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The Movie Report
Volume 39

#157 - 159
September 6, 1998 - September 25, 1998

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

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#159 September 25, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Antz poster Antz (PG) *** 1/2
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It's still another two months before DreamWorks launches its assault on the current state of feature animation with the much-ballyhooed (and equally as anticipated) The Prince of Egypt, but in the meantime, the crew at SKG has found another way to hit Disney where it hurts--in the field of computer animation. With the witty and wise Antz, DreamWorks and PDI has given the Mouse and Pixar's upcoming A Bug's Life a tough act to follow.

The "z" in Antz stands for Z (voice of Woody Allen), a lowly worker ant who for once wants to do something for his individual needs rather than those of the colony. He gets a taste of something different when Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), reluctantly betrothed to megalomaniacal General Mandible (Gene Hackman) and bored with her sheltered life in general, sneaks out and joins the commoners for one night, meeting Z at a bar (where "aphid beers" are served). Bala's ruse is soon discovered, but not before Z has fallen head over heels in love. Determined to break from his class and win Bala's love in return, Z comes up with a scheme that, if anything, will win Bala's attention. Alas, he gets a lot more than he bargained for.

Like Disney's trailblazing Toy Story, Antz has a smart script that will keep adults equally as entertained, if not more, as the young 'uns. The screenplay by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz is a most unlikely--and often hilarious--Communist allegory, with the oppressed workers encouraged to "work for the good of the colony" and even forced to dance the same way at the same time each day; Z's scheme inspires the masses to revolt. But beyond the social satire, a lot of the script's creativity lies in its placing the audience in the ants' shoes, seeing familiar things from the insects' eyes. For example, simple trash can brimming with litter is "Insectopia," a paradise of food and other delights for all insects; and a single water droplet can spell a horrible death by drowning.

The material really comes to life in the hands of the actors and the animators at PDI. The character of Z would be unthinkable without the voice of Allen; freed from his physical form, his tired neurotic New Yorker schtick is given a freshness. The rest of the actors are also well-cast: Sylvester Stallone is perfect fit for Z's musclehead soldier friend, Weaver; Stone lends Princess Bala sexiness and spunk, as does Jennifer Lopez to Z's worker friend Azteca; Hackman makes Mandible a hissable villain; and Christopher Walken is an ideal foil as his right-hand ant, Colonel Cutter. Though the actors give the ants most of personality, the animators fill in the blanks, coming up with a look for the ants that is at once humanized (their faces are wonderfully expressive) yet distinctly insect-like. The artwork is consistently first rate, if a bit limited in the big picture; most of the action takes place in the ant colony, which means repeated use the same dingy dirt tunnel backgrounds. However, some visually dazzling scenes, such as a rather harrowing combat sequence involving some menacing termites, more than compensate.

In recent months, many studios have tried to take a bite out of Disney's stranglehold on the feature animation market--and failed. If the delightful Antz is any indication of what is in the pipeline of DreamWorks' traditional animation division, it may not be such a small world after all.

Urban Legend poster Urban Legend (R) *
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What hath Kevin Williamson wrought? While the horror movie revival spurred on by his Scream has yielded a few decent entries in the genre--I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween: H20, and Scream 2--it must be noted that Williamson himself had a hand in the writing of those films. Those Williamson-less post-Scream efforts, among them Wishmaster and the recent Disturbing Behavior, have been frightening all right--frighteningly, insultingly bad. Add to that list Urban Legend, which takes a promising premise and runs it through a predictable meat grinder of idiocy.

The influence of Williamson on screenwriter Silvio Horta is clear in two key areas. First, the opening sequence, like that of Scream, is an extended set piece detailing the singular murder that gets the proverbial ball rolling. This sequence, in which Pendleton College coed Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is decapitated while driving, also reveals the other obviously Williamson-esque touch: the killer's look. Dressed in a large hooded parka, wielding an axe, the killer bears more than a passing resemblance to the I Know... fisherman, sans the hook.

One thing Horta does not borrow from Williamson, however, is the intriguing premise. Students at Pendleton are being killed by way of urban legends--those contemporary bits of "mythology" passed from person to person, group to group, year to year that become so embedded in the social consciousness. It hardly matters if they are true or not, such as the tall tale that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died from a fatal combination of Pop Rocks and Pepsi (he didn't). Michelle, slain by the "killer lurking in the backseat" of lore, is but the first to fall prey to an urban legend come true; as the body count rises, fellow Pendleton student Natalie (Alicia Witt) suspects not only a link between the murders, but a personal link to her past as well.

The setup shows promise, but the story never takes off, due in large part to Horta and the director, the aptly named Jamie Blanks, who fires round afer round of his namesake in terms of suspense and scares. Too many of the would-be shocks are fakeouts reliant on bombastic music cues, and the film's chase scenes are riddled with the clichés that Scream tried to subvert, like screaming damsels knowingly running themselves into dead ends when they should--and could--run out the front door. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to clichés there's also the climactic villain confession, in which a contrived and way-too-convenient motive is revealed, not to mention the credit card opening up the locked door trick, which is a cliché in any film genre. Banks and Horta's (intentional) attempts at humor are also lame; the fact that the best gags are lazy, in-jokey references to the other credits of co-stars Joshua Jackson and Rebecca Gayheart says a lot about the imagination of their humor. Some laughs are also had when the rather predictable identity of the killer is revealed, but I'm not so sure if some of the more hilarious things about it were meant to be so.

The filmmakers don't get much help from their onscreen talent. I was far from a fan of bland I Know... starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt, but I'd take her any day over the dreadfully stiff and uncharismatic Witt, whose inept attempts at emoting were often met with laughter; Witt has a perfect foil in her equally presence-challenged leading man, Jared Leto. Dawson's Creek star Jackson mugs his way thorugh a glorified cameo; Gayheart displays all the depth and range of, well, a Noxzema spokeswoman; and Robert Englund lends the film little more than his Freddy Krueger pedigree as a folklore professor. Granted, the cast is hampered by their material. Loretta Devine, who has done some fine work in films such as Waiting to Exhale, is saddled with the ridiculous role of a Pam Grier-worshiping campus security guard.

The recently resuscitated horror genre cannot rely on the efforts one man--namely, Kevin Williamson--to stay alive. If other filmmakers continue to make such shoddy product as Urban Legend, the genre looks to once again go the way of screen slashers' many victims.

In Brief

Clay Pigeons poster Clay Pigeons (R) ** 1/2
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It's hard to put a finger on what exactly this film is, and, for a while, it seems as if director David Dobkin and screenwriter Matt Healy aren't sure what they're after, either. The Montana-set Clay Pigeons begins as darkly comic riff on Fatal Attraction, with young mechanic Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) being more or less stalked by an out-of-her-mind ex-lover (Georgina Cates) that just won't take no for an answer. About a half hour in, the film suddenly switches gears--and the filmmakers find their footing--when dead bodies start piling up and Clay becomes the chief suspect; also added to the mix are a slick, amiable cowboy (Vince Vaughn, hilarious) who isn't what he appears to be, and an acerbic FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo, in dry form). What ensues is a quirky, pitch black comedy-thriller that settles into an amusingly mean-spirited groove--that is, until the underwhelming finale, which all too neatly cleans up the mess that preceded it.

Cube poster Pi poster Cube (R) **
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π (Pi) (R) *** 1/2
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Wanna make a science fiction thriller, but don't have the money for big-budget effects? Then turn to math, as have neophyte feature filmmakers Vincenzo Natali and Darren Aronofsky for their films Cube and π, respectively.

Cube's story is fairly thin: six strangers (Nicole deBoer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Wayne Robson, and Maurice Dean Wint) wake up to find themselves trapped in a 14' by 14' cube, with doors on each wall, the ceiling, and the floor. This cube, as it turns out, is simply one of many in a much larger structure, and the six try to find their way out of the labyrinthian prison--that is, if they can crack the mathematical code that will lead them to the exit. With a piddly budget of only $365,000 (in Canadian dollars), Cube is more visually inventive than films that cost twenty times more. Natali shot Cube on a single 14'x14' set, made to look like many different cubes through the use of different-colored lighting; the effect is entirely convincing. But for all his creative ingenuity, Natali and co-writers Andre Bijelic and Graeme Manson could have come up with a stronger script. As claustrophobic as the setting is, the film is remarkably unscary. The queasy promise of the chilling opening scene (in which an unfortunate prisoner is sliced and diced into cube steak by a booby trap) soon dissipates with the introduction of the flat, uninvolving characters, who predictably come at odds because of personality conflicts, anxiety, insanity, or any combination of the three. Too much time is spent on these interpersonal conflicts and too little on the mechanical ones, i.e. evading traps like those in the prologue. Adding to the narrative tedium are the often laughably amateurish turns by the justly unknown cast.

Aronofsky had even less--only $60,000--to work with on π, but he achieves the overpowering atmosphere of fear and paranoia that Natali and company obviously strived for in Cube. Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, and Eric Watson's story is sometimes confounding; it details an math genius's (Gullette) rapid descent into madness when he finally discovers a long-obsessed-over mathematical pattern to the stock market, Jewish mysticism, and, it appears, the universe itself. But story seems to be a moot point in Aronofsky's frenzied vision; the intent is to create a living nightmare of psychological horror, and he succeeds most unsettlingly through his use of stark, sometimes grainy, black and white photography; frenetic editing; and a pulsating electronic score. Many films purport to be something "unlike you've ever seen"; few films actually deliver. The stylish and scary π is one of those few.

Rush Hour poster Rush Hour (PG-13) ** 1/2
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After 13 years, Jackie Chan has returned to American film production, and while the result doesn't approach the disasters his two previous stateside efforts (The Big Brawl and The Protector) were, it is still somewhat of a disappointment. In this formulaic buddy action comedy, Chan's Hong Kong cop is teamed with a motormouthed L.A. cop (Chris Tucker) to recover the kidnapped daughter (Julia Hsu) of the Chinese consul (Tzi Ma).

With such a mismatched pair, many laughs are had along the way, most coming from the quick-tongued Tucker, who is mercifully held somewhat in check by director Brett Ratner; he isn't nearly as shrill as he has been in other films (such as his last collaboration with Ratner, Money Talks). However, Ratner has a tougher time with the action and stunt scenes, which are not on a par with those in Chan's HK efforts. One fight scene, set in a pool hall, is completely gratuitous; and Chan's major stunt (sliding down a long banner) is kids' stuff compared to the more outrageous feats he's done in the past. Only one set piece, in which Chan fends off two baddies while trying to protect a priceless vase, is in the vein of his trademark blend of mayhem and silent comedy. Hopefully the success of the just-OK Rush Hour will allow Chan to make more inventive vehicles on this side of the Pacific.

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#158 September 17, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Permanent Midnight poster Permanent Midnight (R) **
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Arriving fairly fresh off the blink-and-you-thankfully-missed-it run of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is another adaptation of a drug-dazed book, this time a non-fiction one: Permanent Midnight, the celebrated autobiography of TV writer Jerry Stahl. While the resulting film is nowhere near the disaster Gilliam's was, screenwriter-director David Veloz's glimpse at one man's real-life walk on the wild side rings just about as false as that surreal work.

The true story of Stahl would appear to make an intriguing film. While he was a successful writer for such television shows as thirtysomething, Moonlighting, and ALF (the latter recreated in the film as Mr. Chompers), Stahl also led the life of a heroin junkie. This double life scenario does hold some promise, and with the vibrant Ben Stiller playing Stahl, first-time helmer Veloz appeared to be onto something interesting.

Veloz, however, shoots himself in the foot just about right from the get-go. Not content to follow Stahl's story straight ahead, he comes up with a woefully unconvincing framing story. We meet Jerry as he works in a fast food joint as part of a drug rehab program, and he gets picked up by a mysterious woman named Kitty (Maria Bello). Jerry and Kitty hole up at a motel, and in between (and sometimes during) attempts at sex, Jerry tells Kitty of his turbulent life: the out-of-control heroin abuse and the devastating effects it had on his marriage of convenience to a beautiful Brit (Elizabeth Hurley, trying her best in a thankless role) and his once-thriving writing career.

The Jerry-Kitty subplot fails the test as a simple framework, yet Veloz somehow got the wrongheaded idea that this already-weak part of the story could serve as the film's emotional core. Past catches up to present by the end of act two, when Jerry finishes his story and he parts company with Kitty; just when one thinks that's the last of Kitty, act three's focus is on Jerry's inexplicable romantic feelings for her. According to the script, Jerry and Kitty form an unbelievably strong bond during their nights together, presumably due to the "similar pasts" they purportedly share. But one is never given a clear idea of Kitty's past; she makes references to having had an addiction, but she never gets a chance to deliver her whole story (or, at the very least, enough of it). Bello is terrific (she could very well have a successful film career after suddenly bolting from TV's smash ER), investing great warmth and humanity to her role, but, still, Kitty never becomes a fully developed character.

The same, unfortunately, can be said about Jerry. Stiller's immersion into the role is admirable (he lost 30 pounds), and as a whole, he turns in an impressive dramatic turn. However, as written by Veloz, Jerry is less a person than a set of tics: shaking, manic talking. It does not help that one is never treated to a glimpse to what Jerry was like before the drugs, thus never lending the audience to a standard of comparison. Even worse, there's no clear turning point in Jerry's story; the film feels like it's missing a scene where he realizes his mistake and decides to turn his life around. While one pivotal event is said to be his turning point, its depiction leaves little of that sense.

I have not read Permanent Midnight, but based on what I've read about it, the film is a pale shadow of what is said to be a work that is quite harrowing and even funny. Of course, what apparently makes the book work even more is that it is all based on fact. If I had not known that detail in advance, I would not have been able to glean it from Permanent Midnight the movie, which comes off as manufactured and synthetic as most Hollywood product.

In Brief

One True Thing poster One True Thing (R) ***
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Although mine were a couple of the relatively few dry eyes left at the end of this adaptation of Anna Quindlen's tearjerking novel, I was not left untouched by this radical departure for director Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress). After his homemaker wife Kate's (Meryl Streep) cancer takes a turn for the worse, English professor George Gulden (William Hurt) forces his daughter Ellen (Renée Zellweger) to leave her job as a big city magazine writer and become, in effect, nursemaid to her dying mother. The arc of the story is predictable, but only to a point; while familiar bases are covered (the never-close Kate and Ellen learn to bond; Ellen learns the importance of family over work), Karen Croner's script also has a surprising, and rather involving, mystery element to it, largely embodied by a framing device where Ellen interrogated by an investigator (James Eckhouse) for reasons that only gradually become clear.

But the true thing of One True Thing is the acting, which is uniformly superb. The usually spacey (as of late) Hurt's uncharacteristically focused performance is a noteworthy achievement, but his effort is upstaged by the excellent mother-daughter duo. Zellweger and especially Streep both bring their roles to vivid life with a multi-dimensional blend of warmth, vulnerability, and underlying strength. While the whole of One True Thing may not be deserving of such kudos, the actresses' exquisite performances are what Oscars are made for.

Ronin poster Ronin (R) **
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If you were one of the (surprisingly large) number of people who found Mission: Impossible confusing, steer clear of this sometimes exciting but downright incomprehensible action thriller directed by John Frankenheimer and written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet. Here's what I could get straight: a group of independent covert operatives (including Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, and Sean Bean) is hired by a mysterious Irishwoman (Natascha McElhone) to steal an equally mysterious case of, yes, mysterious international significance. Why? Beats the hell out of me.

About an hour into Ronin, I completely gave up on trying to figure out the wheres and whys of the plot, which also involves an Irish baddy (Jonathan Pryce) and even a Russian figure skater played by two-time Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt (who, for the record, is really German). Somewhat contented but still left a bit empty by the technically proficient action and chase scenes (one extended car chase through Paris is a suspenseful highlight), I searched mightily to find something else to hold my interest. There was nothing in the characters; they are all so shallowly written I kept on forgetting their names. In the end, the only investment I had was in the case--namely, what was in it. Alas, remember Pulp Fiction? There's your answer. Mamet was so upset by the Writers Guild's refusal to give him sole writing credit that he chose to be listed under a pseudonym (Richard Weisz); turns out he unwittingly made the right decision.

Six-String Samurai poster Six-String Samurai (PG-13) ***
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In this age of obscure taglines (for instance, Knock Off's: "There is no substitute"), it's refreshing to see a slogan that efficiently distills the plot of a film in a handful of words. Take, for example, that of this ready-made midnight movie: "Vegas needs a new king." That, right there, is all you need to know plotwise of this ridiculously fun no-budget actioner in which a sword-swinging, guitar-playing man with no name (Jeffrey Falcon), accompanied by an orphan (Justin McGuire), travels across a post-apocalyptic America to assume the throne of Lost Vegas vacated by the recently deceased Elvis. Needless to say, his journey is not without obstacles: a family of cannibals, fascist Communists, and even Death himself. Falcon, an American martial arts champion who had heretofore only appeared in Hong Kong films, possesses the necessary charisma and fighting skills for this larger-than-life hero; McGuire, on the other hand, grates as the token child. Nonetheless, the outlandish vision of Falcon and director Lance Mungia, who collaborated on the script, is as fresh and creative as anything you're likely to see on the screen in a long while.

The Young Girls of Rochefort poster The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) (G) ***
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Director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand's 1967 musical follow-up to their classic 1964 jazz opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is by no means the masterpiece that film was, but it is not without its frothy charms. Catherine Deneuve, who also starred in Umbrellas, and her real-life sister, Françoise Dorléac, respectively play fraternal twin sisters Delphine and Solange Garnier. Delphine is a dancer; Solange is a composer, and both have dreams that stretch beyond the boundaries of their small hometown of Rochefort--first and foremost being finding true love. Little do they know that their perfect matches are also wandering the local streets: poet/artist/sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin) and American composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly), respectively. Delphine and Solange's mother (Danielle Darrieux) also pines for a true love--a lost one--who, yes, also happens to be in town: music shop owner Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli). These six characters constantly run into each other, but, of course, each just as constantly misses his or her match.

Although much of Rochefort's creative team, from the director, composer, and lead actress to many of the dubbed-in singing voices are the same as those of Umbrellas, the two films could not be more different. While Umbrellas was entirely sung but without a single dance number, Rochefort is a more traditional musical, with spoken interludes between lavish production numbers and wall-to-wall dancing. But the most crucial difference is the tone; where the heartbreaking Umbrellas was tragically bittersweet, Rochefort is unremittingly sunny, which fits the light storyline. However, all the lightness makes this film, unlike the emotionally sweeping Umbrellas, a completely disposable entertainment. Nonetheless, Rochefort, while an overlong 125 minutes, is a delightful confection, made all the sweeter by Legrand's jazzy, toe-tapping score, Bernard Evein's candy-colored production design, and the energetic cast.


Hush poster Hush (PG-13) no stars
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If only TriStar had hushed writer-director Jonathan Darby when he made the pitch for this insulting thriller. In yet another entry in the "-from-hell" genre, Jessica Lange plays a shrew of a mother-in-law to Gwyneth Paltrow, doing anything within her power to tear her son (Jonathan Schaech) and Paltrow apart. Never mind that the acting is poor all around--for what is supposed to be a thriller, Hush is astonishingly light on thrills and suspense; come to think of it, the film is completely devoid of those critical elements. Something is terribly wrong when the film does not even offer a cheesy rollercoaster finale with the psycho in an over-the-top final confrontation with the hero(es). Imagine Fatal Attraction ending with Michael Douglas and Anne Archer doing away Glenn Close with... verbal insults, and you get a pretty clear idea of how this complete bore closes with an all-too-appropriate hush. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

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#157 September 6, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Knock Off poster Knock Off (R) *
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Renowned Hong Kong action director Tsui Hark first teamed with Jean-Claude Van Damme on the action star's 1997 pairing with Dennis Rodman, Double Team, and managed to make what initially appeared to be a disaster into a slick, stylish, and somewhat diverting action timekiller. Tsui continues to energetically pile on the visual razzle dazzle in his latest collaboration with the Muscles from Brussels, but this time around, style can neither save a script that is at best ridiculous, and at worst incomprehensible; nor hide a host of truly lousy performances.

Writer Steven E. DeSouza's fairly straightforward plotline isn't as outré as Double Team's strange yarn involving a secret think tank/prison, but it makes about as much sense, which is little. Van Damme plays Marcus Ray, a Hong Kong-based sales rep for a jeans company (!) who stumbles upon a Russian terrorist scheme to implant powerful microchip-sized bombs in HK product exports to the U.S.--dolls, electronic equipment, and, yes, jeans. It's all part of some type of ransom scheme, but all I remember is--and I kid you not--graphics on a CIA computer screen showing a map of the world, bombs detonating, and an hat-wearing figure on the other side of the world bursting out into laughter...

...which is what the crowd at the showing I attended spontaneously did throughout Knock Off. While all of Van Damme's films have its share of unintentional laughs, mostly due to the stiff acting "skills" of the physically agile Van Damme, Knock Off delivers more than usual (though not as many as Van Damme's embarrassing directorial effort, 1996's The Quest). A lot of the laughs are earned by some particularly painful lines by DeSouza: "I smoked that badass like a Roman candle!" and "Entrepreneurship, babycakes!" standing out among my favorites. But it is indeed the pathetic performances that provide the bulk of Knock Off's laughs. Van Damme is true to laughable form, perhaps even worse than usual. Early scenes actually require him to make funny with co-star Rob Schneider (improbably cast as a deep cover CIA agent posing as Marcus's business partner), and the sight and sound of the still-heavily-accented Van Damme haplessly trying to drop punchlines is hilarious in the wrong way. Even typically good actors are not immune to the bad acting bug. Paul Sorvino is unconvincing and terribly overwrought as Schneider's CIA superior; and Lela Rochon, playing an investigator for the jeans company, spends the entire movie in perpetual snarl mode. In Rochon's defense, though, her role requires her to do little more than display her toned legs, exquisite bone structure, and perky bosoms, the latter coming in handy for one key scene where she must fish for microbombs stuck in her ample cleavage.

Tsui picks up where he left off visually in Double Team, juicing up the proceedings with inventive camera work. Here, though, Tsui's visual razzle dazzle borders on over kill, coming off as desperate attempts to shield the inanity of the entire enterprise. For each nifty trick Tsui pulls off, such as a recurring visual theme that has the camera literally going through the circuitry of electronic devices, there are others that are completely superfluous. This is especially disconcerting when the trick in question could be clever when used in the right context. For instance, one scene early on has Marcus putting his hand in a box. As he puts his hand in, the same action is shown from an overhead camera angle in a rectangle at the corner of the screen. It's undoubtedly an interesting visual, but it would have been nice if its use actually amounted to something.

The test of a Van Damme movie boils down to the action sequences, but surprisingly, those in Knock Off leave much to be desired. Tsui does what he can to make something of them, employing freeze frames, blurred motion, and unconventional camera angles, but there is nothing fundamentally special about the fairly generic chase and fight sequences written by DeSouza. There isn't anything as preposterously amusing as the climactic tiger/land mine fight in Double Team, let alone anything remotely close to Tsui's legendary Hong Kong works (but that's a given going in).

If Tsui has any hope of approaching his countryman John Woo's stateside success, he would do best to break free from Van Damme... before it's too late. If he continues his involvement with B-grade movies such as Knock Off, the respect he has from HK action fans will continue to diminish... that is, if it hasn't already disappeared entirely after this fiasco.

Next Stop Wonderland poster Next Stop Wonderland (R) ** 1/2
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A fresh location, likable lead actors, a cute concept. The destination of the romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland would appear to be moviegoers' hearts. But as charming as the film often is, something crucial feels missing on this journey.

That something missing is not the main character, Erin Castleton, played with a nice balance of edge and sensitivity by Hope Davis. Erin, a registered nurse in Boston, is soured on love after her political activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) ditches her to take part in a protest. The last thing on her mind is finding a new man, but her freespirited socialite mother (Holland Taylor) takes out a personal ad in Erin's name. Suddenly, Erin finds herself fielding the romantic interests of a number of not-so-gentlemanly callers.

Of course, the ideal man for her is not among the ad respondents. Could that elusive guy be former plumber/aspiring marine biologist Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant)? Alan is a nice, upstanding guy who, when not attending school full time, volunteers at the Boston Aquarium and tries to raise money to pay off a loan shark (Victor Argo). Alan and Erin's paths frequently cross, but in the film's central conceit, keep on narrowly missing each other, creating a "will they or won't they" romantic tension.

Or at least that's the presumption made by director Brad Anderson and his co-writer, Lyn Vaus (who appears in the film as one of Erin's suitors). As pleasant as Next Stop Wonderland is, never did I get the feeling that Alan was truly the guy for Erin. He's certainly nice, but Anderson and Vaus never establish any concrete reason why these two should connect other than the fact that they, the filmmakers, want them to. Hence, any rooting interest I had in their meeting came from less an ardent interest in a love connection than a simple curiosity as to what would happen.

Still, the film holds a quiet, unassuming appeal, due to some witty moments (an extended sequence in which Erin interviews her ad respondents is a comic highlight) and, most especially, the endearing performances by Davis and Gelfant. While one may not be terribly invested in them as a pair, they are each so likable that one is definitely invested in them as individual personalities. If that weren't the case, the ultralightweight Next Stop Wonderland could have easily been Next Stop Slumberland.

Rounders poster Rounders (R) ***
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Rounder: 1. A dissolute or rakish person, according to Webster's Dictionary. 2. A hustler, according to World Champion poker player Johnny Chan.

Rounders: John Dahl's engrossing drama, a never-less-than fascinating cinematic window peeking into the world of high-stakes poker lurking in New York's underground.

David Levien and Brian Koppelman's central story does a more than adequate, if mechanical, job of taking the audience into its seedy milieu. After losing a hard-won $31,000 in a single game, expert card player and law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) swears off poker at the behest of his classmate and live-in girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). But, to paraphrase The Godfather Part III, just when Mike thought he was out, Worm pulls him back in--Worm being Mike's old friend (Edward Norton), who, soon after his release from prison, lures Mike back into being a "rounder."

I had two key quibbles with Levien and Koppelman's script, one being the contrived dynamics of Mike-Worm relationship. Worm is clearly no good, getting Mike into all sorts of trouble, yet Mike continues to stand by and cover for him. Perhaps Mike is simply loyal to his friends, but if Mike truly is as smart as he's made out to be, he would see Worm for the complete loser that he is. Nonetheless, Damon and Norton's strong rapport make it somewhat easier to believe. No such rapport is present to solve my second problem, which is the unnecessary love story between Mike and Jo, vapidly played by current Hollywood "It Girl" Mol. There is not one scene that establishes their relationship prior to the inevitable strain cause by his return to poker. Their first scene together has her asleep in bed while he heads out, and not too long after that she's arguing with him about his poker outings. How is it possible to have an emotional investment in their romance?

What makes a ticket to Rounders a wise monetary investment for moviegoers is its fascinating look at the underground poker world. While they falter in the aforementioned dramatic areas, Levien and Koppelman make up for it with their attention to detail. They have an acute understanding of the game and this world, making extensive use of insider vernacular, which lends the film an air of authenticity. In fact, so heavy is its use that the press notes include a nearly four-page glossary of poker terms. This is not to say, however, that those without press notes will be scratching their heads. The writers' great accomplishment is making the language accessible to poker neophytes, who will be able to easily understand the insider dialogue through context. A big help is Mike's efficient voiceover narration, which delivers crucial exposition on the game of poker quickly and clearly.

The card game subject matter may seem to be a bit of a stretch for director Dahl, who has made his name with neo-noirs (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction). But his noir-bred gift for creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense makes for some tense and exciting poker matches. The air of mystery also comes through in a few memorable characters, such as Joey Knish (John Turturro), a seasoned poker player who sometimes advises Mike; Petra (Famke Janssen), the sultry head of the Chesterfields poker club; and, most notably, Russian poker master Teddy KGB (an effectively hammy John Malkovich), to whom Mike loses his $31,000 in the film's opening.

After watching large sums of money being won and (mostly) lost in Rounders, it is doubtful that any moviegoer will be eager to gain entry into some high-stakes card games; as Mike says in the film, poker is not a game of luck, but of skill. Similarly, neither is filmmaking, and it is the filmmakers' skill that makes Rounders a worthwhile entertainment.

In Brief

Simon Birch poster Simon Birch (PG) ** 1/2
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Aside from the fleeting presences of big screen talent such as Ashley Judd and Jim Carrey, there's little in this modest, engaging, yet cloying drama to distinguish it from, as my guest at the screening said, "a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie." "Suggested by" John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany (joining the ranks of Disney's other loose adaptations of books: Up Close & Personal, "suggested by" a biography on late newswoman Jessica Savitch; and, most notoriously, The Scarlet Letter, "freely adapted" from the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic), Simon Birch tells of the friendship between two very different 12-year-old boys in the 1960s: the tiny title character (Ian Michael Smith), the smallest delivery ever recorded in his town; and Joe (Joseph Mazzello). The two stick together through laughs and tears while at the same time searching for elusive answers: the identity of Joe's father and Simon's true purpose as, according to him, "God's instrument."

Simon Birch features some impressive performances by a glowing Judd (as Joe's foxy mother), Oliver Platt (as Judd's boyfriend), and especially Mazzello and newcomer Smith. The pair's emotionally charged scenes are affecting because of their unforced, heartbreaking performances, and not the often treacly, TV-movie-level writing and direction of first-timer Mark Steven Johnson, who also overdoes the slapsticky comedy scenes. Simon Birch is a sweet little film, but it may be a bit too sweet for its own good.

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