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Calling all cults 

‘Scanner’ gorgeous, but flawed; ‘Strangers With Candy’ loses flavor in feature-length form.

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You really can’t argue with the fact that “A Scanner Darkly” is a beautiful film to look at. Swimming with muted colors, the film has been rendered — through the magic of computer technology — into a living, moving comic book. I’m not even being metaphorical here: The characters, while perfectly recognizable (if slightly has-been) stars, look as if they were drawn on the screen by a talented 14-year-old with a handful of markers.
As we learned with last year’s “Sin City,” however, no amount of fancy footwork in the rendering room can make up for a crummy plot. While “Scanner” is lovely, the plot meanders all over the place -— equal parts futuristic police procedural, undercover cop drama, and “Cheech and Chong”-grade drug comedy. While it’s almost sure to become a cult favorite for no other reason than its pretty colors might be cool to look at while stoned, the result for those without the benefit of pharmaceutical help is a film that never quite clicks.
Based on a story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, “Scanner” is the story of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop in a future (though not so futuristic) Orange County, Calif. In this future world, the populace is uber-surveilled, watched at all times by thousands of cameras, sensors and information-detection devices (the scanners of “Scanner”) that record every nuance of their lives. What Arctor’s superiors don’t know, however, is that he has long since become addicted to Substance D, a powerful drug that can cause profound brain damage if used long term. When caught, D-users are sent off to a mysterious, cult-like treatment facility called New Path. After his wife and family leave him, Arctor moves a group of Substance D burnouts into his house, ostensibly as part of his undercover work. From there, as Arctor’s brain and sanity deteriorate, and his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) tries to hold him together, “Scanner” only gets weirder.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some fine performances here — most notably Robert Downey Jr.’s as a D-addict trying to cut a deal with the cops. Even Keanu does fairly well. The problem is that “Scanner” simply can’t decide what it wants to be. One moment, you’re watching junkies riff on pop culture, and the next moment you’re listening to neurologists talk about split-brain syndrome.
If it weren’t for the fancy look of the thing, “Scanner” would be as immediately forgettable as a sitcom episode. Sad to say, but after a promising beginning, it ends up as addled as its characters.

Not that sweet
“Strangers With Candy,” opening Friday at Market Street Cinema, has the look of a sure-fire cult favorite, and maybe a larger following than most cult films. There are people, including Comedy Central regulars, who are going to be drawn to it like a kid to candy. We’re just not one of them.
The Amy Sedaris vehicle, with Comedy Central alumni Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello also writing and starring (and Dinello directing), apparently works on that network as a half-hour sitcom, or at least it did back in 1999-2000. As a feature-length film, and geared to more than just its sitcom following, it would seem that at best an acquired taste is called for.
Sedaris is just downright irritating as Jerri Blank, a 40-something ex-con with a disturbing overbite who returns home to find her father in a 32-year coma, brought on by grief over Jerri being carted off to prison. Dad (Dan Heyada) somehow also has a new wife, who is keeping company with the local meat man. Jerri’s jerk stepbrother has aspirations to make the high school squat team.
Jerri’s arrival seems to slightly stir Dad, and his doctor (Ian Holm in a good performance) suggests that Jerri could further roust Dad from his coma if she achieved something in her life. So, she decides to pick up where her life outside prison left off, in high school.
The film “Strangers With Candy” is a “prequel” to the series, which spoofed the “After School Specials.” Colbert’s Mr. Noblet is the school science teacher who has a wife and child but is having an affair with the spacey art teacher (Dinello). Principal Onyx Blackman (yes, he is, and is played by Greg Hollimon) must show two school board members (Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) that his high school is deserving of the school funds he’s apparently embezelled over the years and can’t pay back even if he tried (Blackman also has a history with Janney’s character, which irks Hoffman’s character). The answer is success in the state science fair, so Blackman has Noblet field a team that also must include Jerri, but he hedges his bet by bringing in multi-winning science fair champ Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) to put on his stylish song-and-dance entry with prettier students from the science class (look for better things from Elisabeth Harnois, one of Jerri’s student rivals).
The occasional funny lines are offset by triple the number of simply stupid moments. Sedaris’ physical comedy with athletic stud Brason (Chris Pratt), when she attempts to seduce him while he’s trying to steal her science fair team’s superconductor plans, is probably the film’s funniest moment.
With so much going for it -– the Comedy Central crew, David Letterman’s Widespread Pants production team, and guest stars Janney, Hoffman, Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker as the school’s grief counselor, we expected so much more. Instead, it felt like watching the painful “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion” or the slightly better “Sordid Lives,” which has its cult following, too.
Devoted fans of the sitcom and movie will say it’s a smart and subtle comedy that’s too much over the heads of the masses, but we’re not willing to watch it a few more times to, as they say, get it. You’ll find “Talladega Nights,” while at times is also quite insipid, to be much more funny. But hey, you might be among the small group for whom “Strangers With Candy” hits home. We expect to find it screened regularly late at night on Comedy Central, right there with the uncensored Pamela Anderson roast.
— Jim Harris


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