The thought that most immediately comes to mind with the mention of the Marquis de Sade is that of sex--not just any sex, but the kinkiest acts of fornication imaginable. Yet Philip Kaufman's provocative account of the infamous 19th Century French writer's final days is titled Quills, and the reason is simple: this powerful version of Sade's story is one ultimately not about sensationalistic salaciousness, but the power--and price--of self-expression.
But sex--both the forced act of and graphic writing about it--is, after all, what lands the Marquis in various forms of captivity: prison and, ultimately, an asylum. It is in the latter, Charenton, where Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) is introduced, submitting his latest torrid text to a publisher through unlikely supporter Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a young laundress. Immediately upon publication, Sade's sexually explicit Justine is the talk of France, leading an outraged Napoleon to send self-righteous Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton and give Sade the discipline he had not been receiving under Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the young priest in charge of the asylum.
The clashes and collisions that power Quills don't necessarily derive from differences in one's nature than differences in one's ideals. The conflict between Royer-Collard and the Marquis is the film's most heated, but they are two sides of the same proverbial coin. For all his talk about morality, Royer-Collard is himself engaged in a scandalous affair--that with Simone (Amelia Warner), his very young, almost child-like bride; the hypocritical doctor shields what would otherwise be a frowned-upon indulgence under an "upstanding" societal convention--marriage--while Sade is shameless in expressing his darker, deep-seated urges. The seemingly angelic Madeleine is, in fact, Sade's closest match. She is quite comfortable with and honest about having those base instincts, but she knows her place in her constricting world; hence, she enjoys her natural naughtiness in the expanse of her mind, whose limitless imagination is further fueled by possibilities presented by Sade's incendiary prose. For the Abbé, his most-valued belief in a divinity overpowers--barely--his simmering attraction to Madeleine.
The psychological conflicts, both internal and external, are lent immediacy by the actors. Caine, in a much more impressive performance than his Oscar-winning Cider House Rules turn, is a subtly formidable foil to Rush, who gives the Marquis genuine vulnerability as his veneers are gradually stripped away. The complexities of Madeleine are handled with characteristic ease by the ever-astonishing (and -ravishing) Winslet, and Phoenix proves his versatility with his nuanced portrayal of the conflicted Abbé.
Given the subject matter, Quills could have been unbearably heavy, but Kaufman and writer Doug Wright (adapting his own play) infuse the film with a decadent playfulness befitting a film about the Marquis--a spirit that is perfectly embodied by the exuberant Rush. This quality does act as reinforcement of the film's endorsement of uninhibited expression, but to Kaufman and Wright's credit, they don't sidestep the negative fallout that could occur along with the obvious benefits of artistic freedom. Prices, both fair and unfair, are paid all around, and those costs continue to be felt even after Quills etches the disappointingly contrived images of its lackluster epilogue.
Following the phenomenal--and completely out-of-nowhere--success of The Sixth Sense, it would have been easy for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan to follow that act with another eerie tale of the supernatural. All early indicators, in particular Disney's publicity campaign, paint Unbreakable as exactly that: a creepy thriller "from the director of The Sixth Sense." Unbreakable is indeed "creepy," but not in the way moviegoers are expecting (and, perhaps, desiring); the film gradually evolves from one thing into another animal entirely, its true nature slowly but surely "creeping" to the fore. What Unbreakable becomes is certain to divide the opinions of audiences and critics alike, but that's exactly what makes it a much more fascinating film than its predecessor.
That said, Unbreakable shares many qualities with Shyamalan's last film. Star Bruce Willis is back, this time playing David Dunn, an everyman Philadelphia security guard. Unexplained cosmic phenomena are again involved, here David's miraculous survival of a devastating train wreck and the fact that he emerges from the accident completely unharmed--which piques the interest of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art dealer suffering from a crippling bone disorder. What unfolds from here occurs at the same languid pace that for me was a major factor in The Sixth Sense's ruin.
But in the case of Unbreakable, the slowness works more in its favor. In Sense, the deliberate pacing underscored how nothing really happens from the "I see dead people" confession (which already takes about an hour to get to) to the pull-the-rug-out twist ending. Here, the crawl is a mirror of the rate at which David comes into his own--a progression which is itself reflective of how Shyamalan takes his time to fully reveal what exactly he's trying to accomplish with this film.
All I will say about Shyamalan's ultimate aim is that it is could not be more radically different from expectations--so far off, in fact, that the film will undoubtedly leave many viewers with quizzical looks and a feeling of grave disappointment. But once the film is removed from those preconceived notions, the element of surprise proves to be Unbreakable's greatest virtue, not to mention a quality richer and more elegantly pulled off than it was in Sense. In that film, the shock came in a quick, last-minute burst that jolted everything that preceded it into a new perspective. Here, the film's final turn is the culmination of what had been a movie-long build; the exhilarating final "click" in a puzzle whose pieces had been working their way--with ever-increasing speed--toward alignment.
Crucial to the persuasiveness of Unbreakable's story are the grounded performances. Willis is in the same lower gear that distinguished his Sense work, and he nicely disappears into the character and his uncertainties. Jackson's role offers a little more latitude, but his portrayal is firmly rooted in reality despite Elijah's rather unique hairdo (which proves to be an effective touch by the film's end). Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark are fine as David's wife and son, respectively, but they are saddled with the weaker parts of the story. Wright Penn's subplot--the Dunns' rocky marriage--could be written off as being unnecessary, but it is actually integral in creating a believably real world in which some rather fantastical occurrences take place.
And that, right there, is likely to be the common complaint about Unbreakable--that it's unbelievable. Of course, that gripe is completely absurd, given that most audiences will be going in anticipating a just-as--if not more--unreal horror show of sorts. Having already concocted a ghost story that was less about scary apparitions than it was about people, Shyamalan makes a lateral move with Unbreakable, attempting to bring that same down-to-earth human element to a different type of surreal-by-definition genre. One's ability to see just how well he has pulled off this even more unconventional task simply depends on one's willingness to accept the new rules Shyamalan adopts for this film.
An event occurs in the middle of George Washington that threatens to upset the placid beauty that had been so painstakingly established before it, but first-time writer-director David Gordon Green is too smart--and too brave--to let that happen. With this gorgeously shot drama, Green sets out to not simply capture the ebb-and-flow rhythms of the everyday, but those specific to the lives of young people--here, a group of teens and pre-teens in a poor rural town in the South. The search for amusement, connection, truth--it's all in a typical day's non-work for a youngster like George (Donald Holden), a mildly slow 12-year-old whose sensitive skull condition necessitates the near-round-the-clock wearing of a helmet. In this world miles away from the melodramatic artifice of the one usually captured in film, the event alluded to above is merely one of daily host that mold these young souls--an angle that won't satisfy traditional narrative cravings, but one perhaps more distinctly in line with how such an occurrence would play out in real life.
In any case, George Washington wasn't made to serve the pre-packaged assembly-line pap. The film is about a lot of things, not one of which is plot. From Ted Orr's painterly cinematography to the naturalistic, instinctive performances of the cast of non-actors, the film is mostly about evoking atmosphere--that of this unnamed, dilapidated town; that of the young American condition. To hear me describe the film is to make it sound incredibly pretentious, but what makes Green's work such a thing of beauty is its relentless, yet altogether genuine, modesty.
102 Dalmatians (G)
There is no reason for this sequel to the already-pointless 1996 live action remake of the classic Disney cartoon to exist, and the filmmakers fail to come up with any convincing pretense of justification. It does start off on an amusing note: thanks to some not-so-revolutionary behavioral therapies, convicted dognapper Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close) is cured of her anti-canine tendencies and paroled. Of course, the new leaf soon turns back over, and Cruella is back to her old tricks, once again pursuing her greatest obsession: a coat made from the spotted fur of dalmatians. The new wrinkle: she now wants a hooded coat, hence the upped total of puppies in the title.
Close again uses the scenery-chewing license that is Cruella to the delicious max, but her performance can't escape the sense of "been there, done that" that overwhelms this production. The flamboyantly tacky costume design? Been there, done that. The dogs' "twilight bark"? Been there, done that. The dark-haired leading man (Ioan Gruffudd) and the blonde leading lady (Alice Evans)? Been there, done that. The slapsticky humiliation that serves Cruella her just desserts (quite literally this time)? Been there, done that.
However, it wouldn't be fair to say that the filmmakers are completely bereft of new ideas. There is the cute, spotless pup Oddball (scion of Dipstick, the only returning dog from the original, now all grown up); and there's Waddlesworth, the talking macaw (voiced by Eric Idle) who's convinced he's a rottweiler. On that latter, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard note, it wouldn't be fair to moviegoers to say that any of these "fresh" ideas are reason enough to suffer through this tedious film.
V I D E O
After carving the turkey and having a nice, filling meal, what better way to sit back and relax but with a different type of the turkey--one of the most amusingly godawful movies ever to be committed to celluloid? (Star ratings are completely irrelevant in this context; hence, none are provided.)
The Apple (PG)
Often--OK, only sometimes--I am asked what is the single worst film I have ever seen in my life. I never had a concrete answer to that question until about two years ago, when I was introduced to The Apple, a 1980 opus written and directed by schlockmeister extraordinaire Menahem Golan. If you believe in God, be prepared to question His existence, for no compassionate deity would ever allow such a monstrosity to be made (would He?).
Oh, where to begin...? The setting is the "future" world of 1994, in which the maniacal music mogul Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), head of Boogalow's International Music (better known as "BIM") all but rules the world. The missing step on the ladder to global domination? Winning a U.S. government-sanctioned song contest for the theme to the "national fitness program." The BIM does end up triumphant with the rousing anthem "Do the BIM" (or is it "Hey, Hey, Hey, BIM's on the Way"? Never mind), but not without some unexpectedly strong competition from Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), a couple hailing from Moosejaw, Canada who won over many hearts--make that heartbeats, for those were monitored to determine the winning song--with their drippy folk ballad "Love, the Universal Melody." In an effort to thwart any potential challenge to the BIM's domination, Boogalow offers the pair a lucrative contract. Bibi bites "the apple"--yes, the title is a Biblical allusion--but Alphie, having seen a vision of Boogalow as no less than the Devil himself, doesn't. Much pining and whining ensues...
...but they are not as omnipresent as the absolutely horrid dancing and even worse music. Yes, The Apple is a musical--not the type that confines its songs to concert performances (as it initially appears), but a traditional tunefest replete with elaborate production numbers emerging at the drop of a hat. Now, I have seen my share of bad movie musicals, but none have plumbed the depths dug up by this film. The awful songs (sample lyric: "Hold the apple/Sacred apple/Take a little chance/Get into a trance/And join me in the apple dance") and dancing is just the tip of the sinking iceberg. The acting is awesomely dreadful, and that's putting it mildly. Then there's the makeup and costumes, which envisions 1994 fashion as someone's gaudy, pansexual glam rock fantasies gone horribly awry (as if they could turn out any other way).
And so on and so on. It's an overused cliché, but the expression "it must be seen to be be believed" truly does apply to The Apple. Then again, maybe it doesn't--masochist that I am, I've seen this steaming pile of refuse more than a few times (its train wreck fascination is off the charts), and I still can't believe what I see and hear every time. Sadly--or fortunately, depending on how you look at it--the video edition (which adds to the ineptitude with its static crop--there's no panning nor scanning--of the movie's original Panavision frame) is out of print, but if you ever come across it on the back shelf of an obviously discriminating video store, by all means bite The Apple. Your moviegoing life will then be much easier knowing that whatever you see cannot ever be worse. (Paragon Video Productions)
"What's human or inhuman is not for human decision." "You're the heart of a world that has no heart--the heartless world that you live in." "My heart pumps blood that isn't my blood; it's the blood of anonymous blood donors." If you can make any logical sense of these curious lines of dialogue, then congratulations--you may be the first to be able to decipher this cinematic non sequitur. An all-time favorite of director John Waters (which says it all right there), Joseph Losey's 1968 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' (who also so scripted) play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore stars Elizabeth Taylor, personifying the term "drama queen" with her hysterically unhinged portrayal of a wealthy, dying shrew. Complicating her final days is the unexpected arrival of a poet (Richard Burton) nicknamed "the Angel of Death." Add in a briefly seen Noel Coward (as the prissy "Witch of Capri"), inexplicable costumes (check out the funky headdress La Liz wears as part of an ultrachic kabuki outfit), and page after page of inscrutable, overwritten dialogue, and you got yourself one priceless example of attempted art missing its aim completely. (Universal Studios Home Video)
Disco Godfather (R)
Putting the words "disco" and "godfather" in a title is already inviting trouble, but in execution the makers of this urban "drama" not only embrace it, they downright make love to it. Cashing in on the disco and blaxploitation crazes as they were very much on the wane, this 1979 showcase for Dolemite cult hero Rudy Ray Moore has his ex-cop-turned-disco-owner/DJ seeking revenge on whomever got his nephew (Julius J. Carry III) hooked on Angel Dust. Yes, not only is this a festival of booty shaking and (as with all Moore films) hilariously amateurish martial arts, it's also an Issue Film. Pardon me if I lost the message while I pissed myself laughing at, among other things, the PCP-induced hallucinations, which invariably show some weird demon lady swinging a sword. (Xenon Entertainment Group, DVD also available)
The Forbidden Dance (PG-13)
I gave this film a mention in my Turkey Day piece from three years ago, but seeing this year marks the film's tenth (!) anniversary, I figure I should get the ball rolling for a long-overdue DVD release with an always-welcome revisit. Not to be confused with Lambada, which detailed the double life of a math-teacher-by-day, lambada-master-by-night, this bad movie gem tells an even more preposterous story. Nisa (Laura Herring) is the princess of a tribe that lives in the Brazilian rain forest. Life is good--as we see in the title sequence, where all the tribesmen get their fair shot at grinding their nether regions into those of her royal highness. Alas, the fun can't last forever, and the evil Petramco corporation soon shows up to bulldoze the pristine paradise populated by this peaceful, pelvis-pumping people. What's a nubile young monarch to do? Why, head to the States and school the nature-hating, money-grubbing Yanks with some hearty forbidden dancing, of course! Nisa lambadas like loco (yes, I know Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish, but someone forgot to tell the filmmakers that), doing it here, there, and everywhere with partners ranging from spoiled rich kid Jason (Jeff James) to the very curtain in her bedroom--all in the name of saving the rain forest. Uh-huh. I won't give away the ending, but I will say this--bumping and grinding is involved. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)
A variation on the Cinderella story, co-written and starring two-time Olympic figure skating champ Katarina Witt. Stee-rike one. One that adopts the formula of a musical, but with spontaneous ice skating routines in lieu of regular production numbers. Stee-rike two. Not only does Witt skate, she also... well, I won't give away strike three, for it's a jaw-dropper that simply defies description. The same can't quite be said for the rest of this cluelessly straight-faced 1995 made-for-German TV production, which can be summed up in one word: yikes. (WinStar Video)
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The Cell (R) Movie: ;
Tarsem Singh's controversial science fiction thriller The Cell has a fairly deserved reputation for being quite dark and heavy, but for the director it was an altogether different experience. Singh actually found a scene such as the film's final, bloody confrontation between psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio)... hilarious.
That's just a taste of the ebullient, if not always intelligible (his lightly accented words are often rendered unclear by his tendency to talk fast), Singh on his commentary track, one of two on New Line's Platinum Series DVD. Singh speaks enthusiastically and rather honestly about his film, in which Catherine literally enters the mind of the comatose Stargher to locate his last victim. His love of the medium shines through while frankly discussing his dislike of the actress who plays said victim (stemming from a lie she told about her swimming ability--which was a crucial consideration in casting), lapses in plot logic, and how he knowingly shunned realism for purposes of drama.
However, one doesn't get the fantasy-over-realism vibe from a couple of interactive features elsewhere on the disc. One is an empathy test designed to measure one's ability to relate to others; while clearly labeled as being for entertainment purposes, there is an earnestness to the background literature provided that goes against that disclaimer. Presented with no disclaimer and with all seriousness are a wealth of facts about the human brain, presented under the umbrella heading "Brain Map." There's no denying the value of this information, but it gives the disc a slight air of self-importance.
After all, the film is a complete fantasy--a gorgeously mounted one at that (pristinely captured on the disc), and the other features get down to the nitty gritty of what fans want to see: how this stunning technical achievement came to be. The disc's second commentary is a clip job assembling thoughts from director of photography Paul Laufer, production designer Tom Folden, costume designer April Napier, makeup supervisor Michelle Burke, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and composer Howard Shore (whose score is also featured in an isolated audio track). This track comprehensively covers all the technical bases in a lively fashion though the last comments Shore makes sound as if they were read off of a script. Even more detail about the film's impressive visual effects are offered in individual spotlights on several key sequences; these use DVD's multi-angle capability, offering viewers a choice between video of interviews with principal technicians, or listening to the interview while viewing storyboard and concept art or on-the-set footage.
In lieu of a typical making-of featurette, there's a piece called "Style as Substance," which is basically a ten-minute collection of cast and crew interviews complimenting Singh's unique vision--a sentiment already expressed in the techie commentary and visual effects segments. This feature also points up a big shortcoming in this otherwise characteristically strong package from New Line: the virtual absence of any thoughts from the actors, whose presence is reduced to the Singh-praising soundbites in this featurette and the film itself. The lack of an actor commentary is understandable, but at least more substantial interview footage, even if culled from the electronic press kit, would have been welcome.
Specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (New Line Home Video)
Ben (Affleck). Gwyneth (Paltrow). Ben and Gwyneth. "Benneth," as some press so adorably call this confounding pair, who appear cozier as exes than they ever were as a couple. So are they or aren't they together? After seeing them play romantic leads with warmth but little heat in Bounce, no one should ever doubt their oft-repeated answer of "no" ever again.
As, respectively, ad exec Buddy Amaral and real estate agent Abby Janello, Affleck and Paltrow do display a natural rapport. Their real life connection shines through onscreen, making the basic attraction between these two opposites--he a slick hotshot, she a more earthy type--believable. However, the exact nature of that offscreen compatibility also comes across; their chemistry is more of a clicking between friends than a passionate romantic electricity--something that would give writer-director Don Roos' contrived and overly familiar story the "bounce" it needs to really work.
Naturally, there's a wrinkle to the romance between Buddy and Abby--he's indirectly responsible for her husband's death. A year or so before he meets Abby, Buddy encounters Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn) at a Chicago airport and switches plane tickets with him. Greg's plane crashes, and a guilt-ridden Buddy falls into boozy despair. A rehab stint later, Buddy tracks down Abby to see how she and her two children are handling life without Greg--only to grow fond of the young widow.
The set-up, while not the most promising, is workable, which makes it all the more disappointing that Roos develops the story in a routine and mechanical manner. Love-'em-and-leave-'em Buddy tries to brush Abby off, but she--and he--find it difficult to stay away. Abby's eldest son, whom the two are careful not to get too close in front of, catches the two in a clinch. When Buddy decides to tell Abby the big secret, someone in the know beats him to the punch. And so on. There's also the matter of the dialogue, which sometimes ventures into artificial glibness. For example, a big emotional moment where Buddy bares his soul, along the way saying he wants someone to pick videos with, is followed by an equally emotional retort by Abby, who then caps off her thoughts by tossing off exactly what types of videos she likes.
More authentic are the individual performances. Paltrow admirably eschews the glamour of her recent roles, believably transforming herself into a rather dowdy "ordinary" woman; the spectrum of emotions Paltrow travels, from perky flightiness to anguish, are also believable. Even better is Affleck. Buddy begins as the smirking, cocksure type of character he usually plays, but as the character grows more complex, Affleck's portrayal does accordingly; he subtly conveys Buddy's conflicted feelings, not to mention his maturation.
Roos directs Bounce with a similarly subdued air, which is both an asset and a liability. For a screen romance, is a refreshing lack of grandiose histrionics; Roos modulates the emotional level, going all out only when it counts the most. But since the two stars don't quite ignite together, there is little romantic intensity to lend the story much urgency; consequently, what should have been graceful understatement instead reads as lifeless detachment.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (PG)
Ironically, whenever an author's name appears in the title of an adaptation of a literary work, chances are that the film strays quite far from the source material. Witness, for instance, the opulent, operatic, and decidedly unscary Bram Stoker's Dracula; or the modern-day-set, Bard-in-need-of-Ritalin William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ron Howard's adaptation of the family holiday favorite, is no exception; this is star Jim Carrey's Grinch, not the good doctor's--a classic tale whose timeless charms are needlessly reconfigured to fit the big box office name.
Luckily, those time-proven virtues haven't been completely wiped out; vestiges of the story told by the original 1957 book (and its faithful 1966 animated TV adaptation) still remain. The film is set in Whoville (vividly realized by production designer Michael Corenblith), and its residents, the Whos, are the same Christmas-loving lot that readers are familiar with. Living in a cave atop the nearby Mt. Crumpit is the Grinch (Carrey), the fuzzy green ball o' bah humbug that attempts to rob the Whos of their holiday cheer by stealing all of their presents.
But in typical "the more, the better" Hollywood fashion, Howard and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman weren't content with just showing how the Grinch stole Christmas; they also spell out why he did it, and the humdrum explanation offered proves to be needless baggage that muddles the endearing simplicity of the Seuss story. The same can be said of other would-be enhancements to the narrative: a corrupt Whoville mayor (Jeffrey Tambor); an expanded role for young Cindy Lou Who (newcomer Taylor Momsen), whose film-stalling warbling of a soggy new James Horner-penned ballad is one of the film's most wrongheaded moments; and, perhaps most baffling of all, an unrequited love for the Grinch in the form of Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski).
Carrey brings a different sort of baggage to this Grinch--the mixed blessing of his comedic talents. Amazingly, the full-body Grinch suit and makeup (an impressive achievement by the award-winning Rick Baker, who also gives the Whos a distinctive look) does not obscure Carrey's most signature trait, his rubber face; his heavily done-up mug still registers the wide array of expressions only his elastic features could make. His special knack for slapstick also comes in handy when it comes to the film's many physical gags--which points up the unsurprising but no less disconcerting quality to the film as a whole: it's been Carrey-ized. There are pratfalls abound, including one that lands the Grinch's head in the cleavage of a female Who; one extended Grinch-in-Whoville sequence appears specifically designed as a showcase for his usual broad schtick. The lilt of Seuss' famous rhyme scheme has largely been relegated to Anthony Hopkins' narration track, freeing Carrey to do his usual wailing and bellowing, albeit in a Grinchy growl (though every now and again the mean green one does utter a couplet or two, setting up the expected "ironic" aside about hating rhyme). Granted, Carrey's antic energy keeps the film lively, but his performance is a good one as the typical Carrey persona, not necessarily as the character of the Grinch. Instead of disappearing into the role, it and the film disappears into Carrey, thereby altering the flavor of the story.
This miscalculation I can only chalk up to millennium madness, which makes the urge to modernize that much more tempting, especially when it comes to a text that's over 40 years old. But in giving How the Grinch Stole Christmas a more contemporary spin, Howard and the rest of the crew do something the late Dr. Seuss never would: take chronological age over the youthful, innocent spirit that lingers untouched in everyone--and never goes out of style.
One Day in September (R)
Twenty-eight years is a long span of time, but it's also fairly short time for the most horrific tragedy in Olympics history to be all but forgotten--which is what the Palestinian terrorist kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during in the 1972 Summer Games has become over time. Kevin Macdonald's shocking and disturbing film, the winner of this year's Academy Award for Documentary Feature, not only reminds viewers of the harrowing events that day in September but sheds light on a disturbing domino effect of negligence and incompetence that could have easily been avoided. No one gets off easily; one is actually left to decide who comes off worse: for a start, the German government, who was so eager to clean the Nazi taint that they provided lax security; the International Olympic Committee, who callously allowed the Games to go on while the athletes were held hostage in the Olympic Village; or the drunken American athletes who unwittingly let the terrorists into the compound. Of course, the film condemns any act of terrorism, but some sense of balance is offered by a major coup: exclusive comments by the only surviving member of the so-called "Black September" group, Jamal al Gashey. Unrepentant to this day as he lives in constant fear for his life, Al Gashey is a monstrous but no less fascinating figure. Macdonald wisely doesn't feel the need to trump up the melodrama through a glut of tear-soaked talks with victims' family members; he lets the facts speak for themselves, and what a powerful and unforgettable statement they indeed make.
Rugrats in Paris: The Movie--Rugrats II (G)
Although this sequel bears more than a slight resemblance to those sweeps-period "vacation" episodes of sitcoms (which, truth be told, this essentially is), Nickelodeon's high-rated band of babies should once again entertain the entire family in their latest big-screen adventure. Chuckie, Phil, Lil, Dil, Tommy, and scheming brat Angelica head to the City of Lights when the latter three's father must tend to a malfunctioning Godzilla-like robot at a theme park in France. The focus then quickly shifts to Chuckie, who desperately wants a new mother to marry his widowed father Chas. It just so happens that Coco LaBouche (voiced by Susan Sarandon), the shrewish head of the amusement park, needs to marry to land a cushy promotion--and she sets her sights on the hapless Chas (thanks to some inside information from Angelica).
Rugrats in Paris suffers the same problem that befell 1998's The Rugrats Movie--the needless inclusion of musical numbers, though like the first film, there is one song that works: a wonderfully over-the-top love ballad to Reptar, said Godzilla-like creature. But overall the fast-paced and energetic film, with its broad action-oriented sequences and witty riffs on (yes) The Godfather, offers plenty to amuse the young and young at heart.
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Big Momma's House (PG-13) Movie: ;
With Fox's Special Edition DVD, this Martin Lawrence vehicle comes to its rightful home--the television set. The summer's surprise blockbuster was good for a laugh here and there in theatres, thanks to Lawrence's boundless energy and expert timing as an FBI agent who goes undercover as a heavyset old lady. But the barely-developed circumstances surrounding such an unconventional disguise that were hard to swallow in multiplex auditoriums are a bit more forgivable at home; after all, as amusing as the film's big set pieces were, they did bear more than a whiff of sitcom. But Raja Gosnell's film was produced for the big screen, and its 1.85:1 images are nicely preserved on this disc, as is typically the case with Fox's DVD editions.
Despite the overall pedestrian nature of the film, the makeup job used to transform Lawrence into the Big Momma of the title was a superlative achievement, and an ample amount of insight into the process is given in the disc's supplementary material. The "Building Big Momma's House" behind-the-scenes featurette devotes a fair amount of time on the design of the makeup for Lawrence and co-star Ella Mitchell (who plays the real Big Momma), and included separately on the disc is Lawrence's makeup test (which is a hilarious improv comedy bit in itself). Gosnell and producer David Friendly also touch on the film's most distinctive feature (aside from Lawrence, that is) in their running commentary, which is fairly humdrum for the most part.
Rounding out the extras on this solidly produced disc are two deleted scenes, one of which is the film's original animated credit sequence; two music videos; all of the film's trailers and TV spots; and a reel of outtakes and bloopers of varying comedic value.
Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Chicken Run (PG) Movie: ;
Peter Lord and Nick Park's hit animated comedy was largely acclaimed--quite rightfully so--for its clever script, which improbably cast the conventions of wartime prison escape pictures in a British chicken farm. Unfortunately overshadowed along the way, however, was the technical achievement of the film, which was made in the stop-motion animation process. DreamWorks' Special Edition DVD skews the spotlight back toward the technical end, with Lord and Park's informative running commentary focusing squarely on the time-consuming task of bringing Plasticine puppets to life. The pair are quite eloquent about their craft, not to mention unmistakably, politely British, quick to praise the work of the many others on their animation crew; their humble humility adds to the charm.
But like the film itself, the Chicken Run DVD is all about fun. While the two making-of featurettes "The Hatching of Chicken Run" and "Poultry in Motion: The Making of Chicken Run" essentially cover the same material in negligibly different ways, both are done a light sense of humor that befits the main feature. While those features, the collection of trailers and TV spots, and complete production notes are targeted toward the adult viewers, kids get their due with a read-along feature and two DVD-ROM games--though the young-at-heart should get some amusement out of the latter as well. This being a film about chickens, the disc also has its share of so-called "Easter eggs." Rabid hunters shouldn't get too excited, though, for the hidden features are simply factoids about the production. But when a disc includes a "Panic Button"--which leads to footage of chickens doing just that--why complain?
Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English and French subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (PG-13) Movie: ;
Away from the hubbub over raunchy content (which indeed pushed the limits of the PG-13 rating) that surrounded its theatrical release, the hit sequel to the equally successful 1996 comedy can now be seen for what it is: a sparkling tribute to the amazing skill of Eddie Murphy. Returning as Sherman Klump, the professor of the title, four of his family members, and Sherman's mischievous alter ego Buddy Love, Murphy delivers a performance--rather, performances--of unparalleled comic virtuosity. Never does one get the sense that each character Murphy plays isn't their own, whole human being, with heart behind their comical qualities.
An extra helping of Murphy's talent is included in Universal's Collector's Edition DVD in the form of a much longer alternate take of the film's raucous restaurant scene as well as an outtake reel featuring footage not included in the film's closing credit blooper montage. Another deleted scene, featuring Murphy and co-star Janet Jackson, is also featured, but it's a non-comic throwaway that was understandably excised from the final film.
Beyond Murphy, Nutty II was also an impressive technical achievement. The makeup work was crucial in the creation of his multiple characters, and one is treated to time lapse glimpses of Murphy's transformation into two of his roles. Given how extensively Murphy's characters interact with each other throughout the film, each sequence had to be mapped out in advance, and one interesting special feature presents side-by-side comparisons of storyboards and finished sequences. The makeup and tricky effects work are also addressed in the "Spotlight on Location" making-of featurette.
Anyone looking for more insight into the production are better off avoiding the tiresome feature-length commentary by director Peter Segal. Segal fancies himself a comedian, the reasons for which are completely lost on the unfortunate listener, who must suffer through lame joke after lame joke. The off-putting air of self-satisfaction is compounded by his recurring comments about how certain scenes received so many laughs from audiences at both test screenings and regular engagements. The film's second commentary, a back-patting "conversation" with Segal and producer Brian Grazer that only covers the film's first 25 minutes, isn't much better, but at least it's considerably shorter.
Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French 5.1 Surround; English subtitles. (Universal Studios Home Video)
Charlie's Angels (PG-13)
It's easy to dismiss Charlie's Angels as mindless trash--but to do so is to not understand the joke. Make no mistake, this big screen revamp of the small screen "jiggle" action-adventure series is every bit the slab of cinematic junk food it appears to be; the twist is that director McG, producer-star Drew Barrymore, and co-stars Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu set out to make it that way. That said, getting the joke does not necessarily entail complete enjoyment of the picture, which grows equal parts fun and frustrating.
Charlie's Angels is a high-energy production, and it's impossible to not get occasionally caught up in the infectious atmosphere of over-the-top action-adventure and self-aware, campy humor. The bouncy tone is set by the curtain-raising action sequence, which is as preposterously exciting as any Bond opener; and its terrific main titles, which are a wonderfully cheesy homage to the original Aaron Spelling TV series (and the rest of its action ilk in the '70s). Called on to provide the charm to carry the film the rest of the way are Diaz, Barrymore, and Liu as Natalie, Dylan, and Alex, respectively--"an elite crimefighting group" in the employ of the never-seen but always-heard millionaire Charlie (once again voiced by John Forsythe).
Alas, if only high spirits and the right attitude were enough to make a feature film. There is the matter of a little thing called a script, and the one by a reported 17 writers (the only ones receiving screen credit are Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August) feels as cobbled together as the crew that created it. The Angels, with Charlie's bumbling go-between Bosley (Bill Murray, sadly wasted) by their side as usual, are hired to solve the kidnapping of a computer tycoon (Sam Rockwell); its rather speedy resolution opens up a set of unforeseen problems. That, in a nutshell, is Charlie's Angels' story.
But it's not what the film is about. That designation goes to the assorted set pieces hung onto the clothesline of plot to either wring laughs from the audience or viscerally excite them. Given that the three leads all have experience in comedy and are action neophytes, it's surprising that Charlie's Angels is more successful in the latter area. For this, the trio and especially McG owe a large debt to fight choreographer Yuen Cheung-Yan (brother of Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon action maestro Yuen Woo-Ping). The Hong Kong brand of wire-enhanced martial arts (a major deviation from the TV series, for staunch gun opposer Barrymore nixed the use of any firearms in the film) works especially well in the over-the-top context, and the stars are all game--in particular Diaz, who is given a large share of non-wire fight scenes and more than holds her own.
Then again, Diaz is the clear standout in all areas of the film. Barrymore and Liu clearly enjoy themselves and amply fill the sexiness requirement, but only Diaz is given much of anything to do. Her Natalie, a hopeless dork with ridiculous delusions of coolness, is the only Angel that develops into a real character (all we glean from the others: Alex is brainy; Dylan is... well, she looks good, doesn't she?). Her comic scenes, especially those with Luke Wilson (as the requisite love interest), are the most memorable in the film.
In fact, Diaz's comic scenes are the only ones that fully work, which points up the film's key problem: not knowing when to stop with the comedy. Her gags are extreme, but they don't push too far; the same can't be said for a lot of others. For example, a great sight gag involving Alex's boyfriend's (Matt LeBlanc) bullet-riddled trailer home that's just outlandish enough is ruined by a needless extra step. I can understand McG and the army of scribes' perceived need to go all out, but a bit of moderation would have gone a longer way in a film that's already outrageous by basic concept alone.
So with the smiles the film provide come about as many groans, eventually overtaking the latter as it wears on. The joke behind Charlie's Angels is indeed an amusing one, but it simply grows old more quickly than it should.
Red Planet (PG-13)
From Christopher Columbus to Wyatt Earp to Steve Prefontaine to the lambada, the track record for dueling Hollywood projects on the same subject has been less than stellar. With Warner Bros.' release of the second--and worst--of the year's Mars movies, Red Planet, Tinseltown has once again completed a tandem non-event.
The latter half of Mission to Mars, directed by Brian DePalma and released by Disney earlier this year, justifiably left viewers with a bad taste with its high-minded but lame-brained artistic pretensions. But an unfortunate side effect was that the decent first half of the film, capped by a suspenseful domino-effect disaster sequence, was completely forgotten. In the case of Red Planet, however, there's nothing of merit to forget--or, at least, the film's only redeeming quality, its perfectly solid visual effects, show up onscreen constantly enough to remind us of the wasted effort turned in by the FX crews.
The year is 2050, and we are told through voiceover by one Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) that the earth has become so polluted that it will soon no longer be able to sustain life. All sights have been set on Mars, where algae has been planted by unmanned probes to generate oxygen. But something has gone wrong, and a crew led by Bowman has been sent to the red planet to figure out what. After a shuttle landing mishap strands Gallagher (Val Kilmer), Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), Pettengill (Simon Baker), Santen (Benjamin Bratt), and Chantilas (Terence Stamp) on the Mars surface and leaves Bowman aboard the main orbiting spacecraft, the crew is given even more problems to solve.
Their problems, however, are none compared to the ones faced by director Antony Hoffman, who is given the arduous task of making Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin's script into a watchable film. Simply put, nothing really happens, and the whole "earth in danger" framework becomes moot as Gallagher and company simply search for a way to get back aboard the mothership and go home. The only real conflict in the script are the weak attempts the writers make at creating "villains": a crew member who accidentally causes a problem early-on, then is retroactively made out to have evil intent later in the film; and, more prominently, AMEE, a scouting robot who turns from gentle to killer with the flip of a switch. Guess which setting she ends up on when the shuttle crashes?
Hoffman, a commercial director making his feature debut, simply throws his hands in the air and instead focuses on what he knows best: the look. As mentioned before, the visual effects are impressive, particularly the completely CGI AMEE; and the ship sets and desert locations convince. But looks can't count for everything, and Hoffman appears to completely bank on the attractive appearances of stars Moss and Kilmer to make the romance between their characters work for the audience. Needless to say, it takes more than Ultra-Brite smiles to conceal the fact that this undercooked subplot was sloppily grafted on to give the film more appeal to females--who are instead likely to be insulted by the love story's completely arbitrary nature (as will all other demographics).
As ludicrous as Red Planet is, the copy writers at the WB publicity department actually one-up the makers of the film by pasting on a loud disclaimer at the top of the press notes that urges the media to not reveal the film's ending. This blurb would lead one to believe there's some big surprise in store, but perhaps the only shock up the film's sleeve is how closely it hews to everyone's formulaic expectations.
Animal Factory (R)
With this adaptation of Edward Bunker's novel, indie thesp king Steve Buscemi aims to show the gritty reality of prison life in this, his second directorial effort. In part, he succeeds; the transformation of a naive young con (Edward Furlong) into a harder, tougher type by his time in the pen (hence the term "animal factory") is rather convincing. Unfortunately, not much reason is offered to care--a misstep considering the student-mentor relationship between this new inmate and a veteran one (Willem Dafoe) who's learned how to get his way behind the prison walls. Their friendship is pretty well-fleshed out, but individually the characters are not, and the opaque performances offer little in the way of shading.
Little Nicky (PG-13)
Maybe Adam Sandler really has some familial connections with the Devil. After all, what else could explain the existence of this wretched comedy? (OK, the insanely hefty grosses of his last few films do and then some, but you get what I mean--then again, one wonders how he managed to make those films hits...) Sandler plays the youngest spawn of Satan (Harvey Keitel, in a bit of inspired casting that never pays off), sent to the surface to find his errant brothers (Rhys Ifans and Tommy "Tiny" Lister Jr.), who are planning to seize Hell for themselves. Along the way, Nicky falls for an art student (a wan Patricia Arquette). Sandler is even more abrasive than usual, thanks to the one-two punch of a fixed would-be "funny" voice and face; not helping are what feels like an endless series of dud gags, from Nicky on the basketball court to Satan literally falling apart from his elder sons' escape. The wide array of cameos (from Henry Winkler to Ozzy Osbourne) doesn't amount to much, save for Reese Witherspoon's hilarious bit--the film's solitary one--as a giddy angel. The only other good thing I can say about this monstrosity is that Sandler can only go up from here.
Men of Honor (R)
Carl Brashear, the first African-American to become a Navy deep sea diver, is indeed a figure to be admired and respected. Yet it is difficult to drum up much sympathy for him in George Tillman Jr.'s formulaic biopic. As written by Scott Marshall Smith and portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr., Brashear is all sheer determination and nothing else, displaying none of the vulnerability that would make him into a believable human being. His indomitable will in the face of racism, mostly coming from superior officer Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro), is admirable, but his one-track mind--Navy diver is his be all and end all, period--smacks of stubbornness. As such, the emotional content feels that much more synthetic and manipulative. Also going down for this ride is Charlize Theron, her talents inexplicably made into dead weight in the thankless role of Sunday's trophy wife.
The Price of Air The Price of Air is not worth the price of admission. An easy pun, but one that doesn't hold any less truth. Writer-director-star Josh Evans' digital video feature is an unfocused (in every sense) and indulgent road picture in which a slacker drug dealer (Evans) hits the road with a lesbian adult film actress (Charis Michelsen) after a deal goes wrong. Michael Madsen slums as yet another heavy, but at least he fits his role, which cannot be said of Eight Is Enough patriarch Dick Van Patten, who plays a baddie with a fondness for S&M (yes, you read that right). Michelsen and Evans make a flavorless central pair, displaying little spark with each other; and Evans proves to be especially uncharismatic. Rapper Sticky Fingaz, as Evans' sidekick, gives this film some zip, but as usual, "best friend" + "African-American" = early screen death.
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X-Men (PG-13) Movie: ;
Bryan Singer's long-awaited screen adventure of Marvel Comics' band of uncanny mutant superheroes breed of summer hit: the successful letdown. The film made well over $100 million at the domestic box office, yet that figure wasn't quite as stratospheric as many had anticipated; the film was also generally well-received by critics and an audiences, but not without a tinge of disappointment. The initial DVD release of the film follows the same path--it's a solid edition, but it has its share of shortcomings.
Fox has always been one of the more imaginative studios when it comes to menu design, and the X disc is no exception. After a retina scan simulation, one comes across a screen patterned after the film's spherical room containing the computer Cerebro. From this nerve center one can easily navigate to the equally interesting submenus for chapter stops, languages, special features, and the movie itself.
For a film as effects-heavy and challenging technically as this one, supplemental information on the making of the film is in fairly light supply. The making-of featurette is actually a half-informative, half-useless glorified infomercial on the film that aired on the Fox network; it mixes interviews with cast and crew with faux newsmagazine footage on Senate hearings regarding "mutant registration." A couple of "animatics"--3-D computer-animated segments that play out planned sequences--are included, hinting at the amount of technical planning that went into the action scenes. A selection of set and character concept art, largely devoid of labeling, is also offered (preliminary sketches for characters that did not make the film are hidden on the disc, as is an uproarious prank outtake). For most fans, the big highlight of X-Men was not the effects work but the performance of charismatic Hugh Jackman as the focal X-Man, Wolverine, and a nod to that is provided by the inclusion of Jackman's brief screen test segment, which also features Anna Paquin (who plays Rogue). Some additional insights into the production are provided by Singer himself not in a commentary but in interview segments culled from his appearance on PBS' talk show Charlie Rose; however, it would have been nice if there were an option to watch the interview segments in a continuous whole rather than only as six 1-2 minute tidbits.
But, as Singer says, "It's a movie... not a video game," and the superlative visual and audio transfer of the briskly-paced action-adventure on this disc should more than hold fans over until a more extensive special edition hits stores sometime next year. Bound to irk fans, on the other hand, is an "extended branching" version of the film that theoretically reinstates a handful of deleted scenes (also accessible through their own menu in the "Special Features" section) back into the main feature. On paper, it appears to be a good idea, but unless you have a fast, top-of-the-line player, forget it; the transitions from the main feature and these scenes are far from seamless, for the player needs time to locate the scenes on the disc. Fox would have been better off leaving the movie and these deleted scenes separate, for its presentation of the basic theatrical cut more than suffices.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)