The Movie Report
October 2002

#342 - 345
October 4, 2002 - October 25, 2002

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#345 October 25, 2002 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

All or Nothing one-sheet All or Nothing (R) ***
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After taking a whimsical theatrical turn with Topsy-Turvy, writer-director Mike Leigh returns to the British working class. The latter part of the title, of course, more closely characterizes the lives of a cab driver (Timothy Spall); his common-law wife (Lesley Manville), who works at a supermarket; their two layabout children; and the others who live in a dreary lower-income housing project. Leigh's famous method of developing his script through intense rehearsals with his actors shows in the film's loose narrative structure, which makes for a documentary-like feel as his attention shifts between an assortment of mundane and rather depressing existences. It's all quite tough going, but the actors make it difficult to look away; the climactic scenes between Spall and Manville are absolutely gut-wrenching, but heartbreak has hardly ever been so convincingly, exquisitely captured on film.

Frida one-sheet Frida (R) ***
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Salma Hayek fought for years to bring the story of Frida Kahlo to the screen, and the passion and care shines through in Julie Taymor's beautifully mounted biopic--no more brilliantly than in Hayek's performance as the celebrated Mexican artist. The star-producer has been touted as a likely Best Actress Academy Award finalist come February, but it speaks of the strength of her work that I have certain doubts about that likelihood. Despite the showy nature of the part--a crippling accident in her youth, a tumultuous marriage, an untimely death at the age of --Hayek smartly never overplays it, and as such doesn't have an obvious, attention-wringing "Oscar clip" moment.

Similarly playing it fairly restrained--at least by her more outré standards--is Taymor. Fans of the avant garde flamboyance that characterized her last film, 1999's stunning and imaginative Shakespeare adaptation Titus, will be disappointed that Frida plays out more or less like a conventional biopic. Perhaps not so conventional nor expected, however, is the emphasis placed not so much on Frida herself than on her mercurial relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina, who gained much weight for the role), whom she married twice. Even so, the script, credited to Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas but bearing the fingerprints of a number of others (including Edward Norton, who has a brief role as Nelson Rockefeller), follows the traditional biographical drama rhythm of jumping from one event in the subject's life--or, in this case, subjects' lives--to the next in an anecdotal fashion.

It certainly helps that there were no shortage of major, compelling moments in Frida and Diego's lives, not to mention that the roles are played with equal parts passion and playfulness by Hayek and Molina, who strike a realistic, tough-love rapport. The work of the supporting cast is a little more uneven, with Valeria Golino impressing as Diego's ex-wife Lupe but Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd serving more as distractions than enhancements in their cameo roles. Uniting the individual, somewhat inconsistent pieces is Taymor's unique and ever-artful vision. She finds inventive ways to underscore certain milestones (for instance, the battery of operations Frida underwent post-accident are performed by Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons), but more importantly she conveys in imaginative cinematic fashion how for Frida, creating art and living were one and the same.

Ghost Ship one-sheet Below one-sheet Ghost Ship (R) **
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Below (R) ***
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Three things can be counted on from Warner Bros. and Dark Castle's annual Halloween release: (1) a lot of spiffy special effects; (2) a fair amount of gore; and (3) not one single scare. Ghost Ship, alas, is indeed no different from House on Haunted Hill or Thir13en Ghosts. Not that this otherwise average Hollywood horror movie doesn't have some things to distinguish it; it boasts a spunky lead performance by Julianna Margulies and a truly killer opening--in every sense--that shows how an Italian ocean liner became the ghost ship of the title. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there as Margulies and the rest of her scrappy salvage crew (including Gabriel Byrne, Ron Eldard and Isaiah Washington, all wasted) discover the long-lost ship, whose previous, long-dead passengers haven't exactly vacated the premises. So begins the formulaic countdown where the members of the team get picked off one by one, leaving a big one-on-one between good and evil, with the well-done, if more aahs-inspiring than bone-chilling, visual effects offering an occasional moment of interest.

A much more gripping aquatic thriller, Below, snuck onto screens with little fanfare a couple of weeks ago, and it deserved far better than the under-the-radar dump release Miramax/Dimension gave it--but then the WWII setting and lack of a name star in its cast, not to mention the atmospherics-over-cheap-jolts approach adopted by David Twohy, go a long way toward explaining why this one spent considerable time on the 'Max shelf. That said, all three of those qualities make this a fairly distinctive and effective chiller from the norm, as the ghostly visions that haunt the crew of a U.S. submarine just ratchet up the tension that exists within the group and is further intensified when they pick up the three survivors of a sunken British ship--not to mention the ongoing threat of German attack. The paranormal and real world danger are blended surprisingly well by Twohy and writers Darren Aronofsky and Lucas Sussman, helped by the authenticity lent by solid actors such as Bruce Greenwood and Olivia Williams. Those looking for more traditional horror scares and gore will be disappointed, but then that's clearly not the intention here; rather, it's to be more of a subtly eerie mood piece, and on that level this modest picture works.

Jackass one-sheet Jackass: The Movie (R) **
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Anyone who doesn't have any idea what Jackass: The Movie is going in has no business buying a ticket. Basically an uncensored, feature-length episode of MTV's controversial, now-defunct series in which Johnny Knoxville and his buddies simply engage in more absurd, more stupid, more dangerous and more disgusting stunts than television would ever allow, the movie is designed to play for one audience and one audience only: existing Jackass fans. As someone who's been fairly indifferent to the show, the movie just cemented my middle-of-the-road opinion. There is definitely some funny stuff here, particularly a golf course sequence that is rather brilliantly subversive. But the blatantly gross-out gags are just that: gross and not especially hilarious. That these antics are more or less "real" make those with featured roles for bodily fluids and excrement all the more off-putting--and, when stretched to 80 minutes, whatever shock value there is runs out quickly. Fans, however, will certainly just savor the extra time spent with the shameless crew doing more of what they do best (or worst, depending on how you look at it).

Paid in Full one-sheet Paid in Full (R) ***
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Paid in Full sounds like a garden variety urban drama, and to a certain extent, it most certainly is, telling of Harlem youth Ace's (Wood Harris) rise and inevitable fall in the lucrative rock cocaine trade in the 1980s. While the beats of the story are familiar, director Charles Stone III and his talented actors are able to find some fresh emotional truth in them; Harris and the ever-charismatic Mekhi Phifer (as Ace's also-successful dealer friend) are particularly impressive, and their chemistry lends the inevitable tragedies some genuine punch. Their conviction isn't able to make the film completely break free from its formulaic trappings, but at least it elevates it well beyond above generic gangsta flicks, lending the familiar proceedings an unusual staying power.

Roger Dodger one-sheet Roger Dodger (R) ***
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I'm certainly not alone in first associating Campbell Scott with his neutered turn as sensitive leukemia patient who falls for Julia Roberts in Dying Young--which makes his change-of-pace work in Roger Dodger all the more revelatory. Scott is nothing less than electrifying as abrasive ad copywriter Roger Swanson, who prides himself on his nimble, nasty (in every sense) turns of phrase and their alleged ability to turn on the opposite sex. But Roger's supposed skill is put to the test when his virginal 16-year-old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) pays a surprise visit in hopes that his uncle can school him in the ways of women.

So begins one very long night during which Roger's shallow bitterness and general cluelessness is laid bare--a night made to feel all the longer by the eye-straining Dogme 95 school of non-lighting employed by writer-director Dylan Kidd. Luckily Kidd is able to entertain the ears and mind with his cutting dialogue and his ability with actors; that Elizabeth Berkley is actually rather good as one of two women (Jennifer Beals playing the other) with whom Roger and Nick spend a large part of their night says it all. The likable Eisenberg also holds his own, but there's no escaping the large shadow of Scott's hilariously hateful hauteur, which is able to counteract some falsely fuzzy notes in the ending.

The Truth About Charlie one-sheet The Truth About Charlie (PG-13) **
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The truth about Thandie--Newton, that is--is that she's an ideal choice to fill the legendary shoes of Audrey Hepburn. Charming, classy, gorgeous, and effortlessly likable, she's a radiant beam of beguiling star power in this stylish muddle. Director Jonathan Demme has admitted to having difficulty finding a tone for this remake of Stanley Donen's celebrated 1963 Cary Grant/Hepburn romantic thriller Charade, and his year-long post-production struggle comes through in the final product, particularly in the performances. Tim Robbins, as a CIA agent who helps (or does he?) the newly widowed Regina Lambert (Newton) navigate through the various intrigues left behind by her late husband, does an exaggerated riff on his role's original portrayer, Walter Matthau, as if the film were a parody. But that's at least some sort of clear direction, which cannot be said of an awkward Mark Wahlberg's hopelessly adrift work as Joshua Peters, a man of mystery who always seems to be around to bail "Reggie" out of some dangerous jams. Wahlberg, who mixes with Newton as oil does with water, looks even more uncomfortable playing Grant's former role than we are watching him do it--and that says a lot.

Not that Demme seems overly concerned with the actors (with the obvious exception of Newton, whose innate glow he does everything to enhance) or the labyrinthian plot. Apparently the truth about Charlie is that it's Demme's excuse to pay elaborate homage to the filmmakers of the French New Wave, with hand-held cameras (both film and digital video) capturing all of the action, including more blatant references such as cameos by Agnès Varda and Anna Karina, not to mention no less than a closing shot of François Truffaut's grave. The style is superficially engaging, but film geek fetishism can only go so far when there's such a muddled mishmash of moods and plot twists.

#344 October 18, 2002 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Abandon one-sheet Abandon (PG-13) *
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If nothing else, Abandon proves that Katie Holmes has a future in film once Dawson's Creek dries out once and for all. As conveniently-named collegian Katie, Holmes proves that her Sandra Bullock-ish girl next door likability easily translates to the big screen, but unlike Bullock, she has an edge that lends her a certain air of unpredictability. Unfortunately, the story told by writer-director Stephen Gaghan, working from the "suggestion" of Sean Desmond's novel Adam's Fall, is far from unpredictable. It's a flimsy and tedious thriller in which soon-to-graduate Katie's academic stress is compounded by the apparent reappearance of her long-disappeared, presumed-dead boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam). Is he alive? Is he a ghost? Is he a figment of Katie's confused little mind? The answer will be obvious long before anyone onscreen gets the slightest clue. Among the cast members wasted are Benjamin Bratt as a police detective, Tony Goldwyn as a skeevy campus shrink, and Gabrielle Union and Zooey Deschanel as Katie's buddies (though Deschanel gets some good lines).

Auto Focus one-sheet Auto Focus (R) **
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Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane was a sexaholic. There you have the entirety of Paul Schrader's repetitive and disappointingly shallow look at what is in fact an intriguing Hollywood mystery: that behind Crane's mysterious murder in 1978. Instead, all we get is a dry, by-the-book reenactment of the events leading up to his demise, which can be summed up thusly: Crane (Greg Kinnear) gets plucked from radio host obscurity into sitcom star fame, which then enables him to indulge his heretofore repressed appetite for sex and purchase some then-state-of-the-art video equipment from the shady John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), setting the stage for self-destruction. The unfailingly loyal Carpenter is actually the most interesting--and sympathetic--character, thanks to Dafoe's layered performance. Kinnear is adequate, but neither he nor Schrader nor screenwriter Michael Gerbosi do much to illuminate what Crane was all about; all we ever really find out about him is his insatiable lust for sex, video, and sex on video. James Chinlund's retro-perfect production design exhibits far more personality than its central character ever does.

Formula 51 one-sheet Formula 51 (R) * 1/2
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Ronny Yu is a talented director. Really. Look no further than two of his Hong Kong works, the lushly romantic martial arts epic The Bride with White Hair and the beautifully operatic love story The Phantom Lover. But you'd never know it from his English language features: the kung fu kangaroo camp of Warriors of Virtue; the killer doll couple camp of the slasher franchise installment Bride of Chucky, and now this film (alternatively known as The 51st State), which is perhaps best put as action comedy camp. If the idea of Samuel L. Jackson, as an American chemist trying to sell his designer drug formula to dealers in the UK, doing his expected badass act while armed with golf clubs and wearing a kilt seems either particularly exciting or particularly funny, then this hyperactive film will definitely float your boat. Most everyone else, though, will see it for the overdirected, overacted, generally overwrought mess that it is, with Robert Carlyle and Emily Mortimer (as Jackson's reluctant sidekick and a tough hitwoman, respectively) among the other talented folk stranded in the heavily stylized senselessness.

The Grey Zone one-sheet The Grey Zone (R) *** 1/2
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The Grey Zone is jarring right from its first scene, but not in a way one would expect. When the actors playing the prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp open their mouths, not only do they do so in their natural (for the most part, American) accents, the dialogue spills out with the rat-tat-tat rhythm of Mametspeak. Once one adjusts to writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's (adapting his own play) stylistic idiosyncracies, taking over quite easily is the power of this story about a planned revolt by the Sonderkommandos, a group of Jews who helped the Nazis in their dirty work--that is, leading fellow prisoners into the gas chamber, burning the bodies--in exchange for an added four months of privileges (namely, that to live). The obvious futility of the revolt effort doesn't exactly make for much dramatic suspense, and Nelson's unconventional casting choices are a bit scattershot (a barely recognizable Mira Sorvino and a startling David Arquette are quite affecting as two involved in the revolt effort while camp commandant Harvey Keitel and a blue-suited Steve Buscemi clang). But there are so many incredibly raw, wrenching--and, crucially, unsparingly unsentimental--scenes and moments that it's impossible to not be haunted by the film.

The Happiness of the Katakuris one-sheet The Happiness of the Katakuris ****
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God bless Takashi Miike and his sick, twisted, brilliant mind. This is one hell of a movie, one of the very few that truly deserves that overused expression "unlike anything you've ever seen." Something outrageous is perhaps a given when dealing with Japanese cinema's hyperprolific enfant terrible, but even his most fervent followers probably didn't foresee him doing something quite as outré as this macabre tale of a well-meaning inn-keeping family whose guests have the nasty habit of dying by morning. That in itself doesn't sound too odd--and, indeed, the premise is based on that of the Korean black comedy Quiet Family--but leave it to Miike to give it a special spin: make it into a full-blown song-and-dance musical with random scenes playing out in Claymation and stop-motion animation. This may all sound overly gimmicky and flat-out fucked, but it makes for one of the most purely enjoyable experiences you can have in a movie theatre this year. The songs are catchy, and the production numbers are hilarious and frequently surprising (case in point, the first major number, which is quite simply a gut-busting astonishment); but perhaps most surprising of all is how Miike and his very talented, very game cast (led by Kenji Sawada, who nails all the comic/absurd/dramatic/musical requirements as the Katakuri patriarch) make the viewer genuinely invested in the family's ongoing quest for happiness. As with Miike's films in general, you either groove with The Katakuris or you don't, but love it or hate it, such a feat of highly demented cinematic imagination simply must be seen.

Naqoyqatsi one-sheet Naqoyqatsi (PG) **
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As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and Godfrey Reggio again proves the verbosity of image--particularly joined with music--with Naqoyqatsi. The problem with this final installment of his Qatsi trilogy is that all that is said here has long been said already--and quite beautifully, eloquently, powerfully at that, in its first installment, 1983's Koyaanisqatsi. Ever since that landmark film, which stunningly married cinematographer Ron Fricke's combatting images of untouched nature and modern metropolis living with Philip Glass's indelible music, Reggio has been spinning his wheels, driving home the same message about the evils of technology have driven "life out of balance." The trilogy's second installment, 1987's Powaqqatsi ("life in transformation"), did approach the issue from a more specific angle--the effects of technology on primitive cultures--but the basic conclusion was the same, and hence the film was a little humdrum.

That said, at least that film boasted some freshness in the way of stunning photography, which cannot be said of the new film (whose title means "life as war"), in which Reggio comments on cyberspace, science, sports, fame, fortune and war through the use of digitally-manipulated stock footage--the familiarity of much of which adds even more of a been-there, done-that feel to the entire enterprise. Despite being accompanied by a more orchestrally-driven, and hence warmer, score by Glass (featuring cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma), all of the CGI-spruced visuals just creates an even greater distancing effect. Maybe the iciness is all part of Reggio's grand scheme, but the lack of a palpable human dimension makes it difficult to get terribly involved in what is being shown on screen. Ironically, the only feeling one comes away from Naqoyqatsi is admiration of its technological virtuosity--certainly not what Reggio intended.

Real Women Have Curves one-sheet Real Women Have Curves (PG-13) ***
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While not exactly the most innovative of films, Real Women Have Curves is certainly one of the more refreshing in recent memory. This sweet, but not sweetened, story with focuses on Ana (terrific newcomer America Ferrera) a full-figured Latina teen whose dreams and ambition are far larger and loftier than her East L.A. neighborhood is able to offer--which constantly puts her at odds with her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros, who shared a special acting award with Ferrera at Sundance), who wants Ana to stay home and work in her older sister's dress factory. T he film, directed by Patricia Cardoso from a script by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez (based on the latter's play), adheres to a fairly familiar coming-of-age structure, but giving it a fresh spin is the voice and personality of its smart, strong main character, who is more than comfortable being in her own admittedly imperfect skin. It's nice to see, for once, a screen teen whose angst doesn't come from within but the forces around her. Not that Carmen is portrayed as being evil; Ontiveros' quirky, sympathetic portrayal shows her as a woman who means well but whose core ideals--particularly those of body image--simply aren't the same as her daughter's. However conventional the film sometimes is, it always feels true to life, thanks to in largest part to the actresses, who make their characters into convincingly real people.

The Ring one-sheet The Ring (PG-13) ***
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I doubt The Ring will have quite the cultural impact that the film upon which it is based, Ringu, had in Japan in 1998, but it should definitely scare up some killer business leading into the Halloween scary season--and its more-or-less preordained success would be deserved. Gore Verbinski's remake stays pretty close to the original's story. After the unexplained death of her niece, reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) looks into the mystery of a videotape whose viewers die a week later. Rachel herself watches it and indeed receives the ominous phone call warning--"seven days"--so with the help of old flame Noah (Martin Henderson) she attempts to uncover the tape's origins before her time runs out.

The Ring will inevitably be compared to Hideo Nakata's original, and I'd say both end up about even, with tradeoffs between the various things they add or subtract. The original's snappier pace meant fewer indulgences in atmospherics, which are in full effect in the more leisurely remake; the backstory in Nakata's film is fairly airtight while Verbinski and screenwriter Ehren Kruger don't smooth over all of their narrative potholes. But what make both films work is the same: the creepy exploration of the unknown and unexplainable, which is far more frightening than the violent killings that typify most horror films, particularly ones that come out of the big studios this time of year.

This Is Cinerama one-sheet This Is Cinerama (PG) ***
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Watching This Is Cinerama is a rather jolting reminder of how the movies have changed in the half-century since its initial release. Not only have big, ultra-widescreen entertainments become increasingly a thing of the past, but there is no way in hell a technology demonstration documentary would ever become a big hit today, much less a global box office phenomenon that would play to sold-out crowds in theatres for literally years. The technology in question is, of course, Cinerama, the short-lived filmmaking and projection technique that boasted then-revolutionary stereophonic sound and, most importantly, would merge three separate 35mm images into an expansive frame that would play on a large, deeply curved screen. The result was a uniquely immersive moviegoing experience as host Lowell Thomas takes the viewer on a somewhat dated virtual trip that includes visits to Niagara Falls and the canals in Venice; water skiing in Florida; and, most famously, a raucous ride on the roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland in Queens, New York. While restored to a degree, the print(s) of This Is Cinerama for its golden anniversary revival are still in far from ideal shape, so even the meticulous projection care taken by the crew at the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood cannot completely recreate what so awed audiences for weeks on end in the '50s. Even so, this is truly one of those rare, never-to-be-duplicated cinema experiences that any serious film lover should make an effort to see while it's available.


Devdas poster Devdas
Movie: ****
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Blame it on Baz Luhrmann. Being an admirer of his Moulin Rouge! last year, I became interested in what was a strong influence on his Oscar-winning musical: Bollywood cinema, or popular Hindi films from the global movie capital that is India. Bollywood films are perhaps best known for two things: (1) their epic-sized running times, and (2) the inevitable inclusion of elaborate musical numbers, regardless of story or genre. That last quality undoubtedly lends Bollywood cinema a certain exotic novelty value for Western viewers--and, indeed, that unusual "everything as a musical" idea is perhaps what intrigued me the most. But after watching a few of the films in their entirety and not just random snippets of song and dance sequences, I've come to appreciate Bollywood films for something far beyond that novelty value: as a creative approach to cinema that is completely distinct from but no less artistically valid than traditional Hollywood moviemaking. So in my ongoing efforts to better acquaint myself and fellow film lovers with world cinema, I will now regularly spotlight films emerging from the most prolific film industry on the planet.

Bollywood made a huge step toward mainstream recognition in the Western world when the lavish historical drama Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India was one of the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award this March. While it is the first film of the traditional musical Bollywood mold to make the final Oscar cut, Lagaan is remarkably Yank-accessible, from the presence of prominent British characters to its straight-out-of-Tinseltown underdog sports movie formula (never mind that the sport in question was cricket). It makes for an ideal "Bollywood for beginners" film, which is not meant to be taken dismissively. The film is a rousing entertainment with catchy music and terrific choreography; it's just that the Bollywood touches are made all the more palatable for the Western viewer through familiar, comfortable packaging.

India's official entry for the 2003 Foreign Language Film Oscar race, Devdas, is a more undiluted taste of Bollywood and, perhaps not so coincidentally, a far stronger film than last year's breakthrough entry. An adaptation of a famous and oft-filmed 1917 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhye, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's masterful film is full of the broad strokes characteristic of popular Indian cinema: some of the acting isn't exactly subtle; the comedic bits are sometimes overripe; the extreme drama is strictly befitting the prefix of "melo-"--and made all the more so, of course, by the musical sequences. But such hyperreality couldn't be more appropriate for this sweeping, operatic romance. As the film begins, the title character (Shahrukh Khan) returns to India after studying law in England, intending to rekindle his romance with childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai). She certainly eager to reciprocate, but less than eager to see these two soulmates share a life together is Devdas's family, who'd rather see him find a match more equal in social and financial station--thus setting into motion a series of events that proves to be destructive to all parties involved.

One doesn't need to know of Devdas's celebrated literary origins to recognize it as being an archetypal romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet proportions, and Bhansali literally spared no expense to make his version just as larger-than-life as the novel's legacy. At a budget of $15 million, it is the most expensive Bollywood film in history, and every last cent shows in every last inch of this lavish production. Binod Pradhan's stunning cinematography makes the bold colors of the opulent sets and the gorgeous period costumes even more ravishing to behold.

Undoubtedly the eye candy and hefty price tag played a part in the film getting tapped to premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival (though out of competition), but there's more to Devdas than extravagance; the emotion and passion of the story is felt just as strongly in every frame as the budget. Khan and Rai's chemistry is palpable from their first scene together, instantly creating a rooting interest in Devdas and Paro's coupledom. Apart, the pair create believable, fully fleshed-out people though Khan lays on his character's self-destructive streak a bit too thick at times. Better is Rai, who makes Paro's evolution from sheltered girl to mature woman quite compelling. As courtesan Chandramukhi, Madhuri Dixit turns what could've been the throwaway third point in a triangle into a character just as complex and sympathetic as the other two.

And then, of course, there are the musical numbers, which intensify the gamut of emotions that run through the film. Dixit and Rai are excellent dancers, and their joint number, superbly choreographed and captured with bravura Busby Berkeley-style camera work, is an exhilarating highlight; on the flip side one has to be made of stone not to be moved by the heartbreaking pre-intermission duet between Devdas and Paro. Bhansali does hit a wrong note by stalling the tragic momentum with a late lighthearted number, but this minor stumble doesn't blunt the emotional impact of the finale.

Devdas opened in theatres around the globe in July, but it is still can be found on a few screens, including ones in the States. For those that are not in a Bollywood-friendly town, Eros Entertainment has recently released a beautifully packaged two-disc DVD edition of the film; the slim keep case, as well as an informative booklet and a postcard, are housed in a sturdy, book-like cardboard case. The anamorphic widescreen transfer of the feature film on disc one isn't quite so lovely as the packaging; the print exhibits some scratches and the subtitles (which, thankfully, are on the bottom black bar, so as to get a clearer view of the picture) have a strange tendency to sport quotation marks at random, but the flaws won't ruin one's enjoyment of the film. Disc two offers a wealth of supplemental material: a making-of documentary, footage from the premieres in Cannes and India; the film's (many) trailers and showreel; and a haphazard, completely context-free and unsubtitled assemblage of scenes from other films starring Khan, Rai and Dixit. Aside from the last feature, all of the extras are in English, making a nice capper to a film that should bring further Western attention to the Indian film industry.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Hindi 5.1 Surround; English subtitles. (Eros Entertainment)

#343 October 11, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Brown Sugar one-sheet Brown Sugar (PG-13) ***
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Brown Sugar has been dubbed "a hip-hop When Harry Met Sally...," and I suppose the cutesy description applies when looking from the most basic angle; Rick Famuyiwa's film is, indeed, a comedy about two best friends who unexpectedly (for them, at least) find themselves falling for one another. But much like Famuyiwa's coming-of-age tale The Wood, Brown Sugar is able to rise above its deceptively modest trappings.

Not that Brown Sugar doesn't stray far from the familiar romantic comedy formula. Journalist Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) and record company exec Dre (Taye Diggs) have been best friends since the two first fell in love with hip-hop music as children in early '80s New York. However, that shared love never translated into a romantic love for one another--that is, until now, which happens to be when Dre is set to walk down the aisle with one Reese (Nicole Ari Parker). Another obstacle in the way of true love comes in the form of Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), an NBA star who woos Sidney. Will the made-for-each-other pair find their way to everlasting happiness with each other?

The answer shouldn't come as much of a surprise, if at all. But the appealing actors make it easy to get caught up in the story nonetheless. Diggs and Lathan, starring in their third movie together, have an effortless rapport that makes their characters' lifelong friendship completely convincing. As the potential spoilers, Soul Food TV series co-stars Parker and Kodjoe make the most of what could have been thankless roles. Parker has the more difficult task of creating a hard-edged yet not entirely hateful character, and she imbues Reese with a sense of humanity even during her less-than-admirable moments. Kodjoe has less to work with as the sensitive pro baller, but his charisma and natural charm goes a long way toward making Kelby a likable guy and a viable romantic choice, even if he isn't necessarily The One for Sidney. The standard romantic comedy confidants are also here, but Queen Latifah and Mos Def make their marks in these roles, especially Mos Def, who enlivens every scene he's in as a cabbie/rapper whom Dre wants to sign for a record deal.

But what carries this ode to love, hip-hop and love of hip-hop over the top is Famuyiwa and co-writer Michael Elliot's strong evocation of a time and place. While there is only one flashback going back in the day and the music itself may not be featured quite as extensively as expected--or should, for that matter--the spirit of the old school echoes strongly throughout the film and parallels the purity of the passions and personalities of the paramours. Brown Sugar is exactly as sweet as its title and genre implies, but the cast and crew infuse the formula with a dash of distinctive flavor.

Punch-Drunk Love one-sheet Punch-Drunk Love (R) *** 1/2
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Memo to Adam Sandler: Don't start clearing out shelf space for an Oscar just yet. Or even a Golden Globe. Okay, maybe an American Comedy Award is definitely within reach, but none of the big boys. Not even a People's Choice Award, for it's doubtful his latest project's extreme quirks will allow for much mainstream success.

This is not to say that Sandler isn't effective in Punch-Drunk Love, which has been riding a wave of acclaim and anticipation since premiering in Cannes this past May. But contrary to what early notices would leave one to believe, Sandler isn't exactly doing much stretching here: eccentric, soft-spoken guy prone to out-of-nowhere, drop-of-a-hat outbursts of anger? It's a persona upon which Sandler's built his entire career, so it's not terribly surprising that the character of sad-sack salesman Barry Egan fits Sandler so comfortably.

The big difference between this and other Sandler vehicles is the man behind the camera: none other than maverick auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote the film especially for Sandler. Anderson took home the directing prize at Cannes, and his work is indeed the truly noteworthy accomplishment about the film. Sandler may be literally front and center for most of the film's lean 97 minutes, but Anderson's uniquely warped sensibilities are strongly felt in every little detail from first frame to last, and by making him part of such an unusual, unpredictable context, that familiar Sandler persona feels fresh and funny.

The story is both simple and amazingly convoluted, a reflection of the film itself. On the most basic level, it's about how a charming young woman (Emily Watson) is able to penetrate Barry's shyness and compel him to live life a little, well, punch-drunk. But leaving it at that would then mean leaving out all that makes the viewers' heads spin with delight: Barry's seven deadly sisters, phone sex extortionists, a mysteriously dropped-off harmonium, and a pudding-for-frequent-flyer-miles scheme. Perhaps most surprising of all is Watson and her disarming incandescence; she's the real revelation here, not Sandler, showing just why she was Jean-Pierre Jeunet's original casting of her as Amélie wasn't quite so oddball after all.

The surface simplicity also masks the complexity and absurdity of Anderson's vision, from Barry's electric blue suit and the starkness and size of his warehouse workplace to the propulsive percussion of Jon Brion's score and the loopy use of an off-key ditty from Robert Altman's infamous movie musical of Popeye as the central love theme. Anderson is simply punch-drunk on the possibilities of cinema, and sophisticated film lovers will be more than willing to go wherever he goes--yes, even to an Adam Sandler movie.

The Rules of Attraction one-sheet The Rules of Attraction (R) *** 1/2
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Those who say that The Rules of Attraction is about nothing hit the nail right on the head. But to complain about it is to miss the point entirely, for empty nothingness is the very subject of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, and Roger Avary's audacious film adaptation boldly, bravely preserves that thoroughly rotten core.

Just about all the traditional signifiers of "substance" are incidental, including its central trio of college undergrads: campus drug dealer and general skeeve Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek, voraciously sinking his teeth into this change-of-pace role), "good" girl--comparatively speaking, that is--Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) and her gay ex-boyfriend Paul (Ian Somerhalder). There isn't much traditional satisfaction in the nominal plot, either, which is more or less an unhealthy quadrangle: Sean likes Lauren; Lauren kind of likes Sean but holds a hopeless torch for the vacationing Victor (Kip Pardue); Paul likes Sean and thinks he likes him back. That this tangle of relationships never arrives at anything resembling a clean resolution just adds fuel to complaints that, despite the busy nature of the activity on screen--from the sex, drugs, and drinking to the bottomless bag of visual tricks Avary uses to capture it all--there's really nothing actually going on.

But all of the shallowness is a signifier of a greater and--yes--deeper concern about the missed and mistaken connections in the isolating age of young "adulthood." Even Avary's pull-out-all-the-stops visuals are a reflection of this greater idea, its flamboyant excess adding an inviting but surface sheen to the darker, uglier, emptier reality--much like how these college students dress up their go-nowhere existences with a non-stop diet of the instant and all-too-fleeting gratifications of mind-altering substances and reckless sex. These descriptions may make the film sound unbearably pretentious, but any pretension is consistently offset by its corrosive sense of humor and knowing absurdity, both of which best exemplified by the Victor's extended tour of Europe, told in a whirlwind montage/monologue that lasts all of four breathless (and, in Pardue's case, quite literally so) minutes. The film packs more than a stinging satiric punch, however; the sober dramatic moments are startlingly effective, and they hit all the more hard due to the seemingly flip air that surrounds them, not to mention Avary's inventive visual reinforcement.

Given the atmosphere of abandon, it's not surprising that Avary isn't immune to overkill or trying too hard. The latter is definitely the case in some of the more broad comic scenes, which tend to be overplayed and overlong, as in any scene involving a scuzzy drug supplier (a hyper-hammy Clifton Collins Jr.) or a would-be wacky hospital interlude featuring a distracting cameo. But unlike his characters, Avary's go-for-broke approach steers him in the right overall direction. The Rules of Attraction will either fascinate or infuriate you, sometimes within the same moment--and it's difficult imagining the film working any better if it did not.

Swept Away one-sheet Swept Away (R) no stars
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It certainly didn't take long for Madonna to ruin husband Guy Ritchie's career. They first teamed on the smugly jokey Star, easily the worst of last year's otherwise classy series of shorts at; then there was the video for her "What It Feels Like for a Girl," which, while not particularly bad, did Ritchie no favors when it was rejected by MTV for its inexplicable level of violence. None of those relatively minor missteps, however, can quite prepare one for the baffling boondoggle that is Swept Away.

At first, this remake of Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Italian film is your typical "Madonna-bad." With her meager acting skills, overwrought mugging, shrill line delivery and quasi-Brit accent, Madonna makes Amber, a spoiled rich bitch on a Mediterranean cruise with her husband (Bruce Greenwood) and some equally shallow and self-absorbed friends, far more monstrous and comical than was obviously intended. Ritchie does little to help, giving her some real whoppers of lines and, it appears, going out of his way to light her in the most unflattering way possible.

Yet we're supposed to care about this hateful, hideous woman when the action shifts from the boat to a deserted island, where Amber and the main target of her vacuous venom, the yacht's first mate Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini, who more resembles an Italian version of Aidan Quinn than his he does father, Giancarlo--who played the role in the original), end up stranded. With the already-small cast whittled down to this bickering twosome, the film becomes that much more of a trial though with an occasional guffaw-worthy line--none better than Amber's priceless put-down "I'd rather fuck a pig than kiss you, monkey boy!" (Now, imagine Madonna delivering that line, and you'll understand just how rolling-on-the-floor-hilarious it is.) But very soon after that comic peak, the film goes from being merely "Madonna-bad" to something far beyond.

That "Madonna-bad" is already quite ghastly in and of itself should give you an idea of the sheer fabric-of-the-universe-threatening, what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this, Lord-have-you-no-mercy, someone-find-me-a-loaded-gun-now, mouth-agape awfulness that fills out the rest of Swept Away's running time. Marvel! Giuseppe uses his newfound power over Amber to slap and kick her into calling him "master" and cater to his every whim! Delight! how Ritchie somehow shoehorns in an elaborate song-and-dance fantasy number for his wife! Smile! the laughably Blue Lagoon-ish romantic bliss Giuseppe and Amber find right after he nearly rapes her! Laugh! ...with Amber as she takes a swig of alcohol and starts barking like a dog! Scream! ...when you realize that Ritchie is actually trying to make an earnest romantic tearjerker out of this material! No! ...that last sentence is not a joke! Only the whole wretched wreck of a movie is.

In Brief

Bowling for Columbine one-sheet Bowling for Columbine (R) *** 1/2
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Michael Moore may not be the most subtle of filmmakers, with he himself playing a large on-camera role in his documentaries, but agree with his messages or not, there's no denying the effectiveness of his presentation. Columbine is a typically Moore take on the issue of gun violence--and general gun culture--in America, raising serious, intelligent questions with stinging, entertaining wit. He doesn't attempt to arrive at any definitive answers, but he definitely offers much food for thought, particularly regarding how stateside media thrives on perpetuating fear in the name of the almighty dollar. Moore's famous tactic of ambushing corporate higher-ups and luminaries is also in evidence here, but with mixed results in real life and as cinema; the film's sure-to-be-infamous closing interview with National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston is discomfiting for all the wrong reasons, with Moore coming off more as a bully than crusader. Long before that point, though, Moore has already done what he set out to do, which is make the viewer seriously think about the various issues the addresses.

Knockaround Guys one-sheet Knockaround Guys (R) * 1/2
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New Line's probably thanking their lucky stars that Vin Diesel--or, for that matter, any one of its younger male cast members--became a hot commodity, for this long-shelved gangster drama is no less stale than the many derivative crime thrillers that flood the direct-to-video market. Those with vim for Vin will be disappointed, for the buff bald one is mere background support for his Saving Private Ryan co-star Barry Pepper, who leads a group of his friends (Diesel, Seth Green and Andrew Davoli) on a simple job for his mobster father (a barely seen Dennis Hopper). As is typically the case in films like these, these inept misfits still bungle the job, and they spend the second half of the film trying to get out of a jam. The only things keeping Brian Koppelman and David Levien's film sort of interesting are a pair of performances from opposite ends of the spectrum: a genuinely creepy Tom Noonan as a corrupt small-town sheriff; and a very hammy John Malkovich as Pepper's gangster uncle.

The Transporter one-sheet The Transporter (R) ***
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The Transporter is every bit the over-the-top action extravaganza it appears to be, and the glee of its knowing preposterousness makes it easy to overlook its general mindlessness. Jason Statham proves to be an ideal action hero, oozing confidence and badass cool as the title character, an all-business courier who starts to break his own rules when his latest package turns out to be none other than a fetching young woman (Shu Qi). Yes, the dialogue in Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's script is often ridiculous (I've no doubt that "He was a bastard. But he was still my father" will continue to be quoted five years from now), characterization is wafer-thin, and the plot is an afterthought at best, but director Cory Yuen and the ever-game Statham deliver (yeah, bad pun) where it counts, serving up a number of exciting and creative martial arts-heavy set pieces.

Tuck Everlasting one-sheet Tuck Everlasting (G) **
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This adaptation of Natalie Babbitt's novel for young people was co-produced by the Scholastic company, and as handsomely mounted as it is, the entire production accordingly bears a certain medicinal scent; it may be good for you, but it's not exactly tasty. Not helping is the pairing of young stars Alexis Bledel and Jonathan Jackson, who together are tepid to the tastebuds as the babyfaced lovers central to this period piece. She comes from a privileged background; he's from the lower-class Tuck family, which--thanks to the magical water in a secret spring--just happens to be immortal. Oscar-winning co-stars Sissy Spacek, William Hurt and Ben Kingsley are wasted as the Tuck parents and a mysterious stranger, respectively; I'd say the audience's would be similarly wasted if they went out to see this film instead of simply renting director Jay Russell's previous family film, the gently moving My Dog Skip.

White Oleander one-sheet White Oleander (PG-13) ***
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Michelle Pfeiffer + an Oprah Book Club selection is a deadly combination, as seen in the big screen Lifetime movie that was The Deep End of the Ocean. Director Peter Kominsky's adaptation of Mary Agnes Donoghue's novel is every bit as estrogenic, if not more, but distinguishing it from Oxygen channel territory is its surprisingly hard edge. The Pfeiffer/OBC combo is quite literally deadly here, as the star delivers a standout performance as Ingrid, the less-than-model mom to teenage Astrid (Alison Lohman). After she murders her boyfriend with a taste of the titular poisonous plant, Ingrid is sent to prison--where she proves the startling degree of her influence and control over her daughter, who unhappily bounces around from foster home to foster home.

All the household changes give the film an episodic quality that leads to a certain start-and-stop dramatic momentum. But fresh face Lohman holds the film together emotionally, more than matching up to the bigger name stars that turn up in supporting roles, namely Robin Wright Penn and Renée Zellweger as two very different prospective foster parents. Pfeiffer's showy turn may win most of the (much deserved) accolades, but her work would not nearly be as effective without Lohman's grounding performance to play against, nor would the film have as much dramatic impact.

The Criterion Collection

All That Heaven Allows DVD Written on the Wind DVD All That Heaven Allows
Criterion Collection #95
Disc: ****
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Written on the Wind
Criterion Collection #96
Disc: *** 1/2
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With much awards buzz surrounding Todd Haynes' upcoming Far from Heaven--and deservedly so--there is certain to be much renewed interest in the works of '50s melodrama maestro Douglas Sirk, the style of whose work Haynes plays blatant homage to in Far from Heaven. A good place to start is the film Haynes most closely patterned his film after right down to the title, 1955's All That Heaven Allows. Jane Wyman plays a wealthy widow who falls for her hunky--and much younger--gardener (Rock Hudson), much to the chagrin of her grown children and her high society peers. The disc transfer is gorgeous, capturing the lovely costumes and the beautiful scenery--yes, including that famous deer--in their full Technicolor splendor. But there's more to the film than its look; it's all quite involving, overblown emotion and all, particularly due to Wyman's gentle sincerity. Hudson, on the other hand, is a camp hoot as an improbable paragon of sensitive machismo, but his chemistry with Wyman is palpable and convincing.

It's hard to find anything resembling real life in the other Sirk film that's received the Criterion treatment, 1956's Written on the Wind. If the shamelessly sentimental but fairly conservative Heaven was a "trashy women's weepie"--as it was dismissed back during its release--then Wind is the dankest of sewage, a spectacularly overwrought button-pusher that crams a year's worth of daytime TV storylines in 99 breathless minutes. All the sudsy staples are here: the soulful nice guy (Hudson) from humble beginnings; his best friend, the rich, temperamental drunkard (Robert Stack); the virtuous young woman who comes between them, Stack's wife (Lauren Bacall); and the scheming viper who manipulates them all, Stack's slutty sister (Dorothy Malone, who won an Oscar for her vivacious vamping)--all under the umbrella of big business (here, oil). Taken as serious drama, it's all really silly; when taken as the high-gloss soap that it is, Wind works like gangbusters, with its irresistibly corny opening theme song, larger-than-life performances, sweeping hyper-romance, perfectly-timed bombshells of plot twists. What can be taken seriously is, as always, Sirk's masterful technique; in addition to the fantastic visuals (somewhat marred on this disc by the presence of still-intact reel change marks) with his usual trademarks (particularly, mirrors), his use of music is exemplary, particularly in a scene where a feverish Malone dance is used as a counterpoint to tragedy.

Combined, the supplements on both discs offer comprehensive background on Sirk and his work. The most interesting material appears on the Heaven disc, which features an hour's worth of interview excerpts from a 1979 BBC TV documentary on Sirk (it is unfortunate that the documentary isn't included in its entirety, though) and an informative, affectionate, and often hilarious essay on Sirk's work by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made a loose remake of Heaven, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in 1974. A more sober and extensive rundown of Sirk's career appears on the Wind disc, whose featured essay is punctuated with stills and poster and lobby card images (all of the ones featured for Heaven are also included on its disc). Each terrific package is rounded out by insightful essays in the liner notes and the film's trailer--or, in the case of the Wind disc, the trailers for both films.

Specifications for both: 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Digital mono; English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision Entertainment)

#342 October 4, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Red Dragon one-sheet Red Dragon (R) ***
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There is no convincing artistic reason for Red Dragon to exist. After all, Thomas Harris's first novel featuring the now-iconic character of brilliant and evil Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter had already been brought to the big screen with style and suspense only 16 years ago by Michael Mann in the now-cult fave Manhunter. But that term "cult fave" explains exactly why producer Dino DeLaurentiis felt the urge to go back to the well. After all, only a small fraction of those who've seen Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning 1991 blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs and last year's equally profitable (though not equal in any other respect) Ridley Scott-helmed sequel Hannibal had ever seen Manhunter, so there are still millions left to be milked from this highly lucrative franchise. The strictly commercial intent behind this new Red Dragon announces itself most loudly and clearly with the name of its director: Brett Ratner, whose filmography features not a shred of art but a whole lot of commerce (namely, the Rush Hour franchise).

Considering it goes without saying that Ratner isn't in nearly in the league of a Demme, Scott or Mann, it's a bit of a surprise that Red Dragon does in fact work, albeit with considerably less style. As far as faceless, conventional popcorn pulp goes, the film is certainly diverting. It definitely helps that Ratner has assembled a ridiculously top flight cast, led by Edward Norton, who takes over from Manhunter's William Petersen as FBI agent Will Graham. Years after a confrontation with Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins, again, trying to erase any remaining memory of Brian Cox's interpretation) resulted in the mad doctor's capture, a physically and psychologically scarred Graham has long abandoned law enforcement for a quiet life in Florida with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker, in for Kim Greist) and young son. But not for long, as FBI director Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, in for Manhunter's Dennis Farina and Silence's Scott Glenn) drags Graham back into the game when a new string of grisly murders begins, caused by a man the tabloid press dubs "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes, in for Tom Noonan).

There isn't much in Red Dragon that hadn't already been done in Manhunter, and the few deviations Ratner and Silence screenwriter Ted Tally make aren't necessarily improvements. Central to most of these changes is the character of Hannibal; a prologue neither in the first film nor Harris' novel shows Graham's capture of Dr. Lecter, and this the only bit of new Hannibal footage that works. In Manhunter and the novel, Hannibal is used sparsely at most, and the extra screen time he's given here is less for story or character sake than just to give Hopkins more opportunity to trot out his schtick. And schtick is, sadly, what his interpretation of the role has become after three films; it's difficult to remember, in light of his campy, hammy work in this and Hannibal, that Hopkins was so chilling and creepy in Silence. Now, like Freddy Krueger before him, the character's theatening, frightening quality has been blunted as his propensity for the morbidly cheesy wisecrack has increased--all the more inexplicable in the case of this film since it takes place prior to Silence.

While there is more Hannibal here than in previous incarnations of Red Dragon, he's still very much a secondary character in the grand scheme, which, on the whole, is watchable and entertaining, particularly due to the performances. Fiennes is both menacing and surprisingly sympathetic in the more fleshed-out role of Francis Dolarhyde (even if he's far from "ugly," as the character is often called); Philip Seymour Hoffman is amusingly schlubby as skeevy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. Less impressive is an overly bug-eyed Emily Watson as Dolarhyde's blind love interest Reba and the too-young Norton--as ragged and tired as he looks, there's a certain world-weariness that can only come with age--but they get the job done. That last statement more or less describes Red Dragon: it gets the basic job done, nothing more.

In Brief

Biggie and Tupac one-sheet Biggie and Tupac (R) *** 1/2
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After taking on Heidi Fleiss and Courtney Love, documentary provocateur Nick Broomfield is at it again, this time attempting to uncover the truth behind the 1996 and 1997 murders, respectively, of Christopher "Notorious B.I.G."/"Biggie Smalls" Wallace and Tupac Shakur. As in all of his films, Broomfield is not an objective observer but an active participant, throwing caution, and perhaps his and his crew's lives, to the wind as he pumps information out of friends and family members of the two rap superstars as well as an assorted of shady characters who may have had involvement in the murders--including, in a particularly discomfiting sequence, Death Row (now Tha Row) Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight. Whether or not answers Broomfield finds or the conclusions he draws prove to be the truth remains to be seen--a Los Angeles Times investigation arrived at a different solution, and given the principal players and suspects in this particular case are themselves police officers, it's probable none of the confusion will ever clear up---but any outcome wouldn't diminish the film's effectiveness as an engrossing and rather suspenseful mystery investigation.

Heaven one-sheet Heaven (R) *** 1/2
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Given the recurrent metaphysical ideas of faith and chance in Tom Tykwer's films, the German director seems a natural to tackle a heretofore unproduced screenplay co-written by the late Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski. The resulting "collaboration" is very much in line with both filmmakers' work. Cate Blanchett is an English schoolteacher in Italy whose attempt to bomb a high class drug runner goes horribly awry, instead killing a trio of innocent bystanders. Giovanni Ribisi, speaking Italian for much of the picture, is a cop serving as translator during the interrogations. He soon attempts to serve as her savior, for his sudden and strong feelings for her compel him to put himself at risk.

The love-against-all-reason scenario recalls Tykwer's last film, the stylish slog that was The Princess and the Warrior, but Kieslowski and longtime writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz's tight plotting keeps Tykwer's indulgences in check. While the film's slow pace is far more like Tykwer's Princess than his frenetic Run Lola Run, it never drags, thanks to the nicely modulated performances by and the surprising chemistry between Blanchett and Ribisi; and Tykwer and cinematographer Frank Griebe's stunning visual sense. It's unfortunate that we may never see the other two installments--Hell and Purgatory--of this once-planned trilogy, and the film's metaphysical ambiguities may have made more sense alongside the companion pieces, but it still casts a poetic, otherworldly romantic spell.

Welcome to Collinwood one-sheet Welcome to Collinwood (R) ** 1/2
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In the press notes, co-writer/co-director Joe Russo says that he and brother/collaborator Anthony Russo "borrowed heavily" from Big Deal on Madonna Street, when in fact the film is a virtual scene-by-scene translation of Mario Monicelli's 1958 Italian caper. The finished result is more or less the same: an occasionally amusing but completely disposable comedy of errors that's not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. As a group of inept crooks (William H. Macy, Isaiah Washington, Michael Jeter, Andrew Davoli and Sam Rockwell) attempt to pull off an seemingly easy and too-good-to-be-true heist, the twists are predictable and the gags are mostly chuckle-worthy at best. Making the entire trifle go down fairly smoothly is the nimble cast, which also includes Luis Guzman, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Esposito, Gabrielle Union and a briefly seen George Clooney. Standing tallest among the stellar ensemble is Rockwell, who amps up the energy level of the entire film whenever he appears onscreen as a self-absorbed failed boxer.

The Criterion Collection

Big Deal on Madonna Street DVD Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti Ignoti)
Criterion Collection #113
Disc: **
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There's no denying the historical place of Mario Monicelli's 1956 caper comedy, which turned the heist picture on its ear. Prior to this film, the big scores always went off without a hitch; here, it's a matter of what hitch the bumbling crew (Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, and Carlo Pisacane) don't run into while executing their half-assed scheme to rob a pawn shop safe. That all said, the film, like its most recent remake, Welcome to Collinwood, is a fairly minor entertainment on its own terms, offering a chuckle here and there but nothing particularly hilarious; the only really outstanding element is Piero Umiliani's cool jazz score--making this barebones Criterion edition (only a trailer is included with the film) not especially disappointing.

Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; Italian Dolby Digital mono; removable English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision Entertainment)


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