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`SLINGSHOT' MISSES COMEDY TARGET; `MONKEY' LACKS A POINT

Two new "art" films opened at the Tower Theater Friday, both with coming-of-age themes and both being billed primarily as comedies. But in truth, they are quite serious, even depressing pictures with elements of humor along the way.

- "THE SLINGSHOT" is the more comic of the two, a Swedish film being touted as another "My Life as a Dog" or "Europa, Europa" or "The 400 Blows" . . . . It's not quite up to the standard set by those films, but "The Slingshot" does boast a bevy of interesting characters and some clever set-pieces.An episodic yarn, set in Stockholm during the 1920s, the action centers on 10-year-old Roland, who seems to be a punching bag for just about everyone around him - both figuratively and literally. (There is a running gag about his brother repeatedly breaking Roland's nose.)

Political and racist feelings give his schoolmates and teachers reason to abuse him - his father is an active socialist and his mother is a Russian-Jewish immigrant. And Roland's bombastic father, a tobacconist who suffers from severe sciatica, is given to bouts of temper, while attempting to turn Roland's older brother into a professional boxer.

The theme here is survival, as Roland finds himself rudely tossed about by life but repeatedly bounces back. He's also quite imaginative and inventive, though his actions tend to be interpreted by those around him as mischief.

In his poverty-ridden state, Roland has only one dream - to own his own bicycle. And though he comes close, that dream is never quite fulfilled.

To earn money, he steals condoms, which his mother has been illegally distributing, and sells them as balloons to the other kids. When his mother finds out and makes him promise "no more balloons," Roland comes up with another plan. He uses them, along with scrap metal, to make slingshots.

Ultimately, however, his enterprising instincts land him in hot water as he takes on the job of repairing and painting other kids' bikes, completely unaware that he may be disguising stolen goods.

Along the way, Roland has a couple of encounters with a young prostitute, nearly loses his finger to his mother's sewing machine, reluctantly administers morphine to his suffering father, sticks his tongue to a frozen metal pole, etc. But he always comes back and in the end we know he will somehow manage to survive.

The episodic nature of the film, however, tends to undermine the character's growth and in the end it all seems fairly superficial. Moviegoers should also be warned that there are some rather vulgar moments that seem unnecessary.

"The Slingshot" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity and nudity.

- "SPANKING THE MONKEY" is an independent film that won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Billed as a comedy about incest, the film is only fitfully comic but it is most certainly about incest.

How this picture managed to win the Audience Award is anybody's guess, however. In fact, any other award from the festival would seem more logical, since Sundance's juries routinely honor the weird and unpleasant. But the Audience Award is supposedly the result of balloting, as audience members leave the screenings. And the winner has always been something that could be tolerated it not embraced by mainstream moviegoers. If ever there was a Sundance award that seemed suspect, this is it.

The story has hapless young medical school student Raymond (Jeremy Davies) returning home for what he thinks is a weekend stay, just prior to beginning an important internship in the surgeon general's office in Washington. But his obnoxious, controlling father informs him that he must stay home for several weeks to care for his lonely, neglected mother (Alberta Watson), who is bedridden after fracturing her leg.

So, while Dad is on the road, attending sales meetings and picking up prostitutes, Raymond feeds, bathes, dresses and massages his mother. And though it doesn't actually happen until late in the film, it is evident from the first few minutes that Raymond will succumb to his mother's seductive charms.

The first two-thirds of the film offer a number of comic moments, as Raymond tries to care for the unruly family dog, encounters a seductive teenage girl in the neighborhood and brings in his silly aunt so he can head to Washington. Then, when Raymond and Mom finally get together, the film, rightfully, becomes deadly serious.

Unfortunately, the film has no moral center. In the end, the audience is likely to ask, "What's the point?" Yes, incestuous relationships do exist. But if you're going to make a movie about one, you'd better have some insight or dramatic core to your material. This film has neither.

"Spanking the Monkey" is not rated but is in R-rated territory with sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity, violence and drugs.