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The Movie Report
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Volume 59

#214 - 215
October 29, 1999 - November 7, 1999


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

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#215 November 7, 1999

M O V I E S

The Bone Collector poster The Bone Collector (R) ** 1/2
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Phillip Noyce's The Bone Collector is a slick, confident piece of popcorn entertainment. The casting is on-target, the visual style is enthralling, and the storyline is lurid but compelling. There's just one little thing--in paying attention to all those other details, the filmmakers forgot to satisfactorily conceal the identity of the homicidal title character, which is a slight problem when your film is supposed to be a mystery.

It's a shame, for as I have mentioned, The Bone Collector has more than its share of virtues, not the least of which are above-the-title stars Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Washington plays Lincoln Rhyme, a brilliant NYPD detective who has lost use of his entire body--that is, except for a couple of fingers--after a debilitating on-the-job accident. Committed to not become the vegetable that his frequent seizures will inevitably cause, Rhyme is eager to make his "final transition" into the afterlife until fellow detectives come to him for help in an investigation of some gruesome murders. After initial trepidation, Rhyme is drawn back into active duty by young and spunky Amelia Donaghy (Jolie), the patrol officer who discovered the initial evidence of the killings.

Naturally, sparks do fly between Rhyme and Amelia, and while I usually frown upon the gratuitous romantic angle so often shoehorned into films, I did not mind it here. That's because Washington and Jolie, two of the most attractive and intensely charismatic actors working in film today, are so well-matched that their characters' otherwise arbitrary attraction is justified by their effortless electricity together. How effortless? They barely need to smile at each other to generate heat.

Generating heat is, of course, not the motivation behind The Bone Collector; rather, it's creeping out the audience. And viewers are bound to be unsettled by the many gruesome images on display; how could one not be disturbed by seeing bloody corpses with wounds penetrating down to the bone? Noyce packages the shocks in a sleek, visually stylish package that has both its moments of invention (when Rhyme digs into his mental library of crime cases, one sees a series of memory images before stopping on the right one) and its moments of formula (the obligatory fake shock where an intruder turns out to be someone friendly).

That will likely be enough for most moviegoers; the outside seatfillers used to sweeten the press audience gasped, jumped, and shrieked at all the right moments. But when it comes to a mystery, the right scares and the right mood don't count for anything if the big secret is far from it. It was barely a half hour into The Bone Collector that I figured out whodunit, and the only suspense left for me came in the hope that I guessed incorrectly. Needless to say, the film didn't live up to that hope.

So in the end, The Bone Collector amounts to a lot of wasted effort and talent. The film has its merits, and the actors kept me interested long after I had solved its central mystery. But I should've been more than merely interested--I should've been involved.


House on Haunted Hill poster House on Haunted Hill (R) **
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When they went into production simultaneously, comparisons were immediately made between The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill--understandably so, since they are both haunted house movies and both remakes of earlier films. But there is one critical difference, and that is intent. While The Haunting helmer Jan DeBont had the misguided idea of turning Robert Wise's cerebral 1963 psychological thriller into an effects-heavy scarefest, Haunted Hill's William Malone has the more modest ambition of turning William Castle's campy 1958 horror film into... a much higher-tech 1999 horror film. It should come as no surprise that Haunted Hill is the one that turns out better, but just as unsurprising is the fact that being better than the disastrous The Haunting doesn't necessarily mean the movie's all that good on its own terms.

The opening title sequence of Haunted Hill--a fascinating collage of disturbing images, jittery lettering, and eerie music--alone is creepier than anything in The Haunting, and for the most part Malone is able to maintain the mood. While the set for the abandoned mental hospital that is the titular house is nowhere as ornate as the mansion in The Haunting, it is a lot more menacing. Unlike all the brightly lit production design in that film, the hospital has no shortage of dark shadows where unknown forces can easily pop out at the five strangers (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Chris Kattan) who are assembled by theme park owner Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) and his wayward wife (Famke Janssen) to spend the night for a cool $1 million each--that is, provided they are alive the next morning.

There is little more to the plot beyond the setup, which is no shock since the point of the film is to scare the audience as guests are bumped off one by one. While Malone's atmosphere remains consistently creepy, it never enters the realm of being frightening--a problem that too often occurs in this age of elaborate special effects: certain opticals may look cool, but there usually isn't anything particularly scary about them. This is especially the case with the elaborate effects-laden finale; the audience is impressed with the visuals, but they don't quite send shivers down the spine.

With genuine scares severely lacking, one at least hopes there's some excitement to House on Haunted Hill. Alas, though everything in the film is polished to the sheen, in particular the surprisingly dud-free set of performances, overall it feels so polished as to be manufactured, drained of any wild, spontaneous spark. House on Haunted Hill hits a number of its marks, but one just wishes it hit them in a manner less familiar than the bumps in one of Price's rollercoasters.


Princess Mononoke poster Princess Mononoke (PG-13) *** 1/2
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In the past 12 months, Hollywood finally realized that there's more to the animated feature than the traditional Disney kiddie-friendly musical comedy formula. DreamWorks made a groundbreaking splash in the field with its mature Biblical epic The Prince of Egypt. After a string of painful Disney copycats, Warner Bros. finally hit animated paydirt with its kiddie-friendly but also older-skewing non-musical adventure The Iron Giant (too bad hardly anyone saw it, though). Paramount's proudly profane television adaptation, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, is one of the most hilarious adult comedies to be released in recent memory, animated or otherwise. Even the Mouse itself strayed from its own patented original recipe with the (mostly) production number-free Tarzan.

But what the American film industry has only recently realized is old hat in Japan, where animation is just as much, if not moreso, a medium for adults as it is for children. Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, the first Japanese anime to receive a high profile stateside theatrical release, shows how far America still has to go in exploiting the fully drawn medium's potential. This fantasy-adventure is the type of product that has yet to emerge from American animation houses: a seamless marriage between a mature, complex story ideas and boundless visual imagination that defies categorization in normal live action terms.

Miyazaki's story, adapted for this side of the Pacific by Neil Gaiman, is one of conflicts. One sets the film in motion: tribal prince Ashitaka's (voiced by Billy Crudup) victorious battle against a demonic boar, which turns out to be a forest god somehow transformed. Now cursed with a mark on his right hand that will ultimately spread over his entire body and kill him, Ashitaka leaves his people and ventures into the forest, the setting of the film's central conflict. Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the founder of an iron-making town (aptly named Iron Town), is in the midst of an ongoing war with the forest gods, who naturally do not take a liking to Eboshi's policy of destroying the forest for the economic advancement of her city. The leading defender of the forest gods' interests is San, a.k.a. Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes), a young human whose raised by old wolf Moro (Gillian Anderson).

The story sounds simple enough, but it in fact isn't. In addition to the large scale war, there are other conflicts as well; Iron Town also must deal with recurring squabbles with samurai warriors, and a monk named Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) wants the head of the almighty Forest Spirit for his own interests. But beyond all the various fighting parties, there is no clear divide between good and evil. While Princess Mononoke's overall message is distinctly pro-environment, Eboshi is no clear-cut villainess; her quest to kill off the Forest Spirit is despicable, but she feels she is only acting in the best interests of her hardworking citizens, who are mostly the downtrodden likes of lepers and former prostitutes.

Miyazaki's attention to story is uncommon for an animated feature, and even moreso, at least to Western eyes, is the invention in his visual style. While the wolves look like normal wolves and the human characters all possess the large eyes and rounded triangular faces one would find in anime, the creatures are unlike anything seen anywhere. The boar demon, with wormlike appendages in perpetual slither over its body, is a menacing and truly unsettling image; on the opposite end of the spectrum is the beauty and grace of the deerlike Forest Spirit and the charming simplicity of the little twitchy-headed tree spirits. Miyazaki does not employ any of the computer techniques that have become so commonplace in American animated features, and while that makes his visuals less slick, the all-hand-drawn technique adds immeasurably to the film's life and personality.

Of course, another major contributing factor in the personality department is the voice cast. Most imported anime features some often atrocious dubbing by nameless voice actors. The namebrand cast in Princess Mononoke was undoubtedly chosen to add some marquee luster, but they all deliver for the most part. Next-big-thing-that-never-was Crudup's work is better than most of his on-camera performances, and Driver follows up her delicious Tarzan vocal turn with a multi-dimensional reading on Eboshi. Of the three central characters, Danes is the one who disappoints; her Sen is sometimes too whiny to convince as a legendary warrior.

What is easy to believe in, however, is the enchanting fantasy world that Miyazaki creates in Princess Mononoke. While the film's grand finale doesn't quite have the emotional impact it obviously strives for, by that time Miyazaki's imagination has long made an impact on the audience's hearts and minds.


In Brief

The Bachelor poster The Bachelor (PG-13) *
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Premiere magazine recently ran an article about how a number of male movie actors are inexplicably given chance after chance to carry his own film when each time they prove inable to draw in an audience. One blatant example is Chris O'Donnell, former teen idol/Boy Wonder who has always proven to be far less beefcake than rice cake. That doesn't change with this atrocious romantic comedy, in which the whitest of whitebread plays Jimmie Shannon, a smug womanizer who has trouble committing to the girl of his dreams who deserves far better, Anne (Renée Zellweger). When his grandfather (Peter Ustinov) dies and leaves him the family fortune--on the condition that he marries within 24 hours--it's a race against time as Jimmie desperately tries to find a bride after Anne rejects him.

Madcap hijinks ensue as Jimmie goes down a line of less-than-desirable exes, including a pretentious opera singer (Mariah Carey, in a not-so-shockingly poor acting debut) and a spoiled debutante (Brooke Shields, proving why Suddenly Susan is such a popular critical target), but the big problem is not that the proceedings aren't funny (though that certainly doesn't help). It's that Jimmie is so self-centered and arrogant that we don't feel he deserves the money, Anne, or any shot at happiness. O'Donnell's whiny, one-dimensional portrayal just adds to one's annoyance with Jimmie. Zellweger, on the other hand, is able coast by on her cuteness, even Anne never quite qualifies as being a character (one key plot point has Anne taking a trip to Athens "on an assignment," but what exactly is it that she does for a living?).


The Insider poster The Insider (R) ****
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The inside story behind a report on TV's 60 Minutes doesn't sound like the most exciting basis for a film, not to mention one that clocks in at over two and a half hours. But despite the seemingly dry subject matter, Michael Mann's film about the newsmagazine's controversial 1995 exposé of a massive public health scandal involving the country's big tobacco companies is a supremely suspenseful and riveting dramatic tour-de-force. The film works on a number of levels: as a look at the assembly of a news story; as an Oscar-baiting showcase for stars Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, and Christopher Plummer as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, respectively; a fascinating insider view of the corporate politics behind the network news; and as a conventional thriller, with a number of unknown forces threatening Wigand and his family. When woven together, these threads make one incredibly rich and rewarding experience, a film that never forgets to entertain as it challenges the audience to think.


Last Night poster Last Night (R) ****
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In the directorial debut of actor-screenwriter Don McKellar, the world is ending in six hours, but there is no band of noble astronauts or space-faring oil driggers out to save the day. The end of the mankind is not a possibility, but a certainty, yet the film is not entirely gloom and doom as it follows a cross-section of Toronto residents who develop Altman-esque interconnections. As Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) tries to go out with a bang of the bedroom sort, Sandra (Sandra Oh) desperately tries to make the crosstown journey to meet her husband for a different type of bang, Jennifer (Sarah Polley) parties her life away, and Patrick (McKellar) tries to see the end in complete isolation, McKellar also explores the wry humor in such a dire situation. The gas company executive (David Cronenberg) calls everyone to let them know that they will be served until the very end; Craig propositions old friend Patrick to help complete his sexual wish list. The humor, however, does not negate the scenario's anguished heart, brought to wrenching life primarily by Oh, whose extraordinary performance ranks among the best seen this year. McKellar may tie up his individual plot threads in a manner too conventional for some, but the emotional wallop of this exquisite film is far from ordinary.


V I D E O

Big Daddy poster Big Daddy (PG-13) **
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Adam Sandler's latest lowbrow comedy continued the blockbuster box office streak that began with The Waterboy, grossing well north of $100 million. Exactly why is anybody's guess. The film--in which he plays Sonny Koufax, an irresponsible oaf who becomes reluctant guardian to an abandoned five-year-old (Cole and Dylan Sprouse)--is one of Sandler's better efforts, featuring some funny moments when his character is the attitudinal wiseass type that he can play in his sleep. But when things take a preposterous turn toward the warm and fuzzy, with Sonny actually growing to love the tyke and the role of daddy, the heavy-handed sentimentality provokes a most violent gag reflex. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)


Muppets from Space poster Muppets from Space (PG) ***
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The late Jim Henson's big screen Muppet franchise has shown its age as of late, slumming through half-hearted literary adaptations for its most recent installments. While this summer's Muppets from Space did not light up the box office, it does mark a creative rebirth for Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, et al., telling a wild and funny tale in which everyone's favorite blue weirdo, Gonzo, becomes convinced that he's a space alien. Adults will probably enjoy the film more than youngsters, who won't get some of the more sophisticated verbal humor (such as--gasp--a coming out double entendre) nor appreciate the cameos, both billed and unbilled, by recognizable stars. Jeffrey Tambor leads the human cast, which also includes in smaller roles Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell, and David Arquette. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)


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#214 October 29, 1999

M O V I E S

Dogma poster Dogma (R) *** event coverage
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Much has been said about Dogma, much of that being negative. For all the talk I had heard about the allegedly inflammatory content of the religious-themed comedy prior to seeing it, what shocked me the most were those general accusations that writer-director Kevin Smith had committed a cinematic act of sacrilege. If you ask me, there is perhaps no other filmmaker working today who is more serious about his or her faith than Smith. After all, is there any other filmmaker who has thanked God in the closing credits of every single one of his films?

That said, after watching Dogma, I can see why people (namely the Catholic League) have raised some objections. After all, outrageous elements such as dialogue passages criticizing the Bible's "bad storytelling" and a thread where a cardinal starts a ridiculous "Catholicism Wow" promotional campaign are bound to raise eyebrows--even moreso when taken out of context, which is what the film's vocal detractors have done (and how could they not, given the fact that they haven't seen a frame of the film?). And context is everything when it comes to Dogma.

Dogma is being billed as "a comic fantasia," and that description should be taken to its core: it's a comedy; it's a fantasy. As in it's supposed to be taken lightly. And not in a realistic fashion. As a hilarious typed pre-film disclaimer notes, this becomes clear within the film's first ten minutes. Smith's wacky plot revolves around the dastardly scheme of two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck). They discover a loophole in church dogma that will allow them to end their eternal exile in Wisconsin and reenter the pearly gates of Heaven. The added consequence, however, is that their success would spell the end of all existence. With God having been put out of commission while on a holiday, the fate of the world and all else rests with efforts of a ragtag bunch: Metatron (Alan Rickman), the angel who serves as the voice of God; Rufus (Chris Rock), the bitter, heretofore unknown 13th Apostle; heavenly Muse-turned-stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek); a pair of familiar Prophets by the name Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, reprising their recurring roles); and the reluctant key figure in thwarting the renegade duo, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker who, after a series of rough life experiences, has lost her faith.

The last sentence points up Dogma's central flaw: overpopulation. In addition to the aforementioned, also encountered along the way is a demon named Azrael (Jason Lee) and his trio of hockey stick-wielding henchmen; Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), who institutes the "Catholicism Wow" campaign; and cameo roles played by familiar faces such as Janeane Garofalo. Some characters could have easily been jettisoned, namely Serendipity; while it's always a pleasure to see Hayek on the silver screen, her character is pretty much just the token female celestial being (or, rather, the token celestial being with breasts, for those from above have no gender). All the extra bodies also draw valuable time away from one of the story's more primary concerns, which is Bethany's winding road to rediscovering her faith; as such, her ultimate enlightenment doesn't pack the punch that it should.

Much like there are characters that don't quite work, there are also scenes and gags in Dogma that fall short. Jay and Silent Bob's big entrance is a throwback to the over-the-top and largely unfunny comic book gags in Mallrats, and there's one elaborate effects set piece involving a shit demon (yes, you read that right) is a complete failure. Where Dogma excels, however, is in the area of verbal humor, arguably Smith's forte. The most memorable moments are all in the written and spoken word, and the film has more than its share of great dialogue: Rufus' rumination on Mary and Joseph's sex life and his angry diatribe over being left out of the Bible; Loki and Bartleby confronting a boardroom full of execs on their wide variety of sins; and the general byplay between Jay and Silent Bob, and that between the pair and Bethany.

Along its lighthearted and offbeat comic path, though, Smith does raise (and in a fairly seamless manner at that) some serious and not-so-serious questions about Catholic dogma and organized religion in general. By virtue of their definition and the fact that they're in regards to religion, these questions would understandably upset religious groups. But what those objectors fail to see that the questions raised, such as the dangerous differences between "beliefs" and "ideas," are intelligent ones that would only spring from the mind of someone who takes his or her faith seriously. Smith isn't labeling anyone or anything as being wrong, rather offering food for thought.

Aside from the uniformly strong work of the ensemble and Smith's wit and ever-improving way with the camera (check out all the added action in the background!), that's what makes Dogma a cut above most other comedies: the audacity to challenge the very audience that comes in for all the penis and flatulence jokes (and no, they're not in short supply). A lot of people will walk out of Dogma thinking back on its many laughs, but just as many, if not more, will come out reflecting on their own religious faith--people who, on any other given day, would probably not give the issue a single thought. And if that's not an act of piety--as opposed to one of blasphemy, with which Smith has been so unjustly charged--then I don't know what is.


Molly poster Music of the Heart poster Molly (PG-13) *
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Music of the Heart (PG) ***
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After making her name in fluff (for better or worse) for years, Elisabeth Shue broke through with the "career-changing revelation" (as Vogue put it) of her Oscar-nominated performance in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas. While her career might have changed for the better, Shue's performances changed for the worse, embarrassing herself in the likes of The Saint and Palmetto. John Duigan's Molly, with the Oscar-baiting arc of its title character, is obviously designed to show off more of Shue's acting chops. Instead, it just shows that Leaving Las Vegas may have been a fluke.

As Molly McKay, Shue is called on to cover a wide acting spectrum. For half of the film, Shue has to act as if she had the mind of a child, for Molly is mentally challenged; for the other, after Molly receives miracle surgical treatment that awakens her mental capacities, Shue has to be an innocent yet observant and energetic naif. She fails miserably on both counts. She yelps, grunts, mumbles, jumps, screeches, and mugs to no end as Molly#1; as Molly#2, she's just as jumpy but with eyes perpetually wide and a chirpy, singsong voice. Neither portrayal resembles any actual, non-acted human behavior, whether the person is mentally challenged or not.

Shue's performance is just one of this unconvincing, uninvolving film. Dick Christie's script is a hodgepodge of elements from Awakenings and Rain Man, an analogy that actually makes the film seem better than it is. If you've seen either of those films, you will know every turn of the plot, right down to the ending, well before they come. But aside from not coming up with anything slightly original in the main story, Christie doesn't come up with a single satisfactory subplot. A romance between Molly's well-meaning but selfish brother Buck (Aaron Eckhart, doing a nice job--the only person who does so--in a change of pace, non-sleazy role) and Molly's doctor (Jill Hennessy) is spoken of but never shown. Come to think of it, that's the only attempt at a subplot Christie and Duigan make.

In their defense, though, Molly has been trimmed down to a remarkably slim 89 minutes from the 100something-minute run time of its original cut, which played on airlines this summer before its fall theatrical release. Even so, the fact that there are only 89 of them doesn't make any of those minutes any less tedious, and 89 minutes of Shue's strained Acting display is 89 more than anyone should ever have to endure.

By contrast, Music of the Heart marks the annual Oscar nod bid for the oft-nominated Meryl Streep, and once again it looks like she'll make it into the Academy's top five. In this fact-based drama directed by, of all people, horror king Wes Craven, Streep delivers another strong performance as Roberta Guaspari, who, after a messy divorce, finds new meaning in life by teaching the violin to elementary school kids in the inner city neighborhood in East Harlem. Ten years later, having inspired many creative young minds and won the respect of ther peers in the intervening decade, Roberta's program is threatened by cuts in education funding.

I would not call Streep's work here her best in recent years; it doesn't nearly hold a candle to her elegantly wrenching turn in 1995's The Bridges of Madison County. But Music of the Heart is unthinkable without her (imagine what a howler the film would have been if original star Madonna had not backed out); it's her passionate performance that carries the audience through the rough patches in Pamela Gray's script. For example, scenes involving Roberta's attempt at a new romantic life don't pay off in the end, and some dialogue reeks of a writer's hand; when Roberta breaks up with her boyfriend (Aidan Quinn) at the same time she fires her home construction crew, she says to each individual crew member, "You're fired," then turns to Quinn and says, "You're fired, too."

And then there are the maudlin fixtures of films such as these: the bright student whose mother decides to pull him out of the class; the son who feels neglected by all the attention Roberta lavishes upon his students. Yet the film works; there's no denying the uplift of Guaspari's remarkable true story, and even though he doesn't completely avoid the trap of sugary sappiness, Craven sends the audience out feeling happy and inspired--which is the very reason why one would buy a ticket into Music of the Heart.


In Brief

Bats poster Bats (PG-13) no stars
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With every October comes the usual crop of crappy horror movies that manage to make a quick killing at the box office thanks to non-discriminating moviegoers hungry for a thrill. Yet despite an aggressive marketing push by upstart distributor Destination Films, not even the same public that made Double Jeopardy a bigger hit than Fight Club could be convinced that Bats is anything but the grade-A hunk of Ed Wood-level cheese that it is. There is not a single scare nor interesting bit of effects work to be found in this tale of a small Texas town terrorized by maneating mutant bats. What there are plenty of, however, are unintentional laughs, thanks in large part to the godawful performances: as the town sheriff, Lou Diamond Philllips devours the scenery as if he will never be invited to another movie set again; Leon looks rightfully embarrassed as the token jive-talking and profanity-spouting African-American hanger-on; and a gravely earnest Dina Meyer was obviously not told that her scientist character was in a movie about killer bats. The film's climax is highlighted by a moment where Phillips and Meyer find themselves waist-deep in guano--an appropriate visual metaphor for the plight of the actors, who are in over their heads in excrement from frame one.


Being John Malkovich poster Being John Malkovich (R) ****
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There has never been anything quite like Being John Malkovich, and there likely never will be again. No imitator--a number of which the film is sure to inspire--could ever capture the clever, surreal dementia of this "comic fantasia" written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by music video wunderkind Spike Jonze. It begins on a somewhat offbeat but deceptively normal-seeming note: unemployed New York puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) takes a job with a filing company and becomes infatuated with Maxine (Catherine Keener), who works at a neighboring company on the 7 1/2 floor (don't ask) even though he is married to dowdy pet store worker Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Then comes the absurd wrinkle to the tale: one day at work Craig stumbles onto a secret tunnel that leads... into the mind of actor John Malkovich (who plays himself).

Rarely does one ever get to see with one original twist, let alone the wild and completely unpredictable entirety of Being John Malkovich; the portal conceit is merely the jumping-off point for an exploration of celebrity, identity, sexuality, and other issues that is never less than imaginative--not to mention insanely funny and consistently surprising. Kaufman's giddily complex script and Jonze's adept direction never hits a false note; even the most outrageous hairpin twist feels like a logical development. Deftly handling the demanding material and giving it a certain something more is the amazing cast; Cusack, Diaz, and Keener are not only funny, but they lend a real pathos to their characters that lends some genuine emotional involvement to the story. Best of all, though, is Malkovich, absolutely hilarious and the epitome of a good sport as the bewildered man whose head becomes a metaphysical amusement park for others. A work of stunning originality, Being John Malkovich is an amusement park thrill ride in itself, constantly twisting and turning its audience in new and unforeseen directions--but unlike the case with most roller coasters, this film's passengers will walk away completely satisfied.


V I D E O

The Velocity of Gary poster The Velocity of Gary* *(not his real name) (R) **
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Mary Carmen (Salma Hayek) loves Valentino (Vincent D'Onofrio). However, Valentino loves Gary (Thomas Jane) even more, inciting Mary Carmen's anger and jealousy. Dan Ireland's film sounds quite provocative, but it never quite develops three-way erotic charge it should have, for the balance is tipped heavily toward Valentino and Gary; D'Onofrio and Jane are given a number of romantic scenes together, but Hayek isn't given much opportunity to develop any electricity with D'Onofrio. What few sparks are ultimately doused midway when Valentino starts to die of AIDS, and the film becomes awash with earnest sentiment--sentiment that isn't quite earned, for it's hard to care a whole lot about these self-involved characters. For the most part, the actors don't fill in the cracks; only Hayek is able to add the slightest layer of sympathy to her character. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)


Halloween Horrors

Now, a look at recent video releases timed to coincide with All Hallow's Eve.

Sequels No One Asked For

Children of the Corn 666 DVD The Fear: Halloween Night DVD Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (R) no stars
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The Fear: Halloween Night (R) no stars
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I had not seen a single Children of the Corn film before watching the newest straight-to-tape installment, and after seeing 666, I have no desire to catch up on the backstory. Anyway, there's really not much of a story to begin with in Isaac's Return, in which a young woman (Natalie Ramsey) travels from California to the infamous town of Gatlin, Nebraska to find her birth mother (Nancy Allen). Unbeknownst to her, she is actually the key figure in the sinister plan of reawakened Isaac (John Franklin, who also co-scripted), the leader of the sinister cult of the Children of the Corn. 666 runs a scant 78 minutes, but it feels at least twice as long; there's nothing interesting, let alone scary or exciting in this cheapie. Even the acting, while bad, isn't quite bad enough to be laughable.

On the other hand, new installment in another direct-to-video horror franchise, The Fear: Halloween Night, does offer some amusements of the unintentionally comedic variety. And how could it not, when the killer in this slasher flick is an ancient totem/mannequin named Morty? The fun begins when on Halloween night (hence the title), a group of idiot twentysomethings have the (lack of) sense to partake in a spiritual ritual of sorts involving an inanimate Morty; in the process, they end up awakening an evil spirit that ends up taking control of our wooden friend. People scream; people get bumped off in bloody ways. You've seen it all before in more inventive chillers, so why bother with this cheapie when you can watch, say, Halloween again? (Children of the Corn 666: Dimension Home Video, DVD also available; The Fear: A-Pix Entertainment, DVD also available)


Old Favorites, New Wrinkles

Dracula DVD Night of the Living Dead DVD Dracula *** 1/2
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Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition 1/2*
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Seen through desensitized contemporary eyes, Tod Browning's landmark 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker's enduring vampire character is not so much a fright as it is a creepy mood piece, and part of the effectiveness could be credited to the absence of a musical score; the dead silence made the Count (Bela Lugosi) seem that much more threatening. For the new video rerelease, Universal has added a new score composed by Philip Glass, but the doesn't suffer; Glass's music, performed by Kronos Quartet, has an eerie, ethereal quality that often enhances the atmosphere. However, there's too much of the music; virtually every one of the film's 75 minutes is scored, and some more moments of silence would have increased the effect the effect of the music.

Like Dracula, the new release of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead has a new score by Scott Vladimir Licina's new score, supplanting the previous one of uncopyrighted library music. But that's the only new wrinkle that vaguely works in the 30th anniversary edition. In a spectacularly bad idea, producer John A. Russo wrote and directed 15 minutes worth of new scenes and edited them into the 1968 original. Not only do his scenes stick out like a diseased thumb--and how could they not, given that they are painfully inept in acting and overall execution?--they add nothing of worth and have very little to do with Romero's horrifying tale of a zombie rampage. Instead of being a reason for celebration, this 30th anniversary edition is a reason of mourning, a most insulting desecration of one of the finest achievements in horror cinema. (Dracula: Universal Studios Home Video; Night of the Living Dead: Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD also available)


Shivers for the Funny Bone

Army of Darkness VHS Army of Darkness (R) *** 1/2
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Army of Darkness, Sam Raimi's 1992 third installment of his Evil Dead splatter comedy series, is the cinematic answer to the question, "Who is the coolest actor in movies?" Anyone who's seen the film (or any of the other two Evil Deads, for that matter) would be hard to argue that it isn't star Bruce Campbell, who returns as reluctant hero Ash. In Army, he finds himself in medieval English times, where more not-so-dead evil creatures, presenting the opportunity for the ever-so-slick--and ever-so-clueless--Ash to exercise his chainsaw arm and nifty way with a shotgun. There is plenty of blood, but there are even more laughs, for Campbell is an even better comedian than he is an action hero, equally adept at physical comedy as he is with the throwaway one-liner.

The new collectors's edition video includes the film's more elaborate but much less satisfying original ending and a behind-the-scenes look at the effects work by the KNB Group. (Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD also available)


D V D

A Nightmare on Elm Street DVD A Nightmare on Elm Street (R)
Disc: *** 1/2
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In celebration of the film's 15th anniversary, New Line has issued a handsome DVD edition of the first installment of the far superior of the two defining horror franchises of the '80s (the other being Friday the 13th). True to New Line form, the visual presentation is stunning; the pristine transfer is crisp, and a lot of thought went into the morphing animated menus, featuring scribbled category listings which, when highlighted, appear to be scratched out by claws--not unlike those worn by the film's villain, dream-dwelling murderer Freddy Krueger. Other supplements are interesting and useful: there is an area where one can access each of the film's numerous nightmare sequences individually, and the obligatory cast/crew/production info section comes from the original press notes, offering an intriguing insight into the past. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the feature-length commentary provided by writer-director Wes Craven, director of photography Jacques Haitkin, and stars Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon. None of them really have much of interest to say, a fact that could be attributed to the fact that the film was made so long ago; at certain points they have trouble recalling people's names. But that's the one disappointment in a largely satisfying package. (New Line Home Video)


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