200 Cigarettes, Directed By Risa Bramon Garcia (Paramount Pictures)

200 Cigarettes - Directed By Risa Bramon Garcia 200 Cigarettes
Directed By Risa Bramon Garcia
Paramount Pictures
By: Eric G.

The setting is New Year's Eve 1981, a year that holds no significance to the movie's story other than to justify all the retro-hype, which is so poorly displayed here that people who actually lived through this era would hardly recognize it if it weren't for the glaringly obvious soundtrack. Even the presence of the man himself, Elvis Costello, doesn't give this meandering waste the foundation it needs to work.

Garcia plods through a series of uninteresting yet linear story lines that all converge at a party, trying to capture that Sixteen Candles or Fast Times At Ridgemont feel. The teen movie machine may be the current trend, but this is just so boring-even the kids who flock to the theater at the mention of 80's nostalgia will have a hard time with this lifeless picture. And sadly, the best line in the previews didn't even make the final cut when Ben Affleck's character is hitting on two women in a bar: "Do you guys like Devo? And by the way, I'm not gay. I get that all the time."

Martha Plimpton and novice Kate Hudson (daughter of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) are the only redeeming features of this film. Plimpton's energetic, ultra-paranoid performance as a complex trendsetter in love with Elvis Costello is the backbone of the film's events as she anxiously awaits any guests to her party and Hudson's charming portrayal of a dimwitted dullard radiates on screen. Even veterans like Janeane Garofalo and Courtney Love do little to liven up this poorly written screenplay. Both of their characters fall into an unfortunate form of typecasting: Garofalo as a tough, cynical heart-stomper, and Love as a trashy whore trying to make good.

Once you realize MTV Productions had a hand in the development of this picture things start to make sense. Only MTV would base a movie on a hip retro soundtrack. The story is clearly secondary. Plus, throw in some remakes by current one hit wonders and you've got calculated MTV product. All the gratuitous promotion in the world, though, isn't going to save this lame flop.

A Simple Plan, Directed By Sam Raimi (Paramount Pictures)

A Simple Plan - Directed By Sam Raimi A Simple Plan
Directed By Sam Raimi
Paramount Pictures
By: Eric G.

The plot of A Simple Plan is an exciting prospect in the hands of Sam Raimi, the director of such comic-horror classics as Evil Dead and Army Of Darkness (not to mention Darkman). Three country bumpkins stumble on a mammoth amount of cash (4.4 million) in a nature preserve in the dead of winter. Money versus morals drives the rest of the film, which goes wrong in all the right ways, allowing Raimi to put his unsubtle touch on the inevitable bursts of gratuitous violence that will ensue. Bill Paxton plays the guilt ridden square with a wife and kid to think about while Billy Bob Thornton plays his semi-retarded brother whose simpleton dreams amount to owning his childhood farmhouse.

Raimi paces things slowly with a constant threat of unraveling that balances an element of suspense throughout the film. Thornton’s amazing portrayal of the underdog sibling who got the short end of the stick while his younger brother got sent off to college carries the energy of the film. We can’t trust him on any level. His stupidity breeds a child-like innocence and insight, which plays on our sympathies, yet the look in his eye is of a man who knows sin and its repercussions. The constant feeling of instability stems from Thornton’s character and the brooding shots of crows and barren forests that Raimi sneaks in to displace the comfort of the small town setting.

Bridget Fonda plays a sort of puppet master whose morals crumble in the name of greed, planning her husband’s (Bill Paxton) every move. We know it’s going to get bad, so it’s just a matter of time before the bodies start piling up. Raimi carefully plods through a well-crafted script. The film has a similar look to that of Fargo but its tone is not nearly so tongue in cheek. Whereas with Fargo we laughed at things you’re not supposed to find funny, with A Simple Plan we root for people whose motives we are supposed to question. Raimi comes through in a big way, drawing tight performances from his actors and maintaining control without succumbing to the obvious, easy choices.

Your Friends And Neighbors, Directed By Neil Labute (Gramercy Pictures)

Your Friends And Neighbors - Directed By Neil Labute Your Friends And Neighbors
Directed By Neil Labute
Gramercy Pictures
By: Eric G.

Director Neil Labute made quite an impression on audiences last year with In The Company Of Men- a disturbing portrayal of two men plotting to humiliate a deaf woman in a sad act of revenge for the self-hatred and insecurity they feel about themselves. Labute’s caustic dialogue was shocking because it was so frighteningly honest and amoral. Your Friends And Neighbors reaches similar heights of uneasiness and disturbance, but this time Labute casts a wider net, involving both sexes in his plot to reveal the cold nature of certain hearts.

Jason Patric plays a demonic sex-fiend, whose emotionless hunt for the “perfect fuck” endears him to his less passionate, yes-men pals played by Aaron Eckhart and, to a lesser extent, Ben Stiller. Patric’s performance seethes with hatred and a truly warped sense of logic. The tensest scene of the film takes place in a steam bath where the three “friends” nag each other to reveal their best lays. Eckhart’s spineless character goads Patric’s into an icy monologue about the time he raped a male schoolmate for turning him in for cheating. The scene creates a completely unnerving atmosphere, exacerbated by Labute’s slow zoom into Patric’s face as he spews his alarmingly revealing yet unashamedly honest diatribe.

Labute’s originality stems from his ability to juxtapose the blandness of every day routines with the dysfunctional inner-workings of other people’s sex lives. His pen is equally harsh to men and women and the inevitable damage that their selfish cruelty inflicts. Labute turns sex into a twisted game of betrayal and insecurity. The characters take turns stabbing each other in the back, and Labute wallows in the psychotic aftermath. Like fellow shock film auteur Todd Solondz, Neil Labute loves to make you feel uncomfortable while he teaches you a lesson about the evil that men and women do.

Bonnie Prince Billy, I See A Darkness (Palace Records)

Bonnie Prince Billy - I See A Darkness Bonnie Prince Billy
I See A Darkness
Palace Records
By: Eric G.

Will Oldham's latest incarnation is a fair share darker than his recent solo efforts. Since dropping the Palace moniker Oldham's output has been more uplifting than we've come to expect. I See A Darkness brings that recent trend to a halt. Oldham's brittle, haphazard whimper is in down beat mode again, harking back to the second self-titled Palace Brothers record. His songs cover simple themes: love, friendship, death, and longing with a subtle devil-may-care approach that often ignores things like tune or pitch in favor of pure emotional impact.

Oldham has experimented with full backing bands before, but this album is much starker than Viva Last Blues or even There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You. I See A Darkness starts off in a jaunty mood compared to the rest of the album with "A Minor Place"- a humble ode with a familiar refrain that sounds like it was passed down several generations of mountain families. "Nomadic Revery (All Around)" builds into a wailing climax with electric guitars rivaling Oldham's haunting chorus of pleas: "O All Around."

Oldham manages to tear at your heartstrings with each record without repeating himself. His devastating tunes flow freely on this album. He takes you to places you don't expect to need to care about. His lyrics are obtuse, but his tone is understood: "Death to everyone is gonna come/and it makes hosing much more fun" ("Death To Everyone"). Oldham is a clever craftsman who plays the role of a simpleton. He comes across doe-eyed and innocent, but he is fully aware of his impact and his ability. I See A Darkness is an affecting and moving album. Viva Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.

The Thin Red Line, Directed By Terrence Malick (20th Century Fox)

The Thin Red Line - Directed By Terrence Malick The Thin Red Line
Directed By Terrence Malick
20th Century Fox
By: Eric G.

After Days of Heaven in 1977, Terrence Malick gave up filmmaking. Rumors abounded as to why such a promising young director would throw in the towel after only two films under his belt. Some argued it was because Malick was disgusted by the Hollywood machine that would not allow John Travolta to take a break from Welcome Back Kotter to star in Days of Heaven, while others surmised that Malick was miffed that his films did not receive the proper recognition by the academy. Whatever the reason, some may still wish that Malick had remained in obscurity after sitting through his star-studded opus about World War II, The Thin Red Line.

Whereas Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan closely followed the storming of the beaches at Normandy through character studies and interactions, Malick’s The Thin Red Line meanders on a much larger scale, grappling with all-encompassing themes about the sinful nature of war and its effect on the human condition. Characters come in third behind themes and cinematography in terms of priorities as evidenced by the fact that huge brand name stars are thrown in as nameless, faceless, bit parts. These superstars stick out like sore thumbs among the anonymous faces, and we are expected not to give them any more attention, which is a difficult task as it is only natural to be jarred by a familiar face.

Malick’s direction is sweeping and poetic, but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. We are led in and out of the lives of random characters haphazardly with strange, disconcerting dialogue. Only a handful of the characters we meet receive any semblance of closure, and two of the main characters bear such an uncanny resemblance that it’s hard to discern any one story line. On the other hand, the brief snippets occasionally leave a lasting impression, as is the case with the initial battle scene where the troops are trying to take charge of a small, Japanese-occupied hill in Guadalcanal. Nick Nolte’s fiery performance is especially memorable in the scene where his authority is questioned when he orders a troop leader to have his men attack into a certain death.

The Thin Red Line clocks in at just about three hours, and you feel it when it’s over. Malick’s pacing is so slow that at times it resembles Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth. The tension for imminent violence is built up for so long that by the first gunshot, you’re ready to lunge out of your seat. Malick’s meandering style is much prettier than it is effective. You leave the theater feeling like you’ve been beaten over the head with obvious themes like “war is bad” and “nature is good.” Despite the ample amount of time Malick had to represent some sort of story with a plethora of A-list actors, The Thin Red Line seems underdeveloped and even unfinished.

Life Is Beautiful, Directed By Roberto Benigni (Miramax)

Life Is Beautiful - Directed By Roberto Benigni Life Is Beautiful
Directed By Roberto Benigni
Miramax
By: Eric G.

Life Is Beautiful is the first slapstick Holocaust film I’ve ever seen. Roberto Benigni directs, co-writes, and stars in this fable about being a Jewish merchant in World War II era Italy. Benigni plays somewhat of a clown vying for the heart of a beautiful young schoolteacher, who is engaged to a powerful Fascist. The film jaunts along happily for the first half as Benigni’s character, Guido, woos Dora, his “princess”, away from her controlling fiancĂ© through a series of unbelievable, yet charming coincidences. The romantic half of the film is a playground for Benigni’s light-hearted humor, where even politics is an easy target.

Guido and his new wife share a few years together before the war really heightens. They now have a son, Joshua, played exuberantly by Giorgio Cantarini, who wants to be just like his father. As the tension towards Jews becomes apparent even to Joshua, Guido is forced either to explain the situation to his son or to divert his attention. Guido chooses the latter, and when they are shipped off to a concentration camp he convinces his son it’s all just an elaborate game. The average person’s spirit would surely have dampened in a death camp, but Guido’s patience is boundless as he never once even for a second allows his son to know the truth, despite the all the death and horror surrounding them.

The second half of the film plays on our emotions because we can’t help but laugh at Guido’s hijinks even though we all know the horror of it all. The story obviously loses much of the fairy-tale air that made the first half so frivolous, but Guido does his best to keep it alive. Benigni’s direction is utterly unpretentious and heart-rending. The themes are so simple and universal that Benigni barely has to help us along. He lets the story speak for itself. The sacrifice that Guido makes for his son is out of unconditional love and true altruism. Life Is Beautiful explores the depth of the bond between a father and a son and how humor can survive even in the arms of death.

Don Caballero, Singles Breaking Up (Touch And Go)

Don Caballero - Singles Breaking Up Don Caballero
Singles Breaking Up
Touch And Go
By: Eric G.

Singles Breaking Up is a collection of Don Caballero's five seven inches, a compilation track, and one previously unreleased song. This collection shows Don Caballero's astounding growth in both complexity and effectiveness. The early songs go back as far as 1992 and rely more on the dirtier sounds of a distorted guitar than the band's recent efforts, which explore more experimental time changes and guitar textures. Don Caballero's ongoing challenge is to make up for its lack of vocals. The result is a deconstruction of the Western idea of song structure with two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. This is a seemingly limited format, but Don Caballero rises to the occasion with fervent emotion and cunning.

Drummer Damon Che’s acrobatic style more than earns him the right to his nickname, Octopus, and, likewise, Ian Williams and Mike Banfield are just as flexible with their guitars, which surge and pummel along with Che but can stop and change direction on a dime. Such rhythmical dynamics keep things interesting without sounding too forced or showy. Don Caballero's forte is its ability to take difficult music and make it emotional. The band reaches staggering crescendos through both aggression and restraint. Singles Breaking Up is a good "catch up" piece for a band that you need to be on the same level with to reap all the rewards.