THE NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS
THOMAS & THE MAGIC RAILROAD
POKEMON: THE MOVIE 2000
CHUCK & BUCK - LOSER
WHAT LIES BENEATH - X-MEN


THE NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS

Scientific genius Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) has discovered the fountain of youth - a serum that reverses the aging process and makes you young again. He has also discovered true love with his beautiful colleague, Denise Gains (Janet Jackson), a brilliant DNA researcher at his college. But, things go from good to bad when Sherman's dastardly alter ego, Buddy Love, again rears his handsome head and tries to steal the valuable serum in "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps."

Robin's review of 'The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps':
There are six reasons to go see "Nutty 2" and they're all named Eddie Murphy. The comedian has established himself as not only a major moneymaking star for the Hollywood movie machine; he has proven himself time and again to be a fine character actor, too. When he intro'd his many faces in "The Nutty Professor" in 1996, the audience clamored for more of the portly Klump family. To satisfy that craving, executive producers Murphy and Tom Shadyac ("Liar Liar") put director Peter Segal ("Tommy Boy") to the task of bringing the weight challenged Klumps to the big screen again.

Sherman is on the verge of greatness with his new formula that can turn back the body clock. It's still in the early stages of development, but Sherman's boss, Dean Richardson (Larry Miller), sees dollar signs as he envisions selling the youth juice to a big pharmaceutical firm and making their school a ton of money. At the same time, Sherman's amorous intentions for Denise are increasing and he wants to make an honest woman out of her, except for one thing. Buddy Love.

Remember, in the '96 film, that Buddy became a part of Sherman due to an experiment that went amok. Well, Buddy still resides within and, every so often, makes his presence known to Sherman and those around him. Without warning, Buddy's irreverent and rude personality can bubble to the surface, ruining any hopes that Sherman might have for marital bliss. The stout scientist attempts to exorcise the nasty Buddy, but things go terribly wrong. Buddy Love is unleashed upon the world and the experiment causes Sherman to begin losing brain cells. It becomes a race as Buddy tries to steal and sell the secret formula for $149 million, take the money and run while Sherman, with his mental capacity quickly diminishing, is forced to stop Buddy's scheme.

That's the plot and it carries the film through with an overall even and entertaining pace. The love interest between Sherman and Denise is sweet, while the conflict betwixt Sherman and Buddy provides the angst for the film. It's all a well-packaged shell that encloses the meat of the movie's entertainment - the Klumps. Murphy gives a tour-de-force performance with his six distinctly different characters - Sherman, Mamma Klump, Papa Klump, Grandma, brother Ernie and Buddy Love. Each is a unique individual and Murphy gets the opportunity to flesh them all out (no pun intended) into funny characters with distinct personalities.

Grandma Klump steals the show when she's on the scene. She's a randy octogenarian who maintains her very active libido with both pride and energy. Hers reps the most bawdy of the film's dialogue as she unabashedly declares her amorous intentions for Buddy Love. A daydream sequence, where she fantasizes about what she wants to do with/to Buddy, provides some of the biggest laughs and groans of disgust (good-natured) for the film. Murphy is so convincing as Grandma that you forget that it's the actor.

The rest of the Klump family gets their due, too. Papa Klump has the rudest of dialogue as he rags on everyone (especially Grandma, who gives it right back). Papa also gets the chance to get down and dirty as he experiments on his own with Sherman's formula. Mama is, still, the most gentle of the family and it shows where Sherman gets his kind heart. Brother Ernie maintains an underlying resentment for his genius brother and is less than the apple of his parents' eyes. Janet Jackson gets the tough role of being second banana to the outrageous humor of the Klumps. The pretty singer/actor doesn't stand a chance in doing comedy against the Murphy juggernaut of characters, so she takes the straight road and does a decent job conveying the intelligence and caring of Denise. Buddy Love is relegated to his bad boy role and his mainstay is to shower insults upon Sherman with names like "blubber butt" and "chunky cheeks" - and, of course, that gleeful Murphy laugh.

The combination of the makeup mastery of veteran artist Rick Baker (whose work runs the gamut from "The Howling" and "Ratboy" to the upcoming "How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and the fabulous, sometimes subtle, special F/X, led by John Fahrat ("The Nutty Professor"), make "Nutty 2" special indeed. Obviously and as expected, Baker does a magnificent job (with Eddie Murphy's input) of creating each of the Klumps. Murphy is one of the few Hollywood talents who are both willing and able to undertake the grueling task of bringing the great makeup F/X to life. The special visual F/X cover a lot of ground, too, putting the art of morphing to good use.

The screenplay, by Barry Blaustein, David Sheffield and Paul & Chris Weitz, showcases Eddie Murphy as the Klumps. The goings on around the dinner table of the massive members of the Klump family make for some of the best, albeit insult driven, humor of the film. The main story, with the fountain of youth formula at its center, is really a vehicle to drive the Klumps around and give them the opportunity to banter. It's a smart move by the moviemakers, giving the audience what it wants.

Helmer Segal has been moderately successful with his previous ventures, but "Nutty 2" is going to raise his status in Hollywood, especially if the film makes the big box office bucks that I expect it will. He moves the sometimes-naughty material along briskly and doesn't bog down at all along the way.

"Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps" aims at a more mature demographic (PG-13 rating) than the first film and counts on the sometimes lewd interchanges between the Klump family members to titillate the viewing audience. It's not as raunchy as, say, "Scary Movie," but when Grandma talks about "getting' some," you have to laugh.

I give it a B.


THOMAS & THE MAGIC RAILROAD

Thomas the Tank Engine is facing a crisis on the Island of Sodor even the magical Mr. Conductor, (Alec Baldwin) who's losing his sparkle, can't help him with - the evil Diesel 10 has returned to threaten the magic. Help arrives in the form of twelve-year old Lily (Mara Wilson, "Miracle on 34th Street"), a passenger travelling to visit her lonely grandfather (Peter Fonda, "Ulee's Gold") in "Thomas & the Magic Railroad."

Laura's review of 'Thomas & The Magic Railroad':
Writer/director Britt Allcroft brings to the big screen the character she brought to the British small screen in "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends," which was narrated by Ringo Starr (who also later starred as the conductor in "Shining Time Station"). The character of Thomas was created in a series of 1940s childrens' books by the Reverend Wilber Awbry. I am completely clueless as to why this story has any appeal. It's a jumble of moral lessons ('I must be responsible, reliable and really useful') and magic that has no logical story structure.

There are happy, shiny people in Shining Time Station such as Stacy the Station Master (Didi Conn) and Billy Twofeathers (Russell Means, "Natural Born Killers"). This is the 'real' world, where Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) appears only about one foot high. He shuttles between Shining Time and the magical Island of Sodor (where he's the right size) with its talking trains and mysterious magical railroad that may disappear, along with Mr. C's supply of gold dust, because its engine is missing. Gold dust is the 'sparkle' that allows Mr. C. to transport himself and is the stuff of magic.

Meanwhile the dour Burnett Stone is hiding Lady, that selfsame missing engine, within Muffle Mountain, near Shining Time. He's bereft, having recently lost his wife, but also because he let Lady down when the evil diesel chased her until she ran out of coal and crashed. He's not been able to find any coal to make her steam again. When his granddaughter Lily arrives for a visit, she's soon transported off to the Island of Sodor with Junior, Mr. C's irresponsible cousin. Mr. C's lost all his his sparkle trying to find its source and Thomas has been trying to help, even discovering the buffers (a device to stop a train) that mark the entrance to the Magic Railroad, but Diesel 10 has discovered them as well.

If all that sounds pretty incoherent, well, that's how it plays. The purpose of the Magic Railroad is never explained. For that matter, there appears to be no reason for the Island of Sodor and its talking trains, either. The trains are bright and sport round faces which change occasionally to project different emotions, however their lips don't move when they 'talk,' making the whole film seem like child's play.

The children at the screening I attended all seemed pretty wrapped up in this, however, so it apparently has appeal for the six and under crowd. Adults will find little to entertain, although there always is the sight of Alec Baldwin in a sleep cap that says 'Thinking' on one side and 'Sleeping' on the other. While the wee ones may enjoy "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," I just can't recommend it.

D


POKEMON: THE MOVIE 2000

Ash Ketchum is a Pokemon master par excellent. He and his favorite pocket monster, Pikachu, are about to embark on a new adventure, but, this time, it's not just to do battle with other Pokemon. An unscrupulous collector, named Lawrence III, is hatching a plan to capture three powerful Pokemon birds - fire, ice and lightning. These magical creatures, while free, maintain harmony in the world's weather. Their capture will disrupt that harmony and allow Lawrence to seize the most powerful Pokemon of all - the water borne Lugia. The havoc the collector creates draws Ash into the fray as the Chosen One, the only person who can save the world in the feature portion of "Pokemon the Movie 2000," "The Power of One."

Robin's review of 'Pokemon: The Movie 2000':
Following the same formula presented in "Pokemon the First Movie," the sequel is in two parts, too. Part One is a 22-minute short called "Pikachu's Rescue Adventure," where the title character, with his Pokemon buddies, must brave the elements, including other creatures, to save one of their number. It's light on dialogue, which consists mostly of the inane babble that the little creatures constantly voice - it's amazing the volumes that can be said by repeating "pikachu" over and over and over again. The visuals are geared to the pre-school crowd with lots of movement and color to please the tiny eyes of the target audience. For anyone over age 8, I think it may cause brain lesions.

Part Two of "Pokemon 2000," "The Power of One," has a little more meat to its story than the short and reps the main draw for the more hardcore pocket monster fans. The story owes more than a nod to Toho Pictures and the Godzilla franchise, with the action of the battling birds straight out of such films as "Godzilla on Monster Island." As such, the setup from the first feature - Pokemon fighting Pokemon - is laid to rest as the more "conventional" monster against monster and save the world yarn kicks in.

Ash is, again, the hero, but this time, instead of pitting his prized Pokemon against those of Team Rocket, he is a boy on a quest to save the world from destruction. It's a daunting task as he throws himself into his mission and gets the help of friend and Pokemon alike. Of course, he accomplishes his assignment and returns the Earth to its former harmony, before Lawrence reared his conniving head. Of course, as the hero, Ash is expected to accomplish the impossible - no job is too big that it can't be tackled - and he does. The young Pokemon master is a good role model for kids.

There is a distinct split in the demographics targeted for this two-part anime. "Pikachu's Rescue Adventure" is for the very young fans of the franchise. Dialogue is simple and visuals are geared toward the short attention span of smaller kids. "The Power of One" is a more mature story with its complexity and variety of action. It, too, has the visual eye candy that will entertain the little ones, but the action and fights will definitely appeal to the older of the Pokemon fans. There is even some humor that will appeal to the parents accompanying their kids to the theater, but, be warned - there isn't anywhere near enough adult-level humor in "Pokemon 2000" to warrant calling it "family entertainment." For me, if Pikachu said "pikachu" one more time, my head would have exploded.

But, the kids like "Pokemon the Movie 2000" and that's what counts, so I rate it solely from their viewpoint and give "The Power of One" a B- and "Pikachu's Rescue Adventure" a C.

Laura's review of 'Pokemon: The Movie 2000':
Ash Ketchum and his gang of humans and pocket monsters, including the prized Pikachu, are back and this time he's saving the world in "Pokemon: the Movie 2000."

"Pokemon: the First Movie" was perplexing in its anti-violence message when its titular subjects are pitted in battle against one another by humans. Nintendo (who own Pokemon rights) have apparently lightened up this time around as the new film's message is that it's bad to collect Pokemon simply for the joy of possession.

Firstly, though, the film is once again preceded by a short, "Pikachu's Rescue Adventure." While these 22 minutes were nowhere near as excrutiating as "Pikachu's Vacation," once again we must endure the Pokemen at summer camp where the little starry-egg guy gets into trouble so Pikachu can get a group to cooperate and save him. At one point, five eggs transform into a three-headed walking pineapple. (I'm surprised this series doesn't have the same reputation as the Teletubbies for drug trippers.) At least the animators have relaxed the editting style which once caused Japanese children to suffer seizures.

The film itself is both better and worse than its predecessor. It opens as a lone man in a spaceship converses with his computer about the three Pokemon he intends to capture for his collection - Moltres, bird of fire; Zapdos, bird of lightning and Articuno, bird of ice. According to the lore, having these three in one place will draw out his real prize, Lugia, the beast of the sea, which will result in the disruption of the world's weather patterns. Ash and friends are on a pleasure sail when a sudden squall forces them to land at Shimuti Island, just as an island ritual is about to be performed. The weather is being caused by the collection of the three birds and legendary ritual decrees that 'the world will turn to Ash,' who must collect three treasures, to prevent the destruction of the planet. (That Ash is constantly referred to as 'the Chosen One,' is a bit of religious symbolism in the weirdest place.)

The animation is a mixed bag of impressive looking high-tech effects and Saturday morning cartoon sweat shop, but at least it's taking steps in the right direction. The spaceship is beautifully done, as well as some of the weather effects. The human characters are fleshed out and their ranks added to, although the returning Team Rocket duo are annoyingly superfluous. Oddly, the Pokemon almost take a back seat in this story, which frankly, has far less to it than the first, yet takes the same amount of time in the telling. Environmentalism is once again a strong message. A pretty tune's played on a conch shell.

The kids at the screening I attended were mostly captivated, laughed at some of the inane jokes and applauded at the end, so I'd guess the target audience will be happy with the product. For adults, however, a few jokes and improved technical aspects can't quite counter overall boredom.

C


CHUCK & BUCK

When Chuck (Chris Weitz) gets a note from Buck (Mike White) informing him that Buck's mother has died, Chuck and his fiance Carlyn (Beth Colt) fly out to the funeral. Chuck's in for a shock, however, because Buck, whom he hasn't seen since they were eleven years old, hasn't changed at all and wants to renew a particularly special best friendship in "Chuck & Buck."

Laura's review of 'Chuck & Buck':
The audience is immediately signalled that Chuck and Buck's reunion is going to be weird. When Chuck and Carlyn enter the church during the funeral service, Buck immediately spots them and grins widely, waving at an embarrassed Chuck from his coffin-side spot. Later, Buck makes an aggressive sexual move on Chuck who firmly turns him down, gets Carlyn and leaves. Chuck's troubles have only begun, however, as Buck packs up his childish belongings and moves to L.A., where he will stalk Chuck unrelentingly. When Buck begins to comprehend that Chuck is avoiding him, he writes a play, 'Hank and Frank,' and convinces the house manager of a childrens' theater (conveniently across the street from Chuck's office) to direct the one-night-only production.

"Chuck & Buck" is a true original in more ways than one. In addition to its most unusual and complex story, the three main characters are non-actors. Buck is played compellingly by the film's screenwriter Mike White, who's unafraid to portray himself as a needy geek. White and his screenplay make Buck initially creepy and gradually turn the tables until it's Chuck that one begins to question. Buck has the social nonawareness of a child. He's emotionally arrested in time, if not in intellectual development, sucking his always present (and Freudianly chosen) BlowPop. Chuck is played by "American Pie" producer Chris Weitz (his brother Paul, who co-produced "Pie," plays Sam, the man who subs for him in Buck's play). Chuck, who's now known as Charlie, is a successful music producer, handsome and well adjusted. He's compassionate (how many people would fly to a funeral for a friend they haven't seen in sixteen years), but increasingly uncomfortable with Buck's appearances in every aspect of his life. It's a reactive performance, but an effective one, first playing as the audience's creeped out point of view, then becoming the man we want to answer for Buck's obssessive condition. Carlyn is played by producer and talent manager Beth Colt in the tough 'girlfriend' role. She's initially kind to Buck much longer than Charlie has patience for (he has a guilty secret after all), but when she's had enough she's still strong and supportive of Buck, attempting to get him help rather than merely acting shrewish.

Support also has it's treasures, beginning with Lupe Ontiveros' ("Selena") Beverly, the director of Buck's play (which she declares 'a homoerotic, misogynistic love story'). She's initially cuttingly dry, but becomes a mother figure to Buck. Paul Weitz is the 'doth protest too much' homophobe who takes Chuck's place in Buck's strange play. He can't act and is hostile to woman, but accepts Buck as 'normal,' (he almost has to - he's as much of a social outcast) which redeems his character somewhat and Weitz is good in the role. Also a natural is Maya Rudolph (daughter of singer Minnie Ripperton and a former SNLer) as Jamila, Chuck's assistant, who faces her own problems shielding her boss from Buck. Like us, she's creeped out, then sympathetic.

The film is tightly directed by Miguel Arteta (who's first film, "Star Maps," was underwhelming - Arteta's reversed the 'sophomore jinx'). Director of photography Chuy Chavez shot on digital video, giving a jittery sense of being amidst the action. Production design by Renee Davenport conveys the less-than-stellar face of L.A. as well as one of the most psychological looks at an adult's bedroom since Norman Bates'.

Mike White's screenplay delves into such issues as hiding the child within when facing the modern world, obsession and loneliness. "Chuck & Buck" is not afraid to cross boundaries not normally crossed and make its audience uncomfortable when it does so. The only faults I find in this thought-provoking film are that its antagnoists are not in balance - we always know Buck's thoughts, but not Chuck's (he doesn't ever really discuss Buck with Carlyn, except for an offscreen conversation which she mentions to Buck). The ending is also a little too clean. Still, "Chuck & Buck" is unlike any movie I've seen before.

B+

Robin's review of 'Chuck & Buck':
As boys, Chuck (Chris Weitz) and Buck (Mike White) were inseparable special best friends. Their friendship was broken apart when Chuck and his family moved away when the boys were 11-years old. Now, 18 years later, Buck's mother has died and he invites his old friend back for the funeral. Chuck, now called Charlie, is a music producer and executive and is surprised, even shocked, to find that his boyhood friend has, quite literally, not grown up. Buck still plays with toys and sucks Blow Pops like a pacifier. An invite, by Charlie's fiance Carlyn (Beth Colt), to come visit them in LA ignites new hope that his best friend is back in the unusual, original, new film, "Chuck & Buck."

Some people are going to call "Chuck & Buck" a gay stalker film and dismiss it as such. They'll be making a big mistake, though, by doing so. This sophomore feature by helmer Miguel Arteta is much more than that glib description implies and reps an unusual, compelling work about two men who are rejoined after many years of separation.

Charlie is on a career fast track in the LA music scene. He has a high paying and exciting job, owns a fabulous home, and is about to marry his beautiful girlfriend Carlyn. Buck, on the other hand, has lived with his parents all his life, surrounds himself with all his boyhood toys, and hasn't matured much beyond the 11-year old that Charlie left behind so many years before. Charlie is surprised, even shocked, to see the arrested development of his friend. He is even more shocked when Buck tries to grope him after the funeral. After this incident, Charlie just wants out, but Carlyn's invitation still hangs in the air, like an omen of things to come.

Buck, unknown to Charlie, moves lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles and begins to clandestinely follow his old friend. He waits, every day, outside Charlie's office building and makes repeated calls to his home at all hours, not saying anything when Carlyn answers the phone. Charlie is freaked by Buck's behavior and wants nothing to do with him, getting creeped out by the apparent stalking.

In the meantime, Buck wanders into the theater across the street from Charlie's workplace and becomes enthralled by the idea of writing a play. (His inspiration is a kid version of "The Wizard of Oz.") With the help of the theater's manager, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros, "Serena"), he writes a play and agrees to pay her $25 an hour to help him stage it. He becomes obsessed with his idea, seeing the play as the catalyst needed to return his friend back to him. Unknown to Charlie, the play tells about the very "special" relationship that Chuck and Buck shared those many years before. The obvious homoerotic story stuns Charlie who vehemently denies any memory of any such events. Charlie doth protest too much and the film's last quarter resolves the difficult dilemma between the two friends.

The strong suits for "Chuck & Buck" are the terrific performance by Mike White, as Buck, and the edgy, interesting screenplay by White. Buck is a child in a man's body, which leads to some creepy impressions of the guy in the first half of the film. You don't know, at first, if Buck is a dangerous character or a naif. Is his creepiness an indication of an underlying violent streak, or is it only a part of a truly quirky personality spawned by his arrested emotional development? The answers come to the viewer as the film progresses. We learn that Buck is harmless and only wants to return to the time when he was happiest - when he was with his friend, Chuck. It's a striking performance by non-actor White that perfectly complements his screenplay.

Chris Weitz was one of the producers for last year's hit "American Pie" and is also a newcomer to the acting fold. His Chuck/Charlie is a very confused object of Buck's attention as he rejects his childhood buddy and denies that there was anything special in their boyhood relationship. Buck's appearance in LA, his "stalking" and his play all lead to Charlie's remembrance of that time when more than friendship existed between the boys. Charlie's is a role of vehement denial, at first, and then resigned acceptance of that part of his life he thought was buried. Weitz isn't the natural actor that White appears to be and his performance is more studied and less fluid than White's. He is the object of Buck's affection and, as such, has to cope with the symbolic nature of his role.

The tiny supporting cast help to bring life to the secondary characters. Lupe Ontiveros, as Beverly, provides some of the film's comic relief moments as she takes on the task of directing Buck's play (called "Hank and Frank") and becoming his friend. She recognizes Buck's childlike demeanor and is helpful, rather than condescending, to the simple man. Ontiveros gives a wry and endearing performance. Another surprise is Beth Colt's perf as Charlie's soon-to-be bride. Her Carlyn is truly three dimensional and sensitive to Buck's turmoil, even if it does cause Charlie great consternation. Carlyn is a good guy and the non-actress gives a pro perf. Also, Paul Weitz (Chris's brother) gets some decent laughs as the talentless actor who takes a role in "Frank and Hank" and, ultimately, befriends Buck.

Techs are a little uneven. The film was shot in digital and transferred to 35mm stock and has the look of video. The handheld camerawork by Chuy Chavez ("Star Maps") is sometimes annoying in its shakiness, especially in close-ups. Helmer Arteta makes a positive leap over his debut film ("Star Maps") and shows that he is learning his craft well.

The critics and the press will likely play up the homosexual angles for "Chuck & Buck," but that will sell the film short. It received raves at the last Sundance Film Festival and, for its scripter and lead actor, these are especially deserved. It's an unusual film and, once you get past the creepy factor early on, an intelligently satisfying one. It may be a little tough to find in the theaters, probably getting only art house treatment for its theatrical run, but is well worth the effort to find it.

I give "Chuck & Buck" a B+.


LOSER

Amy Heckerling broke new teen movie ground (thanks to the most amusing film debut of Sean Penn) in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Later, she poked fun at Jane Austin and Hollywood High School with "Clueless." Now, she raises her sights from high school to college in the romantic comedy starring Jason Biggs ("American Pie") and Mena Suvari ("American Beauty"), "Loser."

Robin's review of 'Loser':
Helmer Heckerling has been pretty successful with her other teen flicks, though less so with such works as "Johnny Dangerously" and the "Look Who's Talking" franchise. Keeping to her formula of success, she ups the ages of her teen characters in "Loser" to the more mature (sort of) college level. Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs) is a smart lad from small-town middle America who has earned a full scholarship to a big New York City university (an unnamed place, except for Paul's dorm, called Hunts Hall - a nod to one of the Dead End Kids). Also attending the school, and working her way through college, is Dora Diamond (Mina Suva), a pretty young thing who is having trouble making ends meet as a commuter student.

This is basically a fish out of water story as the naive, dorky Paul - he wears a lumberjack hat through half the film to visually reinforce that idea - comes to the big city. His dad's advice, before Paul left home for the Big Apple, is to show people that you're interested in them. But, much to Paul's chagrin, New York City is not the place for a country boy to make friends. His roommates think he's a loser because he doesn't party and is always studying. One of the roomies, Chris (Tom Sadoski), lays it on the line to the hapless Paul, telling him, "Don't be so much like, ya know, you." The advice doesn't help and his 'mates ask him to leave, forcing him to take a spare room at a veterinary clinic.

When Paul meets and falls for the pretty Dora, he actually starts to come around as a functional being in the big city. He asks her out to see a band she really loves and is in seventh heaven when she accepts. Unfortunately, his best-laid plans go awry and he gets stood up, though not intentionally. Dora was slipped a mickey at a party and Paul finds her unconscious at his digs. He takes care of the waif-like Dora and falls even more deeply for her. But, her romantic involvement with an arrogant and selfish professor, Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), stifles Paul's amorous attentions for her and he backs off. Of course, love will conquer and Paul and Dora learn that they only have eyes for each other, in the end.

I'm disappointed in writer/director Amy Heckerling for the thoroughly bland and non-involving screenplay for "Loser." Her original story lacks any emotional involvement for the viewer as dopey Paul learns to cope in the city, work hard and fall in love. Jason Biggs, on the heals of his debut in last year's big success, "American Pie," is give the unenviable role of the clueless stranger in a strange land. He comes to the city as a bumpkin and, by the film's end, he pretty much remains one - except he gets the pretty girl. Biggs has a likable presence but he is hamstrung by the two-dimensionality of his character. Mina Suva was propelled far too fast following her praise in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty." She was little more than an object of desire in that film. In "Loser," the young actress is cute enough for the role, but doesn't lend a great deal to her character Dora's development.

Supporting cast is minimal, especially when compared to the large ensemble of talented young actors in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Nor are the characters developed as well (or as funny) as the fine cast in "Clueless." Greg Kinnear doesn't break out of the arrogant, overbearing persona of his Professor Alcott character intro'd early in the film. He's the same jerk from beginning to end. Of the rest of the cast - which consists of just the three roommates and a bunch of cameo perfs - only Tom Sadoski as Chris has any personality. Cameos abound with tiny appearances by Dan Aykroyd, Steve Wright, Andrea Martin, David Spade and Andy Dick, though not much comes out of any of them.

Production values are OK, but nothing really escapes the mediocrity of the script. Amy Heckerling has done much better in the past. I can't say so for "Loser."

The real loser in "Loser" is the poor sap who expects the bawdy humor of "American Pie." You ain't gonna get it here. I give it a C-.


WHAT LIES BENEATH

One year after a near-fatal car accident, Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) must face the trauma of empty nest syndrome as her daughter goes off to college. But Claire's nest is the newly renovated lakeside home of her deceased father-in-law, a spectacular house that she shares with husband Norman (Harrison Ford). Their marriage appears to be as solid as their neighbors across the way is troubled until Claire comes to believe they're being haunted by the ghost of the neighbor's wife in "What Lies Beneath."

Laura's review of 'What Lies Beneath':
What lies beneath this technically superior production are ripoffs of many, far better, horror films ("Rear Window," "Vertigo," "Psycho," "Stir of Echoes," and "Ghost" to name a few). It's too bad that screenwriter Clark Gregg and producer/director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") didn't know when to quit while they were ahead because their film features some genuinely creepy thrills and a fine performance by Michelle Pfeiffer before it implodes under the weight of genre cliches, a truly awful and stupid ending and a wooden performance from the miscast Harrison Ford.

The film begins just like "Stir of Echoes" - in the tub. Claire has a vision that displays a watery death. When she spies their neighbor Warren Feur (James Remar) carrying a body-shaped bundle out to his car one rainy night (this film is soggier than "The Perfect Storm"), Claire is convinced he's killed his wife Mary (Miranda Otto, "The Thin Red Line") with whom he constantly fought (we know this couple is bad news because their house looks as shabby as the Spencers' looks spiffy). Claire's front door keeps opening mysteriously, a picture keeps falling to the floor and the bathtub fills with steamy water in which the reflection of a dead blonde woman can be seen. Claire even attempts a bathroom seance with a Ouija board and her best friend Jody (Diana Scarwid, "Mommie Dearest") before Norman insists she see a shrink (Joe Morton, "The Astronaut's Wife").

Up until this point, the film is edgy and suspenseful even if the filmmakers resort to cheap jolts too often. But at the 70 minute mark of this 130 minute film, the Macguffin is revealed for what it is and 'the truth,' which has been readily apparent all along, sidetracks the film into "Sleeping With the Enemy" territory. Zemeckis and company even manage to somewhat turn the impending disaster around with a really good bathtub climax only to derail themselves once again with an unnecessary, overextended groaner of an additional ending.

Michelle Pfeiffer gives her all as Claire and helps maintain interest in the film even as it begins its downward spiral. Also good is Diana Scarwid as Claire's goofy, psychic-friendly chum and Micole Mercurio as the dead girl's mother. Joe Morton is wasted in the superfluous role of Dr. Drayton (the psychiatrist scenes should have been cut from the film). Harrison Ford has simply never been as bad in a film as he is here, giving absolutely no depth to Norman Spencer.

Technically, the film is a jewel with superlative cinematography by Don Burgess ("Forrest Gump") and sharp sound work by Randy Thom, who makes ambient noise spooky. Production design by Rick Carter and Jim Teegarden may be a little obvious, but it's effective and the team even manage to insert a little joke late in the film with the name of an inn. Visual Effects by Rob Legato ("Titanic") are top notch.

"What Lies Beneath" is all the more disappointing for its early promise.

C

Robin's review of 'What Lies Beneath':

Robert Zemeckis charmed the viewing public with "Who Shot Roger Rabbit" and "Forest Gump," showing a flair for both the funny stuff and the sentimental. Now, he departs from his usual lighter fare and delves into a supernatural murder mystery starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in "What Lies Beneath."

Zemeckis, who also co-produced the film, drives his big star vehicle in what turns out to be a cliched effort that lacks originality. It's a cross between "Ghost Story" and "Stir of Echoes" as the story begins with Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer) preparing to see her only daughter (from a previous marriage) off to college. Their tearful separation is kindly watched by Claire's second husband, a respected genetics professor, Norman (Ford), who has taken a prestigious research post in Vermont.

The couple returns to their newly renovated house, the home that Norman grew up in with his brilliant geneticist father. Norman, even now, lives in the shadows of his father's great accomplishments, even as he himself is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. His work forces him to leave his wife alone in their beautiful, but isolated home. Claire putters in her garden and suffers from empty nest syndrome. Things begin to happen that she can't explain - the front door keeps opening by itself, even when firmly latched; a photo of her with Norman as he accepts an award mysteriously breaks; the bathtub fills up on its own; and, the stereo turns itself on. When she catches fleeting glimpses of a dead girl, she rushes to her husband for help.

Norman believes that his wife needs psychiatric help and ships her off to a shrink, Dr. Drayton (Joe Morton), but the visitations increase and are more powerful. Claire comes to realize, with the help of her best friend Jody (Diane Scarwid), that the ghost is seeking her help. Using a book on witchcraft that Jody gave her, Claire conjures up the spirit of the girl, becoming possessed by the spirit. She learns that the girl died in her home and the story turns into a ghostly murder mystery. I won't say any more about the plot so as not to give anything away. But, I will talk about the pros and cons.

On the pro side are Michelle Pfeiffer's perf and the terrific tech work behind the camera. Pfeiffer is the central character and the focus of the story despite Harrison's name being billed first. (As a matter of fact, his is really a supporting role, but I'll get to that later.) Claire is a sensitive and talented lady who opens herself to the tortured spirit in her home. Pfeiffer is called upon to not just be Claire, but also takes on a completely different character when she is possessed. The actress is as beautiful as ever and she shows some fine acting chops to boot.

The behind-the-scenes artistry is populated by a bevy of Academy Award nominees and winners. The film's beautiful, haunting images are captured nicely by lenser Don Burgess, a longtime Zemeckis collaborator. The lush production design, by Rick Carter, is simple in locale but quite stunning visually. The Spencer house, itself, takes on a character as the story progresses. Special F/X work, led by Rob Legato ("Titanic"), when used (though not enough, in my opinion) are spooky and startling. Less is more when it comes to the ghostly effects and subtly rules here.

Now, let's get to the cons. A mediocre story that virtually telegraphs every plot twist well before they happen is the biggest problem. Cheap shot scary bits that consume the story's first hour are frequent and totally manipulative: the dog jumps out of nowhere unexpectedly; a startling eye-looking-back-at-you shot; someone behind the door ( a harmless someone); and, there are many more. I will say on other thing about the plot. As the story nears its never-ending ending, it twists away from the supernatural murder mystery and turns into a monster movie a la "Friday the 13th." This is not a good thing as the mystery dissolves and the unstoppable monster bit kicks in. There is an obvious end point that the makers should have used to terminate the film, but they ignore the sensible and go for the scary. They could have had a decent ghost movie/murder mystery, but they blew it.

Another problem, mainly due to the writing, is there are no other real characters in the film besides Pfeiffer. Harrison Ford, playing against his usual stalwart hero type, is wooden as husband/villain and lacks any of his usual charisma. Scarwid's Jody is little more than a plot device to intro Claire to the supernatural. She apparently has no problem trekking out to the isolated Spencer home for visits that are, literally, five minutes long. James Remar and Miranda Otto, as the mysterious, troubled next door neighbors, the Feurs, are little more than a McGuffin to distract you for a while. Joe Morton is given little to do in his couple of emotionless scenes. Supporting cast is sparse in numbers and development.

"What Lies Beneath" is like a poor suit made with good material. It looks nice but doesn't wear too well. Besides the unintentional send up to Jason movies, Hitchcock's "Psycho" gets a major nod, too. The problems are: there just aren't enough scary moments, way too many cheap shots and a hack script. You will find Pfeiffer's a compelling performance. Because of that and the top techs, I give it a C.


X-MEN

Director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") takes on a task that has had fans of The X-Men comics frothing at the mouth for years - bringing their beloved super heroes to the big screen. This daunting mission, with its many special effects and giant budget, is now finished and the talented helmer has succeeded in bringing the comic characters to life for both fans and newcomers alike in "X-Men."

Robin's review of 'X-Men':

Every few millennia, man undergoes certain changes, or mutations, that help humankind to evolve into the next level of being. But, when these mutations occur, the current residents of Earth fear the changes and strike out at the mutants. Now, the world is in the midst of another round of mutations and the 'normal' humans, led by firebrand Senator Kelly (John Davison), want a final solution for the problem. The senator and his followers do not want the mutants, called X-Men, to roam free and a new Holocaust is brewing.

Psychic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) heads a government program that trains and educates the next generation of mankind, nurturing his wards to develop the various changes they are undergoing. He also leads the X-Men, good-guy mutants who use their power to protect Earth from the evil Magneto (Ian McKellen). Magneto is a magnetically charged tyrant mutant who wants to take over the world for his own selfish purposes. The only thing standing between him and world domination is Xavier and his X-Men.

The professor is joined in the battle by his protigi of psychic power, Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Storm (Halle Berry) and the laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden) in his quest to defeat the wicked plans of Magneto. The good guys are well matched by the evil boss's minion - the shape shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the agile Toad (Ray Park, "Star Wars: Episode One") and the powerful and mean Sabretooth (Tyler Mane). Thrown into the mix of this looming battle is a surgically altered mutant and loner named Logan (Hugh Jackman). Both sides vie for the loyalty of the battler, who also goes by the moniker Wolverine, as Magneto hatches a plot to mutate the entire membership of the United Nations and take over the world.

Director Singer walks a very fine line in this adaptation of the nearly four decade old Marvel comic book series. The trick in adapting such fan-dedicated source material to a feature film lay in appealing to an audience that is not exclusively made up of just the fan base. A recent example of the difficulty of maintaining such a balance can be seen in the 1997 sci-fi film, "Spawn." That actioner went under the assumption that catering to the fans, alone, was enough to generate substantial box office bucks. It wasn't and the film didn't do as well as its producers had hoped.

Singer strikes a balance for the fan and non-fan that does two things. The newcomer to this potential film franchise is fed enough background information so that there is a basic understanding of what "X-Men" is all about. The makers don't dwell on the education process for the novice viewer, providing the gist of the material needed to move things along. It gets down to business once the viewer is told, basically, that stuff happens - people mutate.

When the story kicks in, the characters are introduced with little fanfare as the individual powers of each are explained or displayed. This is where the copious special F/X kick in and the super powers of Storm, Cyclops, Toad and the rest are displayed with all kinds of flash and smoke. Not a lot of time is spent on character development, but the crew of talented actors help flesh out their assignments, in some cases quite well.

Much of the focus of the story is on Logan. He's a sullen loner, a mutant who was altered to accommodate a super strong skeletal frame. He can also thrust saber-like blades from his hands and has astonishing healing powers. The Wolverine takes on the task of protecting a young mutant named Rogue (Anna Paquin). Rogue is pivotal in Magneto's plans and it's up to Logan and the rest to stop him. Hugh Jackman gives dimension to his super hero performance with his dark wit and brooding demeanor. Of course, his hairdo and mutton chop sideburns help lend to his Wolverine image, too.

The rest of the cast, led by Patrick Stewart, fare unevenly. Stewart is his usual stalwart self and is made for the role of Charles Xavier. He exudes leadership quality and kindness as he guides his X-Men into battle. Ian McKellen looks good as chief bad guy Magneto, but his evilness is not bad ass enough. Halle Berry, as stormy Storm, gets few lines and isn't allowed to break out the F/X laden character who can conjure up a tempest at the drop of a hat. Famke Janssen has a nice presence as Jean Grey, though her telekinetic powers are no where near as flashy as the others' are. Anna Paquin is bland and emotionless as Rogue, who can suck the life from a person. Paquin's performance does much the same to the character. Romijn-Stamos puts it on the line as the shape-shifting Mystique, undergoing grueling makeup prep for many hours each day. It pays off as the former model's lithe gracefulness fits the sexy, somewhat reptilian character that can become an identical copy of whoever she wants. Ray Parks provides terrific athletic ability as the super tongued Toad.

The production befits the material. If you expect flashy F/X, you get 'em here. Each of the X-Men has a unique power and the effects team does a solid job of making each special. Costuming takes a real departure from the colorful dress of the comics, replacing colors with sleek black uniforms. The stylish set designs give the film a stunning look - make note of the futuristic prison setting - that suits the comic book feel of the film. There is also some nice homage to such classic films as "Forbidden Planet" and, with a battle royale atop the Statue of Liberty, Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur."

As expected, the film ends with a couple of set ups that are, undoubtedly, intended as the basis for the X-Men franchise. There are two more films in development and the material should flow quite easily for the sequels. The deft way that Singer and company have transferred the action comics to the big screen reps one of the best efforts since "Superman II" and will win some new fans. Older auds may not be too taken by "X-Men," but the demographic it aims at hits the bull's-eye. I give it a B.

Laura's review of 'X-Men':
Director Bryan Singer, who last cast Ian McKellen as a Nazi war criminal in "Apt Pupil," begins his comic superhero movie "X-Men" with McKellen's character of Magneto as a victim of his former self, establishing his metal bending powers as his parents are herded into a gated Jewish ghetto. This backstory also signals what's good about the X-Men tale - the bad guy isn't simply evil for badness' sake but fears persecution for his difference, while the good guys, led by Patrick Stewart's telepathic Professor X, protect a human race that often acts reprehensibly. This is no simple morality play.

The story (story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, screenplay by David Hayter) very effectively sets up the world of X-Men even for those like myself who have no familiarity with the comicbook series. In a near future Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly (Bruce Davison, "Longtime Companion") is fighting for legislation that would require mutants to be 'outed' because of their potential danger to humans. In response, Magneto and his camp (wrestler Tyler Mane as Sabretooth, swimsuit model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mystique and Phantom Menacer Ray Park as Toad) wants to take over the world and plans to begin by using the life force powers of Rogue ("The Piano's" eleven year old Oscar winner Anna Paquin, now an adolescent) to juice a machine in the Statue of Liberty which will irradiate the entire population of New York City, killing Rogue in the process.

The real star of this ensemble piece is Australian newcomer Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, a conflicted loner with heightened senses and the ability to shoot longer razor claws out of his knuckles (he resembles Quentin from the old 70's gothic soap "Dark Shadows"). When Rogue runs away from home after putting the first boy she's kissed into a coma, she recognizes Wolverine as a fellow mutant in a smoky bar and becomes his protegee. When they're attacked on the road by Sabretooth, they're aided by Cyclops (James Marsden, "Gossip") and Storm (Halle Berry) and whisked away to Professor X's school for mutants. Rogue does well, but Wolverine still bristles, loner that he is, even as he falls for Cyclops' girlfriend, Dr. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen, "Rounders"), setting up a nice overlapping love triangle as Rogue develops a crush on the wolfman. The Wolverine/Cyclops friction opens the door for some refreshing humor to lighten the dark film.

"X-Men" is story and character driven, yet it does feature some fine fight scenes, where Ray Park and Romijn-Stamos really shine. Toad scrambles across ceilings and flicks a grossly extended tongue while Mystique flexes her perfect bod attired in nothing but blue paint and scales (which required fifteen hours a day to put on and remove!). Jackman (who replaced Dougray Scott when M:I-2's shooting schedule ran over) will surely become a star with this vehicle, although not all the oddly-assembled cast fare as well. The bad X-Men have practically zilch in the way of dialogue except for Magneto and the Oscar-nominated McKellen is a little bland in the role. On the flip side, Patrick Stewart seems born to play the wheelchair-bound Professor X and former friend of Magneto (they still enjoy a good game of chess). Janssen is an appropriately sensitive Gray and Marsden portrays Cyclops as a gung-ho hotshot, but Berry does little more than look cool with her white hair and black cape while Paquin is stuck in the victim role. Davison is sleezy as the rabble rousing Senator who meets a spectacularly inventive demise.

Special effects range all over the map from cheesy lightening bolts to rather cool stepping slates that appear in front of Magneto as he walks through mid air. Cinematographer Tom Sigel, who brought such a unique look to "Three Kings," does little to distinguish himself here, with the overall look of the film being too dark. Claustrophobic sets (Production Design by John Myhre, Art Direction by Paul D. Austerberry, Tamara Deverell and Rando Schmook) also give the film a low rent feel. Hopefully the sequels will be brightened up and opened out. Costume design (Louise Mingenbach, Bob Ringwood) is pedestrian while Makeup (Ann Brodie) is outstanding.

Far more serious than the ragtag "Mystery Men," "X-Men" are like live action "Pokemon" for adults. This franchise seems destined to outlive the superhero series that came before.

B


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