INSTINCT - LIMBO
NOTTING HILL - THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR

INSTINCT

 Ambitious resident psychiatrist Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr., "Jerry Maguire") begs his mentor Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland) to allow him to do the evaluation on their former college colleague Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), a reknowned primatologist who's been returned from Rwanda as a murderer. Powell is estranged from his wife and daughter Lyn (Maura Tierney, "Forces of Nature"), acts like the mountain gorillas he was studying and refuses to speak. When Caulder begins his sessions with Powell, he believes his work will result in a book and ensuing fame, but what he gets instead is something far deeper and emotional.

Laura's review of 'Instinct':
Despite its derivative nature, "Instinct" is an emotionally satisfying film due to the high acting calibre displayed by its cast. Director Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon") does a first rate job bringing Gerald DiPego's screenplay (adapted from the novel "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn) to life.

The film does have some flaws. Theo amazes the prison staff by getting Powell to speak within minutes of their first session. This would have played a bit more believably if it had been given a few more minutes of screen time to develop. The mysterious estrangement between Powell and his adult daughter (he tells Theo that his only message for her is "Goodbye") is resolved with a loving embrace and no explanation. One can see the script go through its paces (conflict here, big moment there) a little too obviously. The makeup of the prison for the criminally insane recalls "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" all too often. (The guards taunt the inmates by throwing playing cards into their cells. Whoever gets the ace of diamonds gets outdoor privileges. Bully Bluto always gets the card and the guards do nothing to stop him. Theo showboats a new system in that gets everyone a turn, much to the guards' and warden's chagrin). The filmmakers manage to undercut their debt to "Gorillas in the Mist" with a sly reference to Sigourney Weaver by one of the inmates.

Cuba Gooding Jr. proves his Oscar win was no fluke, turning in a strong and complex performance as Caulder. He's never overshadowed in his scenes with Hopkins, who's also interesting, although not in a 'knock-your-socks-off-Hannibal-Lector' way. Hopkins has a tougher assignment, though - that of the noble matyr, but he gives his character a jagged edge, dispensing life lessons to Theo with tough love. Also very good is Maura Tierney as the concerned, confused, professional photographer daughter who has an interesting, just shy of romantic, relationship with Theo, who must make her face hurtful memories in order to break through to her dad.

Support is also noteworthy. George Dzundza ("Dangerous Minds") is Dr. Murray, a staff psychiatrist at the prison who Theo haughtily disparages before recognizing a compatriot. Dzundza does a good job portraying a man worn down by the system who sparks to life when new blood arrives to churn things up. Thomas Q. Morris and Doug Spinuzza are good as Pete and Nicko, the two inmates who recognize the goodness in Powell (as well as resemble the Danny Devito and Brad Dourif characters of "Cuckoo's Nest"). Donald Sutherland is an arch mentor who clearly sees his early self in his student.

Cinematographer by Philippe Rousselot ("A River Runs Through It") is mostly composed of tight two shots, but he gets to shine in African flashbacks when Powell finally recounts his story. Gorilla effects by veteran Stan Winston stand among the most lifelike ever brought to the screen. The film's many contributors all do top notch work in the climatic scene where Hopkins stares into the eyes of the patriarchal gorilla, a scene which is later repeated with inmate Pete.

"Instinct" is a solid, commercial entertainment.

B

Robin's review of 'Instinct':
Dr. Ethan Powell (Sir Anthony Hopkins) was a brilliant, but emotionally cold, primatologist, until his studies brought him to the jungles of Rwanda where, among the mountain gorillas, he is unexpectedly accepted into their fold. This acceptance changes the man, triggering a wonderful inner peace and, for the scientist, true understanding - until a vicious attack on Powell's "family" by the park rangers searching for the missing doctor. Ethan attacks the attackers, killing two, and ends up extradited to the US and sent to a maximum security psychiatric prison. He comes under the care of up-and-coming and ambitious psychiatrist Theo Caulder. The meeting changes the two men in ways not expected by either in "Instinct."

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" meets "Gorillas In The Mist" is one way to describe the screenplay by Gerald DiPego ("Phenomenon"), inspired by the novel "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn. The story covers the life of Ethan Powell as he, first, studies the magnificent apes of Rwanda, then, realizing that his "study" doesn't even scratch the surface of his understanding the gorilla clan, slowly works to be accepted by his surrogate family.

Part two has the "Ape Man" behind bars for murder and mute to any inquiries. Powell's international stature in his field forces his extradition to the US, incarceration in a mental institution and a pending competency hearing to prove or deny his sanity. Hotshot shrink Theo Caulder is assigned by his mentor, Dr. Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland), to provide the psychological evaluation of the anthropologist. Caulder sees his assignment as an opportunity to break into the big league of his profession, possibly with a book about Powell's life and metamorphosis among the apes.

"Instinct" starts off a little slowly, taking a full hour to get to the point of the story about two very different men, both strong-willed. whose lives are inextricably thrown together with both changing into something better than they once were. This part is peppered with insight into Powell's true development as a "human being," That his teachers are a band of primates in the heart of Africa helps to bring out the intriguing nature of the tale.

Acting is relegated to Hopkins and Gooding, with the solid cast of supporting character actors given little opportunity to flesh their roles beyond the two-dimensional. Hopkins has the more brooding role, and minimalist dialog, of the two leads. Powell is the metaphysical guide for Theo as the younger man journeys to becoming both human and humane. Powell is, initially, the catalyst for the psychiatrist's ambitions but, as they grow to know and understand each other. Those ambitions change into something far more important to Theo than his previous dreams of "success." Gooding does a solid, and convincing, job as the young doctor whose life is changed through knowing Ethan Powell.

Of the supporting cast members, Maura Tierney makes the most of her role as the estranged daughter of Ethan. Unfortunately, their relationship is handled in a perfunctory and sterile manner, so Tierney has a tough role. Donald Sutherland is wasted as Theo's boss. George Dzundza ("No Way Out") puts spark into his perf as the prison shrink who had given up the hope of
change, until Theo arrives.

Production values are high across the board, with the stellar animal F/X by master Stan Winston ("Terminator," "Jurassic Park") providing the film's technical showcase. Winston has honed his animatronic and CGI skills to such a fevered pitch, in "Instinct," that the boundary between real animals and F/X is seamless. The apes of the film, without uttering a word, are easily the best of the supporting characters in the flick.

The pic's other tech credits do justice to the lead actors and the F/X. Set design for the different parts of the psychiatric hospital and the ape habitat are fitting. Location for the jungles of Rwanda are replaced with the rainforest of Jamaica as a stand-in. Danny Elfman's music score is suitable but unremarkable.

"Instinct" takes a while finding its way with it's story of two very different men and their effect on each other, but, once it gets going, the tale is intriguing and emotionally involving. The depiction of the gentleness and acceptance of the ape family captivates the heart, making the viewer identify with the huge primates. I give it a B.


LIMBO

The state of limbo can mean many things. For Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), it's the life of guilt he has lived following a pair of drowning deaths that he has blamed himself for, for the last 25 years. For Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), it's ending up a lounge singer in Port Henry, Alaska, without roots but with a teenage daughter. For the daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), it's living in her adventurous mother's shadow and never having a real home. This all changes as unexpected intrigue thrusts the trio into harms way in the tale of survival and rebirth in director/writer/editor John Sayles' "Limbo."

Robin's review of 'Limbo':
John Sayles is a prolific, independent filmmaker whose terrifically varied works have always followed his own vision of cinema. "Limbo" is a finely crafted entry to his portfolio, with splashes of Sayles' own, unique style, but it is not a work without flaw. The problems with the film are myriad. The editing, by Sayles, who has clipped all of his films, is surprisingly uneven and stilted. Also, the story starts off with a number of characters and conflicts introduced and, one by one, dropped without reason or explanation. The inclusion of Casey Siemaszko, as Joe's half brother, feels artificial, as if the actor were filmed separately from the rest of the actors.

Besides the main story line, Sayles peppers the film with sidebars such as the commercialization of the land, the rape of the environment and the concept of turning Alaska into the world's biggest, genuine wilderness theme park. There are also a pair of women, Frankie and Lou, who came to the great north to freely live their alternative lifestyle, and are in the midst of feud with one of the locals. Finally, a point on the economic woes of the area is punctuated with the closing of the local fish cannery, put many of the residents out of work. There is a lot going on here, not all of it complete.

On the plus side, the principal story is wrought with ambiguity and symbolism with each of the lead characters coping with their own inner and outer demons. This ambiguity is carried right through to the film's sudden and abrupt end - a touch I, personally, like. The principle acting is first-rate.

The three leads - Joe, Donna and Noelle - are played with nice chemistry by all. Strathairn's Joe is a pensive, introspective man whose guilt over the accident a quarter century ago has colored his life in a drab tentativeness. The arrival of Mastrantonio's Donna, an attractive, free-spirited singer, ignites a spark in Joe that he thought was long extinguished. (Mastrantonio does her own singing as is terrific.) The pair do not make fireworks with their passion, but their need for something missing in each of their lives is palpable. Martinez, as the angst-ridden daughter is given the most emotion as the girl copes with the trio's plight and her own inner longings for a rooted life.

Supporting cast is limited with Casey Siemaszko, as Joe's half brother Bobby, representing the cause of the trio's plight, and Kris Kristofferson as Smilin' Jack, a seaplane pilot who has a dark past with Joe and is the object of the film's totally up-in-the-air ending - an end that some viewers vocally rejected, but is intriguing, nonetheless. Sayles means to shock the viewer in the abrupt way he closes the story. The rest, like the colorful Frankie and Lou, are left flapping in the breeze as the story changes to one of survival and they are forgotten by the makers.

Cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler ("Days of Heaven") beautifully captures the majestic panoramas of Alaska and its creations, as well as the softly lighted clrk. I give "Limbo" a B.

Laura's review of 'Limbo':
Writer/Director/Actor John Sayles' ("Lone Star") "Limbo" is steeped in symbolism that its title suggests. Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, "Class Action") has come to Port Henry, Alaska with her troubled teenage daughter in tow because her career and lovelife are in limbo. Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn, "Dolores Claiborne") has lived there all his life, but is haunted by a commercial fishing accident that he survived but his crew didn't 25 years earlier. Donna's daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez, "Lone Star") is disturbed by her mother's rootless lifestyle and her absent, remarried father's indifference. When Joe's half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko, "Young Guns") arrives in town asking for Joe's assistance picking up a wealthy client in his sailing yacht, Joe invites Donna and Noelle to come along. Bobby's lied about his mission, however, and is murdered in a remote inlet by the drug dealers he's indebted to. This leaves Joe, Donna (who's previously told Joe that 'if you wear gear instead of clothes, I don't do it') and Noelle stranded in the Alaskan wilderness alternately hoping for rescue and fearing being found by Bobby's murderers.

Sayles' film is one of two parts. The first hour establishes the characters and the town of Port Henry. Among its denizens are Frankie and Lou (Kathryn Grody and Rita Taggart), a lesbian couple running a lodge which they bought from Harmon (Leo Burmester). Harmon's trying to get his fishing boat back from them, now that the salmon cannery plant where he worked has been closed down. Smilin' Jack (Kris Kristofferson) is a bush pilot whose brother was drowned in Joe's accident. Sayles interests us in all these characters just to drop them in his film's second half. Also problematic is a running joke of a tourist group frequently seen in the background which, while amusing, seems to have come in from another film.

The wilderness survival piece allows us to really delve into the three main characters. Strathairn's Joe is a decent man, a dour blue collar worker with humor and intelligence hidden behind his silence. He's also extremely capable, knowing just what to do in unexpected circumstances. This trait allows the audience to absolve him for the accident he won't forgive himself for. Mastrantonio has never been better than she is here, a woman who makes one bad choice in men after another, but still fiesty and independent and a good mother. She's also got a surprisingly good singing voice.

Martinez is outstanding as the brooding, self mutilating Noelle. She's a gifted writer and tells two tales during the course of the film. The first, "The Waterbaby," is reluctantly read before her high school class and furthers the fish and water imagery used throughout the film. The second, a nineteenth century diary she finds in the wilderness and reads to Joe and Donna as a kind of serial soap opera, gets more and more disturbing, echoing her conflicted feelings towards her mother. This young woman, who resembles a softer Sara Gilbert, is a real find by Sayles.

Technical credits are good, with Haskell Wexler's cinematography of particular note. The film's ending lives up to its title, which is bound to annoy audiences more used to the neat tied up type although I thought it was dead on. The film is flawed, but engrossing and thought provoking throughout.


NOTTING HILL
Julia Roberts is world famous actress Anna Scott. Hugh Grant is William Thacker, owner of a struggling travel book shop. When Anna drops in and makes a purchase, a connection is sparked and William's life will never be the quiet one he'd picked for himself in "Notting Hill."

Laura's review of 'Notting Hill':
Hollywood's long loved a remake, but five years is a ridicuously short turnaround. Technically speaking, "Notting Hill" may not be a remake, but the similarities between this film and the superior "Four Weddings and a Funeral" are jarringly obvious. The blatant self-piracy and marketing greed on display here suck the soul out of this almost likeable romantic comedy.

We again have Hugh Grant playing the mussily charming, bumbling Brit, but frankly the past five years haven't been kind to his once boyish good looks. Julia Roberts is the American woman who flits in and out of his life, always flying off when things become interesting. Like McDowell's character in "Four Weddings" (the only sour note that film struck), this American woman appears to delight in being inscrutable, placing her love interest in awkward situations and is vaguely sluttish in behavior.

The charming gay couple of "Four Weddings" is replaced by Thacker's mincing shop assistant, while Grant's deaf brother here appears as his wheelchair bound former girlfriend (Gina McKee, in an affecting performance). His madcap, red-headed roommate has become his madcap, red-headed sister (Emma Chambers, loud and screachy) while Rhys Ifans' Spike is a shining comic relief as roommate II.

The script by Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral" - who'd have guessed?) has a few good moments, mostly given to Grant. When he receives word that Scott wants to meet him in her hotel he finds himself thrust into a press junket, where he pitifully presents himself as a writer from the first magazine he sees - "Horse and Hounds." Grant is still enjoyable to watch handling comic material. Roberts appears to merely be playing herself and is even given a speech admitting that people will realize she can't act when her looks fade (and she does look glamorous here). She'll be following this film up later this summer with the non-sequel ('ahem') of "Pretty Woman," "The Runaway Bride" with Richard Gere.

Tech credits are first rate across the board.

I'm sure this film will rake it in at the box office, which will send an unfortunate message to its producers. Just call this one '3 Press Conferences and a Wedding.'

C

Robin's review of 'Notting Hill':
Hollywood has reached a new level of movie star indulgence in "Notting Hill." This mildly amusing comedy/romance is really designed to carry the message to the audience that mega-stars are people, too. Julia Roberts is Anna Scott, the world's most famous actress whose life is empty for all her fame. Hugh Grant is William Thacker, a travel-book store owner whose business is stagnant, is divorced, has a room-mate from hell and a nonexistent love life. The unimaginable happens and these two lonely people cross their paths and end up in romantic turmoil.

This is a walk-through, indulgent performance from Roberts. Her direction, from the film's helmer, Roger Michell ("Persuasion"), must have consisted of: "Chicky-sweet! Just be your lovable self!" She is, and there is not a lot to see. The camera (by Michael Coulter, "Four Weddings and a Funeral") does lovingly capture Roberts' mug in close-up - over and over and over, again. Julia looks suitably pensive and forlorn as Anna bares her heart to William with her fervent hopes of a "normal" life together. Of course, with Anna getting $15 million a picture - amazingly close to what Julia gets - "normal" takes on a different meaning from what we peons would consider it to be.

During Roberts' monologue on how tough it is being a rich, successful movie star, I half expected her to give the Shylock speech from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?") This "I'm just a girl" soliloquy is blatantly manipulative and targeted to propagate the myth that the cream of Hollywood stardom are just plain old folk with the same dreams as us commoners and the dream machine would really like you to believe this hokum.

Hugh Grant is the world master of the nervous, self-effacing yammer and does a fine job delivering what turns out to be a cloning (albeit a pudgy, older, not-so-boyish one) of his performance in the film that launched his career, "Four Weddings and a Funeral." This is not a bad thing as the actor is a pleasure to watch as he gives his patented perf. Grant's William Thacker is an extraordinarily likable bloke, tolerant and giving. He even opens up his home to allow a scruffy roommate, Spike, to sprawl around his digs, drinking beer and smoking fags in his underpants. Spike (Rhys Ifans, "Dancing at Lughnasa") reps a new type of buddy/roommate character, using his scrawny body and rude, though funny, manner to give the film its slapstick comic relief.

The original screenplay, by Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), is a veneration to Roberts the star, geared to put the actress in the best possible, vulnerable and sensitive light. It also panders to Grant's mumbling, bumbling style of humor, giving the actor more prominence on the screen - well, almost - than Roberts. The routine princess falls for the commoner theme has been much better done in such films as "Roman Holiday" with Audrey Hepburn as the fairy princess.

The supporting cast is fleshed out just enough, by the writers, to give a tiny morsel of meat to the roles of William's family and friends, played by well Hugh Bonneville, Emma Chambers, Tim McInnery and Gina McKee. Their characters are secondary and not the richly talented ensemble support cast in "Four Weddings."

"Notting Hill" is geared to the romantic who loves a pauper and the princess story - especially if they're fans of Dame Julia. It is, sadly, also a shallow remake of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." I give it a C+. 


THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR
"I think, therefore, I am" is the classy quote from Rene DesCartes that leads in to the latest in the now-getting-long list of virtual reality (VR) thrillers, "The Thirteenth Floor." Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl, "Shine") is an elegant older gentleman enjoying the advantages of wealth in 1937 America. He leaves a pretty young girl sleeping in his rooms and heads home to his wife - in 1999! This is the beginning of a mystery, including murder, that unfolds and spans VR worlds where reality is tenuous, at best.

Robin's review of 'The Thirteenth Floor':
I have not been impressed by the talent or skill of Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") since his "breakthrough" film, "Stargate" or the hugely (pun intended) over-wrought "Godzilla." He tends to be heavy handed and obvious in his direction and story-telling. Here, on "The Thirteenth Floor," as producer, his influence is strong as he and director/co-writer Josef Rusnak (second unit director, "Godzilla") take their loose adaptation of the novel "Simulacron 3," by Daniel Galouye, and meander around with the sci-fi-based story until they figure out how to wrap it all up. There is not much life in the script or in its execution.

For a science-fiction actioner, there is little action - violence is amply here, but more symbolic and less visceral, with the sci-fi elements handled in a this-is-what-we-think-the-VR-world-is manner. Thankfully, the filmmakers don't try to muck it up by creating a Hollywood version on how the virtual reality machinery would work on the scale and concept depicted here. To the pic's credit, it does conceptualize VR in imaginative ways, but, still, suspension of disbelief is a requisite for watching "The Thirteenth Floor."

The traditional technical credits - photography (Wedigo von Schultzdorff), production design (Kurt M Petruccelli, "Blade"), costume (Joseph Porro, "Godzilla") - are nicely handled, with the '30s interludes looking the best, awash in sepia tones and elegant formal attire and setting. The modern day, high-tech world is nothing new, using, mostly, a lot of green grid lights to rep "VR." Folks looking for new and different F/X will do better at another movie.

The screenplay, by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, is a conglomeration of other films and sources, from Kubrick's "The Shining," to episodes of "The Twilight Zone" TV series. It tries to deal with the physiological and psychological trauma of true VR travel, but lacks focus as characters start crossing over between bodies and worlds. By the time the required happy ending comes about with all (or, none) of the answers, I had lost interest in the characters and their plight.

Acting is perfunctory, at best. The lead character, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko, "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), is wooden as the hero. He has the vacuous handsome looks of George Clooney and gives a listless performance akin to Rufus Sewell's in the far superior sci-fantasy pic, "Dark City." The love interest between Hall and Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol, "Rounders") is truly hackneyed and the interludes of love take the focus away from the flick's unsuspenseful "suspense." Only Vincent D'Onofrio, in a dual role as modern-day VR techie Whitney and 1930's VR resident and bartender Ashton, gets any chance to strut his stuff. Armin Mueller-Stahl collected a paycheck for his perf and disappoints.

The main message of the flick seems to be that VR residents, electronic or not, are people, too. My advice? Get off of the elevator before you reach "The Thirteenth Floor." I give it a C-.

Laura's review of 'The Thirteenth Floor':
"The Thirteenth Floor" is the latest alternative reality flick, following last year's "Dark City" and this year's smash "The Matrix." It would be a third-rate entry even if it hadn't been preceded by two superior films.

A benevolent inventor, Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), leaves a clue with a 1930's LA bartender before returning to the present day only to be dispatched by an unseen (to the audience) assailant. His death throws his loyal assistant Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko, "The Long Kiss Goodnight") under suspicion with Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert, "Love Field"). Then his daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol, "Rounders) arrives to shut down his company after Hall's informed McBain that Fuller had no living relatives.

Hall, overriding coworker Whitney's (Vincent D'Onofrio, also that 1930s bartender) objections, follows Fuller's steps into another time to try and unlock the mysteries of Fuller's death and the meaning of his alternate reality/time travel machine (located in an anonymous building on the 13th floor).

This is a film where everyone, barring the detective, has a double they can download into, often at inopportune times and visualized by charted brain graphics, time travel 'worms' and flickering reflections in the travelers' eyes. When Hall shakily returns from his first 'trip,' he informs Whitney that everything looks utterly real 'but the colorization needs work.' No kidding - for a film executive produced by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, one has to peer through the murk to make out the action.

The relatively unknown cast seems overcome with ennui, with the exception of D'Onofrio, a fine actor who takes pains to distinguish his dual roles (although he often appears to be channelling John Malkovich as Whitney). The screenplay by Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez has some interesting sci-fi concepts, such as when characters realize they're not real when they find the literal end of their worlds, but is told in a numbingly laid back manner. It's also essentially a retread of concepts presented much more originally and excitingly in "Dark City," including its end, which is almost a carbon copy of the earlier film.

Production design by Kirk M. Petruccelli ("Blade") is a hit and miss affair, although he does achieve some beautiful retro scenes of LA. Wilshire Blvd. is an avenue of a boom town, dotted with oil towers and the new and imposing Wilshire Grand Hotel.

The general impression of watching "The Thirteenth Floor" is of being in an underwater dream - movement is slow, vision is obscured and one just wishes to drift off to sleep.

C-


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