THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY
THE CELL - THE REPLACEMENTS
CECIL B. DEMENTED - THE OPPORTUNISTS
BLESS THE CHILD - THE TAO OF STEVE


THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY

In 1997 entertainment entrepreneur Walter Lathan created the "Kings of Comedy" tour which established a solid following of African Americans across the US and is the highest grossing comedy tour in history. Director Spike captures one of the performances in high tech digital video as four black comedians philosophize on life in "The Original Kings of Comedy."

Robin's review of 'The Original Kings Of Comedy':
Steve Harvey ("The Steve Harvey Show") emcees the event held in front of a 6000 strong audience at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C. The performer is also one of the quartet of talented comedians performing, including D.L.Hughley ("The Hughleys"), Cedric the Entertainer ("The Steve Harvey Show") and Bernie Mac ("Life"). Harvey mixes his dual roles with ease as he announces, with real warmth, each of his fellow comedians. When in the spot light himself he rags on hip hop and rap music and calls for the return of the love song of the 70's - like the Temptations and the Spinners - an idea accepted with much enthusiasm by the rowdy crowd. His dancing, a la the Temps, is both accurate and funny.

Each of the funny men has their own distinctive style, but you can see that all were influenced by the more earthy, black comic greats, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, rather than the wholesome humor of Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson. All of the performers in "The Original Kings of Comedy" provide a fresh look at life while having fun with making fun of race, gender, age and much more. D.L. Hughely, with his white folks/black folks jokes and his riff on old people and Viagra ("Niagra" he calls it) brought down the house - both at the Coliseum and the packed theater I saw it in. When he explains why black people don't do bungee jumping because "it reminds us too much of a lynching" it is both caustic and matter of fact and got the laugh.

All four of the performers pull no punches with their musings on life. Cedric the Entertainer has fun with President Clinton and his sexual shenanigans, then goes into his routine why there can never be a black president - the national debt and the fact that black folk don't handle owing money too well. He also explains why black people don't go into space - they would want to repaint the space shuttle Cadillac green and have the radio turned up too loud. Cedric, for a big man, is terrifically physical and got roars when he demonstrates how a black person would take to downhill skiing.

Bernie Mac ended the concert with his stories of getting older and having sex, opening a day care center and dealing with kids, stuttering and, in a long bit, explains the word "motherf***er" as a noun. He proceeds to prove it as such as he rambles on, using the expletive in just the way he described in a fast, funny outpouring. Please be advised that the "m" word is used frequently and with fervor by the comedians, so it may be inappropriate for younger or more delicate ears.

Director Spike Lee does a fair job in capturing the comic event with his use of digital, remote controlled cameras that can move freely around the comedians. The audio for the comics could have been better. The less-than-crystal-clear audio, my own rotten hearing and the uproarious reaction of the theater audience hampered me in hearing good size chunks of the routines. Some people even broke out into screams of anticipation before the punch line is delivered. I missed out on about a third of the jokes, but what I did hear was sometimes damn funny.

Promoter Latham created the comedy tour as a means of getting the humor of black comedy out of the small clubs and into a larger scale venue, earning the tour a dedicated audience, principally African American, where ever it played. The concept for the film and subsequent involvement by Spike Lee helped propel the project to allow Latham to get his vision out to an even broader audience, black and white alike. It is for mature audiences and the subject matter takes no prisoners, so keep that in mind. All four performers do a bang up job with four distinct and different routines. If you like comedy, give "The Original Kings of Comedy" a shot. I give it a B.

Laura's review of 'The Original Kings Of Comedy':
In 1997, entrepreneur Walter Latham packaged a group of Black standup comedians as "The Kings of Comedy" and they've been selling out arenas every since. Filmmaker Spike Lee has made a documentary of the current foursome as they arrive in Charlotte, North Carolina and play The Charlotte Coliseum.

Steve Harvey, star of television's "The Steve Harvey Show" acts as the emcee of the event and has the most crossover schtick. His take on how Blacks would have dealt with the Titanic disaster is hilarious and his skewering of today's rap vs. the soul crooners of the 1970s is sharp and nostalgic. He gets the immense audience on their feet as if they were at a Gospel revival. Harvey also has fun spontaneously playing with an audience member named Boogie by swiping his coat when Boogie has the audacity to leave during Harvey's act. Harvey spreads his material out through the entire show, reappearing to introduce each of his three fellow comics.

D. L. Hughley is also known through his own sitcom, "The Hughleys." Hughley gets a lot of mileage out of his home life, although his routine is edgier and a bit raunchier than the similar patter dished out by Bill Cosby. Cedric the Entertainer is Harvey's costar on "The Steve Harvey Show." He's the most physical of the four, with the portly grace of a Jackie Gleason. He delves into Blacks in sports, having the most fun with golf and hockey. His bit on a cool dude smoking a cigarette is a full body presentation. Last up is the most aggressively combatative, Bernie Mac of "Moesha" and Lee's "Get on the Bus." Mac's tightly strung, with his eyes bulging out as if he had no eyelids to enclose them. His central piece on his drug addicted sister's two, four and six year olds he cares for rather than allowing them to become wards of the court is pretty funny ('the two year old is the devil'), but it's also derogatory to gays. Mac says whatever he wants and doesn't care who's offended and is, therefore, not for all tastes.

All of these comics, with the possible exception of Harvey, seem to aspire to the Richard Pryor brand of assaultive comedy, with each including bits on the differences between blacks and whites (the few white audience members are each singled out by the end of this show). However, none possess the insight that made Pryor's humor so gut bustingly funny. They're all entertaining guys, but only Harvey had me consistently smiling. The other three were frequently difficult to understand (particularly Cedric), clearly playing to the dialect of their black North Carolina audience (although it should also be noted that the screams of laughter from the audience at the screening I attended also obscured many of the punchlines).

Lee's direction is nothing revolutionary, intercutting multiple stage angles of the performances with audience reactions and closeups. There are some brief 'behind-the-scenes' video of the gang at a radio station, playing poker and warming up (Cedric sings, showing off a former life as a choirboy perhaps?). One of his digital video cameras is seen frequently, gliding on a rail in front of the stage.

"The Original Kings of Comedy" is an amusing way to spend a couple of hours, but I don't foresee it becoming one of the classics of the genre.

B-


THE CELL

A serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio, "Men in Black") who likes to watch his victims drown in his special chamber falls into a coma while his latest capture still awaits her fate. Psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez, "Out of Sight") attempts to enter his twisted mind in a race against time to discover the location of "The Cell."

Laura's review of 'The Cell':
"The Cell" is the feature directing debut of noted visualist Tarsem Singh, whose commercials and videos are held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Is "The Cell" art? It's magnificent to look at, but at the half way mark the visuals get so far out they cease to serve the sketchy story.

Mark Protosevich's script is standard stuff which takes one concept already explored in "Manhunter" (the original Hannibal Lecter movie) a bit further - instead of a serial killer hunter thinking like his prey, here people can hook themselves up to a Neurological Cartography and Synaptic Transfer System, which, along with psychotropic drugs, allow them to truly enter the mind of another (or allow another into their mind). Otherwise, the story is simply plotted like "The Bone Collector," where several people try to put together clues in order to save a victim within a designated time period.

We're introduced to the device (where people hang suspended in musculature suits looking like the patients in "Coma"), as Catherine attempts to interact with Edward, the seven year old son of a billionaire (Patrick Bauchau, "Twin Falls Idaho") who's threatening her boss, Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, "Secrets and Lies"), with pulling funding if he doesn't get tangible results soon. Unbeknownst to us, we're already in Edward's mind as the title credits roll - a land of red sand dunes against a brilliant blue sky where Catherine, in a white feathered gown, rides to him on a black horse. The African location cinematography by longtime Tarsem collaborater Paul Laufer is stunning.

Then we meet Carl Stargher as he drives his black pickup out to two lone silos in the middle of a wheat field. Beneath the ground is his cell, a small glass chamber (not unlike Lecter's cell in "The Silence of the Lambs") where a woman floats, dead. Carl takes the body home where he 'processes' it before enacting his ritual, which involves suspending his body from the ceiling by the steel rings pierced through his back (shades of "Hellraiser").

FBI agents Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, "Psycho") and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber, "U-571") track down Stargher via clues left with his last victim (albino dog hairs and vehicle identification) and raid his home, only to find the schizophrenic killer has lapsed into a coma on his kitchen floor. A medical specialist hooks them up with the dream team at the Campbell Center and Catherine agrees to attempt to make contact.

"The Cell" is creepily suspenseful right through Catherine's first mind trip, where she makes contact with a young Carl (Jake Thomas) in subterranean murk with Lynch-like horror tableaus of vibrating dogs, bloody bathtubs, garishly posed bleached victims and a horse which gets cross-sectioned before her eyes. A second trip also features some creeps, but the script's weak stab at serial killer profiling begins to strain (Carl was an abused child, but what's up with his white fixation?). When Vince Vaughn joins the fun to 'save' a non-responding Catherine, logic is thrown to the wind and things begin to get ludicrous - just why would a serial killer's mind be full of Oriental art, harem imagery and sea creatures (the water imagery from his past involves a river, not the ocean). Things go further downhill when Novak takes off from Stargher's mind on a sudden hunch and Catherine rashly goes back to save Carl's inner child.

Technically, "The Cell" is of the highest order. Production design by Tom Foden ("Psycho"), art direction by Guy Dyas and Michael Manson, costume design by Eiko Ishioka and makeup by Heather Plott and James Ryder show collaberation of imaginative artisans. Original music by Howard Shore ("The Game") features discordant horns with an Arabic twist.

If "The Cell" was stripped of all pretensions of storytelling it could play as an intriguing experimental art film (the sectioned horse was ripped off from artist Damien Hurst's cow, after all). It hasn't, though, and the mind-bending visuals only take us so far. It would be interesting to see Tarsem collaborate with Lynch, a man with a little method behind his madness.

C

Robin's review of 'The Cell':
Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a talented child psychotherapist who is a member of a research team that has developed an experimental technique for entering the inner depths of the mind of a patient. A psycho killer is captured by the FBI, but only after the madman kidnapped a new victim and has her stashed away. The killer falls into a coma and FBI agent Pete Novak (Vince Vaughn) seeks Catherine's help to delve into the killer's mind to save the girl before time runs out in "The Cell."

Award winning music video director Tarsem Singh makes his feature film debut with a psychological, science fiction drama that, quite literally, digs into the human mind. Working with a script from another newcomer, Mark Protosevich, the director utilizes high-powered visuals, special F/X and flashy set design and costume to propel us into the psyche of a serial killer. The killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) has the modus operandi of sealing his victims in a glassed-in room, slowly flooding it while videotaping the poor woman's panic, suffering and, finally, death.

The FBI, under the leadership of Novak, has been dogging the trail of Carl for some time, collecting data and, slowly, closing in on the killer. Carl made a boo-boo at his last killing and left some dog hairs, from his albino German Shepherd Valentine, at the scene where the body was found. Accurate forensics and quick legwork allows Pete and his team to get the drop on Stargher and arrest him - but not before he drops into a coma. They learn of yet another kidnapping and, knowing Carl's MO, realize that the latest victim has less than 40 hours to live with no way to find out where Carl's lair is located.

Enter Catherine and here research team who have developed a "neurological synaptic transfer system" that allows a therapist to get into a patient's head and, in theory, help cure that patient of whatever mental demons are tormenting them. With so little time left to save Carl's latest victim, Catherine decides to forego protocol and try the transfer system to get into Carl's mind and find out where the girl, Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), is hidden. The psychotherapist, necessarily, casts caution to the wind and enters the mind of the murderer and is able to begin to bring out the troubled boy inside Carl's head, but not the location of Julia.

Pete Novak, who has studied the killer and his methods from the very first murder, thinks he can get the required info and both he and Catherine enter Carl's sick mind. Revelations take place and Pete, with his newfound insight, knows he can save the day. Catherine, the penultimate psychotherapist, throws personal safety aside in order to save the scared, troubled little boy in the near demonic Carl's megalomaniac mind.

Performances, as we see time and again with F/X extravaganzas, take a back seat to the visual effects and the eye candy that the technicians on the film have crafted so nicely. Jennifer Lopez is OK in her acting as the dedicated Catherine, but stands out more when impressively costumed and coifed in her journey into the killer's head. She's more object than character as things play out and the actress's striking looks and physique help center the visual tone of the elaborate production.

Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio are interchangeable actors who could have been selected for their respective roles by a draw of straws. As such, neither gives much character to their roles as the dedicated cop and the sick psycho loony. Supporting cast is uniformly wasted. Dylan Baker ("Happiness") and Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("Secrets & Lies"), as research scientists Henry West and Dr. Miriam Kent, are left the task of pushing buttons and watching the inert, futuristically clad bodies of their patients (the action is in the mind) without much involvement. At one point, it looked like the story was going to take a twist and Jean-Baptiste was going to get an expanded role. She didn't and the writer went for the routine hero-heroine story. Jake Webber ("U-571") playing Pete's partner, FBI agent Gordon Ramsey, doesn't fare much better as his character is left in the wake of Novak's single-handed bravery.

Of course, if you've seen the trailer, you can readily see that the special F/X and surreal quality of the film are the draw to get you to see it. Despite the flaws and inconsistencies in the story and the lack of depth to the principle characters, the visual acuity of "The Cell" is enough to recommend it. It is reminiscent of "Coma" and is the first film to delve so deeply into the human mind since Ken Russell's 1980 film, "Altered States." The film is stunning to look at and tech credits are superior. Photography, by Paul Laufer ("Frankie Starlight"), is slick, sometimes beautiful, and is a major credit to the movie. Production design, by Tom Foden (Gus Van Sant's "Psycho"), costuming, at different times by April Napier ("Your Friends and Neighbors") and Eiko Ishioka (Academy Award for "Bram Stoker's Dracula"), and make-up, by two-time Academy Award winner Michele Burke ("Quest for Fire," "Bram Stoker's Dracula"), all work to make this a superior looking flick. The F/X team, led by Clay Pinney ("Independence Day") and Kevin Tod Haug ("The Game"), are excellent.

One point the script makes in the midst of all the psycho babble that permeates the film is that the FBI solves crimes and saves people by their understanding of forensics and their doggedness in following clues, even insignificant ones, to get their man. The story does not downplay the hard work of America's crime-fighters in doing their difficult jobs.

There is more to a movie than just F/X and flash and good looks. A carefully constructed story and three-dimensional characters are needed, too, to make a film great. "The Cell" makes it part way and I give it a B-.


THE REPLACEMENTS

It's late in the pro football season with the playoffs only games away when the disgruntled, highly paid League players declare a labor strike against the team owners. Washington Sentinels owner Edward O'Neil (Jack Warden) comes up with his own solution to finish the season - hire coaching legend Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) to recruit and field a team of replacement players in only a week's time in director Howard Deutch's film, "The Replacements."

Robin's review of 'The Replacements':
Based on the real 1987 NFL players strike, "The Replacements" is a modern day Cinderella story that uses that event as the premise to create a good-natured sports yarn that practices exactly what it preaches. Coach McGinty, at one poignant point of the film tells his quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) that "you gotta have heart to win," and, by the grand finale, his replacement Sentinels show they have that heart. The really nice thing about the movie, its cast and crew is that they, too, show a great deal of real heart in their efforts.

"The Replacements" is a true ensemble film on several levels. The large principle cast work together as a real team in their portrayal of the last minute replacements. Keanu Reeves gives one of his more self-effacing performances as the equally humble Shane Falco. Falco, in the fateful 1996 Sugarbowl, led his team to utter defeat and has been reminded of the disaster, by virtually everyone, ever since. Coach McGinty chooses Shane as the team's quarterback and, reluctantly, because of the stinging defeat that ended his football career, Shane agrees to helm the team. McGinty, who has the eye to spot raw talent, brings in other blue-collar types who get an unbelievable opportunity - to fulfill a boyhood dream and play in the pros.

The cast surrounding the film's stars is made up of mostly unknowns and little knowns. Orlando Jones plays the extra fast Clifford Franklin who has the speed to make touchdowns, but has one flaw - he's fumble fingered. Jon Favreau ("Swingers") is Danny Bateman, an L.A. SWAT cop who loves to inflict pain for a just cause. (More on Favreau's perf later.) Rhys Ifans (the best thing in "Notting Hill") is Welsh soccer player Nigel "the Legs" Gruff, who, though new to American football, is perfectly suited for his role as the team's kicker, despite the fact that he chain smokes, even while on the field during a game. Comedian Faizon Love and former Washington Redskins player Michael "Bear" Taliferro play Jamal and Andre Jackson, very large music industry bodyguards turned linemen. Earl Wilkinson (Michael Jace, "Boogie Nights") is a "guest" of the state with touchdown skills, released into Coach McGinty's custody as a favor by the football-loving governor. Talented, but deaf mute, Brian Murphy (David Denman) and Sumo wrestler cum center Jumbo Fumiko (Ace Yonamine), round out the core team of players. Complementing the terrific ensemble cast are veterans Jack Warden as the team's owner and Gailard Sartain as assistant coach Leo Pilachowski. Pretty Brooke Langton ("Swingers") gives a tomboy air to her perf as the obligatory love interest, Annabelle Farrell. Sportscasting legends Pat Summerall and John Madden play themselves as the commentators of the team's games.

I mention the details of each core player because it's important to understand that all of these guys are fleshed out, real people. The actors trained hard under the guidance of football and stunt coordinator Allan Graf, whose resume includes such notable films as "Any Given Sunday," "The Waterboy" and "Jerry Maguire," and it shows in the convincing moves they make on the field. The heartfelt efforts by the actors to look the part of pro football players come out in their performances. Complementing this unity of characters is a quiet, but also heartfelt perf by Reeves as Shane. Shane, because of his past, is reluctant to become the team's leader, but McGinty sees his inner quality and strong love for the game that will make the younger man a true leader. The overall effect of this collaboration makes "The Replacements" a solid edition to the sports comedy/drama film fold.

The team behind the camera also shows a sense of unity in their effort to create a coherent, funny, good-looking and well-crafted sports movie. Tak Fujimoto ("Silence of the Lambs") does superb work in showing the pain and passion of the gridiron while giving an almost homey look to the action off field. Production design by Dan Bishop ("Lone Star") captures the look and feel of professional football. The makers even went to the extreme effort of shooting many of the plays for the film's five games at halftime during an actual NFL game, lending the big stadium full of screaming fans an authenticity that is rare in movies. Musical score, by John Debney, is unobtrusive and helps set the tone for both the comedy and the drama of the story.

The screenplay, by Vince McKewin, is a no-frills, rags-to-riches, underdog-wins-against-the-odds kind of yarn that, like everything else about this film, has a lot of heart. There aren't many surprises along the way and thing pretty much follow a checklist - form the team (check), unite them under a common cause (check), establish a love interest (check), and so on (check). The ride along the way is punctuated with humor, some wit, copious quantities of inspirational rock songs - with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" rep'ing the central theme of empowerment and fulfilling a dream.

I also want to make special mention of the hysterical, scene-stealing performance by Jon Favreau as nutcase Danny. As the team's key defensive back, he is absolutely dedicated to giving his all for the team and is almost puppy dog loyal to Coach McGinty. He's not beyond losing himself during practice, tackling his own quarterback (a no-no) with zeal. When the coach asks him to get the ball back from their opponents at the crucial moment, it's probably the funniest wacky moment in the movie.

"The Replacements" is a good sports fan flick that has enough humor, intelligence and Keanu Reeves to make it a crossover date movie that will make you feel good, maybe even hopeful, for a while. The players prove that they can make a difference. Maybe you can, too, if you get the chance. I give it a B.

Laura's review of 'The Replacements':
Based on the 1987 football players' strike but set in the present with the fictional Washington Sentinals, "The Replacements" is a character driven comedy about a bunch of has-beens and never-wases who get a second shot by crossing the picket line to play the Sentinals' remaining four games of the season. As owner Edward O'Neil (Jack Warden) tells replacement coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), they need to win three of those four games in order to make the playoffs - a tall order for a team assembled a scant seven days before playing their first game together.

McGinty first rustles up Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a star quarterback who blew his career in a disastrous Sugar Bowl game. (Shane's introduced very originally during the film's credit title sequence. He's doing his job rigged out in scuba gear, scraping barnacles off a boat's hull when he spies an old football trophy of his lying on the ocean floor, which he retrieves and throws.) Other members include Nigel 'the Leg' Gruff (Rhys Ifans, "Notting Hill"), a Welsh bar owner and former soccer player, Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones) the 'fastest man on earth,' who can't catch, overly agressive cop Daniel Bateman (Jon Favreau, "Swingers") with a maddog tackle, Japanese sumo wrestler Jumbo Fumiko (Ace Yonamine), brother music industry bodyguards Andre and Jamal Jackson (Michael 'Bear' Taliferro and Faizon Love), deaf mute Brian Murphy (David Denman)and Maryland penitentiary resident Walter Cochran (Troy Winbush).

Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton , TV's "Melrose Place") is the grounded local girl who must put together a parallel replacement cheerleading squad, which she's forced to man with strippers. Shane immediately locks eyes with Annabelle, and although she professes to not date players, he wears her down with his on field heroics and basic decency. (There first kiss is 'called' by commentator Pat Summerall in a whimsical bit of overlapping scene editting by Bud Smith and Seth Flaum).

The entire team is harrassed by the striking players, led by quarterback Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen, "Apollo 13"). They particularly enjoy turning Shane's humble pickup truck on its side until the Jackson brothers shoot up Martel's Porsche. They also cause a barroom brawl when Martel hurls cruel insults at Brian, but they walk away while the new guys end up in jail. This proves the bonding opportunity they need, however, as Clifford gets them all to line dance to his favorite song, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

This is a good natured comedy that goes exactly where you expect it to go with some surprising details thrown in. It's a little bit "Bad News Bears," a little bit "Any Given Sunday," with a tip of the hat to "The Waterboy" with some huddle vomit. The cast is uniformly good, although Orlando Jones veers into Steppin' Fetchit territory. Reeves is an appealing hero, leading the team but always remaining humble and self-effacing, but its Hackman and Favreau who have the best scene in the film when McGinty effectively puts Bateman's 'talent' into play.

Director Howard Deutch ("Pretty in Pink") gets his audience onto the field with the players. Screenwriter Vince McKewin ("Fly Away Home") leavens his rote script with inventive character quirks and situations, particularly in how he deals with Falco's forced moment of truth during the big game.

Unfortunately, "The Replacements" suffers from lapses into tackiness, exhibitted by lame cheerleading scenes which looked culled from another (smaller budget) film and its use of rock standard covers rather than the original recordings, giving the film a B movie feel with A level stars. Overall, though, "The Replacements" hits its mark as a summer sports comedy.

B-


CECIL B. DEMENTED

Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is in Baltimore for the world premiere benefit of her latest flick, an event chosen by Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff, "Blade") for her kidnapping. Demented and his band of Sprockets are cinema guerillas who promote anarchic filmmaking and the death of the multiplex mainstream in director John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented."

Laura's review of 'Cecil B. Demented':
John Waters has just about attained respectability in recent years with his sweet natured "Pecker," satiric "Serial Mom" and nostalgic "Hairspray." "Cecil B. Demented" begins with the audacious mania and low budget looks of his earlier cult flicks. Unfortunately, it can't sustain its cool concept and devolves into a drive-in dumpster denouement.

The film begins promisingly, with movie marquees touting either "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" in all of a six screen multiplex, "Scream 4," a Pauly Shore marathon and (gasp) "Patch Adams, the Director's Cut."

The gloriously spoiled Honey Whitlock, so pampered she demands her assistant find out whether Pat Nixon had sex in her 'presidential' suite, puts on her fake face for the dignitaries she's just dissed while turning her ugly face to everyone else. Meanwhile, back at the Senator Theater, Cecil and his Sprockets, all employed by the theater, are setting their trap. When Whitlock wiggles her way onto the stage, Cecil and his gang grab her. Weapons are drawn and a bomb goes off. 'Power to the People!' and 'Punish bad cinema!' they cry before loading Honey into their van and absconding to their closed movie theater lair.

Here we get introduced to the gang, who have been sworn to a vow of celibacy for Demented until their film is completed. Cherish (Alicia Witt, TV's "Cybil") is a former porn star and Cecil's horny girlfriend. Lyle (Adrian Grenier, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") an actor zonked out on drugs of every sort ('Before I was a drug addict, I had so many problems. Now I only have one.'). Aggressive cinematographer Pam (Erika Lynn Rupli, sound person and aspiring rap star Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma), art director by way of staple gun Lewis (Larry Gilliard, Jr., "The Waterboy") and satanic makeup girl Ravel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) comprise most of the crew. Hairdresser Rodney (Jack Noseworthy, "U571"), who hates himself for being straight, terrorizes Honey with his harsh dye jobs ('I hate roots!'). The weakest link to Cecil's cause is Fidget, the costumer, whose parents (Patricia Hearst plays his mom) still have too much control over him.

After threatening Honey to star in his movie, Cecil and the sprockets hit the streets for guerilla filmmaking, terrorizing film audiences everywhere. Soon Honey becomes bound to the cause, especially as she realizes her new outlaw notoriety is the best thing to happen to her career in ages (Eric Roberts makes a cameo as her ex-husband on Roseanne Barr's talk show). They fight parents of small children ('Family's just another word for censorship!' Honey screams), crash local film events (where Cecil convinces Honey to jump off a roof) and invade the filmming of "Forrest Gump II" starring Kevin Nealon (as himself). Lives are lost, but the cause is strong, and local kung fu fans and a porn house help protect them (the porn house is showing one of Cherish's old films in which she has an adventure with a gerbil).

While all this may sound like inspired lunacy, it's only fitfully funny. Water's best and sliest joke is his parody of former SLA terrorist and heiress Patty Hearst within Honey Whitlock's transformation. His screenplay has several fizzy ideas, but on the screen they play flat, particularly the film's climax which is simply filmed anarchy. To his credit, Waters' film looks like the guerilla filmmaking he's portraying.

Melanie Griffith is more than a good sport here - she was meant to play this role and gives it her all. Stephen Dorff is over the top as the maniacal Demented, with his punk hair style, rolling eyes and tattoos (all the Sprockets boast tattoos of cult directors such as Herschel Gordon Lewis and Werner Rainer Fassbinder). None of the Sprockets particularly stand out, although Witt goes to town in her porn piece. Former Waters' stars Mink Stole and Ricki Lake have cameos.

While it was initially exciting to see the 'old' John Waters style back on the screen, it looks like he should stick to what works for him now. "Cecil B. Demented" is the personification of the adage 'You can't go home again.'

C-


THE OPPORTUNISTS

Vic Kelly (Christopher Walken) is a responsible, honest, hard working man. In his past life he did time for robbery and wants only to pull together his tiny, fractured family. But, his auto mechanic business is not as lucrative or easy as thieving and his debts are piling up. Vic decides to risk one more heist - the Big One - in "The Opportunists."

Robin's review of 'The Opportunists':
Vic's decision to go back to the old ways is not lightly made. His stint in the slammer caused his family to break up and go their separate ways. Since he got out, he's tried to go the straight and narrow, but, as Vic tells his patient girlfriend Sally Mahon (Cyndi Lauper), "The regular citizen thing wasn't working out too well." He has been trying to rebuild his estranged relationship with his daughter Miriam (Vera Farmiga) and foots the cost of keeping his aged Aunt Diedre (Anne Pitoniak) in an expensive nursing home. But, his checks are bouncing left and right, he's in danger of losing his business and the nuns at the nursing home are threatening to ship Aunt Dee off to Staten Island.

Life is tough for the ex-con and he's pretty vulnerable when he is approached by Pat Duffy (Donal Logue), a security guard at a small armored car business. Pat tells Vic that the owner regularly skims cash from his customer accounts and has two big bags of illicit funds just waiting to be taken. Sally had repeatedly offered to lend him the money to get back on his feet, but the proud Vic won't accept the heartfelt offer of help. The die is finally cast when Vic tells Pat, "I'll check it out."

Meanwhile, a young man enters Vic's life. Mike (Peter McDonald) is just off the plane from Ireland and tells Vic that they are cousins. The cautious Vic trusts no one and keeps the young man at arm's length. Mike works his way into the older man's familial affection and gets to go along on the job. Things go off with perfect timing until Mike blunders and puts Vic in certain danger of being caught. The inept Mike panics and runs away, leaving Vic to suffer the consequences.

"The Opportunists" has to be the most subdued performance to date for Christopher Walken. The actor is renown for his incredible intensity in such films as "The Deer Hunter" and "Prophesy." Here, as the put upon Vic, he is a working class guy who screwed his life up royally and now just wants a break. As his bank bounces his checks, Vic desperately scrabbles to pay the bills legitimately, but can't. The promise of easy money is too great a temptation as Vic makes the fateful decision to cross back across the line to a life of crime.

As portrayed by Walken, Vic is a victim of his own making, though you feel bad when things go wrong for the man and glad when things go right. It's a strong, subtle performance for the actor who is required, unfortunately, to carry most of the film himself.

There are some real problems with the movie that even Christopher Walken can't help. The screenplay by first-time helmer Myles Connell is so reality-based in its slice of life view of its Queens NY locale that it never really builds a compelling story about its main character. There is no real drama in Vic's story of loss of faith and his final redemption. Sure, you feel good when Vic gets out of his jam, but, I wasn't satisfied by the author's overall tale or many of his characters. It's a blue-collar story about an average guy with money problems at its core.

Another problem is co-star Peter McDonald. The newcomer from Ireland is passive, at best, as Michael. He is portraying a young man who comes to America to bask in the fame of Vic, who is a legend in the old country for his career in robbery. Unfortunately, McDonald gives no life to his performance and walks through the role with little emotion or character development. The sullen, confused Michael seems to be merely a device to screw things up for Vic when the thief makes his fateful decision to return to a life of crime.

Of the supporting cast only Lauper, as Sally, and Tom Noonan ("What Happened Was..."), as Mort Stein, Vic's safe-cracking mentor/trainer, are able to push themselves free of the mundane script. Cyndi Lauper, not known for her dramatic perfs, takes on the tough role of the loyal, supportive girlfriend and breaths life into her Sally. Sally may love Vic, but she isn't stupid. She'll go along with Vic's prideful stubbornness up to a point, but cuts him loose when he crosses back into the life of crime. Noonan gets to play up the quirky, paranoid Mort, who agrees to help Vic, for a price, to crack the company safe in under six minutes. Another fresh face, Vera Farmiga ("Return to Paradise"), plays Vic's daughter, Miriam, and the newcomer gets to create a little bit of presence as Michael's budding love interest. She tries, but there is no chemistry between the two thespians.

The Queens locations lend to the blue-collar look of the film and photographer Teo Maniaci enhances the working class environs where Vic lives and works. Other techs are straightforward but not notable.

Christopher Walken is an under-appreciated actor who isn't usually given the star role in a film. He gives himself over to his character study of Vic and the veteran thesp gives a solid perf. Too bad the screenplay isn't in the same league as Walken. I give "The Opportunists" a C.


BLESS THE CHILD

The Bethlehem star shines bright one Christmas and a child is born beneath it on December 16. Nurse Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger) arrives home a week later to find her drug addicted sister Jenna (Angela Bettis, "Girl, Interrupted") huddled in her doorway clutching a newborn which she abandons with Maggie. Six years later, during a string of child murders, she returns as the wife of Erik Stark, (Rufus Sewall, "Dark City") founder of The New Dawn, a Scientology-like organization for young drug addicts. But Maggie discovers The New Dawn is really a front for Satanists looking for a special child in "Bless the Child."

Laura's review of 'Bless The Child':
"Bless the Child" is the anti-"Omen." It also borrows copiously from other Satanic horror flicks such as "The Prophecy" and "The Exorcist."

The horror genre is a tough one to succeed in as can be seen by the enormous amount of dreck one must sift through in order to find the gems. With that in mind, "Bless the Child" isn't all that bad, mostly due to it's unusual emphasis on the good part of the 'good vs. evil' plot and some imaginative special effects. It's also derivative to the max, perfunctorily acted (except for Sewell's over-the-top perf) and features some outright howlers (of laughter, that is).

Cody (Holliston Coleman) is quiet to the point of being diagnosed as autistic so attends a special (conveniently Catholic) school where she resuscitates dead birds and makes votive candles burst into flame. Her nightmares are telepathetically shared with Aunt Maggie, who races to Cody's bedroom to find the child held hostage by red-eyed rats while being leered at by the gargoyle outside her window. Cody's head banging incidents scare away Maggie's dates.

Once Cody's snatched by Stark, Maggie crosses paths with FBI Agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits), a former seminarian who's on the case of the murdered children (all, like Cody, born on December 16). He believes Stark's involved but needs to prove it. Maggie gets tips, follows them on her own and gets into enormous jams that Travis can then save her from. Meanwhile Stark's trying to 'turn' Cody to use her special powers for the dark side. He tries to convince her by lighting bums on fire and sweet talking her into jumping off their building's roof, but she's not buying it. The whole things ends on Easter Eve in a gothic mansion where Cody must accept Satan or die.

Kim Bassinger frets a lot and Jimmy Smits looks earnest. Sewell gets mileage out of the freekiness of his lazy eye. Holliston Coleman is quite believable as the troubled Cody. Lumi Cavazos ("Like Water for Chocolate") is luminous as a nun. Christina Ricci is wasted (both literally and figuratively) as a former New Dawn goth chick. Angela Bettis nicely traverses the road from strung out to brainwashed. Ian Holm's nothing more than a classy credit, appearing in one unnecessary scene. It's truly fun to see Dimitra Arlys again, (so good as the diner waitress who tries to kill Robert Redford in "The Sting") here playing the demonic nanny right out of "The Omen."

The screenplay adaptation (Tom Rickman, Clifford and Ellen Green) of Cathy Cash Spellman's book contains a few nice touches. Travis prays for help and a janitor offers some encouraging words - when he leaves the dead lillies on Travis' window sill are abloom again. A pretty woman uses her umbrella to open subway doors Maggie and Cody are running for, then is nowhere to be seen when Maggie turns to offer thanks. It also offers such idiocy as a rescue attempt at a dentist's office and blatant ripoffs such as having Maggie's housekeeper leave her rosary under Cody's pillow (straight out of "The Exorcist").

The best thing about "Bless the Child" are the special effects by Glenn Neufeld ("Terminator II") and Joel Hynek ("What Dreams May Come"). They create demonic creatures which Maggie begins to see when evil is afoot. Their hovering and skittering are truly creepy, some resembling the flying monkeys of "The Wizard of Oz."

"Bless the Child" is mostly derivative junk, but its few novel touches are worth noting.

C-


THE TAO OF STEVE

"Eliminate desire. Be excellent. Retreat." This is the Zen formula developed by Dex (Donal Logue), an overweight Lothario, on how to get a woman into bed. Dex has lived by these words since high school and they have never failed him. That is, until now, in "The Tao of Steve."

Robin's review of 'The Tao Of Steve':
In high school, Dex was the BMOC and had no problem scoring with the chicks. He was slender and charming and could bed any woman he set his sights on. Now, ten years later, our hero is 100 pounds heavier, but still has the charismatic charm to sweep a woman off her feet and get her in the sack. While attending his school's 10th reunion, he meets a pretty young lady, Syd (Greer Goodman) and Dex uses his tried and true Tao of Steve (as in Steve McQueen, the ultimate icon of cool) to make time with her. But, he forgot one very important thing - Syd was one of his conquests a decade ago and he doesn't remember her at all.

"The Tao of Steve" is a clever little flick that starts off strong, but peters out as it gets to its romantic locus. When we first meet the portly Dex, he's in the middle of a sexual encounter with a friend's wife. Satisfied, but not sated, Dex hits on the young bartender at the reunion, using his wit and knowledge of philosophy, metaphorically at least, to charm her pants off. That's when he notices Syd and tries his patented maneuvers on her, not realizing he *knows* her already. This begins a battle of the sexes that will pit Dex and his successful philosophy against the savvy, not easily impressed Syd.

The best of "The Tao of Steve" takes place in the film's first half. As Dex spouts his combination of Zen Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, Islam, Hindu, and every other religion, faith and philosophy, he forms the basis of the Tao of Steve. Basically, the Tao is built around getting laid. The trick is, for a guy, to not make it seem like sex is the ultimate goal. The 'Steve' of the title refers not only to McQueen, but also Steve McGarrett ("Hawaii Five-O"), Steve Austin ("Six Million Dollar Man") and some notable non-Steves like James Bond, Michael Jordan and Spiderman. The name 'Steve' is not a requisite to get on the list, but being totally cool is. The ultimate description of the cool American male, according to Dex, is: he never tries to impress the women, but always gets the girl.

Dex's Zen-like philosophy is nicely coupled with the screen presence of Donal Logue. Dex may be really fat, but he has so much inherent charm, people overlook his obvious flaws. He delivers his line of blarney with the best of them and has no problem using his God-given talent for blather to bed any and all women he meets. Running in parallel with the romance that builds between Syd and Dex is the sidebar that has the portly Casanova acting as the sensei of sexual conquest for his goofy friend and roommate Dave (Kimo Willis). Dex gives his Yoda-like advice to his malleable novice with a patience that is never condescending and always funny.

Part two of the flick brings Dex's interest in Syd to the surface, as he uses his sexual wiles and Tao to seduce the reluctant young woman. Syd counters his moves like a Tai Chi master with her passive resistance to his ploys. His failures only encourage Dex to cast aside his longtime philosophies and he does all the things that the Tao warns against in matters of love. The conventionality of the love story - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl - is in direct conflict with the witty totally guy humor of Dex's philosophical views on life and love. The guy stuff is funny, dead on accurate and, with the Tao of Steve, an interesting twist on the mating ritual. The love story is less satisfying.

First-time helmer Jenniphr, along with co-scripters Greer Goodman and Duncan North (from his original material), craft an amusing story that showcases Logue in what could be a star making turn. His likable presence, combined with the pithy Tao of Steve (which provides the bulk of the fun for the film), makes the film a pleasant little 90 minutes. It isn't enough to sustain the film, though, as it ends in a routine love story.

The writing does contain a decent variety of original humor that helps a lot, at least in the first half. One scene, during the reunion, has Dex meeting an old classmate, who has since gone into the priesthood, in the men's room. As the cleric settles down to do his business in one of the stalls, Dex starts questioning the man, from the adjoining stall, about moral philosophy and sex like a penitent talking to his confessor. The rapid talking Dex doesn't even realize that he's intruding on the guy's private moment.

Newcomer Greer Gordon is OK as the object of Dex's lust, but she is hard pressed to equal the animated and rapid-chatter perf of Logue. Kimo Willis is quite likable as the wide-eyed innocent being educated in the rules of l'amour by Dex, his muse. The rest of the cast is only there to flesh out the background.

Tech credits are low-key, but get the job done.

I give "The Tao of Steve" a philosophical C+.


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