Evita (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
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Who knew? After torturing moviegoers for the past decade with awful
performances in sometimes even worse movies, Madonna actually proves to be a
capable screen actress in what a number of audience members at the media
screening declared "the best film of the year." While I don't think quite
as highly of it, Alan Parker's long-awaited film version of Andrew Lloyd
Webber and Tim Rice's celebrated stage musical/rock opera Evita is
nonetheless a remarkable cinematic achievement--a brisk, involving, and
highly entertaining spectacle that could breathe new life into the dead
genre of the movie musical.
Evita follows the meteoric rise and fall of Eva Duarte de Perón
(Madonna), a girl from the Argentina countryside who dreams of fame and
fortune in the big city. A liaison with tango singer Augustin Magaldi
(Jimmy Nail) is her ticket to "B.A.--Buenos Aires--Big Apple," where she
climbs up the social ladder and carves out a career as a model and actress
by winning and then discarding useful lovers. Her most useful conquest
turns out to be Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce), who marries Eva and is soon
elected president. As First Lady of Argentina, Eva wins the love of the
nation and all the riches she ever dreamed of, but her flame is ultimately
blown out in 1952, when, at the age of 33, she succumbs to uterine cancer.
Evita the show has a reputation for portraying one of the most
beloved figures in Argentinean history as a scheming viper hungry for fame
and fortune. While the film does not shy away from this angle, it is just
one side of her persona; Eva as a whole is painted as a very complex figure.
Her accomplishments for her country (grant women the right to vote, the
openings of new hospitals, her giving money to the poor, etc.) are duly
noted, and she does have a vulnerable side. Her obsessive drive to be
famous is really more of a need for acceptance, something she never received
as a child. We first see Eva as a girl all of 7 years old, forbidden to
attend her father's funeral because she was the product of an extramarital
affair. That scene is revisited more than once during the course of the
film, and it serves as a reminder as how the dream began and how the woman
came to be. Eva's sensitive side does shine through in other moments,
especially in the lovely lament "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," which
she sings after Magaldi turns his back on her soon after arriving in Buenos
Aires (in the stage production, the tune is sung by another character); and
most notably near the end, where you can sense her emptiness and the feeling
that the dream had grown into something more than she could bear.
The effectiveness of those dramatic moments is due in no small part
to Madonna's startling performance. Granted, she is in her element in this
film, taking on a role that is almost entirely sung, but there is more to
her work than her stronger-than-ever voice. In all her other films, she is
so overwrought and in-your-face that she might as well have worn a sign that
read "Look at me! I'm Madonna, and I'm ACTING!" Here, she is surprisingly
restrained, and as a result her acting feels natural. It is that
naturalness that enables her to make an emotional connection with the
audience, something she has never been able to accomplish before. Usually a
Madonna death scene in a movie is met with laughter (or walkouts); this time
around there was silence, save for the sniffling that could be heard
throughout the auditorium. After this film, she should retire from film
acting; I don't see her ever topping her astonishing work here.
Madonna would likely not have been able to pull off her career-best
work without the stellar talent around and behind her. The liveliest
performance comes from Antonio Banderas, who plays the floating narrator
Ché. His perpetually unamused and cynical presence and viciously
snarled vocals give the film a welcome edge and prevent it from taking
itself too seriously. Tony Award winner Pryce adds some maturity and polish
to the whole affair as only a theater vet can. But most of the kudos go to
director-producer-co-scripter (with Oliver Stone) Parker, who keeps the
action moving briskly while allowing time for quieter moments. The film is
quite the visual spectacle; the numerous scenes of chaos are well-staged;
the flashy editing serves the story well; and the scenes set at the balcony
of the Casa Rosada, where the Perons address the hordes of extras standing
below, are real stunners. To quote Ché, "The best show in town was the
crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying 'Eva Perón!'" Parker's one misstep is
his tendency to crank up Webber's score to the max, which too often obscures
Ché's expository lyrics, which, in turn, are already somewhat obscured by
The movie musical is dead, and I doubt Evita will be its
resurrection; I'm not so certain that contemporary moviegoers are ready for
films where characters periodically break into song, let alone sing
throughout the entire film. But if any film is to revive the movie musical,
it will be Evita, for its haunting melodies, strong performances, and
overall passion has the potential to reach even the most skeptical
Beavis and Butt-head Do America (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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The screening for the big screen debut--and, hopefully, swan
song--of MTV's animated knuckleheads started on an appropriately absurd
note: the lights dimmed, then came back up, then dimmed again, then came
back up, then dimmed for a final time as if Beavis and Butt-head themselves
had taken control of the lights. What followed on screen for the next 80
minutes was more inane and tiresome schtick involving the intellectually
challenged pair. Creator-writer-director Mike Judge uses up all of his
creativity in the first five minutes, where he cooks up an opening credit
role reminiscent of Shaft and Charlie's Angels and actually has the audacity to have B&B's cherished television set (gasp) stolen. The latter is an
obvious device to free the obnoxious twosome from their trademark
lamebrained commentary on music videos, but once Judge has liberated them
from the TV, he doesn't come up with anything remotely imaginative or funny
for them to do. The plot, as it is, has the two being caught up in a
weapons smuggling scheme which has them travelling across the country from
Highland, California to Washington, D.C. Along the way, of course, are a
number of vulgar and just plain stupid gags involving various bodily
functions which have grown even more tired by the time they're recycled for
the fourth or fifth time. Paramount was wise to release this one in
December--just in time for critics to fit the film onto their year-end worst
lists. What I have just said won't matter a whit to B&B fans, who are sure
to eat this crap up; everyone else, though, would be better off watching
The Crucible (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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Ah, tenth grade English class. I hated sitting through that class
and putting up with the pompous rantings and unfair grading decisions of the
teacher, the insufferable Jerry Stover, who reeked of the odor of cologne
and cigarettes. My most vivid memory of that class is Stover telling me to
my face in all seriousness, "I don't like you, Michael"; my second would
have to be that of reading Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, one of the few
works I actually enjoyed reading in that class. Watching Nicholas Hytner's
electrifying new screen take on that play reminded me why I enjoyed that
play so much and perhaps made me appreciate it even more. The Crucible is
set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 17th century, where accusations of
witchcraft are being thrown around every which way by a group of girls led
by one Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder). The twist is that these girls have
actually been dealing with the devil themselves. Abigail's accusations take
on a more personal agenda when she points her accusing finger at the wife
(Joan Allen) of John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a farmer with whom Abigail
had a torrid affair. A number have critics have complained about all the
screaming that goes on in the film, but I feel that all the histrionics
perfectly capture the air of hysteria and paranoia. Just as perfect is the
acting--Ryder, freed from her usual goody-goody roles, makes a deliciously
conniving bitch; Day-Lewis is painfully sympathetic as the tortured Proctor;
and Allen follows up her Oscar-nominated work in Nixon with an even more
impressive performance. Miller himself wrote the screenplay, and he and
Hytner effectively open up the action for the screen, extending the play's
settings far beyond the courtroom. An all-around excellent film that is
likely to go by unappreciated by Academy voters and moviegoers nationwide.
I'm Not Rappaport (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
A stable of solid performances, led by leads Walter Matthau and
Ossie Davis, are all there is to recommend Herb Gardner's adaptation of his
Tony-Award-winning play about the friendship between two down-on-their-luck
old codgers, one of whom (Matthau) is a perpetual liar. The film's faults
are courtesy of screenwriter-director Gardner, whose overly stagy direction
makes the picture feel more like a filmed play than an actual movie. For
example, while most of the action takes place in Central Park, there is very
little effort put in to add some variety to the settings within the park.
Also, for what is obviously intended as a character study of Matthau's Nat,
I didn't feel as if I truly received any insight into his character since
he's spinning up lies for most of the picture. Fans of the stars and the
play will be pleased with the film, but I can't imagine anyone else finding
much to savor here.
In Love and War (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
For a film that is supposed to be about a grand passion that changes the
courses of a number of lives, Sir Richard Attenborough's period romance is
so... tame. Chris O'Donnell plays the cocky 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway,
who, while serving for the Red Cross in World War I Italy, gets wounded
during a heroic act and is nursed back to health by another American,
26-year-old Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock). Before you
can say "gangrene," the two fall for each other, but everyone knows that
historical romances released in December are never destined to end happily.
O'Donnell and Bullock do make an attractive couple, but their minimal
chemistry prevents the romance from igniting the way it should. Also, while
it is easy to see why Ernest falls for Agnes (she's smart, charming, and,
well, Sandra Bullock), what exactly attracted Agnes to Ernest is beyond me.
He's so arrogant and superficial that he's all attitude, no substance. The
latter point can be blamed on O'Donnell; he can pull off the attitude fine,
but unlike a Tom Cruise (who, if he were younger, would be a perfect fit for
the role), he doesn't have the range to suggest anything beyond it.
O'Donnell also can't make Ernest's post-affair bitterness very convincing;
it's too controlled. The blame for that, however, falls on the shoulders of
director Attenborough, who seems to have told everyone involved to turn
their energy level down a notch. Similarly muted to a certain extent is
Bullock, but her subdued performance works for the character--Agnes is the
older party in the romance, and as a nurse she always has to maintain an air
of professionalism. Her immense charm and instant likability is not
diminished at all by the period garb, and she is the only one who makes an
emotional connection to the audience. If anyone feels anything at the end
of In Love and War, it's not because Ernest and Agnes don't live happily
ever after together; it's because Agnes doesn't get what she wants, Ernest
Jerry Maguire (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Part sports satire, part romantic comedy, writer-director Cameron
Crowe's tale of a hotshot sports agent (Tom Cruise, in top form) is a winner
all the way. Cruise's Jerry Maguire is fired from his job at a large agency
after writing a "mission statement" about ethics in the business and finds
himself struggling to make ends meet on both the professional and romantic
sides of his life. Helping Jerry get his career on track--and pining for
him--is single mother Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger, a star in the making),
who quits her job as an accountant at the same agency as a show of support.
Both sides of the story, the sports and the romance, mesh well though the
sports agent angle loses some of its smart edge in the film's second half,
when the romance is the focus. Still, the picture is a real charmer, thanks
to the chemistry between Cruise and Zellweger, Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr.
(a scene stealer as Jerry's sole client, a talkative football player), and
Cruise and Jonathan Lipnicki, so adorable as Dorothy's young son.
Everyone Says I Love You (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Like some stars, some movies can coast by on their charm alone, and
Woody Allen's new musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You is one such
film--a trifle, yes, but a cute and enjoyable one at that.
The thin plot centers on the various romances within a wealthy
family in New York, as narrated by one DJ (spunky newcomer Natasha Lyonne),
a Columbia University student who falls in love with a new guy just about
every month. The two most prominent storylines focus on DJ's father (Woody
Allen), an--big surprise--unlucky in love nebbish who woos an unhappily
married younger woman (Julia Roberts, thankfully back in light comedy mode)
with information secretly obtained from her psychotherapy sessions (by DJ,
of course); and DJ's half-sister Skylar (Drew Barrymore), who is betrothed
to the nice Holden (Edward Norton) yet later falls for a rugged,
not-so-rehabilitated ex-con (Tim Roth, who all but steals the show)--with
hilarious results. There are other minor subplots floating around, such as
DJ's two other half-sisters (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffmann) battling
over the same boy, but these plotlines aren't fleshed out as satisfactorily
or as memorably as the main two plots.
The film is, at its heart, an affectionate tribute to old Hollywood
musicals, and this is reflected in the songs, all of which are old pop and
showtunes for the '30s and '40s. While the songs add to the old fashioned
atmosphere, the fact that they weren't written expressly for the film means
that they don't always advance the story; a lot of times it stops it dead in
its tracks, especially the elaborate, over-the-top production numbers, which
simultaneously celebrate and skewer the genre's surreal conventions. As for
the singing, most of the cast--from Norton and Alan Alda (as DJ's
stepfather) to Sleepers's Billy Crudup (as
one of DJ's paramours) and a startlingly better-than-most Roth--does an
adequate job, with a few exceptions. Surprisingly, there is only one truly
horrific singer: Roberts, who brings new meaning to the term tone-deaf.
Allen himself is by no means OK, but he sort of talk-sings his song, which
makes his warbling less offensive. The major standout is the vocally
talented Goldie Hawn, who plays DJ's mother and Allen's ex-wife; her dancing
and singing showcase at the close is by far the film's highlight. She's the
only one who seems like a true musical star. Oddly and disappointingly
enough, one star actually
cheated when it came to singing--Barrymore, whose vocals are dubbed in by a
ghost singer. I can't imagine her actual singing voice being any worse than
The movie musical is, sadly for this musical fan, pretty much dead,
and I don't see this film (or, for that matter, the forthcoming Evita)
miraculously reviving the genre. But genre revival isn't the aim of the
film. Everyone Says I Love You simply sets out to be a fun little
charmer, and it more than accomplishes that modest goal.
Mars Attacks! (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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After his excellent 1994 biopic of the worst filmmaker of all time,
Ed Wood, it was only a matter of time before Tim Burton made an Ed Wood
movie of his own. Two years later we have Mars Attacks!, a darkly
humorous sendup of and affectionate homage to B-grade sci-fi epics of the
Like all alien invasion epics, Mars Attacks! follows a pastiche of
characters and how they cope with a hostile Martian invasion. The players
include the President of the United States (Jack Nicholson); the First Lady
(Glenn Close) and First Daughter (Natalie Portman); a stuffy White House
scientist (Pierce Brosnan); the skirtchasing Presidential press secretary
(Martin Short); a ditzy fashion reporter (Sarah Jessica Parker); her vain
reporter boyfriend (Michael J. Fox); a Kansas teen (Lukas Haas) and his
grandmother (Sylvia Sidney); an alcoholic Vegas casino owner (Nicholson
again); his New Agey wife (Annette Bening); an
ex-boxer-turned-costumed-Vegas-casino-attraction (Jim Brown); his estranged
wife (Pam Grier); a rude gambler (Danny DeVito); and, yes, Tom Jones himself.
With so many characters on the canvas, the Burton and screenwriter
Jonathan Gems understandably take a while to establish them and get the
picture going. But after all the setup, it is quite disappointing that a
number of the characters do not have the most satisfying of payoffs
(Nicholson's casino owner in particular). But unlike a certain alien
invasion picture that came out in the summer, all of these original, wacky
characters do make their distinct impression; none blend into a forgettable
blob. And unlike that nameless blockbuster, even the aliens are allowed to
show some personality--the sight of them vaporizing buildings and people
with maniacal gusto while saying "Don't run! We are your friends!" says it
all. It's that quirky Burton mix of camp and macabre humor that makes Mars
Attacks! so much fun; ironically, that's also what will probably end up
hurting the film at the box office, like it did Ed Wood. The imagination
and wit behind oddly clever way the humans end up getting the better of the
Martians will likely be lost on most mainstream moviegoers; in fact, most
people would probably call it a letdown.
What will not be lost on mainstream viewers, however, is the
impressive visual effects of the piece. The diminutive green Martians with
enlarged brains are certainly a sight to behold, and the massive
destruction they cause is all done very convincingly. The most brilliant
touch is how the effects, as elaborate and expensive as they are, do not
betray the look and feel of, say, a Plan 9 from Outer Space. The flying
saucers don't have any visible strings holding them up, but they do
resemble, as Parker's character puts it, "flying hubcaps." When people are
vaporized, we see their flesh and other entrails dissolve into the air, but
their whole skeletons are left behind--in either green or red, no less.
Martian brains explode but not without spurting green sludge. Some crucial
effects involving Parker and Brosnan could not have been accomplished in the
1950s, but the idea behind them is something you would see in a movie from
that time, albeit done with a straight face. Burton also doesn't resist the
use of that staple of Ed Wood movies, stock footage. This attention to
detail makes Mars Attacks!, its satiric qualities notwithstanding, a
knowing and loving tribute to those cheesy B-movies.
After the phenomenal success of Independence Day, I am not so sure
that Mars Attacks! will be able to find an audience even half the size of
that film's. It's not that the films are too similar, far from it; it's
just that the majority of moviegoers, looking for something straightforward
like an ID4, won't quite "get"
the unconventional Mars. But anyone who is willing and able to buy
into the film's eccentricities is sure to enjoy Mars
Daylight (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
A New York tunnel collapses, trapping a number of commuters inside.
Stuff blows up, water rushes in, things fall apart. With the help of a
he-man rescue worker (Sylvester Stallone), they escape. That's just about
all you need to know about Rob Cohen's flat disaster epic--the effects are
truly special, but nothing else is, especially not the performances. You
know something is wrong when Stallone actually gives one of the best
performances in the picture; even the usually reliable Amy Brenneman, so
good in Heat and TV's
NYPD Blue, is reduced to being a shrill ninny. Stallone says that Daylight is his final action film; judging from the mediocrity of the film, he may have gotten out of the genre just in time.
Mother (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
In Albert Brooks's first effort behind the camera since 1991's
Defending Your Life, he plays a twice-divorced science fiction novelist who
moves back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, in her first major screen
role in decades) in an effort to discover the root of his problems with
women. The clash of personalities that ensues produces some truly hilarious
moments, such as a riotous kitchen scene where Reynolds tries to feed Brooks
food that, shall we say, isn't exactly fresh. The performances are all
first-rate, from Brooks and the delightful Reynolds to Rob Morrow, who plays
Brooks's mama's boy brother; even those in smaller roles shine, especially
Friends's Lisa Kudrow, who has a great couple of scenes as (what else?) a
ditz. Where Mother falls short is in its ending, where co-scripters Brooks
and Monica Johnson tie up all of the loose ends with some simplistic pop
psychology that is too tidy to be very satisfying. However, that misstep
far from negates all of the sizable laughs to be had along the way.
V I D E O
Beautiful Girls (R) BUY THE:Poster!
This low-key, likable comedy-drama tells of the romantic
tribulations of a bunch of high school chums (Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon,
Michael Rapaport, Max Perlich, and Noah Emmerich) on the eve of their big
high school reunion. As is typically the case with these ensemble features,
the quality of the individual storylines is uneven. For example, Rapaport's
storyline, where pines over his ex (Martha Plimpton) and dreams of being
with a supermodel, is not nearly as interesting as Dillon's, in which he
juggles his affections for his anorexic girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) and his
married high school sweetheart (Lauren Holly), with whom he's having an
affair. The film's best plot thread centers on Hutton's very touching
friendship with the 13-year-old (Natalie Portman) next door, an "old soul"
who is willing to wait for him until she's of age. Portman, who made an
astonishing debut in Luc Besson's otherwise uneventful The Professional and
can currently be seen in Mars Attacks! and Everyone Says I Love You, is even
more impressive here; her performance merits serious Oscar consideration.
Adding even more flavor to the mix is Uma Thurman as an exotic visitor who
catches every man's eye and Rosie O'Donnell, brash and fun as a
straight-talking hairdresser. Not a whole lot goes on in Beautiful Girls,
but what does go on is engaging enough to merit a look. (Miramax Home
In Penny Marshall's frothy reworking of 1947's The Bishop's Wife,
Denzel Washington plays Dudley, an angel sent down from Heaven to help
Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance), who is doubting his ability to
make a difference to the community and his family--wife Julia (Whitney
Houston) and son Jeremiah (Justin Pierre Edmund). Dudley does his best to
restore the reverend's faith in himself, but along the way he cannot help
but be sidetracked by what earth has to offer, including the neglected Julia
and Jeremiah, who savor the attention he, and not Henry, gives them.
It's good to see the gifted Washington in a departure from the heavy
dramatic roles he's made his name in, and he has a ball as the funloving and
well-meaning Dudley; the fact that he does so well in a lighthearted role is
just a testament to his remarkable talent. Vance is likely to go
underappreciated for his subtle performance; he manages to make the audience
care without resorting to showy theatrics. Perhaps the most memorable turns
come from a trio of supporting players. Loretta Devine has a few choice
moments of neurosis as Henry's put-upon secretary; the hilarious Jenifer
Lewis all but steals the show as Julia's sassy mother; and Edmund is a
natural charmer as Jeremiah. He's bound to leave audiences going "aw" all
through the movie as he did with the preview audience I was in.
To her credit, Houston gives her least annoying performance to date.
In a wise move, Marshall and screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott have
her break into spirited gospel numbers whenever the story allows it, and it
is during these moments that she truly comes to life, showing an infectious
energy like never before on the big screen. But when the music dies down,
so does her performance. As an actress, Houston is the blandest of the
bland. She can't make a line sound natural to save her life; every word
that comes out of her mouth sounds scripted. She is also an oddly chilly,
distant, self-involved presence; she does not have a convincing maternal
rapport with Edmund, let alone any romantic sparks with Vance or Washington.
It's as if she's acting in a box apart from everyone else. As a result, the
emotional involvement in Henry and Julia's relationship--the center of the
story--is weakened. We want Henry to get his life together and make his
family happy because he, Jeremiah, and Dudley want it; the fact that Julia
is involved at all is of little consequence.
But the aim of The Preacher's Wife is to make the audience walk out
of the auditorium with smiles on their faces and their spirits lifted, and I
cannot imagine anyone not giving in at least in part to its charms--of which
there are many. It is a fun, feel-good family film that actually does leave
you feeling good.
Shine (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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Scott Hicks's film of the life story of Australian pianist David
Helfgott is inspiring, memorable cinema--the kind of film that Oscar voters
go ga-ga for. We follow David (played as a child by Alex Rafalowicz, then
as an adolescent by Noah Taylor) as he gains early fame for his remarkable
talent and then, while studying at London's Royal College, suffer a
debiliatating mental breakdown--thanks in no small part to the stress put on
him by his domineering father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Years pass, and
40-something David (now played by Geoffrey Rush) is a mumbling mental case
prone to public nudity and grabbing women's breasts. But slowly, surely,
with the help of friends and the love of a woman (Lynn Redgrave), he finds
his way back to the piano and the glory that came with it.
Shine is at its best in its first half, focusing on the fascinating
and heartbreaking relationship between father and son--brought to vivid life
by Taylor and Mueller-Stahl, who is so painfully real as a man who obviously
loves his son immensely yet just can't express it the right way. The second
half is highly involving and inspiring, but without the captivating
Mueller-Stahl and the compelling father-son dynamic at the forefront, it
can't quite match the emotional power of the opening. Even the ending
doesn't pack the punch one would expect, but Hicks should be commended for
that, for the light close is in line with his admirable eschewing of overt
melodramatics. Like The Crying Game back in 1992, Shine should be "the little indie that could"; with a passionate groundswell of support, it will
undoubtedly be a major award contender in March.