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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 97

#320 - 324
April 26, 2002 - May 31, 2002


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#324 May 31, 2002

M O V I E S

Enough one-sheet Enough (PG-13) no stars
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I can just hear the pitch for Enough in my head. "It's Double Jeopardy except the scorned wife gets martial arts instead of firearms training!" "It's Sleeping with the Enemy if Julia Roberts were packing a hidden can of whoop-ass!" And, indeed, Enough delivers on exactly what such pitches promise--including being a pretty atrocious movie.

There's no denying, however, that Enough's climax--which is revealed in every aspect of the ubiquitous marketing campaign--is one huge crowd pleaser. When victim-no-more Slim (Jennifer Lopez), newly buffed and trained in the Israeli martial art known as Krav Maga, finally stands up to her abusive, adulterous creep of a husband Mitch (Billy Campbell) and straight up bitchslaps him, it's difficult to resist the urge to clap. But this isn't necessarily due to the audience's identification with and sympathy for Slim and her plight; it's more because after tormenting the audience with such painfully forced and over-the-top villainy, one can't wait for Campbell to get his just desserts for crimes against acting.

To be fair, Campbell is just one characteristic cog in the horribly unsubtle machinations of Enough. Director Michael Apted and writer Nicholas Kazan's approach echoes a key exchange between Slim and her trainer. Trainer: "What do you do?" Slim: "I attack." Trainer: "What do you do after you attack?" Slim: "I keep attacking." And keep on attacking is what Enough does, from its first frame, when one is oddly greeted by a strange text card reading, simply, "hey"--the first in a series of intertitles that underscore the theme/intent of the ensuing scene. As if we couldn't already glean that a scene where waitress Slim first meets the seemingly upstanding Mitch is "how they met," or that Slim turns over a "new leaf" by adopting a new identity in the sequence bearing that label.

But no amount of miles or bad haircuts can truly free Slim from the evil and sleaze incarnate that is Mitch, who will stop at nothing to reclaim Slim and their young daughter Gracie (Tessa Allen). Helping him are all sorts of shady types from some nameless thugs to, most prominently and amusingly, an associate played by a laughably miscast Noah Wyle. It's easy to figure out all these guys are bad news, but in case a thick layer of bone grows on your brain, Apted makes sure to pound away: shock chords comically accompany the appearance of Wyle on more than one occasion; and one of the thugs, already shooting a cold glare at Slim's friend Joe (Dan Futterman), further confirms he's a bad, bad man by slashing Joe's couch FOR NO GOOD REASON. (Ooh, I'm scared.)

Even if Columbia weren't so intent on spoiling the entire arc of the (no pun intended) slim story in its advertising, Enough would've offered little in the way of suspense. As good of an actress Lopez is, convincingly playing a delicate victim is not within the realm of her repertoire. She has this innate edge and strength that simply cannot be played down, and as such it's more of a question of when rather than if Slim strikes back (and certainly not "how," either, since we fully expect a physical taste of revenge from this famously headstrong woman). With no tension or thrills--but many unintentional laughs--to offer during a running time that pushes dangerously close to a full two hours, audiences will also feel they have suffered through enough.


The Sum of All Fears one-sheet The Sum of All Fears (PG-13) *** Click for special Sum of All Fears section, featuring star interviews
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Had it come out a year ago, The Sum of All Fears would have been taken by critics as what it is: the fourth screen adventure of CIA analyst Jack Ryan, the hero of a long line of Tom Clancy novels. In the new world climate, however, inevitable controversy over content threatens to overshadow the question of Sum's quality in reviews; in fact, some early notices already have been negatively colored by the context of real life events. That mode of thinking will certainly persist, if not intensify, when the film is released--which is a shame, for Sum rather intelligently addresses some now-not-so-fanciful sociopolitical situations while doing the job as a nailbiting thriller.

Before a single frame of film was shot, however, Sum already was awash in some controversy, centering around the new casting of Ryan; taking over the reins from Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford is Ben Affleck, playing a 28-year-old Ryan just starting out in the Agency. (Clancy purists and more nitpicky moviegoers will certainly gripe about the lack of continuity, for the film is set in the present day of 2002, which would then place it chronologically after the previous three films featuring an older Ryan; just take this film as being a wipe-the-slate-clean restart for the series.) In his first scenes, Affleck doesn't exactly convert the doubters; as he and his fellow junior analysts debate over the weight and romantic lives of various Russian government officials, Affleck displays the usual light charms that, while being a major reason for his successful screen career, seem completely wrong for this particular role.

"Seem" is the key word there, for in a particularly canny move, director Phil Alden Robinson and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Paul Attanasio have structured the film in a way that works off of any doubts about Affleck's casting. After all, the Jack Ryan we see in The Sum of All Fears is not the same as the hardened Agency veteran who shouted down the President at the end of Clear and Present Danger, but a Ryan at the beginning of his career, a green desk jockey who has to quickly settle into the role of hero when push comes to shove. Much like Ryan's progression in the film, Affleck gradually settles into the role, on the whole delivers a respectable performance and an equally valid take on the character. That said, there's still room for him to grow more comfortable in the part; youth aside, Affleck's Ryan at least for now lacks a certain distinct imprimatur to measure up with those of his predecessors' interpretations: collected calm of Baldwin's, or the gravitas of Ford's.

In The Sum of All Fears, however, that latter quality is provided by a formidable supporting cast, particularly gravitas specialist Morgan Freeman, who plays CIA director William Cabot. Cabot plucks Ryan from his low-level desk into the inner sanctum of the U.S. government to assist in a meeting with new Russian president Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), on whom the young analyst had done extensive research. Ryan's brief assignment turns into something far more involved when an elaborate intrigue involving Neo-Nazis, missing Russian scientists, and a long-missing nuclear warhead is uncovered in the wake of some apparent Russian military action in Chechnya.

For anyone who's seen the idiotically tell-all trailer, the suspense revolving around the warhead will undoubtedly be diminished, but the impact of a plot turn that hinges upon the weapon is still considerable, particularly in light of real-life developments. Just for this, Sum is certain to be blasted for being "exploitative" and "irresponsible," but those critics will not have paid much attention to Robinson's restrained and tasteful approach, not to mention what follows: a pedal-to-the-metal final act that intelligently and all too plausibly details a tense and ever-escalating series of events that, in the end, can only be chalked up to shallow pride.

With a lot of the major action playing out within the upper echelons of global government, The Sum of All Fears is more of an ensemble piece than previous Clancy thrillers, which helps to relieve some of the pressure on Affleck. In addition to those of Freeman, who has terrific buddy sparring chemistry with Affleck; and Hinds, the film also boasts standout performances from James Cromwell as the U.S. President and Liev Schreiber as CIA field operative John Clark (who was played by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger). Glamour gal Bridget Moynahan ably plays against type as Ryan's physician girlfriend (and future wife) Cathy Muller, but the romantic angle is by far the film's least convincing and involving element.

However, Clancy films are never so much about Jack Ryan's personal life than those grand, globe-trotting adventures into which he finds himself thrust. The Sum of All Fears not only succeeds by that standard--it is a smart, complex, and engrossing idea-driven action thriller--but more importantly for Paramount, it also gets the more pressing job done: to breathe fresh life into a durable film franchise that, based on this installment, still has a promising future.


In Brief

Spirit one-sheet Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (G) **
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After a beautifully rendered opening passage where an eagle flies over a breathtaking expanse of the American West, DreamWorks' latest animated feature, the horse opera Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, wastes no time in daring viewers over the age of 5 to not roll their eyes. When Matt Damon chimes in with the first passage of insipid narration--"They say history rides on the saddle of a horse, but it comes from the heart of one"--the film goes into a crashing nosedive, plummeting to the deepest reaches of movie hell a mere moment later, when the titular horse is born as a treacly Bryan Adams power ballad blares, "Here I am!"

If there were ever a film that makes one clamor for a renaissance of the silent film era, Spirit is it. The film is clearly at its best when directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook are content to simply let the audience bask in its nonverbal pleasures. As studios increasingly turn their attention to producing entirely computer-generated animated features, Spirit is a stunning example of the irreplaceable splendors of traditional hand-drawn feature animation. Per what has become the norm, there is some obvious computer assistance in the creation of certain three-dimensional objects, but the most indelible sights emerge from the pen and brush of the artists and animators--not just the gorgeously drawn landscapes, but also the remarkable expressiveness of the distinctly equine faces. To borrow the old cliché, actions do speak louder than words in Spirit, and said actions are nicely underscored by Hans Zimmer's majestic score.

If only Asbury and Cook had more faith in viewers, particularly those target younger ones, to understand the story of Spirit with only the sparse dialogue uttered by the human characters. The story itself is, indeed, sparse. Gallant mustang Spirit is taken away from his family by a Calvalry Colonel (voiced by James Cromwell), but he eventually escapes with the help of an also-imprisoned Lakota named Little Creek (Daniel Studi). The well-meaning Little Creek makes Spirit part of his family, but the horse yearns to be free to rejoin his family. There's nothing in the story that doesn't come clearly enough through the visuals, score, and occasional spoken lines, but in keeping with Hollywood's ongoing efforts to play to the lowest common denominator, just when one is wrapped up in the immersive sweep, the moment is killed by either Damon's clanging and totally unnecessary horse's-view narration, or the mega-ton sledgehammer is that is Adams' even more unsubtle song score (didn't anyone learn from Tarzan and The Road to El Dorado that these non-character-sung song scores by aging pop/adult contemporary artists just don't work?). There are genuine moments of beauty in Spirit--visually and emotionally speaking--but ultimately they aren't worth the price of suffering through the extraneous material that too often sullies the picture.


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#323 May 17, 2002

M O V I E S
In Brief

The Believer one-sheet The Believer (R) ***
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The idea of a Jewish Nazi may sound absurd, but Henry Bean's controversial 2001 Sundance award winner--only now receiving a theatrical run after airing on Showtime--was inspired by fact: namely, a 1965 New York Times article that documented an actual case of one. The true reason for the success of Bean's film and its story's blistering believability are not the real-life roots but an electrifying powerhouse of a performance by Ryan Gosling in the central role. He creates in vivid, layered detail a staggeringly compelling character, a young man whose sharp intellect is at the very root of his contradictory, self-hating, self-destructive ways. Through the tough, hate-spewing veneer, Gosling also manages to project a certain vulnerability that makes his inner torment all the more palpable and intimate. Far less convincing is the story built around the character, and when plot takes over, particularly in the final act, the film feels every bit as mechanical as Gosling's work does not. But the film is more of a character story, anyhow, and Bean and especially Gosling fulfill those requirements and then some.


The Mystic Masseur one-sheet The Mystic Masseur (PG) ** 1/2
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Ismail Merchant's whimsical fable, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul, is never less than fascinating a listen, and not necessarily due to the musical score or dialogue. Trinidad in the 1940s is the setting, and its focus its large Indian population, who speak in a unique dialect which at once bears the unmistakable accent of India and distinct Caribbean cadences. However well done the costuming and production design indeed are, the flavor of this time and place is no more strongly evoked than in the way the people talk, a testament for Merchant's eye--or should I say "ear"--for detail, which was honed as producer on James Ivory's period costume oeuvre.

If only Merchant paid more attention the story. The main character is an aspiring author (Aasif Mandvi), and much like how his career doesn't takeoff until he becomes the revered faith healer of the title, neither does the film. Unfortunately, this development doesn't come until more than halfway into the film, for Merchant expends a bit too much time and energy in establishing the details of the culture and life. As such, the true arc of the story and character, also covering an extended foray into politics, feels all the more rushed, an apparent reflection of Merchant's progressively flagging interest--which not even spirited performances by Ayesha Dharker (as the masseur's wife) and Om Puri (as her father) are able to jumpstart.


D V D
TV Sets

Friends DVD cover Friends The Complete First Season
Disc: ***
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Despite finishing at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings race year after year since its 1994 debut, it took not one, but two best-selling "best of" video and DVD compilations before Warner Bros. finally decided to issue season-by-season box sets of the smash NBC sitcom Friends, starting with year one. By now the sextet of Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler (Matthew Perry), and Ross (David Schwimmer) have now become friends to the viewing audience, so it is undeniably interesting to revisit their beginnings--particularly the origins of the show's knotty, neverending soap that is the on-again, off-again Ross/Rachel romance--at this point in time. But as fun as that sense of rediscovery is--not to mention the sense of horror to relive looks and hairdos that have long gone out of the characters' and society's fashion--what's most fascinating while watching season one is how the cast really hit the ground running. From the first scene, the six actors display a palpable chemistry and perfect sense of rhythm together, one that they have amazingly managed to maintain until this day.

Warner has done a nice job with this first set, from the cardboard double gatefold and slipcase packaging (featuring episode-by-episode synopses) to the remastered 5.0 soundtrack. (Unfortunately, there are no foreign language options, so one cannot reenact for themselves the bit where Marcel the monkey switches on the SAP option.) Fans may be a bit disappointed with the relative lack of extras, but what little is included satisfies, particularly the commentary by executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane. While only spanning the 30 minutes of the pilot episode, the three cover just about everything one would want to know about the show's origins from casting to the opening title sequence in addition to specific issues about the episode in question (it is somewhat unfortunate, however, that the three were recorded separately since Kauffman and Crane's New York experiences were the vague inspiration for the show; it would have been nice to get a sense of their friendly chemistry). Less substantial but also informative is the interactive map of the friends' hangout, the coffeehouse Central Perk, which reveals various minutiae about the set dressing and design. The remaining extras, a guide to guest stars and a trivia quiz, are more filler than anything else, but they are in line with the sense of fun that comes with this set and the series as a whole.

Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; English 5.0 Surround; English, French, Spanish, and Korean subtitles; English closed captioning. (Warner Home Video)


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#322 May 10, 2002

M O V I E S

Attack of the Clones one-sheet Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones (PG) *** 1/2
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Perhaps the words that will most commonly be uttered in association with Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones--that is, right behind "Yoda is one badass motherfucker," but more on that later--are "It's better than The Phantom Menace." But to leave it at that is to damn the film with faint praise, for George Lucas' venerable sci-fi film franchise is back on track with this satisfying installment.

While he vehemently denies it, one cannot shake off the sense while watching Attack of the Clones that Lucas worked overtime to win back the favor of fans after their audible grumbling about 1999's Episode I--The Phantom Menace. Gone or vastly diminished are certain things that didn't quite work. The unfunny bafflement that is Jar Jar Binks is now relegated to an extended cameo (and in a particularly clever move, Lucas uses viewer hatred of the character to the film's advantage). In being relieved of her post as Queen of Naboo, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is also freed of her icy "royal" monotone, cumbersome costuming, and heavy kabuki-like makeup, hence allowing Portman a little more freedom in her performance (not to mention allowing for her natural, luminous beauty to shine through). In are some tried-and-true fan favorites: for instance, comic relief comes largely from the reliable droid duo of C3PO and R2D2; popular villain Boba Fett is also here, albeit as a child, with his father Jango (Temuera Morrison) doing the familiar bounty hunter business in the familiar Fett armor. As icing on the cake, creeping in at crucial moments in John Williams' majestic score are the familiar, booming notes of "The Imperial March."

Shameless pandering or not, such touches make Clones succeed in what was perhaps the most glaring area in which The Phantom Menace fell short: a clear context as to where the film ties into the extablished Star Wars mythos. In fact, Clones renders the entertaining but empty Menace that much more of a pointless exercise, for in this film does the real story of the prequel trilogy truly begin.

That story is, of course, that of Jedi Anakin Skywalker's descent into the dark side. Clones picks up ten years after the barely-referenced events of Menace, and the now-teenage Anakin (Hayden Christensen) is on poised to become the most powerful wielder of the Force the galaxy has ever known. But as a certain other summer blockbuster teaches, with great power comes great responsibility, and despite Obi-Wan Kenobi's (Ewan McGregor, making the role his own) teachings and warnings, Anakin's burgeoning powers are also feeding an even more rapidly burgeoning ego--and, hence, a growing frustration with his master and the strict Jedi code of conduct in general. Lucas wastes no time establishing the dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin, which is far more fascinating than that between Obi-Wan and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, in Menace; one of the first scenes is an extended speeder chase through the bustling ultra-urban skyways of Coruscant, and it delivers the expected thrills and eye-popping digital effects imagery while efficiently advancing the story and shaping the characters (unlike Menace's most memorable action sequence, the pod race).

Contributing to Anakin's frustration are his growing romantic feelings for Padmé, and their forbidden love is what Lucas intended to be the major hook of the film. But grand romance doesn't come naturally to Lucas; look no further than his decision to give a film he's described as a love story the beautifully evocative subtitle Attack of the Clones. The awkwardness more clearly (and in the worst cases, painfully) shows in Padmé and Anakin's romantic patter, which is so overbaked that Portman and Christensen quite understandably tend to stiffen while delivering it. Whenever the attractive pair's chemistry shows signs of igniting, Lucas and co-scripter Jonathan Hales can be counted on to douse them with strained lines such as "I've been dying a little every day since I saw you again" or clichéd "love actions" such as rolling around on the grassy knolls of the Naboo countryside.

Such labored dialogue and scenes don't exactly escape the memory very easily, and they are likely accountable for the harsh early notices that Portman and Christensen have received--which is a bit unfair, considering the two do good work in other areas. While she is still fairly underused in this episode (though a little more proactive) and most of her scenes concern the drippy romance, Portman does hold the screen with her usual regal grace. Christensen has a rougher time with the romantic scenes, but he justifies Lucas' casting risk by nailing the more important aspect of the character: his dark side. Christensen handles Anakin's turn-on-a-dime mood shifts with ease, and he excels in one particularly chilling dialogue scene; he should definitely be more in his element in Episode III, where the darkness completely takes over the character and the series.

And does Lucas ever leave one ever so anxious for Episode III by Clones' fantastic final act, when the tensions involving the intensifying separatist movement led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, oozing cool menace) and Chancellor Palpatine's (Ian McDiarmid) plan to build a clone army to protect the Republic come to a head. From some coliseum antics involving nasty creatures (shades of Gladiator) to all-out Jedi/droid slice-n-dice/shoot-'em-up battle scenes (shades of Braveheart) to some tense, high-energy light saber duels (shades of nothing anyone's ever seen before), Lucas proves he certainly hasn't lost his gift for creating rousing spectacle. His actors are right with him, clearly relishing the physical work, particularly McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson, who sees his share of action as Jedi Master Mace Windu. As convincing a job as they, Christensen, and Lee do, they all end up being upstaged by the jaw-dropping skills of a CGI creation: Yoda (again voiced by Frank Oz), who finally gets a chance to show exactly why he has such a legendary reputation.

However, Lucas' slickest trick in Attack of the Clones ends up being not one of the many technical ones up his sleeve--not the ever-elaborate makeup and FX work; not even the great look of the picture, which was shot entirely on high definition digital video cameras. His slickest trick is how by the end--in spite of any snickers or groans one may have uttered along the way--one finds oneself interested in the fates of these iconic characters. That investment, above even the promise of more spectacular action, will be what leads audiences lining back up to witness the series' inevitably tragic end in May 2005.


Unfaithful one-sheet Unfaithful (R) no stars
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"Your eyes are amazing, you know that? You should never shut them. Not even at night." In real life, if a guy used this line on a woman, she would most likely bust out laughing in his face. Factor in a thick French accent, and it would be a miracle if she didn't collapse to the floor in a gut-busting giggle fit. In Unfaithful, however, it's only a matter of seconds before the target of the line is dropping her pants. That, right there, should give one a clear indication as to the strange, alien, and rather hilarious world in which Adrian Lyne's latest erotic "drama" takes place.

I should say "dropping her muffins," for Lyne doesn't pass up any opportunity for the most blatant symbolism. Before dropping her pants, the very married Constance Sumner (the very beautiful Diane Lane) pays a visit to the apartment studly French book dealer Paul Martel (the very skeevy Olivier Martinez), a gift bag of muffins in tow. He drops that oh-so-slick compliment to her, but she doesn't let go of the muffin bag--not even as they slow dance--until he grabs them and throws them to the floor in an action that screams out "This is one forceful guy." As if we didn't gather that before, when, on a previous encounter with Connie, Paul makes her read a poem that encourages her to seize the moment, or in another encounter where he tries to seduce her with nothing less than a chicken recipe in a cookbook written in braille. Even that latter fact somehow comes to play later when Connie is shown at home burning a chicken dinner (See--the cookbook was a "slick" foreshadowing of the gradual destruction of Connie's domestic life! How brilliantly layered! Not).

What Lyne and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. don't feel the need to drill into the audience's heads is Connie's motivation for falling into an adulterous affair. In fact, they offer no reason at all, for her businessman husband Edward (the very squinty Richard Gere) is not only attentive to her but actively attracted to her; and they have a bright young son (the very perky Erik Per Sullivan). The ambiguous irrationality on this point is one of the film's few strengths, but leave it to Lyne to fill in the blanks by pushing the fate card extra hard. While on shopping trip in New York City, Connie and Paul are quite literally blown together by the winds of fate, and, yes, these winds are the harbinger of a larger metaphorical storm in both of their existences. The audience knows that very well going in--after all, the film is called Unfaithful--but it takes at least a full half hour of false starts and laughable failed seduction attempts by Paul (the poem, the braille) before the two get it on.

This being a film by known screen provocateur Lyne, one expects the film to come to life once the eroticism begins, and indeed it does--though not in the way intended. The first sex scene plays as a flashback intercut with Lane's impressive depiction of Connie's simultaneous feelings of horror and excitement on the train ride home, but the glimpses that the audiences see are more likely to incite the former than the latter--but above even that, laughter. Lyne leaves his camera to ogle Connie's trembling belly button for a long while as Paul blows on her crotch, but her nerves don't go away until he repeatedly commands her in that alluring accent of his, "Heet me!"--which then makes a post-argument foyer fuck later in the film hardly a twist. At least Lyne is able to see a rough restroom romp for the ribald ridiculousness that it is, earning the film its one intended laugh.

Too bad, though, that he saw everything else in Unfaithful with such self-important seriousness. Presumably is to derive from the big countdown until Edward finds out, but the idiotic character of Connie makes it no fun; not only is she a terribly unconvincing liar, she doesn't have the sense to prepare for her afternoon booty calls until after her husband has left for work, plus she commits a crucial act of re-gifting that goes far beyond mere social faux pas. The film's third act foray into thriller territory is also more bore than score, with Lyne and his sledgehammer pounding down points of which only those with a severe Memento-like short-term memory condition would need reminding.

What makes Unfaithful that much more of a trying sit is that the film shows flashes of potential. The premise is certainly workable (and, apparently, has worked before; the film is a reworking of Claude Chabrol's La Femme Infidèle), and every now and again some genuine performance comes through, particularly by Lane, as illustrated by the previously mentioned train ride scene. At every turn, though, her valiant efforts are thwarted by a patch of atrocious dialogue or a questionable directing decision--which exposes the very reason for Unfaithful's failure: a potentially interesting project gone horribly awry in the hands of the wrong team of filmmakers.


In Brief

The New Guy one-sheet The New Guy (PG-13) no stars
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An extended montage of Eliza Dushku modeling bikinis. This sequence, which occurs about two-thirds into The New Guy, is pretty much the only reason worth watching the film. When the film hits DVD, there's certain to be a chapter stop there for easy access, and considering the movie's video release shouldn't be too far off, there really is no reason to catch this lame teen comedy in theatres.

DJ Qualls proved to be an amusingly offbeat presence in a small role in Road Trip, but his is not exactly a persona onto which one should hang an entire film. And indeed the strain shows on his scrawny shoulders, however feather-light the film's premise is: a geek (Qualls) willingly gets expelled from his high school so as to reinvent himself as a cool badass at a new school. Some faint grins are to be had as the decidedly uncool and harmless Qualls tries to act tough, but for the most part one sits there wondering if all the fizzled and obvious gross-out and slapstick gags are supposed to be funny--and what talented stars like Dushku (as a cheerleader who falls for the new guy), Zooey Deschanel (as one of the new guy's old friends), and Illeana Douglas (as a school counselor) are doing wasting their time in this drivel.


D V D

Lagaan one-sheet Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (PG)
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ***
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How shameful it is that it took an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film to get Sony to see the light and give a theatrical release to the rousing and delightful Indian import Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, which they had already consigned to the direct-to-home-entertainment market back in January. The big screen would definitely be the proper place to see such a splashy, epic entertainment, but for homebodies (and those not living in areas served by the current theatrical run), Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has offered a satisfying digital edition of the film.

Lagaan is about as big a crowdpleaser as they possibly come, but the studio's hesitation in giving the film a theatrical run is somewhat understandable. First of all, in accordance with the "epic entertainment" description, the film boasts a sizeable running time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, to be exact. On top of that, the film is a quintessential Bollywood production, meaning all those opulent song and dance numbers are in heavy supply. Then there's the one fact that would really strike fear in domestic marketing execs: it's not only a musical, but a musical about... the sport of cricket.

The film sounds alienating, to be sure, but the film's subtitle, Once Upon a Time in India, points up the universality of the story--and, admittedly, more than a whiff of its formula nature. The setting is 1893 in the village of Champaner, outside of which lies a British cantonment commanded by the greedy Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Russell has been collecting a stiff lagaan, or land tax (now you see why the first word of the title wasn't translated--Land Tax: Once Upon a Time in India doesn't have quite the same ring), from all the villages, and the tax has been impossible for the villagers to pay as their harvests have been vastly diminished due to a drought. One villager, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan, who also produced), has the courage to stand up to the British colonialists, and somehow he manages to strike an unusual deal with Russell: they will play a game of cricket to determine the future of the lagaan. If the villagers win, no lagaan for three years; if they lose, they will have to pay triple the regular amount. With the help and teaching of Russell's sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), Bhuvan and his compatriots attempt to do the impossible.

It's a typical sports movie set up, and the "Once upon a time" of the subtitle should leave little doubt as to how this is all going to end. But what makes Lagaan so special is the spirited execution. The foreign/exotic quality of the sport and the storytelling undoubtedly adds to its appeal. It helps that, along with the villagers, most American viewers will learn about cricket right along with them. The seemingly unlikely incorporation of musical numbers works fabulously; the melodies by A.R. Rahman are haunting and memorable, and they are well-performed (as opposed to "sung," for the voices are provided by studio singers) by the stars--particularly Khan, whose talent and formidable charisma leaves no doubt as to why he's a Bollywood superstar. The music is also crucial to making the nearly four hours of movie just breeze by; also helping is the witty and moving script, entertaining performances (particularly Blackthorne as the hissable Russell), and skillful direction by writer-helmer Ashutosh Gowariker.

The image quality on the DVD sometimes leaves something to be desired; while the colors are appropriately rich, there are a few specks and one stretch where a scratch remains visible, but these were probably unavoidable flaws from the original print. The sound quality makes up for it, however (all the better to appreciate the production numbers); as does the generally good presentation of the entire package. The booklet offers some valuable, if brief, information on the film's production, and filmographies for the principal cast and crew are offered on the disc. No trailer or additional background material is present on the disc, but that's compensated for by the inclusion of a deleted sequence, or "scene unseen," as it's called. This is no throwaway sequence, for it includes some intriguing plot points that I would actually have preferred to not be scrapped, but given the sequence is no less than 20 minutes (!) long, their deletion did make for some seamless streamlining.

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


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#321 May 3, 2002

M O V I E S
In Brief

Deuces Wild one-sheet Deuces Wild (R) no stars
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When a film has been sitting on a studio shelf for a significant amount of time, as a reviewer you try to give it benefit of the doubt when if finally does see release. More often than not, however, the film lives up to the negative suspicions, or in really (for lack of a better term) "special" cases, it is far worse than one could have ever imagined. The latter is the case with this abysmal '50s-set youth gang picture, which United Artists held onto for a year before smartly sacrificing it to the box office predator that is Spider-Man. Stephen Dorff and Brad Renfro play brothers in the "Deuces" gang; Renfro falls for a girl (Fairuza Balk) affiliated with the rival Vipers, whose leader (Norman Reedus) is responsible for the years-ago death of Dorff and Renfro's drug addict brother.

A basic summary of the (unoriginal) plot doesn't quite do justice to the awfulness of the movie, for that comes through all too painfully in the execution. The acting ranges from amateurish to downright horrific, with special recognition going out to Debbie Harry (yes, that Debbie Harry), who plays Balk's mother. In her partial defense, though, her thankless task is to play a woman pathologically obsessed with (of all things) Christmas--one of the many choice roles in Paul Kimatian and Christopher Gimbale's atrocious script, such as neighborhood kid Scooch (Frankie Muniz), who serves no purpose except to enter random scenes, say and wave hello to others in the cast, and then exit. Most of the condemnation, however, must go to director Scott Kalvert, who apparently paid no attention as his clueless actors fumbled with howlers of lines such "Why don't you make my favorite dish, called FOOD!" He was apparently too busy figuring out how much pointless slow motion he could use to overpunctuate even the most mundane of scenes, not to mention how many times he could "stylishly" flash cut back to the discovery of the junkie brother's pale, emaciated dead body.


Hollywood Ending one-sheet Hollywood Ending (PG-13) **
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How's this for a premise: a once-mighty film director develops hysterical blindness yet still goes on with shooting his latest project and--surprise!--the movie's a disaster! Sounds like a rickety and stale idea to build an entire film upon, a fact that seems lost on the once-mighty-himself Woody Allen, whose own vision seems to be fading as he milks the gag dry and then some for almost two hours. The moviemaking scenario would seem to give the writer-director some delicious opportunity to make some biting zingers about Tinseltown and the film industry, but mostly the jokes are not only a bit too far inside for the average viewer, they won't be very funny to those in the know, either. Allen's broader bits, generally deriving from his character's blindness, also fall flat; crew members asking how he likes the look of sets and props only prompt a chuckle (if that) the first time, so you can imagine how it must feel to see the gag recycled a few more times over.

An even deader horse is given multiple floggings in Hollywood Ending: Allen's continuing insistence on casting himself as some object of desire to women at least 30 years his junior. Here, Allen's Val Waxman (the suddenly sightless director) lives with a hardbodied hacktress (an amusing Debra Messing) while still pining for his studio exec ex-wife (Téa Leoni, coming off well, considering)--who, despite being involved with a slick (and more age-appropriate) studio chief (Treat Williams), still carries a buried torch for Val. As if that weren't enough, in one especially ego-feeding scene, Val is heavily hit on by his film's sexy young starlet (Tiffani Thiessen), whose open robe reveals her voluptuous, bra-and-panties clad figure. (With Elizabeth Berkley showing up in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and now Thiessen in this film, one wonders if Allen's apparent Saved by the Bell fetish will lead him to cast Lark Voorhies in his next film; on second thought, scratch that--Voorhies is black, after all.) It may seem petty to keep on criticizing Allen for the constant May/December-of-next-year casting, but it's all one can notice when he offers very little of wit or worth to divert one's attention, as in this anemic effort.


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#320 April 26, 2002

M O V I E S

Life or Something Like It one-sheet Life or Something Like It (PG-13) * 1/2
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Lanie Kerrigan has it all: looks, a pro baseball player fiancé, a cushy TV news job in Seattle, and the prospect of an even cushier broadcast job on a national scale. She may be vain, but that doesn't necessarily make Lanie a bad person, but per Hollywood standards that's enough for her to be in dire need of a major life upheaval. So goes her Life or Something Like It, but the only type of lives this glossy comedy-drama resembles are ones in formulaic mainstream movies.

Lanie (Angelina Jolie) gets her wake-up call when doing a story on a street prophet named Jack (Tony Shalhoub) declares on the air that she will die in a week's time. When the other prognostications Jack made come true, Lanie is compelled to reevaluate her life and determine what matters most before her time runs out. Suddenly, being the glamorous trophy wife to a pro athlete or a successful television personality matters nothing in the grand scheme--or what remains of it for her, that is.

Hence uptight, carefully styled Lanie seizes the day, trading in designer power suits for ratty T-shirts and--in that ultimate movie expression of cutting loose--leads a sing-along to a classic rock tune (in this case, the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction") during a live report that her producer inexplicably allows to go on for a while. That last example is reflective of all of Life or Something Like It: absolutely preposterous yet completely in line with the expected formula. There's no convincing reason why Lanie should fall for her scruffy cameraman Pete (Edward Burns)--certainly not the chemistry between Jolie and Burns, because there isn't any--except that they bicker a lot in that typical love-hate way and, for good, sensitive measure, he happens to have a cute l'il moppet of a son. Like clockwork, Lanie can't resist him for long.

All of this would've been forgivable, or at the very least watchable, if the film were as funny and moving as it tries to be. When the jokes in John Scott Shepherd and Dana Stevens' screenplay are mostly at the expense of such easy targets as television news (particularly one Barbara Walters-esque interviewer, played by Stockard Channing) and Lanie's blonde ambition, it's not difficult to see why the intended laughs fall flat. The film actually works somewhat better on the more serious side, particularly because Jolie is an inherently likable actress (even with that garish, platinum blonde newscaster bouffant), but there's little else reason to care about Lanie's existential crisis beyond liking her portrayer. Director Stephen Herek certainly doesn't come up with anything, and he fails to make the swings between silliness and schmaltz smoothly.

Will Lanie get the big job? Will she live past the week? Will she choose love over career? If she or anything else in her world in some way resembled or related life or something like it, then maybe the audience would have given a damn.


Spider-Man one-sheet Spider-Man (PG-13) *** 1/2
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After years of starts and stops, various legal wranglings, and an extended flirt with an Oscar-winning, self-professed "king of the world," the Spider-Man feature film has finally come to pass, and the long and winding path to the big screen has led to the right hands: those of director Sam Raimi, who has set the bar unusually high for the rest of the summer film season with this exciting and exhilarating adventure.

Raimi has gone on record as being a longtime fan of the character, and it shows in the film's remarkable fidelity not only to the source material but also the spirit of it. While the costumed alter ego that can do "whatever a spider can" gives the film and the comic its name, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp have wisely focused what has made the character such an enduring icon: the man behind the mask, Peter Parker. Unlike the alien-born Superman or the genetically evolved X-Men, Peter is just an average guy by nature; the amazing powers were thrust upon him by the fateful bite of an arachnid. The changes in him are more physical than anything else, a fact that comes out clearly in the casting of and the performance by Tobey Maguire; much like how everyman Maguire doesn't match the prototype of a screen action star, geeky and insecure Peter makes for a most unlikely superhero.

And is Peter ever the socially awkward teenage wallflower when the audience is introduced to him, running after a school bus that has left him behind. He pines for comely girl next door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who only has eyes for school jock Flash Thompson. On a field trip to a museum, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider (an update from the dated radioactive one of comic lore) and wakes up the next morning finding that his eyesight is improved, his physique is massively pumped up, and that objects suddenly have a nasty tendency to stick to his hands. That proves to be just the tip of the iceberg, for later he discovers those famous wall-crawling abilities and--in a controversial deviation that will prove to be much less so when those most critical of comic fans see the film--that he can naturally shoot webs from his wrists.

The film's first act traces Spider-Man's origins fairly closely to what was laid out back in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy#15, and despite how familiar the sequence of events may be to the Spidey faithful, Raimi and crew have enacted them with such care and flair that no one will be bored. Slightly adding to the interest are some small but no less notable alterations to details. For instance, the spider that bites Peter is red and blue, which better explains why he adopts such a color scheme for his costume; and the tragedy that teaches Peter the lesson that "with great power comes great responsibility" comes about in a more contemporary way. However, one change in particular--the motivation behind one of Peter's most fateful choices--would've been better left unmade, but it isn't too much of a distraction.

Peter and his double life firmly established, it is then time to establish some supervillainy, and in this screen venture he does battle against the Green Goblin, a.k.a. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), father to Peter's best friend Harry (James Franco, the weak link in an otherwise fine cast). Norman, an aerospace company head, is driven to insanity and evil after experimenting with a performance-enhancing serum. The corporate politics that further contribute to Norman's insanity are definitely one of the least interesting parts of the story, but Dafoe is never less than riveting--particularly when out of the Goblin's armored suit, which proves to be as constricting to his performance as it must have been to his body. Had the audience no gotten just the random glimpse of Dafoe's eyes and mouth and a fuller view of his expressive face, the costumed character probably would've been more menacing, for the fixed mouth-agape expression on his metal mask certainly isn't.

Raimi resists the easy jokiness that is the pitfall of the comic-to-screen territory, and the film is the better for it. However, certainly a number of cynical viewers will deem as camp some of the admittedly overripe emotional moments and dialogue exchanges, but it's all completely in line with the old-fashioned, Silver Age of Comics aesthetic Raimi so lovingly recreates. Heart-on-sleeve confessionals may be a bit jarring to jaded, contemporary ears, but with gifted actors such as Maguire, Dunst, and Rosemary Harris (as Peter's aunt May) sell the material with such genuine sincerity--and refreshingly without irony--that it's fairly easy to buy.

Such forays into sentimentality doesn't mean that Raimi doesn't have fun with Spider-Man, however. The inventive visual style he honed on his early, down-and-dirty genre pieces serves the superhero world perfectly (as it did in his previous foray into the realm, 1990's Darkman), and many sequences are like panels on a printed page brought to life, such as a brilliantly done montage of layered images in which Peter designs his Spider-Man costume, and a spider-emblem wipe. Raimi also brings his Evil Dead-bred edge to the well-done, if a bit overly CG and Matrix-reminiscent, action and fight scenes; while not overly violent, they are a little rougher than one would expect. The film is also certainly not without his unique sense of humor, from an early sequence where a jubilant Peter runs and jumps across a number of New York City rooftops (making clever and amusing use of that tired cliché) and tests out his webbing to the hilarious machine gun of zingers that is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, in a scene-stealing turn).

Touches like those make Spider-Man deliver as the summer popcorn fare it's been hyped as being, but what elevates the film above most aspiring blockbusters--and what makes the character one of the most beloved creations in all of comicdom--is the human core of melancholy in Peter Parker's story, which is quite affectingly reinforced in the film's unusually serious and somber (for Hollywood superhero films, that is) wrap-up. For all the little quibbles Spider-Fans such as myself may have with this film (e.g., Flash Thompson having dark hair instead of blond; Mary Jane never delivering her signature "Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!" come-on), and for all the many things that Raimi did get right, that he nailed down that most important element so precisely would alone make Spider-Man just about the truest and most satisfying screen adaptation most anyone could have ever hoped for. That Raimi also has the smarts and finely attuned fanboy instincts to play the classic theme song to the 1960s Spidey TV cartoon series at the tail end of the film's closing credits is just icing on the cake.


In Brief

The Cat's Meow one-sheet The Cat's Meow (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of Steven Peros' stage play works on a number of levels--as an intriguing exploration of Hollywood history, a fascinating mystery, a well-balanced ensemble piece, a juicy bit of plausible speculation--but above all else it is a smart and satisfying entertainment. Edward Herrmann plays media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who with mistress and movie starlet Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) throws a weekend yacht excursion to celebrate the birthday of film producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes); the festive atmosphere is quickly soured as Hearst casts an increasingly suspicious eye on Marion and party guest Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Bogdanovich's casting skews offbeat--the teenage Dunst as the twentysomething Marion; cross-dressing comic Izzard as the dapper Chaplin; Jennifer Tilly as writer Louella Parsons--but the risks pay off, particularly with Dunst, who once again displays remarkable depth and poise beyond her years, not to mention an irresistible charm. The real key to the film's success is the foundation upon which Bogdanovich and the cast's contributions are built: Peros' carefully plotted yet character-driven screenplay.


Night at the Golden Eagle one-sheet Night at the Golden Eagle ***
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The Golden Eagle is a seedy flophouse of a hotel in Los Angeles, and the night brought to film by writer-director Adam Rifkin is indeed steeped in the stench and squalor of such a location. But the movie is less about the sleaze than the broken dreams and desperation that is hidden by it, as seen in two concurrent stories being played out within the Eagle's walls. In one, an old, recently released convict (Donnie Montemarano) and his best friend (Vinny Argiro) have their plans of a move to Vegas are upset by a smart-mouthed prostitute (Natasha Lyonne); in the other plotline, another hooker (Ann Magnuson) shows a new teenage recruit (Nicole Jacobs) the ropes. Nothing about the stories in and of themselves is particularly original, but Rifkin knows how to create atmosphere and finds interesting ways of shooting his cramped locations, and most of all he coaxes fine, gritty work all around from his cast--particularly real-life best friends and screen newcomers Montemarano and Argiro, whose ease and believability in front of the camera belies their inexperience as actors.


The Salton Sea one-sheet The Salton Sea (R) **
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D.J. Caruso's down-and-dirty crime thriller has had its release bumped a number of times, but even if it made its original release date last fall, it would've reeked of a been-there, done-that sameness. A striking opening which shows a man (Val Kilmer) playing a solemn tune on a trumpet as his home burns down around him ends with a voiceover line saying that nothing as is it seems. How wrong that turns out to be, for from that point on Caruso and writer Tony Gayton delve into an expectedly scuzzy, eccentric-populated underworld milieu that has come to be quite familiar in recent years. The specific world explored in The Salton Sea is that of meth-addicted "tweakers," one of which Danny (Kilmer) becomes as part of an elaborate revenge scheme. To reveal the exact nature of the scheme--and Danny's true identity--is to ruin one of few things the film has going for it, which is Gayton's layered twist structure.

Whether or not one cares about the characters getting twisted around, however, is another story entirely. Kilmer brings some degree of sympathy to his (intentional) cipher of a character, but Caruso and Gayton are less interested than his inner turmoil than by all the goofier types that live in Salton's skewed universe: particularly Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio), a baby food-eating drug dealer who wears a prosthetic nose and who takes pleasure in such twisted activities as reenacting JFK's assassination with radio-controlled toy cars or feeding people's genitals to badgers. The novelty of such outrageousness wears thin after a while, rapidly turning from diverting to distracting to ultimately overwhelming, and much like how Danny loses sight of his true self, so does the film lose track of what it's supposed to be about.


Vulgar one-sheet Vulgar **
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Many critics have been basing their entire opinion on Vulgar on a brutal scene of sexual assault, and indeed the sequence in question is quite disturbing. But think about it: should any depiction of such an act of violence be anything but off-putting? The sequence (which is actually far less graphic than it's been made out to be) gets under the skin and unnerves, effectively placing the audience in the shoes--clown shoes, as it happens--of the crime's victim, one Will Carlson (a brave Brian Christopher O'Halloran), a struggling birthday party clown who makes a bold and regrettable move into being a transvestite gag act named Vulgar. The sequence is a crucial one, but it still is just one sequence, and to assess the entirety of a film based on the nature of one sequence's content is to be shallowly prudish.

It's also short-sighted, for there are other, more substantial criticisms to be made of this film, primarily first-time writer-director Bryan Johnson's wild tonal shifts. The film begins as outrageous, over-the-top comedy, with sad sack Will taking verbal abuse from everyone, particularly his mother; then the film jarringly becomes dark and serious with the assault; and then on a dime it becomes a satire of celebrity and children's television. Johnson's warped ambition and sheer audacity cannot be dismissed, but he doesn't yet have the skill to pull off such a difficult juggle of conflicting moods with ease and fluidity; as such, the film plays as a jumble of wildly disparate elements that don't ever quite congeal as a whole. If nothing else, Vulgar is unlike anything out there and hence holds a strange fascination, but being unique doesn't necessarily equate to being good, no matter how admirably the filmmakers have gone for broke.


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