The Movie Report
Volume 40

#160 - 162
October 5, 1998 - October 16, 1998

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

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#162 October 16, 1998 by Michael Dequina


American History X poster American History X (R) ***
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"A Tony Kaye film." "Directed by Tony Kaye." Whether he likes it or not, after a still-developing war of words (and very expensive trade ads) with the higher-ups at New Line Cinema and the Directors Guild, the embattled first-time feature director has his name on the credits of the release cut of American History X. Much has been made of the issues of artistic integrity and free speech, but precious little has been made of the film itself--except that, according to Kaye, it no longer reflects his original vision. I do not know what exactly Kaye had in mind for his X, but the film I saw, flawed though it may be, definitely works on its own merits.

The main reason for the film's effectiveness the impassioned work of Edward Norton. He stars as Derek Vinyard, a young man who turns to a racist gang after his firefighter father is murdered. Head shaven and with a swastika tattooed to his chest, Derek is hate incarnate, and his rage leads to the brutal murder of two black men and a prison sentence. After three years, Derek emerges from prison a changed man, determined to let go of a violent life that, of course, won't so easily let go of him. It's a formulaic character progression, but Norton's intensity makes it fresh and involving. His depth and nuance convincingly meshes his character's two sides: utterly despicable and chilling as the skinhead Derek and sympathetic but--crucially--no less edgy, as the post-prison Derek.

The character of Derek and his personal journey are riveting, but less so are writer David McKenna's additional narrative touches--namely the focal relationship between younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his brother and appears headed down the same destructive path of hate. Derek's attempts to steer Danny in the right direction is the central dramatic issue, but there's no real tension. Danny is less a character than a plot device, with no clearly defined personality trait other than his emulation of his brother, thus there's very little suspense as to whether or not Danny will change.

While Kaye has disassociated himself from all aspects of the film, one other thing his name is attached to aside from the direction is the cinematography, and he does a stunning job. The story mostly unfolds in flashback, with Derek's despicable actions and brutal prison experience shown in black-and-white--no doubt a visual extension of the race theme. But the absence of full color also lends the more violent scenes an added roughness, and, in turn, a heightened sense of reality.

American History X ends on a fairly predictable note, but the resolution effectively reinforces the film's strong anti-hate, anti-violence message. Perhaps in Kaye's editing hands the film would have been more well-rounded, less formulaic, and, as such, more powerful and profound. Alas, as it currently stands, the incendiary X, for all its faults, still makes a lasting, thought-provoking impression.

Beloved poster Beloved (R) ***
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Jonathan Demme's Beloved, based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, is a movie of moments--moments of raw, lyrical emotional power scattered over a nearly three-hour time expanse. While the extended running time does little to dilute the potency of these isolated moments, it does, however, blunt the dramatic urgency of the assembled story. Instead of cutting deep into the heart, Beloved pierces the heart; the film is indeed moving, but lacking the momentum to make a sweeping emotional impact.

Beloved is named after a character in the story, a mysterious young woman (Thandie Newton) who shows up in the yard of Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) one morning in 1873. Sethe is a runaway slave trying to provide a decent living for herself and her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. With the arrival of old friend Paul D (Danny Glover) and, later, the childlike Beloved (whom she takes in), Sethe's life appears to be taking a turn for the better, but the secrets of her tortured past refuse to rest in peace.

It is my understanding that the screenplay, credited to Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks, is remarkably faithful to Morrison's narrative structure. In theory, fidelity to source material is a good thing, but it does not completely work here. Often, watching Beloved feels like reading a book--a good thing if one is indeed reading, but not necessarily what one is looking for when watching a film. Although the basics of Morrison's story and her characters are compelling, not much really happens--at least not enough to sustain the 172-minute running time. As such, the memorable moments--and there are quite a number of powerful ones, particularly some harrowing, hard-to-watch flashbacks of the young Sethe's (Lisa Gay Hamilton) horrific past--are a bit too widespread to make an assembled effect. Any emotional response to any given moment exists independently of any other.

Still, I must give Demme and the writers credit for the risks they take. In duplicating Morrison's timeline-jumping structure, they demand an inordinant amount of concentration from the viewer, and very few films present such a fascinating challenge. And while the structure and stately pace work against the building of narrative momentum, they create a haunting--or, rather, haunted--atmosphere. Most of the key action in Beloved takes place in the past, and the film makes an uncanny duplication of the seemingly cyclical nature of memories in one's mind, revealing its secrets little by little, fragment by fragment, leaving certain events only to retrace and expand on them later. Granted, this technique makes a lot of the action hard to follow, sometimes frustratingly so, but it creates a feeling that is rich and unique. Also unique is how Demme isn't afraid to show the grimy nature of life in the time period; instead of giving everything a shiny Hollywood sheen, the dirt and grit is always there, on the sets and even the actors.

Also extending to the cast is this element of risk. Taking the most chances is Newton, who delivers a raw, unpredictable performance. Called upon to bare body and soul, adopt maladroit body movements and slurred speech rhythms, she could have easily come off as ridiculously overwrought and alien, but her soulful eyes consistently project a tempering humanity. Not to be outdone, of course, is Winfrey. People forget that before she became a daytime TV phenomenon, she first made a name of herself as an Oscar-nominated actress (for The Color Purple), and her work here is restrained and, as such, the more emotionally honest; the same goes for Glover. But the standout performer is the one who will likely be the most overlooked--Elise. She doesn't have a role as literally showy as Newton's, nor does she have the star power of a Winfrey or Glover, but she is Beloved's steadying force. Denver has the most dramatic evolution out of all the characters (from shut-in to independent woman), yet remains the most stable; the key is to not play the change as if it were dramatic but natural. Elise's performance is so natural that it is easy to forget she is an actress playing a part.

Beloved is a wearying film, and that comment should be interpreted in all the ways it can be. On the positive side, the filmmakers so successfully create the intended air of melancholy that it is daunting. But on the negative end, one cannot help but feel exhausted, emotionally and physically, after three slow hours. Similarly, by that time the film is also exhausted. I was indeed be moved by Beloved, but in the end, there wasn't enough momentum left to truly sweep me away, as it should have.

Happiness poster Happiness ****
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No other film released this year is likely to cause the storm of controversy that Todd Solondz's Happiness is most certain to stir. A bold, provocative look at some truly miserable lives in American suburbia, this beyond-black comedy offers some queasily subversive laughs--while at the same time shocking and, more than likely, offending everyone. It is a brave, brilliantly realized piece of work, one that will be debated about for years to come.

Happiness follows a broad Altman-esque cast of characters, all of whom are linked somehow, as they attempt to find happiness--or some reasonable facsimile thereof. At the core of this canvas are the three Jordan sisters: Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), daughters of long-unhappily-marrieds Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser). Down-on-her-luck Joy, miserable after losing boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz), attempts to find fulfillment teaching at a school for adult refugees, where she meets Vlad (Jared Harris), a shady but alluring Russian. Sophisticated Helen is a successful writer, but she yearns for raw emotional authenticity, which she attempts to find through a twisted pas de deux with an obscene phone caller--whom she doesn't know is her slobby but completely innocuous neighbor Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who, in turn, is quietly pursued by his other, far less glam neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim). Trish, married with three children, appears to be the one sister who has her life together. Little does she know that she doesn't. Her shrink husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has a problem suppressing certain sexual impulses... involving prepubescent boys.

The pedophilia subplot is certain to be Happiness's most controversial, but not because the issue is taken lightly; in fact, it is the only story in the film that is not played for laughs. What makes the topic even more disturbing to viewers (myself included) is the brutal honesty with which it is handled. Bill is certainly a monster, but Solondz and Baker refuse to let the viewer off the hook, infusing the character with genuine humanity. The rub is, Bill knows and admits that he's a monster--it's just that he cannot control his urges. His problem culminates in a heartbreaking and, at the same time, highly upsetting scene where he comes clean, with blunt frankness, about his actions to his son Billy (Rufus Read).

This gravely serious subplot may seem out of place in a film that is a comedy (albeit one that is seriously warped), but its inclusion is justified. Sick as he is, Bill is the only character who actually finds "happiness" during the film, freely indulging in his taboo desires. Everyone else fails to come close, and while their misery can be and often is laughed at, the pain is real. The sight of dumpy Allen calling random women in the phone book in hopes of getting off is funny, but his loneliness is genuinely sad; the same is the case with Kristina, who is often shrugged off with a giggle as a pathetic loser. Joy tries to do her best to do good, but her often comical failures are failures nonetheless, much like how Helen's ridiculous desperation, is, in the end, desperation.

Solondz described his film as being about "how people always struggle to make a connection." Everyone in Happiness is searching for some type of connection, but, in fact, they are already connected with everyone else--through their collective isolation. The issue, then, is not connection with others, but connection with themselves. Bill comes to know who and what he is, and for one brief moment, he is happy. By the end of the film, one wonders if everyone else--or oneself--will ever be able to follow suit.

Practical Magic poster Practical Magic (PG-13) **
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Akiva Goldsman. If those two words don't strike fear in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere, I don't know what will. The Lost in Space and Batman & Robin scribe is true to sloppy form with Practical Magic, a muddled mélange of genres that fails to come up with a distinct identity.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman play Sally and Gillian Owens, respectively, sisters who carry on the family tradition of witchcraft. Slutty Gillian loves to use her powers, especially to lure men, while the reluctant but more powerful witch Sally yearns for a normal life--and a true love that, according to an apparent curse on all Owens women, can never come.

After the basic setup, Practical Magic heads in a number of divergent directions. The film is being sold as a whimsical lark, and at times the film is light and agreeable fluff, especially when Sally and Gillian's proud witch aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing) are onscreen. But then there are the sober sister bonding scenes, where Sally and Gillian, generally teary-eyed, profess their love for and devotion to each other. Then there's a taste of macabre comedy, where the sisters find themselves disposing of the body of a man whose death they accidentally caused. This sets the stage for a romantic subplot between Sally and the police officer (Aidan Quinn) investigating the man's death. Lest we forget this is a movie about witches, events take a turn toward straight horror, with an evil spirit threatening the life of Gillian and everyone and everything around her.

The all-encompassing scope of Practical Magic would not be a problem if these elements blended into a convincing whole; Ghost proved that it is not an impossible task. But the reason why that film was able to successfully cover a number of bases was that, for all its genre-hopping, it had a clearly defined central concern: the undying love between the two main characters. Goldsman, co-scripters Robin Swicord and Adam Brooks (adapting Alice Hoffman's novel), and director Griffin Dunne don't appear to have a central concern other than to try to make the film as many things as possible to all people. As the film jumps from place to place, so does one's idea of what the film is exactly about. Witchcraft? Sally's search for love? Sally and Gillian's relationship? The evil spirit? The Owens women's "curse"? Anyone's guess is as good as mine.

If the makers of Practical Magic had kept things simple, it could have been an amusing little popcorn flick. As in all her films, Bullock is instantly likable, and Kidman is fun as the wild witch. That said, the two have little sisterly chemistry, which brings to mind a direction the film could have taken: the comical feud between two rival sister witches, one reckless, the other reluctant but more powerful. OK, maybe that's not such a great idea. But at least it's a clear direction, something the unfocused Practical Magic is in constant search of.

In Brief

Elizabeth poster Elizabeth (R) *** 1/2
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In 1558, the young, naive Princess Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is proclaimed Queen of England after the death of her devoutly Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke). Being Protestant and illegitimate (she was borne of an extramarital affair by King Henry VIII), Elizabeth arrives on the throne with a fair share of enemies within her country as well as abroad. As forces ranging from French queen Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) and the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plot against her, Elizabeth takes a stand with the help and guidance of ever-loyal Master of Spies Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush).

Anyone expecting a typically stately, in manner and in pace, British historical drama will be jolted by Shekhar Kapur's stylish and fast-paced "historical thriller," in which Queen Elizabeth I's rise to the throne and resulting loss of innocence plays not unlike that of--yes--Michael Corleone's in The Godfather. Michael Hirst's screenplay does not offer any true insight into what made Elizabeth tick, but Blanchett's effortlessly commanding Queen is no less a fascinating character. Blanchett is just one of a uniformly excellent cast, which also includes Joseph Fiennes as Elizabeth's love interest, Lord Robert Dudley. Even if I did not particularly learn anything from it, I was completely engrossed by Elizabeth, which not only makes the traditionally stuffy and aloof British costume drama accessible, but entertaining and exciting as well.

Holy Man poster Holy Man (PG) *
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Who knew that in 16 years Eddie Murphy, who made such a brash, raucous big-screen splash in 48 Hrs., would become... cuddly. The disconcerting trend begun in this summer's cutesy, largely laugh-free Doctor Dolittle continues with this earnest-to-a-fault dramedy.

Although he is top-billed, here Murphy is merely support for Jeff Goldblum, who plays Ricky Hayman, the programming director at a home shopping network. Sales are way down, and Ricky's job hangs by a thread until he meets G (Murphy), a mysterious spiritual guru whom a desperate Ricky puts on the air. While sales skyrocket and G becomes an overnight sensation, the reinvigorated Ricky's greed grows, endangering his budding romance with a goodhearted media research consultant (Kelly Preston).

Writer Tom Schulman has some promising ideas, satirizing home shopping and infomercials and the nature of instant celebrity. But these ideas would have more bite if Stephen Herek had invested any energy into the direction of the film. The sluggishly paced Holy Man is not only slow and overlong (113 minutes), but an unfunny bore, and Murphy can do little to juice up the proceedings; cleansed of both the attitude and comic sensibility that made him a star (G is, for the most part, a straight man), he is a curiously lifeless presence. Goldblum is actually quite good, but it's hard for the audience to sustain much interest in his character and spiritual journey when the director doesn't seem to be much interested, either.

Life Is Beautiful poster Life Is Beautiful (La Vita È Bella) (PG-13) ****
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It would seem impossible to make a "Holocaust comedy," but Roberto Benigni has not only made one, he has made a terrific one. A national treasure in his native Italy, Benigni co-wrote (with Vincenzo Cerami), directed, and stars in the funny, poignant tale of Guido (Benigni), a Jewish bookstore owner in fascist WWII Italy whose "beautiful" existence with wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini) is disrupted when the entire family is sent to a concentration camp. Although he is equally terrified by harsh camp life tas anyone else, Guido is nonetheless determined to shield his son from the truth of their horrific reality, coming up with an elaborate, if desperate, cover story to convince Joshua that everything is fine.

And that's how Benigni is able to maintain what would seem an improbable balance: the film wins hearty, heartfelt laughs through Guido's creative lies while never once downplaying the inhumane horror of the concentration camp situation. While one may often laugh at Guido's ruse, each laugh comes with the lingering threat of death, which Benigni vividly yet fairly subtly depicts (people being called for "showers," a brief glimpse of charred bodies). La Vita È Bella's lasting impression is not made by its laughs or sense of reality, but its huge heart. Strip away the harrowing Holocaust setting, and Benigni's story is a simple, timeless, uplifting tale of the ways (in this case, through laughter) love can bring out the unlikely, but no less brave, hero in any man.

Pleasantville poster Pleasantville (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Thanks to a magical remote control, '90s fraternal twin siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) get sucked into the wholesome, black-and-white, 1950s TV sitcom world of Pleasantville. It's a gimmicky premise, one that would appear to set the stage for a too-cute-for-its-own-good film. But writer-director Gary Ross uses the gimmick as the springboard for a wildly clever fable of self-discovery in which the two teens' contemporary sensibilities break the citizens of Pleasantville from their antiquated bonds of repression. Spiritual awakening is not without its side effects, most visibly being a part-by-part transformation from drab duotones to vibrant Technicolor--which leads to a sly (and most unexpected) satire of racial politics.

The beauty of Pleasantville is while it tackles some issues that are high-minded, the film itself is not. Ross has his cake and eats it too, being socially relevant without being preachy, never once forgetting the film's duty to the audience is to entertain--and that it does. The script is as funny as it is wholly original, and it is filled with memorable characters, such as the seemingly happy marrieds George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen) and timid malt shop owner Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels). If the script has a shortcoming, it is that the arcs of the two main characters, '50s-loving David and wild '90s girl Jennifer, are rather predictable. The one element of Pleasantville that is perhaps attracting the most attention is the special effects wizardry used to mix black and white with color; while the resulting visuals are stunning, what makes the effects work all the more impressive is how they are used to support story ideas rather than to serve as gratuitous eye candy.

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#161 October 8, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Apt Pupil poster Apt Pupil (R) *** 1/2
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Bryan Singer's adaptation of the the Stephen King novella Apt Pupil opens with images one would associate with such a title. A high school student receives an "A" on a paper and then shuttles off to the library, immersing himself in research as the opening titles unspool. As this dark, often disturbing psychological thriller progresses, the title's meaning remains the same, except it gradually takes on a much more sinister perspective.

The apt pupil seen at the opening of the film is 16-year-old high school student Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), whose intense extracurricular research on the Holocaust leads him to discover that one Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), an old man whom he has seen around town, is really Nazi war criminal-in-hiding Kurt Dussander. But instead of turning him in, Todd proposes an odd exchange: his silence in return for Dussander's first-hand accounts of wartime atrocities.

Of course, dredging up the past brings to the surface Dussander's fascist tendencies, but Apt Pupil goes one step further in that the stories bring forth Todd's capacity for evil as well; it is this psychological seduction that lends the film a queasy fascination. Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce also go against the populist Hollywood grain by boldly making the already fairly unsympathetic characters moreso as the film goes on. While the absence of a likable lead character will certainly off-put many moviegoers, and one contrived plot development is a bit hard to swallow, audiences are nonetheless more than likely to remain riveted by Renfro and McKellen's dead-on performances. Renfro's evolution from curious adolescent to hateful manipulator is unsettlingly believable while McKellen, speaking with a perfect German accent, gives Dussander an air of quiet majesty that is as frightening as it is deceiving.

While he heavily uses quick cuts and horrifying imagery, Singer admirably eschews easy "shock" gimmicks to jolt the audience out their seats. Instead, he appears more concerned with the collective effect of a variety shocks, visual and otherwise, on the viewer's psyche. As such, Apt Pupil gets under the skin like few thrillers do. A mad slasher with an axe does not necessarily constitute a successful frightfest; what does is the feeling of terror that comes with being pursued by such a force of evil. Apt Pupil's primary force of evil may be axe-less and of poor physical health, but his--and the film's--subtle brand of cerebral terror cuts sharper and deeper than anything found in a more conventional horror movie.

In Brief

Reach the Rock poster Reach the Rock (R) * 1/2
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"An intimate, character-driven drama about a troubled youth at a crossroads in his life," read the press notes for Reach the Rock. I'm not really sure what film that statement is describing because those words bear little resemblance to the slow, completely uninvolving bore I saw--at least, it certainly does not describe what goes on for most of the film. Alessandro Nivola plays Robin Fleming, a troubled, directionless 21-year-old who has a penchant for breaking storefront windows in a small town. Police sergeant Phil Quinn (William Sadler) takes him in, and what ensues for the first 70 minutes is a tedious series of sneak-outs and sneak-ins where Robin slips out of his jail cell, breaks a window, then returns, all without Quinn ever noticing. Also added to the pointless proceedings is some would-be humorous shenanigans involving Quinn's dimwitted deputy Ernie attempting to engage in clandestine patrol car sex with his girlfriend Donna (Karen Sillas).

With a half hour (if even that long) remaining, director William Ryan and writer John Hughes (yes, John Hughes of '80s youth films and Home Alone) finally approach something close to a point. Turns out Robin still pines for his high school sweetheart Lise (Brooke Langton), who has long gone on with her life, and Hughes's main concern at long last reveals itself as a tired "live in the present and for the future" message. Most moviegoers, however, will likely be asleep by that time. Wide awake, however, is the cast, who individually tackle their showcase dramatic scenes with energy and skill--thus revealing the real purpose behind this listless enterprise: to serve as a series of acting exercises. Such a glorified workshop may have its rewards for the actors, but it leaves audiences with a booby prize.

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#160 October 5, 1998 by Michael Dequina


A Night at the Roxbury poster A Night at the Roxbury (PG-13) 1/2*
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Two party guys bob their heads to Haddaway's dance hit "What Is Love?" while getting themselves into trouble in nightclub after nightclub. It's barely enough to sustain a three-minute Saturday Night Live skit, but SNL producer Lorne Michaels, Clueless creator Amy Heckerling, and Paramount Pictures saw something in the late night television institution's recurring "Roxbury Guys" sketch that would presumably make a good feature. Emphasis on the word "presumably." A Night at the Roxbury takes an already-thin concept and tediously stretches it far beyond the breaking point--and that of viewers' patience levels.

The first five minutes or so of Roxbury play very much like one of the original "Roxbury Guys" skits. With "What Is Love?" blaring on the soundtrack, the brotherly duo of Doug and Steve Butabi (Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell) bob their heads, scope out "hotties" at clubs, and then bump a select few with violent pelvic thrusts. There is one crucial difference, however--they guys speak.

That little fact has been used as justification for the film's existence, that the Butabis' newfound capacity for speech would open up a whole new set of doors for the characters. The doors opened by director John Fortenberry and screenwriters Steve Koren, Ferrell, and Kattan are new, that's for sure, but they all lead to comic dead ends. There is no story per se, only a loosely structured and linked series of subplots. The brothers literally run into (or, rather, get run into, as in by car) Richard Grieco of 21 Jump Street fame, and through him they gain entrance into the exclusive Roxbury club. There, they meet a hotshot club owner (Chazz Palminteri, conspicuously uncredited--can you blame him?), who takes an interest in an idea of theirs. Meanwhile, the bros' overbearing father (Dan Hedaya) wants them to stop clubbing. When Doug refuses and the dimwitted Steve obeys his father, a rift is created between the two.

The narrative messiness of Roxbury would have been forgivable if all that went on were the slightest bit funny, but virtually none of it is. The assembled press audience mostly sat stony silent throughout the entire film, with the one big exception being a big laugh near the end. Alas, the joke--a rather lazy takeoff on Jerry Maguire--will only strike a chord with people who have seen that film. Granted, a lot of people have seen Jerry Maguire, but the fact that the film's best joke is completely dependent on one's familiarity with another film says a lot about Roxbury's lack of inspiration.

That lack of inspiration can be traced back to the insipid characters themselves. Like too many of the skits on the current incarnation of Saturday Night Live, "The Roxbury Guys" is a one-joke sketch that never once suggests that the characters have enough comic life in them to survive outside of the sketch context. After watching one of the "Roxbury" skits on SNL, this is what you come away with from the characters: they bob their heads to "What Is Love?", bump unsuspecting women, and... that's all. After watching A Night at the Roxbury, you'll be left with exactly the same.

In Brief

The Impostors poster The Impostors (R) ** 1/2
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The sophomore slump has hit actor-screenwriter-director Stanley Tucci with this flat farcical follow-up to his auspicious 1996 filmmaking debut, Big Night (which he co-helmed with Campbell Scott). Tucci and Oliver Platt play Arthur and Maurice, two starving actors in Depression-era New York who unwittingly stow away onto a Paris-bound oceanliner after being falsely accused of assault by a pompous Shakespearean hack-tor (Alfred Molina).

In theory, The Impostors should come to life when Arthur and Maurice find themselves on the cruise ship (which, of course, has their accuser as one of the passengers). However, that's where the film goes downhill. The film is at its best in the early going, during which the acting-technique-obsessed Arthur and Maurice attempt to con their way to free food; a wordless opening credits sequence harkens back to the best silent comedy, and one hilarious scene in a bakery is, as it turns out, the film's premature highlight. The problem with the shipboard antics is that only a handful of the eccentric array of passengers hold interest. For every inspired character and performance, such as Steve Buscemi's suicidal cabaret singer and Campbell Scott's creepy German steward, there are duds like a faux French con couple (Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney) and a golddigging older woman (Dana Ivey). The terrific timing and rapport between Tucci and Platt keeps The Impostors's head above water, but just barely.

The Mighty poster The Mighty (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Young Max Kane's (Elden Henson) life is made forever richer through his friendship with Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), an intelligent boy with a growth defect. Sounds an awful lot like the recently released Simon Birch, and for a while The Mighty, based on Rodman Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty, appears to be a more gimmicky version of the same story. In this film, both of the boys are outcasts; like Kevin, Max is also often pestered by bullies, but over his abnormally large size and a learning disability. United as one, with the diminutive Kevin perched atop Max's broad shoulders, the two set forth to do chivalrous deeds in the spirit of the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Yet as it progresses, the understated The Mighty makes a more profound emotional impact than the mawkish and manipulative Simon Birch. Instead of relying on maudlin music cues and a barrage of heavy-handed dialogue spelling out how its elfin lead is destined to do great things, director Peter Chelsom has faith enough in his script (written by Charles Leavitt) and his cast to allow them to strike emotional chords on their own--and the lead actors, in particular, succeed marvelously. Culkin proves to be a much greater talent than his has-been older brother in the showier of the two main roles, but the real discovery is Henson, whose performance is made all the more endearing and heartbreaking by its remarkable warmth and subtlety. A few false notes are hit: a subplot involving the unwelcome return of Max's felon father (James Gandolfini) is a needless distraction, and Sharon Stone and a barely recognizable Gillian Anderson try a bit too hard as, respectively, Kevin's caring mother and an alcoholic whose past is tied to Max's. Ultimately, though, it's The Mighty's overall of not trying too hard that makes it a genuinely moving film and a likely word-of-mouth hit.

Slam poster Slam (R) ****
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Marc Levin's Slam is a powder keg of a movie, exploding with emotional honesty and truth and the exuberant passion of raw young talent. It is an uplifting and exhilarating experience, a powerful work that deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Newcomer Saul Williams plays Ray Joshua, a talented Washington, D.C. rapper/poet whose dealings in the drug biz land him in jail. There, given the choice of falling into the trap of violence or hone his gift, Ray chooses the latter, and with the help and love of prison writing teacher Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), he discovers the transcendent power of his words.

The "finding oneself through art" premise isn't entirely original, but what makes Slam such a triumph is the freshness of its voice. The first scene where Ray "slams," with the help of an inmate (Momulu Stewart) in the next cell, is dazzling in its sheer energy and percussive force. "Force" can also be used to describe Williams and Sohn, who are not only talented poets but charismatic screen presences and extraordinary actors. The two are downright electrifying; one highly charged confrontation in which she tries to convince him to own up to his past mistakes packs an overwhelming emotional potency. The same can be said of the entire film, which Williams has called--and rightfully so--"more of a movement than a movie."

What Dreams May Come poster What Dreams May Come (PG-13) *** 1/2
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What Dreams May Come is, in the most literal sense, a "dream movie," a visionary exercise in the use of dreamlike imagery, which, in turn, helps create a sublime romantic fantasy. The centerpiece of the film is a breathtaking tour of the afterlife, which is taken by one Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) after he dies in a car accident. But while his spirit is in heaven, Chris's soul remains with that of his soulmate, his emotionally fragile wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra), who had never fully recovered from the years-ago deaths, also by car accident, of their two children.

What Dreams May Come is nothing short of a visual marvel. Eugenio Zanetti's production design, Eduardo Serra's cinematography, and the spectacular special effects supervised by Ellen M. Somers paint a wildly imaginative vision of the afterlife. This is quite literally the case in the scene where Chris first arrives in Heaven, which manifests itself in the form of one of Annie's paintings. It is perhaps the most visually ambitious scene in a film overflowing with visual invention, with Chris swimming in the still-wet paint and the backdrop remaining as two-dimensional as any canvas.

But the film is much more than a showcase for the latest in filmmaking technology. As with his last film, 1993's astonishing Map of the Human Heart, director Vincent Ward taps into the very core of romantic yearning, coming up with an admittedly sappy but no less poignant tale of true, pure love. There are some powerful moments, most notably a scene where Annie, in a fit of anger and grief, attempts to destroy a painting which, unknown to her, Chris and his spiritual guide Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is inside. Of course, moments like those are carried over the top by the efforts of the actors. Williams, as always, is effortlessly likable, and he and Sciorra share a natural, magical chemistry. One has no trouble at all believing that these two are indeed soulmates, and, consequently, has no trouble falling under the film's entrancing spell.

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