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Love Jones is set in an African-American community that is neither Cosby nor Boyz N the Hood, and is refreshing just for that. The film’s details of Chicago black-boho life, however, hold a lot more interest than its central characters, performance-poet Darius (Menace II Society menace Larenz Tate) and photographer Nina (Nia Long, who actually was in Boyz N the Hood). The inability of these two lovers to make a commitment—or even have a frank conversation on the subject—soon proves exasperating.

After a credit-sequence series of Chicago photos that are supposed to be Nina’s (they’re actually by Melodie McDaniel), first-time writer/director Theodore Witcher introduces Love Jones’ equivalent of the malt shop: the Sanctuary Club, young, hip, and upscale black Chicago’s place for jazz poetry and romantic intrigue. That’s where Nina, fresh from a bitter breakup with Marvin (Khalil Kain), meets Darius, a slick womanizer. Knowing little more than Nina’s name, he takes the mike to deliver an erotic poem dedicated to her. It’s the first of many times Darius goes too far—and Nina too quickly excuses him.

Darius pursues Nina, tracking her to her apartment with an address he copied off the check she wrote to a neighborhood used-record store. Again, Nina is peeved—for about a minute. Soon, she and Darius are in bed for an experience so profound that it unleashes some Quiet Storm music. (This unhiphopped movie name-drops Al Green, Charlie Parker, and the Isley Brothers, and features music by Maxwell, Duke Ellington, Cassandra Wilson, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and, uh, Jamiroquai.) Later, the lovers tell their best pals—Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson) and Savon (Isaiah Washington), respectively—that the sex was earthshaking. “It was like his dick just talked to me,” Nina gushes to Josie.

Too bad his dick wasn’t more articulate; that might have spared the couple (and the film’s viewers) another hour of tentative breakups and faltering reconciliations. Nina considers getting back with Marvin, so Darius takes up with Lisa (Jacqueline Fleming), so Nina dates Darius’ low-class pal ‘Wood (Bill Bellamy). Meanwhile, Savon splits with his wife, which gives him and Darius a chance to consider the prickly issue of monogamy as they play pool.

Witcher’s point, apparently, is that today’s hipsters find it easier to have sex than to make plans; Nina and Darius are just too cool to undertake the discussion that would render all this break-up-to-make-up unnecessary. Yet the director doesn’t seek to be too up to date. Attempting to position his film as a new-school romantic comedy, he sets it in implausibly upscale surroundings: Darius lives comfortably on his occasional contributions to New City (a small Chicago alternative weekly), while struggling photog Nina dwells in spacious luxury (house-sitting, she explains). Witcher also engineers such old-school Hollywood moments as one where Darius rides his motorcycle into Chicago’s Union Station in an attempt to catch Nina before she boards a train to New York; ultimately, he even contrives a hesitant happy ending. How Love Jones comes out, however, is of little interest; it’s where it’s at that’s noteworthy.

Since it’s set in apartheid-era South Africa, Inside could also have featured a predominantly black cast. Instead, it’s another movie that reduces a historic black struggle to two white guys, one pretty good and one very, very bad. Marty (Eric Stoltz) is a 30-year-old anti-apartheid political-science professor who’s been detained (not arrested, which would require formal charges) after attending what his nemesis, Col. Kruger (Nigel Hawthorne), calls a “Bruce Springfield” concert in Zimbabwe. Kruger intends to break Marty, although it’s not quite clear why; Marty doesn’t seem to know anything of use to the South African secret police.

Marty has already been physically tormented—beaten, shocked, frozen—when he’s brought before Kruger, a smooth-talking villain who can do the good cop/bad cop routine all by himself. Kruger’s speciality is psychological torture; he plots to plunge Marty into despair by demonstrating that his girlfriend, father, and revolutionary comrades have all abandoned him. Thus the movie is essentially a psychodramatic pas de deux; though Inside is less cryptic and claustrophobic, its central relationship recalls Closet Land, the 1991 film that depicted only prisoner and interrogator.

Midway through the proceedings, however, screenwriter Bima Stagg introduces a third player: In a flash-forward to the post-apartheid era, an unnamed “Truth Commission” investigator (Louis Gossett Jr.) arrives to interrogate the interrogator. Like Kruger during his questioning of Marty, the investigator seems to already know the answers to the questions he asks his subject. (How he knows is eventually revealed, but most viewers will have already figured it out by then.) The investigator suggests that Kruger, a child of the working class, treated Marty with particular malice because he resented his privileged upbringing.

This is as a good a theory as any to explain Inside, which never really makes the case for telling Marty’s story. Veteran director Arthur Penn carefully (if none too subtly) places the film in time and place, opening with a montage of brutal news footage of the anti-apartheid conflict and setting Marty’s agony to the beat of tribal drums and the chants of his African fellow prisoners. (Never mind that South Africa’s former regime enforced apartheid in its jails as it did everywhere else.) Still, as the stuff of political parable, Marty’s sufferings seem peripheral to the South African struggle; Chris Menges’ A World Apart was much more eloquent on the subject of white anti-apartheid fighters, which it wisely depicted from outside rather than in.

Stoltz plays Marty as prissy and impossibly naive, which at first seems his miscalculation but is gradually revealed as true to the spirit of the script; even as he demands “prisoner of war” status, Marty is really not supposed to comprehend the casual brutality of the system he opposes. As Kruger, Hawthorne powerfully embodies that brutality; his sheer evil is the film’s principal virtue. Though Kruger is occasionally nonplused by the investigator’s questions, he never loses his certitude that his actions were justified. Inside ends with a moment of transracial bonding that’s clearly meant to be uplifting, but Kruger’s cool savagery lingers. In Penn and Stagg’s hymn to South Africa’s change for the good, it’s the bad that’s most skillfully drawn.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow is The English Patient of sci-fi thrillers: meditative in pacing, exotic in location, and feeble in the head. For the North African desert, substitute Greenland’s icy vastness; for Juliette Binoche’s plucky, independent nurse, substitute Julia Ormond’s prickly, independent scientist; for the Nazis, substitute—well, I guess it’s supposed to be a surprise, so let’s just say that this supposedly upmarket film features a menace that would feel at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Smilla (Ormond) is the daughter of a Greenland Inuit woman, who died when Smilla was young, and an American father (Robert Loggia), a doctor who settled in Copenhagen after his wife’s death. Smilla lives in Copenhagen, too, but is uncomfortable there. Unable to work agreeably with others, she has abandoned her work as an Arctic scientist—this ice maiden knows snow—for a solitary life contemplating the beauty of higher mathematics. Her only friend is a young Inuit boy who has lived in her apartment building since the death of his father; she teaches him about his heritage and reads to him from (I swear) Euclid’s Elements. When the boy falls from the building’s roof and dies, Smilla is convinced that a conspiracy is afoot.

Smilla sets out to investigate the boy’s death, which puts her in opposition to the police, various medical authorities, and Greenland Mining and its head, Tork (Richard Harris); she also bickers in what is apparently supposed to be a winning tough-girl manner with her dad’s bimbo girlfriend (Emma Croft). She gets some assistance from a coroner (Jim Broadbent), a God-struck retired accountant (Vanessa Redgrave), and a neighbor known only as “the mechanic” (Gabriel Byrne). The latter seems to be well-meaning, but he’s clearly lying to Smilla about some things; when he and the quarrelsome, suspicious Smilla become lovers, it’s unconvincing. But then so is everything else that happens in the second half of the movie, when Smilla, Tork, and the mechanic all head to Greenland to model North Face parkas and stage a showdown that’s like something from an especially lethargic James Bond picture.

As indicated by the presence of the theater-trained, mostly British and Irish cast, director Bille August clearly intended this as prestige product. Yet August, who directed the credible Twist and Shout and The Best Intentions, also assembled a high-powered cast (including Redgrave) to make the ludicrous House of the Spirits. And here he’s working from a script by Ann Biderman, who wrote the fatuous Copycat and Primal Fear. Whatever ambience is retained from Peter Hoeg’s bestseller is the responsibility of Ormond (not as ornery as she needs to be) and the Greenland landscape (not as striking as it’s meant to be). Still, it would take a hell of a lot of ambience to offset a plot this dumb.CP