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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
For the heat of midsummer, let's start with some intense dramas among these new DVD releases. On the action side, Mark Wahlberg excels as a top military and covert-ops sniper, urged from retirement allegedly to protect the President, only to find himself the patsy for a more devious plot in The Shooter. For most of the film he's on the run, scrambling to clear his name and expose the real culprits.

As usual, it's a cabal of the rich and powerful; also true to form, along the way there's a babe (Kate Mara) who helps the hero, and makes the story more enjoyable for the rest of us to watch. Good action, and a complex plot that should stimulate conspiracy buffs. A couple of the DVD's deleted scenes are worth a look, too.

Apparently, Wesley Snipes' marquee value is down, relative to Wahlberg's. Though the premise, plot and production values of The Contractor are quite similar, Wes only rated direct-to-video release for his beleaguered marksman's return to duty against international terrorists, landing him on the Most Wanted list after a double-cross. While he ducks the British authorities, all he rates is a helpful teenager, rather than a hottie like Mara. Wes and the script deserved better.

In Love, yet another hit man finds himself in a scrape. Though set in New York, it involves a continuation of Yugoslavia's recent ethnic struggles. "Uncle Vanya" is the professional killer who must fulfill one more contract before he can retire. When it goes awry, he's on the lam, surprisingly reunited with his ex-wife, who, unfortunately, has been dating an NYPD detective. Naturally, the cop's normal level of antipathy towards a rival from her past exponentially mushrooms when the guy's an internationally-hunted criminal. The plot takes a few appealing turns, if you survive the confusing time-skips in the first half of the story. Two complaints - the ending rings hollow, compared to the preceding action; and how can they create the gritty, street-level realism the script requires, when no one ever has the least bit of trouble finding a parking space anywhere in the Big Apple? That's just too much disbelief to suspend.

Moving to true-crime, Zodiac dramatizes the two-decade off-and-on pursuit of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California. Though he was never caught, the story of detectives and reporters chasing all the leads, and identifying various suspects plays pretty well, theatrically. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., and Mark Ruffalo anchor a deep, solid cast that maintains suspense and urgency for most of its somewhat excessive157 minutes. The cat-and-mouse game of arcane clues and taunts stimulates the mind, while transition scenes around San Francisco and the Bay Area replicate the effects on the locals in the killer's heyday.

History is written by the winners, but movies can still come from the losers. In that spirit, Blessed By Fire is a compelling grassroots Argentinean account of the battle over the Falkland Islands, as they're known to the Brits; the Malvinas, to their former South American occupiers. In some respects, this serves as a subtitled Saving Private Ryan, showing the shortcomings of the plan to capture and defend the island against vastly superior forces, the courage of and hardship suffered by the men in the trenches, and the psychological and physical scars of the ill-fated adventure. Fine performances and riveting battle sequences add up to a fine tribute to those who suffer most in the wars others start.

Less successful is Connie Nielsen's turn as a journalist bravely forging into volatile areas, hoping to make sense of the chaos in occupied Iraq, and shed light on whatever the truth may be in The Situation. Filmed in Morocco to replicate the environment, Nielsen struggles with an impossible script. Though her character is more sensitive to cultural issues than most Westerners, there's too much to absorb, especially since misdirection is an essential tactic for almost every faction. Besides the confusion of a war zone without battle lines, covert layers of ever-shifting alliances and hidden agendas virtually assure that no outsider will ever "get it"; most of the locals won't, either. Adding bits of romantic intrigue to her lot does little for the product, despite the timeliness of the topic. 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is truly an odd duck among films. The lead is an orphaned peasant in pre-Revolutionary France whose savant olfactory senses might enable him to become the greatest perfume designer in history. But his gift comes with demented obsessions compelling him to carve up a batch of lasses to distill their "essence" for the sake of his craft, without even a whiff (so to speak) of remorse. Wouldn't that pitch meeting have been a blast to attend? As weird as the premise sounds, they not only got the green light for filming, but convinced Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman to join the party. The result is some fine acting (especially Ben Whishaw's performance as the scent-seeking sociopath) and excellent period production values, propping up gruesome murders, and displays of nudity that are more gross than titillating. 

In case you hadn't noticed that creepy-cute Addams Family daughter Christina Ricci grew into a sexy, edgy grownup, Black Snake Moan will complete your education. The story is a far-fetched Tobacco Road character drama that only works, to the extent it does, because of the skills she and Samuel L. Jackson bring to the set. Ricci's the local nympho in a dusty Southern town. When her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake - surprisingly good in a non-glamorous role) leaves for the Army, she immediately relapses into drunkenly boinking whoever she can to fend off her dread of abandonment. Jackson's a small-time farmer and former blues singer, bitter about his wife running off with his no-good brother. When one guy smacks Ricci around and dumps her by the roadside, Jackson finds her. He decides to chain her up in his isolated house until he can teach her self-respect and restraint. Ricci sizzles in the summer heat, making Daisy Duke's outfits look like nuns' habits, by comparison. Jackson convincingly plays a character that would be hard for most to sell, including some pretty fair singing. But this story ain't even tryin' to be literature, folks; just savor the sleaze in all its blatant glory. 

Cynical about big business? Two dramas will reinforce your disdain. In The Last Time, Michael Keaton plays a hotshot salesman, stuck with breaking in a newbie (Brendan Fraser), who may have been a star in Ohio, but seems too soft to swim with the sharks in New York. Their company is desperate for sales to fend off a hostile takeover. Fraser is just as desperate to succeed, since his sexy wife (Amber Valletta) resisted moving away from home. Keaton first resents the kid; then he falls for the wife, and guiltily tries to juggle all the personal and business irons in his fireplace. A couple of plot twists that many will see coming at least show some effort to make the story memorable. Actually, former model Valletta usually does that on her own. 

The Method is a subtitled Spanish mind-game for both cast and audience. Seven applicants for an executive position with a Madrid corporation show up for interviews. But they're all placed in one room with a computer terminal for each, and informed electronically that a series of exercises will eliminate six of them. Or maybe five, since one just might be a "plant", rather than a rival. The rest is a series of psychological dances, as the diverse set of candidates tries to figure out the "rules", alternately helping and competing with each other. Two of them had a brief romantic fling a few years earlier, adding an extra dimension. The efficiently-directed script is very cleverly crafted for character development and suspense.

The last imported drama is a quiet little subtitled road/buddy film, Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures. Set in the early 1940s, a young German drives around the drought-plagued boonies of eastern Brazil, selling the new wonder drug, aspirin, to the locals by showing short films - something most had probably never experienced. He picks up a guy hitching to Rio in search of a job who becomes his assistant and friend. Unfortunately, the Nazis attack some Brazilian ships, forcing them to declare war and order all Germans living there to report for deportation or detention. Our nice young protagonist has no desire for either, and I'm not about to tell you what happens. Fine, understated acting and pristine locations enhance the story, earning the film numerous awards at international festivals.

Less satisfying is Our Very Own, in which a handful of attractive teens in Shelbyville, Tennessee, decide their ticket out of town will be to catch the eye of Sondra Locke, when she comes home to premiere her latest movie. (Locke, who co-starred with Clint Eastwood in several films and lived with him for many years, is actually from there.) We follow them, their parents and assorted other townsfolk through a variety of personal problems, preparing for the Big Show and the chance to have their lives changed by meeting a star who escaped. Allison Janney, Keith Carradine and Cheryl Hines lead the way among the adults; Jason Ritter, Hilarie Burton and Beth Grant all seem like stars of the future, but not in this slow-paced vehicle that plays out like a collage of scenes, rather than a cohesive feature.

Finishing with a few comedies, my fave is the highest-grossing movie in the history of Hong Kong cinema, Kung Fu Hustle. In this expanded DVD release subtitled Axe-Kicking Edition, those who've already savored the outrageously campy mayhem and lowbrow comedy of the film or first DVD release can add to their pleasure with new extras - especially outtakes from a Comedy Central interview with writer/director/star Stephen Chow, and other features showing not only the artistry and complexity of the stuntwork, but the homages to Hong Kong's earlier martial arts flicks. The action, comic relief, and sound track seem even more entertaining on repeat viewing. At least it works that way for me, and should for any fans of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and other Asian masters of the genre. Chow may be Hong Kong's Quentin Tarantino.

In Everything's Gone Green, Paolo Costanzo (you most likely know him as Joey Tribbiani's earnestly nerdy nephew on the ill-fated sitcom Joey; if not, think of him as Canada's answer to Elon Gold, in case anyone ever asks the question) plays a nice-guy loser in Vancouver who's just been fired and dumped. He lucks into an easy job with the provincial lottery, interviewing winners for publicity to stimulate sales. He meets a woman who might be a soulmate, but she's already seeing a jerk. When her guy learns about Paolo's job, that inspires a new scam that gives our boy some spending money, but comes with a downside...or several. The story includes several other subplots among the stars' families, adding up to an amiable, if not memorable, bit of entertainment. Vancouver's scenery is always a bonus, though most films and TV shows shot there pretend it's someplace more expensive. How nice to see the city get to play itself.

Driving Lessons is a British Harold and Maude lite, with Rupert Grint (Harry Potter's pal, Ron) as the nerdy son of a dominating mom (Laura Linney) who learns about life behind the wheel, and beyond, while doing gofer work for a ditzy former actress (Julie Walters), whose self-image seems far shinier than her reality. Some of the proceedings are amusing and endearing, but nothing special - especially considering the collective pedigrees of the cast.  

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