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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 93

#307 - 310
January 4, 2002 - January 25, 2002


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#310 January 25, 2002

M O V I E S

The Mothman Prophecies one-sheet The Mothman Prophecies (PG-13) ***
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A title like The Mothman Prophecies conjures up images of monsters and a lot of people running and screaming in terror. Mark Pellington's film, based on John A. Keel's book based on actual events in the late '60s, is not a schlocky creature feature but something far more stylish and cerebral--and, hence, more chillingly effective.

Richard Gere plays the film's contemporary-set Keel stand-in, John Klein, a reporter for The Washington Post. He and his wife Mary (Debra Messing) enjoy such a blissful union that while house hunting, they can't help but indulge in a little clandestine nookie in a closet. But having it all certainly can't last, and on the drive home from choosing a house, a disturbing vision causes Mary to crash the car. Before long, John has lost all that mattered to him, save his job. Two years later, though, even that is put into jeopardy when John takes a fateful drive himself, and under very mysterious circumstances he ends up far from his intended destination of Richmond, Virginia and in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. What initally appears to be some freak occurrence soon seems more like fate, as John discovers that many residents of this small town, particularly one Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), have been haunted by visions similar to the one which Mary saw before her accident.

Small town, paranormal phenomena--sounds like X-Files territory, and indeed the film resembles that series when John and Point Pleasant police sergeant Connie Parker (Laura Linney) conduct Mulder-and-Scully-like interviews with various people, who recount their visions of the so-called Mothman. But don't expect any glimpses of a guy in a rubber suit with wings; Pellington wisely restricts any visual depictions of the Mothman to silhouettes and general abstractions. Unlike too many filmmakers dabbling in horror thrillers, he recognizes that greater fear comes with the unknown and not a literal and potentially ridiculous (particularly in this case) visual.

But Pellington would rather The Mothman Prophecies be referred to as a "psychological mystery" than a horror or sci-fi piece, and it is indeed a more apt description. Here the Mothman is depicted as an unseen, intangible force, and with that depiction comes an added dimension of unsettling ambiguity; the unexplained occurrences could very well be chalked up to a mass delusion. Pellington effortlessly commands all aspects of the cinema language--lighting, camerawork, photography, music and sound design--to create a consistent, dread-filled feeling of some dark presence lingering, lurking about, whether physical or metaphysical, human or inhuman.

The Mothman Prophecies wouldn't quite have worked if its clearly classified humans weren't worth caring about, but luckily they all make likable impressions. Whenever not called to show extreme emotion (which he unconvincingly attempts in one otherwise tense scene), Gere is a perfectly adequate lead. Linney has a thankless task as the town's apparently only cop, but at least her character sidesteps the predictable route of becoming John's love interest (though that development was filmed but then left on the cutting room floor); and Patton does a nice job toeing the line of sanity, making one wonder if the entities he encounters are real.

The "gotcha" climax of The Mothman Prophecies may not be on par with the one that capped Pellington's previous film, the even better paranoid thriller Arlington Road, but it does provide a spectacular jolt that haunts after the credits have finished.


A Walk to Remember one-sheet A Walk to Remember (PG) no stars
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Teenage guys beware: if you plan on taking your girlfriend to the movies to see the Gen-Y weeper A Walk to Remember in some not-so-subtle attempt to prove your sensitive side, I have three words: DON'T DO IT. Whatever temporary benefits you may earn aren't worth having her incessantly harass you after the movie with the question, "Why can't you be more like Shane West?" It's a query that'll be on the lips of attached young females everywhere after witnessing his character's impossibly sensitive displays, which will send the Bop and Tiger Beat audience into a swoony tizzy. Everyone else, however, will be longing to guzzle a bottle of Pepto-Bismol after being subjected to the 90-minute sap- and crap-fest that is A Walk to Remember.

West's Landon Carter isn't so in touch with his feminine side at the beginning of the film, however. He's the town bad boy, so dangerous yet so cool that he coaxes a friend from taking a leap off of a tower into some shallow water--splat! The friend doesn't die but is severely injured, which plants the seeds of change within Landon that come to full blossom when he spends more time with dowdy school wallflower Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore, #3 on the Female Teen Pop hierearchy). Landon is forced to take the lead in the school musical production, and he turns to Jamie, the production's leading lady, for help with his lines. She agrees, but on one condition: "Don't fall in love with me." For a no-bones-about-it Plain Jane, Jamie sure has an inflated opinion of herself.

Of course Landon can't help but succumb to Jamie's modest, wholesome, non-conformist charms, and the knockout punch comes on opening night of the show. In a Ewan McGregor-in-Moulin Rouge!-esque moment, a glammed-up Jamie launches into her character's big, soul-baring ballad, and suddenly Landon (and the crowd) is completely smitten. Given that singing is about the only thing Moore does well in the film, the idea behind the scene isn't completely preposterous, but the execution is. Notice I said "singing" as opposed to "lip synching," for the dubbing is about as bad as it was in Glitter. The use of a prerecorded track is even more ridiculous here, for a piano is the only source of musical accompaniment for the play; since the film itself is not a musical, it's all the more baffling when a string section and other lush production touches start creeping in. Worse still is that this pivotal moment makes no sense; after all, Landon had to have heard her sing this song countless times during rehearsals--which would then mean that he falls for her simply because she's all dressed and made up, going against the whole idea of falling for a Plain Jane's inner beauty.

But I'm obviously applying way too much thought on a film that clearly wasn't thought out, certainly not by director Adam Shankman and scripter Karen Janszen, working from Nicholas Sparks' novel; "When in doubt, resort to a cliché or stereotype" seems to be their philosophy. Landon is "down" with a token hip-hop-bumping black friend who quite insultingly speaks in jive and does elaborate soul handshakes with his whitebread homey. Jamie is the daughter of the town preacher (Peter Coyote), who predictably objects to his daughter's budding romance and spouts boilerplate dialogue about God and morality.

Thanks to Landon's newly gallant ways, Jamie's dad eventually comes around, and she and Landon do enjoy a stretch of goo-goo-eyed bliss that makes one want to vomit; the "seductive" temporary tattoo-application scene will make one nostalgic for the "Massachusetts welcomes you" kissing scene in the similar (but superior--which, granted, is not saying much) teen love story of a couple years back, Here on Earth. Naturally all the happy hand-holding and smooching is destined not to last, due to a "secret" third-act revelation not-so-gracefully foreshadowed by Jamie's "Don't fall in love with me" request. For one brief moment, though, it looks as if Shankman and Janszen would go for broke and take this dull story in a more out-there direction. In one scene, Jamie's the victim of a prank (one that's actually more stupid than cruel, but that's another story), and Shankman intercuts slow motion shots of the cafeteria crowd laughing at her with close-ups of her upset face. One expects--nay, hopes--for Piper Laurie's familar "They're all gonna laugh at you" to loop on the soundtrack and for Jamie to unleash heretofore unseen telekinetic fury on her classmates--anything to enliven these lifeless proceedings. Alas, the terrible twosome at the helm of this cinematic Titanic hit the expected course-changing iceberg.

Thus begins a final act of soggy schmaltz that will test the most sentimental of viewers. Landon's unnatural--hell, downright unmale--sensitivity and keen romantic instincts reach ridiculous heights as the spirits of his beloved falter. The most gifted of young stars wouldn't be able to completely salvage this unwatchable, unactable material, but at least they would make it go down a bit easier; needless to say, the chemistry-free West and Moore are not these stars. Smiling, pouting, and badly lip-synching appears to be Moore's entire range; and West's performance echoes Landon's early line of "I didn't plan on acting or anything." Say what one will about the aforementioned Here on Earth, one must concede that its young stars have some acting ability. The older, more seasoned stars here fare no better, though. As Landon's mother, anything Daryl Hannah does is rendered frightening by a dark, Lucy Lawless-ish wig. Given what he has to work with here, Coyote's infamous gig as "The Voice of the Oscars" a couple of years ago is starting to look like a prime job; at the very least, however, he's the only person in this South-set story to even try to do an appropriate accent.

None of this will matter to that target Cosmo Girl demographic, who will grin from ear to ear and cry their little mallrat eyes out seeing and hearing that dreamy hottie Shane West act out all their sappy, YM-fueled romantic ideals. Great for them, I say. But all the more pity for the rest of us who have to endure A Walk to Remember, a monstrosity of a movie that I am all too eager to forget.


In Brief

The Count of Monte Cristo one-sheet Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (PG-13) ***
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As with a number of films that places the name of the source material's author in the title, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo is not the most faithful adaptation of the classic adventure novel, certainly not in the story's home stretch. What ultimately matters, however, is if the film tells an engaging swashbuckler on its own terms, and that's what director Kevin Reynolds has done with this old-fashioned romp of revenge.

All things considered, Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert follow the general outline of Dumas' story fairly closely, particularly in the first two thirds. Edmond Dantès (Jim Caviezel) is a good young sailor who has just about everything: a lovely fiancée named Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) and an upcoming promotion. But being so trusting and all-around nice, Edmond is doomed to lose it all, and indeed he does when his jealous friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), with the help of shady judge Villefort (James Frain), frames him for treason. Our hero is sent to the remote island prison of Chateau d'Îf to waste away the rest of his years, but don't count out the will of a man bent on receiving and ordering payback.

Re-entering French high society as the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond indeed gets his, and Reynolds and Wolpert tell the time-tested yarn in a brisk and rousing fashion. Some of the tweaks they make to the story don't quite work and at times may be questionable, in particular one late zinger of a twist, but by the time most of the deviations occur, the audience is caught up in the action (all the swordplay is nicely staged) and--more importantly--completely sold on the story and characters. Caviezel is an immensely likable and soothing screen presence, and he convincingly captures both sides of Edmond's persona, the naive innocent and the scorned seeker of vengeance; Pearce is also good playing the hiss-worthy main villain. Literary purists may not be pleased, but as far as mainstream matinee-style entertainment goes, Count does a bang-up job of pleasing the crowds.


Metropolis one-sheet Metropolis (PG-13) ***
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Even the most jaded of film fans, let alone anime buffs, are certain to be awed by the opening shots of Metropolis, which travel in and around the titular city, an imaginative and sumptuously detailed vision of Art Deco elegance fused with futuristic innovation. In stark contrast to these jaw-dropping digital cityscapes are the figures--both human and robot--that inhabit them: simply rendered, wide-eyed refugees from Speed Racer. The disconnect, while jarring at first, fits the underlying theme of this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's 1949 manga--that of pure humanity being lost within a techno-happy society.

Given the time period during which the source material was created, WWII allusions abound: the villain of the piece is a maniac named Duke Red, who is bent on world domination; members of his fascist party wear patches on their arms. While the manga obviously predates, a half century of movies have passed by, and one cannot help but director Rintaro and screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo's parallels to other works, and not just the Fritz Lang film with which it shares a title, or Otomo's own Akira (which itself owed a debt to live-action sci-fi films). A few examples: the sentient global computer network through which Duke Red hopes to rule all recalls The Terminator's Skynet; the film's central figure is a young girl named Tima, whose love for best friend Kenichi is real, but she is not; images of overwhelming devastation and destruction are ironically scored to a cheery musical chestnut à la the ending of Dr. Strangelove. However derivative it may be in a number of individual respects, as in its mix-match art style Metropolis melds the elements into something that is often quite rich and exciting, and always a beauty to behold.


The Son's Room one-sheet The Son's Room (La Stanza del Figlio) (R) ***
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There are a number of moments of unadorned and wrenching emotional purity in Nanni Moretti's festival favorite that it's understandable why it took the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes fest. Detailing one family's struggle to cope and move on in the wake of a stunning tragedy, the film can be seen as a more genteel companion to In the Bedroom; instead of tapping into the ugly reserves of anger that boils beneath the grief as Todd Field's film does, Moretti simply wallows in the pain of loss. What could easily construed as indulgence is actually quite involving and moving, thanks to Moretti's unrushed approach, which allows for greater attention to character that nurtures heartfelt performances. As the shrink whose family is torn apart, Moretti is affecting and heartfelt, but the best work comes from Laura Morante's despairing work as his devastated wife. La Stanza del Figlio follows only the most minimal of dramatic arcs--a discovery in the titular place sets into motion a potentially healing journey--but the feelings it expresses hold an undeniable sense of truth and are therefore not easily dismissed.


Storytelling one-sheet Storytelling (R) ***
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Writer-director Todd Solondz once again delves into the miseries of momentously miserable people, this time under the guise of making points about the exploitative nature of its title subject. The film's first section, "Fiction," has a college student (Selma Blair) getting uncomfortably close to her writing professor (Robert Wisdom) in a desperate attempt to find the ever-elusive truth in voice; in the second, "Non-Fiction," a sad sack shoe salesman's (Paul Giamatti) documentary project on a typical slacker teen (Mark Webber) takes stranger-than-fiction turns both on- and off-camera. Of the two pieces (reportedly a third was completed but then scrapped), the shorter first is more successful, hitting its points on the head in a tight, concise, and therefore more biting fashion. The second is more rambling, and its wrap-up feels a bit sudden even if it could be foreseen to a certain degree. Nonetheless, the entire package makes for fascinating viewing, and Solondz again coaxes some first-rate work from his actors and creates some effective moments of discomfort for character and viewer alike.


D V D

American Outlaws DVD American Outlaws (PG-13) review
Movie: * 1/2; Disc: ***
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After he displayed boatloads of charisma in Joel Schumacher's little-seen Vietnam War drama Tigerland, Hollywood was quick to try to make Colin Farrell a star, and the project that was supposed to do it was this western, which cast the Irish actor as the legendary all-American outlaw Jesse James. Alas, the film barely made a blip in the late summer 2001 box office, and this isn't so much the fault of Farrell; he again proves to be a magnetic presence. The fault instead lay with director Les Mayfield and writers Roderick Taylor and John Rogers, who decided to dumb down the proceedings for the lowest common denominator.

Given how poorly the film was received by critics and audiences, it's rather surprising that Warner Bros. gave American Outlaws such a deluxe treatment on DVD. Mayfield, Rogers, and editor Michael Tronick are on hand for a running commentary; while the incessantly wisecracking Rogers apparently thinks he's far more entertaining than he really is, he actually does a decent job "interviewing" the two, asking smart questions about their jobs on the film. There are no less than three behind-the-scenes featurette, all of which appear to have come from the EPK, considering their hard-sell tone. If all this isn't enough, there's also a gallery of publicity photos, costume sketches, storyboards, and blueprints of the sets, DVD-ROM features including the complete screenplay, plus the old standbys of deleted scenes (just two, both inconsequential), trailers, and cast and crew biographies. If only the filmmakers had put in as much effort into the film itself.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English and French 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (Warner Home Video)


Glitter DVD Glitter (PG-13) review
Movie: no stars; Disc: ** 1/2
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Just about all that needs to be said about Mariah Carey's infamous starring debut Glitter has already been said, so I'll limit my comments about the actual film to this: it still sucks.

So what of Columbia TriStar's DVD edition? It's not the disaster that the film is, but it is certainly mediocre. Particularly disappointing is the running commentary by director Vondie Curtis-Hall, who sounds like he'd rather not talk about the film (and who can blame him?). Instead of dishing dirt on Miss Diva, he harps on inconsequential details for minutes on end in an apparent effort to use up time; case in point, he goes on for about five minutes on the film's opening shot of a foot entering a spotlight. But every once in a while, nagging mysteries about the film are solved, with the answers inevitably pointing to Carey's ego: the bad dubbing can be attributed to her lip synching on set to a soundalike, for she was worried about piracy (though given the soundtrack's horrendous sales, she needn't have worried); and a late voiceover that should by all means have been delivered by co-star Max Beesley (who plays Carey's love interest/svengali) is done by Carey because the studio was legally bound to release the film with her voiceover. But these are the only times where Curtis-Hall gets remotely negative about his star; the rest of the time he generically says it was a "pleasure" to work with her.

Unfortunately (or is that "fortunately"?), no outtakes or deleted scenes are included on the disc. The standard theatrical trailer and filmographies are included, as are both the widescreen and full-screen editions of the film. But any laughs that may have come from a deleted scenes reel are provided by one of the two music videos on the disc: the hilarious clip for "Loverboy," where Mariah dons hotpants, wears a bandanna as a top, and bends over in suggestive ways, culminating in her popping out of a cake. No matter how many times I see this clip, it never fails to make me laugh. The other video is for the power ballad "Never Too Far"; this video is merely an excerpt from a concert scene in the film.

Specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full frame; English 5.1 Surround; French mono; English and French subtitles. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)


Summer Catch DVD Summer Catch (PG-13) review
Movie: 1/2*; Disc: ** 1/2
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Freddie Prinze Jr. and frequent co-star Matthew Lillard in a baseball movie. That alone should tell you whether or not this film is for you--if you swoon at the mere sight of the heartthrob, then rush to the video store; if little things like, say, good acting, decent writing, and solid direction matter to you, don't bother.

The men who perpetrated this bore, director/producer Mike Tollin and writer John Gatins, offer suitably uninteresting running commentary, with Prinze's leading lady Jessica Biel awkwardly spliced in at various junctures. It's rather odd that Biel's contribution to the commentary isn't trumpeted either on the box or the disc menu, but then again she, like the other two, have fairly little of interest to say--nothing more than the usual info about locations and the circumstances surrounding a particular shooting day. Rounding out the fairly unspectacular package are cast and director filmographies and a selection of vaguely deleted scenes, which can be viewed separately or in the context of the film whenever a clickable baseball icon appears onscreen.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Warner Home Video)


The Criterion Collection

Closely Watched Trains DVD The Shop on Main Street DVD Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledované Vlaky)
Criterion Collection #131
Disc: ** 1/2
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The Shop on Main Street (Obchod Na Korze)
Criterion Collection #130
Disc: ** 1/2
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Winner of the 1966 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Jirí Menzel's Closely Watched Trains doesn't fit one's traditional perceptions of award-winning cinema. After all, the film's central plot thread is on young Czech train dispatcher trainee Milos' (Václav Neckár) obsession with losing his virginity, and the bawdiness extends from there: a countess energetically bounces while riding a horse; a woman suggestively caresses the long neck of a skinned goose; and, most famously, the train station's resident lothario (Josef Somr) seduces a telegraphist by rubber stamping her bottom. The dark and abrupt ending at first appears to go against the fairly light goings-on that preceded it, some token concession to the European Bum Out Standard. But there is no other way that it could end, and the seeds for such are conclusion are slowly sowed in how Milos ever so gradually deviates from his older male relatives' history of apathy. In a sense, the fact that such fairly easy going material takes such a turn makes the absurdist fun resonate that much more strongly in the memory.

The preceding year, another Czech film, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos' The Shop on Main Street also won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and like Closely Watched Trains this film ends in a manner not easily foreseen. Tony (Josef Kroner) is a clumsy, henpecked husband called on by his town's Nazi controllers to be the "Aryan controller" of a button shop owned by Mrs. Lautmann (Idá Kaminská), a hard-of-hearing old woman unaware of the war brewing outside her store walls. Given one of the main characters is a weak old lady, one anticipates cloying tragedy, but for a good while the filmmakers mine some hearty laughs out of the situation, with Tony's klutzy and weak-willed ways often making him decidedly not the boss in the shop. But when the darkness of reality sets in the story, it is not in the manipulative way one anticipates; the film's final half hour is tense and emotionally brutal, due in no small part to Kaminská and Kroner's charged performances. Some have considered the last shots of the film to be a bit of sugarcoating, and in a sense I agree, but that move in no way negates the raw power of what led up to those final frames.

Criterion has given both films the exact same treatment on DVD. Both discs boast new digital transfers that don't wipe away every last speck and scratch but are no less sparkling; the films' U.S. trailers; and removable English subtitles. Proper background on each film's historical context is provided in essays in the disc booklet and not the disc itself, making for a pretty barebones presentation on each, but the fact that these films are available to watch for a larger audience surely does not count for nothing.

Specifications for both: 1.33:1 full frame; Czech Dolby Digital mono; removable English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision)


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#309 January 18, 2002

M O V I E S
In Brief

Snow Dogs one-sheet Snow Dogs (PG) no stars
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Releasing a film with the word "dog" in its title in the dud zone that is January lends itself to easy jokes and insults, and Snow Dogs deserves every single one of them. It's not so much that the film is one long exercise in silliness (after all, did anyone expect it to be otherwise?); it's that the movie is so incredibly dull.

If you're drawn in by the TV spots that prominently feature the titular dogs engaging in conversation, be forewarned: this is no snowy canine spin on Babe. The dogs only talk in one scene, and a fantasy scene at that; and while a big competition--here, an Iditarod-esque dog sledding race--does figure into the plot, winning the big trophy is not the primary issue at hand. Director Brian Levant and his team of five (!) credited screenwriters (all allegedly working from the "suggestion" of Gary Paulsen's couldn't-be-more-different book Winterdance) decide to work other exhausted clichés instead. Cuba Gooding Jr. makes another questionable career decision taking on the role of Ted Brooks, a Michael Bolton-loving (ha ha) Miami dentist who inherits a group of race sledding dogs from the Alaska-based biological mother he never met. Thus the stage is set for instantly tiresome scenes of this city slicker slipping on ice and snow or getting attacked by ferocious dogs. Presumably the fact that Ted is a black man struggling with the wintry climes is supposed to make the proceedings funnier, but the gags aren't funny to begin with. They're downright torturous in their obviousness and predictability.

This being a Disney production released under the namesake banner, there is an attempt at some touchy-feely emotional dimension, but all too appropriately said content comes off as mush. Ted's token romantic subplot with the town barkeep (Joanna Bacalso) is an instant fizzle; and similarly sappy and uninvolving is the main concern of the film, which is Ted's ongoing attempt to bond with his freshly discovered biological father, a surly old dogsledder named Thunder Jack (played by James Coburn--and hence opening up even more cheap race jokes). The silly slapstick, sticky sentiment, and third-act dogsledding action don't lead anywhere fresh and unexpected, but then again not a single aspect of the film is at all surprising. As can be expected, the abilities of the seasoned acting veterans in the cast, from Coburn to Graham Greene to Star Trek alumna Nichelle Nichols, are all squandered as they take a back seat to Gooding, who mugs his way through another picture. In a blatant move to appeal to teen and young adult audiences, a cross-demographic pop music star (Sisqo) turns up in a supporting part, and he not surprisingly proves his awful performance in last year's Get Over It to be no fluke. And in keeping with the appearances set forth by its unpromising advertising campaign, Snow Dogs has not a single laugh to offer an audience.


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#308 January 11, 2002

M O V I E S
In Brief

Brotherhood of the Wolf one-sheet Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups) (R) **
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In certain respects, one can pretty easily see why this film was such a sensation in France. The action scenes involving the ravenous beast of the title do deliver a charge, and an even bigger one still come from the martial arts sequences that largely feature Marc Dacascos, a talented fighter whose work has largely been relegated to schlocky straight-to-tape flicks. If director Christophe Gans and writer Stéphane Cabel had been content to simply make an 18th Century-set chopsocky creature feature, then all would have been fine.

Unfortunately, they forget to check their pretensions at the door. The film clocks in dangerously near the two-and-a-half-hour mark due to many static scenes--particularly in the first hour or s--that show off the costumes and further the flat yet convoluted plot. Basically, a scientist (Samuel Le Bihan) and his crew, including a trusty Iroquois sidekick named Mani (Dacascos) who can kick serious ass, try to capture the creature and study it. There's also a completely boring romance where the scientist woos a comely, classy beauty (Emilie Duquenne); and also figuring into the mayhem somehow is a sexy, psychic courtesan (Monica Bellucci). This sounds less campily amusing than it is due to the talkiness of the affair, but when the action gets going, it provides amusements of all sorts. Hong Kong action choreographer Philip Kwok did a bang-up job staging the fights, whether they employ fists or swords; and the best derisive laughs when Mani tosses his long locks (more than once!) as if he were one of Charlie's Angels. Alas, if only the picture were that much fun even half the time.


Impostor one-sheet Impostor (PG-13) *
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Gary Fleder's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick futuristic short story began as a one-third of a (since-aborted) sci-fi omnibus project, and the film certainly shows it. There's just enough plot here--a scientist (Gary Sinise) is mistaken for an evil alien android doppelganger--to make a taut, tense short subject. Perhaps that was the case, for high-ups at Miramax were so impressed with the original incarnation that they gave the go-ahead for a feature expansion; however, given how long this movie has been sitting on the studio shelf, they probably didn't expect Fleder to take "expansion" so literally. The film really does feel like a short stretched out to feature length: chase scenes are dragged on interminably; random slow motion is amply used to add ticks on the run time; and choppy editing is employed to give the sense that something interesting is happening. What does happen is rather sad: the waste of talented actors like Sinise (who wins the Kenneth Branagh Award for serious stage-bred thespians who run around with their shirt off for extended periods of time in a film), Madeleine Stowe (as Sinise's wife), and Vincent D'Onofrio (as Sinise's pursuer); the K-Mart-gone-mad overuse of blue lights; and a predictable, double-"gotcha" ending more befitting The Twilight Zone--which, again, shows how this story could have worked in an abbreviated form.


Orange County one-sheet Orange County (PG-13) ***
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When put together, the words "January" and "teen comedy" are enough to strike fear in the most hardened of moviegoers. After all, it took those three words (and three more: She's All That) to launch Freddie Prinze Jr.'s reign of terror at the multiplex three years ago. So it is all the more surprising that Orange County is not only harmless, but actually quite funny and charming.

Perhaps that should not have been too surprising, considering the unusually higher caliber of talent at the helm: scribe Mike White, who wrote (and starred in) the 2000 indie hit Chuck & Buck and director Jake Kasdan, who made his debut with 1998's underrated Zero Effect. Orange County isn't nearly as offbeat as either of those films; in fact, the basic story could have easily led to a lesser film of its genre. Ambitious high school senior/aspiring writer Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) wants nothing more than to attend Stanford in the fall--hence escaping his less than functional family and what he perceives to be a suffocating environment in surf-happy O.C. But thanks to a screw-up involving transcripts, this model student gets a most unexpected rejection from the university. With his supportivee girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) in tow, Shaun goes up north to right the wrong--easier said than done, since driving them up is his far-from helpful, slobby slacker brother Lance (Jack Black).

The story being about a guy who desperately wants to escape his home, the ultimate destination of Orange County can only be one thing, and the film doesn't flout expectations in that regard. The journey there, however, is good fun, thanks to some cutting dialogue and memorably off-kilter characters and situations. Hanks more often than not recalls his superstar dad--and in a good way; he's effortlessly likable and hence carries the proceedings with little strain. That he and Fisk (another second-generation player like Hanks and Kasdan--she's Sissy Spacek's daughter) are not the prototypical glamourous types one generally sees in teen flicks adds a certain added air of reality. Not that the film is entirely realistic, what with the wacky Black offering some expectedly outrageous antics. A number of veteran actors also lend strong support; Catherine O'Hara and John Lithgow are especially noteworthy as Shaun and Lance's memorably high strung, divorced parents, and Harold Ramis and Lily Tomlin also make strong impressions in smaller parts. As with films typically released in January, Orange County's staying power is about nil once you leave the theatre, but you're certain to enjoy the time you spend watching it.


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#307 January 4, 2002

M O V I E S

The Royal Tenenbaums one-sheet The Royal Tenenbaums (R) ****
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To twist around an old nugget in the pop culture lexicon, a Wes Anderson film is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. Actually, I take that back--you can certainly count on watching a quirky and stylistically inventive comic romp populated by memorably eccentric characters. It's from there that springs a sprightly spontaneity that results in such wonderfully creative entertainments such as Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now The Royal Tenenbaums.

It must be said right off the bat that Tenenbaums isn't quite as unconventional as Anderson's first two films, for this one can comfortably be described in a simple manner; it's about the dramas within a family, and the story leads to expectedly sweet messages of love and togetherness. But leave it to Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson to put their own warped and complex spin to the proceedings. Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum are a separated married couple once distinguished by their three genius children: Chas, a financial whiz; Richie, a tennis champ; and the adopted Margot, a distinguished playwright. But with adulthood came myriad disappointments and heartbreaks: Richie (Luke Wilson) retired from tennis after a humiliating loss and took to the seas; Margot's (Gwyneth Paltrow) writing career hit a stall and is now stuck in a passionless marriage to the much older neurologist/writer Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray); and Chas (Ben Stiller), while still successful, has become a paranoid safety freak and overprotective father to his two sons after his beloved wife was killed in a plane crash. For a number of reasons, each Tenenbaum child comes to move back home to Etheline, who herself is at a turning point: the family accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), has proposed to her, meaning she'd have to finally divorce Royal. But that's easier said than done, especially after Royal announces he has only six weeks to live and moves back into the old family home as well.

The dry, droll wit of Anderson and Wilson (who also appears as Tenenbaum family friend Eli Cash, a successful author) could be taken as smug, but the true affection they have for their odd characters counters such a claim. For all their quirks and negative qualities, each of the characters is a fully realized person deserving at least of a sliver of sympathy: for all his shyster sliminess, Royal wants to regain the one thing that ultimately mattered to him; sullen and secretive Margot seeks a sense of belonging; Richie wants nothing more than for his unrequited love to be reciprocated; high-strung Chas just wants to protect his sons from the evils of blind chance--even a goofball like Eli is treated with some level of sensitivity; while his nasty drug habit is mined for some throwaway laughs, it isn't taken all that lightly in the end. That none of the individual characters, including more peripheral players like Royal's devoted servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), gets lost on the large canvas is also a credit to the peerless ensemble, led by Hackman's terrifically multi-textured performance as the well-meaning, wrong-doing patriarch.

As much of a showcase for the actors The Royal Tenenbaums is, it is foremost one for the ever-idiosyncratic vision of Anderson. The film unfolds like a novel, not simply in its richness of character but quite literally as a book. The first shot is of a book bearing the film's title being checked out of a library; title cards that resemble book pages denote chapter divisions; and the stream of events are strung together by florid, literary narration delivered by Alec Baldwin. But then Tenenbaums is more stunningly visual than the average film, particularly due to David Wasco's careful, colorful production design and Karen Patch's kooky, pitch-perfect costumes. Funny, smart, ceaselessly creative, and bearing more than a taste of the bitter and genuinely sweet, there's no mistaking The Royal Tenenbaums for being anything other than a Wes Anderson film, and that is most certainly a compliment.


In Brief

A Beautiful Mind one-sheet A Beautiful Mind (PG-13) ***
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"Beautiful" not only describes co-star Jennifer Connelly's appearance but her terrific, Oscar-worthy performance here as Alicia, supportive wife to mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. in Ron Howard's biopic. Less beautiful is Russell Crowe's performance as Nash, and the overrated film as a whole. For two thirds of the film, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman spin a riveting, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale. Following his graduate studies at Princeton, the eccentric genius is enlisted by the CIA to be a code breaker; what ends up breaking is his psyche, and he descends into paranoid schizophrenia. A perverse thrill comes from watching notorious real-life ladykiller Crowe playing someone so socially inept, and he obviously has fun playing the part; fun naturally disappears with the dark turn of the story, and he makes Nash's ordeal intimately harrowing.

But where he, Howard, and Goldsman run into trouble is in the the final stretch, where all three's work degenerates into aggressively Oscar-gunning treacle. Under layers of prostethics, Crowe unconvincingly plays the old codger part; Goldsman serves up the standard "I believe in you" and "You're special" mode of dialogue while Howard dutifully follows the been-there, done-that triumphing-over-adversity trajectory of his narrative. That said, the first two acts of the film are strong enough to merit a recommendation, as is the work of Connelly. While her colleagues falter in the end, she consistently impresses from beginning to end, her warmth and intelligence effortlessly selling some of Goldman's more saccharine platitudes. Out of the numerous Academy Award nominations the film is now almost certain to receive, hers will be the most (and the only) deserved.


Gosford Park one-sheet Gosford Park (R) * 1/2
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"It's got a great cast," say the critics. There's no arguing with that claim, for a veritable who's who of British thesps make this an Anglophile's wet dream: Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Michael Gambon, and Richard E. Grant for a start, with token yanks Bob Balaban and Ryan Phillippe (yes, Ryan Phillippe) thrown into the mix. "Director Robert Altman does an expert job of juggling the cast," say the critics. Yes, no one handles a large ensemble quite like the man whose name has become synonymous with such large canvases, and yes, he does a smooth job of choreographing the character collisions.

"It's so fascinating to watch these people talk," say the critics. Perhaps it would be a gas to be a fly on the wall when Dame Smith and damn Phillippe traded tips during down time in their trailers, but what anyone says here is one boring, Brit-accented blur. For the record, the title is a country estate in 1932 England where vacationing aristocrats upstairs are tended on by a large group of servants from downstairs. Watch the sparks fly as the two sides meet, presumably. Call me dense, but I watched with my eyelids ever so steadily becoming heavier, wondering how so much (and there's way too much, as far as characters) can add up to so little of interest, and how Altman could convince the likes of Jacobi and Grant to take on glorified extra work. Even the more celebrated turns in the film don't quell the ho-hums; yes, Smith is amusing doing the snobby old lady schtick, but is she even flexing the acting muscles in her little toe to tackle the part? (To be fair, though, Kelly Macdonald has been severely underrated as the focal young servant.) Some long 90 minutes into the film, someone turns up dead, and one would think this would be where the film would spring to some life, but the ostensible mystery is less than thrilling, and Stephen Fry's bumbling as the main investigator is less than even silly. Gosford Park is proof positive that so many people are just too eager to lavish praise on a project that involves British accents and period costumes. Throw in a respected veteran director, and you got a best-of-list staple and surefire awards contender, however undeserving.


I Am Sam one-sheet I Am Sam (PG-13) *
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There are sadder things to behold than watching great actors give their all to material so clearly undeserving of their efforts, but while watching I Am Sam, it's hard to think of any. I have nothing against shameless Oscar baiting--when it works, that is, and Sean Penn's performance as the title character certainly falls in the successful category. As Sam, mentally challenged single dad to 7-year-old Lucy (Dakota Fanning), Penn may employ a number of the usual actorly tics to depict the character's condition, but he never overdoes the act, painting a realistic and touching character that never once comes off as cloying.

But do director Jessie Nelson and writing collaborator Kristine Johnson ever deliver on the story's threat to resort shameless manipulation. After a not-too-bad start establishing Sam and Lucy's uniquely balanced parent-child relationship, child services butts in and takes Lucy away from Sam, who convinces slick lawyer Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer, also investing unnecessary conviction) to take on his case. From this point on, the film becomes a painfully, ridiculously blatant button-pusher that tries the viewer's patience and sanity with is bottomless well of sap and gratuitous product placements (the inescapable shadow of Starbucks, a strategically placed can of Tab here, a Pizza Hut there--that happens to be one of those locations inside a Target). Sam has trouble understanding calm, simple sentences, but whenever anyone launches into florid, overwrought monologues, he understands every word (guess Oscar clips are a universal language). I guess that's all the better for Sam to understand and help histrionic, workaholic Rita to become a better parent to her neglected young son. As if Sam's condition and magical ways of showing professional women the light didn't already stack the sympathy deck in his favor, Lucy's foster guardian (Laura Dern) is painted as a possessive bitch. But then all of the legal wrangling and top-of-the-lungs shouting--are the actors ever called to shout--seem pointless considering how preternaturally independent and savvy Lucy is; she's so precocious that one wonders if she needs parenting at all (at one point, she even convinces Sam to go on the run with her and outlines plans to assume new identities and lives). Her scheming ways are is a clearly calculated attempt to make her "kids say the darndest things!" adorable, just like how Sam's love of the Beatles feels as if it's been programmed to engineer maximum boomer appeal--and, yes, "All you need is love" is uttered more than once.

So goes the obvious and predictable ways of I Am Sam. As with any weepie you'd find airing on Lifetime or Oxygen (and make no mistake--this is treacly, estrogenic "entertainment" made for a lasting future on women's cable), everyone knows exactly how this turns out. It's just amazing that Nelson and Johnson insist on taking no less than 133 insulin-shock minutes to get there.


Jimmy Neutron one-sheet Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (G) ***
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With the Nickelodeon seal of production and with the term "boy genius" in its title, it's easy to dismiss this computer-animated feature as mere kids' stuff. So imagine most attendees' surprise at the press screening, where the loudest laughs came from the adults and not their demographically-targeted plus-ones. Not that this film flies over the heads of the kids; they certainly will delight in this rollicking adventure where the boy genius (voiced by Debi Derryberry) and his friends save the day and travel across the galaxy to rescue their kidnapped parents from the clutches of an evil alien race (led by a creature voiced by Patrick Stewart). But director John A. Davis and writing collaborators Steve Oedekerk, David N. Weiss, and J. David Stem inject the proceedings with a fair amount of satirical wit for the adults, and the clean if fairly primitive (in light of the stuff that Pixar and PDI put out) will delight eyes of every and any age. The ultimate "love your parents" message is simple and obvious, but the film offers a lot of fun on the way to that end.


The Majestic one-sheet The Majestic (PG) ***
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They may share first names, but Frank Darabont is no Frank Capra, and Jim Carrey is sure as hell not Jimmy Stewart. But do they ever try their hardest to evoke the spirits of their more celebrated cinematic namesakes in this nostalgia-drenched fable. Blacklisted '50s Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Carrey) loses his memory in a car accident near Lawson, California, and he eventually reopens the local movie house in that small town and inspires the populace. In the process Peter--mistaken for a long-missing son of the theatre's owner (Martin Landau)--indeed grows as a person, and indeed the film can be taken as cornball as it sounds. But the subdued sincerity of the execution, both Darabont's and Carrey's, go a long way toward counteracting the sap. Being a Darabont picture, the film is long (152 minutes) and the energy does occasionally wane, particularly in the flag-waving finale; Darabont and scripter Michael Sloane lay the feel-good sentiment on a little too thick. Surprisingly, though, never going one millimeter over the top is Carrey; unlike his much-vaunted dramatic showcase The Truman Show, he never cuts loose and Carreys on for even one scene, and he acquits himself admirably in the entirely straight-faced role. Less impressive is his leading lady, The X-Files' erstwhile Marita Covarrubbias, Laurie Holden; when confronted with scenes of some dramatic depth, she's quite shaky. Despite the flaws, The Majestic is a sweet little throwback that quite charmingly wears its large heart--and love of cinema--on its sleeve.


Not Another Teen Movie one-sheet Not Another Teen Movie (R) **
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Chalk this one under missed opportunity. If there is a genre that appeared due for some needling, it was the teen-targeted banalities that gave the world such unnecessary movie "stars" as Freddie Prinze Jr. No less than five credited writers (and who knows how many else) worked on the script for this send-up, and while the quantity of writers is perhaps reflected by the number of targets--in addition to the '90s teen romps, the John Hughes classics of the '80s are also caught in their satirical net--it isn't reflected in the quality of the jokes. Most new spins to familiar scenes aren't terribly funny, and the ones that are have already been given away in the trailer. One out-of-nowhere musical production number is inspired, but more often than not the writers and director Joel Gallen eschew inspiration and go for the cheap bodily function joke--a waste of a fresh young cast that is game but given little opportunity to show much personality. A blandly attractive cast, hit and miss jokes, excessive helpings of scatological humor, unsure direction? Sure seems like another teen movie to me.


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