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MARCH 20, 2000: 

Mission to Mars

To: Director Brian De Palma
Re: How to make your movie suck less.

1) Good idea to pay homage to all the great space epics with a story taking place in the year 2025 about four people traveling to Mars to discover the origin of life on Earth. Bad idea to steal the most obvious scenes from 2001, Close Encounters, The Abyss, Apollo 13, and all the daytime soaps.

2) Give us more sweeping vistas of the red, barren Mars landscape (quite lovely), fewer cartoonish, computer-generated aliens (reeks of desperation).

3) Nobody looks heroic bouncing around in zero gravity in a spacesuit. You can add all the overdramatic dialogue you want, but they still look like chubby blow-up dolls.

4) Speaking of drama: what's with the melodramatic soundtrack -- the cheesy organs, flutes and strings? Even in space, everybody can hear you trying too hard to create tension.

5) Keep Tim Robbins and (believe it or not) Jerry O'Connell. They make the movie bearable (only just). The rest of the cast lack personality and sincerity -- they can be replaced with cardboard cutouts and people from toothpaste ads.

6) Remake the previews and pitch it as a comedy, because the whole thing is laughable. -- Jumana Farouky


Mifune

Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's film is the third release from Dogma 95 (after Lars von Trier's Idiots and Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration), and under the title Mifunes sidste sang ("Mifune's Last Song") it won the Silver Bear (second place, behind Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line) at last year's Berlin Film Festival. Yuppie Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) has just settled into Copenhagen life with new bride Claire (Sofie Gråbøl) when the news of his father's death arrives and he has to return to the Danish countryside to care for Rud (Jesper Asholt), his mentally handicapped brother, who's the Toshiro Mifune fan. Naturally Liva (Iben Hjelje), the housekeeper Kresten hires from the city to look after Rud, turns out to be a hooker, and complications, some grim, some amusing, ensue. Kragh-Jacobsen fulfills the official Dogma precepts of simple and straightforward (and the unofficial requirement of quirky), but his film eventually gives in to sentimentality, and no points will be awarded for guessing whether our hero winds up with Claire or Liva. -- Jeffrey Gantz


Final Destination

Forty high-school students board a plane to France, but one of them, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), has a premonition that the airplane will explode. He freaks out, a fight ensues, and Alex and six others get kicked off the plane -- only to see it disintegrate on takeoff. The seven surviving passengers have cheated Death. Now Death wants them back.

Tailored toward teens who, according to Hollywood, need to be spoon-fed anything more complex than a fart joke, this core plot point is explained ad infinitum, once by a mortician who refers to the Grim Reaper as the "Mac Daddy." But what the film lacks in subtlety it makes up for in creativity. A movie built on the imminent demise of seven persons demands seven imaginative deaths, and director James Wong delivers, often leaving you wondering not who will die but how in the hell? Leaning more toward gasp-worthy than gross, the death scenes are gracefully executed and genuinely shocking (Wong has dabbled in some X-Files episodes, and it shows). There's some mind-numbing dialogue as teenagers spout philosophical soundbites about Life and Death, but it's worth the wait just to see a guy's head sliced in half by a sheet of steel. -- Jumana Farouky


El Ciudad (The City)

Now pushing its sixth decade, neo-realism isn't so neo any more. Five years in the making, David Riker's debut feature, El Ciudad (The City), injects the old tradition with new passion, irony, mythic resonance, and contemporary urgency. This poignant quartet of black-and-white snapshots (the linking device of the flashing camera in a passport-photo shop might be ill-considered) of Latin American immigrant life on the fringes of New York City evokes outrage but also lapses occasionally into sentiment and preachiness. The first story about a truckload of unemployed workers dumped on a rubble-strewn island to clean bricks is a Sisyphean fable flawed by a bathetic ending; the last one, about a woman who creates a silent solidarity when she beseeches her sweatshop boss to pay her and save her ailing daughter's life, complements and partly redeems the first. A tale of a homeless puppeteer and his daughter ends on a note of pathos but the implications of its central motif -- who's pulling the puppeteer's strings if not the filmmaker? -- are not pursued. Most haunting is the tale of a Mexican teenager who meets the love of his life his first night in the big city -- drawing on the myths of the labyrinth and Orpheus, El Ciudad here transcends neo-realism for another reality altogether. -- Peter Keough


Deterrence

It's the year 2008 -- an election year -- and Saddam Hussein is a global nuisance no more. The bad news is that his son now runs the show and has an even bigger hard-on for Kuwaiti and Saudi oil. President Emerson (Kevin Pollak), the first non-elected official to reach the Oval Office (following a death and a scandal), is hunkered down in a Colorado diner during the mother of all snowstorms when Saddam's offspring invades Kuwait. Iraq now has the bomb, and as with the Cuban Missile Crisis, things quickly escalate into a nuclear pissing match. Worse, the Iraqis won't negotiate with Emerson because he's a Jew.

For a low-budget thriller, Deterrence does a decent job of maintaining its credibility, though there is something horribly wrong -- if just physically -- in the spectacle of Pollak as the American president. At least Timothy Hutton and Sheryl Lee Ralph are perfect as the presidential political advisers who crack the diner into a hi-tech command post. What lifts Deterrence is the smartly engineered yet preposterous final solution -- an unlikely fusion of John Kennedy and Isaac Asimov. -- Tom Meek


Beyond the Mat

Barry Blaustein's affectionately biased documentary is a behind-the-scenes look into the gaudy world of professional wrestling that profiles three grapplers at different stages of their careers. At the apex of superstardom is Mick "Mankind" Foley, a masked mountain of flesh and "Smackdown" headliner who struggles with the effect of the sport's violence on his children. Legend Terry Funk is trying to remain in the ring even in his 50s; at the bottom, hovering near self-destruction, is Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who smokes crack and intimates disturbing revelations about his past. Big-name personalities like World Wrestling Federation czar Vince McMahon, the Rock, Chyna, and even political piledriver Jesse Ventura pop up. The film also follows a pair of amateur hopefuls and their not-so-classy promoter.

Blaustein, a screenwriter with mostly Eddie Murphy films to his credit, does a respectable job of getting an evenhanded lock on his subject, though he sullies the effort with gratuitous and sybaritical commentary. No matter -- even if you find the nation-sweeping spectacle repugnant, Beyond the Mat is an intriguing exposé. -- Tom Meek


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