The Movie Report
Volume 96

#317 - 319
April 5, 2002 - April 19, 2002

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

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#319 April 19, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Murder by Numbers one-sheet Murder by Numbers (R) **
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Murder by Numbers is everything its title implies, a standard-issue crime drama spat out from the Tinseltown assembly line: it gives a name actor a showcase role (and an executive producing credit); its designated surprises are anything but; its intended shocks fail to offer a jolt. But that doesn't necessarily make Murder by Numbers an awful film; it's certainly watchable, but it never escapes its paint-by-numbers design.

Certainly adding to the watchability factor is Sandra Bullock. The typically perky star gives an uncharacteristically subdued turn as homicide detective Cassie Mayweather, whose no-nonsense attitude on the job extends to all other areas of her life--as her new partner (and all-too-easy seduction target) Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin) quickly discovers. But Bullock's fairly convincing work is in service of a character type all too familiar: the cop whose distant demeanor hides deep emotional (and, for good measure, actual physical) scars. The formula would not be complete if Cassie's current case didn't in some way dredge up memories of her dark past, and indeed the brutal murder of a young woman proves to hit a bit close to home.

If only Murder by Numbers weren't about Cassie and simply about the crime--or, better yet, the criminals. The murder was carefully planned and orchestrated by two high schoolers, one a cocky rich kid (Ryan Gosling), the other a more bashful, brainy type (Michael Pitt). Whenever director Barbet Schroeder and writer Tony Gayton shift the focus to the complex relationship between these two, the film breaks from the normal thriller mode and flirts with becoming something more smart and interesting. The teens' story may be another cinematic variation on the 1924 Leopold & Loeb case (in which two youths attempted the "perfect" crime), but the well-cast young actors' performances lend their side of the film an air of freshness.

But it's never long before Cassie blows back into the picture and Murder by Numbers falls back into the expected paces. Whether it be her acute investigative instincts latching onto sharp ideas that somehow no other cop can seem to grasp, that shady past creeping into her thoughts, or predictable twists unraveling right on Screenwriting 101 schedule, Cassie's mere appearance brings with it a whole lot of formula baggage that prevents the film from ever becoming more than an average time-killer.

The Scorpion King one-sheet The Scorpion King (PG-13) *
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Hollywood action would-be blockbusters are, by their very definition, the most shameless of commercial enterprises, concerned more with raking in as much cash as possible than actual quality. That said, such films generally make at least some marginal attempt to justify their existence in a cinematic sense, whether it be interesting action scenes, special effects, or whatever. Director Chuck Russell and everyone else behind The Scorpion King fail to even deliver a "whatever"--unless you count the utterances of that which will surely emit from the mouths of moviegoers nationwide once the closing credits start rolling.

Give the film a stray thought, and the entire enterprise comes crashing down; after all, the project is built upon a foundation of absurdities. It's a spin-off vehicle for a character from The Mummy Returns--and a relatively briefly seen character at that, not to mention one that ultimately turned out to be that film's main villain. But most of all, the movie is designed to be a showcase for pro wrestling superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and everyone knows that charisma and popularity in the squared circle doesn't necessarily translate to the big screen. Raising even more questions is The Rock's very fleeting and highly forgettable portrayal of the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns; after all, the character's most memorable moments belonged to an all-CGI incarnation at movie's end, and his fleeting and forgettable few minutes in the role at the movie's open didn't exactly make one clamor for a larger taste of what The Rock could cook on the big screen.

That taste, as provided in The Scorpion King, isn't all that bitter, however. The Rock fulfills the bare minimum requirements of his role, which is to be a believable physical presence in the many action scenes and recite his lines competently. One would have gotten a better idea as to whether or not he can really act, though, if the filmmakers weren't also just interested in fulfilling bare minimums. The film takes place many years before The Mummy Returns, and the Akkadian warrior Mathayus is out to kill the evil conquerer Memnon (Steven Brand). That's the entire story, and from there Russell should have theoretically taken over and served up energetic, exciting action scenes and impressive special effects. But all the swordplay and mayhem lie flat on the screen, offering nothing particularly interesting in how it all is staged and shot. The only action sequence leaving any sort of impression is memorable for all the wrong reasons: a campy, pro-wrestling-like brawl between The Rock and co-star Michael Clarke Duncan (who plays a fellow warrior).

Pity poor Duncan, a likable and gifted actor who deserves better than playing a secondary banana to The Rock; ditto the stunning Kelly Hu, who is given absolutely no opportunity to show off her extensive martial arts training as Memnon's scantily clad sorceress. Mathayus kidnaps her as part of his master plan, and before long her chastity-powered psychic abilities are put into jeopardy as she finds herself drawn to her studly captor.

That last line makes The Scorpion King sound like one of those deliciously bad movies, but those amusingly cheesy touches are drastically outnumbered by the fizzled jokes (supplied by Grant Heslov as Mathayus' deathly unfunny sidekick) and uninspired set pieces that make the sub-90-minute run time feel far longer than it is. The Rock indeed lays the smackdown on the audience in The Scorpion King, but hardly in the way he intended.

In Brief

Chelsea Walls one-sheet Chelsea Walls (R) *
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If the walls of the Big Apple's famed bohemian residence the Chelsea Hotel could talk... you'd want them to shut the hell up--that is, if they sounded anything like the incoherent and indulgent gibberish that fills the air in Chelsea Walls. Ethan Hawke's screen adaptation of Nicole Burdette's play follows the lives of a number of Chelsea residents--a couple of female poets (Rosario Dawson and Uma Thurman), an artist (Vincent D'Onofrio), a jazz singer ("Little" Jimmy Scott), a pair of musicians (Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn), and an author (Kris Kristofferson)--yet the film is oddly lacking in story and character. The cast members take their turns exchanging platitudes with each other or directly to the camera, and what exactly it's supposed to mean and who exactly these people are supposed to be are anyone's guess. Character arcs and general narrative progression are indecipherable, with often only isolated scenes making any sort of sense or impression, such as the Thurman character's phone argument with her unseen boyfriend (voiced by Hawke himself) or a psychiatry session with one of the Kristofferson character's lovers (Natasha Richardson). However, these scenes, like any other halfway memorable moments in the film, are due more to the acting than Burdette's script or Hawke's direction. Hawke and Burdette were obviously trying to make some kind of cinematic tone poem, but as is most commonly the case with projects of such noble and lofty ambitions, Chelsea Walls is less poetic than simply pretentious.

Joshua one-sheet Joshua (G) *
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Hope has a name, and apparently (as goes the film's tag line) it's Joshua. That's what the residents of a small town discover when a mysterious stranger (Tony Goldwyn) comes into a small town and proceeds to change the lives of everyone around him. He starts small, by first setting out to rebuild a church and then carrying a big log across town all by himself, the latter causing much excitement and amazement among the townsfolk. But that feat of seemingly superhuman strength is just a warm-up for the real miracles: restoring a blind woman's sight and even bringing a man back from the dead.

Could it be that Joshua is the second coming of Jesus Christ? That the film is produced by an outfit called Epiphany Films and is based on a novel by a Father Joseph Girzone should be an easy tip off. That should also be a tip off as to how overblown and (bad pun intended) preachy the proceedings get. I have no objection to films whose aim is to reaffirm religious faith, but more often than not these films engage in Bible-thumping overkill, and Joshua is no exception; any attempts at nuance given by the capable cast (which also includes Stacy Edwards as a young widow and F. Murray Abraham in Salieri mode as a priest who questions Joshua and his unique talents) is drowned out by director Jon Purdy's sledgehammer sap, which commonly manifests itself by way of Christian pop star Michael W. Smith's maudlin instrumental and song score.

Purdy, screenwriters Keith Giglio and Brad Mirman (the latter of whom also wrote--yes--the sleazy Madonna sextravaganza Body of Evidence), and the others behind Joshua obviously mean well, but their treacly tactics ultimately undermines their intent. If they really have that much belief in their message of faith and hope, then they should have trusted its power enough so as to exercise restraint. There's a fine line between inspiration and manipulation, and from its first frame, Joshua crosses it and never looks back.

The Triumph of Love one-sheet The Triumph of Love (PG-13) ***
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The princess (Mira Sorvino) of an unnamed kingdom has fallen head over heels for her supposed enemy Agis (Jay Rodan), the son of the king the princess' father overthrew. She wants nothing more than to declare her love for him--and, as proof, abdicate the throne to him--but standing in her way are Agis' protectors, the stern philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his spinster sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), who have not only conditioned Agis to hate the princess but also to not believe in love. What's a poor, besotted princess to do? Why, what anyone else would do--disguise herself as a man to win over Hermocrates and Agis through their minds and Leontine through her heart.

And so ensues cross-dressing-caused confusion and comedy as only an 18th century theater farce would play out--meaning suspension of disbelief is very much required, particularly whenever the very feminine Sorvino is supposed to be taken for a man. But neither that conceit nor the period setting give The Triumph of Love a certain distancing effect; it's Clare Peploe's stagy direction. Despite being shot on location at a beautiful Italian villa and its lush surrounding grounds, the action feels confined and claustrophobic, a fact not helped by Peploe's curious and distracting decision to occasionally insert shots of an audience watching the goings-on.

But if Peploe seems strangely intent on keeping the viewers at the cinema at an arm's length, the actors do their best to bridge that gap, and ultimately it is they who prevail. That Sorvino is quite unconvincing as a man is beside the point; her sincerity, enthusiasm, and comic timing provide ample explanation as to why all the other characters so easily fall for hers. Kingsley obviously has a lot of fun sending up his Serious Actor image as the comically pompous Hermocrates, and Shaw is hilarious and touching as the affection-starved Leontine. The weak link is pretty boy Rodan, but considering the role requires him to do little more than look good and bare his buttocks, his casting is not too much of a problem. The Triumph of Love is, indeed, a triumph of love: love of performance, love of joy, and, above all else, love of love itself.

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#318 April 12, 2002 by Michael Dequina


Changing Lanes one-sheet Changing Lanes (R) ***
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Any film bearing the tag line "One wrong turn deserves another" seems crying out to have that bit of ad copy flipped around in a review, but the gritty drama Changing Lanes doesn't entirely allow itself to such a glib put-down. While Roger Michell's film does indeed take a bad detour in its home stretch, it is on the whole a brisk and absorbing morality play.

Perhaps a more accurate term would be "immorality play," for the film traces one long day in which two men engage in an ever-escalating battle of nasty one-upsmanship. The lives of slick young attorney Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and insurance agent Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) literally come crashing together on a New York City highway. Gavin, wrapped up in his personal concerns--namely, a pressing court date--drives away from the accident scene without leaving his insurance information with Doyle, let alone offering the stranded man a lift. What Gavin does leave with Doyle, albeit inadvertently, is an important case file that he is ordered to recover by the end of the day.

Doyle doesn't make such a simple task easy for him, for Gavin's selfishness forces Doyle to miss an important child custody hearing with his estranged wife (Kim Staunton). Doyle tells Gavin that he wants his time back in exchange for the file, but as pride and misunderstanding quashes any stray compassionate thought and prods each man to retaliate against the other in increasingly dramatic ways, just exactly what one wants from the other gets lost in the cruel posturing.

The moral ambiguity of the characters is the chief strength of the screenplay by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin; there is no clear cut good or bad guy in the piece. With no less than his family, financial health, and sobriety at stake, it's easy to side with Doyle, who is clearly the victim of Gavin's foolishly flip action (or, rather, inaction). However, given the irrational behavior he continually exhibits as the film progresses, one can see why his wife would want to protect their children for him. Similarly, Gavin is revealed to be a sleaze not so much by nature than by nurture. Gavin is joined to his high-powered firm not only professionally, but personally as well--his boss (Sydney Pollack) is also his father-in-law--and hence any unethical influence is exerted on him that much more strongly. Whenever Gavin's conscience leads him on the brink of a selfless decision--which is more often than one would suspect--there's always someone all too eager to set him back on a shady course. The details in characterization make the preposterous progression of events believable.

Also helping immeasurably in that area are the actors; these are meaty, demanding roles, and both above-the-title stars are up to the challenge, using their signature screen personae to their advantage. Jackson effortlessly wins audience sympathy early on, but the volcanic rage for which he is known can always be felt bubbling under the surface, lending a dangerous undercurrent to his character's growing desperation. Smirky cockiness has become Affleck's onscreen signature, and in the early stages he intensifies it to nicely smarmy effect--and the extremes of the act make sense when it becomes apparent that he is actually much more vulnerable person, more or less conditioned into such an oily mode of behavior.

One of the main themes of Changing Lanes is the evil nature of the world and how easily it can corrupt people, but leave it to Tinseltown to provocatively address such an issue and then clean up its moral mess with a needlessly tidy sign of hope at the close. Michell would have been wiser to instead go with the more bitter, better ending note that comes about five minutes prior to the existing conclusion, but perhaps it's expecting too much from a major Hollywood production to carry out its story's inherent cynicism straight through to the end. As it stands, though, Changing Lanes already exceeds expectations, provoking serious thought while skillfully telling a compelling, character-driven story.

The Sweetest Thing one-sheet The Sweetest Thing (R) * 1/2
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Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, and Thomas Jane. They, and the chemistry between them, are the only sweet things about The Sweetest Thing, a sour attempt at making a Farrelly Brothers-style, down-and-dirty laugher for the female set.

There are isolated moments of humor in The Sweetest Thing, but like the actors they are all in desperate search for a story--or, rather, an actual movie. Writer Nancy Pimental has earned a lot of hype and press for her million-dollar-selling script, and this film makes one question every single one of those facts. The sliver of a story follows the love-'em-and-leave-'em Christina Walters (Diaz) and her best friend Courtney (Applegate) as they travel to crash the wedding of the brother of Paul Donahue (Jane), a guy whom Christina met once at a club. That's it. But even as an excuse on which to hang a number of risqué gags--a number of which involve Christina and Courtney's seemingly more demure pal Jane (Selma Blair) and either cocks, cum, or both--it's still remarkably thin. At a lean 84 minutes, the film feels incredibly padded out, and director Roger Kumble (the man responsible for the trashy guilty pleasure that was Cruel Intentions) strangely makes no bones about it; at one point, Christina and Courtney ask each other, "Do we have time for a movie montage?" before launching into a superficially amusing but highly hokey modeling scene that parodies a few popular films.

What makes the lack of inspiration all the more disappointing is the appeal of the three principals. Diaz is luminous, but she--like everyone else--doesn't have much of a character to work with, and Christina's arc is sketchy at best. She and Jane strike believable sparks in Christina and Paul's big meeting scene, and they do a deft job of delivering Pimental's few witty passages of repartée, but they only share two scenes, total, in the entire film. Diaz spends most of the film with Applegate, and they have an unforced, cutesy girly-girl best friend rapport, but one wishes Kumble and Pimental gave them more to do than just goof off and make faces at each other and the audience, often while delivering lame dialogue such as (in reaction to seeing Jane's boyfriend nude) "Oh my cock!" But at least they're given something to do, which is a lot more than can be said for an insultingly wasted Parker Posey as a nervous bride.

Every now and again a genuinely fun gag slips through the cracks, such as a most unlikely communal sing of Aerosmith's drippy, Oscar-nominated Armageddon love theme, "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing." But jokes like those--that is, ones that are funny and a bit spontaneous and surprising--are just one of many things in incredibly short supply in The Sweetest Thing, and for a film that's supposed to be an outrageous comedy, that has to be the most crippling deficiency.

In Brief

Frailty one-sheet Frailty (R) *** 1/2
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Bill Paxton's directorial debut is one of the most unsettling horror films in recent memory, and that it deeply disturbs without ever resorting to graphic gore is a testament to Paxton's natural ability as a filmmaker. Paxton himself stars as the single father of two young boys who claims that God has chosen him to rid the world of demons roaming the earth in human form. This tense tale of faith and cold-blooded serial murder is told to an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) in the present day by his now grown-up eldest son (Matthew McConaughey). Despite memorable work by both McConaughey and Boothe, the framing story devised by writer Brent Hanley seems to be, more than anything else, an excuse to lay on a few ending twists too many; the film runs on about five minutes too long, missing the opportunity to go out on a wonderfully orchestrated crescendo of terror and shock.

But the film isn't necessarily about those twists and the present-set portions of the film anyway; it's about those dark and still-wounding secrets of the past. The Paxton character's descent into murderous madness is truly scary, and made all the more so by Paxton's wise decision to keep the grisliest instances of violence just out of frame, relying on the atmosphere and, above all, the performances to intimately convey the horror. Paxton exudes disturbing, down-to-earth menace; and just as impressive is Matt O'Leary as the younger incarnation of the McConaughey character. Paxton and Hanley may get a bit too carried away toward the end, but there's no denying that the film's chills resonate long after the final fadeout.

New Best Friend one-sheet New Best Friend (R) * 1/2
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The title New Best Friend and the presence of a teen-friendly cast suggests one of those bubbly youth comedies, but, in fact, Zoe Clarke-Williams' long-delayed film is a seriously played, drug- and sex-drenched mystery. Alicia (Mia Kirshner), member of a hard-partying Colby University clique, is found overdosed on cocaine, and as she lay in the hospital near death, suspicion surrounds Alicia's three closest friends Hadley (Meredith Monroe), Sydney (Dominique Swain), and Julianne (Rachel True). The town sheriff (Taye Diggs, looking uncomfortable and out of place) attempts to piece together the circumstances leading to Alicia's "accident" as the trio tell him the long and twisted story about how the financially strapped former wallflower came into the posh 'n popular girls' fold.

New Best Friend never strives to be high art, but even in terms of the low-grade cheese standards on which it operates, it never quite makes the grade as tawdry trash. That doesn't mean Clarke-Williams doesn't try; after all, the film does appear to make all the necessary moves, including a showstopping lesbian lust scene in addition to some hearty hetero humping. But looking the part isn't quite the same as playing the part. Even soapy cinema junk food needs to have some characters of interest, and here only Kirshner's bitch on wheels commands any attention. What really sends the film into a comatose state similar to Alicia's is that main mystery plot, in which Clarke-Williams and writer Victoria Strouse fail to inject much in the way of suspense, surprise, or general reason to give a damn how it all turns out.

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#317 April 5, 2002 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

All About the Benjamins one-sheet All About the Benjamins (R) **
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A burned-out bounty hunter (Ice Cube) reluctantly teams with a fast-talking con man (Mike Epps) to recover a multi-million-dollar-winning lottery ticket that was inadvertenly stolen by some diamond thieves. If this sounds like a typical buddy action comedy to you, you would be correct--"typical" being the key word, as in being nothing terribly special nor especially awful. Actually, the latter term could be applied to Tommy Flanagan's thoroughly unmenacing main baddie, but for the most part director Kevin Bray dishes up the expected: staging car chases and explosions, and stepping back and letting Cube and Epps go to do their expected thing (Cube, the tough straight man; Epps, the wisecracker--of which he does a much better job doing here than in his last Cube collaboration, Next Friday). All in all, it's one of those films that seems tailor made to air on pay cable to offer some modest amusements when one has nothing else to watch.

Big Trouble one-sheet Big Trouble (PG-13) ***
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Big cast (love that crowded one-sheet with the key to identify all of the players) + remarkably slim running time (only 84 minutes) and slimmer story + lengthy content-related post-9/11 delay = big trouble for Big Trouble? In terms of quality, the answer is a resounding no. (Commercial prospects are another story; that the advertising has been virtually nonexistent suggests that Disney blew nearly all of its marketing budget on the picture for its aborted late September release date.) If you're looking for a story or deep characters, you won't find either here; director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (adapting Dave Barry's novel) instead string together their large and diverse cast of characters through seemingly random twists that simply pile up on top of each other: teens armed with a squirt gun intend to shoot a girl on the same night two hitmen target her father, just as a homeless man sets up shop in a tree in the family's yard, etc. The freewheeling narrative makes for a knowing, consistently amusing, and often surprising absurdity, and that spontaneous comic tone is further carried out in the spirited performances by the large stable of players (including Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Patrick Warburton, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Lee, Tom Sizemore, Omar Epps, and a psychedelic toad). Big Trouble is definitely just a trifle of a film, but so many light entertainments should be so brisk, witty, and well-performed.

Death to Smoochy one-sheet Death to Smoochy (R) ***
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It's been years since Barney the purple dinosaur started his reign of terror on the airwaves, and so making fun of costumed kiddie TV show hosts is a bit tired, if not outdated. In Death to Smoochy, director Danny DeVito and writer Adam Resnick revive the old joke with such venomous verve that it feels freshly wicked. A corrupt ex-kidvid sensation named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) vows murderous revenge against his time slot replacement, the squeaky clean Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), who plays Smoochy the singing rhino; from this thin gag springs a number of hilariously coarse gags, situations, and one-liners. Some set pieces are labored, such as an extended bit at a Nazi rally, but the performances smooth out--or should I say sharpen?--the rough edges. Williams effectively uses his famously unhinged comic persona for sinister purposes; as an icy TV network exec, Catherine Keener does a good (if not exactly challenging) riff on her Being John Malkovich role. But the real star is indeed Smoochy; even at his most ridiculously naive and wholesome, Norton's Sheldon is a likable charmer, and his cheery children's songs deliver some of the film's biggest laughs.

E.T. one-sheet E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial The 20th Anniversary (PG) ****
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Though the words "special edition" are conspicuously absent from the official title, make no mistake: this is no plain reissue of Steven Spielberg's 1982 box office record-smasher--as if a technophile such as Spielberg could ever resist the urge to add new footage and spiff up the special effects. The adjustments are, on the whole minimal. The most controversial changes are, of course, digitally replacing the cops' guns with walkie talkies in the shots leading up to the second bicycle flight and Mary's (Dee Wallace) freshly redubbed line "You look like a hippie!"; those touches are, indeed, irksome, but it's also indicative of how generally slight the tweaks are. The only substantial addition is a scene where young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. are in the bathroom, and while the scene is undoubtedly interesting, it's only particularly noteworthy in a couple of respects: (1) a big product plug for Coke; and (2) a completely digital E.T. The latter heavily reminds of the CGI Jabba the Hutt in the rejiggered Star Wars, and that is certainly not a good thing; the digital E.T.'s fluid mobility clashes with the less graceful (and far more charming) original puppet.

Ultimately, though, to harp on such issues is to be an overly anal nitpicker, for E.T. has lost none of its power to move an audience in the past two decades. In fact, seeing it again on the silver screen brings a new sense of perspective that hadn't come with numerous video viewings over the years. Melissa Mathison's screenplay reveals itself to be remarkably eloquent in its spareness, detailing a story that is so simple yet cuts deep into the core child in all of us: the joy of meeting and connecting with a new friend at our lowest moment, the pain that comes when the bond must be broken. It's difficult to imagine the story connecting as strongly without Thomas, whose efforts have too easily been taken for granted. Watching the film now, it's obvious his work is one of the most extraordinary performances ever delivered by a child actor; it's a truly special feat of acting when the performance can still reduce an audience of adults to heaving sobs after 20 years of multiple viewings. What didn't need the intervening years to gain its full appreciation is Spielberg's direction, which nails every note down the line from casting (Thomas, Wallace, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton) to the use of music and effects to the non-use of those elements. It's unfortunate that now Spielberg has decided to tamper with perfection, but it's a testament to E.T.'s perfection that it can withstand such questionable second-guessing.

Harrison's Flowers one-sheet Harrison's Flowers (R) ***
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When her photojournalist husband (David Strathairn) is reported to have been killed while on the job in Yugoslavia, a disbelieving, devoted wife (a nicely modulated Andie MacDowell) ventures off into the war front herself to find him. Such a preposterous premise would appear to pave the way for a ready-for-Lifetime/Oxygen movie, but once director Elie Chouraqui shifts the scene to the combat zone, the film becomes a vivid and intense, documentary-style look through the eyes of those brave enough to put their lives in constant risk to document the flying bullets, exploding bombs, and rubble- and body-riddled streets. Unfortunately, the romantic angle returns for the film's final stretch, leading to a regrettably sugarcoated finale; nonetheless, the images and performances (particularly those by Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, and Brendan Gleeson as the photogs who help MacDowell on her quest) from the midsection are gripping enough to override the melodramatic missteps.

High Crimes one-sheet High Crimes (PG-13) * 1/2
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What has happened to Carl Franklin? He made such a promising splash with the gritty 1992 crime thriller One False Move, and followed that up with 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress, a memorable film noir that gave Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle some choice roles. His last film, 1998's domestic/disease drama One True Thing, featured sterling performances by Meryl Streep (who earned an Oscar nod, natch) and Renée Zellweger, but it was markedly more conventional than his previous work, and now High Crimes washes away whatever unique filmmaking personality Franklin has.

Not only does the thoroughly formulaic High Crimes represent totally exemplify middle-of-the-road mainstream, it also represents glossy Hollywood at its laziest. Reteaming Kiss the Girls stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman seems less a move of inspiration than a shortcut for marketing purposes, cashing in on any lingering audience goodwill for that hit of nearly five years ago. To be fair, Freeman does seem to have a fun time of it as self-described "wild card" attorney Charlie Grimes, who helps Judd's slick lawyer Claire Kubik defend her husband Tom (Jim Caviezel, whose usual subtlety is has fallen into simple sleepwalking here), who is on trial for murdering civilians in cold blood when he was part of a military operation in El Salvador. Judd reliably trots out the dour "woman tested by jeopardizing circumstances" act that catapulted her to stardom in Kiss the Girls and Double Jeopardy, but she doesn't appear to invest much energy or conviction in the proceedings whenever Freeman doesn't share her scenes.

And how could she, given the script is so generic as to be ridiculously predictable? Each turn of the plot is telegraphed, telegrammed, telephoned way in advance, never more in the case of what is supposed to be a whopper of a final twist. Before that, though, the audience is made to endure clichés (e.g. the suspicious following vehicle that turns out to be not so suspicious after all) and characters and situations seemingly designed to pad out the run time (e.g. Amanda Peet as Claire's slutty sister, who has a pointless affair with Claire's geeky military co-counsel). That said, the film does spring to some life whenever Judd and Freeman share the screen; their chemistry hasn't faded since they last worked together. But anyone who really wants to see them work together would be better off renting Kiss the Girls--which isn't that good of a film, either, but it's certainly better than this bore.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder one-sheet National Lampoon's Van Wilder (R) zero stars
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It's been so long since Animal House and the heyday of the Vacation movies that one wonders if the National Lampoon name still holds any sort of cinema cachet. Regardless, the return appearance of the legendary humor magazine's name in a theatrical release title is the only apparent selling point for National Lampoon's Van Wilder, which could have easily been released as Another Gross-Out Comedy.

Ryan Reynolds, whose dubious claim to quasi-fame was a starring role on little-watched, much-ridiculed sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, plays the title character, Coolidge College's big man on campus--in more ways than one. Not only is Van the guy to turn to for a good time, he's also in his seventh year (and counting) of undergraduate studies. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Van's rich father (Tim Matheson), who cuts off his financing. As he goes to great lengths to fund his frat party of a life, Van also pursues Gwen (Tara Reid), a student reporter whose no-nonsense ways lead him to think seriously about his future.

The inklings of change don't come until late in the film, for other things (ahem) come for most of the rest of the run time, namely Van's bulldog in a sequence that exemplifies the level of comedy in this film: gross-out humor that is definitely disgusting but not at all that humorous. While not gross himself, Reynolds certainly isn't too funny; a little of his sub-Jim Carrey mugging goes a long way, and within five minutes he's managed to make Van a thoroughly off-putting character. Also playing an off-putting character but through no fault of his own is Kal Penn as Van's personal assistant, a stereotypical repressed type from India. If only the audience could react with the same bored indifference as the seemingly sleepy Reid; alas, Van Wilder is much too aggressively juvenile and crass to not provoke a strong reaction, one that more than likely would fall on the negative end of the spectrum.

Panic Room one-sheet Panic Room (R) ***
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David Fincher's thriller has been criticized as being a mere technical exercise, but is that really a problem for a film that wants to be nothing more than a precision-calibrated thrill machine? Certainly not when the film succeeds at hitting its unpretentious aims as well as this one does. Jodie Foster plays a new divorcée who moves into a large home equipped with the steel-reinforced security room of the title; she and her young daughter (Kristen Stewart) make quick of use of it when, on their first night, a trio of burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) break in, looking for something stashed away in the panic room.

David Keopp's screenplay never ventures any deeper in terms of character or content, simply piling on plot turn after plot turn, so it's up to Fincher and his cast to give the film any personality. Foster succeeds in adding unscripted dimensions to her role, and she and Stewart do their part in lending the film some sense of humanity; on the villainous end, Whitaker and Yoakam impress while Leto is shrill. But no personality comes on stronger than Fincher's, who constantly finds interesting ways to ratchet up the tension visually, whether through seemingly unbroken shots or a classic "hurry up!" moment shown entirely in slow motion. Style definitely wins over substance in Panic Room, and it's difficult to imagine the film being as enjoyable an entertainment if that were not the case.

Amadeus: Director's Cut one-sheet Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut (R) ****
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After seeing director Milos Forman's longer (by 20 minutes) cut of his 1984 Best Picture winner, two questions come immediately to mind: (1) has there ever been another so-called "director's cut" of a film that actually adds those words to the onscreen titles? and (2) since when do some glimpses of bare breasts vault a formerly PG-rated film directly to an R? That the only questions that arise are trivial ones is a testament to the enduring effectiveness of Forman's film of Shaffer's speculative play about Italian court composer Salieri's (F. Murray Abraham) consuming envy of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (Tom Hulce) musical genius. No doubt a great deal of credit goes to the performances, which still have bite and in certain cases have grown better with age. Abraham's slimy yet sympathetic Oscar-winning performance still dazzles as the film sturdy, spiteful spine, but Hulce's initially (and intentionally) irritating gradually deepening portrayal of the brash and cocky Mozart is an achievement on its own terms and not just as a foil for Salieri's scheming. The additional footage is largely seamless and therefore barely noticeable (or maybe that's because it's been so long since I've seen the original version), but the one thing that does bust out (in more ways than one) is the increased screen time and resulting character dimensions added to Mozart's wife Constanze, played by Elizabeth Berridge, whose underrated supporting work is too often overshadowed by the showier turns given by Abraham, Hulce, and Jeffrey Jones (who plays the Emperor). Ultimately, most of the credit for the success of Amadeus goes to Forman and Shaffer, who assembled such a wonderful mix of sight and sound (both of which are never better in this remastered edition), of humor and drama, of love and hate, of ugliness and beauty. I think what really gives the film such lasting relevance and resonance, however, is it's all too true theme: genius is fleeting, but mediocrity is forever (the latter especially true in my case, what with this publication lumbering into its eighth year in just a few days).

Resident Evil one-sheet Resident Evil (R) * 1/2
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The inherent limitations of using a video game as the source material movie are once again made all too clear in this schlocky horror/action hybrid where a group of heavily armed types do battle with hordes of zombies while trapped in an underground laboratory. There's no use in going into further detail about the plot, for director Paul W.S. Anderson is really just interested in the action set pieces. In the case of a popcorn film such as this, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when the film's arguably most indelible image/scene (star Milla Jovovich doing a wire fu kick on a vicious dog--which, come to think of it, actually isn't all that exciting) is given away as a centerpiece drawing card in the commercials, something is awry. Something is also awry when the overly dainty Jovovich is the main heroine and Michelle Rodriguez, who proved to be such a fresh blend of 'tude and talent in Girlfight, is once again simply snarling through a Hollywood action picture. But then again, none of this should be terribly surprising, for this is a movie made by the same man who perpetrated Event Horizon, Soldier, and the first Mortal Kombat film.

The Rookie one-sheet The Rookie (G) **
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Is there a more say-nothing tag line than the one adorning the advertising for The Rookie? "From the studio that brought you Remember the Titans"--as if that means anything; lest we forget, Buena Vista's also the studio that brought us the abysmal Snow Dogs earlier in the year and the crass comedy Sorority Boys just a couple of weeks ago. But more than being ridiculous in its utter meaninglessness, that slogan sets the bar for this feel-good sports film far higher than its makers have any realistic hopes of reaching.

The Rookie is rated G, and while I certainly have no objection to the idea of live action films that are appropriate for all ages, this film reinforces the negative connotation commonly associated with such a classification: clean and sucked dry of any energy. The true story the film tells, though, is undeniably inspiring. A dozen years after his major league baseball dreams were quashed by an injury, 35-year-old Texas high school science teacher/baseball coach Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) gives it another go at the behest of his team. All the expected notes are struck: his students and Morris himself marvel at his faster-than-ever pitch; his losing team makes a dramatic turn for the better; he tries to hide his comeback attempt from his wife (Rachel Griffiths); he makes gradual amends with his long-disapproving father (Brian Cox).

Despite the inherently moving story and the respectable work of director John Lee Hancock and the cast, something remains absent throughout the entire film: a certain sense of verve and personality. Watching him here, it becomes apparent why Quaid never achieved the major stardom for which he had once been groomed. He's a perfectly capable and likable actor, but he doesn't exactly have an onscreen persona that pops--which is sorely needed for a character that is virtually in every single scene, not to mention in a film that plays things so nice 'n safe as to often play like a milquetoast movie of the week blown up for the big screen.

Stolen Summer one-sheet Stolen Summer (PG) **
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Judging from Miramax's marketing campaign for the much-discussed Stolen Summer, one could easily conclude that the studio felt they had something to hide. After all, the film's one-sheet plays up the connection to Project Greenlight, the HBO reality series that chronicled the project's unusual genesis and production, with nary a sign of what the film is actually about; in fact, the film's actual name is relegated to subtitle status, with the words "The Project Greenlight Movie" being pimped front and center. Then there is the little disclaimer at the bottom of the newspaper ads: "special two-week limited engagement," as if the 'Max is only allowing the for a bare minimum release as obligated by contract.

So is this feature debut by writer-director Pete Jones really all that bad? No, but one can easily understand why the Project Greenlight connection is so aggressively played up. First of all, the diminished expectations fostered by the rather rocky goings-on documented by the TV show could only help; and second, that connection is about the only marketing hook for a fairly harmless but ultimately lifeless feature-length afterschool special. This is one of those "summer that changed my life" pictures, with the summer being in 1976 Chicago and the changed life belonging to one 8-year-old Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein), who embarks on a cutesy quest to convert a Jew into a Catholic, so the newly converted can go to heaven. He finds a willing subject in Danny Jacobsen (Mike Weinberg), the son of the kind rabbi (Kevin Pollak) who befriends Pete early on in his quest. Time is of the essence, though, for young Danny also happens to be stricken with leukemia.

The adult cast members are effective; in addition to Pollak, Bonnie Hunt and Aidan Quinn do nice work as Pete's parents, as does Eddie Kaye Thomas as Pete's ambitious older brother. Unfortunately, they are relegated to the backburner and uninteresting side stories (such as the brother butting heads with his working class dad over going to college), and the picture is carried on the shoulders of Stein, who has eagerness and enthusiasm to spare but not nearly as much natural talent. It's just as much a measure of Jones' directing prowess, for he doesn't seem to know what to do about the child's arms, which flail and swing about from scene to scene. But at least wondering where they'll end up next adds some element of suspense and surprise to this otherwise formulaic wallow in treacly good intentions.

The Time Machine one-sheet The Time Machine (PG-13) **
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"Where do you want to go?" query the posters. As if this rather dull reinterpretation of H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel gives you any choice. Guy Pearce listlessly plays a scientist who, in attempt to reverse the tragic death of his beloved, comes up with the titular machine. But things don't turn out the way he'd like, and in frustration he ends up traveling some 800,000 years into the future, where humans live in primitive villages and are preyed upon by an underground-dwelling mutant race. Alas, things also haven't turned out the way director Simon Wells (with an assist from Gore Verbinski) certainly would have liked, for he's managed to make his great-grandfather's enduring literary work into a film that, while technologically impressive, fails to generate the slightest trace of excitement. As Mara, a fetching female in the future who befriends Pearce, pop/R&B singer Samantha Mumba makes a competent acting debut, but she isn't given a whole lot to do; neither is Orlando Jones as a holographic library computer or Jeremy Irons, all done up in fright wig and makeup and with nowhere to go as the leader of the mutant race. That description extends to the film as a whole: it's all dressed up as some sort of popcorn blockbuster, but it has no idea how to go about getting its job done.

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