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2001 Movie Impressions

The films are listed in the order they were seen. Films that were shown in a work-in-progress form are not given a star rating; full reviews proper of these films will appear in a future issue of The Movie Report and in the main review section of this site, closer to their respective release dates.

The Anniversary Party poster The Anniversary Party (R) **
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Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh are two of the most interesting and idiosyncratic actors working in film today, but their writing/directing debut only falls under the latter description. For this digital video-shot drama in which a Los Angeles couple (Cumming and Leigh) celebrate their wedding anniversary at home with friends on one long night, the two have assembled an impressive ensemble. Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Beals are also among those who appear in roles of varying size--and, as is the case of most films directed by actors, all do solid work. The big standouts are Jane Adams as a neurotic, doting mother; and an energized Cates, in a role obviously written especially for her, as an actress who quit the business after marrying a name star (played by her real life hubby Kline--and their screen children are played by their actual ones).

How unfortunate, then, that such an array of acting talent is trapped in such a mess of a movie. Cumming and Leigh's script can be divided in three sections of conflicting tone. The first act is a fairly observant and pointed satire of adult social rituals, as we see people feigning politeness to each other and engaging in vicious charades matches. Things get a lot stranger in act two, in which everyone takes Ecstasy and engage in all sorts of drug-induced shenanigans. The film then enters full-tilt Oscar clip mode in the final stretch, with lots of screaming and crying, most coming from the writers/directors/stars. Granted, they scream and cry quite well, but the efforts are all for naught when the histrionics exist in a complete emotional vacuum.

Bread and Tulips poster Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani) **
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Silvio Soldini's comedy was the big winner at the Donatello Awards (the Italian Oscar equivalent) last year, and there's no other reasonable explanation to offer other than perhaps the film was made by Italy's studio equivalent of Miramax. Licia Maglietta is quite appealing as Rosalba, a put-upon housewife who ventures on a spontaneous solo vacation in Venice after she's separated from her family during a trip. The journey of self-discovery and -fulfillment that follows is completely by-the-book in its light feel-good ways. Maglietta has a nice rapport with Bruno Ganz, who plays the suicidal restaurateur who takes Rosalba in, but the quiet pleasures of their subtle love story are marred by the broad comic touches that surround them--namely, an unfunny subplot involving a bumbling amateur private investigator whom Rosalba's husband hires to find her. On the whole, Pane e Tulipani is inoffensive, which is indeed meant as the faint praise it sounds like: it neither charms nor offends enough to make much of a lasting impression.

Heartbreakers poster Heartbreakers (PG-13) ** 1/2
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In the role of a seductress who marries rich men only to divorce them--and hence earn a nice sum--after setting them up with her daughter and partner-in-crime Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Sigourney Weaver gets to vamp it up on screen as never before in--and she obviously has a ball, giving her Max Conners a predatory sexuality that is at once frightening and irresistible. Too bad the latter cannot be said of the entirety of Heartbreakers, directed by David Mirkin, who last directed the delightfully daffy Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion.

After the umpteenth execution of their standard con--Max marries a guy with whom she’s never had sex; Page uses her charms to get the horny hubby in a compromising position that Max sees--Page wants her independence. But troubles with the IRS necessitate one last, big score, and Max thinks it’s William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a chain-smoking gazillionaire who is one hack away from the grave. Meanwhile, Page pursues a side con with Jack (Jason Lee), a nice guy bartender. The inherent meanness of the premise is promising, but before long any venom devolves into homogenized Hollywood hokum when Page finds herself developing actual feelings for Jack.

In addition to Weaver, Mirkin elicits other strong performances: Hackman’s, Lee’s, and especially Ray Liotta’s as Dean, one of Max's many previous marks. Noticeably missing from that list is Hewitt. While her self-proclaimed non-silicone (can everyone say, "saline"?) enhanced measurements make her a perfect physical fit for the role, her skills aren't nearly up to the level of her gifted co-stars'. The film hinges largely on the Page-Jack romance, an already-underwritten plot development (why, exactly, does Jack fall too, since Page is never less than a bitch to him?) made further ruinous by Hewitt's stunning lack of chemistry with the ever-likable Lee.

Heartbreakers is left open for a sequel, and should one come to pass, that film would probably be a lot more interesting and entertaining, given the more promising note on which this film ends.

Spy Kids poster Spy Kids (PG) ***
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Before making a name for himself as a director of hard-edged action-oriented vehicles such as El Mariachi, Desperado, and From Dusk till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez made a number of award-winning short family comedies. With Spy Kids, loosely inspired by his raucous segment in the 1995 omnibus Four Rooms, Rodriguez cannily merges these two seemingly conflicting sensibilities, and the result is an all-ages-appropriate action film that parents won’t feel guilty over taking their kids to. Nor will anyone of any age feel the slightest bit guilty about enjoying this high-flying, fast-paced adventure.

Rodriguez regular Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino star as Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, spies-turned-doting parents who find themselves thrust back into active duty when a number of agents from their old agency, the OSS, begin disappearing. Their return adventure proves brief, for they are quickly captured by the person responsible for the spy kidnappings, nefarious children's TV icon Floop (Alan Cumming). With no one to turn to but themselves, it's up to the Cortez children Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) to save them... and the whole world.

The exact nature of Floop’s evil plot is as over-the-top and preposterous as any villainous scheme in any spy caper, but Rodriguez and the cast approach the material in the right way: with tongue firmly in cheek, but also with the right dash of earnestness so as to not come off as smugly self-aware. Yet that is but one of the balancing acts that Rodriguez achieves in his script. The same plot twists that keep kids alert and involved will also amuse adults, particularly in how they so precisely arrive at the formula-set schedule. And this being a film not only targeted toward but inherently about family, Rodriguez is able to naturally embed a positive message that never feels forced nor preachy.

But living up to "James Bond for the family" description, the film’s script is ultimately just a practical line that strings together the various action sequences. Keeping in Rodriguez's style, the set pieces are inventive and energetic, and the proactive involvement of children does lend them an added freshness. In an even newer spin for him, they are heavy on the high-tech visual effects, and all the wizardry is convincing, not to mention the action scenes are natural advancements to the story and are not mere razzle dazzle distractions.

Despite all the spy-jinks and impressive gadgetry, the cast prevents Spy Kids from ever becoming an empty exercise in eye candy, as is so often the case with kid-targeted movies these days. The entire ensemble of old pros play their designated roles well; standing out are Cumming, whose trademark impishness fits this role like a glove; and Danny Trejo, playing a nice guy for a change and pulling it off wonderfully.

All the supporting star power, however, does not steal the thunder from the naturally charming Vega and Sabara. In a welcome change from most child actors, they never resort to cloying "look how cute I am" mugging and line readings to endear themselves to the audience; in fact, it's their spunk, strength, and steadfast refusal to act cute that makes them so likable--and so completely believable as action heroes. Thanks to the terrific efforts of these true casting finds, by the end credit roll even the biggest skeptics of the "kids as super spies" conceit will likely find themselves looking forward to the already-in-the-works—-and completely justified—-Spy Kids sequel.

Shrek poster Shrek (PG) full movie review
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Only 85% of the animation work may have been finished on the second collaboration between DreamWorks and computer animators PDI when it was screened at ShoWest, but everything else was certainly in place and complete in this smart and often hilarious reworking of the fairy tale. Mike Myers voices the title character, an ogre who is called on to rescue a princess (Cameron Diaz) by an evil ruler (John Lithgow) who wants to marry her. Along the way, many fairy tale icons are satirized and genre conventions are mocked--largely those that have been made into animated features produced by a certain company whose mascot is a mouse. Despite these sharper-edged touches, the film (mainly through its likable heroes, including Eddie Murphy as a motormouthed donkey) does have a wholesome heart that honors those same conventions, making for a film that is truly able to have it both ways: giving its genre a radical new spin while at the same time satisfying the need for a good, old-fashioned happily-ever-after yarn.

Atlantis poster Atlantis: The Lost Empire (PG) full movie review
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In an obvious attempt to one-up the SKG, Disney's mystery presentation the day after the Shrek screening was a look at their latest animated feature--which, despite being set for release nearly a month after Shrek's scheduled May open, was complete except for the end credits. In this case, haste certainly means waste. It's hard to believe that Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the duo responsible for the two most emotionally rich of recent Mouse 'toons, Beauty and the Beast and the criminally underrated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, came up with such a deathly dull adventure. As a nerdy linguist (voiced by Michael J. Fox) leads a P.C., racially diverse group on an expedition to find the legendary lost continent, the big show pieces are competent if not exactly dazzling, and an interesting character or thing to care about is nowhere to be found. Unless some major tweaking occurs between now and the release (doubtful), expect this one to be Disney's lowest-grossing "official" animated feature (meaning, not counting films like The Tigger Movie and Recess: School's Out) in recent memory.

ShoWest 2001 Awards
Inside ShoWest 2001

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ShoWest 2001 Movie Impressions/© Michael Dequina
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