The Movie Report
Volume 26

#120 - 122
December 5, 1997 - December 18, 1997

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

#122 December 18, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Rainmaker poster Good Will Hunting poster John Grisham's The Rainmaker (PG-13) ***
Good Will Hunting (R) *** 1/2
Every year, Hollywood crowns a new "it boy"--a young actor pegged for major movie stardom. Inheriting the mantle from last year's "winner," Matthew McConaughey, is Matt Damon, and, like McConaughey, he proves to be more than just a fresh young face, as evidenced in two radically different projects currently in release--John Grisham's The Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting.

Damon has his first major starring role, à la McConaughey, in a John Grisham adaptation--in this case, Francis Ford Coppola's take on The Rainmaker. Damon plays wet-behind-the-ears attorney Rudy Baylor, who, immediately after passing the bar exam, finds himself representing the mother (Mary Kay Place) of a terminally ill young man (John Whitworth) in a big-league suit against a negligent insurance company. While Rudy's (and the film's) main concern is this case, he also finds time to protect a young wife (Claire Danes) from her abusive husband (Melrose Placer Andrew Shue, in a mercifully brief role).

Written for the screen and directed by Coppola, The Rainmaker is the best Grisham film yet mostly because it does not take itself too seriously. Coppola's most notable--and effective--contribution to the tried-and-true Grisham formula is a sense of humor about itself, which largely comes in the presence of Danny DeVito (as Rudy's unlicensed co-counsel) and Golden Globe nominee Jon Voight (as the insurance company's hotshot attorney). The inclusion of the battered wife subplot feels rather superfluous, but Danes is as superb as always. Then, of course, there is Damon, who nicely juggles the weighty (the insurance case, the spousal abuse) and the humorous (Rudy's often comical naivete) requirements of his role without missing a beat.

As good as he is in The Rainmaker, Damon showcases the depth of his talent in Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant and written by actor Ben Affleck and Damon himself. Damon plays the title character, Will Hunting, a troubled young construction worker/janitor at MIT who also happens to be a supergenius. In an attempt to steer this brilliant young mind in the right direction, an MIT math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) taps his old college friend, community college psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), to counsel the abrasive, standoffish Will and try to help him come to terms with his turbulent life.

Good Will Hunting is the touchy-feely enterprise its plot synopsis suggests, but to simply dismiss it as that would be to discount the true emotional chords Affleck and Damon's intelligent script touches. Even though no one (and, if so, very few people) can directly relate to Will's burden of superhuman intelligence, the insecurities he suffers are universal. The material is brought to life by the terrific ensemble of actors. Williams delivers a nice dramatic turn; Affleck, a hot up-and-coming actor himself (Chasing Amy), turns up in a warm and charming performance as Will's best friend; and the ever-appealing Minnie Driver shines as Will's Harvard-schooled love interest. The clear standout in the cast, though, is Damon, who bravely does not soften Will's prickly nature but has such a natural ease with the audience that it is hard not to care for him.

So many names come and go with the fluctuations of the Hollywood hype machine, but based on his impressive work in John Grisham's The Rainmaker and especially Good Will Hunting, it is a safe bet that Matt Damon is one name we will be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.

Mouse Hunt poster Mouse Hunt (PG) ** 1/2
With its three inaugural releases, megabucks studio DreamWorks SKG has just about covered all the bases: middle-of-the-road action (The Peacemaker); highminded "Oscar bait" (Amistad), and now lowbrow comedy with Mouse Hunt, a slapstick comedy that will please the tykes but will leave the rest of the family less than satisfied.

The basic plot setup (a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers inherit a run-down--and, as it turns out, valuable--house from their string manufacturer father) is rendered irrelevant once the "star" of the movie enters the picture: a tiny little mouse (a charmer by the name of "Jenny the Mouse"), who immediately ruins the house renovation plans of the two siblings, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans) Smuntz. What ensues is one long, frenzied pursuit in which the two bumbling brothers make attempt after attempt to find and kill the mouse, who outsmarts them every time.

Mouse Hunt is little more than Home Alone with a mouse in the lead, which should give you a clear idea about the bulk of the comedy in this film: broad physical schtick. Granted, this type of humor goes a long way with the film's target audience--children--and a handful of the gags did make me smile, but after a while I (and, I suspect, most adults in the audience) grew tired of the pratfalls. After all, a man getting hit in the head by a blunt object can only be so "hilarious" after the first two or three times it is done.

What keeps the incessant slapstick from becoming completely monotonous are the engaging performances. Even though they are set up as the villains of the piece, Lane and Evans, who develop a nice brotherly rapport, remain likable and sympathetic; at certain points I found myself simultaneously rooting for them and the mouse. And it is through the acting that the film is able to maintain a slightly twisted edge. Lane delivers his acid one-liners with malicious glee, and an effectively creepy Christopher Walken comes close to walking away with the movie as overzealous and slightly psycho exterminator Caesar.

Mouse Hunt, like its destructive but well-meaning protagonist, is harmless, a fairly safe bet to keep the little ones entertained for 97 minutes. But anyone looking for a film that truly is fun for the whole family is better off checking out the opulent Anastasia or, better yet, Disney's modern classic The Little Mermaid, which is enjoying yet another rerelease this week.

In Brief

The Sweet Hereafter poster The Sweet Hereafter (R) ****
A lawyer (an outstanding Ian Holm) comes to a small Canadian town to seek financial compensation for the families who lost their children in a tragic school bus crash. A simple summation of the plot of director Atom Egoyan's latest, based on the Russell Banks novel of the same name, does not do justice to this simple, elegant, haunting film, which is more about learning to deal with loss than it is about a bus sinking into ice--not simply the families' loss of their children, but also the lawyer's loss of his daughter (Caerthan Banks, Russell's real-life daughter) to a wild life of drugs; and one of the accident's young survivor's (newcomer Sarah Polley, in a startling performance) loss of innocence.

Like he did in his breakthrough film of a few years back, Exotica, Egoyan fractures the timeline, jumping back and forth in time in a seemingly random fashion to tell his story. This decision successfully plays up the mystery elements of the tale (was there someone or something at fault in the accident besides cruel fate?) as well as underscore his points about death, transformation, and rebirth. An especially effective move is the recurring reference to Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," which comes to reflect the film's story in a most heartbreaking manner. The Sweet Hereafter is not the most pleasant film to watch; its leisurely pace and unremitting air of melancholy may be too heavy for many. But this powerful film cuts to the bone and stays there long after its end credits have finished rolling, which is no mean feat in this age of forgettable popcorn "blockbusters."

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#121 December 10, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Scream 2 poster Scream 2 (R) *** 1/2 premiere photos
Rushed into production mere months after the release of the blockbuster original, Scream 2 appears, in theory, to be no different than the quickie slasher sequels it lampoons. But Wes Craven's smart, self-referential Scream was unlike any other splatterfest, and now that film has developed into a most intriguing and unconventional horror franchise with the release of this followup--an exciting and wonderfully witty romp that manages to add some luster to the much-maligned concept of "sequel."

Scream 2 is an even more satiric film than its predecessor, and this tone is established quickly with the opening scene. Windsor College students Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett) and Phil Stevens (Omar Epps) attend a sneak preview of the new horror movie Stab, which, as it turns out, is based on the Windsboro, California murder spree depicted in the original film. So we see a hilariously letter-perfect recreation of Scream's now-classic prologue, with a short-wigged Heather Graham assuming Drew Barrymore's role as a Jiffy Pop-making blonde being terrorized over the phone by a movie-obsessed psycho. The restaging of the scene in and of itself would be sufficiently satiric for most writers, but screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who also penned the original) goes the extra mile, having Maureen vocally mock its conventions ("Star-69 his ass!"). As smart and fun as Scream was, it certainly had its share of cheesy aspects, and it is refreshing--not to mention surprising and brave--to see Williamson and Craven poke fun at their original film to such mercilessly hilarious effect. This movie-based-on-the-first-movie-within-its-sequel conceit, which is revisited sporadically throughout the film (a highlight is Luke Wilson's dead-on impresonation of Skeet Ulrich's slacker "cool" in a later scene), perfectly embodies Scream 2's overall attitude--self-aware and more than willing to make fun of itself.

Two years have passed since the Woodsboro murders, and heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is now a theatre major at Windsor, and film geek Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) is--natch--a film student there (you would think he would be rejected, given his extensive qualifications). Yet while the scenery and atmosphere around her are different, her luck is not, and before long she once again finds herself stalked by a killer in a screaming ghoul costume. Soon reentering the picture are ever-vain tabloid TV reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who is even more of an egomaniac after writing a bestseller on the murders (upon which Stab is based); and ever-dopey Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now-former Woodsboro deputy, who comes to Windsor to offer Sidney some support. The rest of Scream 2's story has been a closely guarded secret, and Dimension Films has gone so far as to issue a letter urging press to not divulge too many plot developments. After seeing the film, it is easy to understand why. While the film does settle into a none-too-surprising slasher rhythm, Williamson cooks up a few surprising plot twists, intelligently incorporating references to the original to propel the sequel's storyline. Also, true to "the rules" of a sequel, he and Craven cook up some elaborately inventive suspense scenes that set the audience on edge.

As effective as the new scare scenes are, there is no shock sequence in Scream 2 that matches the original film's chilling prologue, but that is of little consequence when its humorous side--what makes the Scream movies so special--is stronger than ever. Amid all the carnage and screaming, Williamson and Craven's wit is as sharp as ever, giving dim Dewey overdone "cool" theme music (directly lifted from Hans Zimmer's score for John Woo's Broken Arrow) and throwing in barbs at everything from pop culture fixtures like Sandra Bullock and TV's Friends to "issues" such as the influence of violent movies and African-Americans' traditional non-presence in horror movies. But, of course, the most recurring topic is that of movie sequels. Simply bashing them (which the film does to ample degree) is easy, but Williamson and Craven are a bit more ambitious--attacking their inherent cheesiness while at the same time embracing it, steering events in some quintessentially "only in a sequel" turns with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

An ongoing discussion in Scream 2 revolves around whether or not there has been a movie sequel that is superior to the original. I would not be surprised if in Scream 3 (which is all but a foregone conclusion at this point), we hear the fresh, funny, and frightening Scream 2 mentioned as proof in the positive.

Titanic (PG-13) ****
Over $200 million in production costs; a problem-plagued shoot; a missed release date; a cast without a major star; and a three-hour-plus running time. A recipe for disaster? Not in the hands of writer-director James Cameron. His much-talked-about, much-anticipated Titanic has finally set sail, and unlike the ill-fated oceanliner that lends the film its name, this absorbing, moving cinematic spectacle not only floats, it soars.

It is ironic that so many modern dollars were spent in service of what is, at its core, a very old-fashioned romantic epic. Set mostly aboard the titular cruise ship during its singular voyage in 1912, Titanic documents, in flashback, the forbidden romance between penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the well-bred Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), who is quite unhappily betrothed to wealthy snob Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). The nature of Jack and Rose's relationship is fairly conventional--free-spirited Jack enables the constricted Rose to come alive--but the simple purity adds to the couple's charm. Cameron wisely takes his time to build this romance; by devoting the first couple of hours (and a very fast-paced two hours at that) to its development, he allows DiCaprio and Winslet (both terrific in what should be star-making turns) to develop a natural, affecting rapport with each other and, more crucially, the audience.

One can use all the superlative adjectives--"extraordinary," "spectacular," et al.--to describe the centerpiece crash-and-sink (which comprises the bulk of the film's final hour), yet no words can ever come close to accurately capturing the truly awesome experience of watching the Titanic take its final plunge. Unlike the previous high-budget record holder, the inane would-be action "epic" Waterworld, every last dollar spent on Titanic is visible on screen, from the 90-percent-to-scale model of the ship and rushing torrents of water to the ever-so-subtle visual effects that multiply a cast of hundreds into thousands. But for all its technical achievement, what gives the disaster (and the entire film) its powerful charge is the emotional investment the audience has with the people--not just Jack and Rose but also the minor players, a number of whom manage to carve out distinct, endearing identities during the course of the film. A sinking ship is just that without characters the audience cares about on board; by the time the ship makes its fateful collision, the film is no longer so much about a ship that sinks than it is about living, breathing human beings who, as one of the film's taglines goes, "collide with destiny."

The enduring and healing power of love, the strength of the human will, living for the moment--these are a few of the themes Cameron covers, but instead of coming off as blatantly preachy (which, in some of his previous films, he comes dangerously close to), he addresses these issues with careful subtlety, expressing them mostly through the characters and their actions rather than explicitly written dialogue (with the exception of a few words of wisdom dispensed by Jack). One of the best examples of this is the framing device for the main on-ship action: modern-day scenes in which an aged Rose (Gloria Stuart) tells her story to an expedition crew (led by Bill Paxton) searching for a legendary blue diamond called "The Heart of the Ocean." A lesser filmmaker would use these scenes as little more than decorative bookends, but in the end Cameron molds them into a relevant subplot about man's selfish and greedy nature.

Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis earned long-overdue respect from the Academy and critics alike with 1993's Schindler's List and 1994's Forrest Gump, respectively; with Titanic, a sumptuous epic as emotionally powerful as it is technically phenomenal, fellow hitmaker James Cameron is now set to receive his just due.

In Brief

Welcome to Sarajevo poster Welcome to Sarajevo (R) **
Random gunfire, arbitrary assassinations, dead bodies and rubble lining the streets. Just business as usual for Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), a British television news reporter covering the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in 1992--that is, until he comes upon an orphanage for young, homeless victims of the war and does, as the film's one-sheet reads, "the unthinkable--get emotionally involved."

The unthinkable, as far as the viewer is concerned, is also to get emotionally involved--with the main storyline, which involves Michael's efforts to rescue a young girl (Emira Nusevic) from the orphanage and adopt her as his own in England. This storyline, loosely based on a true story, is not nearly as compelling as the more peripheral depictions of the Sarajevo siege: innocents catching random gunfire, people young and old running for dear life. The fact that many of these arresting images are culled from actual file news footage just shows that a documentary would have more powerfully captured the horror of the Bosnian conflict than this synthetic, if well-acted (by Dillane, Nusevic, Woody Harrelson, and Marisa Tomei) and -intentioned, drama from director Michael Winterbottom.

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#120 December 5, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Amistad poster Amistad (R) **
The true story of the 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad would appear to make strong material for a film, and the brilliant opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Amistad proves that point. Depicting in graphic, unflinching detail how the imprisoned Africans, led by one Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), fought against their captors and took command the ship, the scene gets the film off to a bold, arresting start, delivering the promise of a highly charged and powerful two-and-a-half-hours.

Alas, the promise remains just that, a promise, and the ultimately disappointing Amistad loses its momentum once the action shifts from the sea to New England, where the 44 Amistad Africans end up. Held under lock and key once more, the Africans, charged with murder and piracy, become the objects in a heated property trial, and the film settles into the familiar rhythm of a courtroom drama. The prepubescent Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) of Spain argues that the Africans are rightfully hers, claiming that the passengers were Cuban-born slaves; the British Navy lay a counter claim since, as they maintain, the passengers were not slaves but free people illegally captured from West Africa. Looking out for the Africans' interests are abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a young attorney with a struggling practice.

If McConaughey's role sounds familiar, it should--he is playing no more than a variation on his starmaking role in A Time to Kill, which just adds to the routine quality of the courtroom scenes, which are the meat and potatoes of the film. As well-acted as these scenes are, especially by Pete Postlethwaite as the prosecutor, none of them really engaged me. The proceedings are strangely devoid of any tension or suspense, except for one moment where the overwhelming pressure Cinque feels is reflected by a pulsating drumbeat. But that is squandered, for the scene climaxes with Cinque making a dramatic outburst that can best be described as a perfect example of the cloying sentimentality that often mars Spielberg films. Spielberg managed to control his inclination toward emotional bombast in Schindler's List, and the film was much more effective for it; a similar understatement would have worked better for Amistad, whose most powerful moments are the quieter ones, such as a modest yet moving scene where Cinque and his friend Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) attempt to interpret the Bible.

Eventually the Amistad Africans' case makes it to the Supreme Court, with none other than former President John Quincy Adams (Sir Anthony Hopkins) arguing on their behalf. The usually great Hopkins delivers one of his weakest performances; he lays on the cantankerous old codger schtick a bit too thick, and he does something peculiar with his voice--not his American accent (which I, for one, did not mind at all in Nixon), but he makes it kind of high pitched and lispy, at times almost squeaky and chirpy. Needless to say, this is highly distracting and, in the end, annoying, especially since his character handles the climactic oratory.

But by this late juncture in the film, the problem with Hopkins's elocution is the least of the film's troubles. I felt as if the real story--that of the Africans--had been lost. Baldwin's case hinges on the fact that the Amistad Africans are people, not property, yet, with the exception of Cinque and maybe (to a much lesser extent) Yamba, screenwriter David Franzoni never develops them as people. Granted, it would have been impossible to delve into the identities of all 44. But if Franzoni had applied to the Africans some of the effort he uses to make the Americans a varied bunch, the film would have been given a deeper human dimension.

But even with the underdeveloped African perspective, the scenes that squarely focus on them are more compelling than any of the legal action with the Yanks. The closest Amistad comes to recapturing the opening scene's power is an extended flashback where Cinque recounts the events leading up to the revolt. This sequence, which opens with the violent capture in Sierra Leone, progresses through the harrowing sail to and from Cuba, and then concludes with a brief recap of the revolt, gets under the skin and stays there, which is a lot more than can be said for all of the courtroom scenes, which barely have a single memorable moment between them.

The same can be said about the cast of characters, despite the very worthy efforts of the actors, which is by far Amistad's strongest asset. The always-reliable Freeman's presence is always welcome, but his character is a minor background player at best. McConaughey predictably plays his familiar role with ease, but the character of Roger Baldwin never exhibits much personality. Nigel Hawthorne's President Martin Van Buren does have personality, but his screen time, much like Freeman's, is limited. The only character, American or African, that comes to full-blooded, vivid life is Cinque, played with mesmerizing ferocity by the charismatic Hounsou, a remarkable find who has come a very long way indeed from his heretofore most visible work, lipsynching in Janet Jackson's 1990 "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video.

As I have stated, the true story of the Amistad Africans would make a great film. But not only do I not think Amistad is that film, I do not think it really is a film about them. A true Amistad movie should be an inspiring, highly emotional and moving tale about the courage and will of the Africans themselves--not the mildly affecting, American-centered courtroom drama that Spielberg has made.

In Brief

Dangerous Beauty poster Dangerous Beauty (R) **
Initially, the vapidly lascivious title of Marshall Herskovitz's opulent period piece (whose more appropriate original title was Courtesan) appears to slight the film's true nature. While the film does tell the true story of Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack, Mel Gibson's doomed wife in Braveheart), a penniless young woman whose beauty, sexual prowess, and intelligence propels her to the top of the 16th-century Venetian sex trade, Herskovitz and screenwriter Jeannine Dominy (working from Margaret Rosenthal's Franco biography The Honest Courtesan) do not exploit the tale for cheap fixes of sex and nudity (though there are helpings of both). At its heart, Dangerous Beauty is a female empowerment tale in which a woman uses her wits in conjunction with her feminine wiles to rise above her station in life--even if said woman is a variation of the standard "hooker with a heart of gold" conceit.

By the time the end credits roll, though, Dangerous Beauty has become as trite and by-the-book as its title. The main emotional thread running through the film is Veronica's passionate affair with the dashing and wealthy Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), who cannot marry her because of the class difference. This tortured romance, which has its affecting moments, is not a bad thing in itself; what is, however, is its--and the entire film's--ultimate resolution, which comes in the form of a laughably overwrought courtroom scene, including the requisite scandalous confessions and shouted comments from the gallery. Any credibility or emotional truth the film had is instantly wiped away by the melodrama. Managing to escape with her credibility and dignity intact, though, is McCormack, who is not only stunning (Bojan Bazelli's cinematography never makes her look any less than ravishing) but more than capable of bearing the leading role's dramatic burden.

The Education of Little Tree poster The Education of Little Tree (PG) ***
Making its way to screens amid all the pomp and bombast of the major "Oscar bait" releases (such as Amistad) is this charming Canadian production, based on the novel by Forrest Carter. Terrific 11-year-old newcomer Joseph Ashton plays Little Tree, an 8-year-old Cherokee boy who learns about his Native American heritage and the way of the world while living in the Smoky Mountains with his grandparents (James Cromwell and Tantoo Cardinal, both excellent) in 1935.

This does not sound like the most exciting of scenarios, and writer-director Richard Friedenberg's pacing may be a bit too slow and leisurely for most. But with its simple story and modest yet impassioned execution, Little Tree builds an honest, natural poignance that would not have been achieved through hollow melodramatics. Friedenberg cannot completely escape some clichéd false notes (in particular one contrived deathbed scene), but as a whole, this sleeper strikes its share of emotional chords.

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