Denzel Washington, Ray Allen

Feature attraction

Spike Lee just may be the most exciting, energizing and exhausting American filmmaker working today. The guy is talented, audacious, and he has plenty to say. Too much, in fact. Like many of Lee's movies, He Got Game piles on issue after issue until the movie weakens under the weight.

Lee's latest effort, which he wrote and directed and which draws on his much publicized love for basketball, is not a great film, but it sure is trying and comes, at times, exhilaratingly close. Game tackles two major themes: the need for reconciliation between a father (Washington) and son (Allen) after the father has killed the boy's mother, and the emotional and big-money pressures facing top athletes today. The two themes overlap when Washington is furloughed from a state prison for a week to persuade his son, the nation's No. 1 high school hoops star, to play for the governor's college alma mater. The son, understandably, wants nothing to do with his father.

Much in the movie is first-rate: Malik Hassan Sayeed's ravishing camera work, the bold mixing of Aaron Copland and Public Enemy on the soundtrack, Washington's portrayal of the sadder-but-wiser dad, and the surprisingly solid performance from acting rookie Allen, who, off-screen, works as a guard for the NBAs Milwaukee Bucks. These premium elements only serve to make Lee's excesses (surplus subplots, overkill on cameos by real college coaches and NBA stars, and endless closeups of women's naked breasts) all the more exasperating. (R)

Bottom Line: An ambitious effort scores more often than it misses

Robert Downey Jr., Natasha Gregson Wagner, Heather Graham

Two women (Wagner, see page 65, and Graham) stand in front of a loft building in Manhattan, each waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. As the two soon discover, their beau is the same man, an actor (Downey Jr.) who has for months now been telling each he loves only her. They decide to confront the louse.

Once the three are inside Downey's place, the film becomes a claustrophobic sexual drama. The trio rant, rave and confess all, two of them have sex, and emotional breakthroughs are had by all. Whether Two Girls and a Guy, as written and directed in let's-all-cut-our-wrists-and-watch style by James Toback (The Pick-Up Artist), proves affecting or drives you bonkers (and it can do both within minutes), there's no ignoring the incredibly raw, anguished performance by Downey. The actor, whose recent drug abuse problems are well known, has a harrowing scene in which he gets up close to a mirror and berates himself: "Is this how you want to live your life? Hurting people? Stop deceiving yourself and everybody." The line between acting and reality blurs, and all that's left is pain. (R)

Bottom Line: Downey's remarkable, but don't expect to exit laughing

Scott Bakula, Corbin Bernsen

The great thing about going to a professional baseball game is that there's always an 8-year-old kid sitting in front of you, scorecard in hand, who can tell you the exact ERAs for all the pitchers, the batting averages of players and, of course, who's on first. It will be these same fervent fans, I suspect, who will most appreciate Major League: Back to the Minors, an aptly named minor comedy that follows, limpingly, in the cleat marks of 1989's Major League and 1994's MLII.

In this one, the always easygoing and welcome Bakula portrays a washed-up pitcher who proves a whiz at managing a ragtag minor league team owned by ML series star Bernsen, who has little to do. The jokes here are broad enough to be read from the bleacher seats. But if you were 8 and had not already sat through 20 or 40 similar films, it would seem just swell. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Goes down swinging

Documentary

Michael Moore established himself as a satirist of impressively sharp teeth and claws nine years ago with Roger & Me, a bitterly funny documentary about how his hometown of Flint, Mich., was decimated after GM began closing plants there in the late 1980s. This new documentary is essentially about Michael Moore. Shot during the last presidential election, The Big One follows Moore, now established as a celebrity, as he crisscrosses the country to promote his best seller, Downsize This! Moore himself seems to be on some sort of campaign. Audiences turn out to cheer him and laugh at his jokes. Aggrieved workers seek his advice on how to battle big business. His publisher's flaks vainly try to keep this beloved man of the people on schedule. Egomaniacal? Well, yes. And, to many Americans who are suddenly basking in prosperity, Moore's obsession with the evils of the corporate profit motive may seem almost quaint. But he happens to be a very entertaining guy, droll yet vicious, with an excellent eye for absurd details—that airlines hire jailed convicts to take phone reservations, for example, or that Steve Forbes never blinks. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: The more Michael Moore, the merrier

John Turturro

When the gates to the Auschwitz concentration camp were pulled down by conquering Russian troops in 1945, Primo Levi, a 25-year-old Jewish Italian chemist who had barely survived 10 months of imprisonment there, knew exactly where he wanted to go: home. And that was Turin, where his family awaited him in the airy apartment in which he had grown up. His long, circuitous trip back took him from Poland to Russia, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Germany before he finally reached Italy. (The Long Way Home, a documentary featuring similar stories, won an Oscar in March.) Along the way, Levi slowly rediscovered an appreciation for life and its pleasures, both big and small.

The Truce, based on Levi's book, The Reawakening (published in the U.S. in 1965), is a road movie, but one with more on its mind than getting to the next stop. As Levi, Turturro strikes a perfect balance between despair and laughter. Always hanging over the film, though, is the sad knowledge that Levi, in 1987, unable ever to quite shake his memories, hurled himself to his death down the staircase of the very same Turin apartment building to which he had returned with such hope in 1946. (R)

Bottom Line: Inspiring look at a Holocaust survivor's journey home

>Barbara Kopple

Shlemiel Ticket

If Hollywood is a place where you peel away the phony tinsel to find the real tinsel underneath, then making a film about the real Woody Allen requires peeling away all of the films by Woody Allen. "I thought of him as a character," says Barbara Kopple, 45, who accompanied Allen's jazz band (and his then-girlfriend Soon-Yi Previn) on a 1996 European tour for her documentary, Wild Man Blues. Once filming began, however, "I was peeking under a blanket and looking at stuff you're not supposed to see." Kopple catches Soon-Yi (now 26 and married to Woody, 62) acting equal parts drill sergeant (she orders her bookish mate to swim laps) and Miss Manners (she upbraids the clarinet-playing Allen for failing to thank some bandmates after a performance).

Kopple, a two-time Oscar-winning documentarian (1976's Harlan County, U.S.A. and 1990's American Dream) who lives in New York City with her husband and her 16-year-old son from a previous relationship, was nervous about showing the film to Allen and Previn, but Woody's only remark was, "Very entertaining," says Kopple. She adds, "That meant a great deal to me."

>AS GOOD AS IT GETS If you're still catching up with your Oscar winners, check out this delightfully shaggy romantic comedy. Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt deservedly won matching gold statues as Best Actor and Actress, though the dog steals the movie. (PG-13)

CITY OF ANGELS Want to feel artistically uplifted while wallowing in a big, soppy love story? This romantic drama perfectly fits the bill. Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan couldn't be better as an angel and the surgeon he falls in love with. (PG-13)

PAULIE This jolly film about a talking parrot offers beak entertainment value for kids and parents. Darn cute bird, and Buddy Hackett's in it too. (PG)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Joseph V. Tirella.