The Movie Report
Volume 22

#105 - 109
August 20, 1997 - September 18, 1997

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

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#109 September 18, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Game poster The Game (R) *** 1/2 event pix
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"What do you give the man who has everything?" A few days of living hell, apparently, and it is exactly that, concentrated into two hours, which director David Fincher serves moviegoers in The Game, a wonderfully unsettling and suspenseful thriller that launches PolyGram's new film distribution wing with a bang.

Michael Douglas is in his element as wealthy businessman Nicholas van Orton: cold, calculating, and looking out for no one but himself, Nicholas is exactly the type of sinful-guy-due-for-a-comeuppance Douglas has built his career on playing, and, predictably, Douglas nails the role perfectly. When Nicholas's brother Conrad, a.k.a. "Connie" (Sean Penn, in a role meant for Jodie Foster), gives him an invitation to a mysterious game as a birthday present, the seeds of Nicholas's destruction are planted. After extensive testing at the offices of Consumer Recreation Services, the company in charge of the Game, Nicholas soon finds himself in one life-threatening situation after another, which leads him to wonder if he is indeed just playing a game (albeit a really twisted one) or if someone really wants him dead.

It is that question of illusion versus reality that propels the intricate, unpredictable, if implausible storyline cooked up by writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Unlike too many mystery-thrillers, the writing and directing remains one step ahead of the audience; just when one is led to think one way, something twists our beliefs in the other, creating a chilling atmosphere of uncertainty. This is not surprising coming from Fincher, who established himself as a master of mood with the unflinchingly dark Alien3 and Se7en. However, in those films, mood bogged down the pace, thus stripping away the necessary urgency; a similarly slow pace would have been deadly to The Game, whose implausibilities would not hold up if there were time for close scrutiny. The Game finds Fincher in an uncharacteristically--and highly effective--faster gear, sweeping the audience away on an unrelenting rollercoaster of plot twists and paranoia which always stays true to the material's mean streak.

Apparently not content to be a well-crafted funhouse ride, Brancato and Ferris throw in a psychological angle to the proceedings which is not satisfactorily developed. Nicholas's birthday is his 48th, which happens to be the age when his father took a fatal jump off of the roof of his mansion. The trauma of witnessing his father's suicide at a young age haunts Nicholas, and supposedly it shaped him into the man he's become, but it is never clear in what way. Not that anyone really cares--Nicholas is such an unsavory character that it's hard to sympathize with him as a person, and why would we want to? Part of the fun in watching The Game is seeing this unsympathetic character being dragged through the mud over and over again. The attempt at audience empathy is at odds with the film's unremittingly nasty nature.

A lesson is supposed to have been learned at the end of The Game, but I'm not at all sure what exactly that is. But that hardly matters; what does is that for a little over two hours, David Fincher takes the audience on a breathless, harrowing ride whose considerable pleasures are measured in dread and discomfort.

A Thousand Acres poster A Thousand Acres (R) ** 1/2
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The most telling moment of A Thousand Acres is neither an image nor a scene but a credit: "Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley"--not merely based on Smiley's novel, but her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This unusually blatant mention of its award-winning pedigree not only highlights the self-important pretensions of Jocelyn Moorhouse's overheated melodrama, but also how far from award-caliber the film is.

Early in the film lifelong Iowa farmer Larry Cook (Jason Robards) decides to quit the business and split is 1000-acre lot between his three daughters: loyal, optimistic eldest daughter Ginny (Jessica Lange); sassy, bitter middle daughter Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer); and the youngest, big city lawyer Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). This monumental decision causes major upheaval to what appeared to be a perfect family, bringing long-simmering tensions to the surface.

What ensues is a tale of betrayal, abuse, adultery, cancer, repressed memories--a blueprint for a potentially provocative and Oscar-worthy tale. But for all the hot-button issues screenwriter Laura Jones packs into A Thousand Acres, the film itself does not pack the emotional punch it so obviously strives for. With so many serious issues crammed in (including a fleeting reference to the dangers of contaminated well water), Moorhouse's direction is often too overtly manipulative to elicit a genuine emotional response. The viewer is especially aware of the button-pushing during the overtly "dramatic" confrontation scenes, in particular one between Ginny, Rose, and Larry during a storm. Melodramatic music by Richard Hartley peals on the soundtrack as everyone yells at each other and, for good measure, thunder roars in the background. Everything is so overblown as to feel processed and synthetic, and as such, the viewer cannot feel anything authentic.

A Thousand Acres does manage to generate some poignancy, though, during the intimate scenes between the dazzling Pfeiffer and Lange, who elevate the film to a higher level than it deserves. Less is definitely more here; the two have a natural sibling rapport (we feel both their anger and love for one another), and Moorhouse wisely steps aside and lets that speak for itself during these quieter moments. Tears are shed, invective is exchanged, and hearts are broken, but the material isn't overplayed--the pitches are firm but not shrill, the tears slowly flowing instead of spewing uncontrollably. The two are magic together, and only in these scenes does any hint of real emotion shine through. One wishes that the film was solely focused on their relationship than the business involving their father's land.

But, unfortunately, the film is titled A Thousand Acres, and the other actors struggle with that less inspired side of the story. Pity the talented Leigh; while she also plays a Cook sister, she has scant screen time, and in that time one never gets a satisfactory read on her character. She starts off as sort of a black sheep and then becomes her father's big supporter somewhere along the way; I could not figure out what motivated her. Robards appears to be a perfect fit for the Cook patriarch, but I was never convinced that he could be seen as anything other than the crabby, morally questionable man he eventually reveals himself to be. He never establishes any trace of gentleness or heart that would lead everyone to believe that he is an upstanding member of the community; from the get-go there seems to be something sinister lurking underneath.

Propelled by a number of effective Pfeiffer-Lange scenes, the film builds up some steam as it approaches its sentimental conclusion, but it isn't quite enough. By that time, any promise the film initially has proven to be just that, promise, and instead of being profoundly moving, in the end A Thousand Acres is little more than slightly affecting.


Roadracers poster Roadracers (R) *** 1/2
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A year before 1995's Desperado, Salma Hayek and director Robert Rodriguez first teamed on this highly enjoyable homage to 1950s teen exploitation movies for Showtime's Rebel Highway series. Hayek plays the girlfriend of David Arquette's aptly named Dude, a slick, grease-haired would-be rock 'n roll guitarist engaged in a bitter feud with a crooked police sergeant (William Sadler) and his son (Jason Wiles). Rodriguez (who also edited and co-wrote the script with Tommy Nix), has fun twisting some of the genre's conventions for comedic effect (for instance, to make his enemies slip on a roller rink, Dude bends over to spread his hair grease all over the floor), but he also displays a genuine affection for it, from the authentic-sounding dialogue ("Don't go to the rumble tonight, Dude") and exuberant chase sequences to the hard-driving rockabilly score by Johnny Reno and Paul Boll. Roadracers is a trifle, but a fun and engaging one at that. (Dimension Home Video)

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#108 September 11, 1997 by Michael Dequina


L.A. Confidential poster L.A. Confidential (R) ****
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Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's crime novel L.A. Confidential earned a strong buzz after premiering at Cannes this past May, and it's easy to see why: it is Hollywood moviemaking at its finest--a classy piece of entertainment made with equal parts passion, style, and fun.

The seemingly idyllic Los Angeles of the early 1950s provides the glitzy backdrop for the grisly crime that is the focus of the story: a bloody mass murder in an all-night coffee shop. One of the victims is Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), a subpar police officer who was forced into retirement after a brutality incident not too long before his death. Heading the investigation into the murders are Stensland's former partner, Wendell "Bud" White (Russell Crowe); ambitious but naive Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce); and vice cop Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who soon find out the case is not as open and shut as it appears to be.

Yes, L.A. Confidential is an uncommonly complex and intelligent mystery; the ever-twisting plot continually surprises the audience without insulting its intelligence, and the wry sense of humor Hanson and co-scripter Brian Helgeland keeps the film from coming off as self-important and pretentious. But as sturdy as the story is, the film would not have come to life in such fabulous form without its richly drawn characters, particularly the All-American pair of Ed and Bud, played in career-making turns by Aussies Pearce and Crowe. For the most part, the central character is Ed, a prototype for the "new" officer in the LAPD being introduced at this time--one who prides himself on high moral principles, seeking justice and truth without beating it out of a suspect. While the intelligent Ed is able to negotiate himself into a high position within the department, he doesn't have the street smarts or toughness that commands respect from his peers or elicit fear from his enemies; his reliance on eyeglasses only adds to the problem. On the other hand lies Bud, the "muscle" cop known to take a brutal stand against perps, especially women beaters. He is what is perceived as the ideal cop, but as the film progresses, we see how his hot-tempered style is quickly becoming obsolete, setting up an interesting, intricate contrast. Ed and Bud are not so much opposites in the manner of black and white as they are in the yin and yang sense--they contrast, but neither is clearly right nor wrong, and while they appear flawed and incomplete on their own, together their qualities make an ideal whole.

Surrounding Ed and Bud are an equally colorful cast of characters, played to perfection by the impressive ensemble. Spacey is terrific as Jack, the spotlight-seeking cop who regularly busts showbiz personalities with gossip rag editor Sid Hudgins, played with the right balance of smarm and charm by Danny DeVito. Kim Basinger is stunning, dangerous, and vulnerable as glamorous top-dollar whore Lynn Bracken, even if her character is one of the least effectively developed in the film. James Cromwell (as police captain Dudley Smith), Ron Rifkin (as District Attorney Ellis Lowe), and David Strathairn (as wealthy, shady Pierce Pratchett) also make lasting impressions.

In the end, the reason why L.A. Confidential is such a juicy piece of pulp fiction is that it is, quite simply, a good story told exceptionally well. It is superlative Hollywood entertainment--the type of picture that Tinseltown likes to congratulate itself for making come March.

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#107 September 4, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

She's So Lovely poster She's So Lovely (R) ***
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A mere plot synopsis of Nick Cassavetes's film of his late father John's heretofore unproduced script She's De Lovely does not paint a complete picture of this odd and amusing piece of work. On the most basic level, it tells the story of Maureen (Robin Wright Penn), a boozy, pregnant young woman madly in love with her volatile husband Eddie (Sean Penn), who is shipped off to a mental hospital after a run-in with the law. Ten years later, a bewildered Eddie is released, and Maureen, now married to successful contractor Joey (John Travolta), still pines for her first and true love.

Plotwise, She's So Lovely operates like two different movies: the first being the dark tale of a young married couple's troubled romance, the second being the bright, often comical story in which a suburban housewife's life is shaken up by the reappearance by her first husband. But that split structure and the plot in general are actually of little consequence to the final product. She's So Lovely is more of an acting exercise, and an intriguing and entertaining one at that, where the performers are called on by the director to inhabit eccentric characters and chew on some quirky dialogue and situations. The cast passes the test. Penn, who won the Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is quite touching as the romantic yet unstable Eddie; he is solidly matched by real-life wife Wright Penn, who also accomplishes a convincing character transformation from wild child to tamer soul between the halves. Travolta surfaces an hour into the film and makes an indelible impression even if his character never registers as a serious wedge between the star-crossed Maureen and Eddie. The resulting film may be a little too far off the beaten path to appeal to many mainstream moviegoers, but in a season full of cookie cutter "blockbusters," a little freshness and eccentricity goes a long way.

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#106 August 29, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Hoodlum poster Hoodlum (R) **
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Laurence Fishburne is cool, charismatic, and commanding as gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, who engages in a war with Dutch Schultz (an engagingly hammy Tim Roth) and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia, looking slick) over the numbers racket in 1930s Harlem. But Fishburne's presence can only take this flat, overlong would-be epic so far. Director Bill Duke, himself an actor, predictably coaxes commendable work from his cast, but his overall cold, slack direction dooms the entire affair. Furthermore, the lack of sparks between Fishburne and love interest Vanessa L. Williams (looking glamorous, natch) puts a damper on the attempted emotional dimension. Without anyone or anything to latch onto emotionally or a sense of energy, drive, or tension, this slow-going, talky film is in a constant struggle to hold the audience's interest.

Mimic poster Mimic (R) ***
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Good "creature features" are hard to come by; for every Alien there are a slew of Relics. Guillermo del Toro's dark, atmospheric thriller is not in the terrifying league of an Alien, but it delivers excitement just the same. Mira Sorvino stars as an entomologist who genetically engineers a insect designed to wipe out a deadly disease carried by cockroaches. This "Judas breed" is designed to die out within months, but three years later not only are they still around, they have evolved into giant creatures that can mimic humans--and prey on them. Of course, it is up to Sorvino, along with husband/CDC official Jeremy Northam, to stop them. What follows owes a lot to James Cameron's Aliens, with its slimy egg nests and icky creatures speedily skulking by and banging through metal. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing (after all, Cameron's film is a classic). Though it has some cheesy moments and lines, and the initial sight of giant flying insects is more ridiculous than scary, del Toro comes through with an entertaining and tense second half set in the dank subway tunnels of New York. Preposterous, yes, but a lot of fun.

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#105 August 20, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Copland poster Cop Land (R) ** 1/2
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James Mangold's Cop Land is one of those films that looks better on paper than on screen, a picture that is more fun to anticipate than actually watch. Despite the presence of a vast array of impressive acting talent, a provocative premise, and a great deal of pre-release hype, this star-studded morality tale is a letdown, overblown and undercooked.

Sylvester Stallone makes his much-ballyhooed return to "serious" acting as Freddy Heflin, sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, whose population mainly consists of New York police officers. Serving as law enforcement for a town inhabited by law enforcement does not come with much true authority, but it gives Freddy some satisfaction--deaf in one ear and a little slow in the head, he can never serve as an officer of his much-revered NYPD, but at the very least he is the closest thing to being a real cop.

Freddy's admiration for the big-city cops is put to the test with the arrival of Internal Affairs officer Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro), who comes to Garrison investigating the secret affairs of the town's badge-wielding residents after a hotshot young cop (Michael Rapaport) takes a mysterious dive off of the Brooklyn Bridge. Figuring prominently in his investigation is Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a well-connected cop who spearheaded the police migration into Garrison through some suspect deals. But there's only so much Moe can do on his own, so it's mainly up to Freddy to restore some order to the town and the NYPD.

That right there is enough fodder for an interesting film, but Mangold does not seem to know where to stop, including a number of additional characters and plotlines. Freddy impaired his hearing years ago rescuing Liz (Annabella Sciorra), whom he still pines for although she's married and has a child with blowhard cop Joey Randone (Peter Berg), who, in turn, is warming the bed of Ray's wife Rose (Cathy Moriarty). Also on the canvas is Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), an undercover officer with a weakness for coke, whose partner's mysterious death could have something to do with a grander scheme. Then there's Janeane Garofalo as Cindy Bretts, one of Freddy's two deputies, an idealistic newcomer to Garrison who doesn't like what she sees. And so on.

The glut of characters and stories would be richness if everything were explored in some semblance of depth. However, in their existing, crudely developed form, they just serve as distractions from the main plot--which in itself, as written, does not equal the sum of its promising parts. With so many characters and plot threads dangling, let alone its main story not jelling in the most satisfying of manners, Cop Land would appear to be better served with a longer running time. Yet I don't think even that would have helped too much, especially without anyone for the audience to latch onto emotionally. Freddy is too low-key and distant to sympathize with or root for. When Freddy gets his day, it's supposed to be exhilarating, but it's hard to get excited when one does not really care for him.

Stallone fares well enough in this dramatic role, his star presence disappearing into the character behind 40 extra pounds of fat, but perhaps he disappears a bit too much. He does not embarrass himself alongside the likes of DeNiro and Keitel, but I can't exactly say he holds his own, either. While it's a relief to see the typically overwrought Sly trade in histrionics for subtlety, he's so subdued that he cannot help but appear bland when sharing the screen with the more accomplished actors, who add color to their roles without overdoing it. Keitel and DeNiro shine in what are fairly limited roles (Ray is shady; Moe is determined), and Liotta gives his best performance in a long time as the most interesting character, straddling the line between right and wrong.

With Cop Land, Stallone proves the point he set out to make--that he can play a serious role, and fairly well at that. However, I don't know exactly what writer-director Mangold's point was. Is it that cops can be as bad as the crooks? If so, I got that message within the first fifteen minutes, and even then, it's a rather obvious premise (I do, after all, live in L.A.). Or is it just to turn out an entertaining yarn? If that was the case, he could have fooled me--with its Oscar-ready cast and pretentions toward a novel-deep tapestry of rich characters and intricate, interlocking plotlines, I could have sworn he was striving for something more profound. Yet even if the latter were so, this overstuffed and shallow film does not come close to meeting any epic aspirations.

G.I. Jane poster G.I. Jane (R) ***
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In recent years, Demi Moore has been better suited to promoting her films than starring in them. Her audacious claim that "not that many people have read the book" resulted in a lot of press for Roland Joffé's disastrous The Scarlet Letter, but she seemed out of time and place, to say the least, on screen as Nathaniel Hawthorne's tortured heroine. Moore seductively shimmied with Barbara Walters, stripped down for David Letterman, and urged women everywhere to do a little Striptease for themselves, but her grave earnestness was completely at odds with the ridiculous goings-on in last summer's notorious would-be comedy.

However, Moore could not have been more perfectly cast as the strong-willed heroine in Ridley Scott's surprisingly effective G.I. Jane. Moore stars as Lt. Jordan O'Neil, a Navy intelligence officer who is chosen as the first woman to enter the rigorous training for the Navy SEALs. How rigorous? We are told early on and at various points throughout the film that the dropout rate is 60%--that statistic, of course, reflecting only men. Will Jordan beat the odds, overcome the sexism of her commanding officers, and complete her training?

Yes, the scenario served up by writers David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra is rather predictable, and one late development where Jordan must prove her mettle in true combat is contrived, but they manage to throw in a few wrinkles to make the proceedings consistently interesting. Jordan is not the prototypical "G.I. Jane" of the title from the get-go; early on, she struggles as badly as one would expect a woman, and when the men say that she's in over her head, the statement does hold some water. Naturally, Jordan does become a stronger soldier, but the changes do not occur overnight--it is a gradual process, one she is still going through by the end of the film. Also, there is more to the story than Jordan overcoming adversity; there is also an interesting subplot about how she is used as a pawn in a feminist senator's (well-played by Anne Bancroft) political wheelings and dealings. It's unfortunate that the intelligence evident in certain parts of the script didn't extend to the dialogue, which at certain points is fairly laughable (my favorite line is the destined-to-be-quoted "Get your dick back in here!").

Scott directs G.I. Jane with a quick rhythm and (naturally) a visual slickness, and he elicits fine performances all around, notably from Viggo Mortensen as Jordan's iron-fisted master chief. As good as Mortensen is, the star of the show is clearly Moore; I cannot imagine this film working as well as it does without her in the lead. One of her most defining characteristics is her steely determination, and while that same quality seemed so wrong for The Scarlet Letter and Striptease, it is what is exactly called for by the role of Jordan. We not only believe that Jordan can survive the hellish training, we also buy the fact that she actually wants to go through with it. Moore is also a bit of a revelation during the more action-oriented sequences; she is convincing in the more physical fight and combat scenes, showing potential as--if she ever elected to go that route--an action heroine.

Newsweek caused a stir earlier this year when the magazine published an article speculating that Moore, who has not had a hit film in years, has become an audience deterrent. The true test of that theory comes with G.I. Jane. Unlike her previous solo starring efforts, it is a solid piece of entertainment, and if its grosses go the way of Striptease, then she really must be box office poison.

In Brief

Masterminds poster Masterminds (PG-13) zero stars
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Masterminds's first sign of trouble comes early, when we meet our protagonist. Presumably, we're supposed to root for Ozzie Paxton (the charisma-challenged Vincent Kartheiser) because he's one of those "cool" teen rebel types--but it is that very quality that makes him come off as the most annoyingly smug smartass. But even if the film weren't already doomed from the start, director Roger Christian and scripter Floyd Byars do plenty to make sure this blockheaded action film dies a most agonizing--especially for the audience--death. A terrorist (a slumming Patrick Stewart, who I truly hope received a very hefty paycheck for this gig) takes over a ritzy private school in a ransom scheme, and somehow only delinquent computer hacker Ozzie can save the day. The mere ability to hack into computers is obviously no match for the heavily armed terrorists, so somewhere along the way Christian and Byars make our "hero" into a mini-MacGyver, making bombs and other gizmos (and playing with the heating and sprinkler systems) to thwart the bad guys as he skulks his way around the school through air vents and tunnels.

Yes, this is Die Hard for the readers of Teen Beat and Bop, which means that a number of things have to be dumbed down: the violence (where's the fun if our "hero"--or even our villain--doesn't kill anyone?), the humor (raw sewage fuels the climactic "comic" moment), and, above all, the logic. Case in point: during one chase, Ozzie, only a few steps ahead of his pursuer, enters a lab--where, within the space of 10 seconds at the most, he is able to set up a bunsen burner to heat the doorknob so his pursuer's hand could burn upon touching it. Another case in point: about midway the stuffy, conservative principal (Brenda Fricker) beats up a bad guy singlehandedly à la Nomi in Showgirls, and then suddenly morphs into a foul-mouthed, pistol-packing mama (the sight of the My Left Foot Oscar winner spewing expletives and brandishing a gun has to be seen to be believed). The title could not be a more ironic--the people behind this film don't have a single mind between them, let alone one to master.

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