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DECEMBER 7, 1999: 

Head On

In Trainspotting, Mark Renton sits on a rock and laments that "it's shite being Scottish." In Ana Kokkinos's Head On, one hears similar cloacal renunciations of national identity: "Of course we take it up the ass. All Greeks do." Here, though, the compensation isn't heroin but homosexual lust. Based on Christos Tsiolkas's novel Loaded, Head On depicts 24 hours in Ari's life: at home with his Greek family (brawling with his father, dancing to traditional music with his mother, reclaiming his vibrator from his sister) and navigating the darkened corners of Melbourne (snorting speed, sniffing amyl, picking up sailors).

Ari wants to break loose from the claustrophobia of both his Greek heritage and the closet. Problem is, he doesn't know how. As the film juxtaposes his own identity crisis with an immigrant-filled Melbourne where "everybody hates everybody else," we see him acting out on his frustrations by grappling in alley ways with repulsive men or clumsily and ineffectually trying to protect his sister from the advances of her Lebanese boyfriend. Like Trainspotting, Head On is a powerful rush of chaotic camera work and visceral images depicting a man's quest for selfhood in a world that's dragging him down from all sides. But here there's no resolution to "choose life" at the end.

-- Michael Miliard


End of Days

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Smith riding the same rail? You bet. Like Dogma, End of Days is about a soul of shaken faith who's reluctantly undertaken a mission to prevent the obliteration of earthly existence. Arnold plays an ex-cop turned security expert with a boatload of troubles: he's lost his family, he drinks too much, and he gets his ass kicked by a portly, gray-haired nurse. Turns out the Devil's in town (New York City) for the big millennium bash, and if he hooks up with the right girl at the stroke of midnight, all hell will break loose. The woman in question (Robin Tunney) unwittingly carries the mark of Satan, and only she can bear his child. Arnold gets caught up in the bloody mating ritual and pisses the Devil off by stealing his date one too many times.

In the hands of director Peter Hyams -- who does the photography as well -- the film looks great, but the plot is flat and uninspiring. What keeps things afloat is Gabriel Byrne as the pleasure-seeking Devil-in-the-flesh. Be it bedding a mother-daughter combo, punching out a priest, or denouncing God as "the biggest underachiever in history," he's a sheer delight. Arnold delivers the Arnold goods, but it's the Devil who gets his due.

-- Tom Meek


Caged Heat

On its original 1974 release, Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat became an immediate favorite of Marxist-leaning cultural theorists, who detected a left-wing, revolutionary agenda just under the surface of this steamy women-in-prison exploitation flick: the lumpen gals are multicultural, the honky prison officials (including British cult actress Barbara Steele, in a wheelchair) are insidious behaviorists. Even the apolitical Hollywood Reporter, weighing in on Caged Heat, came on like Foucault: "Prison is a ready metaphor for the repression of modern life, and the women who break their way out . . . suggest a positive, even militant reaction to sexist victimization."

Maybe so. But a quarter-century later, the genre stuff in Caged Heat prevails mightily over the Demme deconstuction of the genre. Comely damsels in jail being strip-searched and showering so that the audience can peep at tits and ass -- that's what the movie is about. Still, Caged Heat is definitely entertaining in a trashy way, because Demme, years before The Silence of the Lambs, is a talented filmmaker, Tak Fujimoto is a top-line cinematographer, and there's an energetic soundtrack by ex-Velvet Undergrounder John Cale. Also, there's an unusually fine ensemble of incarcerated hussies, including rough-and-ready blaxploitation actress Juanita Brown and, my absolute favorite, the ever-disrobing blonde starlet (where is she today?) Rainbeaux Smith.

-- Gerald Peary


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