THE CIDER HOUSE RULES
BICENTENNIAL MAN - STUART LITTLE
TUMBLEWEEDS - ANNA AND THE KING
DEUCE BIGELOW: MALE GIGLIO


THE CIDER HOUSE RULES

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire, "Pleasantville") is an orphan who's been taken under the wing of Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) who runs St. Cloud's home for orphaned children. Dr. Larch tutors Homer in his profession, so that Homer is able to successfully deliver babies while still a teenager. He refuses, however, to perform Dr. Larch's other speciality - illegal abortions. When a WWII soldier (Paul Rudd, "The Object of My Affection") and his girlfriend (Charlize Theron, "Devil's Advocate") arrive for the procedure, Homer suddenly asks if he can leave with them and takes a job with Wally's family's apple orchard where he'll learn to ignore "The Cider House Rules."

Laura's review of 'The Cider House Rules':
This is the first time author John Irving has adapted the film screenplay from one of his own books and boy, does it show. "The Cider House Rules" is simply the best adaptation of an Irving novel and one of the season's most heartwarming and accomplished films.

St. Cloud's is such a loving environment, that it almost seems strange that its children actually want to be adopted. In addition to Dr. Larch (who reads to the boys every night then departs with 'Good Night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England'), Nurse Angela (Kathy Baker) and Nurse Edna (Jane Alexander) give the children maternal attention in addition to their medical and administrative duties. The kids are a marvelous bunch from Erik Per Sullivan's physically weak, but mentally aggressive Fuzzy to Spencer Diamond's adorable Curly to Kiernan Culkin's pragmatic Buster to Paz de la Huerta's sexually precocious Mary Agnes.

When Homer leaves and begins working at the cider house, he becomes the unexpected part of another family (and communal living arrangement) - Mr. Rose's (Delroy Lindo) contingent of black migrant farm workers that include his daughter Rose (Erykah Badu, in her screen debut), Muddy (K. Todd Freeman), Peaches (Heavy D) and 'bad apple' Jack (Evan Dexter Parke). Mr. Rose takes on Dr. Larch's role and teaches Homer everything about the apple business, but he, too, has a dark secret that will ironically call Dr. Larch's into play. In addition to the issues of the Rose clan, Homer falls in love with Candy, who's warned him that she's not too good at being alone, after Wally returns to the war. She aggressively pursues Homer, yet remains skittish on the subject of commitment.

The hugely underappreciated director Lasse Halstrom ("My Life As a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") has another winner on his hands (and his second New England based film after the great "Once Around"). He's gotten assured performances from his large cast with the ever impressive Maguire spinning a quietly complex Homer and Michael Caine convincing as an old New England pro-choicer with an ether addiction. (It's strange that Maguire opens in two films on the same day against a singer making her acting debut - besides Badu, there's Jewel in "Ride With the Devil" and lets hope she can hold a candle to Badu's natural performance.) Also on hand is Kate Nelligan as Wally's orchard owning mom, looking like Barbara Stanwyck of the period.

Oliver Stapleton's ("Restoration") photography not only captures the stunning beauty of New England autumns, but does so with the aura of nostalgia. Irving's screenplay is a strong candidate for an Oscar nomination and the duality and symbolism of his story are beautifully captured in the film (Homer taking the aborted fetuses to the outdoor incinerator at St. Cloud's is strikingly recalled when he crumples the typed list of cider house rules and tosses them into the wood burning stove in a later scene, and yes, the two events are linked). This is also the second film of the season, along with "The Green Mile's" use of "Top Hat," to prominently feature old black and white films ("King Kong" is used here).

"The Cider House Rules" ends in the only way it possibly could, yet even though what we hope to happen occurs, Irving still delivers a surprise or two that complete his two central characters.

A-

Robin's review of 'The Cider House Rules':
"Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." This is the nightly farewell by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) to the boys of St. Cloud's Orphanage in the heart of Maine during the waning months of World War II. Author John Irving makes his screenwriting debut in the adaptation of his own novel, "The Cider House Rules," directed by Lasse Hellstrom (1987's "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") and starring Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron and Caine as the kind and caring physician.

The story takes place in the small, rural town of St. Cloud's, Maine, where Dr. Larch runs the local orphanage. Young Homer Wells (Maguire) is the oldest resident at the home and special assistant to the doctor. Wilbur saw Homer's natural medical talents early on and trained the boy in his science, making him, for all intents and purposes, a medical doctor. The aging Larch sees the boy as his logical successor, but the lad has other plans when Candy Kendall (Theron) arrives at the orphanage, with her Air Corp boyfriend Wally (Paul Rudd), to get an abortion. As the couple prepares to leave, Homer sees it as a chance to get out into the world and experience life outside the orphanage.

"The Cider Hose Rules" is a pretty simple tale about a less complicated time and place. The idyllic settings of central and coastal Maine couple neatly with the story of Homer becoming a man. He leaves St. Cloud's for the coast, where he sees the ocean for the first time, falls in love, learns about apples and lobsters and grows to understand the most important values that Dr. Larch taught him - humanity and love. Homer's story is told, by Irving and helmer Hallstrom, in a quiet unassuming way that is a pleasure to watch. There is intelligence in the tale as Homer leaves one orphanage for another, to be mentored, again, by an older man, Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). The parallels between Homer's two lives, the orphanage and the apple farm, and the duality of those worlds are thoughtful, if, at times, a bit obvious.

Toby Maguire gives an understated, but focused, perf as the strong-willed and intelligent Homer. At an early age, with Dr. Larch's philosophical teachings, Wells not only becomes a competent physician, he learns that what is "moral" may not necessarily be "good." Abortion is against the law and, as such, is wrong. But the real, tragic impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a young girl's life makes the moral issue more personal, more though provoking. This and other life-lessons help make Homer a resourceful young man with a passion to learn and to help others.

Charlize Theron gives a strong supporting performance as Candy. She professes from the start, when her pilot-boyfriend ships out for the dangerous duty of flying the Hump in Burma, that she can't stand to be alone. She and Homer are drawn to each other and end up together - until she learns of the tragic accident that sends Wally home a cripple. Homer's romance with Candy turns out to be another important lesson learned by the young man. Theron is pretty and plays the role with a proper period feel.

Michael Caine is having a fine career in his senior acting years. He was one of the two best things in 1998's "Little Voice." In "Cider House," he is solid as the colorful Dr. Larch, surprising me with his seamless Yankee accent. The physician is the patriarch of the little orphanage in the middle of Maine and truly loves his kids and his staff. His ritual nightly wish to his boys is carried effectively throughout the film to the end. Caine gives depth and nuance to Dr. Larch as we learn that he is a teacher, physician, humanitarian, abortionist and ether junkie. The love Wilbur feels for his extended family is palpable.

The supporting cast is numerous and talented. Veteran actresses Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker and Kete Nelligan enrich the film by lending dignity, strength and love as the orphanage staff. Delroy Lindo gives a sensitive performance as the foreman of the itinerant apple pickers as he, too, helps teach Homer. The kids populating the orphanage are a terrific ensemble of young actors. Kieran Culkin ("The Mighty") shows his acting mettle in the small role as Buster, an adolescent lad who idolizes Homer. Erik Per Sullivan as bronchial little Fuzzy and Spencer Diamond as cute Buster will break your heart.

Irving's story is a smooth flowing tale that is sometimes obvious in how things will turn out, but this is not a real problem. It just makes the story a little less complex but still enjoyable in its sweet outcome. Irving gives us an old fashioned, coming-of-age tale of a young man with special gifts in a special place. The author draws the orphanage as such a warm place filled with good people, you either want to adopt them all or go live there with them.

Tech credits are on a par with the story and the acting. British cinematographer Oliver Stapleton captures the cool and colorful beauty of New England, where most of the locations were filmed, ranging from Northampton, Massachusetts to Acadia National Park in Maine. Production design by David Gropman and costuming by Renee Kalfus, both collaborators with Hallstrom on his previous films, accurately capture the 40's feel of the story.

"The Cider House Rules" is a solid entry into the holiday season's film schedule with its uplifting and thoughtful story and good acting. There's quality here and that's a real good thing. I give it a B+.


BICENTENNIAL MAN

Director Chris Columbus is responsible for some of the most popular comedies in recent years like "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." Now, Mr. Feel-good filmmaker takes the works of science-fiction master Isaac Asimov to the big screen with Robin Williams. Williams is Andrew Martin (Robin Williams), a household android, which, after two centuries as a mechanical servant, tries to become the one thing he wants most to be - an ordinary human being, in "Bicentennial Man."

Robin's review of 'Bicentennial Man':
The late Isaac Amiss was and is one of the greatest science fiction creators ever, rubbing imaginative elbows with the likes of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. This fact gave me some solace as I girded myself for the 131-minute schmarm fest I expected from this Columbus/Williams collaboration. I figured, what the heck, I grew up on Asimov's "I, Robot" books and always thought they were terrific. How badly can they screw up a movie about robots and the future and all that sci-fi stuff? Pretty badly, as it turns out.

Aside from the extra-special robotic make-up and costume for Williams and a few, brief moments of mild comedy, there is little more to this than the story of one robot's struggle to be a man. Ambitiously, the screenplay by Nicholas Kazan spans 200-years, starting with the introduction of Andrew into the Martin household. At first there's dislike and distrust for the new family member, but that's overcome with a little stand-up comedy and a carved horsy. From here on in are a series of vignettes as the Martin family ages and Andrew grows introspective about his robotic condition.

At first, there is some amusement as Andrew tries to integrate into the Martin family. His owner, Sir (Sam Neill), learning of Andrew's special qualities, takes on the task of educating the android. A facts-of-life lecture has some laughs, as do the bits where Andrew learns to tell jokes. After the learning curve is established, the humor curve takes a plunge as the story takes on a more somber tone. The loss off Andrew's innocence becomes our loss as we spend the last 90 minutes listening to him whine about, first, wanting his own money. Then, it's clothes he wants. Then, it's a house. Then, to look human. Then, to be human. It's like having a demanding teenager in the house.

The production spans the slick, with some nifty if brief robotic F/X, to the downright shoddy, with a horrible split screen bit with Embeth Davidtz playing grandmother/granddaughter. With film technology being what it is today and with the obvious budget available, here, such a scene should dazzle the eye. It is more like a finger poke in the eye, instead. Robot costume is terrific, as is the old age make-up F/X used through the film, but any expectations of other flashy special F/X will be dashed.

Robin Williams seems to be locked into the role of the noble underdog, with "When Dreams May Come," "Patch Adams" and "Jacob the Liar" all having the same agenda for Williams. The comic-actor continues his string of uplifting characters as Andrew the 'droid. Aside from the early humor of the film, there is maudlin, intense quality to the "human" Andrew that loses any charm he developed early in the movie. The supporting cast, with the exception of Sam Neill and Oliver Platt, make no splash on the screen. Of course, the episodic nature of the story and the lack of character development for anyone, except Williams, prevents the rest of the cast from being more than two-dimensional stick figures.

The story is claimed to be based on Asimov's short story "The Bicentennial Man" and his novel, "The Positronic Man," with Robert Silverberg. Asimov pioneered robotic science fiction and developed the Robotic Laws that have become a staple in android sci-fi. Director Columbus opens the film with Andrew boldly stating the laws that rule robots: never harm humans; always obey humans; never harm yourself. It's a nice homage to the science-fiction master, but has little bearing on the film.

"Bicentennial Man" is a poor entry into the feel-good holiday film schedule, but will probably end up being another "Patch Adams" and make a killing at the box-office. Save your money or go see something, anything else. Even "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" would be an improvement.

It was my worst nightmare! I give it a D.

Laura's review of 'Bicentennial Man':
If you want easy sentiment this holiday season, have director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire") and star Robin Williams got a movie for you. "Bicentennial Man," adapted by Nicholas Kazan from a novel and short story by 'Mr. Robot' himself, Isaac Asimov, owes far less to Asimov than such previous Columbus fare as "Doubtfire." If it's a really good robot movie you're looking for, go rent "The Iron Giant."

In the 'near future' (we can tell because cars have gull wings), a new household robot is delivered to an upscale family who all treat it suspiciously except for the father who bought it (Sam Neil). The sleak shell, which sports Williams' body type and vocal sound, gives a demo on robotic law before commencing his directed chores. Of course, Asimov's laws are immediately broken for a quick yuck when the eldest daughter instructs 'Andrew' (so called because that's how the youngest mispronounces 'android') to jump out of her upstairs window.

Soon Andrew shows a predilection for childcare (shades of 'Doubtfire'), particularly Little Miss (Hallie Eisenberg, who now goes by Hallie Kate Eisenberg). They have a falling out when she breaks her glass horse and blames him. Andrew immediately collects a piece of driftwood, absorbs a woodworking manual and presents her with an elegantly carved horse. Sir notices that Andrew is different and encourages his droid to learn (a sequence where Sir attempts to teach Andrew joke telling is a nicely written piece).

As this story spans 200 years, Andrew increasingly becomes more human and more frustrated, even falling in love with Little Miss when she grows up (and becomes Embeth Davidtz, "Schindler's List"). Eventually he asks for, and receives his freedom, and decides to try and find others like himself, which leads him to the door of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a robot reconditioner in need of funding, and a partnership is born (and Robin Williams himself is encased over Andrew's inner shell).

"Bicentennial Man" is a hit and miss affair that's harmlessly entertaining until it becomes overly earnest in projecting its 'message' about what makes a man. Or maybe the message should have been taken more seriously from the onset with an actor with less 'earnestness' baggage than Williams. Some of the film's symbolism and details are dubious - Andrew earns an income from making elegant timepieces, Sir's profession. While the passage of time is an important consideration in the story and its theme, aren't these timepieces a bit outmoded for the future and why do Andrew's designs all look like Frank Lloyd Wright designs? When Andrew gets his freedom, he immediately builds himself a house on the beach where he spent time with the family - nothing else is in sight here - has beachfront property value plummetted in the next century to the point of squatting rights? When Andrew again finds 'Little Miss' as an old woman, her granddaughter, Portia (also Davidtz), appears to despise him immediately (and we have been shown that only 'bad' people dislike Andrew) - why? This plot point disappears quickly when Andrew visits her 'to talk' because he's looking for 'family.' Ahem, Andrew is clearly looking for something more like incest, then!

There's not much to speak of in the acting department, although Sam Neil creates a sympathetic Sir. Eisenberg is mainly called upon to show wonder or fear by looking like a chipmunk, but at least she's better here than she was in "Paulie." Davidtz manages to make small modifications between the adult 'Little Miss' and Portia, but she's only around to be the object of Andrew's affections. Wendy Crewson as Maam (to Neil's Sir) and Stephen Root as the owner of the robotics company are little more than props. The usually entertaining Oliver Platt is used as a plot tool to explain the Andrew's progression (via 'upgrades') from robot to human.

Special effects range from fair to middling - Andrew's ability to broadcast holograms is pretty nifty, but we've seen that trick twenty years ago in "Star Wars." Futuristic tableau are obviously matte shots. Platt carrying Williams' head around looks like something seen at a distant World's Fair. The aging makeup used for Neil, Davidtz, Platt and Williams is actually more impressive than the technological trickery.

"Bicentennial Man" will appeal to a certain audience (maybe those who liked "Patch Adams"), but even it's good points become overwhelmed by it's excessive run time (132 minutes) and dragged out, maudlin denouement.

C-


STUART LITTLE

The Littles (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) have just adopted a new son to be a brother their son George (Jonathan Lipnicki, "Jerry Maguire"). Their cat Snowbell may prove to be his undoing however, because there's something odd about Stuart Little - he's a mouse.

Laura's review of 'Stuart Little':
Adapted from the beloved E.B. White children's book by "The Sixth Sense's" M. Night Shymalan and Greg Booker, "Stuart Little" is a delightful holiday family film. Geena Davis, who's had experience acting against special effects before in "Beetlejuice," and Hugh Laurie, are the respectably upstanding parents (costumed in color-coordinated retro outfits that scream 'wholesome') out to adopt a 'little' brother for their son George. When they meet Stuart (voice of Michael J. Fox), they're smitten, as are we, and bring him home with high hopes. George is not impressed, however, seeing only a mouse who won't be able to play ball with him.

A stronger reaction comes from Snowbell (voice of Nathan Lane), the family housecat who initially tries to digest Stuart. Snowbell's petrified that he'll become a laughingstock with his tough alley cat friends when they find out he's a pet to a mouse. Just as George is coming around after finding common ground with Stuart in his model ship (Stuart wins a Central Park race that seems as exciting as watching the America Cup!), Snowbell's arranged with Smokey (voice of Chazz Palminteri) to get rid of the wee guy.

When the Stouts arrive at the Littles claiming to be Stuart's natural parents, they reluctantly allow Stuart to leave. But the Littles learn from the adoption agency that Stuart's real parents were killed years ago in a mushroom soup display accident, and the NYC police are called in (and show the horrified Littles 'ghastly' crime scene pix of mice murders!) Meanwhile, Stuart also discovers the ruse, and must set off across Central Park towards home with a gang of alley cats who now want him 'scratched.'

Special effects here are outstanding - Stuart is as believable to watch as the human actors. The Stouts (voices of Bruno Kirby and Jennifer Tilly) are a clever rendition of nouveau riche mice, with Tilly's mouse completed in platform wedgies and a hairband. The cats are real cats with the computer enhancements that have become familiar through commercials that allow them to speak, smile, etc. The human actors definitely take a back seat to all this, but they accomplish what's necessary and certainly inject personality into their roles.

Art direction is perfect, blending in odd details into a relatively real looking NYC (the Littles' house is a small charming squished between two high rises, the Stouts live in a 'castle' at a miniature golf course). The script is full of charm and humor, with Snowbell getting some real killer lines.

"Stuart Little" has good lessons about accepting differences and the strength of family ties. It's a solidly charming effort by all involved and should delight audiences of all ages.

B

Robin's review of 'Stuart Little':
It's the end of the millennium and, it turns out, the end of the world, too.When Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) promise their only child, George (Jonathan Lipnicki), a new sibling, his explicit instructions are, "Remember, I want a little brother, not a big brother." The couple goes to the New York City Orphanage to find just the right child when they meet an amazing little guy, named Stuart. He's friendly, smart, kind, loving - and a mouse! Undeterred by this minor detail, the Littles bring Stuart home, but George rejects his new brother with, "he's just a mouse." Little Stuart has his work cut out for him in "Stuart Little."

As with "The Iron Giant" earlier this year, every kid will want their family to adopt the diminutive orphan, Stuart. The film, though dealing with the fantastical concept of intelligent, talking mice, is firmly grounded in the acceptance of the reality of the smart and personable rodent. Very different from films such as "Babe," which is an outright fantasy story, "Stuart Little," from the start, rings true. You accept the little mouse for what he is and his adoption by the Little family has a natural, of-course-they-want-him, feel.

The special F/X are steeped in the anthropomorphizing of the movie's animals. Of course, Stuart, voiced by Michael J. Fox, is a little charmer, well spoken, polite and a snappy dresser (he wears "Ben doll" clothing line in a cute play on Barbie and Ken). The F/X giving expression to his tiny face are complex and a full range - happy, sad, frightened, startled, they're all there. Stuart's sort-of-nemesis, the family cat Snowbell (Nathan Lane), perfectly and snidely voiced by Nathan Lane, is great fun to watch, especially when he gets a wicked grin on his face. The combination of Lane and the F/X make Snowbell the second best character in the film.

The story is the usual kind of tale, but then again, it's not. Stuart, the stranger, comes to the Little home with hope of being accepted. His new "brother" rejects him outright and it is Stuart's job to turn things around, and he does. Conflict is introduced in the guise of the jealous competition, Snowbell, who hatches a plot with some hired thugs to get rid of the mouse. The thugs, really alley cats led by Smokey (Chazz Palminteri), dupe Stuart into leaving the Littles with a pair of fake mouse parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stout (wonderfully voice by Bruno Kirby and, especially, Jennifer Tilly). The intrigues mount as Stuart uncovers the sham, escapes and journeys home. In addition to this big adventure, there is an exciting model boat race, where Stuart saves the day, and there are other tribulations, too - all in fewer than 90 minutes.

There is a lot going on in "Stuart Little," most of which is aimed at pleasing and entertaining the audience of tots it is aimed at. There is, of course, the adorable Stuart for a draw. But, there is action, intrigue, slapstick humor and, especially, talking animals to keep the rug rats amused throughout. For the adults, there are the elegant special effects and a script that sprinkles wit and mature humor through the length of the film. The kids won't get the references to "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Warriors," and "The Godfather," but the parents seeing this children's gem will appreciate the effort by screenwriters M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") and Greg Brooker in their adaptation of the E.B. White book.

The human characters, led by Davis, Laurie and Lipnicki, are, as you would expect. There isn't any depth to them, nor do you expect there to be. The stars are Stuart and the rest of the animal menagerie. They, especially cute Stuart, are the draw for the kids and they come through quite nicely. Michael J. Fox adds just the right vocal note to the character of Stuart.

The production, led by the film's helmer, Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King"), complements the reality/fantasy nature of the story. Stuart's adopted home, where "Every Little in the world can find the Little house," has a pristine, art-deco look with vibrant colors and a kitchy set design. New York City looks good, too, if that's possible.

The rest of the tech credits, like the aforementioned sets, by Bill Brzeski, and the costuming, by Joseph Porro, complement this fun and funny story with just the right look. Photography, By Guillermo Navarro, who gave a good look to the mediocre sci-fier "Spawn," joins the rest of the tech crew in creating the hyper-real world of Stuart.

"Stuart Little." Now this is what I call holiday movie fare for the whole family. It's nice to have choices like this. I give it a B+.


TUMBLEWEEDS

Actor/director Gavin O'Connor brings British stage actress Janet McTeer to the shores of America in her screen debut as an independent-minded Southern mother on the road with her adolescent daughter in "Tumbleweeds."

Robin's review of 'Tumbleweeds':
"Tumbleweeds" could have been titled "Alice Doesn't %$#@&* Live Here Anymore," given the insouciant attitude of the lead character, Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer). Though married four times, Mary Jo is the single parent of daughter Eva (Kimberley J. Brown), but, like the title, she rolls from one relationship to another, one town to another. She is attracted to handsome guys and bubbles with a flirtatious coquettishness as she seeks the perfect guy and always - always - totally misses the mark.

Adolescent Eva is wise to the ways of the world and is used to her mother's ways, too. Suffering through mom's four divorces and numerous boyfriends, the budding teen is always ready to beat feet when the husband/boyfriend go bad. Whenever Mary Jo moves in with another guy who she thinks is "the right one," Eva prepares an escape route so she can pack up and leave at a moment's notice.

"Tumbleweeds" is the quintessential mother-daughter/chick/road flick that wears its feminist colors like a cloak. The story, by Angela Shelton and adapted with O'Connor, makes no bones about the fact that men can be louses and usually are. Mary Jo finds herself attracted to domineering men, thinking that they'll take care of her and Eva. But, her independent mind and feisty personality always puts her at odds with the latest beau. These confrontations border on violent, barely held in check.

Eva has learned to cope with her flighty mother, while trying to maintain some semblence of a normal life. The young girl had to grow up a lot faster than the average kid and is, oftentimes, the parent in the mother/daughter relationship. The give and take between the two also takes on the air of friendship as Mary Jo helps Eva deal with the tribulations of growing up a girl. They freely discuss "Mr. Rose" arriving for Eva, dating boys, the right way to kiss, and Eva's budding breasts. This bonding is the best part of the story and has the most emotional appeal.

Now we come to the rest of the story. There is nothing new or different in "Tumbleweeds." The allegory between the title plant and the life of Mary Jo is a too obvious - a real tumbleweed makes a cameo appearance, in case you don't get the point. The black and white depiction of men and their ways is simplistic and negative. This is tempered with the introduction of the only sensitive man in the film, Dan (Jay O. Sanders), Mary Jo's co-worker who befriends the odd pair. Otherwise, we guys are shown as just no good. Many women probably wouldn't argue.

The cast is minimal. McTeer is good as a mother who is also a pretty lusty woman. She is getting a bunch of buzz for award noms come the end of the year, but only if the list of best actresses is real short. If there were an award for best body language, McTeer would get it. Kimberley Brown, as the wise little Eva, actually gives the stronger performance since she has to play the serious straight man to her mom's theatrical persona. Director O'Connor plays Jack, the representative of the lousy side of men, while Sanders is two-dimensional as the "good" man.

Tech credits approach rotten with murky, amateur photography, bad lighting and cheap set design. Costume does accentuate Mary Jo's blousy, almost slutty, demeanor and behavior.

The moral of self sufficiency, the importance of a strong will and the pro-women theme make this a middlin' entry as a chick flick. I can't recommend it as a date movie. Well, maybe, if the guy goes to see "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigilo" instead. I give "Tumbleweeds" a C+.

Laura's review of 'Tumbleweeds':
At first blush, "Tumbleweeds" sounds like an indie version of last month's Susan Sarandon starrer "Anywhere But Here," yet aside from a mother/daughter on the road plot featuring an immature mom who finds furniture in the trash, the two films are very different in many ways.

British stage actress Janet McTeer has been getting a huge amount of buzz as an Oscar nominee for Best Actress (she just won that honor from the National Board of Review) for her portrayal of aging Southern siren Mary Jo Walker. While she's good enough to garner the nom, I wouldn't pick her to win and was actually far more impressed by the performance of newcomer Kimberly J. Brown as Mary Jo's daughter Ava. Both give stronger performances than Sarandon and Portman, but they're vastly aided by a superior script from director Gavin O'Connor (who also plays the odius Jack Ranson).

Unlike Sarandon's mom, who was unrealistically independent, Mary Jo is completely dependent on men - she feathers her and Ava's nest by latching onto the nearest male who can satisfy her sexually for as long as he's bearable (which usually isn't very). McTeer's body language is practically a blinking neon 'Girls! Girls! Girls! sign, and it's a pleasure to watch her flag down a truck on the highway. Unlike Portman's 'so-sullen-you-wanted- to-slap-her' teenager, Ava is an optimistic, sunny preteen who actually enjoys the company of her outrageously open mother, even though she's tired of their nomadic lifestyle. These two have fabulous chemistry together.

Support is fine from O'Connors spoiled, immature, sulky, prone-to-violence Jack (he may be a type, but he's a readily recognizable one) to Jay O'Sanders' 'obviously the good man for Mary Jo' Dan, melancholy and unassuming. Ashley Buccille is precious as Ava's 'new best friend' and aspiring actress Zoe, gushing Hollywoodisms at a tender age. Cody McMains is cute as the tough kid with the punked out hair who has a big crush on Ava. Michael J. Pollard ("Bonnie and Clyde") is so weird as Mary Jo's new boss, that he only succeeds in distracting us.

For a script that features coffee enemas, French kissing instruction on an apple and a Kotex santiary napkin fest, O'Connor doesn't ever really take us anywhere but where we're expecting to go. Ordinary plot construction is obscured somewhat by quirky ideas and terrific dialogue.

And once again to an "Anywhere But Here" comparison - that film was a glossy Hollywood product, technically first rate. "Tumbleweeds'" cinematographer, Dan Stoloff (from a background in documentaries), has assuredly turned in the worst job in his profession of the year. The wobbly camera during static shots where a tripod should have been used, zooming in and out (to find focus perhaps?) unnecessarily, and murky, muddy interior lighting drags "Tumbleweeds" down an entire grade level. Editting by John Gilroy often seems too abrupt, but perhaps this was forced because of unusable film footage.

The only real reason to see "Tumbleweeds" is due to the entirely pleasurable mother/daughter relationship created by McTeer and Brown. That's reason enough.

B-


ANNA AND THE KING

In 1862, widowed Englishwoman Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) left India, where her husband had served in a British regiment, and travelled with her young son Louis (Tom Felton, "The Borrowers") to the unknown land of Siam to take a position as teacher of King Mongkut's (Chow Yun-Fat, star of many of John Woo's Hong Kong movies and "The Replacement Killers") eldest son Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin). The visionary Mongkut wished to have his children get a Western education, but what he did not realize was that with the feisty Leonowens, he was about to get an education of his own.

Laura's review of 'Anna And The King':
"Anna and the King" follows the 1946 "Anna and the King of Siam" as well as the immortal 1956 musical "The King and I." This rendition of the story is anything but reduntant, emphasizing the politics of the time and perhaps presenting the most historically accurate version. This "Anna" features hangings, beheadings and gunfire!

The film opens with the King's brother, Prince Chowfa (Lim Kay Siu), discovering the bodies of Thai farmers hanging from the trees while women weep in the fields. They've been killed by Burmese soldiers, who've been increasing murderous raids along the border. King Mongkut is also faced with the dilemma of the French and British colonization that control all the countries that border Siam (and are the British behind the Burmese raids?).

Anna arrives and discovers that the King has reneged on his promise to provide her with housing outside of the palace. After three weeks go by and no audience with the King has happened, Anna boldy flouts protocol and approaches him at court. The male/female, East/West battles have begun.

Mongkut is both irritated and impressed with Anna's forceful manner, and he presents her to the royal family (23 wives, 40 concubines and 68 children, less, the king slyly tells Anna, than the Chinese emperor perhaps, but the emperor didn't spend half his life in a monastery so Mongkut's making up for lost time). Anna meets additional opposition from the haughty young prince as well, but she (and her son, as it turns out) quickly takes him down a few well deserved notches. (It should be noted, that although the screenplay by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes was based on Leonowens' diaries, it is the young Prince who narrates the story.)

There are many differences from the familiar musical. Tuptim (Bai Ling, "Red Corner) is now a new concubine rather than a runaway slave, who can't let go of her lover, even when he enters a Budhist monastery. They both face a tragic end, brought on partially because Anna forces the king's hand. The slave is now an anonymous bond slave and Anna buys her freedom, forcing the upholding of Siamese law, from a disagreeably wealthy widow. The centerpiece of the film, the elaborate state dinner for the British, is now entirely believable - no jokes about missing underwear here. The King's attempt to present Anna with a 'thank you' gift of an elaborately jewelled ring has a clear sexual subtext.

Jodie Foster gives her best performance in some time as Anna. Her clipped British accent is maybe not up to Meryl Streep levels, but it will do. She's smart, independent, beautiful and perhaps too headstrong. She has nice chemistry with Yun-Fat, who shines as the highly intelligent and sexy king. The rest of the cast is adequate with the youngest Siamese princess being a charming standout. Technically the film is stunning. Caleb Deschanel's camerwork portray Bangkok and the palace as if "The Last Emperor" had gone organic. Costume and production design add to the spectacle.

"Anna and the King" is another lengthy (160 minutes) holiday film entry, yet I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Unfortunately, the film takes a tumble at its climax, trying to have us believe that a woman and two young boys could successfully drive off a Burmese army with a couple of hastily thought up tricks. The veering from Anna's relationship with the King to the political challenges he faces outside of her consciousness isn't handled seamlessly, either. Yet, the film as a whole, aside from a few scenes of violence, tastefully handled, is a big, old-fashioned family entertainment.

B


DEUCE BIGELOW: MALE GIGILO

Deuce (Rob Schneider) is a loser. He lost his job at the LA Aquarium for cleaning the tanks in the nude. He has a business but, unfortunately, it's a fish tank cleaning service and it ain't all that lucrative. When he meets Antoine (Oded Fuhr, "The Mummy"), a limo driver who is also a high price gigolo, his life is about to change. One of the man-whore's expensive tropical fish is sick and he has to go to Europe for three weeks. Deuce jumps at the chance to fish-sit and stay in the luxurious digs. The only orders are don't touch the phone and don't drive the car. The ill-fated fish-man, of course, does both and gets himself in big trouble in "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo."

Robin's review of 'Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigilo':
OK. We're talking about the very lowest common denominator of humor here. The script was written by Harris Goldberg and Rob Schneider and has Adam Sandler credited as executive producer, so we're looking for humor akin to "The Water Boy" or "Big Daddy." The base level of the gags makes every attempt to insult and offend as many challenged people as possible. The sacred cows that are slaughtered here include blind people, Teurette's Syndrome sufferers, giant women (both horizontally and vertically challenged), gays, narcoleptics, the physically disabled and more. There are fart jokes, toilet gags, sex humor, penis jokes (these are beaten to death), hot wax funnies and food gross outs. New words for a gigolo and his private parts are invented, too man-whore, he-bitch and mangina are terms credited to Deuce's pimp, TJ (Eddie Griffin).

The gross-out humor and bodily function gags are not totally awful. Some elicit the requisite chuckles, some don't. The lowbrow humor is aimed directly at its target audience of 16-24 year old male heterosexuals. Members of that audience demographic at the screening I attended laughed heartily, at times. The romantic side of things gets the goofy treatment, too, as Deuce falls for a client whose friends hired to date pretty wallflower Kate (Arija Bareikis), a woman with one leg.

The story has a good heart, all in all, as Deuce takes on the mantle of gigolo and agrees to be managed by TJ. TJ is a businessman and is out to satisfy his customers. Deuce fits a certain niche market in the man-whore trade and his pimp seeks out those clients who have certain special needs. Deuce finds himself teamed with desperate women who can't get a man any other way.

Since he really is a sensitive guy, Deuce helps each of his clients find and be comfortable with her inner and, especially, outer self. He helps weight-challenged Jabba Lady (LA DJ Big Boy) to forget about food and get some exercise. He shows giantess Tina (Torsten Voges) that big can be beautiful, too. He also helps narcoleptic Allison (Bree Turner) and Teurette's Syndrome suffering Ruth (Amy Poehler) function, despite their conditions, in normal society. To the chagrin of the teen male audience, Deuce does not have sex with his clients, save one. But, considering the clients, this is not a bad thing.

Some of the comedy misses in Deuce Bigalwo hurt the goofy/funny edge the film sometimes has. One story line involves police detective Chuck Fowler (William Forsythe) who, first, seems to be out to get Deuce. Then, next confrontation, he really wants to get gigolo Antoine. Then, it's Antoine's black book he wants. Finally, it turns out that he has marriage problems that stem from penile insecurity. With every confrontation with Deuce, the cop exposes himself to the novice man-whore. None of this is bit is funny and Forsythe looks embarrassed through his entire performance.

You definitely have to be in the frame of mind to want to see a film like "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." It helps if your head needs to vacate for 90 minutes and doesn't want to think. Deuce will not tax the brain, except, maybe, when it notices the Matrix parodies in the film. Go only if you are ready for a no-brainer. I give it a C+.


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