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Xena: Warrior Princess

Battle on, Xena!!!
One of the best TV shows ever.

Xena: Warrior Princess is the thinking person's fantasy/action show. A perfect mix of often dark drama, wacky/campy comedy, action, angst and romance, it was poignant, thrilling, funny, suspenseful, sexy and much more. Set in the fantasy world of a creatively reinvented antiquity, X:WP offers us the ultimate female hero: strong and vulnerable, tough and soft, brave and caring, heroic and deeply flawed, she's all warrior and all woman. We follow Xena's journey on her quest for redemption as well as Gabrielle's growth from a naive peasant girl to a reluctant warrior. And there are other fascinating characters: Ares, the God of War who is determined to lure Xena back to the dark side but is eventually changed by his love for her; Callisto, Xena's victim and nemesis who manages to be sympathetic even at her most evil; Joxer, the bumbling warrior wannabe with the heart of a lion.

Of course the show had its weak moments, especially in the last three seasons. At its best, however, it featured smart writing and creative directing, enhanced by the wonderful acting of Lucy Lawless as Xena, Renee O'Connor as Gabrielle, Kevin Smith as Ares, Ted Raimi as Joxer and Hudson Leick as Callisto. (Alexandra Tydings' Aphrodite, Paris Jefferson's Athena are worthy of mention as well; so are Karl Urban as Julius Caesar and Marton Csokas as Borias, Xena's lover in her days as a warlord.)

I have to comment on one of the reviews which mentioned Xena and Gabrielle being out for revenge against men and complained that the heroines beat up men all the time but never get hit themselves. Hello? Did this person even watch the show? I suspect not. Some of the most prominent villains on the show were women (Callisto, Najara, Alti), and many of Xena and Gabrielle's allies were men. In fact, the episode "The Dirty Half Dozen" explicitly repudiates hostility to men. X:WP's feminism was never anti-male or heavy-handed.

Bottom line? If you haven't seen this show, get the DVDs (or VHS) and give it a try. Start with the premiere, "Sins of the Past." The first half of S1 wasn't all that great (the show had yet to find its footing) but watch "Hooves and Harlots" and "The Reckoning." If you're not hooked yet, try "Ties That Bind," "The Greater Good" and "Callisto." You'll probably want to stay on for S2.

The Yards

Quietly riveting drama
A young man, just out of prison, wants to go straight but is drawn back into crime as a result of circumstances beyond his control, and ends up being hunted by the law and betrayed by his friends. A close-knit family is torn apart due to its involvement in crime and corruption. Sound familiar? Yes, it's been done before; but James Gray manages to steer admirably clear of "crime drama" or "urban corruption" cliches and to create a haunting, moody film driven by character and not "action." There are no credibility-defying stunts or chases here, no inventive new ways to kill someone off; the fight scenes are realistically messy and un-melodramatic. And yet the suspense at times is almost unbearable. What matters is that Gray actually makes us care about his characters; one can even feel sorry for the "bad guys," who in a way are also victims of circumstance. A couple of plot developments may be unconvincing, and in at least one scene Gray sacrifices plausibility to drama: Several police officers walk into a borough council meeting and deliver a tragic news to two people right in the crowded room, leading to a dramatic reaction. (In real life, of course, they would have been asked to step outside.) But these are minor problems. Some critics apparently thought that the ending of the film was lame and hackneyed. I totally disagree. For once a hero in a film makes the morally right choice without grandstanding. How refreshing.

The film is beautifully shot, for the most part well-written, and above all, wonderfully acted. I have been a Mark Wahlberg fan ever since "Boogie Nights," and I think this is his best role and best, most natural performance since then, except maybe for "Three Kings." (I agree with another IMDB reviewer who said that in his other recent performances you can see the acting. People may not realize that "The Yards" was shot RIGHT AFTER "Boogie Nights" -- its release was delayed by nearly two years because of Gray's perfectionism in editing the film. I hope this doesn't mean that Wahlberg's best work is behind him and that he has become "hollywoodized"... I hope it just means that he needs a good director to bring out his natural talent.) Without a single false note, he conveys Leo's desperation, fear, and tenderness toward his mother. Joaquin Phoenix also does a superb job as Leo's friend-turned-traitor Willie, who is not really an evil man but ends up doing evil things out of a desire to save his own skin. A virtually unrecognizable Charlize Theron is very good as Leo's cousin and Willie's girlfriend Erica. And the "elders" -- James Caan as the sleazy, weary family patriarch, Faye Dunaway as his wife, Ellen Burstyn as Leo's mother -- are superb.

Because Miramax has refused to give this film the backing it deserves (evidently the suits believe audiences are too dumb to appreciate an intelligent movie that doesn't have gore and explosions galore), it may not be around much longer. Run, don't walk, to see this gem!

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Riveting, haunting psychological thriller
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a finely crafted, well-acted, visually stunning chiller that leaves you with a sense of horror far more searing than grotesque onscreen violence. It explores profound questions of identity and selfhood, yet never turns into heavy-handed preaching. Without divulging too much of the plot, Ripley is a human chameleon who assumes others' identities because he feels that, as himself, he is worthless. Pretending to be somebody else is the only way he can rise to a higher station in life. The line that sums up his story is, "I've always felt that it's better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody." He achieves his goal but at a terrible price.

Apparently, in the novel on which the film was based, Tom Ripley is a cheerful sociopath who gets away with his crimes and goes on to enjoy the good life. The film's Ripley is far more fragile, torn and vulnerable, and while he manages to fool the law he does suffer a terrible punishment -- the loss of his only chance to be truly loved for himself, for his REAL self. One could say that the filmmakers didn't have the nerve to replicate the novel's completely amoral atmosphere in which evil triumphs. But they have also given us a far more human, far less alienating protagonist.

The story pulls you in right away and moves at a fast, involving pace, though the film also takes the time to develop the characters and relationships. The tension mounts steadily, reaching an almost unbearable pitch toward the end of the film. It's enough to make all but the most nitpicking-prone viewers overlook a couple of holes in the plot.

Before I saw "Mr. Ripley" I thought Matt Damon was a bit too "clean-cut" to play the part, but I was won over by his excellent, moving, often mesmerizing performance (even if, at times, he didn't give Ripley's dangerous, sociopathic side enough of an edge). Jude Law, one of the most talented and beautiful actors working in film today, plays Dickie Greenleaf with a perfect combination of easy golden-boy charm, insouciance, and arrogance bordering on casual cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as always, in the little time he has on screen, playing a rich obnoxious snob. Gwyneth Paltrow is good, though I don't think this is her best performance.

All in all, a riveting, provocative, haunting film.


Intriguing but not as profound as it wants to be
"Gattaca" is intended as a cautionary tale about genetic engineering. The film takes place in a future world, not too far removed, where destiny is determined by genes: all babies (except for a few "accidents," known as "invalids") are genetically engineered to near-perfection, people are hired on the basis of their genetic profile, and the imperfect products of accidental births are relegated to low-status menial jobs. Our hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), is an "invalid" who wants to rise above his genetic destiny. So, in an elaborate scheme, he buys the identity of Eugene Morrow, a genetically perfect athlete crippled in an accident, and gets the job he always dreamed about in a space-exploration program. Complications ensue as Vincent/Eugene is threatened with exposure and, at the same time, becomes involved in a risky romance with his beautiful co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman).

One problem with the film, in my view, is that the model of the future society in "Gattaca" was not sufficiently well-thought out. The narration (voice-over by Vincent) informs us near the start of the film that genetic discrimination ("genoism") is technically illegal but companies get away with genetic profiling under the guise of testing blood and urine for drugs. Yet throughout the rest of the film, the second-class citizenship of the "invalid" is taken for granted by the legal authorities. Nor does it make much sense that people would be hired for challenging and demanding jobs simply on the basis of a genetic test, with no interview and no testing of skills -- as Vincent/Eugene is hired at Gattaca. Even in a gene-obsessed society people would know that you can't always judge a worker on the basis of his or her POTENTIAL, which is all the genetic information can tell us!

The message of the film is that biology is not destiny; it is statistical probability, but the probability can be transcended by the individual spirit and will. It's a good message, no question about it. But its value is undercut by the fact that the futuristic model of genetic determinism challenged by the film is highly improbable and muddled.

The problems of the film are compounded by a weak murder-mystery element tacked onto the plot, and by the dull and bland acting of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The most impressive and moving performance by far is that of Jude Law as the real Eugene Morrow -- arrogant, self-pitying, self-destructive, cynical, and yet in the end capable, it turns out, of true nobility.

Visually, "Gattaca" is powerful and striking; the film does a great job of creating the cold, sterile, inhuman look of an inhuman futuristic society. Particularly fascinating is the scene in which Vincent/Eugene, out with Irene for an evening on the town, loses his contact lenses; of course, Irene doesn't know that he has very poor eyesight. Seeing nothing but a blur of flashing light, he has to cross the street and then pretend to look at a beautiful sight Irene wants to show him.

Unfortunately, the visuals often end up overwhelming the story and the characters. "Gattaca" is worth a look, particularly for those who like futuristic films, but it does not live up to the importance of its subject.

The Perfect Storm

Great story, terrific cast sunk by crummy screenplay

I had looked forward to seeing "The Perfect Storm" for the last couple of months. Ever since seeing "Boogie Nights" on cable I've been an enthusiastic Mark Wahlberg fan. Wahlberg and George Clooney had great rapport in "Three Kings," and my expectations for TPS were raised even higher when I learned that John C. Reilly (so terrific in "Boogie Nights") was going to be in it as well. It also sounded like a riveting story.

Well, I am sorry to report that TPS was a major disappointment. 6 stars out of 10, tops. Even though it breaks many of the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster -- unglamorous characters, unhappy ending -- it ends up being just another big movie where the special effects overwhelm the human side of the story. Not because the F/X are so good (yes, they're impressive, though the computerized water still looks a bit fake much of the time) but because the human side is so badly developed and badly written.

The actors, for the most part, do the best they can with their paper-thin characters. Clooney, I thought, was no more than OK as Captain Billy Tyne (he was much better in "Three Kings"). John C. Reilly, as Murph, was very affecting in the scene with his son, but then after that he had nothing to do except for that stupid feud with William Fichtner's character, Sully (which had no point except to set the stage for the cliche scene where Sully saves his life and they finally bond). Wahlberg, as Bobby Shatford, was excellent in the early scenes with Lane and with his mother (convincing performance by Janet Wright as the mother, but Lane mostly alternates between two one-key modes: shrill and grieving). Once on the boat, though, he and Clooney had surprisingly little chemistry.

What's more, there is a major problem with the characterization of Bobby Shatford, Wahlberg's character. In the scenes with his girlfriend Christine (Diane Lane), it's pretty clear that Bobby wants nothing more than to settle down with her and the fishing's just the best way he can make a living (the safer jobs on land don't pay as much). In fact, he promises her that he's giving it up after this one last trip (and of course, if you didn't already know the boy wasn't coming back, that line was a dead giveaway). Yet suddenly, once they're out to sea, it turns out that Bobby LOVES to fish -- it's not just a living, it's a passion. So which is it?

The crucial scene where the fishermen make the fatal decision to go back through the storm packs little emotional punch, because it is made too easily. Someone (Bobby? Murph?) should have been opposed to it. That would have set up some REAL dramatic conflict, as opposed to the contrived conflict between Muph and Sully.

And the dialogue... dear Lord, the dialogue! If I had a dime for every cheesy line in this movie it would have more than made up for the $5.50 I spent on the matinee ticket. "I thought the sea was your home." "I think she's a helluva boat. -- With a helluva crew. -- With a helluva skippuh." "He's my precious boy and you're the woman for him." Not to mention gems like "This is the moment of truth.... this is what separates the men from the boys," or Clooney's pretentious ode to the glories of being a swordboat captain.

I can't even say that the movie delivers on the promise of white-knuckle thrills. The Coast Guard rescue scenes were good but too long. As for the action on the Andrea Gail, much of it was repetitive (Clooney and Wahlberg getting pelted with water). Frankly, too, this is where knowing that they all die undercuts the suspense.

Yes, there were some very good scenes. The scene between Wahlberg and Lane where they wake up in the morning. The humorous but moving little story line between Bugsy (John Hawkes) and Irene (Rusty Schwimmer), the woman he tries to pick up at the bar. Later on, one scene that was very powerful, both visually and emotionally, was when the sun suddenly comes out and the guys think that the storm is over and they've made it -- only to realize, seconds later, that it's NOT over. That was a lump-in-the-throat kind of moment.

Finally, great scene of the Andrea Gail's demise: Wahlberg swims out of the capsized boat while Clooney stays behind and we see his figure being swallowed by pitch-black darkness; then the boat seems to right itself, only to sink instantly; and there is Wahlberg, a lone speck of humanity in a vast raging sea, amidst hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, giants waves. What a terrifying and poignant image; what a powerful expression of the tragedy of man crushed by nature's wrath. And then the filmmakers had to go and ruin it all with Bobby's maudlin psychically telegraphed speech to his girlfriend -- "Can you hear me, Christine? I love you... there's no goodbyes, only love" -- and the ghostly apparition of Lane in the left corner of the screen. I am not a cynic but there's a big difference between true feeling and mawkish sentimentality. I thought the scene of Kate and Leo's final farewell in "Titanic" was corny beyond belief, but this takes the cake.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any hokier, the movie ends with a replay of Clooney's "isn't it great to be a swordboat captain" speech... it's bad enough that we had to hear it the first time around! I half-expected to see a ghostly apparition of Clooney smiling beatifically at Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio from fisherman heaven.

Bill Witliff, the screenwriter, should henceforth be known as Bill Witless.

Wahlberg deserves a better screenplay. Come to think of it, so does just about everyone else in this movie.


"Unforgiven" may well be Clint Eastwood's greatest triumph as an actor and director. In this grim, dark, and yet strangely beautiful story of former gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood), who comes out of retirement for one last job, Eastwood deliberately sets out to demystify the old West. This is evident in the conversations between Munny and the Schofield Kid (Jaimze Wolvett), who has a romanticized image of the old-time gunfighters, and between sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and hack journalist W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Yet the "demythologizing" message doesn't feel forced; it is woven effortlessly into a gripping story that powerfully conveys the human cost of violence.

Moral ambiguity pervades the film, which has no easy resolutions and no customary clear lines between good and evil. Will and his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), nominally the heroes, have clearly done many bad things in their lives. When they come to Big Whiskey as hired killers, it is ostensibly for a just cause -- to punish two no-good cowboys who slashed the face of a prostitute. Yet, as we know from the beginning, the version of the attack that is reported to Will and Ned is highly and grotesquely exaggerated. While the cowboys certainly should have been punished, we may legitimately wonder if death is a punishment that fits the crime. The agonizing death of the younger of the two cowboys, who didn't do the slashing and clearly felt bad about what his partner had done, certainly doesn't look like justice.

The ostensible villain, Little Bill, is not just a villain. He is a sheriff determined to preserve law and order in the town. One can't blame him for wanting to keep paid assassins out. In a violent society, there's no way he can do his job without using violence. Unfortunately, he also takes a sadistic pleasure in his brutality -- even though he also seems to want a peaceful, quiet life in the house he's building.

One might say that Munny's heroics in the guns-blazing climax undercut the film's purpose of dismantling the mystique of the Old West and its gunfighters. But the truth is, "Unforgiven" is both an homage to and a deconstruction of that mystique. While Munny acquires almost mythic stature in that scene, his actions are still morally shady, and his exchange with the nerdy Beauchamp quickly dispels the romantic aura. What's more, his "rise" to heroism can also be seen as a fall from grace and a reversion to his old ways.

The film may be just a tad slow at times, but at 2 hrs 10 minutes, it remains nearly always gripping. (As for those IMDB reviewers who've knocked the movie because there are too many scenes where Eastwood's character is weak and pathetic, falling off his horse or getting beat up -- why don't you just go see some Arnold Schwarzenegger flick!) Not only are the principal characters well-developed, but even minor characters come across as real people with individual traits; the credit is due both to the excellent screenplay and to the superb cast. The scenes between Will Munny and Delilah, the prostitute who was slashed, are very touching without being at all "sappy." Eastwood is simply superb as the tortured and self-loathing Munny; Gene Hackman fully matches him as Little Bill; Morgan Freeman exudes a quiet dignity as Ned; Wolvett acquits himself well as "the Kid." Add to this a scene-stealing performance by Richard Harris as the elegant, vicious gunslinger English Bob, and terrific work by Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher as the prostitute Strawberry Alice, and Anna Levine as Delilah.

"Unforgiven" is a modern classic, a must-see for those who appreciate intelligent, high-quality filmmaking.


OK suspense film, fun to watch, but no "Sleuth"
I'm partial to suspense films with a lot of surprise twists and double- and triple-crosses, and "Deathtrap" certainly provides quite a few of those. It also has some good, mordant dialogue (particularly in the discussion of criminal wrongdoing and celebrity in the modern age) and an excellent performance by Michael Caine. However, the finale is rather muddled and needlessly melodramatic, the gay romantic subplot lacks all credibility (and chemistry), Christopher Reeve's performance is uninspired, and the psychic lady only provides unnecessary distraction. In general, the film suffers greatly by comparison to a truly great thriller like "Sleuth" (also co-starring Caine), which has a much tighter structure, superior dialogue, a more inventive plot, and the great Laurence Olivier.


If you love cleverly written psychological thrillers where the plot takes twist after shocking twist, "Sleuth" is the film for you. Not much can be said about the story without giving away some of those twists. Suffice it to say that it is also one of those rare suspense films that can be watched again and again, even when you know what's going to happen next, due to the scintillating dialogue, the top-notch performances, and three-dimensional (if not very sympathetic) characters. While "Sleuth" is not an "intellectual" film, it actually does make you think about some serious issues of class and of what concepts like gamesmanship, honor, and payback mean to people of different social status.


Two excellent actresses stuck in a mediocre "empowerment" fable
I have absolutely no problem with a revisionist, "feminist" retelling of the Cinderella story in which the heroine is a more assertive and self-reliant character -- as long as it's well done. The problem is that "well done" is not a phrase I would use with regard to "Ever After." I suppose it's an OK movie if you're a 13-year-old girl, but it is an insult to the intelligence of any adult viewer, male or female.

The movie is ALMOST worth seeing for the wonderful performances of the radiant Drew Barrymore as Danielle (the Cinderella character) and the deliciously wicked Anjelica Huston as the stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent. (Then again, I saw it on cable and didn't even pay the price of the rental.) But these fine talents are wasted by an inane script with banal dialogue, characters who are both improbable and trite, and absolutely no sense of historical reality.

I understand, of course, that this is not a historical film and is based on a fairy tale. Yet the filmmakers chose to move it to a concrete setting in 16th Century France, and to introduce such real-life characters as King Francois I and Leonardo da Vinci. If they do that, they should make at least a minimal effort to strive for some historical accuracy. Yet the royal couple behaves more like modern upper-middle-class American parents; what we get here is a family with all the glamour of royalty and none of its class prejudices. There's also a lot of confusion about the heroine's social status. She is repeatedly described as a commoner, yet her name is "Danielle de Barberac"; the "de" is generally a signifier of nobility. In fact, normally under the laws of that time, if the Baroness had married a commoner, she would have assumed her husband's status and become a commoner herself (and if Danielle was a commoner, so was her father).

I don't mind Cinderella being reinvented as feisty, independent or educated. However, when she is turned into an intellectual, a champion of social justice, AND an amateur athlete and swordwoman all wrapped into one ... well, that's a bit much.


I can accept the scene where Danielle rescues Prince Henry from the gypsies by hoisting him on her back and walking off (after the gypsy leader promises that she can leave with anything she can carry). In fact, I don't know if the filmmakers knew this but this scene resembles an allegedly true story from the Middle Ages when a city was under siege by an enemy force, and as part of the terms of surrender, the leader of the enemy forces promised to let all the women leave town, taking away anything they could carry. The women walked out of the city carrying their husbands on their backs.

On the other hand, the scene where Danielle gets away from the evil aristocrat to whom the stepmother has sold her as a slave is simply laughable. She holds a rapier to his throat, forces him to hand over the key to the shackles he has put on her, and simply walks out of his castle free as a bird. How ridiculous. The moment the rapier wasn't at his throat anymore, he would have simply either run after her, tackled her and thrown her to the ground, or called his servants who would have grabbed her. I guess it was so important to make sure that she wasn't rescued by the prince but rescued herself that reality could fall completely by the wayside.

Ed Wood

Some wonderful moments and one truly great performance, but not a great film
Maybe you have to be really into the bizarre to truly love "Ed Wood." Yes, it was fun to watch a well-made movie about the making of awful movies and about a "family" of colorfully dysfunctional, marginalized individuals (though in my view, "Boogie Nights" succeeds better on both counts). But, in the end, what was the point? Were we supposed to be moved by the sincerity of Ed's dreams and by his intense commitment to his vision, even if the end product of his vision was some of the worst dreck ever put on film? In other words, was the Orson Welles analogy semi-serious? This could have been a film about self-deception and delusion, but Tim Burton had too much fun with these delusions to really explore their pathetic side.

In addition, I was very unimpressed by Johnny Depp. Most of the time he was just glaring and grinning, and I never found him moving in the emotional scenes. Sarah Jessica Parker, who is so good is "Sex and the City," is merely OK here. On the other hand, Martin Landau gives a magnificent, unforgettable, deeply moving performance as the aged Bela Lugosi -- "Ed Wood" is definitely worth seeing just for him. Also, Patricia Arquette is excellent as Kathy, the love of Ed's life. The moment she appears on the screen, you forget all about Depp and you know you're seeing real talent. (Too bad we don't get to see more of her.) Bill Murray shines in a small part as a would-be transsexual, and the underrated Jeffrey Jones is very good as a TV "psychic."

It's a very enteraining and amusing movie, but the only parts of it I'd care to see again are the ones with Landau. I suspect that the high rating this movie has received (I wouldn't give it more than a 6) is due to Ed Wood's cult status as the worst filmmaker of all time.


The ultimate horror film
I saw "The Vanishing" when it was first released in the U.S., and walked out of the theater completely stunned. It stayed with me for days afterwards. A few years later, I saw it once again on cable. While I think it's one of the best and most frightening psychological thrillers of all time, I don't think I could bear to see it again -- it is simply too intense and depressing. This film really gets in your head.

The plot is riveting in its simplicity, and the terrifying ending (which some have, incomprehensibly, criticized) follows logically, indeed inescapably, from the progression of the story. "The Vanishing" is a film about the banality of evil (illustrated by the character of Raymond Lenorme, well played by Bernard-Pierre Donadieux) and the power of obsession (Rex's quest to find out what happened to Saskia). It also poses an unanswerable question: which is the greater horror, never to know the truth about what happened to someone we love, or to know a truth that is too awful to contemplate? What would any of us have done?

The American remake is certainly "dumbed down" -- it's not really THAT bad, but it's simply an average Hollywood thriller. It opens up the airlessly tight structure of the original plot by making the hero's new girlfriend (who barely appears in the original) a major character and playing up the new romance, and of course there is a Hollywoodized ending. The French/Dutch original is the real thing.

Time After Time

Charming, unusual sci-fi flick with shoddy f/x but great dialogue and acting
I've always had a weakness for time-travel stories, and "Time After Time" is one of the best. Yes, the special effects are pretty cheesy, even by 1979 standards I suppose -- but they only take up a very small portion of the film, and one thing I liked was the snatches of radio broadcasts that illustrate H.G. Wells' rapid progression through the 20th Century. And yes, the plot had some holes in it (of course). On the plus side, the film has smart, crisp dialogue (e.g., having extracted a major concession from Wells in exchange for sparing a victim's life "on his word as a gentleman," Jack the Ripper remarks, "Just one more thing, H.G. I thought you might have noticed by now that I am not a gentleman"). The characters are believable and fully fleshed out, and the acting by all three principals -- Malcolm McDowell as Wells, David Warner as Jack the Ripper, and Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins -- is superb. McDowell in particular gives an amazing performance, for once playing a nice guy. (Very different, incidentally, from the historical Wells, whom one could describe with a lot of adjectives but "nice" wouldn't be one of them.) Here, he is a sweet, somewhat naive intellectual who is more at home among books and theories than in the real world, and who finds it hard to let go of his faith in human goodness even when confronted with unspeakable evil. (It's such a shame that in the past 15 years, McDowell he seems to have resigned himself to shlock roles like the villain in "Tank Girl.") And there is real, convincing chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen --who, in fact, fell in love during the filming of "Time After Time" and later got married.

What I really admire about "Time After Time" is how well it pulls off the "fish out of water" aspect of the time-travel story, as 19th Century Englishman Wells wanders around San Francisco in 1979 and discovers such things as MacDonald's, plastics, movies, telephones, etc. One particularly good moment is the taxicab ride as seen through Wells's eyes -- it really gives you a feel of how bewildering a car ride would be to someone not accustomed to that kind of speed. (Guaranteed to make you dizzy!) Even funnier, though, is the interaction between Wells and Amy Robbins, the banker who invites him on a date. In his world, Wells was quite a radical when it came to attitudes toward women and sex -- a proponents of equal rights for women and of free love. In 1979, he finds himself in the very unfamiliar role of a fuddy-duddy, as the modern liberated woman quickly leaves him in speechless shock!

Highly recommended, especially to time-travel story fans. 8 stars out of 10.

The Last Seduction

Excellently made, riveting, yet unpleasant film noir with a twist
I should probably start by saying that it's been several years since I saw "The Last Seduction," so my recall may not be immaculate. I thought it was in many ways an excellent film, and yet one that I would not care to see again.

As some others have pointed out, what makes this film unique is that it retells a fairly standard "film noir" story (think "Body Heat" or "Double Indemnity") from the POV of the femme fatale, the icily wicked, lethally beautiful and clever, and utterly ruthless Bridget Gregory. That certainly gives it an interesting, even explosive edge. Certain aspects of the plot do strain credulity. Bridget's husband Clay (Bill Pullman) figures out Bridget's alias in an amazing flash of inspiration, even though he doesn't show any symptoms of above-average intelligence before or after that. Even less plausible is the way Bridget extricates herself from the clutches of the private detective sent by Clay to track her down. He knows she's smart and manipulative; it's highly doubtful that he would fall so stupidly for her trick. Nevertheless, such lapses of logic are par for the course in most cinematic thrillers. In the end, the plot holds up OK; it is certainly far less predictable than by-the-numbers suspense films like "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" or "Single White Female" It certainly holds your attention, with some genuinely shocking twists.

Bridget is, in many ways, a fascinating character -- one who uses cool career-woman smarts, sexual wiles, and even the aura of woman-as-victim to get what she wants. (It's interesting, too, that she doesn't just use sex as a weapon, she wants and needs it for her own pleasure.) Yet the potential of this character is not fulfilled in the film. We never really get inside the head of the femme fatale. We watch her plot, but we have no idea why she is the way she is, or how she justifies her actions to herself (almost every human being needs to do that!).

Linda Fiorentino is near-perfect as Bridget, conveying a great deal with little touches like her hilarious reaction to the rhubarb pie in her small-town lover's fridge. Peter Berg is very convincing as Mike, Bridget's sad-eyed dupe, and J. T. Walsh was great as usual in a small part as a sleazy lawyer.

That said, "The Last Seduction" left a rather bad taste in my mouth -- to such an extent that while I appreciate its quality, I wouldn't care to see it again, any more than I would care to see a snake devour a bunny. Basically, it invites you to watch and enjoy the cold-blooded destruction of several human beings who, while either too sleazy or too pathetic (or both) to root for, are still far more human than Bridget. It holds out no possibility of moral redemption for anyone, whatsoever. In a way, it is just as cold-blooded and contemptuous of humanity as is Bridget herself. Who knows, perhaps the fact that it's too disturbing to see again is a measure of its success!


Complex, wonderfully edgy, surprisingly real
"Election" is a terrific movie, one of the smartest comedies of the 1990s. As some other viewers have noted, it has certain similarities to "To Die For"; "Election" doesn't have quite as much technical and verbal brilliance, and its humor is more low-key, but on the other hand it doesn't caricature its characters quite as much and has a little more warmth. No belly laughs here, but plenty of understated humor that bristles with intelligence and psychological insight. (In one scene, an alienated, rebellious lesbian teenager is being lectured by her parents; her silent reactions to their comments are quietly hilarious.)

The fact that there are no real "good guys" in "Election," no one you can whole-heartedly root for, may be a turn-off to some viewers, but it's also what gives the film its complexity. To some extent, we identify with Jim McAllister's loathing of the grasping, humorless control freak Tracy Flick. But when Tracy says that "Mr. M." resented her so much because he felt stuck in an unsatisfying routine while watching many of his students go on to far more glamorous and successful lives ... well, she has a point, doesn't she. (Incidentally, I thought that using multiple narrators was a great touch!) And we also see that to some extent, his hatred of Tracy is driven by frustrated sexual desire. While Jim McAllister's plight elicits sympathy, to say that his actions aren't admirable is an understatement.

On the other hand, Tracy isn't just loathsome; her loneliness occasionally makes us feel sorry for her (though that side of her -- the yearning for human contact, which was obviously the primary motive behind her affair with the teacher -- isn't developed enough). We also see that her single-minded determination to succeed at all costs is to some extent born of desperation, coming as she does from a relatively disadvantaged background as the daughter of a lower-middle-class single mother. One can even understand her resentment of dumb (but nice) jock Paul Metzler's easy popularity.

At least one IMDB reviewer has complained that "Election" puts down the work ethic by turning Tracy -- the only character with ambition and determination to make something of herself -- into the closest it has to a villain. I disagree. I personally dislike the term "overachiever," which implies that too much achievement is a bad thing. However, true achievement is about following your dream and excelling at something you love to do and something you have talent for. The very fact that Tracy is involved in so many activities strongly suggests that she has no real passion for any of them, she just wants to get ahead in any way she can. She's not an achiever so much as a status-seeker, a politician in the worst sense of the word -- adept at using cliches like "I care about each and every one of you" and "when you vote for me, you vote for yourself," obsessed with things like perfect campaign posters, and sincerely convinced that her fellow students should be grateful to her for meaningless work like "cleaning up group photos" for the yearbook.

Some people have compared the Tracy Flick character to Bill Clinton. It's not a perfect analogy -- Bill is far more charismatic and much better at making people believe he actually cares about them. But I guess you could say that Bill drives his enemies crazy "in a way they can't fully explain," just as "Mr. M." says of Tracy!

In addition to a good script with crisp dialogue, "Election" is distinguished by excellent performances all-around. Matthew Broderick is at his best here, showing his range an actor (very refreshing, after execrable trash like "Godzilla" and "The Road to Wellville"). Reese Witherspoon is simply wonderful. I've enjoyed her performances even in movies I didn't care for, such as "Cruel Intentions" and "Fear." She is one of those actors who can convey a lot just with their body language and facial expressions, and she certainly shows it here, in a role that often requires her to shift from sunny perkiness to grim rage in the blink of an eye. Her facial expressions in the scene where she thinks she has been caught doing something that will cost her the election (I won't give it away), and her reaction when she realizes she can blame someone else, are priceless.

Chris Klein was touchingly goofy as Paul, and Jessica Campbell did an excellent job as his alienated adopted sister Tammy.

Another thing I liked about the film is that many of the characters are average-looking. In today's Hollywood, this kind of realism is refreshing.

Looking at the comments on IMDB, I noticed that a number of people complained either because the movie was too sexually graphic, or because the sex scenes weren't really sexy. Come on, folks. This movie is rated "R" so it's not exactly like you weren't warned! A lot of teen sex comedies are far more explicit (and far less intelligent). As for the sex not being very erotic, that was obviously on purpose. The movie, after all, is a satire. The dullness of the marital sex between Jim and his wife underscore the overall drabness of his life.

"Election" is not without flaws. The subplot involving Jim McAllister's extramarital affair dragged a bit, and was rather predictable (though hardly incidental to the main plot: the fact that his personal life is unraveling is part of the reason he allows his hatred of Tracy to goad him into taking a highly imprudent step). The scenes at the end showing Jim's new life were too long -- but I loved the finale!

A Fish Called Wanda

Riotously funny comedy, great cast
I loved "A Fish Called Wanda" when it first came out, and have seen it a couple of times since then. It never fails to deliver. The script is witty and fast-moving, the jokes hardly ever fall flat. (Think of the scene in which Archie Leach quite literally gets caught with his pants down, or the scene in which Otto is practicing his apology to Archie... these are classic moments in modern comedy!) Kevin Kline's fantastic performance as the dim-witted, blustering Otto (for which he got a well-deserved Oscar) is almost matched by John Cleese as Archie, the repressed barrister gradually breaking out of his shell of British propriety. Excellent work, as well, by Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis. True, some of the humor is overly sadistic (specifically, the abuse heaped on K-K-K-K-Ken). It's something that I would normally consider a fault; but in this case, the movie more than makes up for it with its inventiveness and its crazy, exhilarating vitality. "A Fish Called Wanda" may not have anything "important" to say, but if sheer hilarity and brilliant acting count for anything, it deserves 9 stars out of 10 (which is how I voted).

Da hong deng long gao gao gua

Beautiful, wonderfully acted, haunting drama
"Raise the Red Lantern," the story of a college-educated young woman who becomes the fourth wife to a wealthy man in imperial China, made an indelible impression on me when I first saw it in the theater. It gets off to something of a slow start (the first 20 minutes or so), but then the tension begins to build and the film becomes a gripping psychological drama. One thing I found appealing about "Red Lantern" is that while the film portrays a brutally patriarchal system in which women are clearly very oppressed and dependent on their lord and master for everything, it does not idealize the women or turn them into doe-eyed, sweet, saintly victims. The wives and concubines are resourceful, smart, competitive, and very determined to make the best of their situation... in any way they can. They can even be cruel and downright evil. Forget the cliche that men are interested in power and women are interested in love. These women are definitely interested in power and status -- though, of course, the only way they can obtain it is by winning the husband's favor. Yet their power struggles are just as ruthless as anything that happens in the "male" world of politics, business, or war, and just as fascinating to watch.

The exquisitely lovely Gong Li is superb as the tragic heroine, Songlian. Excellent performances, too, by the other women. Visually, the film is strikingly beautiful; the camera lovingly caresses every detail of the interiors, while the severity of the outdoor in winter occasionally provides a stark contrast to the luxury of the indoors. Sometimes the visuals are almost too lush, yet the style does not detract from the substance.

A must-see, for anyone with a grown-up attention span.

Dangerous Liaisons

Unsatisfying adaptation of a great novel
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (Dangerous Liaisons) has been one of my favorite books ever since I read it in a college French class a few years before the movie came out. It is a novel of dark wit and keen insight into human behavior and psychology. I was really looking forward to seeing the film. Well, to me, it was a major disappointment.

For one thing, I don't think this movie was well-cast. I like John Malkovich (I think he was excellent in "In the Line of Fire," "Places in the Heart," and even in a small part in "Jennifer Eight"), but he was the wrong person to play Valmont. Yes, he does a good job of conveying the character's perfidy and viciousness, but in my view, he was so lacking in charm that he just wasn't very credible as a master seducer; not did he come across as smooth and aristocratic, the way he should. It didn't help that at some points, the film had him acting more like a frat boy than an aristocrat -- like flick his tongue at one of his conquests, or sprint up the stairs yelling "Success!" after "scoring" with another.

Glenn Close was better as Madame de Merteuil, but while she captured the duplicity of the Marquise -- the surface sweetness concealing an essential ruthlessness -- she didn't exude sexual magnetism, either. The only good choices were Michelle Pfeiffer, lovely and touching as the beguiled Madame de Tourvel, and Swoosie Kurtz in the minor part of Madame de Volanges. Uma Thurman was mostly forgettable as Cecile, and the less said of Keanu Reeves as Danceny, the better.


The screenplay was mostly quite good, and the writers did a very successful job of adapting a novel that consisted of exchanges of letters. I certainly don't fault them for not being 100% faithful to the novel -- that often doesn't work on the screen. However, some of the departures from the book didn't work well at all and didn't make much sense. I cannot for the life of me understand why Cecile's young suitor Danceny was turned into a music teacher. (In the novel, he sings duets with Cecile, but doesn't teach her.) Danceny is an aristocrat and a social equal of the other characters; an 18th Century French aristocrat would never have been employed as a music teacher, or as anything else for that matter! (Had he been a commoner, he never could have challenged Valmont to a duel.)

Another problem: in the novel, when Valmont breaks up with Madame de Tourvel at the Marquise's instigation, he does so by sending her a casually cruel letter -- copying it word for word from the Marquise's letter. I know it wouldn't have been very dramatic. However, in the film, when he announces the breakup to de Tourvel in a face-to-face confrontation, it takes away some of that casual cruelty... especially since he shows far too much emotion. Madame de Tourvel would have figured out that something was going on and he didn't really want to dump her.

Finally, the ending was artificially sweetened. A dying Valmont asks Danceny to tell Madame de T. that he loved her and that the only true happiness he had ever experienced was with her; Danceny goes over to see the ailing Madame de T. and gives her Valmont's message before she dies. The ending of the novel is far more ambiguous. While Valmont does profess love for Madame de Tourvel and regret for what he has done to her, whether he is sincere or faking it in order to win her over one more time and feed his own ego is left deliberately unresolved. And while he does write her a letter of apology, she is delirious when she received it. There is no consolation for her before she dies.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is still awaiting a worthy screen adaptation. (The 1989 film "Valmont" by Milos Forman wasn't all that good and strayed way too far from the plot of the novel.) Personally, I'm inclined to think that the only way justice can be done to the book is in a miniseries of 6 hours or so, like the one they recently did of "Pride and Prejudice." It's the only way to capture the novel's psychological subtleties and the subplots that are quite crucial to character development.

Young Frankenstein

Near-perfection... one of the funniest movies EVER!
If this movie doesn't leave you weak in the knees with laughter, you should be checked for signs of life.

Mel Brooks is in top form here, with a superb parody of the old horror classics. While Brooks's later movies have a deplorably high ratio of groans to laughs, virtually every joke in this movie works flawlessly. (The only one that I didn't think was very funny was Madeline Kahn and then Teri Garr ecstatically singing "Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I found you" after being introduced to the wonders of the monster's ... shall we say ... organ.) Terrific performances by Gene Wilder, the scene-stealing Marty Feldman (he alone makes the movie worth watching!), Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars as the Inspector, and Peter Boyle as the monster. The "Putting on the Ritz" dance number is priceless!

Sense and Sensibility

Good -- not great
"Sense and Sensibility" was probably the best of the recent Jane Austen adaptations (except, perhaps, for the TV miniseries "Pride and Prejudice"). The screenplay was good and reasonably close to the novel, preserving both its humor and its drama while moving at a brisk pace. The cast was mostly excellent. True, Hugh Grant was a bit irritating, doing an 18th (or early 19th) century version of the his "Four Weddings and a Funeral" character, but Emma Thompson was superb (even if she was a bit old for the part -- Elinor is supposed to be about 19!!!) and Kate Winslet was very good. Alan Rickman brought a quiet intensity to the role of Colonel Brandon. Good work, too, by the supporting cast, especially Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, Imogen Stubbs as the conniving Lucy Edwards, and Imelda Staunton as the ditzy but good-natured Charlotte Palmer.


My one complaint (besides Hugh Grant's lackluster performance) is about several ways in which the screenplay departed from the novel. Now, I don't expect a screen version to be faithful to the book in everything; I know that sometimes, what works on the printed page does not work onscreen, and vice versa. I didn't mind the way the screenwriters expanded the character of Margaret, the youngest sister, and I liked what they did in the scene where Colonel Brandon carries Marianne home. However, some of the alterations were unnecessary and unsatisfying.

1. Incomprehensibly, one of the book's most dramatic scenes -- Willoughby's confrontation with Elinor when he comes to visit the Dashwoods during Marianne's illness -- disappears from the movie. (In view of this, it's not quite clear how Elinor knows that Willoughby will always regret having jilted Marianne. Is she THAT perceptive?)

2. In the book, Lucy's engagement to Edward is revealed to his sister Fanny by Lucy's scatterbrained sister (a character who was dropped from the film, and who could have been easily introduced in a brief scene). In the film, it is Lucy herself who tells Fanny about the engagement. It makes for a slapstick scene that seems rather out of place in the movie (Fanny twisting Lucy's nose). However, it makes little sense... Lucy was far too calculating to make such a slip!

3. In the film, when Edward reveals that he is not married to Lucy but his brother is, Elinor has a violent fit of sobbing right then and there in the parlor, in front of her mother, her sisters, and Edward. Elinor would have NEVER permitted herself such a public display of emotion! In the book, she can barely control herself until she gets back to her room and THEN bursts into tears. I think the filmmakers changed this to make Elinor more appealing to modern audiences, reared in a culture that values emotional expressiveness and doesn't understand or appreciate reticence.

Boogie Nights

Quite simply, a modern masterpiece

"Boogie Nights" may well be the best film of the 1990s. I cannot remember the last time I was so overwhelmed by a new film.

Interestingly, I was not planning to see it. I knew nothing about the director, I've never cared for Burt Reynolds, and the only thing I knew about Mark Wahlberg is that he had been an annoying boy singer and Calvin Klein model. Nor was I all that interested in seeing the story of an extremely well-endowed porn star.

A couple of months ago, I tuned in, about 20 minutes into the film, when "Boogie nights" was on cable -- and I was hooked. I have seen the entire film twice, and it has become one of my favorites.

First of all, P.T. Anderson is brilliant ... it's daunting to think he was only 27 when "BN" was made. Despite the "borrowing" from Scorsese and Altman, I believe he brings a profoundly individual vision to his work. What sets him apart is that his keen observation and satirical vision are enhanced by warmth, compassion, indeed love for the people who populate his film.

Is Anderson "judgmental" toward his characters? A friend who watched "BN" at my suggestion said that one thing he loved about the film is that it's moral but not moralistic. Anderson makes it clear that these people's lifestyle is often destructive. The critics who complained about the abrupt shift from hedonistic fun in the '70s to horror and disintegration in the '80s were mistaken. The first half has many intimations of darkness: the girl who ODs on coke at Jack's party, face streaked with blood, limbs twitching; Amber's son trying in vain to reach her at the party; Little Bill's anguish at his wife's infidelities. Clearly, too, most of these people aren't very smart, and their pretensions -- Dirk's belief in his stardom, Jack's belief in his "art" -- are ridiculous. Yet we never lose connection with their basic humanity. When Amber/Maggie is denied visitation with her son, we know it was probably the right decision yet we sympathize with her anguish.

It's the ultimate cliche to say that a film will make you laugh and cry. With "BN," it happens to be true. The "Brock Landers" clips and the preparations for Eddie/Dirk's porno debut are just two of the riotously funny scenes. On the other hand, the confrontation between Eddie and his mother or the scene of Dirk coming back to Jack asking for help have more genuine emotion and poignancy in a few brief minutes than there was in all of "Titanic." And some scenes are both comical and moving (Amber and Rollergirl talking as they snort coke, Scotty making a pass at Dirk).

This film will also make you think, without beating you over the head with a message (the way "Three Kings" does, for instance). Many say that its theme is family; but equally important is the theme of self-deception. Most of the characters are prisoners of their dreams and delusions. For Jack and Dirk, it's the delusions of glory and greatness; in Amber's case, her self-image as a good mother. (Right after telling Dirk she sees him as a son, she introduces him to cocaine -- his eventual undoing.) Why do Jack and Rollergirl unleash their fury on Rollergirl's former classmate? Because, with his comment on how squalid their lives actually are, reality intrudes on their self-enclosed world of illusion, and they can't take it.

There's no real "happy ending," either. At the end, Jack has reconciled himself to being a rich hack. A wistful-looking Amber sits at her makeup table; while Jack tells her she's the "foxiest bitch in the world," clearly her looks will be more and more difficult to keep up. As for Dirk, he has presumably kicked the drug problem and is back working, looking slick yet somehow lifeless. Note that in the infamous final shot, when he exposes his penis in front of the mirror, we don't see his face. He has been dehumanized, reduced to a sex machine -- and that's all there will ever be for him. (Think of the early scene of Eddie telling his girlfriend, "I'm going to be a star, a big bright shining star," his eyes gleaming, his voice aglow with hope, and contrast it with him saying at the end, "I am a star. A big bright shining star" -- his voice flat, his face invisible ... the real "star" is his penis.)

Despite the film's setting in the porn industry, I think "BN" has something to say about the larger culture of media glitz and celebrity-seeking.

A word about the acting. Burt Reynolds is superb; Julianne Moore truly shines. (It takes courage for a female movie star to take on a part where she often appears physically unattractive.) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alfred Molina, John C. Reilly and Heather Graham stand out in a supporting cast that doesn't have a single bad performance. As for Mark Wahlberg, he proves himself to be one of the finest young actors working today. He is utterly convincing as he shows Eddie/Dirk's evolution from an eager-to-please, innocently amoral kid with a dopey but radiant smile to an obnoxious, egomaniacal, paranoid prima donna, and then the despair of his downfall. During the drug-deal scene, there's a close-up of his face for more than a minute, with no dialogue, and he conveys a complex range of emotion as Dirk "spaces out" listening to "Jesse's Girl" -- obviously thinking of better days, then of how low he has fallen -- and then snaps back to reality and is terrified.

"BN" is not without weaknesses. A few scenes are too long; the theme of Amber's "mother" role is overemphasized; a few plot strands are left unresolved (were there any legal consequences to Jack's and Rollergirl's assault on the guy in the limo, or to the drug deal/attempted robbery that ended in two dead bodies?). But these are minor flaws in a near-perfect work.

House of Games

Riveting, disturbing... near-flawless psychological suspense
If your idea of a thriller is car chases, explosions, and dozens of people being mowed down by gunfire, then "House of Games" is definitely not the movie for you. If you like and appreciate psychological drama and suspense, then, by all means, see it.

"House of Games" tells the story of an esteemed psychologist and writer, Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), who tries to help a patient and gets involved in the shadowy world of con men led by the charismatic Mike (Joe Mantegna). To say anything more about the plot would ruin the suspense. Frankly, I find it hard to believe anyone who says they saw the twists coming. Just like a clever con artist, this movie draws you into its web and lulls your vigilance.

The story is taut and well-crafted, the dialogue smart and laconic, the acting uniformly good (Mantegna is superbly charismatic). Some have complained that Dr. Ford is not a very sympathetic character, and wondered why Mamet would make Lindsay Crouse look so physically unattractive. But Dr. Ford is supposed to be cold and aloof; moreover, her homeliness is in a way essential to the plot (at one point, I believe that an injury to her sexual self-esteem is a key part of her motivation ... I'll say no more).

"House of Games" is a dark look at the underside of human nature that concludes on a note of discomforting ambiguity. It will hold your attention every second while you are watching, and stay with you for a long time afterwards.

Eyes Wide Shut

An illustrious career ends, sadly, with a dud
Last night I finally saw "Eyes Wide Shut." The only good thing I can say is that it is often visually stunning (though nowhere near "A Clockwork Orange"). The story, moving at a glacial pace, was peculiarly uninvolving. The attempt to convey a sense of nightmarish, hallucinatory dread ended up being merely ponderous and ludicrous (especially in the infamous orgy scene; Kubrick seems to have had a most peculiar idea of forbidden sexual adventure in 1990s New York). The dialogue, much of the time, was banal beyond belief, and the acting was mediocre at best -- with Sydney Pollack as Victor Ziegler and Marie Richardson as Marion the only two exceptions. I've never thought much of Tom Cruise as an actor, but he was far better in "The Firm" -- here, you never for a moment forget that you're looking at Tom Cruise pretending to be a doctor. Nicole Kidman was better, but in the key scene where she confesses to having lusted for another man, her delivery was somehow very unconvincing.

The basic concept -- a husband and wife rediscovering their passionate erotic connection through (unconsummated) sexual experimentation outside their marriage -- is interesting enough. But for it to work, the viewer must care for the protagonists and for their marriage (which EWS fails to achieve), and there must be real onscreen chemistry between them (which is completely absent here). There is, in fact, no eroticism in the film at all, extramarital or marital; of course, Kubrick has always been a very cold and anti-sensual director (post-"Lolita," at least), so maybe this just wasn't the right film for him to make.

Kubrick has made some of this century's true cinematic masterpieces -- "Paths of Glory," "Dr. Strangelove," "A Clockwork Orange" -- and other superb films such as "Lolita" and "Full Metal Jacket." (I've never cared much for "The Shining.") This is not the film he will be remembered by.


Has good moments and a certain charm, ultimately falls apart
This could have been an interesting movie but it didn't live up to its promise. For one, the "traveller" culture of itinerant Irish grifters is explored very sketchily, if at all. The violent climax seems like an import from a totally different kind of movie. The only really entertaining scam was the one that Bokky and Pat pull on Jean, the bartender Bokky ends up falling for. The rest were either so simple as to be dull (the phony sealant, the trailers) or so complex you couldn't follow them (the scam involving the Turks). There are much better movies about con men; "House of Games" is probably my favorite.

The acting alone makes "Traveller" worth watching. Bill Paxton is very good as Bokky, a likeable rogue with a sincere face and an awakening conscience, and he credibly conveys his growing love for Jean; his anguish when he has unwittingly put her in grave danger is palpably and painfully real. Julianne Margulies brings warmth and spunk to her potrayal of Jean, and the romantic chemistry between her and Paxton is undeniable. Mark Wahlberg, in one of his first "real" roles, projects just the right mix of boyish vulnerability, charm (in the scenes where he's romancing Kate, the clan boss's daughter), and cool-dude moxie. As the old grifter "Double D," James Gammon is a lot of fun to watch whenever he's onscreen.

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't do enough to develop the two main characters. For instance, Bokky seems to have a good heart; yet he's been conning people for years (not even siphoning some extra cash from rich people for whom it's merely a drop in the bucket, but cheating poor and ignorant folk -- in some cases, cheating them out of their life's savings), and somehow it never bothered him until he met Jean. That doesn't make much sense. As for Pat, I think the film should have told us more about his life "on the outside." We gather that he's poor and doesn't have too many opportunities (though he's dressed nicely enough when he arrives for his father's burial), but it's still hard to understand exactly why he's so eager to be a part of the "family" and to join a lifestyle in which his choices, even about things as basic as whom to marry, will be severely restricted, or why he thinks it's so terrible that Bokky risks being excommunicated from the Travellers. (Bokky's on-the-road life certainly doesn't look like being "on top of the world" to me.) Pat's relationship with Kate is treated as an afterthought, maybe a plot device to give him a reason to come back to the Travellers camp.

Because of these flaws, the character development that could have been the strongest part of this movie never really gels. The shaky plot structure, especially toward the end, compounds the problems.

There's Something About Mary

No, it's not the funniest movie of the decade--but still pretty hilarious
Generally speaking, gross-out comedy doesn't have much appeal to me, so I didn't expect to like "There's Something About Mary." Having seen it, though, I have to say that there really is something about "There's Something About Mary." There were a few scenes that I think went a bit too far in the gross-out department (no need, really, for the close-up in the penis-stuck-in-the-zipper scene, or for the fish-hook through the lip; I also thought the masturbation/semen-as-hair-gel thing was superfluous and not all that funny). However, there was a lot more to this movie than gross-out jokes. I thought much of the dialogue was actually quite smart, and the wacky humor was deliciously unpredictable -- for instance, the episode where Pat, the sleazy detective played by Matt Dillon, gives Ted (Ben Stiller) the false report on Mary in order to get Ted to lose interest in getting together with her; the hitchhiker with the "six-minute abs" pitch; Pat telling Mary he loves "working with retards"; the cell-phone conversation Pat intends for Mary to overhear. The scenes with Puffy the dog were hilarious too, and I usually CRINGE at any suggestion of cruelty to animals! I rather liked the plot twists, especially the one involving Mary's friend Tucker (brilliantly played by the British comedian Lee Evans). And guess what, I thought there was something very sweet about the romance in "Mary." Ben Stiller creates a believable and (despite his many faults) ultimately sympathetic character. And as Mary, Cameron Diaz projects an irresistible mix of naivete, good-heartedness, and spirit. So what if it's not very plausible that she would be a successful surgeon? This is an eccentric comedy, not a serious drama. (To me, Cameron Diaz as a surgeon is much more plausible than Julia Roberts as a hooker.) The film actually makes you care about these people -- in addition to making you laugh.

So I Married an Axe Murderer

Unappreciated gem
"So I Married an Axe Murderer" is a delightfully offbeat, inventive comedy I can see again and again, and laugh every time.

Mike Myers, in a dual role as the neurotic but romantic Charlie McKenzie and Charlie's cantankerous father, gives the best performance I've seen from him so far (I've yet to see the "Austin Powers" movies but I didn't especially care for "Wayne's World," maybe because I couldn't stand Dana Carvey or his character). Nancy Travis is quite good as Harriet, the seemingly perfect girlfriend who's got a secret. The supporting cast also does excellent work, especially Anthony LaPaglia as Charlie's policeman buddy Tony.

What makes this movie truly special isn't the principal story line -- the romance-mystery-suspense -- but the many wonderful bits of inspired lunacy/hilarity along the way. Among them: every scene involving the hero's cantankerous dad; Harriet's sister Rose persuading Charlie to stay for breakfast; Phil Hartman's cameo as a very intense tour guide at Alcatraz (this scene gets butchered when the movie is edited for TV, even non-premium cable; make sure you see the uncut version!); Charles Grodin as the surly driver of a vehicle commandeered by a cop; an episode involving a guy who works on the obituary page of a newspaper; the side-splitting scenes between Tony and his precinct captain (a very funny Alan Arkin). There are many such moments throughout the film, turning up in the most unexpected places. The dialogue is witty, and the humor is completely unpredictable and fresh.

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