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The Road to El Dorado

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It’s no Prince of Egypt, but it’s no Anastasia either. Hans Zimmer’s score should have remained the only musical accompaniment to this film, the songs in which are the second collaboration between Elton John and Tim Rice since the Lion King. Me personally, I felt that The Lion King’s music was the weakest part of an otherwise wonderful movie – and I am sad to say that that is the case again. The most delicious thing about El Dorado is of course Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline’s interplay. These are two highly trained actors with vim and vigor and passion, having a fantastic time in the studio. They should get the chance to work together again because they have delightful chemistry, good vocal matches, equally good timing and wit and everything. Any time the story itself grows simplistic, a shade of nuance from Tulio or Miguel adds life that would otherwise be missing.

El Dorado also lacks a good deal of the visual design lushness that made Prince of Egypt such an amazing film – but it is lovely, and it does take advantage of the Deep Canvas technology really mastered in Tarzan. It uses music similarly to Tarzan, in that very little of the numbers are songs sung by a character – and the one that is, is sung by Elton and frickin’ Randy Newman on the CD, not Kenneth and Kevin! Grumble. This worked great for Tarzan (you know, inexplicably, Phil Collins won the Oscar for Best Song – probably because of the unobtrusive quality of the music) but it does not work here – the songs are alarmingly mixed in. Detractors of musical theatre (in all its forms) hate the notion of people suddenly bursting into song. I love it, myself, but it has to be real, it has to be true. In The Little Mermaid, for example, the movie that rejuvenated the genre, every song propels plot and/or character development. In El Dorado, it propels filler. So that bummed me out.

The animators make a lot of use of psychedelia and oversimplified Mayan (? Yucatan type) art motifs rather than (as in Prince of Egypt) being led more by the beautiful native works. Yes, of course, it’s a mythical city, but it has a style similar to that of the Mayans and Aztecs and Olmecs and Toltecs and PaintFlecks…it is a shame they did not use that design concept as gorgeously as in Prince of Egypt. “Hey, shut up about these other movies. What did you think of this one?” It was OK. I was entertained, I was interested, the main characters (for the most part, more on that in a bit) were interesting and well drawn (figuratively speaking as well as literally) and it was cool to look at most of the time. But it was only OK, and I don’t want people not to go because they think it will be a bad time, but to know why it was not Great and Fabulous and Wonderful.

Now, I have to say, the water, all the water shots, usage, whatever, is the best I have ever seen in an animated movie. For some reason I have always noticed Disney water and how realistic and beautiful it is. This movie blows it all out of the…well, water. Holy mackerel! And no, they didn’t integrate the computer work with the hand-drawn stuff as well as less recent movies have (how can that be?) but it’s still nice to look at.

I can’t avoid it any more. Oscar nominee Rosie Perez is the voice of Chel. This is not right. The least-understandable speaker in Hollywood (Roberto Bernigni and Pedro Almodovar aside), Perez is a terrible choice for an animated voiceover. On top of that, OK, perhaps, as a Puerto Rican, her accent is as close to Cuba in 1519 as we can get, since Gloria Estefan was busy with Music of the Heart – **but she sounds like she is from New Jersey** and you can hear the “you go girl” head bobs and the pursed lips – and THEN they animated them in. Chel, as a whole, is a weak character, with a scary, wrong voice. Yes, Branagh has his English accent and Kline his Theatre English one. So what? Armand Assante and Edward James Olmos sound perfect with their accents. All these people have won or been nominated for Oscars, I can see how this cast would look good on paper (and KB and KK are!) but ROSIE PEREZ? “It ain’t right!” To be fair, she never ascends into her screechy “you don’t love me!!” voice she is so well known for, but she still sounds like she should be clamping a cigarette and waggling her neck above her tube top. Which Chel is wearing.

The movie is worth seeing for Kenneth and Kevin (oh how much glee I have just to hear them when they do their thing that they do so well, that special vocal magic that each of them uniquely have no matter what character they inhabit) and the animation is very good, just not the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Lots of nice side visuals will be missed, so watch out for them. Altivo, the horse, is surprisingly funny.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/31/00
Time in minutes 89
Director Will Finn, Bibo Bergeron, Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Studio Dreamworks

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Romeo Must Die

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Slick movie. The short version is that the movie is structured loosely around Romeo and Juliet, but has the body count of Hamlet. Hong Kong meets Harlem (and both cultures get pretty equal soundtrack time and sympathy play) meets old school Mafia-style crime families with the moves of, well, of Jet Li, and you got yourself a rock ’em sock ’em little R&J for the new millennium. The “star-crossed lovers,” Aaliyah and Jet Li, hardly seem more than just good friends who flirt, but the enmity between their sides of the battle is all East Verona, kickin’ it old school, right in the throat. So basically, except for a widely broadcast “surprise” ending, the plot is just what you think it is, with some cross-gender changes just for kick-assedness sake.

The movie starts out with Shockwave-looking credits – another sign of the gradual trend of all graphic art looking more and more like web-based design, but cool. Gorgeous Russell Wong* and fabulous Jet Li both move like extra terrestrial killer panthers, and they are a joy to watch. Delroy Lindo’s gang is more traditional, with guns and explosives and whatnot, but they provide the comic relief with Lindo’s main bodyguard. This movie is chock full of testosterone, but it’s a much more accessible type than that in The Boiler Room. Our man Li and Aaliyah’s mob guys play a little game of football and it’s the best game of football I have ever seen (that says a lot coming from sports-hater me) – if it was always like that, I think I’d be a Chargers fan!

I’m sad to report that the groovy leaps and amazing aerial feats performed by Li and his ilk are done through the help of wires, but it still looks awesome. An effect is used three times, I won’t ruin it for you, but I have never seen it before (well, except in a primitive sense in stomach relief commercials) and hoo-ah, I really didn’t think movies could get more detailed with their injuries but lo! I was wrong. It was sparingly used and used well. My only complaint was that the camera was so tight on some of the fight scenes that I couldn’t tell what was happening – just a flurry of limbs and then a wide shot of someone flailing off to the side.

I say matinee (maybe with snack) because it wasn’t the laugh riot of a Jackie Chan movie (or the “he’s actually doing that” aspect either), but the fights occur for a reason, they are nicely done, and there’s even somewhat of a story going on behind the scenes. I had to laugh at the uncomfortable-looking white extras – they looked out of place and very nervous. That sounds ridiculous, but go see it and watch them, you’ll see what I mean. The Baldwin-esque developer that shows up on the golf course mid-film looks like he was dug up by headshot only, and I pity him for being lost in this movie. Delroy Lindo and Wong and Li and Aaliyah are all too strong for him to shine at all.

Aaliyah fans will be pleased that she sings about 4 tracks in this movie. I had not heard her (at least not consciously) before and she does great on screen and on soundtrack. And she’s only 21! No, gentlemen, you will not see her boobies. Sorry! But I think the opening scene will help you with the disappointment.

*I say gorgeous Russell Wong but then mid-movie I realized he looked like the love child of Dean Cain and Jack Wagner, so I now am questioning everything I have ever known. He does nice karate moves, though.

MPAA Rating R – violence, some language, and brief nudity.
Release date 3/22/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak
Studio Warner Brothers

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Final Destination

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After the dismal reviews I have been giving out lately, I should remind my faithful and new readers what exactly I mean by Full Price Feature. I mean bang for your buck – if you want a thrill ride, emotional/visceral roller coaster ride, then Final Destination is all you need. I am ashamed to admit how much more I liked this movie than Cider House Rules – even though I dreamed I was in a play with Michael Caine and trusted him implicitly to save my bacon since I didn’t know my lines. I don’t think hanging out with any of the kids from Final D. would be good for my health, but I tell ya – I was scared to drive my car for THREE DAYS after seeing this film, as was my companion. Films that stick to you are giving you more than just their 120 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Basically, this kid thinks the plane is going to blow up, gets off, and it does. Then – and only then – does the mayhem ensue. Writer Jeffrey Reddick used to work for the X-Files (you know, before it got boring) and it shows in the screenplay – sick, no-punches-pulled Rube Goldbergian twists of fate (aka Death’s Plan) mix with sharp, know-it all dialogue spouted by every Breakfast Clubber character known. I don’t want to give anything away because the joy is in the surprises. To use a fictional scene example (but a real life reaction), I know that the movie is working if I am curling up in my seat, hiding my eyes, saying “aaaggggh I can’t take it!!!” when someone is doing something as innocuous as adding paper to their printer. Never mind when the Real Stuff starts happening. If they have me by the thyroid so completely as to drive me giggling up a wall at every second, I am willing to pay top dollar for that action!

The audience was jumping around and screaming and laughing at their own reactions – it was a great crowd. This would be the kind of movie where I would want to bring all my best friends and just totally spaz out – it will be a fun rental (but I wonder if the joy is gone for a second viewing?)! But I tell you – pay full price! I went in just like I am sure you assume you would, thinking “This is going to be total trash!” Stylishly creepy credits slink by, I think, OK, it’s going to be nicely bankrolled trash. The plane crash section (largely given away in the preview so I feel I can mention it) is fantastic! Much worse than Alive, and that was one horrific plane crash!

Funny details – everyone’s last name means something – either a horror author or actor – the agents investigating the airplane incident are named Weine and Schreck, which I think is Fear and Terror in German (I know Schreck is right) but I don’t have my dictionary handy. Ha ha! Super duper creepiness and laughs all around. I wrote in my notes “Thanks for the constant awareness paranoia!” which I had pretty much made some headway in getting over in my adult years (I spent much of my childhood terrified of death, and now look where this movie has plopped me!). Death moves with the implacable malevolence of Christine (the killer car) – no motive, no gender, not even a supernatural or good vs. evil kind of overtone, just secular death. That made it cooler, I think.

Woo hoo! Devon Sawa has apparently niched himself into a kind of young-guy-as-new-Jamie-Lee-Curtis pigeonhole, and hopefully he will be able to break his baby-faced self out of it, for I thought I saw a seriously fun sense of humor lurking inside that terrorized kid. And Stiffler from American Pie plays a geek? Sorry, not buying it! Sure, there’s some hokey stuff, maybe a tad too much overkill in the elaborateness of the scenarios, but you know what? It worked, so who cares! In X-Files tradition, a creepy mortician gives us a vaguely goofy scene just to kind of spark off the realization train of the lead characters, but it’s the only thing seriously wrong with the movie. This may sound like an insult, but I mean it in a pure reptilian brain way: I have not felt so unnerved watching a movie since Very Bad Things. Say what you will about this or that film, but my interior, my gut, my lizard brain that just says “eat sleep run etc.” was DIGGING them. And that is what summer popcorn movies are all about. They should show this movie at Defensive Driving. Brrrrr!

MPAA Rating R for violence and terror, and for language
Release date 3/17/00
Time in minutes 95
Director James Wong
Studio New Line

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Erin Brockovich

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I saw this movie because it was free. I admit it. I was not all that interested in Julia Roberts in A Civil Action II, but I went. And two-time Oscar nominee Roberts did not let me down; in fact, I liked this movie on its own merit, not just the merit of the true story it was portraying. Don’t let the awful tagline, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees” dissuade you *or* make you think that is all this story is about. Brockovich was a terrifically stubborn and desperate woman who did not compromise herself and stretched her boundaries and in doing so, helped a huge number of people. Sounds kinda chick flicky for you, doesn’t it? it doesn’t feel like a chick flick, any more than any spunky single mom movie should. But make no bones about it, she is a single mom with determination and I know Middle America doesn’t have much patience with women like that (when is THAT 19th Century silliness going to stop?) but no matter what you may think of her personally, it makes good movie.

Director Steven Soderbergh (a Hollywood darling-come-lately with recent big hit Out of Sight and map-putting hit sex, lies, and videotape) seems to have come on the set, sized up Julia Roberts and Albert Finney, and said, “You folks just do what you do.” Julia did wise, self-mocking comedy mixed with abrasiveness (interesting to see from her) and all with a winsome, dewy smile and the trashiest outfits you have seen since Rosie Perez. Every scene is a new, Pretty-Woman-shops-at-Wal-Mart atrocity that highlights how hard she seems to try to NOT be taken seriously – yet she fights more than most people would for others’ respect. I have to hand it to Julia, she can rock it. Finney, as usual, is no slouch either, his Irish temperament and gritty veteran actor chops abrading perfectly with Julia’s cynical modern optimistic bitterness. Aaron Eckhart (In The Company of Men) as a biker? And a nice one? It sounds crazy, but it just might work.

So did I mention it was a true story? A pretty recent one, too, though they don’t knock themselves out setting the time too well. Since it is a true story, it can get away with that linear driving forward and people behaving not as Hollywood would want them to, necessarily – but they really did, so they have to. Roberts gets a lot of screen time, as do her cleavage and legs, and it is almost exclusively her battle from the beginning. You can tell from the preview it’s basically “hey you, big company, the water is poisoned because of you, what are you gonna do about it?” so the tagline is the ultimate spoiler. But there are some nice dips and turns along the way, watching Roberts and Finney together, watching a totally untrained person strain and work and sweat to be something no one else will let her be. It’s quite inspiring in its own way, though I am sure it is not meant to be.

Any complex legal mumbo jumbo was handled by the fact that our lead character knows less about the law than anyone who watches Ally McBeal, so we get all the info we need in order to appreciate the legal stuff. The lighting (like in sex, lies, and videotape) was all “natural,” i.e. if they are in a dismal fluorescent office, they lit it all green and waxy and like it really is. No fancy David E. Kelley color corrections for Miss Julia! It made it more real. I wondered how much was fictionalized for the good of the story, since it was so satisfying to watch. I enjoyed watching the events unfold, I enjoyed glimpsing into the lives of the litigant characters, and I enjoyed Erin kicking ass in various arenas, be it against expectations or against disrespect or be it just generally being smarter than anyone gives her credit for being. And it’s a true story, so it’s always nice to know that people are still out there capable of something besides commerce and profit once in a while. Go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language.
Release date 3/17/00
Time in minutes 126
Director Steven Soderbergh
Studio Universal

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Mission to Mars

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Until I moved out to California, I would always see movies like this with roughly the same crowd, one of whom in particular I was really missing while watching this, the first NASA-approved sci-fi movie (either in forever or in a very long time). The logo is all over the place and the whole thing implies that in 2020 we will be just that technically proficient. Almost-here sci-fi is so much more exciting in that way – less fantasy (like dragons and transporters) and more “soon, soon” dreaming about hovercars and voice-activated microwaves. My missed friend is a real live rocket scientist, and while he can (not in a bad way) take a little wind out of the sails of a movie like Armageddon (you know, simultaneous shuttle launches and so on) – it’s awesome when he is excited about the physics in a movie. Since NASA liked it, it’s got to be good, right? Well, NASA knows about isometric trigomorphic astrocandlebompiliad stuff, but they don’t know much about…well, story.

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely liked this movie better than my companions did, partially because I thought all the human stuff was great, all the angsty stuff and the heroic stuff and the interplay between some seriously cool actors like Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Jerry O’Connell, Connie Nielsen, and Don Cheadle. I liked the space ship, I liked the Mars footage (shot in Jordan, how cool is that?) and I liked the mystery. I had some real moments of tension and fear and emotion, you know? Some beautiful scenes in flight with the crew, some great weightless work, and so on. I wonder if they shot some of these scenes on the Vomit Comet (as they did in Apollo 13) or if they had some very kick ass wire ballet happening.

But then it did start to get a wee bit hackneyed. Not so much that I was upset, but as soon as, well, let’s just say as soon as the weather changes, the movie comes to that point where it can go whole hog with what it wants to do (which it did, and that was not the right thing to do), it can stay a total cryptic mess, or it can try to be elegant and metaphoric and fail because reshoots and editing will make it retarded (which would have been much worse) – basically, the movie failed for me in the same way that Contact did. Fabulous, gripping, excellent, beautiful beginning, and then Matthew McConaughey playing bongos naked, bellowing “Lookie I am a space man!” I saw the heroism and the good characters behind all the silly glittery stuff, but by then it was too late. I know no one else could see it any more, and so the first 4/5 of the film was wasted. Oh, I know what movie is it like: The Abyss, which, if you chopped 10 minutes off the end of *either* version, would be fantastic, but instead, by following delicate smoked salmon with a creepy lady fingers, custard, and beef dessert, the whole meal comes away a little tainted.

Needless to say that for the most part, the movie was cool and interesting and even emotional, though I don’t know if the science was any good because I didn’t have my rocket scientist(s) to hand. But maybe if you go to the bathroom as soon as a 4th character appears in a scene which has had only 3 characters for more than 5-10 minutes, then you will be OK. I know it’s silly. But the silliness only bothered me toward the end. Maybe it was PMS. Maybe I see so many bad movies that a simply mediocre movie looks like art on wheels. (However, when I saw an art on wheels type picture after seeing this, I was underwhelmed – there’s just no pleasing anyone, I guess.)

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/10/2000
Time in minutes 120
Director Brian de Palma
Studio Touchstone

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The Ninth Gate

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Director Roman Polanski is well known for Rosemary’s Baby, and returns to this spooktacular Satan-is-among-us genre with a sincere sense of awe and majesty. The one note I made was that his directing style (something I actually tend not to notice in watching movies) is all about showing and not so much telling. Long languid shots, no dialogue; the camera drifts by a note left on a desk and we know through all the theatrical and cinematic conventions of the world what it means. I’ll come back to cinematic conventions. Here and there, Hollywood producers, terrified of alienating the simpleminded, throw in a “look, see, here, the secret PIN number of his vault is 6-6-6 GET IT?” whereas before, in the elevator, the same number combination was handled with more taste and aplomb. What little I know of Polanski does lend me to believe that he would not be the sort who would appreciate a tidy explanatory wrap-up, a la The Devil’s Advocate (oh, that was tripe!) – and indeed, plenty in The Ninth Gate goes totally unexplained. For example, Emmanuelle Seigner.

I love Johnny Depp – he is an amazing actor, he has exquisite taste in projects (and any movie that is just OK is made bearable by his presence, and is faulty for any reason but him), and he always chooses or creates amazing outsider characters – not just Edward Scissorhands, but also Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Don Juan DeMarco. His character in this film is an infamous rare book hound and he runs the underground rare books racket like a drug czar. OK, I can buy that, he’s smart, he’s charismatic. But the basic premise of authenticating a rare book (do I need to tell you it has something to do with Satan?) and then doing something about it feels weak, and it seemed like Depp, as well as the character he plays, doesn’t know what to do with it, and so he does his best and goes home and hopes that scene hinted at in the preview with the burning building doesn’t come out as silly as it must have seemed to on the set. Sorry, Johnny.

Satan-raising, good vs. evil epic battles over men’s souls or the fate of the world, all these kinds of movies are inherently predictable to a degree because of the centuries of literature and myth and religion and folk wisdom that have preceded, not to mention all the conventions of filmic storytelling as well. We know we can’t summon up The Evil One just by having eight somethings, nor can we do something related to evil without some serious pyrotechnics. Don’t forget the hubris! The concept of the Book is interesting, but it seems like a lot of the more interesting stuff was carried on backstage. For most of the film, I was interested, even riveted at times. Oh, but then the Scooby Doo thing happened. I mean it, it was as Scooby as Doo can be.. Without giving away the ending, we simply might as well have had Depp pull a rubber mask off the museum curator and then had him led away by cops saying he could have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling book guy! Oh woe. So then, the Scooby Doo silliness occurs, we think it’s the big climax – and then we’re in a car, driving – apparently, there is more to do besides humiliate our bad guys by putting them in black silken robes with big rapper-size pentagram necklaces on. “Is that it?” is asked, and not just on screen. Oh Johnny!

It was beautifully shot, overall not pandering (until the Mystery Machine rolled up to the visually stunning mansion), but it just couldn’t carry through. Maybe Fat Cat Producer Man reshot or re-edited the ending, making it less…interesting, more accessible, but it ended up taking something with a great deal of promise and rendering it vaguely stinky.

Side bar – an Indian taxi driver, who does not get involved in the action at all, made me think – if all this summoning of Satan and stuff is so huge and so real and so major, what about the non-Christian cultures and individuals? Would they be subjugated by the Evil One(s) too, or would they go on driving their cabs and stuff? In our Judeo-Christian country, we take for granted the ominousness of certain canonical symbolism, like a man hung upside down by his ankle and so forth. Would that even scare a guy from India, in a deep seated, Satan-is-among-us way? Watch it as a rental, maybe with an evil snack.

MPAA Rating R for some violence and sexuality.
Release date 3/10/2000
Time in minutes 133
Director Roman Polanski
Studio Artisan Entertainment

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This wee film, shot entirely within the confines of a small diner (presumably) in Aztec, Colorado, and a surprisingly entertaining one. Despite all our relaxed attitude about the Cold War relative to the 1980’s, I think the general threat of nuclear terrorism still lurks within us when we hear the repeating tape loop at the airport regarding safety. Kevin Pollack, after so offending us in the otherwise delightful The Whole Nine Yards, had to do some serious work to get me to like him as much as I did by the end of the movie. He’s the president, he is actually a promoted Vice President in an unspecified but post-2007 near future (in which little progress was made reducing bigotry or terrorism). This non-elected president detail may seem just like screenplay color, but actually most of the things that seem included just for interest work out to be pretty important.

I would have liked to make this a triple feature with WarGames and The Day After – the message is the same, but the whole (oh, I have to say it) gestalt of the situation is quite different. For example, now, in this global village and all that stuff, something like the Red Scare, where an entire continent of people had to be assumed to have horns and fangs and red eyes, can never happen. Now we can be seduced into buying a super villain, as Saddam Hussein was painted as, but we can’t really drop our whole “I know they love their children too” attitude any more. This is a good thing. But as the James Bond franchise knows, it makes for some weak drama. The exciting thing about Deterrence is that we are the big scary bad guy who is acting irrationally – and yet the conclusion explains everything. It’s satisfying like sushi is satisfying – you don’t really know how you got so much food shoveled into your mouth, but suddenly you are full and happy and glad you went to the trouble.

The supporting cast is small, the “extras” smaller. Some interesting moments suddenly shine like a mirror tilted suddenly on the car in front of you, and others are dropped when they most seem to be going someplace. My companion and I imagined all kinds of alternate scenarios that were never used, but we got an equal number of surprises. Since we both see unnerving amounts of movies, I guess we expected the predictable, and didn’t get it. Hooray for everybody!

Pollack’s character, President Emerson, is described by another as “not very presidential,” i.e. he is very Vice Presidential. I have said the same thing about Vices that became Big Cheeses, and I know what they mean. Pollack is a supporting guy, a character actor, a villain, a sidekick – it works perfectly to set up his teetering position of credibility. Oh, did I mention it’s election night too? That’s a bit much but at least we don’t follow the polls throughout the evening, watching his popularity rise and fall with every move he makes. The idea is that he might have to wage international war from this little diner, snowed in and totally beyond rescue. Pretty cool idea, really. The high tech gadgets are cool, the alarming number of emergency situations his team is prepared for, and so forth. It’s interesting, and seriously, quite tense. I wouldn’t have thought it. For the most part (I won’t say completely) it avoids the beaten path and that is probably the best thing about it. And it’s got a little thing to say about war as well. A BIG little thing – making this movie not so wee after all.

MPAA Rating R for language and violence.
Release date 3/10/00 NY/LA
Time in minutes 101
Director Rod Lurie
Studio Paramount Classics

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The Next Best Thing

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The thing about this movie is that basically, it should be delightful – it should be charming, and while I was watching it, I cared, I enjoyed myself, I laughed, I wept a little, I lusted for Rupert and grooved on the soundtrack, and all those things you think you want out of movie going life. So, why a rental? It just didn’t stick with me.

My readers (and I am delighted to boast that there are a bunch of new ones this time around) should know that I am a sucker for certain elements in a movie, and Next Best Thing has a few of them. One thing that always gets me is someone’s final wish, you know, as they are dying or leaving forever. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here, so don’t worry. Another guaranteed to tear me up plot device is parents who desperately want to be parents and are thwarted. I am so sick of people pumping out 50 kids and neglecting all of them; or just having the one and resenting it forever for ruining the halcyon days of couples-only-hood; I have my own reasons. Me, I am not ready, not yet, possibly not ever – and partly because I don’t think I could give the kind of parental love, support, attention that a child deserves and needs. Blah blah. So when I see a parent in a movie who is clearly devoted, clearly committed, loved by and loving with the child, and they are being prevented from sharing that, it busts me up. So that is probably why I left the theatre feeling very emotionally drained (in a good way) and affected by the movie.

But it didn’t stick with me.

The previews make this out to be a more faaaabulous Object of My Affection – instead of sweet Paul Rudd and darlin Jennifer Aniston, we have Material Virgin-cum-Mendhi-Guru-Saint-Mother Madonna and delish, hysterical, sensitive sexual idol for all genders Rupert Everett. The best part (from a sociological point of view, and one that Hollywood should take notice of) is that when Madonna and Rupert kiss (as you know they do because the preview tells you he knocks her up), **it seems weird!** For decades, Hollywood has hidden its gay actors, afraid of how audiences would respond to a James Cagney type who goes home and kisses boys – even encouraging beard marriages to keep up the pretense. Genetically speaking we should be grateful, for that may be the last generation to mass reproduce their wonderful DNA – but I digress. Rupert (with a couple of exceptions) proudly plays a gay man, but he is still adored by woman and was “man enough” to knock up maneater Madonna, so…it’s a step forward.

Madonna herself has been vastly improved by her Evita-era voice training regimen, yoga practice, and motherhood in general. She may be “old,” as she describes herself, but she’s still got it. She also has the sense of humor (for she and Everett apparently did extensive script tweaking to match their personalities – and she is not the slattern you recall from Desperately Seeking Susan) to casually toss off a line that is a direct quote from “Papa Don’t Preach.” I so hope it was R.E.’s idea. They have a lovely time in this movie, and that always comes across. A fantastic little screwball old-Hollywood style scene, some great mommy/daddy stuff, and some truly nice moments of genuine heart stuff. The kid is good, too.

The lighting is terrible. Awful. Bizarre. Madonna’s forehead is eternally in shadow, Benjamin Bratt (yes he and Rupert both take their shirts off – yay!) is backlit and kind of alarming looking sometimes. It all looks weird and fake and artificial and not so nice. The plot takes an alarming turn, possibly just for the sake of doing something interesting (and I think it happened at what could have been an interesting time in their lives the way it was going) – and then becomes weird and horrid. This is the part that is not so good, but also hit my tear-jerker button. So, it worked, but it would have worked on me anyway. In the cold light of retrospect, it’s only OK. Then a quickie, documentary-style wrap up ending and, inexplicably (if you see it you know why it is inexplicable), Madonna singing American Pie. That song is set up to be something really special and it just drops the ball. But it’s worth renting to see them together, to see the kid, and the stuff that does work. Madonna does all her own yoga and she’s hard enough to identify on the big screen during one major move but – go, girl!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 3/3/2000
Time in minutes 110
Director John Schlesinger
Studio Paramount

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Drowning Mona

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As my companion sagely pointed out, the dark comedic elements of Drowning Mona could have raised feature film virgin director Nick Gomez to the Farrelly Brothers’ sick level, and at times it looked like he had it in him. But his TV experience, and that of his writer, Peter Steinfeld, may have overcome any hope this film would have had to be the next Something About Mary, or even the next Weekend at Bernie’s.

Made for an astoundingly skimpy $8 million, Drowning Mona was a little movie that got a huge cast of famous (and, you’d think, super-expensive) faces to stock it up. The only main character I did not recognize was Marcus Thomas, playing the son of the titular Mona (Bette Midler). The IMDB is shamefully lacking in information about this movie, considering it opens in like, 2 days. But come on! Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Neve Campbell, Casey Affleck (at his most flat and unwatchable), and some other folks should guarantee at least an amusing time. But indeed, Drowning Mona was lucky for her – she got to be dead most of the time while we didn’t get that luxury. Midler (who of course appears in posthumous flashbacks) is an uncompromising bitch, which is great. Many of the flashbacks are the best part of the movie. Structurally it does work better with them as flashbacks rather than killing her in a linear sense…but the movie is just too simplistic and overdone and silly to work. It’s a shame.

Interesting tidbit – everyone looks awful! William Fichtner’s makeup, while horrid, makes him look terribly withered. Jamie Lee “Va Va Voom” Curtis looks nothing like her Baroness self, Casey has bad hair, Neve has the same stress acne she has in Scream 3, and DeVito…well, actually, he looks pretty good. Midler – yow! That Isn’t She Great movie must have taken it all out of her. Will Ferrell has the same terrible SNL makeup he always wears *and* he is more unfunny than his Spartan character – he’s the mortician, for goodness’ sake – it’s a black comedy about death – USE THE MORTICIAN! Oh woe is me. The burly female mechanic looked familiar (Say Anything as one of Cusack’s friends?) but the IMDB drew a blank for me. I liked her, though.

The film is set in 1990 in Verplanck NY, and everyone drives a Yugo with vanity plates. This is actually kind of funny after a while. Thank god for vanity plates, else we wouldn’t know who was parked where and why that would be interesting at all. Jokes about dinner theatre are a little funny. The machinations of the town around DeVito’s investigation, his “first mate” cop is pretty amusing in a predictable, Type-A kind of way, and the guy from Repo Man is still playing the same character – in fact, he was also playing this character in Erin Brockovich. He’s even the same kind of stupid deus ex machina – what is this?! We get some funny vignettes/flashbacks as the townspeople gossip about each other, and that is entertaining. Best of all are the ones regarding Casey Affleck’s business partner, who is a pure idiot. That’s kind of funny, but he’s so unlikable that you can’t help but wish a lot would have been trimmed to make this a one hour TV movie. Basically, the movie is all promise with little payoff. The biggest crime of all. Certainly, it’s a bigger crime than the one being investigated.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 3/3/2000
Time in minutes 91
Director Nick Gomez
Studio Destination Films

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Pitch Black

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I was pretty excited about this movie. So, we had some spooky postcards advertising it, very little buzz, one second of interesting footage in a preview – a person or two in a circle of light as it winks out, but not before we see the people surrounded by something alien and menacing.

There were people in darkness surrounded by something menacing all right, and it was brought to you by director David N. Twohy, who, you should know, wrote G.I. Jane, Charlie Sheen Has Bug Eyes (aka The Arrival), Waterworld, Terminal Velocity, Warlock, and Critters 2. To be fair, he also wrote The Fugitive, but I think he had some help. The screenwriter of Pitch Black were responsible for IT Came From Outer Space II, The Stepford Husbands, The Fly II, Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and (gulp) Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that it is the work of these men that have given Hollywood such a bad name.

I didn’t expect Pitch Black to be another Aliens. I didn’t even dare to hope it would be something laughably silly like Deep Rising or Lake Placid. But a girl can only lower her standards so far. Having just walked out of the deeply unsatisfying Boiler Room (starring Vin Diesel) and into Pitch Black (starring Vin Diesel), I have to say that Vin, while being in two of my least favorite movies of 2000, is still an actor worth watching. Am I biased because he is the voice of the Iron Giant, a man of many ethnicities and superhuman torso and gravely voice? Probably, because I mean, my god, people, Pitch Black is really bad. Part of what made it bad was Cole Hauser, as the hot tempered-cop-sort of guy. He’s totally forgettable looking, and he’s no good on screen, PLUS he had a horrifically stupid character (as did second stringer Radha “I wish I were Tasha Yar” Mitchell). So maybe I can’t blame the stink coming off of Pitch Black on Cole. But I wish I could!

The movie began with some promise, interesting, brain-frying editing and scary action and mysterious problems. They land on a hot planet – we know it’s hot, because apparently Ray Charles is the cinematographer and he read that golden filters make everything look hot. Instead, it makes the planet look hot *and* overdeveloped. Basically, the movie looked like a really expensive amateur film – badly shot, over-shown, underwritten, and giant holes in the story you could drive a truck through. It would be best used to drive over some of the parties responsible. Yuck! The production design was kind of interesting, but in a seriously low-budget kind of way. Or like a foreign film from Macedonia. I could see the paint splattered on the brand new foam core walls like it was a very good high school production of Das Boot. Yes, here and there were interesting things – the oxygen dealies, the spaceships, whatever. How does a person only get one tiny scratch on the face from a crash landing in which you were in the cockpit? Oops, sorry! Did it again.

Oh and my companions can attest, I was trying to like the movie. I’m not giving anything away by telling you there are ravenous critters abounding on this planet (else why would there be a movie?), and they are pretty cool looking. One companion pointed out all the previous aliens that they resembled (Alien, of course, but check out the rest of this pedigree: Starship Troopers main army bugs, and the rolly killbots from Phantom Menace- ACK!) and I was like, yeah yeah…they were still cool looking. Oh, until the end, when we get to see more mano a mano alien/human action. Also not a big surprise, is it? This big surprise is how viscerally the movie seems to be affecting people – it’s dark = it’s dangerous, that’s nothing new, but instead of an unseen Blair Witch, you’re lunch right here and now! Save your money and buy yourself a copy of Aliens.

MPAA Rating R -sci-fi violence and gore, and language
Release date 2/18/00
Time in minutes 108
Director David N. Twohy
Studio PolyGram