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The Movie Report
Volume 14

#69 - 71
December 5, 1996 - December 19, 1996

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

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#71 December 19, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Evita one-sheet Evita (PG) ****
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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 Banderas's accent.

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 mainstream moviegoer.

In Brief

Beavis and Butt-head Do America poster Beavis and Butt-head Do America (PG-13) no stars
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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 Showgirls.

The Crucible poster The Crucible (PG-13) ****
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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 poster I'm Not Rappaport (PG-13) **
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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 poster In Love and War (PG-13) **
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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 be damned.

Jerry Maguire poster Jerry Maguire (R) *** 1/2
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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.

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#70 December 12, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Everyone Says I Love You poster Everyone Says I Love You (R) *** photos from the Los Angeles premiere
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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 Roberts's...

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! poster Mars Attacks! (PG-13) *** 1/2 photos from Jack Nicholson Day in Hollywood
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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 1950s.

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 Attacks!.

In Brief

Daylight poster Daylight (PG-13) **
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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 poster Mother (PG-13) ***
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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.


Beautiful Girls poster Beautiful Girls (R) ***
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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 Entertainment)

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#69 December 5, 1996 by Michael Dequina


The Preacher's Wife poster The Preacher's Wife (PG) ***
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'Tis the season for shopping, gift-giving, and feel-good family films like The Preacher's Wife, which, despite a major problem (which can be summed up in two words), gets the uplifting job done.

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.

In Brief

Shine poster Shine (PG-13) *** 1/2
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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.

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