ROMEO MUST DIE - HIGH FIDELITY
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI
ERIN BROKOVICH - BEYOND THE MAT
MIFUNE


ROMEO MUST DIE

Two families - one Asian, one African-American - are locked in a war for control of Oakland's waterfront. When the Asian warlord's son, Po, is murdered, the gang war becomes more dangerous than either side could guess. Po's big brother Han (Jet Li), a legendary ex-cop currently spending time in a Hong Kong jail, learns of the death and it's just a matter of time before he comes to the shores of America for revenge in "Romeo Must Die."

Robin's review of 'Romeo Must Die':
Producer Joel Silver is looking for the gold once again following the tremendous worldwide success of last year's Wachowski brothers' sci-fi hit, "The Matrix." Asia's action superstar Jet Li, who made a critical splash as the kick ass bad guy in "Lethal Weapon 4," makes his American star debut in "Romeo Must Die." Joining the martial arts master, behind the camera and making his directing debut, is veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, who gave striking visual images to such films as "Prince of the City" and "The Devil's advocate." Under Silver's watchful eye, the pair has created (with a little help from a couple of hundred other people) a visually appealing martial arts actioner that tells a Hollywood-standard story, but with a bit of panache.

Jet Li has what it takes to make it big in the US as an action hero and kung fu king. He has such grace in his action that there is a real plausibility to his near invincible one-man fighting machine. While he is a little stilted in his line delivery, probably due to his English being a second language, he has a strong physical presence and the martial arts skill to match. With his boyish haircut and youthful looks, Li seems too young to be such a major star in Hong Kong, but he has the moves and uses 'em well. Like Chow Yun-Fat, Li needs to be more comfortable with English. Once that's done, move over Bruce Lee.

Combining Li's obvious natural talents with the skillful fight choreography by Corey Yuen makes for a medley of high energy action scenes that are genuine eye candy for the fan of the genre. Yuen, and his martial arts team, use the same hip wire work stunts that made "The Matrix" so appealing. More can sometimes be better as the martial arts team put together no less than eight major fight sequences, with most of them being pulled off beautifully. Only one misstep, during a fight that involves props like a fire hose, can be cause for criticism. Overall, the fights are tight, fast and entertaining, giving a passing nod to the great Jackie Chan with the wit that is leavened into the action.

While the press kit touts "Romeo Must Die" as a variation on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," there is little of the Bard to be seen in the routine script by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell from the original story by Mitchell Kapner. The star-crossed lovers, doomed from the start in Will's play, are replaced by Li and co-star Aaliyah - he a vengeful killing machine, she the self-reliant, strong-willed and resourceful daughter, Trish, of gang boss Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). There is little to the romance between Han and Trish, except for a perfunctory 11th hour acceptance by Isaak, probably because it would get in the way of the cool fights.

All too much time is spent in talky dialogue that is meant to carry along the convoluted story. What starts out as a turf battle between warring mobster, led by Isaak on one side and Han's father (Henry O) on the other, devolves into a typical tale of a big, bad corporation at the root of all evil. The killing and hatred that causes so much blood to be let are due to simple corporate greed. In this case, believe it or not, the big business baddies are working for the NFL with a plot that involves buying up all of Oakland's seedy waterfront - by whatever nefarious means possible, like blowing up a kindly old barber - to make it a massive and profitable sports arena. Those corporate guys always have to ruin a good thing, don't they?

Bartkowiak makes a solid entry as helmer of "Romeo Must Die," using his strong, artistic vision to make a good looking and entertaining film. He is hamstrung, somewhat, by the weak story, and he fails to give the Bard more than short shrift, but still provides a nifty little package that should allow Jet Li to get a solid hold on American actioners. It won't hurt the helmer's chances, either.

The rap/hip-hop score used throughout the film has the likes of Aaliyah, DMX, Timbaland (composer for "Romeo"), Ginuwine and a host of other rappers performing the film's 18, count 'em, 18 songs. I am a classical music lover, not a rap fan, so I was surprised how well the rapper-themed tunes fit the tone of the film.

"Romeo Must Die" will be a hit for its youthful demographic target audience and provide them a new action figure with Jet Li. More mature auds will find it a little on the light side, story-wise. And for some, too violent. As one of the old codgers who likes this kind of flick, I give it a B-


HIGH FIDELITY

When his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle, "Mifune") tells him she's leaving, Rob Gordon (John Cusack) must reexamine his life to understand why this keeps happening to him. Spending his days in his Chicago record store with his geek music nerd employees Dick (Todd Louiso, "Jerry Maguire") and Barry (Jack Black, "Cradle Will Rock"), Rob reflects on his 'top 5' breakups and falls for a local chanteuse all the while trying to win Laura back in "High Fidelity."

Laura's review of 'High Fidelity':
Adapted from Brit Nick Hornsby's novel by D.V. Devincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, who moved the action from London to Chicago, "High Fidelity" reunites lead actor John Cusack with his "Grifters" director Stephen Frears and once again they produce screen magic. This is the best they've both been over several projects (not to discount the terrific "Being John Malkovich," but Cusack's performance didn't drive that film).

No stranger to romantic comedy ("The Sure Thing," "Say Anything," "Grosse Pointe Blank"), John Cusack spends a goodly amount of his screen time in "High Fidelity" directly addressing the camera and makes the device work - he engages us in his romantic turmoil and domestic dilemmas completely. As his former punk girlfriend matures into career ambition, he's forced to reevaluate his decidedly low-key vocation - he may love music, but he's not exactly knee deep in customers (in fact, Barry delights in driving them away). In one of the film's recurring motifs, Laura discovers his 'top five dream job' list, (she continually returns to the apartment, ostensibly to move out her belongings) which includes writing for the Rolling Stone in the 1970s, and wisely helps him conclude that his current job should probably at least replace the #5 slot of architect. (The manner in which Laura eventually helps ground Rob while also inspiring him to new heights in an area he's always clearly loved is delightful.)

Rob first recalls, then attempts to contact, four of his former flames including his first Junior High sweetie (he only suceeds in talking to her mom in a hilarious phone conversation), the high school gf (Joelle Carter, "The Horse Whisperer"), who gave up her virginity quickly to the guy who succeeded him, his college fantasy woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the 'convenience' coupling with Lili Taylor ("The Haunting") born of mutual loneliness. Once again, he concludes that the fifth listee is incorrect and must be replaced by Laura, who, while not providing constant rapture, is essentially perfect for him. Now - how to get her back?

While the film is howlingly funny when addressing its musical elements ('You wouldn't understand our influences - they're mostly German' dismisses Barry. 'Kraftwerk?, Falco?, Hasselhoff?' retorts Rob, not missing a beat), it's both hilarious and sweetly amusing when delving into its romantic heart ('I got tired of trying to touch her breast and tried to touch between her legs. It was like getting turned down for $1 and asking for $50,000 instead.' reminisces Rob). The dialogue is sharp and real.

The large cast is full of surprises from Tim Robbins' outrageous new age homewrecker to Lisa Bonet's indie artist (and coverer of Peter Frampton). Cusack is the film's soul while Hjejle is luminous (and amazes with a completely true American accent). Jack Black, lead singer of Tenacious D, is the real find here. His combination of high octane body language and wickedly gleeful line delivery enable him to steal every scene he's in. Todd Louiso's meek Dick is also affecting (both these music geeks seem so familiar - Dick's most animated moment is his impression with Rob's 'biographical' filing of his home vinyl collection) and his budding romance with Anaugh (Sara Gilbert, TV's "Roseanne") is sweet. The film also features Joan Cusack as Rob's sister Liz, Natasha Gregson Wagner as a music writer and a cameo from Bruce Springsteen.

The film revels in its Chicago locations and sports an effective working class look. The soundtrack is wildly varied (the press info includes over three full pages of song credits) and inventively chosen. If the film has one fault, it's that it runs a little long for the genre - maybe we didn't really need to investigate Rob's past relationships in quite so much detail.

Without a doubt, "High Fidelity" is one of the top five movies I've seen this year. Give it a spin.

A-

Robin's review of 'High Fidelity':
Rob Gordon is a thirty-something slacker and collector of vintage vinyl records. His vast, personal collection has extended itself into a business - Championship Vinyl - but even that is a slacker haven. Rob and his part time employees (and full time hangers on), Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso), spend their days hanging out at the usually empty shop. To wile away the hours, the trio listen to an eclectic selection of modern rock music, from Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin to the Vaselines and Smog, and put together their endless Top Five lists. Rob's girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has failed to break him of his slacker ways and has left, forcing Rob to do something in the Stephen Frears film, "High Fidelity."

Adapting and relocating the Nick Hornby novel from its north London roots to working class Chicago (home to star/co-producer Cusack), helmer Frears and his script team make the transition seamlessly. The linchpin of the novel and film, the music that surrounds the lives of Rob and his cronies, changes locale effortlessly. The fanatical devotion to all levels of musical trivia defies the geographic boundaries, making the transition from working class England to blue collar US easily. Fanaticism, at least as far as modern rock music is concerned, is the same on both sides of the Pond. Frears and company immerses us in a sea of rock 'n' roll and R&B music while telling the tale of Rob's romantic ups and downs.

John Cusack gives his most naturally endearing performance since Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing." His Rob Gordon is a grown up version of Cusack's Gib in the Reiner film. Both characters are not the smartest travelers on this earth. The two also share an emotional immaturity when it comes to women. Rob has either screwed up any good thing he has had with the women in his life or he involved himself with basket cases whose emotional maturity is as stilted as his own. When we first meet the angst-ridden Rob, his girlfriend, Laura - the best thing that ever happened to him, at least according to his mother - has left him because of his unambitious slacker ways. His response, though, to his loss is not to pull himself up by his bootstraps and change himself. Instead, he puts together his Top 5 break-up songs and decides to catalogue his vast record collection - autobiographically.

One difficult film device used in "High Fidelity" has Rob speaking directly to the camera and, by extension, to us, the audience. This "device" is extremely difficult to pull off. Only a few films, like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," have been able to pull this off in the past. In "High Fidelity," Rob talks at us through nearly half the film, at various times. The combination of the witty, angst-ridden writing of Rob's character and the talent and ability of Cusack pulls this tough trick off and does it with an assured style. Rob's candid "talks" to the camera help draw us in to his character, making me like him despite his childish selfishness.

Helping Cusack out is a cast of characters that flesh out the comedy and sometimes-goofy romances of the story. Stealing the show is Jack Black as the sarcastic half of Rob's employee team. Barry is, like his cohorts, a snob when it comes to music, but expresses himself with an amusing vehemence that make him fun to watch. Quiet Todd Louiso, as Dick, is a foil for Barry and, despite being a ready target for Barry's barbs, is still his best friend. Together, the pair makes fore some funny background antics.

Iben Hjejle, as Rob's main amour, recently appeared in the Danish film, "Mifune." She's an object of obsession for Rob, especially after she leaves him. Hjejle does a yeoman's job playing an American, but the very slight undercurrent of an accent is a little distracting. Portraying Rob's lovers and girlfriends, past and present, are the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones as a beautiful, ambitious free spirited Charlie; Lili Taylor lends a degree of amusement in her small role as the psychologically challenged, Sarah, a lady with more hang-ups than even Rob. Lisa Bonet is vivacious as a club singer who catches Rob's amorous attentions as he rebounds from his break-up with Laura. Tim Robbins gives a clever little cameo as the other man in Laura's life. Bruce Springsteen makes an appearance as a figment of Rob's imagination, advises him to "leave the top five lists behind" and get on with his life.

The script, a group effort by Cusack, his buddies D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, and Scott Rosenberg, is a witty collaboration that puts Cusack's inherent charm to excellent use. The ongoing top five lists, from death songs to first album/first cuts, are sprinkled throughout the film and pop up in amusing ways. The understanding of the music, by the makers, that is the real center of the film is obvious with musical references that even I understand - sometimes. (Truthfully, though, the music is a real draw for a younger audience who will get some chuckles from the constant references and comparisons.)

Frears and his behind-the-camera team utilize the Chicago locale to good effect, making the city an integral character in the film. The music that permeates the entire flick covers a broad spectrum, with a concentration on the modern rock scene that will appeal to younger auds.

With the hip musical background and slacker romance, "High Fidelity" is geared for 30-somethings and younger, who will especially appreciate the music refs. It's such a clever and entertaining little flick that it will amuse the oldsters like me, too. I give it a B+


GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI

Ghost Dog is a reclusive man who lives in a ramshackle hut atop a roof in a tenement building. He raises pigeons and, daily, performs the disciplines of a samurai warrior. He is also an assassin who can move through the night unseen, like his name. Forest Whitacker stars as the title character in director Jim Jarmusch's latest opus, a tale of honor and loyalty, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"

Robin's review of 'Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai':
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitacker) is a man with no past and no future. A fervent scholar of the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, he lives for the perfection of the moment and strives only to be loyal to his liege lord, Louie (John Tormey), a small-time mobster who saved Ghost Dog's life years before. Since then, Ghost Dog has embraced the philosophy of the samurai and sworn his allegiance as Louie's loyal vassal and hit man. The elusive Ghost Dog lives up to his ethereal name and makes his kills without ever being seen. To maintain his secrecy, the warrior communicates with his retainer only by a favorite carrier pigeon sent to visit the mobster every day.

Louie is a lowly soldier in the struggling crime family headed by Ray Vargo (Henry Silva). At Ray's insistence, Louie contracts Ghost Dog to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a "made man" and lover of Louise (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of the crime boss. Ray insists that Louise be "put on a bus" and nowhere near when the hit goes down. The strong-willed Louise defies her father's wishes and is in the room with Frankie when Ghost Dog takes him down. Infuriated by the mistake, Ray demands the death of the hit man and puts his boys on the street to find and kill the warrior. The result is a one-man war against the mob, a war that Ghost Dog has the will to win, despite the odds.

Director/writer Jim Jarmusch has always marched to his own filmmaking drummer since his seminal debut film "Stranger Than Paradise." His subsequent films, like "Down By Law" and "Night On Earth," show his individual creativity which may not always reach the audience, but are always interesting to watch. With "Ghost Dog," Jarmusch continues his unique brand of filmmaking, mixing several genres into what could have been a mish-mash of gangster, urban drama, western and martial arts flicks. Helmer Jarmusch blends these disparate themes into a cohesive film that combines humor and truly unique characters with Eastern philosophy, mobster flick and shoot-'em-up western.

Forest Whitacker gives a quiet, introspective performance as the title character. His devotion to the art of the samurai warrior stems from his frequent and continuous study of the Hagakure. His philosophical embrace of the samurai code is total as he lives by the tenets of warrior - honor and loyalty. The lumbering Whitacker is given a graceful quality by Jarmusch as he handles his weapons with the skill and speed of a Japanese swordsman or cowboy gunslinger. Whitacker is minimalist, not bland, in his performance as the ghostly Ghost Dog. Always carrying the tools of his deadly trade, he walks about with a spirit-like quality among the "civilians," his presence never even noticed. When he goes to war, his invisibility makes him nearly invulnerable, except from his own beliefs.

The mobsters, headed by Silva, are straight out of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." This gang can't even pay the rent on time to their Chinese landlord. They are a bumbling gaggle of Mafioso who are no match for Ghost Dog as their war leads toward its inevitable "shootout at the OK Corral" finale. The violent ending takes on a melancholy note as Ghost Dog resolves the conflict of going against his liege lord, Louie. There is a hopeful little coda to the inevitable finale as a little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), who befriended Ghost Dog, sits reading the copy of the Hagakure given to her by the warrior.

The screenplay, written by Jarmusch, takes on a lot of different themes as he weaves his tale about the code of the warrior, contemporary crime drama, chop-socky actioner and old-fashion western. The teachings that Ghost Dog lives by are interspersed throughout the film with quotes from the Hagakure, like "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." The clash of cultures between the mystic East and cynical, gangster-populated west is given a serio-comic edge as the mobsters meet their samurai match in final battle.

Jarmusch also introduces a couple of sidebar stories to flesh out the humanity of Ghost Dog. He has a close, but quirky friendship with Raymond, the owner of an ice cream truck, Boule Glacee. The two have long, philosophical chats together, but Raymond speaks only French and Ghost Dog just English. Their bilingual debates make quirky sense, though, and add a funny dimension to the film. Ghost Dog's mentoring relationship with little Pearline helps lend continuity to the legend of the warrior.

Tech credits are solid and geared to suit Jarmusch's story and characters. Cinematographer Robby Muller, a long time alumnus of the helmer, helps to give the bulky Whitacker a fluidity and grace. His nighttime photography also helps put the ghost in Ghost Dog. Costume design by John Dunn also gives Whitacker the look of the samurai warrior, but with a hip Gotham style to Ghost Dog's rags. Rap score by The RZA is probably entertaining for the fans of the music, but it left me cold.

"Ghost Dog" is a different type of movie. It also happens to be a tonic for lovers of film who are tired of the steady diet of conventional Hollywood movie fare. Jarmusch flicks are always interesting and his latest is no exception. That it is a quirky, action-filled, philosophical entertainment is a plus, too. I give it a B+.


ERIN BROKOVICH

When unemployed, twice-divorced mother of three Erin Brokovich (Julia Roberts) loses a court case over a car accident that left her in debt with medical bills, she corners her attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into giving her a job as a file clerk. Her curiosity is piqued when she finds medical records filed with a real estate deal and asks Ed if she can investigate the matter. He agrees to get her out of his office. Little does Ed realize that Erin's tenacity will bring him to the brink of bankruptcy before they turn around a case against Pacific Gas and Electric that will result in a $333 million settlement for over 600 plaintiffs, the largest in U.S. history.

Laura's review of 'Erin Brokovich':
Former indie-director Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape," "Out of Sight") takes on a movie star and turns in the year 2000's first smash hit. I'm willing to lay money down now that Julia Roberts will be a (well deserved) Oscar nominee for this role this time next year.

This true story was written for the screen by Susannah Grant ("Ever After") who concentrates on her central character and the build up of the case, rather than making this a courtroom drama. Brokovich is a savvy lady who's been dealt a bad hand. She has trouble getting people to take her seriously because of her trashy appearance and take-no-prisoners talk, qualities that oddly work in her favor investigating this law suit.

Erin loses her neighbor/babysitter just as she begins her new job and is then chagrinned to meet her new neighbor George (Aaron Eckhart, "In the Company of Men") gunning his Harley after she's put her kids to bed. Love blossoms when her day care drops her children home while she's at work and George proves to be the perfect caretaker.

Erin's realtionship with George undergoes strain as she becomes totally engrossed in helping the people of Hinkley, California. They've suffered numerous health tragedies because their employer has poisoned their water supply with Chromium 6 and attempted to cover up the evidence. Equally important is Erin's relationship with Ed, whom she exasperates, angers, amuses and finally, gains the utmost respect from.

Julia Roberts has never been better than she is here. Her Erin is gutsy, smart, tacky, loud, maternal, good-hearted, funny and tireless. "Erin Brokovich" makes Roberts an actress rather than the movie star with the larger than life smile. For all Erin's brashness, Roberts also nails the quiet moments - her eyes reflect pained sadness even as she smiles and laughs with a young girl fighting cancer. Her tossed off 'we had the water brought in special for you' to a PG&E defense attorney is priceless. She also enjoys a wonderful pairing with her two male costars. Finney has a ball as Masry, yanked from much-longed for retirement to fight a $30 billion dollar company. He's rejuvenated by Erin and their verbal sparring sparkles. Eckhart continues to prove what a chameleon he is. His long blond ponytail, sideburns and tatoos adorn a gentle biker who genuinely loves kids and his chemistry with Roberts is real and true. Their lovemaking scene is refreshingly played for humor and warmth rather than steam and exposed flesh.

Support is also solid. Marg Helgenberger ("Species") is Donna Jensen, the first eventual plaintiff visited by Roberts. She's losing her womanhood to cancer yet still must be convinced that PG&E would knowingly cause harm. Cherry Jones ("Cradle Will Rock") is Pamela Duncan, the most mistrusting Hinkley resident and the toughest nut Erin has to crack. Veanne Cox offers contrast to Erin as a buttoned up lawyer. Jamie Harrold makes an impression as Scott, the gatekeeper to town water records who's overcome by Erin's charms, then cowed by her confidence. Watch for the real Erin Brokovich (who resembles a young Sally Kirkland) early on as a diner waitress who takes Erin's order. The film also features Peter Coyote, Tracey Walter and Conchata Ferrell.

Soderbergh keeps his focus character oriented. He reuses his timeshift style from "Out of Sight's" love scene a couple of times (editting by Anne Coates, "Lawrence of Arabia"), but this is essentially straightforward story telling of the highest caliber. Cinematographer Ed Lachman ("The Limey") captures the omnipresence of PG&E on location and Phil Messina's production design surrounds the film's characters realistically. Costume design by Jeffrey Kurland ("My Best Friend's Wedding") also has a strong impact establishing character. Thomas Newman's score complements the action rather than distracting from it.

"Erin Brokovich" is not only a terrific story about a unique woman, it's a great David and Goliath story. Roberts would KO Travolta if this went against "A Civil Action" in a celebrity deathmatch.

A-

Robin's review of 'Erin Brokovich':
Erin Brockovich is a single mother of three, twice divorced, uneducated and without a job. Following a long series of unsuccessful job interviews, she has a car accident that is not her fault. But, when she takes the man, a doctor, to court, the prejudice against the divorcee is apparent and the jury finds for the defendant. What she thought was a sure thing turns into an even bigger family crisis of economics, prompting Erin to beg a job from her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Ed gives her a routine real estate case to investigate and she uncovers serious medical problems with the plaintiffs - problems that may be caused by the utility giant, Pacific Gas & Electric, dumping deadly chromium-6 into the local community's water supply. Erin's quest to find justice for the more than 600 plaintiffs ends up in the biggest direct action settlement in the history of the US legal system in Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich."

Soderbergh, who has maintained an interesting track record since his debut film, "sex, lies and videotape," continues his streak as a dependable filmmaker capable of creating entertaining and interesting craftwork. With "Erin Brockovich," the auteur maintains his quality control and puts together a well-paced, true-life story about the strong-willed and foul-mouthed Erin Brockovich. The helmer, known for his edgier fare, takes a conventional turn in the linear telling of Erin's triumphant victory over PG&E. Her story, from the original screenplay by Susannah Grant ("Pocahontas"), is a real you-can't-keep-good-woman-down inspirational yarn all the more compelling because it is true.

Roberts gives one of her best star performances to date as the brash and brassy Erin. Normally, Miss Julia plays the vulnerable, sensitive beauty - see "Notting Hill" for a good/bad example of the actress's typical perf. As the title character the superstar comes across as tough as nails, savvy and highly intelligent, even if not formally educated. It's a very different role for Roberts and one that she embraces well. Early on, she shows Erin as someone who takes no crap from anyone and is as protective as a lioness when it comes to her children. By extension, as she gets more and more embroiled in the case against PG&E for contaminating public drinking water, her protective nature extends to her clients - all 600+ of them. By film's end, though, Erin is not noticeably changed by her experience, just richer.

The supporting cast is not given much of Julia's limelight during the course of the story. Albert Finney, as lawyer Ed Masry, gets a chance to have some fun as the head of the lawfirm that takes on the case against PG&E. The veteran Finney is comfortable in his role, but does not get to stretch too much. Aaron Eckhart ("In the Company of Men") comes off the starting block quite strong, establishing himself as a sensitive, caring biker who owns a Harley and has real affection for Erin and her kids. Unfortunately, his character, George, falls from the picture at about the halfway mark and doesn't effectively surface again. The rest of the cast is there for background and not much else. Character actor Tracey Walter appears in short glimpses throughout the film, lending a sinister edge at first, then a hero's nature by film's end. The Wonder Bra should also get honorable praise for raising Julia's bustline to the attention of millions.

Erin's story, based in fact, is a straightforward telling of the events that led the single mother to legal fame. Other films show influence here, too. There is a nod to "Silkwood" when Erin receives threatening phone calls for digging into PG&E shady dealings. The community-versus-big-business aspect can be directly compared to "A Civil Action" in its David against Goliath fight against injustice. Soderbergh and company wisely stay out of the courtroom for much of the film, making "Erin Brockovich" a character driven story rather than judicial drama. It's a Julia Roberts movie that doesn't feel like a Julia Roberts movie.

The film is shot with a more conventional tone than one would expect from Soderbergh. But convention is not routine with crisp, sharply focused lensing by Soderbergh crony Ed Lachman and sturdy, dependable production design by Phil Messina ("Out of Sight"). High marks must be given to costumer Jeffrey Kurland for the outrageous, but perfect, outfitting of Robert's Erin. The low cut tops and short skirts that Erin struts around in help lend as much to the aura of the woman as the nasty talk that rolls off of Roberts' tongue.

Soderbergh does break away from straightforward convention at one point in the film when he shows, in silence, one of the plaintiffs, a man, impotently shrieking into the night against PG&E when he finds out his wife has cancer caused by the toxic dumping. The scene concentrates an awful lot of powerful energy into such a short time. This is also one of the few scenes in the film that does not have Roberts at center stage.

I have never been a Julia Roberts fan, but I have to admit I enjoyed myself at "Erin Brockovich." There is a lot of humor and wit blended in with the drama of the David versus Goliath tale, making this more than a chick flick. The positive messages given throughout the film - the importance of family values, love, honor and justice - also make this quite decent food for thought. I give it a B+.


BEYOND THE MAT

Barry W. Blaustein is a newcomer to the documentary field. He's a screenwriter, by trade, and is credited for such scripts as "The Nutty Professor" and the upcoming "Nutty 2: The Klumps." Blaustein, for his first non-fiction film, departs from the world of comedy and grapples the world of professional wrestling in an insightful look into this violent and popular "sport" in "Beyond the Mat."

Robin's review of 'Beyond The Mat':
Blaustein's film focuses on the professional and personal lives of several members of the pro wresting fraternity. WWF legend Terry Funk is put under the documentary microscope to examine what the game does to one of its player after 30 years. Jake "The Snake" Roberts lends his colorful bad guy persona to the camera's scrutiny. Mick "Mankind" Foley represents the younger members of the pro community, allowing his young family to come under the camera's gaze and show what price the sport extracts from its players and their families. Unknowns, trying to break into the wrestling profession, are also given air-time to show the lengths a newcomers must go to get a shot at enter the pro wrestling ring.

The whole tone of "Beyond the Mat" strips away the facade of the spectacle of pro wrestling - just watch Monday Night Nitro for a look at the hype and glitz the sport now exudes - and gives a deeper, more melancholy look into the game and its players. The result is a thoughtful look into the violence and glitter of what has become a billion dollar American industry.

Anchoring on the three principles, Blaustein gives an up close and personal look at each. He begins with Terry Funk, an old man in the profession who, at 53, is near the end of his career, but is not ready to give it up. (Terry, we are told, retired from the sport at the end of the film, but a little on-screen coda before the credits tells us that he is back again and still doing the wrestling rounds). Funk tells about his years on the road, the daily pain he suffers and the depravity of the wrestler's life style. His is a sad commentary of a sport that simply uses its players, then spits them out when done.

Jake Roberts' story takes a different edge as he tells about the booze and the drugs that are a day-to-day way of life for the brethren of the ring, mainly to dull the pain of the physically punishing daily grind. He also talks about the impact on the family of a pro wrestler, with husband/dad away on the road all the time. For Jake, this meant the alienation of his daughter, a separation that has never healed for either.

Mick Foley is young guy with a pretty wife and two cute little kids, but the daily abuse he goes through in the ring are too harsh for his young family to see. In one striking scene, Mick's wife, Collette, and their two kids attend his debut in the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) league - a competitor of the WWF. During the bout, to his family's horror, Mick is attacked by his opponent with a metal chair and struck on the head repeatedly. The mayhem is too much for his kids as they wail over daddy's big boo-boo. Mick staggers back to the dressing room to have the two-inch long gash sewn up as his fretful wife and kids watch on. At one point, Collette states that she doesn't know "how long I can take this." The segment reps a poignant view into a tough way to make a living.

A short amount of time is spent on some of the newcomers trying to break into the pro wrestling game. One muscle-bound young man admits to WWF owner Vince McMahon that he has a unique talent - he can vomit at will. McMahon immediately sees a way to capitalize on this "talent" and dubs the youngster with the delightful moniker, "Puke." (Note that Puke's pro career, under his new name, never took off. He's still in the pros, but not as a star.)

McMahon, himself, has made a second career as a WWF bad guy who, using his own name in the ring, is a man the fans can love to hate. The WWF is now a public company and McMahon is a man who shows he can capitalize on a good idea. As he puts it, "It's not about the sport, it's about the spectacle."

The fans are given little attention in "Beyond the Mat." A short interview with a young man from England who has traveled thousands of miles to watch his idols is used to show the dedication of the fans for their beloved sport. Other than this, the fans are shown as the screaming mob we've seen on Wrestlemania.

Barry Blaustein takes a long, hard look at pro wrestling and, while not making me a newborn fan of the sport, he taught me the intensity and sacrifice of those who enter the ring to be a "pro." "Beyond the Mat" will not, I think, be used as a recruiting film for the WWF. (It is reported that McMahon and the WWF publicly withdrew after-market support of the film.) I can see why, boo-boos notwithstanding. I give it a B.


MIFUNE

Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen), having declared himself without family, marries Claire (Sofie Grabol), the boss' daughter and looks forward to a yuppie lifestyle in Copenhagen. But on the morning after the wedding Kresten receives word that the father whose existence he has denied has died, leaving him to deal with his country estate and his retarded older brother Rud (Jesper Asholt) in the Danish Berlin Jury Prize winner, "Mifune."

Laura's review of 'Mifune':
"Mifune," whose title refers to Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese star of many Kurosawa and samurai movies, is the latest and most accessible of Dogma '95 films. (Dogma '95 is a creed most associated with director Lars von Trier in which filmmakers vow to only use natural lighting and sound, among other restrictions.) Director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen has used this low budget device to create a gentle comedy taken to loftier heights by the solid performances of its three central actors.

At first, Kresten seems more annoyed than anything else at having to deal with his family crisis, but he's immediately redeemed when he reacquaints himself with Rud and resists his sleezy neighbor's suggestion of putting Rud in a home. When his ad for a housekeeper is answered by Liva (Iben Hjejle, "High Fidelity"), a hooker looking to get out of the life, it's obvious this new family unit will win out over Kresten's demanding, sexually voracious bride and their shallow life back in the city. Nonetheless, getting to that preordained conclusion is still worth the effort.

Liva is fleeing from a phone stalker (whose identity will prove quite the surprise) while trying to keep her teenage brother out of trouble. While at first she doesn't know what to make of the brothers, she finds herself falling for Kresten and becoming fond of Rud. When her brother is expelled from his private school, the bratty teenager is brought into the fold and is gradually turned around by the people he initially taunts. Rud believes UFOs are landing in their fields and takes simple pleasure from avoiding baths, listening to the car radio and playing Mifune with Kresten. He also steals Kresten's money to buy a bushel of lotto tickets which ironically end up setting them up for life. Kresten becomes so whole and seems so relaxed back in his childhood Lolland (the Danish turnip capital), one's left wondering why he ever tried to escape it in the first place - although his matter-of-fact recounting of his mother's suicide may hold the answer.

Berthelsen's gradual slide into his new life and his basic well-meaningness make his Kresten a character to root for. When he must leave the farm for a day, he takes Liva to buy supplies before he leaves which include a multitude of niceities, such as wine and flowers, to ensure her happiness. Hjejle is believable both as a city call girl and the country housekeeper both brothers come to love (her role here won her the lead against John Cusack in the upcoming "High Fidelity"). She's a no-nonsense natural beauty. Jesper Asholt gives one of the best performances of a mentally disabled character I've ever seen - he never resorts to performance ticks and the filmmakers never allow him to be viewed sentimentally. Emil Tarding is bratty and obnoxious as thirteen year old boys can be and pulls off his conscience-guided about face with aplomb.

"Mifune" only falters in the two scenes leading up to its inevitable ending, when it has Liva's city colleagues 'rescue' her from Kresten and then tops that scene with a note of fantasy before abandoning both concepts. (It also cheats the Dogma rules once, when Japanese music can be heard while Kresten plays Mifune.) However, "Mifune's" four lost souls come together as the most functional of families even if they stray along the way.

B


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