BLACK AND WHITE - RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
RETURN TO ME - ONEGIN - THE TERRORIST
THE ROAD TO EL DORADO


BLACK AND WHITE

A criminal tries to reinvent himself as a hip-hop producer and attracts a bunch of NYC uptown teens to the lifestyle. They in turn are followed by a documentary filmmaker and her gay husband. An NYPD detective tries to trap the rap impressario by blackmailing his childhood friend. That friend's malicious girlfriend closes the circle by informing the wanted man and sets off a life-changing course of events in director James Toback's "Black and White."

Laura's review of 'Black And White':
Writer-director James Toback has assembled an unusual cast to attack an interesting subject - that of people who try to reinvent themselves into borrowed lifestyles without understanding their own true nature. ('If you're black, can you bleach? If you're white, can you dye?')

The film begins as Richie (Power of Wu Tang Clan), the film's focal character to which all other characters are drawn, has sex with two white underage girls in Central Park ('What do these white people want with us?' Richie later asks his Rapper Cigar (Raekwon). 'Some kind of life force?'). We follow one of them, Charlie (Bijou Phillips), home to her upper West side dwelling where her dry-as-dust dad is instructing his preteen daughters how to eat quail and zoned-out mom (Marla Maples, ex-Mrs. Trump) tries to maintain the shallow exterior. Charlie's 'Black speak' irritates them to no end (undoubtedly the point) and she retires to her room to smoke pot and chat on the phone to Richie (who's surrounded by women in his loft) while giving a white boyfriend the bum's rush.

The gang Charlie hangs with is approached by NYU film school graduate Sam Donager (a dreadlocked Brooke Shields) who's making a documentary about white kids living the hiphop lifestyle. She's trailed by husband Terry (the sublime Robert Downey Jr.), who tries to hit on every attractive male in his path, a habit Sam apparently finds cute. They all end up at Richie's loft where Sam videotapes furiously, Terry comes on to Mike Tyson (himself) and the black woman too wise to hook up with Richie views his actions with disgust.

Meanwhile, Dean (Allan Houston) is approached by Mark (Ben Stiller) with an offer of $50 grand to throw a basketball game. 'Be true to yourself,' advises his girlfriend Greta (Claudia Schiffer), who's working on her anthropology thesis on race. Dean takes the bait and finds out that Mark is an NYPD detective blackmailing him to get the goods on Richie (Mark, clearly a psychopath, is the least believable character in this story, but sticking with the theme, he's also trying to reinvent himself from a sketchy criminal past). When Greta betrays Dean to Richie, Richie calls upon Willie (William Lee Scott), a white kid who's been trying to ingratiate himself (and who's also the DA's son), to take out Dean.

Toback (who also appears as a record producer) encouraged improvisation with his cast and it mostly worked in his favor. Scenes in Richie's loft, a Grand Central meeting place, play fast and real. Charlie lolls about drenched in her own coolness and pseudo-blackness while not comprehending the dissing that's being thrown her way. Mike Tyson graciously avoids a conflict with Terry before attempting to throttle him when he goes too far (Tyson was unaware that Downey Jr. was going to hit on him in this most famous scene which Brooke Shields captured with her camcorder prop). Tyson also eloquently advises Richie on how to handle the Dean situation before ducking out.

The film barrels along with a funky rhythm, its threads coiling tightly before a climatic murder. Then the tension slowly unravels and the film loses some of its steam. This is largely due to focus on Stiller, Greta (whatever her motivation is was surely lost on me), and Willie's relationship with his dad (Joe Pantoliano). Terry also forces a confrontation with Sam (I'm a cum guzzler!' he declares). In other words, the White of 'Black and White' takes over and the lack of mix is less interesting.

"Black and White" may be flawed, but it's an interesting experiment and an entertaining viewing experience.

B+

Robin's review of 'Black And White':
Rich white kids model themselves after black rappers. A New York City undercover cop suckers a college basketball player to fink on a childhood friend. The friend wants to leave his life of crime behind and become a hip-hop impresario. A documentary filmmaker and her gay husband follow the rich teens as they are drawn to the hip-hop lifestyle. These are just some of the stories followed by director/writer James Toback in his ensemble work, "Black and White."

"Black and White" is a film about wannabes. The rich white kids want to embrace the culture of the black rappers they idolize. The black kids want to get out of the 'hood and escape their go-nowhere lives. Brooke Shields, as docu maker Sam, wants to be a cutting edge reporter who has her finger on the pulse of the wannabe kids. Even Mike Tyson and Sam's husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr.) want something, although in their cases, they just want to be left alone. Toback's tale crosses cultural and racial barriers, but really comes down to human nature - people want change.

The huge ensemble cast varies wildly in the individual impact of the players. Of the rich kids, only a couple of them show any sort of rebelliousness (usually in the form of foul language). Charlie (Bijou Phillips, daughter of The Mamas and the Papas leader John Phillips) and Marty (Eddie Thomas) outwardly rebel against authority and convention. The rest just travel as a group trying to get in good with local crime boss, Rich (Oli "Power" Grant), who wants to get away from his criminal life. Power gives a notable perf as the tough, young gangsta.

The most remarkable, and well-publicized, scene in the film takes place between Terry (Downey, Jr.) and Mike Tyson, as himself. The scene has Tyson standing at a window at Rich's place gazing out at the New York skyline. Terry, married to Sam but obviously gay, sidles up to the boxer to chat. Director Toback, using a heavy improvisational style with his actors, supposedly told Tyson that Downey, Jr. was only going to talk to him. Toback told Downey to come on to the fighter. When Tyson reacts, it is obviously a sudden and un-staged attack on the unconventional Downey. And, Brooke Shields really got the whole thing on video! It's my favorite scene in the film.

Another major character in the film, besides the human actors, is the music used. The rap and hip-hop stuff permeates the film, but the varied scoring, supervised by Power, is an eclectic collection of New Age, jazz and pop sounds that join the film together nicely. The rap/hip-hop tunes used throughout fit the tone of the film perfectly.

Some of the story threads developed by Toback work better than others do. One significant line has Ben Stiller as Mark, a New York City detective who offers college basketball star Dean (New York Nick's star Allan Houston) a bribe to through a game. He tricks Dean into taking the bribe then threatens the athlete with prison if he doesn't help get Rich busted. This story takes several paths as Dean involves his girlfriend (Claudia Schiffer), as things go bad, and invokes Rich's deadly wrath. This one of the several stories doesn't grab the viewer.

Still, "Black and White" is the best thing I have seen come from director Toback. At the very least, he gets interesting perfs from his actors while telling a story of crossing cultures, attitudes, music and mores. I give it a B.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

A couple of green lieutenants lead their men into battle in Vietnam. One, Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), is badly wounded in an ambush that kills his entire unit. The other, Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), hearing the distant slaughter over his radio, risks his career when he shoots a prisoner in cold blood to save his friend's life. Now, 30 years later, Hayes is about to retire from the Marine Corps and his friend is given a choice career assignment - command of highly trained, special ops battalion whose first assignment is to save the US ambassador and his staff in Yemen. Things go bad during the rescue and Childers orders his men to lay deadly fire upon civilians. This sparks a worldwide scandal for the Americans and Terry is about to be hung out to dry by his country in William Friedkin's "Rules of Engagement."

Robin's review of 'Rules Of Engagement':
Adapted from the original story by James Webb, "Rules" is a play in three distinct acts. The first two, both battle oriented, are the most compelling, with an in-your-face look at the horrors of war and the aftermath of battle. The first part, in Vietnam, is an extended, hyper real sequence of men facing death in battle. This action-packed and bloody sequence is shot with an ultra clarity that is reminiscent of the opening 26 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." This scene sets an exciting stage for the events that take place in the play's second act.

The film jumps forward three decades as Hodges prepares to retire from the Corps and Childers receives his new assignment. Colonel Childers is tasked to land with his platoon-sized team in the US embassy compound in the Yemeni capital. Hostile protests by civilians against American presence in the Middle East have reached a state of violence, with a mob gather outside the compound and snipers firing at anything that moves. It's a tense situation when Terry and his men arrive, only to come under withering gunfire. After the ambassador (Ben Kingsley), his staff and family are evacuated the firing on the marines intensifies, with several going down and one dying in the colonel's arms. From a vantage point he alone has, Childers orders his men to fire on the mob in a blaze of machine gun fire. The pace, tempo and action of this portion of the film represent its highlight.

The final act, the courtroom drama that unfolds following the killings, is the longest and most complex part - and also the weakest. Following the alleged massacre, Childers is charged with many cases of murder and breach of the peace. Evidence exonerating Childers is delivered to and waved about by the NSA presidential advisor (Bruce Greenwood), in the form of videotape taken from the embassy surveillance cameras, then dropped into a drawer, "to be seen by no-one." Terry approaches his friend, Hayes Hodges, to take on his defense. Hayes, against his better judgement - he has a drinking problem and he's just not that good a lawyer - takes the case.

Col. Hodges has little time to prepare his case, but heads to Yemen to get to the truth. He finds hostility, hate, violence and makeshift hospitals crammed with the wounded from Childers's alleged attack. He returns to his client battered by the experience, but unbowed, and proceeds to try the case against overwhelming odds in Rocky-esque bit that ends in a foregone conclusion.

While the action-packed moments of the first two parts sets a stage of drama and coherence that is clear-cut and exciting, the last part falls into a morass of confusion and illogic. As the third act unfolds, the government's motivation for trying Childers gets thoroughly convoluted. Ambassador Mourain (Kingsley), sympathetic to Childers at first, blatantly perjures himself on the stand, apparently to save his career. Meanwhile, Colonel Hughes approaches the diplomat's wife (Anne Archer) to testify in Childers' favor, but this story line is never followed through. Why the kangaroo court is so hell-bent to roast Childers is never clearly stated, except for some ambiguous world opinion. When the final verdict is delivered, virtually all the capital charges are over-ridden and Terry is found guilty of little more than disturbing the peace. I was scratching my head, by the end of the film, at this shoddy resolution.

Helmer Friedkin takes a different tack on a visual level by using the talents of three different cinematographers - William A. Fraker, Nicola Pecorini and Dariusz Wolski. Apparently, from the look of things, the filmmakers wanted a distinctive visual feel for each act, with each DP (director of photography) in charge of shooting their particular piece. This offbeat technique works with excellent results in part one and two. The Vietnam sequence captures the chaos of the time with a sense of heightened surreality. The embassy attack bit is ultra-modern with its strong sense of at-the-moment reality that gives it a CNN-style feel. Part three, sadly, does not have the photographic strength of the first two acts and uses moody, out-of-place lighting a la "Basic Instinct." The use of contrasting light and shadow gives the courtroom drama a stylish but not very realistic look.

The print of "Rules of Engagement" that we saw was, to its defense, a work-in-progress and did not have the final edits, sound or music. But, the story is likely to remain unchanged and that's the problem. When the story turns away from the action and into the courtroom drama, it falls flat because of the illogic that plays out to, I may add, a predictable and unsatisfying end.

One note of levity (of sorts): when Hodges is in Yemen, a little, one-legged girl - presumably a victim of Childers's assault - make repeated appearances, evincing a note of sympathy from the audience. When the facts of the attack are made known to the viewer - that all the mob was packing firepower and trying to kill the American Marines - the last image shown is the little girl pointing one huge, bad ass handgun right at the camera. The image of the little girl and big gun drew an unexpected laugh from the audience. This is not the response intended by the filmmakers, I think.

If the first two acts were not as well crafted as they are, I'd say shoot the screenwriter. But, despite the ham-handed courtroom drama, there are some compelling elements to the film. Unfortunately, they are over within the first hour. I give "Rules of Engagement" a C+.

Laura's review of 'Rules Of Engagement':
Director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist") returns to the big screen after a 5 year hiatus ("Jade," anyone?) with "Rules of Engagement," a political thriller/courtroom drama which spans the decades from the Vietnam War to a fictional present-day incident in Yemen. Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones, "The Fugitive") retires from the military after serving mostly as an adequate, if not brilliant, lawyer. He's feted by Colonel Terry L. Childers (Samuel L. Jackson, "Deep Blue Sea"), his former superior officer and long time friend who also saved his life during a tense ambush in Vietnam. When Childers is put up for court martial and a murder charge after the rescue mission he spearheaded resulted in 83 dead civilians, he calls Hodges out of retirement to defend him.

Tommy Lee Jones finally rebounds from the rehashed performances he's been serving up of late with his humble military lawyer. He not only knows he's not up to the task of defending his long-time friend, but also begins to doubt his friend's version of events. This happens when he travels to Yemen to gather evidence and must face hostility and the aftermath of the incident. Jones plays Hodges as a plodding loner whose loyalty is shaken to the core.

Jackson's Childers is a bit more two-dimensional. He's either in upright professional mode or outraged righteousness mode, with a couple of dashes of quieter introspection ('If I'm guilty of this, I'm guilty of everything I've ever done'). Guy Pearce ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") is a laser sharp prosecuting attorney with a healthy respect for justice (and a thoroughly believable American accent). Bruce Greenwood ("The Sweet Hereafter") is a disappointing one-note villain as Security Chief Sokal (although he gets one funny moment on the witness stand). Ben Kingsley is OK as the ambassador at the midst of the controversy, reminiscent of his Vice President in "Dave," until the film does his performance in. Anne Archer fares a bit better as his conflicted wife.

Either the script by James Webb (from a story by Stephen Gaghan) would have the audience make leaps of faith or a lot of "Rules of Engagement" lies on the editting room floor. Hodges knows he can't win his case until the climax of the film, where suddenly it's apparent he probably will. Childers' actions in Vietnam are made to look suspicious when they're first shown, until an explanation is bluntly provided during his trial which just assigns face value to what we've already seen. Hodges has an assistant with strong opinions who apparently joined those folks from "The Haunting" who left their film with no further explanation. Sokal's motivations are flimsy, yet his course of action is announced with the subtlety of a sledgehammer before we're let in on his agenda. Ambassador Mourain's character is apparently driven only by needs of the plot. Ironically, at least one of these situations could have been fixed by the time allotted to Hodges' father (Philip Baker Hall) and (Hodge's has apparently been driven to alcoholism by not living up to his father's achievements while his son is an anti-military liberal) - one scene which could easily have been dropped and another which merely underlines the flimsiness of Hodge's ability to win his case.

Friedkin does create many tense moments, though. His opening sequence, where Childers makes tough decisions to save his men during a Vietnamese ambush, have a 'you-are-there' feel suggesting the effect of "Saving Private Ryan" (although not as powerful). The rescue mission several decades later also puts one in the action, but has a vastly different feel with harsh light and open spaces replacing the dark, claustrophic jungles of Vietnam. The courtroom sequences have yet another distinct visual style, using extreme closeups, Dutch angles and rat-a-tat editting. These very different styles were achieved by three different cinematographers - William A. Fraker, Nicola Pecorini and Dariusz Wolski.

"Rules of Engagement" has the ingredients of a fine film, yet in the final analysis, its construction is too wobbly to really stack up. B-


RETURN TO ME

Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) has been handicapped by her need for a new heart since she was fourteen. Bob and Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson, "The Parent Trap"; David Duchovny) are celebrating the funding of a new home for her prize ape Sidney at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, which Bob's construction firm will design and build. Tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident that costs Elizabeth her life and Bob his beloved wife, while Grace is informed that a heart is available and is immediately scheduled for transplant surgery. One year later, after resisting his buddy Charlie's attempts to fix him up, Bob finds himself irristably drawn to Grace when she waits on him in her family's restaurant in "Return To Me."

Laura's review of 'Return To Me':
"Return To Me" sounds terrible on paper - man coincidentally falls for the organ donee who's received his deceased wife's heart. The second warning sign is that this premise boasts four story credits. Yet, first time coscreenwriter/director Bonnie Hunt (who also costars) has a fashioned a film that's, I hate to do this, full of heart.

It helps that Grace's grandad is an Irish ex-pat who, along with his Italian partner, runs O'Reilly's Italian restaurant, a place where you can order a side of cabbage with your pasta. As played by Carroll O'Connor (with just the right strength of Irish brogue) and Robert Loggia, Marty and Angelo are believable old friends who love their Grace and still believe in romance. They enjoy their after-hour card games where, along with two other old friends, they debate the merits of Irish vs. Italian male tenors while agreeing that Ella Fitzgerald reigns supreme. The old guys and waitress Sophie could have become drenched in sentimentality, but again, Hunt and her cast keep everything at just the right pitch.

While Bob's veteranarian buddy Charlie (David Alan Grier) tries to shake him out of his grief (even the Rueland's dog Mel still waits at the door for Elizabeth's return), Grace's family attempts to get her over her shyness bred from years of illness and a huge post-op chest scar. Grace and Bob meet cute when he's amused by her handling of his obnoxious blind date and magic is sparked by his proximity to her heart (Mel and Sidney are also immediately drawn to Grace as they only were to Elizabeth).

Conflict ensues when Grace discovers the truth about her heart and tells Bob, but even this romantic comedy cliche is well handled (and resolved via a nun on a bicycle, no less). This romance plays true while also keeping a prominent place for Bob's love of his deceased wife.

Kudos all around to the cast. The literally buttoned-up Driver is modestly low key, a real nice girl. Duchovny, who has been lifeless on the big screen more than once, works here and has gentle chemistry with Driver. Most outstanding are Bonnie Hunt ("Jumanji") and Jim Belushi as Grace's sister and her fireman husband. They exist in a chaotic household full of love, kids and humor (watch Belushi wangle his way out of changing a diaper).

Cinematography by John A. Alonzo and Laszlo Kovacs is straightforward, nicely featuring Chicago's skyline and several of its landmarks juxtaposed with the interiors of Bob's fashionable brownstone and O'Reilly's restaurant with Grace's inner city courtyard garden out back. The film could have used a few editting (Garth Craven) tweeks (a scene with Bob's rollerblading dogwalker seems like a work print), but overall it's a professional effort. The soundtrack features many of the oldies loved by the film's seniors, including Dean Martin's "Return To Me."

"Return To Me" is a sleeper surprise and obviously a labor of love from Bonnie Hunt. B

Robin's review of 'Return To Me':
Bob Rueland (David Duchoney) is a successful Chicago architect married to Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), a lady he is crazy about. Elizabeth is a zoologist in charge of the primate program at city zoo and is on a mission to build a world class home for her star gorilla, Sidney. Life is wonderful for the couple until a tragic car accident takes Elizabeth away from Bob - forever. Unbeknownst to Bob, another lady, pretty Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver), suffering from hereditary cardiac disease, receives Elizabeth's heart in a transplant operation. Bob and Grace pass each other, time after time, like two ships in the night, until they finally meet each other at O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant, in director Bonnie Hunt's feature debut, "Return to Me."

I have to admit, when I heard of the story premise for "Return to Me" - a man loses his beloved wife only to learn her heart was transplanted into his new amour - I cringed at the thought of spending two hours seeing another heart-rending movie-of-the-week schmarm fest. It's nice to report that my fears were not only unfounded, they were squarely confronted and quelled by this charming little romantic comedy with, if you'll excuse the pun, a heart.

Although David Duchovny and Minnie Driver are top-billed as the stars, "Return to Me" is a true ensemble effort. Helmer Hunt, who also co-stars and co-wrote the screenplay, shows her acting roots as she allows her cast to flesh out their characters into real people - the sweet and lovable kind. Hunt walks a fine line as she verges on the sappily sentimental with the story about love lost and found, but deftly avoids crossing the line. The best of the film takes place in the Chicago neighborhood where Grace's grandpa (Carroll O'Connor) owns an Irish-Italian eatery that specializes in such dishes as ravioli and cabbage. Grace's family and friends, led by Grandpa Marty and Uncle Angelo (Robert Loggia), surround the girl with love and protection. Her former frailties, an inherited heart condition like her late mother's, are still much in their minds so she is still treated as a frail flower.

The script, co-written by Hunt and Don Jake, is a loving tapestry of characters whose lives mean something to one another. The love that sparks among these people is both genuine and believable. Bob's devotion to Elizabeth, both when alive and in death, is palpable and well delivered by Duchovny. Elsewhere, too, there is an air of love, on different levels, in "Return to Me." There is the love and affection between Bob and Grace, tinged with the presence of Bob's late wife that makes the couple almost a threesome, but in a good way.

The friendly affection among the members of the old guy club - grandpa's cronies - for Grace and, by extension, for Bob, is sweetly laid out. Finally, the sheer force of affection and caring that surround Grace's best friend Megan (Hunt), her husband Joe (Jim Belushi) and their kids help propel the film to a near love fest. There's a lot of affection going around and it could have been easily mishandled. Helmer Hunt assuredly molds all this potential treacle into a focused, funny and touching little fairy tale.

Part of the charm of the story and script is the attention to amusing and wry little details throughout the film. Grace's almost manic need to hide her surgery scar - she belts Rob at one point when she thinks he may see the incision - is overridden by her family as they frankly discuss her "chest work." Another funny bit involves the ongoing discussions by the old guys of their best lists. The best male singer, boxer or baseball player debates are always fast furious and opinionated. The only time they ever agree is over the best female singer of all time - they unanimously pick Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest chanteuse ever. I agree. This attention to the little details of "Return to Me" helps elevate it well above the routine Hollywood fare. The only misstep of note is the use of blind date cliche is that are a staple in such romantic comedies.

Bonnie Hunt and her talented behind-the-camera crew are also up to snuff as they create a lightly fantastical world in the middle of working class Chicago. The photography by veteran lenser Laslo Kovacs is crisp and clear; especially the lush night shots that compliment the production design by Brent Thomas. Tech credits are equal to the fine acting.

"Return to Me" is a pleasant surprise and a little gem of a film. For the guys out there, it's a good flick to pick for a date. I give it a B+.


ONEGIN

Based on a novel by 19th Century Russian author Alexander Pushkin, "Onegin" stars Ralph Fiennes as Evgeny Onegin, a wealthy, St. Petersburg aristocrat. Onegin spends his summers at his country estate in a constant state of bemused boredom. When a beautiful young neighbor, Tatyana Larina (Liv Tyler), is attracted to Evgeny, she writes to the man and declares her love. Onegin rejects Tatyana's advances with a civil, but curt, reply, alienating the young woman. The wealthy land baron soon realizes his error and pursues the beauty, but is too late to turn the tide he caused.

Robin's review of 'Onegin':
"Onegin" reps a Fiennes family effort with Ralph as the star, sister Martha as director and brother Magnus as composer. But, the nepotism that takes place in front of and behind the camera does not tarnish the fine efforts of all involved in bringing this lushly drawn period piece to life. Onegin is a beautifully rendered film with outstanding costumes, art direction and cinematography that couple nicely with the characters and story.

Set in early 1800's Czarist Russia, "Onegin" draws us into the lives of the members of upper class society. Onegin, who recently inherited his sizeable fortune, carries an air of resigned boredom as the local "bumpkins," his wealthy neighbors, try to draw him into their social fold. Onegin remains aloof and unapproachable, even to the beautiful Tatyana, who early on professes her interest in the man. Unbeknownst to Onegin, his aloof demeanor will only serve to isolate him further, even after he realizes the charm, kindness and intelligence of Tatyana.

The cast of characters surrounding Onegin is made up with mostly unknown, to us on this side of the Pond, actors who lend a seamless quality in their support of Fiennes and Tyler. Fiennes gives a solid perf as the bemused and bemusing Evgeny, portraying the man's initial aloofness and later obsession for Tatyana. Tyler is perfect as Onegin's object of obsession through most of the film. Hers is a visual entity that comes to tantalize Onegin, but ultimately rejects him and remains out of reach. It is only at the film's emotional climax, between Onegin and Tatyana, that Tyler's lack of real acting chops fails her. She's fine as a vision of desire with her ethereal beauty playing well to the camera. The emotional climax between Evgeny and Tatyana is diminished by the actress' wooden delivery. I couldn't help but reflect, as the scene played out, what a more experienced actress would have done.

Production values are of the highest caliber as the Fiennes gang, with a little help from cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, who helps capture the period feel of the film. Production design by Jim Clay and art direction by Chris Seagers replicate the pastoral lushness of the wealthy country life of Czarist Russia. Costume designers John Bright and Chloe Obolensky do a notable job with the numerous period costumes, especially for Tyler and the other women in the film.

The lensing by Adefarasin is lush and sultry as he depicts the summer months for the well to do Russians. One scene, in particular, should be noted: Evgeny is challenged to a duel for an insult, real or imagined, aimed at the fiance of his friend Vladimir (Toby Stephens). The contest is held, at dawn, on the mist shrouded dock on a lake. The scene has a quality and elegance similar to like sequences in director Ridley Scott's early work, "The Duelists." The gunfight is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film.

Distribution for "Onegin" is being handled in an oddball manner where the film's "debut" was on subscription cable TV, with a theatrical release coming soon after. For fans of period drama, I suggest you see it at the theater for the best affect. I give it a B+.

Laura's review of 'Onegin':
A Fiennes family affair directed by Martha, scored by Magnus and starring Ralph as Eugene Onegin (from the Alexander Pushkin novel), the Russian aristrocat who doesn't realize he loves country girl Tatiana (Liv Tyler) until she's married to his cousin (Martin Donovan, "The Portrait of a Lady").

Onegin is a decandent dandy bored with life in St. Petersburg. His dubious financial situation means he can no longer afford his only real pleasure, the services of a favored courtesan. When he gets news that his uncle is dying and wishes to see him, he's burdened with the obligation until his servant reminds him that this trip to the country could hold financial rewards.

And indeed it does, as his uncle has already passed when Onegin arrives (after a journey involving gorgeous snowy vistas travelled by horse drawn sleigh) and inherits his fortune. He meets neighbor Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens, "Cousin Bette"), who brings him to the Larina household to meet his love, Olga (Lena Headey "Twice Upon a Yesterday," "Mrs. Dalloway") and Onegin first spies her younger sister Tatiana. At dinner, Tatiana is impassioned when Onegin declares he intends to rent his uncle's estate to the serfs who farm it (a radical idea at the time), although his motivation is to dispense with the responsibility. In the heat of a Russian summer, Tatiana pines for Onegin and writes him a letter declaring her all-encompassing love for him (director Fiennes and her cinematographer Remi Adefarasin make you feel her desire with their misty, hothouse visuals).

At Tatiana's name day celebration, Onegin arrives late and then kindly (so he thinks) attempts to return her letter, which she refuses. He Then dances with Olga one time too often, then declares her 'easy' and unsophisticated provoking Vladimir to call Onegin to a duel ('There will be no reconciliation!'). This results in Vladimir's death, much to Onegin's heartfelt dismay. Eugene returns to Petersburg and his old ways until he meets cousin Prince Nitikin (Donovan), who introduces him to Tatiana, who's clearly adapted to city life and its sophistication. Onegin is lost.

The story (written for the screen by Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff) features a lot of ying and yang, the comparison of aristocrat to peasant, city to country, higher learning to folksiness. Tatiana's letter to Onegin is delivered in the country by a boy rushing through summer fields while his letter to her (much later) is dispatched in St. Petersburg via a boy on skates. (Their responses, predicting what the future would hold, are strangely alike in their bleekness). Olga yearns for the city, but is matched to a man who loves his country homeland while ironically, Tatiana also prefers the place of her birth. Tatiana visits Onegin to borrow books but also takes heed when an old grandmother predicts her future husband by dripping candle wax into water ('You'll marry a soldier.')

Fiennes embodies the bored snob and almost evokes sympathy by film's end. Tyler's looks are well utilized and she carries herself well through most of the film, but isn't up to its emotional climax. Stephens is a likeable Lensky, Heady is a fine Olga, Walters is solid and Donovan has little to do, appearing stiff. Irene Worth appears in a cameo as Princess Alina, Tatiana's St. Petersburg sponsor.

Technically the film is superb with ravishing images and subtle scoring. Art direction by Jim Clay features Russian wolfhounds on oriental carpets and duels fought on piers punctuated by windmills. Costume by Chloe Obolensky and John Bright and hair and makeup by Peter Owens present Onegin as a cross between Johnny Walker and Ebenezer Scrooge with his foppish curls (Fiennes in rag curls is a sight to behold!) and exaggerated top hat and a glowing Tyler in a black skating outfit with fur hat and muff.

"Onegin" may be somewhat lacking in emotional depth, but it's well paced and beautiful to look at.

B


THE TERRORIST

Inspired by the events surrounding the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Ghandi, "The Terrorist" portrays a nineteen year old revolutionary, Malli, as she faces her ultimate political act - that of a suicide bomber.

Laura's review of 'The Terrorist':
Santosh Sivan, a multi-award winning Indian cinematographer, made his directorial debut with "The Terrorist" and his background shows in this richly visual, highly symbolic film. "The Terrorist" is being presented by John Malkovich who was a member of the 1998 Cairo Film Festival jury where it won three awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Sivan has since completed "Malli."

A group in dense jungle interrogate a traitor to their cause before the masked eyewitness to his treachery is ordered to execute him at gunpoint. Once the deed is done, the mask is removed to reveal a beautiful young woman, Malli (Ayesha Dharkar), who washes the blood from her linen mask in a nearby stream before it escapes and her 'face' floats away.

Volunteers to assassinate an unnamed VIP via suicide bomb are shown promoting their strengths in a stylish montage. These teenagers firmly believe in death as a martyr to their cause and Malli clearly is the most vigilant, following in the steps of her father and brother. She leaves camp and makes her way towards her holding place, crossing a river (Styx?) with a young boy who pleads with her to come back, unlike the thirty-six who have preceded her, until he witnesses her hack an intruding soldier to death with a machete.

She's sheltered with 'Mad' Vasu (Parmeshwaran), a talktative farmer whose wife lies in a coma and whose son, a photo-journalist, is away (Malli vogues to the walls of photographs in the son's room and we're stunned when we realize the old woman on the wall is actually Vasu's wife in the room next door). It's here that Malli begins to reflect and internalize, moved by Vasu's simple wisdom and the realization that she may be pregnant. (Flashbacks to the moment of conception, in a ditch hiding from enemy forces with an unknown, dying comrade, build throughout the film.) Rehearsals for the assassination begin, and suddenly, it's the fateful day.

The constant themes of water, seeds, children may be a little obvious, but that makes them no less effective. Sivan can stun with a simple image. When Malli looks at her shrivelled fingertips in the shower, you can feel with gut-wrenching impact that she's just realized her own mortality. Sivan uses extreme closeup generously and Dharkar's incredibly huge eyes and blue black hair command attention. Sivan's only stumble is his use of an overdubbed track of Malli breathing, peppered with odd little grunts. He was obviously trying to get his audience inside his heroine's head, but the clicks and grunts become distracting and do not match up with his images.

"The Terrorist" is an engrossing film that takes us on an exploration of a most unusual mindset. It's compelling cinema. B+

Robin's review of 'The Terrorist':
First time helmer and longtime cinematographer Santosh Sivan comes to the shores of the US with his 1998 Cairo Film Festival-winning film from India. The story's heroine is Malli (Ayesha Dharkar). At only 19-years old, she is a seasoned veteran of the revolution and volunteers for a suicide mission to assassinate an unnamed, but very important "VIP." The young woman's decision to surrender her life for the cause is the catalyst for an emotional and spiritual journey that will lead her to question her pending sacrifice in "The Terrorist."

Director Sivan, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Ravi Deshpande and Vijay Deveshwar, brings his brilliant cinematographer's eye to a story influenced strongly by the events surrounding the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. With "The Terrorist," we enter a fictional world of civil war and political unrest. The solution to the country's problems, as decided by those opposing the Indian government, is to murder a highly placed government official. The revolutionaries decide to enlist a young woman as a "thinking bomb," someone who can get right up close to the official before triggering her deadly cargo,

The revolutionary leaders, a faceless legion of men who tout "we will shed our blood for the cause," search the rebel camps for volunteers who will, in fact, be the ones to shed their blood. The selection process brings out a number of likely candidates; all of who are willing martyrs for the revolution. The pretty, innocent-looking Malli is finally chosen as the one who can get close enough for the kill of the VIP. Her controllers fill her mind with slogans of the honor of sacrifice for the cause, though she is the one who will die, not they. The final decision, though, is Malli's alone and the film builds to this ultimate decision.

"The Terrorist" is filled with visual imagery that is so overwhelmingly beautiful that it overshadows the naive simplicity of a story. Sivan's work mirrors such films as "A Soldier's Story" (Russia, 1956), "Apocalypse Now" and Joseph Conrad's seminal novel, "Heart of Darkness," as it follows Malli across country to fulfill her mission. Her journey to her final destiny spans several legs, each of which will affect the young woman in her confrontation with martyrdom and death.

The story stresses Malli's selection as a "thinking bomb" for the cause, a deadly device whose devotion to the goals of her party make her an effectively lethal tool for the mission. As Malli treks from the camp of revolutionaries to her meeting with destiny, her journey exposes her to several people who will influence her mind and heart. The first leg of the trip plunks her at the edge of a jungle and into the hands of a young boy who will be her guide. The boy, Sumitra (Anuradha), has lived through the horrors of war, but has maintained his innocence and purity despite his exposure to violent death. Malli's time with the boy, and his influence on her, spells the beginning of her metamorphosis from a programmed martyr to a free-willed individual.

Malli's controllers then halt her trip and plant her in the home of Mad Vasu, an eccentric farmer whose home is used by the conspirators to plot the details of the assassination of the VIP. Vasu, unaware of the deadly plot, takes a liking to the pretty Malli and teaches her the need to have dreams and a future. As Malli's moment of truth draws near, the influences of Vasu and Sumitra grow within. At the final moment of truth, she is forced to make the ultimate choice of life and death.

This whole yarn is simply drawn with the concentration on imagery. Water softly caressing Malli's skin as she bathes, reflecting on her coming mission, is beautifully composed. Long, lushly shot sequences, in flashback, show Malli helps a wounded guerilla fighter hide from his pursuers, only to have him die in her arms. As Malli's leaders prepare her for her deadly deed, she is shown in sharp focus while those sending her to her death are blurred and ambiguous figures. All in all, the visual power of these and other scenes overshadows the simple story. The result is a strikingly visual film with photographic moments as powerful and beautiful as any I have ever seen.

Production-wise, "The Terrorist" belies its miniscule budget. Helmer/photographer Sivan lends his visual mastery to his project and evinces a truly remarkable looking film. He also seems to have a crush on his young star, Dharkar, judging by the way his camera lovingly captures her beauty, lingering, in close-up, on her face, eyes or hands. Post-production is more in keeping with the film's small budget. The use of white-lettered subtitles over a white background makes following the story a challenge, at least. The music score for "The Terrorist" is superb and fits the lyrical tone of the film perfectly.

"The Terrorist" is a visual achievement in cinema and, for cinematography fans like me, a must see for its masterful look. It wears its heart on its sleeve in its simplicity, but it's worth it for the images. I give it a B+.


THE ROAD TO EL DORADO

Dreamworks Picture has tried to go toe-to-toe with Disney before. They beat the animation giant to the punch a couple of years ago with their all-computer-animated insect story, "Antz," garnering some respectable box office before being blown away by the Mouse House's CGI entry, "A Bug's Life." Now, they make a foray into more traditional animation, Disney's real bastion, with "The Road to El Dorado."

Robin's review of 'The Road To El Dorado':
Starring the vocal talents of Kevin Klein and Kenneth Branagh, "The Road to El Dorado" is the story of two adventuring con men, Tulio (Klein) and Miguel (Branagh), who stow away on one of the ships of explorer/conqueror Hernando Cortez as they journey to the New World. Found out while on board, the pair make a daring escape and, using a secret map they "acquired," begin their trek to find the fabled city of gold - El Dorado. Following the typical animated feature rules that have been with us from the beginning, Tulio and Miguel acquire a helpful entourage along the way. Joining them are Altivo, a clever war horse that deserted Cortez's team; Chel, a pretty native lady who can out con the con men; and, a little armadillo that says nothing but, more than once, saves the boys' bacon.

The story, written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (both of whom scripted "Aladdin" and "The Mask of Zorro") is a combination of a Rudyard Kipling yarn and old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road to "" movies. Many of the adventures and problems Tulio and Miguel face are lifted directly from Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King," with the boys being proclaimed gods, greedily acquiring vast wealth, and falling from grace as they are proved mere mortals. The dialogue - which includes such lines as "badabing, budaboom" - is too modern for the classical material. Hip chic may have worked well in "Aladdin" (mainly due to Robin Williams), but it feels out of place here.

"The Road to El Dorado" should have been a rip snortin' tale, providing action, adventure and romance. In reality, the story is flat and uninvolving, with the "adventures" of Tulio & Miguel given in short bursts without thought to the overall tale. Directors Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul string together the action episodes with songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. The result is a finished product that pales when compared to even the most mediocre of Disney's animation efforts. I measure up "The Road to El Dorado" to such Mouse flicks as "Hercules" and it falls short. It just lacks the fun of Disney flicks, for all its bluster and song.

The vocal talents, led by Klein and Branagh and supported by Rosie Perez as Chel, a native con-girl who is the match for our heroes, are solid. Armande Assante voices the evil Indian high priest, Tzekel-Kan, with a slick oiliness. Edward James Olmos, unfortunately, is flat as the chief and leader of El Dorado. There is nothing, vocal character-wise, that is of real note.

Elton John sings the original songs written by Tim Rice and himself. If you are expecting anything that you'll remember the next day, forget about it. The unmemorable tunes are used to push forth the story and are coupled with montages that should give continuity to the adventures of Tulio and Miguel. Instead, they interrupt the action and bring things to a halt until each number is done, making the overall tale feel stilted and episodic.

Technically, I was disappointed with the quality of the animation. The mix of traditional cel work is fine for the key characters, but falls short with the backgrounds. The use of computer generate graphics does not smoothly fit with the cel animation, giving the film an uneven look. Dreamworks has a lot more work to do to be able go against the Mouse House and win.

I expected to have a lot more fun at "The Road to El Dorado" than I did, which is a shame. I think it's going to fall quickly by the wayside. I give it an unenthusiastic B-.

Laura's review of 'The Road To El Dorado':
In 1519 Spain, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branaugh), a couple of con artists, win a map to the legendary city of El Dorado just before inadvertently stowing away with explorer Cortes' expedition to the New World. Once discovered, they're locked up below deck and Miguel pleads for a crow bar from Altivo much to Tulio's derision. Altivo proves to be a great ally, tossing them keys instead - not bad, for a horse!

These three end up in a rowboat for days adrift in the Atlantic, but luckily find themselves ashore and immediately recognize a landmark from their map. They've soon found El Dorado (where no language problems exist between the Spaniards and the Mayans) where they're proclaimed gods and decide to play high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) against the kindly Chief (Edward James Olmos) until they can abscond with the gold. Cunning Mayan servant girl Chel (Rosie Perez) is on to them however, and demands to be let in on the deal while doing her own version of playing one against another.

Disney still reigns supreme in the animation world, as this Dreamworks effort is a hit and miss affair (Warner Brothers had Disney animation quality with "The Iron Giant," but not the wits to market it). Essentially, the story recalls a simplied version of "The Man Who Would Be King" with a couple of Disneyish animal sidekicks thrown in (Altivo and an unnamed armadillo). The 'are-they-too-close-for-buddies?' duo are uneven. Oddly, the great comedic actor Kline seems like a disembodied voice as the animation of Tulio doesn't capture his personality while Branaugh's far less identifiable voice is paired more neatly with the drawing. Most successful are the coquettish Chel as voiced by Perez and Altivo the non-talking horse. Background is certainly colorful, but far less involving and realistic than Disney's "Tarzan." Musical numbers (by Elton John and Tim Rice) are blander than the worst of Disney's and feature lazy animation (Tulio and Miguel bounced around bright geometrical objects?).

There are some good messages for young children, I suppose (Miguel stands up for the Mayans' rights and they both dispense with their spoils in order to save the civilization from Cortes), but this is also a PG rated animation that almost catches Tulio and Chel in a compromising position. The finale also suggests that "The Road to El Dorado" may be the first of many journeys.

While it's certainly not a bad film, I had hoped for more considering the talents involved. Great sidekicks, fine vocal performances, a so-so story and mediocre animation plus demerits for a monster ripped off from "Ghostbusters" average out to a C+.


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