#019

The Bourne Identity
Universal DVD

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Matt Damonís amnesiac spy is a role uniquely suited to the actorís peculiar star persona, in this skillful but oddly unsatisfying thriller from director Doug Liman.

Damon plays a man fished out of the Mediterranean, whose only clue to his identity is the numbered account of a Swiss bank. Cornered, the man discovers he has the sort of skill set unique to, say, spies and hired killers, and with the aid of a pretty but luckless girl (Franka Potente), he has this blatantly obvious plot point confirmed just as the CIA starts closing in on him.

Based on a Robert Ludlum thriller, Limanís film is set in that fantasy world where secret agencies like the CIA are dangerous due largely to their excess of competence, not their lack of it.

Hollywood sells personalities as much as it sells movies, but itís been a long time since the dream factory has banked on such a gallery of unremarkable faces. Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck are two of the more typical products on offer, but while Affleckís sole strength is his ability to convey a kind of callow but controlled panic, Damon is even more difficult to read.

His appeal resides entirely in a broad, faintly goofy smile, and in the absence of that smile, he gives off little more than a brooding, lightless density. It worked well in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and suits the lethal blank slate he plays here. No wonder, though, that the Hollywood where Damon and Affleck are stars insists on producing vehicles featuring anxious young men in beyond their depth and vaguely conflicted thugs.

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Pepe Le Moko
Criterion DVD

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Jean Gabin was Franceís Humphrey Bogart, an actor whose specialty was the sort of rough, manly, cynical but romantic lead thatís as rare as a good musical these days. Julien Duvivierís exotic crime drama, set in the Casbah of pre-war Algiers, is a great introduction to Gabin and his world.

Pepe is a famous thief, loved by everyone but the police, whoís cornered in the labyrinth slum where the police dare not go. Heís safe there, but he longs to escape, especially after falling for Mireille Balinís beautiful playgirl, an unwitting trap set for him by a wily detective.

Packaged with a documentary on Gabin, an interview with Duvivier, and visual essays on the filmís influence on both French and American cinema, itís a rare glimpse at an actor, and a period in French cinema history, almost unknown on this side of the ocean.

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Serving Sara
Paramount DVD

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Itís hard to pinpoint just whatís wrong with this leaden, laughless comedy. The stars - Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley - arenít without charm, and the supporting cast (Barbershopís Cedric the Entertainer, Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame, and the "Sopranosí" Vincent Pastore) more than solid, but from almost the first shot, Reggie Hudlinís film drops to its knees and crawls painfully to a predictable finish.

Perry, basically a wisecrack artist, is fed a long string of dud lines, so it could be the script. And Hurley, hardly a great actress when sheís wearing too many clothes, is given just a bit too much to do, so itís easy to blame Hudlin. ďMaking-ofĒ featurettes, the empty carbs of DVD packaging, donít often give too much away, but you canít help but groan when it becomes obvious in interviews with the principals involved in Serving Sara that, once the cast was pulled together, everyone basically stood back and expected the top to spin itself.

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Secret Ballot
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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Babak Payamiís microscopic probe of grassroots democracy at work is a lean piece of work, typical of Iranian cinema, and suffused with a variety of spiritually leaching, unmistakably social despair.

A young woman from the city arrives on a remote island to supervise voting, grudgingly accompanied by a young soldier as driver and guard. Her day goes from bad to worse, as she tries to teach the locals the fine points of voting, and comes up against the sort of paranoid hostility unique to rural life, and the resigned, even beaten complicity of Muslim country women in their traditionally marginal status. Her faith in democracy gets a beating, which Payami is careful to show clinically, in long takes and wide, static shots, lit by the bright, probing midsummer sun. A relentless, unhappy sort of film, with few consolations apart from its meditative camerawork.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.