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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 20

#97 - 99
June 19, 1997 - July 8, 1997


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#99 July 8, 1997

M O V I E S

Face/Off poster Face/Off (R) **** event pix
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After two mediocre films in the past four years, Hong Kong action maestro John Woo has finally, truly, arrived in the United States with his third American feature, the dazzlingly kinetic and wonderfully complex thriller Face/Off.

The complicated plotline by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary defies any brief explanation. FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), after years of obsessive pursuit, finally captures the murderer of his young son Michael, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), but not before Castor leaves one final calling card--a large bomb waiting to detonate at an undisclosed Los Angeles location. With Castor near death in a hospital, the only way to find out the bomb's location is from Castor's imprisoned brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), but the task is much easier said than done. To gain Pollux's unconditional trust, Sean, through the use of a revolutionary surgery technique, literally becomes Castor, adopting the criminal's face, voice, and body. Needless to say, when the true Castor wakes up from his coma, things get even more complicated. The newly free Castor (now played by Travolta), wearing Sean's face, voice, body, and identity, shakes up the FBI--not to mention the lives of Sean's wife Eve (Joan Allen, again impressive) and rebellious daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain)--as the true Sean (now played by Cage), incognito as Castor, sits in prison.

What ensues is a most intriguing acting exercise for Travolta and Cage, who spend most of the movie playing the other's role, not to mention the other's persona. It's a tricky, ambitious gimmick, and its success is absolutely critical to the film--if it fails, so does the whole movie. But in the capable hands of two consummate actors like Travolta and Cage, under the direction of an underrated acting director like Woo, the switch succeeds brilliantly. Each actor nails the other's mannerisms and speech rhythms so perfectly, that it is never difficult to keep track of who's who; one really does believe that each character is trapped in the other's body. Travolta has the showier part, playing the over-the-top, oddball villain with gusto, but it is Cage who really impresses, striking no false notes in the more difficult, subtle, emotional role.

Woo's claim to fame is his delirious action scenes, and in Face/Off moreso than any other of his American features, he is able to show off his fresh, wildly imaginative approach to mayhem--elaborate choreography, standoffs, flashy editing, etc. Woo fans dismayed by the watered-down pyrotechnics in Hard Target and Broken Arrow will be relieved by the spectacular action sequences in this film. One standout sequence, where Olivia Newton-John's cover of "Over the Rainbow" plays while a defenseless young boy watches numerous people getting shot to death, is the type of hypnotic yet unsettling violence-as-poetry moments only Woo can pull off.

While Woo has made his name as a masterful action director, fans know that the gunplay is just part of what makes his best HK action films so great. They also feature rich characters and abnormally (for an action film) strong emotion, and what makes Face/Off a Woo film through and through are these two qualities. A number of the film's most memorable scenes aren't elaborate sequences, but quieter, more emotional ones. Particularly poignant are moments involving Sean as Castor--when Sean first sees his reflection as Castor and angrily yells "Fuck you!" over and over again to the doctors; when Sean fights off tears playacting as Castor during a prison fight; and, most notably, when Sean/Castor meets the son Castor never knew he had and loses himself in the moment, hugging the child tightly and calling him "Michael." These scenes, whose success is in large part due to Cage's terrific performance, recall the raw, intense emotion Woo brought to 1990's devastating Bullet in the Head and his masterpiece, 1989's The Killer.

If there's one thing about Face/Off does not feel completely, totally John Woo, it is the incredibly sunny ending, which comes complete with garish white lighting. But that aside, Face/Off is still a refreshing, undiluted dose of Woo--an exhilarating, engrossing, intelligent action thriller that puts all of this summer's other popcorn movies to shame.


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#98 June 26, 1997

M O V I E S

Hercules poster Hercules (G) ***
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After making steps toward maturity with 1995's serious-minded Pocahontas and last year's vastly underrated dark masterpiece The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney's 35th full-length animated feature, John Musker and Ron Clements's comic adventure Hercules, finds the studio in retrograde. While this shift in gears is a bit disappointing after the admirable ambitions of the previous two films, there is no denying that Hercules is a rousing crowdpleaser--the type of light, fun family entertainment the Disney name has become synonymous with over the years.

The first few minutes of Hercules could not be more of a contrast from the dark opening of Hunchback, in which the evil Judge Frollo kills baby Quasimodo's mother attempts to drown him in a well--we see the absolutely adorable baby Hercules (whose big head makes up two-thirds of his entire body), superstrong son of gods Zeus (voiced by Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar), cuddling with his pet, baby Pegasus. The bliss on Mount Olympus is short-lived, however; baby Herc is soon snatched away by god of the underworld Hades (a well-cast James Woods, more smarmy used car salesman than devilish overlord) who feeds the child a potion that makes him mortal and thus unable to rejoin his parents in the land of the gods. Under the training of wisecracking satyr Philoctetes (Danny DeVito, in top wisecracking form), the strong and brave Herc (voiced as a teen by Joshua Keaton and Roger Bart; voiced as an adult by Tate Donovan) becomes, if you will, the Michael Jordan of ancient Greece, admired by millions and earning millions through endorsement deals. But to regain his divine aura, he must prove to be a "true hero," and standing in his way is Hades, who plots to take over Olympus for his own dastardly purposes; and possibly Megara (Susan Egan, the original Belle in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast), a sharp-tongued damsel whose true motives are not clear.

As with all Disney animated features, the music is one of the main attractions--or, at least, it should be. For Hercules, regular Disney tunesmith Alan Menken, this time collaborating with Tony-winning lyricist David Zippel, provides his most uneven work for a Disney film. The majority of the singing is done by a quintet of Muses (Lilias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, and Vaneese Thomas), a Greek chorus of narrators that is part gospel choir, part Motown girl group. Their soulful numbers, which are more than slightly reminiscent of Menken's catchy '50s-flavored work in Little Shop of Horrors, provide a toe-tapping (if not particularly memorable lyrically) musical framework for the film. But Menken's more traditional, formulaic numbers fall flat. Phil's dreadful comic number "One Last Hope" picks up right after Hunchback's weakest song, the uninspired gargoyle showcase "A Guy Like You"; and "Go the Distance," Herc's big "I Want" song (his only number in the film), is a forgettable, sappy ballad that shallowly expresses his desires without shedding much inner light into the character. Menken would have been better off spreading the R&B motif through the entire picture--a point reinforced by the film's best song, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)," sung in the style of a '50s girl group by Meg and the Muses. Why the producers chose a version of "Go the Distance" (sung by, of all people, Michael Bolton) to serve as the film's pop single instead of a rendition of this memorable song is beyond me.

Hercules also leaves a little something to be desired on the visual level. While the artwork and animation is perfectly serviceable, the rather simplistic art style is a bit of a comedown after the impressive visual splendors of Hunchback. There is only one truly visually spectacular sequence (Hercules's wild battle with a computer-generated Hydra) and only one character with a striking look--Hades, whose head-topping flame changes color depending upon his mood. Meg's appearance is particularly disappointing; a femme fatale is something new and exciting for the genre, but her animators aren't up to the task. Both curvy and sharply angular, jarringly so, she is the first unattractive female lead in recent Disney animated features. But where the artists fall short, Egan makes up, delivering Meg's lines with the right balance of sass and teasing allure.

And what about Hercules? He's big, strong, well-meaning... and dull. Sure, he has all the muscles; he can lift heavy objects over his head; but no distinctly interesting personality shines through. At least Aladdin had his life of crime and Prince Ali charade, John Smith his "consent vs. descent" issue with Pocahontas, Simba his guilt over his father's death, the Beast and Quasimodo their angst over their appearances. Nothing is really made of Herc's main conflict (godly strength trapped in a mortal body), save for one scene in which the teenage Herc is called "Jerkules" after inadvertently destroying some architecture. He displays some cockiness when he first meets Meg, but it's quickly thrown out the window; perhaps a longer-lasting dash of that would have added something to him.

Even with a vapid void in the center, Hercules is still top-flight entertainment for the family, even if it does not quite qualify as an instant classic. It should have no problem reversing Disney animation's slowly eroding box office grosses, which makes this Disney fan worry. With the light, bouncy Hercules's box-office success just about assured, will the Mouse completely abandon, unjustly so, more experimental and mature animated works like Hunchback?


In Brief

My Best Friend's Wedding poster My Best Friend's Wedding (PG-13) *** 1/2
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In the years since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in 1990's Pretty Woman, it seemed as if Julia Roberts had forgotten how to be a star, appearing virtually smile-free in clunkers such as Sleeping with the Enemy and Mary Reilly. But in P.J. Hogan's delightful romantic comedy, the Roberts audiences knew and loved is back--not only has the smile returned, but also the glow, the joy of performance. Roberts stars as New York food critic Julianne Potter, who realizes that her longtime best friend Michael O'Neal (Dermot Mulroney) is the ideal man for her--just after he announces his engagement to heiress Kimmy Wallace (Cameron Diaz). With only four days until the wedding, Julianne plots to break up the happy couple and claim Michael for herself.

Think you have the film already figured out? You don't. Ronald Bass's clever, intelligent screenplay has more than a few surprises up its sleeve. One of the more refreshing aspects is its treatment of Kimmy. Usually in a romantic comedy, the third wheel is depicted as a complete loser or as having a single overwhelming quality that befits a loser. Kimmy, while a bit overenthusiastic and giddy from time to time, is a nice, bright young woman; in fact, she actually becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, and Julianne less so as her scheme takes more underhanded turns.

Mulroney and Diaz lend strong support to the newly energized Roberts, who delivers her best work in years, but, oddly enough, the film does not belong to her. Stealing the show is Rupert Everett, playing Julianne's gay editor and confidant George Downes. Unlike homosexual supporting characters in most films, George is no foolish object of ridicule; actually, he is the most sensible character of all. In his hilarious showcase scene (set in a seafood restaurant), he appears to be a moron, but he's in fact way ahead of everyone else at the table, acting as such to prove a point to Julianne. It will come as no surprise if he garners a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod next February.


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#97 June 19, 1997

M O V I E S

Batman & Robin poster Batman & Robin (PG-13) *
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Holy Bat-astrophe! The Batman film franchise as we know it is dead, thanks to Batman & Robin, director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's campy and most disrespectfully lighthearted reinterpretation of Bob Kane's Dark Knight.

To most clearly and thoroughly address all that is wrong with this Bat-flick, I will first review the film character by character:

Bruce Wayne/Batman (George Clooney): Clooney has gone on record that his aim in taking on the role of Batman was to wipe off the scowl from under the cowl and lighten up the Caped Crusader. Big mistake. What seems to be lost on Clooney, Schumacher, and Goldsman is that angst and brooding is what makes Batman Batman--strip away that and you have in effect stripped away the meat of the character, not to mention the whole motivation behind millionaire Bruce's nocturnal adventures in a rubber rodent suit. So what Clooney serves up is a not-too-interesting guy with a grin perpetually glued onto his face, a flat, distant character we have absolutely no insight into whatsoever.

Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O'Donnell): I am not a Robin fan; I never have been, and I probably never will. However, despite a shaky, whiny beginning, O'Donnell made me tolerate the Boy Wonder by the end of Batman Forever by simply calming down. In Batman & Robin, though, Dick and Robin are back in ultrawhiny mode, playing up the petty jealousy and brash youth and na´vetÚ which are the very characteristics which annoy Robin-haters the most. Presumably, the audience is supposed to sympathize with Dick/Robin's frustration with not being treated as an adult by Bruce/Batman, but based on his behavior in the film, there is no reason for Bruce/Batman to treat Dick/Robin as anything but the whiny kid he comes off as.

Barbara Wilson/Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone): The big problem with Batgirl is that no one figured out how to fit her into the story. Unlike the introduction of Dick/Robin in Forever, which tied directly into the storyline with Two-Face, Barbara, Alfred's (Michael Gough) niece, simply turns up on the Wayne Manor doorstep in act one and, in a most superfluous subplot, is revealed a closet biker chick in act two. There is an attempt at convergence in act three, when Barbara becomes Batgirl (though her ear-less getup makes her more resemble Robingirl) and aids the dynamic duo in their cause, but her most significant contribution is pulling an Ariana Richards in Jurassic Park (that is, hack into a computer). The zaftig Silverstone is a good enough sport, but she never appears completely comfortable as either biker Barbara or brainy Barbara (or, for that matter, in her rubber costume).

Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger): The filmmakers seem the most confused with how do deal with Dr. Victor Fries. Schumacher and Goldsman use the tragic origin for the character from Batman: The Animated Series--Dr. Fries experimented with cryogenics in an effort to save his terminally ill wife, Nora (played by supermodel Vendela), but a lab mishap made him unable to survive in non-freezing temperatures. Instead of leaving it at that, in an apparent concession to the casting of Schwarzenegger in the role, Mr. Freeze is a wisecracker, which is totally at odds with the tragic depiction that is also presented. What results is a most jarring mess of a character. Case in point: one early scene shows a somber Freeze wistfully watching old home movies of him and his wife. Suddenly, an underling comes in and interrupts his viewing with some important news. Freeze turns around in his chair, freezes the guy with his freezing gun, and quips, "I hate it when people talk during the movie." Just what exactly are Schumacher and company going after here?

Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman): The one character that is the slightest bit done right is that of seductive eco-terrorist Dr. Pamela Isley--but it's more due to Thurman's lively performance than anything done by the filmmakers. Like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (though not nearly as good), Thurman has a firm grasp on the key to her character: she's not a vamp, she's a natural wallflower acting like a vamp--thus the act is that much more extreme. Thurman pulls it off beautifully, but, in the end, even she's not immune to Schumacher and Goldsman's camp. For a gifted scientist, her master plan--to populate the world with toothed, tongued plants that come straight out of Little Shop of Horrors--is idiotic.

Bane (Jeep Swenson): Idiotic doesn't quite cover what is done to the character of Bane, who definitely is the most ruined character in this film treatment. In the Batman comics, Bane is Batman's ultimate challenge--not only is he physically stronger than Bruce Wayne, he is also smarter. The problem is that the venom which coarses through his veins makes him crazy. In Batman & Robin, the only thing left of Bane comic fans know and love is his bulk and the venom. Bane is nothing more than a generic, grunting, intelligence-impaired, muscled henchman to Poison Ivy. The saddest thing about the raping of Bane, he being a rather recent addition to the Batman comic universe, is that most mainstream moviegoers won't even know that anything has been done wrong.

Schumacher and Goldsman's wrongdoing do not end with the characters. Their most heinous crime is the overwhelming atmosphere of camp, from Batman pulling out a Bat-credit card during an auction to Mr. Freeze's bunny slippers, polar bear pajamas, and freezer full of frozen dinners. Schumacher has said that he wanted to "put some 'comic' back in comic book," but he forgets what comic book he's dealing with--Batman, which is a "comic" book in name only. In camping everything up, Schumacher, who claims to be a comic book fan, just reinforces the most widely held stereotype about comics--that they're just for kids. The irony is, of course, that the film Batman & Robin is more juvenile than any Batman comic you'd find on the stands today.

I can go on about what is wrong with Batman & Robin, but I must give some credit where credit is due. B&R does boast the most impressive visual effects of the series; effects supervisor John Dykstra (of the recently closed Warner Bros. effects house) comes up with some very convincing for Freeze's freezing weapons and Ivy's pheremone dust. Production designer Barbara Ling provides another striking vision of Gotham, with its towering buildings and statues. And, yes, I guess I can say something "positive" about Schumacher's work--he's an equal opportunity exploiter. Not only are we treated to a Batman and Robin suiting-up sequence filled with butt, crotch, and chest shots, their female counterpart is similarly exploited when she gets her chance to suit up.

The most telling indication of Batman & Robin's shoddiness is the audience reaction at the screening I attended. When the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, the crowd cheered, and it applauded the names of the five main stars. When the film ended with the image of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl running in front of the Batsignal, there was a smattering of tepid applause, but mostly boos. Let the Bat-lash begin.


Men in Black poster Men in Black (PG-13) *** 1/2 event pix
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UFOs. Aliens. Slime. Will Smith. What more can you ask for? In the case of last year's Independence Day, a self-awareness of its inherent ridiculousness would have helped. That problem does not befall Smith's latest bout with creatures from outer space, Barry Sonnenfeld's witty and fun sci-fi-action-comedy Men in Black.

In this adaptation of Lowell Cunningham's obscure Marvel/Malibu comic, Smith stars as a New York cop who is recruited by mysterious Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) into the ultrasecret underground group known as the Men in Black, which overlook intergalactic relations. It is up to Agent K and the newly christened Agent J to prevent an alien bug disguised as a farmer (Vincent D'Onofrio) from stealing a galaxy and thereby causing an interplanetary war and, in turn, the destruction of earth.

If this sounds a tad confusing to you, you're not alone. MiB's biggest problem is its story--the primary plot cooked up by screenwriter Ed Solomon is introduced fairly late in the game. But by the time the nominal plot takes center stage, the film has already won you over with the script's witty one-liners, self-effacing sense of humor, and bashes at pop culture (Sylvester Stallone is skewered in one of the more inspired gags); and its imaginative production design (by Bo Welch) and visual effects (supervised by Eric Brevig). Most impressive, however, are the alien makeup effects designed by Rick Baker. The creatures look like exactly that--living, breathing alien creatures and not animatronic puppets. Especially convincing is an alien infant whom J delivers; slinky, squidlike, and covered in slime, the expressive baby alien succeeds in doing what the best human infants do onscreen--look cute and elicit "aw"s.

As impressive a technical achievement MiB is, it would not have worked without a strong lead duo, and Jones and Smith make a great team. Smith's natural, infectious ebullience plays off well against the stoic Jones, who is at his deadpan best, engaging in some ridiculous situations with the straightest of faces. It is one thing to wear a straight face while having a heated discussion with an uncooperative dog, but it's quite a whole other level of achievement to do that and convincingly appear to treat the situation with the gravest of seriousness. Jones's K never shakes off his grim face even when he is joking, making his performance that much more effective and funny. D'Onofrio has some great slapstick moments as the insect who hasn't quite got the hang of wearing a human skin suit, and though she's underused, Linda Fiorentino, as coroner Dr. Laurel Weaver, fits quite snugly with the team of Jones and Smith.

Men in Black is certain not to reach the stratospheric box office heights of Smith's bountiful bout with aliens last summer, but in shedding the self-importance and jingoism of the two-hour-plus ID4 and taking on a most welcome self-aware sense of humor, the lean, mean, 98-minute MiB is not just a better film, it's also a lot more fun.


In Brief

Speed 2 poster Speed 2: Cruise Control (PG-13) **
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As the trailer for Jan DeBont's sequel to his 1994 adrenaline rush says, "Since the last time we saw Annie (Sandra Bullock), some things have changed." She still has no last name (some reviews have stated her full name as Annie Porter though that name is never given in the film itself), and she has traded in her daredevil SWAT team beau, Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves in the original), for... another daredevil SWAT team beau, Alex Shaw (Jason Patric). But, as the trailer also says, "Some things haven't." Alex takes Annie on a romantic oceanliner getaway, but their bliss is short-lived when a lone man--a disgruntled ex-employee of the cruise line named Geiger (Willem Dafoe)--takes over the ship, sending it on a high-speed crash course into an oil tanker and, later, an island resort town.

With its breakneck pace from elevator to bus to subway, Speed lived up to its title. Speed 2 also lives up to its title, but its subtitle--cruise control indeed, as in slow and phoned-in, coasting by on what is passed off as thrills. Despite all the explosions and fireworks (including a most impressive five-minute crash sequence), Speed 2, while somewhat diverting and watchable, is never exciting. Unlike the original, which immediately dove into action from the first scene, it takes a good twenty-plus minutes for Geiger's scheme to get off the ground. Also unlike the original, which had the sense to not delve into any other bus passenger save for Annie, a good deal of time is wasted on peripheral characters we could not care less about. Not that the main characters are anything to crow about, either--Bullock predictably does an able job of reprising her starmaking role, albeit less interesting this time around for the sheer fact that she isn't given anything of substance to do; Patric is adequate if run-of-the-mill as the action hero; but Dafoe's villain never comes off as much of a threat--he is more nuts than dangerously psycho.

Worst of all, though, the seams of the last-minute Alex-for-Jack rewrite really shine through. For instance, Glenn Plummer reprises his role as the commuter whose car Jack used to get on the bus; this time, Alex uses his expensive boat to get onto Geiger's seaplane. Plummer makes a "comic" reference to the therapy he underwent as a result of his experience with the LAPD, but it's forced. Without the character of Jack in the scene, doing exactly what he did in the first film to exactly the same person, the whole point of the joke is lost.


V I D E O

Crime Story poster Crime Story (R) ***
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Making its American wide release debut on video after plans for a theatrical release were aborted is this 1993 Hong Kong action thriller, best known as the film in which Jackie Chan plays it completely straight. Chan stars as a special agent assigned to protect a wealthy businessman (Law Hang Kang) who is promptly kidnapped and held for ransom; little does he know that the mastermind behind the scheme is his partner (Kent Cheng). Director Kirk Wong has crafted a stylish, efficient thriller with all the spectacular action sequences and stuntwork expected of a Chan vehicle. While Chan acquits himself nicely in this dramatic role, in stripping away Chan's trademark sense of humor, this vehicle feels less fresh and more Hollywood standard-issue than Chan's comedically-tinged work. Unlike other domestic releases of Chan's work, Chan does not do his own English-language dubbing; instead, there is a voice actor who tries to sound like him--and fails miserably. (Dimension Home Video)


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