JUDE - SWINGERS - MICHAEL COLLINS - SET IF OFF
DEAR GOD - HIGH SCHOOL HIGH - TREES LOUNGE

JUDE

"Jude" is a mostly faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1895 novel "Jude the Obscure." Directed by Michael Winterbottom ("Butterfly Kiss"), "Jude" stars Christopher Eccleston ("Shallow Grave") as Jude Fawley, a stone mason who's inspired to higher learning in an age when class structure discouraged tradespeople from attending universities. After being seduced by and marrying a pig farmer's daughter (Arabella, played by "Muriel's Wedding"'s Rachel Griffiths) who leaves him, Jude moves to Christminster with the hopes of being accepted at Christminster University. There he meets his free spiritted cousin Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslett of "Heavenly Creatures" and "Sense and Sensibility") and falls in love with her. When he reveals to Sue that he is married, Sue retaliates by marrying Jude's old schoolmaster Phillotson (Liam Cunningham of "The Little Princess"), with whom she is desperately unhappy. Jude and Sue finally begin living together and have children, moving from place to place as each new community rejects their scandalous union.

Laura LAURA:
"Jude" is bleak, bleak, bleak. The film opens in black and white with Jude as a young boy dwarfed by the stone buildings of his village and oppressed by the camera's framing, which keeps the landscape in the forefront and leaves very little sky. We know right away that Jude is destined to a hard life. When Christopher Eccleston steps in as the adult Jude, the film turns to color, and the mood brightens briefly as a flirtacious Arabella tries to attract his attention by playfully throwing the offal she had been washing in the stream - a foreshadowing of the pig slaying that will offend Jude's sensibilities.

Eccleston at first seems an odd choice for a romantic leading man role, but he imbues Jude with the soul of a poet - in fact, I could now envision him playing Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights." He brings a passion to his constant struggle and his overwhelming love for Sue that manages to give a small glimmer of hope to the film. Kate Winslet is a wonderful Sue - a modern girl in an unmodern setting, she's a riot of contradictions - a free thinker who avoids sex. When the film's most horrific tragedy sends her running to seek cover in religion, I wanted to shake her out of it as much as Jude. Her performance in "Jude" is much more complex than her Oscar nominated turn in "Sense and Sensibilities."

Eduardo Serra's cinematography is a critical component to the overall feel of "Jude." When the two lovers set up household in a small seaside village, the scenes become open and airy. Later in the film, when they return to Christminster, they're pictured trudging along stone cobbled streets in the rain surrounded by high, grey walls stopping at one door after another looking for lodging like Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. The final scene is shot in color, but is all black and white again as Jude and Sue meet up in a graveyard covered with snow.

"Jude" isn't a movie to see as entertainment, but is a strong contemplation on man's struggle to overcome oppressive odds.

B


SWINGERS

"Swingers" was written by and stars Jon Favreau as Mike, a New Yorker who's come to LA to make it as a comic and actor. What he actually does, however, is mope about his pathetic apartment bemoaning the loss of his girl friend. His buddies Trent, Sue, Rob and Charles think it's time for Mike to forget the past and move forward out into the LA retro cocktail lounge scene. Mike, they say, looks "money" and can get the "digits" of the babies who cruise the clubs.

Laura LAURA:
"Swingers" is a low budget effort starring the screenwriter and his friends and directed by Doug Liman, who also served as his own cinematographer, shooting with a small hand held Aaton 35-III.

Favreau creates a likeable character in Mike. Even though you want him to snap out of his funk, you root for him - he's a decent guy. His buddy Trent (Vince Vaughn, now cast in the "Jurassic Park" sequel due to this role) who drags him to Vegas isn't - he's the smooth operator of the one night stand. Trent is hilarious, however, whether's he's tossing out the lingo ('She's business class.' as in big butts can't fly coach) or showing his talent for producing bloody effects playing Nintendo hocky ('I'll make Gretsky's head bleed!'). Also notable is Patrick van Horn as Sue, the spitfire of the bunch, the Mutt to Trent's Jeff.

"Swingers" is a gentle comedy - more likely to produce smiles than laughs. Favreau finds the humor in our own foibles. After his buddies lecture him on the proper amount of time to wait before calling a woman met in a bar, you just know he's going to blow it - and he does - big time - in a memorable extended sequence with an answering machine. He also effectively manages to send up every Tarantino-wannabee by stating that 'everybody steals from everybody' followed by a great send up of the famous slow-mo "Reservoir Dogs" shot.

I could grouse about the camera work, which often has trouble staying in focus, until I learned that this was filmed guerilla-style in clubs that were open for business! Apparently, if you listen closely enough during the scene where Mike and Trent leave Las Vegas, you can hear the police trying to stop them from filmming without a permit. Considering some of the obstacles overcome to make this little gem, I'll overlook some minor technical glitches.

B

Robin ROBIN:
This movie is definitely "money," baby!

"Swingers" is not high art. It is high quality guerrilla filmmaking that combines an enormous amount of energy by those involved with guy-point view of the world that is, at once, very funny and extremely accurate.

Jon Favreau has written a modern treatise on the mating rituals of modern LA males with himself as the lead character, Mike, struggling, ineffectively, through most of the film as he moons over his lost love. In one extended example of comic excessiveness, Mike makes a succession of late-night calls to the phone machine of a girl he just met. The lengths that Favreau brings this scene are incredible.

What makes Mike's plight amusing is the help and understanding he's given - misguided, mostly - by his close circle of friends. These guys are really Favreau's close friends, so the spontaneity and humor they exude is real.

There is a lot of imagination (and derivation, truth be told) as, first, the characters discuss the merits of their favorite filmmakers, Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino, then, the filmmakers mimic a couple of the famous scenes from "Goodfellas" and "Reservoir Dogs."

Director Doug Liman, in a departure from the Hollywood norm, also took on the role of cinematographer, so there is a tight intimacy in the shooting style, keeping you up close to the characters.

There is also an extended dance club scene near the end that is a great combination of music, mood and movement.

This is a solid guy comedy that has lots of honest laughs and an ending that oozes relief as Mike, finally, comes to his emotional senses.

I give "Swingers" a B.


MICHAEL COLLINS

Director Neil Jordan brings to the screen his years old screenplay of the turbulent life and death of Michael Collins, the revolutionary and patriot who helped lead Ireland out of its servitude to Britian in the first quarter of this century.

Liam Neeson stars as "Michael Collins" with Alan Rickman, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea and Julia Roberts, depicting the epic struggle for freedom following the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Dublin to the establishment of the Irish Free State and the bloody civil war, that followed, in the 20's.

Robin ROBIN:
Neil Jordan, who wrote the original screenplay for "Michael Collins" some 13 years ago, has been trying to get this film made since. With the success of "The Crying Game" and "Interview With The Vampire," he finally got the financing and go ahead to make this epic historic tale of his homeland.

One thing that struck me at the end of "Michael Collins" was the thought of how, now, 80 years later, the same struggle goes on in Northern Ireland, with the same tragedies still being inflicted. In this regard, "Michael Collins" is an intellectually well thought out work that presents the events of those turbulent days in Irish history with clear, vivid reality, from costumes to sets to location.

While the look and feel of the film are right on the money - shot in modern day Dublin, Jordan gets a remarkable period accuracy - there are two things that bothered me with "Michael Collins."

One problem I have with this film is the same one I had with "The Godfather Part III" (besides Sofia Coppola's stupefying performance). There were no distinctive characters besides the principle cast. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman and Aidan Quinn are fine in their respective roles, but there virtually no other notable characters. Even Stephen Rea's sympathetic cop has the feel of a composite character - which, it turns out, he is, combining three persona in one.

For a film with claims to being an epic, this is a shortcoming. A pretty big one. Go back and take a look at "The Godfather" or, even, last year's "Brave Heart." "Michael Collins" needed more involvement from the people that the title character is supposed to be leading. That connection is never made. Most of those around Collins are faceless, without name or character. The true strength of a film often depends on the depth of the supporting cast. "Michael Collins" lacks this strength.

The crowd scenes and big battle scenes are crisply handled. The opening sequence, at the end of the 1916 Easter Uprising - the rebel "army" was defeated in an heroic six day stand against the British, who, in the end, pulverized those remaining with artillery - is hyper-real in its depiction of the last fight and surrender. The many other big scenes are equally well handled - especially a startlingly violent scene where the newly-organized Black and Tans, the Irish constabulary, raid a soccer match and mow down players and spectators from a machine-gun wielding armored car.

Now, the other problem.

Julia Roberts, as the love interest Kitty, whenever she appears on the screen, causes the film to grind to a resounding halt. I haven't decided, yet, if this is the fault of Jordan's script or Julia Roberts in the role.

As a script problem, Jordan tries to insinuate some humanity into the character of Collins in the guise of the romantic interest, Roberts. This results the film vacillate from a fast paced, exciting political epic to laconic, chastely romantic, interludes, ruining the pace set by the greater part of the movie.

But, the problem could have been with Roberts. She has never been an expressive actor and has not, at least to me, shown much in the way of versatility or ability. Her delivery throughout the film is quiet and monotone, without spark or life. She, thankfully, has less dialogue than in "Mary Reilly," so her Irish accent didn't keep disappearing as in the latter film.

All in all, I like the tale put forth by Jordan. It will attract a goodly number of the 40 million Irish American population, and others, too.

With it's 2.5 hour run time, I would have liked to have seen more support character depth, to give Collins commitment more meaning. And lose Julia.

I give "Michael Collins" a B

Laura LAURA:
"Michael Collins" is the long awaited and controversial film by director Neil Jordan who has brought us such innovative films as "The Company of Wolves" and "The Crying Game." Unfortunately, in tackling a major piece of Ireland's history, Jordan's style has become a bit cramped. I found "Michael Collins" often coming across as a paint-by-the-numbers historical epic lacking life in certain sequences. When Collins' men go out to kill the British agents, the sequence is cut so that we see an agent downed, cut to Collins and Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) in his hotel suite, another agent taken out, back to the hotel suite again. This segment so strongly resembled the baptism scene in "The Godfather" it came off as a weak imitation.

Liam Neesan is impassioned in the role of Michael Collins - he does bring spark to his scenes, if not subtlety. Aidan Quinn is solid as Harry Boland, Collins' best friend who turns against him politically. Best of all is Alan Rickman as the political Eamon de Valera who rejects the Irish Free State Treaty he had sent Collins to negotiate - Rickman's shifty in his political maneuverings, but we sense he still has a heart. Stephen Rea is also quite affecting as Ned Broy who works for the British but becomes won over by Collins' oratory. Julia Roberts manages not to annoy in a smaller supporting role which doesn't showcase her wavering accent as much as the lead role in "Mary Reilly" did. When she sings a traditional folk song in her front parlor, her singing voice is provided by none other than Sinead O'Connor.

Technically, the film looks good, having been photographed by cinematographer turned director Chris Menges. I did wonder how Collins managed to afford some of the sumptuous lodgings he was pictured in, though - all red velvet and silk dressing gowns.

Overall, I'm glad I saw "Michael Collins." I certainly know more about the beginnings of the Irish troubles than I did before. However, as I walked out of the theater, I felt that the film didn't pack the jolt it should have.

B-


SET IT OFF

"Set It Off" stars Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise as four childhood friends living in the LA projects, dreaming of better things, and one by one watching those dreams get snatched away. Pinkett is Stony, a woman who basically prostitutes herself in order to afford a college education for her brother who's then wrongfully killed by the police. Cleo (Latifah) has watched her wages get cut in half as she bumps along day to day living for her female lover and her '62 Impala. Tisean (Elise) has had her child taken away until she can prove that she can afford childcare while she's at work. Frankie (Fox) has just lost her cushy bank job after a neighborhood acquaintance attempted to rob it and she wants revenge.

Laura LAURA:
"Set It Off" is one of those frustrating film experiences that mixes up good acting with preposterous story lines with excitingly shot action sequences. The film goes so overboard in establishing the hard luck of its four leads that unfortunately, the reaction becomes comical rather than dramatic.

When Frankie is fired from her bank job for having known the perp, we can believe something like that could happen. But when the acquaintenance from her neighborhood is recognized by her during the actual holdup and decides to blow away an innocent female bystander to get some attention, credibility goes out the window. The minute Stony's brother admires said perp's distinguishable hair sculpture, you don't have to be told he'll have the same thing done and be killed in a mistaken idenity foul up by the cops. The first time Tisean's forced to bring her toddler with her to her office cleaning job, you know he's headed straight for the dangerous chemicals the second he's put down. This stuff is downright giggle inducing.

On the plus side, Jada Pinkett is solid as Stony, the most well balanced of the bunch. A romance with a bank employee ("LA Law's" Blair Underwood) that begins when she's casing the joint provides an interesting contrast of the world she's trying to escape with the world she can only dream of attaining. Also good is Queen Latifah as Cleo - she's a natural as the big butch witty lesbian with a short fuse and an iron will.

Director F. Gary Gray ("Friday") is pretty good at staging an action scene. The final chase by helicopter is quite excitingly done, particularly Cleo's last stand. Unfortunately, the ending is also defanged by ludicrous screenwriting.

C-

Robin ROBIN:
"Girlz In The Hood" would have been a more appropriate title than "Set It Off." This is heavy handed story telling at best.

The unrelenting tragedy that besets the four women is, well, unrelenting. This, I suppose, is to help the viewer empathize, or, at least, sympathize with the four. However, the people who are shown as those responsible for these women's problems are an eclectic collection of men, women, black, white and Hispanic. There is no defined oppressor, besides society. This takes away any bad-guy edge "Set It Off" should have had for focus.

The blatant attempts to manipulate the audience - for example, in one scene, the baby of one of the women, Tisean (Kimberly Elise), drinks cleaning fluid and is taken away from the her because she's unfit (isn't she?) - are so in-your-face that I groaned or laughed a number of times.

Queen Latifah, as the surly and strong Cleo, appears to be having the most fun with her role - from her outrageous behavior to her lesbian relationship (which caused one of the biggest clamors from an audience I have ever seen).

The rest of the main cast are fair. Nothing spectacular.

The robbery and action scenes pale against the much slicker bank robber-movie, "Point Break." Where the latter film's robberies are stylish and well-choreographed, "Set It Off" pays less attention to detail and appear haphazard, even as the women are supposed to get better at it.

Blair Underwood's Keith, the love interest for Jada Pinkett's Stony, should have been cut out entirely. He's eye-candy and nothing more. The whole romance drags things down to a crawl.

A silly "Godfather" sendoff midway through is amusing, but totally out of place with the somber mood of the film.

F. Gary Gray and company try like hell, but, I give it a C-


DEAR GOD

"Dear God" stars Greg Kinnear as Tom Turner, a con artist whose past has caught up with him as one of his scams ends with a choice: go to jail or get a job for a year.

Taking what he thinks is the lesser evil, Tom ends up in the employ of the U.S. Postal Service, assigned to the Dead Letter Office, the final resting place for letters to Santa Claus, Elvis, and, of course, God.

Always looking for an out, Tom inadvertently answers one of the letters to God, sparking a spree of humanism within the Postal Service.

Robin ROBIN:
"Dear God" is the perfect title for this horrendously unfunny movie, as in:

Dear God, Why didn't I stay at home and stick needles in my eyes instead of seeing this?

I was stunned to find out that Garry Marshall actually takes responsibility of bringing this waste of celluloid to the big screen. Perhaps, looking at Marshall's filmography and seeing he also directed "Exit to Eden," I shouldn't be so stunned.

Greg Kinnear, whom I found very likable and relaxed as the younger brother in last year's "Sabrina" remake, is simply not ready to take on the task of carrying a film, if ever. Instead of looking the role of the conniving con artist, he simply look like he wants to be somewhere else, dear God, anyplace but in this film.

Kinnear would be better off, aside from giving up acting, staying in the supporting character role and gain some experience. The lack of experience shows strongly in his on-screen presence - he doesn't have any.

Supporting cast, led by Laurie Metcalfe and Tim Conway, marking his return to the silver screen, are unremarkable, even vapid. If this is Conway's comedy comeback, he seriously needs a new agent.

The exception, and the person responsible for the films very few laughs, is Hector Elizondo as the Russian immigrant PO supervisor. He does a disappearing act throughout the film that is carried to a very funny few seconds in the big courtroom scene.

Story-wise, this is an extremely poor rip-off of "Miracle on 34th Street (the original)," with Kinnear taking old Kris Kringle's place, and none too well.

One additional complaint: this turkey is nearly two hours long! True, we say a preliminary version of the film. But, unless they cut about 30-40 minutes (or, 120 minutes) out of it, it cannot be saved.

I give it a D for two reasons: Laura's it's-in-focus-and-you-can-hear-it rule keeps it from getting an F. Hector Elizondo made me laugh the only times. He, alone, helps to raise this dud to its lofty rating of a D.

Laura LAURA:
"Dear God" is easily one of the worst films of the year. It plays like a rejected sitcom pilot dragged out to a 110 minute running time. I'm beginning to have serious concerns about director Gary Marshall - first "Exit to Eden," now this.

Greg Kinnear proved himself to be quite appealing in last year's "Sabrina" remake, but he's clearly not ready to carry a film. He's a scam artist with no bite. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable, including the much touted Tim Conway. Hector Elizondo gets about three laughs for his weird disappearing act routine. Laurie Metcalf gets one or two laughs through sheer force of will. The laughs end there.

This bloated holiday tale meanders from one meaningless act to the next until the whole thing climaxes in a courtroom scene ripped off from the already remade "Miracle on 34th Street." Don't bother.

D-


HIGH SCHOOL HIGH

"High School High" has a Zucker brother stamp on it and is being presented as an "Airplane"-like parody of such films as "Dangerous Minds." Jon Lovitz is Richard Clark, the son of the headmaster of a whitebread prep school who rejects that academic institution in order to teach at the inner city Marion Barry High.

Marion Barry is a hellish school presided over by a baseball bat-wielding principal Evelyn Doyle (Louis Fletcher). Richard is an optimistic schmuck, though, who believes he can make a difference, especially with the encouragement of Doyle's assistant Victoria, played by Tia Carrere.

Laura LAURA:
How "High School High" has managed to be one of the 3 top grossing films in the country for two weeks running is beyond me. Must be good marketing - the trailer is definitely a whole lot more entertaining than the actual product.

Jon Lovitz is a Pollyanna do-gooder type. He sees everything as wonderful amid a school full of thugs and hoods. Tia Carrere thinks he's wonderful just because. She makes her role in the "Wayne's World" movies look like thesping compared to this. Mikki Phifer somehow manages to make more of an impression here as Griff than he did in his debut as Strike in "Clockers," but why? It's a classy, though straightly played, turn in a terribly dumb movie.

I laughed exactly twice, and not loudly, during "High School High," both at unexpected, slightly perverse sexual jokes. Maybe that's the only reason they were funny - they were unexpected. Everything else here is predicitable and drab except for the odd smile that escaped here and there.

D-

Robin ROBIN:
If you get a chance to see the theatrical trailer to "High School High," sit there and pay attention. You will see an excellent example of how the folks who make trailers can take junk and make it look funny.

Unfortunately, the trailer is the only funny thing about "High School High."

This is rather remarkable since this is produced and co-written by David Zucker (Zucker-Abrahms-Zucker, of "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" fame), so expectations were high for a wild and wacky "Dangerous Minds" spoof.

It isn't. All the elements and visual setup for numerous gags are right there on the screen. Unfortunately, Zucker and company forgot to write anything funny to fit the visuals.

One problem is John Lovitz, who can bring an incredibly caustic wit to a movie, is cast as a namby-pamby milquetoast idealist coming into an inner city school. Any humorous edge he might have provided is lost in his character's blandness.

The love-interest/co-star, Tia Carrera, does nothing to help things along. She's not a comedian and doesn't have the kind of timing required for slapstick. I'm not sure of her abilities as an actor, either.

The rest of the cast, especially Mikelti Pfeiffer (cast because of his last name, perhaps, for a tie-in to "Dangerous Minds"?), go nowhere with nothing to do.

This is on a par with "Dear God," but doesn't have Hector Elizondo to bail it out, so I give "High School High" a D-.


TREES LOUNGE

Steve Buscemi, the king of 90's independent film, makes his directoral debut in his first effort as writer-director-star in "Trees Lounge."

Buscemi plays Tommy Basilio, a 31-year-old unemployed auto mechanic and full time barfly at his favorite hangout, the Trees Lounge.

Tommy's life is a mess: he lost his pregnant girlfriend to his best friend and former boss (who Tommy ripped off for $1500 to gamble on a sure thing which, of course, wasn't so sure).

As Tommy tries to salvage his life by driving his late uncle's ice cream truck, he screws that up, too, by getting dangerously involved with his 17-year-old helper, Debbie.

Robin ROBIN:
Steve Buscemi set his sights pretty high in his first shot at feature film making. And, he pretty much hits his target with "Trees Lounge."

Buscemi creates a very personal character study in his role as Tommy Basilio. I really get the feeling, watching Tommy, that Buscemi knows this man. Either from within himself or someone close to him, but real.

The characters he develops to support Tommy are nicely drawn:

Chloe Sevigny, as Tommy's 17-year-old helper, is emotionally and sexually charged in her attraction to Tommy, giving a much more assured and professional performance than she did in last year's "Kids."

Mark Boone Junior, as Tommy's best friend, Mike, is an enigma. No-one in town knows just how successful a businessman he is, but everyone knows he's a failure as a husband and father, except Mike.

"Trees Lounge," both the bar and the movie, is rich in its supporting cast of barflies and locals. I've been in neighborhood bars and you see the same people at the Trees Lounge. Again, Buscemi seems to know these people - well.

Technically, things are professional, if unremarkable. Lenser Lisa Rinzler uses lots of clasp shots to help keep the viewer intimately connected with the characters.

All in all, Buscemi does a solid job in his first time out of the gate. "Trees Lounge" isn't a great film. It is a good character study by Buscemi with a believable cast supporting him.

I give "Trees Lounge" a B-


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