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October 16, 2000


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


New Releases

Requiem for a Dream ****
Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream is less a film than a journey, a torturously exhausting one at that--and in this case, that's the highest compliment that can be paid. In his visionary adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr.'s novel, Aronofsky doesn't merely make one bear witness to four characters' harrowing descents into drug addiction; he forces one to experience their euphoric highs and, above else, their shattering lows. This is, as Aronofsky himself calls it, a horror film--one that not only shocks, but scars.

Set in New York, Requiem follows two parallel storylines whose foundations are different but ultimately become more or less the same. One follows a trio of young people: Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Marion's goal in life is to become a fashion designer, and in order to finance the opening of a boutique, Harry and Tyrone become drug dealers--which intensifies their already strong habit. Meanwhile, Harry's mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), after receiving a notice that she could appear on a TV game show, goes to dangerous lengths to lose weight, namely a steadily increasing intake of diet pills.

The narrative line is obvious as the film passes through the seasons: a sunny summer, an aptly named fall, and an even bleaker winter. But this isn't a film about the story so much it is about feeling. Aronofsky proved he can effectively unsettle viewers with his award-winning debut p, and he takes his ability to the next level in Requiem. Much has been made about the vast number of cuts in the film, but these are no superficial exercises in style; they immerse the viewer in the perspective and mindset of the characters. The hyperactive early stages of their addictions are especially captured well, and a split screen device that could've come off as overkill reinforces the subjective point of the view of the film. The sensory barrage also slyly sidesteps the explicit while ironically intensifying the feeling. For all the shooting up, snorting, and pill popping that occurs in the film, rarely are the acts ever graphically shown; Aronofsky instead employs the same quick-cut montages of heroin being cooked, straws taking in lines of coke, pill bottles being opened, and pupils dilating. Jarring and visually exciting at first, these images become rather boring through their incessant repetition--much like how the initial euphoria of drug use evolves into mundane routine.

When I say Requiem is about feeling, it should be noted that I mean that in terms of sensation and not emotion. The only character with much depth is that of the lonely Sara (superbly played by Burstyn), and even so she's still kept at the same arm's length emotionally as are the other three. This initially struck me as a flaw (especially in terms of the Harry/Marion romance), but it reflects the greater ideas that Aronofsky is trying to evoke. The film being told from the point of view of the addicts, the detachment is all but appropriate since they're not really concerned about others or even themselves, just the fix. Additionally, the distance also reflects the way outsiders generally look at drug addicts--as in, they don't, choosing to safely turn a blind eye. Requiem doesn't give the audience the option of complacency; as its last 30 minutes brutally detail everyone's raw ruin, the film seems to dare the viewers to look away. And it's a testament to Aronofsky that as difficult as it is, it is impossible not to watch.

There may not be a profound emotional connection to any of these characters, but the actors make them into convincing human beings, the destruction of whose lives we witness before our eyes. The resulting feeling with which one walks away from Requiem for a Dream is not sadness, but a heavier, emptier sense of loss--one that's even harder to shake.

Bootmen (R) * 1/2
The Fantasticks (PG) ***
Not all the talk surrounding Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark revolves around the film's love-it-or-hate-it qualities (though most of it is). With Dancer taking the top prize at Cannes this year and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge on the horizon for next summer, there's been lots of rumbling about the "return" of the movie musical. The reality is, however, it never really went away, just mutated--into the "dance musical," which is a rather commonplace find at the cineplex these days.

Bootmen, the latest of this "dancing yes, singing no" brand of musical follows a rebellious young male steel worker in Australia wants to become a tap dancer. No, producer Jerry Bruckheimer hasn't taken his act down under and made a reverse-gender spinoff of Flashdance. Not that his absence from the credits makes much difference, anyhow, for Bootmen plays very much like typical Bruckheimer--all shiny surfaces with nothing underneath.

For the most part, pretty boy star Adam Garcia perfectly personifies the faux Bruckheimer feel. His winning smile should be familiar--he was the vacuous slab of beef that sent hearts aflutter in Coyote Ugly (a bona fide Bruckheimer production, not so coincidentally). Unlike in that film, though, Garcia displays some talent in Bootmen--the talent to dance. That is certainly fortunate since he plays the aforementioned "rebel" tap dancer, who has real, raw talent but little patience for uptight tradition; a promising gig with a major Sydney dance company is taken from him as quickly as he wins it. So he and a few old friends decide to pursue an unlikely dream--form their own dance group in their industrial hometown of Newcastle. But "Bootmen" (as they call themselves) isn't your mother's tap troupe--a mix of traditional tap with the musical cacophony of STOMP and Björk's first musical number in Dancer in the Dark, they're every bit about attitude as they are about dance.

Director Dein Perry is the creator of the popular Bootmen-like group Tap Dogs, so it comes as no surprise that the film's dance numbers are the energetic highlights. But a Bruckheimer knockoff wouldn't be one without a dose of treacly and completely bogus emotional content, and Perry and screenwriter Steve Worland don't fail to deliver. The threads designed to lend the film are obvious and heavyhanded--Sean's romance with a hairdresser (Sophie Lee), who also had a dalliance with his car thief younger brother Mitchell (Sam Worthington); Sean's relationship with his disapproving father (Richard Carter), who wants his son to forget his dreams and hold down an honest job in the factory. These stories offer nothing in the way of surprise--except perhaps the amount of violence in Mitchell's subplot.

With the plot leaving a lot to be desired, Bootmen is left to sink or swim on the merits of its star--for better or worse. Whenever the film gives him an opportunity to flash his fancy footwork or simply stand there and exude cocky charisma, Garcia is able to coast by. Unfortunately, the dance sequences are too few and far between, as are the moments of silence, thus leaving him too much space to open his mouth and "act"--something he simply cannot do. Wisely (though not surprisingly), Perry ends his film with one big--and, crucially, mostly dialogue-free--dance extravaganza, but it's too little, too late.

It is tempting to call The Fantasticks, Michael Ritchie's long-on-the-shelf (it was completed in 1995) film of the long-running off-Broadway musical as being too little, too late to revive the form of film musical that is indeed dead--the traditional type where characters burst into song (and, often, dance) at the drop of a hat and a full orchestral backing (and chorus) materializes just as spontaneously. The film is based on a play perhaps second-best known (behind the popular pair of tunes "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain") for its minimalism in staging and story. And in remaining true to the spirit of the original production, Ritchie's The Fantasticks is hardly revolutionary; a trifle of a film based on a trifle of a show--and in its resolutely old-fashioned ways is where its ingratiating charm lies.

The writers of the original play, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, wrote the screenplay, and as such the simple story remains intact. Neighbors Bellomy (Joel Grey) and Hucklebee (Brad Sullivan) pretend to feud in an effort to bring Bellomy's daughter Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly) and Hucklebee's son Matt (Joe McIntyre) together. Their plan works, and they enlist the aid of mysterious carnival magician El Gallo (Jonathon Morris) to "resolve" the "feud." After a long night during which the elaborate plan plays out and Matt is crowned a "hero," all's right with the world--that is, until the harsh light of day makes clear how less than ideal things really are.

The Fantasticks had long been considered unfilmable since it is typically performed on a bare stage with virtually no props. Since such minimalism is unthinkable for the big screen, Ritchie has opened up the play to the extreme, filming in full Panavision glory--all the better to capture Fred Murphy's gorgeous photography of the film's adopted setting of the '20s American Midwest. The stunning images, plus the reorchestrated score (adapted from Jones and Schmidt's original arrangements by Jonathan Tunick) gives simple scenes such as Luisa's big "I Want" song, "Much More," an epic quality that harkens back to the grand screen musicals of yesteryear.

While Ritchie adjusted a number of things in the translation to film, the one thing he curiously didn't weren't the performances. On one hand, this is a good thing; he employed new digital technology to capture the actors' singing live on set rather than lipsynch to a prerecorded track (the standard procedure for all other musical films). But the sense of intimacy achieved by the live vocals is cancelled out by the broad, stagy performance quality he coaxes from his cast. While a seasoned theater pro like Grey and the luminous ingenue Kelly are able to get away with some exaggerated mugging, such an approach proves nearly ruinous for the new kid on the block (in every sense), McIntyre. Luckily, his all-too-evident inexperience as an actor is compensated by his sweet rapport with Kelly.

It also helps that McIntyre, widely thought to be his former boy band's best singer, can indeed carry a tune, for after all the key to The Fantasticks' enduring stage success are those memorable, hummable tunes. Just as the story is as flimsy and inconsequential as ever, the music--invigorated by the actors' spirited vocal performances--is still able to cast a magical spell. Unfortunately, in this day and age most people's society-nurtured cynicism has immunized them to the quiet and decidedly old school delights of a film like The Fantasticks, which is much too modest to spur on a full-on revival of this type of movie musical (and, to no one's surprise, its box office returns have been soft at best). But for those who still bear a sense of that unabashedly innocent, almost naive romanticism, The Fantasticks presents an inviting opportunity to "try to remember" a cinematic art that has sadly been all but lost.

Digimon: The Movie (PG) *
If you think a passing familiarlity with Pokémon is preparation enough for Digimon: The Movie--the big screen debut of the Pokémon knockoff/rival television series--think again. In fact, nothing but an extensive knowledge of the DigiMythos will make the story of this animated feature the slightest bit comprehensible. Not that it really matters, anyway--when it all comes down to it, this is just one exhausting 70something-minute exercise in hyperactive visuals and sound. Pokémon on speed, if you will.

After a baffling and completely unnecessary pre-film vignette about a rabid Digimon fan waiting in line at a movie theatre and imagining herself in a Digimon adventure (this piece of work makes the Pikachu shorts that precede the Pokémon films look like Oscar bait), Digimon: The Movie wastes no time in getting the plot underway. A brief voiceover narration by the character Kari (voiced by Gimme a Break! alumna Lara Jill Miller) dispenses some exposition before the first of what are many battles between Digimon. Now what are Digimon, you ask? The nearest I could figure is that they're some strange breed of monster that originates in cyberspace but sometimes crosses over into the real world by way of an egg that somehow emerges from a computer screen. How or why this happens, I don't know. Maybe it was covered in that narration, maybe not--it is delivered so quickly that it's impossible to not miss something.

Why do these Digimon fight? I suppose it all comes down to some being "bad" and some being "good." The "good" ones are able to be summoned by children called the DigiDestined (how they are selected and what they are destined to do is beyond me) to defeat the "bad" ones in the digital world. In the first half of the film, the bad Digimon is a computer virus that threatens to wipe out the world's computers, and its up to Kari's big brother Tai (Joshua Seth), the rest of the DigiDestined, and their Digimon to save the world. It's no spoiler to say that Tai and company do... but then the story picks up four years later, with some new characters and an older Kari facing some remnant of said destructive Digimon.

All this, of course, would make sense to the target audience of 6-year-olds who watch the Digimon television series every weekday afternoon on Fox. But that's a moot point for them, since the show and the film are all about the fire-breathing, bomb-exploding, all-stops-out battles between Digimon. And the makers of Digimon: The Movie don't skimp, barely taking a breath between action scenes. While this ensures that the tykes won't ever get antsy, it also guarantees one big headache--and a severe case of motion sickness to match--for adults. The violence may be between the Digimon, but it's the older viewers in the audience that feel the pain.

The pace may be quicker and the action louder and more extreme than in Pokémon, but that doesn't necessarily make Digimon better. With the assaultive nature comes the absence of any slight bit of humanity. Say what one will about Pokémon poster critter Pikachu, one must concede that he has personality, and there is some warmth to his relationship with trainer Ash Ketchum. Here, all the characters, human and Digimon alike, are merely interchangeable pieces in a mechanical game--an apt description for Digimon: The Movie, a "movie" in name only.

In Brief

Meet the Parents (PG-13) ***
Just like he was in There's Something About Mary, Ben Stiller is put through the physical wringer in Jay Roach's amusing comedy. As his character, male nurse Greg Focker, tries to do his darndest to make a good impression while spending a weekend with his girlfriend (Teri Polo) at her parents' (Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner) house, everything he does just makes matters worse--not to mention causes considerable property damage. While the broad sight gags mostly work, what gives the film its special kick is the match of Stiller and DeNiro, who has an even juicier comic role here as the hardass dad than he did sending up his mob screen persona in last year's Analyze This. The pairing of these two unique talents make for some dark and biting laughs; it's a little unfortunate that the film ultimately must succumb to feel-good formula.

In Current Release

Best in Show (PG-13) ***
Christopher Guest, star/co-writer of This Is Spinal Tap and star/co-writer/director of Waiting for Guffman, has tapped into the well of mock documentary once again, and while it isn't dry, the returns are diminished. "Best in show" is the title coveted by the owners of the various competitors in the Mayflower dog show. Naturally, this fringe milieu is inhabited with all sorts of eccentric characters to wring laughs from: a high-strung married couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) with a mentally troubled weimaraner; an alternately refined and flamboyant gay couple (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins), owner of a shih tzu; the drawling, down-home owner (Guest himself) of a bloodhound; an elderly millionaire's trophy wife (Jennifer Saunders) and the loyal trainer (Jane Lynch) of her multiple prize-winning poodle; and the married owners (Catherine O'Hara and co-writer Eugene Levy) of a terrier. While everyone has their moments, there's no real standout comic character, like Guffman's Corky St. Clair. The most laughs come courtesy of Fred Willard's hilariously inept show commentator, but his character is too peripheral and late-arriving to give this film the bump it needs to match up to the other two.

See how my grades compare with other online critics'... (courtesy the Seeya Movie Page)

Also in Current Release

On the Horizon
Opened Friday (10/13)

Billy Elliot (R)
The latest entry in the ongoing "this year's Full Monty!" contest is this British crowdpleaser in which an 11-year-old boy (Jamie Bell) takes up ballet lessons.

The Contender (R)
A right wing conspiracy attempts to smear the reputation of a Senator (Joan Allen) selected to take the Vice Presidency in the second political thriller from film-critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie.

Dr. T & the Women (R)
Richard Gere plays a gynecologist with a variety of female problems in Robert Altman's latest. The women are Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Shelley Long, Laura Dern, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid, and Liv Tyler.

Just Looking (R)
Jason Alexander directed this '50s-set coming of age comedy in which a teen (Ryan Merriman) sets out to watch a couple in the act. Fizzled "it" girl Gretchen Mol also stars.

The Ladies Man (R)
Radio personality Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows) works his magic on the ladies in the latest in the never ending series of Saturday Night Live sketch-to-silver screen adaptations.

Lost Souls (R)
After a year on the shelf, New Line is finally releasing the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. In this supernatural thriller, Satan is set to take over a man (Ben Chaplin), and Winona Ryder tries to stop it from happening.

Next in the Shooting Gallery Film Series is Tony Barbieri's drama about longtime friends who find themselves drifting apart.

Pola X
Adaptation of Melville's novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, which follows the strange emotional journey of a young novelist (Guillaume Depardieu). Catherine Deneuve co-stars.

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New (and not-so-new)

But I'm a Cheerleader (R) * 1/2 review
A promising satirical target--homosexual "rehabilitation" programs--is missed by a mile in director Jamie Babbit's film, whose one-note comic exaggeration grows old fast. That said, Natasha Lyonne manages to give a nice turn as the high school cheerleader with lesbian leanings who is shipped off to a rehab camp (in every sense of that word).

The DVD includes the theatrical trailer. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)

The Skulls (PG-13) no stars review
The ridiculous implausibilities stack up into a skyscraper in Rob Cohen's laughable thriller in which Joshua Jackson stars as a college student who's recruited into a campus secret society--one that he quickly wants out of once he gets wind of their shady affairs. Barely passable to plain awful performances fail to sell already-questionable material.

The Collector's Edition DVD includes the theatrical trailer, commentary by Cohen, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, complete production notes, and more. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)

U-571 (PG-13) *** review
Don't watch into Jonathan Mostow's WWII-set deep sea thriller expecting a deep story or comparable characters: the title is named for a German sub taken over by a Navy squad (led by a well-cast Matthew McConaughey), and that's all you need to know, for the star is the suspense Mostow generates through an ever-increasing series of calamities that occur in and around that claustrophobic setting.

The Collector's Edition DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette; a look at the production designs; interviews with British and American navy veterans; theatrical trailers; production notes; and more. (Universal Studios Home Video, DVD also available)

Recent Releases

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72nd Academy Award Winner

American Beauty (R)
Movie: ****; Presentation: ***
The DVD premiere for this year's winner of the Best Picture Academy Award (among four other statuettes) had been a highly anticipated event--that is, until word came out this summer that the disc would not include the film's now-legendary lost scenes, including a more lengthy finish. Nonetheless, Sam Mendes' dark, seriocomic tale of suburban family dysfunction being a popular and highly esteemed film, DreamWorks' disc is still eagerly (if not fervently) awaited, and it's a good, solid edition that will satisfy--though not completely.

The no-frills menu design (reminiscent of that of the disc of DreamWorks' award contender of the previous year, Saving Private Ryan) are perfectly in line with the film's theme of finding beauty in the simplest and least likely of places. The main menu is perfection: the film's title at the top and the options at the bottom, sandwiching the image of a television screen playing the film's memorable image of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. As the sounds of Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score play in the background, it's a haunting welcome to a haunting film. Newman's music also back up the secondary menus, which are all static save for the animated scene selection screens.

With the excised footage nowhere to be found, the supplements are, for the most part, commonplace: the film's complete production notes, including full cast biographies, are offered, polished over to reflect the numerous award wins; two theatrical trailers are also showcased. The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, American Beauty: Look Closer..., digs a bit deeper and is a lot more nicely produced than similar extras on other discs, but that's because of its origins as a piece of awards campaign propaganda--the feature (infomercial, really) had aired on Los Angeles cable systems as part of the Oscar push (a tactic originated by Miramax). The featurette also offers a hint of the lost footage; a couple of cast interviews take place on a courtroom set (the most major cut subplot was a murder trial).

The one extra that really offers a lot to chew on is a one-hour long storyboard presentation, in which Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall compare and contrast the original visual plan with what ended up on screen. It is interesting to see just how meticulously Mendes planned out the film's visuals considering the film is remembered more as one of ideas, themes, and characters than images. Insightful stuff, but there is one big technical shortcoming: while this segment can be paused, there is no way to reverse or fast-forward through it, and if one is to stop the disc, there is no picking up where one left off.

On the commentary track, Mendes begins by saying that he hopes he isn't "too boring." Indeed he isn't, but he is a bit dry and repetitive as he continually praises stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as well as the lighting by Hall when not imparting interesting info (one nugget: he often cut the first and last lines of the scenes during the editing process). That's more than I can say for his commentary partner, screenwriter Alan Ball, who says so little as to be a virtual non-entity.

The official reason for the non-inclusion of the deleted scenes was that Mendes felt that watching them would detract from the existing film. However, his commentary suggests that their absence really wasn't his idea; there are a few moments where he mentions cut scenes and shots and how one can see them in an outtakes section--which simply doesn't exist on the finished disc. Perhaps it was DreamWorks' idea, for the company decided to include both Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks, in the process using up a lot of space. Indeed, the film sounds (and looks) great, but I'm sure I speak for all fans of the film that I would sacrifice a little sound and picture to catch a glimpse of what ended up on the cutting room floor.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS 5.1 Surround; English 5.1 Digital Surround; English Dolby Surround; English Subtitles; DVD-ROM features. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment, in stores October 24)


Blue's Big Musical Movie (G)
Movie: ***; Presentation: ***
Contrary to the title, this direct-to-video feature-length spinoff of the wildly popular children's series Blue's Clues is not so much a "movie" as an expanded episode of the series. That, however, is not a bad thing; unlike, say, Barney the purple dinosaur and his feature-length showcase (which actually saw a theatrical release), Blue the blue puppy and human sidekick Steve (Steven Burns) actually have something of substance to offer preschoolers--valuable lessons while delivering the requisite good time. (Barney's big screen offering? Nonsense about a magic egg.)

For the uninitiated, Blue's Clues is a not-always-seamless mix of live action and deliberately flat-looking animation. As the title suggests, each episode has a mystery of sorts, and toddlers are encouraged to track the clues left by Blue along with the affable Steve, who always seems a step behind. In Blue's Big Musical Movie, the central mystery surrounds a big backyard musical production Blue, Steve, and their household item friends plan to stage. This being a musical, a number of new songs are interspersed throughout, and not only will kids find them catchy, so will adults--after all, it's hard to resist a numbers like one that places absurd lines like "Side Table has a funny hat" to a tango-like musical arrangement. The colors are bright and entrancing, and the energy level is high enough that the young 'uns won't realize they're getting a real lesson in problem solving and music fundamentals. The grown-ups will find amusement not only with the well-done animation and toe-tapping tunes but also what I hope are intentionally stiff dance moves on the part of Burns.

This being a children's title, the Paramount production team brought some motion and music to their typically static and silent menu design, offering an animated curtain opening and background music. Kids will enjoy the "music videos" offered for a pair of songs in the film; adults will see them for what they really are--glorified clips from the feature presentation used to push the tie-in soundtrack album. However, there's no debating the worth of a 20-minute behind the scenes look at Blue's Clues, which offers parents some valuable insight into the creative process and extensive educational research and testing behind the film and every episode of the series. (Paramount Home Entertainment)

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Awards Weekend 2000
Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind

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