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Sorority Boys

Missed opportunity. 1/2* (out of four)
SORORITY BOYS / (2002) 1/2* (out of four)

Believe it or not, I was actually looking forward to Sorority Boys. I hoped it would be different from the recent explosion of aimless sex comedies considering the ample comic opportunities.

Unfortunately, five minutes into the movie, when a Jell-O dildo crashed threw a window, I realized my expectations were incorrect. At this point, I knew this would be 94 minutes of pure, aimless sex comedy. Sex can be funny, sometimes, but not as often as Hollywood likes to think. Am I the only person getting sick and tired of these pathetic attempts at humor?

The surprising thing about Sorority Boys is how much potential the story actually has. Harland Williams, Michael Rosenbaum, and Barry Watson play three members of Kappa Omicron Kappa fraternity who find themselves evicted from the KOK for stealing party funds.

Somebody has a video tape of the incident, but very few people know it exists, and their ex-fraternity pals will not allow them back inside to retrieve it. After learning that the Delta Omicron Gamma house needs new members, they disguise themselves in drag in order to stay somewhere and concoct a plan to prove their innocence.

Even with potentially funny situations directly under its brow, the movie's humor resorts to characters tumbling down staircases and silly lipstick jokes. The script, by Joe Jarvis and Greg Coolidge, desperately lacks imagination. The plot is so handicapped of ideas, it becomes wound up in a love story so out of place, even the actors involved look as if they think it belongs in a different movie altogether.

Although we've seen guys in drag before (in much better movies), this film is not without unique humorous intentions. In one scene, two characters sword fight with large dildos; in another, the men in drag lead the DOG members against the KOK's in a game of football-they are the first three to hit the bench due to injuries.

Again, these are funny concepts, but director Wallace Wolodarsky doesn't find a punch line. The idea of two guys fighting with dildos is funny, but watching them actually fight for five minutes is not. There is no moment when the audience identifies with the humor and laughs. The visualization of the jokes are so utterly stupid; the audience couldn't laugh at these sight gags if they wanted to.

Sorority Boys simply expects us to laugh at the utter stupidity of the characters. But that doesn't work when the movie is equally as stupid.


Energetic, romantic fun. Works wonderfully. ***1/2 (out of four)
BANDITS / (2001) ***1/2 (out of four)

Barry Levinson's clever romantic comedy Bandits makes stealing money look fun and simple. I can see it now: young, influential criminals holding up entire banks with magic markers. Certain things in this movie make such perfect sense, we wonder why nobody's thought of them before.

Even the casting makes perfect sense. Who better to play a handsome, spontaneous ladies man than Bruce Willis? And who could portray an intelligent, hypochondriac better than Billy Bob Thornton? Together, these two characters make the perfect man. Of course, it's only a matter of time before a woman becomes involved and finds herself split between the two.

But Bandits is anything but your average run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Willis and Thornton play Joe Blake and Terry Collins, two criminals in a high security prison. As the movie opens, they escape from prison in such a way that probably makes the other prisoners hit themselves on the head and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"

Just as soon as they switch getaway cars, Joe and Terry rob a bank to finance their upcoming adventures. After hooking up with an old friend of Joe's, a wannabe stuntman played by Troy Garity, the criminals devise a foolproof plan to rob banks: they take the bank manager hostage the night before a heist, sleep over at his house, then go into the bank with him the next morning before business hours. No unexpected holdups. No complications. Just take the money and leave before the first customer arrives.

The Joe and Terry dream of escaping to a tropical location and opening a margarita bar. Their success as bank robbers eventually puts them at the top of the FBI's most wanted list. Things become even more complicated when Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett) runs into one of the crooks and wants to become a part of their lifestyle. When she falls in love with both men, the situation really starts to heat up.

Oscar-winner Barry Levinsion gives Bandits a humble sense of reality. He doesn't place Joe and Terry on a pedestal and treat them like superheroes; he actually opens the film revealing their presumed demise. Although in interviews he explains that he was initially unsure how to handle the material, his uncertainty does not show in the final production. He has found the perfect blend of romance, action, and comedy to satisfy all tastes and styles.

Bandits opens with a bookend revealing parts of the film's finale. This doesn't really work. Normally, this technique is used when a movie is more about a journey than what actually happens at the end. Although Bandits is indeed more about a journey, the movie's structure does not support such an opening. It doesn't provide us with enough information to work effectively, and, after a final twist at the very end, this technique seems pointless since it doesn't reveal the actual ending, anyway.

Nonetheless, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett deliver fine performances, forming a charismatic, unlikely love triangle. Troy Garity, gleeful and eccentric, steals all of his scenes in memorable supporting role. Despite the various structural flaws, the cast alone is enough to redeem Bandits as an above average comic adventure. It's one of the year's most fun surprises.

Monster's Ball

A harrowing, daring film. One of the year's best. **** (out of four)
MONSTER'S BALL / (2001) **** (out of four)

When I finish reading a great book, I don't close it right away. Treasuring the story's emotional grasp, I just sit there and hold it for a minute, enthralled, sensing the character's lives are continuing even as I put the book away.

"Monster's Ball" is a similar experience. The film contains so much truth, vigor, and so many harrowing moments, I just stared at the screen through the ending credits. Even after a second viewing the conviction did not diminish. It really says something about a movie when you know what happens and you're equally as mesmerized every time you watch it.

Most movies about depravity are really about entertainment, but director Marc Forster avoids preachy speeches, big sappy moments, and melodramatic music. Even during the movie's most important scenes, Forster does not overplay the material. He knows that careful, quiet dialogue, and long, silent pauses speak louder than lengthy emotional summaries.

Consider a scene where a character checks his father into an old folk's home. It does not feature long good-byes or conclusive hugs. Instead, it projects unflinching, raw emotion. "You must love him very much," reassures an attendant to the character who replies, "No I don't, but he is my father…"

The character, Hank, is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who makes his Academy Award-winning performance in "Sling Blade" look like SNL material. Hank, bitter and racist, lives in a Southern country house with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), and father (Peter Boyle).

Hank and Sonny work as prison guards on death row. Sonny desperately wants out of the family business, especially after an unpleasant emotional reaction to the latest execution. When Hank explodes at him for his mistake, Sonny teaches his father a lesson he will never forget.

The film eventually becomes a story about the relationship between Hank and the widow of the man he has just executed. She's played by Halle Barry, who was paid an extra one-million dollars for doing an extended sex scene completely nude. This is a gradual, yet sudden relationship that is not based on physical attraction or love, but emotional need and depravity.

Forster makes interesting editing choices. During certain scenes, he cuts back and forth between separate occurrences while the central action fills the soundtrack. Especially unique is how he handles a sex scene. While two characters engage in some of the most graphic stimulated sex of last year, Forster flashes images of a caged bird before us. A metaphor of shattered innocence or repressed emotion, perhaps?

Actually, Forster fills "Monster's Ball" with metaphors, including the title itself. He even includes a moving soundtrack of timid rhythms and sudden beats, symbolizing the characters complex states of mind. Forster's haunting, daring feature reminds us why we all love the movies.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Easy to enjoy, but Anderson tackles too much material. **1/2 (out of four)
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS / (2001) **1/2 (out of four)

It's easy to enjoy a movie when we love all the actors involved, and "The Royal Tenenbaums" places charismatic, top-notch performers in even the smallest of roles. Perhaps this explains the film's overwhelming positive consensus-it's not so much of a good movie as it is a well-cast movie.

In a role he was born to play, a very funny Gene Hackman stars as Royal Tenenbaum. He's the aging separated husband of Etheline (an eccentrically elegant Anjelica Huston) and the father of three previously successful children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Unfortunately, the kid's have lived dysfunctional lives since their parents separated 22 years ago. Now, Royal understands his mistake and wants his family back. But Etheline, currently in a relationship with her business manager (Danny Glover), wants no part of her ex-love. Royal concocts an excuse: he's dying and seeks redemption.

Like all Anderson's films, this is a vivid character study. It includes some harshly funny, but also touches the grim realities of life. The story, by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also acts in the film), gives the Tenenbaums plenty of dimension and heart. But there are so many characters to keep track of here, we are pulled in far too many directions.

Few of these characters have much to do on screen. Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Billy Murray, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, Seymour Cassel, and Ben Stiller all fight for our attention, while the relationship between Etheline and Royal takes center stage. We care about the later characters, so much that the others feel like intrusive. They certainly contribute to the unique style of the movie. But they quickly outstay their welcome, eventually becoming an intrusion.

Speaking of relationships, "The Royal Tenenbaums" complicates itself with far too many. The various connections don't become overwhelming because Anderson knows who is who and who is with who and why, and he keeps the dialogue very casual. The film never loses it's sense of humor. Thus, as confusing as it is, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is always an easy movie to watch.

Some of these relationships have great truth, but they are mixed within the jumble. Anderson tackles way too much material in a single film…and his talents with style and characters cancel each other out. We're left with a movie that juggles so many characters and so many emotions, that we don't know what to think.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is the third feature film by Wes Anderson, following "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore." I haven't liked any of his movies, but I admire his inspiration and acknowledge his talents. He's a fine filmmaker with refreshing style and a passionate vision, yet his work has yet to make a connection. I eagerly await the moment he learns to blend good filmmaking with good storytelling.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius

Colorful and full of energy, but it's also forgettable and never takes off. ** (out of four)
JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS / (2001) ** (out of four)

"Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" is artificial energy. It's like drinking a pot of coffee or consuming sugary products-you get the instant buzz, but it wears off fast and the long term results are minimal. Instead, why not consume fruits and juices, which will give you sustained energy and healthy nutrients. Or, in this case, watch a movie that will entertain beyond the external exuberance.

"Jimmy Neutron" is the sugary junk all kids love. With colorful images and high-spirited enthusiasm, what youngster would not like it? They will get a 82 minute thrill, but when the ending credits appear they will probably never think about the film again.

The film does identify with kids well. We meet a boy genius, Jimmy Neutron, who has moronic parents and lots of homemade gadgets and gizmos. He is not the coolest kid on the block, but he is really smart and is kept company by a chubby friend and a mechanical dog.

One day aliens abduct all the neighborhood parents. The kids jump for joy. Who needs those annoying, restrictive, old fogies who won't even let them go to concerts on school nights? But soon enough, Jimmy and the rest of the kids realize they need their parents, and it's up to Jimmy to lead the army of children to save their folks.

Jimmy Neutron was first introduced in a 1995 animated short as "Johnny Quasar." He's everything every kid wants to be: creative, resourceful, genuine, and energetic. I might have enjoyed this character as a kid. But then again, I might have enjoyed this entire movie if I was10 years old. But I'm not. And I didn't.

The movie is heavy on enthusiasm, color, spirit, imagination, and action, but it never puts those variables to use. It attempts to unitize its strengths on a comic level, but it lacks a punch line. Although there is plenty of silly material here-parents do the chicken dance, alien creatures do strange things, a massive chicken attacks the kids-but none of these things evoke laughs. The material is prime for comedy, but the movie never tells the joke.

For instance, the kid's have an old granny, teacher with a very strange voice. At one point, this woman shrinks and becomes the target of a worm. This situation could be funny, but the ideas themselves are not. It's not enough to have a teacher with a strange voice-the movie needs to tell a joke about her strange voice. Laughs need perfect timing, and this movie's watch is off.

And we don't really care about anything that happens in the film. Although, on an external level, the film will entertain younger viewers. This is the kind of movie that kids could watch once a week. Well, I guess that's one use for this movie. Parents, here's the thing you've been looking for to keep your kids occupied.

Ghost World

For those of us who tire of standard teen movies, here's the film to make our day. **** (out of four)
GHOST WORLD / (2001) **** (out of four)

For those of us who tire of standard teen movies, here's the film to brighten our day. It's a monkey wrench in the cranks of the tedious genre that features actors in their mid-twenties portraying stereotypical high-school characters shamelessly indulging predictable plots of frivolous romance. Where most movies set in high schools find resolve in romantics, "Ghost World" dares to be different.

Yet it contains all the usual ingredients-aimless main characters, one-dimensional side characters, high school graduation, moronic parents, sexual revelations, a romance-but it tastes different. This movie doesn't believe high school is the root of youth complications; it knows that school isn't where the confusion lies-it's after graduation when the complexities begin.

The movie opens as a high school senior dances along with a music video. Sounds like a typical teenager? Well, not really. The music this girl listens to isn't exactly mainstream. Nothing about Enid (Thora Birch from "American Beauty") is ordinary.

The same goes for her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). She is slightly more focused than the aimless Enid, but, as they graduate from high school in the opening scenes, neither of them know what they want out of life.

Rebecca and Enid find interesting people to follow, exploit, and embarrass, just for their own leisure, but even this loses its edge. Making the most (or least) of their situation, the girls stumble upon an outstandingly pathetic personal ad. As a joke, they respond. However, when they meet this man, Enid becomes infatuated with him.

In their post high school days, Enid and Rebecca find themselves slowly drifting apart. Rebecca is eager to get an apartment and get on with her life, while Enid lives by the day, following one infatuation after another. As their attitudes gradually change from cynical to sober, Enid and Rebecca's emerging differences become blatantly obvious, but painfully realized.

"Ghost World" refers to the world in which these characters live, a town slowly being overcome by shopping malls and coffee shops; a town that slowly loses its distinctions and becomes a ghost of what it once was.

My small town of Mason, MI speaks for itself. Once a minuscule farming suburb of the state's capital, it's now a breeding ground for new subdivisions, factories, stores, gas stations, trailer parks, and businesses. Before you know it, it will be a densely populated city like the capital itself.

"Ghost World" makes harsh points, but it never loses its sense of humor. Enid is so full of bitter cynicism that we have to laugh. She indulges the dialogue. It's often tactlessly frank, savoring every opportunity to bash, thrash, ridicule, or insult anyone or anything for any reason.

Society tends to repress our caustic desire to insult a fellow man, but "Ghost World" doesn't hesitate. It takes a lot of risks, but never steps in the wrong direction. It connects us with these characters. They are so casually antisocial that we can't help but to love them. At times, the movie doesn't require dialogue. It simply examines the character's surroundings. We get to know these people so well, we know exactly what they're thinking before they say it. They are a part of our instincts to react on impulse.

But a character is only as good as the actor behind it. "Ghost World" features enormously engaging performances. Brad Renfro gives his nobody store clerk a raw blandness. Illeana Douglas injects a kind of controlled eccentricity into her role as an art teacher. Steve Buscemi creates a hopeless record player collector out of repressed emotion, and lack thereof.

Scarlett Johansson gives Rebecca a dry, depressed mood. Thora Birch steals the whole show with a straightforward, fearless performance. Although the movie never defines the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, the actors themselves make it clear. They create an enticing charisma that gradually turns to an awkward tension.

"Ghost World" captures part of our journey from childhood to adulthood with poetic grace and cynical wit. Though it's not really a coming-of-age film, where a young character finally takes a place in the world. Enid never finds her place, decides her future, or chooses a path. By the end of the story, she simply becomes aware of her possible options. This movie is just the beginning of her story.

Life and Debt

If the topic interests you, this is the film to watch. But it put me to sleep. *1/2 (out of four)
LIFE AND DEBT / (2001) *1/2 (out of four)

Documentaries are probably the easiest kind of movie to make-no demanding actors, expensive special effects, enormous filming crews, or massive budgets. However, covering such specific topics, documentary movies are probably also the hardest kind of film to make entertaining.

Michael Moore does it best when he injects a cunning wit into his documentaries like "The Big One" and "Roger & Me." 1999's "Barenaked in America," detailing a Canadian band, also entertained audiences while still supplying interesting information on the subject. "Life and Debt" does not do this. It contains an appropriate style, but lacks interest.

For most of us, when we think about Jamaica, we think of a popular vacation spot. Who wouldn't enjoy it's beautiful locations, warm weather, and welcoming atmosphere. American's can even enter with a delusion of wealth since thirty Jamaican dollars equal approximately one US dollar.

But "Life and Debt" does not exploit the location as an exotic locale, it examines how the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other aid organizations have changed the Jamaican economy over the past several decades. The movie examines how agriculture, industry, government, and culture have been restructured by import-export systems, forcing the locals to live in poverty and work in sweatshops.

Director Stephanie Black does not take the normal approach to such material. She injects a sarcastic style into the scenes. An effective reggae soundtrack-including songs by Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Mutubaruka, and Peter Tosh-seasons the film. Unfortunately, despite the filmmakers' attempts, the spices do not rid the stuffy scenes of a stale aftertaste.

Author Jamaica Kincaid, whose book "A Small Place" inspired the film, guilds the audience on a tourist's journey through the visually stunning country. On a technical level, this is a good documentary; it makes good points about the topic. It surprises us while proving wrong our assumptions about Jamaican.

If you are interested in this kind of thing, this is definitely the movie to watch. But if you're not particularly interested in this topic, it's difficult to care about currency, economics, banana production, the country's poverty, etc. I found myself daydreaming, looking at my watch, dozing off. For me, this was a tedious, tremendously boring experience.

Though we can't accuse this movie of miscommunication. After watching the movie, we will all see Jamaica in a new light…that is, if we are still awake.

Amores perros

Gets progressively more interesting, but the unpleasant nature of the film makes it no fun to watch at all. **1/2 (out of four)
AMORES PERROS / (2001) **1/2 (out of four)

I've never seen a movie like "Amores Perros," and there's good reason for that. Few filmmakers would touch this kind of material, not because of the subject matter-it doesn't cover anything overly controversial-but because it is so dismal. I don't mind movies with depressing themes. "Requiem for a Dream" ranked as my favorite film of 2000. But there's a difference between grim and unpleasant, and this movie is as repulsive as they come.

How unpleasant? Because of the film's graphic dogfight scenes, The Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed a complaint to the British Board of Film Classification. Now, a disclaimer stating that no animals were harmed in the making of the movie comes at the beginning instead of being buried in the end credits. This is to assure audiences in advance that the dogs aren't tearing each other to shreds.

This might be reassuring if the movie wasn't so well made. Movies should convince us of the content, and "Amores Perros" does. The dogfights look so real, the animals might as well be ripping the flesh off each other's backs. We don't want to submit ourselves to such horrific images.

Many praised this movie for its relentless audacity and perverse nature. Why? Just because an artist takes risks doesn't mean he deserves acclaim. We all should encourage filmmakers to try new things and explore unique subjects. But sometimes an experiment fails. This is one of those times.

The movie opens with a car chase. Two lowlifes dodge heavy traffic, escaping several dangerous thugs. As the passengers shout obscenities, a dog bleeds to death in the back seat. The scene concludes when the driver smashes into another vehicle at high speeds. This accident forever changes the lives of those involved.

We cut to a scene where more lowlifes gamble at a dogfight. Their dog tears the other dog to pieces. Soon afterward, we are happy to learn that another dog has killed their beast. What kind of movie evokes this kind of pleasure?

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu inventively structured his film by overlapping and intersecting several narratives. Throughout the 153 minutes (!), we meet the characters who were in the car crash. Although the film does get progressively interesting as each of three scenarios reveal something new about the story as a whole, the gritty nature of the production makes it anything but fun to watch.

In English, the title means "Love's a Bitch." This movie doesn't justify those words. It certainly shows the downside (way down) of life, but it wouldn't know love-or emotion in general-if it bit it in the nose. It's about behavior beyond reason. Reaction without impulse. For a movie to portray separation from love, it needs to know what love really is.

When two people have sex, it's raw and cold. Yet an uplifting melody fills the soundtrack. "Amores Perros" doesn't know a thing about passion. This director obviously has a big grudge against the world. If filming his aggression helps him work out these issues, that's fine. But why expose the rest of the world to this brutal therapy?

Perhaps I'm too hard on the film. It's engaging at points. Its themes gradually take solid form. It's obvious Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a talented, fearless filmmaker. The movie leaves us with a lot to chew on. By the end, we are oddly touched and amazed how everything fits together, but we don't know what to make of it all.


One of the year's most compelling character studies. **** (out of four)
LANTANA (2001) **** (out of four)

"Lantana" does not embody a story like most movies; it isn't about anything in particular. It's a movie about characters. Not larger-than-life super heroes, but characters who succumb to temptation, cheat on their wives, doubt their spouses, make mistakes and suffer consequences. In other words, "Lantana" is about real people. Normal, imperfect people like all of us. Not that everyone behaves like the characters here, but few films capture transgression with such compassion and sympathy.

Set in Australia, a colorful pallet of characters paints a vivid, coherent psychological portrait of infidelity, deceit, and estrangement. At the center of the film is four couples, immersed in guilt and depravity for different reasons. Everybody has something to hide. The conflicts of these people illuminate the personal crisis of a police detective (Anthony LaPaglia) as he investigates the disappearance of a local woman.

Apart from the investigation, the couples have little connection with each other. They do have one thing in common, however, that none of them communicates with their loved ones. "Lantana" proves communication enforces commitment, but a lack thereof results in disaster. This sincere, uncompromising picture places the lack of communication at the center of family problems.

The film won various Australian Film Awards for its performances, screenplay, and direction by Ray Lawrence. Lawrence clearly intended the title-referring to a tropical shrub with beautiful flowers that hide dense, thorny undergrowth-to represent the characters' private lives hidden behind an outward appearance. He's got the wrong metaphor. These characters do not appear sunny on the inside, outside, front or back. They don't wear masks or attempt to cover their frowning states of mind. They are unhappy people, and the movie never pretends otherwise.

Those qualities make the characters absorbing. Instead of providing them with outlets and opportunities to hide their faults, the film pokes, prods, and starves them of their happiness until they reach a breaking point. For some, the breaking point results in an explosion of anger. For others, it's subtle and personal. "Lantana" investigates real people who deal with real situations and encounter real consequences.

None of the characters are model citizens, yet we care deeply about each of them. When someone cries, we feel sorry for them. When someone begs for forgiveness, we try to forgive them. When someone questions their spouse, we are concerned with both sides of the marriage. These people make big mistakes; the results of their mistakes are never certain. The movie does not neatly pull things together at the end. It doesn't allow the characters an easy way out. These characters must dig themselves out of their problems.

"Lantana" is one of the most compelling, involving films of the year. It's based on a play called "Speaking in Tongues" by Andrew Bovell, who also wrote the fluid screenplay. I want to see this play. If these characters feel so alive, so real, so tormented on screen, think of their power in person.

Cats & Dogs

Great special effects and energy, but a less-than-great story. ** (out of four)
CATS & DOGS / (2001) ** (out of four)

In "Cats & Dogs" you get a cat and mouse chase movie, except the dog replaces the mouse, and the feline's goal is not just to catch the opponent, but to claim world domination.

That's a pretty weak concept for a bid-budget, special effects action film, especially when the production features the best technology has to offer. The movie uses more than 800 visual effects, and 200 animators, designers, compositors, sculptors, and technicians. With so much going for it, "Cats & Dogs" should have utilized these tools to bring a great story to life. It does breathe life into a plot filled with energy and gusto, but it sure isn't great.

Unbeknownst to humans, cats and dogs have always fought for world domination. A power-hungry Persian cat, Mr. Tinkles (wonderfully voiced by Sean Hayes), has broken a truce between the species. He plans to lead an attack against man's best friend.

Jeff Goldblum stars as Professor Brody, a scientist allergic to dogs. He conducts experiments in the basement of his house, hoping to invent a cure for man's allergic reaction to dogs. Mr. Tinkles designates the Brody home as ground zero for his global battle plan.

Initially, the folks at Warner Bros. considered doing the film as an animated feature, but they finally decided on a combination of live action, cutting-edge technology, complicated puppetry, and computer animation.

The results are splendid. Each animal has their own vivid personality, complete with facial expressions and physical gestures. The special effects do not overwhelm the film. Lawrence Guterman, the film's director, doesn't exploit the amazing special effects, but focuses on creating believable animal characters.

Sadly, however, the sight of a talking cat eventually wears off, and that leaves "Cats & Dogs" with little interest. It might entertain children with high energy action and talking animals, but a movie cannot run on those things alone. Perhaps the film could have worked as a comedy, but it lacks any form of wit or impulse. "Cats & Dogs" thinks its concepts are funny and entertaining enough, which is probably why it puts so little thought into the story.

Spy Game

Not just another Tony Scott action film--it's complex, thought-provoking. *** (out of four)
SPY GAME / (2001) *** (out of four)

Tony Scott is known for his big budget, fast-paced, action-packed extravaganzas. His latest film, "Spy Game" is no exception. He takes advantage of a massive budget, but loses sight of human comprehension. It's difficult to grasp his moral when it's awash in a superficial style where individual shots seldom last more than thirty seconds, and where dialogue never exceeds the length of a short paragraph. There's not much time to introduce characters, situations, or even locations-datelines appear on the screen to identify times and places.

Yet, it doesn't just feel as if we are in another movie by Tony Scott-everything feels very real. The danger is real. The characters are real. Many action films are about the action, special effects, and car chase sequences. "Spy Game" does contain those things, but they are in a focused, tight, evocative thriller. This movie is about the characters, not the action. It never forgets that.

"Spy Game" contains a complex structure. We begin in 1991. Veteran CIA officer Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) prepares for retirement. On his last day, he learns that his one-time protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured in a foreign prison on a charge of espionage and will be executed in 24 hours. Fearing international crisis, the CIA decides it would be too risky to save him. But with a new generation in control of the agency, Nathan is no longer an insider. He must outsmart his own agency in order to save his old friend.

Most of the film plays out in flashbacks as the CIA digests valuable information from Muir. The movie spans from the Vietnam war to the end of the Cold War, with years ranging from 1965 to about 1991 (although the characters don't seem to age much). We learn Nathan chose Tom as a sharpshooter in Vietnam. He trained with Bishop. They formed a close bond, until something came between them-a woman.

The forty-year span in time poses no problem for "Spy Game." The engaging screenplay, by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata, focuses on only the necessary characters. The soundtrack, by Harry Gregson-Williams, masterfully captures the various time periods, spicing the scenes with a slick sense of style and intrigue. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel makes the differences in location clear. Christian Wagner's editing gives the movie a frenzied, almost rushed emotion, that puts us right in the middle of the race against time.

Pitt and Redford retain their ground, despite a thick style. Redford creates a character out of nothing. We know little about him at the beginning, and we know little about him at the end. But he somehow gives his character a conscience, human values, and a lot of interest. We care about him because we do not like the black and white CIA operatives. Thus, we care about Pitt's character as well. Pitt gives his character an immature nature. He is in a stereotypical young hotshot role that might have fit him better a few years ago, but he still creates a grave sense of panic and fear.

With a structure like this, we expect subplots to evolve from the flashbacks. There is an intriguing terrorist story. A love story. Themes about betrayal, trust, position, friendship, commitment…but "Spy Game" never slows down and allows us to absorb these important details. By the end, we feel exhilarated, and we know we just watched a very smart, well-crafted film, but the most we can take from it is that it is a very smart, well-crafted film. I think, beneath all the style and surface, there is a little more to the movie than that.

Vanilla Sky

excellent filmmaking supported by excellent performances. ***1/2 (out of four)
VANILLA SKY / (2001) ***1/2 (out of four)

(WARNING: Depending on what you already know about the film--this article may contain a spoiler. It does not, however, give away the ending.)

By Blake French:

Excluding setting and soundtrack differences, "Vanilla Sky" is very similar to "Open Your Eyes," the 1997 Spanish production it is based on. "Open Your Eyes," Alejandro Amenábar's existential thriller, questioned the realm of reality as it combined the filmmaking styles of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. "Vanilla Sky" blends the thematic depths of the same directors, but the styles of the two movies feel worlds apart. Director Cameron Crowe adds his own ingredients to this complex recipe; his version is more of an update to the original film than a remake.

With heartwarming movies like "Almost Famous" and "Jerry Maguire," we never would have expected a film like "Vanilla Sky" from Cameron Crowe. But he expands himself far beyond our expectations with this complex, enigmatic, wonderfully frustrating tale. It's a side of Crowe we have never seen before, and it is a pleasant change of pace.

The film opens with one of the most impressive sequences filmed all year. David Aames (Tom Cruise), sprints down a barren Times Square, frantically searching for any sign of life-but there is none to be found. No digital effects were used to create this shot. The city actually gave "Vanilla Sky" permission to shut down Times Square one Sunday so that the shot could be completed. It has an eerie, frantic sensation that digital alterations would not have accomplished.

David wakes to his luxurious life of wealth and position. He inherited a massive corporation from his father and has been enjoys his power and endless supply of beautiful women ever since. However, his latest bed-buddy, Julie (Cameron Diaz), gets a little too close for his comfort. When she invades his birthday party, David uses his best friend's gorgeous romantic interest, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), as a means to rid himself of her.

The following morning, David finds Julie waiting in her car outside his apartment. She admits to following him, but somehow manages to coax him into her vehicle. In a jealous rage, she admits to loving him, accuses David of using her for casual sex, and drives the speeding car off a bridge, killing Julie and deforming David. But is Julie really dead? Is Sofia even a real person, or is she just a figment of David's imagination? David tries to sort it all out in a prison where he has been charged with a murder he does not remember committing.

Cameron Crowe fails to breathe life into a few areas of need, where the original film also lacked. For instance, despite engaging performances, we are never convinced that David and Sofia really love each other. The movie lacks passion. We never feel steam or heat from the screen, not even during an especially absent love scene between Cruz and Cruise. The attitude here is much too external; it questions reality, but never emotion.

Also, the movie never shows us the emotion behind David's plastic mask, which he wears to shield his disfigured face. There is a striking scene in a dance club where David wears the mask on the back of his head, making it appear as if he has two faces. A fine metaphor to examine David's vanity, but "Vanilla Sky" does not provide the proper foundation.

Luckily, this isn't a movie about passion or emotion, it's about conviction and ideas. It's excellent filmmaking the whole way through, supported by excellent performances. Despite his status, Tom Cruise allows himself to look hideously deformed after the car crash. His powerful character transformation is even more effective. He swings back and forth between bitter depression and tormented rage. The psychological inconsistencies are the centerpiece of the movie.

And Crowe does expand on other areas where "Open Your Eyes" failed. "Vanilla Sky" creates a style twice as engaging as the original. Crowe dazzles us with brilliant editing and a lively, pop-culture soundtrack that gives the movie a modern edge. Even so, the twist at the end of this movie feels even less appropriate than in the original, perhaps because the film feels so modern.

"Vanilla Sky" is not like "Mulholland Drive," where no answers are given and there is much room for individual interpretation. This movie does provide an explanation-but it's without foundation or reason. We initially question the answers provided because we expect something more revealing, taut, perplexing. No need to look any deeper than face value. This movie explains every last detail in the finale, and the more it insists on explaining, the less interesting it is.

Despite a disappointing conclusion and a lack of emotional exploration, "Vanilla Sky" ranks as one of the best remakes of the year. The movie does exactly what remakes are supposed to do. It pays dues to the original while expanding on the concepts and themes. "Vanilla Sky" is not better than "Open Your Eyes," but at least it's on the same par.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Way too long, and way too much mumbo-jumbo. The movie abuses it's use of fantasy. A disappointment. ** (out of four).

By Blake French:

(WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead.)

The only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie that thinks it is good. The only thing worse than a bad movie that thinks it is good is a three hour long bad movie that thinks it is good.

Case in point: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," based on the towering trilogy of novels by J.R.R Tolkien. According to this film's production notes, this is one of the most colossal movie productions ever embarked upon, based on one of the most famous trilogies ever written. And you though "Harry Potter" had big expectations…

One of the biggest movie productions ever embarked upon? That's certainly a big statement-but I believe every word. It has taken four decades for cinema technology to reach the level of sophistication to bring this story to life. Everything about the film is B-I-G. It took over one-hundred million dollars to bring the vision to life, and this is only the first installment of three. Even the film's production notes-that embody 20 pages of single-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 point font-are of the longest I have seen. Peter Jackson, the film's director, has vowed to make three motion pictures simultaneously to capture Tolkien's lengthy epic in its entirety.

LOTR thinks it is hot stuff, too. With amazing special effects, astonishing makeup, impressive costumes, dazzling sets, and a production crew big enough to occupy every hotel room in Chicago, it would be easy to let all the glamour get to your head.

Case in point: The film took home a whole pile of Golden Globe nominations. It's currently ranked as the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database. It will surely break box office records, setting a new standard for film adaptations.

Sure, the film's technical aspects are vastly elaborate, the characters well cast, and the special effects amazing. So, what else do you expect from a big budget extravaganza like this? How about a story that does not find itself distracted with every step? Or characters that are not puppets of the plot? Is it really too much to ask for a movie to obey the guidelines it sets for itself.

I guess so. The screenplay, by Jackson, Frances Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, seems to calculate every move out of a strict book of rules. Unfortunately, this book is like the English language-it appears to have an exception for every single rule. In this movie, anything can happen at anytime-as long as it doesn't interfere with the plot. This makes it quite difficult to take the movie seriously.

In this part of the trilogy, a shy young hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) inherits a ring-but it's no ordinary ring. It is really an instrument of absolute power that could allow a grumpy old wizard to rule the planet. Frodo and a loyal fellowship of hobbits, men, a wizard, a dwarf, and an elf vow to take a journey to destroy the ring. To rid the world of this treacherous jewelry, they must travel across Middle-Earth to the place where it first was first created.

Of course, the entire course of future history is entwined with the fate of the fellowship.

Actually, it's quite humorous of what this movie makes us buy. There is an old wizard man who escapes a towering prison by summoning an enormous bird to rescue him-at the last minute, of course. Where is this great and powerful bird when the character later falls to his doom in a deep, treacherous cave?

Then there's the old evil wizard. The movie makes it obvious that this being possesses mighty powers. Powers so great he can throw a full-sized person across a large room using only his thoughts. He can even make a bolt of lightning strike a snow-covered mountain, creating a destructive avalanche. LOTR convinces us this character can do just about anything. So why doesn't this diabolical warlock just rid himself of the Fellowship of the Ring? Strike them dead with a lightning bolt? Crush them with a big rock? I will tell you why, because that would be too simple-after all, we need a three hour movie out of this installment alone.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" plays like the big fat novel it is based on. We can almost see the page turning. The chapters arriving. There are many moments of silence, where the character's process what seems like pages of thoughts. The dialogue often sounds like written English. We listen to tons of mumbo jumbo about spirits, magic, power, evil, good, and, of course, rings.

Much of it is hard to buy, even if you suspend disbelief. One scene actually inspires giggles. Two old cripples take part in a vicious supernatural battle, where their bodies fly across rooms, slamming into walls and hard, pointy objects. A simple punch should knock such a person out permanently-but these are wizards, or, more importantly, characters in this movie. Death is only real when the screenplay requires it to be. During another battle between a big, fiery monster, all of a sudden, it is possible for the old man to die.

It's difficult to review a movie when it is only the first installment of a three-part series, and it's even more difficult when you have no previous knowledge about the book or the outcome of the story. Perhaps, years down the road, after I watch the rest of the installments, I will look back and understand this movie…

But I doubt it. LOTR bored me to death. The best way to tell if a book adaptation really works it to ask if the movie makes you want to read the material it is based on. Before watching LOTR, I was inspired by the great hype, and considered read Tolkien's towering novels. After watching this movie, I would not read any of the author's books if they were the last novels on the face of the planet. I fear the next two productions in this dreadful series. We can only hope they're not three hours long!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

It's a true adaptation, but lacks an edge like the novel. *** (out of four)
HARRY POTTER / (2001) *** (out of four)

Here's a method of evaluating a movie based on previously published material: ask yourself if the film makes you want to read the material from which it is based?

Before the release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," I was one of the few remaining souls who had not read J.K. Rowling's fantasy book series. After screening the first film installment, I did want to read the book. Borrowing the novel from a family member, I briefly skimmed over the chapters. The book's intelligence and similarities with the film really surprised me.

With over 100 million copies sold in over 46 different languages, J.K. Rowling's best-selling series of books has become a worldwide phenomenon. Naturally, with soaring expectations abound, the filmmakers felt great pressure to create a faithful adaptation. They have. This film is essentially a visualization of the words in the novel, with very few differences.

That said, the film does run into a few conflicts with the book's story. The middle of the movie has nowhere to go. It's like a false second act; almost nothing of major significance occurs in this period of the film. The young characters wander from scene to scene with nothing much to do and nothing much to say. We're left with a grand display of eye-popping special effects.

"Harry Potter" certainly dazzles us with a solid beginning and an engaging final act, however. We first meet a young wizard boy named Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Soon after the film opens, the boy discovers he has magical powers. He's then thrust into an enchanting world of sorcery, magic, and witchcraft. He's sent to a school for young wizard children, where he meets new friends, learns about magic, and participates in fun competitions. But someone at the school doesn't like Harry, as mysterious events begin to occur. Harry soon finds himself in the middle of a diabolical scheme of revenge. Who is the culprit and what do they want with Harry?

The film asks some involving questions. Too bad it doesn't give enough depth to the side characters or subplots. We don't really care about the mystery because we don't know enough about the suspects. The movie does conclude with a twist, but it doesn't encourage another examination of the movie. It lacks a foundation altogether. The story spends so much time foreshadowing the villain's identity, it is pointless for the story to abandon its proceeding plot points and develop a new villain at the end. The book gets away with this; the movie does not.

After his gentle "Home Alone" and sweet-natured "Stepmom," many questioned the ability of director Chris Columbus to bring a sense of darkness to the story-and for good reason. "Harry Potter" contains charming, likable characters and a rich pallet of lush, inventive images. Unfortunately, the film lacks an edge. It's missing the dark atmosphere Rowling's novel so vividly brought to life. Columbus does construct some memorable sequences, but the individual scenes themselves are much better than the movie as a whole.

Despite it's childish story and pre-teen characters, many define "Harry Potter" as a film for all ages. While that's debatable, during my screening, adults were plowing through the isles every five minutes. Going to the bathroom? Getting drink refills? Buying concessions? Who knows? But not a single child budged from their seat. Their eyes were glued to the big screen.

Conclusion: It's a sure-fire experience for children, especially if they've read the books. But adults may not encounter the same enticement as kids. Then again, if I had nothing better to do than to count the people leaving the theater, why am I recommending the film?

Life as a House

One of the year's best films; unforgettable. **** (out of four)
LIFE AS A HOUSE / (2001) **** (out of four)

(Possible spoilers ahead)

What would you do if you only had a few months to live? Would you spend your precious time dealing with the sudden, shocking news? Would you fall into webs of depression and despair? Or would you take advantage of the time you had and accomplish the things you've always wanted to do? Irwin Winkler's "Life as a House" asks us these questions, and while the movie's final outcome is inevitable, the end of the road isn't the topic here. It's the journey itself that makes this trip worthwhile.

"Life as a House" does recycle material from other movies, most obviously from "American Beauty," but that's beside the point. This treasure of a motion picture creates something beautiful and uplifting, who cares where the ideas came from. It reminds us that there are very few original ideas out there, but that does not mean derived ideas cannot inspire an effective production.

While the film has opened to some mediocre reviews and may find itself swept under the rug with competition like "Monsters, Inc." and "Harry Potter," "Life as a House" blows most of this year's best films out of the water. It connects with audiences like no other production I have seen all year.

The film stars Kevin Kline as George, a bland name for a bland character. Much like "American Beauty's" center character, George hates his career, his lifestyle, and the disconnection with his family. His ex-wife (Kristen Scott Thomas), now married to a materialistic moneybags (Jamie Sheridan), struggles daily with her rebellious, drug-addicted teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christenen). These are not happy people, and the movie never pretends otherwise.

Suddenly, everything changes for George. He is fired from his job-not necessarily a bad thing-then learns he has terminal cancer-a bad thing. He instantly wakes up to his current situation, and decides to spend his final months building. As an experienced architect, he cashes his life insurance policy to tear down his old shack and build the house of his dreams. In the process, he hopes to rebuild various relationships within his family.

"Life as a House" might sound like a gentle, touching fable of self-redemption, but it's often quite harsh. Mark Andrus' screenplay gives the material a hard edge. The opening scenes feature indecent exposure, urination, and disturbing drug content. Although this is not your typical Irwin Winkler film, he does use the edgy content to grab us by the collar and pull us in.

With credits like "As Good as it Gets," Andrus has a reputation for solid writing, and his talents show through here. He uses many conventional Hollywood devices, but they work surprisingly well. It steadily builds enough emotional tension to cut with a knife. By the end of this movie, the characters feel so real, the dialogue so sincere, the themes so universal, the issues so personal, and the performances so inspiring, I wished I would have brought a box of tissues into the theater with me.

It's one thing to admire the emotional grasp of a movie, but it's another when we become so intently involved in a movie that it triggers a real emotional response. "Life as a House" is a powerful, moving, poignant, and unforgettable feature. It's the season's most encouraging treat.

Monsters, Inc.

Colorful images and great imagination, but one heck of an annoying character. *** (out of four)
MONSTERS, INC. / (2001) *** (out of four)

By Blake French:

When I was a kid, I imagined a world of monsters just like the one in "Monsters, Inc." I dreamed of a magical kingdom full of strange, menacing creatures. Creatures that waited anxiously for bedrooms to darken at night so they could jump out of closets and scare unsuspecting children. Alone in my darkened bedroom, surrounded by complete and utter silence, I heard lots of strange noises. When I noticed something unusual, like a sudden squeak or a shadow on the wall, it wasn't uncommon for me to pull the covers over my head. Heck, don't tell anybody, but I still do that today.

Children will remember the characters of this film long after they see it. Expect to hear comments about monsters in the closet weeks after they see it. But their remarks will not come out of terror, but out of pure joy. The Academy Award-winning creators of "Toy Story" give us a new, pleasing insight on monsters. It turns what was once a motif for terror into an imaginative realm of entertaining delight.

This computer animated production represents the most advanced technology of Disney and Pixar, the highly acclaimed team behind such family gems as "A Bug's Life," and "Toy Story 2." From its convincing depiction of monster fur, to the realistic shadowing, lighting, and movement, the filmmakers pay close attention to the even the slightest details.

The story revolves around a massive corporation where all kinds of monsters reside. It's called Monsters, Inc., the biggest scream processing factory in the monster world. Set in Monstropolis, the main power source of the city is the collected screams of human children. We meet a hairy blue creature named Sully (voiced by John Goodman), and his friend, roommate, and assistant, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal). These guys are the best scream producers ever, much to the dismay of Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi), a creepy, lizard monster who will stop at nothing to claim their coveted standing.

One day, Sully accidentally allows a human child to enter the monster world. To complicate matters, human children are said to be highly toxic to monsters and should be avoided at all costs. Sully quickly finds his career in jeopardy and his life in total chaos. When Mike enters the situation, the two uncover a scandal at Monsters, Inc. that will place their very lives in jeopardy.

"Monsters, Inc." works rather well until it introduces this annoying little girl as a plot device. I know I am being excessively critical here, and I know that my personal hatred for whiny, giggly, squirmy infants seized me over. Some audiences will find this character absolutely adorable, maybe even as the film's most distinguished. Though for me, this character almost destroyed the entire movie.

I understand the need for a child to enter Monstropolis, but why couldn't the film have had fun with the idea. Perhaps it could have used a child old enough to understand his circumstances, but young enough to delight in the wonder of his newly discovered world. Instead, the movie gives us a nonsensical plot in which the infant gets herself into one problematic situation after another.

This has worked before. In "Baby's Day Out" we laughed at the accidental irony of the situations. Here, the character gets herself into these situations. She becomes a nuisance even as she initially appears on screen. There is nothing innovative or creative with a young girl running in and out of rooms, yet "Monsters, Inc." insists it's funny. The film becomes a one-joke comedy. If you're old enough to cross the street by yourself, you're probably too sophisticated for this humor.

Despite this parasite of a character, "Monsters, Inc." still manages to come out of the one-joke routine and display a third act of climbing excitement, surprising twists, and entertaining action that will amuse children of all ages. If not for the pesky little girl, this movie might have been one of the most colorfully creative films of the year. All though it is not, "Monsters, Inc." does contain enough imagination and colorful images to warrant a trip to the multiplex.

But don't say I didn't warn you about the kids. During the screening I attended, jam-packed with children running all around and making noise, I had a little boy sitting behind me that kept kicking my seat. Now that's something I never want to see coming out of my closet.


One of the year's best. A thought-provoking, well acted treat! **** (out of four)
K-PAX / (2001) **** (out of four)

(No direct spoilers, but I do discuss some of the film's key events.)

"K-PAX" doesn't just juggle with the idea of life on other planets, no sir, it asks a whole lot more. As the most challenging alien movie I have seen in years, the film questions the very fabric of our existence. It's gentle and heartwarming, but doesn't hesitate to insult human skepticism or mock our daily routines. It does not pry or pressure, but in subtle ways provokes deep, unsettling thoughts about the future, and about our pasts. Want a movie that makes you think and leaves much elbow room for individual interpretation? Here you go.

The opening scene takes place in a crowded airport, where a crippled homeless man watches from a distance as a scruffy guy (Kevin Spacey) just appears out of a hustling room. Automatically, we assume this is a visitor from another planet. Is he, or was this penniless handicap just seeing things? In a room full of people, it is easy to imagine things. So begin the questions of "K-PAX."

Authorities take the quiet fellow to a mental institution, where we learn of his name and home. He is Prot, on a trip to planet earth from his home on planet K-PAX. His planet sounds like a really nice place to live. There is no violence or cruelty there. On another note, however, this place has its down sides. Sexuality does not inflict pleasure on its consenting partners, but agonizing pain. There are no families on K-PAX, either. Maybe this isn't such a wonderful world after all.

Prot is probably just another disturbed patient equipped with a wacky story. However, one psychiatrist thinks twice about Prot's allegation. "This is the most convincing delusional I've ever come across," explains Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) to skeptic listeners. After all, Prot vividly describes his intergalactic space travels, disregarding Einstein's theories about the speed of light. He even dumbfounds a room of astronomers as he sketches the exact obit of his home solar system.

Based on a novel by Gene Brewer, "K-PAX" probes our minds and lifts our spirits. Working from a magnificent screenplay by Charles Leavitt, director Iain Softley encourages speculation and discussion. Is Prot really from another planet? Consider his ability to see ultraviolet light, his unusual blood pressure, his tolerance to medications, his interaction with animals, his ability to connect with mental patients, and his knowledge of a newly discovered solar system.

Now lay those ideas against the investigation Powell conducts and the information he receives in New Mexico that regards Prot. Some will argue, even after the film provides some answers, that Prot simply borrowed a human body? I have my personal ideas about this character, but can there be a concrete explanation behind Prot?

I fear not. The film only leaves us with a finale that persuades the audience to take a specific side on the subject. You don't have to be a skeptic to recognize the possibility that K-PAX could simply be the subconscious internal world of a deeply troubled person, who hides his identity behind fiction that even he believes? Or…maybe Prot really is a visitor from another planet?

Don't you love it when movies make you think like this!

From Hell

A few nice sequences, exquisite performances, a convincing technical department, and a superb third act. But the execution of the ideas doesn't work. **1/2 (out of four
FROM HELL / (2001) **1/2 (out of four)

It is the dramatically gruesome ideas that make this film what it is, but it is the poor execution of those ideas that makes this film what it is not. "From Hell" contains a few nice sequences, exquisite performances by Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, and Ian Holm, a very convincing technical department, and it has a superb third act. Unfortunately, despite those positive factors, the film as a whole doesn't quite work.

Jack the Ripper committed five gruesome, ritualistic murders during a ten-week span in London during the fall of 1888. He was never caught. As the first tabloid star of the twentieth century, he is remembered as one of the most notorious serial killers in history.

"From Hell" does not successfully bring him to life, though the Hughes brothers certainly breathe life into the era. The film's sets were created by Academy Award-winning production designer Martin Child. He and seventy artists and carpenters constructed a 20-acre set near Barrandov Studios. Their hard work pays off; the film embodies an entirely believable design. It's a great achievement from a technical standpoint.

Based on a popular graphic novel, "From Hell" referrers to the return address on a letter from Jack the Ripper. The always entertaining Johnny Depp stars as it's recipient, Fred Abberline, a tormented Inspector who seeks temporary relief with opium. His unendurable addiction gives him visions of the future.

Let's have some more about Abberline's internal struggles and opium addiction. Let's dive into his mind and explore the source of these visions and addictions. This is a very intriguing aspect of the character, but the film never really develops this subject. Instead we get a shallow, flat concept that never leaves ground.

Inspector Abberline is called to duty when a vicious serial killer takes the lives of several prostitutes. As the bodies start piling, the inspector realizes his superiors are far more interested in preventing public panic than finding the killer. One figure, however, named Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), takes interest in Abberline. As a physician to the royal family, Gull is a powerful enough figure to assist Abberline in his investigation. They discover a secret that threatens everyone who knows it.

Albert and Allen Hughes direct the film with a sense of precise detail. They took extreme measures to assure the film's effectiveness. They softened the lighting by placing a silk cloth over the rear of the lenses. They shot the flashback sequences on positive film. Fast motion and time-lapse photography give the movie a unique flavor. The cinematography creates an ominous presence.

The Hughes' failure lies not within the technical aspects of the film, however, but within the misconnection with the audience. Despite a plot about the mystery and horror of Jack the Ripper, the movie is not particularly scary, nor does it work as a mystery. Watching the movie, I never found myself guessing the identity of the killer, nor did I follow the characters, or identify with which victim would be the next to go. There is no real sense of a puzzle here; the script does not give us enough to care about the killer or his victims.

Much has been said about the film's violent content. Although it certainly suggests strong, gruesome violence, we seldom actually witness it. "From Hell" does contain some of the most grotesque images I have seen in film, but as a whole, Jack the Ripper's violent acts are not witnessed, but implied. During the murders, we usually only see a quick flash of a knife, and then partial glimpse of the aftermath of the victims. It's a letdown, since it's one of the few interesting things in the movie.

All of this notwithstanding, even if there was more stomach-churning gore it would not have saved the movie. Violence relives tension, and "From Hell" does not build a single iota of suspense. No wonder why there is no sense of mystery or intrigue; for most of the film, we are sitting flat on our butts. In a movie like this, we want to be on the edge of our seats. To make matters worse, this film is almost two hours long.

You know the sensation you get in your butt when you drive a car for a really long time? That cramped, anxious feeling that makes you want to get out of the car and stretch? That's how I felt during this movie.

Thir13en Ghosts

Not enough scares, but a great visual look. ** (out of four)
13 GHOSTS / (2001) ** (out of four)

I'll admit that I'm a sucker for haunted house movies. I forbid a guilty pleasure watching miscellaneous characters roam through dark, creepy hallways and walk through ominous corridors as vicious evil lurks behind closed doors, and observes from the shadows. The characters' fates are never in question, but it's a lot of fun watching them meet a gruesome demise.

I enjoy this kind of film so much that I even found a soft spot for "House on Haunted Hill" and "The Haunting," 1999's critically mauled haunted house movies. Naturally, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of "13 Ghosts," a state-of-the-art remake of the 1960's William Castle horror film of the same name. Warner Bros. released it the weekend before Halloween, and they couldn't have picked a better time. In 1999, "House on Haunted Hill" broke box-office records when released on the same weekend.

All that aside, "13 Ghosts" will be a major disappointment to even diehard fans of the genre like myself. The film perspires with potential scares, complete with an intriguing premise, a tantalizing trailer, and an astonishing visual appearance. Unfortunately, the screenplay drops dead on arrival, filled with enough recycled moments and cluncky, one-dimensional dialogue to wake the dead. This movie is a wasted opportunity.

The film stars Tony Shalhoub as Arthur Kriticos, the widowed father of two children, Kathy ("American Pie's" Shannon Elizabeth) and preteen Bobby (Alec Roberts). As the movie opens, the family faces tragedy as a fire burns down their house and kills Arthur's wife. They are left with nothing.

Nothing, that is, until Arthur inherits a unique house from his late, eccentric uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham). The house is a masterpiece of modern architecture. Made entirely of glass and steel, antique treasures fill the rooms, strange machines, gears, cranks, and big glass chambers position themselves throughout. The family can't believe their good fortune, nor do they believe a mysterious character when he tries to explain the house is haunted.

Like most haunted house movies, "13 Ghosts" works best when the characters explore the mansion completely unaware of the danger that awaits. Too bad this kind of sequence only inhabits but a few moments of the already short movie. With a running time of only 88 minutes, everything feels rushed, contrived, and astonishingly brief.

Talk about rushing things. This movie pounds us with moments of loud noises and violent encounters. If the film would have developed an ominous atmosphere and obeyed the rules of haunted house movies, then the rapid-fire violence may have worked to some extent. But we just don't get that here.

Prosthetics specialists must have had a field day with this movie. Contrary to the title, there are twelve different ghosts in this movie. We admire the makeup and special effects department when we see the masterfully crafted ghouls. But when we do see them, it's through quick, brief flashes. The editing is choppy, brief and visually incoherent. It's like director Steve Beck wanted the ghosts to be special effects instead of a solid physical presence. Big mistake.

"13 Ghosts" will not win any awards for composition. The overuse of slow-motion photography quickly becomes a nuisance. The editing, photography tricks, and computer animation techniques often feel misplaced. However, even if the film was masterfully constructed, a good technical department does not make up for the lack of a sufficient script.

But no! "13 Ghosts" is too concerned with pleasing audiences, and providing us with comic relief. Relief from what? The film does squeeze in a few decent horrific moments, but for the most part it is not that scary. If the film was 88 minutes of pure, edge-of-your-seat suspense and horror, I can see why comic relief might be in order. But with "13 Ghosts," we deserve more than comic relief, we deserve a better movie entirely.

Road Trip

Tom Green destroys this film. ** (out of four)
ROAD TRIP / (2000) ** (out of four)

When you're in a committed relationship and have sex with another person:

· It's not cheating if you're in different area codes.

· It's not cheating if you're too wasted to remember it, because if you can't remember it, it never took place. · It's not cheating if you're with two people at the same time, because they cancel each other out.

Interesting perspective, but "Road Trip" also makes clear what does qualify as cheating. The main character, a college student named Josh (Brekin Meyer), videotapes a wild night of sex during a party and accidentally mails the tape to his girlfriend. Luckily, his girl lives 1,800 miles away from Josh's Ithaca, New York residence. He gathers some of his good school buddies and heads to Austin, Texas to intercept the mail destined to destroy his relationship forever.

"Road Trip" contains an enjoyable setup, developing the situation's urgency and the character's frenetic behavior. Everything that happens here makes perfect sense, and it isn't done in an excessively exploitative or exaggerated fashioned. During the convincing first twenty minutes, my hopes were sky high for this traditional road movie.

After the intelligent first act, however, "Road Trip" becomes very content with itself. The humor takes a nose dive into sludge, upchucking ample amounts of crude humor, gratuitous nudity, and unfunny sight gags. Really a shame, because when the jokes are developed through character, comic timing, and unlikely situations we indeed laugh our heads off. The film does have a decent understanding of what makes for effective humor, but its desire to satisfy the target audience ruins much of that potential comedy.

Let's look at the film's use of a mouse. Movies have used mice-or any small critter for that matter-effectively in the past. Just look to the energetically hilarious "Mousehunt," for great fun with a mouse in drastic circumstances. In "Road Trip" the circumstances don't matter because this film thinks it's funny to watch Tom Green licking a mouse. The visual sight of Green placing his tongue on a furry little critter is not remotely funny. We're no longer watching great comic circumstances. We're watching an actor licking a dirty rodent.

Opps. I'm sorry. I made the dire mistake of calling Tom Green an actor. Speaking of Green, the movie's production notes made me laugh hard. "I think the thing about Tom that is going to amaze some people is just how good an actor he is," explains director and co-writer Todd Philips, whose "Frat House" won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Um, is he talking about the same Tom Green that I'm thinking of? The one who plays the same irritating version of Tom Green in every single role? Oh, sure, he is a terrific actor. Move over, Anthony Hopkins. Take a seat, Tom Hanks. The almighty Tom Green is on his way!!!

Ivan Reitman, who directed "Ghostbusters," one of my all-time favorites, even praises the imbecile. "I think Tom has extraordinary abilities," Reitman adds. "He's a real original with a very offbeat quality that surprises you every time you watch him. He's also extremely brave." What in God's name do these talented filmmakers see in such a lacking, bumbling, untalented man. I believe he has talents elsewhere, like flipping burgers at McDonald's, but he is wasting those talents acting in Hollywood.

I apologize for my distraction, but I take advantage of every possible opportunity to bash Tom Green.

Green aside, "Road Trip" carries an entertaining style, pleasant charisma between most of the actors, and even kicks out a few very funny moments. There is intelligent humor here, and the movie proves immature humor can be hilarious when the filmmakers take proper calculations. Unfortunately, the film also proves the disastrous results when proper comic calculations are not taken.

The Big Lebowski

One of the most original, unique movies of recent years. *** (out of four)
THE BIG LEBOWSKI / (1998) *** (out of four)

By Blake French:

The Coen Brothers are an artistic breed of their own. They add a twisted touch of humor to every project. They create imaginative characters, memorable stories, and ingenious dialogue. They have explored the lives of poets, hillbillies, cops, mobsters, adulterers, killers, and now a loser.

That's right, "The Big Lebowski" explores the life of a big-time loser. A lazy, uninspiring, unemployed loser. His name is Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who lives in the moment and wears a goatee, a beer belly, a ponytail, and a pair of oversized Bermuda shorts. He lives to bowl, drink White Russians, and to do drugs. (Character: What do you do for recreation? The Dude: Oh, the usual. Bowl, drive around. The occasional acid flashback).

The Dude's best bowling pals, Donny (Steve Buscemi), who is never allowed to finish a sentence, and Walter (John Goodman), who is stuck in the past, diddle with the Dude as he goes with the flow, inhibiting not a care in the world. Until a porn king confuses the Dude for another person with the same name of Lebowski. Thugs invade the Dude's house, plunge his head into the toilet, and pee on his rug. They leave after they realize they have mistaken his identity.

However, the Dude wants a new rug. Walter and The Dude take a trip to the rich Lebowski's. They get more than a rug. It appears that someone has kidnapped Lebowski's daughter and the wealthy bigwig wants the Dude to deliver the ransom money. The Dude agrees, and, of course, chaos ensues.

Some of the material falls flat. A subplot about a bowling maniac named Jesus (John Turrturo) goes absolutely nowhere. Fortunately, many scenes work wonderfully, featuring original ideas, thought-provoking metaphors, experimental camera techniques, and eye-popping cinematography. I especially enjoyed how the film explores the Dude's dreams with sequences bursting with color, imagination, and peculiar images.

Audiences will remember "The Big Lebowski" as one of the most imaginative films of the decade. The Coen brothers create an odd assortment of unique circumstances and characters. The quirky characters have lots of fun with the unbelievably profane, ( informs us that the movie uses the "F" word 250+ times!), but strangely amusing dialogue.

What does it all add up to? Well, there is plenty to think about and plenty to laugh at, but we do not leave with a powerful feeling of satisfaction. "The Big Lebowski" may resemble the spirit of "Raising Arizona," another wildly funny comedy by the Coen's, but this movie's does not quite work as well. Both contain the same zany style, but that film felt inspired by plot. "The Big Lebowski" lacks plot. A string of amusing predicaments does not necessarily account for the absence of story.

If the film would have followed a clear, comprehensible story, it may have been more involving, but that's clearly not what the Coen brother's wanted. Even before the opening credits begin, the film's narrator (Sam Elliot) explains that this film is about the Dude's adventures. It's not really a narrative of the Dude, but an examination of his reaction to life changing events. By the end of the movie, we sense the Dude has learned from his experiences, and because of them, he is a better person…well, kind of.

Corky Romano

Some laughs, but way too much throw away humor. ** (out of four)
CORKY ROMANO / (2001) ** (out of four)

I laughed hard at the trailers for "Corky Romano." I made many stops at the movie's official web site, which features a partially animated Corky leading two weenier dogs in a wild dance to A-Ha's "Take on me." I became interested in the newspaper ads that ask us "Who is Corky?" With funny promotional techniques, I expected big laughs from "Corky Romano"

Surprisingly, though, you will get most of the laughs this film offers by watching the trailers and visiting the web site. "Corky Romano" really is not very funny. It does offer a few big funny moments, and I grimaced several times throughout the film, but it never takes off with these funny ideas. It doesn't deliver the laughs it leads us to expect.

Corky Romano is an original character, not another Saturday Night Live blowup. He is portrayed by SNL veteran Chris Kattan, who tackles the role with enthusiasm, energy, and zest. He's the kind of character you will either love or hate. I loved him. He is spastic, clumsy, wacky, and full of sunshine and life.

Corky Romano, an assistant veterinarian, loves his job with all of his good-natured heart. He is surprised, however, when his family asks for his assistance. His father (Peter Falk), an underground crimelord, has been indicted by a grand jury. With the trial just weeks away, the aging criminal needs someone to investigate the FBI and destroy the evidence against him. The authorities would recognize his two sons (Peter Berg and Chris Penn), thus all the fingers point to Corky.

I wish I could tell you Corky gets himself in a whole lot of trouble because he is stupid, but I cannot. The movie's can't make up its mind about Corky's intelligence. At times he acts like a preschooler, yet he figures out a very complex villainous scheme against his family. The least these writers could do is provide Corky with intellectual consistency. It's no fun watching a character who is utterly stupid for one minute, and a crime solving genius the next.

The movie actually takes the plot seriously. Sure, the plot does act as a clothesline for tons of creative comic opportunities-with few actually making us laugh-but we do become involved with several character twists and interesting plot points. "Corky Romano" has a wacky side, but the wackiness does not tread outside the boundaries of the story.

Regardless of the story, however, "Corky Romano" features way too much throw away humor, lame physical comedy, and recycled slapstick jokes. We can see some of them coming from miles away. Example: A snake crawls up Corky's pants. Guess where our slithering friend exits. After an accident, a weenier dog needs mouth to mouth resuscitation. Remember that one from "There's something About Mary"?

This comedy, directed by Rob Pritts, does not provide quite enough laughs to warrant a recommendation. It's not as bad as some people are saying, and if you are into fart, klutz, crotch, and gay jokes, and lowbrow physical humor, "Corky Romano" might be your ticket to fun. I prefer my humor a little more sophisticated, though.

Held Up

Unconvincing sets, throwaway jokes, sleep-inducing dialogue, horrendous performances, and pitiful direction. One of the year's worst. * (out of four)
HELD UP / (2000) * (out of four)

You have to be pretty stupid to cast Jamie Foxx in a leading role. He is not a strong actor, if you can call him an actor at all. He can't hold our attention for five minutes, let alone 89 minutes. Give him an insipid, unfunny script, provide a production crew who would turn a Canadian location into an Arizona desert, add the creators of "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and you get an experience that makes a Chinese torture chamber look like fun.

Any one of those things is enough to trash a good movie, but "Held Up" uses all of them. Not only do we get unconvincing sets, throwaway jokes, sleep-inducing dialogue, horrendous performances, and pitiful direction, but we also have to endue them without variety. "Held Up" takes place during a dry, uninspiring day at a gas station in the middle of an Arizona desert. There aren't any neat editing techniques, innovative camera work, or eye-popping visual effects to inspire our imaginations or catch our attention. This movie is boring from the word go.

You're probably wondering how the majority of a movie can take place at a gas station set in the middle of a desert. That's a very good question. An even better question: why would anyone want to see something like that. These producers obviously thought such material would interest $15 million worth of an audience. They were wrong. According to box office records, the film only earned half its money back, proving just how interesting people found this concept.

"Held Up" even wastes the talents of Nia Long. She is a fine actress. In the press notes, she speaks highly of these filmmakers and actors. Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words. Her performance suggests she wants out of the project altogether. Probably because of the pay check and very strong self control, she bares with the painstaking agony.

Long plays Rae, the fiancee of a Chicago businessman named Michael (Jamie Foxx). The movie opens as the two argue and fight as they drive down the empty roads of Arizona in Michael's recently purchased piece-of-crap car. We spend the first ten minutes wondering what a beautiful woman would see in such a loser of a man. A few minutes later, she leaves him. GO GIRL!!!

I think we are supposed to become all hung up on whether Rae and Michael will get back together, but we don't really want them back together. Actually, we don't want any woman, or man for that matter, to endure a relationship with Michael. He is an annoying loudmouth. When a clan of stupid foreign criminals put Michael and other miscellaneous characters in the middle of a hostage situation, we actually want those gun-wielding robbers to pop him a good one.

The movie just gets dumber and dumber. The plot sinks to a new form of monotony. The only things keeping us awake is the work by one or two of the supporting actors, and I admittedly enjoyed a few scenes here and there. But overall "Held Up" is boring, trite, and desperately unfunny hokum. Jamie Foxx creates a stench so tremendously putrid he ruins almost every scene that features him.

I suppose you could laugh at this. You would have to be drunk out of your mind and be a huge fan of Foxx-but if you are drunk, you would probably fall asleep during this movie. Actually, writing about it is forcing me to remember certain scenes in the movie that were so incredibly boring that…Zzzzzzz. Zzzzzzz. Zzzzzzz.

Get Carter

Almost works, despite lacking elements. Almost. **1/2 (out of four)
GET CARTER / (2000) **1/2 (out of four)

By Blake French:

Hollywood action movies are obsessed with the name Jack? Half the heroes who come out of this genre carry that quick, one-syllable name. Why can't movies be more creative in giving names to their heroes?

Jack is the only name to fill the image of the main character in "Get Carter." What other name could stand behind a hulking, stylish character who speaks macho phrases like "My name is Jack Carter, and you don't want to know me." Sylvester Stallone gives the conventional character a sense of brooding strength and heart that only the conventional "Jack" could deem worthy.

Michael Caine portrayed Jack Carter in the original film based on the Ted Lewis novel Jack's Return Home. Now Sylvester Stallone brings a fresh new edge to the character. Spending his life collecting for powerful clients, Jack Carter stands apart from the people in his life. When his brother dies, however, he sets out to investigate his siblings' death.

This takes Carter back to his family roots in Seattle. He reconnects with his brother's wife, who isn't thrilled to see him. "Now you come back? Where were you when your brother needed you? You were never here at Christmas or vacations; you were never here at the birth of your niece. Just go home, Jack."

Perhaps the biggest problem with "Get Carter" lies in the film's inability to connect with the audience. In the production notes, the filmmakers rant about redemption and morality, but it appears they were so concerned with the message of the movie that they assumed we would automatically get it. We don't.

There's a real strong sense of a back story here, but the screenplay by David McKenna ("American History X") doesn't include the audience in this concept. The characters feel very connected, and the mounting tension becomes especially effective in the third act, but we know so little about the circumstances, it's hard to become involved in Jack Carter's interest of bringing the villains to justice.

Those villains remain a mystery until the end. Perfectly timed and calculated, the film reveals the right amount of information at the right time. Considering the bland, blatantly straightforward dialogue, the unconventional cast delivers fine performances. Alan Cumming and Mickey Rourke slither across the screen as characters who instantly appear as if they can't be trusted. Michael Caine even lands a role here as the boss of Jack's deceased brother.

Director Stephen T. Kay brings an edgy, innovative style to the film. The lighting, camera technique, costuming, and even the physical action scenes are somewhat unusual and unquestionably contemporary. The action scenes are shot with a great amount of detail and mood, but the editing often feels rushed and skittish. The artistic merit in the choreography slips away from the violent encounters that leave too much to the imagination.

On the other side of the chart, some of the scenes last way too long. The endless, melodramatic conversations, laden with contrived pauses between sentences, feel like something out of a soap opera. The corny soundtrack adds greater camp to the humorous attempt at drama.

Despite opening to disastrous reviews, "Get Carter" does offer some decent material. However, albeit this is a close miss, I cannot recommend the film because of the performances and artistic design alone. This movie has the potential for much more than silly dialogue, contrived situations, and an undeveloped back story.

There's an easy way to tell if a remake works or not. After watching the movie, does it make you want to see the original version. I haven't seen the original "Get Carter," and after watching this version, that isn't at the top of my must do list.

Disturbing Behavior

A complete waste of time. Isn't scary, suspenseful...or disturbing. * (out of four_
DISTURBING BEHAVIOR / (1998) * (out of four)

(Minor Spoilers)

Prozac and Ritalyn fill the medicine cabinets of today's youth, yet "Disturbing Behavior" takes this generation to the next level, giving teenagers even more of an excuse to consume such drugs. Just what we need, another reason for young people to be paranoid about what their parents are planning for them.

In theme, "Disturbing Behavior" can be compared to one of my all time favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." It manifest engaging ideas about society and freewill. "A Clockwork Orange" lunged into the subject with shocking perversity and artistic expression, but "Disturbing Behavior" lacks exactly what is counterpart explores.

Falling captive to conformity and peer pressure from the recent string of popular teen slasher movies, "Disturbing Behavior," misses almost every opportunity to provide audiences with satisfying material. It takes the point-of-view of a typical teenager named Steve Clark (James Marsden from "X-Men"), who doesn't have much time to react to the suicide of his older brother (Ethan Embry) when his family packs their bags and moves to a nice little town called Cradle Bay.

Local stoners Galvin (Nick Stahl) and U.V. (Chad E. Donella) greet Steve during his first day at the new high school. A an attractive loner, Rachel (Katie Holmes), predictably snatches Steve's attention. The school's mentally challenged janitor, Dorian Newberry (William Sadler), obsesses about the town's rat population in the basement. All in all, though, Cradle Bay is a pleasant village.

But then Galvin rants about the school's elite club, the Blue Ribbons. He think's they're brainwashing all the town's teens. Steve initially thinks nothing of his new friend's paranoia, until he himself discovers the technologically diabolical plans of the school's principal (Bruce Greenwood): the villainous faculty plans to turn all of the local teens into being of sole perfection.

This man's idea sure would end half the problems of society, wouldn't it? But just for kicks, lets say that this is a bad thing. And besides, what would the world be like if teens couldn't get themselves into trouble. Think about it all you Mom's and Dad's, a world without trouble making teenagers. Perfect kids. No wonder why so many parents in to movie want their kids to join the Blue Ribbon Club.

At the very most, "Disturbing Behavior" could have been a guilty pleasure. But the film, directed by David Nutter, doesn't even manager to elicit that much gratification. Actually, there's hardly anything remotely pleasing in the entire movie. No thrills. No excitement. No surprises. With the exception of a few moments, this movie is a complete waste of time.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg conceived a decent concept, but movies are about ideas, not a single good concept. He stretches the individual concept across 84 minutes of movie, and that leads to many problems. There isn't enough conflict to keep audiences interested, and it wastes most of its time filling the scenes with characters roaming the neighborhood.

The film does show signs of good ideas hidden deep within, but it doesn't deliver create images out of those ideas. The little juicy material present is but a temptation. When a movie makes us want more, that's great. But when it makes us want more and doesn't deliver, that's not so great. Instead of deliciously initiative situations and sexy surprises, we get scene after scene of bland dialogue. Example:

Rachel: What now? Steve: We go home. Rachel: Where's home? Steve: Wherever.

The film also suffers from casting miscalculations. Although James Marsden, Nick Stahl, and William Sadler support their flat, one-dimensional characters with adequate performances, Katie Holmes and Bruce Greenwood do not fit their characters in the least. Holmes is a fine young actress, but she's not a gothic town rebel, and Greenwood is also a good actor, but he's definitely not a sinister villain.

"Disturbing Behavior" even lowers itself to a level of inconceivable incompetence. It delivers long-awaited love scenes under increasing plausible circumstances. A girl tries to seduce Steve, but instead bashes her own head against a mirror and leaves, before anything takes place. And how about the love scene near the end, where Steve and Rachel make love in the truck. Their town is being ransacked by evil minions, time is of the essence, and they take a time out to make love in a truck. I shouldn't complain, though, because it's the most indulgent scene in the movie.

I can't help but to question this film's title. What do they mean by disturbing behavior? There's nothing disturbing about this movie. It's tired, silly, boring hokum. Disturbing behavior? Well, perhaps they are referring the audience's response. I can't say this movie lost money, because with a $17 million gross, and a budget of $15 million, it made enough money to earn a profit. But considering most teen slasher film make title waves at the box office, $17 million isn't all that impressive.

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