FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
JAKOB THE LIAR - AMERICAN BEAUTY
MUMFORD - STIR OF ECHOES


FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) may be ending his 19 year career in the season's final game against the New York Yankees. As he strategizes on the mound, he reflects over the defining moments of his life, from his childhood, to the various hitters coming up at bat (some of whom were former friends and teammates) to the up and down five year relationship with New Yorker Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) which just ended that morning.

Laura's review of 'For The Love Of The Game':
Kevin Costner and baseball proves to be a winning combination for a third time with "For Love of the Game."

Billy Chapel is the finest role Costner's had in years and he gets into the character's skin. Chapel is a decent guy who's love for baseball blinds him to his own emotional needs and those of the people close to him. The film opens with Chapel beginning one of the worst days of his life. The girlfriend he's trying to patch things up with didn't show for dinner the night before and then arrives at this hotel to inform him that she's moving to London to take a magazine editor's position. The team owner, Mr. Wheeler (Brian Cox, "Rushmore"), comes to tell him that he's selling the team, and the new corporate owners want to trade Chapel to San Francisco as part of the deal. He's trying to hide a shoulder injury and is slated to pitch in that day's final season game.

Costner is entirely believable as the 40-year old pitcher who, up until now, has led a pretty charmed life. His concentration on the mound and mounting weariness are felt by the audience. A little less successful in the acting department is Kelly Preston, who's been really fine in recent supporting roles. While she's a little opaque, she still has some terrific moments, such as when she unexpectedly shows up at training camp and discovers Chapel with another woman ('It's never how you play it in your head.') or when she's attempting to get attention in a crowded emergency room when Billy's badly cut his pitching hand ('Is this not America? Is not baseball our favorite pasttime? she shouts to the room). John C. Reilly lends true support as Chapel's catcher and bosom buddy Gus Sinski. Jena Malone ("Stepmom") is affecting as Jane's teenage daughter Heather.

Adapted by Dana Stevens from the novel by Michael Shaara, the screenplay is wonderfully structured. The game, which may turn out to be a perfect game for Chapel (wonderful suspense is built), is a great connective device for Chapel's flashback memories. Some aspects of the screenplay don't quite work, though. Heather is thrust upon us suddenly in mid-film because Jane's been afraid to let Billy know she has a kid, yet we've seen Jane at home previously with no sign of a family. Chapel returns to his hotel room after a newsworthy game to find no messages on his answering machine.

Director Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead" series, "A Simple Plan") doesn't show as many of the stylistic touches he's known for, but sure knows how to showcase a baseball game, particularly when the audience is given the point of view of Chapel's oncoming pitches. Editting by Eric L. Beason and Arthur Coburn is seamless, although some scenes play on a little too long, especially as the film draws to its conclusion. (Ironically, Costner reportedly is upset that the film doesn't run longer!). All other technical credits are top notch.

Kevin Costner may not have hit a "Bull Durham"/"Field of Dreams" home run with "For Love of the Game," but he's given us a fine base hit.

B

Robin's review of 'For The Love Of The Game':
I'm a movie guy, not a sports guy. But, I am a sucker for a good sports flick. Whether it be kids' fare, like "The Bad News Bears," raucous comedy, like "North Dallas Forty," or mystical legend, like "The Natural," there is a purity to the well-done sports movie. Baseball, I think, is arguably the purest of all big-league sports as it best melds the talents of the individual players with the team spirit to play together to win. There were, for sure, times when the decency and honor of the sport were tarnished, like the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, Pete Rose's disgrace, and the player's strike several years ago. But, despite these black marks, the integrity of the game and why it is played - for the fans and for the love of the game - are still the values held true.

Kevin Costner, besides his other minor accomplishment as an Oscar-winning director ("Dances with Wolves"), has proven to be the ideal actor to embody the spirit of the game of baseball on the big screen. He charmed movie-goers and Susan Sarandon's Annie in "Bull Durham" as the worldly and capable catcher, Crash Davis. Then, in 1989, he tugged at the heartstrings of millions with the sentimental tribute to the sport in "Field of Dreams." Now, in "For Love of the Game," Costner once again steps up to the plate, this time as the 20-year veteran pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, Billy Chapel.

Billy is at a precarious apex in his career and his life. A fixture on the Tigers' roster, Chapel has used his talent and experience to keep his number one spot on the team for two decades. The sale of the franchise by owner and longtime friend, Gary Wheeler (an understated but full performance by Brian Cox), will result in the player's imminent trade to the Giants. At the same time, his long-standing, no-strings-attached relationship with magazine writer Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) is coming to a sudden end when she packs her bags and prepares to move to England. "This ain't your day!" is the only comfort that Billy's best friend and favorite catcher, Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly), can offer the aging pitcher.

"For Love of the Game" follows the two stories - one of career, the other, of romance - in equal parts in director Sam Raimi's effort to put the adapted screenplay, by Dana Stevens, of historian Michael Shaara's romantic sports novel on the screen. The result is an uneven balance of the two tales being followed. The sports drama of Billy facing a major career crossroads is the compelling, stylish and thought provoking half of the film. Costner conveys the turmoil that Chapel faces as he pitches the most important game of his life. As he also did in "Bull Durham," the actor, in his isolation on the mound, speaks to himself and his opponents (unknown to them) as he gets into his own head in pitching this all-important game. It is one of the most effective performances that I have seen from Kevin Costner.

The romantic half of the film, unfortunately, is not equal to the drama of the game. It's a predictable boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-by-doing-the-right-thing story that is telegraphed from the very start. Kelly Preston, as the love interest, is not up to what should have been a more mature performance. This may be the fault, too, of the script which draws the relationship in far more youthful and sophomoric terms than it should have been, considering the age of the principle characters. I think this is an attempt, by the makers, to attempt to draw the younger viewers to what is, essentially, a middle aged movie.

The baseball sequences, lensed beautifully and with precision by John Bailey, are some of the finest I've ever seen and are the draw for the sports movie fan. Helmer Raimi captures the essence of the sport of baseball as he shows, from beginning to end, a single game. The grace of the wind up and the pitch, the drama of the swing of the bat, and the miracle catch are all shown with a hyper clarity that, even for a sports-phobe like me, makes one truly appreciate the love of this uniquely American national past-time. Kevin Costner is impressive in the physical role of a big-league pitcher. He has the moves down pat and makes you believe he's a pro. The ensemble supporting cast, let by Reilly, are, well into the film, finally given the opportunity to show what it means to be a member of a finely honed team of players. Preston is the weak link in the chain.

"For Love of the Game" isn't a great film, or even a great sports movie, but Costner and company do a fine job getting you into the head of an aging sports idol at a pivotal moment in his life. A more mature romantic side would have helped make this one of the best of its kind. I give it a B.


JACOB THE LIAR

In 1944 Nazi-occupied Poland, Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) spies a forbidden newspaper float over the wall of his Jewish ghetto. Chasing it as it dances along in the wind, he winds up at the guard tower fence where a light is trained on him and he's ordered to report to the commandant for breaking curfue. There he overhears a radio report about the advancing Russian Army, a bit of news he spills to his friend Kowalsky (Bob Balaban, "Deconstructing Harry") to stop him from committing suicide. When young Mischa (Liev Schrieber, "Ransom") hears the news, he convinced Jakob has a radio - a possession punishable by death. Jakob can't convince the ghetto inhabitants that he's not storing a secret radio, so he decides to go along with them and spin tales that will bring hope and increase their chances of survival.

Laura's review of 'Jakob The Liar':
Billed as the second Holocaust comedy to come down the pike after "Life is Beautiful," "Jakob the Liar" sounds about as appealing as "Patch Adams" in a concentration camp. However, except for a central theme of lies being told as a survival tool and a happy ending as seen through the eyes of a child, "Jakob the Liar" bears little resemblance to Benigni's film and is not a comedy. This is an American remake of the 1975 Foreign Language Film Oscar winner from East Germany championed by Williams' wife Marsha, a coproducer of the film.

Adapted by director Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin from the Jutek Becker book, "Jakob the Liar" presents its hero as a man who has had little regard for his Jewishness until it was thrust in his face by the Nazis. Jakob merely considers himself a latke maker - a simple man, mourning the loss of his wife. Early in the film, he unwittingly becomes the guardian of Lina, a ten-year-old girl who's escaped from a passing transport train. Ironically, it's Lina, not a radio, that he's hiding from his kinsmen and the Nazis. Jakob discovers that his lies are a dual-edged sword - while Professor Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl, "Shine") urges Jakob to continue spinning his tales, they also cause another man to bravely retell them to the doomed passengers of a camp-bound train - and cost him his life. This conundrum is muddled in the telling.

Robin Williams blessedly gives a restrained performance as Jakob, resisting the urge to sanctify himself that's marred many of his recent characterizations. Armin Mueller-Stahl stands out most strongly in support - in fact the film doesn't really pick up steam until its focus moves to him in its final third. Hannah Taylor Gordon gives a slightly self conscious perf as young Lina, forgivable in a child actor. Bob Balaban is fun as the owl-eyed Kowalsky, constantly battling Jakob over the prewar business agreement that's favored Heym. Liev Schrieber is enthusiastically serviceable as Mischa and the usually brilliant Alan Arkin is somewhat bland as Frankfurter, father of Mischa's beloved Rosa and leader of the ghetto underground. Michael Jeter is barely noticeable in the crowd as Avron.

Luciana Arrighi's ("Howard's End") production design brings the Polish ghetto to bleak life (although one must question why, when twenty people are forced to share an apartment, Jakob enjoys three floors to himself). Hungarian cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi uses a gray pallette to visualize the dreary surroundings.

While "Jakob the Liar" is not the syrupy failure I had envisioned, it has its share of problems, most notably a very draggy first two thirds, meant to establish characters but way too repetitive in its mention of the imagined hidden radio. However, the film's pace picks up rousingly when the Professor bravely outwits a powerful Nazi official, the ghetto is rounded up for dispatch to a death camp as the Allies approach and Jakob is called upon one more time to not tell the truth.

C+

Robin's review of 'Jakob The Liar':
In 1974, a little known East German film named "Jacob the Liar" told the story of a Polish Jew who, with his false tales, gives his fellow captors hope against their Nazi oppressors. Now, Robin Williams reprises the role as latke-maker Jakob, a man whose thirst for news causes him to chase a windblown newspaper from the Nazi side of the Jewish ghetto's barbed wire. He is ordered to the German commandant's office for punishment for his infraction when he hears the strangest thing - a radio playing news from the front! When he later repeats the news report to his friend, Mischa, word spreads through the ghetto that Jakob has a radio. This unlikely hero becomes the sole hope of many as he tells his tall tales of Allied victory in Peter Kassovitz's "Jakob the Liar."

"Jakob the Liar" is a human drama of hope in the midst of fear and terror in one of the Nazi-established "ghettos" that were used as holding places for Poland's Jews in transit for Hitler's "Final Solution.". This harsh tale is sprinkled with light touches of comedy throughout that help take the edge of the reality of ghetto life under the iron heal of the Nazis. "Jakob" is not "Schindler's List," lacking that film's edge and gut-wrenching depiction of human misery. It is also not a rehash of "Life is Beautiful" and does not attempt to replicate the fantasy elements of the Roberto Benigni film. "Jakob the Liar" takes a middle road with its continuing message of hope and survival amidst horror.

The initial kvetching and "Oiy, gavalt!" by the principles is used to set up the Yiddish atmosphere of the ghetto and make the audience know we're seeing a Holocaust film, but one where faith in a future shines through from beginning to end. The setup shows the harsh atmosphere - the hunger, the beatings, the spot executions - in quick, dramatic moments and makes no bones about the inhumanity of the Nazi terror. Helmer Kassovitz shows good, economical film sense as he recreates the ghetto atmosphere. Production design, by Luciana Arrighi, fits the somber mood of the environment with gray and blue predominant. The screenplay, by Kassovitz and Didier Decoin, does not develop the story far beyond Jakob.

Robin Williams, as the title character, gives, for the usually manic actor, a subdued and understated performance. There are only one or two times where he is given a little free reign: he fakes a radio performance, including a Q&A with Winston Churchill, to entertain his new ward, 10-year-old Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon). For the most part, Jakob does not enjoy the limelight he is in. Just the rumor of a radio in the ghetto would result in quick, brutal retribution by the Fascist keepers. Possession would result in immediate execution. Williams maintains the necessary balance to keep his character from being too light or too severe. It's a nice acting job by Williams.

The supporting cast is made up with a nice array of character actors doing reasonable Polish accents. As the last members of the shrinking ghetto, despair is all around. Suicide is a valid means of escape and, for a people who have heard nothing from the outside for years, any news is to be grasped with hope, however small. Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Bob Balaban, Michael Jetter, Liev Schreiber and others give solid background performances, lending the film a nice depth of characters. The screenplay under-utilizes this capable acting crew.

The Holocaust is never an easy subject. It can never be the core of comedy and it should not be. But, a little mirth and hope, even during such a desolate time, is necessary for the human spirit to survive. "Jakob the Liar" shows, in a small way, that spirit. I give it a B-.


AMERICAN BEAUTY

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, "The Usual Suspects") is having a mid-life crisis and has less than a year to live. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening, "The Grifters") and daughter Jane (Thora Birch, "Patriot Games") think he's a loser. He's become intoxicated with his daughter's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari, "American Pie") and has begun buying pot from the new kid next door Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, "Beloved") who videotapes Jane from his bedroom window when not supplying urine samples to his dictatorial ex-Marine dad (Chris Cooper, "October Sky"). Lester's rebellion against his bloodless middle class existence will blow two families apart in "American Beauty."

Laura's review of 'American Beauty':
The feature film debut of Broadway director Sam Mendes ("Cabaret," "The Blue Room") from an original screenplay by Alan Ball (TV's "Cybil") is an instant American classic sure to garner considerable Oscar attention. "American Beauty" is a darkly funny look at suburban life that's imbued with a heartfelt loneliness and isolation, and even, in Lester's metamorphosis, hope.

I believe it's virtually impossible for Kevin Spacey to give less than a great performance and his Lester is note perfect. He begins as an out of shape fortysomething who masturbates in the shower before plodding through his thankless work day. When Angela catches his eye, he begins working out, quits his job, tries to shake Carolyn out of her stupor and connect with his daughter. His chirpy wife, a real estate agent whose mantra is 'I will sell this house today,' is consumed with projecting the outward signs of success and has lost the joy in life. She wanders into an affair with real estate 'King' Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher, "sex, lies and videotape"). Jane is a sullen teenager who makes up for her lack of self-confidence by hanging with the sex-obsessed Angela, whose own lack of self-confidence causes her to wield her sexual allure over men like Lester, much to Jane's disgust.

Next door, Colonel Fitts watches over his son like a hawk and has cowed his wife Barbara (Allison Janney, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") into a ghostlike trance. He's a borderline sociopath with deep suspicions about his neighbors the Burnhams and the gay couple (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) who welcome them into the neighborhood. Perhaps most amazing of the cast is Wes Bentley whose geeky intensity as videographer Ricky unfolds to reveal an incredibly sensitive young man. The film's most powerful moment is his, when he shows Jane the 'most beautiful thing I've ever filmed' - a white plastic bag dancing in the wind amongst the red leaves of autumn.

The color red and the quest for beauty are the underlying theme of "American Beauty" from the Burnhams red door and Carolyn's American Beauty roses to the pool of blood Lester exits this life in. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") provides striking visuals that recall the surface world of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

While the orchestration leading up to the film's climax feels a tad contrived, Lester's final scene is gut-renching. He's just kindly and sadly dealt with Angela and sits looking at an old photo of Carolyn and Jane at an amusement park. It's a moment of true melancholy and his last word - 'Carolyn,' recalls once again the film's title.

A

Robin's review of 'American Beauty'':
Lester Burnham is a loser. His wife and daughter loathe him for his weaknesses. He is deemed useless at work by an "efficiency expert" and is about to lose his job. He's out of shape and just plain miserable. Then, two things happen: he meets daughter Jane's best friend, Angela, and new neighbors - a retired Marine colonel, his wife and son, Rick - move into the neighborhood. These two seemingly unimportant events become a catalyst of change for Les and those around him in theater veteran Sam Mendes feature film debut, "American Beauty."

Once in a while, a great while, you get to see a film that is a symphony of writing, acting and filmmaking. It's the kind of movie that, as you sit there watching, you find a smile of pleasure plastered on your face for sheer enjoyment of what's happening up on the screen. "American Beauty" is such a movie. From its "sex, lies & videotape" style opening through its multiple stories that weave together like an elegant tapestry to its high-tension conclusion, the film is the best thing to come out of Hollywood this year. Maybe several years.

"American Beauty" has one of the best ensemble casts that have graced the screen since "The Big Chill." Led by the fabulous Kevin Spacey as Lester, the ensemble cast is made up of talented, capable actors, right down to the kids. Joining the Academy Award winning Spacey are Annette Bening as his control freak, real-estate selling wife Carolyn; a grown up Thora Birch ("Regarding Henry") as his daughter, Jane; Chris Cooper ("October Sky") is strict disciplinarian, ex-Marine Col. Frank Fitts; and, newcomer Wes Bentley plays the colonel's teenage son, Rick. Also included are Peter Gallagher ("The Player") as the slimy entrepreneur Buddy Kane, the real estate king, and Mena Suvari ("American Pie") as the sultry young fox who is the object of Lester's newly released desires. Allison Janney ("Drop Dead Gorgeous) is the Colonel's psychologically troubled wife. Scott Bakula and Sam Robards as a gay neighbors, Jim and Jim, rep the only "normal" family in the neighborhood.

This large cast has plenty to keep them occupied with the original screenplay by first-time feature writer Alan Ball. His script weaves a complicated tapestry with its multiple stories that impact all of the principle characters. Lester is unloved at home and at his job. His wife and daughter treat him as a useless drone whose only function is to provide a paycheck. When Les sees Jane's friend, the pretty and sexy Angela, his life changes. Les's obsession with the adolescent vixen is the catalyst of change in his life. When new young neighbor, Rick, turns on the older man to pot and a don't-give-a-damn attitude, Les seizes the chance, for once, to care about himself.

This tale of Lester's rebirth is complemented by the other story threads, beginning with wife Carolyn (Bening) obsessing with becoming a successful real estate broker. Her self-help tapes, owning the right house, the right car, even the right garden are how she equates happiness. When Les becomes his own man, Carolyn makes changes, too. She has a fling with Buddy Kane and takes up target shooting. Carolyn cannot accept what she is and blames Les for anything wrong in their life.

Jane (Thora Birch) is a troubled teen whose low self-esteem is fueled by not-so-best-friend Angela. Jane notices Rick when she catches him secretly videotaping her. At first repelled by his apparent voyeurism, she soon gets to know the boy and likes his independent spirit. Rick sells pot to finance his extensive and expensive video set up and to fool his disciplinarian father who brooks any infraction of "the rules" with sudden and brutal violence. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a tortured man who can't adjust to civilian life and has homophobic rages that say he doth protest too much. Rick's mom withdrew from reality years before because of her husband's hateful rigidity. All of these paths and characters converge, in the end, with tragic results.

The combination of a large and talented cast, complex stories, super intelligent writing by Alan Ball, expert art direction by Naomi Shohan, imaginative lensing by Conrad L. Hall, and deft direction by Mendes make "American Beauty" a truly special film. This is what movies are all about. I give it an A.


MUMFORD

Dr. Mumford is a shrink with a difference. In the town, also named Mumford, for only four months, he is the most popular psychologist around. He listens to his patients, gets involved in their lives and helps them in the most unexpected ways. He knows all of their secrets. What they don't know is that their good doctor has a huge secret of his own in the new comedy, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, "Mumford."

Robin's review of 'Mumford':
"Mumford" is an unexpectedly charming little film from Kasdan, who is known for his ensemble films like "The Big Chill, " "Grand Canyon," "Silverado" and "I Love You to Death." Dr. Mumford (no first name) is a successful, though enigmatic, psychologist who has unconventional methods in dealing with his patients. If he thinks that a client is rambling on, the doctor will cut him off without a second's hesitation and end the session. His patients don't always like the uncharacteristic psychiatric treatment, but they come back for more. They feel better about themselves, so maybe the shrink has something after all. But, Mumford's future gets cloudy when one rejected patient (a small, sharply done perf by Martin Short) believes the doctor isn't what he appears to be and starts an investigation.

Loren Dean gives a deadpan performance that suits the character perfectly. Mumford always has a hint of a melancholy smile on his face, like he really knows what's troubling his patients because he's been there himself. From early on, you know the man has a deep, dark secret and really isn't what he seems to those around him. Very unpsychiatrist-like, he tells one of his patients about what he hears from and about the others under therapy. He falls in love with another. He denies help to one particularly nasty client (Short) who wants revenge. Dr. Mumford is, at the very least, an unconventional shrink whose main talent is that he knows how to listen to his patients. He doesn't claim to be able to cure them, but he helps them to get to the next level in their lives.

The roster of patients making up Dr. Mumford's roster is populated with a talented cast of character actors. Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is the town's corpulent and plain pharmacist who lives in a fantasy world, picturing himself as a super-hunk with woman swooning all around him. Althea Brocket (Mary McDonnell) is an unhappy woman whose husband (Ted Danson) stopped caring for her years before. She compensates, the doctor learns, by buying anything and everything, sometimes two of each, from catalogues, wasting thousands of dollars on stuff she never even opens. Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) owns the town's only industry, has billions of dollars, and just needs a friend, even a paid for one, to talk to. Nessa Watkins (newcomer Zooey Deschanel, daughter of the great cinematographer Caleb) is a troubled high school student with a serious self-esteem problem. Finally, Sofie Crisp (Hope Davis) suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. All look to Dr. Mumford for answers or, at least, a little push in the right direction.

The town's non-patient list is led by Mumford's friend and landlady, Lily (Alfre Woodard) - one very together lady. David Paymer and Jane Adams play the doctor's professional competition as Doctors Ernest Delbanco and Phylis Sheeler, providing psychiatric comic relief for the flick. Ted Danson, Dana Ivey and Kevin Tighe help to flesh out the background material. The story, by Kasdan, is reminiscent of the 1960 film, starring Tony Curtis, "The Great Impostor" and 1988's "The Couch Trip." The viewer knows what happens on the screen, under the director/writer's guidance, from the very start.

There are no surprises in the story, what happens to any of the characters, or the ending. It is a nice hearted script that doesn't make claims to greatness, but its inherent good nature makes it a pleasant enough 111 minutes.

"Mumford" is conventional fare, but with a good heart. I give it a B-.

Laura's review of 'Mumford':
The concept behind Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan's "Mumford" isn't all that original - a stranger comes into town and changes the lives of everyone he comes in contact with - but this is a gently sweet, slightly offbeat, if overtly contrived comedy.

Loren Dean, who was set up for stardom at the age of twenty with "Billy Bathgate" (it flopped), has spent his subsequent decade in small, supporting roles until now. He centers the film with his all American looks and knowing, inwardly turned, smile as he listens to the town's assorted nutcases in his six month old psychology practice.

The film opens with a black and white, 1940's style pot-boiler unfolding where a hunky stranger drifts into town and rents a room from a willing, middle aged woman in a low cut dress. This is one of the sexual fantasies of the town's pharmacist Henry Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince, "Heavy"). Doc Mumford is trying to get Henry to insert himself into his own reveries. There's the punkette teen (Zooey Deschanel) with low self esteem who's addicted to fashion magazines and an unhappy housewife (Mary McDonnel, "Grand Canyon") whose mail order shopping has taken control of her life. Mumford's even visited by the town's psychiatrist (David Paymer) and is hired by the billionaire owner of Panda Modems (Jason Lee, "Chasing Amy") to be his buddy. Mumford gets into trouble, however, when Mr. Crisp, owner of the local hardware store, brings his daughter Sofie (Hope Davis, "Next Stop Wonderland") to his office to cure her chronic fatigue syndrome. Mumford decides to take her on long walks and falls in love.

Mumford also has a secret which is threatened to be revealed when lawyer Lionel Dillard (Martin Short), whom Mumford refused to treat because he can't stand listening to him, goes to Dr. Delbanco and Dr. Phyllis Sheeler (Jane Adams, "Happiness) and casts suspicion on him. Delbanco doesn't listen but Sheeler becomes obsessed and calls in the board of review. The cast also includes Alfre Woodard ("Grand Canyon") as Lily, the owner of a lunch counter as well as Mumford's friend and landlady, Ted Danson as Althea Brockett's (McDonnell) insufferable husband and Dana Ivey ("Simon Birch") as Sofie's hateful shrew of a mother.

"Mumford" doesn't have any laugh out loud moments - it's a quiet type of comedy that scores with its touches of zaniness. Jason Lee's Skip Skipperton is a goofy, skateboarding kid looking for love and involved in creating artificial female companions in his secret lab at Panda Modems (which also features an elaborate skateboarding run). Lily has a dog called Danny Ainge after the Boston Celtic. Althea's home is a maze of well known mail order boxes stacked everywhere. Sofie's reaction to learning Mumford's secret is to declare 'We had a paper route together, for God's Sake!' Mumford has a Cupid-like effect which results in three pairings in addition to his own. Most satisfying is to see Skip and the ten-years-older Lily connect over their shared passion for salad nicoise and a liking for being wet.

While "Mumford" is a little too laid back for its own good, its terrific, indie ensemble cast and unexpectedly off the wall details add up to a pleasurable little flick. B-


STIR OF ECHOES

When Tom (Kevin Bacon) disses sister-in-law Lisa's (Ileana Douglas, "Wedding Bell Blues") belief in psychic phenomena at a neighborhood party, he's quickly goaded into allowing her to put him under hypnosis and leave a subliminal suggestion in his mind. Turns out he's one of the 8% who go deeply, creepily under. He sees brief flashes - his own front steps, a bloody tooth - that leave him troubled. The flashes continue to occur, becoming more defined when he sees a teenage girl sitting next to him on the couch, a young woman his five year old son, Jake (Zachary David Cope) has been friends with for some time. This is all very upsetting for Tom's wife Maggie, (Kathryn Erbe) who's left out of their shared phenomenon, in writer/director David Koepp's "Stir of Echoes."

Laura's review of 'Stir Of Echoes':
Let's declare 1999 the year of the horror film. "The Sixth Sense" features the best twist since "The Crying Game." Earlier this year, I stated that "The Blair Witch Project" was the best horror film in twenty years. "Stir of Echoes" joins the pack as the first nightmare-inducing horror flick in some time.

As in "The Sixth Sense," "Stir of Echoes" features a young boy who sees dead people, although in this case it's only one, and he's not afraid. While "The Sixth Sense" had chilling moments, "Stir of Echoes" is disturbing on a more visceral level. (The film opens while an oblivious Tom is preparing Jake for bed. The child, in the tub, turns to the camera and asks someone unseen 'Does it hurt to be dead?' Pretty creepy.)

Tyro director Koepp adapted this screenplay from the 1958 Matheson novel. It's the type of story that pretty much announces its conclusion within the first third of its run time, yet that doesn't diminish the film's impact.

When the young couple try a new babysitter (recommended, unbeknownst to them, by the ghost), Tom gets bad vibes, seeing flashes of red everywhere. Entering the local football stadium, he suddenly just knows that his son is being abducted and bolts towards home, which is empty. His newly honed psychic abilities lead him to the train station, where Debbie has indeed taken Jake, but only so that her mother, who's working there, can here what Jake's been telling her about her sister Samantha, who's been missing for months. Samantha's relatives are suspicious of Tom and Maggie, yet show them a picture, which Tom immediately recognizes as the girl on the couch, although he denies it.

Tom becomes a man possessed (somewhat akin to Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), obsessing over the ghost to the detriment of his job. He envisions his neighbor Frank (Kevin Dunn) in his living room telling him 'they were trying to kill you,' right before he runs to his house to witness Frank's teenage son attempt suicide. He awakens from this dream and is alarmed to see that he's repeating every mundane action his dream began with. All this is starting to get to him, so he visits Lisa and insists she put him under again to wipe out the suggestion she left him with to 'open his mind.' It doesn't work - he instead witnesses more violent flashes and instead of the word 'Sleep,' which Lisa is leading him towards, sees 'Dig.'

Acting is highly convincing all around, from Bacon's portrayal of an obsession that looks like madness and calls for deceipt, to Erbe's confused and hurt Maggie. Kevin Dunn is everyman's best buddy and coworker as Frank. Liza Weil projects concern and malice as perceived by different characters in her small role as Debbie.

Oddly, Zachary David Cope's performance also recalls "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - his acceptance of his strong sensory perceptions is portrayed with the same wonderment shown by the younger Barry Guiler when a UFO lands in the field behind his house, although the film's coda gives a darker cast to the little boy's gift.

Technically, "Stir of Echoes" succeeds on many levels. Locations and production design perfectly capture a blue collar neighborhood where everyone knows one another through work as well as proximity. Editting by Jill Savett is superb, building up Tom's hallucinations bit by bit until a cohesive story is shown at film's climax. Tension is created in various ways - early repeated shots of Jake's child monitor foreshadow that something eerie will be broadcast over it. Makeup, lighting, and special camera effects create one of the most unnerving ghostly apparitions (Samantha is eerily and heartbreakingly portrayed by Jennifer Morrison) ever to appear on screen. Tom's hynosis sessions are inventively given a fantasy treatment that pulls a theater-going audience right into the experience.

The film only has a few failings. When Maggie takes Jake for a walk, he's drawn to a policeman's funeral where a large black patrolman (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) recognizes him as psychically gifted, recalling too strongly Scatman Crothers' introduction to Danny Torrance in "The Shining." It only serves as an either unnecessary or too hastily dropped subplot. The climax uses the hoary device of having a character the audience has been lead to believe is dead to conveniently reappear. The filmmakers apparently believe they haven't tipped their hand as to where the story's headed, and subsequently take a little too long to get there.

Still, "Stir of Echoes" is a well crafted, well acted horror thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

B+

Robin's review of 'Stir Of Echoes':
"Stirs and Echoes" is the third entry in this summer's streak of intelligent horror movies, which began with the low-budget/high-take "The Blair Witch Project" and continues with the exciting "The Sixth Sense."

Kevin Bacon is the real star of the film and handles the lead role with assured ability. His Tom Witzky is a blue-collar line tech for the phone company. He and his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), are just making ends meet when she discovers that she's pregnant again. This family crisis soon pales after the couple attends a party and Tom insists on being hypnotized by his sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas). What starts out as a lark soon proves to be a psychic door opened into Tom's mind. Unknown to the married couple, their little boy Jake (Zachary David Cole) has been "seeing" a young woman in their house, but she's no longer of this world. Father and son are on a psychic collision course as Tom risks insanity to find the meaning of the "Stirs and Echoes."

One of the nice touches in the screenplay by director David Koepp is the handling of the "apparition" as seen by Jake and his dad. For Jake, the unknown is something of interest and curiosity. For his dad, Tom, the unknown is fear and confusion. Little Jake proves to be the more experienced one in communicating with, and understanding, the afterworld. He acts as his father's guide and is not adversely affected by the paranormal events happening around him. Kevin Bacon's Tom is definitely nonplussed by the visits and views of the spirit world and is emotionally distraught by the confusion of his visions and their sinister, possibly violent, contents.

The core of "Stir of Echoes" is a supernatural murder mystery that has some truly creepy moments. Tom's plight, once the door deep in his mind is opened to the other world, is to make sense of the clues of visions shown him. In this way, and another I'll discuss later, "Stir" holds a big nod to Stanley Kubrick's rendition of "The Shining." As Tom falls deeper into his obsession of the afterworld, he undergoes changes that scare his wife Maggie, much like Jack Torrence and wife Wendy in the Kubrick film. Little Jake is much in the same boat, though a more benign one, as little Doc in "The Shining," with his visions of the restless dead. Tom, as the story progresses, realizes the ghostly girl is asking for his help to free her troubled spirit.

As I mentioned, there is another strong "Shining" reference to the Scatman Crowthers character with the introduction, in the last half of "Stir of Echoes," of an enigmatic black man named Neil. Neil (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.), after a brief meeting with the boy, knows that young Jake has the "eyes" (versus the "shine") and wants to help the beleaguered little family. This story thread is carried for a bit in the film, but drops off without explanation or conclusion. This tarnishes things as the story loses some of its focus.

The solving of the "murder" of the missing girl turns into a complicated conspiracy theory with other members of the "best neighborhood in Chicago" involved at various levels and each with his own agenda. This complexity and confusion of the finale diminishes the impact the film had built up for its first 90 minutes. Its end is a conventional wrap-up of the mostly interesting horror story.

The cast is uniformly good, with Bacon giving the strongest performance as blue-collar Tom. Kathryn Erbe, as Maggie, has the unenviable role as the loyal wife, but the actress fleshes out the character into an integral part of the plot. The scenes where Maggie shares, without knowing, the same room, almost the same space, as the ghostly spirit of Samantha (Jennifer Morrison) are some of the creepiest in the flick. Little Zachary David Cope is also pretty darn good as the little boy who sees ghosts. Some of his direct-to-the-camera questions and answers - to the ghost, as we soon find out - raised the hairs on my arms in a spooked reaction to his unseen partner.

Of the supporting cast, Illeana Douglas has the flashy role as the hypnotist. But, Kevin Dunn, as the proud father of his jock son gets to be more than just a background character as the story's events play out.

I don't want to delve into the story, itself, too much as a mystery should be just that for the viewer. I give "Stir of Echoes" a solid B.


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