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A laugh a minute and some minute laughter

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2002


Rat Race (PG-13)

Rat Race (PG-13)

Las Vegas hotel magnate (John Cleese) arranges a cross-country chase among tourists with a $1-million prize on the line. The rats chasing that cheese include a humiliated NFL referee (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a strained mother and daughter team (Whoopi Goldberg, Lanei Chapman), Jon Lovitz as a hapless family man and assorted hustlers. Director Jerry Zucker regains his Airplane! spin with a funny series of roadblocks and double-crosses.

First impressions: "The race starts slowly until the most obvious modes of transportation are eliminated. When the contestants get cagey, Rat Race finally gets hilarious. Zucker devised ways to make me laugh that I've never seen before, gags too elaborate to describe fully, and you wouldn't want that anyway. . . It's so layered, so deftly constructed for what is basically Cannonball Run 3. Zucker and screenwriter Andrew Breckman know how to set up jokes, laying out amusing riffs that will soon dovetail into cascading call-back laughs. Pay attention to each detail, because much of it will matter later. And perhaps again after that."

Second thoughts: On your marks, get set, go to the video store.

Rental audience: Slapstick comedy fans.

Rent it if you enjoy: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Race, outtakes from Cannonball Run.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (PG-13)

Woody Allen writes another script that lets him flirt with younger female actors. This time it's Helen Hunt, Charlize Theron and Elizabeth Berkley in a 1940s screwball comedy. Allen plays insurance investigator C.W. Briggs, who gets hypnotized and becomes a jewel thief. C.W. also falls in love with his sharp-tongued rival Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) for vintage battle-of-the-sexes banter. The period setting is fine, but the jokes are stale.

First impressions: "Remember when moviegoers wished Woody Allen were funny again? Now it might be a good idea if he stopped trying . . . It's obvious that the aging filmmaker isn't creatively spry enough to make contemporary audiences laugh simply for laughter's sake . . .

"Allen's dialogue does crackle at times with the old spark, usually in C.W. and Betty Ann's rat-a-tat putdowns. It's a good script, filmed in a frustrating, static fashion that would be considered dull even when these jokes were common . . . (The film) could be viewed as another Radio Days, an affectionate look at a past era. For those concerned with the present and future, the movie is a distressing example of someone working past his prime."

Second thoughts: Allen's next film is titled Hollywood Ending. Maybe he's telling us something.

Rental audience: The Woodman's most devoted fans only.

Rent it if you enjoy: Kicking a comic genius when he's down.

DVD: New and noteworthy for digital players

Enough to sink the lost island again

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Collector's Edition)

Disney animation took an ambitious step backward with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an undersea adventure not far removed from 1954's live-action 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The studio found the right blend of mature material and gee-whiz inspiration that never quite jelled in Pocahontas, Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Michael J. Fox provides the voice of Milo Thatch, a bookish explorer searching for the sunken city of Atlantis circa World War I, on a submarine that would have impressed Jules Verne. It's an extravagant, sometimes somber and violent adventure that no live-action producer could hope to finance today, even with digital economics. The movie plays like a Saturday afternoon serial without songs, dance or cuddly sidekicks.

By the time Atlantis sailed, Shrek had already shanghaied last summer's animation audience. Without any plush toys or Radio Disney hits, Atlantis: The Lost Empire sank faster than its namesake. Now a 2-disc DVD version arrives for audiences to see what they missed. The problem is that the discs' producers want to rub our noses in all of the hard work that was overlooked before.

This is an exhausting collection featuring an abbreviated guided tour of the second disc's bonus features and that shortcut runs for two hours. The movie is only 86 minutes long. You know you're in for a long viewing session when the introduction page takes four minutes to appear, delayed by one of those faux newsreels used to waste time in amusement park queues.

Then you're led to 22 chapters detailing everything from what filmmakers Don Hahn, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were eating when they first discussed the project to lessons in how to speak the Atlantean language created for the film. Each step of design, from backgrounds to heroes to comparing sizes of vehicles, is dissected with the homogenized pride marking any Disney hype. Much of the data is repeated by the filmmakers on their audio commentary. These folks should draw themselves extra arms to handle all of that back-patting.

Only one of the four deleted scenes is completely animated, the abandoned prologue featuring Vikings and the Leviathan sea creature that appears later. Three others are merely flash-card storyboards with impact so slight that they're needless. Squid bats and lava whales aren't cool when they're just sketched. The overall effect of such extras is like pulling back the curtain too far, draining every ounce of amazement from the movie's modest entertainment value.

Rewind: Videos worth another look

Movie treasures from the Goldwyn age

Samuel Goldwyn wasn't a guy many people loved, but almost everybody agrees that he could turn out a winning movie.

* * *

Legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn died of heart failure on this date in 1974, and somebody in Hollywood was probably glad. Goldwyn, 91, was the prototype for manipulative movie producers immortalized in backlot melodramas, a huckster in silk suits with a temper hot as his cigar embers. You could count his enemies on all of the fingers and toes he stepped on heading for the top.

People had a lot of names for Goldwyn. He had nearly as many for himself. Goldwyn was Shmuel Gelbfisz at birth in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto in 1882. That name was Anglicized to Samuel Goldfish when he emigrated to England, then the United States in 1898, where he convinced an actor named Cecil B. DeMille to try the newfangled process of motion pictures. Their film The Squaw Man (1914) was one of the first feature-length films, and the partnership evolved into Paramount Pictures.

Goldfish teamed with the Selwyn brothers for a production studio, combining their surnames into Goldwyn for the company name. Samuel liked it so much that he adopted it as his own. The company later became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, although Goldwyn was ousted during the merger process. He became an independent producer, possibly because, as an Internet Movie Database biography states: "None of his partners could tolerate him for long."

Audiences, however, knew Goldwyn's name on a movie poster guaranteed the brightest stars and stories. Here are a few of his 90 film credits as a Hollywood mover and shaker behind the scenes:

The Best Years of Our Lives -- Returning World War II veterans (Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Oscar winner Harold Russell) uneasily adjust to civilian life. Tough social commentary with victory flags still waving.

The Pride of the Yankees -- Gary Cooper was never better than he is here, playing baseball ironman Lou Gehrig. Audiences considered themselves the luckiest people on the face of the earth.

The Little Foxes -- Lillian Hellman's tale of Deep South deceit provided a classically nasty role for Bette Davis as a scheming belle. Eight Oscar nominations in 1941, the year of Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley.

Wuthering Heights -- Reach only for the 1939 version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as the star-crossed lovers in Emily Bronte's depressing romance. Accept no substitutes.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -- Danny Kaye is as delightful as usual as a daydreamer who lands in a real-world adventure involving spies and stolen jewels. That is, after some hilarious fantasies as a surgeon, war hero, sea captain and cowboy.

Guys and Dolls -- Brando sings! Badly perhaps, but he sings! Damon Runyon's tale of gamblers, molls and a Salvation Army savior is filled with great tunes including Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat.

The Bishop's Wife -- An urbane angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) visits Earth to assist fundraising for a new church. David Niven plays the worried bishop wondering if Dudley is replacing him in the hearts of his flock and his wife (Loretta Young).

Dodsworth -- A retired tycoon (Walter Huston) and his wife (Fran Chatterton) take an overdue second honeymoon in Paris, where they find other companionship. Unusually frank for 1937, earning Goldwyn his first Oscar nomination for best picture.

Dead End -- Another best-picture Oscar nomination for Goldwyn, a 1938 potboiler with Humphrey Bogart as a gangster influencing the Dead End Kids.

Porgy and Bess -- Goldwyn's final production credit was this well-intended but vaguely racist 1959 musical starring Sidney Poitier and dazzling Dorothy Dandridge. Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey steal the show.

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