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The Movie Report
Volume 80

#264 - 265
December 21, 2000 - January 1, 2001

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

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#265 January 1, 2001 by Michael Dequina


All the Pretty Horses poster All the Pretty Horses (PG-13) **
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If there's anything Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses can't be accused of, it's having a title that lies. From its first image of lovely equine specimens charging along, the horses are indeed pretty--not just a few, but all of those seen in the film. In fact, with a few exceptions (to be addressed later), the images in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bestseller are absolutely stunning to behold.

That said, all the other charges commonly leveled against this film--slow, dull, etc.--are not simply justified, but wholly, richly deserved. Much ink has been spilled on how director Thornton initially turned in a four-hour cut of the film, which so freaked original U.S. distributor Columbia that they switched domestic duties with their co-producer, Miramax, which was originally set to handle the international push. While the uninvolving slog that is Horses' current incarnation doesn't exactly whet my appetite for a director's cut DVD, I can certainly see that longer version being a better film.

That's because Horses, as it stands, appears to be a hollow shell--the frame of a story that either hasn't had a chance to fully gestate or a more full-bodied beast that was ultimately stripped down to the bare essentials. Given the film's well-publicized history, the latter is more than likely the case. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young man in 1949 Texas whose lifelong ranch home is being sold by his mother following the death of his grandfather. So Cole and his best friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) head south of the border in search for some adventure, but instead they find trouble--first in the form of a hotheaded teen companion named Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black)--and, for Cole, romance: namely, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of the wealthy man (Rubén Blades) who owns the ranch where the pair eventually settle.

The pacing is slack, but Thornton and scripter Ted Tally's basic narrative flow is fine and fluid as the story moves from its varied and well-photographed (by Barry Markowitz) locations: the vast Texas expanse; the ranch in Mexico with its (yes) pretty horses; the dark, dirty prison where Cole and Rawlins find themselves with Blevins later in the story. Yet the film feels like a series of Big Dramatic Moments strung together, skipping over the smaller details that gave said moments resonance in the first place. This is especially the case with the dud that is the Cole/Alejandra romance, which is uncomfortably thrust into center stage in the final act. I'm guessing that in the film's longer version, the love story feels less forced--maybe even not at all--and the intended emotional connection between the lovers and between them and the audience registers more strongly.

Or perhaps it doesn't, for based on what made this cut, the casting of inexplicable Next Big Thing Cruz is a lost cause. It's not so much an issue of she and Damon not having chemistry--and let it be known that together they are as exciting as watching paint crack and peel--than it is her performance in general (though she can cry on cue very well): stiff; robotic; flat as her body. That leads me to another big element of the mystifying hype surrounding Cruz; she has to be the most unattractive so-called "beautiful" person to grace the screen in ages. Thornton's often close-up camera is incredibly unforgiving on her not-even-close-to-being-as-pretty-as-the-horses face, and the crows whose feet are planted around her eyes squawk for makeup assistance.

The other principals in the cast are better, but not too much better. The work of Damon and Thomas leans more toward the functional than exceptional side, with Thomas making a stronger impression in a fairly thankless part. Trumping both of them in a sadly smaller part is Black, who, with his strong work dating all the way back to his days on the short-lived mid-'90s TV series American Gothic to Thornton's own Sling Blade, is clearly someone to keep watching in the future.

All the Pretty Horses is not a complete waste; there are some gorgeous moments of visual poetry, and even with little to no context to support them, some of those Big Dramatic Moments are striking. But neither is the film the grand yet intimate epic that Thornton obviously strove for--at one point it may have been, but after seeing the release cut, I imagine most viewers won't spend much, if any, thought on that now-moot issue.

An Everlasting Piece poster An Everlasting Piece (R) ** 1/2
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If for nothing else, young actor Barry McEvoy certainly earns points for finding a new and unusual way of addressing the oft-explored issue of the Northern Ireland Catholic/Protestant conflict in his script for An Everlasting Piece. Fortunately, there is more to savor in Barry Levinson's film of McEvoy's script--though those charms aren't quite enough to take this modest comedy over the top.

Interestingly enough, the term "over the top" is one that really cannot be applied to the film, a fairly surprising fact given its wacky premise. Sometime in Belfast during the 1980s, Colm (McEvoy) and George (Brían F. O'Byrne)--a Catholic and a Protestant, respectively--meet on the job as barbers in a mental hospital and become fast friends. When they learn that a recently admitted patient aptly nicknamed "the Scalper" (Billy Connolly) was the only toupee salesman serving all of Northern Ireland, Colm and George see an opportunity to make it big as his piece-pushing replacements. That's easier said than done, for the newly-christened "Piece People" (as Colm and George come to call themselves) aren't the only team with the same idea--emerging from nowhere are the equally enterprising but superior salesmen operating under the eyecatching name Toupee or Not Toupee.

Colm and George's biggest obstacle, however, ultimately proves to be their differing religions. That fact may not be an issue to them or their families, but it's the only one to the Irish Republican Army, namely one member (Colum Convey) with whom the pair come into close contact. It's a credit to McEvoy and Levinson that the film smoothly slides from light laughs to heavier material without a hint of awkwardness. Also contributing greatly is the cast of mostly fresh faces, who are adept at handling both the comic and the dramatic. More than holding her own with the instantly likable pair of McEvoy and O'Byrne is the delightful Anna Friel, who makes Colm's girlfriend Bronagh as smart as she is spunky and sexy.

Despite the cast's considerable charm, An Everlasting Piece still falls short of the mark. McEvoy, while displaying promise as a writer, is at this point more skilled with his acting instrument than he is with a pen. His lively sense of humor makes for a number of amusing sequences, but sometimes these scenes are inconsequential diversions; case in point, a broad scene where Colm's mother mistakes a stranger sleeping outside the house for his younger brother. Also, the character of the Scalper is rather clunkily kept in the action far longer than necessity requires, sticking around for no real payoff.

Now and again, though, McEvoy serves up some pointedly, sometimes absurdly, funny moments, such as Colm and George's initial encounter with the IRA man; and his passionate concern over the Northern Ireland issue shines through. Similarly apparent in An Everlasting Piece are the high spirits with which all involved approached the project, making this easygoing entertainment that more impossible to hate. It's unfortunate, then, that some shortcomings also make this undeniably likable and sometimes lively film difficult to completely embrace.

Traffic poster Traffic (R) ****
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Featuring well over one hundred speaking parts over the course of a running time that just misses the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Steven Soderbergh's sprawling drama Traffic is indeed jam-packed, but never does it reach a stall. This saga of the so-called "war" on drugs is a masterwork of superb performance, smart writing--and, most of all, the mark of a director who not only knows what he wants, but also exactly how to make his ambitious vision a glorious reality.

Unlike most multicharacter pastiches, such as the ones made by Robert Altman, or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, the characters of Traffic's three tales don't constantly crisscross, nor are they all brought together by a big event. Intersections are rare in Traffic, and the junctions that do occur are often fleeting. Yet the stories are strongly linked by their greater thematic concern: to vividly illustrate how the drug problem touches all corners of the country, all walks of life, from people on the harsh urban streets to those in lavish upper-class neighborhoods. Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan, working from the '80s British miniseries Traffik, steadfastly refuse to force easy, comforting conclusions from difficult and complex situations; as in real life, one is left to decide for oneself who or what is right, and what it all means.

While Traffic is essentially about the war on drugs in America, the film's starting point is the almost-exclusively south-of-the-border (and nearly all Spanish language) story of Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro, doing away with his annoying tics and delivering a career performance), an average Tijuana State policeman who is given the opportunity for greater prestige by working for General Salazar's (Tomas Milian) efforts against the drug cartels. Just north of the border in San Diego is the setting for another thread, in which very pregnant European émigré Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones, her real-life condition adding a deeper layer to her role) learns that the pampered lifestyle provided by husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) comes from dabblings in drugs, not legit business ventures. The film also travels a bit northwest to Cincinnati, the third central locale, where Caroline (Erika Christensen), the teenage daughter of newly-appointed U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), brings her father's enemy much closer to home than he could have ever imagined.

Soderbergh effortlessly weaves the individual strands into a tapestry that is at once cohesive and characterized by its contrasting colors. The latter can be taken in a literal sense--Soderbergh, under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" (his father's name), shot the film himself, and he gave each part of the film its own distinct look: grainy, washed-out yellow for Mexico; a solemn blue sheen for Cincinnati; sun-drenched full color for San Diego. Each, of course, is representative of the prevailing mood: the arid amorality of the drug underworld; the sad desperation of daughter and father; the sparkle of a too-good-to-be-true standard of living. The intimacy and realism of the characters and their situations, aided immeasurably by Soderbergh's hand-held documentary-style lensing, smooth out any possible seams between the pieces.

Traffic may sound like a grim exercise in arty pretense, but the weightiness of the subject matter doesn't necessarily keep the film from being an accessible entertainment. This element is largely satisfied in San Diego, where Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman make a crack seriocomic team as DEA agents surveilling the Ayala home and protecting a key witness (Miguel Ferrer); this thread also delivers its share of unpredictable twists. The other two sections are by their very basic premises--power struggles between drug lords and overmatched law enforcement, teen substance abuse--darker and hence less open to offering more standard genre satisfactions, but the performances make them instantly absorbing.

It is easy, almost too easy, to peg Traffic as merely being a statement on the futility of the war on drugs. Yes, once boiled down to the bare essentials, that is what the stories are about; yet the film's essence are its painfully, truthfully imperfect people, who show how everyone, knowingly or not, in some way becomes a casualty and a perpetuator of the war machine. With its wide focus, Soderbergh's film is technically epic in scale, yet Traffic derives its lasting power from the savvy notion that sheer size is no match for urgent, true-to-life immediacy.

In Brief

The Claim poster The Claim (R) ***
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The claim of the title is a plot of land in the Sierra Nevada mountains, on which the ambitious Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) singlehandedly built the town of Kingdom Come. Some years later, in 1867, the town's survival depends on whether the under-construction Central Pacific Railroad will pass through--a decision to be made by surveyor Dalglish (Wes Bentley). But along with the arrival of the railroad crew comes young Hope (Sarah Polley) and her sick mother Elena (Nastassja Kinski), and the resurfacing of these two women in Dillon's life forces him to confront a more pressing matter from his past.

The Claim is director Michael Winterbottom's second shot at filming a novel by Thomas Hardy (Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay takes its inspiration from Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge), but this effort lacks the devastating emotional punch of his previous adaptation, 1995's Jude. This film, however, gets under the skin in a more subdued way, namely through Mullan's subtly anguished turn as the deeply remorseful Dillon, who tries to reclaim the soul he lost when he made the fateful land transaction. The others in the cast fare well, even Milla Jovovich as the prostitute to whom Dillon will give land but not his heart; however, despite their admirable individual turns, Bentley and Polley disappoint as a romantic pair. Nonetheless, the emotions of the piece are as palpable as the neverending snowfall, stunningly captured by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler.

Malena poster Malèna (R) ***
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It begins like a bawdy youth sex comedy, albeit one with an inordinate amount of class to the presentation, not to mention Italian subtitles: a not-quite-teenage boy named Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) experiences an awakening in his hormones when he first joins his peers in their daily gawkfest of Malèna (Monica Belucci), the town beauty whose husband is away at war. A visible erection is just the beginning for Renato, who then has naughty fantasies about the older woman and even goes as far as stealing her undies from a clothesline.

But more than about a boy becoming a man, Giuseppe Tornatore's film is also about the power of perception, and how most flippant of nasty speculations can send someone toward destruction. Malèna barely speaks a word in the film, but Belucci makes a role that is written as a symbol into a full-blooded person, thus lending her side of the story real pathos. Renato's story--in particular how his raw lust develops something deeper and heartfelt--is also touching, but despite being the real center of the film, he is not nearly as compelling a character. Even so, Tornatore's gentle lyricism makes the entire film an overall engrossing and entertaining watch.

Shadow of the Vampire poster Shadow of the Vampire (R) ***
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Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the star of F.W. Murnau's (John Malkovich) silent bloodsucker classic Nosferatu, was in fact a real vampire. It's a delicious speculative premise, but one that also seems awfully thin, and even at a slim running time of 89 minutes, E. Elias Merhige's film displays obvious padding (Exhibit A: the prolonged, if mood-setting, main title sequence). That said, this strictly-for-the-cinéastes fantasy is wild, warped fun, due in part to Steven Katz's witty script, but mostly due to the heavily-made-up Dafoe's inspired performance. Malkovich, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, and the others in the cast do a terrific job, but it's Dafoe's indelible turn that will keep this Shadow from fading away.

Thirteen Days poster Thirteen Days (PG-13) ***
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Roger Donaldson's drama about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is gripping stuff--and how could it not be, the tense, nearly-two-week period during which the U.S. teetered on the brink of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a thriller in itself. The film is suspenseful and efficient--to the point that it feels like a soulless, though remarkably well-calibrated, machine. The most successful touches of humanity come in the subtle shadings of the performances by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, both quite good as the Kennedy brothers, President John F. and attorney general Robert F., respectively. Less successful are writer David Self's blatant shots at a "human" dimension; the domestic scenes involving close Kennedy advisor Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), his wife (Lucinda Jenney), and his children are the only times the film comes close to being melodramatic. But at least those tedious passages--and the sickeningly sappy dialogue that closes the film--aren't as bad as Costner's not-at-all convincing attempt at a Boston accent. Miraculously, though, Donaldson directs with such vigor and precision that such liabilities barely detract from the enjoyment of this slick work of filmmaking.

Vatel poster Vatel (PG-13) **
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Sometimes films released just in the nick of time for awards consideration leave you wondering exactly what kind of honors the studio is trying to win (or, in some cases, whose ego the suits are trying to appease). Roland Joffé's visually resplendent costume drama leaves no doubt as to what the mighty Miramax machine is gunning for: an Academy Award nomination in the art direction category. Such a nod is a worthy cause for the brothers Weinstein's famously aggressive campaigning tactics, for the production design by Jean Rabasse is indeed a sight to behold. Not only does his work simply get all the 17th Century France period details right, certain sets show amazing imagination and creativity. One early sequence features one particularly spectacular set, where pieces in a garden fall away and interlock into a completely different type of setting altogether--that of a lavish party.

But Harvey and Bob shouldn't bet on pulling off any Cider House Rules-style multiple nomination miracles for what is, impressive production values aside, a stillborn piece of work. Vatel is, as stated in a large title card, "a true story" (as opposed to “interesting story,” but more on that later) about François Vatel (Gérard Depardieu), master steward to the Prince de Condé (Julian Glover). When King Louis XIV (Julian Sands) and his large entourage pay a visit to the Prince's countryside home, it's up to Vatel to not only come up with scrumptious meals but present them in nothing less than the most flamboyant manner possible. But Vatel soon finds his attention diverted from his work by the elegant Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman)whom the King targets as his latest mistress. What’s more, Anne is also the apple of the eye of the devious Marquis de Lauzon (Tim Roth), an aide to the king.

The Vatel/Anne relationship is at the center of Vatel, but it never strikes any sparks nor registers any interest from the audience, due to sketchy characterizations and the less-than-stirring pairing of Depardieu and Thurman, who don’t appear terribly comfortable with each other, let alone themselves. Depardieu struggles with the English language dialogue (written, with only a touch of his celebrated wit, by Tom Stoppard, adapting Jeanne Labrune’s original screenplay), and Thurman, looking quite refined, is also as chilly and remote as that term implies. Only Roth and Sands display signs of life in the designated “showy” roles, and Roth--who gives the film’s most interesting performance--is onscreen just little enough to show how listless most of the film is. Period costume dramas are always expected to offer opulent pageantry, but in the case of Vatel, that’s all there is.

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#264 December 21, 2000 by Michael Dequina


Cast Away poster Cast Away (PG-13) ***
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Given that Cast Away's entire story course is indiscreetly divulged in its trailer, it is easy to blame the Fox marketing department for the air of disappointment that comes with watching the film. And, indeed, they do shoulder a lot of the blame, for the story holds absolutely no suspense for anyone who's seen the widely-played trailer; the outcome is never in doubt, and at times it is possible for one to count the minutes before certain already-known plot points occur.

That latter scenario is possible, but not probable, and that is due in large part to Tom Hanks, who reteams with his Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis for this ambitious drama. A large portion of the film is a one-man show, and Hanks more than pulls off the difficult, often wordless task. Since he has won so many awards for past work, it is tempting for skeptics to turn their noses up and gag at the prospect of yet another Oscar nomination for Hanks. But his terrific work here, coming with the seal of approval of the New York Film Critics Circle (who awarded him their Best Actor trophy this year), is proof positive that he is one of the most gifted and versatile acting talents of our time. It just so happens that he has won a number of accolades for past work and that he is enormously popular with the general public.

Hanks plays Federal Express employee Chuck Noland, whose workaholic tendencies tear him away from girlfriend Kelly Frears (a simply adequate Helen Hunt) and onto a Malaysia-bound plane on Christmas. The plane goes down, as does everyone on the plane save Chuck, who is left to fend for himself on a deserted island. With only a volleyball companion named Wilson by his side, Chuck undergoes a years-long emotional and psychological transformation that is even more dramatic than his physical one.

Zemeckis plays the engrossing Chuck-on-the-island meat of the film perfectly--as in, as close to reality as possible. There is no score, just the ambient source noise of the largely sun-drenched setting. He and writer William Broyles Jr. also don't employ a voiceover or, even worse, make Chuck think out loud; like anyone in his situation, Chuck does utter a word here and there--mostly when overcome by emotion or excitement--but for the most part, he remains silent. Again, credit goes to Hanks for clearly conveying those thoughts in his face without speaking a single word.

As I have stated earlier, the Fox marketing department is not the only target for blame over Cast Away's underachievement. Make no mistake--the film is a fascinating and thought-provoking entertainment, propelled by one of the best performances of the year. But it never quite develops into the great film that it, at times, flirts with becoming, and that is due to the script. I won't pull a Fox myself and give away how the film turns out, but the resolution of the film and to the provocative issues it raises is rushed, overly tidy, and not completely satisfying. Instead of soaring from the strong buildup that preceded it, the ending just coasts along on the good will it fostered in the previous passages.

Who does soar, however, is Hanks, and his already-complex performance just deepens in the final act. On paper, there isn't much to Chuck, yet the viewer grows to care a great deal about him. Part of that can be written off as a side benefit of Hanks' innate likability (which has never been more valuable to a role), but like any great acting display, Hanks fills in the blanks and brings the character to full-bodied life. Cast Away may ultimately underachieve, but the soul that Hanks brings to the role--and the film--must not be underrated.

The Gift poster The Gift (R) ** 1/2
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The modestly budgeted The Gift marks a homecoming of sorts for director Sam Raimi, who returns to his roots in the cinema of the supernatural after a largely lambasted spin on the big-bucks mainstream field with the Kevin Costner starrer For Love of the Game. But unlike his landmark Evil Dead splatter laffer series, Raimi is going for straight-faced chills this time around--in a way, melding his flamboyant Evil Dead instincts with the more cerebral thriller elements he successfully tried on for size in A Simple Plan, his big studio breakthrough. To twist a tired cliché, the whole is a step short of the sum of its parts.

One of the strongest parts in question is the central performance of Cate Blanchett, shedding her usual period piece garb for the role of Annie Wilson, a widowed mother of three sons in modern-day Brixton, Georgia. The gift of the title is Annie's clairvoyance, which enables her to earn a modest living as a psychic reader despite the protests of the town's more religious residents, who see her ability as the work of the Devil. When Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a vivacious young member of Brixton high society, mysteriously disappears, Annie's gift forces her into a prominent--albeit reluctant--place in the investigation. Blanchett's modulated turn is key to the psychological horror of the piece; her controlled work as Annie finds herself increasingly unable to control or make sense of her visions adds a layer of subtlety that not only makes the proceedings a bit more unsettling but also consistently grounded in a convincing reality.

For the most part, Blanchett's co-stars provide able support. The big surprise is Keanu Reeves, a real embarrassment as a villain in the atrocious-as-a-whole The Watcher, in the role of this film's main baddie, hot-tempered redneck Donnie Barksdale (a part that would have been a perfect fit for one of The Gift's writers, Billy Bob Thornton). As Donnie's abused wife and Annie's loyal client Valerie, Hilary Swank makes an impression--unfortunately, however, one not as strong as the one left by the ridiculously awful hair extensions she wears. Holmes memorably reveals another side of herself in every sense as the sexy Jessica, and Greg Kinnear is ideally cast as her nice guy fiancé (though one wonders why he's the only guy in town without an accent). Sticking out like a sore thumb from the rest of the cast is Giovanni Ribisi, who plays a troubled young mechanic befriended by Annie. Ribisi is a talented actor, but he has a tendency to fly way off the handle if not held properly in check--and that is the case here; it's hard to believe that his scenery-devouring turn once generated some Oscar buzz.

And any preliminary awards buzz The Gift may have once had is ultimately done in by Thornton and Tom Epperson's script. To their credit, they do succeed in setting up the flavor of this tiny Southern town, and the character of Annie and her plight are well-drawn before Blanchett's performance is factored in. But the film is more a genre piece than anything else, and it's under these more modest demands that the script falls short. While a few of the puzzle pieces come together in an interesting way and there is the occasional creepy sequence (though a lot of the credit for both goes to Raimi's ever-inventive visuals), the film's central mystery is less than one. The revelation of the person responsible for Jessica's disappearance isn't so much a twist as an inevitable, easily foreseeable turn; a fairly humdrum climax fails to compensate for the disappointing lack of surprise--rendering this Gift more akin to a lump of coal, albeit one with an uncommonly inviting sheen.

In Brief

Chocolat poster Chocolat (PG-13) **
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Like the confection it's named after, Lasse Hallström's '60s-set cinematic bonbon is every bit as sweet--and, unfortunately, every bit as sticky. Whether or not viewers end up licking their fingers to pick up the scraps (as many do through out the film's admittedly easygoing two hours) depends on their tolerance for a different type of sugary sin: syrup.

The sentiment laid on as thick as the chocolate that practically dares viewers to to keep their mouths from watering. Similarly delectable is Juliette Binoche, radiant as ever in her first English-language role since winning the Oscar for The English Patient. She plays Vianne, a free spirit who, along with her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), blows into a deeply religious French village with the north wind and proceeds to shake up the status quo after opening up a chocolate shop during Lent. Despite some initial stares and whispers, the spell of "unrefined cacao with a pinch of chili pepper" predictably becomes too hard to resist for many, most prominently Vianne's cranky landlady Armande (Judi Dench, phoning it in and snagging a Golden Globe nomination anyway), who is estranged from her daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss, severely out of her dramatic depth) and grandson (Aurelien Parent Koenig); and Josephine (Lena Olin), who is inspired to leave her abusive husband (Peter Stormare), the local café owner. Naturally, such sweet indulgence doesn't amuse the uptight mayor (Alfred Molina), who will stop at nothing to close down la chocolaterie and put people back on the pious path. But will he see the light--er, taste the chocolate? Is Hershey based in Pennsylvania?

The story is already formulaic as it is, but someone came up with the bad idea of shoehorning in a romantic subplot for Vianne that feels just that--uncomfortably wedged in. A vaguely Irish river rat named Roux (Johnny Depp) stops by to drum up more prejudice in the already broadly drawn mayor, dance with and kiss Vianne, then depart as suddenly as he arrives, leaving nary a trace behind. But I suppose Hallström felt that with all the other types of warm fuzzies he covers--mother-daughter, grandmother-grandson, friend-friend--he might as well drop in good ol' man-woman cuddlies between glamorous movie stars. I can understand and even appreciate Hallström's aim of making a nice, fairy tale-like picture for the holiday season, but even the most warmhearted intentions can be too much, and Chocolat takes that extra step into overkill.

The Family Man poster The Family Man (PG-13) **
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I don't know about any of you, but I'm getting a bit tired of the whole "split life" gimmick that has become a popular device in recent film. This soggy holiday feel-good enterprise doesn't do anything to make me less restless. Nicolas Cage stars as a single Wall Street hotshot who is given a glimpse of the domestic life he almost shared with his long-abandoned college sweetheart (Téa Leoni) by a mysterious stranger (an underused Don Cheadle). Self-absorbed attitudes disappear in favor of warm fuzzies. Wonderful. The actors, with the exception of the insufferably cloying young actress who plays Cage and Leoni's daughter (did she weawwy need to pwonounce aww huw "r"'s and "l"'s wike "w"'s?), do what they can with the formulaic pap, but Ratner isn't a capable enough director to work the alchemy needed to make this cheese into gold.

Finding Forrester poster Finding Forrester (PG-13) ***
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A talented young writer from the inner city (Rob Brown) is taken under the wing of a reclusive, Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Sean Connery)--who himself learns a few things about friendship and life in general. Director Gus Van Sant has made no bones about this drama's similarity to his 1997 Oscar winner, Good Will Hunting, and indeed the unshakable air of repetition (of Good Will and elements of Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman) weighs the film down. Yet Finding Forrester makes its own distinctive magic, and that's less the doing of Van Sant and writer Mike Rich than the two perfectly paired stars. Connery adds layers to a part that could have been simply played as a typically cantankerous codger; Brown, in his acting debut, displays the balance of book smarts, street smarts, and vulnerability that is crucial to the part. Their shared refusal to sentimentalize their many scenes together make the film's tugs at the heartstrings, while completely expected, quieter and, hence, that much more effective.

The House of Mirth poster The House of Mirth (PG) *** 1/2
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Positioning a lavish adaptation of a literary classic for maximum awards consideration is hardly a risk, but Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's tale of merciless high society has one huge gamble at its center: playing heroine Lily Bart, an eligible young New York socialite in the early 1900s whose dramatic fall from grace provides the film's tragic plotline, is none other than Gillian Anderson, best known as the ultracontemporary Agent Dana Scully on the ultracontemporary TV series and feature film The X-Files. In the first scene, the gamble seems to be a complete loss, with Anderson appearing to lay on the haughty act a little to thick. As Lily engages in playfully flirtatious conversation with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), her shamefully un-wealthy true love, Anderson seems to feel as awkward as the audience does in these initial stages; the sight of Anderson all buttoned-up and carrying a parasol is one that needs some adjusting to.

But as Davies slowly but very effectively unfurls the story, Anderson seems more and more right for the role, until at one point she is simply perfect. This is not, however, a case of the actress gradually settling into her role than the audience making the break from preconceived perceptions. What appeared to be unfortunately over-the-top in that first scene reveals to be a deliberate and quite smart acting choice; the people in this world live or die by their perception in society, and Lily is simply maintaining her armor as being oh-so-desirable and oh-so-unattainable by the unmoneyed likes of Selden--even if she would like nothing more than to fall into his arms.

Despite her chilly, savvy, confident veneer, Lily is quite warm, naive, and vulnerable at heart, and it is the presence of a conscience that makes her ruin that much more devastating. While the unwritten rules of society and its practitioners undoubtedly contribute to its creation, the trap in which Lily eventually finds herself is just as much her own doing, and Anderson's three-dimensional portrayal (particularly her expressive face) reflects a deep reservoir of self-aware regret; the poignance of her work is as remarkable as it is surprising. Less shocking is the superb work of Laura Linney, who caps off a banner year with a hiss-worthy turn as Lily's dangerous "friend." Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Jodhi May, Elizabeth McGovern, and Terry Kinney round out the eclectic cast, and they all deliver. Like most costume dramas, The House of Mirth progresses at a slow pace, but it's difficult to imagine the effect being quite as strong if it were tightened; ultimately, each passing minute equates to another cruel twist of the knife, and the audience cannot help but be riveted.

Miss Congeniality poster Miss Congeniality (PG-13) ***
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Comedy premises rarely come less brain-taxing than this: a brash, tomboyish FBI agent must be remade as a glamourpuss to infiltrate the Miss United States beauty pageant--the latest target of a mad bomber. Numerous fish-out-of-water gags ensue, as do even more contrived instances of slapstick and some forced stabs at a romantic subplot. But somehow, some way, it works, and it's not so much due to the product than its spirited salesperson: producer/star Sandra Bullock, who has given her impeccable skills as a comedienne their best showcase in years. Though it takes some doing to make the luminous Bullock look the slightest bit unattractive (and, indeed, director Donald Petrie doesn't succeed here), she is game enough to make herself look like a buffoon and crank up Agent Gracie Hart's abrasive qualities at the beginning--but no so much as to render the character irredeemable (see: David Spade in The Emperor's New Groove); much like her beauty, her natural charm can't be muted, either.

While a few of their roles call for more smarm than charm, Bullock's supporting cast lends her solid support. Michael Caine nicely underplays the inherently ridiculous role of a flamboyant pageant contestant svengali; William Shatner is perfect as the pageant's emcee by simply being himself; Candice Bergen is a nice fit as the pageant's high-strung head (and one-time winner). Fitting nicely with Bullock in that forced leading man role is Benjamin Bratt as fellow agent Eric Matthews; though the eventual (inevitable?) romantic angle is entirely superfluous, the pair's rapport--established seven years ago when they were prominently featured unknowns in Demolition Man--lends spark to their sparring, however dubiously motivated it may be. Something similar could be said about the film itself; its story is far from logical, let alone realistic, yet we laugh and completely buy into the fun.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? poster O Brother, Where Art Thou? (PG-13) ** 1/2
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No one but the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, would dare pull off a Depression-era quasi-musical based loosely on Homer's The Odyssey. And no one would likely get as far with that out-there premise as they do here, but, sadly, not even their distinctly off-center sensibilities can make it a complete success. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson play escapees from a chain gang on a long journey home--in the Clooney character's case, home to his wife (Holly Hunter) and children. These three make a good team; the likes of John Goodman shine in smaller role; and the Coens fill the movie with lots of toe-tapping bluegrass tunes. But despite some distinctly Coen-esque touches as staging a Busby Berkeley-style, ahem, Ku Klux Klan rally, the film seems strangely sedate and bloodless. Stranger still, the film is something that can actually carry a label that one wouldn't ever think could be attached to a Coen film: pleasant. That, of course, is not a bad thing, but this lightly engaging trifle could have been more fun with a greater helping of their antic spirit.

Pollock poster Pollock (R) **
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The role of Jackson Pollock is an actor's dream. Not only is he a bona fide artist (insert the obvious acting/fine art comparison here), he is a pioneer in his field, shaking up the American and global art world in the 1940s with revolutionary abstract paintings made without ever having his brushes hit the canvas. Furthermore, he is a tortured soul: he has a severe drinking problem, which constantly puts stress on his delicate relationship with his long-suffering wife, artist Lee Krasner (another juicy part). To top it off, he suffered an untimely death in a car wreck.

Ed Harris spent years trying to bring Pollock's tale to the screen, and so strongly did he feel about the project that he decided to take up the directing reins himself. But passion can easily lead to self-indulgence, and that is certainly the unfortunate case here. To be fair, Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Lee, aren't given much help by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller's script. There are some interesting, observant moments; especially sticking out in the memory is a sequence where the now-famous Pollock's family comes to visit him and Lee in their Long Island home, and it's clear that fame has gotten to both of their heads. Most of the time, though, it's Pollock painting (or, rather, dribbling paint onto) his canvases, Pollock making an abrasive spectacle of himself, or he and Lee having yet another shouting match.

Some curious directorial choices also don't quite work--chief among them a strange flashback framing device that serves no discernible purpose, and a conclusion that certainly ends the film but not necessarily resolves it. Not even the usual byproduct of actors directing, uniformly strong performances, is completely in evidence here. Those in smaller roles, such as Jeffrey Tambor, Jennifer Connelly, Amy Madigan, and Bud Cort, are effective, but the two lead performances aren't. Despite all the accolades she has received, Harden's performance, like that of Harris--though to a lesser degree--is squarely from the "scream for an Oscar" school of acting. With any luck, Academy members' advanced median age will mean they won't be able to hear their shrieks.

South of Heaven, West of Hell poster South of Heaven, West of Hell (R) *
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Sharon Stone once likened dating Dwight Yoakam to "eating a dirt sandwich." Viewing the country singer-cum-actor's directorial debut, it's apparent that Stone was being too kind--after all, watching Yoakam's film doesn't mean spending any close, personal time with him, and the experience is like eating a shit sandwich.

After making a surprisingly chilling force of evil in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, Yoakam, who also co-wrote, makes a disastrous transition to lead status as Val Casey, the marshal of a small western town in the early 1900s. After his shady adoptive family, led by "brother" Taylor (Vince Vaughn, miraculously emerging with his dignity intact), blows in and out of town and leaves a number of dead bodies in their wake, the action picks up a year later with Val in another town, romancing a newly-arrived actress (Bridget Fonda, looking understandably distracted) who is passing through. Alas, anything resembling bliss for Val is short-lived, for his past demons--namely, that old gang--materializes once again.

The basic description of the script, co-written by Yoakam and Stan Bertheaud, sounds simple enough, but it doesn't quite convey what a complete mess this film is. From a structural standpoint, the film has no logical flow, jumping to different locations in space and time with little explanation and less sense. Particularly baffling is what happens after the one-year time break: a strange, wacky interlude involving a government agent (Bud Cort) looking for Val in his old hometown--which points up another of the film's basic problems: an unevenness in tone. Interminably earnest and dull scenes featuring the morose Yoakam jar against the over-the-top eccentricities that sometimes appear in the same scene, such as a sidekick who likes wearing dresses to the ridiculous sight of Thornton himself turning in a cameo in a long blond wig. This, in turn, underscores Yoakam's basic problem: not knowing when to quit--that is, in terms of filmmaking, for his catatonic performance shows that he gave up on acting long before he stepped onto the set. Quirky would-be jokes wear out their welcome quickly; the tiresome revenge "drama" progresses so slowly that the film ends up running a torturous 139 minutes. The title may be a cutesy joke describing someplace close to hell, but make no mistake--this film is hell.

State and Main poster State and Main (R) ** 1/2
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The cast for this moviemaking satire is impeccable: Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Julia Stiles--and that's just a start. With zinger master David Mamet at the pen and the helm, what could go wrong? Well, technically, nothing does; it's just that the film barely seizes upon its potential. With the arrival of the cast and crew of a Hollywood period drama in the small town of Waterford, Vermont comes that of a whole lot of drama: the big star's (Baldwin) scandalous taste for nymphets; the starlet's (Sarah Jessica Parker) sudden refusal to do nudity; the honorable writer (Hoffman) overwhelmed by last-minute rewrite demands from the hard-driving director (Macy) and the even harder-driving producer (David Paymer). Thus are Tinseltown archetypes set up to be cut down by Mamet's rapier wit. Yet the good individual moments (in particular the quiet scenes between Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays a local book store owner) and the absence of a single bad performance cannot make up for the startling shortage of genuinely cutting remarks (one of the few delicious bites is a running gag about the dubious "associate producer" credit), which makes the film one giant testimony to unmet potential.

TV Sets

(get it? TV "sets"? ha ha... er, never mind)

Cosmos DVD Cosmos
Disc: *** 1/2
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Cosmos, the 13-episode astronomy series hosted by the late Carl Sagan, was a landmark for a number of reasons, the most prominent being two: (1) in terms of television, it is the most-viewed series in the history of the Public Broadcasting System; (2) it made the often mystifying study of the stars accessible to a wide mainstream audience. The latter point is somewhat of a surprise on a fresh viewing 20 years after the series' original broadcast. The obviously knowledgable Sagan sometimes comes off as smug, a matter not helped by his florid, often-overcooked prose of his narration. But perhaps compensating for that was his boundless enthusiasm, not to mention his easy-to-grasp presentation of facts and speculation as being part of--as the series' subtitle states--"a personal journey."

Since the issues addressed in Cosmos are of a universal concern, Cosmos Studios has made this lavish anniversary DVD package truly accessible to all nations: the seven discs are Region Zero, meaning they are playable on any DVD machine across the globe; the simple but effectively clean menus also come in a variety of languages, and subtitles are provided in seven different tongues. Providing a new taped introduction--and a driving force behind this set--is Sagan's widow and series collaborator Ann Druyan.

Numerous scientific discoveries have taken place since Cosmos originally aired in 1980, and effort has been made to keep the information as up-to-date as possible. Updates featuring Sagan himself (appearing dismayingly aged and frail) taped for the series' rebroadcast in the early '90s follow many of the individual episodes. But in keeping with Sagan's attention to detail, there is also a viewing option where one can view relevant, updated facts as subtitles that appear throughout all the episodes. However, it must be said that these subtitle revisions are fairly few and far between--showing just how right Sagan got the facts the first time around.

The seven discs come in a handsome, compact multiple gatefold/slipcase package that resembles a book, making it a natural to sit alongside Sagan's bestselling companion tome in a home library.

Specifications: English 5.1 Surround; 5.1 Surround music and effects track; English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese subtitles. (Cosmos Studios)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer DVD Frosty the Snowman DVD Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Disc: ***
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Frosty the Snowman / Frosty Returns
Disc: **
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It's hard to imagine a holiday season without the timeless animated specials created by the team of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. Yet it wasn't until 1964 that their perennial stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit the airwaves on CBS; their other song-inspired favorite, the traditionally animated Frosty the Snowman, followed five years later. That both of these specials still retain their charm and all-ages appeal decades--not to mention continue to post solid ratings--after their original broadcasts speaks volumes about the imagination and genuine heart that were put into these works.

The better and more beloved of the two, Rudolph, not surprisingly receives the more deluxe digital treatment. In addition to a remastered version of the original 1964 version of the show, there is also the "Fame and Fortune" musical number that was inserted into later broadcasts, original television spot, an extensive trivia quiz, and an interesting introduction by Rankin, who sheds light on not only on production details but ruminates on the themes of the piece. Both subtitles and closed captions are provided, but an extra step toward teaching children to read is also included: ReadSpeak Action Captions, which shows each word coming out of character's mouth as they speak.

Rankin also provides an intro, albeit a much briefer one, on the more barebones Frosty disc. His comments and an early pencil test for the show's animation are the only real supplements provided. Apparently as some type of compensation, the 1992 "sequel" Frosty Returns is included as a "bonus." The disc producers would have been better off leaving it out. Frosty Returns has none of the spirit of the original, and it sacrifices the original's warmth and innocence for a smartalecky tone--not a shock, considering that it was produced by Saturday Night Live guru Lorne Michaels and Rankin and Bass are nowhere to be found in the credits. Even worse, the well-known "rules" of Frosty's existence are disrespectfully thrown out the window; on more than one occasion he removes his hat--and still remains alive. Hello?

Rudolph specifications: English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English ReadSpeak Action Captions; English closed captioning. Frosty specifications: English Dolby Surround; English closed captioning. (Golden Books Family Entertainment)

The Sopranos season 1 DVD The Sopranos The Complete First Season
Disc: *** 1/2
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Being one of the unfortunate few deprived of cable television, I had not been able to see for myself the award-winning tube sensation that is The Sopranos. But thanks to HBO's beautiful and comprehensive box set of the celebrated mafia drama's debut season, people like myself have an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. These hype-justifying thirteen episodes, providing an engrossing and often wickedly funny introduction to the professional and domestic troubles of mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), are spread across four discs and featured for the first time in widescreen, which is apparently its original format (curious, considering this is a made-for-small-screen project).

While just having all these episodes in a pristine digital form would have been enough for the series' large following to pick up a box, HBO did put in a fair amount of effort into the presentation. The discs feature nice fully animated and scored menus reflecting the energy of the series; there are also fairly detailed episode synopses and all the "previously on..." and "next on..." recaps and previews. However, supplementary material is a bit wanting. The running commentary on the pilot by series creator David Chase and second season guest star Peter Bogdanovich is a glazed-over letdown; better, however, is the one-hour-plus sit-down interview/discussion between the two. Two behind-the-scenes featurettes are included along with this lengthy talk on disc 4, but these segments are obviously culled from the series' electronic press kit--which should give an indication as to how probing they aren't.

But it's hard to argue with a set whose programming is of such high quality, not to mention one featuring such gorgeous packaging. The discs are housed in gatefold packaging featuring slick artwork; this piece is, in turn, housed in a larger, sturdier box, complete with a ribbon for easy pull-out access. It's a fittingly classy presentation for one very polished show.

Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; Spanish mono; English closed captioning. (HBO Home Video)

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