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On Video: Nicholson turns in dark performance in the twisting, turning 'Pledge'

Friday, June 22, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Meg. Russell. Together again in "Proof of Life" (Warner Home Video) 2 1/2.

This kidnapping drama just can't catch a break. Director Taylor Hackford blamed the movie's lackluster showing at the box office on the ill-fated romance between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. He said it had an indelible and destructive effect on the release (and it reportedly forced him to excise a love scene) while Crowe said the director was being "impolite, impolitic and imbecilic."

The Warner Home Video release arrived this week, months after the couple's affair went kaput. So there's a new distraction in the watching -- instead of looking for signs of love or lust, you're looking for the cracks in the facade. Filmed mainly in Ecuador, "Proof of Life" stars David Morse as an engineer kidnapped by drug-selling terrorists, Ryan as his rattled wife and Crowe as the kidnap and ransom expert who holds their fate in his hands. He and the wife are drawn together as the days drag by.

"Proof of Life" suffers from meager exploration of the married couple before the kidnapping, a repetitive depiction of the passage of time, and that off-screen diversion. It's rated R for violence, language and some drug material. Also new:

"The Pledge" Warner Home Video : 3 1/2.

Director Sean Penn makes the most of his movie-star cast. He not only gives Jack Nicholson a meaty (if ultimately grim) role, but he ably directs his wife, Robin Wright Penn, and calls upon such actors as Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton and Helen Mirren. The use of such name performers in smaller roles such as that of a grieving grandmother gives the movie a weightiness. As a result, those scenes crackle and resonate.

"The Pledge" opens with an aged Nicholson muttering to himself. He looks physically and mentally battered, although we don't know why. The story then spins back to his last day as a Nevada homicide detective and the pledge that will become his obsession -- and possible ruin.

Nicholson plays Detective Jerry Black, a twice-divorced cop addicted to solitary fishing excursions and his work. When a call about a juvenile homicide comes in during a luncheon, Jerry leaves his own party (where he had seemed a bit bewildered amid the merrymaking) for a remote, snowy crime scene. "I still got six more hours," he reasons.

It turns out a 7-year-old girl, the daughter of turkey farmers, has been murdered. The girl's mother makes Jerry promise, "on his soul's salvation," to find the killer.

Despite a suspect's confession and Black's retirement, he pursues the case, determining a pattern of similar missing or murdered girls. When Black buys a gas station, conveniently located near the crime scenes, he continues to keep watch for a man fitting the killer's description. Like the master fisherman he is, he seems to be baiting a hook and waiting for the killer to grab it.

If strong acting is a must in your rental requirements, then "The Pledge" is for you. If you think happy endings should be part of the bargain, well, you may want to move on down the shelf. As you might expect of a movie about a retired homicide cop on a killer's trail, this is rough going at times. But just as Jerry Black casts his line into the water, so does director Penn, as he reels us into the center of this character-driven movie and thorny case with its surprising, sad twists and turns.

Rated R for strong violence and language.

"State and Main" New Line: 3 stars

The omnipresent cell phones. The bottled water. The kowtowing to stars. The parachuting into small-town America and marveling at the white picket fences and the stores that leave clothing on the sidewalk all night.

Welcome to Moviemaking 101. Anyone who had a brush with "The Mothman Prophecies" will appreciate this David Mamet satire. Heck, anyone who watches the fatuous coverage of the industry on "Entertainment Tonight" will appreciate it, too.

"State and Main" is set in a small Vermont town that's been invaded by the "movie people." Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) is about to begin shooting a film called "The Old Mill" and he's just lost his New Hampshire location. He learns Waterford, Vt., has an old mill and sets up shop in a downtown hotel. By the time he realizes the old mill burned down, it's too late to go elsewhere. That's just the beginning of his problems.

His leading actor (Alec Baldwin) has a fondness for 14-year-old girls. His leading actress (Sarah Jessica Parker) suddenly wants an extra $800,000 for taking off her shirt. And his writer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has lost his lucky typewriter.

"State and Main" is sly in its observations about fame, money, product placements and Hollywood heavyweights. As a producer, David Paymer snarls, "I made 11 million bucks last year, and I don't like to be trifled with."

Like "The Pledge," this endeavor is blessed with a deep bench. In addition to Macy, Baldwin, Parker, Hoffman and Paymer, it stars Charles Durning as the town's mayor, Patti Lupone as his social-climbing wife, Julia Stiles as a conniving underage cutie who catches Baldwin's eye, and Rebecca Pidgeon as a book store owner who is the smartest one of the bunch.

It's peppered with good lines, as when the director insists, "It's not a lie. It's a gift for fiction."

Rated R for language and brief sexual images.

"Save the Last Dance" Paramount: 2 1/2 stars

Two new videos the same week -- not bad for a 20-year-old. Julia Stiles, who enchants Baldwin in "State and Main," co-stars alongside Sean Patrick Thomas in this drama about an interracial romance and the pursuit of seemingly unreachable dreams.

She plays Sara, a small-town girl and aspiring ballerina whose mother is killed while rushing to watch her audition for The Juilliard School. Sara leaves her comfortable house in a small town and reluctantly joins her jazz musician father on Chicago's South Side. She transfers to a predominantly black school nearby and is befriended by a girl named Chenille (Kerry Washington). But the girl isn't the only one in the family who interests Sara; she becomes intrigued by Chenille's brother Derek (Thomas), who has his sights set on college and a career as a pediatrician.

Not everyone is thrilled with their interracial romance, though. As they grapple with disapproval, Sara belatedly deals with the guilt she feels over her mother's death and her decision to try to dance again.

"Save the Last Dance" both falls prey to, and shakes off, inner-city media cliches. Chenille is a single mother, but Derek is an overachiever. One of the most powerful moments comes when Chenille tries to make Sara understand why black women might resent her; she's taking "one of the few decent black men we have left."

Stiles, one of the best actresses of her generation, is only a serviceable hip-hop and ballet dancer. The performers in the movie "Center Stage," about young dancers accepted into the American Ballet Academy, were much more convincing in their movements. It's actually Thomas who shines, along with Washington, who brings a spark to her role as his sister.

Although "Save the Last Dance" has its flaws, its heart and its message are in the right place.


Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language and brief drug references.

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