SMALL SOLDIERS - LETHAL WEAPON 4
SMOKE SIGNALS - BUFFALO 66 - I WENT DOWN - MADELINE

SMALL SOLDIERS

It's "Gremlins" meets "Toy Story" and "The Dirty Dozen" in director Joe Dante's special F/X extravaganza, "Small Soldiers." The toy industry has leaped into the 21st Century and the products of that leap are the Commando Elite and their enemy, the Gorgonites. These high tech action figures, using a military grade processor chip, are capable not only of action but of learning, too. The Commando mission is to destroy the Gorgonite "scum," even if it involves the human members of the sleepy community of Winslow Corners, Ohio.

Robin ROBIN:
"Small Soldiers" is a fun ride but I have to warn parents: despite the under-10 orientation of the film's subject matter, there is a lot of violence and many scary scenes may not be appropriate for the young or sensitive kids out there. The film is correctly rated PG-13, so heed that warning.

Director Joe Dante ("Gremlins") teams with four-time Oscar-winning puppet master Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park") and the gang at Industrial Light & Magic in creating a world where GI Joe and Barbie not only can move on their own, they can kick your butt, too! The Commandos are introduced as typical action figures, inanimate except for the magic of TV commercials. But, in the hands of the greedy CEO (Denis Leary) of Globotech and the toy inventors (Jay Mohr and David Cross), high-technology can make the impossible a reality. The results are the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites - action figures with the emphasis on action.

The Commando Elite, led by Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), are like Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos with one track minds - kill their sworn enemy, the Gorgonites. The military-grade processor chip and life-time battery used in the diminutive soldiers makes them a formidable enemy for Gorgonites and humans alike. The Major's team - Kip Killagin (Ernest Borgnine), Butch Meathook (Jim Brown), Brick Bazooka (George Kennedy), Nick Nitro (Clint Walker) (all of whom were in "The Dirty Dozen"), and Link Static (Bruce Dern) - are all over-sized muscleheads who follow their commander's orders with glee. The relentlessness and violence of the Commandos borders on the disturbing, at times.

The Gorgonites, on the other hand, are mutant-looking creatures, but are kind and gentle. Led by Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), there are Slamfist and Scratch-It (Christopher Guest), Insaniac and Freakenstein (Michael McKean), Punch-It (Harry Shearer), and an eyeball on legs named Ocula (Jim Cummins). Initially creepy, the inherent goodness of the Gorgonites dissipates any negative qualities first perceived. Kids would love to have a toy like Archer. I know I would.

One of the more horrific sequences has the heroine's (Kirsten Dunst) Barbie-clone collection, called Gwendy, mutated by the commandos into Frankenstein-like creations that are a psychological perversion. The disfigured dolls are recruited as reinforcements for the Elite in their battle against the Gorgons and give the film some of its creepiest moments.

The human cast takes a back seat to the masterly F/X characters, as one would expect. The real-life cast is made up of many familiar character actors with Phil Hartman giving his last screen perf before his untimely death.

The reason we will flock to see "Small Soldiers" has nothing to do with the human characters, or story line, or plot motivation. It has to do with the much anticipated special F/X. And, to my pleasure, these are done so well and seamlessly that, after their introduction, the Commandos and Gorgonites blend right in with the human action. Kudos to the F/X folks for a brilliant melding of live action, puppetry and computer generated imagery.

"Small Soldiers" is derivative of many, many films, from Dante's own "Gremlins" to "Patton," "Frankenstein," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Gulliver's Travels," "Apocalypse Now" and more. It's very clever, but draws attention to the fact that it quoting other works' chapter and verse to mask its own lack of originality.

It sure is fun, though, and I give "Small Soldiers" a B.

Laura LAURA:
Director Joe Dante returns to the good vs. bad toys genre of "Gremlins" with "Small Soldiers."

The film takes place in the small town, USA setting of such films as "Gremlins" and "Back to the Future." Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) is a young teen trying to regain his father's trust after getting thrown out of two schools. His dad (Kevin Dunn of "Godzilla") is a 'back to nature' liberal who runs a failing toy shop, The Inner Child, which only sells educational toys. Their next door neighbors, the Fimples, include daughter Christy (Kirsten Dunst) who Alan has a major crush on. Her dad Phil (the late Phil Hartman, in his last screen role) is the opposite of Stuart Abernathy, and is introduced cutting down a tree to get better reception for his new satellite dish.

When Stuart leaves to attend a small business seminar, Alan is entrusted with the store. He's intrigued by the new shipment from Globotech, the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, and persuades the truck driver to give him a set on spec. Even though they're the type of toy his dad would never approve of, Alan knows these high-priced, high-tech toys will fly out of the store. They do, but not in the way he had envisioned.

The Gorgonites, led by Archer (voice of Frank Langella) were originally intended to be just the type of toys the Elder Abernathy would approve of, but the owner of Globotech (an amusing Denis Leary) decides they'd be perfect pitted against the Commando Elite, a bunch of wacked-out GI Joe type characters led by Chip Hazard (voice of Tommy Lee Jones). In order to get them to market pronto, they're outfitted with surplus military chips with the ability to learn warlike strategy, but unable to withstand nuclear magnetic pulse.

Alan brings home the dog-beast Archer to study the new toy and discovers this talking figure is almost human. Meanwhile, back at the shop, the Commando Elite all spring to life and begin to hunt down the Gorgonites, trashing the store in the process. Christy arrives to help Alan deal with the mess and soon the two are teamed to save the Gorgonites, who are adept at hiding, but not at battle, from the hell-bent Commando Elite.

Special effects are top notch, with the toys moving in the jerky manner of action figures. While the Gorgonites (which include the Hunchback/Frankenstein-like Freaky and the endearing eyeball Ocula) are all given personalities, the Commandos (voiced by Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, George Kennedy, and Bruce Dern.) and pretty interchangeable with the exception of leader Chip.

Like "The Borrowers," the Commandos make weapons from household things like corncob holders. Like "Toy Story," a Commando gets a wild ride down the street trailing Alan's bike. In the film's best scene, also reminiscent of "Toy Story," the Commandos find Christy's Gwendy doll collection and mutate it with a spare chip into a group of attacking banshees. (The Commandos' requests to go on leave upon spotting the comely dolls is very funny.)

The film derives its humor from pop culture references (the Commandos use Phil Fimples' new stereo system to blast the two families with a Spice Girls tune as 'psychological warfare') and movie in-jokes (a computer password is Gizmo, the good Gremlin of "Gremlins").

The two young leads are convincing, with Dunst showing gleeful enthusiasm for battling the errant toys. Ann Magnuson also revels in the action as Alan's mom, who thwacks back incoming fireballs with a tennis racquet.

"Small Soldiers" is an entertaining, if unoriginal summer diversion. The film, which is rated PG-13, is definitely for older children and could be disturbing to any young children who still play with action figure toys or Barbie dolls.

B-


LETHAL WEAPON 4

Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) return, feeling their age and both contemplating the arrival of a new baby, in "Lethal Weapon 4," directed by series regular, action director Richard Donner. This time the two are battling the Chinese underworld, led by Asian superstar Jet Li. But that's really incidental. "Lethal Weapon 4" is about action and comedy, which it does deliver. Joe Pesci and Rene Russo are again on hand as Leo Getz and Riggs' pregnant live-in love Lorna. Chris Rock joins the fun as the over-exhuberant Detective Lee Butters, Murtaugh's new, albeit secret, son-in-law.

Laura LAURA:
"Lethal Weapon 4" is the only sequel on this summer's movie slate and it delivers the usual action and banter with a strong subcontext of family values. While its plot is a bit of a mish-mash, it's certainly more enjoyable than the last outing, if not as good as the first two.

This time out Riggs actually joins Murtaugh in bemoaning his ability to keep up with the bad guys. The two are faced with enemies far stronger than they - they win out over adversity more by luck than brawn now. The film opens with the trademark scene where Riggs is able to get the best of Murtaugh all in the name of fun when he convinces his partner to strip down to his undies and act like a chicken in order to distract the 'human tank' that's torching downtown L.A. That's the only point of the film's opening 15 minutes.

Chris Rock helps spice things up as Lee Butters. His ingratiating manner towards Murtaugh makes the older man fear a gay come-on, which Martin, knowing the truth, gleefully lets him believe. Riggs is uncomfortably thinking about marriage to Lorna. "Lethal Weapon 4," clearly meant to be the last installment of the series, also touches back on each of the initial three films. Riggs converses with his beloved, deceased wife. He's saved underwater (think Patsy Kensit in number 2). The two partners are promoted to captain to keep them from mass destruction (they were demoted in the third for the same reason).

Mel Gibson's patter is amusing (his greeting to the stylish villain Jet Li is 'enter the drag queen'), although he has some cringe-inducing, inappropriate lines as well (such as taunting a Chinese restaurant owner with the phrase 'flied lice'). Danny Glover is in fine reactive form to Gibson's craziness, although he's saddled with a completely extraneous, and poorly resolved, subplot that implies he's on the take.

Joe Pesci is better utilized in the fourth installment, revisitting his 'you get f***ed at the drive-through' number with Chris Rock. He convinces Riggs that marriage to Lorna isn't a betrayal of his deceased wife with a silly story about a pet frog in a scene that's almost touching.

Jet Li dazzles with his kung fu moves, single handedly disarming and taking out the aging pair.

The action scenes are over the top, but brilliantly staged. Riggs and Murtaugh hurtle off an overpass, through an entire floor of a business building, only to crash through the other side and regain the highway. Riggs boards a moving trailer and ends up being dragged aboard an upended table on a plastic sheet as Murtaugh protects him by playing high speed bumper cars with the bad guys.

The finale, featuring dual births and an impromptu wedding (the great Richard Libertini is a rabbi drafted by Leo Getz for the occasion), ends on a somewhat forced 'we are family' group shot. Overall, "Lethal Weapon 4" is dumb fun with a few misguided attempts at humor.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
As one might expect of the fourth installment of the incredibly lucrative "Lethal Weapon" series, it's formula, formula, formula! The original team of director Richard Donner and stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are joined, once again, by Joe Pesci and Rene Russo, and, newcomers to the franchise, Chris Rock as Detective Lee Butters, and Hong Kong action master Jet Li in "Lethal Weapon 4."

The trouble with a movie franchise that spans more than a decade is the danger of running out of steam, ideas and originality. "Lethal Weapon 4" runs out of all these things, relying on the strength of its familiar characters to keep us entertained. Martin, Roger, Leo and Lorna all lend their familiar faces and talent to a script (developed by a gang of screenwriters, a bad sign) that is merely a string of action, action, humor, action, humor, humor, action, etc. scenes, without a real story to go with it.

The story shell that is supposed to envelop "Lethal Weapon 4" involves Chinese triads, slavery, and an elaborate scheme to gain the release of the "Four Fathers" from the Chinese Communists by bribing a corrupt official with bunches of counterfeit People's Republic currency. Jet Li, as the prince and lead killer of the illegal triad, is remarkable as a marshal arts juggernaut who cannot be stopped, making a striking (pun intended) entry into the American action genre without ever uttering a word of English.

Of the film's stars, Glover comes off best, looking pretty buff for a character who was getting ready to retire in the 1987 original. Gibson looks tired and is less lively than his usual self. He, at least, should be ready to pull the plug on this particular franchise. Pesci and Russo are fine reprising their characters - Leo is now a private eye and Lorna, though hugely pregnant, can still kick bad guy butt. Chris Rock is noisy and unimpressive as Murtaugh's subordinate and secret son-in-law.

There are no surprises along the way with this latest "Lethal"" dose. Lots of money is spent on the expected action sequences. One extended gag has Riggs and Murtaugh drive their car, while pursuing a bad guy, off an elevated roadway into an office building, drive through the entire building and crash back on to the highway, right behind the bad guy! This, and other such action gems, are so fast and furious there isn't time to question their sense. You just let them wash over you.

"Lethal Weapon 4" is a big piece of eye candy that fits its sequel bill to the letter, but it's still a sequel and offers absolutely nothing new. Gibson's Riggs is right when he says, "I'm getting to old for this shit!" I give it a C+.


SMOKE SIGNALS

In what is reportedly the first feature length film to be directed, written and co-produced by American Indians, director Chris Eyre makes his big screen debut with "Smoke Signals," adapted from screenwriter Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) has not seen his father in a decade, following the biggest Fourth of July celebration ever on Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. Now, ten years after the drunken blowout (and, Victor's father's subsequent disappearance), news is received that father Arnold has died of a heart attack in his tiny trailer home in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor, heading for Phoenix, reluctantly agrees to the assistance and company of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the local storyteller who was saved from a fire as a baby by Victor's father. The pair trek across the land on a physical and spiritual journey to find Arnold and, maybe, themselves.

Robin ROBIN:
Director Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) makes a sparkling debut with his first feature length film of writer Alexie's (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) screenplay. Showing a part of America that has never been seen on the big screen before, the filmmakers take us into the heart of an Indian reservation. The depiction of the utter monotony of reservation life is handled with humor and dignity as the local DJ at radio station KREZ announces, "It's a good day to be indigenous." The station's traffic report is given from atop a van broken down since 1972 where, if two cars are spotted at the same time, a traffic jam is declared. A pair of Indian women break up their boredom by driving around the reservation - backwards.

Adam Beach ("Squanto: A Warriors Tale") gives a serious performance as Victor, a young man who holds no Indian, not even his father, in esteem. Adam believes that his dignity as an American Indian lies in his stoic character, a quality he constantly tries to instill on his travel companion, Thomas. Victor experiences the greatest change in spirit as his journey uncovers things about his dad that he never knew.

Reprising his role from Eyre's short, "Someone Kept Saying Powwow," Evan Adams plays Thomas as an Indian geek, with braided hair and huge eyeglasses over his ever-present, big-toothed grin. Thomas, a shaman storyteller with a talent for drawing you in to even his simplest tale, wants only to be liked, tell his stories and make his favorite food, fried bread. The two young men, during their journey to Arizona, learn to respect each other and themselves.

The rest of the American Indian cast - led by Irene Bedard (the voice of "Pocahontas") as Suzy Song, who befriended Victor's estranged father; Gary Farmer ("Dead Man") as the troubled Arnold; and Tantoo Cardinal ("Black Robe") as Victor's fried bread maestro mother Arlene Joseph - are first rate in their depiction of day-to-day life on the reservation.

Note the amusing bit of political incorrectness as the characters call themselves American Indians rather than Native Americans. "Smoke Signals" is a fine, entertaining effort by a talented newcomer that breaks new ground, culturally. I give it a solid B.

Laura LAURA:
Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Smoke Signals" is a touching tale of fathers and sons as well as an amusing road film.

The film opens as Arnold Joseph rescues the infant Thomas Builds-the-Fire when he's thrown from the upstairs window of a burning home. The orphaned Thomas forever feels a bond to this rough alcoholic man, taking great pleasure from his smallest acts of kindness. Not so Arnold's own son, Victor, who resents the man for both his harsh treatment of himself and his mother, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal of "Black Robe"), and his eventual abandonment of them. Victor also has little patience for the geeky Thomas, who he thinks does not present himself properly as an Indian. When Arlene receives a phone call from the unknown Suzy Song (Irene Bedard, voice of "Pocahontas") informing her that her husband has died, Thomas offers to pay for Victor's bus ticket to Phoenix to retrieve his Dad's ashes if Thomas can accompany him.

The road movie that ensues is a delight, from the warning the young men receive before departure from the reservation that 'America is as foreign as it gets' to Victor's instructions to Thomas about how to be an Indian ('you've got to lose that suit,' 'get stoic.') They even break out into an impromptu song about John Wayne's teeth on the bus. Thomas is a natural storyteller (three times he regales Victor about the time his father took him to Denny's), but Victor finds his constant talk annoying. When the two get to their destination, Thomas comes to a new understanding of his Dad through the eyes of Suzy Song.

Evan Adams' Thomas is one of the most unique screen characters of the year. His goofy appearance (which is amusingly identical to that of his grandmother), general sunniness and sing-song voice strangely add up to a captivating charm. Adam Beach isn't as strong as the handsome Victor, but he does evolve his character's simmering rage and confusion into acceptance.

The script, by Sherman Alexie, creates real characters in a place few Americans are familiar with. Humor keeps the audience uplifted even as an emotionally heavy story is being told.

Technically, the film is first rate with cinematographer Brian Capener beautifully capturing the locales. Director Eyre effectively uses flashbacks, with characters past seamlessly editted to present action. The score uses Native American themes.

The film's finale, while simple in its execution, carries enormous weight as Thomas narrates "Forgiving Our Fathers" by Dick Lourie ('If we forgive our fathers, what is left?')

B+


BUFFALO 66

Billy Brown, played by writer/director Vincent Gallo, has just been released from prison having served another man's 5 year sentence to pay back a $10,000 bet on a Buffalo Bills game. He has only two quests - to find a bathroom and to visit his parents with a pack of lies that will make them proud. Billy kidnaps tap-dancing kewpie doll Layla (Christina Ricci) to act as his wife and returns home to his Buffalo Bills obsessed Mom (Angelica Huston) and his abusive dad (Ben Gazzarra).

Laura LAURA:
"Buffalo 66" is an audacious, hilarious, and thoroughly original debut from character actor Gallo. Effectively shot in and around Gallo's home town of Buffalo, this low-budget indie effectively employs such devices as frame collages (Gallo efficiently shows his entire prison stint in 1 minute of screen time with this method), frame within frame to show his childgood flashbacks, surreal musical numbers and live action stop motion photography.

The gaunt Gallo, seeming like a cross between Christopher Walken and Dennis Leary, brings the meaning of uptight to a whole new level. His Billy, always riffing in machine-gun bursts, is funny, emotionally lost, hautingly attractive in his ill-fitting clothes. He's a ticking time bomb and it's a compelling performance.

It's perfectly believable that his kidnap victim, the perfectly cast Christina Ricci, would fall for him. Costumed in a baby blue babydoll mini, high-heeled silver sequinned tap shoes and excessive amounts of blue eye shadow, Ricci's Layla is more focussed in redeeming Billy in his parents' eyes than he is.

Angelica Huston is simply terrific as the football obsessed mother who resents Billy's very birth as it caused her to miss the Bills' 1966 championship winning game. She's sweet on the surface, bringing Billy his 'favorite chocolate doughnuts,' while Gallo shows his extreme allergic reaction to chocolate as a child within a picture inset.

Ben Gazzarra is creepy as the loud, hair-trigger father who keeps telling his new daughter-in-law how much he loves his baby girl as he crushes his face into her ample bosom. At Layla's urging (she's trying to be a 'nice girl'), he takes her to a room to sing "Fools Rush In" in a scene reminiscent of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

Billy and Layla continue on the road after he's called his only friend, Goon (whom he screams is 'an ugly retard'), and developed a plan to shoot Scott Woods, the man who missed the field goal that landed him in jail. They visit the one place where Billy's always shone, the local bowling alley (where Gallo at least matches the bowling surrealism of the Coen Brothers' "Big Lebowski"), where Layla performs a dreamlike, poignant tap dance. They run into Wendy Balsam (Roseanna Arquette) at Denny's and Layla, who'd been introduced to his parents by this name, discovers this obnoxious woman who Billy's been obsessed with throughout his childhood, barely knows him.

The finale of the film is perfect, as Billy goes to the final distance of his manic plan, only to be redeemed by the love of a good woman. When Gallo, who's constantly been admonishing Ricci 'Don't touch me,' turns his fury into romantic giddiness, I wanted to cheer. Billy and Layla are an unforgettable screen couple.

A-

Robin ROBIN:
In a striking debut as a writer/director, the "Buffalo 66" star, Vincent Gallo, has created a technically complex day-in-the-life story of ex-con Billy Brown and provides a showcase for the budding adult talent of Christina Ricci ("The Addams Family").

Gallo uses many different techniques to tell Billy's story, most of which work. An early montage, like a moving picture gallery, depicts his years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit, takes seconds to tell, gives a vivid view into Billy's troubled life and mind. Flashbacks to Billy's childhood are deftly used to show the abuse and plain lack of caring by his totally dysfunctional parents. One flashback to an unnoticed, by his mother, allergic reaction to chocolate by Billy is short, but great in depicting a less than loving home. A bizarre stop motion faux ending brings attention to itself with its stylish pretension but is still an interesting.

Gallo gives one of the most manic performances on the screen this year. Actually, he makes "manic" seem sedate as he rants at everyone around him. Billy is a tightly wound coil of a person who is ignorant, institutionalized and angered beyond control, but with delusions of past and present grandeur. He looks like a homeless person and acts like he's in the bucks. Fortunately, for all his bluster and rage, his violence is almost totally verbal. He yanks Layla's hair once, but apologizes effusively for his actions. Billy longs, desperately, to be loved and to love someone. He just doesn't know how to go about it. His fortuitous crossing of paths with Layla ultimately liberates him.

Christina Ricci as Layla has made the leap from child performer to adult actor with this performance and in the recently released "The Opposite of Sex." Her performance as Layla is based more on expression and expressiveness than dialog and the young actress is near-brilliant in her portrayal of a post-pubescent babe who looks half whore/half angel. Coupled with this subtle perf is a costume that is both sexy and funny and suited, beautifully, to the character. The camera adores Ricci and is used to accentuate her prettiness in an angelic way.

Angelica Huston is focused as Billy's Buffalo Bill loving mom, Janet, who has eyes for no one, literally, but her beloved team. She is definitely not the motherly type. Ben Gazarra borders on outrageous as Billy's paranoid, hateful and violent father who is actually afraid of his crazy son. Mickey Rourke as The Bookie, Rosanna Arquette as the real Wendy Balsom (Billy's long secret love) and Jan-Michael Vincent as Sonny, the manager of the bowling alley where Billy is at one with himself, add a celebrity quality to the background characters.

"Buffalo 66" is a fine debut for Gallo. The loud, raucous monologues by the actor starts to grate on the nerves toward the end of the film, but the other talented aspects of the production help to overcome the noise. I give it a B.


I WENT DOWN

Prison inmate Git Hynes (Peter McDonald) is a loser. He's in prison for a crime he didn't even commit and his girlfriend has left him for his best friend. Once out of jail, he falls into old ways and agrees to do a "favor" for Dublin mob boss Tom French (Tony Doyle). The favor requires Git to hit the road with the oversized, side-burned gangster named Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson) in search of the "friendly face" and the money from his "deal." Things get dicey when friendly face Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey) resists the pair and they find out there is no money in "I Went Down."

Robin ROBIN:
"I Went Down" is an over-long, uneven comedy that brings us to the edge of the mob underworld of Dublin, but never delves into that world. Instead, it is an offbeat road movie pairing two unlikely partners in potential crime. Peter McDonald is a handsome kid but gives a vacant and lifeless performance as Git, the ostensible star of the film. He is overshadowed by the blustery character of Bunny Kelly, who, though funny as hell, also has a raw violence that gives his character an edginess.

The story, finding the friendly face and grabbing the loot, is mere fodder for the action antics as Git, Bunny and, reluctantly, Frank, make the journey to the final confrontation with Tom French. The trip is mildly amusing but it does not stay with you after leaving the theater.

Acting, with the exception of McDonald's blandness, is solid provided by the principles, especially Gleeson (who stars in the upcoming John Boorman film, "The General").

The script, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, covers no new ground. Road/buddy movies are pretty popular right now, and some, like "Smoke Signals," work quite well. The journey depicted in "I Went Down" offers nothing except for some slapstick moments.

For a film that has received such high-praise and acclaim (it has broken box-office records in Europe and received attention at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival), I found it completely unremarkable.

I give "I Went Down" a C+.

Laura LAURA:
"I Went Down" is an Irish mob movie by way of the Keystone Kops. Git (Peter McDonald), a handsome sadsack just released from prison, puts out the eye of one of local mob boss Tom French's men protecting a friend whose being shaken down for a bad bet. French orders payback by assigning Git to pair up with Bunny (Brendon Gleeson) and bring back former crony Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey).

Git soon realizes he's in a no win situation. Bunny is totally inept. He steals a car with no key to the gas cap. He tries to cover this up by robbing the gas station they stop at (although he's mainly interested in stocking up on chocolate bars). He decides to abandon cars miles from nowhere. Amazingly, the two do manage to kidnap Grogan out of his lair and return him to French.

The film is lighter than air, rolling along good naturedly but not amounting to much of anything. The main delight to be had here is the performance of Brendon Gleeson (soon to be seen in John Boorman's "The General," a winner at Cannes). Bunny's round Irish face is encircled with a fringe of red hair, from his eyebrows with the tuft in between to the sideburns which almost meet at his chin. He's also a fashion disaster. Gleeson makes Bunny exasperating (he's entirely confident even while he's messing up left and right), yet also endearingly childlike (he always stops to call and make up with his estranged wife).

Peter McDonald is fine as Git who follows in Bunny's wake with bemused bewilderment. Peter Caffrey is enjoyable as the third member of the trip, who tries to convince the two that French only wants him because he's been sleeping with his wife.

"I Went Down," whose title is interpretted three different ways during the course of the film, is pleasant enough, but not particularly fulfilling as a movie experience. Consider it early exposure to the talents of Brendon Gleeson.

C


MADELINE

"In an old house in Paris all covered with vines, there were twelve little girls in two straight lines." This begins "Madeline," based on the Ludwig Bemelmans books first written and illustrated in 1939, about the courageous little redhead of the title, her schoolmates and their teacher and guardian Miss Clavel (played by Oscar-winner Frances McDormand). The school's benefactor, Lady Covington (Stephane Audran), has passed away and the future of the girls and their alma mater is in jeopardy. It is up Madeline and her friends, with the aid of their neighbor Pepito, to stop the sale of the school and save the day.

Laura LAURA:
With 15 million Madeline books in print, the film adaptation, which covers four of the six books, has a built in audience. That audience should be pleased with the antics of the live action "Madeline."

Screen newcomer Hatty Jones has a cherubic face with a serious gaze that's tailor made for the orphan girl who can't help creating adventures. Frances McDormand ("Fargo") is Miss Clavel, the nun who oversees the school for 12 girls and loves them all dearly and well. She's created a comic character whose goodness and morality still allow the impishness of childish antics to have their place in the scheme of things. Nigel Hawthorne ("The Madness of King George") is Lord Covington, the recently widowed, lonely man whose grief causes him to strike out at the school which his wife loved and generously funded.

Madeline is something of an animal rights activist, which is the root cause of several of the film's episodes. When Madeline sees the living chicken which is to become her dinner she stages a vegaterian revolt in the dining room. When the neighboring boy Pepito threatens to feed a live mouse to his pet snake, Madeline turns his birthday party upside down by releasing the rest of the little white critters. When Madeline falls into the Seine, she's saved by a homeless Golden Retriever, who becomes part of the extended family even though pets are strictly forbidden and Miss Clavel is allergic to dogs. The final adventure, when Madeline decides to run away with the circus but instead becomes ensnared in a kidnapping plot against Pepito by 'The Idiots' of the circus, is a rousing finale, with the Idiots performing some classic slapstick.

The film makes the most of its Parisian and French countryside locations. Technically, the film is top notch. The opening and closing credits, where the Madeline books' illustrations are animated, are whimsical and nostalgic, as the perfect closing song, "What a Wonderful World" performed by Louis Armstrong.

"Madeline" is one of those films that's reassuring somehow. It presents a safe haven where all children are loved and life always has a new and exciting twist right around the corner.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer ("Party Girl") and produced by veteran Stanley R Jaffe, "Madeline" is constructed in a series of episodes, starting quietly with Miss Clavel teaching, dressing, feeding and escorting her wards through the streets and landmarks of 1950's Paris. Things get increasingly tense as, first, Madeline is rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy where she learns of the death of Lady Covington and the imminent sale of the beloved school.

The tension builds for the little troupe when Pepito, the son of the new Spanish Ambassador neighbor, begins harassing the girls with his pranks. Then, Madeline accidentally falls into the Seine and is rescued by a stray dog, who the girls adopt and name Genevieve. Finally, in the film's climax, the girls attend a local carnival, where Madeline decides to run away the circus, only to find that Pepito is being kidnapped by his evil tutor, Leopold, who is aided by the members of Les Idiots Popopov, a decidedly inept acrobatic team. Madeline, Pepito and, of course, Miss Clavel and Genevieve foil the nefarious plot, save Pepito, and go on to save the school!

The screenplay by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett weaves together pieces of four of the six Bemelmans books ("Madeline," "Madeline and the Bad Hat," "Madeline's Rescue," and Madeline and the Gypsies"), providing a feel for the book series with the interlude-like telling of each little story. The episodic nature of the film stilts it at first, but, as each story gains in complexity this becomes less problematic.

McDormand gives a low-key performance as the girl's teacher and friend and is quite in keeping with the storybook character. Her line, "Something is not right?," is used to signal the advent of some new drama in the little school. Nigel Hawthorne gives a deft turn as the outwardly uncaring (but, inwardly, heartbroken after his wife's death) Lord Covington. Newcomer Hatty Jones is charming as Madeline, displaying the adventuresome single-minded nature of the little girl, with a tinge of stubbornness and mischief to accompany her bravery.

The look of the film, coupled with the rest of the cast of 11 girls (a generic group of kids), is reminiscent, strongly, of the wonderful and beautiful Alfonso Cuaron 1995 film "A Little Princess," but without the earlier film's magical element. "Madeline" focuses on the practical, not the magical.

"Madeline" has a very focused target audience in the fans of the books, so it may not do too well on the big screen, but stands to be a big hit in the video market. It's a mildly enjoyable little effort and I give it a C+.


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