ANTZ - LOLITA (1997) - PECKER - CLAY PIGEONS
THE IMPOSTERS - URBAN LEGEND - MONUMENT AVE.

ANTZ

"Antz" is the first foray into a completely computer generated film since the enormously successful "Toy Story" and tells the tale of a young worker ant named Z. Z, voiced by Woody Allen, is the middle child in a family of 5 million and needs to feel that he is an individual, not just a minor cog in the huge colony. His life of quiet desperation is turned upside down by two events: he learns of the mythical world of Insectopia, where everyone is free to follow their dreams, and, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Princess Bala (Sharon Stone).

Robin ROBIN:
Z, smitten by his chance meeting with the spoiled but lovely Bala, goes to elaborate ends to see the princess again. He enlists the help of his friend, the powerful, but cuddly, soldier ant, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and switches jobs with his large friend. This fateful swap begins repercussions that filter all the way to the top of the ant heap. In the meantime, evil General Mandible (Gene Hackman), betrothed to Princess Bala, is unleashing a terrible plot to overthrow the queen, wipe out the entire colony and begin a new one where he is in total command and Bala is forced to produce millions of babies for his fanatical army. But, Z's unexpected heroism throws a monkey-wrench into his plan of total domination.

Longtime animators/first time animation directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson helm a solid first volley by DreamWorks Pictures aimed at chipping out a sizable niche of the animated feature market long dominated by Disney. Using state-of-the-art computer generated animation, the anthropomorphic nature of the ants and their society is clever and exciting to watch. Peppered through the more routine, talky proceedings of the film are several big-scene sequences that dazzle the eye. The barroom sequence where all the ants dutifully go at the end of the work day evolves into an enormous line dance as all the ants ("It's 6:15 and time to dance!") dutifully do as their told. A bar fight, later, evokes images of the same in old John Wayne westerns. The stunning invasion of the ants upon the termites is straight out of the battle stuff in "Starship Troopers." One scene, involving water drops, is jaw dropping in its detail. There is little to fault, technically, in "Antz."

The actors providing the voices for all the characters are melded with animation that does not try to duplicate the looks of the actors, but, instead, tries to lend the actors' personalities to their individual ant characters. This works out nicely, with Allen giving Z his own nebbishness. Stallone's hulking Weaver has the nice guy qualities encased in the warrior body. Gene Hackman's evil Mandible is a cross between General George Patton and Hitler. Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin as snooty wasps are amusing. Jennifer Lopez is good as Z's co-worker, Azteca, who is satisfied with her routine life, that is, until she meets Weaver (wink, wink). Danny Glover, Paul Mazursky, Grant Shaud and John Mahoney all help to flesh out (or is that ecto-skeleton out?) their respective characters. Christopher Walken is quietly unassuming as the general's right hand ant who comes to realize his leader's true plan and does something to prevent it.

The story is really a mix of many previous tales. The main theme of the fight for individuality and escape from a repressive society is reminiscent of "THX-1138" and "Fahrenheit 451." The unrelenting plight of the workers reminds of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," with the bar fight straight out of John Wayne's "McClintock,"  and the battles are right out of, as I said, "Starship Troopers." The moral of the story, that the individual and his/her thinking is just as important as the whole colony is a little light weight, but services the story well enough.

I think the DreamWorks team making "Antz," with their concern for success in going against the Disney giant, held back a little in their efforts with "Antz." While a first-class production from start to finish and top to bottom, there is something missing that prevents it from being a great film. It's a guaranteed success, yes, but is not one of the great animation works. It is a tour de force of technical achievement and combines an unusual selection of stars to voice the subterranean characters, but doesn't stretch any limits with its conventional story. Walking the safe route is probably a good corporate strategy and bodes for more assured products in the future. We'll soon see what Disney's response is when their own CGI insect epic, "A Bug's Life," this holiday season.

"Antz" is a clever, funny, fascinating to watch film that could have been more. Nevertheless, it is solid family entertainment, though the under 8 year old crowd may not be as amused by its more mature humor. Workers of the world unite! But, as individuals!

I give "Antz" a B+.

Laura LAURA:
Dreamworks wins the race with Disney in getting the second computer animated feature to the screen with "Antz."  (Disney's "A Bug's Life" follows later this year.)  While not as awe inspiring in its look as "Toy Story," "Antz" still entertainingly presents its audience with a look into another world.

Z (voiced by Woody Allen) is a worker ant in an Orwellian colony whose subjects are brain washed into working exhuberantly for the good of the whole.  Z, however, is a free thinker who persuades his solider buddy Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) to switch places with him in order to see Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) again.  Bala's a bit of a free thinker herself, as she sneaks out of the palace for the excitement of the worker bar and a "Pulp Fiction"-like dance with Z to "Guantanamera." She's also unsure of her engagement to General Mandible (Gene Hackman), the real power behind the colony with secret Hitlerish plans for the future.

When Z finds himself sent to war with some intimidating termites, both he and the audience find themselves above ground for the first time. The battle recalls "Starship Troopers" and Z is the only ant to make it back alive where he's declared a war hero.  A series of misadventures later and he's kidnapped the Princess and is on the run to "Insectopia."

"Antz" was written by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz and their story covers a lot of ground in a short run time.  Their in-joke movie references and playfulness with the characters at their voice actors expense are amusing.  Societal depictions of conformity are joltingly funny, such as when Princess Bala talks to her mother the Queen (Anne Bancroft) as the queen holds each larval bundle of joy she's producing for a second, before passing it along to take the next one.  This story is not for young children, however, who may not grasp the political content.

The computer animation is great, although the film suffers from an overabundance of reddish brown (both the insects and their underground home) in the palette.  Texures are more artificially presented than they were in "Toy Story."  One sequence featuring a bead of water is particularly well done.

The voice actors are wonderfully cast.  "Antz" may do for Sylvester Stallone what "Copland" was supposed to.  Woody Allen is perfectly charming in the lead.  The film also features Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain as a couple of wasps, Danny Glover as a brave soldier, Jennifer Lopez as a worker who captures Weaver's eye and Christopher Walken as the general's right hand man.

"Antz" entertainly spins a good moral yarn from a unique perspective.

B


LOLITA (1997)

Director Adrian Lyne's ("Fatal Attraction," "Nine 1/2 Weeks") $50 million remake of "Lolita" has been languishing in distribution hell, the victim of perceived public distaste for its subject matter until the cable network Showtime courageously gave the film its US debut in August.  The film, better and truer to Vladimir Nabokov's novel than Kubrick's 1962 version, is finally getting a well deserved theatrical release.

Laura LAURA:
Who would have thought that commercial British director Adrian Lyne of "Flashdance," "Indecent Proposal," and "Nine 1/2 Weeks" fame could produce a work of art?  But he has - his "Lolita" is breathtaking.

The film opens at the story's ending as a distraught, blood soaked Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) drives along a country road in a stagger.  "Light of my life, fire of my loins. My soul, my sin," he narrates, preparing to share with the audience the events that have led him to this end.

One of the successes of Lyne's version of the infamous novel is that his Humbert is not presented as a pervert but as an incurable romantic. In flashback we learn of his first love at the age of 14.  A sun drenched Annabel was his first nymphet in boyhood before being lost to him by a sudden death from typhoid and he's been looking for her essence ever since.

That he finds her in Lolita, a precociously teasing gum snapping brat is one of the film's many humorous ironies.  Dominique Swain is perfect in her first role with her ability to project both knowing sexual allure and young girlhood.  She has a way with a jawbreaker!

Jeremy Irons casting struck me as so stereotypical I was almost ready to dismiss his performance before seeing it, then he turns around and astounds me.  Irons has not been this good since his double whammy of "Dead Ringers" and "Reversal of Fortune."  Irons' Humbert always has a shadow of doubt discoloring his longing and delight for Lolita.  He's also capable of amusing hijinks, such as when he goes in cahoots with the Haze family physician to obtain strong sleeping tablets to knock out his sexually demanding wife Charlotte (Melanie Griffith), who he only married to become anchored to her daughter.

Griffith is OK as the blowsy Charlotte, who discovers Humbert's secret before unwittingly granting him his most fervid desire - to be left alone with Lolita.  When she's struck by a car and killed just before mailing a relevatory letter, the shock is jolting and the scene is so well lit that Griffith appears truly dead.  Better is Frank Langella as Clare Quilty, the dark side of Humbert's desire.  He's a wealthy pornographer whom Lolita is drawn to and the white suited bearer of tragedy.  Langella is used sparingly by Lyne, yet once introduced, his presence is felt in his absence.

Lyne's only drawback is to sometimes hit us over the head with his symbolism, but even here it's hard not to laugh when Humbert confronts Quilty as a bug zapper blitzes insects out of the night sky or as he slowly sharpens a pencil at his desk while a bored Lolita flounces around the room.

The script, by former Boston Phoenix critic Stephen Schiff, is a beautiful adaptation which frequently quotes directly from its source. Cinematography by Howard Atherton is stunning and serves the story beautifully.  Production Design by John Hutman perfectly captures the time and place, especially when Humbert and Lolita hit the road and tour the American Midwest of the 1950s.  Judianna Makovsky's Costume Design is also notable.  The score by Ennio Morricone captures the essence of innocence betrayed as discordant piano notes compete
with a sweetly melanchonic melody.

"Lolita" is one of the year's best films.

A

Robin ROBIN:
Helmer Adrian Lyne cuts himself a big task in trying to bring the famous 1958 Vladimir Nabokov novel, "Lolita," once again to the big screen. Following the decades long notoriety of Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version starring James Mason, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyons as the title character, Lyne puts it on the line in his attempt to put a fresh spin on the Nabokov story. This is a big task in the face of the earlier effort which pushed the social taboo envelope of its time with the story of lust and obsession by a 40 year old man for the 15 year old vixen named Lolita.

This new version of "Lolita," which has languished, unreleased, for almost two years because of its controversial subject matter of child abuse and pedophilia, goes toe-to-toe with Kubrick's work and wins the fight hands down. Nearly every aspect of the new rendition of the author's work is superior to the Kubrick film, at least on the major levels - with one or two exceptions.

Jeremy Irons, as the new Humbert Humbert, is terrific. His performance and characterization of the hapless, emotionally helpless Humbert is perfect, evincing the constant angst the professor feels about his tawdry relationship with his ward/daughter/lover. Irons outshines James Mason's rendition of the troubled Humbert with a subtlety of performance that lends well to humor, anxiety and fear of rejection the man feels in his relationship with his nubile and youthful obsession. Irons is a great actor and gives one of his best performances. James Mason was two-dimensional in comparison, not lending his character the subtle humor given by Irons.

Dominique Swain, an unknown chosen from 2500 auditioners, blows Sue Lyons away as Lolita. Where Lyons, really 14 at the time of the Kubrick shoot, comes across more like an frumpy 18 year old - sucking on straws in a Coke bottle and licking a lollipop are the only childlike indications given by Lyons - Swain lends a more natural perf with her little girl mannerisms and sensual demeanor that would, indeed, drive poor Humbert crazy. Swain's assured performance is more in keeping with Nobokov's intent, giving her Lolita the budding sensuality to make her relationship with Humbert convincing.

Shelley Winters, up against Melanie Griffith as the overtly aroused, man-hungry Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother, tips the scales in her performance. Griffith is solid, but Winters show her obvious talent, giving a rich nuance to the role of the brash and blowzy widow.

The characterizing of Clare Quilty, the arch nemesis of Humbert, is handled well, but differently, in both film. Peter Sellers plays the depraved Quilty in the earlier film with his  multiple characters and different persona. He is funny and chilling at the same time. Frank Langella does lend his own twist with his Quilty being a more sinister and even more depraved  monger of children.

Production values between the two films are also interesting to compare. Kubrick shot his version in stark black and white, while Lyne uses a saturated color. Both films work to capture the 1947 time period with Kubrick giving an austere look and Lyne giving it a lush and sensuous feel. Scene-by-scene Lyne does a better job in translating Nabokov's work to the screen. Kubrick does give a number of individual touches that show his master's talent, mostly in the artistry of certain shots sprinkled throughout his film.

I had the good luck to be able to see both versions of "Lolita" nearly back to back, so the comparisons between the two films are not clouded by time. Kubrick's work is less even and lacks the sensual feel that Lyne conveys. The new "Lolita" is the better film. I give Lyne's rendition a B+ and Kubrick's a B-.


PECKER

John Waters makes his first film in four years, since "Serial Mom," in yet another satirical look at life, this time poking fun at  the New York art world, in "Pecker." Edward Furlong is the title character, a budding young photographer in Baltimore who uses his thrift shop camera to chronicle life around him. His debut showing at his workplace, the Sub Pit, attracts the attention of his diverse list of local subjects, as well as that of New York City art gallery owner, Rorey (Lili Taylor). Rorey talks Pecker into doing a show in the City with fish-out-of-water results as the NY intelligentsia meet the blue collar workers of Baltimore.

Robin ROBIN:
I am not a John Waters fan by any stretch of the imagination. His notorious "Pink Flamingos" is not only one of the worst, if not THE worst, films ever made, it is the only movie that made me gag - literally. It wasn't until "Serial Mom" that I could make myself watch a Waters film. With "Pecker," the former outrage master has actually crossed a line into mainstream filmmaking. Even with images of rats humping in a trash can and close up photos of female pubes, the film has a wholesome, homey quality. "There's no place like home" is the rankly sentimental theme of the film.

The story revolves around the amiable young title character, whose name is derived from the way he ate as a child - he would "peck" at his food like a chicken. His thrift shop owner mom (Mary Kay Place) gave him his start with his photo hobby and Pecker will shoot anything with his trusty old camera - from the aforementioned rats and female anatomy to a close up to meat cooking on a griddle and everything else in between. His big break comes when his grumpy boss grudgingly lets him use the sub shop as a gallery - "But, they gotta buy somethin'!" - and he gains the attention of New Yorker Rorey  This strangers in a strange land story, as the yokels from Baltimore descend upon the New York intelligentsia, is handled sweetly and without edge.

Waters takes good-natured jabs at the NY art world, cultural snobbery and the media (who hasn't?) without baring his satirical fangs for anything more than a playful nip. As I watched "Pecker," I had to wonder if this is, indeed, by the same guy who made me wretch? Perhaps this reps a  change, for the better in my mind, in the temperament of Waters' future works.

Edward Furlong ("Terminator 2") is quite sweet and unassuming as Pecker. He's a nice young man whom everyone likes and encourages in his pursuit of photographic art, until, of course, the media monster perverts Pecker's work and starts intruding into everyone's private lives. I have not liked Furlong in anything I had seen to date, so I was surprised at the performance elicited by Waters from the young actor. Furlong's likable quotient goes up a couple of notches.

The supporting cast of characters is layered by a wonderful mixture of the new and the old to John Waters films. Mary Kay Place, as Mom, is an anchor for the entire cast. She is warm and caring, advising the homeless that she can fix them up in an ensemble for only 25 cents, while supporting and encouraging her son and his art. Martha Plimpton, as Pecker's elder sister Tina, is almost unrecognizable beneath a mane of wild hair as a bar-tending emcee at a gay go-go club. Pecker's little sister, Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), is, first, a major sugar junkie, then, heavily sedated on Ritalin to turn off her sugar craving, and finally, a veggie junkie who snorts peas up her nose in the final frames of the film. Christina Ricci is wooden as Pecker's Laundromat managing girlfriend, Shelly. Jean Shertler, playing Pecker' grandma,  runs a "pit beef sandwich" stand and has a statue of Madonna who she claims can talk.

Production values are unremarkable, with the Baltimore locales lending a nice regional feel to the film.

While watching "Pecker," I couldn't stop comparing it to 1957 Frank Tashlin comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" with it's similar story of success, possible loss of integrity and overwhelming media hype. "Pecker" is more warm-hearted and less biting and that's to its credit.

I give it a "Pecker" B.


CLAY PIGEONS

Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix, "To Die For") begins a hellish odyssey one sunny Montana day while shooting targets with his best friend Earl. Earl has discovered that Clay's been having an affair with his wife Amanda (Georgina Cates) and so kills himself in a manner that will implicate Clay.  Dead body number one and Clay's first mistake - he confides in Amanda, who refuses to help him.  Clay successfully gets rid of Earl but has no luck getting rid of Amanda's unwanted attentions. When Amanda shoots Clay's new girlfriend in his bed in a manner that implicates Clay, he's got body number two to deal with.  Then, as luck would have it, he makes a new friend in trucker Lester (Vince Vaughn), whose arrival coincides with that of the FBI - on the hunt for a serial killer.

Laura LAURA:
The independent scene is making a turn towards dark and unsavory subject matter (coming soon, Peter Berg's "Very Bad Things" and Todd Solendz's "Happiness").  "Clay Pigeons" belongs to this group, yet manages to be mostly bright and funny, recalling the Coen Brothers' debut "Blood Simple."

Joaquin Phoenix's Clay is a Hitchcockian everyman thrust into circumstances out of his control, although he does make decisions that don't better his situation (did he ever consider that forensics would have proven he didn't kill Earl?).  Phoenix is convincing in the tough, central pivot-man role.

His costar, Vince Vaughn ("Swingers"), gives a breakout performance as Lester, a charming, 6'5" good old boy in a 10 gallon hat who's loved by the ladies.  Vaughn's apparent openness and gosh darn it exhuberance hide his deeply violent true nature (which is never explained, but that can be forgiven).  The boyishly braying laugh Vaughn punctuates his conversations with is a true actor's finesse on his character. One laughs and grimaces at the same time when Lester, out fishing with Clay, calls out "Man overboard! Alarm!" while grabbing the leg of a decomposing female body floating in the lake.

Also marvelous are four supporting players.  Janeanne Garofalo is FBI Agent Shelby, a wry professional dealing with small town cops ("You're deputy's name is Barney?  That's great." she deadpans, after the deputy's contaminated a crime scene.)  Every scene she's in is a highlight and it's becoming clear that a sure fire way to add some punch to a film is to cast Garofalo.

Veteran actor Scott Wilson ("In Cold Blood") is Sheriff Mooney, a man who continues to believe in Clay's innocence as evidence piles up around him because "He's a good boy."  The joy of Wilson's performance is that initially he comes across as a naive, not very bright small town sherriff, yet gradually the audience comes to discover there's a lot more going on behind his calm demeanor.

British actress Georgina Cates ("An Awfully Big Adventure") is unrecognizable as the slutty Amanda.  She's an over the top femme fatale.  Vince Vieluf is a Deputy Barney straight out of "The Andy Griffith Show."

First time director David Dobkin keeps his film moving along at a lively pace.  Screenwriter Matt Healy provides a neatly twisted story where all the small details add up and the conclusion is highly satisfying.  Cinematography by Eric Edwards favors 'big sky' shots where people seem mighty small in their environment - great locations in Utah.  The score is by John Lurie and the soundtrack comically underscores the action (particularly the use of Elvis' "It's Now or Never").

"Clay Pigeons" is a funny comedy about a serial killer amidst small town betrayals that also pulls dreadful suspense out of its hat to keep you off balance.

B


THE IMPOSTERS

Stanley Tucci, following his co-directing debut (with Campbell Scott) in the original film, "Big Night," tries his hand at slapstick comedy with "The Impostors." Tucci is Arthur and Oliver Platt is Maurice, two out of work actors trying to get ahead in post-depression NYC, but they have reached the end. Hungry and dejected, they try to scam a baker out of his cream puffs with an elaborately staged charade. Instead of getting the tasty morsels, the pastry cook gives them tickets to a play starring their professional nemesis, the nauseating but tremendously successful thespian, Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina). The pair's caustic criticism of the play, especially the star, puts them in violent confrontation with Burtom and the law. Their escape? Stow away on a cruise ship, what else?

Robin ROBIN:
Tucci's premier effort was a near-magical effort and an epiphany to fine food and friends. The feel of that film came from the makers' collected hearts, which imbued the work with a warmth that charmed its audience. Tucci, going solo, both directing and writing, with "The Impostors," takes a shot at a more vaudevillian effort, relying on Marx Brothers-style slapstick for the film's humor. As such, the story and acting tend toward the two dimensional, lacking the richness in story and character of "Big Night.".

Tucci leads an extraordinarily talented ensemble cast with Platt giving one of his best comic performances to date as the flamboyant Maurice. Alfred Molina is noisily dramatic as the ham ingenue, Burtom. Lili Taylor as cruise entertainment director, Lily, tries hard in a conventional comic role. Of all the support, Campbell Scott gives the funniest caricature performance as the domineering, Fuhrer-like cruise director, Meistrich. Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, Isabella Rosselini, Hope Davis and the rest all lend their best to the effort.

The script, by Tucci, tries hard at recreating the feel of the classic early comedies, like the aforementioned Marx Brothers (especially "A Night at the Opera"), but hasn't developed the particular controls needed to keep the zany escalation under control. There is a lot of running from here to there with pratfalls galore, but the story of two on-the-lam guys is pretty routine.

Technically, the film has a good period look and feel. Photography, by Ken Lelsch, moves from static, long, two shots early on to a manic hand-held style as the zaniness mounts. Production design by Andrew Jackness suits the 30's time frame nicely, especially aboard ship. Costuming by Andrei Belgrader is kitchy in a good way.

Stanley Tucci is a talent to watch. He stretches his creative wings and is getting the feel of  what needs to be a major (albeit, smaller scale) filmmaker. "The Impostors" is a fun, light-weight slapstick romp with lots of heart. I give it a C+.


URBAN LEGEND

Pendleton College freshman Natalie (Alicia Witt, TV's "Cybil") is deeply disturbed when another student is decapitated in her car by an axe-wielding psycho.  Unbeknownst to her friends, Natalie knew the girl well.  When she confides in practical joker Damon (Joshua Jackson TV's "Dawson's Creek"), she's disgusted to learn his sympathy was only a misguided come on, until the scratching she hears on the roof of his car turns out to be his body hanging from a tree.  Could it be that a serial killer is acting out the urban legends discussed in Professor Wexler's (Robert Englund, "Nightmare on Elm Street") American Folklore class?

Laura LAURA:
The huge success of "Scream" and its sequel was bound to draw imitators.  While "Urban Legend" is guilty and not quite up to those two films, it's not a bad entry to the genre and is certainly far superior to "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

The opening sequence, where Natasha Gregson Wagner ("Two Girls and a Guy") does the Drew Barrymore stint, is a terrifically suspenseful telling of 'the man in the back seat' story.  An uncreditted Brad Dourif as a creepy, stuttering gas station attendant provides the red herring of the oft-told tale.  If the rest of the film had lived up to this opener, it could have given "Scream" a run for its money.

Screenwriter Silvio Horta has fun with the 'boyfriend dead on top of the car,' 'exploding pop rocks and soda,' 'aren't you glad you didn't turn on the lights,' and 'microwaved pet' scenarios, but throws some urban legend logic out the window as the story line accelerates.  While providing such recent legends as 'the kidney removal' and the 'gay actor and the gerbil,' I was disappointed not to see some older chestnuts like the 'killer's hook found on car door' used.  Horta deserves credit for coming up with an interesting twist on the serial killer flick, though.  Urban Legends become what they are because everyone loves a gruesome story with an ironic twist.

Alicia Witt is an intelligent actress who, while classing up this outing, should be looking for material that will showcase her talents more. Rebecca Gayheart (TV's "Earth 2") adds some zip as Natalie's best friend with a crush on campus reporter Paul (Jared Leto, TV's "My So Called Life").  Tara Reid ("The Big Lebowski") airs the campus radio's call in sex advice show.  Danielle Harris is interesting as Natalie's insufferable goth roommate.  Loretta Devine ("Waiting to Exhale") is fun as the school's lone security police officer with a Pam Grier fixation. Robert Englund's appearance is merely an in joke.

To it's credit, I didn't guess the identity the killer in "Urban Legend," even discounting the ridiculous amount of red herrings.  A short ending coda, while nonsensical, is still not only a hoot but a twist on a standard horror movie cliche.

C+


MONUMENT AVE.

Charlestown's Monument Ave. is the dividing line between the original, largely Irish, blue collar neighborhood and the new yuppie influx who began gentrifying the area in the 1980's.  Denis Leary stars as Bobby O'Grady, a thief working with his friends for Jackie (Colm Meany), an Irish mob boss who relies on Charlestown's code of silence to stay one step ahead of the law.  When Jackie's mob hits start striking too close to home, Bobby begins to question the rules by which his tribe abides.

Laura LAURA:
"Monument Ave." is a grittily realistic portrait of an insular neighborhood. The fine script (by Emerson College grad Mike Armstrong), ensemble acting and direction by Ted Demme ("Beautiful Girls") raise this effort far above such "Mean Streets clones as "Federal Hill."

Bobby and his buddies, Mouse (Ian Hart, "Backbeat"), Digger (John Diehl), Skunk (Lenny Clarke), Red (Noah Emmerich, "The Truman Show") have lived 'the life' without ever having known anything different.  Bobby's young cousin Seamus (Jason Barry, "Titanic"), freshly arrived from Ireland, is learning the ropes.  The boys thieve when called upon and spend their downtime drinking at the local bar (Malden residents may recognize the interior of a Salem St. establishment) then frittering away the rest of the evening snorting coke.  The coke-fueled conversations provide some of the films funniest moments ("St. Elmo's Fire?  What are you, f*&#ing retarded?"), editted in quick jump cuts which add to the mania.

When Bobby discovers his drugged up, freshly-released-from-prison, cousin Teddy (Billy Crudup) in the bar's bathroom, he tries to persuade him to leave town, fearing Teddy's soft nature and loose lips.  Teddy is too confident in his gift of blarney to pay heed, however, and is soon being paid lip service by Jackie.  No sooner does Jackie leave the establishment, when one of his goons comes in and shoots Teddy at point blank range in front of a slew of witnesses.  The scene is shocking in its abrupt brutality.  The innocent Seamus is so shocked the group doesn't depart in time to avoid Hanlon (Charlie Sheen), a Roxbury cop frustrated with Charlestown's ways.  Hanlon gets what he expects for witness accounts - everyone, including the bartender, apparently were in the bathroom when the shooting took place.  But Hanlon senses a weak spot in Seamus.

Leary gives a breakout performance as the tough, but troubled Bobby O'Grady. Famke Janssen, as Katy, Jackie's alcoholic girlfriend who's having a secret affair with Bobby, proves she's a model-turned-actress worth noting as she's even better here than in the recent "Rounders."  Colm Meany's Jackie is all jovial camraderie on the surface, but his eyes reflect the suspicion and danger within.  Hart's Mouse is a lost soul. Barry captures Seamus' joy in inclusion in is cousin's circle slowly turning into fear.  Marilyn Murphy Meardon strongly symbolizes the despair of Charlestown mothers as Mrs. O'Grady.  Jeanne Tripplehorn stands out in a small role as Annie, a yuppie resident Bobby tries to pick up who flees when faced by the wrath of his girlfriend and crudeness of his pals.

"Monument Ave." features exhilirating car thievery, an unflinching look at the horror of racism, wakes where murderers pay off their victims' families and the numbing effect of being caught up in a never ending cycle.  It's a detailed and involving film which captures a specific people dealing with their very specific problems in a unique place.

B+


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