PLAYING GOD - THE ICE STORM - BOOGIE NIGHTS
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER - DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

PLAYING GOD

In "Playing God," Dr. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) is at a nadir in his life. He's living in squalor after being stripped of his medical license for losing a patient during surgery while high on amphetamines. One night, while at a local nightclub trying to score synthetic heroin, he witnesses a shooting and valiantly saves the man's life using keg tubing and an empty plastic bottle.

He's assisted by the beautiful Claire (Angelina Jolie), the girlfriend of a ruthless crime boss, Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton). Blossom is grateful to Sands and seduces the ex-doctor with money, flashy lifestyle and the chance to become a healer, once again, as a mob "gunshot doctor."

Robin ROBIN:
"Playing God" is one of the biggest letdowns this year. This first feature by British TV director Andy Wilson ("Cracker") starts off with a bang - ex-doctor Eugene has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of his hero's effort, Eugene is thrust into the focus of Raymond, a man who can be both truly thankful and deceiving. Very soon, Dr. Sands finds himself in waters way over his head as his life, and that of FBI mole, Claire, are put in jeopardy by Raymond. Raymond, feeling abandoned after Claire's "death," goes berserk, betraying everyone - the FBI, the Chinese mob, the Russian mob, Claire, Eugene and, even, himself.

The story works nicely for 2/3 of the film. During this time, there is a steady build of tensions, with a strong, continuous undercurrent of black humor, that had me thinking that I was seeing a first-class crime thriller akin to "The Usual Suspects." Eugene gets dragged deeper and deeper into the quagmire of the criminal underworld as he helps Ray's friends clean up their violent messes, until one set of crazies insist, at gunpoint, that the doctor resurrect the dead. This scene is particularly amusing in its combination of raw violence and droll humor.

Then, things take a downward and confusing turn that the film never recovers from. It starts with a moronic scene in a biker bar where Doc Eugene operates on Claire who was wounded in a mob shootout. He is assisted during the operation, believe it or not, by the bar's salty owner and her Hell's Angels-like regulars, one of whom offers the doctor his switchblade as a scalpel. Really. After this horrible scene, the story takes a sharper downward spiral as it meanders through Raymond making deals with the aforementioned FBI, Chinese and Russian mobs, then betraying all. I had a hard time following the sense of the last third. It's as if, after a fascinating 66% of the movie, the makers decided to dump the talented writers and recruit the first man-in-the-street they could find to hack together the bewildered ending. This is a real shame, considering the intriguing and exciting buildup.

David Duchovny, as Doc Sands, is an interesting tragic figure throughout "Playing God," giving his character a downbeat air as he accepts his circumstance, good or bad, without comment or complaint. Eugene is one of the few action movie good guys who has a real aversion to guns and a reluctance, god forbid, to shoot anybody. His inner physician is the over-riding quality of the character, making Eugene a unique kind of hero for the genre. Duchovny is subdued in the role, but I think this is part of the befuddlement his drug-addled doctor should exhibit. His wry delivery of the self-effacing humor (Ray: "Do you think I,m going to hurt you?" Eugene: "No, I'm just trying to plan my day.") is fitting for his anti-hero.

Timothy Hutton, following his Oscar-winning performance in Robert Redford's "Ordinary People," tended to an uneven series of career choices, but is making a new start as a movie bad guy. His friendly good looks, coupled with an ability to portray ruthless violence, can give his acting pursuits a different turn if he goes with his new-found flow.

Angelina Jolie, who made a striking feature debut in the little independent film from last year, "Foxfire," gives a mature, believable performance for a 21-year-old playing a 28-year-old provocateur and femme fatale. I liked her in "Foxfire" (yes, a chick flick), like her even more in "Playing God," and look forward to her future efforts.

Supporting cast, led by Michael Masse ("Lost Highway") as primary FBI agent Gage, and Peter Stormare ("Fargo"), as loony Russian mobster Vladimir, are background characters only, not changing the nature of the film at all, or adding much to the equation. It,s the top level where the quality lives, with the secondary characters relegated to the serviceable category.

"Playing God" takes a major hit with the writing of the last third of the film. I can,t believe that the same author(s) who provided the intelligence of the first 2/3's of the film were involved in the last part. That's how divergent the end is from the body of the film.

Tech credits are solid but not outstanding.

At the hour mark, I was rooting to give "Playing God" an A. In the end, I only give it a C.

Laura LAURA:
David Duchovny's never impressed me as much of an actor (except for his Emmy nominated guest turn on "The Larry Sanders Show") and my opinion wasn't changed by "Playing God." Duchovny doesn't seem to possess the requisite range of facial expressions needed by an actor to convey emotion. He's OK, though, providing a point of view for the audience as Dr. Eugene Sands, a man who's introduced to a foreign and violent world where he's constantly handed moral dilemmas.

Duchovny's two costars fare much better. The underrated Timothy Hutton is just shy of over the top as the charismatic and seductive Raymond Blossom. He's a joy to watch. I hope his agent finds him a starring role in a more successful film. Angelina Jolie is also affecting as Claire, a woman who's bound to Blossom but attracted to Sands. She's also not afraid to look bad, letting her makeup smear and becoming a very convincing gunshot victim. Peter Stormare ("Fargo") has some fun as a Russian mobster. Michael Massee ("The Crow," "Lost Highway") is a bit ludicrous as an inept FBI agent.

"Playing God" is quite exciting for its first two thirds with its intrigue, plot twists, fast action and love triangle. Unfortunately, the film goes downhill after a really silly scene where a bunch of angelic bikers assist Dr. Sands in yet another clandestine surgery in the midst of a biker bar in the middle of the afternoon.

There's nothing more disappointing to see a film with as much potential as "Playing God" initially displays throw away its logic.

C


THE ICE STORM

On the tenth anniversary of the assassination of JFK, two neighboring families in tony New Canaan, Connecticutt are about to have their ice-coated worlds shatterted over Thanksgiving weekend. As Nixon's Watergate plays out over the Hoods' television, Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) are barely keeping their marriage together as their son Paul (Tobey Maguire) returns from his first semester away at college and their daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) apes the adult behavior she observes by playing precocious sex games with brothers Mikey and Sandy Carver (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) next door.

Elena Hood is drowning in the knowledge that her husband is having an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), who's married to the brilliant but oblivious Jim (Jamey Sheridan).

Laura LAURA:
The climatical ice storm in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" is a metaphor for what will happen to each member of two families over the course of a holiday weekend in 1973. We're constantly presented with images of icy surfaces, from ice being broken apart for cocktails to the panes of glass characters often gaze through. Even the score features chimelike sounds created by flutes and Native American instruments.

Taiwanese Director Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility") has assembled a strong ensemble cast to continue to delve into the dynamics of familial relationships. Kevin Kline manages to be sympathetic as the adulterous Ben Hood by the humor with which he parents his children and his general sweet befuddlement. Joan Allen ("Nixon," "The Crucible") is terrific as the anguished wife who can't bring herself to speak to her husband about their marital problems but expresses her pain by shoplifting pharmacy cosmetics. In a terrific scene, she's approached by a long-haired hippy minister who clearly is attracted to her while she ponders self help books at an outdoor book fair. As she hesitatingly begins to reach out to the man, then withdraws, she sees her daughter Wendy fly down the street on a bicycle and is rapturously elated by the freedom of the scene. Sigourney Weaver is an ice queen, all society-driven surface in her hip wardrobe but bored by life. Jamey Sheridan is touching as a brilliant inventor and kind man who's blind to what makes his family tick.

The kids have equal weight in their parallel story. Tobey Maguire is the story's narrator as Paul Hood. His roommate sleeps with every girl he desires and he can't lose his virginity because of the 'big brother' effect he has on women. He has an amusing relationship with his 14 year old sister Wendy, played by Christina Ricci from "The Addams Family" movies - they both call each other Charles. Wendy's discovering that she can wield her sexuality as power over Mikey (Elijah Wood), who's as brilliant as his Dad and even more out of touch with reality, as well as his younger brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd of "Little Man Tate") who clearly adores Wendy.

The 70's are sharply remembered from the macrame vests and turtlenecks worn under shirts to the then modernistic houses and the 'key party' where men are asked to leave their car keys in a bowl by the door for their wives to later pick the set whose owner will spend the night with them. Elena uses this unexpected wife-swapping opportunity to vent her rage at Ben, who publically exposes his affair with Janey in a drunken display when Janey rejects him by choosing another man's car keys.

"The Ice Storm" is beautifully rendered in all its technical components, from James Schamus Cannes winning script adaptation of Rick Moody's novel, to Frederick Elmes cinematography, to Mark Friedberg's production design (the ice storm is gorgeously realized) and Carol Oditz's perfect costuming. The only problem with the execution is that the filmmakers somehow have distanced the audience from the story, but in a film so encased in brittle surfaces, that could be by design.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
Ang Lee (or, is it now Angst Lee?) takes a drastic departure from his usual, lighter toned films - the trilogy "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," and Oscar-winner, "Sense and Sensibility" - and turned to a low, sullen point in American history as his subject matter. Nixon is in disgrace, the Vietnam War is winding down (but, is still shipping American boys home in body bags), and sexual liberation has reached the 'burbs of New Canaan, Conn., in the guise of "key parties."

Utilizing a stellar and abundant cast, Lee, from a screenplay by long-time collaborator James Schamus, takes us to the day after Thanksgiving, 1973, in the small New England community, and introduces us to the various characters making up this tale. An ice storm is in the making and that portends ill for someone we'll meet along the way. This air of foreboding is carried through the film, with the only question being, "Who's going to get it?".

The players in this intrigue are led by the Hood family. Dad Ben, mom Elena, son Paul and daughter Wendy are outwardly a normal, suburban family, coping with the stresses of the times. Inwardly, however, things are on the verge of flying apart for the little clan, as Ben screws, with increasing lack of success, next door neighbor Janey Carver (Weaver). Elena, sensing the infidelity and feeling the emotional impact of the betrayal by Ben, turns to shoplifting (and, is caught, in what can only be a call for help). Wendy begins experimenting with sex (with Janey's sons. Ironic, huh?). Paul just wants to get laid with a pretty young thing from prep school.

Outside the Hood household, the only characters that have any significant impact or depth are Mike (Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), who are, simultaneously, victims and voluptuaries of Wendy, a sexually awakened 14-year old, rebelling against her father's overt infidelity and hypocrisy.

Out of this diverse cast of characters, the shining performance is by the talented Joan Allen as the cheated on Elena. Elena, an intelligent and attractive housewife, has spent her years nurturing her family. Now, with the job nearly done, she is faced with an unfaithful husband (not only is he unfaithful, he's screwing around with the neighborhood bitch-on-wheels, Janey, played with single-minded nastiness by Weaver), and children who no longer need her. Allen plays Elena quietly, but with a volcano boiling inside. Following her previous efforts in "Nixon" and "The Crucible," Allen is proving herself to be one of our premier actors.

Christina Ricci also gives a notable performance as the sexually curious Wendy. She's about ready to explode into adulthood and is trying to get as much on-the-job-training, it seems, as she can. This is an awkward role and Ricci does well, putting a dark edge on the character - in a scene where her hypocrite father catches her in a compromising act with Mike, she wears a Nixon mask and a palpable air of disdain for her parent.

Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire and the rest of the ensemble cast are relegated to being two-dimensional characters at best. Kline is wooden, even uncomfortable, as the guilt-ridden womanizing Ben. Weaver cloaks her character in nastiness. Of the ensemble, only Jamey Sheridan as Weaver's cuckolded husband, Jim, provides any depth to his role.

The script, by Schamus, is as cold as the storm of the title. There is little of a positive nature to the story, with most events taking on a bleak hopelessness. Lee carries this bleak nature into his direction, eliciting near chill performances from his actors. This is, apparently, by intent, but left me cold inside, too.

Art direction, by Mark Friedberg, is stunning in its execution of the ice storm. Creating an ice-coated world, without ice, is a daunting task, but the artists and technician do a beautiful, believable job in creating the backdrop of the film.

The score by Mychael Danna, peppered with pop music from the early 70's is performed by the Gamelan Ensemble, using brass and wood instruments from Indonesia, and provides an eerie quality - a distinctly tropical-sounding music that, somehow, lends nicely to the iciness of the night of the story and the period in which it takes place.

I am less than taken with "The Ice Storm." Ang Lee is a terrific filmmaker, but his usually upbeat directing style is stilted by the angst It's a well crafted, but, ultimately, negative-feeling movie. I give it a B-.


BOOGIE NIGHTS

"Boogie Nights," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (following his first feature, "Hard Eight"), stars an ensemble cast led by Mark Wahlberg as Eddie Adams, a somewhat dim young man who believes that everyone has one special thing about them. Eddie,s special anatomical gift leads him to the attention of porno film producer, Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds, and his extended family of adult film stars, including Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). It also leads the young stud to take on the stage name of Dirk Diggler and a career in the thriving hard-core industry in LA.

Robin ROBIN:
"Boogie Nights" is a solid second effort by Anderson, creating a convincing image of the 70's and the LA porno scene, though the film's near epic runtime of 2 1/2 hours overextends the material - 30 minutes could have been cut without loss to the film. (Still, it doesn't feel that long.) The story follows the life of young Eddie Adams from 1977 to 1984, chronicling his rise to porno stardom as Dirk Diggler, with Jack as his mentor, to his decline and fall as the porno film industry breaks apart in the face of increasing drug abuse and, more importantly, the rise of video.

The story follows young Eddie, a high school dropout working as a dishwasher, whose nagging mother keeps hassling to make something of himself. Eddie has little by way of talent - except for his prodigious sex organ and an uncanny ability to perform at will. After meeting porno filmmaker, Jack Horner, Eddie finds his true calling and joins Jack's extended family and his movie business. The collection of dysfunctional family members includes Jack's leading lady, Amber Waves, as the earth mother of the family, Rollergirl, who would sooner shed her clothes than her skates, and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), an actor who desperately to belong, somewhere, and finds a home with Jack, Amber et al.

Mark Wahlberg ("The Basketball Diaries"), while not giving the stellar performance he is being credited with, does give a strong portrayal in his Eddie Adams, beginning as the naive boy-with-a-dream, then transforming him into the amiable porn stud, Dirk Diggler, who rises to fame and fortune. As with any tragic figure, Dirk succumbs to the plentiful drugs and other abuses of his chosen life, crashing because of his own frailties. Wahlberg develops Eddie's character through the film, from selfless to selfish to penitent, with skill and maturity. He firmly establishes himself as a talented young actor who will get lots of work in the future on the strength of this performance.

Burt Reynolds, as everyone is saying, gives one of his best performances in years. He plays the porno patriarch, for both his extended family and his business, with a dignity and integrity not usually considered a part of this sleazy and exploitive profession. Jack honestly cares for, even loves, his "children," and not in a carnal way - it's as if he's through with mere physical sex and decided to dedicate himself to the celluloid kind. Through bad times and good, Jack always strives to keep his oddball family together, if not intact. Reynolds is, deservedly, being given early Oscar consideration - high praise considering Hollywood's best is yet to come.

Supporting cast, led by Julianne Moore ("Safe," "The Lost World"), is varied and talented. Moore, as Amber, is an enigma. She lives the extreme lifestyle of an adult movie star and all it entails, but is also the nurturing mother-figure to the nutty little clan. Her chosen life also cost her real motherhood, losing custody of her son because of her tawdry profession. Moore plays Amber as kind and loving woman, caring for her family, while performing hard core coitus for the camera. She, like Eddie, falls for the harmful allure of the easy drugs, too.

Heather Graham ("Swingers"), as the promiscuous, but nice, Rollergirl, is funny and tough, thriving on the excitement of the porn business during its heyday, and sticking with Jack through its doldrums. Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Twister") is decent as the pathetic Scotty J, a hanger-on who has a passionate crush on Eddie. William H. Macey ("Fargo"), as Jack's director Little Bill, is an out of place character, carrying the burden of a cuckolding wife through the film, as an aside, until the expected violent ending. Don Cheadle's character Buck, is out of place in the family and the fjilm.

The most performance part in the movie goes to Alfred Molina, as an ultra-wealthy drug abuser to whom Eddie, at the bottom of his proverbial barrel, and his friends try to sell cornstarch as heroin. With firecrackers going off every few seconds, the scene is fraught with tension as the scam blows up and the boys escape, barely, with their lies. The tone of the scene is different than the rest of the movie, more garish and nasty, but it works well, giving a jolt to the proceedings.

The screenplay, by Anderson, attempts to take on an Robert Altman-style with its ensemble cast and intertwining stories. Altman is a master who can pull off such an effort with a seamless flow. "Boogie Nights" is more episodic than flowing, giving the film a choppiness, especially in the ancillary stories. There is also a squeaky cleanness and lack of sleaze about the story that doesn't ring quite true. Adult entertainment is a sleazy business, but, with it's focus on Jack, Dirk and the extended family, "Boogie Nights" makes it look amost wholesome. Even with the R-rating limitations, I think the makers could have extended the raunch factor a little farther. This is the same mild complaint that I had with "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

Production design, by Bob Ziembicki ("Eat a Bowl of Tea") captures the look and feel of the 70's. Costuming and set complement the,s and 80 period feel being sought quite well, giving the actors the appropriate backdrop depicting the period.

"Boogie Nights" is an original film about a little-done subject, providing good acting and an interesting story. It's less explicit than I expect a film about the porno industry to be, and too long, but it's an accessible film for most adult viewers and is worth the attention. I give it a B+.

Laura LAURA:
Sophmore writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Hard Eight") has made an audacious, Altmanesque epic about the porn industry at the height of its glory in the late 1970's. Anderson has created a world where a bunch of losers have recreated themselves as stars under the guiding hand of the paternalistic Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a wildy successful XXX rated film director. When Jack and his leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) visit a nightclub, Jack's eye is caught by a young bus boy (Mark Wahlberg). Following the young man into the kitchen, Jack realizes he's made a major discover when Wahlberg, believing him to be a pervert, offers to show him his 'talent' for $10. The John Holmes-like Dirk Diggler is born. (In one of the film's running gags, we're treated to the astonished reaction shots of several characters whenever Diggler's appendage is produced.)

The cast also includes Heather Graham (TV's "Twin Peaks," "Swingers") as Rollergirl, a high school dropout who'll rid herself of everything but her skates at the drop of a hat, John C. Reilly ("Days of Thunder," "Hard Eight") as Reed Rothchild, Horner's dim leading man who's bumped into sidekick status in both real life and the movies by the equally dim Diggler, Don Cheadle ("Devil in a Blue Dress," "Volcano") as Buck Swope, the troop's black leading man with a penchant for cowboy dress and country and western during one of their least popular timeframes, and William H. Macy ("Fargo") as Little Bill, the tragic assistant director who can't manage to keep his wife from screwing everybody literally under his nose. Three really terrific performances come from some of the smaller charcters. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the overweight, unhip hanger-on with a crush on Dirk - everyone's known someone like Scotty. Alfred Molina gives a manically coked out performance as a billionaire whose companion is a young Chinese man who constantly flings firecrackers around the room (creating additional tension in a scene that hardly needs more!). Prolific character actor Luis Guzman ("Q&A," "Carlito's Way") is Rodriguez, the nightclub owner who wants to show off to his brothers back in Puerto Rico by getting into one of Horners films.

The story arcs over a period of seven years, beginning in an era where coke still seems to be only a high and Aids is unknown. Eventually all the characters, with the exception of Jack, hit bottom for one reason or another. Rothchild follows Diggler when he gets too big for his britches and strikes out on his own to meet failure head on. Diggler falls low enough to have to offer himself as a homosexual hooker before crawling back to Jack. Buck Swope can't get financing for his dream stereo store until he's present at a fortuitous holdup at a donut store while his pregnant wife waits outside. Earth mother to all, Amber Waves is crushed in an attempt to win back visitation rights with her son when her ex-husband (John Doe of the band X) makes her face the fact that she's a drug addicted porno actress with a criminal record. In the film's most harrowing scene, Jack Horner takes a stab at the video age by offering Rollergirl from the back of a limo to passing strangers for 'on the street' reality filmmaking. When their first approachee enthusiastically agrees to videotaped sex in the back of a limo, Rollergirl realizes with horror that this is a former schoolmate who abased her with lewd innuendo and the porn scene becomes rape.

Ostensibly Mark Wahlberg is the star of "Boogie Nights." While I'm sure his career will get a major jumpstart from this role, it's Burt Reynolds who gives the best performance and grounds the entire film. It's ironic that Reynolds has been making his comeback playing slimeballs in "Striptease" and "Citizen Ruth" but finally makes his career capping performance as a benign pornographer (AND makes him a thoroughly believable character). The other stars of "Boogie Nights" are Anderson's script, punctuated with snappy dialogue and intriguingly untold stories only hinted at (like the strained family life Wahlberg flees) and the brilliant cinematography which could have been shot by Rollergirl herself. The opening scene is a masterpiece of choreographed camera movement as all the major players are introduced as they wander through Rodriguez' nightclub. The playful soundtrack features such era-defining tunes as "Fly Robin, Fly," "Afternoon Delight," and "Spill the Wine."

I can't be completely completely positive about "Boogie Nights," though. For one thing, the film stretches credability when it too kindly allows almost all of its characters to bounce back from the bottom. We never see any reverberations from the viscous beating received by Rollergirl's would be rapist by Horner and Rollergirl herself, using her skate wheels. The two characters who don't make it consist of one character who wasn't defined enough to make his loss anything but a visual jolt and another who's a pedophile (today's current height of evil). Structurally, the film's a bit too loosely tailored, although it's two and a half hour running time still sails by.

Still and all, "Boogie Nights" is a real achievement as astory of self delusion run amok amid a family of losers. The sex scenes are handled with real restraint (and even cleverness as we're taken inside the lens of the camera as the going gets too hot), but we do finally get the payoff of observing Diggler's talent for ourselves in the final scene - rest assured, it's a stand-in.

A-


I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

In an effort to score with the audience that made last year's "Scream" such a huge hit, that film's screenwriter has come up with another teen slasher flick who's title tips its hat to the '65 Castle film "I Saw What You Did." Julie (TV's "Party of Five's" Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Sarah Michelle Gellar) and their respective boyfriends, poor poet Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and jock Barry (Ryan Phillippe) are driving home after celebrating the Fourth of July and Helen's win at the local beauty pageant when they accidentally hit someone. In horror movie logic, the foursome decide to hide the body so as not to jeopardize their starry eyed futures. When the body makes a grab for Helen's crown just before they dump it off a pier, the coverup becomes murder. One year later, the four are stalked by a maniacal killer with a hook after Julie receives a note with the title messages.

Laura LAURA:
"I Know What You Did Last Summer" is a silly, illogical excuse to trot out horror movie cliches and pile up bodies capped off with an obvious sequel demanding ending. After having some fun with the old urban legend of 'the hook on lover's lane' the whole thing turns numbingly stupid. "Scream" had a killer with a horrific Munsch mask. "I Know What You Did Last Summer" features a fisherman killer who looks like he's walked off a Gorton's seafood ad. This is supposed to be scary?

To begin the insult, the cast's best actor, "Roseanne's" Johnny Galecki becomes the first victim as Max, the kid who almost discovered what the quartet was up to. This is illogical, as Max was a good candidate for being the note sender and he wasn't involved with the crime. Anne Heche shows up as the backwood's sister of the next suspect, a young man depressed over the accidental death of his fiancee in a car he was driving, only to provide the 'jump out when you least expect it' fake scare scene. The killer has access to Helen and chooses only to cut her hair as she sleeps, even though he goes after her later in the film. He has access to Julie in the shower later in the film only to leave another threatening note.

There are a couple of spooky moments - Helen watches in horror from the beauty pageant stage as the killer comes up behind her boyfriend (although I had to chuckle as "Scream"-documented cliche "Look behind you!" was screamed) and there's some nice timing as we watch the killer preceed Helen upstairs to her bedroom always a fraction of a second before her sightline. Other than that this is a silly waste of time, executed with technical proficiency.

D+


DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

"Devil's Advocate," directed by Taylor Hackford, stars Keanu Reeves as Kevin Lomax, a young Florida defense attorney who is a success both in and out of court. He has never lost a single case, no matter how repugnant the crime or the defendant, and he is happily married to his sexy young wife, Mary Ann (Charleze Theron).

Following a torrid child molester trial where he badgers a young prosecution witness (Heather Matarzano) without mercy to gain an acquittal for his sleazy client, Lomax is solicited by a high-powered New York lawyer representing John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of a powerful and mysterious law firm with an international clientele. John wants Kevin to join his firm and offers him, and Mary Ann, everything they could hope for - a luxurious home, huge salary, and a position in life that can't be topped.

Robin ROBIN:
Taylor Hackford has created a horrific and darkly satiric feature that puts to terrific use its art direction, neatly written story and an outrageous performance by the master, Al Pacino, as the devilish John Milton.

First and foremost, the best, most entertaining thing in "Devil's Advocate" is the exuberantly wicked (and funny) performance by Pacino. He goes over the top, as one would expect, as the Lord of Hell (or, at least, a highly placed minion), delivering a perf that is as outrageous as his character in "Donnie Brasco" is subdued. He plays John Milton as an omniscient powerhouse who, because of the dark forces of evil at his beck and call, can manipulate his subjects of desire at will. Pacino's undaunted command of the screen takes on new proportions as he, gleefully, expounds upon the virtues of evil ("Vanity is my favorite sin.") and challenges God, himself, in his own home! I hate to call this an Oscar-deserving role, Pacino has too much fun. But, if the Academy every decides, again, to use an actor's body of work for the year as a criterion for Oscar contention, then this would be Pacino's year.

Other acting efforts, while not at Pacino's level, are pretty darn good across the board. Keanu Reeves, surprisingly, is more than the usual pretty face and gives a convincing characterization as Kevin Lomax. Kevin is a man driven by ambition. He's the ultimate lawyer - "I win! That's what I do!" - and is the perfect recruit for John Milton. Reeves' descent into moral corruption is handled with a combination of bewilderment and savvy as he works to free a reprehensible murderer in the guise of high-rolling real estate developer Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson). The moral implications of the case plunge Kevin into a dilemma that is the catalyst for the film's climax. Reeves is as good, here, as in anything I've seen him in (which, to some, may not mean a heck of a lot).

Charlize Theron, an extremely attractive young actress who gave a marvelous turn in "2 Days in the Valley," works hard opposite her more experienced co-stars and gives the most varied performance of the principals. She goes from the naif southern belle, a hick from the sticks to a fearful, disoriented victim of the evil wiles of John Milton in New York, Her fall into delusion and paranoia is accompanied by her change in look, from the frothy, tanned southerner to the frightened-to-death, wan victim of Milton's ruinous efforts. Theron's resume gets a gold star.

Supporting cast is suitable without note, though Jeffrey Jones elicited a laugh from the audience when he first came on the screen, thanks to "Howard the Duck" and other films. Judith Ivy, as Lomax's bible-thumping mom, gives a dignified and memorable performance in a small role..

Set design is a big part of the success of "Devil's Advocate." The use of fire to establish the hellish aspect of Milton's lair, along with the erotic/demonic sculpture as the focal point in his office, lend to the total character portrayed by Pacino. Bruno Rubeo uses a broad palate of colors and technique to give a vibrancy to the production's look. It's bright without being garish.

Hackford's direction is seamless, using the talented Pacino to excellent advantage, while drawing solid perfs from the younger members of the cast.

The script, adapted from Andrew Neiderman's novel by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, sustains its 2+ hour run time with wit and insidious horror, drawing the viewer into the heart of the story with amusement and thrills. The ending caught me by surprise (enough said about that), which is pretty darn unusual for a Hollywood movie.

"Devil's Advocate" is great fun, with a mildly horrific edge, and a great portrayal of demonic glee by Al Pacino. I give it a B+.

Laura LAURA:
Hoo-ha, "The Devil's Advocate" is a sinister thrill ride! Al Pacino chews scenery with real panache as John Milton, head of the incredibly wealthy NYC law firm of Milton, Chadwich, Waters, which specializes in defending guilty clients of heinous crimes. It's "The Firm" by way of "Rosemary's Baby."

Keannu Reeves costars as Kevin Lomax, a fresh scrubbed young Florida defense attorney in love with his beautiful young wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron, "2 Days in the Valley," "Trial and Error"). Lomax, who's never lost a case, is introduced defending a math teacher accused of sexually molesting a young student ("Wellcome to the Dollhouse's" Heather Matarzano). When he wins what's surely been an unwinnable case, he's visited by a New York attorney with promises of an amazing career at Milton's firm. Over the objections of his bible thumping Mom (Judith Ivey), Lomax and his wife fly to New York and are quickly seduced by the huge salary, Dakota apartment and Milton's charm. Lomax's gradual discovery that he's doing the devil's own work after defending a weird voodoo cultist (Delroy Lindo) and a wealthy real estate developer (Craig T. Nelson) guilty of murdering his wife, child and maid only comes after his wife's gone mad and his mother's admitted that Milton is his unknown father.

Al Pacino offers the flip side of his acting talents - after breaking my heart in "Donnie Brasco," here he's all strut and swagger as the man who exhults in all of life's pleasures. He's got an impish gleam in his eye whether he's being sexually serviced under a restaurant table or flying high in the legal world. In the film's brashest moment, he's positively cheeky when he holds his finger an inch over a holy water font and dares God himself. With a nod to both "Dracula's Brides" and "Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula," Milton is usually accompanied by vampirous lovelies, most notably lawyer Christabella (Connie Nielson) who immediately captures Lomax' eye. Reeves shows a confidence as Lomax that was painfully absent when he was presented with the real Dracula's brides in Coppola's film. This is one of Reeves' best acting jobs to date, even if the Florida accent is a shade inconsistent. Theron is merely OK as Lomax' bride, although she does manage to make us feel some of her anguish as she alone sees the demons within the law firms' women and is robbed of her ability to bear children in a Rosemary reversal.

The film makes spectacular use of special effects. It's genuinely creepy when Mary Ann sees the flicker of a demon wash over the face of the materialistic wife of another lawyer. Clouds, day and night gallop over city scapes via high speed photography. An entire New York City street is eerily empty as Kevin Lomax goes to meet his father for the last time. The climatic scene in Milton's wildly designed office tips its hat to Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" and Dante's Inferno. Sets are opulent enough to feature Donald Trump's own penthouse.

"Devil's Advocate" is another film that boasts a two and half hour run time which is never felt. It also features one of the most satisfying one-two-three punch endings of the year.

Director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," the underrated "Dolores Claiborne") pulls the whole outrageous story off with flair and wit and I think he has a huge hit on his hands. "Devil's Advocate" may be the most elaborate lawyer joke of all.

A-


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