Kooky Proles and Gucci Buddhism

A neo-noir, an Ur-neo-noir, and a black political satire color a pallid year of retreads, bogus events, and charity cases.

When We Were Kings Athletic feats are often described as poetry in motion, but an Ali fight, good or terrible, was an act of imagination that the imaginer worked out before our eyes. That was never more the case than with his most astonishing triumph, the "Rumble in the Jungle" -- the Oct. 30, 1974, title bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, that climaxes Leon Gast's exuberant and thrilling documentary. (It won 1996's Academy Award for best documentary but only played in wide release last year.) As Gast lays out with the help of Ali's 1991 biographer, Thomas Hauser, and eyewitnesses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who appear in on-screen interviews, sportswriters considered the 32-year-old Ali hopelessly mismatched against the surly 26-year-old Foreman. In the superb cutting between Gast's shot-in-Zaire footage and the new interviews with the experts, we get to hear Mailer describe Foreman punching an indentation the size of a watermelon into the heavy bag, and then see Foreman doing it. Taylor Hackford directed the '90s interviews and pitched in on the editing; but Mailer is, next to Ali himself, the film's creative star. His acute and gutsy observations are what great journalism is all about.

Conspiracy Theory Directed by Richard Donner, co-produced with him by Joel Silver (the pair created the Lethal Weapon franchise), and written by Brian Helgeland (co-writer of L.A. Confidential), the best of '97's summer movies gives slick a good name. It doesn't have the shock or originality of a classic like The Manchurian Candidate, but it doesn't deteriorate into a mass of effects either. The cogs interlock; the loose screws enhance rather than detract from the alternate-universe plausibility of the unhinged cabby hero, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a paranoid whose delusions about government plots have a scary way of coming true. As Jerry and classy Justice Department lawyer Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts) elude competing government agencies, they gun down the amorous barriers between them. The effect is double-barreled bittersweet. What stays with you is the characters' expressions -- Gibson and Roberts give their best star performances. When Jerry ducks between the bucket seats in Alice's car to elude the notice of the agents tailing her, he seems as vulnerable as a hairless puppy. His character is one of the year's most distinctive creations: Out of bad dreams and suspiciousness and The Catcher in the Rye, he creates his own underground culture for the '90s.

The Designated Mourner In David Hare's spare, absorbing version of Wallace Shawn's spiky, paradoxical stage play, Mike Nichols' portrait of an educated yet hollow and debased Everyman is a film-acting debut that makes other virtuoso exhibitions look like puny dry runs. He locks us into the melodious whining of the anti-hero Jack, a "former student of English literature who went downhill from there." Jack, his wife Judy (Miranda Richardson), and her poet-intellectual father Howard (David de Keyser) describe both a marital and a political catastrophe -- a crackdown on dissident thinkers in an unnamed country. Judy and Howard become martyrs; Jack drops them at crisis-point. Together, they generate an apocalyptic heat. You may get restless, and wince at Howard's smugness or Jack's loathsomeness, but Nichols is so magnetically, infuriatingly entertaining you can't tune out anything he says. You grow addicted to his verbal buzz. Jack's motivation is straightforward: He wants to survive. What makes his story arresting is that Nichols and Shawn illuminate how this ethical speck of a person can be emotionally and intellectually complicated.

Rough Magic As she showed in her debut film, the seductively enchanting High Season (1987), director Clare Peploe knows how to use exotic locales to catalyze farce, mystery, and lovemaking. This comically haywire high-wire act, set (like L.A. Confidential) in the atomic '50s, is about magic as illusion and magic as genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively. Bridget Fonda plays an L.A. magician's assistant who runs from her uranium-honcho fiance to Mexico, where she teams up with Alex Ross (Russell Crowe, also from L.A. Confidential), a Bogart-cynical reporter, and Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a British quack on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. Broadbent is the standout in a seamless slap-happy ensemble; it takes an actor with his gusto, wisdom, and authority to bring off phrases like "as the fates would have it." As the movie roves into the Mayan heartland, it generates a mystic aura: The physical ruins of a vanished civilization merge with the craggy grandeur of the surroundings. This Lost World, unlike Spielberg's, has spiritual and emotional dimensions -- but it never evaporates into a New Age fog. The action is too goofy and iconoclastic.

Old Man Arliss Howard gives a staggering performance as a convict who rescues a pregnant woman during the horrifying 1927 Mississippi flood. What starts as a mission of salvation becomes a picaresque adventure, as he and the woman (and soon her baby, too) drift on and off the Mississippi River -- the Old Man of the title -- into uncharted swamps. This fellow is determined to bring his human bounty back and do good time. Dramatizing the sustaining power of an ordinary man's self-made ethic has defeated many an American writer, but in his original story Faulkner did it without sentimentality or false rhetoric. And in John Kent Harrison's movie version, which premiered on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the prisoner gets a taste of tenderness as he forges a bond with his travelingmate. This may be a TV film, but it has a spaciousness and lift that belong on the big screen. Howard catches you up in the eddies of the hero's confused emotions, just as director Harrison plunges you into the vortices and muck of the floodlands and the bayou. It's a rich backstage joke that Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays the woman with warmth and empathy, previously co-starred in Waterworld, an action film that set pre-Titanic budget records creating an aquatic planet and putting it at the service of a feeble ecological fable. Old Man, doubtless made for a pittance, uses a scary watery reality as the setting for a roiling saga of birth and rebirth.

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