ULEE'S GOLD - SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL
BATMAN AND ROBIN - THE VAN - MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING

ULEE'S GOLD

Independent Florida filmmaker Victor Nunez ("Ruby in Paradise") has written, directed and produced "Ulee's Gold" which stars Peter Fonda as Ulee Jackson, a widowed VietNam veteran beekeeper who's withdrawn into his own sorrow as he tries to raise two grandaughters in rural Florida. Ulee's quiet existence is shaken to the core when his son Jimmy, in jail for armed robbery, begs his father to retrieve his wife Helen, a drug addict who's fallen in with Jimmy's two accomplices in crime. Ulee reluctantly agrees, throwing the fragile family into danger over hidden crime loot while conversely beginning the road to healing with the help of Connie Hope, (TV's Patricia Richardson of "Home Improvement") a nurse and neighbor.

Laura LAURA:
"Ulee's Gold" the film, and its star Peter Fonda, are a relevation and quite simply the best of the 60-odd films I've seen in the first half of 1997.

Peter Fonda, always the least acclaimed of the acting Fonda family and most well known for "Easy Rider," a film he did 30 years ago, suggests a combination of the quiet, home-spun American grace of his father Henry and the stoic, understated dignity of Clint Eastwood. Fonda gives the performance of a lifetime and is my first pick for next year's Best Actor race - I hope he's remembered. In the character of Ulee, Fonda portrays a restrained, tired, decent man who's forgotten the meaning of joy in life until he's forced to come back fighting to preserve the family who mean more to him than they've ever realized. He's touching in his effort to raise two young girls, including a teenager who's hormones are just kicking in, by hard work and sacrifice.

Patricia Richardson is also a surprising standout as the twice-divorced, younger neighbor who manages to see more in Ulee than Ulee generally allows. She resembles a young Piper Laurie as the kind, but practical and efficient nurse. When Ulee returns home with the drug ravaged and abused Helen, he's forced to accept his neighbor's help because she knows far more than he how to deal with the situation. Although it was one of his granddaughters who drew Connie into the embarrassingly raw family situation, Ulee finally begins to come out of his shell and reveal his hurt and confusion by talking to his younger neighbor about the loss of his beloved wife.

Nunez has fashioned his film at a leisurely pace intercutting the main storyline with a soup to nuts overview of the dying industry of producing high quality honey - the 'gold' of the title. The story develops its characters with many intriguing grace notes. There's the tension between Ulee and the local sheriff which presumably has something to do with Ulee's son's conviction, but also hints at something to do with Ulee's deceased wife. Sheriff Bill obviously cares for and respects Ulee, but Ulee continues to hold him at arm's length. Ulee's relationship with his granddaughters also speaks volumes - the younger Penny is a naturally affectionate child who quietly spends time with her granddad while the older, more rebellious Casey gradually comes around to respect the man who's slowly pulling his family back around him. Casey first resents her mother's return - this woman abandoned them. However, near film's end when Casey and Helen are both shown helping Ulee try to meet his honey production quota, we believe both of the women's motivations are true. In another simple, but amazingly effective scene, the broken Helen and Ulee tentatively reach out to each other when she fetches him a glass of tap water and he apologizes to the woman he so recently despised for the coldness he displayed after his wife's death. We come to realize that Ulee himself may have played a more important role in the disintegration of his family than we would have initially believed.

The film does take a turn into more conventional drama when Jimmy's two robbery partners arrive to threaten the family and Ulee must use his wits to preserve it, but even here Nunez uses enough restraint that the incident and its outcome are completely believable. The film ends on a triumphant and loving note of hope (as in Connie's last name) - seeing "Ulee's Gold" is an affirmation of life.

A

ROBIN:
In "Ulee's Gold," writer/director Victor Nunez ("Ruby In Paradise") tells the story of Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson, played by Peter Fonda, a beekeeper plying the family trade on Florida's Gulf Coast. Ulee, a widower for 6 years, is still bitter over the loss of his wife and life-friend. His only son is in prison for armed robbery, and his daughter-in-law is a heroin addict. He is also raising his son's two daughters, the elder of whom is a 15 years old with her teenage hormones in an uproar.

This is the catalyst of the story as Ulee, reluctantly, starts to pull himself back from his self-imposed isolation from life. His son's plea to get help for his drug-addled wife forces Ulee to crawl out of his funk and cope with the situation. Fortunately, his tenant and neighbor, Connie Hope (Patricia Richardson from TV's "Home Improvement") is an experienced nurse who lends her kindness and expertise to help Ulee and his fractured family.

Victor Nunez, with the help of Peter Fonda and an unknown, but remarkably rich and real, cast, unrolls a splendid story about a special kind of man. Ulee, a beekeeper all his life, and the son of a beekeeper, and grandson of a beekeeper, is at the end of his business tether. He fights to keep his honey business viable, working 18 or more hours a day moving the bees, collecting the honeycombs, processing the honey, and barreling it for delivery. But, working alone has its price as Ulee struggles in an almost losing battle to stay in business. It comes down to the help of his family, and Ulee's learning the necessity of asking for help when needed, that provides the bright hope the movie offers.

Peter Fonda, as Ulee, starts off with a stoic, close-to-the-chest, performance as a man in conflict with life and the hand it has dealt him. He never shirks his responsibility, even if he does not embrace it whole-heartedly. As the story unfolds and the influences of others take hold of him, you see a slow, subtle change in Ulee. By the end of the film, as he confronts his inner demons, there is a wistful acceptance of his life and lot. (In the beginning of the film, he turns down a young man who wants to work for him and learn the bee business. This comes full circle by the end of the film, with Ulee bringing the man, Charlie, in to help, providing a hopeful ending without the typical Hollywood cliche of "and they all lived happily ever after.")

Supporting cast is outstanding! From the members of Ulee's family to the criminal slime of Eddie and Ferris (Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber) to the rest supporting characters, there is a depth to each and every one of them that comes through as real. For example, one character, Sheriff Bill Floyd (J. Kenneth Cambell), has only a few, brief scenes with Ulee. During those scenes, there is such a palpable tension between the two men that you know there is an untold story there. The neat thing about this movie is that you really want to know the other, potential stories. This is the mark of the exciting combination of good writing, good directing and good acting.

Avoiding the typical Hollywood hack writing, Nunez provides a multi-layered script that, besides Fonda's character study of Ulee, also provides an in-depth, and fascinating, look into the life and work of an American beekeeper. The notion that the bees and their keeper need each other is apparent and the focus of "Ulee's Gold.: I learned a whole lot about Ulee's craft and enjoyed the experience.

"Ulee's Gold" is a craftwork of exceptional detail and nuance. The characters, the story and all tech aspects give the film a depth and breadth not seen in the typical Hollywood product we've grown used to.

We have had very few good films this year - there have been but a handful, like "Chasing Amy" and "Donnie Brasco" - so when I see a film the caliber of "Ulee's Gold," I get excited. You won't get explosions and kick-ass F/X, but, you will see a superior film that deserves notice, attention, and, most of all, moviegoers. So, be one!

I give "Ulee's Gold" an A. The best film of the year, so far.


SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL

Following his successes with the blockbuster debut, "Speed," and the mega-blockbuster, "Twister," Jan De Bont helms "Speed 2: Cruise Control," starring Sandra Bullock, once again, as Annie Porter and Jason Patric as her new amour, L.A. cop Alex Shaw.

Alex is a member of the LAPD's elite "suicide squad" S.W.A.T. team. He and Annie are at an impasse in their relationship, especially after she finds out the true, dangerous nature of his job. The pair decide to take a Carribean cruise to find out if they're meant for each other. Unbeknownst to them, and everyone on the ship, a lunatic, disgruntled, ex-employee of the cruise line is also on board. His name is John Geiger (Willem Dafoe) and he is out for vengeance!

ROBIN:
"Speed 2: Cruise Control" is, of course and expected, a true sequel. There is nothing new here, except for the locale - a first-class cruise ship is, decidedly, a step or two above an urban bus for setting and comfort in a crisis. De Bont simply reprises the first film with:

- Annie on board a conveyance that is out of control.

- A loony, pissed off, sick, ex-employee who is out to exact vengeance against the company that fired him for being ... a loony, pissed off, sick, employee!

- A cop, this time played by Patric instead Keanu Reeves, is on board to screw up the lunatic's meticulous plan.

- Over the top special effects that take your mind off their impossibility.

- (And, yes, there is Glenn Plummer as Maurice. In "Speed" his Jaguar is trashed. Here, he has his $150,000 speedboat commandeered by the Alex in pursuit of, you guessed it, a loony, pissed off, sick, ex-employee of...)

There is no originality as De Bont duplicates the first film, in detail, in a two hour effort that offers more F/X and pyrotechnics than the first, but little in the way of story. If Sandra Bullock weren't in it, "Speed 2" would have been another generic Hollywood actioner, with big budget and big aspirations, but nothing new beyond the F/X (which are top-notch throughout the film). Even with Sandra Bullock, it's a generic Hollywood actioner and there lies the rub.

Sandra Bullock, reciting her breakthrough debut role from the first film, once again faces the jaws of death, but doesn't have anything else to do. She can't drive the boat, so she is relegated to being, mostly, cute as a button, slinging off witty one liners whenever things are tense. There's no reason for her to be here except, in the finale, to play the damsel in distress. She, physically, works her heart out, but any competent Hollywood starlet could have done the part.

Jason Patric, in keeping with the overall nature of the film, is a generic action hero, doing a good job but lending little character to the role. He's not Bruce Willis in "Die Hard," or, even, Keanu Reeves in "Speed," showing more physical ability than character nuance. He does the job.

Willem Dafoe, who played a sinister character quite well in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," doesn't pull it off at all in "Speed 2." His John Geiger, a cookie-cutter bad guy, offers nothing new as he goes through the usual motions with the typical Hollywood high tech gadgets telling us everything we need to know of the crisis. I can only think Dafoe did it for the bucks.

Supporting cast, led by Temuera Morrison ("Once Were Warriors"), is non-trademark, with the ships crew acting like they have had no emergency training, letting an L.A. cop run the show. The stranded passengers stuck aboard the ship are background fodder only.

The action is well-honed and focused as De Bont builds the drama of the terrorism and the heroes' efforts to thwart it to the film's big, big climax(es). As with the almost-terrific "Con Air," if one bang-up finale is good, then two must be better. In "Speed 2," the first climax, with the cruise ship heading straight for an oil tanker, takes 15 or 20 minutes to accomplish what should have been done in 10. The final finale with the ship crashing into a town on St. Martin is relentless in its slow-motion destruction. One tiny bit of humor injected into this high-tech crash is the bit with a little dog going one-on-one with the ship, and standing his ground. Cute.

Watching the publicity featurette provided for "Speed 2," you can see where Jan De Bont spent his estimated $100 million budget, between full scale replicas and crisp computer imaging. If nothing else, it's a high-tech craftwork.

I'm starting the rumor that the next sequel is to be "Speed 3: Rush Hour," where Annie is trapped in an out-of-control New York taxi cab driven by a lunatic ex-employee of the New York Yellow Cab Company who's out for revenge. As a matter of fact, I see a blockbuster Hollywood screenplay forming in my mind....

"Speed 2: Cruise Control" is generic summer action fare that will, at least, keep your eyes occupied for its runtime, but not much else. I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
Well here's low praise - "Speed 2: Cruise Control" wasn't quite as awful as I had expected it to be and didn't even drag as much as "The Lost World." That said, it's a silly action sequel, far inferior to the more honestly visceral "Speed."

Sandra Bullock's Annie is introduced miserably failing a driving test with her increasingly nervous instructor (Tim Conway). I believe the intent was humor, but why would Annie, who cringed at each of her forced driving mishaps in the first film, have become such a blithely destructive driver? This set up allows her to prattle on about her new boyfriend Alex, (Jason Patric) who's seen in a daredevil hot pursuit motorcycle chase as part of the LAPD, while Annie describes him as a low-key cop. Pity Keannu Reeves of the first film, who's described here as not having been very romantic.

This sets up the two characters' conflict - Annie now believes that 'relationships based on extreme circumstaces never work out.' In order to win her over, Alex resorts to actually taking a vacation and bringing Annie on a luxurious Caribbean cruise aboard the Seaborn Legend. No sooner are they on board, than Alex has become suspicious of Geiger (Willem Dafoe), another passenger who's overly concerned about the delivery of his golf gear but doesn't bother to watch an important golf tournament on one of the ship's monitors.

Dafoe, it turns out, is a dying computer specialist who designed the ship's computer system but was fired due to his illness. He now feels compelled to take over and destroy the ship and the action begins.

Director Jan De Bont, who created a really good action film in his first outing ("Speed") has joined the camp of 'enough special effects and explosions can substitute for story,' first with last year's silly "Twister" and again here. While he actually manages to create a couple of suspenseful sequences, we're still left to wonder why the ship's expert crew stand around wringing their hands until they begin to take direction from an LA cop.

Sandra Bullock is OK as Annie, but besides wielding a chainsaw to rescue some trapped passengers (and throw off a few Schwarzeneggerian lines in the process) and defusing a grenade, she's mostly window dressing waiting to be rescued. Jason Patric is actually not bad as an action figure in a very physical role - he gets the film's best scene when he goes under water to try and slow the ship's progress by disabling the propeller. Alex juggles his inate need to be heroic with fumbling attempts to time his proposal to the unsuspecting Annie. Dafoe leers his way through his role as the villain, looking like Nicholson's Joker in "Batman" - a throwaway performance.

Temuera Morrison ("Once Were Warriors") is hampered with an ineffectual character as the ship's First Officer left in charge after Geiger offs the captain - he looks and sounds pretty macho, but never really does anything. Brian McCardie shows a little spunk as the Scottish navigator. Christine Firkin is Drew, a deaf teenager who's smitten with Alex when he's able to communicate with her in sign language. The script only utilizes this elaborately set up relationship to provide another female in need of rescuing, however. Glenn Plummer from the first film (this time providing a speed boat) shows up at the film's climax in an amusing, if totally ludricous, reprisal.

"Speed 2" simply takes us from one thwarted attempt to stop the villain to the next, with the cast running from one end of the ship to the other in an attempt to live up to its title. When the Seaborn Legend takes a full 10 minutes to crash its way through a resort town, the script at least has the wit to smash it into a huge Dom Perignon advert (an anti-christening?) and not kill the dog, although not the sense from refraining in keeping the ship largely intact. "Speed 2: Cruise Control" can firmly take its place in the genre of 'mindless summer action' film.

C- 


BATMAN AND ROBIN

The fourth installment in the Batman series is directed by Joel Schumacher who took over for originator Tim Burton with the third episode and gives us the third actor to play the title role of Batman, ER's George Clooney. Chris O'Donnell returns as Robin and Alicia Silverstone introduces Batgirl.

This time out, Gotham City is in danger of being icily destroyed by Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poisin Ivy (Uma Thurman). The alluring Poisin Ivy also casts her sexy spell on Robin, creating a devisive conflict between him and Batman.

Laura LAURA:
Most successful film series usually run out of steam after the third installment - "Batman and Robin" proves that this series should have quit while it was relatively ahead.

The story is pretty irrelevant - again a couple of villains are created by unfortunate scientific mishaps, although it's somewhat noteable here that both villains were working for good before their evil transformations.

Akiva Goldman's script attempts to introduce themes of family and death. Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was on the road to discovering a cure for the fictional McGregor's syndrome to save his wife, who he's cryogenically frozen. Batman's faithful butler Alfred (Pat Hingle), is plot-conveniently dying of the same disease when his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) arrives to don the mantle of Batgirl. The seductress Poisin Ivy (Uma Thurman) tests the trust between Batman and Robin. All of this supposed higher meaning fails because none of the characters, with the slight exception of Poison Ivy, is in the least bit interesting.

The Batman series is as good as its villains and Arnold Schwarzenegger is pretty lame indeed - his Mr. Freeze would have been more accurately dubbed Mr. Numb. Uma Thurman fairs somewhat better, but the lines dealt her by the script work only occasionally ("I'll help you grab your rocks.") but just as often fall deadeningly flat. In fact she's the first franchise character who makes a direct reference to a film's merchandising when she declares "I'm a lover, not a fighter - that's why my action figure always comes with him," in a reference to her murderous henchman, Bane, who himself seems a weak attempt at a movie reference in-joke to "Pulp Fiction's" S&M geek. (The film also takes a jab at "The Lost World" early on when Mr. Freeze ices a museum dinosaur.)

George Clooney is largely incidental as the new Batman. O'Donnell makes an OK Robin. Silverstone's Batgirl is treated as an afterthought. Elle McPherson is nothing more than another name in the credits as Bruce Wayne's girlfriend. Supermodel Vendella does nothing but float in a tank as Freeze's wife.

The art direction, so important to these films, is distinctly lacking to the point of looking almost cheesy in too many scenes.

The one high point of "Batman and Robin" is director Joel Schumacher's ribbing of the obviously overstated sexuality of the Bat-family's costumes by featuring closeups of rubber encased buttocks and overly exagerrated codpieces, but a few snickers during the opening credits are not worth the price of admission.

D

ROBIN:
"Batman & Robin" is fourth in the series and second Caped Crusader effort by director Joel Schumacher and is, by far, the lamest entry to date. The Batman franchise, started so ably with Tim Burton's flawed, but fascinating and stylistic, "Batman," has hit a wall. After #1, which had a dark and brooding nature, each subsequent sequel took things lighter and lighter until we have a product that can truly be called "Batman-Lite." Any of the original angst of the first is completely dispelled in #4.

"Batman & Robin" is little more than a marketing concept - there is even mention of its own aftermarket product during the film. Tacky. The only compelling aspects of the production are the art direction and costume design. These are visually notable artistic aspects of the film, but the raison d'etre for this, or any, film? I don?t think so.

Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have the dubious honor of producing a big budget action-adventure-scifi film that lacks dialogue, story, acting, or any other qualities besides the above mentioned set design and costume. If you think about it, this is an "achievement" by Hollywood standards - Schumacher and company have, quite literally, created a film with exciting looks and virtually no substance.

The screenplay, by long-time Joel Schumacher collaborator, Akiva Goldsman, is a travesty even by Hollywood's current standards. There is nothing, quite literally, of note in the screenplay that lends any unique character to the film. Dialogue is juvenile, at best, without much in the way of intelligence or wit. Most of the many one liners fall completely flat. For example, one Mr. Freeze tag line is (you probably guessed already), "You're ice!" Not funny.

Of the all-star cast, only Uma Thurman fares at all favorably, and she is only mediocre.

Arnie is like a cigar-store Indian in performance and delivery.

George Clooney lends Bruce Wayne/Batman the relaxed, humorous nature the makers are striving for, but it's not the nature the character should have. >From the beginning of this series, at least, Bruce Wayne/Batman is a dark, almost sinister character who is set on revenge. Casting Clooney in the role of the Dark Knight is a mistake. He has too much of an aw-shucks, pleasant demeanor for the sake of the character. Trying to make such a radical change in Batman's persona is one of the grander of the many mistakes made in realizing "Batman & Robin."

Chris O'Donnell, likable in "Batman Forever," is relegated to the role of whiner in this rendition. His lines, more or less, consist of "I wanna be a partner! I wanna drive the Batmobile!" He's a talented young actor who would do well to divorce himself from this particular franchise.

How is Alicia Silverstone? I've been asked several times - all by guys. Well, she's pudgy and merely fleshes (no pun intended) out the cast list with another "name", that's all. She serves no story function and is not particularly physical in appearance or movement. Her presence is more of a distraction than anything.

All in all, I wouldn't recommend "Batman & Robin" to the hard core Batman fans, much less to the average Joe who should be spending his hard earned dollars to see "Ulee's Gold."

I'm ranking "Batman & Robin" a D. It represents the things I really, really dislike about Hollywood and its overblown product. I hope it falls flat on its face.


THE VAN

"The Van" is the third installment in Roddy Doyle's Barrytown, North Dublin, trilogy, following "The Commitments" and "The Snapper." Donal O'Kelly and Colm Meaney (who starred in the first two films) star as Bimbo and Larry, two out of work chums who go into business together selling fish and chips from a decrepit van during the World Cup, when all of Ireland is too busy to cook. But, as "Bimbo's Burgers" becomes a success, the pals' long term friendship begins to crumble.

ROBIN:
In "The Van," Stephen Frears and screenwriter Roddy Doyle have put together a competent, simply story about friendship and the tests that life put upon it. Donal O'Kelly, as Bimbo Reeves, is a man different than those around him, even his best friend, Larry (Colm Meaney). Bimbo has been employed for many years while all his friends are out of work and on the dole, When he, too, loses his job, he can't stand the thought of being idle, coming up with the idea of putting his severance pay to the purchase of a "chipper," a van for the mobile dispensing of fish, chips and anything else that can be cooked on the road. You see, it's the 1990 World Cup and Ireland is a key contender. With Barrytown too absobed in the games to cook, Bimbo's idea just could be a moneymaker.

Bimbo asks friend Larry to join his venture as a non-paying "partner," and the pair, with their wives help and support, set out to take advantage of the hungry football fans' desire for greasy fried food.

The story follows the two friends as the business becomes successful, but drives a wedge between the pair, with Bimbo wanting control of his investment and Larry, a bully by nature, trying to bluster his way into command. The conflict and lost fellowship is too much for Larry, in the end, as he, in a desperate, drunken effort attempts to destroy the thing that came between him and Larry - especially when he finds out the health inspector may bring charges against him for the unsanitary state of the title vehicle.

Of the three film's forming Doyle's trilogy, "The Van" is the simplest. The story doesn't have the depth of the ensemble effort in the slick "The Commitments," nor the strong, funny social humor presented in "The Snapper." Instead, we see two men who have been friends all their lives, despite the fact they have little in common. The stress of working together proves too much, making Bimbo want to return to the old ways.

The performances by Meaney and O'Kelly are competent without being notable. Though Meaney's Larry is a bully and blusters to get his way, he knows his friend, Bimbo, is different and unwilling to accept the status quo of joblessness. As such, Bimbo's dignity keeps him a step above his friend, deserving his respect.

Ger Ryan as Bimbo's wife, Maggie, and Caroline Rothwell as Larry's spouse, Mary, are fine in the two dimensional roles as the supportive wives. Nothing special, though.

Brendan O'Carroll, as wheeler-dealer friend Weslie, lends a fresh cockiness as he does what he can to help his friends, but always out to make a buck.

The screenplay is tight and well structured carrying the story efficiently from beginning to end.

I found the last couple of shots of the film, of the van stranded on the beach at Dublin Bay, to have the same melancholy impact on me as did the last shot in one of my favorite films, "Local Hero." I'm not putting "The Van" on the same tier as "Local Hero," just that last, melancholy shot. It expresses the sadness of needlessly lost friendship in a very brief moment of film time.

"The Van" is a heartfelt story, told and performed, but not quite up to its predecessors in scope or social wit. I like it, emotionally, and on that level, give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
British director Stephen Frears directs his second film of the Barrytown trilogy (Alan Parker directed the first, "The Committments") to somewhat less satisfying results as his last, "The Snapper." Although he's still successful in creating the small working class town atmosphere, his characters motivations are less thoroughly fleshed out, resulting in a lively, breezy film with an unsatisfying ending.

Donal O'Kelly is Bimbo, a hard working family man who's just been let go from his life-long job as a baker. Bimbo agonizes over his fate while his best friend and long unemployed Larry (Colm Meany, who also starred in the first two of the trilogy) offers weak platitudes about how everything will work out while seemingly relishing the opportunity to have a playmate. It is of note that both men have supportive, income generating wives.

Bimbo comes up with the idea of running a 'chipper van' and a buddy of his sets him up with the most decrepit example of the type imagineable financed by Bimbo's severance money. Bimbo enlists Larry's help and the two set to restoring the van, while Bimbo's wife sets to perfecting the burger recipes and scoping out setup locations. Their timing is impeccable - with the World Cup games in full swing, all of Ireland is so focussed on football, that fast food is the obvious form of sustenance. 'Bimbo's Burgers' becomes a huge success.

Success, something that people of Barrytown never encounter, proves to be more than Bimbo and Larry's friendship can endure, however. Larry is a blustering clown who doesn't realize what good fortune his friend has dropped in his lap. He takes everything as it comes, has no ambition and views the chipper van as a lark. Bimbo, on the other hand, while always having admired Larry's humor and bravado, is a more quiet and serious type who worries about providing for his family. Larry pushes his daughter's services into the business while Bimbo pleads that he should have been consulted. When Larry's daughter must quit, Larry blithely pulls his vegetarian son (who refuses to work with meat) into the operation.

When the two go out for an expensive night on the town, Bimbo has his eyes opened when Larry refuses to acknowledge the van as their source of income in order to impress a couple of pick-ups in a bar. Things get worse when Bimbo's wife becomes rightfully disgusted with Larry's flighty and destructive behavior and enforces a more businesslike wage distribution system, which clearly defines Bimbo as the owner of the business where Larry had always considered himself an equal partner. Finally, the relationship becomes so strained, that Bimbo drunkenly sets out to destroy what he sees as the cause of the problem.

"The Van" has many funny moments, especially during the film's buildup. The working comaraderie and choreography within the van is ebullient. When things begin to sour, however, so does the film, as neither of the protagonists are sympathetic - one wants to shake the passive and wimpish Bimbo who allows his childish friend to destroy what he's built and slap the overbearing Larry who's pride would allow that destruction. As with many Irish films of late, it's their women who have the backbone.

C+


MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING

stars Julia Roberts as Julianne, an unattached restaurant critic who made a pact with her best friend and former lover Michael (Dermot Mulroney) to marry him if they were both still unattached at the age of 28. When she gets an urgent phone message from travelling sportswriter Michael three weeks before her 28th, Jules assumes he wants to make good on the deal. She fearfully calls him back only to discover he wants her to fly out for his wedding to the younger Kim (Cameron Diaz). Jules goes into a tailspin, realizing that the man she dumped 9 years ago is the man she truly loves.

Laura LAURA:
I've never really cared for Julia Roberts, but in "My Best Friend's Wedding" I must admit she's found a vehicle to strut the best of her stuff - that winning smile, that hair, those wetly sparkling eyes! Finally, a film that makes the most of Roberts' narrowly ranged talents.

Directed by Australian P.J. Hogan of "Muriel's Wedding" fame (does anyone detect a theme here?), "My Best Friend's Wedding" is a light romantic comedy that's a welcome diversion from the summer's loud, explosive action extravaganzas. "My Best Friend's Wedding" is strangely similar to the better "Addicted to Love" - Julianne, while not out for revenge as Meg Ryan was in that film, acts maliciously to break up the engaged couple, rationalizing that if she succeeds, it will be the better thing for Kim, who she reluctantly finds herself liking.

The script by Ronald Bass is fairly standard screwball stuff, nicely accentuated by moments of true wit and feeling. Julianne begs for help from her more recently accessible best friend George (Rupert Everett), her gay editor. When he flys out to give her support, she fails to heed his advice to honestly tell Michael that she loves him and accept the consequences, instead offering up George as her fiance. Everett, in the film's best and most inspired performance, has a field day playing up his fictional passion for Jules in order to serve her right. He 'tells the story' of their first meeting at a mental hospital where his supposed companion Dionne Warwick's advice to him was to sing "I Say a Little Prayer For You," which Everett does, to the bride's entire family at a restaurant wedding rehearsal brunch (which of course, results in the entire restaurant singing along). The film, in fact, uses popular songs many times to marvelous effect - from the credit sequence of a bride and three bridesmaids shoo-bopping over a pink backdrop to the best man and friends singing a John Denver song on helium they're using to inflate decoratory balloons.

In the film's most touching moment, Jules spends a pre-wedding afternoon alone with Michael where they almost tell each other that they love each other, but the moment passes under a bridge, and Roberts' regret is palpable. Later, when her most malicious attempt to break up the couple seems to be working, Roberts slumps in a hotel corridor and dejectedly smokes a cigarette, which a kindly bellhop joins her in after admonishing her that it's a non-smoking floor.

Dermot Mulroney is serviceable as Michael, although his character suffers from the script's necessary ambiguity as to which woman he'll really end up with. Cameron Diaz is a plus as the freshly scrubbed ingenue who's so genuinely likeable and trusting that Julianne's underhanded actions take on a truly dark tone. In another terrific scene, Roberts acts as a messenger between the now estranged lovers on their wedding day and Jules tells Kim that she is Michael's creme brulee when he really wants Jello.

The film is shot mostly in candy colored brights and pastels, which suit it perfectly. Costume is also well done, with Roberts dressed in tasteful dark tones and Diaz counterpointed in bright ladylike shifts.

"My Best Friend's Wedding" isn't a great film, but it's as pleasant as a dish of fresh sorbets on a summer day.

B

ROBIN:
Julia Roberts as super-star: I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't get it.

"My Best Friend's Wedding" is a romantic-comedy with an skewed sense of romance, but a singularly terrific comic performance, not given by Julia Roberts.

Yes, this is the ideal vehicle for Julia Roberts and, after seeing "My Best Friend's Wedding," no, I still don't see her as either an great actress or star. Julia is an icon in a religion I simply can't comprehend.

The story, where Julianne sets herself the four-day task of destroying the wedding of her "best friend," Michael (Dermot Mulroney), is silly in its abrupt introduction of her destructive, mean spirited plan. Besides, Michael's constant fidelity and affection for Kim (Cameron Diaz) are never, really, in question during the course of the film, so there is little surprise as to the outcome of the story.

Of the cast, most of which are background characters and don't contribute or detract from the film, the highest praise goes to the best comedic performance in the film. Rupert Everett, as Julianne's gay, real "best friend," gives a gem of a performance. He is only on screen for a short time, but in that time, we get nearly all of "Best Friend's" humorous dialog, especially when Everett's George camps it up as Julianne's fiance. I wouldn't discount his perf come year's end, either.

Now, what do I really think of "My Best Friend's Wedding?"

I find it a mildly amusing, light, romantic comedy that will, definitely, appeal to the Julia Roberts fan club - this is a return to the formula that made her famous in "Pretty Woman." Since this is a sizable fan club, I expect the box office to be lucrative, indeed.

There is originality and style in the filmmaking with a clever 50's musical opening number under the credits and a solid use of old standards. Two musical numbers - one in a karaoke bar, the other at a reception - involve rooms full of singing people and are fun and spunky, if a bit absurdist.

The film looks crisp, lensed by the great Laszlo Kovacs in a straightforward manner that is designed to display Julia Roberts most fetchingly.

For those of us not so enthralled with Ms. Roberts, you'll have to endure the movie, but will be mildly entertained with good, old music and some stellar comedy provided almost entirely by Rupert Everett.

While others will, likely, rate "My Best Friend's Wedding" higher than I, I give it a C+.


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