery, crisis, and dream.

-- Peter Keough

The Minus Man

It was bound to happen -- a movie about a serial killer who bores his victims to death. Well, not entirely -- genial drifter Vann (Owen Wilson) uses Amaretto laced with a rare lethal mushroom to do in the losers he befriends and decides to euthanize. Think Arsenic and Old Lace without the laughs. Sixty-one-year-old first-time director Hampton Fancher re-creates to a fault the banal and sinister point of view of his killer through non sequitur voiceovers and disjointed minutiae; the result is fascinating and soporific, kind of like the Amaretto without the extra kick.

Vann, of course, is no weirder than anyone else in the stagnant backwater he ends up in: his landlord, Doug (Brian Cox), likes to punch himself in the face; Doug's wife, Jane (Mercedes Ruehl), mopes; and Vann's fellow postal worker Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo) is desperate for human contact. Hovering gratuitously over the proceedings are a pair of grouchy, perhaps imaginary police detectives played by Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert. A big plus is Sheryl Crow as a sad, funny barfly; for the most part, though, and perhaps intentionally, The Minus Man doesn't add up.

-- Chris Fujiwara

The Acid House

His storylines aren't dazzling; his insights are often pedestrian; his characters skirt familiar Scottish stereotypes. But it's the alchemy of Irving Welsh's prose style that makes this crap sparkle. No surprise, then, that movie adaptations of his work fall short. Trainspotting had its moments. This latest -- from a book of short stories by the same name -- tends to highlight Welsh's shortcomings rather than his virtues.

Take "The Granton Star Cause" -- the first of the film's three vignettes. Boab Coyle (Stephen McCole) is having a bad day: he loses his place on the local soccer team, his girl dumps him, his parents kick him out, he loses his job, and he gets a visit from a petty, vengeful deity who turns him into a fly. The tale quickly descends into second-rate Kafka.

The second story -- the deliciously cynical "A Soft Touch" -- stays closer to familiar Welsh territory: the degradation of Scottish slum life and the romantic poisoning that occurs therein. This is an improvement. But it is in the third part-- "The Acid House" -- that the film finally flies. This segment spins (literally) the trippy tale of Coco Bryce (Ewen Bremner), an Edinburgh tough who overdoes the drugs one night, with horribly surreal results. Here director Paul McGuigan uses his camera in much the same way Welsh uses words, drenching grim subject matter in washes of color and humor. With its stunningly realistic depiction of a bad acid trip (a soundtrack boasting the Chemical Brothers helps), The Acid House will have you curling your toes, but at least this time it won't be from embarrassment.

-- Chris Wright

On the Ropes

Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, the subject of this 1999 Sundance Film Festival prizewinning documentary from Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, is an oasis in a squalid world. As female fighter Tyrene Manson observes, "I go to the gym. Then I come back to reality." For her, reality is public assistance, eviction, and a crack-addicted uncle with AIDS. When police raid the house they share, Tyrene finds her dreams of winning the Golden Gloves tournament in dire jeopardy. Noel Santiago, a scrawny high-schooler who's repeated the ninth grade three times, has potential but lacks discipline. Although boxing has steered him away from reefer and shoplifting ("Well . . . I still steal -- just not as much as I used to"), truancy and temptation keep him constantly at risk. George Walton (whose resemblance to a young Mike Tyson is uncanny) has already won the Golden Gloves and is looking to turn pro, but first he must navigate a maze of sometimes-duplicitous coaches, trainers, and agents.

The glue that holds Tyrene, Noel, and George together is trainer Harry Keitt, an aging ex-pugilist who lives vicariously through his pupils. Harry obviously cares about their success, but he's also in the game to fulfill his own failed dreams -- as he says, "George gets the belt, but I get respect." Like the legendary Hoop Dreams, On the Ropes is a superb documentary that doesn't cop out to easy answers or happy endings. Instead, this gritty and emotionally charged look at the inner city shows that in life, as in boxing, sometimes you have to take it on the chin.

-- Michael Miliard

Jakob the Liar

Those who insisted that there could be no art after the Holocaust probably didn't have kitschy tragicomedies in mind. Predating Life Is Beautiful (it was made in 1998 but held back from release because of that film's success) was Robin Williams's remake of Frank Beyer's dour, quietly devastating East German 1977 Academy Award nominee Jacob the Liar. Compared with the Benigni blockbuster and Williams's own subsequent Patch Adams, this shaggy-dog-story set in a doomed Polish ghetto seems downright subdued.

Certainly Williams is toned down as the title character, an unassuming schlemiel who by chance hears of a Soviet advance over a Nazi radio. Not terribly bright or brave, Jakob nonetheless blurts out his secret and then some to save a suicidal friend's life. Word gets out that he has a contraband radio, hope spreads through the ghetto, and Jakob becomes a celebrity, a "prophet," and, almost, a resistance leader. No Good Morning, Warsaw -- Williams weakly hams it up on only two occasions, once for the requisite little girl holed up, Anne Frank-style, in his attic -- the film could almost use a little more pizzazz. Like the original, it's more an absurdist fable about hope and suicide than a palliative laughter-through-tears comedy, and veteran Hungarian director Peter Kassovitz keeps the tone and the color palette a uniform gray. Although Williams and his first-rate cast (Liev Schrieber, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Bob Balaban) work hard to play it straight, Liar doesn't ring true.

-- Peter Keough

Double Jeopardy

What is it about the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that paralyzes a career? On the heels of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s embarrassment in Chill Factor comes Tommy Lee Jones's feeble The Fugitive retread. Actually, Jones's role is almost a footnote in this tale of naive, spoiled housewife and mother Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd), whose husband (Bruce Greenwood) -- you can tell he's a slippery one because he admires the art of Arshile Gorky -- vanishes at sea. Convicted on circumstantial evidence that would bring tears to Johnnie Cochran's eyes, Libby does her time and comes out primed to for revenge.

Enter Jones as parole officer Travis Lehman, a gin-soaked shadow of his Oscar-winning, fugitive-chasing U.S. Marshals self, but still doggedly determined to bring Libby to justice -- or vice versa. Preposterous and dull, Jeopardy seems to have been taken up by director Bruce Beresford as an opportunity for shooting arty local color in New Orleans. The title, of course, refers to the illegality of trying someone twice for the same crime. Now that he's in his third run-through of the same material, that statute of limitations has expired for Tommy Lee.

-- Peter Keough

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