American Psycho (R)
As the sugary sounds of Phil Collins' "Sussudio" blare in the background, a man has rough, sweaty sex with not one, but two women. It's a common male fantasy brought to life, but the man is less interested in the sex act than himself, his gaze fixed on himself in the mirror as he flexes his muscles while thrusting away. Now, can anyone imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in this role?
Neither can I, especially not after seeing Christian Bale so effortlessly pull off this scene as the title character in American Psycho, a part that at one point been offered to--and very nearly been accepted by--the golden boy of Titanic. This adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel of sex and serial murder in the image-obsessed '80s would be absolutely unthinkable without Bale, who is a stunning revelation as the social status-minded sociopath. It is also difficult to imagine the film being as wickedly satirical--while genuinely disturbing--as it is had it not been made by director/co-scripter Mary Harron.
The notorious reputation of American Psycho the novel comes from its extremely graphic depictions of violence, a point with which Harron has cheeky fun from frame one. As the credits unspool on a white background, drops of a red liquid fall across the screen, followed by the image of a knife slicing in the air. But then it's revealed that the knife is cutting meat (not of the human variety), which is then placed on top of a plate sprinkled with the previously seen red sauce, making one of those insanely artistic dishes served at swank gourmet dining establishments.
The film's tone is further set by the formal introduction to the Psycho of the title, Wall Street hotshot Patrick Bateman (Bale). Patrick narrates his typical morning routine, which is not unlike most people's--get up, exercise, shower. The difference is how his attention to hygiene borders on obsessive narcissism, going through a veritable laundry list of products in the shower and even more than that for a post-shower facial treatment. It's overkill by most people's standards, but Patrick's unironic, matter-of-fact narration makes it clear that it couldn't be a more natural part of taking care of himself. In fact, the names of the products Patrick uses is the most specific information given about him; no clear background is ever established--but then perhaps all is said in one revealing comment in this opening voiceover: "There is no real me."
Like Patrick's waking rituals, Bale's vocal performance seems a bit much, at least at the beginning. The British actor adopts not just an American accent for this role, but also the perfectly enunciated and overwrought cadences of a TV announcer. But as the film goes on, his speech proves to be in perfect alignment with the film as a whole. This is not necessarily because American Psycho grows more outrageous--and, it could be easily said, over the top--as it progresses (and it does), but because it is a double-edged reflection of the film's deeper concerns about identity and conformity. On one hand, to make oneself sound more bombastically important is an attempt to stand out from the crowd in the "Me" decade; on another, in sounding so self-important, Patrick actually makes himself that much more like his preppy peers, in essence defeating the whole purpose.
There is one characteristic of Patrick Bateman that distinguishes him from the rest of his power suit-sporting kind, and that's his pesky habit of slicing and dicing people. Unlike Ellis, whose novel lingered on every last grisly detail, Harron doesn't show more than she has to; she leaves most of the action to the imagination, opting for shots of blood splattering on Patrick instead of those of blades tearing into flesh. The technique serves its purpose; it makes the killings more disturbing while not being so harsh as to steal the focus away from real point, which is satire.
The surface satire in the script by Harron and Guinevere Turner (who also appears in a small role) is fairly facile; much of the humor derives from Patrick and his peers' fascination with status symbols. But Harron and Turner go about it in an efficient, creative, and very funny way; the absurdity of their pursuits is perfectly and inventively captured by a scene where Patrick and co-workers engage try to outdo each other's slick business cards. (The cards themselves are indicative of Harron's fine attention to detail; another witty touch I enjoyed are the overdone theme menus for the fancy restaurants.)
Such broad strokes threaten to make American Psycho cartoony, but Harron achieves compensation in reality through her actors. Providing effectively earnest counterbalance are Willem Dafoe as a policeman investigating the disappearance of one of Patrick's victims, and a trio of actresses playing the film's comparatively more grounded female characters: Cara Seymour as a prostitute whom Patrick employs, Reese Witherspoon as Patrick's high-maintenance fiancée, and the ever-impressive Chloë Sevigny as Patrick's sweet and devoted secretary.
There's no denying, however, that the film belongs to Bale, who handles the tricky task of playing a character as an exaggeration yet not a caricature. Patrick's hyped-up eccentricities--such as his pre-murder pontifications on the pop songs he uses as background music--are indeed comical, and Bale milks them for every sick laugh they're worth (which is plenty). Yet there's never anything inherently funny about the character himself; he's a psychotic murderer, and Bale (and Harron) doesn't sugarcoat Patrick's murderous rages. In fact, Bale goes the extra mile and infuses him with an almost sad desperation--for what, exactly, is left for the audience to decide. His repellent actions could easily be just a sick way to grab more attention for himself (he doesn't do too discreet a job of hiding his guilt during the cop's interrogations); they could be read as a dementedly cathartic release for his frustrations; they could be an interchangeable nobody's extreme attempt to become a unique somebody. Whatever way, Bale's achievement is in suggesting far more dimensions than his character would ever admit to having.
As Patrick's mind increasingly unravels, so does the film to an extent; the final act lacks some of the urgency and bite of the first two thirds. What it does maintain, and even enhance, is the atmosphere of dread that always lingered beneath the surface. Given how unsettling the film's ultimate effect is, it almost seems inappropriate to call American Psycho "enjoyable," but most of this wild and perverse trip can easily be classified as being so.
Black and White (R) Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (R)
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on how "hip-hop aesthetic" has moved beyond the traditional cinematic barriers of urban crime movies and into the work of established white filmmakers, as seen in two films, Black and White and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Aside from that shared sensibility, however, the two films could not be more different--in intent and quality.
The trailers for James Toback's Black and White make it look like a run-of-the-mill 'hood drama, but Toback has a deeper concern in mind. As the title suggests, his film wants to explore the relations between blacks and whites, namely the influence of hip-hop culture on white youths--this issue in addition to telling a crime story as a hook. His intention is noble, but it's in Toback's execution that he manages to fail in everything he sets out to do.
Toback makes a fundamental miscalculation in his exploration of hip-hop-influenced white kids. While he does stick with a fairly large core of characters (played by Bijou Phillips, William Lee Scott, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffmann, and Eddie K. Thomas) as they are followed by a filmmaker (Brooke Shields) doing a documentary on the subject, the focus of this group is narrow. The two characters that are given the most attention--the ones played by Phillips, Scott, and Thomas--are from wealthy families, and while they say otherwise, it's too easy to read their embrace of hip-hop culture as an act of rebellion against their strict parents. Where are the hip-hop-loving white kids from lower-income families, the ones who can best relate to rap's common theme of the ghetto life?
Toback has slightly better luck with the more traditional cops-and-crooks plot thread, which served as the main selling point in the trailer. A college hoops star (Allan Houston of the New York Knicks) gets caught accepting a bribe to throw a game, and the only way he can get himself off the hook is to rat out a childhood friend (Power), a gangsta with aspirations in rap music. Ben Stiller, as the police detective on the case, gives the story a manic urgency that it would not otherwise have, for the inexperience of two other key players--Houston and Claudia Schiffer, who plays his girlfriend--shows up too clearly on the screen. But better performances would not be able to offset the story's unsatisfying resolution.
Similarly, some smaller pleasures to be found in Black and White cannot justify the excess baggage that comes with them. The much-discussed, and indeed memorable, mid-film scene between Robert Downey Jr. (playing Shields' gay husband) and Mike Tyson (playing himself) isn't worth having to sit through Downey's indulgent theatrics the rest of the way--especially in the woeful climactic scene between him and an even worse Shields. Throwaway cameos, from everyone from Method Man to Brett Ratner, provide fleeting interest but don't add much to the mix aside from clutter--which contributes to how one most easily remembers Black and White as being: a mess.
The plot of Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog could easily be ripped from a standard urban crime film: a hitman (Forest Whitaker, superbly subtle) working for the mob has his employer turn on him when a hit goes awry. But this being a Jarmusch film, there has to be an idiosyncratic twist, and here it is the hitman's philosophy of living by the code of the samurai. Instead of being a quirky gimmick, this character trait enhances the film, turning what could be an average pulpy yarn into something at once more solemn and exciting to watch: a poetic meditation on mortality and honor that delivers the action and suspense of any good gangster film--all set to a moody rap score (by RZA).
Unlike Black and White, which is content to adhere to hip-hop's common perception--that is, being brash and in-your-face--Ghost Dog is more interested in exploring the additional possibilities of the aesthetic's use. While that alone doesn't make Jarmusch's film more effective, it certainly is a major reason why.
Where the Money Is (PG-13)
Well into his 70s, Paul Newman still has a vim and vigor that burns incandescently on the silver screen. But as he ages gracefully, the projects he chooses to make are less so. Latest case in point: Where the Money Is, a mechanical caper comedy that is more of a tedious watch than the breezy lark it aims to be.
Newman is well matched with co-star Linda Fiorentino, who plays Carol, who unhappily works at the nursing home Newman's Henry is staying at. Henry, a convicted thief, is transferred to the home after suffering a stroke--or, rather, faking one, a fact that only Carol is quick to pick up on. Instead of turning Henry in and thwarting his escape plans, Carol decides to make a deal with him: she will help him make a getaway if he will help her with one big heist. Henry agrees take part in Carol's big plan, as does her husband Wayne (Dermot Mulroney, in a thankless role), who has reservations about the whole scheme.
The meat of Money is simple enough, but it takes forever to cut to it. The film runs a compact 89 minutes, but about 60 of those minutes are buildup filler featuring a mass of misfired jokes. Some racy gags involving Carol's use of her sexuality to awaken Henry from his "stroke" are overdone, and the dialogue the two eventually exchange is not as witty as it would like to be. Only Newman's magnetism, Fiorentino's sultry spunk, and the undeniable chemistry between them keeps this section watchable.
Theoretically, when time comes for Henry, Carol, and Wayne to stage their heist, Where the Money Is should really kick into gear. While this section is certainly more interesting than anything that preceded it, there's nothing terribly exciting about it. In fact, the scheme itself is fairly by-the-numbers, without any imaginatively quirky twists that one would expect from such a light comedy. Director Marek Kanievska plays the big robbery straight in every possible way, meaning not just taking it fairly seriously but also adding nothing beyond what's on the page, such as suspense or tension.
Maybe Newman's relaxation in front of the camera was just so infectious that everyone behind the camera on Where the Money Is felt the urge to work in a lower gear. But they mistook his effortless ease for laziness, for while one sees the fire behind Newman's cool, one can see nothing behind this film's glacial slickness.
East Is East (R)
Children rebelling against strict parents is common comedic fodder on television and the big screen, so it's a tribute to the makers of this British comedy that an idea as familiar as that is made fresh. Part of that has to do with the point of view, which is from an Anglo-Pakistani family, the Khans, in '70s Britain. The seven children born to Pakistani George (Om Puri) and the British Ella (Linda Bassett) want to be ordinary products of their turbulent times, but George insists on nothing less than a traditionalist upbringing for his kids, including arranged marriages for all of his sons. The lengths to which George--who is a big hypocrite, considering he's married to an Anglo woman, who is his second wife, no less--comes to assert his power over his family are monstrous, but Puri's performance adds an invaluable layer of vulnerability. Puri makes one believe that he really does love his family and wants the best for them; it's just that he refuses to see any beliefs other than his own as being so.
While there is serious grit to its story, East Is East, adapted from Ayub Khan-Din's play by director Damien O'Donnell and Khan-Din himself, is foremost a comedy, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from various domestic situations, culminating in one raucous climax. It's a credit to O'Donnell that the comedy not only doesn't cheapen the serious issues addressed in Khan-Din's story but that it feels like an integral part of the bigger picture. As a result, East Is East is one of the rare films that gets to have the best of both worlds: hit serious and true emotional buttons while delivering a genuinely fun time.
Keeping the Faith (PG-13)
The premise of Edward Norton's directorial debut sounds like a bad joke: a priest (Norton) and a rabbi (Ben Stiller) both find themselves falling for a shared childhood friend (Jenna Elfman). And while there are some labored slapstick moments in the film's early going, Norton then quickly finds the right note of relaxed sweetness, gentle humor, and swooningly earnest romance in longtime pal Stuart Blumberg's script. As many good lines as there are, the material would not have come to life as it does without its three stars, who share an unforced chemistry; it is easy to believe that these people have known--and loved--each other virtually their entire lives. Serious Actor Norton obviously has a good time in this rare light role, and as a director, he generously gives a greater share of the on-camera spotlight to his co-stars. Stiller, away from the Farrelly Brothers' outrageous idea of a romantic comedy and in something a bit more traditional, shows that there's an able leading man hiding behind the cut-up. The film's breakout player, though, is Elfman. She trades in the goofball charm she often relies on as half of Dharma & Greg on the tube in favor of a sleek, confident movie star glow tempered with good humor and beguiling warmth; once her sitcom is over, she has a huge future on the big screen. Cynics will derisively snicker, and fundamentalists may frown upon the answer given to the faith vs. romance question, but romantic comedies often don't come as crowdpleasing as this one.
V I D E O
Cabaret Balkan (Bure Baruta) (R)
This drama from the former Yugoslavia is another of those multi-character mosaics where people and storylines intersect. But don't expect the sense of release and tidiness that usually comes at the end of such films. As a number of people--from a performance artist and two old friends sparring in a gym to a bus driver and his troubled son--pass by on the screen in one explosive night, Goran Paskaljevic's film is never less than dark and despairing, capturing the confused and angry frustration of a nation in the grips of war. Some vignettes work better than others, but their collective effect is nothing short of powerful. (Paramount Home Entertainment)
Crazy in Alabama (PG-13)
The directorial debut of Antonio Banderas is one-half of a good movie. This adaptation of Mark Childress' novel tells of the affecting coming-of-age of 12-year-old Peejoe (Lucas Black), who in the eventful summer of 1965 is witness to the racially-motivated murder of an African-American boy by the town's sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday). Peejoe's emotional and moral maturation is touching, aided by another impressive turn by Black. It's unfortunate that there's another storyline in the film, following Peejoe's Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith) who travels from Alabama to Hollywood in pursuit of an acting career. The "crazy" twist: she has just murdered her husband, and she carries his head with her in a hatbox. The basic plot particulars already don't feel one with Peejoe's story, but the juxtaposition is made even more dissonant by Griffith's characteristically shrill performance. OK, Antonio, you love your wife, but that doesn't mean you have to cast her. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)
Diplomatic Siege (R)
If there's anything sadder than watching once-hot stars toiling in direct-to-video action dreck, it's seeing them barely hiding the fact that they don't care. But one cannot blame Peter Weller, Daryl Hannah, and Tom Berenger for being bored with this routine actioner in which terrorists take over the American embassy in Romania while Weller and Hannah try to locate an old nuclear detonation device. After all, viewers are most likely to doze off themselves. (Trimark Home Video, DVD also available)
My Little Assassin
This docudrama was produced for the Lifetime cable network ("Television for women"), which explains its strange romance novel tone. The true story being told is that of a young American woman (Gabrielle Anwar) who had a torrid affair with Cuban leader Fidel Castro (Joe Mantegna) in the '60s. After being dumped in more ways than one, she is recruited by the government to kill him. Anwar is actually quite convincing, but Mantegna works overtime to be "dangerously sexy" and ends up dangerously laughable. So is a lot of this movie, which tries to portray Castro both as a monster and a swoon-worthy hunk--an impossible task if there ever was one. (Xenon Entertainment, DVD also available)
Sick of botching small-time jobs with his two buddies (Michael Egan and Scott Cooke), a street hood (Justin Pagel) hooks up with the local mob boss and watches his career in crime take off. I'm not spoiling anything when I say that something goes wrong, and the hood finds himself betrayed and wanting out. But writer-director Travis Milloy's biggest sin is not failing to come up with a single surprise--it's failing to come up with a single reason to care. (A-Pix Entertainment)
Ready to Rumble (PG-13)
Professional wrestling has long suffered the criticism that it caters to the most lowbrow audience with its barely organized displays of violence. But as low as wrestling goes, rarely does it plunge to the crass depths explored by the wrestling-themed comedy Ready to Rumble, which goes out of its way to prove that tastelessness does not equal comic inspiration.
To their credit, writer Steven Brill and director Brian Robbins satisfy their crudest instincts in the film's early stages, which concerns fanatical World Championship Wrestling (as opposed to World Wrestling Federation) fans Gordie (David Arquette) and Sean's (Scott Caan) search for their hero, dethroned and disgraced wrestling champion Jimmy King (Oliver Platt). Gordie and Sean work in sanitation--namely, the cleaning of portapotties--so leave it to Brill and Robbins to not leave any raw sewage joke uncovered. They even go the extra mile, venturing beyond mere jokes about excrement and flatulence into the territory of crab lice. Prefer cheap slapstick over bodily function humor? Worry you not--the film's opening "match" set in a convenience store is but the first in a very long line of brutal fights unsuccessfully played for laughs.
Ready to Rumble is rated PG-13, and it provides ample ammunition for the argument that the MPAA ratings board is extremely lenient when it comes to violence. Very little blood is shed in Rumble, but many severe beatings are suffered by a number of characters, including a "Nitro Girl" cheerleader named Sasha (Rose McGowan) at the hands of her "boyfriend" Gordie. While there is no doubt as to the less-than-serious intent, there is nothing particularly cartoonish about the execution: those are real kicks and punches being thrown, and genuine body slams and other wrestling maneuvers being performed. While being inundated with so much brutality for such a long while, it's impossible to stop lightly giggling (which is the most any of the mayhem will induce) and start cringing.
While such poor content makes it mighty tempting to walk out of the auditorium and never return, I remained curiously fascinated for a couple of reasons. First, the film is so audacious in its stupidity I had a masochistic urge to see just how low it would go. Second, I was taken aback by the actors, who displayed some admirable conviction in their work--a fact made more admirable by the questionable nature of their material. Gordie and Sean do find "the King" and help him mount a comeback, and the uphill struggle back to glory is given some surprising--and wholly undeserved--resonance by Platt. And though they're called on to do nothing more than play obnoxious jackasses for the entire run time, there's also no question that Arquette and Caan succeed in fulfilling that requirement.
In the world of professional wrestling, the World Championship Wrestling organization is widely regarded as being a bit more tasteful and--dare I say it--classy than its raunchier (and more popular) rival, the World Wrestling Federation. I guess the WCW higher-ups figures that if they can't beat 'em, join 'em, for the big screen commercial that is Ready to Rumble just proves that the WCW can sink to the same lows in taste, albeit in a more spectacular, big-screen fashion.
The Road to El Dorado (PG) The Road to El Dorado is a reasonably entertaining animated feature, which is more than enough to satisfy the family audience the film courts--and, thus, enough for me to recommend it. But a merely adequate effort is somewhat disappointing coming from DreamWorks, the studio that had so spectacularly redefined the barriers of feature animation with their 1998 epic The Prince of Egypt. Instead of advancing the medium even further, El Dorado finds the studio--and feature animation in general--simply treading water.
El Dorado is the legendary lost city of gold hidden in South America, where Spanish con men Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) find themselves after escaping a ship piloted by the evil Cortes (Jim Cummings). The natives believe these strangers to be gods, and the two play along in order to get their share of the riches. Aiding in their scheme is the saucy, sassy local Chel (Rosie Perez), who keeps their secret in exchange for a cut of all that's given them.
The premise is thin, and the set pieces that are hung upon it are accordingly light. Tulio and Miguel exchange good-natured barbs at each other's expense; Chel incites some chaste looks of lust from the pair; the duo get caught in slapsticky chases and sporting events. These elements are not without their simple charm, due in large part to some sturdy art and animation and game vocal performances. Perez's famously squeaky voice, which often grates in her flesh-and-blood roles, is right at home in a cartoon context.
But sometimes the light nature becomes "lite"--as in inconsequential and forgettable. The villainy--Cortes, a deceitful high priest named Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante)--never seems particularly threatening; the big problem in the case of Cortes is that he doesn't have enough screen time to establish himself as a major threat. The songs by the Lion King team of composer Elton John and Tim Rice, which are mostly sung by John himself, are better suited to lite FM radio stations than an animated feature. The song score also suffers from the miscalculation I call "Tarzan Syndrome": if a film is going to use the tunes as an underscore, it should not insert a big production number where the characters sing. Trying to have the best of both worlds--as Disney did with Tarzan, shoehorning in a completely gratuitous Rosie O'Donnell musical showcase--ends up shortchanging the film as a whole, especially when the tunes are as unmemorable as they are here.
But those two complaints aren't so much annoyances as they are distractions in a work that, while being completely pleasant to watch, never really captivates. As mentioned before, the animation and art are fine, but there is nothing particularly distinctive about it. After a promising avant garde prologue that recounts El Dorado's legendary origins, there is nothing in the way of fresh sights. Tulio and Miguel's number "It's Tough to Be a God" is meant to be the big animation highlight, but anyone who's seen a Disney animated feature in the last ten years won't find anything that one hasn't seen or done better before.
But maybe that was what directors Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul were hired to do: keep things familiar and, hence, comfortable for the audience. The Road to El Dorado indeed fits that bill, a film as easy to enjoy as it is to watch. And while that's enough for me to give El Dorado the seal of approval without hesitation, I cannot help but feel that I would be more excited about the film had it been a bit more of a challenge to like it.
The Color of Paradise (PG)
Like his crowdpleasing Children of Heaven, the latest from Iranian writer-director Majid Majidi is also a tribute to the spirit and innocence of a child. Here, the subject is a smart blind boy named Mohammed (Mohsen Ramezani, superb), who is unwanted by his heartless father, Hashem (Hossein Mahjub). Hashem sees his son not as a person, but as an impediment on his forthcoming marriage and a burden on his life in general.
Majidi takes his time to reach the inevitable crisis where Hashem is confronted by his duties not only as a parent but a human being, but the time getting there is fairly well-spent. While he drives home the point of Mohammed's good nature a bit too hard (I could've done without the scene where he takes a fallen baby bird and puts it back in its nest), the sight of the Northern Iran countryside is stunning; thanks to Mohammad Davoodi's breathtaking photography, it's easy to see the colors of paradise. All this is just a prelude to the grabber of a final shot, a simple image that is haunting in its ambiguity. Similarly, the entire film is memorable in its sweet simplicity.
High Fidelity (R)
The title lies--this quirky romantic comedy's delights rate strictly on the lo-fi scale, which is indicative of the appealingly laid-back vibe carried off by director Stephen Frears and star/co-scripter John Cusack. Cusack is at his most everyman charming as Rob Gordon, the top-5 obsessed owner of a classic vinyl record store. His doggedly unambitious ways have understandably come to annoy his latest girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), who has decided to leave him. There is little more to the film than three things: (1) Rob hanging around his store with his two nutso employees, meek Dick (Todd Louiso) and brash Barry (Jack Black); (2) Rob pleading with Laura to take him back, usually in the rain; and, most of all (3) Rob directly addressing the camera, attempting to make sense of his many other failed relationships (shown in flashbacks) and why Laura left him. It's one thing to put all these lightweight elements together coherently and quite another to do what Frears, the writers, and the amiable cast (which also includes Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and a hilarious Tim Robbins) do here: make it consistently interesting--and worth caring about.
Price of Glory (PG-13)
The road to glory is often paved with good intentions, but so is the path to mediocrity, which exactly where Carlos Avila's well-meaning drama heads in no time. Jimmy Smits, in his first major post-NYPD Blue role, is a former boxer whose once-promising career was cut short years ago after a stunning loss. Now, he guides--and somewhat forces--his three sons (Jon Seda, Clifton Collins Jr., and Ernesto Hernandez) into championship boxing careers of their own. Smits is good, but he's saddled with a shallow, unsympathetic role--he's a selfish slavedriver from beginning to end--and, despite some added graying, he looks much too young to be Seda's father. The values of family and loyalty are good ones, but they have been explored in more satisfying ways in other films; also, there are better films to turn to for boxing action, which Avila has somehow made a chore to watch with his listlessly staged fight sequences.
Return to Me (PG)
The premise--widower (David Duchovny) falls for the recipient (Minnie Driver) of his dead wife's (Joely Richardson) heart--is cutesy (as in overly precious), the film itself is quite cute (as in charming without strain). Duchovny's deadpan demeanor works surprisingly well within the context of playing a grieving man unsure of his way in the dating pool; and Driver is given ample opportunity to showcase her natural effervescence. The real accomplishment of director/co-writer (with Don Lake) Bonnie Hunt is not how many laughs she is able to wring from the story (most courtesy some colorful supporting characters, played by Carroll O'Connor, James Belushi, and Hunt herself), but how she gets it to touch the audience's heart without being sappy. Return to Me is slow to warm; the film opens with a half hour of exposition that feels like exposition. But once Duchovny and Driver meet, the film easily finds its rhythm--that of the audiences' hearts.
Rules of Engagement (R)
Technically speaking, William Friedkin's drama about the military code is well-done. The two combat scenes, one set during the Vietnam War and the other set in modern-day Yemen, are in-your-face and realistic; and the cast is uniformly good. But the latter point is where the film's big problem lies. Many of the actors are playing characters they have in previous films. Samuel L. Jackson's role, a Marine colonel on trial for breaking the "rules of engagement" and murdering innocent people during a rescue mission, bears striking similarities to his character in A Time to Kill; during one strikingly familiar scene where he is being badgered on the witness stand, one expects him to erupt, "Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!" (He doesn't, but he might as well have, given his similar response.) Playing Jackson's attorney and old friend is Tommy Lee Jones, doing a riff on his quick-tongued lawyer role in another John Grisham adaptation, The Client, which, in turn, was just a legal-themed riff on just about every role Jones plays. Farther down the cast line is Anne Archer, playing her latest devoted wife (here to Ben Kingsley's American ambassador, the focus of the rescue mission in question). It only follows that with the predictable casting would come a likewise story, and Rules of Engagement's won't surprise anyone who's seen a courtroom drama in their life. But, as if to make sure there will at least one element everyone can recognize as being clichéd, there's a halfhearted stab at the old standby of an underachieving son (here, Jones' character) trying to live up to his revered father's (Philip Baker Hall) legacy. If the makers hadn't stuck so closely to the rules, this film would have been far more engaging.
The Skulls (PG-13)
I'll cut to the chase for the teenybopper admirers of Dawson's Creek heartthrob Joshua Jackson: he has a couple of partial shirtless shots and a big scene where he runs around in a skintight spandex rowing outfit. But as loud as the girls' howls were for that latter scene, they did not compare to the ever-increasing volume of the ones from the entire audience as this atrocious thriller grew longer and more ridiculous. Jackson plays Luke, a student at an Ivy League university who is recruited to join the exclusive "secret" on-campus society known as (what else?) the Skulls. (I place the word "secret" in quotes because everyone is not only acutely aware of the society's existence, but also the location of their headquarters.) He joins and enjoys the perks of membership until he learns of the despicable Skulls cover-up of an even more despicable crime. Luke wants out, but the organization, of course, has other ideas.
One big problem with the film from the start: I never understood why being a Skull was so special in the first place. While there are obvious monetary benefits, the other "special" activities--black tie parties, free sex, vacation retreats--would be commonplace for other non-underground groups. That, however, is a minor complaint, for The Skulls is one of those bad films that manages to get worse and worse across the board as it progresses. Barely credible performances turn embarrassingly amateurish (token female Leslie Bibb is cute, but that doesn't count for anything when the material gets more, ahem, "serious"); the turns of the plot are not so much shocking as laughably preposterous (the gratuitous Jackson/Bibb love scene comes at the most unconvincing moment possible; and nothing can prepare you for the, for lack of a better term, "Victorian" climax). After seeing The Skulls and Rob Cohen's last two theatrical releases, Daylight and Dragonheart, I am forced to wonder if he actually did direct the memorable Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
Winter Sleepers (Winterschläfer)
The poster blares "from the director of Run Lola Run," but anyone looking specifically for such an adrenaline rush would be advised to stay away. There are smatterings of director Tom Tykwer's flashy Lola style in this slow, two-hour-plus drama: the pulsing techno score; some bravura, highly kinetic shots. For the most part, though, this is a film not about forward momentum but stagnant meditation. Winter Sleepers, which predates Lola by a year, is one of those "people intersected by chance" films, but its less-than-sprawling canvas of five characters--three of whom are already linked as the film opens--and snow-drenched, resort town setting should give one an idea of how plot comes secondary to atmosphere. In fact, one of the threads is rather mundane: a translator named Rebecca (Floriane Daniel) is involved with ski instructor Marco (Heino Ferch), a womanizer. Despite some good performances, this familiar bit of business is a little tedious, and it predictably does not stop 'til one of them wises up.
Far more involving are the other two storylines. Rebecca's housemate Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse and aspiring actress, falls into a quiet relationship with René (Ulrich Matthes), a movie projectionist. Laura doesn't know that he is tragically linked to a farmer named Theo (Josef Bierbichler) and his dying young daughter, whom Laura cares for at the hospital. Then again, neither is René aware of any connection, for a years-ago injury has done irreparable damage to his short-term memory; to compensate, he constantly takes photographs of his surroundings. The Laura/René and René/Theo threads don't resolve themselves in an easily predictable fashion, which is why they make a more lasting impression than Rebecca/Marco. Actually, if it weren't for them, Winter Sleepers would've been a picturesque and well-acted near-miss instead of the unconventionally affecting film that it is.
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Brown's Requiem (R)
Fritz Brown (Michael Rooker) is an alcoholic former L.A. cop now working as a repo man for a car dealership and a private detective. When he is hired by a golf caddy (Todd Sasso) to follow around his errant teenage sister (Selma Blair), Fritz stumbles onto some shady business involving the police. Rooker is perfectly cast as the sad sack, but this adaptation of the James Ellroy novel is boilerplate noir all the way, from the femme fatale to the hard-boiled voiceover; writer-director Jason Freeland doesn't give the material the urgency it needs to come to life. (Sterling Home Entertainment, DVD also available)
Corrupt The Wrecking Crew Leprechaun in the Hood (R)
There should be a reward for watching three straight-to-tape Ice-T starring vehicles back to back to back, for there are few methods of torture that are more inhumane. Although he has virtually disappeared from the big screen, the Madonna of rapper/actors (read: the worst of rapper/actors) is a big presence on video, often producing his own starring vehicles. Corrupt and The Wrecking Crew are two of these interchangeable projects: the same director (Albert Pyun) is at the helm; the same actors (T.J. Storm, Ernie Hudson Jr. for starters) are featured alongside Ice-T; they all deal with some gang war in the 'hood; and they all bear the glossy look of a music video. There is only slight variation in the plots: Corrupt is named for an evil crime lord played by T, who is out to get a young ex-gangster (rapper Silkk the Shocker, who proves he should stick to his day job); The Wrecking Crew is about a government-sanctioned death squad (led, of course, by T) out to wipe out gang violence. Despite the efforts at some variety, these films never fail to suck. And do these two latest entries in the T crop ever suck.
Providing some intentionally campy amusement--which the straightfaced T/Pyun collaborations don't offer--is the T-starring fifth entry in the shockingly durable Leprechaun horror series, Leprechaun in the Hood. With such a title--which tells you all you need to know about the story--it would be insanity to take the film too seriously, which director Rob Spera wisely hasn't done. But a good joke such as a fatal stab to the neck with an afro pick cannot erase the fundamentally ridiculously conceit one must accept in these films: that people are scared of a rotting little troll all dressed in green. If there is an idea that simply can never be made into a good movie, it's that. (Corrupt, The Wrecking Crew: Sterling Home Entertainment, DVD also available; Leprechaun: Trimark Home Video, DVD also available)
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Although I am a big fan of his Phantom of the Opera, after the direct-to-video version of Cats--a stillborn trifle which begged the question "How the hell did this pointless piece of crap become the longest running show in Broadway history?"--I wasn't terribly eager to watch a film of another popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. However, this engaging version of Webber's very first production is a sweet, candy-colored confection for the entire family. What separates this from Cats is a refreshing, self-mocking sense of humor, which prevents this silly little show from developing any stuffy pretensions (which Cats had in spades). In this lively adaptation of the Old Testament story, Donny Osmond does a credible job as Joseph, who is given a multi-colored coat by his doting dad Jacob (Richard Attenborough), inciting bitter jealousy in his many brothers. They fake his death and sell Joseph to slavery, but rest assured that things are set right--as one line goes, "We've read the book, and you [Joseph] come out on top."
Webber and lyricist Tim Rice's songs, including the tunes "Close Every Door" and "Any Dream Will Do," are catchy and memorable, and they are nicely performed by the cast, which also includes Maria Friedman as the Narrator as well as a briefly seen Joan Collins. The generally high spirits of the production make it easier to forgive the show's cheesier touches, such as the Elvis-like Egyptian Pharaoh (Robert Torti). Joseph may not be a terribly substantial work for the stage, but as seen in this film version--whose school assembly framing device nicely evokes the show's origins as a 15-minute school performance piece--it's awfully fun. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)
Voices from a Locked Room (R)
This fact-based British film was made in 1995, but it never found a theatrical distributor during its tour of the film festival circuit. Hardly surprising, given that despite an impressive lead performance by Jeremy Northam, this is a movie-of-the-week with explicit sex and nudity (I think I've just convinced a number of people to rent this thing). The true story is that of music critic Philip Heseltine (Northam), who was engaged in a bitter feud with reclusive composer Peter Warlock, whose work Heseltine consistently ripped to shreds in his newspaper column in the 1930s. When Warlock begins to make deadly threats against Heseltine, both men's worlds gradually fall apart. The gratuitous (and entirely fictional) romance between Heseltine and an American jazz singer (Tushka Bergen) never works, due in large part to Bergen's awkward performance, and only serves as a distraction to Northam's strong performance--which is the only thing to recommend in this by-the-numbers effort. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)
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Election (R) Movie: ;
When I first saw this biting, Spirit Award-winning and Oscar-nominated satire last spring, I had great admiration for the efforts of all involved, not the least of which those of director/co-scripter (with Jim Taylor) Alexander Payne. But only after listening to Payne's running commentary on the Election DVD did I get a real idea of just how meticulous his work on the film is. No cast or other crew join Payne on the track, but he is lively enough to carry it on his own, and his insights into the film are fascinating. Among the wonderfully subtle details pointed out: teacher Jim McAllister's (Matthew Broderick) consistently circular paths, as opposed to straight lines travelled by ambitious student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon); the pervasive presence of garbage in the film; the "T" configuration that marks the introduction of sophomore Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell). To listen to the commentary track is to watch the film with new eyes.
It's all the more disappointing, then, that Paramount didn't do a better job with the presentation. The menus are static and boring, and Payne's commentary is the only real supplement provided on the disc; not even the film's trailer is included, let alone some of the deleted scenes that Payne references in the commentary. While the commentary is enough to recommend it, one can only hope that this skimpy disc is only a warm-up for a more extensive special edition to be issued in the future. (Paramount Home Entertainment)