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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 77

#256 - 257
October 27 , 2000 - November 3, 2000


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

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#257 November 3, 2000 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

The Legend of Bagger Vance poster The Legend of Bagger Vance (PG-13) **
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Just who is Bagger Vance, and why is he so legendary? Or, more importantly, why should anyone care? The Legend of Bagger Vance, Robert Redford's film of Steven Pressfield's novel of the same name, offers plenty of pretty sunsets and New Agey gobbledygook but very little reason why one should have an emotional investment in this benign, banal, and sometimes boring inspirational drama.

The main character is not Will Smith's titular golf caddy, but one Rannoulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who at one point was considered the greatest golfer in all the South, but tragedy on the battlefield in WWI robbed him of all his nerve, not to mention the golf swing that earned him the respect and admiration of many fans. When Junuh's estranged girlfriend Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) stages a big exhibition tournament to save the lavish golf course built by her late father, young Junuh fan named Hardy Greaves (newcomer J. Michael Moncrief) sees this as a chance for Junuh to reclaim his status after ten years of bitter seclusion. After some heavy duty campaigning by Hardy and Adele, Junuh reluctantly agrees though his swing seems long a thing of the past. Enter Bagger Vance, who seemingly appears out of thin air one night in Junuh's yard; a couple of golf pointers later, Bagger is Junuh's caddy.

From this point, Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven could have completely settled into sports movie formula, and their unwillingness to fall into convention would be more admirable if their alternative were more inspired. Granted, one key variation from the formula--that Junuh's two highly celebrated opponents (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill) are good people and not forced to fit into a "villain" mold--is refreshing. But the movie that Redford and Leven made really isn't about the tournament so much as Junuh remembering his golf swing and all the psychological healing that entails. The problem is Junuh's trauma--his guilt over being the sole survivor of his army platoon--is too simply handled, and his road to recovery is less than convincing. Bagger's long-winded spiritual platitudes about golf are what set Junuh back on the right path, and while the lyrical fairy tale gloss Redford gives the picture keeps this point from being laughable, it simply reduces it to lesser offense of being cornball.

So where did Bagger get his bottomless pools of wisdom? Who knows; he could be a guardian angel, a mystical spirit, or just an exceptionally perceptive and insightful man. But the vagueness of his character isn't as irksome as that of his more down-to-earth counterparts. Junuh: good guy, lost his confidence, needs it back. Adele: good gal, wants to preserve her dearly departed daddy's integrity. Hardy: good boy, wants his hero to succeed. All the performances are similarly nondescript, which is especially unfortunate in the case of Smith. Reduced to smiley-faced pontificating, the unpredictable energy that usually makes him a captivating screen presence is as lost as Junuh's swing.

There is no denying that The Legend of Bagger Vance is a handsomely mounted production. The film is exceedingly well done on the technical end, highlighted by the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who lushly captures the natural splendors of Savannah; and Rachel Portman's subtle and evocative score. If only the entire film were able to have as firm a hold on the emotions as it does the senses.


Mercy Streets poster Mercy Streets (PG-13) * 1/2
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Mercy Streets is the latest feature film project from Providence Entertainment, the makers of last year's abysmal Christian-themed thriller The Omega Code--and, as that fact suggests, there is an aggressive pro-faith agenda at work in this drama. For devout viewers of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that element will be enough to not only send them flocking to theatres), but also spread enthusiastic word-of-mouth (as was the case with Omega). For everyone else, however, that angle is the only thing that separates this plodding melodrama from most cheap direct-to-video fare.

The not-ready-for-the-big-screen indications come early, when we see that the top-billed star is none other than straight-to-tape stalwart Eric Roberts. Roberts, in fact, only has a supporting role in Mercy Streets, taking a back seat to the real lead, a justified unknown by the name of David White (who also produced). White plays John, a recently released convict who quickly falls back under the wing of mentor Rome (Roberts) and into the criminal life. John tries to double cross Rome, but when the plan unravels, John seeks out estranged brother Jeremiah, a gentle guy studying to become an Episcopal priest. The twist? Jeremiah and John are twins, setting the stage for laughably primitive camera tricks (the brothers never face the camera at the same time; composite shots have an obvious dividing line; etc). When Rome inadvertently kidnaps Jeremiah, John must assume his brother's identity, and Jeremiah has his darker instincts brought out by Rome's persuasive ways.

While not especially fresh, there's nothing inherently wrong with the basic premise of Mercy Streets. But such a twin-switch scenario sinks or swims with the actor tackling the dual role, and White isn't up to the task. He is completely overwrought and unconvincing as the tough John (an early scene that's designed to establish the character's mean side is especially embarrassing), and while he fares better as the nice Jeremiah, White isn't able to convey what should be the conflicted anguish of that character. The air of realism that director Jon Gunn so clearly strives for is also ruined by Roberts' scenery chewing theatrics.

Then there's the matter of the religious agenda. Don't get me wrong; I have no problem with a film that tries to push a personal belief as long as it goes about it in a compelling way (e.g. The Contender). Gunn fails to do so; despite some arbitrary visual flourishes (slow motion and freeze frames), the film is slowly, lazily paced, and he and co-writer John W. Mann clunkily incorporate the Gospel message--somewhat baffling considering one of the main characters is a minister-in-the-making. As such, when the film suddenly shifts to talk of God and His word, the moments stick out and feel even more preachy than they otherwise would have been.

The softhearted spiritual talk also feels less than sincere considering the amount of violent content in Mercy Streets. Bloodshed is fairly minimal, but there are some brutal moments, in particular a couple of fistfighting scenes and one unexpectedly intense beating scene. The positive message behind Mercy Streets is good for the entire family, but it seems like wasted effort when the vessel for the message isn't entirely appropriate for all audiences.


In Brief

Get Carter poster Get Carter (R) **
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Contrary to the lack of press screenings and its anemic box office take would suggest, this Sylvester Stallone-starring remake of the 1971 British crime thriller is not a disaster. What it is, however, is simply undistinguished. Stallone takes over for Michael Caine (who has a supporting role here) as the title role, who in this incarnation is a Vegas mob enforcer who returns to his hometown of Seattle for his younger brother's funeral; while there, Carter searches for the truth behind the mysterious circumstances surrounding his sibling's death. Stallone's restrained turn leads a uniformly strong batch from the ensemble (which also includes Rachael Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, and an underused Miranda Richardson), and director Stephen Kay's stylized visuals add some spice, but they cannot overcome the formulaic and obvious screenplay, which is of no help to a film that is structured as a mystery.


Lucky Numbers poster Lucky Numbers (R) * 1/2
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With this dud of a dark comedy, it's clear that director Nora Ephron's unluckiest number is that of John Travolta, with whom she previously collaborated on the misbegotten Michael. Here, Travolta mugs and whines as Russ Richards, a popular Pennsylvania weatherman whose desperate financial situation leads him to cook up a lottery tampering scheme with bedmate and "lotto girl" Crystal (Lisa Kudrow). As is invariably the case in the movies, the seemingly perfect plan proves to be anything but that in execution, and dead bodies soon become part of the equation. A couple of clever twists and an amusingly demented performance by Kudrow cannot make up for the glaring dearth of laughs in this film, which proves that Ephron should stick with her strong suit: fluffy romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan.


D V D

Joseph: King of Dreams DVD Joseph: King of Dreams
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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With most animated features skewing toward the lighter side, DreamWorks appears to be cornering the market on "serious" animation with their first direct-to-video release in that field, Joseph: King of Dreams. A sober Biblical adaptation in the vein of their Oscar-winning The Prince of Egypt, Joseph, while clearly not on the level of that 1998 classic, it is a solid piece of work that is about on par with the SKG's spring theatrical release The Road to El Dorado.

Joseph, based on the same Old Testament story that inspired the long-running stage musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, lacks the emotional sweep of Prince, but it is nonetheless an inspiring tale for the whole family. The youngest and favored son to Jacob, Joseph (voiced by Ben Affleck) is given a lavish coat and spared the hard shepherding work that his many other brothers are made to do. Insanely jealous, the brothers sell Joseph to slavery, but Joseph won't be counted out so easily, thanks to his indomitable spirit--and his gift for interpreting dreams.

Like Prince, Joseph is also a musical, and, not surprisingly, the song score by John Bucchino is not as memorable as the one Stephen Schwartz gave Prince. In fact, Bucchino's work is downright forgettable; the only song making the slightest inkling of an impression is Joseph's--and the film's--central number, "Better Than I," during which a dejected Joseph learns to keep his faith under dire circumstances. Also problematic is the fact that the voices of Affleck and David Campbell, who does Joseph's singing duties, are too dissimilar; the split casting doesn't quite convince.

What does convince, however, is the animation. Although produced by DreamWorks' television division, the art could very well hold up on the big screen; while there is a loss in detail, the motion is fluid; the color palette is vivid; and the shading and highlighting effects are quite polished. There are also a number of impressive computer-aided sequences: the surreal dream scenes, including an homage to Van Gogh's "Starry Night" that brings that classic image to swirling life; and animated hieroglyph effects that were introduced in Prince (though not quite as effective here as they were in that film). All in all, Joseph is a new technical benchmark for straight-to-tape animated features, putting Disney's chintzy home video efforts to shame.

Although it was produced exclusively for the home market, Joseph: King of Dreams was shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, nicely preserved on the disc in an anamorphic transfer. The extras mostly skew toward the younger set; there is a read-along feature and a 25-question (!) trivia quiz on the film. Presumably included for the entire family is a sing-along feature that presents three of the film's seven musical numbers karaoke style, but given how weak the song score is, I can't imagine anyone getting much use out of this feature. The one big concession to older viewers is a presentation of storyboards for three sequences, one which didn't make the final film. Viewable with or without commentary from directors Robert Ramirez and Rob LaDuca, this is a tasty morsel for animation aficionados, but at only 11 minutes long, too small of one.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; DVD-ROM features. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)


Titan A.E. DVD Titan A.E. (PG) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ***
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Fox's DVD of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman's vastly underappreciated sci-fi action-adventure bears the "Special Edition" label, but while the disc contains a fairly high number of features, too many aren't exactly what I'd call "special." The de rigueur "making-of" documentary, The Quest for Titan, is in actuality a repackaged promotional special that originally aired not on the standard Fox network, but in their Fox Kids kiddie programming block; as such, this overview of the production is dumbed down accordingly. The "Over My Head" music video by Lit just serves as a reminder of one of the film's worst aspects, an alt-rock soundtrack that was more a blatant promotional tool than an enhancement to the film. A gallery of concept art is a welcome supplement to an animated film, but it would have been nice if there were some indication as to what was being depicted in each drawing.

However, not every extra is a bust. While the featured deleted scenes and alternate takes are no big loss to the final film, not all the animation in these clips are finished, and the wireframe work and various unfinished portions provide an always-intriguing look at the animation process. More insight on this process is provided by Bluth and Goldman on a commentary track; the pair eloquently discuss, among other things, how animators should have an understanding of acting, and the technical challenges of creating such a smooth blend of traditional two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation techniques with 3-D computer effects.

Which leads me to the best feature on the disc--the movie itself, which remains as breathtaking as it was on the big screen. The range of and subtle grading in the color palette is preserved; the computer-generated images retain their meticulous detail; and the audio master gives the film's impressive action sequences an added kick on the home screen.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


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#256 October 16, 2000 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 poster Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (R) no stars
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Much like how The Exorcist begat Exorcist II: The Heretic, last year's shock success The Blair Witch Project has spawned a baffling and altogether atrocious follow-up, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Less a sequel than an extremely loose spinoff--which has just about nothing to do with either part of its title, I might add--this film won't win over the original's many detractors, and it is certain to incense the first's cult of ardent supporters.

Director Joe Berlinger has described Book of Shadows as an "anti-sequel," and the premise he and writing collaborator Dick Beebe (BWP writers-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez only take an executive producing credit here) does hold some potential for an interesting deconstruction of not merely the first Blair Witch, but the pop culture phenomenon it created. BW2 doesn't take place in the same "universe" inhabited by the original's characters of Heather, Mike, and Josh; it takes place in the world of the here and now--that is, a world where The Blair Witch Project is a blockbuster movie that has sent tourism soaring in the filming location of Burkittsville, Maryland. The film opens with a witty faux-documentary segment that succinctly covers the media frenzy around the film and fans' obsession with all things Blair.

Once the nominal plot kicks in after the credit roll, BW2 begins is big downhill plunge. Among the many BWP fans who have flocked to those familiar woods is the "Blair Witch Hunt" tour group: Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), the tour organizer and former mental patient; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a practicing wiccan who wants debunk the negative perception of her religion; Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), a supernatural skeptic who is writing a book on the Blair Witch myth with his pregnant believer girlfriend Tristen (Tristen Skyler); and Kim (Kim Director), token Goth chick. They set up camp at the ruins of the house featured in BWP's finale, and after a night of hard drinking, everyone wakes up the next morning to find all their video equipment destroyed--and their memory similarly damaged; no one has any recollection of all that went on that night, let alone falling asleep. Perhaps holding the answers are their mysteriously untouched videotapes, and the five retreat to Jeff's abandoned warehouse home to study them.

Given that The Blair Witch Project's ambiguous, debatable ending was a major reason for the film's cult status, it was perhaps a wise move on the part of Berlinger and Beebe to not offer any explanation about what exactly happened. I don't think anyone goes into Book of Shadows expecting to find any specific answers about the first film's doomed trio, anyway; however, I'm sure the common expectation is for some additional background on the Blair Witch. Alas, what the audience gets is a repetitive and incredibly tedious chain of events where the five have strange hallucinations when not watching playback of their videotapes. A few oblique references are made to the Blair Witch legend, but they will be largely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't done extensive pre-viewing research at the Blair Witch website. Unlike the original film, where the expanded backstory works as an enhancement to a stand-alone film, it's practically required reading if one wants to make sense of whatever place BW2 has in the larger mythology--though even Blair Witch fanatics may have difficulty sorting it all out as well.

But ties to the bigger Blair Witch picture are secondary to the casual viewer, who simply wants to be scared. Not only is there anything remotely spooky to be found in Book of Shadows, no sense of suspense is ever generated due to a self-defeating storytelling choice: flash forwards. In haphazardly jumping back and forth in time, Berlinger indiscreetly gives away who exactly will survive and who will die, not to mention the exact fate of these survivors; throughout the film he even drops not-so-subtle hints--visual ones, no less--of what went down during those missing hours. With all its secrets and would-be shocks more than telegraphed far in advance, there is a dull inevitability attached to what should have been the film's "climactic" moments.

So, for most of Book of Shadows, one wonders what Berlinger's intentions were, he clearly didn't set out to make the simple scary movie everyone wants and expects. The answer finally comes in the film's final moments, which indeed reveals an aim "above" standard genre satisfaction: to address the zeitgeist question of popular entertainment's connection to real-life crime. It's an admirable goal within the context of a horror film, but there's a fine line between "ambitious" and "pretentious." By not offering anything fresh nor particularly insightful on the subject, and without going about it in an entertaining nor convincing way (the abysmal acting--or, rather, yelling--sends any foundation in reality out the window), Berlinger and his empty Book of Shadows end up on the wrong side of that line.


Drunken Master II poster The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II) (R) *** 1/2
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At long last, the American masses will get a glimpse of what Jackie Chan can really do with the long-overdue wide release of his classic 1994 Hong Kong production Drunken Master II, rechristened by Miramax as The Legend of Drunken Master. Considered by many Chan fans (including myself) as the star's crowning achievement, Drunken Master compensates for what it lacks in plot with hearty laughs and truly spectacular action sequences--which still pack the same punch in this re-edited edition.

Drunken Master, like all of Chan's Hong Kong efforts, has a plot that is functional at best. Chan plays Wong Fei-Hung (a character popularized by the other HK martial arts superstar, Jet Li, in the Once Upon a Time in China series), son of a doctor (Ti Lung) in early-1900s China. A master of the self-explanatory "drunken boxing" style of martial arts, his skills come in handy when he inadvertently stumbles upon a British scheme to steal Chinese artifacts.

A Chan film wouldn't be complete without comedy, and while he does some great physical gags that emerge from the action scenes, the best comic moments do not come from Chan but co-star Anita Mui. A movie and music sensation in Hong Kong--not to mention frequent Chan co-star--Mui is an absolute riot as Fei-Hung's stepmother (a most welcome revision from the original version, in which the visibly younger Mui played Chan's biological parent). As adept at tossing off verbal barbs as she is selling broad slapstick that in lesser hands would be simply preposterous, Mui has expert timing and darn near walks away with the picture. Thankfully, the surprisingly passable dubbing job does no disservice to her work; likewise, neither does Miramax's subtle retooling desecrate the Hong Kong cut: simple main titles as opposed to the lavish credit sequences that are usually tacked on; a new score that actually retains a strong Asian flavor; the wise excising of the original's ludicrous coda.

Keeping Chan in full command of the film, however, is his amazing fighting skill, which has never been showcased quite as well as it is here. Chan's Hollywood productions and his HK reissues tend to have a big showpiece stunt, like the big fall he takes at the end of Rush Hour. Drunken Master, on the other hand, is a pure showcase for his raw martial arts ability, which proves more dazzling than any huge death-defying stunt could ever be (though, of course, said fighting is dangerous in its own right). From the exciting first fight--a sword/spear battle that starts under a train--to the awesomely choreographed, expertly staged final confrontation with a baddie played by Ken Lo (Chan's real-life bodyguard), Drunken Master delivers action goods that are sure to leave everyone absolutely breathless.

That is, everyone who shows up at the theatre--which, sadly, will likely be a small group. Thanks to some curious release choices (Twin Dragons?), reissues of Chan's HK work have suffered a steady decline at the box office. It's utterly baffling that Miramax waited so long to release Drunken Master; if released four years earlier to capitalize on the heat of his spring 1996 breakthrough, Rumble in the Bronx, it would have surely sent Chan's stateside status skyrocketing beyond the mid-level stardom he currently enjoys. But if there's any justice, the ever-dazzling Drunken Master should reverse the trend of diminishing returns--if even for just this one film.


The Little Vampire poster The Little Vampire (PG) **
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"But it's only a kids' movie." That's the likely response to any criticisms leveled at The Little Vampire, a fantasy-adventure-comedy that is unmistakably made for the younger set--who, I have no doubt in my mind, will react positively to the film. Yes, the movie is clean. Yes, the movie will hold the tots' attention. But should that be ample reason to subject your children to such a shoddy product? I don't think so.

Jonathan Lipnicki plays Tony Thompson, who along with his mother (Pamela Gidley) and father (Tommy Hinkley), has just moved from America to the Scotland countryside. Tony's problems fitting in at school are made worse by his recurring dreams about vampires--the reasons for which become clear one night when he is visited by Rudolph (Rollo Weeks), the little vampire of the title. The two quickly become best friends, and soon Tony finds himself helping Rudolph and his family--father Frederick (Richard E. Grant), mother Frida (Alice Krige), sister Anna (Anna Popplewell), and older brother Gregory (Dean Cook)--locate the missing piece of an amulet that could grant them their greatest wish: to become human again.

Sounds all nice and cute, which it probably was in Angela Sommer-Bodenburg's original novels. But something has been lost in the translation. While the effects, photography, and costuming (though Rudolph is made to look like a miniature member of the '80s band a-ha) are decent, Karey Kirkpatrick and Larry Wilson's script has a fair share of irritating plot holes (just exactly why is Tony able to have psychic visions?), and the comic sequences are rendered annoying by director Uli Edel's (yes, the same Uli Edel who last directed the 1993 Madonna fuckfest Body of Evidence) heavy hand. Case in point: a subplot involving a weirdo vampire hunter (Jim Carter).

What proves most ruinous, however, are the performances that range from phoned-in to barely-there. The central performance falls in the latter category. Five years after stealing scenes in the not-for-kids Jerry Maguire, the now-10-year-old Lipnicki is given his first starring vehicle with Vampire, and the moppet proves far from up to the task. Adult actors certainly can't coast by on cuteness alone, and that goes tenfold for child stars, whose smiles and giggles can get really annoying really quickly. The case of the bespectacled Lipnicki is even worse, for his cuteness factor is rapidly diminishing; now that the size of his body is about caught up with that of his head, there's nothing distinctively "cute" about him. One's left to focus on whatever acting ability is there, and between his robotic line readings and stone face--which, it seems, can only be smiling or sullen--one would be hard-pressed to find any.

One would also have difficulty finding much of anything in The Little Vampire that will appeal beyond the target kid audience. For some parents, that will be enough, but shouldn't a so-called "family film" truly have something of worth to offer to everyone of every age?


Tigerland poster Tigerland (R) **
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Long considered synonymous with empty Hollywood razzle dazzle, director Joel Schumacher seems increasingly determined to prove his artistic worth. After getting down-and-dirty with last year's lurid (and little else) 8MM, Schumacher returns with an even more unlikely--and blatantly "different"--project: the Dogme 95-inspired (!) Vietnam War (!!) film Tigerland. The resulting film isn't as disastrous as one would expect, but it's likely not going to reverse any negative opinions of the filmmaker.

In fact, Tigerland will only reinforce one of the biggest complaints regarding Schumacher's work: that it's all about the look, not the material. The herky-jerky handheld camera work, grainy images, and all-natural lighting borrowed from the Danish manifesto of cinematic "chastity" plus the cast of largely unrecognizable faces lends the film an air of authenticity, but only that--an "air," as inert and superficial as the term suggests. The same can also be said about Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther's screenplay.

Although in essence a Vietnam War story, the film ends right as its focal group of soldiers is shipped off to 'Nam, focusing instead on the stateside training of a bunch of young grunts, whose grueling experience culminates at the Louisiana-based simulated combat zone of Tigerland. Klavan, an Army veteran, used his real-life Tigerland training experience as a foundation for the script, and the day-to-day grind of the training as depicted rings true: the harsh verbal and physical abuse inflicted by the superiors; the petty tensions that arise between soldiers. But this is nothing that hasn't already been shown in countless other war films, and after a while these scenes blend into each other, and one is forced to look deeper to maintain interest--and what one finds is a trite, hollow center.

Tigerland is pretty much the story of Privates Bozz (Colin Farrell) and Paxton (Matthew Davis), who bond and become best friends during training at Fort Polk, Louisiana sometime in 1971. Paxton is a wannabe writer who wants to go to war for the mere experience of it. Bozz, on the other hand, wants out of the army, and his frequent acts of disobedience increasingly run him afoul of his superiors and some fellow trainees, namely Private Wilson (Shea Whigham). And... that's about it. Paxton is continually exposed to the brutal reality of war; Bozz continually rebels by cooking up excuses for others to get discharged and making smartass remarks to anyone within earshot--which prompts angry looks from the likes of Wilson. Drama? I think not.

But there is a diamond in the rough of Tigerland, and that is Farrell. A talented newcomer with genuine presence, Farrell is able to suggest some complexity in a character that is written without any (which is the case with just about every single role). He is a true find whose promise should be more fully realized in films far better than Tigerland.


In Brief

Bedazzled poster Bedazzled (PG-13) **
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Elizabeth Hurley sizzles as the Devil, who grants rather dense everyman Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) seven wishes as a tradeoff for his eternal soul. Whenever Hurley is onscreen solo or sharing it with Fraser--with whom she has a nice rapport--Harold Ramis' remake of the 1967 British comedy has a sexy comic kick. But for each of the elaborate wish vignettes--Elliot as Colombian drug dealer, Elliot as pro basketball star, etc.--Hurley disappears, and so does much of the film's energy; Fraser has his moments in these sporadically clever dreams-gone-wrong sequences, but it isn't quite enough. Neither is the film as a whole.


Billy Elliot poster Billy Elliot (R) ***
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While I feel its purported Oscar buzz is blown way out of proportion, there is no denying the real charm of the latest comedy/drama crowdpleaser to come down the British movie pipeline. Eleven-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell) defies his coal miner father (Gary Lewis) and traditional perceptions of masculinity in his Northern England village by taking up ballet instead of boxing. When sticking with Billy and his inspirational story, director Stephen Daldry hits all the right steps, but when he strays away with subplots dealing with the coal miners' labor woes and the angst of Billy's best friend (Stuart Wells), the film is far less effective. However, the wonderful performances (particularly those of Bell and Julie Walters, who plays Billy's ballet teacher) keep the film involving and affecting, compensating for a misguided and absolutely superfluous years-later epilogue.


The Contender poster The Contender (R) ***
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Writer-director Rod Lurie's second political thriller of the year (following the mediocre Deterrence) is pretty much shameless leftist propaganda being sold as conventional Hollywood entertainment, but it manages to satisfy on the traditional genre terms while it aggressively pushes its liberal agenda. Joan Allen is Senator Laine Hanson, who has been tapped by the President (Jeff Bridges) to replace his recently deceased VP. Her approval seems a foregone conclusion until the Republican head of the appointment hearings, Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), unearths a tawdry sexual secret from her past. Lurie brings up some interesting moral and political issues, but sometimes they serve as springboards for some sledgehammer speechifying (often accompanied by an accordingly overwrought score); fortunately, the film is well-paced and compelling when taken as drama, due in large part to the impressive cast.


The Ladies Man poster The Ladies Man (R) no stars
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Just when you thought they couldn't get worse, Saturday Night Live-based movies hit a new low with this painfully unfunny showcase for sex-obsessed radio personality Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows, proving to have no big screen presence whatsoever). The thin plot has Leon losing his job, and instead of landing another gig, he hopes to strike it rich by hooking up with an anonymous--and loaded--former lover who wants him back. Not a single laugh is to be had here, not even from Meadows' fellow SNL'er Will Ferrell (as the leader of a mob of cheated-on men out to get Leon), who is usually able to wring a giggle with single goofy facial expression. Instead of a laugh or a smile, the common reaction to everything in this film--from a bizarre musical production number to an inexplicable cameo by Julianne Moore--is mouth-agape shock.


Lost Souls poster Lost Souls (R) *
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The directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski nearly got lost itself on the way from the can to the theatre, and I think all involved wouldn't have minded too much if it was never rescued from New Line's shelf, where it spent over a year. Kaminski not so surprisingly gives this supernatural thriller a captivating visual sense (all darkness and grime), which helps create an ominous, creepy atmosphere. Unfortunately, mood alone cannot energize this slow, simplistic, and anticlimactic Exorcist pretender in which a young woman (Winona Ryder) attempts to stop the impending Satanic possession of a crime author (Ben Chaplin, sporting an awkward American accent).


Pay It Forward poster Pay It Forward (PG-13) ** 1/2
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There is a clear-cut difference between "Oscar bait" and "Oscar worthy," which Mimi Leder's sentimental crock of a drama illustrates all too well. Falling in the latter category are the three leads, all of whom live up to their Academy-honored pedigree. Kevin Spacey is subtly affecting as Eugene Simonet, a severely burned (in every way) middle school social studies teacher who challenges his class of 7th graders to "change the world." In a better performance than her overrated Oscar-anointed turn in As Good as It Gets, Helen Hunt plays Arlene McKinney, overworked single mom to the biggest standout in the film--Haley Joel Osment, delivering on his Sixth Sense promise as Trevor, who takes Eugene's assignment to heart by coming up with "Pay It Forward": do a random act of kindness for three strangers, who must then follow suit, and so on.

With such a touchy-feely premise, sap shouldn't be far behind, but for a while this adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel manages to sidestep the treacle. This is due to the actors, who lend a grounding authenticity to prepackaged emotions of anguished alienation and feel-good self-fulfillment. Alas, treacle does rear its ugly head with the film's irritatingly arbitrary conclusion. It's as if the filmmakers had no idea how to tie the film together, opting for the most maudlin and manipulative way out imaginable in hopes that tears translate to Oscar gold. Hopefully, this false move will negate the Oscar chances much like how it renders the three principals' strong efforts rather moot.


The Yards poster The Yards (R) ***
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Writer-director James Gray's gritty urban drama is largely made from leftover pieces from other films--a little Scorsese here, a little Lumet there--but he assembles them into a film that works on its own terms. Mark Wahlberg continues his growth as an actor as a recent parolee who finds himself pulled back into the wrong side of the law by getting involved in the dirty dealings of his best friend (Joaquin Phoenix) and his stepfather (James Caan), whose company is in the subway car business. Understatement is something that one would not normally associate with such a pulpy tale, but that's what makes Gray's film surprisingly effective; certainly, those hoping to see the expected scenes of the top-notch cast (which also includes Charlize Theron, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway) flying off the handle will be disappointed, but the restraint makes the characters and story feel that much more authentic.


D V D
Halloween Horrors

The Omen DVD The Omen (R)
Movie: ***; Disc: *** 1/2
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With The Exorcist's already-sterling reputation as a first-rate scare show further bolstered by its very successful theatrical rerelease, the other popular Satan-themed thriller of the '70s, The Omen, has been buried deeper in the pop culture memory banks. Hopefully, Fox's recent release of the film (and its two theatrical sequels and one made-for-TV spinoff) on DVD will remind audiences that, while not as good nor shocking as William Friedkin's film, it is an effective chiller in his own right. The Omen, released in 1976, introduces the series' focal character, Devil spawn Damien as the adopted son to Robert (Gregory Peck) and Kathy (Lee Remick) Thorn. After Damien turns 5, strange and deadly happenings begin to revolve around the child, who, it is revealed, is the Antichrist. Director Richard Donner had a severely limited budget (a little over $2 million) for this, his first hit film, and instead of hampering him, the low finances forced him to craft a more cerebral and subtly unsettling thriller; while there is gore (including one now-famous moment of gruesomeness), is economically employed for maximum effect. The fairly sedate pace and tone may be a bit dry for today's viewer, but by the film's disturbing climax and simple, superbly creepy final image, one appreciates how well it helped build the suspense.

Fox has given The Omen a stunning--and appropriately spooky--special edition treatment. The animated menus effectively use memorable images from the film (including that last shot) and excerpts from Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score--which is showcased elsewhere on the disc: an interview section with Goldsmith, who discusses four of his favorite cues; and the new remixed stereo soundtrack on the feature (the original mono is also included). Two other documentary features are included alongside the Goldsmith one: "666: The Omen Revealed," a new and insightful 46-minute retrospective on the film, featuring thoughts by Donner, editor Stuart Baird, among other key players; and an overwrought six-minute segment called "Curse or Coincidence?" which recounts all the bizarre occurrences surrounding the production. Donner and Baird supply a running commentary on the feature; while they make a fairly lively pair as the film jogs their memories right before our ears, their best recollections overlap with those shared in the other documentary features.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English stereo; English and French mono; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


Rosemary's Baby DVD Rosemary's Baby (R)
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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Thirty-two years after it premiered, Roman Polanski's adaptation of Ira Levin's bestseller still unnerves--a fact shocking in itself, considering that the film has been so absorbed into pop culture that the big "twist" regarding the titular infant is pretty much common knowledge. Chalk it up to Polanski's all-around masterful job telling the story of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, in the role that put her on the map), who becomes pregnant not long after she and struggling actor hubby Guy (John Cassavetes) move into an apartment building with a shady history--one that she and her unborn child are about to become part of. Rosemary's Baby still makes an impact after all these years because its scares are purely, elegantly psychological; there is no violence in the film other than the growing mental torment inflicted on poor Rosemary (by herself?) as she becomes increasingly suspicious of everyone around her, including the one growing in her womb. But perhaps Polanski's most startling accomplishment is ultimately twisting something as natural as maternal instinct into something horrifying, if not downright monstrous.

As is the case with most Paramount discs, supplements accompanying the (nice) anamorphically-transferred feature are slim. But the two included here are more interesting than usual. A brief collection of retrospective interviews with Polanski, production exec Robert Evans, and production designer Richard Sylbert doesn't offer too much in the way of juicy inside details, but much unintended amusement comes from Evans' soft-focus segments, which the famously flamboyant producer gives in profile, presumably to showcase his "good" side. More revealing is "Mia and Roman," a 30-minute behind -the-scenes fluff piece made way back during the film's initial 1968 release. As a historical artifact, this featurette is priceless (dig Farrow and Polanski painting flowers and the words "peace" and "love" all over her trailer) and strangely prescient (Farrow rattling off a long list of pets more than foretells the large brood of adopted children she would eventually have). This featurette also exposes a sad truth: entertainment journalism hasn't improved one iota in over 30 years.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Digital; English and French mono; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Paramount Home Entertainment)


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre DVD The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (R)
Movie: ****; Disc: *** 1/2
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In the years since its initial 1974 release, Tobe Hooper's has developed a reputation for being horrifically violent--a reputation that a fresh viewing reveals to be wholly undeserved. Certainly, a fair amount of blood is shed in the simple story of five youths who have the bad luck of encountering a murderous cannibal family--most prominently, the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen)--one hot summer afternoon. But Hooper is no bloodthirsty hack (or at least he wasn't at this stage of his career); the film's intense final half achieves its unshakable effect through a combination of things (creepy characters; unsettling imagery and editing; a spare, ominous score; star Marilyn Burns' inescapable screams) aside from graphic gore. The film's low-budget 16mm look just adds to the grimy atmosphere, creating the illusion of an underground snuff film.

Pioneer's special edition DVD showcases a "digital superscan" transfer supervised by Hooper that, thankfully, isn't too pristine; some grit remains, and it wouldn't be quite the same if there weren't any (though the new, clean stereo soundtrack is a welcome enhancement). Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and Hansen provide an entertaining running commentary that points up the many pitfalls (and benefits) of ultra-low budget filmmaking. Trailers and assorted promos are included for all films in the series (including a long promotional reel for the 1994 Renée Zellweger-Matthew McConaughey revival Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but the real treats here are the more obscure finds: a few deleted scenes (which are presented alongside their respective excerpts in the script) and alternate takes; a blooper reel; and galleries of production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, lobby cards, and original posters. The wealth of useful additional features make the somewhat cheesy, crudely animated menus (featuring a primitive CGI chainsaw) somewhat forgivable.

Specifications: 1.85:1 letterbox; English Dolby Surround; English mono. (Pioneer Entertainment)


Now, Something Really Horrifying...

The Rocky Horror Picture Show DVD The Rocky Horror Picture Show (R)
Movie: no stars; Disc: ***
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Without the sideshow that goes on around it at midnight shows every weekend across the country, would Jim Sharman's 1975 screen version of Richard O'Brien's stage musical have the inexplicably rabid following it has today? When stripped down to the bare essentials in a viewing at home, the answer is a resounding no. I'm betting most RHPS fans have never really watched the film, they being distracted by the parade of guys in fishnets and flying toast. If they were to sit down and give the actual movie a good luck, those that haven't been brainwashed too severely by the in-theatre antics are likely to be horrified that they have been partaking in a celebration of one of the most putrid films ever made. Who knows what convinced Sharman that Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick could carry a tune, for they display little-to-no singing ability as Brad and Janet, the hapless milquetoast engaged couple who stumble upon the lair of alien transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a mad scientist putting the finishing touches on his greatest creation: a "perfect" specimen of maleness known as Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). The repressed duo predictably lose their innocence as the cast, all decked out in flamboyant costumes, belt out crummy tunes (often crummily) and do ridiculous, rhythmless jigs (in all seriousness, does anyone think "the time warp" is a good dance?) during one long--very long--night. All the over-the-top-and-out-of-the-ballpark nonsense gives camp a bad name.

The lavish 25th anniversary two-disc set, produced by Fox DVD maestro David Britten Prior, is a monument of wasted effort. Disc one features the full feature in three versions: the U.S. release, the U.K. release (which includes a slightly expanded finale), and an easter egg which presents the film as originally intended in O'Brien and Sharman's original script--in an homage to The Wizard of Oz, the film was to be in black-and-white until "The Time Warp," at which point the film becomes color. Needless to say, with about a half hour given a less clear picture, this hidden version plays much better than the others. O'Brien and co-star Patricia Quinn provide a mostly useless running commentary; while the two, especially Quinn, are chatterboxes, half the time they amuse themselves with unexplained inside jokes. I must admit that the features designed to replicate the theatrical experience are a nice touch. One has the option of watching the film with subtitles that prompt the viewer when to throw the rice, etc.; another overlays an audio track of an actual theatre audience over the film's soundtrack to create a faux you-are-there feeling; and a third gives viewers the option to temporarily leave the film at certain junctures to watch video shot of an actual RHPS audience performing to the film.

Disc two houses a rather large assortment of supplements: two theatrical trailers (notice how Sarandon's last name is misspelled in one), alternate takes, two deleted musical numbers; interviews with cast members taken from VH1; a couple of karaoke segments; and a documentary on the film taken from a previous laserdisc release. All of these extras are certain to satisfy the die hard RHPS fan, but for a casual viewer, it is lacking one crucial element: extensive background on how exactly the whole audience participation thing originated and developed. Maybe this was an intentional move, for without any information on how the film's only significant element came about, the disc perpetuates the delusion that only the film itself was the reason for its longevity.

Specifications: 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English mono; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


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