New Reviews

"Nickelodeon know-how"
Dir. Jonathan Frakes; writ. Rob Hedden and Andy Hedden; feat. Jesse Bradford, French Stewart, Paula Garcés, Michael Biehn, Robin Thomas, Jason Winston George, Linda Kim, Julia Sweeney, Lindze Letherman, Jeff Ricketts, Garikayi Mutambirwa (PG)
When high-schooler Zak Gibbs (Bradford) stumbles across a top-secret wristwatch that ushers its wearer onto a hyperfast plane of reality, his audience is treated to a panoply of truly special effects. At the touch of a button, Zak's metabolism speeds up to such a degree that the world around him appears to slow to a near-standstill. Streams of water hang precariously in the air and ostensibly stationary automobiles leave neon trails of implied nighttime movement.

The movie is more remarkable for these niftily executed gags than for its plot, familiar folderol that sets Zak on a mission to rescue his science-geek father (Thomas) from an evil techno-magnate who is bent on controlling the timepiece's awesome capabilities. Anybody can write a story like this, but what separates Clockstoppers from the kid-action pack is how effectively it plays upon its audience's fantasies of power and affluence. Zak pines for a red Mustang convertible, and the movie establishes early on that he has a serious shot at acquiring it. He's also a whiz on the classy, pricey Gibson Flying V guitar he keeps in his bedroom. (Zak's mutant-blues riffs, however, are mere sorbet between the heaping courses of new-school punk served up on the movie's soundtrack.)

With cars, guitars, and gadgets accounted for, there's one commodity left to pursue: babes. Our hero's earnest adventuring gets him in good with a luscious, underdressed Venezuelan schoolmate named Francesca (Garcés). As a character, she represents unrepentant eye candy. One scene even shows her puttering around in a towel after emerging from a shower, in full view of male companions of two generations. Take any 12-year-old boy to see this picture, and he'll be your slave for a year. SS

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
"Repackaged goodness"
Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Melissa Mathison; feat. Dee Wallace-Stone, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell (PG)
It's been 20 years since Reese's Pieces got a kick-start in sales and snuggable aliens gave us the finger. Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is back on the big screen, hoping to draw in a few new generations of fans Disney-style, with the additional bait of "never-before-seen footage, state-of-the-art computer-generated enhancements, and a digitally-remixed sound track" to crown its anniversary.

In E.T., bikes are mightier than cars, and children are the ones who think logically, know what's best, and keep secrets from their parents for their own good. The film both empowers children and breaks down the take-over-the-world alien stereotype of classic '50s sci-fi films, replacing it with a benign "family pet" from a distant star.

With this enhanced edition, Spielberg brushed out something he always regretted: guns carried by police and government agents while chasing the children are replaced with walkie-talkies. But the new footage and computer enhancements are unnecessary and even distracting if you've seen the film before. AS

Death to Smoochy
"Duller than Barney"
Dir. Danny DeVito; writ. Adam Resnick; feat. Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Catherine Keener, Harvey Fierstein (R)
What a great, vicious idea! Given the hyper-banal world of children's television, with insulting shows invented for no purpose other than selling truckloads of franchised crap, it's easy to believe a tale about bitterness, sell-outs, corruption, and crime whose protagonists are kids' TV mascots. And if the premise lends itself to the presentation of a ghastly murder plot with a target who closely resembles a much-hated big purple dinosaur... well, parents across America can be counted on to pay for that vicarious pleasure.

But what a lame, lifeless movie! As a director, Danny DeVito has made some cash from supposed black comedies such as Throw Momma from the Train and War of the Roses — judging by the box office, some would disagree, but for my money DeVito has never been able to connect his bile to the funny bone. There are more laughs here than in Roses, to be sure, but they're just gags; in a true black comedy, the laughter is uncomfortable, and arises from a part of the viewer's soul he might prefer not to acknowledge. Here, it's all run of the mill.

DeVito and screenwriter Adam Resnick (whose Lucky Numbers had a problem with tone as well) fumble the major assets they have. Casting the complex Ed Norton as Sheldon Mopes, the overgrown Boy Scout who plays Smoochy, was a good move; placing him in the protagonist position, where we're encouraged to identify with him, kills the character's comic potential. How much funnier it would've been for Sheldon to be a target in the film. If we actually wanted to see him dead, despite our knowing he's a good person, Death to Smoochy would get the kind of laughs it wants.

Smoochy is stuffed with similar fundamental flubs. Robin Williams, who has thankfully decided to leave Patch Adams sap behind, isn't given the direction he needs to become funny again; Jon Stewart, who on The Daily Show proves he's one of the smartest, funniest personalities around, is thrown away entirely. (Keener, revisiting the cynicism of her role in Being John Malkovich, is the only ray of light.)

Toward the beginning especially, DeVito places his camera in odd spots for no reason whatsoever. In other movies, this might just look goofy; in Smoochy it calls attention to the person making decisions off screen. Extra attention is the last thing anybody should be seeking for Death to Smoochy. JD

Kissing Jessica Stein
"Charming twist on an old story"
Dir. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld; writ. Heather Juergensen, Jennifer Westfeldt; feat. Westfeldt, Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Esther Wurmfeld, Scott Cohen, Ben Weber, Brian Stepanek, Jackie Hoffman (R)
Romantic comedies typically need to sell the idea that a protagonist has just found the one person in a sea of losers who can make him/her happy. After generations of retelling, it's a hard story to keep fresh; it's also a challenging one to foist on an audience whose lives tend to contradict the Prince Charming theory.

Stein reinvigorates the formula by giving us two straight women who decide to experiment with homosexuality. Helen is a libertine who's just looking for an erotic variation to check off her list; Jessica's a neurotic who, despairing in her search for a guy, reluctantly answers Helen's personals ad.

Thus begins one of the odder courtships in the movies: Jessica (a copy editor for a newspaper) approaches it as a research project, and takes weeks to get comfortable even with kissing her new friend; her never-settled, upper-register speaking voice makes us as nervous as she is. Helen, impatient to score, is meanwhile developing an unfamiliar tenderness. You get the idea. The movie is full of laughs, and plays them in a way that should please viewers of all persuasions; it indulges a few gay in-jokes, but it also refuses to use homosexuality as a punchline in the way a mainstream film might have a few years back.

Instead, the script, co-written by the two lead actresses and set in New York City, treads on a lot of Woody Allen territory. But it's less self-conscious and stylized than Allen's oeuvre, smart without being over-intellectual, in love more with its characters than the cinema. But it's certainly sharp enough (thanks partly to the more cynical overtones in Helen's character) to avoid the Sleepless sappiness one often encounters in today's fare. The film's easy-going humor contributes to an uncontrived warmth, letting us care for characters without feeling manipulated.

Late in the film, when the lovers face hardship, the unconventionality of their relationship allows things to play out a little differently than it would otherwise, plugging some welcome humor into the emotional crises. The story resolves in a stop-and-go way that again will recall Woody, and may strike some viewers as unlikely. Lifestyle experimentation is a complicated game, though — as weird as love itself — and a look around the real world proves that all kinds of cinematic resolutions to this scenario might ring true. While ringing true has never been a requirement for the romantic comedy genre, it's a nice bonus. JD

Resident Evil
"For adolescent couch slugs"
Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson; writ. Anderson; feat. Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, James Purefoy, Pasquale Aleardi, Stephen Billington, Anna Bolt, Liz May Brice, Jaymes Butler (R)
Resident Evil's makers don't believe in calm, unless it's that oh-so-brief pause before a storm of montage, or the minibreaths between outbreaks of splatter and dread. This rocking action-film's tension starts with the first image, builds to orgiastic levels of terror and gore, and hangs in the air of the closing shot like smoke from a funeral pyre. Resident Evil is the new speed-metal of action flicks and it's no coincidence that its sound track is shot through with hooks from the likes of Slipknot, Mudvayne, and Static-X.

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson from a script inspired by the wildly popular video game of the same name, this stress-fest postulates the usual omnipotent American conglomerate (here called the Umbrella Corporation) conducting top-secret, illegal experiments with genetics and viruses, unleashing, of course, the usual devastating results. Anderson's credits include bringing another video game, the infamous Mortal Kombat (1995), to the screen, but with much less success.

Resident Evil draws on such panic classics as Night of the Living Dead and Aliens for its white-knuckle scenario. But the zombie hordes and reptilian conduits that it borrows from those masterflicks are combined with the gruesome "hellhounds" and "lickers" of the video game in a firecracker string of M-80 freak-outs that just won't quit. GT

For your information
Films reviewed by:
AS: Anita Schmaltz
GT: George Tysh
JD: John DeFore
SK: Steven G. Kellman
SS: Steve Schneider


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