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Video: Paranoia on the wing

A dollop of creepiness, a helping of creeps and a huge serving of balderdash are served up in new videos The Mothman Prophecies and Fat Hal.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002

The Mothman Prophecies (PG-13)

[Photo: Screen Gems]
Journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) gets a perplexing phone call as West Virginians begin to report sightings of a winged, red-eyed creature in The Mothman Prophecies.

A widowed journalist (Richard Gere) investigates a series of strange occurances in a small town, visions of a winged creature portending death. The writer's wife saw the same thing before she died. The investigation leads to a prediction that a bridge accident on Christmas Eve will kill many residents, begging the question: Is this real, or a textbook case of mass hysteria?

First impressions: "The key word here is balderdash, but paranoid fantasies about death predictions carry an immediate sense of creepiness. (Director Mark) Pellington maintains brisk pacing, so any plot dissections can't happen until after the show. By that time, The Mothman Prophecies hasn't merely suspended belief but has it dangling by a lock of Gere's impossibly cool hair."

Second thoughts: One of the better junk-cinema experiences so far this year.

Rental audience: Gere-heads; National Enquirer subscribers.

Rent it if you enjoy: The Sixth Sense, The Others.

Just plain fat-headed

[Photo: Twentieth Century Fox]
Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow, left) and Hal (Jack Black) have eyes only for each other as they share a giant chocolate shake in Shallow Hal.

Shallow Hal (PG-13)

Funnyman Jack Black (High Fidelity, Tenacious D) plays the title character, a would-be playboy whose pickup lines are constantly put down. Hal's perspective gets warped by self-help guru Tony Robbins, enabling him to see inner beauty instead of superficial looks. Enter Rosemary, an overweight sweetie who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow to Hal, resulting in a series of fat-joke mishaps.

First impressions: "Shallow Hal is such a lackluster comedy that co-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly can't even scrounge a decent set of outtakes for the end credits. (The movie) isn't another Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin or There's Something About Mary, no matter how much Farrelly fans hope it will be, although some may delude themselves into believing it is. It isn't even mean-spirited enough, like Me, Myself & Irene or Say It Isn't So, to provoke annoyance and a vague sense of respect for that."

Second thoughts: You should have seen the look on Roger Ebert's face when his TV partner Richard Roeper named this one of the 10 best films of 2001.

Rental audience: Farrelly fans working on blind faith.

Rent it if you enjoy: Making fun of obese people in buffet lines.

Beyond the cliches

L.I.E. (R)

Young Howie Blitzer (Paul Fanklin Dano) has replaced his neglectful father with an unsettling surrogate, an amiable pedophile named Big John (Brian Cox, The Rookie). Both are outsiders -- Howie for his preternatural intellect and Big John for his obsession -- both with unfulfilled potential looking for somewhere to lean emotionally. Despite its themes, L.I.E. is an uncommonly thoughtful film, making Big John's perversion understandable without endorsing it.

First impressions: "Not that (director Michael) Cuesta celebrates pedophilia, as Larry Clark's films occasionally seem to do. There's nothing more graphic than a caress in L.I.E., and distaste for Big John's sexual behavior is ever present. Cox adds dimension to the older man beyond cliches; Big John's caring, gregarious personality is more than a lure. We pity the criminal, fascinated by his guile and somehow respectful of the mind behind it."

Second thoughts: Cox's performance earned a well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for best actor, losing to Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom).

Rental audience: Art-film buffs.

Rent it if you enjoy: Star Maps, Chuck and Buck.

True to 'Blue'

photo Blue Velvet (special edition)

David Lynch wangled final-cut privileges for his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet from iron-fisted producer Dino DeLaurentiis, but was contractually bound to keep the running time under two hours. The version he delivered was one frame short -- 1/24th of a second -- of that limit, with a legendary extra two hours left on the cutting-room floor.

That footage has been lost, but the producers of this special edition DVD did the next best thing, blending early screenplay drafts and on-the-set still photographs of some missing scenes into wordless montages. You can't tell exactly what's going on in any of the scenes, but if you could it wouldn't be a David Lynch film.

Blue Velvet is acknowledged as Lynch's best work, at least the one that the most people saw and understood. Fear is easy to understand. Lynch delved beneath the scrubbed surface of an all-American town, burrowing through a severed ear like Pooh escaping bees, and found a memorably toxic underbelly. Lynch supervised the film's digital remastering, resulting in a color-saturated state of film noir.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan, Lynch's alter ego) finds that ear and follows its trail to decadent lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the girlfriend of crazed mobster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper should've won an Oscar, but was nominated for Hoosiers instead; easier for the then-stodgy Academy to support.) Jeffrey also courts the girl next door (Laura Dern), who becomes increasingly suspicious of where he's spending his late nights.

If you didn't get what Lynch was doing then, this DVD won't help much. There is no alternate audio commentary track to explain anything. An hourlong documentary includes only interview clips with Lynch from the movie's release before his flighty conversation mellowed. "He exudes what he's thinking more than he articulates," Rossellini says, explaining the man and, many believe, his movies.

The disc also includes a gorgeous photo gallery, mostly monochrome, from Peter Braatz, a photographer on the Blue Velvet set in Wilmington, N.C., whose candid images are worth pausing for. Another, more extensive photo gallery contains more conventional scenes from the production, and a few examples of poster art from other countries -- love that Velutto Blu design from Italy -- are nice touches.

Staying true to the divisive effect Blue Velvet had on audiences, the DVD contains a portion of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's original review of the film on their At the Movies show in 1986. Ebert argues that Lynch was unfair to his actors, humiliating them, especially Rossellini. Siskel takes a more pragmatic approach, praising Lynch's shocks as the effect of getting in over his head, comparable to his youthful reaction to Psycho. Right or wrong, the clip confirms that Siskel's passionate eloquence is sorely missed.

Counselor to Camelot

Robert F. Kennedy served the Kennedy administration on many fronts and inspired filmmakers, among others. Take a look back today, the anniversary of Camelot's last breath.

Any hope of reviving Camelot died on this date in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, minutes after claiming victory in California's presidential primary.

Kennedy had already lived through a political career with enough highlights to inspire filmmakers: from the Bay of Pigs debacle to defusing the Cuban missile crisis, from staring down Jimmy Hoffa to a scandal with Marilyn Monroe, and just being a Kennedy. RFK had the charisma of a movie star, but Washington was always more important to him than Hollywood.

Most of Kennedy's film appearances have been in documentaries about the politically charged 1960s, or archival footage used to set the scene for such movies as Forrest Gump, The Doors and JFK. But RFK has also been an important figure in dramatized works, played by professional actors.

While we wait for Oliver Stone to pose a cinematic conspiracy theory about Bobby Kennedy's death, any of these fact-based movies are fitting tributes to his memory:

Thirteen Days -- The most recent, and arguably the best, movie version of Cuban missile crisis events. Kevin Costner gets star billing, but the film is carried by Steven Culp and Bruce Greenwood as RFK and JFK, respectively. Neither resembles those subjects closely, but portray brotherly instincts and leadership that's recognizable.

The Missiles of October -- Martin Sheen was barely known to audiences when he played Robert F. Kennedy in this made-for-TV classic, pulling strings to prevent World War III. William Devane was equally memorable as JFK.

Blood Feud -- Kennedy's term as U.S. attorney general continued a long-standing grudge with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. This two-part TV drama traced the roots of that feud, featuring Cotter Smith as Kennedy and none other than Robert Blake as Hoffa, dodging racketeering charges. Not available on home video, but check your local listings.

Kennedy -- Sheen was elected to be JFK for this popular 1983 miniseries, with John Shea (Missing) as younger brother Bobby. Basically a Cliff's Notes version of the Kennedy dynasty puppeteered by father Joseph Kennedy (E.G. Marshall).

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover -- One of the more unflattering RFK portraits on the list, since this was told from the point of view of his worst intra-office rival. Broderick Crawford was perfectly cast as the gruff FBI director, while Michael Parks (Then Came Bronson) wimped out more than Kennedy did in real life.

Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot -- Soap opera version of history, with Jill Hennessy, Lauren Holly and Leslie Stefanson fretting about their husbands' scandals. Someone named Robert Knepper (Phantoms) played Bobby Kennedy. Or was he playing Rich Little doing Bobby Kennedy?

King -- Robert F. Kennedy's support of civil rights from African-Americans was a key element of this biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played by Paul Winfield. Cliff DeYoung (Sunshine Christmas) added an able impersonation of RFK.

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