St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Aliens and architecture

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

New releases

K-PAX (PG-13)

[Photo: Universal Pictures]
Kevin Spacey, left, plays a man claiming to be an alien from the constellation Lyra, and Jeff Bridges plays his skeptical psychologist in K-PAX.
Kevin Spacey plays Prot, a mysterious vagrant claiming to be an emissary from outer space. That's enough to get him institutionalized, where a skeptical psychologist (Jeff Bridges) searches for the truth. Explaining why the movie goes wrong requires blowing a key plot twist, so we won't. But this movie isn't as magical or inspiring as most viewers expect it to be.

First impressions: "Spacey is solid in Prot's lucid state, tossing off bemused comments about earthlings and eating banana peels. The performance falters from the first mention of hypnosis, leading the actor to regressed kiddie-speak and whimpering memories. Bridges handles the savior-who-needs-saving role well, although his presence recalls how Starman covered similar material in more satisfying fashion. At least that space cadet was heading somewhere we've never been."

Second thoughts: K-PAX was about as successful with consumers as Kmart.

Rental audience: UFOlogists, Spacey fans.

Rent it if you enjoy: Starman, dinner theater versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Life as a House (R)

[Photo: New Line Cinema]
Kevin Kline plays a terminally ill architect who tries to rebuild his house, and his life, in his final days.

An unemployed, terminally ill architect (Kevin Kline) decides to spend his final months renovating a Malibu Beach shack and repairing the relationship with his son (Hayden Christensen). Maudlin material raised to a level of respectability by Kline's strongest dramatic performance in years.

First impressions: "For everything that feels right about Life as a House, there's another factor to make viewers wonder why we're sticking around. Annoying detours into personal lives of people who don't matter seem like a screenwriter's lack of confidence in his core material. A fast rush to resolution for everyone involved is necessary only because script-building codes demand it. This movie is one rickety move away from being condemned."

Second thoughts: It's always gratifying when a film constructed solely for awards prestige doesn't get a whiff of Academy Award consideration.

Rental audience: Midlife crisis sufferers; Star Wars fans aching to get a look at Christensen, the next Anakin Skywalker in episode II.

Rent it if you enjoy: Eavesdropping on other people's problems; This Old House.

Videos worth another look

Two talents tie the knot

Moviegoers have always been fascinated by Hollywood's celebrity couples, from Gable and Lombard to Tom and Nicole. But the film industry's first marriage of superstars occurred on this date in 1920 when silent film icons Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were married.

Fairbanks was the debonair swashbuckler of such films as The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood, while Pickford was America's first sweetheart, establishing the glow later cast on such stars as Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. In collaboration with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, they founded the United Artists studio, a blow struck for all actors whose careers were at the mercy of high-powered producers in that era's studio-driven system.

Together, Fairbanks and Pickford were Hollywood's first royalty, and the lush mansion they named Pickfair (a combination of their names) was their kingdom. They were among the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that annually awards Oscars. Pickford won one of those statuettes herself in 1929, and both won honorary Oscars later.

Like so many celebrity marriages, however, this one didn't last. They separated after 13 years of marriage and divorced in 1936. A few weeks later, Fairbanks married former chorus girl Edith Hawkes, his partner until his death in 1939. Pickford continued working as an actor, writer and producer until 1935, when she retired with 236 film credits. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979 at age 87.

Here's a home video toast to those 1920 newlyweds:

The Black Pirate -- Fairbanks performs some amazing bits of derring-do as a son avenging his father's murder by infiltrating the pirate crew that killed him. Fairbanks seldom, if ever, used a stunt man. This is one of his most athletic performances.

The Gaucho -- Fairbanks suavely protected a religious shrine from a cutthroat Argentine general in this 1927 potboiler. Pickford has an uncredited cameo as the Virgin Mary.

Coquette -- Pickford won a best actress Oscar in 1929 as a flirty Southern belle during the Jazz Age. This was her first foray into the new technology of talking pictures.

My Best Girl -- A stock clerk (Pickford) falls in love with the boss' son (Buddy Rogers), who's supposed to marry a socialite. Brisk romantic comedy.

Tess of the Storm Country -- One of Pickford's best tearjerkers, a silent tale of a fisherman's daughter homesteading on a rich man's land, forced to marry the tycoon while falling in love with his son. America wanted to hug Pickford tight after this one.

The Mark of Zorro -- Fairbanks kidded his way through the legend of Don Diego Vega, a foppish aristocrat moonlighting as a masked avenger. Great stunts.

The Thief of Bagdad -- Still regarded as one of the best screen adventures ever, with special effects that are remarkable, considering its 1924 production. Fairbanks shines during a quest to retrieve a rare treasure and win the caliph's daughter.

The Iron Mask -- Probably the last big-budget production of the silent film era. Fairbanks plays D'Artagnan in this Musketeer swashbuckler, still a limber daredevil even as his medium became obsolete.

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