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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 11

#59 - #61
September 27, 1996 - October 10, 1996


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

S U B S C R I B E

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#61 October 10, 1996

M O V I E S

That Thing You Do! poster That Thing You Do! (PG) *** event pix
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Tom Hanks's screenwriting and directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, has all the qualities you would associate with the most beloved screen actor of the moment: fun, lively, and oh-so-nice. It is the latter quality, however, that becomes a hindrance, for this '60s nostalgia trifle is so nice and sweet that it teeters on becoming bland milquetoast.

That Thing focuses on the Wonders, a teen rock band from Erie, Pennsylvania that is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight in 1964 when they score a major dance hit called, of course, "That Thing You Do!" The group's members are, naturally a diverse group: there's brooding lead singer and songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech); girl-crazy Lenny (Steve Zahn), the lead guitarist; a goofy, geeky type known only as The Bass Player (Ethan Embry); and the film's center, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer who has aspirations in jazz. Along for the Wonders' ride to success is Jimmy's perpetually neglected galpal, Faye (Liv Tyler).

Hanks proves to be a capable writer-director, deftly recreating the innocent spirit of 1964, which Hanks calls "the last innocent year." The spirit is not only reflected in the period clothes and settings but also in the music, which, like the other recent period music film, Grace of My Heart, was expressly written for the film; Hanks himself had a hand in writing four of the tunes--but not the infectious title cut by Adam Schlesinger, which is guaranteed to stay in your head long after the end credits have rolled (it's still playing in my mind as I write this). It should come as no surprise that Hanks the director works well with the actors, eliciting charming, likable work from the entire cast, most notably Hanks lookalike Scott and Tyler, who is remarkable in delivering the film's biggest and best dramatic moment. The work of the young ensemble is so natural that they truly convince as teens of the early '60s; they do not appear to be '90s grungers playacting "retro."

Yet for all the light, frothy charms of That Thing You Do!, it's nearly nice to a fault. While this unbridled innocence in film is a refreshing change from all the sinful cinema around these days, there is not enough conflict to keep things consistently interesting. Everyone is so happy, basking in the glow of overnight success, marvelling at it all--except toward the end, but even then the tone quickly reverts to sweetness, ending on an appropriately feel-good note. There isn't much of an edge throughout That Thing--the only thing that is remotely edgy is Hanks's turn as the Wonders' manager--and thus becomes in danger of being so nice it's bland.

But a little niceness goes a long way these days, and there's no denying the entertainment value of That Thing You Do!; it's just about impossible to hate. It's an inoffensive, enjoyable piece of nostalgia that is sure to leave audiences smiling and humming, if not singing, "That Thing You Do!"--quite possibly for days. To paraphrase a passage from the song:
Though I try and try to forget that song
It is just so hard to do
Every time they play "That Thing You Do!"


In Brief

The Ghost and the Darkness poster The Ghost and the Darkness (R) ***
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After the inexplicably phenomenal success of the piece of cinematic sewage known as Congo, it was only a matter of time before Paramount came out with another "killer-animals-in-the-African-wilderness" adventure. I am happy to say that Stephen Hopkins's film is nowhere nearly as junky as that disastrous Michael Crichton adaptation; in fact, it is quite a suspenseful tale. The story, based on actual events, centers on a British Army engineer (Val Kilmer) whose railroad bridge building project in 1898 Africa becomes endangered when two lions (dubbed the Ghost and the Darkness, natch) start feasting on the work crew. Kilmer then teams with globetrotting hunter Michael Douglas to hunt down the wild beasts.

Unlike Hopkins's last effort, the abysmal action bore Blown Away, he creates some exciting and suspenseful moments due in no small part to the very impressive lion animatronic effects by effects whiz Stan Winston; I defy anyone to figure out which lions are real and which are not. Contributing greatly to the atmosphere is Vilmos Zsigmond's stunning photography. Douglas and Kilmer are also in fine form though they struggle with accents; Douglas sports an intermittent, inconsistent Southern drawl while Kilmer boasts a wavering Irish accent, which, coincidentally (?), was a big problem with Blown Away. The Ghost and the Darkness takes a while to get going, but when it finally does, it effectively wipes out the lion's cuddly image from The Lion King and reinstates its rep as the fearsome king of the jungle.


The Glimmer Man poster BUY THE: Poster! | DVD! | VHS! | Soundtrack!
Steven Seagal's latest action opus finds Mr. Ponytail trying to stretch somewhat... and breaking under the strain. Seagal tries out a few new martial arts moves (not bad); attempts to become a deadpan comedian à la Arnold Schwarzenegger (painful); and even makes a stab at conveying emotion in his face. His labored attempts at sad expressions more closely resemble severe constipation than sadness. The "plot" is an odd mishmash of a typical Seagal vehicle, Lethal Weapon, and Se7en, with a wisecracking Keenen Ivory Wayans teaming up with Seagal to catch a serial killer. The energetic Wayans keeps this boat from drifting into the waters of boredom; he's so much more interesting, lively, and fun than Seagal you wish that he were the star of the film. Director John Gray fails to distinguish himself from the other music video and commercial vets, relying heavily on what has now become cliche--rapid edits, a perpetually moving camera, and superslick visuals. While that is not a problem in itself, it becomes one when the fight scenes are so heavily edited that it's hard to follow the action. Glimmer should be just that--a flash in the box office pan that quickly vanishes without a trace.


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#60 October 3, 1996

M O V I E S

Bound poster Bound (R) ****
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On paper, the noir thriller Bound did not seem like the most promising of cinematic prospects. Writers-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski's only other major credit was for writing Richard Donner's entertaining but overblown Assassins; lead Jennifer Tilly has a tendency to be grating, to say the least; and co-star Gina Gershon was just coming off her overwrought camp bitch turn in Showgirls. But thanks to a clever and funny script, strong performances, and very accomplished and intelligent direction, Bound is one of the year's biggest surprises.

I thought my low expectations were being met during the film's first twenty minutes, in which mafia moll Violet (Tilly) tries to seduce the lesbian grease monkey ex-con (Gershon) next door. With Tilly delivering her come-hither lines in an even softer, squeakier voice than usual and Gershon's Corky keeping one eyebrow perpetually raised, these opening scenes play like Showgirls 2; in fact, some of the dialogue is reminiscent of the infamous "tit" discussion scene in Joe Eszterhas's notorious script. Needless to say, Violet and Corky finally do end up in bed, and the big sex scene is actually done very discreetly and tastefully though it still elicited some giggles from the audience.

These opening moments are something of a joke. It's as if the Wachowskis knew expactly what the audience was expecting--cheesy lesbian sex--so they delivered it in all its campy glory. But in doing so, it gets that lesbian angle out of the way quickly, so when the main plot does get into gear, the audience is not distracted by the anticipation of the big sex scene. As laughable as the opening minutes are, they are key to understanding the relationship between the two women, and they take on a greater dimension in retrospect as the movie unfolds.

After the sex scene, the tone quickly shifts, and the main plot is set into motion. Violet, fed up with the violent antics of her boyfriend, mob launderer (figuratively and, in one hilarious scene, literally) Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano), wants to leave him--but not without absconding with $2,000,000 of the mob's cash. And who does she enlist to help her in her scheme? Why, none other than Corky, who cooks up a "foolproof" plan to steal the cash and frame Ceasar for the theft. However, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men...

This all sounds fairly formulaic, and, to a certain extent, it is. But what makes Bound so special is the work of the Wachowski brothers. Their script piles on twist after twist and close call after close call, and the developments are very believable and not out of left field. For example, in a particularly suspenseful scene, a mob figure (John P. Ryan) breaks out a set of lockpicks to open a locked case, much to the shock of Ceasar; this revelation does not come off as gimmicky because, earlier, he nonchalantly unlocked a door without a key. The Wachowskis pay close attention to those little details, ones that the audience does not typically pick up on, using them to rattle the audience later on without insulting their intelligence.

Another refreshing aspect of the script is the presence of three strong and intelligent characters. At first, it appears as if Corky is the only one with brains, but as the film progresses Violet and especially Ceasar prove to be not nearly as dumb as they appear, giving just as good as they get. The casting of Tilly and Pantoliano is perfect; Tilly's squeaky voice and Pantoliano's New Jersey accent and buffoonish demeanor would make it easy for someone to underestimate them.

As well-crafted as their script is, the Wachowskis energize it with a hefty dose of style. The film is always visually interesting, using varieties of camera angles and movements, occasionally venturing into slow-mo without overusing it. One of their more interesting touches is aping certain visual cues from other films and putting their own twisted spin on them: Jurassic Park's famous image of quivering water is duplicated--in a toilet bowl; and the bravura opening shot of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, which travels along long-distance telephone lines, is evoked in a creative and witty way. Unlike some directors, who go for the good-looking shot, plot credibility be damned, the Wachowskis come up with some stunners that work well within the story, such as when a person gets shot while standing in a pool of white paint, eventually falling in. It's a great-looking image, with the blood clashing against the white, but the presence of the paint is explained by the fact that, earlier in the film, Corky is shown painting her apartment.

Bound has just come off of a tour of various film festivals, becoming an audience favorite at every one of them. As it embarks on its run in theatres, I am sure it will become a favorite of anyone fortunate enough to be sitting in the auditorium.


Curdled poster 2 days in the Valley poster Curdled (R) **
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2 days in the Valley (R) **
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Those looking for evidence that Quentin Tarantino is the most influential filmmaker of the moment need look no further than not one, but two recent releases, the macabre comedy Curdled and the ensemble comedy-thriller 2 days in the Valley. Pairing black humor with bloody violence, both attempt to duplicate, to paraphrase the Coens' Barton Fink, "that Tarantino feeling"... and come up short.

Tarantino himself executive produced Reb Braddock's Curdled, based on his short of the same name. The film centers on Gabriela (Angela Jones), a Miami woman who has a had a fixation on death since she was a little girl in her native Colombia--she even keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders, drawing depictions of the crimes next to each article. When she sees a TV ad recruiting people for a company that cleans up after murder scenes, she knows she's found her calling and immediately signs up. Of course, her new job puts her into contact with danger, namely one Paul Guell (William Baldwin), a.k.a. the Blue Blood killer, who stabs and beheads women from Miami's upper social echelon. It also just so happens that Paul's murder spree is Gabriela's latest morbid obsession.

The plot is enough to sustain 28 minutes, which is how long the original Curdled short lasted. Stretched out to a little over 90, the thinness of the premise is all too evident; a number of scenes and characters feel like padding, and the movie doesn't kick into full gear until the last act, when Gabriela and Paul finally meet. And for a black comedy, writers Braddock and John Maass are a little too heavy on the "black" and too light on the "comedy." While the entire package is amusing and never boring (look out for the connections to From Dusk till Dawn), real laughs are few and far-between; however, the film never skimps in terms of blood, the letting and collection of it. The wallowing in gore is more sensational and exploitative than anything else, and it is bound to turn off many a moviegoer. I suppose Braddock was trying to get under people's skin, but the subtler moments, like Gabriela's haunting retrace-the-steps-of-the-murder-victim dance, are more disturbing and funny than, say, the gruesome finale, which comes equipped with a joke that's more cheesy than hilarious.

The performances are a mixed bag. Jones and her fascinating character of Gabriela (of which she played a variation in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction) are by far the best thing the film has going for it. Gabriela is an interesting paradox--a woman who always wears dresses and speaks in soft, accented, little girl tones but on the inside is far from an innocent. Baldwin, on the other hand, picks up where he left off in the awful Fair Game, relying on a single facial expression to convey certain characteristics. In Fair Game, Baldwin made his eyes bulge and gritted his teeth to convey toughness; here, he constantly makes his upper lip curl to signify evil. Mel Gorham is quite good as Gabriela's all-business cleaning partner, and MTV personality Daisy Fuentes makes her acting debut as another co-worker, but her role is so minute that it's still not clear whether she can really act or not.

Strong performances are about all there is to second-time writer-director John Herzfeld's 2 days in the Valley, an interesting but none-too-funny ensemble piece. Herzfeld's knotty scenario has a murder in California's San Fernando Valley link ten diverse characters: an Olympic skier (Teri Hatcher); a no-nonsense hitman (James Spader); his icy Swedish girlfriend (Charlize Theron); a past-his-prime hitman (Danny Aiello) deathly afraid of dogs; an effete British art dealer (Greg Cruttwell); his put-upon assistant (Glenne Headly); his nurse half-sister (Marsha Mason); a has-been TV director (Paul Mazursky); and two vice cops (Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels).

Actually, I should say nine characters, for Daniels's racist cop disappears midway through the action and thus has really nothing to do with anything. Aside from his anomalous presence, Herzfeld does find interesting and creative ways to link these characters. But structure isn't everything to a picture, especially not a comedy, and 2 days's slapstick farce is more labored and silly than funny despite some high points (the vicious brawl between Hatcher and Theron being the highest). With his wide assortment of oddball characters and flashes of violence, Herzfeld was obviously shooting for a mix of Tarantino and Robert Altman--Pulp Fiction meets Short Cuts, to use the popular comparison. The film does come off as a Tarantino/Altman hybrid, but it's more like Four Rooms meets Prêt-à-Porter.

So just what does the mediocrity of the Tarantino-inspired Curdled and 2 days mean? Quentin, get thee back behind the camera--quick.


In Brief

Extreme Measures poster Extreme Measures (R) **
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In his first Hollywood dramatic role, Hugh Grant plays Dr. Guy Luthan, an earnest New York E.R. doctor who stumbles upon the surgical experiments of a brilliant medical researcher (Gene Hackman, in a shockingly small role) after a homeless patient mysteriously dies on his table. Michael Apted's film tries to be a both a medical thriller and morality play, and it doesn't quite deliver in both departments. There is no real excitement nor suspense to the at times slow piece, and the ethical arguments it wants to make are only addressed near the end, and even then the issues are rushed through. Grant proves to be a capable dramatic actor and likable, intelligent hero, but he's called on to take part in some preposterous scenes, like wandering through dark tunnels to locate a community of homeless people that lives underground. Don't ask. Don't see.


V I D E O

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie poster Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (PG-13) *** 1/2
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In adapting a popular television series to the big screen, one must be careful not to stray too far from the source material so as not to offend the die hard fans, which is exactly what this past summer's TV-inspired hit Mission: Impossible managed to do with a single plot twist. Fans of the cult cable series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MSTies, as they are called) need not worry, for in the trip from small screen to big, virtually all of what made the show so smart and funny has emerged unscathed.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basis of the show, the premise is simple yet brilliant: mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) holds average joe temp worker Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) captive in a satellite in space and forces him to watch some of the worst movies imaginable. This thin plot is really just a setup for the heart of the show, in which Mike and his two robot friends, Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) crack wise at the screen, gleefully saving every awful detail of every awful movie. This time around the target is the 1955 piece of sci-fi cheese This Island Earth, in which an alien race of creatures with large heads try to take over earth.

MST3K: The Movie is just like any other episode, and that's why it works so well. The makers of the film--producer-director Jim Mallon, writers Nelson, Beaulieu, Murphy, Mallon, Mary Jo Pehl, Bridget Jones, and Paul Chaplin--are also the crew behind the show, and they wisely didn't go overly big-budget Hollywood with the film. While the sets are more sturdy and elaborate, and the wires that control the robot puppets have been digitally erased, as a whole the film retains the low-budget charm of the source material. The look of the film is fairly irrelevant, since the true "star" of MST3K has always been the writing, and there are far more than a few good quips here though the commentary is slightly more crude than usual, with an occasional profane word here or there (shame on you, Tom Servo). Some critics have knocked MST3K: TM for cutting away from the movie within a movie for sketches involving the cast, but I like their inclusion here, for the film wouldn't truly be MST3K without the interludes with Mike, Crow, and Servo on the Satellite of Love.

I do have a couple of bones to pick with MST3K: TM, but this is mostly due to my being a MSTie (#70623, to be exact). The bouncy opening theme song, which very succinctly and wittily sets up the story, is sorely missed, as is the presence of a few players from the television series. Dr. Forrester is as wacky and fun as ever, but the character works better with his dimwitted assistant, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), who left the series after the sixth season. Michael J. Nelson is a very capable and likable lead, but I always preferred the more dry, acerbic presence of original host (and series creator) Joel Hodgson. Gypsy (Mallon), the robot who pilots the SOL, is thankfully given a greater presence in the film, but it doesn't make up for the absence of Cambot (which shot the TV show) or the amorphous Magic Voice. These two never really played a major part of the show, but it just isn't quite the same without them.

The biggest problem of MST3K: TM, in my opinion, is that This Island Earth, while certainly cheesy and ripe for ripping, isn't as prime cannon fodder as some of the true dreck the threesome tackled in the television series. Mike and the 'bots still have more than enough to work with in This Island Earth, but since the film isn't that awful, MST3K: TM doesn't measure up with some the funniest episodes of the series, such as ones in which they rip the so-bad-it's-good 1975 Joe Don Baker action yarn Mitchell or, my personal favorite, Pod People, a disjointed, laughably inept '80s E.T. ripoff.

The appeal of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie will probably fly over the heads of a lot of people--after all, watching three guys making wisecracks about a bad movie may seem like dubious entertainment for some--but it is a fast (only 74 minutes) and very funny treat that will go a long way in converting those who do get it into new MSTies. (MCA/Universal Home Video)


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#59 September 27, 1996

M O V I E S
In Brief

Last Man Standing poster Last Man Standing (R) ** event pix
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Walter Hill's reworking of Akira Kurosawa's darkly funny 1961 samurai tale Yojimbo is tough film to sit through. While a certain amount of skill went into the making of this tale of a gun-for-hire (Bruce Willis) who constantly shifts loyalties with two warring smugglers in Prohibition-era Texas--notably some well-choreographed gunfights and respectable performances--the film is so humorless and downbeat that it is virtually impossible for anyone to enjoy it. There is no relief from the drab atmosphere: Lloyd Ahern's cinematography is dusty and free of gloss; Ry Cooder's haunting score is dark and ominous; even Willis's voiceover narration is spoken in a detached, somnambulist drone. For all the gunplay and assorted violence in Last Man, there is nothing between the action scenes to engage the audience; none of the flat background characters make any impression, and Willis's central character is a cipher. The dark humor of Kurosawa's original, which made that film so much fun, is sorely missed in this unremarkable remake.


V I D E O

The Bride with White Hair poster The Bride with White Hair ****
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This wildly imaginative 1993 Hong Kong period epic tells the sad tale of forbidden love between the top martial artist (Leslie Cheung of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow) of a powerful clan alliance and the wolf-raised killing machine (Chungking Express's Brigitte Lin in a ferocious, heartbreaking performance) employed by a sinister cult. Unlike most HK actioners, the focus is on the rich characters and moving story. However, this is not to say that Bride falls short in terms of action; director Ronny Yu packs in many electrifying--and bloody--martial arts sequences between the effective dramatic scenes. Tai Seng Video wisely gave this monster HK hit a deluxe treatment: the tape includes a "making of" featurette and the original theatrical trailer, and the feature is letterboxed, with the subtitles on the bottom black bar so as not to obstruct Peter Pao's exquisite cinematography. All the better to appreciate this visually stunning and emotionally satisfying action masterpiece. (Tai Seng Video)


Mr. Wrong poster Mr. Wrong (PG-13) no stars
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TV's charming and funny Ellen DeGeneres made her big-screen leap--make that "dive"--in this most uncharming and unfunny black comedy. Single, thirtysomething DeGeneres thinks she's found her Mr. Right in Bill Pullman, but before long he starts showing his ugly, obsessive side--which is when the film turns ugly and more bizarre and unfunny by the second. DeGeneres tries her best, but she can't energize the weak material; the usually understated Pullman, however, is more in line with the rest of the cast and crew, hamming it up to wretched effect, striving for outrageousness but coming off amateurish. I'm sure a good comedy can be made with this premise, but after the one-two punch of this and Martin Lawrence's A Thin Line Between Love & Hate, moviegoers will just have to wait. (Touchstone Home Video)


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