Film Clips

54. This is essentially Whit Stillman's Last Days of Disco and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights mixed together and mildly dumbed down. It tells the story of Shane (played in Greek-god-with-a-lobotomy style by Ryanne Phillippe), a beautiful New Jersey boy who comes to the big city and finds happiness in the drug-crazed party atmosphere of legendary discotheque Studio 54. While we're treated to endless images of tasty men cavorting shirtless in the club of dreams, the movie lacks substance beyond the free play of manly nipples. Mike Meyers is particularly awful as Steve Rubell, Studio 54's Quaalude-loving impresario, hamming it up like a drunker, gayer version of Austin Powers. Director Mark Christopher may have meant to make a downbeat, moralizing film, but in failing at that he at least makes something that shows how much fun the New York club scene was. There seems to be no consequence to any action in this fairy-tale version of the late '70s/early '80s: Shane's drug use is condemned but never gets him into any trouble; the marriage of his two closest friends is strained by their club life, but not terribly so; and even Rubell's prison sentence seems like nothing more than a brief vacation from the rigors of all-night partying. This film manages to capture the ambiance of the disco scene in a way that other films have not, making 54 a lightly pleasant nostalgia piece that casts an unwittingly kind and loving glance at that magical era that brought us Donna Summers, the herpes epidemic, and glittery spandex posing straps. --DiGiovanna

Film Clips COUSIN BETTE. Pre-20th-century period pieces can be frightening propositions: boring, slow-paced films about weak aristocratic women who faint at the mention of Heathcliff. Don't let that too-often-true generalization keep you from Cousin Bette, though. It's kind of like Terminator set in mid-19th-century France, as Bette (Jessica Lange) methodically plans the demise of those around her. Her family degrades her and consistently contributes to her rather skewed sense of self, but rather than throwing herself into a river she devises a plan of revenge that would make Alexis Colby proud. Bette's especially refreshing in that she doesn't need to use sex to get what she wants; she uses other people and their desires to achieve her goals instead. Elisabeth Shue and her bare ass co-star as her confidants and key elements in her schemes and provide moments of cheeky (sorry) humor. Really, the only offense in the whole film is a multitude of bad hair. So set your VCR to tape Melrose Place this week, and go to the Loft for two hours of backstabbing melodrama and sweet sisterly justice. --Higgins

DANCE WITH ME. In this piece that appears to have been penned by a standardized script-writing computer, a beautiful Cuban youth comes to America to find his father, the girl of his dreams, and a career as a celebrated ballroom dancer. I wonder if he will succeed?! The editing is perhaps the most atrocious I've ever seen in a big-budget production. One phone conversation is doubled in length by the fact that director Randa Haines can't seem to cut away from the last speaker fast enough, alternately leaving Vanessa Williams and male lead Chayanne standing there with strained "can we cut now?" expressions on their faces for several seconds after they speak each line. Even worse is the cinematography: The dance scenes are all shot in close-up. This travesty made me want to ask Haines if the word "duh" meant anything to her. All she had to do was rent any Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire movie to see how to shoot people dancing. Here's a clue: Include their feet in the shot; and while you're at it, why not include the rest of their bodies? Other than the fact that it successfully creates the illusion of movement through the rapid succession of still images, this film is a complete and utter waste of time. --DiGiovanna

THE GOVERNESS. Minnie Driver plays Rosina, a beautiful and spirited 19th-century Jewish girl whose life changes after her father dies, leaving the family destitute. To survive she must either marry a smelly old fishmonger, become a whore, or pass for a gentile and go work among the uptight goyim. So she becomes a governess (disguised under the vaguely Goth pseudonym Mary Blackchurch), and somehow manages to combine all three. She finds a position on an island and ends up falling for the man of the house, Mr. Cavendish (the utterly unappealing Tom Wilkinson), a brooding man of science. The two invent photography, oddly enough, but Cavendish is so repressed he freaks out because Rosina/Mary Blackchurch is forever wanting to get naked with him. (If you're dying to see Minnie Driver in the buff, this film is for you.) Meanwhile Cavendish's hot young son is swooning for Rosina, rolling around in her bedcovers and such, but she'll have nothing to do with him. This has the feel of a once-good script that's been homogenized and dumbed down by the movie studio for ease of digestion. First-time writer and director Sandra Goldbacher shows some spunk, but this ends up being just another one of those pointless period movies where everyone's always overcoming repressive times by having sex. --Richter

PERMANENT MIDNIGHT. If you hate Ben Stiller's acting, you'll want to avoid Permanent Midnight like it was a weekend with Richard Simmons. If not, this is definitely worth checking out. Although not long on originality, this true story of Jerry Stahl, the heroin-addicted writer for the TV series Alf, has some creative and engaging moments, including the best crack-smoking scene ever filmed. In the role of Stahl, Stiller does his entire quivering, double-talking, hyper-active shtick here, and it works well in conveying the excited desperation of someone on the edge of fame. Still, I know a good number of people who find Stiller unbearable, and this is him at his most intense. Maria Bello (of ER) turns in a creditable performance as the anonymous woman who finds him working at a drive-through burger stand after his rehabilitation; and Elizabeth Hurley plays her standard role as Stahl's beautiful green-card wife, but really it's Stiller's show. Even if you can't stand him, at least slip in for the last few minutes where, as Stahl, he goes on all the talk shows for the obligatory post-modern, post-addiction, post-recovery, public self-flagellation. --DiGiovanna

PI. A New York mathematician searches for a number that, when placed in a formula, can effectively predict the ebb and flow of the stock market. In the process, he may just be discovering the secret to life and God--by way of Wall Street, Hebrew scripture, spiral patterns, and the ancient game of Go. Darren Aronofsky produced this audaciously premised first feature on the tiniest of budgets, but he gets the most out of his settings by using gritty black-and-white photography, smart editing and high-contrast lighting. And dig that techno music soundtrack! In addition to technical savvy, Aronofsky also proves himself a first-rate director of ideas, effectively communicating the kinds of connective concepts that might be more at home in a book like The Tao of Physics than on the screen. It's too bad, then, that Aronofsky decided to reduce Pi's second half to a neat little plot. He throws ideas on the back burner and instead opts for chase scenes and insanity. Consequently, lead actor Sean Gullette, whose hand shakes even more violently than that of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, totally freaks out. Then the Robert DeNiro Rules take over: If there is hair, you must shave it; if there is a mirror, you must punch it; if there is a drill, you must use it on your skull; and so on. It's a silly finale for an otherwise stimulating film. --Woodruff

UNDER THE SKIN. This mediocre drama is a working-class English take on Waiting for Mr. Goodbar. Samantha Morton does a credible job as Iris, a young woman who tries a turn at sluttiness after the death of her mother, though she probably doesn't have quite the acting skills to pull off a role that has to make up for a rather thin storyline. The plot is mostly an excuse to string together a series of sex scenes and close-ups of Morton's face while she has "feelings." All of the close-ups are hand-held shots, which makes them a little hard to watch, though there are some nicely photographed sequences when the camera is allowed to pull back and expose the cramped quarters in which Iris takes her sexual odyssey. Certainly more engaging than most summer blockbusters, but it never rises to great heights. --DiGiovanna

WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE. This bio-pic about Frankie Lymon, doo-wop heartthrob of 1950s pop group "Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers," is so oddly intriguing that it overcomes many of its faults, including a penchant for melodrama and some goof-ball acting by Lela Rochon and Vivica Fox. The story of a teen idol's fall from fame and his marriages to three different women is framed by a courtroom sequence wherein the three wives fight over his estate. Told in flashbacks that start from the witness stand, Lymon's life is a compelling oddity, charting what happens to someone who must outlive his brief flirtation with celebrity. Larenz Tate's performance as Frankie has a get-under-your-skin quality that's perfect for both his overly-optimistic early years and nostalgic, junkie decline; and Paul Mazursky does his usual stand-up job as the paradigmatically sleazy record executive. Worth a look, though perhaps not the two hours that it asks for. --DiGiovanna

YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. Pessimistic filmmaker Neil LaBute follows up his much-lauded first film The Company of Men with this bleak and funny look at couple-dynamics. Everyone is named Cary or Jerry or Barry or Cherry or Mary or something here, and they all hop in and out of bed with each other in search of something like satisfaction. Of course, they just end up feeling more despair. LaBute really pushes things over the top with some wonderfully evil characters (Jason Patrick plays a wildly misogynistic gynecologist), and by stubbornly refusing all the characters the tiniest shard of redemption. It's mean, but it's funny too--sort of like if Woody Allen had written Carnal Knowledge. --Richter

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