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AUGUST 14, 2000: 

Wonderland

Unlike Lewis Carroll, Michael Winterbottom is more interested in the world reflected in the looking glass than in the one that lies through it. In his Dogma 95-like Wonderland, that world is a contemporary, working-class London that's been considerably de-politicized and benumbed since the kitchen-sink melodramas of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. A chronicle of four days in the interconnected lives of three young women whose true relationships are disclosed gradually, the film imitates life mostly in its lack of production values and in its formless ennui.

Debbie (Shirley Henderson) is a hard-living hair stylist with a moody young son, an irresponsible ex-husband (Ian Hart), and alarming eyebrows. Molly (Molly Parker) is an insecure, expectant housewife whose irresponsible husband is getting cold feet about his job and impending parenthood. Nadia (Gina McKee) is a melancholy waitress with a haircut that makes her look like an elegant woodland animal; she spends her time trolling the personals for dates with irresponsible men. Although the atmosphere is tense with discontent, unresolved conflicts, the pending fireworks of Guy Fawkes Day, and grainy handheld photography, not much comes of it all and little is revealed. A dog dies, a child goes missing, and another day dawns, but the surface of the mirror to this Wonderland is never penetrated. -- Peter Keough


The V.I.P.S

Orson Welles needed to eat . . . and eat. So here he is collecting a fat man's paycheck for waddling about with a vaguely Croatian accent and doing a foppish parody of himself as a self-absorbed corpulent film director in Anthony Asquith's fluffy The V.I.P.S. He's one of a bunch of greedy, compromised 1963 superstars -- Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rod Taylor, Louis Jordan, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith -- who get stranded in a fog-bound London airport waiting for their New York plane.

It's Grand Hotel and Airport, only worse. The boring Rod Taylor scenes have him as a worry-wart Aussie scheming on the phone to keep his finances afloat while his masochistic secretary (Smith) pines for his love across the room. Meanwhile, Liz is trying to ditch her 13-year marriage to Burton, improbably cast as the cuckolded husband, so she can move on with Jordan, in his umpteenth amiable just-a-gigolo role. But will Liz really, really leave her mellifluous-voiced Dick? The three-way scenes are mighty monotonous ménage, the stuff of soap. Only Margaret Rutherford, the movies' Miss Marple, gets by in this inane movie, playing a batty British royal so amusingly that she copped a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. -- Gerald Peary


The Replacements

In a parallel NFL universe -- one obviously inspired by the 1987 season -- it's late in the season, and the players have gone on strike. Never-was QB "Footsteps" Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), whose biggest claim to fame is a blowout Sugar Bowl loss, is recruited by new Washington Sentinels head coach Jimmy McGinty (a wily Gene Hackman) to lead a bunch of misfit "replacement" players and keep the franchise's playoff hopes alive. Director Howard Deutch's colorful cast of scabs includes gangsters, gamblers, inmates, and a berserk SWAT officer (Jon Favreau of Swingers and Friends fame). The normally unaffecting Reeves is dutiful and square-jawed in his Cinderella shoes, and it doesn't hurt that -- à la Speed -- he has a perky, cute Sandra Bullock clone to fall for (Brooke Langton as the head cheerleader). The result is a gritty screwball sports romp worthy of comparison with The Longest Yard and North Dallas Forty: it's underdog-rooting infectious, and the ass-slapping antics of the "replacement" cheerleaders from the Pussycat Lounge are at once titillating and uproarious. -- Tom Meek


The Opportunists

Just when you think you've seen all the one-more-big-heist flicks you'll ever need to, along comes a little gem like this to give new life to the genre's hackneyed conventions.

Victor Kelly (Christopher Walken) is a loser, and he knows it. But he wasn't always. A former ace safecracker, Vic has said so long to the hood's life and gone on the straight and narrow. One day, though, cousin Michael (Peter McDonald) arrives at his door, fresh off the plane from Dublin, lured to America by tales of Vic's legendary heists. Much to the consternation of his long-suffering ladyfriend (Cyndi Lauper), Vic's back in the saddle before you can say old hat, risking it all for one last boost.

Yawn. This stuff is tired.

Well, no. In the case of the royal crapfest Gone in 60 Seconds, it was. But Myles Connell's understated character study offers a genuine portrait of a Queens neighborhood and the hardscrabble existence of its residents. McDonald, with his Dublin brogue and dopy demeanor, is a hoot. And Miss "She's So Unusual" herself turns in a fine performance as Vic's barkeep love. Especially rewarding is Walken, cinema's psychopathe gris, doing a 180 as the pained and earnest Vic. His face and body language speak volumes, almost making his lines irrelevant. -- Mike Miliard


Coyote Ugly

The joint: yes, it's a real bar in Manhattan (faux saloon, beer and whiskey, country jukebox). Yes, the tough-but-sexy bartenders really gyrate on the bar, outdrink the customers, and dress like extras from Showgirls in shitkickers. Yes, they douse you with ice if you order pussy drinks like martinis or mudslides. Yes, it will be a pathetic tourist attraction by the time you get your ass there.

The movie: spunky, slender nymphets pour cold water on one another and clog-dance to "Devil Went Down to Georgia." It's a romantic comedy/coming-of-age/local-girl-makes-good kinda movie, entertaining and sexy in a teasing, clothes-on kinda way. By way of a plot to justify this offbeat watering hole's existence, we get ingenue Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo) and her dream of leaving New Joisey pizza slinging behind to write songs in the Big Apple. She starts out a naive-but-gutsy songwriter in the Tori-Shawn-Sarah mold, but the whole thing turns into a Britney Spears video that is painful to see and hear. Despite efforts by script doctors like Carrie Fisher and Kevin Smith (Clerks/Chasing Amy), a soundtrack by Yes/Buggles frontman Trevor Horn, and appealing performances from Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) and yummy Aussie Adam Garcia, this film suffers from a glut of feel-good clichés and stock funky-Manhattan-at-dusk footage. A shot or two of Jack or Johnny beforehand might help. -- Peg Aloi


Cecil B. Demented

Insane filmmaker Cecil (Stephen Dorff) and his devoted cast and crew, the "Sprocket Holes," kidnap a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith) and force her to appear in their no-budget outlaw movie. At first horrified by her new surroundings, the actress is won over to her captors' values during the shoot.

Writer/director John Waters's compulsion to cast himself as a light-comedy director has never seemed so limiting as in Cecil B. Demented. The subject needed to be treated either savagely or with cruel detachment, but Waters serves up a glib, Film Threat-addled fantasy of how an "underground" film unit might look, sound, and function. Vincent Peranio's cluttered set design and the pumped-up, eclectic soundtrack provide gestures of aggressiveness, and Cecil and the Sprocket Holes seem to be quoting from some Little Red Book of filmic doctrine (best quip: "We believe technique to be nothing more than failed style"). But by never defining Cecil's vision except in negative terms, as a rebellion against loathsome "mainstream cinema" (represented by such cooperative targets as Patch Adams and Forrest Gump), the film betrays its premise. And though Griffith is fine as the displaced star, Dorff's cartoon caricature of Cecil is strangely uncharismatic. -- Chris Fujiwara


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