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The Emperor's New Groove

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I have to admit, I was very unimpressed with the title, enough so that I put off seeing this movie until New Year’s Day, 2001. “You’ve thrown off the Emperor’s groove” was supposed to get me into the theatre? However, a dearth of available unseen movies got me in the door, and I am glad I went. It’s not a typical Disney movie, however. It does have Disney’s trademark lush backgrounds and funny visual gags and smooth style. The Emperor (voiced by personal unfavorite David Spade) shares more of his genetic makeup with Chuck Jones or Tex Avery and their ill-natured, vaguely geometric bits than with Ariel or Tarzan. By geometric, I mean to evoke the vaguely beat backgrounds of the coyote/roadrunner cartoons. The movie is sly, sarcastic, sardonic, and for me, that says “funny.” For traditional Disney devotees, it might say “too adult and mean-spirited for my taste.”

Disney may be trying to keep up with the times. They may be trying to shed the nostalgic fairy dust, just like they closed down cheesy favorite ride 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in favor of a featureless lagoon. They may have been experimenting – though a Disney Christmastime release is usually not small potatoes. Emperor (I cannot call it “Groove”) thankfully dispenses with the groovy anachronisms in favor of an unlikely buddy story with a message and a pretty darn funny little plot against Kuzco (Spade). John Goodman is the burly, big-hearted foil to Spade, and thank goodness, since he is simply great, always. Super villainess and ex-catwoman Eartha Kitt is creepy and very funny, with Seinfeld’s Puddy (Patrick Warburton) adding extra funny. I am glad Warburton is working in animation because his voice is perfect for this kind of work.

OK, it’s funny. It’s not a Disney classic, it’s no tour de force of animation and songwriting (there is one song, and it’s just an ego trip of Kuzco’s sung by Tom Jones), but it is a very amusing, fun way to spend an afternoon. Kids taking it at face value may not get the jokes, or they may suddenly adopt a sassy tone around the house. The malice is more along the levels of an episode of Friends (except for some assassination attempts) but it’s still a bit out of the Disney ballpark. Keep your eyes open and you’ll get some extra laughs. Disney still knows how to fill the screen for all ages.

David Spade. I never find him funny, but I did enjoy his work in this film. His wickedness, ego-centrism, and leering snideness are perfect for his role, even if it makes it harder work for him to redeem himself at the end. The score is very cool as well. Catch it!

MPAA Rating G
Release date 12/15/00
Time in minutes 78
Director Marc Dindal, Roger Allers
Studio Walt Disney

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Unbreakable

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Is it the let down after Sixth Sense? Is it the relatively emotionally chilly Samuel L. Jackson failing to provide a proper empathetic foil to Bruce Willis’ earnest searching hero? Is it the fact that despite elegant, beautiful cinematography and balletic pacing, basically the story ends up being kind of a self-reflexive let down? Was it the hype?

Frankly, I was grateful to have the excuse of moving (and hooking up my super fast cable modem!) to delay writing this review, because while I was eyes wide open, holding my breath, and really diving into the film while I was watching it, my initial feeling upon coming out was vague disappointment and an empty feeling, like I’d eaten the package for the cake instead of the baked product. First of all, instead of not knowing all along, our hero Bruce knows but won’t admit it – which is quite frustrating. Meanwhile, everyone else knows and doesn’t even think that much of it, amazingness-wise. This is frustrating. Yes, of course, there is an ending which I can’t give away, but I will tell you this – unlike the Sixth Sense, this ending is vital. It’s not gravy, it’s the pay off, and when one thinks about it, it’s not much of a pay off. Certainly, the intentions of the searcher for the hero were to find a hero. And a hero is born of terrible calamity. But ultimately, the finished knot ends up being a slip knot, not a firm sailor’s knot, and with one slight tug, the whole things falls apart. But maybe I am picky.

I will, however, gush about how it was shot. The preview doesn’t even give you the slightest idea of how beautiful and fascinating the camera work will be. Lots of shots of and through reflections, watching through glass and through moving foreground objects. The opening scene – watch it thinking about where the camera must be, and you will appreciate it all the more. The camera is used like the eyes of a snooping child, low, secretive, close, darting to keep out of sight, Distance and perspective and light are all very important, and Shyamalan weaves them together beautifully. I was looking for themes of color, (like red in Sixth Sense) but only uncovered that Jackson’s character is strongly associated with purple. I love the dialogue, I love the pacing, I love how my toes curled under during the “I just know this is going to be upsetting” parts. I loved it, I just couldn’t stomach it once it was all over and done with. This was frustrating.

Ultimately, it was not the best follow-up, and Bruce Willis (whom I love) is starting to make a niche for himself playing reactive, the-truth-slowly-dawns guys, which is not the best place for an actor to end up. It ends up making him a tool, rather than a character, although Willis is not a tool in this film. To say more would be a crime, but I will add that if it does not get nominated for cinematography, I will be extremely put out.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/22/00
Time in minutes 106
Director M. Night Shyamalan
Studio Touchstone

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The Grinch

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If, indeed, God (or beauty or truth or what have you) is in the details, then this is the most righteous movie ever made. The cynics should go see it because Jim Carrey’s characterization of the Grinch is rich and bitter, and because it’s a happy X-mas movie, for Pete’s sake. The shiny happy people should go see it because it’s shiny and happy and also shows the absurdity of fakeness and insincerity. People like me who are obsessed with production design should see it because it is the single most visually stunning live-action film I have seen since Titanic. I said, as the credits rolled, it was total full frame perfection. If the technical Oscars aren’t all given to the Grinch this year, I will explode. Everyone else not mentioned above should go see it to support this kind of total commitment to quality filmmaking. Show the studios we love it when you give us the straight deal – commentary and hilarity, love and humor, and some great looking stuff.

Did I mention it’s funny? There is tongue in cheek humor, simple physical humor, sarcastic humor, dry humor, broad humor, Carrey humor, oh yeah! It makes the animated version look like the McLaughlin Group. But it’s not all gags and bon mots. I was genuinely moved at a point or two, and I was CRACKING UP most of the rest of the time. That is, when I wasn’t goggling in amazement at…at everything! The details! Yes, the sets are straight out of the pen of Dr. Seuss. The production team studied all his books for a vocabulary of shapes and colors, and it shows. The author’s widow not only approved the film – she was wowed by it. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, think about this: every inch of the screen is filled with little details – it’s just like a cartoon in its design simplicity, but rich, so rich! I bow to the art department!

While I was wetting my pants at the hairdo that was a pile of square packages each wrapped in ribbon, my companions noticed the cups of milk balanced on the heads of other characters. The makeup is astounding, the Grinch costume (by Rick Baker, Oscar-winning artist behind Sherman Klump’s Nutty Professor body) is a character – oh my god! I couldn’t stop saying oh my god! (My guy was quite sick of my repetitive expressions of awe an hour later, though he did agree with me.) It was like, wow, man, you know? I couldn’t, can’t describe it. I felt the same way after seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, if that helps anyone understand how amazing this was to look at. I have gotten distracted by the visuals again.

Even if you scoff at merriness or pooh-pooh at cheer, you will enjoy this film. I will own it. Midway through I wanted to see it again. It’s very sweet, but not treacly. Ron Howard was challenged by one too many people asking him (logically) why Tim Burton wasn’t directing this film. Watching it, it still has that earnest, good natured Ron Howard touch, but with a kick. His take (according to what I have read) is to take the familiar The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, make that Act 3, and start the movie with how the Grinch got that way. He does it beautifully, without being didactic or smarmy, and with a great cast. Cindy Lou Who does have a warbly, weird song, so don’t let that deter you. She does a lot of great work in the film, and deserves a moment just for her.

The great, hysterical, brilliant physical comedian Jim Carrey takes the cartoonish wiles of The Mask and the sly, Seussian view of humbugs, and makes this movie a freakin’ classic all by himself. Sure, it’s great that he has the technology to completely inhabit the Grinch and his world, but it’s all him. It’s his growlificus, whine-antsy gruffapalooza that sells his character and the film. Cindy Lou Who is all sunshine, light, sugar, ribbons, she’s a little buck-toothed cupid. They are delightful together. Damn, it’s funny. I can’t stress that enough.

Go see it. Right now! Save me a seat. Keep your eyes and your heart wide open.

*Note: After repeat viewings, I stand by my review. It is my favorite holiday movie, with everything a holiday movie needs, from heart to timelessness to swift pacing and visual feasting.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 11/17/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Ron Howard
Studio Universal

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You Can Count On Me

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Despite its regrettably generic title, this is a finely tuned, subtle, moving film, with great performances and a deceptively clever screenplay. I honestly think I am not educated enough to really do justice to the subtle brilliance that is this film. The first act, if you will, is slow, rambling almost, lulling you into a sense of art film for art’s sake, but never losing your interest or wasting any time. Every line and shot gives you information without being loaded and awkward. Laura Linney, nominated for Best Actress, also delivers a subtly building performance, so that you don’t notice how above-average it is. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you in the car on the way home, and you realize how much craft went into it.

With a regrettable summer teen movie generic title, I am (sadly) not surprised that people weren’t just sucked into the theatre to watch the stars of Congo and Godzilla (Linney and Broderick, respectively) talk about their feelings. It is everyone’s loss for those who did not – it is movies like this that make careers, that prove the chops behind the “just-a-job” gigs, and that make me so thrilled to be a reviewer.

After the lengthy exposition, for a second you think, oh no, they spent the whole movie walking at a slow pace, do they have time for a story arc? It is always a more in-depth set-up that delivers a richer payoff. Mirroring Linney’s character Sam’s life, the film makes you feel the static nature of her life, so that when it begins its spiral, you can feel every single bend in the road on the way down. It’s so great! At a particular moment which I cannot spoil, I turned to my companion and said, “Oh my god what do I do now?” – so engrossed was I in her performance and story and the situation she had gotten herself into, that I was in an ecstasy of empathy. Hooray for Laura Linney and for screenwriter (and director) Ken Lonergan! This is Lonergan’s first time directing, and only one of 4 screenplays, two of which, frankly, are crap. I honestly don’t know what happened, but I am grateful – and I will go out and rent Rocky and Bullwinkle just to see if this movie is a fluke or if he was just paying the bills on the way to getting shafted at the Oscars for this marvelous, delightful screenplay. Oh and he plays Linney’s priest in the movie, so he can act, too!

Astoundingly, a young Culkin (you like, Macauley Culkin from Home Alone) child is Linney’s son in this movie. This proves the formula that the Culkin family’s role is to produce prodigies at young ages, with time-release capsules of Hollywood Pap inserted under the skin to take them out of the game in time for their younger siblings to have a turn being great. In short, young Rory Culkin should be watched while we still can.

The events in the film shake up Linney’s life, and seeing the movie should shake up Joe Audience’s expectations of what a real movie should be like. Great stuff. The end is a bit vague, but, as in life, there are no endings, really – why should a movie so skilled at portraying inner life drop the ball on outer life? Lovely, lovely film.

MPAA Rating R-language, drugs, sexuality
Release date 11/10/00
Time in minutes 119
Director Ken Lonergan
Studio TSG Pictures

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Pay It Forward

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Of all the movies to decide Kevin Spacey is sexy, I have to choose the one with all the scars and stuff. But isn’t that what Spacey does best? Shine through with his mind and his eyes? If the answer before was, “No, just his mind,” it’s the eyes that have it now. The fine acting and excellent script never hurt anybody either. As they say, be excellent. And my new secret boyfriend Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey are excellent. Even Helen Hunt, who has never impressed me on the big screen, is great. It takes a lot for me to say that. Spacey’s characters always are thinking thinking analyzing, but this one is also doing the opposite of what he has done before: restraining, restraining…and it’s delish. He should be in a brainiac movie with Jodie Foster.

What’s wrong with the world today? I don’t think it takes a sociology Ph.D. to say “plenty!” So it’s up to the naive and bright-eyed to still see what is decent in the world and try to save it. Teachers, bitter, burned by life, even burned by fire, know this. It is their underpaid, embittering, and laborious job to impart this sense of optimism to today’s youth. Who else can do it? The movies, I guess. This one does its part. It is the cynics of the world (I do not fully count myself out of that group) who are the real problem, aren’t we/they? “The problem is too big, I can’t make a difference, why bother?” And it is the cynics of the world (here I am excluded) who will roll their too-cool-for-school eyes at this film and say, “How ridiculous. Altruism embraced by Joe America? Not in this lifetime.” It is exactly that attitude that makes this lovely story fiction, instead of a movement in progress.

What director Mimi Leder proved with Deep Impact and The Peacemaker is that she is a woman who needs to make movies that deal with emotion and not explosions. However, it is her experience with meteoric and nuclear explosions that somehow allows her to draw out the explosions within stars Spacey, Hunt, and Osment. What starts as a lovely idea of a young boy turns not into the neat, ordered pyramid scheme as illustrated in the preview, but a complex, semi-reciprocal network of true human goodness and beauty. But Leder is not a fantasy movie director. She knows there is ugliness, always ugliness lurking beneath any happy facade – what better setting for the movie than Las Vegas? The most beautiful (OK, polished) veneer over the deepest corruption, or decay, or injury, or mistrust, or fear. It’s a great unspoken plot device.

Do I even need to mention that Spacey and Osment make me weep just by being on screen together? I would like to point out that my expectations (post-American Beauty and Sixth Sense) were cranked **extremely** high, and I did not walk out feeling unsatisfied. Without wanting to reveal anything, I must say that I think the final image is both the strongest and the weakest moment in the film. Strongest because it works despite itself. Weakest because it edges too close to symbolism that is wholly inappropriate for the rest of the movie. But you know what? It’s over by then and the impact of the film in general is not weakened.

I rushed over to the window of the B. Dalton (I was in a mall, sue me) after seeing the film, hoping to see Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel of the same name in the window, tie-in cover or not. I suspect we will be seeing a few million copies of that move in the next month or so. I clearly have addressed very little of the movie – the preview gives too much away as it is, so I leave you to watch no more previews and go to the film with an open mind and heart. But go. The performances are truly spectacular, as one would hope, and I am going to marry that little Osment boy as soon as I can. Hunt is against type – no squinting, tolerant side-broad to Reiser or Nicholson, but a true solo performance to remind us that she is actually different and preferable to Leelee Sobieski. Yeah, Angie Dickinson, Jay Mohr, James Caveizel are all in it, all do great work – Jay is a little one note, but whatever – but this movie is about and for Spacey, Osment, and Hunt, and they are why you should see it. Even if you’re a cynic.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/20/00
Time in minutes 123
Director Mimi Leder
Studio Warner Brothers

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Bedazzled

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A remake of a ’70’s comedy developed by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook (given brief, canine homage in a quick scene midway through the movie) is not always the immediate thought of a modern Hollywood executive. Whoever pitched this film must have had their cast already in mind, because casting Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser as Cook and Moore’s roles, respectively, freshens up this Faustian chestnut in a way as to make it almost feel like the first time. No one can deny our lead’s natural charismas individually, but as a team, they are a surprisingly winning pair. They are not a couple, of course, but adversaries, but sometimes that is many times more delicious. Hurley is perfect, she’s beautiful, so beautiful you are forced to trust her – a new bent on the Devil charisma when her wickedness stays intact, instead of just turning her into a sex object who distracts her prey. She’s having a great time, and it shows. Fraser is excellent at being the hapless victim – he and Ben Stiller should do a buddy comedy together – their bodies convey their awkwardness and their embarrassment and get them into so much trouble, very master-school type comedy. Full body comedy. Extreme goofiness!

I am disappointed in the casting of Frances O’Connor (wonderful in Mansfield Park) as Fraser’s desperate love interest, because not only is she no Raquel Welch, but she is (frankly) not even as dreamily desirable as she was in Mansfield Park as the “dreary sister.” So we don’t really root for Fraser to win the girl.

First, the good news: The preview, while it does take that great Spanish bit and ruin most (but not all) of it for you, overall, the preview does not reveal much of the movie at all – so everything is like a delicious little surprise. Avid moviegoers (I heard this was defined at ten a year – a YEAR!) will recognize what a treat it is just to be surprised by the ending of a movie these days, the previews are so shameless about giving up all the money shots. In fact, one very memorable shot in the preview is not in the movie at all – and it is the exact same shot that made me and everyone I know be like, “Oh my GOD I cannot wait for that movie to come out!” People I know who are ambivalent about movies in general were excited about opening day – one friend of mine saw it twice opening weekend (he was the same one who noticed the dog joke). I have not seen positive anticipation like this for a movie since…The Cell? And this movie pays off!

Second, more good news: It’s funny. It’s sweet. Fraser is painfully, hopelessly lacking in social graces of any kind. A fun, Pop-Up-Video-style opening sets the light tone for the film, without being too dated and cyber-happy. This is a mark of taste. Oh, didn’t I mention? This was directed by Harold Ramis, who has amused you in the past with such classics as Caddyshack, Vacation, Groundhog Day, and he had more than a little to do with Ghostbusters too. Fraser, paragon of the uncool, meets Hurley, zenith of the ungood, and their extremes gradually soften until the end, where, incredibly, they both have a change. This is grown-up storytelling in a fun for all ages kind of venue.

The makeup deserves its own mention here. Even for situations Fraser finds himself in where he would not need to be physically different than Elliot normally is, he is, and he chameleonically fills these new faces and bodies and we believe him, and it looks amazing. Huzzah for the makeup and the music and all the little, unnoticed details that make this movie work. Why Matinee with Snacks instead of Full Price Feature? Frankly, it’s only because the movie was delightful and fun and dissipated like Chinese food three days later. Now that I am writing about it again, without even having looked at my notes, I want to see it again. Go figure. It’s great, go see it.

OK what did I write? Hurley has a Rocky Horror mouth and I love it. Painful (in a funny way) beginning, smart jokes tucked in among the easily accessed jokes (my companion was shrewd enough to note Fermat’s Last Theorem on the classroom chalkboard), and a great deal of natural chemistry and tension. Like Meet The Parents, the girl is just a goal, she is not a character in her own right – but in Frances O’Connor’s defense, she has to do a *lot* of stuff in this film which “the girl” would never have to do, and she is great. I’m hard on O’Connor because her “real life” character (i.e. pre-Satan) is plain oatmeal. I have to admit she worked what little material she was given to the fullest, without detracting from Hurley’s supernatural hotness. So, yes, still great.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/20/00
Time in minutes 93
Director Harold Ramis
Studio 20th Century Fox

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The Contender

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The Contender

Matinee Price Plus Snacks

I don’t normally get into politics, and I will come right out and say that movies like Dave and The American President work on me because I am a liberal and I am an idealist. That said, a film like The Contender should not be maligned or neglected due to my political ignorance OR my political leanings. As anyone knows, the scenario depicted in this film could happen to any party member, at any level of government, so to reduce any discussion of the topic down to ideologies or whatever is nonsense.

OK. Joan Allen is great. She’s perfect – she’s serious enough, attractive enough, not-attractive enough, pleasant and genuine and clever and closed enough. President Jeff Bridges (an unlikely candidate for president in any political climate) is, despite his Casual Fridays approach to the job, a good match for her (she’s in the running for vice president due to a death). Together they are almost believable as people in the highest levels (or potential levels) of power, yet the point of the film is that yes, our Great Leaders and also our Demon Leaders (as administrations come and go) are all basically people, who eat and laugh and manipulate and have coitus with their spouses and hang out and make important decisions. The point of the movie is that people deserve privacy, they deserve to make their own judgments about how their past relates to their present, and who better to tell the tale of public opinion directing lives than Hollywood actors? If Pee Wee Herman – no, if Richard Jewell – no, if Robert Downey Jr. were up for vice-president he wouldn’t have gotten a grilling like Allen’s character got.

The movie is about fairness, it’s about privacy, it’s about shrewdness in politics, it’s about witch hunts, it’s about dignity and pride and service to one’s country and it’s also about sticking to your guns, no matter what. It’s impressive, if flawed. Allen is the same strong woman she was in The Crucible but in a modern society that strength can work against her, can trigger a modern day witch hunt, just as it did in the 17th century. Her character is introduced in such a way to force the audience to have an immediate opinion about her, and we are given the whole movie to plot out her strategy first in our own minds and then see how she does it – and it will always come down to strength of character. Heck, I’d vote for her *because* of what she is accused of doing, just because it makes her more human. The 1950’s ideal of the magical robot president who doesn’t use the bathroom and has absolute omniscience and perfection is ludicrous. I think all people should be held to higher standards of conduct. Why is it not OK for a president to philander but it is OK for a senator to do so? Or a garbage carrier? The public eye?

Not unlike many similar past roles, Gary Oldman is weird, creepy, and never fully retaliated against as much as you personally, emotionally, might want. Christian Slater plays a Representative from Delaware who moves around this game in ways that frankly baffled me, but let my companion see the whole layout of the film. I blame myself. But Slater is interesting because he is so unreadable – is he going to be the baboon-hearted sweet florist shop guy we all cheer for, or the black-hearted “suicide is cool” guy who gets blown up by his own bomb? (Please refer to Slater’s filmography if I lost you here, just wanted to give the politicos a taste of their own medicine) It’s Joan Allen’s movie, no doubt about that, and it’s worth seeing almost exclusively just to see her – and it’s an interesting story. I was emotionally involved, entertained, and I had something to talk about afterwards eating. A round success!

MPAA Rating R for strong sexual content and language.
Release date 10/13/00
Time in minutes 126
Director Rod Lurie
Studio Dreamworks

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Psycho Beach Party

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I say Rental, now, because this movie is only for people who really, truly appreciate kitsch, camp, trash, drag, and who miss the innocent days of the middle of John Waters’ career. Based on the stage play (which I saw 10 years ago and prompted me to see this film), Psycho Beach Party is a silly parody of all those blissfully corny beach movies of the early 1960’s. It’s got the jangly surf music (an original score by Ben Vaughn) and jiggly shimmy songs played by Los Straitjackets and other, seemingly exclusive to this media, soundtrack winners. Psycho made a smooth transition from stage to screen – quite often such enterprises lose their fire; I suppose since the play was mocking the movies, making a movie of it was a more logical use of the script. Playwright Charles Busch adapted his own work, and it works perfectly with the opening of potential inherent in filming a play.

Lauren Ambrose (Can’t Hardly Wait) totally carries the film as a schizo tomboy surfer chick wanna-be-cool-chick, which is a harder task than one might imagine. We have to believe all her potential personalities, and still believe her total innocence and lack of awareness. A little more Ann Bowman, if you please! Ambrose should go far, but she needs your help! See Can’t Hardly Wait and this film together and you will goggle at her range. She is flanked with all the attendant purposefully bad effects, flip dialogue (particularly that of Dharma & Greg’s The Great Kanaka), and nutty plot twists you could ask for in a genre parody like this. It’s got everything, and it mocks it with loving glee. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, there are lots of hunky guys with their shirts off. For those who enjoy other sorts of things, there is anachronistic (to our wizened, cynical millennial eyes) toying with sexuality and adventure. And chicks in bikinis!

This movie is perfect with a tropical drink in your belly, a bunch of friends with a sense of humor at your side, and (at least at our screening) bathing-suit clad drag queens giving out prizes. But even without the guest stars, Psycho Beach Party delivers on its title just as one who can appreciate these sorts of things could wish. Overdramatic studio lighting, a dreamboat named Starcat and a mantrapper named Marvel Ann, surfboards, perky freckled noses, and trashy movie stars – it’s all here, folks!

Starcat is played by Nicholas Brendon (he’s on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a sure contender for the camp throne apparently left vacant by Bruce Campbell. I’d love to see a cage match with him and Jason Lee for the title of Ash II. All the actors (especially author Charles Busch in drag as a woman character) exude a sense of irony merely by playing this script as pure and straight as it can go, which is the only way to do it. Any nudge nudge, and the thing would fall apart. It’s the innocence of the actual era that made the movies so hysterical to us today – feigned innocence would just be aping, and not true parody. This is true parody, distilled 100 proof camp, and plenty of silly fun.

It’s apparently only playing art houses so run out and see it while you can! The befringed Ann-Margaret doppleganger in the opening credits will only fade on TV. Stash the jaw music, baby and get to the theatre, like pronto!

MPAA Rating – Not rated; probably would have ended up between PG-13 for sexual talk, drug use, and language
Release date 10/13/00
Time in minutes 94
Director Robert Lee King
Studio Strand Releasing

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Best in Show

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Christopher Guest is a brilliant man. He knows how to fill his movies with actors who are equal to the task he lays out for them: improvise a movie based on story structure. “Build your own characters,” spake Lord Haden-Guest, “Speak in the voices you create for themselves, and I will provide the machinery to make it all into a movie.” This is what he did with Waiting for Guffman, and now with Best In Show. The casts are near identical, with the added bonus of Stifler’s Mom (Jennifer Coolidge) from American Pie as a high maintenance gold-digger princess type. The movies are near identical as well: a series of interviews about the event that will change everything for everyone, the event itself, and a kind of lengthy coda to wrap things up.

Unfortunately, what is most amazing about movies like these does not always read as well as it could. Maybe I am jaded, and am so surrounded by people who can assume other characters and carry on long conversations in their roles, who can mock a personality type with love and with amusement, that I cannot recognize the genius of doing it on the big screen. Heaven knows I appreciate improvisation! But Guffman and Best In Show are both very well-acted character studies, with sly and knowing digs at the people they make fun of (in Guffman’s case, small town stage divas, in Best Of Show’s case, serious dog-show contestants), with not much of a rewarding journey to follow them on.

I love Fred Willard, I love Catherine O’Hara, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, and others…but I want them to interact more. I want them to tell me a story with their extravagant gifts, not just amuse me by portraying someone extremely interesting. Willard is a master at being square, square, square, and his delivery is fantastic. He’s paired. apparently, with a real dog show expert, who clearly is terrified of what is coming out of Fred’s mouth, and I was tickled pink. The funniest bits in the movie are just delightfully executed character moments. There is no buildup or plot punch, and so I walk away, as I did from Guffman, unsatisfied somehow.

Far be it from me to say, this is no good – because for what it is, it is marvelous. Improvised movies are an amazing risk, an amazing leap – and to have such fantastic characters and be in such amazing venues (surely shooting the dog show sequences had to be the most arduous task in the world!) is a treat – but unlike This Is Spinal Tap, the story itself is not the reward. I am loathe to even mention the name of the beast in the same review as Lord Haden-Guest, but perhaps that is why Saturday Night Live is still on the air – some people just want to see a funny person and laugh at how they act. That person doesn’t have to go through anything or change or interact with anyone other than a straight man who plays up their wackiness. If we could have had more interaction, say, between Coolidge and O’Hara, or Michael Hitchcock (Parker’s spouse in the film), I think the storyline of them meeting to compete in the dog show would have more punch. Like Duets, it’s a bunch of smaller stories congregating into a quick ending…oh but the coda is not so quick either.

Maybe I do take pure character studies for granted, but for me, it is not enough to see funny people, although it is an important part of a good nutritious entertainment. I need to see the sparks that happen between people, the relationships. It is what theatre is all about. The conflict of them competing in the show is artificial, not based on their personalities.

OK, enough. Posey and Hitchcock have hit Generica the Beautiful on the head – they are a perfect example of all that is wrong with this country, and they do it unashamedly. Hitchcock himself was once rude to me and my friends, so I was pleased to be able to loathe his character as a person. Guest is far away from his usual type of an intellectual (or a self-impression of an intellectual) and he’s more lovable than I have seen him in years. He even, somehow, sold me on the idea of a hound dog as a pet. O’Hara and Eugene Levy play an unlikely married couple, with some amusing recall jokes (but if I know Levy/Guest, I think the recurring joke was always a surprise to O’Hara, making me love her even more for being so good at what she does). Fred Willard – I would stalk you if it wasn’t illegal and immoral, you are the coolest! Finally, I loved Stiffler’s Mom as Stiffler’s Mom, but I really think she has some serious potential in this kind of venue.. She looked uncomfortable, but game, and that is half the battle. It’s definitely worth seeing, I just didn’t laugh as much as I’d hoped.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/13/00
Time in minutes 90
Director Christopher Guest
Studio Warner Brothers

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Meet the Parents

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Don’t let the opening song by Randy Newman scare you – Meet The Parents is a perfect specimen of a cascading disaster comedy. The stakes are high, the mistakes are numerous, and futile scrambling to right impossible wrongs is key. A classic example of this hair-raising theory of comedy is a scene (only a scene) from Father of the Bride: Steve Martin not only goes into the private study of the father of the groom (oh no), he examines his checkbook (No!); then somehow tosses the checkbook out the window (yipes!) into the pool (d’oh!) – not only that, he then falls in the pool trying to retrieve it (ouch!). Simple errors snowball into big laughs throughout Parents, unlike the more treacly aforementioned forebear.

The cast is perfect. Ben Stiller, as always, is direct yet guileless, well-intentioned but hopelessly off base. Male or female, we can’t help but feel his shoes tightening around our feet. Robert DeNiro, always understated and funny when he’s allowed to be, is intimidating and brazenly unsympathetic to Stiller’s character. DeNiro is foiled by Blythe Danner, giving us a taste of where Gwyneth got her comedic timing. No one is as broad or clownish as the circumstances would demand, making their reactions all the funnier. I haven’t laughed (or cringed) so continuously since – when? Oh, god, when? Too long.

Some of the jokes set themselves up – and it is their very obviousness that delights us. As in the Steve Martin scene, we are waiting for Steve Martin to fall in the pool. If he doesn’t, we’ll be disappointed. Some of the scenes in Parents pay off in such a way. A delightful many of them pay off in surprising ways. I don’t want to ruin anything, and by the way, don’t watch any previews! Here is a fictional example. Someone says “Don’t sit on that chair, it’s broken.” You know, by all the laws of Hollywood, someone will sit in that chair. The funny part will not be them sitting – it will be how the contrive the story to force someone who knows not to sit there to sit in the chair. Meet The Parents will take the corner – somehow instead of making someone sit in the broken chair, they will make the hapless hero have to use the chair in some unthinkable new way to achieve a secondary goal (and of course fail at it) which will cause someone else to sit in the chair, or worse.

This is a terrible example, but long time readers know when I work this hard to make a point, I REALLY want you to see this movie. By giving nothing of the real story away, I reveal my own weaknesses in comedy writing. Trust me, it’s well-written, funny, clever, rewarding, and nerve-racking in its snowball effects. These writers, Greg Glienna, Mary Ruth Clarke, Jim Herzfeld (Tapeheads) and John Hamburg (Safe Men) know about comedy writing. Personally, I credit Herzfeld. Bizarre credits trivia – one of the executive producers is Emo Phillips. Also, one of the story writers, Glienna, played Greg in the 1992 Meet The Parents – and Clarke was in that film as well. So was Emo Phillips. Hmmmm! Apparently, they felt they could do it better. I suspect they are correct.

Other comedies, brilliant on paper and on set, die in the editing room (I’m thinking of Waiting for Guffman) – too long or too short a pause, too rapid-fire one liners obscuring themselves in the laughs of previous gags, etc. Not so here. The pacing is superb, subtle, the timing is exacting, excruciating, it’s just a treat! Such a relief, really, since this “impress your girlfriend’s dad” gag has got whiskers on it – and still the girl ends up being simply an ornamental catalyst, and an unsympathetic one at that. It’s an eternal comedic truth (says Murphy’s Law) that in such a high stakes situation, something equally disastrous will go wrong. What Murphy was talking about was spilling soup on the mother of the bride – director Jay Roach (the not so funny Austin Powers movies) makes soup out of her. What fun that it gets to be Ben Stiller tripping over Robert DeNiro’s approval. I do believe it is one of my top three movies of the year, easy. I know that’s not saying much in the year of Battlefield Earth and What Planet Are You From, but it’s still a great movie.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/6/00
Time in minutes 108
Director Jay Roach
Studio Universal

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