Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios made animation history (and $360 million) in 1995 with the release of the first all-computer animated feature, "Toy Story." Now, they have teamed together again to tell the epic adventure of miniature proportions in "A Bug's Life." The ants on Ant Island, each summer, are invaded by a gang of mean and greedy grasshoppers - led by the wicked bully, Hopper (Kevin Spacey) - and forced to give up most of their food or get stomped out of existence. This annual extortion seems to be the colony's fate forever, until on independent minded ant named Flik (Dave Foley) volunteers to leave the island to find a band of warriors to help them. He mistakenly hires an out-of-work troupe of circus bug performers as his "samurai," but doesn't realize his error 'til too late. Or, is it?

Robin ROBIN:
Comparisons will be made between "A Bug's Life" and both "Toy Story" and the DreamWorks animated bug flick, "Antz." For the record, I think "Bugs" falls in between the two. "Toy Story" is an original and a masterpiece of animation and story. "A Bug's Life" represents a leap in the development of computer animation with incredible, hyper-real imagery that makes you feel you are living at a bug's-eye view. The story used, though, is a fairly standard formula that is almost identical to that in "Antz." The main difference is the latter film deals with overcoming an enemy within, while "A Bug's Life" menace is outside the colony.

The original story, by directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton with Joe Ranft (who voices the corpulent caterpillar, Heimlich) represents a variation on the old Aesop fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, where a starving grasshopper begs for food from the hard-working ants. In the writers' twisted version, the grasshoppers are a gang of thugs, a la "The Wild One," who roar into the ant colony with wings buzzing and stomping wherever and whomever they want.

Flik, the self styled inventor and thinker of the colony, risks his life in search of warriors who will save them all. But, instead of the "Seven Samurai" he thought he hired, Flik finds an eclectic collection of colorful, motor-mouthed and funny bugs. Among them are a male ladybug who has a thing about his virility, a hammy old praying mantis magician and his lovely butterfly assistant, Gypsy, a walking stick with airs, a food obsessed Bavarian caterpillar, a friendly black widow spider, two madcap Hungarian pill bugs, and a bashful rhino beetle named Dim. The members of this group of unlikely warriors presents each of their personalities as unique individuals. All are funny and all are likable. Of the grasshoppers, only Hopper and his stammering, ineffectual brother Molt (Richard Kind, "Spin City"), have any real character. With the exception of Flik, Princess Dot (Hayden Panettiere), who believes in our hero, and the Queen Mother ( a funny turn by comedienne Phyllis Diller), the ant characters are little more than two dimensional. "Antz" did the ants better.

Technically, "A Bug's Life" is like nothing you have ever seen before. The detail and perspective of the minuscule world are a treat for the eyes. The opening shot of the "camera" eye swooping from above down into the faces of the hundreds of ants toiling to collect grain and berries for the grasshoppers' tribute is stunning to watch. The technical tour de force continues, unabated, right through to the very end credits. (If you don't usually stay for the end credits, do yourself a favor. Stay. You'll be pleased.) Where "Antz" kept the lighting more muted to, possibly, cover any problems with the big scenes, "A Bug's Life" is brilliantly lit with every attention to detail right out there to see. The winning combination of Disney and Pixar have set yet another standard for the computer animation craft.

"A Bug's Life" has something for kids of all ages. The witty dialog and contemporary humor keep things interesting and entertaining for the adults out there. The kids, even younger ones, have plenty to keep them occupied for 96 minutes. I give it an A-.

Laura LAURA:
"A Bug's Life," the second computer animated film about an ant colony in danger, comes from Pixar and Disney, the folks who created "Toy Story," and has that touch of Disney magic that "Antz" didn't quite attain.

This effort's more targetted at children (although adults will enjoy the
many in jokes and witty barbs) and creates a much brighter world than Dreamwork's darker "Antz."

The creatures are more varied.  Flik (voiced by Dave Foley of TV's "Newsradio") is a lavender hued inventor who's seen as a bumbler, particularly by Princess Atta (Julia Louis Dreyfuss) and his Queen (Phyllis Diller, sporting a jaunty flower crown).  When he accidentally dumps all the food they've gathered for the bullying grasshoppers (shades of "The Seven Samurai"), Flik suggests getting outside help to fight the grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey's evil Hopper) and is encouraged to go by the others merely to be gotten rid of.  He travels to 'the city' and through miscommunication winds up with a downtrodden troop of circus performers who believe they're going back to entertain the ants.

The city scenes feature such delightful visual jokes as a centipede mime and a panhandling fly with a sign saying 'Kid pulled my wings off.' The flea circus troop is introduced during a disastrous performance after which they're fired by P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger, TV's "Cheers"). They're comprised of a huge but sweet rhino beetle (Brad Garrett, "Everybody Loves Raymond"), a pompous praying mantis magician (Jonathan Harris, Dr. Smith of "Lost in Space"), a defensive male ladybug (Denis Leary), a gypsy moth (Madeleine Khan), a black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt, no match for Susan Sarandon's black widow of "James and the Giant Peach"), and two tumbling Hungarian pillbugs, Tuck and Roll.  Best of the bunch are David Hyde Pierce's fidgetty stick bug and Joe Ranft's Bavarian caterpillar clown Heimlich.

The film features a very surreal bird attack, a predator even the grasshoppers fear.  The bugs use their ingenuity to build a bird glider in hopes of ridding themselves of their enemy, but when the fakery is revealed, Flik discovers Hopper's even greater fear.

Technically, the film is a marvel.  While it doesn't quite inspire the awe that "Toy Story" did, it has it's own set pieces, such as raindrops seen as missiles from the ants point of view.  The story has good morals for kids and an uplifting ending where Hopper's dimwitted brother Molt (another terrific voice performance from "Spin City's" Richard Kind) is redeemed.

While adults will enjoy Hooper's line "It's a Circle of Life kind of thing" and the treat of hearing Jonathan Harris once more declare "Oh, the pain," do stay for the end credits which the filmmakers have outfitted with 'outtakes' featuring additional sly references.



England, 1553. Ruled by the Catholic zealot, Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke), the country is suffering financial ruin and religious instability. Mary is leading a campaign of repression against the Protestant minority and England is awash with political intrigue, conspiracy and terror. Even the queen's young half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, "Oscar and Lucinda") is in danger. But, Mary's final attempt to execute the princess for treason fails and Elizabeth ascends the throne, only to find herself faced with enemies on all sides. The inexperienced young queen initially follows her advisors' advice, instead of her own mind, bringing her and the country to the brink of disaster. Only with the help of her master of spies, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush "Shine"), can Elizabeth save her life, the throne and England.

Laura LAURA:
The first film about England's Elizabeth I in almost three decades is characterized by its "Godfather"-like intrigues played out with extremely angled camera shots of sinisterly dark scenes spiked with richly luxurious fabrics in jewel tones.  Indian director Shekhar Kapur ("The Bandit Queen") dismisses the stodgy trappings of the typical period film to create a vibrant, modern look at one of the world's most effectively powerful women.

Australian actress Cate Blanchett ("Paradise Road," "Oscar and Lucinda") is fiercely luminous as the young Protestant Princess.  We're introduced to her as lusty young girl in love with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and under the rule of her half sister, Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke, "Nil by Mouth"). Mary, whose fanatical faith has deepened the rift between her countrymen and earned her the moniker Bloody Mary, is near the end of her reign, half crazed with a delusional pregnancy which is actually terminal cancer.  She has Elizabeth installed in the Tower on charges of treason, but Elizabeth will not confess to false charges and Mary is too fearful of eternal condemnation to have her executed, even under the strong urgings of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston, "Jude").

Upon Mary's death, Elizabeth is installed on the throne, a young girl centered in a nest of vipers still loyal to the Catholic cause.  Her first challenge is to deal with Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant, "Ridicule"), a French Queen who's been building an army over the Scottish border.  Elizabeth's instincts tell her to do
nothing, yet her council all urge her to strike with her depleted forces, except for the mysterious Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, "Shine"). After a complete rout by the French, Elizabeth despairs, yet pulls herself together as 'her father's daughter' (King Henry VIII).

She decides to meet her internal enemies head on (even the Pope's taken out a hit on her).  In one of the film's best sccenes, Elizabeth practices he arguments to the Bishops before taking them all on to promote The Church of England.  When one of the bishops protests "You would force us to give up allegiance to our Holy Father!," Elizabeth coyly returns "I cannot force you my lord.  I am a woman."  Elizabeth also flouts convention by refusing political marriage proposals from Spain and France, creating more enemies and surviving an assassination attempt in the bargain.  When even her beloved Dudley is uncovered as a potential traitor, Elizabeth relies exclusively on her master spy Walsingham, who advises her to wipe out her enemies.

Blanchett is superb as the young queen who gives up all for England.  Whether grandly proclaiming "Play a Volta!" before openly enjoying a seductive dance with her lover, manipulating a court full of men or wailing for the loss of young men on a battlefield, she portrays strength with vulnerability.  It's an attention demanding performance.  Also terrific is Rush as the sinister Walsingham, always lurking on the sidelines observing everything in duty to his queen.  Rush is smooth, charming and lethal, as he proves when he seduces Mary of Guise in order to murder her, in his first strike against Mary's enemies.  (This last climatic montage is intercut with Elizabeth transforming  herself into her Virgin Queen persona and is extremely reminiscent of "The Godfather's" baptism scene.)  Another standout is Vincent Cassel ("La Heine") as Mary of Guise's nephew, the Duc d'Anjou, a homosexual dandy offered to Elizabeth in marriage.  He's outrageous (and Blanchett's dealing with him is a hoot).  Kathy Burke makes a strong impression as Mary before being dispatched from the film.  The rest of the cast, including Sir Richard Attenborough as Sir William and John Gielgud as the Pope, are serviceable.

The film's look is breathtaking, including cinematography by Remi Adefarasin on location at many of Britain's castles as well on sets at Shepperton Studios designed by John Myhre.  Costume design by Alexandra Byrne is exemplary.


Robin ROBIN:
Indian director Shekhar Kapur ("Bandit Queen") and an extraordinarily talented crew before and behind the camera have brought a unique and original telling of a period of western history that is both well-studied in film and little known. Films of or about Elizabeth began with John Ford's "Mary of Scotland" in 1936, but the subject has not been broached since the 1971 film, "Mary, Queen of Scots." "Elizabeth" is the first film about the famous monarch to cover the period from just before her ascension to the throne to her metamorphosis into the legendary Virgin Queen.

"Elizabeth" is an accomplished period piece that does a magnificent job of capturing the look and feel of Tudor England while telling a contemporary story of international political machinations, romance and war. The original screenplay by Michael Hirst captures the essence of the young queen and the events that lead to the making of one of the most powerful leaders in European, even world, history.

Shakhur and Hirst also succeed in putting a very modern spin on the material. One example of the contemporary flair of the film has Elizabeth amid the pomp of court proceedings while, behind the scenes, Walsingham stages a coup against her enemies, consolidating the queen's power base. This sequence bears a striking likeness to a very similar sequence in Francis Coppola's "The Godfather." Another, almost gangster-like, scene has the Pope (John Gielgud) ordering a "contract hit" on Elizabeth because of her support of religious diversity. These scenes, and others, raise "Elizabeth" out of what could have
simply been a "frock flick."

Cate Blanchett is radiant as the young princess-turned-queen. She portrays the monarch as a lusty young woman who knows her mind and gets what she wants - mostly at the hand of her lover, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). Blanchett is magnetic in her performance. Her unusual beauty, lighted to heighten her looks, dominates the screen in all of her scenes. Look forward to a lot of critical, if not popular, acclaim for the young actress.

The supporting cast is solid on all levels. Rush plays the enigmatic Walsingham with a deft touch. Without a lot of dialog, he establishes the master spy as totally loyal and dedicated to his queen. Kathy Burke is notable as Queen Mary. Christopher Ecclestone ("Shallow Grave), as Elizabeth's main opponent, the Duke of Norfolk, is great looking as the evil vizier character, lending an air of menace and cunning to the man. Fiennes plays Lord Robert well enough but is overshadowed in his scenes with Blanchett. Richard Attenborough, as Elizabeth's trusted but aging advisor, Sir William Cecil, acts the role solidly. French actress Fanny Ardant gives a striking performance in the small role of Mary of Guise, who led an invasion of Scotland for the French king.

Technically, "Elizabeth" is a marvelous tour de force. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin ("Truly, Madly, Deeply") utilizes shadow and contrast to give the film an almost black and white look at times, capturing the interior scenes with exceptional clarity. Costuming by Alexandra Byrne ("Hamlet"), as one would expect of the Elizabethan era, is elegant and colorful with terrific attention to detail, particularly with Elizabeth's wardrobe. Production designer John Myhre gives the film a grand look fitting the story of a queen.

"Elizabeth" should draw a respectable audience with its intelligent appeal, fine production, intriguing story and excellent acting. I give it a solid A.


Big Brother IS watching you! That's the central theme of the latest collaboration between director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Crimson Tide"). Starring Will Smith ("Men in Black") and Gene Hackman ("The Conversation"), "Enemy of the State" is about the most secret branch of the United States government, the National Security Agency (NSA) and a high-ranking member. Thomas Brian Reynolds (John Voight, "Anaconda") has appropriated the vast resources of the Agency to commit murder and conceal an enormous political cover-up. Attorney Robert Clayton Dean (Smith) is an innocent bystander who becomes embroiled in the plot and needs the help of ex-spook Brill (Hackman) to clear his name and save his life.

Robin ROBIN:
"Enemy of the State" is a tremendously slick production that starts off running and keeps the frenetic pace for its 2+ hour runtime. Director Scott harnesses a number of different technologies to create a political thriller that blasts the surveillance community for its potential to invade the lives of virtually anyone in the country via phone, satellite or by plain old tailing (with high-tech gear). The questions raised about Big Brother and the violation of the individual right to privacy represents the second thriller this fall ("The Siege" is the other) to intelligently present a story of the violation of our Constitutional rights.

Will Smith as the Everyman hero caught in the middle of violent political intrigue is nicely cast. His jug-handle eared good looks and natural humor help him lend dimension to the character Dean. Bobby Dean is a nice, likable, honest, hard-working family man caught in a web not of his making. There is a good deal of physical action through the film and Smith does a decent job filling the bill. He also gets some dramatic licks in, especially in his scenes with Hackman.

Gene Hackman is one of America's great actors and when he arrives, at the hour mark, the film goes up a notch. His Brill is a renegade who got sick, years before, of the whole spy business and works now to subvert it. Hackman plays the man with subtlety and, with great economy, develops the ex-master spy into a real person who knows just how to turn the system against its owners. For Dean, Brill is the techno-knight who can save his butt and help him get his life back.

The supporting cast is peopled with a talented array of character actors old and new. Jon Voight, as the evil NSA chief is menacing and ruthless, believing that the end always justifies the means, no matter what the means costs. His thugs, such notable young actors as Ian Hart, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, and Loren Dean look good in the roles but have no where to go with their shallowly drawn characters. Regina King, as Dean's lawyer/human rights advocate wife, is miscast in the role. Lisa Bonnet, who plays Dean's confidant and ex-lover, Rachel Banks, should have swapped parts with King. Uncredited Tom Sizemore hits the spot as a Mafia chieftain at odds with Dean, who holds some damaging video on the mobster. Look for cameos by Jason Robards and Gabriel Byrne.

The script, a combination of "Sneakers" meets "The Conversation," is populated with an array of characters, some pretty evil, who are bent on finding Dean and Brill and will go to the greatest lengths imagined. The high-tech NSA surveillance operations is riveting to watch and, by the filmmakers own admission, is probably not even close to showing what the NSA really has for digging into the lives of anyone, anywhere. The inundation of technology keeps the genre fan entertained with its attention to detail of story. Buried in all the gadgetry is also a slight of hand story involving the mob connection presented at the beginning of the film that is a treat of plot twists. The story culminates in a confrontation between the Cosa Nostra and the secret Feds that smacks of Scott's own "True Romance."

Obviously, tech credits are top-of-the-line. One would expect no less in a Jerry Bruckheimer production with Scott at the helm. Newcomer feature cinematographer Dan Mindel uses a variety of cameras, including tiny button-hole surveillance camera, to give the film a fast flow. Editing by Chris Lebenzon ("Crimson Tide") helps give the film its frenetic looks and feel. Sometimes the rapid fire editing style is to hard on the eyes, making some scenes, like inside NSA headquarters, hard to get a feel for the whole picture.

It's good to see an action thriller have a story that has some real meaning and issues that may open quite a few eyes to the fragility of the rights of the individual in a world where things are moving too fast to control. I give "Enemy of the State" a B.

Laura LAURA:
British director Tony Scott ("True Romance") rebounds from the debacle of  "The Fan" with his techno-thriller "Enemy of the State."  Will Smith is Robert Clayton Dean, a high powered attorney currently fighting for union rights against a mafia boss (Tom Sizemore) who's threatening his life unless Dean returns an incriminating videotape.  Dean is married to Carla (Regina King, "Jerry Macguire"), an ACLU attorney with strident beliefs regarding the individual's right to privacy for which her husband affectionately teases her.  No sooner can you say 'paranoia' than Dean is unknowingly slipped evidence of a congressman's murder by an an old college buddy (Jason Lee "Chasing Amy") who's promptly killed in front of his eyes.

The renegade NSA team responsible for the crime, led by Reynolds (Jon Voight), is soon tracking and bugging Dean.  They plant pictures of him with his colleague and old girlfriend Rachel (Lisa Bonet), with whom he had a marriage-threatening affair, in an incriminating newspaper story and presto, Dean's thrown out of his house by his hurt and angry wife and fired from his prestigious law firm.  His credit cards are cut off and he doesn't understand what's happening to him, so attempts to make contact with Rachel's mysterious information source, Brill.  The first Brill (Gabriel Byrne) is an NSA plant who attempts to kill him, but the real Brill (Gene Hackman) has been observing and takes Dean at gunpoint.  Brill isn't happy To be meeting Dean, promptly puts him in an elevator to confuse the trackers, and begins stripping detection devices off him (Hackman's Brill is a nice homage to his earlier character in the superior film, "The Conversation.")  On the rooftop, as a stealth copter approaches, Brill informs Dean that he's still got a tracking device on him and that he'll be surprised if Dean lives another 24 hours.  Then he disappears.

Scott makes effective use of rapid-fire cross-cutting of the high tech surveillance following Dean throughout these chase scenes.  Star Wars-type satellites orbitting the earth zoom in to real time live pictures of Dean on the run, which allow the NSA team to bark commands to their ground team. As Dean's stripped of his bugs by Brill, the NSA speculate 'He's committed suicide or he's learned to fly!' Dean's forced to strip before hitting the road again, which he does in the hotel room of a Japanese couple to forced comic effect.  Eventually he re-teams with the crusty Brill, who turns out to have a deep background with ties back to Dean himself.  The film ends almost where it began in a double-triple cross which resembles the climax of "True Romance" while still being more clever than these types of movies generally are.

Smith proves that he can carry a dramatic role - he's a likeable everyman. Hackman is a joy to watch here, creating almost a sequel to a character from over two decades ago and avoiding the complacency he sometimes falls into lately.  Voight is good as the NSA guy who's become a renegade in order to move his career ahead after being passed over too long.  His team is peopled with such actors as Loren Dean ("Rosewood"),  Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan"), Ian Hart ("Backbeat"), Jake Busey ("The Frighteners") and Scott Caan in his debut.  Jason Robards is uncredited as the scrupulous congressman who's murdered for his beliefs.

"Enemy of the State" is a fast moving entertainment that dares to infuse its story with more thought and intelligence than many of its genre.  Tech credits are superb.



Adapted from the book "Father of Frankenstein" and directed by Bill Comdon, "Gods and Monsters" is a fictional reflection on the last days of homosexual English director James Whale (Ian McKellan).  Whale, known for his horror films "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein," rejected Hollywood after his true masterpiece, a WWI film, was butchered by the studio and flopped. Rejecting Hollywood also caused him to inadvertently reject his lover of many years who remained in the moviemaking business.  Now sickly and retired, Whale lives with his caustic but caring Hungarian housekeeper Hannah (Lynn Redgrave), spending his days painting.  When Hannah hires the strapping and handsome Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser) as a gardener, Whale becomes fascinated with the young man and asks him to sit for him.  The two form an odd friendship with Clay's honesty causing Whale to unleash a torrent of painful memories that both touch and repel the young man.

Laura LAURA:
"Gods and Monsters" is such a complex portrait of the torture of passion that it makes one believe the story was true.  Masterfully intercutting scenes from both "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" with scenes of a silhouetted Fraser as the monster and horrific WWI scenes into the present 1950s action, we're presented with a complexly injured artist railing against the injustices of his life in its final days.

This 'what if' scenario that leads up to Whale's real death (he was found dead in his swimming pool) is an inspired bit of imagination.  The openly gay McKellan gives a bravura performance as the retired director whose failing health makes him want to justify his life.  His disappointments spill over to the present day, when, invited to a reception for Princess Margaret, he's first mistaken for Cecil Beaton, then learns his invite was rigged by a geeky film student who wanted to reunite him with Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester.  Brendan Fraser is believable as Clay, a simple man whose humanity allows him to befriend Whale as he furiously rejects Whale's homosexuality.  He bristles when Whale reminisces about all male nude swimming parties, but is moved when he recounts the tragic death of his young male lover during WWI.  Lynn Redgrave is sharply funny as Hannah, the German housekeeper who frets over Whale but prays for the forgiveness of his 'perversity'.  McKellan and Redgrave give two of the most memorable performances of the year.

Technically the film belies its indie roots.  The film has a colorful California feel which is jarringly broken up with startling images of war, "Frankenstein" footage, and Fraser traversing fantasy landscapes.

The film neatly dovetails Whale's fate with his most famous monster's, as Clay is gifted with the old man's only pre-production sketch of Frankenstein which he has simply signed 'Friend?'.  "Gods and Monsters" is a moving movie experience.



Documentary filmmaker Bennett Miller has come up with an original idea about a truly unique individual, Timothy "Speed" Levitch, in "The Cruise." Speed is a modern day prince of New York City, a homeless man who has the unusual career of tour bus announcer in the Big Apple. Following the scholar of all things New York, Miller keeps the camera on Speed as he expounds upon his love for and symbiosis with the city, talking like a man discussing his lover. All of this philosophizing is tempered with Speed's bus tour commentary, expounding on the city's literary figures, history and architecture.

Robin ROBIN:
Miller selected a fascinating subject in Speed Levitch. The nasal voiced, stringy-haired, skinny philosopher is a real-life one-man show with a tremendous knowledge of, and passion for, his city. He tells his passengers, in rapid fire commentary, about what literati lived, loved and died where on Manhattan, the history and qualities of the architecture unique to the city, and of life itself.

One-man-production-team Miller has a good eye for composing his subject and keeping the pace fast, bringing the film in under 80 minutes run-time and filling that time brightly. He is also a low-rent Gordon Willis cinematographer for Woody Allen's "Manhattan") in his photographic style, capturing Manhattan in a way that brings out the dynamics of what some consider the best city in the world.

The off-beat nature of "The Cruise" and its wacky, one-of-a-kind subject make it a treat for the fans of documentary films. Speed's love for New York is a palpable thing and it rings loud under the deft hand of Miller. The popularity of the film at the 1998 Sundance Festival, and its good quality, should propel both Miller and Speed to national attention, if not fame.

I give "The Cruise" a B.


When Angus and Dorian Lever's manipulative mom requests her boys give her cheating husband a good scare, their pursuit of him with an attack copter brings about his heart failure.  Momma's boy Angus (Jake Busey) is concerned about the radio frequency crossover during the attack, so enlists Dorian (Luke Wilson) to take a job at the Burger-Matic where the young, single, very pregnant Sally (Drew Barrymore) mans the takeout window wearing a headset.  Dorian falls for Sally only to discover that she's carrying his deceased stepdad's child and is now the new target of his own family in "Home Fries."

Laura LAURA:
"Home Fries" is a black romantic comedy that doesn't execute its own good ideas strongly enough.  What results is a vaguely sweet, somewhat quirky movie carried by little else than the charisma of its stars.

Drew Barrymore is at her sunniest as Sally, beloved by everyone who meets her.  ('Hey, darlin'!' her boss cries when she arrives at work.) Luke Wilson, Barrymore's real life love, is a sweet natured innocent confusedly bumbling through a life made weird by his immediate family. Jake Busey is a madman whose fixation with his mother borders on incestuous and who will stop at nothing in his attempts to please her.  Catherine O'Hara is a twisted individual who pulls her sons' strings while maintaining surface normality.  The film also features a rare screen appearance by Shelley Duvall as Sally's mom.

Vince Gilligan's script has the right elements, but debuting feature film director Dean Parisot plays them too lightly.  When the comedy should be biting, it's just too good natured.  He does place his camera well, however, with an establishing shot of Sally accentuating her pregnancy from directly overhead or an incredibly (some might say insufferably) cute tight shot of her wearing a copter pilot helmet that covers half her face.  The opening attack sequence at night is eerily effective.  Also noteworthy is the score by Rachel Portman which is at turns Beetlejuicesque and romantically melancholy.  An offbeat selection of songs include "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and "Macarena."

"Home Fries" probably won't last long at theaters during a crowded holiday season, but it's worth a look on video.


Robin ROBIN:
First-time director Dean Parisot makes an ambitious, if not entirely successful, premier effort in bringing the screenplay by "The X-Files" producer/writer Vince Gilligan to the screen. "Home Fries," starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson ("Bottle Rocket"), is a multi-threaded story of murder, mayhem, love, pregnancy, helicopters, fast food, jealousy, vengeance, stalking and more. Parisot bit off more than he could capably chew in trying to tie all these quirky elements together into a coherent, evenly balanced work. A more experienced hand (say, Parisot in a few years) may have been able to keep all the balls in the air as the myriad stories are juggled around.

Drew Barrymore, as almost-white-trash and very pregnant Sally Jackson, is Kewpie doll cute in both her looks and demeanor. Sally is a warm, charming and loving young lady who is ready and willing to admit to her mistakes and rolls up her sleeves to do the right thing for herself and her baby. Even as an illegitimately pregnant, minimum-wage-earning soon-to-be-a-single mother, Barrymore comes across as a good, caring person and strong role model for her responsibilty.

Costar Wilson (Barrymore's real-life main squeeze), as Dorian, is a nice bookend for Sally. There is an aw-sucks kind of chemistry between the two that allows the romance between them to segue into a nice, if predictable, happy ending. Dorian is befuddled (not stupid) by his mixed loyalties to his manipulative mother (Catherine O'Hara, "Waiting For Guffman") and crazy brother, Angus (Jake Busey, "Enemy of the State"), and his budding new love for Sally.

O'Hara, as the possessive, manipulative, conniving Mrs. Lever, the mom-from-hell to Dorian and Angus, gives a nuanced comic performance as a woman more concerned with her now-late husband's infidelity than his death. Busey's Angus is devoted to his mom and is more than willing to do her twisted bidding, right down to frightening his cheating step-father to death or hunting down the man's mistress (Sally) with a fully load Cobra attack helicopter. Shelley Duvall, as Sally's big-hearted, loving mom, gives a perfect spin on a little role.

The screenplay, by Gilligan, is a clever combination of black comedy, shock and romance that rolls along well. Setting the film in a small town dominated by a cigarette company offers some of the many little offbeat moments in the film.  A more even handling of all the story threads would have made "Home Fries" a better picture.

Cinematography is straightforward throughout and has a few moments of visual brilliance - one scene, in particular has Angus, with an unwilling Dorian, stalking their philandering step-father at night with an attack 'copter. It has a striking look and is an exciting scene, technically. Other tech credits are solid.

"Home Fries" is a nice little film that tries to be an edgy black comedy and a light romance. It's a hard combo for a successful film. There's a lot of spirit in it, though, and I give it a hearty C+.


Woody Allen's New York set "Celebrity" uses the worlds of filmmaking, book publishing, fashion and television as a backdrop for the romantic misadventures of Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), a recently divorced writer who can't decide whether to be a journalist, screenwriter or novelist. Every woman he encounters looks better to him than the one he's currently with, ensuring that his love life is as hopeless a fiasco as his career. His devastated ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis), who frequently encounters her ex amidst glitzy New York happenings, contrastedly finds her career successfully propelled into an area she never would have had confidence in if it weren't for the support of her new lover Tony (Joe Mantegna), a television producer.

Laura LAURA:
One would think that a film based on the notion that 'who we celebrate tells us about ourselves,' as Judy Davis' character states, would be rife for the wit of Woody Allen, who's suffered his own fair share of celebrity.  His "Celebrity," however is a shallow, crashing bore.

Kenneth Branaugh, misguidedly aping Allen's neurotic twitchings and vocal inflections, plays a man who immediately always wants another woman once he gets the one he covets.  That he ends up hooked on Nola (Winona Ryder), a female version of himself, is one of the film's few satisfactions. The wife he's dumped at the film's beginning evolves into the most interesting character in this ensemble.

Robin (Judy Davis) blossoms under the attentions of TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), a truly nice guy who builds her self confidence.  Robin leaves behind her mousy schoolteacher days and becomes a Helen-Mirren-chic TV celebrity interviewer.  'I've become the type of woman I used to hate and now I'm happy!' she declares in wonder.  She's so distrustworthy of her own good fortune, she almost destroys it.  This couple is the only thing worth routing for in the film.

Leonardo Dicaprio is fun as the spoiled young movie star, Brandon Darrow, who trashes hotel rooms Johnny Depp style.  His every whim is attended to as he floats through an empty existence.  Melanie Griffith is believable as another movie star who believes she remains faithful to her husband if she only cheats from the waist up.  Charlize Theron is a blank slate as a supermodel.  Famke Janssen is drab as Simon's publisher.  Bebe Neuwirth is dull as a hooker Robin turns to for boudoire advice.

Sven Nykvist's black and white cinematography is striking, yet Allen's beloved New York City is used to the least effect of any of his films. The laughs to be had with "Celebrity" can be counted on one hand.  Allen dips into his religious well by sending Robin to a Catholic retreat where nuns become giddy when a television priest visits.  Funnier is the casting of Dylan Baker as a priest so soon after his pedophile turn in "Happiness."  Tony bemoans the fact that he and Robin went to the West Coast to interview Charlie Manson and he forgot to get his autograph for his nephew.

It would seem that Allen's lead character Lee Simon's resorting to writing puff pieces while riding out writer's block on his novel is an analogy for Allen's film.


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