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(R; 124 min.) Think all it takes to make a convincing slasher film is a stylish young cast, a homicidal maniac and a heavy, industrialized soundtrack? That's what Hollywood seems to think these days. But director Jamie Blanks' unimaginative stab at this heavily rewritten screen adaptation of Tom Savage's bestseller Valentine: A Novel is as dull as can be. Blanks (Urban Legend) seems to be vying once again to set in motion a new chain of slasher sequels similar to those spawned from other murderous masked characters like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. But he forgets to put a new twist on the done-to-death formula. The menace in question here is a methodical killer that calmly stalks its all-too-easy prey wearing a cherub mask. It's not giving anything away to say the filmmakers want the audience to believe that the scrawny loser kid who was tormented mercilessly in junior high by the popular elite is seeking revenge 13 years later. But neither the plot nor the ending hold up very well under close scrutiny, and the killer perfunctorily does away with almost everyone who gets in the way. The cherub figure has zero personality and the victims don't score much higher. The movie takes place in impossibly glamorous San Francisco apartments, trendy hot spots and a bloated labyrinthine mansion, and stars Denise Richards, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton, Jessica Capshaw, Jessica Cauffiel and Katherine Heigl. But all the glossy eye candy and lavish settings can't distract from the hackneyed shortcomings of this gimmicky holiday picture. (SQ)
(G; 76 min.) Can Disney make it with animation anymore without Pixar? This fairly big-budget effort, which is already a hit in the U.K., could be a good indication. John Cleese, Ewan McGregor, Tim Curry and John Hurt are among the eclectic cast of voices in this comedy about a pigeon who becomes a British World War II hero. (Capsule preview by SP)
(1983) Unpretentious variation on Romeo and Juliet. Nicolas Cage stars in his second movie role, playing a kid from the wrong side of the tracks courting a suburban princess (Deborah Foreman). As in most films based on a novelty song (by Frank Zappa in this case), there isn't much power to it. Still, this Martha Coolidge film looks like Eric Rohmer compared to the John Hughes teen pics that came out at the same time. (RvB)
(R; 103 min.) A technical and visual improvement on the original 1985 anime, which featured not just "D.," our witch-hatted, black-cloaked hero, and various Jack Kirby-style monsters but also a proto-Buffy named Doris Lang, who, despite being a dweller in a postapocalyptic future, seemed to own an inexhaustible supply of white, school-girl panties and of short skirts that wouldn't cover the former. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust continues the story in a lusher, post-Hayao Miyazaki style. Here the "vampyre"half-human, half-vamp slayer "D." (voiced by Andrew Philpot) searches for a girl kidnapped by the bloodthirsty aristo Meier Link. As he tracks down the hostage, D. encounters more trouble in the form of rivals, monsters, and mysterious women, as well as more sass from his accursed, talking left hand. (RvB)
(R; 103 min.) Max the vampire (Eddie Murphy) comes to Brooklyn searching for the only other remaining member of his "race," a beautiful police detective (Angela Bassett) who, unknown to herself, is part vampire on her father's side. Murphy has added racism and an obsession with penis size to his trademark misogyny, and the tediously inept love story that's supposed to hold this cadaver together merely hammers the final nail into its coffin. On the bright side, Murphy is pretty funny playing a couple of characters besides Max; and Kadeem Hardison steals most of his scenes as Julius, Max's comedic ghoul, who literally can't keep himself together. He's like the movie itself, which loses integral parts of its corpus as it lurches along. (BC)
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(PG-13; 137 min.) Becky Sharp, that demigoddess of impertinence, is reimagined (it figures) as a feminist anti-imperialist figure, despite Thackeray's insistence that his book was "a novel without a hero," or heroine either. Reese Witherspoon plays Becky as similar to any post-Legally Blonde Witherspoon character: she's a hard-edged belle. Director Mira Nair works the feminist subtext hard, and watching her film is like reading a copy of the novel someone underscored with yellow felt-tip marker. Livening up the picture is Bob Hoskins in a mangy white wig, Jim Broadbent as the apoplectic old merchant Mr. Osborne and Eileen Atkins as the rich and supposedly liberal sister Matilda. Still, the familiar problem of the costume drama unfolds here: short bursts of energetic character acting with intervals by less compelling leads such as Rhys Ifans as Dobbin, Romolo Garai as good girl Amelia and James Purefoy as Becky's husband Rawdon Crawley, a dullard with some fleeting success as a gambler. When you read of the progress of Sharp, it reminds you of that comment of Balzac's about how there are two routes to make one's way in the word: either to burst through men like a cannonball or to seep among them like a plague. In the novel, Becky's way is the latter, but Witherspoon acts it as the former. Since Witherspoon has become a star, she's lost any traces of subversiveness. So her performance becomes at one with the oversized acting of the guest stars; a character part, only longer. (RvB)
The story of a small-town Texas football team that busts its collective butt for a ruthless drill sergeant of a coach (Jon Voight) to win its 23rd division title had potential, but led by director Brian Robbins, the film disappoints. The plot and dialogue are mediocre, and the characters, with one exception (Ron Lester brings a quiet dignity to his role as overweight, sensitive lineman Billy Bob), are so underdeveloped that the audience can never really connect with them. Dawson's Creek pinup boy James Van Der Beek stars as Jonathan Moxon, a second-string quarterback who spends the season on the bench reading the likes of Kurt Vonnegut while star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) shines on the gridiron. When Harbor suffers an injury on the field, Moxon steps in and saves the game for his team, his coach and his football-obsessed community. While not disastrous, there's nothing particularly special about Varsity Bluesit seems like just another example of MTV's ability to underestimate the intelligence of its audience. (SQ)
(PG; 91 min.) This fourth family trip for National Lampoon's Griswold clan is much like Las Vegas itself: slightly awful but lots of fun nonetheless. Forever square Clark Griswold (reprised with all his usual bumbling gusto by Chevy Chase) leads his brood on another doomed exercise in family togetherness, this time to Vegas, where the glitz pulls the closely knit quartet in four different directionsthe most amusing of which finds Clark mired ever deeper in the lure of the gaming tables, an obsession escalated by several face-offs with an aggravatingly smug blackjack dealer (Wallace Shawn of My Dinner With Andre and The Princess Bride). Meanwhile Clark's usually devoted wife, Ellen (also a fourth encore for Beverly D'Angelo), strikes up a flirtation with a smitten Wayne Newton, who gives an entertainingly exaggerated impression of himself. Ellen's luckless but indomitable cousins, Eddie and Katherine (Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn), also make a reappearance, giving Eddie and Clark a chance to finally find some common ground. (HZ)
(R; 85 min) The bloody and plotless slasher films of the '80s meet the glossy, WB star-filled "horror" films of the late '90s for this voodoo extravaganza. As the story gets dumber and dumber, the body count mindlessly and predictably piles up in Friday the 13th fashion as a crop of beautiful young people run around soaking wet a la I Know What You Did Last Summerno surprise, seeing that this film shares the same director. Sadly, not even gore fans can truly rejoice: there are plenty of bloody scenes of dismembered victims courtesy of the flick's baddie (a zombie redneck tow-truck driver possessed by the souls of 13 serial killers), but the movie chooses to hyperedit and stylize the dull crowbar-related murders. Oh well, at least the film can blame the bad timing of Hurricane Katrina (the movie is set in the swamps of Louisiana) for its inevitable box-office bashing. (JL)
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(R; 125 min.) London, 1950. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a cleaning lady with a secret life; she really sees no difference between heating water for a homemade abortion and putting the kettle on for one of her endless pots of tea. Staunton's skill is in not making this perfect humbleness too much to watch. By contrast, director Mike Leigh's skill is in delineating the shortages, the black-marketing, the efficient and unquestioned force by which the police and the courts bulldoze Vera. Watch this and understand why Orwell's original title for his best-known novel was 1948. Leigh isolates this greatly compassionate woman from her family and friends. This is when acting craft takes over. The movie finally rests in Staunton's face. Her character's life is legible from beginning to end, as injustice triumphs. Set in the past, Vera Drake is boldly topical. And its subject is how abortion will be got, no matter how stern the laws against it are. (RvB)
(R; 98 min.) True story of an Irish journalist who exposed drug dealers and was murdered in 1996 for doing it, with Cate Blanchett flexing her accent in the title role. (Capsule preview by SP)
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(1958) Alfred Hitchcock's most beautiful and challenging thriller is a strange romantic parable about a middle-aged detective (Jimmy Stewart) in search of a fleeting mystery woman (Kim Novak) who believes herself to be possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Filmed in San Juan Bautista and in the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, Vertigo is equipped with a new 70mm print and a cleaned-up version of Bernard Herrmann's towering soundtrack. Stewart's agonized searcher is the most interesting character he ever played; through him, we see not just the pure peerless craft of Hitchcock but more than just a glimpse of Hitchcock's constricted heart. (RvB)
(1958/1936) In Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's emotionally powerful story of a man's last love affair before the grave, Jimmy Stewart plays a retired San Francisco police detective hooked by a married woman who is apparently haunted by a dead ancestor. As the deadly imago, Kim Novak leads a vertigo-struck Stewart to more and more dizzying heights. It was a misunderstood film in its time, because the implications were a little too unpleasant for a 1950s audience to face, and the ending is probably the bleakest in all of Code-era American cinema. Stewart, most certainly not a nice guy here, is demanding and duplicitous, but he was never better, never so much at cross purposes with that sometimes tiresomely folksy exterior. Bernard Herrmann's symphonic soundtrack stays with you for life. BILLED WITH After the Thin Man. Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) and Asta (herself) work to clear a friend of murder. Lurking about: Joseph CalleiaOrson Welles' betrayed sidekick in Touch of Evil, and the ever supercilious George Zucco. (RvB)
(1958/1948) In Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's emotionally powerful story of a man's last love affair before the grave, Jimmy Stewart plays a retired San Francisco police detective hooked by a married woman who is apparently haunted by a dead ancestor. As the deadly imago, Kim Novak leads a vertigo-struck Stewart to more and more dizzying heights. It was a misunderstood film in its time, because the implications were a little too unpleasant for a 1950s audience to face, and the ending is probably the most bleak in all of Code-era American cinema. Stewart, most certainly not a nice guy here, is demanding and duplicitous, but he was never better, never so much at cross purposes with that sometimes tiresomely folksy exterior. Bernard Herrmann's symphonic soundtrack stays with you for life. BILLED WITH Rope. The action all takes place in one apartment, with a hypnotic, upstaging diorama of the New York cityscape outside. The diorama, which was built three sizes larger than the set, was equipped with spun-glass clouds hanging on invisible wires; Hitchcock shifted them around in the "sky" when the camera wasn't looking. John Waters once said he wanted to buy this thing and have it installed right outside his bedroom windownot if I can get my hands on it first. Rope is remembered as a trick film of Hitchcock's, filmed in a series of continuous, "real-time" long takes in an apartment in which a Leopold and Loebish pair (John Dahl and San Jose's own Farley Granger) entertain their professor (Stewart, miscast), whose Nietzschean ideas have supposedly stimulated them to murder. The moral of the story is that foreign theories kill. Thus, style aside, Rope epitomizes its time: the McCarthy era. "A stunt, that's the only way I can describe it," admitted Hitchcock to François Truffaut. (RvB)
(1958/1945) The peregrinations of a beautiful society woman (Kim Novak) apparently possessed by the spirit of a long-dead ancestor tantalize a guilt-ridden SFPD detective, on permanent disability after a crippling accident during a chase. Plagued by vertigo, the detective, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), is lured to great heights again and again by the woman, in a mysterious movie that equates falling in love with falling to your death. Vertigo is the best movie ever made in San Francisco and sports one of the best scores a movie ever had (it was composed by Bernard Herrmann). Character actor Henry Jones, who passed away last May, delivers a memorable four-minute monologue as the coroner who damns Stewart with faint praise at an inquest held in San Juan Bautista. This strange thriller is Hitchcock's deepest analysis of what goes through the mind and heart of a blocked-off man. BILLED WITH Spellbound, a more easygoing opus about an amnesiac doctor who has turned up to take over a mental hospital. The man turns out to be an impostor, with a phobia about parallel lines. It was based on a wild novel about inmates taking over a mental hospital, but "I wanted to do something sensible," said Hitchcock, casting Gregory "Mr. Sensible" Peck as the doctor. The dream sequencedecorated by Salvador Daliand the villain, Claude Rains, liven up this pleasing trifle. (RvB)
(R; 100 min.) Five aging frat-boy chuckleheads drive to Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party. While under the influence of booze and coke, one of them accidentally kills a prostitute during rough sex, knocking her head into a spikelike towel holder on the bathroom wall. A security guard discovers the mess and is similarly dispatched, chopped up and buried in the desert. The five men, at odds with themselves and with the women they left behind in L.A., soon increase the body count. Director Peter Berg has an idea that might workwith some sophistication and wit to create tension with the bloody material. But Berg directs his cast at top pitch; they bay like wolfhounds from the beginning to the end. I'm hardly as offended by the material as I am by the noisy acting and the chumpish direction, and it's a strangely sexless, puritanical movie (Jeanne Tripplehorn and Cameron Diaz are both nothing but shrews here). Considering the logolike use of the three-legged dog in the ad campaignused to remind viewers of the bandaged dog in There's Something About Maryyou could call this another example of Maimed Dog comedy. Christian Slater plays the ringleader, and he executive-produced; his Jack Nicholson impersonation ought to be the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit. (RvB)
(PG-13; 90 min.) Consternation hits the Brady household when an adventurer (Tim Matheson) posing as Carol's (Shelley Long) long-lost husband shows up. Part campy satire, part nostalgia for the '70s, a time as innocent on the surface and as loathsome underneath as the "fabulous" '50s, A Very Brady Sequel is intermittently funny in a wholesome, zany, Brady sort of way. Whether that's good or not is up to the viewer. (BC)
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(R; 141 min.) Jeunet's latest film is disquieting, despite its engrossing charm and quaintness. His dark-eyed little muse Audrey Tautou (the star of his hit Amélie) plays a silent-movie-style figure of innocence. Mathilde is the crippled, orphaned niece of a lighthouse keeper. The love of her life, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is one of a group of soldiers in the trenches near the Somme under sentence of death for mutilation voluntaireinjuring themselves to get out of the war. After this treatment, Manech is certainly dead, but Mathilde feels it can't be true. She'd know it if her man were gone. And so the intrepid girl begins a quest of many years to try to find her man. Jeunet's ambitious, visionary filmmaking is the most sizable film of the winter. It's rich in detailand unfortunately, that means it's rich in extraneous detail. However, it should revive memory of the First World War in a way Saving Private Ryan did the second. No addict for history could ask for more. Still, underneath the absolutely frilly romance, the archaic tints, the iris shots and 24-karat nostalgia of this wartime epic, there may be a sensibility that wanted to turn World War I into one of the slapstick gadgets Jeunet loves so much. (RvB)
(1983) In the most memorable image from David Cronenberg's unjustly neglected Videodrome, a TV screen turns into a giant pair of seductive red lips oozing out into the living room to suck up a transfixed viewer. The one problem with this sharp look at media manipulation is the premise that weird and strange cable transmissions (full of violent and troubling images) are infiltrating regular programming. Sadly, as we've learned in the interim, cable is just as boring as network TV. Stars James Woods and Deborah Harry. (MSG)
(Both 1930) Over the course of 40 years, a Viennese composer (Alexander Gray) has to sit back as the woman he loves has her heart broken by marriage to a roué (Walter Pidgeon). Vivienne Segal plays the love object; this, the first operetta written for the screen, has songs by Oscar Hammerstien II and Sigmund Romberg. BILLED WITH The Vagabond King. Based on a popular operetta, this, the first Technicolor musical film from Paramount is the original version of the story later remade with a Preston Sturges script (as If I Were King). Dennis King stars as François Villon, the thief/poet of the 1400s who during wartime is made a temporary king by his liege, Louis XI. This edition was written by Herman Mankiewicz, the Algonquinian who wrote the first script for Citizen Kane; it co-stars Warner Oland (the Norwegian actor who ended up playing Charlie Chan) and Lillian Roth, a pretty little ingenue who developed a sad drinking problem. (RvB)
(PG-13; 87 min.) In a comedy by Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, Gwyneth Paltrow gets dumped by Marc Blucas (Riley the stiff from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and goes off to try her wings as a flight attendant. Also stars Mike Myers.
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(PG-13; 120 min.) Every major-studio M. Night Shyamalan film so far has been his twist on a particular genre, in an attempt to turn it upside-down (if you haven't been keeping score, that's ghost stories for The Sixth Sense, comic-book films for Unbreakable, alien-invasion movies for Signs). You don't really find out till late in the game which genre it isthat's kind of the point. But through no fault of my own, I found out what the "secret genre" of The Village is before seeing it, thereby ruining the whole damn film for me. Don't let it happen to you. (Capsule preview by SP)
Virtuosity has not only an above-average villain (Russell Crowe's computer-generated killer, a sort of Max Deathroom) but also a good hero, Denzel Washington's Virgil Tibbs of the year 2020. Washington plays an ex-cop recruited to track down a virtual reality killer escaped into our world, via circumstances explained with some scientific double talk. Director Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man) doesn't have a fraction of the taste of his stars, who carry the action very well through the obligatory shootouts and chases. (RvB)
(R; 94 min.) The basic setup for Alien works perfectly well translated to a storm-stranded satellite-communications ship in the new sci-fi gross-out Virus. The setting isn't extraterrestrial, but the threat is: a form of purely electronic life that zaps through the atmosphere, takes up residence in the ship's computers and proceeds to create a physical self for itself so it can conduct some ingenious, if gory, biotech experiments on humans. All that stands between humankind and utter annihilation once the creature in the mainframe makes an uplink to the mainland is Jamie Lee Curtisand, as she proved in Halloween H20, that's enough. Curtis plays the navigation officer aboard a cargo-hauling tug captained by Donald Sutherland. Driven by hurricane-whipped waves, the tug heads for the eye of the storm and runs smack into a seemingly abandoned communications vessel, which served as a link with the Russian space station MIR, the source of the trouble. Sutherland, his hooded eyes glinting with greed, wants to claim salvage rights; unfortunately, the alien has other ideas. Curtis, Sutherland and matesincluding William Baldwin, Joanna Pacula and Cliff Curtis (Once Were Warriors)spend the rest of movie running away from the mechanical agents the alien intelligence constructs to do its nefarious bidding. All that I ask from such a rigidly determined plot are clever monster riffs, plenty of explosions, just the right amount of bloodletting and, since it's set at sea, good tank work on the miniatures. Virus delivers on all counts. Overall, the film is like listening to an old standard played straight by a jazzman who appreciates the past: there are no real surprises, but no disappointments either. (MSG)
(1993) The hit comedy about medieval time travelers stuck in today's Parisremade as the American flop Just Visiting. (Plays Aug 10 at 7:30pm at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Rd; $5/$7; see www.frenchcineclub.com for details.) (RvB)
(1942) A Michel Carné about two traveling minstrels in 15th-century France who fall in love with two sisters. Part of the Summer of Love Crimes series.
(1952) Elia Kazan's story of the Mexican martyr, with Marlon Brando in the lead. Kazan's direction seems to owe a little to Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico, even while it steers clear of thorny politics. John Steinbeck's script is heavy on the proverbs, and the sight of all those gringos in the cast hasn't aged the film well. Thus it's hard to find on video and rarely revived, despite the mighty Brando himself and the born-in-Chihuahua Anthony Quinn as Zapata's brother. BILLED WITH The Magnificent Seven (1960) An inspired remake of Seven Samurai, shot in Mexico; this wide-screen Western is made immortal in some respects by the late Elmer Bernstein's score. (Plays Nov 5-7 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theater.) (RvB)