Picks and Pans Main: Screen
Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Greg Kinnear
Things are looking up. After a summer of mostly dismal, prefabricated movies, the approach of fall heralds more ambitious fare, such as Nurse Betty. This idiosyncratic dark comedy about a likable young woman (Zellweger) who becomes convinced that she is a character on a soap opera is full of surprises, impeccable acting and smart writing.
In an extraordinary, multilayered performance that suggests Doris Day at her most resilient, Zellweger plays Betty Sizemore, a sweet-natured waitress in a poky Kansas diner who spends her days pouring coffee and her nights watching taped episodes of her favorite soap, A Reason to Live. When she inadvertently witnesses a grisly murder by two hit men, she develops temporary amnesia. Believing she's Nurse Betty from the soap, she heads to L.A. for a rendezvous with her true love, Reason's widowed hero, Dr. David Ravell (Kinnear). The killers take off after her.
The ensuing journey turns into one of self-discovery for both Betty and Charlie (Freeman), the older, more reflective of the hit men. In her fictional guise, Betty gains a strength she never had before while Charlie, the hard-nosed realist, finds himself questioning everything of which he was once sure. Director Neil LaBute (Your Friends & Neighbors) skillfully steers the film between gentle humor, outright farce, disturbing violence and moments of real pain, leaving the viewer in a delightful and rarely experienced predicament: not knowing what will happen next.
The casting of Freeman and Rock adds immeasurably to the film, with Freeman giving it tragic grandeur and Rock contributing comic zing. Also noteworthy is Kinnear, whose preening turn as a soap star deftly skewers the pretensions and vanity of a minor TV personality. (R)
Bottom Line: Just what the doctor ordered
Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds, Seymour Cassel, Dan Hedaya
Age may be serving a knuckle sandwich to the geezer gangsters in this wheezing comedy, but once a wiseguy, always a wiseguy. So when Crew's quartet of retired mobsters finds itself facing eviction from a Miami residential hotel that's about to be gentrified, they fake a murder out front to scare off potential new tenants. Complications—way too many and too few of them funny—ensue.
Character development here is as shaky as the health of these emeritus mafiosi. Each is defined solely by his nickname, thus "Bats" (Reynolds) violently erupts, "Mouth" (Cassel) barely speaks, "The Brick" (Hedaya) is thick headed, and Bobby (Dreyfuss), well, he's so smart he doesn't need a tag. Plentiful prostate jokes aside, Crew has a few good gags, including an homage to Martin Scorsese's balletic marathon shot from Goodfellas of hoodlums making their way into a nightclub. Here, the shot is wittily duplicated when our boys try to sneak into a deli's early-bird special for seniors. (PG-13)
Bottom Line: An offering you can refuse
Amanda Peet, Brian Van Holt
This smug, charmless sex comedy should do much to advance the cause of celibacy. If the battle between the sexes is really as ferocious—and the combatants as totally loathsome—as depicted here, nothing worth winning would be at stake.
Whipped chronicles the sex-capades of three on-the-make bachelors who meet for brunch at a Manhattan diner every Sunday to compare their amorous adventures from the past week. Brad (Van Holt) is a Wall Street barracuda-in-training; Zeke (Zorie Barber) is a geeky, would-be screenwriter; and Jonathan (Jonathan Abrahams) is a guitar-strumming, shy-guy loser with no apparent occupation. None of them is looking for a "relationship"; in fact, the only part of the word any of them understands is the second syllable. Then they meet Mia (Peet), a beguiling, adorable free spirit, and all three fall with a thud.
What follows is as tiresome as it is predictable. The actors seem to have been encouraged by rookie director-writer Peter M. Cohen to adopt the voluble tactics of aggressive used car salesmen who will stop at nothing to get a contract signed. They fail to make the sale. As for the morality of all the bed-hopping, the movie includes a single brief nod toward safe sex in a dopey scene about buying condoms. (R)
Bottom Line: 40 lashes worth of torture
The Art of War
Wesley Snipes, Anne Archer, Donald Sutherland
Memo to Wesley Snipes: Maybe it's time to forget about saving the world with this action-hero thing. Worry instead about saving a once-promising career.
That's the only possible conclusion after watching The Art of War, an inept and interminable actioner that makes those ho-hum Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies look like Oscar contenders. Snipes, who showed both acting and athletic chops in films like Jungle Fever and White Men Can't Jump only to then waste them in lifeless sludge like Blade, Money Train and U.S. Marshals, squanders his talent yet again in War, where he portrays a covert agent for a U.N. security team. He has to uncover and foil international conspirators trying to undermine a pending Chinese free-trade agreement. This leads to chases, gunplay and a smattering of martial arts. We also see a woman's head thrice bashed into a mirror. Nice. (R)
Bottom Line: Snipes is a prisoner of War
If you want to meet real survivors, visit with the dozen or so homeless folk interviewed in this remarkable documentary. These intrepid but often fragile souls live in flimsy huts constructed deep inside pitch-black railroad tunnels running beneath Manhattan. Director Marc Singer depicts the lives of his subjects as almost ordinary; they play with their pets, bake corn bread and watch TV. They also smoke crack, forage through garbage for food and shower by poking a hole in an overhead water pipe. Things end on an optimistic note when everyone is resettled in real housing. "That was like a nightmare I woke up from," says one man, "and I ain't ever going back there." (Not rated)
Bottom Line: Notes from the underground
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