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"Novocaine' will make you flinch

Novocaine (R) (95 min.) - Steve Martin is a different sort of wild and crazy guy these days. Stardom makes him more respectable than anyone famous for wearing a gag arrow through his head has a right to be. But there's still an anarchic streak pushing him into projects poles apart in content and box office potential from, say, Father of the Bride II.

David Atkins' darker-than-dark comedy Novocaine is one of those risks, with Martin cast as Dr. Frank Sangster, a dentist with a perfect practice and a sexy fiance-hygienist (Laura Dern). Then a new patient, Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter), shows an unhealthy desire for painkillers. A prescription is altered, the DEA gets interested, and Frank starts covering his tail.

"Lies are like tooth decay," Frank observes in hindsight narration that spoofs the same film noir conventions that The Man Who Wasn't There celebrates. Frank's lies linger like specks of meat in a cavity, festering until they infect everyone he knows. Novocaine blends murder, incest, addiction, treachery and tai kwan do into a bitter brew with a bilious aftertaste.

Martin knows this sick joke won't be a blockbuster, and he relishes every minute of the freedom that provides. You can tell this is the kind of anti-Hollywood project he prefers, although the pay is better on the other side. Dern and Bonham Carter are more at home in these off-kilter circumstances, a parody of perfect womanhood and a weirdo who just walked out of Fight Club. They're all cartoons, more like creepy DC Comics characters than Disney.

Atkins keeps the mystery interesting with macabre X-ray images and pulpish dialogue. So many crises pile up that none can be solved smoothly. Novocaine sometimes feels tedious, but it's always fun to watch if you have a strong stomach. Artisan Entertainment is testing the film's box office returns in limited release before deciding on a wider run. Don't bet on it.

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. B

A French recipe for brain candy

Amelie (R) (122 min.) _ Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film was all the rage in Paris and shunned by the Cannes Film Festival, where elitist selection committee members deemed it too lightweight for inclusion. Sometimes those elitist types know what they're talking about. Amelie is a lapdog of a movie that increasingly becomes easier to dislike.

The title character is a free-spirited waitress (Audrey Tautou), an emotional dust bunny who does one nice thing for somebody and is convinced that's how she should spend her days, meddling with strangers' joy and neglecting her own. When she meets her perfect match (Mathieu Kassovitz), Amelie is too distractedly chipper to know it. Jane Austen meets Bjork.

Tautou's performance is beguiling at first, then irritating once it's obvious that's all she will attempt to be. Pixie smiles and blank expressions are pleasant identifiers until overexposure makes one wonder about Amelie's mental state. The usual French dressing of sad/angry/sex-starved (but adorable) sidekicks pad the running time with their quirks. Jeunet handles the film like a confectioner arranging everything tasty and cute, adding too many flourishes for such wispy material.

That hallucinatory touch works better in the film's opening minutes when Amelie's origins are explained, with young Flora Guiet playing the role. For a few magical minutes, Amelie takes a documentary approach to her amusing family dysfunction, so bizarre and repressive that even the goldfish are suicidal. Buoyant grimness is more interesting than the froth Jeunet expects us to swoon over later.

Opens Friday at Tampa Theater. C

Looks better than it sounds

Waking Life (R) (99 min.) _ Animators trying to figure out how to make cartoons look like people have the wrong idea. Richard Linklater turns that problem around, making people look like cartoons, and achieves a more fascinating effect than the pseudo-humans of Final Fantasy and Shrek.

Linklater produced Waking Life on traditional film, then hired animators essentially to color over the live actors' movements and settings. Being able to trace real expressions works better than the manufactured body language of computer-generated people. The animators also added little touches illustrating the dense dialogue, mostly talking-head philosophy, and they turned backgrounds into undulating, abstract representations of the locales used.

The process and visual results are amazing. What viewers must slog through to appreciate them isn't as easy to appreciate. The plot of Waking Life is no plot at all, just a series of pontifications from experts and fools about the meaning of life and whatever comes later: stimulating conversation that occasionally makes you drowsy. Name an "-ism" and it's represented here, conveyed with little regard for punctuation or attention spans.

Since this is the dream of a young, unnamed man (Wiley Wiggins), we can only assume that he was cramming for a philosophy exam before falling asleep. Linklater uses the arbitrary nature of dreams to go free form, moving from one character to another, as he did in Slacker, until they get something off their chest. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy _ at least their animated forms _ continue a conversation started in Linklater's dull Before Sunrise, and Timothy "Speed" Levitch is still a motormouth tour guide.

The endless speechifying will impress the coffeehouse set, but general audiences may be ready to leave when the visual novelty wears off after an hour. Waking Life represents a breakthrough in animation; let's hope it will be more completely entertaining next time.

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas. B-

True tale freezes the blood

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (not rated, probably PG) (43 min.) _ Sir Ernest Shackleton led 27 crewmen on a 1914 expedition attempting the first crossing of Antarctica. Their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in ice floes and eventually crushed. From that desperate situation sprang an amazing survival story to which even the IMAX process can't do justice.

Oscar winner Kevin Spacey provides somberly informative narration that breathes personality into the team of explorers and the kindly, courageous man leading them.

Director George Butler took his own crew to the same gorgeously barren locales that Shackleton traveled until every single crew member was rescued. Some scenes are re-created with actors, but the most eloquent sights are photographs and film footage shot by Frank Hurley, a cameraman hired to record the voyage for posterity. Those touching images and the vistas filmed by Reed Smoot of the still-dangerous conditions make this film a moving testament to courage and perseverance at a time when we need such stories. (See Friday's Floridian for an interview with Smoot.)

The film was produced last year by Morgan Stanley investment group, one of the companies that suffered great human losses in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Butler made the IMAX film while simultaneously collecting footage for a full-length documentary, Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, narrated by Liam Neeson. That film premiered at last year's Telluride Film Festival and barely got released. Director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Air Force One) is reportedly planning a feature film version. In any form, this is a story worth knowing.

Opens Friday at the Museum of Science and Industry's IMAX Dome Theater, 4801 E Fowler Ave. in Tampa. The film will continue in rotation with other selections through Aug. 29, 2002. A

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