Scan Lines

The War Room

D: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker (1993)
with James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton

With ABC's fall season opening and new episodes of Spin City here, lovers of this Michael J. Fox vehicle should rent the film on which some of the action is based. While this documentary should also be required viewing for anyone in politics, it is still an hour and a half of fun for anyone who wants to reminisce about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and the magic that two men, Carville and Stephanopoulos, were able to create. Filmed from the opening volleys of Gennifer Flowers to Clinton's victory dance in Little Rock, The War Room focuses on the intense speed of this team's constant spin control and groundbreaking strategy that essentially changed the pace of campaigns just five years later. But the passage of time also allows for the fading of memory and subtitles that identify some of the lesser players in this political play may need to be provided if this film is to resonate for generations who will only remember Clinton from his stint on MTV. Also, this team comes off as just too squeaky clean with no real dirt to show the ever-present cameras, which either proves that the political system is full of nice guys just trying to do the right thing or that Carville and Stephanopoulos are more self-aware than anyone ever suspected. -- Adrienne Martini

Citizen Ruth

D: Alexander Payne (1997)
with Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Kurtwood Smith, Swoosie Kurtz,
Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren

"Looks like the tin man," chuckles the cop as he points to the ring of silver spray paint around Ruth's (Dern) nose and mouth and tries to rouse her from her inhalant-induced stupor. Ruth is an utter mess, a real fuckup; with her kids taken away from her, she finds herself pregnant again and in court for inhalant abuse. The judge takes her into his chambers and suggests (sotto voce) she "see a doctor" and "take care of this problem." A pro-life group (led by Smith and Place) gets wind of the conversation, bails Ruth out of jail and takes her in, giving her a place to stay, food, clothes, Christian love, and "counseling." Never mind the fact that Dern expertly portrays a totally unfit mother, no poster child for prenatal care, and takes advantage of whoever is putting her up; soon she's a pawn in the abortion debate. Kurtz turns out to be a mole from the pro-choice side and takes in Ruth after she steals Place's money and spends it on whiskey and spray paint at an abortion rally. Safely under the wing of the new-agey Kurtz and her lesbian lover, Ruth is indoctrinated towards the pro-choice side and, since years of booze and airplane glue has left her with the intellect of a Labrador retriever, finds her impressionable brain in a dilemma. Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, is the extra-smarmy head of the pro-life side (with an extremely questionable relationship between him and a 13-year-old boy whose mother he talked out of an abortion) and Tippi Hedren plays the pro-choice top banana. Unfortunately, Citizen Ruth's overly long running time takes a basically funny premise and beats it to death, but it still deserves credit for taking the one ugliest and most divisive debate in public discourse and turning it into a comedy. Regardless of which side you come down on in the abortion debate, it portrays both sides as being strident, dogmatic, and uncompromising zealots. Maybe, pro-lifers and pro-choicers can see this and reflect on the overheated rhetoric used by both sides, but probably not.

-- Jerry Renshaw

Donnie Brasco

D: Mike Newell (1997)
with Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche.

Well, someone had to wrest the monopoly on gangster movies from the hands of Scorsese and Coppola, so why not get Mike Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, to direct? And why not put Johnny Depp in a starring role? And Anne Heche -- you know, Ellen's girlfriend -- as his wife!? It sounds bizarre, but put this group together with Monster of Acting Pacino and Quiz Show scribe Paul Attanasio and you've got a pleasant surprise on your hands (not to mention one of the longest-running films at the box office this year). Long stuck in development because of Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco is in many ways a similar film, and in most of them better. The true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, who in the late Seventies infiltrated his way into the New York mafia to become a "made man" under the name of Donnie Brasco, Depp is surprisingly believable as an earnest father caught up in the mob mentality. Pacino shines as always, though it's not his usual character; here he's a tragic King Lear who just can't catch a break. But as for the iffy pan-and-scan job on the videotape, take a cue from the wiseguys: Fuggedaboudit.

-- Christopher Null


D: Michael Mann (1995)
with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora and Amy Brenneman

From the "Not New but Recommended" vault, director Mann (Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans) remakes his 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown by bringing two acting titans together in one of the most intelligent crime-thrillers to come along in years. Pacino plays LAPD Detective Vincent Hanna on the trail of career criminal Neil McCauly (De Niro) and his crew of high-stakes thieves. Once Hanna and his team of detectives sniff out McCauly's trail after a botched armed robbery hit, Heat becomes a mesmerizing and relentless cat-and-mouse game where the bad guys are always one step ahead. What's so effective is the intriguing character examination we find at the heart of the film: Hanna is the driven detective whose dedication is leading to a third divorce. McCauly is the cold loner who lives by one supreme principle: "Do not become attached to something you can't walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner." Although the two share little screen time together, Pacino and De Niro's scenes are poignant and gripping. Some might have expected the two to collide like forces of nature, but in a high noon scene that should go down in cinematic history, the two merely talk life and realize they are essentially the same. Interestingly, this scene is based on a real-life encounter one of Mann's detective friends had with a criminal he was after (they too shared words over coffee). Hanna and McCauly eventually meet again in one of the greatest bank robbery/shoot-out scenes ever that is beautifully chaotic and masterfully edited (last January's Bank of America shoot-out in L.A. was an eerie reenactment). With a stellar cast including Val Kilmer and Jon Voight, Heat has it all including a great soundtrack full of tone-setting, ambient, and symphonic arrangements.

-- Simon Cote

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