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New releases: 'Last Castle' a prisoner of its own cliches

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2002

The Last Castle (R)

[Photo: DreamWorks Picture]
A rivalry between former Gen. Irwin (Robert Redford, foreground) and the prison warden escalates into an uprising in The Last Castle.

A court-martialed Army general (Robert Redford) butts heads with a military prison warden (James Gandolfini) who's jealous of his popularity. Typical prison uprising stuff with a patriotic slant to the baloney that probably didn't feel as cheapened before Sept. 11.

First impressions: "Little of The Last Castle provokes serious examination. It's no different from Cool Hand Luke, The Longest Yard and any other lockdown drama in which a charismatic prisoner brings down a tyrannical warden. The sense of deja vu is heightened by the fact that the convict savior is played by Robert Redford, who once served time as Brubaker. Some cliches are noteworthy, though. The Last Castle works best when the narrative slows down to Redford's aging pace instead of constructing rousers for the balcony. Mark Ruffalo, a breakout performer in last year's You Can Count on Me, is an obviously promising screen presence."

Second thoughts: The post-Sept. 11 flap about the film's poster art, a U.S. flag hung upside down in distress, helped The Last Castle surrender quickly at box offices.

Rental audience: Redford fans, prison drama junkies.

Rent it if you enjoy: Rules of Engagement, Brubaker.

The One (PG-13)

[Photo: Columbia Tristar]
Jet Li plays a dual role in an action-filled The One.
First impressions: "The movie offers brainless high-tech action without interesting dialogue, characters, motivation or texture. In other words, it's sure to be popular." (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Second thoughts: Not for long.

Rental audience: Martial arts maniacs.

Rent it if you enjoy: Kiss of the Dragon, Virtuosity.

DVD: New and noteworthy for digital players

Special edition Spielberg a study in 'A.I.'

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Special Edition)

The films of Steven Spielberg are usually worth admiring, but A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the first one worthy of in-depth analysis. Darker in tone and more casually futuristic than moviegoers expected from Spielberg, the movie tried to reflect the sensibilities of the project's creator, the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

[Photo: Warner Bros.]
David (Haley Joel Osment, left) and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) wander the streets in A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
The collision of Spielberg's warmth and Kubrick's cinematic chill was ugly to see. At least, at first look. A.I. grows on you, like Kubrick's films had to do and Spielberg's typically don't. Spielberg makes viewers fall in love with his art at first impression, but not this time, opting for some of the vagueness and boredom Kubrick manipulated so well.

The two-disc DVD presentation of A.I. gives a viewer plenty to consider, from character analysis to special effects and set designs that zoomed past our senses in theaters while puzzlement took over. In this case, learning to respect the craftsmanship behind the scenes makes a difference in appreciating the final result. It's a compliment to Spielberg's seamless presentation of often clumsy material. Like the best Kubrick films, A.I. demands to be deconstructed, not merely experienced. DVD technology offers the perfect opportunity.

A.I. is essentially Pinocchio redux with a robotic boy named David searching for the Blue Fairy to transform him into a real boy. Haley Joel Osment was shamefully overlooked in discussions of the past year's best performances, making David another clockwork orange, something that appears organic yet is eerily mechanical. David's evolving humanity unsettles his parents (Frances O'Connor, Sam Bottoms), and they abandon him.

David survives the Flesh Fair where unwanted Mechas (robots) are slaughtered for entertainment, clinging to the robo-prostitute Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) for support. The third act, when David's quest reaches its end, is still a letdown, but repetition and the second disc's background material help to pinpoint some problems and cope with them. Even the film's cuddly touch, David's lifelike stuffed bear Teddy, gains more respect than upon first inspection.

The second disc also contains interviews with Spielberg, Osment, Law and technicians such as special effects designer Stan Winston, whom we learn was a physical model for a Flesh Fair victim. No amount of revealed wizardry can make the vocal intrusions of Robin Williams and Chris Rock any less distracting. Gary Rydstrom makes a convincing case for his sound effects' importance in A.I.'s overall effect. Featurettes, storyboards and photo galleries round out the collection.

The bonus material is so alluring that the letterboxing's 1:85 to 1 widescreen ratio is disappointing, trimming off the edges of Spielberg's vision, especially in the striking Rouge City sequence. There will probably be other home video versions to come. A.I. may turn out to be the Spielberg film watched by more future generations than any other, if only because they'll still be trying to figure it out.

Rewind: videos worth another look

Blacklisted Salt a pillar among screenwriters

McCarthy-era victim Waldo Salt's interrupted career, with credits such as Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, is a worthy legacy.

* * *

Blacklisting in Hollywood during the McCarthy era killed careers. Screenwriter Waldo Salt was one of the survivors, developing a harder edge in his scripts when he returned from professional banishment after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.

That perseverance, along with the fact that Salt developed into a fine wordsmith, made him a role model for screenwriters who, although not blacklisted anymore, seldom get the respect they deserve in a celebrity-fueled industry.

Salt died on this date in 1987, but his reputation lives on each spring at the Sundance Film Festival where one of the most treasured prizes is the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Previous winners that later made an impact in theaters include Memento, You Can Count on Me, Big Night and The Waterdance. Not a bad legacy at all.

Salt's interrupted career made his filmography shorter than those of most celebrated screenwriters, but gems can be found on the list. Here are some suggested home video selections written by Salt:

Midnight Cowboy -- Salt's comeback began with forgettable productions such as Tony Curtis' Wild and Wonderful and the Cossack epic Taras Bulba. Then came the chance to adapt James O'Herlihy's edgy novel about two New York City hustlers bonding. The result was an Oscar for best picture, one for Salt's screenplay and one for either Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight that was stolen by sentiment for John Wayne (True Grit).

Serpico -- Salt teamed with Norman Wexler to adapt Peter Maas' book about a New York City undercover detective battling corruption in the ranks. Al Pacino's performance as Frank Serpico is one of his finest, and few cop movies have ever felt so authentic. Another Oscar nomination for Salt and Wexler, but The Exorcist won.

Coming Home -- Salt shared his second Academy Award with Nancy Dowd and Robert C. Jones, co-authors of the strongest antiwar material released during the Vietnam era. Jane Fonda symbolizes a nation losing interest in her gung-ho Marine husband (Bruce Dern) and finding comfort in the arms of a paraplegic war veteran (Jon Voight). Oscars also for Fonda and Voight.

The Day of the Locust -- Salt was friends with author Nathaniel West, giving him reason to handle his adaptation of West's novella with care. The Day of the Locust is one of the bleakest Hollywood satires ever, an apocalypse of creativity and humanity witnessed by an aspiring screenwriter (William Atherton). A terrific cast (Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Geraldine Page, etc.) makes it worth a search.

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight -- Jimmy Breslin's comical novel about a bungling New York crime family was the last of the pre-Godfather mob romps. Jerry Orbach (TV's Law and Order) is a hoot as Kid Sally Palumbo, but the wild card is Robert DeNiro in one of his earliest roles. Maybe his turn to comedy roles in recent years shouldn't be much of a surprise.

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