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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 87

#283 - 286
June 26, 2001 - July 16, 2001


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

S U B S C R I B E

The Movie Report / Film Flam Flummox

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#286 July 16, 2001

M O V I E S

Legally Blonde poster Legally Blonde (PG-13) ***
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With its premise of a pampered, ditzy girly-girl somehow making her way into Harvard Law, Legally Blonde has been dismissed as "Clueless goes to law school." Actually, the film is more than that.

It's Clueless meets Felicity goes to law school.

In all seriousness, though, Legally Blonde is able to transcend its unpromising origins due to two words: Reese Witherspoon. While the film goes through its unsurprising paces from start to finish, Witherspoon keeps the proceedings so perkily likable that one will be too busy smiling to complain.

Director Robert Luketic isn't nearly as ambitious as Alexander Payne, who used Witherspoon to such dazzling comic effect in her best film, Election; whereas Payne mined her perkiness for subtly sinister satire, Luketic simply uses it for the easy lightweight laugh. That's just as well, for screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith clearly aim low. Witherspoon's Elle Woods is a very rich, very blonde, very Clueless sorority girl about to graduate with a degree in fashion marketing. When her ambitious beau Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) dumps her instead of popping the question before heading off to Harvard Law, Elle makes like the WB's Felicity Porter and works her butt off to gain entrance to the same school. Needless to say, flamboyant Elle is like the proverbial fish out of water in the stuffy Ivy Leagues, but don't underestimate the power of blond ambition.

Even with such modest goals, Luketic and the writers don't quite hit every mark. The climax brings to mind Marisa Tomei's classic testimony in My Cousin Vinny but quite pales in comparison since Legally Blonde's take is rather abrupt, not to mention the film's central trial plot leaves a lot to be desired. But hitting every required mark and many in-between is Witherspoon. Not only is she a superb verbal and physical comedienne with precise timing, she pulls off the critical task of making Elle ditzy in personality, not in nature. When Elle inevitably starts to prove her naysayers wrong, it's completely believable--even if the surrounding circumstances are less so.

Legally Blonde may get a bit heavy-handed and obvious in its conveying its trite "Believe in yourself" and "Don't judge a book by its cover" morals, but Witherspoon's finesse with the funny makes everything else go down fairly easily.


The Score poster The Score (R) ***
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Frank Oz, well-known for directing comedies such as most recent film, Bowfinger; and even better known as the man pulling the strings behind Yoda and Miss Piggy, is perhaps the last person one would expect to breathe some renewed life into the classic heist picture. Yet that's exactly what he and a superb cast do in the sleek entertainment that is The Score.

"Renew" seems to have been the key idea behind The Score, particularly in its story. The basic plot is something that has been seen many times before. Montreal-based career thief Nick (Robert DeNiro) wants out of the criminal life to settle down with his flight attendant girlfriend Diane (Angela Bassett). First, though, Nick agrees to one last heist at the urging of longtime associate Max (Marlon Brando)--the theft of a priceless French scepter held in a customs house. Two wild cards are put into play: one, said customs house is in Montreal, thus violating Nick's rule of not doing local jobs; and two, he must work with a young upstart named Jack (Edward Norton), who has already studied the inner workings of the building under the guise of a mentally challenged janitor.

Instead of trying to add new wrinkles to the time-worn recipe, Oz strips the genre down to its bare core. The plot is as simple as it sounds, and the twists in the story occur according to readily apparent schedule. Oz doesn't stop there, however. The film's R rating comes exclusively through language, for he doesn't allow himself the easy out of titillating or distracting the audience with gratuitous violence or sex. Hence it's that much more dependent on the cast to engage the viewer, and everyone lives up to their stellar reputations. A noticeably galvanized Brando appears to have a ball sharing scenes with DeNiro (perhaps because, if the stories are to be believed, that DeNiro himself directed them, not Oz, with whom Brando clashed), and the electricity emanates from the screen. Norton not so surprisingly keeps up with his elders with extraordinary ease. His live wire performance plays well against DeNiro's cool calm, making for an intriguingly volatile chemistry. Of the core cast, Bassett fares the least well--if only because her role is never more than the token love interest.

The no-frills mindset Oz brings to The Score puts the most pressure on himself when it comes time for the heist to take place. The pattern of obstacles thrown in Nick and Jack's way are obviously as meticulously calculated as the heist plans the pair map out, but Oz is able to keep the tension taut by sticking to the minimalist approach. There aren't any overwrought score cues or out-of-nowhere physical confrontations to artificially manufacture suspense; Oz is wise enough to know that a simple gesture such as having a stray leg briefly creep into the picture of a security monitor is enough to generate the real deal.

Touches like those and the film's attention to pure performance, both in front of and behind the camera, give The Score a distinctly old-fashioned feel--and in a season of CG effects and thespians, such embracing of the basics is not only refreshing but feels downright innovative.


In Brief

Final Fantasy poster Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (PG-13) **
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Much has been said about this video game-inspired sci-fi adventure's near-photo-realistic computer animation, and indeed the flesh-and-blood-by-way-of-CG characters look closer to true life than they never had before. That said, the technology still has a long way to go toward perfection; a number of characters look better than others, with Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na), Final Fantasy's much-hyped heroine, actually actually being one of the less polished specimens.

But all the photo-realism can only go so far when so little thought has gone into the story the "synthespians" are acting out. The Spirits Within, with its band of futuristic military types doing battle with large alien phantoms that have more or less taken over the earth, begins as an Aliens/Alien3 rip, which in itself isn't such a bad thing; as a sci-fi shoot-'em-up, I've seen a lot worse. The film becomes problematic--and intensely dull--when the Atlantis-level mystical and sub-Princess Mononoke eco-consciousness take over about midway. Any interest the mysteries of story may have held gradually fades away with the realization that no satisfying explanations will be offered (and, indeed, they never come). After they eye candy "wow" factor wears off, the only vague interest in this lavish film comes in the strangely fascinating disconnect in the character of Aki's leading man Gray Edwards: he's the spitting image of Ben Affleck, but from his mouth emerges the voice of Alec Baldwin. If that's the only amusement to be had for most of the run time, you know that the film must be a snooze.


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#285 July 8, 2001

M O V I E S

Scary Movie 2 poster Scary Movie 2 (R) no stars
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"No mercy. No shame. No sequel." If only those two groups of brothers--Wayans and Weinstein--had heeded the last part of that tagline for the original Scary Movie. But since that tiresome wallow in bodily fluids was the shock blockbuster of last summer, here now is, indeed, the sequel--even though the first film more than drained the well of teen slasher movies to lampoon.

So what's left for Scary Movie 2 make fun of? That the first film's primary target/model was Scream and that this one's is Jan DeBont's justly maligned remake of The Haunting says everything about Scary Movie 2's creative bankruptcy. The story--which simply has the characters from the first film stay in a haunted house--is supposed to get its (for lack of a better term) "inspiration" from thrillers of a supernatural bent such as The Haunting, What Lies Beneath, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist. But in this film more than the last, director Keenen Ivory Wayans and the writing crew headed by stars Shawn and Marlon Wayans depend on tangents based on non-genre films and other pop culture items of the moment. That wouldn't be a problem if the bits actually paid off, but all the gags in the film either start well then sputter at the end (e.g. the opening Exorcist-inspired sequence, which for all its eventual shortcomings is still the most effective in the film; an overlong takeoff on a Nike commercial) or are dead on arrival (a forced Weakest Link reference).

But Scary Movie 2 fails less because of its lack of laughs than its lack of shocks. Scary Movie was by no means a good film nor a particularly hilarious one (though, admittedly, it had its moments); the only reason I can come up with for its wild popularity was the startling and unexpected extremes of its vulgarity. For this sequel, audiences are fully expecting the gratuitous semen jokes and cartoonish raunch, thus whatever novelty the crassness had the first time around is severely diminished.

Not diminished, however, is the appeal of returning lead Anna Faris. Her Cindy Campbell is now a stand-in for Lili Taylor's rather dour role in The Haunting, and as such Faris has considerably fewer chances to flash her natural comedic instincts; nonetheless, she makes the most of what little is given her. Someone cast her in a real movie, please--not a slapdash, rushed hack job like Scary Movie 2.


In Brief

The Closet poster The Closet (Le Placard) (R) * 1/2
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If one didn't know any better, one would think that French farceur Francis Veber's latest comedy as a just-unearthed relic from the '80s, given how it treats homosexuality as some sort of cutesy novelty. But, alas, a 2000 copyright is on this exceedingly silly tale about Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), an accountant who prevents his impending firing by pretending to be gay. After all, the company--as it happens, a condom company (ha ha ha)--would look bad if they fired a homosexual, so Pignon stays on the workforce as his co-workers react to this orientation revelation in would-be comical ways. Auteuil is a good sport, and the film's few light chuckles come mostly from his facial expressions. But he provides the only subtlety in a film that, in line with French farce, is too broad by half in performance (witness Gerard Depardieu's turn as a homophobic co-worker of Pignon) and general execution. The most I can grant Le Placard is that it at least preaches tolerance, but it asks the viewer to tolerate too much tiresome antics to get its obvious message across.


Kiss of the Dragon poster Kiss of the Dragon (R) ***
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A Chinese government agent (Jet Li) on assignment in Paris gets framed for murder by a corrupt French police official (Tcheky Karyo), and an American hooker (Bridget Fonda) with a heart of gold is the only person who can help him clear his name. So the plot isn't exactly original, and screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's dependence on coincidence and chance to progress the plot is enough to give even Tom Tykwer pause. But it doesn't matter when Li delivers thrills as no one else can in the film's many fight scenes--the best showcase for his martial arts ability since Fist of Legend. As in that 1994 film, there are no wires to lift him along; the amazing athletic displays here are all Li, and that makes the action scenes that much more exhilarating. Director Chris Nahon is sometimes too eager with the editing, but no amount of cutting can rob Li's spectacular skills of their raw power to excite, nor can the extreme bloodshed rob his moves of their beauty and grace. Similarly, the formulaic story cannot weigh down the high-flying, visceral excitement that the film offers in generous doses.


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#284 July 5, 2001

M O V I E S

AI poster AI Artificial Intelligence (PG-13) ***
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"His love is real. But he is not." It's one of the corniest taglines in recent memory, but it also well sums up the main debate that swirls around AI Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg's fruition of the late Stanley Kubrick's long-gestating project based on the Brian Aldiss short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long." Is it possible to empathize with a protagonist who is a machine specifically programmed to feel that emotion? Consequently, is his emotion truly "real"?

These are indeed valid and troubling questions as one watch AI, but as with a number of films fundamentally flawed in design, execution more than smooths over most of the rough spots--namely Haley Joel Osment's extraordinary lead turn as David, the "he" of the syrupy tagline. In this future world where robots routinely coexist with humans in their households and in society in general, David stands apart from all the other "mecha": he is the first to be programmed with the ability to love. When Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor), whose terminally ill son with her husband Henry (Sam Robards) lies cryogenically frozen in a hospital, speaks the code words that activate David's emotional circuitry, there's no turning back. David will always love Monica and crave her love in return forever--long after she may become tired of him, long after whenever she dies.

Thus raises that question: how to sympathize with David when his feelings are as synthetic as the rest of him, turned on with the flip of a figurative switch? Just like any machine programmed to do a job, David is completely focused on his: loving his "mother" no matter what, never once questioning this pursuit of her reciprocal love. Such singleminded obsession has a distancing effect by design, but any detachment is bridged by Osment. Look no further than the emotionally brutal scene where David and Monica part; only a true heart of ice won't be affected by Osment's wrenching wails for Monica. But the true genius of his work are its fine subtleties: the slight but undeniable differences between pre- and post-"activation" David; the distinctly mechanical mobility of his body that belies the deep well of feeling in his eyes, which in turn belies the potential for danger that can be sensed from within him.

So when AI moves away from the placid confines of the suburban Swinton home and into the wild and woolly world of such locales as the neon-drenched, hedonistic urban center known as Rouge City or--in the film's most stunning sight--a Manhattan that is all but completely submerged in water, Osment's David remains a captivating companion on an increasingly strange and surreal journey. Along the way David and his loyal "supertoy" sidekick Teddy (a real marvel of top-notch puppetry, CGI, and voiceover work) hook up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot whose name says all one needs to know about his purpose in the world. This character, played with an appropriately oily sexuality by Law, is a bawdy original, but he's mostly around just to provide David with a hand to hold.

Gigolo Joe personifies ("mechanifies"?) the most fascinating and frustrating quality of AI: the tension between the opposing sensibilities of Spielberg and Kubrick. At times the mixing and clashing works, as in the first act, where Spielberg apes Kubrick with alarming accuracy in the chilly, clinical tone and sterile environments; and it's hard to imagine the famously cynical Kubrick being able to pull off the wallop that a proven button-pusher like Spielberg brings to the aforementioned David/Monica scene. But as the film progresses, the odd coupling becomes more problematic. Gigolo Joe and Rouge City suggest a Kubrickian naughty streak, but they've been neutered by Spielberg, in the end rendered less edgy than they could (and should) have been. And for all the genuinely powerful moments Spielberg is able to wring, his weakness for easy sentimentality peeks through at the wrong moments--in an otherwise harrowing sequence set at a "Flesh Fair" where mecha are violently destroyed for the entertainment of "orga" (humans);and especially in the film's most debated-about section, the final 30 minutes. For some it's a lovely and deeply touching coda; for others it's Spielberg's desperately heavyhanded and completely gratuitous final act of emotional extortion. I fall under the latter camp, for all the schmaltz--however expertly acted by Osment--comes after what would've been a far more poetic and appropriate conclusion.

The ending may leave a sour aftertaste, but there's no discounting--or forgetting--the sights and sounds that Spielberg and the spirit o' Stanley bring to the screen along the way. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, and effects crews at the Stan Winston Studio and ILM out do themselves in making these stunning imaginings of the future a cinematic reality. But the most astounding effect of all is not mecha, but orga: Osment's transcendent performance. His character may not be real, and neither may his character's love, but his talent most certainly is.


crazy/beautiful poster crazy/beautiful (PG-13) ***
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From the first moment we see her raggedly shorn locks, punky wardrobe, and sense the carefree, brazenly sexual attitude behind it all, in crazy/beautiful it's clear that Kirsten Dunst is no longer the little girl who first captured attention with her Golden Globe-nominated turn in 1994's Interview with the Vampire. However, the most striking instance of growing up on display in John Stockwell's film is that of the contemporary teen film.

Whereas most youth-aimed films are really about pushing a soundtrack and a "hot" young star's image as they tell another tired tale revolving around who gets to go to the big dance with whom, Stockwell actually attempts to tell a character-driven story in crazy/beautiful. Granted, this story isn't exactly anything new. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's script centers around that old standby, a romance between two opposites. On one end is Carlos Nuņez (Jay Hernandez), a bright student from a rough L.A. neighborhood who takes a two-hour bus trip in each direction every day to attend the posh Pacific High. On the other is Nicole Oakley (Dunst), who lives in a large Pacific Palisades home with her Congressman father (Bruce Davison) and his cold new wife (Lucinda Jenney). The twist here is that the privileged white girl is the one with delinquent tendencies and substance abuse problems, and the ethnic guy from what would typically be "the wrong side of the tracks" is the ambitious and responsible type.

Naturally, a deep emotional trauma is at the root of Nicole's frequent misbehavior, and through her developing relationship with Carlos (whom she meets cute on the beach as she does community service for a DUI charge) she is forced to face her personal demons. Along the way, Carlos himself also grows and develops into a more mature and independent person. All of this could easily be the fodder for an afterschool special, but Stockwell makes the material big screen-worthy by underplaying the melodrama. Unlike most teen films, the pitch is a lot more subdued and subtle, lending the picture a greater sense of reality.

But it's hard to imagine Stockwell being able to create that air of authenticity without his stars. While her looks have changed with age, Dunst's acting ability hasn't. She once again demonstrates her versatility and depth with her nuanced portrayal of Nicole. Yes, the character is yet another one of those bad girls with a heart of gold, but where most actresses (let alone ones in her age range) can only nail one side or the other, Dunst is not only believable when either vixenish or vulnerable, she convinces that these are sides of the same person. Charismatic newcomer Hernandez is a find, managing to exude Carlos' goodness without being a bore. The pair's likability as individuals and their honest and unadorned chemistry while together effortlessly generate a rooting interest in their coupledom.

Given the formulaic through-line of its story right down to the neatly cathartic resolution, crazy/beautiful could certainly have used more of the first half of its title. But in a climate where teen-targeted entertainment is mostly concerned with attitude, the fact that this simple story manages to generate a number of moments falling under the latter quality alone makes the film worthwhile.


Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back poster Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (R) *** 1/2 interviews & more
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More than other filmmaker in recent memory, writer-director Kevin Smith is unusually receptive and accessible to his rabid (and consistently growing) fanbase. The discussion board on his official website is legendary for the amount of interaction he has with fans; and public appearances and autograph signings are far from rare occurrences, with the latter usually extending hours beyond their allotted time blocks in order to accommodate every last person in line. But even Smith has outdone himself in terms of giving back to his public with the wild comic romp Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which behind its outrageous surface is an affectionate valentine to those who have loyally followed him and his work over the years.

So for this film more than any of his others, it certainly is beneficial (though just as certainly not necessary) to walk in with some prior knowledge of Smith's "View Askew-niverse," which officially closes with Strike Back. The title characters, foulmouthed drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) and his laconic "hetero lifemate" Silent Bob (Smith), are the Askew-niverse's most beloved figures, having appeared in all of Smith's previous films in capacities small (Clerks, Chasing Amy) and larger (Mallrats, Dogma). Strike Back gives the pair their long-due turn on center stage, and in an added bonus for the fandom, resurfacing especially for this occasion are other popular characters from those four films. Needless to say, only those with some Smith oeuvre familiarity will fully appreciate the appearances of people such as Clerks' Dante and Randal (respectively played by Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson), who to the VA-virgin eye would seem to be just bit players.

The significance of Amy's Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, who also turns in an appearance as the best thing about Mallrats, Brodie Bruce), however, won't be lost on any newcomers, for they nudge Jay and Silent Bob--the movie and the characters--into action. Bluntman and Chronic, the superhero comic book Holden and Banky modeled in the likeness of Jay and Bob, is about to be adapted into a film without our dynamic duo's permission, and so they set off on a cross-country trip from New Jersey to Hollywood to stop the production. Obviously, the more serious overtones of Smith's last two efforts, Amy and Dogma, are nowhere to be found in Strike Back, and don't come in looking for some innovations in plotting, either; the film is simply a road/chase comedy that wants nothing more than to make the audience laugh.

And are there ever laughs to be had in Strike Back. Indeed, Smith's famous (infamous?) predilection for dick and fart jokes is very much in evidence (though, thankfully, there's nothing here approaching the scatological nadir of Dogma's Golgothan), yet while he may have gained a fair amount of notoriety for that lowbrow brand of humor, his greatest strength has always been the rapier wit of his dialogue, whenever raunchy or not. On the receiving end of many of the film's best verbal barbs is the glitzy world of Tinseltown moviemaking. No one is shielded from the hysterical satirical onslaught: not Internet gossip sites; not Affleck, who gamely pulls double duty as Holden and himself; not the film's distributor, Miramax; not even Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the View Askew canon itself, and as such the fourth wall is not only broken, but flat out bulldozed.

Lest the film sound extremely insular with all its in-jokes and Hollywood insider humor, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back also offers a number of broader-appeal delights, particularly in the performance department. That Mewes and Smith have their act down by now is no surprise; Mewes invests his usual gusto into every last one of Jay's four-letter words and vulgar gestures, which are, as always, countered with expert reaction takes by Smith. What is surprising, though, is Shannon Elizabeth's beguiling turn as the sweet Justice, who falls for Jay as she and her more sour friends Sissy (Eliza Dushku), Chrissy (Ali Larter), and Missy (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's wife) spend time on the road with him and Bob. Other colorful characters pop up throughout the course of the film, the standouts being Will Ferrell's clueless Federal Wildlife Marshal Willenholly and Chaka (Chris Rock), a militant African-American film director; and a multitude of stars recognizable to all audiences turn up in some enjoyable cameos.

The polished and at times--brace yourselves--slick visuals of Strike Back, undoubtedly due in large part to cinematographer Jamie Anderson, will be downright shocking to Smith fans and especially to his detractors, who will find themselves with one less thing to knock him on. I'm sure they will come up with plenty of compensatory ammunition in the content of the film--or rather lack thereof. With its shameless (and not always successful) riffs on other movies, frequent references to his own previous work, and slant toward broad antics in general, even Smith has called Strike Back "a step backward" in his progression as a filmmaker. To hell with any perceived requirements for "artistic growth," I say, if stagnation and regression are done in the name of offering a good time at the movies--and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is nothing less than a rollicking blast.


In Brief

Atlantis poster Atlantis: The Lost Empire (PG) **
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The "imagineers" at Disney certainly deserve credit for broadening the Mouse House's animation horizons both literally (using a 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio for the first time since Sleeping Beauty) and figuratively (telling a fairly straightfaced adventure story) with their latest traditionally animated feature. But those are the only notes of freshness in evidence in this stunningly flat effort from Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the directing team responsible for Disney's most memorable films of the past decade. While their Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame felt warm and genuine, Atlantis feels cold and calculated. Requisite name star Michael J. Fox voices Milo Thatch, a bookworm who joins an oh-so-politically-correct racially diverse crew on an underwater expedition to find the legendary sunken continent of the title. Needless to say, they do find it --and a still-thriving civilization that's powered through some sort of New Agey-gobbledygook that the expedition's leader/film's perfunctory villain, Commander Rourke (James Garner), wants to seize for financial gain. It wouldn't be Disney without a dollop of romance, so Milo is enchanted by the charms of Atlantean Princess Kida (Cree Summer), and this spitfire somehow grows fond for that boring geekboy.

The drawing card (no pun intended) of Atlantis is not its story or characters, but rather the art and animation, and the work done by the other animators is up to the clean and fluid Mouse standards. The film's action scenes are also competently done (if not exactly up to those in last summer's unfairly maligned sci-fi adventure from Fox, Titan A.E.). Pretty pictures, however, are just that when there's nothing that engages on a deeper level, whether it be the emotions or intellect--quite a surprise coming from the guys who were able to make the audience feel the anguish of a beast and a hunchback so intimately.


Cats & Dogs poster Cats & Dogs (PG) **
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"Who will you root for?" asks the poster for this adventure that puts a high-tech spin on the age old war between the world's favorite animal companions. Those hoping for the balanced take such a tagline implies--and those who love cats--are certain to be dismayed by Lawrence Guterman's film, which grafts a standard good vs. evil angle onto this long-standing debate. In other words, Guterman and writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra take sides: canines are indeed man's best friend, upstanding sorts doing battle against the megalomaniacal felines who hope to rid the world of their archrivals and ultimately enslave humanity. Now, this being primarily a film for children, I suppose the film had to operate with brad strokes, but even little kids will be irked by the distinctly anti-cat tone.

That said, kids will certainly be amused by the visuals and action that paint dogs and cats as leading clandestine lives as secret agents, and for a while adults will have fun--mostly thanks to Sean Hayes' energetic voiceover work for the baddest (in every sense) cat of them all, Mr. Tinkles. But the "spy pets" idea and all the effects work that comes with it loses its novelty for grown-ups sooner than later--which is still more than can be said for the instantly tiresome moments of forced "drama" involving the central puppy Lou's (voiced by Tobey Maguire) owner Scott (Alexander Pollock) and his neglectful scientist father (Jeff Goldblum). Chalk up Cats & Dogs as yet another so-called "family film" that will only hold some appeal for the youngest segment of the household--granted they're dog lovers, of course.


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#283 June 26, 2001

M O V I E S

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider poster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (PG-13) * 1/2
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On paper, it looked like Hollywood finally figured out how to make a live action film out of a video game. A hot Oscar-winning star (Angelina Jolie) and a name-brand (if not exactly acclaimed) action director (Simon West) would join forces to bring to the screen an interactive character (adventurous archeologist Lara Croft of the "Tomb Raider" series) with real potential for a life beyond player-controlled pixels. Despite the promise for being something more, the much-hyped Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ends up playing exactly like a video game committed to film--and, no, that's not a compliment.

Compliments are due Jolie, who ably fills out Lara's figure in every way. Not only does she amazingly resemble her computerized counterpart and do a spot-on British accent, the role offers her an ideal vehicle to channel her off-screen "wild child" persona. While Lara may be born a "lady" of privilege, she doesn't act the part. She's less at home all gussied up in fancy dresses in her large country mansion than she is sporting form-fitting hotpants and tank tops while facing various dangers in booby-trapped (no pun intended) caves. Jolie clearly enjoys the character and shows great potential as a badass action star. But there's nothing to the Lara character beyond Jolie and the ready-made personality she brings to the part. Even Lara's key vulnerability--her desire to see her long-dead father again--is intrinsically tied to Jolie: Lord Croft is played by none other than Jon Voight, Jolie's own father.

So the movie Lara is not much different from the empty digital shell that stars in the video game, and the film's basic plot (by West, five other credited hands, and who knows how many others) reads like the outline for a game scenario. Lara has to prevent the evil Illuminati from rejoining the two halves of a legendary triangular idol that grants its possessor the ability to control time. Of course, the way to stop them is to collect the pieces herself first, so we get a series of glorified video game stages masquerading as action sequences. Lara's mansion is invaded, and she has to dispose of the bad guys while tied to bungee cords. In the central sequence set in a cave in Cambodia, Lara must complete a number of tasks to collect the elusive first piece: turn a key, swing on a log to reach an urn, do away with all the warrior statues that come to life with the piercing of the urn, then battle the cave's biggest statue, which must be defeated in order to advance to the next level--er, scene.

The mechanical feel of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider would have been easier to swallow if the filler between action scenes were the slightest bit tolerable. Whenever the mayhem dies down, the film commits a bigger crime than being boring--it tries to be funny. Not a single would-be comic touch elicits so much as a grin: not the one-note "eccentric" side characters like Lara's stuffy butler (Christopher Barrie) or her nerdy gadget designer (Noah Taylor); not feeble culture-clash scenes such as Lara asking a monk if he knows where to find a phone. (The only time the audience laughed was when it was tricked into thinking they were going to be treated to a second gratuitous Lara shower scene late in the film; alas, the camera panned down from the shower head to reveal the face of her rival archeologist Alex, played by Daniel Craig.)

It's interesting to note that the only thrills to be found in the PG-13 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider are of the prurient kind: the previously alluded-to Lara shower scene, which bares a bit more skin than expected; and a slo-mo Lara running scene that's downright Baywatch-worthy. Nearly $100 million was spent to make things blow up and fill the screen with loads of fancy special effects, but all anyone talked about at length when walking out of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is something anyone can figure out after shelling out a couple of bucks on a video rental of Gia (which offers real dramatic substance in addition to ample nudity): Angelina Jolie is one hot babe.


In Brief

Dr. Dolittle 2 poster Dr. Dolittle 2 (PG) **
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When watching an Eddie Murphy film, do you want to see him play straight man to a bunch of animals? Didn't think so. Yet here he is once again, as in 1998's equally uninspired Doctor Dolittle (gotta love that inconsistent titling), a top-billed bystander where the real stars are the talking (or, rather, wisecracking) critters--this time around, a circus bear (voiced by Steve Zahn) whom the good vet must get to mate with one (Lisa Kudrow) from the wild. Zahn and Kudrow have their moments together and apart, which make one wonder what they could do if their physical forms actually played opposite each other. But it's hard imagining anyone over the age of ten working up much enthusiasm over this cloying and cutesy comedy, especially when Murphy only gets very fleeting opportunities to cut loose and show his trademark spark.


The Fast and the Furious poster The Fast and the Furious (PG-13) * 1/2
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About twenty minutes into this drive-in-ready actioner comes a moment that makes one think that maybe, just maybe, director Rob Cohen had shaken out of the major post-Dragon funk that resulted in such truly excruciating celluloid atrocities as last year's unwatchable The Skulls. At that mark comes the film's first street racing scene, and does it ever fire on all cylinders, blending actual stunt driving, CGI effects, and a whole lot of movie magic into a true cinematic adrenaline rush.

The buzz is short-lived, however, for soon the Point Break-ish plot (undercover cop must infiltrate world of street racing to nab some high-speed truck hijackers/robbers) takes over and the film must rest on the meager talents of pretty boy Paul Walker, who plays cop Brian O'Connor. The presence of the charismatic Vin Diesel as street race kingpin Dominic nor that of the talented but criminally wasted women of the piece, Michelle Rodriguez (Dominic's girlfriend) and Jordana Brewster (Dominic's sister, who predictably falls for Brian), cannot compensate for the bad dialogue, formulaic plotting (is it really a shock who the bad guy is?), and gradually diminishing interest of each subsequent race/chase scene; as the film slows down and ultimately sputters along, Cohen depends a bit too heavily on the raw energy of BT's score to generate excitement. Then again, Cohen depends a bit too heavily on any lingering good will from that first big race sequence for positive word-of-mouth. Sad to say, if the big opening grosses are any indication, that laziness is working.


The Princess and the Warrior poster The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin) (R) **
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Tom Tykwer reunites with his Run Lola Run star Franka Potente for another exploration of fate, chance, and metaphysics, but what sounds like a surefire recipe for success ends up falling short. Tykwer does, however, effectively capture the haunting vibe of his pre-Lola effort Winter Sleepers when introducing the "princess" and the "warrior" of his title: Sissi (Potente, again doing a fine job), a nurse at a mental hospital who becomes infatuated with a cold ex-soldier named Bodo (Benno Furmann) after he saves her life after a freak traffic accident. But as their lives continue to intertwine much to Bodo's chagrin, it feels less the work of fate and chance than outright contrivance. Where Lola was urgent and stylish, Princess is lumbering and indulgent, dragging on beyond the two-hour mark only to reach a conclusion that can only be described as hokey.


Sexy Beast poster Sexy Beast (R) ***
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Fox Searchlight's promotional campaign for this British crime thriller centers around supporting player Ben Kingsley, and who can blame them? Those familiar only with Kingsley's Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi will be shocked at how ferociously he attacks the role of Don, a gangster who is the menacing embodiment of all that is evil. Whenever Kingsley shares the screen with Ray Winstone, who plays the "retired" crook whom Don tries to coax out of retirement for (yes) one last big score, director Jonathan Glazer's film is no less than electrifying. But as mentioned, Kingsley's part clearly falls under the supporting category, and as solid as Winstone is in the less showy role, whenever Don is absent, the derivative nature of Louis Mellis and David Scinto's script shines all too brightly through. Yet that is hardly enough to diminish what Glazer, Kingsley, and the other actors accomplish in this slick and satisfying entertainment.


D V D

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon DVD Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (PG-13) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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Considering 2000 was by no account a terrific year in film, to call Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one of, if not the, best of Y2K is to almost damn it with faint praise--and Ang Lee's Academy Award-winning martial arts epic deserves no less than the most effusive praise possible, even when downsized for home viewing. It goes without saying that the film's gorgeous photography, spectacular fight sequences, haunting music, and larger-than-life emotional content is best experienced on the big screen, but Columbia TriStar's DVD allows one as ideal a home viewing experience as technology can allow. The anamorphic transfer lovingly preserves the lush pallette of Peter Pau's Oscar-winning cinematography; everything from the swooping swings of swords to each note of Tan Dun's Oscar-winning score pack their same punch on the digitally mastered audio tracks.

While the DVD is great for simply watching the film, the supplements leave a lot to be desired, especiallly considering the high esteem in which it is held by critics and mass audiences alike. Lee and co-screenwriter/executive producer James Schamus provide an audio commentary that is alternately entertaining and aggravating. The latter quality is the fault of Schamus, who is not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. I suppose he deserves some credit for trying to be lively, but too often he throws in really bad jokes (case in point: he refers to one of the numerous weightless leaps as a "Weight Watchers" and "Sarah Ferguson" leap--ha ha ha) or playacts the role of ignorant interviewer; too rarely does he shed light on writing the unique and difficult task of writing a distinctly Asian film from a Western sensibility. He should have followed the classier lead of Lee, who enthusiastically discusses the film with a healthy balance of humor and insight.

Star Michelle Yeoh gets a solo showcase for her thoughts on the "Conversation with Michelle Yeoh" featurette, in whose 13 minutes she makes more substantive comments than Schamus does in his two hours (totally unsolicited word of advice to Ms. Yeoh: rethink those hoop earrings!). Yeoh's leading man, Chow Yun-Fat only gets his say in the disc's token "making-of" documentary, Unleashing the Dragon, but considering it had aired on Bravo during the film's theatrical release, it's less an informational piece than a glorified infomercial, offering too shallow a look at, among other things, gravity-defying action scenes.

That special spends a bit more time on the music, but as a whole the disc gives this crucial element to the film's success (and acclaim) the short shrift. While I suppose an (admittedly not-too-badly done) English language audio track had to be included along with the original Mandarin language one, the French language one could have easily been sacrificed for an isolated score track. Even more curious is how the music videos for both the English and Mandarin versions of the film's closing credits song, Asian pop superstar CoCo Lee's "A Love Before Time," were included in international versions of the DVD but not this Region 1 release. Perhaps the explanation is that Lee's status in North America is of decidedly lower profile, but considering the song earned one of the film's ten Academy Award nominations, its inclusion should have been automatic.

The DVD's other extras, a six-minute montage of photos set to score excerpts, production notes, and animated menu screens are nice but are in line with the overall lightweight quality of the supplementary material. Maybe Columbia TriStar is holding back for a more extensive special edition for the future. Nonetheless, what counts most in the end is the presentation of the feature itself, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks and sounds great. But fans looking for more won't find too much else to savor.

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


The House of Mirth DVD The House of Mirth (PG) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ***
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Hopefully with its release on video and DVD will also come the recognition and audience that so unfairly eluded Terence Davies' searing adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel. It's a bafflement that Sony Pictures Classics, which enjoyed such Academy Award success--in the nomination and win columns--with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Pollock, wasn't able to do the same for this haunting film, especially considering its most impressive virtues. Chief among them are superlative art direction, equally gorgeous costume design, and a startling Oscar-caliber lead performance by Gillian Anderson, who triumphantly breaks from the X-Files mold as early 1900s New York socialite Lily Bart, whose tragic fall from favor is movingly, unflinchingly traced by Davies' sure hand.

Davies has much praise for Anderson in his running commentary for the DVD--that is, when he bothers to speak. He displays obvious enthusiasm and passion for the project (particularly over various music selections), but he's perhaps a bit too enamored of his own work, for he often limits his comments to brief ones that set up the circumstances of each scene, which then plays with its normal soundtrack. (No, the possible excuse that the hasn't seen the film in a while doesn't hold water--he straight out says that he's seen the film "about 400 times.") And for all his comments about specific actions, line readings, and so on made by the actors, he sheds no light on how he arrived at such offbeat casting choices; after all, the likes of Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, and Eric Stoltz aren't exactly the names that immediately come to mind for a costume drama.

Davies' comments are somewhat more abundant and insightful in the disc's most substantial supplement, a longer alternate version of a four-scene stretch that occurs early in the film; needless to say, he prefers this extended piece, which was truncated in various ways only for run time considerations. Filmographies for Davies and the principal cast and trailers for Mirth and other Sony Pictures period pieces round out the unspectacular array of extras, but the sterling visual and aural transfer of a very worthy film makes this a sturdy enough DVD package.

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


Snatch DVD Snatch (R) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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Writer-director Guy Ritchie's second feature failed to capture too many more viewers than his cult fave debut, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, even with two household-friendly actors (Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro) mixed into the largely British ensemble this time out. Perhaps it's because this darkly comic caper revolving around a stolen diamond didn't cover enough new ground to satisfy the Lock, Stock fan base and/or that the scuzzy underworld was still too distinctly British to connect with mass Yank audiences. Regardless, in its own right, Snatch is an entertaining lark, powered by nice work by all the players and Ritchie's adrenalized visual style.

Given his energetic style, Ritchie's laid-back demeanor on the DVD's commentary track is a bit surprising. He and producer Matthew Vaughn are candid about the flaws they see in their work, and they relate a number of amusing anecdotes, such as how the film's featured dog took an unhealthily sexual bond with a number of cast members. However, their accents and voices have a quietly soothing effect that can lull one to a near-sleep state, which is not so much a reflection on their comments but their reserved mood.

At the beginning of the track, Ritchie mentions that focal star Jason Statham was originally slated to join them on the commentary, and possibly the commentary would have been livelier had he participated if the two-disc set's token behind-the-scenes documentary, "Making Snatch," is any indication. This 25-minute featurette is not quite token in execution, however. While it includes a few talking head interviews with some cast members, it also incorporates a number of interesting B-roll segments of Ritchie and the other cast and crew enjoying themselves on-set, whether it be on the job or engaging in a game of chess. The most interesting inclusion in the doc are segments of Statham interviewing Vaughn and Ritchie, simultaneously playing chess with the latter. Vaughn is pretty low-key on the commentary, but the way in which Statham gets him and Ritchie to laugh a lot is a fairly telling indicator of how he could have injected some energy into that audio track.

The other extras are of varying interest. There are interesting side-by-side storyboard/finished scene comparisons for the film's more visually complex sequences; a selection of rather understandably deleted scenes that can be viewed with commentary by director and producer as well as within the context of the film (albeit in rather cumbersome fashion); a largely useless montage of still photos from the production cut to a cue of John Murphy's score; the usual cast and crew filmographies and production notes; plus a full-frame version of the film to go with the nicely transferred anamorphic widescreen one. While everything is wrapped up in cool animated menus, there basically isn't too much here that's particularly distinctive in the extras department, making this two-disc presentation feel a bit padded out. Nonetheless, it's a satisfying treatment for fans of this largely overlooked film.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; French mono; English and French subtitles; English closed captioning. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)


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