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Volume 31

#137
April 10, 1998


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

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#137 April 10, 1998

M O V I E S

Barney's Great Adventure poster Barney's Great Adventure--The Movie (G) **
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"I hate you/You hate me/Let's hang Barney from a tree." Count me among the many who simply cannot stand the Jesus Christ of kids' contemporary pop culture icons, Barney the dinosaur. As I walked into the child-packed auditorium for a matinee showing of the dino's big-screen splash, Barney's Great Adventure--The Movie, I took a deep breath in preparation for what I knew would be a descent into cinematic hell. And that it was--at least for someone my age.

The ostensible story involves two young siblings, Cody (Trevor Morgan) and Abby (Diana Rice), who are sent to their grandparents' farm home for a week. Abby and her (token African-American) friend Marcella (Kyla Pratt) are big Barney fans and devout followers of his gospel of imagination; stick-in-the-mud Cody hates doing "child-like" things and despises the dino. Before you can say "PBS," Abby and Marcella's stuffed Barney has come to full-size life, trying to instill some good ol' child-like imagination in Cody, who then wishes upon a star for a great adventure--which he gets, courtesy of a large, psychedelic egg of extraterrestrial origin that just won't stay in one place.

Of course, Barney can't go long without singing a song. His first appearance comes with a tune called "Imagine," and moments before Cody makes his wish, he leads the two girls in a rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." It is during this number that he encourages the audience to join in, at which point my already-cringing self was reaching for a vomit bag. The torture continued to escalate with an "Old McDonald" set piece (complete with the Barnmeister decked out in overalls) and, most excrutiatingly, a visit with bird expert Miss Goldfinch, which results in a full-blown production number whose appallingly inept choreography had me yearning for the halcyon days where Debbie Allen lent the Oscars her ever-innovative dance moves, such as having dancers hold up hula hoops during the 1995 "Circle of Life" number.

That should have been enough to send me bolting to the exit, but then I started to look at Barney's Great Adventure from a more academic perspective, at which point the film began to queasily fascinate. As we see the jolly dino and his friends visit a parade, a circus, and snooty French restaurant in pursuit of that elusive egg, I was oddly mesmerized by this creepy alternate universe where no one finds the sight of a plush, purple dinosaur (or for that matter, his lighter-shaded but equally plush sidekicks Baby Bop and B.J.) followed intently by a group of children the slightest bit unusual. When Barney takes to the restaurant stage and rocks the house with a jazzy little ditty, the snobby patrons are less taken aback (if at all) by his big, cuddly presence than they are by his less-than-formal behavior.

But I suppose films like Barney's Great Adventure rightfully demand some amount of suspension of disbelief, which will come rather easily for the film's target audience, preschool and pre-preschool aged children. And in terms of that audience, Barney's Great Adventure is completely harmless, if banal. Barney doesn't really teach anything to kids, but he does reinforce positive ideas--look both ways before crossing the street, believe in your dreams, keep a healthy imagination. Granted, the latter point is more thoroughly and entertainingly explored in any given episode of the delightful 1980s animated series Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, but the accomplishment of an entertainment that is magically able to keep the tykes in the audience virtually still and silent for a full 75 minutes cannot be discounted.

So, yes, Barney's Great Adventure--The Movie was a predictably mind-numbing experience for me; one would have to shell out some big bucks to get me to sit through it again. But even though I am at the younger end of the age spectrum for film critics, I am far older than the movie's intended audience, and that audience will likely eat up every last second of it. Although its entertainment value to adults is negligible, it is a safe, harmless bet for families, one parents will neither regret nor fondly remember after it's over.


City of Angels poster City of Angels (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Brad Silberling directed the 1995 live-action version of Casper; Dana Stevens wrote the 1994 Madeleine Stowe thriller Blink. Both of those films are competent entertainments, but it takes something more than mere competence to successfully pull off a redo of Wim Wenders's 1988 German classic Wings of Desire. In translating Wings into the film known as City of Angels, Silberling and Stevens have turned a fresh, unique cinematic work into a standard-issue Hollywood romantic fantasy.

Although Wings told the story of Damiel, an angel who decides becomes human after falling in love with trapeze artist Marion, Wenders was more interested with the day-to-day work of these celestial beings. His angels were unseen, trenchcoated observers of the human race, wandering about, listening to unsuspecting people's thoughts, but mostly just watching the earth from above, below, and beyond. These angels did not perform miracles, become visible to people in need, or engage in any of the actions that one typically associates with them; the angels simply watched and took notes.

In the dismaying opening scene of City of Angels, it becomes clear that Stevens and Silberling's vision is far more ordinary than Wenders's. When we first meet this version's Damiel, Seth (Nicolas Cage), he is on the job--he's by the side of a dying child to lead her spirit into the great beyond. No more simple observation; in this City dwell Americanized angels that act upon the human world, collect spirits, sometimes shape events, and somehow make themselves visible to people dying or in despair, such as surgeon Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), City's Marion. Seth falls in love with her at first sight, and he is further drawn to her after she loses a patient on the operating table. One night, without any explanation (reasonable or otherwise), the distraught Maggie is able to see Seth, and she falls instantly in love. All this before Seth makes his big fall into humanity's ranks. Long live Hollywood.

Even though Stevens and Silberling maintain a few of Wenders's touches (the black trenchcoats, the angels' library hangout, the cacophony of human "thought voices") and touchstone lines (such as "I can't see you, but I know you're there"), City eventually veers from the source material and settles into familiar Tinseltown convention. Observation and thought-reading, which took up a lot of Wings's running time, falls by the wayside in favor of a more prominent romance. Not necessarily a bad move, but Stevens inexplicably shoehorns the love story into the Meg Ryan romantic comedy formula. As usual, Ryan's character has a boring, barely-exists-as-a-character boyfriend (Colm Feore) from whom the more exciting love interest (in this case, Seth) must "rescue" her. Shouldn't the celestial divide between Seth and Maggie create enough dramatic tension in itself? Dennis Franz has the Peter Falk role as an angel-turned-human (Franz doesn't play himself, however), but unlike the original, Franz's heavenly past is explicitly spelled out rather than implied, and his character becomes nothing more than a walking vessel of angelic exposition.

Cage and Ryan turn in admirable performances that are matched by the rest of the cast, which includes an effective Andre Braugher playing the only character to survive the translation with his name intact, Seth's angel pal Cassiel. But Cage and Ryan's chemistry, while not completely frigid, does not ignite as it should, making the finale oddly lacking in emotional punch. But that is not quite as odd as the general direction of the film's final act, which is entirely different from that of the original. In taking such a radical turn, City goes against the very spirit of its poetic source material; the true magic and profound inspirational uplift of Wings is sacrificed in favor of sap and weepy manipulation. To be fair, on stand-alone terms, City of Angels is watchable, but even from this standpoint, it is still just a conventional and only moderately involving love story wearing angel's wings.


Lost in Space poster Lost in Space (PG-13) *
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Back in February at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, New Line Cinema put on a lavish presentation for its big-screen update of the cult 1960s sci-fi TV show Lost in Space, complete with in-person appearances by cast members Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson, and even Gary Oldman. That should have set off my warning alarms--the last time such an extravagant film presentation took place at the convention was nearly five years ago, when none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger made an in-person cameo to peddle... Last Action Hero. But no, like millions of others, I bought into the hype and "got Lost." If only I had gotten lost--literally--on the way to theatre and spared myself the tedium of this sloppily slapped-together blockbuster wannabe.

You may find yourself wondering if director Stephen Hopkins and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman were lost themselves when they made the film. At the convention, Goldsman claimed to be a rabid fan of the original television series, and if that really is the case, I'd hate to see what he does with concepts he only has mild interest in. To say that his script lacks narrative cohesion is to imply that there is a narrative to begin with--which there most certainly is not. After the setup, in which the Robinson family--father John (William Hurt, looking and sounding as spaced out as he does in interviews), mother Maureen (Rogers, wasted), daughters Judy (Heather Graham, ditto) and Penny (a heavily made-up Chabert, looking like a junior version of Neve Campbell in Wild Things), and son Will (young newcomer Johnson, making the best of it)--and pilot Don West (LeBlanc, doing a bad Han Solo impression) find themselves lost in space after their ship is sabotaged by evil stowaway Dr. Smith (a watered-down but still-lively Oldman, cashing a paycheck and loving every minute), the script's "stream" of events becomes so fragmented and random that it seems to be made up as it goes along--and Hopkins does little to make what does go on the slightest bit interesting. They encounter another ship. They board it. Alien spiders attack them. They return to their ship. The other one explodes. They land on a deserted planet. And so on. An attempt at a plot involving time travel occurs in the third act, but Goldsman doesn't seem to understand the rules that come with using such a story device; when one character's past self dies, the future incarnation inexplicably lives on.

The look and effects should be Lost in Space's ace-in-the-hole, but Hopkins even manages to botch that. For a big-budget film, the visual effects are incredibly shoddy. In one composite background shot, I could see the blue outline around Oldman; the various digital effects for the space battle scenes look like... digital effects. But nothing in those shots is as jaw-droppingly unconvincing as Blawp, a monkey-like space creature that becomes Penny's pet. Entirely computer-generated and every inch showing it, Blawp looks like it was lifted directly from a Sony PlayStation game. Apparently Hopkins thought the same and tried desperately to hide it; how else can one explain the graininess of Blawp's composite shots with the human actors? But in doing so, the seams are that much more obvious. You have to be severely visually impaired to not be distracted when a grainy shot of Penny and Blawp is immediately followed by a crystal-clear solo reaction shot of Judy.

New Line is hoping Lost in Space will become a big franchise much like the long-running Star Trek cash cow at Paramount. I don't think so. In a few years, the Lost in Space movie will likely live on not as a series but as the obscure answer to a trivia question: What film ended Titanic's 15-week reign at the top of the weekend box office?


Nightwatch poster Nightwatch (R) **
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With two hot young stars (Ewan McGregor and Patricia Arquette), a stylish director, and a creepy premise based on a popular Danish thriller, Nightwatch built some buzz... back in October 1996, when it was originally slated to surface in theatres. A year and a half and many scrapped release dates later, Nightwatch is finally set to make its long-delayed screen bow, and this flat, predictable chiller will likely come and go so quickly some will wonder if it ever did come out.

The ever-amiable Scot McGregor struggles with an American accent as law student Martin Bells, who bravely accepts the nightwatchman gig at a morgue as a serial killer stalks the city. After more bodies and plot twists pile up, Martin finds himself the prime suspect in the case, earning the suspicion of his girlfriend Katherine (Arquette, completely wasted in the screaming galpal role), his best friend James (Josh Brolin), and police inspector Cray (Nick Nolte) as the real killer continues his rampage.

Writer-director Ole Bornedal, adapting his 1995 original, is a natural at creating atmosphere. Martin's first few scenes in the morgue, with their creaky elevator, long hallway, locked room with vats of body parts, and stark white room with alarm cords hanging over the dead bodies (in case they "wake up") are downright skincrawling. Ironically, this grim, daunting atmosphere of fear and dread disappears when the serial killer plot comes to the forefront. This is mainly because the so-called mystery is so incredibly predictable. One character is set so obviously set up as a possibility early on that the person might as well have "red herring" tattooed on the forehead, and when the killer's identity is revealed, it's an anticlimax--there is no surprise. And the overdone climax, with the killer wielding a buzzsaw as two characters lie helplessly tied to operating tables, inspired guffaws rather than shrieks from the audience.

According to the press notes, Bornedal's original Nightwatch "broke all Danish box-office records." I can only hope that that version is much scarier than the American Nightwatch, or else Denmark's cinematic taste is just about as notoriously bad as France's.


The Players Club poster The Players Club (R) ** 1/2
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A mix of Showgirls, Striptease, and '70s Blaxploitation. Sounds like a surefire recipe for camp, but against all odds, Ice Cube's directorial debut The Players Club, if a bit uneven, works a lot better as a serious drama than its individual ingredients would make it appear to be.

The Players Club is the name of a seedy Southern strip bar that counts among its stable of dancers Diana Armstrong, a.k.a. "Diamond" (newcomer LisaRaye). Like Demi Moore in Striptease, college senior Diana dances to support her child and better her life (and pay her tuition). The Showgirls ingredient comes in Diana's feud with lesbian-leaning bitch queen dancer Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson), who has a lustful interest in her adversary. Like a Blaxploitation heroine, Diana is also a headstrong superwoman, determined to protect her naive, also-stripping younger cousin Ebony (Monica Calhoun) from falling prey to the job's dark side; and more than willing and able to kick whatever ass stands in her way.

Cube, who also wrote and has a small role, one-ups his film's stripping cinematic cohorts by for the most part succeeding in his intentions. The Diana-Ronnie feud, thanks in no small part to the solid performances by Wilson and LisaRaye, never comes off as ridiculous. Cube has his cake and eats it too--he even delivers the knock-down, drag-out catfight that Showgirls promised but never delivered. And unlike Striptease, most of the humor works. Earning the lion's share of laughs is Bernie Mac as the club's sleazy malapropism-prone owner Dollar Bill; Jamie Foxx also has some effective comic scenes as Blue, the club's DJ.

However, that's also where Cube runs into some trouble. The broad humor and more cartoonish characters (like Dollar Bill and his righthand man L'il Man, played by A.J. Johnson) are never seamlessly meshed with the film's largely grim, gritty tone and earnest story. Some laugh lines fall flat (one reference to co-star John Amos's former role on the TV show Good Times is too obvious and in-jokey to be funny), as does some of the dialogue in general; Cube sometimes offers hackneyed lines such as "I walked into the Players Club a girl... and came out a woman."

But overall Cube guides The Players Club with a sure hand, and he makes a true acting find with the commanding LisaRaye, whose diamond-hard charisma recalls the young Pam Grier. Diana's mantra "Make the money; don't let the money make you" is neither the most profound nor original statement, but LisaRaye is able to make you believe it--and believe in it.


In Brief

The Butcher Boy poster The Butcher Boy (R) *** 1/2
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No film in recent memory has left me with such conflicted feelings as Neil Jordan's harrowing, humorous, horrifying adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel about young lad Francie Brady's (Eamonn Owens) descent into madness in 1960s Ireland. On one hand, it was difficult for me to become invested in Francie's story because he is such an unsavory character, unjustifyably venting his rage at his nosy but otherwise harmless neighbor Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw). On another hand, I found it difficult to laugh at some of Francie's darkly comic shenanigans because he obviously is such a sick, needy child, having been raised by a drunken father (Stephen Rea) and a suicidal mother (Aisling O'Sullivan). On yet another hand, I also found it difficult to completely sympathize with Francie during his more emotional scenes because some of his, for lack of a better word, "bad" deeds are so incredibly shocking in their brutality and the malicious glee in which he performs them.

However, The Butcher Boy's power is undeniable, and the film as a whole is unforgettable--perhaps because it is so disturbing. What makes it so unsettling is the Francie's overall wink-wink yet matter-of-fact attitude about everything, expressed in a cheeky voiceover narration delivered by the adult Francie (Rea again). Think Heavenly Creatures played largely for laughs, and you'll sort of understand. Anchoring the whole film is the astonishing debut performance of Owens; love Francie or hate him, you cannot take your eyes off of Owens. The Butcher Boy truly is a twisted, unusual film that is bound to make just about anyone uncomfortable. In the lobby after the screening, I overheard one man raving about how great yet disturbing it was; I also heard one particularly offended woman say with disgust, "That movie was SO UNFUNNY!"


Mercury Rising poster Mercury Rising (R) * 1/2
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At one point, this Bruce Willis starrer was titled Mercury Falling, and that is a far more apt name for this ice cold thriller in which an autistic boy (Miko Hughes) breaks a top secret government code that some whiz decided to stick in a puzzle magazine for the hell of it. OK. Stock chases and gunplay ensue as our man Bruce, playing an FBI agent, protects the boy from the shady government types led by a barely seen Alec Baldwin. In short, Mercury Rising is a generic bore, partially redeemed by Willis's charisma and the unintentional comedy of Hughes's portrayal of autism, which he boils down to speaking his lines really slowly and keeping his eyes rolled upward.


The Newton Boys poster The Newton Boys (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Even though Richard Linklater's easygoing western based on the true exploits a group of ace bankrobbing brothers has four central roles, there is not a single true character to be found among them. Each brother can be summed up by a single characteristic: Willis (Matthew McConaughey) is the slick, cocky leader; Jess (Ethan Hawke) is the drunk, mustachioed one; Joe (Skeet Ulrich) is the young, righteous one; and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) has no distinguishable characteristic other than the fact that he does not look like he could possibly be a blood relation to the other three. Linklater, obviously attempting a to reach a more mainstream audience, directs with a light touch that suits the story of these larcenous but goodhearted sibs, but, much like the Newtons themselves, the film never goes for the kill. The initial bankrobbing scenes are interesting but soon become repetitive; blowing up safes with nitroglycerin can only be interesting for so long. The actors seem like they're enjoying themselves, but audience isn't likely to share in their joy. The closing crawl is punctuated by clips of interviews with two of the real-life brothers; these excerpts display the personality and infectious ebullience of the Newtons missing in the acted duration.


A Price Above Rubies poster A Price Above Rubies (R) * 1/2
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Renée Zellweger stars as Sonia, a young Jewish wife and mother frustrated by the constraints of her Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Her husband (Glenn Fitzgerald) is a religious scholar whose all-in-a-day's-work attitude on sex fails to tame the "fire" she feels within, as so she confesses to the rebbe (after hearing her fiery confession, the rebbe suddenly gets frisky with his pleasantly surprised wife--and dies the next morning). Sensing her frustration, her husband's brother (Christopher Eccleston) gives her a job in his jewelry brokering business in exchange for raw, passionless sex that just fans Sonia's still-burning flame. On the job, Sonia befriends Ramon (Allen Payne), a cool blast of hunky Puerto Rican water who does his own jewelry designs when not working as a grunt in an upscale jewelry store. Can fire-taming be far be that far behind for the ever-smoldering Sonia?

Just about everything in writer-director Boaz Yakin's film rings false, starting with the improbably cast Zellweger, who does an adequate enough acting job but simply looks too WASPy for the role. A better fit would have been Julianna Margulies, who outshines Zellweger as Sonia's take-no-crap sister-in-law. Some of Sonia's baby steps toward liberation, such as indulging in a non-kosher egg roll in Chinatown, come off as silly. Yakin attempts to spice up the proceedings with a touch of magical realism--in the form of the recurring presence of Sonia's long-dead brother's ghost--make the story feel even more trite than it already is.


The Spanish Prisoner poster The Spanish Prisoner (PG) *** 1/2
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David Mamet's latest directorial effort takes its title from an old con scheme, and that is exactly what The Spanish Prisoner is--one exceedingly well-crafted piece of manipulation that keeps the audience strung along with every intricate turn of the plot. Campbell Scott is perfectly blank as everyman mark Joe Ross, who devises a "process" that will make his employer a lot of money (that we never find out the exact nature of this "process" is completely beside the point). Even though he is the author of "the process," Joe's contract turns over its ownership to the company, thus preventing him from completely cashing in on his work. Enter Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, absolutely terrific), a wealthy man kindly offering to help Joe claim his fair financial stake--or so he says. A dizzying web of doublecrosses and Mamet-ian dialogue ensues, and Joe finds himself in a mess that only gullible film noir protagonists can ever get into. All of this is handled with intelligence and clock-like precision by Mamet and the uniformly good ensemble cast, which also features the real-life Mrs. Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, in an effectively robotic turn as a co-worker with a crush on Joe.


Two Girls and a Guy poster Two Girls and a Guy (R) **
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Writer-director James Toback's low-budget, high-concept three-character (OK, there's really five characters, but two of them only appear in the first scene) drama is not nearly as provocative as its title or much-publicized ratings troubles suggests. The two girls are sensible blonde Carla (Heather Graham) and streetwise brunette Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who find out they share the same guy, Blake (Robert Downey Jr.), while waiting for him outside his apartment building. Understandably upset, the two break into his apartment and wait to confront him, hoping to find out and understand why someone would resort to such duplicity.

At about the half-hour mark, just about all that can be argued about has been, and Toback attempts to jumpstart the proceedings with a lengthy, fairly tasteful, and rather gratuitous sex scene (sorry to disappoint, but if you're looking for any ménage action, watch Wild Things) that had to be recut multiple times in order for the film to receive an R rating. It doesn't work. More talk follows, about Blake's obsession with his mother, about the possibilities of a three-way relationship, about the women's own fidelity. But any true insight into the nature of contemporary romantic relations never arrives, as well-acted as this bona fide screen play is.


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