LITTLE VOICE - SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
DOWN IN THE DELTA

CENTRAL STATION - MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

LITTLE VOICE

Adapted from the acclaimed London stage hit, "Little Voice" stars Jane Horrocks, reprising her stage role, as Little Voice. LV is a reclusive young woman ever since the death of her beloved father years before. Her selfish mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn, "Secrets & Lies"), resents LV's obsession with her father's revered music, the likes of Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich and Billy Holiday. Mari ignores her daughter as she tries to recapture her youth, slumming around bars and having cheap sex. Things take a turn for LV when mom's latest boyfriend, sleazy talent agent Ray Say (Michael Caine), finds out that she has a talent to perfectly mimic all of her father's favorites. The only trouble is, LV sings only for herself and her dead dad.

Robin ROBIN:
"Little Voice" is a fair little movie that has a quaint story and a fine cast of actors. These elements, alone, make for some light entertainment. Then, I find out that Jane Horrocks does all the impersonations, every one, herself, as Little Voice. Horrocks gives one of the best musical performances I have ever seen in a film. Her uncanny ability to imitate, with subtle nuance, some great female singers of the past is unsurpassed. Horrocks, whose previous claim to fame here in the US was as the ditzy assistant, Bubble, in the Brit sitcom, "Absolutely Fabulous," gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Her uncanny capturing of each singers particular style is almost haunting in their accuracy.

This is an actors' movie and, besides Horrocks, we also get the likes of Blethyn, Caine, Jim Broadbent ("The Borrowers) and, as the love interest, Ewan McGregor. Blethyn eats up the scenery as the boozy, floozy Mari, who sees herself as a sexy, desirable woman, but is only an easy lay. She plays the character, Mari, like a blue-collar version of Liz Taylor's Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Blethyn throws herself into a role very different from her performance in Mike Leigh's film, "Secrets & Lies."

Michael Caine, as sleaze-ball Ray, gives one of his best performances in recent years. Ray Say is a loser who has been spit out by the London talent scene, landing him in the little north England  working-class, seaside town. He is barely eking out a living, is always in Dutch with the local bookmakers, and is desperate for a way out. Then, through his tawdry fling with Mari, he meets and hears LV. Caine absolutely gleams as he ponders, in his mind, the possibilities presented by the awesome talent of LV. Without thinking of the impact on the reclusive LV, he hocks himself to the hilt to promote her. When all is lost, Ray sings his swan song in a bittersweet ending to his sleazy life. He is a sympathetic old thing in the end. A solid supporting performance by Caine.

Jim Broadbent is wonderful in the little role as Mr. Boo, the owner of the shoddy nightclub where LV is to make her debut. Mr. Boo's may be a working class club, but he knows real talent when he sees and hears it. Ewan McGregor as the shy, rather dim pigeon-keeper, Billy, is a sweet foil for LV, making no demands on the fragile talent, but being there at the most important moment in the film. McGregor gives a perf quite different and subdued from his usual (look for him next year as the young Obi Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars 99).

The screenplay, by director Mark Herman ("Brassed Off"), is based on the play, "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" by Jim Cartwright. The film, like the play, hinges on the phenomenal talents and performance by Jane Horrocks. Her command of the screen as she belts out some remarkable imitations of great original songs is mesmerizing. Herman tries to open up the stagy nature of the play by making Bill a bird keeper, giving the opportunity to compare LV to a bird, first caged, then freed.

"Little Voice" will propel Horrocks to significant attention of her tremendous talents. It's a little film that, like its main character, has a lot of heart. I give it a B-, with an A+ to Horrocks.
 

Laura LAURA:
"Little Voice," based on the hit London stage play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice," is an odd story written for its star, Jane Horrocks (Bubble in "Absolutely Fabulous"), who reprises her stage role and
gives one of the most unique and amazing performances of the year.

Little Voice, or LV as her uncomprehending and obnoxious mother calls her, never leaves her humble home in an English coastal town.  She rarely speaks, cocooning herself with her beloved records which she
inherited from her deceased father, a man she loved who was disregarded by his shrewish wife Mari (Brenda Blethyn, "Secrets and Lies," at her scenery-chewing tartiest).

Mari, the essence of bad taste and shrill to boot, has embarked on a new romance with Ray Say (Michael Caine), a sleazy talent agent who's all show and no substance.  He's been booking acts like droopy strippers and five fat guys dancing to "Tubthumping" into Mr. Boo's, a down on its heels nightclub run by the grandstanding Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent, "The Borrowers").  As Mari and Ray have rambunctious sex awash with alcohol and cigarettes in Mari's parlor, LV holes up in her room, where we learn her startling secret - LV is capable of uncannily reproducing the voices of her records - Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich (and yes - it really IS Horrocks, not trickery).

When Ray makes the discovery he smells the big time and convinces the timid LV to perform at Mr. Boo's.  This causes a further rift between LV and her jealous mother, until Ray charms Mari into dreams of the sweet life.

There's also a gentle romance with Bill (Ewan McGregor), a telephone repairman as shy as LV who keeps homing pigeons and is drawn to the strange girl who doesn't speak.  Birds, in fact, are an important symbol throughout "Little Voice" - Ray uses the story of a tamed bluebird to convince LV to perform, then stages her leaving a gilded cage to meet her audience.  The devious is heavy handedly employed.

When Ray ignores LV's promise to perform just once and lines up an encore performance complete with VIPs, tragedy ensues.  In the film's best scene, LV attacks Ray with a torrent of relevant movie lines borrowed from her stars that are so eerily accurate and jumbled together that Horrocks seems literally like one possessed - she's speaking in tongues.

Caine and Broadbent create full and believable characters with distinctively odd traits - fine performances.  Blethyn is a bit raw here, but generally effective, if a little obvious.  McGregor is sweet, if more muted.  Also of note is Annette Badland ("Angels and Insects") as Sadie, Mari's loyal friend who ironically is more mute than LV (she never utters a single word through the entire film).

The music in the film is wonderful featuring such classics as "The Man Who Got Away," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Falling in Love Again," "Come Fly With Me," and "Daddy's Little Girl."  Horrocks' performance at Mr. Boo's is a showstopper, not only within the film, but for the film's external audience as well.

Bittersweet, funny and tragic, "Little Voice" is an uneven oddball original featuring a star turn by Horrocks.

B


SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

1590's England and two theatres, the Curtain and the Rose, battle for playwrights and audiences.  The dundering and debt-ridden owner of the Rose, Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, "Shine") has commissioned Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, "Elizabeth") for a new comedy - 'Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter,' but young Will needs a muse.  When his adventure seeking admirer Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) flaunts the law and disguises herself as a man in order to audition for the play, Will finds all the muse he needs and his comedy transforms into a tragic love story that mirrors their own, as Viola is engaged to another.

Laura LAURA:
"Shakespeare in Love" is a witty, beautifully acted, rompily paced, frothy confection and the year's first perfect film.  Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's mix fictional characters with factual ones and impishly suggest that Shakespeare's quill was driven by, well, his quill.  They also delightfully interweave Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' into 'Romeo and Juliet,' even having the title for Shakespeare's next play suggested by Queen Elizabeth (Dame Judi Dench, "Mrs. Brown") herself at film's end.

Joseph Fiennes sheds the dourness of his role in "Elizabeth" to truly sparkle in his first leading role.  He's handsome, enervated and ink-stained. Gwyneth Paltrow glows in her cross-dressing role.  She's spirited, beautiful and looks good in a goatee as her alter ego Thomas Kent, although she's fated to be honor bound.

The extensive supporting cast is excellent - there's not one merely serviceable performance to be found in this film.  Geoffrey Rush is funny as the businessman with no head for business, particularly as he bemoans the fact that the new play forming before his eyes has no pratfalls or dogs. Ben Affleck is outstanding as an arrogant actor, tricked into taking the supporting role of Mercutio when Will tells him that's the plays title.
Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty") is amusing as Fennyman, the play's backer who embodies the vanity of actors when tossed the small role of the apothecary (Rush's stuttering tailor has also been tossed a role - that of the narrator!).  Judi Dench glides about in her ornate costumes like a jewel-encrusted ship.  She's imperious, always ready with a barb, and wise.  Colin Firth is suitably vile as Lord Wessex, Viola's cuckolded betrothed who plans to take her his Virginia tobacco plantation ('Do not weep my lady,' he advises Viola's mother at his wedding, 'you're gaining a colony.').  Rupert Everett has an uncreditted role as Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's greatest rival (he wrote "Edward II" and "Dr. Faustus"). Imelda Staunton as Viola's nurse and Jim Carter as Juliet's nurse are also noteworthy.

Direction by John Madden ("Mrs. Brown") is deft.  Cinematography by Richard Greatrex is bright, production design by Martin Childs and art direction by Steve Lawrence unquestionably evoke the time and place with great attention to detail, and costume by Sandy Powell is Oscar worthy.

"Shakespeare in Love" takes us to a world where the local pub serves pig's foot marinated in juniper vinegar served on a buckwheat pancake and the queen can tell who's sleeping with who by the sparkle in their eyes.  It's funny, romantic and smart.

A+

Robin ROBIN:
If the recent "Elizabeth" used films, like "The Godfather," and contemporary politics to draw the audience into its tale of Tudor England to great success, then "Shakespeare in Love" is going to be considered an historical hoot. It melds together the fictional history of a young Will Shakespeare, witty period dialog that is clearly understandable to modern audiences, romance, intrigue, fist-fights and  sword-fights, modern references (again, to help the audience wade through the flowery dialog), brilliant costumes, realistic sets and a cast of hundreds. These elements are all bundled together into a clever, entertaining, fast-paced film that has broad appeal. If marketed properly, this film could have good box-office prospects for many weeks during the holiday film season.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives the best performance I have seen from the young actress since her show-stealing debut in the not-so-good 1993 film, "Flesh and Bone." In "Shakespeare in Love," she gets to really stretch his versatile acting wings, playing the romantic feminine love interest for young Will AND the male lead in his play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." (Thankfully, common sense wins and the play becomes the more normally titled, "Romeo and Juliet.") It looks like Paltrow may be on the short list for recognition at year's end.

Joseph Feinnes, who portrays the intense, randy young Bard, recently appeared as the lover of the young queen in "Elizabeth." In that film, he played second banana to Kate Blanchett's terrific pre-Virgin Queen. In "Shakespeare in Love," he commands the camera with his soulful eyes, poetic wit and ink-stained fingers as he juggles writer's block, theater closings, plague, temperamental actors, and a hot romance. He and Paltrow spark up the screen with the chemistry between them. His Will is surrounded by such a plethora of other great actors, he doesn't stand out quite as notably as Paltrow.

Supporting cast is, if anything, an embarrassment of riches. Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") appears as, Philip Henslowe, the bumbling owner of the Rose Theater, one of the venues for the budding playwright. Rush, who appeared in "Elizabeth" as her enigmatic and brutal henchman, goes the other way in a broad, good-natured, comedic performance. Judi Dench, who played Queen Victoria in director John Madden's "Mrs. Brown," gets royal duty again as she portrays a very wry-witted Virgin Queen. Ben Affleck, as prima donna but talented actor Ned Alleyn, steals every scene he appears in with his biting sarcasm and oh-so-bored attitude. Others, such as Simon Callow ("Four Weddings and a Funeral), Colin Firth, an uncredited Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty"), and others flesh out the supporting cast embarrassingly well. For this talented troupe of actors, there simply isn't enough for them to do in the time allotted. I'm not complaining, mind you, but there is enough talent here to cast three films.

Director John Madden ("Mrs. Brown") is masterful as he carefully creates a fictitious world about the young life of the world's most famous, and mysterious, literary figures of all times. The matter of fact telling of just how young Will got many of his ideas is leavened with all the elements of great film and Madden balances them all with grace, style and skill.

The screenplay, by Marc Norman ("Waterworld")and playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"), is a gem of a work. They capture the Shakespearean cadence of speech and are able to fold contemporary humor into the mix. They balance these elements in a sure and even handed manner that is notable at a time when the big, year-end movies hit the theaters. The humor is sophisticated, witty, bawdy and never bland. The drama is exciting and fast paced. The romance is lusty and sensual. Keep your ears open for the background banter and dialog, too. It is peppered with many of the film's numerous in-jokes. And, with all these varied elements, Norman and Stoppard never get smug. The writing is razor sharp from start to finish.

Costuming, by Academy Award nominee Sandy Powell ("Orlando"), and production design, by Martin Childs ("Mrs. Brown"), are brilliantly conceived and executed. Both fields represent the excellence of "Shakespeare in Love" and are two more areas that the Academy should note from the film.

I'm looking for lots of Oscar and other award contention on many levels for "Shakespeare in Love." I hope it gets the popular attention it deserves for exposing us unwashed masses to the charm of Shakespeare and like it! I give it an A.


DOWN IN THE DELTA

Living in the Cabrini Green section of Chicago with her two children and her mother, Loretta (Alfre Woodard) is heading down a path of self destruction with alcohol and drugs. She can't get work because of illiteracy - even the most basic addition/subtraction is a mystery - and her daughter is autistic (or, a crack child?). Grandma Rose Lynn  (Mary Alice, "To Sleep With Anger") fears for Loretta, little daughter Tracy and very intelligent son Thomas, and asks her long-estranged brother-in-law, Earl (Al Freeman, Jr. "Malcolm X"), to take her family in for the summer in hopes of a miracle - the chance to save her tiny family - in first-time director Maya Angelou's "Down in the Delta."

Robin ROBIN:
Prominent and popular poetess Angelou, an eclectically talented writer in many areas, makes her first foray behind the feature film camera with "Delta." While her directing inexperience shows, she does succeed in creating a mildly interesting, but mundane, family-oriented film. Using the first-time screenplay by newcomer Myron Goble, Angelou crafts a routine tale of going home. Both the screenplay and direction are by the numbers without much in the way of originality in story or presentation. Fortunately, a fine cast, led by Woodard, helps to elevate the proceeds.

Woodard is an experienced, professional actor who can easily dominate the screen. Here, in "Delta," she takes a step back from center stage and lets the able cast of supporting actors to come to the front. This classy move allows the rich performances by cast helps to raise the film above the average.

Al Freeman Jr., as Uncle Earl, is wonderful as the family's stable anchor point. Earl is a good man, hardworking and honest, who cares for his family (even the "outsider" Loretta and her clan) and his community. The love that Earl shows for his Alzheimer-suffering wife, Annie (Ester Rolle (TV's "Good Times"), as she slips deeper into the oblivion of her disease, is touchingly delivered by Freeman. His good-hearted nature also extends to those all around him, making you like and trust the man.

Other cast members give solid performances, too. Mary Alice as Mama Rosa Lynn puts a believable spin on her performance as the matriarch to Loretta and her tiny family. Mama Rosa is in control of herself and knows what's best for her family. She also doesn't mind stooping to manipulating her family, even Earl. She wields her possession of a treasured family heirloom - a candelabra named after their great-great grandfather, a slave named Nathan - as a figurative sword to protect and keep her family intact.

Newcomer Mpho Koaha, as Loretta's son Thomas, gives a notable debut performance as the young man-of-the-family who is as responsible as Loretta, initially, is not. Esther Rolle, as Annie, gives her last performance and is the veteran pro to the very end. Loretta Divine ("Waiting to Exhale") adds a nice touch as Annie's nurse, Zenia. Only Wesley Snipes, as Earl's son Will, fails to give any depth or dimension to his entrepreneurial character who saves the town.

The script, by Goble, is a routine affair that does not deliver a great deal of emotion to the various characters. Loretta's plight - living in Cabrini Green, illiteracy, no work, an autistic daughter, a gang-violence-endangered son, drugs, booze and a mama that won't get off her back - is rich ground for high drama. Goble never breathes any life and angst into Loretta's story, but, instead, has her shipped out of the ghetto and to kind Uncle Earl for redemption and safety in a perfunctory manner. Once in the Delta, Loretta and her son fit in surprisingly fast. A more deft set of hands, using the existing story frame, could have given it some meat.

"Down in the Delta" is uninspired, technically, but the photography by William Wages ("Iron Will") helps lend the film the sultry air of summer in the Delta.

The uninspired writing and direction are greatly helped by the incredibly able cast. I give "Down in the Delta" a C+.

Laura LAURA:
"Down in the Delta" is poet Maya Angelou's feature film directorial debut and it's a solid, if pedestrian,  effort about the importance of family and history.  An antique silver candelabra named Norman is a link to a family's past, as a great-great-grandfather stole it from the family that had kept him in slavery.  His descendent Earl (Al Freeman, Jr.) is now carrying a grudge with his sister-in-law Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), who took Norman from its home in Mississippi when she moved to Chicago decades earlier with her now deceased husband.

Alfre Woodard is Loretta, a single mother of Thomas (Mpho Koaho) and his smaller, autistic sister Tracy (Kulani Hassen) and Rosa Lynn's only child.  Loretta is also an unemployed, alcoholic crack addict.  Rosa, a kind, church going woman who cares for her grandchildren calls Earl in desperation and asks to send Loretta to him for the summer in a last ditch attempt to straighten her out.  To further motivate Loretta, Rosa hawks Norman to pay for their bus fare, telling her daughter that she must earn the money to retrieve the heirloom.

Uncle Earl proves to be an eye-opener for the messed up young woman. In his seventies, he patiently and lovingly cares for his wife Annie (Esther Rolle in her last screen role), who's afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.  He also runs his own business, a restaurant that serves chicken in every conceivable form.  Zenia (Loretta Devine), a young woman who Earl helped out of a welfare existence, cares
for Annie and home during the day.

"Down in the Delta" has no surprises.  The new healthy and loving environment transforms Loretta as well as her children (Tracy speaks her first words).  Loretta mends a rift between Earl and his successful lawyer son Will (Wesley Snipes) when they band together to fight the closing of town's main source of work, a chicken processing plant. Rosa Lynn returns Norman to Mississippi, only to have Earl present
it to Loretta.

This is a nice film with good messages well acted across the board, with Al Freeman Jr. the standout.

B-


CENTRAL STATION

In Rio de Janeiro's Central Station, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) makes her living  by writing letters for the illiterate, which she casually discards (after sharing them with friend Irene, a woman with a far softer heart) instead of mailing as she's been paid to do.  When a young woman who asks for a letter to introduce her urchin son, Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira) to the father he's never met gets killed in a traffic accident, Dora takes money for the orphaned boy from a shady adoption agency to get money for a new TV.  After she realizes that they are black market organ dealers who intend to kill the boy for his body parts, Dora has a change of heart and rescues him.  Together they take to the road in a quest to find his father.

Laura LAURA:
"Central Station," Brazil's submittal for this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a complex character study of an old, embittered woman and the life events which shaped her.  Her fateful involvement with a brash and emotionally bruised street urchin results in a new and more hopeful outlook on life for Dora.  This film is like a far harsher version of 1996's charmer "Koyla" - add a strong mix of the brutal 1981 Brazilian film "Pixote" to the sentimental Czech film and you'll have an idea of what "Central Station" is like.  (In fact, Irene is played by the actress who was the prostitute/mother figure of "Pixote.")

Director Walter Salles presents the side of Rio which most tourists don't see - it's ugly, painted in sallow colors, crowded and harsh - certainly no place for young children (a teenage thief is shot on the train tracks for stealing a cheap radio from a junky subway stall).  When we meet Dora, she seems a natural part of this unlovely landscape.  She's not pretty, either physically or spiritually, her only wish to make enough money for her petty trifles like cheap booze.  Montanegra is perfect in this role and could potentially pull a rare Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a non English speaking part.

As emotionally barren as Dora is, even she can't let Josue's death be on her hands, nor can she send him thousands of miles alone on a journey to find a father who may not be at the address they have.  Josue wants no part of Dora's company, telling her she's a bad person.  Ironically, he finally accepts her just when she's decided to return to Rio, but lets the last of their money travel on on the bus he's abandoned.  They continue on with the aid of a charitable trucker, Cesar, who Dora becomes romantically attracted to, ultimately driving him off.  This incident reveals the first chip in her armor, as well as her capacity to look more attractive, and the healing begins even as she's hurt.

When passing through a town centered on religious pilgrimages (where Dora appropriately passes out amidst the fervor while searching for Josue), Josue sees the opportunity to make some money and Dora's set up in the letter writing business again (only this time she actually mails the letters).  Josue buys Dora a dress and she pays for their picture to be taken with a statue of a saint.

While the duo never find Josue's father (whom Dora keeps referring to as a drunkard and abuser), they eventually do find his two half brothers, ideal young men to see to the rearing of a young boy.  They also discover that Josue's mother was really the love of his father's life and that he had traveled to Rio to find her - not the bad man Dora had painted after all.  The final image (and natural conclusion) is a heartbreaker, yet we know these two people we've come to know so well have ended so much better than they'd begun.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
"Central Station" is a lyrical little road movie that uses the casting device of old and new (this time an older woman, played by Fernanda Montenegro, is teamed with a little boy. See such films as "Cinema Paradiso" and "Kolya," for more of the genre.)

The graceful humor that director Walter Salles, Jr., gleans from the well-crafted screenplay, by Marcos Bernstein and Joao Emanuel Carneiro, has the usual generational conflicts between the main characters. It also leavens some delightful religious humor as it both honors and pokes fun at the Catholic faith. The little boy is Josue (Joshua) and his half-brothers, whom he meets near the end, are named Isaiah and Moses. Their father also happens to be a carpenter. Religious icons are treated with both humor and respect.

Fernanda Montenegro is outstanding as the solitary Dora. She is a truly self-sufficient individual who seems to have turned cold to the loveless world around her. Once Dora and Josue cross paths a few times, the ties that bind them become unbreakable. The relationship between the unlikely pair helps to bring out the long dormant compassion in Dora. The care she feels for the young boy builds slowly and steadily and washes over the audience as it happens.

The locations of Rio de Janeiro and northern Brazil are a contrast of congestion and open space. As Dora and Josue leave the pressures (and violence) of the city, the pressures of the film drop a couple of notches and the tale becomes more sweetly paced as Dora and Josue learn to care for each other.

Vincius de Oliveira, as Josue, is a handsome, but sullen, little boy who, for one so young, has the world on his shoulders. He misses his long-estranged father and loses his loving mother before his very eyes. This kid does not have it easy and director Salles gets an impressive performance from young do Oliviera, a non-actor.

The characters around the rode-weary pair are made up of a variety of people who act in a life-affirming way as they help Dora and Josue on their journey. As a matter of fact, the final outcome has a melancholy affirmation of life.

"Central Station" is not a great film, but one with a nice story, positive characters and a message of hope. Fernanda Montenegro gives a stellar performance and is notable enough to contend for award contention, with the likes of Meryl Streep, come year's end. Don't expect action and F/X. Do expect intelligence in writing, directing and acting. I give "Central Station" a B+.


MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

Disney Pictures updates the 1949, Oscar-winning film (which was an update of the original ape flick, "King Kong') of the same name and brings "Mighty Joe Young" to the screen once again, this time directed by Ron Underwood ("City Slickers") of a screenplay by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner ("Mercury Rising"). Joe is a myth and a legend: a mega-sized gorilla and sacred guardian of a small African village is also the closest friend of fellow orphan, Jill (Charlize Theron, "Celebrity"). The two orphans have only each other, when zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton, "Twister") enters the picture and upsets the delicate balance of nature in the newest "Mighty Joe Young."

Robin ROBIN:
"Mighty Joe Young" is a pretty faithful remake of the original 1949 film, but updated to give the new version some modern zing. This new rendition changes some individual story elements - for example, in the first film, some hard partying drinkers succeed in get Joe dead drunk. Not so in the politically correct 90's - Joe is enraged by the evil bad guy, Strasser, instead. But, for the most part the changes are subtle, not overt. The biggest change of setting takes place during the big rescue climax. The original had Joe rescue a child from a burning orphanage. Since orphanages are now passe, the filmmakers have replaced it with a Ferris wheel in an amusement park. The principles are the same.

Technically, on the special F/X front, the creation of Joe is, in a word, remarkable. The creative team of animatronic designers, technicians, CGI artists, puppeteers and performers blend both cutting edge technology and traditional animation techniques to bring Joe to life on the screen. To the F/X crew's credit, the presence of the giant ape blends in so well with the surrounding action, you soon believe that the big, lovable lug is real.

The screenplay, by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner ("Star Trek VI"), is based on the original story by Merian C. Cooper (director, writer, producer, cinematographer and uncredited actor for "King Kong") and screenplay by Ruth Rose ("King Kong"). The adaptation is an homage to the original effort, but does not spark much new. Also, with a run-time of 114 minutes, it is nearly 30 minutes longer than the original and should not be. The first half of the story, meeting and getting to know Joe and Jill, takes about twice as long as it should. This melancholy beginning gets too much story time, taking away from the action-packed second half. The modern resolution of Joe's final plight is, at best, a silly bit of audience pandering.

Acting is on a level similar to that seen in "Jurassic Park." The familiar faces of Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron, both appearing in other features out right now ("A Simple Plan" and "Celebrity," respectively), are good looking, with Theron getting the best interaction with her oversized primate pal. Other cast members are fine in their two-dimensional roles. The cartoonish bad guy, Strasser, who is out to kidnap (monkey-nap?) Joe and sell him for parts, is played with relish by Rade Sherbedgia ("The Saint," "Before the Rain"). David Paymer and Regina King are fine, if unmemorable, as the scientists in charge of Joe's new home in the States.

While "Mighty Joe Young" has a star of truly huge proportions, the execution of the story takes too long and is not surprising. If housebreaking and feeding weren't a problem, I'd like to have Joe as a friend, too. "MJY" should appeal, especially, to the kids out there. It sure makes me want to see the original, again. I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
I always got a kick out of the rather silly 1948 "Mighty Joe Young."  The remake, while featuring truly magnificent ape effects (never fake looking, as so frequently happens - see "Buddy"), has been Disneyized to the extreme, turning the plot into groan inducing schmaltz.  It's not a total loss, however, as the action picks up in the second half and the finale is rousingly exciting.

Charlize Theron is Jill Young, daughter of an animal activist mother who was killed trying to save her beloved apes from evil poachers.  Jill was orphaned the same night as Joe, a baby gorilla with an abnormally fast growth pattern, whose mother was also shot.  Twelve years later and Jill is still caring for the 15 foot, 2,000 lb. Joe, who she tries to keep in hiding even as he becomes a legend.  In fact, they even play games of hide and seek - a rather cute device, as Joe seems to believe that covering his own eyes will keep him from being seen.

Along comes an American animal conservationist, played by Bill Paxton, who manages to find Joe and have his life saved twice by Jill.  As Joe's existence is now becoming documented, poachers are arriving by the truckload, so Paxton convinces Theron that in order to save Joe, he must be taken from his homeland and brought to a California reserve park.

Of course those nasty poachers who killed Jill and Joe's mothers show up to take revenge on Joe (he had bitten off the thumb and forefinger of the ringleader who now wears a silly black leather contraption that looks like a gun holster) and Joe goes wild at just the wrong time.  Eventually circumstance finds Joe loose in Los Angeles, and eventually at Pallisades Ocean Park where he saves a young boy trapped at the top of a ferris wheel.

Great effects, a cool character in Joe and two likeable leads keep "Mighty Joe Young" from drowning under the weight of its utterly conventional script.

C+


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