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Arlington Road

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Have you ever heard the Kronos Quartet? If you have, and if you have heard the admittedly limited sampling that I have, you will get this analogy: Arlington Road is to generic Hollywood summer filler as the Kronos Quartet is to Laserlight’s Hooked on Bach. I found it very gripping, very interesting, basically well-executed, and nicely performed. Afterward, I felt vaguely that I had been duped into thinking it was more intense and arty than I thought while I was watching it – and therefore, if I were to view it again, it would be lame and stinky. I must point out at this point that I don’t find Kronos lame and stinky, I find them unfathomable. And I did not find Arlington Road in the least bit lame or stinky or unfathomable either; I just think, like The Game, it would not hold up to repeat viewing. More on that later.

The less you know about the plot the better – the opening 5 minutes was a surprise to me and therefore I found it quite intense and “what the –!” and cool. The bits that should have been as cool, but were annoyingly featured in the preview, should have been much more powerful in context and I felt robbed. If you have never seen the preview, all the better. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are interestingly cast in this film – you might say they were cast against type, but then again, maybe they weren’t – the mystery and the tension of what is the truth is all this film has to separate it from a regular thriller, and I refuse to be a party to ruining that tension. But they are both very good, as always. I am surprised they have not worked together before – they look good together and Tim and John Cusack have been friends for years.

Jeff Bridges does what he always does well – plays a guy who is not sure if he is in his element or not, reactive, explosive, lots of inner work going on. He’s also a professor and a man with baggage, something else Jeff Bridges does very very well. There are kids in this movie, and I would rate them as average kid performances, not abrasive and not brilliant. The men live in a grotesque suburban neighborhood (not unlike my own – in fact, I think I had the same builder as Tim Robbins) and the whole suburbia thing is used pretty well overall. I am sure most of Generica the Beautiful looks like my neighborhood, so the effect could be universal. Those of you cool enough to live in groovy pre-WWII neighborhoods won’t understand the soullessness of these homes.

Many times, directors who try funky stylistic (i.e. not naturalistic) things with their filmmaking turn me off by doing it too much: Quentin Tarantino and his brassy overbright hyper-neo-film noir lighting, the Pillow Book with its weird layering of images over standard footage, flashes of alternate images, etc., that kind of stuff passes easily into the realm of lame pretension or just plum annoying. Arlington Road makes what I could call “artsy” choices with lighting and light changes and mood, not a comic booky sort of colored lighting (think Creepshow’s red and blue side lighting) but more of a theatrical spots and gels kind of lighting, clearly artificial. I think it was *mostly* used judiciously enough that it didn’t rank as annoying, but it wasn’t seamless either. Picture a man reacting to a shock, whose background is entirely black (whereas before it had natural style lighting) and he is bathed in an amber spotlight. Like that. Odd, but only really badly done in a couple of spots.

If you saw The Game and enjoyed it, you might have had the same experience I did: an interesting, gripping tale, with a main character truly lost in his surroundings, behaving erratically, getting set up, doing things out of his character but which make sense to us the viewer, understanding his travails. Then the ending, denouement, and all is made clear. Upon a second viewing, The Game is immensely unsatisfying. Knowing the outcome makes the clearly fabricated screens and red herrings weak and contrived. Arlington Road, while I have only seen it once, seems to be the kind of movie that will lose all its power on a second viewing, and that is the reason I grant it matinee with a possibility for snacks status. I am still hesitant whether to grant the snacks or not; I really was tense and interested and entertained, and isn’t that why I go see movies like this? But seeing through the movie, thinking about it retrospectively, I see how it would fall apart under scrutiny. So, you know, don’t spend too much money, but you probably will enjoy it. It’s not bad at all.

Post script: For the first time in weeks, you may have noticed I did not need to use The Phantom Menace as a basis of comparison for this review. Perhaps I have been cured of PM’s banality and suckage and I can get on with my life. Or maybe not.

MPAA Rating R for violence and some language.
Release date 7/9/1999
Time in minutes 119
Director Mark Pellington
Studio

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American Pie

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Much has been said about this film pre-release – having seen South Park a second time this weekend, I was expecting just a full scale live action offensiveness offense tactic. Instead, I got a very enjoyable cross between Election and Something About Mary. The basic premise, not unlike Dancer, TX, Pop. 81, actually, is four guys their senior year in high school, about to make a big decision. The great thing about American Pie is it is unashamed to admit to high schooler’s obsession with sex, as a concept, as an event unto itself, and the first time doing it being a point of great significance. Many sexually experienced grown-up filmmakers, remembering how horny they were in high school, and recalling hearing about sexual events (and of course fearing the Younger Generation and their Wild Ways (TM)), generally tend to portray high school sexuality as a cool, confident, even blasé experience, when really, the whole deal was and I believe still is so very charged and loaded and serious. First time screenwriter Adam Herz appreciates the whole mystique of the other sex and nudity and humiliation and awkward talking – none of this 90210 Felicity’s Creek glibness.

You may wonder why I mention There’s Something About Mary as a comparative film. Well, I’ll tell ya – very few visual punches are pulled. No franks and beans caught in the zipper, but I think American Pie is only millimeters away from that kind of frankness. Ha ha! I crack me up. Seriously, if you were squeamish at Mary, you will be squeamish at Pie. If you want a teen party movie where people drink and talk a lot but little else happens, rent the excellent Can’t Hardly Wait. These American Pie kids are serious about their fun. The title refers to the all-American aspect of the quest for the holy cherry poppin’ mama as much as to, um, comparing pie to, er, ah, you know. Heavy petting. The Election angle is in the clever script and low-budget pseudo-reality of the movie.

Jason Biggs is a particularly brave actor, humiliating himself in front of his parents, schoolmates, and really every one, all in the name of the Holy Grail of Consummation. He does a great job in this movie and it’s worth seeing it just for what he has to go through. His father, Eugene Levy, is wonderful as he fumbles his way through birds and bees talk with his boy. Chris Klein plays another sweet, dopey jock (the other was in Election) and he’s just as winsome here. Let’s just say if he can’t find a date for prom, I’ll go with him! Rrrooowr! Thomas Ian Nicholas, channeling a charming Adrian Zmed-like quality, balances out the more interesting members of his foursome, by being the most natural and realistic of the bunch. My personal favorite was Eddie Kaye Thomas as Finch, a bizarre pre-Niles sort of chap (he reminds me of a friend who has just moved to England), but despite what an odd character Herz had written for him, manages to make him seem pretty real. I thought also he resembled Bud Cort just a bit (Harold from Harold and Maude) and that can’t be a bad thing.

Sure, many of the characters are broadly drawn – but I like to think that that is how we recall them ourselves when we are in high school – that nerd over there we never talk to is only a nerd, instantly identifiable, and as students, everyone reacts to him according to their social strata. Our main boys show some depth beyond their clique pigeonhole, and the supporting cast (notably Seann William Scott as überjerk Stifler) are one-note parameters for our leading men’s world. Stifler is one guy who, while drawn entirely one-note, is pretty entertaining even as he is horrible. The female characters here, while handled well by their respective actresses, are somewhat secondary, which may well be a grander statement: the guys are so concerned about Having Sex (TM) that they are not thinking about the fact that it just as deeply involves another person, and indeed, to a degree, it doesn’t matter to them with whom they have it. This is an unfortunate truth when the SRS* starts to affect higher brain function, but I wish it could have been lambasted a little more than just some kvetching about female orgasm.

American Pie shows us how little boys know about sex going into it, and how little the act really teaches them about it as well. But the true joy, for us in the audience anyway, is the chase.

*Semen Retention Syndrome

MPAA Rating R-sexuality, crude dialogue/language, drinking
Release date 7/9/99
Time in minutes 95
Director paul & Chris Weitz
Studio Universal Pictures

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Wild Wild West

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The expectations I had going into this movie were so low, so pessimistic, so permeated with dread and pre-show nausea, that really, they had nowhere to go but up. I was expecting the pandering, look at me showiness of Men in Black, coupled with the vapid excitement of Independence Day, layered with a cheesy slice of The Avengers (shudder). Instead, I got a moderately watchable, surprisingly innocuous summer film. For air-conditioned spectacle and non-insulting comedy (unless you are black or paraplegic), you can’t beat Wild Wild West. Had I not seen it already, it would have been a perfect film for that “you-got-off-work-early-for-the-holiday” surprise afternoon.

Will Smith – I know he’s a nice guy, everyone who works with him loves him, audiences adore him, studios bank on him, but he does nothing for me. He doesn’t bother me, but he’s not ” a draw.” (pun intended – get it. draw, like a gunfight? Oh never mind) On the other hand, I have sat through some serious garbage to get to see Kevin Kline be Kevin Kline, and I was not only not disappointed, I was actually not even embarrassed to see him in this movie (as I was to see Tim Robbins in The Spy Who Shagged Me, for example). Kevin gets to play two characters again, and he gets to do that thing which I think only Kevin Kline can do, which is be both cocky and fallible. He’s a master at it (read: Otto in Fish Called Wanda, the French guy in French Kiss, The Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance) and I love him. Phoebe Cates, look out! Kenneth Branagh…now, since breaking up with the only woman in the world who is perfect for him, Emma Thompson, his career choices have ranged from the shoddy to the inexplicable. But he’s actually quite a pleasing villain.

The star of the movie, of course, is the effects team. But, the nice thing about the effects is, even though you know they are computer generated (she said in a vaguely bored tone), their beauty and execution is in their design and appearance. I have to say, no matter what you think of Wild Wild West, you have to applaud its design. The inventions, Branagh’s lair’s decor, the costumes, the trains, all very fabu!!! Bo Welch is the production designer and he has a nice little resume: Men in Black (ugh), The Birdcage, Wolf, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Joe Vs. The Volcano (that lamp!!!), Beetlejuice…you notice a pattern? Kick ass is the pattern, for the color blind. His art director, Tom Duffield, worked with him on these films as well. CREAMORA! I put their names in here because I want them to know I noticed, and I love them. Hire me! Hire me!!! Teach me what you know! Ahem, excuse me. (But seriously…)

WWW is not brilliant, it’s not seat of your pants, it’s not even post modern – but! The story actually has a beginning, middle, and end (which, given some of the Not-Scottish stuff I have seen this summer is really the equivalent of a Full Price Feature recommendation), and it has characters that, while thin, are still slightly more than two dimensional (thank Smith, Kline, and Branagh for that – nothing like hiring ACTORS, have you noticed?). Salma Hayek, thrown away as usual as the Hot Babe. For the record, there are no boobies, guys, sorry. Rent Desperado. You’ll see more of her skin in Fools Rush In.

The movie does have some high points, even for the detractors I saw it with (I found it to be a pleasant diversion, they thought it was not very good. But you know what – it was almost exactly 72 times better than Phantom Menace) – for example, some lovely pun interplay between Smith and Branagh, and also some surprisingly engaging interplay (sometimes) between Smith and Kline. Sure, they threw in a couple of silly, anachronistic jokes, but they didn’t beat you with them like Myers’ British nitwit does. Sure, you know how it will end (basically) and that’s not why you see a Fourth Of July Weekend movie. You go for the fun. And I thought it was pretty fun. Ooh, special guest appearance by Ted Levine, formerly known as Jame Gumb, the baddie in Silence of the Lambs. Oscar winners crawling all over this movie and it was definitely not as horrific as Sphere. Just go.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/30/1999
Time in minutes 107
Director Barry Sonnenfeld
Studio Warner Brothers

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South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

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I say Full Price Feature with this codicil: IF you like South Park, you will get your money’s worth and more. If you are of tender sensibilities, abhor profanity, desperately require 3D rendered animation, or hate music, skip this movie. If you want to know what that damnable tune I keep whistling at my desk is, go go go go go! Midway through my roommate said, “Good thing I already bought the soundtrack” – and it is a good thing! Track 2, three more times!!!! I had not seen one episode this season, I worried that I had grown out of the kids, or tired of them, or something. Oh no. I was just saving up my belly muscles so I could wrack and ruin them by the end of the first reel. The little screen room I was in was sold out, and just in 2 days they have added a second, larger screen.

It’s got everything. And I, with my one rule of no spoilers, can’t tell you half of it. If you don’t mind knowing, read the glowing review in Time Magazine or the Thumbs Up from Ebert. It’s freakin’ hilarious and it’s also terribly, terribly wrong. The thing was, I wasn’t even ashamed of laughing, because how can you not laugh? Terrance and Phillip are in it quite a bit, and I’m sorry, I can’t stop laughing at them. They are my Itchy and my Scratchy, my Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. Again, refer to Track 2 of the soundtrack. You thought Mr. Hanky was tacky? Thought the original Jesus vs. Santa Claus was a bit outré? Well, get over THAT!

If you are Canadian, wear a thick skin. If you are any gender or ethnicity or religion, do the same. I know, I had also heard that the movie was incredibly offensive, yadda yadda yadda. But it does more than just scream goobery infantile bile at you – the glory of South Park is under all their “oh my god did he just say that?” showmanship, Trey Parker and Matt Stone always have something positive to say. Sometimes it’s as simple as “Be tolerant” and other times it’s “Parents, why don’t you take a little more responsibility for your actions, you cretins,” but always, it’s positive. Occasionally, the less vicious element overlooks that – they can’t see the forest for the fart jokes. Plus they have the courage to say the kinds of things we usually say anyway but with a hushed voice as we look over our shoulders. “So, I met this guy and he was…(looks over shoulder, whispers)…Amish!”

I wish I could get a beer with these guys. They openly despise the MPAA (and frankly, it is more than a tad outmoded and unrealistic, how they rate these movies) and so they had made a cut (please please DVD director’s cut please!) specifically with scenes they knew the MPAA would freak about and make them cut. Heck, the animation is done on a Mac in some hole somewhere, it probably cost the productions dozens of dollars to boot up and trim those minutes off. So, the major “sin” of South Park is language – but I can hear roughly the same stuff (with less farting, granted) in a Cannes-Creamfest like Pulp Fiction or a Spike Lee Joint or anything starring Joe Pesci – what’s the problem? Any violence or nudity in SP is clearly cartoonish and, I might add, less startling than say, Heavy Metal or Wizards. So folks who think South Park is a little too alarming, well, come on. What’s the problem, exactly? Dirty words? Universal disrespect for others? Xenophobia against the largest of our 51 states (ooh that one burns, don’t it, Canucks?)? So how come I had to endure the sick, horrible, 20 minute R-rated feedback rape scene in Strange Days with not a peep from the MPAA and I had to flash my stupid driver’s license to hear Cartman say the F word?

I busted a gut watching South Park and I fully intend to see it again and bust it again. I almost saw it again today (2 days later) but the plan fell apart. I know people I would specifically tell to avoid this movie, but (and as they read this they know who they are) I kind of, in a not-meaning-to-be-mean-way, feel sorry for them. I’m sorry that this stuff doesn’t bother me and it does them – because it’s a funny freaking movie! It’s hella cool! M’Kay?

MPAA Rating R for everything you can object to
Release date 6/30/99
Time in minutes 81
Director Trey Parker
Studio Paramount

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An Ideal Husband

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Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband is a lesser-known work, one that lacks a certain quality that makes for delicious farce; namely, mistaken identity and/or scandal, with a hint of real naughtiness. The work does contain classic farcical situations that could easily be resolved if people would just be more determined, i.e. “Now just wait a moment, hear me out,” or “No no what *actually* happened is this” – misunderstandings are essential in farce. However, An Ideal Husband has a certain bland center plot device which is difficult to jazz up. Loathe as I am to compare a still-enjoyable movie to one that was patently unenjoyable, this one point of comparison is inescapable: The political ballyhoos of An Ideal Husband are, in content and ferocity, as interesting as the trade treaties being discussed in Phantom Menace.

I must now defend this movie voraciously: The acting (and dialogue) is what makes this movie work where the other failed. The story is thin, the situations frustratingly easy to make right, but the lovely ensemble with their arched brows and self-interested half-smiles are what carry this movie. Rupert Everett is the edible Lord Goring and Jeremy Northam his friend and foil. Cate Blanchett is lovely here, proving that Elizabeth was not a fluke, and quietly begging us with her eyes to cast her in a real comedienne role, and soon! Minnie Driver is her usual bizarre, spastic self, and finally Julianne Moore, making up for Lost World with a spanking British accent and a cunning resemblance to Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons.

An Ideal Husband was not the romp I had taken it to be, and the political plot point is a bit dry even by British standards, but every shot is rife with beauty and elegance and every actor is dripping with subtext and wit and irony and that is the true delight of the film. It more than makes up for the unfortunately languid pacing.

Director Oliver Parker also adapted the screenplay, as he has done one other time, with 1995’s Othello (Laurence Fishburne). He clearly takes a long time to be very wedded to his text before committing it to film, and took great pains with his production team making every little detail just so. The production design, props, costumes, small touches everywhere, are scrumptious. I can’t say how much is Parker’s directing and how much is his superb ensemble’s cleverness. It seems as though some scenes (the ones that felt as if they markedly decelerated the quick dialogue) he just didn’t know what to do and just let his people do what they do and just capture it on film. Fortunately, he cast good people: I hate to think what might have happened with a group where Jeremy Northam was the strongest actor on screen instead of the weakest as here. No offense to Mr. Northam, but he, being the Ideal Husband and all, should have been a stronger link. He is no detriment, only an underused fulcrum that could have vaulted the film further.

Rupert Everett plays quite the ladies man, which is a tad amusing. The Hollywood school of thought that says that the American public does not want to know if their leading man is gay because it will undermine him as a lover or hero has nothing to worry about. Except for not being altogether passionate about his kissing scenes, Everett is a total cad and a dreamboat, just as he should be. Fortunately, in Wilde’s society, a man could be heterosexual and still effetely vain about his cravat. He’s a pleasure to watch, really. It’s a pleasant diversion but sadly, little more than a chance to hear Rupert’s barbed wit.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/18/99 NY/LA
Time in minutes 97
Director Oliver Parker
Studio Miramax

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Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt)

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Full Price Feature (Eigenschaft Des Vollen Preises oder bezahlung voller Preis)

Normally, I shy away from subtitled films because reading them gives me a headache, and I miss so much of the visual portion of the movie. Seeing Life is Beautiful, by midway through, I forgot all about the fact that I was reading the dialogue; and so it is, for the most part, with Run, Lola, Run. I feel I should mention this up front as many people get turned off by foreign films for the very same reason, and I don’t want people to miss this one.

Basically, Lola runs. She is desperate, she has a mission that is time-critical (20 minutes, shot in real time) and she does it more than once. That is all I will say about the plot because it is much more delightful to have the characters tell it. I knew she ran going into the movie (I mean, come on, I did go to elementary school) but I did not know why. The best part is, somehow, writer-director Tom Tykwer makes it interesting, engaging, fascinating. She runs into and past people and we see snippets of their lives. As things change so do their fates, momentarily touched as they are by her presence running by. Lola is a force, a massive force, affecting all those around her unwittingly, yet she is nothing supernatural – she only zigged where she should have zagged and events took their turn from there. I have always been interested in the concept of “what if” and this movie takes “what if” to a new level – in addition to being really different in execution (say, than Sliding Doors) from most films, Run Lola Run also has the bonus of having all kinds of interesting side stories – they whisk by but still register – they are not unimportant, they are only secondary to Lola’s run.

The soundtrack pumps during the majority of the film – I’d say during the action sequences but I would think of them more as dramatic tension sequences with rapid movement. The best thing about the soundtrack is it feels designed to drive the action and not the bottom line, if you get my meaning. Even cooler: Tykwer wrote some of the original music and Franka Potente (Lola) performs some of it! How personal and intense and nifty is that? It is not a student film – it is multimedia and polished and interesting to the eye. I am not sure what city she is in, Berlin or another city, but it’s beautiful and old and she is beautiful and young with a shock of hot red hair and cool pastel casual clothes and the contrast of her immediate desperation running through these old, staid Bavarian streets to this almost-techno driving music is…freakin’ cool. Freakin’ cool (or a less MPAA-friendly version of that opinion) is what I was thinking most of the time. Sometimes the tone abruptly switches, and I’m like, what the – ! But it’s soon clear and I never flagged in my focus. The film forces you to be as focused as she is. I mean that in a good way.

Franka Potente is fabulous – she’s beautiful without being unnatural or inaccessible, kind of a punk without being a freak, and throughout the film she gets put through the emotional paces and always surfaces with a new tack. Her face is, somehow, expressionless much of the time, yet extremely expressive. It’s all in the eyes. She’s got that Anglo Saxon/German Celtic look going on, mixed with the street chic of her tattoos and wild hair – she’s like a weird modern angel flying through the city to…well…do something really important and in a hurry. Moritz Bleibtreu plays her boyfriend, Manni, central to the plot and also put through the paces in this horrible day. He’s oddly handsome but also not unnaturally so – and they make a believable couple no matter what they are engaged in doing.

Basically it’s refreshing and cool – a Black Forest cake of a movie! Run out and catch it – har har har!

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Tarzan (1999)

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You want a top of the line animated feature, you got it. Disney has got this down to an art, nay, a science. My roommate thought that it followed the Lion King formula, which is interesting seeing as the only similarities is that there are animals as most of the lead characters and it’s set in Africa. The Disney studio and parks have long held a reverence for the Victorian adventurer’s image of Africa, its untamed wilderness of pure, man-free beauty and incredible majesty, and they take full advantage of that tradition in this film. Every background is gorgeous, every animal carefully studied for movement and behavior, every leaf wet with animated dew. Wow. The “camera work” (you know what I mean) is totally unbelievable – I know it’s on the computer, but the deep-frame animation, the speed, the lush textures, oh man oh man is this movie just a feast! The beautiful shots of the island in Bug’s Life, that sense of light and weight that is the sole domain of Disney and Pixar (and what wins them the Oscars, baby!), it’s triple that here in Panavisual glory!

Unusually, Tarzan is the first Disney feature I can think of in a long time (excepting Pixar work) and frankly, not just Disney movies, where the song music is used as score rather than as songs. Yes, the music is combined score and song, but the lyric parts of the music serve more as captions or internal monologues, not musical numbers. Some folks out there, you know the ones, the fuddy duddy “no magic or suspension of disbelief allowed in my universe” wanks, they might be pleased to know that no one bursts into song, that the songs punctuate the plot more along the lines of the use of a pop song in a regular, live-action movie. Phil Collins is a master heartstring tugger; during the 80’s in particular, he could write you a song that would bust your rib cage open with pure angst and longing. He does an admirable job with that aspect of the music, but for one, it’s so recognizably Phil (but what a relief it’s not that wretch, Randy Newman!), it seems a bit bizarre. For two, the music is not…African enough. I think it would have been amazing if Phil and say, Peter Gabriel (or, I don’t know, some African people, but come on, this is Disney we’re talking about.) could have collaborated with the Real World label artists and cranked out some serious whoom!

Besides Phil Collins, another great thing about the movie is that the characters are not overwhelmed by the people voicing them, well, except Rosie O’Donnell, but she is the comedy relief so it’s only semi-aggravating. I watched the credits and was stunned to see Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen listed among the voice talent – as apes, even. Minnie Driver, oh, I could tell it was her, but it wasn’t I’M MINNIE DRIVER all the way through like it was when say, Mel Gibson played John Smith in Pocahontas. Wayne Knight I had to dig in my brain to identify but his Newman persona didn’t dominate his character either.

Man! Did I mention how awesome this movie looked? The camera screams through the jungle canopy, the apes knuckle along smoothly and gracefully, the computer-generated objects meld handsomely with the hand drawn stuff, and the acting (by that I mean the animation of the apes and people) was very good. I can’t explain how that works, but it does. I even cried twice (I was alone and am more susceptible to Phil Collins’ charms when I am not chaperoned) and I laughed out loud a couple of times (harder to do alone). This jungle island is lush and gorgeous and painfully beautiful, and the story is more or less faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original tale – it’s definitely faithful to the spirit of it when it derails from the word of it. I was surprised at the amount of death but not surprised at how it was handled. But, the jungle is brutal, so you know, son, uh, in nature…well, let’s just watch Animal Planet shall we? (Cut to shot of boy watching television – on screen a cheetah takes down a gazelle. The boy doesn’t even flinch). There, you see? Circle of life and all that. I really liked Tarzan and I may or may not buy the soundtrack but I will buy the movie when it is released *but only on DVD!* Do you hear me, Disney? Divx dead – DVD good!

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/18/99
Time in minutes 88
Director Chris Buck, Kevin Lima
Studio Walt Disney

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Buena Vista Social Club

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What could have been a very illumination love fest for some very old Cuban musicians turned into a long, un-dance-worthy non-structed documentary. Director Wim Wenders chronicles the recording of these musicians, banded together like a third world Traveling Wilburys, which was apparently brought about by semi-revered American musician Ry Cooder. Wenders seems to have no say in the structure or the direction of the film, and while the individual tales of the musicians are interesting, the shots are lovely, and the music is nicely spliced between recording sessions and live performance footage, overall the movie lacks direction and pacing.

BVSC was a club back at least in the 1940’s Cuba if not earlier which had a jumping local music scene, and has since shut down. The BVSC of the movie, however, is what this group of musicians has decided to call itself for the purposes of this recording (and a couple of subsequent major gigs) in honor of the old place. Unfortunately, the film (shot almost entirely in 1997-98 era digital video) feels more like multimedia liner notes and it doesn’t really have much of an arc to it.

Thankfully, the musicians, all a zillion years old and veterans and pros to a one, have no egotistical “well yes I am the best at what I do” that could have made BVSC into an unwatchable film. As it is, it is really simply a little too long and a little too broad. The characters of the musicians are all colorful and interesting, but not explored enough in depth to really give us a sense of having met them, as a project like this film could have done. The music they perform is lovely and interesting and they are all basically extremely talented; and the clear joy that these forgotten musicians exhibit getting to do what they had done all their long lives is quite as lovely as the sounds they produce together. Cooder and his son contribute and they seem almost wrong; they are not untalented or outclassed, but merely far too honky to be jamming with these pre-Castro, hell, pre-modern jazz musicians.

I was informed by my jazz enthusiast companion that when the US embargoed Cuba, they also essentially cut them off from the jazz evolution that was just coming to life in the early 1960’s, and so their harmony structure and so forth never evolved past the end of the swing style jazz era. I nodded and smiled, thinking I was enjoying this music, but I had always envisioned it more earthy and dance-inducing and…sexy I guess. The music is sexy, but in much the same way that the blues are sexy – you listen to it and have your own sexy moment, you spectate the music. It is not the raw, inclusive sexiness of Brazilian music, I guess. What the hell do I know! All I know is that the movie was a tad slow, it had no assisting voiceover or title cards to let me know what was being documented so I knew to what I should be paying attention (so, sue me, I’m human – just tell me what you’re on about and I will pay attention better, especially when the pace is so slow). Ah well. It’s interesting enough to be worth seeing, but it’s not quite cohesive enough to hold you.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/18/99
Time in minutes 101
Director Wim Wenders
Studio Artison Entertainment

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Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

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All right, I’ll say it up front: I am not an Austin Powers fan. Due largely to the winning comedic nature of my boss qua friend, I have come to assimilate a couple of Dr. Evil references into my life, as well as even begrudgingly sit through showings of the first movie. But, while enduring the Spy Who Shagged Me, I realized the relative brilliance of the original film. Not unlike the Saturday Night Live Theory of Sellativity of “if it’s funny once, it must be hilarious six times,” the Austin Powers franchise (shudder) has now taken the bits that had finally grown on me a little from the first movie, and ruined them forever. Psh! I have a whole bag of psh! right here, Mike Myers, and I’m not afraid to use it. It’s an unfortunate use of the conservation of mass, applied to filmmaking. A wise scientist I know predicted the outcome of this filmgoing venture with eerie accuracy: “Feces is never created or destroyed. It is merely reincarnated as colorized motion pictures.” Oh, how true. Run that up the flagpole and salute it.

Never mind that the plot is silly – I didn’t expect it to be anything more than a skeleton. Never mind that we have established the ha-ha convention that this trollish git is supposed to be the most sexy, irresistible bloke in town. This is all fine and dandy. It was the screeching product placement, the exact rip off of jokes and gags from the first movie (even the same characters doing them!), the retread of the go-go interludes which were novel in the first movie and now clearly filler for the second…it was the wasting of Heather Va Va Voom Graham as a compellingly named Felicity Shagwell, the grotesque Fat Bastard (who almost made me laugh despite myself), the snoozarific back and forth between Dr. Evil and his clone…oh my god and Tim Robbins! First a Martin Lawrence movie and now this? What’s next, the new Gallagher tribute? And to ruin “Let’s Get It On” for me forever to boot!

Did I mention how offensive the product placement is? I don’t mean even blatant prominence on camera which is de rigeur for big budget pictures, I mean out and out campaign slogans inserted into dialogue, random closeups of specific products, the whole shebang. Someone who knows me would be spinning in their grave to hear me say that even (gulp – goodbye soul!) Wayne’s World handled their product placement with more style. Kill me. It’s embarrassing. I have seen more subtle handling of sponsors during a commercial break for the Super Bowl! Perhaps (and I am giving someone a LOT of credit here) the joke is on the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, which have gotten a little Nokia/Tag Heuer/BMW heavy of late. But even Ineeda Mantadoo doesn’t say, “Oh, Mr. Bond, your Tommy Hilfiger jacket makes you look just like a native!”

The reason AP:TSWSM gets a Catch it in HBO rating is for 1. Rob Lowe’s eerily dead-on impression of Robert Wagner (it was researched: it’s REALLY Rob) and 2. an amusing side-trip as people see a rocket flying over and comparing it to…well, that part was funny, anyway. Also, I know I am not the only person who wants a New Convertible Beetle. I’d like mine in a solid color, however, please. I must say, Seth Green looks positively edible with blue and black hair! People are lining up to watch this drivel and after seeing Phantom Menace, I’m amazed anyone can look at themselves in the mirror now. In true form, the latest print ads for Austin Powers are aping other movies’ ads – sure, it’s postmodern and stuff, but if the movie is derivative of its predecessor and the ads are derivative of the competition, what does that leave us moviegoers? Up a creek, that’s where!

Fearing I am merely growing curmudgeonly in my advancing age, I settled in to watch about 30 minutes of Barb Wire, just to get a sense of what a really bad movie feels like, and you know what, Shagged Me didn’t improve one iota. International Man of Mystery has bumped up a couple of rungs now, but if I’d sooner watch Barb Wire than force myself to revisit memories of the Spy Who Shagged Me, something is seriously wrong in the world. At least, with both Pamela and Mike, I got a double dose of Clint Howard. Shudder! Skip it! Save your money!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/11/1999
Time in minutes 105
Director Jay Roach
Studio Hollywood Pictures

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Notting Hill

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Shame on me, I have now seen this movie twice without having reviewed it, but I can tell you one thing: romantic movies are altogether different depending on who you see them with. Normally I do not like to reveal much about my companions, but this is worthy of note in my enjoyment of the movie. The first time I saw Notting Hill, I saw it with (I am not lying) my ex boyfriend and his more recent ex-girlfriend and another girl he went out with once. So imagine the ladies, by and large swooning over Hugh, grumbling softly to themselves that our one male companion couldn’t have been as floppily charming and sincere or whatever (sorry, man) as our celluloid swain. Now picture the guy, surrounded by women who, for the record, he is around all the time anyway, taking frantic notes to himself in case Julia Roberts happens to call Apple to license a whole lot of the MacOS. And a distinct shortage of Raisinets were present as well.

The second time I saw this movie was with one of my bestest friends in the whole world, a married female who I was visiting. Hugh does not as much for her as me, but she claims she could understand his charm in this movie (which is all I ask for – she’s got a man with a yummy accent). It was a million times squishier for me. I must get a date to take me so I can see how the other half lives.

I’ll come right out and say it, I think Hugh Grant is the dishiest, and while Julia Roberts I can take or leave, she is best when she is luminous and dewy. The premise can be appreciated by anyone in the whole world: common man falls in with super goddess. It’s been done a million times, but seldom so nicely, I think. Who doesn’t want to be the deity revered without even having to do anything? Who doesn’t want to be the mortal noticed and loved by the deity? Who doesn’t want to see past some public persona into the real person of someone who is an icon? (Are you listening, John Cusack?) Who doesn’t want someone to take the trouble to see past one’s public persona and be seen for who they really are? Who doesn’t want to meet that person (assuming you haven’t) who is your perfect match and somehow overcome all obstacles to be together and be happily happily ever after? And, frankly, given the number of guests Jerry Springer and his ilk have every week, who apparently doesn’t want to be famous, no matter for what reason?

Given all that, what would not be appealing to *someone* in this movie? Merely the sociology of famous meeting unfamous and how would that work is interesting. On top of that, our stars have some nice chemistry, some really good acting moments (who doesn’t wish Julia would replace Andie in Four Weddings and a Funeral – same director), and a really cool passage of time sequence as well. Watch the extras when Hugh goes walking dejectedly through Notting Hill.

Like all bittersweet British comedies (Peter’s Friends, Four Weddings, etc.), our hero has a wonderful tight net of supportive friends who are also interestingly painted and well developed. Dang, but those people sure know how to build a character. Notable (and perhaps a tad over the top) is Grant’s flatmate Spike, who frankly is appalling but at least his grotesqueness serves a purpose.

First viewing, I thought there were some editing problems, but apparently we had a terrible print because the second viewing went much more smoothly. I have to say, however, that the soundtrack (not the score, it’s actually quite hold-your-breath nice) is the cheesiest, nastiest clumping of only vaguely appropriate songs since…well, something that kid from Rushmore would have produced. Ugh! Perfectly lovely moments killed by a smarmy soundtrack – and it’s not even like embarrassing overuse of pop hits, which would be execrable but understandable from a marketing perspective. Ick.

Overall, an interesting tale told well, and go see it with someone you love. Sorry, ex-ie boy. It’s just not the same.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/28/99
Time in minutes 123
Director Roger Michell
Studio Universal Pictures