The Movie Report
Volume 19

#93 - 95
May 22, 1997 - June 5, 1997

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

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#95 June 5, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Con Air poster Con Air (R) ***
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Don Simpson may be dead, but former producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer keeps the old Simpson/Bruckheimer spirit alive with Con Air, a loud, superslick, ultramacho, and all-around entertaining blast of action and excitement.

A buffed-up Nicolas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a decorated Army Ranger who lands in prison after killing a thug in a drunken brawl. Years pass, and the paroled Poe is one flight away from a new life with his wife (Monica Potter) and the young daughter (Landry Allbright) he has yet to meet. However, the flight he boards is one reserved for the transport of a number of the nation's most dangerous felons. Under the leadership of Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), the convicts hijack the plane, and it's up to Cameron, with the ground support of U.S. Marshal Larkin (John Cusack), to save the day.

Con Air marks the first production of the Simpson-less Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, but most, if not all, of the hallmarks of Simpson/Bruckheimer productions are here. Helming the feature is a director hired to make things look good (commercial director Simon West, best known for the spot where a boy is sucked into a Pepsi bottle); there are explosions and gunplay galore; the musical score (by Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin) is loud and pounding; and, most of all, nary a trace of estrogen in evidence. There is a female guard aboard the flight (played by Rachel Ticotin), but the character is of little consequence; the same can be said of Potter's role as Cameron's wife, which is even smaller than Vanessa Marcil's analogous bit role in the final S/B production, The Rock.

This formula can grow tiresome without some refreshing tweaks, and that is where the actors, with the help of screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (who also wrote--of all things--Beautiful Girls), come in. Cage continues to carve out a niche in the action market without sacrificing his penchant for quirky roles. He is more of a traditional kick-ass action hero here than he was in The Rock, but his Cameron Poe is still an oddball--trailer park white trash with a hint of Elvis (complete with matching accent and politeness streak). Also not sacrificing any eccentricity is Malkovich, whose Cyrus the Virus is the type of effete, cerebral, and decadent character he's been playing for years in less commercial projects (most recently The Portrait of a Lady). Steve Buscemi plays one of the most bizarre characters of the bunch, notorious mass murderer Garland Greene. As written by Rosenberg and played by Buscemi, "The Mangler" is a deliciously ironic character, the con with the most notorious rap sheet and reputation--who is also, as it turns out, perhaps the most innocuous of the bunch. One con who is not fleshed out as well as he could have been is Ving Rhames's Diamond Dog, a black militant. Cusack's stressed-out Larkin is the straightest character in the piece, but he brings his own sense of vitality to the role. I'm all for interesting, unique characters, but one I could have done without is Sally Can't Dance, a flamboyantly gay, cross-dressing con played to the camp hilt by Renoly. Though his presence does set up one of the funnier throwaway gags in the film, the character is a somewhat of a drag, a superfluous flourish in a film already filled to the brim with eccentrics.

Bruckheimer films get the job done as far as action and pyrotechnics (for which the audience sees the film in the first place), but they tend to come up short is in the area of emotion. Any attempt at anything approaching serious drama, especially in a film as loud and frenetic as this, cannot help but seem like an afterthought. Even worse, these moments are played so earnestly that they come off as a joke, which is exactly what happens here with Cameron's tender moments with his wife and child. A number of people in the audience could not help but laugh because West lays on the sap about as thick as he does the explosives in the overpowering action scenes.

As action icons Stallone and Schwarzenegger creep into middle age, the time is right for the emergence of some new, fresh blood to headline action/adventure films. With The Rock and now with the thrill ride of Con Air, Nicolas Cage proves that he can not only look and play the part but also add on a layer of refreshing character dimensions and quirks to the traditional kick-ass hero. In doing so, he is truly breathing new life and then some into the action genre.

In Brief

Bliss poster Bliss (R) * 1/2
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Joseph (Craig Sheffer) and Maria (Sheryl Lee) appear to be the perfect young married couple, but there's one pesky problem--Maria fakes her orgasms. Enter Balthazar (Terence Stamp), a physician specializing in the healing powers of sex--or, as he's referred to in one scene, "Dr. Fuck"--who trains Maria and, ultimately, Joseph in the art of achieving spiritual and sexual bliss.

The international media audience with whom I saw Lance Young's long-delayed film (it had been held up for a year due to ratings trouble) could not take the film nearly as seriously as he would have like it to be--and how could they, especially when a lot of the dialogue inches into Joe Eszterhas territory (my favorite exchange--Joseph: "I can't come!" Maria: "Too bad, MOTHERFUCKER!") and the stabs at comic relief play as pure camp? It got to the point where the audience started to mock the more "serious" passages. When Balthazar tells Joseph, "You have to make love with love and adoration," someone in the back of the audience started clapping, and everyone laughed; a similar reaction came when Maria is finally able to climax.

Bliss finally falls apart beyond repair in the third act, when, without warning, the film takes a gravely serious turn, becoming in effect what can best be described as a lost, alternate reality chapter of Twin Peaks, Lee's former television series--What if Laura Palmer had lived and gotten married? As seen in the Peaks feature, Fire Walk with Me, Lee does some good emoting, but Sheffer is too much of a lightweight to completely convince in his big emotional scene with Lee. Stamp, on the other hand, is the only one involved in the film with some handle on how ridiculous much of it is, dispensing his character's carnal wisdom with tongue firmly in cheek.

Buddy poster Buddy (PG) ** 1/2
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Jim Henson Pictures' first feature film tells the true story of eccentric 1920s socialite Gertrude Lintz (Rene Russo), an animal lover with a large menagerie of creatures roaming in and around her large New York estate. With so many animals living perfectly healthy lives with her, her doctor husband (Robbie Coltrane), her assistant (Alan Cumming), and her maid (Irma P. Hall), Gertrude sees no harm in adopting a baby gorilla. But as "Buddy" grows older and larger, it becomes apparent that she has bitten off a lot more than she can chew.

Children will likely eat up this warm and, with the exception of a couple of intense scenes (which did make some of the kids in the audience cry), cuddly film, especially the comic antics of Gertrude's chimpanzees. Adults, however, will have a bit more trouble buying into it. While the effects crew at Jim Henson's Creature shop give Buddy a remarkably expressive face, the gorilla effects as a become increasingly less convincing as Buddy grows in age and size, evolving from an adorable animatronic infant to a what is obviously guy in a gorilla suit. Writer-director Caroline Thompson also falls short with the film's bittersweet conclusion, which does not pack the big emotional punch it needs. The popular Russo, carrying a film on her own for the first time in her career, provides a welcome dose of starpower, but there is only so much acting she can do opposite a guy in a gorilla suit.

Night Falls on Manhattan poster Night Falls on Manhattan (R) ***
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One of the biggest mysteries in film today revolves around actor Andy Garcia--just why isn't this guy a big star yet? Despite delivering solid performance after solid performance in a number of high-profile Hollywood projects, he has yet to make a big commercial breakthrough. The mystery continues with director Sidney Lumet's latest, an engrossing thriller in which Garcia plays Sean Casey, an idealistic young assistant DA who is assigned to prosecute the case of a drug dealer who killed a number of police officers and seriously wounded Sean's cop father (Ian Holm). That sounds like enough of a plot to fill out two hours, but what makes Night Falls interesting is that the real story begins after this trial, when Sean's career makes a meteoric rise, and he faces the real enemies--within the New York Police Department. Garcia again turns in a solid, emotionally complex performance, and he keeps the audience involved when the plot takes some credibility-straining turns (namely Sean's overnight rise to power). He is well-supported by Holm, Richard Dreyfuss (as a hotshot defense attorney), and especially Ron Leibman, hilarious as the New York DA; when he disappears from the action halfway through the film, so does a lot of energy. But as sturdy a vehicle this is for Garcia's talents, Night Falls's tepid box office receipts show that he will once again have to wait for another chance to win the superstardom he deserves.

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#94 May 29, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Lost World: Jurassic Park poster The Lost World: Jurassic Park (PG-13) *** premiere photos
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On paper, Steven Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park has the makings of a vast improvement over the entertaining but wildly overrated original film: the most remotely interesting human in the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, is the only major returnee; the blah Laura Dern and Sam Neill are supplanted by the vastly more interesting Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn; a wider menagerie of dinosaurs is featured; there are enhanced dinosaur effects; and all of the necessary exposition is already covered in the first film. Yet despite all of the basic improvements going into the production, the perfectly entertaining finished product still somehow manages to fall short of the original film.

This time around, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) very reluctantly joins girlfriend and paleontologist Sarah Harding (Moore), environmentalist videographer Nick Van Owen (Vaughn) on an expedition to Site B, a second dinosaur-populated island, where the creatures were bred for the ill-fated Jurassic Park. Add a child stowaway for the trip--in this case, Malcolm's daughter (Vanessa Lee Chester)--and you have your perfunctory framework for prehistoric mayhem, thrills, and chills.

The promise appears to be fulfilled in the first major dinosaur suspense sequence, involving two very angry T-rexes and our heroes trapped in a double trailer dangling off of a cliff. This scene, which features a tense moment with Sarah on top of a slowly cracking horizontal window pane and some choice dino feeding action, comes quite early in the film, and it sets the stage up for greater thrills. But they don't come. The problem? Miscalculations and missed opportunities. Other than this early scene and a T-rex attack on a camp (complete with the return of the image of quivering water), the major set pieces don't quite go for the kill. Especially dismaying is the showcase raptor sequence. With the raptors chasing our heroes in, on, and around an abandoned, run-down building, it is an effective, suspenseful scene... until the end comes. Jurassic Park had its share of corny moments (the bonding-with-kids-while-feeding-the-brontosaurus scene comes to mind), but it never crossed the line to outright camp and cheese, which is what Spielberg and scripter David Koepp let The Lost World do in its resolution of the raptor scene. I won't give it away, but it left me and the audience with which I saw the film completely aghast at its idiotic awfulness. Certainly, a film about dinosaurs in the present day requires a suspension of disbelief, but to even the most openminded viewer, the end of the raptor scene will ring completely false. The film's third act centers on an unexpected twist involving the T-rex, but the possibilities this surprise idea brings aren't satisfactorily realized. The T-rex is roars a lot, breaks stuff--but, shockingly enough, he doesn't really help himself to the veritable buffet of people running from him. What's the fun of a T-rex who's not hungry?

On a similar note, the promise of the casting does not pay off, mostly due to Koepp's lazy screenplay. Once again, Goldblum is the only remotely interesting human, getting all of the best lines. Moore does not fall into the same trap that befell the original's overwrought Dern, who attacked her role as if she wanted an Oscar nomination. However, once the deadlier dinosaurs arrive, her brilliant scientist is reduced to being a token screamer, and there's precious little left for the talented Moore to work with. Vaughn is a very lively actor (see Swingers), but you would not get that impression from his "role" here, which is a mere one-dimensional placeholder. Pete Postlethwaite's character, a determined hunter after a T-rex, is potentially interesting, but he goes nowhere. Chester, despite having a key part in the horrendous raptor resolution, is a big step up from the first film's kids, Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards (who both, unfortunately, resurface in a cameo, albeit mercifully brief), but anyone would have been an improvement over that annoying duo.

After all my griping, my giving The Lost World: Jurassic Park a passing grade may seem a bit hypocritical, but up to this point I have been focusing on what the film isn't rather than what it is: an enjoyable adventure that never bores, even with a two-hour, fourteen-minute running time. It delivers exactly what one would expect from a dinosaur movie--a wide array of very convincing animatronic and computer-generated prehistoric reptiles (even more impressive than in the original) destroying things and people in more than a few reasonably thrilling set pieces. And as such, it fits the bill of summer popcorn entertainment.

In Brief

Brassed Off poster Brassed Off (R) ***
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Delightful, moving tale of a small British town faced with the closure of its coal mine and, in turn, the demise of its beloved brass band. Writer-director Mark Herman makes his political statement without ever getting too bogged down in details, making his arguments within an accessible, entertaining package that is at once formulaic (Will the brass band win the national finals? What do you think?) and cliché-busting (grave illness does not necessarily spell death). Pete Postlethwaite, mightily convincing as the band's proud conductor, leads a strong cast that also includes Ewan McGregor and Tara FitzGerald, effective and charming as the young lovers in the band.

Trial and Error poster Trial and Error (PG-13) **
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Director Jonathan Lynn's latest shares a number of qualities with his previous comedic foray in law, My Cousin Vinny: both are set in small towns; both focus on lawyers of questionable skill; both employ fish-out-of-water scenarios. But the similarities end there, for without a sharp script, an old pro like Joe Pesci, or an ace-in-the-hole like Marisa Tomei, this flat-footed farce, which substitutes labored, broad slapstick for genuine wit, never comes to life. In a more subdued variation of his Emmy-winning role of Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld's Michael Richards plays an L.A. actor who, through some rather contrived circumstances, must swap identities with a hotshot lawyer friend (Jeff Daniels) for a fraud trial in Paradise Bluff, Nevada. Something is surely amiss when the trial antics are the least interesting aspect of a courtroom comedy; far more interesting is the uptight Daniels's romance with a free-spirited waitress, played with great heart and warmth by rising star Charlize Theron (2 days in the Valley, That Thing You Do!). That subplot has charm; the rest of the film does not.

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#93 May 22, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Addicted to Love poster Addicted to Love (R) ***
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Stalking does not sound like a viable basis for a romantic comedy, but actor-turned-director Griffin Dunne and screenwriter Robert Gordon have somehow made it work in this entertaining film. Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick play Maggie and Sam, respectively, two jilted lovers who scheme to break up their now-linked exes, Anton (Tcheky Karyo) and Linda (Kelly Preston). It goes without saying that Maggie and Sam gradually discover they have more in common than a desire to get even, and the sunny, romantic angle of the story, as charming as it is, is by-the-numbers. But Addicted manages to pack in a lot more bite than most contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies; this is, after all, a revenge story, and the deliciously dark humor of the revenge plot serves as a soothing, stinging tonic to the more formulaic sap. Broderick holds his own as the lovelorn Sam, but the film is mostly a showcase for the fired-up Ryan, obviously relishing the opportunity to throw aside her trademark perk. She hilariously plays Maggie's bitterness and nastiness to the hilt, helping the film maintain its mean-sprited edge as the story takes the inevitable turn to the sweet.

Irma Vep poster Irma Vep ***
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In this amusing satire on French cinema and the insanity that is filmmaking, Hong Kong action diva Maggie Cheung stars as herself, cast as the title character by a washed-up, pretentious French director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a remake of the classic silent serial Les Vampires. The problem is, though, no one involved in the production has the slightest idea what they are doing, least of all the director. Writer-director Olivier Assayas's venom mainly targets the pretensions and pomposity of French film, but the film world in general gets raked over the coals, taking some witty digs at the Batman films and Hong Kong cinema. Léaud is well-cast as the director; his thick French accent makes his English dialogue virtually unintelligible, which works well for the part: how does he expect to make a good film if no one understands what he's saying? Nathalie Richard also has some memorable moments as the stressed-out lesbian costume designer who develops a crush on Maggie--and who can blame her? Cheung looks quite fetching in the latex bondage costume she dons for most of the movie, but there is more to her work here than her appearance. Playing herself as good sport who never quite knows or understands what is expected of her, she convincingly captures the overwhelming sense of confusion. Assayas ends the film on a brilliant note, providing a glimpse at some of the "finished" footage of that doomed film-within-a-film. Amazingly, what we see is even much worse than anything anyone could have ever imagined.

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