The Beautician and the Beast (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
For her first major film role, The Nanny star Fran Drescher has
played it safe, playing a character not too different from her child-rearing
sitcom role: she plays a sharp-tongued New York beautician who, through some
knotty circumstances, is hired to teach the children of an uptight Eastern
European dictator (Timothy Dalton). Unfortunately, Ken Kwapis's fairy tale
romantic comedy is about as hokey and banal as a sitcom, with predictable
culture-clash gags and fairly flat one-liners. Kwapis and screenwriter Todd
Graff don't seem too interested in the inevitable romance between Drescher
and Dalton, who do exude some charm together; more attention is focused on
the political situation in Dalton's country, which is a big bore. Nanny
fans will love it; others won't.
Star Wars (Episode IV--A New Hope) Special Edition (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| DVD Set!
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| Blu-ray Set (2)!
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Twenty years after its initial release, George Lucas's initial
installment of his space opera about the battle between the evil Galactic
Empire and the heroic Rebellion still packs a mighty punch--and puts most
recent "epic" blockbuster mediocrities like ID4 to shame. This spruced-up
special edition features a few heavily hyped alterations, but aside from a
couple of new scenes--including an amusing encounter between Han Solo
(Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt--most of the changes are subtle, from
enhancement to visual and sound effects to the crediting of previously
uncredited James Earl Jones as the evil Darth Vader's voice. Most of these
subtle changes, especially the redone space battle sequences, are effective
while a handful of others are less so--witness, or, rather, listen to how
Princess Leia's (Carrie Fisher) laser blaster sounds like a regular gun
firing bullets as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) prepares their memorable
swing across a chasm. However, for all the effort Lucas put into
"correcting" the initial version, my original quibbles about the film still
stand. It takes a good hour of exposition before the film kicks into gear
(and does it ever), and, at this stage of the game, the acting of Hamill and
Fisher is a bit uneven. Hamill tends to overdo Luke's whiny naivete (never
more evident in his memorably shrill delivery of the immortal line "But I
wanted to go to the Torsche station to pick up some power converters"), and
Fisher uses some odd "aristocratic" accent in certain scenes to convey
royalty; of the top trio, only Ford is the one who settles in right away
with his great sense of irony in portraying Han's cockiness. All in all,
though, this is undoubtedly a film event that cannot be missed. If you
haven't seen A New Hope on the big screen, you truly haven't seen
anything at all.
Shadow Conspiracy (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Movies released in January typically come in three types: (1) wide
releases of year-end limited engagements (Evita); (2) unpretentious crowdpleasers (Metro); and (3) long-delayed movies that are finally cleared
from the studio shelves. Falling under the latter category (along with The
Relic) is Shadow Conspiracy, and after sitting through this Charlie Sheen thriller, it's no mystery why it has collected dust for nearly a year--it stinks.
Sheen stars as presidential assistant Bobby Bishop, whose stellar
speechwriting skills won the nameless Chief Executive (Sam Waterston) a
second term. After a prominent professor is mysteriously murdered, Bishop,
with the help of reporter--and, natch, former flame--Amanda Givens (Linda
Hamilton) uncovers a deadly conspiracy lurking within the shadows of the
government (hence the film's title).
It would be easy to dismiss Shadow Conspiracy on the terms of its
writing and directing, which is abysmal. Adi Hasak and Ric Gibbs's script
is not only predictable and hackneyed, but cornball as well. It's quite
telling when the film's most original moment is also its most ludicrous--the
unintentionally hilarious climax where an armed, remote-controlled toy
helicopter mows down a room full of people. For all the chases director
George P. Cosmatos packs into the film (which is pretty much one long
chase), there's no excitement, no energy.
Cosmatos's biggest mistake, however, comes in the film's most
glaring flaw--the casting. No offense to Mr. Sheen, but it's quite hard to
buy him as a brilliant presidential assistant whose skill with words is held
solely responsible for the President's reelection. Not helping matters is
the fact that we get virtually no scenes where he's doing his job; the
casting wouldn't be so hard to swallow if we saw the guy at work. Hamilton
is a talented actress, but after the indelible impression of her machisma in
T2, she just can no longer be bought as "the girl" in an action film,
regardless of how hard she tries. But it's not like she tries hard, or at
all, here anyway. Aside from miscasting, there's typecasting. Donald
Sutherland plays Sheen's enigmatic mentor at the White House. Do you think
he could have something to with the conspiracy? Sutherland as a bad guy?
After what is sure to be the poor box office performance of Shadow
Conspiracy, folks at Hollywood Pictures will probably wish they had left
this wretched excuse for a thriller collecting dust in the shadows of the
Gridlock'd (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| Score CD!
Before his untimely death last year, rapper-actor Tupac Shakur left
behind a number of completed films in the can. The first to see the light
of day is Gridlock'd, the energetic and enjoyable screenwriting and
directing debut of actor Vondie Curtis-Hall (Broken Arrow, TV's Chicago Hope and Cop Rock).
After his girlfriend Cookie (Thandie Newton) falls into a
drug-induced coma, heroin junkie Spoon (Shakur) decides to lay off the dope,
forcing his comrade-in-blow Stretch (Tim Roth) to join him in detox. This
simple decision sets off an exhausting chain of events where Stretch and
Spoon run around town dealing with bureaucrats of varying rigidity and flee
from a drug kingpin (Curtis-Hall) and the police, who suspect the two when a
fellow drug fiend and his girlfriend are murdered.
Sounds like pretty heavy stuff, and sometimes it is. But like the
big heroin-themed film of last year, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, the film is often quite funny, deftly walking the thin line between the harrowing and the hilarious. And the humor does not come out of nowhere and feel out of place; like life itself, comedy sometimes spring forth naturally from
tragedy, with some inherent dark humor being found in what can be seen as
the most serious of moments. But this is not to say that Curtis-Hall
glosses over heroin addiction. Spoon and especially Stretch are seen for
what they are--loser junkies--living in a dirty, cluttered apartment and
getting into messes they could easily have avoided, often getting out
through sheer luck alone (which results in some overly contrived moments).
Curtis-Hall does add some interesting visual flair to the proceedings, using
flashy editing and whatnot, but nothing here is as flashy as Boyle's
sometimes surreal work in Trainspotting, and the entire film's look is appropriately grimy and gritty.
But even with Curtis-Hall's able efforts behind the camera,
Gridlock'd could not have possibly worked without a convincing, charismatic
lead duo, and Shakur and Roth fit the bill perfectly. Roth has the showier
role, playing pathetic, dirty, and just plain wacky Stretch, and he pulls it
off as well as one expects (even though his natural British accent sometimes
slips into his on-screen New York accent). Shakur's more sensible Spoon is
the straight man, but he is far from upstaged, holding his own with his
confident, commanding presence; he truly had a bright future in film. Roth
and Shakur's rapport is so natural, so effortless that you have no problem
believing that they are longtime friends. It's too bad that a reteaming of
the two is out of the question.
The pileup of films currently released amounts to one big traffic
jam at movie houses, but the entertaining Gridlock'd should have no problem
clearing a path to box office success.
Albino Alligator (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Kevin Spacey makes a promising directorial debut with this sleek,
efficient thriller. After a heist goes awry, three thieves (Matt Dillon,
Gary Sinise, and William Fichtner) hole up in a bar and take the patrons
hostage while the police (headed by Joe Mantegna) wait outside. As a whole,
Spacey's work behind the camera is accomplished; he has an interesting
visual style, and, not so surprisingly, he coaxes on-target performances
from his actors, especially Dillon and Faye Dunaway, who plays one of the
hostages. However, the suspense tends to come and go in patches rather than
being consistently sustained from start to finish, and screenwriter
Christian Forte's dialogue is not as snappy as it thinks it is. Yet Spacey,
Forte, and the film still manage to build some momentum and tension into the
compelling final act.
Prefontaine (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
For their fiction feature debut, the Hoop Dreams duo of
director Steve James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert maintain a lot of
their documentary techniques. This biography of the 1970s track star Steve
Prefontaine (Jared Leto of TV's My So-Called Life) is less a traditional
biopic than a "mockumentary," featuring "interviews" with Prefontaine's
"family" and "friends," incorporation of actual newsreel footage, and the
use of different film stocks. But for all the techniques used to give the
film the feel of a probing documentary, I did not feel as if I really
learned anything about Prefontaine. As we see the rebellious runner move
his way up in the college ranks, have a disappointing performance in the
1972 Olympics, and get on track for the 1976 games before his untimely
car-crash death in 1975, only one character trait is ever established, and
that same note is hit ad nauseum for the entire running time--his arrogance.
Needless to say, it's quite difficult to work up much sympathy for someone
whose defining characteristic is arrogance. Strip away all the documentary
trimmings and you've got nothing more than a glorified, profanity-sprinkled
made-for-TV movie, from the cast (Leto, Melrose Place alum Amy Locane,
Married... with Children's Ed O'Neill) right down to the shallow treatment
of its subject.
Breaking the Waves (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
There has never been a film quite as unique and challenging in
recent memory as Lars von Trier's complex 160-minute tale of love, religious
faith, sex, and sacrifice, and it's easy to why critical reaction has been
so ecstatic. The film, set in 1970s Scotland and neatly divided in seven
chapters and an epilogue, tells the tale of Bess (Emily Watson, in a
tremendously gutsy performance), a deeply religious and not-too-sane woman
who finds spiritual and sexual fulfillment in Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her
oil-rig worker husband. When he has to go away to the rig shortly after
their wedding, the needy, lonely Bess prays for a speedy return. And that's
what she gets, though not under the circumstances she had hoped--Jan is
shipped back home after an accident that leaves him paralyzed and just a
step away from death. Despite the objections of her family and friends,
Bess refuses to give up on Jan, convinced that the power of her faith in God
and love for Jan--which he suggests can survive only if she takes on
numerous lovers--can cure him. This synopsis doesn't begin to do justice to
the psychological and emotional complexities of the tale, brought to
painfully realistic life by the astonishing Watson and von Trier, who shot
the grainy, virtually unscored film entirely on handheld camera. That said,
Waves does take a good three chapters to really kick into gear, and the
final image--which is key to all that precedes it--is much too tidily
literal for my taste, placing an overly simple and pretty bow on a work that
is otherwise so refreshingly dark and complex. In any case, for the most
part a beautifully realized piece of work.
Jackie Chan's First Strike (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
A few things have been altered for this fourth outing of Chan's
wildly successful Police Story series: his Hong Kong cop, known in English
language versions of the previous films as "Kevin Chan," is now known as
"Jackie" (not "Jackie Chan," but simply "Jackie," no more, no less);
on-screen girlfriend Maggie Cheung is nowhere to be found; and he now does
work for the CIA and, as the movie progresses, a Russian investigative
outfit. But slight alterations aside, all the action and laughs that one
would expect from a Police Story film--or, for that matter, a Jackie Chan
film--are in full view here. The plot, as it is, has Jackie traveling to
the Ukraine and Australia in pursuit of a stolen nuclear warhead. But as is
the case with all of Chan's films, the plot is a mere skeleton upon which to
hang action and comedy bits, and oh what bits they are--a chase on the snowy
mountains of the Ukraine; a hilarious and unique underwater martial arts
climax; some funny business involving koala bear underwear; and, most
memorably, an all-out martial arts display including some nifty uses of a
ladder. Crack action director Stanley Tong, who helmed Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and the third Police Story film, Supercop, wisely keeps the action coming constantly, only taking brief respites to service the plot, which is at once simple and convoluted. The finale falls a bit flat, and the film doesn't measure up to Supercop or the superlative original film, but First Strike is pure fun for action fans everywhere.
Metro (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Eddie Murphy's big comeback hits a little snag with this diverting
but conventional thriller in which laughs take a back seat to action. As a
San Francisco Police hostage negotiator, Murphy has a few--only a
few--choice comedic moments and acquits himself well in the action
sequences, most notably in an entertaining chase bit involving a runaway
cable car. Too bad screenwriter Randy Feldman isn't as game as Murphy or
director Thomas Carter (who does a competent, if unspectacular, job) are.
The script is incredibly derivative, from the main plot involving Murphy
going after a colleague's murderer (a freshly shorn Michael Wincott) to the
murder scene itself, which is a carbon copy of the elevator killing in Basic Instinct. Also, a subplot in which Murphy's character is assigned to train a SWAT sharpshooter (Michael Rapaport in a completely unnecessary role) in the art of negotiation has no payoff whatsoever. Still, Murphy, charming newcomer Carmen Ejogo (as his love interest), and Carter keep the
The Relic (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
The year is barely a week old, and there is already a candidate for
the worst of 1997--The Relic, a would-be chiller that's more successful at
making the audience laugh than scream.
In this ridiculous film from überhack Peter Hyams (whose last two
pictures were dreadful Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles), a creature that
feeds on the hypothalamuses (hypothalamii?) of humans and animals goes on a
killing spree in a Chicago museum. How did this creature come into
existence, and why does it feed on hormones? The "scientific" explanation
cooked up by the four--yes, four--credited screenwriters (Amy Holden Jones,
John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver) takes "suspension of disbelief"
to new heights, even by monster movie standards. But as cockamamie as the
science is in the film, it isn't quite as hard to swallow as the casting of
the clueless Penelope Ann Miller as a brilliant molecular biologist who
specializes in evolutionary genetics. Miller acts as if she wants an Oscar
nomination, turning every scene that requires the slightest display of
emotion into an overblown Oscar clip, complete with piercing wails and
glycerine tears. Give it up, Penelope--it's a monster movie. On the flip
side, Tom Sizemore just phones in his performance as a police lieutenant,
but his role is so thankless that it's hard to imagine it being played any
It's quite funny to see a film indulge, with the straightest of
faces, in all those cheesy horror movie clichés that Wes Craven lampooned so
well (and so recently) in Scream. For example, in one early scene, a museum
security guard goes into a bathroom stall late at night. OK, we all know
what's coming, but as if we didn't need any more confirmation, he pulls out
a joint and starts puffing away. Everyone knows what happens to people who
do drugs in a scary movie. And later, Miller frantically runs out of a
museum exhibit after she hears some suspicious heavy breathing. Does she
make a beeline for the front door? Of course not--she runs into the ladies
room and cowers in a stall. With all the clichés, it is only fitting the
film's climax offers what is perhaps the most overused one in recent film:
that of someone outrunning a fireball.
If The Relic is truly "the next evolution in terror" as the poster
states, then the horror film--and humanity--is in even worse shape than we
Michael Collins (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Neil Jordan's bio of the Irish revolutionary (Liam Neeson) who
fought for his country's freedom from Great Britain is not exactly what it
would appear to be. Instead of being a slow, dull historical drama, it is
actually an exciting action drama that, yes, takes liberties with historical
fact. Neeson is ideally cast as Collins, providing the right mix of brains
and brawn; he truly commands the screen. But this is not to say that the
smaller players are overshadowed; Alan Rickman is quite memorable as the
Irish political leader, and Aidan Quinn makes a positive impression, despite
some accent inconsistencies, as Collins's best friend. Julia Roberts,
surprisingly enough, isn't bad as the woman in Collins's life; her Irish
brogue is infinitely more convincing here than it was in Mary Reilly.
However, her character has very little, if anything at all, to do with the
main action, and her romantic triangle storyline with Collins and Quinn's
character is hopelessly contrived. Still, writer-director Jordan has made a
fast-paced and rousing epic that is sure to win Neeson another Oscar
nomination for Best Actor.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Funny, fascinating, and maybe just a little unsettling, Milos
Forman's bio of Hustler magazine publisher Flynt is a stunning success. The
film traces Flynt's (Woody Harrelson, in a career-best performance)
tumultuous rise to the top, beginning with his days selling moonshine in the
rural South as a child; ending with the landmark 1980s Supreme Court
decision that upheld his First Amendment right to publish a lewd ad parody
attacking evangelist Jerry Falwell; and hitting all key points in between:
his management stint at a strip club; his constant envelope-pushing at
Hustler; his marriage to bisexual stripper Althea Leasure (rocker Courtney
Love, surprisingly assured and effective); and the assassination attempt
that left him wheelchair-bound. The film has garnered Golden Globe nods
for Harrelson, Love, director Forman, screenwriters Scott Alexander and
Larry Karaszewski, and the picture itself, and all the acclaim is justly
deserved. Forman, Alexander, and Karaszewski (who also penned Tim Burton's
bitingly hilarious Ed Wood) keep all of the key events in Flynt's life
moving at a brisk pace, all the while seeing the twisted humor in just about
every situation and character. Flynt's honest and, in its own way, touching
romance with Althea serves as an interesting counterpoint to the raunch of
his business and the brashness of his attitude. The filmmakers'
bravest--and most successful--move is in their frank,
warts-and-all-and-then-some depiction of Flynt; who he is and what he does
is not romanticized at all (though the on-screen depiction of the porn is
understandably softened), which just adds power to the overall message of
the film--that everyone in America has the right to express themselves
however they wish to, regardless of whether or not you personally approve of
what they do.
Scream (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| DVD Set!
| Blu-ray Set (1)!
| Blu-ray Set (2)!
| Score CD!
A psycho killer obsessed with horror movies terrorizes a high
schooler (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally murdered exactly one
year earlier. Sounds like a typical, predictable slasher film, and to a
certain extent, horror maven Wes Craven's latest is. But, ironically, the
predictability is actually one of the film's virtues. Scream, written with
much self-mocking wit by Kevin Williamson, is also a satire of the "scary
movie" genre, knowingly highlighting and celebrating its formula trappings
while poking fun at them; even the slasher sequences are so bloody extreme
that their excess is a joke in itself. All of the self-referential humor
may go over the heads of people just looking for a good frightfest, and on
that level Scream also succeeds, generating genuine suspense and scares.
V I D E O
Primal Fear (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
Hot newcomer Edward Norton, currently seen in theatres in Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt, kicked off a celebrated debut year in movies with his Golden Globe-nominated performance as an altar boy accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago in Gregory Hoblit's entertaining adaptation of William Diehl's novel of the same name. Richard Gere is ideally cast as the publicity-hungry hotshot attorney who takes
Norton's case, and Gere has a strong female foil in prosecutor Laura Linney,
whose strong work here erases her lifeless work in the equally dead Congo (well, almost). One major twist that occurs about midway through is
clichéd, but as a whole the film works quite well as a mystery and as a
courtroom drama, thanks to first-time feature helmer Hoblit's brisk
direction and fine acting by Gere, Linney, and especially Norton.
(Paramount Home Video)
Tin Cup (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Kevin Costner is in top form in Ron Shelton's latest sports comedy
in which the Waterworld survivor plays a washed-up golfer who decides to
enter the U.S. Open to win the affection of the psychiatrist girlfriend
(Rene Russo) of his one-time friend, a slick, successful golf pro (Don
Johnson, perfectly oily). This funny and sweet film should win over even
those with the strongest aversion to golf; you don't have to be a
connoisseur of the game to enjoy the spirited romantic sparring between
Costner and the radiant Russo or the golf sequences, which Shelton milks to
maximum suspense. Shelton delivers all the golf action and happy,
"feel-good" emotions that audiences expect (and want) but, impressively,
does so without following the traditional sports movie conventions. (Warner
Ghosts of Mississippi (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| Book! Ghosts of Mississippi had all the ingredients to make a great,
powerful film: a good director (Rob Reiner), a solid cast (led by Alec
Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, and James Woods), and a powerful storyline based
on actual events--the 1994 retrial of Byron de la Beckwith (Woods, who
garnered a Golden Globe nod for his hammy work), who in 1963 assassinated
NAACP activist Medgar Evers. However, while watching the film, I could not
help but think that Reiner and especially screenwriter Lewis Colick had
missed the real point. This often slow courtroom drama focuses heavily on
Bobby DeLaughter (Baldwin), the assistant DA who prosecutes the case, and
his various domestic problems. Lost in all of this? The deceased--we are
never given a true idea of who Evers really was. There is some talk of the
accomplishments he made for African-Americans, but we never get a clearly
defined idea of his importance and, in turn, the importance of the retrial.
As a result, the ensuing drama is strangely devoid of any emotional weight,
despite a fine lead turn by Baldwin.
Michael (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Get past John Travolta's oddly charismatic performance as
overweight, chain-smoking, womanizing archangel Michael, and there's not
much in the way of laughs or anything else in Nora Ephron's latest work of
cinematic fluff. William Hurt and Andie MacDowell are aboard as a tabloid
reporter and "angel expert," respectively, assigned to study Michael, and
their love-hate relationship fails to catch fire; Hurt appears so
uncomfortable in the film, period, let alone paired with MacDowell.
Travolta will have a hard time duplicating anything approaching the
successes of Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, and Phenomenon with this one.
One Fine Day (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Look up the word "cute" in the dictionary and you're likely to find
a reference to Michael Hoffman's contrived yet delightful romantic comedy.
Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney play two divorced single parents whose
affairs and children become continually entangled during one eventful day.
Guess what? They fall in love, but they don't admit to it until the end of
the film. There's nothing in One Fine Day that anyone hasn't seen before in
a romantic comedy, and in terms of laughs it can't measure up to the
benchmarks of '90s romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were
Sleeping. What is special in the film is the remarkable chemistry between
the impossibly glamorous pair of Pfeiffer and Clooney; they are just as
convincing hating each other as they are loving each other. Sweet and
oh-so-cute, this Day truly is Fine.
The Portrait of a Lady (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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The latest film from Aussie Jane Campion (The Piano) is an
adaptation of Henry James's novel about an independent-minded American woman
(Nicole Kidman) in 19th-century Europe who is duped into a loveless marriage to John
Malkovich by a conniving "friend" (Barbara Hershey, who won the Los Angeles
Film Critics Association award for Best Supporting Actress for her
performance). Campion, production and costume designer Janet Patterson, and
cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have created what is perhaps the most
strikingly picturesque look of a film this year. Too bad I didn't really
care about what was going on. Despite fine work by Kidman, Malkovich (who,
as always, plays a good creep), and especially Hershey, the film is not only
slow but uninvolving; I could not make an emotional connection to Kidman's
character mostly due to Laura Jones's patchy script, which makes no real
effort to establish a coherent plotline. Campion tries to enliven the
affair with some intriguing avant garde sequences (including a bizarre
black-and-white sequence mid-film), but it does not bridge any of the
emotional distance between the film and the audience.