Movie Openings

Movie Openings

George of the Jungle**M

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(Century 16, Century 12) OK, so it is a pretty funny movie. I came to scoff; I stayed to chuckle. Plenty of elephant poop and pee jokes to keep the young ones giggling, while the ape-man-meets-girl/loses-girl formula works its special magic on the boomers. People of every age were laughing all over the theater. Each time George extricates his face from a tree trunk he just smashed into, he shakes it with the requisite cartoon "yaggity-yaggity-yaggity" sound. George's butler, named Ape (voice by John Cleese), is the erudite one of the film, working on his watercolors and chess openings, while Shep, the frisky pachydermic puppy, would like nothing better to cuddle up on George's lap.

Heiress Ursula Standhope (Leslie Mann) is on an African safari when she is interrupted by her oafish fiance, Lyle (Thomas Haden Church), who followed her and wants to take her away from all this silly nature and get married. Attacked by a lion, Lyle chickens out; George (raised by apes since childhood) swings by and saves Ursula, and the rest is cinematic history.

The characters are inspired by Jay Ward, who brought us the Rocky and Bullwinkle, Superchicken, and Tom Slick cartoons in the 1960s. The real link here is the earnest, brightly toned narrator ("Last time, you remember, Rocky and Bullwinkle were trapped inside the floating mountain of Upsadasium . . ."). He takes part in this story, occasionally commenting on various ludicrous aspects: "Meanwhile at a very big, expensive waterfall set . . ." In fact the whole movie is pretty good at stopping and lampooning itself every time things are getting just too silly.

Buffed-out Brendan Fraser plays the inept vine-swinger George with appealing clumsy sweetness and bedroom eyes. Mann is a charming, baby-doll-voiced Ursula. Their courtship is pretty cute, especially when George convinces her to dance by the fire at night, looked on by Ape, wise and proud.

Extra bonus: "Runaway Brain," the Mickey Mouse animated short before the main feature is truly a wonder. Whatever dark mega-corporate designs Disney may have on the world, it still makes great cartoons. Rated: PG. 1 hour, 30 minutes

--Jim Shelby

Dream with the Fishes**1/2

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(Aquarius) Finn Taylor starts his first feature film with quirky charm, surprising plot twists and provocative ideas--characteristic of independent work, not filmmaking by committee. The Bay Area writer-director, whose six years of traveling provided the inspiration for this movie, also has a gift for sardonic dialogue. Taylor's best opening scenes toss his two characters--a suicidal voyeur (David Arquette) on the verge of boring himself to death and a dying junkie (Brad Hunt) with a tremendous appetite for life--into absurd situations where the unlikely team exchange darkly humorous words.

The film shifts gear once the mismatched pair make a pact to fulfill the addict's lifelong fantasies, turning into a road movie with no particular destination. One strange situation follows the next in a male universe filled with dreams of sex, drugs and bowling in the nude with prostitutes. Instead of developing the characters and forging their friendship, Taylor resorts to stringing together a series of bizarre events. Although these scenes are designed to signify ongoing male bonding, they are emotionally bankrupt: Gimmickry is no substitute for real feelings.

Although the movie falters after the first act, the acting gets much better. Playing a depressed widower about to leap off the Bay Bridge, David Arquette ("Scream") can't seem to settle on a suitable acting style. He finds his character once his character starts to find reasons to live. Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull" and "Neighbors"), on the other hand, turns in such a naturalistic performance as the dying man's aunt that one wishes more roles would come her way.

If Finn Taylor decides to stop telling big fish tales, his unique voice might make some waves. Not rated, but contains strong language, drug use, nudity and adult situations. 1 hour, 37 minutes

--Susan Tavernetti

Nothing to Lose*1/2

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(Century 16) Aspiring to be a salt-and-pepper buddy action comedy, "Nothing to Lose" succeeds mainly at insulting whites, blacks and movie lovers. Only those aesthetically-challenged individuals whose idea of fun is breaking glass, squealing tires and copious profanity have nothing to lose by seeing it.

The film begins with a successful white advertising executive (Tim Robbins) finding his wife in bed with another man. Distraught, he gets into his sport utility vehicle and drives around aimlessly, ending up--in the first of the film's many implausibilities--on one of Los Angeles' meaner streets. There a desperate young black man (Martin Lawrence) jumps into the vehicle and points a gun at his head. But instead of handing over his wallet, Robbins drives toward the largest vehicles in the oncoming traffic, terrorizing the robber who meant to frighten him.

Thus begins their bonding.

For most of the remainder of the film--a series of implausible, contrived and remarkably unfunny on-the-road misadventures--the tall white man takes every opportunity to explain to the short black man the virtues of thinking like a white (on robbery, for example: "Plan ahead, get a mask"). In response, the black man continually belittles the white man for falling short by his cultural standards. (Lawrence assumes that Robbins' problems are rooted in a lack of sexual prowess and in the failure of the white man to understand its importance.)

While there is dark comic potential in the idea of a verbally gifted, overly analytic white man arguing with a wisecracking, overly impulsive black man over the importance of reflection and the virtue of deferring gratification--in the idea of a Hamlet arguing with a carjacker over the right approach to problem solving--"Nothing to Lose" manages only to trip over some unbecoming stereotypes as it runs from the issues it insensitively raises.

Ultimately, Robbins learns from Lawrence to be more macho and to understand that his black companion's seemingly dysfunctional behavior is 1) rooted in the desperate conditions of the underclass and 2) more than mitigated by his love for his family. In other words, Robbins learns to stop patronizing his new-found buddy, even though the movie never does. Rated: R for language, violence and sexual situations. 1 hour, 38 minutes

--Leonard Schwarz

Operation Condor M

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(UA 6) My Jackie Chan bubble has been burst. "Operation Condor" is so ludicrous, offensive and poorly made that it has the dubious distinction of supplanting Olivia Newton-John's "Xanadu" as my all-time worst movie experience. My kids put on better performances in our living room.

Jackie's latest adventure takes him globetrotting in search of a large cache of gold, hidden in the desert by German soldiers during World War II. Jackie is hired by a mysterious European count to recover the gold while staying one step ahead of a legion of nefarious criminals with the same goal. From the South China Seas to the great European capitals to the punishing sands of the Sahara desert, Jackie and his female sidekicks--a brainy Asian professor and the German granddaughter of a Nazi war criminal--endure endless cruelties at the hands of psychotic outlaws.

And it's worse than it sounds. The fact that Chan wrote and directed "Operation Condor" says a lot about what is considered politically correct in other cultures. Germans, Middle Easterners and even Asians are cliched caricatures that are uncomfortably reminiscent of the frightful vaudevillian blackface. The women are portrayed as helpless, incompetent bimbos who continually depend on Jackie to rescue them. "Jackie, save us!" "Jackie, help us!" "Jackieeeeeee!" is their relentless plea. I haven't witnessed this kind of gender gap since talkies took over. Production values are a joke, with a soundstage quality that befits a tourist studio tour. The film seems to have been recorded in a variety of languages, subsequently (and badly) dubbed over in English.

Jackie Chan is not known for his intelligent plot lines or dramatic turns of phrase. His magic lies in his charm and the spectacular stunts that he performs without a stunt double. Now that Jackie has exposed himself as a sexist egomaniac, he'll need to pull some new tricks out of his hat--and fast. Rated: PG-13 for excessive gunfire and violence. 1 hour, 30 minutes

--Jeanne Aufmuth