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'Babe'
'Babe: Pig in the City'
'The Bachelor'
'Bandits'
'Bandwagon'
'Bang'
'BASEketbal'
'Basquiat'
'Batman & Robin'
'Batman Forever'
'Battlefield Earth'
'The Beach'
'Being John Malkovich'
'Beloved'
'Benjamin Smoke'
'Besieged'
'The Best Man'
'Best in Show'
'Bicentennial Man'
'Big Daddy'
'The Big Kahuna'
'The Big Lebowski'
'The Big Tease'
'The Birdcage'
Bittersweet Motel
'Black and White'
'The Blair Witch Project'
'Blast From the Past'
'Body Shots'
'Boiler Room'
'The Bone Collector'
'Boogie Nights'
'Bossa Nova'
'Bowfinger'
'Box of Moonlight'
'The Boxer'
'Boys Don't Cry'
'Braveheart'
'Breaking the Waves'
'The Bridges of Madison County'
'Bringing Out the Dead'
'Brokedown Palace'
'Broken Arrow'
'A Brother's Kiss'
'The Brothers McMullen'
'Buena Vista Social Club'
'A Bug's Life'
'Bulworth'
'The Butcher Boy'
'But I'm a Cheerleader'

'Babe' (8/14/95)
Directed by George Miller (II), Chris Noonan

The babe in "Babe" is a pig. A real pig. All creatures talk in this Australian movie, a fable based on a children's book by Dick King-Smith. It has a surprising charm. Your kiddie of course won't say, "Mom, this has a surprising charm." But he/she might squeal with delight. Babe, the porktagonist, is won in a raffle by farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). Hoggett is otherwise hogless, so Babe bonds with Fly, the beautiful border collie. Fly and her spouse Rex are ace sheepherders, so Babe decides he, too, can be a sheep dog. The dogs herd by intimidation and fear, but Babe's method is to politely ask them to obey. Will Babe's revolutionary technique succeed? (on video)
JACK KROLL
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'Babe: Pig in the City' (12/7/98)
Directed by George Miller (II)

"Babe: Pig in the City" has already taken a certain amount of abuse for what it isn't. It isn't "Babe." And why should it be? The original was complete unto itself. George ("Mad Max") Miller, who produced the first and now directs the sequel, comes up with an equally but differently wondrous fantasy. Darker, deeper, more Dickensian, it's one of the most visually dazzling films of the year; if it weren't considered a kids' movie, it might better be recognized as a stunning example of surrealist filmmaking. Leaving the bucolic Hoggett Farm behind, Babe is taken via jet to the big city by Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) on a desperate money-raising mission to save the farm from its creditors. The trip is a calamity. Stranded in a chaotic and threatening metropolis--brilliantly imagined as a timeless distillation of New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, L.A. and Venice--the open-hearted Babe gets a fast education in the school of urban hard knocks. Daringly mixing slapstick, melancholy, wit and horror, often in a single scene, the new "Babe" hits chords you don't expect in "family entertainment." But anyone over 10 should be delighted.
DAVID ANSEN
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'The Bachelor' (11/9/99)
Directed by Gary Sinyor
Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Renee Zellweger, James Cromwell

There probably isn't a twenty-something alive who hasn't pondered the pros and cons of marriage. Jimmie Shannon (Chris O'Donnell) frets enough for all of us in "The Bachelor," a comedy exploring the angst and rewards of getting married. Amazed that even his best buddies have dropped like flies, Jimmie figures his day is coming, but is thankful to girlfriend Anne (a cute and likable Renee Zellweger) for not putting on the pressure. But when his grandfather dies and leaves Jimmie's huge inheritance contingent on marriage, the boy is faced with a now-or-never decision. He repeatedly tries and fails to pop the question to an infuriated Anne and is left with only one day in which to find a mate. The 24-hour search offers the movie's funniest moments (including comic cameos by Mariah Carey and Brooke Shields), and ends with thousands of potential brides chasing Jimmy through the streets of San Francisco. The good-natured film does irk in parts: many of the ostensibly funny jokes fall flat, and the film stereotypically assumes all women are dying to get married (while all men would rather just die). Yet when Jimmy and Anne finally stumble toward marriage, you find yourself willing to overlook the film's flaws. "The Bachelor" offers easy wisdom and light-hearted fun. Confused twenty-somethings will be happy to know they're not alone.
ANJALI ARORA
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'Bandits' (9/24/99)
Directed by Katja von Garnier
Starring Katja Riemann, Jasmin Tabatabai

A major departure from the tired women-in-prison genre, the German import "Bandits" is a musical—but more "Commitments" than "Evita." When the characters sing, it's because they're in a rock band, not because they live in a world where people burst out singing and dancing whenever they get emotional. Not that these women don't feel strong emotions. Emma (Katja Riemann) arrives in prison and reluctantly joins bitter and explosive Luna (Jasmin Tabatabai), young and naive Angel (Nicolette Krebitz), and older and crazy Marie (Jutta Hoffman). They call their group the Bandits, and during a performance at the Policeman's Ball, they escape their violent and misogynistic jailers. The rest of the film follows their exploits as they try to outrun an obsessed inspector and inadvertently become musical cult heroes. Riemann's Emma is a little stiff as she tries to be superior to her more criminal friends, but Tabatabai totally inhabits Luna's dark past and cranky demeanor and Krebitz is adorably endearing as her Angel tries to do what's right and have fun at the same time. The soundtrack is straight-ahead rock (almost entirely sung in English), and it's not all terribly inspired, but as performed in von Garnier's stylized and fast-paced musical numbers, songs like "Catch Me" are powerful. Her talent makes this original film exciting and moving, a raucous ride.
TED GIDEONSE
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'Bandwagon' (9/22/97)
Directed by John Schultz
Starring Kevin Corrigan(I), Lee Holmes(II)

Although it is yet another rock-around-the-clock flick, "Bandwagon" gives the genre a fresh twist. The film's principal success lies in its finely developed characters and the realistic, unglamorous vision it provides a minor band on tour. Director John Schultz has a keen sense of the trials of the road and wisely makes this his focus. The group in question is Circus Monkey, a garage band made up of a motley crew of characters who nonetheless engage our sympathies. Although the film at times verges on the self-indulgent and obvious, one is oddly comforted when things work out--after travelling so many rough miles with them, you want these boys to hold on to their dream. (on video)
ANDRÉA C. BASORA
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'Bang' (12/29/97)
Starring Darling Narita, Peter Greene

A deliciously energetic and refreshing little movie that reminds one of what independent filmmaking is all about. Shot for $20,000, "Bang" is understandably rough around the edges, but curiously convincing at its heart. Through a complicated set of circumstances, an unemployed Japanese-American actress (Darling Narita) is detained and almost raped by a police officer. In revenge, she ends up handcuffing him to a tree and donning his uniform for the afternoon. Thus the film poses the question of what it would be like to be a cop for a day and answers in remarkably perceptive ways. Darling Narita becomes a intriguing mirror, reflecting back at us people's reactions to her as a figure of authority. She is supported by an outstanding performance by Peter Greene (Zed in "Pulp Fiction") as a half-crazed homeless man who gleefully taunts the captive police officer. (on video)
ANDRÉA C. BASORA
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'BASEketball' (8/10/98)
Directed by David Zucker
Starring Trey Parker, Matt Stone

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators and vocal talents behind "South Park," star as Coop and Remer, two slacker buddies who've never outgrown high school. One night, they invent a combination of baseball and basketball that storms the neighborhood--and then the nation. They hope BASEketball will return pro sports to a more innocent era. Before long, though, they're superstars, fighting over money and the love of a woman (Yasmine Bleeth). David Zucker directed "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun," and he relies on the same formula here: violent slapstick, breast jokes, penis jokes and goofy casting. Jenny McCarthy and Ernest Borgnine--together at last. "BASEketball" feels stale and inert. Still, Parker and Stone have a nice, giddy rapport, and it's a kick to hear traces of Cartman and Kenny in their dude-speak.
JEFF GILES
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'Basquiat' (8/12/96)
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Jeffrey Wright, Michael Wincott

All the ingredients for a classic doomed-by-overnight-success movie can be found in the trajectory of Jean Michel Basquiat's short, sad life. A kid who'd lived in a cardboard box on the fringe of SoHo in New York, he became one of the biggest art stars of the '80s, but was dead of a heroin overdose at 27. Eighties art star-turned-director Julian Schnabel has assembled a cool cast—David Bowie as Andy Warhol; Benicio del Toro as his best friend; Gary Oldman as a Schnabel clone. And there are some great cameos: Tatum O'Neal, as a collector; Christopher Walken as an oily TV interviewer; and Courtney Love is a natural as a party girl called Big Pink. (on video)
CATHLEEN MCGUIGAN
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'Batman & Robin' (6/30/97)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney

It may be profitable, but it's sort of sad what's become of the Batman franchise. The series began, under Tim Burton's twisted gaze, with a grave Gothic grandiloquence that appealed to kids and grown-ups alike. Now it's just silly. Noisy, campy, overproduced, it's abdicated all solemnity in pursuit of a boom-kaboom videogame esthetic. The new Batman (George Clooney) almost seems superfluous to the story, which is turned over to the villains. This time out it's Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze—a giant human popsicle who turns his enemies to ice—and Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy—an eco-freak femme fatale with a deadly venom kiss—who team up to bring Gotham City to its knees. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has written quips, not characters and Joel Schumacher still seems miscast as a Bat-action director: he stages the mayhem confusingly and the comedy too broadly. He does, however, have an eye for spectacle: the one aspect of "Batman" that remains seductive is designer Barbara Ling's Gotham City. There's a potent, dangerous allure to these looming cityscapes. If only the drama were commensurate to their wonder. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'Batman Forever' (6/26/95)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey

This third installment may not find as much favor with Batulectuals as the previous two, which were saturated with director Tim Burton's own surreal, brooding sensibility. New director Joel Schumacher ("The Client") had a mission to lighten up the series. Well, he has and he hasn't. The movie does have somewhat more lilt and levity, much of it due to Jim Carrey as the Riddler. But there's still plenty of murk, physical and metaphysical, and more psychobabble about Bruce Wayne's obsessions and repressions. The new hero, Val Kilmer, is younger, sexier, less cerebral than Michael Keaton but lacks Keaton's undercurrent of complexity. (on video)
JACK KROLL
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'Battlefield Earth' (5/12/00)
Directed by Roger Christian
Starring John Travolta, Barry Pepper

The second, and hopefully last, of John Travolta's Scientology movies, "Battlefield Earth," like "Phenomenon," is religious propaganda masquerading as sci-fi fun. A cross between "Independence Day" and "Mad Max," though not nearly as amusing as either, "Battlefield Earth" is the dark, epic tale of Earth in the year 3000, a time when the evil alien Psychlos have taken over the planet and enslaved humanity. It should also be noted that at this point in Earth's history, all dramatic moments happen in slow motion. The stolid Barry Pepper plays Jonnie Goodboy, the only human willing to try to expel the tall, Klingon-wannabes from the ruins of Denver. Travolta is Terl, the sinister Psychlo chief of security, who because of a liaison with the daughter of a Psychlo senator, has been exiled to Earth—for Psychlos this is apparently something like getting stationed in Newark, NJ. Terl's scheme to get off the planet involves Jonnie, who takes the opportunity to learn everything about Psychlo society and pre-conquest Earth. This proves to be the downfall of the invaders. The message is that learning and mental clarity are the way to humanity's salvation; coincidentally, Scientology believes the same thing. Besides the scenery chomping from Travolta, who at times seems to be doing a Dr. Evil impersonation, there is nothing to recommend in this tedious, cheaply made dirge. The dialogue is inane, the acting wooden, and Roger Christian's directing choices are a lesson in sci-fi film cliché. However, contrary to cult-hater reports, nothing about "Battlefield Earth" will draw weak movie-goers into the open arms of the Church of Scientology. That would be like saying "Showgirls" was a recruitment tool for strip clubs.
TED GIDEONSE
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'The Beach' (2/18/00)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen

A friend who had seen a trailer for "The Beach" described it, only half joking, as a cross between "The Blue Lagoon" and "Lord of the Flies." It's easy enough to see why Danny Boyle's gorgeous but curiously weightless fable would evoke such analogies. Here are nubile young Westerners in pursuit of endless pleasure cavorting on a lush Thai tropical island. And here, of course, is paradise lost—the inevitable moment when the dreams of these young utopians turn into nightmares, and violence supersedes peace, sex and pot-laced pipe dreams. The character DiCaprio plays here, Richard, a young backpacker in search of extreme experience, is no sane person's dream date, cute as he may be. A callow American kid with no moral bearings and little common sense, Richard arrives in Bangkok, where he encounters a mad, suicidal Brit (Robert Carlyle) who gives him a map showing the location of an island that, legend has it, is as close as it gets to paradise on earth. This eye-popping isle, he discovers, has already been colonized. Half of the island is run by machine-gun-toting dope growers. The other is a secret community of half-clad fellow travelers led by a commanding Englishwoman named Sal (Tilda Swinton). Can these lotus eaters create their own Eden? One guess. Unfortunately, as screenwriter John Hodge (working from Alex Garland's novel) tells it, the crackup of this would-be utopia is a banal, unsurprising event. "The Blue Lagoon" meets "Lord of the Flies"? We wish.
DAVID ANSEN

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'Being John Malkovich' (10/26/99)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz

There being little work for a puppeteer who stages risqué versions of "Heloise and Abelard" on the streets of New York, the bearded, angst-ridden artiste Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) takes a job as a filing clerk at Lester Corp. Unhappily married to a pet-obsessed wife (Cameron Diaz, almost unrecognizable), he falls hard for his foxy new co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who couldn't care less about a guy who plays with puppets. One day, behind a filing cabinet at work Craig discovers a door that leads to a tunnel that leads ... inside John Malkovich's brain. For 15 glorious minutes, Craig experiences the thrill of being someone he is not - and for once knowing exactly who he is. Quick to see the possibilities, Maxine turns this magical portal into a business: for $200 a pop, anyone can briefly be John Malkovich.

Working from a teemingly imaginative screenplay by newcomer Charlie Kaufman, ex-music-video director Spike Jonze has made a deliciously one-of-a-kind surrealist farce. The smartest decision Jonze makes is to underplay everything. Kaufman and Jonze are riffing on all sorts of notions about identity and celebrity and sexual displacement. "Being John Malkovich" plays Ping-Pong with our heads, but the beauty of it is how lightly it tosses its ideas around. I don't know how a movie this original got made today, but thank God for wonderful aberrations.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Beloved' (10/19/98)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover

Nearly three hours long, filled with marvels and longueurs, the poetic and the pedestrian, Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Beloved' is a bold and frustratingly uneven movie. In the novel, Morrison's dense, lyrical prose swoops and soars around her story, conjuring ghosts and visions, darting between present and past as it contemplates the harrowing legacy of slavery. On one level, this is a ghost story. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) and her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) are sharing a house with the spiteful spirit of Sethe's other daughter, dead for 18 years. Into their lives come two figures promising hope. Paul D (Danny Glover), a former Sweet Home slave who moves in with Sethe, offering her his love. The other is a mysterious feral creature who calls herself Beloved (Thandie Newton), speaks in a ghastly croak and is the age Sethe's baby would have been had she lived. Demme is understandably reluctant to linger on the horrors of slavery, but it's a dramaturgical mistake. The quick, shocking flashbacks of Sethe's brutalization by her white masters don't do the job—they're horrific, but with a B movie luridness. Yet, however flawed, "Beloved" never plays it safe.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Benjamin Smoke' (8/03/99)
Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen
Starring Robert Dickerson

With a voice more raspy than Tom Waits before his first cup of coffee and more billowing than Janis Joplin at peak frenzy, Benjamin (the only name he used) was also an emaciated-looking drag queen who fronted the Atlanta-based underground band Smoke prior to his death in 1999. In co-directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's grainy portrait, Benjamin (born Robert Dickerson) is a latter day Beat who happens to favor sapphire-blue dresses.

Filmed mostly during the singer's protracted dying from AIDS-related illness, Benjamin Smoke is an intentionally fragmented, impressionistic glance at a unique character who philosophizes spontaneously on the role of poetry in his life: "If you can write it down maybe it don't hurt so much." Benjamin had a lot of hurt but he wore it lightly on his bony shoulders--along with a single strand of fake pearls.

Born in Atlanta in 1960 he early on thought of himself as "queer," in the broad sense of different. He did a brief stint in New York as a janitor sweeping up broken glass at the rock club CBGB's, and spent most of his life in a depressed corner of Atlanta called Cabbagetown where an empty textile mill stands as a monument to the failed dreams of the poor Appalachians who came there looking for a step up. Cohen and Sillen's camera often slips out the front door of Benjamin's dilapidated house, where the singer is stretched out on a frayed couch, and into the streets of Cabbagetown where cracked glass lies on the ground far from the downtown chic of CBGB's.

Interspersed with photo stills from Benjamin's childhood and Super-8 shots of Smoke performing in small, grungy Atlanta clubs, Benjamin, with his still-youthful mop of hair pointing down to a wide mouth missing some number of teeth, speaks without regret about his life as a singer, speed freak and chain-smoker ("better to smoke here than in the hereafter"). He's impossible to resist, even if Cohen and Sillen gloss over what surely were the desperate hours Benjamin tempered with his speed and barbiturate cocktails. His idol Patti Smith caught Benjamin's act not long before he died, leading her to sing of his "mournful energy."

But don't be fooled: Benjamin Smoke isn't Glamor Rock. It's certainly moving, and it should also be cautionary. Lives screwed up with drugs and drinks, even if they belong to poets, are still screwed up.
MICHAEL RUSH
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'Besieged' (5/21/99)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring Thandie Newton, David Thewlis

The first gift that Shandurai (Thandie Newton of "Beloved"), a young African medical student in Rome, receives in her dumbwaiter sums up the film "Besieged." It's a sheet of manuscript paper marked neatly with a "?".

Bernardo Bertolucci's latest exploration of romantic tension takes place against a rich background of scenery and music. So much of the action occurs without speech that viewers are left remarkably free to interpret events for themselves. In Africa the military abducts a black male teacher from his classroom; Shandurai's face contorts as she watches the military truck go by. Then suddenly she is a political refugee in Rome, going about her business, attending classes and working as a live-in housekeeper for a seemingly wealthy and very eccentric English musician. It is at this point that we discover the dumbwaiter isn't acting alone. It's delivering gifts from her employer, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis). He is clearly obsessed with his beautiful and distant servant and the closeness with which he monitors her movements comes disturbingly close to stalking.

One day Mr. Kinsky sends a ring down to Shandurai's quarters, and finally she confronts him. When he desperately declares his love for her, she angrily rejects him. "Please love me, I'll do anything," he implores. She blurts out, "You get my husband out of jail!" Ah: the abducted African man is her husband. This is only the first mystery that the film leaves hanging and later resolves. For example: Mr. Kinsky's furnishings, sculptures, and tapestries begin disappearing from his flat and showing up in shops around town. Meanwhile Shandurai becomes more and more transfixed by her now-aloof admirer. Bertolucci depicts his characters deftly while still eliciting questions about their actions and motives. But the film did leave this reviewer with one certainty: get the soundtrack.
LAURA SHIN
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'The Best Man' (10/19/99)
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee
Starring Taye Diggs, Nia Long

The groom (Morris Chestnut) is a pro running back as devoutly Christian as he is piggishly male chauvinist. His adoring bride (Monica Calhoun) worships him, but she's smart enough not to tell him about the night back in college when she slept with his good friend Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs). Harper is "The Best Man" in Malcolm D. Lee's funny, sentimental, cheerfully bawdy story of a wedding reunion that stirs up a hornet's nest of old loves, lusts and jealousies. Diggs is a novelist torn between his girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan) and an ambitious TV producer (Nia Long) who wants to reignite their unconsummated college passion. Harold Perrineau plays a peacekeeping lawyer saddled with the bossy girlfriend from hell (Melissa De Sousa). Best of all is sly Terrence Howard as the womanizing rake Quentin. He steals just about every scene he's in, which in this charismatic company is no mean feat.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Best in Show' (9/22/00)
Directed by Christopher Guest
Starring Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard

"This is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman"--the pitch-perfect pinnacles of the "mockumentary" form--have inspired one too many bad imitations like "Drop Dead Gorgeous." But just when you thought the genre had lost its sparkle, along comes Christopher Guest to remind us how good it can be. Guest, who played in "Spinal Tap" and directed and starred in "Guffman," gathers his best improvisational-team players for "Best in Show," a sharp-eyed satire of the arcane world of dog shows. While it may not be as flat-out hilarious as its predecessors, it's as smart, quiveringly alert and fleet of foot as a purebred pointer on the scent of fresh game.

The scenario is simple: we follow the owners and handlers of five dogs (a Weimaraner, Norwich terrier, bloodhound, Shih Tzu and standard poodle) headed for the prestigious Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. The cast, which includes Parker Posey, co-writer Eugene Levy (as a man with two left feet), Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins and Guest as a Southern bloodhound owner and aspiring ventriloquist, is uniformly wonderful. But best in show may have to go to Fred Willard as the dog show's boisterously inappropriate announcer Buck Laughlin. Guest seems to know just how far he can stretch reality without losing the crucial texture of verisimilitude. This is a comedy even cat lovers might adore.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Bicentennial Man' (12/16/99)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Embeth Davidtz, Robin Williams

One could describe this movie as the story of a woman (Embeth Davidtz) who falls in love with a household appliance (Robin Williams). But that would make it sound funny. While there are a few good jokes scattered about, this is, alas, yet another of Williams's earnest attempts to make us all Better, More Sensitive People. Cast as an android with unusually human proclivities (he listens wistfully to opera), the actor has made the first touchy-feely robot movie. The tone of director Chris Columbus's moist, disjointed film is hushed and reverent, as we follow Andrew the android's 200-year quest to achieve full humanity. Many homilies follow. Eventually our hero sheds his metallic mug, starts looking a lot like Robin Williams with a good tan, and has sex with the great-granddaughter of the woman who first owned him. Kids will be bored, the rest of us baffled.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Big Daddy' (6/29/99)
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Starring Adam Sandler, Joey Lauren Adams

As Sonny Koufax, the upper-middle-class slacker who reluctantly discovers the joys of parenting when a 5-year-old tyke is deposited on his doorstep, Adam Sandler is a kind of Every-Adam, designed to ring every demographic bell in the land. Sweet and sour, Sonny is like a shotgun wedding between his subversive W. C. Fields/Jerry Lewis side and his sentimental Wallace Beery/Tom Hanks Mr. Softie. Amiable, schizoid and disposable, "Big Daddy" is as formulaic as you would imagine: any story in which an irresponsible slob decides to adopt an orphan can be headed in only one uplifting direction. But there are enough rudely funny surprises along the way to hold your attention. Just because Sandler's Sonny makes little sense as an actual human being doesn't mean he won't make you laugh. Woefully unprepared for the arrival of little Julian (twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse), he treats the kid like an unruly puppy: when the boy wets his bed, or throws up on the floor, he simply puts down newspapers. That's the old Adam. The new Adam, of course, is redeemed by the love of a good lawyer (strangle-voiced Joey Lauren Adams from "Chasing Amy") and his Julian-inspired awakening to Responsibility. Who would have thought Billy Madison would grow up to be Mr. Family Values? Will Sandler's young male fans sit still for his bourgeois transformation? This may be the acid test for the '90s' most unexpected superstar.
DAVID ANSEN
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'The Big Kahuna' (4/28/00)
Directed by John Swanbeck
Starring Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito

Call it "American Beauty, Episode 1: The Big Kahuna." Whether or not Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey's character in "Beauty," was filmed before or after taking on the part of Larry is irrelevant. One plays into the other, and they're nearly identical characters. Larry is a little more angry and little less hopeful, but Spacey is equally brilliant. As a marketing rep for Lodestar Manufacturing, he is snide and mean, quick and charismatic, and desperate for a score. With the rather inept aid of his two colleagues at a convention in Wichita, he is determined to land the biggest client of his career, a man Larry refers to as the Big Kahuna. The action of the film occurs almost entirely in a hotel "hospitality suite" (the actual title of the play the film was based on) before and after a cocktail party thrown by Larry, Phil (Danny DeVito), and Bob (Peter Facinelli), the company naïf. While Larry is ostensibly all business, Phil, depressed and recently divorced, doesn't care at all. And Bob, young and Bible-thumping, doesn't understand why he's even there. The tension, mostly created and exacerbated by Larry, grows as the Big Kahuna becomes the trio's white whale. As in the best films about salesmen, "The Big Khuna" isn't really about business. It is an intense study of the human condition, and man's relationship with God, aka the Big Kahuna. But director John Swanbeck and screenwriter (and playwright) Rueff handle the claustrophobic situation—and the heavy doses of moral philosophy—with the right mixture of humor and pathos. DeVito, subdued in his gloom, is a good counterbalance to Spacey's fireball. Facinelli, who is excellent as the confused and moralistic Bob, has found a role that breaks away from the typical teen sex comedies he has starred in to date. Like the the teen trio in "American Beauty," he may also have the experience of riding Spacey's coattails to stardom.
TED GIDEONSE
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'The Big Lebowski' (3/16/98)
Directed by Joel Coen
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman

The Coen brothers have always walked a fine line between cleverness and catastrophe. "Blood Simple" teetered toward the cleverness side; "The Hudsucker Proxy" pratfalled into catastrophe; "Fargo" was their best balancing act. In "The Big Lebowski," the Coens are afflicted by a new syndrome: Multiple Parodosis. Frothing from two mouths, they parody film noir, megaviolent thrillers, sports allegories, ravaged-war-veteran movies, existentialist Westerns, even Busby Berkeley musicals.... The Doublemint Coens give us double Lebowskis: Jeff, a.k.a. the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a zonked-out Californian with beach sand in his gears, and Jeff, a.k.a. the Big (David Huddleston), a mysterious wheelchairbound millionaire. When a trio of "nihilist" thugs mistakes the penniless Dude for the loaded Big, breaking in and urinating nihilistically on his rug, a hornet's nest of old movie themes explodes. (on video)
JACK KROLL
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'The Big Tease' (2/4/00)
Directed by Kevin Allen
Starring Craig Ferguson, Frances Fisher

"The Big Tease," which tries to do for hairdressing what "Waiting for Guffman" did for regional theater, has a couple of cute moments, but the formula it follows is getting tired. Enough already with the faux documentary! Crawford Mackensie (Craig Ferguson, who also co-wrote the script) is a Scottish "stylist" who is being filmed on a trip to Los Angeles for the World Freestyle Hairdressing Championship, which awards the prestigious Platinum Scissors. Unfortunately, Mackensie thinks he's going to compete when in actuality he was only invited as a spectator. The rest of the film is his wacky quest to get into the competition. Direcor Kevin Allen ("Twin Town") does a good job copying Christopher Guest's work on "Guffman"--just as Michael Patrick Jann did in last year's much funnier "Drop Dead Gorgeous." But, amazingly, he manages to make Los Angeles seem dull. The supporting characters, all LA types, don't have much edge, either. It's almost as if Ferguson was too nice to his characters; they're all good people deep down. Frances Fisher, as a publicist who befriends Crawford after he gives her a make-over, is nowhere near ridiculous enough. And David Rasche, Crawford's onbxious nemesis, is about as villainous as a cranky poodle. Ferguson, though, is rather endearing as the utterly original Crawford. He just wants to do something great for Scotland, for his mother, and for his boyfriend. And, in the end, he does, of course. Sadly, though, the film never does the same for its audience.
TED GIDEONSE
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'The Birdcage' (3/18/96)
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman

In Hollywood's long-delayed remake of the 1978 French farce, "La Cage aux Folles," the butt of the joke is a reactionary senator (Gene Hackman) who proudly waves the flag of homophobia. Other than conservative Congressmen, everyone will be tickled pink by this sleek Mike Nichols remake, with Robin Williams as the nightclub owner Armand (he's now Jewish) and Nathan Lane as the tempestuous drag queen Albert. Nichols carefully follows the classical-farce footprints of the original, in which the middle-aged gay couple are forced to conjure up a straight facade to facilitate the marriage of Armand's son to the daughter of the gay-bashing, anti-Semitic senator. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'Bittersweet Motel' (9/7/00)
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring the Phish bandmembers

"Bittersweet Motel" is a likable, if slow documentary devoted to Phish, Gen X's answer to the Grateful Dead. In the film, director/producer Todd Phillips spends as much time chronicling the Vermont quartet's loopy fanbase as he does the group's quirky sound--and that's a good thing. For all the scruffy earnestness of Phish's lead singer, Trey Anastasio, the movie is at its funniest when focusing on the antics of the often-stoned and always-sunny Phish fans.

In one instance, 1,200 of them gather for a naked group photo during a show in Limestone, Maine. In another, concert goers smoke ganja out of five-foot-tall bongs. And in a particularly disturbing sequence, the filmmakers interview an out-of-it clique of teens as they wake up with hits of nitrous. The tagline: "6 a.m., parking lot."

For all their fans' legendary excesses, the band is depicted as a relatively sober and musically devout group. Besides one shot of bassist Mike Gordon lighting what looks like a joint, the boys are shown mainly playing their instruments with orgasmic joy and delighting in the lifestyle of latter day, purified rock Gods. Standard moviegoers might quickly grow bored with "Bittersweet Motel." But music aficionados will relish this up-close and unflinching look at a music phenomenon far outside the mainstream.
SUZANNE SMALLEY
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'Black and White' (4/7/00)
Directed by James Toback
Starring Ben Stiller, Bijou Phillips

Maverick moviemaker James Toback ("Two Girls and a Guy") has latched on to the most fascinating cultural phenomenon of the American moment in his film "Black and White"—the interaction, culturally, musically, sexually, between young whites and blacks. In 1957, when Norman Mailer wrote his essay on "The White Negro," it was elitist hipsters who identified with black culture; today 70 percent of hip-hop record sales go to whites. "I want to be black," says a teenager. "I can do whatever I want; I'm a kid in America." Toback captures the problematic, syncopated dynamics of this crossover with his story involving a creepy white cop who bribes a pro basketball player to throw a game, then uses the player to nail a rapper-gangbanger. Swept up in this tale is a multicultural slew of characters played by a fascinatingly variegated cast, including teen diva Bijou Phillips, members of Wu-Tang Clan, supermodel Claudia Schiffer, New York Knicks star Allan Houston and ex-champ Mike Tyson. These icons hold their own with the pro actors, among them a nose-ringed Brooke Shields as a documentary filmmaker, Robert Downey Jr. as her gay husband and Ben Stiller as the creepy cop. Many scenes are improvised, notably one in which Downey makes a pass at Tyson (playing himself), who wasn't told what was going to happen. The astounded Tyson promptly uncorks a scary shot to the face. It may be the realest punch in movie history.
JACK KROLL
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'The Blair Witch Project' (7/16/99)
Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard

The iconoclastic "Blair Witch Project" is a welcome entry this summer. The premise is elegantly scary: an obsessive filmmaker named Heather (Donahue), her slacker cameraman (Joshua Leonard) and snarky sound guy (Michael Williams) vanish in the woods while on the trail of a supposedly mythical local figure, the Blair Witch. A year after they disappear, their footage is found. There are the black-and-white reels that were intended for the documentary, as well as Heather's behind-the-scenes video, which tells the crew's story as they find themselves lost in the woods, stalked by something they can hear but cannot see. Though "Blair" is a horror movie, it bears no relation to that Neve Campbell flick or its increasingly bad Xeroxes. In fact, there's absolutely no explicit violence on screen. "Blair" is about dread and isolation—it's a fairy tale reminding us that childhood fears are deep and tangled as tree roots. Heather's shaky video work can induce motion sickness—it looks like combat footage as she bolts through the woods—but just try turning away.
JEFF GILES
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'Blast From the Past' (2/12/99)
Directed by Hugh Wilson
Starring Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone

During the first couple of decades of the Cold War, thousands of frightened Americans built backyard bomb shelters. That is where loopy scientist Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken) drags his wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, creating the premise for the mostly bland fish-out-of-water comedy "Blast from the Past." Convinced a nuclear war has occurred, they lock themselves into the shelter for 35 years, raising their son Adam (eventually played by a wide-eyed Brendan Fraser) and trapping him in the culture of 1962. When the doors unlock in 1997, Adam goes up to the surface for supplies and a nice girl. As he confusedly wanders through suburban Los Angeles, he meets the appropriately named Eve (Alicia Silverstone) and promptly falls in love with her. She thinks Adam, with his bizarre 60s manners and secret history, is a nut. The resulting love story is the tired part of the film. Adam and Eve's romance isn't written with any wit or given any time to develop. However, every scene with Walken and Spacek is worth the price of admission, even at $9.50. Walken's paranoia and quirky fatherly love make him a geeky Ward Cleaver. Spacek is brilliantly funny, slowly transforming Helen from a nervous 60s housewife into a liquored-up one. I could have watched her in the vibrating fat-burner, eyes closed, lazily gripping a martini glass, for hours.
TED GIDEONSE
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'Body Shots' (10/22/99)
Directed by Michael Cristofer
Starring Sean Patrick Flannery, Jerry O'Connell

The premise of "Body Shots," the new movie from director Michael Cristofer, sounds predictable but promising: a night in the life of eight hip, attractive 20-somethings out on the town in L.A. Unfortunately the movie rapidly veers towards tired 80's territory rather than offering anything new and fresh. Two groups of friends (actress, lawyer, banker, athlete) get together and trade tame and predictable observations about sex, love and dating. Boy, do you feel for them. Then they meet up at a packed nightclub that features red-hatted cocktail waitresses fanning out with glow-in-the-dark drink trays — with jello shots, hence the title. There's a bloody fight in the parking lot, some gratuitous drunk hook-ups, and the racy party girl goes home with the loud, blustering athlete. The next day she shows up, distraught and bleeding, claiming rape. With a tedious play-by-play of the entire night's gropings, the movie purports to examine the situation from the perspective of each of the participants; instead, it just makes you want to look elsewhere. Did he or didn't he? The sad thing is, we don't care.
ESTHER PAN
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'Boiler Room' (2/18/00)
Directed by Ben Younger
Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck

A "Wall Street" for the new millennium, "Boiler Room" owes such a debt to Stone's now classic treatment of ruthless moneymaking that it even has its characters lip synching to his film in one crucial scene. The only problem is, the young guns in "Boiler Room" have it all wrong. Instead of seeing the ruthless investor, Gordon Gekko, as the villain of the piece, they have taken him as their hero. Similarly, the aggressive recruiter played by Ben Affleck, self-consciously models himself on the Alec Baldwin figure in "Glengarry, Glen Ross." He takes the motto "Always Be Closing" from David Mamet's indictment of the cutthroat sales business and turns it into the mantra of his own sales staff. But such is the topsy turvy moral universe of J.T. Marlin, the fly-by-night brokerage firm whose boiler room is a get-rich-quick schemer's dream come true.

The schemer in question is 19 year-old Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi, pale, intense and perfect for the role), the son of a prominent judge, who has dropped out of college to run an illegal casino from his Queens, New York apartment. You see, that's how we can tell he's ethically not quite all there. One night Seth receives a visit from a couple of young stockjocks driving a Ferrari, who admire his entrepreneurial spirit and suggest he come on board at J.T. Marlin. In the testosterone-laced boiler room of the firm, he learns the art of cold calling and is soon highly skilled at sweet-talking people out of their life-savings. (The film is clever enough not to cast these dupes as innocent victims; the same greed that drives the brokers causes their targets to cave in to the hard sell).

Here "Boiler Room" reaches its high point, absorbing the viewer into the wild adrenaline rush of a successful trade. Director and writer Ben Younger has researched his subject well and the result is a fierce, surprisingly convincing portrait of a world where every ounce of energy is focused on making a quick buck and where everyone feels they have the right to be a millionaire. He expertly captures the tense mixture of cameraderie and rivalry amongst the brokers and the frat house sensibility of their workplace.

It is only when things begin to go wrong, as Seth starts to ask questions and an FBI investigation gets underway, that the film begins to flag—partly because the fun is over, and partly because of sloppy editing. There are too many jarring, "did I miss something?" moments as the film progresses, as well as too much time spent lingering on the dysfunctional relationship between Seth and his father. "Boiler Room" tries too hard to prove it has a "heart" when the whole point is that its subjects do not.
ANDREA C. BASORA
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'The Bone Collector' (10/4/99)
Directed by Philip Noyce
Starring Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie

The dark, drizzly, gritty feel of "The Bone Collector" is highly reminiscent of the setting of "Seven." Familiar also is the pairing of a veteran cop with a rookie to catch a serial killer —one who in this case happens to model his crimes on those in an old novel. However, "The Bone Collector" gives this standard, often tiresome Hollywood formula a unique twist: veteran forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) is a quadriplegic who can mentor rookie Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) only from the confines of his bed. It is Washington's emotionally charged, fiercely convincing performance that makes "The Bone Collector" stand out from the pack. Despite their chemistry, the love story between Washington and Jolie descends at times into sentimentality, but fortunately director Philip Noyce injects healthy doses of comic relief to keep things in perspective. Indeed even the darkest, most horrific scenes, are leavened with humor, thereby adding an element of realism as the detectives make the best of an otherwise bleak situation. "The Bone Collector" may be formulaic—but many good recipes are.
ERIC S. ARNOLD
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'Boogie Nights' (10/8/97)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds

The central character of "Boogie Nights," a film set in the pornographic movie business in the late 70s, is Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a 17-year-old whose massive endowment makes up for his below-average intelligence. The film follows his career in porn, from success to the inevitable downward spiral. Amid the gratuitous cocaine use, random acts of violence and complete lack of sexual inhibitions, there is a successful portrait of a marginalized group of people as such a close-knit family. Julianne Moore is terrific as Amber Waves, the emotional mother figure and Burt Reynolds is pitch-perfect as porn director Jack Horner, the all-knowing patriarch. Wahlberg, as the favorite son who goes from naive lad to egomaniac in a few short years, handles his character's arc with aplomb. Although the film's second half lacks any sense of conflict, it's a stunning glimpse at acting—and life—in the raw. (on video)
B.J. SIGESMUND
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'Bossa Nova' (8/17/99)
Directed by Bruno Barreto
Starring Amy Irving, António Fagundes

Bruno Barreto's "Bossa Nova" is sort of like a Jennifer Lopez video: pretty to look at, easy on the ears, but ultimately completely vacuous and lackluster. The film gravitates around Barreto's real-life wife, Amy Irving, who plays an American widow living in Brazil giving English lessons out of her apartment. She meets a slew of funny foreigners with funny accents, all designed to provide cheap laughs for dim-witted Yankee viewers. In a parallel plot line, António Fagundes plays Pedro Paulo, a suave lawyer who eventually becomes involved with Mary. But Barreto isn't content to devote himself to his two main characters and instead keeps the film skidding along with various confusing sub-plots: Pedro's younger brother falls for Sharon, (Giovanna Antonelli), an adorably spunky legal intern. And Mary Ann's friend Nadine (Drica Moraes) is involved in a hot cyber-romance with a guy who bills himself as a hip Manhattan artist.
While it fails as a cohesive romantic comedy, Bossa Nova should do wonders for Brazil's tourist industry. Barreto's Rio De Janeiro is as sanitized and wholesome as a Baywatch beach-but if polished good looks were all it took to make a good movie, Denise Richards and Freddie Prinze Jr. would already be Oscar winners.
DONNA FREYDKIN
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'Bowfinger' (8/17/99)
Directed by Frank Oz
Starring Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy

Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are both in peak form in "Bowfinger," a wackily imaginative farce written by Martin. Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) is a fly-by-night producer-director at the end of his rope. But he's got this script, written by his Iranian accountant, that he's sure will turn his luck around--if only he can get action superstar Kit Ramsey (Murphy) to be in it. But being a realist (he has only $2,000) and a con artist, he has a better idea: gathering a cast and crew as desperate as he is, he will get Kit to appear in his film without knowing he's in it! Alas, Kit is not just the biggest star in town, he's the most paranoid. And with strange people approaching him in the street babbling about alien invasions (this would be Bowfinger's cast, being filmed with hidden cameras), Kit's condition is not likely to improve. It's an outlandish premise, but director Frank Oz knows how to build the jokes until the farce reaches full comic boil. Murphy's strung-out star is an incendiary delight, and he doubles the fun playing his own brother, the sweet, not-so-swift Jiff. "Bowfinger" may not be as subtle as "Roxanne" and "L.A. Story," also written by Martin, but like them it supplies an indecent amount of fun.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Box of Moonlight' (8/4/97)
Directed by Tom DiCillo
Starring John Turturro, Sam Rockwell

"Box of Moonlight" is nothing fancy; it's not even novel. But it is an illuminating study of a man's recovery of his youthful openness. John Turturro plays Al Fountain, an uptight engineer who begins to lose his carefully cultivated emotional equilibrium and retreat into his past. The wonderful second act of the film is filled with nomads, go-nowhere towns and a tour through the fringes of American society that teaches Fountain those valuable quality-of-life lessons we've seen before on film, but don't mind revisiting if they're done well. Director Tom DiCillo does a solid job with a small story. Also memorable is Sam Rockwell, who plays The Kid, a young man living off the land. The Kid's immaturity, lack of direction and general dirtiness repel you at first, but they grow on you if you can accept the film's trite but benevolent message: growing up doesn't have to mean deserting your childhood. (on video)
B.J. SIGESMUND
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'The Boxer' (1/12/98)
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson

"The Boxer" reunites Daniel Day-Lewis, director Jim Sheridan and writer Terry George, the team who brought you the rousing "In the Name of the Father," in another highly charged tale. Danny (Day-Lewis), a former boxer of promise, was once an IRA member himself. Now, out of jail after 14 years, he renounces violence and starts a boxing club that will admit both Protestant and Catholic kids. Strong, silent and haunted, Danny carries inside him a loathing for his IRA past and an unspoken love for his old sweetheart Maggie (Emily Watson), who is married to a political prisoner. What holds the movie together is the fiercely self-contained commitment of Day-Lewis's performance and the palpable chemistry between him and Watson. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'Boys Don't Cry'(10/8/99)
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny

Kimberly Peirce has been obsessed with the story of Brandon Teena ever since she read about his death in 1993. Brandon, born as Teena Brandon, was a 21-year-old Nebraska girl who passed as a boy, dating women who found him an alluring lover. When his deception was uncovered in Falls City, where he had fallen in love with a girl named Lana, he was raped and beaten by Lana's old beau and his ex-con friend—both of whom had been Teena's friends. Before the police got around to arresting them, they murdered him.

Peirce's taut, sure-footed first film sidesteps sensationalism without sacrificing any of the story's wonder and horror. And in Hilary Swank Peirce's three-year search for the perfect Brandon paid off big time. Swank is touching, beguiling and androgynously beautiful. As Lana, the gender-bending Romeo's Juliet, Chloe Sevigny has a pathos of her own. No less striking are Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III as the deeply scary killers and Jeanetta Arnette as Lana's hard-drinking, fiercely protective mother. These people first take the polite, pretty young man into their family, and for a brief, deluded moment Brandon's fantasy of a normal life as a Midwestern boy is complete. Then in swift, savage strokes, Peirce shows us a body and a spirit broken, a life snuffed out. It's an agonizing sight (and one that can't help recall Matthew Shepard's death in Wyoming). "Boys Don't Cry" invests it with a tragic force that is honestly earned.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Braveheart' (5/29/95)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau

"Braveheart" is a historical epic directed by Mel Gibson with a well-balanced blend of romantic and documentary styles. Gibson plays William Wallace, the 13th-century Scot who fired up the rebellion against English rule. With spears, swords, lances, axes, arrows, burning pitch, the Scots and English hack, pierce, disembowel, decapitate, and torch one another in the biggest, bloodiest battle scenes in years. The film is an impressive achievement, Gibson's honorable shot at a big, resonant paean to freedom, like "Spartacus." "Braveheart" looks like a true epic—even if it is both bloody and bloody long. (on video)
JACK KROLL
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'Breaking the Waves' (12/9/96)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard

In a bleak Scottish seacoast village in the 1970s, dominated by a rigid Calvinist sect with a profound distrust of outsiders, a childlike, God-fearing young woman named Bess (Emily Watson) marries an oil-rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hearty, worldly sensualist. The subject of this daringly emotional movie is faith, and it demands to be taken on it. Von Trier's virginal heroine hurls herself into her marriage with a reckless, openhearted carnal joy that is unnerving to behold. She may well be crazy--or she may be some kind of saint. There are few movies around that take such huge risks: this is high-wire filmmaking, without a net of irony. Von Trier, together with cinematographer Robby Mueller, creates an atmosphere of dizzying cinema verite immediacy. He also gets astonishingly vivid performances from the actors, including the bearishly natural Skarsgard, playing the open, likable Jan and Katrin Cartlidge, as Bess's loving, worried sister-in-law. Emily Watson, as Bess, makes the most transfixing screen debut in years. Like the movie, her performance leaves you shaken, off balance, haunted. Days later, your rational mind may question the film's wild leaps of faith. Watching it, you believe. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'The Bridges of Madison County' (6/5/95)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep

Gagged on the book, liked the movie. That will be the experience of many who see Clint Eastwood's "Bridges." Director-star Eastwood and his collaborators have done a fascinating cleanup job on Robert James Waller's stupefyingly successful best seller. The book was a hermaphroditic fantasy; if you were a man, you could be Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a guy who could induce orgasm in a redwood tree. If you were a woman you could be Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), whose 96 hours with RK is the only brush with ecstasy in her life. What Eastwood and Streep have done is to bring a semblance of emotional reality to the story. (on video)
JACK KROLL
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'Bringing Out the Dead' (10/19/99)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette

As an ambulance cruises the nighttime streets of New York City, we catch infernal glimpses of human detritus: pregnant hookers, raving alcoholics, bullet-strewn bodies. These could be the same sights that inspired Travis Bickle to his murderous explosion in "Taxi Driver," that seminal collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader. But the observing eyes in their new film, "Bringing Out the Dead," belong to Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a haunted, insomniac paramedic whose mission in life is to save people, not slaughter them. A typically tormented Scorsese hero, he's riddled with guilt for the lives he failed to save. Did I mention "Bringing Out the Dead" is a comedy? Its bloodstained humor is strictly of the gallows variety — the bitter mirth needed to survive nightly immersions in the lower depths. Even darker than that desperate comedy "After Hours," the superbly shot "Bringing Out the Dead" is full of bravura moments and high-wire performances. Scorsese's apocalyptic visions don't always mesh with the larkish black comedy. Still, anyone with a taste for high-risk filmmaking won't want to miss it. At the end of this rough road, Scorsese offers us — and his hero — a lovely image of salvation.
DAVID ANSEN
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'Brokedown Palace' (8/13/99)
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Starring Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale

In the film "Brokedown Palace," two eighteen-year old girls from Ohio decide to take a holiday in Thailand after their high school graduation. But instead of returning for college, they end up sentenced to 33 years in a Bangkok prison, having been unwittingly conned by a handsome Aussie into smuggling heroin. The plotting could use some finessing, but fine acting makes this film worthwhile. At first, the confiscation of the drugs and the massive jail time seem as implausible as landing on "Go to Jail" in a game of Monopoly. Too often, the film relies on portentous music and ominous lighting to convey the gravity of the situation. But "Brokedown Palace" is redeemed by compelling performances from Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale as Alice and Darlene, who have been best friends "forever." Their naivete is not only convincing but sympathetic and layered: trust and doubt begin to mingle in their eyes as their long-time bond starts cracking under the pressures of prison life. Although the plot ostensibly centers on their fight to be freed, the developments in the friendship emerge as a more engaging subplot. By the emotionally-charged climax, one cares less about whether they will be released from jail than whether their friendship will survive. If you're willing to overlook some flimsy plot points, "Brokedown Palace" offers evidence that there's strong acting talent in Generation X.
LAURA SHIN
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'Broken Arrow' (2/19/96)
Directed by John Woo
Starring John Travolta, Christian Slater

John Woo's ("The Killer") wall-to-wall action movie, written by "Speed's" Graham Yost, pits bad-guy military pilot John Travolta against good-guy military pilot Christian Slater in a ticking-nuclear-bomb cliffhanger set in the Utah desert. Full of explosions, special effects, speeding planes, trains and Humvees (not to mention gaping plot holes), it's a preposterous thrill machine executed with impersonal efficiency. Dumb, sometimes exciting, requisitely jokey, it may well be Woo's first big American commercial hit. But the Woo signature—that passionately nutty operatic style—has been erased. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'A Brother's Kiss' (5/12/97)
Directed by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld
Starring Nick Chinlund, Michael Raynor

"A Brother's Kiss," based on director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's own one-act play, recounts the struggle of two brothers to survive and even prosper in a world dominated by a drunken mother, an absent father and some very mean East Harlem streets. United in their determination to "stay clean" the brothers somehow maintain their hopes—Mick, the younger brother (Joshua Danowsky), wants to be a police detective, Lex (Justin Pierce) a professional basketball player—at least for a while. But, inevitably, tragedy makes short work of their dreams. Formulaic as the basic premise of the movie might be, it is ultimately redeemed by the sincerity and realism of Rosenfeld's vision. As the young Mick and Lex, Justin Pierce, best known for his work in "Kids," and Joshua Danowsky, who is new to the screen, are particularly effective. (on video)
ANDRÉA C. BASORA
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'The Brothers McMullen' (8/14/95)
Directed by Ed Burns
Starring Shari Albert, Maxine Bahns

There are many clues that Ed Burns's film is a homegrown production. The movie was largely filmed in his parents' house on New York's Long Island, and the credits list his mother as the caterer. Still, it won top prize at Sundance. It's a funny, beguiling and neurotic picture about three Irish-American brothers foundering in the choppy waters of romantic commitment. After the death of their alcoholic father, Patrick (Mike McGlone) and Barry (Burns) crash with Jack (Jack Mulcahy) and his wife, Molly (Connie Britton), and the three men try to talk each other through various crises of faith and fidelity, though each brother is more screwed up than the last. (on video)
JEFF GILES
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'Buena Vista Social Club' (6/4/99)
Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Luis Barzaga, Joachim Cooder

American guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba in 1996 on a musical treasure hunt. He came back with "Buena Vista Social Club," his collaboration with an ensemble of aging greats of Cuban traditional music, and one of the most powerful CDs of 1997. This documentary, filmed two years after the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, is neither a "the making of" effort, nor is it strictly about the music. Rather, director Wim Wenders works to convey a feeling for the musicians. The film is short on biographical details and the history of the music, and long on impressions of the musicians' character and motivations.

Wenders doesn't conduct interviews as such. Rather, each band member in turn takes us for a stroll through the streets of Havana while chatting about his childhood, his early career and favorite hangover cures. The street scenes are interspersed with musical footage, cutting between concerts, recording studios, bedrooms and practice halls. Wenders achieves a warm, intimate feel, but his camera tends to wander. The director is easily distracted, and allows the camera to seek out color and texture the way a curious dog seeks out smells. Indoors, Wenders spends too much time circling around the artists, bobbing and weaving past obstructions and generally inducing motion sickness. Still, the subjects are intriguing and much of what is lost in potential musical education is gained in a feeling of connection with this remarkable group of people. And that connection makes the excellent CD even better. Cooder says that in Cuba, the music flows like a river. Wenders's stated purpose with Buena Vista Social Club was to "make a film that'll float on this river. Not interfering with it, just drifting along." Mission accomplished.
THOMAS HAYDEN
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'A Bug's Life' (11/16/98)
Directed by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey

If you want to see the giddiest, most inventive family movie of the year, you're going to have to look under a rock. John Lasseter's movie centers on an ant with what the director calls "a self-esteem problem," the hapless, hopeless Flik (voiced by Dave Foley). Every year Flik's colony must make a giant offering of grain to a marauding motorcycle gang of grasshoppers led by the evil Hopper (Kevin Spacey). One year Flik accidentally dumps the offering into a pond. Hopper threatens to annihilate the colony if it doesn't make amends. Rather than capitulate, Flik strikes out for the city and enlists the help of what he thinks are warrior bugs but are in fact dysfunctional circus performers. Flik must then stare Hopper down, teach the colony about the power of the people and win the heart of Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Even in its slower moments "Bug's Life" is literally crawling with colorful vistas and characters. There's the grumpy male ladybug Francis, the goofy Hungarian pillbugs Tuck and Roll, the perky little Princess Dot (think Drew Barrymore in "E.T."), the zaftig caterpillar Heimlich (think Augustus in "Willy Wonka the Chocolate Factory"). "Bug's Life" is all-embracing—funny and silly and tender, full of fun scares and endless sight gags.
JEFF GILES AND CORIE BROWN
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'Bulworth' (5/18/98)
Directed by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry

Once again Warren Beatty plays a public figure—the Democratic senator from California, Jay Bulworth. In the midst of an election campaign, this lapsed idealist, now in the pocket of corporate lobbyists, mentally unravels. Taking a contract out on his own life, the unhinged candidate proceeds to make his appointed campaign rounds—but instead of emitting the usual high-minded gas, out of his mouth issue rude, uncensored truths about politics, race, the media and money. A dizzying mixture of the sophisticated and the naive, the deft and the clumsy, "Bulworth" is overstuffed, excessive, erratic—and essential. No other Hollywood movie is raising these issues, or puncturing so gleefully the conservative pieties of our day. There should be something in it to provoke and annoy just about everybody, right and left, black and white. Just as surely as there is something in it to make just about everybody laugh. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'The Butcher Boy' (4/13/98)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Starring Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley

Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), the exuberant and terrifying 12-year-old hero of Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy," has good reasons to prefer the carnival going on inside his head—in his daydreams, priests appear with the insectlike heads of space aliens, and the Virgin Mary (Sinead O'Connor) floats down from the sky to give him advice—to the real world of his small Irish town in the early 1960s. His father, Benny (Stephen Rea), is a hopeless alcoholic; his ma (Aisling O'Sullivan) is in and out of the mental hospital. As his losses mount, he clings with fanatical devotion to his best friend, Joe (Alan Boyle), with whom he can act out his cowboy-and-Indian fantasies, and he turns all his rage onto the demonized figure of Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), his stuffy and meddlesome neighbor. "The Butcher Boy," based on Patrick McCabe's novel, is a raucously sardonic black comedy about a boy's descent into madness and murder. (on video)
DAVID ANSEN
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'But I'm a Cheerleader' (7/7/00)
Directed by Jamie Babbit
Starring Natasha Lyonne, Clea Duvall

Megan (Natasha Lyonne, so wonderful in last year's "Slums of Beverly Hills," but perhaps best known for her role in "American Pie") might look like a typical suburban teenager, but her friends and family have spotted some telltale signs that she might be "different." For one thing, she's a vegetarian, and then there are those questionable Melissa Etheridge posters on her bedroom wall.... The conclusion is obvious: Megan must be a lesbian. Her strait-laced parents (Bud Cort and Mink Stole) plan an intervention and quickly pack her off to True Directions, a sexual rehabilitation center. Once there, this candy-colored comedy of sexual errors gets started in earnest.

"But I'm a Cheerleader" is a fun, but not terribly fearless satire. Much of the humor comes from the casting itself--at times the credits read like a series of puns, culminating with an out-of-drag RuPaul Charles as Mike, a True Directions counselor in charge of whipping a bunch of sissy boys into proper macho shape. The rest of the laughs come from the unlikely series of sexual reorientation exercises planned by tthe staunchly homophobic camp director, Mary (Cathy Moriarty). The humor is broad and harmless--it's the kind of film where "one of you is in the doghouse" is likely to be meant literally, and a great deal of comedic mileage is derived from the fact that Mary's buff son, Rock, is obviously gay. However, there are some truly funny touches along the way: when asked to find the "root" of their homosexuality, one of the camp attendees points out, ashamedly, that she was "born in France," and Megan's masochistic roommate has a distracting habit of practicing aversion therapy on herself after lights out.

The principal joke, of course, is that the formerly "normal," devotedly cheerleading Megan does indeed find her true sexual direction when she meets Graham (Clea Duvall). The two actresses share some genuine chemistry and the relationship between Megan and Graham is charming, if somewhat underdeveloped. First time director Jamie Babbit has a sure hand and a great production designer (Rachel Kamerman, also responsible for the wonderfully moody "The Last Time I Committed Suicide"). Her satire has a blunt edge, but a good heart.
ANDRÉA C. BASORA
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