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Volume 2, Number 34

This Week's Reviews:  The Art of War, Bring It On.

This Week's Omissions:  The Big Blue, The Crew, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Shower.



The Art of War

(Dir: Christian Duguay, Starring Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko, Maury Chaykin, Michael Biehn, Anne Archer, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, James Hong, Donsald Sutherland, and Liliana Komorowska)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Last year served as home to one of the greatest cinematic achievements in visual effects.  Whatever you may think of the story or plodding of The Matrix, there is no question as to where that film took special effects.  And, like any other fine achievement, there has to be a surge of wannabes.

Earlier this year was Romeo Must Die, which killed the ballet beauty of a Jet Li kick by losing it in a grand scheme of CGI effects.  Most anyone would agree that the less spectacular effects in Li's other action films make the earlier efforts better.  The same could be thrown out for John Woo's lost Mission: Impossible 2.  Hell, you can even throw in the recent comedies Scary Movie and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, which liberally spoofed the Wachowski film's effects.

But all those films were independent from The Matrix in their own varying ways -- I have no doubt that Romeo Must Die would have been made even if The Matrix had not come along -- The Art of War is surely the product of The Matrix and could not have been made without such a precursor.

In fact, within a few minutes of The Art of War, I was already commenting that this was prime fodder for a straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren film.  Sure, there are special effects that some would kill for and bigger names than most straight-to-video productions, but the storytelling skills and aptitude are about par.

The Art of War follows in the steps of Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour by creating intrigue in a story revolving around Chinese culture.  Like those films, the goodguy and the badguy do not have to be Chinese, but most every facet of the film's essence is Oriental in culture.

Here, the Chinese international diplomacy and trade is at the fore, bringing many Americans to question what they can gain from whether or not the Chinese go along with a trade agreement.  One person that cannot really be touched either way is elite secret agent Neil Shaw (Snipes).  Well, that is until someone makes sure that he must be attentive to what is happening.

Shaw is framed for a murder, one that not only killed a Chinese diplomat, but also the lost of one of his closest friends (Biehn).  The two buddies play a game of basketball that is about as entertaining as watching Wesley Snipes bake a potato -- an act that the actor would surely put more soldering tension in than anyone could ever imagine.

With the Chinese gangs and the police after him, Shaw can only run and hope to find enough evidence to show his innocence.  Of course, the best way to prove innocence, as is often the case in these films, is to kidnap a Chinese translator that witnessed the killing (Matiko).  What a fine hero.

Director Christian Duguay is one of those hack filmmakers that no one really wants to admit as a prospective director.  His Screamers has been the laughing stock of cinema goers everywhere (it's sad when your film have become synonymous with the phrase "bad sci-fi film," taking the place of Dune) and it really scares me that he is the reported director of the next Terminator film (please say someone will replace him).

The production values convey every bit of a hack-piece and there is little to save it in the form of anything else in the film.  Sometimes bad films are held up from complete waste by having able direction, but this is not one of those cases -- Duguay yearns to create a scene in the sweeping form of some of his action contemporaries, but cannot hold a candle to them.

The screenplay, acting, and especially the audio dubbing are laughably bad -- some of the worst of the year.  As much as I hate to admit it, even Donald Sutherland cannot bring anything to what he has at hand.  And that audio -- at one point, a character's incorrect voice correction when dubbed over brings the only entertainment in the entire film.

The special effects are, I guess, supposed to be the real stars of the film.  The bullet time photography and choreography in one particular action sequence is so undeniably dependent on The Matrix that Larry and Andy Wachowski should sue.  If they knew that some two-bit directors were tarnishing their set-pieces, I'd think that they'd be highly unhappy.

So, what does this mean for cinema?  Well, The Matrix was sure to bring rehashes in addition to its sequels, one can only hope that all the rehashes will not continue to be this bad.


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Bring It On

(Dir: Payton Reed, Starring Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Jesse Bradford, Gabrielle Union, Nathan West, Hunter Ritter, Clare Kramer, Tsianina Joelson, Rini Bell, Brandi Williams, Natina Reed, Shamari Fears, Nicole Bilderback, Richard Hillman, and Lindsay Sloane)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Throughout the years there has always been a handful of stories that screenwriters can always go back to in hopes of making a film.  There's those sappy romance in the wake of illness films (Terms of Endearment? Autumn in New York?), those rousing save the planet action films (Plan 9 from Outer Space? Armageddon?), and those tepid cheer 'em up ditzy comedies (Born Yesterday? Runaway Bride?).  But there seems to be one that most often occurs: the set-up to the big game sports films.

We know them and, at times, we love them.  Rhubarb was one; so was Necessary Roughness; or how about Blue Chips?  Each time we see the hoopla, the cheering, and the glory of sports superheroes in the light of victory.  Hey, the last one occurred less than a month ago with the football themed The Replacements.

But, generally, the big game is always from the same stock list of sports:  baseball, football, and basketball.  Every once and a while you might catch tennis (The Break), hockey (The Mighty Ducks), or golf (Tin Cup), but it is highly irregular that you can catch cheerleading on the big screen.

To my knowledge, the last film to feature cheerleaders making their way to the big competition was the mediocre Gimme an 'F' in 1984.  Whatever the reason for such, the lack of this sport has never really hit people too hard (of course, that may be because many do not consider cheerleading to be a sport) -- it is rare that you might hear a Paramount meeting in which executives complain about the lack of pom-poms and tight sweaters in film (wait, they might just be thinking about the latter).

Bring It On, I guess, is meant to rectify that gross oversight.  To this film, cheerleading is a sport and one that should be respected for what it really is.  Watching this film leaves the viewer aghast at what really goes on behind the scenes of these squads -- the politics, the back-stabbing, and the inability to capture a moment that is in your reach but is just too many centimeters away to really hold without losing it in the desperation and victory (as Frank T.J. Mackey would say, "I'm sorry, was that unclear?").

Director Peyton Reed does not take on the task of filming girls and boys doing some of the most intricately planned gymnastic pieces for pride with an iron thumb, but instead as the fun that it really should be.  I know that we are supposed to get the idea that these are not just people out having fun, but that they are really working hard.  The direction could have pushed that to a limit set by the screenplay's many outspurts of cheerleading exposure, but instead Reed chooses to take it to a level that most non-cheerleader might enjoy -- one of those in which we are simply here watching the show in all its glory.

The film's protagonist, newly deemed head cheerleader Torrance Shipman (Dunst), is not someone that you might think could lead a team to victory, and she is not really supposed to be that easy.  For Torrance, this is really too much of a job -- there's even a moment in which it is recommended that she quit the leadership position and return to the more enjoyable work as simply one of the troupe.

Dunst plays Torrance as a ditz in the kindly Clueless way.  While Torrance has nothing to compare with Alicia Silverstone's Cher, neither in dimness nor savviness, she does have a sensibility that works for her ten fold.  I like Dunst as an actress and really hope that she will go beyond the title of "next big thing" and actually become the "big thing."  Since her introduction in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and Little Women, Dunst has continually pushed herself as an actress while keeping in the spotlight.  This is four in a row after fine performances in Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, and (please, oh please, see this) The Virgin Suicides.

Dunst may shine, but most of the rest of the cast disappears into the background.  Fine actors like Eliza Dushku (Faith on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jesse Bradford (Soderbergh's Roddy McDowall in King of the Hill) are lost in characters that are so bland that even Akiva Goldsman would cringe. I mean, is there really a need for Bradford's Cliff character except to spruce the sports with a (emphasis) little romance.

The film's secondary cheerleading squad, a much looked over black squad from East Compton, is treated with about as much respect as the oppressors that carry on the film's feeble message of unity and graciousness.  With a patter of "you go girl" responses and plotting grins, the second squad is made into the blind mice walking into a cat's mouth -- they have the ability to do everything that our main group can do, but there is nothing to make this film want to follow them.

Perhaps if that entire subplot had been treated differently or omitted, there might have been some understanding amongst the ranks.  I can see that there needed to be some competition, but it really hurts when I'm more interested in seeing a film about the competitors.

Jessica Bendinger wrote this as her first screenplay, and some of that amateurishness shows.  Much of the film's dialogue comes off more dumbed down than the satirical dialogue it yearns to be.  She has created a fine frame story and a great lead character, but lacks so much power in so many other departments.

Bring It On's squad is the main reason people go to their football games -- their football team is that bad.  In this case of this film, the audience wants to see a great game (the foreground film) and some great cheers (the sidebar entertainment) -- with this film, we only get the latter.


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

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