OUT OF SIGHT - THE X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE - HIGH ART
ARMAGEDDON - COUSIN BETTE - DR. DOLITTLE

OUT OF SIGHT

Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, "Out of Sight" stars George Clooney as Jack Foley, an escaped prolific bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez ("Selena") as Karen Sisco, the federal marshall who stumbles upon Foley's prison break. Shoved into the getaway car's trunk together by Buddy (Ving Rhames, "Pulp Fiction"), Foley's closest friend, the two fall for each other hook, line and sinker. Foley and Buddy travel to Detroit to steal 5 million in uncut diamonds from a Miliken-like Albert Brooks who Foley protected in prison only to get dissed on the outside. Sisco follows and the couple must deal with both their opposing agendas and their overwhelming attraction for each other.

Laura LAURA:
"Out of Sight," directed by the unlikely indie king Steven Soderbergh, is quite simply the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel (other good ones include "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown") and one of the best films of the year. George Clooney finally propels himself to real movie stardom with his fourth attempt on the big screen.

The screenplay by Scott Frank tells a straightforward story, but he enriches it with an interweaving time line (the dynamics of all the characters who did time together are slowly filled in via flashbacks). Each supporting character is fully fleshed out. Soderbergh and his cinematographer Elliot Davis punch up the film's acts with freeze frames and color desaturation. The cool score by Cliff Martinez perfectly accompanies the visuals on the screen.

Clooney is dynamic and sexy as the guy who's robbed 200 banks without ever carrying a weapon except for his considerable charm. Lopez is a tough cookie of a marshall who shows vulnerability only with Foley. The two sizzle together on the screen and their mutual attraction is palpable. They don't overwhelm their formidable supporting cast, however. Ving Rhames is a loyal friend and teddy bear of an ex-con whose guilt over his crimes impels him to call his religious sister in one of the film's running gags. Don Cheadle ("Devil in a Blue Dress") is Snoopy, funny when he's shaking down rich guy Richard Ripley in jail, human in his passion for boxing, and scary in the eruptions of violence that make him so different from Foley and Buddy. Steve Zahn ("The Object of My Affection") is the comical con Glenn, a stoner and perpetual screw up.

Catherine Keener gives a winning performance as Foley's ex-wife Adele, an unemployed musician's assistant who maintains a friendly relationship with her ex. Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as Ripley, the not too bright millionaire. Keith Loneker, an ex-NFL guard, marks an impressive film debut as White Boy Bob, Cheadle's bodyguard, who's more excited by stealing big thick steaks than more financially gratifying loot. Isaiah Washington ("Girl 6") is menacing as a sex offender pulled into the action by benefit of being Snoopy's brother-in-law. The film also features Luis Guzman ("Boogie Nights") as a bumbling prison escapee, Nancy Allen as Ripley's housekeeper, Dennis Farina as Sisco's indulgent dad. Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson appear in cameos as their characters from "Jackie Brown."

Kudos to all involved in the making of "Out of Sight," a gem amidst the dreck of summer event films. I had a smile of delight on my face from the beginning of the film right through it's slyly ambiguous denouement.

A-

Robin ROBIN:
Director Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies, and videotape") and screenwriter Scott Frank ("Get Shorty") have done a terrific job in adapting Elmore Leonard's novel. In "Out of Sight," Leonard gave us a hard-boiled crime thriller coupled with a schmarmy (yet, affective) romance between two people from different sides of the law. The filmmakers have taken the story and put an old-fashioned Hollywood spin on its adaptation, combining all the elements that used to make Hollywood films special. "Out of Sight" has a charismatic lead couple whose romance sparks the screen. This is good for a film, but better is having a supporting cast of three-dimensional people to help the leads along the way and an adapted script that captures the very essence of the enjoyable book.

George Clooney, as record-holding bank robber Jack Foley (200+ robberies and never a gun used), has finally found the film he needs to propel him to stardom. Director Soderbergh worked closely with the actor to change his technique, getting Clooney to look straight at the camera and actors. This change from his usual askance looks brings out his handsomeness and makes you feel like he's talking to, not past, you, the viewer. His Jack is one of the most likable criminals to grace the big screen.

Jennifer Lopez, as Deputy Federal Marshal Karen Sisco, gives the best of her sexy performances as a capable, self-minded young law enforcement professional who copes quite well with the dilemma of falling for Jack, an escaped felon, and doing her job to bring in the handsome bank robber. She gives a smart and convincing performance and plays well and equally with Clooney.

Supporting cast is terrific - Ving Rhames is his usual wonderful self as Jack's friend, partner and trusty confidant, Buddy Bragg; Don Cheadle ("Devil in a Blue Dress") as Maurice "Snoopy" Miller is scary as Jack's opposition in the story's diamond heist caper, displaying a ruthlessness that is chilling; Steve Zahn as druggie carthief Glenn Michaels steals many of his scenes with his comical performance; Albert Brooks is near-unrecognizable as jailed billionaire Richard Ripley; and, more, with Dennis Farina, Nancy Allen, Catherine Keeler ("The Real Blonde"), and Isaiah Washington lending strong perfs all around. The beauty of this great supporting cast is that they are given personalities and dialogue that allow them to have extended scenes without the stars present. This dove-tails the story nicely, giving it a complexity that is intelligent and intriguing.

Production credits all around are solidly accomplished. Photography, by Soderburgh collaborator Elliot Davis ("King of the Hill"), complements both the good-looking stars and the overall look of the film, being both moody and sharp. Costume, by Betsy Heimann ("Jerry Maguire") concentrates on Lopez, dressing the actress as one of the sexiest cops to grace the screen.

We see a lot of films over the years and, when you get a funny, dramatic, intelligent, well-written and acted film, you want it to be a success. "Out of Sight," next to "The Truman Show" is the best thing out there for summer films. I encourage going to see "Out of Sight" as strongly as I hope to discourage you from seeing "Armageddon."

I give "Out of Sight" an A-.


THE X FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE

The long-anticipated leap from the small to the big screen occurred on 19 June when the feature length rendition of "The X-Files" opened at theaters everywhere. Picking up where the series ended last season, Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are out of the alien investigation business and are now just two more FBI agents. That is, until the two uncover a massive inter-government conspiracy involving extra-terrestrial beings that threatens the lives of every man, woman and child on earth. It's a big task for the intrepid Mulder and Scully, but the two are up to it in "The X-Files: Fight the Future."

Robin ROBIN:
Having never, ever watched more than five minutes of "The X-Files" TV series, I walked into the big-screen version of the hit show with little or no preconceived notion of what I was about to see. My knowledge of the show was: it's a sci-fi thriller about alien and earthly monsters being investigated by the show's stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and that's about it.

The makers of "X-Files: Fight the Future" have accomplished several things that help make it a relative success. First, it has paid attention to those two important audience demographics: those who know "The X-Files" and those who don't. For the fans of the show, appearances by series staples - assistant director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), Well-Manicured Man (John Neville) and all The Lone Gunmen - walk familiar territory. For the uninitiated to the show, "The X-Files..." movie is a coherent, standalone story that requires little in the way of fore-knowledge of the show to follow the film. Veteran character actors Blythe Danner, Glenne Headly, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Terry O'Quinn ("The Stepfather") and young Lucas Black ("Sling Blade") provide cameo-level performances and a hook for the non-fans.

Duchovny and Anderson are okay in there patented roles. Duchovny is blandly amusing as the follow-his-gut-feelings kind of guy and gives a deadpan delivery as the cynic. Anderson's gives, to me, no more than two dimensional, emotionless performance, even if she is supposed to be the pragmatic scientist.

The script, by show producer Chris Carter and directed by series veteran Rob Bowman, tells of an intergalactic conspiracy where aliens are using mankind as their feeding host, sucking the life out of the human victims. The heads of government are conspiring with the alien beings because they "know what's best for mankind." They are sacrificing thousands, maybe millions, they say, to protect the billions remaining. Mulder, a known skeptic and emotionalist, sees through the sham, especially when the one he secretly loves, Scully, is one of the alien abductees. (Yes, fans, there is a tantalizing brush with romance for Mulder and Scully. I'll say no more.)

Production-wise, the film is pretty slick with large budget F/X helping the upscale television production. Much of the film is darkly, even murkily, lighted, but I guess this is in keeping with the moodiness of the series. I found it a little hard to watch, clearly, at times.

Making a movie that is two films in one is not an easy thing to do. It's hard to cover all bases of a cult-based film without insulting the fans AND entertaining the uninitiated. "The X-Files: Fight the Future" does a fair job of pulling it off (compare to "Sgt. Bilko," "McHale's Navy" and "The Saint") and I give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
"The X Files: Fight the Future" is the strange amalgamation of sci-fi, horror and high level conspiracies investigated by FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) which has built a large cult audience over five years on television. In a first for the big screen, the film is a bridge between this past season's cliffhanging ending and next season's episodes, yet it stands on its own and you don't have to be familiar with the show to enjoy the film.

The film's scope is large, spanning from 35,000 BC, where we see prehistoric man encounter subterranean alien beings, to the present, where the X Files have been closed and Mulder and Scully are investigating a bomb threat in Dallas. Mulder locates the bomb quite by accident in an adjacent building and the FBI is able to clear the building before the blast - or so they believe. Reports indicate that a young boy and three firefighters died, but guess what - this is just another coverup to hide bodies which encountered the 'black oil' underground in northern Texas. (We've been privy to this happening. The young boy, played by Lucas Black of "Sling Blade," has oil blobs crawl under his skin and turn his eyes black.) Further encounters with mysterious cornfields in unlikely places, African bees, and oil tankers being spiritted away by train all lead up to a climax in Antartica where Mulder must rescue Scully.

I normally don't care for David Duchovny's low key acting style, but ironically, he shines on the big screen playing his small screen personna. He's actually quite funny, revealing his deadpan 'panic face' to Scully or getting drunk in a bar and regaling the bartender (Glenn Headley in a throwaway cameo) with why his nickname is 'Spooky.' He's also quite believably passionate about Scully. Gillian Anderson is proficient, if not as interesting a character. Martin Landau adds little as a doctor friend of Mulder's father who points Mulder in some new directions. The syndocate head is creepily personified by Armin Mueller-Stahl and The Well Manicured Man (John Neville) shows compassion amidst the Syndocate's ruthless actions. Cigarette-smoking-man appears periodically where the action is and remains a cypher. The only show regulars who aren't well incorporated are the Lone Gunmen, making a comical appearance that makes little sense to the non-X Files viewer.

Technically, the film is fairly well done. The Dallas explosion is impressive and the alien beings are pretty scary. Scully (well made up to show the horror of her ordeal) and Mulder scramble for their lives while the snow covered terrain of Antartica collapses behind them, finally giving Mulder the sight he's longed for. The score is sufficiently X-Files-ish without sounding like a straight copy of the TV theme.

I've never been able to get hooked by "The X Files" on TV, and doubt the film will make me begin watching next season, but it was an interesting enough diversion and Duchovny's performance was a nice surprise.

B


HIGH ART

A Sundance Film Festival award winner for its screenplay, "High Art" stars Radha Mitchell ("Love and Other Catastrophes") as Syd, a young New Yorker with a dream job at a tony photography magazine. When she meets her upstairs neighbor Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), Syd thinks she's found her ticket to real success. Syd doesn't have the killer instinct to really make it in New York, but Lucy is a famous photographer whose decadent lifestyle has eclipsed her fame. When Syd finds herself drawn into an intimate relationship with the lesbian artist, she must face a conflict of her own making.

Laura LAURA:
"High Art" is an impressively assured debut from writer/director Lisa Cholodenko. The engrossing story is essentially a meditation on commerce vs. art and the strains ambition puts on personal relationships.

Syd is an intelligent, hard-working assistant editor for the ficticious Frame magazine who resents the fact that her politically driven boss (wonderfully portrayed by David Thornton of "Unhook the Stars") still sends her on errands. Her discovery of the formerly famous photographer Lucy has a twofold effect upon her - her career ambitions are sparked and she finds herself strongly attracted to Lucy's world. Syd's live-in boyfriend James is disgusted by the changes he sees in Syd (she returns one night from Lucy's after having tried a line of heroin, turned on and then nauseated during the lovemaking she's initiated) and leaves.

Lucy also is changed dramatically by Syd. Lucy comes from wealth, so doesn't have to work to support her lifestyle, but Syd inspires her to try to regain her standing in the art world. Lucy's long time relationship with Greta, a former Fassbinder actress who's addicted to heroin, begins to unravel as Lucy is also attracted to Syd. Patricia Clarkson is fabulous as Greta, funny and touching and always glamorous - this is a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance. She's like a raven haired, stoned Dietrich. Also fine is Tammy Grimes as Lucy's European mom, who resents 'the German' because of the family's holocaust history. The two leads are note perfect. "High Art" should result in some interesting offers for newcomer Mitchell and reinvent Ally Sheedy in the eyes of casting directors.

The writing is sharp. When Syd, still unaware of Lucy's former fame, begins to critique the photographs hanging in her apartment, then hesitates with an apology, Lucy responds wryly "It's OK. I haven't been deconstructed in a long time." Small moments reinforce Cholodenko's themes, such as when the Frame receptionist begins to grill Syd about how she got her job or when later, when Syd tells Lucy the name of the head honcho of Frame, Lucy responds with ten year old knowledge "She's the receptionist at Interview."

Technically, the film belies its small budget. Cinematography by Tami Reiker is effective as is the original music by Shudder to Think. The film's ending is grim, but essential to the story's arc.

B+


ARMAGEDDON

An asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward earth and NASA's executive director, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton, "Sling Blade"), is tasked by the President of the United States to destroy the giant rock with all means available. Missiles won't stop the massive projectile and the only choice is to send a team out to meet and demolish it. Enter Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his crew of roughneck deep core oil drillers, trained at a breakneck pace and launched into space to blow up the planetoid threatening the Earth in "Armageddon."

Robin ROBIN:
This second and much anticipated big-rock-hitting-the-earth science fiction event epic is a major disappointment. It's recent predecessor, "Deep Impact," a much less ambitious film F/X and action-wise, turns out to be the superior of the two.

"Armageddon," with a budget around the $120-million mark, is a film of two parts: part one is a combination of disaster movie (albeit, on the grandest of scales), "The Right Stuff" and the 1968 John Wayne movie, "Hellfighters." This part moves along with a good pace, leavening humor in its story of the discovery of a Global Killer heading straight for earth, rounding up a team of mining experts to send up to the big rock, training the roughneck gang for the rigors of traveling and working in space and, finally, flinging them off the earth in a pair of titanium-clad space shuttles named Freedom and Independence. This part, the first hour of the film's interminable 150 minute runtime, is its high point. The intimate involvement and cooperation by NASA and the US Air Force are quite apparent in part one, with believable technical training and display of modern technology reflecting this participation. Then, you are faced with part two.

Once the space ships are launched, the filmmakers, led by director Michael Bay ("The Rock"), let special F/X rule and common sense drool as one implausible event after another lay waste to any possibility of suspending disbelief. One of the high-tech, "indestructible" ships is ripped apart in an unexpected collision with asteroid debris (that isn't supposed to be there). Then, later, we have survivors of the crash, on, mind you, an airless, totally hostile chunk of space junk hurtling toward the earth at 22,000 mph, dig themselves out of the crash debris completely intact with a fully functional, unscathed mobile drilling rig just waiting for them. I won't go into the Evel Kneivel-type jump they make over a vast canyon to get to the other crew and help blow the rock in half. There are many such head-slappers to suffer through before you get to the thoroughly cliched, unexciting ending. (Note that there a wedding scene shot for the ending of the film but was mercifully, for the viewer, cut.) Part two is loud, fast moving and stupid, insulting the viewer with annoying and frequent regularity.

The cast, led by Willis, Thornton, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler are all pretty serviceable in a generic way. Supporting cast is peppered with lots of talent with Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, William Fitchner and Michael Clarke Duncan (as Bear, the muscleman of the drilling team). This ensemble cast does a decent job of developing their characters and relationships with each other during the first hour. The slam-bam in-your-face second part does nothing to help further the character development of the solid cast, so they become F/X fodder.

Production elements are, as you would expect in a Jerry Bruckheimer/Gale Anne Hurd film, high quality and, if coupled with an intelligent script, would have been in good company. The script, by J.J. Abrams ("The Pallbearer," "Diabolique") offers no originality, borrowing liberally from the other films mentioned, and not even in an interesting manner.

They say that money can't buy everything. It definitely does not buy us a Good Film in "Armageddon" and I give it a D+.

Laura LAURA:
After the disappointment of "Deep Impact," I was sure that the pricier, more special effects intensive "Armageddon" could only be better. I was wrong.

The cast can't be faulted. Bruce Willis' team of cowboy oil drillers recruited by NASA to save the world all have their moments and all create relatively believable characters. In fact, the film's first hour, where this team is established, is actually entertaining, if given to a couple of scenes of jaw-dropping stupidity. Hack-action director Michael Bay ("The Rock") and the screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams are both guilty of majorly excessive overkill, however. >From the point where Harry S. Stamper (Willis) and his boys board their space shuttles, we're bombarded for another hour and a half with one close call after another that makes one want to scream 'Enough already - just get on with it!' The machine-fire editting, where cuts happen before the mind can absorb what it's just seen, combined with assaultive sound, are almost headache inducing at points.

Willis gives the performance one would expect as Stamper. The actor who's been vain enough to have his bald spot retouched on film does surprise us playing a man old enough to have an 18 year old daughter (Grace, limpidly played by Liv Tyler). Billy Bob Thornton, in Ed Harris' role from "Apollo 13," gives a believable performance in a silly situation. Ben Affleck is A.J., an almost-son to Harry now in conflict with him over Harry's daughter. Affleck's OK, but shines better in indie fare.

Owen Wilson ("Bottle Rocket," "Anaconda") has the most fun as the stoner philosopher of the crew. Unfortunately, he's one of the earliest casualities. William Fichtner ("Heat") is quite good as Colonel Sharp, the shuttle pilot who resents the drilling team until a climatic scene with Willis (where, good grief, they disarm a nuke by cutting the right colored wire!). Peter Stormare ("Fargo") is a blast as the Russian cosmonaut who inadvertently ends up aboard a shuttle when his docking station blows up during a fuel filling disaster. He makes eye-rolling plot devices entertaining by his sheer goofiness, whether he's trailing a speeding shuttle through space on a line like a water skier or fixing malfunctioning shuttle equipment by whacking it. Will Patton is Chick, the most normal of the bunch, who appears to be around to have a touching reunion with the young son he's not been allowed to visit. Steve Buscemi is Rockhound, the horny genius who freaks out in space in the film's most totally unbelievable scene. Michael Clark Duncan is Bear, who tries to outrun the FBI on his motorcycle in one of the film's funniest scenes - he's someone to watch for.

"Armageddon's" special effects aren't enough to recommend the film. While chunks of the approaching Asteroid wrecking havoc in the world's major cities (of course these things only ever seem to happen to New York and Paris) are impressive, the filmmakers' undercut their global sensibility by presenting the peoples of the world like an AT&T 'reach out and touch me' commercial. The Asteroid itself seems like a big dark stage set.

C-


COUSIN BETTE

"Cousin Bette" is adapted from a mid-19th century Honore de Balzac novel and stars Jessica Lange as the title character who personifies the lower classes on the cusp of the French Revolution. A middle class country girl, Bette was 'sacrificed' so that her cousin Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin) could be pushed into the upper classes via marriage to a man Bette desired (Hugh Laurie as Hector). When Adeline dies, Hector's plea to Bette to be a mother to his children, especially unwed daughter Hortense, is perceived by Bette as an offer of marriage. When Bette finds out she's only been asked to be the family's housekeeper and that Hortense must be married to a rich man because Hector has squandered the family fortune on his mistress Jenny Cadine (Elizabeth Shue), her resentment blossoms into full fledged revenge.

Laura LAURA:
Although "Cousin Bette" is a period piece adapted from a 150 year old novel, it's a light romp full of humor, scandal and sex. British stage director Des McAnuff's film directing debut never feels stagebound and he keeps his multi-facetted tale moving along at a nice clip.

Jessica Lange, who was last seen chewing the scenery as the evil mother-in-law in "Hush," gives a nuanced performance as Bette. Even though we're privy to her character flaws (resentment and jealousy are not pretty traits), Lange's manipulations are fun to watch and one can't but help admire her cunning as she bends everyone to her will even though the cards are stacked against her. Elizabeth Shue shines as the singing star of a bawdy revue with all of Paris at her feet (well the men of Paris, anyway). When Jenny throws a tantrum because her new costume doesn't display her charms, Bette, who's also kept her job as the theater's seamstress at Hector's selfish request, promptly stomps over and takes a pair of scissors to the back of Jenny's white tights. A hush and then voila - Jenny's bared backside becomes her new signature and the two become confidantes.

The cast also features Aden Young as Wenceslas, a penniless sculptor who Bette lusts after, saves from suicide, and attempts to ensnare through force of will and almost literal enslavement. Bette's boasts of her young lover spur Kelly Macdonald ("Trainspotting"), as the spoiled Hortense, to make him her own. Hortense does just that, adding to the family's financial woes, particularly when Wenceslas fritters away a commission to sculpt a statue of her great uncle at her father's behest. (Meanwhile Hortense has spurned the wealthy Lord Mayor of Paris (Bob Hoskins), so Bette furthers her cause by sending him to Hector's lover, Jenny. Shue is a scream greeting her old lover Hector while being serviced under her skirts by Hoskins.) Duels, more partner swapping and further family humiliations ensue, all accenting the frivolity of the upper classes and those that attain their level via money.

The adapted sceenplay by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr weaves multiple threads without losing the viewer and has an earthy, sexual humor to appeal to a modern audience. Costume design by Gabriella Pescucci ("The Age of Innocence") perfectly represents both the era and the characters. Music by Simon Boswell ranges from classically themed to boisterous as the film requires. Even sound (uncreditted in the press kit) attains its own comic punch.

"Cousin Bette" won't go down in the annals of film history, but its a fun comic microcosm of a time gone by. The film even ends on a great punch line, where we learn of Jenny's ultimate fate, that's a lesser grade "The Full Monty."

B-


DR. DOLITTLE

Accompanied by array of on-screen personalities and off-screen personality voices, Eddie Murphy stars in director Betty Thomas' remake of the 1967 Fox musical of the same name (a box office disaster starring Rex Harrison), "Dr. Dolittle." Based on the stories of Hugh Lofting, this adaptation by Nat Mauldin and Harry Levin, has Dr. John Dolittle the successful member of a family medical profession that is up for sale to a cold-hearted healthcare consortium. He and his partners (Oliver Platt and Richard Schiff) stand to make millions, that is, until a near miss accident with a stray dog unleashes a suppressed childhood ability to talk to animals, changing the confused doctor into something unexpected and wonderful.

Robin ROBIN:
Before I go on with my review, let me say that "Dr. Dolittle" is, first and foremost, aimed at kids. The juvenile humor, including many bodily function and fart jokes, does not assume a high degree of education and sophistication. It hits its target audience dead center and should do well with the kiddies at the theaters and, even better, as a home video staple.

Eddie Murphy faced a tough job in keeping up with the bevy of special F/X, CBG and live animal action with his non-human stars often times stealing the show from the veteran comic actor. At first, as Dr. D denies his re-found ability to converse fluently with all species, the special F/X of talking beasts threatened to overwhelm Murphy. As he falls into his role of animal healthcare professional and consultant (even performing tricky surgery on a very large feline), the comic talent of Murphy come to the fore. He performs seamlessly with all his co-stars, human and animal, showing that he is back on track as a comedy superstar. In one scene, he performs CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation to a street rat, which drew a loud "Yuck!" from the very amused kids in the audience.

One of the things about "Dr. Dolittle" that helps raise it above kiddy-fare and give the accompanying adults a bit of amusing entertainment are the not-so-kid-targeted jokes. One moment, in a veterinary office, has a dog pleading with his owner not to be neutered, promising to never, ever look at another female dog again - until, of course, one walks past. Another has Rodney (Chris Rock) the guinea pig give the throwaway line, "Why do they call me a guinea pig!? I'm not Italian, and I'm not pork!" The solid voice cast has Rock, Norm MacDonald, Albert Brooks, John Leguizamo, Julie Kavner, Garry Shandling and a bevy of others lend human qualities to the animal players in a funny and varied manner. Rodney, a little sass master, and MacDonald's doggy character, Lucky, are good foils to Murphy's John Dolittle.

The human characters fare less well as the people are, expectedly, given background roles to Murphy and his furry (and feathered) friends. Ossie Davis, Oliver Platt, Peter Boyle, Jeffrey Tambor and the rest are little more than part of the film's backdrop.

The special F/X are deceptive in their simple look of making the animals talk. This really difficult task is convincingly accomplished by an incredible collection of talents including Jim Henson's Creature Shop, a team of puppeteers led by Allan Trautman, and a host of animal trainers, all working together to make the magic. The simplicity of the look of the effects helps me believe what I'm seeing without question. The action also has Murphy working really closely with the tiger, Tiger, and it's hard to tell what is real and what is F/X.

The kids are going to want to see "Dr. Dolittle," so take them to a matinee or, even better, to a drive-in if it's showing, and sit back and be a kid, too. I give it a B.

Laura LAURA:
Eddie Murphy reprises Rex Harrison's role as "Dr. Dolittle" in a modern day, non-musical adaptation of the well known children's classic. The earlier film was a critical and box office bomb. This one's an improvement.

Murphy's a modern day stressed out doctor and family man working in a small practice with two partners. In flashbacks we learn that the young John (played with wonderful precocity by Dari Gerard Smith) wasn't always so serious and that he had a special relationship with his dog - they could talk to each other! Unfortunately, trying to do the right thing after John smells his new principal's behind to 'get to know him,' John's dad (Ossie Davis) delivers a stern lecture and sends the beloved pet away.

Years later a bump on the head incurred after swerving his car to avoid a stray mutt brings back John's ability to commune with animals (he's called a butthead for his troubles). A family outing to Dad's camp in the forest brings a flock of assorted creatures out of the 'woodwork' to meet the doctor who can listen to their assorted woes.

Children will probably be delighted with "Dr. Dolittle." It features scores of talking animals, most notably Chris Rock as the fast-talking guinea pig Rodney, Norm MacDonald giving voice to Lucky, the mutt Dolittle inherits, and John Leguizamo as an insult hurling rat. Albert Brooks is a suicidal tiger. Julie Kavner and Garry Shandling are a pigeon couple with marital problems. The manic Gilbert Gottfried fittingly voices a dog with a compulsive behavioral problem. The animals get all the film's good lines. (When a group of animals fake a demonstration to keep police from entering Dolittle's offices, one small voice can be heard shouting "Free Willy!")

Adults, however, may become strained with the lame story that's used as the framework to present all these talking animals (I was more than ready for the film to end at the 75 minute mark, but alas). The sale of the practice for millions, the daughter who's 'different' because of her own penchant for smaller creatures and the wife who has her husband committed (after one of few genuinely funny scenes when Murphy is discovered by her and his partners giving CPR to a rat) all wear thin. Murphy's shifting between giving in to his calling and ignoring it veer back and forth so often his character becomes a plot contrivance. Franticness often substitutes for humor. The film relies on peoples' delight at seeing animals act as humans, which does provide most of the laughs to be had.

Director Betty Thomas (formerly of "Hill Street Blues") has given refreshing spins to such remakes as "The Brady Bunch" and I was expecting more from her here. Technically the film is sub-par. It looks murky when it should be bright. Set design is dismal. When animatronics are used in lieu of the real animals, it's obvious.

"Dr. Dolittle" isn't awful, but it's nowhere as much as fun as the film's trailer would suggest. OK for the kids, but if they haven't seen "Mulan" yet it's a far better family choice and a much better use of Murphy's talents (as the voice of Mushu - an animal).

C


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