LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E BELLA)
APT PUPIL - AMERICAN HISTORY X - HAPPINESS
JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES - ORGAZMO

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E BELLA)

"Life is Beautiful," directed, co-written and starring Italian national treasure Roberto Benigni ("The Monster"), is the fantasy tale of Guido (Benigni), an unabashed optimist who, with his friend Ferrucio (Sergio Bustric), transplants himself in the tiny Tuscan town of Arezzo. Guido, whose dream is to open a bookstore in the village, is smitten by the love bug after his repeated encounters with a pretty school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). The irresistible Guido sweeps his "princess" off of her feet and they become man and wife, saving Dora from a marriage to a local fascist official. Life is truly beautiful for the couple with the arrival of their son, Giosue, and the purchase of the coveted bookstore, Nazism rears its ugly head. Guido, his family and 8000 other Italian Jews are forcibly transported to the horror of the concentration camps, forcing the bookseller into creating a fantasy world to shield his son from the ghastly reality of the camps.

Robin ROBIN:
Roberto Benigni has created a magical world where the harsh reality of the Holocaust serves as a backdrop for the real story of a man's love for his wife, his son, and life itself. Benigni's Guido is a thoroughly effervescent romantic whose love for his little family gives him the strength to face the ordeal of getting them through the Nazi terror unscathed. Benigni devotes himself to his roles as star, helmer and writer with obvious energy and love for his work. His humor, sometimes subtle, sometimes slapstick, is used not to diminish the Holocaust, but to show a father's devotion to the protection of his son.

The idyllic first half of the film is spent in the opulent set up of the romance between Guido and Dora. Their first meeting has the young woman falling from the sky into the arms of her future husband. Guido pursues the lovely school marm even as he makes an enemy of her fascist fiance. Love wins as the two go forth with their destined life, bringing their joy, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), into the world. Their bucolic life together in the Tuscan town is shattered when Guido and Giosue are deported by the Nazis with the rest of the area Jews. Dora, a Catholic, would rather risk imprisonment near her family than to be alone and free and gets herself deported, too. The triumph of the human will and the power of love are the central themes of "Life is Beautiful."

The second half of the film, in the concentration camp, is done with a grim hyper-reality that, while not glossing over the terrible events of the time, treats the horror in brief shots of showers and piles of bodies waiting to be incinerated by their killers. Benigni does not dwell on the horror, since he is not making a Holocaust film, but one of a personal story of the human spirit.

The emotions played out by Guido are touching, funny and, sometimes, gut-wrenching. In one sequence, false hope rises when, during a German officer's party, Guido sees the former guest of a hotel where he waited tables. Dr. Lessing (Horst Buchholz), with whom Guido traded complicated riddles in peacetime, is now the camp's doctor. When the physician recognizes Guido, they makes plans to get together secretly for something the doctor says is "very important." To Guido, this can only mean escape for him and his family, with the help of the doctor. The tension that builds in these scenes is palpable as Guido's hopes get unexpectedly dashed.

The humor, led by the comic master, Benigni, infuses the entire film with warmth and sweetness while giving our modern Chaplin many chances to perform his trademark slapstick antics - mostly aimed to entertain and protect his little boy. One wonderful scene has the brutish Nazis coming in to the prisoner barracks to lay down the camp rules. Guido volunteers to translate, but does not know a word of German. His subsequent translation is aimed solely to convince his young son thhat the whole ordeal is real an elaborate game where the winner gets his very own full size tank. As silly as the idea sounds, Benigni pulls such scenes off with his wonderful humor, both sensitive and slapstick.

The production values are first rate all around. Set design and costume are nicely done with the first half done with a lushness that gives a feel of the time before war. The second half has a stylish, stark quality that befits the harsh concept of such awful period of man's history, even with the light touches by Benigni.

Some critics are censuring Benigni for making light of such a dreadful period in history. They are either totally out of line, or did not see the same film that I did. Benigni is simply creating a fantasy world where love, life and family is all, despite the hardship and horror. This is definitely not a bad thing.

I give "Life is Beautiful" an A-.
 

Laura LAURA:
Director, star, and co-screenwriter (with Vincenzo Cerami) Roberto Benigni is best known to American audiences for Jim Jarmusch's independent films "Down by Law" and "Night on Earth." He is Italy's most beloved comedian and his "Life is Beautiful" has won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the Best Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival and eight David di Donatello Awards (the Italian Oscars). While some critics have accused Benigni of 'making light' of the Holocaust, I believe Benigni's wonderful film is a celebration of humankinds' most precious gifts - those of love and laughter - gifts which feed the spirit in even the worst of circumstances.

In 1939, Guido (Benigni) and Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) travel from the Tuscany countryside to find jobs in the city with the help of Guido's uncle. Along the way, Guido meets Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife), who literally falls into his arms from a hayloft. 'My Princess!' he declares before sucking a wasp sting from her thigh.

Guido wishes to open a bookshop, but runs into government bureaucracy in the form of a facist official who comically ends up with a hatful of eggs and a hatred for Guido. Guido and Ferruccio become waiters in the surrealistically white hotel where Guido's uncle is the maitre 'd and make a home in the hotel's storage house. Guido also discovers that Dora is a local schoolteacher and continues to appear as if by magic, sweeping her off her feet. In one particularly funny encounter, he impersonates a Roman School inspector. When the Jewish Guido finds that he is to deliver a lecture on the purity of race, he declares "I've been sent here by racist Italian scientists!" The first half of the film concentrates on the sweetly funny wooing of Dora as anti-Semitism and the Nazis gradually take hold over day to day life. On the night of the unhappy Dora's engagement party (to that same government official Guido's made an enemy of), Guido spirits her from the event on a brightly painted horse - a horse which was discovered earlier by his dismayed uncle painted green with "Jewish horse" emblazoned on its side. ("I never knew this horse was Jewish," says Guido.)

A dissolve later, Guido and Dora are husband and wife with a young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), a charming little boy who loathes baths. When his son asks why a shop declares "Jews and dogs not allowed," Guido explains that people become tired of serving certain types and that just the other day, when with a Chinese friend and a kangaroo, they ran across a shop that wouldn't serve Chinese and kangaroos.

Then horror strikes and Guido and Giosue are rounded up and put on a train bound for a camp. Dora, a non-Jew, insists on boarding the train as well. Here the film takes a nightmarish turn, yet Benigni continues to use humor to startling effect. Upon arrival at the camp (this being declared a fable, the grey camp, while accurate in many details, is as surreal as that white hotel of the first half), Dora is separated from Guido and Giosue. In order to spare his child the horror of the situation, Guido invents a game, where everyone is competing to attain 1,000 points in order to win first prize - a real tank (Giosue loves tanks).

In perhaps the film's funniest scene, a Nazi camp official enters Guido's bunker and asks for a German interpreter. Guido, knowing no German, volunteers. As the Nazi barks out rules, Guido 'translates' the rules of his own game, ending as the Nazi departs "I have to go now. We're playing hide and seek and if I don't go they'll find me." As hard to believe as it may seem, Benigni makes this side-splittingly funny.

Although Benigni stops short of showing any on screen violence, he doesn't ignore the horror of the camps. When his little boy tearfully tells him a man has said they're being burned and used for soap, Guido explains this was only meant to distract him from the game. As children disappear, Giosue's made to always hide from 'the mean people who yell a lot' because all the children are hiding in order to gain more points. Guido's uncle enters the 'showers' (Giosue's loathing for bathing is a lifesaver) and later Dora sorts out his clothing from a pile. In a heartbreakingly bittersweet moment, Guido and his son take over the camp's loudspeaker so that Guido may speak to 'his princess' while Giosue jubilantly reports how many points they've acquired. Guido's own spirit is almost broken when he discovers a former favored German hotel customer with a passion for riddles is the camp doctor. The doctor's urgent, secretive need to speak to Guido becomes a tragic letdown, which is written across Benigni's face. The film's brilliant ending is both gut-wrenchingly tragic and hopeful. Even in his last moments, Benigni's Guido, disguised as a woman in order to find Dora, recalls Chaplinesque slapstick.

Hopefully "Life is Beautiful" will attain what the less deserving Miramax Italian import "Il Postino" did, a Best Picture nomination. This is Benigni's masterwork, a moving tribute to the human spirit.

A


APT PUPIL

When top student Todd Bowden's (Brad Renfro, "The Client") history teacher spends only one week on the Holocaust, instructing them where to turn for additional information, Todd continues the study and becomes consumed with Nazi Germany. One day on the bus, Todd spots an elderly man whom he suspects of being a Nazi War Criminal. Armed with photographs and fingerprints he's lifted from Kurt Dussander's (Ian McKellan) mailbox, Todd confronts the man with his evidence and blackmails him - Todd won't turn him in if he'll feed his macabre and morbid obsession with first hand accounts of life in the Nazi death camps. So begins a psychological game of cat and mouse that will escalate far beyond Todd's imagining.

Laura LAURA:
Director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") has delivered the best adaptation of a Stephen King horror story since "Carrie" with "Apt Pupil." This is a truly disturbing tale of the nature of evil told with a sure hand and fine attention to detail.

Ian McKellan delivers the first of two powerhouse performances (he's even better in the upcoming "Gods and Monsters") this year as Arthur Denker/Kurt Dussander. He moves with the shuffle of an old man in ill health, his teeth stained with nicotine, his rheumy eyes betraying his alcoholism.

Brad Renfro plays Todd with suspicious, hooded eyes and a secretive nature who vascillates between fear and aggression as he sees his control over the old man begin to slip and discovers that Dussander's "lessons" have maybe been too well taught.

Initially Todd is haunted by his Holocaust research, waking up from nightmares drenched in sweat. In the showers after a high school basketball practice, Todd imagines his classmates becoming the skeletal victims of the death camps and becomes so enraptured in his daydream that when he snaps to he finds himself alone with fingers wrinkled and back violently red from the extended exposure to hot water. Singer makes inventive use of double exposures and dissolves to visualize these journeys from reality.

In the only scene from the movie that doesn't quite work, Todd presents Dussander with a Nazi uniform and insists he try it on. 'What, you want I should put it on and go shopping?' McKellan venomously spits out. Wearing the costume, Dussander finally goes over the edge as his goosesteps and Sieg Heils unleash his long supressed sadism, much to Todd's horror. Unfortunately, we're not provided any motivation for Todd's strange gift, so this pivotal scene serves merely to point the film in a new direction. Dussander's attempt to put a neighborhood cat in his oven is intercut with Todd visciously killing an injured pigeon with a basketball.

Todd's affiliation with his secret 'teacher' wrecks havoc with his personality. He's unable to relate to girls, turns on his best friend with a violent outburst, and lets his grades slip to dangerously low levels, drawing the concern of guidance councilor Edward French (David Schwimmer). Shocked to discover Dussander in French's office masquerading as Todd's grandfather willing to help the boy with his homework, Todd nonetheless plays along with the charade (including an alcoholic mother and noncaring father). At this point the tables have turned - Dussander grabs control, forcing the boy to do schoolwork while he watches 'Mr. Magoo' and downs Olde Crow. He also tells the boy that he's written their story down, making Todd an accomplice to his crimes, and depositted the papers in a safety deposit box.

The appearance of a homeless man (Elias Koteas, "Crash") on Dussander's property instigates the film's climatic moment in which Todd discovers what he's truly capable of in the grip of self interest when Dussander suffers a heart attack that lands him in the hospital. (McKellan has a Hannibal Lecter moment when he's fitted with an oxygen mask on a stretcher.) Dussander's recognized by his hospital roommate, a Jewish camp survivor, and a media enslaught begins as the FBI arrives.

The movie ends on a powerful one two punch as Dussander again gains control in the most ironic way while Todd turns the tables on a horribly shaken French when he confronts the boy about his lie.

"Apt Pupil" is a gripping investigation into evil which is equated with power. McKellan's old Nazi became besotted with the power of having control over another man's life. That he initially allowed Todd this same control over him is his most insidious lesson.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
"Apt Pupil," based on Stephen King's same-named novella, is a different kind of monster movie. There is the obvious monster in Kurt Dussander, the ex-Nazi concentration camp officer who was responsible for murdering and disposing of countless Jews. Ian McKellen, as Dussander, plays the man as an unrepentant fiend who talks about his heinous deeds with a matter-of-fact manner, as if he's talking about harvesting tomatoes in his garden. The veteran actor does a stunning job of, first, showing Dussander as an old man, outwardly innocent. As the story unfolds, so does Dussander. As he recounts his involvement in the atrocities, we see that there is no remorse in the man. He is evil incarnate and McKellen will be on the list of notables come year's end.

Brad Renfroe plays Todd Bowden, the title character who discovers the Nazi killer while delving into his newfound hobby - The Holocaust. Todd's fascination with the Nazi horror quickly goes beyond the realm of "hobby" and enters into a dangerous obsession when he uncovers Dussander living incognito in his town. The thirst for knowledge, now personal with Kurt's commentary, becomes a fixation for the boy as the Nazi fills his mind with evil. Ultimately, Todd transforms into the same kind of monster as his mentor.

Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") enters into the realm of horror in an interesting way by adapting the King novella. The story does not have the supernatural horror so typical in King's body of work. In fact, this particular monster story is chilling in that it is not fiction. None of the horrors mentioned are fabricated, making them all the more horrible.

A couple of things bothered me about "Apt Pupil." When I was growing up, at about the same age as the Todd character, I also had more than passing interest in World War Two and the Nazis. To some, this may be a morbid fascination, but not something that is an obsession. Todd's interest, aside from having the Internet as an info source, is never studied to show just why the boy is so adversely influenced by the material and the man, Kurt. Also, when Todd buys Kurt an SS uniform, the ensuing scene is dramatic but out of place.

"Apt Pupil" is Ian McKellen's film. Brad Renfroe tries hard and has some good dramatic moments but is overshadowed by his co-star. Director Singer does a decent job in his first outing into the horror genre, picking an interesting work to adapt, even if it isn't readily recognizable as the work of the horror meister, King. It's a good one for fans of the genre and I give it a B.


AMERICAN HISTORY X

First-time feature film director Tony Kaye, from the original screenplay by David McKenna, brings the drama "American History X" to life through the eyes of teenager Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong, "Pecker"). Danny idolizes his older brother, Derek (Edward Norton, "Primal Fear"), who is a rising star in the local white supremacist movement in Venice, California. Following the death the boys' father - a firefighter and racist bigot - while battling a blaze in a black neighborhood, Derek becomes a charismatic leader in the skin head cause. His reactionary actions culminate in the brutal murders of two black gang members, sending Derek to prison. He undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis while incarcerated and, when released after three years, must face his brother, now a skin head, and his hate filled past.

Robin ROBIN:
Helmer Kaye, known for his award winning commercials and music videos in Europe, does a credible job with the no-holds-barred story about racism and family in a volatile city setting. The tensions between the races in the tight urban community is palpable as both blacks and whites struggle over control of their little bits of turf. Derek, a brilliant young man, is duped by behind-the-scenes leader of the movement, the shadowy Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), into believing his own rhetoric, ending him in prison.

The before-prison scenes, shown in flashback and in black and white, have a harsh grittiness with an underlying dark edge as Derek, through Danny's viewpoint, rises to power and becomes a force who can manipulate less intelligent racists into violence. This culminates in a shocking scene where the incited supremacists invade a minority-owned market, beating workers and patrons and destroying the place. The flashback story is the most intriguing element of the film. Kaye, who server triple duty as director/cinematographer/camera operator, gives the first "half" of the story a stark vividness that lends to the shocking violence and theme of hate. This is the most compelling part of the story and Edward Norton does a masterful job of portraying the driven-by-hate Derek. His white supremacy speeches and philosophy are chilling in concept and Norton is thoroughly convincing in the role of the hate-mongering Derek.

While locked up, Derek lives in a microcosm of the society he came from. At such close range, he sees the falseness of his cause when he deals with his so-called kindred spirit, his "brethren," who will and do sell out their own. He also meets and is befriended by a black inmate, Lamont (Guy Torry), who shows Derek the truth and reality of prison life and, in turn, what is really going on outside the stir. Torry is a significant figure, for Derek, teaching him that skin color does not make a person good or bad, it's what is inside.

The second "half," the post-prison portion, takes a down-turn as Derek goes through a dramatic, philosophical change of heart because of his experiences in prison. Norton loses his edginess as Derek sees for himself the hypocrisy of what he used to stand for. The realization of his past folly makes him more sensitive to those who need his protection - his family and, particularly, younger brother Danny. While Norton dominates the film's first half, the post-prison part loses its focus as the other characters become prominent in the story. The other performances are fine, even good, but the story gets out of focus with their more prominent presence.

The acting, as I said, is good, with a number of notable performances. Norton I already mentioned, especially as the charismatic skin head leader. Edward Furlong, as Danny, gives another good performance, following his very different perf in John Waters' "Pecker." Avery Brooks as Danny's principal, Bob Sweeney, is outstanding as an educator who can see through the bullshit of the right wing hate-mongers and tries to guide Danny down a more humane path. Beverly D'Angelo, as the boys' ailing mother, puts an incredible amount of depth and nuance to what could have been a minor, unnoticed role. Stacy Keach's Cameron Armstrong is nothing more than a symbol of hate and does nothing for the two dimensional character.

Director Kaye is reported to have had drastic problems with the film and asked the Directors' Guild for permission to have his name removed from the credits. I think this is a case where he doth protest too much. The final product is a flawed but compelling work that pulls no punches and carries its diatribe against hate right up to its last, tragic moments.

"American History X" is flawed, yes, but is a worthwhile film that covers territories not dealt with in recent years. I give it a B.

Laura LAURA:
"American History X" arrives on a wave of publicity created by its first time feature director Tony Kaye, who petitioned to have his name removed from the film and took out full page ads in Variety claiming that star Edward Norton had editted his film. In interviews, Norton has stated that the released cut is virtually identical to Kaye's. In any event, the film, while flawed, has a vibrantly unique look (Kaye acted as his own cinematographer) and unflinchingly, brutally portrays the madness of racially motivated hatred.

When Danny (Edward Furlong, "Terminator II: Judgement Day") hands in a praiseworthy book report on "Mein Kampf," his principal (Avery Brooks) calls him to task and gives him an assignment to write a report on his brother Derek (Edward Norton, "Primal Fear"). Derek, a White Supremacy leader, has just been released from a three year prison term for the killing of two black men who attempted to steal his car. The story is told in black and white flashback through the eyes of Danny, who worships his older brother.

Derek is filled with rage when his firefighter father is shot while trying to extinguish a fire at a crack house. Befriended by white supremist Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), Derek's rage is focussed against the non-whites who have been moving into his Venice Beach community. Derek's inate intelligence breeds a charismatic hatemonger, and soon his band are trashing Korean grocery stores and throwing blacks off the basketball courts. In one of the film's most chilling scenes, Derek explodes over a Rodney King conversation at a family dinner, attacking his own sister and throwing his mother's Jewish boyfriend (Elliott Gould) out of their home. When we finally see Derek finishing off the second of the car thieves, the brutality of the act evokes a physical reaction from the audience.

In prison, Derek's eyes are opened when he finds that his fellow skinheads don't live by his high standards and the black man he works with in the laundry (standup comic Guy Torry) has far better principles. Derek comes home a changed man and attempts to steer his young brother away from the skinheads, making him a marked man.

David McKenna's script is successful in making its larger points, but is weak in making its character changes. When Derek drops his evil ways, he constantly talks about 'getting rid of that life,' yet reflects little on his murderous act. Danny is convinced to change his path far too easily as well. This is the film's major flaw.

Norton is simply brilliant as the prince of skinheads. When he awaits arrest in the middle of the street, his eyes burn with the fervor of Charlie Manson. Everything he spouts about the black man are the same motivations for his own rage, yet he's blind to the fact. When he does come around, Norton plays Derek a little too quietly, the change all too abrupt. Furlong suffers from the same transitional problem, appearing sheeplike. Solid peformances from support Beverly D'Angel as the sickly mother, Guy Torry as the decent and funny Lamont (serving twice Derek's sentence for stealing a television), Elliott Gould as the dismayed schoolteacher, Jennifer Lien as the besieged sister and Ethan Suplee as Derek's grossly ignorant skinhead pal. Fairuza Balk is one note as Derek's girlfriend. Stacy Keach doesn't have much to work with.

Kaye's cinematography is strikingly in your face and attains a stark beauty. "American History X" is reminiscent of "Boyz in the Hood," turned on its side, where long standing and irrational hatred result in tragedy. (Danny's report ends as the film does as Furlong narrates 'Hatred is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time.')

B+


HAPPINESS

Todd Solendz' ironically titled "Happiness" revolves around the world of three sisters and the people who connect them, all emotionally troubled individuals searching for love and meaning in suburban New Jersey.

Joy (Jane Adams) has no boyfriend and works menial jobs while pipe dreaming about a musical career. She's contemptously pitied by her sisters under the guise of loving encouragement. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is a Stepford wife who's constantly informing everyone that she has it all when unbeknowst to her, her psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is a deeply disturbed pedophile who drugs his family in order to rape his son's classmates. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a fashionably famous author whose superior attitude hides the fact that she's so emotionally bereft she courts an obscene phone caller. That caller is Allen (Phillip Seymour Hall), her nebishy neighbor who's under Bill's care where he spouts rape fantasies. He's admired by Kristina (Camryn Manheim), an overweight woman who hates sex and hides more than ice cream in her freezer. Meanwhile, in an anonymous retirement community in Florida, the sisters' parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), are facing the dissolution of their marriage in the wake of desperate aging single Diane (Elizabeth Ashley).

Laura LAURA:
One of the most controversial films of the year, "Happiness" is a brutally funny black comedy. Its cast of characters, all seemingly at least somewhat normal on the surface, are all searching for something to give meaning to their pitifully unhappy lives.

Dylan Baker gives a powerfully naked performance as the tortured pedophile. His elaborate plans to prey on his son's friend Johnny and his concerned care of the ailing boy the next day are both gut wrenchingly sickening and sneakily funny ('You're so cool, Dr. Maplewood' says Johnny as Bill slips his arm around the boy while driving him home). In the film's most powerfully dramatic scene, Bill confesses his crimes to his distraught son Billy (Rufus Read). The scene is so believable because of the care given to establish their relationship. That Solendz manages to get an audience groan of sympathy when Bill fumbles during an interview with police is proof of his talent in making such a vile person human.

Jane Adams is all soft vulnerability as Joy, who's essentially anybody's doormat. Her smiling sister Trish lovingly confides that the entire family never thought she'd amount to anything. She has the strength to dump creepy Andy (Jon Lovitz), who later commits suicide. The emptiness of single life in the city is beautifully portrayed when Joy receives a hateful call from Andy's mother as she works in her anonymous cubicle. When she relates his death to coworkers, they peer over the sea of cubicles, trying to picture exactly who the man was. Her later involvement with a Russian cabbie (Jared Harris), who woos her with a seedily smarmy rendition of 'You Light Up My Life," ends when she pays him off with $500 in order to get back the CD player and guitar he's stolen from her.

Lara Flynn Boyle is all brittle ice maiden as Helen. She lunches with sister Trish where they both accent their derisive comments about Joy with finger quotes. Cynthia Stevenson is a perky sitcom mom who hides from life with the trappings of her suburban existence.

Phillip Seymour Hall gives life to the sweaty nerd whose boring exterior covers a twisted rage. Essentially, though, he's a decent enough person who responds sympathetically to Kristina's loneliness. Camryn Manheim's Kristina would seem a perfect match for him until Allen's attentive ear draws an unexpectedly horrific confession.

Louise Lasser projects despair at the prospect of living out the end of her life alone ('Why didn't you do this 20 years ago?' she yells at Lenny. 'Now I have to get another facelift!'). In an amusing in joke, her realtor, played by Marla Maples, confides to Mona that divorce was the best thing that ever happened to her. Gazzara plays Lenny as a man deadened to life - his only concerns are his health and his golf game. When he's seduced by Diane (Elizabeth Ashley looking shockingly bloated) and suffers from premature ejaculation, she tells him not to worry. 'I didn't feel anything,' he quizzically informs her.

Solendz really pushes the envelope with a certain bodily fluid used for comic effect in "There's Something About Mary." Billy Maplewood (Rufus Read in a standout first time performance) is obsessed with undergoing a certain boyhood passage into manhood. His success at the end of the film is produced with a hilarious sight gag.

"Happiness" is a more true-to-life counterpart to the fantastical "Blue Velvet," which also delved into the underlying rot of a seemingly all-American small town's denizens. While not as emotionally involving as his earlier "Welcome to the Dollhouse" which focussed on only one character, Solendz continues to show an unerring ability to get to the core of the darkness of human behavior. It's almost scary to imagine where he'll go from here.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
Todd Solondz's first work, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" was a breakout effort by the young filmmaker, telling a dark, humorous story of trying to get by in the cold, cruel world of adolescence through the eyes of the ultimate outcast, 13 year old Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazo). Solondz deft hand at both writing and directing brought out an old anxiety in all of us of just wanting to fit in with everyone else.

In his second film Solondz takes a huge leap into an area of filmmaking that is dominated by the likes of Robert Altman. "Happiness" is a multi-threaded piece with a large and diverse ensemble cast that deals with everything but the happiness of the title. Instead, the key topics explored are infidelity, sexual perversion, failing and failed marriage, being single and alone, the angst of approaching manhood and more. Although not all of the story threads work, there is a grace in the telling and the subject matter is as hard hitting as any put on film.

The most intriguing of the tales told involves Dr. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) and his family - wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), elder son, 11-year-old Billy (Rufus Read), and his younger siblings. Bill is a psychiatrist with a problem. He has a dormant, but fast rising, passion for his son's pubescent classmates. At first, he satisfies his ardor by purchasing a teen fan magazine, but this tires quickly. Fate takes a turn when Billy invites his friend, Johnny (Evan Silverberg), to spend the night. Bill's frantic preparations to get his family out of the way so he can have his "intimate moment" with the young neighbor is the depiction of a social monster. The incredible thing is that Solondz and Baker build Bill's character throughout the film to show the misguided pedophile as a good husband and father, particularly as he tries to guide his son through his own confusion over puberty. Bill is a monster, yes, in one way, but otherwise is a good man. Is there maybe a bit of a monster in us all?

Another story thread follows 20-something Joy Jordan's plight in coping with single life, living in the parents' vacant home in New Jersey, and working as a scab teacher who justifies her actions as that of a "strike breaker." Joy (Jane Adams) doesn't know what she wants out of life, except, maybe, to be swept off her feet by some mythical Prince Charming. She is hindered in her endeavors by the non-support given her by her sisters, Trish and Helen. Joy is badgered by the constant advice given by her successful siblings (Trish is "happily" married to Bill and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a glamorous writer who is "so tired of being admired"). All the must also face the fact that their mother (Louise Lasser) and father (Ben Gazarra), retired in Florida, are in the process of breaking up their 40-year-long, but loveless, marriage.

Finally, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the lonely Allen, a solitary, socially inept young man who is obsessed with his next neighbor, Helen. Allen, one of Dr. Bill's patients, fantasizes about having sex with Helen, reverting to making obscene phone calls to the woman and masturbating. The emotionally immature Allen isn't prepared when Helen starts returning his calls and sexually harassing him! All this as Allen is pursued by his other neighbor - the overweight, exceedingly plain Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who seems to be chastely in love with Allen, but has her own horrific secret.

Todd Solondz doesn't control all his story threads with the same intensity as he does with Bill's tale. Some of his characters are just plain unlikable. Allen and his story make you want to wash your hands to get rid of the slime, while Joy is simply not sympathetic. But, helmer Solondz shows an incredible amount of talent in front of his word processor and behind the camera. The Altman-esque style of story-telling Solondz utilizes is difficult for a mature filmmaker. The fact that the young auteur does a compelling, fascinating job of it all shows that he has a long, creative career to look forward to.

The technical aspects are solidly produced with director of photography, Maryse Alberti, providing a moody, fluid look to the film that helps build the tensions developed by the writer/director.

Make no mistake. "Happiness" is a harsh, dark comedy that strips away many of the layers masking the true human nature and all its sordidness. It also shows man's weaknesses and need for companionship.

"Happiness" is not about happiness. It sure is about a heck of a lot of other things. I give it a B.


JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES

Vampires may rule the night when they rise from their earthy graves in search of human prey, but Jack Crow (James Woods) and his team of vampire slayers rule the daytime hours. They relentlessly hunt down the bloodsuckers and, after driving wooden stakes into their evil hearts, haul them outside to be destroyed by the sun. Jack (James Woods) is a gunslinger hired by the Vatican to rid the earth of master vamp, Valek, a 600 year old creation of a botched "inverse exorcism," where the soul continues to live in a dead body. Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) is searching, with his minions, for the elusive Berziers Cross, the implement that will give him and his evil spawn the omnipotence to walk, unscathed, in the light of day.

Robin ROBIN:
Carpenter, who, once again, egotistically puts his name over the film's title, has come up with an uneven, though sometimes entertaining, vampire western. James Woods, as numero uno vampire slayer, Jack Crow, has the look, style and attitude that make him fit the character's persona perfectly. Jack is cocky, self-assured and has a violent streak that suits his chosen calling as Vatican gunslinger out to kill "goons." Woods lends his caustic humor to Jack and gives the slayer a three dimensional look.

The rest of the slayers, made up of an array of actors/stuntmen who, in the film's opening, kick vampire butt while cleaning out a vampire "nest." Unfortunately, during the team's victory celebration, master vamp, Valek, wipes out most of the goon-slayers in short and bloody order. This forces Jack, his remaining partner Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), young priest Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), and recently bitten, but not "turned," hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee), to hunt down Valek and his remaining blood-suckers.

Following the butt kicking beginning, with, first, the vamps getting theirs, then, the slayers being wiped out, the quartet's search for Valek takes a downturn in pacing. The blasts of mayhem in the first 15 minutes turns into a plodding succession of the diminished team ferreting out, staking and burning the vamps one by one. This is okay for the first couple of times, as the vamps go up in a pyrotechnic blaze, but gets tedious as it drags on. Things pick up later in the film as Valek and his minions go against Team Crow in the film's action-packed finale.

The adapted story, from the John Steakly novel, "Vampire$," uses the southwestern settings from the book to good effect in creating the funky western feel of the film. The images of Jack and Tony walking, with guns drawn, down the street of a sleepy, windblown town, looking for vampires, pays homage to John Ford and his vast contributions to the western genre. The location settings near Santa Fe, New Mexico, provide suitable desert landscapes, scenic vistas, and dramatic cloud formations that give the appropriate mood to "Vampires." The story also recreates the vampire myth, blaming the Catholic Church, but answers most of the questions I had along the way.

The supporting cast is decimated in pretty short order in the beginning, so the four principal "good" guys have to carry the bulk of the film. Woods, as I said, is dead on as Jack. The beefy, bright blue-eyed Baldwin lends a violent compassion in his relationship with Katrina - he knows she'll become a goon, but can't help falling for her. Sheryl Lee does well in the tough role of the bitten prostitute who helps the slayers locate Valek with her psychic connection to the master vamp. Maximilian Schell is wasted as the Vatican bishop running the show from behind the scenes. Thomas, as Valek, is almost a sympathetic character who was made into the evil that was not his doing - a different twist for a blood-sucker. Valek's followers are mostly nondescript and lack any personality.

"John Carpenter's Vampires" is a so-so rendition of the vampire myth, creating some different concepts and giving a fresh twist to the fable, but the overall story does not satisfy. The wry, dark humor expected is evident, but remains subdued throughout most of the film. I had more fun with the non-stop action in this year's other vamp slayer flick, the comic book actioner, "Blade," though "Vampires" gets points for its attention to details. Not a bad movie for cult fans of the genre, but not so effective for the more general movie-goer. I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
"John Carpenter's Vampires" is a funky Western take on vampire hunting first explored by Kathryn Bigelow with her superior "Near Dark." "Vampires" is good fun nonetheless, featuring a trademark wiseass performance from James Woods as Jack Crow, leader of a pack of vampire slayers funded by the Vatican.

As the film opens, Crow has spotted an abandoned farmhouse in the American Southwest which he believes is a nest.  Crow and his men arm themselves with guns and crossbows and approach in a line across the horizon in a scene familiar to fans of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. They've also got a unique vampire killing technique - they harpoon them with those crossbows and Crow's buddy Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) drags them into the light via the winch attached to the back of his truck where they promptly burst into flames!

They've messed with the wrong nest, though, as it belonged to the original vampire, the six hundred year old Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a heretic priest in search of 'the black cross,' a relic which can be used for his inverse exorcism and enable him to walk in the daylight. Valek, looking like Brandon Lee in "The Crow" gone bad, drops in at the Sun God motel where the slayers are whooping it up with hookers and booze and quickly lays waste to all but Crow, Montoya and hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee), whom he merely bites. This scene will delight fans of gore - Valek can split a man in half with his long, deadly fingernails.

The film's script is a howl, featuring such lines as 'He will be unstoppable! Unless we stop him!' There are nonsensical bits of logic, such as Crow declaring that a vampire can only be killed by driving a wooden stake through its heart, yet using metal stakes. The painfully obvious sequel setup is goofily sentimental. The Catholic Church takes plenty of punches as well, although the new priest Crow's paired up with is a funnily written character.

Carpenter captured one gorgeous shot that in itself makes the film worth seeing. As the sun sets, casting a red glow over the white clouds in an intensely blue sky, Valek and his new vampires claw their way out of the red desert earth.

"John Carpenter's Vampires" should please fans of the genre who are willing to not take it too seriously.

B


ORGAZMO

Joe Young (Trey Parker, "BASEketball") is a young Mormon sent to Hollywood to find converts for his Church of Latter Day Saints before returning to Utah to marry his fiance Lisa (Robyn Lynne Raab). When he stumbles across the home of porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs) and is forced to defend himself against Orbison's goons, Orbison realizes he's found his action hero, Captain Orgazmo, who defeats his foes with his Orgazmorator. With the promise of enough money to pay for an expensive wedding and the reassurance that he won't have to engage in actual sex, Young, teamed with sidekick Choda-boy (Dian Bachar, "BASEketball"), is suddenly the star of a porno film so popular, it overtakes "ET" in the all time box office list.

Laura LAURA:
"Orgazmo" must be the first NC-17 film that could be described as good naturedly cute. Full of broad humor, slapstick, sight gags and explicitly descriptive dialogue, "Orgazmo" is like a cheesy "Boogie Nights" played for yucks.

Trey Parker is the epitomy of innocent guilelessness as Joe Young. He's so sweet, he almost makes your teeth hurt. His phone conversations with his fiance always end with 'Jesus and I love you.' His reactions are priceless when faced with naked women, an explanation of what a 'DVDA' shot is, and T-Rex, a 400 lb. female costar.

Dian Bachar, so funny in the mostly unfunny "BASEketball," is a delight as Choda-Boy, whose costume consists of some S&M straps and a helmet topped off with a certain rubber sex toy. Ben is an MIT grad who got into porno for the women. His brilliance is poured into his invention of a real Orgazmorator, which fells its targets with powerful orgasms. Ben and Joe take the device to the streets and become real life crime fighters.

Parker's partner Matt Stone also appears as Dave, "The Lighting Guy." Looking like Weird Al Yankovitz, Dave begins every conversation with 'You know, I don't want to sound like a queer or nothing, but...'

"Orgazmo" is pretty juvenile, but it is intermittently funny. Some of the humor is groan-inducingly broad - when Joe prays to a statue of Jesus to give him a sign 'if I shouldn't take this job' and an earthquake ensues, Joe continues 'any sign.' The troop frequent a sushi bar whose owner acts like a homeboy, complete with a gold dollar sign pendant. Whenever anyone declares 'Jesus!,' Joe says 'Where?!' The funniest gag is probably what results after Joe turns his Orgazmorator on an attack dog. Suffice it to say that the dog remains rather attached to Joe throughout the end of the scene.

It was refreshing to me that there's not only no female nudity in "Orgazmo," but that when female nudity is about to occur, it's covered by the back of a nude male stepping into the scene.

"Orgazmo" is nothing more than a piffle, but it does serve up enough laughs in such a truly good natured way, it's hard not to like it.

C+


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