Fallen (R) BUY THE:Poster!
January is known as a cinematic wasteland, a dumping ground where studios
to unload the dreck they've been hiding in the dark corners of their
shelves. So it's quite refreshing to see premiering in the first month of
the year a film with some degree of intelligence such as Gregory Hoblit's
Fallen. While the basic ideas behind this supernatural thriller remain
more intriguing than their development and execution, Fallen is
an effective chiller that entertains and leaves audiences plenty to think
The setup as shown in the film's previews is deceptively simple. The
execution of serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas, picking up where he
left off in Crash) does not spell
the end of his conflict with idealistic
homicide detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington). Apparently, the
execution has only freed his evil spirit to inhabit other bodies to do his
sadistic bidding, passing from vessel to vessel through mere touch.
As the film progresses, it is revealed that the force that Hobbes must now
confront is much larger than expected, and this is where Fallen becomes
deeper and more intriguing than most fright shows. Interesting points
about theology and the nature of evil are brought up by screenwriter
Nicholas Kazan and director Hoblit, who enable the audience to suspend
their disbelief by giving it time to digest the supernatural occurrences
and explanations after they are served up a little at a time (though Hoblit
allows the viewers a bit too much time--the film's pacing should have
been much tighter). However, this is also where Fallen runs into some
trouble, for a few points are not resolved to satisfaction. For instance,
it is never satisfactorily explained why the spirit can easily enter some
people and not others; "purity of soul" is offered as a reason, but what
exactly distinguishes that?
But these quibbles can be swept under the rug, due to Hoblit's stylish
direction and, most of all, the presence of the ever-charismatic and
convincing Washington. He has such a natural rapport with the audience
that we instantly believe what he does, and when he is finally convinced of
what exactly is going on, we have no problem accepting the situation,
either. His supporting cast, which includes John Goodman (as Hobbes's
partner, Jonesy) and Donald Sutherland (as their superior), isn't given a
whole lot to do (Embeth Davidtz, as a theologan who helps Hobbes, plays
merely a walking vessel of exposition).
Fallen is a flawed film, but it at least requires the viewer to think,
especially after the jolting conclusion. That's a lot more than most
January releases have to offer; then again, I'd venture to guess that
that's a lot more than what most releases this entire year will have to
Hard Rain (R) BUY THE:Poster!
In an apparent response to the lukewarm reaction to Hollywood's last two
disaster epics, the dueling volcano movies Dante's Peak and Volcano, the
makers of Hard Rain (formerly known as The Flood) have
tweaked the usual
disaster formula a bit, melding traditional disaster elements with more
slam-bang action. While the resulting film is never boring and
entertaining on a superficial level, in the end it remains an uneven mix of
Writer Graham Yost, best known for his script for Speed, fashions Hard
Rain with a similarly thin storyline. A group of thieves, led by a shady
character known only as Jim (Morgan Freeman) attempt to rob an armored car
carrying $3 million. Two things stand in their way--biggest of all, Mother
Nature, which has flooded the town of Huntingsburg, Indiana with the mother
of all downpours; and Tom (Christian Slater), the armored car's driver, who
manages to hide the cash before anyone can take it. With the help of the
town sheriff (Randy Quaid) and church artist Karen (Minnie Driver), Tom
aims to protect the carefully hidden fortune while braving the elements.
Speed was able to overcome its
simple plot--madman extorts money from the
city with a bomb on a bus--with crack direction by Jan DeBont and the
personalities created by stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, and, most
notably, Sandra Bullock. Hard Rain's shortcomings do not lie with
Mikael Salomon, a former cinematographer. Salomon stages the gunfights and
boat chases with some skill (though no one but John Woo should even attempt
to pull off a church shootout), and uses the waterlogged setting to create
some striking shots. He also has a sure hand with the water effects, which
give the gushing torrents of water an appropriate air of menace. One of
the main shortcomings, however, lie with the characters, who, as in too
many disaster films, are poorly defined and/or uninteresting. Tom is a
cardboard do-gooder, and despite the best efforts of the always-engaging
Driver, Karen is little more than a token action film female. A couple of
late-inning twists muddy the personalities of the sheriff and especially
Jim; by film's end I was not exactly sure what the audience is supposed to
make of him.
What causes the most damage to Hard Rain is the inclusion of cheesy
disaster movie conventions. It would have been fine if the flood were used
as a backdrop to the action storyline, the water serving as an ominous
threat looming over the events. But in keeping with a typical disaster
film's varied "pastiche" of characters, he shoehorns in a grating,
unhappily married old couple (Richard Dysart and Betty White), who linger
in the background and become briefly involved in the action before
virtually (and mercifully) disappearing during the final act. We also get
served up one of those interminable melodramatic, would-be heart-tugging
death scenes, this one occurring after a character gets electrocuted.
After all is said and done, Hard Rain is a somewhat diverting popcorn
flick that holds one's interest for its fairly brief running time. It's
just that I cannot help but think that maybe the film would have been
better off being either a disaster film or an action film instead of
uneven blend that plays out onscreen.
Swept from the Sea (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Short Story!
TriStar pulled director Beeban Kidron's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's
short story "Amy Foster" at the last minute last October, and, ironically,
the delay has caused perhaps more bad than good--after all, an "epic
romance" that involves a sinking ship can only look bad in the wake of
Titanic. But this is not to say that
Swept's merit is being discounted
since there is really is little of merit on display in this slow,
uninvolving film. The film centers on the relationship between Amy Foster
(Rachel Weisz), an unhappy woman in Cornwall, England; and the mysterious
Yanko (Vincent Perez), the sole survivor of a sunken Ukranian ship en route
from his homeland to America. Despite the ire of the community, the two
form a friendship that leads to romance.
Predictably, a happy ending is not in the cards for Amy and Yanko, not
that it much matters since it's hard to really care about these two
shallowly written characters. Not helping matters is the stunning lack of
chemistry between the two leads and the ineptitude of their performances,
especially the adrift Perez, who truly does appear lost at sea. Escaping
with their dignity intact are Sir Ian McKellen (as the local doctor), a
wasted Kathy Bates (as a wealthy cripple), and cinematographer Dick Pope,
who gives the film a lush, epic look that it doesn't deserve.
illtown (R) BUY THE:Poster!
The basic plot of writer-director Nick Gomez's gritty urban drama isn't
terribly unique--it's the tale of the conflict between drug dealer Dante
(Michael Rapaport) and former partner Gabriel (Adam Trese), who has a score
to settle. But what distinguishes illtown is Gomez's intricate, layered
storytelling technique, which jumps back and forth in time much like the
films of Atom Egoyan. He even manages to one-up Egoyan in a certain
respect, blurring not only the boundaries of time but that between reality
and dreams. Unfortunately, though, this latter quality is what ultimately
does in the film. Once all the plot pieces have fallen into place, Gomez
rounds out the film with a frustratingly cryptic, self-indulgently surreal
conclusion that will leave viewers grasping for a meaning. Still, illtown
is an interesting piece of work, made watchable by the nicely subtle
performances of Rapaport and indie queen Lili Taylor (who plays Dante's
partner in crime and love).
As Good as It Gets (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Mean, prejudiced, selfish, and all-around unpleasant, Jack Nicholson's
obsessive-compulsive novelist Melvin Udall is one of the most fascinating
and entertaining characters to come to the screen in a while. Less
fascinating is the film he is in, James L. Brooks's pleasant, if somewhat
underwhelming and overlong, comedy, As Good as It Gets. The film focuses
on Melvin's peculiar love-hate relationships with two characters: Carol
Connelly (Helen Hunt), a waitress with an ill young son; and Simon Bishop
(Greg Kinnear), Melvin's sensitive gay artist neighbor. Predictably,
through these two, the naturally prickly Melvin slowly but surely warms up,
but it is to screenwriter Brooks and Mark Andrus's credit that he merely
warms, his abrasive nature never sweetening.
As Good as It Gets's greatest pleasures come from the acting. Nicholson,
who won the National Board of Review's Best Actor honor for his work, is
terrifically devilish, and he is ably matched by Hunt, who infuses Carol
with convincing world-weariness. Those two's solid performances, as well
as that of Cuba Gooding Jr. (in a small role as an art dealer friend of
Simon's), aren't terribly surprising, but what is is Kinnear's quietly
touching turn (which netted him NBR's Supporting Actor award), proving that
he should give up his own starring vehicles and stick to character work, at
which he excels.
Kundun (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Documentary DVD!
The movie maestro of America's Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, may
seem like a curious choice to direct a film about the life of the 14th
Dalai Lama, but with his lyrical film Kundun, it proves to be a natural
match. Spanning His Holiness's life from his birth in 1937 to his final
journey out of his homeland to India in the 1950s, Scorsese's is a
beautiful picture in the most literal sense. Roger Deakins's mesmerizing
cinematography is easily the best I've seen from a 1997 release, and his
gorgeous work paired with Philip Glass's hypnotic, haunting score makes for
a most sumptuous sensory feast that captures the majesty and grandeur of
the spiritual leader of Tibet.
The film's main problem, though, is that this stunning beauty exists in an
emotional and dramatic vacuum for a lot of its running time. While the
story is never less than engaging and the images never less than
captivating, due in large part to the impressive performances delivered by
the cast of non-professional Tibetan actors (a few of whom are related to
the real Dalai Lama himself), Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison
don't find an emotional hook. The young Kundun (as he is called)--played
by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, and Gyume Tethong, at ages 2, 5, and 12, respectively--is appealingly sympathetic and his
experiences are interesting, but there is nothing
particularly emotionally engaging nor inherently dramatic.
That is, until the film's final act, which details the adult Kundun's
(Tenzhin Thuthob Tsarong) conflict with the invading Communist Chinese,
leading to his flight to India. By this section, Scorsese's rich tableau
of image and music finally bears a potent emotional weight while serving
the drama. This is best exemplified by an amazing, unforgettable shot of
the Dalai Lama standing above what appears to be an endless sea of his dead
countrymen lying on the ground; and an extended visual metaphor in which an
elaborate artwork of colored sand is gradually swept away as the Chinese
increase the pressure and His
Holiness flees. It is the magic of moments like these that make the
exquisite Kundun, despite its initial flaws, a worthy addition to
Scorsese's legendary body of work.
Wag the Dog (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
After the being accused of sexual misconduct by a young girl, the
incumbent American President's chances for victory in the only days-away
election appear bleak. But the keyword here is "appear," for spin doctor
Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), with the enthusiastic help of hotshot
Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), come up with a surefire
way to bolster support for the Prez--manufacture a war out of thin air.
Based on the plot summary, Barry Levinson's delicious satire may seem to
be a comedy of errors, generating laughs from the ineptitude of scheme and
the schemers. But that would be too easy, and apparently so did
ever-crafty screenwriter David Mamet (working from a script by Hilary
Henkin based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero), who, in a clever
move, gets his laughs--and there are big ones--from how well the plan is
executed. Mamet's screenplay is exceedingly intelligent and well-crafted,
remaining one step ahead of the audience. In fact, the made-up war
(against the harmless, arbitrarily chosen Albania) is the mere taking-off
point for an increasingly twisty--and flat-out
hilarious--stream of events. Making this wild, biting trip all the more
enjoyable are the fabulous performances by Hoffman, DeNiro, and Anne Heche
(playing a White House operative), whose superlative work here measure up
to the finest work in each of their careers.
Jackie Brown (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
Three years and numerous talk show appearances, acting gigs, and media
potshots after the release of his landmark Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
has finally directed a full-length follow-up, Jackie Brown. But those
expecting the blood-drenched, trigger-happy Tarantino of old are in for a
surprise--his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch is a more
mature, only moderately violent, and a most unexpectedly romantic and
moving caper comedy/drama.
OK, I know what you're thinking--a good review from me is just about
guaranteed for Tarantino, right? No. I walked into the screening with my
expectations dramatically diminished, partially based on some early
positive-but-not-great notices and the virtual lack of buzz attached to the
finished project. My expectations were neither boosted nor diminished
further by the amusingly kitschy, retro-'70s opening credit roll, with Pam
Grier's title character moving on one of those airport conveyor belt
walkways, the hard-driving soul of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street"
blaring on the soundtrack, and the appearance of a copyright notice under
the film's title card.
Jackie is a 44-year-old, down-on-her-luck flight attendant for Cabo Air
who also works as a money courier for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L.
Jackson). When the Feds, led by ATF agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton),
catch onto her extracurricular activities (without knowing exactly whom she
works for), Jackie devises a complex scheme to rob Ordell of
$500,000--and stay in the good graces of law enforcement, whom she pits
against Ordell. Figuring into her plan is her bail bondsman, burnt-out
50-something Max Cherry (Robert Forster).
Leonard's basic storyline is pretty standard, but Tarantino tells it in a
straightforward fashion, but not without a certain amount of his unique
panache, albeit slightly altered in some respects. Predictably, his
dialogue has great snap, but while there are the trademark pop culture
references, they are noticeably in shorter supply--a wise move, so the
speech never distracts from the twisting plot. His penchant for nonlinear
storytelling shines in a brilliantly handled climactic money exchange
sequence, told three times over, each from the perspective of a different
character; however, that sequence is an exception, for the rest of the way
he uncharacteristically follows the story linearly. Naturally, this being
a Tarantino film, there is also violence, but, oddly enough, these
incidents are depicted with a minimum amount of bloodshed. These instances
still shock, though, mostly because the actual depiction of violence is
surprisingly sporadic; there is always the mere threat of it hanging in the
air, and Tarantino milks that threat for maximum tension.
But what makes Jackie Brown so surprising is its (gasp) heart. For all
the caper antics and profanity, the film essentially boils down to an
earnest love story between Jackie and Max. At first the romantic angle
plays less like a genuine angle than a joke; when Max becomes enamored of
her at first sight as Bloodstone's classic "Natural High" plays in the
background, it is hard not to snicker. Also pretty comical is how Max goes
to Sam Goody and buys himself a tape of the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your
Mind This Time" (which becomes the de facto recurrent "love theme") after
first hearing it at Jackie's apartment; he then plays it in his car and
lipsyncs along. But the underlying romantic nature of their
relationship--which is played out as a mere business alliance--is so
skillfully and subtly developed that I was taken aback by how much I felt
for the pair by the film's close.
Jackie and Max's likability onscreen owes a great debt to the actors who
play them. As proven by his resurrection of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction,
Tarantino has a great eye for forgotten talent, and he has once again hit
the jackpot with Grier and Forster, who should be Oscar contenders next
year. Former '70s blaxploitation queen Grier is an immensely appealing
performer; not only is she blessed with a natural beauty and sexiness, she
is able to project a sympathetic vulnerability even when violently showing
everyone who's boss. Forster, who has long toiled in anonymity in films
such as Original Gangstas (which, as it happens, also starred Grier), is
more than up to the tough task of suggesting Max's love for Jackie without
clearly spelling out his true intentions. As is the case with Tarantino's
previous efforts, the rest of the ensemble is also solid. Jackson is his
usual first-rate self, and Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda develop an
irreverent comic chemistry as Ordell's dim loser sidekick, Louis Gara, and
Ordell's beach bunny stoner girlfriend, Melanie Ralston, respectively.
Jackie Brown is not a complete return to Pulp Fiction form for Tarantino;
though the film is consistently engrossing, at 155 minutes, it is overlong
by at least 20 minutes, and the unspectacular climax is quite
disappointing, especially when compared to the terrific money exchange
sequence. Nonetheless, the very well done Jackie Brown marks the welcome
return of the filmmaker who revolutionized independent cinema.
The Postman (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
Even though the $180 million 1995 sci-fi adventure Waterworld was
dismissed by critics and audiences alike, producer/star/11th-hour
"director" Kevin Costner managed to emerge from the wreckage unscathed,
with most of the blame and discredit going to the film's true helmer, Kevin
Reynolds. Costner won't be getting away so easily this time--his new
sci-fi epic, The Postman, is even more disastrous, and no one is to blame
but Costner himself, who also directed.
Granted, a little slack must be cut for The Postman, which comes to the
theatres with three strikes against it. First of all, it is Costner's
first directorial effort since his Oscar-winning 1990 debut, Dances with
Wolves. Second, the film's title is also associated with a dearly beloved
recent film, the excellent 1995 Italian import Il Postino. Third, the
film's postapocalyptic setting is more than a little similar to that of
Waterworld--and that's not exactly a film audiences want to be reminded of,
to say the least.
But Costner, is, after all, an Academy Award-winning director, and one
would think he could come up with something decent--or, at the very least,
coherent. But even the modest hopes of the latter are dashed almost
immediately with the expository opening narration, which apparently
explains the second American Civil War that led to the country's demise. I
say "apparently" because I could not make sense of any of it--exactly what
happened and how it led to America becoming a wasteland in the year 2013.
It would help if Costner or screenwriters Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland
(working from the novel by David Brin) threw in more expository dialogue
along the way to clarify things. No such luck. Once the narration ends,
pity the poor, lost viewer who could not digest it... such as myself.
Shortly after that, we are introduced to Costner's nameless drifter, who,
about an hour into this ridiculously long (170 minutes) film, lends the
film its name. After escaping a military training camp held by the evil
General Bethlehem (Will Patton, who is actually quite good), who rules the
anarchic American Northwest with an iron fist, the drifter finds an
abandoned mail truck and enters a small Oregon town under the guise of a
postman. All he wants is a couple nights worth of food and lodging, but in
pretending to be an official of "the restored United States of America," he
becomes the living embodiment of hope for the oppressed people. Soon he
finds himself with numerous disciples who revive the former grand American
tradition of... mail delivery, and, in turn, bringing to life the hopes of
a restored nation--which, of course, does not sit well with General Bethlehem.
I do not know what is more laughable--the barebones plot synopsis or its
actual execution. The story is ridiculous, but it would have appeared at
the very least less so if Costner did not play everything with such a
straight face. He is apparently trying to make a Profound Statement about
war and American society, but it is impossible to take anything seriously.
Consider the horrendous dialogue: for example, Roth and Helgeland's idea of
witty romantic repartee is having the Postman often say "You're really
weird!" to a young wife (Olivia Williams) who wants to bear his child.
Consider this most heavyhanded, idiotically symbolic plot development: the
woman bears the Postman's daughter, who is named--yes--Hope (get it???).
Most of all, consider the most ludicrously preachy moment of the film, this
most unintentionally hilarious scene that occurs near the end: The Postman
stops a follower from killing a man, saying, "There will only be peace!"
So far, not too bad, but then the masses of people surrounding him look at
each other, nod, and say, "Yeah." The audience rolls in the aisles (that
is, provided they are still awake); the last trace of dramatic credibility
flies out the window.
The heart of The Postman's problems is the title character himself. We
are supposed to be inspired by the Postman and the society he has
inadvertently created, but he is such an unsympathetic, self-serving
character that we never once believe that he could attract a single
follower, let alone hordes. And the lies he concocts are so ludicrous, not
to mention poorly delivered, that it's a wonder how anyone believes any of
it. He only seems to grasp the importance of his actions and influence
with about thirty minutes to go, but this "changed" Postman comes off as a
satirical, reverse stereotype of the American postal worker--one who
denounces all violence, urging everyone to live in peace.
Usually when I think a movie is bad, I at least concede that it may be
worth the while of loyal fans of the star or director. Not so with The
Postman. Die-hard Kevin Costner fans may find themselves changing their
mind after seeing this overlong, lumbering mess, a miserable failure in
just about every respect.
Tomorrow Never Dies (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| DVD Set!
| Score CD!
| Movie Book!
| Video Game!
The 18th installment of the James Bond series boasts a few improvements
over the franchise-saving 17th installment, GoldenEye. The most notable
improvements come in the musical department: Sheryl Crow's mellow title
song is much easier on the ears than Tina Turner's screeching "GoldenEye" (though, admittedly, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is otherwise a fairly uninspired
attempt at reduplicating the sound of the classic "For Your Eyes Only"), and Eric
Serra's horrible techno/synth pop experiment has been succeeded by a more
traditional score by David Arnold, who heavily incorporates the classic
James Bond theme. Other key improvements are the villain (Jonathan Pryce's
megalomaniacal media baron, Elliott Carver, is a much more colorful villain
than GoldenEye's blah Agent 006) and Bond's female sidekick--this time
around a kick-butt Chinese agent named Wai Lin (worldwide action
phenom--except in the U.S., unfortunately--Michelle Yeoh). Also, director
Roger Spottiswoode keeps the action moving at a much quicker pace than
GoldenEye's Martin Campbell.
However, Tomorrow Never Dies's improvements over its predecessor do not
outnumber its downward steps in quality. The plot, in which Agent 007
(Pierce Brosnan, still doing quite well in his second Bond go-round) must
thwart Carver's scheme to manufacture a war to boost ratings of his new
news network, is quite thin, and GoldenEye's delicious villainess, the
giddily sadomasochistic Xenia Onatopp, is sorely missed (the villainous
henchman this time around is a stock German guy). Bond's usually pithy
oneliners fall surprisingly flat, as does the critical curtain-raising
opening action scene (there had to have been a more skilled action director
available than Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot's Spottiswoode). And, as
appealing and awesome a performer she is, Yeoh, with the exception of one
just-OK showcase fight scene, is mostly wasted. No matter, though--one
watches a Bond film for two hours of spy intrigue, car chases, fights,
explosions, and beautiful women (Yeoh and Teri Hatcher, who play's Carver's
wife), and on that fairly undemanding level, the diverting and fun Bond 18
delivers the goods.