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‘Art-House’ Movies Paint Pictures With Ideas, Character Development

The term “art-house movie” is usually applied, with more than a slight tone of derision, to those films that typically have a European or intrinsically studied feel.

You know, they’re the kinds of films that tend to emphasize ideas and character interplay over plot mechanics and sensory titillation.

In Spokane, we call such films “Magic Lantern movies.” And outside of a regular coterie of fans, Spokane moviegoers tend to stay away from them in droves.

Since there are no Chris Farley movies coming out on video this week, what Hollywood sees as typical, mainstream entertainment is in short supply. Still, while maybe under-represented, Hollywood is still there, making this week one of the most varied in terms of selection that you’re likely to see.

On the “art-house” side, we have the newest film by Robert Altman (“Kansas City”), the highest-grossing foreign film in history (“Il Postino”), the second feature by acclaimed director Ed Burns (“She’s The One”), a thought-provoking study of urban crisis (“The Trigger Effect”), a big-screen rendering of senseless violence from Tony (“Top Gun”) Scott (“The Fan”) and the latest rumination by Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man”).

Each has it strengths, and a couple of them have more than a few weaknesses. But all, in one way or another, make for fascinating viewing.

In an “art house” or out.

Kansas City *** 1/2

In his best film in years, Robert Altman explores one hard day in the life of 1933 Kansas City. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Blondie, a Jean Harlow wannabe who kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a well-connected pol (Michael Murphy). Her reasoning? She wants the man to persuade a notable black gangster (Harry Belafonte) not to harm her husband (Dermot Mulroney), who had stolen from him. Altman, who directed, produced and co-wrote the screenplay, has concocted a period-piece morality play that holds up a mirror and invites us to examine the real face behind our polite cultural mirror. Leigh, never a timid performer, goes a bit too far in her characterization. But Richardson and Belafonte are superb, capturing with perfection the respective rages that fester in both society mavens and societal outlaws. Special note: Altman’s re-creation of Kansas City’s jazz scene, which spawned such talents as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, is a jazz-lover’s delight. Rated R

The Postman *** 1/2

Set in the 1950s in an Italian fishing village, “Il Postino” involves the relationship between a meek postal carrier (Massimo Troisi) and his sole delivery stop, the house of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Over the course of the film, the two develop a friendship that heats up when the peasant falls for the girl of his dreams and asks the poet to teach him how to write. “The Postman,” which earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination, is a poignant look at class differences, made even more poignant by the fact that Troisi died the day after shooting was completed. Rated PG

She’s the One ** 1/2

Edward Burns follows up his first feature, “The Brothers McMullen,” with this light little comedy-drama about brothers - only two this time - who explore the pains and pleasures of contemporary love, New York-style. Burns is not a complete filmmaker, as evidenced by the many half-baked sequences that make up the film’s main action, but he does benefit from the presences of TV stars Jennifer Aniston (“Friends”) and John Mahoney (“Frasier”). The best parts, however, involve Burns and real-life wife Maxine Bahns who, though not the most talented of actors, are certainly the most photogenic. Rated R

Trigger Effect ** 1/2

What begins brilliantly, gradually turns into a second-rate, Rod Serling-like study of how dependent 20th-century humans are on technology. Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue star as young parents trying to cope with their lives of only half-quiet desperation when, unaccountably, all the power to their suburban neighborhood is cut off. Before long, neighbors are at each other’s throats and some - our protagonists and their friend (Dermot Mulroney) - decide to hit the road. But what they find there is not what they expect and hardly enough to warrant a 22-minute television show, much less a 98-minute movie. Rated R

The Fan *

Wesley Snipes is star ballplayer Bobby Rayburn and Robert De Niro is Gil Renard, the die-hard fan who takes his obsession with baseball, but especially with slugger Bobby, to obscene lengths. Director Tony Scott, as always adept at creating affecting visuals, misses the overall effort here by failing to give his film any sense of meaning. With the many obvious true-to-life stories that could be told about fan hysteria, why should we care about De Niro’s character, an obvious sociopath who is all too willing to desert his preadolescent son at a baseball game? Easy answer there. In fact, much of what occurs in “The Fan” smacks of child abuse - with the actors playing the sons of De Niro (Andrew J. Ferchland) and Snipes (Brandon Hammond) having to endure scenes that are simply painful to watch. Long before De Niro’s character loses his job, takes Snipes’ son hostage and goes on a killing spree, Scott cares little for context. He wants only effect, and the baseball-duel-in-the-rain finale provides that, but little else. Rated R

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo