101 Dalmatians (G) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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Part vamp, part tramp, and all camp, Glenn Close's wonderfully
wicked turn as the ultimate Disney diva, Cruella DeVil, powers 101
Dalmatians, the studio's new live-action version of its beloved 1961
animated feature. Problem is, unless you are age 10 or under, there is
little else to hold your attention for the entire 98 minutes.
Producer-screenwriter John Hughes and director Stephen Herek's take
on the tale of the fur-loving DeVil, the spotted puppies from whose coats
she wants to make herself a coat, and the married owners (Jeff Daniels and
Joely Richardson) of the dalmatian parents Pongo and Perdy is actually quite
faithful to the original animated feature. Viewers familiar with that
version will be pleased with how well some scenes survived the
cartoon-to-live-action translation, such as Perdy's stressful delivery of
her 15 puppies and the apparent stillbirth and ultimate revival of the pup
Lucky. While the dogs and other animals do not talk this time around, the
communication between the animals does come through and is easily
understood. The "twilight bark," where Pongo barks into the night sky to
summon other animals to search for his and Perdy's stolen puppies, still
makes for a striking scene without the spoken exposition that frames it.
And Close's Cruella matches her animated counterpart's nastiness and then
some; her hilariously over-the-top turn is sure to influence drag queens
Hughes and Herek's failure, however, lies in their incessant
indulgence in broad slapstick, which comes off as labored and not especially
funny. The scene where Daniels's Roger and Richardson's Anita first meet in
the park is cheapened by too many pratfalls and dives into water. Also, the
puppies' big escape from their barn prison has been needlessly punched up by
Home Alone-type slapstick involving the two dognappers, Jasper (Hugh
Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams). Herek not only tries evoke that fluke
Macaulay Culkin phenomenon through the cartoony violence, but also through the duo's appearance--Jasper sports a beard and curly hair à la Daniel Stern's
bumbling burglar, and Horace is a shorter, heavier fellow wearing a hat not
unlike Joe Pesci. Worst of all, the slapstick gives Close the short end of
the stick, for in the end Cruella's campy edge takes a back seat to the
physical punishment she takes from the animals--having a boar fall on her,
being dumped in mud and molasses, etc.
Nonetheless, the film entertained the kids at the big critics'
screening, and I'm sure children around the world will have fun with 101
Dalmatians, which is exactly what the folks at Disney had in mind. But with
the preordained success of this underachieving animation-to-live-action
translation, this Disney animation fan cannot help but worry about what
possibly ruinous adaptation ideas the studio has in mind for its other
The English Patient (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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All across the country critics and sell-out crowds have been going
ga-ga over Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's complex
WWII-set novel, and it's easy to see why. This highly passionate and moving
drama centers on a severely burned, amnesiac pilot (Ralph Fiennes), who,
through, a series of flashbacks, puts together the pieces of his past, in
particular his intense love affair with a married woman (Kristin Scott
Thomas). This love story plays against one blossoming between the pilot's
French Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche) and an Indian bomb and mine defuser
(Naveen Andrews). The film last a little over 160 minutes and takes its
time answering its own narrative questions, but one is completely captivated
throughout the entire film, thanks in no small part to the excellent
performances, the sizzling chemistry between Fiennes and Scott Thomas, and
the all-consuming passion and conviction of its story. This very impressive
achievement for all involved is sure to be an Oscar contender next
Jingle All the Way (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
If it weren't for the credits "A Brian Levant Film" and "Directed by
Brian Levant," one would be certain that the director behind this family
comedy was Home Alone's Chris Columbus, for its wall-to-wall
slapstick sure bears the Columbus stamp (he actually only produced). If you know what I'm
talking about, then you know all you really need to know about this tale of
two stressed-out fathers (Arnold Schwarzenegger and a scene-stealing Sinbad)
trying to find the hottest action figure of the season, Turbo Man, on
Christmas Eve to give to their respective sons. The first hour is what you
would expect from a Columbus production, with cartoony fights, lots of stuff
being knocked down and tripped over, and ceaseless mugging (which, needless
to say, is not Schwarzenegger's strong suit). What keeps this kidpleaser
from being completely tired is the surprising special effects-laden final
act. No point in blowing the specifics, but this film's closing twenty
minutes or so are more funny and entertaining than the hour which precedes
it. Only a must-see for Arnold fanatics and fans of that broad,
oh-so-Columbus-y brand of slapstick.
Star Trek: First Contact (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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Anyone familiar with the series of Star Trek movies knows of the
"even-odd pattern"--the even-numbered installments of the series are good
while the odd-numbered ones are, well, not-so-good. The pattern continues
with the new Star Trek: First Contact, an energetic sci-fi adventure that
(coincidentally?) is the eighth entry in the hugely popular series.
In this first Trek feature to feature only cast members from the
late Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, Captain Jean-Luc
Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the rest of the 24th-century crew of the
Starship Enterprise--Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who also
directed), android Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner), Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge
(LeVar Burton), Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates
McFadden), and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis)--travel back to
21st-century earth while doing battle with the Borg, a race of cybernetic
beings that share a collective mind with the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). The
Borg intend to alter history and assimilate all of humankind into their
race--starting with the earth-orbiting crew of the Enterprise and a 21st
century stowaway (Alfre Woodard).
This is an interesting plotline that is sure to mesmerize Trekkers
everywhere and engage everyone else, but, unfortunately, it only makes up
the Star Trek half of the script by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. The
other half of the title--First Contact--refers to a subplot that takes place
on 21st-century earth, where Riker, Troi, and LaForge meet legendary
scientist Zephram Cochran (James Cromwell), who is about to embark on the
first warp speed flight in human history, which directly leads to the first
contact with extraterrestrials. While this story does tie into the main
plot and pays off interestingly in the end, it is nowhere near as involving
or exciting as the Borg battles on the Enterprise. Not helping matters is
the tiresome Cochran character, an eccentric whose drunken schtick starts
out funny but becomes too one-note after a while.
In the end, though, the First Contact subplot doesn't detract from
the enjoyment of the film as a whole. The story is typical sci-fi fantasy,
but the conviction of the cast--most notably the always-phenomenal
Stewart--makes you believe and care. Frakes, making his feature directorial
debut, keeps the action swiftly rolling along and delivers the action goods,
even upping the violence a notch (this is the first Trek film to bear a
PG-13 rating) to greater effect. ST:FC has a bigger budget than the last
Trek outing, the middling Star Trek Generations, and it definitely shows on screen--the production design and especially visual and makeup effects are
outstanding (in particular those involving the Borg Queen). Braga and
Moore's mostly sharp script will please both Trek devotees and the rest; the
references to the Borg storyline in the TV series, the continuity with the
previous film (e.g. the ongoing saga of Data's emotion chip), and a fleeting
Star Trek: Voyager crossover will make Trekkers squeal with delight, but
such points are made easily accessible to those less familiar to the Trek
Paramount was reportedly worried about the staying power of its Trek
franchise with the Next Generation cast now carrying the helm. Based on the
entertaining success that is Star Trek: First Contact, I'd say the studio
has nothing to worry about (at least not until this cast retires and the
crew of the wan Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes over...).
The War at Home (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Director-star Emilio Estevez's Vietnam vet drama is a mess, pure and
simple. In this adaptation of James Duff's play Homefront (Duff also wrote
the screenplay), Estevez plays an embittered vet who comes home to his
family in 1972 Texas; his tensions with the family form the center of the
film. Kathy Bates is fabulous as Estevez's histrionic nag of a mother, and
Martin Sheen and Kimberly Williams also shine as Estevez's father and
sister, respectively. The root of the film's troubles? Estevez himself, both in front of
and behind the camera. As an actor, Estevez doesn't have the range to pull
off the emotional fluctuations of the character; the fact that he is also
not the warmest presence onscreen makes it hard to care about his central
character. The even greater problems lie in his direction. The tone of the
piece is completely confused; most of the scenes of familial tension and
arguing play as farce, and at the drop of a hat the music changes, people
start yelling and crying, and everything is played in earnest. Sometimes
the tones overlap--in one dramatic moment, an upset Bates yells at and slaps
Estevez, and suddenly Sheen brings up the subject of stolen peanut
brittle--and the audience isn't sure exactly how to feel, whether to cry or
laugh. In the end, I don't know if anyone will know exactly what emotional
reaction Estevez was going after; I sure didn't.
Big Night (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
As they always say, less is more. Actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell
Scott make a highly auspicious directorial debut with this simple and
bittersweet tale of two struggling Italian-American restaurateur brothers
(Tucci and Wings's Tony Shalhoub) who sink all their remaining money and
energy into a "big night" that could either save their business or kill it
once and for all. Tucci and Shalhoub share a very convincing and touching
rapport as the brothers, heading an impressive ensemble that doesn't
disappoint--Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, and, in a small
role, Scott. As in all food movies, there's an elaborate feast scene, and
the big night of Big Night delivers the goods and then some; I can't imagine
anyone not yearning for some good Italian food after watching this movie.
The final scene is a true marvel--a long, single take that most impressively
speaks volumes with nary a word spoken. A great achievement for Tucci (who
also co-wrote), Scott, co-writer Joseph Tropiano, and all else involved.
Lone Star (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
OK, I'm very behind in seeing this one, but better late than never.
John Sayles's complex Texas saga is a mystery, but not just in the typical
sense. While the main plot revolves around a small town sheriff Sam Deeds's
(Chris Cooper) investigation into the murder of a hated, feared sheriff
(Kris Kristofferson, effectively slimy) some thirty years ago, the film is
also about the mystery of people in general--the secrets that shape people
into who they are, those past events that shape one's existence. Like
Sayles's City of Hope, Lone Star follows a number of interlocking characters
and storylines, from the aforementioned investigation, Sam's resentment of
his deceased father (Matthew McConaughey in a small flashback role), and his
romance with a schoolteacher (Elizabeth Pena) to her own strained
relationship with her mother (Miriam Colon) and the troubled family
relations of an army colonel (Joe Morton). Well over two hours with not a
single minute wasted, Lone Star is a great film, always fascinating and
surprising--and immensely satisfying.
Secrets & Lies (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
This year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival went to
writer-director Mike Leigh's searing portrait of a family on the brink of
collapse. After her adoptive mother dies, a young black optometrist
(Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to seek out her birth mother (Brenda
Blethyn), a white factory worker whose clinginess and incessant whining has
put her on the outs with her perpetually scowling daughter (Claire
Rushbrook) and her photographer brother (Timothy Spall). After a rocky
start, the two women somehow form a mother-daughter bond, leading to the
inevitable moment when the already-shaky family meets its new member.
Leigh's script and direction pushes all the right emotional buttons without
getting overly melodramatic, and the acting is uniformly excellent. Cannes
Best Actress winner Blethyn is a true standout, bravely keeping her
character the pathetic, whiny, emotionally desperate woman that she is. She
deserves an Oscar nomination--which means she won't get one.
Swingers (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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This latest exercise in indie hipster cool is "money"--and that's no
joke, baby. This highly entertaining comedy centers follows a group of
struggling L.A. actors as they make their party rounds, trying to win those
coveted phone numbers from the ladies. The main focus is on Mike (Jon
Favreau, who also wrote), a stand-up comedian still hopelessly pining for
the girlfriend he left behind in Queens; and Trent (Vince Vaughn, perfectly
cool and slightly geeky), a cocky ladies' man who isn't nearly as slick as he thinks
he is. Favreau proves to be a major find both in front of and behind the
camera, delivering in a very funny and sympathetic performance and a fresh,
witty script with great dialogue--I wouldn't be surprised if some of the
unique vernacular used in the film ("Baby, you're money") catches on in some
circles. The entire project does bear the strong scent of self-indulgence,
and director Doug Liman's extended visual homages to Scorsese and Tarantino
feel a bit forced and too blatantly "hip," but it doesn't really
matter--it's a blast.
Trees Lounge (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
The title of indie king Steve Buscemi's screenwriting/directing
debut refers to the small town tavern where unemployed mechanic Tommy
(Buscemi) and his fellow barflies drink, talk, and mostly just sit around,
doing nothing. Billed in ads as a "bleak comedy," this slow film does offer
a bleak view of suburban life, but it isn't much of a comedy though there
are some choice lines and moments. There really is no plot, just a set of
sporadically involving vignettes centering on Tommy and the people with whom
he interacts, with little connective narrative tissue. The film is
exceptionally acted, especially by Kids's Chloe Sevigny, who plays the
wise-beyond-her-years 17-year-old niece of Tommy's ex-girlfriend; however,
the parade of cameos (by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Mimi Rogers, Debi
Mazar, Anthony LaPaglia, and Daniel Baldwin), don't add much to anything.
It's a competent, though slight, filmmaking debut, though not nearly as
interesting as Buscemi's body of work in front of the camera.
Ransom (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Every once in a while there comes a "can't miss" project that, once
it hits the screen, falls flat on its face. Ransom isn't one of them. The
involvement of director Ron Howard and stars Mel Gibson and Rene Russo add
up to a powerful, riveting thriller that engrosses from beginning to end.
Touchstone has advised the press to keep the lid on some plot points
(one of which, I think, is fairly obvious), so I will be as succinct as
possible. Gibson and Russo play Tom and Kate Mullen, he a successful
airline magnate, she his glamorous wife. They have it all--a penthouse in
New York, money up to their ears, and a young son, Sean (Brawley Nolte, son
of Nick)... Alas, things fall apart when Sean is kidnapped and held for $2
million ransom, which Tom eventually refuses to pay and instead offers as a
bounty on the head of the kidnapper, much to the dismay of Kate and an FBI
agent (Delroy Lindo) dealing with the case.
It is always a disappointment when the filmmakers have a good thing
going then botch things up through carelessness. While the makers of Ransom
don't botch the film, carelessness does lead to the film's two major
gaffes--the clear presence of boom microphones in two different scenes.
This is especially a shame, since both boom cameos take place during some
key dramatic moments; in one, the drama and passion of a Gibson monologue is
severely undermined by the boom. Instead of listening intently to the
speech and paying attention to the story, the audience at the press
screening could not help but roar with laughter.
Unwanted booms aside, Ransom is first-rate entertainment. Richard
Price and Alexander Ignon's smart script wisely does not make Tom into a
hero of impossible goodness; in fact, Tom is more than a little
unsympathetic and morally ambiguous. His virtue--and sanity--is naturally
called into question when he offers the ransom as a bounty, but his values
are even more questionable when we learn that he paid a bribe to save his
airline... yet won't pay for the safe return of his son. Gibson, in a fine
performance, does not sugarcoat anything and creates a complex, difficult
character. We see and feel his genuine love and concern for his son and can
understand his desperation, but one cannot help but think that he's going
about the whole thing wrong, that maybe he's lost his mind. What's more,
he's not exactly sure that he's sane, either.
Howard garnered many an accolade for his directing chores on Apollo
13, but I feel his work here is just as accomplished, if not more. He
mostly shoots the film matter-of-factly, free of flashy edits, and this
restraint helps build the tension more naturally and makes the emotions feel
more real. Howard's most notable achievement is with his cast, who all turn
in solid work. In addition to Gibson, Russo also impresses, having more
than her share of standout moments. Her role could easily be branded as
thankless, but here she's given an opportunity to show more of her acting
chops than ever before, painfully conveying the grief and anguish over her
child's disappearance and her husband's questionable actions. Lindo has
perhaps the most thankless role as the stock fed, but he still makes a
lasting impression, and Gary Sinise is ideally tough and smart as an NYPD
detective who gets involved in the case.
"Someone is going to pay," reads the tagline for Ransom. After seeing
this smart and, yes, thrilling thriller, it is no mystery who that
"someone" is--the moviegoing audience, who is sure to pay some major bucks
to see this surefire box-office winner.
High School High (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Director Hart Bochner and co-writer/producer David Zucker's satire
of crusading teacher movies does drive home a few laughs, but not nearly as
many as the Zucker name would lead you to believe. Jon Lovitz plays the
inner city high school teacher who dares to challenge and enlighten the
young minds in his classroom; naturally, his ambitious plans run into a snag
or two, first from his students and then from his principal (Louise
Fletcher). Part of the reason why HSH doesn't work as well as it could have
is the casting of Lovitz; a great deal of the effectiveness of
Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker movies comes from the irony of casting of a typically
non-comic star in the lead--they don't appear to be in on the joke. With a
comedian like Lovitz in the lead, he seems a bit too aware of the silliness.
Also, Zucker, Robert LoCash, and Pat Proft's script strays wildly from its
target in the end, veering away from the school and into a late-inning plot
involving... drug cartels? Wait until video.
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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After watching the first hour of Baz Luhrmann's
Shakespeare-meets-the-20th-century take on the Bard's most celebrated
romance, I was tempted to dismiss it as a complete disaster, one of the
worst of the year. The main problem can be illustrated by the opening five
minutes. Following a reading of the opening narration ("In fair Verona...")
by a newscaster, we are treated to a quick-cut montage setting up the scene
(Shakespeare meets MTV). We then have the opening Montague-Capulet
confrontation, set at a gas station, with each new character introduced with
a freeze frame and an on-screen ID (Shakespeare meets Trainspotting). Then
bullets start to fly, and we see John Leguizamo (just awful as Juliet's
cousin Tybalt) flying through the air in slow-mo with guns blazing
(Shakespeare meets John Woo). In short, Luhrmann tries much too hard to push
the '90s angle, so hard that the story is crushed by all the stylistic
weight. And without the story to guide it, this first half decomposes into
flamboyant, campy excess, complete with a drag musical number (Shakespeare
meets To Wong Foo) at the costume ball where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio,
solid) and Juliet (an exceptional Claire Danes, the only one of the young
Americans who makes the Elizabethan speech sound natural) meet, and a
revamped, pool-drenched balcony scene between the two young lovers that is
nothing short of a travesty--a shame since DiCaprio and Danes have such a
But about midway through the film, something odd happened.
Luhrmann, it seems, decided to rein in a horse that was completely out of
control, and lets Shakespeare's tale tell itself without shoving the
contemporary setting down the audience's throat--the visual style isn't
quite as chaotic, and gone is the painfully forced slapstick. Luhrmann and
co-scripter Craig Pearce do take a few small yet pivotal deviations from the
original text (most notably in the final scene), but they mostly work. The
result is a '90s-accessible yet respectful adaptation of the final half, and
it does manage to achieve a level of poignancy, though not as strong as
Franco Zeffirelli's more traditional 1968 version. However, as well-done
as the second half is, it can't erase that horrible opening hour. Moreover,
it just shows how impressive and groundbreaking the film would have been if
the entire picture had been like the second half--making William
Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet more disappointing.
V I D E O
Mrs. Winterbourne (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Isn't it fitting that for her first major film since becoming a
daytime talk show sensation, Ricki Lake chose a project whose story could
easily be a topic on her show? Unfortunately, though, this weak While You
Were Sleeping variation--While You Were Dead--isn't nearly as funny or
flat-out entertaining as one of Ricki's trademark "all that" episodes. Lake
plays Connie Doyle, a down-on-her-luck pregnant woman who finds her fortunes
change when she's mistaken for the wife of a dead man--and promptly welcomed
into his wealthy family, led by matriarch Shirley MacLaine. The Sleeping
parallel wouldn't be complete without a brother whom Connie eventually falls
for, and that role is filled by a stiff Brendan Fraser as the dead man's
stuffy twin brother. Lake has a natural charm and likability, and MacLaine
has a couple of good moments. But hack director Richard Benjamin (who was
also responsible for the execrable "romantic comedies" Made in America and
Milk Money) and screenwriters Phoef Sutton and Lisa-Marie Radano not only
fail to come up with an adequate amount of funny moments, but they also
botch the romance--I do not know exactly how, why, or when the snooty Fraser
character warms up to the lower class Connie, and when they do get together,
the pair doesn't ignite. At the end of this one, you're likely to chant
just like the rowdy audience of Lake's talk show does at the close of each
episode, but you'll be saying "No, Ricki!" instead of "Go Ricki!" (Columbia
TriStar Home Video)