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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 79

#261 - 263
December 1, 2000 - December 15, 2000


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#263 December 15, 2000

M O V I E S

The Emperor's New Groove poster The Emperor's New Groove (G) ***
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With Disney's 38th animated feature, The Emperor's New Groove, come two distinct perceptions. The title's nontraditional inclusion of a slang term and the film's no-frills art style could be read as reflective of a general attitude: looser, wilder, hipper--a brazen new direction for the usually staid House of Mouse. Then there's the less forgiving point of view, which takes into account the film's turbulent path to the screen. Originally conceived as a DreamWorks-style epic musical drama called Kingdom of the Sun, the film morphed into its current tune-free incarnation when the concept was completely overhauled after a third of the film had already been completely animated; Groove's lean running time and lack of a big animation showpiece--a staple of modern Disney 'toons--would lend support to the thought of the end product as one big rush job.

After seeing Groove, I'd say both sides of the argument hold water. Coming off of the heels of the technological breakthroughs of last year's Tarzan, this film's scaled-down visual style cannot help but be a letdown; also, the story is even more threadbare than one is used to, even by family film standards. That said, there's no denying the energy and joy present in this zippy tale, and the film's genial, unpretentious nature--not to mention sharp wit--are what will win over the most cynical viewer.

Its rocky production history aside, Groove faces a major hurdle from the outset, a problem it never completely overcomes: the voice casting of its lead character, Kuzco. The film's original title, Kingdom of the Sun, figures into the retooled story as a basic description of the arrogant and materialistic South American emperor's dream project: a sun-drenched mountain-top retreat/monument-to-self whose construction means bulldozing the homes of many villagers--in particular, honorable peasant Pacha (voiced by John Goodman), his wife (Wendie Malick), and their children. So by basic story design, Kuzco is a pretty obnoxious character, and the casting of famously acerbic ex-SNL'er David Spade would appear to be spot-on. However, it proves to be too perfect; anyone familiar with his work knows that when he plays a jerk, he plays the role to the smarmy, one-dimensional extreme, with absolutely no trace of latent sincerity or humanity. As one would expect, Groove's basic arc is the bratty young ruler's gradual discovery of some sense of compassion, and with Spade cranked to maximum, irredeemable abrasion from frame one, the ultimate transition isn't believable. Even worse, it's impossible to care if he changes--both in terms of personality and physical appearance, for his conniving, magic-dabbling advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) transforms him into... a llama.

That plot point shows how director Mark Dindal and writing collaborators Chris Williams and David Reynolds are able to make this Groove an ultimately smooth one: reckless comic abandon. The llama-fied Kuzco ends up teaming with the goodhearted Pacha to return to the royal palace and reclaim his throne, and during their big road trip, the two get into a number of very funny comic predicaments--that is, when they're not engaging in some inspired verbal sparring. Not every gag works--a slapsticky scene in which the pair try to evade Yzma and her lunkheaded servant Kronk (voiced to scene-stealing perfection by Patrick Warburton) in a restaurant particularly reeks of sitcom--but the duds are a tolerable tradeoff for antic highlights such as the chain reaction of calamity that results when Kuzco and Pacha walk across an unsteady rope bridge. Dindal and company also use the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot to their advantage, using them to spin cleverly self-effacing jokes.

Given its lightweight nature, The Emperor's New Groove won't be recognized as one of Disney's crowning animated achievements; the years will be especially cruel to the very of-its-time title. What matters, however, is the here and now, and despite obvious shortcomings, this rollicking ride will have no trouble getting viewers of all ages to feel its groove.


In Brief

The Visit poster The Visit (R) ***
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The elements are in place for something exploitative. The central character is Alex Waters (Hill Harper), currently serving a prison sentence for rape--a crime which he insists he is not guilty of. Alex, who had also dabbled in drugs while on the outside, is suffering from AIDS, but his infection is more likely a result of a sexual assault on the inside. As his parole hearing approaches, Alex attempts to reconcile with his estranged family and old friends--rather, one old friend, Felicia McDonald (Rae Dawn Chong), who herself has a shady past of drugs, prostitution, and incest.

Based on that description, The Visit, written and directed by first-timer Jordan Walker-Pearlman (working from a fact-inspired play by Kosmond Russell), appears to be a bit too heavy with drama and dysfunction, but it's a credit to Walker-Pearlman that the film never feels overly melodramatic and always feels of a piece--even when it leaves the realism of the prison walls for a few flights of fancy. Sometimes he lays the surrealism on too thick--e.g., a distracting overuse of the random fadeout within a single scene; fantasy scenes that produce gradually diminishing returns--but the dreamy quality he goes after works on the whole, especially during the transcendent climax.

The understated power of the finale--and the film--perhaps owes more to the actors than Walker-Pearlman. Harper, who has been largely a sideline player in his previous films, shows his lead-worthy talent as the conflicted con; he never downplays Alex's harsher side, but he is able to convey the vulnerability and humanity behind the tough talk. In addition to Harper and Chong, strong performances are given by Marla Gibbs as Alex's doting mother, Billy Dee Williams as his less forgiving father, and Obba Babatundé as his responsible older brother. More important than the technical precision of their turns, however, is the rapport they all share--which ultimately lends this story of a family its authentic, immediate poignancy.


What Women Want poster What Women Want (PG-13) ***
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...more likely than not, is Mel Gibson, and he is at his most megawatt movie star charming in this cute romantic comedy. At the beginning of the film, however, "charming" isn't quite the word for Gibson's Nick Marshall, a chauvinist ad exec. A freak electrocution accident somehow gives Nick the ability to read women's minds--a gift he wastes no time in using to try to unseat Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), the exec who won the higher-ranking position he had been gunning for. As the formula goes, in getting into Darcy's head, Nick also finds her getting into his heart.

Despite the telepathic twist, Nancy Meyers' film is formula all the way, but it's hard to argue when it's so spiritedly executed. The film does take a while to find its footing; the central gimmick takes a while to kick in, and an early-going dance number for Gibson serves as a needless delay. Once Meyers cuts to the chase, however, What Women Want is funny and sweet while maintaining a fairly sharp edge. While Meyers and credited screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa deserve a fair amount of thanks for that, most of it goes to the cast. Hunt delivers her most relaxed (and, hence, best) big screen performance to date, and she makes a beguiling yet formidable match for Gibson. He, in turn, also has palpable chemistry with Marisa Tomei, who should enjoyed some well-deserved, renewed heat for her perky, sexy work as a coffeehouse employee pursued by Nick. However strong a showing the women in the film make, this is Gibson's showcase all the way, and he proves to be a natural for romantic comedy, tackling the genre's demands--wackiness and warmth--with aplomb.


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#262 December 8, 2000

M O V I E S

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon poster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (PG-13) ****
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The martial arts film has always generally been written off as being the cinematic equivalent of junk food. The term often used for the genre, "chopsocky," perfectly expresses this perception; the word sounds fun, but it also sounds rather silly and inconsequential. There's no denying the amusement to be had with, say, an average Jackie Chan film, but is there any real nourishment that comes with the enjoyment? Not especially.

With credits ranging from the Taiwanese family dramas The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman to the slice of '70s Americana The Ice Storm and the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, director Ang Lee would appear an unlikely person to helm what would be typically classified as a kung fu flick; in fact, given his award-winning oeuvre, such a film seems beneath him. As it turns out, however, Lee is not only a lifelong fan of the genre, his greatest filmmaking goal was to make a lavish martial arts epic. Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the fruition of that dream, it's clear that all of Lee's previous (and largely terrific) work has been a mere warm-up to this staggering accomplishment. Crouching Tiger is even more than an exhilarating reinvigoration of the martial arts movie--it's a thrilling testament to the transporting power of film.

Note the term "reinvigoration" as opposed to "reinvention," for in keeping with being a reverential fan, Lee doesn't tamper with time-worn convention in adapting Wang Du Lu's 18th Century-set novel (the fourth in a series of five). Basic plot strands bear the air of the familiar. After many years of legend-building combat, famous and feared warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is ready to give up his violent ways--that is, after completing one last mission: avenging the murder of his master at the hands of the notorious criminal known as Jade Fox. But Li is ready to make one major gesture toward a different life, and that is giving up his fabled sword, the Green Destiny to a friend. Soon after it is placed in the trophy case of respected leader Sir Te (Lung Sihung), the Green Destiny is stolen, and Li and his longtime friend and former combat partner Yu Shu Lien's (Michelle Yeoh) quest to recover it is the mere jumping-off point for a sweeping tale of action, intrigue, and romance.

One of Crouching Tiger's most noteworthy elements is the first-ever screen pairing of two of Hong Kong cinema's biggest stars, Yeoh and Chow. Surprisingly, these iconic figures actually take secondary positions to beautiful young newcomer Zhang Ziyi. As Jen, the seemingly innocent and innocuous daughter of prominent political figure Governor Yu (Li Fa Zeng), Zhang is a real find, holding her own in all aspects and carrying the picture with ease once the focus settles squarely on her. The conflicting forces battling for influence over Jen's soul is Crouching Tiger's main concern, and without an actress as gifted and captivating as Zhang in the pivotal role, it's difficult to imagine the story being quite as engrossing involving as it is.

That said, there's no discounting the invaluable contribution Yeoh and Chow make to the film. They prove to be a most dynamic duo in every way, even displaying sides of their ability that they've never had an opportunity to reveal before. The ever-charismatic and commanding Chow, making his bow in this type of action film, proves to be as natural with a sword as he is with a gun (his usual cinematic weapon of choice); but granted, his stunts aren't as heavy duty as those of Yeoh, who is given ample opportunity to show off and even elevate her well-established athleticism and grace in the spectacular fights staged by the renowned martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping. But the two are even more impressive in the dramatic scenes. They have a nicely understated chemistry that lends heartrending pathos to their characters' relationship. Li and Shu Lien have long been in love, but they've denied their passion in honor of the memory of Shu Lien's late fiancé, a brother by oath to Li. Their tortured longing is subtly, wrenchingly conveyed in Yeoh and Chow's vividly expressive eyes.

Scripters Wang Hui-ling, Tsai Kuo-jung, and James Schamus (Lee's regular writing collaborator) ultimately address a number of weighty themes in Crouching Tiger, but they and Lee don't make their points without having fun along the way. A lot of fun. The story is essentially serious, but the film has a healthy, self-aware sense of humor about itself, best exemplified by the parallel romance between Jen and Lo (Chang Chen), a desert-dwelling bandit. The circumstances behind their meeting are wholly comical; she chases after him for an insane distance after he steals... her comb. Ridiculous, yes; but the light touch is beguiling and completely convincing, befitting the playfulness of a young, impetuous love.

Of course, most of the fun comes from the electrifying and boundlessly imaginative action sequences, which further maintain the film's fidelity to genre tradition by paying no heed to the laws of gravity. The film's first showpiece, an extended chase/fight across many Peking rooftops, is a jaw-dropper guaranteed to get every audience around the world to burst into awestruck applause. Even more unbelievable than this sequence is the fact that this is only the starting point. To say more is to rob a bit of the wonder of the thrills Lee and Yuen conjure up; suffice it to say, they regularly defy and surpass expectations. In terms of bread-and-butter fighting, Yuen outdoes himself, and Lee shoots the action in such a way that every balletic, meticulously choreographed move is made clear and thus lent maximum impact.

That impact stays with you long after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is over, but what leaves an impression even more enduring than the spectacular action, breathtaking images (captured by cinematographer Peter Pau), and lovely melodies (composed by Tan Dun) are the people--their personalities, their emotions, their struggles, the hard lessons that they learn. Exciting, funny, uplifting, heartbreaking--the list of descriptions can go on and on, yet all that is the magnificent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is easily encapsulated in one word: masterpiece.


Dungeons & Dragons poster Dungeons & Dragons (PG-13) no stars
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Director Courtney Solomon spent the better part of ten years trying to make his boyhood obsession, the perennially popular role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, into a feature film, but none of the passion that fact would entail ends up on screen. What does show up all too clearly in Dungeons & Dragons is rookie helmer Solomon's lack of experience in film, let alone with a project of such large, effects-laden scale. D&D enthusiasts have been clamoring for a film adaptation since the game came on the scene 26 years ago, and while I am not a player myself, I am certain that this sloppy slice of schlock is hardly what the fandom had in mind.

The setting is a mythical medieval empire, and the 17-year-old Empress Savina's (Thora Birch) goal of removing the class division between the magic-practicing Mages and everyone else runs into a snag when the evil wizard Profion (Jeremy Irons) turns her government advisors against her. Exactly how, I don't know. But it's not so much control over the kingdom that Profion wants than a magical rod--one that will bring red dragons under his command. The Empress possesses a rod that gives her power over green dragons. If this makes any sense to you, let me know, because it's all an incoherent jumble to me.

In any event, a trio of plucky young people proves to be Profion and henchman Damodar's (Bruce Payne) biggest obstacle in locating the coveted rod. They are fledgling young Mage Marina (Zoe McLellan) and the thievery team of Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans). True to their larcenous roots, Ridley and Snails jump into the do-good biz in hopes of pocketing a large reward, but, of course, the heroic instincts within ultimately purify their intentions.

Given that the source material is a game, a weak plot is just about expected (what isn't is just how inscrutable it also is, but that's another issue entirely), for the emphasis should be on action set pieces. As I mentioned, I was never a D&D player, but I do know that navigation through booby-trapped mazes and dungeons is a big part of the game (one of the more exciting elements, from what I remember from friends who played back in junior high). So it would only follow that D&D the movie would be packed with such set pieces. Alas, there's only one, and a mighty underwhelming one at that, featuring unimaginative traps and zero tension. Filling in the rest of the requisite action beats in the script credited to Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright are half-hearted swordfights often punctuated with some very chintzy magic effects.

Which leads me to the other half of the title, the dragons. The final act certainly has their fair share of them, green and red, all flying around and battling dragon and human alike. Never mind that their sudden arrival in the story is barely (if even that) explained; these creatures are CGI creations that look every bit like digital FX work. To top it off, all the CG work, from the dragons to various animated backdrops to simple magic dust, is not-so-seamlessly integrated into the live action. The only flourish that slightly convinces is a fairly simple ripple effect used to depict teleportation holes.

Not only is Solomon obviously not able to pull off the technical aspects of this project, he's also clueless with his cast. Whalin and McLellan are embarrassingly amateurish, the latter especially so, with her invariably stilted line readings. The insulting role of the buffoonish, wisecracking African-American sidekick (we all know what ultimately becomes of this type of character) brings out the worst broad instincts in Wayans. Birch seems embalmed, her Amidala-lite costumes apparently constricting her throat so that she speaks in a constant monotone. Worst of all, however, is the Oscar winner of the lot, Irons; Solomon apparently thought that since he's such a reputable thespian, Irons should not simply be given free rein, but no reins at all. What a horrendous mistake that turns out to be, for Irons is just one small step short of foaming at the mouth in every single scene.

The big mistake, however, is making Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. The reason why video game movies have all failed is that the element of interactivity that made them so special to begin with is lost. Of course, the same idea holds true for a role playing game movie, but there's an even larger miscalculation at play: the sights and scenarios imagined during the course of playing such a game will always be more vivid and exciting than those an FX crew could cook up--especially the type of low-rent crew that can only be afforded by a neophyte director with no formal training working with independently-raised overseas money.


Vertical Limit poster Vertical Limit (PG-13) * 1/2
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With its dizzying depictions of courageous derring-do atop rugged mountain peaks and perilously close to steep cliffs, the trailer to Columbia's Vertical Limit has been leaving many a moviegoer breathless... much like the teaser to the same studio's mountain climbing actioner of seven years ago, Cliffhanger. That's where the similarities end. Cliffhanger was by no means a great film, but it was an exciting thrill ride with no pretense whatsoever as to what it is and what it should be. The fact that the stars of Vertical Limit have gone on record to say that they were attracted to the "relationships" in the piece explains exactly how this film goes wrong--that and the name "Chris O'Donnell" toplining the cast credits.

As displayed in GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro, director Martin Campbell knows how to stage a suspenseful action scene, and the action sequences in Vertical Limit confirm his talent. The first scene, in which three climbers are left dangling on a single thin, quickly unraveling cord, more than recalls the memorable open of Cliffhanger and holds up fairly well in comparison. In a later scene, a climber makes a deadly slide down a snowy slope, narrowly avoiding a plunge off of a cliff thanks to a fortuitously timed swing of a pickaxe. Other scenes involving the danger that can only come when you combine snow, mountainous terrain, and canisters of nitroglycerin also generate palpable, nail-biting tension.

The problem is that the visceral shocks are in the service of a script that actually includes the stultifying line "There's not gonna be just snow--there'll be ice and rock." Those "relationships" that so enamored the actors? Number one: Peter Garrett (O'Donnell) and his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney). Following in the footsteps of their father, Annie is a famous mountain climber; Peter was also a skilled in the activity, but he gave it up following the incident that led to their father's death. When Annie and cohorts Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and wealthy adventure-seeker Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) end up trapped in a crevasse while attempting to scale K2, Peter must put his guilt and self-doubt aside and try to rescue them. Number two: Vaughn and Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn). Wick is a mysterious mountain-dwelling loner who bears a grudge against Vaughn for reasons initially unknown; he joins Peter's rescue teamin hopes of getting a chance to settle the score. As if these relationships weren't hackneyed enough (and to fulfill some unwritten requirement for "romance"), there's the out-of-nowhere attraction that develops between Peter and the fetching French-Canadian nurse (GoldenEye's "good" Bond girl, Izabella Scorupco) who tags along for the mission.

All the overplayed and underthought melodrama is rendered even more ludicrous by the overly earnest cast. Not even Glenn, sporting dirty, stringy locks and one toeless foot, seems to have a grasp on how ridiculous his character or the entire affair is. Whether or not that latter fact is lost on O'Donnell is anyone's guess. One has to wonder why Hollywood continues to cast this stiff block of boredom in headlining roles; to call him "vanilla" is to give that savory flavor an undeserved bad name. His lazy, inexpressive performance here should prove to the suits once and for all that this walking, talking rice cake incarnate does not have what it takes to become a major star. Similarly, Vertical Limit overall does not have what it takes to deserve major holiday hit status.


In Brief

Proof of Life poster Proof of Life (R) **
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Forget "life"--what moviegoers really want to see is proof of the scandalous off-camera affair that erupted between stars Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. But whatever sparks ignited off the set fail to register on film, in essence ruining Taylor Hackford's drama when the story takes a crucial--and superfluous--turn. When Peter (David Morse), the husband of Alice Bowman (Ryan), is kidnapped and held for ransom by revolutionaries in the South American country they call home, a professional negotiator named Terry Thorne (Crowe) comes in to ensure Peter's safe recovery. The mechanics of the negotiation process are interesting if not necessarily gripping (ditto the performances by Ryan, Crowe, and Morse--solid but not riveting), so somewhere along the line writer Tony Gilroy thought that a dash of forbidden love would liven things up. However, with Ryan and Crowe showing little on-screen rapport (the only hint at their real-life affair is how Ryan totally checks out Crowe throughout the film), this development comes clear out of nowhere, and it is dropped just as quickly as it is picked up. Hackford handles the bookending action sequences well, but he and Gilroy needed to find something more convincing to make the often draggy middle sections more involving.


D V D

Gladiator DVD Romper Stomper DVD Gladiator (R) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ****
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Romper Stomper (NC-17)
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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It's only fitting that Ridley Scott's gargantuan Roman epic Gladiator, about a wronged general (Russell Crowe) whose road to revenge against the evil emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) lands him in the violence-as-entertainment biz, would be housed on two discs, and there's not a single millimeter of wasted space. The first disc of this DreamWorks Signature Selection contains the terrific feature film, looking and sounding spectacular; I imagine it is even more sonically stunning in its DTS track (alas, I am not properly equipped). Scott, editor Pietro Scalia, and director of photography John Mathieson provide a running commentary track that nicely balances technical details with comments on the superb cast and the general production. None of the three are the most rousing of speakers, the information they impart is interesting enough that the point is moot.

The bulk of the bonus material is reserved for the second disc. Not one, but two television specials providing a behind-the-scenes look are included. The shorter of the two is a usual bit of business that alternates between real insight and promo huckstering, but the other, Gladiator Games, is, as its Learning Channel-pedigree would imply, a genuinely informative look at the history of the ancient Roman gladiator business; only a small fraction of its one-hour running time is devoted to blatant movie marketing. However, there is one huge miscalculation in this program, and that is the ample use of very cheap reenactments of the Colosseum scene; if anything, they do amplify the appreciation for Scott's battle recreations in the feature film.

But where other discs generally stop with the production info, this one continues. Included separately from the other two featurettes is a fairly extensive look at Hans Zimmer's score, a piece produced expressly for this DVD edition. In addition to a wealth of production and behind-the-scenes stills, there is also a large gallery of storyboards and concept art; going even one step farther, all of these are neatly organized into specific categories. Lest there be any thoughts that there's only eye candy, viewers can use their reading skills to plow through a lengthy production diary written by actor Spencer Treat Clark, who plays the emperor's young nephew (though an occasional photo breaks up the textual monotony).

The standard supplements are also in evidence: the film's theatrical trailers and TV spots; complete production notes; cast and crew biographies and filmographies; deleted scenes. As far as these cut scenes go, viewable with or without commentary by Scott, most of which are throwaway bits, but in keeping with the package's "go the extra mile" attitude, also included is a seven-minute montage of unused shots assembled especially for the disc by Scalia. Cut to an excerpt of Zimmer's score, this lovely piece of work is a fittingly elegant capper to a marvelously produced DVD set.

Given his formidable presence and equal talent, it was only a matter of time before New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Crowe made the mainstream American breakthrough he enjoyed with Gladiator. Few stateside fans of that film--or his other notable U.S. work, such as L.A. Confidential or The Insider--have seen the film that led to his transition from Down Under, Romper Stomper. His work in this gritty 1992 Aussie production caught the eye of Sharon Stone, who then fought for his casting in her 1995 Sam Raimi-directed Western, The Quick and the Dead. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Romper Stomper, freshly released on DVD in the States by Fox, Crowe's enormous ability is very much in evidence as Hando, the charismatic leader of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang. His performance is just one of three that anchor writer-director Geoffrey Wright's film; the other two come courtesy of Daniel Pollock as Davey, a gang member who has increasing doubts about his affiliation; and Jacqueline McKenzie as Gabe, the troubled young woman whose entry into the fold speeds up the group's inevitable destruction. Their work elevates Wright's fairly thin and standard story, whose unadorned slice-of-life realism is undercut by its dismaying progression into a tale of a triangle.

But when Romper is firing on all cylinders, it is potent indeed; the unflinching violence--the primary contributing factor to the film's NC-17 rating (though Fox has opted to release the disc sans rating)--gives the film a raw, sometimes discomfiting immediacy, particularly in the case of the film's centerpiece sequence, in which the gang is chased down by an angry mob of Vietnamese immigrants. The cast, extending far beyond the core three, attacks their roles with matching intensity.

Given the film's general obscurity in the States (it was, however, a big success--and even bigger lightning rod for controversy--in its native country), it's surprising that Fox has given it a two-disc treatment. Disc one features a not-entirely-pristine (but still much improved) new transfer of the film plus newly recorded running commentary by Wright. Not surprisingly, a lot of what he has to say concerns the now-internationally famous Crowe, but his most memorable comments are his heartfelt ones about the talented Pollock, who tragically committed suicide during post production.

Disc two shows that Fox was stretching a bit to make this a double-disc set. The usual cast biographies/filmographies and theatrical trailer are here, as is a stills gallery that incorporates various factoids about the production. There is also a set of recently-shot interview segments with Wright covering, among other things, the film's authenticity in depicting Australian skinheads. Naturally, some of this material is also covered in his commentary, but deeper details are found here. Appearing alongside these segments are interview bites culled from the film's circa-'92 electronic press kit; featured are Wright, Crowe, McKenzie, and co-star Tony Lee (who plays a Vietnamese club owner). Of course, the main attraction of these is Crowe, looking very youthful and appearing genuinely excited about his work--and the rest of his career.

Gladiator specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles. Romper Stomper specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Gladiator specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (Gladiator: DreamWorks Home Entertainment; Romper Stomper: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


Shaft DVD Shaft (R) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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With its fairly exhaustive edition of Mission: Impossible II, Paramount appeared to turn a corner with what had been their traditionally unspectacular DVD production. The disc for the studio's other big gun for this past summer, John Singleton's entertaining revival of the '70s action icon, finds the studio in a state of retrograde. One of the features trumpeted on the box art (which rather sloppily misspells the title of Singleton's debut feature Boyz N the Hood) is, like on M:I-2, "dynamic interactive motion menus," and a quick perusal of the disc proves this statement to be only partially true. When one initially pops in the disc, one is treated to a nice, loudly scored full-motion main menu. But explore any further, and one comes across to Paramount's usual static, silent submenus.

Similarly slim pickings are offered in terms of supplements, but some of these pickings offer a tad more substance than usual. The making-of featurette, "Still the Man," is obviously one of those glorified infomercials that air on premium cable, but this one probes a bit deeper than the usual round of hype; particularly nice is the time spent on Isaac Hayes' rerecording of the legendary Oscar-winning theme song. The disc also includes a valuable feature that I've only seen on Paramount DVDs, which is a collection of cast and crew interviews taken from the film's press junket. As always, there is some overlap in comments with this and the behind-the-scenes featurette, but these interviews offer additional reflection. Rounding out the special features section is the theatrical trailer and two music videos: one for the theme song, the other for R. Kelly's "Bad Man" (especially odd about the latter is how the MTV-esque listing of the artist and track info appears about a minute into the video as opposed to the very beginning, per usual).

As fun as the finished product turned out, the production of Shaft was a notoriously rocky one, and as a result Singleton opted not to record a running commentary track. While the featurette and junket interviews do give Singleton his due say, his lack of involvement in the production of the DVD is especially disappointing considering there are a number of deleted scenes (such as, reportedly, a violent confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft and bad guy Christian Bale) that fans would certainly be interested in seeing.

In the end, though, the DVD comes down to the presentation of the feature itself, and in this digital form, the film is as slick as the bad mofo himself--which is pretty much all anyone can really ask for in disc.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (Paramount Home Entertainment)


The Criterion Collection

Gimme Shelter DVD Gimme Shelter
Criterion Collection #99
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ****
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Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin's 1970 documentary following the Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour has been called, as stated in the box synopsis, "the greatest rock film ever made," yet the main reasons for the film's endurance--and, now, inclusion in the hallowed Criterion Collection of special laserdisc/DVD editions--likely have little to do with the music. Granted, there is a lot of footage of Mick Jagger and company, in their disarmingly youthful prime, rocking out on stage, and brief glimpses of the likes of Tina Turner and Jefferson Airplane doing the same; and, yes, the crew manages to capture the electricity and charisma of the performers on film. But those seeing the words "The Rolling Stones" in block letters on the box and are thus attracted to the film may be in for somewhat of a shock: the Stones are at the center, but they are not the focus.

What began as nothing more than a chronicle of the Stones' tour during filming became something differently entirely when the filmmakers followed the band to their free show in the San Francisco Bay Area--specifically, the Altamont Speedway. In what is one of the most infamous events in music history, a gun-brandishing concert attendee and a knife-wielding member of the Hell's Angels crossed paths in the crowd, resulting in tragedy. Gimme Shelter does offer the expected concert footage as well as intriguing looks at the Stones in the studio, but the most fascinating aspect about the film is how it traces the anatomy of the disaster that was Altamont--from last-minute venue changes to misguided security decisions, for a start.

A particularly brilliant move on the part of the Maysles brothers and Zwerin is the structure. The film begins with the Stones reacting to a snippet of radio coverage of the incident, which sets the stage for a framing device where the film periodically cuts back to the band watching and reacting to the filmmakers' footage. Hardly a word is spoken, but their facial expressions more than tell the whole tale.

There has been much talk about how Altamont signified the end of the peace and love era, with the naive idealism of the so-called "flower generation" being brought crashing down to earth with this one incident of violence. This idea, powerfully though never overtly addressed in Gimme Shelter, is further explored in a 44-page booklet of related essays that comes with the Criterion DVD. Less comprehensive insight is offered in the on-disc supplements. Zwerin, Albert Maysles (the surviving half of the brother team), and their collaborator Stanley Goldstein give their 30-years-later thoughts on a clipped-together running commentary; of the three, Goldstein makes the most substantive comments while Zwerin and Maysles' words lean heavily on the nostalgic reminiscence side. More excerpts from that radio broadcast featured in the film's open, from KSAN radio, are offered in a separate section, including ex-Oakland Hell's Angels chapter head Sonny Barger's infamous rant about how one mustn't mess with an Angel's motorcycle. Complementing these words without pictures are pictures without words--a gallery of stills taken at Altamont by renowned photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower.

There are also features that would be of interest to viewers looking for more than just material on Altamont. There is a collection of Stones outtakes: numbers from a Madison Square Garden concert; another clip of them in the studio; and a snippet of Jagger backstage with Ike and Tina Turner. This footage, taken from the original work print, did not go through the painstaking audiovisual restoration of the finished film, the process of which is nicely demonstrated in a brief yet informative feature. Fans of the Maysles brothers' work--or those simply interested in finding out about their other work--will be pleased to find the theatrical trailers of two of their other films, Salesman and Grey Gardens, also included here--which makes this exceptional disc that much more well-rounded.

Specifications: English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision)


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#261 December 1, 2000

M O V I E S

Snatch poster Snatch (R) ***
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Fans of Guy Ritchie's 1998 cult fave Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels will be happy to learn that shacking up with Madonna and siring her a son have had no discernible effect on the writer-director--at least not one noticeable in his second film, Snatch. (There is, however, one blatant concession to the union, and that is the prominent placement of the Material Girl's vintage tune "Lucky Star"--hardly a bad thing, if you ask me.) In fact, nothing appears to have affected or changed Ritchie at all between this latest film and his last, for Snatch is a full-throttle comedic crime caper that more than resembles Lock, Stock... yet remains a rollicking good time in its own right.

Like Lock, Stock... and just about every other entry in the neo-noir-laffer genre, Snatch takes an assortment of eccentric characters and tosses them in a blender of danger, double-cross, dark comedy, and a dog (OK, the last element is specific to this film). Our guide through the convolutions of this twisty tale is Turkish (Jason Statham), an unlicensed boxing promoter who is business partners and best friends with Tommy (Stephen Graham), who is in the slot machine business. When Turkish and Tommy's plans to fix a fight for bigwig Brick Top (Alan Ford) go horribly awry, thus begins a chain of chaos that links with a large stolen diamond.

This is but a short strand of the knotty yarn that is woven in Snatch, not to mention an even smaller sampling of the shady sons-of-bitches that populate Ritchie's grimy London underworld. In addition to the pig-farm-owning, dog-fight-loving Brick Top, there's hard-to-kill Russian badass Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia); Sol (Lennie James) and Vincent (Robbie Gee), pawnbrokers who, along with heavyset getaway driver Tyrone (Ade), make an inept robbery team; Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt), an Irish gypsy bare-knuckle brawler with an unintelligible accent; Doug "the Head" (Mike Reid), a gentile jeweler who pretends he's Jewish to benefit business; American crook Avi (Dennis Farina), who gets the ball rolling by hiring ace thief Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro) to steal that big ol' diamond.

With such a large canvas of players--and there are more than a few others I haven't mentioned--it is indeed difficult at first to keep track of them, even after each one is stylishly introduced with a freeze-frame title card. What doesn't take so long, however, is getting caught up in these colorful characters and the swirl of events that sweep them together. Ritchie's stylized visuals do bear a show-offy sheen, but there's no denying the eye candy makes an effective initial hook.

And once hooked, it isn't so much Ritchie's consistently interesting visuals that keeps the audience interested than his clever, unpredictable, breakneck plotting and memorably off-center characters. He can't take full responsibility for the latter matter, though, for most of the credit must go to the actors. While Del Toro's Franky is another of his tiresome, trademark marble-mouths, Pitt makes shockingly good use of his character's verbal tic, the basis of many a good laugh. Ford, Farina, Ade, Gee, and James also make their mark without the benefit (or hindrance) of a funky accent. Providing a welcome center of calm amid all the quirkiness is the quietly captivating Statham.

With its considerable similarities in style and tone with Lock, Stock..., Snatch cannot be considered a real creative step forward for Ritchie; the film doesn't reveal anything especially new about his ability (except, perhaps, his effective direction of bigger-name actors). That said, I do think Snatch is a step up; while Ritchie essentially covers the same ground he did in that last film, here he does it with more confidence and panache. But given his obvious talent and potential as a filmmaker, here's hoping Ritchie doesn't trap himself in this scuzzy/funny crime milieu--though if he continues to work the genre, let's hope he can do so with the same level of energy and imagination.


In Brief

The 6th Day poster The 6th Day (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Long associated with budget-busting blockbuster action extravaganzas, Arnold Schwarzenegger tries a different tack with this sci-fi thriller, set in a future "sooner than you think." Schwarzenegger plays a normal husband and father whose place in the household is usurped by an illegally-manufactured clone, and things do blow up and and guns are fired as he tries to reclaim his life. But director Roger Spottiswoode downplays the action sequences and emphasizes ideas, the most interesting of which being the use of cloning as a means of immortality. However, in paying attention to potentially thought-provoking issues, writers Cormac and Marianne Wibberley neglect basic storytelling. The film's central plot twist is rather obvious from the get-go, and the wrap-up is ridiculous to the point of insult. While these points do not completely negate the general watchability of the entire affair, they nonetheless leave a bad aftertaste. Robert Duvall and Tony Goldwyn are given little to do as the key figures in the cloning conspiracy.


Yi Yi poster Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) *** 1/2
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Edward Yang's family drama may boast an epic (173 minutes) running time, but its focus is decidedly small-scale and intimate, centering around a single family, the Jian, living in contemporary Taipei, Taiwan. Fortysomething patriarch NJ (Wu Nienjen) lives in an apartment with wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), and Min-Min's mother (Tang Ruyun). The eventful day with which the audience is introduced to the clan--a day where Min-Min's younger brother A-Di (Chen Xisheng) gets married and Grandma suffers a stroke--sets the stage for all the drama that follows. At the hotel where A-Di's wedding reception is held, NJ has a chance encounter with Sherry (Ke Suyun), his long-lost first love. Her mother's illness sends Min-Min in an emotional tailspin. Although newly married, A-Di can't quite get ex Yun-Yun (Zeng Xinyi) out of his life. Ting-Ting gets swept up in the turbulent relationship between her neighbor Lili (Adrian Lin) and her boyfriend Fatty (Yupang Chang). As the older members in his family suffer their crises, young Yang-Yang leans his own lessons in life, in and out of school.

The multi-character and -storyline approach, particularly within the context of a single family, is one commonly associated with soap opera, and the above description of the individual threads would make Yi Yi appear to be just that. But aside from a bit of out-of-nowhere sensationalism in the Ting-Ting storyline, Yang shuns melodramatic plot mechanics in favor of an emphasis on characters--what they feel, what makes them tick. A fairly sedate and hence more natural tone--help set by the cast, which includes a number of outstanding first-time actors--also keeps the film grounded, as does its generous helpings of humor; after all, what is real life but one big mix of misery and laughter, sometimes occurring within a single moment?

The Chinese title, Yi Yi, literally translates as "one-one," meaning "individually," but Yang took the official English title, A One and a Two..., from the common utterance that precedes a musical performance. The film lives up to both of these meanings. The film is "individual" in how it follows each character's separate life, thus illustrating how every person, regardless of age, in fact leads a real life. But to use the allusion of the English title, each character and story can also be seen as an individual note in a larger musical piece--not simply the whole of a family, but the entire span of a lifetime.


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