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AUGUST 24, 1998: 

How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Burnt out from her high-finance job, and in need of fun (and groove), Stella (Angela Bassett) and best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) head to Jamaica on a whim vacation. There Stella's fling with a sexy Jamaican named Winston turns into something more serious -- hello groove. Unfortunately, Stella's 40 years old, Winston's 20, and everyone around them (Stella included) is raising an eyebrow.

Although Terry McMillan's novel was a bestseller, her tale was neither insightful nor intense. And director Kevin Rodney Sullivan remains all too faithful to the original. Bassett is stunning (fortunately for Stella, she could pass for 30), and McMillan does offer a view of African-American life minus the usual issues of gangs and poverty and racism. But his film is far too long, and though the age difference between Stella and Winston creates a plausible tension and the female banter can be catchy and fun, the soft plot (which Sullivan turns melodramatic by throwing in tragedy) drags. Maybe age shouldn't matter in a relationship, but in a film, time does.

-- Rachel O'Malley

Next Stop, Wonderland

Miramax head Harvey Weinstein shelled out $6 million for this romantic comedy after catching it at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Is it worth the money? The premise, which revolves around two thirtysomethings (she's 29 and he's 35) trying to find their foothold in life, is a tad maudlin and a bit predictable. But the witty script that director Brad Anderson wrote with actor Lyn Vaus is peppered with humorous quips and tart contemplations about love, destiny, and life's bigger picture. Wonderland will also score points with the local audience, since it was shot in Boston and makes use of such landmarks as Wonderland Racetrack, the New England Aquarium, and the Burren pub in Davis Square.

Hope Davis is Erin, a nurse newly jilted by her left-wing radical boyfriend; Alan Gelfant is Alan, a plumber struggling through college and volunteering at the Aquarium with hopes of becoming a marine biologist. He's into Frankie the loan shark (Victor Argo) for his tuition, and Frankie, for his own sordid political gain, wants to use Alan to put a scare into Aquarium officials. Even more menacing than Frankie is Erin's interfering mom, who places personal ads for her in the local papers. Erin and Alan seem perfect for each other, but they spend the entirety of the film circulating through the same urban venues and recursively coming into near-contact. Will they ever meet? That's the question that keeps the film afloat, and though Davis and Gelfant are amiable enough, the real hook here is Anderson's energetic craftsmanship and Boston's opulent cityscape.

-- Tom Meek

The Avengers

Ralph Fiennes, excellent actor though he may be, is no Patrick Macnee when it comes to a bowler hat -- he looks like a baffled ferret. But that's the least of The Avengers' problems. The TV series charmed with its blithely Magritte-like look, Chesterton-lite capers, ironic banter, and a pair of heroes sprung fully formed from the forehead of '60s British cool. Not only does the movie squander all that, it wastes one of the more impressive casts of the summer.

Fiennes is John Steed, an upper-crust bowlered 'n' brollied secret agent for the Ministry. Already the film is in trouble, as, unlike the original, it feels compelled to explain the self-evident. The Ministry has a Father (Richard Broadbent, in a wheelchair) and a Mother (Fiona Shaw sans wheelchair, but looking more like Peter Sellers's Dr. Strangelove). And Steed's partner, the mysterious Mrs. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman in the part made famous by Diana Rigg), is now a mundane metereologist with a snazzy wardrobe and no gift for repartee.

Not that anything would help the film's f/x-addled excuse for a plot. We get occasional glimpses of August De Wynter (Sean Connery, content to collect a check and watch his stunt double battle Fiennes's stunt double), a deranged scientist blackmailing the world by controlling the weather, and the standard shots of landmarks leveled by lightning bolts and tornadoes. And then there is Peel's clone double, unaccounted for and inconsequential. Hapless director Jeremiah Chechik's gratuitous flashes of the surreal (bad guys disguised as teddy bears, De Wynter's Marienbad-like manor) merely underscore the film's cluelessness. Far from improving on the original, The Avengers makes a travesty of it.

-- Peter Keough

Dead Man on Campus

With the exception of Aki Kaurismäki's I Hired a Contract Killer, I can't think of any intentionally funny film about suicide. Now we get Dead Man on Campus, a moribund stinker that has been moldering in a studio morgue drawer for some time. Tom Everett Scott, whose career has crashed since his Tom-Hanks's-younger-brother charm scored in That Thing You Do, plays Josh, a naive go-getting freshman on scholarship whose drive falls prey to the bongs and bad attitude of rich-kid party guy Cooper (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Zack from Saved by the Bell). Facing failure and expulsion, the pair come up with a desperate ploy, as do the filmmakers: an old college statute states that if a resident of a dorm commits suicide, everyone living there gets A's. In a series of stunts that make Weekend at Bernie's seem the apotheosis of wit, they seek a suicidal roommate and plot to drive him to self-destruction. And indeed, self-destruction must have been in the minds of everyone connected with this film.

-- Peter Keough

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