As a director, Clint Eastwood doesn’t back down from difficult properties. His projects haven’t been as hard to handle as Waterworld, granted, but he has picked culturally daunting cult-status mainstream texts and treatments of subcultures accustomed to either rougher or terribly sensitive treatment. In choosing John Berendt’s breathtakingly popular book about a fraught murder in Savannah, Ga., and all the charming grotesques involved, Eastwood forced himself into a number of tricky high-wire acts: make sense of the South, deal with new money, gay men, and drag queens, and try to keep as muted as possible Berendt’s own tangled perspective.

The Berendt character is played by John Cusack as John Kelso, a Town & Country reporter down in Savannah to cover the legendary Christmas party of local art collector and prickly man-about-town Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The night of the party, Williams shoots his young lover, Billy (Jude Law), and the rest of the film sorts through the trail of clues, returning again and again to the courtroom, all the while keeping the town weirdos jumping through their hoops on cue so that our hero can be continually amazed.

Because Cusack is movieland’s smart, slightly dark everyman, he’s perfect for an engaging, uncomplicated Berendt, although the movie’s characterization elides the author’s—how shall I put this?—ambivalent attitude toward his sexuality. Kelso must usher us through a rogue’s gallery of exotic freaks—we tune in to see all that crackling eccentricity—and Cusack’s hung-open mouth and black button eyes invite complicity.

For expediency’s sake, the script (by John Lee Hancock) provides Kelso with the local girlfriend Berendt never had—luscious Mandy, played by the director’s daughter Alison—and evens out the tones. In the book, certain incidents, like an imagined graveyard tryst, popped out in overheated full color, while potentially more interesting passages warranted mere reporting. These discomfiting clues to the author’s internal struggle with his time down South are gone, but everything is flat and slow; even Kelso’s introduction to the town weirdos simply crawls.

Sadly, Spacey is horribly miscast as the powerful, cynical, very recently and proudly rich Williams. His yellow skin and hair look puttied, his dark mustache glued on, and he is so physically unprepossessing that, without his dinner clothes, nothing sets him apart from the jailhouse thugs and menaces; he could be a tourist in for small-time drug dealing.

The film’s proportions are all wrong (and if Cusack is a 44 long, I’m a size 2 petite); in doctoring the story in favor of a more “cinematic” product, Midnight loses its lurid high notes and languid low ones. Berendt condensed and fiddled with his own story to make it work for the book, and it did—his very first Savannah episode, a set piece in which a local society woman ferries him to the cemetery to tell Savannah stories, is mystical, scary, and charming. In this one scene, each thread of the later story takes a quick curtsy: dark magic, death, poetry, fame, vanity, cocktails, and debutantes. Hancock’s script leaves this out, so Kelso is buffeted from one meet-the-freak episode to another.

The one character worth meeting is the most famous current Savannah export: singer, MC, and hostess Lady Chablis, playing herself with obscene relish and only just sassy enough to let the edges of her boredom show during the courtroom and other plot-heavy scenes she was shoehorned into for the sake of local color. She’s in fairly constant action here, and in retrospect, Berendt’s pose of being totally taken in by “The Doll”‘s feminized exterior cuts zero ice—he was definitely a man who wanted to be fooled. Hancock doesn’t have much reason to spread Chablis’ charms all over the plot—her presence in the text was peripheral and personal—but she’s hypnotically fascinating to watch, the mere rhythms of her glorious speech a distilled lesson in elocution for every actor around her.

Still, it isn’t a good sign that Eastwood exploits her exotic presence so fully; she’s too easy to admire, the rest of the film too hard. Even such a dazzling minor turn can’t disguise the film’s overall unshapeliness—although the script condenses four trials into one Hollywood-style one, the damn thing is still an hour too long—and its unevenness, wherein acting gaffes are allowed to stand uncorrected but not to any purpose of realism. Midnight is no raw exercise—it’s a pallid West Coast vision of the South that mistakes drawl for torpor and is art-directed up the gum stump.

The French know their science fiction—their civilization has been crumbling like a stale pastry for the last three centuries—and Jean-Pierre Jeunet does rococo Euro-sci-fi better than anyone, as the underseen Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children attest.

The Alien series has done what Batman couldn’t—pass the story around from one fancy, art-minded director to another and each time come up with a gorgeous, difficult thing, like different facets of the same strange, curvilinear prism. Using H.R. Giger’s designs for the original Alien as a blueprint, each director has stuck to the themes of gooey organic triumph, birth and ownership, and family terror.

Jeunet’s contribution brings Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, hard as 10 rocks) back to life (she died in Alien 3) in a dreamlike, impressionistic sequence (she emerges with her nails painted). Ripley gives uncomplicated birth to the alien of the title; it isn’t so much her resurrection but that of the species—she is the mother, after all, of the queen, and this creature has inherited some interesting human adaptations.

The cabal of nasty, cold-minded scientists rapturously bringing these mutations to life gets gloriously slaughtered—Resurrection has the best deaths of any recent movie, a veritable panoply of satisfying, crunchy gore—and the ragtag visiting crew from the spaceship Betty is left to get off the deathtrap with their prize possession.

The new Ripley is cold, detached, and frighteningly competent, and Weaver seems to have endless reserves of still-water power inside her. She helps/leads the hunky guy, scarred guy, crippled guy (Dominique Pinon, from Diva and Delicatessen), robot, sexy girl, and black guy (guess which two get it first?), as they battle slimy, tentacled, oddly moving creatures great and small. Jeunet balances his tones, moving from sci-fi ominoso to dry or dumb humor with ease—not even Winona Ryder’s lazy, foolish voice can break the spell.

Before movies got more stupid than their size could support, huge, impossible fantasies were acceptable enjoyment; they were just the right scale for what they were trying to accomplish. Alien Resurrection is smart, big, good-looking, and startling; it knows the limits of science fiction and respects the genre’s conventions. There are weirdnesses in the script by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon (why is the robot so weepy, and what is up with that boot imagery?), but Resurrection is so lovely to look at, both majestic and decrepit, that they aren’t worth bothering with.

Flubber is not as bad as it probably could have been, but that’s not a hearty recommendation. It isn’t cheesy or insulting, the usual kids-movie cavils, but it has no plot and no forward thrust. As Disney’s remake of the studio’s own The Absent-Minded Professor, a 1961 Fred MacMurray vehicle, it isn’t taking any chances with the modern minor audience.

Robin Williams keeps his vain, childlike exulting to a minimum as Phil Brainard, a Medfield College professor of chemistry notorious for his sievelike memory. We find the professor at a difficult crossroads: His fiancée Sara (Marcia Gay Harden), tired of being left at the altar, is being courted by a slimy ex-colleague of Phil’s, and Medfield is in financial ruin. Just in time, using a spurious hash of pseudoscientific jabber, Brainard invents a substance lighter than air: flying rubber, a translucent snot-colored substance so patently computer-generated that interacting with it taxes Williams’ considerable talent for physical comedy.

Flubber is like a destructive Superball on steroids, so the technical crew has lots of fun zinging it around the lab, positing its effect on golf and bowling balls, and allowing it to change the outcome of the Big Game (basketball—this is the ’90s) that will save the school. There’s less fun to be found in the story, which plunks Brainard into various Flubber-fueled situations, sometimes with Sara, or strangers, or solo in a bet-hedging Home Alone subplot, or with his little flying robot, WEEBO, a handy invention of his that manages to mysteriously stay afloat without the help of friend flubber. But whatever.

WEEBO is for some reason female, and, even more obscurely, in love with the professor, but she’s very sweet when raising her TV screen to display emotions cadged from film and TV—like Shirley MacLaine at her cutest confessing to unselfish love. But the great love stories here are technical, between the computer guys and their showstopping generation, and between Williams and his sheepish smile, shaped like the symbol for infinity.CP

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