YOU'VE GOT MAIL - A SIMPLE PLAN - WAKING NED DEVINE
BABE: PIG IN THE CITY - PSYCHO (1998) - VERY BAD THINGS

YOU'VE GOT MAIL

The writer, director and stars of 1993's smash hit "Sleepless in Seattle" return with a modern day remake of "The Shop Around the Corner," substituting AOL for the post office in "You've Got Mail." Meg Ryan stars as Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a quaint children's bookstore threatened by the opening of the discount Fox Book Superstore owned by millionaire businessman Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) whom Kathleen loathes. What Kathleen doesn't know is that the man she's fallen in love with over the internet is the same man who'll be putting her out of business.

Laura LAURA:
I approached the screening of "You've Got Mail" with all the enthusiasm of going to the dentist's, anticipating a paint-by-the-numbers, cloyingly manipulative piece of Hollywood product. What a surprise to discover that Nora Ephron's smart writing and the charm of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in a film that is indeed the things I dreaded (except for the cloying bit), have concocted a crowd pleasing film that's enjoyable from start to finish.

The film begins by establishing Joe and Kathleen in relationships that are comfortable, if not exactly passionate. Joe's paired with Patricia (Parker Posey, never better), a high strung editor who he himself describes by saying 'Patricia makes coffee nervous.' Kathleen lives with Frank (Greg Kinnear), an intellectual newspaper columnist who's a total technophobe (he owns and loves several typewriters). Both hide their time online, where each anxiously awaits the next message from NY152 (Joe) and Shopgirl (Kathleen). Their messages, narrated in voiceover, are truthful reflections on life and thoughtfully written by Ephron as to make them a believable basis for a sight unseen relationship of some depth. The film teases its audience in that age old romantic conundrum where the two people who are so obviously meant for each other must overcome hurdle after hurdle before finally ending up together.

Shot on location in New York's Upper East Side, the film presents New York almost as lovingly as a Woody Allen film. Kathleen's shop is warmly inviting and staffed by endearing eccentrics - Jean Stapleton's Birdie and Steve ("That Thing You Do") Zahn's George. Hank's foil is his assistant Kevin (David Chappelle, "The Nutty Professor"), a wry sidekick one step ahead of his boss. Their world is big and glossy, and, as Kathleen comes to discover, inviting in a more modern way.

The kick to "You've Got Mail" is that Joe is actually advising Kathleen how to fight him in business. When the two finally arrange to meet, Kathleen believes Joe's merely bugging her once again and doesn't realize he's her man. After Patricia makes an uncaring remark when the two are stuck in an elevator, Joe finally realizes that only Kathleen will make him happy and sets out to woo her without giving away his identity as NY152.

Hanks and Ryan are note perfect here. The underrated Ryan is a master of comic timing and Hanks' ability to wrap his boyish charm around a fully fleshed mature adult character takes considerable talent. In "Big" he ate caviar and spit it out - here he swipes all the caviar at a buffet to get Ryan's goat.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
I've retitled "You've Got Mail" in my own head to be "You Have Mail - with really bad grammar." Nora Ephron's latest film on two lonely people getting together is not a heck of a lot different than her earlier Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, "Sleepless in Seattle." Instead of physical distance separating the two lovelorn folks, the cybernet represents the chasm between them, keeping the pair apart and linking them together at the same time.

"You've Got Mail" is a trite bit of formula put together by Ephron and her sister, Delia ("Michael"), using the tremendous success of "Sleepless in
Seattle" and the charisma of her two stars as the draw for its ready made audience. There is little difference between the two films - both are about two lonely people whose lives are slowly and steadily drawn together to the inevitable happy ending. We've been here before, but the talent and charm of Hanks and Ryan helps to overcome the script's triteness.

Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, whose family owns a huge discount bookstore chain. Joe and his dad (Dabney Coleman) think nothing of forcing small, mom and pop bookstores out of business as they tempt buyers into their monster stores with cheap books and espresso. Little does Joe know, though, his unseen e-mail pen pal is also his latest competition and target. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) owns and operates the neighborhood kids' bookstore, "The Shop Around the Corner," and is in danger of losing it all when Hanks opens one of his chain stores nearby. Hanks and Ryan show their spark and charisma to good effect as they keep crossing swords, professionally, while commiserating with each other via the net. I think they're too old for this adolescent romance, but both Hanks and Ryan have a young-at-heart attitude that allows them to overcome the story premise.

Supporting cast is peppered with a bunch of talented actors. "Queen of the Indies" Parker Posey makes a mainstream film splash as Joe's hyperactive publisher girl friend who "makes coffee nervous." Gregg Kinnear plays Kathleen's journalist boyfriend (who dumps her when she needs him most). Jean Stapleton and Steve Zahn ("That Thing You Do") are nice as two of Kathleen's employees. David Chappelle ("The Nutty Professor") comes off well as Joe's sidekick and business assistant, Kevin.

The screenplay, by the Ephron sisters, brings little in the way of originality and freshness to the screen. Capitalizing on the Internet is not new to film (example, "The Net"), but it is sure ground to build this conventional romance upon. Without the star power of the two leads, there would be little to attract me to the routine story.

Tech credits are, of course, solid, if unremarkable.

"You've Got Mail" is not as saccharine as I expected, but the sugar-coated love story offers us nothing new or original. I give it a C+.


A SIMPLE PLAN

What would you do if you found over $4 million and no one else but you and two others knew about it? Would you keep it or turn it in? If you keep it, you're set for life. If you turn it in, forget about it. This is the simple dilemma posed in the beginning of director Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan," starring Bill Paxton ("Twister") and Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade") as brothers Hank and Jacob Mitchell, who, with Jacob's down-on-his-luck friend Lou (Brent Briscoe, "The Killing Box"), stumble upon a plane crash, a dead pilot and a duffel bag full of money. They decide to keep the dough under wraps for a while, until they're sure it's safe to spend, when temptation and greed rear up. Then, the simple plan is anything but as deceit and murder take hold.

Robin ROBIN:
Sam Raimi, known best for his funky, original hip horror film, "The Evil Dead," and its sequels, takes on a more serious, conventional tale of avarice and the toll it takes on the trio and, later on, Hank's wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda, "Jackie Brown"). Raimi plays it straight in his telling of Scott B. Smith's adapted screenplay of his own novel. The story follows a steady spiral down as the uncomplicated plan immediately starts taking on a murderous tone when Jacob confronts a local farmer chasing a chicken-thieving fox near the crash site. The killing begins a deadly downward spiral that pushes the brothers over the edge as they try to protect their find. The dark edge of the story and the director's execution of it are definitely not in keeping with his usual, humorous, tongue-in-cheek style. Raimi is getting serious here.

Of the principle cast, Billy Bob Thornton gives the most complex performance. Jacob is a simple man who is tantalized by the sudden wealth, but is the first to realize the evil that it brings to him, his family and friends. He is easily the most sympathetic of the lead characters.

Bill Paxton starts out as the straight-laced, honest accountant, Hank, who sees that keeping the money is morally wrong - until he tells wife, Sarah. Suddenly, with Sarah's money-lust taking over, the couple are gripped by the possibilities the cash can bring to their lives. Unfortunately, the consequences of their greed drags them all down into destruction. The problem I have with Hank and Sarah, two educated and liberal-minded people, is the ease in which they cast all their morals aside. Paxton and Fonda are two-dimensional in their characterizations.

Supporting cast is mostly background material. Brent Briscoe as Lou is the most tragic figure and pays the biggest price for wanting his share. Lou wants out of his poverty ridden life and can't wait until the right time to get his share. His desperation forces him to demand his money at gun point. The confrontation between Lou, Jacob and Hank reps the most taught moment in the film. The rest of the cast is not given much chance to flesh out their characters.

The setting and costume are subtle in their simplicity. The frigid Mid-West winter is a suitable backdrop for stark, dark story. Costumes give a blue-collar, winter look of Herman Survivors and Army-Navy surplus coats.

There is a relentlessness to "A Simple Plan" that drives the story through to its tragic and sad ending. There is no bright note through the entire film, making it a bit of a bummer. It beats the hell out of the other plan-gone-awry film, "Very Bad Things," and I give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
Written for the screen by Scott B. Smith from his best-selling novel and directed by Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead" trilogy, "The Quick and the Dead"), " A Simple Plan" is a hit and miss affair.  It's bound to draw unfavorable comparison to Raimi's buddies the Coen brothers' "Fargo" with its similar themes of a simple crime plan going awry in a snowy landscape. "Fargo" was a hilariously funny black comedy where "A Simple Plan" too frequently causes unintended laughs.

When the well-liked and respected Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton, "Twister") leaves his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) to visit his parents' grave with his uneducated jobless brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton, "Sling Blade"), Sarah, who clearly looks down on Jacob, moans that he's accompanied by his even more wretched friend Lou (Brent Briscoe, "Sling Blade"). When a chicken-stealing fox runs in front their pickup causing a minor accident, Lou is hell-bent on revenge on the creature. He and Jacob set off into the snowy woods with shotguns while Hank straggles behind, ill-shod for the outing. Another symbolic creature, a black crow, startles Hank, whose reactionary snowball unleashes a mini-avalanche, revealing a downed plane bearing a dead pilot and a duffel bag containing over four million dollars ("It's the American Dream in a Goddamn gym bag!").

The alcoholic, henpecked, out-of-work Lou immediately thinks they should keep the money and Jacob's quick to agree. Hank wants to report the incident, but is overruled, so resorts to inflicting his superiority by insisting that he keep the cash until they know it's safe to keep.

Bill Paxton is the yuppie everyman here, who at first seems to be the most moral. He's fine in the role, but the film belongs to Billy Bob, who slowly reveals a truly anguished soul - not just for the crimes committed beginning with the robbery, but for a whole lifetime's worth of lost chances which sheds new, and not so flattering, light on his younger brother. Thornton pays the ultimate sacrifice in the film's shocking finale. Fonda's performance suffers because her character is never established before the money comes into play, and therefore her turnaround cannot be compared to anything other than bland complacency. Funny how many films lately feature a bunch of guys getting into deeper and deeper trouble spurred on by the seemingly innocuous actions of a woman on the sidelines ("Very Bad Things").

What makes the entire story laughable is that the upstanding Hank would agree to a plan with a brother he doesn't believe can make a mature decision and a man he simply can't trust. That's not to say the film doesn't ever work, though. There's something eerily unsettling about the actions a human can be driven to once he's put his stake in the ground, where turning back would irrevocably change the course of his life.

There are other things going for the film as well. A final twist, which appears to be a delusion of Sarah's at first, turns out to be almost unexpectedly real. Raimi's always been a masterful visual stylist, and while This film doesn't bear his distinctive, showy style, it looks great, and there is one real Raimi moment when a betrayal goes out of control resulting in gunfire that slams bodies through the air up against walls.  Also top notch is Danny Elfman's score, which is at times unsettlingly discordant and other times haunting, featuring the use of flutes and something that sounds like wind chimes.

While "A Simple Plan" doesn't ring true, it features great production values and one of Thornton's best performances.

B-


WAKING NED DEVINE

"Waking Ned Devine" is a trifling Irish charmer based on a true story of how a small town of 52 inhabitants claimed the 7 million pound lottery prize of Ned Devine, who had died from the shock of his win. Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly) are the lifelong friends who discover the body and concoct an elaborate plot to impersonate the dead man and split the money. When the lottery official who comes to inform Ned (but really Michael) of his prize amount tells him he'll have to check his identity in the town on a return visit, Jackie and Michael know that they have no choice but to bring the entire town into the plan.

Laura LAURA:
"Waking Ned Devine" plays like a less inspired "Local Hero" spiked with a dash of "The Full Monty," but it a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes. Ian Bannen is fun to watch with his confident bravado as Jackie. David Kelly is more physically amusing, especially when he races to Ned's house on a motorscooter naked - the man has the scrawny chicken look of Frank Perdue. Jackie also gets a shot at baring all, although the film's attempts to play nudity for laughs seems a bit forced.

Fionnula Flanagan ("Some Mother's Son") is Annie, Jackie's long suffering wife and the voice of reason. The cast also includes James Nesbitt as Pig Finn, the odorous pig farmer who's long loved Maggie (Susan Lynch), the town's black haired beauty and free spirit. Robert Hickey is his wealthier, lady-killing rival. Pig's attempts to win over Maggie by trying different 'fruity soaps' is rather endearing.

Most amusing of all, perhaps is Eileen Dromey as Lizzy, the town's mean spirited sprite of a witch who rides around town on an electric cart always trying to undercut the local merchants. She almost proves the town's undoing when she figures out a way to both profit by Ned's lotto ticket and continue her mean streak.

In the film's best scene, Jackie's caught by surprise by the lottery official just as he's about to eulogize Ned Devine. He recovers gracefully by quickly substituting a touching tribute to his best friend Michael, who of course, is the Devine substitute.

Ultimately, though, "Waking Ned Devine" goes to "Local Hero's" well once too often. A nice homage, perhaps, but it leaves one wishing for more originality.

C

Robin ROBIN:
Someone in the tiny village of Tully More (pop. 52) has a secret - the winning ticket to the National Lottery - and no-one knows the identity of the lucky person. Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), the town's liveliest old codgers and opportunists, have a plan to find out who is holding their potential future happiness in his hand. The duo figures that whoever the winner is must do the right thing and share the wealth - especially with Jackie and Michael. Their search, which costs them several bottles of good whiskey and 18 chicken dinners, turns up a blank, until they realize one member of the town is missing - Ned Devine. The plan grinds to a halt when they discover that Ned has had the best and worst day of his life - he wins the lottery and the shock kills him. Switching gears, Jackie and Michael come up with Plan B - enlist the aid of the entire town to scam the Lottery Commission and collect the dough in "Waking Ned Devine."

First time writer/director Kirk Jones has created an off-beat little comedy/caper film that gives a manic air to a whimsical story of a get-rich-quick scheme - a plan that could boost the little Irish village into the warm arms of prosperity. Owing much to the wonderful modern fable, "Local Hero," and the funky old British comedy, "Whiskey Galore" (AKA "Tight Little Island"), the film is populated with a typical array of off-beat, colorful characters whose collected greed drives them all to lie, cheat and steal their way to financial security.

The central figures, Jackie and Michael, are a cuddly pair of connivers who charm their way across the screen with their nutty, sometimes slapstick, antics. The two-dimensional nature of these two characters serves the comedy well, but keeps the whimsy level at arm's length, never developing the magic created in "Local Hero." Michael madly riding a motorcycle while stark naked does rep one of the funniest vaudevillian moments of the film.

The supporting characters range from a pungent pig farmer and his odor-sensitive girlfriend to the town harpy who wants to spoil the plan, and, of course, Ned Devine. The town folk are amusing enough, but don't come across with any genuineness of character. They are more caricatures than characters. The screenplay is generous in the cast of characters, but they, like the two leading men, are no more than two-dimensional.

The screenplay, by Helmer Jones, is obviously derivative of the previously mentioned flicks. Because of this, there is no sense of newness to the story. It borders on whimsy, but never breaks out of its slapstick nature.

"Waking Ned Devine" is a lively, light-weight little comedy that has certain charms for the viewer, especially for those who appreciate the Irish sense of humor. It is certainly a diversion from the Hollywood fare we are being inundated with this holiday season.

I give "Waking Ned Devine" a C+.


BABE: PIG IN THE CITY

"Babe: Pig in the City," the much-awaited sequel to the Academy Award-winning hit, tells the continuing story of the lovable little pig named Babe who thinks he is a sheep dog. This time, however, there is more at stake than Babe's own bacon. While trying to help his human, Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), Babe instead causes a series of disasters that puts the farmer in the hospital. Unable to pay the mortgage, the farm goes up for auction and its up to Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe to travel to the US and win the money to save the farm. En route, Esme and Babe are separated and it becomes the little pig's quest to save the farm, his humans and his new-found friends in the city.

Robin ROBIN:
I don't know what the marketing strategy is for "Babe: Pig in the City," but I do not think that director/writer/producer George Miller and company have set their sights on the same audience that made the original film (directed by Chris Noonan) such a mega-hit for kids of all ages. This follow-on story, while excellent, takes a darker, sometimes sinister turn that has more ties to the Brothers Grimm than to the original "Babe."  Set design by Oscar-nominee Roger Ford ("Babe") is outstanding. It blends cosmopolitan flair from the world's great cities into the skyline of the mythical City where Babe and Farmer Hoggett's wife find themselves stranded in their quest to save the farm. (See how many of the world's architectural landmarks you can spot in the panoramic, magically drawn cityscape.) The Flealand Hotel, home for Babe, Esme and a multitude of other non-human creatures, is a ticky-tacky place amidst a neighborhood of canals, bridges, shops and bungalows. Sets are an eyeful to behold.

The astounding collection of live and animatronic creatures that cross the screen are a feat in both logistics and technology. Some 899 animals are used during the course of the film and, to credit of the cast and crew, no stray animal left the set without a home. The combination of live animals, animatronics and computer graphics represent a fine tuning of the techniques developed for the original.

The story and its execution takes a sharp turn away from the original story, which was mainly a Rocky-esque tale. Here, Babe is an established hero. He knows he's brave, even when he's gripped by fear, at times. He keeps a clear head, is polite to others and always tries to do the right thing. His goodness is a catalyst for like behavior by all those around him - even the taciturn orangutan, Thelonious,  succumbs to Babe's charms. O the many, many different characters presented, my favorite is the Pit Bull who, at first, wants Babe's blood, but, later, after being saved by the brave pig, becomes his devotee. Of course, Ferdinand the duck is back to keep a watchful eye on his lucky pig.

I don't know where "Babe: Pig in the City" is going to go in the holiday market. It seems that kids, young kids, would be the target, but this edition of the Babe fable is definitely for those of us, kids and adults, that can handle a dark fantasy that does not pander to "The Rugrats" audience. "Babe" is a masterpiece and its follow-up is nearly as good, though not as heartfelt a fantasy. Miller and company are definitely not sufferers of the dreaded sequelitis. "Babe: Pig in the City" is nearly as original as the original. I give it an A.

Laura LAURA:
While Woody Allen's "Celebrity" beings with the word 'Help' being written in the sky, "Babe: Pig in the City" begins similarly with 'Ham.' It's part of a home village celebration for Babe's win at the sheep-herding trials. Things never get this gay again, in this surprisingly dark, but wonderfully inventive film. Writer/director George Miller ("Babe," the Mad Max films) has created a fairy tale as scary and as enduring as any spun by the Brothers Grimm. He's also created a sequel that can proudly stand by its first installment.

As soon as the homecoming ruckus dies down, Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell, "Babe") is nearly killed working on his well because of Babe's nosiness (first potentially disturbing scene for young children, although I believe too much as been made of this and that kids can deal with the movie's events). Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski, "Babe") now has the entire farm to run and its chores prove too much for her, bringing on potential foreclosure. In order to save the farm, Mrs. Hoggett decides to take on one of the money-making offers for Babe's appearance at a fair in a very far off place. Babe is afraid to leave the farm without his beloved master, but Fly (voice of Miriam Margolyes) convinces the pig to be brave even as Ferdinand the duck proclaims he'll be travelling with a serial killer. The last image we're treated to is the rump of one of the three mice disappearing into a whole in Mrs. Hoggett's luggage (a technically brilliant shot that's almost a throwaway).

The two become stranded in a big city when Babe's conversation with a drug sniffing dog results in a strip search of Mrs. Hoggett, causing them to miss their connecting flight (which Ferdinand has followed, with the assistance of a flock of pelicans, another terrific image). Given a tip by a kindly pig-faced stranger at the airport, Mrs. Hoggett finds lodging at the Flealands Hotel, which surreptitiously allows animal boarding because of the landlady's (Mary Stein) care of her uncle Fugly Floom (Mickey Rooney) and his circus troupe of 'amazing apes.' When his capuchin monkey steals Mrs. Hoggett's suitcase, Babe disobeys her orders to stay in the room and is promptly kidnapped by Floom and thrown into his act, with disastrous results (a fire starts in the children's ward of a hospital). Floom is taken to the hospital accompanied by his niece and now a hotel full of animals are left on their own.

The hotel occupants include Floom's apes - Thelonius, a grave and distinguished orangutan, Bob (voice of Steven Wright), a streetwise chimp and his companion Zootie (voice of Glenne Headly), a hilariously cheap-talking floozy of a chimp with a soft heart, as well as Flealick (voice of Adam Goldberg, "Saving Private Ryan"), a Jack Russell terrier without the use of his back legs (he's attached to a wheeled cart) and a roomful of cats who've formed a choir (much to the three mice's' horror).

When they become hungry, Bob and Zootie convince Babe to leave the hotel on a food finding mission and Bob promptly puts Babe into danger by using him as a diversion to get past Doberman and pitbull guard dogs. The dogs pull free of their posts and chase the terrified pig all around the city until the Doberman gets caught and the pitbull ends up suspended from a canal bridge, dangling by one leg trapped by his chain with his head underwater (this scene is extended and is the most gruesome in the film). Babe, ever the good hearted pig, mans a rowboat and saves his enemy while the other animals look on disinterestedly (they are city folk after all) and wins a stalwart friend who proclaims 'What the pig says goes' with the ferocity to back up his statement.

Babe dispenses the food found by Bob and Zootie in the hotel's lobby in a scene which resembles a reception line while the pitbull commands each animal (they've picked up a bunch of homeless strays as well) to 'thank the pig.' The coordination of this scene, with all its live animals, is marvelous to behold. Then new horrors strike when animal officers invade to round them all up. Babe, the apes Flealick and Ferdinand escape to save the compatriots (with Flealick almost getting killed into the bargain).

Art direction by Roger Ford is Oscar worthy. The Flealands hotel is as surreally unique as Hoggett Farm, with turrets and cockeyed extensions, somehow just out of proportion enough to create a sense of oddness without being obvious. The city itself is a fantastical concoction of the cities of the world's landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, Sydney's Opera House and Rio's Christ statue. The streets around the hotel are an amalgamation of Venice and Amsterdam by way of Disneyland.

The only flaw in "Babe" is the overly extended climax where Mrs. Hoggett must save Babe from becoming dinner at a charity ball. Outfitted in Floom's balloon pants she bounces from one balcony to another interminably. It's apparent the filmmakers became overly enamored of this stunt.

"Babe: Pig in the City" is that rarest of things - a sequel that's one of the most original films of the year.

A-


PSYCHO (1998)

Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant has fulfilled a long-term dream project by remaking, shot for shot from Hitchcock's own storyboards, the 1960 masterpiece "Psycho." Van Sant's homage is in color, includes some pieces of film Hitchcock was forced to cut in order to get by his era's censors, and has some very minor dialog adjustments for modernization purposes (i.e., Jello instead of aspic), but is otherwise a faithful recreation of the original. 1998's "Psycho" stars Anne Heche as Marion Crane, Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, William H. Macy as Arbogast, Viggo Mortensen as Sam and Julianne Moore as Lila. Oh yes, Vaughn also portrays Norman's mother.

Laura LAURA:
Van Sant's project was greeted by cries of outrage - why remake a masterpiece? And yet his experiment works on many levels - as a tribute to the master, as camp, and as a film in its own right. It's a film fanatic's treasure trove. For those who know the original "Psycho" intimately, hearing Joseph Stefano's dialog delivered by a new set of actors enables one to discover nuances that familiarity may cause one to overlook. (When Anne Heche mistakenly states her real name to Norman, 'Crane,' it never seemed so obviously bird-like before. There's a wonderful scene in Sam's hardware store where a customer discusses the effects of insecticide - she's worried that the bugs may die inhumanly - that foretells Norman's killing of his mother and her lover with strychnine - an ugly, painful death we're told.)

Van Sant has obviously put a lot of care into his color choices. Green is the most prominent, symbolizing the $400,000 (originally $40,000) the brings Miss Crane no end of trouble - the Volvo she trades her car for is green, unit number one's bedspread is green, Marion's robe is green. His film has been processed so that his colors look like a film from 1960 as well.

The changes are so few that things like seeing Arbogast use a non-dial pay phone or seeing Marion raise an electronic car window provide a jolt! Norman does more than simply watch Marion through his peephole - something Hitchcock could never have done in 1960. We see Marion's nude backside when her body slumps over the bathtub. There are cutaways in the two murder scenes - rolling clouds during the infamous shower sequence and a masked woman and a sheep in the middle of the road when Arbogast is struck. The record on Norman's turntable is now "The World Needs a Melody" instead of Beethoven and Lila finds a porn mag there as well. The only change which I found annoying was Lila's obsession with her walkman.

Bernard Herrmann's outstanding score was adapted by Danny Elfman with a 72 piece orchestra. The sound effectively mixes in bird and insect noises as well as children's laughter.

Anne Heche does a terrific job as Marion, putting just the right amount of modernization into the role (although her costuming is retro-60's, adding a camp flavor). Vaughn puts a spin on his strange laugh from "Clay Pigeons," turning it into a nervous trait - he has the ability to seem charmingly awkward and lethal. William H. Macy was a great casting decision as Arbogast. Mortensen and Moore are less effective as Sam and Lila. Small roles are filled by big names - Rita Wilson as Marion's office mate in the role originally filled by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia (who worked as a technical consultant on this film), Robert Forster as the psychiatrist, Ron Howard's dad Rance as Marion's boss, James Remar as the highway patrolman, Philip Baker Hall as Sheriff Chambers and Flea as Sam's hardware store clerk.

How do you rate a recreation of a masterpiece? Well Hitchcock's original is still the touchstone, but Van Sant's version is surprisingly worthwhile.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
Gus Van Sant, the talented director of such on-the-edge films as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "To Die For" has tackled a formidable project in his recreation of the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, "Psycho." His shot by shot matching of the original is a unique concept that has never been done before, as far as I know. There is a lot of skepticism about this idea, but I have to say that Van Sant done good.

This rendition of the great Hitch movie - a film that laid the groundwork for future, intelligent horror movies, such as "The Exorcist" - is a real homage to the master. The craftsmanship that went into recreating "Psycho" is lovingly done and is a tribute to both Hitchcock's memory and to Van Sant and all. The use of color is a plus. Hitchcock shot his masterpiece in black and white simply to divert the censors' attention away from the use of blood in the violence.

Anne Heche gives as strong a performance as Janet Leigh in her depiction of Marion Crane. Heche lends her own nature to the role, reprising the character, not Leigh's performance. The depths of emotion and thought that she gives Marion make you get to know her more fully. Marion's sudden need to escape the endless rut she is in makes more sense here. She wants to get away and has nothing, except her divorce-poor boyfriend, Sam (Viggo Mortensen), to hold her in Phoenix. Her motivations are more clearly delivered here.

Vince Vaughn has the biggest shoes to fill and, to his credit, does not try to reprise the seminal performance originated by Anthony Perkins. Vaughn, like Heche, plays the character, not the original actor, so his Norman Bates is a new character. Where Perkins was reticent and tentative as Norman, Vaughn is more outwardly friendly and relaxed as the inn-keeper, though his nervous laugh forebodes the violence that underlies Norman psyche.

Of the supporting cast, William H. Macey, as private eye Milton Arbogast, gives the most notable performance. He puts a spin on the dogged gumshoe role that is a notch above that given by Martin Balsam. Julianne Moore, as Marion's sister Lila, tries to put a 90's spin on her character but fails. She comes across as affected, wearing her Walkman as she confronts the fact that her sister is a big-time embezzler. I could only assume she has to be listening to some kind of assertiveness training stuff. Viggo Mortensen, doing the John Gavin role of Sam, is wooden, at best. Little cameos, by the likes of Robert Foster, Chad Everett, Rita Wilson, James LeGros and Flea, pepper the background, helping to bring a fullness to the second-level roles.

Production design by newcomer Tom Fodden perfectly suits the dark mood of the film. The Bates Motel has received a lick of paint and a little sprucing up, but it is the same as the original and is used equally well as a setting. Costume, especially for Heche, has a retrograde feel, with a subtle 60's look to the garb, but still feeling contemporary.

I was a bit skeptical on the idea of remaking a film such as "Psycho." It couldn't possibly be as good, even if imitation is the highest form of flattery. Surprisingly, the film hangs together on its own merits. The use of color film and updating the dialog and plot points (swiping $400,000 vs. $40,000) keeps things fresh and exciting. Dedication to the look and feel of the classic helps you to lose yourself in a pretty darn good story. Van Sant understands Hitchcock and it shows in his rendering of "Psycho."

A lot of people may not get the point of recreating a work such as "Psycho." I didn't get it, until I saw the film. Van Sant's "Psycho" is, funnily enough, a true original. His reconstruction of the original film is, of itself, an original effort. At no other time has there been such a faithful duplication of a film work and, never, as great an homage to a great filmmaker.

"Psycho" is a pleasant surprise. An old story made new, but still old at the same time. I give it a B+.


VERY BAD THINGS

Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau, "Swingers") is being taken to Las Vegas by buddies Boyd (Christian Slater), brothers Adam and Michael (Daniel Stern, "Home Alone" and Jeremy Piven, "Grosse Point Blank") and Moore (Leland Orser, "Seven") for his bachelor party. Kyle's fiancee Laura (Cameron Diaz) is barely tolerating the idea, since it interferes with her ordering Kyle about on various wedding errands - she tasks him, on the way to his party, to call 'the chair people' to fix a problem with unpadded wedding chairs. When the lads' boisterousness results in the inadvertent killing of a hooker, the fast thinking Boyd convinces them to get rid of the 105 pound problem. This starts an inevitable series of misadventures which have dire consequences for each and every one of them in "Very Bad Things."

Robin ROBIN:
I could try to be cute and say "Very Bad Things" is a very big mess, but that is not the case. Unfortunately, this black comedy has not much comedy, a trite plot and a story that simply spirals out of control as it tries to top each previous excess with more excess. First-time director, actor Peter Berg (TV's "Chicago Hope"), does not have a sense of story and, instead, uses titillation, gross-out and shock to coax the viewer into believing that there really is an interesting story here.

The stupidity of the initial premise - five buddies head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party blowout for one of their own, Kyle, and a prostitute is killed. Following the accidental death of a hooker during the course of the reveries at, the quintet decide to cover up the accident and get rid of the body. But, none of the idiots can see that the door to the bathroom where the body lay is wide open when they let a security guy into the room. If one swallows that not one of five guys would think to shut the door, I guess you'll take the rest of this schlock pretty easily.

The cast, Favreau as Kyle, Christian Slater (for once NOT doing a Jack Nicholson rip-off), Daniel Stern, Jeremy Piven and Leland Orser are OK as the hapless crew, but you never really care for any of their characters. Cameron Diaz, as Kyle's bitchy and demanding fiancee gives a decent comic turn as a woman to whom the wedding is more important than the marriage to her betrothed.

The script, by director Berg, starts out with the usual wild-and-crazy-guys'-night-out with everyone partying hardy and getting, collectively, out of control. Everything that happens after the accident is meant to shock the audience, and it does, but the sense of the scenes feels false. The black comedy that the film starts with degenerates to more of a dark slapstick, grinding down any edge that the film had early on.

"Very Bad Things" is not a very good thing. I give it a D+.

Laura LAURA:
"Very Bad Things," written and directed by "ER's" Peter Berg, is ostensibly a very black comedy which pushes things to the outer limits. What it really is is a predictable bore with brief flashes of humor only due to Laura's character. It's only redemption comes in its final ten minutes, where it finally shows some originality and really sick humor.

This story has been done before, and better, in the Canadian film "Stab," which went straight to video in this country. We know that the group will crack apart from the strain of covering their crimes. We know that hiding a dead body will only result in multiple more dead bodies. We've seen dead bodies gorily hacked apart in movies like "Goodfellas" and "Donnie Brascoe." What's the point?

The cast is mostly merely acceptable. Favreau is wooden, Stern's recycling past roles, Piven is loud and Diaz is shrill, if amusingly driven. Christian Slater gives the film more effort than it's worth as the gleefully evil real estate agent. Jeanne Tripplehorn, as Stern's wife, shows some spunk as the suburban mom who won't go down without a fight. Leland Orser, as the quiet mechanic, has a ball getting seriously and uncharacteristically out of hand on drugs and booze. As one of the only survivors, Moore is the most interesting of the lot.

The film bears many similarities to the upcoming "A Simple Plan," a far superior effort where one group-conspired crime snowballs into multiple murders tripwired by a woman seemingly on the sidelines.

While the film's final double ending - a wedding being stalked by its own crazed murderous best man followed by a truly hilarious comeuppance for Laura - is indeed funny stuff, it doesn't justify the dull route that's been taken to get there. "Very Bad Things" may hope to parlay Diaz' star turn in the vastly overrated "There's Something About Mary" into box office success, but its very dull shenanigans will hopefully generate poor word of mouth.

D+


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