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Movie Music

Mirthful Moulin Rouge hits the right notes


Sex, drugs and rock & roll all manage to make appearances in either one or both of this month's two best bets. As for the other new releases. . .well, not even the promise of sex, drugs or rock & roll can make these turkeys any more appetizing.

It's been noted that familiarity breeds contempt, but that maxim hardly applies when it comes to the music of our memories. Our favorite songs ­ those we were raised with, those that stir something elemental deep inside us ­ rarely outgrow their appeal, and the best of them can be counted on to lift our spirits and make us temporarily forget our present ailments. In that respect, director Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (***out of four) managed to bust our quaint notion of the movie musical wide open. The conceit behind this sumptuous picture is so simple, you wonder why filmmakers don't use it more often: Make a full-scale musical employing not some spanking new score or some Broadway toss-off, but rather a smorgasbord of beloved pop songs that have long taken up residence in our collective consciousness. Such a musical mish-mash would seem like a stunt if the movie had no emotional vibrancy, but in the case of Moulin Rouge, the central love story is palpable and believable, and it further benefits from glorious production numbers, award-worthy sets, and the casting of Ewan McGregor (never more appealing) and Nicole Kidman as, respectively, a penniless writer and the courtesan who captures his heart. Luhrmann's direction is often needlessly busy, and I suspect his often frenetic approach is the primary reason this emerged as one of the most polarizing films of last year. The Best Picture selection by the National Board of Review, as well as the recipient of a field-leading six Golden Globe nominations (tied with A Beautiful Mind), Moulin Rouge also earned its share of scathing reviews and only broke even at the box office. Then again, such rampant head-scratching may be the price to pay for a motion picture that finds its characters belting out modern pop tunes in 1899 Paris as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The beautiful two-disc DVD, advertised as "the first ever DVD created, directed and produced by the director of the film," is crammed with extra features, including audio commentaries by Luhrmann and crew members, extended scenes, countless making-of shorts, music videos for "Lady Marmalade" and "Come What May," and much more.

Thanks to Jack Valenti and his MPAA goons, the cowardice of most Hollywood studios, and the mock-prudishness of many Americans, this country's cinema has been transformed into a sterile frontier in which honest displays of sexuality are, if not outright banned, at least discouraged at every turn. The Center of the World (***), a startling departure for director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), attempts to generate an honest dialogue about the subject; the result is a welcome alternative for adults who'd like to see a film that doesn't pander to teens. Released unrated during its theatrical run rather than be hampered by the MPAA's worthless NC-17 (it arrives on video and DVD also sans rating), this takes a frank look at a relationship that has echoes to those showcased in Last Tango In Paris and Leaving Las Vegas ­ in other words, it's about two lonely people who get together and end up revealing more about themselves than they had planned. Peter Sarsgaard, one of the killers in Boys Don't Cry, stars as Richard, a computer genius whose online isolation leaves him longing for human contact; Molly Parker, the inquisitive necrophiliac in Kissed, plays Florence, a drummer who works as a stripper in order to pay the bills. Richard hires Florence to spend a weekend with him in Vegas, a situation that gets sticky when emotions start overflowing. Wang and his writers use this framework to touch upon the sense of isolation that comes with our technologically oriented world; while this is hardly a revelatory theme, it's presented in an intelligent manner that avoids degenerating into cheap sensationalism. DVD features include audio commentary by Wang and alternate endings.

Talk about the Great Divide: When Scary Movie was released during the summer of 2000, it equally split critics between those who loathed its tastelessness and those (including me) who enjoyed its letter-perfect spoofing of all those awful slasher flicks. The instant sequel Scary Movie 2 (*1/2), a no-brainer considering the original cost $19 million and grossed $156 million, didn't have to worry about causing similar discord, since everyone (critics and audiences) dumped on it. The first film may be vile and even mean-spirited, but its raunchy humor would have been right at home on the pages of Mad magazine during its vintage years; this sorry follow-up, on the other hand, is so sophomoric, only folks who find armpit noises uproarious will find themselves falling off the couch. After an 8-minute prologue that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the picture ­ it's a disgusting but modestly amusing takeoff on The Exorcist, with James Woods in a bastardization of the Max von Snydow role ­ the story proper finds a smarmy professor (Tim Curry) inviting a group of college students (including several returning cast members) to spend a weekend in a haunted house. While there, gay Ray (Shawn Wayans) turns the tables on a demonic clown, pothead Shorty (Marlon Wayans) gets smoked by a monstrous marijuana plant, and dopey Alex (Tori Spelling) gives an invisible entity a blowjob. If all this sounds rather desperate, you don't know the half of it. DVD features include a behind-the-scene short, deleted and alternate scenes, and looks at the film's special effects and makeup designs.

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