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That dog will hunt: a packin’ pooch in Bowling for Columbine.

Locked and Loaded
By Ann Morrow

Bowling for Columbine
Directed by Michael Moore

‘My first question,” says filmmaker Michael Moore, who has just been given a free firearm for opening a bank account in Michigan, “is don’t you think it’s a little dangerous to be giving out guns in a bank?” The question would be funny if it weren’t so serious—actually, it is funny, even in the wake of the D.C. snipers’ killing spree. When it comes to guns, it seems, common sense is a comedic concept.

America’s love affair with weaponry is the subject of Bowling for Columbine, the latest investigation by Moore, the gregarious guerrilla filmmaker made famous by 1989’s Roger & Me. In that unlikely smash hit, Moore exposed the devastating layoffs in his hometown of Flint, Mich., by haplessly pursuing then-General Motors president Roger Smith. Bowling is a less cohesive work, jumping from the National Rifle Association to bloodthirsty TV programming to CIA-sponsored assassinations, with some everyday gun nuts thrown in for filler. It’s also a harrowing and occasionally hilarious attempt to understand an issue that’s usually swept under the rug every post-election day. What the film does best is to remind us of how the destruction wreaked by senseless violence lasts long after the nightly news and collective outrage have moved on to fresh atrocities.

Bowling for Columbine refers to high school killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were bowling at Columbine High the morning of their rampage. Under Moore’s hammy naiveté, this fact appears as likely an explanation for the slaughter as any other, maybe more likely than the music of Marilyn Manson: Manson is one of the interviewees, and he responds with surprising thoughtfulness. Moore also pays a visit to nearby Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction; but more relevant is his trip to the Littleton K-mart, where Harris and Klebold bought their ammunition, and where a bullet could still be bought for the price of piece of Bazooka bubblegum.

Moore’s overly earnest interrogations—he tries to make a connection between Columbine and the bombings in Kosovo with a Lockheed PR man—may be exaggerated for drama, but what he really wants to know is, why does America have more than 11,000 gun deaths a year, while other Western nations average 200 or less? His rambling quest takes him back to Flint, an NRA stronghold. A trophy-winning target shooter as a teenager, Moore is still a card-carrying NRA member, and he mingles with a local militia group who seem to be kooky hobbyists rather than potential threats. Then he interviews John Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombings, and the line between an eccentric weapons buff and a mass murderer becomes thin indeed.

Moore’s card also gets him an interview with NRA president Charlton Heston. Protected by a heavy electronic gate and a full staff, Heston (somewhat confusedly) asserts the need for loaded guns to be safe. Bowling’s primary thrust—that Americans are crazed by fear due to the nightly carnage they see on television—is its most thought-provoking but also specious theory. Regardless of COPS, fear doesn’t provide much of an explanation for the chilling video footage of Harris and Klebold dispatching their classmates with paramilitary zeal. The film would’ve been stronger had it spent less time trying to understand the killers’ rage (South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who lived in Littleton, is one of the pundits) and more time examining the ease with which they were able to obtain a cache of semi-automatic weapons and 900 rounds of ammo.

Moore does take on K-mart, with two Columbine survivors in tow, but he doesn’t spring his ambush-interview technique on any gun manufacturers. He also steers clear of the symbiosis between guns and drugs, and fails to mention that not all violent crime statistics are dropping: Rape is up, not down, a fact that sheds a different light on the wacky woman survivalist who says she feels besieged. But in a case of substance over professionalism, the meandering Bowling for Columbine is a powerful experience, especially when Moore returns to his hometown to examine the shooting death of a 6-year-old girl by a 6-year-old boy. The evidence is irrefutable that something is very wrong with a country where even first-graders can become armed and dangerous.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Comedian
Directed by Christian Charles

You’re Jerry Seinfeld. You’ve just finished a successful and lucrative run with one of the most popular sitcoms ever. What do you do next?

Comedian follows Seinfeld as he returns to the world of stand-up: working up new material, going to small New York City clubs unannounced, and finding out, painfully, what isn’t funny. Seinfeld also discovers how rusty he can be: In one painful moment, he loses track of where he’s going and dies onstage for minutes while trying to recapture his train of thought. While Seinfeld does get an initial “pass” from audiences—hey, he is a big star—they still want to laugh. Seeing Seinfeld kill in Tucson and then die in New Jersey is both sobering, and, in the grand tradition of schadenfreude, a bit pleasing. (Seinfeld wearily compares a tough, heckling Long Island crowd to “monkeys throwing shit against the wall.”)

Cleverly, filmmaker Christian Charles contrasts Seinfeld’s return with the progress of an up-and-coming comic, Orny Adams. Adams is the polar opposite of Seinfeld—loud, manic, and desperate. He’s like a character from Seinfeld, especially in his hilarious interplay with the man himself. Seinfeld reacts to Adams as if he’s the guest nut in this week’s episode.

The film was shot on digital video, and the cruddy picture quality fits the material perfectly, adding a rough immediacy to the overall mood of anxious hilarity. The cameos by other comics, including Colin Quinn, Robert Klein and Garry Shandling, are purposeful. (And very funny—it’s amusing to watch Seinfeld and Shandling argue over who was first to be invited to sit down by Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show. Naturally, each claims that Johnny took longer with them—that the other was accepted first.)

Seinfeld’s ultimate moment of truth comes when he has an audience with Bill Cosby. Seinfeld has already heard, from Chris Rock, that Cosby is currently doing a long show of almost all new material. More amazing, Rock explains that it’s “killer” stuff—edgier, sharper and funnier than Cosby’s done in a long time. It’s like going to meet the pope: You expect Seinfeld to kiss Cosby’s ring. Cosby seems like the pope, completely at ease, giving advice like a sage holy man. Seinfeld comes away stunned. He’s been beating his brains out to get an hour’s worth of material to put over in small and midsize clubs, and patting himself on the back for doing quite well, while Cosby’s doing over 2 hours of new routines—sometimes twice in one day—in 900-seat theaters. You can read the question on Seinfeld’s face: What the hell is he going to do next?

As a practical matter, Seinfeld is off to Oakland’s Paramount Theater (where Margaret Cho filmed her latest concert film), to do his show again. In the larger scheme of things, he doesn’t know what he’ll do next, and neither do we. Comedian ends as a multisided portrait of an artist at a critical moment, with Adams as a stand-in for Seinfeld’s past, and Cosby for what he hasn’t yet attained. No effort is made to find closure or a happy ending in what Seinfeld does accomplish by going back on stage and killing audiences again. It’s a rewarding documentary achievement.

—Shawn Stone

This Playboy’s Life

Auto Focus
Directed by Paul Schrader

Bob Crane seems a strange sub-ject for Paul Schrader, the man whose usual protagonists (think Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper) are consumed with such aloneness that they eventually lash out at the world in dramatic ways. And yet, in Auto Focus, based loosely on Robert Graysmith’s crime book The Murder of Bob Crane, director Schrader displays remarkable finesse in evoking the life not of a stressed-out loner, but of a cipher intent on celebrity (his own) and, to an equal or greater degree, sex and videotape.

Deftly adapted for screen by Michael Gerbosi, Auto Focus is a disturbing look at Crane’s self-destruction. Made famous by his starring role in Hogan’s Heroes (as one critic notes in the movie, “So, if you liked WWII, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes?”), Crane parlayed his bland, middle-of-the-road good looks into a comfortable prototype for the mid-’60s American hero. Claiming he wanted to be like Jack Lemmon, Crane instead oozed that sort of smarmy, wiseass “charm” that has since become a staple of countless youth-oriented movies and TV shows. Whereas Humphrey Bogart’s brand of snide toughness resulted in, well, results—the bad guys were destroyed, etc.—Crane’s, as personified by his small-screen alter ego, settled for being a minor thorn in the side of those “funny” Nazis. Nevertheless, Crane gloried in his celebrity, particularly as it sent countless girls his way.

With the help of new best buddy and video aficionado John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), Crane (Greg Kinnear) ditches wife Annie (Rita Wilson) and the comforts of his Populuxe home for the randier pastures of swinging singles and group gropes. Throughout the early scenes, in particular, Schrader mixes dark humor with the story’s more tragic elements: There is a howlingly good scene in which Crane, coming across as a Rotarian, tries to talk to his priest about his growing interest in other women. As the story progresses, the movie’s bright primary colors and fun if innocuous soundtrack take on more somber hues and tones, reflecting Crane’s and Carpenter’s descent into some sort of madness, a never-ending pursuit of pussy memorialized by the latest in video technology. The relationship between the men, who alternate being the Faust to the other’s Mephistopheles, is such that they can matter-of-factly examine each other’s penile enhancement, or jerk off together in the privacy of Crane’s basement viewing room. Dafoe masterfully evokes his character’s neediness, and Kinnear is strikingly effective as a celebrity whose biggest fan is himself.

Schrader employs a bit of craftiness that one wishes he’d done without, transforming the smooth, California-lite look of the early scenes into, increasingly, a style dominated by jerky, hand-held camera. Perhaps he’s showing how video and film changed over the course of Crane’s rise and fall, but it looks ridiculous, and doesn’t do nearly as much to delineate character and tone as the scenes of increasingly desperate men trolling for babes at increasingly depressing watering holes in towns like Wichita. As a study of our fixation with celebrity, however vapid and fleeting, Auto Focus is a searing satire, but as a character study, it is oddly unfulfilling. Crane seems incredibly lightweight, incapable of recognizing the transitory nature of his 15 minutes, and devoid of any drive other than libido. Worse, the sex comes across as mind-numbingly dull. Perhaps that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with a character who racks up breast shots like other people take in oxygen, but it’s almost as if Schrader wants us to believe that Crane was a decent guy except for that one wrong turn. Auto Focus could have used a little more courage in depicting the anything-goes attitude of ’60s Hollywood, and how that atmosphere of gorgeous women and free love might have proven intoxicating to anybody.

—Laura Leon

I’m So Tired

I Spy
Directed by Betty Thomas

The much-noted opening sequence of last summer’s action hit XXX took dead aim at the relevance of the James Bond-type hero, immediately killing off a suave, tuxedo-clad super sleuth. Surly, tattooed Vin Diesel showed up and, over the course of 90 mostly-computer-generated minutes of explosions, saved the world from yet another homicidal madman. Thus, the film nixed one cliché and tediously affirmed a second.

I Spy is, disconcertingly, a retread of XXX, replacing sulky Diesel with the charming duo of Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. Over the course of 90 mostly- computer-generated minutes of explosions, Murphy and Wilson save the world from a homicidal madman. XXX sports a biological weapon; I Spy brandishes a nuclear weapon. Diesel is an extreme-sports superstar with a lot of groupies; Murphy is a boxing champion with a lot of groupies. Italian-born actress Asia Argento prowls XXX’s Prague; Dutch-born actress Famke Janssen slinks around I Spy’s Budapest. Diesel outruns an avalanche in the Alps; Wilson rides out an avalanche in the Urals. You get the idea—the screenwriters didn’t have an idea.

The film is generic in the way that a room in a run-down chain motel room is generic. The furnishings are second rate, nothing works the way it’s supposed to, and there is a lived-in, odorous funk that no amount of air freshener can mask. I Spy has a lifeless plot padded with worn-out gimmicks that no amount of witty banter can improve.

Oh well, here’s what there is of a story: There’s a secret new stealth fighter with a Star Trek-style cloaking device, and it has been stolen by an international sleazeball named Gundars (Malcolm McDowell). The U.S. government wants its plane back, so it sends agent Alex (Wilson) to retrieve it. Gundars is a fight fan, so boxer Kelly Robinson (Murphy) is recruited for the mission. Alex and Kelly don’t like each other. There’s another agent on the job, too—long, tall and gorgeous Rachel (Janssen). Alex has a crush on Rachel, while Kelly is deeply in love with himself. Can this triangle find time for happiness while dodging bazooka fire?

Does anyone care? The actors do their best to engage the audience. Wilson’s doofus-like charm hasn’t yet worn out its welcome. Murphy is as good as he’s been in years. Janssen plays tough and mysterious with ease. McDowell, uncharacteristically, underplays the bad guy. Betty Thomas—who impressively obtained a good performance from Howard Stern in Private Parts—directs the comic scenes with the right, light touch. She can’t do anything to make the explosions interesting, however, or outmaneuver the clichés that drag the film down at every promising moment. I Spy? It’s more like an eye sty.

—S.S.


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