jhclues

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Sideways (2004)

Giamatti is Outstanding The medium of the cinema can be entertaining as well as educational, and when it's done well, a film can be both. Such is the case with "Sideways," directed by Alexander Payne, who also wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from the novel by Rex Pickett.

Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor whose "star" peaked some eleven years earlier and who now ekes out a living primarily doing commercials, is about to be married. With one week to go before the big day, his best man/friend/former college roommate, Miles (Paul Giamatti), has cooked up a trip to California's wine country, where he proposes a week of friendship, good wine, good food and golf as a send-off for Jack into that most blessed state of matrimony.

As is often the case with the hand that Life deals us, however, the week does not quite go as planned, for a couple of reasons: First, though Miles proclaims this week to be about Jack, Miles is battling his own demons of depression, which have plagued him for going on two years now, ever since his divorce from his beloved Victoria (Jessica Hecht). In addition to which, although he makes his living as an Eighth-Grade English Teacher, Miles is also an aspiring novelist, who happens to be waiting for a call from his agent, who has a publisher interested in the novel Miles has been working on for more than three years. So there is an ulterior motive for Miles at work here; a wine connoisseur, he's taking Jack into country that is not only familiar to him, but is without question a "comfort zone" for Miles, who desperately needs a temporary respite from his own cares right now.

The other problem is that Jack has an inflated ego and an overactive libido, a potent combination that quickly dictates an alternate plan of action for the week. Jack, it seems, is bent on sowing every last wild oat that remains, active or dormant, within him, before his impending nuptials scheduled for the following Saturday. Soon he is involved with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works pouring samples of wine for visitors at one of the first vineyards to which Miles takes Jack on their tour.

Jack then successfully devises a plan that gets Miles involved with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of the restaurants Miles frequents on his visits to this part of the world. Maya also happens to be a recent divorcée who is working on her Master's in Horticulture at one of the local colleges, as well as being a wine connoisseur in her own right and a friend of Stephanie's to boot. All of which sounds like the makings of a good time for all, with one exception: Jack conveniently fails to tell Stephanie that he is about to be married.

Bad move, Jack...

In "Sideways," Payne has created a highly entertaining and emotionally involving film with characters and situations to which a broad cross-section of viewers will readily be able to relate and identify. Payne has an eye for nuance and subtlety, which makes his film- essentially a character study- a succinct examination of the human condition.

Subtlety and nuance is exactly what Paul Giamatti brings to the role of Miles, as well. It's a performance that is so real it's almost excruciatingly so at times, but it makes Miles someone you can empathize with. Giamatti creates a sympathetic character you can't help but root for on this vast wilderness of a stage we call life; it's a performance that should easily have earned him an Oscar for Best Actor.

Haden Church does an exemplary job, too, as Jack. He imbues his character with such believable self-centered shallowness that you want to laugh at him and hit him at the same time. The rub is, Jack knows what he's doing, but simply can't help himself; so in the end you may find yourself sympathizing with him anyway, because Haden Church presents Jack as someone who just does not possess the intellectual capacity to do otherwise, which somehow makes you want to let him off the hook. You realize that this is just Jack honestly being who he is. And it takes a good performance to get you as a viewer to that place.

The striking Virginia Madsen does a good job, as well, as Maya, creating a character that is a perfect counterpart to the Miles created by Giamatti. And Sandra Oh, currently riding a surging wave of popularity due to her role on televisions "Grey's Anatomy," brings some definite pizazz to her role of Stephanie, successfully displaying her character's spirit, while at the same time exposing a decidedly vulnerable side of her.

The supporting cast includes Missy Doty (Cammi), M.C. Gainey (Cammi's husband), Patrick Gallagher (Gary the bartender), Marylouise Burke (Mile's mother), Alysia Reiner (Christine) and Stephanie Faracy (Stephanie's mother).

A film that lends itself to repeated viewings, "Sideways" is one of those gems that makes you appreciate not only the artists involved, as well as the art of film-making, but the medium itself. I like this movie more every time I see it.

Bobby (2006)

A Glimpse Into What Could Have Been A pivotal moment in the history of the world has been captured by writer/director Emilio Estevez in his brilliant film, "Bobby," a chronicle of the day Senator and Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June, 1968.

On June 6, 1968, when RFK died, the hope of a nation died along with him. It was the day that began a downward spiral of true democracy in the United States of America, which has taken us, finally, as a country, into the darkness of corporate corruption and political despotism.

Which is why this film is so important.

With this film, Estevez, rather than put together just another filmed biography, has reignited the light that was Bobby Kennedy. Rather than throw facts, figures and debate at you, he instead resurrects the spirit of the man, and in doing so captures the very essence of who Robert Kennedy was and what he stood for. And he succeeds in large measure by using archival footage of Kennedy, rather than casting an actor in the role, which allows the viewer to experience Kennedy as he really was, to hear the compassion in his voice and see it in his eyes. Listening to Kennedy deliver a speech is moving and powerful; and for those too young to remember, or for those who were not around at the time, it affords the opportunity of knowing what it was like to hear words that really meant something, coming from a politician who really cared and knew how to convey the truth of his convictions with such eloquent determination.

What a marked contrast to the empty rhetoric and falsehoods espoused by the inarticulate, semiliterate demagogue currently in power.

As the film points out, Kennedy came from privilege, and he knew it; and he felt obliged (in his own words) to give something back. He said it and he meant it. Bobby Kennedy had a vision of how truly great this country could be, and wanted to do something about it. Unfortunately for all of us, Fate intervened.

The individual stories of the many characters in the film are interesting and well presented, but on their own they are not that important, nor were they meant to be. The drama that plays out among them as that dire moment we all know is coming approaches is the drama of all of our lives; they are Everyman and Everywoman, and they are there to set the stage and lend emotional ballast to the story. And under the care and guidance of Estevez it works, as it enables the viewer to identify and relate to what is happening, and what is about to happen.

The all-star cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Demi Moore, Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, Freddy Rodriguez, Elijah Wood, David Krumholtz, Heather Graham, Joshua Jackson, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Martin Sheen, Shia LaBeouf, Nick Cannon, Brian Geraghty and Emilio Estevez.

In this film, Estevez does not place Bobby Kennedy on a pedestal; he does not portray him as a fallen god. What he does is capture the spirit of a time and a man who carried the hope of a nation in his dreams. Estevez proffers no conspiracy theories and no fingers are pointed in this film. "Bobby" is simply what it was meant to be: A glimpse into what could have been and never was. And it makes you long for a leader you can trust, someone you can truly believe in; for a country that stands tall and is not undermined by ersatz "patriotism." This film makes you long for the restoration of the real America.

Bad News Bears (2005)

Honest, as well as Entertaining Over the years, the "sports" movie has become a genre unto itself, and good or bad, these films are for the most part well received by a significant cross section of the population who hold the fundamental belief that sports=America=patriotism. And filmmakers know it. That's why most of these films feature thematic variations rooted in the "Win one for the Gipper," "It's not winning, but how you play the game" and "There's no 'I' in 'team'" mentality. How refreshing, then, when one like "Bad News Bears" comes along to provide a much needed perspective on our society's preoccupation with sports in general, and amateur athletics in particular.

Based on the 1976 screenplay by Bill Lancaster and updated by screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who successfully teamed up with Thornton for 2003's "Bad Santa"), the story is about a local little league that has excluded a group of youngsters for failing to live up to their standards of physical prowess (they just aren't good enough to play with the "real" eleven and twelve year old "athletes"), the mother who sues the organization so that her son can play, the resultant team of diverse "misfits" the league must accommodate, and the man hired by the mother to manage that team.

That man in none other than Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton), a former professional baseball player who once pitched 2/3 of an inning in the Big Leagues and who now makes a living by exterminating rats. "Boilermaker" Buttermaker likes to drink, frequents the local Hooters and doesn't give a fig about what anyone thinks about him. Not that he's a rugged, iconoclastic individualist; far from it. He's just a guy who refuses to play the game anymore (and we're not talking about baseball here). On the surface, he's probably not the guy you'd choose to be your kid's role model, mainly because of all the things he "isn't." Upon closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that being a hypocrite is among the things he "isn't," and it's very telling as to the man's true character.

On the other side of the fence, meanwhile, there's the manager of the Yankees, Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), a real coach's coach, a pillar of the community (he's a car salesman) and the very personification of The Great American Role Model. He's as American as apple pie, and if there's a high moral ground in evidence here, he's on it. And, he is by all that's holy, going to take his team to the championships. His team is going to win, no matter what, because, after all, winning is everything, isn't it? Even if it means expecting your twelve-year-old to play like a Major Leaguer with a multimillion dollar contract, and publicly chastising him when he doesn't.

And therein lies the beauty of this film. Without preaching, without pointing fingers, but simply by presenting a realistic depiction of one of our sacred institutions, the "coach," the true nature of what millions of kids are subjected to in the name of "sportsmanship" year after year in this country is exposed, and with no apology necessary. At the same time it says that kids are worth more, much more, than what the Roy Bullock philosophy has to offer. The Roy Bullocks of the world will tell you that this kind of treatment "builds character." I beg to differ. And it's up to the Morris Buttermakers of the world to level the playing field. And when the rubber meets the road, I'd want my kid on Boilermaker Buttermaker's team rather than Bullock's any day of the week Director Linklater assembled a superb cast for this film, beginning with Thornton, who makes Buttermaker a very real, if flawed, flesh and blood human being, quite different from the likable caricature created by Walter Matthau in the 1976 original version. Kinnear delivers, as well, by capturing the very essence of a character that anyone who has ever been near a little league-- or any sports field-- has known in real life. And in the confrontations between Buttermaker and Bullock, Thornton and Kinnear give it a ring of truth that is beyond anything you'll ever see on any of the "reality" TV shows.

Add to that a credible performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Liz whitewood (the mother who sues the little league), and an amazing group of young actors: Sammi Kane Kraft (Amanda); Ridge Canipe (Toby); Brandon Craggs (Mike); Jeffrey Davies (Kelly); Timmy Deters (Tanner); Carlos Estrada (Miguel); Emmanuel Estrada (Jose); Troy Gentile (Hooper); Kenneth Harris (Ahmad); Aman Johal (Prem); Tyler Patrick Jones (Lupus); Jeffrey Tedmori (Garo); Carter Jenkins (Joey); and Seth Adkins (Jimmy), and you've got a movie that's going all the way to the World Series.

The acerbic humor and biting satire of "Bad News Bears" is without a doubt going to generate some mixed reviews. Some viewers will be offended by this film; others will be outraged. But that's because the truth hurts, and the fact of the matter is, there's a lot of Roy Bullocks out there, and they'll all be expecting a movie that confirms their point of view and sanctions their own sanctimonious belief that the lessons learned on the diamond, the court or the football field are all positive, the stuff that "champions" are made of. Instead, they're going to see a film that has the guts to call a spade a spade, that isn't entirely politically correct and in the end may make it necessary for them to take stock and reevaluate the real world that exists out there beyond the shells of the cocoons in which they've ensconced themselves. And that, my friends, is the magic of the movies.

The Island (2005)

Science Fiction At It's Best This movie, because it's a "Summer, Sci-Fi/Action" flick, will probably do extremely well at the box office, if for no other reason than the fact that Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are in the cast. Regrettably, however, even after it's been out for awhile it will probably never reach as wide and diverse an audience as it deserves until it's release on DVD, when-- hopefully-- positive word of mouth recommendations will lead those who usually avoid this particular genre to it. Because "The Island," directed by Michael Bay, is a cautionary, thought-provoking tale set in the not-so-distant future that holds a mirror up to our current society and poses some serious questions about moral judgement and how unmitigated secrecy on the part of institutions and those we "should" be able to trust affects us all on a daily basis that is especially relevant in today's world.

The story concerns the survivors of a "contamination" who must dwell within a seemingly sterile, self-contained city where their happiness is paramount to those in charge, while at the same time their only hope for the future is to be the next lottery winner, which would afford them a one-way ticket to the last uncontaminated place on earth, The Island. And to tell it, director Bay, no stranger to action films with such offerings as "The Rock," "Armageddon" and "Bad Boys I&II" under his belt, has drawn upon myriad other classics of the genre and used the collective threads to successfully weave his own story and imprint it with the kind of metaphor that elevates it beyond the next action sequence or explosion. A comparison to "Logan's Run" goes without question, along with an obvious nod to "Blade Runner," a smattering of "The Matrix" and even a pinch of "Star Wars." Which is not to say this is a "copy" of any of those; it definitely is not. Bay has merely-- and wisely-- drawn upon some of the more successful elements of those films, and in most instances expanded upon them, to deliver a memorable film that far surpasses the genre's usual board of fare.

Arguably, this is Michael Bay's best overall film to date. Though he has demonstrated in the past that he knows how to do action, he has outdone even himself with this one. There is one heart-stopping scene, for example, involving a number of vehicles and helicopters that eclipses even the highly touted freeway sequence of the second "Matrix" film. The F/X are top notch, and once the action begins in earnest, he sets a pace that builds the excitement without allowing it to lay or lapse even for a second, right up to the very end. Add to that the fact that this film really has something to say, and it will make you appreciate what Bay and his company of actors and technicians have accomplished here even more.

Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as Lincoln Six Echo, using his boyish charm, good looks and manner to lend the necessary credibility of innocence to his character. The charismatic Scarlett Johansson finds just the right note, as well, to bring her character, Jordan Two Delta, to life. Bay gives each of his actors, in turn, a moment in which to define their respective characters and underscore the plausibility of the film, and when that time comes they each succeed in a way that sustains the interest in the story beyond the action and the F/X. Excellent performances by both McGregor and Johansson.

In a supporting role, Steve Buscemi adds color to the proceedings as McCord, the man with the answers to a number of questions Lincoln Six has been asking about their environment and way of life; questions to which others in positions of authority respond with guarded circumspection, among them Merrick, one of the apparent caretakers of the city. Played by Sean Bean, Merrick is one of the pivotal characters of the film, and while Bean's performance is decent, it lacks the nuance that could have taken it to a much higher level. As it is, while effective to an extent, it is a fairly lackluster and generic portrayal.

The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Clarke Duncan (Starkweather); Ethan Phillips (Jones Three Echo); Brian Stepanek (Gandu Three Echo); Noa Tishby (Community Announcer); and Siobhan Flynn (Lima One Alpha). For most, "The Island" will be an exciting summertime diversion; but for those who pay attention to the underlying social and political significance of the story, the rewards will most likely exceed any and all expectations. And that's the magic of the movies.

Catwoman (2004)

This One Needs More Than Nine Lives What a nightmare. Somebody pinch me and wake me up. That's what I kept thinking while watching this movie, which turned out to be a truly painful experience. And I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, but after enduring "Catwoman," directed by Pitof (who? who?), I'm convinced that someone (or ones) are out to sabotage the careers of both Halle Berry and Sharon Stone (not to mention Benjamin Bratt). It's one thing to set out to make a "B" movie, but to waste such talent and beauty through sustained incompetence (yes, sustained, this movie wasn't filmed in a single day, was it? Come to think of it, maybe it was...) is nothing short of criminal (cinematically speaking).

I do not like to dwell on the negative aspects of any film, and I always attempt to seek out the positive (even most bad movies have something good in them, though you often have to look hard and deep to find it), but in fairness to Halle Berry, it must be noted how badly the script, editing, graphics and visual f/x, choreography and the director-- especially the director-- failed her here.

This misfire shouldn't allow us to forget Berry's excellent performances in such films as "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and "Monster's Ball," for which she deservedly was awarded an Oscar for Best Actress. The extent of her talent is undeniable and evidenced by the fact that her presence alone can add the necessary spark and elevate the stature of movies like "Bulworth" and "Die Another Day." So the million dollar question is, how did she wind up in this embarrassment? She (as well as the audience) deserves better. Obviously, she put her trust in the wrong people this time around, and at the top of that list is the "director" of this mishmash, Pitof.

I guess the lesson here is that even a major star should be wary when approached with a project that's been placed in the hands of someone whose name sounds like one of those ridiculous vanity plates you try to figure out while sitting at a red light and staring at the car in front of you. To put this as nicely as possible, Pitof (who? what does that MEAN?) didn't have a clue about what to do with this film, and especially with his actors. How could this have happened? He's given all the ingredients (Berry, Stone, Bratt, big budget) to make a prize winning cake and he turns out a lump unfit for consumption.

Add to Pitof's incompetence a laughably bad script (even the ability on the part of the viewer to suspend disbelief won't help with this one), bad editing and exceptionally poor computer graphics and visual f/x that look like something left over from the Stone Age of technology (when Catwoman is bounding and leaping about it has the appearance of an early generation video game; she looks more like a frog than a cat) you have a film that should be expunged from the resumes of everyone involved.

But, like I said, even a bad movie can have a high note if you look for it, which brings me to the only redeeming aspect of this film, the performance by Alex Borstein as Sally, one of Catwoman's co-workers. Best known as the voice of Lois Griffin in TVs "The Family Guy," Borstein has a charismatic presence that, within the context of this film at any rate, outshines even Berry and Stone. Better off for all concerned had this movie been titled "Sally," with Borstein given top billing and accordant screen time.

Unfortunately, too, for all concerned, "Catwoman" will enjoy it's full nine lives on the shelves of video stores everywhere. Just keep in mind, when you come to this shelf, pick up "The Cat's Meow," "The Cat In the Hat," "Cat People." "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," or anything with "Cat" in the title that isn't followed by "Woman." Take it from me, you'll feel a lot better in the morning.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

A Definite "Thumbs" Up. Thanks to modern technology, another film noir classic has escaped from Hollywood's vault of too-often-overlooked or forgotten films. Albeit a minor classic, "The Hitch-Hiker," directed by Ida Lupino, is a taut drama notable for it's realism, as well as a haunting performance by William Talman.

Reputedly based on a true incident ("Penned from the headlines"), the story traces the movements of a hitch-hiker, Emmett Myers (Talman), who repays his highway hosts by robbing and murdering them. Initially, we are shown mere glimpses of Myers and his victims, which successfully sets the stage for the introduction of Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two friends on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico, when, unawares, they pick up Myers.

What follows is a realistic depiction of what most likely would transpire when ordinary people are suddenly faced with such extraordinary circumstances. And the strength of the film lies in the fact that when Collins and Bowen are kidnapped, held at gunpoint and forced to do the bidding of their captor, they react and behave in a manner that is both consistent with their current state of affairs and believable. There are no feigned heroics or superhuman contrivances that allow the two captives to effect an escape; instead, the story plays out in much the way one would, in reality, expect in such a situation, which, when extrapolated, effectively drives home the true horror of Collin's and Bowen's circumstance.

The lion's share of the credit for the success of this film must go to director Ida Lupino, whose almost documentary-style approach to the story lends it the necessary grit and intensity. She scores double points, as well, for not only delivering a memorable film, but doing so at a time in which few women were afforded the opportunity to perform at such a level behind the camera. Lupino's success no doubt helped pave the way for the likes of Jane Campion, Jodie Foster, Gillian Armstrong, Allison Anders and a host of other women who have since proved that gender alone does not equate to excellence and ability in the director's chair.

In arguably his best performance, character actor William Talman turns in a memorable performance as the sociopath, Myers. Forget your Freddys and Jasons; Talman's portrayal creates the kind of character that nightmares are really made of. Myers is a guy you could pass on the street, or-- yes, even give a lift to if you saw him with his thumb out on the highway-- without giving him a second thought. And that's what makes him so scary; his disguise is that he doesn't have a disguise, and it's so much more effective than having a hockey mask or hands with steel fingers could ever be.

O'Brien and Lovejoy also turn in credible performances, creating characters who, like Talman's Myers, are real. Watching them, you believe that Collins is, indeed, an auto mechanic, and Bowen a draftsman; two friends off together to do some fishing.

The supporting cast includes Jose Torvay (Captain Alvarado); Jean Del Val (Inspector General); Clark Howat (Government Agent); and Natividad Vacio (Jose). The 71 minute running time is perfect for this film; rather than resort to superfluous filler, Lupino stays on task without ever straying, and in the end makes "The Hitch-Hiker" a ride that will leave you wondering what you would do in a like situation, and hoping that you'll never have to find out. It's the magic of the movies.

The Upside of Anger (2005)

An Upside to This Year's Movies Life doesn't come with an instruction manual or a script to follow, it's basically improv on a daily basis, and as it plays out people and things often are not who or what they seem to be on the surface. It's reality, as opposed to the way you expect, hope or want it all to be; truth, as opposed to an individual perception of truth. That's life. And "The Upside of Anger," written and directed by Mike Binder, explores some hard realities that differ drastically from expectations and perceptions.

The film opens with a funeral, a somber note which in a sense prepares you for what is to follow, after a flash back of three years, at which point the story begins. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is at loose ends because her husband has run off with his secretary, leaving her and four daughters behind to fend for themselves. Angry, distraught and a stone's throw from bitter, Terry turns to alcohol to deaden the effects of what has been a life-altering experience. Luckily-- or maybe not-- Terry has a neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-pro baseball player turned radio talk show host, with whom to share a drink and commiserate. Her daughters (three teens and one in college) are supportive, as well-- to a point. But they are each in their own way also struggling to understand why their father deserted them. By all accounts, this was in no way a dysfunctional, angst-ridden family, so the actions of their father is a mystery to them all. Naturally, it's a pivotal point in their lives, and before any of them can move on, especially Terry, they have to know why he did what he did. In the meantime, with or without this needed closure, life is happening to and around them.

Binder (who also appears in the film as the producer of Denny's radio show) displays an astute knowledge of human nature with this film, and how random the myriad twists and turns of life can be. He holds your attention from the opening scene (who's funeral is it, anyway?), and just when you think you know where the story is going it takes an unexpected turn. And he is in no way attempting to manipulate his audience; rather, he is giving you a reflection of the way life so often simply does not go the way you think it's going to. It's a succinct look at relationships, and of how fragile-- as well as resilient-- we all can be.

As Terry, Joan Allen sets vanity aside to create her character and turns in an Oscar caliber performance in doing so. When she gets up in the morning she looks like a middle-aged woman with insufferable problems and a hangover, a woman in the throes of coping with a traumatic experience who is desperate to reconnect with a life she no longer has and who will do anything within her power to hang on to what she has left. She's walking a tightrope over a deep abyss and she's understandably on edge, so when one of her girls tugs the rope and compromises her control and security, she quite naturally lashes out, proving the old adage you always hurt the one you love. There's a scene in which a grieving Terry draws her hands to her breast and, head lowered, utters a cry, and anyone who has ever known any kind of grief or loss in their life will at that moment know exactly what she is going through. It's a terrific piece of acting, a performance that is altogether affecting and memorable.

And, as performances go, Kevin Costner, too, puts vanity aside to create a character that is entirely convincing. Denny Davies is paunchy, his hair is thin and most of the time he looks as though he's had one beer too many. Still, he's engaging, and you get the feeling there's a complex individual hiding behind an external simplicity that perhaps helps to mask his true feelings about a lot of things in his life, including his career on the diamond. Why, for example, does he refuse to talk about baseball on his sports talk show? In it's purity, this is arguably Costner's finest performance ever.

Top notch performances are turned in, as well, by Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt as Terry's daughters, respectively, Andy, Popeye, Emily and Hadley; and by Binder himself as Shep. In the end, "The Upside of Anger" is an involving, memorable film that celebrates life and leaves you with a sense of hope, that no matter how bad things get we all have the capacity to get through it and somehow find the light at the end of the tunnel. And that's the magic of the movies.

Ladder 49 (2004)

Smoke Got In Jay Russell's Eyes The connotation of heroism is inescapable when discussing professional firefighters, especially in the wake of 9/11. Let's face it, the person running into the burning building when everyone else is desperately trying to get out is going to be a hero in the eyes of many, and in "Ladder 49," directed by Jay Russell and starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, it is the hero and that sense of heroism that is presented and explored.

The film follows the career of fireman Jack Morrison (Phoenix) from his rookie days through the following years as he establishes himself as a veteran of the firehouse, all under the tutelage of Captain Mike Kennedy (Travolta), who is always on hand to listen, question and impart the wisdom of age and experience to Jack, especially at pivotal times in his life.

Over a period of time, Jack learns the ropes, develops his firefighting skills, matures and, along the way, learns about life and love. When he meets an attractive young woman in a grocery store, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), and sparks fly, it isn't hard to figure out where this part of the story is going.

Visually, the film is stunning at times: The fires are spectacular, you can fairly feel the heat from the flames, which is bound to instill in one admiration for the firefighters who risk it all in the performance of their duties. It gives a perspective, as well, to the way living with danger binds them together in a special way. On the other hand, the way in which Russell presents this bonding also gives the impression that these are people who somehow live apart from the commoners, that the air they breathe is perhaps a bit more rarefied than what is available to the rest of us.

The flaw of what is essentially a decent film can be placed directly in the lap of the director, who makes the mistake of putting his heroes on a pedestal right out of the gate, for no other reason than the fact that they are firemen, and in doing so he allows what could have been a riveting drama to lapse into unnecessary melodrama, which very nearly sinks the ship early on. He makes the camaraderie of the firehouse, for instance, an exercise in cliché, while allowing his actors to struggle with the development of their characters.

Phoenix gives a passable performance as Jack, but Travolta comes across as an actor playing a role the way he "thinks" it should be played, rather than creating a real identity for Mike, and Russell lets him get away with it. In a similar role, in 1974's "The Towering Inferno," Steve McQueen put real life into Chief Michael O'Hallorhan by creating his character from the inside out, using an introspective approach to establish O'Hallorhan the man first, then O'Hallorhan the hero secondarily, and it worked. What is unfortunate here, especially, is the fact that Travolta is a much better actor than what Russell allowed him to be.

The supporting cast includes Robert Patrick (Lenny); Morris Chestnut (Tommy); Billy Burke (Dennis); Balthazar Getty (Ray); Desiree Care (Maria); and Deidra LaWan Starnes (Marlene). Firefighters and their families are no doubt going to find themselves on an emotional roller coaster with this film, and given what they live with on a daily basis, that is entirely understandable. For everyone else, however, "Ladder 49" will be somewhat entertaining, even emotionally engaging at times, but not entirely memorable.

Analyze That (2002)

The Boys Are Back, and They're Good-- Yes, Yeeeees They Are-- There was a time when `sequel' was synonymous with `less' with regards to quality, as mainly the studios wanted to capitalize on whatever was good about the original and duplicate or enhance in the follow-up the parts they `thought' were responsible for bringing in the big bucks at the box office. Which meant that usually, except in rare instances, the sequel failed to lived up to the first one and, more often than not was a huge disappointment. Happily, in the past few years that tide has seemingly turned, and as this film so aptly demonstrates, a sequel can, in fact, even surpass the original. `Analyze That,' directed by Harold Ramis, is the further adventures of Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) and Dr. Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), and in a word, it's a hoot. And, most importantly, this one stands on it's own; the characters are back, but the story is fresh-- it's decidedly NOT just more of the same or a rehash of `Analyze This.' As Paul Vitti himself would say about this film: `You... Yooou-- you're good, yes you are!'

All is not well with Paul Vitti, currently doing a stretch at Sing Sing; someone, it appears, wants him whacked, and it's driven him into some kind of psychotic episode from which he may never emerge if he doesn't get out of prison, and soon-- like right away. And who better to treat the `boss' than his personal therapist, Dr. Ben Sobol; or so goes the reasoning of those in high places, who actually have some ulterior motives in mind.

So Vitti is released into the custody of Dr. Sobol, who is not all that thrilled at the prospect of having a mob boss as a house guest. Even less thrilled is Sobol's wife, Laura (Lisa Kudrow). But they don't know the half of it, yet. There's a war brewing between two `families,' and Vitti, it seems, is right in the middle of it. And soon, some old faces begin showing up at the Sobol residence, like Jelly (Joe Viterelli); and if that isn't enough, the good Dr. Sobol has just been through the death of his own father, and he's grieving. And it's `a process.'

And a `process' is what brought this film so successfully to the screen, and it's gratifying, not to mention enjoyable and entertaining, when the result of a creative collaboration like this works so well. Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld, Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis crafted and delivered a script that is imaginative and fresh, and Ramis, who also directed `Analyze This,' as well as a couple of modern day comedy classics, `Caddyshack' and `National Lampoon's Vacation,' hits his stride with arguably his best work yet. His sets a perfect pace and his sense of timing has never been better. Of course it helps when you've got one of the best comedic actors in the business in there `doing lines' with the best actor-- period-- in the business. Crystal and De Niro together? Well, forgetaboudit... They take what is already great dialogue and make it ring in a way Quasimodo never dreamed possible. It's witty, extremely clever (like the reference to Ben's son, Michael, as `Clemenza') and, most importantly, FUNNY. And Ramis goes with the flow, keeping it all right on track from beginning to end. And De Niro singing? Does it GET any better than that?

As expected, De Niro slips back into his Vitti persona with facility, as does Crystal with his Sobol; the way they pick it up, as if they've been living in these guys' skins since `Analyze This,' lends credibility to the film and allows the viewer to settle in with them from the opening frames. So it's not only an entertaining film, but `user-friendly' to boot.

The single disappointment comes from the fact that the lovely Kudrow isn't afforded more screen time. She's such a welcome presence when she's on, and to her credit she makes the most of what time she's given, holding her own with her dynamic co-stars right on down the line.

A nice addition this time around is Cathy Moriarty-Gentile as new mob boss Patti LoPresti. This particular character suits her extremely well, and she runs with it; especially in her scenes with De Niro she has a captivating, commanding screen presence and it puts some real life in the exchanges between Vitti and LoPresti.

Conspicuously absent in this one, however, is Elizabeth Bracco, who did a nice job as Marie Vitti in the original. Sister of Lorraine Bracco (of TV's `Sopranos,' the hit series to which this film successfully pays homage in some key sequences and plot developments), Elizabeth seems to gravitate more toward roles in `indie' films, however, where she's carved out something of a niche for herself (as in Steve Buscemi's `Trees Lounge' in ‘96), a la Parker Posey and Catherine Keener. And though she's missed here, it's understandable; career wise, she's in good company.

The supporting cast includes Anthony LaPaglia (Tony), Joe D'Onofrio (Gunman), Richard Maldone (Joey), William DeMeo (Al Pacino), Reg Rogers (Raoul), Brian Rogalski (Earl) and Thomas Rosales Jr. (Coyote). Given the nature of the story and the characters, this film necessarily has something of an `edge' to it, but Ramis navigates the R-rated waters in a way that makes `Analyze That' funny, friendly AND highly entertaining. There are those who will say that it should all end here, on a successful note; personally, however, I'm waiting to hear that `Analyze And the Other Thing' will soon be in pre-production. As far as I'm concerned, you can never get enough of a good thing.

Italiensk for begyndere (2000)

Filmmaking for Beginners? Back in the early ‘90s, when I was tooling about making home movies as a lark, and NEVER taking any of it seriously, I had NO idea that I had actually stumbled upon a method of filmmaking that very soon would be touted as THE method of the true, bona fide `auteur' (or, more accurately according to the tenets of the `method' used in this film, the `ANTI-auteur'), and that one day I would be watching `Italian for Beginners,' directed by (well, credit for the directing cannot be given, as it would be against the `rules,' which I will get to in a moment) and filmed in much the same-- in fact, the EXACT same-- style that I had employed back in what I now know were MY `auteur' (excuse me; my `ANTI-auteur') days. But having watched this film, the evidence is irrefutable; I know, because I've just finished watching the movies I shot back then with my trusty camcorder to get a comparison. And all I can say now is: `STAND ASIDE AND GIVE ME ROOM-- I'M ON MY WAY TO SUNDANCE!'

In 1995, Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg developed a new (?) filmmaking technique, for which they co-wrote a back-to-basics guide entitled `Dogma 95,' a manifesto for filmmakers who, by adhering to the rules set forth in the text, would become a part of the `newest' new wave to hit the industry, subsequently referred to as the `Cinema of Poverty,' and with good reason.

If you're thinking of giving this film a go, before you watch it you MUST know something about Dogma 95 to have a chance in the hot place of making it through to the end. There are ten `rules' set forth in the manifesto, as well as an addendum, a handful of items tacked on (afterthoughts?), such as `I am no longer an artist' (which after watching this film I fully understand and agree with). But the main things (rules) you must know going in are these: The movie must be filmed on location, with only a hand-held camera and using only whatever light is naturally available. And `music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.' (Somewhat contradictorily, two of Von Trier's subsequent films were musicals; his disclaimer: `The rules are not meant to ‘limit' creativity, but to ‘spur it on'). Rule #10 states: `The director must not be credited.' In retrospect, the wisdom of THIS rule is beyond reproach.

There IS some substance to this story, imbued as it is with elements of classic Bergman as it examines `loss' on a number of levels through the lives of a small, diverse group of individuals in various stages of disenfranchisement. Their common denominator is the class in, well...Italian for beginners, to which they seemingly gravitate, each with their own specific reasons and motivations. The class becomes a kind of focal point for them; it is here that relationships are formed or honed, and their lives begin to intersect. Now, had only Bergman been on hand to direct them.

These are everyday folks, just going about the business of living; and quite frankly, they aren't all that interesting, nor are their respective stories. The group includes Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), an obnoxious restaurant employee who hasn't as yet caught on to the `customer/employee' dynamic-- he's self-absorbed, rude and insufferable; Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) lacks self confidence; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) a hairdresser who never seems to be able to finish a client (Hal-Finn is in her chair at least three times, but never gets past the hair-wetting phase before some crisis or other calls Karen away, sending poor Hal-Finn away each time with a wet head and no haircut); Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) who works in a bakery, where no doubt she sells danish (pun intended; I have nothing to lose at this point); and Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor who has taken a temporary assignment six months after the death of his wife. But listening to the thoughts (and I intentionally do not use the term `ideas' here) of a randomly selected group of postal employees on the dock at 3 a.m. at the post office would be intrinsically more interesting than anything that occurs in this film. Berthelsen, especially, spends the entire movie looking confused, like he's a contestant on Jeopardy! but can't figure out why Alex keeps giving him the answers instead of the questions. Or maybe he's just trying to understand what he's doing in this film to begin with. Where, oh where, is Ingmar when you need him?

On a positive note, the performances here are for the most part quite natural, if not engaging. Kaalund, at least, makes a lasting impression with a character reminiscent of Rutger Hauer's Eric Vonk in `Turkish Delight' (aka `Turk's Fruit'), from 1973; perhaps that's why Hal-Finn is always getting in `Dutch' with his boss (again, pun intended).

The supporting cast includes Sara Indrio Jensen (Giulia), Jesper Christensen (Olympia's Father), Lene Tiemroth (Karen's Mother) and Carlo Barsotti (Marcello). There are those who are going to like, even applaud, this film; personally, I'd rather watch paint dry. To connect with this film one has to be able to embrace, or at least get beyond, the whole Dogma 95 thing. I couldn't. Okay, perhaps I just don't `get' it; to this day I still don't get the Andy Warhol `soup can' deal, either. Just know that `Italian for Beginners' is definitely NOT going to be for everyone. I do find it interesting that the `rules' are also referred to as the filmmakers `Vows of chastity,' and that in reviews of Dogma 95 films the terms `chaste,' `austere' and `pure' always seem to surface. In the great scheme of things I know it means something; what it is, I don't know. But bear in mind that the manifesto also states, `Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste!' And with that, I rest my case.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)

Insightful Depiction of a Sensitive Juncture of Life Context is basically what separates one coming-of-age story from another, as well as the way it's presented; the filmmaker's ability to make that all important connection with the audience. Due in no small part to some strong performances, `The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,' directed by Peter Care, is a successful and worthwhile-- even significant-- addition to the genre. Though it works within specific parameters (the subjects are students at a Catholic school), most importantly, the film taps deeply into the internal angst experienced by the individuals who are the focus of Care's incisive study, and the way in which their feelings are externalized in the film offers a satisfying examination of the human condition at a particularly sensitive juncture of life.

Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) is fourteen and in the throes of that inescapable period of change through which we all must pass on the way to becoming who we are as adults. A pupa encased in the cocoon of youth, Francis is straining against that protective shell, attempting to break through into manhood. His family environment is strict, the routine of his life (which includes being an altar boy) is rigid, and puberty is having it's way with him. Adding to his inner conflict, as well, is the fact that his best friend, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), is continually engaging in exploits that transcend mischief to the point of being outright foolish and dangerous; daring deeds in which Francis must necessarily take part, in keeping with their own established caste and as Tim's confrere in this business of probing life's eternal mysteries. Not to mention, too, that Francis has discovered something else, quite on his own. And her name is Margie Flynn (Jena Malone).

Luckily (perhaps), Francis manages to vent his pent up frustrations and confusion creatively, through animation. With his friends Joey and Wade (Tyler Long, Jake Richardson), he has created a comic book, `Atomic Trinity,' which features four outcast teenaged boys endowed with superpowers (Tim has been included as `editor'). And to channel their hormonal driven rebellion against authority and structure, they have chosen their teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), as their target, for in their eyes she personifies all that is wrong with their world. Assigning her the role of Source Of All That Is Bad, she emerges as `Nun-zilla' in their comic, this haven to which they can flee and momentarily escape the realities of a world they haven't as yet figured out. What they don't realize is that Tim is about to involve them in a scheme which, if effected, is going to change their lives forever. And that `safe haven' of theirs may soon be a thing of the past.

Learning to navigate the rapids of life is no easy task, and director Care treats his subject accordingly, with a sensitive and serious rendering of the material (the screenplay was written by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni, adapted from the book by Chris Fuhrman). Care succeeds by avoiding the kind of embarrassing frivolity that is too often associated with a film of this nature. He maintains credibility at every turn, making the story believable by keeping it on the stage of reality, rather than allowing it to wander into the theater of the absurd. The way he presents the relationship between Francis and Margie, for instance, is entirely convincing in the way they tentatively explore their budding sexuality together, rather than lurching ahead with seemingly sudden and inexplicable knowledge and enlightenment. Their discoveries come more from reaction than action, and the result is a very honest and genuine depiction of the situation. And Care uses this approach consistently throughout the film, which goes far in making it a thoroughly thought provoking drama.

As Francis, young Hirsch gives a commanding performance, exhibiting a maturity and grasp of the character that is far beyond his years. There is a complexity to Francis that demands a tremendous emotional range to be convincing, and Hirsch delivers it all and then some, with a portrayal of astounding depth. Here, in his motion picture debut, he emerges as one of the finest young actors in the business today.

Jena Malone also makes a substantial impact with her acute portrayal of Margie, successfully conveying the tortured soul of this young girl who must endure a most distressing secret. There are moments in which the pain derived from her inner turmoil is almost tangible; and that about sums up the quality of her performance here.

Displaying yet another side of the coin is Kieran Culkin, who in Tim creates a character who, unlike the others, internalizes his adolescent discord while outwardly manifesting an almost aloof disdain for caution in all things. We're given indications and a glimpse into the strife existing within his home and family, and it's enough to make us aware of the source of his discontent. It's a solid performance, though he fails to make any real connection with the audience, most likely due to the fact that Tim is quite simply not an easy character to embrace.

The most subtle and understated performance in the film is turned in by Jodie Foster, who though she lacks enough screen time to adequately develop her character nevertheless manages to succinctly reveal exactly who she is and what she's about. She is stern, and obviously a disciplinarian; but though her methods may be too straightforward, even to the point of seeming malicious, she is not, and is far from being the monster `Nun-zilla' depicted in `Atomic Trinity.' On the contrary, she has a good heart and sincerely wants only to instruct her students in ways that will lead them to a fulfilling life. There is obviously more to Sister Assumpta's story, but the focus of the film must necessarily remain elsewhere, and we are left to infer what we may.

A thoughtful, emotionally involving film, `The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' offers a viable perspective on the rigorous undertaking known as `growing up.'

Die Another Day (2002)

The Best "Brosnan" Bond Yet James Bond aficionados will be delighted to hear that 007 is not only back, but with renewed vigor, a great new villain who wants to dominate the world (surprise!), lots of gadgets, girls and Action! a-plenty, in `Die Another Day,' directed by Lee Tamahori. Pierce Brosnan suits up for the fourth time as Secret Agent Man, joined this time around by a lady named Jinx (Halle Berry), who is not only beautiful but demonstrates early on that she can definitely take care of herself; a decidedly capable match for Mr. James Bond. But whose side is she on, anyway?

The film opens with 007 insinuating himself into an operation transpiring in North Korea, where a certain Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) is attempting to negotiate a deal to buy South African diamonds in exchange for weapons. Our man Bond, of course, has replaced the contact and holds the briefcase containing the loot. As expected, the enterprise quickly deteriorates into an explosive situation, and from that point on the action never stops.

Working from a story and screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who also teamed for 1999's `The World Is Not Enough,' along with Bruce Feirstein), director Tamahori digs deep into the All-Things-Bond box to make this James Bond film...well... everything a James Bond film should be, from the fast paced action (it goes without saying) to the snappy repartee rife with bons mots and double-entendre (at which Berry/Jinx also proves to be a match for Brosnan/Bond) to one of the best `henchmen' (Zao, played terrifically by Rick Yun) since Goldfinger's Oddjob. There is also a touch of nostalgia thrown in for good measure: As Q (John Cleese) gives his dissertation on the latest gadgets, Bond casually ferrets through the Quartermaster's cache and comes across the lethal shoe that once belonged to Rosa Klebb, as well as a signature item from `Thunderball.' It's a nice touch that perhaps for the first time tangibly links forty years of `Bond' history together and goes far in dispelling the quite noticeable changing incarnations of 007 over the years; finally, rather than naturally, if subconsciously, categorizing the character into a Connery/Bond, Moore/Bond, Lazenby/Bond, Dalton/Bond or Brosnan/Bond, he's just `Bond.' James Bond.

Visually, this one has a lot to offer, with some extravagant sets, a memorable sword fight and special F/X that are, for the most part, top notch. There is one scene near the end (suffice to say involving a lot of water and some huge waves) in which the F/X seem to dip somewhat below par and actually take on an almost `60s' look (intentional, perhaps, as an homage that would be in keeping with the rest of the film's nod to `Bond' history?) but overall it's a quality production, and the cinematography (by David Tattersall, who also did `Star Wars, Episodes I & II') is brilliant.

If ever an actor was meant to play a specific role, it's Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. From his initial outing as 007 (in 1995's `GoldenEye') he's been a perfect fit, but here he seems to have at last actually settled into the part and made it his own, in a way that Moore, Lazenby and Dalton (for all the individual and unique strengths they brought to their respective portrayals of Bond) were, even at their best, never able to achieve. Brosnan credibly brings Ian Fleming's unflappable, stalwart hero to life with seemingly effortless aplomb, striking a chord in which the seriousness and the levity that defines the character mesh perfectly (Moore, on the other hand, played up the lightness too often, almost into parody at times; Dalton was altogether too serious; Lazenby was simply an anomaly). Simply put, Brosnan has all of the qualities that personify James Bond, and he uses them all to the utmost effectiveness.

Following up her Oscar winning portrayal of Leticia Musgrove in 2001's `Monster's Ball,' Halle Berry, meanwhile, makes her mark as arguably one of the finest `Bond Girls' since Honor Blackman's performance as `Ms.' Galore in `Goldfinger' in 1964. She definitely makes one of the most memorable first entrances from among the rank and file of the Bond Beauties; emerging from the sea in an orange two-piece suit she looks absolutely stunning, calling to mind Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in 1962's `Dr. No.' Pulchritude aside, however, Berry most importantly makes her character believable, which in no small part lends the necessary support to the anticipated outlandishness of the fiction.

The one female in a recurring role who has yet to be given her due as a `Bond Girl,' is a consummate actor who has added significantly to the Bond legacy with her portrayal of `M.' Dame Judi Dench came on board along with Brosnan in `GoldenEye,' empowering women everywhere by taking on a highly visible role of absolute authority, albeit fictional, and helping to revitalize the `Bond' series. Casting her as Bond's superior was a stroke of genius, and the way Dench took over the role and made it her own should at last be acknowledged. She is, without question, a big part of the renewed strength of the `Bond' of the new millennium.

Making her motion picture debut here, Rosamund Pike also adds her name to the roster as Miranda Frost, but though she adds beauty and poise to the film, she is less than charismatic and her performance lacks the kind of spunk that would have made her character more than just adequate. Still, it would be hard for any actor to get a toehold playing against the radiant Halle Berry, and on a positive note, Pike does lend a decided elegance to the role.

As Bond's nemesis, Gustav Graves, Toby Stephens gives an energetic performance and carves out a niche for himself in the annals of Bond bad guys; and with a physical oddity sustained in the opening sequence of the film, Yune makes a lasting impression as Zao. In the final analysis, `Die Another Day' is the best `Brosnan' Bond yet.

Scotland, Pa. (2001)

Yet Another Spin On the Bard Once again, Shakespeare is afforded a cinematic, contemporary rendering in `Scotland, Pa.,' written for the screen and directed by Billy Morrissette, an updated version of the tragedy, `Macbeth,' which here becomes a black comedy of tragic proportions. Morrissette jumps on the bandwagon that began in 1996 with Baz Luhrmann's `William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet,' which was followed by further spins on the bard's plays, including Julie Taymor's energetic and imaginative `Titus' in ‘99 and Michael Almereyda's dreadful and dreary `Hamlet' in 2000. Morrissette's offering-- which differs from the others in that it does not retain the Shakespearian language and verse-- falls somewhat beneath Luhrmann and Taymor's films, but far above Almereyda's dismal effort, which was a tragedy in ways that transcended the story. Be advised, this one is a `black comedy' in every sense of the definition, and actually comes in on the absolute `darkest' end of the spectrum. There's no getting around it, `Macbeth' is a depressing story to begin with, and this version decidedly captures the spirit of the play that inspired it.

This story begins with a look at businessman Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), who after selling his successful donut shops (`Duncan' Donuts, anyone?) has established a hamburger stand, which due in no small part to the innovative ideas of employee Joe McBeth (James LeGros) and the support of Joe's wife, Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney)-- also an employee of Duncan's-- has become a successful enterprise, as well as a harbinger of a chain of fairly well-known burger stands that start with `M' and today enjoy the lion's share of the fast-food market. And now Norm has come up with his best idea yet, one that's going to take the simple burger stand into the future and put Duncan's at the top of the heap.

It's a grand scheme alright, and Norm graciously shares his intentions with his best employees, Joe and Pat. But there's a rub; the idea was originally Joe's, and Norm's taking the credit does not sit too well with the McBeth's, who envision a hamburger joint of their own, `McBeth's,' sitting beneath the huge arches formed by the big red `M' of the sign that stands above the entrance to the restaurant. And the whole business goes south very quickly, as `Norm's' idea leads a seething Joe and Pat down a path that must necessarily end in murder and mayhem if their plan is, in fact, acted upon. And is it? For the answer to that, one must look no further than the source material, and keep in mind the term, `tragedy.'

Billy Morrissette's is an interesting and fairly imaginative presentation, but in staying true to the essence of the play it takes you, finally, to a very dark place. And even though he supplies a rather amusing ending infused with shrouded irony, be advised, this one's a downer; and it may seem something of a contradiction in terms, but it's going to make you laugh in spite of yourself. And you'll hate yourself in the morning because of it.

Still, there's no denying that this is a clever, if just short of inspired, piece of filmmaking. The single drawback is the casting of LeGros in the lead role; he does a decent job, even acceptable by most standards, but he lacks the screen presence and charisma to really sell it. The part of Joe called for someone like Thomas Jay Ryan, who was so riveting in Hal Hartley's `Henry Fool' in 1998, a film which coincidentally featured another actor who could've pulled this part off successfully, and who happens to have a small, but pivotal role in this film, Kevin Corrigan.

Corrigan, a terrific character actor and unsung veteran of a number of indy films, in this one plays Anthony `Banco' Banconi, a co-worker and friend of the McBeth's who significantly figures into the tragedy as it ultimately plays out. Corrigan has the talent and just the kind of charismatic screen presence the role of Joe called for, and it's too bad that Morrissette and casting director Avy Kaufman didn't recognize the possibility that was right in front of them.

They did strike gold, however, with the casting of Tierney as Pat McBeth. She has a naturally endearing screen presence and expressive eyes that can speak volumes, which she uses to great effect here. And, as she's demonstrated since becoming an integral member of the cast of TV's `ER,' she plays extremely well to her `dark' side, which is precisely what the role of Pat called for. Needless to say, she does it quite well, turning in an altogether convincing and entirely believable performance.

Another actor who plays so well to his dark side, Christopher Walken, does a solid turn here as Lt. Ernie McDuff, the investigator probing the shady goings-on at Duncan's hamburger stand. In any role, Walken has a subtle, commanding presence, and this is no exception; here, though, he lends something of a light touch to the proceedings that is nevertheless in keeping with the seriousness of the story. Suffice to say, he does black comedy well. And, without question, it is Walken who `makes' the final shot of the film.

The supporting cast includes Tom Guiry (Malcolm Duncan), Andy Dick (The Hippie Jesse), Amy Smart (The Hippie Stacy), Timothy `Speed' Levitch (The Hippie Hector), Geoff Dunsworth (Donald Duncan), John Cariani (doing a hilarious turn as Ed the Cop), Nate Crawford (Robert/Richard) and Timothy Durkin (Frank the Pharmacist). It may not be especially memorable, but `Scotland, Pa.' is just quirky enough to be a worthwhile entry in the Put-A-Spin-On-Shakespeare festival, currently playing on a DVD or video near you.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

A Very Real Reflection of the Human Condition For a long time, the depiction of the family unit in movies and on television was for the most part a sanitized, idealized representation, from movies like the Mickey Rooney `Andy Hardy' series and William Powell's `Life With Father,' to the totally stereotypical versions presented on TV in such shows as `Ozzie and Harriet' and `Father Knows Best,' which were entertaining, perhaps, but set standards that in reality were simply unattainable; a reflection of real life these movies/shows were not. There was the occasional film like `Rebel Without A Cause' or `The Young Savages,' which certainly explored conflicted individuals, but the focus was not on the `family unit' per se. Then gradually, all of that began to change; filmmakers evolved and the screen did begin to more accurately reflect the family dynamic in very real terms, for better or worse, and in 1998, `Slums of Beverly Hills,' written and directed by Tamara Jenkins hit the screen, with a depiction of the family unit that's about as honest as it gets.

Murray Abromowitz (Alan Arkin) is 65 years old, divorced and raising three kids on his own. A car salesman, Murray is currently in a `slump.' In point of fact, however, his whole life has been one long slump. But he's determined that his children, Ben (David Krumholtz), Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) and Rickey (Eli Marienthal), are going to get a good education, and that means keeping them in the best schools. And that means living in Beverly Hills. It's one of the most `upscale' communities in the world, but he doesn't have to be rich to take advantage of the educational opportunities; as long as they live within the city limits, the kids stay enrolled. It's all a matter of having the right zip code. But there's the rub; it's just not as easy as it sounds, because even living on the periphery of Beverly Hills cannot be successfully effected without `means,' and `assets' of any kind are decidedly not a part of Murray's personal resume.

Which means there has to be a plan. And Murray's plan is very simple: You stay one step ahead of the landlord and the monthly rent and you're home free. Which means moving. A lot. As in slipping out in the middle of the night with only as much as you can carry and moving on to the next `dingbat' apartment. And so is goes with the Abromowitz family, living a nomadic existence as part of a very real sub-culture in one of the richest areas on the planet. It's hard, but the kids are getting the education. Murray, however, suddenly has something else to deal with: Vivian, who is about to enter her freshman year at high school. And she is not a `little' girl anymore.

To tell her semi-autobiographical story, writer/director Jenkins has crafted and delivered a thoroughly engrossing film steeped in nuance and gritty realism. It's an incisive portrait of how a dysfunctional family can survive by establishing parameters which allow them to get from point A to point B on a daily basis, and what it takes to maintain the kind of internal support system that enables them to function and stay together, though individually their goals and aspirations may be pulling them in opposite directions. it goes far in disproving the idea that a family in perpetual crisis must necessarily disintegrate.

The story is told through the eyes of Vivian, which gives the film a decidedly personal resonance, as it is obvious that this is where Jenkins' heart resides. And it presents a mature perspective that effectively dispels the stereotypical characterization of the self-absorbed teen mired in the throes of paralyzing angst, which adds considerable credibility to this character driven comedy/drama. Jenkins also successfully captures an entirely genuine `sense' of the whole Abromowitz's environment; the look, texture and `feel' of the film is a reflection of reality, so much so that you can almost actually detect the scent of the apartments, the steaks cooking at Sizzler or that familiar clean/warm smell of the laundry room. An exceptionally insightful film, it sheds some light on the invisible threads that hold us together and keep the myriad facets of our society connected.

What really brings this one to life, though, is the performances Jenkins exacts from her exceptional cast of actors, beginning with Lyonne, who so perfectly embodies the character of Vivian. This is the pivotal part of the film, and with her `natural' presence Lyonne delivers a convincing portrayal through which she precisely conveys exactly what she's thinking and feeling with a combination of facial expressions, body language and simply the inflection of her voice.

As Murray, Arkin gives an extremely affecting and introspective performance, creating a character with whom many in the audience are going to be able to relate and identify on one level or another, as he taps into that sense of not quite being able to figure out how it all works, even after doing it day after day for sixty-five years. In Murray we see a very accurate reflection of the on-going process of sorting out `life'-- a process that, in reality, never ends. It's a performance that takes into account the inherent flaws of being human; it makes us realize that none of us are perfect, but that it's okay-- we just have to keep trying.

One of the finest character actors in the business, indy favorite Kevin Corrigan turns in an effective, understated and unassuming performance as Eliot, the guy with whom Vivian has a `building thing' relationship.

Also giving a memorable performance is Marisa Tomei, as Murray's niece, Rita, who is deliciously tacky and adds some real spice to the film. Her portrayal is earthy and utterly believable, and like Arkin's Murray, is an honest reflection of how most people grapple with the uncertainties of life.

`Slums of Beverly Hills' is a viable exploration of the human condition; a film that helps us understand who we are, and why.

Saturday Night Live: The Best of Steve Martin (1998)

The Best of the Best He juggles, he plays the banjo, he writes his own material, and just by using the right combination of body language and facial expressions he can merely walk onto a stage and the audience will explode into gales of laughter. His name is Steve Martin, and the way he blends his unique observations of the human condition with physical comedy, he just may be the funniest man on the planet. Unfortunately, since his segue into a successful acting career in motion pictures, he doesn't do stand-up anymore, so thanks be to the comedy gods who provided us with this compilation, `The Best of Saturday Night Live, Hosted by Steve Martin,' which features the best of the best and the funniest of the funniest moments that ever visited your living room via the magic portal of the television set.

For those who were around when these shows were first broadcast, this will be a trip down memory lane that you'll want to take again and again, because this is the kind of stuff you can watch over and over and it somehow just keeps getting funnier. For the younger crowd who only know the current incarnation of Saturday Night Live, this will be a real eye-opener, because the `comedy' we're subjected to today simply doesn't hold a candle to that proffered by the Not Quite Ready For Prime Time Players of the early, `golden' years of SNL, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Garret Morris and Gilda Radner. And when Martin joined this bunch as host, well...it just didn't get any better than that.

Does this mean that everything the current crop of comics foists upon an unsuspecting audience is without merit and that everything the SNL gang did in '78 and '79 was a masterpiece of comedy to be enshrined in stone? Of course not; the nature of comedy being what it is, and given the fact that the early SNL players were on the cutting edge of things that had never been done on TV before, it follows that some of the bits were not only going to fail, but go down in flames. There were even entire shows back then that weren't funny at all. But stacked against most of what comes down the pike today, there just isn't any comparison. Times change, attitudes change, people change; and with that, comedy must necessarily change. But that doesn't mean necessarily for the better.

Consider some of the bits from this collection, crafted and delivered by Martin (with a little help from his friends): You get a sampling of Steve's opening monologues, which don't even have to be ABOUT anything to be funny (a precursor to `Seinfeld,' perhaps?); then there's the hilarious Festrunk Brothers (Martin and Aykroyd), those `wild and crazy guys!' who get laughs just by walking from one side of the room to the other; `Theodoric of York/Medieval Barber' has an underlying intelligence that today's players wouldn't even attempt, and wisely so, as this kind of humor would be beyond the capacity of, and lost on most of today's audience; `Dancing In the Dark' is a hysterically funny interlude featuring Martin and Radner simply dancing (ah, shades of Fred and Ginger); but the highlight of the show has to be Steve doing his now famous `King Tut' bit, which illustrates the ingenuity with which Martin was able to satirically tap into current events and contemporary sensibilities to capture forevermore a reflection of our society as it was at the moment.

This collection also features some of the best moments of SNL in which Martin did not participate: The weekend update (when it was still fresh and original) with Curtin and Aykroyd, and another segment featuring Curtin, Murray and Father Guido Sarducci; a `commercial' with the inimitable Gilda Radner; and another highlight, that historical night that Jake and Elwood, `The Blues Brothers,' were introduced to the world. How fitting that it came on a night that Martin was hosting the show.

Without question, comedy is subjective, and the basic impetus shifts from generation to generation; but whether the contemporary audience adapts to the material, or the material adapts to the audience, is open for debate. Still, the `classic' bits that were funny twenty, thirty or fifty years ago remain funny today because they were created in a way and captured an `essence' rooted in human nature that transcends time. And so it is with this collection of singularly entertaining moments offered up for perusal in `The Best of Saturday Night Live, Hosted by Steve Martin,' which says more than a little bit about who we were at a particular point in time, as well as something about who and where we are today. And it makes me want to find Steve Martin, just so I can walk up and say to him, `Steve, how did you ever get to be SO funny?'

The Sum of All Fears (2002)

A Sobering Meditation on the State of Our World Today We all want to think that the world in which we live is safe and secure, that bad things only happen to the `other' guy and that evil-doers always get their just deserts. The reality of it, however, is that we all live in glass houses built on foundations anchored in the shifting sands of happenstance, and a `reality check,' courtesy of the entertainment medium of film is not a thing to be taken lightly, discounted or dismissed out-of-hand. `The Sum of All Fears,' directed by Phil Alden Robinson, is a cautionary tale that is thought provoking and all too valid, especially in the wake of 9/11. As a film, it may have some minor flaws and the story is certainly disconcerting, but in light of recent events in America, as well as around the world, it makes us aware of the importance of being ever vigilant, and it's important in that it reminds us of things that must not be forgotten lest they be repeated, just as a film like `Schindler's List' will forever be a kind of safeguard against another Holocaust. A single film may on it's own be just another brick in the wall, but if filmmakers persist, eventually that wall will perhaps become a kind of fortress that may help prevent a repetition of the blunders and crimes perpetrated throughout the history of the world.

The screenplay was adapted by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne from the novel by Tom Clancy; the story is a proposition of what could happen if a nuclear bomb fell into the wrong hands, how the preeminent governments of the world would respond and what the outcome would mean to the average citizen living in the Ukraine or in Podunk, U.S.A. It's a hypothetical situation that, quite frankly, a few years ago would've been perceived by most as being as close to reality as `The Martian Chronicles.' But not anymore. Looking beyond the drama of the story and the way it's presented, the actual events depicted here are almost too close for comfort and will no doubt evoke a sense of denial in many viewers who still refuse to accept the state of the world as it is today.

The film itself is, of course, a big budget, Hollywood production-- which in not a BAD thing-- but as such the drama is a bit stiff and stilted at times, and the presentation by director Robinson lacks originality and imagination; too often we see exactly what we expect (when a member of the Russian cadre, for example, demurs to the cold reality of their plan and announces his withdrawal, we know that he's signed his own death warrant. Seeing him garroted by the silent, hulking henchman before he reaches the door is anticlimactic; it would have been entirely more effective had Robinson taken a page from David Lean's Book and left it up to the viewer's imagination). But the performances are to the last actor solid and convincing, and late in the film the story takes a decidedly unexpected turn that allows for a suspenseful climax; after a point you can speculate as to the final outcome, but you cannot know absolutely until the very end. As Confucius (or was it Yogi?) once said, It ain't over till it's over.

The real strength of the film, though, lies in the very honest depiction of the events and the way they play out, from the unimaginable success of the terrorists to the confusion, uncertainty and irresolution of those in power. Initially, the ease with which much of what happens is seemingly effected may evoke a reaction of disbelief and incredulity; but in retrospect, in reality this is more than likely exactly the way such things would happen. But we're conditioned by not only by what we've seen in other movies (James Bond ALWAYS saves the day, doesn't he?), but by what society tells us is so and by what we WANT to believe. Al-Qaida, however, is real; 9/11 is real. It's just not something we want to acknowledge, just as we do not want to believe that a handful of people control the destiny of the entire world, including a leader like this film's President Fowler (James Cromwell), who excels at waving to fans at a football game, talking tough and telling the people what they want to hear, but just may be clueless, ineffective and governed by personal agenda behind closed doors. Which is precisely what this film points out in terms that are at once subtle and overt.

As Jack Ryan, Ben Affleck gives an acceptable performance, and though he's convincing he lacks the intensity of his predecessor in the role, Harrison Ford, or even that of Alec Baldwin, who first created the character in 1990's `The Hunt for Red October.' Buy this is a younger Jack Ryan, new to the C.I.A. and not yet married, which may provoke some confusion in fans of this series, as on one hand this story predates `October,' and yet the events seem to reflect more recent incidents, subsequent to all that happened in the first three `Ryan' films. But taken as a separate entity, this film is contextually intact and stands on it's own; just be prepared to view it as an independent entry in the series with a value that supersedes any sequential necessity.

The most notable performances are turned in by Morgan Freeman (Cabot) Liev Schreiber (Clark), Philip Baker Hall (Defense Secretary Becker) and Ron Rifkin (Owens).

This is the kind of film that many viewers will subconsciously attempt to distance themselves from emotionally, and will take great delight in concentrating on minor technical flaws as it will enable them to sleep a little easier at night. But in the final analysis, `The Sum of All Fears' says something about who we are, `where' we are and the state of the world in which we live today; things we would probably rather not contemplate, but nevertheless, must.

The In-Laws (1979)

Puts the Comedy Meter Through the Roof When it comes to making a comedy that `works' (read: Generates some real LAUGHS), if you start with a polished script, plug in the right actors and find a director with some insights into human nature, a good sense of timing and enough experience to know just when to push which buttons, you can win the gold. Well, in 1979, a trio of producers-- which along with William Sackheim included the director, Arthur Hiller, and one of the lead actors, Alan Arkin-- started with a polished screenplay (by veteran screenwriter Andrew Bergman), plugged in the right actors (Alan Arkin and Peter Falk) and found a director (Hiller) with plenty of insights into the human condition, an impeccable sense of timing and a resume that included experience working with the likes of Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Dudley Moore, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and-- you guessed it-- they struck gold, big time, with `The In-Laws,' an hilarious comedy that examines what happens when an ordinary guy is placed in an extraordinary situation. And it all begins simply enough with the impending marriage of his daughter, and the day he meets the people who, for better or worse, are about to become her in-laws, as well as a part of his own extended family. With the emphasis definitely NOT on the `better.'

Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) is a dentist with a successful practice in New York, a loving wife, Carol (Nancy Dussault) and a daughter, Barbara (Penny Peyser), who is engaged to Tommy Ricardo (Michael Lembeck). The wedding is less than a week away, and the Kornpett's have yet to meet the Ricardos, due to the fact that Tommy's father, Vince (Falk), purportedly the owner of something called Trans Global Enterprises, is rarely around or home long enough for the soon-to-be-related families to have that all-important get-together. Finally, however, it's all arranged, and the Kornpett's anxiously await the arrival of Vince and his wife, Jean (Arlene Golonka) to their home for dinner. And though Sheldon doesn't know it yet, it's a night that is going to change his life forever; and by the day of the wedding, he will have done things and been to places he wouldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams, all courtesy of his newest and best friend, Vince Ricardo.

The film opens with a glimpse into what appears to be the covert existence of Vince Ricardo, for whom Trans Global is obviously a front of some kind. So the viewer already has a leg up on Sheldon, who at this point has no reason to take Vince at anything other than face value. Until they meet and spend an evening together, during which time Vince relates a most bizarre story and has his penchant for taking concealed phone calls in such places as the basement revealed, which raises more than a few questions in Sheldon's mind. It's a scene worth it's weight in gold, which Hiller uses to establish the nature of Sheldon and Vince's personalities, as well as the relationship between the two strangers who in a few days will be family. And in that one hilarious scene, you realize instantly that you're dealing with a cinematic incarnation of an odd couple that's going to rival Neil Simon's Felix and Oscar.

Bergman's dialogue is incisively witty, and Hiller emphasizes the contrast between the two men to great effect, parlaying it all into some of the most memorable scenes you'll ever see in a comedy. The one, for example, that takes place on a remote airstrip (suffice to say that Sheldon has been roped into something he'd rather not be a part of and would just as soon forget about as soon as possible); bullets are flying, Vince and Shelly (as Vince calls him) are pinned down and they have to make it across an open space to a car, but running straight away isn't an option. `Serpentine, Shell, serpentine!' yells Vince, in what turns out to be an uproarious classic from amongst all of the classic scenes from any of the best comedies ever made, one that puts the laugh meter through the roof.

There may be a touch of `Columbo' in Vince, but overall this is one unique character and Falk plays him for all he's worth. On the surface, Vince is a screwball who is seemingly forever off in some Never-Never Land of his own devising, a guy who is hard to pin down, harder to read and seems to lack the focus necessary to get from point A to point B without the help of some kind of divine intervention. But underneath he's a sly one who never gets rattled and knows exactly what he's doing at every step of the way. So what initially appears to be a broadly sketched character is in reality concisely drawn and steeped in nuance. As portrayed by Peter Falk, Vince is a guy you're not likely to forget any time soon.

It's Alan Arkin, then, who chimes in with a character who is the perfect counterpoint to Vince. In Sheldon Kornpett, what you see is what you get. Arkin delivers a wry portrayal of a man to whom routine and normalcy is the barometer of life, a guy who fixes teeth for a living, provides for his family, has a nice home, a nice car and believes in a future for all that holds promise, with no reason to think otherwise. Until he meets Vince, that is. And he suddenly finds himself cast into a world he would deny to his last breath even existed. Arkin's performance is brilliantly understated, and the humor of the film evolves naturally and directly from the way he plays it SO straight, as well as the way he and Falk play off of one another. With precision timing and especially the performances of Arkin and Falk, `The In-Laws' is a memorable comedy that's going to have you literally on the floor, laughing until it hurts.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

With a Flick of the Magic Wand... The magic is back! Harry, Hermione, and Ron Weasley return to the screen with yet another adventure, bigger and better than ever, as they begin their second year at Hogwarts. With a veritable flick of his magic wand, director Chris Columbus offers up `Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,' the second chapter in the on-going saga of everybody's favorite young wizard, who is joined this time around by a new instructor (teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts), as well as some formidable new opponents. There's also a couple of surprises along the way as Harry encounters a rather singular character in his bedroom, and another deep in the Forbidden Forest. And, yes, there IS a Quidditch match.

Harry's second year at Hogwarts begins inauspiciously with a warning to stay away; someone-- or some'thing'-- doesn't want him there. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is undeterred, of course, and is soon back in Gryffindor House along with his friends and fellow students. But the warnings persist, now written in blood on the walls, and they portend an ominous fate for Harry, as well as many of the other students of witchcraft and wizardry. The messages indicate that the `Chamber of Secrets' has been opened, and that dire consequences (for some unknown reason) are about to befall many of those in attendance at the school. And this is serious business; enough to make Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) fear that Hogwarts may have to be closed indefinitely.

So it's up to Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) to get to the bottom of the mystery. And they don't have much time; already one of the students has been found literally `petrified' in the hall, and the perpetrator is still unknown and at large. Harry knows the answers can be found in the Chamber of Secrets, but the questions persist: `What' is it, exactly, and `where' can it be found?

As if channeling the spirit and imagination of author J.K. Rowling (in whose heart Harry Potter was born), director Columbus brings this film vividly to life in a swirl of excitement and colorful characters. He sets a perfect pace that will keep even the youngest members of the audience enthralled, and his transitions are impeccable, always moving the story forward with nary a single lull or hesitation. It's a film that will grab you in the opening frames and sweep! you along to the finish.

Written for the screen by Steven Kloves (adapted from the novel by Rowling), the story is compelling, the dialogue is fresh and crisp and, as expected, the special F/X are the absolute best. And Columbus uses it all to great effect, aided in no small part by the exemplary work of film editor Peter Honess, the original score by William Ross and John Williams, Roger Pratt's brilliant cinematography, and last, but certainly not least, the engaging performances turned in by his young stars and veteran performers alike.

Young Daniel Radcliffe's portrayal of Harry is so complete and natural that, simply put, he IS, and will forever be, `Harry Potter.' It's the kind of definitive performance that will always, without question, be a part of Radcliff's life, putting him in such dignified company as Sean Connery (James Bond), Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes). And, for better or worse, that's not such a bad place to be. He has a gift, and if he uses it wisely, he has a long and successful career ahead of him.

The characters of Hermione and Ron Weasley are definitive, as well, but not in the way that Radcliffe's Harry is, but inasmuch as it would be impossible hereafter to accept anyone else but Watson and Grint as, respectively, Hermione and Ron. Their portrayals are solid, endearing and entirely convincing; who will ever forget Hermione's adamant stare, or Ron's bemused expression of befuddlement? Though without a doubt they will always be associated with these characters, they have the kind of talent that should take them successfully beyond their `Potter' personas. And hopefully they will make choices in the future conducive to their auspicious `star-making' turns in these films.

Kenneth Branagh gives a delightful performance as Gilderoy Lockhart, the new instructor at Hogwarts, whose self-importance has made him a legend in his own mind. He is pompous and self-serving, but in a fun kind of way that allows you to see immediately beneath the mask of his vanity and his puffed up ego; he's the Wizard of Oz revealed as the man behind the curtain. And Branagh plays him perfectly.

In this chapter we're also introduced to Draco Malfoy's father, Lucius Malfoy, played with deliciously restrained malevolence by Jason Isaacs. After meeting Lucius, it's easy to see that Draco (Tom Felton) is an apple that didn't fall far from the tree.

Also turning in a memorable performance is Shirley Henderson, as the empathetic, disenfranchised ghost, Moaning Myrtle, doomed to forever roam the lavatory in which she met her untimely and premature demise. With very little screen time, she manages to make a decided connection with the audience, which makes her an effective and integral part of the story.

Reprising the roles they established and made their own in `Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,' are Richard Harris (Dumbledore); Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid); Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape); Bonnie Wright (in an expanded role this time, as Ginny Weasley); Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley); John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick); Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon); Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia); and Harry Melling (Dudley).

The additional supporting cast includes Toby Jones (extremely effective as the voice of Dobby, the House Elf), Christian Coulson (Tom Marvolo Riddle), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout) and Sally Mortemore (Madam Pince). Be forewarned, there's a scene in the Forbidden Forest that will absolutely make your skin crawl; but it's all a part of the fun, and by the final scene of `Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,' you WILL, without a doubt, believe in magic.

Fearless (1993)

A Character Study That Goes Beyond The inability to `reconnect' in the wake of a significant emotional event, especially one involving a close encounter with death, is examined by director Peter Weir, in `Fearless,' a gripping drama starring Jeff Bridges as a man emotionally adrift after walking away from an accident (a plane crash) that by all rights should have killed him, but inexplicably did not. And Weir goes on to take what is essentially a character study one step further, beyond the inevitable `why me?' that one who survives such an unimaginable episode in their life must necessarily make, to probe the psyche of the survivor and attempt to sort out the ensuing catch-22 of the mind, wherein the incident has manifested a schizophrenic sense of guilt/euphoria born of fate's decree that he, among those now dead, should live. It's a lot to assimilate; a taxing physical and psychological challenge necessitating an expanded utilization of the human capacity, and the subsequent negotiation of the attendant recast attitude and aptitude. All of which Weir succinctly captures through keen observation and his own intuitive grasp of the human condition.

As the film opens, we see Max Klein (Bridges) making his way through a cornfield just outside of Bakersfield, California; he's carrying a baby in his arms and has a young boy by the hand, leading him determinedly through the haze of smoke from the crash. There are others following Max, as well. And even before they emerge from the field, coming upon the crash site where rescue workers are already furiously attempting to sort it all out, there is a detachment about Max that is readily discernible. He surveys the situation calmly, as if seeing it all through the eyes of someone else, as if he were outside of himself, observing rather than experiencing. Then after locating the baby's mother, he simply walks away from it all, never looking back.

Two days later the F.B.I. finds him in a local motel. They put him together with a representative from the airline, who offers him a train ticket back home to San Francisco. But Max wants to fly home, which astounds the rep. `But your wife,' she says, `Told us that you didn't like to fly, even before the--' `The crash?' he replies. Then with assurance he tells her, `I want to fly home on your airline. But I have a request; I want to go first class.' And we know now, without question, that Max is not the same man that he was before the crash.

In his previous films, such as `Picnic At Hanging Rock' (1975), `Witness' (1985) and `The Mosquito Coast' (1986), Weir established himself as a director who knows human nature and is adept at exploring the emotional depths of his characters, in stories dealing with ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. As he does with this film, Weir sets a deliberate pace and allows that extra moment that means so much to the development of the characters. It's a subtle approach that adds depth and resonance to his films, and allows his audience to experience, rather than just watch, the drama as it unfolds. And he understands (as few directors do-- especially Americans ) the impact that `silence' can have, as in the scenes here shortly after Max leaves the crash sight. First, Weir shows us a solemn Max, driving alone through the desert at high speed, gradually awakening to the joys of living, to that `feeling' of being alive, as he sticks his head out of the widow and lets the wind hit him in the face, slapping him with the reality that he is, indeed, alive. But then we see Max parked by the side of the road, sitting on the ground, pensively staring out at the vast expanse of desert and at the low, blue mountains in the distance. The absolute silence Weir effects allows us to share Max's thoughts at that moment, to get inside his head as he picks up a bit of dirt and examines it closely, then as he looks up again at the nothingness/everything that surrounds him. As Max reflects, we reflect with him; and in that precise moment, that necessary connection between Max and the audience is firmly established. It's a quiet, and brilliant, piece of filmmaking.

Through many years and many movies, Jeff Bridges has demonstrated time and again his consummate ability as an actor who can `touch' his audience, and he continues to evolve with every new film. Max is perhaps his most challenging role ever, as it requires a vast emotional range to make this character convincing and bring him to life believably. And Bridges succeeds magnificently, and on a number of levels, with an inspiring, Oscar worthy performance. The finesse with which he conveys his moods and emotions is extraordinary; he enables you to `feel' his displacement, share his compassion, sense his empathy and know his anger. Quite simply, Bridges makes Max Klein a character you are not going to forget.

As Laura Klein, Isabella Rossellini gives a remarkable performance, as well, as the wife given the gift of her husband's life, only to have to suffer his state of `limbo,' as she desperately attempts to penetrate the defense mechanisms that have given him a renewed appreciation for the touch, taste and beauty of life, all of which she is unable to share because his experience has taken him to a place she cannot possibly go. Her portrayal is astute, convincing and some of the best work she has ever done.

Also turning in a strong performance, for which she deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, is Rosie Perez, as Carla, a fellow crash survivor with whom Max forms an especially strong and significant bond.

Written for the screen by Rafael Yglesias (adapted from his own novel), beautifully filmed by Allen Davian, and with a haunting score by Maurice Jarre that so sensitively enhances the drama in an understated way, `Fearless' is an example of filmmaking at it's best.

Red Dragon (2002)

Be Prepared, This One is Going to Stay With You... (10/10) One of the screens most delectable villains is back and better than ever, to help bring yet another cinematic miscreant of social de-evolution to justice, in `Red Dragon,' a taut suspense/thriller directed by Brett Ratner, featuring an all star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins once again reprising his role of Dr. `Hannibal the Cannibal' Lecter. Those who have seen `Silence of the Lambs' and/or `Hannibal' will know what to expect here (and will not be disappointed); the uninitiated, however, should be forewarned, as this film will take you into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, and afterwards will not allow you to go gently into that dark night that waits beyond the secure confines of the theater or the safety (?) of your own front door. Indeed, this is one that will be with you for some time, so be prepared.

In the Deep South, two entire families have been ritualistically slaughtered, and though they are located hundreds of miles from one another, there are similarities that lead the F.B.I. to believe they are connected. The killings occurred nearly a month apart, each during the full moon, and though agents have sifted through the crime scenes with a fine-toothed comb, they've come up empty. They are looking, but not `seeing' anything. And they're running out of time; it's three weeks until the next full moon, when they believe the killer will strike again.

This leads Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), the agent heading up the investigation, to call in former agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), the profiling specialist who captured Lecter, to take a look at the crimes and offer any suggestions he may have. But Graham quickly realizes that to solve a case of this magnitude, and quickly, it will necessitate getting into the killer's mind; and as time is of the essence, it leads him to seek the assistance of his old nemesis, Hannibal Lecter. And so, with no time to spare, the games begin.

And into the mind of the killer is exactly where director Ratner takes you, and he does it on a number of levels that range from the subtle and implied, to the undiscriminating. Working from a tightly written, intelligent screenplay by Ted Tally (from the novel by Thomas Harris), Ratner finesses the horror at the heart of the story to the surface, initially offering only glimpses, visually, of the heinous crimes. Instead, he plants and builds a picture of what happened in your imagination, routing the information through Graham's investigation, so that you know, at first, only what he knows; then, with Lecter's assistance, along with Graham you begin to get an idea of the man behind the madness as his portrait emerges.

But Ratner soon transcends the usual parameters of the genre, as he makes you privy to the madman himself, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), whom the F.B.I. has dubbed the `Tooth Fairy,' in reference to one of the more obvious peccadilloes displayed during the manifestations of his insanity. It is here that Ratner objectively explores the possible cause and effect of Dolarhyde's demented mind by proffering glimpses into his past, but without suggesting it as an excuse for his actions in any way. Ratner, in fact, must be acknowledged for his careful and effective handling of this material, which had to be a challenge for the director who previously gave us the lighter `Rush Hour' and `Rush Hour 2,' as well as the insightful `The Family Man.' In this film Ratner covers all the bases, and he covers them quite well, with an imaginative presentation that incorporates a concise understanding of human nature and the human condition.

Ratner, of course, had a cast that would be any director's dream with which to bring his story to life, beginning with Hopkins, who eases back into Lecter's skin seemingly without effort, as if he'd never left (Hmmmm. Will anyone who knows the REAL Anthony Hopkins please step forward, to perhaps shed some light on this?). And in visiting with Dr. Lecter again, it's easy to understand why Hopkins was awarded the Oscar for his initial portrayal of Hannibal in `The Silence of the Lambs.' He conveys a natural eeriness in his countenance, and in the coldness of his eyes there is more menace than any deranged mask-wearing villain with a chainsaw could ever hope for.

Edward Norton, meanwhile, provides the perfect counterpoint to the abhorrent Lecter/Dolarhyde personas, with a subtle and understated performance that is so inherently honest and convincing that the credibility of the entire film is established by his character alone. There is a precision in the unfettered nuance of his portrayal that few actors have the talent or ability to achieve. His strength is in his reserve, and Norton's intuitive presentation of Graham lends the character a ring of absolute truth. Ironically, the meticulousness of Norton's performance will probably deny him the acclaim he so richly deserves for it; in a kind of catch-22, he is SO good, and his portrayal is structured so economically and efficiently, that it will be perceived as too easy and natural. Yet it is precisely when the actor does not appear to be `acting' that he is decidedly at his best. And Norton certainly is here.

With the exception of his Amon Goeth in `Schindler's List,' the role of Dolarhyde is something of a departure for Fiennes, who usually gravitates toward more romantic, or at least amiable (if often moody or complex) characters, and he takes on his character with relish. He gives a strong, solid performance through which he manages to evoke empathy without any accompanying undue or misplaced sympathy. He successfully conveys the definitive disfigurement of the character-- that which lies within, beneath Dolarhyde's obvious physical deformity-- and therein lies the true strength of his portrayal.

Also turning in performances of note are Emily Watson, as the vulnerable Reba; Mary-Louise Parker (Molly); and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddy), all of whom add to the considerable impact and overall success of `Red Dragon.' 10/10.

Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

Thirteen Is One Ghost Too Many, Perhaps... (5/10) There's nothing like a good ghost story to get the juices flowing, and not one that merely opens a creaky closet door and says, `Boo!' but one that grabs! you by the nape of the neck and commands your attention with a bona fide scare. Unfortunately, such films are few and far between, and though `Thir13en Ghosts,' directed by Steve Beck, is perhaps not the `Grand Guignol' it aspires to be, it is nevertheless a valiant attempt and will do in a pinch. And it does have the added bonus of having something of a unique twist to it: Whereas most stories dealing with supernatural apparitions are the result of chance encounters or happenstance, even those set within the tried and true venue of the `haunted house,' the spirits confronted here do not arise from accident, but by design. The burning question becomes, of course, by whose design and for what purpose? Ah, but therein lies our story, eh?

In the film's prologue, we are introduced to one Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham), a man of obvious wealth and means who has apparently made it his life's work to capture the disenfranchised spirits of those who have died a violent death, encasing them in holding cubes made of impenetrable glass. But before the opening credits have ended, Cyrus falls victim to one of his intended trophies, a particularly rambunctious soul who apparently doesn't take kindly to the idea of being kept in a cage.

Upon the passing of Cyrus Kriticos, his entire estate-- which is rather substantial-- is bequeathed to his nephew, Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub), a math teacher currently in the throes of some personal travails, who barely knew his uncle and had, in fact, only met him once or twice in his life. As often happens in life, however, it is from this least expected source that Arthur seemingly finds the solution to his problems, for his inheritance, which includes a rather unique mansion-- albeit in a remote area-- insures his solvency for the rest of his life. But upon entering this singular house left behind by Cyrus, Arthur's life and that of his family is about to change in ways he could never dream of, none of which are not good, and all of which have to do with something Cyrus left in the basement. And just like that, with the flapping of the butterfly's wings in China, a tidal wave is about to hit shore a continent away.

Working from a screenplay by Neal Stevens and Richard D'Ovidio (from a story by Robb White), Beck has crafted and delivered a less than compelling film that has it's moments, but relies primarily on the special F/X for the impact it's attempting to make. The film has it's moments, but to put it into perspective using the one hundred floor `Haunted House Spooky/scary' scale, it checks in on about the fiftieth floor, just a couple below `The House on Haunted Hill' (1999). `The Others' (2001), meanwhile, currently occupies the penthouse, while the dreary `The Haunting' (1999) is, and will forever languish in, the basement.

The ghosts here are disconcertingly gruesome, though some of them tend to be a bit over the top; a few of them appear to be the product of a mad designer who should have had his sketching crayon taken away from him sooner. A few less spikes, bolts, piercings and protrusions would have made them more convincing; as it is, they don't have enough `humanity' left in them to be credible as formerly living beings. It's a good case for the `less is more' theory, in fact. The real interest in this film is the house itself, which is perhaps the most unique design in the annals of the cinematic haunted house. With it's glass walls filled with Latin inscriptions and it's ability to alter itself into a claustrophobic maze at will, it is actually more jarring and shocking than the otherworldly denizens it houses in it's subterranean recesses. Arguably, it can be said that the house is, in point of fact, the star of the movie. And Beck does use it to good effect.

The real star, however, is Tony Shalhoub, as the unwary nephew, Arthur. Shalhoub has emerged as one of the finest character actors in the business, and even if the character he is playing is a rather straight forward, `normal' every day type, which is basically who Arthur is, nobody does it better. What makes him so good is that he has the ability and talent to make whatever character he's portraying believable and convincing, whether it's an alien in `Men In Black,' a street prophet in `Life or Something Like it' or your run-of-the-mill generic math teacher. He works from the inside out, which gives his characters depth and nuance; deep down Shalhoub IS that person, before he-- whomever it is-- ever makes a physical appearance. And THAT is good acting.

After Shalhoub, however, there's nothing much of note here, performance wise. Abraham does a good turn as Cyrus, but his role is little more than a glorified cameo with little room for character development, and even though what he does is good, there's no getting around the fact that early on his Cyrus falls into stereotype.

Matthew Lillard does a quirky turn as Dennis, but looking at him for any length of time can be distracting; Shannon Elizabeth, as Arthur's daughter, Kathy, is too pert and perky to be effective, with a perpetual smile that would be more fitting in a toothpaste commercial or `Starship Troopers 2' than here; Embeth Davidtz (Kalina) is simply underused; young Alec Roberts (Bobby) is annoying; and making her acting debut, Rah Digga (better known as the "female" MC and only woman in Busta Rhymes' renowned Flip Mode Squad), as the nanny, Maggie, leaves a lot to be desired, which pretty much sums up `Thir13en Ghosts.' This one, as they say, is close-- but no cigar. There's just not enough magic. 5/10.

The Woman in Black (1989)

The "Filmmakers" Should Be the Ones In Black (1/10) Any student of the cinema will tell you that the medium of film is an art form, and that which is produced within it is therefore open to opinions that are inherently subjective. That said, let's take a look at this film, which is touted as being a `spine-chilling ghost story.' Warning! Danger, Will Robinson! Don't call the orthopedic surgeon just yet, because `The Woman In Black,' directed by Herbert Wise, is decidedly NOT chilling, nor is it apt to affect your spine in any way, shape or form. Those with insomnia, however, may want to give it a go, because if this one doesn't put you to sleep nothing will, and you had better seek professional help posthaste.

Solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) is dispatched from London to the coastal town of Crythin to attend the funeral and settle the estate of one of his firms clients, just deceased. At the cemetery, he first sees the woman in black (Pauline Moran), whom he assumes is a mourner. And upon his arrival at the mansion of the departed client, which is situated in a rather remote and nearly inaccessible location near the sea, he sees her again, in the yard. Later, after conducting his inventory of household items, he is visited by another, rather unseemly apparition; and still later, as he ventures out upon the road to await the carriage that will take him back to town, he is subjected to a cacophony of unearthly wails and sounds of unseen people in torment. And it's all a part of the mystery surrounding the enigmatic individual of the title.

From the beginning, though, the `mystery,' such as it is, holds little promise of any supernatural excitement or thrills. The story/screenplay (by Susan Hill and Nigel Kneale) is insipid and uninspired, and director Wise does little to make it otherwise. The tale begs for an atmosphere of delicious foreboding, but it never happens; Wise's idea of `atmosphere' is providing gray skies and fog. Not that there's anything wrong with that, except that a good fog should induce some apprehension, and Wise's does not; it just kind of lays about, producing nothing more than a lack of visibility. And he doesn't exactly go `out of the box' for effective F/X; the best he can come up with is borrowing the famous `Skree! Skree! Skree!' sound that Hitchcock used so effectively in `Psycho,' which here, during one of the `apparitions,' does nothing but startle the viewer into agitation as it grates on the ears. In the final analysis, to say this film is less than riveting would be a gross understatement; there is simply nothing here to make you sit up and take notice. Add to all of this a lame ending, at which point the filmmakers at last make an attempt to draw the viewer in and make an emotional connection-- which is too little and comes too late-- and what you have is a disappointing and forgettable film, to say the least.

The performances, too, are every bit as uninspired as the presentation of the film itself. Beginning with Rawlins, the portrayals are all to the last actor-- while neither convincing nor unconvincing-- just...well...dull. This is in large part, of course, a reflection upon the story and the director; the players did do the best they could with what they were given to work with. What this film needs more than anything is some nuance, some spark! of life-- but where there is no flint, there is no fire. Unfortunately, the barbecue will have to wait for another time and another picture.

The supporting cast includes Bernard Hepton (Sam Toovey), David Daker (Josiah), Clare Holman (Stella Kidd), Fiona Walker (Mrs. Toovey), Joseph Upton (Eddie), Robin Weaver (Bessie), William Simons (Keckwick) and John Franklyn-Robbins (Reverend Greet). Without question, employing subtlety can be extremely effective in presenting a story with supernatural underpinnings; the director, however, must be astute in the dispensing of it, lest he reduce his audience to a state of catalepsy, which is essentially what Wise has done with `The Woman In Black.' But to those who have somehow unluckily found their way to this cinematic casualty, take heart; because the movie you were actually looking for is out there and readily available to treat you to a `real' spine-chilling ghost story. It's called `The Others,' and stars Nicole Kidman. Now THAT one is the real deal; it is there that you will find the magic of the movies. 1/10.

Life or Something Like It (2002)

Life or...Well..."Something" Like It (5/10) An interesting concept, though more conducive to late night coffee house musings and discussions than a feature length film treatment, provides a pleasant, if less than insightful vehicle for it's star, in `Life or Something Like It,' directed by Stephen Herek, wherein the oft reflected upon question, `What would you do if you found out you had only a week to live?' becomes a showcase for the beautiful and talented Angelina Jolie, albeit a rather vapid and shallow one. Still, it gets the job done, inasmuch as it is entertaining (to a point), has one interesting (though underused) character and will give die-hard Jolie fans, especially, something to revel in. The problem is that the late night ruminations the filmmakers begin about the meaning of life end long before the store closes, and anything `meaningful' that may have come of it is left on the table for another time and another movie. Suffice to say, this isn't Bergman; but then again, it wasn't meant to be.

Lanie Kerigan (Jolie) is a field reporter for a local television station in Seattle, a `personality' of the affiliate's news team, covering human interest stories and events in and around the Emerald City. She's engaged to Cal Cooper (Christian Kane), who plays ball for the Seattle Mariners, and all in all her life is nearly perfect. And it will be `absolutely' perfect if she lands the job she's just learned she's up for: A spot on the network's prestigious morning show, which originates from New York and is broadcast nationally. Yes, for Lanie, except for being teamed with an incorrigible (in her estimation) cameraman, Pete (Edward Burns), life is good. With her very next assignment, however, all of that is going to change.

His name is Jack (Tony Shalhoub); he's a homeless, self-professed `prophet' who lives in a makeshift cardboard box and is given to `visions' which enable him to predict such things as the score of the next Sea Hawks game, or if it is, in fact, going to hail in the morning, regardless of the weatherman's forecast. He's a colorful character, just right for a `Lanie' segment; but even before the actual interview begins, Jack tells Lanie two things: 1.) She's not going to get that job she so desperately wants, and 2.) come next Thursday (one week away) she is going to die. And just like that Lanie's life isn't so perfect anymore. She's about to take that long walk on a short pier...

To whip up this repast for his audience, director Herek manages to crack the egg and get it in the skillet, but he forgot to turn on the burner, so it never cooks; it just kind of lays there in the pan. It looks good, but how many people enjoy raw eggs? The screenplay (by John Scott Shepherd and Dana Stevens) lacks originality to begin with, and Herek shows little imagination in his handling of the story and the characters, so it never really comes to life, despite the efforts of Jolie. And from the information we're given, or even from what is implied about the relationship (past and present) between Lanie and Pete, the `romance'-- such as it is-- just doesn't fly, even within the parameters of `romantic comedy' (Is THAT what this is?). The biggest problem with the film, though, is that it fails to connect you emotionally with any of the characters; these just aren't people you care enough about to make it involving or maintain interest. Add to that the fact that, even though this is light fare, it simply lacks the credibility necessary to make it work. In the end, the audience would have been better served had Herek thrown in a couple more `yokes.'

The film suffers something of an identity crisis, and gets caught up in a dilemma of it's own making; just what is it trying to be? A romantic comedy? If so, it fails. Or is it striving to be a satirical exploration of a question perhaps too profound for the genre in which Herek is apparently working? In which case it also fails. It would have been much better for all concerned had the focus been on the relationship between Lanie and Jack the prophet, as THIS is where the real interest of the story lies. The myriad possibilities this afforded remained untapped, however, as the filmmakers opted for another route which, unfortunately, never made it to the Promised Land.

As far as showcasing Jolie, it does; but that is not to say that it presents her in the best possible light, the fault of which lies entirely with the inherent nature of the character. Lanie is just too career minded and self-absorbed to be a thoroughly engaging `personality,' and it dulls the sparkle of what could have been. Even her `epiphany' is not enough to make her star shine in this role. As Lanie, Jolie looks the part; she's beautiful, even alluring. But with this particular character, she seems to lose that edge, that intensity, that sparks her usual charismatic screen presence, which is absent here, as well. So even though this film is essentially a `showcase' for Jolie, it simply does not do her justice.

As for Edward Burns, can he dance? Because if they ever make `The Gene Kelly Story,' this is the guy. It's the timbre of his voice, so reminiscent of Kelly's (but it CAN be grating after awhile). Burns is a good actor, and he gives a solid performance here, but his character, Pete, even after his `personal' story comes to light, just isn't that interesting.

The saving grace of the entire film is Tony Shalhoub's portrayal of Jack, a character that will capture your imagination. The trouble is, you don't see enough of him, and it's a dreadful waste of a potentially great character and storyline; a dreadful waste of the magic that could have made `Life or Something Like It' a film to remember. 5/10.

Hamlet (2000)

"To be, or not to be--" Well... (4/10) One of Shakespeare's greatest plays gets modernized and transported to New York City in the year 2000, with Ethan Hawke taking on the role of the brooding Prince of Denmark. This version of `Hamlet,' written for the screen and directed by Michael Almereyda, initially holds much promise, with what appears to be an outstanding cast through which Almereyda can present his vision of this oft-told tale of murder and revenge. That `vision,' however, turns out to be somewhat clouded, and though the basic story remains intact, it comes across as something of a `Cliff's notes' rendition that is less than satisfying. And by the end we realize, too, that not all actors-- even good ones-- are cut out to play Shakespeare.

Hamlet's father, the King/CEO of the Denmark Corp. has died, and within a month his mother, Gertrude (Diane Venora), has married his uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), who has also taken over the company. Hamlet, now ensconced in the Elsinore Hotel, grieving for his father, is appalled by the marriage of his mother to his uncle, and moreover, with such haste; but it is done, and there is nothing he can do about it. Soon, however, Hamlet discovers that his father was, in fact, the victim of murder most foul, and vows to avenge his untimely demise. Immediately, he sets a course that will bring the perpetrators to justice; but it is a course that must necessarily end in tragedy for Hamlet, as well.

With his screenplay, Almereyda has retained enough of the basic story that even the heretofore uninitiated will be able to grasp Shakespeare's original intent, at least in regards to the plot. The presentation, however, falls entirely short of providing the full impact of the tragedy. Almereyda's approach is altogether too solemn and lacks the energy needed to truly bring this film to life. And while it's true that the story is inherently introspective and melancholy, the director fails to explore the many possibilities available to him-- especially with the contemporary setting-- that could have made this vibrant and exciting cinema, such as the way writer/director Julie Taymor brought Shakespeare's `Titus' to the screen so successfully. Add to that the fact that Almereyda's adaptation of the play is terribly wanting; the character development is lacking, and though the language of the play remains, Almereyda's judgment of what to keep and what to lose in making the necessary cuts to bring a four hour production down to just under two, are questionable. Hamlet's famous soliloquy, `To be, or not to be,' for example, is truncated into oblivion. In the final analysis, this was a project perhaps too ambitious for Almereyda at this point in time; knowing what `happens' in the story is not the same as knowing what it's `about,' and in some of the choices the director makes, it's obvious that the `essence' of the play has simply eluded him, much to the detriment of the overall film.

As far as performances go, they range from outstanding to the downright laughable, which is disappointing but not surprising, considering the eclectic nature of the cast. Liev Schreiber, who has one of the best voices in the business and the elocution to match-- custom made for playing Shakespeare-- is nothing less than exemplary in the role of Laertes, and among those assembled here is in a league of his own. A tremendously talented actor, Schreiber has not yet achieved the acclaim he so richly deserves, languishing too often in forgettable films like `Kate and Leopold' and `A Walk On the Moon,' though he was perfectly cast as Orson Welles in the made-for-TV film, `RKO 281,' in which he was brilliant. Without question, with his masterful interpretation of the material and his natural eloquence, he is the saving grace of this film, in which, alas, he is afforded a less than propitious amount of screen time.

Only two others in the film even approach Schreiber's level of excellence, the first being Kyle MacLachlan, in his portrayal of Claudius. MacLachlan, at least, finds the rhythm and flow in his recitations that make his character believable and convincing, and his scenes with Schreiber are the most interesting aspect of the film. The only other actor in the film who can stand alongside Schreiber and MacLachlan is Diane Venora. Unfortunately, in this offering, Gertrude has been reduced to a role of silent observer in most scenes; when she does speak, however, her words are well spoken and meaningful, and it's a shame that she is so grossly underused here by Almereyda.

Then there are the performances that fall into the `acceptable' category, but are far beneath the capabilities of the actors involved, respectively: As Hamlet, Ethan Hawke adopts a brooding attitude that is effective, but he fails to achieve the commanding presence necessary to make his Hamlet viable. Sam Shepard, as the Ghost of Hamlet's father, is simply unconvincing. And Julia Stiles, as the doomed Ophelia, seems to be grasping at straws in a vein attempt at finding her character, and of the three mentioned here, her performance seems the most strained and unnatural, though it is so with both Hawke and Shepard, as well. All of which points up that, again, not all actors can play Shakespeare. It's difficult; and those who make the attempt should be commended for it, even if the results are less than noteworthy.

Make that `most' of those who make the attempt; because in the case of Bill Murray, someone should have put a stop to it right out of the chute. Murray is arguably one of the best comic actors the screen has ever known, and that is not something to be taken lightly; comedy is one of the hardest genres to master, and Murray is one of the best. But his portrayal of Polonius is embarrassingly laughable; there's no other way to put it. And it's one of the many reasons that make this version of `Hamlet' forgettable. There's just no magic in it. 4/10.

Wo de fu qin mu qin (1999)

An Artistic and Emotional Triumph (10/10) How often do we wonder, or take the time to reflect upon, how it is that we came to be where we are? How much do we know of what went before us; or more specifically, of the past that directly affected who and what we are today. Moreover, is it important, or anything we need to know or should? How significant, really, is our past in relation to the present? According to director Yimou Zhang, these questions are not only valid but of paramount importance, which he aptly illustrates in his lyrically beautiful film, `The Road Home,' written for the screen by Shi Bao, adapted from his own novel, `Remembrance.' Without question, at the heart of the film is a monumental yet simple story of true love in the purest sense, and of the devotion which renders that love eternal. But the film transcends even that, and within the greater context indicates the impact of the past upon the present, which is summed up in a single line from the film: `Know the past, know the present.' And know, too, that the love portrayed in this story is the kind of love that is abiding, and that which sustains all that makes life worth living. It's a veritable journey of the soul; one that will touch you deeply and linger in your memory long after the screen has gone dark.

Upon receiving the news that his father has died, Luo Yusheng (Honglei Sun) leaves the city to return to his home, a small village in the mountains, to bury his father and comfort his bereaved mother, Zhao Di (Yulian Zhao). When he arrives, however, he discovers that his mother will not be consoled until her wish concerning the burial of her husband, Luo Changyu (Hao Zheng) is fulfilled. In keeping with a long standing tradition and superstition, Di insists that his coffin be carried by hand by the men of the village along the road connecting the village and the city, insuring by so doing that in death Changyu will always be able to remember his way home.

Yusheng quickly finds that realizing his mother's request will be no easy task; their village is small and all of the able-bodied men have left for the city, leaving only children and those too old for such an arduous undertaking. And it is winter, a harsh time of year in the mountains. But Di is adamant, and so Yusheng sets about the business of fulfilling her request. And as he does so, he reflects upon the story of his parents; a story well known throughout the village, for theirs was a love that was unbridled and boundless, the likes of which no one in the village had ever know before. Or since.

This film, so wonderfully crafted and delivered by director Zhang, is altogether ethereal and transporting; he tells the story in simplistic terms, and yet it is in that very simplicity that he finds the genuine honesty and truth that provides such an emotional impact and makes this love story one that rivals any the screen has ever known. Aided by the masterful cinematography of Yong Hou, Zhang achieves that same sense of transcendence that defines much of Akira Kurosawa's films, such as `Ran' and `Akira Kurosawa's Dreams,' or Ang Lee's `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' There is not a superfluous moment in the entire film, and Zhang proves that capturing pure emotion with the camera can express more than pages of dialogue recited by an actor. And with his lens, Zhang opens up the very heart of the film and lays it bare for all to see and feel, finding more in the eyes of his characters and in their expressions than words could ever convey. It's a study of human nature that is disarming in it's candor, and quite simply a brilliant piece of filmmaking by a director with an irrefutably incisive understanding of the human condition.

Without question, though, the single aspect that makes this such an unforgettable film is the performance (in her motion picture debut) by Ziyi Zhang as the young Zhao Di. A young woman of exquisite beauty, she has a sublime screen presence that is a portrait of the angelic, and her innate ability to silently express the myriad emotions called for by her character is used to great effect by director Zhang. Ziyi's portrayal is one of youthful innocence mixed with stubborn determination, which gives her character the necessary depth to be entirely convincing, and she will win you over in a heartbeat. She is so affecting that near the end, when Di, now an old woman, is hurrying across a rickety foot bridge, the same bridge we've seen the young Di traverse many times on her way to and from the schoolhouse (which is central to the story), despite the weathered age so evident on her face, because of the lasting impression made by Ziyi, you realize that she still bears the heart of the young woman you've come to care so much about by this time, and you understand that age is superficial; that this is a shell housing the spirit and the true beauty that resides within. It's a beautiful moment to behold, and ours forever, due to the extraordinary performance and presence of the delicate Ziyi Zhang, as well as the tremendous sensitivity and care with which she is presented by director Zhang.

The supporting cast includes Bin Li (Grandmother), Guifa Chang (Old Mayor), Wencheng Sung (Mayor) and Zhongxi Zhang (Crockery Repairman). A love story told sincerely from the heart is a treasure that endures forever, like a painting by Monet or Renoir; and like those artists, director Zhang is nothing less than an impressionist behind the camera, capturing the distinctive rhythms of life and love for all time in `The Road Home,' a gentle, poetic film that will make it's way into the hearts of all who experience it. And therein remain, forevermore. 10/10.

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