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SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: 

Autumn Heart

This film from director Steven Maler (the head of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) is a class drama playing dumb to social difference. In the mid '70s, we're told, a couple from the North Shore divorced and split up their four kids: junior with dad, the three girls with mom. Sixteen years later, mom (Tyne Daly) has a bum heart (nudge, nudge) and, from her hospital bed, sends her blue-collar daughters (played with dreadful emotional inconsistency by Ally Sheedy, Marceline Hugot, and Marla Sucharetza) to find her little son, Danny (local writer/actor Davidlee Wilson). As it turns out, dad (Jack Davidson) has made it big and Danny is now a grad student at Harvard. An hour and a half of socio-economic tension and embarrassment follows, with each scene feeling as if it had been borrowed from Bachelor Party. And that's just the problem. The conflicts and class characterizations all seem to have been nicked from the arsenal of an '80s class comedy: stuffed shirts are Harvard and working women are daytime TV. It's enough to make you lose heart. -- J.J. Braider


Whipped

With that title, what could you expect but a silly sexual comedy? In this quick 'n' dirty flick, Mia (Amanda Peet) shows four playa guys who's boss, giving them a taste of their own scamming ways. She dates and disses, captivates and cajoles, playing the saucy vixen role she's honed so well in her previous roles (WB's Jack and Jill, Simply Irresistible, Body Shots). The film is Peter M. Cohen's debut as a writer and director, and it shows. The four guy friends fit into cliché'd caricatures of guy genres (scammer artist, Type-A Wall Street golden boy, sensitive musician, married friend). And Peet herself seems more a boy-toy fantasy than a likely East Village lady.

Where this mostly boring film amuses, though, is in the fiery dialogue between the quartet during a ritualistic weekend wrap-up of "scams." You may ask who actually uses that word, but it's only the beginning of the laundry list of over-the-top ridiculous and raw language (e.g., "to stuff" "rail," well, you get the idea). Listening to the thesaurus of scamming slang, in fact, makes for some of the few laughs in this supposed "romantic comedy." Peet herself says it best in her closing monologue, where she reveals herself to be the true master in the art of the scam: "Next, please . . . " -- Nina Willdorf


Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents

Thanks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Soros Documentary Fund for sponsoring Meema Spadola's thoughtful and important non-fiction look at five families around America in which the parents are out-of-the-closet gays or lesbians. Spadola made splendid choices of which families to concentrate on, since each of the five mini-narratives is keenly dramatic, whether it's a devout Mormon family in Arizona faced with the coming out of the gay father or an African-American lesbian couple in New Jersey bringing up two sons who are being poisoned by their divorced father's homophobia. Although the stories are varied, some summations are in order. Gay and lesbian couples can make wonderful parents, adored by children who feel fine with two moms or two pops. Still, it can be damned hard for the children because of the disapproval of their peers. Some kids don't talk to friends about their parents; an Arkansas girl even gets physically abused at school. And though gay and lesbian parents most often have children who are straight, just as does the regular population, sometimes gay parents do have a gay child, as in the amusing last tale, where the butch mother becomes perturbed by her dyke daughter's San Francisco-style super-short haircut.-- Gerald Peary


The Way of the Gun

In his first foray as writer and director, Christopher McQuarrie revisits the hyper-verbal depravity and alienated cool that won him a screenwriting Oscar for 1995's The Usual Suspects. This time, two dirtbags (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) kidnap a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis), only to discover that the fat cat paying for the baby (Scott Wilson) is as nefarious as they come. In fact, it's impossible to trust -- or root for -- anyone in this post-Tarantino, Western-inflected noir, and at first the snaky, near nihilistic tale intrigues. McQuarrie wields an eye for detached absurdity (one scene uniting shrimp and an ultrasound video is especially inspired), and he spikes the requisite car chase with admirably fresh turns.

Yet forget about a Keyser Soze-esque sweetener: lacking the cerebral satisfaction of Suspects, this overcooked experiment in violent realism and anti-heroism lags into blood-soaked torpidity. By the time the inevitable, if blisteringly staged, fusillade of bullets erupts, it's a relief to see the bodies crumple. Finally, the end is near. -- Alicia Potter


Highlander: Endgame

This prequel has none of the elements that made Highlander, the cult hit of the late '80s, such an indie success. No soundtrack by Queen, no Sean Connery, and no plot cohesion. It does retain the basic premise: Scottish Highlander immortal Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) must defend himself from other immortals by cutting off their heads and consequently absorbing their life force. The game is like Survivor but with less intrigue -- two hours of vicious swordplay set to a soundtrack featuring Champions of the Universe. Director Douglas Aarniokoski pieces together several confusing flashbacks and sprinkles in clumsy long-winded exposition for the novice Highlander fan. The point, lost beneath mounds of unintentionally comedic special effects, is that Connor and his TV-series counterpart, Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), must team up to stop the most powerful immortal -- Kell (Bruce Payne) -- from winning the game. Well, we've all done things we're not proud of -- in Aarniokoski's case, it's padding a cult classic story into a 90-minute music video. -- Jonathan Stern


Water Drops On Burning Rocks

François Ozon's adaptation of a Rainer Werner Faßbinder play from the '70s finds slight 19-year-old Franz (Malik Zidi) disaffected from his menial job and his clingy fiancée (Ludivine Sagnier). He ends up in the sleek and stifling apartment of Léopold (Bernard Giraudeau), a middle-aged businessman of jaded and finicky appetites, and the pair run through four acts of campy Brechtian angst, with the help of the fiancée and Léopold's old flame (Anna Thompson), before tragedy intervenes. For all that it was a media and audience favorite at this year's Berlin Film Festival (the sequence where the quartet strip to their skivvies and boogie facing the audience was a particular hit, though it remains more a theatrical than a Godardian device), Ozon's movie seems a precious kind of curio today. Self-consciously self-contained, it's a mirrored box enclosing The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant within an episode of Friends. -- Peter Keough


Backstage / Turn It Up

Jay-Z's 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour was one of the most successful hip-hop package tours ever. There were no violent incidents and it made tons of money, silencing critics and paving the way for similar outings like the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour and the Up in Smoke Tour. First-time director Chris Fiore gets the whole thing on camera in Backstage, a standard behind-the-scenes tour documentary. By definition, it's for fans only -- though non-fans might easily be converted after watching the antics of this gregarious bunch, including Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, and Redman.

Backstage isn't exactly packed with performance footage. But what it's got is stellar, especially the Jay-Z posse cut "Can I Get A . . . ," featuring Amil and Ja Rule. The fun is in the down time, which the rappers spend drinking beer, yelling at one another, and messing around with groupies. Method Man and Redman get really high and start freestyling; DMX toys around with a remote-control car. Record-label honcho Damon Dash (who also produced the film) brings the party down a few times with his biz-savvy lectures, but altogether the film is a pretty outrageous piece of celebrity voyeurism.

In an interview from Backstage, 2Pac look-alike Ja Rule talks about the days before stardom, when he made a living dealing crack on the streets. That's the role he plays in Robert Adetuyi's Turn It Up, a dour look at the struggles of breaking into the hip-hop world. Diamond (Pras, the least-distinguished Fugee) is an up-and-coming MC who pays for studio time running coke deals with his buddy Gage (Ja Rule, channeling some of Pac's charisma in his acting debut). He's got a cokehead producer keeping his music from taking off, plus a host of personal problems: his mother dies, his estranged father starts freeloading off him, his girlfriend gets pregnant. And just as he's decided to give up drug running for good, Gage shows up with a wad of stolen cash to fund his CD.

Like the film, Diamond is all talk, no action. He's constantly praised for his mike skills, but we hardly ever get to see him rap. What music there is in the film isn't even that good, especially not compared to Pras's previous soundtrack smash, "Ghetto Supastar" (from Bulworth). Throw in some unfortunate melodrama between Diamond and Gage and Diamond and his father and you've got a hip-hop star vehicle that falls just as flat as Hype Williams's Belly, without any of that film's eye candy to save it. -- Sean Richardson


Love & Sex

Not-so-successful journalist Kate Welles (Famke Janssen), the beleaguered protagonist of Valerie Breiman's film, decides that her life has been a series of what-ifs taken and rejected -- affairs with men that fizzled. So when her imperious editor (Anne Magnuson) gives her till the end of the day to write an article about successful relationships that doesn't include detailed descriptions of blow jobs, Kate rambles into her tape recorder about her time with Adam (Jon Favreau), a bad painter and a big-bodied doofus who was the love of her life and, more important, her "best friend." Confusing matters are Adam's annoying personal habits, Kate's flings with a wanna-be Robert De Niro and a would-be bigamist, and Breiman's less-than-graceful flashback structure. About halfway through Love, you might realize that you've seen this movie before -- maybe not with Woody Allen, but certainly with John Cusack in High Fidelity. Which begs the question, is it progress when women switch roles with the whiny guys who struggle to understand them? -- Peter Keough


El Bruto

What pleasure! An extremely rare film by the Spanish master, Luis Buñuel, and in 35mm. Granted, this melodramatic potboiler from his long Mexican exile is a relatively minor work, heavier on plot than on irony or surrealism. El Bruto is the tale of a venal Mexico City slumlord who, in forcing his tenants to vacate their squalid apartments, leans on a short-of-brains slaughterhouse employee (perhaps his illegitimate son) to do his dirty work. The muscular thug bullies the leader of the tenants' revolt and accidentally kills him. Later on, he falls in love with the deceased man's virginal daughter but hides from her his heinous deed. Meanwhile, he's screwing the landlord's hussy wife, who becomes murderously jealous when she realizes El Bruto has fallen hard for another. Revenge!

Buñuel keeps the lowbrow story moving along briskly, and (interviewed in later years) he was totally unapologetic about his virgin/whore dimestore-novel dichotomy: "It is what it is. I don't know if I did or did not want to make a melodrama." Whatever, Buñuel threw meaty parts the way of two charismatic Mexican actors who never went beyond supporting roles in Hollywood movies: Pedro Armendariz, who played in John Ford's cavalry pictures, stars as El Bruto, Buñuel's Hairy Ape, and Katy Jurado, whom you may recall from Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, delivers a command performance as the James M. Cain-like spitfire spouse. -- Gerald Peary


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