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Sharp Cookie

Cookie's Fortune
Directed by Robert Altman

Has any major American director had quite so many career swings as Robert Altman? Maybe not, but if there's one thing the last 30 years have made clear, it is that it's never safe to count Altman out. The mid- and late '90s have been particularly unfriendly to him. After his big comeback with The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993), he made three unsatisfying features in a row: Prét-`a-Porter, (1994), Kansas City (1996) and The Gingerbread Man (1998). Curiously, his best, and most acclaimed, film during this period was Jazz '34 (1996), a documentary offshoot of Kansas City.

Despite its unpromising title -- it took me till after the end credits rolled to notice the bad pun -- his latest film, Cookie's Fortune, although not one of his very best, is a sharp positive turn from its immediate predecessors. It's a strange, entertaining little film that derives its weird tension from a blend of comic and serious tones.

Cookie's Fortune takes place in Holly Springs, Miss., a friendly but sleepy town in the new South. The opening sequence cuts back and forth between two characters whose utterly contrasting actions and personalities will shape the plot. Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton) is a portly, middle-aged black man who looks after the ancient Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal); his opposite number is Cookie's niece, Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), who, in a parallel but vastly different way, looks after her slow-witted, childlike sister, Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore).

When we meet Camille, she is busy directing a rehearsal of the town's upcoming Easter pageant -- her own "improved" version of Oscar Wilde's Salome. The cast includes a goofy young sheriff's deputy named Jason (Chris O'Donnell), the town lawyer (Donald Moffat) and, as Salome, sister Cora -- whom Camille manipulates, both on- and offstage, as though she were merely a prettier, animatronic projection of Camille's own self-image.

As Camille ineptly puts her minions through their melodramatic paces, Willis, a little bit tipsy, is breaking into Cookie's house, because he has earlier promised to clean all the guns in her late husband's display case. He and Cookie are clearly the best of pals, continually needling each other, but it is obvious that, even stoked on Wild Turkey, Willis has a steadier grasp on things than Cookie, a potent matriarch whose mind and powers are beginning to slip away from her.

The next day Willis tries to convince Cora's daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), to come to Easter dinner. ("No turkey," he tells her, enticingly. "We're making catfish enchiladas!") Emma is the only one in the family Cookie can stand, and vice versa. At the same time, she's going through a rebellious testing of her independence, which involves cutting herself off from family, getting into minor scrapes with the law and indulging her raging hormones.

As it turns out, there is to be no Easter dinner. Without divulging too many details, let's just say that Cookie passes away, in a way that Camille considers scandalous and indecent. And, because Camille is the one who discovers the body, she takes it on herself to "restage" the crime scene, as if Cookie's death were just another amateur theatrical. As Camille monkeys with the evidence, you can see where this is heading: Willis' fingerprints are all over the guns. It's not as though anybody in Holly Springs entertains even the vaguest notion that Willis murdered Cookie; everyone knows that he loved her like kin. But because Holly Springs doesn't get many homicides, investigators from the big city arrive to help out. And, of course, looking unsentimentally at the evidence, they arrest Willis as the prime suspect, much to the irritation of local sheriff Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty). "How do I know he couldn't have done it?" Lester tells prosecutor Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance). "Because I've fished with him!"

For better or worse, Cookie's Fortune takes place in a South where race simply doesn't exist as an issue. The fact that Willis and Tucker are black and most of the other characters are white is never more than an amusing detail in their relationships, about as important as who has what hair color. And though it's refreshing to see a Southern tale where race is a nonissue, it's hard to believe that things could be quite this cuddly and mellow in a small town in Mississippi.

Like most Altman films, Cookie's Fortune is more about character than plot, more about the interconnections within a community than about a single character. Even in his less successful phases, Altman's critical reputation enables him to attract nearly any actor he wants, and few directors are as adept at making everyone look good -- even nonprofessionals like Nina Van Pallandt (in The Long Goodbye), Lyle Lovett (here and in several earlier films) and singer Rufus Thomas (seen in a small part here).

The performances in Cookie's Fortune are consistently engaging and appealing, particularly Dutton's, Beatty's and -- this should have stopped being a surprise by now -- Tyler's. Close's performance is the showiest and also the most problematic. Camille is quite simply a compendium of the most loathsome character traits -- she's vain, greedy, pretentious, snobbish, vindictive, hypocritical and almost preternaturally self-absorbed. "Narcissistic personality disorder" only begins to hint at how vile she is. A schedule board announcing "Salome by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon" may be basically a throwaway joke, but it perfectly conveys the extent of Camille's self-involvement.

Close, of course, can portray such a character to perfection; Cruella de Vil has nothing on Camille. The downside is that Close is almost too effective: Her character is so vile that it's hard, for the middle third of the movie, to watch her triumphantly wreaking havoc on everyone's lives. I was so overwrought at the sight of this horrible creature ruining everyone's lives that I almost wanted to walk out. As it turns out, that would have been a mistake: By its end, Cookie's Fortune has revealed itself as, well, a "feel-good" movie. But the extreme awfulness of Close's character can really prove a trial for delicate sensibilities.

Opens April 9 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Never Been Kissed
Directed by Raja Gosnell

Go
Directed by Doug Liman

Courage comes in an infinite variety of forms and faces, but who among us would be brave enough to go back and relive our high-school years, face the horrors of homeroom and confront hallways so fraught with danger that the most treacherous battlefield would look as placid as a meadow?

It is precisely these horrors that must be overcome by Josie Geller, the heroine of the modest but immensely likable new romantic comedy Never Been Kissed. When we first see her, Josie -- played with hilarious abandon by Drew Barrymore -- is standing on the pitcher's mound of a baseball diamond surrounded by a stadium full of people who, it seems, have come not to see a baseball game but to see her. Just how she came to be there -- and why -- is the subject of the film.

When we next see Josie, she has the pallor of a ghost and the wardrobe of a librarian. Her hair is a sort of dull brown and is pulled straight back into a knot. Marching toward her job as a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, she looks as if she might be at least a decade older than her 25 years. Still, Josie has ambition and has made it clear that she has no intention of spending the rest of her life shackled to a copy desk. She wants to be a writer and has dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged reporter.

Having decided that high school is the best place to find all the hot stories, the paper's quixotic editor-in-chiefcontinued on next pagecontinued from previous page(played as a sort of manic autocrat by Garry Marshall) instructs Josie to go undercover as a high-school student, stay long enough to discover some impropriety or scandal, then dash off a damning expose.

At first, Josie is thrilled to get the assignment. Even after brother Rob (David Arquette) reminds her just what a hell on earth high school had been for her, conjuring up hurtful images of her days as "Josie Grossie" to make his point, she remains steadfast in her determination to get the story.

Though at the outset Never Been Kissed may look like a picture about a journalist on the make, in fact, it is the story of an ugly duckling's transformation and pursuit of her romantic ideal. As Josie explains to her slutty workmate, Anita (Molly Shannon), she is holding out for the day when the right man comes along and gives her the first real kiss of her life -- the one in which she and her lover are in focus and the rest of the world around them is a blur. All of this romantic blather is just that: blather. And if Drew Barrymore weren't at the center holding it all together, the result could have been disastrous. But Barrymore is there, with her expert timing and her uncanny conviction, screwing up her face with an unrivaled collection of expressions.

In writing their script, first-time screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein don't seem to have had anything pressing on their minds, and they can be applauded for not trying to make it look as though they did. This is also true for director Raja Gosnell, a former film editor: His ambition seems to be to keep the action moving and the pace brisk. Barrymore, making her debut here not only as an executive producer but also as the lead in a full-fledged comedy, has miraculously been liberated from what little shyness or inhibition she may have had. The result is the discovery of a first-rate comic actor.

That Josie has already run the high-school gauntlet before doesn't seem to have given her much of an advantage. In fact, in the beginning, it looks as though history is going to repeat itself. Once Josie does make friends, it's with a crowd of brainy math geeks who call themselves "the Denominators." Led by a stringy-haired beanpole named Aldys (Leelee Sobieski), the Denominators become Josie's posse, but it's the other group, the popular girls -- led by the jailbait triumvirate of Kirsten (Jessica Alba), Kristin (Marley Shelton) and Gibby (Jordan Ladd) -- who hold the key not just to the upper echelons of popularity but to the best stories, too. Without a little help from Rob, who signs up for a second tour himself, and boosting her "coolness quotient" by dropping a few choice lies about her hell-raisin' past, these girls might have remained aloof and unavailable.

To keep tabs on Josie while she's on the job, the boss orders her to wear a tiny camera and a microphone. And back at the paper her colleagues spend their lunch breaks viewing Josie's "broadcasts" as if they were tuning in to a soap opera. And, as events develop, that's exactly what Josie's adventures begin to look like -- especially when Sam (Michael Vartan), the school's handsome literature teacher, begins to fall for her.

Never Been Kissed is not the sort of movie that will remain long in your memory. What is memorable, though, is the film's easygoing charm and innocent spirit -- and Drew Barrymore. With performances like the ones she gave in Home Fries, Ever After and even The Wedding Singer, Barrymore has established herself as an actor whose work is a constant surprise and delight. I can hardly wait to see what she does next.

After seeing Doug Liman's first effort, Swingers, I might have said the same thing about him. However, 30 minutes into a viewing of his second film, Go, I had doubts as to whether I could make it through to the end.

Set in the squalid underground of suburban Los Angeles, Go attempts to find comedy in the overlapping stories of a group of directionless young people during the 24-hour period leading up to a recent Christmas Day. Ronna (Sarah Polley) is a grocery-store checkout clerk trying to scrounge up enough money to keep from being evicted; Simon (Desmond Askew) is an opportunistic young Brit who makes his living as a small-time dope peddler; Adam (Scott Wolf) and buddy Zack (Jay Mohr) (always seen together) are soap-opera actors trying to work their way out of a little run-in with the law; Claire (Katie Holmes) is another checkout clerk in the same store where Ronna works. Along with her friend Mannie (Nathan Bexton), Claire is forced from her role as passive onlooker and into the squalor.

The lack, here, is not one of talent. While watching Go, which was written by John August, I was impressed by the fluid manner in which Liman moves from one point of view to another and the masterful way in which he shifts from the comic to the tragic to the absurd without losing control of the film's tone. The problem is Liman's motives. I get the feeling that what he wanted most was to step up a rung in class and join the other big-time filmmakers -- the Scorseses and Stones and Tarantinos. And if that was his intention, then he has failed miserably. Without a doubt, Go is a more ambitious movie than Swingers and has a greater sense of urgency and gravity. But what the filmmaker actually achieves with his sophomore effort is more the appearance of depth than the real thing.

The whole picture has the sort of edginess and hair-trigger volatility that Liman achieved only once in Swingers, when the member of one gang bumps into another and almost sparks a violent gun battle. The problem is that, even in Swingers, the scene doesn't work. You feel as if Liman were stretching for significance and falls flat.

In Go, Liman creates a vision of unrelieved depravity and amorality where none of the characters has a single redeeming human quality. It is nothing for Todd to ask Ronna to show him her breasts as a condition for selling her ecstasy, or, subsequently, for Ronna to dupe her customers by substituting cold medication for ecstasy. It follows, then, that later on, when Adam and Zack commit a more serious crime, their only concern is whether or not they will get caught. In the world of Go, there is only violence and self-interest, and, as a result, the vision of humanity is as false as the one in which good always triumphs over evil, where violence is always punished, darkness is balanced by light, and honesty is its own reward.

Go strains for significance in every frame. But Liman hasn't developed fully enough as either a filmmaker or a thinker to support its demands on us. One of the most appealing things about Swingers was the absence of pretense. It never asked to be taken for more than what it is -- which is a kind of extended exercise for actors. Swingers has style and a fresh sense of comedy but not a particularly strong continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagevoice or point of view. What Go adds to the mix is a set of easily adopted assertions about the soullessness and amorality of the country's young people. In his desire to be a heavyweight, Liman has lost the very qualities that made that earlier work so refreshing and original.

By contrast, it is a complete lack of anything other than the desire to entertain in director Gosnell and the people who helped him create Never Been Kissed that makes that movie such a joy and a delight. And that goes for Barrymore, too. All she wants to do is make us giggle.

Never Been Kissed and Go open April 9.
-- Hal Hinson

Dancemaker
Directed by Matthew Diamond

Early in his career, when asked to outline his choreographic credo for a book on modern dance, Paul Taylor self-effacingly deflected attention from himself by crediting his dancers. But within the ego-driven realm of American modern dance (in which companies are founded to carry the name and perform the works of an individual choreographer) it was only a matter of time before Taylor achieved living-legend status and became a prime subject for a movie about himself. Dancemaker, Matthew Diamond's regally titled documentary, skillfully avoids mythologizing either the man or his works, presenting the good, bad and ugly with equal weight, from Taylor choking up over the remembered death of a past company member to unflinchingly firing one of his current dancers ("I do what I want," he explains).

Ostensibly a chronicle of Taylor's career path from boy to artist, the film goes judiciously light on biographical details -- we learn merely that Taylor resented his foster-child upbringing -- and heavy on mesmerizing performance footage, shot both backstage and on; only occasionally is the effect made dizzying through an overabundance of camera angles. Fittingly enough, though, the film's most telling moments focus on the company dancers themselves and their mixed reverence for and dread of the deadpan, fiercely alienated man they unanimously consider "the greatest living choreographer." The tone of unquestioning adoration is lightened by Diamond's ability to depict the dancers as full-fleshed personalities who can both obsess over pleasing their idol and mentor during rehearsal and then stuff themselves with hors d'oeuvres at a swanky postperformance party.

An ominous but realistic view of the funding situation for dance threads its way throughout, making Dancemaker an honest and empathetic record of both a specific, spectacular choreographer and the endangered world of American modern dance.

Plays at 9 p.m. April 9 and 8 p.m. April 10-11 at Webster University.
-- Rachel Howard

The Out-of-Towners
Directed by Sam Weisman

Steve Martin says he doesn't want audiences to expect the same old Steve Martin whenever he stars in a comedy. But that means one thing when he's referring to Roxanne and L.A. Story, two inspired flights of romantic farce (based on his own scripts), and another when he's talking about Parenthood, Father of the Bride and now The Out-of-Towners, movies in which he wears out his arsenal of sullen ironic masks when confronting middle-class frustrations.

It makes you wonder whether, for all his comic brilliance, Martin understands what a grand creation the "old" Steve Martin was. The standup character may have worn an arrow through his head, but even then his persona was a total straight arrow who couldn't disguise his panic about making friends and influencing people in a hipness-saturated era. His everybody-join-in humor was the opposite of hip; its goal was finding the common bond of silliness that could unite us all. These days, in his New Yorker humor pieces and his comic screenplays and stage plays (particularly the hilarious Picasso at the Lapin Agile), Martin preserves that transcendent spark and augments it with another post-hip quality: genuine sophistication. But as the harried household head in The Out-of-Towners, the thrill is gone. His character is dull, and his performance is fatigued.

Martin plays an Ohio ad executive who has been sacked just when he and his wife (Goldie Hawn) are confronting empty-nest syndrome. A job interview at a big firm in Manhattan looks like a veritable lifesaver. In the 1970 original, Jack Lemmon was simply a rabid go-getter who wanted to move to New York as the next step up in his career. In her own eerily discombobulated fashion, his wife (played by Sandy Dennis) was a rock of wisdom who made him realize that '60s Gotham -- with its violence, garbage strikes and transit woes -- was a Gothic nightmare. This late-'90s remake reverses the original's meanings and relationships. Hawn, unlike Martin, doesn't want to mellow out. She convinces her husband that Rudy Giuliani's buffed and flossed New York is the land of opportunity and the change their stagnant marriage needs. Go East, middle-aged Midwesterners.

Lemmon's anal, status-driven franticness was hard to take, but he was the perfect foil to Dennis' magnificent ditziness, and he imbued the material with his own momentum. With Martin acting depressed and Hawn tamping down her sparkle to meet him halfway, this movie bobs lackadaisically from bouts of travelers' frustration (delayed plane, missed train, wrecked automobile) to random street crimes and numerous marital spats. Domestic ennui was the basis of a thousand Henny Youngman one-liners, but the sight of Martin ignoring the sex-primed Hawn hardly marks a promising liftoff for a full-length movie. Without a comic vision of New York or a male lead who rouses himself beyond muted sarcasm, The Out-of-Towners becomes a predictable series of wan variety-show skits: the proper housewife beguiling an LA agent to get into his swanky hotel room; the buttoned-up businessman relieving himself in Central Park and getting tossed into the slammer.

Hawn, a trouper, locates all the available giggles and wins applause for her big tantrum scene. And John Cleese is riotously funny as the ultra-officious manager of a luxury hotel: He sharpens each line as he spits out dialogue between clenched teeth; he even kicks like a cancan dancer while wearing borrowed high heels and a fur coat. Martin used to pull off similar feats of slapstick prowess, but in this film his physical moves are fuzzy. Is he too caught up in his character's glumness or merely deeply bored? If he keeps acting in vehicles as indifferent as this one, he may turn into one mild and lazy guy.

Now playing.
-- Michael Sragow

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Program 2

Monstrous behavior, on a large or small scale, defies comprehension as surely as it requires examination. When it exists on the magnitude of Stalin's systematic and brutal intimidation campaign against the Ukrainians in the 1930s and '40s, it must be confronted in exactly the calm, analytical manner of David Pultz's staggering Eternal Memory: Voices from the Great Terror. No images or words can adequately convey the atrocity of 20 million people killed and of thousands rounded up, put in local prisons, sent to labor camps, tortured and starved. Though not revolutionaries, these Ukrainians were deemed unworthy of living in a socialist society, whether they were capitalists, bankers, priests or peasants -- especially peasants, because Stalin considered all private ownership threatening and farmers difficult to control.

Meryl Streep's voice-over narration knits together remarkable archival footage, contemporary interviews and two noted historians' commentary. After briefly explaining the events of Oct. 25, 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, the focus shifts to exposing the tactics of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. Firsthand accounts particularize the calculated brutality and bring the story to the present exhumation of mass graves. Prosecutors use feeble excuses for their failure to charge anyone responsible for the atrocities -- the statute of limitations has expired. Zbigniew Brzezinski calls this refusal to empower a commission "one of the great moral failures of the post-Communist phase." Acknowledging that many willing executioners perpetrated this pogrom, Eternal Memory presents instructive, illuminating insights into the Ukraine's history and many other horrifying, contemporary situations.

The second half of this program on the former Soviet Union consists of two videos, just under an hour each. The better one is Boy Hero 001, which examines the myth of 12-year-old Pavlik Morozov, "hero pioneer of the Soviet Union" for betraying his father to the secret police in 1932. Children learned to adopt Lenin as their father, putting the state first. But a different picture emerges as this fascinating work examines all aspects of the myth -- its official, propagandistic function and the lies it masks.

In his remote Tartar village, Pavlik's father, an enemy of collectivization, steals grain from the state, forges identity certificates and sells documents permitting exiles to return home. After officials change laws so children can testify, the court sentences him to 10 years of hard labor. He is never seen again. Meantime, Pavlik is brutally murdered in a forest by "enemies of the people" (probably his own grandfather, cousin and younger brother). But an even more complex story unfolds: Pavlik is not a Pioneer (no cell exists in the village), his father abandons the family, a tax collector appears and court records suggest the conflict revolves entirely around land ownership. This intriguing work reveals ways the representation of Pavlik's story shifted with the political winds.

Finally, An Ordinary President satirizes recent events in Belarus by visually and politically comparing President Alexander Lukashenko with Hitler and Stalin. Lukashenko vows to root out corruption and then maliciously and maniacally works the system. A clever juxtaposition of images says what Lukashenko won't.

Never merely academic exercises, these three works provide a chilling, important indictment of human abuse.

Eternal Memory (in Ukrainian and Russian with English subtitles) shows at 7 p.m. and Boy Hero 001 (in English and Russian with English subtitles) and An Ordinary President (in Russian with English subtitles) at 8:30 p.m. April 13 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

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