THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS

CRUEL INTENTIONS - ANALYZE THIS - 20 DATES
CHILDREN OF HEAVEN - 200 CIGARETTES

THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN

Adapted from Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestselling novel by Mikis Theodorakis and directed by Ulu Grosbard ("Georgia"), "The Deep End of the Ocean" stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams as Beth and Pat Cappadora. The Cappadora family is torn apart by guilt and loss after their young son Ben disappears in a hotel lobby after Beth charges older 7 year old Vincent with his care. Nine years later, Sam knocks on their door asking for lawn mowing work and Beth realizes he is the missing Ben. The family is once again thrown into turmoil coming to grips with the fact that their son knows and loves his new family and doesn't remember them.

Laura's review of 'The Deep End Of The Ocean'
The first half of "The Deep End of the Ocean" is a beautiful arc of a storyline.Beth, a somewhat harried yet cheerful young mom, packs up her three young children to drive to her high school reunion in Chicago, leaving husband Pat at home. In the pandemonium of the hotel lobby, three year old Ben goes missing. Hysteria slowly rises as the hours tick by with no sign of the child, culminating in Beth's shreiking breakdown. The media descends. Volunteers crowd the police station. Gradually, the long foldup tables that have served as the volunteers' work space are put away as their numbers dwindle. A defeated Beth returns to her home and sinks into depression.

This is terrific filmmaking by Ulu Grosbard. Unfortunately, once Ben reappears, he doesn't quite maintain his pacing and some of the events that follow are too neat, fall too perfectly into place. Ben (now called Sam) is too perfect, a terrific kid who tries to please everyone without displaying any real anger at his predicament. He also has a healing power over his older brother Vincent, a teenager messed up by the loss of his brother and his mother's obsession with her missing younger son. A larger problem is Treat William's portrayal of Pat. He plays the role with too much understatement, giving the audience the impression that his only problem is his wife's reaction to their son's kidnapping, not the kidnapping itself.

Still, this is an affecting film about a family being torn apart before being rebuilt. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a truly affecting performance as a woman emotionally overwhelmed. She's deglamorized, yet still beautiful, a very believable modern mom. Also terrific is young Cory Buck, who plays the young Vincent as a very serious litle boy. Whoopi Goldberg is ood as Detective Candy Bliss ('I know, sounds like a stripper. The things some parents do to their children. I shouldn't have said that,' is how she introduces herself to the distraught Beth.) Ryan Merriman is wise beyond his years as Sam. John Kapelos gives a heartfelt and touching performance as George, Sam's stepfather, who never realized his son was a kidnap victim. Jonathan Jackson is a bit too soft as the older, supposedly rebellious Vincent.

"The Deep End of the Ocean" may have benefitted from inclusion of some of the book's messier aspects like the adultry and alcohol abuse that resulted from Ben's loss. As it stands, it's more engrossing than its subject matter would indicate.

B-

Robin's Review of 'The Deep End Of The Ocean'
"The Deep End of the Ocean" is a slick Hollywood adaptation of the 1996 novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard about a family struck with the devastating loss of one son. During a visit to her hectic high school reunion in Chicago, mother Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer) leaves her two boys (Vincent and Ben) by themselves, for just a moment, in the crowded hotel lobby, with strict orders to stay together. When she turns around, only minutes later, she only finds 9-year old Vincent (Cory Buck). 3-year old Ben (Michael Macelroy) has disappeared without a trace, even after the sizable efforts by the Chicago PD, led by detective supervisor Candy Bliss (Whoopie Goldberg).

The best comparison film I could think of for "The Deep End of the Ocean" is the 1983 film, starring Kate Nelligan, "Without a Trace." Both films deal with the unexpected, unexplained disappearance of a little boy, the ensuing search and investigation by the boy's mother and the police, and the reuniting of child and family. Both films deal with the enormous emotional pressures put upon the family during the crisis and after, as the boy remains among the missing. "Without a Trace" stops, happily, at the reunion, while "The Deep End of the Ocean" delves into the problems that arise after a years-long separation, then reunion and its impact on the whole family.

The problem with "The Deep End of the Ocean" is in its squeaky clean way of taking each and ever dramatic issue and, neatly, tying it all up in the end. For example, in the end, a one-on-one basketball game between the long estranged brothers, Vincent and Ben/Sam, is all that is needed to provide the catalyst that brings the family, finally, back together. This trite resolution is akin to simply declaring ""and, they all lived happily ever after." At this point, all the loose ends are neatly tied together, completing the film's formula package.

Michelle Pfeiffer, as Beth Cappadora, gives one of her better performances to date. She fusses convincingly as the harried but loving mother of three and, when the realization of her loss is realized, breaks down in an emotional and convincing manner. As the toll of Ben's disappearance take hold of Beth, the response - an overwhelming depression, making her sleep all the time and neglect the care of her remaining kids - is palpable. The remainder of her performance, once Ben/Sam returns, is strictly melodrama. Pfeiffer is best in the film's first half.

The kids - young Vincent (Buck), at 9, elder Vincent (Jonathan Jackson), and Sam (Ryan Merriman) - are solid in their portrayals.while Ben is missing and, once the boy is returned, Pat seems more concerned with the family's physical integrity and his dreams of opening a restaurant than he is for his wife and kids. Williams has the unenviable spouse role, but does nothing to make it special or sympathetic.

Production credits are uniformly top-notch, giving the film a very good, rich look all around.

"The Deep End of the Ocean" suffers from a lack of spirit of story that keeps it only on a surface level for the viewer. I never got to be a part of the Cappadora family and their problems, feeling only like an outsider looking in.

I give it a C+.


LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS

In his feature film debut, London-born writer/director Guy Ritchie has put together a kitchen sink of a gangster film in "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Set in London's treacherous East End, the story begins with best mates Eddie (Nick Moran), Tom (Jason Flemyng), Bacon (Jason Statham) and Soap (Dexter Fletcher) pooling their cash together so card sharp Eddie can get into a high stake poker game - the one big score that will set them all up for life. Unbeknownst to the chums, the game is crooked and run by underworld boss Hatchet Harry who fleeces Eddie of all their money and gets the younger man in Dutch for an additional 500,000 pounds. This starts a spiral of events that propel the quartet, Harry and a host of other thugs into an inevitable and violent collision of drugs, thievery and mayhem.

Robin's Review of 'Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels'
Although it is derivative of "Trainspotting," "True Romance" and "Reservoir Dogs," "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" is, still, an exciting, imaginative, action-packed caper film that starts off running and keeps its frantic pace to the very end. The large, talented ensemble cast keep things moving along as the story covers four even five different lines of conniving and thuggery. There are so many divergent characters involved and actions going on, though, it gets confusing at times. This doesn't really diminish from the sheer fun of the whole screwball caper-caper-who-has -the-caper film.

The cast is vast with 20 or more actors having major parts in the 106 minute flick. As such, there is little opportunity for anything more than cursory character development by most the actors. There are a couple of exceptions, though, with Brit star footballer Vinnie Jones making his film debut as Big Chris, the strong-arm debt collector for Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty, "Patriot Games") and devoted to his son, Little Chris (Peter McNicholl), taking the boy along on his collections. Jones nicely plays Big Chris as tough, competent and loyal to the end. The World Heavyweight Bare Knuckle Champion (undefeated in 3,000 fights), the late Lenny McLean ("The Fifth Element"), gives a nifty performance as Barry the Baptist, main knuckle-breaker for Harry, and bears an strong character resemblance to Lawrence Tierney in Quentin Tarrentino's "Reservoir Dogs." Sting also makes a splash as one of the quartet's savvy, bar-owning father.

The film has a slick look and challenges the eye with an interesting use of tricky photography, by commercial video maker Tim Maurice-Jones, which combines fast-motion, slow-motion and stop-motion in single shots. It's pretty slick stuff, but a little over-used by the enthusiastic young filmmakers. The frenetic editing by another music vid maker, Niven Howie, keeps up with the breakneck pace of the rest of the film.

"Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" is not a great film, but shows a great deal of promise in its writer/director Guy Ritchie. It entertains from start to finish and introduces us to some of Britian's talented actors and behind-the-camera crew. I give it a B.

Laura's review of 'Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels'
Debut feature film writer/director Guy Ritchie brings a madcap, thoroughly cheeky, totally British caper film to the screen with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Four friends, Tom the entrepeneur (Jason Flemyng, "Rob Roy"), Soap the chef (Dexter Fletcher, "The Long Good Friday"), Bacon (Jason Statham) and Eddie the cardshark (Nick Moran) save 100,000 pounds through both legal and illegal means to front Eddie in an East End card game run by Harry the Hatchet (P.H. Moriarty, "The Long Good Friday"), a sex shop owner involved in many dubious schemes. Unbeknownst to Eddie, Harry's right hand man Barry the Baptist (the late bare knuckle fighter, Lenny McLean) is feeding the makeup of Eddie's hand to Harry, who wins all of Eddie's money plus an additional 1/2 million. He gives Eddie one week to pay him back or Eddie and his three friends will each have a digit removed for every day they are late.

This predicament sets off a chain of events that eventually will include a group of ganja growers, the black mob that distributes the weed, a father and son collection team, the fence Nick the Greek and his two clueless stolen goods purveyors , a group of viscious thieves that live next door to the lads and Eddie's bar-owning dad PJ (Sting).

Ritchie's film recalls a lower budget "Trainspotting" mixed with a less slick looking "True Romance" with its mix of drugs, crime and huge cast of interconnecting characters. The humor is dosed with irony, particularly when a pair of antique shotguns land in the main foursome's laps as rather ridiculous weaponry to pull a robbery against the thieves next door. Unbeknownst to them, these guns were being sought by Harry and would more than pay off their debt. Visually the film is funny, too, such as when the dim Kenny gets his hair parted by a shotgun blast from a pajama clad old man while he's attempting to steal those very antiques at Barry's behest. The ganja growers have an elaborate cage around their door which they're always too stoned to use.

The cast, made up of professional and amateur actors, is dead on. Of note is Vinnie Jones (a Queens Park Rangers soccer player) as Big Chris, the serious minded debt collector who brings his very young son Little Chris along to witness all kinds of violence yet admonishes his victims not to use bad language in front of the lad. Sting, who I've never cared for as an actor, gives his best performance here as the wise dad who won't compromise his business to his son's debts.

The film has a frenetic look featuring weird angles, extreme closeups, jump cuts and slo mo, photographed in murky, washed out colors which represent the film's setting. The offbeat soundtrack features everything from the late Dusty Springfield's "Spooky" to the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" to R&B and "Zorba's Dance" (which plays over a hilarious montage).

The intricacies of the script and fast flying jokes (not to mention the accents) demand attention, particularly in the film's first half hour, where the huge cast of characters are unrelentingly introduced. Stay with it though, and you'll be rewarded with a most entertaining time.

B


CRUEL INTENTIONS

Screenwriter ('Dumb and Dumber') and feature film debut director Roger Kumble gives the 'Clueless' treatment to the fourth screen adaptation of the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses with 'Cruel Intentions.'

Sarah Michelle Gellar (TV's 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer') is Kathryn Merteuil and Ryan Phillippe ('54') is her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont, two extremely wealthly and attractive teenagers playing sexual games during their pre-senior summer in their parentless multi-million dollar Manhattan penthouse. Kathryn asks Sebastian to deflower naive klutz Cecile (Selma Blair), the girl her boyfriend dumped her for. Sebastian has plans on conquering Annette (Reese Witherspoon), the new headmaster's daughter who's published a 'manifesto' in Seventeen magazine (Jennifer Love Hewitt's on the cover) on the virtues of saving one's self for true love and marriage.

Kathryn proposes a bet - if he succeeds, she'll give him wild sex, if not, he cedes over his beloved 1956 Jaguar roadster. True love intervenes, however, to bring their immoral lives crashing down around them.

Laura's review of 'Cruel Intentions'
Not only did Roger Kumble have a great idea adapting this viscious literary work for 90's teens, he pulled it off with panache. This film is a sexy hoot, akin to last year's guilty pleasure 'Wild Things.'

Kumble's screenplay is terrifically faithful to its source yet stunningly current with its sexual frankness and laugh-out-loud barrel of double entendres. In an early scene, Kathryn assures Cecile's mom (Christine Baranski) that she'll watch out for the younger girl. When peer pressure takes a nasty turn, Kathryn declares she can always depend on God, brandishing the heavy silver crucifix she wears beneath her clothing. As soon as mother and protege have left the room, said cross is revealed to be a coke container and spoon. This type of in your face, irreverent humor just continues to build throughout the film.

Ryan Phillippe, rather bland in '54,' proves his acting ability as the arrogant Sebastian, even suggesting John Malkovich (Valmont in Stephen Frear's 1984 'Dangerous Liaisons') in his line readings. He's a charming sexual predator who shows believable confusion and real emotion when he unwittingly falls for the girl he only regarded as a challenge. Phillippe has to put on many different faces, depending on whom he's dealing with, and he's up to the task. Sarah Michelle Gellar, brunette for this role, while not quite as notable, is still confidently cold and self motivated as master manipulator Kathryn. Her downfall is an entertaining spin on Malkovich's costar Glenn Close's, yet Gellar makes different acting choices in the role.

Reese Witherspoon surprises as Annette, making her stronger and smarter than the audience is expecting, while still projecting the morality lacking in the rest of the players (the character of Annette is the only departure from the source material). Selma Blair, in her film debut, is the most believable as a real teenager, the awkward duckling turned sexually precocious as a dupe of the step-siblings' plotting. (Blair has a funny scene with Gellar where Gellar teaches her how to French kiss. After getting over the 'grossness' quotient, Blair awaits with eyes closed for more after Gellar pulls away.)

'Cruel Intentions' boasts fine production values in rich settings. The soundtrack features Blur, Aimee Mann, the Cardigans, Beethoven and the perfectly utilized Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony' at the film's climax.

'Cruel Intentions' has a couple of minor problems. The three main characters seem more like college than high school seniors in both the actors' age and the characters' sophistication. The film also delivers so much humor, that it seems to radically shift tone in its final half hour, yet the plot demands it. Still, this is a film directed at a teenage audience that can be enjoyed equally by more mature audiences.

B

Robin's Review of 'Cruel Intentions'
The fourth screen adaptation of the scandalous 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos of sexual war games among the privileged comes to us in kiddy form in "Cruel Intentions," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") as Kathryn Merteuil and Ryan Phillippe ("54") as stepbrother, Sebastian Valmont. The pair of spoiled rich kids, with too much time and money on their unsupervised hands, make a game out of sexual conquest, with each trying to outdo the other. When we first meet the libidinous duo, they begin to plan a two prong adventure - one for revenge, the other for a bet.

Kathryn was jilted by her steady beau, Court, for the innocent Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair). The victimized Kathryn cooks up a plot to have Sebastian deflower the young virgin before Court gets his chance and ruin the young girl's reputation in the process. Revenge is a dish served cold and Kathryn is just the girl to make sure it is liberally dished out.

At the same time, Kathryn also comes up with a wager for her stepbrother. She bets Sebastian that he cannot score with the new school headmaster's lovely daughter, Annette (Reese Witherspoon, "Pleasantville"), a strong-willed young lady who declares, in an article for Seventeen Magazine, the she intends to stay pure until marriage. The bet involves Sebastian's coveted 1956 Jaguar XK Roadster. If he loses, Kathryn gets the Jag. If his stepsister loses, he gets the one thing he cannot have, but wants more than anything - Kathryn.

The two stories follow an amusing turn for the first hour or so, as the step-siblings vie for their goals and conquests. Sebastian's conquest of the clueless Cecile gives the film its most comedic turn with Blair doing her best with the physical humor of her romance with the rich young playboy. The romantic thread involving Sebastian and Annette is the meat of the film and carries it through change when things turn more serious. This is where "Cruel Intentions" falls apart, in the last 40 minutes.

As Sebastian comes to realize that he has fallen in love with Annette, the bet and his unfulfilled desires for Kathryn fall by the wayside, leaving the poor boy lost in love. The ever vengeful Kathryn plots to get back at Sebastian and ruin his romantic plans. The turn from the witty and amusing first hour to the melodramatic ending hurt the overall film. When the humor stops, the soul of the film turns cold and wooden, as the actors appear to be going through the motions. For the first hour, at least, we get to see both Phillippe and Gellar chew up the scenery.

Phillippe is suitably sarcastic and droll as Sebastian, delivering his lines in a mimic of John Malkovich's overacting in the 1988 adaptation, "Dangerous Liaison." Kathryn is a spoiled rich bitch with a capital B and Gellar has fun with the role. Reese Witherspoon does a professional job in the tough role as the goody-two-shoes Annette who gives herself to Sebastian out of true love. Hers is the hardest role in the film. Selma Blair, as the naive target for Sebastian's sexual conquest, Cecil, comes off a little amateur in her acting, but excels in her physical comedy ability. Her gangly-limbed pratfalls are amusing stunts and show a budding capability for slapstick humor.

While watching "Cruel Intentions," I was struck with the overpowering image of kids playing grownups. The actors (all in their twenties, not teens) are much better tailored in the film, but the idea of kids dressing up in their parents clothes and playacting is too strong to dismiss. First-time helmer/writer Roger Kumble starts off on the right foot, but stumbles along the way. I give "Cruel Intentions" a C+.


ANALYZE THIS

Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro) is a prominent New York crime boss who is about to take over as head of the "family." When the time comes to take the reins of the powerful crime machine, Paul starts to have problems breathing! In a fit, he goes to the hospital, sure he is having a heart attack, only to be told it's just anxiety. Panicked by the awesome responsibilities thrust upon him, the mobster decides to seek professional help.

Enter Dr. Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), a divorced New York psychiatrist who has lived in the shadows of his media-grabbing father (Bill Macy), a successful, published shrink who glories in his own fame. Ben, trying to be anything but like his dad, has established his own modestly successful, but mundane, practice treating little people with little problems. Things look good for the doc, with a well adjusted son and upcoming marriage to his fiancee (Lisa Kudrow), until, one day, Ben quite literally, runs into Paul, meshing together both of their lives in director Harold Ramis' film, "Analyze This."

Robin's Review of 'Analyze This'
Paul, used to getting his way with everything, intrudes into Ben's life in an initially positive way, but soon goes beyond the pale as he disrupts Ben's life in every way, even his wedding to Laura (Kudrow) - not once, but twice. He demands that the therapist be on 24-hour call much like the James Coburn shrink retained by the chief of state in "The President's Analyst." The lives of the two very different characters intertwine and effect changes to both men.

Robert DeNiro gets the best out of his performance as the psychologically- challenged gangster. His reactions to Ben's Freudian-influenced treatment - when told about the Oedipal complex, Paul visibly shudders and asks the doctor, in horror, "Have you ever seen my mother?" - are straightforward funny. DeNiro doesn't cover any new ground with his usual mobster persona, but does give it the expected comic flair the actor showed well in "Wage the Dog." DeNiro is definitely the star of the film.

Billy Crystal performs as the stalwart second banana to DeNiro's flashy mob boss through most of the film, only given the chance to perform his patented mugging toward the end. He gets to shine out a little bit when called upon to represent the anxiety-stricken gangster at the big meeting of gangland leaders. When he slaps Paul's loyal right-hand man, Jelly (Joe Viterelli, "Mafia!"), demanding obedience to gain face with the crime bosses, both we and Viterelli are amusingly shocked. The scene is farce, but it plays well for Crystal.

The script, by helmer Ramis, Peter Tolan ("My Fellow Americans") and Kenneth Lonergan (the upcoming "Rocky and Bullwinkle") is shallow in its characters and story. Except for the exemplary character Jelly, played by Viterelli, there are only DeNiro, Crystal and Lisa Kudrow (giving her small, routine role as the beleaguered fiancee a delightful comic flair, adding to the precedeings) given anything to do. A more fully developed supporting cast, given the lush mine of potential for mob humor, would have help things out enormously.

Technically, "Analyze This" shows its bucks on the screen. Production design by Wynn P. Thomas ("He Got Game") is first rate - one dream sequence, which recreates the mob hit on Don Corleone in "The Godfather," has Ben as the don and Paul as the hapless bodyguard is a meticulous remake of the original (and is punctuated by Paul's reaction of "You had me as Fredo?!"). Stuart Dryburgh ("The Piano") does a solid job with a slick look to the film's lensing.

The concept for "Analyze This" bears a strong similarity to the terrific HBO series "The Sopranos," starring James Gandolfini as an angst-challenged mobster seeking psycho-help. The high quality TV show plumbs the depths of humor-drama better than "Analyze This," but the film has its own minor charms, mainly DeNiro, Crystal and Kudrow.

I give "Analyze This" a B-.


20 DATES

Myles Berkowitz is an aspiring LA filmmaker who frustrates his agent by turning down screenplay offers unless he can also direct. Recently divorced and about to reenter the dating arena, Berkowitz has an idea - why not document his search for love in that most impersonal of cities? With $20,000 secured by his agent from a European businessman and a high concept framework, Myles sets out to film his "20 Dates."

Laura's review of '20 Dates'
"20 Dates" is an intermittently hilarious, often painful and too frequently self indulgent documentary. Berkowitz states at the onset that he's 'making a movie about my two biggest failures - my personal life and my professional life.'

His first date has been forewarned about the filming, but is taken aback when Myles' crew (a cameraman and sound engineer) are already rolling as she opens her front door. The crews' inexperience (cameras and booms held too close during dinner) further infuriate her and the date flops.

Now Myles gets the great idea of hiding his crew. A date going marvelously well crashes spectacularly when the woman is told of the project and shown the camera - lawsuit number one. (It is a bit creepy to watch someone being filmed unknowingly in this situation. One wonders how Berkowitz obtained releases.) A later date has even direr consequences for the same reason - lawsuit number two and a physical attack on Myles!

As Myles despairs of coming up with more women to date, he's constantly being harrassed by his producer Elie whose only concern is more T&A and a hasty wrap. (Berkowitz taped his conversations with Elie, which are hilarious and real.)

Then Myles meets Elizabeth and true love blooms. There's only one minor problem - she's not date number 20. As Myles continues to go through the motions of dating, his relationship with Elizabeth becomes more and more strained, and Myles must decide between his film or his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, "20 Dates" runs out of steam as it limps to its denouement, mostly because Myles manages to have it both ways. He finally takes up Elie on his suggestions to date actresses, models, and even Elie's personal friend Tia Carrerre ('She's a star!'). These 'dates' are a big cheat, as we come to learn that Elizabeth is present during all of them.

Berkowitz does get some mileage out of his idea, as well as some comic relief from his crew on the sidelines, (besides being currently engaged to Elizabeth), but by its end, "20 Dates" self destructs. The film is also not helped by its auteur's egoticism.

C-


CHILDREN OF HEAVEN

9 year old Ali has a serious problem. Entrusted to get his little sister's only pair of shoes repaired, young Ali inadvertently misplaces the footwear. Fearing that his parents are too poor to replace the missing shoes, Ali and his sister Zahra conspire to keep the bad news to themselves, causing the pair untold personal anxiety in the wonderful Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, "Children of Heaven."

Robin's Review of 'Children Of Heaven'
Right from the very beginning, you know that "Children of Heaven" is a special little film. During the opening credits is a mesmerizing sequence, in close-up, of little Zahra's shoes being repaired. The hypnotic nature of the beginning is carried through the entire film as Ali desperately searches for the shoes, meanwhile begging his sister to not tell on him. The simplicity of the story is what makes it so compelling. Nothing really happens until near the end, when the story takes a dramatic turn with an exciting road race for kids. For the bulk of the film, you live in the minds and hearts of Ali and Zahra, and this is a good place to be for 90 minutes. The kids take you through their daily life in Tehran, with Zahra's mixed emotions over her loss and Ali's desperation. The boy has big problems for such little guy.

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi ("The Father") has crafted a moving little tale about what, on the surface, is nothing more than a story about lost shoes. Majidi takes this simple premise and gives the viewer a look into the lives of the two young characters. He does this with the enormous help of his little stars, Amir Farrokh Hashemian as Ali and Bahare Sediqi as his diminutive but quite forceful sister Zahra. Ali is a chronic worrier who takes the burden of his parents' seeming poverty to heart and tries to do all he can to keep his terrible secret from them. Hashemian visibly wears the weight of the world on his shoulders and in his troubled face, making you feel the angst of his plight.

Complementing the young Hashemian is a wonderful performance by Bahare Sediqi as Zahra. The little actress comes across as an intelligent, wise young lady who knows her own mind. She is really pissed off at her brother as she is forced to where his battered old sneakers to school every day as Ali tries to figure out what to do. She keeps her mouth shut only because Ali keeps bribing her for her silence, including a prize pen which takes on a significance in the story nearly as strong as the shoes. Both kids are charming and interesting, with Majidi eliciting natural feeling performances from his young stars. By contrast, nearly all the adults are nothing more than two dimensional figures, accentuating the depth of character of Ali and Zahra.

The screenplay, written by Majidi, is simple and flowing with many visual interludes that are pleasing to the eye. For instance, one lyrical little pause in the "action" has Zahra and Ali washing his now-shared sneakers. Like the opening sequence, you can't take your eyes from the film as the pair make bubbles for their own entertainment. It's scenes like this that carry the film to the unexpected race that Ali sees as his salvation - third prize includes a pair of new sneakers!

"Children of Heaven" is a special little children's film that has appeal to everyone. I put his film on a par with other intelligent kid films like "A Little Princess" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer." It is a deserved nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year and if it weren't up against Roberto Benigni's wonderful "Life Is Beautiful," it would get my vote. I give it an A.

Laura's review of 'Children Of Heaven'
Iranian writer/director Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" would at first appear to bear too much resemblance to the Iranian "White Balloon," another film where young children are forced to be resourceful when economics force them to deal with the strange world of adults. But "Children of Heaven" (one of this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees) is a more complex, richer and more satisfying film than its delightful predecessor.

The film's opening credits roll over a close shot of an old cobbler hand stitching a pair of small, pink shoes adorned with pink bows. This image is a mesmerizing beginning, and one of many scenes of Iranian tradesmen at work. Young Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian, found cowering in a schoolroom after 35,000 children had been seen to cast the role) is running errands for his ill mother. When he stops to barter for vegetables, he places his sister's mended shoes down, where they're mistakenly picked up by a blind junk collector. This is catastrophic for Ali, as he knows his parents cannot afford to buy his younger sister Zahra (Bahare Sediqi) a new pair of shoes. The film follows Ali's escalating trials and tribulations in trying to correct his lapse in attentiveness.

The children who play Ali and Zahra are amazingly assured in their acting debuts and better than any adult in the film. Ali's huge woeful eyes, often brimming with tears, belie his grit and determination. Zahra is adorably exasperated by the spot Ali's put her in ('Ali, you really have some nerve,' she chides him when he suggests she wear her slippers to school). Nafise Jafar-Mohammadi is Roya, the third child who comes into play wearing Zahra's shoes in the schoolyard (Zahra has been sharing Ali's sneakers, as their school hours overlap). Seemingly spoiled by her blind father, Roya wins us over too just when we believe she may become the recipient of a second unmeaning gift from the siblings.

All these events plus a day spent in the wealthy part of town, a bicycle accident and a climatic foot race are each a mini-drama. Majidi ends his film on a dual note of utter despair intercut with arriving joy that's breathtakingly satisfying.

B+


200 CIGARETTES

It's New Year's eve 1981 and Monica (Martha Plimpton) is fretting that her party will be a disaster that no one will attend. Her guests are all beginnning their evenings out and about in New York City, crossing paths and frequenting the same cab, driven by advice dispenser Dave Chappelle. Lucy's (Courtney Love) helping Kevin (Paul Rudd) deal with being dumped by his girlfriend Ellie (Janeanne Garofalo). Sweet but klutzy Cindy (Kate Hudson) is trying to charm ladykiller Jack (Jay Mohr). Monica's ex Eric (Brian McCardie) is being dumped by Bridget (Nicole Parker), who has a man-landing bet going with her friend Caitlin (Angela Featherstone). Cousin Val (Christina Ricci) and her pal Stephie (Gaby Hoffman) have lost Monica's address and ended up in a bad part of town with two punk rockers while a handsome, if clueless, bartender (Ben Affleck) is the object of three of these women's attentions.

Laura's review of '200 Cigarettes'
"200 Cigarettes" (the reference is to a carton of cigarettes Lucy stops to buy for Kevin on New Year's Eve because it's his birthday) is a lightweight teen comedy that plays like Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" as directed by a John Hughes protegee. First time film director Risa Bramon Garcia has a feel for the 80's, but doesn't succeed in making the parts the equivalent of the whole until the film's conclusion/coda.

The film's standouts are Martha Plimpton, Courtney Love and Paul Rudd. Plimpton is just hilarious as a nervous hostess anyone who's ever given a party can relate to ('I don't believe I made a recipe for crab dip' she exclaims, eager to please, yet not to be uncool.) When her roommate worries about the appropriateness of her attire, Monica states 'You could stand there with a mattress strapped to your back and still be like a vestal virgin' - one of screenwriter Shana Larsen's best lines.

Pairing bad-girl Love with nice-boy Rudd was casting genius that really works. This film doesn't seem edgy enough to have drawn Love, yet she plays the 'best friend who wants more than she can say' perfectly. Rudd ("Clueless") maintains his romantic allure, but with a much darker cast than we've seen before.

Also noteworthy are Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn's daughter, in her film debut) as the clutzy Cindy (the film has her deliver a few too many pratfalls for even comedic effect) and Brian McCardie ("Rob Roy") as the Irish artist who comes to learn he's the worst lover of all his past (and future) girlfriends. Dave Chappelle is amusing as the pivot-man Disco Cabbie (although his character is a device that stretches credibility, even in a comedy). Surprisingly, the usually formidable Christina Ricci doesn't stand out at all and the equally strong Janeanne Garafalo fails to make much of an impression.

The soundtrack, sure to be an 80's nostalgia marketting coupe, evokes the time with the likes of Costello, Soft Cell, and even Barry Manilow (behind a wistful scene featuring Courney Love!).

"200 Cigarettes" is as as light as cotton candy, a film that's forgotten almost as soon as it's been seen. The film is terribly uneven, with only a few of its threads holding interest. In it's favor is a strong finale, where all the threads come together by Disco's Cabbie's voiceover and snapshots of the party we never get to see. It's a scream when we discover that Monica passed out before her guests arrived and she only belatedly realizes that she not only hosted Elvis Costello (who does appear in a brief cameo), but that she and her crab dip were the objects of his desire.

C


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