The Movie Report
Volume 3

#23 - 27
December 27, 1995 - January 30, 1996

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

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#27 January 30, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Dead Man Walking poster Dead Man Walking (R) *** 1/2
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Sean Penn is nothing short of spectacular as Death Row inmate Matthew Poncelet in Tim Robbins's powerful capital punishment drama, which also stars a solid Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who befriends him. One would expect a harsh indictment of the death penalty from the staunchly liberal Robbins (and Sarandon, for that matter), but instead he opts for a relatively even-handed take on the issue; while he questions the value of the death penalty, he also presents the other side, taking us into the lives of the grieving victims' families and showing rapist-murderer Poncelet for the racist, unlikable person that he is. With this film, Robbins shows what an accomplished writer-director he has become, and Penn proves once again that he should stop writing and directing and stick to what he does best, turning in what is perhaps a career best performance.


Desperado poster Desperado (R) *** 1/2 photos from the world premiere
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Robert Rodriguez affirmed his status as one of the best action filmmakers today with this rip-roaring sequel/remake of his astonishing debut, El Mariachi. This time around, the nameless mariachi (Antonio Banderas, taking over for Carlos Gallardo) with the guitar case full of weapons takes on drug dealer Bucho (Joaquim DeAlmeida), and along the way falls for a sexy bookstore owner (Salma Hayek, currently seen much too briefly in Rodriguez's From Dusk till Dawn). Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, and Quentin Tarantino also turn up, as does original mariachi Gallardo, who appears in a small role near the end. An incredibly violent and infinitely entertaining shoot-'em-up. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

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#26 January 22, 1996 by Michael Dequina


From Dusk till Dawn poster From Dusk till Dawn (R) *** photos from Robert Rodriguez event
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A jarring hybrid of tense psychological drama and campy, B-grade exploitation horror, director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk till Dawn is bizarre, bloody... and a blast.

Roughly the first hour of the film is a riveting killers-on-the-lam psychodrama, with the treacherous Gecko brothers, the relatively level-headed Seth and paranoid, hotheaded sex offender Richard (George Clooney and Tarantino), fleeing the authorities following Richard's jailbreak of Seth and their subsequent killing spree. The two take former preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter Kate and son Scott (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) hostage, using the family's RV to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Once in Mexico, the group hole up at the Titty Twister, a seedy stripper bar, where Seth and Richard intend to rendezvous with an associate.

Following a steamy table dance by one Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), From Dusk till Dawn abruptly shifts gears into a vampire thriller when all the dancers and a number of the bar patrons reveal themselves as bloodsuckers, Santanico being the queen. From here on out, the film is a gleefully bloody homage to B-grade horror films of the past as the Gecko brothers and their hostages, with the aid of bar patrons Frost (Fred Williamson, doing a fun sendup of his image as a blaxploitation action icon) and Sex Machine (Tom Savini) fight for their lives.

Tarantino has gone on record that he and Rodriguez intend to "offend sensibilities" with this film, and based on the reaction of some of the audience members with whom I saw the film (first show, opening day, of course), they have succeeded. During the nearly hour-long bloodbath of a finale, a number of people walked out of the theatre. Seeing the film, it's easy to see how someone could be appalled by the carnage; however, it's done in such a pleasingly cartoonish manner that it can't be taken too seriously--one can't help but have fun with it. Rodriguez and Tarantino are well aware that for the second half, they're making a "balls-out exploitation flick" (albeit one iwth a top-flight cast), and the honest lack of pretensions is refreshing. The filmmakers set forth a modest goal and make no bones about it.

Tarantino especially also appears to have offended critics' sensibilities with the hybrid narrative, which has been the major criticism of the film (one person who had walked out, who sat in front of me, appeared to have been a critic of some sort, for I could see him taking notes during the film). However, I feel that the leap from drama to horror is a justifiable one, and not just on the basis of audacity and cleverness and shock value--it works on a thematic level. For the first part of the film, we see the Fuller family being put through a metaphorical hell, and in the second half, it takes a tangible form in the Titty Twister, which, ironically, also entraps the creators of that hell, in effect giving the Gecko brothers their ultimate comeuppance--a taste of their own medicine. Also the vampires serve as Seth and Richard's true rendezvous; they come to the Titty Twister to meet with an associate, and the bloodthirsty monsters are "associates" on a deeper, spiritual level. The Gecko brothers in a sense are seeing a reflection of themselves, albeit an exaggeration akin to a reflection in a funhouse mirror. I know I'm grasping at straws, trying to find a subtext in a film that for all intents and purposes is supposed to be a shallow trifle, but for those searching for a "logical" reason for the abrupt genre shift, it's there.

Rodriguez brings his usual expert craftsmanship to the numerous action set pieces, but his usual quick cut razzle-dazzle appears to be softened for this film; in fact, he borrows a thing or two from the handbook of Tarantino, such as the now-familiar "looking out from the trunk" shot. A clever touch was to include references to their previous works; the Big Kahuna Burger logo from Pulp Fiction is emblazoned on the fast food bags Seth carries, and a crotch cannon only seen in Desperado is actually put to use here. And in keeping with the spirit of B-grade exploitation flicks, the makeup effects are good but not all that convincing; in fact, they are kind of overdone, which adds to the air of excess and unpretentiousness.

Clooney reveals himself to be a bonafide screen presence with his intense portrayal of Seth. While level-headed as a whole, one can see the fire in his eyes, the dangerous killer ready to erupt should the need arise. He's captivating to watch. Tarantino is also quite effective here; his rather innocuous-looking exterior works for the truly psychotic Richard--it makes him that much more frightening when he explodes into violence. Keitel, despite a labored Southern accent, lends quiet dignity to his role, providing a cool relaxed anchor in reality when the story turns toward the fantastic. The same goes for Lewis, who, as in Cape Fear, perfectly captures adolescent awkwardness and insecurity and makes Kate's transformation into, as Tarantino says, a "badass" entirely believable. Hayek is also memorable as the sexy Santanico, but her appearance is much too brief; and Cheech Marin is a scene-stealer in three different roles, especially as a sleazy guy by the name of, ahem, Chet Pussy. The only one not turning in a decent performance is newcomer Liu, who is adequate during the first half of the film but whose second-half emoting is quite amateurish. Rodriguez made a similar gamble casting young unknowns for his segment in Four Rooms; while it paid off incredibly well there, it does not here.

One's enjoyment of From Dusk till Dawn depends entirely on one's expectations going in. Those expecting a straight action/horror vehicle (which the ads are making it out to be) will be disappointed. However, anyone wanting to see an interesting marriage of two seemingly unlinkable genres and a fun tongue-in-cheek gorefest that both spoofs and celebrates the glories of B-grade exploitation vehicles are in for an entertaining treat.


Waterworld poster Waterworld (PG-13) **
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Nearly $200 million down the drain, and you get this astonishingly mediocre action wannabe-epic about a half-man, half-fish anti-hero (Kevin Costner) who aids a woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her adoptive daughter (Tina Majorino) search for the legendary dry land in a world completely covered in water. The sets, stunts, costumes--none of it appears to justify the inflated budget. Displaced director Kevin Reynolds proved he could make a rousing action spectacle with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Waterworld, being neither boring nor particularly exciting, just sits there, leaving no impact on the viewer. (MCA/Universal Home Video)

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#25 January 18, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Two If by Sea poster Two If by Sea (R) **
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Two If by Sea's first surprise comes very early, when, contrary to all the advertising, we see Denis Leary's name show up before box office sensation Sandra Bullock's in the opening credits. The biggest surprise of this film comes about midway, when one realizes what a remarkably dull piece of work it is, even with the vibrant Bullock on board.

Leary is Frank, an art thief, and Bullock is his girlfriend, Roz. After the two steal a valuable Matisse, they seek refuge in an unoccupied house in the small New England town of Amohoset until the buyer of the painting shows up. Roz, fed up with Frank's choice of profession, dreams of something better in life, and becomes enchanted with the sophisticated Evan (Stephen Dillane), who lives in the house next door. From then on, it's an even slower sit as Frank tries to prove he's more than a thief and some feds, led by Yaphet Kotto, close in on him.

The key to every romantic comedy is the chemistry between the two leads, and Leary and Bullock generate none. Most of the film they are bickering, which is neither funny nor fun to watch, and when they do have their cozy moments, not sparks fly. The lack of romantic rapport is due in large part to Leary, who, quite frankly, isn't a very warm, likable presence, and his character is a loser. Frank is also a klutz, and his clumsiness is an apparent effort by writers Leary, Ann Lembeck, and Mike Armstrong to make Frank "charming." But instead of coming off as a charming loser, he is just a clumsy loser. It's interesting to see Bullock play a character with more edge, and she acquits herself well although the role of sassy, New York-accented Roz screams Marisa Tomei. It's also kind of disappointing, though, to see Bullock reduced to rolling her eyes, putting her hand up and saying "Talk to the hand" like a guest on Ricki Lake. Still, her effortless charm and friendly presence is the best reason to see the film.

Leary, Lembeck, and Armstrong's script is only lightly amusing in spots and painfully unfunny as a whole, and Bill Bennett's sluggish direction doesn't help. A lot of the one-liners fall flat, as do the very labored slapstick situations, such as one where Frank and Roz try to make love in their cramped car without damaging the painting, and another where Frank catches his ear with a hook while fly fishing. Some gags are just plain lame. The town of Amohoset is so small that the police station is also a video store. Are we laughing yet?

Sandra Bullock's hit streak has come to an end with this lifeless, uninspired romantic fluff. If you really want to see romance on the big screen, see The American President or Sabrina instead, or, better yet, just stay home and rent While You Were Sleeping.

In Brief

Othello poster Othello (R) ***
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Laurence Fishburne's towering portrayal of the title Moor general overcome by jealousy is the best reason to watch Oliver Parker's sleek and accessible take on the classic Shakespeare tragedy. It's too bad, though, that Parker gave most of the screen time to Kenneth Branagh's villainous Iago; while he is an effective villain, he is not nearly as interesting to watch as Fishburne. Swiss actress Irène Jacob, last seen in the haunting masterpiece Red, is as radiant as ever in a fine English-language debut as Othello's wife, Desdemona, but her franglais accent sometimes makes her line readings hard to follow. Some of Parker's directorial touches don't play too well, such as having Iago address the camera directly (more distracting than enhancing) and a heavy reliance on closeups, but it's an entertaining, respectful adaptation that plays like an erotic thriller with Elizabethan language.


Nine Months poster Nine Months (PG-13) ** 1/2 photos from the world premiere
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Chris Columbus's lightweight pregnancy comedy goes down pretty easy, but most of the slapstick gags are more amusing than hilarious. Hugh Grant plays a commitment-shy bachelor who panics when his girlfriend (Julianne Moore, wasted once again) becomes pregnant. Robin Williams has a funny cameo role as Moore's gynecologist. Melrose Place fans should look out for the distracting cameo by Kristin Davis, who plays the soon-to-be-written-out bitch Brooke on the nighttime soap. All in all, breezy, undemanding, and ultimately forgettable. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

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#24 January 11, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Eye for an Eye poster Eye for an Eye (R) *
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"What do you do when justice fails?" asks the advertising for Eye for an Eye. The real question that will be posed to anyone who sees this film, however, is "What do you do when the filmmakers fail?" for John Schlesinger's manipulative new thriller is much too overwrought and ridiculous to be taken seriously.

Schlesinger and writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa quite obviously don't believe in subtlety, for every point is expressed in the most thunderingly obvious fashion. Museum worker Karen McCann (Sally Field) is a gentle soul with respect for all forms of life. How do we know this? Why, in the opening scene, instead of killing a moth flying around her youngest daughter's bedroom, she lets it out the window. Her beliefs about killing are put to the test when her eldest daughter is violently raped and killed (shown in chilling detail) a crime she overhears on her cellular phone. Eventually, the police capture the perpetrator--grocery deliveryman Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), one really nasty character. And how do we know this? It apparently wasn't enough for the filmmakers just to let us know that he is a rapist/murderer, for we see Doob drive recklessly (scary), pour hot coffee on a dog (evil), and pee on the sidewalk (bad). When the only evidence against him is deemed inadmissable by the court, Doob is set free, and Karen vows to settle the score--even if it means killing him.

Karen's transformation from gentle wife to an obsessed crusader is quite ridiculous. We see Karen begin to dice tomatoes with a new ferocity, become more aggressive in the bedroom, and--in my favorite scene--use her newly polished karate skills on a suspicious-looking but ultimately harmless bystander in a parking garage (no joke). Even Field's performance is a bit much. The role of a woman crusader is old hat for her, but maybe a bit too familiar, for, in keeping with the tone of excess, she overdoes the act. The same goes for Sutherland, whose character is too much of a caricature to be genuinely scary. Ed Harris is completely wasted as Field's husband; something's wrong if this talented actor's most memorable scene has him singing "Old McDonald" with his daughter while driving. Joe Mantegna, as a police detective, manages to come off well, but he's not free from the silliness, either--one scene has him bonding with Field over mini Nestle Crunch bars in his office.

Schlesinger does create a chilling moment or two (specifically the intense and shocking murder scene), but the overall piece isn't too thrilling at all, for there is no urgency and tension to the film. And the lighter moments don't work either. Scenes such as the one in the parking garage and another where Karen erupts into uncontrollable laughter during her daughter's wake after her aunt slips and falls feel too arbitrarily thrown in and distract from the center of the story.

Eye for an Eye is a clumsy thriller that won't give moviegoers the jolt they expect. This one should be one of the year's first box office casualties.

In Brief

Shanghai Triad poster Shanghai Triad (R) ***
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Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou's (Ju Dou) latest is an intriguing drama about the relationship between a showgirl (Gong Li, stunning as ever) and a crime boss (Li Baotian) as told through the eyes of the showgirl's young servant (Wang Xiao Xiao). It's pretty slow going, but the stunning cinematography (by Lu Yue), uniformly good acting (especially by Gong), and an interesting conclusion make it all worthwhile.


The Net poster The Net (PG-13) ***
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Entertaining cyberthriller with Sandra Bullock as a reclusive computer programmer whose identity is deleted after she stumbles upon a massive cyberspace conspiracy plot. The logic isn't always there, but Irwin Winkler's thriller is fun popcorn entertainment, thanks in no small part to the always-likable Bullock. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

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#23 December 27, 1995 by Michael Dequina


Four Rooms poster Four Rooms (R) **
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Quite needless to say, I did not enter the first showing of Four Rooms on opening day the most unbiased viewer. Despite the critical drubbing it had received following its lackluster premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I was eager to see this omnibus anthology comedy written and directed by four different independent directors, two of whom being a couple of my absolute favorites, the incredibly talented (and all-around swell guy) Robert Rodriguez and my namesake, Mr. Brown himself, Quentin Tarantino (Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell are the other two). Instead of expecting the worst, I took my seat in the fairly crowded auditorium willing to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. I'd probably have been better off expecting the worst, for I probably would have enjoyed this slapdash stew of mostly unfunny gags a little more and not have been so utterly disappointed.

The film takes place on New Year's Eve at the Mon Signor Hotel, and bellhop Ted (Tim Roth), the only staffer on duty, provides the only link between the four tales, getting involved in the bizarre goings-on in four different rooms.

The first tale is Anders's "The Missing Ingredient," about a coven of witches (Valeria Golino, Sammi Davis, Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, and a surprisingly adequate Madonna) who attempt to resurrect their goddess Diana (Amanda deCadenet) with a strange brew (which, coincidentally, was the segment's original title). The final ingredient in their brew is fresh sperm, and they enlist Ted to provide the goods. Word is that over twenty minutes were cut from the finished film following the Toronto premiere, and a good chunk of that missing footage appears to have been from this story, for, as it stands in its current version, is neither funny nor makes any complete sense. There's no comic payoff at all, and it doesn't really "end"--it just stops. None of the actors are give much to do although Roth's bizarre mannerisms and delivery are good for a chuckle here or there.

Ted is "The Wrong Man" of Rockwell's segment of the same name, in which our trusty bellhop is mistaken for the lover of a woman (Jennifer Beals) who is bound and gagged and held hostage at gunpoint by her husband (David Proval of Mean Streets fame). Unlike Anders's piece, this vignette does build up to a big joke, but that joke isn't all that funny (unless, perhaps, you find the rattling off of numerous euphemisms for "penis" hilarious), and the road to that joke is quite bumpy and slow with no real laughs. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Lawrence Bender, producer of the film and Tarantino's partner at A Band Apart Productions, in a cameo. Again, the best thing about the piece is Roth, who has a manic energy that is unmatched by the other players or the writer-director.

Manic energy is in abundance in the third room, Rodriguez's "The Misbehavers," the only truly hilarious segment. Ted is left in charge of two boisterous young children (Lana McKissick and Danny Verduzco) when their parents (Tamlyn Tomita and Antonio Banderas, in fine form) go out for a night on the town. Hilarity ensues when a syringe, alcohol, and a dead body are thrown into the mix, leading to a raucous finish. It all plays better than it sounds, thanks to expert direction by Rodriguez and the comic timing of Roth, Banderas, McKissick, and Verduzco. This segment is the film's true saving grace.

The most disappointing, but not the worst, piece of the puzzle is Tarantino's closing bit, "The Man from Hollywood." Quentino himself stars as Chester Rush, an egomaniacal movie star who gets Ted to play the impartial moderator of a twisted bet between himself and a member of his entourage (Paul Calderon, who played the bartender in Pulp Fiction). The vignette ends with a nifty joke, but it's slow going getting there, for Tarantino's dialogue lacks his trademark snap, and his rather lengthy takes only contribute to the sluggish pace. Jennifer Beals's character from the Rockwell segment and an unbilled Bruce Willis also appear, but add little, if anything, to the mix. Maybe it's my bias talking, but ol' Q's acting isn't half-bad here (then again, I can't say that I ever really had a problem with his acting), and Roth once again maintains his dignity. But this vignette feels rather forced, with none of the soul or passion in previous Tarantino efforts.

If anything, Four Rooms is outrageous and far from a tough sit, but as a comedy, it fails to deliver the goods. It is a noble but failed filmic experiment that maybe isn't quite as bad as its very vocal detractors have been saying, but is by no means that good, either. Expect this one to check out of theatres soon.

In Brief

Heat poster Heat (R) *** 1/2
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Michael Mann's crime saga is far from the action spectacle as which it is being sold, but it is an insightful dramatic look at the relationship between cops, criminals, and the women in their lives. Al Pacino is in over-the-top Frank Slade/Scent of a Woman mode as a Los Angeles police detective determined to take down master criminal Robert DeNiro, who is even more reserved here than he was in Casino. Writer-director Mann sometimes overreaches, such as including an unnecessary subplot involving a serial killer, but the overall package is still worth a look; an intense coffee shop talk between the two leads is worth the admission price alone, as is a spectacular shootout and a transcendent finale. Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, and Tom Sizemore, among others, round out the fine ensemble.

Leaving Las Vegas poster Leaving Las Vegas (R) *** 1/2
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This grim Vegas romance between a man (Nicolas Cage) determined to drink himself to death and a hard-luck prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) is the definitive downer--which isn't to say that it is a complete drag to sit through (although it is a difficult sit). The powerful work of Cage, Shue, and writer-director Mike Figgis make for a haunting, heartbreaking film that does deserve most of the many critical plaudits it has been receiving. Thankfully, Boxing Helena's Julian Sands only turns up very briefly as Shue's Latvian pimp.

Nixon poster Nixon (R) ****
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You can take the man away from Natural Born Killers, but you apparently can't take the natural born killer out of the man, for Oliver Stone's fascinating Citizen Kane-esque bio of the late, lamented former president is not lacking in stylistic pyrotechnics--a number of Stone's NBK tactics are here, such as the constant shifts between color and black and white, the use of many types of film stocks, and the superimposing of words over scenes (this time in foreign characters--some type of subliminal suggestion, Oliver?). In any case, this is a riveting tragedy, the moving tale of a man who had it all--or so he thought--and saw it all fall to pieces. Anthony Hopkins is fabulous as Tricky Dick, leading a very strong ensemble that includes James Woods, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, and Joan Allen, particularly impressive as Pat Nixon. One small complaint: the first name of actress Bridgette Wilson, last seen in Mortal Kombat and featured in a small role here, is misspelled as "Bridgitte" in both the opening and closing credits. Regardless, one of the best of the year.

Twelve Monkeys poster Twelve Monkeys (R) ** 1/2
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This ambitious thriller is a messy mélange of action, adventure, sci-fi, romance, horror, and comedy. A bald Bruce Willis plays an inmate from the year 2035 sent back in time to 1996 to try to trace the origins of a virus responsible for wiping out 99% of the earth's human population; Madeleine Stowe is a psychiatrist who ultimately comes to his aid; and an inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated Brad Pitt is a mental patient who could hold the key to the mysterious riddle of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Fine efforts by Willis and Stowe, stunning production design, and director Terry Gilliam's keen visual sense can't make up for a laughable, scenery-devouring Pitt; Gilliam's plodding pacing; and a script (by David and Janet Peoples, inspired by the Chris Marker short La Jetée) that's all over the map and spread much too thin. Only the final moments achieve the haunting, lingering sense of dread for which Gilliam appears to strive (and falls short) for the entire 130-minute running time.

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