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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 69

#236 - 238
May 8, 2000 - May 19, 2000


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#238 May 19, 2000

M O V I E S

Dinosaur poster Dinosaur (PG) ***
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Dinosaur marks another advancement for Walt Disney Pictures' animation division. It is the first computer-animated feature from the Mouse to be produced entirely in-house, as opposed to their hit collaborations with the Pixar animation studio. The film also convincingly blends CGI characters with live action backdrops. With such innovation on display, it's unfortunate that the makers of Dinosaur couldn't find a more interesting story to tell.

Dinosaur's story is typical of Disney's traditionally animated features, where a young protagonist comes of age. Here it is the young iguanodon Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), who is raised by a loving family of lemurs after his egg is displaced (in a truly spectacular wordless opening sequence). Aladar's pleasant life with foster caregivers Yar (Ossie Davis) and Plio (Alfre Woodard) is violently interrupted when a meteorite destroys their island home, and they and young lemurs Zini (Max Casella) and Suri (Hayden Panettiere) find themselves with a herd of dinos braving battering heat and a lack of water to make it to their lush nesting ground.

That's the entire film--the dinosaurs making their long trek to the nesting ground, with Aladar coming into his own while bonding with budding love interest Neera (Julianna Margulies) as well as old dinos Eema (Della Reese) and Baylene (Joan Plowright), and butting heads with the group's leader Kron (Samuel E. Wright), who sees no fault with letting the weak in the pack get lost and/or die. There are some good, thrilling set pieces, namely those involving the ravenous carnotaurs who stalk the pack. But they are just pieces in the larger puzzle that is Aladar's coming of age, a tale that Disney has told in more entertaining and emotionally satisfying ways in films past.

However, Disney hasn't told the tale in such a visually striking way. The seamless compositing of the CGI creatures with the live action settings has a lot to do with the nearly photo-real quality of the computer effects. The textures, from Aladar's scaly skin to the fur of the lemurs, are remarkably lifelike and meticulously detailed. The creatures also move convincingly like dinosaurs; the dinosaurs' ability to speak aside, the film feels like an authentic recreation of life during the cretaceous.

Perhaps that's why that opening sequence, in which Aladar's egg is removed from its nest and dropped onto the lemur island, is Dinosaur's big highlight. Told without a single spoken word, it is so compelling because it feels so real. When the speech and the familiar story kick in, the film feels less so--and, hence, less fresh. Dinosaur is indeed a sight to behold--and one well worth paying the full movie ticket price to see--but it could've been a more nourishing feast for the mind.


Held Up poster Held Up (PG-13) *
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When asked about his latest big screen vehicle, Held Up, by a radio DJ at a recent movie premiere, Jamie Foxx urged the crowd, "Don't see that shit." I can't blame him. "Held up" is more than just what happens to his character in this laugh-free comedy--it's also what happens to Foxx's promising career with this creaky vehicle.

Foxx is a versatile talent; he more than held his dramatic own in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, whose soundtrack also gave him an opportunity to show off his impressive singing chops. First and foremost, though, he's known for his skill as a comedian, as displayed on his eponymous WB sitcom or, better yet, his stint on In Living Color. And there are moments in Held Up where his gift shines through. As his Michael Dawson and a few others are held hostage by a robber (Eduardo Yañez) in a middle-of-nowhere convenience store, Foxx has his moments, such as when a spontaneous rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire's "Reasons" spurs on a mass singalong.

Maybe that example isn't exactly a gutbuster, but, sadly, is one of the more inspired moments of Jeff Eastin's weak script. Michael, who had been on a long road trip from Chicago with his girlfriend Rae (Nia Long), ends up at the convenience store after she leaves him there after learning that the vintage car in which they've been traveling cost much more than he said. Not long after she hitches a ride to the nearby Las Vegas airport, Michael's beloved car is stolen, and he's stuck in the convenience store with a typically eccentric bunch--one that grows even moreso with the arrival of the robber.

Eastin's idea of comedy is playing to racial stereotypes. The small desert town in which the store is located is a haven for bumbling rednecks. Those in law enforcement, such as Sheriff Pembry (Barry Corbin) and Deputy Beaumont (Jake Busey) are not much more intelligent, if not even less so. Michael, being the only black man in town, is mistaken for famous African-Americans such as Puff Daddy and--in a particularly weak joke--Mike Tyson since "Dawson" sounds oh so much like "Tyson."

With director Steve Rash focusing on the less-than-scintillating hostage crisis--which is made even more tedious by the real-time storytelling--Long is left with nothing to do. Every so often Rash cuts to Rae waiting in an airport bar for her flight back home to Chicago, telling the bartender (Julie Hagerty) about her relationship with Michael. Since there are no attempts at humor, strained or otherwise, in these passages they are somewhat easier to tolerate than the groan-inducing would-be hijinks at the convenience store. That fact, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that these scenes aren't boring, which they are.

That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Held Up: it's boring. It takes some doing to make performers as magnetic and energetic as Foxx and Long uninteresting to watch, and that's exactly what Rash and Eastin have managed to accomplish here. Foxx and Long will easily recover from this career misstep, but one has to wonder just how they got held up with Held Up in the first place.


Mission: Impossible II poster Mission: Impossible II (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Brevity, it seems, is but a side benefit of Paramount's insistence that Mission: Impossible II (as the film is called in its main title sequence) be referred to by its promotional title, M:I-2. The shorter title is a better fit for the John Woo-directed big-budget follow-up to the smash 1996 TV spinoff, for it never quite feels like a Mission: Impossible film. For that matter, it also never completely feels like a John Woo film. Fortunately, the strange middle ground M:I-2 achieves proves to be more than enough to satisfy anyone looking for a jolt of summer movie action.

However, it takes a while for that jolt to kick in. Woo is one of the best, if not the absolute best, directors of action films working today, and that's not necessarily because inventive ways of choreographing and editing gunfights (though that does play a large part). His best films, in particular those he made in his native Hong Kong, were also just as much concerned about the larger emotional and psychological issues in the story. His masterpiece, 1989's The Killer (which he also wrote), centered around a hitman's attempt at redemption; his best American film, 1997's Face/Off (which he didn't write--but certainly felt written especially for him) explored the common Woo theme of duality by having two men on opposite sides of the law swap faces and identities.

By contrast, Mission: Impossible is a spy caper, and by design it is more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of convoluted espionage plots than anything about the characters. So in M:I-2's plot-establishing first two-thirds, Woo obviously doesn't have his heart in it, and the plodding pace is nowhere near the consistently rapid pulse Brian DePalma gave the first film. There are no big shootout set pieces for Woo to strut his stuff, so he is made to have whatever fun he can with a stylish but largely by-the-book car chase between our hero, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), and Nyah Nordoff-Hall (a ravishing Thandie Newton), a sexy thief. Hunt is ordered by his nameless superior (an unbilled Anthony Hopkins) to recruit her for a mission to recover a deadly virus stolen by rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott).

Cruise, who also produced, took the criticisms of the first Mission: Impossible's labyrinthine plot to heart, hence the simple plot that can be succinctly summarized by the above sentence. As such, M:I-2 is much easier to follow than its predecessor, but it is also less in the spirit of the original concept of the show. Contrary to one of the film's best lines in the film (delivered by Hopkins' character), the retrieval-of-the-virus assignment is more "mission difficult" than "mission impossible." As ridiculously complex as the first film's story was, it made for a more engrossing and convincing spy yarn.

Perhaps this was a concession to Woo and his style, for scripter Robert Towne also makes some attempt at a more intimate subplot, building a love triangle between Hunt, Nyah, and Ambrose. But it's not particularly well-developed, for I never detected much of a sincere connection between Nyah and her former love Ambrose, robbing this element of the story of any tension or suspense. Chalk up this weakness to Woo as well, for he skews the balance by effectively using his natural visual flair toward establishing the link between Hunt and Nyah, whose portrayers are nicely matched.

So far, not so good, and just when one is ready to completely dismiss Mission: Impossible II, at the end of the second act Towne's script finally plops Hunt in the middle of an impossible situation and gives Woo for the chance he'd been waiting for the entire film. With the bullets--as well as many people--flying about a laboratory in a spectacular shootout, everyone involved in the production appears to be galvanized: all the cast members (especially Cruise, who clearly gives his all) and, above all, Woo himself. This sequence is classic Woo in every way; not only is the gunplay exciting and strangely beautiful to behold, there are also the broad, operatic emotional strokes that lend weight to the pyrotechnics. (However, one of Cruise's big lines is a near-laughable, almost word-for-word duplication of Daniel Day-Lewis' signature declaration in The Last of the Mohicans.)

Once you get Woo started, there's no stopping him, and the final 40 minutes of M:I-2 is far and away the most electrifying action filmmaking one is likely to see on the big screen this year. Everything--from the slow-mo shots of near-balletic fight moves to the omnipresent flying birds--one expects from a John Woo action film finally arrives, and he does not disappoint, and not just in an action standpoint. The underwhelming story resolves itself in a satisfying way; however, it is somewhat hampered by the problem that plagued the end of Face/Off: signs that point toward a more complex--and typically Woo--close are erased by an overwhelming sunniness.

While Woo defies the odds and performs a spectacular rescue of M:I-2 in its final third, it's clear that, for all his brilliance, he simply is not the filmmaker best suited to this franchise's constricting formula. M:I-2 ultimately delivers the goods and is certain to be a huge hit, and one hopes that with the new doors opened by it, Woo will return to writing his own material, a key factor to his finest films--one of which M:I-2, while ending up quite good in its own right, certainly won't be mistaken for.


Screwed poster Screwed (PG-13) 1/2*
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The tagline for the comedy Screwed is "Everyone gets it in the end." That could not be more true--especially for the audience, who gets it much worse than any of the characters in the film. It is tempting to say that any audience that sees Screwed will themselves feel "screwed." But that's putting it lightly; anyone who sees it would know that a more profane term would be more appropriate.

As bad as the film is, Screwed isn't, well, screwed from the start. In fact, it does hold some degree of promise from a plotting standpoint. Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who make their directorial debut with this film) do devise an interesting set of twists from a simple premise: as payback against his slavedriving employer Miss Crock (Elaine Stritch), overworked and underappreciated chauffeur Willard Fillmore (Norm Macdonald) and his friend Rusty (Dave Chappelle) come up with a plan to kidnap Miss Crock's beloved dog and hold it for ransom. Of course, the plan doesn't go quite as they planned, and the turns the plot takes as events quickly spin out of control are not without some inspiration.

Where Alexander and Karaszewski could have used more inspiration are the gags that fill the time between turns of the plot. Ben Stiller's fight with a pooch in There's Something About Mary was indeed hilarious, but other film's attempts to ape that scene have always fallen flat on their faces; Screwed's weak try is no exception. The scene, with Willard spraying blood all over the walls of Miss Crock's house as her dog's teeth remain clenched on his hand, is indicative of the juvenile level of slapsticky humor that dominates the film. An old lady in a hospital hits Rusty in the head with a bedpan. A woman kicks a man a number of times in rapid succession. There's even a running gag where Rusty hits guys in the head with lamps. It's all more numbing than funny.

Alas, the tiresome physical gags aren't numbing enough to spare the audience the pain of spending time with such unpleasant characters. Willard and Rusty aren't charmingly dimwitted--as is the obvious intent--but obnoxiously stupid; Macdonald's whiny performance makes matters even worse. Stritch makes a hateful bitch, but she is so unlikable that it's painful to watch and listen to her; no less than an excruciating death for her character would be a satisfying payoff for the film (needless to say, that doesn't happen). It's rather telling that Danny DeVito's weirdo morgue attendant, a grimy guy who mines dead bodies for hidden treasure, exudes the most charm, comparatively speaking.

Even harder to figure than why Alexander and Karaszewski--who have established themselves as gifted screenwriters (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt)--wrote Screwed is why they chose this script to serve as their maiden directorial effort. Perhaps they thought that only they would be able to give the script its full justice, but I can't imagine any other filmmaker doing much worse with the already-poor material than they have.


Small Time Crooks poster Small Time Crooks (PG) ** 1/2
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Small Time Crooks delivers small time laughs. That's not exactly a damning statement; the Y2K edition of the Woody Allen Annual Project is good for a few giggles. But that's exactly the problem--all there is to be had are giggles.

Only a few of these light guffaws are to be had courtesy Allen the actor. He plays Ray Winkler, an ex-con whose job as a lowly dishwasher doesn't exactly provide a cushy life for him and his fed-up wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a manicurist. Allen is in full, tiresome nebbish mode, and he is matched in the shrillness department by Ullman, a talented, versatile comedienne who sometimes gets so caught up in her characters' quirks that any sense of humanity gets lost in them (which is the case here).

So it's hard to much care whether or not Ray's big and none-too-bright get-rich-quick scheme--to rob a bank--works out or not. I'm not giving anything away by saying they indeed to get rich quickly (albeit not in the manner they had expected), and suddenly the Winklers are part of New York high society. Ray just wants to live as a regular guy, but Frenchy wants to be one of those snooty socialites, and she turns to British art dealer David (Hugh Grant) for lessons in class and refinement.

Grant's character is the umpteenth variation on the Brit gentleman parts he has built his career with, but he's more appealing company than the Winklers. Then again, many of the supporting characters are more fun than the leads. Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz are all funny as Ray's partners-in-crime, but they virtually vanish after the film jumps ahead in time on year. Luckily, still prominently present after the time gap is Elaine May, who plays the dimmest of the film's cast of dim bulbs, Frenchy's cousin May.

As with all Allen films, there are a few good wisecracks and individual gags (not among them is a particularly forced bit involving a burst water main). But never do they come together into a filling whole, making Small Time Crooks a minor, middling effort from a major talent.


In Brief

Road Trip poster Road Trip (R) **
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The recruited young seatfillers at the press screening audibly ate up every crass minute of this college road comedy--a scene that I am certain will be duplicated in many theatres the nation over as the film becomes one of the summer's sleeper successes. However, if you don't find gags such as, say, jumping a car over a downed bridge funny, likely you won't enjoy the string of equally unoriginal and far raunchier gags that director/co-writer (with Scot Armstrong) Todd Phillips passes off as plot. The antics are set into motion when Josh (Breckin Meyer), who attends college in Ithaca, NY, accidentally sends his Austin, TX-based girlfriend Tiffany (Rachel Blanchard) a videotape of his infidelity with the fetching Beth (Amy Smart). With only three days until Tiffany returns to her dorm after a bereavement leave (her grandfather just passed), Josh and friends E.L. (Seann William Scott), Rubin (Paulo Costanzo), and Kyle (DJ Qualls) hit the road to intercept the package.

Just how much emphasis does Phillips give individual gags over basic storytelling practices? I did not know Scott's character's name until the last scene, when narrator Barry (Tom Green), who recounts the story of the film to a campus tour group, tells the characters' fates. Green will undoubtedly be the main draw for the young MTV crowd, but not only is his screen time limited, Phillips and Armstrong don't find a smooth way to fit him into the film. The framing device of the tour has a weak payoff, and Barry's involvement in the main story--he has to feed Rubin's pet snake while the guys are away--is tangential at best. Not that the main story is all that great to begin with: just a series of uninspired gags, ranging from the gross (a sperm bank interlude) to the insulting (the white quartet is scared by a room full of black men--how funny and progressive). The trip would be more tolerable if this motley crew were fun to hang out with, but with the exception of Meyer (whom I've grown to like more with each film), the travelers are annoying. Scott's E.L. is basically American Pie's obnoxious Stifler with more screen time; the character of Rubin is nondescript and Costanzo personality-free; Qualls fails to command any sympathy as the token nerd. If you're tempted to watch Road Trip by the raucous trailer, be forewarned: it gives away nearly all of the film's better jokes.


V I D E O
Made for Network TV

The Decalogue DVD The Decalogue (Dekalog) ****
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Thanks to highly regarded works like The Double Life of Veronique and the landmark Three Colors trilogy, the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski has a devoted following in the United States. However, the one work widely regarded as his ultimate masterpiece, the 1988 made-for-Polish-TV opus The Decalogue (Dekalog), is only now receiving an official stateside release--and it is indeed worth the wait.

The Decalogue can be seen as a precursor to Kieslowski's (and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz's) Three Colors trilogy, whose individual features each explored the idea represented by one of the three colors of the French flag: blue, white, and red. The Decalogue is made up of ten approximately one-hour films (which goes a long way toward explaining the difficulty of a theatrical run for the series), each telling a story that addresses one of the Ten Commandments. Like the Three Colors trilogy, the characters in the ten different films all have tangential links (here, all installments are set in and around the same Warsaw apartment building), and also like that series, each film explores its theme in unconventional and surprising ways. That fact in mind, I will assess each film without going into too many plot specifics.

One ****: In this haunting evocation of "I am the Lord thy God," a father (Henryk Baranowski) teaches his son (Wojciech Klata) to embrace the miracle of modern technology--perhaps a bit too much so--through extensive use of their home computers. The story is simple, but through it Kieslowski addresses his central issue eloquently and poignantly. The film's formidable emotional impact is made even stronger by the performances, particularly the startling turn delivered by the effortlessly likable young Klata.

Two *** 1/2: "Thou shalt not take the name of thy Lord in vain" is the Commandment that one doctor (Aleksander Bardini) is in danger of breaking when the wife (Krystyna Janda) of a seriously ill patient places an important decision in his hands. The dilemma faced by the doctor is indeed raises provocative ethical questions, but his ultimate decision is fairly unsurprising. Still, Kieslowski's sure direction and the flawless performances make this compelling viewing.

Three ***: "Honor the Sabbath day" is but an afterthought in this watchable but rambling story of a married man (Daniel Olbrychski) who spends Christmas Eve on an exhausting citywide search with his ex-mistress (Maria Palkunis). Like nearly all of the series, this is a drama, but the story's inherent lack of gravity makes this installment one of the more insubstantial of the series.

Four ****: My personal favorite of the ten is this unforgettable twist on "Honor thy father and thy mother." After a young woman (Adrianna Biedrzynska) finds and opens a letter that she is not meant to see until after her father's (Janusz Gajos) death, the fallout alters their relationship forever. This is Kieslowski and Piesiewicz's finest writing achievement of the series, bravely confronting sensitive issues and boldly pushing their exploration beyond most viewers' comfort levels. The result is a film with tremendous staying power--highly thought-provoking and quite disturbing.

Five *** 1/2: "Thou shalt not kill," and thou certainly won't want to after seeing this harsh criticism of all forms of the deed. A man (Miroslaw Baka) senselessly murders another, and he is then put on Death Row. The story is obvious, as is its point, but just as readily apparent is how powerfully Kieslowski drives the idea home.

Six ****: After I first saw this episode, I wasn't quite sure what to think. I was completely engrossed by this odd tale of a young man (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko) who falls in love with the promiscuous older woman (Grazyna Szapolowska) whom he spies on every night, but I failed to see the connection to its assigned commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." On a second viewing, the connection could not be clearer; it's not so much about "adultery" in the literal sense, as in sex outside of a marriage, as it is the term's underlying idea: physical intimacy outside of love. Terrific performances and clever twists power this, Kieslowski's finest directorial effort of the series.

Seven *** 1/2: "Thou shalt not steal," but what if the item "stolen" was yours to begin with? That's the paradox as a young woman (Maja Barelkowska) pits herself against her parents (Anna Polony and Wladyslaw Kowalski), leaving an innocent child's fate in the balance. The soapy plot is elevated by smart writing, perceptive direction, and heartbreaking performances.

Eight ***: While the other nine installments manage to intellectually and spiritually nourish without the audience's acute awareness, this slow exploration of "Thou shalt not bear false witness" often feels like a lesson; straightforward and cut and dry, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz seemed to not have been able to come up with a particularly inspired way in which to address the Commandment. Nonetheless, it is worth watching for the sincere work of Maria Koscialkowska and Teresa Marczewska as, respectively, an old college professor and a younger woman whom the professor encountered as a child during WWII.

Nine ****: No neighbors are involved, but a wife is coveted in this beautiful dramatization of "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife." When a man (Piotr Machalica) finds out he's impotent, he forces his wife (Ewa Blaszczyk) into an awkward choice that incites his own jealousy. The outcome is inevitably sad, and this installment is undeniably moving.

Ten ***: Two brothers (Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr) inherit their father's valuable stamp collection, and a comedy of errors ensues when they try to complete it. Yes, Kieslowski's take on "Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's goods" is played for laughs, but dark ones, much like his White (which also starred Zamachowski). While that makes the final installment of the cycle the most lightly amusing, it also makes it the most disposable.

With so many individual pieces making up the complete picture, it would be unrealistic to expect every piece to be great, and, indeed, I would only consider four of the ten as being such. Still, each film is worth seeing on its own individual merits. Nonetheless, The Decalogue is meant to be taken as a whole, and in its complete form, it not only ranks as one of the most ambitious and challenging film works ever attempted, but one of the most rewarding and unforgettable. (Facets Video, DVD also available)


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#237 May 14, 2000

M O V I E S

The Basket poster The Basket (PG) **
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Clean, proper, and brimming with good intentions, The Basket is one of those films that people say "aren't made anymore." That comment is only partially true. Films like The Basket indeed aren't made anymore--for the big screen, at least, for this type of maudlin, medicinal family film is a dime a dozen on the tube, where it belongs.

The title The Basket has a number of meanings. First, it is the title of a (fictional) German opera that newly-arrived schoolteacher Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote) presents to his students in a small Washington town, circa 1918. The opera's twisting, mystical story soon captures the imaginations of everyone in town, its plot developments being discussed and dissected much like those of a modern day soap. Second, it is a reference to the other new thing that Conlon brings to the youth: the game of basketball.

The round ball especially captures the interest of young Helmut Brink (Robert Karl Burke). Helmut and his older sister Brigitte (Amber Willenborg) are orphaned German refugees, and with WWI raging--and one of the local boys having returned from the warfront severely injured--the two face prejudice from all around. The anti-German sentiment also extends to Conlon for teaching a work originating from America's enemy.

That already is enough plot for a feature film, but like an overstuffed afterschool special that wants to be all things, The Basket doesn't know where to quit. Writers Rich Cowan (who also directed), Don Caron, Frank Swoboda, and Tessa Swoboda throw in a "forbidden romance" between Brigitte and a brother of the injured soldier, an intrigue subplot involving Conlon's down-low dealings with shady characters, and a "big game" sequence where Helmut gets his shot at hoops glory. The obvious intent is to give each character on the large canvas a chance to shine, but the individual elements are undercooked on their own terms, yielding less-than-satisfying payoffs.

The performances also don't feel quite formed. Coyote is likable but hampered by a strange accent. Less strange but more distracting are the German accents of Burke and Willenborg, which are just as awkward as their overall performances. Karen Allen, as the mother of the soldier, makes the most significant impression, but her role is only a few lines away from being a mere walk-on.

There's no denying that The Basket will foster warm feelings in its audience; it's a nice film that addresses worthy subjects and does so in a manner accessible to the entire family. But in a time where "nice" is often equated with "boring," the undistinctive, earnestly good-for-you The Basket does nothing to alter that perception.


Battlefield Earth poster Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (PG-13) no stars
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Although trailers for Battlefield Earth have been playing in moviehouses since December, the reaction has remained constant over the last few months. With each new audience for each different film at each different time of day, no less than thunderous peals of derisive laughter greet the sight of John Travolta done up like a ten-foot-tall alien beast bearing talons and a moptop of dreadlocks. The television ad campaign, bearing the ludicrous catch phrase "Get Psychlo!" (Psychlo being the name of the monstrous alien race), has done little to change the negative public perception.

That said, I must give credit to the Warner Bros. marketing people. As poor as all the ads look, they don't even begin to touch upon the unfathomable awfulness of Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (the film's full, onscreen title). Not only is it hardly presumptuous to declare it the worst film of the year 2000, it is no exaggeration to call this wretched piece of incompetence one of the worst films ever made.

As stated by the complete title, the film takes place in the year 3000 A.D., where the planet is in post-apocalyptic ruins after being taken over by the evil alien race from the planet Psychlo a thousand years prior. "Man is an endangered species," as an insanely large text card states, with most of the remaining humans being held prisoner and/or enslaved by giant, grotesque Psychlo. A certain few, however, live freely as primitives in secluded mountain villages. One such person is a bright, resourceful young hunter (Barry Pepper) who may very well be the one to lead the human race to winning back its freedom from the alien invaders.

That summary could've been written by anyone who had just seen Battlefield's trailer, which makes clear what is completely incoherent in the complete film. Battlefield tells a simple, simplistic story, but somehow director Roger Christian and screenwriters Corey Mandell and JD Shapiro have made it virtually incomprehensible. After twenty or so dead-end minutes of people wandering through an obviously matte-composited wasteland comes the first of the showcase action scenes--which are all haphazardly cut and slow-mo'ed to oblivion. Pepper's doozy of a character name--Jonnie Goodboy Tyler--is not made evident until about halfway through the film. But at least his name has a consistent pronunciation, unlike that of Terl (Travolta, who also produced), the "head of security" for the aliens' Earth operation; sometimes it rhymes with "girl" and other times it rhymes with "Carol." However you say his name, Terl devises some sort of evil scheme against his superiors after being passed up for a cushier job (yes, even aliens get frustrated by career stagnation), but it beats me just how exactly it's supposed to work. Even so, his plan is not nearly as nonsensical as the humans' plan for revolt.

Travolta has called Terl "the definitive evil character." With creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos failing to come up with a menacing look for the Psychlo--their appearance looks ridiculously slapped together from bits of cheap leftover Klingon and rastafarian costumes, with a touch of bondage gear thrown in--it's up to Travolta to turn Terl into a convincingly vicious, truly hateful villain. But his smug, jokey take on the character is a complete miscalculation. A similar approach worked for him as the bad guy in John Woo's Broken Arrow, but there that flip cockiness fit the quirky character. Terl is supposed to be pure, unironic evil--not so much a character to hate as one to feel genuinely threatened by. With Travolta punctuating nearly every passage of dialogue with a ridiculously overdone "evil" cackle, it's little wonder that Terl--and, consequently, the film--can never be taken seriously.

However, the filmmakers take Battlefield Earth extremely seriously, and their reverence of the source novel--and its writer, Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard--blinds them to the fact that the story they're trying to adapt is nothing more than a pulpy genre piece, not an "important" work of literature. Hence, the film is riddled with laughable and utterly baffling moments of self-importance: a crowd is inspired to give exuberantly savage grunts and barks--by flowery statements about the value of freedom; pseudo-profound ruminations about destiny incongruously pop up during a big prison break sequence. People who treat lines like "We're gonna blow up their planet. Needless to say, we're gonna need more supplies before we do that" with grave seriousness are in no position to condescend to their audience, but that's exactly what Christian does. At one point, Jonnie is shown reading a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence, but so ignorant are we movie audiences that he has to then flip to a page that says "Declaration of Independence" in huge type.

Usually a subpar sci-fi film can at least fall back on its visuals, but Battlefield Earth can't even count that as a saving grace. Forget the not-so-special effects--Christian and his crew can't even get the basics right; the rubbery Psychlo creature design is just the tip of the iceberg. Matte paintings are not only obvious, the image compositing is shockingly inept; the three-dimensional actors are clearly standing in front of flat backdrops. The would-be futuristic weaponry and gadgets don't look quite as state-of-the-art as stuff you'd find on a toy store shelf.

Catch Travolta on any talk or magazine show, and you'll see him all smiles over Battlefield Earth. Exactly why is up for question. Given the fact that he's tried to bring to the project to the big screen for nearly twenty years, the obvious read is that he's beaming with pride that it finally came to fruition. But after seeing the final product, I cannot help but think that maybe, just maybe, he's laughing that he was able to sucker otherwise sensible people into pouring tens of millions of dollars toward making such an unspeakable, inexcusable waste.


Hamlet one-sheet Hamlet (R) * 1/2 Ethan Hawke interview
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The big struggle for a filmmaker looking to adapt a classic (read: old) literary work for the screen is to make it accessible to contemporary audiences. The trend these days appears to be translating the story into modern times--or, more accurately, transplanting the story, leaving the original language intact. The intent of the shift is obviously to put a fresh spin on a familiar tale, but in the case of Michael Almereyda's revisionist take on William Shakespeare's oft-filmed Hamlet, the move feels more a lazy gimmick than an inspired dash of creativity.

I was no fan of Baz Luhrmann's surprise 1996 hit William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which pioneered this Elizabethan-language-in-the-modern-world approach for the cinema. But that film, set in the mythical Florida town of "Verona Beach" in an undisclosed year, had enough of a surreal gloss to make the anachronistic speech go down a bit easier. The action in this Hamlet explicitly takes place in "New York City, 2000," and as such, the language cannot help but clang.

And when familiar soliloquies are delivered in locations such as, say, a Blockbuster Video store--which is exactly where Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) recites the famous "To be or not to be..."--the audience is overwhelmed by the contemporary trappings. The new setting distracts from, rather than enhance, Shakespeare's story about a Danish prince out to avenge his father's murder at the hands of Hamlet's uncle Claudius, who, in turn, has married Hamlet's mother Gertrude. This is largely because the alterations made to the set-up never take hold. Fresh-out-of-school digital filmmaker (no joke) Hamlet is the son of the dead "king" (Sam Shepard, who also played Hawke's deceased father in Snow Falling on Cedars) of the Denmark Corporation. The shift to the business world fails to add anything new; instead of using Shakespeare's themes of treachery, deceit, and revenge to make an interesting statement about cutthroat corporate tactics, the change is merely an incidental one, with no clearcut connection to the text. If anything, it just gives Almereyda the chance to set scenes in sleek and shiny buildings (Gideon Ponte's production design is indeed impressive--perhaps the only thing in the film that is a complete success).

Slick surfaces aside, this Hamlet, in maintaining the Bard's original language, covers all the familiar plot points and scenes. Claudius' (Kyle MacLachlan) advisor Polonius (Bill Murray!) still advises son Laertes (Liev Schreiber), "To thine own self be true." Polonius' daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is still Hamlet's true love, and he still eventually orders her to "Get thee to a nunnery." Of course, there are added Y2K wrinkles: Hamlet tells off Ophelia on her answering machine; Hamlet's soliloquies are largely confessionals given to his video camera as part of a diary document of sorts. These admittedly interesting touches cannot make up for the lack of verve in the entire film.

The sluggish vibe is set by Hawke. While some in the cast, MacLachlan and Diane Venora (playing Gertrude) in particular, nimbly handle their roles and the Bard's words, they are, of course, secondary to the prince of Denmark himself, and Hawke proves incapable of handling the task. Not only does he have the same slacker look he sported in the Gen-X comedy Reality Bites, but the same laid-back, forceless attitude. Hawke has said that he wanted to be part of a Hamlet that wasn't about the central performance, but without some intensity from the lead, the character and his story easily gets overshadowed by the gimmick of the contemporary setting.

Maybe that was Almereyda's point all along, to show how modern technology overwhelms contemporary lives. If that's the case, then why adapt Shakespeare's play if the intent is to obscure it? Whatever his reasoning, just the basic idea of Almereyda's Hamlet makes little sense, and so does the finished film.


In Brief

Center Stage poster Center Stage (PG-13) * 1/2
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The young cast of unknowns in Center Stage can all dance, which is a very good thing indeed because virtually none of them can act. And that, of course, is a very, very bad thing when action shifts from the dance studios of the American Ballet Academy to the outside lives of a cross-section of students there. Of course, those followed make a diverse group: there's naive good girl Jody (Jennie Garth lookalike Amanda Schull), who rooms with the talented smartass Eva (Zoë Saldana) and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), the school's reigning diva; on the male side are All-American good guy Charlie (Sascha Redetsky), Russian good guy Sergei (Olympic figure skating champion Ilia Kulik), and bad boy Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), the American Ballet Company's hot young star.

These characters all intersect and collide in predictable ways as they deal with predictable personal issues. Jody is quietly pursued by Charlie, but she's drawn to Cooper. Maureen slowly crumbles under the pressure of her overbearing mother (Debra Monk) as a premed student (Eion Bailey) aggressively woos her. Eva butts heads with a strict teacher (Donna Murphy) and the pompous head (Peter Gallagher) of the Academy over her attitude. And so on.

It may not sound so bad as described, but that's because I'm recounting the film without any taste of screenwriter Carol Heikennen's dreary dialogue, Nicholas Hytner's overly earnest direction, or the truly putrid performances by these unpromising acting "talents." (Something is clearly amiss when the one character's development of bulimia is met with laughter from the audience.) The one exception is the spunky Saldana, who is the only one to make her character appear to be a real person, let alone one the audience comes to care about. Whenever she's not onscreen or no one is dancing (with the exception of the climactic ballet, which is supposed to be "hip" and "revolutionary" but is actually quite ridiculous), Center Stage is one trying watch.


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#236 May 8, 2000

M O V I E S

Gladiator poster Gladiator (R) *** 1/2
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With its simple, arresting image of a lone, ancient battle-suited warrior standing tall in an arena, the one-sheet for Gladiator says everything you need to know about the film's plot--and of the movie itself, for the warrior is played by Russell Crowe, whose commanding performance not only towers over Ridley Scott's epic adventure, but elevates it to a higher plane.

Crowe plays Maximus, a respected Roman army general whom we first meet leading his men to a blood-drenched victory against tribes in Germania. So loved is he by Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) that the aging, dying emperor is ready to pass on his mantle to the Spanish-born Maximus--that is, before the emperor's own son, the scheming Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), takes matters into his own hands. After a fair amount of blood is spilled, the snubbed Commodus takes what he sees as his rightful crown.

Little of that blood, however, belongs to Maximus, for he easily escapes Commodus' flunkies and makes his way to the only place he truly wants to be: at home with his wife and child. The homecoming proves to be far from sweet, and before one can say "Murphy's Law," Maximus is captured by slave traders, who then sell him to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a trainer of Roman gladiators. A natural born warrior, Maximus has little difficulty winning matches and his ever-growing audiences' admiration, leading him back to Rome and setting a collision course with Commodus and Commodus' sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who had a long-ago romance with Maximus.

Strip away the ancient Roman setting, and the screenplay credited to David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson is your basic revenge film: upstanding hero is wronged by despicable villain; hero looks to even the score. Despite this simple plot, Gladiator clocks in at two and a half hours; however, the film doesn't feel it. The most basic reason for this is the great look of the film; the production and costume design is superb, and there are some shots, including an impressive (if somewhat obviously CG) flyover of Rome, that dazzle the eye.

Dazzling on a more visceral level are the spectacular battle scenes. Scott sets the tone with the curtain-raising battle in Germania, a powerful and exciting display of carnage that is graphic without being terribly gruesome. The many gladiator matches have the same effect; while there is much blood, the more graphic acts are more suggested than clearly spelled out. Frenetic camera work also accomplishes the double-edged task of both obscuring and embellishing the action; the image itself is less than clear, but the chaotic way in which it is shot makes for an effectively disorienting barrage of images.

Adding a necessary human element to such set pieces is Crowe. Charismatic without being smug, tough without being remote, his Maximus is an appealing, well-rounded hero. Crowe is a convincing man of action when slaughtering his opponents, but the warmth and intelligence he projects makes one truly care about the character and his plight. At first, Phoenix appears to have studied Malcolm McDowell's performance as another Roman emperor, Caligula, a bit too hard; his decadent gazes and flamboyant mannerisms are nearly as over-the-top as McDowell's in his notorious film. But as the film progresses, his character and performance builds depth, and Commodus evolves into a menacing, hiss-worthy villain. Nielsen, who has had a spotty track record thus far, unquestionably triumphs here; her balance of savvy and beauty makes it easy to understand Commodus' less-than-healthy interest in his sister. Harris and Reed also shine in their brief screen time as the two paternal figures in Maximus' life.

Gladiator is the unofficial kickoff vehicle for the summer blockbuster season, and it sets the bar high. While not a complete success--the conclusion doesn't quite achieve the emotional impact it strives for--Crowe's intense, (belatedly) star-making performance alone make this beautifully mounted production a tough act to follow.


I Dreamed of Africa poster I Dreamed of Africa (PG-13) no stars
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I can see how people thought this could work. The true story was already the basis for a bestseller: a woman from Italy moves to the radically different world of Africa, where her life experiences mold her into an activist against poaching and for conservation. Playing the woman would be known animal rights activist Kim Basinger, in her first role since winning an Academy Award. Thus the recipe was set for a film potentially brimming with tears, adventure, social relevance, and, perhaps, awards recognition. But the only awards Hugh Hudson's I Dreamed of Africa has any shot at earning are Stinkers and Razzies, for this astonishingly awful film is a study in how a film can go terribly wrong from concept to execution.

The first signs of trouble--for the film and heroine Kuki Gallmann (Basinger)--come early. We are introduced to Kuki as she and some friends get into a messy car accident on their way home from a night out in Italy. What is clearly established is that Kuki, a divorced single mother, is a resident of Italy, not a tourist. What isn't is how she got there. She could be Italian herself, but the casting of the all-American Basinger (and Eva Marie Saint as her mother) implies that her character is a U.S. expatriate. I might be nitpicking, but the lack of clarity on this point is annoying.

Kuki is severely injured in the accident, causing her to reevaluate her life in Italy. One of the people in the car with her was Paolo (Vincent Perez), with whom she gradually falls in love. They marry, and along with Kuki's son Emmanuele, a.k.a. "Emma" (Liam Aiken as a boy, Garrett Strommen as a teen), they move to Paolo's ranch in the Kenya--a move also spurred on by Kuki's memories of her late father's stories about (according to the press notes) "the incalculable magic of Africa."

Africa may be magical, but it's also a dramatic change of pace for someone used to the luxuries of European high society. So it only follows that the dreams Kuki had of "incalculably magical" Africa sharply contrast against the harsh reality: attacks by animals, severe windstorms, and the like. Kuki largely has to face these trials and tribulations on her own, for Paolo often disappears for stretches of time when he accompanies friends on hunting expeditions--leading to the expected melodramatic argument scenes. What isn't so expected is how ridiculous a lot of these scenes are, especially this one jawdropping sequence. An especially heated late night argument is interrupted by an elephant eating up Kuki's garden. Already in a huff, she directs her aggression toward chasing the elephant away, and away it goes. Impressed with her feat, the two have a hearty laugh and then proceed to have passionate sex. Nothing like wild animals feasting on your crops to put the zing back into a marriage.

The ridiculous and inexplicable, such as that scene, hangs over I Dreamed of Africa much like how impending tragedy seems to loom over Kuki's life. Much is made over the destruction of a ramshackle water system, and discussion of that issue is followed by a scene where Kuki, Emma, and some servants are shown at the tail end of what is presumably a long walk, carrying large buckets of water; one of the servants is even carrying a bucket on her head. Home is just a few steps away when Kuki throws her water on Emma, who then retaliates with his load. Uh, was that long, heavy haul simply made to have a water fight? Then there's Kuki's constantly telling Emma that he looks more and more like Paolo every day. Excuse me, but isn't Emma the product of her union to her first husband? More annoying is one big point of hypocrisy: Kuki is appalled by the sight of animals slaughtered by poachers, yet her only big objection to Paolo's many hunting expeditions is his abandonment of his family.

But nothing in I Dreamed of Africa is as laugh- and cringe-inducing as the leaden voiceover narration, full of insipid and pretentious platitudes. Kuki on the difficulty of letting Emma attend a distant boarding school: "He is my son. He is my friend." Kuki on the vastness of Kenya: "I was alone. But I was surrounded by Africa. I was surrounded by life." I can only hope that these profound statements emerged from the pen of screenwriters Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday and not that of the real-life Gallmann, whose memoir is the basis of the film.

As I mentioned earlier, Kuki Gallmann's experiences in Africa indeed changed the direction of her life; she became a renowned conservationist and vocal opponent of poaching. However, I Dreamed of Africa barely touches on this development--in the text card that comes between the film and the end credit roll. The film closes with the drama of a few world-altering events for Kuki, but they in no way hint at the ultimate direction of her life; by ending at the point that it does, the film robs itself of its own point--that with this radical change in lifestyle, Kuki was able to find herself and her calling in life. As I Dreamed of Africa stands, it is the story of a woman who moved into the wild and found hardship, and one is supposed to find the simple fact that she was able to survive heroic.

With its intended (and rather simple) point lost, the story of I Dreamed of Africa is made to be one of those true tales that hold nothing of real interest to anyone but the person who actually lived it. So one looks elsewhere in the film to find some fulfillment, but one ends up feeling empty. Basinger's performance is sincere, but it's that very quality that gets it swallowed by the film's air of self-importance and pretension, so the film doesn't qualify as a star vehicle. The film, while nicely shot by Bernard Lutic, doesn't make the grade as a travelogue, for the glimpses of Kenya are limited, given the film's confinement to the ranch setting. Ultimately, I Dreamed of Africa makes no convincing argument for its existence.


In Brief

Human Traffic poster Human Traffic (R) ***
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...is a condition often encountered by friends--or, to use British vernacular, "mates"--Jip (John Simm), Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), Koop (Shaun Parkes), Nina (Nicola Reynolds), and Moff (Danny Dyer) as they hit the Ecstasy-fueled rave club scene every weekend to escape their humdrum lives. The main tour guide for the single, not-so-average weekend shown in Human Traffic is Jip, who has been suffering from impotence. The others also have their issues: Koop, a vinyl record store clerk who dreams of fame as a DJ, is insanely jealous whenever girlfriend Nina so much as looks as another guy; Nina is sick of her demeaning fast food job; Lulu wants to end her string of dating losers; the perpetually toasted Moff has trouble dealing with his conservative parents.

Writer-director Justin Kerrigan, who based much of the film on his own rave experiences, doesn't use his film's comedic intent as an excuse to shy away from the lifestyle's darker side, namely the drug comedowns. That said, the film is breezy and energetic; all the performers have appeal and exuberance to match their youth, and Kerrigan's appropriately relentless pace effectively gives the audience the jolt the characters feel. However, when a film moves as quickly as Human Traffic, something is bound to not keep up, and here that's the story; per its slice-of-life feel, there isn't a terribly strong narrative present. Nonetheless, the film's high spirits are contagious and wholly impossible to resist.


Up at the Villa poster Up at the Villa (PG-13) ** 1/2
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In Philip Haas' adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella, Up at the Villa is where young English widow Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets herself into a little bit of big trouble while on an extended holiday in pre-WWII Florence, Italy. What she had thought to be an impulsive, generous, and ultimately trivial gesture becomes the instigator to a snowballing set of problems that comes to involve Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), an American who helps clean up Mary's mess.

Penn is quite amusing in this suave, change-of-pace role. Also good is Jeremy Davies, doing his usual soft-spoken bit as an Austrian refugee; and Anne Bancroft in the showiest role as a flamboyant, tart-tongued socialite. However, there is a shaky lead. Scott Thomas would seem perfectly cast, given her extensive experience in these period roles. But she just makes an already annoying character--Mary is whiny and selfish--even more grating with her broad, overly mannered performance. Instead of hoping Mary finds a way out of her mess, one wishes she would pay dearly for it--while leaving the deserves-better Rowley free and clear.


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