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AUGUST 10, 1998: 

BASEKETBALL. South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone have teamed up with Naked Gun creator David Zucker for another exercise in gag-a-minute filmmaking. While the requisite boobie and pee-pee jokes are very much in evidence, Parker and Stone breathe new life into the enterprise with their subversively cloying brand of comedic acting. Like Zucker, they'll do anything for a laugh, even if that means French-kissing each other or nakedly standing around wearing the kinds of prosthetic devices that would make Mark Wahlberg cry. Their willingness to humiliate themselves makes everyone else's humiliation a lot more forgivable. The premise, too, is fresh: Instead of yet another by-the-numbers genre parody, the movie invents a new sport that's so absurd, non-sports fans may enjoy it more than aficionados. Though the film doesn't exactly reinvent the lowbrow comedy, it's cute enough to place it a cut above its recent competitors. With cameo appearances by Bob Costas, Robert Stack, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Reggie Jackson and Jenny McCarthy. --Woodruff

EVER AFTER: A CINDERELLA STORY. Here's a welcome revision: a Cinderella that kicks butt. Sure, Drew Barrymore's character is neglected and mistreated, but she's no helpless little waif: In a pinch, she won't hesitate to deck her wicked stepsister (Megan Dodds) or throw the prince (Dougray Scott) over her shoulders and carry him away from danger. These sorts of touches, smartly handled by director Andy Tennant, make Ever After a delight--even for those of us who never thought we could thoroughly enjoy a Cinderella movie. I'm not sure how Tennant got it out of her, but Barrymore's performance is winningly effective, and surprisingly well-rounded. A political idealist with passion to spare, she earns the prince's respect until he realizes he needs to earn hers in return. Better still is Anjelica Huston, who plays the bitchy stepmother with a trace of complexity--you get the sense she's evil because it hurts to be nice, and you keep watching her face for signs of pain. Everything else about the movie turns out a shade more entertainingly than you'd expect, from the fate of the chubby stepsister (played by Heavenly Creatures' Melanie Lynskey) to the whimsical way Leonardo Da Vinci is integrated into the story. Battle on, Cinderella. --Woodruff

THE NEGOTIATOR. Less gunplay! More wordplay! At least, that's the intention behind this talkative action picture starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Jackson plays a hostage negotiator who, framed after his buddy discovers a police embezzlement ring, takes his own hostages in hopes they'll buy him time to prove his innocence. Spacey plays a negotiator from another district, chosen by Jackson because he's unlikely to be corrupt. Needless to say, there's a lot of negotiating going on, and at times the theme is pushed so hard that the film feels strained; the uncleverly clever climax, in particular, begs for a rewrite. The law-enforcement clichés pile up, too, and director F. Gary Gray doles them out with no sense of irony--we're even subjected to close-ups of Jackson's badge. But Jackson and Spacey can brighten up the dimmest of screenplays, and they're well-supported by some of the bit players--especially a comic-relieving criminal played by Paul Giamatti, who looks like Rob Schneider after a holiday eating binge. The late J.T. Walsh supplies his trademark sad-eyed villainy, which leads to some very uncomfortable moments when art imitates death. --Woodruff

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