SLEEPY HOLLOW
THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC
ANYWHERE BUT HERE - THE INSIDER
POKEMON: THE FIRST MOVIE
DOGMA - BEING JOHN MALKOVICH


SLEEPY HOLLOW

In 1799, on the verge of another millenium, Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is attempting to bring science and reason into the world of investigative crime. He's dispatched from New York City to Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson Valley, where three victims have been decaptitated in a fortnight. Invited into the home of Baltus and Lady van Tassel (Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson), Ichabod's attentions are drawn to their daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), who welcomes him with a kiss in front of her suitor Brom (Casper van Dien, "Starship Troopers"). However, Crane immediately attends to business with Van Tassel, the Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Doctor Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough) who tell him of a headless horseman that haunts their village and takes the heads of its denizens in director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow."

Laura's review of 'Sleepy Hollow':
Based on the Washington Irving tale, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker ("Fight Club") tosses a dose of novelist Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist' and a revenge/murder mystery plot into the American Folk Tale. The twist of changing schoolteacher Crane into a forensics investigator works wonderfully while the revenge/murder plot seems rather stock.

The somewhat supercilious Ichabod initially completely poo-poos his hosts' tales of a murderous ghost until he not only sees the horrific apparition himself, but witnesses the fourth murder. Crane takes to his bed and pulls the sheets up to his eyeballs before regaining his resolve, which takes him deep into the woods with his assistant Masbath (Marc Pickering, in his film debut), the orphaned son of the third victim. Katrina also appears, much to Crane's delight and concern, and the three discover the Tree of Death, which not only houses the stolen heads, but the headless skeleton of the former Hessian soldier. Ichabod deduces that the horseman will rest when his head is returned and they set about to discover which townsman has stolen the ghastly relic.

Meanwhile Ichabod and Katrina's relationship is growing, especially after Brom loses his head in battle with the ghost. Ichabod admits he's been bewitched by her while her dabblings in white magic remind him of his own beloved mother (Lisa Marie, "Mars Attacks!"), murdered by his father for her 'witchly' beliefs in nature.

Johnny Depp gives a performance here than equals or betters his last terrific turn for Burton in "Ed Wood." With his gothic appearance and dark hair spiralling from his head like whisps of smoke, Depp's hilarious rendering of Crane as a man trying to dazzle with science and the bizarre instruments of his trade while still fumbling for their uses himself is a delight. He's on my list as a potential Best Actor nominee for his assured, witty and unexpected acting choices.

The rest of the cast fares nowhere as well, with some real disappointments present. Miranda Richardson would seem a perfect choice as the stepmother with a secret, but she merely presents a pale imitation of past performances. Christina Ricci looks perfect as Katrina, but brings nothing really special to the role. The prestigious cast of elder actors, which also includes Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster of New York, look great in their wigs and costumes, but aren't called upon to do too much. Christopher Walken has no trouble looking fabulously weird as the horseman, but again, he's a monstrous apparition, not a multi-levelled character. Best of the bunch is the newcomer, young Marc Pickering, as the sober Masbath, who saves his master from spiders and offers character assessments beyond his years.

Technically the film is marvelous to behold with Emmanuel Lubezki's photography of English locations and Rick Heinrich's inventive production design creating autumnal, oil painting landscapes peppered with the Burton look evoked in carved pumpkins, scarecrows, Ichabod's bizarre eye goggles and Colleen Atwood's costume designs. Special effects by Jim Mitchell and Joss Williams are great whenever they feature the horseman, although they fall a bit short with a rather obvious mask used for a forest witch. Long time Burton collaborator, composer Danny Elfman, creates a score which blends into the action rather than offering anything distinctive enough to stay with you when you leave the theater.

Tim Burton has created one of his most enjoyable, if not his best, film in "Sleepy Hollow" and the director/actor team of Burton and Depp is proving every bit as magical as that of Scorsese and DeNiro or Herzog and Kinski.

B+

Robin's review of 'Sleepy Hollow':
Visionary helmer Tim Burton is back in form after his sojourn into 50's sci-fi with the very un-Burton like dud, "Mars Attacks!" "Sleepy Hollow" is a slick, updated adaptation of the oft-told tale of Washington Irving's famous spooky story. The screen story by Kevin Yagher, a special F/X master, and Andrew Kevin Walker takes the original story of the ill-fated school master and the headless horseman and puts a very different spin on the story.

Johnny Depp is Ichabod Crane, a circa-1799 forensic detective in New York City whose know-it-all attitude rubs his superiors the wrong way. To get rid of him for a while, the send him on a journey up the Hudson to the little burg of Sleepy Hollow. Three people have met untimely and violent deaths, beheaded by a single blow. Crane, more of a theoretician than streetwise gumshoe, is confronted with not three, but five murders when he arrives. The strange thing is, none of the victims' heads are found at the scene of the crime. Does Ichabod has a serial killer on his hands, or, is there credence to the legend of the murderous Hessian horseman whose headless body cannot find peace until his cranium is returned?

This updated story is a real showcase for Johnny Depp, whose collaborations with Tim Burton represent some of the actor's best work. First with "Edward Scissorhands," then with "Ed Wood" and now as Ichabod Crane, Depp shows his abilities are much more than a pretty face. As the gaunt, bumbling Ichabod, the actor is subtly over-the-top in a performance reminiscent of the caricature feel of Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers." Crane stumbles through with his investigation, relying on his "scientific method" to help in his hunt for the headless killer. Award nods are definitely not out of the question for Depp.

The supporting cast is given the role of mere backdrop to Ichabod's investigation. Burton uses his very talented cast to good effect in trying to flesh out the simply drawn background characters. Christina Ricci looks pretty and buxom as the bewitching Katrina Van Tassel. Miranda Richardson plays the bad guy step mother well, but doesn't get enough to do for the bulk of the film. Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid and Michael Gough give some body to their roles as the town fathers who know the dark secrets of Sleepy Hollow. Newcomer Marc Pickering is notable as Ichabod's young assistant, Masbeth. Christopher Walken is definitely scary as the Hessian horseman, with murderous eyes and teeth filed to points.

The look of the production can only be called Burtonesque. Most of the action takes place at night, with eerie, drifting fog masking the terror of the Headless Horseman until it's too late for the victim. The supernatural edge of the story helps the spooky quotient. The F/X of the Headless Horseman are as slick as can be, as is makeup. The production design, by Rick Heinrichs, complements Burton's vision and evokes the look and feel of an isolated hamlet in the wilds of upstate New York. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki captures the crispness and contrast of the darkly hued film in much the way he caught the golden colors of "A Little Princess."

The lack of background character development keeps "Sleepy Hollow" at arms length from Tim Burton's great films. But this is minor criticism when all the other wonderful elements of the flick are drawn together. Depp is a pleasure to watch and the movie has a good natured quality that works well with its tale of the supernatural. I give it a B+.


THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC

In 1429, a 17-year-old illiterate peasant girl who has heard the voice of God pronounced to the world that she would defeat the world's greatest army, liberate France and help the heir to the throne be crowned king. She led the French army to victory over superior British forces at Orleans, allowing the Dauphin (John Malkovich) to become King Charles VII of France. At 18, she was captured and sold to her hated enemy, the English. At 19, she was declared a witch and burned at the stake as a heretic. Director Luc Besson leads Milla Jovovich in the title role of his epic-scale film of the legend of "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc."

Robin's review of 'The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc':
Luc Besson, whose debut film "La Femme Nikita" and the wonderful Jean Reno star vehicle, "The Professional," once again has a hefty budget following his successful, if shallow, "The Fifth Element." In "The Messenger," he tackles the legend of Saint Joan, the story of how a little girl accomplished big things at the behest of God. Besson's then-girlfriend Jovovich is given title role of one of the most prominent women in history. Milla gets the chance to be Mel Gibson, a la "Braveheart," wear armor and screech at her troops, "If you love me, you will follow me!" She also has a tendency to gaze blankly at the camera in what is supposed to be inner reflection, rage, turmoil, uncertainty, etc. The 24-year-old actress, though looking every bit the boyish character, lacks the acting power to convince that she is a righteous warrior doing God's work. A better film could have been had if the role of Joan had been cast differently.

Director Besson utilizes his talented supporting cast to give the film the depth needed to compensate for the flat lead. (To give Jovovich credit, she handles the physical demands of her role quite well.) Using the thesping abilities of Malkovich, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo and others, mostly in small, but important, character roles, helps flesh out what could have been a sparse background. Hoffman, as Joan's Conscience, comes across more like a rabbi than a priest, but is nonetheless a likable and significant character. Malkovich minces about as the Dauphin/King to some amusement, while Tcheky Kayro, as one of the French knights, makes you want to see more of him in the film.

The screenplay, by Besson and Andrew Birkin ("The Name of the Rose") handle Joan's visitations by God in a perfunctory, no-nonsense manner. One problem with this, since you never really see God or hear the conversations, is that it requires a leap of faith to believe that Joan is really the instrument of God. Actually, all she ends up really being is a means to and end for the Dauphin to secure his throne. The holy zealotry that is the legend of Joan of Arc is missing from the story. I think that the only reason troops would follow this Joan is because they're bored.

Technically, "The Messenger" does a first rate job in making the relatively meager force of extras appear convincing as the warring armies. There is nothing here like the 1100 Irish soldiers enlisted for the fight scenes in "Braveheart." Longtime Besson collaborator and cinematographer Thierry Arborgast captures the battle sequences up close to enhance the image of the brutality of armed combat. Vivid depiction of heads and limbs being lopped off and general mayhem evokes the requisite winces, at times. The battle scenes are uniformly well choreographed. Costuming by Catherine Leterrier and production design Hugues Tissandier help provide the period feel. Bad teeth abound here, too, just to let you know that poor hygiene prevailed in 15th century France.

"The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" is an ambitious, if misguided, film. Miscast at the top, the epic drama is much less than it could have been. Now that Milla and Luc are history as a couple, maybe Besson will return to more intimate action films that are his metier. I give it a C+.

Laura's review of 'The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc':
Luc Besson's "The Messenger" is a big, sprawling mess of a movie, a true oddball that can be strangely effective. However, Milla Jovovich, the model, singer/songwriter, actress and former wife of the director, is in a little over her head in the lead role.

The two and a half hour epic is split into three distinct sections. In the initial piece, young Joan (Jane Valentine) is established as an overly devout young girl who runs to church to confess her sins several times a day. When English soldiers burn her village and murder and rape her older sister in front of her (hidden) eyes, Joan becomes catatonic before bursting forth in religious hysteria and visions of what appear to be God as a young boy. In the middle section, the now teenaged Joan presents herself to the French Dauphin (John Malkovich) and tells him that God has told her to lead an army to defeat the British and attain his rightful crown as the King of France. She then goes into battle and does just that, before being betrayed by the Royals who no longer need her influence over their subjects. In the final act, Britain, France and the Church conspire to be rid of her, each for their own reasons, yet none wish to dirty their hands with the deed. While Joan is awaiting a trial for heresy, she battles with her Conscience (Dustin Hoffman), in the film's most inspired imaginings.

The shift from young Joan to the adult, well-known figure is handled abruptly (maybe trimmed to reduce the film's running time?) and intially Jovovich seems thoroughly awkward in the role. When she faces her visions, her hysteria is portrayed by popping eyes and palsied limb shaking that, frankly, looks a bit silly. However, when she goes into battle and inspires troops, she settles into the role believably and even handles a battlefield speech to the British, driving them from the playing field, with confidence. Besson's many modern touches sometimes work and other times don't, such as having his Joan constantly berating her most loyal soldier for his swearing. Amazingly, though, he introduces comedy during Joan's darkest hours (Conscience imagines other explanations for the appearance of her sword in a field than the miraculous one Joan's attributed to the event) and it works very well indeed. He also forgoes the obvious choice of a long build up to her final burning at the stake, instead letting her final reflections take up the screen time.

The film also features Faye Dunaway as the manipulative mother-in-law of the Dauphin, Tcheky Karyo ("La Femme Nikita") as the Dauphin's half brother, both amused and irritated by Joan in battle, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Cassel, Richard Ridings and Desmond Harrington.

Cinematography by Thierry Arbogast mostly features close-ups and tight shots, except when he's portraying the scope of the battlefield. (It should be noted that the battles themselves are bloody and brutal, with Besson seeming to delight in letting heads and limbs fly.)

"The Messenger" is a mishmash, but its interesting ideas and unusual quirks often make for a compelling film.

B


ANYWHERE BUT HERE

Adele August (Susan Sarandon) has dreams of a better life for herself and Hollywood stardom for her daughter Ann (Natalie Portman, "The Phantom Menace"), so she buys a 1978 Gold Mercedes and rips her fourteen year old daughter from her stepfather, friends and family in Bay City, Wisconsin and heads for Beverly Hills. Ann's sullen disapproval of her mother's flighty ways make for a bumpy mother/daughter relationship, but their personal journeys lead them both to eventual maturity and mutual understanding.

Laura's review of 'Anywhere But Here':
"Anywhere But Here" is an unabashed chick flick which male audiences may find more endurable than most. Steering clear of her sitcommy turn in "Stepmom," Sarandon never attempts to sing and dance with her family here, instead flaunting an amusing optimism to hide a lack of self confidence that's touching.

Adele is the type of woman who likes to quote her dad's trite 'don't get grumpy when the road gets bumpy...' witticisms and go out for ice cream whenever things go wrong. Ann, who has no visions of Hollywood stardom, is bookish and dreams of finding her birth father, a dark and romantic Egyptian, who left them when she was four years old. She occasionally lets herself fall for her mother's exhuberant charm, but usually resists. She sees the shame in her mother that Adele herself doesn't realize, telling Adele she 'looks elegant,' when she thinks Adele doesn't believe she stacks up compared to Ann's rich schoolmates' moms (the Augusts live in the 'slums' of Beverly Hills).

Sarandon hits just the right note of sunniness mixed with goofiness and self doubt. Her character is the kind of woman who'd make a great chum. Portman plays Ann dangerously close to being unlikeable in her sullenness, but never teeters off the edge. She's particularly effective in her cool handling of Peter (Corbin Allred, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"), a classmate with a huge crush on her. Allred is good himself, with his unusual ways of wooing. Portman initially turned down this film due to a sex scene with his character which was rewritten to get her to accept the role. She's done the filmmakers a favor as the rewrite forced the screenwriter (Alvin Sargent) to use imagination that resulted in one of the best scenes in the movie.

The story does falter a few times. Adele's first husband's leaving is never explained and she leaves her second husband without a second thought and has no other relationships until she's picked up on the beach by a womanizing orthodontist who she chases pathetically after a date she doesn't realize was a one night stand. This behavior seems a bit extreme even for Adele, who seems more sophisticated that her hot pink stretch pants would initially lead one to believe. An LAPD cop tries to ticket Adele and ends up giving mother/daughter advice to Ann. Later the same cop stops Adele again and does the same for her. These scenes are amusing, but gimmicky. Ann's closeness to her cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy, "Outside Providence"), who flies out to LA to visit, verges uncomfortably close to incestuousness.

The dramatic stakes are raised when Ann finally agrees to audition for a television show. Adele sneaks in to watch and is crushed to see Ann wow the pros with a caustic rendition of Adele. The wound causes a rift, but the healing results in self revelations.

Director Wayne Wang has delivered a solid entertainment, particularly for women, with "Anywhere But Here."

B-


THE INSIDER

The tobacco industry, for years, has been the target of investigation and criticism as the purveyor of what is proven to be a dangerous, life-threatening product. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a prominent corporate officer and R&D scientist at Brown & Williamson, one of the major cigarette makers, has reached his limit. The declaration before Congressional committee by the CEOs of the tobacco business that nicotine is not addictive and cigarettes are not harmful is just too much for the right-minded Wigand. He loses his job when he objects to the corporate stance and, forced by his conscience, contacts "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to say his piece. This is just the beginning of Michael Mann's "The Insider."

 

Robin's review of 'The Insider':
As the story progresses, Jeff's good intentions go incredibly awry. He grants the interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), giving scathing testimony against the manufacturers for knowingly addicting millions to a clearly dangerous product. He and Bergman even try to meet the letter of Wigand's disclosure agreement with Brown & Williamson. The cigarette giant brings its considerable legal and financial forces to bear on Wigand, Bergman and "60 Minutes," threatening the TV magazine program with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit for "tortuous interference" and the guarantee to screw up the sale of CBS to another company.

The resulting clampdown on the broadcast of the interview and the negative press given to Wigand causes the whistleblower's life to go down the tubes. His wife, Liane (Diane Venora), leaves him after she finds that Jeffrey made the life-altering decisions without even consulting her. He is under constant watch by his oppressors and can't think of finding a job anywhere near the industry. He nearly has to beg to be hired as science teacher at a small high school. In the meantime, producer Lowell Bergman has his own world-view dashed as 20 years of news reporting integrity by "60 Minutes" is compromised in favor of high finance. There is an awful lot going on in the story of "The Insider."

Helmer Mann takes on this formidable true story and gives a detailed narrative of the one of the biggest corporate scams ever. With unlimited funds available, the tobacco industry was able to stonewall any investigations for years. The results of Jeffrey Wigand's testimony in court resulted in a lawsuit led by Mississippi and joined by the other 49 states. The lawsuit ended in a settlement of $246 billion dollars. The scope of these events is well created by Mann and company.

The complexity of the story and all of its legal twists overshadows ant character development of the principle and supporting actors. The plot driven story requires each actor to take on a character set and stay with it through the film. It works here, but definitely results in a lack of character growth, especially for the principles. Crowe's Wigand starts out as a righteous underdog and maintains that character throughout the film. The same goes for Pacino's Bergman and Plummers's Wallace. Despite this restriction, the whole cast does a fine job.

Christopher Plummer does give an outstanding performance in his portrayal of Mike Wallace. The newsman apparently took offence to how he is depicted in "The Insider," but, for the life of me, I can't see why. Plummer will likely be singled out for award contention at year's end. Pacino and Crowe do not slouch, either. Both give power to their individual roles and flesh out the symbolism of the characters. Pacino, in particular, gives a perf that takes his usual intensity down a notch, but sustains the lower energy level through the whole story. Crowe is just an impressive actor and one of my favorites.

Supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with a multitude of character actors peppering the background. The likes of Michael Gambon as the sleazy Brown & Williamson CEO, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Gina Gershon, Colm Feore, Rip Torn and Bruce McGill all help to flesh out the background characters. McGill, in particular, lends credence and power to his small role as a leading Mississippi civil servant trying to get justice for the people from the tobacco industry.

Tech credits are outstanding all the way. Cinematography, by Dante Spinotti, uses high contrast and a documentary feel that helps carry the film's sustained tensions. The screenplay by Eric Roth and Michael Mann, based on the Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, is clean and crisply written from beginning to end. The music by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke gives an exotic air to the film score. Brian Morris ("Evita") provides top production design, particularly the Mississippi courtroom and the 60 Minutes sets.

"The Insider" is a compelling, tautly depicted tale of corporate power and individual integrity. Director Mann may well have an Oscar contender here. I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'The Insider':
Director Michael Mann (TV's "Miami Vice," "Thief," "Heat") cowrote "The Insider" with Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") based on a Vanity Fair article on CBS News' squelshing of a 60 Minutes piece on tobacco industry whistle blower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand's testimony that his former employers tampered with the nicotine in cigarettes to make them more addictive thus perjuring themselves before a congressional committee. This 2 1/2 hour film is not about the perils of smoking (I don't recall seeing a cigarette smoked in the film), but about truth and journalism vs. corporate America.

Russell Crowe ("LA Confidential) is Wigand, a health scientist who joined Brown and Williamson for the big bucks (and, as he tries to rationalize, to possibly do some good). His outspokenness eventually gets him fired for 'communications problems' with a severence package and much needed continued medical benefits for his family (his older daughter, ironically, has severe respiratory problems) and a confidentiality agreement. When 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) contacts him as a potential consultant, the paranoia Wigand displays (they actually flirt via fax) makes Bergman suspect he's on to a much bigger story. Coincidentally, Wigand is called to appear in the office of his former boss Sandefur (Michael Gambon, "Dancing at Lughnasa") to sign an expanded confidentiality agreement and receive veiled threats against his family ('Most people watch what they say,' says Sandefur 'Jeffrey just charges right in.' 'I don't like to be pushed around' says Wigand - one of the character traits that will result in his decision to come forward.)

Soon Wigand's being tailed, his house is being watched, anonymous death threats arrive via email and a bullet's left in his mailbox. His pampered wife Liane (Diane Venora) caves, takes their two daughters and files for divorce. He's filmed his interview with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) after being promised legal support from CBS and a chance to give a deposition in a Mississippi that would make his statement public property, undermining his confidentiality agreement. The state of Kentucky files a gag order that could send him to prison upon returning home, but Wigand agrees to go forward.

With one of the most explosive 60 Minutes pieces under their belts and ready to air, the boom falls on Bergman and Wallace in the form of Gina Gershon's ("Bound") sleek corporate lawyer who advises them and their boss Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) that they will be in danger of a lawsuit that could ruin CBS due to tortuous interference if Brown and Williamson can prove that they influenced Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with them. Bergman's prepared to fight - pointing out that an impending sale of CBS to Westinghouse could be endangered by the lawsuit and that several of the higher ups and lawyers that are pressuring them to fold stand to make millions on the deal. Much to his astonishment, Hewitt and Wallace side against him. Thus begins the film's finale as Bergman tries to squelsh a viscious smear campaign against Wigand and leak the whole story to the New York Times.

The often less than subtle Pacino reins himself in here and grounds the film as its true hero. Bergman cares more about journalistic integrity than cash and is outraged that, for the first time, a source he's secured has been hung out to dry. Crowe gets the complex emotional shadings of Wigand right, but this Aussie actor's American accent has no regional qualities and is a bit distracting - ironically he speaks like a TV anchor. The best performance in the film is given by Plummer as Mike Wallace (who, along with Don Hewitt, is reportedly upset with his depiction here). Plummer is arrogant, vain, spoiled, yet professional. (In the movie's most amusing scene, Wallace throws a tantrum before an interview with the Hazbillah which turns out to be a cover for a warming up exercise.) The cast is too huge to mention every performance, but of note in a small role is Bruce McGill as Ron Motley, the Mississippi lawyer who takes Wigand's deposition while out-bullying the tobacco lawyers.

Technically the film is aces in all regards with cinematography by Dante Spinotti and editting by William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom creating claustrophic paranoia and urgency (the camera creeps around Wigand's house at night like a prowler). Music by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke is highly original and effective, combining Middle Eastern riffs with orchestral cathedral choir dirges. Unfortunately Mann makes one really wrong choice by blaring this churchlike composition over the eventual airing of the 60 Minutes interview, sanctifying the event as if it were the second coming of Christ.

Overall, though, "The Insider" mostly gets it right as a well acted, taut, true life thriller.

A-


POKEMON: THE FIRST MOVIE

The Pokemon experience has swept the US in recent months, establishing a cult of followers for the TV series, the trading cards and the video games. Now, the Japanese invasion is set to take over the big screen, too, with Pokemon: The First Movie.

Laura's review of 'Pokemon: The First Movie':
The Japanese children's animation Pokemon hit the news sometime back when it caused children in Japan to suffer seizures from the frenetic pace of its editting combined with dayglo colors. Toned down to an acceptable onslaught, the series and its accompanying merchandising has conquerred the U.S. Now we have the confidently titled "Pokemon The First Movie (MewTwo Strikes Back)."

Most adults admit to sheer ignorance of Pokemon (adapted from 'pocket monsters') lore, although most have certainly seen the image of Pikachu, the little yellow fellow with the button eyes. Pikachu is a Pokemon who belongs to Ash Ketchum, a Pokemon trainer aspiring to become a great Pokemon master, along with his pals Misty and Brock. The Pokemon movie is preceded by a short titled "Pikachu's Vacation" that will be unintelligble to all but the initiated and almost had me running from the theater (although I will admit the 'lesson' of the piece seemed admirable in a TeleTubbies kind of way).

Rest assured, the actual movie is understandable, mainly due to the human characters missing from the short and the few Pokemon who actually speak, like the villain of the piece, MewTwo. MewTwo was cloned from a rare and possibly extinct Pokemon's bones, but of course his DNA was 'enhanced' and we all know what that means. Yes, MewTwo is invincible and wants to take over the world.

After a few establishing Pokemon battles are played between Ash and a challenger, Ash receives a strange invitation from "the world's greatest Pokemon trainer" to a party at New Island. Ash and his two buddies set out and end up battling a ferocious storm to get to the island, unknowingly accompanied by their rivals Team Rocket and Team Rocket's Pokemon Meowth. There MewTwo informs them and the others brave enough to conquer the storm that he will be master of all (this is against natural law - Pokemon should only serve man, not the other way around).

The 'good' Pokemon all end up getting cloned by MewTwo and a huge battle that theatens to wipe out the entire species ensues. Mew (a cute kitten-like creature) appears to help battle MewTwo. Everyone decides that it's wrong to fight and Ash sacrifices himself to end the Mew-Fight only to be revived by Pikachu's tears (aw...) But wait - isn't the entire premise of this creation to pitch your Pokemon into battle with another's? And what's with the platypus Pokemon-thing that looks like Homer Simpson? I'm confused.

Will kids like this? If they're into Pokemon, probably. The kids at the screening seemed attentive. However for the adults, it's only bearable (it does brighten up a bit when we get to see Pikachu's clone try to beat the senses out of him). Personally, South Park's hilarious parody which aired one week before the movie's opening was more my cup of tea.

C

Robin's review of 'Pokemon: The First Movie':
I know I live in a cave when it comes to knowledge of current events and pop phenomenon. I didn't know about Beanie Babies until I heard about the ten dollar stuffed toys going for $1800. Pokemon, it turns out, is another such phenom. Aside from having come across the word Pokemno (which, for the uninitiated, is a truncation of pocket monstesr), heard about the trading cards and seen the South Park episode that spoofs them, I was as naove as a newborn babe when I walked in to see Pokemon: The First Movie.

Screened before the feature length animation is a short called Pikachu's Vacatino where the most popular Pokemon takes a well-deserved holiday. This highly stylized fantasy revolves around the most famous of the pocket monsters and shows a society made up of quasi-military political associations. It is all very bizarre and caused me some concern about Pokemon: The First Movie. I was expecting a 75 minute commercial. My concerns were unfounded.

Pokemon: The First Movei is a darkly rendered animation about a group of aspiring Pokemon masters, led by Ash Ketchum, who must search the world to find all 150 Pokemon. His friends Misty and Brock, and his favorite Pokemon, Pikachu, join him in his quest. He has to overcome the obstacle of his adversaries, Team Rocket, doing Pokemon battle along the way. Even more menacing is the arrival of MewTwo, a clone of Mew, the greatest Pokemon ever. The little band of masters and their Pokemon wards must fight for human and Pokemon survival against MewTwo and his army of cloned pocket monsters.

This is one heck of a lot darker flick than anything I expected. >From the look of the abstract, though cute, pictures of the Pokemon, I was expecting something along the lines of The Adventures of My Little Pony. What you get deals with good versus evil, the quest for power, integrity, loyalty and more. There is a surprising complexity to the story and its concepts that transcends the Speed Racre look of much of the animation.

Something is lost in the translation, though, with the abrupt philosophical change that dawns on Ash and his friends as they realize that fighting is bad for the Pokemons. This 180-degree turnaround from the belligerent nature of the rest of the movie feels like it is tacked on to the end. But, from the response of the audience, this doesn't matter much. During the course of the film, the audience shouted out each Pakemon name whenever a new monster came on the screen. And, remember, there are 150 of these things.

Pokemon: The First Movei is aimed at a demographic that spans quite a number of years. The audience at the screening I attended ran from 6- and 7-year-old kids to teenagers. The attraction spawned by the TV series and trading cards ensures a sizable audience familiar with the material, though the makers try to fill in some Pokemon histoyr for us uninitiated. This is definitely going to be a help for the parents unfamiliar with Pokemon (if such a creature exists).

I find the movie oddly compelling, so I still haven't decided if I was brainwashed while watching Pokemon: The First Movi,e or not. If I start collecting the cards, watching the shows and naming all the Pokemon, I'll guess that I was. Still, there is a dark, violent edge to the flick that makes me think it inappropriate for some younger viewers. But, with the popularity across media for the Pokemon, maybe I'm just being an old fogey.

I find Pokemon: The First Movie to be an interesting look into yet another cultural phenomenon. As I kids movie, I recommend The "Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland instead. For Pokemon fans? Give it a shot. I give it a B-.


DOGMA

Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) are two fallen angels banished to Wisconsin forever after standing up to the Big Guy a millennium ago. When the head of the Catholic Diocese in New York City, Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), comes up with a plan to modernize the Church - he is replacing the crucifix with the symbol of Buddy Christ and plans to give total absolution to all who enter his cathedral - the outcasts spot a loophole to get back into Heaven and beat feet for The Big Apple. The only problem is if these guys get back into Heaven, there will be hell to pay. That's when celestial powers enlist Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), the last descendant of Christ, to stop the corrupt pair. The powers of good and evil slam together to do battle in director Kevin Smith's latest opus, "Dogma."

Robin's review of 'Dogma':
Helmer/writer Smith had a tough one to follow up with his 1997 hit, "Chasing Amy," an intelligent, funny and sometimes dramatic film about romance in the 90's. With "Dogma," Smith takes on both Heaven and Earth and it is a big chunk of terrain to invade. For some of it, at least, Smith is successful in his satire on religion, faith and the existence of God. For the rest, some judicial editing in the last half would have helped keep the pace equal to the first hour.

The story is a comedic take on material similar to that used in the more serious angels-on-earth flick, "The Prophesy." "Prophecy-lite" might be a good subtitle for "Dogma." The film begins with problem angels Loki and Bartleby acting like a pair of petulant children. They're pissed about being exiled, especially in Wisconsin, and resent mankind. Man, they muse, was favored from the start by God and given the privilege of choice - to believe in God, or not. Angels, on the other hand, have to worship the Supreme Being without question. Bartleby, in particular, doesn't think its fair and the pair set off on a killing spree to eliminate sinners in preparation for battling God again. Loki and Bartleby are a deadly and amusing odd couple in their journey to absolution and power. Damon and Affleck are likable characters and the actors have fun with the roles.

The other half of the tale follows Bethany (Fiorentino) as a modern day savior, though one who is clueless to the heavenly events unfolding around her. Bethany is the straight man to those who are sent by God's messenger, Metatron (Alan Rickman), to help in her holy mission. God's right-hand angel first assigns a pair of prophets to assist Bethany in her quest. To her chagrin, the holy men are actually Jay and Silent Bob, the longtime duo of director Smith's acting clique. Jay is foul mouthed and oversexed, always trying to get laid. Silent Bob is a man of very few words and in, a weird way, IS the strong, silent type. Jay and SB provide the bulk of the comic relief and much of the irreverence liberally sprinkled through the film.

The screenplay, by Smith, is getting some critical flack about being anti-Catholic. In fact, any religion could have been used. It really doesn't matter. The author is taking a shot at belief and faith, not the Church. There is a sure knowledge of the material as he skillfully weaves into his story numerous reference threads from the Old and New Testaments. This in-depth understanding of the religious material allow Smith to deftly introduce new additions to the myths and legends of religion. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (director Smith) are priceless as the modern day prophets sent to help Bethany. Chris Rock has his moments as the unknown 13th apostle of Christ, Rufus. Jason Lee is merely OK in his portrayal of Azrael, a banished angel who has joined Satan in the battle against God. Salma Hayek is funny and sexy as the heavenly muse, Serendipity. Singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette gets to play a mute God. Yes, boys and girls, God is a woman.

At 130 minutes runtime, Smith is hard-pressed to fill the time. Once the satire is set in motion and the many characters introduced, things take a routine turn as all the disparate forces are propelled on an obvious and inevitable collision course. What started out as satirically witty turns to the merely clever. Things really needed to be wrapped up about 20 minutes earlier. A tighter, more biting film could have been had. As it is, it is thoughtful and funny but less than satisfying. Smith took on a bit too much, but I laud the effort. I give "Dogma" a B-.


BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Craig Schwartz (John Cusak) is a gifted street puppeteer. But, that doesn't pay the bills. Pressured by his animal-loving wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), to get a paying job, Craig hits the want ads and gets an interview at LesterCorp for a fast-fingered file clerk. It's a small company located on the 71/2th floor of Manhattan's Mertin-Flemmer building and is designed for the vertically challenged, being, quite literally, half a floor. During orientation, Craig meets and is smitten by Maxine (Catherine Keener) but is spurned by the gorgeous woman. Retreating to his file room, he accidentally finds a diminutive door. Curiosity gets to the puppeteer as he crawls through the portal and is thrust into another mind in director Spike Jones's debut feature, "Being John Malkovich."

 

Robin's review of 'Being John Malkovich':
Taken from an original screenplay by first-timer Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich" is a surrealistic ride into a fantasy world that is unique and never before seen. When Craig, like Alice in Wonderland, goes through the hidden door, he is propelled down an icky tunnel and into the mind of the title character. For 15 minutes, he sees the world through the actor's eyes and experiences Malkovich's senses before being dumped, unceremoniously, on the side of the road by the New Jersey Turnpike. Like an addict, Craig can't get enough of being John Malkovich and is determined to dominate the man.

In the meantime, the puppet master and Maxine enter a deal over the portal and sell tickets to it like an amusement park. Lotte also goes through the door and, with Maxine's help, uses the experience to release her inner longings for the other woman. It gets more complicated as Craig boss, Dr. Lester, reveals a secret obsession for John Malkovich, too.

There are elements of possession and duality as Craig uses the vessel of the actor's body to fulfill his own dreams, using Malkovich's fame to further his art of puppetry.

This generally satirical, and sometimes laughter evoking, film has a number of hard and harsh edges to it, too. The possession of another being is handled in a dark, creepy manner, with the puppeteer losing his soul in order to get what he thinks he wants more than anything. The price he pays effects not only the puppet master, but also, everyone around him. Though its logic unravels in the last quarter of the film, the imagination and inventiveness of the story keeps the interest level high throughout.

John Cusak is first rate as the tormented and torn puppeteer, but is underutilized in the pivotal role. Craig Schwartz is a talented fanatic who believes so deeply in himself he will go to any lengths to succeed. As his possession of John Malkovich proceeds to completion, Cusak, understandably, is out of the picture and the great John Malkovich plays himself being controlled by the puppeteer - even recreating a puppet dance of rage beautifully rendered in the beginning under the credits. Malkovich steals the show as he takes on the persona established by Cusak as Craig when we first meet. Best supporting actor attention is not out of the question.

Cameron Diaz is unrecognizable as Lotte. Craig's wife is a bit of a ditz and, once exposed to the mind of Malkovich, decides on a different sexual orientation that does not involve her husband. The offbeat relationship between Lotte and Maxine is carried through the film to a sensible, loving conclusion. Catherine Keener is sexy as the vamp who toys with Craig while rejecting his advances and falling for Lotte. The supporting cast is first class with Orson Bean giving an amusing perf as the somewhat senile immortalist, Dr. Lester. Mary Kay Place lends a quirky believability to her role as the hearing-impaired company receptionist (and object of Dr. Lester's desire), Floris. Cameos by Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn, and even Brad Pitt, for about two seconds, add to the funny side of things.

Tech credits are up to snuff with the story and acting. The dark, moody look of the film by cinematographer Lance Acord ("Buffalo 66") adds to the sinister comedy. There is also a brilliant bit of production design by newcomer K.K. Barrett when John Malkovich enters his own mind and describes it as "a world that no man should see."

"Being John Malkovich" doesn't hold up for its full length, but shows enough talent and imagination to make it eminently watchable and thought provoking. And the puppeteer bits are beautifully done. I give it a B+.

Laura's review of 'Being John Malkovich':
"Being John Malkovich" is a delightfully absurdist comedy about the concept of self and role reversal. Part Monty Python, part Jan Svankmajer, the original screenplay by Charlie Kaufman is one of the best of the year, even if it goes against its own logic and loses its way a bit in its final quarter.

The film stars John Cusack as Craig Schwartz, an unsuccessful avant garde puppeteer who performs on the streets of NYC (and gets beaten up by outraged parents for his racy material) and envies the world famous Derek Martini (in this strange world a production of "Belle of Amherst" with a 60 foot Emily Dickinson gets TV coverage). Craig's married to mousy Lotte (Cameron Diaz), a pet shop worker who provides the couple's only income and brings home various animals (a chimp, birds, lizards) she perceives as needing TLC. When she finally gets fed up with his lack of a job, Craig applies for a position as a 'short statured fast-fingered file clerk' in the Mertin-Flemmer building where he's directed to the 7 1/2 floor which he arrives at when a helpful stranger stops the elevator between floors 7 and 8. Everyone walks the halls bent at the waist, his employer Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) has a secretary (Floris, Mary Kay Place) with warped hearing who he's obssesssed with and Craig gets the job after he listens to Lesters sexual fantasies.

At employee initiation Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener, "Your Friends and Neighbors") and forms his own obsession, but Maxine, who's rather arrogant and vain, rebuffs him. Then Craig falls upon a something that will cause Maxine to cozy up to him - a small entry hidden behind a desk that turns out to be a portal into John Malkovich's head where one can be the actor for 15 minutes before dropping out by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig reluctantly agrees to Maxine's scheme of selling tickets to this trip after hours, but things take a complicated turn when Lotte takes the trip and decides shes really a man trapped in a woman's body and falls in love with Maxine herself. Her affections are returned - but only when she's John Malkovich. Craig decides to trick Maxine and make love to her himself. Poor John Malkovich wonders why his new girlfriend screams Lotte during lovemaking and eventually discovers their shennigans and enters his own head with surreal results.

The cast is wonderful. Cusack, sporting long hair and a beard, is marvelous as the self-deluded puppeteer and henpecked husband, but he gets lost as the film moves to its conclusion (partially because he takes over John Malkovich in order to have Maxine). Diaz loses herself in Lotte - she resembles Mia Farrow with a bad perm. Keener is perfect as the selfish Maxine looking sleek and confident. Best of all is John Malkovich who is not only an incredibly good sport (everyone compliments him on films he wasn't in), but must take on the persona of whoever's inhabiting him. I'd love to see him win an Oscar nomination for playing himself! Charlie Sheen is also hilarious in a small role as himself - of Maxine he says to JM 'maybe she's using you to channel some dead lesbian love - sounds like my kind gal.' Sean Penn and Brad Pitt also have brief, amusing appearances as themselves (Pitt manages to get a laugh with a 1 second shot).

The film looks great, with Craig's puppet sequences attaining a true beauty.

A-


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