Samuel L. Jackson and Toni Collette in Shaft


For about a month now, when friends have asked me what new movies they should see, I've come dangerously close to drawing a blank. I'd mention Gladiator (which, naturally, most of them had already seen) and Small Time Crooks (which, sadly, most were uninterested in). Then I'd generally guide them in a different direction altogether, like Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent Magnolia, which recently returned to Moline's discount cineplex. Or video and DVD, with the recent release of two extraordinary documentaries: Chris Smith's hilarious and touching American Movie, probably the best film of 1999 that wasn't seen locally, and Errol Morris' disturbing but brilliant Mr. Death: The Rise & Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

For my money, we've been suffering from an entertainment drought at the first-run theatres lately, but the problem isn't just the mediocrity of the movies in current release. The bigger problem, of course, is that with so many screens at our disposal, our choices of actual movies to watch is naggingly limited. When you have disappointing-or-worse flicks like Mission: Impossible 2, Dinosaur, Gone in 60 Seconds, and Big Momma's House gobbling up roughly 10 screens between them, your chances of seeing a rare good movie dwindle. Business-wise, it's totally understandable for cinema chains to go this route - the fourth screening of MI:2 in an hour's time will probably still make more money than Woody Allen's latest - but it's depressing for those of us looking for something better at the cineplex (and I'm not necessarily getting all Art Flick-y on you here... even this summer's light, escapist fare has been mostly crap).

So, finally, we have reason to rejoice. Well, not rejoice exactly, but there are a couple of new releases definitely worth your time: John Singleton' action-thriller Shaft and Disney's animated Fantasia 2000. And, as you would imagine, the fact that they're both quite enjoyable is the only thing they have in common.

A remake of/sequel to the classic action-thriller of 1971, the new Shaft starts out on such a kinetic high that you can't believe it'll maintain that energy for its entire running length; it doesn't, unfortunately, but it does stay edgy and exciting and funny almost throughout. Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft, a smart, tough Mew York detective trying to nail racist Walter Wade (Christian Bale) for murdering a local youth; since no one is coming forth as a witness, though, the sleaze might be sprung. But there is a witness, played by Toni Collette, who has been threatened with her life if she testifies. Shaft has to find this woman, while battling fellow cops (who don't approve of his style of vigilante justice), crooked narcotics officers, Wade and his team of lawyers, and a vicious drug kingpin (Jeffrey Wright) who has his own vendetta against Shaft and would love to see him dead.

Shaft features two elements absolutely vital for an action blockbuster like this one: a kickass hero, and kickass villains. John Shaft is a Star Role, no question, and with the possible exception of Delroy Lindo, there's no one who could have done it more justice than Jackson. Jackson is so good, so often, that it's easy to underrate him, but in this role, he has such a tremendous combination of talent, looks, humor, and charisma that he's astonishing; the whole movie would fall apart without his contributions. (And as an action star, he makes wanna-bes like Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage look even wimpier than usual.) He's almost matched by the film's bad guys: Bale, doing a splendidly smarmy riff on his poor-little-rich-boy from American Psycho, and Wright, hysterically funny and surprisingly scary as Shaft's most malevolent character. (He also gets my favorite action movie cliché in the film, when he screams and sobs, "You killed my baby brother!!!")

Singleton stages the action sequences with a quick eye and lightning pacing, but unlike a blockbuster hack like Gone in 60 Seconds' Dominic Sena, you never lose track of where you are in the scene, and are always aware of what the fights and chases mean to the characters. It's a heady, thrilling ride, but it's by no means seamless; aside from the two main baddies, the sensational supporting cast (including Vanessa Williams, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Dan Hedaya, Mekhi Phifer, Philip Bosco, Josef Sommer, and the original Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) have very little to do, and the plotting gets a little convoluted once the bad guys team up. But as far as nonsensical summertime flicks go, the film works terrifically well; it's loud and pulse-quickening and frequently hilarious. It's what MI:2 should have been.

Fantasia 2000Disney's Fantasia 2000 was released earlier in the year as an IMAX event, and was obviously meant to be seen on a really big screen; the film's rush of imagery, color, and sound must have been awfully impressive in that format. On the smaller scale of local screens, some of the magic may have been lost. But that's perhaps the only really negative thing I can say about Fantasia 2000, a rich and imaginative work that should leave you in a state of utter contentment. (That may not sound like much of a compliment, but the film's soothing nature is a blessing in this ultra-loud movie summer.) The movie, of course, is an updating of the 1940 work which gives animated life to pieces of classical music, and with the exception of the still-delightful Mickey Mouse featurette "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the pieces are all different this time around. But they're still mostly wonderful, and this new Fantasia has one major advantage over the 1940 film - it's about 50 minutes shorter. Marvellous as the original often is, its running time of over two hours gets a little wearying.

Best new scenes: The Al Hirschfield-influenced "Rhapsody in Blue" segment, which says more about Depression-era New York, and says it much better, than Tim Robbins' recent, snooze-inducing Cradle Will Rock; Respighi's "Pines of Rome" as a water ballet for whales; a surprisingly strong and funny retelling of the Noah's Ark tale to "Pomp and Circumstance"; and a brief and funny flamingo dance to "Carnival of the Animals," which has some of the go-for-broke spirit of the old Tex Avery cartoons. Add to this a pricelessly funny cameo by Steve Martin (whose Itzhak Perlman gag couldn't be improved on) and the undeniable joy of listening to this great animation and watching this superior animation, and you have a sensational 75-minute feature, one that shows the Disney company is, occasionally, still able to surprise us.

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