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NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

Toy Story 2

The folks at Pixar have triumphed once again. They've taken Toy Story -- a film that changed the shape of animation (into 3D) and enchanted audiences spanning generations -- and made it better. This time Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) has been stolen by a greedy toy collector who plans to sell him to a museum in Japan, and Buzz (Tim Allen) leads a team of our old favorites, including Mr. Potatohead and Slinky Dog, to rescue him. This brings the toys out of Andy's room and into the real world, giving the Pixar people a chance to flex their mouses -- grown-ups have faces this time and Buzz gets to take on an airplane.

Whereas Toy Story was a children's film that adults could enjoy, the sequel pushes the big-kid humor up a notch. There's plenty of slapstick for the little ones to laugh at, but some jokes, like the wild Barbie beach party and the inspired Star Wars references, are purely for adult entertainment. And by confronting questions of self-worth -- can the monetary value of a toy kept pristine in its box equal the joy that toy would give to a child who plays with it? -- Pixar has created a film that's more provocative than its predecessor, making you want to find all the toys you ever threw away, invite them to a tea party, and tell them you're sorry.

-- Jumana Farouky


The World is Not Enough

Formulaic? Of course. Entertaining? You bet your Aston Martin. Actually, 007's famous car is now a souped-up BMW, but little else has changed in James Bond's modus operandi over the past 19 films. He's still his old globe-trotting, gadget-using, babe-shagging self. The plot this time around involves an Azerbaijani oil pipeline and a pilfered Russian warhead -- the latter to be deployed to protect the interests of the former. Bond must match wits with Renard (the ubiquitous Robert Carlyle), a terrorist who, following a botched assassination attempt, has a bullet in his brain that makes him impervious to pain. Joining 007 for the ride are Renard's former kidnap victim Elektra King (radiant Sophie Marceau) and a voluptuous but underwhelming Denise Richards as, incredibly, a nuclear physicist. Her name is Christmas Jones -- leading to horrifying Bond quips like "I was wrong about you . . . I thought Christmas only came once a year." Supporting alphabet includes an underused Judi Dench as M and, of course, still-spry Desmond Llewelyn (Bond film veteran since '63) as Q.

Some things never change. It's ironic, then, that one of the first sights in the film is Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain -- juxtaposing such a famously radical concept with such a rote movie only calls attention to TWINE's limitations. Nonetheless, director Michael Apted manages to pack enough flash into the film to excite even the most jaded critic. Pierce Brosnan supplies 007's requisite unmussed smoothness, and the nifty action and effects (an acrobatic jet-powered-boat chase, some monstrous helicopter-mounted circular saws), though predictable, fulfill the promotional promise that "there is still one number you can always count on."

-- Michael Miliard


The Emperor's Shadow

Harmony, in art as in politics, can be deceptive. As the goal of Ying Zheng (Jiang Wen), who became the first emperor of a united China in the third century BC, it can be downright genocidal. Zheng's rollicking, obsessed, bloodsoaked career gets an Asian-style, Cecil B. DeMille treatment from veteran Chinese director Zhou Xiaowen (Ermo) in The Emperor's Shadow, a film so unclear in its political and artistic point of view, it was banned and then released by the Chinese authorities twice. Fortunately it squeezed by: brisk and hoky, it's sometimes stunning and always entertaining.

A key to Zheng's plans for conquering China's disparate kingdoms and winning "the hearts and minds" of his subjects is the composition of a national anthem. For that he turns to his boyhood friend Gao Janli (Ge You), a master of the zither-like gu'qin (the music sounds like Ry Cooder's). To obtain Janli's services, however, Zheng must first conquer his friend's country, enslave his people, behead thousands, brand, torture, and imprison the stubborn musician, and finally blind him with horse piss (record companies take note).

Complicating matters is Zheng's flighty, paralyzed daughter Yueyang (Xu Qing), who takes a shine to Janli when he rapes her and restores her ability to walk. That doesn't sit well with Yueyang's fiancé, the son of Zheng's chief general, or her retinue of eunuchs, and it sets up a climax as gruesome as that of Titus Andronicus. Reminiscent of Kurosawa's Kagemusha in its dynamism and audacious imagery, Shadow may not say much about the nature of art, loyalty, power, and harmony, but its jarring dissonances and dark mirth ring true.

-- Peter Keough


Rosetta

As demonstrated by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's La promesse, Patrice Toye's Rosie, and even Benoît Mariage's comic The Carriers Are Waiting, when it comes to the bleak fate of the post-industrial underclass, Belgians moviemakers don't waffle. An exception might be the Dardennes' latest film, in which a waffle stand serves the same function for the truculent, hard-pressed title heroine (Emilie Dequenne, winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes, who looks like Irene Jacob's stocky sister) that the bicycle does for the unfortunate thief in Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece. The Dardennes also indulge in the hand-held contemporary version of neo-realism, chasing after dogged Rosetta in Dogme 95-like vérité as she scurries from briefly held jobs to her trailer-park home where her alcoholic mom (Anne Yernaux) gives the ogre-ish superintendent blow jobs for booze.

Rosetta, however, refuses to be a victim; ferocious and determined, she believes all she needs to rise above this misery is a friend and a steady job, and fate offers her a choice between the two when she stops at that waffle stand. A controversial winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes and a ruthlessly efficient film, Rosetta is nonetheless pessimism without point. When the forces of dehumanization are so faceless and all-powerful and its victims so debased, tragedy becomes entomology. Rosetta has spirit, but no soul.

-- Peter Keough


Once Removed

Julie Mallozzi, a filmmaking student at Harvard's Carpenter Center, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of an Italian-American father and a first-generation Chinese mother. Her mother's parents were stationed in Washington under the Chinese Nationalist government, and they remained exiled in America after Mao Tse-tung's Communist takeover. Several years ago, Mallozzi went on a filmic journey to find her mother's relatives in China. Once Removed is her informal, ingratiatingly unpretentious recording of that trip, moving relative to relative.

Mallozzi's family seem to share a humor and a warmth, and also a higher education (many are scientists and academics), that made them targets during Mao's Cultural Revolution. One aunt and her family were shipped to Inner Mongolia. Another aunt (a lovely, now white-haired, physicist) was placed in solitary confinement for six years. Her crime? Her husband's brother had once been the lover of Mao's homicidal wife. And so it's gone in China. One dignified relative didn't even make it to be a Maoist victim: he was beaten to death by the Nationalists.

Mallozzi's next movie? I suggest a companion piece traveling to Italy and documenting her father's family, so that the two films can be shown back to back.

-- Gerald Peary


Flawless

Robert De Niro has never sung before in a movie, and after you watch Flawless, it's easy to see why. His rasping, off-key efforts are, however, right in tune with this discordant mess of clichés, sentiment, and hypocrisy that is Joel Schumacher's follow-up to 8MM.

It starts with promise. Walt Koontz (De Niro), a retired security guard, makes his way through the back streets of his Manhattan neighborhood, and the sequence is shot and cut with an eye for rhythms and detail that almost create a world. Credibility declines as Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his retinue of screaming queens shout catcalls from the window next door, and further still when, late at night, service revolver in hand, Walt rushes to the rescue of neighbors terrorized by hoodlums, only to drop from a stroke. Stumbling home later from the hospital like a broken insect, he sits partially paralyzed in his crummy room and holds his gun to his head.

Too bad he doesn't pull the trigger. Instead, as therapy he takes singing lessons from the despised Rusty, and the two, of course, slowly put aside their mutual antipathy and prejudices and, well, harmonize. To keep this from getting too sappy, Schumacher throws in a stolen-money/avenging-mobster subplot and touches of Dog Day Afternoon, as well as a scattering of coy movie allusions. All for nought: the only thing that keeps the title from being totally ironic is the performance of Hoffman, though his drag act is even worse than De Niro's singing.

-- Peter Keough


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