THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998) - MY GIANT
LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND

WILD THINGS - PRIMARY COLORS - MR. NICE GUY
THE REAL BLONDE


THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998)

In the late 1600's, we're introduced to the court of Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), where the privileged party and the boy king indulges his taste for women while the people of France starve. Guarding the king is D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrnne), the fourth Musketeer, who maintains his loyalty to the king even though he disapproves of the young man's rule. When Louis arranges to send the son of Musketeer Athos (John Malkovich) to the front of an unpopular war in order to seduce the young man's fiance, the three Musketeers, led by Aramis (Jeremy Irons), now a Jesuit priest, band together to free the man in the iron mask, Louis' identical twin brother Philippe, and place him on Louis' throne.

Laura LAURA:
"The Man in the Iron Mask," directed by "Braveheart" screenwriter Randall Wallace, is assured big box office due to its hot young "Titanic" star. However, the screenplay is far inferior to the old Hallmark Hall of Fame TV adaptation starring Richard Chamberlain, and frankly, Leonardo DiCaprio isn't really up to the dual role - call him the spoiled brat king. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Brad Pitt would have been a better casting choice (as well as a better age for the role).

There are pleasures to be found in this version, however, largely due to the aging Musketeers. Gabriel Byrnne is superb as the divided D'Artagnan, who holds a secret that's made all too obvious before it's revealed. He's an honorable, conflicted man, beloved by his troops and extremely experienced in swordplay (he flings a sword at a potential assassin in a way that recalls the speeding arrow shot of Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood"). Equally good is Jeremy Irons, underplaying a surprising amount of humor as the renegade Jesuit. Gerard Depeardeu is the most widely comical as the lusty Porthos, while John Malkovich gradually makes the role of Athos, the sensitive artist who's lost his son, his own after a shaky start. "La Femme Nikita's" Anne Parillaud creates a maternal but still sexy Queen Mother.

The script falters by never allowing the character of Phillipe to be anything more than a victim, as well as never providing him a love interest. After he's smuggled out of prison under the robes of Aramis, he's unmasked to reveal a form of wolf-boy, with hair that's grown all around the contours of his face. A brief washup later, and voila, he's the dewy DiCaprio showing no worse for wear after having had his head encased in iron for years. Athos now has a son substitute for the child he's lost, Aramis has a cause and Porthos is rejeuvated by their dangerous mission.

The film's first climax, where the trio substitute Phillipe for Louis at a costume ball, has some truly suspenseful moments. Will the naive and good hearted country boy be able to stand in for the imperious king? However, in true Hollywood fashion, the filmmakers aren't satisfied with only one ending and have the plot revealed in order to return Phillipe to his imprisoning mask and have yet another daring escape and flashy showdown.

Sets and costume are first rate, if a little too pristine for the times.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
This latest rendition of the classic Alexandre Dumas tale of adventure and intrigue, "The Man in the Iron Mask," is both adapted for the screen and directed by Randall Wallace, with Leonardo DiCaprio appearing for the first time since "Titanic" in the title role and as the arrogant and cruel Louis XIV. The female fans of the young star are, I know, looking forward to it, but it begged the question from me: how will it stand up against the 1977 made-for-TV version directed by Mike Newell and starring Richard Chamberlain in the dual role?

The older version, with Chamberlain, Patrick McGoohan, Louis Jordan, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson and Jenny Agutter, is superior in nearly every way, except for acting, to the new "Man." The story in the earlier film is far more complex, with the intrigues, betrayals and alliances more deftly written and executed. Chamberlain's Louis and Philippe are much older than DiCaprio's boy king, allowing the actor to give his characters more nuance than Leonardo's adolescent petulance can provide. DiCaprio's Philippe does not come into play until well into the film, not allowing enough time to develop the character. Either a more mature actor or a better script, or both, are needed. (Wait a minute! That's what they did with the 77 version!)

I must say that the supporting cast around DiCaprio are a pleasure to watch. Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu as the Three Musketeers and Gabriel Byrne as D'Artagnan are uniformly solid in their performances as the rescuers and loyal aids to the real King of France. Depardieu has the most broad and bawdy fun in his role as the womanizing, fun-loving Porthos. Irons, as Musketeer turned Jesuit priest, Aramis, lends wit and subtle humor to his performance. Malkovich started out slow, but definitely gets into the spirit of things as the intellectual Athos. Byrne's character is the most serious of the group, with D'Artagnan a tragic figure in a tragic role.

The script, by Wallace, lacks the crafting of the TV version. When the intrigue begins and Philippe has to learn to be Louis, the '77 story has the twin brother learn all he can about the King - his lineage, power, position are all hammered home to Chamberlain's Philippe, as are the social graces. In our new tale, all Philippe needs to learn to be a king are how to dance, fence and ride a horse. This lack of imagination makes "The Man in the Iron Mask" little more than mediocre fare. It looks good with its colorful costumes and sets and rich photography, but looks aren't everything.

Watching the made-for-TV film, again, makes me see the difference between the two versions: The older one could have been released on the big screen. It's a classic tale with crisp intelligent dialogue and acting. The new one, despite the exemplary cast (except for a wooden pair of performances by DiCaprio - sorry, ladies), should be TV fodder.

If I were to rate the '77 version, I'd give it an A-. The new one gets a C+.


MY GIANT

Less-than-successful talent agent Sammy Kamen has devoted his life to his career and clients. At the same time, he has neglected his marriage and family, forcing his wife Serena (Kathleen Quinlan) to take their son Nick (Zane Carney) to Chicago to live. Sammy's work brings him to Romania where he discovers, quite literally by accident, Max (Gheorghe Muresan), a 7' 7" giant who quotes Shakespeare and cares for 50 monks in a remote monastery. Sammy sees the enormous Max as his ticket to success and, thus, begins a buddy/road movie that spans continents in "My Giant."

Robin ROBIN:
"My Giant" is a one joke film that fails in its telling of its single jape. The premise - talent agent Sammy, down on his luck in, of all places, Romania, coming across a giant who quotes Shakespeare - seems a rich vein of humor. Originally, Crystal conceived the idea with pro wrestling great Andre the Giant in mind. Andre, who costarred with Crystal in the marvelous film, "The Princess Bride," would have been perfect in he title role with his charm, charisma and acting skill. Unfortunately, Andre died a few years ago and a replacement giant needed to be found. Gheorghe Muresan, the Romanian-born center for the NBA basketball team the Washington Wizards (formerly the Bullets), was cast in the role of Max. As good as Andre could have been, Muresan is as bad.

Muresan is physically suited to the role of Max. He and Crystal provide the physical polarity of big and little with the initial image of the two together getting a chuckle or two. The lack of personality and acting tal estranged, but still loyal, wife.

There is little in "My Giant" to recommend. It is not particularly funny. The physical differences between Sammy and Max are handled well at the start, but are not carried through the film.

If you really have your heart set on seeing a movie that has a giant in it, rent "The Princess Bride." I give "My Giant" a D.

Laura LAURA:
Why, why, why do the folks in Hollywood continue to recycle the most yawn-inducing cliches? "My Giant" is a one joke film which takes no unexpected turns and overstays its welcome by at least a half an hour.

On the heels of his disastrous "Father's Day," Billy Crystal is back as Sammy, a "Broadway Danny Rose"-like agent whose one potential winner, his newspaperboy cast in a sword and sorcery flick shooting in Romania, promptly fires him immediately after he arrives on the set bearing an ice cream cake from the U.S. After being rescued from his sinking car, Sammy awakens in a monastery so we can be treated to some lame jokes. There he finds his giant, Max (Romanian born Gheorghe Muresan, the 7" 7' center for the Washington Wizards), hidden from a world which branded him the Grotesque from Hell. Sammy immediately convinces Max to be in the movies, getting him a part as the villain in the film his former client is starring in. In one of the film's few funny scenes, the nervous Max has to become so drunk to play the role, he ends up projectile vomitting on the hero. (Yup, we're reduced to laughing at vomit jokes in this one.) The only other genuinely funny moment follows soon after when Sammy takes Max to see a movie - "Dirty Harry" dubbed into Romanian.

Now the twosome has enough cash to get back to the states - Max to find long-lost love Lilliana and Sammy to get Max in a Steven Segal film in order to impress his son (Sammy's estranged from wife Serena (Kathleen Quinlan), of course, but doesn't wish to be).

"My Giant" is one long (and I mean long) road movie interspersed with maudlin sentimentality. It seems that Billy Crystal's only chance at Oscar success is emceeing the ceremony.

D+


LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND

With a tip of the hat to Luchino Visconti's masterpiece "Death in Venice," "Love and Death on Long Island" stars John Hurt as stodgy Giles De'Ath, a widowed British author enjoying a cult resurgence. De'Ath is so sheltered from modern life, he may as well be living in the 19th century. One day, finding himself locked out of his house in the rain, he decides to slip into a movie theater advertising an E.M. Forster adaptation. What he gets instead is "Hot Pants College II," featuring American teen idol Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly). De'Ath becomes obsessed with the young man who reminds him of a favorite pre-Raphaelite painting. De'Ath's total preoccupation leads him into the modern world of VCRs and cell phones and, ultimately, Long Island, New York.

Laura LAURA:
"Love and Death on Long Island" is essentially a character study of a man's journey into the world aided by the ability to find beauty in the most unlikely places. Writer/director Richard Kwietniowski's feature film debut is blessed by not only a terrific performance from the great John Hurt, but a surprisingly touching turn from Jason Priestly.

De'Ath is so cloistered, he probably doesn't even understand the basis of his cult reputation. He's a man amazed by the wonder of the closed captioning displayed on a deaf friend's television. When he goes to buy a VCR in order to enjoy more of Ronnie's films (such third rate trash as "Tex Mex" and "Skidmarks"), he stands confused in front of a wall full of microwaves. In a marvelous fantasy sequence, De'Ath, on a Jeopardy-like show, is able to answer the silliest minutiae about Bostock, from the name of his dog to his characters' motivations, all gleaned from Tiger Beat-like publications bought on the sly.

Arriving in Long Island, his naivete lands him in a roadside motel with a nosy proprietess. He wonders wealthy enclaves on foot, in hopes of encountering Ronnie, and madly runs down the middle of a suburban road after the vintage Porsche his idol drives. He finally weasles his way into Ronnie's life by forcing an encounter with Ronnie's fiance Audrey at a supermarket and charms her with his British eccentricity.

Fiona Loewi is very good as Audrey. Her character changes from initially hostile to De'Ath, to charmed, to believing him potentially good for Ronnie's career, to slow realization of his true motivations. She has the smarts to separate the two to protect Ronnie with him none the wiser. De'Ath, however, unburdens his heart with the inevitable rejection, followed with an incredibly long letter amusingly sent by fax. He may not win the object of his intense affections, but when he leaves Long Island, we know his emergence into the world will leave him a happier man.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) is a stodgy English writer and widower who has a small cult reputation and a distinct aversion to the progresses of the 20th century. When pressured by his publisher to think about expanding his medium to, possibly, the movies, just like E.M. Forster, Giles inadvertently buys a ticket to the wrong film and, instead, sees "Hotpants College 2." On the verge of walking out of the film, the writer's eye is caught by the presence of the film's star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). The encounter will forever change the author's life, launching Giles on a strange path of self discovery in "Love and Death on Long Island."

The script, adapted from the Gilbert Adair novel by first-time feature director Richard Kwietniowski, is unconventional and original in its concept and characters. Giles De'Ath, as played, beautifully, by John Hurt, is a parody on the tragic figure of an aging composer, Gustav Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), in Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice." Where Gustav was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown, Giles is reborn in his obsession of Ronnie. For him, it is the opening up of a new life, even when rejected by the younger man. Hurt gives a fine character study in his depiction of a man who discovers emotional passion and embraces it. It is never too late, the film says.

Jason Priestly, not someone of whom I would have high acting expectations, is surprisingly good as the not-too-bright, but honest and kind young actor, Ronnie. He believes in his work, just as Giles does. Ronnie is a little dim and doesn't see the depth of the fervor that older man feels. It's more than just a gay thing, but one that Giles is willing to commit his life to, even without possessing the heart of Ronnie.

Fiona Loewi, as Ronnie's fashion model girlfriend, Audrey, does a nice job when she, first, unwittingly draws Giles into their home, then, realizing the intensity of his ardor, turns protective of Ronnie. Loewi develops her character well and has future potential.

The rest of the supporting cast is little more than background, with the exception of the great Maury Chaykin as Irving Buckmiller, the colorful owner of the local eatery, Chez d'Irv's.

"Love and Death on Long Island" is a lovingly done craftwork featuring a superior script and an equally superior performance by William Hurt and give it a B+.


WILD THINGS

Director John McNaughton ("Portrait of Henry: A Serial Killer") has apparently lost his mind and created "Wild Things," a neo-noir tale of rape, false accusation, murder and betrayal, starring Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards.

Sam Lombardo (Dillon) is the ideal high school teacher, awarded as Educator of the Year, loved, even lusted, by his students, he's an all around nice guy. That is, until he is accused of the rape of the daughter, Kelly (Richards), of his shunned ex-lover, the fabulously wealthy and powerful Sandra Van Ryan (Theresa Russell). Sam is acquitted for the crime when another student, Suzy (Campbell) uncovers lies told by Kelly. Detective Ray Duquette (Bacon) is unconvinced of Sam's innocence and makes it his mission uncover the teacher's guilt.

Robin ROBIN:
"Wild Things" is a stock-pot of a movie with whole bunches of ingredients thrown together with wild abandon in hopes of creating something delicious. In varying degrees, McNaughton hits and misses with his recipe. The sheer campiness of the film, overall, is appealing enough, but its aim is all over the place. In one scene, a car wash by two beautiful young women in scanty dress screamed to be a play on a similar, sultry scene in the 1967 Paul Newman film, "Cool Hand Like." In "Wild Things," it comes across more silly than sultry.

Acting, across the board, is broadly obvious, with little subtlety given to the characters by any of the actors or the screenplay. Neve Campbell comes off best as bitchy, trailer park white trash Suzie Toller. Dillon and Bacon lend little dimension to the characters of Sam and Det. Duquette, while Denise Richards dishes out the most ham of all the leads. The supporting cast of veteran actors, including Russell, Robert Wagner, and Carrie Snodgress, are outshone by the blatantly comedic performance by Bill Murray as Sam's shyster lawyer, Ken Bowden.

The screenplay, by Stephen Petes, starts out as a typical thriller with good guy, Sam, falsely accused of rape. The quick culmination of the trial and his acquittal telegraphs to the audience that there is more to come. It is at this point that the story starts its spiral down into anarchy. Everyone is doing everyone else, with the clarity of the edges of the characters growing increasingly hazy as the film progresses. The double-crosses, triple-crosses, even quadruple-crosses come fast and furious in the film's climax.

Prurient titillation is the name of the game, with pretty, often wet, scantily clad women, some nudity, and, for his fans, a brief glimpse of Kevin Bacon's bacon. There is also a sex scene between Dillon, Campbell and Richards that is pure male fantasy.

"Wild Things" is a guilty pleasure and gets a guilty recommendation. Make sure you stay through the end of the credits. I give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
"Wild Things" is such a bizarrely entertaining piece of trash, it almost creates a new genre for itself - the black comedy-t&a thriller. Featuring eye-popping Florida location cinematography by Jeffrey Kimball ("True Romance") an Oscar caliber tribal jungle score by George S. Clinton ("Austin Powers"), and editting that cuts from a bevy of cheerleaders to Dillon's hand holding a hose, this is an original, albeit a not entirely successful one.

There are two major flaws with "Wild Things." Of the principle cast, only Neve Campbell ("Scream") creates a real character. Kevin Bacon is wooden (although he does get to show his bacon!) as the Detective who suspects a plot behind the dual rape charge against popular high school guidance councilor (and local lothario) Ray Duquette (Matt Dillon). Dillon looks the part of a man who could seduce half the town across two generations, but due to the multiple twists of the plot, he can't allow his character's motivations to show resulting in a blank slate. Denise Richards ("Starship Troopers") is silly rich teen Kelly Van Ryan who's primary talent appears to be getting wet.

The other problem is that the film suffers from not-leaving-well-enough-alone syndrome. The plot takes so many twists that not only do they strain credibility, but they have the effect of causing loss of interest when the movie should be building momentum.

There are other terrific things to find in "Wild Things," though, mostly due to some hugely entertaining supporting roles. Theresa Russell is a camp hoot as the rich nymphomaniac mom of Kelly. Bill Murray is just delightful as Dillon's sleazy lawyer, introduced wearing a neck brace and insisting on using a secretary with an intercom when he always ends up just popping his head above a partition to answer her announcements. In fact, when these two characters leave the film at the midway point, the film begins to sag. Also fine are Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway's "Rent") as Dillon's partner and Carrie Snodgrass as Ruby, a bar and trailer park owner whose son wrestles alligators. In fact, alligators, as well as other swamp denizens such as racoons and lizards, are used amusingly by McNaughton to witness the wild goings-on.

B-


PRIMARY COLORS

Adapted from the anonymously scribed book by director Mike Nichols' partner in comedy, Elaine May, "Primary Colors" is a thinly veiled account of Clinton's first presidential campaign. It stars John Travolta as Southern Governor Jack Stanton, Emma Thompson as his wife, Adrian Lester as Henry Burton, the idealist campaign manager, Kathy Bates as spin doctor Libby Holden, Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons, and Larry Hagman as Governor Fred Picker.

Laura LAURA:
"Primary Colors" is blessed with an art-imitates-life release schedule that recalls the amazing coincidence which befell "The China Syndrome." Not only that, it's a heck of a fine political satire.

We're introduced to Jack Stanton as Henry Burton, being wooed for his campaign staff is, witnessing the pressing the flesh ritual which is only the first evidence that Travolta has certainly made no bones about basing his characterization on Clinton. Travolta plays Stanton as a charming rogue who, while truly caring for the plight of the common man, makes no effort to curb his appetites without regard for the consequences. Yet, we can't help but like this man who stops for a jogging break to visit a donut shop and have a heartfelt conversation with the disabled man who's worked there for sixteen years at minimum wage. His Clinton impression is uncanny - he's got the look, voice and body language down pat.

More impressive is Emma Thompson giving a farther ranging, nuanced performance. She's the epitomy of strength, drive, and ambition while allowing for both quieter moments of reflection and the hysterical outburst or two in private when her husband's unfaithfulness is revealed as far more pervasive than she had imagined. This is an Oscar caliber turn.

Able support is provided by Kathy Bates, a fresh out of the loony bin firebrand who's willing to shoot a man's privates off in order to squelsh a tape damaging to her candidate, but morally centered enough to be unwilling to sling mud at the opposition. Her foul mouthed lesbian is given the film's most outrageously funny lines while also providing the emotional climax that proves to be the film's wakeup call. Larry Hagman is surprisingly effective as the candidate most able to topple Stanton whose pathetically sordid past brings him down. British actor Adrian Lester is believably idealist as the audience's surrogate, who discovers that the political arena inherently demands moral compromise. The rest of the cast are fine, if less fully written.

Elaine May's adaptation is also Oscar worthy. She's kept the important elements of the story and brought the entire thing more into focus than the source material was. It's sharper and funnier - one of those rarities where the movie surpasses the book. Nichols' direction is top notch - the ensemble cast is brilliantly meshed, scenes are perfectly framed and there's never a lag in timing. Tech credits are first rate all around.

The film doesn't pull any punches, to the point of close friend Libby telling the Stantons "I will destroy this village in order to save it." The suicide of a close insider at film's end is chilling in recollecting its real life parallel.

A-

Robin ROBIN:
The makers of "Primary Colors" have hopes of being another "China Syndrome" - remember, that film had the good cosmic timing to be released just before the Three Mile Island incident and was a smash hit. The new film, adapted from the best-selling novel by Anonymous, plays on our president's current series of alleged sexual indiscretions to drive home the similarities between President Clinton and the story's candidate, Jack Stanton. Any ambiguity to the real identity of Jack Stanton is only imagined.

The acting chops are best handled at the upper levels only . Of the principle cast, Emma Thompson makes the most of her role First Lady wannabee and the real power behind the throne. Thompson is one of the finest actors on screen today and she brings that talent to the role of Susan Stanton. Susan is ready, willing and able to overlook her husband's peccadilloes in order to gain the real prize - The Presidency - and she is cool enough to do it.

John Travolta has himself a good deal of fun with his take-off on President Clinton. The references from the book - governor of a southern state (Arkansas is not specifically referenced in the film, though it is in the book) who has a problem keeping it in his pants - are supplemented by Travolta's parody of the reigning president. The use of the crackle salt 'n pepper hair, and the current media controversy over+n voice and our president's possible indiscretions, will make all but the dimmest viewer (even me) see the joke.

The supporting cast is only significant at the highest levels. Kathy Bates has the flashiest role as the colorful media troubleshooter, Libby Holden, and goes to great lengths of flamboyance in both costume and character to make a positive impact on the viewer.

British actor Adrian Lester, as the film's focal character and narrator Henry Burton, is OK in the role but does nothing to make the role memorable. Billy Bob Thornton does a credible job as Richard Jemmons, the spin doctor and self-proclaimed redneck who is trying to save Jack Stanton's political bacon.

Of the lesser supporting roles, only Larry Hagman makes an impression as former governor Fred Picker. Hagman gives a sensitive portrayal of a man who once had power and lost it through his own negligence. Where Jack Stanton's controversy stems from his infidelities, Fred Picker's arose from drug abuse. A notable performance from the man who starred in "I Dream of Jeannie." The rest of the secondary characters are mere background.

Tight acting by the stars and a deftly written script by Elaine May that fully develops many individual scenes make "Primary Colors" an above average film on the trials and tribulations of an election campaign. It compares well to others of this ilk, such as "Bob Roberts" and the HBO series "Turner '88." I think its topicality will fade with time, keeping "Primary Colors" from attaining the longevity of the 1972 Michael Ritchie film starring Robert Redford, "The Candidate."

I give "Primary Colors" a B.


MR. NICE GUY

Comedy-action film superstar Jackie Chan makes another stab at coming to America in "Mr. Nice Guy" as Jackie, a popular TV chef in Melbourne who comes to the aid of a beleaguered journalist (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick). The reporter, Diana, has the video-taped goods on crimelord Giancarlo (Richard Norton) and will broadcast the tape of a major drug transaction to prime time TV, but the tape has disappeared. Chase upon chase and fight upon fight ensue as Giancarlo's thugs try to get the tape as Jackie foils their every move.

Robin ROBIN:
Short on plot, acting and dialogue, "Mr. Nice Guy" has the one thing that makes me want to see Jackie Chan movies - Jackie Chan. The only good thing in the movie, it is a pleasure to watch the master of physical action and comedy choreograph his way through all manner of locations and situations. Jackie battles the bad guys on a runaway horse-drawn cab through the streets of Melbourne and on a construction site where a bunch of interconnected doorways are used to eye-popping and manic effect. Jackie's imagination in creating the ballet of these fight sequences is a joy to watch. There is also an action packed climax involves what has to be the mother of all monster trucks.

Beyond Jackie, there is little to recommend in "Mr. Nice Guy" to anyone but Jackie Chan afficionados. The acting is plain bad, with the writing even worse. Any attempts at plot development are painful. Director Sammo Hung, long-time collaborator and stunt co-ordinator for Chan, works the many action sequences pretty well, but his control over the rest of the film is near non-existent.

But, then again, there's Jackie Chan.

I can only recommend "Mr. Nice Guy" to fans of a genuine Mr. Nice Guy. As a fan, I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
It's always a delight to watch Jackie Chan, but after seeing one film of his after another featuring threadbare plotting, bad acting and cheesy production values, Jackie alone is becoming not enough.

In "Mr. Nice Guy," we're introduced to Chan as a television chef - a concept ripe for comedic potential which is totally wasted here. No sooner has Chan (named Jackie in this film) amazed us with his pasta making skills, than he's thrust into protecting a pretty TV journalist being chased by two drug gangs in order to retrieve the videotape she's just surreptiously shot of them. Jackie pulls some quick and highly entertaining moves. Then we're treated to the oldest cliche in the book - the swapperoo. Of course, Jackie ends up with 'the' tape while the woman ends up with a cooking show. Soon it's Jackie the bad guys are after.

They come gunning for him at an omelet cooking display at a Melbourne mall, which is the last reference to Jackie's profession. Throw a non-English speaking, jealous girlfriend from the homeland (Mickey) and a dumb cop friend into the mix and the rest of the film plays out as chase, kidnap, escape, chase, kidnap.

Director Samo Hung gives himself an entertaining cameo as an innocent bystander on a bicycle and knows how to highlight Chan's amazing stunts (this time around we're treated to a marvelously choreographed maze and doorway routine, Jackie's close brush with a circular saw, a chase featuring a horse and buggy and an interesting new way to use a cement mixer). Unfortunately, he can't bring the connecting scenes to life.

The chief bad guy is somewhat entertaining - he's a camp Steven Segal wannabe. The rest of the cast is really atrocious - surely there are people out there looking for a break into the movie business that can act better than the display we get here.

The film's climax is a big yawn unless you get a kick out of watching luxury automobiles get crushed by a monster truck. It's also highly obvious that the production was indebted to Pepsico.

Jackie Chan is eminently likeable and hugely talented, but it's time for him to up the ante on his film projects before his audience gets bored.

C


THE REAL BLONDE

Joe (Matthew Modine) is an aspiring actor who thinks being on stage is the only true expression of his art. Unfortunately, at 35, his integrity can't pay the bills, and live-in girl friend, Mary (Catherine Keener), a successful fashion makeup artist, is fed up with supporting him. Joe's friend and fellow actor/waiter, Bob (Maxwell Caulfield), has sold out to the soaps and is obsessed with finding a "real blonde," a natural beauty not from a bottle.

Joe, Mary and Bob struggle to sort out their personal and professional problems in "The Real Blonde," by director/screenwriter Tom DiCillo, costarring Daryl Hannah, Elizabeth Berkley, Marlo Thomas, Buck Henry, Christopher Lloyd and Kathleen Turner.

Robin ROBIN:
Dicillo's sophomore effort, the wonderful, Rashomon-like film-within-a-film "Living in Oblivion" had me look forward to his future work. I was less than thrilled with his follow-on work, "Box of Moonlight," though the potential was still there. "The Real Blonde" hits right in between the two previous films. The budget is bigger, the cast is well fleshed out with seasoned professionals and it looks good, but there is an unevenness to the story that keeps me less than enthralled.

The three principle characters, Joe, Mary and Bob, are little more than two-dimensional. At age 35, with zero prospects, Joe should have gotten a clue long before we meet him. DiCillo has him obsess through the film on delivering his favorite speech from "Death of a Salesman." That the speech plays a prominent part in the finale comes as no surprise and is simple clichi. Mary, whose problem is one of self-esteem, has a interesting sub-plot with Denis Leary as her self-defense instruc by veteran actors who can flesh out mediocre characters. Modine, Keener and Caulfield are bland in the lead roles, but perfs by Marlo Thomas, Bridgette Wilson, Buck Henry, Kathleen Turner and Leary fill out the background nicely. Too bad the foreground is neglected.

"The Real Blonde" is a long dumb blonde joke and little more. I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
In his fourth film as writer/director, Tom DiCillo ("Living in Oblivion," "Box of Moonlight") has created a character driven comedy about the line between reality and illusion and how most people are inclined to chase the illusion before accepting the reality.

Matthew Modine is Joe, an aspiring actor whose high-mindedness makes him forgo acting jobs he feels are beneath him even though he has no paid experience or New York City contacts. His long term live-in girlfriend Mary (Catherine Keener, of DiCillo's previous three films) is getting frustrated with Joe's immaturity and the rut their relationship is in. Joe's friend Bob (Maxwell Caulfield) is looking for the titular 'real blonde,' and is increasingly frustrated when his bevy of beauty's, including supermodel Sahara (Bridgette Wilson, naively sweet and professing spirtuality found in Disney's "The Little Mermaid"), turn out to be bottle blondes.

"The Real Blonde" is by far the most professional looking effort from DiCillo, but even though it's eminently watchable, it's themes are handled rather shallowly. It's great to see Bob emasculated by his soap co-star Kelly (Darryl Hannah), a real blonde who treats men the way Bob's been treating women all along. When Bob wakes up and returns to Sahara, though, we're left wondering what he's done to deserve her. (In the most telling scene in the film, Sahara shows up for a fashion shoot with a black eye, which is quickly utilized as an emblem of chic for a revamped ad layout.)

Mary, Joe's girlfriend, has her own odyssey, when her suspect shrink (Buck Henry) sends her to a defense class run by Doug (Denis Leary), who's impressed by her 'rage factor' and comes on to her. Joe belittles himself the moment he finds that his friend Bob has gotten a high paying job on a soap, by agreeing to take a part in a Madonna video, where he's tempted by Madonna's stand-in Tina (Elizabeth Berkeley, "Showgirls"). In an ending that's all too pat, Joe finally achieves a film role by reciting his standby interview piece, a scene from "Death of a Salesman," and all's suddenly well between him and Mary.

The film does excel in the way it weaves all these diverse characers together. In the film's most hilarious scene, Joe and Mary dine out with a couple who have become major successes and Joe rebels by denouncing "The Piano" as a mindless romance, which sparks conversations about the film jumping from table to table until the whole restaurant is in a din about it.

It is fun to watch all the cameos, particularly Christopher Lloyd as the head of the catering waiters for whom Joe and Bob work. His waitstaff are his troops and he leads them with an iron fist, but shows he has a heart of gold for those who treat their job seriously. Marlo Thomas is hectic and shrill as a high-priced fashion photographer and Kathleen Turner is suitably artificial as the agent Joe finally snags.

The film features an opening and closing story of an older woman who's dog is stolen, only to return at the closing credits. What this has to do with anything is anyone's guess.

C+


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