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NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

The World's Best TV Ads

On-the-air TV commercials are usually bothersome excuses for channel-surfing. As an art form, though, the best ads can be more memorable than any show they interrupt. The British are masters of the form, especially in the comic mode. In British Advertising Films of 1998, an ad for IKEA has British couples with all the stereotypical national traits -- stuffiness, snobbery, obsession with the weather -- being told to buy fun furniture and "stop being so English." It's funny because it's true.

After the best of the best, there's all the rest. The winners of the Cannes 1998 Advertising Film Festival come from 17 countries and put most of the commercials on American TV to shame. Some are shockingly comical, like the German ad for English lessons that shows a family bopping their heads to a song on the radio, oblivious to the English lyrics: "I wanna fuck you in the ass." Other ads are just shocking, like the time-lapse film of what happens to your liver if you aren't an organ donor (think maggots). Ads all have the same aim: to make you do or buy something, and when that urgency meets wit and style, they can outsell anything the big (or small) screen has to offer.

-- Jumana Farouky

The Best Man

Harper Stewart is the master of the forehead kiss. He's just affectionate enough to entice a woman, but he doesn't get too close or committed. He saves his best stuff for the pages of his novel, a thinly veiled account of the loves and lives of his college buddies. When an advance copy of the book falls into the hands of one of those friends, an ambitious TV producer, Harper has to face the music -- hip-hop, in this case, the one thing that distinguishes The Best Man from other strained romantic comedies.

Written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee (and co-produced by his cousin, Spike), the film brings together a set of upwardly mobile buppies for the marriage of football star Lance to the angelic Mia. The wedding weekend gets long indeed for Harper when the groom reads between the lines of the novel and discovers a long-lost liaison between his best man and his bride-to-be. Lee's winning cast (Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Sanaa Lathan) is dazzlingly attractive, but his script burps when it needs to fizz. Only Terrence Howard as Quentin, the resident cynic, transcends the material. His sly, bebop delivery hints at what a less generic, better Best Man could be.

-- Scott Heller

Princess Mononoke

This myth of chivalry and environmental activism set in medieval Japan rises above the typical anime fare seen in the US. Acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki's heart-stopping art direction helped his film break box-office records in Japan -- it's second only to Titanic.

The English translation by Neil Gaiman is nicely voiced by the likes of Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, and Billy Bob Thornton. Young Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), the last warrior of a dying samurai clan, kills a giant boar that attacks his village. When a strange scar consumes his body, the village wisewoman tells Ashitaka that the boar was a nature-protecting demon, and that to lift the beast's curse he must seek the Great God of the Forest. On his way he meets the princess, also known as San (Danes); an orphan raised by the wolf goddess Moro (with Anderson's husky whisper), she fights to save the forest from encroaching exploitation by iron miners led by her nemesis, Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). Ashitaka, who's in love with San and living on borrowed time, must find a way for the villagers and the forest dwellers to live in harmony. Its setting reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's Narnia or Tolkien's Middle Earth, Princess Mononoke resonates with quiet truths rarely channeled by Hollywood.

-- Peg Aloi

Music of the Heart

Does the spectacle of violins on the screen encourage the same in real life? More to the point is whether Wes Craven of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame can get tears to flow as readily as blood as he makes his first foray into the terrifying realm of tearjerkers. Helping his cause is a resonant true story (the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary Small Wonders) and Meryl Streep, who's chirpy, snappy, vulnerable, and a wise-ass as Roberta Guaspari, a single mother of two trying to get a job as a violin teacher in a Harlem public school. She gets appointed as a sub by the overburdened skeptical principal (Angela Bassett), and after 10 years of the various disharmonies of self-doubt, a non-committal boyfriend (Aidan Quinn), a captious mother (Cloris Leachman), outraged parents, skinflint bureaucrats, and recalcitrant pupils, she's put together a public-school program responsible for exposing thousands of inner-city kids to the violin.

And what good is that in the midst of urban turmoil? Music might have been more convincing in its argument for the redeeming power of art had it shown a bit more reality -- the most contentious family seems to be Guaspari's, and drugs and guns don't appear to exist. Also, Craven seems awkward without special effects; the surefire audience-pleasing moments -- like the climactic "Fiddlefest," in which Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman join Guaspari's students on the Carnegie Hall stage for a fundraising concert -- are downright stodgy. Audience-pleasing Music certainly is, but whether it comes from the heart or directly from the tearducts is another question.

-- Peter Keough

julien donkey-boy

Raw, epiphanic, hard to watch, Harmony Korine's 1997 film Gummo could not get a distribution deal. Most critics hated it. Gus Van Sant loved it. I saw it seven times.

Korine's second feature, another tale of life in a small town, is inferior but still shocking. The enfant terrible of indie cinema eschews a formal script and uses hand-held DV cameras and, for the most part, non-actors. Scottish actor Ewen Bremner gives a gorge-raising performance as the title schizophrenic who works at a school for the blind; Chloë Sevigny shines as Pearl, Julien's shy sister. A wooden Werner Herzog (cast in an apparent fit of cinematic nepotism) plays their sadistic, Robitussin-guzzling father. Korine's trademark obsessions are dutifully wheeled out: deformity (albinos, amputees), concupiscence (a masturbating nun, incest), and basic oddity (a magician who eats cigarettes). And apparently this is the first American Dogma 95 film, photographed and edited by two Danes who worked on The Celebration and Mifune. Despite such lofty ambition, the film is indulgently slop-op, as if proclaiming, "See how the fragmented mise-en-scène mirrors the protagonist's mental state." Innovative? I saw that on St. Elsewhere years ago.

-- Peg Aloi

Curse of the Demon

A smug American scientist (Dana Andrews) out to debunk the paranormal arrives in England to investigate a warlock (Niall McGinnis). Andrews's skepticism crumbles as he learns that he has been cursed to die in a short period of time. This is the premise of Jacques Tourneur's fabulously entertaining 1957 suspense film, a metaphysical journey that leads us, along with the protagonist, from a well-ordered world of recognizable landmarks into a primitive universe where life, death, faith, and reason depend on the interplay between light and dark.

Best known as the director of Cat People and Out of the Past, Tourneur makes Demon a manifesto of the values that inform his work: rhythmic fluidity, subtle changes in mood, and a mathematical sense of enigma and doubt. He wanted to avoid showing the demon clearly on screen but was overruled by the producers. When it materializes, the monster merely crystallizes the dread that's present continuously throughout this taut, deceptively elegant film. At the Brattle Theatre this Monday, November 1.

-- Chris Fujiwara


What do fitness guru Jack LaLanne and Warhol protégé Joe D'Allesandro have in common besides last names with two capital letters? They were both early subjects of the physique photography produced by Robert Mizer's Athletic Model Guild. Run out of Mizer's home from the late 1940s on, the AMG published thousands of photographs of flawless male bodies. Ostensibly, these were model catalogues for artists or celebrations of health and fitness, but we all know what they were really used for. Mizer's LA pad was packed with "gassy young studs" sporting Wild West and ancient Roman props and little else. This being the '50s, the gig was soon up; after one of his models was caught soliciting sex, Mizer was tried for prostitution. Although he continued his devotion to the male form until his death, in the mid '90s, hardcore porn made his work obsolete.

Mixing fictionalization, re-enactments, interviews with former models (including D'Allesandro and LaLanne), and AMG stock footage, writer/director Thom Fitzgerald's film captures a sunny blend of naïveté and sexuality, freedom and repression, that's hard to imagine today. For Mizer, sex was secondary to his obsession with beauty. Beefcake, a fun and informative exploration of a bygone era, seems a similar labor of love.

-- Michael Miliard

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