Friday, September 10

Starring Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr. Written by Paul WS Anderson. Directed by Alexander Witt. (14A) 95 min.

The interlinked relationship between the Resident Evil movies and the original videogames is almost Borgesian in its complexity. The film being released now, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, is the first sequel to the original Resident Evil movie, which was itself partly based on the sequel to the first Resident Evil videogame, Resident Evil 2. Resident Evil: Apocalypse, therefore, is actually based on the third game in the series, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis — except unfortunately, by the time filming started, the name "Nemesis" had already been taken as the post-colon addendum to the 10th Star Trek (or fourth Star Trek: The Next Generation) movie, Star Trek: Nemesis. Which of course tanked. What all this means, then, is that Resident Evil: Apocalypse, while being an adaptation of Resident Evil 3 (the game), is actually Resident Evil 2 (the movie), and even though it's called Apocalypse, it's actually Nemesis. You got that? Live long and prosper.

Still, all you really need to know about Resident Evil: Apocalypse is this: Toronto gets nuked. Quite spectacularly, in fact. The film begins where the first left off, with wonky-featured supermodel and Mr. Potato Head stand-in Milla Jovovich roaming the zombie-fied environs of Raccoon City, a.k.a. our very own GTA. This time 'round she's set up against the non-eponymous Nemesis, a giant evil cyborg designed by the even gianter and eviller Umbrella Corporation, whose zombie-virus almost wiped out the city in the first film. Jovovich, along with her trusty band of human targets, must escape Raccoon City before sunrise, when for reasons too facile to explain, Umbrella plans to drop a nuclear bomb on top of it. Aside from a window-shattering abseil down City Hall, there's precious little to recommend here, and the movie doesn't even replicate the guilty fun of the original — admittedly very poor — film.

On the positive side, at least they can't come back here to shoot the sequel.

Eye Weekly music section, Sep 9/04

Bassist Tommy Stinson was 14 when his former band, The Replacements, recorded their 1981 slacker-punk classic, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash — and he was still only 24 when the Mats broke up in 1991, with their swansong slacker-MOR classic, All Shook Down. Since then, Stinson's fronted the underachieving Bash & Pop, the non-achieving Perfect (whose long-shelved debut, Once, Twice, Three Times a Maybe, is out Sept. 14, a mere seven years after it was recorded) and has recently released his first, excellent, solo album, Village Gorilla Head. From 1997, he's also played bass for the petrifying behemoth that is Chinese Democracy-era Guns N' Roses. We caught up with Stinson on the tour bus with his backup band, Alien Crime Syndicate, somewhere the hell in America.

This is your first solo tour — how's life on the road treating you?
I'm totally fucked. We're travelling from Phoenix to Denver, and it's been a straight, 14-hour drive. Every tour there's one of these bad routing things — you just have to suck up and suck dick. I don't even drive, and the guys up front are fuckin' dying. I just sit at the back and loiter. [The noise of an engine cutting out is heard.] I think we hit a dead end.

It's been 11 years since you last released a full-length album (Bash & Pop's Friday Night is Killing Me). What took you?
I couldn't find the right guitar chords. I've been working on demos, but I only thought about putting a record together last March. The lyrics on a couple songs, like "Someday," date back from when I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. It just took me a decade to get the chords right.

The lyrics on Village Gorilla Head are pretty downbeat. They're very reflective of the trials and tribulations of a young postmodern poet. [Laughs uncontrollably for about 20 seconds.] Or maybe just an old man.

The Perfect record is finally coming out, but does Axl Rose plan to release Chinese Democracy in his lifetime?
We don't have a release date right now, but I'm out of the loop. I'll probably hear about it on CNN. That's also where I'll hear about the next tour.

Who's a better boss, Paul Westerberg or Axl Rose?
Axl, definitely. It's more of a collaborative effort with him. Paul would come into the studio and say, "This is the how the song goes, and this is how you play it," end of story. But I actually helped write some stuff on the Guns N' Roses record... or at least it was there last time I listened.

There's a song on Chinese Democracy called "TWAT."
Actually, it's called "There Was a Time." But we shortened the title to fit on the setlist.

Since the Pixies reunion has been a sell-out success, have there been moves to get The Replacements back together?
I've heard some talk about that, but I hope I squashed the rumours adequately. I don't want to close off the idea, but for the next few years I'm busy doing my own thing. If there's a need to do it, or a want to do it, it might make sense. But certainly not now.

Starring Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco. Written by Alexi Hawley. Directed by Renny Harlin. (18A) 112 min. Opens Aug 20.

Never trust a film whose production history sounds more interesting than the movie itself. According to reports, Exorcist: The Beginning’s original director, Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, was fired by the studio because his movie wasn’t gory enough and dwelt too heavily on Catholic religious themes — which is a bit like firing Woody Allen for being too Jewish, or complaining that Oklahoma! is too heavy on the singy-dancey.

Exorcist: The Beginning was already in the can when the studio told Schrader to shove his crucifix where Linda Blair didn't. His replacement, however — action hack Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea) — didn’t just re-edit and re-shoot extra scenes, but made the entire picture all over again. (Schrader’s version may yet be released on DVD.)

Schrader says his Exorcist was a “character-driven period drama”; the producers, on the other hand, wanted Event Horizon in a desert — a maggot-infested-baby-driven period drama, if you will. Stellan Skarsgård plays Father Merrin — a younger take on Max von Sydow’s famous role — who’s sent to a Kenyan archaeological dig where a church lays buried under the sand. The excavation unearths more than just buried statues, though: the whole town seems haunted, and the dig’s leader, Father Gionetti (David Bradley) exhibits decidedly un-Catholic behaviour: carving a swastika into his chest with a penknife, for example.

I initially thought the swastika scene was supposed to be a satirical comment on the Vatican’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis, but it quickly becomes apparent that Harlin only included the image because, y’know — stuff with blood on looks cool. The first Exorcist relied on psychological as much as visual horrors, but The Beginning is zaftig with such oogum-boogum ghost train clichés: CGI bats, severed heads, children’s nursery rhymes, and scenes that begin quietly and SUDDENLY GETS VERY LOUD! And then quiet again. AND THEN LOUD! And so forth. The studio has got their wish: this is a very gory film. But it’s also a total bastardization of the original — wait for the Schrader DVD.

Starring Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo. Written by Larry Gross. Directed by John Curran. (14A) 99 min. Opens Aug 20.

We Don't Live Here Anymore is a small, drab, often excruciating movie — and thank the Lord for that. Based on two Andre Dubus short stories, it's a startlingly plain and intelligent picture: no special effects, no stunt casting, no edgy hip-hop soundtrack — just a whip-smart script and a bunch of great actors doing that weird thing actors are supposed to do but never quite manage. What's it called? Oh yeah, acting.

Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern play Jack and Terry Linden, two bored, thirty-something middle-class marrieds. Jack's an English professor at the local university, where he works with his best friend, Hank (Peter Krause), whose wife Edith (Naomi Watts) he's secretly schtupping between classes. Hank, meanwhile, reacts to his cuckolding only with amused indifference, more traumatized by his writer's block than anything: at one point, he grills his unpublished manuscript on the backyard barbecue, then sells a poem about the incident to The New Yorker.

The New Yorker namedrop seems apt here: we've seen this sort of adulterous academics escapade countless times before — and we've certainly read it before, in Updike, in Bellow and in the magazine itself. What distinguishes We Don't Live Here Anymore is the craft and sensitivity with which director John Curran approaches these well-worn clichés. His direction is almost touchingly boring in its realism, single-mindedly focusing on the mood swings and cover-ups of his central four characters at the expense of any grandstanding gimmickry.

In the hands of a Bob Rafelson or Alan Ball, this would have been a misogynist bluster, or just another predictable jibe at suburban mores, but Curran gives each of his characters the benefit of the doubt, which pays dividends during the movie's emotionally messy conclusion. The cast is also excellent: Dern gets her best role since 1996's Citizen Ruth, while Ruffalo, Watts and Krause give fully rounded performances.

Starring Shawn Ku, Christy Chung. Written by Nalin Pan, Tim Baker. Directed by Nalin Pan. (14A) 145 min. Opens Aug 13.

This tale of high Buddhism and low sexual indiscretion is the first film to be shot in the Himalayan mountains of Ladakh, a barren, isolated region of India populated solely by farmers, monks and the odd goat. Though it's an ultimately sterile picture, that Samsara was made at all is an achievement: during principle photography, three Ladakh monks and a German tourist were shot by Kashmiri militants, the entire film set was flooded, the whole subcontinent almost plunged into nuclear war, and director Nalin Pan lost his dog.

Considering Pan's crew might have been reduced to radioactive ash at a moment's notice, it's a wonder so little of that behind-camera tension is worked into the foreground. This is a basic bildung, Eastern-style: the four boundless states of mind meet Five Easy Pieces. Shawn Ku plays a terminally unsatisfied, sexually curious monk named Tashi — a kind of Buddhist George Constanza — who starts to question the value of his monastic solitude after an encounter with a beautiful farmhand, Pema (Christy Chung).

Even the Buddha, Tashi reasons, was allowed to experience worldly pleasures before renouncing them forever. So when the local Lama, Apo (Sherab Sangey), catches Tashi indulging in some one-handed clapping underneath his monastery bedsheets, the monk decides to escape and settle down with Pema, with whom he raises a son. It's not long, though, before Tashi begins to also tire of his new life, starting a trade war with a local grain bandit (Lhakpa Tsering) and fawning over one of Pema's migrant workers, Sujata (Neelesha Bavora).

Although the performances excel, and the Himalayan photography is as intoxicating as you might expect, Samsara is little more than an Indian counterpart to one of those interminable (though crowd-pleasing) Giuseppe Tornatore coming-of-age pictures. The Miramax-loving foreign-film punters should go home happy; the rest of us will feel only a Zen-like indifference.

Starring Brittany Murphy, Holly Hunter. Written by Melissa Carter, Elisa Bell. Directed by Nick Hurran. (PG) 105 min. Opens Aug 11.

That Little Black Book is irritatingly acted, boorishly scripted and directed with all the panache of an Abdominizer infomercial, should not, on first accounts, distinguish it from any other number of dull, hyperbolic Hollywood movies currently doing the rounds. At the 75-minute mark however, this superficial Brittany Murphy rom-com steps over the line of being merely frightful to become what can only be described, in George W. Bush-style language, as a work of actual and terrifying evil.

Murphy plays Stacy Holt, assistant producer on a trashy, Springer-like daytime show, hosted by the non-amusingly named Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates), sorry victim of several hundred tiresome alliteration-related puns throughout. All is peachy with Stacy's life until she's told to prep a story about a bulimic supermodel, Lulu (Josie Maran), and discovers the model used to date her current boyfriend, Derek (Office Space's Ron Livingston), a shifty sports agent.

This chance encounter sets off alarm bells in Stacy, and, suspecting the worst about Derek, she steals his Palm Pilot and arranges to meet several of his old girlfriends, on the pretext of interviewing them for segments on Kann's show. Stacy starts to question the morality of her plan, though, when she develops an unexpected kinship with one of the exes, Joyce (Julianne Nicholson), and aches to reveal her true identity.

Little Black Book is so anodyne that viewers can gloss over the fact that Stacy would, in real life, be an unconscionable hatemonger. What's so vile about the movie isn't just Stacy's character, however, or the trashing of a talented cast, or the knuckle-skinning dialogue, or even Murphy's nails-on-a-blackboard, neo-Tracy Ullman performance in the lead — but the film's climax, an orgiastically misanthropic scene that simultaneously lets Stacy off the moral hook and lectures the audience for ever cheering her on (as if we ever would).

If Little Black Book were a dog, we'd shoot it. The evildoers must be punished.

Sep 1, 8pm. PWYC. Gladstone Ballroom, 1124 Queen W. 416-531-4635.

Jim Munroe knows how to take his show on the road.

Jim Munroe is a little bit yuck. The self-proclaimed gutter-culture novelist, professional computer nerd, sometime corporate media scourge and biweekly eye columnist was feeling somewhat off his game last Friday. The day before, when he left his first message on my voicemail, Munroe spoke with a high, excitable drawl. The small press reading tour he organizes, the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, was loping into town that evening for a performance at Holy Joe's on Queen.

The next day, however, when I met Munroe at the Green Room over coffee and avocado sandwiches — they have to be vegan — his eyes were watery, the nose sniffley, the thick brown hair somewhat lank, and his previous chipperness had been absorbed into a thick, throaty baritone. "I've got this summer cold, so it was difficult to enjoy the show," he says. "I hope I didn't offend anyone."

That seems unlikely. The Roadshow, which Munroe describes as the "bastard child of a vaudeville show and a punk rock tour," brought in about 30 attentive punters to Holy Joe's tiki-themed, fairy-lit lounge — not bad for such a small venue with a line-up of as-yet-unfamous underground poets and cartoonists. "If there's only 20 people who are interested and engaged, that's fine," says Munroe. "You don't need a stadium or anything."

The whole atmosphere seemed pretty mellow and informal. As local artist Willow Dawson concluded her "improv drawing" recital — pencilling a live comic strip onstage to audience suggestions — one of the other speakers, San Franciscan poet Bucky Sinister, took a quiet yawn-and-stretch on a sofa at the back. Sinister's fellow performers have given him the touring nickname Roadkill. "This has been a lot of fun," Sinister says. "It's like the cheapest road trip ever."

Munroe came up with the concept for Perpetual Motion while promoting his third novel, Everyone in Silico. (Like all but the first of his novels, EIS was self-published by his own imprint, No Media Kings.) That tour, spent gigging at bars and crashing on friendly floors across the US, made life on the road pretty sweet. So from April last year, Munroe decided to use his expertise and cross-country contacts to organize the Roadshow, a tour circuit and PR vehicle for up-and-coming or otherwise ignored indie artists.

The idea is simple: shove three or four performers, Monkees-style, into a car together and shuttle 'em across a half-dozen venues around the northeastern US and Canada. The crew have to live, drive, perform and piss together for a week; money for gas and grub comes from pass-the-bucket audience collections.

"There's a quintessential complaint of the Midwestern author who works for a large publishing company: 'No one's paying attention to me.'" says Munroe. "It's because they don't make enough money to justify the infrastructure that could send them on a 20-city book tour. You have to book an Indigo or Chapters, pay for hotels, for food, for a publicist in each town — it's very costly. I'd be lucky to get a launch in my own town."

Perpetual Motion, then, is an organic, web-led antidote to the corporate, Chapters-in-every-city sort of book tour. As the tour's Svengali/promoter, Munroe helps to arrange venues and find sleeping-spots for the artists. Most of this is done via internet contacts and his website, www.nomediakings.org. The site, which features a blog, a resource guide for wannabe self-publishers and an Adbusters-style parody (Munroe used to be the magazine's managing editor) called Monopoly: The Media Edition, has built a large and profitable net community for the author. When he announced the publication of his latest novel, An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, to his email list of 1,800, Munroe made nearly $1,000 in online sales within a day.

Munroe's beef with major publishers is longstanding: his first novel, the anti-corporate superhero fantasy, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins; subsequently Munroe has remained independent, and bought back the rights for Flyboy.

"Publishing isn't rocket science," Munroe says, "I'd been doing zines since I was 17, and I didn't see why I couldn't try books either."

The HarperCollins problem started with stickers. "It was more than just Murdoch himself, although there was that," Munroe says. "I had to bully the staff into helping me — and it wasn't like I had these outrageous requests. For example, I wanted to do a promotion for Flyboy, like giving out stickers or something. I knew that people who liked the novel would like stickers, but what to do about it, you know? I didn't like being stuck in a power dynamic where I had to force people to do what I could do fine on my own. Without any support, I was like, 'Why am I here?'"

No Media Kings gave Munroe access to a different sort of community, he says. "As soon as I became independent, I had all these new people that wanted to help. The readership has grown — people are a lot more interested now."

Munroe is marketing Unspeakable Evil with his usual combination of net-savvy and old-fashioned schtick: the author promoted Everything in Silico by namedropping as many corporate brands as possible within the text (Hershey's, Gap), then invoicing each company for a $10 product-placement fee.

The new novel follows the adventures of Kate and Lilith, two artsy Toronto gadflies, the latter of whom may or may not be a demon (its working title was Hipster Hellspawn). The book is written in the form of a blog named www.roommatefromhell.com and Munroe has begun posting one section per day from the book into a real-life blog with the same address. He's also certified the book under a Creative Commons license, which means readers are free to riff off the stories with their own fictional works (so long as they're not-for-profit).

"The same creativity I put into the books, I also try to put into getting the books out into the world," Munroe says. "It's not for everyone. I'm not interested in having employees come to help me out. I don't want No Media Kings to grow. It's a not-for-profit company."

"Actually," he adds, "it's more like an anti-profit company. And I only call it a company for fun."

An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil is available at bookstores now.

Friday, July 30

Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep. Written by Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris. Directed by Jonathan Demme. (14A) 130 min. Opens July 30.

This "re-imagining" of John Frankenheimer's classic 1962 conspiracy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, is along practically identical lines to the first film: all it lacks is the original's wit, tension, craft, intelligence, sense of satire, droll dialogue, memorable performances, character motivation, vitality, honesty or ability to entertain and shock simultaneously. Apart from that, you could be watching the same movie.

Denzel Washington takes Ol' Blue Eyes' role, playing Desert Storm veteran Capt. Ben Marco, who returns home from Iraq to suffer recurring nightmares about one of his sergeants, decorated war hero and vice-presidential nominee Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Shaw was credited with a daring rescue of Marco's troops on the Kuwaiti border during the war; the trouble is, none of Washington's men can remember the rescue. All they're able to recall is the same terrifying dream, of Shaw strangling and killing an infantry soldier.

Is something sinister afoot? You betcha, and it's the line-by-line pillaging of George Axelrod's superb original screenplay. Axelrod's spot-on spoofs of right- and left-wing demagoguery have been excised in this remake in favour of bland, non-partisan sniping. Shaw appears to be running on a left-wing ticket, but his campaign is filled with vaguely fascistic imagery. Is he a hawkish Democrat? A moderate Republican? The High Commissar of the American Marxist-Leninist party? Who's to say? (One may also ask, with the action relocated from Korea to Iraq, why isn't the movie called The Mesopotamian Candidate? Answers on a pipe-bomb to director Jonathan Demme.)

Of the cast, only Schreiber comes away with dignity intact. Washington, however, offers a diffident performance that collapses under a tonnage of actorly tics; and Meryl Streep, given the unenviable task of following Angela Lansbury's iconic role as Shaw's scheming mother, does her best only to be let down by a thin, misogynist script. Do yourself a favour and rent the DVD of the original; this is a travesty

Starring Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley. Written by William Osborne, Michael McCullers. Directed by Jonathan Frakes. (PG) 91 min. Opens July 30.

The only real inevitability after death and taxes is misplaced nostalgia about children's television. A pointless and garish revival of the better-remembered-than-watched 1960s "supermarionation" series Thunderbirds is a mystifying prospect: too square for the hip Nickelodeon kids; too lacking in irony (and mediocre pot jokes) to appeal to Scooby Doo-lovin' high schoolers; and too British to appeal to anyone outside Britain.

Even on geeky fanboy terms, Thunderbirds disappoints. In search of the Spy Kids dollar, the filmmakers have shifted the focus from the TV show's main protagonists, the Tracy family -- also known as International Rescue -- to a trio of minor, younger characters: Thunderbird-in-training Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet); Orientalist jailbait Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens); and comic-relief nerdlinger Fermat (Soren Fulton, in a role that didn't even exist in the original program).

What you're essentially getting, then, is a Thunderbirds movie without the Thunderbirds, or Home Alone on Tracy Island, and who wants to see that? Poor old International Rescue (played by a Troy McClure-esque Bill Paxton, and several spiky-haired Pop Idol rejects) spend most of the film stranded in a space station above Earth, trapped there by evil genius and Tracy nemesis The Hood (Ben Kingsley, forsaking Strasberg for an acting style that can only be described as "The Adam West Method").

I kept hoping Alan and his merry crew would be sent somewhere really dangerous to mount a rescue mission -- like, say, Chernobyl -- but instead the tykes spend most of their movie marooned on techno-paradise Tracy Island (available at all good toy stores now).

Matters aren't helped Jonathan Frakes' migraine-coloured direction: his action sequences are so club-footed, Tarkovsky looks like McG in comparison. As one character comments at the beginning, in a line sadly indicative of the script about to unfold: "Thunderbirds? Thunderturds, more like."

Featuring Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead. Directed by Bob Smeaton. (PG) 90 min. Opens July 30.

Until now, one of the greatest rave-ups in rock 'n' roll history was also its least remembered. For decades, the film footage from the Festival Express tour in 1970 was left to gather dust in producer Willem Poolman's Rosedale garage.

A legal dispute with the festival's promoter, Ken Walker, had forced Poolman to stash the movie away on indefinite hiatus. No one thought about the film cans in the corner of his house, with their small labels that read JOPLIN, or DEAD, or BAND. If the containers ever saw light of day, it was only because Poolman's son, Gavin, liked to use them as hockey goalposts.

Unlike Woodstock or Monterey Pop, it wasn't the brown acid that made Festival Express forgettable, but the lack of an adequate document. The lineup of the tour -- which travelled on a specially hired train from Toronto to Calgary -- was certainly memorable enough, a genuine million-dollar bash of performers: Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Traffic and Buddy Guy, among others.

"It's great that the film is finally ready, after so many false starts," says Poolman. "Until Garth Douglas called, we had given up on seeing it again."

That the Festival Express is ready to board at last is mostly thanks to Douglas, a local film researcher, documentarian and music enthusiast. It was he who, after a country-wide search during the 1990s, found the film's long-lost negatives and audio tapes in a National Archives depot in Ottawa.

"The first time I saw the footage with Garth, I couldn't believe how well it held up," says director Bob Smeaton, who previously helmed The Beatles Anthology miniseries. "These guys were all playing at the top of their game."

There are some spectacular performances in Festival Express, to be sure. Although a post-Gram Parsons Flying Burrito Brothers disappoints with a leaden "Lazy Days," and there's far too many meandering Grateful Dead moments (for this reviewer, anyway), the pluses far outweigh the still-entertaining minuses. Buddy Guy hops in with a cosmic, brass-heavy "Money (That's What I Want)"; Janis Joplin sucker-punches the audience not once but twice with "Cry Baby" and "Tell Mama"; and The Band's Richard Manuel offers a reliably petrifying take on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Festival Express is a surprisingly modest piece of work for the po-faced rockumentary genre. The filmmakers are not above poking fun at the era's lesser lights: there's even a brief appearance, pace Woodstock, from gold-suited doo-wop no-hopers Sha Na Na, singing "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay."

"After looking at the Sha Na Na scene a few times," Smeaton admits gleefully, "I was like, 'For fuck's sake, do I really have to sit through this again?'" The director also owned up to editing a long-winded bass guitar solo from Great Speckled Bird's "CC Rider." ("I hated having to cut that out," he says. "Obviously.")

Yet what's novel about the movie isn't just the new footage of several long-croaked lead singers -- Joplin overdosed soon after the festival ended -- but the very nature of the tour itself. These bands weren't travelling between festival gigs on anodyne, PR-pampered, DVD-packed tour buses, but lumped together on a single rented train, free to rock, drink, smoke and screw their way across Canada, all in the space of a few long carriages.

"There was no PR company, no makeup, no management," says Smeaton. "Just the artists, some booze, a couple of roadies and a bunch of chicks."

Shortly before his death in 1999, The Band's Rick Danko remembered the tour as "one of the greatest jam sessions ever. There were a couple of cars for music. A couple of cars for drinking. A couple of cars for food. A couple of cars for sex. It was a pretty wild ride." As the Dead's Jerry Garcia told one interviewer: "That was the best time I've had in rock and roll. There were no straight people."

The best moments in Festival Express are the most vulnerable sections, the snippets you'd never see on any so-called reality show today: Buddy Guy and his band drinking whisky out of paper bags in Winnipeg; Garcia, perilously close to a Eugene Levy caricature, making schoolboy crush eyes at Joplin, shyly telling her he'd "always loved her"; and of course, the incessant, unguarded, on-train jamming that took place between gigs.

The musical centrepiece here is a passionate, never-before-seen run-through by Joplin, Garcia and Danko of "Ain't No More Cane." Even the instruments sound drunk; it's the stuff legends are made of. "When we cut that scene we knew that we had something special," says Smeaton.

According to the director, the greatest character in the movie isn't Joplin or Garcia, but Ken Walker, the festival's wheeling-dealing promoter. I met the David Crosby-resembling Walker, now 54, at the Dundas Square Hard Rock Café, as he was being told off by the manager for smoking indoors.

Walker and his partners lost millions on the Festival Express when the entire tour was besieged by a student group called the May 4 Movement, which protested the $14 ticket price and demanded that the concerts be free. (Even Willem Poolman told me he considered the $14 charge "outrageous.")

The demonstrations, as seen in the movie, came to a head at the tour's end in Calgary, when Mayor Ken Sykes, then up for re-election, tried to curry favour with the kids by promising free admission. According to Walker, "Sykes came backstage and said to me 'I want you to open the gates and let the children of Calgary in free.' So I said, 'Are you outta your fuckin' mind?' And then he replied, 'You're nothing but Eastern scum and a capitalist rip-off son-of-a-bitch.'

"So anyway," Walker continues, "I punched him in the mouth."

It was certainly some sort of a trip: booze-ups, shakedowns, wig-outs, and flattened Alberta bureaucrats. Or, as Joplin tells Walker after the last night's gig, "I've finally met someone who throws a better party than I can." She died two months later.

Drill A Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See
V2/Luaka Bop

After two albums of considerable (if filler-filled) charm, Drill a Hole is Pensacolan singer Jim White's most consistent -- but least interesting -- record to date. With too-comfortable production from Madonna/Esther's brother-in-law, Joe Henry, the carnival weirdness of White's older work has been ditched for a more straightforward AOR approach, and guest stars aplenty. There are several highlights: The Sadies turn up, to honky-tonkin'‚ effect, on "Borrowed Wings," and Aimee Mann gives good duet on the haunting standout "Static on the Radio." But the Barenaked Ladies collaboration, "Alabama Chrome," is just embarrassing, and elsewhere, White's white-trash lyricism skirts self-parody ("If Jesus Drove a Motor Home"). Fans will need this -- if only for the hilarious white-funk of "Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style," a career best -- but newcomers should start with White's 1997 debut, Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

20,000 Streets Under The Sky Yep Roc/Fidelity
Yep Roc/Fidelity

I have seen rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is... probably not being bandied around the op-ed pages of The New York Times by Mojo spokesbaldy Nick Hornby. Two months ago, squeezed in between columnists reporting on actual news events, Hornby described 20,000 Streets Under the Sky as a record that would, "in a world with ears, be one of 2004's most-loved straight-ahead rock albums." According to these ears, however, it sounds like the usual old guff. This time around, Marah have at least stopped pretending to be Oasis (cf. 2002's godawful attempt at selling out, Float Away With the Friday Night Gods) and returned to their Springsteen-copyist roots. But it's pretty wan stuff. The only memorable melody is in "Feather Boa" (because it's The Replacements' "Someone Take the Wheel"); the rest is typical Brooce-Lite. Next week, don't miss Louis de Bernières' damning investigative exposé of crunk in the WSJ.

No Roots

Faithless are the British analogue to that old Keith Richards joke about the Grateful Dead (“What do Deadheads say when they run out of drugs?" "This band sucks."). Seen live, Faithless’s earnest, retro-hard-house sound makes them an acceptable guilty stoner's pleasure; on sober old vinyl, however, they remain deeply embarrassing. No Roots doesn’t mess with the band’s trademark formula: it's all here, from Rollo’s dated hi-NRG beats, to Sister Bliss’s incessant, reverb-y synth-stabs, to Maxi Jazz’s reliably atrocious rapping (“I'll fill you up like rice and peas,” indeed). Lead single “Mass Destruction” is a ploddingly predictable diatribe about love (a good thing), people’s parents (sometimes they’re mean) and war (it’s bad, apparently), but the rest of the album meanders in a pleasingly soporific, Jean Michel Jarre kind of way – at least until Dido turns up to spoil the mood on the title track.

Tuesday, July 27

Starring Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray. Written by Leigh Dunlap. Directed by Mark Rosman. (G) 95 min.

The finale of Hilary Duff's last magnum opus, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, was a bold departure from tween-flick convention. Instead of partnering Duff with her obvious love interest, a swoonsome Eurotrash-oid named Paolo, McGuire was instead deposited in the arms of Gordo, her nerdy, obsessive best friend.

Such inclusiveness may have proved too much for the Duffmeister's youthful audience, however. Lizzie McGuire, kissing a nerd? The horror, the horror! Or as Joseph Conrad might have said: "Like, eee-yeww!" Well, young'uns fret ye not, because the moral order of the universe is realigned with A Cinderella Story, and this time round Duff's boyfriend Austin (Chad Michael Murray, who was also Lindsay Lohan's boy in Freaky Friday) is appropriately smokin' hot. Plus, he's no geek either, but the captain of the football team — and the high school president! And he quotes Tennyson over email! Could one young man ever contain so much perfection? (Except Nick Carter, of course.)

Most of Cinderella is played in the now boringly familiar Clueless style, as a modern reworking set in Los Angeles. Duff plays orphaned high school senior Sam, who's banished to live with her demented stepsisters and tanning-machine-obsessed stepmom Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge, a moving, seal-killing slick of botox). By day, Duff slaves away as a waitress at Fiona's crass 1950s roller-diner; by night she sends anonymous instant messages to Austin, her mystery Prince Charming.

The couple finally meet at a school costume ball — with the part of the glass slipper played, inevitably, by a cellphone — but the skullheaded Austin is unable to penetrate Duff's ultra-cunning disguise, a teensy white Phantom mask. No worries, though: both are happily ever after by the final reel, especially Murray, who puts in a charismatic spot amid the mostly tiresome slaptstick. Duff, meanwhile, may not have fellow tweener Lohan's skill for picking scripts (it's no Mean Girls), but -- if such a thing can be quantified -- she remains much the better performer.

Monday, July 12

Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate. Written by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay. Directed by Adam McKay. (PG) 95 min.

The latest vehicle for Will Ferrell, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a patchily successful attempt to do for news anchors what 2001's Zoolander did for male models. Not that the two careers appear to be so different. Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, a top-rated San Diego newscaster, is even more vacuous than Ben Stiller's creation: a densely moustachioed, scotch-swillin', bachelor-swingin' sexist who thinks diversity was "an old ship used in the Civil War."

If you didn't think that joke was funny, then abandon deck right here: even by Ferrell's puerile standards, Anchorman is juvenilia. (In one credits outtake, Burgundy claims San Diego is "German for whale's vagina," and even Ferrell can't quite believe what he's just said.)

The story begins in the late 1970s, when "ugly men were still allowed to read the news." Burgundy's newsroom is a boys club, pure and stupid, where he and his fellow crew (Paul Rudd and the ever-reliable Fred Willard) abuse their fame to chase tail, not leads.

The sour mix in the gang's gin is Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), a new reporter who -- unbelievably -- refuses to be Burgundy's eye candy, and starts agitating for his position. The central gag here is Burgundy's inability to comprehend that a woman could do his job -- or at least it would be the central gag, if it weren't sandwiched between several guest cameos, a day-glo animated sequence and a scene in which Luke Wilson has his arm chopped off by a panda.

Ferrell is frequently hilarious (if still too desperate for easy laughs), but he lacks Mike Myers' ability to really inhabit a character: next to Wayne or even Austin Powers, Burgundy is just a moustache in a bad suit. Still, Anchorman has a few gut-busting yuks, and if it delays Jimmy Fallon's screen career for at least another few years, then roll on the sequel.

Together We're Heavy
Good/Hollywood/Universal Records

There's no musical equivalent of "jumping the shark" -- in R.E.M.'s case, releasing a Monster, perhaps? -- but The Polyphonic Spree's new album caroms over the sea creature after as little as 30 seconds. Together We're Heavy begins prettily -- a touch of harp here, some choral "oms" there, and a whole heap o' Mercury Rev down the middle -- but proceeds to bludgeon that beauty only moments later, with a guitar riff so antique it should be framed in Noel Gallagher's bathroom.

A little schtick may go a long way, but if all you are is schtick, then you're pretty much schtuck. Formed by Tripping Daisy's singer/guitarist Tim DeLaughter, the Spree are chiefly notorious for non-musical reasons: the band's number (there are currently 23 members), and their outfits (they suit themselves in cult-ish robes during performances). The trouble is, behind their indie-Moonie get-up, it's painfully obvious what the Spree really resemble: just another in a long line of Brian Wilson fetishists, and rather mediocre ones at that.

It's been suggested that the best way to hear the band is to see them live, but on the basis of last year's gig at Lee's Palace, this also seems unlikely (the sound was muddier than a 1980s reissue of Pet Sounds). It was certainly a sight to see the almost-fully formed Spree on a stage as small as Lee's -- one out-of-place triangle player's elbow could've sent the whole audience tipping like a field of ironic t-shirted dominoes.

But as anyone who's visited the Grand Canyon will tell you, even the most epic sights can start to pall after a few minutes -- and The Polyphonic Spree sure as Texas ain't the Grand Canyon. Together We're Heavy begins exactly where their 2002 debut left off: the first track is even titled "Section 11" (The Beginning Stages of... ended with a song named "Section 10.") Again, plus-points for schtick, but minus 500 points for the songs themselves, which mostly sound like ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" as re-recorded by The Blues Magoos. Someone should tell DeLaughter: The Cure are big again, and we don't like fun anymore.

By Darren O'Donnell. Coach House Books, 220 pages, $18.95.

Darren O'Donnell, playwright and author, is extremely concerned about underage sex. Frankly, he doesn't think there's enough of it, especially in his new novel, Your Secrets Sleep With Me.

"If I had the chance to write the book again, I would consider putting more sex in," O'Donnell says. "But I kind of got scared and wimped out."

We're both sitting in the sweltering, noisy Bellevue Square Park. To the east, a children's swing is squeaking painfully with second-ticking regularity. On the other side, the statue of the late Al Waxman, King of Kensington, beams down on us with its ever-present, shit-chewing smile.

From a distance, O'Donnell, 38, might look like any typical Kensington irregular, part geek, part yogi. He hasn't shaved, and the yellow t-shirt he's wearing is tied round his navel to reveal a hairy, skinny belly.

Up close, however, you're immediately struck by his fast-talking presence. If this were 1969, we might describe O'Donnell as a guy with a "heavy aura".

He needn't have tripped about the sex, though. Your Secrets Sleep With Me may not be in the Jackie Collins boinkbuster leagues, but it's still sweaty to the spine with clammy, comical, horny kid-humping.

There's eight and 11-year-olds Rani Vishnu and Michael Racco, who enjoy "sucking and fucking" under a fort made from sofa cushions; Ruth, the teenager, who's screwing Kaliope, the girl from down the corridor; and androgynous 13-year-old James Hardcastle, who takes the lead role in a homemade porno film, provisionally entitled Boys with Pussies.

"They're just kids having fun, y'know," he says. "We all did that kind of thing when we were young, didn't we?"

In the past, O'Donnell has principally worked in theatre, as an actor, director and playwright: his plays include pppeeeaaaccceee and White Mice, which was nominated for six Doras in 1998.

But while he's taking his new production, A Suicide-Site Guide to the City, to the Edinburgh Festival this summer, O'Donnell is skeptical about the local theatre scene.

"Toronto theatre is in a sorry shape right now," he says. "Postmodernism doesn't yet seem to have occurred to anyone here. Nobody questions how to tell a story, or questions the subjectivity of representation. We're still just telling stories, stuck to this idiotic Shakespeare canon."

Writing the novel, O'Donnell says, was a liberating experience: "I wanted the relationship between the producer and the consumer of the work to be as one-to-one as possible.

"The book stands on its own. If it failed, it was because I failed, not because we didn't get the right actors, or the venue wasn't right or we didn't get a decent budget."

Your Secrets Sleep With Me is a terrific little debut. Structurally, the book is a mess: it's part future-dystopia novel, part spiritual-self-help guide, part Toronto-critique-as-strangulated-metaphor: "The city is like a teenager," O'Donnell writes, "who can't have access to the car until it does its chores. And there is always another chore."

But there's method in his madness: Coach House Books' press release describes the novel as a "punkier Thomas Pynchon," which if it wasn't such an anodyne alliteration would be fair comment. (O'Donnell hasn't actually read any Pynchon. "The guy's books are too thick," he says.)

The story is set in a nightmarish future Toronto that feels not so far from the present: the CN Tower has collapsed into the bay, and the authorities are on the rampage, locking away Muslim immigrants.

The novel opens on Michael Racco's father, who for unexplained reasons goes on a killing spree across the 401: a new syndrome is named after him, "Racco Rage." And he's not the only damaged goods here: Rani is going grey and being kept prisoner in an abandoned warehouse with other Muslim detainees; Ruth is a fashionista with vitiligo and a tendency to vomit bones; and James Hardcastle's boyfriend, Xiang Pao, has inexplicably turned into steam and gotten himself trapped in an Arctic ice floe.

One imagines O'Donnell's youthful protagonists like characters from Peanuts, wandering around with their oversized heads and little bodies, bouncing depressed aphorisms off one another like marbles: "Fame is a boat with a very big leak," says James. "The bigger the fame, the bigger the boat. The bigger the boat, the bigger the leak... anyway, fuck water."

Despite their trials, the kids are hopelessly utopian, always trying to improve their lot, whether succeeding or failing. They all have heavy auras.

"Kids are a lot more sophisticated than we like to think they are," O'Donnell says. "I'd like to see children become more politically enfranchised. They should vote, run for office. They might just build more playgrounds, but would that be such a bad thing?"

He looks across the park. "At least they'd get round to oiling that swing."

Featuring Kristeen von Hagen, Laurie Elliott. Directed by Lisa Merchant. Presented by Caviar and Lace Productions. July 2-10. www.dickwhipped.com.

Local funny ladies Kristeen von Hagen and Laurie Elliott get their Fringe on.

Kristeen von Hagen used to be "a real wild gal," according to her friend and fellow stand-up comic Laurie Elliott.

"Once upon a time, Kristeen played by her own rules," says Elliott, 32.

"She was always like, 'I'm going out, I'm having some fun.' If there was a party to go to or drinks to be had, Kristeen knew about it."

But then, without warning: tragedy.

"She started dating this guy," says Elliott, "and immediately he changed her ways. Suddenly, Kristeen stopped coming out and began staying at home all the time."

Von Hagen, 28, nods sadly. "That's all we do now, me and my boyfriend," she says. "We just stay in together, watch television, maybe play some cards. We're like retired seniors."

"Kristeen has become lame," says Elliott.

"I am a shell of the woman I once was," agrees von Hagen.

"Yeah," says Elliott. "You are totally dickwhipped."

Sometimes, as Forrest Gump never said, dickwhipped happens. It happened to von Hagen; it happened to Elliot; it could happen to you.

Anyone with a live-in partner knows the routine: you wish you were Zelda and Scott, but you're happy just being Mom and Pop. Nights out drinking get turned down for nights in watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. Invites from friends go unanswered because there's a troublesome game of Scrabble to finish. The living room sofa develops a gravity denser than Jupiter.

If that's the case, then congratulations: you've just been dickwhipped.

"Laurie is, like, supremely dickwhipped, too," says von Hagen. "She's pretty much engaged right now. Her and her boyfriend have this dog that they treat like a baby. It's all cutesy."

Elliott beams. There is a touch of disgust in von Hagen's voice.

"Yeucchh," she says.

Elliott and von Hagen's new show -- which you may have guessed by now is called Dickwhipped -- has a seven-day run at the Poor Alex Theatre starting Friday, July 2, as part of the 2004 Fringe Festival. A one-act play, it will mix elements of the comics' stand-up routines with longer, more philosophical digressions on the meaning of relationships and the duo's status as genitalial whipees.

There will also be dresses. "We bought these fabulous '50s housewife gowns from Kensington," says Elliott. Her costume, which includes a toothpaste-green shawl, has been nicknamed "Minty"; von Hagen's dress, which resembles a roll of flower-patterned wallpaper, has been given the provisional title "Floral Justice."

It should be mentioned, of course, that Elliott and Von Hagen are both terrific comics: Elliott won the Tim Sims Encouragement Award in 2000, and Von Hagen was recently named one of Elle Canada's Top 30 Power Women in Canada. But it'll be interesting to see how they combine their stand-up personalities onstage, with Von Hagen's well-observed, wiseacre slacker-isms bouncing off Elliott's more manic and agitated delivery.

"We always had the idea of doing a two-woman show together," says Elliott. "With stand-up, you just get up for 10 minutes and do your jokes: set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline. With Dickwhipped, though, we have more time to explain exactly where the jokes are coming from, so it's a little easier for people in the audience to identify with us."

Von Hagen herself is well acquainted with dicks: she spent a large part of 2002 touring with Australian stretch-cabaret act, The Puppetry of the Penis. "It was odd," she says. "There were naked men walking around in capes and cowboy hats doing their laundry. This guy would come into my dressing room wearing only a tank top and do exercises to warm up his penis. It was certainly an interesting time."

Although Dickwhipped is the pair's first Fringe show, they've often worked together at the city's comedy venues: both used to write for TV station Toronto One's late, mostly unlamented Toronto Show. Von Hagen created one of the program's more redeeming features, a recurring character played by Elliot called "Laurie the Girl Who Goes on Dates."

"The network told us to cut that character because she was too disturbing," says Von Hagen. "So instead we wrote her as this janitor character, Carruthers Fairmont. She was in drag and wore a beard like Charles Manson, and had this mail-order bride. It turned out to be even creepier than the first one." Elliott also hosts nights at the Rivoli, and when Dickwhipped finishes, Von Hagen will be hosting at the Laugh Resort for a week.

Both comics are currently concerned about the creep-factor of their parents seeing Dickwhipped, particularly considering its subtitle is The Kristeen and Laurie Story. "It's like chatting with your girlfriends, only your mom and 80 other people you don't know are there," says Elliott. "Although my dad actually helped out with our webpage. He came in one day and said, 'Do you know dick
whipped.com is available?'"

"We've taken some of the more disturbing true stories out, and spiced up some other parts," Von Hagen says. "With comedy, you forget how literally the audience takes things. With a lot of stand-up, it's just completely made up, but people still come up to you after the show and say things like, 'Is your boyfriend really 80?'"

Elliott says Dickwhipped will be told from a female perspective, but "there's lots in it for guys to identify with. It transcends gender. It's not all, 'What's up with guys?'"

"We both have ex-boyfriends who wouldn't enjoy the show too much," says Von Hagen. "But they're probably not going to come."

Friday, June 18

Written and directed by Dennis Law. Presented by Sight, Sound & Action Ltd. To June 27. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sun 7pm; Wed, Sat-Sun mats 2pm. $35-$85. Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge. 416-872-5555. www.ticketmaster.ca.

I should tread carefully here. The last critic to give Terracotta Warriors a negative review, Leanne Campbell of the Vancouver Westender, found herself barred for life from the play's downtown venue. Considering all she did was compare the show's use of dry ice to a "heavy metal concert," the punishment seems a little harsh. Still, this time next week, if you find my entrails stretched end-to-end across the Elgin Theatre bandstand, I can't say I wasn't warned.

At least the show doesn't want for ambition. In his program notes, director/ writer/producer Dennis Law describes Terracotta Warriors as "the most astounding presentation of Chinese performing arts in the West over the course human history." Law -- whose previous producing credits include 1997's seminal karate kangaroo movie, Warriors of Virtue -- is a true Barnum-style showman. The whole event reeks of exclamation marks. There are 300 costumes! 24 epic sets! 94 performers! Kung fu! Swordplay! Acrobatics! Plate-spinning! It's the greatest show in human history! Terracotta Warriors! (I didn't see any elephants, cockatoos or dancing bears, perhaps they came on during my pee break.)

A show like this lives or dies on the quality of its schlock, and that's especially the case here, as the narrative, based on the life story of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is near incomprehensible. (I lost the plot shortly after the actor playing Confucius' ghost started doing backflips.) Sadly, despite the skill of the players and the spectacular costume work, Law's choreography is, on the whole, unremarkable: the acrobats look uncomfortable in their dancing roles, while the often terrific dancers are wasted on bland, overly Westernized ballet routines. If anyone ever opens a hotel in Vegas called Beijing Beijing, Law's going to need more practice than this to score a slot there.

Cerebus #300: Latter Days 53. By Dave Sim and Gerhard. Aardvark-Vanaheim. 40 pp.

When Lee Hazlewood released his 1973 album Poet, Fool or Bum, the NME gave it a single-word review: "Bum." Dave Sim, creator of the comic-strip character Cerebus the Aardvark, took a similar critical sound-biting at the hands of Entertainment Weekly earlier this March. In one sentence, the magazine distilled Sim's entire lifetime's oeuvre, created over 26 years, into just two words: "Grade: B."

In that period, Sim has not only written, drawn, inked and published 300 issues of Cerebus almost single-handedly, but also entertained thousands of readers, pissed off twice as many, been lauded by the comics industry as a guru, been denounced by it as a lunatic and revolutionized the graphic-novel medium. Still: Grade B.

If Dave Sim recorded an album, it would be called Genius, Asshole or Madman. Many readers find it hard to believe that Sim's Sisyphean workload hasn't now driven him slightly ga-ga. In November, Saturday Night magazine published a salacious (if not wholly untrue) profile of Sim, portraying him as a reclusive, near-suicidal religious fundamentalist.

(In an interview with eye, Sim dismissed the article as a "smear piece," like being "kicked in the nuts in print.")

But all you really need to know about Sim, good or bad, is in the comics. Cerebus did not begin auspiciously: the first issue, published in November, 1977, was a rudimentarily sketched, puerile parody of Conan the Barbarian. The one memorable element was its eponymous protagonist: a violent, heavy-drinking, sword-wielding aardvark.

It was one night in 1979, fuelled by a metric assload of LSD, that Sim finally came up with his Big Idea: the comic would run for 300 issues and no more, he decided, in the process telling the story of Cerebus' entire life, up until the final issue in March, 2004, which would end with his death.

Cerebus #300, which was released exactly as planned three months ago, shows about as much likeness to those early issues as "Surfin' USA" does to "Heroes and Villains," or Lee Hazlewood does to Nancy Sinatra. Over the years, Sim has taken a more satirical, post-modern approach. In one extended 500-page story, "High Society," Cerebus becomes prime minister of the fictional country of Iest, and Sim provides a merciless critique of electioneering and spin. Later tales were even more ambitious: in the "Melmoth" storyline, Cerebus disappears entirely for 12 issues, with Sim instead offering a fictionalized portrait of Oscar Wilde.

But at the same time as Sim was hitting these artistic peaks, his idiosyncratic views on religion and feminism began increasingly to inform the comic, causing it to shed readers by the thousand -- especially women. In issue #265, Sim printed a 21,000-word text essay entitled "Tangents" that described women's right to choose as "a lunatic misuse of free will." He also rallied against what he perceived as a "feminist/homosexualist" axis engaged in a conspiracy to tyrannize straight men.

"It wouldn't be that big a stretch to categorize my writing as Hate Literature against women," he wrote, "in this Fascistic Feminist country."

At this point, even Sim's most dedicated fans balked. One British Cerebus website posted often-updated columns entitled "Davewatch," and "Misogyny: Is Dave Sim Mad?" On another comics blog, "Out of the Darkling Wood," one fan confessed that he had stopped reading Cerebus altogether, because "whatever I might learn about characters I used to care about is not worth the pain of engaging with Sim's collapsing soul."

"I've never thought of Cerebus as hate literature," Sim says. "I was trying to make the point that it's become impossible to discuss things in a meaningful way if you're limited only to those subjects that make women feel good. It's why movies and television suck so badly these days. People self-censor themselves so that nothing in them can make a woman feel bad about herself."

Sim's final storyline, "Latter Days," was his most difficult creation so far. It included a several-issues-long segment in which Cerebus offers an obscure reinterpretation of the Talmud, in teensy, migraine-inducing lettering. Sim concludes issue #300 by having Cerebus morph into a super-powered rabbi, complete with hat and ringlets. (In one panel, Cerebus slices off his foreskin to the sound effect "THOIT!")

So is Dave Sim a genius, asshole or madman -- or all three? Perhaps comics historians will see him as a D.W. Griffiths-style figure, objectionable and influential at the same time. His aggressive advocacy of independent self-publishing, for example -- every issue of Cerebus was published by Sim's company, Aardvark-Vanaheim Inc. -- has been a model for hundreds of creators (Todd MacFarlane's Image Comics, for instance).

Whatever happens, Sim remains oblivious to his critics. "I've heard from people who turned away from the book in disgust," Sim says, "only to see merit in those same parts years later. Cerebus is a long way from being a populist work. It has never been widely accepted and I don't imagine it ever will be."

Thursday, May 20

Starring Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, Eugene Levy. Written by Emily Fox, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage. Directed by Dennie Gordon. (G) 90 min. Opens May 7.

The Olsen twins make me nervous. They’re just too freakishly wholesome, like manga cartoon versions of JonBenet Ramsey. Plus, they’re coming for me. Honestly — these people will stop at nothing in their pursuit of power. The publicity juggernaut for New York Minute, the Olsen’s film debut, could teach the Pentagon a thing about propaganda. It feels less like teen marketing than a call to war.

Appropriately, much of New York Minute is a battle. With its feverish pop-punk soundtrack and whizzbang editing, director Dennie Gordon seems more influenced by Saving Private Ryan than John Hughes. Be warned: this is a very loud picture, and unless you are under 16, it will make you feel horribly, disgustingly old. After a while I wanted to pound the screen and yell, “Quieten down, willya — I’m trying to watch a movie here!”

The plot is so slender it could be written on an appleseed with a piece of chalk. Ashley and Mary-Kate play sisters Jane and Roxy Ryan, who skip school one afternoon to take part in a daring invasion of Normandy — I mean, to spend the day in Manhattan. Ashley (the nerdy, sensible one) has to make a speech to a scholarship board from Oxford University; Mary-Kate, meanwhile (the troublemaking, potentially brain-damaged one), plans to sneak backstage at a Simple Plan video shoot, then slip her demo CD to the band’s A&R man.

It’s thrilling stuff, but things get complicated along the way, with the twins encountering a wannabe Chinese gangster (Andy Richter), an overzealous truant officer (Eugene Levy) and two really hot white boys. All this should be like so much diet-milkshake to a fan — and more power to them. It would be remiss, however, not to mention one disgraceful scene set in a Harlem hairdressing salon, featuring several African-American characters so stereotyped, reparations may be due. The Olsens: we are all but pawns in their game.

Starring Jack Black, Ben Stiller. Written by Steve Adams. Directed by Barry Levinson. (PG) 99 min. Opens Apr 30.

According to scuttlebutt, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David asked for his name to be removed from Envy’s screenplay credits — a rumour that should worry anyone who's seen his atrocious feature debut, Sour Grapes, where, in a decision that left Alan Smithee fuming, David was unashamedly billed as both writer and director. If he could own up to that mess, how bad must Envy have been? Talk about curbing your enthusiasm.

The whole picture has been plagued in pre-production. Test audience responses were reportedly so dire that director Barry Levinson re-edited the whole film, nixing many of Jack Black’s speeches and pretty much Ving Rhames’ entire role. Future generations may not consider this a crime on par with RKO burning 50 minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons, but it’s ominous when Levinson, the master of off-message dialogue, ends up cutting whole swathes of the stuff.

That Envy isn’t so bad after all is entirely thanks to Black, Ben Stiller and co-star Christopher Walken, whose charmingly ham-handed improvisations pull the film through its (many) rough patches. Stiller and Black play Nick and Tim, two factory-working rubes whose idea of a promotion is to receive a slightly more aerodynamic office chair. Their friendship is upset when Black, a perpetual daydreamer, strikes it rich with one of his manifold dumb ideas, the Vapoorizer, an aerosol that dissolves canine excreta — shit unhappens, in other words.

The eponymous green eye soon gets a hold of Stiller, in the form of (who else?) Walken, a bum named J-Man, who urges exquisite revenge against Black. Cue much slapstick, one-upmanship, and the second scene this year involving Ben Stiller shooting a horse. (If he manages the trio, Stiller should be awarded a medal for services against PETA.)

Walken, who plays himself in excelsis, is a riot, but Levinson’s slimline cuts leave little room for laughs between the relentless exposition. Rachel Weisz and Arrested Development’s Amy Poehler are also wasted in second-string, ’50s housewife roles.

Starring Greg Kinnear, Robert De Niro. Written by Mark Bomback. Directed by Nick Hamm. (14A) 102 min. Opens Apr 30.

A riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a Greg Kinnear movie, spook story Godsend manages to be both cheerfully entertaining and hyperventilatingly stupid. Stretching himself as usual, Kinnear plays whiny whitebread thirtysomething Paul Duncan, whose son Adam (Cameron Bright) receives an unexpected eighth birthday gift from the underside of a pick-up truck.

All is lost until Paul's wife, Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), runs into an oddfish biologist, Dr. Richard Wells (played by Robert De Niro, pining for the glory days of Rocky and Bullwinkle). Wells, who could hardly be more shifty if he wore an eyepatch and carried around a white cat, introduces himself to Jessie with the world's least appropriate greeting to a recently bereaved mother: "Excuse me, I'm a doctor. I specialize in fertility."

Wells turns out to be a cloning specialist who's "dropped out of the game," much like a pro-basketballer. He has, apparently, perfected a procedure that can re-impregnate Jessie with an exact genetic replica of her son. There is one proviso, though: if the birth is successful, the Duncans must cut ties with their family and move to live with Dr. Wells in Massachusetts, where he runs a giant, clandestine medical complex and accompanying small town. There is also a gym.

By this point, Godsend's narrative has become so ludicrous — Robert De Niro owns a village? — that the only choice is to relax and enjoy the mounting idiocy. Director Nick Hamm piles on the industrial strength clichés: at one point, there actually is a monster in a cupboard. Adam II, meanwhile, grows up just as precocious and vomit-inducing as the first, only to develop a fondness for sleepwalking with kitchen utensils, and an odd, possibly copyright-infringing ability to see the ghosts of dead children. Godsend may be a huge jolly for bad-movie lovers, but it's another nail in the coffin of De Niro's career.

Final Straw

The also-rans of the Scottish rock renaissance that brought us Mogwai and Arab Strap, Irish-bred Scot transplants Snow Patrol are less the hot, young sound of urban Glasgow than the leaky splutterings of a sodden Tuesday in the Orkneys. Final Straw, their dreary third LP, is a pea-souper of milquetoast pastiche, the indie that time forgot. "Wow" imitates the chug-a-lug strumming and distorted vocals of The Strokes, but sounds more like second-tier That Petrol Emotion. The rest is mere parody, with "Run" the inevitable failed Radiohead-circa-The-Bends impersonation, "How to Be Dead" the limp Coldplay-style chart-topper, and "Somewhere a Clock Is Ticking" a faulting grasp at Young Team-era Mogwai. Dullsville is a town in Dundee.

Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Emile Hirsch. Written by Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg. Directed by Luke Greenfield. (14A) 109 min. Opens Feb 27.

From the auteurs what brung you National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, high school comedy The Girl Next Door marks an early bet-closer for 2004’s most terrible film – an impressive achievement, in a year already front-loaded by Aston Kutcher vehicles and Ice Cube action flicks.

Where Clueless took inspiration from Jane Austen’s Emma, TGND plays the rip-off game with two other beloved Penguin Classics, Sixteen Candles and Risky Business. Our hero is Matt (Corey Haim-redux Emile Hirsch), a nerdy class president with a crush on his next-door-neighbour Danielle, played by 24’s daughter-in-distress Elisha Cuthbert.

It doesn’t take long for the free-spirited Cuthbert to fall in love with Hirsch, enchanted by his pre-pubescent looks, lack of social graces and shifty peeping Tom tendencies. One wild night, she steals her geeky protégé away for an evening of tempestuous sexual awakening and… eh, you’ve already fallen asleep. What Matt doesn’t realise, however, is that Danielle is really – of course! – a porn star. She did make the first move, after all.

By the half-hour mark, The Girl Next Door's spectacular cruddiness verges on the hallucinatory, like the wet fever-dream of sexually insecure Hollywood hack, or Mullholland Drive rewritten by 12-year-olds. There’s a weird disjunction between action and script throughout. The camera and cast react to Danielle as if she was Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, or Venus herself –- but Cuthbert can only offer a diffident, blank-eyed performance, as arousing as a peanut butter and Marmite sandwich.

Odder still is the film’s conclusion, where an Ecstasy-stoned Matt receives a standing ovation for delivering a speech so transparently piss-poor, the Dalai Lama would’ve jumped upfront to throw tomatoes. The movie’s surprise twist, a painful incident involving a high school porn video shoot, is so lazily telegraphed that the directors may as well have added a 24-style ticker at the bottom of the screen: “30 minutes till the shock ending” … “Only five minutes before the twist”, and so ineptly on.

If there’s a movie worse than The Girl Next Doorreleased this year, it better be good.

Acoustic Citsuoga EP
ATO Records/RCA

A five-track live set recorded last Halloween in Braintree, Massachusetts, Acoustic Citsuoga is a pastoral relief after the full-tilt boogie-ballast of My Morning Jacket’s last LP It Still Moves. Instead of blustering on like The Passion of the Duane Allman, the band here revisit some of their beauteous old ballads, and you can almost here the cicadas warbling along. MMJ's remarkable singer, Jim Jones, is oft-compared to Neil Young, but he's more accurately in the tradition of great Southern mumblers like Gene Clark and Michael Stipe. A few marks are deducted for Jones’s occasional R&B-style syllabic onanism – on “The Bear”, he twice sings the word “forever” as “fuh-eruv-err-aaooww-urrrgh” – but for a Hallows Eve gig, the scares are remarkably few.

Starring Kate Hudson, Joan Cusack. Written by Patrick J. Clifton, Beth Rigazio, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Directed by Garry Marshall. (PG) 118 min.

If you haven’t cried during one of Garry Marshall’s movies (Beaches, Pretty Woman), you are either a liar or have boundlessly good taste.

In Raising Helen, the latest addition to his cinematic wet-wipe collection, Kate Hudson plays Helen Harris, a fashion agent with a plush Manhattan pad, wads of cash, and one-night-stands up the wazoo. A successful woman in her personal, sexual and business lives, Helen is - by Hollywood terms - only slightly less evil than dentists or terrorists. You know the score: she must be punished.

Being a Garry Marshall film, we can guess this punishment will take one of three forms: cancer, death, or cancer followed by death. Here it’s just death, that of Helen’s sister (Felicity Huffman), who is killed in a car crash and leaves Hudson to look after her three newly-orphaned children: antagonistic pudgeface Henry (Spencer Breslin), five-year-old daydreamer Sarah (Abigail Breslin) and sociopathic tweeny Audrey (Hayden Panetierre).

A mute protozoa could predict the rest of the story. In order to spend more time with the brats, Helen moves to Brooklyn and starts work at a car dealership. She’s also courted by a randy pastor who runs the local Baptist school (John Corbett, once again playing a lobotomised version of Chris the DJ from Northern Exposure). Needless to say, it’s not long before Hudson learns to love the little mites, as only a fictional character with great beauty and a disposable income can.

To say Raising Helen is kind of fun would not be to excuse its horrendous sexual politics, icksome sentiment, atrocious punning title, or scene-by-scene wasting of Joan Cusack (as Helen’s frumpy sister Jenny) and Hudson herself, who is typically exuberant in an undemanding role.

But although it’s ultimately too sensible and hankie-free to touch the classic status of Beaches, this is remarkably enjoyable fluff nonetheless.

Saturday, March 27

Starring Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa Williams. Written by Todd R. Jones, Earl Richey Jones. Directed by Christopher Erskin. (PG) 97 min. Opens Apr 2.

Wouldn’t you like a cool, refreshing glass of piss? I know I would. In recent years, it feels like I’ve seen more people drinking bodily fluids in the movies than Pepsi or Coke. So often, in fact, I’ve started to believe it can’t just be another lazy gross-out gag, but some sort of product placement for an experimental new soft drink.

In the ungrammatically monikered Johnson Family Vacation, the waste-imbiber in question is Barbershop’s Cedric the Entertainer, while the liquid-supplier is one Bow Wow, the artist formerly known to the pop world as Lil’ Bow Wow, and to his mother as Shad Gregory Moss.

Cedric plays Clark Griswold-wannabe Nate Johnson, an estranged husband and father-of-three. The plot, an inelegant mishmash of National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Great Outdoors and Le Règle du Jeu – actually, I’m lying about the last one – has Nate taking a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to Missouri, for the annual family reunion-cum-grudge match.

Those along for the ride include mom Vanessa Williams (in the sexy-but-boring Beverly D'Angelo role), Beyonce’s sis Solange Knowles (in the whorish-but-anonymous daughter part), and for reasons upon which life is too short to explain, Shannon Elizabeth as Chrishelle, a hitchhiking death cult member with a pet alligator.

An adult comedy too filled with cute kids, and a kids flick too filled with dick and tit jokes, Johnson Family Vacation makes an unworthy star vehicle for a comic of Cedric's talents. Acting the straight man, he plays throughout against his genius for improvisation. (Cedric also appears in a brief, heavily-made-up second role as a randy garage-owner, reprising Barbershop’s Eddie to lesser effect). At 97 minutes and about one-twentieth that many laughs, the Johnsons make for thirsty work. Can I interest you in a beverage?

Tuesday, March 23

Starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 105 min (14A). Opens Mar 26.

Woody Allen often bemoans his audiences for preferring his “earlier, funnier” films over his more serious works, like Interiors and September, two films so dull and pretentious they could only be loved by the French, or the dead. Lately however, the Coen Brothers have suffered a similar problem to Woody; the trouble is, unlike him, they’re still making comedies.

There are certain things we’ve come to expect from the Coens, and The Ladykillers, although a remake, is stuffed with their usual fat deckful of verbal and visual motifs: the hayseed accents, the odd-looking obese people in wigs, the fondness for dismemberment.

But what we haven’t come to expect from the Coens, also present here, are the following: tired racial stereotypes, a panoply of fart jokes, and those tripartite words of cinematic dread, “Starring Marlon Wayans.”

It’s a sign of the brothers’ desperation that even their funny names aren’t funny anymore. Tom Hanks plays Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III PhD – repeat that as much as you like, it won’t raise a giggle – a Colonel Sanders-resembling crook, who along with a cadre of equally inept felons, plans a robbery of a Memphis gambling boat.

Dorr’s landlady, the stout, God-fearing widow Marva (Irma P. Hall), quickly intimates that something no good is stirring, and when Dorr fails to bribe her with his contraband cash, a decision is quickly made: the bitch must be killed.

The original Ladykillers, shot by Alexander Mackendrick in 1955, is a minor movie, but with a major cast: Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Alec Guinness -- a one-time-only goldmine of British comics. Squared against those actors, neither Wayans nor Hanks’ frantic mugging can save the Coens’ stillborn script, with its fall-flat dialogue and too-telegraphed slapstick.

There are some nice touches: the portrait of Marva’s long-dead husband, with its ever-changing expressions; or the way Garth Pancake (J. K. Simmons), the 60s leftie thief, tries to swap the loot for a suitcase of Mother Jones magazines. But boys, boys – you really must try harder than this.

Monday, March 15

Eye Weekly, City Section, Mar 18 2003.

The Bolivians were rioting when the ceiling collapsed. It was the evening of January 16, and a sold-out crowd packed Bloor Cinema for The Corporation's Toronto premiere. Onscreen the city of Cochebamba was aflame, as police fired tear gas and live rounds at locals protesting a 35 per cent hike in the price of water.

At the Bloor, a piece of plaster the size of a cigarette pack fell on someone's head. The crowd panicked. "Somebody's been hurt!" a guy yelled. Smoke and debris dropped into the room. "Nobody's hurt!" the same guy screamed a couple seconds later.

It turned out everyone was fine, but five fire engines rode over and the police emergency-taped the block. More hundreds were queueing outside for a midnighter of Oz/Darkside, but Carm Bordonaro, who co-owns the cinema with his brother Paul, decided there was no option but to play it safe and shut shop for the night.

"The accident was a blessing in disguise," says Paul. "If not for this minor incident, something much worse could have happened down the line." At first the roof didn't seemed that badly scarred, but a later inspection revealed severe water damage, probably from an old burst pipe. For the reopening March 18, about 1,500 square feet of the roof has been rebuilt.

Joel Bakan, who scripted The Corporation, still keeps a memento of plaster from the night in his jacket . "I thought the premiere was great," he says. "The movie seemed to be having a real effect on people. They were energized, standing up and shouting. Then it occurred to me pieces of the ceiling were coming down."

Carm, who arrived late that evening to pick up his mom, remembers one guy yelling out for a refund. "I shouted, 'See you next week! We're a corporation, you'll have to sue us to get your money back.' Then everyone started laughing. The audience was so nice. If it was Famous Players, they woulda lynched me."

Since the ceiling came down, locals in the Annex have been worried the Bloor would close due to cash problems. Some, like the Victory Café and Dooney's, pledged to do fundraisers or even donate money outright. The day I interviewed the Bordonaro brothers, a middle-aged lady stood in the Bloor's lobby, tearing off Paul's ear and pointing a finger into his chest.

"I was completely verklempt when I heard you were closing," she said. "It wouldn't be the same 'round here without you." Despite their neighbours concerns, Paul and Carm are upbeat, and consider themselves there to stay. With Toronto's ever-diminishing number of reps, and never-decreasing number of multiplexes, it's no wonder the Bloor is so loved. In the forties, the pre-TV days, Toronto had over 150 neighbourhood cinemas, or "nabes." On Bloor alone, between Borden and Landsdowne, there were seven nabes: the Bloor, Midtown, Alhambra, Kenwood, Paradise, Metro and Doric.

Of these, Only the Midtown still maintains something like its original purpose, as the current Bloor Cinema. The old Bloor is now Lee's Palace; the Alhambra is a Swiss Chalet. The Metro is still there, too, showing porn seven days a week. The Festival cinemas do a fine showing, if you like your movies middlebrow or Miramax, but only the Bloor, or - if you dare - Reg Hartt's Cineforum, regularly offer the anarchic thrill of pure cinema, not just indie-flicks but underground and outsider works; shorts by local filmmakers; late-night Rocky Horror vamps; a rainbow coalition of ethnic film fests; even a revival of Deep Throat.

"Repertory cinemas are really important to the culture of Toronto," says Cineforum programmer Reg Hartt. "People do it with their own bucks, with no parachute, and they're not getting any thanks."

"When the chain stores come in, you might as well be anywhere," says local writer Brian Fawcett. "That's why I love the Bloor. It has a very important place here amongst the Starbucks and the Tim Horton's'. You don't want to lose the institutions."

Carm first purchased the Bloor in 1980, with Festival Cinema's Tom Litvinskas and Jerry Szczur (previously it had been the Eden, a skin-flick joint). Although he split with Festival a year later ("financial disagreements"), he and Paul negotiated a lease on the theatre out from under their old partners in 1999, transforming it from a much-loved dive into an art deco palace. "I coulda owned the Bloor twenty years ago and had it paid off," says Carm. "But that's the way life is."

Paul's here today to do some painting touch-ups. He's marginally quieter than his brother, if only in the way a tank makes less noise than a jet. He used to work as a music wholesaler, and twice stood as a fringe mayoral candidate for the old city of Scarborough, picking up 4,201 votes in 1982.

His brother Carm is a fast talker, even by the spieling standards of the entertainment business. To paraphrase Scott Feschuk, recounting what Carm says over five minutes of conversation would take, on average, six minutes. During a quarter-hour coffee break, he expounds on several subjects including (but not limited to): premonitionary dreams, homelessness in Belfast, yellow recycling bags, Dirty Dancing and the time Reg Hartt got his entire audience to turn up naked.

He's naturally excited about the impending reopening, with the typically Bloor-esque zombie chiller Undead. "I like trashy movies," Carm says. "We'll show anything for an audience. I don't care if people are biker killers, we'll make the cinema their own for the night. Not that I condone bike killing of course."

Both brothers would like the Bloor to be more "political" in the future, and plan to do a post-election fundraiser for NDP leader Jack Layton. Paul also has plans to update the screen and sound system; and Carm is addicted to his Final Cut Pro digital editing system, hoping to make further DV shorts of his own. But basically, as Paul says, "it's back to business as usual."

"We still want to bring a lot of offbeat stuff like Bus 174," says Carm, "but you have to augment that with second-runs, the Big Fishes, the Master and Commanders. You have to. People enjoy them, and they're good films. The trouble is the bad Hollywood stuff. They get huge press at the expense of the independents. It's like drooling over a photo of Britney Spears and then throwing away the Mona Lisa."

"Mind you," he adds, "I had sex with Britney Spears. And for the record, what she said about me isn't true."

The Bloor re-opens March 18 with the Rue Morgue presentation of Undead. Normal programming resumes on Friday. Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. West. 416-516-2331.

Thursday, March 11

Born Innocent

Despite being chiefly -- no, make that wholly -- renowned for their poisonously irritating hits "Letter to America" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers' Craig and Charlie Reid have developed a reputation -- in MOJO-reading circles, at least -- for being two of rock 'n' roll's great lost songwriters. Born Innocent, produced by Edwyn Collins, proves that to be a less laughable notion than you might expect. "Blood on Your Hands" rollicks along like a lost Pogues classic, while "Hate My Love" has the monster-monster energy of auld Elvis Costello (before he grew a beard and invaded Canada). Had Robbie Williams not already sold his soul a thousandfold, he'd flog it all over again for a ballad like "Unguarded Moments." If you can tolerate their nasal Caledonian brogues, The Proclaimers could be in danger of giving Christian Rock a good name.

Starring DMX, David Arquette. Written by James Gibson. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. (18A) 88 min. Opens March 26.

Shot in fabulous digital Murk-O-Vision, Never Die Alone would like you to believe it’s a hard-bitten Harlem noir, a dirty little tale ripped straight from the ghetto streets.

In truth it more resembles one of those straight-to-video Quentin Tarantino rip-offs, like 2 Days in the Valley or Gang Related, that so clogged our screens and bargain bins in the mid-nineties. You know the sort: wacky casting (Tupac and James Belushi? DMX and David Arquette?), nasty, brutal, and not nearly short enough.

As an actor, Arquette has worn the same expression of hurt puzzlement on his face since he was stabbed at the end of Scream 2. Here he plays the puzzledly hurt Paul, a booze-sogged journalist who hangs out in Harlem gangsta bars all day, on what he tells his girlfriend are “anthropological research missions.”

One afternoon the perfect story drops bloodied in his lap, when coke kingpin King David (DMX) is stabbed to death next to him, leaving Arquette a set of cassettes detailing his thug life in New York and LA. It turns out David fled Manhattan a decade ago, but returned to pay off his dues and amends – only to be murdered first by Mike, a local tough seeking revenge (Barbershop’s Michael Ealy, deserving better).

Director Ernest Dickerson tries to set King David up as a glamorous, tragic film noir hero – but he’s obviously just an unreconstructed psychopath. Twice he cuts his girlfriends’ heroin with engine oil, causing them to choke to death. We’re supposed to view this as some kind of payback, that his girls were “ungrateful bitches” – but it’s impossible to imagine an audience who’ll find him sympathetic, unless they’ve just slipped roophies in their date’s popcorn.

Although based on a 1974 novel by cult writer Donald Goines, most of Never Die Alone is borrowed and blue: from Tarantino, Carlito’s Way, and Dickerson’s own (far superior) 1992 thriller Juice. James Gibson’s script even apes Sunset Boulevard, with King David narrating the story Joe Gillis-style, from beyond the grave. The dialogue’s no fount of Wilder-esque wit, though: “Whoever said you get a second chance in life,” David sagely advises, “… is a stupid motherfucker.”

Think of this review as second chance in life; don’t see the movie.

Starring Val Kilmer, Tia Texada. Written and directed by David Mamet. (14A) 104 min. Opens March 12.

Calling his new thriller Spartan is an unusual statement of the obvious for David Mamet — he might as well have named it Tough Pricks Who Shout a Lot, or Difficult To Follow. At any rate, it's genre-deconstruction time again in Mametville; this time it's the spy flick. Val Kilmer plays Robert Scott, a Secret Service agent investigating the disappearance of a young girl, Laura Newton, whom we presume (but are never told) is the president's daughter.

Scott is a typical Mamet-ian ballbuster who only lives to ignore the orders of his superiors, Stoddard (William H. Macy) and Burch (Ed O'Neill). Within the first five minutes, Scott has yelled at most of the supporting cast and ordered two soldiers to beat themselves to death — and yes, he's supposed to be the good guy.

This being a Mamet film, the concept of the good guy is looser than we might usually expect. No Mamet movie can last five minutes without at least six backstabbings, scams or double-, triple- and quadruple-crosses. It's not apparent whether Scott wants to find the missing teen or kill her himself.

Kilmer is well cast here: his vacant, generic looks are ideal for this ambiguous role, and he has Mamet-speak down to a polished T. The trouble is, we've been here before. Spartan may be a fine spy-procedural picture — probably the best since No Way Out — but like 2001's Heist, it's paint-by-numbers Mamet, and less clever than he seems to think.

Mamet may feel above his genre, but he never masters it. For all its double-agent twists and turns, Spartan is no less loopy or fast-paced than an average episode of Alias. That television series might be pulp, but at least its writers respect its genre appeal, and the characters have some emotional heft. The cast of Spartan remain ciphers to the end — less good cops than cop-outs. In earlier movies like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, the puzzles and austerities of Mamet's script seemed intentional, part of the films' essence and charm. In Spartan, however, those abstractions have begun to look less like style and more like laziness.

Since his protagonists' motivations are never meant to be clear-cut, Mamet has the perfect get-out clause for plot consistency, or three-dimensional characterization. Of all the performances, only Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), as Scott's partner Curtis, offers anything resembling a real live soul. There's no grand scheme here, just a screenwriter who hoofs it as he goes along.

Friday, March 5

Starring Romola Garai, Diego Luna. Written by Boaz Yakin, Victoria Arch. Directed by Guy Ferland. (PG) 86 min. Opens Feb 27.

To begin with: no, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights isn't a sequel. Sadly we're denied the sight of a middle-aged Baby and Johnny, divorced and unhappy, strutting their stuff on the disco scene. But yes, to answer your next question, this is Dirty Dancing, and that is Patrick Swayze, appearing here in a cameo as — what else? — a dirty dance instructor.

Alas, the years haven't been kind to Swayze's once-famous phizog. With his leathery skin and botoxic features, he appears to have been the victim of a terrible mix-up at Madame Tussaud's, as if they accidentally re-sculpted the actor to look more like his waxwork.

Havana Nights, set in 1958, is effectively a prequel, although the storyline is an almost exact photostat of the original, right down to the Freudian father-figure theatrics. This time round, our heroine is Katey (Romola Garai), who moves to Cuba avec famille when daddy is transferred on business. These are the final days of the Batista tyranny, and Christina Aguilera-soundtracked revolution is in the air — but Katey only has time to dawdle at the lido, where she meets sultry pool boy Javier (Y Tu Mamá También's Diego Luna, crimes-against-humanity handsome).

Wouldn't you know it, Javier may be from the wrong side of the barrio, but he's more than fancy with his footwork. One night while hoofing off after work, he leads the staid Katey to an underground dance shack, whose customers like their music dirty, rugged and — mysteriously, this being the 1950s — sounding a lot like hip-hop. As with the earlier Jennifer Grey/Swayze partnership, the pair begins a love affair across ethnic and class boundaries, despite Katey's odd views on race. ("Look at the way they feel the music," she comments at one group of dancing Cubans, before, presumably, mounting her steed and returning to the plantation.)

Sadly, no amount of fast cutting can hide the fact that, for all their smouldering, Luna and Garai can't actually dance. The pair might be nominally better actors than Swayze and Grey, but neither has their kitschy, melodramatic bravado. The first Dirty Dancing was no Singin' in the Rain, but it remains an alchemical classic of trash. Compared to the copious teen shagging and backdoor abortions of the original, however, Havana Nights's sexual politics feel rather chaste — less Dirty Dancing than Mildly Risqué Humping. Luna is certainly a dish, but Garai's a wishy-washy substitute for Grey's fearless Baby. Who'd have thought, nearly 20 years on, the '80s could look like glory days?

Starring Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Written by Don D Scott. 105 min (PG) Opens Feb 6.

You know the blueprint by now for Hollywood sequels: bigger budget, crasser gags, lotsa CGI, better haircuts for the stars, maybe even a few big-name cameos. Who cares about the script — there's Bruce Willis and Britney Spears! And Demi Moore in a swimsuit! And Leslie Nielsen as The President! And look — it's an old man being raped by a giant hamster! There's no beginning to the entertainment.

Thankfully, for the most part Barbershop 2: Back in Business sticks to the less-is-more schtick of the first film. The original, a smart but sentimental ensemble comedy, was like Seinfeld relocated to a Chicago South Side salon: a movie about nothing, just some guys and girls cutting heads and cracking wise. Any attempt to finagle with the formula would have ruined the simplicity of its basic premise.

Once more, Ice Cube plays beleaguered shop proprietor Calvin, still using that charismatic 90-minute smirk he confuses for acting. This time 'round, instead of butting heads with a slum landlord, Cube comes up against a far more insidious evil: Starbucks. Urban gentrification has brought the corporate coffee dollar to the ghetto, along with an upscale new hairdressing franchise, Nappy Cutz — its salon replete with black chrome floors, an aquarium, and other relics of bars that were fashionable in 1997. Yet again, Cube must decide whether to sell out to the highest bidder, or stay in the 'hood and watch his business get eaten alive by competition.

Wisely, the sequel ups the screentime of Cedric the Entertainer, who provides a second stellar turn as historical-revisionist barber Eddie, blindsiding the barbershop with asides about the Panthers and the Washington Sniper ("The Jackie Robinson of crime!"). The plot, needless to say, is hooey. Nobody needs a lecture on corporatization from an MGM movie filled with Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts product placements — and it takes especial chutzpah to hear Cube sermonize on the evils of big-business franchises, when the entire presence of Queen Latifah (as an uptight beautician) is only meant to serve as advance publicity for her yet-to-be-filmed Beauty Shop spin-off. Still, there's no better ensemble working in mainstream Hollywood today than this crew, and the movie more than surfs on the goodwill engendered by the first, superior, film. Roll on, Barbershop: The HBO Miniseries.

Arena Rock

After all the shemozzle over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's much-delayed "experimental" album, the record itself proved to be disappointing, overblown fudge. By comparison, The Autumn Defense's Circles, featuring Wilco bassist John Stirratt on lead guitar and vocals, is a small, unheralded gem. This is laid-back California rock in extremis, with the band playing so low and slow you can almost hear the sideburns grow track-by-track. "Silence" fuses Lambchop with Jim O'Rourke's pastoral pop, while elsewhere Stirratt is unafraid to show off his less fashionable influences, on the Jackson Browne-ian "The World (Will Soon Turn Our Way)," and the gorgeous Wings doppelgänger "Some Kind of Fool." After a decade of cack-handed Gram Parsons impersonators, it's time to give another Byrd his due: the David Crosby revival starts here.

Different Cars and Trains EP

The Notwist's Neon Golden, released in 2002, was one of that year's finest albums, a collection of gorgeous electronic ballads that invented a new musical sub-genre: country 'n' glitch. Sadly, there's not a single standout on this five-track EP, a collection of B-sides and remixes, mostly helmed by Notwist laptop-man Martin Gretschmann. Even the most dance-phobic of listeners should be able to catch the laziness at play here, with few of the remixes developing beyond the most hoary of dub and thump clichés. "Neon Golden" is misshapen into a bouncy, big-beat bore, and the once-pretty "Pilot" is remade as a queasy "Professional Widow"-style bass-bumper. Only "This Room," remixed by Four Tet and Manitoba, struggles to be heard over the cacophony, with Markus Archer's vocals cut up into a hi-energy disco babble. PI

Land Air Sea

If Rivers Cuomo could collect royalties on every Weezer knockoff released in the last decade, there'd be riches enough to keep his family in spinster glasses and cross-hatch sweaters for centuries. The Special Goodness, a side-project for Weezer drummer Patrick Wilson, replicates the "Say it Ain't So" sound to such an obsessive degree that they're almost geek-rock's Single White Female, with Wilson playing Jennifer Jason Leigh to Cuomo's Bridget Fonda. That would be fine, of course, if Wilson displayed any of his boss' knack for melody, one-liners or killer hooks, but it's mostly an undistinguished bore, if not quite the disaster that was The Rentals' second album (there's no Damon Albarn raps, at least). Excepting the Pinkerton-esque riff-sludge of "Inside Your Heart," there's little here to suggest Wilson should quit the day job.

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