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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 68

#234 - 235
April 22, 2000 - April 28, 2000


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

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#235 April 28, 2000

M O V I E S

Committed poster Committed (R) * 1/2
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"Committed" is what Joline (Heather Graham) is to her deadbeat husband Carl (Luke Wilson) through thick and thin, for better or for worse. Audiences, however, are likely not to feel the same devotion to Lisa Krueger's stridently offbeat comedy of the same name.

Because of Graham, viewers are likely to at least develop a commitment to seeing this film through to the end. An innately likable actress, she carries the screen with ease in this, her first lead role. But as the film progresses, that likability relates less and less to the character she plays. Joline's dogged determination to make her marriage work first comes off as admirable, even as she makes her long road journey from New York to El Paso, Texas to locate Carl, who runs off without warning after 597 seemingly happy days of wedlock.

Once she's there, Joline shadows Carl not unlike a stalker, keeping watch over him without making her presence known. She does, however, connect with some of the locals, namely Neil (Goran Visnjic), Carl's next door neighbor, who has designs on Joline; Carmen (Patricia Velasquez), Carl's new girlfriend--that is, until she meets and befriends Joline; and Carmen's grandfather (Alfonso Arau), who shares his gift of the mystical with Joline.

Most of Committed's attempts at humor come from these supporting characters, namely their quirks. Neil is an artist who makes piñatas. Carmen is a waitress who regularly sneaks a taste of the drinks and dishes she serves. Joline's brother Jay (Casey Affleck) is as commitment-shy as she is committed. Each one of these characters can be described as off-center, but little eccentricities can only go so far in holding an audience's attention--and even less in making them laugh.

And, ultimately, it's up to the peripheral characters and their foibles to do that job because the lead character becomes such a drag to hang around with. Of course, Carl discovers Joline, and after that point her efforts to hold onto him seem less believable and reasonable. While one never comes to the point of hating her, one does stop liking her and starts to pity her, for she is clearly out of her mind. This shift is somewhat expected--after all, rarely do films bearing a double-edged name not end up relating to both meanings--but that doesn't make the turn easier to swallow or the film more enjoyable to sit through.

I understand the point Krueger was trying to make--namely, the question of when devotion becomes obsession, and knowing when to let go. But in Committed, she has somehow made this potentially provocative subject boring.


Frequency poster Frequency (PG-13) **
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The science fiction thriller Frequency asks a number of questions, a few of which are showcased in its trailer. "What if you could reach back in time?" "What if you could change the past?" "What if it changed everything?" The most important question, however, is left uncovered: "What if you had an interesting premise and then went about it all wrong?" The answer to that query is the disappointing film itself.

The root of that problem is clearly evidenced in the trailer. Buzz around Gregory Hoblit's film had been building steadily the past few months, and at first the preview proves why. The idea behind Toby Emmerich's screenplay is intriguing. In 1999, cop John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) discovers the old ham radio that belonged to his fireman father Frank (Dennis Quaid), who died in action nearly 30 years to the day. Somehow, some way the 1999 radio is able to pick up signals from 1969, namely those of Frank. John, who never had a chance to really know his father, suddenly finds himself bonding with him through time and space by way of the radio. But the seemingly innocent talk proves to have far-reaching consequences, altering the past and future in ways that are not always for the better.

So far, so good, but then the trailer ends on a completely wrong note: Frank and a weeping Jim saying "I love you" to each other. It's a jarringly maudlin note to end an ad for what had been sold as a thriller, and it's to Hoblit and Emmerich's credit that in the film, the father-son emotional angle is more smoothly embedded into the story. Even so, such sentimentality is far from the director's strong suit. Hoblit's previous feature credits are Primal Fear and Fallen, two films that are characterized by--and whose success was largely due to--their darkness and cynicism. Those aren't exactly the best qualifications to tackle something with as severe a case of the warm fuzzies as Frequency, and as is typically the case with underqualified directors attempting something "deep" and "emotional," sentimentality becomes schmaltz.

There is one big problem hidden by Frequency's trailer, and that is the wrongheaded shift that occurs about midway. Up until that point, the interesting premise has its appeal and wonder, but it suddenly morphs into a typical serial killer thriller, with John attempting to nab a murderer of nurses. The special wrinkle is that the killings take place in 1969, and Frank has to do the legwork under the advisement John gives in 1999. That proves to be just a minor detail, though, for we get the familiar scenes of Frank skulking around bars, following suspicious characters and having suspicious characters follow him. Even more familiar is the fact that the killer's reach extends to Frank and John's family.

There's still that great hook, though, but in retrospect there is another miscalculation at work. With premises that delve into the fantastic, one should either offer a thorough explanation or none at all; you either try to make logical sense, or just make the audience accept it as a given. Emmerich and Hoblit wrongly attempt at a middle ground. It is implied that Frank and John are able to communicate through time because radio transmissions are trapped over time in the Aurora Borealis, but there's nothing beyond a vague reference or two. Such a half-hearted, unclear reasoning is sure to leave no one satisfied.

The two leads, however, do not disappoint. Quaid hasn't had a major league role in years, and he proves here that, when given the chance, he can deliver. Frank is a good, upstanding guy, and Quaid makes the character a lot more interesting than that basic description would make him out to be. Caviezel first caught my--and many other's--eye with his standout work as the de facto lead in The Thin Red Line, and the reasons why I like him so much may very well be the reasons why he may never become a big star; he's an introspective, subtle performer who doesn't resort to broad theatrics. His internal approach works well for John, who must hide his inner pain and inadequacy under the tough façade of a police detective.

They--and the rest of the strong cast--deserve better than Frequency. Then again, the idea behind Frequency deserves better than Frequency, which proves that having an inspired idea is only half the battle in making a good movie.


Timecode poster Timecode (R) ***
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Without question, Mike Figgis has to be one of the most boldly experimental filmmakers working today. So it would only follow that his track record in recent years is among the most inconsistent; gambles wouldn't be labeled as such if they paid off every time. While he hit the jackpot with a little no-budget, 16mm effort called Leaving Las Vegas, the risks he's taken since haven't been so successful. Last year's non-linear, non-narrative The Loss of Sexual Innocence was indeed, as he described, his most "personal" film--that incoherent, indulgent jumble could only make sense to him. Immediately prior to that, he tried to do the impossible--turn Joe Eszterhas-originated sleaze cheese into gold--with One Night Stand. It goes without saying that he couldn't make that work.

It's hard to imagine a more daunting task than that one, but leave it to Figgis to come up with the ultimate sink-or-swim cinematic proposition, which now hits the screen as Timecode. The story (or, rather, stories) being told does not qualify as being revolutionary by any stretch. What does, however, is the storytelling--which, to use an overused bit of hyperbole, is unlike anything anyone has seen before. And this time around, the perpetual gambler clearly comes out on top.

Based on the plot alone, the title Timecode would not appear to fit. The film follows a number of characters over as they wander in and around the Ticketmaster building on Sunset Boulevard over a single, continuous stretch of 93 minutes. The primary players: Rose (Salma Hayek), a vivacious aspiring actress; her jealous lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn); boozed-up and drugged-out Alex (Stellan Skarsgård), head of the motion picture production company Red Mullet (which also happens to be the name of Figgis' real life production company); and Emma (Saffron Burrows), his unhappy wife.

These and many other characters crisscross during this 93-minute span, not unlike the multicharacter epics made familiar by Robert Altman. This being a Figgis film, though, there is a radically different spin, which is threefold: (1) the film unfolds on a screen split into four quadrants, with each portion following a different character and/or storyline all at once; (2) each of the four "sub-movies" were shot continuously for those 93 minutes, without any cuts, on digital video cameras; and (3) there was no set script, only a basic story outline from which the actors entirely improvised their dialogue and a few storyline turns. The project being entirely dependent on the precise timing of the cast and crew, the title Timecode is only too apt.

A label that perhaps isn't so apt is that of "director" for Figgis. This is not meant as a slight on his work; far from it. His meticulous direction and arrangement of the individual pieces is more befitting of the label of "conductor"--very appropriate, considering that Figgis wrote Timecode's score (as he does with most of his films) and mapped out the entire work on sheet music paper. It's nothing short of astounding how he was able to perfectly sync the four individual pieces, which all seamlessly interlock at various moments in time and tone. But even more impressive is how he makes the four-POV approach feel necessary and not merely as a shameless gimmick (which it is to some degree). If Timecode were edited like a normal film, there's no doubt that some valuable moments of story and especially performance would be lost.

The latter loss would be most unfortunate, for its the actors that makes Timecode more than a cold exercise in the possibilities of digital video technology. The entire cast--which also includes Holly Hunter, Leslie Mann, Kyle MacLachlan, Steven Weber, Alessandro Nivola, and a hilarious Julian Sands (playing a masseur) in smaller roles--appear to be energized by their high wire task, and their immersion into character shines through; none of the improvised dialogue sounds awkward, but rather quite convincing and real. For example, when Rose tells her secret lover to not place a piece of food on a surface because "we just had sex there," it is a natural wisecrack and completely in line with her character.

As well as the improvisation works as a whole, it does contribute to Timecode's biggest shortcoming, which is in the story department. While what goes on is fairly eventful for a 93-minute stretch of life, as a self-contained movie, the plot threads are all fairly thin and "made up as they went along" approach makes for a certain lack of urgency. Despite the fresh visual technique, Timecode still suffers from the same problem of these multicharacter pieces, which is that some plot threads don't work well as others. While most characters jump from quadrant to quadrant as the film progresses and stories overlap, Burrows' Emma remains fixed in the upper right hand corner, and, not surprisingly, her storyline is by far the weakest; she has the least amount of interaction with others, which is the primary catalyst for story developments and interesting moments of improv.

As much as I enjoyed Timecode, I am not eager to see every movie employ its revolutionary splitscreen storytelling technique; it does take some getting used to, even when the shifting emphasis of the sound mix helps direct one to the most pertinent action. But if Figgis were able to make something this strange, funny, and exciting to watch without a script, imagine the possibilities of its use at the service of a more concrete story. Unfortunately, that likely won't happen for a long while (if ever), and in the meantime one can only admire Figgis' audacity, for going through with such a crazy idea--and his talent, for making it work.


Where the Heart Is poster Where the Heart Is (PG-13) ** 1/2
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With so many young stars given opportunities based not so much on talent than looks (or, sometimes, without displaying either--yes, that means you, Melissa Joan Hart), it's little wonder why Natalie Portman is such a refreshing delight to watch onscreen. Not only does the camera love her exotic beauty, she is blessed with remarkable talent; since making such a terrific debut in Luc Besson's not-so-terrific 1994 actioner The Professional, Portman has not once delivered a bad performance. Where the Heart Is marks Portman's first assignment to carry a film, and not so surprisingly, she proves to be more than up to the task, the pro that she is. However, this middling film marks a disconcerting trend that began with her last film, Anywhere but Here.

Portman's role as Novalee Nation does provide her ample opportunity to stretch her acting chops. When we first meet her, Novalee is 17 and very pregnant, embarking on a Tennessee-to-California road trip with boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), who has aspirations as a musician. A simple pit stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma proves to be the big turning point in both of their lives. As Novalee does her business in the store, an impatient, selfish Willy Jack leaves her. With nowhere to turn, Novalee shacks up in the Wal-Mart, earning some level of notoriety when she gives birth to her daughter Americus (!) there.

From the quirky set-up emerges some equally quirky characters. Stockard Channing surfaces as Thelma "Sister" Husband, a kind, religious (though not in a conventional way) woman who takes in Novalee and her baby. Lexie (Ashley Judd, who previously shared the screen with Portman--but never at the same time--in Michael Mann's Heat), a nurse, first encounters Novalee as a patient at her hospital, and the two quickly become best friends. Lexie's little quirk is her extreme fertility and her penchant for naming her numerous kids after snack foods. The person closest to resembling a straight arrow in the town is Forney (James Frain), an East Coast-bred librarian who takes an affectionate liking to Novalee. Even Billy Jack's path leads him to colorful people, namely Ruth Meyers (a wasted Joan Cusack), a tough-as-nails agent who takes him under her wing.

For all the surface eccentricities of the story, which derives from Billie Letts' novel of the same name, Matt Williams' film follows a simple course where a good-hearted woman is placed in adverse circumstances and then slowly but surely triumphs over them. Along the way, she even helps others triumph over their own adversities. Sound familiar? It should--this is the rubric for the genre that I've come to call the "Oprah movie": slick, well-meaning, female-empowering, and just about as exciting and suspenseful as the middle label implies. (Not surprisingly, Letts' novel was an Oprah book club selection.) Such films are hard to hate--and, indeed, Where the Heart Is is likable--but they're just as difficult to get worked up over in the positive sense. The individual elements are put together with care, but they are also assembled with an obvious calculation--lending the film a less-than-authentic gloss.

Portman, on the other hand, remains natural and genuine throughout. But her "realness" is constricted by the conventions, much like in Anywhere but Here, her last film--and another entry in the Oprah genre. She's too young and vibrant a performer to pigeonhole herself in films like Where the Heart Is, which are precious and nice but hardly the most interesting and effective uses of her talent--not to mention not the most interesting and rewarding films to sit through.


In Brief

The Big Kahuna poster The Big Kahuna (R) ***
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The Big Kahuna is based on a play (Hospitality Suite by Roger Rueff, who also wrote the screenplay), and first-time feature director John Swanbeck doesn't hide that fact. Aside from a couple of location (Wichita, Kansas) establishing shots and fleeting detours into the outdoors, the film is set in (as the title of the original play implies) a hotel hospitality suite that serves as the venue of philosphical debate between three industrial lubricant salesmen: hotshot Larry (Kevin Spacey, who also produced), veteran Phil (Danny DeVito), and neophyte Bob (Peter Facinelli). Not exactly the most promising jumping-off point for an exciting, thought-provoking drama, but that's exactly what The Big Kahuna evolves into. As the bickering trio's arguments shift from business practices to how one should practice one's life in general, Rueff's script freely confronts thorny issues of loyalty, morality, and religion. No easy answers are offered, but enough food for thought is given to nourish just about any conclusions the audience may arrive at.

The Big Kahuna is pretty much all talk, but the three actors bring to the words fire, feeling, and meaning. Spacey does a good job, but the role of a sarcastic, flamboyant slickster is one he can easily do while comatose. Swanbeck is able to draw out surprising range and poise from Facinelli, who had previously done little of note in such timeless classics such as Supernova and Can't Hardly Wait; the deeply religious--but not fanatical--Bob is the crux of the story, and Facinelli proves able to handle the demanding task. His performance is a revelation, but it's not the best; that distinction belongs to DeVito's. Usually called on to play the wacky person in the mix, DeVito's world-wise and -weary Phil is a beautiful work of gentleness and subtlety. In a film of large ideas and screaming voices, his center of calm speaks the loudest.


Viva Rock Vegas poster The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (PG) ** 1/2
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When Universal announced plans to make a prequel to its horrendous 1994 live-action take of the beloved '60s animated TV series, the general reaction was, "WHY?" No one liked the film; in fact, most flat out hated it (myself included), yet it still eked out $100 million-plus gross (thanks to the hype machine)--which, of course, is justification enough in Hollywood. Hence, it would have been easy for returning director Brian Levant to continue to be lazy with the development of the script and simply just pay attention to the production design, as he did in the first film. It appears, however, he felt he had something to prove after the original film's near-universal thrashing.

With Viva Rock Vegas, Levant is getting a better idea as to how to bring the modern Stone Age family to life. Unlike the original film, the prequel actually has a story, and a cute and interesting one at that: the courtship of Fred (Mark Addy) and Wilma (Kristen Johnston) as well as that of Barney (Stephen Baldwin) and Betty (Jane Krakowski). There are complications, namely the machinations of the wealthy Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson), whom Wilma's snooty mother Pearl (Joan Collins) deems a more suitable match for her daughter. Addy, Krakowski, Baldwin, and Collins are much better fits for their roles than their predecessors (John Goodman, Rosie O'Donnell, Rick Moranis, and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively). Baldwin is especially a surprise; while he looks nothing like his cartoon counterpart, once he opens his mouth, he simply is Barney. As much as Levant does get right here (including, of course, the production design and costumes, which are again perfect to the last detail), two missteps keep me from giving a recommendation. The Great Gazoo (Alan Cumming), a tiny green alien that appeared in a number of the TV episodes, is needlessly and awkwardly incorporated into the story; and Johnston never convinces as Wilma--the look, voice, and attitude is all a bit off. Replace her with the far superior original Wilma, Elizabeth Perkins, and Levant has the makings for a potentially successful third installment--that is, if his writing crew (which, for Viva, is far smaller than the infamous 32-person committee employed by the original) can come up with another engaging story. Given the unfavorable odds, all involved would probably be better off leaving well enough alone.


The Last September poster The Last September (PG-13) **
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Neither Ismail Merchant nor James Ivory have any remote involvement in Deborah Warner's adaptation of the novel by Elizabeth Bowen, but it all too perfectly fits the stereotypical perception of the Merchant Ivory oeuvre: slow, stately, and boring. Set against the waning days of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in 1920 southern Ireland, The Last September's main concern is the coming of age of young Lois (Keeley Hawes), 19-year-old niece to the wealthy (and snooty) Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), in whose home she stays. Lois is relentlessly courted by a nice but poor British Army captain (David Tennant), but she finds herself more fascinated by and drawn to an old friend (Gary Lydon) and now wanted fugitive, who lives in her family's old mill. For a film about forbidden desire and longing, The Last September is one long slog of a month, cold and distant though pretty to look at, much like a piece of art gazed from afar. The only signs of life come from the ever-feisty Smith and Fiona Shaw, a stunning standout as the worldly houseguest who comes to mentor Lois.


V I D E O

Bridge of Dragons DVD Storm Catcher DVD Bridge of Dragons (R) **
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Storm Catcher (R) 1/2*
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When Dolph Lundgren headlines a direct-to-video action film, it's not exactly a mark of quality; rather, it's more of a warning. So the question when watching such films is not if they'll be bad, but just how bad they will be. By Lundgren standards, Bridge of Dragons isn't so bad. The plot is hooey: a soldier oh-so-symbolically named "the Warrior" (Lundgren) in the employ of a sadistic warlord (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is torn between loyalty to his leader and love for a princess (the beautiful Rachel Shane), whom the warlord intends to marry. But the action is virtually nonstop, with competently staged shootouts and martial arts fights outnumbering the painful dramatic scenes. Of course, Bridge of Dragons doesn't measure up to most big-screen action yarns, but it at least delivers all the mayhem that renters expect--perhaps even more.

The most die-hard Lundgren fans (if there are such people) can only disappointed by Storm Catcher, which casts the blond brute as an Air Force pilot wrongly accused of treason. That right there tells you what is wrong with this film--since he plays a pilot, there are a lot of action scenes involving the titular stealth bomber instead of down-and-dirty hand-to-hand combat scenes--which are what Lundgren does best. Take that away from him, and he's just a boring stiff. A laughable stiff, on the other hand, is model Kylie Bax, whose sub-amateurish performance as Lundgren's wife will have Cindy Crawford's Fair Game naysayers changing their tune. (Bridge: HBO Home Video, DVD also available; Storm: Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)


The Dinner Game poster The Dinner Game (Le Dîner de Cons) (PG-13) ***
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The tables are turned when Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte), a snobby publisher, gets trapped in his apartment with the unsuspecting dullard accountant (Jacques Villeret) whom he invited for a dinner for idiots. The idea behind Francis Veber's farce is simple, and so is the steady manner in which it piles comic complication upon comic complication--and it does so with a minimum of broad physical gags. Farce is usually equated with slapstick, but here the comedy is distinctly one of wits (or, in the case of the accountant, lack thereof), slowly building momentum to a satisfying finish. The film won three César Awards (the French Oscar equivalent), showing that the French don't always have bad taste in cinema. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)


Django poster Django Strikes Again poster Django *** 1/2
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Django Strikes Again *
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In its years of unavailability on video, Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western Django had been a much-requested, much-sought-after title, and one can easily see why. While telling a simple and now-familiar tale of a coffin-hauling loner (the intense and charismatic Franco Nero) who wanders into a small town torn by the violence of two warring groups, Corbucci's style gives it exhilarating freshness. The film's violence, which was shocking for its time, is rather tame by today's standards; the primitive makeup effects also lends some unintentional comedy (as does some of the English dubbing). There is, however, a lot of intentional and effective dark humor in this film, which serves as a tongue-in-cheek tonic to the more brutal goings-on. Django isn't exactly high art, but it's an awful lot of fun--and with its extended mud tussle between hookers and ultra-groovy theme song, how could it not be?

What isn't fun at all is 1987's Django Strikes Again, the only official sequel to Corbucci's original. Corbucci wasn't alive to make nor see this sequel, and that is just as well. While Nero still bears great screen presence, the film, in which Django must escape a deadly work camp to rescue his long lost daughter, is just about unwatchable. None of the original's wild abandon is presence in the action scenes, perfunctorily staged by director Ted Archer; and there are wrongheaded attempts at humor, namely by way of an out-of-place Donald Pleasance as a weirdo fellow convict. Will anyone ever learn that sequels made many years after the original are simply not worth making?

The DVD features both Django and Django Strikes Again, as well as the original trailers and interviews with Nero, who has aged remarkably well. The trailers and interviews are also available on the films' individual VHS editions. (Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD also available)


Fortress 2 DVD Fortress 2: Re-Entry (R) * 1/2
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How do you make a sequel to a film whose simple premise is to have the hero escape from a prison? Simple: throw him back into prison, and have him try to break out again--meaning that if you've seen the original Christopher Lambert starring vehicle, I imagine there's nothing terribly fresh for you to see here. The added wrinkle: the new prison is in outer space, leaving director Geoff Murphy to use some hilariously cheap CGI effects that could have easily been created on someone's home PC. Luckily for Pam Grier, who appears as the new prison's sexy, bitchy owner, her role lasts all of ten minutes. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)


Gen-X Cops poster Gen-X Cops (R) ** 1/2
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In this Hong Kong action yarn "presented" by Jackie Chan (who turns up in a cameo), a trio of rebellious young cops (Nicholas Tse, Stephen Fung, and Sam Lee) are sent on a dangerous undercover mission to locate some stolen explosives. Gunplay and chopsocky antics ensue, and all are capably handled by director Benny Chan. But style can't make the three lead characters less annoying; they're caricatures of "youthful exuberance," careless, cocky, and callow. The actors aren't done any favors by the English-speaking actors who dub them; this is especially the case with the talented Eric Tsang (Comrades: Almost a Love Story), who plays the trio's superior officer. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)


I Married a Strange Person! poster I Married a Strange Person! (R/unrated) ***
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"Strange" isn't even the half of it; try also "twisted," "sick,"--and, more often, than not, quite funny. In this wild adult animated fantasy from the ever-adventurous Bill Plympton, a young couple's marriage hits the skids when the husband develops a strange growth on his neck that enables him to make all his fantasies a reality. From this simple setup, Plympton and co-writer P.C. Vey spin a sexually explicit, graphically violent, and never less than inspired yarn that eventually involves greedy television executives, a washed-up comedian, and the military, all of whom want the power of his growth. Although the film only clocks in at 73 minutes, the energy does flag in the home stretch; the sight of flying severed body parts gets a little repetitive after a while. But the film is truly a unique work, one that never fails to fascinate, offend, and entertain. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)


Inherit the Wind VHS Inherit the Wind (PG) ** 1/2
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Jack Lemmon. George C. Scott. Great actors indeed, but if this made-for-cable adaptation of the classic play proves anything, it's that even the greats need some sort of direction--which is exactly what director Daniel Petrie Sr. doesn't give them. Playing two lawyers arguing the opposite sides of the creation vs. evolution in a landmark 1925 case, Lemmon and Scott don't hold anything back. Ever. Not so much to even take a breath. So instead of the story of a young teacher (Tom Everett Scott) whose job hangs in the balance over his teaching of evolution, this film becomes about which shouting old horse can outham the other. It's a draw. Viewers should pass. (MGM Home Entertainment)


Iris Blond poster Iris Blond (Sono Pazzo di Iris Blond) (R) **
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This Italian comedy gets off to a cute enough start. Romeo (Carlo Verdone, who also directed), a middle-aged, unlucky in love musician, is told by a fortune teller that the love of his life will be a singer whose name is also that of a flower. At first he thinks that it's Marguerite (Andréa Ferréol), a Belgian jazz chanteuse he meets on a cruise; but then he comes to think it's Iris (Claudia Guerini), a spunky--and much younger--waitress with musical aspirations. The film steadily goes downhill the more one gets to know Iris, who doesn't reveal herself to be a terribly likable character though Romeo grows increasingly smitten; and when Iris and Romeo form the club act of (no joke) Iris Blond and the Freezer. In a film about success-seeking musicians, it would help if one thought they had some amount of talent. However, Iris and Romeo's music is some of the most godawful European synth-pop you could ever imagine, complete with nonsensical English-as-a-second-language lyrics. Before long, I was hoping Romeo would just go back to jazz and Marguerite, who is a high-maintenance bitch but at least a lot more fun--and funnier--to watch. (Miramax Home Entertainment)


My Father Is a Hero poster Jet Li's The Enforcer (R) ***
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This 1995 Hong Kong vehicle for Li may bear a woefully generic new title (its original title is the corny but undeniably more interesting and appropriate My Father Is a Hero), but there's nothing run-of-the-mill about its dazzling action scenes, which spruce up the True Lies-ish plot (Li plays an ace deep cover mainland cop, but his wife and child don't have a clue about his derring-do). Li is given ample opportunity to show off his usual grace and athleticism, but director Corey Yuen also lets his co-stars in on the action. As his young son, Xie Miau proves to be a talented martial artist in his own right; and Anita Mui--herself a superstar in HK film and music--is, as usual, a delight as a kick-ass HK officer who comes to Li's family's aid. (Dimension Home Video, DVD also available)


Love Kills DVD Love Kills (R) * 1/2
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I don't know if love kills, but this film certainly could. Just when you thought low-budget filmmakers had finally given up on Tarantino ripoffs, here comes Mario Van Peebles, taking change-of-pace from his usual action-oriented roles with this dark comedy, which he wrote, directed, and stars in. He plays an escaped convict who, with the help of his sassy girlfriend (Loretta Devine), hatches a complex scheme to steal a fortune from a recent widow (Lesley Ann Warren). Naturally, things don't go nearly as smoothly as planned. Van Peebles comes up with a few inspired twists, but he ruins them, mostly by his encouragement of extremely overdone performances (he apparently told Devine to model her performance after guests on Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer) and the failure of nearly all his attempts at humor. Try this gag on for size: Van Peebles' character name is Poe Finklestein. Ha ha ha. The ensemble also includes Daniel Baldwin, Donovan Leitch, Alexis Arquette, Lucy Liu, and the elder Van Peebles, Melvin. (A-Pix Entertainment)


The Red Dwarf poster The Red Dwarf (Le Nain Rouge) (R) **
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At first, I was able to feel for Lucien (Jean-Yves Thual), a little person who is looked down upon--literally and figuratively--by his co-workers at a law firm and the world in general. But midway through the film, he commits an objectionable act that shifted my feelings against him, and he wasn't able to win back my favor. So as he rebels against his superiors and takes a job performing at a circus with his new best friend (Dyna Gauzy), I could not care less, especially since he never shows any real remorse. Thual gives a wonderfully expressive performance, but his efforts are negated by writer-director Yvan LeMoine's questionable choices. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)


Stuart Little poster Stuart Little (PG) * 1/2
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Apparently for most people, having a cute mouse is enough to make for acceptable family entertainment. Well, not for me. Yes, the titular rodent (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is cute. And yes, the film is made for and safe for kids. But if taking issue with the preposterous but creepy premise--a human couple (Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie) who decide to adopt a mouse over a number of perfectly healthy human children--makes me a grump, so be it. Maybe this worked on the page in E.B. White's beloved book, when the image of the parents and their new "son" is left to the imagination. But when I actually see two flesh-and-blood people doting over a mouse as if he were a child of the same species, I cannot help but cringe--and I cannot help but roll on the floor laughing at the site of a heartbroken Davis being reduced to tears by the sight of one of Stuart's sweaters after she is forced to give him up. The Oscar-nominated visual effects, which bring to life a number of other animals in addition to Stuart, are indeed impressive, and they make this bitter pill a little easier to swallow. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself throwing up afterward. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)


That Championship Season VHS That Championship Season (R) ** 1/2
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Films directed by actors almost always feature superb performances, and Paul Sorvino's made-for-cable adaptation of the prize-winning play is no exception. Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise, and especially Vincent D'Onofrio and Tony Shalhoub are all first-rate as four old friends/teammates who reunite 20 years after winning the high school basketball championship; Sorvino himself also does a nice job as their coach. Unfortunately, the performances are all that Sorvino paid any attention to. As the five come clean with their dirty secrets and confront how less than glorious their lives have been since their long-past crowning glory during one long night at the coach's house, Sorvino shows no sense of pace nor visual invention. The film is slow to warm and build, and he does nothing to keep the film's single location visually interesting; the same wide angles are used on the rare occasions he breaks from his pattern of talking head closeups. The result is more of a filmed play rather than a film adaptation of one. (MGM Home Entertainment)


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#234 April 22, 2000

M O V I E S

Gossip poster Gossip (R) * 1/2
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Gossip. While most people wouldn't like to admit it, a juicy rumor has a certain allure--one that is often greater than that of truth. The thriller Gossip takes its promising cue from this idea, but then the film rapidly goes nowhere with it, growing more and more ridiculous with each successive turn of the plot.

Gossip's premise is simple. For a project in their journalism class, university students Derrick (James Marsden), Jones (Lena Headey), and Travis (Norman Reedus) decide to plant and then trace the growth and evolution of a rumor: that freshman Naomi (Kate Hudson), known for her strict attitudes on sex, did the dirty deed with boyfriend Beau (Joshua Jackson) while drunk at a party. While the intent in harmless, the lie quickly takes a life of its own, and soon everyone is suffering from the fallout--not least of which the trio that started the whole mess.

The initial 20 minutes of Gossip, in which the three come up with their bright idea and unleash it upon the campus, exploits the potential of the premise. Director Davis Guggenheim employs a creative and succinct way to show how the gossip spreads and mutates: numerous people directly address the camera, recounting the story as they heard it (or, rather, think they heard it). Straight-to-camera confessionals are a bit cliché in the age of The Real World and its ilk, but the energized editing captures the excitement that accompanies a particularly enticing piece of hearsay.

But much like how the Naomi-Beau rumor spins out of control, so does Gossip. The interesting premise established, Guggenheim and writers Gregory Poirer and Theresa Rebeck proceed to do nothing with it. Before long, the subject that lends Gossip its title comes to bear less importance, and the film becomes a dismayingly conventional thriller where characters end up having secret paths that provide needless added motivation for certain actions. Even on these dumbed-down terms, Gossip falls far short of the mark, but that doesn't stop Guggenheim and company from also making the film a high minded "issue" movie. I won't say exactly what issue (to do so would reveal one of the film's key "twists"), but the film tackles it with a fraction of the depth you'd find in an afterschool special.

The cast certainly doesn't help the not-ready-for-the-big-screen feel. Marsden doesn't do anything here to counter the vacuous Teen Beat pinup image he projected in Disturbing Behavior; in fact, his performance here is even more embarrassing, making the credibility-straining turns his character undergoes even harder to swallow. Headey is simply miscast on a surface level. She clearly looks much older than the rest of the cast, resembling a mature woman among a group of kids; her American accent is also pretty shaky. Reedus does little to redeem what is already a bad part: an artist who inexplicably finds a new, almost obsessive inspiration in Naomi and her plight. Speaking of Naomi, Hudson is the only person who delivers a slightly credible performance. More seasoned stars, such as Sharon Lawrence, Edward James Olmos (both playing police detectives), and Eric Bogosian (as the journalism professor) are wasted.

It's only fitting that Gossip will undoubtedly fall victim to its own hook. When word-of-mouth spreads--and it will, and quite quickly at that--the film will take a much greater trouncing than the one felt by its mischief-making characters.


Love & Basketball poster Love & Basketball (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Film genres don't come more basic and predictable than the love story and the sports movie. Love story: soulmates run into countless, sometimes trivial, obstacles en route to "happily ever after"; sports movie: athletes must overcome physical and (mostly) mental hurdles to achieve their crowning glory. As one can glean from its no-frills title, Love & Basketball doesn't break much, if any, new ground within its genres, but writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood approaches the formula task with such intelligence and sincerity that it's petty to complain.

The most refreshing wrinkle to Love & Basketball is its straightforward treatment of women's sports, a subject that is rarely covered without a special angle. The female athlete here is Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan), a naturally gifted basketball player who continues to grow and mature in her ability as she works her way up from the high school ranks to the college ranks. Following the same path, albeit in a more flamboyant fashion, is her longtime neighbor Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), son of NBA journeyman Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert) and a shooting star in his own right.

Love & Basketball is the story of two passions: Monica and Quincy's passion for the game and also their passion for each other. Prince-Bythewood comes up with an ingenious way of melding these two through the film's structure: like a basketball game, the film--and, thus, the development of their relationship--is broken down into four quarters The two meet as 11-year-olds (played by Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman, respectively) in the first quarter (set in 1981), and after some typical boy-girl hostility, they grow to become friends. The second quarter covers the pair's (now played by Lathan and Epps) senior year in high school, when they become a couple. The third quarter traces their turbulent freshman year at USC, when their shared passions end up conflicting with each other, setting the stage for the 1993-set fourth quarter, which catches up with the two after college.

The scope of the film is ambitious--it also touches on their less-than-smooth relationships with their parents, not to mention the rocky relationship between Quincy's mom (Debbi Morgan) and dad--but Prince-Bythewood keeps the focus simple. All told, Love & Basketball is nothing more than the story of two people who love each other--and I mean people, not just characters. Monica and Quincy are multi-dimensional people, with their own individual strengths, weaknesses, and dreams. In an average movie, the script would have to manufacture complications to pull them apart, but the problems the two face are firmly rooted in who they are. It could be said that the biggest obstacle in their relationship is the one big obstacle faced by couples in real life: each other's fundamental imperfection as human beings.

Adding immeasurably to the authenticity of the film--both the sports story and the romance--are Epps and especially Lathan. Epps again proves to be a consistently solid performer; he's charismatic, likable, and more than up to the role's athletic requirements. The revelation here is Lathan, whose most high-profile role to date had been as Taye Diggs' love interest in The Best Man. Lathan is extremely convincing during Monica's many hoops scenes--an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact she could not ball worth a damn when she was initially cast. Her most glorious accomplishment, however, is her heartfelt dramatic performance. Monica carries the greatest emotional weight in the film, and Lathan brings the role natural depth and nuance. Even when the formula mechanics of the film start to show, Lathan lends the proceedings a crucial air of reality; she obviously believes in the material, and the audience finds no difficulty in following suit. A particularly overwrought line has Monica telling Quincy she'll play a one-on-one game for his heart, but Lathan makes it sound like the most natural thing anyone can say at that moment.

Love & Basketball isn't the most exciting of titles, but it's as honest a title as one is likely to find gracing a multiplex marquee. The film indeed has a lot of love, a lot of basketball, and it delivers all the expected payoffs at all the expected moments. While that fact may turn off people looking for something beyond the formula, I'd wager that for most audiences, all that Love & Basketball has to offer will more than satisfy.


The Virgin Suicides poster The Virgin Suicides (R) ** 1/2 Kirsten Dunst interview
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To use an exhausted cliché, the whole of The Virgin Suicides is far less than the sum of its parts. There are a lot of good individual elements on display in Sofia Coppola's screen adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, yet they never quite gel into something that completely satisfies--a shortcoming that can be blamed by the film's most distinctive quality.

With a title like The Virgin Suicides, the film's outcome is never in doubt. The setting is the suburban Midwest sometime in the 1970s, and the "virgins" in question are the five Lisbon sisters--Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), and Cecilia (Hanna Hall)--who all take their own lives within the space of a year. The exact reasons why is the mystery at the heart of the film and the point of obsession of three lovestruck boys who live in the neighborhood, who are most prominently represented by a still-haunted, unseen adult narrator.

In filmic terms, to label something a "mystery" almost implies the presence of a clear-cut solution, but there are no real answers given in The Virgin Suicides, only questions--a bit ironic, considering its tell-all title. The questions, however, appear to be entirely the point. The film is supposed to be the shared memory of these boys, and like a memory faded through time, The Virgin Suicides has an ethereal, dreamlike vagueness. Not much is ever learned about any of the sisters, not even the focal Lux, whose adventurous sexuality (she's the exception to the "virgin" label) leads to a decision by their parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) that plays a part in the girls' destruction. But the thinness of their characters is forgivable since they are near-mythic figures to the boys.

I haven't named any of the boys nor the actors who portray them because they, too, have virtually no distinct identity individually nor as a group. While the dreamlike quality that Coppola gives the film is largely effective, from the evocative score (by Air) and visual style to the idealized vision of the Lisbon sisters, extending that to the boys is a major misstep. They are the audience's entry vessel into the story, but it's impossible to connect with them on an emotional (or any other) level since nothing is ever learned about them. As such, when the title event occurs, it's in an emotional vacuum; the audience can't really feel for the loss of the girls since it never really knew them, and without a sense of who the boys are and were, it's just as impossible to completely empathize with or understand their loss.

With the characters intentionally made sketchy, the actors are called on to shade them in, and Coppola coaxes fine work from them all. Especially noteworthy are Woods, both sleazy and charming as the model airplane-obsessed Lisbon patriarch; Dunst, who strikes the right balance of innocence and sensuality for Lux; and Josh Hartnett as Trip Fontaine, the jock stud who takes an interest in Lux.

Much like how strong individual elements add up to a curiously undernourished whole, the most memorable thing about The Virgin Suicides turns out to be its greatest hindrance: the atmosphere. While lending the film an eerie beauty as it unspools, the relentlessly dreamy mood makes the film similarly weightless. The Virgin Suicides is indeed an entrancing experience, but there's nothing solid left to hold onto once it's over.


In Brief

28 Days poster 28 Days (PG-13) **
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Even with Sandra Bullock's ever-likable presence, Betty Thomas' drug rehab comedy-drama is in need of a bit of rehabilitation itself. Bullock more than adequately handles the comic and dramatic shades of the film as Gwen, a drunk and pill addict who is sentenced to a rehab facility (three guesses as to how long her sentence is) after crashing a limousine into a house. At the facility, she meets the usual sort of kooky but non-threatening characters, such as her soap opera-obsessed roommate (Azura Skye), a goofy German (Alan Tudyk), and a major league baseball pitcher (Viggo Mortensen, looking strangely like Screamwriter Kevin Williamson). There a few diverting moments and performances (Steve Buscemi delivers a wry turn as Gwen's counselor), but two important points are lost amid broad comic vignettes: the passage of time and the progression of recovery. One never knows how far along Gwen is in her sentence, nor can one really trace how well she does; the script calls for Bullock to appear strung out in one scene then cleaned up without explanation the next. Such confusion is to be expected, though, in a film that seems to say that one has reached true sobriety only when one can lift up a horse's leg (don't ask).


U-571 poster U-571 (PG-13) ***
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Don't walk into Jonathan Mostow's WWII-set deep sea thriller looking for narrative invention or dense characterization. This is all you need to know: a Naval lieutenant (Matthew McConaughey, a good fit) who was passed over for a promotion to captain gets to prove himself after a botched mission leaves him and his crew aboard the titular German sub. What does matter is all that goes on beyond this set-up, as the crew aboard U-571 (including characters well-played by Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber, and Jack Noseworthy) must face an ever-escalating series of calamities brought on by, among other things, depth charges dropped by a Nazi destroyer. Once Mostow settles his film into basic thrill ride mode--which is rather quickly--U-571 is throwback Hollywood entertainment done quite well: exciting, tense, and shamelessly patriotic.


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