Bad Blood 'In The Badlands

A thriller set on an Indian reservation in the 1970s, Thunderheart has both passion and power, enough to compensate for its sometimes murky plotting and a fair dose of melodramatic hokum. John Fusco's script, inspired by the real, bloody clashes between pro-government Indians and the radical traditionalist American Indian Movement, sends a hotshot young FBI agent from Washington, Raymond Levoi (Val Kilmer), to investigate the murder of an Oglala Sioux at the Bear Creek "Res " in the Badlands of South Dakota. He's chosen because he's one-quarter Indian. It's a purely cynical PR ploy, because Levoi thinks of himself as a white man. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that Levoi, in the course of solving the murder, will undergo a spiritual transformation (he even starts having visions), or to suspect who the heavies really are.

But if the moral destination is always in sight, the journey unfolds in gripping, fresh details. Kilmer's performance is full of subtle, internal details, and he works well with Sam Shepard as his seasoned FBI partner. As the very cool tribal cop who steers him in the right direction (and gets the funniest lines), Graham Greene practically walks off with the movie, though 73-year-old Chief Ted Thin Elk gives him a run for his money as a crafty medicine man. Roger Deakins's camera eloquently captures both the physical beauty of the land and the desolation of reservation life. Director Michael Apted, who shot the documentary " Incident at Oglala " about AIM activist Leonard Peltier just before "Thunderheart, " obviously connects with his subject. Stylishly balancing thrills, mysticism and political outrage, he's produced his most absorbing movie since "Coal Miner's Daughter. "

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a slick young studio executive, is explaining to his new girlfriend, the Icelandic painter June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), that before he will "greenlight " any project it must have certain "elements. " These are, he explains, suspense, laughter, violence, heart, nudity and, above all, happy endings. One of the ironies of the movie we are watching him say this in - Robert Altman's wonderfully subversive Hollywood satire The Player, written by Michael Tolkin-is that it includes all these elements. But as Altman employs them, their meaning is turned upside down. " The Player " is decidedly not the kind of movie Griffin would normally greenlight, except that, as it turns out, it is a movie Griffin has commissioned. (To understand this, you must see it.)

There are wheels within wheels in this brilliantly self-reflexive anatomy of the movie business. On the surface it's a thriller: in addition to being a mogul, Griffin is also a killer, having murdered an angry screenwriter who he thought was sending him life-threatening letters. As we follow this paranoid executive on his round of power lunches, pitch meetings and parties (and to the Pasadena Police Department, where Whoopi Goldberg, as a detective, subjects him to a novel interrogation), the inimitable Altman unfurls his dead-on canvas of the schmoozing rituals and backstabbing polities of the industry. Cameos by 65 celebrities playing themselves further blur the line between art and life. Hilarious and deadly, this may be Altman's most completely realized film since his glory days in the '70s when he made "M*A*S*H, " "McCabe & Mrs. Miller " and "Nashville. " Under the light, jokey, improvisational surface (this movie is nothing if not fun) Altman has produced a rigorously crafted deconstruction of the Hollywood system and the movies it makes. In this dizzying hall of mirrors, no one is spared a reflection-including us, the audience.

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