AIR FORCE ONE - MRS. BROWN
AIR BUD - SHALL WE DANCE?

AIR FORCE ONE

Terrorists have taken an entire plane hostage, demanding the release of their leader, a murderous tyrant who has viciously plundered the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Unless General Alexander Radek is released, the terrorists will start executing the hostages. But, if the demand is met and the general is released, hundreds of thousands may die.

One man, whose family is on board the captured plane, must risk their lives against the fate of the world.

The man is the President of the United States. The plane is Air Force One.

Robin ROBIN:
This is the story of "Air Force One," directed by Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire") and starring Harrison Ford as President James Marshall. Marshall, following the successful, secret kidnapping of General Radek by a joint Russian- American commando team, publicly declares war on world terrorism.

Unbeknownst to the American head of state, supporters of the general have gotten on board of Air Force One by posing as a Russian TV news team. With the help of a Secret Service mole (Xander Berkeley), terrorist leader Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman) takes over the airborne White House and threatens to shoot one hostage every 30 minutes until General Radek is released, a threat Korshunov is not afraid to fulfill. Unfortunately, for the terrorists, the president did not escape in the presidential escape pod. He's on board and he is going to kick terrorist butt!

"Air Force One" would be more aptly titled "Air Farce One." Hollywood has come up with some pretty dumb story lines (or excuses for story lines), but, this one is a pip. There is little logic in the way things unfold - zero security is afforded the president, allowing a gang of terrorist thugs on board with no obvious checking; shoot-outs galore take place at 35,000 feet with no regard to damage, never mind losing cabin pressure; guns with infinite bullet supplies; and, especially, a silly Constitutional debate over who's in charge. This kind of mindless, thoughtless writing is now the norm for Hollywood product, with a few exceptions like "Men in Black" and "Contact."

Harrison Ford lends little to the role of the "Die Hard"-like action hero, coming across as wooden when delivering dialog or grand speeches. He is surprisingly non-presidential for Harrison Ford. He does handle the action stuff well, but he has had a lot of practice over the years, so that's no surprise.

Supporting cast is all high-caliber, starting with Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett. She is one of America's great actors and lends a convincing dignity to her character.

Gary Oldman has been better as the main bad guy. Check him out, for instance, in Luc Besson's "The Professional." As the leader of the hijackers, he does little besides yell and bluster with a not-bad Russian accent. His is a phone in kind of performance.

Everyone else, from Wendy Crewson as the First Lady to Dean Stockwell as the pompous Secretary of Defense, are solid characters, not 3D, but certainly serviceable.

Production values are very high, attaining a first-rate look from start to finish. The exterior airborne sequences are exciting, with F-16s battling MiGs to save Air Force One. The getaway plane scene at Ramstein AFB in Germany is edge-of-the-seat exciting. The big rescue scene at the climax is action-packed, but totally derivative of "Cliffhanger."

Until I sat down to write this review, I haven't thought about "Air Force One" a heck of a lot since I walked out of the theater. Not a good recommendation. I give "AF1" a C+, with points for solid tech credits.

Laura LAURA:
Whatever made Harrison Ford choose the role of President James Marshall in "Air Force One?" When we see him hang by his fingers off the parachute ramp off the titular 747 the FIRST time (while a refueling planes explodes into a fireball below him, no less), the film's taken an irrevocable turn from suspension of disbelief. But no, "Air Force One" treats us to this image TWICE MORE!

The film starts well enough. President Marshall is in Moscow where he is being honored by the Russians for their successful joint effort to capture the dangerous fascist General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow) in Kazakhstan. On the spur of the moment, he abandons his prepared speech to make an impassioned policy statement that the U.S. will no longer wait to take action against human rights violations and that terrorists will not be bargained with.

As the President's cavalcade of limousines makes its picturesque way through Red Square to depart the country, a Russian film crew, led by Gary Oldman, is getting the royal treatment aboard the awaiting Air Force One. They're really Kazakhstanian terrorists aided by a traitorous secret service agent, out to hijack the world's most secure plane in order to demand Radek's release. The audience is left to wonder how one secret service agent could have possibly undermined the extensive security checks (including fingerprint matching) necessary to get these five on board.

The President boards and is reunited with his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews of "A Little Princess"). He's now just a regular guy who wants to have a beer and watch a pretaped football game.

The takeover of the plane is well done. The President is separated from his family and rushed to an escape pod which is deployed. Ivan (Oldman) makes a call to the White House where he makes his demands to Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close), vowing to shoot a hostage every half hour until Radek is released. The V.P. has her hands full - they know the escape pod was ejected - is the President alive? The Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell in Alexander Haig mode) is challenging her authority. The Russian Premier won't cooperate without knowing the President's fate.

Of course, Ford has fooled his Security and gotten out of the pod and stayed behind in the plane's hold. Now it's up to him to retake Air Force One.

Director Wolfgang Petersen returns to shooting in the long cramped spaces that made his name with "Das Boat." Technically, "Air Force One" is top rate - from the art direction in recreating the interiors of Air Force One to spectacular action sequences such as the landing and subsequent retakeoff of the plane at Ramstein Air Base. (There's also a beautiful tracking shot of Radek being released from what could only be described as an Orwellian prison.)

However, the script devolves into utter ludicrousness. During the second half of the film the audience is simply pushed too far - by the time the President must first attempt to fly the damaged plane and then be transported off it (in a scene ripped off from "Cliffhanger"), the thrills have turned into guffaws.

The cast is also disappointing. Ford brings nothing new to this role - it's Jack Ryan redux. Gary Oldman has been typecast as a villain once too often, and here he's stripped of the ability to add a little humor as he did in "The Fifth Element." Glenn Close gives the most affecting performance as the V.P. suddenly thrust into the position of making decisions that may impact world history.

C+


MRS. BROWN

Queen Victoria was one of the most revered monarchs in British history, ruling for 64 years. However, the 1860s were a dark period of her reign. When her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a mourning so deep, she completely retreated from her public life. In an effort to rouse the Queen, her late husband's Scottish hunting servant, John Brown, was called to Windsor from Balmoral. John Brown's familiar, brusk method of addressing the Queen shocked all those around them, but his Scottish directness finally broke through to the Queen. The relationship between the two became so close that it became a scandal, with media wags dubbing the Queen "Mrs. Brown."

Laura LAURA:
"Mrs. Brown" was originally produced by BBC Scotland and WGBN/Mobil Masterpiece Theatre for British television, but its director, John Madden, hoped for a theatrical release from the beginning. It deserves what it got.

Dame Judi Dench (most well known to American audiences as M in "Goldeneye") gives a brilliant performance in her first starring screen role as Queen Victoria. The mourning queen we're introduced to is reserved and a bit imperious. She becomes hysterical when Brown is first presented to her at Windsor and deigns to offer heartfelt sympathy for her loss, demanding that he be removed from her presence. Soon, she's opening up to him, though, engaging in real conversations. Her personal secretary, Henry Ponsonby, becomes alarmed that the color in her cheeks upon her return with Brown from a day trip into the Scottish countryside may not be due to the bracing weather or a 'wee nip of whiskey.' After dancing a reel with Brown at Balmoral, the Queen practically simpers.

Billy Connolly ("A Muppet Treasure Island, HBO comedy specials) is the proud, stubborn Scotsman with a fondness for his country's most well known export. His character is interestingly written - instead of being played for sentiment alone, John Brown is initially presented as a man who's impressed by his own access to the throne. He gradually develops a fierce and true love for his Queen while also becoming destructively overly protective of her as well as overly confident of his own realm of influence (he even dares to insult the Prince of Wales!). Connolly is likeable with his irreverent asides delivered in a charming Scottish brogue ("Prince Leopold? Isn't he the one who sits around bleeding all day?"), but doesn't achieve the subtlety of performance that his costar does. Connolly gives us bluster or self reflection/pity without anything in between. It is to Connolly's credit that we feel for him as his importance wanes, but it's Dench who moves us most at his deathbed scene.

Of note is Anthony Sher who plays the wily Prime Minister Disraeli. His character keeps us abreast of the political rumblings surrounding Victoria's retreat and it is he who convinces Brown to give up what he loves most for the overall good of Britain. Sher is superb, embodying the intelligence, wit and diplomancy that was Disraeli.

The film features wonderful location photography in England and Scotland, superb period art direction and costume and a suitable score.

"Mrs. Brown" is a bittersweet love story between two people from incredibly disparate backgrounds which also illustrates the sacrifices made for love of country, duty and honor.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
"Mrs. Brown" is an intelligent, well-written, crisply executed story with a superb performance by Judi Dench - the queen of London stage, whom I had only seen, previously, as M in the James Bond flick, "Goldeneye," so her performance as Queen Victoria is a true revelation. Dench conveys a full range of emotions, from total grief over the loss of her beloved Albert, to blissful happiness when she is immersed into John Brown's world. She is the anchor of the film, making Queen Victoria a real person, enduring life's pains and pleasures the same as common folk, while also being the most powerful woman on earth. To say the least, Dench gives a complex performance, imparting a human face on the legendary sovereign.

The rest of the film, including Billy Connolly's performance as John Brown, tends to pale next to Dench. Connolly, known best for his stand-up comedy work, provides a stolid effort as Brown. He does lends a convincing dignity to the role, making Brown's friendship and dedication to his monarch believable and heartfelt. He plays well off of Dench, but she is the one who holds your attention in their scenes together.

Supporting cast looks good enough, but, with the exception of the outstanding performance by Antony Sher as Disraeli, are little more than background. Sher portrays the Prime Minister in an almost caricature way, accentuating the look and manner of the character. You don't get into the mind of Disraeli, but Sher conveys the power and politics of the period through this man.

Art direction does a decent job of conveying the austerity representative of the Victorian period, but, because of the ascetic nature of that era, sets are tasteful, not notable.

The story is fairly paced. It could have been trimmed by a few minutes to tighten up some of the languid gait of the film's middle. The dialogue, especially between Victoria and Brown, has an honest, real quality that rings believable. Brown's matter-of-fact, openly expressed feelings toward his queen hover on insolent, but do not cross that line.

"Mrs. Brown" is a fine film that stands on its own. It just happens to also have a remarkable performance by an actress who should easily garner all kinds of attention come year's end. It's a much more subtle film than the other movies out there this summer and is a good alternative choice.

I give "Mrs. Brown" a B+ (with an A+ performance by Judi Dench).


AIR BUD

"Basketball is a metaphor for life" is the message of "Air Bud," the latest live-action Disney family feature, starring Buddy as the title character, a golden retriever with the uncanny ability to play regulation basketball. Owned by an inept, abusive clown performer, played by Michael Jetter, Buddy escapes his tormentor, hiding out in an abandoned churchyard in Fernfield, WA.

Arriving in town at the same time is Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers), a young guy with a passion for basketball, but who has a hard time making friends. It's a perfect pairing as Buddy and Josh find each other and give their all to help the school's basketball team reach the state finals.

Robin ROBIN:
"Air Bud" is a one-note film that tries hard, but not successfully, to be a song. The one note is Air Bud (Buddy), a canine Larry Byrd, who brefriends and is befriended by a lonely boy, Josh - together, as a team, they become the catalyst that leads to the success of the Fernfield basketball team.

Added to the core themes of "give it your best" and "teamwork will win" are several other plot lines that confuse the intent of "Air Bud." Michael Jetter as bad clown Slappy Happy, first billed, is there to provide an angst the film doesn't need. He's a mean spirited clown (literally and figuratively), whose selfish intentions toward Buddy do nothing to help the story, just muddle it. Jetter smashes up a lot of things, but doesn't offer any real threat.

Other aspects of the script are either confusing or unnecessary. The team coach is introduced as a caring kind of guy who really tries to bring Josh into the team's fold. A while later, he's sadistically slamming basketballs at one of the kids to make him "a better player," losing his job because of this sadism. I can only think this was done as a means of getting the school janitor and former Knicks player (Bill Cobbs) to be coach. The writers could have done this a lot better accomplishing this transition.

In one laughable bit of story writing, the team's best player and bully is pulled out of a big game. The boy's father, to get revenge for the slight, moves his entire family to another city so his son can play on the opposing team in the finals! Huh?

The tacked on courtroom scene at the picture's end lends nothing to the story. It's a custody battle without the battle. The only thing accomplished with this ending is that it makes the 98-minute film that much longer.

The one and only draw to "Air Bud" is Buddy, who, according to the press material, did most of his own stunt work. Buddy gained fame as a regular on David Letterman's "Late Night" show in the Stupid Animal Tricks spot. Believe it or not, this dog does not just play b-ball, he can act, too! After Michael Jetter, Buddy may be the most veteran member of the cast. He is certainly the most talented and entertaining to watch. Kids will love Buddy.

Supporting cast is an assembly of unknowns, with the exception of Jetter, as the villain, and long-time character actor, Eric Christmas, as the judge presiding over the custody battle. Jetter, usually a noisy character, is just that here, providing many of the film's numerous pratfalls and messes. This is a messy movie, with the makers believing that making a mess and destroying things is funny. It's not.

"Air Bud" is an air burst that misses its target. Buddy's performance raises my grade to a C.

Laura LAURA:
Walt Disney's "Air Bud" must be the first film developed around one of David Letterman's stupid pet tricks. Unfortunately, the screenwriters had to mess with a good thing.

The story beings with a kid and animal hating clown (Michael Jeter, "The Fisher King" and TV's "Evening Shade") flopping at a children's birthday party, which he blames on his dog who is part of his act. Planning on taking the golden retriever to the pound, the dog's animal carrier falls off the back of his pickup, saving him the aggravation.

Enter the Framm family, moving back to Mom's home town after the death of her husband. Her preteen son Josh (Kevin Zegers) has withdrawn after the death of his Dad and adjusting to a new school is no picnic. Forty-five minutes later, as he plays basketball in a court outside an abandoned church (?), he meets Buddy, a dog with a serious talent for shooting hoops.

Zegers is fine and believable as Josh and Buddy's a truly talented dog who's fun to watch, but the screenplay goes all over the map when it should have maintained a simpler storyline. Josh is made 'manager' of the basketball team (after an attempt to join the school band is mysteriously dropped) by a seemingly well-intentioned coach. Josh then discovers that that the school 'engineer' may be an ex-New York Knicks player (Bill Cobbs in an engaging performance). Buddy's talents are inadvertently discovered by the school during a game, Josh gets on the team, the coach is uncovered as a sadistic brute and Josh manages to get the engineer, Arthur Chaney, installed as the new coach. We get a big message about team playing, the bad clown returns to reclaim Buddy after he becomes famous, Josh's team becomes a state finalist, the bad kid former star turns up on the rival team (his dad moved the whole family to another town to get his kid on another team!), Buddy inevitably gets to play in the big game, and finally the whole thing ends up in a courtroom custody case - whew! With all these plot developments, the film manages to drag at a 98 minute running time.

The screenplay also fails by relying on several scenes of elaborately set up pratfalls which seem nothing but elaborately set up.

Kudos for the dog, the kid and the good coach. Maybe they'll find a better story next time around.

C


SHALL WE DANCE?

Ballroom dancing is regarded with suspicion in Japan, a country where even married couples do not touch in public. Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho, "Ran," "Tampopo") is a middle aged accountant who has just completely tethered himself to his humdrum job by purchasing a house for his wife and teenage daughter. During his evening train commutes, Sugiyama becomes captivated by a beautiful woman gazing sadly out the window of a large building. He finally investigates, and finds that the window is that of a dance studio and the woman, Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), is an instructor. Sugiyama signs up for group lessons in order to be near Mai, but when she treats him coldly, he suddenly discovers a true love of dancing.

Laura LAURA:
"Shall We Dance?" is a delightful, bittersweet, gentle comedy which won all 13 Japanese Academy Awards. The film's bound to be compared to the Australian "Strictly Ballroom," but "Shall We Dance?" is a much more complex and completely different type of movie which uses dancing not as an end to itself, but as a vehicle for slowly discovering characters' motivations in the more restrained Japanese society. (The opening narrative, explaining Japan's outlook on ballroom dancing and intimacy in general, was added for Western audiences.)

Mr. Sugiyama's mid-life crisis is brought about by the purchase of a home, which more than ever ties him to his drone-like office existence. Once he takes the plunge and enters the dance studio, he meets an amazing cast of characters. His two partners in group lessons include a wiry, overbearing man who believes himself experienced due to the dance occasions he's been dragged to with his wife and a shy, overweight somewhat nerdy guy. Their dance instructor turns out not to be the desired Mai, but the elder, single Tamako Tamura, a kind and nuturing woman who's given her life to dance. She turns out to be Sugiyama's guiding light, encouraging him and gently pushing him forward.

Mai rebuffs him early on, telling him that if he's there for her, she has no interest in such non-serious endeavors - to her dance is serious business. This only spurs Sugiyama on to become a truly good dancer. He teams with the pushy Toyoko to enter a dance contest. He also discovers that his coworker, Aoki, a man so rigid in the office that he turns corners with military precision, is a flamboyant, competitive dancer.

Sugiyama's wife, who initially wishes he could get more enjoyment from life, becomes suspicious when he begins to spend more time away from home and hires a private investigator to tale him. In an amusing twist, the investigator comes to apprecite the underground ballroom life, and encourages the wife to attend Sugiyama's big competition (unbeknownst to Sugiyama, who's embarrassed to admit the truth to her). As Sugiyama's felled during competition by the same fate that kept Mai from achieving professional greatness in the English world competition at Blackpool, Sugiyama must reevaluate his relationships with his wife, new found friends, office colleagues and Mai.

The cast is wonderful - Yakusho is elegant and endearingly restrained as Sugiyama. Naoto Takenaka is a comic standout as Aoki, the hilariously over-confident womanizing dancer. Reiko Kusamura is quietly charming as the elder dance instructor.

"Shall We Dance?" unfolds slowly, but its rewards are worth waiting for.


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