MISSION TO MARS - THE CLOSER YOU GET
MY DOG SKIP - THE NEXT BEST THING
DROWNING MONA - WONDER BOYS
MY BEST FIEND


MISSION TO MARS

In the year 2020 NASA succeeds in landing a team of astronauts on Mars, but receive a cryptic message from Mission Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle, "Boogie Nights") before losing communications. A rescue crew comprised of Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins, "Arlington Road"), copilot Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise, "Reindeer Games"), Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen, "The Devil's Advocate") and scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell, "Jerry Maguire") embark on a six-month "Mission to Mars."


Laura's review of 'Mission To Mars':
Four people are credited for the story and screenplay to this groaner which cribs copiously from the likes of "2001," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Silent Running," "Dune," and "Apollo 13." While director Brian DePalma ("Snake Eyes") and his technical crew have fashioned an impressive looking film, its most admirable aspect is that its cast managed to keep straight faces.

On Mars 1 takeoff eve, a huge backyard party featuring Cajun music and swirling camerawork introduces us to the cast of characters. Don Cheadle ("Boogie Nights") is Luke Graham, the guy who inherited the mission from Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise, "Forrest Gump"). Jim and his wife Maggie (Kim Delaney, TV's "NYPD Blue") were the expert team until she became ill and died (Sinise got left behind in Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" as well).

Thirteen months after the launch (six months spent getting there), the Mars crew detect some odd behavior from a mountain and go to investigate. When they attempt to use radiation, swirling red cones of sand erupt and three of the four crew are killed, leaving Luke to send that last dire message. Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), leader of Mars 2, immediately convinces their space station boss (a wisely uncreditted Armin Mueller-Stahl) that they should become a rescue mission and off he goes with his wife Terri, Jim and young Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell), surely the only NASA trained astronaut who's apparently afraid of heights.

This has got to be the most inept rescue mission ever. They immediately suffer a breach, 'cold boot' their ship's computers, blast the end of their ship off and do a spacewalk in order to 'catch' a landing pod! They're aided by genetic models made of M&Ms and locate breaches using Dr. Pepper! They have wrist computers that can make impossible calculations (such as when they've passed the 'point of no return').

Things get increasingly silly when some of them eventually make it to Mars' surface to discover the beginnings of life on earth (in a presentation, no less, as if they were at their local science museum).

Ennio Morricone, most well known for his "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" score, has come up with some cheesy horror organ music for this flick that's oddly effective. "Mission to Mars" is entertaining in ways that somehow I don't think it intended to be.

C-

Robin's review of 'Mission To Mars':
The planet Earth is on the brink of interplanetary exploration and colonization. Mars 1 is the first manned mission to the red planet and is led by Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). Luke and his crew make a discovery that just could lead to man's ability to inhabit the desolate fourth planet from the Sun - water! A devastating disaster strikes the explorers and a rescue team is hastily put together to mount a mission to save sole survivor Luke. But, the rescue mission, led by Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), is also heading for calamity in director Brian DePalma's first sci-fi opus, "Mission to Mars."

"Mission to Mars" is an enigma of a movie. On one hand it has slick F/X, taut suspense (at times), and high production values that should make it a must see for fans of the genre. On the other hand, it has hack writing and dialog, a trite story that rips off such favorites as "2001," "Apollo 13," George Pal's "Destination Moon" and a passel of other 50's sci-fi flicks. There are moments of extreme tension, a la "Cliffhanger," as the plucky astronauts face one disaster after another. These are countered by the Hollywood silliness so typical in the big-budget actioner - disasters, and the resolutions of these insurmountable catastrophes, are handled with suspend-disbelief ease that is insulting, at times, to the sci-fi fans who will pay the bucks to see this dud.

The special F/X are first rate. The extremes used in "Apollo 13" to simulate weightlessness are not attempted here - remember the stories about NASA's infamous Vomit Comet during the making of the Ron Howard flick? The visual effects team, led by Hoyt Yeatman and John Knoll, sure do a fine job in providing believable space travel F/X for "MtM." In some cases, the effects almost save the film, at least in individual scenes. Unfortunately, F/X alone cannot save a science fiction film and they don't rescue "Mission to Mars."

Acting is perfunctory on all levels. Tim Robbins comes off as the most at ease in his role as rescue mission co-commander Woody Blake. Gary Sinise appears to be decked out in eyeliner and doesn't look too comfortable as the tormented Jim McConnell. Don Cheadle hasn't found a role, yet, to equal his co-starring debut opposite Denzel Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress." His Luke Goddard is simply a catalyst to justify the rest of the flick. Armin Mueller-Stahl gives an uncredited perf as the head of the Earth Space Station. Smart move Armin. The rest of the cast are fodder for the F/X machine.

The film suffers from having far too many absurd plot devices that the sci-fi fans, who will initially flock to this flick, will treat with disdain immediately. Most prominent is Hollywood's depiction of computers in movies. Here, every time one of the astronauts looks at his wrist display, the computer tells of some looming disaster that could not possibly be programmed into it. The pseudo-computer lingo delivered by the actors - "If we just cold-boot the mainframe...- met with laughs of derision by the computer geeks in the audience - and there were more than a few"of both laughable lines and geeks.

The unintentional laughs outweighed the tense action in "Mission to Mars" and this is a shame. The money was spent in putting the varied sets together and giving the viewer some kick ass F/X, but the acting is sub par - especially for this talented cast - and the writing borders on the bad.

The story is based on a building block structure of having one disaster after another with the subsequent ones worse than the predecessor. One sequence begins with the rescue ship having a hull breach by micro-meteors. After an asses-and-elbows effort to fix this major problem, the crew ignores other damage done by the pesky meteors. This causes a huge explosion on board, blowing the engines away. The crew is forced to abandon their ship while orbiting hundreds of miles above Mars with only their suits for protection. The solution to this deadly predicament? Why, lasso a passing supply ship that happens to be hanging around nearby, of course! This nearly brought the house down.

Director Brian DePalma joins the pantheon of veteran directors who have, lately, given birth to some truly bad and critically lambasted films. John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy") tortured us with the horrible "The Next Best Thing." John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") is being denigrated for "Reindeer Games." Mike Nichols ("The Graduate") is getting deriding reviews for "What Planet Are You From?" Now, DePalma fails, badly, with "Mission to Mars." What is going on here with the vets?

"Mission to Mars" is a bigger disappointment for me since I was really rooting for this going into the theater. That changed in about 113 minutes. I give it a C-.


THE CLOSER YOU GET

Inspired by a brief, illicit glimpse of Bo Derek at the church film society (which had scheduled "The Ten Commandments," not "10"), Kieran O'Donnell (Ian Hart, "The End of the Affair") and the local pub denizens compose an ad for an American newspaper. They openly invite 'attractive, sporty and fit women between the ages of 20 and 21' to come to their tiny village on Ireland's Donegal coast for their annual dance and potential matrimony. Alternately disgusted and amused, the town's womenfolk turn the tables on them in "The Closer You Get."

Robin's review of 'The Closer You Get':
Romance is definitely not in the air in the isolated town of Kilvar in Donegal on Ireland's western shores. The hamlet's church has not hosted a wedding in years. Town priest, Father Hubert Mallone (Ristead Cooper), has never even performed a marriage ceremony in all his time in town. The disgruntled single men of Kilvar, ignored by any marriageable women in town, come up with a plan to ease their plight of lonely singledom: post a want ad looking for women. The best paper to place the advertise? Playboy magazine recommends Miami USA as the place to find beautiful single women who go for a bit of sport. So they compose, over their pints, an invitation asking eligible American ladies to join them for the town's big annual party a month hence, and perhaps marriage too, in "The Closer You Get."

Producer Uberto Pasolini, who achieved worldwide acclaim with his tremendously successful "The Full Monty," once again drafts the talents of big screen newcomers to create a funny, but sensitive, portrayal of a town about to undergo big changes. "The Closer You Get" pays homage to the best of this genre of quirky British Isles small town films, Bill Forsythe's "Local Hero." Scottish helmer Aileen Ritchie, a newcomer to the big screen, takes the original first-time screenplay by William Ivy and brings us to a small outpost of civilization on the isolated Irish coast. This microcosm of world society - love is universal - brings to life the characters that populate tiny Kilvar.

The ringleader of the single men's club is Kieran O'Donnell (Ian Hart), the slightly paunchy town butcher who makes drastic changes to himself in anticipation of the arrival of the American babes, having town barber Giovanni (Pat Laffan) give him a wash, cut and bleach job. As the month leading to the big party passes by, Kieran and his mates, including his levelheaded brother Ian (Sean McGinley), primp themselves, convinced that everything will occur as they planned. The town's women, in a defiant move against the men for looking outside of the town for love, invite a group of Spanish fisherman to join them at the big soiree. When the party night finally arrives, only the women have companions for the evening. The men are left standing, holding on to their pints of Guinness and nothing more. The event turns out to be the locus of change for many the citizens of the Donegal town.

There is a lot of heart given to all aspects of "The Closer You Get" from its direction and writing to its terrific ensemble cast. Though Ian Hart is the "name" actor, all the performances achieve the goal of creating living and breathing characters you get to know something about. The little romances that ebb and flow through the town during the course of the story are charming, with some quite endearing. In particular, the relationship that buds then, in the end, flowers between Ian and Kate (Niamh Cusack), the wife of the town's philandering pub owner, Pat (Ewan Stewart), is quite sweet in its expected happy conclusion.

The story offers no surprises as the relationships in the town unfold and we meet the players. Besides the aforementioned characters, there is 18 year-old Sean (Sean McDonagh), the film's narrator, who wants to get out of the town and see the world. Virginal 36 year-old Ollie (Pat Shortt) is looking for love and, with the pending arrival of the women from across the Pond, seeks visual aids to help teach him about the birds and the bees. Siobhan (Cathleen Bradley) is attracted to her boss, Kieran, but he can't figure that out. Postmistress Mary (Ruth McCabe) has established herself as the town censor, reading any letters sent by her clients, and spreads the word to the womenfolk about the single men's plans. 10 year-old Ella (Deborah Barnett) is the mature one as she stoically suffers the flaky behavior of the adults around her.

"The Closer You Get" is a charming battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy that puts to good use the talents of all involved. It's far more entertaining and evenhanded than last year's "Waking Ned Divine" and better, overall, than "The Full Monty." Hey, it makes you feel good, and that ain't bad. I give it a B-.


Laura's review of 'The Closer You Get':
Inspired by a newspaper piece about Spanish country men looking for brides via a newspaper ad, "The Full Monty" producer Uberto Pasolini hired screenwriter William Ivory to develop this comedy while locations manager Stephen Killen went looking for a '"Local Hero" type village.' So the stage is set for another British comedy derivative of "Local Hero" and marketted as 'The next "Full Monty".' Fortunately, this small film, while indeed somewhat reminiscent of "Local Hero," manages its own low key charm, mostly due to the mix of professional and first time actors.

The romantic comedy pitting men against women is certainly nothing new. We've got the standard elements of the couple who refuse to acknowledge they're right for each other until jealousy rears its head, the couple who do know they're right for each other but have a huge obstacle to overcome and the surprise match made when a character suddenly reveals his depths. The men behave ridiculously (particularly Kieran, who has his hair dyed plantinum blonde and takes to wearing a white fedora) and the women steam open the men's mail. The local pastor is played for 'cute,' lecturing the men on casual sex with a suit metaphor and assisting in a courtship using the church's loudspeaker system.

Ian Hart is an amusing buffoon as the village butcher Kieran. He's so confident the American women will come streaming into their town that he does one pushup to shape up, declaring to his brother than it's the equivalent of ten situps and he hasn't had a drink that day either (it's 8:30 a.m.). Local girl Siobhan (Cathleen Bradley in her debut performance and a dead ringer for Molly Shannon) works for Kieran and is overlooked by him until she stirs up some Spanish fisherman to flirt with at the dance. Sean McGinley ("The General") is Kieran's older, sheep farming brother as well as Kieran's opposite. He has no hopes to end his bachelordom yet has an understanding friendship with Kate (Niamh Cusack), the pub owner's wife. McGinley delivers the film's most true and touching character. Meanwhile, pub owner Pat (Ewan Stewart, "Titanic") preens like the most available of men. Pat and Kate's preteen daughter Ella (Deborah Barnett in another debut), is the wisest soul in town, proclaiming her dad 'an idiot.' Postmistress Mary (Ruth Mccabe, "My Left Foot") still suffers her husband's abandonment but is blessed with a very sensible eighteen year old son Sean (Sean McDonagh, the story's narrator) whom young Ella has eyes for. Thirty six year old Ollie (Pat Shortt, "This is My Father") bores everyone with talk of rubber valves, yet has erotically romantic dreams about losing his virginity.

"The Closer You Get" is unlikely to make any waves, but it doesn't shove its blarney in your face as "Waking Ned Devine" did. First time Scottish director Aileen Ritchie doesn't avoid cliche, but has a sweet and gentle touch.

C+


MY DOG SKIP

Eight year old Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz, TV's "Malcom in the Middle") is shy, awkward and an only child in 1942 Mississippi when most families consisted of four to five children. To make matters worse, his only friend, neighbor Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson, "Rushmore"), the town's star athlete, is shipping out to boot camp. Willie's mom (Diane Lane, "A Walk on the Moon") recognizes his loneliness and overrules his strict, war veteran dad (Kevin Bacon) on his ninth birthday and presents him with a Jack Russell terrier pup in "My Dog Skip."

Laura's review of 'My Dog Skip':
Adapted from Willie Morris' award winning memoir, "My Dog Skip" is a high calibre family film and nostalgic portrait of small town America. Muniz is credible as the bookish kid who gets picked on by three bullying classmates. The arrival of Skip (played by Enzo and his dad Moose of TV's "Frasier") changes everything for Willie. Now that Dink, who'd promised to teach Willie how to throw a curve ball, is gone, Skip becomes Willie's ball playing mate. Skip is also a babe magnet, giving Willie an in with Rivers Applewhite, the prettiest girl in town. But most of all, Skip is Willie's best friend.

Willie's new confidence is also boosted by the prestige of receiving an authentic German helmet and gun belt from town hero Dink. The kids who once bullied him now jealously curry his favor, daring him into a graveyard initiation rite - if he doesn't stay the night by the headstone of an alleged witch, they get Dink's war spoils. The witch doesn't bother Willie, but he does have a run in with moonshiners who buy his silence with threats against Skip's life.

"My Dog Skip" isn't all kid stuff. A disgraced Dink returns from the war branded a drunken coward. Racism rears its head with the town's segregation and Willie's meeting (over Skip of course) with a young black boy who tells him of Waldo Grace, a black ball player who may outshine Dink. Willie's Dad is a veteran of the Spanish American War who bears enduring psychological wounds over the loss of a leg.

While the kids are fine in their roles, the real acting kudos go to Diane Lane and particularly Kevin Bacon as Willie's folks. Lane's been great as the mom of a troubled boy before in the otherwise negligible "Jack," but here she also shows strength, wit and humor in dealing with her damaged husband. The filmmakers were right to give her the final scene with Skip. Bacon is marvelous as the stern and unwielding dad who nonetheless deeply loves his boy. Bacon lets the cracks in his armor start small and fan out, letting his psyche heal gradually until he's able to offer his own wisdom and strength to another young veteran. These are the types of performances one normally doesn't expect to find in a film that will be marketed towards children.

We've already seen what Moose can do, and his boy Enzo is a chip off the old block. The dog is presented naturally so that we're not aware that we're watching a 'performance' (except for one misstep where the dog crawls along the ground beside Willie - cute visual joke, but out of place here). The film also stumbles a bit when those evil moonshiners reappear to place Skip in harm's way. They're cartoony at best - Boris and Jake from '101 Dalmatians.' By this point the filmmakers have the emotions in such high gear, however, (Willie hits Skip when he won't leave the baseball field during his league's opening game) that they've essentially distracted their audience from the film's flaws.

The film's look is top notch. Art direction perfectly presents a southern summer of '42. Costume lends to the bygone era, most noticeably with Lane's detailed outfits.

Not only is "My Dog Skip" one of the best live action family films to come along in a while, its titular character now links Kevin Bacon to the entire cast of "Fraser."

B

Robin's review of 'My Dog Skip':
It's the summer of 1942. The US is in the war and young men are being called up to defend their country. But, in the small Mississippi town of Yazoo, life goes on as usual, especially when you're an 8 years-old only child like Willie. He's a lonely kid who'd rather read than play. What Willie doesn't know, but soon finds out, that a new friend can change everything in the nostalgic coming-of-age family film, "My Dog Skip."

"My Dog Skip" is a button pusher buttons and, thankfully, mostly hits the right ones. It is a routine boy-and-his-dog story, but one that is executed with heartfelt effort by the filmmakers. There is a blatant tearjerker quality to the story that should offend my macho sensibilities. But, the spirit of the yarn is so warm and familiar that you forgive the effort to manipulate the viewer's feelings. I haven't seen so many red eyes and sniffling noses come out of a theater since "Love Story." And here lies a problem that may hurt the box-office potential for the film - the marketeers seem to be posing this as a kids' flick. It's not. The rugrats in the audience seem to just accept the heartrending story without a lot of enthusiasm. It was the adults who were bawling their eyes out when the picture ended. "My Dog Skip" is solid family entertainment, especially for kids seven and older.

The screenplay, by newcomer Gail Gilchriest, is based on the best-selling autobiographical book by Willie Morris. The story centers on 8 year-old Willie, the only child of an overly protective father, Jack (Kevin Bacon), and an understanding, supportive mother, Ellen (Diane Lane). The boy is small for his age, a bookworm and not very popular at school. Bullies find him an easy mark and girls don't notice him. For his ninth birthday, his mom unilaterally decides that Willie needs a friend and buys him man's best friend - a little Jack Russell terrier named Skip. The result of this timely gift is a character study of a youngster who goes from being a child to a boy to a young man with the help of his faithful canine companion.

Frankie Muniz plays young Willie Morris and captures the character with just the right note. Willie has lived under the over-protective cloak of his father who treats him as a little kid. The boy's savvy mom knows that he needs a little confidence and responsibility and circumvents Jack's wishes and brings Skip into the family. The new addition is just what the doctor (or mom) ordered as the smart little dog impacts not just Willie, but the entire town. Skip helps Willie learn to play football and gets him in good with the bullies who had been hounding him. Muniz does fine as the reclusive Willie who comes out of his self-imposed shell.

The title character is predominantly performed by Enzo, the son of Moose, who many have come to love as Eddie on TV's "Frasier." The little terrier is tremendously smart and charming and gives the film its whimsical but believable nature. Growing up I remember dogs like Skip, way back before leash laws, that would make the rounds of the neighborhood and swing by just to say hi and maybe cadge a snack. Skip is just such a dog.

Outstanding with the power of their performances are Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane. Bacon, in particular, gives one of his most striking, yet subtle, performances of his career. Jack Morris is a war vet who lost his leg during the Spanish Civil War and has borne with bitterness his loss. He compensates by trying to shield Willie from everything bad. Bacon gives his character an even arch through the film as he, too, falls for the charms of Skip and loosens his protective grip on his son. Diane Lane has a talent for playing the wise young mother and was the best thing in the almost painful "Jack." She gives another strong performance in "My Dog Skip" as the ideal loving mom. Both actors come across as real, fully fleshed out people and, you like 'em. The rest of the cast, including Luke Wilson as town sports star turned coward, fill out the background nicely.

The whole production deserves high marks for quality filmmaking. Art direction by David J. Bomba captures perfectly the feel of a small southern town in 1942. The use of actual Mississippi locales to double for the story's Yazoo City gives the film an authenticity of look and feel. Costume designer Edi Giguere scoured the surrounding towns where "My Dog Skip" was shot to find genuine clothes from the period with the resulting look that fits perfectly with the story and its time. Veteran lenser James L. Carter films the proceedings with soft, warm yellow light for the daytime scenes and whites and blues to contrast the nighttime. The combination of these and other efforts behind the camera make this one of the best looking films so far this year.

I'm a sucker for a good family and, if you don't mind getting a little teary eyed in the darkness of the theater, "My Dog Skip" fits the bill as a genuine film for the whole family. Bring your hankies. I give it a B+.


THE NEXT BEST THING

Abbie (Madonna) is a yoga instructor who can't seem to find Mr. Right. Robert (Rupert Everett) is a landscape architect, gay, and Abbie's best friend. When her latest boyfriend packs up and leaves, she is in dire need of cheering up, so Robert decides that a good drunk will help clear the air for his friend. Things get a little out of hand and Abbie ends up pregnant. No problem, though, as this odd couple decide to raise the child together in the romantic drama by John Schlesinger, "The Next Best Thing."

Robin's review of 'The Next Best Thing':
"The Next Best Thing" starts off well enough as a contemporary tale about two friends, one male and gay and one female and straight, whose affectionate bond makes the idea of the oddball parenthood appealing. Rupert Everett, especially, comes across as a truly nice guy. His Robert has a good heart and is a good friend to Abbie. His affection for her convinces you that he could and would be a good father. Everett effortlessly conveys the humor, love and angst as he becomes a loving parent, only to lose it all because of the conventions of "the system" against gays. Too bad the material and his co-star fail him.

In what has to be the most awful casting decisions of the year, Madonna gives one of the worst performances I have ever seen. Not just by the pop star, by anyone. Abbie, as played by Madonna, is a bland and boring person. The singer cum actress goes through the motions of acting but does nothing to make you feel for the character. Lines are delivered as if being read from cue cards and there is little emotion given to the words. I can only compare Madonna to Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar," one of the most laughable perfs I have ever seen - until now. The cigar store Indian at a local Harvard Square smoke shop is more animated than the Material Girl is in "The Next Best Thing."

Screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski makes his feature dramatic debut with a story that starts out with an unconventional flair, but it degrades to generic routine, becoming simply a story of a family breaking up. The drama of the film, a custody battle between Robert and Abbie over their son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf), begins as an honest portrayal of two people with equal love and need of their boy. The social impact of such a battle seems like fertile ground for exploration by the filmmakers. The story removes this conflict in a trite bit of writer's sleight of hand, side-skirting the biological rights of the parents. By the end of the film, it doesn't matter who is gay, who is straight, who has rights and who doesn't. The finale, where everyone lives happily ever after, sort of, falls flat on its face.

The supporting cast is limited to two-dimensional roles and nothing more. Benjamin Bratt, as Abbie's love interest, Ben, seems like he just wants out of this dud. Eight-year-old Stumpf is bland at best. Illeana Douglas and Lynn Redgrave are given nothing to do and are wasted as Robert's lawyer and mother, respectively. Only veteran actor Josef Sommer, as Robert's dad, gets a chance to put an arc on his performance. He disapproves of his son's life style, but when Robert's emotional life is threatened, dad is there to help him.

Helmer Schlesinger has had a varied career of filmmaking. He has created such landmark works as "Midnight Cowboy," "Far From the Madding Crowd," "Darling" and "Marathon Man," so expectations were high. But, the material he has to work with and his female lead fall far short of the director's talents. The result is a gamely attempted but failed romantic drama. Star Everett tries his best to breathe life into the film but can't carry it all himself. Schlesinger makes one of his worst directing choices since "Yanks."

Of note, Madonna's wardrobe is an exercise in bad taste. And I didn't like her cover of the song "American Pie" either. Besides Everett, the only redeeming values in "The Next Best Thing" are it was in focus and you could hear it OK. Faint praise. I give it a D.


DROWNING MONA

Verplanck, NY holds the dubious honor of having been a marketting test site for the infamous Yugo automobile, but apparently all its denizens loved it. When Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) finds she can't unlock her model (complete with UGO MONA license plate), she takes off in her son Jeff's. Minutes later, she finds she has no brakes and plunges off the road into a lake. Now Officer Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) has a challenge on his hands - Mona was clearly murdered but the entire town's a suspect in "Drowning Mona."

Laura's review of 'Drowning Mona':
"Drowning Mona" is the poor white trash "Murder on the Orient Express." Indie director Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity," "Illtown") and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld have a concocted a lightweight black comedy whose supporting players and offhand quirks provide the entertainment.

We're introduced to Rash as he discusses cheesy musicals with his daughter Ellen (Neve Campbell, "Scream 3") over the phone. He's called to the accident scene where he advises Feege on proper police form use and gets a medical examiner verdict of 'She's dead.' Local garage owner Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite) shows him how the brake fluid tank was punctured AND the brake lines were cut on Mona's vehicle. A visit to Mona's husband Phil (William Fichtner, "Go") results in suspicions cast on Wyatt's son-in-law-to-be, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck, "American Pie"). Bobby runs a landscaping business with Jeff Dearly (Marcus Thomas, looking like an homage to Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber"). All Jeff appears to be concerned about is the whereabouts of his Yugo.

Wyatt next sees Phil in an embrace with Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis) outside of the local motel. Then there's Clarence (Tracey Walter) who was present at Mona's demise and happens to be around for the next murder to occur in Verplanck.

While the central 'mystery' and its resolution aren't terribly original or even interesting, the small toss-aways are entertaining enough to make "Drowning Mona" a mildly amusing experience. Yugos are funny on their own, and everyone in Verplanck seems to have a vanity plate. A montage showing all the theories as to how Jeff lost his hand is only capped by the actual flashback. Cubby, Verplanck's mortician (Will Ferrell), is a weirdo whose funeral home sign bears the 'As Seen on TV' logo (and he appears to be sidelining as a porn photographer). Phil Dearly isn't the only one fooling around with Rona and his rival seems to have inheritted a penchant for dirty Wheel of Fortune games.

The cast appear to be having fun here. Midler crosses her "Ruthless People" character with her "Hocus Pocus" witch and comes across a whole lot better than she did in "Isn't She Great." Devito underplays nicely - he's the straight man for his entire beat. Neve Campbell shows some nice comic timing that almost atones for the crashing boredom she brought into "Scream 3." Jamie Lee Curtis is a little too brittle, although she gets some laughs out of second guessing police moves. Affleck is suitably sweet and dementedly nuts in Jeff's version of events. Will Ferrell is inspiredly weird.

"Drowning Mona" isn't really weighty enough for the big screen, but could provide a few chuckles on video and cable.

C

Robin's review of 'Drowning Mona':
Far to the north of New York City, Verplanck is a quiet little place where nothing particularly exciting happens. The town was selected by the distributors of the Yugo as a test-bed for their car and that's about it for excitement. When the best known and least liked resident of the town, Mona Dearly (Bette Midler), meets an untimely death - while driving her son's Yugo, she plunged into the Hudson River - no one in the town, even her husband and son, so much as shed a tear. Police Chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) soon finds out that it was no accident. It was murder! And, nearly everyone in town is a suspect in "Drowning Mona."

This comic, semi-rural whodunit owes its roots, believe it or not, to Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." The funky little "Drowning Mona" immediately opens with the sudden, violent demise of Verplanck's evil matriarch, Mona. Her sinister, hateful nature comes out from the very start, so you don't have a lot of sympathy when the brakes on the Yugo fail and she plunges, to her death, into the Hudson. As Chief Rash begins his investigation, he suspects foul play. The town's mechanic, Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite), who knows more about Yugos than the Yugoslavians, tells the chief that the death car had been "fixed to kill," sabotaged by someone who wanted Mona dead.

Chief Wyatt soon discovers that virtually everyone in Verplanck hated Mona and had reason to want her dead. Career waitress at the local greasy spoon, Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the lover of both Mona's husband, Phil (William Fichtner), and son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas). Phil claims he is an abused husband. Jeff lost a hand under mysterious circumstances involving Mona. Mona drives Jeff's business partner, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), to distraction as she squeezes every penny she can out of him. Bobby's fiance, Ellie Rash (Neve Campbell), the chief's daughter, wants to celebrate at the news of Mona's death. Even Deputy Feege (Peter Dobson), Chief Rush's trusted right-hand man, had an unpleasant, humiliating roadside incident with the hateful Mona. The chief has his hands full trying to figure out who done it in this clever whodunit.

Bette Midler, as the title character, would put the fear of God into a rattlesnake. The woman is so mean she has absolutely no redeeming values and Midler plays her to perfection. By the end of the film even I wanted to do Mona in. Think of Mona as the evil sister to the character Barbara Stone from the 1986 film, "Ruthless People." Danny DeVito, in the Hercule Poirot role of crime solver, is a man above all the pettiness in Verplanck. He is dedicated to justice being done, but comes to understand why everyone wants Mona dead. His is the omniscient eye that eventually sees all and knows all.

The suspects being investigated consist of a talented supporting cast. Casey Affleck and Neve Campbell are the nicest of those under suspicion. Bobby just wants to have a successful business and is driven, by Mona efforts to ruin his landscaping business, to seek a lethal solution to his dilemma. Ellie wants to have the best wedding that Verplanck has ever seen and resents Mona's financial hold on her boyfriend. Affleck and Campbell lend an air of sweetness to their roles, and a bit of naivete, too. William Fichtner and Marcus Thomas are fabulously despicable as Mona' s cheating hubby and selfish son. If anyone deserves Mona, these two do. Jamie Lee Curtis is merely OK as tough cookie Rona. Other supporting characters are fleshed out by good perfs and well-written comic roles. In particular, Will Ferrell is a scream as the owner of Cubby's Custom Caskets (as seen on TV), the town undertaker and sexual bon vivant.

The screenplay by newcomer Peter Steinfeld doesn't have the heft of "Murder on the Orient Express," but it has a similar kaleidoscopic spirit as suspicion for Mona's death is cast upon one, then another, then another of the citizens of Verplanck. Quirky touches, like every member of the town driving a Yugo, even the police, help lend a bit of offbeat whimsy to the film. Mona's evil persona makes the investigation all the more difficult since most people in town get more upset by losing change in a candy machine than they do about Mona's murder. Director Nick Gomez uses the screenplay and his solid cast to good effect in creating an entertaining little crime spoof.

"Drowning Mona" is a clever, plot-driven, rather than character intense, flick that takes its cast down a wild spiral of accusation, suspicion and cover-up. Good guys and bad guys are cleanly drawn and Mona is a character you love to hate. You'll have some fun and you'll thank your lucky stars you don't know someone like Mona. I give it a B-.


WONDER BOYS

A Wonder Boy is someone who came out of the gate with a flash - be it in writing, sports, stock brokering, whatever - and has lived his (or her) life in a shadow of fear and insecurity of not duplicating their success. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is just such a Wonder Boy. His first novel, published seven years ago, was considered a masterpiece and propelled the humble teacher to fame. Since then, he has been writing his second novel - and writing and writing and writing - without conclusion in "Wonder Boys."

Robin's review of 'Wonder Boys':
Helmer Curtis Hansen was last on the scene with his critically acclaimed, complex film noir, "LA Confidential," a gritty crime drama set in the corrupt world of the LAPD in the 50's. Hansen takes a major change of direction with "Wonder Boys," crafting a charming, sometimes whimsical, little tale of coming-of-age - for a 50 year old man.

The story revolves around Grady, a middle age Wonder Boy who has not been able to regain the glory of his initial sparkling success with his novel, "The Arsonist's Daughter." It's not like he has writer's block, though. If anything, he is even more prolific than before, typing out reams of paper that has become his work in progress. When we meet Grady, we find out he is currently writing page 2611 and the book is still growing.

Enter Grady's editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), a man who had tied himself to the success of the author's first book and is suffering the same dilemma as his client - no publishing hits since the initially splash of "The Arsonist's Daughter." Terry, too, is relying on Grady's latest opus to boost his flagging career at their publishing house. This sad pair of schmucks are both in for a surprise when a morose student of Grady's, James Leer (Toby Maguire), shows remarkable promise with his dour prose.

James proves to be a catalyst of change for Grady as he realizes the raw talent in the boy and his own inability to complete his latest work. He is, additionally, challenged by another of his students, vivacious Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), who rents a room at the professor's home, has a crush on him and, when she secretly reads his hefty tome, tries to couch her sincere criticism in the kindest terms. Grady gently rejects Hannah's romantic advances because he is in the midst of a torrid affair with the college's chancellor, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), who presents him with yet another problem - she's pregnant with his child and married to another (Richard Thomas). Other little plot lines include a the shooting of a blind dog, a stolen car, Marilyn Monroe's jacket from her wedding to Joe DiMaggio and Grady's own substance abuse problem.

The screenplay by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") takes this varied material and structures it into a smooth-flowing, charming and entertaining character study that centers on Grady, a man facing a formidable crossroads in his life. His decision to mentor the oddball James is the first choice of many that he will make that ultimately change the author's life. By the end of the story, Grady is truly a new man who has cast off the cloak of ennui that had a stranglehold on his life. The resolution of his various problems is handled in an interesting way that does not make it all seem perfunctory. Kloves' script delves into the mind of Grady, showing how he ticks. It also creates a cadre of characters around Grady with such a mind for detail that virtually everyone is a real person. Hansen and Kloves pay such close attention to the character development that even a janitor character (Alan Tudyk) comes across as a three-dimensional person.

Veterans and relative newcomers populate the talented cast, led by Douglas in one of his best-rendered performances to date. Douglas provides a fine study as an old dog that comes to realize that he can, indeed, learn new tricks. Grady is a pot smoking, holdover hippie intellectual who clouds his mind with illicit narcotics to salve his insecurity and failure to produce a complete new work. The handsome Douglas has no qualm with making himself a look silly, either, as he schlumps around in his ex-wife's bathrobe, his "writing" outfit.

Tobey Maguire, as sullen James, plays the introspective genius with a huge potential in a subdued, thoughtful manner. James isn't the most socially acceptable person - but his writing talent is so strong, he can be forgiven his quirks by Grady. McDormand gives an expected, solid performance as Grady's amour, Sara, and makes you believe her love for the man. Attractive Katie Holmes comes across as a smart, mature and caring young lady who has an honest affection for her teacher and his potential. Downey Jr. has the goofiest of the supporting roles as Grady's editor, a gay hedonist who hopes his client will once again be successful, making him successful again, too. Rip Torn, is totally underutilized as another, more successful, professor turned novelist named Q. He is a symbol of success and little more. Others, like Terry's tall, lanky, tuba-playing transvestite date, Antonia Sloviak (Michael Cavadias), make such an impact that you want to see more of them.

Complementing the wonderful cast of characters in front of the camera is a crackerjack team behind it. Dante Spinotti, nominated for an Academy Award for his excellent camera work in "LA Confidential," gives "Wonder Boys" a rich, soft quality. Production designer Jeannine Oppewall provides a solid, small college town feel where you can almost feel the ivy growing on the staid old buildings. Craftsmanship is the key to the film on all levels.

"Wonder Boys" is sentimental, funny and intelligent - a nice combination of qualities. This film should have a broad appeal for the discerning filmgoer. It provides that thing that makes me love movies - a good story. I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'Wonder Boys':
"Wonder Boys" is an unexpected followup by Curtis Hansen to his critics' darling, the overrated "L.A. Confidential," but then again, Hansen's refused to pigeon-hole himself into a specific genre ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "River Wild"). The sweetly gentle "Wonder Boys" seems like the warped academics of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" rewritten by the Coen Brothers ("Fargo") but yanked down to earth a bit by Hansen's direction.

Michael Douglas hasn't been this appealing since "The American President," and his Grady Tripp is far more everyman than the occupent of the Oval Office, even if he is an award winning author. Tripp shuffles through life and wives, resting on laurels that will no longer bear his weight. His editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is his equal professionally and romantically, waiting for Tripp's next magnum opus to catapult his career out of the doldrums and picking up a transvestite in a short-lived stab at heterosexuality. They both get shook up by James Leer, Grady's oddball writing student with a penchant for Catholic gloom. This threesome spend the evening weaving in and out of various situations, getting drunk and driving around town with the head of the English Department's dead dog Poe in the trunk. The next morning, visits by an 'adolescent' policeman, Grady's married lover Sara (Frances McDormand) and Vernon, the real owner of Tripp's '66 Fairlane, jolt them into corrective action, however unwittingly on their respective parts.

Douglas gives a rumpled, lived in performance externalized by his tatty pink chenille robe, half-specs, navy blue knit cap, stubble and 25 extra pounds he gained for the role. He's a compassionate man who lives in the cloud of his own marijuana smoke until he receives words out of the mouths of the two babes (James and tenant Hannah) close to him. Tobey Maguire plays James like the older brother of Wednesday Addams, all palid skin and dark circled eyes with a taste for morbid storytelling over the truth. McDormand is adrift like Grady. Their unplanned pregnancy gives her the jolt she needs to examine her middle-aged existance and habitual marriage. McDormand makes palable the yearning for a child she's obviously kept a lid on and the confusion she feels when Grady doesn't immediately take decisive action. Robert Downey Jr. is a puckish dependent who's also floating through life. He pulls off the spectacularly funny accident that's the final kick in Grady's pants with aplomb. Katie Holmes proves she's more than a young cast member of "Dawson's Creek" with her intelligent rendering of Hannah ('I'm not the downy innocent you think I am.') Richard Thomas and Rip Torn manage to create solid character impressions with scant screen time. Michael Cavadias exits way too early as 'Antonia,' Crabtree's transvetite pickup. Jane Adams ("Happiness") seems wasted in a minor part.

Cinematography by Dante Spinotti ("The Insider") effectively captures the feel of the odd hours these characters inhabit and the lived in feel of a Pittsburgh college town. The very effective soundtrack highlights the screen action with such tunes as Lennon's "Watching the Wheels."

B+


MY BEST FIEND

German director Werner Herzog and German-born Polish actor Klaus Kinski created five films together that have put them in the director/actor pantheon of Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune and Martin Scorcese/Robert DeNiro. However the Herzog/Kinski collaborations were tumultuous affairs which routinely exploded in violent tantrums by Kinski and at least one death threat from Herzog. Almost a decade after Kinski's death in 1991, Herzog puts on his documentarian's hat to explore their relationship in the wryly titled "My Best Fiend."

Laura's review of 'My Best Friend':
Along with Werner Rainer Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog spearheaded a German filmmaking resurgence in the 1970's with "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Every Man for Himself and God Against All," "Stroszek," and "Nosferatu." Prior to "Aguirre," Herzog had made his name in documentaries ("Fata Morgana," "Even Dwarves Started Small"), a form he's largely returned to in the 90's ("Lessons of Darkness").

I recently placed "Aguirre" as the third greatest film of all time and Herzog's films with Kinski resulted in Kinski becoming my favorite actor ever. "My Best Fiend," therefore, was a film I awaited with great anticipation. While, structurally, I can't say this effort rates with Herzog's best docus, content wise it's not only highly entertaining, but a fascinating look at filmmaking magic emerging from the strangest collaborations. Watching this, it's a wonder these two every worked together again, let alone a total of five times (Kinski even asked Herzog to direct his screenplay of "Paganini," which would have been their sixth. Herzog refused and Kinski directed the film himself.)

Herzog starts his film with rare footage of Kinski performing his poetry rants in a German stadium, before travelling to the old Munich boarding house he lived in at the age of thirteen, where Kinski was also housed. Tales of Kinski's madness and insane tantrums which the young Herzog witnessed are an amusing setup for what we subsequently see in his outtakes from such films as "Aguirre" and "Fitzcaraldo," both shot in the areas surrounding Machu Piccu. Kinski bashes extras on the head and fires rifles wildly before communing with nature, although according to Herzog, Kinski's nature didn't include mosquitos or getting wet. To Herzog's credit, he also uses footage from Les Blanc's "Burden of Dreams" that show him to have an equally loony take on the jungles.

Herzog doesn't discuss Kinski's life outside of his own films at all - you'd never know he was the father of Nastassja, nor are his last wife and child interviewed. Rather, Herzog uses recollections of costars Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale - 'the only women who had anything good to say about him.' Kinski's screen techniques are generously analyzed and we're given a demonstration of the 'Kinski spiral,' a unique method for entering the film frame with major impact.

Kinski's egomania is offered up by a quote of his that the only interesting landscape on earth is that of the human face. The German filmmaker known for capturing extremes of natural landscape on film closes with a closeup of Kinski playing with a butterfly.


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