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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 82

#270 - 272
February 9, 2001 - February 23, 2001


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#272 February 23, 2001

M O V I E S

Monkeybone poster Monkeybone (PG-13) **
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With its wide latitude for visual invention, Monkeybone would appear an ideal fit for director Henry Selick, who created such memorable fantasy worlds in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. From a purely technical standpoint, Selick doesn't disappoint, filling the screen with strange yet striking sights. Unfortunately, the script is only able to fill the "strange" requirement.

There's no denying that the story, adapted by Sam Hamm from Kaja Blackley's graphic novel Dark Town, is really just an excuse to bring some cutting-edge puppetry, stop-motion, and computer animation to the screen. The thin premise has cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) lapsing into a coma after getting into a freak car accident just as his fortunes appeared to take a very positive turn: his bawdy comic strip Monkeybone is set to become a TV cartoon series, and he is about to propose to his girlfriend Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). While his body remains lifeless in a hospital bed, Stu's very living spirit wanders in the strange land of Down Town, where he comes face to face with many exotic creatures--including a physical manifestation of his very own Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a wild little simian with sinister intentions.

Down Town is stunningly brought to life by production designer Bill Boes, and the animation and puppetry Selick uses to bring the assorted creatures to life blend seamlessly with the live action. (Let it be known right now that despite the plentiful animation, this film has a serious naughty streak that makes it inappropriate for younger children.) Yet as freely as the filmmaker's imaginations are allowed to roam, their creations are tied down by the flat, sometimes incoherent script. This may not entirely be Hamm's fault; the choppy and rushed feeling of the opening stages bear the probable scars of studio tinkering. Even so, what shows up on screen fails to offer much of a basic explanation as to what Down Town really is, and who or what its weird inhabitants exactly are.

Not that we get much of a sense of who Monkeybone's flesh-and-blood characters are, either. But based on what is seen, there doesn't appear to be much to get to know. Stu is basically just a nice guy, having sublimated all his darker urges into his work. Julie is the dutiful, loyal girlfriend. Stu--or, rather, his body--gets an infusion of personality when the spirit of Monkeybone takes over, but this development enables Fraser to indulge in the off-putting slapsticky tics that made George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right such ordeals to sit through.

Despite its many problems, Monkeybone somehow manages to hit a stride in its final third with the arrival of Chris Kattan as a reanimated corpse; to say anything more would rob some of the enjoyment of his manic, lunatic performance. But soon after the film finally appears to get going, it's all over, making the obvious effort put in by Monkeybone's talented technicians a bundle of chaotic energy signifying nothing.


3000 Miles to Graceland poster 3000 Miles to Graceland (R) * 1/2
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Kurt Russell. Kevin Costner. Courteney Cox. David Arquette. Christian Slater. Bokeem Woodbine. Howie Long. Kevin Pollak. Jon Lovitz. Thomas Haden Church. Paul Anka. Ice-T. Bet you never expected those last two, at least, to ever appear in the same film. Yet despite (or is that because of?) such a fascinatingly offbeat assembly of talent, Warner Bros. has appeared to just about sweep 3000 Miles to Graceland under the proverbial rug, releasing the heist/road picture in an off-peak season and giving it hardly the big promotional push that usually comes with not one, but two name stars. But who can blame them when the film fails to even be amusing on a camp level?

However, it must be said that the film is not a complete bore. In fact, once the film's first action sequence hits about 20 minutes in, it looks as if a mildly diverting action thriller is kicking in. Amid the hubbub of Elvis week in Vegas, Russell's Michael and Costner's Murph and three others (played by Slater, Arquette, and Woodbine) stage a daring casino heist--all dressed up as the King, of course. What begins smoothly ends up culminating in a hail of bullets. Director/co-writer (with Richard Recco) Demian Lichtenstein, a music video vet in his first big assignment, obviously studied up on John Woo before staging this lengthy shootout, but there's no arguing the fact that such blatant lifting gives this sequence a jolt.

Sadly, that jolt is short-lived. After some rather rushed-through doublecrosses, the cast is whittled down significantly (anyone familiar with movie conventions should figure out who gets offed first), and the pace slows accordingly as Michael finds himself making a quick getaway. Weighing him down on his trip is not only a big bag full of cash, but also overeager single mom Cybil (Cox, mysteriously billed without the extra "Arquette"), with whom he's had some wild romps in the sack; and her felon-in-waiting young son Jesse (David Kaye). Meanwhile, a not-so-happy Murph is following close behind, leaving a bloody trail in his wake.

Rumor has it that Costner and Russell put together two different cuts; in the end, Russell's "character-oriented" edit was passed over in favor of Costner's "action-oriented" version. If this is the faster-paced cut, I'd really hate to see the other one. Once the characters hit the road, the film slows to a snooze-worthy crawl, with very few engaging moments breaking up the tedium. These moments come exclusively in the Costner section, which is less an indication of his effectiveness here as a cold-blooded killer (he's simply functional) than of how nothing of interest happens in the Russell thread. Composed mostly of soggy bonding between Michael and Jesse, this side of the film is made memorable for all the wrong reasons by Lichtenstein's labored efforts to make the audience care.

But no one works harder to make some "emotional" connection than Cox, who proves ill-equipped to handle material that can vaguely be considered dramatic. Her showcase Oscar clip is especially embarrassing; while she has no difficulty in generating post-nasal drip, she fails to squeeze out a single tear from her eyes. By comparison, a bored-looking Russell can only look good; and his ennui, in turn, makes Costner's nominally more energized work look that much better.

Lichtenstein finally gets guns blazing again in the long-overdue finale, but by this point audiences will just be glad to be near the end. Without a particularly hissable villain nor a "hero" that holds any rooting interest, 3000 Miles to Graceland doesn't even get the basics of a standard action thriller right. Lichtenstein apparently thought quirks such as a head-scratcher of an opening title sequence (depicting two very CG scorpions engaged in fierce combat), a wacky Elvis-based quasi-explanation for Murph's behavior, and the sight of Paul "Having My Baby" Anka firing a rifle would be enough to keep a viewer entertained, but like the film itself, these oddball touches sound a lot more interesting than they really are.


In Brief

Last Resort poster Last Resort ***
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The title of Pawel Pawlikowski's film holds meanings both literal and metaphoric: applying for political asylum in England is the last resort for Tanya (Dina Korzun), a Russian woman who is ditched by her Londoner fiancé not long after arrival in the country; the deserted seaside town where Tanya, her ten-year-old son Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), and other refugees are forced to stay is very much a "last resort." Despite the finality in the title, this gentle drama is more about beginnings. With bureaucratic red tape preventing her from leaving the town to either move elsewhere in England or head home to Russia, Tanya must somehow make a new life for her and her son. Helping them get on their feet is Alfie (Paddy Considine), an aimless arcade manager who gradually finds direction in his life in Tanya.

Pawlikowski takes a hard look at the ridiculous rules and living conditions for refugees without ever falling into histrionics and losing focus on the characters; any political statements are mere side developments that are kept in the background. The intimate, unadorned performances add a realistic immediacy to entire piece, especially the romantic angle. Korzun and Considine's unforced rapport and the fact that the script allows Tanya and Alfie get to know and fall for each other at a believable pace make theirs a quietly touching love story. For all these reasons and more, Last Resort is as noteworthy in its understated honesty as it is in its astonishing economy; the film only runs a perfectly paced 75 minutes, with not a single wasted moment.


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#271 February 16, 2001

M O V I E S

Down to Earth poster Down to Earth (PG-13) **
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There's no denying that Chris Rock is a funny man. On the stand-up stage, he blazes, eliciting many a large laugh with his fierce mix of rage and joy. But one thing few would ever say about Rock is that he's a great actor. This is not to say that he's an especially bad one, for he has been effective in small roles in Dogma and Nurse Betty. It's just that one doesn't exactly equate "lead movie star" with him, and his flat starring vehicle Down to Earth doesn't do anything to change that perception.

Part of the problem is that he is never quite able to completely shake off his stand-up persona. Granted, on screen he displays the same charismatic presence he has on stage, but the barking line delivery and cadences of his stand-up delivery also carry over, which makes it difficult to separate Rock from the character he's supposed to be playing. Down to Earth, a remake of 1978's Heaven Can Wait (which itself was a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), makes an obvious attempt to ease the transition by casting Rock as Lance Barton, a stand-up comic. This, however, just makes matters worse; whenever Lance takes the stage and does his act, we see Rock (who happened to co-write the script and recycle some of his own material), not the character of Lance.

The plot, as it is, has struggling stand-up Lance suffering an untimely death in a traffic accident; apparently, this was a mistake, so an angel named King (Chazz Palminteri) quickly gives Lance another body--which, unfortunately, is that of just-deceased billionaire Charles Wellington. Lance negotiates this to be a temporary arrangement, but he has second thoughts when he meets activist Sontee (Regina King), whom Lance manages to successfully woo while in the body of the much-older white man.

Rock and King manage to generate some charm together, but their romance is often lost amid easy fish-out-of-body jokes (there is not only one, but two, scenes of Lance bumping to rap music, forgetting he's in the form of a portly old white man) and boring subplots, in particular one revolving around Wellington's scheming wife (Jennifer Saunders) and her lover (Greg Germann), who also happens to be Wellington's right-hand man.

Down to Earth was directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, but this film doesn't display any of the antic spirit of their last film, American Pie--not even during the stand-up sequences that should be comic high points. But just at fault, if not more, is Rock, who fashioned a less-than-ideal project for himself. When someone wants to see a Chris Rock comedy, one wants to see him R-rated unleashed--not so much in terms of profanity than his intelligently biting adult humor. In Down to Earth, not only has his edge been smoothed over, so have his smarts.


Recess: School's Out poster Recess: School's Out (G) ** 1/2
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At one point in this film, an adult character says something along the lines of, "Even grown-ups know the value of recess." Similarly, the appeal of Recess: School's Out, a big-screen extension of the popular TV cartoon series, won't be lost on the older viewers in the audience. Make no mistake--this is a film made for the kiddies, and it's the young 'uns who will take the most from the animated antics. But there's enough likable qualities displayed here to keep the parents interested though not entirely bowled over.

Part of the problem is the film's no-frills animation style, that makes the film look exactly like what it is: a big-screen blowup of a Saturday morning cartoon. Even the Rugrats films exhibited some greater ambition with its visuals, however slight. Here, all we get are a couple of too-obviously computer-generated overhead shots, one for the very beginning, and one for the very end. Making matters worse is the fact that the CG shots hardly feel of a piece with the traditionally drawn bulk of the film.

This complaint is of little consequence to the target audience, who will certainly eat up this amusing kids' fantasy. As the title suggests, school is out, and mischievous T.J. Detweiler (voiced by Andy Lawrence) is looking forward to a summer of fun with friends Gus (Courtland Mead), Gretchen (Ashley Johnson), Vince (Rickey D'Shon Collins), Mikey (Jason Davis), and Spinelli (Pamela Segall). However, that doesn't appear it will be the case, for he is the only one of the gang not going to a special camp for the summer. But when he stumbles upon an evil plot involving what appears to be a large laser cannon (!) being cooked up within the closed walls of Third Street Elementary, T.J. must break out his friends to set things right.

The kid-aimed story is interesting and fast-paced enough to keep the adults somewhat amused, but there are also touches in Recess: School's Out blatantly designed to engage the adults: an extended flashback to the late-'60s-set early careers of Third Street Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman) and the main bad guy, a former secretary of education (James Woods); and an especially effective running gag involving Mikey's impressively developed singing voice (provided by Robert Goulet). But when it all comes down to it, the comedic fights (some involving ninjas) and slapsticky chases that make up most of Recess: School's Out were meant for viewers that are in the same age range as the main characters, and unless you have kids, there's nothing here that's compelling enough to merit buying a ticket.


Sweet November poster Sweet November (PG-13) **
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If you cast Keanu Reeves in a film with the expectation of him actually being good, you’d better have a have a role that fits comfortably within his limited range. Take, for instance, the films in which the notorious laughing stock has actually been passable or better: the Bill and Ted films, which made ideal use of his natural blankness for laughs; Speed and The Matrix, which used his inexpressiveness as a veneer of toughness; and the recent The Gift… well, credit must go to Sam Raimi for pushing the non-acting actor into effectively playing a villainous part no one would think he could ever pull off.

Then there’s the strange matter of the 1995 romance A Walk in the Clouds. Technically speaking, Reeves is his usually horrible self; witness the embarrassing “Don’t you realize how alive she is? How special she is?” monologue to see just how wrong he is for the part of a soulful ex-G.I. Yet somehow those disastrous displays were forgivable in the end, and that’s because he had such superb chemistry with leading lady Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. From their first gaze, those two smoldered, and when it comes to swoony love stories, that’s what counts. Sweet November, a remake of the 1968 weepie of the same name, is a like-minded film that once again finds Reeves in a part clearly not suited for him: Nelson Moss, a selfish, flamboyant, workaholic advertising executive. The difference here is that there is no romantic rapport to redeem his woeful work or the film itself.

The lack of spark should come as no surprise, for Reeves’ November co-star is Charlize Theron, with whom he previously teamed---and displayed little chemistry--in the supernatural thriller The Devil’s Advocate. She plays Sara Deever, the type of kooky free spirit who always comes into the life of the uptight protagonist not only at just the right time, but in an oh-so-contrived Meet Cute: they initially encounter each other as they take a DMV written exam. Somehow sensing the stress in his life, Sara makes him an unusual offer: to be the latest in string of one-month-only lovers. For a mere 30 days, she will attempt to make his life easier and give him all the benefits of having a female companion (read: limitless sex), and in return all he has to do is devote just about every waking moment of said time period with her. Once the time expires, so does their relationship, with no questions asked, no hard feelings.

So why exactly does Sara do this? The trailers and television spots have made the reason abundantly clear, and there’s no reason for me to spoil the late-in-film revelation for those few still interested in seeing this film. But even with her motivation in mind, the premise seems overly mechanical, not to mention dated. The modern-day accoutrements (cell phones, a transvestite neighbor/best friend for Sara) brought in by director Pat O’Connor and screenwriters Kurt Voelker and Paul Yurick to update the story actually hurt the film even more. In this contemporary context, nothing about Sara (aside from promiscuity-according-to-schedule) seems terribly eccentric. She’s a single twentysomething. She’s a pet groomer. She has a lot of plants. She has a fondness for scarves. How any of these rather run-of-the-mill qualities can make some ice cold slickster somehow change his whole way of thinking is hard to swallow.

Of course, there is the fact that Sara comes in the gorgeous form of Theron, but this usually capable actress manages to make Sara’s perceived quirkiness less than charming. Theron tries too hard to be flighty and daffy, and as such Sara appears to be putting on some forced act, not to mention a bit too pushy. Reeves’ “efforts” fail to make the strained attraction any more natural--not that anything about his work in this film can remotely fall into that description. His stiff yet overdone swagger as Norman “A” is ridiculous; try not to laugh when he lets loose what is supposed to be an evil, mischievous cackle toward his boss. With the abrupt change to sensitive Norman “B” comes the flip side: instead of overdoing it, Reeves reverts to his usual screen catatonia.

When it comes to these movie romances, however, chemistry between leads holds a lot of redemptive value. Unfortunately, Reeves and Theron are as tepid together here as they were in their last collaboration. They fail to convince that what we are told are growing feelings between Nelson and Sara are indeed signs of true love, let alone some sweeping, larger-than-life, world-changing passion. Considering the film’s fairly effective and unusually (for this genre) understated close, Sweet November could very well have been one primo slice of melodramatic manipulation with the right pair of actors. Then again, I imagine that already happened--back in 1968.


D V D

Michael Jordan to the Max DVD Michael Jordan to the Max
Movie: ***; Disc: *** 1/2
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As hard as it may be to believe, I--whose second claim to pseudo-fame on the 'Net has been my Michael Jordan fan sites, plus my work as chat host at his official website--had never once attended a single Chicago Bulls game during his illustrious run with the team. So on the basis of that alone, I was grateful to be able to experience Michael Jordan to the Max on the giant IMAX screen last summer. In fleshing out many memorable highlights from Jordan's final NBA championship run in 1998 on a screen eight stories high and bolstering every last sonic detail in crystalline digital surround sound, directors James M. Stern and Don Kempf did Jordan fans the world over a huge favor, giving those not fortunate to ever see one of Jordan's basketball games live as good an approximation of the up-close and courtside experience as could ever be hoped for.

But Michael Jordan to the Max is no mere highlight reel; interspersing images from those memorable final playoff series with interview footage with teammates and noteworthy admirers (thankfully, no Tiger Woods) as well as candid talks with Jordan himself, the film is structured less as a basic retrospective than as an inspirational piece. On those terms, it's hard to argue with its effectiveness, especially for children. The notable negative touchstones of Jordan's life and career are addressed: being cut from his high school team, the tragic loss of his father, the ill-fated detour in minor league baseball. Through it all, Jordan persevered and managed to attain even greater heights of glory, and fans young and old will find it impossible to be unmoved.

Ironically, though, the most devout of Jordan fans will probably be the least affected, for this is all information with which we are more than familiar. Ditto to an even greater degree the bulk of the basketball footage; considering how closely Jordan's final season, particularly that final championship run, was followed by the media, even more casual fans may feel a sense of déjà vu. Also, the slickness of the editing and packaging, complete with regal narration by Laurence Fishburne, give the film the feeling of a video by NBA Entertainment (who, in fact, co-produced)blown up to really large proportions--not necessarily a bad thing, but it adds to the air of familiarity.

Even so, there's no denying the power of seeing the intense hoops action on such an imposing screen though for me--and, I imagine, many other ardent fans--the most memorable portions of Michael Jordan to the Max are the quieter ones that offer an all-too-small taste of MJ the man. It's a testament to Jordan's charisma that even in the few interview segments and the brief glimpses of him off the hardwood his personality shines through. That said, it would have been nice to see more footage like the glimpses of him having fun at his youth basketball camp and goofing off during practices--stuff I suspect fans rarely get to see (though I must say I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of attending a Bulls practice back in 1997 and experienced first-hand Jordan's perspective of a typical mob scene waiting outside--a hectic image repeated a few times over in one passage of the film).

Michael Jordan to the Max has been dismissed as a bit of softball puffery, an accusation not entirely unfair but one, I feel, is ultimately forgivable. After all, it does brings the astounding accomplishments of the greatest athlete of our time to life with astonishing visual clarity and detail (however, even on IMAX, the distinctive color of Jordan's eyes still cannot be exactly captured); and, furthermore, it's a film for the fans by fans--and few within Jordan's legion of admirers will come away disappointed.

The DVD release of Michael Jordan to the Max begs an obvious question: what's the point of issuing an edition of a film made for a super-large screen for the comparatively microscopic dimensions of the home screen? The question is not entirely without validity, not to mention one I'd likely ask myself. However, in this case, I feel the question is moot--before the release of the Max disc, there was no DVD of actual Jordan game highlights on the market. So now, at long last, some of the most memorable moments in sport are available for fans to keep in the superb audio and video quality of the DVD format.

That fact alone would be enough to recommend the disc, but the supplements that make it an even more worthwhile buy. Directors James M. Stern and Don Kempf, along with producer Steve Kempf, provide an informative and lively commentary. Wags may complain that they lay on the Jordan reverence even thicker on the track, but that also adds to the charm, not to mention reinforces the "film made for fans by fans" idea; if only more filmmakers displayed the same unabashed passion for their film's subject. However, the film's brief running time (46 minutes, per IMAX standard) means they can't get into too much detail about too many things though they are refreshingly honest about the various "cheats" they used to heighten the drama, such as editing together game highlights in non-chronological order.

Much of the buzz talk surrounding Michael Jordan to the Max focused on the opening and closing shot of one of Jordan's signature slam dunks, which was captured using the "bullet-time" technique prominently featured in The Matrix. The DVD includes a fast-paced two-minute reel that shows how the various individual components were assembled to create that shot, and the actual filming of Jordan dunking against a green screen is prominently featured in a longer 21-minute featurette on the general making of the film--though the segment is clearly slanted toward the making of that effects shot.

The usual collection of television spots, trailers, and crew biographies are also included, as well as detailed stats on Jordan's regular season and postseason careers--a nice finishing touch to a classy digital tribute to a living legend.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


Lost Souls DVD Lost Souls (R) movie review
Movie: *; Disc: ***
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On the commentary for the DVD of his directorial debut, Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski underscores exactly why the film was so poorly received. Clearly most prominent in his and cinematographer Mauro Fiore's (who joins him on the commentary) mind are the visuals, which are indeed the only noteworthy element of this turgid supernatural thriller. Kaminski at times indulges in some long-winded ruminations about theology and the existence of the Devil, but never does he go into specifics about the boring plot involving a young woman (Winona Ryder) trying to prevent Satan from taking over the body of a crime author (Ben Chaplin).

Kaminski and Fiore are also on hand for commentary on the assortment of deleted scenes and alternate takes included on the disc. These unused scenes are of varying interest, as are their comments; for one scene involving a bicycle accident, Kaminski forgets to say what the intended purpose of the scene was, let alone why it was cut. That said, there are some interesting statements made; Kaminski's rants about the studios' test screening system are amusing and truthful, and he and Fiore both being cinematographers, they offer detailed information on how they achieved the film's strikingly grainy and contrast-heavy palette.

Standard supplements such as the theatrical trailer and cast/crew filmographies as well as superbly designed animated menus round out a well-put-together disc that's far more interesting than the main feature itself.

Specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (New Line Home Video)


Urban Legends DVD Urban Legends: Final Cut (R) movie review
Movie: * 1/2; Disc: *** 1/2
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There is no convincing reason why Urban Legends: Final Cut should exist. The 1998 film with which it bears only the loosest of connections was hardly a model of the slasher genre--in fact, it was among the worst of the rash of youth horror flicks that were released in the wake of Scream--and in terms of box office, it was only a mid-level performer at best. But I suppose the fact that the film wasn't a complete financial bust was reason enough to produce a slapped-together follow-up designed to simply make a quick buck off of the teen audience.

This fact was not completely lost on composer/editor/director John Ottman, who in his insightful and entertaining commentary reveals how he had to constantly remind himself what kind of movie he was making. There are a few instances where he wanted to amp up the drama or do some fancy camera or editing maneuver, but in the end he quashed those more ambitious, perhaps even pretentious, instincts to respect the all-important (especially for this genre) bottom line. Ottman's commentary is also rather educational, relating the lessons he learned on this, his feature directing debut; aspiring auteurs will find much of value here on working under the constraints of a tight budget and an equally limiting genre.

Some artifacts of Ottman's more ambitious inclinations are in evidence in the collection of deleted scenes, which are viewable with or without his commentary. Most of these scenes were wise trims, though an alternate version of one scene, including some scrapped but nifty flashback cutting, should have made the final cut (no pun intended). More previously unseen footage is included in the outtake/gag reel; unfortunately, though, a lot of these bloopers are of the "you had to be there" variety.

The rest of the supplements to the film, which is presented in both widescreen and full-frame formats, are more standard. Talent bios and complete production notes are included, as are trailers for both Urban Legend films and both I Know What You Did Last Summer films. The obligatory making-of featurette is taken from the electronic press kit, but even by those standards, it's a fairly shallow--not to mention a very brief--glance behind the scenes.

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


What Lies Beneath DVD What Lies Beneath (PG-13) movie review
Movie: **; Disc: ** 1/2
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I suppose it wasn't surprising that Robert Zemeckis' messy Hitchcock homage was one of last year's biggest hits. It did star two marquee names in Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and more importantly served up all the jumpy set pieces audiences bought a ticket for--even though the story was a bunch of nonsensical gibberish robbed of any element of surprise, thanks to the questionable tell-all advertising campaign.

Casual fans of the film should be more pleased with DreamWorks' DVD presentation of the film. The booming stinger chords of Alan Silvestri's score retain their shameless oomph on the disc's DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, and the pristine video transfer makes Zemeckis' bravura third-act camera moves just as dazzling as they were on the big screen. However, a perfect opportunity to make bolster the viewer's appreciation for such impressive shots is gone to waste in the running commentary provided by Zemeckis and producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke; Zemeckis steadfastly refuses to discuss exactly how he was able to accomplish some shots. But even excepting that bit of non-disclosure, this commentary is a dud. The three sound bored for the first two thirds; Zemeckis is conspicuously silent much of the time; and Starkey and Rapke fall into the self-serving trap of bragging about how various audiences reacted so well to certain scenes.

Those who happen to be big fans of the film will be disappointed by the slim remainder of supplements. In addition to the usual inclusion of the trailer, there's a making-of featurette that was designed for air on HBO. Despite its thinly-veiled infomercial origins, this featurette digs deeper than most, offering a succinct and fairly informative overview of Zemeckis' entire career (though the Back to the Future sequels are curiously not mentioned) in addition to the usual hype about the focal film. Even so, at a compact 15 minutes, it's still a far from nourishing nugget that is sadly reflective of the entire disc.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)


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#270 February 9, 2001

M O V I E S

Hannibal poster Hannibal (R) **
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Let's get the most pressing question out of the way: Hannibal, the long-awaited sequel to 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, is a huge step down from its Best Picture Oscar-winning predecessor. But then again, expecting a follow-up to completely hold its own alongside one of the classic films of the past decade is perhaps a bit too much to ask, so one hopes Hannibal would at least be a decent film in its own right. Yet it isn't, and that fact, more than anything else, is why Hannibal fails: it is simply unable stand alone on its own few merits--but worst of all, it doesn't work as its own individual, self-contained cinematic entity.

Any admirer of Silence would tell you that it wasn't the primary manhunt plot that made Jonathan Demme's film of Thomas Harris' bestseller so special. While FBI trainee Clarice Starling's (then played by Jodie Foster, who earned an Oscar for her performance) pursuit of serial killer Buffalo Bill was gripping (not to mention it set up a memorably suspenseful climax), the lurid tale was pushed into greatness by the fascinating psychological dance between Clarice and imprisoned madman Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in the film's second Oscar-winning turn). The main story provided the short-term thrills, but what has continued to resonate a full decade after the film's initial release is Hannibal's cerebral seduction of the strong but green Clarice, who was forced to lay bare her most crippling emotional scars in exchange for crucial information about Buffalo Bill.

Hannibal and Clarice's love/hate, respect/revulsion relationship is a remarkably complex one, and by far the biggest sin committed by the Hannibal team of director Ridley Scott (replacing the Oscar-winning Demme) and screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian (taking over for Silence's also-Academy-awarded Ted Tally) is their failure to satisfactorily reintroduce it. This is an especially damaging move since Hannibal's Clarice is played not by Foster but Julianne Moore. With this film's storyline keeping Clarice and Hannibal apart up until the final sequence (a few brief phone exchanges along the way notwithstanding), Moore isn't given a fair chance to establish any type of chemistry with returning star Hopkins, let alone the intimate yet unsettling one he shared with Foster in Silence. Any impact their reunion may have relies almost exclusively on the history established in the first film, and with a new actor in one of the roles, the moment is robbed of virtually any power.

This is, however, no slight on Moore. She's an incredibly gifted actress, and she indeed does a respectable job under very trying circumstances. But the material she's given presents her no opportunity to make the role her own. A large part of Clarice's vastly diminished role consists of her sitting in front of computer screens or watching perfume store surveillance tapes in an effort to locate Hannibal, who is still at large after making a dramatic escape in the ten-year-old events depicted in Silence. But Special Agent Starling's connection with Dr. Lecter still runs deeper than your basic G-woman/criminal one, and she obsessively listens to recently recovered tapes of their creepy, years-ago interview sessions. The tapes are obviously a designed as a shorthand device to bring newcomers up to speed on the unconventional nature of their relationship, but those viewers will likely end up more confused as to why Clarice is so haunted by him. With Foster's non-involvement in this film, the pair's more charged exchanges could not be used, so all we hear are some of Hannibal's memorable, if fairly inconsequential in the long run, words from the first film plus some newly-recorded material between him and former asylum orderly Barney (Frankie R. Faison, the only other Silence returnee)--none of which begins to touch on their strange rapport.

The Hannibal/Clarice duet may be what gets moviegoers to buy tickets, but it's mostly a not-too-smoothly integrated sidebar to the main story concern: the gruesome revenge plot of the horribly disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, hamming it up under layers of very impressive makeup), Hannibal's only surviving victim. Clarice--now a hard-bitten veteran agent with a trigger-happy reputation--already has her hands full dealing with slimy Justice Department official Paul Krendler (a one-note Ray Liotta), but her troubles are compounded when she unwittingly becomes Verger's bait to draw Hannibal out of hiding. But even the vengeance thread takes a back seat in the second act to a subplot involving a police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) in Hannibal's adopted home of Florence looking to collect Verger's hefty reward for info leading to Hannibal's capture. This portion of the film, in which Clarice is barely seen, is not without its virtues. Giannini is quite good as the guy in way over his head, and Hopkins clearly has fun as the liberated Lecter (who works as a museum curator under the alias "Dr. Fell"). Nonetheless, this subplot is tediously devoid of any suspense, for it's inevitable that the not-so-good cop will be added to the list of Lecter victims.

When that bit of business is finally taken care of, it's back to the States and on to the two confrontations the film has been building toward: Hannibal/Verger and, of course, Hannibal/Clarice. Both are letdowns in different respects. The resolution of the Hannibal/Verger issue is a more conventional disappointment; there's some lackluster action, and a lot of this wrap-up hinges on the sketchy motivation of Verger's put-upon caretaker (Zeljko Ivanek), a woefully underwritten character.

Scott, Mamet, and Zaillian actually do get something right as far as Hannibal and Clarice are concerned, namely a genuinely tense cat-and-mouse chase in a crowded mall, where the two maintain communication by cell phone. But the big moment of truth--their physical reunion--is remarkably unsatisfying, and not just for the reasons mentioned earlier. The final ten minutes--which MGM has gone out of its way to urge writers to not to reveal, and I will not go into detail--are not objectionable because of their extreme violence. What I find so unforgivable about this ending is how it irreversibly changes the tone to one of ridiculous camp. The overdone carnage is obviously played for wink-wink laughs, and that attitude takes over the film right through to the similarly jokey coda (one almost expects the infectiously cheesy early '80s hit "I Eat Cannibals" to be played over the end credits; alas, a tie-in soundtrack opportunity mercifully gone to waste). I'm willing to bet that campy humor is not what moviegoers want when buying a ticket to the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs--especially with that film's chilling Clarice-in-the-killer's-house climax so strongly remembered.

While the screenwriters and director of Hannibal do shoulder a lot of the blame for the largely unappetizing final product, most of it must go to Harris, on whose much-maligned novel the film is based. I have not read it, but from what I understand--aside from the removal of a fairly prominent character and the revamp of the original's controversial ending--the film is a faithful adaptation of the book. So the less-than-scintillating plot, the slapdash characterizations, and the make-a-quick-buck shoddiness of the whole superfluous affair can be traced back to the author, who will just have even more reason to laugh all the way to the bank as Hannibal the movie, like the book, makes its pre-sold killing at the cash register.


In Brief

Saving Silverman poster Saving Silverman (PG-13) *
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The audience is one who needs saving, not the title character, in this latest entry in the look-how-dumb-I-can-get comedy sweepstakes. "Silverman" is the last name of Darren (Jason Biggs), a nice guy romantic who somehow becomes betrothed to the sexy but shrewish psychiatrist Judith (Amanda Peet). Before their grade school buddy can live to regret his decision, slobby slackers Wayne and J.D. (Steve Zahn and Jack Black, both of whom look a full ten years too old to have attended any school at the same time as Biggs) cook up a foolproof plan to "save" Silverman by kidnapping the evil shrink and hook him up with his unrequited high school love Sandy (Biggs' Boys and Girls co-star Amanda Detmer). But considering this pair's collective intellect, it's more a foolish plan.

Dennis Dugan, the man to blame for the Adam Sandler vehicles Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy, can't decide what he's making here. At one point, it's knockoff Farrelly brothers, with broad physical gags involving a violent raccoon and unsubtle masturbation jokes. Then it's pitch black comedy, with the doofus duo's kidnapping scheme pointing to possible murder. And then there's the romantic angle, with Darren and Sandy--who's about to join a convent--doing some cutesy courtship. Whatever it's supposed to be, it isn't funny, squandering the comic abilities of Zahn and Black, who do what they can with the lame punchlines and labored slapstick. Neil Diamond, the three guys' idol, turns up in a cameo role as himself, and he eats up his every last second in the silver screen spotlight a bit too hungrily. Note to Mr. Diamond: if you're in a film like this, the last thing you should want is to be noticed.


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