The Movie Report
Volume 65

#227 - 228
February 25, 2000 - March 3, 2000

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

#228 March 3, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Drowning Mona poster Drowning Mona (PG-13) **
Say what you will about Ben Affleck, but one cannot deny that he has screen presence. The same, however, cannot be said of his younger brother Casey, who is given his biggest opportunity to step out of his Oscar-winning sibling's shadow in Drowning Mona. But his flat performance isn't the only thing that contributes to this dark comedy's overall lack of color.

Mona is an ensemble film, but Affleck's character, mousy landscaper Bobby Calzone, is given the greatest amount of focus. He is a suspect in the murder of the ironically named Mona Dearly (Bette Midler), who was anything but dear to Bobby, who was involved in a business partnership with Mona's dim son Jeff (Marcus Thomas). Then again, Mona wasn't dear to anyone but herself, hence just about everyone in her small town of Verplanck, New York is a suspect: Jeff; Mona's philandering husband, Phil (William Fichtner); Phil's mistress, Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis); and Bobby's fiancée, Ellen (Neve Campbell), who happens to be the daughter of Police Chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito), the leader of the murder investigation.

Among this group are a couple of interesting characters. Making notable impressions are Campbell, who displays a surprising comic flair; Will Ferrell's mere facial expressions are good for a laugh as a creepy undertaker; and Midler, who is deliciously nasty in her few flashback scenes. But much attention is paid to those considerably less interesting, namely Bobby, who is made even more bland by Affleck's opaque, inexpressive performance. It's not that he had to hype up his portrayal; after all, DeVito does a quietly effective job in his straight-arrow part. It's just that he forgets that even the most "normal" of characters still has some personality, and he doesn't give Bobby any.

But Affleck isn't entirely to blame the drowning of Mona; writer Peter Steinfeld and director Nick Gomez do a good (bad) enough job of it on their own. There a few funny scenes and a biting one-liner here and there, but they are outnumbered by the groaners. Steinfeld does pack in a couple of interesting twists along the way, but his story is ultimately done in by a too-contrived resolution, which ends what is supposed to be a dark comedy on an overly pat and sunny note. Then again, the latter can be said about the entire film; it's supposed to be dark and mean-spirited, but it never goes beyond a somewhat dark shade of grey; perhaps the PG-13 rating held more sinister--and possibly funnier--instincts in check?

Regardless of the rating, however, one would expect a comedy to be funny. Drowning Mona is that, but only on occasion. The rest of the time, the film relies on bad wigs (sported by nearly every cast member) and references to cheap Yugo cars for laughs. It's hardly surprising, then, that Mona goes down in a heap long before Mona takes her plunge from a cliff; the real fatal crash happened back in the writing stage.

The Next Best Thing poster The Next Best Thing (PG-13) zero stars
Best friends may make the best mistakes, but Madonna makes the absolute worst, at least in terms of her film career, which has been a comedy of errors or a horrible tragedy, depending on how one looks at it. After the surprisingly impressive anomaly that was Evita (which won her a Golden Globe), the pop music diva is back to her infamously poor projects and even poorer performances with The Next Best Thing--which, as the title states, is not the best, but it's hardly that close to it. In fact, this awful mess is more like the absolute worst.

One can understand Madonna and co-star Rupert Everett's decision to make this film. The two are longtime friends, and it gives them an opportunity to work together in roles that are "like" themselves--or, rather, how they'd like to see themselves: a witty everyman (Everett) who just happens to be openly gay, and--more notably--a "normal" woman (Madonna). But, as her nearly two-decade-long stint in the spotlight has shown, being "normal" is hardly natural for Madonna. What is natural to her, it seems, is that strange British-or-whatever accent this Detroit native has adopted in recent years. And that affected speech pattern always gets in the way; while she does have a few uncharacteristically relaxed moments (perhaps due to her ease with Everett), the funky accent eventually creeps in and ruins it.

Then again, with one big exception, Madonna's voice has always been grating in her screen efforts, long before she fancied herself a foreigner. That exception, of course, is in the entirely sung-through Evita, and that's no coincidence. Singing is something that she is clearly comfortable with and--crucially--confident in doing, and that's what made the difference in her justly-lauded performance. It was not so much the indisputable fact that she's a much better vocalist than thespian, but that she was considerably calmer and thus more natural, not trying so hard to prove her "acting ability." Without a musical crutch, however, she overcompensates--as she again does in The Next Best Thing.

It must be said that there's so much deficiency in the film that one can almost understand the need to make up for it with overkill. In Next Best, Madonna's Abbie and Everett's Robert--two generically-written characters--are best friends living in L.A. Coming off of a nasty breakup (hers) and the death of a close friend (his), the two drown their sorrows one night and end up doing the dirty deed. She gets pregnant, and the two decide to raise the child (a son, named Sam) together. Light stuff, all done with a light touch, but so light as to make one wonder if director John Schlesinger was ever in the room when the film was shot. Madonna is always clueless as an actress, so it's no surprise that her formless, flavorless portrayal of Abbie cries out for guidance. The big shock is how bad the usually reliable Everett is. His ability to toss off bon mots is less smooth as smug, often peppered with some ill-advised mugging and other sorts of physical gags. The biggest botch of all, though, is Schlesinger's, with the centerpiece night: while the aim is not to be romantic, there should be at least some sense of warmth and affection; these are, after all, best friends. But there's no tenderness, just some would-be funny instances of furniture being broken (ha ha), glimpses of the two doing drunken dance steps, and closeups of liquor being poured into goblets.

Next Best would be bad enough as a comedy; once the film flashes forward six years, tired cute kid humor is added into the mix. Yet for some reason screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski, who doesn't come close to meeting his modest initial goals, decides to aim even higher. Abbie meets and falls for a New York-based businessman (Benjamin Bratt, boring), and then the film takes the left-field turn into a heavyhanded custody battle drama. As feared, this shift brings out the worst in Madonna, who cannot hold her own with Everett, who is indeed a capable dramatic actor. But she's not the only one at a loss as to what to do--so are Ropelewski and Schlesinger, who open up a can of worms and then just toss it aside. Many films use text cards to divulge the fate of their characters, but I have never seen a film rest its entire resolution on them. The film fades out, with no sense of closure--or even a sense of things coming together for a close--then states in print how it all turns out. What the hell?

There other flubs in The Next Best Thing (such as a line where Robert mentions it's the 21st Century in a scene that, in the film's time frame, should be set around 1993; or the fact that Robert's sole love interest, a cardiologist, has no name and is rather comically listed in the closing credits as "Cardiologist"), but to go over them would be as pointless an exercise as the entire film is. One should just not make a flub oneself, and avoid this Thing.

3 Strikes poster 3 Strikes (R) no stars
It would be much too easy to say that 3 Strikes has three strikes against it. But that comment would also give this lame, lewd, lowest-brow comedy more credit than it deserves, for it has far more than three strikes against it. But for the sake of clarity--and for the sake of a cheap and obvious metaphor--I'll keep it at three:

Strike One: There's no real plot. The film gets its title from the "three strikes" law in California--that is, on a criminal's third offense, he's "out" and gets a life sentence in prison. Rob (Brian Hooks) is a two-time offender just out on parole. But his intention of living a life on the straight and narrow with his girl Juanita (N'Bushe Wright) is dashed almost immediately when, on his way home, he gets innocently caught in the middle of a shootout with police, thanks to the friend (De'Aundre Bonds) who picks him up--in a stolen vehicle. It's a thin enough plot set-up, but the rest of the film is even more threadbare storywise, for the movie is less about Rob's attempt to elude the authorities (who, of course, think he actually took part in the gunfight) than a bunch of "outrageous" tangential sidebars.

Strike Two: It's not funny. Writer-director D.J. Pooh thinks that shock value equals laughs, and while this can work (check out the oeuvre of the Farrelly Brothers), it only does so when some imagination is put into the joke. Instead, Pooh goes for the easy, not to mention insulting, gag. One character is shot in the buttocks, so he must lie in a bed with his butt in the air, arousing a stereotypically swishy gay orderly. A heavyset woman will only give Rob a potentially vindicating piece of evidence if he sates her voracious sexual appetite. Rob's uncle is a layabout who just drinks, sleeps, and passes gas all day. And so on.

Strike Three: We simply don't care. To put it lightly, Rob, while well-meaning, isn't a very smart guy, and not endearingly so; why should anyone give a damn if he gets put back in the slammer? The sad thing is, he's the most likable person in the whole film. The men are all crooks, potheads, drunks, or some combination thereof; the women are all either bitches or sluts. So much for a progressive portrayal of African-Americans in film. So much for 3 Strikes having any chance at being any good.

In Brief

Beautiful People (R) *** 1/2
A couple of people walked out, never to return, about 20 minutes into this British import, and I can understand their impatience. Jasmin Dizdar's film is packed with a number of characters and plotlines and takes its sweet time setting them all up that the opening stages cannot help but seem like a complete jumble. But to quote the trailer for Magnolia--to which this somewhat similar film has been compared--"this will all make sense in the end." Beautiful People is cut from the same Altman-esque cloth as Paul Thomas Anderson's film, following different lives as they criss-cross over a stretch of days in London.

One key difference is that these lives mostly, in some way, end up touching upon a central issue: the unrest in Bosnia. Two men who knew each other in the old country--one a Serb (Dado Jehan), the other a Croat (Faruk Pruti)--meet by chance on a bus and then proceed to beat the living daylights out of each other, landing themselves in the hospital. There, Portia (Charlotte Coleman), a med student borne of a rich English family, falls for a fresh Bosnian immigrant named Pero (Edin Dzanzanovic), whom she treated during rounds. The mishap that brought him there was related by association to the sad and angry Dr. Mouldy (Nicholas Farrell), whose wife has just left him; among his patients is one Bosnian refugee (Walentine Giorgiewa) bearing a war enemy's child. Dr. Mouldy lives next door to a strict teacher (Roger Sloman), whose son Griffin (Danny Nussbaum) hangs with a drug-addled crowd. Among Dr. Mouldy's son's schoolmates is the daughter of a BBC news reporter (Gilbert Martin) whose latest location assignment is in... Bosnia.

Despite the serious issue that serves as the film's connective tissue, Beautiful People is not overwhelmingly grim. There are moments of sadness and shocking brutality, but there are just as many more comic moments, in particular Griffin's hilariously unpredictable yet strangely moving thread. The film is also about more than Bosnia: it's about the immigrant experience in general; it's about tolerance; it's about making a difference; it's about learning to make the best of what one has. Beautiful People is indeed a beautiful film, one that is thought-provoking and moving while always remaining entertaining.

Hanging Up poster Hanging Up (PG-13) **
The ads make the latest from director Diane Keaton and writers Nora and Delia Ephron look like a treacly sister-bonding comedy-drama, but they are only half right: it's also a treacly father-daughter-bonding comedy-drama, and one wishes they decided to make it one or the other. Meg Ryan, Keaton, and Lisa Kudrow play the sisters; Walter Matthau is their cantankerous father, whose health is gradually deteriorating. The relationship between Ryan and Matthau is the central focus of this film, and while it follows a cloying, predictable path--through flashbacks, we see the tough love between them--it is able to achieve some emotional effect. The same cannot be said of the sisters side since Kudrow (in Friends' Phoebe ditz mode) and especially Keaton have so little screen time that any relationship with each other or Ryan, strained or otherwise, is never satisfactorily developed. Hanging Up would have been a sappy, overly familiar enterprise either way, but at least it wouldn't have had a clear point. In the film's current state, one is left to wonder what it is.


Deja Vu poster Déjà Vu (PG-13) *** 1/2
This romantic drama's many detractors have criticized it as being "indulgent" and "talky." I think director/co-writer (with wife Victoria Foyt) Henry Jaglom would say the very same thing, and when the indulgences and talk are largely quite interesting, what's there to complain about? This is an enchanting and refreshingly mature love story pondering the idea of romantic destiny--does it exist, and if it does, is it possible to pass it by without knowing? These questions arise when Dana (Foyt) and Sean (Stephen Dillane) meet by chance at the white cliffs of Dover and not only feel as if they know each other, but that they belong together. One problem: she's engaged, and he's married. Though they try to part, chance--or is it fate?--always brings them back together. While is it rare to see a love story between adults these days, it is rarer still to see it handled with the level of intelligence and maturity it is here. While Dana and Sean's love is highly passionate, they don't necessarily act on impulse, often taking stock of the consequences of their possible actions. This leads to much conversation, between themselves and others about the nature of love, and while the chattiness sometimes runs long, it never becomes tedious because of the gravity the actors give the words. Foyt, Jaglom's wife, is the iffiest performer in the cast, but any shortcomings in her emotional scenes are made up by her chemistry with Dillane, who does a fine job; better than them is Vanessa Redgrave as a worldly wise friend to both. With all the talk, Déjà Vu requires a viewer's attention and patience, but it is more than duly rewarded in the end. (Warner Home Video)

An Extremely Goofy Movie DVD An Extremely Goofy Movie ***
In this direct-to-video sequel to the 1995 theatrical release A Goofy Movie, the son of the popular Disney character (voice of Bill Farmer), Max (Jason Marsden) is all grown up and ready--make that eager--to leave the nest and go to college. However, Max's newfound freedom is short-lived when sudden unemployment forces Goofy back to college himself to complete his degree. While the business involving Max wanting to win an extreme sports competition will engage the young 'uns, adults will be sufficiently amused by the numerous references to '70s disco culture (which was the in thing last time Goofy attended college) and Goofy's sweet romance with the campus librarian (Bebe Neuwirth). An Extremely Goofy Movie is certainly not to Disney big-screen standards (especially the art and animation), but it's definitely a cut above most straight-to-tape family fodder. (Walt Disney Home Video; DVD also available)

Late Last Night DVD Late Last Night (R) **
Poster ripoffs don't come more shameless than the video box for this comedy, which duplicates the Swingers one-sheet, with Emilio Estevez in Vince Vaughn's pose with a cocktail glass; even the orange-and-red color scheme is lifted. While there is a strong Swingers influence, with a high-spirited party guy (Steven Weber) trying to cheer up his recently split-up friend (Estevez), there's also a tinge of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, with Estevez's adventures on one night getting progressively more precarious. The difference between those films and this straight-to-tape effort is that it lacks Swingers' sparkling repartée and After Hours' wild unpredictability. Weber is decent; Estevez is passable; and the film is far from an embarrassment for anyone involved. It's just that not only is it not particularly funny, it's also quite dull. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)

The Mystery Kids DVD The Mystery Kids (PG) **
Nothing quite defines "cookie cutter" than A-Pix's endless stream of direct-to-video family films, which are all about a child or children going on some big adventure and making life happy for everyone. Here it's a girl named Geneva (Brighton Hertford), a big fan of mystery novels and an aspiring novelist herself, who, with the help of her best friend Tommy (Jameson Baltes), attempts to solve the mystery of a missing teen (Christine Lakin). The two run into trouble, coast by on their instincts and plucky attitude, and set everything right in the end. Harmless to be sure, but also a bit mind-numbing. (A-Pix Entertainment)

New Rose Hotel poster New Rose Hotel *
I think I know what this film is about--well, the opening and closing minutes, at least: two spies (Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe) try to get a scientist to leave his company by hiring a prostitute (Asia Argento) to seduce him. Anything beyond that is anyone's guess, for Abel Ferrara's adaptation of William Gibson's short story is virtually incoherent; there's some bits of futuristic technology, some talk of a virus, and, most of all, lots of kinky sex. The jumble appears pointless, and perhaps it is, for the film's final twenty minutes are completely made up of flashbacks to earlier scenes. While the film makes absolutely no sense, what keeps it from being a complete waste is Ferrara's moody atmosphere and good performances by Walken, Dafoe, and the sizzling Argento. It makes one wonder what this cast could have done had they been given some real material to work with. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)

One Man's Hero poster One Man's Hero (R) **
" another man's traitor." So goes one of the opening lines of this barely-released historical epic, so it goes without saying that a noble betrayal is soon afoot. And how convenient that it would be spearheaded by the man who says the line--one John Riley (Tom Berenger), an Irish immigrant who is a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Taking a stand against the rampant discrimination against his kind in the military, he and a group of other Irish officers desert the U.S. Army and end up fighting for Mexico. An interesting true-life basis for a film, but director Lance Hool's film is weighed down by the traditional Hollywood trappings, such as a tacked-on romance and even more tacked-on romantic triangle. For a war film, One Man's Hero is also not just shockingly short on battle scenes, but action of any kind. Hardly surprising, then, that this film got only a miniscule theatrical release last fall after gathering dust on MGM's shelf for the better part of two years. (MGM Home Entertainment; DVD also available)

Made for Network TV

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Buffy & Angel Chronicles ****
The Simpsons Go Hollywood *** 1/2
The Buffy & Angel Chronicles VHS The Buffy & Angel Chronicles VHS The Buffy & Angel Chronicles VHS Two of the best shows on television (which, perhaps not so coincidentally, are two of the few that have episodes released on video) are back on store shelves in new collectors' sets. The better package is for the WB network's astoundingly entertaining tube version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which manages to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of being at once funny, scary, exciting, and heartwrenching on a weekly basis. This quality cannot be better exemplified in The Buffy & Angel Chronicles, a collection of key episodes from the series' second season, when the titular teenage heroine's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) true love, vampire-with-a-soul Angel (David Boreanaz), transforms into a "normal" (read: evil) bloodsucker after the two share a night of passion. All six episodes featured in this three-tape set are excellent, but standing above and beyond the rest is the final volume, "Becoming." With the TV show's success, there has been much talk about making another Buffy feature, this time in line with creator Joss Whedon's TV mythology. If you ask me, however, a new self-contained feature has already been made, and it is this two-part second season finale. Covering key, never-before-seen moments in Angel's origin and Buffy's early days as a slayer while telling a compelling, accessible-to-new-viewers tale in which she must save the world from a coming apocalypse spurred on by her former love, it is not only an emotionally powerful resolution to this important phase in the still-ongoing Buffy-Angel soap opera, it is the series' best episode of its young life.

The Simpsons Go Hollywood VHS The Simpsons Go Hollywood VHS The Simpsons Go Hollywood VHS No such inclusion is in the new Simpsons set, which theoretically culls showbiz-themed episodes from the Fox animated comedy's long run. However, of the six episodes here, only three really have any relation to entertainment: "A Streetcar Named Marge," where matriarch Marge takes on the role of Blanche in a musical production of A Streetcar Named Desire; the self-explanatory "Bart Gets Famous"; and an episode centering around the cancellation of Krusty the Clown's television show. I guess the celebrity cameos in "Marge vs. the Monorail" and the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" two-parter merited their inclusion, but they don't fit in at all, even if they do boast the series' usual sharp, sophisticated writing. Let's hope a little more attention is paid in assembling the next of the three special 10th anniversary sets planned this year: a collection of politically-themed episodes. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


Notting Hill DVD American Pie DVD Notting Hill (PG-13) movie review
Movie: *** 1/2; DVD : ***
American Pie (R/unrated) movie review
Movie: ***; DVD : *** 1/2
While it's nice to see a disc packed with extras, sometimes less could not only be more, but also preferable. I got that feeling watching Universal's expansive Notting Hill collector's edition. This delightful romantic comedy between an American movie star (Julia Roberts) and an average Englishman (Hugh Grant) looks and sounds great, and there are a couple of useful features: a guide to the actual Notting Hill area in London and (as in virtually all Universal DVDs) direct links to musical highlights in the film. The other extras aren't so interesting. The reel of deleted scenes proves all too well why they should've been left unseen (read: they fall completely flat); a behind-the-scenes feature with Grant is less cutesy than tedious; and the feature commentary with director Roger Michell, writer Richard Curtis, and producer Duncan Kenworthy is a bore, often resorting to simply complimenting the set decoration when there's nothing else to say. One wishes that the famously energetic Grant were around to stir the proverbial pot.

A lot more fun is to be had with the collector's edition for Universal's other summer comedy hit, the raucously raunchy teen laugher American Pie. The disc is available in either the R-rated theatrical cut or a slightly more explicit unrated version; it would have been a bit more practical if the studio had simply included both on the same disc. In addition to the usual production info and a standard behind-the-scenes feature, there is a blooper reel that, at a running time of about three minutes, wisely doesn't outstay its welcome; and some clever animated menus, which simulate a computer screen. The real fun to be had is with the running audio commentary with directors Paul and Chris Weitz, writer Adam Herz, and stars Jason Biggs, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Seann W. Scott. In all honesty, you won't get many deep insights into the nature of filmmaking here (after all, Paul Weitz mentions here that they intentionally eschewed any fancy directing maneuvers), but the guys obviously had a blast making the film, and that comes through as they watch the film again and make comments that are amusingly glib (to say the least). Their exuberance is infectious, and it suits the film and this nicely put-together disc. (Universal Studios Home Video)

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#227 February 25, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Reindeer Games poster Reindeer Games (R) **
Ben Affleck is such a gosh-darn likable fella. In every film (not to mention talk show appearance) he does, he projects an ebullient, affable charisma that easily endears him to the audience. However, it's that very quality that defeats him and the entirety of Reindeer Games--though, in all fairness, there are plenty of others to blame for how the film goes wrong.

Reindeer was written by Ehren Kruger, and after making a strong debut with last summer's chilling Arlington Road, he is beginning to look like a one-trick pony. He ruined the Scream trilogy with his weak script for its final installment, and now comes this film, which, I must admit, has the seed of a good idea at its core. Affleck plays Rudy Duncan, a just-released convict who decides to pose as his just-murdered cellmate Nick to get some action with Ashley (Charlize Theron), with whom Nick shared a passionate mail correspondence. But the roll in the hay comes at a price--turns out that Ashley's brother Gabriel wants "Nick" to help in the robbery of a casino where "Nick" once worked. Of course, the problem is, not only is "Nick" not really Nick, but he also hasn't the slightest idea how to pull off a heist--Rudy served time for grand theft auto.

Numerous twists ensue, and per Dimension's request (as stated in a disclaimer at the top of the press notes), I won't reveal any more. While a number of the turns are genuinely surprising, they soon spring out of control. By the final reel, the script twists for the mere sake of twisting, going for the cheap shock at the expense of all logic or sense of reality. It could be countered that Kruger never takes the material too seriously, throwing in numerous one-liners to break the tension. But, as evidenced in Scream 3, Kruger isn't much of a comedy writer, and the failed attempts at humor end up taking viewers out of the increasingly complicated story rather than making it more enjoyable.

With such a script so uneven in tone, it's little wonder that the performances are wildly varied. One minute Sinise is a sinister villain, the next minute he's somewhat of a buffoon. At least he tries to ride along with the material, unlike the other two leads, who nail one extreme and stick with it. Theron is a good actress and a stunning screen presence, but she plays her character much too straight, making certain turns of events that much more preposterous. Affleck plays up the jokiness of the script, and while that famously light approach has worked elsewhere, it isn't quite what's needed in this type of action thriller. Certainly Bruce Willis cracks wise in all of his action vehicles, but when it came down to business, he was a convincing tough guy; Affleck, on the other hand, has a look of smug bemusement on his face most of the time, as if to knowingly mock the ridiculous affair. If our hero doesn't appear to believe--or believe in--what's going on, how does one expect the audience to?

The audience may not believe in Reindeer Games, but director John Frankenheimer does his best to at least keep them superficially interested. The film is fast-paced; the numerous suspense and action scenes are all smoothly done, and every now and again one is able to get a momentary adrenaline rush. But the excitement is just that, momentary and very fleeting--proving that without a story or characters to really care about, an action thriller is, to borrow the term Gabriel uses in the film, just a silly little reindeer game.

In Brief

Wonder Boys poster Wonder Boys (R) **
Paramount's advertising campaign for Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys--the plain headshot of its star down to the cursive-esque font of its logo--echoes that of a film of theirs from a few years back, Nobody's Fool. The similarities don't end there, however: both are seriocomic showcases for a veteran star (Nobody: Paul Newman; Wonder: Michael Douglas), and both are highly overrated rambles in search of a point. Douglas plays a fainting spell-prone university English professor and author having a hard time writing a follow-up to his debut bestseller. The film traces one eventful weekend where his wife leaves him; he learns his lover (Frances McDormand) is pregnant; his impatient editor (Robert Downey Jr.) comes to town; and he gets caught up in the affairs of a sullen student and aspiring author (Tobey Maguire). Of course, I'm not spoiling anything when I say that the most eventful thing that happens during this weekend is that he changes his life for the better. For all the quirks during its journey, such as a prolonged bit involving a dead dog, Wonder Boys is one of those films where the term "character study" is used to excuse the fact that there's nothing of real interest in the story--that is, if there is one at all. The actors are uniformly fine--despite Douglas' best efforts, it's McDormand who shines the brightest--but it's difficult to really get involved in studying the character in question when he's so pathetic not all that likable, either.


An American Tail III DVD An American Tail III--The Treasure of Manhattan Island (G) **
After making some good revenue with a number of shoddy straight-to-tape Land Before Time sequels, Universal is reviving its other popular Don Bluth creation, Russian immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz. This third installment writes off Fievel's theatrically released sequel, Fievel Goes West as a dream, and he and his family are still in New York City. As the title suggests, he finds a treasure map, and he and his friends set out to find it. But not as the title suggests, the film is not really about this treasure. Along the way, Fievel meets up with some Native American mice who live underground, and the film becomes a routine lesson in tolerance for the young 'uns. There's nothing here that wasn't done, and better at that, in Pocahontas--not least of which is the artwork and music. Kids won't mind, of course; it should keep them reasonably amused for its running time. It's just that adults shouldn't have to sit through it unless they really feel they must. (Universal Studios Home Video)

Entropy VHS Entropy (R) **
"Entropy" is defined as being a condition of increasing chaos in the film's opening frame, and one wishes that writer-director Phil Joanou had adhered to that philosophy when making this film. The inverse is true in regards to this comedy-drama about a young music video director (Stephen Dorff) who lands a big studio feature assignment and a beautiful French model (Judith Godreche) as his girlfriend. The film begins rather interestingly, with Joanou piling on some slick visual style and somehow making the device of having Dorff directly address the camera seem not only somewhat fresh, but actually necessary. Yet as it goes along, the film becomes less and less and chaotic and much more conventional; despite the shiny little frills lent to it by the entertainment world setting (such as a few cameos by U2), the film becomes the routine tale of a man trying to choose between his work and his love--not quite so "edgy" and "hip" as the video box says. (Touchstone Home Video)

Grey Owl DVD Grey Owl (PG-13) **
If good intentions were all that mattered in a film, then Sir Richard Attenborough's historical epic about the Englishman (Pierce Brosnan) who lived as a Native American in the Canadian wilds would be one of the best films of this or any other year. But as is too often the case, good intentions equal boredom in this slow, overly reverential portrait of the man who sought to protect the land he loved. Not helping matters is a stiff-as-a-board performance by Brosnan, who never looks comfortable nor convincing wearing long braids or roughing it in general; he cannot come off as anything less than debonair when ruggedness needed. The film's best quality is by far it's lovely photography of the forests, but this being a straight-to-tape release, that is severely compromised. (Columbia TriStar Home Video; DVD also available)

Joe the King poster Joe the King (R) ***
Actor Frank Whaley won the screenwriting trophy at last year's Sundance film festival for his writing-directing debut, yet it quite literally came and went on the arthouse circuit last fall. Catching up with it on video, it's somewhat easy to see why the paying public had trouble warming up to it; it is the difficult and relentlessly downbeat story of the title character (Noah Fleiss), a delinquent teen who suffers through abuse by an alcoholic father (Val Kilmer). Cameo roles by John Leguizamo (who has an executive producer credit) and Ethan Hawke are a bit distracting, and the plot is a little lacking--it's pretty much a countdown to when Joe's petty crimes catch up with him--but this is a very tough, very real film, anchored by the memorable work of the two leads. Fleiss is a convincing punk while still engaging the audience's sympathies; and Kilmer proves that, when he wants to be, he can be a great actor. (Trimark Home Video; DVD also available)

The Lovers on the Bridge poster The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) (R) *** 1/2
It took eight years for Léos Carax's quirky 1991 romance to reach American screens, and one can only be grateful that it arrived at all (thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese). A pre-English Patient and pre-Damage Juliette Binoche stars as a homeless artist gradually going blind; she forges a friendship and then romance with a street performer (Denis Levant) who also stays on Paris' historic Pont-Neuf Bridge. There are many moments of humor and wisdom in their unconventional courtship, not to mention genuine, almost painful emotion--most of that courtesy of Levant, whose character soon becomes desperate to keep his love with him. Binoche and Levant have a genuine, unforced chemistry, and so is the charm of this love story--that is, until the conclusion, which is as pat and abrupt as the rest is unique and unpredictable. But as they say, it's the journey that matters, and for nearly all of its running time, the film is a beautiful and magical entertainment. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

Stranger Than Fiction DVD Stranger Than Fiction (R) *
Four friends (Mackenzie Astin, Todd Field, Dina Meyer, and a genuinely terrible Natasha Gregson Wagner) attempt to cover up an accidental killing caused by one of them--which, of course, just causes more trouble. Director Eric Bross is obviously aiming for something along the lines of Peter Berg's Very Bad Things, but this quasi-comic thriller is neither as funny nor as surprising as that wicked little film. In fact, there is so little in the way of twists during the course of the movie that writers Tim Garrick and Scott Russell try to make up for it with a flurry of retroactive turns in the film's final 15 minutes; at such a late juncture, the developments are not so much shocking than bewilderingly confusing. If only that could be applied to the film's closing "surprise," which is quite obvious from frame one. (A-Pix Entertainment)

Tail Lights Fade DVD Tail Lights Fade (R) **
Casting notorious hacktresses Denise Richards and Elizabeth Berkley in the same film smells like a recipe for disaster, but Malcolm Ingram's ramshackle road movie is not without its charm. Richards is actually put to good use as the tart girlfriend to wild boy Jake Busey, who faces off against best friend and co-worker Breckin Meyer in a cross-Canada road race to a secret marijuana greenhouse owned by Meyer's girlfriend's (Tanya Allen) brother (Jaimz Woolvett). Typical road movie mayhem ensues, with the usual detours into small towns and with their quirky residents; also typical is Berkley's woefully unconvincing performance as a scheming slut. What lends the film some aforementioned charm are--aside from Berkley and the justifiably unknown Allen--the actors, specifically Meyer; he is a bit of a revelation here, charismatic and instantly likable. However, it's not enough to make the film as a whole entirely likable. (Trimark Home Video; DVD also available)

Total Recall 2070 DVD Total Recall 2070 (R) **
Leave it to Disney to pass off the pilot of a made-for-cable series as a straight-to-tape sequel to a theatrical blockbuster. However, anyone who rents 2070 will quickly see the difference; it bears only a tangential connection to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring 1990 smash: the memory-selling company Rekall. Other than that, this is a typical cop show, albeit with sci-fi trimmings. A detective (Michael Easton) sets out to solve the kidnapping of a young boy; the sci-fi wrinkle is that he boy is psychic and his captors are androids. Admittedly, 2070 looks great; the effects are competent, and the production design superbly creating a believable future world. But for all the high production value, this is a made-for-cable venture that should be left to be fed into descrambler boxes. (Dimension Home Video; DVD also available)


The Shawshank Redemption DVD The Shawshank Redemption (R) movie review
Movie: ****; DVD: ***
A crashing box office disappointment during its theatrical run--even after receiving 7 Oscar nods, including Best Picture--Frank Darabont's 1994 adaptation of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption became a runaway success on video. So successful, in fact, that its debut on DVD was a much-anticipated event. The good news is that the tale of unlikely friendship and hope in the most unfriendly and unhopeful setting of a prison is as spectacularly rewarding as it ever was. Roger Deakins' nominated cinematography is beautiful in the widescreen digital format; for many, this will be the best the film has ever looked (being one of the few who saw the film in a theatre, the big screen is still tops). The sound mix is also impressive, lending Darabont's words, so wonderfully delivered by stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, the clarity they so richly deserve.

However, the disc cannot help but be somewhat of a letdown, thanks to the skimpy supplements offered with what is widely considered a contemporary classic. The original theatrical trailer is included, and a gallery of production stills warmly evokes the emotion that permeates the film. The menus are static, but the accompaniment of Thomas Newman's score is a classy touch. An even classier--not to mention welcome--touch would be a commentary track, but none is to be found; rumor has it that Freeman recorded one, but it was jettisoned because it took up too much space. One can only hope that it turns up in a superdeluxe special edition in the future. Until then, though, the Shawshank disc will have to suffice, and on its own simple merits, it does. (Warner Home Video)

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