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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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Dr. T and the Women

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Of course I knew this movie would not please me. I knew it the first time I saw the preview. I got a screener in the mail, I was home sick, what could I do? But I had no idea I would be so pissed at how unacceptable this movie is as “entertainment.” The opening shot traditionally sets the tone for the movie it opens, and in this case that tone-setting shot is an elderly lady having a speculum inserted while she chats awkwardly with her unseen physician. The tone: “off-putting.” It only goes downhill from there.

Marketed as a gynecological light comedy, the film never gets around to telling us what is supposed to be so funny. Is it that he’s a successful gynecologist but can’t cure his troubled wife? Side-splitting! Or is it that he’s a popular gyno because he’s “handsome,” insofar as Richard Gere can be considered handsome? Knee-slapper! It was written by a woman, so I thought perhaps it would be about the amusing dynamics between different women, but instead it was about a man’s inability to fathom the women around him, despite having a medical degree pertaining to their nether regions. Haw haw haw! Oh, and there is poor Shelly Long and Robert “Airplane!” Hayes too, not helping.

Director Robert Altman does his trademark layered dialogue here, which works sometimes (setting a realistic mood) and not other times (failure to establish a sense of actual story). All the women are blonde and fluffy, until Liv Tyler oozes on screen, and then what? Nothing. When I (against policy) try to explain the story to someone to illustrate how disgruntled I am about the lack of story, I get all worked up in a lather because not even a quick synopsis makes it sound like it’s about anything – it’s 17 words short of a 25 word pitch. “Handsome male gynecologist and the women in his life.” Note the lack of verbs. Gere can’t even do anything himself to save it, as he, the lead, is reduced to a reactionary role, whose only advancing actions serve to make us feel less sympathetic to him.

Helen Hunt breezes through this movie as if unaware of the rest of the film or the actual role Gere is playing, (worried husband) so it’s not her fault. She also gets most of the opportunities to repeat the central metaphor, er, image, er, fantasy, which is essentially “look out for women and water” and which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Redemption for Gere is a boy and a desert, but even though the symbolism is broadly drawn, it symbolizes nothing – what about women and water? Dangerous, wonderful, inextricable? Oh, and redemption from what?

Really, the funniest part of the movie (for me, for it was a screener copy) was the subtitle “For Your Consideration.” I will say this – the filmmakers did two things right: the sweet, sad (possibly inappropriate) music of Lyle Lovett is a keeper, and all depictions of Texas weather – the skies, the sound, the instant rivulets on the sidewalks, the Magnolia-esque weather surprise near the end, it’s all executed well. But that does not make a movie. It’s a bummer, it’s got no story arc, the lead is unsympathetic and uninteresting, and the women characters are a wee bit over the top as well. Hestia syndrome? Whatever.

Skip this one, as if you didn’t already.

MPAA Rating R for graphic nudity and some sexuality.
Release date 10/3/00
Time in minutes 122
Director Robert Altman
Studio Artisan Entertainment

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Directed by Bruce Paltrow (dad to Gwyneth), Duets is superficially about a bunch of people who love karaoke, and more a little smorgasbord of duet scenes with unlikely partners thrown together. Some of the plotting is a tad contrived, such as Gwyneth’s segment (and don’t let the ad campaign fool you, this is no more her movie than anyone else’s), but none of it is jarring or lame. In fact, it’s quite charming, funny, and interesting. The three diverse duets, driving all over the country like near-sighted moths drawn to a weak flame, converge in Omaha, Nebraska, for the Karaoke Championships, and here is where the movie could have completely blown chunks – and it didn’t. Refreshingly, Duets handles some pretty dangerous material with wit, gentility, and grace – and it gives us a whole slew of unexpected singers to add to the list of Hollywood double threats.

I am grieved to report that Andre Braugher does not do his own singing, but the voice matching will blow your socks off. Gwyneth Paltrow shows off some pretty great pipes, and I don’t mean her stick legs (though she does that too) – she is bizarrely cast as an adult-teenager-type, weird and wispy and pretty naive for a girl raised in a casino in Las Vegas. But enough about her. The eternally underappreciated Paul Giamatti (Private Parts, Man On The Moon, The Truman Show, Safe Men, Saving Private Ryan, oh just check out is the star of this movie for me. He gets to do the most scenery chewing, deliver the choicest lines, and sing the best song (with Andre). I could write a whole review about how sublime Giamatti is in Duets, how he single handedly carries the film for a good solid third, how he instantly transforms himself into a total K-dawg and I believe it!

Forgettably filling the role long ago intended for Brad Pitt, Scott Speedman provides a weak foil for Maria Bello’s alarmingly self-destructive K-junkie. And yes, that man, sitting Bill Murray-esque at the bar, is Huey Lewis. I wonder how much of the character work is derived from the script and how much from each actor, because I have not been so unimpressed with Ms. Paltrow since Great Expectations, and it took two excellent movies to pull her out. Huey Lewis is great, and actually carries all their scenes, while she tumbles about like a preteen. The script is uneven – or more, the way the different stories meet and parallel is uneven, and the actors take up the slack. In Giamatti and Braugher’s case, no slack is detectable. But the other two dynamic duos are missing something, and their pieces, while somehow more plausible than Paul and Andre’s, are less true. I dunno.

I’ve tossed off mentions of karaoke for two paragraphs as if it is only a minor part of the film. It is not. If you have loved the life of a karaoke junkie as myself and my college friends once did, you will delight at the depiction of the addicts and the newbies and the carefully, brilliantly chosen songs. If you mock the brave bar ringers, who surprise you by *not* singing “Margaritaville,” who really seem to get into their brief, obscure moment in the spotlight, I don’t know how you will like this movie. It’s not about karaoke, it’s merely what ultimately unites these people. And again I don’t know why Scott Speedman is here at all. But the discs spin, the colors change on the words, and these people come alive, and it’s beautiful, even if you can’t identify with it. Go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language and some sexuality.
Release date 9/15/00
Time in minutes 112
Director Bruce Paltrow
Studio Hollywood Pictures

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Amanda Peet first took our notice – when? The Whole Nine Yards? That’s what it was for me. She’s one of the new guard of incredibly beautiful chicks who don’t mind doing comedy, in fact base a wee part of their comedy on the incongruous effect of a beautiful woman doing it. This trend has always been part of Julia Roberts career, but Julia has always been above and apart from the breed to which Ms. Peet has become. I think it began with Cameron Diaz in The Mask: a hot chick cast as a hot chick, and then getting to do more that just be unseemingly hot. Then There’s Something About Mary, with it’s guy-friendly gross-out factor, sealed the deal. Since then, we’ve had Drew Barrymore (already a natural comedienne) stretching that way, the return of the bankable Julia, and, with others, Amanda Peet. The sad part about this exciting new movie trend is that Amanda Peet is the Hot Chick, the perfect girl, for most of Whipped. She’s kind of funny, but it’s not until the surprise wrap-up that she gets to be funny. This is a crime.

Director Peter M. Cohen has whipped up (oops) a little film that feels like a little film. It smacks of indie film in its editing, its populace of unknown faces (more on that in a bit), its subject matter, and its dialogue. More than anything, the editing reeks of small potatoes. It’s well-planned, but inelegantly executed, and I am being kind. Like every student film by the guy who thinks this is his one big shot (which, to be fair, it usually is), Whipped suffers from trying to be too hip, too cutting edge with the euphemisms and the snappy snappy, too chock full of carefully crafted ripostes which end up just ringing false. Director/producer/writer/screenwriter belies more of an indie soul than the lately-appreciated writer/director trend. I can’t quite put my finger on what the difference is, but it’s there.

The four guys who are the ostensible spokes to Amanda’s hub, Brian Van Holt, Jonathan Abrahams, Zorie Barber, and Jonah Domke (Judah according to Yahoo), talk like girls imagine guys talk, but guys don’t really talk like that. They are unashamed panty hounds, total hormone cases, and much too old to all still be so fixated on a frat-party- style score, where a hanky tied onto the chest of a hot chick is all a guy needs, even if she robs his apartment. On top of this sad truth, one of them is married, and naturally he’s miserable, and they shut him out. It’s almost like a guy movie written by bitter women with no guy friends, but a pleasantly scatological sense of humor. Enter the simple plot element that is Amanda Peet (I won’t spoil it for you), and true wackiness ensues.

Crammed with bon mots, Whipped is amusing, funny, even insightful at times – but it cannot escape its slipshod beginnings. In this bleak bleak summer of substandard movies, one in which normally it would be crushed, it suddenly is a best bet (but no date movie!), and it is worth seeing just for the slew of amusing mockeries made of the sexual conquest-oriented Guy. Oh, and Zorie Barker is pretty freaking cute, in an early-college, picked-him-up-at-the-student-union kind of way. The bravest and therefore coolest of the actors is Jonathan Abrahams’ goateed loner. We’ve all met Brian Van Holt and we all are glad we don’t hang out with him any more – his one-dimensional Wall Street/sales guy Boiler Room hormone case is the least surprising and believable of the guys, but I cannot fault the actor. I can fault the actor who played the married chum, if only for simply not rebelling against his wardrobe and not ceasing the blinking, tic-ridden stuff. It is inconceivable that this one, of all of them, would be the married one. (shudder) Appropriately, he is the only male lead who has any previous film experience, and it’s from Spanking the Monkey.

No, I’m not all that complimentary overall, but I know plenty of guys who should see this movie but will fail to see themselves in it – I know plenty of women who will bridle at the way women are talked about in this movie, and I am sure plenty of teenage boys will get the impression that no matter how shallow and obvious their bastardly behavior is, they can still land a hottie like Peet, but overall, it’s a diverting little movie to be digested and passed. They did give me a red tube top as a souvenir, so at least their marketing is top of the line!

MPAA Rating R for strong sexual content and language.
Release date 9/1/00
Time in minutes 82
Director Peter M. Cohen
Studio Destination Filmes

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The Art of War

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I kind of enjoyed this uneven, plot-hole-riddled movie to some degree while I was watching it. Wesley Snipes knows how to kick some ass but he really cannot pick a script. Bless his heart! A day later, I had almost forgotten I had seen it – fortunately, predicting such a lapse, I had jotted notes upon returning home. Characters enter and leave with no real sense of who and why, and by leaving so many questions unanswered, you basically answer the one question which should NOT be answered until the end, which is “who is the bad guy?” Oh heavens to betsy. And who the hell is that chick supposed to be, anyway? In James Bond-speak she would be Dangly Participle.

This summer has been so deficient in movies, it was see this or see something I had already seen (or am boycotting due to rape scenes). The director, Christian DuGuay, made his name directing Screamers, and Scanners II and III. I should have known this before I went. Naturally I assumed it would be cool, like Blade, a thriller normally panned off on some white guy but instead, Snipes is given a chance to inject new life into the spy thriller genre. I enjoyed the brief interlude with Michael Biehn as the Tom Arnold to Snipes’ Arnold Schwartzenegger, cracking wise through super spy technology and making chaos serve instead of thwart our hero. Yay team and all that but then it just got stupid. Don’t worry, there is some good ass-kicking, but it’s few and far between and actually some of it is a little discomfiting, and I sat serenely through Fight Club.

One of the worst crimes committed by the film, and there are many (most of which are actually forgivable *one at a time* for a summer thriller action movie), is the new trend of villification of Chinese. We had the Russians to fear all through the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the pattern was set. No matter how often we try to be evolved introduce a local group of loons (and an example doesn’t even leap to mind unless you count Dave), it always ends up being the fault of some Evil Other Nation, or, better yet, an Evil Easily Recognizable Other Race. EON’s were great because they picked on faceless governments and big picture world domination stuff. EEROR’s are bad, of course, because they promote racial strife and intolerance, and lump “good guys who look just like the bad guys” in with the actual villains. Oh yeah, and nothing really important happens anyway! Does no one remember the Japanese-American prison camps? Can we just get over our need to villify whole physiognomies?

So after the Russians we had “leftover Commies” who just hadn’t gotten the idea that we were all friends. When that ran dry (I’m talking to you, Broccoli/James Bond!) we had the regrettable Desert Peoples trend sparked by Desert Storm. Pick your nation, if they wore a turban or a long loose shirt, they were a bad guy at some point. Smaller countries with no clearly defined characteristics (can you, in Hollywood terms, describe Serbians or Bosnians?) or ideologies in opposition to our own left us looking for the next Super Villain. Now we have a return to the horrible misogyny trend and we have also chosen ruin Asian relations by giving our neighbors to the east more roles in film – mostly bad guys. Jackie Chan and fun kung fu aside, Chinese are the new haute baddies, with their internal struggles and human rights violations and of course, Hollywood-ready prejudices. But what’s happening here? Money problems. So, basically, the central plot device around which the entire movie is based on a trade agreement. This is not unlike the horrible pseudo-Japanese aliens in Phantom Menace. Ugh. No great plot to undermine our way of life, no slipping into our ghettos and selling drugs or murdering our women – nope, just poorly explained embargoes and treaties and YAWN when do we get to see some ass kicking! Oh, did I mention Donald Sutherland is in this movie? Why?

Anyway, it’s not very satisfying, but there is not much else out there.

MPAA Rating R -strong violence, sexuality, langauge &drug
Release date 8/25/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Christian DuGuay
Studio Warner Brothers

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Bring It On

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This movie is exactly what you expect out of it, in a good sense. It is silly, fun, energetic, just like its subject matter – but it is also amusing and lacks any kind of big, Keyser Sose-style surprises. It’s a fun summer movie filled with bouncing, asexual teens, with a little romance and a little across-the-tracks competition. In this summer of empty, boring crap, it’s a tasty snack. It’s totally fun!

Kirsten Dunst is the relentlessly optimistic new head cheerleader, with a heavy mission – win win win! She actually looked older and wiser in Dracula a few years ago – now she’s so fresh-faced, I think the next movie she will be playing an amoeba! Her adorable love interest (Jesse Bradford as Cliff) has a sister, Eliza Dushku as Missy, who was definitely my favorite character. Jesse Bradford, for all you 80’s girls bemoaning the lack of a new John Cusack-type, is actually a refugee from our generation stuck in to a relatively timeless movie. Freddie Prinze Jr. is too much the pretty boy to be the accessible sweetheart, and Jason Biggs is still proving himself, but I wish I were Jesse’s girl!

Missy redeems the generally flat SoCal purity of the rest of the cast. Yes, it’s my first movie that was shot in my new home town! Of course, it looked like any other movie, except for Interstate 15, I mean, “The Fifteen.” I was also fortunate enough to attend a screening packed with cheerleaders, most of whom were also extras in the film. Let me tell you, I don’t think you can enjoy a movie such as this as much as you can when you are surrounded by its target audience. So all my cheery memories of the experience may be unfairly biased. The sponsoring radio station had some kids pyramiding up to the ceiling, and my old fogie self is thinking, “Whose insurance is going to be liable for this?” The DJ’s were passing body glitter, if that is any further indication as to the target demographic. This should not chase away older people, but you should go in expecting just some sweet innocent fun.

You know what’s going to happen, by and large, but it’s how it happens that makes the ride worth watching. The dialogue is a million times better than Center Stage (again, I cannot fault the performers for the unwatchability of the non-dance sequences) and it’s just a wee more acerbic. The cheerleading is impressive, kids being thrown up in the air and flipping around and sticking their legs in their ear. Bring It On features a personal guilty pleasure of mine, item #23.7 in the Quickie Plot Device menu (second only to the Romantic Comedy Montage), is the Disastrous Audition Sequence. Having been shunned by the people who were shunned by cheerleaders in high school, this was a world into which I only was afforded glimpses thanks to Meatballs and Revenge of the Nerds. Back in my day, we didn’t have BOY cheerleaders, either, so ladies, you can accompany your gents and be assured you’ll be impressed by some moves, too.

I’m not saying that Bring It On is a work of art, I am just saying that if you are looking for some bubbly, funny summer entertainment, and if this subject matter interests you even slightly, you will find your dollar well spent here. I mean, come on, who goes to see a movie like Bring It On without wanting exactly this? This is not Pedro Almodovar’s weird, inaccessible new masterpiece, A Cheerleader Killed Me And I Made Pudding – this is a bouncy jouncy human-Tiggers-in-short-skirts feel gooder candy film.

Bonus: You know you can’t even talk about cheerleading without “Mickey” being on the soundtrack – and, in the spirit of Something About Mary (but not as beautifully done) is a fun little cast singalong during the credits. It’s a new cover of “Mickey,” by the way. Did I mention it’s guilty fun? Don’t forget the guilt.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 8/25/00
Time in minutes 100
Director Peyton Reed
Studio Universal

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The Cell

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I have to say, I am pretty undecided on this movie. I think it was as creepy as Seven (a compliment) and as lushly beautiful to look at as Dune (also a compliment). Every static shot, especially those when they are “doing that Brainstorm thing” – or is it Videodrome? – looks like a painting. Paul Lawfer, the DP, had some seriously cool stuff happening, and did a fantastic job. Vince Vaughan was as wooden as Winona Ryder in a coma, which was disappointing, but I guess he didn’t want to detract from the visuals, or remind us that he was in that remake of Psycho. Jennifer Lopez looked very pretty, very vulnerable, very caring, as she should have, but I just couldn’t fall in love with this movie the way I did with The Matrix and Seven and Twelve Monkeys and other weird, esoteric, visual mood pieces.

The Cell is unnerving, tense, scary, disturbing, and Jame Gumb of Silence of the Lambs would have fit in just fine – but then again, so would Kris Kristofferson. The people in this film are so incidental to the imagery, to the psychosexual wackiness of it all, that after you squirm in delight at the creepy purple caped godhead dude in the mindscape, you think, how stupid, why can’t that guy make the connection between major clue A right in front of him and exhibit B, the known M.O. of the bad guy. Vincent D’Onofrio is no Ted Levine.

I probably did not set up the ideal viewing environment for myself to see The Cell. I saw this in a double feature after Bring It On, which is pretty much the polar opposite of The Cell. I saw each movie with a different person, so I can’t double check my mood alteration against that of my companion, much to my chagrin. Unluckily for The Cell, I saw it with a neuroscientist, and much as I love all my smarty pants friends with their aerospace engineering, neuroscience backgrounds, and history degrees, I just can’t enjoy a movie when the expert besides me is wriggling with displeasure. Sure, we can all forgive the Nutty Professor for its science, it’s a comedy – but something all sexy and stylish as The Cell is asking for nitpicking.

That kick ass costume you see all the publicity photos of Jennifer Lopez wearing? No context, just an excuse for the hyperactive production design team to go bonanza with the budget. It sure is pretty, but it sure is….pointlessly off-putting. I dig creepy and alarming as much, if not more, than the next person – witness my fetish for The Silence of the Lambs – but I like motivation behind my obligatory shudders, even if I have to suspend my disbelief. Also, Lambs had FBI assistance in making its police work credible, whereas the Cell looks like it ran the script by Barney Miller on the way to the set.

In any other summer, The Cell might have disappeared as a stylish, uneven thriller, but because the pickings have been so sparse and so disappointing (regardless of whether you agreed with me on the X-Men you have to admit that for a summer, this summer has totally blown chunks), we really want our highly anticipated movies to pay off. Bring It On does not pretend to be anything it isn’t, and as a result is kicking The Cell’s box office butt. Not that box has anything to do with quality, but it does show how quickly enthusiasm can fade when there is nothing to back up the hype. Remember the plummet of Battlefield Earth? The Cell is nowhere near as bad as all that, and it will keep you up at night (and make you rightfully *more* paranoid about parking garages) but it’s pretty forgettable past the pretty pictures.

Sorry, kids.

*Upon later reflection I found that I hated it.

MPAA Rating R -violence&sexual images, nudity and language.
Release date 8/18/00
Time in minutes 107
Director Tarsem Singh
Studio New Line