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The Movie Report
Volume 35

#145 - 147
June 4, 1998 - June 17, 1998

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

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#147 June 17, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Dirty Work poster Dirty Work (PG-13) *
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Dirty Work has a premise of deliciously mean-spirited potential. Mitch Weaver (Norm Macdonald) and his lifelong best friend Sam McKenna (Artie Lange) are losers in life: they were constantly picked on in school, and now they cannot hold regular jobs. But as the trailer goes, "There is one thing Mitch Weaver is good at--revenge." So he and Sam parlay their unmatched skill in getting-even schemes into a marketable revenge-for-hire business called Dirty Work Inc.

This should be the groundwork for a wonderfully wicked black comedy, but for a film called Dirty Work, what ensues is rather clean of spirit. In fact, what makes Mitch and Sam start up their business is not a giddy desire to give bullies a taste of their own medicine, but rather a more sappy reason: Sam's father (Jack Warden) needs a heart transplant, and in order for him to move at the top of the recipient list, his compulsively betting doctor (Chevy Chase) asks the guys for $50,000 to pay off his bookie. So for all the scheming that goes on, beneath every underhanded plot is--gasp!--a heart, which undercuts the inherent nastiness of the premise.

Not that there isn't a lot of nastiness on display--there is, but of a different sort. There are frequent sexual references, most prominently in the form of prostitutes and Sam's impotent father's ongoing lust for them. And for a film rated PG-13, director Bob Saget (yes, that Bob Saget, of Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos fame) and writers Frank Sebastiano, Fred Wolf, and Macdonald himself, stretch the boundaries of good taste rather far--arguably a bit too much so (was not one, but two separate instances of sodomy between animals really necessary?). But the issue, of course, is not so much of taste as it is humor--as in, is it funny or not? The answer is a resounding no.

It's not that Macdonald isn't a funny guy. He was one of the more consistently funny performers on Saturday Night Live before his much-talked-about firing, and his dry brand of smartass wit translates well to the big screen; it also doesn't hurt that he's a natural, likable screen presence. He is able to give some of his lines a nice acid touch, but, for the most part, the oneliners, as written, are flat, and the broad slapstick gags just don't work (one running gag has him being literally tossed out of buildings--a real riot). Still, Macdonald's few shining moments are just about the only moments the film has. The late Chris Farley, as hysterical as he ever was, is amusing in a cameo role, but, as a whole, the supporting players are amateurish and seemingly free from any directorial guidance.

Saget tries to juice up the proceedings with kitschy cameos by Gary Coleman, Adam Sandler, and John Goodman, but their minimal novelty value cannot prevent Dirty Work from sputtering to the end of its brief 81-minute running time. The film closes on a sad note of desperation, an indulgent reel of outtakes from which only those involved in the production would derive any amusement. Come to think of it, I cannot imagine anyone but those involved in the production to find much amusement in the entirety of Dirty Work.

Mulan poster Mulan (G) ****
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Although it undoubtedly upset Disney executives, the disappointing domestic box office performance of last year's Hercules was probably the best thing to happen to the Mouse's animation house. While it was a light, expertly crafted, and highly enjoyable trifle, it was just that, a trifle, lacking the gravity that was a crucial ingredient of the studio's biggest financial (The Lion King) and artistic (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) successes. Seemingly galvanized by that humbling wakeup call, Disney's tried-and-true blend of populist instincts and weightier interests is back in full force and top form in Mulan.

In its current animation renaissance, Disney has proven to be better suited to handling female protagonists (Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas) than male ones (Aladdin and Hercules were varying degrees of milquetoast), and the title character of Fa Mulan (spoken by Ming-Na Wen, sung by Lea Salonga) is no exception. Crippled in their ongoing war with the Huns, the shorthanded Imperial Chinese army requires that one male from each family join the military cause. The only male in the Fa family is Mulan's father (Soon-Tek Oh), and, despite his advanced age and bad leg, he valiantly agrees to enlist. Determined to save her father from what is certain death and maintain honor in the family, Mulan, in a sequence of stunning visual and emotional power, cuts her hair, dons battle armor, and joins the army with her father's summons as the male Ping.

Although all of Disney's recent heroines have been strong feminist role models, none have been quite as proactive as Mulan. As can be expected, she initially cannot keep up with the guys in basic training, but she manages to make her every man's equal, if not superior, through her sheer will and determination. Mulan's transformation is highly reminiscent of Demi Moore's in last year's Disney drama G.I. Jane, but Mulan oneups that film's hour-long toughening process by efficiently covering the same ground during a single, rousing musical number, "I'll Make a Man Out of You," sung by army captain Shang (spoken by B.D. Wong, sung by, yes, Donny Osmond). Mulan also out-G.I.'s Jane by having its heroine rely mostly on wits, rather than brawn, in combat; while she has a high kick that rivals the best of them, it's her quick-thinking brain that proves to be most formidable.

The main thrust of the story sounds rather serious, but this is a Disney film, after all, and it would not be complete without the requisite comic relief, here in the form of the scrawny dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy), who is Mulan's self-appointed guardian. A hilarious, jive-talking Murphy would appear to be an out of place in this largely earnest tale, but Mushu is more seamlessly integrated into the story than the seemingly grafted-on comic relief in the two most serious Disney efforts, Hunchback and Pocahontas. Hunchback and Pocahontas could have lost the sore-thumb gargoyles and cute, mute Meeko the raccoon, respectively, without any major loss to the film as a whole; however, the presence of Mushu, while still an obvious concession to the masses, never feels gratuitous, and his funny presence would be sorely missed.

Disney animated features have a rich musical tradition, and the downward slide hinted at in Hercules continues in Mulan. Mulan is the first recent Disney animated effort that I feel could have easily survived without the songs, even if they are kept to a paltry (for Disney standards) four. Only two of the tunes by composer Matthew Wilder (yes, he of "Break My Stride" fame) and Hercules lyricist David Zippel, the lovely if very short "Reflection," Mulan's de rigueur "I Want" song; and the aforementioned "I'll Make a Man Out of You" serve a recognizable dramatic purpose. Nonetheless, Wilder deserves kudos for injecting some Oriental flavor into the songs--for the most part, anyway (only "I'll Make a Man..." sounds distinctly Western); but Zippel's lyrics are simply serviceable. Picking up the slack is score composer Jerry Goldsmith, who gives Mulan an appropriate epic sweep, most memorably in the haunting cue that accompanies Mulan's fateful decision early in the film.

While the ears may be disappointed by Mulan, the eyes will be more than satisfied. Under the sure hands of directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft and art director Ric Sluiter, Mulan's look has a texture uncommon to most animated features. Backgrounds are kept fairly simple, and the screen is often awash with scarlets and lavenders, creating a surreal yet emotionally true visual landscape. There's a general softness to the art, which fits nicely the Eastern art tradition and lends the film a distinct identity and personality.

I would not consider Mulan to be in the upper echelon of Disney animated features occupied by Beauty and the highly underappreciated Hunchback, but it ably upholds the Disney tradition of excellence. Inspiring, touching, serious, yet fun, Mulan is animated entertainment of the highest order, putting half-hearted efforts like Warner Bros.'s recent Quest for Camelot to shame.

The X-Files poster The X-Files (PG-13) *** 1/2 photos from the world premiere
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Fox's The X-Files one of television's most curious phenomenons. It's not a question of quality; though it has a dud episode here and there, the science fiction sensation is a consistently engrossing, well-thought and -put-together series that deserves all the critical accolades it has garnered in its five seasons. What makes the series' hard-fought-for mass popularity so astonishing is the uncommon demand it places upon the viewing audience: concentration. This is especially the case with its trademark "mythology" episodes, which address a ridiculously convoluted conspiracy involving the coverup of extraterrestrial life. Now FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully take their quest for the "truth" that lies elusively "out there" to the big screen, and the result is a most unusual summer blockbuster: one that delivers the thrilling goods with an uncommon dose of intelligence and complexity.

As fans of the show (X-philes, as they are known) such as myself are aware, The X-Files centers on Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully's (Gillian Anderson) ongoing investigations into paranormal phenomena--cases called, yes, X-Files. Of course, Mulder and Scully are mismatched partners. Mulder is a true believer in the fantastic after having witnessed his sister Samantha's abduction by aliens when they were young; medical doctor Scully is a skeptical woman of science who was paired with Mulder by FBI superiors to debunk his work. In a move that, surprisingly enough, does not alienate any X-virgins, the film (unofficially subtitled Fight the Future) begins where this past season's cliffhanger left off, with the X-Files closed and Mulder and Scully reassigned to standard FBI duty and a seemingly standard case: the investigation of a terrorist bomb threat in Dallas.

The operative word there is "seemingly," for some suspicious circumstances surrounding the case thrusts Mulder and Scully neck-deep into the ongoing conspiracy that has served as the backbone of the series. Much effort has been made by Fox and the X-Files cast and crew to keep the plot under wraps, so I will not divulge any specifics here. What I will reveal, however, is that this time around Mulder and Scully find some hard answers to questions that have long lingered in the series, such as the true nature of the conspiracy and the "black cancer," the oily alien goo that infects human hosts. It should be noted, however, that many of the series' focal mysteries, such as the identity of the enigmatic conspirator known as the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), remain unanswered when the end credits roll.

What I just wrote may sound baffling to X newcomers, but series creator and screenwriter Chris Carter (working from a story he devised with Frank Spotnitz) accomplishes the impossible--making the knotty story accessible to new viewers. Mulder and Scully's backstories are efficiently explained in succinct passages of dialogue, as is all the background knowledge required to follow and understand the conspiracy. A few bones are thrown to appease the X faithful, such as vague allusions to the harrowing ordeals Scully has gone through in the series, and a cameo by the Lone Gunmen, a trio of conspiracy freaks that often assist Mulder and Scully. But by and large, no one is likely to be lost. In the lobby following the screening, I overheard a fan answer a newcomer's questions, and his queries were about issues that are irrelevant to the general understanding of the film.

A large part of what makes Fight the Future satisfying to all audiences is the highly suspenseful story Carter and director Rob Bowman tell. The plot is as intricately structured and unpredictable as the conspiracy itself, and while there is a greater emphasis on action and spectacle here, those sequences are integral to the story and free of gratuitous violent shocks. Bowman is a veteran of many X episodes, and as such, he knows how to milk the maximum amount of tension from Carter's labyrinthian scripts. He also handles the film's increased yet still modest-by-Hollywood-standards budget quite well, employing some imaginative effects to create some truly scary creatures. Bowman's huge miscalculation, however, is one that could have been easily sidestepped: the virtual absence of Mark Snow's (who also composed the film's score) memorably eerie theme music. A single bar of the theme's trademark whistle accompanies the film's first frame, and an upbeat interpolation is featured in a sequence where Mulder and Scully drive. But that unmistakable X theme is featured more in the trailers than the film itself--a fact that is sure to irk even the most casual of X-philes.

For all the scary aliens and other creatures that pop up in The X-Files week after week, the key to the show and, now, the movie's success is its leads. Duchovny and Anderson's natural rapport shines through even stronger on the big screen, and apparently Carter recognized this, for the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully reaches unprecedented heights of palpability in Fight the Future. I won't spoil anything, but Carter comes up with a clever way to have his cake and eat it too, one that will please all series fans. The solid work of the other series semi-regulars, Davis, John Neville (the Well-Manicured Man), and Mitch Pileggi (FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner) carries over to the big screen; however, members of the Pileggi "Estrogen Brigade" are sure to be disappointed with Skinner's diminished role in the film. Martin Landau (filling the Deep Throat/X/Marita Covarrubias "informant" role) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (as a conspiracy figurehead) join the ensemble, and they appear very much at home in the X world.

For a big screen, interseason episode of a series that is still running strong on the small screen, the satisfying X-Files movie is remarkably self-contained. Yet it should come as no surprise that, in addition to the existing unresolved questions, some new ones arise--ensuring plenty of fodder for many more TV seasons and feature films. As one character declares, "One man cannot fight the future."

In Brief

Gone with the Wind poster Gone with the Wind (G) ****
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Director Victor Fleming and producer David O. Selznick's enduring 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's classic Civil War novel (ranked at #4 in the American Film Institute's recently-announced list of "The 100 Greatest American Movies") is one of those movies most people of my generation have heard a lot about but have not seen. I was one of those people until my press screening last week, and I was quite taken aback by what I saw on screen for four good, long hours. It is not so much that the film is a terrific piece of work, visually sumptuous, wonderfully structured, smartly written, and perfectly acted. What I found most intriguing was the glimpse Wind offers at a lost Hollywood art: the epic melodrama.

Granted, Titanic technically fits that bill, but James Cameron's virtually three-character film does not come close to matching the well-developed ensemble presented in Wind. There's self-centered "heroine" Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh); her suave suitor, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable); Scarlett's unattainable true love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard); and Ashley's much put-upon wife, the saintly Melanie Hamilton (Olivia DeHavilland)--and that's just for a start. More peripheral characters are also fully realized, such as Scarlett's often-overlooked, Jan Brady-like sister Suellen (Evelyn Keyes). Making the flawless juggling act even more impressive is the scope of the story, adapted for the screen by Sidney Howard, which follows the resilient Scarlett as she undergoes all manner of hardship--and, yes, some growing up--through a span of years in war-torn Georgia. In this day and age, Wind's shameless melodramatics may smack of overblown soap opera, but it is a highly involving and moving one at that, populated with characters the audience grows to care about over the course of its extended length. Wind is being reissued in a refurbished Technicolor print in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and digitally remastered sound, complete with the original pre-curtain overture, intermission entr'acte, and exit music; whether or not one has seen the film before, this sparkling new Wind is a cinematic experience worth savoring.


Boca a Boca poster Mouth to Mouth (Boca a Boca) (R) **
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Manuel Gómez Pereira's 1995 Spanish comedy (released in the States only last year) begins promisingly enough. A struggling actor (Javier Bardem) tries to make ends meet by taking on a job in phone sex, catering to gay clientele--with the exception of a sole woman (sizzling Aitana Sanchez-Gijón, best known for A Walk in the Clouds). The actor soon falls for the sultry femme fatale, and when they begin an off-line relationship, he inadvertently gets caught up in a twisted blackmail and murder plot. The laughs in Juan Luis Iborra, Joaquin Oristrell, and Naomi Wise's script grow in inverse proportion to the story's bizarreness--meaning, as the film progresses and grows increasingly strange, the laughs steadily decrease before completely disappearing by film's end. The final result is interesting, but nowhere near as fresh, funny, subversive, and sexy as it initially promises. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

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#146 June 11, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Six Days Seven Nights poster Six Days, Seven Nights (PG-13) *** photos from the world premiere
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In recent years, Harrison Ford has been such a grave screen presence, scowling through the likes of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series, The Fugitive, and last year's smash Air Force One, that one wonders if the rogue charm that made him such a superstar had been completely drained from his system. Apparently, it was just lying dormant. With Ivan Reitman's enjoyable romantic comedy/adventure Six Days, Seven Nights, the lovable scoundrel is back, giving audiences a fresh reminder of why Ford is one of the most enduring and popular modern screen icons.

Ford plays Quinn Harris, a carefree and slightly slobby (endearingly so) pilot in the Tropics whose broken-down plane crashes in a storm, stranding him and his charter, New York magazine editor Robin Monroe (Anne Heche), on a deserted island. Of course, the sophisticated Robin and the salt-of-the-earth Quinn are at odds long before the plane goes down, and all manner of hostile repartée is exchanged between the two from their first meeting. While some of the lines fall flat, the formulaic motions work because of the unexpectedly electric chemistry between Ford and Heche. Both actors, who have largely done serious works as of late, seem liberated by the lack of dramatic weight on their shoulders, and they deliver their zingers, as weak as they sometimes are, with beguiling abandon.

Naturally, there's nothing like a life-threatening crisis to bring two people together, and Quinn and Robin's warmup to each other is sped up even further by the arrival of some bloodthirsty pirates. Granted, some conflict needed to be introduced on the island, but this tacked-on development from writer Michael Browning is a bit too obviously thrown in for the purpose of adding gratuitous action scenes. But the point is to get the two together, and their newfound affection causes complications for both, but mostly Robin, who came to the islands on a vacation with her fiancé Frank (David Schwimmer), who frantically awaits her return on the home island.

Reitman, and old, reliable hand at breezy comedies, keeps the pace brisk and capably handles the more action-oriented sequences. His big accomplishment, however, is bringing the old, smiling Ford back. As appealing and charismatic as he always is, Ford hasn't been quite this charming and affable in years; he's obviously having a blast, and the audience cannot help but have one along with him. Holding her own is Heche, whose scrappy character never becomes the screaming ninny she initially promises to be (as the plane goes down, she frantically pops stress pills). She can take her lumps, physical and otherwise, just as well as Quinn, making her a formidable foil and ideal match.

Formulaic and light as a feather, Six Days, Seven Nights could be cited as a classic example of the summer "popcorn" movie season's lack of substance. It's certainly fluff, but it's unpretentious, undemanding, and--most importantly--fun fluff that goes down as easily as a frothy piña colada on a balmy tropical beach. Pass the popcorn.

In Brief

Can't Hardly Wait poster Can't Hardly Wait (PG-13) **
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Trust me, you can wait for this messy throwback to '80s teen comedies. A big, post-graduation blowout bash is the setting at which a number of new high school graduates set out to resolve some long-simmering issues, most prominently the shy Preston's (Ethan Embry) unspoken love for the popular Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who was just dumped by her jock boyfriend Mike (Peter Facinelli). This thread is supposed to be the emotional hook of the piece, but it is done in by the underwritten character of Amanda; Preston claims to see the "person inside" her glammed-up exterior, but the audience is never treated to a glimpse of this purported interior soul. All that shows up on screen is an above-it-all, constantly bitching snob, and as such writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont do a disservice to the engaging performance of Embry.

Far more involving--and upstaging the central action--is a subplot following the unlikely but inevitable romance between Preston's acerbic best friend (the delightful Lauren Ambrose) and white homeboy Kenny (a hilarious Seth Green), who find themselves locked in a bathroom together. This thread is sweet yet raucous, and often very funny, which is the mix Kaplan and Elfont obviously strived for in their other storylines. But all else, including a predictable arc about the geeky valedictorian's (Charlie Korsmo) beef with Mike, quickly grows tiresome, as does the movie as a whole.

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#145 June 4, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Almost Heroes poster Almost Heroes (PG-13) no stars
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While he had a number of memorably funny moments during his starmaking stint on Saturday Night Live, the late Chris Farley's big-screen starring vehicles--Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Beverly Hills Ninja--ranged from bad, worse, to amusingly bad. Sad to say, his final film, Almost Heroes, is every bit as sloppily made as his previous starring efforts--a virtually laugh-free comedy that puts a sad end to the woefully lackluster screen career of a talented comic.

It's hard to believe that Christopher Guest, who directed last year's smart and funny mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, helmed this disastrous enterprise. Then again, no director could have salvaged the witless script by Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe, and Boyd Hale. Matthew Perry and Farley play Leslie Edwards and Bartholmew (sic) Hunt, two explorers determined to beat the legendary Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest territories in 1804. Needless to say, the effete Edwards and the boorish Hunt are in over their heads, falling into a number of precarious, would-be comic situations (such as running into a merry band of evil conquistadors) en route to the Pacific. The odd-couple teaming of Perry and Farley sounds promising, but the two generate little comic chemistry. While this is partly the fault of the actors (a distracted-looking Perry seems more concerned over maintaining his uppity New England accent than selling one-liners), the script never gives them much opportunity to play off their contrasting comedic styles--Perry's deadpan wit and Farley's wild physicality. Instead, the writers succumb to the lazy trap that befell the scribes behind Farley's previous starring vehicles--jam as many "fat guy falls down" gags as possible.

This time around, though, these obvious gags have an underlying tone of sadness, since Farley's frustration with such gags has become well-noted after his death. Even more troubling are the gags centering on Hunt's alcohol consumption. These jokes would have been only moderately amusing at best had Farley lived to see this film's release, but in light of the substance abuse-related circumstances of his death, the gags come off even cheaper, not to mention all the more insulting to the late star.

In my review for another unscreened-for-critics (wonder why) from Warner Bros., the awful Major League: Back to the Minors, I noted that not even the guy in the audience who laughs at just about anything let out a single chuckle throughout the movie. The most I can say about Almost Heroes is that the laughing guy was back in his element, greeting many a joke with explosions of laughter. Everyone else, though, was stonefaced and silent--at least those strong enough to not walk out of the auditorium.

The Truman Show poster The Truman Show (PG) *** 1/2
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From the moment he signed his name on the dotted line, The Truman Show has been touted as Jim Carrey's big dramatic breakthrough (never mind that he won numerous critical kudos for his work in the Emmy-nominated TV movie Doing Time on Maple Drive). Carrey indeed does a fine job in Peter Weir's clever fantasy, but to focus all attention on his refreshing change-of-pace turn is to discount the superior accomplishment of those behind the scenes--and to give Carrey a bit too much credit.

Carrey's Truman Burbank has a nice house, white picket fence and all, in the idyllic oceanside community of Seahaven; a loyal wife, Meryl (Laura Linney); an even more loyal best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich); and a cushy desk job. If it sounds like a pretty picture from the TV screen, that's because it is. Unbeknownst to Truman, the entire life he has lived is mere programming for a 24-hour television network. Seahaven is one large soundstage, where all events are scripted and all the inhabitants are actors--that is, except for Truman, who was adopted as an infant by the Omnicam Corporation, and has had every step of his life traced and molded by The Truman Show's creator, Christof (Ed Harris).

In addition to having an inventive plot hook, Andrew Niccol's screenplay is expertly structured. In its first minute, the basic outline of the complex premise is made perfectly clear through a faux television credit roll and soundbites from Meryl, Marlon (or, rather, the actors who play them), and Christof. For about the next hour, Niccol and Weir thrust the audience directly into Truman's world, allowing them to experience for themselves the surreal, synthetic way of "life" in Seahaven before going into a more detailed backstory that fills in the few holes. In the process, the viewer is given a much more vivid and entertaining picture of Truman's situation.

Truman is not as dumb as Christof or other crew members think, and he begins to catch on to the grand charade that is his life when no one will let him leave town. The resulting conflict, within himself and with everyone and everything around him, provides Carrey ample opportunity to stretch while staying within comfortable acting bounds. He gets to cry (and convincingly at that) onscreen and play a fairly earnest character as a whole, but he does make concessions to his core comedic audience. When Truman's suspicions grow, the more unhinged he gets, setting the stage for some funny rubberfaced antics (no butt-talking, though--thankfully).

However, his performance is not the Oscar-baiting tour-de-force that a number of sources would lead you to believe. Carrey's shortcoming is most clearly brought to light in one key subplot. Although he likes Meryl, the love of his life is Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), a fetching young woman whom he barely knew in college. Like the rest, Sylvia was an actress playing a part, but when she broke script and actually fell for him, she was hastily removed from the Seahaven set and the Truman cast. Truman was told that she and her "father" moved to Fiji, and it's his longing for her that makes him want to leave town. This thread is supposed to be Truman's emotional hook, but it doesn't quite work for a couple of reasons. The character of Sylvia, who goes on to be the leader of the "Free Truman" movement, is sketchily written, as are the reasons behind her deep feelings for Truman; and, as evidenced in Liar Liar, Carrey just isn't that convincing when it comes to sentiment. Granted, Truman is nowhere near as sappy as that film (not to mention the sap felt out of place there), but, while he is a likable presence, Carrey doesn't have much of a natural emotional rapport with the audience or, for that matter, his co-stars. As such, one may empathize with Truman's desire to break free, but not necessarily feel for the romantic plight that motivates that desire.

Hence, the bravura work on display in The Truman Show is that of Niccol and Weir, who have crafted a subtly layered, perceptive, and pointedly truthful commentary on the media and its and our own voyeuristic tendencies. While the ostensible villains of The Truman Show are Christof and his crew, coming off every bit as guilty is the viewing audience, which is shown eating up every second of Truman's pre-packaged "life" as their own lives idly waste away. As outlandish as the entire premise may seem, isn't The Truman Show (in which one's life is completely exploited as an entertainment "escape" for others) but just one logical, merging step away from the current likes of Jerry Springer's ongoing parade of dysfunction and those real-life "caught on tape" video shows?

In Brief

Hope Floats poster Hope Floats (PG-13) **
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The latest weepy chick flick from actor-director Forest Whitaker (after Waiting to Exhale) demonstrates all too well the limitations of good acting. Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick Jr., Gena Rowlands, and young Mae Whitman turn in strong performances, but they can't make Steven Rogers's soggy script float (yeah, bad pun) above the level of made-for-TV movie. After being dumped by her husband (Michael Paré) on a national TV talk show (by far the film's most entertaining scene) Birdee Pruitt (a radiant Bullock) and her daughter Bernice (Whitman) moves back in with her taxidermist mother (Rowlands) in backwater Smithville, Texas.

From this point on, everything belongs on the small screen. Birdee is aggressively wooed by a nice guy (Connick) who's had a crush on her since high school, but she and especially Bernice can't overcome the hope that her hubby will come back to her. There is also the obligatory disease-stricken older relative: in this case, Birdee's father, who's been staying in a rest home since having a stroke and coming down with Alzheimer's. I'm not spoiling anything by revealing Birdee eventually stops feeling sorry for herself and starts living again, but, of course, not before a number of tears are shed, people lovingly embrace, and the de rigueur death of a loved one. Nothing spells dull and saccharine quite like the two dreaded H's--hugs and healing.

The Last Days of Disco poster The Last Days of Disco (R) ***
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Like writer-director Whit Stillman's previous films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, his latest is all about talk and nothing more--it's just that the faces and the setting are different (New York City in the "very early 1980s," where the cultural phenomenon of discothèques and their accompanying musical genre were in their dying days). But the incessant barrage of verbiage is forgivable when it is as smartly, wittily written as it is here. The main gabbers of this film are the naive blonde Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and her best "friend" and roommate, bitchy sophisticate Charlotte (an unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale, sporting a perfect American accent and looking like a cross between Nicole Kidman and Parker Posey), both of whom are recent college grads who work in a publishing house by day and frequent an exclusive dance club at night.

The film is essentially a portrait of their and their friends' lives, but Stillman shows little concern for any of them. The emphasis is so strongly centered on their impossibly verbose conversations that all character and plot developments seem like throwaways. For example, when club manager Des (Chris Eigeman, a Stillman regular) develops a what is supposed to be a serious drug habit, it comes off as more of a minor step down than a plunging descent. In spite of its failings on the dramatic level, Disco is still a very entertaining film, thanks to an appealing cast (which also includes Beckinsale's Much Ado About Nothing love interest, Robert Sean Leonard, and a briefly-seen Jennifer Beals) and those wordy discussions. Even though a number of the characters are Ivy League graduates, I'm not sure there are real people who talk the way these people do. But since the exchanges are as funny as they are (a sociopolitical deconstruction of Disney's Lady and the Tramp is the highlight), that complaint is moot.

A Perfect Murder poster A Perfect Murder (R) ** 1/2
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The murder may be perfect, but Andrew Davis's loose update of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic Dial M for Murder is not even close. Davis and screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly have come up with an interesting wrinkle to Frederick Knott's original play: a wealthy industrialist (Michael Douglas) wants to kill his adulterous heiress wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) for the money, but in this version, the person he hires to do the job is the lover himself (Viggo Mortensen). Also, for the most part, Davis and Kelly have successfully opened up the action of the original, which largely took place on a single apartment set.

But, as is the case with too many remakes, the slick new take falls short. Generally speaking, Douglas, Paltrow, and Mortensen deliver passable performances, but Douglas lacks the complexity of Dial M's Ray Milland; he is a bit too one-note evil that it's hard to believe that anyone could suspect anyone other than him (not helping are some obvious up-to-no-good lines, such as this reply to Paltrow's request that a lunch date be postponed until the next day: "What if there's no tomorrow?"). Nonetheless, Davis manages to generate some tension, yet this is squandered by the uninspired finale, which bears the unmistakable fingerprints of post-test screening retooling. Watch closely, and you'll notice an underscored detail that is not picked up on in the finale, much like how the final, post-test version of Fatal Attraction lets a similar matter dangle.

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