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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 60

#216 - 217
November 12, 1999 - December 3, 1999


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

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#217 December 3, 1999 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Flawless poster Flawless (R) **
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With a title like Flawless, writer-director Joel Schumacher has set himself up for the easy critical jab, so allow me to get it out of the way right here, right now: Flawless is anything but. However, this small-scale character drama from the poster child for studio-manufactured bombast is not without its flashes of perfection even if the whole is the opposite of its title.

Flawless may take its title from a drag queen beauty pageant that figures not-at-all-prominently in the plot, but it best serves as a description of the terrific performances featured in the film. First and foremost there is Robert DeNiro, who initially does not break any new ground as retired New York security guard Walt Koontz, a homophobic macho man who is constantly annoyed by the drag queens who practice singing in the apartment across the way. But after Walt suffers a paralyzing stroke, DeNiro turns in some of his most impressive work. His physical mannerisms are entirely convincing largely because he doesn't overdo them; he shows remarkable control as Walt's condition slowly improves through the course of the film.

That improvement is in no small part due to the drag queen who is Walt's main target, Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who reluctantly gives Walt singing lessons as speech therapy. Hoffman's performance is the direct opposite of DeNiro's, all flamboyance as opposed to subtlety. It's a showy part, no doubt, and Hoffman far from downplays Rusty's theatrical nature, creating more than a few funny moments. But his work also conveys genuine heart; one easily feels the pain behind Rusty's heavily made-up exterior.

Even the more peripheral supporting players are noteworthy, in particular Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is touching as Tia, a young tango dance hall patron who carries a torch for Walt. But performances do not entirely a movie make; there has to be an interesting story to tell. Unfortunately, Schumacher doesn't come up with one. As can be gleaned, the focus of Flawless is the unlikely friendship that develops between Walt and Rusty, and while the relationship is not without its charms--DeNiro and Hoffman play, pardon the term, flawlessly off of each other--there's nothing terribly distinctive with how it develops. Adding another layer of contrivance is a tired thriller element Schumacher places on top of it, involving some shady characters looking for stolen money.

Schumacher obviously intended Flawless to prove that he can pull off a small-scale film, but he's only half-succeeded. The strong performances show that he can coax winning work from his cast within more modest settings. While that proves his ability at a director, his dull script shows his writing ability lags far behind.


The Legend of 1900 poster The War Zone poster The Legend of 1900 (R) *** 1/2
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The War Zone *** 1/2
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The Legend of 1900 is, by every definition, a beautiful film: it's lovely to look at--and perhaps even moreso to listen to; and the acting is exquisite. Looks may not count for everything when it comes to movies, but in the case of Giuseppe Tornatore's old-fashioned cinematic fable, it is more than enough, creating an enchanting, emotional spell that is hard to resist.

Contrary to what the title may lead one to believe, The Legend of 1900 is not about one eventful year, but the many eventful years of a man born in and named for that year (played as an adult by Tim Roth). Abandoned by his birth parents as an infant, Nineteen Hundred is discovered and raised aboard the steam ship The Virginian. A natural born pianist, his uncanny skill with the keys earns him a following among the many travelers who cross the Atlantic aboard the ship, even attracting the attention of the father of jazz himself, Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III). But Nineteen Hundred never sets foot off of his ship, and as he sees the world pass him fraction by fraction with each voyage, he wonders about a life on solid ground.

Tornatore's execution of the already sentimental story is as unabashedly manipulative as it sounds, and while it's understandable why some critics have thusly panned the film as being shameless claptrap, the broad execution fits. The Legend of 1900 is not a realistic story, but, as it is billed, a fable--a tale of larger-than-life characters and similarly exaggerated emotion. Ennio Morricone's grandiose score perfectly complements the atmosphere. The mechanisms do show a bit too clearly in the film's finale, which works too hard to get the audience to cry. The tear-wringing efforts may not work, but the fact that a palpable sense of sadness and loss lingers not only over the ending but the entire film shows how effectively Tornatore created his make-believe world.

A key factor in giving the fantasy world some grounding in reality are the actors. The versatile Roth is enormously sympathetic as the brilliant but lonely Nineteen Hundred; his tenderness may come as a shock to those more familar with the scuzzy characters he's known for playing. Just as critical to the film's success is the performance of Pruitt Taylor Vince, who is equally as touching as Max, Nineteen Hundred's trumpeteer best friend and the film's narrator.

For all the talk of the art behind the medium, film is all about transporting audiences to another place and time, removing them from their here-and-now into the world that is presented onscreen. The Legend of 1900 is not a perfect film--one is always acutely aware of the mechanics behind its manipulation--but for its intents and purposes, it doesn't have to be. One leaves the film reflecting on its beauty and special sense of magic--which is all that counts.

"Beauty" and "magic" are words that wouldn't come close to being used to describe the directorial debut of 1900 star Roth, The War Zone. The film is not, as the title suggests, a war film, but emotional brutality of this grim tale is just as, if not more, disturbing as, say, the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The war zone in question is the modest four-person household in the countryside of Devon, England. The family appears to be nothing out of the ordinary, with the foibles of a modern unit, particularly one that has moved from the big city (London in this case) to the remote country. The father (Ray Winstone) is in the midst of ironing out business matters; the mother (Tilda Swinton) is due to give birth to her third child; the 15-year-old son, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), misses his friends in London, and passes his spare time with his elder sister, the also-teenage Jessie (Lara Belmont).

But there's a dark truth bubbling under the surface, one that Tom stumbles upon one night, setting a course for disaster. I will not reveal what that truth is, but needless to say it's wholly unpleasant--and portrayed in a discomfiting, unflinching manner, for which Roth must be commended. He takes a great risk in confronting a sensitive subject with such brazen matter-of-factness, and the film's success does not come with the fact that he took the risk, but that he takes that risk without ever seeming exploitative. There is no sugarcoating nor glamorizing of the situation. He presents it as it is--raw and painfully real.

As is the case with many directorial projects by actors, the acting is uniformly solid in The War Zone; in fact, it's nothing short of extraordinary. Standing out among the impressive cast are the two gifted newcomers, Cunliffe and especially Belmont. The fact that these two are unfamiliar faces only heightens the realism, and, in turn, the film's devastating effect. A very rough sit, the uncompromising The War Zone is by no stretch an enjoyable film, and for that reason, it is one to be greatly admired.


Liberty Heights poster Liberty Heights (R) ***
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Liberty Heights, writer-director Barry Levinson's fourth cinematic ode to his hometown of Baltimore, plays like a memory, and with that description comes everything it entails. While a work of great affection for the time and place it so painstakingly recreates, the film also suffers from a problem not unlike one described by the narrator at the film's end: the images in his memory are not always as sharp as he'd like them to be. Similarly, the meandering focus of Levinson's script isn't quite as sharp as it should be, but there is nothing muddled about the warm feelings the film strongly evokes.

Liberty Heights takes its name from a Jewish neighborhood in 1954 Baltimore, the setting for the coming-of-age stories of brothers Ben (Ben Foster) and Van (Adrien Brody). University student Van's storyline follows his attraction to a blonde gentile beauty (Carolyn Murphy) who, unbeknownst to him, is the girlfriend of his rich preppie buddy Trey (Justin Chambers). The more interesting thread belongs to high schooler Ben, who falls for Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a fetching young lady who shares his homeroom. The complication, however, is that she's African-American.

Speaking in terms of plot, there is not much at all to either of these storylines. But on these thin threads, Levinson hangs a number of smaller details that lend the film its beguiling and universal flavor. While the stories are told from a Jewish perspective circa the mid-1950s, anyone can relate to the awkwardness and bliss of first love; the pursuit of that love in the face of adversity, societal or otherwise; the challenging of stereotypes; and living through a time of sweeping social change. The likable cast, in particular Foster and Johnson, make it even easier to get involved in the proceedings.

Unfortunately, however, Liberty Heights is not entirely a coming-of-age of youth, but that of an entire family. In addition to the stories of Ben and Van, the other prominent plot thread involves their father (Joe Mantegna), a burlesque house owner and numbers racketeer who finds both of his businesses being irreversibly affected by the changing times. This thread, which also comes to involve an errant drug dealer (Orlando Jones), never feels quite of a piece with the gentler youth stories, and the (inevitable) convergence with Ben's storyline feels forced.

Levinson obviously enjoys remembering the times of his youth, and like people often do while reminiscing, he loses track of time. At 120 minutes, Liberty Heights is overlong by at least 20 minutes, its energy dissipating and ultimately completely draining by the time the final credits start rolling. But what remains strong as ever by that point is the wistful emotion the film evokes, the bittersweet affection that comes with looking back at an era that was, for better and worse, much simpler.


Toy Story 2 poster Toy Story 2 (G) ****
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When Disney announced the production of a direct-to-video sequel to Pixar's smash 1995 computer-animated feature Toy Story, my expectations weren't exactly set soaring. The subsequent announcement that the project was going so well that the Mouse decided to give it a big-screen release didn't instill any new faith. After all, this was Disney, who never passed up an opportunity to soil the memory of a beloved animated feature with a truly atrocious, completely unnecessary sequel. Ever see The Lion King II: Simba's Pride? Or the even more blasphemous Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas? Consider yourself incredibly lucky if you haven't.

So it was that great of a shock--and an extremely pleasurable one at that--to discover that Toy Story 2 not only equals, but bests the classic original film. I had thought that the first Toy Story had completely exhausted all the ideas for its cast of toy characters. After all, by film's end, the film's clever conceit that astronaut action figure Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) believed he was an actual Space Ranger was resolved, and he and rival for owner Andy's affections, pull-string cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) had mended fences. Having done all that with an Oscar-nominated blend of all-ages humor and grown-up intelligence, where else could director John Lasseter go with the story?

As it turns out, many different--and more complex--places. On one level, Toy Story 2 is a witty knock on the ever-growing toy collecting market, where adults buy toys and never open them, keeping them for an investment rather than their intended use as a child's plaything. Woody is stolen by a toy collector/toy store owner named Al (Wayne Knight) for a hefty profit. As it turns out, Woody is the main item in an old toy line tied to a western-themed puppet television series called Woody's Roundup, and he reunites with the other members of his TV family--cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), horse Bullseye, and old prospector Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer)--in Al's office.

Screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin, and Chris Webb also have deeper interests in mind. Al, of course, intends to sell the now-complete Woody's Roundup collection, an idea that Woody balks at--he just wants to go home to Andy and his friends--but Jessie wholeheartedly embraces. Jessie, it is revealed, once had an owner, but the owner abandoned her once she grew up. Determined to not be heartbroken again, Jessie wants to be loved and paid attention to forever, even if it's from passing admirers looking through a glass case. This surprising crisis-of-existence theme--what's a toy to do once its owner inevitably abandons it?--sounds a bit heady for a film with largely kid appeal, but it's a tribute to the terrific writing that it's made easily understandable for the young 'uns as well as the adults. The stunning example is the beautiful scene where Jessie tells her story through the heartbreaking Randy Newman-penned, Sarah McLachlan-sung ballad "When She Loved Me" (a lock for a Best Original Song Oscar nod next year).

Despite all the richness of theme and emotion in Toy Story 2, Lasseter and co-director Lee Unkrich never forget what the film mainly is: a comic adventure. And there is plenty of comedy and adventure as Woody's toy friends, led by Buzz, attempt a daring rescue of Woody from Al's toy store. That means a number of hilarious encounters with other toys, including a perky Barbie (Jodi Benson, best known as Ariel from The Little Mermaid) and, in a very clever touch, a fresh-from-the-box Buzz Lightyear--who indeed believes himself to be a Space Ranger.

Augmenting all the fun of Toy Story 2 is the amazing computer animation. A lot of advances have been made in the field since the original film's release in 1995, and the visuals in the new film are absolutely stunning--not to mention increasingly realistic. Al's skintone and hairy arms are remarkably lifelike, and Andy's dog is just thisshy of looking exactly like the real thing. What impressed me the most, however, were the textures: the paint on metal surfaces, the imperfect consistency of the human's (namely Al's) skin, the gravelly road surface. The detail is even more jawdropping when the film is seen at one of the handful of theatres showing the film in crystalline DLP all-digital projection.

It goes without saying that things work out for the best by the end of Toy Story 2, but this is one happy ending not without a tinge of the bittersweet; Andy will eventually grow up, and all of his toys will find themselves without a place to go. But if there is a central moral to Toy Story 2, it's the old reliable "seize the day," and movie audiences would best take that to heart and seize the opportunity to see one of the brightest cinematic accomplishments to hit the silver screen this year.


The World Is Not Enough poster The World Is Not Enough (PG-13) **
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Looking at all the hoopla surrounding the latest James Bond adventure starring Pierce Brosnan, The World Is Not Enough, it's funny to note that the announcement of Brosnan as the fifth actor to play Agent 007 was met with a raised eyebrow. The former Remington Steele was past his prime, detractors said, and his name did not guarantee an audience. Flash forward four years, and Brosnan has proven to be the most popular Bond since Sean Connery, with his first two efforts, 1995's GoldenEye and 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, becoming the highest-grossing 007 adventures in history. But while those films were both reasonably diverting entertainments, what they certainly weren't were classics of its genre (though GoldenEye's deliciously sadomasochistic villainess, Xenia Onatopp, is one for the hall of fame).

For the first few minutes of World, the 19th installment of MGM's long-running action franchise, it looks as if Brosnan may have found his defining entry in the series, along the lines of Sean Connery's Goldfinger and Roger Moore's The Spy Who Loved Me. The traditional opening action sequence--which, for once, actually sets up the film's main plot--is exhilarating, going from a daring escape from an office to a rip-roaring speedboat chase then finally to an exploding hot air balloon as Bond pursues a female sniper (Il Postino sex bomb Maria Grazia Cucinotta). After a very clever visual segue, the familiar silhouetted nude female dancers do their thing to what is easily the best title tune of the Brosnan Bond era, performed by Garbage.

However, to use the easy pun, The World Is Not Enough truly is not. After an opening that effectively sets up the secret agent's mission--protect oil heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) from terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle), who had kidnapped her years earlier--director Michael Apted plays things formula-safe. (This is especially disappointing considering that it had been hoped, and to some degree been anticipated, that the drama and documentary filmmaker would bring something fresh to the series.) Granted, James Bond films are all about formula, but it's hard to get worked up over by-the-numbers ski stunts when, contrary to the famous line, somebody has done it better--Bond himself, in fact, in the film from which that song came, The Spy Who Loved Me. Ditto the submarine-set finale, which evokes an even stronger sense of déjà vu considering that the last Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, also ended in the water. The one avenue for something original--Renard's ever-increasing physical strength and invulnerability caused by a bullet lodged in his brain--is never exploited to its fullest potential.

As irksome as the lingering sense of unoriginality is, what makes this film the hands-down worst of Brosnan's 007 outings can be summed up in two words: Denise Richards. In all her previous films, Richards has already proven to be an attractive screen presence with little talent underneath. But familiarity with her unimpressive body of work (as opposed to her impressive body) does not quite prepare one for her portrayal of, ahem, nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones--a performance of Elizabeth Berkley proportions, even when considering the undemanding, credibility-stretching acting standards of Bond movies. It's a given that Richards fails to convince as anyone who's failed a science class, let alone a scientist; but she fails to be believable as a flesh-and-blood person, spouting off scientific jargon so robotically that one wonders how much of the film's huge budget went to her teleprompters and cue cards.

It's a shame that MGM focused its hype machine on her rather than Marceau, who is everything Richards isn't. She is a strong match for Bond (and Brosnan) in every way, a formidable mix of acting ability, charisma, beauty, and sex appeal. Richards may get all the va-va-voom costumes (such as hotpants, tank tops, and that staple of all nuclear physicists' travel wardrobes, tight evening gowns), but Marceau scorches with a simple glance, regardless of what she may be wearing (which, for the record, mostly consists of robes and seductively draped bedsheets). Richards may fit the physical mold of a traditional "Bond girl," but Marceau is a hot-blooded, full-bodied Bond woman--and therein lies all the difference.

Based on the early grosses, however, The World appears to be enough for audiences, who are poised to make this Brosnan's most financially successful Bond to date--which is just as well, as I suppose, for the supersuave Brosnan fits the role like a glove, and I would not mind seeing him in at least one more globe-trotting yarn. But if the Bond creative team doesn't get a much-needed dose of creative inspiration any time soon, the "James Bond will return" tag becomes less of a reassurance than a threat.


In Brief

American Movie poster American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (R) ***
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I was recently asked by the writer of an upcoming book about directors, "How important do you feel it is for a filmmaker to have a genuine passion for cinema?" Of course, the answer is "very," but as Chris Smith's award-winning documentary shows, what is important isn't necessarily everything. American Movie follows Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he struggles to complete his no-budget horror short Coven--the hoped-for sales profits from which would go toward the financing of his pet project, the feature-length drama Northwestern. Borchardt certainly has enthusiasm to spare, but his passion is inverse proportion to his cinematic skills, for Coven looks about as accomplished as a film by the late Ed Wood. Smith's film, on the other hand, is a warm and funny (albeit overrated) tribute to the passion for film as well as the drive and determination of dreamers in general. That Borchardt's chances of achieving success as a filmmaker is beside the point; in a sense, he is already a success by tenaciously pursuing his dream.


End of Days poster End of Days (R) ** 1/2
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For his first film in two years, the always-evil-thwarting Arnold Schwarzenegger faces the baddest guy of them all--Satan (played with malevolent glee by Gabriel Byrne). This atmospheric horror thriller, in which Satan attempts to impregnate a young woman (Robin Tunney, wasted) whose child will bring about the title, is indeed an interesting change of pace for Schwarzenegger. Director Peter Hyams, writer Andrew W. Marlowe, and Schwarzenegger himself must be commended for not altering the story to make it fit into the traditional Ah-nuld mold--that is, undercut the decidedly dark mood by throwing in token wisecracks. However, End of Days is all about that mood, making for a film that is never less than interesting but never rises to the realm of exciting. The hackneyed conclusion doesn't exactly leave one with a satisfying taste in one's mouth, either.


Felicia's Journey poster Felicia's Journey (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always seems to go out of its way to ignore some of the most extraordinary acting performances of the year. Likely to earn the dubious distinction of a snub is Bob Hoskins, who pulls off one of the year's most remarkable acting feats in writer-director Atom Egoyan's adaptation of William Trevor's novel. Like all of Egoyan's work, the unfolds like a mystery, so I'll keep plot details to their barest minimum. The Felicia of the title (Elaine Cassidy) is a naive Irish teen who travels to England to find the lost lover who left her pregnant. Whom she ends up finding instead--or vice versa-- Joseph Hilditch (Hoskins), a gentle catering manager who offers his help in her search.

As Egoyan employs his usual technique of travelling back and forth through time, some secrets about Hilditch's past and present surface, and the relationship between Felicia and Hilditch is in a constant state of flux--but no moreso than than their individual sense of identity. Cassidy is a natural and likable actress, and she makes for an easily sympathetic audience surrogate. Although her character figures into the title, the key journey of the film is that of the tormented Hilditch, and Hoskins does an astonishing job in bringing this very complex character to life. It's impossible to adequately describe the difficulty of his acting task without divulging critical plot information, but suffice it to say that Hoskins pulls it off without a hitch. The film doesn't pack the forceful emotional wallop of Egoyan's last effort, the Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, but Felicia's Journey is a deeply haunting film that only grows moreso upon reflection.


Holy Smoke poster Holy Smoke (R) *** Kate Winslet interview
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Up until a couple of days ago, the latest film from idiosyncratic New Zealand-born director Jane Campion bore the more exclamatory moniker Holy Smoke!--an interjection that will serve as many people's immediate reaction to the picture. It certainly was mine--in a good way. The basic plot synopsis doesn't clue one in to the twisted path this unique film takes. A young Australian named Ruth (Kate Winslet) returns home from a trip to India a changed woman, having fallen under the spell of a spiritual guru. Deeply concerned, her family enlists the services of American P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a cult deprogrammer with an impeccable success record. P.J.'s track record doesn't stand a chance, however, when Ruth turns out to be as headstrong as he is.

Thus the stage is set for a traditional role reversal; as Ruth's devotion to her guru fades away, P.J. finds himself falling under the influence of a different cult--Ruth's formidable sexual allure--and he is helpless to resist. But this being a Campion film, the story hardly unfolds in a traditional manner. Walking into the auditorium, one would not expect to see Keitel wearing a dress and full makeup for the last 20 or so minutes. Then there are the surreal visual touches to rival the talking lima beans in Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, such as the comical parade of Ruth's past lovers, all of whom have twinkling eyes and teeth. It goes without saying that these flights of fancy lends the film a bizarre fascination.

Which, I believe, is the point. Holy Smoke is all about the strange spells one inexplicably gets cast under, so it's only fitting that the film itself craft one of its own. But the audacity of Campion (and her writing partner and sister, Anna) ultimately plays a smaller role in the film's success than a more concrete quality: the performances. It's a testament to Keitel's work that P.J.'s emotional descent remains believable while in drag. More impressive, though, is Winslet, who once again gets to bare another aspect of her being (in every sense) as Ruth. It's refreshing to see Winslet follow Titanic's phenomenal commercial success by returning to the edgy roles in smaller films that earned her recognition in the first place. As Holy Smoke displays, the work proves more admirable and rewarding than anything in a big mainstream Hollywood picture (such as End of Days, which she was reportedly offered and understandably declined).


Mansfield Park poster Mansfield Park (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Writer-director Patricia Rozema has received some heat for taking more than a few liberties in adapting Jane Austen's third novel, which is about a poor young woman named Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor as an adult) who is shipped off to live with her wealthy aunt (Lindsay Duncan) and uncle (Harold Pinter) in Mansfield Park. There, she falls for her cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), and the feeling is mutual. In true Austen style, however, happiness is not easily in the cards, especially not after the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a wealthy brother-sister pair of Londoners who set their sights on Fanny and Edmund, respectively.

The one revision with which Austen purists have taken issue is the reimagining of the character of Fanny. In the original novel, she is a passive character; here, Rozema has used the actual journals of Austen herself to give Fanny a sharp-tongued voice. This incarnation of Fanny may not have been what Austen had in mind, but she surely would have approved, for the injection of attitude and smarts makes Mansfield Park a much more wicked and irresistible social satire, with Fanny frequently needling the pomposity of her rich relations. The cast is splendid--in particular O'Connor, Davidtz, and Nivola--as is the entire, entertaining film.


The Messenger poster The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (R) **
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Although the exact reasons for their estrangement have not been made public (aside from the catch-all "irreconcilable differences"), after seeing The Messenger, I can only conclude that Milla Jovovich's woefully unconvincing performance as the title character was a prominent reason for director/soon-to-be-ex-husband Luc Besson's split with her. Joan of Arc, the legendary teen who guided the French army in their war against England after hearing a message from God, is the role of a lifetime for any young actress, calling on its portrayer to run the full gamut of emotions: spiritual euphoria, steely determination and strength, and ultimately great sadness. The role calls for great range, and Jovovich proves to not have any. She wears the same look throughout the entire film: eyes bulged, nostrils flaring, teeth gritted--the latter, that is, when she's not shrieking at the top of her lungs. Jovovich is at her best when asked to use her modeling skills to serve as a blank presence, as in her previous collaboration with Besson, The Fifth Element; and what is in my opinion her defining role--the slutty French exchange student who stole all of Kelly Bundy's boyfriends on an episode of Married... with Children. Required to do more as she is in The Messenger, Jovovich is clearly at her worst.

So when Joan meets her end tied to a burning stake, there is no sense of tragic loss, only one of relief. But that's clearly Jovovich's fault and not that of Besson (though he must be blamed for casting with his crotch), who works overtime to give the film a larger-than-life epic quality that his heroine lacks. He actually succeeds in part, particularly in the visual department; his sometimes-surreal imagery is divinely haunting. He also gets some decent work from Jovovich's acting support; John Malkovich and Faye Dunaway are creepy and creepier, respectively, as the dauphin of France and his scheming mother-in-law. However, Besson makes other questionable choices, such as bringing Joan's conscience to life in the final act in the form of... Dustin Hoffman. His distracting presence undercuts any dramatic momentum and tension Besson could ever hope to build, with or without Jovovich in the lead.


Ride with the Devil poster Ride with the Devil (R) **
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"It ain't right; it ain't wrong; it just is." That line, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up Ride with the Devil, the latest effort from director Ang Lee, whose streak of good films comes to an end with this disappointing film. After taking audiences to 1970s New England in The Ice Storm, Lee brings them to Civil War-era Missouri with this film, which follows two friends (Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich) who engage in guerilla warfare to protect their homes as the organized military campaigns take place many miles away. It sounds a lot more interesting than it plays, for after some early combat scenes, this Ride slows to a crawl when the two and their men must retreat for the winter. There is very little to hold one interest here aside from a characteristically solid turn by Maguire, the curiosity factor in seeing singer Jewel in her acting debut (for the record, her obvious inexperience works for role as a soft-spoken young widow), and some nice photography of the rural south by Frederick Elmes. With the story providing a shockingly abrupt and empty payoff at the end, one must derive whatever satisfaction one can get from those aforementioned qualities, and it proves to be far from enough.


Sleepy Hollow poster Sleepy Hollow (R) *** 1/2
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Tim Burton's famously dark sensibilities make him an inspired choice to direct a new screen version of Washington Irving's classic chiller about a headless horseman stalking and beheading the residents of Sleepy Hollow. However, this being a Burton film after all, those expecting a straightforward adaptation better look elsewhere. Prevailing over this fun and fast-paced adventure-thriller is what is Burton's most defining quality aside from the macabre: excess and eccentricity. Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), the constable assigned to solve the mystery of the horseman, is no gallant hero; in fact, he's an effete wimp with a weakness for ridiculously complex crime-solving headgear. The romance between Ichabod and young Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci--not exactly the obvious choice to play a vision of goodness and light) is played way over the top, their tender scenes scored to bombastically sappy music cues. Then there's the matter of gore. There's plenty of it, but it's heavily exaggerated to blackly comic proportions; the blood is so unrealistically red that it more closely resembles red paint. The quirks of this Sleepy Hollow prevent it from ever being truly scary, but what they do make it is a quintessentially Burton film--which, in my opinion, is an even tastier treat.


V I D E O

Autumn Tale poster Autumn Tale (Conte d'Automne) (PG) *** 1/2
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Eric Rohmer's fourth and final chapter in his Tales of the Four Seasons series is this wonderful comedy-drama in which a librarian (Marie Rivière) and a student (Alexia Portal) individually try to find a man for their lonely widowed friend (Béatrice Romand), a vineyard owner. It's rare to find a romantic film where the lovers are north of 40, and not only that, but have the maturity to match their ages. What's more, the relationships are also approached with intelligence, and whenever there it's humor, it's that which arises from everyday life, not a cheap scripted gag--making the film that much more involving. Terrific performances and masterful direction make this a warm delight for art-minded viewers. (USA Home Entertainment)


Bartok the Magnificent DVD Bartok the Magnificent (G) * 1/2
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Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas ** 1/2
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Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving ** 1/2
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Fox, seeing the profits Disney has reaped for shoddy straight-to-tape sequels to their animated features, goes that route with Bartok the Magnificent, a sequel/spinoff of Anastasia, following the titular reformed albino bat (voiced by Hank Azaria) as he attempts to rescue the kidnapped Russian prince. Anastasia was an inspired knockoff of the Disney animated musical formula, but what made me enjoy it was the mature romance, not the Disney-esque trappings, such as the de rigueur villain and his sidekick, Bartok. Not liking Bartok much to begin with, Bartok the Magnificent had an uphill battle to climb with me. But the quality of Bartok is one big downhill freefall from the original film; even though the principal creative team from Anastasia--directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens--has returned, this uninspired, but mercifully short, adventure will hold some amusement for little kids but bore everyone else.

Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas DVD Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving DVD This being the season for direct-to-video animated titles designed especially for the family gift-giving buck, Disney has two new new entries into the marketplace. Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas is a tryptych of holiday-themed tales featuring classic Disney characters: first, a Groundhog Day-esque story with Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie; second, a Goofy story in which his son, Max, questions the existence of Santa Claus; third, a Mickey and Minnie-starring adaptation of O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi." Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving follows a similar structure, telling three tales of Pooh and his friends, each one covering a different season. Both films are appropriate viewing for the entire family, yet both films are definitely ones made for the smaller set. (Bartok: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, DVD also available; Mickey and Pooh: Walt Disney Home Video)


Break Up DVD Break Up (R) * 1/2
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Buena Vista Home Video is probably thanking their lucky stars that Paramount's Double Jeopardy was such a big hit, for this straight-to-tape thriller bears more than a passing resemblance to that surprise blockbuster. Here the wrongly accused wife is Bridget Fonda, and the not-so-dead husband is Hart Bochner. There are a few differences, however, the most prominent being that Fonda attempts to clear her name before ever setting foot in prison, and she's also deaf. The latter wrinkle proves to be completely useless, as does the entire film, a tired exercise through the usual direct-to-video thriller paces, even with the bigger-than-usual starpower of Fonda and Kiefer Sutherland (who plays a detective). (Dimension Home Video)


Heaven poster Heaven (R) * 1/2
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If anything, this barely released independent thriller has a unique hook: the film is named after a psychic transvestite exotic dancer (Danny Edwards). But all there is to the film is the hook; take it away, and what's left is the rather uninvolving tale of an architect (Martin Donovan) whose compulsive gambling gets him into trouble with his wife (Joanna Going) and some shady characters. But having Heaven on hand to give the protagonist some supernatural assistance doesn't serve as an enhancement; in fact, it just adds a needless overlay of murkiness. (Miramax Home Entertainment, DVD also available)


I Want You VHS I Want You (R) **
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Director Michael Winterbottom, whose most recent films were the grim literary adaptation Jude and the journalists-in-the-warzone drama Welcome to Sarajevo, goes for something with a bit more broad appeal with this erotic thriller about a recently released convict (Alessandro Nivola, using the impeccable British accent also on display in Mansfield Park) who doggedly pursues an ex-love (Rachel Weisz). Of course, there's a dark secret hidden around there, and pulled into the intrigue are a singer (Labina Mitevska) and her mute young brother (Luka Petrusic), who becomes a friend to Weisz. Nivola and Weisz generate heat together and individually give impressive performances. It's unfortunate that one can so easily see the story's twists and resolution so long before they come. (USA Home Entertainment)


The Last Broadcast DVD The Last Broadcast ***
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Much has been written about how the makers of The Blair Witch Project stole their idea from this ultra-low-budget 1998 thriller, and there could be some meat to that argument. While the documentary-style The Last Broadcast more closely resembles the Sci-Fi Channel promotional mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch, the Blair makers have gone on record to say that the original concept for their feature was something along the lines of Curse.

So the question remains, is The Last Broadcast any good on its own? For the most part, it is. The film purports to be filmmaker David Leigh's (David Beard) documentary investigation into the mysterious murders of cable access hosts Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler (played respectively by the film's writers-directors, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler). The two, along with cameraman Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers) and "psychic" guide Jim Suerd (Jim Seward), made a trip into the New Jersey forests for a live broadcast where they would search for the legendary "Jersey Devil." As Leigh retraces the events leading up to the mysterious disappearances and the fallout that resulted--namely the conviction of Suerd, the only one of the four to survive--Avalos and Weiler are able to build palpable dramatic tension. However, they appeared to not really know how to end the film, closing with a twist that, while surprising, is gimmicky and makes little sense in retrospect. Nonetheless, it's an efficient and effective exercise that manages to get under the skin, even if it creeps back out in the end. (Wavelength Releasing, DVD also available)


Phantom of the Opera DVD Phantom of the Opera (R/unrated) *
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There's blood, gore, sex, and nudity aplenty in Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's reimagining of Gaston Leroux's classic tale of a mysterious killer (Julian Sands) who dwells beneath the Paris opera house and the young soprano (Asia Argento) whom he loves. What's missing, however, is one decent scare and, worst of all, the passion that this classic gothic romance is known for, from Leroux's original book to Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular musical. Argento also makes one very questionable artistic choice: Sands' Phantom is not disfigured in any way, losing the sense of tragic anguish that defines the character. (A-Pix Entertainment, DVD also available)


Resurrection DVD Resurrection (R) **
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A pair of detectives (Christopher Lambert and Leland Orser) track a serial killer who collects individual limbs from his victims. His intent? To reassemble the body of Christ by Easter Sunday. If this sounds like a knockoff of Se7en, that's because it is--but while director Russell Mulcahy is, as always, able to keep things atmospheric and visually interesting, there is not much in the way of suspense. And then, of course, it goes without saying that the actor portraying the killer won't make anyone forget about Kevin Spacey, and the ever-stiff Lambert is not even Brad Pitt on his worst day. Then again, maybe not. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)


Rogue Trader DVD Rogue Trader (R) ** 1/2
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James Dearden's drama tells the true story of banker Nick Leeson (Ewan McGregor), whose reckless actions on the trading floor led to the downfall of Britain's oldest and most reputable merchant bank. McGregor delivers a characteristically strong performance, making Leeson a three-dimensional human being, vulnerable yet cocky for his own good. Unfortunately, no one else involved in the film is able to match his conviction, making it understandable that Miramax relegated this unsuspenseful thriller to a direct-to-video release. (Miramax Home Entertainment)


Shark Attack DVD Shark Attack (R) no stars
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Given its title and straight-to-tape pedigree, one hopes that this shark thriller would provide, at the very least, some good shark chomping action. Alas, the title takes a back seat to some boring conspiracy mumbo-jumbo about sharks being used for medical research. Even worse, the star is none other than the worst young actor to ever land major movie work in recent years, the square-jawed block of plywood known as Casper Van Dien. That, right there, should be reason enough to stay away from these waters. (Trimark Home Video, DVD also available)


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#216 November 12, 1999 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Light It Up poster Light It Up (R) ** 1/2
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Light It Up, written and directed by Craig Bolotin, is different from most urban dramas in that in emphasizes ideas more than violence; in fact, the quantity of the latter is surprisingly low for its genre. But it's too bad that not many other things about the film are quite so distinctive.

Bolotin's setup, however, is rather interesting in its complication. A popular teacher (Judd Nelson) at Lincoln High is put on suspension after taking his class off-campus without permission. His students, led by star b-baller Lester (Usher Raymond) and senior class president Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), confront the principal (Glynn Turman) in protest, indirectly leading to a physical struggle between artist Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard) and the on-campus cop, Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker). A bullet is fired; Jackson is wounded in the leg; and Lester finds himself with the gun, holding the cop hostage. Soon, Lester, Stephanie, and Ziggy, along with drug dealer Rivers (Clifton Collins Jr.), gang member Rodney (Fredro Starr), and pregnant outcast Lynn (Sara Gilbert)--now dubbed "the Lincoln 6"--find themselves being listened to for the first time.

Neglected but largely well-meaning inner city youths come into a position of power. It's a promising premise, but before long Light It Up devolves into cliché. The hostage talks his captor into giving him a drink of water, only to attempt physical harm. The popular girl and the outcast set aside their differences and learn to cooperate. Most annoying, however, is Lester's "dark secret," which points to a deeper personal grudge against the police--as if there needed to be added justification for his rebellion.

Raymond's popularity as an R&B crooner is undoubtedly the justification Bolotin had in casting him as the lead, but that proves to not be a good enough reason. Raymond does a fairly adequate job (though his emotional scenes are rather strained), but he doesn't have the forceful, charismatic presence needed to convince as the ringleader of a group of such headstrong individuals. It's not terribly believable that Raymond's Lester can keep the hotheaded Rodney in check. Dawson has the strongest, most composed presence of the six, and she gives Stephanie a steely yet vulnerable confidence that Raymond's Lester clearly lacks.

Thankfully, Bolotin's wrapup to Light It Up, while not completely free of convention, resolves the film's issues in a realistic and satisfying manner. There is no idealistic happy ending; hard lessons are learned by all, and through them comes an inspiring sense of hope. If only all of Light It Up lived up to that conclusion.


Pokemon: The First Movie poster Pokémon: The First Movie--Mewtwo Strikes Back (G) * 1/2
with Pikachu: The Movie--Pikachu's Vacation (G) *
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The question when it comes to Pokémon: The First Movie--Mewtwo Strikes Back is not whether or not it's any good (and, let it be known from the get-go, that it isn't). The question is just how much money it will make in what surely be a huge opening weekend, for children across the country will undoubtedly make their parents take them to this theatrical spinoff of the popular animated TV series/trading card game. The film could simply be a Pokémon screensaver projected onto the silver screen, and kids would want to go anyway, regardless of any objections parents--or anyone else--may have.

A Pokémon screensaver is what the pre-feature short, Pikachu: The Movie--Pikachu's Vacation, sometimes resembles. For the uninitiated, Pokémon are "pocket monsters," little animals kept in "Poké balls" and are pitted in battles against each other by their human trainers. The thin plot thread holding together the twenty minutes of Pikachu's Vacation has the most popular Pokémon, the adorable electrical-powered Pikachu, going to a retreat for Pokémon; the intent is to study the creatures' behavior while in "a state of complete relaxation." Relaxation--to the point of drowsiness--is likely to be felt by the adults in the audience during this "mini-movie," for nothing of interest to anyone over 10 happens. Pikachu and his fellow critters get into all sorts of competitions and petty conflicts before working together to get one out of a jam--literally: a Pokémon gets his head stuck into a pipe, and the others collectively try to pull him out. Every so often, as a new Pokémon is trotted out, the screen fills with its repeated image, not unlike a computer screensaver. The only difference is that I've seen screensavers that are better drawn and animated, not to mention more entertaining to watch.

The jaunty tone takes a surprising turn to the dark side once Pikachu's Vacation and Mewtwo Strikes Back begins. The main feature opens with a scene that seems to be torn from a much more mature animé, with Mewtwo (voiced by Philip Bartlett), the most intelligent and powerful Pokémon, murderous rebelling against the scientists who created him. Even the narration is strangely pretentious; the first lines spoken are, "What is the meaning of life? That is the question that human and Pokémon alike have pondered for years."

But before long, it's familar Pokémon battle time as we meet our heroes Ash (Veronica Taylor), Misty (Rachel Lillis), and Brock (Eric Stuart); and their nemeses, Jessie (Lillis) and James (Stuart), a.k.a. Team Rocket. Ash, trainer to Pikachu and others, is invited to take part in a big Pokémon tournament taking place at a remote island. Little does he and his fellow invitees are walking into a trap set up by Mewtwo, who plans on proving his superior intelligence and strength as well as that of his troop of Pokémon super-clones. Naturally, this is just the first step of a world domination plot by Mewtwo, who hates Pokémon as much, if not more, than humans, for they allow themselves to be "enslaved."

Obviously, the makers of Pokémon: The First Movie are striving for something weightier than the daily cartoon show. It's an admirable ambition, to graft on a message while they have the kiddies' unfettered attention. What is questionable, however, is the choice of message. The tournament on Mewtwo's island becomes one huge free-for-all between the Pokémon and their super-clones, and the trainers look on in horror at the violent display. One character even says something to the effect of, "It's OK for them to battle, but NOT LIKE THIS!" Excuse me, but I fail to see any real difference between this battle and the ones the trainers routinely stage, except that in this case, everyone's going at it all at once. It goes without saying that everything resolves itself in the end, but what do our heroes learn? Nothing, apparently, for it's back to individual Pokémon battles as usual.

If Pokémon: The First Movie--Mewtwo Strikes Back had simply been a big screen version of the cartoon show, it would have been better than the overreaching, hypocritical mess that it is; why bother with a message if it goes against what the show is, and then not even follow through with it? Children obviously will miss the point, as best summed up by my 7-year-old nephew's reaction after the screening. While he said he liked the film, he complained, "There wasn't even a winner." Of course, one side lesson of the film is that winning doesn't matter, but you try explaining that to every child who walks into the theatre expecting, as the ads and commercials promise, "the Pokémon match of all time."


In Brief

Anywhere but Here poster Tumbleweeds poster Anywhere but Here (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Tumbleweeds (PG-13) ***
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More than anything, teenage Ann August (Natalie Portman) wants nothing more than to escape the grasp of her kooky, overbearing mother Adele (Susan Sarandon), who dragged her from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills to start a new life. And at certain moments during the film, one similarly looks for an escape hatch; despite some engaging scenes and situations, Wayne Wang's adaptation of Mona Simpson's novel cannot help but drag, given that the film is pretty much a series of scenes with mother and daughter alternately acting hot and cold toward each other. What keeps the film engaging is not Sarandon, who does a characteristically solid but unremarkable job as Adele; but Portman, who, free from Queen Amidala's kabuki makeup and upstaging hair design, once again proves to be a young actress of extraordinary talent and stunning presence. Her piercing, layered performance deserves a better film around it.

More effective and affecting is Gavin O'Connor's indie production Tumbleweeds, which bears more than a few similarities to Anywhere but Here: long road trip (West Virginia to San Diego) with mother Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and young daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown); Mary Jo, fleeing a bad marriage, is an eccentric tart; the mother-daughter relationship evolves as they struggle to make ends meet. But there is a special warmth in this film that is missing from the other, particularly on the side of the mother. While she often acts out of selfishness (mostly her sexual appetite), Mary Jo is gentle and attentive to Ava, and her love for her is never doubted; she is a more fully realized character than Anywhere's Adele, who is often so self-involved that it's hard to care much about her. McTeer, a British stage actress, is perfect as Mary Jo, as is the 12-year-old Brown, and the two share a natural rapport. O'Connor and co-scripter Angela Shelton do nothing revolutionary with the traditional mother-daughter story in a plot sense, but when the film is as lovingly put together as this funny and heartwarming one is, it is one to be savored.


Boys Don't Cry poster Boys Don't Cry (R) *** 1/2
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Hilary Swank should be a lock for an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her subtle, strong, yet vulnerable portrayal of Brandon Teena (née Teena Brandon), the true-life female who attempted to pass herself off as male in a small Nebraska town, where she ended up falling for another lost soul (Chloë Sevigny, every bit as good as Swank). Brandon's secret eventually comes out, but the shock is not in the (inevitable) tragic ending, but the devastating emotional effect director-co-scripter (with Andy Bienen) Kimberly Peirce is able to achieve through mere nuance. Swank and Sevigny are both talented, effortlessly likable performers, but it isn't until the close that one realizes just how deeply one has grown to care for the vivid, sympathetic human beings--as opposed to mere characters--they have brought to life.


Dreaming of Joseph Lees poster Dreaming of Joseph Lees (R) **
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In its press material, Fox Searchlight says that this '50s-set British drama "deftly combines the sensuality and mystery of a contemporary psychological thriller with the classical romantic drama." All I saw was a rather run-of-the-mill costume drama. The dreamer is Eva (Samantha Morton), and Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves) is the distant cousin she has been obsessively in love with for years. After Joseph disappears from sight after suffering an accident, Eva returns the affections of smitten old friend Harry (Lee Ross), only to find herself in a conundrum when Joseph reenters the picture with romantic designs. Tragedy predictably ensues, and it's the familiarity of it all, plus director Eric Styles' draggy pacing, that keeps the audience less than absorbed.


Man of the Century poster Man of the Century (R) ***
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Newspaper columnist Johnny Twennies (Gibson Frazier) is the picture of a perfect gentleman from the 1920s: he sleeps in longjohns and always wears a suit and top hat; he calls women "dames" and still uses the word "gay" in the "happy" sense; he cuts a mean rug to swinging jazz sounds. There's one slight problem: he lives in modern-day Manhattan. A thin gimmick to be certain, and one that is never explained (Johnny simply is the way he is), but at a tick or two under 80 minutes (!), this amiable comedy never wears out its welcome. But during its brief running time, director Adam Abraham and writing collaborator Frazier pack in a number of inspired, if obvious, era-clash gags; and there is no shortage of delightful performances from the fresh, eager cast, which in addition to the letter-perfect Frazier includes Cara Buono, Dwight Ewell, and two bright young talents from the Broadway stage, Susan Egan (Disney's Beauty and the Beast, as well as the sassy voice of Megara in one of the Mouse's animated features, Hercules) and Anthony Rapp (Rent).


Rosetta poster Rosetta (R) *
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Seventeen-year-old Rosetta (Emilie Duquenne) lives in a trailer park in Belgium with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux). More than anything, Rosetta wants a job. Why should we care? USA Films says you should because this film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But awards don't count for anything when the film is this interminably boring. Working with a nonexistent plot of their own devising, directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne fill the virtually the entire run time with Rosetta's repeated behavior. She throws her fish traps into the water. She removes her good shoes and puts on ratty work boots when she gets home. Her menial nature of her existence becomes clear within five minutes, but that doesn't stop the Dardennes from showing Rosetta change her shoes nine or ten times in the movie. Perhaps some of this would have been nominally interesting if Rosetta were slightly likable, but she's always either sullenly silent or yelling at someone in her all-consuming quest for a job (to be fair, Duquenne is never less than convincing within the limited character range she is given). The only time that changes is at the end, when she breaks down in tears. I'm sure I speak for many others in the audience when I felt like doing the same when I realized that I had lost 95 minutes of my life sitting through this pretentious exercise in watching paint dry. And crack. And peel.


Where's Marlowe? poster Where's Marlowe? (R) **
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The detective spoof/mockumentary Where's Marlowe? is a feature adaptation of an unsold television pilot, and those small-screen roots show. It's not because there aren't any clever ideas at work here. After their three-hour nonfiction opus on New York's water delivery system tanks, two young filmmakers A.J. (John Livingston) and Wilt (Mos Def) turn their camera to struggling L.A. P.I. Joe Boone (Miguel Ferrer). When Boone's partner Murphy (John Slattery) quits, the pair decide to step in, making their film a documentary about two documentary filmmakers making a documentary about private investigators who just happen to be... themselves.

For all the cleverness in its premise, director-co-scripter Daniel Pyne doesn't mine it for all of its potential. Too many of the laugh lines fall flat, and the central mystery plot is straight out of a cheesy TV cop show--which is probably the point but doesn't make it any less tired. Keeping the proceedings as lively as they could possibly be within the circumstances is the comically stoic Ferrer, who played the same role in the original TV pilot. His performance makes one wish Where's Marlowe? had remained on the small screen, but for a good reason--he paints an interesting character that I wouldn't mind following every week.


V I D E O

Black & White DVD Black & White (R) * 1/2
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Rookie cop (Rory Cochrane) is paired with sexy, tough cookie veteran (Gina Gershon). Before long, the two become partners in a different sense while a serial killer in cop drag does away with the veteran's former pickups. Did she or didn't she? Writers Yuri Zeltser (who also directed) and Leon Zeltser apparently thought that mixing a routine erotic thriller and a routine police procedural would make something that would transcend both formulas. Instead, the result is just twice as tired, with only a few side distractions (most prominently a strange early scene where Gershon's character insist that she and Cochrane see each other nude off the bat to erase all sexual tension) to keep one faintly interested. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)


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