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The Movie Report
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Volume 71

#241 - 243
June 19, 2000 - July 14, 2000


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

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#243 July 14, 2000

M O V I E S

X-Men poster X-Men (PG-13) ***
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As geeky as it sounds, I must admit it--when it comes to X-Men, I am what is called a "fanboy." I grew up fervently following the comic book exploits of the team whose membership is made of genetically evolved, superpowered "mutants." Seeing a group of guys and gals kicking serious ass with their superhuman abilities is undoubtedly a major factor in my (and many others') interest, but what has made X-Men so popular--and very passionately so, at that--are the realistic characters, authentic people who just happen to have powers. And while most comics treat their heroes' and heroines' abilities as simply a cool gift, for the X-Men and mutants in general, it is also very much a curse; much like any other minorities, mutants face severe prejudice from the rest of the population.

So adapting X-Men and its sprawling, 30-year-plus history into a 100-minute feature film is a dicey proposition for any filmmaker, and even moreso for one who was not a fan to begin with--such as Bryan Singer, who is at the helm of Fox's lavish, long-awaited $80-million extravaganza. Not only must he appease the fanboys by not deviating too far from the source material, he must also make what is essentially a three-decade-long-and-counting soap opera accessible to the non-fan. And contrary to fans' greatest fears, Singer's X-Men is an exciting, fast-paced adventure that will satisfy both audiences.

For a summer blockbuster--especially one based on a comic book--an $80-million budget is a pittance, but it's an appropriate figure for X-Men. Spectacular visual effects are called for (and are effectively employed) to bring the team's powers to life, but the budget limitation forces the filmmakers to make the effects a carefully used enhancement of the story and characters, which are hence given more weight (as they always had been in the comic).

For the most part, credited scripter David Hayter and a gaggle of uncredited scribes (including Singer's Oscar-winning Usual Suspects partner Christopher McQuarrie and Buffy maestro Joss Whedon) succeed in making the characters mirror their counterparts on the page. The X-Men is a team of mutants led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a powerful telepath who runs a school for "gifted youngsters" and fights for mutant tolerance. As the film begins, his team consists of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a telekinetic (i.e., can move objects with her mind) and a telepath herself; Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (James Marsden), who cannot control his deadly optic blasts; and Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather.

Those established members, however, take a backseat in the film to the new recruits, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin). The wild, mysterious Wolverine is perhaps best known for his retractable, razor-sharp claws made of the indestructible metal adamantium (his entire skeleton is also bonded with it), but his mutant abilities are heightened senses and a rapid healing factor. Rogue can absorb a person's lifeforce, personality, and memories (and, in the case of other mutants, powers) with a single touch. After discovering her ability after kissing her boyfriend, a distraught Rogue flees her native Mississippi for snowy Canada, where she meets Wolverine. When the two are attacked by the animalistic Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), it's Storm and Cyclops to the rescue, and Wolverine and Rogue soon find themselves getting acquainted with the ways of Xavier's school.

Jackman, an unknown Australian actor known for his musical theater credits, and the teenage Paquin were Singer's two most controversial casting choices. Only one will completely win over skeptical fans: Jackman, who completely inhabits Wolvie's wild, woolly persona; from his first scene, fans should have no doubt about the actor's ability to embody the character's trademark ferocity. Paquin will have a harder time of convincing the fanboys. Young, waifish, and unglamorous, she in no way resembles (in appearance and temperament) the sexy, sassy, voluptuous, and now-20something comic book Rogue (the team's most popular female member). But within the context of the film's story--that is, as a "starting point" Rogue--her casting is understandable, and aside from an inconsistent Southern accent, Paquin is perfectly adequate. Even so, for the inevitable sequel, I suggest Singer pull an Anakin Skywalker and age Rogue a few years by way of a recast--and thus bringing to the screen the true Rogue fans know and love.

Needless to say, Rogue is the character that is least true to her printed incarnation. In addition to the change in age, she is given a real name (Marie), and her upbringing by evil mutant shapeshifter Mystique (and, hence, Rogue's history as a villain) is completely jettisoned. Mystique does appear in the film (played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), but only as part of a fairly faceless support team (along with Sabretooth and the aptly named Toad, played by Ray Park) for the film's central villain, Magneto (Ian McKellen). Magneto is an old friend of Xavier's, but the two drifted apart over their difference of philosophy. Xavier believes that there is hope for regular humans to accept mutantkind, but Magneto doesn't, preferring to go to war with them.

Magneto's dastardly scheme to bring humans and mutants to level genetic ground is the focus of the plot, and this thin story is indeed the film's weakest element. But the shortcoming is easy to forgive when the atmosphere and other details feel so right. The whole allegorical issue of "mutant hysteria"--perpetuated by bigoted U.S. Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison)--is well-developed and played with the earnestness it deserves, as is a WWII-era-set prologue that faithfully details Magneto's beginnings. In fact, the serious--though never pretentious--tone of the film perfectly matches that of the comic, never veering into the camp sensibilities that have marred other comic-to-screen adaptations. Singer and the writers must also be commended for doing a bang-up job with the character relationships. The tense triangle between Scott, Jean, and Logan is perfectly played out; and Wolvie's bond with Rogue is also nicely handled. And far as the film's qualifications as a summer movie, the numerous action scenes are good for a rush.

But, being a fanboy, I'm not above nitpicking over certain things. While the Wolverine/Rogue relationship works in the film's context, in terms of the comics it bears more resemblance to his bond with two other young mutants, Kitty Pryde and Jubilee (both of whom have cameos in the film), than anything he ever had with Rogue. Another throwaway mutant appearance, that of Iceman (here referred to only by his real name, Bobby), is sure to upset purists; he's a teen and Rogue's kinda-sorta boyfriend at Xavier's school. Rogue's young age also means the erasure of the fascinating sexual tension between her and Magneto, which could have come into play at a crucial juncture of the film. And pity poor Storm. While Berry gives the character appropriate poise and elegance, the writers give her very little to do. Her forceful leadership abilities are gone, as are her claustrophobia (which should have been a factor in one scene) and sisterly relationship with Jean. Plus, what is the deal with that woefully unconvincing wig and her brown eyes (they should be blue)?

But some things have to give when adapting a comic to film (much like any book-to-screen translation), and for this fanboy, it's a relief that overall X-Men the film bears uncommon fidelity to its source material. And as a critic, it's a relief to see an effects-laden popcorn movie offer a bit more meat than is traditionally required of such films. That said, X-Men is best seen as just the jumping-off point for a possible big screen franchise--one whose full potential can be realized in subsequent installments.


In Brief

Chuck & Buck poster Chuck & Buck (R) *** 1/2
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Creepy, funny, yet surprisingly affecting, Miguel Arteta's darkly comic drama pulls off a remarkable balancing act. After the death of his mother, Buck (Mike White, who also wrote) is a 27-year-old man with the mind of an 11-year-old who becomes dangerously obsessed with rekindling his relationship with childhood best friend Charlie, a.k.a. Chuck (Chris Weitz), now a hotshot power player in the music business. The more Chuck, now engaged to the lovely Carlyn (Beth Colt), tries to pull himself away from Buck, the more aggressive he gets, making his boldest play for his former friend's attention by writing a stage play based on their youth.

But there's something a bit deeper--and darker--about this story, and Arteta and White admirably let the audience decide what to think of these multidimensional characters. Buck is a bit creepy and annoying, but his fragile innocence also makes him quite sympathetic; similarly, Chuck is kind of an arrogrant prick to Buck but it's easy to see where he's coming from. When the secret of their childhood and the true complexity of their relationship is factored in, easy answers about who is on the right are even harder to come by.

Aside from Lupe Ontiveros, absolutely terrific as the theatre manager who becomes the director of Buck's play, the main players are all played by non-actors, a gambit that mostly pays off. White is an astonishment as Buck, managing the difficult task of being endearing and unsettling at the same time; Paul Weitz (who, along with brother Chris, co-directed American Pie) is amusingly faux macho as the actor hired to portray Chuck in Buck's play; and talent manager Colt is a natural screen presence. Of the neophyte thespians, only Chris Weitz comes off a bit stiff and awkward. Luckily, the whole of Chuck & Buck, which could have easily fallen in that same trap, remains loose and alive.


Disney's The Kid poster Disney's The Kid (PG) **
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I've never really been a fan of movies centering around children, for generally I find the perky moppets favored by Hollywood to be more cringe-inducingly cloying than cute. But now I realize that there's something even more hard-to-take than a cherubic tot trying his or her darndest to be adorable: it's an ugly kid acting annoying--which what you get plenty of when you watch Disney's The Kid. A subdued Bruce Willis plays an uptight, callous about-to-turn-40 image consultant who somehow, someway, finds himself face to face with his chubby, loudmouthed 8-year-old self (abrasive newcomer Spencer Breslin, now hopefully halfway on his return trip to obscurity). The decision to not explain how this happens is one of the few good calls that writer Audrey Wells and director Jon Turtletaub make. While there are a few good, biting lines here and there (made at the expense of both boy and man, and sometimes emerging from the mouth of Lily Tomlin, playing Willis' assistant), the presence of "Disney" in the title should clue you in to how soggy and saccharine this "finding your true self" tale becomes. Emily Mortimer, as Willis' potential love interest, is allowed to make more of an impression than she is in Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, and she provides just about all the cuteness the film has to offer.


The Idiots poster (Dogma#2:) The Idiots (R) ** 1/2
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The second film to be made under Dogme 95 points up the good and the bad of the Danish code of filmmaking chastity. The good: the use of digital cameras allows a greater intimacy, and the encouragement of improvisation lends the film a greater sense of authenticity. The bad: the improvised nature can also lead to formless, overindulgent rambling; and the lack of post-production perks leaves the filmmaking seams bare to the world. Unfortunately, it's the bad that ends up overshadowing the good in Lars Von Trier's oddball tale of a group of people who decide to rebel against society by pretending to be mentally retarded. It's a ludicrous but undeniably intriguing presence, rife with (sometimes discomfiting) moments of humor. Where Von Trier runs into trouble is his attempts to have the story taken seriously, such as a portentous (and never-explained, irritatingly so) framework where members of the group give sometimes tear-stained confessionals to an unseen interrogator. Even more ruinous are the constant reminders that this is "just a movie"--the black bars that censor the full-frontal male nudity (so placed to get an R rating), and the shadows and reflections of boom microphones and camera crews. For all the Dogme-ordained restrictions to make the film feel "real," it ends up feeling more artificial.


It's the Rage poster It's the Rage (R) * 1/2
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The message of James D. Stern's It's the Rage is unmistakable: with lax gun control laws, firearms are bound to fall into the hands of the wrong people. But watching this stridently "offbeat" film, one cannot help but feel that the approach taken by Stern and writer Keith Reddin (adapting his own stage play) is completely wrongheaded. The film follows a group of loosely-linked characters--an unhappily married couple (Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels), a lawyer (Andre Braugher), his unstable lover (David Schwimmer), a reclusive computer genius (Gary Sinise), his ex-assistant (Josh Brolin), two cops (Robert Forster and Bokeem Woodbine), a nymphet (Anna Paquin), and her ex-con brother (Giovanni Ribisi)--whose lives all get touched by gun violence, and with that framework comes the potential to make a serious powerful statement against guns. But for some reason Reddin decided to make his story a black comedy populated insufferably quirky characters--and as such, fine actors such as Sinise and Ribisi feel compelled to go way over the top, making the characters more grating than funny. That Allen, who plays the straightest character, is the clear-cut standout in the ensemble should have clued in the filmmakers that this is a story--and issue--best addressed in an earnest, straightforward manner.


The Perfect Storm poster The Perfect Storm (PG-13) ** 1/2
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When Wolfgang Petersen's fact-based adventure-drama is on the water and in the thick of the titular meteorological event, there's no denying the nailbiting, adrenaline-pumping factor of these waterlogged action scenes. Unfortunately, the thrills come in an emotional vacuum--even more problematic considering Petersen spends so much time trying to develop a human center. The film's opening section introduces the audience to the crew of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, in particular Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), a gruff sort who leads his men into perilous waters out of financial necessity; and Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who wants nothing more than to live a comfortable life with his girlfriend (Diane Lane). The exposition is both too long and not enough; the characters are generally defined only by single characteristics, thus the prolonged quiet time with them tries the patience.

So when the rain starts pouring, the towering waves crash, and the Andrea Gail is tossed about, the moment doesn't come soon enough. But, alas, it's not all smooth sailing in these choppy waters--even more time is wasted with a parallel plot involving a trio of Bermuda-bound boaters (Bob Gunton, Cherry Jones, and Karen Allen) who are also caught in the storm, as well as a Coast Guard rescue team. We already don't care too much about the Andrea Gail crew--why should anyone give a damn about these people? Petersen never comes up with a god reason why--and thus all that's left to marvel at is the technical proficiency of the storm sequences.


Scary Movie poster Scary Movie (R) **
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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of the Screams, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the many other films that get sent up in this horror parody should be roadkill. But it takes more than mere duplication to make a funny joke, and too many gags in Keenen Ivory Wayans' film are all set-up--as in aping a scene for the original film--without a follow-through to bring the joke home. A lot of the time Wayans and his bevy of writers (including brothers Shawn and Marlon, who have roles in the film) rely on the easy gross-out, but often those become a bit much (a runny-nosed Blair Witch Project gag goes on far longer than it should, becoming unfunny in the process). Every once and a while Wayans and company get something right (the opening, with Carmen Electra standing in for the first Scream's Drew Barrymore, is particularly inspired), and the young cast (which also includes a real find in Anna Faris as the Neve Campbell/Jennifer Love Hewitt stand-in) is game. But, ironically, Scary Movie ends up being less funny than its primary target, the already-self-satirizing Scream series (the first two installments, at least).


Shower poster Shower (PG-13) ***
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Zhang Yang's family comedy-drama tells a simple and familiar story. After misinterpreting a message from his retarded younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) to mean that their father (Zhu Xu) is dying, slick businessman Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) comes down from the north to visit them. While he finds his father to be in good health and running the village bathhouse as smoothly as ever, other circumstances force Da Ming to extend his visit longer than planned. In spending time with his family, the family business, and the second family that is the bathhouse's regular customers, Da Ming learns that there's something valuable in this simple life--perhaps more valuable than the material life he had been leading. Shower is predictable and wears its heart on its sleeve, and that's part of its charm; but while the film is unabashedly sentimental, Zhang doesn't feel the need to bash the audience over the head with melodramatic tactics. He simply lets the emotion of the story come through in the performances, and the actors succeed wonderfully.


Time Regained poster Time Regained (Le Temps Retrouvé) ** 1/2
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Raoul Ruiz's dreamy adaptation of the final book of Marcel Proust's 3000-page magnum opus In Search of Lost Time has been described as one of those films that is "not for everyone." Count me among that group. Granted, it is difficult to not be somewhat entranced by Ruiz's breathtakingly surreal visual style and nonlinear storytelling, which are both made even more ethereal by Jorge Arriagada's haunting score. Furthermore, the film showcases standout performances by Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, and Emmanuelle Béart.

The question remains, then: what is Time Regained about? Only those who have taken in Proust's entire work (considered by many to be among the greatest, if not the greatest, novel of the last century) will have a concrete idea. The film opens with a deathbed-ridden Proust (Marcello Mazzarella) looking through old photos, which then opens the floodgates of memory--but the recollections are not of events in his life, but of the characters and lives detailed by his reality-inspired writings. As individual thoughts abruptly make way for others and sometimes even loop back upon themselves, Ruiz and co-scripter Gilles Taurand's stream-of-consciousness structure effectively captures the chaotic yet beautiful atmosphere of a mind lost in thought.

What it doesn't effectively create, however, is drama. Characters come and go and come back as we see Proust go from high society party after another, while in the background WWI builds, rages, then disappears. The film is not only nonlinear, it is non-narrative, for an actual story cannot be easily gleaned. This problem likely stems from the fact that the film adapts only the last portion of a sprawling saga; characters and events are referenced then dropped before the audience gets a chance to begin sorting out the particulars. There's no denying that all of whatever goes on in Time Regained builds to a powerful, profound idea--but the payoff can't help but be less than satisfying, given the often frustrating, nearly three-hour buildup. Ultimately, audiences will likely end up searching for lost time themselves.


D V D

Fight Club DVD Fight Club (R) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ****
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I've said it once; I've said it twice; and I'll say it again--David Fincher's Fight Club is a masterwork of subversive brilliance. But until the rest of the world catches up with the film's cult of devotees--and they will, in due time--making strongly arguing the case for the film's instant classic status is Fox's superb, two-disc DVD presentation of the film.

The Fight Club set is striking even before you pop one of the discs into the player. The film's custom-made cardboard slipcase packaging--made to look like it's in a plain brown wrapper--is a bit flimsy, especially the tri-panel container that houses the two discs and the requisite booklet. But what the packaging lacks in durability it more than makes up for in creativity, for it is strikingly decorated with a multi-colored, fractured-image style that fits the film's visual style--and its sense of humor; the front panel is a cheeky faux soap endorsement by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).

Booklets are de rigueur for any DVD package, so when one offers more than reprinted press notes and a chapter list, it clearly stands out. "How to Start a Fight," as Fight Club's booklet is titled, offers pretty much this familiar material but in a radically different presentation. The film's development from novel to screen is traced, but through a series of quotes from the parties involved, from novelist Chuck Palahniuk to Laura Ziskin, production head at Fox 2000 pictures; the first-person take offers much more insight than some copy churned out from the studio publicity department. Peppering the journey along the way are images from the film and quotes from critics. Particularly noteworthy is how both enthusiastic raves and vicious pans are included, providing a particularly entertaining way of addressing the controversy surrounding the film. (A couple of problems, however: a quote from justly popular online film critic Scott Renshaw is simply attributed to his e-mail address; and Harry Knowles' two quotes are two too many.) Fun is also had with the booklet's chapter listing, titled in a nice reference to one of the film's recurring bits, "Jack's Chapters."

That bit is also carried out in the discs themselves; highlight a choice, and you're greeted with a label saying "I am Jack's chapter selections," "I am Jack's movie," etc. That's just one instance of disc producer/supplement designer David Britten Prior's clever attention to detail; blink and you'll miss the nicely integrated extra warning from Project Mayhem slipped in right after the usual FBI and Interpol warnings. As you navigate the colorful, manic menus (accompanied by the Dust Brothers' memorable film score), the picture rolls not unlike the image from an erratic projector, another nice reference to the feature.

Speaking of the feature, the audio and visual transfer is great, and pains are taken to make sure home viewers are seeing and hearing it as Fincher intended. In the set-up section are a series of menus through which viewers can calibrate their television and sound system settings for optimum viewing. Most casual viewers probably won't bother adjusting their settings, but for cineastes, it's a most welcome enhancement.

No less than four running commentaries are included on the disc. The first is an insightful solo one with Fincher, who talks less about specifics to scenes than about the film in general. He reserves those scene-specific thoughts for a group commentary with stars Pitt, Edward Norton, and an awkwardly edited-in Helena Bonham Carter, whose comments were separately recorded. Being the only female in the film, Bonham Carter's input is valuable, but it cannot help but detract from the flow of the freewheeling discussion with the three men, who are all lively and incredibly passionate about the film (case in point: Norton's constant needling of Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who was one of the film's biggest detractors). Whenever Bonham Carter comes in, I found myself wondering what I was missing from the trio's discussion. While that track is a fun listen, it is not nearly as entertaining as the third commentary, featuring screenwriter Jim Uhls and Chuck Palahniuk, who authored the original novel. Palahniuk is quite a character; he indiscreetly names specific names for his characters' real-life analogues (which, in one instance, had to be bleeped out) and tosses off such bon mots as praising Bonham Carter's "fucked-up Lucille Ball quality." The fourth commentary is with director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, costume designer Michael Kaplan, production designer Alex McDowell, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and digital animator Doc Bailey; and it's as technical as you would expect. It's undeniably interesting, but it is likely only to be really scintillating listening if talk of light sources and the like is your bag.

That commentary--and the extras on disc one--are just a warmup for the wealth of supplements on disc two. The usual stuff is here: cast and crew bios, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots. But, of course, these elements are given a more extensive spin. The extra scenes are not all scenes deleted from the film; also included are alternate takes of scenes in the film. Each scene also includes text explaining their place in the film's chronology as well as the reasons for their non-use. In addition to the theatrical trailer and domestic TV spots, there is an unused trailer (completed specifically for this DVD edition), Spanish-dubbed TV spots, the rarely -seen in-theatre "public service announcements"; and trailers made specifically for its promotion on the Internet. Amazingly, these features are just part of an extensive section on the film's advertising. Also featured is a gallery of promotional art (including the complete press kit, famously designed as a catalog), a music video, a transcript of a Q&A with Norton, and a hidden gallery of actual items (shirts, backpacks) made to promote the film's release.

But (at the risk of sounding like one of those cheesy TV ads for novelty products) there's more. A comprehensive behind-the-scenes section offers a look at preliminary visual effects footage and video from location scouts and the actual shoot, which can also be viewed on a split screen (a nice, if needless, option in some cases--the footage doesn't always easily match up, sometimes not at all, making for fractured Timecode-like viewing). This footage also has optional commentary by Fincher and/or the technicians that worked on the spotlighted sequences. Then there's the "art" section, which offers production sketches and paintings, and storyboards for just about the entire film--which makes for an interesting digital comic book.

Unlike the much-debated-about film it showcases, there should be no question that Fox's incredibly comprehensive--and quite entertainingly designed and packaged--DVD presentation of Fight Club is a landmark achievement.

Specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround and Dolby Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


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#242 June 23, 2000

M O V I E S

Chicken Run poster Chicken Run (G) *** 1/2
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With its Burger King promo tie-in and Saturday morning advertising campaign, DreamWorks is going the traditional marketing route and selling the claymation feature Chicken Run to the young 'uns. While that strategy may just yet succeed in drawing in family audiences, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the grown-ups made a return trip all by themselves, for the sophisticated humor of Peter Lord and Nick Park's very funny comedy is more likely to strike a nerve with adults.

That's because the film is a savvy satire of prison break movies--it's just that it's told through clay animation and its main characters are poultry. Of course, it's those very qualities that does give it kid appeal, and that demographic won't be disappointed. That the animation is remarkably fluid and the characters so memorably drawn is beside the point; one look at the chickens' goofy, toothy grins are enough to get a giggle from the younger set, and the basic story (farm chickens hope to escape captivity with the help of a "flying" rooster) is simple enough for them to follow and embedded with enough broad physical comedy to keep them interested.

Adults will also be laughing, but mostly because of the sharp details in the script from screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, working from a story by Lord and Park. The joke of the opening moments, during which the chickens' fearless leader Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) is repeatedly thrown into a dumpster (a.k.a. the "hole"), will be fly over the tots' heads. But the prison references run even deeper; the Tweedy farm is not unlike a Nazi death camp, a parallel made all the more blatant when the maniacal Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to use her traditionally egg-laying hens for a different type of food source. Laughs are also come from the culture clash between England and America, for Rocky (Mel Gibson)--the apparent savior who comes falling from the sky--is the lone Yank in a Brit coop.

While great looking in its own respect, Chicken Run's visuals don't inspire the same type of awe and wonder as those in the season's other, more technologically-advanced animated entries, Dinosaur and Titan A.E.. But Chicken's endearing low-tech quality just makes it a lot warmer and likable. That it is also a lot smarter is just an added bonus.


Me, Myself & Irene poster Me, Myself & Irene (R) ***
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With their manic Dumb and Dumber star, Jim Carrey, back in their employ, "those pesky Farrelly Brothers" (as billed in the trailer) would appear to have it made for Me, Myself & Irene, their follow-up to the surprise smash There's Something About Mary. While the film does deliver enough laughs to merit a recommendation, it is a letdown given the caliber of the comic minds involved.

Irene's script was an early, long-unproduced effort for the brothers Bobby and Peter (who share share writing credit with Mike Cerrone), and it shows. In comedies, plot is an excuse to string along individual gags, but it goes without saying that whatever plot there is should make some kind of sense; Irene's doesn't. While the basic idea of the film--gentle Rhode Island state trooper Charlie Baileygates (Carrey) and his mean, nasty alternate personality Hank battle over the affections of the titular woman (Renée Zellweger)--is simple enough, the mechanics that bring and keep Charlie/Hank and Irene together in the first place are impossibly murky. It has something to do with Irene having knowledge of her ex-boyfriend's shady dealings, which have run him afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency. This wouldn't have been such a problem if the Farrellys didn't break their comedic rhythm every now and again with a boring, "story"-driven talking head scene.

Luckily, Carrey and the Farrellys' well-matched, go-for-broke comic sensibilities make it impossible to dwell too long on the confused plotting. Carrey's gift for physical comedy has been well-documented, so there's no reason to go into much detail about his performance (which, not surprisingly, is a perfect fit for his character's wild fluctuations). The Farrellys pack in no shortage of their trademark gross-out gags, but the idea that works the best is that of Charlie's African-American triplet sons (uh, don't ask). Played by Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, and Jerod Mixon, their profanity-laden vernacular teeters on stereotype, but what isn't so cliché is how hyperintelligent these three are. Needless to say, their brainy, four-letter-word-smothered speeches make for a hilarious ironic juxtaposition.

Irene isn't as gross-out extreme as Mary, yet, ironically, it lacks that film's genuine, surprising warmth. As shocking as much of Mary's humor is, the audience had a genuine rooting interest in the romance between Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. In Irene, I don't know if it really would have mattered to me if Charlie were able to win Irene. Then again, when there are enough funny moments as there are in Irene, that shortcoming really doesn't matter too much.


In Brief

Jesus' Son poster Jesus' Son (R) ** 1/2
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A distinct, interesting character voice is a rare commodity in film, and one of the best qualities of Alison Maclean's film of Denis Johnson's short stories is the narration provided by its main character, FH (Billy Crudup)--which, if you need ask, is short for "Fuck Head." His name is apt; a twentysomething junkie roaming the early '70s Midwest in a drugged-out haze, FH can't seem to get anything right--not his job as a hospital orderly and certainly not his rollercoaster relationship with his girlfriend Michelle (Samantha Morton). As he jumps back and forth and time and struggles to concentrate on a single moment, the narration and resulting anarchic story structure lends insight into the character's jumbled state of mind.

While one is able to get interested in FH's internal workings, it's more difficult to get too invested in his external actions--that is, on rare occasion he does act rather than react. He's a very passive character, completely at the mercy of his life's events--a point further reinforced by the film's rambling, episodic nature. Crudup is good, as is Morton and the smattering of familiar faces that pop up here and there (Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter). But this isn't the story of the performances; this is the story of FH, and it's rather difficult to really care.


V I D E O

Evil Lives DVD Evil Lives (R) no stars
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Proof positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) of the title's truth is this horror show (in more ways than one) in which a novelist (Tristan Rogers, who needs to get his bum back to General Hospital if he's gonna keep on doing crap like this) who kills nubile college co-eds so the spirit of his dead lover can temporarily use their bodies. Oh, did I also mention that the novelist is some sort of immortal? It's even worse than it sounds--and a lot more hilarious. (A-Pix Entertainment)


D V D

Sleepy Hollow DVD Sleepy Hollow (R) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: *** 1/2
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Paramount hasn't been known to create terribly comprehensive DVD presentations, but they take a big step in the right direction with the disc for Tim Burton's hit reimagining of the Washington Irving story. At first glance, it appears to be more of the same; the same silent, static menus greet the viewer once the disc is initially popped in. But hop on over to the "Special Features" menu, and the collection of extras is deserving of such a classification. Both the theatrical teaser and trailer are included, as well as an interesting making-of program (that was obviously made for pay cable) and a collection of cast and crew interviews. While interview features on discs are typically presented in individual, isolated segments and derive from on-set talks taken from the film's electronic press kit (and usually overlapping with a making-of feature), this one takes a different approach. The interviews are taken from the film's press junket--meaning the participants have a familiarity with the finished product--and are smoothly edited together into a tidy featurette. Additional features are a bit disappointing: a stills gallery is a nice idea, but it would've been nice had they offered more than press kit photos and included some behind-the-scenes production images and even sketches; and Burton isn't quite as energetic and lively on his running commentary as he is in the documentary pieces. All in all, though,a handsome digital treatment for a worthy film. (Paramount Home Entertainment)


Topsy-Turvy DVD Topsy-Turvy (R) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ** 1/2
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Like all of director Mike Leigh's films, his critics' fave about the making of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was not conventionally made; there was no set script, and its story was developed through extensive rehearsals with the cast (Leigh was still awarded an Oscar nod for Original Screenplay, however). Unfortunately, USA has given a conventional DVD treatment. Having music from the soundtrack accompany the minimally animated menus is a nice enhancement, as is the inclusion of the theatrical trailer and all television spots, a stills gallery (all the better to appreciate the Oscar-winning costume and makeup design) as well as background text on Gilbert and Sullivan. But for a film whose fascination has a great deal to do with how it was made, there is little insight offered into Leigh's unique creative process. The disc's rather standard (and very brief) behind-the-scenes featurette (which doesn't identify the cast and crew members--a big annoyance considering many of the actors spend the film covered in makeup) does touch upon this issue, but it's too shallow and unsatisfying tease of one. (USA Home Entertainment)


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#241 June 19, 2000

M O V I E S

Shaft poster Shaft (R) ***
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Cinematically speaking, Gordon Parks' original 1971 Shaft is not a great film. A bit slow at times and more than a little rough around the edges as it builds to its climactic explosion of violent action, this spirited but formulaic yarn that initially brought Ernest Tidyman's "black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks" to the big screen hardly qualifies as groundbreaking filmmaking.

Yet nearly 30 years after its original release--and long after the genre it helped spawn, "blaxploitation," died with that decade--the 1971 Shaft remains an extremely entertaining watch, never having completely escaped pop culture consciousness. The reason for this is the same one that explains the film's connection with moviegoers far beyond the target African-American audience: the title character of John Shaft. While the fact that the strong, smart, virile, and superbly suave Shaft is black is the primary factor for his historical and cultural significance, his broad-based appeal stems from an idea that transcends race: he is comfortable, confident, and proud about who he is, and anyone who had a problem with that could simply kiss his ass.

This fact also explains why John Singleton's Y2G revival of John Shaft is as enjoyable as it is. Much like the film that started the franchise, this Shaft's plot doesn't score points in the originality department, but the energy level and smooth attitude distinguishes it from standard crime thrillers.

Contrary to what has been reported over the past few months, this Shaft is not a remake of the original film, but more of a sequel/spinoff. The star audiences know and love from the original film and its first two sequels (1972's Shaft's Big Score! and 1973's Shaft in Africa), Richard Roundtree, once again plays John Shaft, who still runs a private investigation firm in New York City. However, the focus of the film lies on his same-named nephew (Samuel L. Jackson), who, as the film begins, is a cop whose take-no-crap demeanor constantly leaves him at odds with his superiors. When a privileged young man named Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale) accused of a brutal, racially-motivated murder is allowed to be released on bail, a disgusted Shaft leaves the force and decides to take matters into his own hands as a P.I.

But that's easier said than done, for also standing in the way of Shaft and his way of justice is Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican gangster who is hired by Walter to rub out waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), the only eyewitness to his crime. Peoples--or, rather, Wright is also the big obstacle in Jackson's way toward commanding this film. Peoples is more of an outrageous comic character for most of the running time, and Wright is insanely funny during these stages. However, he isn't so funny as to make the character come off as goofy and buffoonish, and Peoples' eventual turn to more serious villainy is seamless and believable (which probably would not have been the case had he been played by original casting choice John Leguizamo, who bowed out before filming). It's no easy task to steal a film from the Jackson (who is his usual captivating, charismatic self here), but that's exactly what Wright does--and makes it seem effortless.

Then again, with such a talented ensemble surrounding him, it is not too surprising that Jackson's impressive star turn doesn't quite tower over the rest; he is strongly complemented not only by Wright but all his other co-stars. Bale has already proven his ability to play an uppity killer in American Psycho, so it only follows that his performance as a similar, less exaggerated character would be spot-on. Collette lends the film some convincing and welcome dramatic weight as the frightened, conflicted Diane. Busta Rhymes brings some good laughs as Shaft's sidekick Rasaan. Registering not as strongly--but through no fault of their own--are Vanessa Williams (as tough narcotics cop Carmen Vasquez) and a dismayingly underused Roundtree; they simply are given little to do in the script credited to Richard Price, Singleton, and Shane Salerno. (Jackson also has little to "do" in a sense; some throwaway footage during the opening credits aside, his Shaft doesn't even have one sex scene.)

That Singleton once again proves his ability with actors is an especially good thing since he's not really an action director. This is not to say that he does a bad job with the numerous gunfights and the requisite foot and car chases. They move well (as does the film as a whole) and are reasonably exciting; it's just that there's nothing terribly inventive about them. These set pieces are functional in the way the script is: they work well enough, but they're unsurprising and conventional.

But if there's anything that a Shaft movie does well, it's make the familiar look cool--and this Shaft keeps that tradition alive. From the slick title sequence--scored, of course, to Isaac Hayes' ever-infectious Oscar-winning theme song, which Singleton wisely sprinkles throughout the film--on, the film looks great and easily sweeps the viewer into its world with its energetic bravado. Even a common visual trick such as employing fancy wipes for scene transitions not only feels unforced, it feels necessary. Style doesn't exactly make for a great film, but when it comes to Shaft, that's of little consequence. What matters above all else is having a good time, and the latest Shaft should be just the first of many fun rides to be had with this bad mutha--shut yo' mouth.


In Brief

Boys and Girls poster Boys and Girls (PG-13) **
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She's All That director Robert Iscove has gone out of his way to duplicate that '99 box office success with his latest youth romantic comedy, specifically: (1) casting Freddie Prinze Jr. as the male lead; (2) throwing in an out-of-nowhere, completely credibility-breaking choreographed dance number; and (3) casting a luminous leading lady who deserves far better--in this case, Claire Forlani. To give credit where it's due, the product is more effective than that fluke hit (and is the best installment of Prinze's self-described "trilogy" of youth films--the middle chapter being Down to You). As Ryan and Jennifer, college-age best friends whose interest each other inevitably starts leaning toward the romantic, Prinze and Forlani have a gentle rapport; and Forlani is quite wonderful on her lonesome, keeping Jennifer likable when some of her actions teeter on the opposite.

But the rest of Boys and Girls isn't nearly as good as she is. While he does click with Forlani, Prinze still delivers the faceless everyman performance he's given in his last few--make that all--his films. The script by the team billed as "The Drews" (Andrew Lowery and Andrew Miller, who last perpetrated the Dennis Rodman debacle Simon Sez), right down to the main character's spontaneous run-ins over the years, is warmed-over When Harry Met Sally...--with one exception: it is never funny. Pity poor Jason Biggs, a genuinely funny actor saddled with the thankless task of handling the bulk of the Drews' weak wisecracks and stupid slapstick gags as Ryan's horny and desperate roomie Hunter. But most of all, pity the stunning and talented Forlani, whose career has apparently taken a big and most undeserved hit after appearing in the 1998 box office disaster Meet Joe Black (her immediate follow-up to that and predecessor to this was the sunken superhero satire Mystery Men). It's time for someone to give her another big-league chance.


Butterfly poster Butterfly (La Lengua de las Mariposas) (R) *** 1/2
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About 15 minutes before its conclusion, I was about to faintly dismiss this Spanish drama as a good but not terribly distinctive coming-of-age picture. Set in a small Spanish village during the politically turbulent late 1930s, the boy who comes of age is tailor's son Moncho (Manuel Lozano), who learns about himself and the ways of the world through his close friendship with his schoolteacher Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez). Adding to the flavor of the piece is the various other village residents we meet, including Moncho's sax-playing brother (Alexis de los Santos) and the eccentric members of the jazz band he joins; and a loose woman whom Moncho and a classmate spy on--but, as nicely done as this element is, it also is nothing new. But what changes this film (whose Spanish title's literal translation is "The Tongue of the Butterfly") is those closing moments, which is elegant and astonishing in its powerful simplicity. Of course, it wouldn't have packed such a strong wallop had it not been for the priceless performances from Lozano and Gómez, not to mention the sure direction of José Luis Cuerda.


Coming Soon poster Coming Soon (R) **
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While teen sex comedies are commonplace, those coming from a female perspective are a rare commodity. So Colette Burson's raw, raunchy film is a nice change of pace--at first. Stream (Bonnie Root) is a sexually active high schooler who comes to a disturbing realization: she has never once had an orgasm. With pointers from experienced pals Jennifer (Gaby Hoffmann) and Nell (Tricia Vessey), Stream goes in search of the Big O. Young women speaking frankly about sex and, more specifically, sexual satisfaction is indeed fresh fodder for the big screen, but this film quickly goes stale because that's all there is to this film. Sincere lead performances and cameo roles from the likes of Mia Farrow, Ryan O'Neal, Peter Bogdanovich, and Yasmine Bleeth do little to add interesting bumps to the film's simple, predictable, and ultimately tedious trajectory. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how this film ends--though it is a bit shocking how abrupt and, yes, unsatisfying it is.


Groove poster Groove (R) ***
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Greg Harrison's fictional look of a night in the party life of ravers in San Francisco earned raves (yes, bad pun intended) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Like many fest faves, this uneven film is somewhat overrated and far from great though not without its modest charms. The film follows a number of characters and their interrelated storylines as they flock to one of these warehouse-set, all-night techno dance parties, but Harrison is not as concerned with narrative than he is with creating a scene. And that he does, quite effectively; while not as comprehensive nor probing as the recent documentary on the subject, Better Living Through Circuitry (not that anyone would expect it to be), Harrison's eye for detail paints a fairly vivid slice-of-life picture, exploring a number of ideas touched on in that film. Chief among those is the idea of lonely hearts searching for connection, which figures prominently in the film's most rewarding plotline: the blossoming relationship between native New Yorker Leyla (Lola Glaudini) and struggling writer David (Hamish Linklater). Unfortunately, this is the only involving thread of the large lot; others contribute to the slice-of-life feel but offer little that is memorable on their own. But like raves themselves, Groove is about the moment, and for the limited time it runs, the film does give a clear enough idea of why many young people sacrifice entire nights for the feeling of such a moment.


Sunshine poster Sunshine (R) ***
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István Szabó's sprawling script is about a Jewish family in Hungary and how they deal with society's attitudes toward their heritage over three generations and a span of a century. The resulting three-hour film, however, seems less about the Sonnenschein (which means "sunshine") family than the film's star, Ralph Fiennes. As the focal character of each of the generations--a judge, an Olympic fencing champion, and a political figure--Fiennes does succeed in creating three distinct people (the fact that each one sports a different degree of facial hair growth helps). Nonetheless, placing him in all three roles, regardless of his ability to pull off the task, is a distracting and gimmicky; when each new Fiennes shows up, the viewer is momentarily taken out of the film.

Luckily, the power of Szabó's story is able to easily pull viewers back in. Each of the three sections of the film essentially covers a variation of the same themes--dealing with prejudice, trying to find and maintain one's identity, struggling with love--but Szabó finds fresh and engaging ways to approach it each time. Also keeping the film involving are uniformly strong performances by the ensemble (which includes Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, and John Neville) and one spectacular star turn. No, not Fiennes'--that of Rosemary Harris, who plays Sonnenschein/Sors (the name that the family comes to adopt) matriarch Valerie in the film's second and third sections (Harris's real-life daughter, Jennifer Ehle, portrays Valerie in the opening section). Much like her character holds together her family, Harris's warm and robust performance holds together Sunshine.


Titan A.E. poster Titan A.E. (PG) *** 1/2
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For the most part, science fiction films are about transporting viewers to worlds beyond their own, to show them things that they not only have never seen, but never imagined. No sci-fi film in recent memory succeeds quite so spectacularly in that respect as this fast-paced animated adventure from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Bluth and Goldman set the bar high with the breathtaking pre-title sequence, set in the year 3028. The Earth is under attack by the evil alien race known as the Drej, and as the human race scrambles to make an escape, the planet is destroyed.

This is just the first of many eye-popping sequences in the film, which then picks up 15 years later as a young man named Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) reluctantly joins the alien and human crew of the ship Valkyrie to find the legendary ship Titan--the key to mankind's survival. As Cale; ship captain Korso (Bill Pullman); pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore); and their alien cohorts Stith (Janeane Garofalo), Preed (Nathan Lane), and Gune (John Leguizamo) search for the Titan and evade the Drej, Bluth and Goldman stage some exciting and inventive action sequences. Playing a large part in their effectiveness is the seamless blending of traditional and state-of-the-art computer animation techniques, adding an appropriately otherworldly texture to the piece.

With such attention paid to the film's look, something has to suffer, and, not surprisingly, the story gets the short shrift. The screenplay by Ben Edlund, John August, and Joss Whedon (based on a story by Hans Bauer and Randall McCormick) is functional, but hardly as smart or witty a piece of work as one would expect from this talented trio (they are responsible for The Tick, Go, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, respectively). What should be an important detail--the exact reason why the Drej has such a beef with Earthlings--is somehow never addressed. Nonetheless, in featuring likable and intelligent characters as well as some interesting plot turns, the script more than adequately does its job as a support beam for the visuals. Those visuals are undoubtedly the big drawing card for audiences, and those who do come to see them will not be disappointed--and perhaps pleasantly surprised at how rousing an adventure the totality of Titan A.E. is.


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