The Movie Report
Volume 83

#273 - 274
March 24, 2001 - April 10, 2001

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

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#274 April 10, 2001 by Michael Dequina


Along Came a Spider poster Along Came a Spider (R) * 1/2
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The role of Dr. Alex Cross, taken from the pages of James Patterson's best selling novels, is an ideal film series character for Morgan Freeman. A brilliant, if slightly world-weary, criminal profiler and detective, Cross is a perfect match for the air of intelligence and dignity that has become the Oscar-nominated actor's stock in trade. Such a shame, then, that this character and Freeman's formidable talent are trapped in Patterson's preposterous potboiler plots--first in the modest 1997 hit Kiss the Girls and now in the prequel Along Came a Spider. The film not only fails capitalize on the ample room for improvement left its the lackluster predecessor, but sinks the fledgling franchise to new depths--and quite possibly past the point of no return.

The film's opening stages find Cross taking part in a botched sting operation that claims the life of his partner, an experience that causes him to lose his nerve. It is at vulnerable times as these that some madman decides to come out of the woodwork--in this case, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who has kidnapped the daughter (Mika Boorem). Cross is reluctantly brought into the case when Soneji phones him at his house for a little cat and mouse.

And then, nothing. Cross tracks various clues between giving little lessons in the fine points of profiling to his de facto partner, impossibly green Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan, played by Monica Potter as a bundle of perfectly coiffed hair and awkward dramatic pauses. This is all quite dull, but "boring" seems too strong a word--especially when there such inexplicable occurrences to keep viewers scratching their heads and hence awake, such as Cross uncovering a crucial clue by clicking a webpage link that somehow links to a live camera on which he can use a zoom feature.

Director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Marc Moss do eventually remember the film is a thriller, with the former picking up the slovenly pace and the latter throwing in some twists. The big problem is not the contrived nature of the twists (and are they ever), but how they and the quickened pace is piled on in roughly the final fifteen minutes of the film, as if a late-inning burst of misguided energy can somehow compensate for the cinematic sloth of what came before.

The exception to the laziness is Freeman, who commands the screen with his usual quiet authority. It's great to see him have such a promising franchise role, but if the (already shaky to begin with) quality level of the Alex Cross series continues the precipitous decline as seen in Along Came a Spider, who knows how much longer it will last.

Just Visiting poster Just Visiting (PG-13) *
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Just Visiting continues Hollywood’s curious practice of remaking hit French comedies, and it likely will continue American audiences’ practice of wondering just why the hell Tinseltown even bothers. After all, France is notorious for its questionable taste in film, but what’s more, the broad slapstick that could remotely be considered mildly funny in their native context goes over like a lead balloon en anglais.

It certainly doesn’t help that Just Visiting, based on the 1993 French hit Les Visiteurs, milks the same basic outgrowth of a fish-out-of-water scenario not merely to death, but well into the afterlife. The visitors of that original title are French knight Thibault and his peasant servant André (respectively played by Jean Reno and Christian Clavier, both reprising their original roles, which, in the latter’s case, also includes co-scripting), who find themselves in modern-day Chicago. They, of course, are not at all familiar with now-commonplace technological innovations, so they approach them with an unwavering suspicion that inevitably manifests itself in physical action. In other words, they wreck everything. The two take a car as a dragon, so they try to “slay” it. They smash a television set in an attempt to free the people they see “imprisoned” on a vintage episode of Family Feud. Then there are the would-be cutesy misuses of appliances and other items, such as mistaking a toilet for a fountain and an expensive oversize bottle of Chanel for bath oil. But the proceedings wouldn’t be complete with a token gross-out gag, hence a scene where urinal cakes are mistaken for mints.

As if raping that dead horse weren’t troublesome enough, there’s a huge lapse in logic at the core of Just Visiting. Sure, a film about medieval Frenchmen stuck in the wrong time allows itself a certain suspension of disbelief, but there’s a crucial hole in its fundamental game plan. In Chicago, Thibault meets up with and is taken in by Julia Malfete (Christina Applegate), the distant descendant of him and his beloved Rosalind (also played by Applegate). The problem? The reason why Thibault wants to do any time traveling in the first place is that a rival cast a spell on him that caused him to kill Rosalind on the eve of their wedding; instead of sending Thibault back in time to prevent Rosalind’s untimely death, a wizard (Malcolm McDowell) sends him to the future. So if Thibault killed Rosalind, they would have never had the chance to start a lineage and hence Julia should not exist.

On the plus side, Julia’s non-existence would have meant being spared her boring subplot in which her slimy fiancé (Matthew Ross) schemes to swindle her out of the inherited Malfete estate. On the negative, that would have also made the film lose its only redeemable element, which is Applegate’s valiant effort to give an actual performance amid all the inanity of all the slapstick and the tedium of a forced romantic subplot between André and the gardener next door (Tara Reid).

Ultimately, though, the only existence worth calling into question is that of the painfully unfunny Just Visiting.

Pokemon 3 poster Pokémon (3: The Movie): Spell of the Unown (G) **
with Pikachu: The Movie 2001--Pikachu and Pichu (G) **
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Less than two years have passed since the release of Pokémon: The First Movie, and already hitting screens is the third big screen installment of the kiddie TV franchise. In some respects, this is a good thing: with Warner Bros. obviously rushing to strike while the iron is still lukewarm, Pokémon 3: The Movie is likely to be the final hurrah for this fading fad; and this third two-films-in-one package is without question the best of the series. But it's all too little, too late for the phenomenon to gain a second wind, or for it to make converts out of any Pokémon haters.

As with the other two films, things get rolling with a solo short for the most popular Pokémon, the electric shock-powered Pikachu, called Pikachu: The Movie 2001--Pikachu and Pichu. Picking up on the advancement presented in Pokémon: The Movie 2000's accompanying "mini-movie" Pikachu's Rescue Adventure, Pikachu and Pichu attempts to tell some kind of story as the ever-cute Pikachu and the equally adorable Pichu brothers get lost in the big city and get into all sorts of trouble. Not only is the slight story here more engaging than that in Rescue Adventure (or, for that matter, the nonexistent story in Pikachu's Vacation, which preceded The First Movie), this short wisely employs a voiceover narration to clarify the action--quite welcome when all the main characters can say are their names. Of course, only the wee ones will fully understand all that goes on, not to mention know who the characters outside of Pikachu and the Pichu brothers are, but for older viewers, Pikachu and Pichu, while not exactly compelling, is at least somewhat watchable.

In its journey from Japan to the States, the Pokémon series has undergone some degree of sanitizing; reportedly, the original television series and movies are a bit darker in tone. While this was hinted at in only the opening moments in The First Movie--Mewtwo Strikes Back, Spell of the Unown, Pokémon 3's main feature, has an intriguing air of melancholy hanging over its entire run time. Ash Ketchum, trainer of Pikachu and other Pokémon, is still the hero here, but the more or less character in the film is Molly Hale, young daughter to Pokémon researcher Spencer Hale. Molly, whose mother had disappeared years before, loses her father in a similarly mysterious fashion as the film opens. The now-completely abandoned Molly's grief and loneliness attracts the Unown, a mysterious alphabet-like Pokémon, who turn her home into an isolated crystal fortress in which all her wishes are made reality--including a new father in the form of a legendary Pokémon called Entei, who kidnaps Ash's mother Delia and "gives" her to Molly.

It's all unusually weighty stuff for this franchise, but lest we forget the reason why kids really want to see this film, there's plenty of the series' bread and butter: Pokémon battles. Of the three films, this one weaves this staple of the TV show into the fabric of the main story the most effectively; as Ash and friends Brock and Misty attempt to penetrate Molly's fantasy prison and free both her and Delia, it's only natural that there be various conflicts that have to be settled with a good ol' pocket monster tussle. The tots won't be disappointed.

Adults, on the other hand, will be disappointed with how the Molly story ultimately plays out. Her sad story is handled with a fair amount of sensitivity during the course of the film (rather touching is how Delia grows genuinely fond and protective of her "daughter"), but--and I am not giving away anything surprising here--Molly's incredibly sunny disposition after Ash and company bring her back down to reality doesn't quite sit right; there's not one lingering trace of sadness. Perhaps it's asking too much from a Pokémon film to expect emotional authenticity, but when it has as its focus as complex an idea (especially for this type of movie) as a new orphan withdrawing from reality as a coping mechanism, it best offer some thought-out follow-through. Granted, the choice of issue and its resolution are not as disastrously wrongheaded as in The First Movie (a most hypocritical anti-Pokémon-violence message--that was quickly tossed aside when all the characters' memories were erased at the film's close), but why have such ambitions only to shortchange them in the end?

But I'm overanalyzing--the bottom line is that Pokémon 3: The Movie is strictly for whatever pre- and elementary-school-age fans still remain, and parents who have been around for the long haul of this series will find themselves slightly more interested this time. So unless you are a Pokémon fan or have sired one... why did you read this review?

Someone Like You poster Someone Like You (PG-13) ***
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There isn’t a single moment of originality or believability in Someone Like You. If you’ve seen any romantic comedy to come from Hollywood in the past ten years, chances are at least one contrived thing in Tony Goldwyn’s entry into the genre will ring the bell of memory: for a start, one character’s “secret,” which is ultimately revealed in a very public setting; a climactic kiss/embrace complete with accompanying lift and twirl. Yet in the case of this adaptation of the Laura Zigman novel Animal Husbandry, such strong familiarity does not breed contempt, and that’s all due to two pairs of words: Ashley Judd, Hugh Jackman.

Judd, generally known for more straight-faced projects, reveals herself to be an absolute natural at Meg Ryan-esque fluff as Jane Goodale, a stunningly gorgeous yet romantically challenged (what did I say about believability?) talent booking agent for a talk show. Mr. Right appears to have finally come along in the form of Ray Brown (Greg Kinnear), and soon the two are planning to move in together. The plan never becomes a reality, however, and a dumped and homeless Jane has nowhere to stay but the apartment of womanizing co-worker Eddie Alden (Jackman). Why she doesn’t instead move in with her best friend Liz (Marisa Tomei) is a mystery that is never once addressed.

After all, if Jane didn’t move in with Eddie, she wouldn’t have such prime fodder to inspire her--and the film’s--centerpiece theory: that men, like all other males in the animal kingdom, are somehow biologically predisposed to abandon their mates. Jane puts her theory into writing by way of an incognito article in the magazine for which Liz works. Her musings about men and cows are hardly groundbreaking, yet they snowball into a zeitgeist sensation. At the same time, however, she gradually loses faith in her finding, for (shock of shocks) she discovers that there is something more--and perhaps genuinely appealingabout a guy like Eddie.

Even without reading the above synopsis, there’s never any doubt where Someone Like You (or, for that matter, all chick flicks of its ilk) is headed. So what such films lack in suspense and originality you hope they compensate in wit and/or charm. In the area of the former, screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler and director Goldwyn have their moments, particularly in some cutesy devices that are used just sparingly enough that they don’t grate: Clerks/Frasier-style intertitle cards; one odd yet effective sequence where children recite definitions of words directly to the camera.

Charm, however, is the film’s strongest suit and what makes this sweet l’il nothing go down with ease. Goldwyn, being an actor himself, naturally coaxes spot-on work from Kinnear, Tomei (again, as in What Women Want, making the most of a secondary role), and Ellen Barkin (who plays the talk show host). But the slam dunk of stars Judd and Jackman is something that goes beyond mere performance. Granted, they hit all the right notes: Judd’s beautiful and vividly expressive face is put to good use, and she is a good sport when it comes to physical comedy; and Jackman has the ruggedly macho thing down cold, but not so much that he comes off as an arrogant oaf. But whenever these two are together, all the formulaic, nonsensical plotting becomes a non-issue; their flirty playfulness and undeniable sexual electricity add up to chemistry combustion. With some actors like them, viewers’ hearts should have no problem defeating their cynical minds.

The Tailor of Panama poster The Tailor of Panama (R) **
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Despite Columbia's marketing campaign and all outward appearances to the contrary, The Tailor of Panama is not a Bond-like spy thriller vehicle with which Pierce Brosnan can buy easy time between "official" 007 projects. In actuality, John Boorman's adaptation of the John LeCarré's 1996 novel is a satire of all that pop culture icon stands for, a send-up of the excesses of the character and the plots he finds himself entangled in. But to leave it at that is to make the film sound like the fun romp it most certainly is not.

On the other hand, clearly having a ball is Brosnan, who obviously relishes the opportunity to send up James Bond and everything he stands for. The similarities between 007 and Tailor's Andy Osnard are clear: both are British secret agents, and both are shameless skirt chasers, for a start. But there is one key difference: while Bond has a conscience and playful charm, Osnard is an unscrupulous, narcissistic jerk whose bon mots have more than just an air of hostility. Despite having a lot of opportunity to do so, Brosnan never sinks to jokey, wink-wink extremes; for the most part, he plays the role straight, and the portrayal is that much more effective for it.

Falling into hammy traps, however, is co-star Geoffrey Rush, who plays Harry Pendel, the ex-con tailor of the title. Osnard, who has just been banished to Panama by his higher-ups, turns to Harry, whose clientele includes the most rich and powerful men in the country, to give him any inside information. And that Pendel does--though his stories are based more on imagination than fact. Osnard and many others take them as the latter, however, though viewers can never quite understand why since Rush's too overtly oily interpretation of Harry is clearly not trustworthy.

At least Brosnan and Rush, as well as straightwoman Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry's unsuspecting wife, are consistent in their approach the material, which is more than can be said about the crew. Boorman and script collaborators LeCarré, and Andrew Davies, never quite decide what the film is a comedy or a thriller. While the leads keep their tongues firmly in cheek, the tone varies from broad farce (Osnard and Harry watching a porno while sitting on a vibrating bed) to grim seriousness (a bloody flashback where a woman is brutally beaten). Only in the final act is any attempt to meld the clashing sensibilities, but it's all for naught since what goes on is neither thrilling nor particularly funny--which effectively sums up the missed opportunity that is The Tailor of Panama.

Tomcats poster Say It Isn't So poster Tomcats (R) no stars
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Say It Isn't So (R) * 1/2
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A man chases down a renegade human testicle as it bounces along a hallway, down a few flights of stairs, and onto a dessert cart, leading to an expectedly disgusting climax. If this is your idea of hilarity, then congratulations, Tomcats should hit the sickening spot. But if you're like most of the human race and it takes more than a gross-out gag to tickle your funny bone, do yourself a favor and steer clear of this monstrosity of a movie.

That right there should be enough for you to make the proper decision regarding seeing Tomcats, but I will humor those actually interest in what the film is "about." The "tomcats" are a group of obnoxious male friends who, after the wedding of one of their own, make a bet over who can stay single the longest. Seven years later, the pot has grown to an astronomical sum--more than enough for Michael (Jerry O'Connell) to pay off a gambling debt. The only person in his way of claiming the prize is the creepy womanizer Kyle (Jake Busey), the only other tomcat that's still unhitched. So Michael enlists Natalie (Shannon Elizabeth), the only woman Kyle claims to have ever loved, to marry Kyle in exchange for half of the money.

Tomcats is a movie that goes out of its way to portray humanity in the worst light. The truly off-putting male characters, who are made all the more insufferable by the shameless mugging of their portrayers. The just-as-offensive female characters, who are mostly sexual predators with such proclivities as bondage or lesbian promiscuity. Even Natalie, a tough cop, is somewhat of a dupe, for she not only fell for Kyle's games those years ago, but she ends up falling for the no better Michael. Elizabeth's uneven performance--in quieter scenes, she has charm, but she couldn't be more unconvincing when putting on a steely policewoman veneer--fails to compensate at all.

Shockingly enough, writer-director Gregory Poirer commits an even greater cinematic sin, and that's the failure to elicit a single laugh. The not-so-funny business is not simply limited to gross-out gags. The "cleaner" gags are also duds: a stupid M:I-2 takeoff; Natalie discussing her love life with her partner while in the midst of a shootout. But make no mistake that Tomcats is all about the raunchier material--the testicle joke, guys sporting visible erections during a wedding, a glimpse of a lactating nipple, or some tired business involving a sperm bank (didn't we just see something like that last year in the--gulp--superior Road Trip?)--and the desire to shock. Tomcats is indeed shocking, but not necessarily because of its would-be "scandalous" material. It's shocking that someone put in good money to make such a pathetic excuse for entertainment.

With the statement "From the guys who brought you There's Something About Mary" playing a prominent role in its ad campaign, Say It Isn't So has the surface appearance of being, like the Farrellys' other work, a lowbrow comedy with actual wit to leaven the bodily function humor. The reality is, the brothers simply serve as producers on this, yet another would-be comedy that mistakes cheap shock value for hilarity.

For a half hour, though, director J.B. Rogers and writers Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow appear on track for something that had promise to be, at the very least, amusingly subversive. Sad sack dog catcher Gilly (Chris Klein), who has been living on his own for as long as he could remember, finally finds someone to be with when he meets Jo (Heather Graham), a hairdresser. That their courtship begins with Jo cutting off Gilly's ear appears to be a hopeful harbinger of twisted laughs to come.

But the arrival of the film's primary hook--the discovery that Gilly could actually be Jo's long-lost brother--also marks when the film stops dead. Theoretically, this should be when the film kicks into high gear, a launch pad for even more outrageous turns, but Rogers and the writers simply content themselves with the incest joke for the remainder of the running time. Even after Gilly finds out the whole thing has been a ploy by Jo's mother (Sally Field, slumming, to say the least) to break up the pair, the audience is (for lack of a better word), the brother/sister gags continue, with an occasional gross-out bit appearing to somewhat break the monotony. Those jokes, while unrelated to the incest theme, don't break the film's other monotony--that of being unfunny.

Klein is a natural for clueless, slack-jawed roles, as seen in Election and American Pie, but his character here has no interesting qualities to counteract the do-gooder blandness; Graham's Jo is also quite boring. The designated "colorful" characters aren't: Dig (Orlando Jones), a legless, Jimi Hendrix-ish pilot who helps Gilly try to win Jo back, elicits faint smiles at best; Field's white trash mama is shrill; and Jo's wealthy, duplicitous fiancé Jack (Eddie Cibrian) barely registers as a character, let alone as the central bad guy.

As the movie lumbers toward its finale (which, I must concede, does feature one of the film's few inspired jokes) with one comic misfire after another, Say It Isn't So proves to be an all too apt title.

#273 March 24, 2001 by Michael Dequina


Blow Dry poster Blow Dry (R) **
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Acclaimed Brit (and one Aussie) actors meet American teen idols in Blow Dry, and with that demographic-spanning cast plus the art-chic labels of Miramax and "from the writer of The Full Monty," it seems surprising that the hairdressing dramedy only received a very limited release and little to no promotional push. As it turns out, it's only fitting--not because the film is a disaster that deserves to be swept under the rug, but that the half-hearted release mirrors the efforts put in by nearly everyone involved.

The exception to this are three of the lead performers. As Shelly, a hairdresser secretly braving a battle with terminal cancer, Natasha Richardson has no trouble creating a delicate yet strong-willed and sympathetic character. Shelly is long estranged from barber Phil (Alan Rickman), but she turns to him for help when she wants to enter the British hairdressing championships, which happen to be taking place in their small town of Keighley. After the usual initial trepidation, he joins up even though it means working with Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), the model for whom Shelly left him all those years ago.

This domestic plotline, also involving Shelly and Phil's son Brian (Josh Hartnett, using a surprisingly believable accent), is played almost exclusively for (mildly affecting) drama, which clashes against the much lighter tone director Paddy Breathnach creates for the rest of the film. There is a young love subplot involving Brian and Christina (Rachael Leigh Cook), the American daughter of Phil's archrival Ray (Bill Nighy), who has plans to rig the context. While those subplots are at least somehow connected to the main story, the same cannot be said of the campy and altogether irritating thread involving a bitchy model (Heidi Klum) who carries on an affair with the brother--and partner--of her hairdresser husband. The only apparent reasons why this plotline is even included is (1) to put a supermodel in the cast; and (2) to throw in some gratuitous nudity to get an R rating.

Even with Oscar-nominated Full Monty writer Simon Beaufoy's name attached, Blow Dry doesn't deliver the same amount of light laughs or match the outrageous hairstyles in the other recent British comedy about a hairdressing competition, The Big Tease. Perhaps this is because Beaufoy's name is attached and not necessarily credited: "based on the screenplay Never Better by Simon Beaufoy" reads the credit, with no mention of the person who did the adaptation duties. The only other time I can recall seeing such a strange writing non-credit is in Caligula, which was according to the credits was simply based on a script by Gore Vidal. Needless to say, Blow Dry doesn't quite "blow" (in every sense) as Bob Guccione's infamous porn epic does, but it most certainly is exceedingly dry.

The Brothers poster The Brothers (R) ***
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With its basic premise of L.A.-based group of African-American male friends bonding in the wake one of their members’ impending nuptials, Gary Hardwick’s The Brothers has been quickly dismissed as a rip of The Wood, Rick Famuyiwa’s sleeper of a couple of summers ago. But if the two films are all that similar in any way (and, for the record, they really aren’t), it’s in their laid-back style and warm heart.

That gentleness occasionally comes in some raunchy wrappings, particularly in the storyline belonging to Derrick West (D.L. Hughley), the only married one of the four “brothers.” Having married young after getting his now-wife Sheila (Tamala Jones) pregnant, Derrick yearns for more excitement in the bedroom, namely one specific sex act that Sheila refuses to perform. Getting sex is no problem for the suave Terry White (Shemar Moore), but he surprises his buddies when he renounces his womanizing ways and announces his engagement. Especially shocked are the two most commitment-phobic of the group, Jackson Smith (Morris Chestnut), whose parents’ split has left him with a fear of marriage; and Brian Palmer (Bill Bellamy), who wants a woman to cater to his needs for a change.

Per the usual case with films that follow more than one character and storyline, some threads work better than others. When it comes to laughs, Derrick’s is the one to beat, fueled by the live-wire hysterics of Hughley. The most affecting is the more earnest Jackson one; he meets and falls photographer Denise Johnson (Gabrielle Union, finally free of token minority roles in teen comedies), whom he feels could be the one. A soap opera-ish secret from her past threatens their future happiness, but the attractive and talented stars and their smoldering chemistry make the melodrama and sometimes predictable turns more than plausible.

The film may be called The Brothers, but the film is also notable for its three-dimensional portrayal of women. In addition to the noble yet flawed Denise, there’s Jackson’s mother Louise (Jenifer Lewis), a rare movie older woman allowed to be vibrant and vivacious without being reduced to the caricature of a lecherous sexual predator. As vividly etched by Hardwick’s script and Lewis’s performance, Louise is a romantic who is willing to take a chance on love regardless of the price, falling back into the arms of her estranged (and Jackson’s father), Fred (Clifton Powell) with the acute awareness that she could be hurt all over again. While their parts are significantly smaller, Jackson’s free-thinking younger sister Cherie (Tatyana Ali) and Jesse Caldwell (Julie Benz), a very blonde, very white self-defense instructor romanced by Brian, make impressions as believable, well-rounded people.

That said, the film is not called The Brothers for nothing, and the lead quartet all make a substantial mark, with one exception: The Young and the Restless star Moore. However, this is less to do with his performance than the thinness of his part. While his character’s wedding engagement sets the film in motion, Moore quickly disappears into the background, resurfacing at certain times to only do what’s typically expected of a soap opera hunk--take off his shirt. On occasion, the charismatic Moore is able to display some of the abilities that earned him an Emmy award, but Hardwick gives him too few of those opportunities.

But all the quibbles with Hardwick’s work (such as the over-the-top, recurring gun-toting bride image that haunts Jackson) become moot by the time The Brothers is over and one is left with warm memories of laughs, loves, and most of all likable characters with whom one wouldn’t mind spending another two hours.

Carman: The Champion poster Carman: The Champion (PG-13) **
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For one of the recent spate of Christian-themed films turning up in multiplexes, Carman: The Champion is shockingly understated in pushing its evangelical agenda. But that and its strange inclusion of the star's name in its title are about the only remotely unusual touches in what is a very standard sports movie/inspirational drama.

Carman, the one-named king of Christian pop music, stars as Orlando Leone, a former cruiserweight boxing champion who turned his attention to taking over his father's ministry after that crushing defeat. His big dream was also his father's--to expand the ministry to include a shelter to help troubled individuals get on their feet. The problem is, Orlando doesn't quite have the finances to make the expansion a reality, even while moonlighting as a hotel security guard.

It is while on duty at that second job that Orlando that an opportunity arises to achieve all his father wanted to do. One night, the current cruiserweight champ Keshon Banks (Jeremy Williams) just happens to take a room at Orlando's hotel and throws a very loud party. A calm verbal attempt to get Keshon to quiet things down ends with Orlando knocking the champ out with a single punch. Given all the ensuing media coverage, it's a no-brainer for one of Keshon's promoters, Freddie (Michael Nouri)--who also happens to be Orlando's brother--to try to get these two into the ring.

Of course, Orlando does eventually decide to partake in that one last bout, but not before director Lee Stanley and the writers (one of whom is Carman himself) manufacture complications to up the dramatic ante. Orlando courts and eventually gets engaged to fetching single mom Allia (Patricia Manterola), whose son (Romeo Fabian) is involved in some shady business with drug dealers. Allia is not too keen on Orlando putting on the gloves again, especially after he comes out of a beating at the hands of said drug dealers a bit worse for wear.

The boxing sequences are competently staged and choreographed, and the presence of pay-per-view pugilism announcing team of Steve Albert and Bill Boggs adds to the authenticity. Such touches are nice if ultimately moot, for the outcome is never in doubt. Then again, the outcome and things like Carman's generally stiff acting are all secondary to the film's pretty well-embedded spiritual message, which is, in a nutshell, "keep the faith." Given how commonplace that sentiment already is in secular sports films, Carman: The Champion preaches only to the converted, for there is little, if anything, of interest to general moviegoing audiences.

The Dish poster The Dish (R) ***
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The first Apollo moon landing in 1969 is commonly regarded as a triumph of the United States, but few know that Australia played an integral role in beaming those historic images of man's first steps on the moon back to every corner of earth. Rob Sitch's The Dish not only sheds much-needed light on this oft-forgotten angle to this landmark event, but tells the story in a funny and genuinely moving package.

Given that Sitch's last film was the underseen (at least in the States) The Castle, which followed a man's quest to save his airport runway-side home from demolition, it would be expected that The Dish would be in that same quirky vein of an outmatched little guy taking on the system. But the technicians manning the sheep paddock-based satellite dish responsible for relaying the TV images from the moon are all a capable bunch. This is not to say that these people--as well as other citizens we meet in the small Aussie town of Parkes--are not without distinctively colorful personalities, notably Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), the widowed leader of the whole operation; and token NASA rep Al Burnett, played by Patrick Warburton with his usual wry, dry wit.

Even the most competent professionals aren't immune to mistakes, and the film's key crisis arises when the crew somehow manages to lose contact with the Apollo XI spacecraft. In fact, it's the only real bit of conflict in the entire film. There are petty head-butts along the way, but for the most part everything feels smoothed over and sanitized, Sitch and company working overtime to play nice.

While the gentle touch makes for a pleasant if not exactly compelling viewing as The Dish progresses, it's impossible to imagine the climax having quite the same quietly profound emotional impact had the film not established its clear, pure heart. The Dish makes no bones about being a "feel-good movie," and there's no denying that the film certainly fulfills that goal.

Enemy at the Gates poster Enemy at the Gates (R) ** 1/2
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With its epic backdrop, story of larger-than-life courage under fire, shamelessly Schindler's List-ripping score (by Oscar winner James Horner), and award-anointed cast (Academy Award nominees Jude Law and Ed Harris as well as Joseph Fiennes, star of the Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love), Jean-Jacques Annaud's fact-based WWII drama Enemy at the Gates practically screams "Oscar vehicle"--a thought further reinforced by the blatant award-grabbing tone of its trailer. Why then, is this film being released in the dead of spring instead of its originally intended late December berth? Paramount's official reason was that the film was not ready, a comment that actually speaks much truth about the finished product itself: it certainly looks the part of an important film, but inside it's not prepared to follow through on its grand ambitions.

The irony of Enemy at the Gates is that if Annaud and writing collaborator Alain Godard scaled down those ambitions and narrowed their focus, the film would have been better for it. At its core is an interesting and sometimes suspenseful cat-and-mouse between military sharpshooters on opposing sides. On the heroic end is Vassili Zaitsev (Law, in full charismatic movie star mode), a sniper for the Soviet Army who has become a symbol of hope for his country's people, thanks to press exploits carefully orchestrated by his best friend, political officer Danilov (Fiennes). Called on to end Vassili's unmatched hit streak against the Nazis is Major Konig (Harris), no less than the best marksman in Germany. Their battle of bullets and, above all, brains fuel what are the film's best scenes, tense showdowns where making the slightest wrong move could mean a bullet in the head.

Cerebral confrontations, however, do not make for a mass appeal film, so Annaud and Godard shoehorn in a romantic subplot--an understandable move, but not a completely forgivable one when the execution is as sloppy and uninvolving as it is here. Tania (Rachel Weisz), a German-speaking Russian Jew who prefers duty on the front lines to a safer desk position, would have been a fairly innocuous token love interest for Vassili if the script didn't strain so hard to craft a triangle between them and Danilov. Perhaps this was done to give the barely-used yet top-billed Fiennes his contract-dictated amount of screen time, but surely that could have been accomplished without such a distracting, manufactured plot conflict.

More artificiality comes in the accents--or, rather, lack thereof. Law, Fiennes, Weisz, and everyone playing a Russian character speaks in a British accent, even Yank actor Ron Perlman. On the other side, Konig bears Harris' natural American accent, which would suggest that some strange type of coding as at work: Russian = British, German = American. But that is obviously not the case when Konig's most prominent comrade speaks in Brit-inflected tones as well.

Strangely enough, however, the greatest virtue of Enemy at the Gates is the air of authenticity in its depiction of the war front. The battle scenes are impressive, blowing up the massive and massively detailed sets with maximum firepower (even if the spirit of Saving Private Ryan is obviously conjured up in the process), and Annaud doesn't shy away from the grit of the experience: the dirt and grime are as plentiful as the blood that spurts out from every freshly pierced skull. But the film never penetrates like those many bullets do, and what's remembered in the end are just some striking images and sequences and just about none of the narrative that came with them.

Exit Wounds poster Exit Wounds (R) **
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After a four-year absence from the big screen, once-popular action star Steven Seagal is back with Exit Wounds, and some things are different: the trademark ponytail is gone, as are the extra pounds that he had gathered along the waistline over the years. But, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things say the same--the year may be 2001, but the film is the same ol' standard-issue Seagal vehicle that could have easily come from his early '90s heyday.

The opening sequence immediately dashes any hope that Seagal has reinvented his screen persona to keep up with the times. Seagal's first feat as cop Orin Boyd is staging a daring one-man rescue of the Vice President (!)--leaving little doubt that this is still the same invulnerable, invincible Seagal of all his previous films. That schtick was already getting old when he made his biggest commercial and (for lack of a better term) artistic breakthrough in 1992's Under Siege, and while a lot of time has passed since the stock Seagal character last graced the screen, the heart and mind have grown even less fond.

Seagal also hasn't brushed up on acting during his hiatus; he still comes off as too cool and aloof to be bothered to bring any affect or inflection to his voice. In a wise move, director Andrzej Bartkowiak has surrounded him with charismatic and capable actors able to give this tired tale of police corruption (all you need to know: some cops are involved in drug dealing, it's up to Boyd to stop them) some juice. Rapper DMX proves his solid debut in 1999's Belly was no fluke as he effortlessly holds the screen and shows unexpected vulnerability as the streetwise and wealthy Latrell Walker, who may or may not have some shady connections. Isaiah Washington, who appeared in Bartkowiak's Romeo Must Die along with DMX, makes an impression as Boyd's idealistic partner; so does Michael Jai White as a fellow officer. Jill Hennessy exudes strength and sexiness as the precinct captain.

But in a counteractive move made perhaps due to Seagal's titanic ego, none of these co-stars are given a whole lot to work with. Washington is especially wasted in the flat sidekick role; Hennessy has to deal with some unlikely and embarrassing romantic overtones with Seagal; and though his role is integral to the plot, White's screen time is limited. DMX is more or less the co-lead, but no meat is given to his character until well into the second half of the film. Even so, all of these stars still manage to outshine Seagal.

To his credit, though, Seagal does do a decent job in the admittedly engaging action set pieces cooked up by Bartkowiak--not a surprise, since it's the fighting that made him a star in the first place. But almost as shocking as how old Seagal looks is how mobile he is in this film. In recent projects he had been some large immovable object that unconvincingly had all the bad guys directly going to him for a beating; here, he's kicking people and doing actual martial arts moves, just like in the old days.

Unfortunately, though, just about everything about Exit Wounds comes from those old days--most prominently, how Seagal's character is impervious to pain or doubt; never is there the slightest hint that the bad guys could be his match. This doesn't necessarily mean that Exit Wounds is a bad movie. Sometimes it's funny (intentionally so) due to some effective comic relief provided by Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold; the action scenes are smoothly executed; and the film is never less than watchable. It's just that the film is so unremittingly formula and, hence, ultimately forgettable.

See Spot Run poster See Spot Run (PG) no stars
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See Spot run. See David Arquette once again make a complete ass of himself. See your life inch 90 minutes closer to death--which, come to think of it, is preferable alternative to sitting through this cinematic exercise in torture.

The “Spot” of the title is no ordinary dog. In fact, his name isn’t really Spot--it’s Agent 11, the top dog (yes, bad pun intended) in the FBI’s K-9 unit. After a mob boss (Paul Sorvino, who either got a nice paycheck or has a career in deeper trouble than anyone could have imagined) whom Agent 11 humiliated takes a contract out on the mutt, he’s sent to a remote protective refuge in Alaska. Alas, something goes wrong and Agent 11 somehow ends up in the custody of loser mailman Gordon (Arquette), who is already caring for neighbor Stephanie’s (Leslie Bibb) 6-year-old son (Angus T. Jones). The dog-loving moppet quickly grows attached to the newly-christened “Spot” (a curious name, for the bulldog’s coat has none to speak of), which leads to danger when the reliably bumbling bad guys slowly but surely close in on their prey.

Director John Whitesell and his team of five (!) writers have apparently never come across a broad, obvious gag they didn’t like. Gordon repeatedly falls into a pile of fresh dog doo. Stephanie gets splashed with mud. A zebra passes gas. Spot bites a man’s crotch. And so on. With talent such as Sorvino and Michael Clarke Duncan (as Agent 11’s obsessively devoted partner/trainer) aboard, one would think the filmmakers would at least try to bring some slight whiff of intelligence or innovation to the proceedings. But they keep their aim lower than low, and the film accordingly lumbers along from tired joke to tired joke.

Arquette’s amped-up performance could be considered an exception to the general malaise surrounding See Spot Run, but such over-the-top hysterics are old hat for anyone who’s seen one of his AT&T commercials, let alone one of his movies--further reinforcing the feeling that you’ve seen it all before, and in other bad forms of entertainment. So why bother suffering through any of it again?


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