The Movie Report
Volume 29

#130 - 133
February 12, 1998 - March 5, 1998

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#133 March 5, 1998 by Michael Dequina


An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn poster (An Alan Smithee Film--) Burn Hollywood Burn (R) no stars
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The wildly overpaid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has written so many masturbatory fantasies for the movies that it was only a matter of time before he himself jacked off onscreen. And that's exactly what he does in his absolutely atrocious "inside Hollywood satire," which cannot even decide what its title is. Originally billed simply as An Alan Smithee Film, its "official" title is An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn. However, in the opening titles, the "An Alan Smithee Film" appears more as a possessory credit and Burn Hollywood Burn is given the showcase title treatment, not to mention that numerous sources refer to it as simply Burn Hollywood Burn. However, a dash (--) curiously appears after "Film," so I'll call this self-indulgent waste of celluloid is (An Alan Smithee Film--) Burn Hollywood Burn.

As far as I'm concerned, Eszterhas is a comic genius. It takes a certain gift to not only pen the notorious laff riot Showgirls but to also liken the lapdancing extravaganza as "a religious experience." But his comedic talent only shines through when he's blissfully, hilariously unaware--that is, when he's dead serious. Burn Hollywood Burn is written and conceived as a comedy, and this sorry excuse for a satire just proves the opposite point: "funny" Eszterhas is not only unfunny, but excruciatingly so.

"Structured" (using that term very loosely) as a mockumentary in three haphazardly labeled acts (titled "Missionary Position," "Whips and Chains," and "Doggie Style"--are we laughing yet?), the film details the disastrous making of the most expensive film in Hollywood history, the (fictional) action extravaganza Trio, starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan (all of whom appear in cameos--and undoubtedly regret it). The film's unctious producer (Ryan O'Neal) wrests control of the final edit from its director (Eric Idle), who wants his name removed from the project. The problem is, his name is Alan Smithee, and Alan Smithee is the Directors Guild-required pseudonym used for the director's credit whenever the true helmer wants his name removed. Apparently at a loss for options, Alan steals the only existing negative. What does he do with it? Three guesses (if you need a hint, read the movie's title again).

That's it. There's barely enough plot to fill the worst of Saturday Night Live sketches, let alone this movie's running time, which, at 83 minutes, is overlong by at least 82. But plot, or, for that matter, characters or witty dialogue, is of little concern to Eszterhas. Burn Hollywood Burn only exists to serve Eszterhas's own personal agenda, badmouthing just about everyone in the business (it's hard to tell who are his friends and who are his enemies--or is it that he just has no friends?). While this is certainly fun for Eszterhas, it is a torturous bore for the audience--unless there are some people who delight in the figurative sight of a shaggy, oversexed middle-aged man pleasuring himself. I'm all for wicked, mean-spirited humor--when it's funny. But nothing in Burn Hollywood Burn reaches even the snicker level. His idea of a running gag is identifying all the women as a "feminist" in the docu-style on-screen labels and repetitive jabs at former Creative Artists Agency head Michael Ovitz. And while I have never minded the inclusion of outtakes during a film's end credits, the blooper reel that closes Burn Hollywood Burn is so pointless and unamusing that I am seriously reconsidering my position on the practice.

(An Alan Smithee Film--) Burn Hollywood Burn is now truly an Alan Smithee film after director Arthur Hiller had his name removed. The scariest part of this story is that his original version of the film tested worse than this final edit cobbled together by Eszterhas himself. Eszterhas has joked that this Burn Hollywood Burn is "the most expensive home movie ever made," and like all of his intentially humorous comments, it comes off as far from a joke. Burn Hollywood Burn plays just as he facetiously said--as an extended home movie that may be fun for its makers, "stars," and their friends and family to watch, but a leaden bore to anyone outside the circle. Burn, Eszterhas, burn.

U.S. Marshals poster U.S. Marshals (PG-13) ***
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Sequels to popular action films are difficult to pull off as they are, and the odds are further stacked against them when (1) the original hero is nowhere to be found, and (2) the original was embraced by critics. This fact--and the failure of last year's tangentially related, critically lambasted sequel to Speed--makes the effectiveness of U.S. Marshals all the more surprising. An ostensible sequel to the Best Picture-nominated The Fugitive, the new film spins off Dr. Richard Kimble's determined pursuer, federal cop Samuel Gerard, in an entertaining adventure that could very well lead to a successful franchise.

Tommy Lee Jones, who won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Fugitive, once again plays Gerard, reinhabiting the role with the same infectious gusto and zeal he brought to the original. Once again, Gerard, this time reluctantly teamed with government special agent Royce (Robert Downey Jr.), is chasing after a fugitive, an assassin (Wesley Snipes) known at various points as either Mark Roberts, Mark Warren, or Mark Sheridan. Sheridan (as which I will refer to him) had been imprisoned for the murder of two government agents, and, with the help of his dutiful girlfriend Marie (Irène Jacob), he attempts to elude the ever-focused Gerard and--yes--clear his name.

Director Stuart Baird and screenwriter John Pogue follow The Fugitive's rough outline fairly closely, and a couple of scenes are direct analogues to ones in the original. In a spectacular scene, Sheridan makes his escape after a plane crash, much like the original film's signature train wreck; and one memorably outlandish stunt echoes Kimble's daring leap from a dam. As a whole, though, the new film does not nearly measure up to the original. Snipes, as usual, is charismatic and plays his role well, but his character is not as fascinating and complex as Harrison Ford's Kimble. Sheridan has none of the emotional baggage that shaded Kimble; he simply wants, as he calls it, "righteousness." Kimble, on the other hand, was continually racked with guilt over his wife's death. The emotional angle between Sheridan and Marie is a big zero; Snipes and Jacob muster little chemistry, but that is due in part to the fact that they do not share too many scenes.

On its own terms, though, the diverting U.S. Marshals makes for a promising "pilot" for a potential Gerard series. Jones is obviously energized by the more physical role Gerard plays in this installment, and while his pacing is not as tightly wound as that of Andrew Davis, the original's helmer, Baird crafts some suspenseful and exciting chase scenes without resorting to gratuitous bloodshed. A few climactic plot developments are a bit contrived, but Baird and the able cast glide through them with enough panache that they are not a problem. Slick, well-made, and fun--The Fugitive was all this and much more, but even without that something extra, U.S. Marshals gets the job done.

In Brief

Dark City poster Dark City (R) ***
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For most of its running time, Alex Proyas's Dark City plays a lot like its trailer: visually spectacular and atmospheric... but wildly incoherent. Rufus Sewell plays an amnesiac man searching for the keys to his past in the titular metropolis, which happens to be overrun by the Strangers, a ghostly, bald, supernaturally-powered alien race aided by a human scientist (Kiefer Sutherland). Meanwhile, a serial killer preying on prostitutes is pursued by a police detective (William Hurt), who aids Sewell's torch singer wife (the underemployed Jennifer Connelly) in her search for her missing husband.

Answers do come, as do a lot more questions, and, in time, Dark City comes together--not so much as a straight-forward piece of storytelling but a visionary slice of visceral experience. Proyas, an astoundingly imaginative visual stylist, has created the awe-inspiring world to be committed to film in recent years, a world that, thanks to a late-inning plot revelation, evolves into something even more striking. I won't give away any more of the story, but it involves the search for the human soul, which lends this otherwise impressive film a dispiriting irony--for a film about the nature of the human spirit, there is barely one in evidence onscreen; the characters are all faceless ciphers (but, to be fair, that could be intentional). So while the senses are more than satiated by Dark City, the human connection it so ardently strives for never materializes.

No Looking Back poster No Looking Back (R) **
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After making his mark with a pair of light, amiable romantic comedies, the Sundance Fest award-winning The Brothers McMullen and its bigger-budgeted but less satisfying retread She's the One, it is only natural that writer-director-actor Edward Burns would want to turn his attentions to something more serious. He should stick to comedy. Lauren Holly stars as Claudia, a small-town waitress whose seemingly ideal life with live-in love Michael (Jon Bon Jovi) is upended with the return of ex-boyfriend Charlie (Burns). The problem with the film is not that the story is familiar but that its execution is so familiar, not to mention slow, with nary a trace of the wit that sparked Burns's previous two efforts. The entire cast does a respectable job, especially Bon Jovi, whose surefootedness is a bit of a surprise, but it is hard to get involved in these people's lives when there isn't much life to their story.

Palmetto poster Palmetto (R) **
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Wrongly imprisoned ex-con (Woody Harrelson) gets seduced into an elaborate faux-kidnapping-and-blackmail scheme by a femme fatale (Elisabeth Shue) married to a wealthy older man. Sounds like promising, if rather by-the-book, film noir, but the entire affair is done in by director Volker Schlondorff's plodding sense of pace, a plot that takes one twist too many, and the countercasting of Shue as seductress and Gina Gershon as Harrelson's nice girlfriend. Perhaps this was an intentional casting twist, but it doesn't quite work. Gershon is passable, if notably subdued, but Shue, appearing uncomfortable and distracted and trying a bit too hard, comes off as more camp than vamp.

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#132 February 27, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Twilight poster Twilight (R) **
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Three, count 'em, three Academy Award winning thespians in prime form--Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman--lead the cast of Robert Benton's Twilight. While that would appear to be enough to distinguish the film, Twilight is curiously missing the one element that should be a mystery-thriller's stock-in-trade: the element of surprise.

But I suppose Twilight does hold some surprise in its lack thereof. The story is not without promise. Burnt-out former cop, ex-private investigator, and recovering alcoholic Harry Ross (Newman), has been in the exclusive employ of married actors Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Sarandon) ever since rescuing their rebellious young daughter (Reese Witherspoon, whose character's major contribution is appearing topless) from an illicit Mexican getaway with an older lover (the ubiquitous Liev Schreiber) years before. As the poster's tagline goes, "Some people can buy their way out of anything. Except the past." This dark past starts to come to light when the cancer-stricken Jack enlists Harry to drop off a stash of money to a woman at a seedy apartment. Instead of finding the woman, Harry finds a gravely wounded, gun-toting man, which leads to the reopening of the mystery behind years-ago disappearance of Catherine's first husband.

Benton and co-scripter Richard Russo run into trouble once the set-up is out of the way. While they infuse the proceedings with an appealing sense of humor, and Newman's Harry is an unconventionally self-effacing hero, the story's would-be twists are obvious and telegraphed, and to call its resolution a "payoff" is to suggest a satisfaction that it does not deliver. Benton and, surprisingly, cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (who created the gorgeous palette of Krzystof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy) botch the atmosphere, which is much too light to create an appropriate aura of mystery; only Elmer Bernstein's evocative score generates the right effect. At the very least the top trifecta of Newman, Sarandon, and Hackman turn in terrific work, but, again, where is the surprise in that?

It is nice to see three fine actors in the upper reaches of age headline a major project from such a youth-obsessed industry. As refreshing as that fact is, though, it is dispiriting that the film they are given to carry is as unsatisfying as the dull (and dully titled) Twilight.

In Brief

Mrs. Brown poster Mrs. Brown (PG) *** 1/2
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Sometimes chaste passions are the grandest of them all, and that is certainly the case in John Madden's moving study of the true-life friendship between Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench, Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for Best Actress) and her devoted servant, Scottish highlander John Brown (Billy Connolly). Mired in an inconsolable rut of grief since the passing of her beloved husband Prince Albert, Her Majesty is only able to regain spiritual live after the arrival of Brown, a former intimate of Albert's. Their closeness is looked at with disdain by her family and members of Parliament, who scheme to wrest political power away from the absent monarch. That side of the story is less than captivating; what does captivate is the marvelous Dench, who is able to plumb depths of emotion with single inflections and subtle gestures. She and Connolly (best known to American audiences from his work on the lightweight TV sitcom Head of the Class) make one of last year's most memorable screen duos, crafting a highly resonant testament to the redemptive power of love--one that transcends traditional romantic definitions.

Oscar and Lucinda poster Oscar and Lucinda (R) ***
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Gillian Armstrong's lush adaptation of Peter Carey's Victorian Era-set novel, nominated for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, tells a most unusual love story between two unconventional characters: British minister Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes) and Australian heiress Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett), who have one thing in common--their wild, uncontrollable passion for gambling. Naturally, the two eccentrics fall in love, and they merge two of their more dissimilar obsessions--Oscar's with God and Lucinda's with glass--to engage in a wager more risky than their love affair: the building and transporting a church made of glass across Australia's rough landscape.

Fiennes and Blanchett have a special magic and air of giddy humor about them when they are together. But Armstrong and scripter Laura Jones take much too long uniting these two perfectly matched misfits. The pair's respective backstories are interesting enough, but they are rendered flat once their fascinating relationship begins. Also, Fiennes's performance is mannered to the point of annoyance in these early stages; the glowing Blanchett, however, is a delight to watch from the get-go.

Ulee's Gold poster Ulee's Gold (R) *** 1/2
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Peter Fonda's Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning portrayal of Florida beekeeper Ulee Jackson is a masterpiece of restraint, confident and finely etched, understated yet always in control. The same can be said, to a lesser degree, about Victor Nuñez, who wrote and directed this thoughtful drama about how the emotionally wounded Ulee tries to save his crumbling family--granddaughters Casey (Jessica Biel) and Penny (Vanessa Zima), incarcerated son Jimmy (Tom Wood), and his deeply troubled wife Helen (Christine Dunford)--from destruction. Nunez resolution of Ulee's family's dysfunction is a bit too pat, but Fonda shades his character with such a densely layered world-weariness that even the happiest, cheeriest ending would carry a complex emotional ambiguity. Leading the able supporting cast is Patricia Richardson as the caring doctor next door, displaying a dramatic range never hinted at in her ongoing work on the hit TV sitcom Home Improvement.

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#131 February 19, 1998 by Michael Dequina


The Real Blonde poster The Real Blonde (R) 1/2*
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A woman's face, an arm, some pumped-up pectorals, blond hair, a man's sad face, slender legs, a random hand here and there. As the opening credits of Tom DiCillo's The Real Blonde unfold, these scattered, fractured glimpses eventually come together to form the image of a bikini brief-clad man on his knees clinging to a nurturing woman, his head concealing her unclothed breasts. If only the rest of this formless, aimless ensemble comedy assembled so coherently.

Joe (Matthew Modine) is a waiter/struggling actor too proud to take gigs in commercials or soap operas. He's feeling somewhat dissatisfied with his relationship with his live-in love, Mary (Catherine Keener), who holds some subconscious hostility toward the male gender. Mary, a makeup artist, regularly works on model Sahara (Bridgette Wilson), who is obsessed with the underlying messages in Disney's The Little Mermaid. The bottle blonde has a turbulent on-again, off-again relationship with Bob (Maxwell Caulfield), a soap actor who yearns for the taste of a real blonde, which he finds in co-star Kelly (Daryl Hannah). As the film unspools, a variety of other characters pass through: fashion photographer Blair (Marlo Thomas); Mary's shrink (Buck Henry) and self-defense instructor (Denis Leary); Joe's casting agent (Kathleen Turner) and hardass boss (Christopher Lloyd); and a mystery woman (Elizabeth Berkley) who keeps on crossing Joe's path.

Where exactly does all this go? That's a question best posed to writer-director DiCillo, who doesn't appear to have the slightest clue himself. His meandering, largely unfunny script and direction are like hopelessly lost drivers, turning into dead-end narrative streets only to reverse course and hit another creative cul-de-sac. And another. And another. At one point Bob, frustrated with the soap scripts, complains to the head writer (Jim Fyfe) that his and Kelly's characters keep on going in circles, with no hint of development or growth. That is most certainly the case here. Joe gets a job and ultimately botches things; he and Mary bicker; they make up, only to have the pattern repeat itself. Unhappy with his bottle blonde, Bob gets his real blonde but is unsatisfied; he returns to the faux and is still unsatisfied. If there is a point to all of this, DiCillo dances around it, spending his time on apparent digressions that, as it turns out, aren't digressions at all.

The Real Blonde is not without some amusements. It does have the occasional funny line and situation; Leary, Henry, Lloyd, Steve Buscemi, and Dave Chappelle shine in their small roles; Keener is a likable, refreshingly earthy lead; Berkley's appearance is mercifully brief (she receives outrageously prominent billing and ad placement for a ten-minute role); and there is the irony of having Caulfield play a wildly popular soap star who makes the ratings skyrocket (last year, the actor was fired from the daytime drama All My Children after a scant six months--due to lack of viewer interest). But on the whole, The Real Blonde is a frustrating sit that lives up to the stereotypes of its title--it may be glossy on the surface, but there's nothing going on inside.

Senseless poster Senseless (R) * 1/2
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Marlon Wayans is a very talented physical comedian, and it is that gift that brings Senseless moments of life. Alas, moments are simply that, moments, which are not enough to lift this fantasy/comedy above its one-joke premise.

Granted, that one joke is initially amusing. When Wayans's Darryl Witherspoon, an economics major at Stratford University, hits some dire financial straits, he becomes a guinea pig for a experimental drug that heightens all five senses. After some initial side effects and problems controlling his superhuman senses, Darryl learns to enjoy the benefits of his abilities and uses them to land a position at a highly esteemed corporate firm.

At this point, the film sounds more like Senseful than Senseless, but through some turns of the plot, Darryl finds himself only able to use four of his five senses at once, essentially leaving him--yes--senseless. This sets up some showcase moments for Wayans's gift for physical comedy, especially when Darryl loses his sense of feeling and his body goes completely, hilariously limp. But these gags, and the gag behind the entire movie, quickly grows stale. Once Darryl is shown without the use of all of the senses, instead of exploring any new comic territory, director Penelope Spheeris and screenwriters Greg Erb and Craig Mazin take the easy way out and simply recycle each form of senselessness. Wayans approaches each go-round with gusto, but by this point he's simply treading water for the rest of the film's unfunny duration.

Senseless would not be as problematic as it is if it didn't strive to be anything more than a comic trifle. However, the raucous and often raunchy comedy is wrapped in a blanket of bogus sincerity. Darryl goes through the experiment in order to help his cash-strapped family, and this "serious" angle seems to come from an entirely different movie. Unlike Wayans's last starring vehicle, the surprisingly effective (and serious) The 6th Man, the "emotional" content of Senseless is forced and unconvincing. Any attempt at anything more substantial than broad comedy fizzles--Darryl's romance with Janice (Tamara Taylor), a young woman who yearns for a man who is true to himself, does not generate sparks of any kind.

Once his WB television sitcom The Wayans Bros. comes to an end, the genuinely funny Marlon Wayans has a promising big-screen future ahead of him. But if he continues to associate himself with projects as flat as Senseless, his film career could go the way of his once-promising older brother, Damon, who is now set to make his comeback--on television.

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#130 February 12, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Sphere poster Sphere (PG-13) **
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Barry Levinson's adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Sphere has more in common with the story's focal otherworldly orb than just its title. The sphere is luminous and hauntingly beautiful on the surface, with its interior kept alluringly, frustratingly unclear--much like the superficially diverting but ultimately disappointing film itself.

A four-man team comprised of psychologist Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), biochemist Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), and astrophysicist Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber) is recruited by the government to investigate the wreckage of a crashed spacecraft at the bottom of the ocean. Inside the spacecraft, the team discover a giant, glowing, golden sphere of unknown origin. But soon after this discovery, strange, life-threatening occurrences befall the team in their undersea station, from the appearance of giant sea creatures to online contact with a possibly extraterrestrial lifeform.

This is a solid jumping-off point for a intelligent, suspenseful sci-fi thriller, and while there are some very effective moments, the murky script by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio keeps Sphere from taking on a defined shape. Sphere does eventually offer answers to its mysteries, but the information is often too unclearly stated and clumsily delivered. Tune out for one second, and one crucial, isolated line of dialogue that reveals one of the film's key mysteries is lost, the information never to be repeated again. One more irksome miscalculation was the division of the action with chapter title inserts, such as "The Surface," "The Deep," "The Spacecraft," and so on. I suppose the purpose was to underscore certain important parts of each section, but the chapter divisions hamper the building of any suspense, which is hard to sustain once an obtrusive title card appears.

But Levinson is able to overcome that start-and-stop rhythm and gradually build tension, resulting in some memorable shock scenes. The film's final act, where suspicion is hovers over all of the central characters, is particularly tense and well-acted by the three above-the-title stars. It is quite refreshing to see a science fiction film that relies more on wits and psychological terror to drive its climax than visual effects (though the effects are quite impressively handled).

Ultimately, Sphere ends up running out of gas before the film reaches the end of its two-hour-plus running time. After the strong climax, the film drags on for about another 15 minutes, blunting the impact of all that went on before with a finale that, while well done technically, is on the cornball side. Much like the mysterious object that lends the film its title, Sphere offers its share of surface delights, but what exactly lies underneath--if anything at all--is left up to question.

In Brief

Afterglow poster Afterglow (R) **
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Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller) are unhappily married. She is desperate to have a baby and starving for sex; Jeffrey, an uptight stock analyst, somehow can't work up the same passion for her as he does for older women. Phyllis (Julie Christie) and Lucky (Nick Nolte) are also unhappily married. The former film actress hasn't had much interest in sex since her daughter ran away years ago, allowing verile handyman Lucky to sow his wild oats with clients while at their homes. When Marianne needs a handyman, it comes as no surprise whom she (coincidentally) calls and what ensues.

Alan Rudolph's romantic roundelay sounds a lot more interesting than it plays. The crisscrossing of affairs does not go in any particularly surprising directions, and the story's ultimate resolution is far from satisfying (actually, it's baffling). The performances are uneven, ranging from shrill (Boyle) to adequate (Miller and Nolte) to very good (Christie). But as effective as Christie is in bringing Phyllis's angst and insecurities to life, her recent Best Actress Oscar nod was less than deserved; it is solid work from a veteran who has made scarce onscreen appearances in recent years, but not exactly what I would consider one of the top five lead female performances of 1997.

The Apostle poster The Apostle (PG-13) *** 1/2
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On the other hand, Robert Duvall deserves his Best Actor nomination--and the statuette itself--for his tour-de-force performance in this absorbing drama, which he also wrote and directed. After sending his straying wife's (Farrah Fawcett, maintaining her dignity for a change) boyfriend into a coma with a baseball bat, devout Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey flees his Texas hometown. Along the way undergoes a spiritual rebirth, christening himself the Apostle E.F. and setting up a church in a small Louisiana town as the law slowly but surely closes in on him.

For most of its running time, that is exactly what I thought about The Apostle--slow, but sure (of hand). Duvall takes his time telling this very simple story and exploring the contradictions of his fascinating character (for someone so religious, Sonny can sin with the worst of them). But the viewer's patience is richly rewarded with the film's final act, an extended oratory that is shocking in its unbridled, electrifying energy and raw emotion. This go-for-broke display of the writer-director's acting talents could be seen as shameless showboating, but each move, each inflection of the voice is so deeply felt that its undeniable power resonates long after the film is over.

Deconstructing Harr poster Deconstructing Harry (R) ** 1/2
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In the annual Woody Allen project, the neurotic one stars as Harry Block, a prickly, sex-obsessed writer whose successful professional life is in direct contrast to his turbulent personal one, which he mines for maximum literary potential. There is nothing new about a writer whose work reflects his own life, and the story is more than slightly self-serving on Allen's part, but the freshness of the film comes in his storytelling. Harry's own story is accented by brief glimpses of the author's work (brought to life by a stellar ensemble that includes Robin Williams, Demi Moore, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus); through these vignettes one sees not so much how his work reflects his life as how he manipulates his reality into a more tolerable fantasy. There are a number of laughs to be had here, not to mention a few knockout performances (Kirstie Alley, Judy Davis, and newcomer Hazelle Goodman as a former wife, a former lover, and a prostitute, respectively). Too bad it is difficult to really care about what is going on since such a thoroughly unpleasant character is at the center.

Love and Death on Long Island poster Love and Death on Long Island (PG-13) *** 1/2
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"Two-time Academy Award nominee John Hurt... Two-time Golden Globe nominee Jason Priestley." This odd couple, as so trumpeted in the film's trailer, sounds like a bad joke. But the oddball pairing works wonders in writer-director Richard Kwietniowski's witty and warm adaptation of Gilbert Adair's cult novel.

Hurt plays Giles De'Ath, a widowed British writer who leads such a sheltered existence he has no familiarity with innovations of the 20th Century. It's a preposterous conceit, but any difficulty swallowing that idea disappears once the main thrust of the story is set up: after inadvertently walking into a showing of the American teen sex romp Hotpants College 2, Giles becomes hopelessly obsessed with its star, clean-cut heartthrob Ronnie Bostock (Priestley)--so obsessed that he travels to Ronnie's hometown of Chesterton, Long Island to try and insinuate himself into the young man's life.

As a comedy, Love and Death... is hilarious; featured scenes from Ronnie's not-so-impressive filmography are uproarious in their sheer ineptitude, and Priestley, bravely sending up his vacuous teen idol image, is perfectly cast. He and Hurt make a terrific, if wildly unlikely, team; Hurt, known for gravely serious roles like The Elephant Man, shows that he has impeccable comic timing. The biggest surprise of the film, though, is its heart. Giles's fixation on Ronnie is quite often played for laughs, but it is more than a mere joke; by the time the inevitable confession of love comes, the depth of Giles's emotions is truly palpable--and heartbreaking. Love and Death... won the Pierrots' Prize in Un Certain Regard at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so; funny and unexpectedly touching, it is a true discovery.

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