Film Reviews

And then there were some

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Manufacturing Consent. Perhaps the first futuristic documentary, Manufacturing Consent is most interesting in that it's a documentary not about events or people so much as ideas. Most of those ideas belong to the most fascinating media critic of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky. For 25 years, Chomsky has been a lightning rod for naysayers and pundits who attack his propaganda modeling. Sometimes he's dismissed for being about as reliable in his understanding of "how things really work" as some UFO-obsessed crackpot, a fringe-dweller with radically unpopular ideas. Just as often, he is called the most intellectually rigorous gadfly American culture has yet produced, a latter-day Tocqueville preaching from his pulpit about the media's stranglehold over the shaping of popular opinion. Maybe you won't buy into Chomsky's thesis that the media are involved in what amounts to a grand conspiracy of misinformation intended to keep the populace in a perpetual state of calculated ignorance. What is difficult to refute is that the media are at least unwitting pawns in self-imposed intellectual darkness. Since the media anoint the standard-bearers of both the "far left" and the "far right," all debate gets framed within those boundaries, discouraging the public from pursuing more radical ideas that lack currency and, thus, legitimacy. The film abounds with evidence supporting his theory including the dominance of a handful of major media conglomerates and the arrogant presumptions made by corporate and governmental giants. But agree or not, you can't help but be compelled by Chomsky's ideas; the filmmakers, who obviously think Chomsky is more right than wrong, catalogue his theories in a sane, lucid fashion, full of stylish visual techniques. The film never condescends even though it addresses complex issues, and neither does it ever become boring. Its gripping maturity and respect for its audience are positively fearsome.

Orphans and The Playboys. Some people call Albert Finney the George C. Scott of British cinema, but the rest of us consider his patented mixture of bluster and vulnerability the most reliably explosive recipe on international screens during the past 25 years. Orphans is Alan J. Pakula's stagey version of Lyle Kessler's three-character play about a wounded American gangster (Finney) who comes between two abandoned brothers, hot-headed Treat (Matthew Modine) and childlike Phillip (Kevin Anderson). Finney hides out inside the ramshackle home shared by these lost souls, and in the process drives a wedge into their delicate relationship that guarantees a symphony of sniffles from sympathetic audiences. We dare you not to soil Kleenex as Finney delivers his "I was a dead-end kid" monologue. The Playboys barely made a blip on the early '90s art-house radar, but this bittersweet melodrama drew a finer performance from Robin Wright (Mrs. Sean Penn) than her vapid, Oscar-nominated turn in Forrest Gump. Wright portrays a headstrong Irish waif whose pregnancy out of wedlock inspires the stormy protection of a local police officer (Finney again). Finney plays a prudish middle-ager whose charming shyness masks a violent temper. Watch him build a cradle and then smash it to bits when her polite, if limited, attention doesn't suit his obsessive plans.

The Other. The late Thomas Tryon's horror novel became a publishing sensation in the late '60s that preceded William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist yet exploited a similar theme--the malevolent potential of children. The film version of The Other, directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird, Same Time Next Year), doesn't belabor the shocking exploits of possessed children the way William Friedkin's The Exorcist does, but it offers a subtler, creepier variation on innocents whose motivations are simpatico with a larger evil outside of them. In this case, the anti-heroes are twins (Chris and Martin Udvarnoky) living in 1930s Connecticut who love to watch really naughty things--even if they've caused them. Don't be turned off by the fact that John "Three's Company" Ritter makes his film debut in a small but crucial role. Calling The Other a horror film is a stretch: The minimal shocks are dependent on a viewer's patient reading of the characters. Those who commit themselves will be rewarded.

The Raven. One-man studio Roger Corman is responsible for training an impressive number of today's most respected directors through his low-brow-equals-high-profit approach to independent filmmaking. Throughout the '60s and early '70s he filmed seven movies "loosely based" on the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Only a couple bore much resemblance to the master's original words; the rest provided an opportunity for the inimitable Vincent Price to ham it up while Corman supplied buckets of Karo syrup, bevies of buxom beauties, and a keen eye for screen composition that has been underappreciated by camp theoreticians. This "adaptation" of Poe's epic poem is at once the most ludicrous and the most enjoyable of Corman's Poe improvs. The tale of a pair of bumbling wizards (Price and Peter Lorre) attempting to defeat a resurrected black-magic master (Boris Karloff) bears no resemblance at all to Poe's haunting verse, but it does provide a trio of horror-film greats the chance to spout truly witty dialogue (courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson) and not embarrass themselves by appearing in such unabashed schlock. Look for Jack Nicholson as Lorre's well-meaning son.

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Jimmy Fowler
Arnold Wayne Jones