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Six-Time Losers Hang Around the Theaters
Once again, too many movies: born-again teens;

- June 17, 2004

Saved!: The not so-virginal Mary. (Jena Malone)


Director: Brian Dannelly. Screenwriters: Brian Dannelly, Michael Urban. Cast: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Eva Amurri, Patrick Fugit, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Heather Matarazzo, Chad Faust, Elizabeth Thai. (PG-13)

Demonstrating definitively that satire doesn't have to be hamfisted or heavyhanded, Brian Dannelly's burrows into the largely unexplored culture of squeaky-clean, born-again teens at a conservative Christian high school somewhere in the Baltimore burbs. The main focus is Mary (Jena Malone, quietly staking out a road-less-taken career arc in such fare as , and ), whose senior year is consumed with the big secret that she's pregnant by her gay boyfriend (Chad Faust). There's an explanation which, in this film's daffy context, almost makes sense. Jesus told her to do it. That's what she thought at the time, anyway, believing that the sacrifice of her out-of-wedlock virginity would save her equally devout fella from the hellfire of homosexuality. Oops!

Saved! The United States of Leland Donnie Darko The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Dannelly ably juggles a large ensemble, which includes Mandy Moore as Hilary, the bitchiest Christian ever (she fastballs a Bible at the back of Mary's head, prompting the indignant retort, "This is not a weapon!"); Eva Amurri as a chainsmoking, fearlessly profane Jewish girl who takes a shine to Hilary's wheelchair-bound brother (Macaulay Culkin, sensibly still taking on toothsome supporting parts); the always-engaging Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's mom, winner of this year's Best Christian Decorator Award; Patrick Fugit ( Almost Famous ) as the young man who understands what Mary's going through; and Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip, the school principal (and the Fugit character's father) who can't quite reconcile his Christianity with his passion for Mary's mom.

Saved! treads a careful line. Its satire is neither abrasive nor transgressive, which will surely irk firebrands who feel that the time is ripe to give these sorts a real drubbing. On the other hand, the very fact that it pokes fun and raises questions will almost certainly be overstepping the bounds for many who rigidly adhere to a faith which permits no gray areas. Those of us who are reasonably semi-detached can lean back and enjoy.

The Terminal

Director: Steven Spielberg. Screenwriters: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nicholson (from a story by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi). Cast: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kumar Pallana, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Chi McBride, Eddie Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley. (PG-13)

Steven Spielberg's , his third opus starring Tom Hanks, ought to be a lot better than it is. The premise has some appeal: Viktor (Hanks), a tourist from some small post-Soviet nation--the filmmakers concoct a bogus name, but I always hope someone will resurrect Al Capp's immortal "Lower Slobovia"--arrives at JFK airport just in time to fall between the cracks of a Customs & Immigration dilemma. Chief official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) informs the luckless Viktor, who barely understands of a word of English, that his homeland is in the throes of revolution, rendering his visa invalid. He can't enter the United States, but he can't go home, either. He must stay in the terminal until the matter sorts itself out. The Terminal When this movie works, it's because of Hanks' innate appeal and a few fine performances way down the cast list: Diego Luna, Jumar Pallana and Zoe Saldana as worker bees in various menial jobs at the airport, all of whom eventually befriend our befuddled hero. When it doesn't work, it's often due to the weirdly uneven scripting of the second and third leads. Catherine Zeta-Jones pulls down second billing as a flight attendant who keeps bumping into Viktor. Romance flares, then flickers for reasons which entirely baffle. Likewise, Tucci's Frank is an inexplicable tangle. Honest, upright, by-the-book--yet he's so mercurial that he's often downright mean to the innocent Viktor ... except, of course, when he's being sweet and generous. Try to make sense of this guy!

The film stumbles toward a series of overlong false finales which culminate in non sequitur odyssey to a Manhattan nightclub, for the purpose of collecting an autograph from septuagenarian jazzman Benny Golson. Spielberg means to imbue this with a sense of Mission Accomplished, but it feels like an idiosyncratic sidebar, bulging with ersatz emotion. The Terminal winds up as a peculiar footnote for its celebrated director and equally celebrated star. There's about 45 minutes of really entertaining material in here, searching for the farce this misfire never even thinks of becoming.

The Chronicles of Riddick

Director/screenwriter: David Twohy. Cast: Vin Diesel, Thandie Newton, Colm Feore, Alexa Davalos, Karl Urban, Judi Dench, Keith David, Nick Chinlund, Linus Roache. (PG-13)

Much better than you might expect: David Twohy's The Chronicles of Riddick , which recycles the Vin Diesel antihero from Twohy's Pitch Black as an unlikely player in a struggle which determines the fate of an entire galaxy. Riddick, an escaped convict with a huge bounty on his head, is summoned to Helion Prime, where the Imam (Keith David), one of Riddick's few fellow survivors from Pitch Black , seeks his aid against an oncoming invasion. The Necromongers are en route, a vast army which, midway between Star Trek 's Borg and Star Wars ' evil Empire, assimilates or destroys all civilizations en route. The Necromongers are headed by the Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), who has dreadful semi-supernatural powers, and he's got minions (Thandie Newton, Karl Urban, Linus Roache) aplenty.

Twohy, a capable screenwriter who understands the value of a plot which actually makes sense, yanks Riddick from Helion Prime to a prison planet of extreme temperatures, where it'll take a miracle to get him out alive--and then to final confrontations aboard the Lord Marshal's ominous, Gothic spaceship. Diesel remains an open hole standing in for an absent actor who might possess an ounce of charisma. Yes, it's derivative (beyond the aforementioned templates, you'll find some Matrix here, some Conan there), and anything this huge is going to be clunky and awkward now and then. Nonetheless, it hangs together, and its sweeping scale and ceaseless action arrive at a climax which can only be described as breathtaking. It becomes the rare sci-fi epic which genuinely deserves a sequel.

The Stepford Wives

Director: Frank Oz. Screenwriter: Paul Rudnick (based on the novel by Ira Levin). Cast: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz, Faith Hill. (PG-13)

Let's be frank--the first Stepford Wives movie is pretty lousy, and so is the Ira Levin potboiler it stems from. What a relief to see that Frank Oz's version, polished to a saucy sheen by Paul Rudnick, guts the old warhorse of its flimsy stabs at horror and opts instead for outright black comedy. It looks like they got this one exactly right ... until it falls apart.

We all know the story, right? Couple (Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick) moves to ritzy suburban Connecticut, full of McMansions and SUVs. There, wifey meets up with neighbors who seem astonishingly plastic. Good golly--they act like like some sort of male-fantasy robots!

Rudnick's script generates plenty of laughs as it brings in Bette Midler as one of the few non-plasticized neighbors, along with Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, exquisitely cast as Stepford's reigning power couple. Any of the scenes with these three actors are worth the price of admission ... but (and it's a major problem) the ending, which feels reshot and glued-on, brazenly concocts an explanation for Stepford which is entirely at odds with what we've already seen. Simply put, if this is the explanation, then that --and that, and that too--couldn't possibly have happened. How worrisome to see a movie that was going along so well suddenly commit ritual suicide. It's still pretty darned good, in its separate pieces, but it will stand as an egregious instance of fizzling out in the stretch.

Secret Things

France, 2002. Director/screenwriter: Jean-Claude Brisseau. Cast: Sabrina Seyvecou, Coralie Revel, Roger Mirmont, Fabrice Deville, Blandine Bury. Subtitles. (Unrated)

Jean-Claude Brisseau's Secret Things is latter-day Eurotrash with a phony postfeminist attitude. Two gals (Sabrina Seyvecou, Coralie Revel) who work at a strip club--one as a performer who gets the film off to an in-your-face start by vigorously masturbating onstage, the other as a bartender--are tossed out when they refuse to provide sexual favors for their boss. Disheartened, then emboldened, they set out to storm the corporate world by intentionally, aggressively using sex to get to the top. For a brief while, there's the germ of a story here, with Seyvecou showing conviction as she pursues her boss (Roger Mirmont). Then the sexual politics take a turn, and she and her chum are suddenly in the thrall of a sexual superman who plunges them into situations which play like a near-porn parody of Eyes Wide Shut. Jaded, cynical, artsy and way too full of itself, Secret Things is an absurd sexual self-implosion.

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