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MARCH 28, 2000: 

Whatever It Takes

Another teenage romantic comedy -- it could have been titled He's All That -- unfolds with pushbutton predictability in the corridors of 90210 high. Ryan (Shane West looking too Chris O'Donnell-like for his own good) and Maggie (Marla Sokoloff, the annoyingly spunky receptionist on The Practice) are neighbors and members of the geek population at school. Graduation is around the corner, and Ryan is pining for Ashley (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, who filled out a similar role in She's All That), the curvaceous head cheerleader and most coveted babe, to be his prom date. It turns out that Ashley's cousin, Chris (James Franco), your quintessential asshole jock, has the hots for Maggie, so the two plot to set each other up. But when Ryan discovers Ashley has a bad foot fungus and poor social manners, he realizes that love has been under his nose the whole time.

Why a stuck-up prick like Chris would go for Maggie and why a well-adjusted nice guy like Ryan would act so dumb is beyond comprehension. The film does offer some bubblegum sweet tenderness and a few uproarious gags (mostly from Aaron Paul as the hipster geek), but that's not nearly enough. -- Tom Meek

Waking the Dead

It's better than Ghost, I guess. Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead is a sometimes ponderous, occasionally moving, mostly unremarkable meditation on the dynamics of life and death, love and loss. For all its high-flown dramatics, the film doesn't have much to say.

Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) is a good-hearted Coast Guard enlistee with senatorial aspirations; Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is a socially committed college peacenik. Within days of their 1972 meeting, they're consumed with an unquenchable love. Unquenchable, that is, until Sarah is killed in a 1974 car bombing. Destroyed by his loss, Fielding nonetheless puts his life back together and over the next decade inches up the political ladder. Problem: though years have passed, he's never forgotten his true love. His Senate campaign pushing him to the breaking point, he begins to hallucinate that Sarah is alive. Is she in the flesh, or is she a figment of a stressed and fractured psyche? Good question. Does it get answered? That too.

Yeah, Waking the Dead has its flaws. But Connelly and Crudup are passionate leads, and the story, though it comes to a dead end, makes you think. And there's no Whoopi Goldberg. -- Mike Miliard

Such A Long Journey

Once upon a time, the Persian conquerors reigned proud in India. But in 1971, the year of Such a Long Journey, the family of Persian descent at the center of this film find themselves squashed together in a lower-middle-class Bombay apartment overlooking a densely crowded sewage-reeking slum. The father, Gustad (Roshan Seth), dreams longingly of his patrician, privileged childhood. Now he's a lowly bank clerk who can't get even his family to respect him. His wife (Soni Razdan) shoves him around; his teenage son rebels against him, balking at dad's plan for him to become an engineer.

Suddenly, there's a chance of adventure for this Bombay Walter Mitty. An old friend demands a favor, a delivery of a package, and that package turns out to be full of money, part of a guerrilla plot to free Bangladesh from Pakistan. That's the set-up. Unfortunately, this plot goes nowhere much, and filmmaker Sturia Gunnarsson, a Canadian, treats even the boiling-over India-Pakistan war with Great White North politeness. There's nothing particularly wrong with Such a Long Journey, but it's not exactly incendiary, as it follows the Merchant-Ivory way competently, numbly, by the numbers. -- Gerald Peary

Cotton Mary

The characters in Merchant Ivory movies are rarely satisfied with the roles forced upon them by society, and Cotton Mary is no exception. As a maternity-ward nurse working in 1950s India, Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), the daughter of an Indian mother and a British father, has the coveted task of caring for the newborn baby of an English lady (Greta Scacchi) who cannot produce milk. Every day, Mary sneaks the child away to her sister Blossom, a crippled wet nurse who secretly feeds the baby. When Mary is asked to move into the lady's house to continue caring for the baby, she dreams of being part of the English aristocracy.

Jaffrey is flawless in her portrayal of a woman desperately trying to shed the confines of her culture while knowing full well that the color of her skin makes this an impossibility. Director Ismail Merchant sets Mary's desire for an unattainable caste against her rejection of her own people; but though she's sympathetic she still comes off as a caricature, one that borders on psychotic when Mary dons her mistress's dress to take the baby for a walk. Had Merchant given the character a little more of the ambiguity Scacchi displays as a woman who considers her Indian servant a member of the family but must also smile at her British friends' racist jokes, Cotton Mary would have been the perfect fallen angel. -- Jumana Farouky

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