TITUS - ISN'T SHE GREAT
THE THIRD MIRACLE - TOPSY TURVY
PLAY IT TO THE BONE - GIRL, INTERRUPTED


TITUS

Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome the victorious general of the wars with the heathen Goths to the north. But, the sacrifices Titus bore are onerous as he buries 20 of his sons killed in the brutal battles. When he enters Rome, he also learns that his beloved emperor is dead and the heir to the throne, Saturninus (Allan Cummings), is a vicious and brutal dictator who rules all with a bloody fist. Titus pays tribute to his new emperor and gives a cherished prize - Tamora (Jessica Lange), the Queen of the Goths. But, the general's ritual sacrifice of the queen's eldest son set the wheels of vengeance and hate in motion in "Titus."

Robin's review of 'Titus':
I was a little concerned at the opening moments in this adaptation of the Bard's earliest work, "Titus Andronicus." Julie Taymor, in her screen debut as director/writer following her acclaimed Broadway rendition of "The Lion King," opens her film with a young boy, in a paper bag mask, destroying his war toys with various foods. This scene felt contrived not to mention messy. Then the story of "Titus" begins. By the time it was over - about 2 hours and 40 minutes later - I understood that the action at the beginning was a microcosm of the events to be played.

Helmer Taymor's adaptation of the Shakespeare play beautifully captures the violent and bitter tale of revenge, but infuses it with a very dark humor that is signature for the Bard. Besides the deft adaptation, the director shows talent with her visual representation of the work and a real ability in eliciting superior performances from her cast. The violence of the story is poetically rendered, sometimes to gut-wrenching degrees, in their imagery and bloody beauty. "Titus" is a truly stunning debut work.

Acting is uniformly solid. Anthony Hopkins forgoes his now-usual Hannibal Lecter mugging and gives a subtle performance as a man in anguish from his numerous losses. He lost most of his sons in battle. His beloved daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) is given to the Tamora's sons and is subjected to their barbaric brutality. Of his remaining three sons, two are beheaded by Saturninus, while the eldest, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen), is banished from Rome for treason against the throne. Hopkins' Titus is in a state of despair as he sinks into a kind of dementia that spawns his revenge against his enemies. When Titus finally strikes back, the payback is a real mother.

There are two others in the cast who shine out, giving deft and striking performances. Jessica Lange, as the captured Queen of the Goths, Tamora, gives one of her best perfs to date, rivaling her Oscar nom'd acting job in "Blue Skies" a few years ago. Queen Tamora is a smart, tough, ruthless and manipulating lady whose loyalties are to herself and her sons. She is bent on revenging the life of her first born son, killed and eviscerated by Titus as a sacrifice to the Roman victory over her people. Tamora is the lynchpin of the tale as she quests to destroy her Roman enemies, personified by Titus.

Harry Lennix is briiliant in his portrayal of the Moorish slave, Aaron. Aaron resents his slave status and connives, if not to be free, then to seek his revenge against those who oppress him. He aligns himself with the ambitious Tamora and they have an out of wedlock child - a boy as black as his father. The slave, an educated and intelligent man, is a puppet-master as he plays Roman against Goth, each destroying the other. Aaron takes no remorse in any of his actions, hoping only to perpetrate even more ill upon his captors. Lennix, from TV's "ER," gives a breakout performance as the moody Moor.

The rest of the exemplary cast fills out, in typical Shakespeare style, the background characters of the story. Fraser, as Lavinia, helps strengthen, through her suffering at the hands of Tamora's sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Myers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), the agony her father feels for her. Though silent through most of the film, Fraser lends a tragic air to her character, despite the silence. Meyers and Rhys are okay as the unruly sons of Tamora, but a little too Euro-trashy when compared to the rest of the cast. Angus Macfadyen, as Lucius, has a strong presence as Titus' second in command and number one son. Others, like Colm Feore as Titus' brother Marcus, flesh out the background characters suitably.

Similar, in spirit at least, to the films "Richard the Third" and "Edward II," "Titus" is set in a stratified world where dress and technology span millennia. Modern, battle-clad soldiers riding motorcycles and tanks accompany armored Roman legionnaires with short swords and shields. Proper 19th century gentlemen's attire, with stiff wing collars, is used alongside the flowing robes of a Roman Empress. Futuristic outfits worn by Saturninus co-exist with contemporary dress. Costuming, by two-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero, is the most imaginative of 1999, especially for Jessica Lange's Tamora.

Production design, by Dante Ferretti, is truly inspired and gives a unique and striking look to the film. Use of the decaying beauty of Roman ruins, like the Coliseum and Hadrian's Wall, gives the film a unique look, something not seen before. The fluid camera work by veteran Luciano Tovoli perfectly compliments the production and helps make the film a notable addition to the pantheon of adaptations of Shakespeare's works to the screen.

"Titus" is a true pleasure and a surprise. Besides Oscar-worthy performances from Lange and Lennix, tech credits abound that deserve critical attention. And, don't be intimidated by the long run-time. "Titus" is worth the effort. I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'Tutus':
Broadway director Julie Taymore ('The Lion King' AND Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus') sure has a flair for the visual. Her film debut of 'Titus' is one of the most spectacular looking films of 1999. It's also a rollicking Grand Guignol piece of entertainment.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Titus Andronicus, a Roman general just returned from a war with the Goths along with the bodies of twenty-one of his twenty-five sons and war hostages Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange) and her three sons. He promptly has her eldest slain in a most gruesome manner (offscreen - but wait, there's more to come) as a sacrifice for the souls of his boys, creating a most vengeful enemy of the fierce queen. Then Titus makes a second mistake by supporting Saturninus' (Alan Cummings, "Eyes Wide Shut") right to the emperor's throne over his far more decent brother Bassianus (James Frain, "Hilary and Jackie"). Saturninus immediately announces that he'll wed Lavinia (Laura Fraser, "The Man in the Iron Mask"), Titus' daughter and the betrothed of Bassianus, but changes his mind when he gets an eyeful of Tamora bedecked in snake tatoos and gold and a breastplate that's literally a breast plate. Throw into the mix Tamora's Moorish slave who's more Iago than Othello and we have a cast of characters who won't rest until everybody's dead.

When Bassianus and Lavinia flee from Saturninus, Titus kills one of his remaining four sons who attempts to shield them. The couple have the misfortune of running into Tamora, Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who murder Bassanianus then rape Lavinia and leave her with her tongue ripped out and her hands replaced with bundles of twigs. Then Aaron the slave (Harry Lennix in a star making performance) sets up two more of Titus' sons as the slayers of Bassanianus and demands Titus chop off his own hand to save his sons lives, but their heads are returned along with Titus' hand in a circus cart. Lucius, (Angus Macfadyen, "Cradle Will Rock") Titus' eldest, bands with the Goths to assemble an army to march on Saturninus and captures and kills Aaron while sparing his son, who Aaron fathered with Tamora. Tamora and her boys dress as Revenge, Murder and Rape and try to outwit Titus, who they believe has gone mad, but Titus outplays them and serves up Chrion and Demetrius baked in two pies that he serves to Saturninus and Tamora for lunch (with a nod to both Hannibal Lecter and 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.')

Taymor mixes several periods on her palette in a move that recalls Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen's Third Reich take on "Richard III." She uses Mussolini's government center as Saturninus' court while Cummings' made-up, leather-clad, mincing Saturninus could have stepped in straight from his Broadway 'Cabaret.' The Coliseum represents theater and violence, which is also reflected in a present day boy's play soldiers on a kitchen table strewn with food ('Titus' is shown through this boy's point of view - he becomes the son of Lucius). Taymor's created several 'Penny Arcade Nightmares' where people made up as angels and animals project the emotions of Tamora, Titus and Lavinia at different times. Aaron, Chrion and Demetrius hang out in an underground pool room where Demetrius plays video games and a dartboard bears a picture of Titus.

Anthony Hopkins plays Titus with dignity and restraint, until he gets to his chef's scene where he camps it up merrily. Jessica Lange is superb as the tigress made flesh - she addresses the camera in one scene and makes the audience privy to her plotting and raises gooseflesh. Colm Feore adds a note of melancholy as Marcus, the elder brother of Titus whose intense sorrow keeps the film from veering into outright hilarity. Lennix is smoldering as the slave whose outrage at racial injustice makes his every deed an evil one. The Rhys brothers are punkish goons - appropriate, although Jonathan's presence constantly recalls his 'Velvet Goldmine' glam rocker. Cummings is the only player who allows himself to careen over the top.

'Titus Andronics' is considered a lesser work by Shakespeare, and, apart from Aaron, there really is little room for character development. But Taymor, in addition to giving us a visual feast, has taken this 'one bad turn begets another' play and turned it into a cautionary fable of sorts, where a young boy carries a babe into a world of color and hope. Even so, it's the sheer manic glee of the thing that makes me give 'Titus' a B+.


ISN'T SHE GREAT

Failed actress/playwright Jacqueline Susann wanted to be famous, so her husband, publicist Irving Mansfield, suggested she become an author. His advice hit the mark as Jackie Susann became the first author in history to have three successive novels hit #1 on the New York Times best seller list. Although the creator of 'Valley of the Dolls' endured a life that included an autistic son and a ten year battle with cancer, it's given a comedic spin with 'Isn't She Great.'

Laura's review of 'Isn't She Great':
File this one under 'what the hell were they thinking!' Written by the usually hilarious Paul Rudnick ('In and Out,' 'Addams Family Values,' Premiere Magazine's Libby Gelman-Waxner columns) and directed by Andrew Bergman ('The Freshman'), 'Isn't She Great' is an experiment which fails on almost every front.

Jacqueline Susann was a brassy self-promoting trash novelist who lived a life not unlike one of her own characters, but she wasn't particularly funny. Instead of a tall, deep voiced actress, we get Bette Midler, chirpy and zaftig, who gets the chutzpah right, but that's about it (she can't be creditted for costumer Julie Weiss' original Emilio Pucci finds). Nathan Lane fairs marginally better as her husband, mainly because he's a less well known figure. David Hyde Pierce is called upon to do his fussy wasp routine as the horrified editor who softens when he discovers his authoress has cancer. John Cleese throws out a dubious performance as her clueless publisher. Stockard Channing, as Jackie's fictional best friend, soars above the entire production with howlingly funny line readings and reactions.

The problem seems to lie mainly with a screenplay that touches on (in)famous episodes in Jackie's life (her talks with God in Central Park, her stint as TV's 'Schiffli embroidery girl,' currying the favor of the Teamsters, etc.), yet sugar-coats or ignores the more scandalous aspects. Artificial scenes of Jackie horrifying her editor by getting his grandmother to reminisce about her fondness for a member of the same sex replaces any hint of Susann's own penchant for lesbian relationships, most famously with Carole Landis and rumorred with Ethel Merman (her basis for Helen Lawrence in 'Valley of the Dolls'). She's introduced being dumped by a fictional comic (he leaves a rubber chicken in their bed), yet we never hear about her many alleged affairs, many carried on after her marriage to Mansfield in 1939 (not the mid-50s as this film would have you believe). When serious subject matter is addressed, it's jaw-droppingly out of place - in one minute of screen time we learn that Jackie's son is autistic and must be institutionalized. Guy's trotted out periodically to remind us that God owes Jackie success while she likens the lad to a movie star. This is in dubious taste, indeed.

Technically, the film is fine, aside from a really tacky opening credit sequence. The sixties flavor is punched up with a vintage Burt Bacharach score.

Susann certainly led an interesting life. She hated the film version of 'Valley of the Dolls.' I wonder what she would have made of 'Isn't She Great.'

C-

Robin's review of 'Isn't She Great':
If you're expecting "Isn't She Great" to be a bio-pic telling you all about the life and dreams of novelist Jacqueline Susann, forget about it. Aside from the frequent mention of her first book, The Valley of the Dolls, this flick could have been about any bimbo who, through shear luck, gets famous. The film starts with Midler's Jacky kvetching about how deserved she is of world acclaim. Susann is supposed to be an actress, but the early bits are so disjointed I couldn't figure out what the heck she was - game show contestant or someone who does commercials. No groundwork is laid to explain why she should be deserving of anything, never mind fame.

The leads, Midler and Lane, are little more than caricatures of their characters. Midler's Susann is loud, talentless and so full of her own "greatness" that she approaches being unlikable. She declares, at one point, that a little fame is not enough, the she "needs more." The whole persona of Susann comes across as egotistical and self-centered. "I need," says Jacky, "mass love." I needed a barf bucket while watching this dreck.

Nathan Lane, as Irving Mansfield, Jacky's publicist and devoted husband has the toughest role in all the film - that of the loyal wife-type character who always basks, with a wistful, melancholy smile, in the light of his wife's fame. Lane isn't as two-dimensional as Midler, but the talented actor is never given anything to do but be the fawning cheering section for wife Jacky.

The script by Paul Rudnik, based on an article by Michael Korda, is as lame and uninteresting a piece of work that has been brought to the screen in a long time. The story is lightweight and trite with little imagination in the telling. It has the same artificial feel as similar films from the 50's, where basis on fact doesn't matter, as long as it's entertaining. For it's niche audience, whatever that might be, "Isn't She Great" may hit the mark. For everyone else, especially those with good taste, this hammy kudo to a hack writer misses by a mile. You may learn about true incidents from Susann's life - like having an autistic child or battling with breast cancer - but you won't learn anything about the writer.

There is some minor merit in "Isn't She Great." The supporting performances by Stockyard Channing and David Hyde Peirce are the best in the film. Channing, as Susann's fictional best friend - a sassy, boozy actress named Flo - sparks up her screen time with sharp irreverence and perfect delivery of her snappy lines. Hyde Peirce is believable as the uptight book editor who is exasperated by his ward and her trashy first work. He actually was able to elicit the only emotion in the film, near the end, as he says his final goodbye to the terminally ill Susann. One other bit, when the publisher's cleaning woman gives her solicited view of the book saying, at first, that it is filth, then, in the same breath, that it is the greatest book she has ever read, is a high point of the film.

"Isn't She Great" is routine, by the numbers, not interesting and has a boring, sometimes grating performance by Midler doing Bette Midler. I give it a C-.


THE THIRD MIRACLE

The Vatican's little black book on sainthood, The Ordinary Process of Canonization, states: "a priest, a postulator, will be assigned by the Vatican to investigate miracles and evaluate if the candidate has lived with heroic virtue." Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) is just such a spiritual detective and is sent to St. Stanislaus church in the heart of Chicago where a recently deceased immigrant woman may have performed miraculous acts. Things get complicated for Frank when he meets the dead woman's non-believer daughter, Roxanna (Anne Heche), and he really starts to question his faith in Agnieska Holland's "The Third Miracle."

Robin's review of 'The Third Miracle':
To be fair to the film, the screening I attended had a serious audio problem that introduced a loud buzz over the dialogue. I stuck it out and concentrated hard to hear the actors, but I wish I hadn't. In spite of the annoying buzz, "The Third Miracle" is a dull film with wooden performances and a muddled story that takes an ambiguous stance on the existence of miracles. The film tries to be too many things and does none of them well. It is an unconventional detective story, a courtroom drama and a tale of a star-crossed romance between two unhappy people who question their own inner faith. It fails to capitalize on any one of the stories, attempting to give each equal weight, without any one as an anchor.

The film begins during an Allied air raid over a Slovakian town in 1944. As the bombers are about to unleash their deadly cargo, a little girl clutches a statue of the Blessed Virgin and prays for help at the steps of the town church. Three people - the girl's father, the local priest and a wounded German soldier - observe the little girl's fervent prayer and, to their amazement, the bombs do not hit the town. The story jumps forward to 1979, just after the death of a local woman who has been sanctified by those around her.

A priest, Father John (Michael Rispoli), enters the world of the city's homeless to search for Frank Shore, a tortured cleric who has tried to lose himself as a layman in the world of the down-trodden and poor. The priest convinces Frank to come back to the world of believers and delve into the claims of miracles at St. Stanislaus. The investigation thrusts Frank and the woman's daughter, Roxanna, together and romantic sparks fly, causing the priest to face yet another crisis of faith. At the same time, a Vatican tribunal of bishops is sent to hear the case, pro and con, for Helen's deification and further Father Frank's internal furor.

Before anything can happen between Father Frank and Roxanna, a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary, with tears of blood, causes Frank to question his own inner conflict. He throws himself into proving Helen's sanctification. But, as he enters the Papal sanctioned court of the tribunal, he must face the obstinate questioning by Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man bent on denying the sainthood because of a question of morals, not miracles. This confused mix lacks any intrigue and fails to come to any resolution. The question of Helen being a saint or not is never answered by the film's end.

The performances by the principle actors are without note. Ed Harris has not starred in a film in a number of years and the actor seems out of practice and uncomfortable in a leading role. Father Frank should have elicited a deep empathy from the viewer, but Harris's performance just left me cold. Anne Heche doesn't fair much better, but I don't think the actress is at fault. Heche has a sensual physicality that she lends to her perfs and there are sparks coming from the actress as she falls in love with the priest. Unfortunately, there is no reciprocation from Harris. Armin Mueller-Stahl is painfully out of place as the seemingly bitter archbishop. Why he acts the way he does is not revealed until the end of the film and, by then, it's too late for us to care.

This first feature screenplay adaptation, by John Romano from the Richard Vetere novel, is, in a word, lifeless. The combination of the disparate stories fails to involve the viewer on any level. The acclaimed Holland fails to breathe any life into the film, probably due to the material she is saddled with. This is too bad as the look of the flick is quite exceptional. Cinematography, in particular, by Jerzy Zielinski ("Washington Square") lends richness to the movie's look with soft lighting and close-up shots of the handsome principles. The artful photography is several steps above the story, but looks alone can't save a film.

The miracle of "The Third Miracle" is that the filmmakers were able to get someone to give them the money to make this slow, plodding dud of a film. I give it a D+.


TOPSY TURVY

In 1884 London, the Savoy Theater is facing a downturn in profits due to a heatwave and the lukewarm response to their resident librettist/composer duo Gilbert and Sullivan's latest effort, 'Princess Ida.' The vastly different pair are also at odds. Bohemian composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) wishes to quit his contract and compose serious music, while the stodgy, proper and married William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is bristling at charges of unoriginality with his new work. Their passions are relit, however, when Gilbert gets a jolt of inspiration from his wife's insistence on visiting a Japanese exhibition. Writer/director Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies") presents the construction of their classic, 'The Mikado,' in "Topsy Turvy."

Laura's review of 'Topsy Turvy':
A period costume piece from Mike Leigh? It's not as much a departure as one might think. "Topsy Turvy" seems like a comedy on the surface, but by the time it wraps up, we've witnessed the dark recesses of many souls. The film begins as 'Princess Ida' meets with less than enthusiastic response from the press, the public and the players. Sullivan, in failing health, retreats for a restorative trip to the continent (although his idea of 'taking exercise' in Paris is to frolic in a high class brothel). Gilbert faces the decline of his father's mental abilities as well as the fussing of his household's womenfolk while he writes a new comic opera around a magic potion. When Sullivan returns, he dismisses Gilbert's new 'topsy- turvy,' stating that it's just like all the rest. The owner of the Savoy Theater, Mr. Carte (Ron Cook) and his assistant Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham) attempt to reconcile the two, to no avail.

Kitty Gilbert (Lesley Manville) succeeds in getting Willie to the Japanese exhibition, where he's entranced by a Kabuki play and a Japanese tea server (Naoko Mori) whose only English is "Sixpence, please." Gilbert buys a Japanese sword and bangs out 'The Mikado.' The Savoy Theater begins to bustle with the effort of producing a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Leigh, who formed his film via his usual lengthy improvisation method, shows us the problems of theater management as new contracts are negotiated with their acting troupe and the tippling leading lady is admonished to shape up or ship out. Gilbert manages the nuts and bolts of the production, coaxing a vain actor into Japanese peasant garb and calling in Miss 'Sixpence, please' to demonstrate the Japanese style of walking for his actresses. Sullivan wryly coaches the cast's singing of Gilbert's lines to his music. The chorus bravely faces tyrannical Gilbert after he's cut Mr. Temple's (Leigh regular Timothy Spall) Mikado solo, which crushed the veteran actor, and get it reinstated on opening day. Sullivan conducts the orchestra for opening night while Gilbert nervously cruises London's alleys, only arriving back at the theater in time for curtain.

Leigh caps each significant step of the building operetta with the fully realized opening night piece which most represents that aspect of the production, an unusual method that works to a degree, although it also significantly pads the film's run time (160 minutes) and gives the film's midsection a 'fits and starts' rhythm (the more typical filmic device is to present a montage of the finished product at the end). Leigh chooses to end his film by revealing a tragic secret about lead actor George Grossmith (Martin Savage) and a devastating truth about the Gilberts' marriage. He mirrors these two events with a bittersweet recapping of Leonora's lonely fondness for the sherry bottle as she replays Yum-Yum's speech about being a child of nature to her dressing room glass and Sullivan's modern handling of his American mistress Fanny's latest pregnancy. What was light has become recast in shadow.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific here with Broadbent and Corduner bringing the nineteenth century collaborators into the twenty-first (Leigh keeps touching on their marvel and joy at such modern inventions as the telephone, the electric door buzzer and the 'reservoir' pen). Shirley Henderson resembles a British Jennifer Jason Leigh with her kittenish drama queen. Lesley Manville creates a highly complex and fragile Kitty Gilbert.

Eve Stewart, Lindy Hemming and Christine Blundell create bold production design, costume and makeup which cinematographer Dick Pope colorfully captures. "Topsy Turvy" is a theater-goer's (and Anglophile's) delight.

B+

Robin's review of 'Topsy Turvy':
British writer/director Mike Leigh is best known for his small-scale, character intense films like "Life Is Sweet," "Naked" and his much awarded "Secrets and Lies." Now, with his latest work, "Topsy-Turvy," Leigh does a 180 and tackles a big production of far grander tale about the famous musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan. With a cast numbering about 90 performers, this is, by far, the biggest effort of the helmer's career.

As the film opens, it's January of 1884 and the latest comic opera by the Victorian dynamic duo of William Schwenk Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is playing its first performance at the prestigious Savoy Theater in London. Composer Sullivan leaves his sickbed to conduct their "Princess Ida" while lyricist Gilbert waits nervously backstage. The play is a popular success, but the theater critic for the London Times is less than laudatory of the light hearted musical and dubs Gilbert "the King of Topsy-Turvydom." The combination of the review and the stagnancy of the collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan leads the latter to declare the he will write no more comic operas for the Savoy's owner Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook).

The immense popularity of Gilbert's and Sullivan's musical librettos and a contractual obligation to Carte to produce yet another comic opera inspire the lyricist to write what is essentially a rehash of his earlier works. Rejected by Sullivan, who refuses to compose the music for another topsy-turvy plot, Gilbert falls into the doldrums as he wracks his brain to come up with something fresh and new. The suggestion by his wife Kitty (Leslie Manville) that he attend a visiting Japanese cultural exhibition, to distract his troubled mind, plants the germ of an idea in the songwriter's mind - a Japanese comic opera. Some time later, in Sullivan's study, Gilbert reads his new work, "The Mikado," to the composer who delights in the concept and the challenge to write the proper music for the play. The result turns out to be the most famous and popular of all of Gilbert and Sullivan's work together.

This ambitious story, written by Leigh, gives us a wonderful and, for me, an educational view into not just the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan, but into the world of London theater circa the late 1800's. "Topsy-Turvy" is a huge ensemble piece that takes pleasure in giving exposure to some of the more obscure G & S works like the aforementioned "Princess Ida" and "The Sorcerer," while reminding us of their other, more famous oeuvres, "The Pirates of Penzance" and "H.M.S. Pinafore." Leigh delves into the lives of those around the creative pair - actors, actresses, spouses and mistresses are all given screen time and help flesh out the story nicely.

Broadbent and Corduner as Gilbert and Sullivan solidly lead the vast cast. Broadbent gives Gilbert the spoiled petulance of a man used to being idolized, but is still insecure of others' opinions. Allan Corduner lends his Sullivan a subdued combination of elegance and hedonism. There is a richness and depth to the supporting characters that populate the diverse story. Time is spent showing the lives of the other contributors to the making of "The Mikado." The insecurities of this tightly knit artistic community are evident as we are given small, yet poignant, looks into hearts and souls of the players.

Shirley Henderson gives a layered perf as leading Savoy actress Leonora Braham, an ambitious and talented actress whose problems with alcohol endanger her career. Martin Savage is subtly amusing as George Grossmith, one of the Savoy's lead male vocalists, a man with a secret addiction. Leslie Manville gives a touching performance as Gilbert's loyal wife. There is nuance to the pain she feels while her husband is self-absorbed with his own life and career. Manville conveys the love, acceptance and hurt that Kitty feels when rejected or ignored by her artiste husband. Leigh veteran Timothy Spall gets a chance to shine, briefly, when he performs as the title character of the opera.

The production is a credit to the filmmakers as the film's look and tone capture the rich vibrancy of the London theater scene as the 19th century wanes. Longtime Leigh costumer, Lindy Hemming, does a superb job on two levels - her rendering of posh 1880's fashion among London's well-to-do is elegant and fitting, while the colorful Japanese designs help give the production of "The Mikado" a brightness and energy. The wonderful look of the production is handled well by another Leigh alumnus, Eve Stewart, giving the film the right period look that befits the story. The director's favorite cinematographer, Dick Pope, helps Leigh open up his usually introspective, personal work to encompass the grandeur and spectacle of the London stage.

Similar in structure to Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock," "Topsy-Turvy" builds, from the start, to the big finale - the final staging of the play. The Robbins film accomplished this with its raw energy and exhilaration in presenting its history. Leigh takes his work down a more dignified path of the oh-so-proper English society. The finale, in both films, is worth the wait. Leigh has handcrafted a big production and succeeds, mostly, in entertaining the viewer to the end - especially for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I give "Topsy-Turvy" a B+.


PLAY IT TO THE BONE

Ron Shelton, the quintessential sports-movie director/writer, enters that forum again, this time getting into the boxing ring with "Play it to the Bone." Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas star as Vince Boudreau and Cesar Dominguez, a pair of professional pugilists near the end of their mediocre careers. Fortune shines upon them, one last time, when fight promoter Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) calls to make them an offer - the two are to fight the under-card bout for that night's Mike Tyson championship fight in Las Vegas. This begins a road journey from LA to the gambling capital, enlisting the aid of Cesar's girlfriend, Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich), because of her beauty, kindness and, especially, her car - a vintage, lime green Oldsmobile 442.

Robin's review of 'Play It To The Bone':
Ron Shelton has developed a rep as the creator of a variety of sports related films over the years. His debut effort, the entertaining and funny "Bull Durham" put him on the helmers' map. He clinched his title as a sports movie maven with his homage to pick-up basketball with "White Men Can't Jump," propelling Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez to stardom. Subsequent game films, the difficult "Cobb" and shallow "Tin Cup," further cemented Shelton's status. With "Play It to the Bone," the writer director tries to combine two genres - the buddy/road movie and a rags to hopeful riches story about two guys whose lives center on the boxing ring.

The result of this combo of flick genres is a work that fails to fully realize either. The mildly amusing road trip from LA to Vegas is forced since the offer to Vince and Cezar predicates that they make the journey in a matter of hours. The guys' enlistment of Grace is just a device to get the trio on the road and allow the two pugs to tell us their stories on how they could of been somebody, but the throw of the dice did not go their way. Cezar, we find out lost his chance at a title shot because he couldn't hear the count after a knock down. Vince was denied his time in the limelight of a champion because of an unfair decision in favor of his opponent. Little time is spent on Grace and her hopes and dreams, except on a very cursory level. The problem is, we're not given any reason to really care about these three or their hopes and dreams.

An attempt is made to spice up the routine road trip with the introduction of the sultry, sexy and selfish Lia (Lucy Liu), a hitchhiker who tags along with the trio (and pays their way) when she loses her ride to Vegas. The addition of Lia is a mistake in this equation as she introduces a conflict that goes nowhere except to allow her to show up later in a sort of in-your-face return on the arm of megastar Rod Stuart at the Tyson fight. Liu comes across only as a snotty little, uh, witch who has no real purpose in the film, unless, of course, she's dating the director. All in all, this road trip goes nowhere except to get us to the Big Fight.

Shelton shifts gears when the action enters the ring. Here, there is a greater comfort level for the helmer as he gets himself into the fight game. Vince and Cezar are evenly matched and know each other's boxing styles. Their deal - $50K apiece and a shot at the Middleweight title for the winner of the bout - is the motivation for their combat, risking their friendship for the shot. The outcome of this battle is convoluted with the addition of a plot by the unscrupulous Domino and his partner, hotel owner Hank Goody (Robert Wagner), who connive to cheat the boys out of their promised hopes for a title shot and fame. This sinister device is used to add an unnecessary layer of angst to the story and serves only to show the corrupt side of the fight game.

The fight sequences between Vince and Cezar are handled in a "Rocky"-esque manner with the first couple of rounds shown in detail and the rest of the match given a perfunctory air with the ring-babes strutting their stuff between rounds and providing some hallucinatory visions for the bible-thumping Vince and the insecure Cezar. Most of the fight is shot tight, with lots of close-ups of the action. Harrelson and Banderas show their training for the film and do a good job conveying both the inner and outer battles taking place. It's not "Raging Bull," but, then, it doesn't try to be. There's more glitz than guts to the match and the finale is inevitable.

Acting is of the yeoman quality with no one doing an outstanding job, but the principles do their best with the two-dimensional characters given them. There is little development for Vince and Cezar and we learn little of their dedication to the ring. Why they're given the opportunity to fight in a prestigious under-card bout is a little more obscure as Joe Domino is faced, at the last minute, with filling the spot before the big Tyson fight. The proposed match and the subsequent road trip it sparks are just devices to get us to Las Vegas. Of the trio, Davidovich comes across best, but she suffers from the shallow drawing of her character - an inventor searching for working capital. The friendship between Vince and Cezar consists, mostly, of the pair bickering and talking at, rather than to, each other.

If you expect another "Bull Durham" from Ron Shelton, you're in for a disappointment. Where his earlier film had charm, humor and a breakout performance by Tim Robbins, "Play It to the Bone," is simplistic, derivative and by the numbers. I give it a C+.

Laura's review of 'Play It To The Bone':
Writer/director Ron Shelton has been associated with the sports film since his directorial debut "Bull Durham" (he also wrote "The Best of Times," and wrote and directed "White Men Can't Jump," "Cobb," and "Tin Cup" among other, non-sports related, films). With "Play It to the Bone," Shelton attempts to mix a road movie with a boxing tale with dismal results.

Vince and Cesar (Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas) are buddies and boxers who work out together in the same gym. They've also shared the same woman, Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich), Cesar's current lover and Vince's past, as well hard luck breaks which felled each of them as they were on the verge of the big time.

When Vegas fight promoters Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) and Hank Goody (Robert Wagner) lose the opening act for their huge Mike Tyson event, desperation causes them to hunt down the duo in LA and offer them 50 grand a piece to fight each other at 6 p.m. that night.

Vince, Cesar and Grace (she owns the muscle car) hit the road and attempt to establish their characters. Grace quickly starts things off by claiming she's looking for something, namely money, that Cesar hasn't got and she feels their affair is wrapping up. Cesar is upset not only by this turn of events, but because Domino is the guy who lured him into the high stakes fight that trampled his career. Vince, who believes he can see Jesus ever since a near-fatal car accident ended his wild partying ways, attempts to hit on Grace, but instead ends up making whoopee with Lia (Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu), a gold digging hitchhiker who departs as abruptly as she'd arrived after Grace hauls off and decks her.

There's some half-hearted intrigue about the signing of contracts (will the big time promoters screw over our heroes - you bet) and an attempt to give Grace a back story as a middleweight groupie (Tyson waves at her when he spots her ringside) and entrepeneur (she attempts to fund her questionable inventions with Goody's money, but he just wants to get her in the sack). Another interesting idea that's never fully developed is Grace as muse to the two fighters, who she pitches against each other by getting Cesar to tell Vince about his dalliance with homosexuality. Then Shelton pulls out his one amazing surprise - the fight between the two best friends is a gripping piece of drama with dashes of fantastical hallucinations.

None of the actors can be faulted here - they all give this a game try, with Davidovich giving her best performance since "Blaze." (Well, Robert Wagner sometimes seems like he's struggling to keep Number Two from escaping.) There's also a large sprinkling of celebrity cameos from the likes of Rod Stewart, Kevin Costner, James Woods and Tony Curtis who either owed Shelton a favor or want to establish themselves as boxing fans in a big way.

Will Vince and/or Cesar's career(s) be revitalized by their televized, harrowing fight? Will Grace stay with Cesar, go back to Vince, or neither? Does the character of Lia have a point? Alas, "Play It to the Bone" has its characters hit the road to end up exactly where they all began.

C


GIRL, INTERRUPTED

An the height of the 1960s, 17 year old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is depressed and confused by life. When she chases a bottle of aspirin with vodka, her bewildered parents (Joanna Kerns, Ray Baker) have her committed to Claymoore Hospital (in reality, Belmont, MA's McLean Psychiatric Hospital) where everyone but her doctors tell her she's not crazy. Susanna also meets the wildly rebellious sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie, "The Bone Collector") who pushes her to the extremes that will result in her self relevation in "Girl, Interrupted."

Laura's review of 'Girl, Interrupted':
Screenplay adapter and director James Mangold ("Heavy," "Copland") chose to liken Kaysen's psychological odyssey to "The Wizard of Oz," and the device is an apt one. Susanna lives in a world where adults misunderstand her. Her parents don't realize she's had an affair with their friend, her high school English professor (Bruce Altman). Mom blithely chirps away at a holiday party, pushing Susanna to meet the prof's wife (Mary Kay Place) and daughter, while the professor stalks her demanding an explanation for her termination of their relationship. She lives life in a fog (both figuratively and literally - lots of cigarette smoking in this movie), passing from one relationship to the next, including sleeping with Tobias (Jared Leto, "Prefontaine"), a young man anxiously watching the draft.

Then her mom's in a car watching as she's loaded into a cab with a prepacked suitcase and met by Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), who shows her around South Bell ward and introduces her to her pathologically lying roommate Georgina (Clea Duvall, "The Faculty"), who happens to be reading an Oz book. Valerie's called away, though, by the return of the physically and verbally violent Lisa, who ran away when her best friend at the ward hung herself on the basketball net. Over the course of two years, Susanna will learn that Lisa's surface compassion for the other patients can not only turn suddenly cruel, but can push someone over the brink to suicide.

The remaining central patients include Polly (Elisabeth Moss, "Mumford"), who's retreated from society with horrible burn scarring on her face, Daisy (Brittany Murphy, "Clueless"), who's overly loving father provides her with his deli rotisserie chickens which is all she will eat, anoxeric Janet (Angela Betts) and the overweight Cynthia (Jillian Armenante, "Dogfight").

Staff doctor Melvin (Jeffrey Tambor, TV's "The Larry Sanders Show") diagnoses Susanna as a Borderline Personality Disorder, which she learns during a parental visit (later Lisa gains access to all their files during a nighttime B&E of Dr. Wicks' office). Valerie believes she's just spoiled and has her own answers, and loses patience when she discovers Susanna with orderly John (Travis Fine, "The Thin Red Line") and Lisa after an all night corridor party, sending her to the dreaded Dr. Wicks (Vanessa Redgrave). John is reassigned to another ward and Lisa disappears, returning after shock therapy to beg Susanna to run away to Disneyland in Florida, where they will get jobs as Cinderella and Snow White. Lacking money, they stop at Daisy's (she's been released and has been set up in an apartment by her dad, although she clearly still has severe problems), where a jealous Lisa provokes Daisy and sparks the tragedy that will prove to be Susanna's wake up call.

This is a small film with a large cast, some of whom make stronger impressions than others. This project was Ryder's baby, and she shines in the lead role, letting her huge, dark eyes express her inner turmoil. Jolie has the flashier role, and while she's certainly more suited to playing the rough and tumble sociopath than her rookie cop in "The Bone Collector," she seems to be playing her own image here. Goldberg plays Valerie at the perfect pitch. Tambor gives a nicely shaded performance in a small role - he seems pretty clueless ('the establishment') through most of the film, a hack, assembly line psychoanalyst, but then shows wells of compassion at film's end that surprise the audience and deepen his character. The other patients often seem like pawns inside the sparring match that is Susanna and Lisa's relationship, although Brittany Murphy stands out, perhaps because she's the only other character presented outside of the institutional setting.

The Pennsylvania locations stand in for New England beautifully, with the Harrisburg State Hospital giving a fine impersonation of McLean's. Boston's famous 'If you lived here, you'd be home now' apartment complex gets two references (once seen in Susanna's diary), a nice local touch. An outside visit to an ice cream parlor (where Lisa confronts Professor Gilchrist's wife after she makes a disparaging remark to Susanna) feels like Massachusetts of thirty years ago.

The film's final confrontation between Lisa and Susanna, however, is pitched way off the scale, injecting a "Single White Female" moment into what had been a believable memoir up until that point. And we never do learn if Susanna really needed psychiatric care or was a victim of the times. "Girl, Interrupted" never attains anywhere near the dramatic power of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," but it is a fairly solid showcase for its star, Ryder.

B-

Robin's review of 'Girl, Interrupted':
It's 1968 and Susanna Kaysen is a troubled young lady. When we first meet her, she's chain-smoking Gauloise cigarettes while discussing her suicide attempt a few days before with a psychiatrist friend of the family (Kurtwood Smith). Susanna insists, despite the fact that she took a whole bottle of aspirin along with vodka chaser, that she just had a headache. The doctor convinces her to commit herself to Claymoore Hospital, a prestigious psychiatric institute, for a "rest." Susanna learns, during her stay, that there is crazy, then, there's real crazy in director James Mangold's adaptation of Kaysen's real life account in "Girl, Interrupted."

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest For Chicks" would be a more appropriate name for this psychiatry-lite piece by the director of "Copland." The setting for the story, Claymoore, is a stand-in for MacClean's Hospital in Belmont, MA, where Kaysen was kept for 18 months after being diagnosed as borderline psychotic. Her stay in the hospital is peppered with her interactions with the other inmates in the ward presided over by the firm but fair Nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg).

The most influential and challenging of the other ladies on the floor is Lisa (Angelina Jolie). Lisa is a problem child who is always getting into trouble, breaking out of the hospital and running away for weeks at a time. Her tough-chick persona dominates the ward as Susanna is taken under Lisa's wing. Susanna is, at first, just a follower of the willful Lisa until one fateful event. During one of Lisa's breakouts, this time accompanied by Susanna, the pair pays a visit a former inmate who is trying to make it on the outside. The girl, Daisy (Brittany Murphy), is driven to despair by Lisa and kills herself. When Susanna finds Daisy's body, the shock pushes the borderline patient toward the road to recovery.

The screenplay, by helmer Mangold, is by the numbers. The kindness and life-affirming values of those around her temper Susanna's decline and fall under the institutionalized treatment. Nurse Valerie is the anchor of the ward, while the inmates are to be felt sorry for, showing Susanna that her mind is not as troubled as others. Jolie, as Lisa, is a spark that can cause a conflagration without warning. The cookie cutter depiction of each of the girls is straightforward, but not particularly compelling. Daisy's plight offers the only real angst in the story but is telegraphed from the beginning. There is also heavy handed "Wizard of Oz" references with emphasis on "there's no place like home."

Winona Ryder does a nice job portraying Susanna. The pretty actress holds the center stage with confidence as she draws the young lady's life in an arc of deepening despair, rebellion and, finally, understanding and mental salvation. It's not a great performance, but Ryder exhibits real presence on the screen.

Angelina Jolie plays the same character she did in the 1996 in her first starring role, "Foxfire." Then she played a tough, hip chick that has problems and is on the verge of a breakdown. In "Girl, Interrupted, " she's pretty much the same, except with long, blond hair. The character is a stereotype, which isn't Jolie's fault. There just isn't anywhere for her character to go once her bad-girl image is established. The full-lipped and leggy actress was able to give more of a stretch performance in the 1997 film, "Playing God."

The supporting cast is composed of an array of veteran thespians accompanying the younger members of the ensemble. Whoopi Goldberg, as the ward's symbol of authority and kindness, gives a quiet strength to the routine role of Nurse Valerie. Vanessa Redgrave shows up as the head of the hospital, Dr. Wick, who helps Susanna despite the young woman's resistance. Jeffrey Tambor's gives little more than a cameo appearance as staff shrink, Melvin. The young women playing the key inmates - Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy and Elizabeth Moss - are fine, but are little more than background characters the stars play off of.

Technically, things are average with photography, set and costume done in a yeoman-like manner without notable flair, though cinematographer Jack. N Green lovingly shoots Ryder in close-up, accentuating her pretty features.

"Girl, Interrupted" has a following with its niche audience - teens and twenties women - and may garner some date interest from the sensitive males out there. Its draw won't go beyond that, though, for this mildly interesting look into the haughty side of mental health care in the 60's. I give it a C+.


Next Show Previous Show

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