Street Smarts

Toback, a firsthand observer of Norman Mailer's late-'60s celluloid debacle, Maidstone, has a similar sense of movie as mad cocktail party. Lampshade on head, Black and White pirouettes in and out of self-parody. At the same time, the mosaic structure and channel-surferattention-span suggests an impacted Nashville—at one point, all the characters, hip or clueless, including Charlie's history teacher (Jared Leto) and her mother (Marla Maples), meet up at the same club. Toback, who appears uncredited as an oily music producer, casts hapless Shields in the Geraldine Chaplin role and saddles her with a madly cruising husband (Robert Downey Jr.) reckless enough to hit on Mike Tyson. "I'm on parole, brother, please . . . " the ex-champ pleads before he snaps and begins throttling his persistent admirer.

Elsewhere on the celebrity-romance front, Knick star Allan Houston plays a college basketball prospect while, as his grad-student girlfriend, Claudia Schiffer sucks cheek with brisk hauteur. Toback knows it's unfair to ask her to act. When she betrays the Houston character with his best friend, he thoughtfully dubs in "If You Want This Pussy (You Can Have It)." An exaggerated faith in music notwithstanding, Black and White is characterized mainly by its fabulous lack of conviction. The crucial murder is completely without consequence.

This hodgepodge only intermittently rises to the laughable (the bizarrely extended riff about undercover cop Ben Stiller delivering a payoff in the Time Café toilet), but, given the cast, it always has the potential to deliver some outlandish cameo—most often Tyson. I'm not sure I want to know the unconscious Black and White purports to channel. Suffice to say that Iron Mike emerges as the movie's most articulate and sensitive presence.

A tale of two Joes: Tucci and Holm in Joe Gould’s Secret
photo: Abbot Genser
A tale of two Joes: Tucci and Holm in Joe Gould’s Secret

Details

Joe Gould’s Secret
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Written by Howard A. Rodman, from ‘‘Professor Sea Gull’’ and ‘‘Joe Gould’s Secret’’ by Joseph Mitchell
A USA Films release
Opens April 7

Black and White
Written and directed by James Toback
A Screen Gems release
Opens April 7

Herod’s Law
Directed by Luis Estrada
Written by Estrada, Jaime Sampietro, Fernando León, and Vincente Leńero
Museum of Modern Art,
April 8 and 9

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"New Directors" winds up this weekend with a bang, giving a local premiere to Herod's Law—a savage satire of political corruption and Mexico's long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Robustly directed by Luis Estrada and set to a percolating mambo beat, Herod's Law opens by nodding to Touch of Evil and closes with a direct attack on the PRI; in between, it tells the tale of a minor functionary appointed mayor of a remote, impoverished pueblo where three mayors have been lynched in five years.

A bawdy clown show set a half-century back and populated by a variety of folk types, Herod's Law grows increasingly violent as its initially naive antihero successfully consolidates his power—although the brutality is somewhat mitigated by the good-natured barnyard humor. Estrada and his writers have fun fooling around with the official pieties that camouflage the essential rule: "Either you fuck them or you get fucked." Production values are excellent and so is the cast, which features Isela Vega—the sex bomb of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—as the town's formidable madame and, as a crooked gringo, Alex Cox in a part that once upon a time would have been perfect for Warren Oates.

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