RUNAWAY BRIDE - DROP DEAD GORGEOUS
THE HAUNTING - INSPECTOR GADGET

DEEP BLUE SEA - THE DINNER GAME


RUNAWAY BRIDE

Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) seemingly has a problem with commitment, having high tailed it from the altar and three prospective bridegrooms, yet she solves New York columnist Ike Graham's (Richard Gere) short term problem of writer's block combined with an approaching deadline. Ike, who's constantly smacked by women on the streets for his 'bitter diatribes against women' hears about Maggie's strange behavior from a barfly, but when his story's published Maggie cries libel and Ike's fired by his ex-wife publisher (Rita Wilson). Ike then journeys to Hale, Maryland, to write a piece on Maggie just as she's about to make trip number four up the aisle in "Runaway Bride."

Laura's review of 'Runaway Bride':
Will wonders never cease? After the highly manipulative, pre-sold phoniness of "Notting Hill," a reteaming of the "Pretty Women" costars and director (Garry Marshall) sounded dubious, yet "Runaway Bride" turns out to be a delightfully quirky romantic comedy with loads of charm. As in the Kevin Kline starrer "In and Out," an upcoming nuptial turns out to be the catalyst for a life changing soul search amidst small town Americana and its warmly nutsy denizens.

Anything but a fan of Julia Roberts (and please, will filmmakers please resist their urge to keeping putting her on a horse?), I'm finding that she's finally honing her skills (or at least having the sense to play up the more solid aspects of her range) in her second decade as an actress. Roberts' Maggie has caused no end of hurt to many men AND her best friend Peggy (the great Joan Cusack), yet it's easy to understand why she's still loved by all. It's her own lack of self confidence that causes the resultant flaky behavior - something which Ike, of course, is quick to discover.

Richard Gere hasn't been this animated in a film in quite some time. The residents of Hale, a Disney Main Street of a town, try to stand by Maggie, but are quickly charmed off their feet by Ike. Maggie can't believe her eyes when she spies Ike making music with Hale's Sherriff and Firechief on the sidewalk outside of his hotel within 24 hours of his arrival. Peggy helpfully points out his attractiveness and even Maggie's grandmother likes the look of his derriere. Her dad (Paul Dooley) helps Ike get started on his article by showing him the videotape of Maggie's three wedding attempts (humorous flashbacks, if too neatly editted for home video, show a hippie wedding escaped on motorcycle, a run down the aisle dragging the young train bearer, and a posh event that the bride arrives at and departs on horseback).

Support is solid all around. Ike's ex-wife Ellie is fleshed out by Rita Wilson into a real person and Hector Elizondo (another "Pretty Woman" alum) is amusing as her new husband and Ike's friend. Jane Morris ("Pretty Woman" again) is a stitch as Mrs. Pressman, a woman whose truly awful hairstyles continue to amaze throughout the film. Laurie Metcalf is a charming ditz as Mrs. Trout, Hale's fussy bakery owner. Christopher Meloni ("Bound") is a little wooden as Coach Bob, Maggie's fourth fiance, who's trying to help her overcome her wedding jitters with sports therapy visualization techniques.

Screenplay by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott plays out all the romantic elements enervated by bright notes of detail, such as Gere discovering Maggie's real problem by asking her fiances how she likes her eggs and Roberts describing the swish of her new wedding gown as sounding like a church bell. They also find a nice way to end the film in not the quite expected way. Production Design by Mark Friedberg is stellar from Hale's ballpark to its hair salon. Costume Design by Albert Wolsky is noteworthy as well.

One of Hale's citizens could be describing Roberts' film choices of late when commenting on Maggie 'always a bride, never a bridesmaid,' but with "Runaway Bride," she and everywon else involved in the movie have delivered a winner.

B+


DROP DEAD GORGEOUS

It's the 50th anniversary of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, the longest running beauty pageant in America. Former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Ally) is heading up this year's pageant kickoff event for Mount Rose, Minnesota, and is a little more involved than usual. This year, her ambitious daughter, Becky, is a prime candidate to win the town event and head for the state pageant. But, another contender, pretty tap-dancer Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), has a shot at the title, too, and a vicious rivalry develops, to murderous ends, in the mock-documentary, "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

Robin's review of 'Drop Dead Gorgeous':
Newcomer director Michael Patrick Jann and screenwriter Lona Williams have pulled together a solid cast and funny concept into a neat faux documentary package. Falling somewhere between the outrageous and hilarious "This is Spinal Tap" and the more subtle, witty "Waiting For Guffman," "Drop Dead Gorgeous" carves a mark for itself in this mockumentary genre niche and gives a comic look into an icon of Americana - the local beauty pageant.

The story follows the much-anticipated annual event from its grassroots beginning in Mount Rose, Minnesota, where eight local beauties - well, for some, beauty IS supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, right? - vie for the chance to win a scholarship of $500 and head off as the town's rep in the state pageant and, maybe, the national! Grassroots, here, means get down and dirty as Gladys Leeman, mother of Becky (Denise Richards), a former winner and, now, organizer of the Mount Rose event, takes her roles quite seriously. Mom has worked hard to get her baby to the pageant and will, quite literally, stop at nothing to win the coveted event.

Becky is a shoe-in, except for pretty, perky white trailer-park-trash Amber. Amber works as a cosmetologist for the local funeral emporium and practices her tap while getting her clients ready for display. She's an honest, hard-working young lady with a boozy mom, Annette (delightfully played by Ellen Barkin), and has enough ambition, talent and charm to win. Following a suspicious explosion in their trailer, which permanently bonds Annette's right hand to a beer can and puts her in the hospital, Amber is saved from dropping out of the pageant when her costume miraculously survives the blast. And, mom saved Amber's tap shoes from destruction by putting them between her legs during the blast.

Besides the rivalry, the "documentarians" capture the trials and tribulations of staging a beauty pageant. The interviews with the colorful local judges and participants, videotapes of the "accidents" plaguing the contenders, the pageant and its aftermath - there is even a scene, later in the film, involving tainted shellfish and severe food poisoning that ends in a vomitous frenzy that is both a gross-out and shockingly funny - all lend to the fresh believability of the film.

Helmer Jann has done his homework in creating the mockumentary feel accurately and with the dark edge of humor this kind of film deserves. Of the solid cast, Kirsten Dunst excels in her portrayal of Amber, from her fresh-faced Midwestern looks to the cheese-head accent she so accurately captures. Kirstie Alley has the most fun as the over-the-top mom, while Ellen Barkin gives one of the most caustically funny performances of her career. Denise Richards is bitchy enough as the ambitious Becky, but is outshone by Dunst. Allison Janney ("Primary Colors"), as Barkin's best friend Loretta, sparkles as Amber's impromptu mentor.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a striking debut for Jann. He shows a deft hand at manipulating his material to its best, with rapid-fire gags that, if one joke doesn't work (and some do not), another will be right along. He combines, with Lona Williams' script (based on her own experiences), satire and farce in a clever mix, with a sense of pacing that keeps the viewer laughing and amused from beginning to end.

You won't look at the Miss America pageant in quite the same way after you see "Drop Dead Gorgeous." I give it a B.


Laura's review of 'Drop Dead Gorgeous':
In the small Wisconsin town of Mount Rose, a group of LA documentarians is tailing Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), the local organizer (and former winner) of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics' American Princess beauty pageant. The Leemans are the wealthiest family in town and their daughter Rebecca Anne (Denise Richards, "Wild Things") is the contestant to beat. Bright and talented trailer park denizen Amber Atkins (Kirstin Dunst, "Interview With the Vampire") just wants to compete and she and six others will go head to head with the duplicitous Leemans in

"Drop Dead Gorgeous." "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is like "Waiting for Guffman" with bite. Both concern a group of MidWesterners putting on a local show hoping for national attention, but while "Waiting for Guffman" had an inate sweetness, "Gorgeous" is the blackest of comedies.

We quickly learn that Gladys Leeman, while eschewing the sins of big cities (like Mineapolis St. Paul) while professing deep religious beliefs, will stop at nothing to ensure that her daughter is crowned American Princess. Kirstie Alley has never been funnier or more outrageous than she is here, and she's not even the best thing in the movie.

Her daughter really is a princess, who hates being beaten at anything and holds a simmering resentment towards the tomboy farm girl who earned the honor of the President of their high school's sharpshooting club. Rebecca Anne's talent with a gun will come into play when the going gets rough. The tomboy in question, who has the chutzpah to go up against Rebecca in the beauty pageant as well, is the contest's first casuality when the thresher she's riding in her father's fields explodes.

Rebecca Anne's most serious competition comes from Amber, who lives with her single, hairdresser mother (Ellen Barkin, in an inspired, Best Supporting Actress nominee caliber performance). Amber is sweetness and light, even as she practices her tap dancing while performing her job as a makeup artist at the local funeral home. The other contestants include sex obsessessed Leslie Miller (her 'tribute to America' costume is a phallic Washington Memorial), a sign language devotee, a dog lover with a history of being attacked by her own pets and an American adoptee of Vietnamese parents straight out of "King of the Hill." The outgoing Mount Rose American Princess is an anoxeric/bullimic whose favor is being curried by Rebecca Anne.

The judges include a pedophilic druggist, the local hardware store owner who's retarded brother accompanies him everywhere and a Leeman Furniture employee. As the contest approaches, accidents escalate. Amber's mom is blown out of her trailer by an 'electrical problem,' managing to save her daughter's tap shoes in midair. She lands in the hospital with her beer can burned onto her hand and her buddy Loretta (the talented Alison Janney, "Primary Colors") steps in as Amber's guardian.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is drop dead hilarious. Like a Zucker, Zucker, Abrahams film, if one joke doesn't work, another that will is right behind it. Nothing's sacred here - from the Wisconsin accents (given the "Fargo" treatment, with Dunst giving the most subtle, realistic interpretation), to death, to the handicapped. When the documentarians follow the Mount Rose winner to the State finals, where the contestants all get food poisoning from a seafood buffet, he proclaims 'There's beauty queens blowing chunks everywhere. I've never seen anything like it and I'm from L.A.!'

B+


THE HAUNTING

Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) draws three troubled individuals to Hill House under the guise of a well paid sleep disorder study, but he's really chosen the creepy manse to analyze the effects of suggestion and fear. Luke (Owen Wilson, "Anaconda") is a sleepless surfer dude type with the hots for Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Zorro"), a bisexual with a flashy and skimpy wardrobe who in turn has the hots for Eleanor. Nell (as Eleanor likes to be called, portrayed by Lili Taylor, "I Shot Andy Warhol") is the first to be affected by, and the only one capable of uncovering the reason for Hill House's "The Haunting."

Laura's review of 'The Haunting':
Director Jan De Bont ("Speed") has assembled a top notch cast, a mixture of Oscar nominees, Indie darlings and mainstream flash, and put together a crack team of filmmakers including sound designer Gary Rydstrom ("Saving Private Ryan), visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett ("Jurassic Park"), composer Jerry Goldsmith ("The Omen") and editor Michael Kahn ("Schindler's List"), who've won a total thirteen Oscars for "The Haunting." Unfortunately he's saddled with Danvers native David Self's first produced script and its a load of drivel. But Self doesn't deserve all the blame as De Bont's film is an overproduced, high budget, unscary mess of a film, showing the misguided touch of Dreamworks head Steven Spielberg.

To wit, why mess with a story by one of America's greatest writers, Shirley Jackson? The theme of "The Haunting" is mistreated children, and while they could make a viable reason for a haunting, do they really need deliverance from a ghostly tormentor?

The film begins with an explanation for the saintly Eleanor's martyrdom. She's cared for an elderly, abusive mother for decades only to be informed by her snotty sister (Virginia Madsen) and brother-in-law that her home's about to be sold out from beneath her feet because mom's slighted her in the will. She's also taunted by her bratty nephew, the only truly horrific element of this movie.

She arrives at Hill House to make a new beginning and is greated by the creepy and rude groundsman Mr. Dudley (Bruce Dern) and then finds Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes, "Affliction") grasping a butcher knife. Mrs. Dudley then delivers a hilarious speech informing that they always leave the grounds at six p.m., before dark, and that no one is available to help if need be because Hill House is in the middle of nowhere with no one living within nine miles.

During the first evening, Nell's awakened by thumpings and rattlings and runs into Theo's room so that the two actresses can pant in order to show off their CGI-created frosty breath. Statuary and wooden carvings of children keep trying to tell Nell something and one of them keeps appearing outlined by sheets and curtains (why not a REAL child's outline instead of a carved one?). Bloody footprints lead Eleanor to a bookcase which is really a doorway to rickety stairs to a dusty old cellar which she, of course, descends. This turns out to be Hugh Crain's study where Eleanor discovers a dreadful secret and the one truly inventive (and low-tech I might add) special effect of the film.

All I can say is poor Lili Taylor. The marvelous indie actress finally gets the lead in a huge, mainstream Hollywood film and is forced to utter lines like 'adventure is for soldiers and women who bullfighters fall in love with.' The film ends on an overly sentimentalized (!) Spielbergian moment. Boo, indeed.

D

Robin's review of 'The Haunting':
"No one will come in the night...in the dark!" is the prophetic warning by Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes), the housekeeper of Hill House, where a research group gather for a study in insomnia. Unknown to the others, group leader, Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), is secretly conducting a study of fear, using the legend of the house as the catalyst to generate the proper terror in his "lab rat" volunteers. But, there's more than legend involved as the house takes an active part in the terror in this second screen rendition of "The Haunting."

Director Jan DeBont has shown a degree of skill in the suspense/action genre, from the career making "Speed" to the meg-blockbuster "Twister." But, after the cleverly written "Speed," the helmer's follow-on works, while laden with spectacular F/X, suffer from the lack of a good story or characters. This time around, DeBont tackles the Shirley Jackson horror novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," which was first brought to the screen in 1963 by director Robert Wise. The earlier, low-budget film was steeped in the psychology of fear, with all the "action" rep'd by fast editing and scary banging. DeBont, with his love of special effects, foregoes the psychological and replaces it with a highly visual telling of the Jackson story.

Unfortunately, F/X, alone, do not make a movie. Equal attention needs to be paid to the script and to the characters mouthing the words. In this "The Haunting," we are presented with a dazzling array of visual effects that are quite remarkable, but also quite uninvolving for the audience. Here, the carved frescoes of children come to life and the rooms take on the physical demeanor of a demon in an academically interesting manner. But, it all fails to scare the bejeezus out of the viewer. The eye takes it all in as an "isn't that an interesting effect," but the combo of story and F/X does nothing to infuse fear into the viewer. Interestingly, the scariest, jump-out-at-you bit in the film that got the biggest "yipe!" from the audience is also the lowest-tech effect in the film.

The cast, led by Lili Taylor as the central character, Nell, consists mainly of the quartet of leads. Taylor, a hard-working and talented independent film actor, is given her first big role in the major leagues. Too bad her character, who the house really wants, is drawn in only two dimensions. Taylor has the unenviable task of reacting to F/X that will be added later in post-production and walks through the film almost trance-like. The rest of the main cast have even less to do, with Neeson's Dr. Marrow as bland as his counterpart (Richard Johnson) in the '63 film. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Nell's foil, Theo, is one of the most beautiful women in film today. She lends her beauty to "The Haunting," but DeBont never elicits more than that from her. Owen Wilson ("Bottle Rocket") gives minimal comic relief in a minimal role. Bruce Dern makes a tiny appearance as the caretaker, Mr. Dudly.

The production design is stunning, as befits the talents of Academy Award winner Eugenio Zanetti ("Restoration"). The Hill House interiors are a magnificent creation of space, opulence and attention to detail, making the house a character in the film. The F/X, by two other Academy Award winners, Phil Tippet and Craig Hayes (both for "Jurassic Park), are, as I said, academically superb and would have been wonderful if in a film that is up to their excellence. The animation of the woodwork carvings of the children are reminiscent of Jean Cocteau's much more haunting 1946 classic, "Beauty and the Beast." (I wonder what Cocteau, a tremendously visual director, would have done with this technology.) The climatic ending shifts to a slam bang F/X extravaganza that feels more like "Poltergeist" and shows the influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg. Like the latter film, the big bang ending does not help "The Haunting." In fact, the "scary" climax actually elicited quite a few laughs from the audience.

The screenplay, by newcomer David Self, has an amateur quality, but makes good use of the lines, taken nearly verbatim from the '63 screenplay, that wreak with foreboding and danger. Perhaps if the F/X weren't so all encompassing, the writer and the actors may have been able to have a bit of fun with the campy dialogue that peppers the first half of the film.

"The Haunting" isn't a bad movie and has some appeal to the F/X junkies out there, but a horror movie it ain't. I give it a C+.


INSPECTOR GADGET

Security guard John Brown (Matthew Broderick) takes his job with Bradford Robotics very seriously. But, he sees himself as a real crime fighter, if just given the chance. When evil billionaire Sanford Scolex (Ruppert Everett), AKA The Claw, attacks the labs to steal a high tech robotic foot - yes, a foot - John risks everything to stop the bad guys. He loses. What's left of John Brown is taken by the murdered-boss's daughter, the beautiful Dr. Brenda Bradford, and, with about a thousand gizmos installed, becomes the city's new crime avenger in Disney Picture's live action rendition of the old cartoon series, "Inspector Gadget."

Robin's review of 'Inspector Gadget':
OK. You adults, listen up. Even if, somehow, you fondly remember the TV show, "Inspector Gadget," the movie, is firmly aimed at the kids. Little kids. There are a few references that, if you really pay attention, are meant to amuse the attending adult chaperones. When John Brown, in the hospital, undergoes his transformation into Inspector Gadget, you can hear, in the background, "Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard." There are only a few of these, though, not enough to make this a family film, just a kid's flick. The Dr. Frankenstein and monster parallel is there, but too wispy to provide much intellectual amusement.

To their credit, the filmmakers, headed by first time helmer David Kellogg, appear to be having a great deal of fun while taking the quality of their work quite seriously. "Inspector Gadget" is, as one expects, an F/X-laden extravaganza for kiddies. Between the visual effects, from Dream Quest Images, and the animatronic/makeup effects by Stan Winston Studios (who created a 30-foot crocodile in the just-released "Lake Placid"), there are a whole bunch of kid-amusing gadgets. From the Go-Go-Gadget helicopter, to the inspector's 15-foot long legs, to his fast-talking, street-wise and sassy Gadgetmobile (a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible with suicide doors, voiced by D.H. Hughley). These, and other Inspector Gadget toys, come fast and furious during the thankfully short film (around 80 minutes).

The talented cast throw themselves into their respective roles with enthusiasm. Broderick is bumbling and endearing as Gadget. He also does a fair turn as the impostor inspector (with sinister teeth) who wreaks havoc on the city. Ruppert Everett is nearly over-the-top as the evil Claw who controls the impostor Gadget. Everett, who is joined by Andy Dick (TV's "News Radio") and Michael G. Hagerty ("Wayne's World"), lacks the bevy of henchmen (and, possibly, a hench-babe) to help him in his wicked endeavor to take over the world. Romantic interest, for the parents attending this kid-fare, is provided by Joely Fisher (TV's "Ellen") in a stoic manner. There is not a lot for her to do. The actors don't get in the way of the F/X, at least.

Parents: I suggest you immerse yourself in a few episodes of the old series (with the kids), then bite the bullet and take 'em to see "Inspector Gadget." They'll have fun. I give it a C+.

Laura's review of 'Inspector Gadget':
"Inspector Gadget" seemed like a good idea for a film and the chance to play with a lot of unique effects. Unfortunately, it's been given the "My Favorite Martian" treatment by turning the Gadgetmobile into an obnoxious character a la Christopher Lloyd's space suit and even manages to make Rupert Everett uninteresting.

Matthew Broderick is OK as the title character, but just barely. He's been becoming increasingly one note in his latest films and playing a mechanical man is within his current range. At least he has the good nature to pull off a nifty in-joke spoofing "Godzilla," which he starred in. Joely Fisher looks pretty and mugs for the camera as Gadget's creator and love interest. Rupert Everett tries to breath some life into his villainous Claw, but comes across looking as artificial as Gadget's evil clone. The usually inventive Andy Dick (TV's "Newsradio") is positively boring as Claw's scientific minion. Michael G. Hagerty fairs somewhat better as the bumbling Sikes, the bad guy with a heart leaning towards redemption. Cheri Oteri (TV's "Saturday Night Live") is way over the top as a self-serving mayor.

The film gets most of its charm from Michelle Trachtenberg ("Harriet the Spy"), Gadget's niece Penny, and her well trained beagle. Unfortunately they're far too underutilized. She and a couple of well-timed Rube Goldberg-like set pieces keep the film from completely sinking.

"Inspector Gadget" is another misfire in Disney's live action pantheon.

C-


DEEP BLUE SEA

Because the mental abilities of sharks are not impacted by age, Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows, "Circle of Friends") turns to them in search of a cure for Alzheimer's. Of course she has to mess with nature, genetically re-engineering the DNA of sharks aboard the research atoll Aquatica, making them smarter much to her colleagues and the crews' horror. All this, just in time for a tropical storm to come along and sink the outpost, in director Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea."

Laura's review of 'Deep Blue Sea':
"Deep Blue Sea" will never be accused of smart writing, well fleshed out characters or greating acting, but it's slam bang entertainment and Renny Harlin's best film since "Cliffhanger".

The film starts out with a tongue in cheek homage to "Jaws" as four frisky teens on a sailboat are terrorized by an aggressive Mako (in true high-stupidity fashion, all four manage to fall into the water). After this, though, the film is more like "Alien," an 'old dark house' type of film where a group of people are stranded with a monster in their midst. Add some "Jurassic Park" for seasoning (these sharks are as cunning and quick as velociraptors and also attack in kitchens). Harlin even manages to recreat his stunning "Cliffhanger" opener.

Sharkbait consists of Saffron Burrows as the flawed and brow-furrowed research doctor, Thomas Jane ("The Thin Red Line") as a fearless shark wrangler and former convict, LL Cool J as the facility's cook and a former Preacher with a pet parrot, Samuel L. Jackson as the project's wealthy benefactor, Jacqueline McKenzie ("Angel Baby") a research assistant who's the girlfriend of Stellan Skarsgard ("Amistad"), a doctor with a lethal cigarette habit and Michael Rapaport as the facility's engineer.

How silly is this film? A shark takes down a helicopter which explodes with the force of a nuclear weapon! Dr. Jim, who was being airlifted out by that helicopter after sharing his cig with a ticked off Mako, is dragged underwater for several minutes in a shark's mouth and is still alive when he's tossed into the glass window shielding the lab - AND causes that glass, presumably built to withstand tons of water pressure, to break! Jackson uses all this mayhem to deliver a speech comparing the present circumstances to his experiences with an avalanche! Yet, Harlin's ability to build suspense and deliver the action goods is so entertaining it makes one regard the film's idiocy with something bordering on affection. WWW rap (Warner Bros) playing in kitchen when intro'ed to Preacher.

Stuntwork is outstanding - this was obviously a physically demanding shoot (star Burrows was knocked unconscious by the force of rushing water in one on-set mishap). Special effects are uneven - good animatronics but the computer generated shark moments look like a video game.

Studio Warner Brothers even had the unmitigated gall to plug their latest high ticket disappointment by introducing us to Preach as he sings along with Will Smith's "Wild Wild West" rap, but again - it's funny! As is one of the capping moments at the film's climax when Preach attempts to battle the lone surviving monstrous Mako with a most unusual weapon in a scene approaching camp classic. And yet another defining scene, when one character is taken out at a most unexpected moment, will have you laughing in disbelief at its sheer audacity.

"Deep Blue Sea" is great fun.

B

Robin's review of 'Deep Blue Sea':
Every so often, during the dog days of summer when we're pummeled with the high-tech, big-budget dreck from Hollywood, the movie moguls surprise us with a bit of summer fluff that actually has a wicked sense of humor, deep down inside. Such a movie, this year, is helmer Rene Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea."

On the surface (pun intended), "Deep Blue Sea" is a typical piece of formula actioner with sharks (oh, no! Not again!) as the bad guys and victims of the work of a mad scientist. The well-intentioned, but misguided Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), in her search for a cure for Alzheimers Disease, is using shark brain cells to try to regenerate their counterpart in a human brain. The good doctor, unbeknownst to her boss Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson, has violated "The Harvard Compact" by genetically accelerating the brain growth in her trio of experimental sharks. Then, a massive storm strikes their water-born laboratory, stranding its members and freeing the super sharks to look for supper.

At the beginning of the film, you have this gut feeling that you've been here before and are in for more of the same mindless monster-movie action we've come to expect for the last two decades. The characters are intro'd, one by one - Dr. Suzy, the dedicated mad scientist-type; Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), the hunky hero-type with a shady past; Franklin is the corporate honcho who's on-site to investigate the mad scientist's work; Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard), as a chain-smoking research physician, proves that cigarettes are definitely bad for you; Preacher (LL COOL J) is the facility chef and, with his pet parrot, provide the comic relief. Additional shark bait is provided by Michael Rapaport and Jacqueline McKenzie.

Though formula in nature, with requisite action and scare sequences, "Deep Blue Sea" does it all with a funky and fresh twist. The action sequences are there, but are done with a tension level that is reminiscent of Harlin's other fun actioner, "Cliffhanger." (The director makes a couple of direct references to the latter film with a bit of a wink o' the eye.) There are also surprise "endings" to a couple of the action bits that are genuinely shocking (in a good way) to the viewer. The comic relief by L.L. Cool J as Preacher is done in a pretty muck solo performance (with parrot) adds a funky good humor to the film.

F/X are shoddy when compare to what we've seen this summer, but the intelligence and humor in the writing and production help to overshadow this flaw. If you look below the action sequences, deep down, you can see a wicked good sense of humor at work by scripters Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers and Wayne Powers. Much care is given to side stepping action conventions and the writers make top effort to shock the viewer in unexpected ways.

Acting is pretty perfunctory all around, but Thomas James, as Carter, comes across well as the stoic shark wrangler who risks life and limb to save his friends. Saffron Burrows ("Circle of Friends") has never been more than wooden in her acting and gives the same here. Samuel Jackson collected a paycheck. Everybody does yeoman's work in one of the most difficult kinds of film to make - the underwater action adventure.

The film is also atypically refreshing in its not-exactly-happy ending. I don't want to give any of the surprises away, but this one is different than anything else out this summer. "Deep Blue Sea" would be a perfect drive-in film, especially if paired with the other monster flick out there, the campy and fun "Lake Placid."

I give "Deep Blue Sea" a B.


THE DINNER GAME

Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermite) is a successful, self-centered French publisher whose only real challenge in life is to find a guest to bring to a weekly dinner party with his wealthy and equally selfish friends. The dinner is a long-standing game among Pierre and his cronies, where the role of the "guest" is to amuse the regular attendees. How' The guest must be an idiot; someone who is so thoroughly boring, the regulars can have a good laugh at the poor sap's expense. Pierre has found the perfect ace in the hole for his dinner entry - Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a low-level accountant at the Finance Ministry who recreates famous monuments out of matchsticks. But, Francois turns out to be much more than the publisher bargained for in writer/director Francois Veber's "The Dinner Game."

Robin's review of 'The Dinner Game':
The real gem in "The Dinner Game" is the wonderful performance by Jacues Villeret as the bumbling, inept and endearing Francois. Villeret, a fixture in French films for two decades, is short, squat, a little bug-eyed and able to completely twist the not-so-good intentions of his host. Pierre dupes the naove Francois by telling the model-maker how he and his friends would love to hear all about his gifted talent. (Francois can tell you exactly how many matchsticks and tubes of glue it takes to build any one of his creations.) But, as should happen in a good farce, an unfortunate accident waylays Pierre just before the dinner and he is too late to cancel the engagement and stop the arrival of Francois.

In the meantime, Pierre's wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), walks out on her selfish spouse because of the uncaring cruelty of the hateful dinner. His mistress, Marlene, is a total loon and he wants nothing to do with her, though she thinks the opposite. And, Pierre has been estranged from his best friend, Just LeBlanc (Francis Huster), for two years after stealing the other guy's book and his girlfriend. The arrival of Francois and the little man's desire to help his new friend lead to a farcical comedy of errors that make Pierre's personal life go from bad to so much worse.

In a particularly funny scene, Pierre, driven mad from pain and not knowing where his wife is, enlists Francois to call a notorious, womanizing author to find out if Christine is "sleeping" there. Francois, pretending to be a big-time film producer, calls the writer on the pretense of making a deal on his latest book. Unfortunately, the little builder not only forgets to find out about the wife, he hangs up the phone in triumph, declaring he got the rights to the guy's book for a song! It's a wonderfully funny moment and Francois' elation at his "success" is palpable.

Director Veber, who co-authored the screenplay for "La Cage Aux Folles" and its sequel, wrote the original play for "The Dinner Game" and adapted it to the screen. The deft handling of the cast, by B.

Laura's review of 'The Dinner Game':
"The Dinner Game" (Le Diner de Cons) is a classic French farce which rivalled "Titanic" in box office on its native shores. Thierry Lhermitte, star of numerous French comedies (three of which have been remade in Hollywood), stars as a rude yuppie publisher searching for a poor loser to present at this week's 'idiots dinner,' where whoever presents the most foolish, idiotic (and unknowing) sap 'wins.'

That sap turns out to be Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a man obsessed by recreating engineering marvels such as the Eiffel Tower with matchsticks. He's the type of guy who leaves bad puns in sing-song as his answering machine greeting. In other words, he just what Pierre Brochant is looking for.

Brochant invites Pignon to dinner by phone, luring him with book potential for Pignon's hobby. But two disastrous events befall Brochant before Pignon's arrival - he first throws out his back, then his wife leaves him, expressing disgust with his participation in the idiot dinners.

Pignon arrives and immediately tries to help. Pratfalls, misunderstandings and general hilarity ensue, as Pignon virtually tortures Brochant with his many incompatancies. He's particularly adept at messing up phone calls intended to track down Brochant's wife and the film's at its best when Villeret has a receiver clasped to his head.

Of the supporting cast, Francis Huster is notable as Just LeBlanc (whose name is an opportunity for a Francophile 'Who's on First?' routine), Brochant's former best friend. Huster is mainly around to laugh at the action, but his laugh is truly infectious and adds a top note to the proceedings.

At just over 80 minutes running time, "The Dinner Game" zips along and provides goofy entertainment. On the downside, its premise is pretty darn mean-spiritted, the comedy often plays far too broadly and Brochant is a totally unlikeable character. The plusses outweigh the minusses, though, and the film's worth seeing just to watch Villeret masquerade as a Belgian film producer delighting in obtaining book rights 'for a song' when he was supposed to verify the whereabouts of Madame Brochant.

B-


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