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AUGUST 21, 2000: 

The Cell

Can we please, please, please have a moratorium on serial-killer movies? Okay, The Silence of the Lambs was good a decade ago, but since then, serial-killer movies have been less about exploring the nature of evil (or psychosis) than about turning torture into entertainment, less about finding the humanity within their characters (sleuths and victims as well as murderers) than about inventing striking new displays of cruelty.

The Cell is the nadir of this trend so far. It purports to go beyond previous entries in the genre by depicting the actual thoughts and imagination of its bogeyman, a killer of young women named Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) who slowly drowns his victims as a prelude to even more-perverse treatment. When agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) captures him, Carl falls into a coma before he can reveal where he's trapped his last victim. Peter enlists Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a psychologist whose virtual-reality device allows her to enter the minds of comatose patients, to probe Carl's brain for the tank's location while there's still time to save the woman. Once inside his mind, Catherine finds a vivid, baroque world of images, memories, and horrors from which she herself may not be able to escape.

Not that the movie has any actual interest in Carl's psychology, which, despite D'Onofrio's genuinely creepy performance, proves banal and cliché'd. (His father, a backwoods fundamentalist, beat him and may have sexually abused him.) In fact, thanks to the plot holes in the sketchy script by rookie screenwriter Mark Protosevich, the trip into Carl's mind is superfluous, since Peter uncovers through ordinary detective work all the clues he needs to find the hidden victim. The script doesn't even bother to give Peter and Catherine any personality traits. Lopez proved she can act in Out of Sight, but here she's just a beautiful doll to be dressed up in lavish, imaginative costumes (by Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her work in Bram Stoker's Dracula) and posed in striking tableaux of menacing kink.

The film's visuals are stunning, even lovely at times, as long as you can ignore their depravity. First-time feature director Tarsem Singh, whose lush parade of images inspired by religious and folk art will be familiar to viewers of his commercials and music videos (including R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion"), has innovative style to spare, but what kind of achievement is it to come up with glorious lighting and arresting composition in order to photograph a naked, blood-soaked corpse? The Cell's combination of gory misanthropy, state-of-the-art visual effects, and reverence for art's Old Masters (one literally gut-wrenching torture sequence is shown later to have been inspired by a centuries-old painting, as if to absolve the filmmakers of being morally bankrupt enough to have conceived this image themselves) suggests Kiss the Girls as directed by Peter Greenaway for MTV. It's the feel-disgusted movie of the summer. -- Gary Susman

The Original Kings of Comedy

It was the highest-grossing comedy tour ever, but it still slipped under the radar of the larger (read: white) cultural consciousness. That says a lot about the chasm between races that exists in this country. To judge from the routines of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Freddie Mac in Spike Lee's new concert film, the gap isn't gonna narrow any time soon.

From Hughley's spiel about why blacks don't do extreme sports (whites need to construct excitement; blacks have enough already trying to get a loan approved or take out a wallet without being shot 41 times) to Harvey's explanation of why they have no time for Titanic (a black band sure as hell wouldn't be playing while the ship went down), the performers revel in deconstructing racial differences. Never are the contrasts more apparent then when Lee trains his camera on the selected whitey in the audience -- a nervous, slightly chuckling countenance in a sea of roiling hilarity.

Late in the film, a bug-eyed Bernie Mac probes the dynamics of a certain word for which blacks have a marked affinity, advising the audience, "Don't be afraid of the word motherfucker!"

Okay. This is some funny mu'fuckin' shit. -- Mike Miliard

I'm the One That I Want

Love her or hate her, Margaret Cho's comedy is one of a kind. Lionel Coleman's I'm the One That I Want, the film companion to her touring show of the same name, is proof. Those who have seen Cho only on her oft-repeated Comedy Central half-hour special will be surprised at the depth and character of this performance, which was taken from two shows at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Cho hits her topics hard, from being a "fag hag" to growing up as the daughter of Korean immigrants. She can linger a bit too long on a phrase or overdo the mugging, but there is real fire here, and when she latches onto a deeper topic, the effect is devastating.

Cho's sit-com, All-American Girl, was canceled after criticism that she was too fat, too Asian, and not Asian enough; all that sent her into a tailspin of alcohol, drugs and sex. I'm the One That I Want is the story of how she pulled herself back up. It's thoughtful, funny, positive, and human. Most of all, it's inspiring. As Cho says, she's going to be around "at least until the next Korean-American, fag-hag, shit-starter, girl comic, trash talker comes up and takes my place." That will likely be a long time coming. -- Nick A. Zaino III

Godzilla 2000

Perhaps you were wondering how Godzilla welcomed the millennium. Now it can be told. Godzilla 2000, Toho Studios' latest installment in the long-running saga of the fire-breathing giant, pits him against a UFO that surfaces from the ocean floor in the shape of a huge rock. The human characters include a father-and daughter team dedicated to tracking Godzilla's movements in order to anticipate and minimize the havoc he inevitably brings. This "Godzilla Prediction Network" motif shows the filmmakers' concern for locating Godzilla in a plausible contemporary technological/economic context.

Other aspects of the film seem born of a similar impulse to modernity. Characters spend a vast amount of time gazing at monitors. The film's urban landscape is dark, hellish, and sleek. The special effects make ample use of computer-generated imagery, and the shapeshifting of the UFO is distinctly post-Alien.

The fluctuating status of reality in Godzilla 2000 is both troublesome and uninteresting. The addition of digital special effects and other postmodern markers to the standard Godzilla mix renders the whole show pointless. Takao Okawara's laborious direction fails to erase memories of Ishiro Honda, whose firm hand guided many of the classic Japanese monster movies. Why bother making a Godzilla movie with real trucks? -- Chris Fujiwara

Bless the Child

Maybe Michelle Pfeiffer was onto something when she invoked the beyond to resurrect her career in What Lies Beneath. Kim Basinger, another older actress, and with an Oscar to boot, tries the same in Chuck Russell's Bless the Child, but this feeble pastiche of supernatural thrillers makes Robert Zemeckis's waterlogged hit look like Ingmar Bergman.

Basinger is Maggie O'Connor, a spinsterish child therapist whose charity is tested when her strung-out sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) pays a visit on Christmas Eve and leaves Maggie with her newborn daughter. Six years later, Cody (Holliston Coleman) is an autistic cutie with the knack for bringing dead pigeons back to life and making plates spin. This doesn't escape the notice of Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), a part-time celebrity self-help guru and full-time Satanist who enlists his army of trenchcoat-mafia types to kidnap the kid and switch her from Second Coming to Antichrist. Along the way, in addition to goth-ish teens, the film demonizes women who deviate from the ways of maternal nurturing and anyone else who doesn't pack a set of rosary beads. A frighteningly fundamentalist vision of contemporary society that's shamelessly and ineptly manipulative, Bless the Child hasn't a prayer. -- Peter Keough

Autumn in New York

What can you say about a beautiful young girl who dies? Not much -- the premise was trite 60 years ago when they made Dark Victory, and it didn't get any fresher 30 years ago with Love Story. Autumn in New York tries to juice up the clichés by making the conflict here age rather than class (as it was in Love Story) and by bringing on Joan Chen, whose first film was the haunting Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, to direct. Which means the film is not poignant and elegant but creepy and slow. And, of course, corny.

Will (Richard Gere) is a pushing-50 Manhattan restaurateur notorious for his womanizing. Charlotte (Winona Ryder) is a 22-year-old gamine who designs hats. They fall in love, but the catch isn't so much that she's the daughter of one of Will's former, conveniently deceased flames (the incest angle is covered by a weird subplot involving the return of Will's actual abandoned daughter) as that she's got a movie disease and has only a year to live. As Will's best friend (played by a crusty Anthony LaPaglia) points out, the relationship is a microcosm of all love, because "somebody always gets left behind." It could also be seen as the last gasp of patriarchal pitifulness. Instead, we get two hours of Gere preening and whining and Ryder giggling and sobbing over Chen's tasteful autumnal visuals. Once again, love in Hollywood means sorry-ass platitudes and cheapened sentiment. -- Peter Keough

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