STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
THE LOVE LETTER - THE CASTLE - GET REAL
TEA WITH MUSSOLINI - ELECTION

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE

Twenty-two years ago, millions of us were at the birth of a legend. George Lucas had created a whole new world of science-fiction fantasy and cowboys-and-Indians in the ground-breaking "Star Wars." As Episode VI rolled out the door in 1983, the viewing public was faced with a decade plus vigil for the beginning entry to the saga. The wait is over and the lines begin with "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

Robin's review of 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace':
It's George's galaxy and welcome to it! His latest entry into the epic series is bigger, more flashy and carries the same Jedi spirit that drove George Lucas to such lofty heights with the first trilogy. Set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. "The Phantom Menace" is the logical extension of the story and is told in the same grand manner as the others - that is, stilted, corny dialog, wooden acting and kick-ass, state-of-the-art special F/X.

There is little reason to go into the story of "Phantom" since only a hermit living in a cave could have escaped the barrage of media hype, on all levels, given to this latest Lucas megalith. Suffice it to say that the action is what the fans have been waiting breathlessly for all these years and what everyone else expects. Lucas's hokey use of medieval Europe, Japanese and Middle Eastern cultures and their myths combined with a galaxy of his own imagination makes for a couple of hours of techie fun.

We are here, first and foremost, for the F/X and Lucas's own Industrial Light & Magic shop does not disappoint. The computer-generated creatures that make up the principle cast, particularly Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best, "Stomp") are joined seamlessly with the live action and its human characters. Jar Jar's subservient manner and pidgin English makes him the kind of oriental side-kick you'd find in an old William Powell spy movie from the 40's. Jar Jar does not replace Chewbacca in our hearts and minds but reps a technological break-through in CGI. The big F/X scenes are so busy with action that it is impossible to catch it all in one viewing - an intention of the makers, of course, to garner the expected repeat viewers. It is an embarrassment of tech riches with nearly 2000 digital shots used, tripling the previous number in a motion picture. F/X junkies rejoice!

Acting is, as expected, not the reason to be here. Everyone goes though the proper motions, from Liam Neeson as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn to Ewan McGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (doing his best to maintain a nuance of Alec Guinness) to Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala (Mom, later on, to Luke and Leia). Jake Lloyd ("Unhook the Stars") is too young for the character of the boy Anakin Skywalker and mostly mouths his more adult-level lingo. Supporting actor parts are made up of such notables as Samuel L. Jackson, Swedish actress Pernilla August ("The Best Intentions"), and Ian McDiarmid as the conniving Senator Palpatine (later, the evil Emperor). Of course, R2D2 and C3PO are with us as the anchors to the original trilogy.

Everyone is going to see this number from Lucasfilms, so deal with the lines, have some corn and hunker down for a rip-snorting' good time. It's not the original that "Star Wars" was and does not stand alone. It is the best since the first and I give "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" a B+.

Laura's review of 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace'
When the Lucas marketting machine went into hyperdrive, Lucas made his film fair game for critical backlash. Granted the fans have whipped themselves into a contributing frenzy, and the Internet, a concept in its infancy when "Star Wars" arrived in theaters, has been a dramatic tool for both groups to spread the fever. While "The Phantom Menace" will surely please its ready-made fans, as a film its a warmed over, albeit technically superior, rehash of sights and concepts we've seen before.

Each of the first three films offered at least one jaw-dropping, memorable moment. The original had that amazing 3D game board, the second its Imperial Walkers and even the Ewok-sodden third had that adreniline-rushing race through a Redwood forest (repeated here in a pod race modelled on the "Ben Hur" chariott race). The only startlingly original visual in "The Phantom Menace" lies with the inspired makeup and costume design given to Natalie Portman's character of Queen Amidala, which, ironically enough, required no technology to achieve.

The higher profile cast of this entry mostly fit well into the myth with Liam Neeson providing stature as rebel Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor achieving a good take on the young Obi-Wan Kenobi as his apprentice. Natalie Portman often recalls Carrie Fisher's Leia but lacks Fisher's droll wit. Pernilla August ("The Best Intentions") is notable as Shmi Skywalker, a slave who realizes her august role as the mother of Anakin (although Lucas' decision to have her claim a virgin birth is questionably laughable). Jake Lloyd plays Anakin like the young child he is - Lucas may have been better served to begin his saga with the future Darth Vadar as an 11 or 12-year old in order to give more weight to his (presumably) central character as well as collapse the extreme age difference between Anakin and his future bride Amidala. Ian McDiarmid is fine as Palpatine, displaying all the early evil inclinations that will transform him into the Evil Emperor. Ray Park shows some dazzling stunt moves as the much-heralded Darth Maul, but there is absolutely no character development or background provided.

The computer generated characters are OK, with Anakin's greedy owner Watto having the best lines. Jar Jar Binks seems like Roger Rabbitt run amok in a Star Wars flick (and he's often difficult to understand at key moments). Boss Nass, leader of the Gungans, gets to make a doo-doo joke. All the new non-human characters are particularly cartoonish with the new droid armies looking like something from the set of MST3K. It's great to see R2D2's origination as a hero (even if it's silly when the Queen commends him), but I missed my beloved Chewbacca here.

I actually found my mind wondering during the first two-thirds of "The Phantom Menace," something I would not have thought possible. The final conflict(s) are engaging, however, right down to the three-way light saber dual (fought on a set identical to the one where Luke battled his father). "The Phantom Menace" has laid the groundwork for Parts II and III, where Anakin's eventual turn to the dark side will hopefully bring the series back to a level deserving of the hype.

C+


THE LOVE LETTER

The long standing denizens of Loblolly By The Sea are about to be shook up when an anonymous love letter is found in a book store by its first believed recipient Helen. Kate Capshaw stars along with Tom Selleck, Ellen Degeneres, Tom Everett Scott, Blythe Danner and Gloria Stuart in "The Love Letter," a film shot in Rockport, Massachusetts last summer.

Laura's review of 'The Love Letter'
"The Love Letter" is a quirky romantic comedy with an offbeat kilter all its own. Helen owns a book store (romantic comedy setting du jour - reference "You've Got Mail" and "Notting Hill") managed by her best friend Janet (Ellen Degeneres). Johnny (Tom Everett Scott, "That Thing You Do") and Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson, "One True Thing") are working there for the summer before returning to college. George (Tom Selleck) is the local fireman who's held a torch for Helen since their high school years. When Helen finds an anonymous love letter in the shop, she never questions that it was meant for her and begins to imagine every male in town reciting its lines to her. Then Johnny finds the letter and believes Helen has left it for him. When he recites the lines to her, she's swept away and they begin a May-September affair just when George is trying to woo Helen, although Janet believes George's written the letter to her. Meanwhile Jennifer pines for the otherwise occupied Johnny.

Fictional Loblolly By The Sea is peopled with additional quirky characters which include the requisite nosy postmistress, a policeman who believes everyone's on drugs and Miss Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan), a hard drinking, constantly smoking spinster who mails a letter every day. More levity is introduced when Helen's mother (Blythe Danner) and grandmother (Gloria Stuart, "Titanic") come to visit at the most inoportune time, particularly when mom reveals *her* true love.

Hong Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan and his cinematographer Tami Reiker give the film a noteworthy look, from its misty opening shots of a New England beach to glorious 4th of July fireworks. Helen and her mother find each other sitting in the dark in a beautifully lit scene. Dissolves and cutaways are imaginatively used. Luis Bacalov has conjured up a suitably unusual score.

The cast is uniformly good, with Kate Capshaw offering her best work to date. Newcomer Julianne Nicholson is a fresh standout as is the British veteran McEwan. Tom Selleck provides simple charm and Degeneres has been on a comic hot streak.

The film's main problem, besides the creakiness of its plot setup, is that it seems to have been pared a little too far back to its ninety minute running time, giving the film an abrupt feel with undoubted loss of character development.

B-

Robin's review of 'The Love Letter:
To put it bluntly, "The Love Letter" was the worst three hours of my life, and it was only 90 minutes long!

The film starts out amusingly enough, with all the main characters and the small New England town of Loblolly By The Sea introduced to us under the wonderful Louis Armstrong rendition of "I'm In The Mood For Love." One by one, we meet the principles and get into the tempo of life in the little hamlet.

The story, adapted from the Cathleen Schine novel, by Maria Maggenti ("The Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls In Love") set things up as Helen (Kate Capshaw, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") settles into a routine day at her local bookstore and discovers, mixed in with the mail, a folded letter with no envelope. The note is to "Dearest" and signed, simply, "Yours" and lays down feelings of passion and love for the anonymous addressee.

The discovery leads to the best part of the film as Helen reads and reads the romantic tome and starts imagining the letter's words being spoken by those around her - her friend Janet (Ellen DeGeneres in a straight role despite this one reference to her chosen lifestyle), employee Johnny (Tom Everett Scott, "That Thing You Do!"), fire chief George (Tom Selleck, "In & Out"), the entire fire department in a drive by, and a group of old ladies. The whole sequence is charming and cute and I wish the whimsy stayed for the rest of the film.

Once the establishment of the letter is made, it then becomes a magnet for anyone near it, with each one thinking the note is for him/her. This is where things fall apart as the letter is read by each in a blatant disregard for others' personal property. At one point, the local cop walks into Helen's shop (she's occupied with Johnny in the back room) and goes into her bag to extract and read the letter! Talk about violation of the Fourth Amendment! At this point, at about the 45 minute mark, the movie lost my attention as it continues to place implausibility upon implausibility. For the first time since I started viewing movies seriously, I considered walking out on a film.

What hurts more than the inept story is the total lack of sympathy evoked for Capshaw's Helen. The actress, not renown for her great thesping abilities, is wooden at best and never develops her character beyond two-dimensions. This is OK, since the main lust interest, Scott's Johnny, is even more vapid. There is no chemistry between the two and the "love" scenes would have been more interesting if the filmmakers used inflatable dolls instead.

Selleck's George and DeGeneres's Janet are far more complex in character than Helen and Johnny. Too bad they weren't the leads. "The Love Letter" would have been a better film. There are other intriguing characters in small roles, like the enigmatic Miss Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan) and Helen's mom (Blythe Danner), as the woman who, in the end, has all the answers for her daughter. There isn't enough underlying substance from the support to save the film.

Hong-Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan ("Comrades: Almost a Love Story") does a solid job in moving people about and eliciting a nice look to the film with the assistance of cinematographer Tami Reike ("High Art"). The homey feel sits well with the small town setting. Chan shows admirable talent but is hampered by the screenplay and the producer.

I haven't felt this thoroughly manipulated and insulted by a film in years. I strongly recommend avoiding "The Love Letter" at all costs. And, guys, don't get roped in to this as a date flick. It definitely ain't worth it. I give it a D.


THE CASTLE

Darryl Kerrigan is a happy man. He adores his wife and family and his house is not just a house. It's a home. So what if it's built on a toxic landfill and is flanked by humming high-power lines and the runway for the city's airport. Life is near bliss for the Kerrigans, until they receive notice from the federal government that their home is about to be "compulsorily acquired" for a multi-million dollar airport expansion. Darryl is not about to be pushed out of his beloved home and takes on the feds one-on-one in the hugely successful, David versus Goliath, Australian comedy, "The Castle."

Robin's review of 'The Castle':
The team responsible for "The Castle" are Aussie TV vets - director Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner - and the production has the wit and intelligence you can only get from a close-knit crew of friends and collaborators. Though the Kerrigan family won't win any contests for brains, they are a wonderfully drawn group of characters, each with their own personality and all are warm, kind and good-hearted.

Although the story is as simple as the Kerrigans themselves, the attention to the details of family life are wonderfully rich and detailed. Dad's total devotion to his wife, Sal (Anne Tenney), is palpable in his very gaze and his raves over her cooking. For Darryl, even Sal's meat loaf is an epiphany of culinary delight. His encouragement of any arts 'n' crafts interest that takes his wife's fancy is carried through the film, all with good-natured humor. The craft work created by Sal through the film adds to the kitchy set design as each piece becomes a part of the family surroundings. Darryl's den, and all the paraphernalia in it that he has collected as "mementos," is a character itself in the Kerrigan household.

The attentions to the other whimsical little details in the film make "The Castle" a fun treasure. Darryl and one of his son's, Steve (Anthony Simcoe), have an ongoing search for bargains in the want ads. It doesn't matter what they are trying to buy. What matters is the price. They even investigate the purchase of "jousting sticks," but dad thinks that the asking price is too high (like, he's an expert on jousting sticks). Darryl has a horse-trad brother, Wayne (Wayne Hope), is always included in the family goings-on, albeit from a distance.

The cast, like the film itself, hails from television. Michael Caton is perfect as Darryl, giving the man a richness of character that makes him a likable and caring bloke. The family members, from mom (Tenney) to the kids - Simcoe, Hope, Sophie Lee as daughter and awful hairdresser Tracey, and the film's voiceover narrator, Stephen Curry as youngest son, Dale - all help to enhance the downright nice nature of the Kerrigans. Tiriel Mora is dead-pan terrific as Darryl's schlumpy, clue-less lawyer friend, Dennis Denuto, who agrees to take on the government monolith for Darryl with "the vibes" of the case as his defense. Australian film veteran Charles "Bud" Tingwell gives an elegant little perf as Darryl's unexpected fairy godfather-figure in the legal battle.

It may sound a cliche, but I laughed 'til I cried while watching "The Castle." The attention given to the little comedic details makes this film a pleasure to watch. This modern Don Quixote-like tale about the little guy bucking the system may have been done many times before, but it is given a freshness here that transcends what could have been merely a derivative sit-com effort.

I give "The Castle" a humor-felt A-.

Laura's review of 'The Castle'
Rob Sitch's Australian comedy "The Castle" is a charmingly low-brow David and Goliath tale about a dimwit family led by an exhuberant patriarch whose deluded innocence enable them to achieve a kind of greatness. When Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is served compulsory acquisition papers for a Melbourne airport expansion, he decides to fight city hall. His beloved home, a small, cramped ranch full of his beloved wife Sal's tacky crafts, a runway in the backyard and power lines all around, is his castle.

Darryl engages his pal Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora), a seedy third-rate lawyer (who anxiously admits to not being up to the job), to present his case. Dennis goes with a 'vibe' argument that's clearly not up to snuff with the judge. Darryl's outwardly friendly nature and clear good-heartedness win him help from a most unusual source during a chance encounter outside the courthouse.

"The Castle" is a film of details and jokes carried through well (even though some are overused). His second eldest son Steve is an 'inventor' and bargain hunter constantly searching the want ads. 'Dad, this guy is selling jousting sticks.' 'How much does he want for them?' asks Darryl, before pronouncing 'He's dreaming.' This is one of film's best running gags as father and son amass increasingly ridiculous treasures all for the pleasure of a good deal. When daughter Tracy returns from her honeymoon in Thailand, the Kerrigans are regaled with tales of the wonders of airplane travel - Tracy's the first to have actually been on board one of the planes which are such a constant part of their lives.

The cast are game with Caton anchoring the film and Mora perhaps portraying the first endearing lawyer ever to hit the screen. Tech credits show the film's independent roots. "The Castle" is good natured fun, but seems more a springboard to a weekly television sitcom than a big screen comedy classic.

B-


GET REAL

Sixteen year old Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone, "The Browning Version") has had a secret since the age of eleven which only his best friend and next door neighbor Linda (Charlotte Brittain) knows - he's gay. When visitting a public restroom known as a local gay hangout, Steven receives a note poked through a hole in the stall and is astonished to learn it's from John Dixon (Brad Gordon), the school's wealthy, gorgeous all around athlete and boyfriend of Basingstoke's well known underwear model, Christina Lindmann. Steven and John begin a passionate, but secret, affair that further stresses Steven's burgeoning resolve to 'come out,' which he begins with an anonymous article submitted to the school paper titled 'Get Real.'

Laura's review of 'Get Real':
"Get Real" is a humourously honest, if somewhat cliched, account of the trials of recognizing and declaring one's homosexuality. Adapted for the screen from his play "What's Wrong With Angry?" by Patrick Wilde and directed by Simon Shore in his feature debut, the film has something for everyone.

Ben Silverstone, so good in his film debut as Taplow in Mike Figgis' remake of "The Browning Version," continues to impress as Steven Carter. A single child well loved by his middle class English parents, Steven nonetheless is being pressured by his father to be more ambitious while grappling with his secret sexuality. Silverstone has a slight physique and dark good looks that alternately appear geeky and sensual. Cinematographer Alan Almond plays up the contrast with Brad Gorton's Adonis-like build and chiselled face. In a climatic scene, where a drunken Dixon arrives at Carter's home to agonize over his confusion with his attraction to Steven, Almond beautiful composes the shot with Dixon sitting on the edge of Carter's bed while Carter, wraithlike, is shadowed in the background listening with empathy. Gorton, a screen newcomer, shows his acting potential in this watershed moment. He's also funny, when every line he utters in the early stages of the relationship is an unintended double entendre (much to his consternation).

Charlotte Brittain is overweight buddy Linda who provides most of the film's humor. She's also looking for love, as are their other classmates, and is betrayed into thinking she's found it by her unscrupulous driving instructor.

The film covers all its subject's angles. Steven has an early encounter with an older man who turns out to be married. He's also picked on in school by Dixon's jock friends for being a 'faggot,' even though they don't truly believe he is. Dixon's buddies also refuse to believe their muscular friend could possibly be of this inclination, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. A female friend of Steven's comes on to him after he sympathesizes over her breakup woes. Steven's mother realizes the truth about her son after he's returned home by the police after being found in the local woods, considered a hangout for 'perverts,' while his dad is blind to the situation until Steven's climatic coming out speech at his school's commencement ceremonies.

It's unfortunate that Wilde chooses to make some obvious choices in telling his tale (the fat gal pal, the film's climax, parental reactions), but the cast rings true throughout and Silverstone and Gorton create a screen couple to root for.

B-

Robin's review of 'Get Real':
Adapting the stage play, "What's Wrong With Angry?" playwright Patrick Wilde and first-time helmer Simon Shore expand the theater stage of the play to an upper-class English town in "Get Real," starring Ben Silverstone as a young man coming of age at the millennium and coping with being gay in a straight-dominated society.

"Get Real" is one of those films where the trailer is far more intriguing than the film itself. The routine adolescent, albeit gay, love story is peppered with other teen angst problems, like interfering parents, peer pressures, budding sexuality, respect for different lifestyles, etc., to try to give it a more mainstream teen appeal.

Of the young cast, Ben Silverstone is the most seasoned actor in the group with a resume including appearances in Mike Figgis's "The Browning Version" and Adrian Lyne's "Lolita." Silverstone lends credence to his character, Steven Carter, as a young man trying to balance his almost-secret gay lifestyle with the normal day-to-day dilemmas of teen-hood in Britain. Steven comes across as a very together, well adjusted young guy who is comfortable with his chosen lifestyle and maintains a careful balance of his gayness and his "regular" life.

Brad Gorton, as John Dixon, is the object of Steven's affection and has the physical look for the role. Gorton starts off a bit wooden, at first, but seems to grow into his role of a young man who is both confused and excited by his own budding interest toward members of the same sex.

Charlotte Brittain plays Steven's straight sidekick/friend, Linda, with the typical, tough comic relief required in this coming out story. She's the overweight neighbor who can take as well as give and has her own little side story trying to attract the romantic intentions of her driving instructor. (Linda gets her license, though not the instructor, in the end.)

The screenplay shows its stage roots with lots of talky shots and long-winded dialog about teen problems, making the pace too slow for film. The establishment of the main theme is convoluted by the other, ancillary story lines the film tries to cover, too. More experience, by the creators, at the typewriter could have helped the story's development. Parental acceptance/rejection of Steven's sexual proclivity is typical with the knowing, understanding Mom seeing things as they are, with her mission to turn Dad around.

Lots of the teen angst stuff does work well. When Steven is brought home by the police, for his own protection, after one of his trysts with John in the local park, the concern expressed by his father is "Oh, God. Do you think he's on drugs?" This would be the first fear of a parent to their child's aberrant behavior and rings true.

Production is the actors should have been issued sunglasses. Pretty routine filmmaking on many levels.

"Get Real" is a by-the-numbers teen flick that delves into the adolescent world of homosexuality while trying to be a more universal tale of love and growing up. It does a fair job and director Shore elicits a solid performance by Silverstone. I give it a B-.



TEA WITH MUSSOLINI
Florence, Italy in 1935 is a place of timeless beauty, uncorrupted by the encroaching violence and oppression of Fascism in Europe at the brink of World War II. The "Scorpioni" - expatriate Brits, mainly women, who have fallen in love with Tuscany - have entrenched themselves in the city and taken in young Luca Innocenti (Charlie Lucas/Baird Wallace), the illegitimate son of a local tailor. The ladies all chip in to educate the boy in the arts, classics, social graces, independent thought and, especially, kindness to help guide him into manhood in Franco Zeffirelli's autobiographical, "Tea with Mussolini.".

Robin's review of 'Tea With Mussolini:
As the source for "Tea With Mussolini," director Franco Zeferelli, ("Romeo and Juliet") draws upon a portion of his memoirs, "Zeffirelli - An Autobiography," with playwright John Mortimer (creator of the Horace Rumpole books and TV series). His story concentrates on certain members of the Scorpioni - Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), Arabella Delancy (Judi Dench), Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith) - who take the orphaned Luca to their hearts, helping to shape him into a truly good young man. The addition of an openly lesbian American archeologist, Georgie Rockwell (Lily Tomlin), influencing the boy with her unburnished pragmatism and honesty, and a wealthy American Jewess, Elsa Morgenthal (Cher), who teaches, by example, the importance of generosity to those around him, round out Luca's eclectic staff of teachers.

The screenplay tends toward preachiness, at times, as we are repeatedly shown that Fascism is evil and its leader, Benito Mussolini, a self-serving, uncaring dictator who will boldly lie if it produces the desired results. El Duce's declaration, at the titular tea given for Lady Hester, that the ladies are all "under my personal protection" quickly proves false. But, Lady Hester takes the man at his word and wields his promise of protection as a shield of safety for the expatriates. The ladies' real benefactor turns out to be the one person Hester considered vulgar and beneath them all - the wealthy American, Elsa. The simple symbolism of good versus bad does not get in the way of the actors, though, as each carefully draw their characters with dignity.

Of the considerable cast, three stand out with their very real, subtly nuanced performances. Joan Plowright is brilliant as the white-collar secretary/translator working in Florence. She is the first to "adopt" young Luca, well played in both his younger guise (Lucas) and as the adolescent Luca (Wallace), and sees the potential in the lad. Her mustering of the Scorpioni resources is akin to a general running a military campaign. Maggie Smith, as the self imposed matriarch of the little colony, gets the opportunity to display her wonderful range as an actor. Lady Hester could have been merely two-dimensional in less capable hands. Smith gives the Lady true depth of character in her perf. Cher, as the flamboyant, colorful, wealthy and, still, the looker, Elsa, gives a truly electric performance, the best since her Oscar-winning "Moonstruck."

Production is elegantly done with the recreation of period Florence, amply aided by the careful lensing by another Oscar-winner, David Watkin ("Out of Africa"), who captures the Renaissance feel of Florence beautifully. Costuming by Jenny Beavan ("A Room With A View") is first rate and reaches meteoric proportions with the elegant and outrageous design for Cher's resplendent costumes.

There is Oscar-potential galore in "Tea With Mussolini" from a cast and crew who already have more Oscars than can be listed here. Zeffirelli gets a little memoir bound in his telling, but benefits from many individual efforts in front of and behind the camera. I give it a B+


ELECTION
When three-time winner of an Omaha high school's most popular teacher award, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), finds Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, "Cruel Intentions") setting up her campaign table for school council president early one morning something within him snaps. Mr. M can't abide the perky over-achiever ever since his best friend, math teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), lost his job when his affair with the underage girl was brought to Principal Bell's (Matt Malloy) attention. As she's running unopposed, McAllister encourages popular football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who's sidelined with a broken leg, to run against her. This simple action will prove to be McAllister's undoing, landing him in the most ironic of places.

Laura's review of 'Election'
With "Election" Cowriter (with Jim Taylor)/Director Alexander Payne ("Citizen Ruth"), not only avoids the sophomore slump, he skips junior year to become a Senior honors student of blackly comic filmmaking. This is a guy who can even evoke laughter with a recurring theme of apples and oranges.

"Election" is told mostly from McAllister's point of view. The background is neatly filled in by a series of snappily editted flashbacks with narration volleying among the principles. This device, along with freeze frames cut for comedic effect, is well utilized throughout the film.

The mostly unknown ensemble cast should become recognized after their work here. Chris Klein is an appealingly open-faced, sweet if not too bright Metzler - an innocent pawn in an increasingly vicious game. Even his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is after him, having joined the race with a 'Who cares?' slogan because, unbeknownst to him, the girl he's dating rejected Tammy's lesbian advances. Campbell is like a prettier Heather Mattarazano in "Welcome to the Dollhouse," an outsider who's wish to enroll in an all girls' Catholic school causes her to make hilarious attempts at getting expelled. The screenwriters deftly entwine Tammy's agenda into the ironic outcome of the election.

Also good are Molly Hagan as McAllister's dour wife Diane who uses him as a baby-making machine and Delaney Driscoll as Linda Novotny, the wife of McAllister's best friend whom he falls into an ill-advised affair with. Matt Malloy ernestly spouts cliches ('if you wanted to be treated as adults...' etc., etc.) as the cookie-cutter principal.

Most amazing is Reese Witherspoon, who delivers an Oscar nomination worthy performance as Tracy Flick. The military-precision body language, eagerly raised hand in class and clear-eyed self assurance she brings to the role embody a type familiar to anyone who's attended high school. In one scene, when Tracy believes the one hysterical act she's wrongly committed is about to be discovered (it isn't), the look which takes over her features is a tour de force of character definition. Less praiseworthy is Matthew Broderick who's completely right for the role but doesn't inspire Oscar talk. He's most hilarious when preparing for an illicit motel meeting with Linda while keeping his class busy with a pop quiz.

The score, by Rolfe Kent, contains its own dimension of humor. James Glennon's cinematography and Kevin Tent's editting perfectly serve the story, as does production design by Jane Ann Stewart, art direction by Tim Kirkpatrick and costume design by Wendy Chuck.

"Election" goes to the head of 1999's movie class.

A

Robin's review of 'Election':
Sophomore helmer, Alexander Payne ("Citizen Ruth"), continues his penchant for biting satire on American society in "Election," starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.

Tracy Flick (Witherspoon, "Pleasantville") is an intelligent, extremely focused young lady with an agenda: she plans to be the new president of her school's student council and sets forth a one-girl campaign to win the hitherto uncontested election. When history teacher, Mr. McAllister (Broderick, "Addicted to Love"), learns of the campaign, he secretly plots to undermine her election bid by making it a real contest. This monkey wrench in her plans only drives the focused candidate to push even harder.

Three time Teacher of the Year honoree Jim McAllister knows Tracy for what she really is: a manipulative, cold, calculating and darkly focused young woman who will allow nothing to stand in the way of her success. Jim's best friend, Dave Novotny, another teacher at the school, had fallen for the crafty Tracy and ended up losing his marriage, his job and his career. Jim is decidedly antagonistic to Tracy.

Jim's solution? He talks jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a popular student at Carver High, to start a campaign in opposition to Tracy's bid. This, and an odd love triangle, prompts Paul's sister, Tammy, to run against her brother, adding yet another dimension to the previously unchallenged campaign.

For all the different motivations of the characters for their actions, the real story of "Election" comes down to obsession. Tracy is obsessed with her own agenda, brooking no intrusion in her plans. Jim is equally obsessed with stopping Tracy and her plans. Sister to Paul and opposing radical candidate for the presidency of the student council, Tammy, is obsessed with her lesbianism and her brother's election bid. The only one not bedeviled with his own ambition is the dumb, but extremely likable Paul, who, inadvertently, is the pivotal player in the outcome of the entire direction.

The screenplay, by Payne and Jim Taylor (based upon the novel by Tom Perrotta, is an intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking yarn with biting satire and a cynical view into the machinations of high-school politics as a microcosm of our society. There are plot holes in some of the sub stories - for example, Jim's marriage going down the tubes: we, the viewer, know why, but we are left in the dark as to how. Fortunately, the overall tale maintains its dark edge from start to finish and makes any plot problems minor issues.

Matthew Broderick is dead on in looks and actions as the beleaguered erfectly, her chosen lesbian lifestyle and in-your-face attitude.

Production, set, costume and photography all help give the film a crisp look, capturing the inherent mid-western feel provided by the Omaha, Nebraska locale.

A little sloppiness in the writing of the sideline stories detracts from the overall high quality of the film, but does not hurt it a lot. I give "Election" and A-.


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