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SEPTEMBER 28, 1998: 

Slam Nation: The Sport of Spoken Word

In poetry slams, which originated in Chicago barrooms, poets compete against one another and are given scores by a panel of judges chosen from the audience. For the National Poetry Slam, cities from across the country select, through a local poetry slam, a team of four poets to represent them.

Directed by Emmy-winner Paul Devlin, whose past credits include NBC and CBS Olympics and ESPN2's Extreme Games 101, SlamNation is a feature-length documentary about the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon. Devlin approaches the event from a sports-journalism perspective, offering insight into the psychology of the participants, their pre-competition strategies, and the glory of the struggle through before-and-after interviews and live footage of the slam. And the articulate, adrenaline-driven performances by, among others, Saul Williams, former Globe columnist Patricia Smith, and Taylor Mali combine with Devlin's fast-paced editing to make SlamNation an exciting and entertaining film.

-- Nicholas Patterson


Rush Hour

Forget its racist stereotypes and uninspired plot lines and half of Brett Ratner's film is a helluva lot of fun. That half stars Jackie Chan doing what he does best, kicking butt. Too bad the lesser half of this buddy movie, Chris Tucker, makes you feel you're stuck in gridlock.

Chan's Inspector Lee is a Hong Kong policeman brought to the US by his long-time friend Consul Han after Han's daughter, on her first day of school in the United States, gets kidnapped by terrorists. Social commentaries on safety in US education aside, Han trusts only Lee to save the girl. Of course, the FBI won't have anything to do with Lee, so the feds assign Tucker's Carter, a wise-cracking LAPD detective, to babysit him. Of course, Carter, bored with his assignment, embarks on a solo quest to find Han's daughter. And of course, Carter at first resists Lee's assistance before the pair bridge the cultural divide and bring matters to a tidy B-movie resolution.

It's too bad that Chan's brilliantly choreographed martial-arts escapades (and Ratner's considerable technical prowess) are mired in Tucker's mugging. All Rush Hour proves is that, no matter how great a martial artist he is, Chan can't negotiate an off-ramp from an American traffic jam.

-- Ian Menchini


Ronin

John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate was the essential film about the Cold War, and he would seem the ideal candidate for setting us straight on the age of amorphous danger and treachery that has succeeded it. Unfortunately, his Ronin is heavy on derivative car chases and explosions and light on plot, edge, and relevance.

Robert De Niro puts in a sardonic if standard performance as Sam, an operative for hire teamed up with a crew of other rootless mercenaries in a plot to steal a MacGuffinish briefcase for a mystery employer represented by no-nonsense Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). Among the mercenaries is Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), a Dilbertish Eastern European computer specialist, and Vincent (Jean Reno), the erstwhile coordinator of the unit and a seeming naïf who bonds with Sam. Mishaps, double-crosses, tough-guy badinage, and brutal high-tech violence prevail in various colorful European backgrounds, none of it registering emotionally or ironically, despite Jonathan Pryce's over-the-top turn as a loose-cannon terrorist. The title refers to the masterless samurai of medieval Japan, in particular the legendary avengers of the kabuki play The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin, which has been adapted to the screen by such great filmmakers as Kenji Mizoguchi. Frankenheimer's updating falls short of both Mizoguchi's genius and his own.

-- Peter Keough


Pecker

"To the end of irony!" toasts a character at the end of John Waters's Pecker, and the scary thing is, by that point it doesn't seem Waters himself is being ironic. Once he was the definition of subversive independent filmmaking, but his shock value has declined over the years since Divine ate a dog turd in 1972's Pink Flamingos. Particularly over the last decade, as Waters has released the increasingly tame Hairspray, Cry-Baby, and Serial Mom, the problem has not been so much his moving closer to the mainstream as vice versa. The provocation of a title like Pecker seems only quaint when the presidential penis is a topic on the six o'clock news.

In this case, Pecker (Edward Furlong) is an 18-year-old Baltimore innocent, a neighborhood kid with a hobby of photographing his world: his girlfriend, Shelley (Christina Ricci), working in a laundromat; his grandmother (Jean Schertler) chatting with her statue of the Blessed Virgin; a couple rats humping in a trash can. His photos catch the attention of Rorey (Lili Taylor), a New York gallery owner ("He's a humane Diane Arbus," a critic describes him), and his success in Manhattan stirs up issues of high culture versus low, regular people versus the hoi polloi, and, of course, art's exploitation of its subject and the corruption of success. Or rather, clumsy platitudes about the same -- Waters's outrageousness conceals a fundamentally middle-class heart, and his sloppy filmmaking now looks like not so much style as ineptitude. Maybe it's time, God forbid, that, like Woody Allen with Interiors, he got serious? That would be the ultimate irony.

-- Peter Keough


Monument Ave.

Already Boston-based feature filmmaking seems in a rut -- take a tough blue-collar neighborhood, a conflicted hero, and some wiseguys, add a few variations, and you've got Next Stop, Wonderland, The North End, Southie, and now Ted Demme's Monument Ave. For its variation this one boasts Denis Leary as a Charlestown car thief whose complacent, larcenous lifestyle crumbles when friends and relatives get whacked for perceived violations of the local code of silence. Should he buck tradition and be a snitch (one of the film's previous titles), turning in ruthless mob chieftain Colm Meaney to world-weary police inspector Martin Sheen? Should he just count his money and keep quiet? Take justice into his own hands?

As those questions stumble toward their predictable resolutions, most of the film's best moments remain inconsequential -- Leary and his pals on coke and booze discussing popular movies, or cruising the streets in a cab and alighting on an African-American who wandered into town by mistake. The latter scene is jarring, if gratuitous, demonstrating the kind of edge and energy this pedestrian effort otherwise lacks.

-- Peter Keough


Clay Pigeons

The serial-killer genre offers new directors a kind of target practice: go for the easy marks and you can show off your fancy shooting. That's the case in David Dobkin's debut feature, a blithe homicidal romp set in backwoods Montana that hits the bullseye on charm, cleverness, sharp performances, and glib humor but misses the substance target altogether. The film opens with some desert shooting practice that goes terribly wrong, and soon Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix in a nice balance of innocence and venality) has more dead bodies than he can handle. He serendipitously pals up with easy-going Earl (huge baby man Vince Vaughn, whose ferocity is intensified by his softness); Earl proves more than a great fishing and drinking buddy, however, and through him Clay begins to confront his own darker nature. At least, he would had Dobkin learned more from his film's more mordant predecessors, Red Rock West and Blood Simple. Still, Pigeons is worth a shot, if only for the dyspeptic hilarity of Janeane Garofalo as an FBI agent.

-- Peter Keough


A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

Nor need she, for if she's the daughter of brilliant novelist James Jones, hers is a privileged life. Yet the sole reason Kaylie Jones's tepid novel-memoir was committed to film -- her relationship to the famed author -- has been effaced by the film's insistence on pseudonyms. Not that Kris Kristofferson's Jones manqué character has much to do with anything -- he broods avuncularly on the fringes, his genius and demons irrelevant, with Barbara Hershey a more engaging presence as his wife. None of Jones's dark, edgy talent seems to have found its way into this account from Kaylie (played by a passive Leelee Sobieski), an episodic, humdrum tale of growing up in Paris in the '60s, relating to her adoptive brother, and dealing with high-school dating on her family's return to America. Daughter is directed by James Ivory, whose pointless period window dressing and dramatic inertia underscore the insipidity of this confessional indulgence.

-- Peter Keough



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