The Movie Report
Volume 17

#85 - 87
March 25, 1997 - April 10, 1997

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

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#87 April 10, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Anaconda poster Anaconda (PG-13) no stars
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"When you can't breathe, you can't scream." That may be true, but when speaking in terms of the new thriller Anaconda, a more fitting tagline would be "When you're laughing your ass off, you can't scream," for this inane jungle adventure is nothing less than Congo '97.

This adventure, directed by Luis Llosa of The Specialist and Sniper fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it), follows a film crew traveling down the Amazon to make a documentary on a mysterious tribe. The crew is a bunch of flat characters, each with only one discernible personality trait: there's the earnest young director (Jennifer Lopez, the only actor on board who emerges with her dignity intact); the cameraman from the 'hood (Ice Cube); the horny sound guy (Owen Wilson); the bimbo production manager (Kari Wuhrer); the stuffy British host (Jonathan Hyde); the professor/love interest to the director (Eric Stoltz, wasted); and the foreign-accented captain of the boat (Vincent Castellanos). When they stumble upon a mysterious stranger (Jon Voight) in a broken down boat, the crew decides to take him on board. Big mistake. He's --no lie--a psychotic former-priest-turned-snake-hunter from Paraguay, dangerously obsessed with capturing the 40-foot anaconda snake alive--even if it means sacrificing the film crew.

Now, if one is making a movie about snakes--giant, man-eating snakes, no less--one would think that the first order of business would be to come up with convincing snake effects. Apparently, no one involved in Anaconda thought hard enough. The animatronic snakes look like giant rubber hoses with tire treads. Llosa also uses some "state-of-the-art" computer animation for some shots of the snake striking and wrapping around its prey, but the effects are obviously computer generated; the seams are quite visible.

The phony snakes are more than enough to ruin the film, but the true awfulness of Anaconda doesn't stop there. Two words--Jon Voight. As the nominal human villain of the piece, he is a complete embarrassment. If his unconvincing accent (alternately overdone and underdone) isn't bad enough, there are his hilarious leering gazes at Lopez. If that isn't enough, there are his "villainous" looks, clenched teeth and eyes in full bulge, during the physical scenes. The rest of the cast isn't all that great, either, but their work is downright Oscar-caliber compared to Voight's laughably overwrought turn.

Anaconda can best be summed up by a line delivered midway by Lopez without the slightest bit of irony: "This film was supposed to be my big break, and now it's turned into a disaster." You said it.

Double Team poster Double Team (R) ** 1/2
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Van Damme. Rodman. Rourke. Not the recipe for disaster it appears to be, thanks to Hong Kong action maestro Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), whose brisk, stylish, and inventive direction keeps Double Team moving fairly smoothly over some turbulent patches--but not smoothly enough.

One such turbulent patch is the preposterous plot. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jack Quinn, a CIA operative who, after inadvertently causing the death of the son of terrorist Stavros (Mickey Rourke), is sentenced to a top-secret penal colony/think tank for dangerous agents. After a daring escape, Quinn hooks up with flamboyant arms dealer Yaz (Dennis Rodman) to go after Stavros.

The star of Double Team is not Van Damme nor Rodman but the action, and Tsui, working with a number of HK luminaries such as Samo Hung, stages some wild and exciting set pieces. One early sequence that begins in an amusement park and ends in a hospital is more exciting and entertaining than the endings of Van Damme's last four films combined (make that the entirety of those four films). Tsui reaches a delirious high with a manic hotel room fight with a Chinese assassin (Xi Xi Xiong, a vet of Tsui's Once Upon a Time series) who holds a knife with his toes, a scene that duplicates the outrageous exuberance of the best HK productions.

But, as it stands, the great scenes are just that, good parts of a mediocre whole; the talent of the director is not quite enough to make up for the minimal ability exhibited by some of the other people working on the production. The line of the plot cooked up by Don Jakoby and Paul Mones is quite hokey, to say the least, and certain plot devices stretch credibility, even for an action film, most notably how the heroes survive the finale (oops, did I ruin it for some people?). Without giving the specifics away, it makes me wonder just how much a certain company paid for such a blatant--and, admittedly, creative--product placement. Even though Van Damme thankfully has little dialogue to work with, when he does speak, he is as wooden as ever. The big question here is whether or not hoopster Rodman can act, and after seeing the film, I'm not completely sure. He plays a variation of his own outrageous personality, which, naturally, he does well enough; time will tell if he can actually play a character. The problem with Rodman, however, is that he sticks out like a sore thumb throughout the picture; his involvement is obvious stunt casting--a bit too much so. Not helping matters at all are the numerous throwaway basketball references served up by the scripters; they just serve to take the audience out of the movie even more.

Double Team is certainly one of Van Damme's best, but in light of his less-than-sterling body of work, that isn't saying a whole lot.

In Brief

Grosse Pointe Blank poster Grosse Pointe Blank (R) ***
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Calling this blend of comedy and violence Tarantino lite may sound like a bash, but it isn't. This fun flick stars John Cusack (who also co-wrote and co-produced) as Martin Q. Blank, a role that has almost become a cliche--a hitman who has grown tired of the work. In search of answers (and on one final assignment), he returns to his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan for his ten-year high school reunion, unaware that both federal agents and a vengeful heavy are hot on his tail. Cusack is deadpan perfect, and he shares great comic moments with all of the equally capable cast, from Dan Aykroyd as a rival hitman and Alan Arkin as a put-upon shrink to Joan Cusack as Martin's devoted assistant and the always-delightful Minnie Driver as the high school sweetheart. The film is violent, especially one bloody fight scene, but there is genuine sweetness at the core; director George Armitage has the two sides mesh seamlessly. The retro '80s soundtrack is also put to good use: it's certainly kitschy to have Nena's "99 Luftballons" play in the background as a dead body is being disposed of, but there's also something deliciously ironic about hearing that German-language anti-war anthem as said body is being stuffed into an incinerator. Grosse Pointe's main flaw is not exploiting its hook--hitman attends high school reunion--to the fullest (too little screen time is spent at the event), but there is enough hilarity and wit in the whole picture to make up for that shortcoming.

Inventing the Abbotts poster Inventing the Abbotts (R) ** 1/2
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Pat O'Connor's slice of '50s Americana about the working class Holt brothers (Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Crudup) and their fascination with the wealthy Abbott sisters (Liv Tyler, Jennifer Connelly, and Joanna Going) is not so much the gentle coming-of-age tale it purports to be as it is a glossy soap opera. Never have I seen the conventions of TV soap translated so meticulously to the big screen--the photogenic cast; the small-town setting; the episodic feel of the film; the ease with which characters move from the frontburner to backburner (and vice versa); the two dueling families on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum; the domineering father figure (the Abbott patriarch, played by Will Patton); the proud, gentle mother (Holt matriarch Kathy Baker); the secret trysts; the damaging lies; the inconsistent characterizations; and the intertwining romantic entanglements. If looked at in the right perspective, as a soap and not as the serious drama it pretends to be, Abbotts is quite diverting, if emotionally hollow, melodrama.

However, screenwriter Ken Hixon, in adapting Sue Miller's short story, still falls somewhat short, even by soap rules. The biggest mistake is the quick writeoff of slatternly Abbott sister Eleanor, embodied perfectly by Connelly. A good soap needs a vixen, and Eleanor is a great one--vicious and oh so vivacious. The energy level drops down considerably once she departs, leaving bitter lothario Jacey Holt (Crudup) to shoulder the burden of "being bad," and the blah Crudup isn't up to the task. The relationship between Doug Holt (Phoenix) and Pamela Abbott (Tyler), the "supercouple" of the piece, is initially promising, but in the end Phoenix and Tyler don't generate enough heat to satisfactorily serve as the film's heart of passion.

Keys to Tulsa poster Keys to Tulsa (R) 1/2*
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Illicit sex, murder, blackmail... just business as usual in the life of a film critic--or at least as presented in Leslie Greif's unfocused, uninvolving directorial debut. Eric Stoltz plays Richter Boudreau, the black sheep film critic son of a wealthy Oklahoma family who returns home to Tulsa and eventually gets ensnared into a blackmail scheme cooked up by an old friend (James Spader). Keys, based on Brian Fair Berkey's novel of the same name, is a messy mix of soap opera, film noir, black comedy, and social satire, none of which is done very well. The film is overpopulated and underdeveloped, full of "quirky," one-dimensional characters such as Richter's much-married mom (Mary Tyler Moore, who seems to be in a different movie entirely) that ultimately register no importance to the story, which is wafer-thin to begin with. In keeping with the film's lack of focus, the acting is all over the map, from the broadly comic (Moore and the inexplicably second-billed Cameron Diaz, who has a minute role as a blind date of Richter's) and wan (Stoltz) to the gravely serious (Spader) and uncategorizable (the busy Joanna Going, who plays it both wacky and straight as a stripper). Add in the fact that the lazy, amoral main character isn't the slightest bit likable (a reflection of real-life critics?), and you've got a pointless attempt at cool whose most interesting feature is the reunion of Crash stars Spader and Deborah Kara Unger, who once again play spouses turned off to each other and the world. Perhaps a good car crash would have enlivened their marriage. One thing's for sure, though--a good car crash would have enlivened this tedious chore of a movie.

love jones poster love jones (R) *** 1/2
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As of late, romantic movies have become so reliant on gimmicks to spark their screen romances that it's refreshing to see a love story as simple and straightforward as the one in this film. Nina Mosley (Nia Long) is a struggling photographer turned off to love after a breakup. Struggling writer Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) is a self-fashioned ladies' man with no interest in lasting love ties. Not too long after meeting at a coffeehouse, the two engage in a sexual relationship free of emotional baggage... or so they think. It soon becomes clear that something deeper has developed between them, but neither is brave enough to admit it to one another or themselves. Writer-director Theodore Witcher won this year's Sundance Audience Award for this film, and it's easy to see why; this comedy-drama takes an uncommonly smart and insightful look at relationships while delivering the requisite laughs and romantic heat. Tate and Long have a smoldering chemistry, and both actors display depths of their talent they never had the chance to show in previous roles. There are some formulaic moments, in particular the beat-the-train climax, but for the most part, love jones is a savvy, satisfying, and highly affecting romance that rings true.

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#86 April 3, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Saint poster The Saint (PG-13) ** 1/2
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After briefly trying on the cowl of the caped crusader, Val Kilmer has found a role that's an even better fit for his blend of charisma and cockiness--master thief The Saint. It's too bad the rest of Phillip Noyce's big budget update of the Leslie Charteris character is so mediocre that future adventures seem far from likely.

Kilmer perfectly embodies Simon Templar, an ace thief, master of disguise, and all-around rogue who uses his charms and quick wit to ensnare any woman for his personal gain. For the first time, Simon reaches a crisis of conscience when he develops genuine feelings for scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue), who holds the commodity which he has been hired by a mafia-affiliated Russian billionaire (Rade Serbedzija) to steal--a working formula for cold fusion.

Kilmer has a perfect grasp on the character, pulling off convincing accents in his different guises (the fairly plain makeup work, however, does leave something to be desired), and keeping a great sense of humor throughout. Simon is not only good at what he does, but he has a lot of fun doing it. On the other side of the token, there's the completely miscast Shue. Emma is supposed to be kooky yet so brilliant as to perfect a formula that many scientists have been trying to discover for years. We first meet Emma when she lectures a class on cold fusion. The scene is absolutely crucial to establishing the credibility of the character, and Shue blows it. She plays up the character's quirks and nervous foibles, and any hint of real intelligence is lost in the process. Instead of being brilliant yet kooky, Emma is just kooky--kooky and vacuous.

The character of Emma also gets short shrift from screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick. One of Emma's key defining traits is a heart ailment she's had since childhood, and early on a lot is made of her need for medication. But lo and behold, act three rolls around and suddenly Emma's heart condition is written off in a single line of dialogue. Hensleigh and Strick also don't give any convincing reasons as to why Simon would feel any differently about Emma than any of the other women he's used. The implication is that Emma "understands" the real Simon, but their relationship isn't developed thoroughly enough to make that clear.

The lackluster romance shouldn't come as too big a surprise, since The Saint is directed by Noyce, a skilled craftsman whose work, most recently the Jack Ryan films Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger and the voyeuristic thriller Sliver, is characterized by their technical achievement and emotional chilliness. Noyce creates a number of exciting and suspenseful moments, in particular an extended chase midway, and the film is visually enthralling. But with the "heart" of the picture, the romance between Simon and Emma, so unconvincing, it's easy to just be superficially interested in the picture without really caring about the people involved.

Simon Templar is an interesting character with infinite promise as the protagonist in a series of films, and Val Kilmer is the perfect man for the job, but based on this unexceptional initial outing, Kilmer may soon regret giving up his Batman meal ticket.

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#85 March 25, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Crash poster Crash (NC-17) *** 1/2
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In recent years, the buzzwords "bold" and "controversial" have come less to describe something truly daring than to serve as marketing labels for unimaginative sleaze (Showgirls or Striptease, anyone?). On the other hand, David Cronenberg's Crash, which is finally opening stateside after causing an uproar across the globe (Great Britain just recently lifted a ban on the film), is a film that truly earns the "bold" description--it's a brave, gutsy bit of filmmaking that is never less than fascinating.

This adaptation of J.G. Ballard's controversial novel about sex and car crashes focuses on just that--sex and car crashes. James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) are marrieds who can only seem to become aroused for each other through consensual extramarital dalliances. After James has a head-on car collision with one Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), killing her husband, he finds a new, exciting fetish. James and eventually Catherine are drawn into an underground cult of car-crash fetishists led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a heavily scarred performance artist who gets off on recreating famous celebrity car wrecks.

Not a lot of plot (there's just about as much dialogue as well), but there is plenty of explicit sex and carnage, and I can see why so many people absolutely abhor the film. The film's unflinching scenes of sex involving scarred flesh, wounds, scabs, blood, and pain are hard to take and often shocking--perhaps beyond most people's tolerance levels. At the showing I attended, about 1/4 of the audience was no longer there by the time the closing credits began to crawl. In fact, one could hear the auditorium doors swing open during or after each shock scene (read: sex scene), which was just about every five minutes.

While I was often shocked, I was more fascinated then repelled. The thin plot and wall-to-wall sex may sound like the characteristics of a porno movie, but the execution is not pornographic at all. The sex scenes are raw and unglossy, matter-of-fact and totally devoid of romanticism and eroticism or any feeling at all. To say that these people "have sex" may be too pretty a term; they fuck, plain and simple. And if using that term just makes it sound like the film has no point, there is one. James and Catherine are not just unmoved by each other, but by life in general; their inability to feel anything makes them, in particular James, seek out a way to feel. The film vividly shows how James attempts to feel something through sexual encounters that grow progressively more dangerous, leading up to the final dialogue exchange, which, the way I read it, implies the ultimate point of the film--a haunting conclusion and realization that is even more unsettling in how it makes logical sense.

The stark, cold elegance in how it all comes together is a tribute to Cronenberg, whose talent to get under filmgoers' skin is further proven by the wildly polarized, love-it-or-hate-it reaction to the film. Despite the preposterousness of the central idea (I doubt anyone has a car crash fetish), there are no laughable moments, except perhaps one where the group is driven to heights of ecstasy while watching crash test dummy footage. Cronenberg elicits appopriately stoic and morose turns by Spader, Unger, and Hunter, but the standouts of the cast are the creepy Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, who plays a crippled crash victim whose leg-braces-and-leather get-up suggests a twisted (literally) dominatrix. Cronenberg does fall somewhat short in setting up the characters; we never get a concrete sense of how or why Helen, James, or Catherine became so disaffected by the world. A better understanding of the people may have made the film resonate even stronger.

But, as it stands, Crash resonates pretty strongly. With this, what you see is not what you get. All of the sex makes it look like porn, but no porn film has such strong thematic subtext. Then again, not that many films, period, provide so much fascinating food for thought.

In Brief

The Devil's Own poster The Devil's Own (R) **
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Alan J. Pakula's long-delayed Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt starrer was plagued by a number of production problems, including a script that had yet to be completed after shooting had already began, and it shows. This thriller has an interesting enough hook: Irish-American New York cop Tom O'Meara (Ford) unwittingly takes in I.R.A. terrorist Rory Devaney, a.k.a. Frankie McGuire (Pitt), forging a strong, almost familial bond until he is betrayed by the truth. Unfortunately, Ford's character doesn't find out the truth until what feels like a good 90 minutes into the film; in the meantime, the audience is subjected to a drawn-out set-up that's a cobbled-together mess of conflicting tones: the sitcomish antics of Tom's family; the gritty violence of Rory's past; and routine TV cop show situations that fall somewhere in between. Something is amiss when one of the longest chase sequences turns out to be a "comic" moment that has no relevance to the main story.

Nothing is amiss, however, with the actors. Ford is excellent, convincingly portraying Tom's conflicting feelings of love for Rory the person and hate for the terrorist actions of Frankie. Pitt adopts, for the most part, a consistent Irish brogue (though at times he comes thisclose to veering into Julia Roberts "there was bluuuhd on the ceilin'" territory) and is equally believable playing the two sides of his character, the nice Rory and the hard, bitter Frankie. The two lead characters of Tom and Rory/Frankie are interesting, but in the end, though, I didn't find myself engaged enough by the story to really care.

Liar Liar poster Liar Liar (PG-13) ***
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Jim Carrey is back in form with this often hilarious comedy in which he plays a compulsive liar (read: lawyer) who suddenly finds himself unable to tell nothing but the truth (so help him God) after his son (Justin Cooper) wishes so on his birthday. This plot provides a great setup for some very funny verbal and physical humor from Carrey, who truly works his ass off to get a laugh. As good as he is, though, I wish that he didn't play the role so broadly in the beginning (during the "liar" stage); his hysterics would have been even funnier if there were more contrast. While director Tom Shadyac, who also helmed the first Ace Ventura, fails to make the schmaltz involving the father-son relationship convincing, he keeps the action brisk and the comedy raucous, which is the whole point of the film's existence. Like Shadyac's The Nutty Professor, the film closes with outtakes, which are amusing but nowhere nearly as funny as those that closed Nutty.

Selena poster Selena (PG) ***
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A talented young woman overcomes the odds to become a superstar, only to have her life tragically cut short before she realized her ultimate dream. It's a classic American story, and this entertaining biopic tells it well, helped in large part by the phenomenal starmaking performance of charismatic Jennifer Lopez as late Tejano singing sensation Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Selena details Selena's rise from reluctant Spanish-language child singer (born and raised an English speaker, she wanted to sing pop/disco like Donna Summer) to the first female Tejano music superstar. Selena was on the brink of crossover stardom, recording her first English-language album, when a deceitful employee (Lupe Ontiveros) fatally wounds the 23-year-old in 1995.

Writer-director Gregory Nava tells the sad yet sweet and inspirational tale with buoyant energy--the musical numbers are especially electric--he does make some bad calls. There are more than a couple of cornball, movieish moments that don't ring true; for example, a "metaphoric" bungee jump at a carnival leads Selena to defy her father's (Edward James Olmos) wishes and elope with the bad boy guitarist (Jon Seda) of her band. There are other more minor flaws, such as some cheesy dialogue ("Go girl!" says Selena's mother (Constance Marie) while watching her daughter perform) and thuddingly obvious visual flourishes (images of blooming roses appear beside Selena as she sings the song "Como la Flor," which means "Like the Flower"). But Nava does a respectable, respectful job as a whole, especially in the clever, tasteful, and poignant way he depicts Selena's death and its aftermath, and Lopez's commanding presence makes up for any of the script's shortcomings.

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