The Movie Report
Volume 75

#251 - 252
September 15, 2000 - September 21, 2000

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

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#252 September 21, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Urban Legends poster Urban Legends: Final Cut (R) * 1/2
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The original Urban Legend grossed only $38 million at U.S. theatres in the fall of 1998, but given how cheaply (in every conceivable meaning of the word) that horror flick was produced, a profit was inevitable--and, of course, a sequel. However, Urban Legends: Final Cut is less sequel than very loose spinoff--a good thing, considering how abysmally ludicrous the original was. But to say that the new film is a step above its predecessor isn't saying much at all, for Final Cut simply takes a more tolerable approach to the same sort of slasher silliness.

UL2 (as the title initially appears onscreen) marks the feature directorial debut of film virtuoso John Ottman, who has already made a name for himself as a score composer and film editor (two positions he once again holds here in addition to the directing reins); his contributions are what elevate the film above the original. His most savvy move was the casting of unknown Jennifer Morrison, who does a much more capable job in the lead than the unimpressive Alicia Witt in the first film. Morrison is likable and convincing as Amy, one of a number of student filmmakers at Alpine University vying for the prestigious Hitchcock Award for best thesis film--which, we are repeatedly told, "guarantees a career in Hollywood."

With that preposterous plot point, writers Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman immediately throw all story plausibility out the window--long before various co-eds get bumped off by a mysterious stranger wearing a fencing mask. Of course, all these students are all in the running for the Hitchcock, and presumably the masked murderer is killing to get his or her hands on the award and that coveted career.

Much to Ottman's credit, the requisite scare sequences are refreshingly light on the cheap fakeout (which was plentiful in UL1), and they are done with a reasonable sense of style and some dark, cheeky humor; this is especially the case with the first major murder scene, which begins with a riff on the "kidney heist" urban legend. However, though the film is called Urban Legends, this is the only concrete reference to that idea. Amy's thesis film is supposed about an urban legend killer (namely, the story of the first film), but all the "legends" are invented ones. And the one major tie to UL1, the character of security guard Reese (Loretta Devine, again wasted), adds nothing to the mix.

Which begs the question--why even make this film as an Urban Legend sequel? The answer is simple: without the tangential ties to the first film, UL2 would too obviously be a low-rent version of the also moviemaking-themed Scream 3. Ottman does what he can to make this bad idea work (there are some stylishly edited visuals, and his score is up to his standards), but ultimately he and the actors--excepting Blossom alum Joey (I refuse to call him by his new, official moniker of "Joseph") Lawrence, whose work is dreadful all around--must go down the path laid down by the writers, and the course they have mapped out is not pretty.

The subtitle of Urban Legends, Final Cut, is meant to be a play on words referring to filmmaking and the slice-and-dice killings, but one can only hope it also means something else--that this is the final lame-o youth horror film we see in a very long time.


Six Days in Roswell poster Six Days in Roswell ***
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From producer Roger Nygard, director of the Star Trek-obsessive showcase Trekkies, comes another fascinating and fun documentary/sociological study, this time centering around those who believe in aliens. Those who saw Trekkies will undoubtedly remember Roswell's "host," Richard Kronfeld; he was the Trek fan who drove around in the full-body "Captain Pike" wheelchair. It turns out Kronfeld is just as obsessed, if not more, with aliens--or, more specifically, alien abduction. He wants to be abducted (he already has collected a number of gadgets and items especially for an extraterrestrial encounter), and to find out how to increase his chances he makes a pilgrimage to Roswell, New Mexico for the 50th anniversary celebration of the infamous alleged UFO crash.

Director Timothy B. Johnson follows Kronfeld for his six-day trip (hence the title), and he takes a nonlinear approach, opening with Kronfeld's arrival in Roswell and then gradually going back every now and again to look at Kronfeld's everyday life. Given how eccentric Kronfeld is, this is a wise move; delving into his quirks right off the bat could have instantly distanced him from the audience. But this is not only Kronfeld's story; it's the story of all alien believers in general, and a number of the other people encountered are even more eccentric than he. Johnson doesn't condescend, having good-natured fun with and displaying a genuine affection for these people on the fringes and this rather unique celebration, which includes the world premiere staging of--yes--Roswell: The Musical. (Beatnik Home Entertainment; available at


American Beauty DVD American Beauty (R) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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The DVD premiere for this year's winner of the Best Picture Academy Award (among four other statuettes) had been a highly anticipated event--that is, until word came out this summer that the disc would not include the film's now-legendary lost scenes, including a more lengthy finish. Nonetheless, Sam Mendes' dark, seriocomic tale of suburban family dysfunction being a popular and highly esteemed film, DreamWorks' disc is still eagerly (if not fervently) awaited, and it's a good, solid edition that will satisfy--though not completely.

The no-frills menu design (reminiscent of that of the disc of DreamWorks' award contender of the previous year, Saving Private Ryan) are perfectly in line with the film's theme of finding beauty in the simplest and least likely of places. The main menu is perfection: the film's title at the top and the options at the bottom, sandwiching the image of a television screen playing the film's memorable image of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. As the sounds of Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score play in the background, it's a haunting welcome to a haunting film. Newman's music also back up the secondary menus, which are all static save for the animated scene selection screens.

With the excised footage nowhere to be found, the supplements are, for the most part, commonplace: the film's complete production notes, including full cast biographies, are offered, polished over to reflect the numerous award wins; two theatrical trailers are also showcased. The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, American Beauty: Look Closer..., digs a bit deeper and is a lot more nicely produced than similar extras on other discs, but that's because of its origins as a piece of awards campaign propaganda--the feature (infomercial, really) had aired on Los Angeles cable systems as part of the Oscar push (a tactic originated by Miramax). The featurette also offers a hint of the lost footage; a couple of cast interviews take place on a courtroom set (the most major cut subplot was a murder trial).

The one extra that really offers a lot to chew on is a one-hour long storyboard presentation, in which Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall compare and contrast the original visual plan with what ended up on screen. It is interesting to see just how meticulously Mendes planned out the film's visuals considering the film is remembered more as one of ideas, themes, and characters than images. Insightful stuff, but there is one big technical shortcoming: while this segment can be paused, there is no way to reverse or fast-forward through it, and if one is to stop the disc, there is no picking up where one left off.

On the commentary track, Mendes begins by saying that he hopes he isn't "too boring." Indeed he isn't, but he is a bit dry and repetitive as he continually praises stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as well as the lighting by Hall when not imparting interesting info (one nugget: he often cut the first and last lines of the scenes during the editing process). That's more than I can say for his commentary partner, screenwriter Alan Ball, who says so little as to be a virtual non-entity.

The official reason for the non-inclusion of the deleted scenes was that Mendes felt that watching them would detract from the existing film. However, his commentary suggests that their absence really wasn't his idea; there are a few moments where he mentions cut scenes and shots and how one can see them in an outtakes section--which simply doesn't exist on the finished disc. Perhaps it was DreamWorks' idea, for the company decided to include both Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks, in the process using up a lot of space. Indeed, the film sounds (and looks) great, but I'm sure I speak for all fans of the film that I would sacrifice a little sound and picture to catch a glimpse of what ended up on the cutting room floor.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS 5.1 Surround; English 5.1 Digital Surround; English Dolby Surround; English Subtitles; DVD-ROM features. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)

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#251 September 15, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Almost Famous poster Almost Famous (R) *** 1/2
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The term "almost famous" could apply to star Billy Crudup, who has been touted by Hollywood as one of those "next best things" for the past few years--yet hasn't even come close to making a popular breakthrough. Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe's hotly anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning Jerry Maguire, has been touted as the film that will finally make the top-billed Crudup a major star. Alas, he's going to have to remain "next best thing" for at least a little while longer, for once again he has been nipped in the bud--if the movie is anyone's "coming out" film, it's co-star Kate Hudson's.

Which is not to say that Crudup doesn't do a superb job; in fact, there isn't a single bad performance from anyone in the ensemble. And although a rock band on the cusp of fame in the 1970s lies at the center of Almost Famous, the film is not necessarily "about" the obvious parallel with its cast of young, on-the-verge stars. While they certainly do contribute a large part to the film's success, Almost Famous lingers in the memory because of the universality of Crowe's semi-autobiographical tale.

That fact is somewhat surprising considering how specific Crowe's seriocomic story is. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a precocious 15-year-old high school senior in 1973 who somehow manages to get a writing assignment for Rolling Stone magazine and finds himself on the road with Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock 'n roll band fronted by lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and moody lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Crudup). Whatever manner of tension goes on within the group--Jeff's jealousy of the attention lavished upon the hunkier Russell; their wild party ways--will be nothing new to anyone who's watched a single episode of VH1's Behind the Music (or seen or read anything about the classic rock 'n roll lifestyle).

Thankfully, details such as that are not the main concern of Crowe; rather, it is the universal search for a sense of belonging and community. This is not only embodied by William--an overachiever who had skipped a few grades in school, he's been a perpetual loner and outcast--but also by Penny Lane (Hudson), a self-proclaimed "Band Aid" that travels with the band and gives them, in particular Russell, private shows of support. Setting her kind apart from groupies, says she, is her genuine love of the band's music (and of Russell). Of course, she's just kidding herself, and her journey to self-realization--and her non-romantic (though he has other ideas) friendship with William--makes the film's most affecting thread, bolstered by the terrific rapport between and work of Fugit and especially Hudson, who stands to gain the most heat off of the film with her natural and poignant performance. Not to be outdone, however, the two old pros in the cast, Philip Seymour Hoffman (getting all of Crowe's best lines as the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs) and Frances McDormand (a lock for an Oscar nod as William's well-meaning but prying mother) steal all their respective scenes.

Crowe loses his way a bit in the final third, in effect making the film a step or two away from true excellence; a comical near-death experience that prompts a rash of soul-baring confessions is contrived, and the film's tidy wrap-up is a fizzle. But the themes and emotions of the piece resonate; Almost Famous may be almost great, but that's more than enough.

Bait poster Bait (R) ** 1/2
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Bait does serve its primary purpose: to serve as a showcase for the comic talents of star Jamie Foxx, whose excitable energy is mirrored by the slick direction of Antoine Fuqua. Too bad there's too much of a story that asks that the suspension of disbelief be stretched to uncomfortable lengths.

The Bait of the title is Foxx's Alvin Sanders, a none-too-bright thief who is released early from prison because his arresting officer falsified evidence. Or, rather, that is the excuse cooked up by U.S. Treasury agent Edgar Clenteen (David Morse), who really wants to use Alvin to lure one Bristol (Doug Hutchison), the murderous mastermind behind a multimillion-dollar gold heist, out of hiding. Why Alvin? It turns out he was the cellmate of Bristol's now-deceased partner, who gave Alvin clues as to where the still-missing gold is hidden.

There is even more to this story. Alvin has been implanted with an electronic device that enables the Feds to monitor his every move and word. His release, let alone his being outfitted with such experimental technology, was done under the radar of the government highers-up, so in order for Clenteen's plan to work, Alvin has to stay out of trouble--a difficult thing for a career criminal such as he. However, Alvin does have some added motivation to stay on the straight and narrow--among the things he finds changed after 18 months in the pen is that girlfriend Lisa (Kimberly Elise, wasted) is now also mother to his baby son.

As can easily be gleaned, Bait is seriously overplotted (Andrew and Adam Scheinman and Tony Gilroy are the credited writers), let alone wildly far-fetched. This is, after all, an action comedy, and the scribes would have been wiser to pay more attention to the jokes. Nonetheless, given the narrative overload, Bait works better than expected. Foxx is able to sell even the weaker one-liners, and he is convincing when the story pushes him into action. Fuqua, who previously proved his ability to stylishly handle an action scene in The Replacement Killers, brings similar visual pizzazz to the set pieces here.

But the good in Bait isn't enough to overcome the crippling excess. In addition to the convoluted plot, there's the matter of the curious performance of Hutchison, who plays bad Bristol by channelling John Malkovich and Kevin Spacey's most effete mannerisms. Even Fuqua lets himself get out of hand, employing his flashy technique for a scene where Alvin quietly recalls a warm childhood memory. But these quibbles are likely to be lost on general audiences, whom I suspect (and understandably so) will not only eat up this shiny piece of product, but be satisfied by it as well. But for anyone looking for true cinematic nourishment, Bait is not a meal.

Dancer in the Dark poster Dancer in the Dark (R) ****
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Without question, the love-it-or-hate-it reaction that greeted Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark at this year's Cannes Film Festival will be duplicated as the film slowly rolls out in theatres across the country. The controversial winner of this year's Palme d'Or is a film that not only challenges conventional explanation, it also defies easy analysis. But given the dramatic effect--both positive and negative--that it has on audiences, it can be agreed that Dancer in the Dark is a film like no other, and even if only to simply bear witness to such a bold, experimental work, it commands a viewing.

However, I believe there is a lot more to Dancer than simple curiosity value, and I think my--and the rest of the film's fans'--embrace of the film stems from an idea suggested in a comment that von Trier made (which has also been echoed by co-star Catherine Deneuve) about the film's star, Icelandic music sensation Bjrk (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes): "She can't really act; she can only feel." Similarly, I think the key to appreciating Dancer is not to watch it, but to "feel" it--to experience the raw gamut of emotions it thrusts upon the audience throughout its 140 minutes.

This idea of "feeling"--and the big debate over the film--is established long before a single image appears on screen. Dancer begins with a somber five-minute overture accompanied by a black screen, and it would be easy to dismiss it as a pompously pretentious move. But it also clearly announces two of von Trier's objectives in this film: first, to evoke the spirit of the grand melodramas of yesteryear; and second, to immerse the audience the point of view of his main character, Selma Jezkova (Bjrk).

Selma, a Czech immigrant trying to carve out a living as a punch press operator in the 1960s Pacific Northwest, is going blind. Keeping Selma going as her condition rapidly deteriorates is the love of and for her 12-year-old son Gene (Vladica Kostic) and her love for the lavish Hollywood screen musicals. The latter initially manifests itself in Selma's life in her ability to imagine music out of everyday sounds. While the strains of the overture don't derive from such a recognizable source noise, this opening gets the general idea across: the audience sees darkness yet can hear music, much like how Selma experiences her reality.

A number of writers as well as distributor Fine Line Features have been remarkably indiscreet about divulging details about Dancer's story; in fact, the film's trailer gives away one critical plot point. I won't do that myself though I will say this much more about the story: Selma's condition is hereditary, and she puts away every single penny of her negligible factory wages toward an operation that would save Gene from her literally dark fate. To say more than that is to say too much, making the temptation to include spoilers quite understandable--there really isn't much to von Trier's story. That has also been leveled as a criticism of the film, but I think it's a deliberate move; the straightforward plot again reflects old-fashioned screen melodrama dating back to the silent era.

There is another cinematic spirit von Trier conjures up, and that is of the classic, cheery Hollywood musical. References are everywhere--Selma regularly attends showings of Busby Berkeley tunefests with her best friend and co-worker Kathy (Deneuve), who often has to verbally describe the onscreen action to her; Selma and Kathy spend a number of their off hours rehearsing for a community theater production of The Sound of Music; and, most notably, Selma has elaborate fantasies of her life as a musical. These numbers, which are shown in a glorious mock-Technicolor splendor, starkly contrast with Selma's reality not only in a visual sense (the shaky hand-held camera work and washed out, Breaking the Waves-style hues evaporate in favor of a vibrant faux Technicolor and quick cuts between what reportedly are up to 100 fixed digital video cameras) but in an emotional sense--these scenes are all unbridled joy while the rest of the film bears an unshakable air of misfortune and misery. Much has been said about von Trier "reimagining" musical conventions by marrying high-kicking production numbers with a grim story, but, again, he's not so much attempting something fresh than reviving what had been an out-of-fashion aesthetic: that of classical opera, which invariably is tragedy set to music.

Granted, however, these are non-traditional musical numbers, beginning with the music itself. Bjrk composed all of the songs, and like her other work they are characterized by a dissonant marriage between orchestral arrangements and more manufactured sounds--an admittedly acquired taste for general listening, but a perfect match for this context; nearly all of Selma's numbers are triggered by a real world noise, which lingers as a song's backbeat. That makes just about none of the songs instantly hummable nor memorable (though the pivotal "I've Seen It All" leaves a haunting impression); consequently, each appearance of a musical number--which are all heavily choreographed--is made all the more jarring and, in certain cases, annoying. Nonetheless, a strange effect is achieved; a couple of the interludes don't quite work as you watch them, but when looked back upon as part of the bigger, completed picture, a method is revealed to the madness. Selma's imaginings grow more outrageous as her situation grows more dire, and it becomes clear that her dreams are not so much an escape route from her real life than her only way of actively and effectively living that life.

If, as the comment goes, Bjrk can't act but only feel, von Trier could not have made a better choice for his lead. Selma's story is all about emotion, and in order for Dancer to succeed, her portrayer must make an instant connection with the audience. And that Bjrk instantly achieves; Selma may be rather nave (another point of criticism for the hate-its), but she is endearingly, honestly so, and one is easily willing to accompany her on her flights of fancy and stand by her during her many trials and tribulations. While von Trier's radical storytelling and directorial hand are a large factor, the astonishing, unadorned force of the film's finale would not have been achieved with an "actress" playing Selma. Bjrk simply is Selma--and the film itself.

Given von Trier's reputation as an insincere provocateur, the impassioned hate-it contingent for Dancer in the Dark is not only understandable, perhaps it's even correct in pegging the film as a fraudulent come-on. Dancer could very well be read as some sick joke, a cynical jab at an America that invites foreigners to its land with sunny propaganda (here, movie musicals) only to plop them down in the diametrically opposing genre--tragic melodrama; or even an experiment in shameless audience manipulation. But if von Trier's machinations are able to wring such a genuine and profound emotional response from the audience by the final frame (and I speak not only of the overwhelming sense of loss and devastation it brings the film's admirers but also the equally fervent anger it incites in its detractors) how can the work be--as the now-infamous Daily Variety review of the film put it--"artistically bankrupt on every level"?

In Brief

Duets poster Duets (R) * 1/2
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Just about every note hit in Bruce Paltrow's ensemble comedy/drama/whatever set in the karaoke world is a wrong one. The title refers to three pairs of characters, all of whom meet for a big karaoke-palooza in Omaha, Nebraska. Pair one: karaoke hustler Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis) and Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Vegas showgirl and the daughter he never knew he had. The usual teary confrontations and reconciliatory embraces ensue. Pair two: slutty singer Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello) and sad sack cabbie Billy Hannon (Scott Speedman), whom she convinces to be her personal chauffeur. The usual cheap sex jokes and moments of sad self-realization ensue. Pair three: salesman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti), on a self-destructive search for "freedom"; and Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher), an escaped con who just wants to sing. The usual comedy involving the combo of a geeky guy and a firearm ensues.

The big problem with Duets is that, despite their shared ties in the karaoke world, the three storylines cooked up by writer John Byrum all seem to be coming from a different movie. The Lewis/Paltrow thread is pure TV movie; Bello/Speedman is a "whore your way to the top" tale; Giamatti/Braugher aims to is a stridently outrageous--and incredibly pretentious--social satire of sorts. Likewise, performances are all over the map: Giamatti overacts; Speedman underacts; Lewis is blank space; Bello gives her insulting role undeserved punch; Braugher remains dignified in the most ridiculous of situations. And the director's Oscar-winning daughter? Never did I ever think she could ever be so annoying.

Into the Arms of Strangers poster Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (PG) *** 1/2
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Given its scope, it's amazing this Holocaust story hasn't been told before: in 1939, thousands of Jewish children were taken into households and hostels in Great Britain. The intention was to later have the children--or kinder--reunite with their parents; but once WWII was over, reunions were rare cases. This is an inherently moving story, and director Mark Jonathan Harris has the wisdom to trust that; more than anything, this film is characterized by its restraint and, as a result, the truer emotions it achieves. Lee Holdridge's score isn't intrusive; the narration by Dame Judi Dench is used in moderation; the superb sound design by Gary Rydstrom subtly brings the survivors' memories to life. Not that they needed any help--their stories are remarkably vivid and poignant, as are their expressive faces as they get caught up in the sweep of often painful memories.

Urbania poster Urbania (R) *** 1/2
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The opening twenty minutes or so of Jon Shear's Urbania dares you to stick with it; pieces of urban legends are mixed in with cryptic snippets of a key moment in protagonist Charlie's (Dan Futterman) past as he asks the camera, "Heard any good stories lately?" This unnerving explosion of chaos makes for an apt introduction to this moody tale in which the pathologically detached Charlie searches for a mysterious, leather jacket-clad stranger (Samuel Ball) during one long night. During his pursuit, Charlie has fleeting encounters with others, from an old friend (Alan Cumming) to a soap star (Gabriel Olds) looking for a cheap thrill, and with more than a few more of those urban legends--which call into question what, if anything at all, is really taking place.

The midsection of Urbania settles into a rambling and (perhaps deliberately) frustrating pace; as Charlie bounces from encounter to encounter during this dark night, questions about his situation and his relentless bitterness continue to build. The elusive answers do arrive, and with their revelations Shear develops suspenseful narrative force. As the film grows more coherent, it also becomes more unsettling; Charlie's world becomes increasingly nightmarish as his violent emotions erupt into shocking actions. But beneath the surface ugliness lies a tender emotional agenda, and that--along with the stunningly fearless performance by Futterman--makes the initially confounding Urbania what it ultimately reveals itself as being: a provocative and cathartic story about the impossibility of retribution and the challenge of redemption.


Alien Visitor DVD Alien Visitor (PG-13) * 1/2
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Don't let the title fool you: despite an otherworldly jumping-off point, this is a plodding, pretentious, and painfully preachy drama. The title character (Ulli Birvé) is sent from the planet Epsilon for reasons unknown even to herself. In the desert, she encounters a man (Syd Brisbane), whom she befriends and ultimately falls for. In between, there's a lot of talk: some tame sex chat but mostly the alien blathering on about how humans are inferior intelligences and are destroying the planet. Birvé and Brisbane grow into a nice rapport, but it's at the mercy of Rolf deHeer's excruciatingly didactic script and hamfisted direction. (Miramax Home Entertainment, DVD also available)

Life According to Muriel DVD Life According to Muriel (La Vida Segn Muriel) ** 1/2
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Muriel is a nine-year-old girl (Florencia Camiletti) who is taken by her single mother Laura (Soledad Villamil) from Buenos Aires to the countryside after leaving her latest lover. Their trip to the countryside is cut short when their car falls into a lake, and they are forced to stay with hotel owner Mirta (Ins Estvez) and her two children. At this early point, the film becomes less about the title character than about the two grown women in similar yet different circumstances--both are alone with children, but Laura wants to get away from men while Mirta waits continually for her absent husband to return. In doing so, the film reveals itself to be a fairly standard female bonding picture--albeit one supported by strong performances. (Vanguard Cinema, DVD also available)

Me Myself I poster Me Myself I (R) ***
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Mostly known for her more serious work (she even carried a weighty subplot in Muriel's Wedding), Rachel Griffiths shines in this light showcase. In the latest of the increasingly popular "split life" subgenre of comedy, Griffiths plays Pamela Drury, a single Australian magazine writer who comes to ponder the domestic road not taken after reaching a 30something'th birthday. When Pamela finds herself face to face with "Pamela Two," who ended up accepting the years-ago marriage proposal of her "Mr. Right" (David Roberts), Pamela soon experiences for herself the road not traveled. Numerous complications, many of them comic, ensue, but while there are funny situations, the film's staying power derives from its genuine, gentle heart--perfectly embodied by Griffiths' balanced, multifaceted performance. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)

Mifune poster Mifune (Dogme 3: Mifunes Sidste Sang) (R) ** 1/2
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It's nice to see a Dogme 95 film that has no pretensions aside from being a quirky romance, but given the free form nature of the manifesto, what could potentially be refreshing is ruined by rambling indulgence. Ostensibly the love story between Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen), a newlywed from the big city; and Liva (Iben Hjejle), the call girl whom he hires as a housekeeper for his newly-inherited country farm house, any romantic sense is shrouded by asides with Kresten's mentally challenged brother (Jesper Asholt) and Liva's friends/co-workers. While some laughs are to be had, they come at the expense of what should have been director/co-writer Sren Kragh-Jacobsen's main concern. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)

The Phantom Lover poster The Phantom Lover *** 1/2
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Of all the Hong Kong film talent that has recently crossed the Pacific for a Hollywood career, none has been as stunningly misused as director Ronny Yu. While directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark and stars as Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li have been placed in their proper genre--action--Yu, whose American assignments have been the chopsocky kangaroo adventure Warriors of Virtue and the campy horror sequel Bride of Chucky, has not had an opportunity to strut his stuff with his specialty: epic romance. This 1995 HK film, just now arriving in the States on video, is a shamelessly sentimental and altogether rewarding tale of forbidden love along the lines of his 1993 classic The Bride with White Hair.

In this tale inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, Bride star Leslie Cheung stars as an opera star who became a presumed-dead recluse after being horribly disfigured in a fire at his opulent theatre in the 1920s. Flash forward ten years, and the now-dilapidated structure has become shared by a travelling theatre troupe and a rising vocalist (Huang Lei) whom the recluse uses to reunite with his grieving lost love (Jacqueline Wu Chien-Lien). A hackneyed climax stops this film short of Bride's well-deserved masterpiece status, but Yu's sumptuous blend of the impassioned performances, Peter Pau's lush photography, and the haunting melodies of the score (by Chris Babida) and songs (written and performed by Cheung himself) resonates with beautifully wrenching romantic longing. Someone give this guy a big-league Tinseltown tearjerker, please. (Tai Seng Video, subtitled and English-dubbed VHS available)

Slow Burn DVD Slow Burn (R) **
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The title gives an adequate description of what this thriller does to your time. Minnie Driver stars as a woman obsessed with recovering her grandmother's diamonds, which are lost in the desert--or, rather, were lost before they were found by a pair of escaped cons (James Spader and Josh Brolin). Despite the name brand cast, it's easy to see why this film went straight to tape: lackluster twists and the performances to match (Spader, sporting a weird voice, is especially offensive). An unconventional conclusion lends the film some freshness, but not enough. (Artisan Home Entertainment, DVD also available)


Boogie Nights DVD Boogie Nights (R) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ****
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There is a certain sense of dj vu attached to New Line's extravagant two-disc edition of Boogie Nights; it is New Line's second go-round at a Platinum Series DVD for the film, and the main box art and another special feature derive from the pricey Criterion Collection laserdisc released a couple of years ago. But by taking the best of the old and sprucing it with a dash of the new, disc producer Mark Rance has assembled the definitive digital version of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 porn world drama.

Anderson's solo commentary, taken from the original single-disc Platinum Series edition, is the first of two that accompany the gorgeous new widescreen master of the film supervised by Lou Levinson and Anderson on disc one. Cinephiles will find much to savor on that informative track, but those just looking to be entertained will discover the real party's on the second commentary, taken from the Criterion laserdisc. I usually don't like commentaries cobbled together from separate recording sessions with a variety of principal players, but this track--featuring Anderson and stars Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Melora Walters, and Luis Guzman--is different because of its unconventional approach: the audio program was assembled from a number of individual and tandem "interviews" with the actors conducted by Anderson, and anyone who's seen interviews with the writer-director know what a live wire (to put it lightly) he is.

The first disc also includes the usual chapter menus, but given the period song-heavy soundtrack, the menu that takes one directly to certain scenes by their respective music cues is an especially welcome feature. The "setup" screen and the color bars are likely to be overlooked, but fans will be pleased to see the big surprise that awaits them should they explore this oft-neglected corner of the disc.

Disc one's splashy animated menus that riff on the '70s-inspired box art are duplicated--albeit in a different color scheme--on disc two, which features a lot of interesting, recycled supplemental material. The theatrical trailer, the cast and crew filmographies, the cheeky biographies on the film's characters, Michael Penn's "Try" music video, and the deleted scenes (the latter two including an audio commentary option) are also holdovers from the original DVD, but some of these features have been altered. The cast and crew information no longer include brief biographies, but the filmographies are all brought up to Y2K speed (except, curiously, Walters'); and included in the deleted scenes section was a previously unseen (and rather long) sequence that originally came late in the film. The only entirely new feature on disc two is an amusing one: "The John C. Reilly Files," a compilation of wacky outtakes centering around the actor. Originally planned for inclusion was an edited version of Exhausted, a documentary on adult film legend John Holmes (who was the vague basis of Boogie's Dirk Diggler character), but rights issues led to an 11th-hour pull of the feature (a holdover from the Criterion laser). Its absence is not terribly felt, for the extras that are included on both discs give more than ample insight into the making of this terrific film.

Specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles. (New Line Home Video)

Supernova DVD Supernova (R) movie review
Movie: no stars; Disc: ***
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A couple of months ago I was able to view director Walter Hill's buried director's cut of Supernova, and was I shocked to find that not only was his version vastly different, but surprisingly decent as well. With crucial scenes and a strikingly different temp score restored, not to mention without some misguided overdubbing and scene rearranging, performances that seemed so wrong in the hacked-to-bits theatrical cut were dead-on (though Peter Facinelli's work as the villain remained a lost cause); barely realized pretensions blossomed into genuinely provocative themes; and there was actually some real suspense to this tale of a madman going on a rampage aboard a rescue vessel in the far reaches of space.

Alas, this far superior version of the film is not on MGM's DVD, but a special R-rated edition of the abysmal PG-13 release version (the major restoration? Some extra nudity) credited to the pseudonymous "Thomas Lee." However, the disc gives viewers a hefty taste of what could have been (or, rather, what was) by including a number of the excised footage in a "deleted scenes" section presented separately from the film; in a strangely generous move, MGM also polished the visual effects work on these scenes. While these scenes' true effectiveness don't really come through out of context, at least audiences can get an idea of Hill's original vision. This bonus footage is the icing on a strangely well-produced disc for a truly awful film; the main menu, which incorporates footage from the film along with some neat 3-D blueprint-like images, is far more elaborate than those on the discs for far more deserving films in the Lion's catalog.

Specifications: Full frame and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; Spanish Dolby Surround; Spanish and French subtitles; English closed captioning. (MGM Home Entertainment)

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