DANGEROUS BEAUTY - THE BORROWERS - THE WEDDING SINGER
KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE - LIVE FLESH - KISSING A FOOL

DANGEROUS BEAUTY

"Dangerous Beauty" tells the true story of courtesan Veronica Franco. It's a very modern story of an early feminist who, unable to wed the man she loves due to her poor station in life, learns the arts of the courtesan in order to build an independent life for herself. Ironically, in 1583 Venice, only courtesans were allowed an education and training in the arts, while the wealthier wives were kept closetted in the home.

Laura LAURA:
"Dangerous Beauty" is an odd film that mostly works even though it never quite achieves an even tone. It features a cast made up of British and American actors, directed by American Marshall Herskovitz (TV's "thirtysomething," "Jack the Bear") on location in Italy and at Rome's Cinecitta Studios where 16th century Venice's canals were recreated.

Catherine McCormack (Mel Gibson's bride in "Braveheart") plays Veronica as a simple, naive girl who turns into an intelligent, witty and powerful courtesan with the aid of her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), a former courtesan herself. Two events spur this decision - her rejection by Marco Venier (Rufus Sewall, "Cold Comfort Farm") as a suitable marriage prospect and Veronica's horror at the arranged marriage of her friend Beatrice Venier (Moira Kelly, "The Cutting Edge") to a rich man three times her age. Marco, also subjected to a loveless arranged marriage, lusts after Veronica and she delights on turning the tables on him. Marco's poor cousin Maffio (Oliver Platt) enjoys playing word games with Veronica at court, but turns against her when she also rejects him. His return later in the film as a vengeful priest with the Spanish Inquisition is one of the films oddly radical shifts in tone which, while not unexpected, doesn't quite work. In a strange bit of casting, Fred Ward ("The Right Stuff") plays Marco's powerful uncle, who also falls under Veronica's spell. Other name actors, such as Jeroen Krabbe and Joanna Cassidy, barely register on screen.

"Dangerous Beauty" is essentially a historical romantic bodice ripper played with humor during its first two thirds and utter seriousness in its last. Veronica eventually becomes Marco's mistress after he stands up for her against his cousin. She also manages to save Venice by reluctantly seducing the King of France. When the Plague hits Venice and the Spanish Inquisition ride into town, Marco stands up for her once again, brandishing the guilt of male Venetian power figures like a lance in a courtroom scene that may induce a small fit of the giggles.

Technically, the film is beautifully handled, featuring bright and colorful cinematography by Bojan Bazelli ("King of New York") and brilliant costumes by Oscar winning Gabriella Pescucci.

If you've ever been guilty of enjoying a trashy historical romance novel, "Dangerous Beauty" will be your cup of tea.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
Based on Margaret Rosenthal's biography of the legendary 16th century Venetian courtesan and poetess Veronica Franco, "Dangerous Beauty" tells a story about a time when women have few rights and are treated as property by their husbands. Veronica, penniless and without birth status, has two choices - a life of dour drudgery in a poor marriage, or a chance for one of education, comfort, elegance and, of course, the virtues of seduction.

The lusty, bawdy possibilities of the story are intriguing, so I was more than a little disappointed while watching "Dangerous Beauty." Catherine McCormack, who made such a striking debut opposite Mel Gibson in "Brave Heart" as the spunky, self-minded secret wife of William Wallace, looks great as Veronica, but does not have the experience to pull off such a demanding role. As the story progresses, McCormack control of the screen wanes until she just appears to go through the motions of playing the character, but not being the character.

The cast is made up with a variety of familiar faces. Oliver Platt, Moira Kelly, Fred Ward, Jeroen Krabbe, Joanna Cassidy, Rufus Sewell and Jacqueline Bisset provide a range of performances, from good to bordering on bad. Bisset acquits herself best as Veronica's mother and teacher, lending her dignity and experience to her daughter's training. Oliver Platt has the distinction of getting the silliest role as he goes from being the scamp sidekick of leading man Rufus Sewell to the black robed inquisitor by the end. Very bad. The rest of the cast have little, if anything, of substance to do.

The story copies other films liberally, though haphazardly. It ranges from "The Three Musketeers" type action to a "Pygmalion" sequence where Veronica's (Bisset) mom teaches her to become a top rated courtesan. During the silly scene, the normally demure and graceful Veronica has to be trained on the important things like eating, drinking and walking, none of which she seemed to have known how to do before the lessons. There's also a Helen of Troy scene as Veronica, single-handed and without the help of any of Venice's men, "convinces" (wink) the King of France to supply a fleet of ships to defeat the invading Turks.

The ending of the film, when Veronica is confronted by the Inquisition for being a witch, is straight out of "Footloose" in a trite, if not outright stupid, bit of filmmaking, as all the powerful men of Venice, one by one, stand up against the Inquisition for their favorite harlot. This derivative ending is jaw dropping in its total lack of originality.

The look of the film is quite stunning, with Venice as a backdrop to the colorful costumes and sets. Too bad they are wasted on such a flat film. "Dangerous Beauty" wastes its techs on a formula story and little acting presence. I didn't think a film with beautiful, nude women and a sultry atmosphere could be so boring, but it is, and I give it a C-.


THE BORROWERS

Have you ever misplaced something? A pen, a sock, a spool of thread? Something you swore was there? Well, there is a very simple explanation... The Borrowers. Directed by Peter Hewitt ("Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"), "The Borrowers" is based on the internationally acclaimed children's books by Mary Norton ("Bedknobs and Broomsticks") and stars John Goodman as evil attorney Ocious P. Potter and Jim Broadbent as his diminutive foe, four-inch tall Pod Clock.

Robin ROBIN:
The story of "The Borrowers" is a classic protect-the-old-homestead tale that begins with the owners of a neo-50's mansion, the Lenders, about to be cheated out of their inheritted home by the noxious lawyer Ocious. Following the death of the beloved aunt of Peter Lender, Potter has hidden the last will and testament of the aunt in an attempt to cheat the rightful owners of their inheritance and make a bundle in the process. Unbeknownst to the gold-ensconced Potter, the Borrowers of the Lender household are on the case as they try to right the wrongs and maintain the integrity oftheir, and their benefactors', home.

The wonderful screenplay by Gavin Scott and John Camps complements the pesrformances by all the actors involved. John Goodman is perfect as the greedy, thieving lawyer Potter. He is a slick, slimy character who does his namesake proud (remember the wicked Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life"?). His wicked schemes are countered by the tiny Borrowers in a deft series of adventures that culminate in an ending that one hopes for and is achieved.

Jim Broadbent as head of the little Borrower family, Mr. Pod Clock, is also first rate as the uncomplex (though, not simple, an important distinction) bread-winner, who goes to great physical lengths to protect and defend his family and home. Pod is the tiny equivalent of Indiana Jones at his very be4st as he winds his way throughout the house in search of useful items to "borrow." His little family, wife Homily (Celia Imire), daughter Arrietty (Flora Newbigin), and son Peagreen (Tom Felton), are a perfect complement to the plucky dad.

The rest of the cast of big are nearly as good as Goodman and Broadbent, with Mark Williams as Exterminator Jeff (with his sidekick, Mr. Sniffers, a flatulent bloodhound with a penchant for cheese) giving a good turn as the hired pest killer who realizes that Potter is wrong in trying to get rid of the Borrowers. Hugh Laurie as the nice local beat cop, Officer Steady (who dresses like a storm trooper, but acts like a pussycat), also helps to lend the film a storybook quality to the background characters. The Lender family members, especially son Joe (Aden Gillett), are nicely cast as well.

The F/X are, simply, terrific. Special effects boss Peter Chiang has taken the nifty big/small visual tricks seen in the interesting, but flawed, "The Indian in the Cupboard" and mastered them, forming a brilliantly crafted combination of computer and real effects. The remarkable set designs, reminiscent of, but better than, Disney's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," help create a seamless look at the two different worlds from two different viewpoints. The setting is not restricted to the house, either, as the Borrowers have to traverse the town to a milk bottling factory to save Peagreen from Potter. The set designs enhance the magical quality of the film.

Action varies from hero-type stuff by Dad, Pod, to an exciting journey across town by the kids, Arrietty and Peagreen, to a Gulliver's Travels-like climax with Potter being, quite literally, fit to be tied by the Borrowers and their friends.

The setting conveys the look and feel of 50's Britain but a retro-modern feel that gives "The Borrowers" a timelessness that will help it play for years. The inevitable product placement of all the giant commodities, Like Haagen Daz and Eggo's, is prominent early in the film but is used to give the viewer a quick familiarity iwth the surroundings of the little people. Once comfort is established, set design takes over and product placement takes a back seat. It's quite refreshing.

"The Borrowers" is everything that the ambitious, but less successful, "Mouse Hunt" wanted to be, but with a naturalness that makes the world of these little people very real, indeed.

Best kids film of the year....so far. I give it an A-.

Laura LAURA:
British production "The Borrowers" has a lot in common with "Mousehunt." Someone's trying to take someone else's home away and is being foiled by an opponent that could fit in the palm of his hand. He crashes a hammer through walls as the wee creature(s) run just ahead of the bombardment inside the wall. We're treated to art production that gives a storybook feel of England that's somehow past but also somehow present. There's a factory setting that features Rube Goldberg-like design. Both films feature an exterminator. The cast is a mix of British and American actors.

"The Borrowers" is the far more successful effort, however, and worth seeing in its own right. "Mousehunt" failed when it allowed the action to stray away from the titular mouse. "The Borrowers" keeps the action where it should be resulting in a better pace and more satisfying family film overall.

The story features such plot devices as the youngest Borrower talent for getting into trouble (resulting in a few daring rescues) and a somewhat boring Dad (Pod Clock) who turns out to be not only heroic, but to have a dashing past as well.

Adults will be entertained by the film's look as well as the clever use of common everyday objects which the Borrowers adapt for their own, completely different purposes (dental floss as a climbing rig, for example). Children will be delighted by the whole package, especially the resourceful daughter, Arietty Clock.

The whole frothy adventure climaxes in true style as John Goodman's Ocious P. Potter (a nod to "It's a Wonderful Life's" villain) gets his comeupance with a tip of the hat to "Gulliver's Travels."

B


THE WEDDING SINGER

It's 1985 and Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler), an aspiring songwriter and former rocker, has been reduced to being the penultimate wedding singer while living in his sister's basement. When his shallow fiance (Angela Featherstone, "Zero Effect") leaves him at the altar, Robbie becomes despondent and can't bear to see other couples' happiness on their wedding days. Enter new girl in town Julia (Drew Barrymore), a catering waitress who tries to cheer him up by begging him to help her plan her own wedding to unfaithful junk bond salesman Glenn.

Laura LAURA:
If you like Adam Sandler (I do) and either enjoy new wave music or delight in making fun of it, you'll enjoy the breezily benevolent, if somewhat silly, "The Wedding Singer."

Adam Sandler excels in combining humor with music, making Robbie Hart a tailor made character for him. He's thoroughly appealing as the puppy dog-eyed, curly maned entertainer. He's introduced belting out a rousing rendition of "You Spin Me Around (Like a Record)" at a wedding during the title sequence and I haven't been able to get the song out of my head since (unfortunately, it's not included on the soundtrack album).

Drew Barrymore has never been more sunny as she is as Julia, the sweet girl who's clearly the one for Robbie. Christine Taylor (Marcia Brady in "The Brady Bunch Movie") is a hoot as Julia's best friend Holly, a sexually precocious Madonna wannabe. Allen Covert ("Happy Gilmore") is also amusing (and somewhat touching) as Robbie's best friend Sammy, a loser with a Michael Jackson fixation. Matthew Glave ("Pulp Fiction") is appropriately sleezy as Glenn, Julia's undeserving fiance. Alexis Arquette is priceless as George, a member of Robbie's band with a Boy George obsession.

The script by Tim Herlihy, who cowrote "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore" with Sandler, is a predictable romantic comedy where the two leads frustrate each other and the audience by failing to get together (until the end, of course). It does feature some genuinely funny moments, though (particularly when Billy Idol helps Robbie get his woman during the film's climax on a flight to Las Vegas), even as others (Robbie being paid for singing lessons with meatballs) fall flat. The 80's are relentlessly skewered as we're treated to DeLoreans, break dancing, Rubic cubes and the introduction of the CD.

The music is a great representation of the time featuring Culture Club, Falco, Nena, The Cure, The J. Geils Band, The Thompson Twins, The Police, The Cars and David Bowie among others.

Uneven and silly? Yes. Enjoyable? Most definitely.

B


KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE

Anthropologist James Krippendorf is in real trouble. For two years, since his wife's death, he has raised his dysfunctional family with the funds from a foundation grant that was supposed to be used in the study of an "undiscovered" tribe in New Guinea. Now, a colleague informs the doctor that he has to provide a documented lecture series on his discovery. Desperate, Krippendorf, played by Richard Dreyfuss, devises a scheme to fake his study, using his own kids to create the Shelmikedmu clan in "Krippendorf's Tribe."

Robin ROBIN:
The screenplay, by Charlie Peters ("My Father, The Hero"), based on the book by Frank Parkin, is a classic formula situation comedy. Dad, in big trouble, devises a wacky (and illegal), but simple, scheme to save his family, but gets dragged deeper and deeper into the quagmire own plotting. Fortunately, he principle cast, led by Dreyfuss, takes the formula a notch above the level of the script, making "Krippendorf's Tribe" a light, amusing little comedy.

Dreyfuss, as the hapless widower, gives a typically enthusiastic performance as expected from such a veteran. James drops his melancholy over his lost wife quickly, though not perfunctorily, as he dives into the important task of saving his remaining family from disgrace. Dreyfuss is a terrific actor and he has the comic timing and sense to put life into the formulaic story.

The other lead characters consist of the scatter-brained, but intelligent, colleague, Veronica Micelli, played by Jenna Elfman (TV's "Dharma & Greg"), and Krippendorf's kids, Shelly, Mickey and Edmund, who, by name and body, become the Shelmikedmu tribe (Natasha Lyonne, Gregory Smith and Carl Michael Lindner, respectively). Elfman is bright and bubbly in her role as the partner and love interest to James. She gives a solid comic performance and makes a nice entry into feature film. The kids, especially Lyonne, do a good job as the Krippendorf kids, being as nutty and imaginative as their father.

The second tier supporting cast is made up of a variety of name actors who help flesh out the background of the film. Lily Tomlin, David Ogden Stiers, Elaine Stritch, Tom Poston, Stephen Root and (in a small, but pivotal part) Zakes Mokae all lend a hand to give depth the people around the Krippendorf's. Tomlin has the biggest role as the vengeful scientist whose mission is to uncover James's scam. All do yeoman's work, if nothing special.

Production values are first class with cinematographer Dean Cundey ("Apollo 13") doing a nice job in creating an amusing flare to the documentary work of the doctor and his family. The creation of a Neolithic village in the Krippendorf backyard is a credit to the production design of Scot Chambliss ("Malcolm X").

"Krippendorf's Tribe" is just the movie I would recommend if you are in the mood for a light, amusing no-brainer with enjoyable performances by Dreyfuss and Elfman and I give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
Disney's "Krippendorf's Tribe" is based on the tired farcical idea of one lie spinning out of control which climaxes in the equally overused concept of one person making quick changes in order to be two people at a public event. It's watchable only because of the exhuberance of its two leads and Natasha Lyonne, who manages to put a fresh spin on her character of the exasperated eldest child.

Dreyfuss's Krippendorf, mourning the death of his wife, has allowed his family to fall into a shambles. His house is about to be lost, his youngest son won't speak, housekeeping has flown out the window and the $100,000 in grant money for tribal research is gone with little to show for it. In order to support the wild claims he makes at a lecture, Krippendorf recreates a tribal village in his backyard and has his children dress up so that he can film a circumcision ritual. He intercuts the faked film with real footage and becomes an anthropologic phenomenon. Only his competitive colleague, played by a wasted Lily Tomlin, smells a rat. Doesn't anyone else notice the blue eyes of his black natives?

Goaded along by an aggressive admirer, Veronica, (Jenna Elfman of TV's "Dharma and Greg"), Dreyfuss concocts more unique findings (always sexual in nature - better for TV ratings) until he's finally impersonating a Shelmikedmu chief on a TV talk show, where he forced to eat a live grub.

Of course, all these crazy antics bring his family back together until he's finally saved by his daughter who arranges a reenactment of his tribe in New Guinea for the suspicious Tomlin - this from the daughter who disdained his fraud.

Dreyfuss and Elfman have great comic timing, but the script by Charlie Peters, who's also given us such duds as "Three Men and a Little Lady" and "Her Alibi," sinks this effort.

C


LIVE FLESH

In "Live Flesh" the central character, Victor (Liberto Rabal), is a catalyst for dramatic change in the lives of four other people. His naive demands of Elena (Francesca Neri) result in a call to the police, a gunshot, and jail for Victor. When he gets out early for good behavior, he sets out to prove himself to Elena, who's now married to David (Javier Bardem), the cop who was paralyzed by that gunshot. A few coincidences later and Victor's receiving lessons in love from Clara (Angela Molina), who just happens to be the wife of Sancho, David's older partner.

Laura LAURA:
Spanish director Pedro Almoldovar has had a career arc similar to Woody Allen's - a strong start with quirky and outrageous comedies before reaching a career pinnacle and commercial crossover ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" for Almoldovar and "Annie Hall" and "Manhatten" for Allen), then a series of hit-and-miss works before hitting a more mature stride. Almoldovar has delivered his best film in years with "Live Flesh" ("Carne Tremula" in Spanish - a better title I think).

The film opens in 1970, as Franco declares martial law and a young prostitute delivers a child in a bus parked beneath a Christmas star shining blue lights. (The film delivers on one of Almoldovar's trademarks - an eye-popping use of color.) The head of Madrid's transit authority scores political points by granting the young boy, Victor, and his mother life-time passes for public transportation and a voiceover tells us Victor is fated for "a life on wheels."

Fast-forward and we see the naive, trusting Victor demanding to keep a date with a junkie, Elena (the striking Francesca Neri), who doesn't remember their sexual encounter in a club bathroom, yet disparages his sexual prowess (only the audience is clued in that this was Victor's loss of virginity). When their argument gets out of hand, a neighbor calls the police and the mismatched duo of David and Sancho respond to the call. We've just seen David telling off the older Sancho for his excessive drinking and been let in on the fact that Sancho is also a wife beater who suspects his wife Clara of cheating on him.

A shot is fired and David is paralyzed. We next meet up with this cast of characters as Victor is released from prison with the intent of getting revenge on both David and Elena, who have since married with David now a national hero as a wheelchair basketball player and Elena now the financial benefactress of an orphaned childrens' shelter. In a series of coincidences, Victor falls in with Sancho's wife Clara, who teaches him the fine art of lovemaking while he also ensconces himself as a volunteer at Elena's shelter. David becomes obssessed with Victor's closeness to his wife as Sancho descends into another jealous fury while trying to patch up things with Clara, who's fallen in love with Victor. Then the bomb drops and we (and the guilt-ridden Elena) discover that all we've believed so far is not at all what it seemed, and the rondeau comes full circle.

Almoldovar has quite a talent for showcasing unique and beautiful faces on the screen (I always admired his use of Rossy de Palma ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", a distinctly unusual looking woman), and every one of his five main characters has a face worth their closeups. Every one of them creates a wholly believable character, each with faults and each sympathetic, albeit at different levels. Almoldovar's script is an intricate dance, utilizing symbolism (an early song about a dog protecting lambs from a wolf is repeated when Victor is first revealed to Elena at her shelter as he takes off a wolf's head he's been amusing the children with), foreshadowing, and presenting a great depth of human emotion. The film is also Madrid-hot as well (the film delivers on another of Almoldovar's trademarks - a frankly explicit, but artful use of sex scenes.)

I give "Live Flesh" a B+.

Robin ROBIN:
I have not cared for Pedro Almaldovar's work since his manic and funny "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown," so it pleased me to see his latest film, "Live Flesh." Amaldovar has created a multi-dimensional story involving several main characters, which is typical of the filmmaker, but now with a maturity not seen before.

The story is bracketed by births at the film's start and finish. The film opens and closes with a birth -the lonely arrival of baby Victor on board a bus on the deserted streets of Franco-ruled Madrid begins the film. It ends, nicely, with the birth of Victor's own son under similar circumstances, but in a Madrid vibrant with life. Life, and its pleasures and hardships, is what "Live Flesh" is all about.

The ensemble cast of the four focal characters is terrific. Amaldovar has a talent for choreographing romantic conflicts among his characters and his does it deftly with his characters involved in a tangle of relationships going in all different directions until they all finally focus in the end. The principle cast - Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Liberto Rabal and Angela Molina - are wonderful to watch as their lives become inextricably intertwined. All the actors give solid performances with Bardem notable as the troubled Victor.

Amaldovar maintains an even pace through the film, giving time to all the leads to flesh out their characters. By the end of the film, the initial black and white viewpoint becomes multiple shades of gray as the dynamics of the story dovetails.

The tragedy during the climax is more than compensated for by the final, upbeat end of the film. It is a pleasure to see such a tight work from Amaldovar. I give it a B+.


KISSING A FOOL

Chicago sportscaster and slick playboy Max Abbitt (David Schwimmer) has finally met the woman of his dreams, or so he thinks, in "Kissing a Fool." His best friend, sensitive, budding author, Jay Murphy (Jason Lee, "Chasing Amy"), introduced Max to his editor, the beautiful, intelligent and worldly, Samantha (Mili Avital, 'Dead Man") and it's love at first sight. Life is wonderful until Max finally realizes that commitment means sex with just one woman for the rest of his life. Frantic, Max decides to test Sam, requiring Jay to try to seduce her so he'll know for sure that she's the One.

Robin ROBIN:
The real draw to see "Kissing a Fool" is the expectation of the performances by the male leads. Schwimmer, best known for his Ross Geller character in TV's "Friends" (which is, pretty much, the same character he always seems to play), departs from the usual schlemiel and gives a sparkling performance as the selfish Max. Max sees his monogamous future heading him down the inevitable path of love, marriage, kids...DEATH. Schwimmer carries himself skillfully as he walks the fence between coming off as a real person or a caricature of the anti-Ross Geller. Max is a shallow, self-absorbed creature of habit who can't believe his good fortune over Samantha and blows the whole deal with his stupid test. This is a surprisingly good performance by the TV star.

Jason Lee, who made such an hysterical splash in last year's "Chasing Amy" as the cynical, smart ass Banky, does a one-eighty in his performance as Jay. Jay is a troubled young romantic who still wears his heart on his sleeve over his long defunct relationship with model, Natassia (Vanessa Angel, "Kingpin"). He is all things a woman can love: warm, sensitive, romantic and caring (with good manners). Disappointing, though, is Lee as the sympathetic, idyllic Jay. Trying far too hard to come across as the "good" guy, Lee's performance is over-loud and wooden.

Israeli actress Mili Avital is pretty and vivacious as Sam, making the character a convincing romantic interest for both Max and Jay.

The story starts off with Bonnie Hunt's Linda hosting the wedding of two friends who, she insists to anyone who will ask, she introduced. The ambiguity of the couple's identity is, I suppose, intended to make the tale a guessing game of who ends up at the alter. The guessing lasts about 15 minutes as it becomes obvious who will emerge from under the bridal canopy.

Hunt, the story's narrator, is amusing as the hard-nosed softy who hosts the huge wedding in her elaborate gardens. Telling the tale in flashback is the same technique used in films like "Forget Paris" and is used to efficiently move the story forward. It gets stale toward the end, but Hunt is strong enough a presence to help it almost succeed.

First-time writer-director Doug Ellin shows a technical talent for film but is dependent on the strengths and weaknesses of his actors. He provides a nicely done, predictable little yarn with a fresh performance by David Schwimmer and I give it a C+.


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