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A Rufus Sewell double bill should be greeted with much rejoicing by red-blooded young females who, like your reviewer, would like to make this roguish, green-eyed British actor their bitch. That said, we like a little tasteful discrimination along with our manly compliance, and Sewell appears to have lost his, straying from the forest of class movie projects into the slough of cheesy, absurd, tragically over-art-directed crap. There may be no connection whatsoever, of course, but he’s beginning to look just a wee bit froglike as well.

Dangerous Beauty is a puffy-shirt extravaganza trying so hard not to be soft porn its corset laces are fraying with the strain. Set amid 17th-century Venice aristocracy, in which, we are repeatedly told, marriage is a political alliance, it tells the story of a wealthy young man and a lineage-rich but cash-poor young lady, forbidden to marry but destined for each other. Catherine McCormack plays Veronica Franco, the spirited girl who does not understand that she isn’t entitled to a fine education, a loving marriage, and fencing lessons. Sewell is the ardent Marco Venier, future senator and present bounder, matched for life with a plain, priggish teenager. Eschewing the limitations of a ladylike existence, Veronica allows her mother to turn her out, becoming Venice’s reigning courtesan.

To attract our sympathies and outrage, Veronica is painted in such resolutely modern colors that she appears to be a time traveler. Nothing about her sensibility or even understanding is a product of the culture she was raised in. Mother Jacqueline Bisset keeps explaining why she can’t marry Marco and why ladies aren’t allowed in the library, and the grown girl acts as if she’s never heard of such things. Worse, it’s as if she’s heard the opposite up ’til now. Any script that works this hard to win our attention to the already beautiful and denied heroine has some serious issues with trust.

This cavalier modernity is everywhere, from McCormack’s supermodel good looks to the silly TV-style catch phrases the characters indulge in (director Marshall Herskovitz is a TV guy, swank on the small screen, hopelessly out of his depth on the big one). Beauty is structured the way all these dumb flicks are: The couple’s first flush of love is expressed with impossible banality—the happy horse-riding scene, the frolicking in a garden to Veronica’s voice-over monologue of horrible amorous doggerel. (She’s a poet, see.) Since there’s no real reason for the cast to be dolled up in these sumptuous costumes, bodice-ripping would seem to be in the offing. Unfortunately, Dangerous Beauty can’t make up its mind whether it’s sexy or arty and so settles for neither.

Anyone either dirty-minded or artistically minded enough to witness the elephant-and-pearl hoochie show that was Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra has been down this road before. After Veronica thinks her options over in the rose petal-strewn bathtub, her training (book on head, walking in high heels, lute lessons, erotic vegetable consumption) and ascendancy take place virtually overnight. Periodically, Marco reappears to swap barbs with the quick-witted courtesan and try to sign on to her dance card.

So long as it’s a frilly, lavish, undemanding costume parade with occasional uncostumed breaks during which Veronica learns her way around cardinals and cabinet ministers, Dangerous Beauty is good fun. It gets far too much mileage out of the head-slapping discovery that this courtesan business is, if you think about it, feminist, but the naiveté isn’t crippling.

Soon, although not soon enough, the script takes a political turn, and the fun goes away; even the costumes lose their luster. There’s a war with the Turks and kinky sex with the king of France, and the religious zealots pester and detain all the cads and houris. Apparently no one expects the agents of the Italian Inquisition either, but they show up, all unreasonable and accusatory, giving Veronica, Marco, and even Veronica’s meek cousin (Moira Kelly) a chance at speechifying in favor of free, educated womanhood and against the wifely “state of perpetual inconsequence.”

It’s all quite rah-rah, but because the arguments are so ponderously weighted, everyone has to see the light, sprinkling rueful smiles and apologies on the wronged Veronica. (Even Marco’s dinky wife sees that Veronica had no more choice than she.) As an answer to the anti-pleasure backlash of ’90s movies (like The Ice Storm), Dangerous Beauty is, in theory, a welcome indulgence. But since it could easily lose 20 minutes and appears to have been edited by a 6-year-old with safety scissors, rubber cement, and ADD, sitting through it takes a bit of doing.

“There used to be a fairy here when I was a boy—biggest thing you ever saw. Lit up like a floating birthday cake.” I suppose he could have been saying “ferry,” but the dialogue in Alex Proyas’ Dark City is so unbelievably awful, it’s a coin-toss. If William Castle had produced this thing, he’d hand out a grain of salt and a pair of very sturdy earplugs to every patron.

Of course, if Castle had produced it, Dark City wouldn’t be the most stunning-looking movie going. It’s a swirling vat of strict couture interpretations, noir borrowings, fearsome futuristics, and an almost colorless richness that doubles back in on itself, as do the dayless nights and the plot’s predominant horror motif: a retro hypno-swirl.

Sewell is at it again, this time playing ordinary guy John Murdoch, a Dark City resident who wakes up in the mauve water of his bathtub to find a dead hooker in his bedroom and policemen at his door. He believes himself to be separated from his torch-singer wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). He believes that he grew up on the seaside at Shell Beach, posters for which frightening resort dot the city. He believes that he is not the serial killer the cops are looking for. In that last regard, at least, he is correct.

Everything else, including the memories and the posters, is the manifestation of the Strangers: elongated, brie-pale, bald creatures with ratlike Nosferatu faces and shifty Peter Lorre miens. Their calling card is that vertiginous, Vertigo-inspired hypno wheel, and their mission is to suck out our brains—or something. The plot is based on a frightening idea, but the execution is either elliptical or slapdash—someone hasn’t thought this through, whether it’s the evil aliens or the screenwriters. The Strangers manufacture memories in their underground lab, but Dark City is just a fancy noir-Goth-futuristic Twilight Zone with some good dirty violence.

Its influences are everywhere, and it’s much more fun to count them than it is to listen to Kiefer Sutherland’s William Shatner imitation or look at Connelly’s facial hair. There’s a dash of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children, lots of Metropolis, a little Wizard of Oz (a smidgen of Zardoz, too), Brazil, Blade Runner, oh, indubitably Barton Fink—the hotel in Dark City makes the Coen brothers’ version look like the Delano. Everything’s so over-the-top you can’t look away; the gorgeousness of every tiny detail is riveting: Sutherland’s old-style syringes, his leather coat, William Hurt’s sharp Borsalino (for once Hurt’s bloodlessness is fitting), the light bulbs, all of which swing menacingly on their cords, the telephones the size of Kelvinators. Even the tacky beaded curtains in a hooker’s tenement walk-up glisten like pomegranate seeds. But as extravagant a necropoliptic dream as Proyas—who directed Dark City’s immediate ancestor, The Crow—has envisioned, he can’t think of anything original to happen in it.CP