THREE KINGS - THE STRAIGHT STORY
HAPPY, TEXAS - SUPERSTAR
THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND
OXYGEN - MYSTERY, ALASKA


THREE KINGS

The Gulf War has just ended. Television correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") is hot on the trail of Green Beret Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) for an exclusive story on this 'media war.' He dodges her when he hears that hot-shot Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg, "Boogie Nights") has found a map on a POW that shows the location of Sadaam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold - a veritable treasure map. They, along with Staff Sergeant Elgin (Ice Cube, "Anaconda") and the Barlow-worshipping Private Vig (director Spike Jonze, in his acting debut) set out in a Humvee at dawn to make their killing and be back by lunchtime.

Laura's review of 'Three Kings':
"Are we shooting? Are we shooting?" Captain Barlow calls across a sun-cracked desert terrain as he spies an armed Iraqi soldier in the opening sequence of "Three Kings." Receiving no answer, he shoots the enemy in the throat - his first kill of a war that's over. Approaching the man, Barlow watches him die a horrible death. Director Russell makes every bullet jarringly felt in a film that uses a lot of them.

Writer/director David O. Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster") has made a huge leap forward with his third film. This audacious, hyper-stylized multi-tiered film achieves on many levels.

Russell's screenplay is an action-adventure story, a war film, a blackly humorous satire and an indictment of American foreign politics all rolled into one. The cynical Gates stops along their journey for the group to practice their assault on a lone steer. The steer is blown sky high and the group proceeds covered in cow, which aids their mission by painting them as vicious slaughterers to the Iraqi Army. When they find the first bunker at the bottom of a remote town plaza's well (surreally filled with Cuisinarts, TVs and cell phones), the Iraqi soldiers simply step aside. The foursome find a row of suitcases filled with gold bullion which they repack in a convenient stash of Gucci luggage and enlist the Iraqis to help haul it out. Before they can leave town, however, they witness the Iraqi Army's terrorism of Iraqi civilian rebels - people whom George Bush has urged to rise up against Hussein, then failed to support. First Barlow, then Gates' humanity calls them to become reluctant heroes and the next thing they know they've restarted the war and are saddled with a group of Iraqi citizens yearning to escape to the Iran border.

George Clooney finds his second terrific role in a row with Archie Gates. His grizzled cynicism and sarcastic rebelliousness are well mixed with inate intelligence and bravery. Mark Wahlberg's Barlow earns the respect given him by Vig for entirely different reasons. Barlow's taken hostage by the Iraqis and submitted to torture yet comes to empathize with their predicament and question his own government. He's yearning for his young wife and baby at home (whom he calls when he finds a cache of cell phones in an attempt to be rescued). Ice Cube is the spiritual member of the group as Elgin, the most grounded. Spike Jonze's Vig is hilariously dim as the uneducated red neck ('Like the cubes you put in soup?' he asks Gates when Archie tells of the Kuwaiti bullion stored in their map's bunkers).

Fine support is given by Nora Dunn's ambitious reporter, Mykelti Williamson's no nonsense, policy abiding Colonel Horn and Jamie Kennedy ("Scream") as Walter, another dimwitted soldier who Gates assigns to distract Cruz.

Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel ("Apt Pupil") is stunning, with the intial part of the film shot in Ektachrome, a stock normally used for still photography, and processed using a technique called bleach bypass, which leaves a layer of silver on the negative. This produces a strange look where nothing appears quite real - a highly effective device to highlight the alien nature of the characters' surroundings. Special effects, such as the camera following a bullet through the human body or the characters' memories, shown in cartoon-like fashion, are eye popping. Locations in Arizona and Mexico combined with Catherine Hardwicke's ("Tank Girl") production design recreate the Iraqi terrain. The soundtrack is inventively chosen. The surreal quality of the whole package often recalls "Apocalypse Now."

"Three Kings" is dynamic collaborative filmmaking and one heck of a yarn.

A

Robin's review of 'Three Kings':
It's the end of Operation Desert Storm. The combined Allied forces have whipped Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Army and, now, the victors are getting ready to leave. While on a mission to collect and disarm Iraqi soldiers, Sgt. Troy Barlow discovers a map hidden down the pants of one of the prisoners. The map, he discovers, shows the location of a couple of hidden bunkers. Troy and his friends, Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin and Pvt. Conrad Vig, realize the map is important, but don't know why. Enter Special Forces Major Archie Gates, a seasoned vet who comes to the conclusion that the chart shows the location of millions of dollars worth of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion. Taking off on an unauthorized recon mission to find the gold and set themselves up for life, the quartet are heading for something far bigger than just money in director David O. Russell's "Three Kings."

When I first started to see the trailers for "Three Kings," I thought that it smacked of similarity to the 1970 Clint Eastwood war spoof, "Kelly's Heroes." Boy, was I wrong. "Kings" is anything but a caper movie. Sure, the premise is the same - stolen gold just waiting for the maverick American troops to take it and make their fortune. But, the gold becomes a secondary character as the true nature of things evolves. Their plan to "leave at dawn and be back by lunch" goes completely awry when the have a face-to-face encounter with the Iraqi people, a people now left to hang out to dry by international policy.

George Bush, at the height of the 100-hour land war, encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the dictator, Saddam, with promises of support. Then the war ended and American foreign policy turned its back on the Iraqi people, not lifting a finger to stop the massacre of the Iraqis by their own army. Archie, Troy, Chief and Conrad, on their journey to find booty, fall into a microcosm of these events at one of the bunker sites. There, they confront Iraqi troops torturing the rebels and killing innocent women and children. The red-blooded American soldiers are incensed by this brutal injustice and decide to turn the tables. This is the real story of "Three Kings" as they four vow to save as many of the civilians as they can and get the gold, too.

"Three Kings" is a pleasant surprise of a film. On the surface, it promises to be a good-looking actioner with appealing stars, lots of blow 'em up special F/X and a fast-paced story. But, it is much more than that. It deals with the politics of American foreign policy, the responsibility of the strong to take care of the weak, and the suffering of the innocents when that responsibility is not honored.

Helmer David O. Russell's first two films ("Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting with Disaster") gave no indication of the near masterly capabilities he displays in "Three Kings." He adapted the original story, by John Ridley, for the screen and harnesses an astonishing amount of energy and film sense in this portrayal of an erstwhile treasure hunt that turns into a quest to save human lives. This actioner has more heart and soul than it has a right to have. The use of fast-paced humor in the midst of the bleak events keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. You realize that, along with the explosions, mayhem and mirth, you learn some things that aren't really well known about the Gulf War and its aftermath. "Three Kings" proudly wears its heart on its shirtsleeve.

The production values are outstanding on all levels. There are the normal and expected kick-ass fireworks as cows are blown up, Humvees destroyed and with shootouts galore. There are also highly technical, in your face effects as Archie explains to his battleground novices just what happens when you get shot. You get an inside view of a bullet entering the human body and doing its lethal damage. This effect is later used when Sgt. Troy takes a bullet himself and has a lung collapse. It's a vivid, graphic depiction of the horror that war intrudes on the individual. Photography, by Newton Thomas Sigel ("The Usual Suspects") is innovative and looks great. A process called bleach bypass was used in developing the film, giving it colorless hard edge that lends a surreal quality to the finished product.

The acting by the principles and supporting cast is uniformly solid. It's a true ensemble film, with secondary characters, like Amir (Cliff Curtis) as a father and rebel who just wants his little girl to live in freedom, given three dimensions to work in. The stars are believable, with Mark Wahlberg getting the meatiest role as Sgt. Troy, a new daddy who just wants to go home to wife and baby. Clooney, Ice Cube and newcomer Spike Jonze give yeomen's efforts to their solid performances. Nora Dunn, as CNN-style correspondent Adriana Cruz, gives a rich and sensitive performance as a reporter who believes in her work and is emotionally affected by the horrors she sees.

You don't often get a film that is the caliber of "Three Kings." You get the roller-coaster ride you expect and a heck of a lot more. It's a treat when you think you're going to get a no-brainer and have your mind expanded a little bit. Go see it for the effects, action and treasure hunt story, but enjoy the intelligence, too. I give "Three Kings" an A-.


THE STRAIGHT STORY

In 1994, when Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, "The Grey Fox") was 73 years old, he couldn't see well enough to have a driver's license and required two canes to walk. One day, his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) takes a phone call that informs them that Alvin's brother Lyle has suffered a stroke over 300 miles away in Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, who's a strong believer in family ties, hasn't spoken to his brother in ten years and is determined to visit Lyle and make things right. He builds a ramshackle trailer, hitches it to his riding lawn mower, and sets off on a remarkable journey from Laurens, Iowa in "The Straight Story."

Laura's review of 'The Straight Story':
The oddest thing I've seen on a movie screen this year is "Walt Disney Pictures presents - a film by David Lynch." Yes, that's right. David Lynch, who's given us such great, but horrifically dark, films like "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway," has delivered a G-rated film that still bears his unique stylistic stamp.

"The Straight Story" is based on a true story written for the screen by Lynch's partner Mary Sweeney (who also co-produced and editted) and John Roach. It's a heartwarming and inspiring tale showcased in America's heartland (Lynch and company filmed along Alvin's actual route).

The film's opening is reminiscent of "Blue Velvet," had Lynch's usual blue/gray pallette been replaced by the golds and reds of autumn. We're shown the main street of a small midwestern town, the only occupant a dog running across the street. Cut to an overhead shot of small, neat houses where a woman sunbathes between two of them. The camera crane dips to investigate the front of one of the houses, then slowly curves around to observe the heavy, middle-aged woman get up from her lawn chair and enter her own house to the right. Then the camera noses towards a window to the left from which we hear the sound of someone falling in distress.

This turns out to be Alvin, whose friend Bud discovers him lying on the kitchen floor, just as neighbor Dorothy and Alvin's daughter Rose also enter. A small town community and Alvin's physical decline has been elegantly, simply established.

When Alvin does set out on his journey, stocked with weiners, his old buddies watch in dismay. Alvin doesn't get far on his initial try with his old Rex lawn mower, but quickly makes a deal for a 1966 John Deere and is on the road again. He meets a runaway pregnant teen and convinces her in his own quiet way of the strength of family ties. He's almost blown off the road by huge semis. He weathers storms in abandoned barns. He's greeted by a bicycling group's camp and encounters near disaster when he's faced with his first hill about three quarters through his journey (his trailer has no brakes).

Farnsworth is a veteran actor who can convey deep levels of emotion in a very quiet, unprepossessing way. He handles the conflict of promoting family (while on the way to repair his own stubborn disassociation from his brother) with his eyes. He's a kind, decent, simple man who affects everyone around him, yet never seems saintly (watch how he handles two brothers who repair his mower or the agony of telling a stranger how his). own friendly fire killed a friend in WWII). Look for Oscar consideration next year for this performance.

Oscar winner Sissy Spacek's career has been rejuvenated lately in supporting roles ("Affliction"), and her Rose is no exception. She speaks in an oddly halting voice and has trouble discerning the difference between literal conversation and joking (we learn from Alvin later that she's considered 'slow,' although he refuses to believe that). Able support is provided by a cast of relative unknowns (many, Lynch regulars) who never seem anything other than the country folk they're portraying.

The film is gorgeously photographed, with fields of rippling wheat surrounding the long narrow highway Alvin travels, by Freddie Francis ("The Innocents," "The Elephant Man"). Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti's score is unmistakeable (often recalling "Twin Peaks" a bit too much). Mary Sweeney's editting suits the laid back approach to the story, yet surprises at the appropriately higher decibel, Lynchian moments (a woman strikes a deer with her car in front of Alvin - Lynch has a thing for car accidents - and then rants about how she's killed fourteen deer in the past seven weeks; Alvin loses control of his mower racing downhill as a small town fire department is on a practice run putting out a burning old homestead in the background).

"The Straight Story" concludes with grace - Alvin does find his brother and only the most necessary words are spoken (although Harry Dean Stanton is an odd casting choice as Lyle - he doesn't look anywhere near enough Alvin's age and there's no physical resemblance). While this movie isn't a masterpiece like "Blue Velvet," it may very well be Lynch's most personally felt film to date in a career I anticipate watching for years to come.

B+

Robin's review of 'The Straight Story':
A David Lynch film, G-rated, produced by Walt Disney Pictures. Who'd of thunk it. But, that's what we get with "The Straight Story." Based on a true-life journey, it's the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old mid-westerner suffering from bad hips, the early stages of emphysema, deteriorating eye-sight and the news of his estranged brother, Lyle, suffering a major stroke. The brothers, as family members can do, had a big fight a decade earlier and haven't talked to each other since. Now, Alvin, a resourceful and stubborn man, makes the decision to go see his brother 350 miles away on a riding mower. This begins a very unusual road movie spanning the hearts and minds of Middle America.

David Lynch, known for his more avante garde works, such as "Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," and his foray into television, "Twin Peaks," takes on a subject matter that, on the surface, is made-for-TV fare. Alvin Straight's story, though a triumph of the human will, is basically a story about a guy who traverses two states on a lawn mower. In the hands of the keen eyed Lynch, the story takes on a edge, almost a desperation, as Alvin sees his journey as a necessary purging of his inner spirit. Lynch lends his patented look and feel to much of the story with his recognizable visual slight of hand.

Alvin's odyssey begins, abruptly, with his hips giving out. He lay on the floor, helpless, until his daughter, Rose, comes to his rescue. This dependency and news of his brother Lyle's (Harry Dean Stanton) stroke force Alvin to a momentous decision. He can't drive a car, but he can drive his ride-'em mower. Building a makeshift trailer, Alvin stocks up on braunschweiger and wieners, packs up and hits the road amidst warnings by his friends that he won't make it out of town. From here, the meat of the film kicks in as Alvin and his homemade caravan begin the 350-mile journey.

Along the way, a fairly routine road movie unfolds as Alvin moves at a snail's pace across the mid-west. He meets a fellow traveler - a young woman running from home because of an out of wedlock pregnancy. Alvin gives his homey advice, comparing her to a stick, easily broken, and how the family is like a bundle of sticks, not so easily broken. The girl sees the old man's sense and is gone the next morning, leaving a neatly tied bundle of sticks. Very symbolic. The rest of the trip has the expected trials and tribulations, with Alvin receiving the kindness of strangers when he needs it most. It's all very life affirming.

What makes "The Straight Story" a bit more special than it might have been lay in the talents of the makers. David Lynch can't help but put his touches on the routine road story. The helmer can take a conventional scene and put a very funky twist on it. In one sequence, when Alvin leaves the flatness of the plains of Iowa and enters the hills of Wisconsin, he's about to enter a little town when the drive belt gives on his John Deere mower. As he picks up speed, out of control and moving faster and faster down hill into the town, the local fire department is staging a burn down of an old house. The juxtapostioning of Alvin's plight and the fire raises the tension levels a degree above the norm. This and other scenes are as signature as any done in the past by the director.

Richard Farnsworth is the strong suite here as the aging actor and former stunt man conveys how it feels to get old. It's not the fear of age or death, but the possibility of infirmity that makes growing old hard. At one point, when asked about what it's like getting old, Alvin responds: "The worst part about being old is remembering being young." Farnsworth's craggy features, rheumy eyes and cane-assisted gate lend a realistic and human quality to Alvin. The actor has always been a favorite of mine since his debut in the 1982 film, "The Grey Fox." In "The Straight Story," he continues to show his acting ability as he fleshes Alvin into a compassionate, but stubborn, man and a loving father who deeply cares for his slightly retarded daughter, Rose. The performance may not be Oscar worthy come year's end, but it is a solid, sensitive job by the elder actor.

Besides Lynch's capable direction, there is an elegance to the look of the film that is brought forth by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis ("Glory"). Francis captures the beauty of the windblown fields, majestic sunsets and the golden hues of fall in the mid-west with a quality approaching still photography. Other tech aspects are solid but not outstanding. Unknowns and just plain folk populate the supporting cast. Only Sissy Spacek, as Rose, stands out in the small role as Alvin's birdhouse building, daughter. It is yet another supporting role where Spacek shows her recently renewed acting mettle.

"The Straight Story" is, really, a pretty conventional story (about an unusual man), but David Lynch's touch is evident and lends his offbeat air to the proceedings. It's a nice story about human will, generosity and family. I give it a B.


HAPPY, TEXAS

Harry and Wayne are a pair of losers. Doing 3 to 5 for the Texas penal system, their luck changes when, while being transported, an armadillo in the road causes an accident and facilitates their escape. Eager to get to Mexico and freedom, the pair steals a RV, only to be stopped in the town of Happy by Sheriff Chappy Dent (William H. Macy). Unknown to the fleeing convicts, the stolen vehicle belongs to a gay couple from New York heading to the little town to head up the Little Miss Freshly Squeezed beauty pageant. What transpire are a major case of mistaken identity, a bank heist and a big change in the hearts and minds of the two cons in helmer/co-writer Mark Illsley's Happy, Texas.

Robin's review of 'Happy, Texas':
Jeremy Northam plays Harry Sawyer, the brightest of the pair, whom falls for the town's banker, Josephine McClintock, while he plans to rob her establishment. Steve Zahn is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. Wayne is none too keen on pretending to be a homosexual pageant coordinator, especially when Harry leaves him, alone, to teach a gaggle of little girls to become beauty contestants. The two are both an odd couple and fish-out-of-water.

Jeremy Northam does a decent job with an American accent as Harry, but fails to capture a distinctive Texan drawl. His character is the most generic of all the principles in the film and least notable. Steve Zahn has steadily improved his comedic presence and acting ability since his earlier notice in That Thing You Do! As triple Wayne Jr., Zahn gives one of his best performances to date. He initially comes across as the dolt of this odd couple, making a lame attempt to be something he is not a trainer of little girls competing in beauty pageants. His little rags-to-riches metamorphosis into a caring choreographer is cliched, yes, but also amusingly handled by Zahn, especially as his dedication to his tiny wards grows.

Ally Parker leads the supporting cast as the town banker and love interest to Harry. Parker, as Jo, is fresh faced and likable as she fleshes out her character to more than just the usual two-dimensions of the love interet. William H. Macy is outstanding as the sheriff of Happy. Chappy, a stalwart lawman, has a deep secret that the arrival of Harry and Wayne brings to the surface. He has suppressed his inner homosexual feelings for years, fearing it will make him less of a man. When he meets Harry (AKA Steven), he believes he has found a manly and kindred spirit. Chappy's coming out and his affection for Steven are done with warmth and humor. Paul Dooley mildly amuses as the town judge, volunteer fire chief and, possibly, dogcatcher. Ron Perlman makes a cameo type appearance as a Texas Ranger honcho called in to thwart the bank robbery. This last bit, with the Rangers shown as inept buffoons, is out of character with the rest of the flick.

The production values are evenly handled all around. Director Illsley gives the right note to the comedy with an original story (co-written by Illsley, Phil Reeves and Ed Stone) and the solid performances of his cast. The look of the film complements the tale with its small-town feel and homey touches. The pageant stuff, typically overblown and unrealistic in most Hollywood films, is dead on in its amateur realism of a local kids' beauty contest. The little kids making up the town entrants into the Little Miss contest actually look like real little girls, not actors. Happy, Texsa is an amusing little comedy that showcases Steve Zahn, with William H. Macy's giving a sparkling perf as Sheriff Chappy. I give it a B-.


SUPERSTAR

Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) dreams for a heart-stopping, Hollywood style French kiss from the 'best guy dancer' in school, Sky (Will Ferrell). Unfortunately, he's taken by Evian (Elaine Hendrix, "The Parent Trap"), a beautiful, blonde, bratty cheerleader. When St. Monica's announces a talent contest featuring a first prize trip to Hollywood and an appearance as an extra in a film 'with high moral principles,' Mary Katherine seizes her chance to become a "Superstar!"

Laura's review of 'Superstar':
Yet another Saturday Night Live sketch attempts to become a feature length film with middling results. While "Superstar" is innately likeable and features a truly gonzo performance by Molly Shannon as her SNL creation, the film is a whispy piffle featuring an uneven supporting cast and as many jokes that fall flat as succeed.

We're introduced to Mary Katherine as she makes out with a tree, miming the vomit-inducing adolescent behavior she's just witnessed between Sky and Evian. Her boisterous ambition never flags in the face of Evian's withering put-downs, although her frequent overstepping of the bounds of socially accepted behavior has her frequently muttering 'Sorry, sorry...' When she's put into a special needs class, she hooks up with a new best friend, Helen (Emmy Laybourne), a tough athletic type, and draws the attention of Slater (Harland Williams, "Rocket Man"), a teen who doesn't speak and is rumored to have hacked his parents into tiny bits. Another classmate is a goth girl who frequently brings up Satan in her Catholic school environment (she performs a seemingly possessed rendition of "The Devil Came Down to Georgia" for her talent show tryout).

Besides her natural gracelessness, Mary Katherine has another obstacle in her path on her road to winning the contest - her grandmother (veteran actress Glynis Johns) won't allow her to enter it because Mary Katherine's parents were stomped to death in an Irish Step Dancing competition. Of course grannie comes around and turns out to be a piano-playing choreographer who trains Mary Katherine's motley crew of classmates in a Broadway-like number. Mary Katherine gets TWO kisses after her performance and is surprised by the one she finds to her liking.

Shannon is a hoot as the irrepressible Gallagher and newcomer Laybourne gets some real comic spin on her brace-wearing Helen (the two go into a Super Model Documentary fantasy when bored in Church that gave me a fit of the giggles). Will Farrell is clueless as Sky and also shows up as Mary Katherine's version of Jesus. The rest of the cast is merely fair or worse. I found any scene with Johns to be dull and MTV's Canadian eccentric Tom Green, whose show I love, just distracts and make an ass out of himself.

Director Bruce McCulloch keeps things moving along, not difficult to accomplish with an under 90 minute run time. "Superstar" is unlikely to find much of an audience outside of fans of its lead character, but it does provide a smile or three.

C+

Robin's review of 'Superstar':
Aimed squarely at fans of Saturday Night Live, in general, and Mary Katherine Gallagher, in particular, "Superstar" is an oddball coming of age movie for the survivors of Catholic school education. Molly Shannon reprises her SNL role as the willful parochial schoolgirl, Mary Katherine who, since she was a little girl, has dreamed of the perfect first kiss - her Hollywood kiss. Now a teenager, she comes to realize the only way to get "the kiss" is to become a member of the stellar community that makes screen dreams come true. She decides to become a Superstar!

Having never seen Molly Shannon comedy skits on SNL, I was a little in the dark about what to expect in "Superstar." Mary Katherine Gallagher is initially a bit off-putting with her geekiness mixed with an intense belief in herself. Her nervous mannerisms, like always tripping over chairs and sniffing her fingers after tightly holding them in her armpits, make Mary a little weird. Shannon, though, gives such energy and solid comic timing to her performance, that you can't help but like the schoolgirl by the film's end. Nice touches, like Mary's nightly ritual of prayer, signing the cross, and throwing herself onto her bed in a Christ-like pose as she whispers her personal mantra - "superstar!" Shannon, with screenwriter and former SNL alum, Steven Wayne Koren, do a good job of making a comedy skit-level character into a person whose story can fill a feature length film.

The creative teaming of Shannon and Koren in developing Mary Katherine for the big screen is joined with a good, comedy-laden supporting cast. Will Ferrell, who made an amusing splash with director Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein in "Dick," is perfect in his dual roles as high school heart throb, Sky, and Mary's fantasy imaginings of God. Although he's the most popular guy and best dancer at school, Sky is really a nice person who sees Mary for the cool chick she is. As the hippie-like God, Ferrell is priceless in his delivery of advice to Mary and her ambitions: "Get jiggy with it!" After Shannon, Ferrell is the best thing in the film.

Elaine Hendrix ("The Parent Trap"), as the "prettiest girl" at the school, gets to ham it up as Mary's nemesis, Evian (just like the water), and delivers a funny parody on the pig's blood scene from "Carrie." Newcomer Emmy Laybourne gives a surprisingly sensitive performance as Mary's new best friend, Helen, a natural athlete whose size and ability protects her, a bit, from others' snobbery. Veteran actress Glynis Johns is Mary's grandma and guardian who is afraid of her granddaughter's aspirations to greatness. (Granny's fear is explained as she tells Mary the darkly comic story of the death of the girl's parents, years ago, in a step dancing disaster.)

Helmer McCulloch shows his improvisational roots from his time as a performer and creative contributor of "The Kids In the Hall" TV shows. His background in skit-style comedy is apparent in "Superstar," with its choppy pace as he moves from one comic moment to the next. This makes the film, overall, feel more like a series of set pieces - for instance, a Thriller-esque fantasy dance number is fun, but a little out of context. The pieces are amusing, like Mary's obsession with practicing for her first kiss, using such substitutes as a tree and a street sign pole.

Mary Katherine Gallagher takes a little getting used to for the unwitting viewer. She grows on you, though, and, despite yourself, you get to like her quirky ways. For those raised in a Catholic school environment of discipline and ritual, you also get a chance to identify with Mary and have an extra laugh or two. I give "Superstar" a B-.


THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND

Elmo loves his blanket, Blanket. They are best friends and almost inseparable, until fate enters the picture. Blanket, because of a selfish action by Elmo, is blown away from the little monster and lands in the hands of Oscar the Grouch. Oscar blows his nose on the binky and tosses it into his trash can. When Elmo goes into the can after Blanket, he enters the world of Grouchland and begins a journey to find his precious mantle. The ruler of Grouchland, the greedy Huxley (Mandy Patinkin), has taken Blanket for his own and it is up to Elmo to get it back in "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland."

Robin's review of 'The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland':
"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is one of the best little kids' film to show up since "Muppet Treasure Island," maybe longer. The puppet masters at Jim Henson Productions, in conjunction with Children's Television Workshop, meld elements and characters from the long-running "Sesame Street" TV show and the musical numbers and slightly subversive humor from the old Muppet Show.

As one would expect, the ties to Sesame Street are many. From the opening sequence when the film starts with a countdown from 10 to 1 (led by Bert and Ernie) to its tale of Elmo's redemption from selfishness, the movie pays much homage to its roots in the groundbreaking TV show. Good values and positive role models make this a movie that parents can feel good about for their kids. Sweet and adorable Elmo (voiced by Kevin Clash) is perfect as the hero who learns why being selfish is wrong. Mandy Patinkin is outstanding as the selfish Huxley and personifies greed. When Elmo defeats him, the kids will cheer. Vanessa Williams is terrific as the Queen of Trash and is a natural with her puppet minion. Of course, there is also the roster of Sesame Street characters. Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert & Ernie and the rest all help out Elmo in his quest and are a ready made identifier for the toddler set.

The music numbers used to entertain and carry the story forward are beautifully done and provide real variety. Patinkin's Huxley shows that being selfish is not a good thing with his manic song, "Make It Mine!" Vanessa Williams, as the Queen of Trash belts out the virtues of garbage with the upbeat "Point of View." The inherent good humor of the film is exemplified by the rousing Grouch number, "Welcome to Grouchland - Now Scram!" Elmo is inspired to overcome his fears when the grouches sing "Take the First Step." Parents won't mind when the kids watch this on video a couple of hundred times. They'll most likely sing right along, too.

First-time helmer Gary Halvorson and his talented cast and crew capture the mirth and big heart of Jim Henson's creation. Bert & Ernie and works hard to involve the diminutive viewers in the action narrate the movie, sort of. B&E and Elmo talk directly to the kids, from time to time, soliciting vocal assistance form the audience. Some parents may not be too happy, though, when Elmo is faced with The Ultimate Challenge - he has to give 100 "raspberries" in 30 seconds and asks for help from the kids watching. Hopefully, raspberries won't become the set response by the kindergarten set.

"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is one monster movie that parents won't mind the kids watching. You can see why Elmo attained a cult following a couple of years ago. He's a nice little monster and a good model for kids to emulate. There is humor, song, outstanding fantasy creatures and sets, and just a whole lot of fun. "Elmo" scores a bull's-eye with its target audience of little kids (and their parents). I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland':
Little, red furry Elmo is the 'baby' of Sesame St. and all its denizens watch out for him. Elmo loves his blanket very much and when his best friend attempts to hold it, Elmo grabs it back until it rips and then is tossed into the air by a roller blading muppet and hurtles into Oscar the Grouch's garbage can. Distraught, Elmo enters Oscar's domain and falls into a psychedelic portal to Grouchland, where everything smells and no one will cooperate.

Grouchland is kept under the thumb of the evil tyrant Huxley (Mandy Patinkin) who takes every material object he wants and declares it his (he has 'Mine' stamped onto everything). Of course, as soon as Elmo locates his blanket on a dump heap, Huxley snatches it away. The pursuit of Elmo's blanket, and the Sesame St. humans and muppets attempt to go to Grouchland and find Elmo, make up the drama of "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland."

This is a sweet little film that will amuse (and teach) the kiddies (about seven and under, I'd say). Bert and Ernie intro the film and frequently stop it to comment on the action - they also encourage audience participation in such things as countdowns (childrens' responses can be heard on the soundtrack). There are a few clever asides for the adults (a jibe at Starbucks, Bert and Ernie's discussion on 'happy endings') and Patinkin makes villainous hay while performing some Broadway-like numbers. Also on hand is Vanessa Williams ("Dance With Me") as the Trash Queen who performs a vampy song and dance routine (before encouraging Elmo to pay a toll of 'raspberries,' which surely will have parents shuddering!)

Elmo and his friends prevail, but not before Elmo's had some serious self-relevation about his own selfishness. The film looks bright and cheerful and moves along at under 90 minutes.

B


OXYGEN

On a bright, sunlit day, an attractive middle-aged woman (Laila Robbins, "True Crime") is walking her dog when she's stopped by a charming stranger (Adrien Brody, "Summer of Sam") who makes a dog biscuit appear in a magic trick. Suddenly the encounter turns ugly when he suggests she get into a car, then shows her a gun. He and his accomplice drive her into the woods, strip her to her underwear, force her to make a kidnap/ransom video, and bury her alive in "Oxygen."

Laura's review of 'Oxygen':
"Oxygen" is a somewhat worthwhile little effort due to some fine acting and intriguing small touches, but writer/director Richard Shepard's film suffers from inevitable comparisons to such films as "The Vanishing," "Manhunter," and "The Silence of the Lambs," and some clumsy script choices.

Maura Tierney ("Forces of Nature") is a fierce NYC detective, introduced IDing a wanted man on the subway and chasing him through city streets until he's brought down. However, Madeline has dark secrets which she keeps from her husband Tim (Terry Kinney, "Fly Away Home") the captain of her station. She consistently breaks a pact they have to shun alcohol, maybe to drown the self-loathing she feels over the masochistic affair she's involved in.

When the kidnap victim's husband defies her captor Harry's instructions brings the videotape to the police, Madeline's determined to save the woman from her horrible fate (she has about 24 hours of oxygen within her coffin - if she doesn't panic). The police stake out the money drop, but when Harry refuses to reveal the coffin's location at the scene, Madeline jumps in her car and pursues him. Her character, which has been drawn as fairly intelligent up to this point, stupidly allows herself to be seen by Harry when she switches lanes every time he does. She bags him, though and the film becomes a game of wits when Harry insists that Madeline be his interrogator.

It's here that Hannibal Lector is strongly recalled in both his filmic incarnations. As in "Manhunter," the pursuer is troubled by the dark similarities between herself and the criminal, which Harry uses to his advantage as soon as he spies the cigarette burns on the non-smoking Madeline's arm. As in "The Silence of the Lambs," he insists on hearing her troubling secrets before divulging the information she so desperately needs and engineers a brilliant escape stunt (he calls himself Harry Houdini). Shepard throws a little twist into his material lifting by having Tim witness the exchange from behind a two way mirror. (Lots of subtle duality here as there are hints that the victim's marriage is impacted by secrets as well.)

Shepard also throws in some nice touches, such as the victim begging Harry's more sympathetic accomplice for his flashlight before they close the coffin lid. This allows her to keep her sanity until the battery runs down - making the burial a double-tiered horror when utter darkness envelops her. Harry's escape, engineered to show off his brilliance and corner Madeline rather than to make a run for it, is also a nicely thought out concept, as is the marital discord brought about between Madeline and Tim. However the film devolves into standard thriller conventions as it wraps.

Good acting by Brody, Tierney and Kinney, sparks of imagination in an otherwise derivative script, and crisp lensing raise "Oxygen" a midge about the average.

C+


MYSTERY, ALASKA

The people of Mystery, Alaska pride themselves on one thing only - hockey. When the mostly disliked Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria, "Godzilla"), who left Mystery years before, writes an article in Sports Illustrated about the amazing Alaskan team that plays every Saturday, they get the attention of the media and an offer to play the New York Rangers in a pre-season exhibition game. Will this opportunity put Mystery on the map or shatter all their illusions?

Laura's review of 'Mystery, Alaska':
There have been far too few films (outside of the Canadian film industry, at least) about hockey, the only team sport I consider worth watching. "The Mighty Ducks?" - feh. "Slap Shot's" a good one, but that was an over-the-top comedy (as were any hockey references in "Strange Brew" or "Happy Gilmore"). John Woo's "Face/Off" featured nary a puck. Now we have writer David E. Kelley's (TV wonderkind of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" and this year's drive-in giant alligator flick "Lake Placid") take on the sport, and while the game itself isn't represented as well as last month's "For Love of the Game" presented baseball, it's a much more even effort in it's romantic aspects, where the Costner flick fell flat.

Aussie actor Russell Crowe ("LA Confidential" and the upcoming "The Insider") is John Biebe, Mystery's sheriff and the team's anchor (they play four against four on a pond - no NHL rules here!) He's been tagged as the greatest passer, but the slowest on the ice, in the Sports Illustrated article (it's notable that Biebe's married to Donna, the author's former high school flame), and is fearing the day when the town decides he must step aside for younger blood to have a chance. This conflict is presented early on, when Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney, "The Commitments") tells John he must go so that Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott in his film debut), Mystery's fastest skater, can have his day in the sun. As Biebe's thrown into a deep depression over his removal from his life's true obsession, he's faced with a number of other challenges. The team's high scorer and store clerk, Connor Banks (Michael Buie) is arrested for shooting a representative from an insidious national retail chain (amusing cameo from Michael McKean) and Biebe's wife Donna's (Mary McCormack, "Private Parts") high school flame returns in a blaze of initial glory to capture her attention and dreams outside of Mystery.

One of "Mystery, Alaska's" strong points is how it shows the hardships suffered by the women of a remote town whose men live for a sport. Biebe's relationship isn't the only one in trouble. The mayor's wife, Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovitch) is having an affair with lothario "Skank" Marden (Ron Eldard, "True Crime") (and she's not the only one). Mystery's Judge Walter Burns' (Burt Reynolds) daughter is trying to lose her virginity to her steady Stevie before he hits the town's big time as a 'Saturday player.'

Judge Burns is also the town's only holdout in hockey fever. He was a college player, but was never asked to join the Saturday event, and most folks believe he resents that. He's very critical of his son 'Birdie', whom he claims skates like a homosexual (the worst insult that can be given in Mystery) and turns the town down flat when he's asked to coach the team for the big pro game.

On the flip side is Mystery's lawyer Bailey Pruitt (Maury Chaykin, "The Sweet Hereafter"), who defends Connor Banks in court and wins, much to the judge's disgust (the jury clearly only cares about getting their star forward off so he can play). But Judge Burns shows his true colors when the Rangers file a lawsuit to avoid going to Mystery by secretly sending Pruitt to New York City to argue their case.

The big game itself presents many surprises (Bostonians should note that former Bruin (and New York Ranger) Phil Esposito has a cameo as a 'color' guy), and of course Biebe is called into play. A heavily made-up Mike Meyers has a cameo as a fickle sports commentator. Romantic relationships are worked out in believably nice ways.

"Mystery, Alaska" is a gently comical "Rockyesque" sports flick with a solid ensemble cast.

B

Robin's review of 'Mystery, Alaska':
"The Mighty Ducks" meets "Northern Exposure" is the best way to describe "Mystery, Alaska," yet another formula, rags-to-riches, David versus Goliath sports movie. This time, the players are members of the frigid little community of the title. Led by Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), the hockey players of the town are a breed apart. Totally dedicated to the sport, the team practices and plays religiously through the entire Alaskan winter, braving the bitterest weather just for the chance to play their beloved pond hockey. A "Sports Illustrated" article be former townie Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) brings the team and the town to national prominence. Charlie parlays his work into a publicity stunt that will bring the New York Rangers to the frozen North for the game of Team Mystery's collective lives.

This "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan" for grownups offers little more than cliched story lines and a group of players that lack individual personalities. There is a game attempt to offer some depth to a couple of the players. Sheriff John has to face being cut from the team in favor of a young, upcoming player. Crowe does his usual solid job in trying to flesh out his character, but there isn't much there. John, with the arrival of Charlie, has to deal with jealousy when an old flame flares between Charlie and Donna, John's wife and mother to his boys. There are other story threads, too. Burt Reynolds is the town's judge who denigrates hid hockey player son. Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) faces disaster if the game does not happen, while he copes with being cuckolded by wife, Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovich) and one of the team players (I can't remember which one - they all look alike). Then there's the coming of age for the team's youngest player, Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott) and girlfriend. None of these story threads involve the viewer.

As a sports flick, there is all the action that one expects, but nothing that is compelling, as in "For Love of the Game." The action lacks the passion, mainly due to the direction by Jay Roach, who admits he knew nothing of the sport of hockey before filming "Mystery, Alaska." It shows. Directors such as Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham") or Sam Raimi have a love of sports that shows in their finished product. "Mystery, Alaska" does nothing to make you understand why these guys do what they do.

There are a lot of fine actors up on the screen, but there aren't any real characters that you can care about. The screenplay, by David E. Kelley (TV's "Alley McBeal") and his protégé Sean O'Byrne, smacks of its television background. There is a timing to the film that feels like it is written for the small screen, including commercial breaks. The story and its people do not draw you in. I felt like a spectator, rather than a participant, while watching "Mystery, Alaska." There are no surprises, not even the big game between Team Mystery and the Rangers. A cameo appearance by Mike Myers as mythical hockey legend Donnie Shulzhoffer is an amusing, but too brief, performance as color man for the televised game.

Instead of paying to see "Mystery, Alaska," go to your video store and ask for a copy of "Slapshot." You'll have a lot more fun. I give "Mystery" a C.


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