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OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

Picture a dream ride to Logan -- air-conditioned limo, a loquacious driver who actually tells interesting stories, and no Big Dig. Then you get there and every plane out has been cancelled. That's the thudding effect of watching Patrice Chéreau's half-wonderful, half-terrible drama. The memorable title refers to the last wishes of the mercurial painter Jean-Baptiste, who insists on being buried in his provincial home town, a long train ride from Paris. Chéreau brilliantly choreographs the tangle of family, friends, lovers, ex-lovers, and protégés who meet aboard the train to join the body at its final rest. Shooting with a hand-held camera aboard an actual rail line, the director and his daring cinematographer, Eric Gautier, up the emotional ante with every bump and jostle. The film's many stories unfold with the deftness of Short Cuts and the energy of Speed. Then the train arrives, and, oh, does the high drama begin. The mourners debate art, love, and fidelity; the film lurches to a ponderous halt. Chéreau again features many of the rising French stars he used in Queen Margot, including Pascal Greggory and Dominique Blanc, and most of the performances are top-notch. But the ridiculous introduction of Margot heartthrob Vincent Perez, here as a transsexual named Viviane, stops this Train in its tracks.

-- Scott Heller


The Saragossa Manuscript

An obscure cult favorite, Polish director Wojciech Has's 1965 film, which is based on the 1813 novel by the eccentric nobleman Jan Patocki (he killed himself shortly after finishing it), might be the last word in organic storytelling. It's the recombinant DNA of narrative, with tale chasing tale to no seeming end other than its own proliferation.

Somewhere in Spain a Napoleonic officer, his command routed, takes refuge in a battered inn. There he becomes engrossed in an old tome with tarot-like illustrations and is joined in this perusal by an enemy officer about to capture him, who claims the book is about his father, Captain Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, the so-called "Polish James Dean," here looking more like the Polish Vincent D'Onofrio) of the Walloon Guards. A cut is made to the first of many stories within stories as Worden journeys to a baroquely bleak Spanish village where he meets, among others, a pair of seductive Muslim sisters, a bearded hermit, a demonically possessed lunatic, a Caballist, a rationalist philosopher, and a Gypsy, and, when you least suspect it, the Spanish Inquisition. Most have their own stories to tell, usually involving meetings with other characters with stories as well, and so on.

At a fully restored three hours this can get exhausting, though the black-comic tone, near-surreal black-and-white scope cinematography, and spooky, rollicking score by Krzysztof Penderecki invigorate. What does it all mean? Recurring themes include paternal tyranny and, of course, the uncertainty of a universe in which you can at any moment wake up next to a gibbet or a half-eaten banquet with a vague sense of transgression. Mostly, though, it's about the sheer exuberance of a good yarn -- and the void it distracts us from.

-- Peter Keough


Dog Park

With the exception of a golden retriever that drinks from a water fountain, the pooches in Kids in the Hall graduate Bruce McCulloch's debut romantic comedy are spared the humiliation of performing stupid tricks. If only the same could be said for the two-legged actors, who seem to have been instructed to pretend they were in a Juicy Fruit commercial.

Although their acting skills far exceed those of their human co-stars, the charismatic canines can't save the formulaic storyline or the insipid dialogue. Heart-broken strangers Lorna (Natasha Henstridge) and Andy (Luke Wilson) meet in a bar, exchange what is meant to be witty banter, and instantly fall in love -- but they don't know it yet and spend most of the film trying to find love in all the wrong places. Oh, and they both have dogs. McCulloch ambushes us with "twists" so obvious they come as an annoying surprise and attempts to mimic real-life dialogue by peppering the script with the irrelevant parts of conversation people in real life wish they could by-pass completely. The film does have its moments when it shows owners treating their pets like (or even better than) their children, but otherwise . . . it's for the dogs.

-- Jumana Farouky


The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

Elmo, that pilly red urchin with the insatiable tickle fetish, loves his blanket. So much so that when the blue, satin-trimmed coverlet flies off into a garbage-strewn, fetid netherworld called Grouchland, the little naïf rushes headlong to rescue it. Obstacles abound, however, in the form of a greedy villain (a delightfully dastardly Mandy Patinkin), who appears not only to have filched Elmo's blankie but also Martin Scorsese's eyebrows.

Joined by fellow Sesame Street denizens Big Bird, Oscar, and the requisite tuneful, high-serotonin grown-ups, Elmo (voiced by Kevin Clash) learns much about perseverance, bravery, and sharing. It's unfortunate, though, that he doesn't learn some pronouns: his habit of referring to himself in the third person gets cloying fast. Quibbling aside, Gary Halvorson's interactive film strikes a pleasing balance of self-reflexive irreverence (there are passing jabs at Starbucks, Doctor Zhivago, and Sharon Stone) and inspired whimsy that's shown to best advantage in the lesson-laced musical numbers. Elmo and his trusty blanket, it seems, have everything covered.

-- Alicia Potter


Splendor

Given that the indie filmmaker Greg Araki, aptly dubbed his last three films (Totally F***ked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere) the "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy," it would be fair to assume that everything from the title to the sunny if somewhat unusual premise of his new Splendor is a tongue-in-cheek façade designed to disguise some deep, dark, nihilistic twist of plot. But the surprise here is no surprises: Splendor is a straight romantic comedy that plays out just the way these things are supposed to.

Small-town girl named Veronica comes to the big city (LA) with high hopes, finds true love where she least expects it, and, after enduring some hardship, lives happily ever after. It's Araki's version of a John Hughes film like Pretty in Pink, only this time the girl (Kathleen Robertson, or "Clare Arnold" from Beverly Hills 90210) falls for two guys -- a smart, sensitive writer type named Abel (Johnathon Schaech) and a rugged rock drummer named Zed (Matt Keeslar). Rather than battling it out for her affections, the three move in together in a not-at-all-platonic Three's Company-style scenario, which leads to Veronica's getting pregnant. That nobody bothers to determine the paternity of the child is indicative of how much suspension of disbelief Splendor demands. That Araki, who wrote and directed the film, seems to think that there's something heartwarming, amusing, or even remotely compelling enough about this threesome to command an audience's attention for more than 15 or 20 minutes is a sign that he's probably better off sticking to the dark stuff.

-- Matt Ashare


Mystery, Alaska

In the tiny town of Mystery, Alaska, kids play pond hockey the way their warmer counterparts play basketball, and the most insulting thing you can say about a man is that he skates like a homosexual. So when Mystery's legendary amateur hockey team -- whose captain, John Biebe (Russell Crowe), also acts as town sheriff -- is asked to play a publicity game against NHL giants the New York Rangers, the town suddenly finds its dignity at stake. More than just a display of one town's obsession with a sport, this film explores life within the close-knit community without being hoky or condescending.

Mystery has its characters, but none of the exaggerated small-town caricatures that would have been so easy for director Jay Roach to lean on: the hard-ass judge (Burt Reynolds) isn't unbelievably cold-hearted; the big, dumb hockey player isn't painfully stupid; and the town floozy is male. Peeking out from behind Mystery's preparations for the big game are stories that draw delicate comparisons between small-town folk and big-city people -- betrayal and jealousy turn out to be innate human conditions, regardless of setting -- while also revealing details that remain specific to tiny communities, like the threatening pull of more exciting cities. All this deep thought is well-balanced with the climactic hockey game, which is white-knuckle intense and teaches the kids a few lessons on winning and losing.

-- Jumana Farouky


Mumford

In movies, complex problems usually warrant simple-minded solutions, and few directors are readier with a platitude than Lawrence Kasdan. The facile approach he has displayed to life's imponderables in The Big Chill and Grand Canyon continues in the bland, limp, lubricious Mumford.

Loren Dean looks as if he'd lost his way from Walton's Mountain as the therapist of the title, a mystery man who wanders into a town, also called Mumford, and through his common sense, knack for listening, and blank smile sets many of the citizens' troubled psyches to rest, including a number of invidious female stereotypes -- an anorectic teenager (Zooey Deschanel), a shopaholic ditz (Mary McDonnell), a depressive nudge (Hope Davis). Mumford's treatment? An appropriate male partner. As Davis's character confesses, what she's needed all along was a man just like him. McDonnell is more blunt -- she's looking for a good "shtup."

Mumford has secrets of his own, as revealed in a bizarre mid-film flashback and an Unsolved Mysteries broadcast. But despite the efforts of three malevolent females -- a rival psychologist, a termagant mother, and a draconian judge -- his brand of facile and unethical pop psychology prevails. Maybe Kasdan might check with his own therapist about his woman complex, or at least learn the correct definition of "transference."

-- Peter Keough


Drive Me Crazy

It's not as bad as you might think. Melissa Joan Hart, formerly Nickelodeon's Clarissa, currently ABC's leading teen witch, Sabrina, plays scheming but good-natured high-school socialite Nicole, who's got her heart and her day planner set on taking Brad (a big lunk of a blond basketball player) to the high-school centennial gala. But then Brad falls on (and in love with) one of the rival cheerleaders during a game. Meanwhile, Nicole's next-door neighbor Chase (Adrian Grenier) -- alterna, anti-establishment, could-be-a-Precious-Moments-doll -- is getting dumped by his sexy, cranberry-haired girlfriend because he's not gung-ho about animal rights. Naturally, Nicole and Chase pair up -- Nicole to avoid going to the big dance stag, Chase to catch the eye of his ex.

This story isn't quite the cliché of the dork transformed into the prom king (though Chase does resemble a Ken doll after he lets Nicole pick out his wardrobe). Chase is cool right from the beginning, and his beatnik ex looks as if she could eat Melissa Joan Hart for breakfast. And though the pairing of cool and outcast is abrupt, the plot a bit off-kilter, and the appearance of the Seventh Heaven dad just weird, the rest of the cast is appealing -- Chase's buddies from the high-school margins, Nicole's school-spirited in-crowd.

-- Rachel O'Malley


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