ROCK THE BOAT (THE HUMAN RACE) - ROUNDERS
WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE? - 54

ROCK THE BOAT (THE HUMAN RACE)

Professionals/sailors Robert Hudson and Dr. John Plander had a dream and director Bobby Houston brings it to the screen in the documentary, "The Human Race." The film is about the mostly amateur crew of HIV-positive men who dare to take on the challenge of the grueling race, TransPac, traversing the 2200 miles between California and Hawaii in a sailing marathon. Houston chronicles the adventures of the crew of "The Survivor" as they battle HIV, Hurricane Dolores, each other and, of course, the race itself.

Robin ROBIN:
"The Human Race" is a feel good documentary for what has become the end of the AIDS millennium. Documentarian Houston has put, on video, the story of a true triumph of the human spirit in a manner that equals the best installments of the PBS "Nova" series. In doing so, all the trials and triumphs endured by the crew are documented in a compelling, thought provoking manner. High tech communications allowed the crew to talk to home base via e-mail, affording a running commentary on close quarters of the crew, Hurricane Dolores, shredded sails, a lost compass, a bent jib, and the daunting amount of pharmaceuticals required for 11 HIV-positive men (estimated at about $1500 per month, per man).

One of the most touching aspects of the film is the crew's dedication in stenciling the names of the 3000 "angels" - victims who succumbed to the AIDS virus - onto the hull of their boat, "The Survivor."

All in all, "The Human Race" is a fascinating and exciting documentary that is fully realized by its makers, working on several levels. It's opening at the Boston Film Festival and may travel well beyond this venue. I give it a B-.


ROUNDERS

"If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour, then you're the sucker." This defines the ground rules for the high stakes poker action in "Rounders," directed by John Dahl and starring, in his first lead role since "Good Will Hunting," Matt Damon. Damon plays Mike McDermott, an amiable, hardworking law student who has knack for poker - something that is both a gift and a curse. He has tried to stay away from the game, for his girlfriend Jo's benefit, when he picks up his buddy, "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton), just released from prison. This fateful event propels Mike into debt with the Russian mob, a ruined romance and a beating by police as he tries to save his friend from himself.

Robin ROBIN:
"Rounders" is, first and foremost, an actors' film. From Damon's relaxed and natural performance as poker genius Mike to the brilliant spin put on the character Joey Knish, a professional, working-class card player thesped by John Turturro, this film is chock full of strong, fully developed characters. Gretchen Moll is solid in the tough role as Mike's straight, non-gambling girlfriend, Jo. Turturro is best-supporting actor notable as Mike's conscience and advisor - even if he's not listened to, he feels obligated to try to protect his friend. John Malkovitch is marvelously over the top as Russian emigrant and Oreo cookie-eating mob boss, Teddy KGB (his Russian accent is outrageous!). The rest of the supporting cast, down to tiny roles like the "judges playing poker," are outstanding. Famke Janssen ("GoldenEye") is also notable in a small role as Petra, the owner of a poker club. Ed Norton ("The People vs Larry Flint") is enthusiastic as Mike's ex-con buddy (and the cause of most of Mike's problems), Worm, but seems to be here more for the fun of it than anything else. Academy Award winner Martin Landau, unfortunately, just goes through the motions as Mike's law school mentor, judge Abe Petrovsky.

The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman best compares to the 1961 Paul Newman hit, "The Hustler," but without that great film's dark look into its "sport". Mike McDermott is a talented poker player just as "Fast" Eddie Felson is a gifted pool player. But, where Eddie is tough and single-minded, Mike is kind and thoughtful of others, often to his own painful detriment. Damon is so darn personable in the role of Mike, I know that his Will of "Good Will Hunting" was not a fluke. Mike is such an amiable, sweet-natured guy, the film loses potential edge, giving it an almost wholesome quality. I think the edginess of "The Hustler" makes for the more lasting film.

Tech aspects are first rate from top to bottom. Director Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction") displays a deft hand at juggling a large, diverse cast and a complex story. He uses the slick production values of the film to good effect, eliciting quality work from the entire production team. Cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier ("Good Will Hunting") is crisp and brightly lighted, giving the film an almost 3D look. This complements the set design by Rob Pearson ("Red Rock West") which colorfully depicts poker underworld.

I learned a lot about the world of high stakes poker with "Rounders," especially that I should never play the game. Period. It's a likable movie and a solid follow up for Damon. I give it a high B.

Laura LAURA:
Director John Dahl, who gave us the inventive "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction" before stumbling with his first real Hollywood release "Unforgettable," is back on more solid ground with his tale of the underground poker scene and the odd collection of characters who inhabit it, in "Rounders."

Matt Damon stars as Mike McDermott, a card sharp who's given up 'the life' to concentrate on his law studies as a promise to the woman who loves him (Gretchen Moll as Jo). In flashback, we see how Mike lost his entire savings on one poker hand when he was convinced he'd outfoxxed the supremely sly Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, sporting a weird Russian accent).

Mike's life choices are put to the test when his best friend Worm (Edward Norton, "Primal Fear") is released from jail with a $15,000 gambling debt hanging over his head. Mike agrees to set Worm up with some poker games and front him seed money, but draws the line at reentering the game (the two used to pair up to con an entire poker table). Worm, however, has bad judgement and pushes his luck with professionals who aren't so easily duped. He also manages to plunge Mike $7,000 into debt by borrowing against his good name. The two are losing money fast with Mike calling the shots (he's the far superior player, as he can play 'straight' and win). Suffice to say, Mike's studies suffer and his girlfriend leaves him in the interim ('I'd say good luck, but I know that's not your game.')

Matt Damon cements his movie star qualities in this role - the guy's got a killer smile that rivals Tom Cruise's. He makes you believe he has the instincts to read the players at a table and that his game has nothing to do with gambling and everything to do with talent and skill - the cards, in fact, don't matter as long as the betting strategy's correct. Edward Norton's Worm is the type of role Sean Penn would have played 10 years ago and played better. Norton's OK, but he's not quite complex enough to make us believe Mike would continue to be loyal to this cowardly, unscrupulous friend who refuses to take good advice and keeps landing them in increasingly horrific situations.

John Tuturro is marvelous as Joey Knish, a man who's successfully earned a living playing poker for money rather than love of the game. He's Mike's mentor who cautions him, yet recognizes a spark greater than his own. Gretchen Moll, looking like a cherubic Anne Heche, is solid in the difficult 'girlfriend' role. Famke Janssen is sweetly knowing and sexy as Petra, a poker club worker with a thing for Mike. Martin Landau is unaffecting as Mike's law school professor and ultimate savior. Malkovich is amusing in another of his strange performances which works more than alienates, as is sometimes the case with his recent work.

The script is a hit and miss affair. The poker lingo is authentic and becomes understood in context rather than overt explanation (although we are told that a 'rounder' is a grinder vs. a gambler). Three important scenes are undercut by implausibility, however. When Mike and Worm are found out at a state troopers game they get severely beaten only to stand in the parking lot and have a lucid argument seemingly none the worse for wear except for bloody faces. Abe Petrovsky (Landau) tells Mike a tale of his past, where he quit his torah studies to enter law. The speech is an analogy of Mike's poker playing that comes across as more silly than profound. When Petrovsky bales Mike out for a check for $10,000, the audience is left wondering how anyone could cash a check of this size and have the money the next morning.

Technical credits are fine with appropriately seedy set design and appropriately dark, but not murky, cinematography.

"Rounders" winds up with a tense climax where Mike once again takes on KGB. To the filmmaker's credit, we hope he wins, but are never sure that he will.

B-


WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE

When Diana Ross covered the old doo-wop hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" she had a hit of her own and an interesting phenomenon occurred. Three woman appeared claiming to be the widow of Frankie Lymon and they all wanted to sue Morris Levy, Frankie's label owner, for the millions he'd pocketted on the song's rights. During the trial, each woman (Vivica A. Fox, "Independence Day" as Elizabeth, a petty thief; Halle Berry, "Bullworth," as Zola Taylor, a singer with The Platters and Lela Rochon, "Waiting to Exhale," as Emira, a Southern schoolteacher) recounts her personal heartbreak in loving Frankie Lymon (Larenz Tate, "Dead Presidents").

Laura LAURA:
"Why Do Falls Fall in Love" is essentially an African American twist on "The First Wives Club" with musical numbers. The trial is the hanger from which the film drapes its flashbacks sandwiched between brief modern day opening and closing segments. While this structure works well at defining the three women in Frankie's life, he himself is never fully fleshed out. The film is also lax in defining timelines. Frankie Lyman had his first hit at thirteen and was dead of a heroin overdose at twenty-four, yet we get no sense of his age at any point in the film.

Viveca A. Fox and Halle Berry make the strongest impressions in the film. Fox, almost unrecognizable in her aging makeup, is the first to call a lawyer when she hears Diana Ross on the radio from prison. Her Elizabeth is a scrappy survivor who, according to this film, probably suffered the most trying to save Lymon when his career was in downturn and his drug habit became all consuming. Ironically, he saves her when they meet, helping her out of a shoplifting charge by pretending to know her, then inviting her to a club to see him perform. She has no idea she'll become the date of a star that evening. Quickly the facade is revealed, however, and she even turns to prostitution to pay their rent. When Frankie accidently kills her beloved little dog (he was holding him out a window as a threat), she's had enough. Fox begins as a naive enthusiasic and ends up a harshly funny realist.

The stunning Berry finally gets a chance to show us her acting chops after a string of dud roles (she was misused in the otherwise fine "Bullworth" and does anybody remember "B.A.P.s?"). She's the chicly glamourous star who can recount Frankie's rise in the music business, although they were separated for years (while Frankie was with Elizabeth) and reconnected when he asked her for help jump starting his career, which she does. Frankie proves to be her financial ruin, although, ever the true professional, she manages to rebuild her life. Berry begins as a seemingly world wise mature woman who becomes a world weary cynic.

Lela Rochon plays the apparently meekest of the three, a real church going innocent swept of her feet by a somewhat inexplicably changed Lymon who's returned from the Army with a buddy to a small Southern town. When Emira recounts her days spent gardening with Frankie, she's met by hoots of derision by Elizabeth and Zola. She spends the shortest time with Frankie, who leaves to revive his career after being reminded of who he 'used to be' and immediately is discouraged and overdoses. Rochon's older character shows a backbone and force of will we wouldn't have guessed at in her younger days.

Larenz Tate is terrific recreating the excitement of Frankie's stage presence. Otherwise, we're only given hints that the alcoholic dad who desertted his family and his label owner's decision to break up his teenage group to push him as a solo act may have led to his downfall. He only seems to love Elizabeth, with Zola representing the height of success and Emira a rejection of it.

Little Richard adds some real spark playing himself as a trial witness (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr. is merely a stiff parody playing Richard in the early days). Pamela Reed is the wry judge who prevails over the trial theatrics. Paul Mazursky is the believably sleezy Morris Levy.

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is an entertaining case study, but not the revealing portrait of an artist director Gregory Nava's "Selena" was. Nava certainly knows how to capture the excitment of live performances, though, and provides a surprising twist at film's end.

B-


54

It's 1979 and the heyday of the famous Manhattan celebrity Mecca, Studio 54. Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), owner of a steak-house chain, has parlayed his cash into one of the hottest fashionable hot spots in the US, if not the western world. It's a time for of drugs, disco music, fashion and uninhibited (pre-AIDS) sex and a whole new world for 19 year old Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe). O'Shea, hired by Rubell, begins his rise to local popularity as one of the club's bartenders. He is soon sucked into the drug-fueled, all out action of the infamous nightclub and the corruption that soon destroys it and its patrons.

Robin ROBIN:
When I search for a phrase that depicts "54" best, Steve Rubell, wonderfully played by Myers, says it best. As the Feds haul his ass out of Studio 54 for money skimming and income tax evasion, Rubell dejectedly looks at the camera and declares, "This is so...tacky As a commentary for "54," I could not have said it better.

The much anticipated expose on the notorious club where dreams come true in the late 70's falls as flat as a fluggie in a mish-mash of bad writing, poor acting (except Myers), amateur directing and mediocre production credits. First time director/writer Mark Christopher (and, what I assume is a gaggle of unaccredited scripters - this screenplay if far too muddled for any one person to be wholly responsible) creates a story about four people who we could care less about. Shane, the pretty boy who loves the glitter and wants to be a part of it; Greg and Anita, the couple who befriend Shane and have their own aspirations - he to become a bartender at the famed club and sell drugs, she to be a disco music star; and Neve Campbell as a soap opera starlet, Julie Black, and the object of Shane's fascination - we don't give a hoot about them . Shane, Anita and Greg skirt an emotional triangle that never forms. Shane's obsession with Julie and their puppy-dog romance do nothing to help the film, in fact it is an additional hindrance. It all rings false.

Mike Myers, as entrepreneur Rubell, is, in a word, stunning. He captures the nuance of the man at the peak of his popularity and prosperity...and insecurity. He is totally immersed in the wild debauchery and hedonism of his creation, using drugs liberally and missing the tell-tale signs of the IRS investigation into his skimming of millions of taxable dollars. Myers is so good in his role, you wonder why the heck the filmmakers even bother with the shallow, stupid stories we get. The tale of the shady deals, the drugs, the money laundering scam, the corruption all seem to be far richer material to mine.

Acting is, in a word, bad (except for Myers). "Star" Ryan Phillippe, as Sean O'Shea, is less than two-dimensional and without character. He wallows between innocent bewilderment and bemused savvy as he climbs the social ladder of the club employees to his own celebrity status. To his credit, Phillippe almost seemed to get the hang of the acting thing by the film's end. Salma Hayek is disappointing and unconvincing as the disco queen wannabee. She is so wooden her great looks cannot save her perf. Breckin Meyer as Anita's husband, Greg, gives a community playhouse level performance. As to Neve Campbell, she still has to convince me that she has a clue about what acting is all about. One supporting character, Disco Dottie (played by Ellen Dow) gives a high-octane performance as a granny who is young at heart and spends every night at the club - to a tragic end.

Tech aspects are fair, with direction pegging on the poor side. Why Hollywood persists in shoving big sums of money into a film and relying on amateurs like first-timer Mark Christopher to direct/write a feature film never ceases to amaze me. A competent director and a screenplay that has something to say about this period seems to be the way they should have gone. Other techs, from cinematography to set to costume, are without note.

The music of the time, so deftly used in the far superior Whit Stillman film, "The Last Days of Disco" (check out the CD if you like the music), is artificially recreated here. There are no recognizable songs at all. There is an odd, disco cover of the wonderful Gordon Lightfoot song, "If You Could Read My Mind." (I was thrilled to see this great balladeer's songs get notice, even in such a horrid film. My only hope from this film is that Myers is noticed and Gordon Lightfoot's great songs and ballads get a new popularity.)

I'm sorry, Mike Myers, but I have to dissuade people from wasting - and I really mean wasting - their money supporting such a piece of trash. Myers (and Disco Dottie) help raise my grade on "54" and I give it a D-. Really.


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