The Movie Report
Volume 21

#100 - 104
July 10, 1997 - August 14, 1997

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

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#104 August 14, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Money Talks poster Money Talks (R) * 1/2
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A small-time ticket scalper/con man (Chris Tucker) is falsely accused of masterminding a prison bus escape, and the only one who can help him clear his name is a stuffy TV news reporter (Charlie Sheen) who wants the exclusive story. Sound familiar? Money Talks is a very tired, very tedious formula action comedy, but there is an ounce of truth in it's "This ain't no buddy movie" tag line. The term "buddy movie" implies the existence of two characters, and I don't think Sheen's flat role qualifies--he's merely there to bicker with Tucker from time to time and serve as Tucker's link to the wealthy family of Sheen's fiancée (Heather Locklear, wasted), with whom Tucker engages in some uninspired, unoriginal culture clash gags. The only real character to speak of is Tucker's, and he is the only performer on board who seems awake; his manic energy is the only thing keeping the audience from dozing off like the rest of the cast. First-time feature director Brett Ratner brings none of the visual gloss and style one would expect from a veteran music video director. This limp film could have used it.

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#103 August 7, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Conspiracy Theory poster Conspiracy Theory (R) ** 1/2
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Mel Gibson plays a paranoid, downright crazy New York cab driver obsessed with the idea of conspiracies. Suddenly, he finds himself the target of shady government types, apparently because one of his theories is true. On the run for his life, only a Justice Department investigator (Julia Roberts) can help him. Sounds like a strange cross between Lethal Weapon, Taxi Driver, and The Pelican Brief, and, for about half of its running time, Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory does play as such. However, one wishes that Donner and company had remained on that track, for the film quickly degenerates into a murky mess that grows more hopelessly convoluted with each passing minute.

What makes Conspiracy Theory initially interesting--and promising--is Gibson's wacked-out cabbie, Jerry Fletcher. There are paranoid people and then there are people like Jerry, who even keeps his refrigerator and its contents under lock and key (one of the more inspired sight gags are the combination-locked jugs of coffee and pudding). Gibson, a proven pro at playing off-kilter characters, is so much fun to watch that we are interested when the contrived plot surfaces. Jerry voices his wild theories in a self-published newsletter (which lends the film its title), so when some government agents led by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (an underused Patrick Stewart) start chasing him, Jerry, his "friend" Alice Sutton (Roberts, well-cast), and the audience are led to believe that one of his wild ideas is indeed true.

Alas, if only it were that simple. Certainly, the scenario initially set up by writer Brian Helgeland is contrived, but at the very least it was easy to follow, and Donner directs the proceedings with an energetic urgency. But, as it turns out, it's nothing more than a red herring. Midway through a couple of new, complex plot elements are brought to the forefront: the long-ago murder of Alice's judge father and, most regrettably, a left-field development involving (yes) mind control. This twist would not have been as bothersome if it made some sense, but it never does, nor is everything clearly, satisfactorily explained. The way in which Conspiracy Theory hooks viewers with its questions (and fascinating protagonist) and then loses them with its answers more than recalls the recent thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, even if the outlandishness of the plot "secrets" is not as awful as that of the half-baked Smilla.

Conspiracy Theory marks Gibson and Donner's fifth collaboration (following the three Lethal Weapons and Maverick)--and their least satisfying one. As it is, the film is a mildly diverting piece of popcorn entertainment, but it would have gone down a lot more smoothly had it not been too "clever" for its own good.

In Brief

In the Company of Men poster In the Company of Men (R) ****
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Feeling weak due to their workplace situation and less-than-fulfilling love lives, nondescript executives Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) decide to engage in a sadistic game to help them reaffirm their power as men. During a six-week stint at an out-of-town office, the two simultaneously romance a weak-willed wallflower type just for the thrill of dumping her hard before they head home. Their target? Cristine (Stacy Edwards, nicely understated), a typist who is not only sweet and shy, she's also deaf.

Much ink has already been spilled debating whether or not Neil LaBute's unflinching, fascinating film is misogynistic or, in a roundabout way, feminist. As for me, I'm not entirely sure if it's either of those things or just plain anti-human. Mastermind Chad, played with the perfect mix of sly charm and venom by the terrific Eckhart, certainly hates women, but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg--he's a sociopath who seems to care for little else but himself. The pain he inflicts on Cristine is considerable but perhaps not as deep as the damage he ultimately does to his hapless collaborator, Howard. And in one highly unsettling scene, Chad humiliates an African-American intern (Jason Dixie) by making him expose his genitals to him. Chad's hateful antics are detestable and at times hard to watch--but, strangely enough, you cannot take your eyes off of the screen.

The same can be said of In the Company of Men in general--tough to watch but absolutely riveting. Especially intriguing--and off-putting--is that a lot of is quite funny in the most pitch black way. I don't what finding humor in the most unsavory of situations says about me, but in terms of LaBute, it means that a first-class filmmaker has arrived on the scene.

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#102 July 31, 1997 by Michael Dequina


187 poster 187 (R) ***
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Fifteen months after being stabbed by a student in a New York high school, teacher Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) returns to the profession at a Southern California inner-city school a changed man--his passion is not the same as it used to be; his guard is always up. And he soon finds out that while he and the setting have changed, everything is the same as it was in New York--the gangs, the crime, the senseless violence. And Trevor will no longer be anyone's victim.

187 at times threatens to become another inspirational "teacher who makes a difference" film à la Dangerous Minds, but scripter Scott Yagemann (himself a teacher) has a darker agenda. If anything, 187 is about the impossibility of making a difference, at least a wholesale one. Another smart move is to not paint Trevor in the most sympathetic of lights; while he is noble of intention, he at times is certainly not noble in action, making for a refreshingly human educator instead of the saintly Michelle-Pfeiffer-as-Louanne-Johnson types.

The film does, however, have a problem at its core, and that is director Kevin Reynolds. Directing an urban drama is a stretch for the one-time Waterworld helmer, and it shows. Apparently bored by the down-to-earth material, he and cinematographer Ericson Core amuse themselves by juicing up the visuals, but the fancy camera work only serves to undermine the grit and reality of the story. Is it really necessary, for example, to have the camera ceaselessly circle two characters having a quiet dinner at home? Or, in a scene where Trevor and fellow teacher Ellen Henry (Kelly Rowan) have a discussion in his classroom, to see the oversized silhouettes of basketball-playing students projected onto the walls behind them? The visual flourishes are not only unnecessary, but nonsensical--who wants a gritty drama to look pretty?

What makes the film work, perhaps better than it has any right to be, is Jackson, who brings a quiet dignity and slow-simmering anger to Trevor that is fascinating. But this is not to say that he isn't vulnerable, and its his emotional rapport with the audience that makes the character of Trevor sympathetic to the audience, even when his actions cross the line. The other actors, such as Rowan, John Heard (as a burnt-out teacher), and Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez (as a delinquent student) are able to hold their own, with the exception of the badly miscast Karina Arroyave in the pivotal role of Rita, Trevor's star pupil. It is her character's duty to deliver the film's key closing speech, and Arroyave can't shed a tear to save her life.

Spawn poster Spawn (PG-13) ** Michael Jai White & Todd McFarlane event pix
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Todd McFarlane's comic book sensation Spawn is prime fodder for a big-budget Hollywood movie treatment--there's a extravagantly costumed, supernaturally powered, sometimes homicidal hero, resurrected from the dead, whose primary enemy is none other than the devil himself. After years of topping comic sales charts, Spawn has indeed arrived to conquer the movie arena, but something is seriously lacking; for all its visual razzle dazzle, Mark Dippé's film is a mess--a misguided attempt to sanitize a concept whose most distinctive trait is its darkness.

To Dippé and scripter Alan McElroy's credit, McFarlane's basic conceit remains intact: Spawn (Michael Jai White) was originally murdered government agent Al Simmons, who makes a pact with the devil to see beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) one more time. In return, however, he must use his newfound supernatural powers to lead Hell's Army in its quest to destroy Heaven and Earth. Prodding Spawn into serving holding up his end of the bargain is the Clown (John Leguizamo, having a ball in a fat suit and heavy makeup), whose short, rotund exterior hides his true, horrific self as the demonic Violator; urging him to rebel against the dark side is Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), a mysterious figure from the distant past.

The above is a fairly accurate distillation of comic's basics, but the Spawn faithful know there is something deeper and richer behind the plot fundamentals--an overwhelming sense of despair and anguish. Spawn has a great costume, some nifty powers, and a killer instinct, but the key to the character is his emotional torment. Al's passionate love for Wanda is what drives him and also what cripples him. Merely seeing her is not enough, and being with her is an impossibility--not only because he's a severely burned undead hellspawn but because she has gone on with her life. Adding to his angst is the fact that in the five years that have passed between his death and rebirth, Wanda is remarried with a daughter, Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin), and her new husband is none other than Al's best friend, Terry Fitzgerald (D.B. Sweeney, putting a Caucasian face on a what is originally an African-American character).

For reasons only known to him, the intense emotional content that McElroy successfully incorporated into the Spawn HBO animated series (which, I may add, is a much more satisfying translation) is all but completely absent in his script for the film. The only hints at Spawn's torment are a couple of anguished cries of "Wanda," and the rest of the time--which is nearly all of the time--he's merely angry and vengeful, no different from some heroes in any number of generic action films. The dilution of the emotion--and, in McElroy's most offensive move, having the normally brooding Spawn utter a couple of lame one-liners--are obvious attempts to make the character fit a more traditional mold and hence win an audience-friendly PG-13 rating. But this decision makes no sense, since it's Spawn's untraditional, dark, R-rated nature that made him so interesting to begin with.

Dippé, making his feature directorial debut, is a seasoned special effects creator, so it should come as no surprise that Spawn is most impressive and imaginative--and most faithful--in the visual arena. The jarring opening credits, complete with shaky, distorted lettering and nearly subliminal glimpses of images, is highly reminiscent of Se7en's unsettling main titles (which is a good thing). The creative transitions between scenes, such as having flames and capes wipe across the frame, effectively recall the visual style of the comic, as do the characters' appearances. The Clown and his demonic alter ego, the Violator, are every bit as repellent in three-dimensions as they are on the page (even if, as part of the PG-13 compromise, he does not perform any of his trademark heart extractions), and Spawn is blessed with a wonderfully fluid, computer-generated cape, which, unfortunately, only materializes from time to time. McFarlane has said that the cape's sporadic appearance in the film (Spawn has his cape at all times in the comic and animated series) was a conscious decision, so Spawn would look less "superhero-y." Ironically, though, he looks more conventional without it. The true marvel is Dippé and visual effects supervisor Steve "Spaz" Williams's vision of hell, a stunningly organic blend of flame and rock--a true technical achievement.

But that's the problem with Dippé's direction as a whole--it's too technical. Attention was paid to the visuals and little else. The story, involving a biological weapon developed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, all clenched teeth), the shady government agent responsible for Al's death, is weak and doesn't make complete sense; even the action scenes are clumsily handled, especially the climactic battle in hell, where the heavy editing makes the action hard to follow. But worst of all, there's no passion--no real connection to the characters (no fault to White or the other actors, who aren't really given much to work with in the script), no sense of urgency to the tale. The film is a feast for the eyes, yes, but there's In its comic and animated form, Spawn pushes the creative envelope; in this live-action, big-screen incarnation, Spawn plays it safe--much too safe; so safe that I'm certain people being introduced to Spawn with this movie will wonder just what all the fuss is about. At a recent comic book convention, producer Clint Goldman said with much confidence and certainty, "There will be a sequel." Here's hoping that next time around the filmmakers will take a lesson from its hero in the comic and go for the kill.

In Brief

Operation Condor poster Operation Condor (PG-13) ***
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The latest Jackie Chan vehicle to receive a major stateside release is this wild and wacky 1991 action comedy (originally titled Armour of God II: Operation Condor), which Chan also directed. As with all Chan vehicles, there is not much of a plot: he plays a secret agent who is hired to recover a cache of Nazi gold hidden in the Sahara Desert; along for the ride are three women--one Chinese (Carol Cheng), one German (Eva Cobo de Garcia), one Japanese (Shoko Ikeda)--all of whom are shrill, helpless ninnies. Of course, plot takes a backseat to action and, here moreso than Chan's other American-released films, comedy, and Operation Condor delivers all one would hope for. There's an exhilarating chase sequence early in the film, which begins in the streets and ends at the docks; a raucous and raunchy hotel scene which seamlessly marries martial-arts derring-do and heavy gunplay with broad slapstick humor; and an unforgettable climax in a wind tunnel. Bad dubbing? Of course. Disposable entertainment? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

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#101 July 17, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Air Force One poster Air Force One (R) *** 1/2 premiere pix
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If the President's private plane, Air Force One, were hijacked, it's highly unlikely that President Clinton (or any real-life Chief Executive) would go mano y mano with the terrorists. But this is Hollywood, where wimpy presidents just don't sell. So we have Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One, an exciting, entertaining variation of the Die Hard formula where our kick-ass hero is none other than the President of the United States.

Right from the get-go, we know Harrison Ford's President James Marshall is one take-no-crap guy. We first see him at a dinner at the Kremlin, where he and the Russian president (Alan Woolf) are celebrating the capture of General Alexander Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), a fascist tyrant whose brutal tactics wreaked havoc in Kazakhstan. It is during this dinner that he gives an impassioned speech saying that the United States will no longer take action against such atrocities at the last minute, striking at the first signs of trouble. President Marshall gets his chance to back up his words when, en route to Washington, Air Force One is hijacked by a group of Radek loyalists, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), demanding the general's release. With his wife (Wendy Crewson), daughter (Liesel Matthews), and numerous staffers held hostage, it is up to President Marshall to defeat the baddies and reassert America's reputation as the leading global power.

The basic conceit is a little far-fetched (then again, what action movie plot isn't?), and given some of the clunky dialogue by screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe, sometimes it sounds ridiculous, too. But while watching the film, you buy it hook, line, and sinker, due in large part to the acting talent on board. Ford's commanding presence lends a sense of authenticity to every project he's in. It is one thing to be a convincing kick-ass action hero and quite another to be believable as "the leader of the free world"; not only does he pull off both without a hitch, but he also pulls off the task fairly seamlessly. When he is wacking a terrorist with a stool, we also believe that this the president, doing what it takes to protect his country; similarly, in more sedate presidential mode, we believe that, when push comes to shove, he is capable of acting in such a violent way. Another huge acting asset is Glenn Close, serving as the plane's (and the film's) dramatic anchor to reality as Vice President Kathryn Bennett, who is the focus of the action in the White House. Oldman is appropriately restrained as Korshunov, wisely resisting the urge to camp it up as a lot of action movie villains do these days. Anything too over-the-top and outre, like Oldman's turns in the Luc Besson films The Professional and The Fifth Element, would seem too out of place here.

But this is not to say that Air Force One is a gravely serious and self-important championing of the American presidency. Even though President Marshall is a combat veteran who can more than hold his own in a fight, he still is a desk jockey by trade. He's no know-it-all gadget whiz MacGyver; a lot of times he doesn't know what he's doing or how to do it. The little comic touches, from little one-liners to scenes such as one where he reads an instruction manual to a cellular telephone work not so much because they are funny but because they also ring true (after all, wouldn't the president have someone make his calls for him?).

Air Force One does not offer as much character nor plot to chew on as Petersen's last thriller involving the presidency, 1993's terrific Clint Eastwood starrer In the Line of Fire, but it still delivers the goods--a brisk pace, explosions, gunplay, fights, lots of airborne action, strong acting, and, last and certainly not least, the legendary Harrison Ford.

In Brief

George of the Jungle poster George of the Jungle (PG) no stars
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Hollywood's track record in bringing old television cartoons to real life in the big screen hasn't exactly been good, to the say the least: in 1980, Popeye came to theatres in Robert Altman's musical oddity; 1994 saw the heavily hyped but thunderously boring The Flintstones. The track record doesn't get any better with Sam Weisman's thoroughly unwatchable treatment of Jay Ward's 1960s animated series.

Brendan Fraser stars as the title character, the wide-eyed king of the jungle who has a problem with crashing into trees; Leslie Mann is the love interest, heiress Ursula Stanhope; John Cleese provides the voice of George's simian sidekick, an ape named Ape; and Thomas Haden Church is the villainous Lyle Van de Groot, Ursula's fiance. So what is the film about? Don't ask scripters Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells. Their script is a mess, heavy on slapstick pratfalls ("when in doubt, have George slam into something" seems to be their philosophy) and groaner one-liners, light on anything resembling a plot--and without any dramatic structure, the film seems to drag on and on and on (and then some) without any rhyme or reason. Olsen and Wells try to infuse some irony into the proceedings through the use of an unseen, pompously self-aware narrator (Keith Scott). The attempt at self-mocking is admirable, but the writers just don't seem to realize just how bad it all is, from the overly broad performances (Fraser's George is more of an annoying dimwit than a charming innocent) to the cheap-looking jungle sets. The one thing one would think the film would at the very least get right is the nostalgia kick from its bouncy theme song. Alas, even that is botched--instead of using the original version from the TV show during the main titles, Weisman serves up an alterna-rock-inflected version by the Presidents of the United States of America.

At a tick over 90 minutes, the painfully forced, unfunny George feels three times its actual length, if not more. At the media screening, the guy sitting behind me could be heard loudly snoring during the third act. We should all be so lucky.

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#100 July 10, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Contact poster Contact (PG) ****
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There's a moment late in Robert Zemeckis's Contact where I was reminded of why I started writing movie reviews in the first place. We see a scientist, dressed in a silvery space suit, walking tentatively across a narrow walkway leading inside a compact, spherical space pod, unaware of what awaits when the ball literally drops. Anticipation, excitement, anxiety, fear--the audience experiences it all the emotional tension right with the character, nervously, breathlessly eager to see what lies ahead. It is this sense of discovery, the anticipation of which and its accompanying exhilaration, that makes this adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel such magical, captivating entertainment.

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer who dedicates her entire life to searching outer space for extraterrestrial radio signals. And I mean life--after losing her entire family when she was young, the only thing occupying Ellie's world is this quest to discover life beyond this earth. After dealing with much skepticism on the part of government officials and wealthy financiers, Ellie receives her vindication when she stumbles upon an incoming radio transmission from the distant star Vega, which includes instructions on building an interstellar transport.

From this synopsis, Contact does not sound too different to most films about alien contact, but there is a whole lot more to this intelligent film than the sci-fi hook. The alien contact angle generates a great amount of suspense and awe, but perhaps more than anything else, Contact is a character study of Ellie, whose obsession with empirical, scientific evidence has erased all belief in a higher power. The irony is that, while admitting to having no religious faith, she holds onto her belief in extraterrestrial life with such passion and conviction that it becomes, in a sense, a religion in its own right. It would be easy for scripters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, in trying to paint a positive image of the heroine, to champion her scientific beliefs over religious ones, but they wisely eschew easy answers, giving equal time to both sides, and in so doing depict Ellie as not completely sane. In the end, there is no right or wrong, nor is there one side that comes off more positive in the other, even slightly so--there are just two very viable points of view, each with their own merits, each with their own faults.

The complex role of Ellie is an actress's dream, and Foster, a virtual shoo-in for yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination next year, more than rises to the challenge. She conveys intelligence, determination, warmth, and, in a gutsy move, always on edge. We root for Ellie and feel for her, but we also feel at times that she goes too far. Contact is clearly Foster's vehicle, but others are given their chance to shine in smaller roles. Matthew McConaughey, who receives outrageously high billing for his smallish role, holds his own as the religious counterpoint to Ellie, spiritual scholar and government adviser Palmer Joss (however, his main storyline, the tentative Palmer-Ellie romance, is the film's weakest subplot). John Hurt is effectively creepy as S.R. Hadden, the wealthy eccentric who provides Ellie with her research funding. Angela Bassett continues to impress in her bit role as White House aide Rachel Constantine. Most memorable of all, though, are Tom Skerritt and James Woods, who play rival scientist Dr. David Drumlin and national security adviser Michael Litz, respectively; both, especially Skerritt, embody these asshole characters that the audience hissed just about every single one of their appearances.

Zemeckis comes off of his three-year break in top shape. Always known as a director of effects-laden extravaganzas, it comes as no surprise that Contact's visual effects are quite stunning. The central space journey is more than a little reminiscent of the close of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with more advanced technology at his disposal, Zemeckis's voyage is even trippier than Stanley Kubrick's yet more wondrously pure. And Zemeckis doesn't resist the urge to use the always-interesting incorporate-actors-into-existing-film-footage effect, which is every bit as seamless here as it was in Forrest Gump. Effects, however, are confined to only a few scenes and clearly take a back seat to the drama, emotion, and pure wonder, which Zemeckis proved to be quite adept at in Gump. It says a lot that, in a summer science fiction film such as this, it's not so much the effects that stay with you as it is the drama and the issues that are raised.

The thought-provoking, two-hour-plus Contact is a much-welcome change of pace from summer no-brainers, but the fact that it is a smart film does not mean that it also isn't entertaining. For all the interesting questions it asks, the film is still what it's being sold as--"a journey to the heart of the universe." And what a fascinating, unforgettable journey it is.

In Brief

Nothing to Lose poster Nothing to Lose (R) ** 1/2
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Pairing funnyman Martin "You so crazy" Lawrence with "serious actor" Tim Robbins is an inspired idea, and Lawrence's wackiness plays well off of Robbins's somber stoicism. Less inspired, however, is the entirety of writer-director Steve Oedekerk's buddy comedy, in which carjacker Terrence Davidson (Lawrence) teams with his mark, depressed ad exec Nick Beam (Robbins), to rob money from Nick's boss (Michael McKean), who, in turn, is suspected of sleeping with Nick's wife (Kelly Preston). There are laughs to be had here, but for every fresh, funny scene--such as one where Nick, robbing a sporting goods store with Terrence, asks the elderly cashier if his hold-up technique is scary--there is another that is incredibly forced--most notably a bit involving a dancing and lip-synching security guard (played, in a self-indulgent turn, by Oedekerk himself). Lawrence and Robbins obviously have fun together, but they can't do too much to enliven the more run-of-the-mill action comedy elements, like the obligatory car chases and "comic" fight scenes.

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