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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 98

#325 - 329
June 7, 2002 - July 5, 2002


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#329 July 5, 2002

M O V I E S

Men in Black II one-sheet Men in Black II (PG-13) **
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Tommy Lee Jones is back. Will Smith is back. Even Frank the pug and director Barry Sonnenfeld are back. With those basic elements in place, Men in Black II cannot help but be watchable, but given how much more in the way of originality and freewheeling fun they yielded the first time, MIIB is a big letdown.

The five years that have passed since the first MiB was released have also passed in Movie Land, as Agent J (Smith) of the alien policing organization Men in Black has apparently has lost a long line partners, among them his partner at the end of the last film, former coroner Agent L. When the slithery Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle, as vanilla as her chalk white body makeup) arrives on Earth to find the light of Zartha and basically destroy the universe as we know it, there's only one partner who can help J take her down: the former Agent K (Jones), who is still in the neuralized netherworld of non-MiB life as a small-town postman.

Once the initial reversal of J schooling the amnesiac K in the ways of the MiB is over with--which is rather quickly--so goes any air of freshness to their act. Of course, MIIB is really just about getting Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith back into the suits and shades and back into their familiar screen personae: Jones playing fast-talking deadpan foil to Smith's street-smart wise-ass act, and the two packing heavy artillery to rid the planet of all manner of CGI-generated alien scum. However strong their comic chemistry remains, Sonnenfeld and writers Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro don't give them anything particularly funny--or, more crucially new to do; in fact, the basic story is a reverse-gender variation of that of the original film, with an alien baddie coming to Earth in search of an otherworldly object. With no new directions for the main characters, one can guess how the slim the supporting parts are; pity game MiB newcomers Patrick Warburton and Rosario Dawson, who have their talents and charms wasted as J's pre-K partner and J's quasi-love interest, respectively.

MIIB is a textbook example of a redundant, middle-of-the-road summer sequel tailored to please the most easily entertained of moviegoers. Unfortunately, most multiplex audiences fall under that description, confirming MIIB's pre-ordained blockbuster status.


In Brief

The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest one-sheet The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (PG-13) *
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By the time you read this, this film's theatrical run will have already come to a close after a whopping five days on two screens with nonexistent promotion. Watching this loose adaptation of Po Bronson's novel of the same name, it's no mystery why Fox wants to fulfill its bare minimum theatrical release obligations before sweeping it under the rug and into video store oblivion. The story, in which a group of outcast computer engineers led by a former marketing guy (Adam Garcia) attempt to make a $99 laptop, could have made for a smart satire of Silicon Valley (and for all I know the novel and the original script by Jon Favreau could have been exactly that) but instead the bevy of rewriters (primarily Gary Tieche, who shares final screen credit with Favreau) and director Mick Jackson have made an unfunny farce full of lame and insanely tired techie nerd jokes. The "underdog against the evil corporate establishment" story also doesn't take hold, what with its implausible twists, unsympathetic cast of computer geek caricatures (played by Ethan Suplee, Anjul Nigam, and a characteristically overwrought Jake Busey), and the charisma vacuum that is Garcia in the lead. The only element commanding the slight bit of attention is the always-watchable Rosario Dawson, but her talent and presence is wasted as the token love interest for Garcia. Making twenty dollars, let alone twenty million of them, let alone a first twenty million of them, will be quite the difficult task for this turkey, even when consigned to bargain basement video rental bins.


Like Mike one-sheet Like Mike (PG) no stars
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The sheer awfulness of Like Mike is nothing that anyone who's seen the trailer couldn't already figure out. After all, the very basic premise is a recipe for certain disaster. Young Calvin Cambridge (Lil' Bow Wow) finds that a pair of sneakers that he believes once belonged to Michael Jordan--just because the initials "MJ" were written on them. (Alas, if only there were a late plot twist where the initials are revealed to have stood for "Michael Jackson" or something.) After Calvin and the shoes receive a jolt of electricity (if only the film resembled real life, in which case the child would've died, and the film would've been over after 20 minutes), he discovers that the sneakers give him mad hoops skillz. After schooling pro baller Tracey (Morris Chestnut) during a halftime contest during a game, Calvin is signed by Tracey's team, the NBA's perpetually struggling Los Angeles Clippers--er, Knights.

The rest of the story indeed writes itself--everyone knows that somehow, some way the kid will have to prove he got game without the magic shoes, and inevitably that Moment of Truth will come during The Big Game. The only credit that director John Schultz (who perpetrated the misbegotten Melissa Joan Hart vehicle Drive Me Crazy--'nuff said) and the "writers" deserve is that they make Calvin's Moment of Truth something that isn't completely preposterous, like a high-flying game-winning slam dunk; it's merely preposterous. What is completely preposterous, on the other hand, is the movie's ghastly level schmaltz. B-ball skills, fame, and fortune are all well and good, but what Calvin really wants is to be part of a family. It's no mystery whose family of which he will end up he'll end up being a part the minute Calvin starts love-hate sparring with Tracey. A certain level of sap is to be expected from family films, but something is awry when the basketball action--clearly what both the under-10 target audience and their parents want to see--is drowned out by such syrupy sights as Tracey, Calvin, and Calvin's best friend (Jonathan Lipnicki) bonding while throwing paint at each other. In slow motion. I wish I were joking.

But there's no joke about the wretchedness that is Like Mike--except the cruel one on anyone who gets suckered into watching this crap. Don't make the same mistake as Chestnut and Robert Forster (as the Knights' coach), real actors trapped in a horrid "family" flick/acting vehicle for a nominally talented (as far as acting goes) kid rapper. But then again, they got a nice paycheck to be associated with Like Mike. Unless you're given the same incentive, there's no excuse to come within a hundred feet of a screen playing this monstrosity of a movie.


The Powerpuff Girls one-sheet The Powerpuff Girls (PG) ***
with Dexter's Laboratory: Chicken Scratch (G) **
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If you're unitiated with Cartoon Network/Kids' WB's superheroine sensation The Powerpuff Girls, don't be afraid to take a chance with this animated action blast. Fans and newcomers alike will find something new and exciting in the feature film version of the same name, which details the origin of--as a newspaper headline in the film hilariously describes them--these "freaky bug-eyed weirdo girls." The Powerpuff Girls are brainy redhead Blossom, giggly blonde Bubbles, and attitude-heavy brunette Buttercup, lab creations of Professor Utonium, who unwittingly made these kick-ass, pint-sized paragons of machisma when he mixed sugar, spice, and everything nice with the mysterious Chemical X.

The skimpy sliver that is the film's story shouldn't be too surprising, as the series covers the Girls' basic origin in the first 30 seconds of every episode. But just because the main plot--megalomaniacal monkey Mojo Jojo tricks the Girls into using their powers for one of his dastardly schemes--is slim doesn't mean the movie is overall. Director/series creator Craig McCracken and his animation team deliver exactly what they set out to offer, which is (as the MPAA rating reasons rather amusingly put it) "non-stop frenetic animated action," and are there a number of genuinely exciting sequences, all refreshingly done without the slightest hint of CG help. That all the action in the movie comes with the wit and memorable characters one has come to expect from the television series is just icing on the cake.

The inclusion of Chicken Scratch, a pre-movie Dexter's Laboratory short, may seem like more icing, but it's far from up to that show's usually entertaining standards. Boy genius Dexter develops a case of the chickenpox, and all his itching and scratching leads to a thuddingly unremarkable and highly predictable punchline. Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the main Powerpuff feature, which may be formulaic but never fails to find other ways to entertain.


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#328 June 28, 2002

M O V I E S

Mr. Deeds one-sheet Mr. Deeds (PG-13) **
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Any Adam Sandler fan will more than likely react to Mr. Deeds with the same amount of enthusiasm as the excitable recruited audience members at my screening. After all, this movie finds Sandler falling back on old tricks that worked for his public prior to the critical and commercial crash-and-burn that was Little Nicky. Longfellow Deeds (Sandler) is a Waterboy-like gentle soul with a Happy Gilmore-ish tendency to erupt into violence, which nonetheless proves to not be a crimp in his romantic relationship with a character played by a name-brand Hollywood starlet (in this case, Winona Ryder), à la The Wedding Singer.

While regression is an understandable regrouping move after a disaster such as Nicky, it also makes for especially tiresome viewing when the filmmakers don't even try to offer something a little more fresh. The specifics may be different--small-town New Hampshire pizzeria owner/aspiring greeting card writer Deeds comes to the Big Apple after inheriting a $40 billion fortune--but there's no shaking a feeling of treading water sameness at work. Sandler barely expends any energy trotting out the "average dude who shakes up stodgy high society" schtick, and director Steven Brill and scripter Tim Herlihy follow lazy suit. Deeds plays as if it were spat out by a "Make Your Own Adam Sandler Vehicle" computer program. Gimmicky celebrity cameo? Check--John McEnroe as himself, sending up his bad boy image. Oddly accented background character? Check--John Turturro as Deeds' stealthy Spanish servant Emilio. Grotesque bodily gag? Check--Steve Buscemi as the aptly named Crazy Eyes; Deeds' severely frostbitten right foot. Brutal slapstick jokes? Check--take your pick: Peter Gallagher's scheming businessman getting hit in the head and other sensitive areas numerous times by tennis balls; Deeds pummelling a mugger; or Emilio taking numerous whacks at Deeds' permanently frostbitten foot with a fireplace poker.

That broad mean streak in the humor mixes uneasily with the film's overall straight-faced sincerity--after all, the film is a loose remake of the 1936 Frank Capra classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. (I'm not even going to go into the questionable notion of Sandler standing in for Gary Cooper, or the even more unfathomable idea of Brill--he who perpetrated Nicky--filling the shoes of Capra.) But Brill is completely lost when it comes to pulling off sincerity, much less attempt to seamlessly mix it with another sensibility. When the romance between Deeds and tabloid TV producer Babe Bennett (Ryder), who pretends to be an innocent small-town girl in order to get the big story, takes over in the film's second half, it's so unconvincing that one almost yearns for the tired jokes. Sandler and Ryder don't ever display a single iota of chemistry between them, and Brill somehow manages to make the situation even worse. In an apparent attempt to compensate for the fizzled pairing, Brill ratchets up the would-be drama during the more serious moments. Bad call. Romantic comedies inevitably have their sober moments of crisis, but what the hell was Brill going after in giving Ryder a full-on breakdown scene where she leans against and then slowly slides down a door while in heaving sobs? Then again, that scene was probably the only big laugh-getter of the entire film.

Not that the lackluster love story will matter any to the Sandler faithful, who are there to see the star beat people up and work his regular joe mojo on snooty types; those viewers will certainly get their fill and then some. Anyone looking for anything more certainly shouldn't be looking to Mr. Deeds to find it.


In Brief

Lovely & Amazing one-sheet Lovely & Amazing (R) ** 1/2
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Nicole Holofcener's heartfelt ensemble dramedy does feature some lovely performances, but as a whole the film is far from amazing--a reflection of the shared miserable state of mind of the film's focal set of a mother and her three daughters. Brenda Blethyn is matriarch Jane, who is about to go under the knife for a liposuction procedure. Abrasive eldest daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener) is a former homecoming queen who has grown bitter thanks to a passionless marriage and a dead-end would-be career as an artist. The younger and more likable Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) has a slowly but surely budding acting career, but losing out on a job for not being sexy enough leaves a lasting sting. Although adopted, eight-year-old Annie (newcomer Raven Goodwin) is not immune to the family legacy of poor self-image; being African-American, she longs to fit in physically with her sisters and mother. Holofcener's loose, character-driven style is a definite plus, as one gets to know each character's distinct neuroses rather well. But the approach also proves to be the film's undoing as each character's respective arc--Jane's surgery, Michelle's odd relationship with a teen (Jake Gyllenhaal), Elizabeth's fling with a movie star (Dermot Mulroney), Annie's friendship with her Big Sister (Aunjanue Ellis)--leads to an unsatisfying creative cul-de-sac. The untidiness of the film's non-resolutions may bear the truth of real life, but it also makes the 90-minute wallow in self-loathing--and the actors' admirable efforts--feel especially pointless.


Pumpkin one-sheet Pumpkin (R) ** 1/2
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Pampered sorority girl Carolyn (Christina Ricci, who also produced) falls for mentally challenged boy Pumpkin (Hank Harris), whom she's coaching for the Challenged Games. Doesn't exactly sound like the most promising premise for a movie regardless of its genre, so it's actually rather remarkable how long writer Adam Larson Broder and his co-director, Tony R. Abrams, are able to milk some biting, discomfiting laughs out of that potentially off-putting comic conceit. Broder, Abrams, and the game Ricci don't sugarcoat Carolyn's initially shallow reaction to Pumpkin, nor do they downplay the absurdity of Carolyn's rather abrupt romantic fall for Pumpkin's "pure soul."

If only the film stayed on the warped track, for when it tries to have it both ways as a formulaic, heart-on-sleeve story of love and tolerance and an outrageous, over-the-top satiric exercise, the film goes awry. The filmmakers intentions become muddy as it becomes increasingly unclear if scenes and characters are being broadly played for dramatic or comedic effect. Nonetheless, when sticking to the wicked and warped side, Broder and Abrams have their moments. The vacuous portrayal of sorority sisters may not exactly be original, but it often makes for the film's more amusing touches, such as Marisa Coughlan and Dominique Swain's scene-stealing turns as the high-strung head sister and Carolyn's wild-haired, nonconformist roommate, respectively. If only the film were as fun for all of its running time.


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#327 June 21, 2002

M O V I E S

Lilo & Stitch one-sheet Lilo & Stitch (PG) *** 1/2
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An Elvis-worshipping young girl named Lilo finds her only friend in her new pet "dog" Stitch--who is in actuality a genetically-engineered creature of destruction from the distant planet Turo. Based on that premise, one could conclude that Disney has gone completely mad with their latest full-length animated feature, Lilo & Stitch. And one would, to a certain degree, actually be correct--not that that's a bad thing in the case of this raucous comedy/adventure, easily one of the strangest products to ever emerge from the Disney animation pipeline.

Lilo is basically a cross between the "lonely kid bonds with figure of alien origin" premise of Warner Bros.' woefully underappreciated The Iron Giant and the Looney Tunes-style zaniness of the Mouse's own The Emperor's New Groove, infused with a strong dose of Hawaiian cultural flavor. While that description suggests a certain offbeat nature, it still doesn't quite do justice to how unconventional the film is, particularly in the case of the lead characters. The lab-bred destructive instincts of Stitch (voiced by co-director and writer Chris Sanders) don't exactly lend themselves toward being an ideal earthly inhabitant, let alone a pet, to put it mildly. Then again, Lilo (Daveigh Chase) isn't exactly the most ideal owner. The bratty Lilo is far from the prototypically angelic kid in films like this. The audience has only seen her for a couple of minutes before she opens a can of whoop-ass on another girl in a dance class, and this is soon followed by the first in what turns out to be a number of instances where she makes her overworked older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) miserable.

So it only naturally follows that Lilo and Stitch would become close--though not necessarily because of their naughty ways but rather the spirit and heart that lie beneath their boisterous behavior. More than anything the two just want to belong, as both are orphans; Stitch is the only of his kind, while the only family Lilo has left is Nani. The three come to form an unusual but loving and likable family unit, one that is threatened to be torn apart by various forces as soon as it's formed. One minute it's tough social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames, voicing a character that bears more than a passing resemblance to his Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction), who doubts Nani's ability to be the breadwinner and caregiver for the household; the next it's two figures sent to Earth to capture "Experiment 626": Stitch's alien scientist creator Jumba (David Ogden Stiers) and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), an Earth "expert" with a penchant for wearing wigs and using View-Masters as research reference.

That latter character description should give a clear indication as to how Sanders and co-director Dean Deblois manage to sidestep any potential mush. Family, or rather the Hawaiian idea of ohana, ultimately reveals itself to be the overriding theme of Lilo & Stitch, and as the title characters bond and grow softer, so does the film. But before any sentimental moments are allowed to move from gently touching to gooey, the reckless, energetic abandon of the directors reasserts itself, whether through zippy pacing, exciting action sequences (and there are quite a few, justifying the film's PG rating), but above all the unremittingly wacky vibe. While there are certain touches that make one wish Sanders and Deblois set some limits (namely, why did they indulge Carrere and give her a brief musical interlude, and why the fuck did they let the Scandinavian scourge known as the A*Teens butcher "Can't Help Falling in Love" over the end credits?), this sublimely silly and genuinely sweet film will make kids and adults alike interested in seeing the inevitable Saturday morning spinoff.


Minority Report one-sheet Minority Report (PG-13) *** 1/2
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With the names Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise come certain preconceived notions, and even more still when the summer season release date is factored in. Minority Report, the long-awaited collaboration between the world's biggest star in front of and the most famous helmer behind the camera, manages to subvert most of these expectations in smart, suspenseful, and often surprising fashion.

Cruise is the above-the-title name and is the only image on the film's one-sheet, but this future-set noir is no star vehicle. In fact, this is the only Cruise-starring picture in recent memory in which his megawatt persona truly disappears into the world of the film. It certainly helps that Spielberg wastes no time immersing Cruise and the viewer into the world of 2054 Washington D.C. and a new preventative brand of law enforcement there known as Pre-Crime. Cruise's Chief John Anderton runs the unit, and the film hits the ground running as it shows how the police use the visions of a trio of psychics known as Pre-Cogs to stop murders before they happen. The system appears to be perfect, but a Justice Department operative named Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) has his doubts, and soon Anderton does himself, as the Pre-Cogs see the next murderer as being... John Anderton.

And so a Fugitive-style chase begins, bringing out the best of Spielberg's renowned action thriller instincts. There are a number of stunning set pieces here that are worthy of making his all-time show reel, such as a chases on the wall-crawling freeway system and one that memorably ends up in a car factory. But the script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen (working from the short story by Philip K. Dick) allows for more outré, unsettling and rather un-Spielberg diversions that do not interrupt the urgency of the story. As exciting as the money scenes are, just as, if not more, likely to generate post-film discussion are touches such as creepy and morbidly humorous sequences involving Anderton's eyes--whether it be some scary business with retina-scanning spider-like robots or a Clockwork Orange-esque encounter with a black market eye surgeon (Peter Stormare).

As shown by these offbeat touches, Minority Report finds Spielberg still operating in the darker, colder Kubrick-ian milieu he initially tried out for size in last year's AI. The year 2054 is sterile in just about every possible way, from the cool, techno-slick production design by Alex McDowell to Janusz Kaminski's disturbingly bleached-out cinematography. Tossed-off gags have uneasy implications, such as how the retina-identification technique is used rather amusingly for overly personalized advertising (though the obvious product placements tied to the jokes are annoying). The edginess marries with Spielberg's more popcorn sensibilities a lot more easily this time around, making for a roller coaster ride with an unusual amount of grit.

The rush of the ride doesn't last through to the end of the picture, however. After a spectacular and suspenseful climax in which a number of scattered fragments fall together with both surprise and puzzle-box precision, the film goes on for decidedly less absorbing final third. For its first two-thirds, Minority Report is quite the stunning pop achievement, a taut thriller that happened to have smarts and interesting ideas to spare. The final stretch is both overreaching and lazy, as the heretofore only hinted-at political issues that arise out of Pre-Crime are addressed, but only just to serve the superficial mechanisms of a contrived and conventional conspiracy plot. The setting may be futuristic, but apparently not too advanced that the shopworn cliché of exposing a dirty deed through a video recording isn't out of the question.

Make no mistake, Minority Report resolves itself in perfectly watchable fashion, and how could it not, with Spielberg working his visual magic and the cast--which also includes Samantha Morton, Kathryn Morris, Lois Smith, and Max Von Sydow--all in top form. While a watchable finale is far cry from the greatness with which the film flirts for a considerable portion of its duration, Minority Report is still top-notch summer entertainment, delivering the requisite thrills while offering something a little more to chew on once it's over.


In Brief

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys one-sheet The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (R) ***
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The altar boys of the title are Francis (Emile Hirsch) and Tim (Kieran Culkin), best friends whose dangerous lives entail a common interest in comic books and a common hatred for Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, who also produced), the strict, peg-legged nun who makes their school days a living hell. As wild child Tim plots a cruel and rather outlandish comeuppance for Sister Assumpta, the more introspective Francis experiences first love with Margie (Jena Malone), a classmate who is far more complex than he could ever expect. As heartfelt as its title is misleadingly sensationalistic (particularly in light of current events), Peter Care's inventive adaptation of Chris Fuhrman's novel is a fairly formulaic '70s-set coming-of-age tale that's ultimately distinguished by the passion of its makers and players. The expected life lessons that come with loss and heartbreak ensue, but they--as well as some particularly more inflammatory issues--are handled with genuine sincerity and sensitivity, and the pitch-perfect performances of the young cast bring an added humanity and ring of truth. Also adding to the latter are, ironically, the animated interludes (directed by comic-creator-turned-multimedia-mogul Todd McFarlane) that depict Francis's comic-inspired fantasies; these sequences effectively serve as an internal commentary on his real life, at first offering an entertaining diversion that grows deeper and surprisingly poignant as its storyline and the entire film progresses.


Sunshine State one-sheet Sunshine State (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Two neighboring resort communities on a Florida island are being targeted for redevelopment, but they are not the only things poised for change in writer-director John Sayles' latest. Most notably, changes are due for Desirée (Angela Bassett), a failed actress returning to the home and family she left behind some 25 years ago under a cloud of scandal; and Marly (Edie Falco), the big-dreaming manager of her father's motel and restaurant. There are no surprises as to where the arcs of either of these particular story threads end up, but Sayles' leisurely, unrushed and unforced manner makes for another rich, character-driven drama. While those two characters are the main focus, every character and actor in this ensemble drama is allowed their due moment in the sun. Bassett and Falco deliver fine performances, but more memorable is the wonderful character work by a most impressive array of too little-seen, too-often underused acting talents, such as Mary Alice (as Desirée's perpetually displeased and disapproving mother) and Jane Alexander (as Marly's mother, the local theater company's grande dame)--how appropriate, considering the film's underlying message about preserving and respecting history.


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#326 June 14, 2002

M O V I E S

The Bourne Identity one-sheet The Bourne Identity (PG-13) ** 1/2
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"A new action hero is Bourne." As incredibly cheesy and precious that advertising tag line for The Bourne Identity is, there's no discounting the truth it does hold. Yes, it heralds a new potential action franchise character in Jason Bourne, and the film also reveals a different type of action hero in director Doug Liman, who further proves his multifaceted moviemaking mettle with his deft steering of this change-of-pace project. All more's the pity that much else about the film ultimately can't quite keep up with Liman.

An action hero that isn't quite born is star Matt Damon, who, much like the script for this adaptation of the 1980 Robert Ludlum novel, does not completely measure up to his task. Damon plays amnesiac spy Bourne, and he and the film as a whole are at their best in the early stages. After being rescued from certain death in the seas, Bourne follows a vague clue literally implanted in his hip and travels to Europe to piece together his forgotten past. But there are shady forces working to keep him from relearning the truth--forces that, in their efforts to eliminate him, reawaken some of Bourne's special spy skills, namely those in the martial arts. The sight of Damon kick ass was a bit jarring in the trailers, but it is less so when Damon throws his first punches and kicks within the context of the film, for Bourne is just as taken aback by his abilities as the audience is, and Damon nicely plays Bourne's tabula rasa state. It only follows, though, that as the film progresses so does Bourne's comfort with whom he discovers himself to be, and Damon remains too much of a blank as Action Guy mode kicks in more strongly; the "tough" dialogue doesn't emerge from his lips terribly convincingly.

Also not convincing is a forced romantic subplot between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente), the young German woman who gets caught up in Bourne's search for himself. Quite tellingly, if one scene were trimmed down a bit, the love story would've been lost entirely, and the film would have been better for it; Damon and Potente click as a team, but they don't exactly make for romantic combustion together. While she may not be the best screen paramour for Damon, Potente proves to be the real thing acting-wise in her first big-league English language role. Without the flaming red hair of her star-making role in "Run Lola Run," the effortlessly likable Potente easily holds the screen, even in the perfunctory "girl" role she's saddled with here. But at least scripters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Heron give her a character to work with, which is more than be said for other talented actors filling out the ensemble, such as Julia Stiles (merely marking time as the baddies' resident computer expert) and especially Clive Owen, who is completely wasted as a barely-seen and -heard evil operative.

The one person whose personality is strongly heard and seen throughout is that of Liman. His sure hand with comedy as seen in Swingers and Go gave no indication that he could do such an adept job at an adventure film. He briskly paces the action, keeps the film interesting on a visual level, and capably handles all the set pieces, from the fight scenes to a much-talked-about car chase, which is more notable for the unusual finesse of its choreography than its speed.

How disappointing it is, then, to see Liman's considerable skills at the employ of such routine material. All the style cannot make up for the flagging energy level of the narrative, which lumbers toward an anticlimactic conclusion that leaves behind too many unanswered questions. The need to leave a back door open for sequel opportunities is understandable, but the various holes and few hints at explanations (let alone actual explanations themselves) are far from satisfying on any base level. If nothing else, the wrap-up to The Bourne Identity makes one interested in seeing the inevitable sequel, but one is also left to somewhat question the worth of sitting through this first installment.


In Brief

Scooby-Doo one-sheet Scooby-Doo (PG) no stars
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"Scooby, Scooby-Doo/Where are you?" Most certainly not in this much-hyped live-action big-screen take on the beloved '60s-'70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, for the cold, CGI automaton bearing the name of the lovable great dane has none of the charm or personality of the original cel-animated character. Obviously director Raja Gosnell was attempting at some level of realism in the visual depiction of Scooby, but in trying to be both real-looking and somewhat true to the original cartoon character design, digi-Scooby looks all the more phony. Gosnell would have been wiser to go the traditionally drawn Who Framed Roger Rabbit / The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle route, making no bones about Scooby being animated.

But as it stands, CG Scooby or regular Scooby, this project would have been a cinema atrocity. By all accounts the film was conceived and shot as more of a Brady Bunch Movie-style satiric send-up but was then reconfigured in the editing room as a more straight-arrow adaptation of the cartoon, à la The Flintstones. There's no telling how well or not the original vision would have played, but based on how the final movie turned out, it's safe to assume it could not have possibly have been worse. The film is an absolute mess, with the two opposite directions fighting for control. Matthew Lillard as beatnik Shaggy and Linda Cardellini as brainy Velma nail both the physical and verbal attributes of their characters perfectly, but then they're called on to do some unfamiliar deeds. Shaggy makes an even bigger ass of himself than usual in a big burp/fart contest with Scooby (all the more insurance to keep contemporary kids amused, I suppose); and in one vexing sequence a slightly-tarted up Velma ditches the famous turtleneck for a sweater with a plunging neckline (all the better to showcase Cardellini's real-life knockout endowments--which, come to think of it, isn't necessarily a bad thing). But at least they're allowed to act like the cartoon characters most of the time, which can't be said for the famously straighter arrows of the group, Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who have had never-before-seen personality traits grafted onto them. He's a vain pretty boy, and she's a delicate ditz (that is, until they give Gellar a token Buffy-esque fight scene), and these broadly played qualities are obvious vestiges from the abandoned snarky direction. The resulting jumble of conflicting tones and ideas defies description, save this one: it is all far more dull and just plain dumb than it ever is funny.


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#325 June 7, 2002

M O V I E S

Bad Company one-sheet Bad Company (PG-13) **
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To help prevent a nuclear bomb from falling into the wrong hands, a veteran CIA operative named Oakes (Anthony Hopkins) must convince his recently deceased partner's separated-at-birth, polar-opposite twin brother Jake (Chris Rock) to take his place. What, you expected realism from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Joel Schumacher? Don't go in expecting quality, either, for Bad Company finds the pair coasting by on their most bombastic and empty filmmaking tricks.

Watching Bad Company is like peering into a window into a bygone era not long passed but still so far away, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was par for the popcorn movie course, with a trusty red digital readout counting down to not so much a tragic disaster than a Really Cool Special Effect. Even without the perspective change that came with the real-life events of last fall, the pornographic pyrotechnics of Bad Company would have already been less than pleasurable, for they are more tired than exciting, with nothing particularly distinguished about its presentation or style.

And so goes the case with the movie as a whole. Undoubtedly the big drawing card of this mismatched buddy action comedy is the huge contrast between its stars, refined Oscar-winning Serious Actor Hopkins and brash comic Rock, whose characters are little more than extensions of their expected screen personae. While the two stars do find a nice, spontaneous rhythm with each other, the leaden patter that passes for wisecracks and repartée in the screenplay credited to Jason Richman and Michael Browning weighs down any lightweight charms. Rock's best lines are obviously his improvs (but even then, he's hampered by the film's PG-13 rating), and Hopkins' funniest moment is less a triumph of writing than the lightly amusing irony of hearing such a famously classy fellow say, "Get in the car, bitch." When the bulk of the exchanges between Jake and his in-the-dark girlfriend Julie (Kerry Washington) consist of the line "I love you so much!" being repeated ad nauseum, any interesting bits of dialogue are obviously not a credit to the writers.

It is a credit to the stars, however, that this relentlessly uncreative film is as watchable as it is. However ridiculous, preposterous, and generally uninvolving the context is (and the whole plot is) it's undeniably a kick to see Hopkins use his natural cool for the purposes of playing a full-blown action hero--a role he more than capably fills. In spite of the less-than-hilarious one-liners he's called on to recite, Rock's manic energy keeps the proceedings lively. In smaller roles, Brooke Smith, Gabriel Macht (both playing other CIA operatives), and Washington manage to make impressions even if the size and scope of their roles is dismayingly limited, particularly in the case of lovely and gifted up-and-comer Washington.

Owing to its roots as a Bruckheimer production, Bad Company works better in terms of action than comedy, but given how flat the punchlines are, that doesn't particularly mean anything. For every interesting set piece Schumacher manages to pull off, such as a fairly well-done extended car chase, there's another that doesn't, such as a particularly inept sequence that proves that unless your name is John Woo, you have no business attempting a church-set shootout.

From the plotting and the characterizations to the explosions and excessive use of blue light filters, everything about Bad Company has been done and seen before--even right down to the title, which the very same studio (Disney) used as the moniker for a Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin thriller (which, as it happens, also dealt with the CIA) no fewer than a scant seven years ago. That fact is none too surprising and all too fitting for a movie that's so aggressively been there, done that.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood one-sheet Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (PG-13) **
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Since it first hit bookstore shelves in 1996, Rebecca Wells' novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has proven so popular that certain circles of women have gone so far as to form their own Ya-Ya Sisterhoods: groups in which they rechristen themselves as high priestesses with gibberish names and pray to pagan goddesses while wearing ridiculously elaborate headdresses and shouting "Ya-Ya!" Such a fascinating--not to mention highly disturbing--fringe phenomenon stokes the curiosity about Callie Khouri's film version of the book, if not necessarily about its quality (or even story) than to just get some clear idea as to what the hell the big deal is about.

Seeing the film, my initial, gut perception of those who form real life Ya-Ya Sisterhoods stands: these are women with way too much time on their hands. Maybe Wells' novel sheds a little more light on what the Ya-Ya concept entirely entails, but as presented in the film it's nothing more than a bit of dress-up mystical hokum that four lifelong friends came up with when they were children. I repeat--when they were children. As in it's a ridiculous little game that kids would play and hence hold a certain nostalgic, sentimental significance as the players grew older. As in it's not something that was intended to be adopted and practiced by adults. After all, strip away all the chanting and costumes, and what is a Ya-Ya Sisterhood? A group of friends that engages in the time-tested and socially accepted activity of... hanging out. Is there really any need to complicate the practice by sprinkling fairy dust on each other in forests at night? I didn't think so.

But I digress. In the film, the whole Ya-Ya concept doesn't really hold much significance at all; it's just a side quirk in an overly familiar story about mother-daughter understanding--or, should I say, misunderstanding. Sidda Lee (Sandra Bullock) is a playwright who owes her success and bottomless well of inspiration to her difficult childhood with her overbearing lush of a mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn)--a fact she relates to a Time magazine interviewer. When the article is printed, Vivi goes ballistic, further straining the already-tortured mother-daughter relationship. In come Vivi's Ya-Ya compatriots Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Maggie Smith) to the rescue, whisking Sidda away from the Big Apple and back to a secluded cabin in Louisiana, where the women try to make Sidda come to an understanding about Vivi by revealing the secrets of her past.

And so the film weaves back and forth between present and past, where we see how free spirited young Vivi (Ashley Judd) was driven to madness through dashed dreams, addictions, and general selfishness. All the drama seems to be building to some grand point and/or revelation--a suspicion that grows with every ominous hint dropped during the present-set sections--but when the alleged payoff finally comes, it is so rushed and anticlimactic that one is likely to shrug and utter "That's it?" It makes the de rigueur end-of-movie dose of the Dreaded H's--hugs and healing--all the more saccharine and undeserved. One doesn't need to read the original book to know that much was lost in the page-to-screen translation.

One also does wonder, to a certain extent, why such an impressive array of acting talent signed on for the project. Yes, there's the ongoing issue of there being too few good roles for women, particularly for ladies of a certain age, but should the likes of Burstyn, Flanagan, Smith, and Knight have to be reduced to playing eccentric caricatures of aging Southern belles? Perhaps it's not too surprising that the younger women, Judd and Bullock, have the meatier, less insulting roles to play. But I guess Ya-Ya is supposed to be taken as a progressive move of some sort since the men in the picture--James Garner as Vivi's long-suffering husband, Angus Macfadyen as Sidda's fiancé--are sideline afterthoughts at best. However, if you ask me, the fact that such strong, capable women are called on to carry a film as shoddy as Ya-Ya in front of and from behind the camera is hardly progress.


In Brief

CQ one-sheet CQ (R) ***
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Roman Coppola's debut feature isn't a film one necessarily turns to for traditional satisfactions. It is really three films put together, two of them being within a larger one about the personal journey of Paul (Jeremy Davies), an American filmmaker in 1969 Paris. He unexpectedly gets his big break when he's handed the directorial reins of Dragonfly, the B-grade sci-fi adventure on which he had been working as film editor. This lifetime opportunity causes much upheaval in Paul's life, in career and in his relationships, particularly that with girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez)--as reflected in the autobiographical documentary he makes in his off hours. Before long, the lines between these three films blur even further as Paul's real life starts to lose resemblance to the cinema vérité of his documentary and more mirror the outlandishness of Dragonfly. Davies is a likable lead, and he's nicely supported by Bouchez, Angela Lindvall (as Dragonfly's sultry starlet), and, in smaller roles, Jason Schwartzman (as a hotshot young director) and Dean Stockwell (as Paul's father). Despite their admirable efforts, the film isn't so much about its story or characters than the love of cinema itself, particularly that of the stylish, swingin' '60s Barbarella school, and Coppola's loving recreations not only capture all the flamboyant details, but also their infectiously freewheeling sense of fun.


The Importance of Being Earnest one-sheet The Importance of Being Earnest (PG) ***
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Literary purists have been quick to bash Oliver Parker's second adaptation of a beloved (in this case, the most beloved) Oscar Wilde play for the various liberties and flights of fancy he has taken with the material: excursions in hot air balloons, tattooed backsides, foot chases, and innocent bondage fantasies. They may have a point, but such embellishments are rather beside it, for Parker and his gifted cast have so wonderfully preserved the frivolous and fun spirit of the parent text. Colin Firth and Rupert Everett make a crack comic team as the two men not named Ernest who lay claim to the name in order to woo two different women: in Firth's case, Everett's comely cousin, played by Frances O'Connor; in Everett's, Firth's perky young ward, played by Reese Witherspoon. As identities are swapped and mistaken, all manner of frothy farce ensues, and with Judi Dench adding spice to the mix with her deliciously acid-tongued barbs as O'Connor's imperious mother the recipe is complete for a rollicking romp.


Insomnia one-sheet Insomnia (R) *** 1/2
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Warner Bros. marketed Christopher Nolan's take on the acclaimed 1998 Norwegian thriller as a serial killer hunt yarn, and while that was an understandable commercial decision, it also does the film a huge disservice. On the most basic level, the film does concern a police detective's (Al Pacino) search for the murderer (Robin Williams) of a young girl in the perpetually sun-drenched northern reaches of Alaska. But Nolan is less concerned with the mechanics of an investigation than the similarities between the hunter and the hunted, who come to form a strangely and simultaneously symbiotic and predatory relationship. This fascinating (and, it must be noted, deliberately paced, for those expecting a nonstop chill- and thrill-fest) dance between the tortured, corrupted cop and the calm, calculating killer is the real hook of the film, and these complex characters are brought to vivid, nuanced life in the best performances both Pacino and Williams have given in recent memory. The real star, however, is Nolan, who assembles the leads' work, the fine support from the likes of Hilary Swank (as an idealistic young cop) and Martin Donovan (as Pacino's partner), and stunning cinematography to make an unusually smart, compelling, and haunting summer entertainment.


Undercover Brother one-sheet Undercover Brother (PG-13) ***
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The comparison is inevitable, if not exactly ideal: Malcolm D. Lee's screen version of John Ridley's Internet animated series is to '70s blaxploitation films what the Austin Powers series is to '60s spy romps. Such a comparison is a little unfair--to Undercover Brother, that is, for it is far smarter, funnier, and more exciting and memorable than either installment of the Mike Myers franchise. Part of that is the absence of someone like Myers, who is the driving creative force both behind and in front of the camera, and as such his films always fall into indulgent potholes (not to mention lazy toilet humor) time and again. Here the film is a collaborative effort, with Ridley and writing collaborator Michael McCullers providing the sharp genre and social satire, Lee offering up the smooth, spot-on cinematic style, and the cast of question marks delivering far better than expected, led by Eddie Griffin's funny and unconventionally cool as the title secret agent and Aunjanue Ellis's sassy and smart Sistah Girl. That non-actors such as Denise Richards (as a femme fatale) and Chris Kattan (as the main bad guy) do what's required of them--and quite well at that--is a reflection of how every little piece of this project fell magically, hilariously in place, even if some of its gags don't quite hit the target.


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