Nicolas Roeg's cinematic brilliance eludes his two latest films

Few filmmakers are more talented than Nicolas Roeg, and few are more infuriating. Endowed with a natural gift for imagery and texture and color, he launched his career by co-directing the visually stunning ``Performance,'' then earned applause on his own with the romantic ``Walkabout'' and the intellectual thriller ``Don't Look Now.'' All were marked by a dynamic flow of images that seemed to drive the story along -- not the other way around, in the usual Hollywood way.

But about the time of his David Bowie science-fiction epic, ``The Man Who Fell to Earth,'' his stimulating eccentricity turned to unsettling weirdness. ``Bad Timing'' continued the slump with its arch plot and tricky editing. Critical enthusiasm for Roeg waned, and even his admirers wondered when he would regain control of his ingenuity.

Students of this situation have been awaiting the release of two new films, hoping at least one would show evidence of Roeg's elusive brilliance. Both have now arrived, and I'm sorry to report that neither one succeeds. Inventive and audacious as they are, they're as deeply flawed as they are boldly conceived.

``Eureka,'' starring Gene Hackman, is the tale of a gold prospector who finds treasure but loses his soul. It has been floating around the margins of the movie world for quite a while, rumored to be (a) too startling and uncompromising for popular audiences, or (b) too messy and confused for general release, depending on whom you talk to.

It turns out both rumors are true. ``Eureka'' is vintage Roeg in its sweep, its bravado, and its explosive visual style. It's also a murky stew of half-baked story ideas, overcooked sex, and nasty violence, inhabited by characters who'd be tedious even if they didn't talk, talk, talk through one self-indulgent scene after another.

I wouldn't mind the turgid conversations if Roeg alternated them with visions of hair-raising beauty like those at the beginning of the movie. But he spends most of his visual capital right away, falling back on (pretentious) words and (ragged) performances in most of the drama's key episodes. This isn't to ignore the real assets of lighting and camera work that wend through the picture, or the stylistic courage that puts Roeg closer (in some respects) to a maverick filmmaker like Stan Brakhage than to the Hollywood mainstream. For every point it scores as a visual adventure, though, ``Eureka'' loses two for dim storytelling and pompous posing.

Despite its ironic title, ``Insignificance'' is less interesting yet. The idea sounds great: Two unnamed characters, modeled on Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, spend a night of (mostly verbal) communion in a hotel room. But a great idea doesn't make a movie. Michael Emil's amusingly off-kilter Einstein performance is outweighed by Theresa Russell's pushy Monroe imitation; such strong actors as Gary Busey and Tony Curtis are wrestled to a standstill by their oddball characters; and the script by Terr y Johnson, based on his play, never gets beyond its own would-be cuteness.

Worse yet, the action betrays its theatrical origins with a stagey, stilted quality that a cinema freak like Roeg never should have allowed to creep in. A few moments of bravura filmmaking -- especially an apocalyptic flight of fancy near the end -- aren't nearly enough to compensate. Hate to say it, but ``Insignificance'' is just that.

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