The Movie Report
Volume 95

#314 - 316
February 22, 2002 - March 22, 2002

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

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#316 March 22, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Blade II one-sheet Blade II (R) ***
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If Blade II has any apparent theme to it, it is this: Wesley Snipes is one badass motherfucker. This becomes abundantly clear during the opening 15 minutes or so, in which his titular vampire hunter makes slick, quick work of doing away with an array of bloodsuckers. That the same idea is reinforced over and over again for the remainder of the film may strike one as being shamelessly indulgent for its producer-star-- and there's no denying that, to a certain degree, it is--but when the finished product is as big of a blast as Blade II, then there's really no point in complaining.

Lest we forget, this is a sequel to the hit 1998 Marvel Comics adaptation centering around a half-human, half-undead superhero, and as such one would only expect all manner of awesome derring-do. Snipes, picking up where he left off in the original film, reminding audiences of the charismatic cool that has too often been lost in some of his more recent efforts (The Art of War, anyone?). Unlike the original film, however, which pitted him against a most unintimidating adversary in Stephen Dorff, the Daywalker faces off against a truly worthy match: the Reapers, a new mutant breed of vampire impervious to both silver and garlic, and hence can only be killed with light.

With so many of these deadly creatures in the wild feeding on both humans and vampires, Blade strikes a reluctant alliance with a group of vampires known as the Bloodpack. As this ragtag group fire gunshots after gunshots at the Reapers, who keep coming in for the kill, Blade II at times resembles Aliens, but director Guillermo Del Toro stages all the mayhem with enough sleek and unique style that it feels fresh and exciting.

While Snipes looks and plays the part well in the film, the real hero of Blade II is Del Toro; he ups the ante from the first film in every respect. The action is more heavily stylized and energetic, not to mention Del Toro gives Snipes greater opportunity to show off his martial arts moves. (Sadly, Hong Kong star Donnie Yen, who appears as one of the Bloodpack, is not given much chance to strut his stuff.) The horror element is a lot stronger, and the new villains are more frightening and gruesome (and, yes, the blood factor is significantly increased this time around). More of a surprise is how the token stabs at drama play quite competently for a popcorn entertainment such as this, and Snipes does expectedly well with the added dramatic meat given to his character. Leonor Varela also does a nice job as the daughter of the vampire overlord (Thomas Kretschmann), and Kris Kristofferson continues to click with Snipes as Blade's mentor Whistler.

Of course, the drawing card for Blade II is not the performances or the writing (David S. Goyer once again pens the script, and once again he does a serviceable job) but the promise of a blood-soaked action/horror thrill ride, and Snipes and Del Toro get the down-and-dirty job done with style.

Ice Age one-sheet Ice Age (PG) ***
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Watching Ice Age, Fox's attempt at breaking the lucrative computer animated feature market, is like watching a greatest hits reel of recent successful animated features: Dinosaur, Shrek, and (most of all) Monsters, Inc. But to complain about the lack of originality is to ignore the real wit and joy behind this very fun film.

One valid nit to pick about Ice Age is the animation by Blue Sky Studios, which has a long way to go before it can compete visually with Disney collaborator Pixar or DreamWorks collaborator PDI. The character work is solid, with all the individual hairs and details on the central trio of slobby sloth Sid (voiced by John Leguizamo), moody mammoth Manfred (Ray Romano), and scheming sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) coming across on-screen with remarkable clarity. Where director Chris Wedge and crew fail are in the settings in which he places the characters. With the title Ice Age, comes a lot of ice and snow, and Wedge fails to keep it visually interesting. The shots of ice cracking look remarkably flat, almost like traditional 2-D cel animation; and a set piece involving lava isn't quite the nailbiter it should be with the molten stuff looking less than threatening. One piece of animation that does make a striking impression is a flashback told entirely through cave paintings, but the scene just brings to mind the more effective hieroglyphic nightmare sequence in The Prince of Egypt.

But it's the characters that matter most in Ice Age, anyway, primarily the mismatched threesome of Sid, Manfred, and Diego. The outgoing Sid's friendliness is a bit offset by his incesssantly chattering ways--which likely accounts for why his family migrated south for the cold season without telling him. That quality definitely accounts for why he so irritates Manfred, whom Sid latches onto as he goes against the grain and travels north. When an abandoned human child somehow comes into their care, Diego joins their fold, offering to lead Sid and Manfred to the humans' camp. In actuality, Diego plans to lead them to his home camp of tigers, all of them hungry for some fresh human--and mammoth--meat.

This group does make a fun comic team, with Sid's wisecracks and bumbling antics playing well off of straight men Manfred and Diego; and the kid is good for some cutesy giggles (though not as much as the unforgettable Boo in Monsters, Inc.). The funniest moments of Ice Age, though, come from sidebars to the main plot. One of the funniest sequences is a visit to a camp of do-do birds, wittily explaining why they were doomed to extinction. Best of all is the running subplot of the squirrel that was prominently featured in last summer's well-received teaser for the film. That spot, with the squirrel attempting to store away an acorn, opens the film, and Wedge and his crew wisely trace his hilarious, movie-stealing travails throughout the film, down to the final frame.

And audiences are certain to enjoy Ice Age down to its final frame. It may not be a film for the ages like the Oscar-nominated Shrek and Monsters, Inc., but it delivers the all-ages, family-friendly entertainment it promises.

Showtime one-sheet Showtime (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Eddie Murphy first utters the signature catchphrase "It's showtime!" within the first ten minutes of Showtime, but audiences will spend the entire film waiting for that declaration to take root. Chalk up another big-name star vehicle that fails to live up to a wealth of potential.

To its credit, this buddy cop comedy is rarely less than amusing, but given that the buddies are Murphy and Robert DeNiro, with the ever-dependable Rene Russo along for the ride as the female sidekick, the should have been more than that. It should be no surprise that Showtime is at its best when director Tom Dey steps back and simply lets the sparks fly between his two stars. Murphy is Trey Sellars, a hammy wannabe actor who bides his time as a lowly LAPD patrol officer. DeNiro is tough detective Mitch Preston, whose no-nonsense ways inadvertently hand Trey his big break. When a TV news crew intrudes on an attempted bust, a frustrated Mitch shoots the camera. The action lands him in trouble with his higher-ups--but in the demand of network television producer Chase Renzi (Russo, largely wasted), who proposes a new reality series centering on Mitch. But for the show to fly, straight man Mitch needs a live wire for a foil. Enter Trey.

This sets the stage for some funny scenes where Trey and Mitch are taught the tricks of the TV cop trade by none other than T.J. Hooker himself, William Shatner, who rather gamely pokes fun at his famously hambone acting approach. As good as these gags are, they feel like they are a warm-up for something bigger, better to come--something that, alas, never comes, for the film rarely ever gets as funny as these sequences. Credited writers Jorge Saralegui, Keith Sharon, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar were apparently of the mind that the mere idea of the cop TV show was strong enough to carry an entire motion picture, giving little thought to the actual crime-solving angle of the buddy-cop formula to which the film so slavishly adheres. Granted, laughs are the primary concern of Showtime, but it's hard to get terribly excited over an elaborate car chase--however technically proficient it may be in execution--when the story behind it is such a dud. For the record, the basic plot has Mitch and Trey attempting to nab a gun-running drug dealer (Pedro Damian). The bad guy is a zero, and the film stops dead whenever Dey shifts the focus from the Mitch-Trey byplay to their ho-hum investigation--which, unsurprisingly yet still rather dismayingly, takes over for the would-be slam-bang final act.

But even the intriguing pairing of DeNiro and Murphy can't prevent even the comedy in Showtime from wearing a little thin. The television satire (aside from the Shatner scenes) never goes above the obvious jokes about image, and in light of that the two stars (and their co-stars, for that matter) are given little more than a single, shallow note to play. Ultimately, Showtime feels far from its name and more like a feature-length coming attractions trailer, striking some superficially eye-catching poses and making promises of more entertaining rewards that never quite arrive.

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#315 March 1, 2002 by Michael Dequina


We Were Soldiers one-sheet We Were Soldiers (R) ***
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When staying true to its title--which, thankfully, is most of the time--We Were Soldiers is an effective war picture, driven by realistic and often horrifying combat sequences. But when screenwriter-director Randall Wallace concentrates his focus on the "Fathers, brothers, husbands & sons" tagline, the film is far less riveting.

Wallace certaintly has his heart in the right place. While warfare dominates the film's run time and the title simply declares We Were Soldiers, Wallace's primary goal is to humanize the men who took part in the first major battle of the Vietnam War, which lasted three bloody days in November 1965. For the film's initial stages, Wallace succeeds. Time is spent showing the soldiers and their families settling into their military housing, and the audience gets to settle into the household of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold Moore (Mel Gibson), his wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe), and their young children. These early scenes reach a payoff with the mostly wordless sequence where Moore and his men leave their families in the middle of the night and depart for the warfront; the minimalism is rather affecting.

Minimalism quickly goes out the window when Moore and his 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry land in the Ia Drang Valley and quickly discover that they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the North Vietnamese troops. Bullets are fired; bombs detonate; and blood and body parts fly in sustained battle scenes that will most certainly prompt comparison to the recently released Black Hawk Down. But unlike Ridley Scott, who presented the action in his film in a matter-of-fact fashion, Wallace isn't above occasionally resorting to easy melodramatic devices, such as cranking up the bombast of the score or using slow motion to punctuate key actions.

Another key difference between that film and this one is that Wallace interrupts the battlefield action with scenes back in the homefront, where Julie takes it upon herself to do the difficult task of delivering telegram death notices. The obvious aim is show the toll of the war on the families and to further keep the soldiers from being completely anonymous, but there's nothing addressed in these scenes that wasn't already conveyed by the opening, pre-war passages. Hence, their purpose seems more to give Stowe and Keri Russell (playing a young army wife) some contractually-obligated screen time--screen time that doesn't feel particularly well-spent for these actresses, given how their talents are mostly squandered in these limited roles.

Similarly, the actors playing the soldiers aren't exactly tested; all Gibson and his cohorts (including Chris Klein, Greg Kinnear, and Sam Elliott, who gets all the good lines) are required to do are look convincing in battle gear and be likable enough presences. At least Wallace doesn't call on the actors playing the Vietnamese forces to be "evil." As in Pearl Harbor, which Wallace also wrote (and has publicly disowned), there are a number of scenes showing the American adversary planning their strategy, but here the Vietnamese forces, including Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An (Don Duong), are not demonized; they are, like the Americans, soldiers simply doing their job for their country--and quite well at that.

We Were Soldiers may not live up to its ambition of being more than a tribute to the courage these men displayed on the battlefield, but at least it gets that job done, painting a horrific portrait of war and an inspiring one of bravery under fire.

In Brief

Monsoon Wedding one-sheet Monsoon Wedding (R) *** 1/2
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Only four days remain before the arranged wedding between Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), and the entire Verma family and their associates all seem to be in the thick of personal dramas that need to be ironed out. Father of the bride Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) must deal with the wedding planner's (Vijay Raaz) escalating charges for the backyard ceremony. The bride's cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) boldly eschews tradition by choosing a scholarly, unwed path and airing some long-buried dirty laundry. Another cousin (Neha Dubey) finds romance with a college student (Randeep Hooda) who has just arrived from Australia; not to be outdone, the wedding planner falls head over heels for the Vermas' maid (Tilotama Shome). Then there's the tiny detail that the bride hasn't quite shaken her married ex-lover.

A film centering on a traditional Indian wedding in contemporary New Delhi may not sound like specialized fare, but Mira Nair's film is an absolute delight for all audiences. Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan make no bones about the feel-good packaging, and their warm embrace of romantic conventions is all the more inviting given the distinctly Indian flavor of their approach. Much like how the New Delhi they present is a mix of old Eastern tradition and modern Western innovation and technology, Monsoon Wedding is strongly infused with an unmistakably exotic Bollywood flair while addressing themes and concerns that are universal--namely, the bonds of family and, most importantly, love.


The One poster The One (PG-13) **
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Jet Li vs. Jet Li. That certainly sounds like an enticing prospect, but Glen Morgan and James Wong, the former X-Files scribes behind this sci-fi adventure, fail to live up to the delicious potential. An evil Li travels between all the parallel dimensions of the multiverse to kill and absorb the life forces of all of his alter egos, but the only obstacle remaining in his quest to become "the one" is... a heroic Li. While they give Li is a number of fight sequences in which to strut his usual stuff, Morgan and Wong lose sight of what makes Li such an appealing star in the first place: his natural athletic ability. However amusing it is to see a superstrong Li pick up motorcycles and smash people with them, they don't pack the same punch as his more straightforward, down-to-earth stunts, which are, sadly, in short supply here. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, DVD also available)

The Criterion Collection

In the Mood for Love DVD In the Mood for Love (PG) full movie review
Criterion Collection #147
Movie: *** 1/2; Disc: ****
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Wong Kar-Wai's award-winning In the Mood for Love is an easy film to admire though not necessarily love on first view. A carefully controlled drama about the buried passion between two neighbors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) in 1962 Hong Kong, the film is all about subtext, particularly as conveyed through repetition, whether it be in music, expressions, actions, dialogue, or entire scenes themselves. On subsequent viewings, what may have initially appeared to be a beautiful yet opaque film grows increasingly intimate--and perhaps a bit more frustrating for hopeless romantics as the passion that is so rigidly contained boils that much more strongly under the gorgeous, genteel surface.

The Criterion Collection's two-disc special edition of the film features, on its first disc, a ravishing digital transfer; the rich, luscious hues of Christopher Doyle and Mark Li Ping-Bin's justly lauded cinematography have been spectacularly preserved. Not to be outdone is the 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack, through which the viewer can appreciate the seductive strains of Michael Galasso's score all the more. The score and other music featured in the film is further highlighted on this disc on an isolated music and sound effects track and a comprehensive interactive on-screen essay written by Joanna Lee; one can access in-film uses of the various pieces she discusses directly from the on-screen text. Galasso and Wong also provide brief text statements on the music. Rounding out the supplements on disc one are two features unrelated to music. One is a short montage of scenes from old Hong Kong films, assembled by Wong himself; the other is collection of deleted scenes viewable with or without some sparse (and subtitled) commentary by Wong. Unlike the excised sequences featured on a lot of DVDs, these scenes are not throwaways, particularly three fascinating ones that would have made a huge difference had they remained: a scene where the attraction is clearly consummated; an alternate ending where the pair run into each other in Thailand; and another discarded ending where the two meet again sometime in the 1970s.

The set's second disc offers a wealth background information that goes beyond the usual cast and crew biographies on standard DVDs (though those are here as well). Also as in many other DVDs, there is a collection of trailers, TV spots, and other promotional materials, but Criterion has gone the extra mile and included examples from a number of countries. In addition to USA Films' domestic trailer and TV spot, there are ones from Hong Kong and France plus a gallery of promotional art from those and other countries. Galleries are also devoted to some unused poster concepts and beautiful stills taken during production, and more images not directly related to the film are offered in "Hong Kong, 1960s," an essay that discusses the time period in which the film is set. A highlight of this essay is footage of a woman being measured for the form-fitting cheong sam type of dress that Cheung sports throughout the film.

The making of the film is covered in a number of individual supplements. Cheung and Leung's press conference for the film at the Toronto Film Festival is included in its entirety. In addition to an English language electronic press kit making-of featurette, there's a 51-minute documentary on the film made by Wong himself entitled @ In the Mood for Love. This mesmerizing documentary traces the film from its conception to premieres around the world. What makes this piece especially interesting is how it gives glimpses into the film's evolution from something, as Leung puts it, "naughty and erotic" to a more subtle and internal film. The deleted footage that is shown in this documentary is nothing short of fascinating due to how radically different the tone of these scenes are from the final film. That one of the featured scenes has Cheung and Leung singing opera together and another shows them playfully dancing to surf music says it all.

Finally, this second disc offers a great deal of background on Wong himself. "The Searcher: Wong Kar-wai" is a comprehensive text overview of his entire body of work, augmented by stills, poster images, and the complete trailers for three of his films: the stunning 1994 martial arts tone poem Ashes of Time; Fallen Angels, his terrific 1995 companion piece to 1994's equally great Chungking Express; and 1997's middling Buenos Aires-set drama Happy Together. Two interviews with Wong are also included, both from the 2000 Cannes Film Festival: one, a lengthy sit-down with unseen French interviewers; the other, his press conference/discussion of In the Mood for Love.

Rounding out this impressive package is a 48-page booklet containing a statement by Wong, another essay about the film, and as Liu Yi-chang's "Intersection," a short story that inspired and influenced the film.

Specifications: 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen; Cantonese & Shanghainese 5.0 Surround; Cantonese & Shanghainese Dolby Surround; removable English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/USA Home Entertainment)

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#314 February 22, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Dragonfly one-sheet Dragonfly (PG-13) *
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With his once-blazing career in deep freeze (has it really been ten years since hits such as Dances with Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK, and The Bodyguard put him at the top of Hollywood?) it would figure that Kevin Costner would attempt a thaw with a supernatural thriller. After all, Bruce Willis made his umpteenth career comeback with The Sixth Sense; Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer each had their biggest hit in years with What Lies Beneath; and Nicole Kidman finally proved her mettle on her own with The Others. While those films had capable stylists and craftsmen behind them (M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Zemeckis, and Alejandro Amenábar, respectively), Costner has turned to Tom Shadyac, he responsible for the first Ace Ventura film and, most recently and inexusably, Patch Adams. Is it then any wonder that Dragonfly fails at just about everything it sets out to do, least of all kickstart Costner's flagging career?

Shadyac apparently believes that the same principles behind his comedic early efforts, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor, apply to straight drama: that is, to make everything broadly over-the-top. This approach, slathered on so thickly in the treaclefest known as Patch Adams, is very much in evidence in Dragonfly. Despite the ad campaign and the thriller veneer, this film is very much a syrupy melodrama in the Patch vein. Costner plays Joe Darrow, a doctor haunted by the memory of his also-doctor wife Emily (Susanna Thompson) some months after her death in a tragic bus accident in Venezuela. But it could actually be Emily herself doing the haunting, for strange occurrences begin to happen at their house and the hospital where they both work. Joe becomes convinced that Emily is trying to send him a message from the great beyond. Universal has gone to great pains to tell media not to reveal anything about the ending or other twists along the way, but suffice it to say the nature of the message is not exactly disturbing--though one can say it's disturbingly saccharine.

Shadyac and credited writers David Seltzer, Brandon Camp, and Mike Thompson create exactly one creepy moment: a child who has flatlined suddenly, if very expectedly, comes back to life with a freaky bug-eyed expression. Shadyac works the usual ghost story motions--darkened hallways, mysterious noises, etc.--but any hoped-for jolts are telegraphed. Not that these would-be jolts are in heavy supply, for draining the scare potential is the fact that the ghost is a friendly one to say the least. Given how much is made about how Joe and Emily loved each other so, the audience knows that he's never in any danger.

What Costner and everyone else is in constant danger of is spouting some awful dialogue. The exposition is especially clunky; take, for instance, this less-than-graceful line delivered by Joe's neighbor (Kathy Bates) after she says something to him she shouldn't have: "You'd think a professor of law would be a little more precise in her language." As if we didn't get the message loud and clear, in the next scene the Bates character actually says to Joe, "Remember, I'm a lawyer."

At least Bates strikes the right balance of earnestness and humor in her performance; the same can't be said for Costner. In keeping with Shadyac's "more is more" manifesto, he overdoes Joe's increasing hysteria. But leave it to Costner to overact and somehow be insufferably dour at the same time. It's performances like these that make it so easy to forget that, when he wants to, Costner can indeed act and be an appealing star. One wonders, though, based on his recent work like Dragonfly, if Costner himself has forgotten how to hold the screen.

Queen of the Damned one-sheet Queen of the Damned (R) **
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For months, rumors had persisted that Queen of the Damned, the screen version of Anne Rice's novel, was headed straight for video. Now, in the wake of star Aaliyah's untimely death last August, Warner Bros. has bitten the bullet and unleashed the much-delayed vampire thriller in theatres, and this is a case where bad buzz and diminished expectations have worked in a film's favor.

Now, don't get me wrong--Queen of the Damned is not a good film, but it's definitely a watchable one, which is more than I can say about some films the studio has recently released without so much as batting an eyelash (Summer Catch and A Walk to Remember come most immediately to mind). With this belated second screen installment of the adventures of Rice's vampire Lestat, director Michael Rymer has made a visually handsome film, nicely designed and intriguingly stylized, particularly in its depiction of the vampire attacks, which are not overly bloody but no less intense for it. Similarly, stars Stuart Townsend (as Lestat) and Aaliyah (as vampire queen Akasha) are definitely are not hard on the eyes.

However, looks, as they say, aren't everything. Queen of the Damned is not so much based on Rice's third Lestat novel than it is an amalgam of the second (The Vampire Lestat) and the third. As such, a number of events and characters are included but explored with little depth and almost as little clarity. After years of solitude in his crypt, Lestat is awakened in 21st century New Orleans by the strains of rock music. Before long, Lestat himself, craving the attention and worship, becomes a music superstar, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone and getting frequent MTV airplay. This doesn't sit well with his undead brethren, who are incensed by Lestat's blatant breaking of bloodsuckers' code of anonymity. Meanwhile, a young woman named Jesse's (Marguerite Moreau) fascination with Lestat becomes obsession when she reads his journal, which recounts his centuries-ago origin by vampire Marius (Vincent Perez) and his inadvertent awakening of Akasha, mother of all vampires. As Jesse meets and grows closer to Lestat and his big concert date approaches, Akasha and various other vengeful vampires move in for the kill. And I haven't yet even mentioned Jesse's family of vampires or the Talamasca, the group of paranormal watchers to which Jesse belongs.

But Rymer isn't too concerned with all the plot screenwriters Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni have crammed into Queen of the Damned. He's more interested in striking stylish, sometimes campy, poses, particularly with his two top-billed stars, who certainly are up to that easy task. Townsend exudes predatory pansexual decadence more strongly than Tom Cruise ever did as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, and he strikes easy sensual sparks with Aaliyah, who clearly relishes the opportunity to literally strut her stuff in her surprisingly limited amount of screen time. As amusing as it may be to watch for a while, such superficial posturing grows old quickly, making for a film that is far less than satisfying. The greatest disappointment, though, is that their talents were largely left untapped in this film--most dismaying, of course, in the case of Aaliyah, who was not given a chance to further build on the promise she displayed in Romeo Must Die. Such a shame that a film as mediocre as Queen of the Damned has to serve as her final film legacy.


Cinderella II: Dreams Come True VHS The Hunchback of Notre Dame II VHS Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (G) *
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (G) zero stars
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The awful Peter Pan sequel Return to Neverland may have been bumped up to theatrical release status, but that doesn't mean that Disney doesn't have a number of other straight-to-tape sequels to their animated classics waiting in the video release wings. In the next couple of months, no less than two cash-in follow-ups will be hitting shelves: Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.

If Disney's 1950 favorite Cinderella proved that "a dream is a wish your heart makes," then Cinderella II: Dreams Come True proves that a nightmare is a wish a studio's wallet makes. In their latest direct-to-video attempt to cash in on a movie classic, Disney proves all too painfully why fairy tales end with "happily ever after" instead of "to be continued."

There's no convincing reason for Dreams Come True to exist--a fact that appears to not be lost on the filmmakers themselves, for they've barely come up with enough story to fill up 73 depressing minutes (including credits). The film is really a collection of three short vignettes that take place in the Cinderella universe after the ending of the original film, strung together by a weak framing device where Cinderella's mice friends make a storybook with the help of the fairy godmother. Cinderella is the main character in only one segment--the shortest and weakest one at that-- which speaks volumes. Her story is a boring bit where she shakes up the royal status quo by inviting commoners to a palace gala she has to arrange. Parties also figure prominently in the two other stories: in the second, one of her mice friends is given the chance to live as a human thanks to the fairy godmother; in the third, Cinderella's stepsister Anastasia falls in love with a common baker, much to dismay of the gold-digging wicked stepmother.

Along the way, the viewer is "treated" to Saturday morning-level animation and forgettable new songs--including a truly horrifying end credits dance pop revamp of "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo"--warbled by "teen sensation" Brooke Allison. (Never heard of her? Join the club; she's not even Hoku, let alone Britney, on the ladder of teen pop prominence.) So one looks to the stories to for something, anything of interest, but there just lies more boredom. That each of these stories lead to predictable conclusions isn't so much a problem than the fact that they all lead to the *same* conclusion: be true to yourself--keep it real, if you will. If only the studio heeded the same advice and left well enough alone, leaving the magic of the original Cinderella untainted.

To this day I believe that Disney's surprisingly dark 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the great unsung gem of the modern Disney animation boom, a film that would find due appreciation as the years go by. But leave it to the Mouse to sully the film's reputation by churning out a totally unnecessary direct-to-video sequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.

The original Hunchback was one of the most--if not the most--visually stunning of the recent Disney animated features, so it's especially dismaying to watch the first few frames of Hunchback II, which, like all straight-to-tape cheapie Disney sequels, was made at the studio's television animation crew in Japan. The color palette is remarkably muted, even incorrect at times (gypsy performer Clopin's clothes are the wrong color; Esmeralda's skin tone shifts from scene to scene); and the figures and objects lack detail, a critical problem since one of the keys to the story is an ornate new bell at the Notre Dame cathedral. An evil circus leader named Sarousch (voiced by Michael McKean) wants to steal it, and he enlists his assistant Madellaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt, who also performs the syrupy end title ballad) to get close to it by charming bell ringer Quasimodo (Tom Hulce, returning). Of course, she starts to develop actual feelings for the lovable hunchback, who, having won the love and acceptance of society at the end of the last film, is ready for a little romance.

As can be gleaned, this sequel is strictly standard fare, devoid of any of the qualities that made the first film so special. In addition to the inferior look, the love story lacks the bittersweet complexity of the original's Quasi-Esmeralda-Phoebus triangle. The latter two (voiced respectively, once again, by Demi Moore and Kevin Kline) are shunted off to the sidelines in this installment, married and saddled with a young son named Zephyr. (Haley Joel Osment voices the moppet, and leave it to the Disney direct-to-video crew to turn this terrific actor into another annoying child star.) Sarousch is also an incredibly dull villain, easily no match for the first film's deliciously diabolical judge Frollo. Then there's the matter of the music. Alan Menken's dense, choral-heavy orchestrations are gone in favor of forgettable, soft-pop melodies accompanied by equally forgettable lyrics. It's quite a comedown to go from Stephen Schwartz's poetic, sometimes profound lines such as "It's not my fault/If in God's plan/He made the Devil so much/Stronger than a man" to Hunchback II's "He's fa la la la fallen in love."

Disney adapted the original Hunchback into an acclaimed and successful (and even darker) stage production in Berlin a few years ago, but it has yet to expand beyond Germany. That Disney has chosen not to go further that project and instead push the crappy yet sure-to-sell The Hunchback of Notre Dame II to the masses shows just how much the studio is ruled by the quick, almighty dollar. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment, DVD also available)

Longshot VHS Longshot (PG-13) no stars
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Crossroads may mark Britney Spears' first starring role in a film, but it is not the first feature in which she's appeared. That distinction belongs to Longshot, a comedy in which Spears and many of her teen pop brethren (including all five *NSYNC-ers) make cameos. Filmed in 1999 (at least most of it--more on that later), it is only now receiving a straight-to-tape release. Given how absolutely wretched this movie is, I'm sure Spears and other bit players hoped the film would never see the light of day.

...especially the *NSYNC guys, for the film was produced and co-written by their former manager/teen pop svengali Louis Pearlman (who himself has a cameo as a police chief). But Pearlman should thank his lucky stars that he was able to convince them and Spears to take part in the film, for those are its only weak selling points. The story, for those who may be interested in what the film is actually about: an L.A.-based personal trainer (Tony DeCamillis, who also produced and co-wrote with Pearlman--which explains why he's the star) is blackmailed by a shady businessman (Paul Sorvino, whom I hope was paid well) into seducing a wealthy widow (Hunter Tylo, from daytime's The Bold and the Beautiful) to obtain inside information. Needless to say he ends up falling for her, and the same happens between the widow's teenage daughter (Shana Betz) and the trainer's younger brother (Joey Schulthorpe), who has been suffering from confidence problems after missing a potentially game-winning shot in a big school basketball game.

The story proper is every bit as boring as it sounds, helped in no way by the astonishingly untalented leads. DeCamillis is nothing more than a bland slab of beefcake, falling back on gratuitous shots of his shirtless physique when all else fails (and does it ever, and quite often). The longhaired, charisma-free Schulthorpe appears to be a Pearlman music "discovery"; how else to explain his painful karaoke number midway through the film, later reprised music video-style before the closing crawl? Thankfully, the movie's small-scale release virtually ensures that these two will never be heard from again.

Pearlman and veteran video director Lionel C. Martin seem all too acutely aware that they have two duds front and center as they pack just about every empty corner of each frame with a celebrity cameo. Not just Pearlman projects hot (Britney, *NSYNC), lukewarm (LFO, they of the infamously non sequitur lyrics), and ice cold (Take 5, Innocense, C-Note) turn up in odd walk-on roles, but also other kitsch stars: Dustin Diamond, KC of the Sunshine Band fame, even Kenny Rogers. Yet Pearlman apparently didn't think those names filmed in '99 were enough of a distraction from the godawful goings-on, for his newest creation, reality TV stars O-Town, have been shoehorned into the movie by way of some awkwardly spliced-in bookend sequences.

So unless the thought of seeing Britney playing a flight attendant or Justin Timberlake done up in full parking valet regalia (perhaps these will prove to be eerily prescient sights in five to ten years time?) sounds like exciting entertainment, by all means check out Longshot. Otherwise, the chance of this being worth your while is, indeed, a longshot. (Spartan Home Entertainment, DVD also available)


Peter Pan DVD Peter Pan Special Edition (G)
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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Not so coincidentally arriving in stores at the same time as its sequel, Return to Never Land, arrives in theatres is a new special DVD edition of Disney's classic 1953 animated version of Peter Pan, which the studio had released as a "limited issue" barebones disc a couple of years ago. While not exactly the fully-loaded platter that this timeless picture deserves, the new disc is a worthy digital keepsake of the film.

The transfer doesn't appear any different from the one on the previously released disc, and that is just fine. It's a clean transfer, glowing with vibrant colors that are as magical as anything Tinker Bell does; the remastered 5.1 stereo sound makes it that much more enticing to sing along with such Disney standards as "You Can Fly" and "Following the Leader."

One is actually encouraged to do so with the latter song in one of the disc's special features, a karaoke-style song clip taken from a volume of the Mouse's Sing Along Songs video franchise; the muddy color and sound of this clip highlights just how much work went into restoring the film. A read-along "DVD storybook" and the "Pirate Treasure Hunt" game are the other two supplements geared toward the youngsters.

Adult animation fans are catered to by the remaining supplements. Two short (about 15 minutes each) making-of featurettes are included: one is a recently produced retrospective featurette called "You Can Fly! The Making of Peter Pan"; the other, "The Peter Pan Story," is more fascinating as it was produced at the time of the film's original release. While each of these featurettes are informative in their own ways, the real treat for Disney buffs is the audio commentary. Hosted by Roy Disney, this non-screen-specific interview clip job features input from animators Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, and Ward Kimball; film historians Leonard Maltin, John Canemaker, and Keff Kurtti; Tinker Bell model Margaret Kerry; Wendy model and voice actress Kathryn Beaumont; and Walt Disney himself, who, in his brief sound bite, interestingly admits to not emotionally connecting with the film. Juicy insights like those are plentiful in the track, even if some of the snippets overlap with or are recycled from the "You Can Fly!" featurette.

Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; English 5.1 Surround; French and Spanish mono; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment)

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