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The Movie Report
Volume 58

#212 - 213
October 17, 1999 - October 24, 1999

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

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#213 October 24, 1999 by Michael Dequina


The Best Man poster The Best Man (R) ***
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If you ask me, it's impossible to not like a film that ends with the entire cast doing the electric slide to Cameo's '80s funk classic "Candy." But there's more to enjoy in The Best Man than its infectious full company closing dance number. First-time writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's fresh and fun ensemble comedy is a classy effort that delivers the requisite doses of laughs and romance along with a fair amount of intelligence.

As the title implies, the central event in The Best Man is a wedding, that between football star Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut) and his longtime love Mia (Monica Calhoun). The blessed event reunites a number of the couple's college friends, including Murch (Harold Perrineau Jr.), henpecked by longtime girlfriend Shelby (Melissa DeSousa); self-styled player Quentin (Terrence Howard); successful BET television producer Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long); and of course the best man himself, author Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs), who is shy to committing to long-suffering girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan). He shakes up what could have been a smooth and blissful reunion when an advance copy of soon-to-be-published novel--not-so-loosely based on his and his friends' dirty little secrets--makes the rounds within this tightly-knit circle.

This is the film's one aggravating contrivance. Harper did not see any harm in airing his personal dirty laundry in the book because it was scheduled to be released after the big reunion at the wedding and hence wouldn't have to face everyone about it--or endanger Lance and Mia's impending nuptials. In the latter respect, it's understandable why he would not want his friends did not see the book until its release, but even once the two are wed, they and the others would eventually get upset with him anyway. And Harper is presented as someone who values friendship, not to mention a great writer; he is mentioned to be set for an appearance on Oprah for his book. With the plot of his book so closely mirroring his real-life past, Harper doesn't appear to be that imaginative an author.

But one doesn't dwell on the issue since Lee's own writing and execution is energetic and entertaining. The Best Man may be named for one character, but this is an ensemble film in the best sense, with all the characters each given their moments to shine and doing so brilliantly. In fact, Harper is perhaps the least interesting of the bunch; far more amusing are the smooth, smug womanizer Quentin and the shrewish Shelby, both played to perfection by Howard and DeSousa. This is not to say that the two most central players, Diggs and Long, fail to hold their own; blessed with talent and chemistry to match their good looks, they make for very captivating and likable leads.

As many times as I laughed during The Best Man, what I remember most clearly are the sweet and more serious moments. While the scandal of Harper's book is the engine of the film, its heart lies in love and fidelity--not just to lovers, but also to friends. The resolution to one of the plot threads may be a disappointment to some audiences, but it ends on the right note, and Lee must be commended for not going for the cheaply crowd-pleasing twist. In any event, any dissatisfaction is completely erased by the closing dance number--a perfect delight of a capper to a perfectly delightful film.

Bringing Out the Dead poster Bringing Out the Dead (R) ** 1/2
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There's an interesting movie about a paramedic struggling to come to grips with a past trauma through a flurry of destructive chemical indulgences, but Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead is not the one I have in mind: it's Scott Ziehl's Broken Vessels, a similarly-themed low-budget indie that received a very limited theatrical run earlier this year. This is not to say that Scorsese's slicker studio effort does not feature its share of virtues--in fact, there are many--but, to use a tired cliché, its whole amounts to less than the sum of its often exceptional parts.

One such part is Nicolas Cage, who plays graveyard shift New York City paramedic Frank Pierce. Having already played a drunk to Oscar-winning effect in Leaving Las Vegas, Cage breaks no new acting ground as Frank gradually falls deeper into booze and other substances to shake off his malaise with the nightly work grind and ease pain over the loss of so many patients, namely that of a young girl named Rose (Cynthia Roman), for whose passing he feels especially responsible. But it's a role he plays well, and he lends a great deal of sympathy to the role even when he's at his most obnoxious.

But this adaptation of the Joe Connelly novel shows Frank mostly being sad and frustrated during three nights of frenzied paramedic activity that Scorsese stages with flashy, frantic energy. While these scenes, punched up with a lot of sped-up motion and other visual tricks, effectively capture the insanity and intensity of the high-wire living, it gets redundant when repeated three times over--especially after it becomes apparent that Frank is paired with paramedic partners in the order of their portrayer's placement in the credits (first John Goodman, then Ving Rhames, then Tom Sizemore).

Despite all the chaos and bleeding bodies, the narrative through-line of Paul Schrader's script is made obvious from the start: Frank must come to grips with losing Rose (whose face in those of every person his ambulance passes by) and accept the reality that he cannot save them all. Leading him to this ultimate realization is dealing with a dying heart attack victim (Cullen Oliver Johnson) kept alive only by the occasional electric shock. There's no suspense or mystery to the tale; in Broken Vessels, the main character's secret--and hence his reasons for a lot of his behavior--is gradually revealed through the course of the film; in Bringing Out the Dead, Frank divulges just about everything in an opening voiceover.

So it's up to the actors to engage the attention, and they're up to the task. All three of Cage's partners hold their own and make their own unique stamp; best is Rhames, who is quite amusing as a medic who preaches the gospel. Two other actors give admirable performances but are hampered in other areas. Patricia Arquette is convincingly pained as Mary, the daughter of the heart attack victim and Frank's eventual object of affection, but she and Cage are another of those real-life married couples who don't exactly ignite onscreen. Salsa sensation and newly-minted pop star Marc Anthony is hits the right notes as crazy street person Noel, but he's less a character than a time filler, asking for water in the hospital, escaping, causing trouble, getting beaten by Sizemore's character, and then repeating the cycle.

It's too many repetitions--drunken drives in the ambulance seen in hyperspeed, the heart attack victim flatlining then getting shocked, Frank seeing Rose's face--that stretches Bringing Out the Dead to its two-hour running time and ultimately beyond complete effectiveness. If the film had been trimmed down, some of the film's dark atmospherics would have undoubtedly been lost, but it would have been a more tightly focused and compelling picture.

The Omega Code poster The Omega Code (PG-13) 1/2*
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I'm all for family-friendly entertainment with a minimum of sex, violence, and foul language--that is, when done right. And while The Omega Code, a squeaky clean thriller financed by Christian programming network TBN, may be right from religious perspective, it's wrong just about everywhere else. Stick a pro-faith overlay on poorly made cheese, and it's still poorly made cheese, no matter how positive its message is.

The Omega Code's title refers to the secret code of the Bible, whose hidden prophecies govern every move of Stone Alexander (Michael York), a trusted politician bent on world domination. The fate of the world and mankind rests on the shoulders of Dr. Gillen Lane (Casper Van Dien), a motivational speaker who comes into the possession of a computer program that unlocks the Bible code--and is the final missing piece in Stone's dastardly plot.

But we mustn't forget that this is a TBN production after all, and thus come in all the added religious trimmings. Gillen, while a proponent of the Bible code, has lost faith in God after the years-ago death of his mother, who was deeply religious. Needless to say, he will have to accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior in order to save the day. Then again, saving the day is not so much up to Gillen, of course, as it is to God, and The Omega Code features what has to be the first literal deus ex machina since the theatre of ancient Greek times. As faith-affirming as it may be, the wrap-up is hokey and maddeningly unsatisfying.

Connoisseurs of camp will be the only people who will find much satisfaction from the acting. Van Dien is his usual unconvincing and completely embarrassing self; did anyone believe this smug, stiff pretty boy could convince as being a "Dr."? He is matched in the stiffness department by Catherine Oxenberg as a talk show host and, as Gillen's wife, an unknown actress whose name doesn't much matter because you're certain not to hear it again in the future. As Stone, York oozes slime and sleaze, which wouldn't be a problem for the villain role if he weren't supposed to be a trusted and loved political leader. Only Michael Ironside, in his typical shady element as Stone's main enforcer, does any work that is the slightest bit dignified.

And when I say "only," I mean only--the direction (by Rob Marcarelli) is flat; the special effects are laughably cheap; and the script is amazingly lunkheaded (Gillen's wife lets him know that their house is bugged by writing "BUG" on a paper, only to then discuss their "secret" plans verbally). In the end, the only thing that can be considered the slightest bit worthwhile is its spiritual message, but its something one can get at a fraction of the time--and for free--by simply tuning to TBN.

In Brief

Body Shots poster Body Shots (R) **
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New Line Cinema is billing this flashy drama as the movie that "defines the decade." To call it presumptuous is an understatement; insanely wishful thinking is more like it. Body Shots follows four young men (Sean Patrick Flanery, Jerry O'Connell, Ron Livingston, and Brad Rowe) and four young women (Tara Reid, Amanda Peet, Emily Procter, and Sybil Temchen) on one eventful night where they interconnect and have, as the film's main section is labeled, "good sex, bad sex." This ranges from some lighthearted bondage and domination to, in the film's primary incident, an alleged rape. Everyone (in particular Reid, Peet, and hilarious comic relief Livingston) in the fresh-faced young cast display talent that, in the future, should win them the career-making roles that their parts here aren't. The eight are less characters than talking heads, a point highlighted by the numerous segments where they ruminate on sex and intimacy issues directly to the camera. I suppose screenwriter David McKenna was hoping that the varying points of view would converge into some greater truth about sexual attitudes in the '90s, but instead he and director Michael Cristofer end up with a lot of hot--and often overheated--air.

Three to Tango poster Three to Tango (PG-13) **
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Matthew Perry and an irresistibly adorable Neve Campbell share a charming chemistry as the two lovers in this romantic comedy. Alas, their natural rapport is put at the service of an idiot plot. Architect Oscar (Perry) is enlisted by his wealthy boss Charles (Dylan McDermott) to spy on his mistress Amy (Campbell), only to fall hard for her. Problem? Because his business partner Peter (Oliver Platt) is gay, Charles and Amy--and soon the entire city--thinks Oscar is as well. The thin sexual orientation joke is stretched way beyond the breaking point, getting tired almost as soon as it is introduced. Yet the film remains watchable, from the bouncy James Bond-meets-swing opening title to the gratuitous music video closing credit roll, thanks to Perry and especially Campbell, whose glow makes one even more disappointed that it weren't showcased in a more deserving vehicle.


Detour VHS Detour (R) * 1/2
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A big heist goes awry, leading a crook (Jeff Fahey) to lay low in the country hometown he hadn't been to in years, only to find that his mother has died and left him the family farm. Needless to say, some angry heavies are on his trail. This phoned-in direct-to-video actioner, directed by Joey Travolta, covers all the bases one would expect in the ways one would expect--except one: it isn't as laughable as one would fear (or, perhaps, hope), for the cast of some recognizable names (Fahey, Gary Busey, Michael Madsen) turns in acceptable performances, which in the straight-to-tape scheme of things is no small feat. Even so, one would be well-advised to take a detour around this one. (USA Home Entertainment)

The Inheritors poster The Inheritors (Die Siebtelbauern) (R) *** 1/2
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In turn-of-the-century Austria, an ironfisted farmer is found brutally murdered and, in an ironic twist, is revealed to have willed his farm to the same peasant servants whom he belittled for years. Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky could have gone for cheap laughs after this set-up, with the "one-seventh farmers" bumbling about their new property, but he instead goes for melodrama involving long-buried secrets and serious social commentary as these scrappy folks defend what's theirs from the greedy neighboring landowners. The result is a film that is inspiring and surprisingly poignant, which can be attributed to the honest, heartfelt performances of leads Simon Schwarz, Sophie Reis, and Lars Rudolph. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)

A Kid Called Danger DVD A Kid Called Danger (PG) * 1/2
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Kid's dad is a cop. Kid wants to be a cop. Kid gets his improbable chance to show his stuff when he finds out a presumed-dead jewel thief is in fact alive and kicking and planning more shady business. A Kid Called Danger is a fantasy that small children will likely eat up, but then young kids will eat just about anything they can put into their mouths. And discerning parents would be wise to think twice about giving this cheap-looking, poorly acted (they may be kids, but bad acting is bad acting), and overall lame adventure a rent. (A-Pix Entertainment)

The Nuttiest Nutcracker DVD The Nuttiest Nutcracker (G) ***
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This animated update of the oft-told tale of the Nutcracker Prince doesn't break any new ground storywise; the script's biggest innovation is having most of the cast of characters be walking and talking fruits and nuts (hence the title). But this is a rather innovative film in a completely different respect--it's the first completely computer animated direct-to-video feature. While the animation here won't give the people at Pixar and PDI any sleepless nights, its bright colors and intricate designs and movement will keep the adults entertained whenever the story and the songs don't. The voice cast is led by Jim Belushi, Cheech Marin, and Phyllis Diller. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)

Pirates of Silicon Valley VHS Pirates of Silicon Valley **
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Those wanting to know the true story behind the creation of computer giants Apple and Microsoft better look elsewhere, for this shallow--and Emmy-nominated--made-for-TNT movie about the lives of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Microsoft mastermind Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) fails to shed any insight onto their companies or who they are. That is, at least not beyond some basic character traits: Gates is a gentle geek while Jobs is an egotistical tyrant. In fact, so negative is Jobs' portrayal that this film could be viewed as being a piece of pro-Microsoft propaganda; when Gates does something underhanded, it's because rival Jobs pushed him there. Writer-director Martyn Burke does pull some interesting visual tricks out of his sleeve and keeps the action never less than watchable, but the film could have been so much more, especially since Wyle and Hall manage to convince and suggest something more within the confines of their characters' limited written ranges. (Warner Home Video)

This Is My Father poster This Is My Father (R) ***
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James Caan plays a Chicago schoolteacher who learns the truth about the tragic romance between his mother (played in flashback by newcomer Moya Farrelly) and father he never knew (Aidan Quinn) during a trip to Ireland. Writer-director Paul Quinn (brother of Aidan and cinematographer Declan Quinn) would have been wise to drop the contemporary framing story--which also includes a needless thread involving Caan's troubled teenage nephew--and stuck to the moving, if familiar, well-bred girl/poor boy love story. Even if it isn't the film's only focus, the impassioned romance is enough to recommend it. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

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#212 October 17, 1999 by Michael Dequina


Fight Club poster Fight Club (R) ****
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Hear or read a story about Fight Club, and chances are it's about violence--that is, the film's amount and glorification of it. Indeed, there is a fair amount of brutality on display in David Fincher's adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel (after all, the film is called Fight Club), but that's just a mean to an end. And the end--in every sense of the word--is but one of the many striking blows this electrifying, electrified film deals its unsuspecting audience. Physical violence may give the initial sting, but it's the film's psychological violence that leaves the lasting impression.

For all the carnage on display, what comes as the greatest shock while watching Fight Club is realizing that the film is a comedy--albeit a dark and very cynical one at that (and what else could it be, coming from Se7en and The Game maestro Fincher?). The tone is set by our nameless, Everyman narrator (Edward Norton, award-worthy as usual) whose boredom with his mind-numbing job and life leads to a perpetual case of insomnia. To fill his sleepless nights, he indulges in some strange addictions: first, shopping from catalogs, in particular those of IKEA; then attending support groups for people with ailments he never has and likely never will suffer himself. But when he discovers another unafflicted person, one Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, cast way against type and delivering), making the rounds at his meetings, he finds himself without a worthwhile time-consuming vice.

The ultimate addiction comes after the narrator returns home from a business trip to find that his apartment and all his precious catalog-purchased items have been lost in a mysterious explosion. With nowhere else to turn, he impulsively calls homemade soap salesman Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whom he met on the returning flight. After having perhaps too many beers, the two get into a playful but no less brutal fistfight outside of a bar, catching the attention and inciting the involvement of a few other patrons. Thus begins the strange underground society of senseless organized beatings known as Fight Club.

Which leads to numerous scenes of men graphically pounding each other into a blood-drenched pulp, which, in turn, has led to charges that Fight Club glorifies violence. There is some evidence supporting that argument: the fisticuffs fuel our emasculated narrator's spiritual liberation; and Fincher, never one to shy away from grisliness in previous films, doesn't pass up an opportunity to linger over every last gory detail. It is overkill, no doubt--but that's precisely the joke. The violence is so extreme as to be over-the-top, much like everything else in this film--to ridiculous effect. The fight scenes are really not all too different opening sections of the film, which detail the narrator's goods-obsessed lifestyle in often literal detail (at one point, prices and product descriptions appear in his apartment out of thin air, turning it into a living catalog page). In doing so, Fincher underscores the absurdity of that life--and in the violent scenes, all the blood just drives home the idiocy behind the beat-or-get-beaten-to-self-fulfillment philosophy.

As the underground Fight Club mutates into the very visible Project Mayhem under Tyler's guidance, the narrator comes to see the light and sets out to stop his partner-in-crime, which turns out to be much more easily said than done, but not in the way he expects. This point of the story has also been debated about (and will leave a number of audiences talking), with the negative comments calling it a cheap trick. Far from it. More than just a powerful reinforcement of the film's theme of how the rigidity of society reins in the freedom to express and simply be who one is, it also ties into Fincher and scripter Jim Uhls' slyest joke. I won't give it away, but it's related to an idea Tyler expresses where identity itself is a product, with public figures being the walking billboards for an unattainable ideal. In that respect, the casting of Pitt--who does a terrific job in any respect--reveals itself to be especially canny.

Fight Club is about submission, but not the bloody submission many men pummel each other into through the course of the film. It is, however, about a different type of submission--that of unique human identity to the homogenization of consumer-driven culture. The brave, subversive, and wholly intoxicating way in which Fincher makes his point is far more shocking than any fight scene in this stunning and important cinematic work.

The Story of Us poster The Story of Us (R) **
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The screen pairing of macho action star Bruce Willis and serious actress Michelle Pfeiffer appears to be an odd one, and it is the tale of their surprising electricity together that is the only story worth telling from The Story of Us--certainly not the messy contrivances of this wannabe weepie romantic comedy-drama.

Director Rob Reiner is a proven hand at romantic comedy, as seen in The American President and, most famously, When Harry Met Sally.... The shadow of the latter looms large over The Story of Us, but it's not because their stories bear any resemblance. The "us" whose story is told is Ben and Katie Jordan (Willis and Pfeiffer), who, after 15 years of marriage, discover that life is far from blissful. The film's fragmented time structure reflects the couple's state of mind as they look back on their union: the good times and the not-so-good ones that led them to ponder a breakup.

With these flashbacks ranging from short to long and occurring at the drop of a hat, The Story of Us is already a mess without a needless enhancement that Reiner and scripters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson somehow felt the need to include: every so often, Ben and Katie are separately shown sitting on a sofa, bearing their souls directly to the camera. It's not quite as annoying as the throwaway interview segments with old couples that Reiner cut into When Harry Met Sally..., but it has the same obtrusive, distracting effect. I'm not a terribly big fan of voiceovers, but if their internal comments were simply heard and not seen, the film would flow a bit more smoothly.

And one wonders why the Jordans' marriage hasn't gone so smoothly. The audience isn't given a clear idea exactly why things go bad other than some vague suspicion on Katie's part that Ben is having an affair. There are also a number of brief bits showing the two angrily yelling at each other, and Willis and Pfeiffer play the angry scenes for what they're worth, but those passages aren't terribly convincing because one usually doesn't know why exactly what leads to each incident. The cozier scenes, which comfortably showcase the two stars' unforced rapport, are more believable, and as such, the film is heavily skewed toward their happy times and leaves little suspense as to how things turn out.

Willis and Pfeiffer are ably supported by the likes of Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser, and Reiner himself; the standout is Wilson, who gets most of the film's too few good laugh lines. And that pretty much says all that there needs to be said about The Story of Us: a collection of performances that are more than the creaky material deserves.

In Brief

julien donkey-boy poster julien donkey-boy (R) no stars
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In February, I said that no film this year could possibly be worse than the thoroughly unwatchable Six Ways to Sunday. Well, I take that back. The sophomore directorial effort of Harmony Korine (whose 1997 debut, Gummo, is the epitome of love-hate films) is one steaming, smelly pile of cinematic excrement. Much has been made that this "film" (using that term very loosely) is the first American production to be made under Dogme 95--the commandments of cinematic "purity" created by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, among others-- but slapping on such a label doesn't excuse Korine's sloppy, downright incoherent filmmaking. You know you're in trouble when the synopsis provided in the film's press notes in no way resembles what you see on screen. Purportedly, the film is about the "internal struggle" of schizophrenic julien (Ewen Bremner), which "increases in intensity until the film's shocking and bizarrely transcendent conclusion."

Now, this is what I saw for 94 long, seemingly endless minutes: scenes of Bremner jumping up and down and speaking incoherently; scenes of julien's pregnant sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny) dancing ballet and playing the harp; wordless scenes of a young blind figure skater (Chrissy Kobylak) doing a routine; and, most memorably, julien's father (Werner Herzog) hosing down and belittling julien's brother Chris (Evan Neumann) into becoming "a champion"--that is, whenever not chugging cough syrup and listening to records while wearing a gas mask. To say that none of it adds up would be to imply a natural connection between scenes that isn't there. The herky-jerky Dogme camera movements and grainy film stock just makes the film look more like--and thereby confirm--what it is: pure garbage.

The Limey poster The Limey (R) *** 1/2
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The story of The Limey is a standard revenge yarn: British ex-con Wilson (Terence Stamp) comes to Los Angeles seeking to even the score with the record producer (Peter Fonda) responsible for his daughter's death. But The Limey is not your standard revenge movie, thanks to the inventive and stylish direction of Steven Soderbergh. Jumping up, down, and around the timeline even more than he did in his last film, the justly celebrated Out of Sight, Soderbergh keeps the action never less than fascinating. However, much credit must also go to Stamp, whose powerhouse performance drives the film; and screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who spices up the routine plot with some witty dialogue.

Perfect Blue poster Perfect Blue ***
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Mima, a member of the bubblegum girl singing trio Cham, decides to quit the group in pursuit of other interests (think Ginger Spice)--namely, an acting career. As Mima's pursuit of a new professional image takes a much darker turn--she lands a role that calls for a violent rape scene; she poses for nude photos--people around her start to die bloody deaths, and the spitting image of her former pop idol self begins to haunt her. Could it be the work of a shady-looking fan who watches her every move? Or is she imagining the whole thing, including her break from Cham? Or is her entire showbiz career a figment of fantasy?

Perfect Blue is the latest entry in the hot new subgenre of the thriller, the "what is reality?" thriller. The crucial difference with this Japanese import is that it is an animated film, and with the freedom of animation comes a more effective blurring of fantasy and reality; when the world is entirely drawn, everything can plausibly be real. Director Satoshi Kon takes his time to get this adaptation of a novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi off the ground, bringing to light the horrendous acting of a number of the English-speaking voice actors, but by the film's end, Perfect Blue has become an exciting and haunting exercise in psychological horror.

Random Hearts poster Random Hearts (R) *
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"In a perfect world, they would have never met." In a perfect world, this assemblage of great talent--director Sydney Pollack and stars Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas--wouldn't amount to such a colossal waste. In the fall movie preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, Pollack describes his adaptation of Warren Adler's novel as being a plotless film with "fractional degrees of change in a relationship between two people." That should give one a fair idea of the amount of suspense and drama--rather, lack thereof--as the relationship between a police officer (Ford) and a congresswoman (Scott Thomas) ever so slowly develops after discovering that their now-deceased spouses were having an affair. If the two actors displayed the slightest hint of chemistry, perhaps there would be some level of involvement in those fractional degrees of change. But they never do, and time-devouring subplots involving Ford's hunt for a crooked cop and Scott Thomas's reelection campaign failing to hold even the most superficial interest, Random Hearts is one two-hour-plus dose of cinematic Unisom.

Romance poster Romance ***
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There's very little, if any, of the title on display in Catherine Breillat's bold French import. What there is plenty of, however, is sex. After Marie's (Caroline Ducey) boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) refuses to have sex with her, she decides to go on a reckless fuckfest: first with a well-endowed studmuffin (Rocco Siffredi); then a rough, borderline-rape encounter on the stairs with a stranger; and ultimately some good clean bondage with the principal (!) of the school where she teaches. The film resembles a porn film (there is very little acting involved in the sex scenes, if you catch my drift) but Breillat is less interested in the sex acts than their deeper meaning--or, rather, what they mean for Marie, who is heard in voiceover reflecting upon her actions, ultimately discovering her true self through her self-degradation. And it's Marie's strange journey--and Ducey's amazingly bravery in bringing all of it to life--that fascinates in Romance, not the sex, which is highly explicit but not at all erotic.

The Straight Story poster The Straight Story (G) *** 1/2
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It would appear to be a strange, cosmic joke: against a constantly shifting nighttime starscape, the screen reads, "Walt Disney Pictures presents a film by David Lynch." The seemingly odd marriage turns out to be anything but for this beautiful drama, based on a true story. Richard Farnsworth is a lock for an Oscar nomination for his heartfelt work as Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old who travels from Iowa to Wisconsin on his John Deere lawnmower to visit his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton), who recently suffered a stroke. The film moves about as slowly as the lawnmower, but if it moved any faster, lost would be some terrific character moments, such as Alvin's quietly heartbreaking WWII combat story; and flashes of absurdist Lynchian humor, best exemplified by one hilarious scene where Alvin and a hardware store clerk argue over buying a grabber. With the literally straight(forward) story, Disney affiliation, and "G" rating, it would appear that Lynch has sold out, but he has instead made a charming film that is mainstream-accessible yet completely maintains his uniquely off-kilter artistic identity.

That's the Way I Like It poster That's the Way I Like It (PG-13) ***
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This '70s-set import from Singapore may be named after the song by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but that dominates the film is that of the Bee Gees--namely, their contributions to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. In fact, that emblematic film of the disco era dominates this film about Hock (Adrian Pang), a young man who ends up stumbling into a theatre playing Forever Fever (the film's thinly veiled stand-in for the real thing) and redirects his adoration for Bruce Lee toward John Travolta and the disco scene. As Hock enters a dance contest with his longtime friend Mei (Pam Oei), every plot development can be seen a mile away; the contest's outcome is never in doubt.

But when the execution is as spirited as it is here, it doesn't matter. What is especially delightful is how writer-director Glen Goei in paying tribute to the culture of the glitter ball era, he doesn't downplay the kitschiness of it all; in fact, Goei embraces it. The Tony Manero stand-in (Dominic Pace) that comes off the screen to give Hock advice neither looks nor sounds anything like Travolta, and a climactic Bruce Lee-style martial arts sequence is over-the-top ridiculous, but it it all feels pitch-perfect in this funny and immensely charming trifle.


Free Money DVD Judas Kiss VHS Free Money (R) **
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Judas Kiss (R) ** 1/2
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The casts of these two crime thrillers boast no less than three Academy Award winners between them, yet neither was granted a theatrical release. After seeing them, it's no wonder why. There is quirky humor abound in Free Money, the comic tale of two losers ("Charles" Sheen and Thomas Haden Church) who attempt to rob a train transporting American currency from Canada. How quirky? Perhaps the most memorable scene is between the film's two Oscar winners, Marlon Brando (playing a corrupt prison warden nicknamed The Swede, the father of the losers' identical twin wives) and Mira Sorvino (as a tough FBI agent) in a physical struggle for a gun. Unfortunately, not enough of the strained one-liners and random eccentricities (Brando disciplines sons-in-law Sheen and Church at home with a cattle prod) are quite as amusing as the image of bigger-than-a-house Brando and thin, leggy Sorvino going at it.

Played a bit more seriously is Judas Kiss, which features Oscar winner Emma Thompson in a supporting role as--not unlike Sorvino--a tough FBI agent. The crime that she and New Orleans cop Alan Rickman are investigating is the kidnapping-for-ransom of a wealthy computer mogul (Greg Wise)--a crime that, of course, does not go quite as smoothly as hoped for the criminals (Carla Gugino, Gil Bellows, Til Schweiger, and Simon Baker-Denny) when the wife of a senator (Hal Holbrook) gets caught in the crossfire. The usual set of twists and doublecrosses ensue, with nothing all-too-surprising (or funny; the attempts at humor mostly fall flat) to distinguish it from the winding paths of other similar films. Perhaps Judas Kiss would have played for effectively on the big screen, for what does distinguish the film somewhat is the slick visual style of co-writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez--a virtue that is severely compromised when panned and scanned for the small screen. (Free Money: Sterling Home Entertainment, DVD also available; Judas Kiss: Columbia TriStar Home Video)

Rocky Marciano VHS Rocky Marciano (R) ***
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Jon Favreau's charismatic and convincing performance as the boxing legend is enough to recommend this made-for-Showtime biopic, which, for the most part, succumbs to the usual shortcomings of straight-for-cable features. While director Charles Winkler is able to develop some dramatic tension as we see the "Brockton Blockbuster" K.O. his way to the top of the heavyweights and into boxing history, eventually having to face is fallen idol Joe Louis; too often the momentum is undercut by an awkward flashback structure that cuts between an aged Marciano on his way home to his wife (Penelope Ann Miller, in a mercifully small role) and key events in his life. Even so, Marciano's inspiring story and Favreau's presence are compelling enough to score this one as a winning round. (MGM Home Entertainment)


Payback DVD Payback (R) movie review
Movie: ** 1/2; Disc: **
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It's fitting that Paramount gave a watchable but, in the end, unexceptional DVD presentation to this watchable but unexceptional Mel Gibson thriller, which was released to disappointing theatrical grosses in February. The film appears a lot clearer on disc than it did on the big screen, but the added clarity also accentuates the annoying blue wash that cinematographer Emerson Core lays on every shot. The film-to-disc transfer is the best thing about this fairly standard disc, for the extras are far from special. Included are the film's two theatrical trailers (the teaser holds some interest in that it bears a 1997 copyright--pointing to the production problems that delayed the film's release) and a half-hearted, why-bother behind the scenes "featurette," which lasts all of ten minutes at most. (Paramount Home Video)

Razor Blade Smile DVD Razor Blade Smile movie review
Movie: ** 1/2; Disc: ** 1/2
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I was taken aback when I first popped in this disc: the flashy animated menus belie this campy vampire actioner's no-budget origins. And at initial glance, it appears to be a very well-put-together package, featuring a production photo gallery and an article from Femme Fatales magazine to supplement this amusingly trashy tale (presented in its uncut, unrated version) of a vampire (Eileen Daly) who passes her eternal time as a contract killer. The disc also features an equally entertaining collection of trailers for A-Pix Entertainment's many other cheapie horror flicks, such as the killer snowman classic Jack Frost. But in paying so much attention to the supplemental materials, someone overlooked some critical basics: the disc is neither closed-captioned, nor are there English subtitles available--features that should be standard inclusions. (A-Pix Entertainment)

True Crime DVD True Crime (R) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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Warner Bros. consistently puts out such great DVD presentations that it would take something really extraordinary (and one is on the way--their forthcoming Wizard of Oz disc) to really stand out from the rest of the catalog. The disc for this Clint Eastwood-directed and -starring death penalty drama maintains their standard for excellence. In addition to a widescreen transfer of the film; the disc also features the theatrical trailer, cast/crew biographies; a documentary on the making of the film; another on the story of Los Angeles Times reporter Ray Herndon, which bears similarities to (but was not the basis of) the film's; and a music video by sullen jazz singer Diana Krall. All of it is wrapped up in the slick animated menus that one would expect from the WB--and that there is what makes this undeniably well-made disc somewhat of a yawner: it's exactly what one would expect from the company. (Warner Home Video)

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