The Movie Report
Volume 66

#229 - 231
March 10, 2000 - March 24, 2000

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

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#231 March 24, 2000 by Michael Dequina


All I Wanna Do! poster Here on Earth poster All I Wanna Do! (PG-13) ***
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Here on Earth (PG-13) **
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It's become obvious that the teen movie glut has not only reached critical mass, but also creative bankruptcy. The latest entry in the youth horror sweepstakes, Final Destination, not only had Death claiming most of its characters, but also any real inspiration. In the comedy department, all accounts have the new Whatever It Takes sinking even lower than the depths slogged through in its immediate teen laugher predecessor, Drive Me Crazy. So when someone aims to do something different with a youth-targeted film film, as the makers of All I Wanna Do! and Here on Earth have, it comes as somewhat of a relief. But relief from the norm is one thing, and being refreshing is entirely another--and only one of these two fits that bill.

That compliment goes to the one that would appear to be less likely to receive it: All I Wanna Do!, a comedy set in an all-girls boarding school in New England. While the film does cover the usual high school comedy conventions--raging hormones (heightened, of course, by the virtual absence of the opposite sex), gross-out humor--the estrogenic setting and the time period (1963) gives the film a distinct point of view. Writer-director Sarah Kernochan does take her time to get to her main point; a good portion of the film is devoted to simply hanging out with the main group of girls, who form the secret society D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Ravioli). Its members are the scheming Verena (Kirsten Dunst); wannabe slut Tinka (Monica Keena); smart girl Momo (Merrit Wever); bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo); and outspoken Odie (Gaby Hoffmann), the new girl at Miss Godard's Prep School for Girls.

Once the audience gets to know the group, the main story comes to the fore: dire financial realities look to force Miss Godard's into going co-ed, and the D.A.R., refusing to bow down to what they winkingly call "the hairy bird," do what they can to keep the tradition of their school alive. While many teen films feature headstrong heroines, most of those have the females' independent, intelligent attitudes melt away in the arms of a handsome hunk. Here, though, not only do the girls maintain their voices, they grow louder and stronger as the film progresses. Rarely does one see a youth film quite as female-empowering as All I Wanna Do!, and that fact would explain both former distributor Miramax's barely noticeable test run of the film (then titled Strike!) in 1998 and the ensuing years in distribution limbo; the prevailing Hollywood mindset holds that girl power = limited commercial prospects. But any film as energetically performed (all the actresses, even the usually annoying Hoffmann, are first-rate), entertaining, and rousing as All I Wanna Do clearly has the potential to cross the demographic barriers--that is, if given the chance.

On the other hand, I can't imagine any audience other than weepy girls falling for the teen tearjerker Here on Earth. However, there are two things going for this story of a small town girl torn between a wealthy, big city suitor and a longtime friend: (1) the film is a romantic drama, which is a nice change of pace for the teen market; and (2) a talented and appealing cast. Leelee Sobieski displays real grace and poise as Sam, the girl caught in the middle; Josh Hartnett (who still doesn't use a comb) displays some surprising depth as childhood sweetheart Jasper; and the ever-promising Chris Klein radiates real movie star presence as rich prep school boy Kelley.

It's a shame that their talents are put at the service of such a mawkish and poorly constructed piece of melodrama. The love triangle never catches fire because Jasper never seems a formidable romantic adversary for Kelley; once that part of the story has long been exhausted, writer Michael Seitzman and director Mark Piznarski trot in a lame bit of potential weepiness that is made all the more annoying by its arbitrary nature. The three leads' impressive work confirms their potential for major stardom, but Here on Earth is far from the vehicle that will put them over that plateau.

Romeo Must Die poster Romeo Must Die (R) ***
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The big challenge faced by hot Hong Kong talent looking to make the transition to mainstream American stardom is to expand their audience without watering down the special qualities that earned them cult U.S. followings to begin with. More often than not, it's a losing battle--witness director John Woo's lacking initial stateside efforts, Tomorrow Never Dies' fleeting taste of Michelle Yeoh's considerable capabilities, and the disappointing Jackie Chan lite on display in Rush Hour. Against all odds and expectations, however, martial artist extraordinaire Jet Li has managed to buck that dismaying trend, first with his movie-stealing villain turn in Lethal Weapon 4 and now his first U.S. starring vehicle, the satisfying actioner Romeo Must Die.

As is so often the case with films such as these, the story of Romeo Must Die cannot be called satisfying in itself. The main concern of the plot is a routine bit of business involving a pair of rival crime syndicates--one Asian, the other African-American--engaged in a violent war over the control of waterfront property in Oakland. The first casualty is the Asian crimelord Ch'u Sing's (Henry O) son, younger brother of Hong Kong convict Han (Li), who breaks out of prison and travels to Oakland to, per usual, settle the score. Such a familiar story would not be complete without Han taking a liking to someone with rival gang ties--namely, Trish (Aaliyah), headstrong daughter of the African-American gang's boss, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo).

While the script by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell doesn't break any new ground--its twists won't surprise anyone--it does provide a sturdy enough foundation for what everyone pays admission to see: fight scenes. And these scenes deliver; first-time director Andrzej Bartkowiak (who had previously made his name as a cinematographer) just about steps out of the way and lets Li and fight choreographer Corey Yuen do their thing. Fans of Li's famous high-flying wire stunts will get their fix, but that effect is wisely used in moderation, generally to punctuate some of Li's already-impressive maneuvers. Bartkowiak isn't completely hands-off, though, and he puts an innovative x-ray visual effect--with which one can literal see victims' bones crack--to good, measured use. Some fight scenes obviously exist just for the sole purpose of having them, serving no real necessity to the story, but when they are as polished and exciting as they are here, it's petty to complain.

Li was undoubtedly cast for his athletic prowess, but he also fares pretty well in the other scenes, coasting on an easygoing charisma when his English skills falter. He shares a gentle rapport with R&B chanteuse Aaliyah, who is the real revelation of the film. For a screen neophyte, she delivers a relaxed and impressively natural performance, even pulling off some challenging emotional scenes. The veteran of the cast, Lindo is a welcome presence, adding some needed gravity to the proceedings; and it's a pleasure to see Russell Wong, who had previously proven his fighting chops in the short-lived television series Vanishing Son, back in action as Ch'u Sing's head enforcer.

The title Romeo Must Die is a vague allusion to the even vaguer allusions to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the film. Thankfully, that's as pretentious as the film gets. All Romeo Must Die claims and wants to be is one brisk jolt of action, and that's exactly what it is.

In Brief

Waking the Dead poster Waking the Dead (R) ***
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To knock Keith Gordon's adaptation of Scott Spencer's novel on the thinness of its premise is to miss the point. Indeed, the story can be broken down to a simple statement: ambitious young politician Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) in the 1980s is driven to madness by the recurring memory of radical activist girlfriend Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), who had died nearly ten years prior--or perhaps not. While the lingering question of Sarah's alive-or-dead status is the plot's focal point, it also doesn't much matter. Waking the Dead is less a film about its story than its themes: most prominently the enduring influence and power of a passionate love. The dreamy quality to Gordon's direction serves this intention well, as do the performances of Crudup and Connelly, who revive the easy rapport they had previously displayed in Inventing the Abbotts. The simplicity of the story makes the film a little dry to watch, but much like Sarah, the specter of the film lingers long after it's over, and the memory of it grows more affectionate.

X poster X (R) ***
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There's a ton of plot in the animé import X--so much so, that only until the 45-minute mark is all the necessary exposition taken care of and the film able to get going. Even then, the plot is just about incomprehensible aside from a few details. The Dragons of the Earth, who want to wipe out the human race and start the planet afresh; and the Dragons of Heaven, who want to preserve civilization, are at war. Key in deciding the fate of the planet is a powerful young man named Kamui, who must use his special abilities to aid one side; destined to challenge him is his "twin star." Got that? It doesn't really matter, for the spectacular artwork and animation by the all-female animation studio Clamp go a long way toward keeping the audience captivated. Viewers may not always understand what goes on in X, but the film consistently keep interested in trying to figure it all out.


The Adventures of Sebastian Cole poster The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (R) ***
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Given so many vapid young would-be stars foisted upon the public by the Hollywood machinery, it is a rare delight indeed to come across one with actual talent and potential. One such exception is Adrian Grenier, as showcased in the little-seen '80s-set coming-of-age story The Adventures of Sebastian Cole. Grenier plays the title character, a typically rebellious 17-year-old who prefers learning about life through "adventures" (hence the title) rather than go to school. This being an independent film, there has to be a quirky spin, and here it is Sebastian's stepfather and guardian (Clark Gregg), who happens to be a pre-op transsexual. Instead of using that wrinkle as merely a hook for cheap jokes, writer-director Tod Williams plays it fairly serious and natural, providing a subtle, added layer of poignancy to the story. Adding to that are the spot-on performances by Gregg and Grenier, who share a warm screen chemistry. (Paramount Home Entertainment)

Bandits poster Bandits (R) ****
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After breaking box office and soundtrack sales records in its native Germany in 1997, it only follows that Hollywood take notice of this unconventional musical-drama--which, in Tinseltown-speak, means buying the remake rights (now owned by Warner Bros.). I, for one, shudder at the thought of an Americanized remake, for the original film, as odd as it is, achieves its own strange sort of perfection. In this women's prison movie/Thelma & Louise/Natural Born Killers/Chicago (the stage musical) mishmash, four female convicts (Katja Riemann, Jasmin Tabatabai, Nicolette Krebitz, and Jutta Hoffmann) who have a jailhouse band (named Bandits, natch) become media sensations and music superstars after escaping from prison. As their collective celebrity rises, so decreases their anonymity, which, hence, increases the danger of their being caught by a dauntless pair of detectives.

Katja Von Garnier directs the film with a boundlessly energetic style reminiscent of countryman Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Bandits moves at a lightning pace, and the incorporation of music--and, in this film's case, full-blown musical numbers, sung mostly in English--is seamless. She also doesn't take the story too seriously, with wry humor making some of the more contrived plotting (infighting, a love triangle, et al.) easier to swallow; the lighter touch also helps the audience more comfortably ease into the musical scenes. There is, however, real substance--and passion--under all the flash. The work of Von Garnier, co-writer Uwe Wilhelm, and the four focal actresses combine to create believable, multi-dimensional people--a point that doesn't become readily apparent until the surprisingly moving, astonishingly transcendent conclusion, when one realizes just how much one has grown to care about these characters. If done right, an American Bandits could help revitalize the movie musical; but even in that highly unlikely scenario, the exuberant, exhilarating original film is something to be treasured. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)

Blue Juice DVD Blue Juice (R) **
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If it weren't for the increasing stateside profiles of supporting players Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ewan McGregor, it's unlikely this 1995 British comedy would have seen a release on this side of the Atlantic. It's also unlikely that fans of those stars will be satisfied by this uneven and predictable story of an aging surfer (Sean Pertwee) who can neither make a firm commitment to his girlfriend (Zeta-Jones) nor adulthood. As routine as the central plot is, it does have some charm, thanks to likable work by Pertwee and Zeta-Jones; the same cannot be said of the tiresome subplots involving Pertwee's even less mature surfing buddies, including a troublemaker played by McGregor. (Trimark Home Video, DVD also available)

The Brutal Truth DVD The Brutal Truth (R) no stars
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The brutal truth is that, despite her top billing and prominent image on the video box, Christina Applegate has barely any screen time in this film. But she is in it long enough to set the plot in motion--her Emily invites nine of her old high school friends over to her cabin in the mountains, where everyone gets to whine about their problems and wax poetic about how wonderful Emily is. The entire affair is as tedious as it sounds, and even more incompetent. At an obvious loss as to what to do with Timothy Puntillo's threadbare script, every five minutes or so director Cameron Thor serves up montages of each individual character lost in thought as a bad alterna-rock ballad plays. And let's not get started on the performances, which range from terrible to far worse (Moon Zappa covering the latter extreme). A-Pix is trying to sell this cornball bore of a drama as a thriller "in the tradition of Disturbing Behavior, Shallow Grave, and The Talented Mr. Ripley." This is the only relation to those titles that I can come up with: this film is highly disturbing in its shallowness--the inept work of a most un-talented group. (A-Pix Entertainment)

Prophecy III DVD Prophecy III: The Ascent (R) no stars
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Christopher Walken is back as archangel Gabriel, but this time he's not the bad guy. That title belongs to a decidedly unmenacing Vincent Spano as angel Zophiel, who wants to kill Danyael (Dave Buzzotta), the half-human, half-angel who is destined to be humanity's savior. Walken injects the lumbering final installment of this trilogy with whatever energy he can, but his screen time is limited. Most of the time the audience is stuck with Spano and unpromising newcomer Buzzotta, and it's only fitting that this bland duo's film ends on such an anticlimactic note--the perfectly unsatisfying capper to such a waste of celluloid. (Miramax Home Entertainment, DVD also available)

Swing VHS Swing (R) ***
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Nick Mead's music-filled film is another of those British comedies in the light, feel-good vein of The Full Monty. Don't count that fact against it, though. What the film lacks in plot--simply told, the film is about a recently released convict (Monty's Hugo Speer) looking to start a swing band with the help of his now-married ex-girlfriend (R&B thrush Lisa Stansfield)--it more than compensates in charm. Although one may have difficulty believing Speer ever spent more than an hour in a prison, he makes an effortlessly likable hero; and Stansfield, in a relaxed acting debut, delivers a performance as robust as her soulful vocals. Swing never pretends to be anything more than what it is--a disposable trifle--and the lack of pretension just make the film's modest delights that much more fun. (Touchstone Home Video)

Velocity Trap DVD Velocity Trap (R) **
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The ingredients of this action film sound far less than promising: a direct-to-video futuristic sci-fi yarn starring the heavily-accented muscleman Olivier Gruner. The plot is boilerplate stuff--Gruner's disgraced cop must keep guard over $40,000,000,000 being transported across the galaxy on a spaceship, which, of course, manages to get hijacked by some bad guys. Added into the mix is an asteroid on a collision course with the spaceship. Yet the aggressively unoriginal Velocity Trap manages to not be terribly annoying; in fact, while never good, it remains watchable, due to Alicia Coppola's sassy performance as the ship's tough cookie navigator and some shockingly polished production design and visual effects. Alas, no amount of solid special effects can make up for the lack of real imagination, nor can they animate the terminally stiff Gruner. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)

Made for Network TV

The Love Bug VHS Goldrush VHS The Love Bug ** 1/2
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Goldrush: A Real Life Alaskan Adventure **
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Bruce Campbell became a cult hero for the ages by playing the baddest of all badasses, Ash, in Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead horror-comedy trilogy. So what the hell is he doing in not one, but two, family films made for TV's Wonderful World of Disney? Adding some of his famous spark to some otherwise bland efforts. The Love Bug is a silly and serviceable enough revival of everyone's favorite living Volkswagen, Herbie, who ends up in the hands of a mechanic and former race car driver played by Campbell. He and John Hannah, who hams it up as the villain, offer some diverting moments for adults, but a film about a VW Beetle that toots and whistles is, in the end, strictly kids' play.

Although it's clearly meant for them, I doubt kids will find similar enjoyment in Goldrush, which tells the story of one Frances "Fizzy" Fitz (Alyssa Milano), a sheltered girl from New York who dreams of going to Alaska in search of riches and adventure; Campbell plays the expedition leader who makes her voyage a reality. Milano has spunk, and Campbell is lively; the same cannot be said of the rest of this well-meaning bore. (Walt Disney Home Video)

Murder She Purred VHS Murder She Purred: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery **
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If you adore the sight of cute animals spouting cutesy voiced-over dialogue and doing cutesy things such as, say, investigating a murder, then by all means go and check out this frothy family film. But if such an idea makes you groan and roll your eyes--much like it did with me--then it's best to avoid this adaptation of Rita Mae Brown's novel in which the titular feline (voiced by Blythe Danner) and her canine sidekick Tucker (voiced by Anthony Clark) help their master (Ricki Lake) look into some fishy goings-on in a small Virginia town. It's well-made, pleasantly performed, and perfectly fine viewing for the younger set, but excuse me if I cannot say I felt too entertained by this sugary confection. (Walt Disney Home Video)

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#230 March 18, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Erin Brockovich poster Erin Brockovich (R) *** 1/2
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On paper, Erin Brockovich bears more than a passing resemblance to 1998's A Civil Action. Both are vehicles for major Hollywood stars (respectively, Julia Roberts and John Travolta); both are based on true stories; and both stories are about a legal crusader helping the residents of a small town battle a large corporation that has been contaminating the local water supply. Despite these striking similarities, there remains one key difference: while treating its serious subject matter with the gravity it deserves, Erin Brockovich also manages to be a lot of fun.

That fact owes a lot to the film's vibrant title character, one that I imagine even Hollywood would have difficulty creating if reality hadn't. Erin (Roberts) is a vivacious, twice-divorced mother of three who, as we meet her, is not doing a very good job selling herself at a job interview. The scene is short, but its few minutes vividly depict the delicate balance that Roberts and director Steven Soderbergh achieves throughout the film's entire two-hour-plus running time. The scene is undeniably funny, its humor heightened by Erin's trashy mode of dress and the increasing desperation of her words. But one laughs at the situation and not her; in Roberts' eyes one can catch the underlying sadness and seriousness of the situation, plus the gradual awareness that she's fighting a losing battle. For the most part, Erin Brockovich plays in a similar way; one is consistently engaged on a purely--for lack of a better term--"entertainment" level, but providing an underlying foundation is something that lends the proceedings a bit more dramatic weight.

The major "something" in Erin Brockovich is the aforementioned case involving the residents of Hinkley, California, whose water supply has long been contaminated by the large PG&E corporation. Through some not-terribly-convincing plot machinations, Erin gets a job as an aide to attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney), and it is through her work there that she gets personally involved with the plight of the Hinkley citizens, many of whom are suffering grave illness due to prolonged exposure to the poisoned water.

Erin is brassy, smartmouthed, and, most important of all, not a lawyer, and the bulk of the film's enjoyment derives from the ballsy, carefree way she conducts her research and life in general. She is also unabashedly a woman, not afraid to call upon her feminine wiles to get her way--allowing Roberts to be more brazenly sexual than she has since her career-making turn in Pretty Woman. Roberts also has never been so ideally cast since that film; the kookiness of her character gives her ample opportunity to flash that trademark smile of hers (not to mention a few other assets) while giving her a chance to stretch comfortably as an actress. Not only are there plenty of the light moments for the fans, there are just as many heavier dramatic scenes for her to display her serious acting chops. That these two sides seamlessly gel into a full-bodied character is as much a compliment to her as it is to Soderbergh.

Soderbergh's sure direction keeps the action moving briskly enough, the actors believable enough, and the audience's emotions and interest engaged enough to forgive the overall familiarity of the story. Erin is, above anything else, an average woman, and this is a traditional tale of how she bucked the odds and scored a big triumph for herself and her fellow common folk. What aren't so easily forgiven, however, are other formulaic wrinkles in the script, which is credited to Susannah Grant. Chiefly problematic among these is her relationship with the next-door neighbor, a kind motorcyclist named George (Aaron Eckhart). Their relationship begins prickly, warms to a friendship, then heats up into a romance. Roberts and a barely unrecognizable Eckhart are well-matched, but their skill and rapport are shoved into some pedestrian plotting. As Erin gets more involved in her case, George and her kids feel neglected, leading to the usual resentment. It is here where Soderbergh comes up with the one moment that rings completely, ridiculously false: tending to Erin's kids at a barbecue, George longs for his more freewheeling days after watching a gang of Harley-riding bikers roar by.

The entirety of Erin Brockovich achieves its desired--and highly commercial--effect so well, though, that most viewers, including myself, won't ultimately care about such awkward moments. Soderbergh loyalists may be a bit dismayed that this film is not as risky and experimental as his other works, but only a filmmaker with his fresh savvy could take a well-worn formula and make such a satisfying entertainment.

In Brief

Beyond the Mat poster Beyond the Mat (R) ***
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World Wrestling Foundation head Vince McMahon has publicly blasted this documentary look at the world of professional wrestling, but one has to wonder why. He and his organization actually come off pretty well in Barry Blaustein's film, for any dirt dished has less to do with him specifically than the profiled wrestlers themselves and the nature of the "sports entertainment" business in general. Blaustein follows a number of wrestlers, covering the entire career spectrum: a couple of wannabes who land a big audition for the WWF; Mick Foley, a.k.a. Mankind, who is at the peak of his popularity thanks to his wild and highly dangerous stunts in the ring (which trouble his wife and children); Terry Funk, a much-respected veteran who has trouble leaving the squared circle behind; and fallen idol Jake "The Snake" Roberts, whose personal problems (primarily, drug abuse) sent him on a tailspin from big-league headliner to farm circuit attraction.

While Beyond the Mat boasts a wider scope than the justly lauded straight-to-cable exposé Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, which focused solely on the story of Bret Hart, it doesn't cut nearly as deep. Granted, there are a number of dark moments of personal insight--particularly in the disturbing Roberts segments--but Hitman Hart had that plus a eye-opening look at the dirty politics of the business (namely within the WWF). Beyond the Mat remains an engrossing watch, but it's far from the most fascinating and incisive look at its subject.

Condo Painting poster Condo Painting **
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At the core of John McNaughton's film about New York artist George Condo is an interesting look at one artist's creative process. The film documents a few years in Condo's life, during which he works and reworks the same canvas, its image changing dramatically with each new frustration and whim. When sticking to that thread, Condo and Condo Painting easily engages the interest. Unfortunately, there is more to the film than that. Far less compelling is Condo's quirky obsession with seeing the art in old television shows, which he expresses by pasting the faces of the likes of Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies into the paintings featured in classical art books. It's hard to tell if he's serious about this project or if it's one big put-on; I, for one, could not take it or him seriously. While that thread is somewhat amusing, a complete waste of time is Condo's incessant talk about "antipodal beings," imaginary creatures that serve as his muses. Okay. But the talk is a bit more easily digestible than the excrutiatingly unfunny staged scenes that depict Condo actually watching and capturing these "antipodes" (really a guy wearing some cheap masks). Much like its subject, Condo Painting doesn't quite know when to shut up.

Final Destination poster Final Destination (R) **
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I will say this about James Wong's youth-targeted supernatural thriller: it is far better than the other teen chiller from an X-Files alumnus, David Nutter's disastrous Disturbing Behavior. That, of course, isn't saying much. Wong has some fun with the film's premise, which has a group of high schoolers (Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Seann William Scott, Chad E. Donella, and Amanda Detmer) and one of their teachers (Kristen Cloke) stalked by an unseen force after they disembark a plane that ends up exploding on takeoff. The implication is that they were meant to die on that flight, and Death is now out to even the score, which sets the stage for a few cleverly complex death scenes. But as Final Destination wears on, it also wears out its welcome; interesting ideas about fate are brushed aside, and the film becomes little more than a typical--if highly atmospheric--slasher film (albeit with a never-seen killer), complete with the cheesy dialogue and gimmicky conclusion.

Not One Less poster Not One Less (G) *** 1/2
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Although I am an admirer of the works of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, it was only after the passionate urging of a reader did I make an effort to squeeze his latest film into my crowded screening schedule. Now I wonder what I was thinking for putting off this film in favor of soulless fluff like Hanging Up. Not One Less is the touching and inspiring story of Wei Minxhi, a 13-year-old girl who is made the substitute teacher at a rural schoolhouse when the regular instructor, Teacher Gao, must take a month off to care for his sick mother. Ten of his students have already quit, and he urges the girl to keep any more from leaving by the time he returns. This is much easier said than done, especially for a girl not much older than the students, and she gets her big test when she has to travel to the big city to find Zhang Huike, a student whose poor household situation forced him to quit school and find work.

Not One Less is charming and involving when depicting Wei Minxhi's struggles with the hyperactive children in the classroom, but Zhang hits his stride with the girl's search in the city. The film is remarkably realistic, though not simply in the obvious tack of how urban centers harshly treat those from the country. It also remains true to the spirit of a child: the stubborn resolve, the innocence and naïveté that not always comes as hindrance. Adding immeasurably to the air of authenticity are the actors, and one doesn't get a clear idea of just how much authenticity they bring until the end credits: every actor is a non-professional, playing characters that bear their actual names--and, more often than not, their actual positions in life. Wei Minxhi and Zhang Huike are both students from the countryside; Teacher Gao is indeed a rural schoolteacher; a television station manager featured in the film is indeed one; and so forth. That these non-actors are able to so convincingly bring this highly emotional fictional story to life is the true mark of a master filmmaker at work.

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#229 March 10, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Mission to Mars poster Mission to Mars (PG) **
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Virtual missions to Mars are not new to the Walt Disney Company. Long before its much ballyhooed revamp, the Tomorrowland area of Disneyland prominently featured (right next to Space Mountain) a little curio called Mission to Mars. It was an attraction, not a ride: patrons would sit in a circular auditorium that was made to look like a spaceship, and through some images projected on screens, fancy lighting, and--most important of all--some vibrating seats, earthlings made "trips" to Mars by the hundreds about every half hour.

That attraction was indeed cheesy, but after seeing Disney/Touchstone's new film bearing the name Mission to Mars, I could not help but feel nostalgic for those long-gone yesterdays in Tomorrowland. For one thing, at least Mission to Mars (the attraction) had vibrating seats--something that would make this shockingly cornball effort from director Brian DePalma a little easier to sit through to the very end. But not by much.

The year is 2020, and NASA has sent a four-astronaut crew to the red planet. After encountering a strange storm-like force, the only person left alive is Mission Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). A rescue/recovery team is soon deployed; in this team are Graham's old friends Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), and Woody's wife Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), as well as scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell). Of course, such an operation is easier planned than executed, and the crew of the Mars Recovery Mission run into their fair share of trouble en route to the planet. Their troubles are encapsulated in an effective extended suspense sequence where one calamity seamlessly and convincingly leads to another. The palpable tension that DePalma is able to create easily compensates for some shameless product placement.

It's quite unfortunate, then, that this sequence would end on a forced, unintentionally comic note of melodrama, not helped by some amateurish emoting by Nielsen. Just as, at one point, an indicator on Terri's spacesuit reads "Point of no return," this is also the juncture where Mission to Mars gets progressively, irreparably worse. Upon landing on Mars, the film, which had been a diverting spacefaring adventure with an impressive command of technical detail, decides to become a sci-fi film of ideas, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey or Contact. Those familiar with DePalma's body of work know that his instincts are more attuned to the former than the latter.

The problem with the turn runs deeper than a directorial miscast, however. Mission to Mars has already used up over half of its 113-minute length by the time the script goes all profound, hardly enough space to tackle the highfalutin ideas writers Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost want to tackle. So it's little surprise that this part of the story feels rushed, which, in turn, results in a superficial treatment that renders the point laughably trite. The film's trailer not only completely divulges its big "secret" (I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it), but also lifts the film's exploration of this idea in its complete form. Those intrigued by the trailer and looking for deeper backup of the central idea in the actual film won't find it, for what's in the trailer is all there is.

Such a disastrous final act is especially disappointing in the case of Mission to Mars, for it is an adequate entertainment for its first two-thirds. Pedestrian story details such as Jim's sadness over his deceased astronaut wife are smoothed over by the convincing acting of Sinise, Cheadle, and Robbins; the effects, which are, if hardly groundbreaking, functional; and the painstaking attention to the technical side of space travel. Unfortunately, what one remembers strongly about Mission to Mars is the corny conclusion, which leaves a bitter taste--so bitter, that it was able to completely wash away the flavor of the unlimited free Mars candy bars given away at the press screening.

In Brief

Deterrence poster Deterrence (R) ** 1/2
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The year is 2008, and the incumbent U.S. President (Kevin Pollak) is on the reelection campaign trail in snow-smothered Colorado when he receives word that the Iraqi dictator has invaded Kuwait. What's more, he has chemical and biological weapons aimed at Israel, Greece, and Turkey, ready to strike within two hours. Stranded in a diner in the town of Aztec with his Chief of Staff (Timothy Hutton) and National Security Advisor (Sheryl Lee Ralph), the President must wrestle with the political and ethical fallout of each potential course of action--not to mention the varied opinions of the regular citizens stuck in the diner.

If one is able to overlook the preposterous nature of the premise, this single-location political thriller from former Los Angeles film critic Rod Lurie does raise some provocative points of debate--primarily in the film's conclusion, where the President's decision can be read in a number of ways and can be supported with equal weight. However, Lurie quickly glazes over one important bit of backstory in the early going, a point that is crucial to understand some motivation. There are other problems in Lurie's script (such as some one-dimensional characterizations for the diner patrons), but the lack of clear definition on this key point is the film's biggest.


Dead of Night DVD Dead of Night (R) * 1/2
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A serial killer (Chris Adamson) escapes from a prison transport ship and holes up in a lighthouse during a harsh storm. Said storm forces said ship to crash into some rocks and strand its remaining passengers... on said lighthouse. Aside from one effective, if routine, suspense scene in a restroom and an original bit where the hero (James Purefoy) holds the falling heroine (Rachel Shelley) not by her hand but her hair, there's little distinction to this formulaic horror enterprise (whose original title, Lighthouse, still appears in the end credits). With the pervasive presence of such horror standbys as fakeouts involving noisy rats and dead bodies falling out of closets, the only point I see made is that the British can make slasher movies as silly as those made by Americans. (A-Pix Entertainment; DVD also available)

Face poster Face (R) ** 1/2
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Robert Carlyle is his quietly intense self as the leader of a group of armed robbers who pull off one big heist. Unlike most crime films, the heist goes pretty smoothly, and it isn't until afterward do things go awry. Unfortunately, despite some fine supporting work (in particular by Ray Winstone as one of Carlyle's cohorts) and a believably gritty approach by director Antonia Bird, the doublecrosses and reversals in this 1997 production (which is only now receiving some type of U.S. distribution) feel too much like most crime films. In the end, as well-made as it is, Face falls short by simply not having a distinctive one. (New Line Home Video)

The Highwayman DVD The Highwayman (R) ** 1/2
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It seems like another snicker-worthy straight-to-tape crime yarn: after all, it co-stars Jason Priestley as a badass armed robber named Breakfast. But thanks to brisk direction by Keoni Waxman, this actioner remains rather watchable. The plot has a young woman (Laura Harris) hooking up with hoods Breakfast and Panda (Bernie Coulson) to find the father (Stephen McHattie) she never really knew. However, the father has much bigger problems of his own--such as being (wrongfully) wanted for fraud. Writer Richard Beattie is able to come up with some inspired plot turns, and the actors--even Priestley--are engaging. It's unfortunate that the film's energy gradually wanes as it goes on, eventually sputtering toward the finish line in its final act. (Sterling Home Entertainment; DVD also available)

The King of Masks poster The King of Masks *** 1/2
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Those seeing the Shaw Brothers' name on the credits of this 1996 Hong Kong import and expecting chopsocky action will be disappointed. However, this charming, '30s-set fable offers richer rewards than a jolt of adrenaline. The title character (Chu Yuk) is a street performer who is the master of an art of quick-face change. Tradition holds that he passes the secret of his art to a male heir, but with his only son long dead and his own best years long behind him, he buys a young apprentice (Chao Yim Yin) on the black market. The King is a proud grandparent and teacher until he finds out his "grandson" is a she. Wu Tianming's film is simple, but that's part of what makes it so beautiful and affecting; there is a natural, unforced quality to every aspect, from the period sets and costumes to the exceptionally subtle yet expressive performances by the leads. All in all, a wonderful film that is definitely worth the effort of seeking out. (Columbia TriStar Home Video, DVD also available)

Operation Delta Force III DVD Operation Delta Force III: Clear Target (R) *
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A drug dealer out for revenge against the U.S. government hijacks a submarine armed with chemical and biological weapons, then directs the sub toward New York City. There is one force standing in his way--Delta Force! While the outcome of any action film with namebrand talent is usually never in doubt (i.e., do we really expect, say, Bruce Willis to fail in his mission?), at least the makers of those films generally put some effort into making the proceedings interesting and involving. No such luck here. The acting is uniformly stiff (standing out of the plywood cast is ex-Miss Hawaiian Tropic and -Van Damme spouse Darcy LaPier as... a brilliant computer programmer/hacker); the sets are garishly overlit, showing just how cheap they are; and the action scenes are lethargically staged and performed. The titular military group may take 90 minutes of screen time to save the day, but viewers will likely feel as if their day has been wasted. (Trimark Home Video)

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