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Are you game?
19 January 2000
After being imprisoned for six years on a grand theft auto charge, Rudy Duncan(Ben Affleck) and his cellmate Nick (HILARY AND JACKIE's James Frain) are finally going to be paroled. After hearing endless stories during his incarceration of Nick's romantic correspondence to a woman named Ashley he has never met (CIDER HOUSE RULES's Charlize Theron), Rudy is looking forward to returning to his family and having a fresh cup of hot chocolate. When Nick is killed during a prison riot, Rudy decides to assume Nick's identity upon release from prison and meet up with the unknown woman. Burdened with a base knowledge of Nick's Indian casino employment past, Rudy finds himself in too deep with Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and is violently forced to cooperate with a casino robbery that Gabriel and his gang have been planning with Nick in mind.

From an original screenplay by Ehren Kruger, REINDEER is very much in the same vein as his last script ARLINGTON ROAD. While much more of an action film than the paranoia drenched ROAD, REINDEER holds it's deceptions very close to it's heart as well. Who can you trust, and for how long? Helmed by esteemed director John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, RONIN), REINDEER seems keenly aware of it's inane story, yet he keeps pushing the proceedings along briskly, trying to keep this casino heist plot afloat with good actors and a passable script. It's fun just to watch this tale unfold. All the professionals involved know this material isn't CITIZEN KANE, but as action films go nowadays, REINDEER's restraint is it's most endearing aspect. No pop culture references, not too many exploding fireballs, and Frankenheimer keeps the edit count down. REINDEER GAMES is a far more classy film than it's brethren.

It takes some time to get used to Ben Affleck as a tough ex-con. His baby face and peanut brittle voice do little to sell him as an action hero. As REINDEER trudges along, you get used to watching him act tough. It isn't the best performance that's come out of him (I'll save that honor for DOGMA), but Affleck is a likable enough guy and makes Rudy a character you want to see save the day. Imagine an aging lead vocalist for a Black Sabbath cover band and you'll have an idea what Gary Sinse looks like in REINDEER. He always makes a great passionate villain, but this time he takes his appearance one step further and actually looks like a threat. Charlize Theron keeps improving as an actress, but it is her new brunette look and honey smile that one takes away from her performance. She looks lovely in the snow, but not too much presence beyond that. The whole cast is somewhat stuck with Kruger's elementary script, and they all try hard to overcome it. It ends up being their individual charms that make REINDEER come out a winner.

I liked REINDEER GAMES for the throwaway Christmas thriller that it is. Taking advantage of the topical Native American casino boom and deliberately waltzing away from many clichés, GAMES is a pleasure to enjoy. We need more of these. ----- 8
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Somebody stop Ron Shelton
12 January 2000
Play It To The Bone

12 years ago, writer-director Ron Shelton gave the world the neo-classic BULL DURHAM. Since then, Shelton has never been able to revisit his success with that baseball film, both commercially and artistically. PLAY IT TO THE BONE is Shelton's latest professional sports film, this time taking on the very easy target of pro boxing. Starring Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas, BONE is simply the worst film yet from the once potent filmmaker.

Another victim of the Disney "dumb it down" publicity machine, don't believe BONE is simply the boxing film that the endless commercials suggest. At 124 minutes, the boxing takes up about 24 minutes. What remains is a road film in which mediocre actors get to verbally spar with each other using Shelton's monosyllabic script and painfully juvenile improvisation. I do have love for Banderas and Harrelson, but this comedy is just plain sad. The audience watches in pain as both actors nearly have to beg to get a laugh.

Half the picture takes place in a single moving car. This leaves us stuck in one place as the character's yap incessantly about ridiculously lame deep dark secrets that makes the BONE script feel like a high school class project. PLAY IT TO THE BONE often resembles more of an endurance test than a studio feature film. I would be lying if I said that my heart wasn't racing when the film finally arrived at the boxing. But it really is a case of too little, too late. Shelton's gift is delving deep within pro sports, but with BONE, his vision is lacking focus.

Extra points should be awarded to Shelton for his script's rather disturbing homophobic slant. It's rare to come across a film so hateful. Sensing that his opening weekend audience will be 95% male, the film is padded with unexplained gratuitous nudity and inept sexuality. Nothing is fun with BONE, just a story that goes nowhere and dialog that makes one wonder what is so wrong with Pauly Shore comedies if this is the alternative.----------- 1
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Worth it for Ryder, as always
10 January 2000
Girl, Interrupted

After a failed suicide attempt, a sad teenage woman named Susanna (Winona Ryder) is sent to Claymoore, a mental institution in suburban Boston. It is there that Susanna reluctantly tries to find the help that she needs. Ingratiating herself in the microcosm of the hospital, Susanna is confronted with true mental instability and tries to reach within her newfound friends and see why she has resisted life for so long.

From the novel by Susanna Kaysen, GIRL, INTERRUPTED can be easily summed up as a female ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, but that doesn't necessarily do justice to GIRL. Directed by James Mangold (COPLAND), GIRL is a very satisfying, moving drama with an arresting cast of twenty-somethings on the brink of stardom. Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy (CLUELESS), Clea Duvall (THE FACULTY), and Whoopi Goldberg head the cast with the aforementioned Ms. Ryder. There is a swimming pool full of talented people to gaze upon in this film, yet the raw talent of Ryder makes it worth the time. Angelina Jolie makes another misstep in her career (after BONE COLLECTOR) by playing her unstable character Lisa like the rebel wild child that mirrors Jolie in real life. This might be explained away as a character trait, but too many moments in GIRL showcase Jolie absurdly playing to the rafters. An actress of such uncontested power, Jolie suffers from trying to conquer the world with a performance that is often without subtlety. While the current rash of awards keeps the glow on Jolie, Ryder turns in one of her best performances. As the meek and confused Susanna, there isn't a false moment anytime Ryder is onscreen.

The trouble with GIRL is the predictable - but needed - attempt to ground the somewhat lighthearted first half of the film into hard core drama. Like the schizophrenic personalities that inhabit Claymoore, GIRL, INTERRUPTED is like watching two completely different films at once. An experience that is positively frustrating. Trying hard to keep the focus steady, Mangold lets the film get away from him in the second act; with a climax that does little to resolve the story.

It is Ryder and most of the cast that makes GIRL end up being a winner. You walk away from GIRL, INTERRUPTED with the nagging feeling that most of the details are missing, yet satisfied that the film gave us such a wealth of talent to behold.------- 7
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Not jaded, just opened my eyes
3 January 2000
The End Of The Affair

In the midst of a passionate affair with writer Maurice Bendix (Ralph Fiennes), Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) has finally encountered the soul mate she never had with her husband (Stephen Rea). When a freak accident befalls Maurice, Sarah prays to God to spare her lover, promising to leave him forever if he was to live. Maurice recovers from this near death experience, leaving Sarah to struggle with her heart in trying to keep her promise to God. In this abrupt new film from director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME), we see three people who want so intensely to live happily ever after, yet cannot truly have what their heart desires.

It seems to be Jordan's talent to craft a film with parts greater than the whole. END OF THE AFFAIR starts out very slow, builds to an interesting conflict, then dissipates into something akin to an ending. Every film the man has directed has followed the same blueprints. Jordan is capable of amazing work (even in his loopy underrated thriller from last year IN DREAMS), but his gift certainly isn't control over the tone of his pictures. AFFAIR is set in the 1940's - during World War II - and Jordan has modeled the acting and screenwriting as if this 2000 picture was a long lost gem of the 1940's. The performances are very awkward, dialog is spat out between clenched teeth, and the character movement is more theatrical than practical. All the actors have trouble trying to convey anguish and yearning while trying to maintain the poker face needed for the era. This film needed more of the method acting approach, not a retro take on material that needs fire to come to life. And like a film of the time, the music by Michael Nyman (THE PIANO) harps endlessly trying to awaken the listless drama unfolding onscreen.

Coming from two spectacular actors like Fiennes and Moore, I thought AFFAIR would have been more engaging. You never feel for these characters the way the film certainly does. The tragedy that occurs in the film is merely a tepid plot device, not one of those splendid hand-over-mouth-"oh my!"-type of kicks. I do give Jordan plenty of credit for this film's bile spewing rant on Catholicism (delivered with typical gusto from Fiennes). He also uses nudity with an unexpected bluntness that in the current wave of modern film, seems like true inspiration. In the end, AFFAIR comes up short. As powerful as the material is, I believe Jordan missed the boat in trying to express the desire to the audience. -------- 5
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Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Burton's Back
17 November 1999
Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW is the kind of gothic horror film that feeds the soul with it's wicked charms. Providing Burton with a plot and cast that's far more appealing than MARS ATTACKS!, HOLLOW is a grand return to form for Burton. Galloping back into the dark reaches of the night, Burton giddily weaves this harrowing tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman with the passion and inspiration that spawned such classics as his EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and BEETLEJUICE.

In collaboration with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, Burton gives the film an almost black and white color scheme. The only color that is allowed to shine through is blood red, and oh my, does the blood flow. This is a gorgeous looking film packed with the imagery and originality that Burton excels at. HOLLOW is visual genius. Production Designer Rick Heinrichs alone should be a shoo-in come next year's Oscar nominations.

Now if only the script was up to shape HOLLOW suffers greatly from a story with too many characters and not enough time to properly introduce them all. I found it hard to tell who's name belonged to whom. Halfway through the film do the seeds of plot finally begin to be planted. It's rather humorous to watch in the climax of the picture when one of the characters has to explain in great detail how the film's plot figures out. HOLLOW isn't that hard to follow, but the film uses it's downtime in between Headless Horseman scenes to spew out these large chunks of exposition that it damages the overall dramatic angle of the story.

Burton's muse Johnny Depp (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) marks his third collaboration with the director with another distinguished performance. By making his Ichabod Crane a master forensics expert with the heart of a ‘fraidy cat, Depp ingratiates himself wonderfully in the role. Christina Ricci also makes a strong impression.

HOLLOW is a flawed nightmare, yet this will most likely be the most technically impressive film of the year. I would recommend this film simply for that feeling of being transported to a far away land where magic ruled the country and a mythical horseman stalked the woods in search of fresh blood. -------------7
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Glad to be HERE
11 November 1999
Anywhere But Here

The mother-daughter genre of film is one that is usually laced with caustic wit (POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE) or draining melodrama (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT). ANYWHERE BUT HERE is the latest entry into this undernourished genre. Falling somewhere in between the two examples above, ANYWHERE is a passable, but strangely distant film. One that for every unsuitable move it makes, it has Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon to make the wrongs seem so very right.

Abruptly leaving her husband and family behind in Wisconsin, Adele August (Sarandon) takes her teenage daughter Ann (Portman) across the country to live the good and free life in Los Angeles. Having freshly minted a tumultuous relationship with this sudden move, the two find themselves in the strange position of having to rely on themselves and each other in the big bad city. Adele is flighty, irresponsible, and refuses to settle into her role as the parent. Ann is lonesome, homesick, and not sure about the love she has within for her mother. Over the years we watch as struggle after struggle continually opposes the family, with each battle reinforcing the love the two share. Told from Ann's perspective, ANYWHERE is essentially a film about trying to understand the people related to us. The bonds we share with our parents, and how those bonds always seem to work against us.

Based on a novel by Mona Simpson and a screenplay by crisis legend Alvin Sargent (ORDINARY PEOPLE), ANYWHERE is the kind of tragic-comic filmmaking that I usually crave. Unfortunately, ANYWHERE is far from touching. Directed by Wayne Wang, the film isn't nearly as resonate as Wang's earlier multigenerational epic THE JOY LUCK CLUB. Watching Adele and Ann struggle with their growing relationship is more tiring than emotionally satisfying. The flow of the drama fluctuates so much, by the end you're just glad the filmmakers didn't throw in one last argument for good measure. At 120 minutes, ANYWHERE is about six crisis over the limit.

It's the acting in ANYWHERE that takes the film to another level. We all know Susan Sarandon can spin gold with her acting, yet each new film she's been involved with recently (save the September vanity project ILLUMINATA) has shown more and more how commanding an actress she truly is. In ANYWHERE, only Sarandon could give Adele the most annoying characteristics yet ground the performance in love and warmth. Adele really does care for her daughter, she just desperately wants to maintain her own identity for once in her life. Bursting out onto the screen like some kind of Southern California Pokemon, her performance is grand and inviting.

But where does that leave Natalie Portman? After shimmying up into films with should-be-legend performances in THE PROFESSIONAL and the locally shot BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, Portman is like no other teenage actress working today. It's a testament to her sensibilities that we haven't seen her in the latest SCREAM variation or this next wave of AMERICAN PIE type comedies. Portman carries ANYWHERE with grace and dignity. Director Wang should be given the Oscar alone for his choice to just linger on Portman's face for extended times. As expressive as her acting can be, Portman can live a million lives in one glance. With Sarandon, the two create a complex and agreeable mother-daughter relationship for their characters. They share overwhelming chemistry and I hope this won't be the last time the two decide to work together.

Shot with a sparkling color palette by Roger Deakins, Wang captures both the frail beauty of Los Angeles and it's hard realities. I also give Wang credit for properly using dim-bulb actor Shawn Hatosy(OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE). In a small role as Ann's beloved cousin, Hatosy finally shows some talent and charisma. Unfortunately, the film is scored on autopilot by the self-looting Danny Elfman and features the second most aggressive soundtrack push of the year. The songs rarely fit in with the drama and scream "Buy me on sale at Sam Goody!" too blatantly.

Just like the characters in the film, it's hard to hate ANYWHERE BUT HERE as much as it is hard to love. Had Wang left open the emotion door a little more the film might have made a lasting impact. Too many scenes do not pay off the way they should and not enough texture is given to the characters. I would recommend ANYWHERE BUT HERE, only for the opportunity to bask in the glow of two actresses on the top of their game. -----7/10
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See see!
26 October 1999
Boys Don't Cry

In 1993, Teena Brandon was a sexually confused teenage woman living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Cutting her hair, finding herself in a new city, and changing her name to Brandon Teena, she passed herself off as a man and befriended a group of lower-class kids who adored the sweet and gentle new boy in town. Falling in love with one of the girls in the group, Brandon suddenly found it increasingly hard to hide his true identity. Struggling with his past and desperate in his current situation, Brandon's life was placed in jeopardy when his companions learned his true identity. This film is based on a true story.

Kimberly Peirce's picture BOYS DON'T CRY is nothing short of a monumental achievement in so-called "indie" filmmaking. So many films lately indulge themselves with laughable attempts at moral and high-mindedness. BOYS is the type of film that lays it all out, warts and all. It paints Brandon as a martyr, I'll fully admit that, but what the picture does with such dexterity is deliver a story so heartbreaking and so absolute that your body is numb for 112 minutes of screen time. I found only a handful of films have been able to achieve that this year. The fact that this narrative really happened six years ago sent a chill up my spine. Fiction can take you to limitless places. Fact nails you firmly to the Earth. Not enough movies dare you to enter the dark places in our own backyard.

But what would BOYS be without Hilary Swank? Nothing. This young actress was previously seen on BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and in the little seen (and gentle) feature THE NEXT KARATE KID. She's unknown to most people and that little fact alone is mainly the reason she is so brilliant as the doomed Brandon. It's tough to imagine a A-list name in the complex lead role. With Swank, you get an actress that can come out of left field and makes you accept with the rest of the characters that she is portraying a man. It goes far deeper that a short haircut and bonded breasts. That's easy. Swank is mesmerizing with her toothy grin and cut-glass jawbone. She submerges all her femininity and comes up with a believable male persona. Beautiful as a boy or a girl, I cannot fathom another performance quite like Swank's coming out of any current performer alive today. She is brilliant as Brandon Teena. A role, I would say, she was born to play.

Director Peirce backs Swank with a healthy cast of talented actors to play the white trash teens that befriend Brandon. Uttering a "Beer?" instead of a normal greeting like "Hello", both Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III deliver menacing performances as the two men who instigate the violence toward Brandon. Long lost Alicia Goranson (TV's Becky on ROSEANNE) makes for a sweet presence as a shy girl attracted to Brandon. But it's really Chloe Sevigny (GUMMO, KIDS) who almost matches Swank in the acting department. It's her brave performance as Brandon's initially clueless lover that makes you want to cry. Deeply in love, yet conflicted with Brandon's sexual ambiguity, Sevigny is mighty to behold.

This being Peirce's debut feature, BOYS is often dramatically daring and optically unique. I like the way she portrays the small Nebraska town with a loving eye for the trashy, yet positive humanity of it's citizens. It's their deep loving nature that initially welcomes Brandon. It's their intolerance and stupidity that eventually brings him down. With almost every frame, Peirce makes strong statements about the duality of the cliched midwestern heart. I also give Peirce credit for making a rape scene horrifying without being exploitative. That's the sign of a director who cares about the audience.

BOYS DON'T CRY is spectacular picture. A truly involving piece of work that shines all around. As devastating as this story is, the film is always dramatically commanding. Kimberly Peirce is a new director to behold. She has delivered a art-house film that finally makes on it's promise to be truthful to the subject and never waver to the easy path. Don't miss this film.---------- 10
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I'll sit this dance out...
9 October 1999
Three To Tango

With art house fare making thoughtful and highly respected works about the homosexual lifestyle, it comes as both odd and insulting that Warner Brothers and moneymen Village Roadshow would finance such a decidedly unfunny comedy. Working with large gay stereotypes in the name of "humor", Three To Tango is the type of film, like the nauseating In And Out, that will appeal to mainstream audiences thirsty for a lifestyle film that's about five years-old in jokes and characters.

Matthew Perry stars as Oscar Novak, a ambitious architect who is on the cusp of attaining a very important client, Charles Newman (The Practice's Dylan McDermott). Witnessing a moment of affection between Oscar and his partner (Oliver Platt), the client mistakes the staunchly heterosexual Oscar for a homosexual. Asking Oscar to keep an eye on his mistress (Scream's Neve Campbell) while he's not around, Charles has no idea that the two are falling in love, and Oscar cannot believe that now everyone thinks he's actually gay.

Like an episode of Three's Company, Tango plays with very over the top humor and situations. The moment you see someone with a pail on their head, banging it against a wall, you pretty much understand then and there that you're screwed for the next 100 minutes. Tango is never funny, only once in awhile attaining a mediocre comedic pulse.

Rather disturbingly so, Matthew Perry manages to climb out of this mess unscathed. I like him so much from his Emmy-worthy work on Friends that seeing him play a Chandler-type character again in Tango is very welcome. Without the great writing on Friends to help him out, Perry is left to his own impressive, but tiring, mannerisms and comedy instincts. Coming off his rather underrated Almost Heroes work, I still believe that Perry has a future in features. Just ones that don't require such hyperactivity.

Campbell and McDermott are both stuck with roles that don't suit their personal talents as well. My faith in Neve Campbell dissolves with each new film she does. She has yet to fully drop her annoying acting tics and gestures. There's a good actress in there somewhere, proven time and again on Campbell's lovely TV series Party Of Five. McDermott has to play the heavy here, and due to either bad storytelling or last minute editing, he is left with a role so thin that it comes across as a minor miracle that he would even take the part. Both actors are better off on their respective great TV shows.

Bothering me the most about Tango is it's odd chic factor. Like a loaf of bread left out for a year, Tango is moldy and indigestible. It's swing dance music score and opening credits come at a time when that fad has been played out (actual proof of a higher power). The rather 1950's stereotypes of gay men is both appalling and out of date. Inundated with such positive images of gay adults nowadays, Tango's reliance on erect pinkies and "I'm no homo!" humor is just not worth it. The whole film is terrible, but the moral of the story is both frightful and passé.

Director Damon Santostefano has a interesting visual palette. The film bops and swings along rather competently. The problem is with the story and the actors. I would be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued to what his next film will be. I wish him luck to find a better project

Three To Tango is basically the typical Hollywood "easy" comedy that should appeal to the loyal few out there who can fall for this tripe time and again. I don't recommend Three To Tango to anyone looking for a solid comedy, and I wouldn't recommend Three To Tango to anyone with a conscience either.------1/10
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Drive Me Home
2 October 1999
Drive Me Crazy

For some reason or the other, I had high hopes for DRIVE ME CRAZY. Coming off one of the worst periods in cinema for teens, I was praying that vet Melissa Joan Hart could save me from utter garbage like SHE'S ALL THAT, TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, and TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. All of those films relied on the Gap-universe ethic and outlandish stereotypes to portray their respective teen microcosms. They all hide behind the "I loved John Hughes" excuse, but Mr. Hughes's films were never like the current crop of air-headed junk that young audiences are eating up. Good films like ELECTION, which used real high school students for extras, are passed on by, not as dumb or remotely hip to be noticed. All this makes DRIVE ME CRAZY even more of a disappointment than it already is.

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH's Melissa Joan Hart stars as Nicole, a overachieving teenager with a flighty mom (V's Faye Grant), an absent father (7TH HEAVEN's Stephen Collins), and a loser neighbor named Chase who happens to be the same age(Adrian Grenier, the recent ADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN COLE). Attending the same school, both Nicole and Chase couldn't be further apart in terms of popularity. She, arranging the school's centennial celebration dance, he, spending his time putting orange ink in the sprinkler system. The two are exact opposites. When Nicole's object of affection, a basketball jock with a haircut that needs to seen to be believed, won't ask her to the dance, she enlists the help of her former childhood friend Chase to help her make the narrow-minded jock jealous of what he could have had. Chase, hurting from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, sees the opportunity to make his ex jealous as well. Wackiness and hidden feelings ensue.

While DRIVE ME CRAZY is decently made film, I was shocked to find the movie devoid of any kinetic energy at all. Director John Schultz only seems to understand soundtrack plugs and ugly closeups. This is the only high school comedy this year with the pungent aroma of odd seeping through. Scenes begin and end without much structure, actors are left to hang with often very poor dialog, and the aforementioned soundtrack is terribly by-the-numbers. The only time the audience seemed to truly enjoy the film was when Britney Spears's current "Crazy" song was cued up. Sad for a film that seems to want to please so much.

The plot alone is something more menacing than autopilot. I'm not sure what the next level beyond clichéd may be, but DRIVE ME CRAZY is it. I find it hard to believe that the studios are not noticing that the teenage films are all alike. Almost each one has climaxed at a dance of somesort. I'm sure most people could tell me the entire sequence of events in DRIVE just from observing the poster. Predictability is one thing, DRIVE is completely without any invention.

Melissa Joan Hart is a very likable performer. Her past triumphs in television have made her a very natural and charming actress. While DRIVE doesn't require anything in the form of effort from Hart, she still manages to ingratiate herself with the role. Adrian Grenier was wonderful in the little seen (and probably rightly so) ADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN COLE. He's got a unique low-key charm, and is probably one of the few actors his age with a handsomeness that isn't forced or common. I liked him in DRIVE only for the fact that Grenier makes his character seem more two-dimensional than on the page. His loser character seems to enjoy his popularity for a short time. A nice change from the usual "It's all right to be different" riffraff that passes for morals in these types of films.

DRIVE is lifeless. A film that just doesn't bother to meet the audience halfway. I wanted it to be so much more than a routine teenage melodrama. I 've had enough of that, and I think the audience has too. In a theater full of 14 year-old girls, nobody laughed, nobody cheered, nobody swooned. For a movie genre that prides itself on these ethics, DRIVE could be considered a disaster. For me, it's just sadly sub-par.--------4/10
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Three Kings (1999)
Maybe they shoulda stuck with two...
2 October 1999
Three Kings

David O. Russell's Gulf War actioner is a curious creation. While often smart, fast, funny, and with ample visual ingenuity, the film is also overblown, silly, condescending, and without much nuance. Dealing with potentially interesting ideas about victims of modern war and the effects of violence on the body, the film is seemingly written in big red crayon, never really letting the audience make up it's own mind about what is on display.

While George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube deliver solid acting work here, Russell has more interest in basic, afterschool special type, messages. War is bad. Man can change. USA rules! These are concepts that are nothing new, almost every present war film treads the same water. I wanted Russell to conjure the caustic wit that made his previous feature, 1996's FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, so memorable and so hilarious. Instead Russell fills his frame with pre-school morals and Jerry Bruckheimer fireballs that can only be avoided by jumping in slow motion into a soft mat just below frame. THREE KINGS isn't nearly as intelligent as it believes it is.

And I would give a small digit if Spike Jonze never acts again.

The first half of the film really flies on all pistons. It makes an impression that the second half cannot match. The setting of the Gulf War is fresh, and the vast desert vistas were breathtaking. I also enjoyed the much talked about "bullet through the body" sequence. Sadly, THREE KINGS doesn't add up to much. A highly potent film that forgot to attach the poignancy. Russell should head back to comedic neuroses, a.s.a.p. --------------- 5/10
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Beauty, eh?
15 September 1999
American Beauty

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a lonely and disillusioned 40-something man. Working at a job he doesn't like, married to a woman (Annette Bening) he doesn't love, and parenting a daughter(Thora Birch) that has long stopped talking to him, Lester is a zombie in a world that he once had such high expectations for. Living in nameless suburbia, Lester's neighbors are a rigid military man(LONE STAR's Chris Cooper), his clinically depressed wife(DROP DEAD GORGEOUS's Allison Janney), and their 18 year-old son named Ricky(Wes Bentley). Ricky's only love in life is to videotape everything he considers beautiful. The sky, the wind, dead birds, and Lester's daughter Jane are all caught in Ricky's camcorder. When Lester falls hopelessly in lust with one of Jane's friends Angela(AMERICAN PIE's Mena Suvari), he begins a mid-life crisis chain reaction that will forever change the tranquillity of Lester's ideal neighborhood, and permanently alter Lester's life.

This directing debut of Broadway's Sam Mendes(THE BLUE ROOM, the CABARET revival), AMERICAN BEAUTY cannot help but bring to mind the film RUSHMORE, the wonderful picture from last February. Both movies share an amazing similarity in tone and appearance. Both films are the product is minimal studio tampering, and most importantly, both films are the result of directors with fierce imagination and visual gumption. A English director making a film about American suburbia might be odd on paper, but Mendes captures the deeply woven world of BEAUTY with impeccable precision.

It's the script by TV writer Alan Ball that I feel is BEAUTY's largest Achilles Heel. While the screenplay is wonderfully nuanced, chock full of strong characters and universal emotions, I couldn't help but to feel that the subject matter of hidden emotions lost in middle-class suburbia has already been done way too much. Ranging from Robert Redford's ORDINARY PEOPLE, to even the putrid actioner THE BIG HIT, every other movie these days seems to think it's breaking new ground by suggesting that suburban America might not be all it's cracked up to be. It's rather bland and unexciting, and AMERICAN BEAUTY's best moments come whenever that particular message is tucked safely away. The film has more fun with subplots involving Lester's mid-life crisis, his wife's infidelities, the neighbor's raging homophobia, and Lester's pining for Angela. Mendes has a great eye and Ball has a great ear, I just wish their targets were more original.

With Kevin Spacey, I must admit that I had yet to fall under his charms. While a technically proficient actor, I really never enjoyed his performances as much as the fellow filmgoer. BEAUTY gives Spacey a much needed change of pace. Instead of creating a deeply pathos and dark character, Spacey takes the opportunity to showcase his sharp comedic skills. While not everything that happens to Lester is meant as comedy, Spacey takes each moment and works it for every emotion possible. We see Lester contempt, his pain, and his joy in each close-up. This is Spacey's best performance to date, I hope he doesn't lose the formula in future roles. Annette Bening also delivers a gangbusters performance as Carolyn Burnham. It's a role that is trickier than Spacey's, a character that doesn't invite much audience sympathy. Bening is a pro and works the angles nicely to give us a character that is never a monster, just a woman with her own problems. Thora Birch and Mena Suvari are underwhelming in the teenage roles, leaving only Wes Bentley alone to shine is his lead debut. Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, and Chris Cooper are all fine in their supporting roles.

The deep angst that AMERICAN BEAUTY covers is nice for a change. A film that takes some minor chances with plot selections and overall tone. BEAUTY is a film that often could be considered brilliant, only minor disappointment comes when the film cannot seem to keep a even pace. I think Mendes and Ball have created a film that will stir many emotions out of the audience. A thought provoking film told with moxie and care. BEAUTY will forever be remembered as the film that was this close to genius.-------------- 8/10
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The real American pastime
12 September 1999
For Love Of The Game

Maybe I'm looking at this film through rose colored glasses. Sam Raimi is one of my favorite directors, a real talent with visual ingenuity and a penchant for silliness. With last holiday's bleak A SIMPLE PLAN, Raimi gave up his EVIL DEAD past and churned out the most satisfying dramatic thriller of last year. He is certainly growing by leaps and bounds as a storyteller, and his latest film, FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, is another surprise for those of us who are fans. A truly elegant, dashingly romantic, white-knuckled look at baseball and matters of the human heart, GAME represents what a true Hollywood soap opera should be, effective.

Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel, an aging pitcher for the Detroit Tigers heading for the mound for may be his last time ever. The team owner has sold the organization to a corporation and they have plans to trade Billy. His arm continues to fail him more every time he steps up to thrown. And to top it all off, Billy must deal with his tempestuous relationship with Jane, a woman he met by a broken down car on the side of the road five years ago and has yet to fully commit to. With all these thoughts swirling inside Billy's head, he unknowingly begins pitching a perfect game. Unable to keep his mind clear, Billy thinks back on his life during the game and considers the mistakes he has made and the people he has met.

Told mostly in flashback, LOVE OF THE GAME is first and foremost a baseball movie. While being knocked for his recent professional choices (yeah, I liked THE POSTMAN, say what you will) Kevin Costner seems to have been crowned king of the baseball flicks. Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM is pure genius, the best baseball film ever. FIELD OF DREAMS is more like GAME, both share a strong heartbeat and retaining a smart enthusiasm for the sport. Costner has been the glue that held both films together. He's always been a good actor, only reaching brilliance once (DURHAM). He has the rare charm the many actors forget to consider. While not technically proficient, Costner knows screen charisma well. GAME gives us a desperate Costner performance, one which lets the actor take his guard down for once. His Billy Chapel is a man used to success, yet unsure how to use it to his advantage. A man who can hardly imagine himself consumed by anything but baseball. It's a great performance from Costner. My only hope is that public opinion doesn't tarnish the acting for the paying crowd.

Kelly Preston has the more troublesome task of shining brighter than Costner. A working actress for sometime now, this new film feels like the first time Preston is really acting. I enjoyed her supporting work in 1998's underrated JACK FROST, and GAME finally puts her front and center. She bounces effortlessly of Costner, and the two - while skittish at first - melt into a nice chemistry that packs more emotion than I expected. The loopy John C. Reilly (BOOGIE NIGHTS) and Jena Malone (STEPMOM) are also quite pleasant in small roles.

Working with even more restraint than his SIMPLE PLAN, Raimi brings to the table his gift for camera placement and visual tenacity. The baseball scenes in GAME are very romantic, the title doesn't lie. A self-professed fanatic of baseball, Raimi's love of the game shows in each shot. With noted cinematographer John Bailey, the two create a pristine looking film. The stadium scenes are both frightening cinematic and realistic at the same time. The look of the film might not register with many people, but I couldn't help but to admire such attention to detail.

Screenwriter Dana Stevens made quite an impression with her spare and warm CITY OF ANGELS remake. What she brings to GAME is the feeling of courtship that I enjoyed in Costner's last film MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE. Costner and Preston really show the genesis of a relationship, warts and all. The structure of flashback that Stevens uses to tell the story isn't as unfortunate as it sounds. It's all a rather nice mix of familiar baseball melodrama and a hearty dose of Hollywood soap opera. Stevens proves once again that she has a wonderful ear for romantic entanglements.

Call me a sucker for the obvious, but FOR LOVE OF THE GAME really worked for me. I really was moved by the story and enjoyed all the nuances and quirks. This classy film might not have a hero with a chainsaw for a hand, a crispy scientist with a reliance on synthetic skin, or a quickdrawing Sharon Stone. What it does have is strong emotional resonance. A audience film that the mainstream will love and the arthouse will abhor. I'll take that any day.-------- 10/10
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Stigmata (1999)
Bled Dry
10 September 1999
Stigmata

The latest entry in Hollywood's mad dash for demonic thrillers will probably be the one remembered for the best script completely undermined by the director. Once again, another commercial and MTV hack steps up to the show and immediately proves the limits these knuckleheads share. While mostly in focus, STIGMATA is another example of why a director who pays attention to the story as well as the visuals is so rare in the current director climate.

His name is Rupert Wainwright and this is his first movie. A gentle fable about a club hopping young woman(Patricia Arquette) who suddenly begins to share the same wounds Christ received when he died on the cross. When the Catholic church is brought in to investigate, a priest (Gabriel Byrne) begins to question his place in the religious organization and finds himself becoming attached to this confused, and almost bled dry, female.

Like Michael Bay, Hype Williams, and any number of established MTV directors/feature hacks that have come before, Wainwright seems bent on destroying every ounce of narrative and structure that the screenplay, I'm positive, had. STIGMATA takes on some heady subjects, one of them being the fallacy of organized religion. Wainwright has a potential powder keg of issues to molest but all he can seem to accomplish is to fill every scene with enough lit candles to make Smokey The Bear break out into a cold sweat over, and the rampant use of edits - alone the downfall of modern film. His style is boring and repetitive, yet nothing he does can drown the interest I had in STIGMATA's story. With every visual thing pushing me away, the ideas that STIGMATA toys with are fascinating, and in the end, based in fact. It draws you in completely.

Even Patricia Arquette cannot seem to dampen the film. After every bad performance she has given recently (HI-LO COUNTRY, GOODBYE LOVER) I find it hard not to dry-heave a bit when her name is attached to a movie. I don't like her, but Wrainwright takes all the focus off her poor acting with his overdirecting. In a way you could say it's her best performance in years. Byrne, on the other hand, commands the screen with his massive Irish-Catholic charm. His role as Satan in Schwarzenegger's upcoming END OF DAYS should be a hoot and a holler. Oddly, the film also plays as a minor BEFORE THEY WERE STARS special with Portia de Rossi (TV's ALLY MCBEAL) and Enrico Colantoni (JUST SHOOT ME) in tiny supporting roles - filmed way before they both hit the television jackpot.

STIGMATA is not a film I would recommend. While I enjoyed the story and the performances, everything is wasted by a director who feels he has to show off instead of letting his movie breathe. Obvious (and I mean obvious!) last minute tampering by the studio doesn't helps things at all. Instead of one long story arc, we get THIRTEENTH WARRIOR style montages and clips of scenes and characters we never got to see or meet. It's a mess, but a damn intriguing one. --------------- 5/10
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