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A good deed gone bad

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


New releases

Pay It Forward

(PG-13) An unusually pensive lad (Haley Joel Osment) is inspired by his emotionally and physically scarred teacher (Kevin Spacey) to devise a plan to make the world a better place. His idea is like a pyramid scheme of niceness, doing something good for three people and having them do the same. Director Mimi Leder keeps schmaltz flowing at full speed, causing the movie to drag.

First impressions: "The problems with Pay It Forward can be traced backward from its incredibly downbeat climax to a puzzling midsection putting Trevor's plan on the back burner. Changing the world isn't as important as soothing the emotional wounds of a few conveniently pathetic characters. Harsh topics such as child abuse, alcoholism, homelessness and heroin addiction are shuffled for easy pathos. . . .

"It would be tougher to feel cynical . . . if the novel and Leder had followed a more upbeat course. Scenes showing Eugene interacting with his class, inspiring them to new considerations and vocabulary, are hints of what could have been. They're so nicely performed that some viewers may develop enough good will toward the film to overlook the button-pushing and missed opportunity to inspire later."

Second thoughts: Several moviegoers informed me that Pay It Forward's ending was among the worst they've ever seen. As a public service, some of them told three other people to skip it.

Rental audience: People who keep large stashes of Kleenex for crying jags.

Rent it if you enjoy: TV news "human interest" stories that exploit pain for ratings.

Before Night Falls

(R) Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas is oppressed and imprisoned for his art and homosexuality in Julian Schnabel's biography. Javier Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal. Johnny Depp co-stars in a dual role as a sadistic prison guard and a transvestite prisoner.

First impressions: "Before Night Falls covers the main tragic details of Arenas' life: his poverty-stricken childhood, the verve of Havana's gay underground, being courted by patrons, harsh imprisonment by Castro's army and eventual exile in New York, where the AIDS-infected poet committed suicide in 1990.

"Not a pretty picture, unless you count Schnabel's lingering images, some without dialogue for minutes at a time and some underscored by Arenas' words calling for personal and political freedom. Schnabel, a painter himself, feels close to stories of misunderstood artists like Arenas and the subject of his debut film, Basquiat. Even when Before Night Falls stalls in dramatic momentum, it can often be aesthetically thrilling."

Second thoughts: Bardem's brush with Oscar has him being discussed as the next Antonio Banderas.

Rental audience: Art-film aficionados.

Rent it if you enjoy: Papillon, Basquiat.

Antitrust

(PG-13) Computer programming whiz (Ryan Phillippe) gets hired by a microchip mogul (Tim Robbins) with a plan to converge all the world's media into one neat package. Sounds good, until dastardly side effects of such a plan emerge, including murder. Any resemblance to Microsoft leader Bill Gates is purely intentional and most of the fun.

First impressions: ". . . predictable and rather formulaic. . . (The boss is) nicely played by Robbins with a mix of self-serving charm and understated menace, the same blend that worked so well in the actor's portrayal of the terrorist next door in Arlington Road. . . Phillippe (The Way of the Gun, Cruel Intentions) greets each revelation with a numb, distance-gazing expression. It's not exactly his finest hour."

Second thoughts: The plot should have been as inventive as the software. Robbins is fun to watch chewing scenery.

Rental audience: Tech-heads who wish something this exciting would happen in their lives.

Rent it if you enjoy: The Net, Enemy of the State.

DVD: New and notable for digital players

A peek at comedic genius

Best in Show

(PG-13) Christopher Guest is one of the funniest people currently making movies. Someday, mass audiences that for one reason or another bypass his films will realize what they've been missing.

Films such as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman -- not to mention his origins in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap -- don't make much money, at least until they become cult favorites. Oddly, courageously, that seems to be enough for Guest.

Best in Show was a surprise winner of the best film prize at the American Comedy Awards, beating Meet the Parents and Almost Famous. Fred Willard, one of the most underrated comedic minds of the past three decades, was named best supporting actor, and SCTV alumnus Catherine O'Hara earned a best supporting actress award.

Apparently, voters in the comedy industry understand Guest. Now, perhaps we will, thanks to DVD technology allowing Guest and collaborator Eugene Levy to define the impromptu method to their peculiar brand of madness. Best in Show is the topic at hand, but the free-wheeling alternate audio commentary track detours into his other works.

Best in Show is typical Guest, a "mockumentary" of real-life events taken to absurd extremes. This time, it's the subculture of dog shows where owner egos are unleashed and fair play gets piddled upon. The style is cinema verite, featuring dialogue often improvised by actors with Guest's grateful encouragement. Plot is secondary. Punchlines so subtle that a viewer laughs much later are the norm.

The DVD also includes deleted scenes but, as usual, there are obvious reasons why the extra footage was trimmed. A preview trailer and cast biographies are standard issue. Listen to Guest and Levy's wry commentary for the best of this particular show.

REWIND: Videos worth another look

Hollywood's long-running outlaw

Skimming Dennis Hopper's filmography is like examining Hollywood history, with some of the most influential films of the past 50 years on his resume. Even the small roles are indelible.

Probably no one is more surprised than Hopper that he survived in the industry long enough to amass such impressive credits. Hopper almost killed his career by defying great directors on movie sets and nearly ruining a studio with his lost 1971 head-trip, The Last Movie. He nearly destroyed himself with alcohol and drug abuse.

Now clean and sober, Hopper continues to surprise fans, either with yet another great performance or another sell-out job in commercials. Either way, the man born in Dodge City, Kan., who once played a character named Billy the Kid is one of Hollywood's most notorious outlaws.

Celebrate Hopper's 65th birthday today with one of these video favorites: Rebel Without a Cause -- Small role for a film debut, but Hopper watched James Dean closely, emulating his seemingly careless acting style.

Giant -- Another pairing with Dean and a more substantial role, as youngest brother in a Texas oil monarchy. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor co-star in George Stevens' epic soap opera.

Cool Hand Luke -- Just another link in the chain gang led by Paul Newman.

True Grit -- John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance dominates the movie, but Hopper's brief role as a jittery villain is chilling.

Easy Rider -- Hopper's first job directing a movie. He co-starred with Peter Fonda as hippie bikers on a cross-country trip through intolerant America. The movie that changed the way movies are made and marketed.

Apocalypse Now -- Things weren't easy after Easy Rider. After several career setbacks, Hopper crawled out of the bottle for an incendiary role as an acid-tripping Army photographer in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam nightmare.

Blue Velvet -- Hopper's psychopathic Frank Booth is one of the most frightening villains ever on screen. David Lynch's 1986 film is still an unshakable experience.

Hoosiers -- However, the Hollywood establishment preferred to celebrate Hopper's 1986 comeback with a feel-good basketball flick. Hopper was Oscar-nominated as an alcoholic regaining sobriety and his son while head coach Gene Hackman wins a state championship.

True Romance -- Don't miss Hopper's doomed confrontation with mobster Christopher Walken, protecting his son (Christian Slater) from being found by hit men. One of the best-written, best-acted scenes in the past decade.

Speed -- Pop quiz, hot shot: Who was the guy who installed a bomb on Sandra Bullock's bus? Hopper, of course.

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