The Movie Report
Volume 57

October 7, 1999

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

#211 October 7, 1999 by Michael Dequina


The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland poster The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (G) ** 1/2
Everyone who's grown up in front of a television during the last 30 years has memories of Sesame Street--but not just any type of memories: fond memories. So it's hard to bear any ill will toward the warm and cuddly The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, which brings to the big screen all those familiar faces--human and Muppet--from "where the air is sweet." Accordingly, the film is sweet, and technically accomplished. But the film is strictly for those who are currently watching the PBS series: that is, the preschool/kindergarten audience.

And that target audience will eat up this high spirited-musical adventure as if it were a piece of candy. Elmo (performed by Kevin Clash), that fuzzy little red monster known for his ticklishness, loves his blanket, which he expresses in a bouncy curtain-raising tune. He loves it so much that he refuses to let his friend Zoe so much as hold it for a moment. It's obvious that Elmo has to learn a thing or two about sharing, and his lesson comes the hard way when he and his blanket are sucked into the world of Grouchland, where the evil and greedy Huxley (Mandy Patinkin) claims the blanket for himself.

Writers Mitchell Kriegman and Joseph Mazzarino and director Gary Halvorson do make an effort to keep the adult audience (read: parents) somewhat caught up in the proceedings. In addition to the regular Sesame Street cast (Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Telly, Cookie Monster, et al. as well as flesh-and-blood regulars Maria, Gordon, Bob, and the others), on hand as "guest stars" are Patinkin as well as Vanessa Williams as the Queen of Trash; of course, these seasoned musical performers are each given a big production number to call their own. And very once in a while, a bit of smart dialogue that goes over kids' heads creeps in. For example, when Huxley is confronted by the entire Sesame Street gang, he says that the look like the types who would "sing your A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s all day long."

But there's no mistaking that when Bert and Ernie appear periodically to let the audience know that things will be OK, they're talking to the wee ones; and that when Elmo turns to the camera and asks for help, he's asking the kids in the crowd (after all, an audio track of kids yelling and laughing is tacked on during these moments). So while the adults may not exactly be bored during The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, they may feel left out, making the film a much better bet once it reaches home video, for it would be more functional as a 77-minute babysitter.

Caligula poster Caligula zero stars
Since its initial release in 1979, no film quite like Caligula has ever been made--and with good reason; it is widely known to be one of the worst films ever made, and anyone who's seen it would be hard-pressed to argue with that assessment. But as with a lot of bad would-be art, this cinematic oddity holds a truly bizarre fascination, especially in this fully restored, 20th anniversary edition, which is slowly making its way around to big screens around the country.

On the big screen is the only way one can, ahem, "appreciate" this gaudy, flat-out bizarre exercise in cinematic fragmentation. Whatever chance this film had of turning out well was done in by the participants' conflicting intentions, which can be broken down into three perspectives. From one, there are original screenwriter (the adapter remains uncredited) Gore Vidal and the Serious British Actors (including no less than Sir John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole), who obviously believed they were making a serious exposé of the decadence of the Roman empire, namely the reign of the megalomaniacal title character (Malcolm McDowell). Then there's original director Tinto Brass, whose insistence on filling every last shot of film with some artfully-lit nudity comes straight from the school of mainstream exploitation cinema. Last--and certainly not least--comes (in every sense of the word) producer and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who wrested control of the film from Brass and then shot and edited in some balls-out (literally) hardcore pornography.

The finished product, as one can glean, is one giant mess. Any given scene can shift from McDowell's overacting to nonchalant glimpses of full frontal men and women to explicit closeups of sexual penetration. It makes for a jarring watch--but certainly never a boring one. In fact, it's this identity crisis that lends the film its biggest virtue: unintentional comedy. As disgusting as it is for most audience, how can one not laugh at the film's centerpiece cum shot, which has to be the first and only in screen history that has been scored to a full-blown orchestral crescendo and climax?

These "additional scenes directed and photographed" by Guccione and Giancarlo Lui come out of nowhere and have only tangential connection to the story--no surprise since the main actors were called on to do just that, and only anonymous extras get down and dirty. For example, the film's famous girl-on-girl scene is sloppily intercut with a rather tame threesome between Caligula, his wife Caesonia (Helen Mirren, whose role consists of standing around in various states of undress, spouting very little dialogue), and beloved sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). The tiny plot "thread" that connects them is that the two women ("played" by Penthouse pets Anneka DiLorenzo and Lori Wagner) spy on the three from a secret room, get hot, and get it on; eventually, their activities win more screen time than those of the three bonafide characters. I must admit that the lesbian encounter is the only hardcore interlude that can be considered remotely erotic, but that doesn't make its inclusion any more ludicrous, especially in light of the fact that the secret room, which is shown in an earlier scene as being dark and empty, features a big, fully made bed and is lit with a seductive red light.

But it's not as if there's a whole lot of plot to begin with, anyway. The apparent point of the film is to show that Caligula was--to put it bluntly--one sick motherfucker. He was hungry for power; he indulged in sexual excess; he exacted violent action upon his enemies. It's a point that comes clear within a half hour at most. But Caligula drives home that point over and over again until, after two-and-a-half-hours, Caligula's reign meets a suitably bloody end. Before that point, however, we see Caligula's sadism in graphic detail; in one especially notorious scene, Caligula's guards cut off a man's penis--in tight closeup--then feed it to dogs. We also see everything--and I mean everything--that goes down (literally) at the many orgies Caligula stages. And then there's Caligula himself. To McDowell's credit, he threw all inhibitions out the window and spared no risk in taking this role. But then there's the matter of the risks he's made to take: he prances around in a skimpy toga; he wildly dances in the rain completely nude; he vomits in slow-motion; he rapes the bride at a wedding reception, then fists the groom; he licks a dead female body up and down; he even gets to sleep with a horse. That McDowell performs these tasks with such deranged gusto actually helps--what would otherwise be stomach-turning and offensive is rendered ridiculously laughable.

Which is what Caligula is behind all the violence, sex, and various bodily fluids: an idea so preposterously bad as to be hilarious (big-budget pornographic historical epic?). The rerelease poster boasts, "Just as shocking twenty years later." Indeed it is, but not in the way intended. Moreso than, say, the sight of a group of guys ejaculating into a bowl (yes, that's in there), what is truly shocking is that Caligula ever got made.

Dog Park poster The Minus Man poster Dog Park (R) **
The Minus Man (R) ** 1/2
With the title Dog Park, this unremarkable romantic comedy sets itself up for the easy play on words. Comments such as "It's a dog" or "It's bark is worse than its bite" would be fitting if the film had some bark, let alone bite, to begin with--while not a good film, Dog Park is much too gentle to inspire any dramatic reaction on either end of the opinion spectrum.

The gentleness mostly comes from its lead characters--a fact that is, of course, hardly a bad thing. Luke Wilson is quite likable as average joe classifieds writer Andy, who is smarting from his recent break with his ex, Cheryl (Kathleen Robertson). Natasha Henstridge, heretofore best known for doffing her clothes through two Species films, is equally as winning as Lorna, a children's TV hostess also coming off of a bad breakup. Andy and Cheryl meet in a singles bar one night and hit it off. Is it all smooth sailing from here on out for the pair? Of course not, for there is still a good 75 minutes left in the film.

Unfortunately, writer-director Bruce McCulloch (who also co-stars) does not come up with terribly convincing reasons for these two to remain apart as long as they do. One big reason for Lorna's reluctance to go forward is the fact that the one night with Andy ended in embarrassment for her, yet Andy forgives it so nice about it that one can't help but wonder what her problem is. This is highlighted when she decides to go on a date with a loser she meets at a video store (Harland Williams).

The main pick-up spot in the film is not the video store, however, but the dog park, where Andy and Cheryl spend time with the dog of whom they share custody, Mogley--and, of course, where Lorna takes out her beloved canine companion, Peanut. As it turns out, Andy and Lorna also share the same dog psychologist/trainer, played with maximum oddness by Mark McKinney. Offbeat touches such as that character lend the film its only hint of edge.

And therein lies the problem. Dog Park's soft quality makes it easy enough to watch, but as with many things that are "nice," it doesn't exactly make it memorable. When the famously acerbic Janeane Garofalo makes her first appearance as Jeri, Andy's editor/best friend, one's hopes that she could put some of her usual zing into the thing and bring it to life are soon dashed when McCulloch makes her play nice, too--also erasing any hopes that the film will rise above its conventions.

Garofalo is also called on to play nice in a completely different film, Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher's introspective, deliberately paced thriller The Minus Man. But her turn as Ferrin, a sweet small-town postal worker (!) who falls for friendly co-worker and new guy in town Vann (Owen Wilson, Luke's brother, as it is) works better in this context. Perhaps that's because the mood here is not one of niceness but of evil and dread, for Vann isn't exactly the nice guy he seems--in fact, he's an unusually affable serial killer, who poisons people whom he feels are better off dead.

The cast is perfect; along with Garofalo and Wilson--whose low-key, innocuous presence makes for an eerie fit--solid performances are given by Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, and, in her acting debut, Sheryl Crow. The film has been marketed as a big conversation piece, and, indeed, many questions are raised throughout its running time. But it's that quality that is ultimately the film's undoing; too many pieces of the puzzle are left out in what comes off as a rather strained and obvious attempt to leave things up for discussion. Most viewers, I suspect, won't really want to go through the effort to talk it out, for there's really no point in doing it.

Drive Me Crazy poster Drive Me Crazy (PG-13) *
As the press notes are so eager to announce, Drive Me Crazy takes its title from "(You Drive Me) Crazy," the latest hit single by teen pop phenomenon Britney Spears. Since Fox went so far out of its way to retitle the film for the tune (the original name was the more fitting but Britney-inspiration-lacking Next to You), I will go through each of this teen comedy's painfully pedestrian plot paces as it relates to the song.

"Baby, I'm so into you/You got that something/What can I do?" In-crowd high school girl Nicole (Melissa Joan Hart) pines for star basketball stud Brad (Gabriel Carpenter). Similarly, her next-door neighbor (hence the film's original title), outcast bad boy Chase (Adrian Grenier) is so into his girlfriend Dulcie (Ali Larter).

"Baby, you spin me around/The earth is moving/But I can't feel the ground." Brad withdraws his invitation to Nicole to a big dance after he falls for a cheerleader. As coincidence would have it, around the same time, Dulcie gives Chase the heave-ho. Determined to win back their respective paramours, Nicole and Chase--now made over into a clean-cut popular guy--pretend to be a couple in order to incite jealousy in their exes.

"Every time you look at me/My heart is jumpin'/It's easy to see/You drive me crazy/I just can't sleep/I'm so excited/I'm in too deep/Oh oh oh, crazy/But it feels all right/Baby, thinking of you keeps me up all night." Of course, Nicole and Chase find that their false attraction has become real; as the song goes, in one scene, Chase, lost in thought about Nicole, stays up an entire night. With this easily foreseen turn of events comes the major flaw of the screenplay by Rob Thomas. The way these mismatched couple movies are supposed to work is that once the "ugly duckling" is made over, the other person falls for him/her--by seeing through the slick veneer and taking a liking to his/her "true self." In this film, Nicole takes a liking to Chase once he starts acting like the in-crowd and gradually erases all trace of his original personality. So much for not judging a book by its cover.

The film is not helped by Hart's accordingly shallow performance, which never once convinces that there's anything more to Nicole than her popular girl image. Even more ruinous is the complete lack of chemistry between her and Grenier, and Thomas and director John Schultz come up with nothing else to hold the audience's attention; certainly not the routine subplots, including nice guy Dave (Mark Webber)'s cyber romance and the scheming of Nicole's so-called best-friend Alicia (Susan May Pratt). Drive Me Crazy feels like another lackluster youth entry into the new fall TV season, a point driven home by one touch that is amusing for all the wrong reasons: there are a number of basketball scenes in the film, and it's hard not to notice that on Brad's team and all the others they play, every single player is Caucasian.

I was expecting Drive Me Crazy to follow the same tactic that Dangerous Minds used with its featured hit single, "Gangsta's Paradise"--that is, milk it to death and then some, exploiting the theatre's Dolby Digital sound system whenever possible to remind patrons exactly what brought them into the theatre. But it didn't; in fact, it got to the point where I was actually waiting for the song to blare on the soundtrack. (For the record, it is played for a brief moment mid-film and then in its entirety during the end credits--the latter instance inspiring some teenybopper girls in the audience to sing along and dance in their seats.) The fact that I was waiting for a Britney Spears song to play speaks volumes about how incredibly boring this film is.

Guinevere poster Guinevere (R) ***
In recent years, onscreen romantic pairings of older men and much younger women have become more and more commonplace (Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to name two noteworthy examples). However, rarely, if ever, do films make an issue of vast age difference, even when the audience is slightly discomfited by the fact that these man can, indeed, be these women's fathers. Guinevere is a film far removed from the Hollywood mainstream that perpetuates that trend, but its intelligent examination of the girl-man romantic dynamic is a refreshing change of pace.

No female character in Guinevere actually shares her name with the legendary queen of Camelot, but the pet name is given to Harper Sloane (Sarah Polley), a directionless recent college graduate, by Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), a photographer whom Harper meets at her sister's wedding. Connie is much older than Harper, and not exactly the most handsome man out there, but his way of making her feel special and wanted makes for the ultimate attraction. But as Harper soon finds out, she is only the latest in a long line of Guineveres.

Although the point of view of the film is distinctly female (the writer-director is a woman, Audrey Wells), Guinevere doesn't stack the deck against Connie; in fact, the treatment of the relationship is surprisingly evenhanded. While there is no doubt that Connie takes advantage of Harper's youth and naivete, he also helps her and his past Guineveres find their ambition and direction in life (in Harper's case, photography). The extent to which he exploits the young women and that to which he helps them is left open to debate, but there is no doubt that the inspiration he gives his "students" is more than sexual.

But that doesn't mean there aren't darker edges to the character of Connie, and Rea, while always exhibiting a layer of vulnerability that is crucial to the film's success, also doesn't downplay the somewhat unsettling mystery about him. When Harper's uppity mother (Jean Smart) cuts him down in a most refined yet menacing manner (it's a terrific scene that could very well win Academy attention for Smart), while one hates her bitchy attitude, one can still see where the objections are coming from. But the film isn't called Guinevere for nothing, and Polley is the clear standout of the impressive cast. Not only is she never less than convincing as both a a girl at the beginning and a woman at the end, she believably develops into the latter as the film progresses.

Unfortunately, Wells isn't able to come up with a wrapup that matches the impact of Harper's journey. The final scene is a nice and interesting one, but it seems a bit too sugary to really feel of a piece with the rest of Guinevere--which is smart and compelling enough as a whole to overcome that comparatively minor misstep.

In Brief

Blue Streak poster Simon Sez poster Blue Streak (PG-13) ** 1/2
Simon Sez (PG-13) no stars
Martin Lawrence is a talented comedian, but too often he gets stuck with creaky material, such as the script to the mediocre action comedy Blue Streak. Lawrence plays Miles Logan, an expert jewel thief who poses as a cop to retrieve a diamond he unwittingly hid at a then-under-construction police station years ago. Far-fetched fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue, with Miles somehow getting promoted up the ranks and showing the ropes to a wet-behind-the-ears partner (Luke Wilson). There are a handful of funny lines and situations, but Lawrence is always better than the script, his charisma and infectious energy shining through, even during some forced set pieces such as one scene where Miles does an unfunny dance dressed as a pizza delivery boy.

Like Blue Streak, once-great NBA rebounder Dennis Rodman's latest bid for big-screen stardom, Simon Sez, is actually an intentional comedy--but one quickly wishes that the film were played as straight as the advertising. That's because the sight of Rodman earnestly growling such tough guy lines as "It ain't... over" as Interpol agent extraordinaire Simon is infinitely more hilarious than the excrutiating "comic relief" provided by his perpetually punchlining sidekick (Dane Cook) and a couple of goofy "cybermonks" (don't ask). With such sheer ineptitude onscreen--get a load of the obvious blue screen compositing and phony-looking visual effects--it's amazing that this hack job didn't go straight to video. But that's just as well--it's probably already hitting shelves as you read this.

Happy, Texas poster Happy, Texas (PG-13) ** 1/2
Mark Illsley's Sundance favorite is every bit as cheery as the title implies--but good will can only go so far. The same can be said for good performances, for no member of the cast hits a wrong note in this offbeat comedy about escaped cons Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne (Steve Zahn), who take refuge in the small Texas town of Happy and are quickly mistaken for gay beauty pageant coordinators. The usual slew of hijinks, complications, and complicated hijinks follow, but the entertaining pleasures are much too lightweight to counterbalance the familiarity of the exercise. When small-town life works its charms on the pair--Wayne warms up to working with the little girl contestants and their perky teacher (Illeana Douglas); Harry falls for the local bank owner (Ally Walker), putting a snag in his plans for a big heist--one can too easily see how things will end. But reaching that end is an experience made pleasant by the on-target cast, in particular Douglas, the ever-zany Zahn, and especially William H. Macy, at once funny and quite touching as Happy's closeted sheriff, who develops a crush on Harry.

Jakob the Liar poster Jakob the Liar (PG-13) **
Robin Williams does give an admirable dramatic performance in Peter Kassovitz's adaptation of the novel about a former latke vendor whose fictional stories of optimistic radio news reports instill hope in his fellow residents of a Jewish ghetto in Poland. It sounds like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, but that's where the similarities end between that delightful film and this dour bore. Whereas Benigni's film was gently humorous and fun, with its poignancy sneaking up on you, Kassovitz's film is so sternly manipulative that it becomes a chore to watch--making it virtually impossible to really feel anything for the characters, regardless of how well-played they may be.

Mystery, Alaska poster Mystery, Alaska (R) * 1/2
To give credit where it's due, the last half-hour of this Jay Roach-directed, David E. Kelley-co-scripted drama does hold some interest as the amateur team from the titular hockey-loving town squares off against the NHL's New York Rangers in a rough-and-tumble nailbiter of an exhibition game. But before the film reaches its big game, there's a full 80 minutes of thoroughly boring melodrama about the Mystery residents' personal crises: team captain John (Russell Crowe) gets jealous when his wife's (Mary McCormack) now-successful ex (Hank Azaria) returns to town; the mayor's (Colm Meaney) wife (Lolita Davidovich) carries on an affair with the hockey team's resident lothario (Ron Eldard); the local judge (Burt Reynolds) constantly belittles his son over his underachievement on the ice; and so forth. With so many characters and plotlines, it seems that TV king Kelley mistook this big-screen assignment for another network pilot. By the time the film finally features some hockey action--and Roach's partner in Austin Powers crime, Mike Myers, shows up in an amusing cameo--it's too little, way too late.

Plunkett & Macleane poster Plunkett & Macleane (R) ***
The setting is 18th century England, but sensibility is distinctly 1990s in this adventure film detailing the exploits of legendary highwaymen Will Plunkett and James Macleane (Trainspotters Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller), the latter's uncommon politeness and charm earning him the title "the Gentleman Highwayman." As the duo stage coach heist after coach heist in order to raise money to flee to the States, director Jake Scott (son of Ridley) employs the fast-cut MTV style and a decidedly modern electronic score. These elements feel jarringly anachronistic at first, but they perfectly capture the rambunctious spirit and energy of the pair, which is the entertaining point of the film, not historical accuracy. Liv Tyler is fetching as the young well-bred lady who captures Macleane's heart; Ken Stott is effectively slimy as the pair's dogged pursuer; and Alan Cumming is his usual scene-stealing self as a foppish millionaire who secretly helps the two choose their marks. All in all, a rollicking time at the movies, if not exactly enlightening.

Splendor poster Splendor (R) ** 1/2
Veronica (Kathleen Robertson) loves nice, dark-haired writer Abel (Johnathon Schaech). She also loves Zed (Matt Keeslar), a studly blonde rock drummer. Instead of making a choice, she takes a chance--introduce them to each other, and see if they'd be willing to share her. They accept the proposal, and thus begins some screwball antics that are pleasantly amusing--but never cheaply exploitative. While the three form a cozy ménage, writer-director Gregg Araki doesn't get more, for lack of a better term, "kinky" than a tame kiss between Zed and Abel; all the sex is implied, and there is not a single frame of nudity in the film. Splendor, with its bright colors and easy-on-the-eyes actors (all of whom do convincing work), is an agreeable enough watch--that is, until the film is over, when you realize that not once did you care for any of these characters, who exhibit a maturity ten years below their chronological age. Veronica comes to complain about her housemates/lovers' immaturity, but she should be one to talk--after all, she's the one who eventually can't choose between a nice, caring, wealthy guy (Eric Mabius) and her two lazy, layabout lovers.

Superstar poster Superstar (PG-13) **
Lorne Michaels and his SNL Studios have better luck with this big-screen outing of meek Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) than they did with their previous Saturday Night Live adaptation, last fall's horrendous A Night at the Roxbury. That's because, unlike Roxbury's head-bobbing Butabi brothers, there's more to the character of Mary than a single characteristic--there's also a lot of heart. Although director Bruce McCulloch and writer Steven Wayne Koren do offer a taste of what Mary is known for--that is, reciting movie monologues and knocking over and/or breaking stuff--what keeps the film engaging, albeit superficially, is the gentle sweetness that Shannon gives her.

But, much like an SNL skit, Superstar ultimately misses more than it hits. The story has Mary trying to impress her dream guy (Will Ferrell)--and earn her first kiss--by entering a school talent competition, and from this thin wisp of a story emerges a few funny and amusingly bizarre set pieces, notably a memorable scene with a tree and a couple of musical production numbers. Between those moments, however, are too many gags that don't work, namely a bunch of unfunny fantasy sequences: recurring appearances by a groovy Jesus Christ (also played by Ferrell), a strained send-up of Armageddon, and, most painfully, a supermodel photo shoot. Forced bits of padding such as those just show that the concept really doesn't merit more than the five minutes its allotted on Saturday nights.

Three Kings poster Three Kings (R) *** 1/2
At the end of the Gulf War, a group of four--not three--American soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) head out to the Iraqi desert to claim millions in stolen Kuwaiti gold as their own. Much like their seemingly simple journey, there is more to Three Kings than one expects. Writer-director David O. Russell, heretofore best known for the idiosyncratic indies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, establishes a quirky sense of humor in the film's lighthearted early treasure hunting stages, then midway shifts gears into a thoughtful--but never heavyhanded--examination of the post-war plight of the Iraqi people. The shock comes in not the suddenness of the transition but in how the change is barely noticeable. Russell juggles comedy, drama, traditional war and action-adventure movie elements in Three Kings, and their seamless blending makes for a studio picture uncommon in its unique sensibility and personality.

The latter, of course, owes a great debt to the ensemble. As the ringleader of the gang, Major Archie Gates, Clooney is his typically charismatic self, and it's a testament to his costars' work that his formidable screen presence never dominates. Wahlberg and Cube more than hold their own as Sgt. Troy Barlow and Chief Elgin, respectively (even if the latter is saddled with a fairly limited role), and more secondary players like Nora Dunn (as TV reporter Adriana Cruz) and Jamie Kennedy (as the slightly-off soldier Walter Wogeman) are given their share of moments to call their own. But the surprising standout is Jonze, who, in his acting debut, proves to possess talents that go beyond his claim to fame in music video directing. His funny and ultimately moving work as Pvt. Conrad Vig, who intensely admires Troy, is the film's true buried treasure.

Whiteboys poster Whiteboys (R) **
Or, Pretty Fly for a White Guy: The Movie. Flip (Danny Hoch) is white, but he would beg to differ. Although his skin says otherwise and he lives amid the cornfields of Iowa, hip-hop-loving, malt-liquor-guzzling Flip insists he's black, and the ultimate goal in his quest to "keep it real" is to move to the Chicago ghetto. A hard dose of reality inevitably comes when Flip and his crew take an ill-advised night trip to Chi-Town's Cabrini Green projects, but by that point one won't care. Hoch, who also co-scripted, indeed nails down the extreme, over-the-top behavior of a wannabe, but that's also a problem; Flip is so obnoxious and stupid that one is less interested in seeing him change his ways than in seeing him get his ass kicked. Chances are most moviegoers won't think he gets a severe enough beating.


Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein DVD Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein (G) ** 1/2
When I was growing up, one of my favorite cartoon series was Alvin and the Chipmunks. What I--and, I suspect, many others--especially enjoyed was the show's infectious theme song: "We are the Chipmunks/C-H-I-P-M-U-N-K/We are the Chipmunks/Guaranteed to brighten your day." Unfortunately, the song is nowhere to be heard at the beginning or anywhere else on this new direct-to-video adventure, getting the nostalgia trip off on the wrong foot. Sad to say, the film doesn't quite recover as the singing chipmunks--Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, for the unitiated--encounter Frankenstein during a concert engagement at a movie studio theme park (all similarities to Universal Studios are not necessarily coincidental, the film being a Universal production). Of course, the trio are initially scared of the monster, who eventually reveals himself as a gentle giant--leading to the expected "don't judge a book by its cover" moral. The film is serviceably animated, and it is a pleasant enough watch for families, in particular the young 'uns, who will enjoy the three new songs. But as much as I like the Chipmunks, while watching the video my sometimes flagging interest made it clear that I had pretty much outgrown them. (Universal Studios Home Video)

Desert Heat DVD Desert Heat (R) no stars
A man is robbed and left for dead in the desert by a gang of heavies. Said man survives, visits the nearby town to reclaim what's his and get his revenge. You've seen it before, so why bother seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme go through the paces in this straight-to-tape howler? Funniest moment: a deeply religious motel manager spies Van Damme having sex with two women, prompting the remark, "He's spreading joy to everyone." It's enough to make the film's director want to remove his name from the credits, and indeed he has: "Danny Mulroon" is no real director. However, the helmer's quest for anonymity is all for naught: while the credit roll reads, "Directed by Danny Mulroon," in a strange bit of sloppiness, it also says, "A John G. Avildsen Film"--outing the Rocky helmer as the perpetrator of this garbage. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)

The Lesser Evil VHS The Lesser Evil (R) ** 1/2
The primary cast list reads like a character actor convention: Colm Feore, Tony Goldwyn, Arliss Howard, David Paymer. (That these names don't necessarily ring bells--though there faces will--proves my point.) Standing in, rather than to the side of, the spotlight in this thriller, the foursome sink their teeth into their roles with ravenous ferocity. What results is a suitably overblown feel to half of this split-time thriller, in which four friends reunite after some 20 years to deal with the potential uncovering of a dark secret; the film cuts between the tense reunion and the deadly chain of events that took place on one fateful day all those years ago. Of course, an equally deadly chain of events comes to take place during the reunion, but none of it is as compelling as the other half of the story, which is much more convincingly acted by the young actors playing the teenage incarnations of the characters. Writers Jeremy Levine and Stephan Schultze come up with some interesting twists in both past and present, but it's the overwrought performances of the adult actors and the overall staginess of their section (almost entirely set in a remote cabin) that keeps this thriller from truly thrilling. (MGM Home Entertainment)

A Lesson Before Dying DVD A Lesson Before Dying (PG-13) *** 1/2
Joseph Sargent's made-for-HBO adaptation of Ernest Gaines' novel recently won the Emmy for Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie--an award whose title hardly seems fair, for this riveting drama stands far above most straight-to-tube efforts; in fact, its many virtues surpass many films that receive theatrical release. First and foremost of these is the superb Emmy-nominated work of Don Cheadle, who plays a schoolteacher in 1948 Louisiana who's called on to teach a wrongly convicted young man (Mekhi Phifer) awaiting execution how to die like a man. Ann Peacock's intelligent script covers the unjust racial politics of the era without being preachy, and the reluctant teacher and student's respective emotional journeys without getting too sticky with sentiment. The resulting product, crisply directed by Sargent and subtly performed by the actors, achieves a power that can only come through nuance and restraint. (HBO Home Video)

Modern Vampires DVD Modern Vampires (R) no stars
If there's anything worse than a cheesy straight-to-tape horror flick, it's a cheesy straight-to-tape horror comedy, as this silly, sloppy tongue-in-cheek vampire movie proves. Casper Van Dien (who also gets an executive producer credit) stars as Dallas, a vampire with (yes) a heart of gold who tries to protect young vamp Nico (Natasha Gregson Wagner) from both the undead's ringleader (Robert Pastorelli) and slayer Van Helsing (Rod Steiger). Perhaps the film could have worked better had the story been left at that and played straight, for it certainly doesn't work with all the strenuously outrageous touches added by writer Matthew Bright and director Richard Elfman. A slimy, dying vampire taunts her killers into having sex with her (and they do); the vampires get their jollies at a seedy S&M bar; and in a lame takeoff of Pretty Woman, a vampire from the wrong side of the tracks gets revenge on an uppity clothing saleswoman by sucking the life from her. With so much cheese--not to mention blood and boobs--the film could have at least been a camp hoot, but what keeps it from qualifying is insulting and stereotyped portrayal of the African-American gang members (!) whom the oafish, over-the-hill Van Helsing is an over-the-hill oaf who enlists for help. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)

The Naked Man VHS The Naked Man (R) *
With its oddball characters and equally bizarre storyline, this story of a chiropractor/professional wrestler (Michael Rapaport) who violently preaches the gospel of "spinal integrity" following a family tragedy has "cult" written all over it. But after an amusingly off-kilter start, this Ethan Coen-co-scripted (with director J. Todd Anderson) just gets too strange and cartoonish for its own good, in the end going so far as to show pills fall out of a drug-addicted character's sliced-open abdomen (don't ask). Along for the ride is a pre-She's All That Rachael Leigh Cook as a biker chick who has "love" and "hate" tattooed on her breasts. (USA Home Entertainment)

Abre los Ojos poster Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos) (R) *** 1/2
Tom Cruise bought the American remake rights for this Spanish psychological thriller, and let's hope that the proposed project never comes to pass. At least some sense of mystery and magic will surely be drained from Alejandro Amenábar's unsettling tale of a man (Eduardo Noriega) whose reality becomes strangely warped after he's horribly disfigured in an auto accident. The twists in Amenábar and Mateo Gil's script are robbed of some shock value coming amid some similar reality-bending films, but the visually stunning product is no less absorbing and haunting, not to mention surprisingly moving. (Artisan Home Entertainment)

36 Hours to Die VHS 36 Hours to Die **
36 Hours to Die is written by Robert Rodat, the same man who penned Saving Private Ryan, but before you let that piece of information compel you to rent the film, bear in mind that the script was by far Ryan's weakest link. And without the direction of a Steven Spielberg or the presence of a Tom Hanks to prop up this run-of-the-mill thriller, this story of a brewery owner (Treat Williams) who tries to fend off mobsters who are threatening both his business and his family fails to transcend its made-for-TNT origins, despite the admirable acting efforts of Williams and Saul Rubinek (as the main bad guy). (Warner Home Video)

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