The Movie Report
Volume 74

#249 - 250
August 26, 2000 - September 10, 2000

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

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#250 September 10, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Highlander: Endgame poster Highlander: Endgame (R) *
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I had never seen a Highlander film nor an episode of its spinoff television series in my life, so perhaps I'm not exactly not the most qualified viewer to review the fourth and presumably (hopefully?) final big screen installment of the cult sci-fi franchise. However, having little to no familiarity with the material perhaps makes me an ideal person to review it--after all, part of an ongoing series shouldn't only play to the converted. But that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Endgame. If you're a fan, there could be something here to keep you involved and maybe leave you satisfied. But for newcomers, it's an uphill battle to make sense of it all and just about impossible to care.

Endgame is a landmark film for the Highlander faithful for it brings together for the first time Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), the lead character of the features Highlander, the critically lambasted Highlander 2: The Quickening, and misleadingly titled Highlander: The Final Dimension; and Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), the star of the syndicated Highlander television series. As anyone can deduce from the character names, Connor and Duncan are related, but exactly how will only be clear to followers of the series. A throwaway line of exposition to spell out their relationship is never offered in Endgame. The film's poster says that they are brothers, and while the two use the term "a brother" once or twice, the context suggests a more figurative meaning (as in close friend) than a literal one. This idea supported by one flashback scene where we see the two's first meeting; Connor has to introduce himself to Duncan by name. If the two were true brothers, shouldn't they know who the other is? (OK, maybe they were separated at birth, but no explanation is ever offered.)

Maybe I'm dwelling a bit too long on that point, but that's just about the only thing in Endgame that commands any thought; the plot is your basic good guys versus bad bit. Duncan and Connor are Immortals, but that doesn't mean they are indestructible; Immortals can be killed by decapitation, and when one is killed, the slain's lifeforce is absorbed by his or her killer (called a "quickening"). The baddie that Duncan and Connor must do battle with Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne, criminally overacting), the Immortal whose father was responsible for the death of Connor's mother some four centuries ago. But as is standard issue for stories like this, Jacob--having well over 600 quickenings to his credit--is far more powerful than Duncan and Connor combined.

But this fairly simple story is muddled by the murky Highlander mythos, which scripter Joel Soisson makes no effort to make accessible to non-cultists. There is some mumbo jumbo about the Watchers (who, as the name implies, watch Immortals); every now and again a character or two that perhaps would be recognizable to those familiar with the series pops up. So while non-fans can be superficially amused by director Douglas Aarniokoski's fast-paced assemblage of basic set pieces--a swordfight scene here, a gratuitous sex scene there--none of it really adds up to anything of worth.

Highlander fans, of course, would argue otherwise. The film's numerous flashbacks, which show the heretofore unseen shared past of Connor and Duncan, should alone be enough to get them worked up, while the uninitiated will struggle to comprehend what the big deal is all about. Highlander: Endgame is a film made for the devotees, and I'm sure I speak for everyone else when I say that I am more than happy to simply let that select group have and keep it.

Nurse Betty poster Nurse Betty (R) ****
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Neil LaBute, writer-director of the cynical (and brilliant) bile-fests In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, would be the last person one would expect to bring a fairy tale story to the screen, but that's exactly what he has done with Nurse Betty. But this being LaBute, Betty is an atypical fairy tale story made even more so through the filter of a decidedly dark lens--and the film would not be quite the subversively funny and all-around memorable entertainment that it is without him.

Given the lightness at the heart of Nurse Betty, it's not surprising that this is the first LaBute film to not have a screenplay credited to him. The scribes responsible are John C. Richards and James Flamberg, and what a deliciously delirious story they weave in their Cannes Fest-winning screenplay. To give too much away would be criminal, so I'll leave the synopsis simple. When we first meet Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger), she is a waitress and loyal viewer of the soap opera A Reason to Love. After witnessing a traumatic event, Betty, under the delusion that she is a nurse, hits the road toward Los Angeles to find her true love, Loma Vista Hospital's Dr. David Ravell--A Reason to Love's resident heartthrob doc, played by actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear). Did I also mention that in hot pursuit of Betty are hitmen Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock)?

This just sets the stage for even wilder twists, which point up the irony of the film: as Betty actively pursues life in a soap, the real life she ignores becomes just as, if not more, outrageous than one. But even for a film as plot-heavy as Nurse Betty, characters, not story points, are what's to be savored the most, and the actors effortlessly navigate their roles' often bizarre evolutions. Betty's transformation--which really isn't one so much as a shift from one side of her personality to another--is fluidly handled by Zellweger, and she is mirrored by the more subtle, gradual change that overcomes Freeman's Charlie the closer he gets to his prey.

With this fascinating pair at the center of the film, it would seem to follow that supporting players get the short shrift, but each role, regardless of how small, is nailed by their respective portrayer. Kinnear's usual smarmy charm bit gets a new freshness within the wildly creative context; Rock, while tossing off the expected profane one-liners, is rather shocking in his portrayal of his ferocious hothead character. Also lending most welcome flavor and zing to the picture are Tia Texada as Betty's bewildered L.A. roommate, Alison Janney as the producer of A Reason to Love, and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as Betty's sleazy car salesman husband.

Lest you think that Nurse Betty is all wacky zaniness, don't think LaBute's naturally dark sensibilities never enter the picture--they do, and in the form of some graphic violence. Other critics have criticized the film because of it, but the bloodshed--and the sometimes excessive nature of it--provides a necessary contrast that keeps the audience off-kilter; one never knows when Betty's fantasy world could take a hairpin turn back into brutal reality. That unpredictability and tension, as further carried out by the top-notch performances and writing, give Nurse Betty the drive to carry the audience past any lingering disbelief and into some silly, smart, and strange cinematic heights.

Turn It Up poster Turn It Up (R) no stars
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Another day, another urban drama starring rappers with acting aspirations. The latest entry, Turn It Up, offers nothing that hasn't been seen nor heard before--lots of gunplay, beatings, drug and alcohol abuse, all to a hip-hop soundtrack. But it is distinctive in a most dubious sense--this is perhaps the worst film of its kind to see a theatrical release.

Mind you, this isn't the worst rapper-starring urban drama ever made; it doesn't quite reach the depths plumbed by the direct-to-video projects produced by and featuring Ice-T. But Turn It Up is pretty awful in its own respect. Scripter-director Robert Adetuyi put in very little thought to the plot, which plays into the common perception that the rap music business is dirty and violence-riddled. Diamond (Pras, late of the Fugees) wants to break into said industry, but the studio time for cutting his demo is also cutting deep into what little money he earns doing menial jobs for a local drug lord named Mr. B. (Jason Statham). When the already steep price for the recording sessions goes up, Diamond's hotheaded best friend and partner Gage (Ja Rule) comes up with a seemingly foolproof--and, of course, illegal--funding plan. Needless to say, the plan doesn't go off without a hitch or two.

To say that Turn It Up doesn't go off without a hitch or two is an understatement. Beyond the tired, predictable plot--and the equally dull subplots, such as Diamond's fed-up girlfriend (Tamala Jones) and the sudden surfacing of Diamond's long-absent father (Vondie Curtis-Hall, way beneath his league here)--there's some truly abysmal dialogue (Diamond's raps are invariably described as "hot") and acting to match. Jones and Curtis-Hall emerge with their dignity intact, but that's partly a side effect of having fairly little screen time and mostly because they actually have some acting ability. That cannot be said of everyone else. The two rap stars leading the cast are no acting finds; Pras is stiff, and Ja Rule subscribes to the adage, "if you can't act, overact." As bad as they are, they are outdone by the weak work of Statham and the laughably atrocious John Ralston, who plays record label bigwig Mr. White.

But what really does in Turn It Up is what's under the terrible execution--or, rather, what isn't there. The script doesn't offer any reason why we should really care about any of these characters and what happens to them, nor do these characters exhibit any qualities that would consistently engage our interest. For all the mayhem that fills the screen in Turn It Up--and there is a lot of it, both visual and sonic--the film is still a crushing bore.

The Watcher poster The Watcher (R) 1/2*
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There is a germ of an interesting idea buried in The Watcher, but any chance of that idea developing into the basis of an intelligent thriller was completely obliterated when the thought of stunt casting entered the picture. So instead of an engrossing psychological chiller, we get a fairly pro forma serial killer pursuit pic where the madman is played by... Keanu Reeves. Any wonder why not a single scare nor suspenseful moment is to be experienced in this amazingly anemic film?

The potentially interesting idea lost in the muck is the exploration of the strange symbiotic relationship between a killer and his pursuer. In The Watcher, the killer is Reeves' David Allen Griffin, who stalks his young female prey before strangling them with a piano wire; the pursuer is Joel Campbell (James Spader), an FBI profiler who worked on the Griffin case during his initial killing spree in Los Angeles. Burned out after working that case--without ever capturing Griffin--Campbell has since left the bureau and the City of Angels, living a layabout life in Chicago that is perked up only by non-stop intake of prescription drugs and frequent visits to his shrink, Polly (Marisa Tomei, struggling to get back on the studio A-list in a thankless role). But it isn't long before Griffin turns up in the Windy City, prodding Campbell into a cat-and-mouse game that brings him back to the Fed fold.

I get the impression that the story as originally conceived by Darcy Meyers and David Elliot was less about catching the killer--which is what the finished The Watcher ostensibly is, a routine genre exercise--than about something more interesting: that being how lawmen become defined by the perps they track, and vice versa. But any probing psychological dimension to this story is drowned out by Joe Charbanic's overdirection. Heavy on the quick edits and stylized visuals, it comes as no surprise that Charbanic is another music video vet making the big leap to the feature film world. While flashiness has its place on the big screen, the seems strangely out of place in a film whose content suggests something darker and grittier (further exemplified by Spader and Tomei's sullenly earnest performances); the gloss makes the film that much more difficult to believe.

Ultimately nudging The Watcher from "difficult to believe" to "impossible to believe" is the ruinous presence of Reeves. Charbanic directed videos for Reeves' band Dogstar, and I'd like to think it's that connection--and studio execs' taste for stunt casting--is what led to this stunning example of miscasting. It is inconceivable that anyone could sincerely believe that he of the affectless voice, erratic speech rhythms, blank face, and bobbing head could convincingly convey any sense of evil or menace, and Reeves' performance just confirms how limited his range is. His Griffin is serial killer as laid-back surfer dude, and never once do we believe someone this incredibly goofy could have evaded the authorities this long. Whenever Reeves shows up, any level of believability that the film has managed to generate (mostly courtesy of Spader) goes rocketing out the window.

And, unfortunately, Reeves shows up quite frequently in The Watcher, and Charbanic and the rest of the crew fail to compensate with the pedestrian, suspenseless plot twists, which lumber toward a most unsatisfying climax. As such, the only fright likely to be experienced by moviegoers is the fact that they spent hard-earned money on such a turkey.

The Way of the Gun poster The Way of the Gun (R) *** Ryan Phillippe interview
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With his directorial debut The Way of the Gun, Christopher McQuarrie, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, has said that he "set out to make a crime film in a way that no one would ever ask me to make another crime film again." A number of critics and viewers will doubtlessly hope no one does after witnessing all the buckets of blood shed in this quasi-neo-Western. But if one looks past the carnage, one can see a solid entertainment further distinguished by fine performances.

Despite his Academy-endorsed writing skills, McQuarrie's script is one of the weaker elements of the film. The plot curves that he throws into the story--in which Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro), a pair of small-time crooks, kidnap young surrogate mother Robin (Juliette Lewis), to fetch a ransom from the child's wealthy biological parents--aren't as clever (and, in my minority opinion, not nearly as aggravating) as the ones that characterized the famously twisty Suspects. The wealth of the unborn baby's father, Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), comes from predictably shady sources; gradually revealed are all sorts of hidden entanglements are between the large cast of characters--which also includes Chidduck's wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman); his hired gun Joe Sarno (James Caan); the bodyguards hired to protect Robin, Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt); and Robin's doctor, Allen Painter (Dylan Kussman). There is a sense of inevitability to how some of the various developments come about, which doesn't so much make the twists any less interesting (which they are) than less effective in generating suspense.

Another complaint likely to made about McQuarrie's script are the fairly shallow characterizations, namely that of Parker and Longbaugh. The audience never learns anything about these guys except that they're criminals (and not especially good ones), and they live by the way of the gun. But I don't see this as a flaw; so many films try to force some psychological reasoning as to why certain people are bad that it's rather refreshing to see a film that simply takes them at face value and leaves them at that. And with Phillippe and del Toro giving better performances than usual (Phillippe's blankness is well-suited for such a cipher of a character; del Toro mercifully doesn't indulge in his usual verbal tics), the lack of insight into the pair is made even less of a problem.

That general idea, taken on a larger scale, is why The Way of the Gun works--the shortcomings of the material is compensated by the execution. While everyone in the cast does a fine job, the standouts are a nicely subtle Caan as the world-wise and -weary bagman and especially Lewis--doing her best work in years--as the fragile and very pregnant woman at the center of the whole mess.

Of course, the strong work of the ensemble is just reflective of the overall directorial job by McQuarrie. Although it lasts a minute under two hours, the film progresses at a steady pace and especially comes alive during the exciting and often inventive action sequences. The most unusual and intriguing of these occurs early on: a slow-speed (and I mean slow) car chase in which Jeffers and Obecks pursue Parker and Longbaugh, who dangle their legs from the open doorways of their vehicle--that is, when not abandoning it altogether at certain junctures.

But McQuarrie naturally saves the biggest blowout for the end, closing The Way of the Gun with 30 minutes of raw gunplay and even rawer bloodshed (not all caused by bullets). For a number of viewers, the sequence's unflinchingly excessive violence will be what ultimately does in the film; but for others--such as myself--the over-the-top mayhem closes the film on an electrifying high.

In Brief

Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire poster Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire (R) ***
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This indie comedy from first-time director Kevin Jordan and writing collaborators Derick and Steven Martini is, in the end, absolutely disposable, but it generates a pleasant buzz as it plays. The real-life Martini brothers play the on-screen Remi brothers, who bear the Native American-sounding nicknames in the title: "Smiling Fish" is the younger Tony (Steven), a cheerful aspiring actor; "Goat on Fire" is the older Chris (Derick), a serious accountant. The film follows the brothers' romantic travails: Tony falls for single mom/mail carrier Kathy (Christa Miller); and during a down time with his longtime love Alison (Amy Hathaway), Chris becomes besotted with Anna (Rosemarie Addeo), an Italian animal wrangler for movies. Light stuff all the way, from the funny, if predictable, story to the likable leads, but adding some weight to the film is the commanding presence of Bill Henderson as Clive, the 80-year-old uncle of Chris' boss, who serves as the film's voice of romantic reason.

Whipped poster Whipped (R) * 1/2
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Writer-director Peter M. Cohen's sex farce begins on an amusing enough--if not particularly promising--start as the audience eavesdrops on a trio of friends as they engage in their Sunday morning ritual of recounting their sexual exploits. For the narcissistic Brad (Brian Van Holt), this usually involves him picking up a woman by saying he knows "Jen" (the logic being that every woman has had a friend named "Jen." OK.); for wannabe screenwriter Zeke (Zorie Barber), his sexcapades typically end with getting his television stolen (don't ask); and for Jonathan (Jonathan Abrahams), nothing ever seems to go wrong with hot dates named "Nivea" and "Keri" (get it?). While the punchlines to the main jokes don't score (as you can plainly see), a good one-liner does manage to sneak in here and there. Too bad that the three actors can't really sell them since they insist on delivering each line at the top of their lungs.

One person who can definitely sell comic dialogue is Amanda Peet, who stole the show in the Bruce Willis-Matthew Perry midsize hit The Whole Nine Yards. Unfortunately, Peet is given little to work with in Whipped as Mia, the woman who bewitches all three of these guys. Peet's timing and flair is of little consequence in a role that is more of a plot device than a character; strangely enough, it is with her introduction--and thereby the beginning of the film's real story--that Whipped goes steadily downhill. Clever wisecracks grow increasingly scarce as the idiot plot machinations become more plentiful, leading to a "twist" ending that will leave audiences with perplexed looks rather than smiles.


Any Given Sunday DVD Any Given Sunday (R) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: *** 1/2
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Reaction to Oliver Stone's ambitious examination of all aspects professional football was, like that to virtually all of the director's films, wildly mixed. While were able to enjoy the energy and entertainment value of the piece, others found it too loud and frenetic, not to mention overlong. Warner Bros.' DVD offers support for both arguments--as soon as you pop it into your player. The hyperactive animated menus, set to a hard-driving rock score, perfectly reflect the frenzied feel of the film--which the sparkling visual and audio transfer perfectly captures; the sound give the many hard hits on the football field a memorable impact.

There isn't a commentary track with Stone on the disc, but he does leave an added mark in another way--the only version of the film on the DVD (and on regular VHS, for that matter) is an expanded director's cut that runs a few minutes longer and, hence, a few minutes closer to the three-hour mark. The film isn't any better in its longer form, for the added footage is simply unnecessary (did we really need more screen time for Elizabeth Berkley's call girl character?). To Warner Bros.' credit, however, the chapter stops listing on the box and in the menus note which sections include the restored footage.

The other major supplements are a music video by co-star LL Cool J and a making-of featurette (read: glorified infomercial) that originally aired on HBO during the film's theatrical run. While the extra features are mostly wanting, overall the disc is very well-produced and a handsome edition of a solid film.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English and French subtitles; English closed captioning. (Warner Home Video)

Braveheart DVD Braveheart (R) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: *** 1/2
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Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Mel Gibson's stunning 1995 epic about the life of legendary Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace is one of the crown jewels in Paramount's catalog of titles, not to mention one of the films most beloved by moviegoers in the past decade. So one would think--or, rather, hope--that the studio would add some pizzazz to their famously static DVD menus in this case. Alas, no--still silent, still motionless.

The supplemental features are also a bit lacking. The de rigueur "making-of" featurette, A Filmmaker's Passion: The Making of Braveheart, is one of those PR-minded programs that aired on pay cable to push the film's theatrical run. It would have been nicer to see a new documentary, where Gibson and other people involved in the production could look back on the film's Oscar success, its fairly modest box office, etc. The film's two theatrical trailers are also included, as is what would seem a very promising extra: feature-length commentary by Gibson. While this is indeed the most interesting extra, for every moment that Gibson's trademark sense of humor shines through or he divulges his special shooting techniques, there are too many long stretches of silence.

Maybe Gibson himself just caught up in watching the film during those stretches, which will likely happen to viewers during the dead spots in the commentary track. The film looks and sounds spectacular in the new digital form, all the better to appreciate the awesome sound work, John Toll's gorgeous cinematography, and James Horner's evocative Oscar-nominated score, which is on a par, if not better, than his statue-winning work for Titanic. But most of all, the film is still as absorbing as ever--none of the battle scenes lose their raw charge, and the overall emotional sweep is stronger than ever.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English and French Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Paramount Home Entertainment)

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#249 August 26, 2000 by Michael Dequina


The Art of War poster The Art of War (R) ** 1/2
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Sneaking onto screens relatively unheralded by its distributor during the dog days of summer, The Art of War would appear to be one of those dumpers/writeoffs with which the studios traditionally clog late August. But for a good portion of its running time, director Christian Duguay's spy thriller is slickly, efficiently put together, featuring more than a few effective action sequences. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that, in the end, the film slips off the rails.

Wesley Snipes lends his usual blend of charisma and conviction to the role of Shaw, a deep cover United Nations operative who is introduced as he engages in some Bond-like derring-do at a millennium party in China. Little does he know this will be his introduction to some of the key players in a conspiracy in which he later finds himself entangled. Six months later, a container filled with dead Chinese refugees is found, and soon after, a Chinese ambassador is assassinated. Accused of the latter, Shaw goes underground and, with the help of a U.N. translator (Marie Matiko), sets out to find the truth, which turns out to be more complex and far-reaching than he imagined.

As can be easily gleaned from the plot synopsis, Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry's script for The Art of War is hardly groundbreaking, and, in all honesty, neither is Duguay's direction of it. But he does make the material quite watchable. The action scenes, many of which are designed to showcase Snipes' martial arts skills, are decently handled, and he comes up with some interesting stylistic flourishes, particularly in one scene where Shaw studies the apartment of a murdered colleague; the use of flashbacks proves to be an economical storytelling device--in this instance, at least.

While Snipes remains convincing throughout the entire film, the film itself doesn't. As is the case with these conspiracy thrillers, there are late-inning twists abound, but the logistics render the already cloudy plot even murkier. The sense of overkill that ultimately does in the script spreads to other areas in the film, including some of the actors (whose names I won't divulge in the interest of protecting plot points). But no one gets infected more than Duguay. His kinetic visuals soon get out of control; the flashback device that had been employed well in the early going gets overused, and for no apparent purpose.other than to show off.

Even if The Art of War didn't lose its way in the end, it still wouldn't be a great film; it's much too standard a genre picture to be something truly special. But considering how right the film feels most of the way, it wouldn't have been too hard for Duguay to make a reasonably satisfying formula film. Instead, The Art of War illustrates how easily one can drop the ball down the stretch.

Love & Sex one-sheet Love & Sex *** Famke Janssen interview Jon Favreau interview
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Speaking from the story perspective, Love & Sex doesn't cover much of anything that hadn't already been addressed in other romantic comedies. But at the center of writer-director Valerie Breiman's Sundance crowdpleaser are the special qualities that would make the most familiar scenario completely fresh: a breakthrough performance by star Famke Janssen; and sparkling chemistry with her leading man, Jon Favreau.

Janssen, most widely known for the empowered female types she's played in films such as X-Men and especially GoldenEye, is a revelation as Kate Wells, magazine writer and perpetual screw-up in the ways of romance. In a role that for once neither relies on her imposing physicality nor stunning beauty, Janssen reveals a beguiling vulnerability and wonderful comic flair as Kate revisits her romantic and sexual misadventures while attempting to write an article about finding the perfect man--a subject that could not be more foreign to her. Nearly every one of Kate's stabs at romance has ended in disaster, from her first crush in elementary school to a fling with a married man, with an ill-advised dalliance with her high school French teacher taking place somewhere in between.

But there was one man who could have very well been "it"--Adam Levy (Favreau), an artist with whom Kate has had her most rewarding and least dysfunctional relationship. Favreau, who was most recently stripped of his innate likability as a one-dimensional tough guy in The Replacements, reminds why his big splash, Swingers, remains an indie fave nearly four years after its initial release. Sporting an unruly haircut with scruffy sideburns and often wearing paint-stained casual wear, his Adam certainly doesn't look like a typical movie leading man--but Favreau's portrayal nails down harder-to-achieve allure: low-key confidence and a down-to-earth, playful sense of humor.

That latter area is where Kate and Adam, Janssen and Favreau, and Breiman and the audience really connect. There is a sense of fun when these two are together, and not the artificially sunny type of movie happiness; just as doing a typically awkward striptease in front of a camcorder is good for a laugh, so are more grounded moments like pointing out each other's physical flaws; nonchalantly doing what would normally be embarrassing in the comfort of bed; and coming up with knowingly dumb yet intimately special terms like "I cheese sandwich you."

But as the film reveals from the beginning, this relationship turns sour as well, and here Breiman also runs into some trouble. Numerous situations come out of the school of sitcom contrivance, such as Kate and Adam trying to make each other jealous by fawning over others; and an all-too-coincidental bump-in between Kate, Adam, and his new girlfriend at a movie theatre.

Those are just the most familiar moments in Love & Sex, which indeed takes a few more steps on a well-worn cinematic path. However, the success of films like these is largely dependent on the stars, and with Favreau and especially Janssen--who should find a host of even more varied acting opportunities open to her after this--striking real sparks, Love & Sex is an engaging and satisfying love story that deserves to break out of the arthouse pack.

In Brief

Bring It On poster Bring It On (PG-13) **
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Bring It On is more of the brightly-packaged, teen-targeted fluff that has been infecting the multiplex like a pox, but at least director Peyton Reed and writer Jessica Bendinger make an effort to distinguish it from the cookie cutter rest. While there is a tinge of romance, this isn't the usual story about a guy trying to get a girl or vice versa. As the film's original title--Cheer Fever--suggests, cheerleading is the focus here, namely the struggles of the improbably named Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) attempts to lead the Rancho Carne Toros to another national championship. What appears to be an ace in the hole becomes a much bigger challenge when Torrance is told by new squad member Missy (Eliza Dushku) the routines that the Toros had used to win title after title in previous years were stolen from the Clovers, the team at East Compton High.

Beyond the fairly fresh cheer angle--which means ample opportunity to trot out some intricately choreographed routines--what distinguishes Bring It On from most teen fare is an uncommonly strong cast. The radiant Dunst once again proves why she's the rare child actor to endure while growing into adulthood; she is nicely supported by Dushku, in a role that is pretty much a mellowed out variation on her recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and Jesse Bradford as Missy's brother and Torrance's not-so-secret admirer. And while her role is only slightly more substantial than her throwaway parts in She's All That and 10 Things I Hate About You (where she was simply the token dash of color), Gabrielle Union nonetheless makes a favorable impression as the Clovers' headstrong leader.

But despite the able cast, some cute moments (especially one between Dunst and Bradford at a bathroom sink), and some impressive cheer routines, Bring It On falters in one crucial area: just about every attempt at humor doesn't work. The annoying kid brother, the cheap slapstick pratfalls, the even cheaper wisecracks, the film's bizarre curtain-raising cheer--whatever is designed to inspire guffaws in the audience simply don't. That wouldn't be a problem if this were a serious film about cheerleading, which the basic elements of Bring It On could have been more effectively used to make; alas, no.

The Crew poster The Crew (PG-13) zero stars
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There must be some strange Y2K curse on stars of The Matrix. First it was the sight of Joe Pantoliano slumming in the wrestling monstrosity Ready to Rumble, then Keanu Reeves lent his renewed career heat to the inoffensive but dismayingly phoned-in formula exercise The Replacements. But no one has been stricken worse than Carrie-Anne Moss, whose follow-up to last year's landmark smash is this putrid comedy, which could also be called Mafia Cowboys. Four geriatric ex-mobsters (Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds, Seymour Cassel, and Dan Hedaya, all overacting as if this were the last job they'd ever land) find themselves back in the game after their scheme to lower their rent by faking a mob hit gets them into trouble with a drug lord (Miguel Sandoval). Complications ensue, none of which are the slightest bit funny nor surprising--the latter being certainly the case with the obvious-from-the-outset connection between Moss' character, a police detective, and one of the four. Even at a lean 88 minutes, The Crew long outstays its welcome.

Solomon & Gaenor poster Solomon & Gaenor (R) ***
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Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is Jewish. Gaenor (Nia Roberts) is not. While that may not be such a big issue (if even one at all) in this day and age, in 1911 Wales, it the makings of a tragic young romance. Writer-director Paul Morrison tells this simple story with a careful attention to realism: the period details are just right; the film is primarily in English, but there is also a fair amount of dialogue in Welsh and Yiddish (thus qualifying it as a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee this year) and it was a good touch to show how the Welsh community's resentment of the Jews stemmed not only from religious differences but also economic issues. In keeping with the sense of reality, Morrison doesn't shy away from scenes of extreme, rather painful to watch brutality, which comes to affect the couple. As dark as it does get, the film is at its core a beautiful, gentle love story, fueled by the palpable chemistry between Gruffudd and Roberts.

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