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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 34

#142 - 144
May 14, 1998 - May 29, 1998


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#144 May 29, 1998

M O V I E S

Still Breathing poster Still Breathing (PG-13) ***
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A plot contrivance of mammoth proportions threatens to sink the romantic comedy Still Breathing just as it makes its first attempts to get off the ground. San Antonio, Texas street performer Fletcher McBracken (Brendan Fraser) somehow, someway sees a vision of one Roz Willoughby (Joanna Going) narrowly escaping a mugging attempt on a Hollywood street. Convinced that Roz is his soulmate--apparently, his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on had envisioned their eventual wives before ever meeting them--Fletcher flies to the left coast to find her.

This rather hard-to-swallow bit of magical realism, ironically enough, sets the stage for some very effective magic of a different sort--that of assured writing and direction, courtesy of first-timer James F. Robinson. It is revealed that Roz is far from the angel that Fletcher thinks she is; in fact, she is a con artist who teases and fleeces wealthy men, and she hooks up with Fletcher believing him to be a rich Texan mark set up by a friend Elaine (Ann Magnuson). While Roz's less-than-pure, emotionally detached nature is not the most original plot complication in and of itself, a complication stemming from this trait adds a fresh wrinkle to the formula. In most contemporary romantic comedies, the lovers fail to realize they are perfectly matched until the last reel. Here, Fletcher and even Roz recognize their unique compatibility fairly early on. So it is not a question as to whether Fletcher is the right guy for Roz--it's whether or not Roz, who has long renounced true love and emotion in favor of admittedly empty riches, is willing to allow herself such happiness.

Roz's emotional predicament is brought to vivid, sometimes heartbreaking life by the luminous Going, of whom I've been a big fan since her television days (am I the only one who fondly remembers her work on the 1990 revival of Dark Shadows?). She also shares a natural rapport with Fraser, who is her perfect screen complement. He has much less of a character to work with--Fletcher is simply a nice, somewhat naive romantic--but he fills in the blanks with an appealing dose of charisma and self-deprecating humor. Fraser's effortlessly charming performance makes it easy to see how Fletcher can win over a hard cynic like Roz.

For all its freshness, Still Breathing ends up exactly where one would expect. But as with many journeys, the trip is more important than the ultimate destination, and the one taken by Roz and Fletcher is sweet, moving, and with an irresistible magic all its own.


In Brief

Broadway Damage poster Broadway Damage 1/2*
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Aspiring Broadway composer Robert (Aaron Williams) secretly carries a torch for his best friend, struggling actor Marc (Michael Shawn Lucas). The problem is, Marc only has eyes for "perfect 10s," which the geeky, insecure Robert certainly is not. Meanwhile, Marc's spoiled (hetero) female roommate, Cynthia (Mara Hobel), spends her days lying about their apartment and harrassing magazine editor Tina Brown.

Writer-director Victor Mignatti's "very romantic comedy" (as the ad campaign states) is supposed to be (pardon the pun) a gay ol' romp, but it's hard to have much fun with these annoying, self-absorbed characters and their shallow personal problems: Marc and Cynthia have sitcom-level domestic "crises" (such as trying to kill bugs--how hilarious); Robert and Marc go to acting class (how riveting); the zaftig Cynthia goes on eating binges (how original). But more than anything else, the three whine. Constantly. Marc whines about his turbulent romance with an apparent "10," David (Hugh Panaro), the hunky musician from across the way; Robert whines about not being able to find the right guy; Cynthia whines about having to find a job (horrors). The terrible trio whine their way to a happy ending that is wholly undeserved. Add in overly broad performances and some laughable lipsynching by Panaro, and you're left with one astonishing piece of cinematic damage.


Bulworth poster Bulworth (R) ***
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Warren Beatty's first directorial effort since 1990's candy-colored, bitter tasting Dick Tracy is certainly an original: an audacious political satire in which the titular suicidal California senator (Beatty) gets a new lease on life, literally and politically, when he becomes a rapping, truth-telling voice for the disenfranchised--namely, African-Americans. The premise sounds wildly far-fetched on paper, and it still comes off as most unlikely onscreen, but it is one of the rare films that manages to courageously and seriously address political issues head-on while remaining a funny and entertaining romp (the gravely serious conclusion notwithstanding). Beatty's usual whitebread stiffness couldn't be more perfect for the unlikely hip-hopper, and his work is just one of the many terrific performances given by the ensemble, which also includes Paul Sorvino and a hilariously harried Oliver Platt. Although Beatty, who also conceived the story and co-scripted (with Jeremy Pikser), largely succeeds with this rather bold film, his work has a most ironic shortcoming. Both Bulworth (the film) and Bulworth (the character) hope to speak for the African-American community, yet the African-American characters in the film--in particular a South Central L.A. drug dealer (Don Cheadle) and the alluring young woman (Halle Berry) who instigates Bulworth's turnaround and improbably becomes his romantic interest--are woefully underwritten and unconvincingly developed.


Fallen Angels poster Fallen Angels ****
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Hong Kong arthouse director Wong Kar-Wai's stylish and mesmerizing 1995 follow-up to his delightful, indescribable 1994 film Chungking Express can best be described as that film's flip side, following characters on the criminal end as opposed to the police officers in Chungking. However, the two films are very similar in structure and theme, telling two largely unrelated stories dealing with love, loss, and possible redemption. In one, a burnt-out hitman (Leon Lai) hooks up with a shrill, bleached-blonde eccentric (Karen Mok), unaware that his agent (Michele Reis) is infatuated with him. In another, a mute ex-con (Takeshi Kaneshiro of Chungking) falls for a bitter, recently jilted woman (Charlie Young) and spends lots of quality time with his father. Angels takes other diversions from Chungking: with its increased violence and raunch factor (there is some pretty vigorous masturbation), the tone is considerably darker, and the two tales intertwine rather than tangentially intersect. But for all their differences, Angels equals the poignance of the earlier film, and it boasts a terrific conclusion that satisfyingly wraps up both storylines. Although there are a number of amusing references to Chungking, one need not have seen it to enjoy Angels; still, as brilliantly done as it is, the film is definitely for more adventurous, art-minded moviegoers only.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (R) no stars
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Never mind the complaints that Hunter S. Thompson's cult novel was unfilmable--Terry Gilliam's resulting movie is flat-out unwatchable. Writer Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (a potbellied Benicio DelToro) take a work trip to Sin City that becomes one extended drug binge. End of story. A true theatre-clearer, Fear and Loathing challenges Kenny G's recently-set Guinness Book record for longest sustained note: the two take drugs, and more, and more, and more, and... you get the picture. The monotony lasts an interminable two hours without approaching any semblance of a point. Gilliam comes up with an appropriately frenetic visual style, but before long it becomes more headache than head trip. The same can be said of the entire film.


The Opposite of Sex poster The Opposite of Sex (R) *** 1/2
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Screenwriter Don Roos (Single White Female) makes a wickedly entertaining directorial debut with this wild, unflinching, and aggressively un-P.C. black comedy. An all-grown-up Christina Ricci plays 16-year-old hellion Dedee Truitt, who immediately up-ends a number of lives after leaving her mother's home in Louisiana and shacking up with her gay half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan) in Indiana. In no time, Dedee seduces Bill's young stud Matt (Ivan Sergei), gets knocked up, and takes off with Matt to California with the ashes of Bill's dead lover Tom in tow (make that held hostage). When Bill, Tom's bitter, busybody sister Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), and town sheriff Carl (Lyle Lovett) follow their tracks, things get even crazier...

...but never lighter. Credit Roos for maintaining a scathing, pitch-black tone from first frame to last. There are times when events and characters threaten to soften up, and just when you think the film begins to grow a heart, it chews it up and spits it right back at you. This is perfectly exemplified by Dedee's tart, self-aware voiceover narration, which she uses to add the audience to her victims: she identifies and savages all manner of cinematic conventions and clichés only to use them as tools of manipulation. But meanness is just unpleasant if it isn't funny, and Roos's script is full of delicious zingers that not only bite but draw blood. A lot of these are capably dished out by the better-than-ever Ricci; however, the best lines come from the film's real star--and biggest surprise: Kudrow, whose Oscar-caliber work shows she can do more than play a ditz. The incessantly nagging bitch that is Lucia is not only the funniest in an ensemble of original, indelible, and well-played characters, she quite handily takes over and walks off with the movie.


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#143 May 19, 1998

M O V I E S

Godzilla poster Godzilla (PG-13) **
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Reviewing a much-ballyhooed "event" movie like Godzilla is a pointless task. No matter what I or any critic might say about it, everyone and their mother will still rush out to the theatre to see the movie just to say that they did. But in the event that anyone out there is listening, be forewarned that this lavish take on the classic Japanese monster movies is a technically superb but flavorless piece of sci-fi hackwork.

Godzilla's mediocrity should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of the "brains" behind the project, the team of co-writer/producer Dean Devlin and co-writer/director Roland Emmerich. As the film's many trailers so bombastically boast, they are the creators of that overhyped sci-fi phenomenon of a couple year's back, Independence Day (they were also behind another inexplicable success, 1994's ridiculous StarGate, as well as 1992's unspeakably horrid Jean-Claude Van Damme-Dolph Lundgren battle royale Universal Soldier). I was lukewarm on ID4 (it earned a fairly charitable ** 1/2 on my scale--which elicited a rather snottily sarcastic e-mail from Devlin himself), which had top-flight effects, a charismatic lead (the incomparable Will Smith), but a sloppy script populated by poorly drawn characters with vapid individual storylines.

ID4's "human dimension" (which a lot of people actually bought into) is as profound as Schindler's List's in comparison to what is on display in Godzilla--or, rather, what isn't on display. Our primary human guide throughout the giant lizard mayhem is Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a nuclear scientist who is enlisted by the military to investigate the origins and analyze the behavior of the behemoth reptile that is destroying New York City. There, he is reunited with his college sweetheart, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo, sporting wild Sarah Jessica Parker-ish locks--a coincidence?). Their love story is supposed to be the emotional hook, but Devlin and Emmerich scarcely bother to give them any quiet scenes alone together, so what's the point? Broderick and Pitillo appear to not see one either, woodenly playing their already-plywood roles and failing to generate any romantic spark whatsoever.

But the flat lead characters are the least of Godzilla's problems. The film's fundamental flaw can best be summed up in the scene where the creature's appearance is fully revealed. The work of creature designer and supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos does not disappoint; sort of a mix between a T-rex, stegosaurus, and velociraptor with a little iguana thrown in, Godzilla's look is truly menacing, and the big visual revelation should be a moment of genuine fright and tension, much like the grand T-rex entrance in Jurassic Park. But Emmerich completely misdirects the moment. The audience's first, uninterrupted glimpse is scored with some uplifting, awe-inspiring music not unlike Jurassic's main theme, and Niko's aghast look is one more of wonder than fear, which is what I'm sure any person, scientist or not, would feel in the presence of a giant, hungry lizard.

This is but the first instance in Emmerich's complete botching of what should be a key element in Godzilla--terror. For all the destruction Godzilla causes, and the threat he poses to everyone's lives, the purported "thrill ride" feels safe and is not scary in the slightest. This is especially the case in an extended sequence set in the destroyed Madison Square Garden. Without giving away a key plot "surprise," the sequence's obvious model is the showcase raptor sequence in Jurassic (in fact, so much of Godzilla is derivative of Jurassic it might as well have been called Godzilla Park), but Emmerich and Devlin mistake quantity for quality. If you see the film, you'll know what I mean--the threat to the "heroes" is considerably larger, but I never once felt that they were in any danger.

The always-visually exciting (as opposed to just plain exciting) Godzilla would have gone down a bit easier if there was a greater dose of humor. Unlike ID4, which had a comic firecracker at its center in Smith, Godzilla's stabs at humor are few and, frankly, not terribly funny. Hank Azaria, as news cameraman Victor "Animal" Palotti, tries to make the most of the blah wisecracks he's assigned to deliver. A running dig at Roger Ebert--the stocky, silver-haired, bespackled mayor (Michael Lerner) is also named Ebert, and an upturned thumb is his big campaign gesture--grows old quickly. An injokey dig at Warner Bros. and Disney, numerous lame verbal gags involving Niko's Greek surname, Harry Shearer's pompous news anchor (who is not too far from one of his Simpsons roles, newsman Kent Brockman), and some comic stoicism by Jean Reno (playing--what else?--a shady Frenchman) round out the film's light touches. As a whole, the film takes itself much too seriously--much like Devlin and Emmerich themselves.

The terrible twosome have proclaimed themselves the Lucas and Spielberg of this generation (a sad testimony), which could not be farther from the truth. While they are adept at handling the technical aspects of effects-laden extravaganzas (Godzilla is, if anything, a superlative technical achievement, terrifically designed by Oliver Scholl and shot by Ueli Steiger), they have yet to display any of the imagination, creativity, or solid ideas of George and Steven. What ideas they do have only work within the confines of two-minute trailers, which are always far superior to the full films themselves. The fact that hype-brainwashed moviegoers don't ever appear to care--and pre-sold Godzilla certainly won't break the mass hypnosis--shows that their true calling lies within the offices of a studio's marketing department and not on the creative end of the film business.


V I D E O

Shall We Dance? poster Shall We Dance? (PG) ****
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One of the most delightful films released last year was this sparkling Japanese comedy-drama in which bored businessman Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) takes up ballroom dancing behind his wife and daughter's back. Writer-director Masayuki Suo's fresh and often very funny film is at once formulaic and wholly original. Sugiyama does become a good dancer, and there is a central dance competition scene in which Sugiyama's secret is revealed. However, said competition plays out in a way that goes against all expectations, and the scene does not serve as the film's climax. That title is held by a beautiful closing sequence that earns a surprising yet most well-deserved poignance. All in all, an absolutely splendid entertainment that was unjustly disqualified from Oscar contention (it had aired on television before its American theatrical release). (Miramax Home Entertainment)


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#142 May 14, 1998

M O V I E S

The Horse Whisperer poster The Horse Whisperer (PG-13) * 1/2
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I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a sucker for a good romantic weepie. Pop 1996's The Bridges of Madison County into the VCR, and by the time a rainsoaked Clint Eastwood casts a final heartbroken gaze at Meryl Streep, in all likelihood you'll find me a blubbering mess (go ahead and laugh). Not surprisingly, the long-delayed The Horse Whisperer is being positioned as this year's Bridges: it also boasts a high-profile director-star (here, Robert Redford), and it, too, is based on a bestselling love story by a first-time author (Nicholas Evans in this case). But only true suckers will fall for this overlong, slow, and self-indulgent bore, which is not only short on tears, but romance as well.

Never mind that it takes a hard-to-swallow plot contrivance to get the ball rolling. A violent horseriding accident severely injures 14-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson, in a role originally intended for Natalie Portman) and kills her best friend Judith (Catherine Bosworth). Also shaken up in the accident is Grace's beloved horse Pilgrim. Although everyone says the best treatment for Pilgrim is a bullet, Grace's ballsy magazine editor mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) throws all caution and good advice to the wind and takes Grace, who now wears a prosthesis where her amputated right leg used to be, and Pilgrim on a road trip to Montana to meet one Tom Booker (Redford). Tom is a "horse whisperer," who specializes in treating "horses with people problems"--a category under which the once-gentle, now-irritable Pilgrim clearly falls.

It takes well over an hour before the inevitable "romance" between uptight Annie and laidback Tom begins. I place the term in quotes because what develops only qualifies under the vaguest, most academic definition. Tom and Annie go horseback riding once, and suddenly they long for each other--or rather, Annie longs for Tom, because Redford's stiff performance offers no convincing insight into what Tom feels. Redford had once vowed to never direct himself in a film; based on his wooden work here, he should have held to that promise. Scott Thomas is a proven master at conveying soul-aching longing (witness The English Patient) but she is at the mercy of Redford (the actor and director) and scripters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravanese (the latter of whom penned the terrific Bridges script). I couldn't feel for Annie since I couldn't understand why she would prefer Tom over her straight-arrow but generally understanding husband Robert (Sam Neill); her motivation is also sketchily developed, and as such the forbidden "love" feels like a scripted development and not a natural one.

Not that Redford seems terribly concerned with the romance, which is supposed to drive this story and serve as the emotional hook. Redford appears more content with crafting a valentine to the equine--and to his own virility. The Horse Whisperer is dominated by two images: horses running wild and free and Tom, twirling his lasso in slow motion. By the time Tom is exerting his cool yet caring authority over other ranch animals (in slow motion, of course), the point is abundantly clear--Tom is one strapping cowpoke. But Redford insists on drilling this point into the audience's heads over and over and over again, at the clear expense of the romance. I'd say that three-fourths of the film's bloated two-hour-and-forty-four minute running time is devoted to Tom and the horses, with a fourth of that remaining fourth devoted to the supposed "passion" between Tom and Annie: They indulge in a couple of stolen kisses (during a most incomprehensible doozy of an exchange--Annie: "I want to know something." Kiss. Tom: "Are you sure?" Kiss. Annie: "I have to go." What the--?!); they share a romantic barroom dance; she cries--that's it. Oh, lest I forget Tom's oh-so-heartwrenching declaration of love, delivered by Redford with all the expressiveness of a brick: "I didn't plan on loving you. But I do." Really? Could have fooled me...

The Horse Whisperer is not without its virtues. Robert Richardson's photography captures the Montana landscapes in all their breathtaking majesty; Thomas Newman's score is lilting and evocative; Johansson is terrific, creating the sole character that makes any connection with the audience; and the opening accident scene has a disturbing intensity. But the scant good lies at the periphery of a deep, gaping void. The handsomely produced Horse Whisperer is not the flat-out cinematic catastrophe that another recent actor-director effort, Kevin Costner's notorious The Postman, was, but for swoony fans of movie love stories, this uninteresting, uninvolving viewing chore might as well be. There won't be a damp eye in the house.


Quest for Camelot poster Quest for Camelot (G) **
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With the visually spectacular and entertaining Anastasia, Fox declared itself a worthy contender to Disney's feature animation throne. Now comes the Warner Bros. stab at animation riches, Quest for Camelot, and if this shoddy enterprise is what it considers topline animated entertainment, the studio is a mere pretender to the Mouse's throne.

As is the case with most underwhelming live action films, one of the roots of Quest's mediocrity is the script, written by Kirk DeMicco, William Schifrin, Jacqueline Feather, and David Seidler from Vera Chapman's novel The King's Damosel. The story is just about nonexistent, boiling down to an extended, uninteresting search for a sword. Dastardly former knight Ruber (voice of Gary Oldman) steals King Arthur's (Pierce Brosnan) magic sword Excalibur, only to lose it in the forest. Ruber and his crew of baddies search for it, as does the courageous daughter of deceased knight Lionel (Gabriel Byrne), Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig), who is joined in her quest by the blind loner Garrett (Cary Elwes) and the two-headed (conjoined?) dragon(s) Devon (Eric Idle) and Cornwall (Don Rickles).

Anastasia set the bar for non-Disney animation high with its opening glimpse of a stunningly realistic, computer-animated music box. Quest counters with a shot has become cliche in live action features: the trusty camera-travelling-over-water shot. But this is a minor quibble in a film teeming with visual problems. The art is strictly Saturday morning-level, a point which is underscored further a scene where Kayley and Garrett face a computer-generated giant ogre; unlike in Anastasia or any given Disney effort, the CGI and the traditional cel animation do not mesh convincingly at all. The ogre, as impressive as it looks, looks completely out of place, appearing to have wandered in from a better, bigger-budgeted film. The worst visual sin committed by director Frederik DuChau and the animation crew is the sloppy lipsynching, especially during the musical numbers, where the voices often do not match the characters' mouth movements.

Even more distracting is the noticeable difference between the characters' singing and speaking voices. In Disney features (or, for that matter, Anastasia), the singing and speaking voices can plausibly originate from the same set of vocal cords. Although there are a couple of exceptions--Gilsig and Andrea Corr sound remarkably similar as Kayley; and the Jane Seymour/Celine Dion teamup for Kayley's mother, Lady Juliana, works surprisingly well--too often the voices are wildly dissimilar. When Garrett breaks into song, Elwes's soft, Brit-accented tones suddenly change into those of raspy Yank country-western singer Bryan White. The biggest stretch of all is the tandem for King Arthur: current 007 Brosnan and... former Journey frontman Steve Perry?! The stretch casting would be forgivable if David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager's songs were the least bit memorable. Suffice it to say, they aren't.

Quest for Camelot follows the tried-and-true Disney formula fairly closely--"I Want" song, villainous scheme number, love duet, final confrontation--but DuChau fails to realize that the key to Disney's success in animation is not necessarily the formula but a generous helping of imagination and magic to go with it. While their Anastasia was not a complete triumph, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were able to create some superb, haunting moments that rank with, if not surpass, some of Disney's. If Quest is any indication, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, which enjoyed a successful launch with 1996's Space Jam, is severely out of its depth.


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