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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 16

#79 - 84
February 13, 1997 - March 19, 1997


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

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#84 March 19, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S
In Brief

Return of the Jedi poster (Star Wars: Episode VI--)Return of the Jedi Special Edition (PG) ****
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Many consider this installment, Episode VI, of George Lucas's Star Wars Trilogy to be the weakest, and after seeing it again, it's easy to see why. Unlike the previous installment, The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi recycles a number of elements from the original film, A New Hope, such as the settings of desert planet Tatooine and the deadly imperial space station Death Star (and its destruction--oops, did I spoil it for anyone?). Also, director Richard Marquand isn't quite as skilled in handling the effects work as creator/exec producer/A New Hope director Lucas nor Empire helmer Irvin Kershner. The seams are a bit too visible in some of the blue screen work, especially during Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) encounter with the vicious rancor monster; and one backdrop during a scene featuring Lando Calrissian and Han Solo (Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford, both of whom aren't given a whole lot to do in this chapter) just screams out "matte painting." And then there's the Ewoks, those cuddly l'il forest-dwelling furballs whose cutesy, kid-friendly antics tend to grate (I must say, though, that the baby Ewok in the basket is pretty darn cute).

No matter, though--Jedi is still first-class entertainment and a satisfying conclusion to this part of the planned 9-part saga. Luke's final confrontation with the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones's voice and, in the end, Sebastian Shaw's face and voice) and the even more evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) still packs a potent dramatic punch after 14 years, and there's plenty of great set pieces: the entire opening act in Tatooine, with the "vile gangster" Jabba the Hutt and the deadly Sarlacc pit; the exhilarating speeder bike chase on the forest moon of Endor; the climactic space battle leading up to the rebuilt Death Star's destruction; even the Ewok-infested battle on Endor, as cheesy as some of it is, is not without its pleasures. As with the other Special Edition releases, there is some new footage here, all welcome to differing degrees. There is a more elaborate musical number in Jabba's throne room (not bad if a bit extraneous); a snapping beak added to the Sarlacc (impressive); and an extended coda which shows the celebration on other rebel alliance planets, including Coruscant, the setting of Lucas's forthcoming Episodes I-III of the saga (very nice). If you've seen the reissues of the other two Star Wars films, there's no point in missing the end.


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#83 March 13, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S
In Brief

Sling Blade poster Sling Blade (R) *** 1/2
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Don't be fooled by Miramax's new ad campaign for actor-writer-director Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-nominated film, which touts it as a thriller. First of all, this Southern drama is a very leisurely paced affair. Second of all, the film's many rewards cannot be described in conventional terms like those of a thriller. The film is an absorbing character study of the truly original and fascinating lead character, recently-released asylum inmate Karl (Best Actor nominee Thornton), who can best be described as a grim, far less talkative Forrest Gump who killed his mother and her lover when he was a boy. Thornton is absolutely phenomenal, creating a not only a memorable character but an unforgettable person for whom the audience grows to feel great fondness. Karl's close friendship with a young boy (the very talented Lucas Black, who made such a lasting impression on the short-lived TV series American Gothic) whose mother (Natalie Canerday) is involved with a psychotic loser (country singer Dwight Yoakam, notably nasty) is strangely moving and unsettling in the sense of how pure it is. At times the film's origins as a short show through; there really isn't too much plot spread across its two-hour-plus running time. But this is not to discount the very impressive work of the cast and crew, especially man-of-the-moment Thornton, who does a virtuoso job of juggling the directing, screenwriting, and acting reins. He deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar.


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#82 March 6, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Jungle 2 Jungle poster Jungle 2 Jungle (PG) no stars
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I was sitting here for about fifteen minutes trying to figure out a snappy lead for my review of the new Tim Allen "comedy" Jungle 2 Jungle until I realized it wasn't worth the trouble. This remake of the French blockbuster Little Indian, Big City (which was massacred by critics during its brief stateside run last year) is pure crap, plain and simple.

Uptight New York commodities trader Michael Cromwell (Allen), during a trip to visit his estranged-for-13-years doctor wife Patricia (JoBeth Williams) in the Amazon village of Lipo Lipo), discovers he has a 13-year-old son named Mimi Siku (unpromising newcomer Sam Huntington) whom Patricia raised in the wild with her. Michael takes Mimi back to New York with him per a promise he made to the boy, and hilarity supposedly ensues. Right now, three days after I've seen the film, I'm still waiting for the hilarity to ensue.

Just about everything about this film is sloppy, awful, and creatively bankrupt. In the Lipo Lipo-based first act, all director John Pasquin and writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon do is sic exotic animal after exotic animal on Michael. First piranhas. Then a spider. Then alligators. Then piranhas again. How funny. Things don't get any better once the action shifts to New York, with Mimi Siku running around in a loincloth, brandishing a bow and arrow, urinating in potted plants, killing birds with his bow and arrow, and cooking up Michael's co-worker Richard's (Martin Short) expensive tropical fish. What fun. Mimi Siku even climbs to the top of the Statue of Liberty in a moment a press mailing from Disney (complete with a working flashlight fashioned after the Statue's torch) says, "reaches new heights of hilarity." Whatever. Mimi Siku's ignorance of the ways of the "civilized" world is supposed to be charming, but it's just insulting. The character is an assemblage of every native cliché and stereotype you can think of wrapped up in a young Anglo package, which I guess is supposed to make it OK. I don't think so.

By the time Mimi Siku makes his climb up Lady Liberty, I thought the (bad) idea had been mined for whatever it was worth (nothing) and that the film was almost over. Not so. The film creaks along for about another forty minutes, introducing a couple of new plot threads fashioned just to prolong the agony. One thread involving a shady deal Richard makes with a Russian mobster (David Ogden Stiers) is a complete waste of time, a storyline whose only apparent purpose is to set up a truly painful Home Alone-style slapstick climax. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, there's the second thread, the sappy, cloying, gag-inducing romance between Mimi Siku and Richard's clean-cut daughter Karen (LeeLee Sobieski). To call this development cornball is an understatement.

In fact, to call Jungle 2 Jungle bad is an understatement. It's awful. Horrible. Garbage. A waste of time, money, and film stock. I'm sorry to say that most of the children in the audience ate this crap up, which is just another disturbing sign that America's youth is in trouble.


In Brief

Donnie Brasco poster Donnie Brasco (R) *** 1/2
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In this fact-based gangster tale, Al Pacino plays Lefty Ruggiero, an aging New York mob hitman who, after many years of dedicated service, has not moved up the mafia ladder. Lefty becomes mentor to a young jeweler/wannabe wiseguy named Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp)... or so he thinks. "Donnie" is actually Joe Pistone, a deep-cover infiltrator for the FBI. Mike Newell's adaptation of the real-life Pistone's nonfiction book is not your typical gangster film--which is exactly what makes the film so interesting. The focus is not on action, the inner workings of the mob, or even on the undercover FBI operation; the emphasis of Paul Attanasio's intelligent script is on relationships, between Lefty and "Donnie" and Joe and his neglected wife (Anne Heche). The supporting cast, from Heche to Michael Madsen (as--what else--a violent tough guy), delivers solid turns, but this is clearly the two leads' show. Pacino gives his most understated work in recent memory, giving Lefty a calm, assured dignity; and Depp convincingly shows how Joe becomes overwhelmed by his charade, eventually not knowing exactly where "Donnie" ends and his true self begins. Donnie Brasco is a classy piece of work that may disappoint those looking for something more conventional.


Private Parts poster Private Parts (R) *** 1/2
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Betty Thomas's long-awaited, enormously entertaining film of "shock jock" Howard Stern's bestselling book Private Parts can be considered a biography, since it traces Stern's humble, geeky childhood and adolescence, his embarrassing early days in radio, to his pushing the limits of taste on the airwaves, challenging the powers that be and the FCC, demolishing all competition, and conquering New York. It can also be considered a comedy, and a very good one at that. There are some huge laughs here spread consistently through the picture, and screenwriters Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko put virtually no lulls between laughs. But to leave the film at that is to shortchange what is obviously the film's point: to serve as a valentine to Stern's wife Alison (played in the film by Mary McCormack). Despite all the rudeness and raunch (including Stern's beloved lesbians), there's a genuine heart at the center of the film, a true sweetness. Stern shows himself for what he is, warts and all, which highlights how remarkable woman Mrs. Stern is, and how much he truly loves her.

Stern is a natural, relaxed performer on camera, but, needless to say, he is less convincing (and appears to be less comfortable) during the more tender moments. Stern's partner-in-crime, sidekick Robin Quivers, also makes a smooth transition to film, matching Stern zinger for zinger. McCormack strikes convincing sparks with Stern and makes for a refreshing presence of reason amid the mayhem. Stealing the final third of the film is Paul Giamatti, who plays the harried program director/thorn in Stern's side at New York's WNBC.

The immensely enjoyable entertainment that is Private Parts could go a long way in earning Stern some mainstream acceptance--during the media screening, I sat next to an older, conservative-looking couple who laughed throughout the entire film. But it all depends on whether or not mass audiences are willing to give him a chance; if they do, Stern could very well on his way to truly becoming "the king of all media," having already conquered radio, television, and books. Can the stage be far behind?


Smilla's Sense of Snow poster Smilla's Sense of Snow (R) **
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In this adaptation of Peter Hoeg's international bestseller, the ever-radiant Julia Ormond plays Smilla Jaspersen, a half-Inuit, half-American woman living in Copenhagen who becomes obsessed with the mystery of a young boy's fatal plunge from the roof of her apartment building. Needless to say, her obsessive interest in the case gets her into assorted types of danger. Bille August's film has a great number of things going for it: a great plot hook, stylish direction, stunning cinematography (by Jorgen Persson), and a fascinating lead character in Smilla, an icy bitch on wheels who doesn't seem to care much about anyone or anything but herself and the deceased child. In a striking change from her soft roles in movies such as Legends of the Fall, Ormond plays Smilla to prickly perfection. Her anger, determination, and all-around negative energy is captivates throughout; anyone who doubted Ormond's ability to carry a picture should be silenced by her commanding work here. However, despite the film's virtues, in the end, Smilla fails to deliver as a thriller. While the film held my interest, as more details surrounding the murder were revealed (involving, of course, a conspiracy), the less I cared about the plot, and the secret behind the whole turn of events is a truly outlandish twist that would be more at home in a no-brainer Hollywood action film than in what purports to be an intelligent adult thriller.


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#81 February 27, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Lost Highway poster Lost Highway (R) **
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David Lynch's reputation as master of the surreal is not in any danger with the release of his first film in five years, Lost Highway. In the new film, Lynch's bizarre, dream-like approach is as fascinating as ever... and every bit as frustrating as well. Lynch's gift has always been his curse, and his latest work is just more evidence supporting that fact.

The "plot" defies traditional explanation, but I'll try anyhow. The excellent first act introduces us to married couple Fred and Renée Madison (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette). Immediately we get the sense that all is not well here: Fred, a jazz saxophonist, suspects that his pretty brunette wife could be up to no good whenever he is away performing at a club. Things get creepy when the two start finding videotapes anonymously dropped off on their doorstep each morning. These tapes begin innocently enough--an exterior shot of their house--but each successive tape goes further, entering the house, eventually showing things that should not be seen by outsiders. Somehow figuring into this is a white-faced Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who, in a genuinely spooky moment, confronts Fred at a party. This segment of the film is Lynch at his best; with the aid of cinematographer Peter Deming and master composer Angelo Badalamenti, he ably creates a chilling atmosphere of dread that gets under the skin. We know something bad is bound to happen; we just don't know what.

Needless to say, things do get bad; unfortunately, the bad extends to the audience. Lynch's fervid imagination once again gets the better of him, as the weirdness of plausible situations clears out to make way for the just plain weird. Fred is sentenced to Death Row for a brutal crime depicted on one of the videotapes, and after suffering a series of massive head pains, he wakes up one morning a new man--literally: 19-year-old mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is promptly released from prison. Pete eventually gets sexually entangled with Alice, the sultry blonde girlfriend of a local gangster/pornographer (Robert Loggia). The "clever" twist? Alice is also played by Arquette.

To describe anything that goes on beyond this stage is pointless, for at this point it becomes clear that the film, which began so promisingly, is actually about nothing; all established characters and plots are virtually irrelevant. What Lynch and co-scripter Barry Gifford (who also had a hand in Lynch's horrid mess Wild at Heart) ultimately appear to be after is an experimental exercise in elliptical dialogue and situations; in non-linear, circular narrative. Granted, this is an interesting experiment; I can't say I was ever bored. But I just wish there were some kind of accessible story within this interesting framework, a real plot on which to hang all the graphic sex and gruesome violence--in short, a point to all of this. Say what you will about Lynch's last film, 1992's much-maligned Twin Peaks--Fire Walk with Me, but at least that film, its many baffling "Lynchian" touches aside, had a genuine story at its core; distinct characters and plot can be delineated. Here, there's a lot to feed the visceral senses, but nothing else.

Lost Highway, like other Lynch films, does stay with you long after it's over. But for once I'd like to know exactly what exactly is it that stayed with me and why it does. In the end, Lost Highway lives up to its title--a long, winding road that will leave all travellers lost.


In Brief

Absolute Power poster Absolute Power (R) ** 1/2
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Clint Eastwood plays a master thief who witnesses a murder involving the President of the United States (Gene Hackman). Sounds like the basis of a suspenseful thriller, and, to a certain extent, Eastwood's latest spin in the director's chair is. The problem, however, lies not in the film's leisurely pace (appropriate) nor in the performances (good), but in the lack of real involvement with any of the characters, from the thief to his fed-up daughter (Laura Linney). Additionally, for all the suspense the film does generate, William Goldman's fairly flat climax is a disappointing payoff.


The Empire Strikes Back poster (Star Wars: Episode V--)The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition (PG) ****
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The spectacular middle chapter of the Star Wars trilogy has returned to the big screen with a few new frills but mostly unscathed--a relief, since the original version, easily the best of the series, really needs no fixing. This dark chapter of George Lucas's saga of Lord Darth Vader's (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones's voice) evil Galactic Empire and the heroic rebellion finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the rebels overwhelmed by "the power of the dark side." The series really hit its stride here, from the writing (richer emotions and characterizations--and no turgid exposition), the look (Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, especially in the carbon-freeze chamber, is absolutely breathtaking), and the acting (no laughable line readings by Hamill). Unlike the alterations done to the first chapter, A New Hope, the changes here are mostly subtle, from redone footage involving the snow monster Luke encounters at the beginning, to computer-generated skyscapes in the Cloud City of Bespin. All of the additions--except perhaps a shrill scream Luke now emits when falling from a great height--are welcome if a bit superfluous. Sci-fi cinema at its best--don't miss it.


Touch poster Touch (R) no stars
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A disaster--and not the kind that's fun to watch, either. It's shocking to see such an interesting array of talent--from writer-director Paul Schrader to stars Bridget Fonda, Christopher Walken, Gina Gershon, and Janeane Garofalo--add up to this painfully dull adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel about a young faith healer/stigmatist (Skeet Ulrich, bland) and the people out to exploit him: a con man/evangelist (Walken), the leader of a militant religious sect (Tom Arnold), a controversy-craving talk show hostess (Gershon), and an acerbic newspaper reporter (Garofalo). Schrader the scripter does keep some of Leonard's interesting throwaway lines in the piece ("Do you think it's safe to put stigmata blood in the wash?"), but in the hands of Schrader the director, all of the best lines fall flat. In fact, everything and everyone here falls flat, except maybe Walken, Gershon, and Garofalo, who make some attempt at enlivening the material given them. Schrader aims for the cinematic cool of Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction (check out David Grohl's surf rock-inspired score), but he forgets what made those movies so effective--there was a certain amount of joy to the piece, an air of fun. No such atmosphere here--only one of indifference.


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#80 February 20, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S
In Brief

Fools Rush In poster Fools Rush In (PG-13) *** Salma Hayek event photos
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Must See TV's most likable Friend, Matthew Perry, makes his big-screen leap in this, well, likable romantic comedy. Perry plays Alex Whitman, a Manhattan nightclub builder in Las Vegas on business, who has a memorable one-night stand with aspiring photographer Isabel Fuentes (the ever-fetching Salma Hayek). After quickly disappearing, Isabel resurfaces on Alex's doorstep months later with the news that she's pregnant and wants to keep the baby. Alex's solution? A hasty marriage. Nothing groundbreaking here, but the film is breezy and fun though not a laugh riot. Rumor has it that Perry and Hayek made sparks of the negative kind in real life, but no negative energy is in evidence on screen. The two have an engaging, offbeat chemistry; Hayek's cool sexiness couldn't be more of a contrast to Perry's recycled but effective goofball wisecracker act, but in this case, opposites do believably attract. All in all, a fun no-brainer that successfully casts a sweet romantic spell.


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#79 February 13, 1997 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Rosewood poster Rosewood (R) **** photos from the world premiere
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In 1923, the predominantly black town of Rosewood, Florida was burned to ground, its population almost entirely decimated, by white men from the neighboring town of Sumner... all because of a lie. This subject matter provides the basis of director John Singleton's latest film, the absorbing and potent historical drama Rosewood.

The event that triggers the massacre does not come until about a half hour or so in, when one Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), a white housewife, claims that she was assaulted by a black stranger (in actuality, she was assaulted by her lover, who was also white). The exposition that precedes this incident, which establishes everyday life in Rosewood, is slow going; while it can easily be dismissed as a failure on the part of Singleton and screenwriter Gregory Poirer, but it's actually a smart move, for it eventually serves to highlight the human toll of the ensuing massacre and serves as a counterpoint to all the brutality that follows. Poirer's script believably shows how this single claim sets off the whole horrific chain of events, how a search for one man snowballs into an all-out hunt against an entire race. There is also a great understanding of the mob mentality, as we see the town's white sheriff (Michael Rooker) join take part in all the killing even though he's never completely convinced by Fannie's story.

Recently another Hollywood studio production, Ghosts of Mississippi, documented an actual historical event and attempted to address its impact on race relations in this country--only to come off as glossy, self-important, uninvolving, and, most of all, synthetic. Rosewood, on the other hand, does feel authentic because it simply doesn't try too hard. Everything on the film is done on a smaller scale--there are no superstars on board to distract from the story, and Singleton, often criticized for being overly preachy (a criticism that is not entirely undeserved), lets the film's message be gleaned from the story itself instead of bludgeoning the audience with it (which he did in his last film, Higher Learning). He also doesn't smooth over the material's rough edges; the killings aren't graphic to the point of being exploitative, but they are graphic enough to convey the sheer brutality and animal nature of the massacre.

Similarly subdued to equal effect are the actors. It goes without saying that Ving Rhames, who plays Mann, the noble stranger to town--who, with white shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight), helps a number of women and children flee to safety--is a physically commanding presence onscreen, and his brawn is well-suited to the role. But there's real vulnerability and soul behind the bulk, evident in his expressive eyes and in his warm scenes with the charming Elise Neal, who plays Scrappie, a teen who falls for Mann. Don Cheadle, as the vengeful Sylvester Carrier, smartly doesn't overplay his character's rage--the controlled fury he brings to the role is much more effective than any histrionics would have been. The only actor who does resort to broad histrionics is Kellner; while the woman who causes all the madness should be shrill, she's shrill to the point of inducing a headache.

Singleton, who made such a memorable debut with 1991's Oscar-nominated Boyz N the Hood, followed that effort with the disappointing Poetic Justice and the mostly effective but underachieving Higher Learning, leading some people to doubt his ability. However, with his triumphant return to form with Rosewood, his talent as a filmmaker should no longer be called into question.


In Brief

Dante's Peak poster Dante's Peak (PG-13) **
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Dante's Peak attempts to do for volcanoes what Twister did for tornadoes, and, in terms of visual effects, it succeeds. The flowing lava, the flying rock, the billowing smoke, the clouds of ash--all of it comes off very convincing and menacing onscreen. The problem is, though, all of this does not come until a whole hour into the film, and by then the audience will have been subjected to Leslie Bohem's dreadfully written exposition, which makes --I'd never thought I'd ever say this with a straight face--the characters and relations of Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin's Twister screenplay look rich and complex by comparison. Pierce Brosnan plays a vulcanologist with the United States Geological Survey who tries to convince his superiors that the long-dormant volcano that gives the film its name will erupt; Linda Hamilton plays the single mom mayor of the town, who somehow manages to find some time outside of her mayoral duties to continue running her neighborhood cappucino shop. Naturally, these two were made for each other, and when they get together, it's even more cornball than one would expect. Director Roger Donaldson makes good use of the impressive effects, but the tension is undercut by Bohem's sloppy script, which soils any suspenseful moment by regressing to maudlin sentimentality. Dante's Peak delivers what one would expect from a volcano film, but it also delivers a whole lot of dreck.


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