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Volume 2, Number 13

This Week's Reviews:  High Fidelity, Keeping the Faith, The Road to El Dorado, The Skulls.

This Week's Omissions:  The Cup.



High Fidelity

(Dir: Stephen Frears, Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Sara Gilbert)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Stephen Frears is one of the best directors working today, sometimes enticing viewers with Irish comedies (The Van), fictional biographies (The Commitments), lush period pieces (Dangerous Liaisons), and witty sleek comedies (The Grifters).  In fact, The Grifters is one of my favorite films, and Dangerous Liaisons was the best film ever made from the Les Liaisons Dangereuses story that would become everything from Valmont to Cruel Intentions.  So what happened to this guy?  After Mary Reilly and The Van flopped considerably, his next film Hi-Lo County found cold shoulders from distributors, critics, and audiences.  Thank heavens he has made a small return.

High Fidelity is the best film from Frears since The Grifters, a nice coming to terms with adulthood film that comes off much better than the similar Grosse Pointe Blank (understandable since the two films have the same writers).  Where the earlier film faltered by becoming too implausible, this film works by its utter lifelike aspects.  Much of the story reminded me of both my life and many others that I know; all of us in our aimless attempt at occupational happiness.  Where I find my calling in films, Rob Gordon (Cusack) finds his in music.  He has spent previous time as a disk jockey, where he met his now estranged girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), and now maintains a music store specializing in hard to find LPs.  There are some people there to give light to why things seem weird here:  a group of rapping, stealing rappers, a short fused one-sided slacker, and a lost in his own little world music expert.

Rob spends the film recounting to the audience his five great relationship ends.  There was the first crush, the chaste high schooler, the beautiful vixen, the rebound victim, and Laura.  With a new found single life, Rob decides that it is time to go back and see these long lost flames, to some surprising revelations.  What Rob knows, more than anything else, is that no one really compares to Laura, the one that he never felt indebted to, the only one that he just simply loved.  Getting her back, though, is easier said than done.  Laura is now shacked up with a New Age visionary named Ian (Robbins), who Rob sees as the ultimate foil to his happiness with Laura.

The screenplay is exquisite, one of the best of the year.  After watching the film, I put in my old VHS copy of Short Cuts, which features a trailer for the Whit Stillman yuppie-relationship film Barcelona, and was struck at how alike yet different this film is from the Stillman films.  Yes, the films come from different economic and social spectrums for their characters, but they share a look at shaded eyes of love, the loss and misery that come and go with happiness.

Cusack gives one of his best performances, proving why he is considered the ultimate actor for Americans in their twenties and thirties.  I never really liked him until I saw Say Anything... and he has never really given a bad performance, however bad some of the films have been, since.  It's always nice to see him with his sister Joan in a film, the two have a nice knack for acting together that is too rarely seen.  There's much to like in the supporting cast as well, with Robbins, Black, Louiso (director of the great short film The Fifteen Minute Hamlet), Zeta-Jones, and Carter (as a film critic -- good catch) shining through their overshading lead.

Frears has finally made that modern classic that has been in his grasps for too long.  I can only imagine the Better Off Dead/High Fidelity double features in ten years.


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Keeping the Faith

(Dir: Edward Norton, Starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin, Milos Forman, Holland Taylor, Rena Sofer, Ken Leung, Lisa Edelstein, Kryss Anderson, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Brian Anthony Wilson)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

The zealous lawyer for a porn editor.  The anarchist, sadist cofounder of a club for brawling men.  The guilt-driven former leader of neo-Nazis. A down on his luck gambling addict.  The alter boy on trial for the murder of a priest.

Those are five of the six roles Edward Norton has played in his short career, one of great note since all are pretty good films.  So, one would expect some interesting material from this young actor for his directorial debut, a far cry from the romantic comedy that Keeping the Faith is.

Yes, he is a priest that has light unchaste feelings for his childhood friend, and he does start off the film in a drunken stupor, but there is very little to distinguish this film from the hundreds of light romantic comedies that have graced theatres over the years.  Without a doubt, Keeping the Faith is one of the better films of the genre, but it is still simply a genre piece.  There is little in the film that would ever make it seem otherwise, and it really does not hurt because of it.  Yes, Keeping the Faith is a simple romantic comedy and it is fine with that, there is really nothing wrong with.

Norton takes yet another near supporting role, nearly lost in the long periods the film spends with the love affair between Jenna Elfman and Ben Stiller; of Norton's seven film appearances to date, he has played second or third fiddle every time except for American History X.  This is not to say that Norton's character is unimportant to the story, in fact I'd consider him to be more important than Elfman, it is just that there is so much time spent with Stiller that it seems a bit uneven.

There is nothing in the film to mark Norton as a highly able director, in fact it is by the book for the most part, but the film does go beyond its calling with the screenplay.  All the actors are fine in the film, especially Eli Wallach one of the best actors that have fallen out of the limelight.  There is a nice chemistry between Norton and Stiller, I'd be interested to see the two work together again one of these days.

In its own right, Keeping the Faith meets its needs.  Sure, it is not some highly notable film, nor some future classic (in fact, with its mentions of VH1's Behind the Music and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, this film will be incredibly dated in a few years), but for sheer romantic fun, Keeping the Faith works.


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The Road to El Dorado

(Dir: Bibo Bergeron and Don Paul, Starring Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, and Edward James Olmos)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

The Prince of Egypt was a grand experience for the eyes; Antz was a fun, joyous experiment in more adult animation; but DreamWorks was not really pulled out the big guns for its third animated feature.  The Road to El Dorado is a type of mixture of the two, attempting to be a fun, yet more traditional animated film.  In fact much of the film comes off as too young for its small audience, and too dumbed down for its older viewers.  There so much to this film, it actually looks impressive at times, but it never comes anywhere near paying off.  The least remarkable Disney films of the nineties is Pocahontas, the Disney film this most closely resembles, and in some ways, wishes it could be.

From the title, I took it that the film was going to be a take-off of the great Crosby-Hope Road movies, which it does resemble in its own Cheech and Chong way.  The films two leads fill the Crosby and Hope shoes perfectly, with Kline voicing Tulio, the Crosby-esque attractive male that goes that tries to think logically, and Branagh voicing Miguel, the Hope-esque joker that goes with his instincts and never really thinks things through.  There's even the Dorothy Lomour character in the form Chel, the seductress that wants one and all he's worth.

The two protagonists find themselves stranded in the New World after abandoning a Spanish ship that would surely lead to their demise.  On the beach, the happen to find that the map Miguel took in a game of craps back in Spain, circa 1519, which leads the two of them (and their stolen horse) to the city of El Dorado, the city of gold.  Instead of being seen as trespassers on the sacred city, the inhabitants believe that these two are visiting gods, as prophesized by the city's witch doctor Tzekal-Kan (Assante).  The two live a lush life as they are waited on by both Tzekal-Kan and the city's chief (Olmos) who are currently feuding.  Of course, they cannot remain in this charade forever, so they decide to get out as soon as the chief can get a ship large enough to hold their gold.

Yes, there are some fun moments to the film, without a doubt, but I did not really feel the pleasure here that has been present in other efforts in animation.  The best part of the film is its animation which is breathtaking at times.  All of the vocal performers do good jobs, and the songs from Tim Rice and Elton John are pretty good at times (at least they are not complete take-offs of the songs they made for The Lion King).  I cannot really hate the film, and in need of a film, it might work.  So my thumb is slightly going up, if not in respect for the great visuals.


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The Skulls

(Dir: Rob Cohen, Starring Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, William Petersen, Craig T. Nelson, Leslie Bibb, Hill Harper, Steve Harris, Christopher McDonald, and Jenn Melino)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Did you know that former U.S. president George Bush was a member of a secret society when he went to Yale?  Probably not, this organization, called the Skull & Bones Society, has sworn all members, from senators to presidents, from authors to lawyers, to the strictest of secrecy -- this has never been a subject from those noted Bush lips.

That organization and its members are not fictitious ideas of a screenwriter, nor are they particularly mentioned in the film The Skulls, but their presence is highly noticeable.  I doubt that the screenwriter, U.S. Marshals scribe John Pogue, was a member, from this film I'd guess his well being would be endangered if such was true, but it is somewhat weird to know that this is not completely fictitious.  No, what happens here has never been documented, The Skulls is the brainchild of an untalented screenwriter, but at least there is nothing to say that nothing near it has happened.

All that speculation, all that gossip, is, unfortunately, far more interesting than the film itself.  Where the film looks at the way a secret organization works is rather interesting, but too much of it too early is spent in the old-age action thriller vein.  Would it kill Pogue to give the audience something meaty as opposed to the flighty The Fugitive rip-off?

The film is about one man's attempt to overcome the impediments thrown out by a secret Ivy League college group after his association with it leads to the death of a friend.  Luke McNamara (Jackson) would like to believe that joining the Skulls is a simple group to be with, an association of class and style that effects him financially and socially.  But what he learns, perhaps to late, is that such a secretive society cannot be so great.  He begins to find everyone of his old friends turn on him, and cannot really move to those closest to him in the Skulls.  The only member that seems to have any real relationship that might help him is a senator who's a board member of the organization (Petersen), but not even he has enough power to meet the power of the Skull chairman (Nelson) and his son (Walker).

The film does meet the needs style-wise, but much of it cannot come to help the film story-wise.  The art direction, very much like that of Eyes Wide Shut, meets the needs of iconoclastic wealth in the midst of utter secrecy. Of course, if that was enough to carry a film, The Haunting might be considered a classic.

The cast is rather unappealing, with Jackson and Harper coming off the worst.  I must admit that Petersen and Harris (Eugene of TV's The Practice) gave very good tries, but their work cannot really save the film.  Rob Cohen does pull off some interesting camera set-ups, in fact some are rather impressive, but the story could have done with some extra attention.

But, however bad the film was, with all the perks of the group -- the women, the parties, the money -- I'm starting to wish I had gone to Harvard.


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Reviews by:
David Perry
2000, Cinema-Scene.com

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