TOY STORY 2 - MANSFIELD PARK
END OF DAYS - LAST NIGHT
PRINCESS MONONOKE
FLAWLESS - THE GREEN MILE


TOY STORY 2

Woody, Buzz Lightyear and all the rest of Andy's toys are together again in the long-awaited follow-up to the 1996 mega-hit, "Toy Story." We're back in Andy's room and Woody is about to go off to Cowboy Camp with his owner, but an accident prevents the favorite toy from going on the journey. What follows is a tale of action, adventure, intrigue, loyalty and friendship in animation master John Lasseter's latest entry for Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation with the marvelous "Toy Story 2."

Robin's review of 'Toy Story 2':
"Brilliant" is the first word to come to mind when I think about "Toy Story 2." Director Lassiter, with co-helmers Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon (both of "Toy Story" fame), have taken the wonderful world they created in the original animation ground-breaker and bring it to a new level. The computer-generated environ of the first film is expanded to include a broader view of this fantastical land where toys can walk, talk and have feelings and friendships. The makers take it up a notch and further flesh out their already-real characters as you get the chance to know them all better.

"Toy Story 2" picks up with Woody's boy, Andy (John Morris), about to head off to camp. An unfortunate accident damages Woody's arm and the beloved doll has to be, sadly, left behind by the boy. During Andy's absence, his mom (Laurie Metcalf) decides to clean things up around the house with a yard sale. One of the items from Andy's room is an old, discarded and broken toy penguin that has lost his squeeze-toy squeak. Woody, damaged but determined, immediately goes to the rescue of little Wheezy (John Ranft) with the help of family dog, Buster. Wheezy is saved, but Woody falls into the hands of an unscrupulous toy store owner who greedily realizes Woody's worth and kidnaps the toy.

Buzz Light Year (Tim Allen) and the rest of Woody's friends watch helplessly as the conniving owner of Al's Toy Barn spirits their leader and guardian away. Al knows that Woody is a valuable collector's item from a TV puppet show in the 50's, "Woody's Roundup," and has plans to use Woody as the lynchpin in a deal to sell a complete collection of Roundup memorabilia to a Japanese toy manufacturer as a high price museum piece. A rescue mission to save Woody is set into motion and five volunteers - Buzz, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and Rex (Wallace Shawn) - leave their safe home to search for and save their friend. The resulting adventure delivers edge-of-your-seat action and entertainment that you have to see for yourself.

This rip-roarin' action/adventure yarn has all the elements needed to make this a true film-for-all-ages. Only the most jade and cynical person would not look at "Toy Story 2" with wonder and fascination. The story is a melding of many fundamentals of film that give it complexity to appeal on many levels. The wonderful characters from the first film are complemented with some new additions - Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer) and Bull's Eye, Woody's loyal horse. The script, by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb, weaves the old and new toys into a seamless story that, along with the entertainment values aimed at the kids, gives the adult viewer an incredibly intelligent and witty level of humor and story.

Lasseter and company, while telling their adventure tale of rescue and intrigue, level some sharp but funny barbs at many famous icons, both in and out of the movie business. Keep your eyes and ears open for good-natured riffs at "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Even Happy Meals get the writers' attention here. There is nostalgia laced in with the action, too, with a faux memorabilia world built around Woody and his TV show and real toys, like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, getting a bow.

The technical side of things is astounding. From the very first moments when the theater lights go down and an animated short with the famous Pixar lamp hits the screen (Lasseter's first CGI film for Pixar), you know you are seeing a true tour-de-force of animated, heck, of any, filmmaking. John Lasseter is a true genius and a master storyteller and animator who has a grasp of his medium that is second to none. He and his crew have not only made a sequel that is the real equal of the original, it stands up by itself in its creativity and imagination. My absolute only quibble with the film is that Kelsey Grammer was not quite right for the voice of Stinky Pete. A gruffer, Gabby Hayes kind of voice would have suited better. Talk about a nit pick.

"Toy Story 2" is a hands-down masterpiece and the best film of the year, so far. Brave the holiday movie-going crowds and give yourself and the family a real treat. I give it an A+.

Laura's review of 'Toy Story 2':
Here it is - the first A+ film of the year, "Toy Story 2." Simply put, this is the best sequel since "The Godfather II." Mattel even relented this time out and allowed Barbie to join the cast.

In these days of eBay and Beanie Babies, it's an ingenious idea to make Woody (Tom Hanks) a vintage collectible covetted by the nerdy owner of Al's Toy Barn. The screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb is the most crowd-pleasingly inventive of the year. Woody makes not one but two heroic rescues (the first to protect Wheezy, a penguin who's lost his squeaker and been relegated to a yard sale, sets up Woody's kidnapping). Buzz Lightyear's (Tim Allen) challenge to rescue Woody across town is rachetted up a few notches when he encounters hundreds of Buzzes in the Toy Barn and gets boxed by an interloper. There's also his natural enemy Emperor Zurg, who Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) has been attempting to defeat in the Buzz Lightyear video game, made 'flesh,' er plastic. Delightfully clever references to "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars," Pixar's own Oscar winning short "Tin Toy" (watch carefully when Hamm goes channel surfing!) and even "La Femme Nikita" will have the adults howling.

New characters are seemlessly introduced - Jessie, the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar), Bullseye, Woody's horse, Wheezy (Joe Ranft), Mrs. Potatohead (Estelle Harris), Barbie, (Jodi Benson, voice of "The Little Mermaid") Al McWhiggin, (Wayne Knight) the Cleaner (Jonathan Harris) and Buster the family dog (introduced in a charming fake-out scene). Perhaps most pleasing is that Woody and Buzz's returning sidekicks, namely Slinky the Dog (Jim Varney), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Mr. Potatohead (Don Rickles) step into the spotlight along with Woody and Buzz. Even the characters of Etch and Spell are established more firmly, with Etch used for police drawings and Spell as a crime database.

The film's technical achievement is at least as eye-popping as the original. When Jessie sadly recounts her experiences with her owner Emily, we see her being dragged from underneath a bed, yarn hair and plastic face perfectly half covered with dust. A new world of black and white television is created with "Woody's Roundup" as seen on videotape, with Woody, Bullseye, Jessie and Stinky Pete as stringed marionettes.

Composer Randy Newman returns, as does the "You've Got a Friend in Me" theme, with an additional entry for Jessie - "When She Loved Me," sung by Sarah McLachlan.

Inventive, hilarious, witty, touching and exhiliarting, (the final climatic scene which follows an airline's baggage handling system is heart stopping) "Toy Story 2" is that rarest of things - a perfect film.

A+


MANSFIELD PARK

Fanny Price's mother didn't fare as well as her two sisters, the now wealthy Lady Bertram and her respectable head housekeeper Mrs. Norris. Fanny, the eldest, is sent to her aunts at Mansfield Park, where it is hoped she can make a better life for herself, although it's made clear the child will never be on equal footing with her cousins Maria and Julia. However, her cousin Edmund befriends the young Fanny and loves her into adulthood, as she does him. Jane Austen never lets lovers pair up easily, however, and the arrival of Henry Crawford and his sister Mary set Mansfield Park on its ear.

Laura's review of 'Mansfield Park':
Adapted from the titular Jane Austen novel as well as Austen's letters and early journals, writer/director Patricia Rozema ("I've Heard the Mermaids Singing") presents the most personal viewpoint on Austen's works yet. This film has generated some controversy, most recently at the London Film Festival, because 1) Austen's own character is applied to her heroine, 2) there's a lesbian seduction, 3) an actual sex scene and 4) a significant subplot regarding slavery.

I find the first to be a good idea - why not merge Austen's own words with those of her heroine? As to the second and third, they're presented much more subtly than the film's naysayers would have one believe as well as being present in the source material - after all, "Sense and Sensibility's" plot included an unwed mother even if we didn't see her being deflowered on screen. The slavery subtext is of its time (1804) and provides character motivation, social conflict and a metaphor for the state of womanhood in general.

We first meet Fanny Price as a young girl (played by Hannah Taylor Gordon of "Jakob the Liar") being sent by her mother to 'live with her aunts.' Fanny doesn't realize that she's the poor relation being sent to better her position in life until she arrives at the manorial Mansfield Park and immediately sets off a conflict between her aunt the head housekeeper, Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish, "Highlander") and her other aunt's husband, Sir Thomas Bertram (playwright Harold Pinter). She's shooshed into an anteroom where she overhears that she is to stay in the main house, not the housekeeper's home, although she will, of course, not be made aware that she's not the equal of her four cousins. Fanny's given a dusty unheated room and begins to cry, drawing her cousin Edmund in to cheer her up and begin a lifelong devoted friendship.

Shift to adulthood and the arrival of the fashionable and handsome Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola, "Face/Off") and his sister Mary (Embeth Davidtz, "Schindler's List"). As Fanny's just written to her sister Susan back home (Rozema has her address these letters directly to the camera), the eldest Bertram girl, Maria (Victoria Hamilton "Persuasion") has just become engaged to a Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville, "Notting Hill"), a not too bright, none too handsome man worth 12,000 pounds a year. When the Crawfords enter the Bertram drawing room, everyone's set atwitter, particularly Maria (much to younger sister Julia's petulance). Even Lady Betram (Lindsay Duncan, "An Ideal Husband," who also plays Fanny's mother) struggles out of her opium- induced stupor to be charmed by the newcomers.

Fanny's dismayed to find that not only does her beloved Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller, "Trainspotting") have eyes for Mary (he's been guided away from Fanny by his father), but that Henry's asked for her hand after carrying on outrageous flirtations with Maria. When Fanny refuses to obey Sir Thomas, correctly pegging Henry as a cad, she's sent back to her home in Portsmouth and is once again of a social class that doesn't belong.

This being Austen, all will get what they deserve and Rozema's devised a clever way to draw Fanny back to Mansfield Park that will pit her once again against Sir Thomas - this time in defense of others enslaved, including his eldest son Tom, who's fallen seriously ill after having desertted his father on a business journey to Antigua. Australian actress Frances O'Connor ("Love and Other Catastrophes," "Kiss or Kill") is a bright and intelligent Austen heroine, seeming of the period and modern at the same time. Jonny Lee Miller, rather dull in "Afterglow," is spot on as the second son heading towards the clergy with his head on his shoulders, enjoyment of life's pleasures intact and a true empathy for his fellow human beings (even if he is a bit dense when it comes to romantic love). Embeth Davidtz really sinks her teeth into Mary with a genteel, seductive exterior distracting from her manipulatively ambitious nature. Lindsay Duncan is quite effective in a dual role - pampered wealthy drug addict on one hand, embittered suffering wife and mother on the other ('Don't forget that I married for love,' she advises Fanny). Harold Pinter is a strong force as the morally conflicted gentleman who must come to realize that none of his own children have the backbone or principles of his inheritted poor relation.

Camerawork by Michael Coulter swoops over the English coastline when not engaged by interior production design by Christopher Hobbs and art direction by Andrew Munro. Lighting seems natural for overcast English weather. Costumes by Andrea Galer, hair and makeup are all believable for the period, with Fanny's mannish shirts and jumpers and tailored velvet coatdress making her stand out in her elegant simplicity.

Rozema's made a bit of a gamble with some of her choices for her Austen adaptation and they've paid off. While "Mansfield Park" doesn't boast the high calibre Hollywood star wattage and gloss of "Sense and Sensibility," it offers a more thought-provoking viewpoint.

A-


END OF DAYS

It's December 28, 1999, three days before the end of the millennium. A young woman is being hunted by the biggest bad guy of all, Satan, to become the mother of his child at the last hour of the Millennium. At the moment of conception of the Anti-Christ, forces of evil will be unleashed and destroy mankind. Fate brings alcoholic ex-cop Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzenegger) up against the Dark Lord in a battle to save the girl, and an unwary humankind, from the ultimate evil in "End of Days."

Robin's review of 'End Of Days':
The last "good" thing Arnold Schwarzenegger had done was the overly long but entertaining "True Lies" in 1994. That actioner combined its roller coaster ride of thrills, humor and good characters in a neat package that aimed to amuse.

"End of Days" lacks all of these things, and more - like an interesting plot that doesn't rip off nearly every major horror and monster film genre made in the last 30 years. "The Omen," "Rosemary's Baby," "Predator," "The Exorcist" and other films provide ample material for the screenplay by Andrew W. Marlowe. The story doesn't necessarily rip off these classics, but borrows liberally enough from all to eliminate any originality in this saga of the Apocalypse. "End of Days" is, for all of its big budget ($80 million?), a routine formula flick. The downtrodden hero is called upon to save the life of the beautiful young heroine from the clutches of evil. Plug in Satan, the Millennium, the end of mankind and a bunch of pyrotechnics and you have "End of Days." The serious tone of the subject matter also hurts since Arnie doesn't get to have the sassy tag lines his more tongue-in-cheek characters usually bring. There's no "I'll be back!" or "You are one ugly mother"!" to give the audience a humor boost. When you're going toe-to-toe with the Dark Lord, I guess it's inappropriate to make fun of him.

The somber seriousness of "End of Days" (which is a catchy title) cloaks the whole film with a self-importance that makes the idea of the story better than its execution. Director Peter Hyams plods, uninspired, through the salient points of the plot, garnering a wooden performance from Arnie and not much more. This combination makes the film 2+ hours' worth of tedium. Schwarzenegger gives his least engaging performance since the Conan films, looking more constipated than anguished as he tries to save the girl, and the world, from Satan's evil clutches. Arnie isn't cut out for a straight dramatic role and looks tired and worn out here.

The supporting cast does not fare much better, with the exception of Robin Tunney as the babe who Satan set his sights on to be Mamma. Christine York is both vulnerable (after all, it is THE Devil) and resourceful as she helps Arnie battle the Prince of Darkness. Tunney gives some character and depth to the role so she comes across as more than the helpless bimbo she might have been. She's pretty, too. Kevin Pollack gives some smart ass humor to his sidekick role, but stupid story lines make him more of a silly distraction later in the film. Gabriel Byrne makes a game attempt to give some wicked humor to his Satan-in-the-body-of-a-man character, but the chances are far too few. More attention to the dark satire of the Devil among Man would have helped immensely. Rod Steiger, CCH Pounder and Miriam Margolyes are wasted in meaningless roles.

Special F/X are kept to a relative minimum for the bulk of the film, being saved up for the grand finale. And, since we're dealing with Satan and Hell and stuff, there are lots of fire effects and explosions in the last half-hour. A "Predator"-style effect of Satan searching for a suitable host body, moving about just beyond being seen, is used liberally but grows boring quickly. The big bang ending, with its giant puppet Devil belching brimstone as Jericho saves Christine, is little more than smoke and mirrors. To its credit, the film looks good. Cinematographer Peter Hyams (he did double duty with his helming responsibilities) vividly captures the vibrancy and color of the film's dark nature, giving the big finale a snappy, crisp look that is too good for this dud.

"End of Day" preaches at you about good versus evil, Heaven versus Hell and Man's faith in God (with a little help from Arnie's Glock) but is pretty boring in the telling. Arnie saves the world, once again, without the average Joe ever being aware just how close we were to the End. I wish I were never aware of "End of Days." I give it a D+.


LAST NIGHT

In Toronto, Sandra (Sandra Oh, "Double Happiness") tries to find a bottle of wine in a store swept of merchandise as outside vandals tip her car on end. Patrick Wheeler (Don McKellar, "The Red Violin") arrives at his parents' house for a Christmas celebration to be admonished for arriving an hour late and for planning on returning to his apartment rather than staying. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie, "eXistenZ") is about to have sex with a black woman for the first time and Duncan (David Cronenberg) is calling his customers to assure them they will have gas service until the end. What do these people all have in common? They're choosing how to spend their last six hours on earth in writer/director/star Don McKellar's "Last Night."

Laura's review of 'Last Night':
"Last Night" is Don McKellar's response to a request to make a film about the millenium (Hal Hartley's "Book of Life" was another entry in this series). Misunderstanding the assignment somewhat, McKellar thought about the end of the world. Forgoing, the disaster pyrotechnics of such films as "Armageddon," McKellar became introspective, asking his friends what they'd do in these circumstances. Their answers - 'spend it with loved ones,' 'in reflection,' 'having sex' and 'partying' have all been incorporated into his bittersweet and surprisingly hopeful film.

In addition to the main characters, we also have Duncan's loyal assistant Donna (Tracy Wright, "Highway 61"), who clearly has a thing for him and stays on at the gas company offices after he departs; Mrs. Carlton (Genevieve Bujold, "Dead Ringers"), Patrick and Craig's former French teacher and Jennifer (Sarah Polley, "Go") and Alex (Trent McMullen, "Tommy Boy"), Patrick's sister and her boyfriend. That McKellar manages to have these characters all overlap in six hours without a hint of Hollywood plot-serving coincidence and never overtly give an explanation for the end of the world at midnight displays the elegance of his writing.

About half of these characters spend the end exactly as they set out to - Jennifer and Alex join a street party that resembles Times Square on New Year's Eve, complete with a climatic countdown; Craig realizes one sexual fantasy after another, a friend of Patrick's performs his first solo piano recital. However, Patrick's plans are set seriously amiss when he finds Sandra dejectedly sitting on his doorstep and reluctantly agrees to let her use his telephone. In trying to help Sandra make it across town to be with her husband (another of the cast of characters already introduced and surprising revealed near the film's end), a deep connection is formed between the two characters, with Patrick finally agreeing to take Sandra's husband's place in a final suicide pact ('you'll know when it's time').

The ensemble cast is terrific. McKellar has infused Patrick with a melancholy aloneness, which he's unwilling to break out of since the death of his kindergarten teacher wife (his apartment is adorned with children's get well drawings). Sandra Oh shines the most as Sandra, the serious, yet emotional woman who's willing to connect with a stranger when she can't reach her husband of three months. Callum Keith Rennie is amusing with his sexual agenda, particularly when he comes on to Patrick. Bujold is dignified and self assured as Mrs. Carlton - funny too when stopping to grill Patrick on his French while leaving Craig's apartment after a bout of May/September sex. Cronenberg is perfectly cast as the gas company executive delivering meaningless messages to people's answering machines (beautifully recalled when the gas fireplace in Patrick's parents' house sputters out) and calmly dealing with an armed looter. Tracy Wright is touching as his assistant who admits to a secret indulgence - she has a drink at six p.m. if she works past that hour. She'll end up crossing paths with another member of the cast after cruising the Internet with her pint of Scotch. Sarah Polley doesn't have much to work with here, although Roberta Maxwell ("The Postman") and Robin Gammel ("Sister Act II") strike perfect notes as Jennifer and Patrick's parents.

Technically, the film shows it's low budget origins, with slightly muddy camerawork by Douglas Koch. Production design by John Dondertman is solid.

McKellar was smart to not tie his film to 1999. Hopefully the humanity of "Last Night" will be relected upon for years to come.

B+

Robin's review of 'Last Night':
It's the end of the millennium and, it turns out, the end of the world, too. This fact has been known for some months, now, and is accepted by all - to varying degrees. Patrick (Don McKellar) has decided that he wants to be alone at the end. Recently-wed Sandra (Sandra Oh) wants only to get home to her husband, Duncan (David Cronenberg), and, at the last second, commit joint suicide. Patrick's mom (Roberta Maxwell) treats it as the last Christmas and wants to gather her family around her. Most of the rest of the world just wants to party down to the countdown in the melancholy tale of the Apocalypse in "Last Night."

Writer/actor Don McKellar makes his feature film directing debut, telling his original story of the personal lives of a few everyday folks who, along with the rest of the world, are facing certain extinction at the close of the millennium. It's six o'clock on that evening and everyone on earth is preparing for the end. Some are heading to gatherings of hundreds of thousands at city centers around the world and plan to party hardy right up to the end. Others plan to stay home and watch TV 'til it's over. Many just want to be with their loved ones. A few even continue to work at their jobs, like Duncan, a gas company employee who call everyone of his customers to assure them that they will continue to get safe, dependable natural gas right up to the end.

Of course, things don't always go off as planned for some. Sandra, stopping to gather the fixings for one last meal with her husband, has her car carried off by a crowd and destroyed, stranding her. She has no way to get home and begs Patrick, who she meets by chance, to help her. Patrick is torn between his solitude and his humanity, finally deciding to help the woman. Patrick doesn't have a car, but knows someone who does - his friend Craig. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) decided, when the end became known, that his life goal, these last months on earth, is to experience every sexual carnality he has every wanted, and he wanted a lot! Patrick and Sandra catch him right after he finished having sex with his high school French teacher, Mrs. Carlton (Genevieve Bujold), one his many fantasies. After some haranguing, Craig finally relinquishes the keys to his prize vehicle.

Sandra's plight is far from over, even with the car. The thousands converging on the city for the Last Night celebration block the path between her and home. She turns back to Patrick for help and frantically tries to call her husband, leaving message after message on their answering machine. As her hopes of celebrating the end with Duncan dwindle, she realizes just what a nice guy Patrick is. This bittersweet tale dovetails into several story threads as Sandra's journey touches on others and they are briefly scrutinized as their last hours unfold. Although not as complexly drawn as, say, Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," which covered some 26 characters and a dozen stories, McKellar does weave a pretty nice tapestry of interconnecting lives.

Most notable of all of the performers is Sandra Oh (TV's "Arli$$"). The fear, confusion and loneliness she shows is palpable to the viewer in its desperation. It is a hard, dramatic perf and Oh is exemplary. Callum Keith Rennie, as the randy Craig, comes across well, too, as he ticks off the realizations of all his sexual fantasies, but in a good-natured way. Genevieve Bujold gives a sensitive performance as the schoolteacher - as she and Craig part, she meets Patrick, an old student, and immediately begins quizzing him on his French in a funny, touching scene. David Cronenberg is a pleasant surprise as the dedicated Duncan. Roberta Maxwell is compelling as the family matriarch who wants her family around her one last time. McKellar, though a central figure in the film, keeps a step back in favor of the other actors.

There is a distinct Canadian sensibility in McKellar's crafting of the film around his story. He avoids the American filmmakers' need to punch up a film about the Apocalypse with flashy F/X and action. The writer/helmer takes a simpler, more elegant path and shows the acceptance of the end of the world. The wry humor he uses cuts away any morbidness that the material could have had. The subject is a relentless one, but McKellar gives it a freshness that actually leaves you with a glimmer of hope for humanity, even as it becomes extinct.

The weak link in the film is the technical quality of the image on the screen. The obviously low budget is apparent from the start with its murky, almost gloomy, look and marginal audio. Hopefully, McKellar will get a bigger budget next time around. He knows his way around a story and, as an actor himself, knows how to elicit complex characters from his thesps.

I've been familiar with Don McKellar as an actor and screenwriter for a number of years and have always liked his work. He shows solid ability behind the camera, too, and will do well as a writer/director, if "Last Night" is any indication. I like it and give it a B+.


PRINCESS MONONOKE

Acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki took his country by storm in 1997 with the blockbuster hit, "Princess Mononoke," earning an incredible $150 million in a country with half the population of the United States and 1/10th the movie screens. Now, the long-awaited English-language version (co-scripted by Neil Gaiman of "Sandman" comics fame) is finally here in this tale of war between Man and Nature, starring the vocal talents of Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and more.

Robin's review of 'Princess Mononoke':
Miyazaki pulls no punches in this ambitious story that focuses upon the adventures of Prince Ashitaka. The young warrior saves his village in the north of Japan from destruction by a wild boar-demon gone mad from the poisons of a rifle ball from the far off land of the Tatara Ba - Iron Town. When Ashitaka kills the giant boar, he is cursed by the same poisons and must journey to the distant frontier to find an answer to the curse. He is also thrust into a brewing war between the humans of the town and the creatures of the forests as the two forces vie for control of the land.

One of the creatures is no animal or demon, but a human girl adopted by a wolf tribe in the forests. San (the Princess of the title) was nurtured by the lupine clan after her real parents were killed. Raised by Moro (Gillian Anderson), the leader of the wolves, San has dedicated her life to saving the forest and fights those who would destroy it. The prince and princess form a shaky alliance and are joined by a variety of creatures. Besides the wolf clan, there are an ape tribe, giant boars and a race of amorphous tree spirits (who, truth be told, are more like a psychedelic hallucination than ethereal ghost-like creatures) joining the fray.

The humans of Iron Town are led by the Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver); a strong willed woman who rules her fortress town with a mix of compassion and obsession. The folks employed at her forge are made up of former prostitutes and the downtrodden of society and are utterly loyal to the lady for her kindness and care. Although Eboshi is obsessed with protecting her outpost town, she is also convinced to help the Emperor secure the forest from the gods of the land. She agrees to help the monk, Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), to take the head of the forest god, securing the Emperor's rule and her town.

"Princess Mononoke" is technically beautiful with great attention to the animation detail. Miyazaki relies primarily on traditional cel animation, but also utilizes computer-generated imagery to give the film a fluidity that makes it equal to live action movies. The overall look of the film is high quality and has a Japanese, rather than American, animation style. "Princess Mononoke" is an epic tale with the attention to animated detail suiting the adventure.

The vocal talents providing the English-language dubbing do a fair, though unremarkable, job. Billy Crudup is serviceable as the voice of Prince Ashitaka. Claire Danes is dull as the wolf girl, San, but is fortunately silent for most of the film. Minnie Driver gives strength and dignity to her performance as the powerful leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi. Billy Bob Thornton is the most off as Jigo, the monk, sent to get the head of the forest god for the emperor. (I kept thinking that Ernest Borgnine would have better suited the sly, mirthful Jigo.) Jada Pinkett-Smith is amusing as the saucy forewoman at the forge.

The story, by Miyazaki, is ambitious in its scope and complexity. Overall, it works well with a rich layering of story lines tightly woven together in a briskly rendered telling that seldom flags. There are lots of characters and ancillary stories, which do tend to cause things to get a little too complicated to keep the attention of the younger viewers. It is a world created by the animation master that mixes myth and fantasy.

"Princess Mononoke" is aimed at a more mature crowd than, say, "Pokemon: The First Movie" and is a lot more satisfying. I give it a B+.

Laura's review of 'Princess Mononoke':
Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Tortoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service") is considered the Japanese Walt Disney, yet while the lushness of his anime, particularly in the drawing of animals both 'cute' and lifelike, give credence to the comparison, his perspective is so uniquely his own (and Japanese?), that he really shouldn't be compared to anybody.

In his epic, ecologically minded tale "Princess Mononoke," wild boar gods become demons covered with writhing worms that enable it to walk like a spider and lepers run an arms factory while ex-brothel girls work the bellows of an iron mill. Friendly tree spirits resemble the hell-spawn minister of Beetlejuice while the forest spirit himself is an amalgamation of about five different creatures (and becomes the nightwalker, which resembles nothing known to man, after the sun sets).

"Princess Mononoke" is a complex tale about man's ability to thrive without destroying the earth's natural assets. Lady Eboshi, a strong female character, is a fifteenth century feminist (in Japan, yet!) who's charitable towards humans yet fiercely 'practical' when it comes to other forms of life. She's a unique creation - both heroine and villain. Minnie Driver, so terrific as "Tarzan's" Jane, creates another top notch vocal characterization as Eboshi for the American version of the film. Billy Crudup speaks for Prince Ashitaka, a young man cursed by the demon he slays to save his village. Sent by his village's wise woman to the west, he becomes the bridge between the humans and nature, as represented by San, a wolf-girl and the titular Princess (blandly voiced by Claire Danes).

The film is violent, fantastical, grittily realistic and often very funny ('I hate him - I hate all humans!' declares Mononoke, until a wolf presents her with a pendant. 'From Ashitaka? For me? Pretty!' And how like a woman....) A mercenary monk (voice of Billy Bob Thornton) also provides some laughs.

The animation is powerful - I don't recall seeing a dissolve used with animation before (Eboshi surrounded by flame and sparks during battle on a hillside as slowing Ashikata's face dissolves over the frame in closeup - stunning) and the sight of Mononoke scuttling over rooftops in her warrior getup is breathtaking. Water imagery is often magical - it's a healing element in this tale. The film, which runs almost two and a half hours, is paced exceedingly well and never feels too long. Music by Joe Hisaishi is too reminiscent of other films.

"Princess Mononoke" is a unique achievement in animation for an adult audience. See Miyazaki's earlier works for the kids.

B


FLAWLESS

Walt Koontz (Robert DeNiro) is a retired security guard, living in a run down NYC apartment building, trying to ignore the drug dealers, hookers and drag queens that live around him. When a drug deal goes bad and Walt hears gunfire, his instincts force him to action, but he suffers a stroke before he can stop Amber, a young hooker, from being killed. Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Happiness"), tries to assist Walt, touched that he got hurt trying to save Rusty's friend, but homophobic Walt rebuffs him. Necessity takes him to Rusty's door, however, to take singing lessons as a form of therapy and an unlikely alliance is begun.

Laura's review of 'Flawless':
Writer/director Joel Schumacher is on much surer footing with "Flawless" than his disappointing "8MM" and last "Batman" installment. "Flawless" isn't, however, suffering from cliche and an overly fussy crime subplot that distracts from the main attraction - the bonding of two unlikely characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman so totally embodies his gay drag queen character that I may have had a hard time figuring out who the actor was if I didn't already know going in, and Schumacher gives Hoffman plenty of sharp lines. However, as much as Hoffman is believable as a drag queen, the script forces things one step further, trying to make us believe he's a pre-op transsexual and this I just didn't buy (as I did with Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry.") Robert DeNiro is OK as the stroke victim, but one becomes too attentive to watching him curl his lips around his teeth in order to speak out of only one side of his mouth to make the performance appear truly natural. And again, the script paints Walt as a man of lousy character assessment - he picks the whore as a girlfriend (Wanda de Jesus) and calls her a class act while calling the obvious nice girl (Daphne Rubin-Vega) the whore and later reveals that an act of heroism that garnered him notice from Mayor Koch became a sham when the 'best friend' he saved set him up.

As Rusty and Walt begin to confide in each other (and Rusty's drag queen pal's take Walt under their wings, much to the amusement of Walt's buddies), Schumacher keeps cutting to the local drug lord's henchmen shaking down residents of the building, looking for the stolen cash they never recovered after shooting Amber. The shifty desk clerk Leonard (Barry Miller, "Saturday Night Fever") is also beholden to them, so helps them gain access to whoever they want to terrorize (which we just know will eventually be Rusty, who's also victimized by his macho, married Italian boyfriend). This entire subplot adds nothing to "Flawless" but excess running time and certainly wasn't necessary to enable Rusty and Walt to meet or to put Rusty in harm's way at the film's conclusion. Another lesser subplot is about the Flawless drag competition, which also offers nothing to the film, and in fact drags it down a little with its tired scenes of fighting queens.

To give Schumacher credit, "Flawless" has the rough look of an NYC indie. Director of Photography Declan Quinn and Production Designer Jan Roelfs capture urban grit. The relatively high mark, though, is almost all due to Hoffman.

C+


THE GREEN MILE

Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) is a prison guard in Southern Cold Mountain prison circa 1935 when a most unusual man, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, "Armageddon"), a 7 foot black man convicted of murdering two little girls, is placed on death row. Edgecomb comes to doubt Coffey's guilt when subjected to the gentle giant's sweet nature and supernatural powers in director Frank Darabont's ("The Shawshank Redemption") second Stephen King adaptation, "The Green Mile."

Laura's review of 'The Green Mile':
1999's holiday season is bringing on an onslaught of literary adaptations to the screen with "The Green Mile" being one of the most hotly anticipated (Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption" currently stands at #4 with 8.8/10 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 list). While it's a solid, good old-fashioned kind of film with many qualities, it's excess length (187 minutes), 'have it both ways' ending (admittedly a problem with the source material, but more obvious somehow in the film) and a few other minor flaws keep it from being the masterpiece I was hoping for.

The film begins with Edgecomb as an old man (played by veteran actor Dabbs Greer in his 100th film performance) sneaking out of his nursing home for mysterious daily walks in the woods. When questioned by his friend Elaine after he breaks down in the TV room watching an old Astaire/Rogers flick, Paul begins to tell his tale and we go into flashback mode.

His tale is begun recounting the extremity of a urinary infection he suffered in 1935 (Hanks now has several memorable peeing scenes to add to the one from "A League of Their Own" on his resume). He's a decent man supervising both death row's guards and inmates and is responsible for the executions that take place at Cold Mountain. While most of his men are as decent as he, Paul's saddled with Percy (Doug Hutchinson, "A Time to Kill"), nephew of the governor's wife and a mewling sadist.

The role of Paul Edgecomb would seem tailor made for Hanks and he's just fine in it, although it's about time that Hanks attempts to grow and play against his own type. David Morse is beautifully understated as Brutus, Paul's right hand man. Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan") and Jeffrey DeMunn round out Paul's men. Hutchinson is terrific as a man you love to hate, as is Sam Rockwell ("Box of Moonlight") as inmate "Wild Bill," who gives the guards something on Percy more than once and is feared by John Coffey who calls him 'a bad man.' Michael Clarke Duncan, who was about the only saving grace of "Armageddon," perfectly suits the simple, miraculous Coffey, whose initials are heavily symbolic. Graham Greene is given little to do as the first prisoner to be executed except show the guards' compassion, but Michael Jeter ("The Fisher King") as Delacroix gives a beautiful performance as the Cajun prisoner who eventually owns and trains Mr. Jingles, an extraordinary mouse, and suffers the most at the hands of Percy. Bonnie Hunt ("Jumanji") is fine as Edgecomb's understanding wife. James Cromwell ("L.A. Confidential") and Patricia Clarkson ("High Art") are somewhat disappointing as Warden Moores and his ill wife. Gary Sinise ("Forrest Gump") shows up for one interesting scene with Hanks and William Sadler ("Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey") portrays the father of the two murdered little girls.

Coffey, who first shows his strange gift by curing Paul's bladder infection (he seemingly sucks in the badness, which causes light bulbs to glow brighter, then expels a cloud of flying bugs as in "The Mummy"), is eventually used by Paul to help the warden's wife, who's dying of an inoperable brain tumor. This scene, which is one of the film's climaxes, plays off kilter, mostly due to Cromwell's off timing and Clarkson's left of center reactions (Duncan is fine in the scene). The lighting used for the 'miracle effects' could have been a little more unworldly or subtle instead of giving the impression of a lit jack-o-lantern. On the flip side, the execution scenes (there are three in the film), are a marvel of simple effects that are truly 'effective,' even horrific. Darabont, his cinematographer David Tattersall ("Con Air") and production designer Terence Marsh do a marvelous job keeping things visually interesting, especially when most of the film's running time takes place in a short corridor of cells. A suitable score by Thomas Newman ("The Shawshank Redemption") refrains from overtly melodramatic surges.

"The Green Mile" is a solidly crafted film telling a complexly layered story that features a beautifully satisfying, if bittersweet, finale. It will stand as one of the very best King adaptations.

B+

Robin's review of 'The Green Mile':
ROBIN: Helmer Frank Darabont and horror novelist Stephen King teamed together in 1995 to create the near-brilliant film, "The Shawshank Redemption." They pair together again in Darabont's adaptation of King's serial novel, "The Green Mile," starring Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb, the Death Row supervisor for the State of Louisiana Corrections system during the Depression.

The story begins in present times, with an elderly Paul (Dabbs Greer), living in a supervised care facility, taking long, secretive walks carrying his ritual two pieces of dry toast. While watching an old movie on TV in the home's rec room one day, the old man flashes back to another time and starts to cry uncontrollably. His friend, Elaine (Eve Brent), takes him to a quieter place and Paul unburdens himself to her and tells a mystical tale that he swears is God's truth. It begins in 1935 on the Green Mile, the nickname for Death Row, and, for Paul and his men, it's business as usual. That is, until the arrival on the Mile of one very special man John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan).

Coffey was accused, tried and convicted of the brutal murders of two young girls, the daughters of Louisiana farmer Klaus Detterick (William Sadler). John was found hugging the battered little bodies and moaning, over and over, "I was too late!" Sent to Death Row for execution, the 7-foot-tall, 300 pound giant is, initially, feared by his warders. John's gentle manner relaxes the men until John snatches Edgecomb by the coat and drags him right up to his cell, grabbing the man by the crotch! John has been suffering from a severe and painful urinary infection and, suddenly, after the John's touch, the excruciating pain is gone. (This leads to an amusing little scene where Paul relieves himself for the first time, in many weeks, without it "feeling like razor blades.")

The tale that follows this lengthy introduction - be warned, "The Green Mile" is 187 minutes long! - involves the magic and spiritual good of John Coffey; the appearance of a precocious little mouse, given the moniker "Mr. Jingles" by the inmate he adopts, Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter); the arrival of inmate Billy "The Kid" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a truly evil individual whose sole pleasure in life is to inflict as much pain on as many people as he can; and, the addition to Paul's staff of Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a sadistic little creep who has his plum, depression-era job because he is the only nephew of the governor's wife. There's more, too. All the threads of the story are followed through, with all loose ends tied. The adaptation by Darabont is about as faithful to the source material as it can be. Anymore faithful and it would be a 5 hours long.

Acting, across the boards, is solid. I don't think there is any one performance that stood out over all the others, they are all so uniformly well acted. The direction of the actors is even handed, with the proper weight of each role carefully written and played. Hanks is, of course, a fine actor and leads the excellent ensemble cast well. Michael Clarke Duncan is the personification of John Coffey, giving the man the simple, gentle nature that belies his size and strength. Michael Jeter, as little "Dell" Delacroix, is superb as the doomed inmate who Mr. Jingles comforts in his last days. Sam Rockwell gives complexity to his perf as the truly wicked and cruel Billy. Also first rate are David Morse as Paul's right-hand man, Brutus "Brutal" Howell, Bonnie Hunt as Paul's wife, Janice, and newcomer Doug Hutchison as the unlikable Percy. Many other fine actors help contribute to the depth of the characters presented.

The screenplay by Daramont faithfully captures the body and soul of the King novel - which, in book form, was presented as a six-volume serial, with each new volume appearing every few months. There are other side stories in the King work that aren't delved into, but Daramont captures the essence of what the writer conveyed in his principle story. What could have been an assembly of vignettes from the book is a smoothly flowing telling of the tale.

Technically, the film is a throwback to the craftwork of the earlier years of film, where the words "special F/X" didn't yet exists. There are digital effects shown in "The Green Mile," but they are not overly done and are accurate to the book's descriptions. Other F/X consists mainly of lightbulbs exploding. The overall look of the film is equal to the story and the acting. Cinematography, by David Tattersall, is excellent with a crisp cleanness to even the darkest scenes. The production design, by Terence Marsh, of the Green Mile and the superb 30's period and institutional costuming, by Karen Wagner, complement the fine production.

"The Green Mile" is too long by 30 minutes but is so well done and meticulously faithful to the spirit of the Stephen King yarn, you can forgive it that excess. The excessive length may hurt it as a box-office draw. I hope not. If they gave out awards for finest craftwork in the art of filmmaking, this would be on the list of nominees. I give it an A-.


Next Show Previous Show

Home | Review and ratings archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links