Dude, Where's My Car?

Directed by: Danny Leiner
Written by:Philip Stark
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Seann William Scott, Jennifer Garner, Marla Sokoloff, Kristy Swanson
Released: March 29, 2001
Grade: C-

Look no further as we have already have the best film of 2001 in Dude, Where’s My Car?  I was touched by its drama and surprised by the intelligent level of its comedy.  How the Academy could overlook the film at this year's Oscars astounds me.  First Jim Carrey was snubbed, then Billy Elliot, and now this.  Serious changes need to be made to the Academy's judging criteria if they wish to be taken seriously (especially in light of the recent Gladiator triumph).

Tell me if you've been through a similar situation.  Jesse (Kutcher) and Chester (Scott) wake up one morning and cannot remember a single moment from the night before - they must have gotten so "wasted".  Their girlfriends call winging about how their house has been trashed and they'd better be over there soon with their anniversary gifts or else.  Sounds simple enough but when they open the front door, Jesse's car is strangely missing and the question is asked - dude, where's my car?

The next hour sees them fit the pieces together and I won't spoil the many surprises for fear of ruining this cinematic masterpiece.  The complex political and ethical issues it deals with will put it on the curriculum of English departments across the country.  It will be spoken about, studied and analysed for decades to come.

Television director Danny Leiner has broadened his horizons and is now illustrating his immense talent on a bigger screen.  One can expect 20th Century Fox and the world's other leading film studios to be flooding him with millions of dollars to produce their finest scripts.  And just where has writer Philip Stark come from?  His brilliant screenplay must have required years of research to capture the depth he does of its characters.

Speaking of the cast, That 70's Show's Ashton Kutcher and American Pie's Seann William Scott will blow you away with their performances.  Look out Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, there's some new competition on the block.  I've heard there's an intense bidding war between Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to secure their services for upcoming projects.

Dude, Where’s My Car? shows that with each day, we are getting closer to achieving perfection of the craft.  I'm sure I'll be suffering from post-film depression for days as I yearn to see it again and appreciate all that I missed from the first viewing.  Disregard Almost Famous.  Forget Traffic.  Ignore Cast Away.  This is as good as it gets.

Now that's sarcasm!


Finding Forrester

Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by:Mike Rich
Starring: Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, Busta Rhymes, Rob Brown
Released: March 29, 2001
Grade: B-

Good Will Hunting was about an undiscovered mathematical genius who was helped by a man with his own demons and together, they got each other’s lives back on track.  Finding Forrester is about an undiscovered yet brilliant writer who is helped by a man with his own demons and together, they get each other’s lives back on track.  That's not the only similarity.  Both are directed by Gus Van Sant who is usually known for tacking bolder projects such as My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For.  Once you see this film's final 10 minutes, you'll know there's one more interesting connection.

Finding Forrester revolves around 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Brown), an extremely talented writer who keeps this ability hidden from most.  He loves hanging out with his friends in Manhattan and playing basketball but after Jamal gets outstanding results in an aptitude test, both his principal and mother understand just how gifted he is.  Jamal is offered a place at a prestigious school and doesn't take much convincing once he sees the campus and what it has to offer him. 

Near where Jamal plays basketball is an old apartment block with a story.  On the top floor is a man who constantly looks out from behind his closed window.  No one has ever seen him in person.  Rumours have been whispered over time but the mysterious man remains an enigma in the neighbourhood.

On a dare, Jamal ascends the building and sneaks into the apartment but when discovered, flees and inadvertently leaves his backpack behind.  The next day, the backpack is thrown down from above and inside are Jamal's writing books, comprehensively edited by a very knowledgeable writer.  Intrigued, Jamal wants to know more about this man and whether or not he can help him further his own writing.  I won't spoil any more details because the character is revealed ever so slowly in the film but obviously, the role is played by Sean Connery. 

This story was told much better physically and emotionally in Good Will Hunting.  Newcomer Rob Brown is super in the leading role and Sean Connery is good also.  The same cannot be said for other cast members including Anna Paquin, whose purpose is never explained, and F. Murray Abraham, who is completely over-the-top as Jamal's English lecturer.

Finding Forrester's feel-good finale is both predictable and boring.  The film is interesting for a while but when you take a limited story and try to drag it out over two hours, you'll lose your audience.  After just half an hour, I knew exactly how the film would end and became frustrated in waiting for the foregone conclusion.  The film overstayed its welcome.  Gus Van Sant's direction is standard but I did enjoy his limited use of film score.

There are some cinemagoers who enjoy any film where an underdog triumphs over adversity but I'm tougher as a critic.  I love feel-good movies provided they make me feel good all through the movie and not just in the end and I'll cite Billy Elliot as a perfect example.   Sure I loved Jamal sticking it up those who knocked him down but it wasn't worth $13 and a Friday night.


Dracula 2000

Directed by: Patrick Lussier
Written by:Joel Soisson, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell, Gerard Butler, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Christopher Plummer
Released: March 15, 2001
Grade: B

In the latest take of Bram Stoker's novel (and there have been a few), Matthew Van Helsing (Plummer) is in charge of a large antique museum in London.  Within its walls is a massive vault that is well guarded by security and no one but Van Helsing knows what lies behind it.  His secretary believes it contains hidden treasure and orchestrates a robbery.  Behind the door lies a series of tunnels which eventually lead to a chamber and a tightly locked coffin.  Thinking it is filled with gold and jewels, they take the coffin and board a flight to the United States.  In the air, they solve the riddle which opens the lock to the coffin but inside lies the last thing they expected - Dracula. 

Now loose in New Orleans, Dracula (played by Gerard Butler) feeds on the blood of his victims whilst in search of an elusive young lady by the name of Mary Heller (Waddell).  She has had premonitions of Dracula's return but cannot understand why she has these visions.  The answer will be revealed when Dracula finally presents himself at her door step.

In the meantime, Van Helsing has travelled to New Orleans with assistant Simon Sheppard (Miller) to track down and recapture Dracula.  They will also need to kill anyone who has been transformed into a vampire with his deadly bite to ensure his presence will not continue.

There are a few nice surprises in Dracula 2000 so I won't give away any more secrets but within 20 minutes I knew it was just that little bit different.  There are no big stars and any preconceptions as to who would live and who would die went out the window.  Usually the big stars always survive till the end but it's hard to predict just what fate is in store for this cast.  Christopher Plummer (The Insider) is the standout performer but I also enjoyed many of the subtle, sarcastic comments from English actor Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting).

Wes Craven is an executive producer (no surprise there) and Dracula 2000 comes from the same Miramax subsidiary, Dimension Films, which have brought us The Crow, eXistenZ, From Dusk Till Dawn, Scary Movie and the Scream trilogy.  I can't say I've enjoyed all their films but they have a strong presence in the horror market and seem to have found enough screenwriters to keep the genre alive.  Their films are always a cut above the copycat horror flicks we've seen from other film studios and if you're looking for examples, just remember that Columbia Tristar was responsible for the pathetic I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend series.  A lot of bad memories...


The Wedding Planner

Directed by: Adam Shankman
Written by:Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, Bridgette Wilson, Justin Chambers, Judy Greer, Kevin Pollak, Kathy Najimy
Released: March 29, 2001
Grade: B

It was obvious with ten minutes - women are going to love this movie.  We open with wedding planner "extraordinaire" Mary Fiore (Lopez) putting the final touches on another masterpiece.  Not a single detail has been unconsidered and every contingency has been allowed for.  She's one of the most respected planners in the business and brings in more money for the business than any other employee.

Mary wants to be made partner and puts an ultimatum to her boss Geri (Najimy).  There's an important wedding coming up involving Fran Donolly (Wilson) and her very wealthy parents are on the market for a wedding planner.  If Mary can get the job for the firm, Geri has reluctantly agreed to give her half of the business.

As talented as she is, you'd think Mary would be happily married herself but not so.  She lives alone, hasn't had a relationship in months and has her family and friends constantly trying to set her up.  Then, destiny steps in.  In an “only in the movies” moment, Mary finds herself on a road with a giant rubbish bin hurtling towards her.  In the last gasp, she is saved by a young gentleman but then passes out from shock.

When Mary awakes, she's in a hospital and the young man who saved her is looking down at her.  It turns out he's Dr Steve Edison (McConaughey) and destiny has seen them mutually attracted to each other.  They end up spending a romantic evening in a park dancing and watching classic movies.  Could this be the one?

It wouldn't be a script without drama and the dilemma soon presents itself.  It turns out that Fran is Steve's fiancé which creates the ultimate complication.  The man of her dreams is marrying her most important client.  Does she want to risk her career or is true love more important?

Some moments in The Wedding Planner left me cringing and most were provided by Jennifer Lopez.  She is a great actress and I feel she's better than roles like this so I hope to see her with juicier parts in the future.  The rest of the cast all have their quirks but the screenplay gives few a chance to shine - it is tacky.

In hindsight, it's the radiance of Lopez that puts the film a notch above similar romantic comedies.  Like Julia Roberts, her presence on screen is notable and gives any movie a boost.  The lavish weddings on show will leave women swooning - maybe more so than the romance between Lopez and McConaughey.  See it if you must but expect few surprises.


Miss Congeniality

Directed by: Donald Petrie
Written by:Marc Lawrence
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, William Shatner, Candice Bergen
Released: March 15, 2001
Grade: C+

Some make you laugh, some make you cry, some give you an adrenaline rush and some send a chill down your spine.  On the other hand, there are some films that are mind-numbingly boring and Miss Congeniality is a perfect example.  The film’s elements are necessarily bad but there's just nothing there to watch.  I finished my popcorn in 10 minutes and washed it down with a refreshing beverage in the next 5.  For the remaining 94 minutes, I moved my legs and scratched myself (not concurrently) every now and again.  Sucked into an emotional void, my facial expression never changed.

Let me set the scene.  Sandra Bullock is Gracie Hart, an unlady-like FBI agent.  She cares little about her appearance and is well trained in martial arts.  Given she’s a woman, Gracie finds it hard to fit in at the Bureau and often misses out on the top assignments.  That Bureau’s top job at the moment involves a mysterious assailant responsible for a spate of bombings which have been preceded by a note revealing clues to its location.  Gracie seems to have cracked the code of the latest letter in believing the target will be the Miss America beauty pageant but fellow agent Eric Matthews (Bratt) is selected to lead the task force.

The only way to protect the contestants will be to have someone on the inside and the only person suitable for the job is Gracie.  After a discussion with pageant hosts Stan Fields (Shatner) and Kathy Morningside (Bergen), she’s entered in the contest as Miss New Jersey.  How so you ask?  Well it so happens that the FBI has found that the real Miss New Jersey stared in porno film, Armagonnagedidon, and that wouldn't look too good if exposed, would it?

With only two days to prepare, fashion consultant Victor Melling (Caine) is called in for the toughest job of his career.  He transforms Gracie from "dirty Harriet" into a starlet with a chance of going all the way in the contest.  Not only that, her new found beauty has captured the attention of Agent Matthews.

I've wasted enough time already so I'll keep it brief from here.  It's a totally zany, crazy plot that didn't give me that zany, crazy feeling.  It's limited too much by the boundaries it creates and none of the actors have a chance to shine.  Beauty pageants are mocked in many movies and to have this entire film based around one, didn't provide enough original material.  Even more patronising was watching Sandra Bullock learn just how great and intelligent the contestants were - they're not the "bimbos" she envisioned.

Film critics must look forward to reviewing Sandra Bullock movies because they are so easy to criticise.  Her previous five leading films have been Speed 2, Hope Floats, Practical Magic, Forces Of Nature and 28 Days.  Not one of the films was worth of more than a C+ in my book and Miss Congeniality continues the trend.  At first I believed that Sandra was receiving some bad career advice from her agent but now I'm not so sure.  Sandra Bullock is credited as a producer of this film which gives me an even lesser opinion of her - how could she read this script and agree to both star and produce!  Total madness!!!

"Miss Sandra Bullock, you are before this court charged with being a cinematic nuisance."

"I wish to plead insanity.  I mean just look at every film I've made in the past five years."

"Enough said!  There is nothing left to prove.  Case dismissed."


The Contender

Directed by: Rod Lurie
Written by:Rod Lurie
Starring: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall
Released: March 22, 2001
Grade: A

The Vice-President of the United States died three weeks ago and President Jackson Evans (Bridges) is being pressured by his party and the public to appoint a successor.  With record approval ratings after a great PR display, the hot favourite is Governor Jack Hathaway.  Whilst fishing with a writer for the Washington Post, a car plunged off a bridge and Governor Hathaway attempted a daring underwater rescue.  Whilst not successful, it created a whirlwind of media attention and showed the public that he takes chances when he has to.

Despite this, President Evans is going against trend and plans to appoint Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) as his swansong late in his final term.  He wants to prove that a woman can serve at the highest level of the American government.  Under American law, it's not a simple matter when nominating and appointing a new vice-president.  The Constitution requires that he or she be confirmed by a special committee which is representative of both Republicans and Democrats.

Shelly Runyon (Oldman) is head of the committee and has no plans of confirming Hanson.  He believes the best "man" for the job is Hathaway and is not going to appoint a woman just because she is a woman.  The only way to stop her will be to bring her down and with his advisors, Runyon digs and uncovers a juicy past.  Photos supported by eyewitnesses show Hanson performing sexual favours at a sorority party in college.  Her clean image is about to be destroyed.

I love a good political thriller and The Contender is up there with the best.  Despite the fact we like to hate and criticise politicians, we still hold them in high regard.  When you stick a microphone in front of them and hear them speak, it's newsworthy and we pay attention.  This is a strong point made in The Contender.  Given the level of power they hold, people crave for such lofty positions and will do anything to get there.  Is it the best person who gets the job or is it just the most ambitious?

The film also raises important issues regarding women in politics.  How long will it be until a woman leads the United States of America?  Sure women hold more seats in the Senate than ever before but they always have and perhaps always will, take a back seat when it comes to the top positions.

Aside from the topical interest I had in the film, it makes great viewing from an entertainment perspective.  Writer-director Rod Lurie has done a superlative job and the cinematography and set decoration give the film a fast-paced realism.  Joan Allen is one of my favourite actresses and shows her talent with the difficult role (which has earned her an Oscar nomination) and Jeff Bridges (also nominated) is strong as the President.  Most striking was Gary Oldman, surprisingly overlooked at this year's Academy Awards.  It's about time Oldman took on more demanding roles having seen him in recent action junk (Lost In Space, Air Force One and The Fifth Element).

Whilst it may not be everyone's forte,  The Contender proves that intelligent movies appeal to an intelligent audience.  They’re rare in today's cinematic environment and the reason is simple - they just don't make enough money (this film only made $18m in America).  I guess we just have to savour them while they're showing.