SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS
HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK

BLADE - DANCE WITH ME
NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND
- MAFIA!

SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS

It's 1976 and the Abramowitz family's on the move in "Slums of Beverly Hills." Down on his luck Dad Murray (Alan Arkin) keeps skipping cheap apartments in the middle of the night to ditch rent checks, but insists on staying on the very borderline of Beverly Hills because "We're here for the school district." His daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne, "Everybody Says I Love You") is dealing with the taunts of her two brothers and the interest of new neighbor Elliott (Kevin Corrigan) mostly because of her unusually early bust development. The whole family's fortunes change when Murray rescues his alcohol and drug addicted niece Rita (Marisa Tomei) and agrees to take her in if her father, Murray's hateful but wealthy brother Mickey, will subsidize the family with monthly checks.

Laura LAURA:
"Slums of Beverly Hills" is the writer/director Tamara Jenkins' feature debut. While it shows talent, it lacks a cohesive point. It's comedy isn't particularly funny, dealing too frequently with bodily fluids, and it's drama suffers from vagueness of character motivation.

The cast works well with what they've been given. Lyonne is good at projecting put upon, weary acceptance of her family's dysfunctional quirks and a strong responsible nature in keeping things together. The character is confusing, however, both in her budding sexuality and her feelings towards her father - the audience never gets a good grasp on how she really feels.

Alan Arkin is an enigma as Murray. He's presented as equal parts monster and caring family man. He recounts an off-told tale about how he discovered a valued employee and supposed friend cheating his business by stealing some of the steaks the man so brilliantly prepared in Murray's successful restaurant. His dealing with the man is shocking and we're led to believe the probable beginning of his downfall, yet he spins the yarn as if it were a heroic morality tale. This scene is replayed at the film's climax, with his brother Mickey (Carl Reiner) taking over his lines. What is this supposed to mean?

Marisa Tomei is engaging as the free-spiritted Rita, but again, her motivations are murky. On an impulse, she decides to go to nursing school to prove her rehabilitation to her father, but she's more focussed on her secret pregnancy. Rita speaks to Viv in a secret language and attempts to be a perverse mother figure to her with all the best intentions, although Viv ends up providing more care for Rita. Rita's close relationship with her Uncle Murray becomes suspect when Viv horrifically spies the two engaged in an incestual act and the audience is left wondering if that aspect of the relationship is long term or a one time thing.

The only character who comes across as whole is Kevin Corrigan's wonderfully drawn Elliott. He's a drop out marijuana dealer with a Charles Manson fixation who truly cares for Vivian, even though his initial attraction is purely a physical guy thing, and puts up with all her family's craziness to be near her. His wry line readings are the film's funniest.

David Krumholtz is amusing as older brother Ben, intent on capturing the Marlon Brando role in a local production of "Guys and Dolls." Jessica Walter comes across as a shreiking harpy who's interested in Murray for companionship only if he agrees to not touch her and ditch his family. Rita Moreno barely registers as their aunt.

The film's attempts at humor all center around sexuality and bodily functions - large breasts, urine samples and a vibrator are overused for yucks, although some humor is derived from a dead cat.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" is an odd, off-kilter movie whose quality ingredients add up to an unsatisfying and perplexing whole.

C

Robin ROBIN:
"Slums of Beverly Hills" is one of those films where the trailer is a whole lot better than the film itself. The story starts out as a coming-of-age tale with 15 year old Vivian (Natasha Lyonne, "Krippendorf's Tribe") suddenly confronted with her budding sexuality (and boobs) and the attention of all the men folk around her. Things start out promisingly enough, with Viv getting her first bra in a funny pubescent scene with her elder dad (Alan Arkin, "So I Married An Ax Murderer"). This promise fades quickly as the lowbrow humor takes charge and the focus pulls away from Vivian. What follows consists of jokes about breasts, dildos, bras and sex. None of this is particularly funny. For example, Vivian and cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) have a dance scene where a vibrator plays a key role. The scene doesn't work, plus it's totally predictable.

First time director/writer Tamara Jenkins' autobiographical screenplay has no depth, little intellect and wastes a good cast. Arkin has seldom been more wooden. Lyonne, except for sizable prosthetic boobs, is only two dimensional at best. Tomei gives a lame perf that makes one wonder why she has an Oscar. One, the only, shining star is Kevin Corrigan ("Buffalo 66") as the Charles Manson-obsessed teenage neighbor who has the hots for Vivian. Cameo performances by Carl Reiner and Rita Marino do nothing to elevate the film. Reiner, in particular, looks like he wants to be somewhere else.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" is a dud. Aside from Corrigan, there is nothing that I can recommend about it. If we are lucky, this won't even be a blip on the theatrical radar screen. Please, save your money. I give it a D.


HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK

Following the tremendously successful transition of her earlier best-selling novel to the screen ("Waiting to Exhale"), writer Terry McMillan and Angela Bassett team together again in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Stella is 40 years old and at her peak as a high powered investment counselor. She's also divorced, is raising her son, Quincy (Michael J. Pagan), and is sorely in need of a vacation. On the spur of the moment, she invites her best friend Delilah Abraham (Whoopi Goldberg) to join her on a vacation to Jamaica. What starts out as a relaxed, maybe even boring, vacation changes dramatically for Stella when she meets handsome, 20 year old islander Winston Shakespeare (newcomer Taye Diggs).

Robin ROBIN:
In what could have been a overly long, self-indulgent chick flick, turns out to be an overly long, self-indulgent chick flick, but one that is solidly produced, well acted and cast, with a terrific Black American role model in Angela Bassett. The script, by McMillan and Ron Bass, is a pure work of fairy tale fantasy about the March/August relationship between Winston and Stella, but is handled so professionally as to make the film amenable to even us old curmudgeons out here. The wishful aspect of the story is definitely the main draw - everyone, in middle age, would like to be buff, like Stella, and attractive to a beautiful person half their age, like Winston.

Angela Bassett, though not stretching herself acting-wise here, is charming and comfortable in her role as the title character. Stella, while not someone the average person can identify with - even when "fired" from her big wig job, she doesn't seem to really worry about the bills - is a likable lady who exemplifies how everyone should take care of themselves. Bassett is completely buff here and, combined with her usual on-screen presence, you believe the attraction between Stella and Winston might just have a chance.

Whoopi Goldberg takes advantage of her role as the second banana and best friend to Stella. She gets the best jokes of the film and evokes sympathy later in the film as she succumbs to cancer in the big tear-jerker scene. Taye Diggs is handsome enough and has the boyish charisma to be convincing as Stella's object of both affection and confusion.

One of the qualities that greatly helps "How Stella..." keep your attention for its over two hour run time is the depth of the supporting cast. Little roles, such as Stella's ex-husband, Walter (James Pickens, Jr.), or Winston's mom (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney) are small but full of character and real people. A great interchange between Stella and Mom goes like: Mom "Why do you want my baby?" Stella, "He's not a baby, he's a man." Mom, "You don't understand, he's MY baby!"

Production design is lush in the Jamaica locales, which is hard to screw up, and straightforward in the home locations. Costuming, for Bassett, is a tour de force in its variety with the design set to show off the actress to her best and most curvaceous. Music, except for the brief use of reggae at times, is relegated to bass intensive, generic interludes that bring attention only because the deep bass notes rattled my eardrums.

For a two our film, the audience appeared to be attentive throughout. Goldberg gets the laughs. Basset and Diggs get the romance and it is all wrapped up into a neat, predictable, pure fantasy ending. I give "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" a B-. And it doesn't have a Whitney Houston soundtrack!

Laura LAURA:
Adapted from Terry McMillan's novel by herself and Ron Bass ("Rain Man"), "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is the filmic equivalent of a summer beach read - easy on the eye, no thinking required. . Angela Bassett, a terrific actress, provides a lot of credence to the movie as Stella, a 40 year old power broker, single mom and elder sister who provides for her family, but not for herself. When her young son leaves to spend two weeks with his dad (and gravely tells her to have some fun for herself), Stella finds herself bumping around her magazine spread Marin County showplace when a commercial touting Jamaica grabs her attention. She even incorporates herself into the ad! On impulse she calls her best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg, in her best and funniest role since "Ghost") in New York and suggests they take off for a week.

The first half of the film, the Jamaican sequence, will probably give the island a hefty tourism boost. Everything's picture perfect (except, maybe, for the two boorish party guys Delilah picks up and the heavy handed foreshadowing of Delilah's later illness). On her first morning, Stella captures the eye of Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs of Broadway's "Rent"). He's gorgeous and he's only half her age. The rest of the film is spent with Stella wrestling with this fact - does she take what she wants or let the naysayers win out.

Delilah, of course, encourages her, as does younger sister Vanessa (Regina Taylor, providing comic relief that can stand up to Whoopi's). Her youngest sister Angela (Suzzanne Douglas), who's terribly concerned with appearances in every aspect of her life (she hangs out in her own home wearing pearls!), finds the situation scandalous. Stella's son Quincy is skeptical at first, until he finds a playmate and his mother's happiness in Winston.

Kevin Rodney Sullivan's (HBO's "Soul of the Game") direction tells the story with a slick gloss (camera by Jeffrey Jur). The film's main problem is the poor structure of the second half, which keeps veering wildly from highs to lows. It's also way too long at 124 minutes. By the end of the film, you just want to shake Stella and tell her enough soul searching, already, marry the guy!

B-


BLADE

Wesley Snipes stars as the title character in "Blade," a modern day action adventure vampire film. Blade is a daywalker, possessing the strength of a vampire, but countering his need to feed by a serum concocted by his human friend Whistler (Kris Kristofferson).

Blade was created when his mother was fatally bitten by a vampire just as she was about to give birth to him. Blade is determined to hunt down the vampire responsible for his mother's death, and he and Whistler have united in a war against all vampires.

The vampires themselves, led by the patrician Dragonetti (Udo Keir), a 'born' vampire, are in the midst of a civil war of sorts. Dragonetti is being challenged by Frost (Stephen Dorff), a 'turned' vampire whose brashly open vampire nightclubs have become a target for Blade's attacks.

Laura LAURA:
"Blade" is an exciting new twist to the vampire genre featuring lots of action, gore and terrific special effects. Unfortunately, the film is undercut by the Egyptian mumbo-jumbo (mix together "The Hunger," "Stargate," and "The Fifth Element") that comprises the film's overlong climax.

The film's opening scene, however, is a beaut. Racquel (Traci Lords), a beautiful vampire in a chic blood red wig, leads an unsuspecting blond guy through a meat processing plant (look closely and you'll see some of the human variety) to an underground punk club. Music blares and the chicly gothic crowd dances to the beat. Suddenly Frost appears on stage and declares 'Bloodbath!' and overhead nozzles begin to spray the viscous liquid. Fangs sprout, growls rumble from the throats of the club patrons and the blond human begins to panic and he scrambles along a dance floor awash in blood.

Enter Blade in his shades, long black leather coat, silver spikes, rapier blade and arsenal outfitted with silver bullets. Vampires begin to disintegrate under his attack and some, including Frost, manage to flee. Blade's finishing touch is to crucify his nemesis Quinn (Donal Logan as Frost's right hand man) against a wall and torch him, exitting just before police descend upon the gruesome scene.

Quinn is made of hardy stuff, however, and comes to life in the morgue, attacking the beautiful hematologist (N'buse Wright as Karen Jenson) who's been intrigued by his blood makeup. Blade appears, and in a moment of weakness, saves the young woman who's almost sure to turn. She becomes the third member of the vampire battling crew.

The vampires live in an austere, technologically advanced environment. One of the many great special effects is Pearl, a 1,000 pound Asian vampire who guards the vampires' subterranean data center. They're researching the hieroglyphics that will lead them to the resurrection of the Blood God and world domination.

Wesley Snipes strikes just the right note as Blade. He's serious, determined and apparently unstoppable. Trained in the martial arts, Snipes does most of his own stunts. Stephen Dorff, so good in "Backbeat" and "I Shot Andy Warhol," merely looks good as Frost. Kris Kristofferson is affecting as Whistle, the man whose family was wiped out by a vampire in front of his eyes who recognized something different about Blade when he found him as a young, confused boy. The rest of the cast is serviceable.

The script, by David Goyer ("The Crow: City of Angels"), is based on the original comic book superhero. It's a mixture of original ideas and the aforementioned, inscrutably deadly climax. Production design by Kirk M. Petruccelli is terrific as are effects by Chuck Comisky. Simply outstanding is one effect where Blade slices Frost apart - his body parts stream outwards still connected by waves of blood, only to reassemble. This put me in mind of the outstanding stained glass knight of "Young Sherlock Holmes." Another outstanding sequence has Blade, Karen and Whistler trying to cross a subway passage as a train speeds by. The soundtrack is an interesting mix featuring rap, new wave and rock songs along with a brief appearance by the Japanese cult group Shonen Knife.

"Blade" is a fine, if flawed, addition to the vampire genre and a good late summer action flick. The film's coda, which presents Blade in Russia, hints at a sequel that I'd actually welcome.

B

Robin ROBIN:
"Blade," co-produced and starring Wesley Snipes in the title role, is based on the comic book character first introduced in 1973 in the Marvel Comic's "Tomb of Dracula." This African-American superhero is half human/half vampire. Born right after a vampire attacked his pregnant mother, Blade has super strength of the night-stalkers, but not their aversion to daylight (although, per the story, SPF 300 suntan lotion fixes that problem). Partnered with human arms-maker Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, "Dance With Me"), Blade fights a one, uh, man extermination campaign against the blood suckers.

Starting out with a flashy credit sequence, "Blade" soon takes us into a lair of the living dead - a night club cum meat packing plant where the revelers are treated with a Blood Bath with blood gushing upon them from the fire sprinklers. This is a stunning intro that is soon topped when Blade makes his entrance with silver-bulleted guns blazing. The effect of the silver on his victims is quick and ugly, disintegrating the monsters into dust. Unfortunately, this neat effect is totally dropped during the middle of the film, only to reappear towards the end.

Blade's single-handed slaughter of the undead is unexpectedly aided by a renegade blood-sucker, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff, "Backbeat"), a "turned," not born, vampire who aspires to leadership with plans to release "the spirit of the twelve" and "free the Blood God." The born vampires have made deals at the highest levels with the human leaders for peaceful coexistence, even while feeding on members of the weaker race. Frost wants none of this, opting for total control of both the vampires and what he calls the human cattle. Dorff is only so-so as bad guy Frost, posing and sneering his scruffy badness at us.

Wesley Snipes lends just the right air of superiority and disdain for his enemies as the vengeful and unstoppable Blade. His sullen, serious nature has the fit and feel of a comic book superhero. Coupled with a kick-ass costume reminiscent of Batman's cape and the hero's coat in "The Crow" and his arsenal of ghoul-killing weaponry, Snipes gives a physically demanding performance that suits the character perfectly.

The supporting cast is a mix of names and talents. Krisofferson is more believable as the Van Helsing-like Whistler than as a dance instructor in "Dance With Me." N'Bushe Wright ("Dead Presidents") plays the savvy heroine, Dr. Karen Jansen, solidly, but is not developed as a character. Udo Kier ("Armegeddon") is wasted in the role of head vampire Dragonetti. Donal Logue ("Jerry Maguire") as Frost's henchman, Quinn, steals the show when he is on the screen.

The combination of high-tech special F/X and Hong Kong-style martial arts fight scenes will please the head-banging target audience of males, 17 to 24 years. Include a raucous rock score that generates its own energy and you end up with a fast-paced, sci-fi, action hero, monster movie that screams, the makers hope, for a franchise.

I give "Blade" a B-.


DANCE WITH ME

Handsome, young Cuban, Rafael Infante (Chayanne), arrives in Houston after losing his mother and leaving his beloved Cuba. Dance studio proprietor, John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson), who knew Rafael's mom years ago, offers the young man a job as handyman for the studio. As he fixes up the Excelsior studio, Rafael endears himself to the studio's employees and patrons, even the beautiful, but insecure, Ruby (Vanessa L. Williams), a former dance champ who is trying to revive her career.

Robin ROBIN:
"Dance With Me" is a quality film. Randa Haines has crafted a bright, colorful, visually exciting dance movie that captures the energy of the Latino music and dance. The music used for the several dance numbers is, in a word, exceptional. The songs are a mix of Latino, salsa and Afro-Cuban music performed by the great Gypsy Kings, Latin superstars Thalia and Ana Gabriel, plus Ruben Blades, Sergio Mendez, Gloria Estefan and many others. All the songs lend their power to the film's high energy.

The dancing in the film, along with the music, is the reason to see "Dance With Me." The dance action ranges from the structured practice and performing of the amateur and professional dancers in competition to nightclub scenes where Rafael shows Ruby the true meaning of dance - pleasure. In one fun sequence, Rafael does a water dance paying thoughtful homage to Gene Kelly's hoofing in "Singing in the Rain." A light-hearted, comedic dance number has Rafael giving elder dance student, Bea (Joan Plowright), her dream dance in front of a ballroom full of spectators. I have to admit, I prefer the fast, spontaneous Latino dance numbers in Titon's, the local night club, than the more choreographed numbers by the pros in the big competition. All of it is fun, though.

The two very attractive stars complement each other nicely. Williams has to be one of the most beautiful women on the screen today. She combines her good looks with terrific dancing ability to give a solid, exciting performance. Chayanne, a Latin American superstar to international audiences, makes his American screen introduction with charm and grace. Rafael is an extremely likable young man, conveying, I think, the actor's own character. The two spark together and both are first rate in their dance numbers.

The ensemble supporting cast provide suitably amusing background characters, with the exception of Kristofferson, who is too sullen and out of place as the former dance master.

The tech aspects of the film strongly complement the wonderful dance and music. The fine direction by Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God") keeps the visual and audio excitement at a high level for the whole film, making its two hours fly by. Cinematography by Fred Murphy ("Murder in the First") is as fast and fluid as the dance numbers. Production design by Waldemar Kalinowski is bright, colorful and imaginative - one scene has Rafael decorate the studio with all the holiday ornamentation (Xmas, Easter, Halloween, etc.) he can lay his hands on. Costume, as one should expect in a film with dance competition as the focal point, is deftly handled by Joe I. Tompkins, long time Haines costumer.

"Dance With Me" is a fun, good-natured, fast-paced, colorful, exciting dance film that uses its Latino music to terrific effect. I had a real good time and give it a B+.

Laura LAURA:
"Dance With Me" follows all the rules of the dance genre, resembling such films as "Strictly Ballroom" and (the superior) "Shall We Dance?" yet it's a surprisingly likeable addition featuring appealing performances by Puerto Rican singing star Chayenne, Vanessa L. Williams, and Kris Kristofferson.

When Rafael (Chayenne) arrives in Texas from his native Cuba, he's given a less than warm welcome by John Burnett (Kristofferson) who's providing him with a place to live and a menial job at his dance studio because he once knew Rafael's mother. Rafael immediately makes all kinds of impressions. He criticizes Ruby's (Williams) dancing ('that's why you look so stiff') and she rebuffs him with imperious comments about being a professional. He sets Bea's (Joan Plowright, still charming in one of her stereotypical character turns) heart aflutter. He charms the entire student body when he throws every type of holiday decoration up for a special dance night to surprisingly wondrous effect. He even gets under Burnett's skin when he restores his 1956 Ford truck (of course Burnett's the only one who doesn't realize he's the young man's father).

He's drawn to Ruby and persuades her to join him at a Latin dance club. He's even more deeply moved when he learns her story is a parallel of his beloved mother's (she had a child by a former professional dance partner who abandoned her when he learned she was pregnant).

The film's climax takes place, of course, at a professional dance contest where all the characters needs are neatly fulfilled. The Latin music is infectious, the dance sequences are brilliantly executed. Vanessa L. Williams has never been this natural on film (although her overly made up look and dramatic facial expressions during her big number put me in mind of Gloria Swanson at her most ghoulish in "Sunset Boulevard"). Direction by Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God") is assured.

There may be no surprises in "Dance With Me," but for 126 minutes it's an enjoyable world to enter.

B-


NEXT STOP WONDERLAND

Locally shot by Boston director Brad Anderson, "Next Stop Wonderland" stars Hope Davis ("The Daytrippers") as Erin, a night shift nurse who returns to her apartment in the South End to find that her activist boyfriend (Phillip Seymour Hall, "Boogie Nights") is not only leaving her once again, but has prepared a six point videotape outlining his reasons for doing so. Erin then must face a visit from her overbearing mom (Taylor Holland), who 'helpfully' places a personal ad for her daughter before departing.

Meanwhile, Alan (Alan Gelfant) is a plumber pursuing a career in marine biology and donating his time to the Boston Aquarium. As they each experience humorously unsuccessful dips into the dating scene, their paths continually almost, but never quite, meet.

Laura LAURA:
"Next Stop Wonderland" is a romantic comedy that explores the theories of random chance versus fate, as well as embodying the Brazilian concept of saudade in its lead female character - a happiness tinged with an underlying sense of melancholy. The script, cowritten by Anderson and actor Lyn Vaus, is humorous, witty and believably human. Anderson also made the quirky decision to use Brazilian Bossanova music in his film, which provides a fresh viewpoint to his Boston locations.

Hope Davis is perfectly cast as a single woman who's comfortable being alone. Although not actively looking for love, when she finds 64 messages in response to the personal ad (a very amusing montage of the men leaving those messages features one suiter seated on his commode) she's entertained and decides to respond to a few. Three of those potential suitors are actually Alan's younger brother and two of his cronies, who've made a bet over which one will score with the lady of the ad. In a hilarious and clever piece of writing, each one misquotes "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," which Alan is able to counter in the film's final scene. Erin figures out the tie among these three goons and deliciously one ups them.

Alan Galfont is not your typical romantic lead with his serious and determined attempt to change his path in life. When a young student who's making a play for him comments 'Alan, you're such a pill,' you're inclined to agree with her. In one of the movie's amusing subplots, Alan, who's beholden to Frankie the loan shark for his tuition, is asked to perform a 'hit' on the pufferfish that's the mascot of the aquarium, for rival land developers.

The film is a charmer even though I never felt strongly that Erin and Alan were necessarily perfect for each other. I also question Anderson's decision to use a hand held camera, as the shakiness proved to be more of a distraction than adding the documentary flavor he was going for.

Still, you've got to admire a film where the heroine, who when on her way to the airport to impulsively run off to Brazil with a charming Brazilian who's pursued her relentlessly over the span of a few days, meets the same fate that led her mother to her father. Her decision was initially based on her habit of randomly opening a book of her father's poetry and reading whatever she happened upon, in this case the line 'I find I am not alone on this island.' When she consults the same tome later to find the word 'linoleum' who could predict that Anderson would indeed lead her to her ultimate fate by this very word.

Boston audiences will be delighted by such familiar locations as Boston's South End, the New England Aquarium, Somerville's The Burren pub, Bunker Hill Community College, the Wonderland racetrack, and the MBTA's Blue Line.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
With "Next Stop Wonderland," director/co-writer Brad Anderson, in his sophomore effort, has put together a charming, if predictable, little gem of a film featuring the rising-star performance by lead Hope Davis, a witty, intelligent (mostly) script and Boston as its setting.

Erin Castleton is a night shift nurse who developed a cynicism about life after the death of her beloved doctor/poet father. This attitude is reinforced when her environmental activist boyfriend Sean (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) leaves her for what he terms his "seven political reasons." Erin tries to withdraw into her solitude but is hindered by her meddling mom (Holland Taylor) who places a personal ad for her daughter, describing her as "frisky, cultured, with a zest for life" - more a description of mom than Erin. This act thrusts the young nurse into the Boston's dating scene with all sorts of attention from the single and not-so-single male community.

Then there's Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant), a thirty-something plumber who is anything but cynical. He sees his life as something he can change and studies hard to be a marine biologist, copes with his father's gambling addiction AND pays off dad's debt to the mob. Alan is the hopeful one, where Erin is dour. The problem for the two is their paths keep crossing, but never meet. This is the predictable part of the story, since you know that the pair are destined for each other. The neat thing about this simple fabric of a story is the embroidery the filmmakers have added to the cloth.

Since we know that Erin and Alan will find each other, eventually, Anderson and co-writer Lyn Vaus use the time to provide an amusing journey for our entertainment. Despite Erin's almost gloomy mood throughout the film (her smile at the end is worth the wait), there is an effervescence provided by an eclectic supporting cast. This is especially notable during the sequence where Erin, against her better judgment, gives in and listens to the voice mail responses to the ad. While she listens to the pathetic, funny and serious suitors, we get to see them making the calls live. This is handled deftly as we meet one hopeful who is in the "small rubber parts" business, another who is a therapist, and Alan's own brother! The comedy in this, and other, scenes is natural and relaxed.

The cast is solid from the stars to the smaller supporting roles. Davis, in what could have been a wooden characterization, plays Erin with a great deal of concentration. She has been in other films ("Daytripper" "Flatliners") but makes a splash here, establishing herself as star material. At times, she is luminescent, others as glum looking as her temperament.

Alan Gelfant ("The Crow") gives an intense performance as a man trying to claw his way out of his blue collar existence and open himself to a better life - one which HE decides upon. Alan is an intelligent, honest man who deserves what he seeks. Jose Zuniga, as Andre De Silva, is utterly charming as a homeward bound Brazilian who sweeps Erin off her feet. The rest of the cast help to flesh out the simple story and lend to its good humor.

One story problem involves an unscrupulous contractor (Robert Klein), the Aquarium expansion, and the abduction of a puffer fish named Puffy. This "intrigue" doesn't have the time to really get set up, so the intent falls flat.

Tech credits are OK, but shaky camera and choppy editing keep the film from achieving a look that is equal to the allure of the screenplay.

The Boston locales are wonderful for us locals and give a true look into the nature of Bostonians. One false note, though: when the leads are on the T, you can actually understand the conductor's announcement for the next station - not on my T!

I love to support local filmmaking, so it pleases me to promote a quality independent effort. Brad Anderson is a talented young director/writer who has a promising future. I hope he keeps it in New England. I give "Next Stop Wonderland" a B.


MAFIA!

Freak snowstorms, wild wind, enormous hail, and temperatures fluctuating wildly from oven-like to glacial are wreaking havoc on Britain. Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery) is a very rich, VERY eccentric, meteorological genius who has harnessed the weather and is using it to bring Britain, and the world, to its economic knees. John Steed (Ralph Feinnes) has been has been called by Britain's super-ultra-top secret agency, The Ministry, to investigate the out of control English weather, with a little help from beautiful scientist and jujitsu master, Mrs. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman).

Robin ROBIN:
"The Avengers" is another example (last year's "Batman & Robin" is the grandest example) of a film made up completely of style and having no substance. Production design, costume, especially Thurman's, and the whole look of the film are first rate. Too bad these qualities are wedded to a nonsensical, unstructured screenplay. A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Here, we have only the middle and that is grievously muddled and confused.

In the story, it is established early on the Sir August De Wynter can control England's weather. OK. Then, the film runs for a full 62 minutes before Sir August declares what he is going to do with this immense power. (The film's run time is 89 minutes with credits.) During this hour, we are subjected to a nothing of consequence happening. Couple this nonsense with a performance by Sean Connery that could have been phoned in and we get a mess that is a major disappointment to the fans of the old TV series with Patrick Macnee and the idolized Diana Rigg.

Feinnes and Thurman try their best to make the most of the camp factor, but neither has his/her heart in the effort. The pair needs a spark between them to save the film, but the screenplay extinguishes any chance of that. Uma Thurman physically has the moves for the role of Emma Peel, but lacks the sauciness of Rigg and pales in comparison. Feinnes is fine, but I don't think anyone can replace Macnee as Steed. Jim Broadbent and Fiona Shaw as The Ministry head honchos Mother and Father, respectively, are fun to watch, but wasted in there two dimensional characters. Brit comedian Eddie Izzard is game but unmemorable as the pudgy henchman of Sir August.

Converting TV series to the big screen can be successfully done. "The Fugitive," "The Addams Family," "Star Trek" (though it took a couple of tries) and "The Brady Bunch" are all examples of how to do it and do it well. Producer Jerry Weintraub ("The Specialist") and director Jeremiah Chechik ("Benny and Joon") put a lot of effort in making things look good. They should have spent some time finding a better screenplay than that by Don Macpherson.

I am disappointed, big-time, with "The Avengers" and give it a C-.

Laura LAURA:
Warner Brothers unceremoniously opened "The Avengers," after months of publicity, without benefit of press or advance screenings, which usually signals disaster. While "The Avengers" is a huge disappointment, it has more things going for it than I would have expected.

Based on the popular British television series of the 60's, which starred Patrick MacNee as the dapper John Steed and Diana Rigg as his most popular partner, Emma Peel, "The Avengers" biggest mistake is not sticking more closely to its source material. The script also spends more time developing its two lead characters (played here by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) than a plot.

While Fiennes seemed an odd choice for Steed, he's actually quite good in the role. Witty and unflappable (except when around Peel), Fiennes even pulls off the bowler hat and action scenes. Thurman has the unenviable task of following in Riggs' high-heeled boots. She looks marvelous (costume design is top notch) and displays almost the right amount of intelligence and cool. She also plays her own evil clone, the existence of which is never explained (it's not even clear if the clone is a real person or a robot). Sean Connery as the villain of the piece has phoned in a performance. Eileen Atkins is lots of fun as Alice Bailey, the British matron capable of kicking serious butt. Also amusing are Fiona Shaw as Father and Jim Broadbent as the wheelchair bound Mother.

The true star of "The Avengers" is its production design featuring such eye openers as an Escher-like combination of staircases and marble rooms which entrap Peel, an indoor rainforest with magnified orchids, a swarm of helicopter sized wasps which dog Steed and Peel in Steed's Jaguar and a group of henchmen disguised as candy colored teddy bears. The script also features such witticisms as Steed commenting "I thought I was seeing double," after Peel's been attacked by her clone. "That makes two of us" she replies. Puns on the weather abound.

On the downside, "The Avengers" often throws spectacle our way for visual effect without any basis in sense. We see Steed and Peel make their way across De Wynter's estate encased in large vinyl balls - then they step out and suffer no consequences - huh? There's also an over reliance on the British ritual of tea which brings nothing to the show. The film greatly resembles the latest of the "Batman" series and it's climax is just a lot of hot air.

At only 90 minutes, sitting through "The Avengers" isn't exactly painful, but it's certainly not a satisfying experience either.

C-


Next Show Previous Show

Home | Review and ratings archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links