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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 4

#28 - 34
February 8, 1996 - March 19, 1996


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

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#34 March 19, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S
In Brief

Executive Decision poster Executive Decision (R) ** 1/2
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Take a late-blooming action star (Kurt Russell) and an action hero (Steven Seagal) whose career is in a downslide, and you get an action film seriously lacking in... action. First-time helmer Stuart Baird was the editor of many action greats such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard 2, and, if anything, this film about a commando unit's efforts to foil a terrorist hijacking is well-edited. However, editing is not the star of an action film; the action is, and there's precious little of it here. Most of the time is devoted to looking through cameras, efforts to defuse a nerve gas bomb, and lots of sweating. While these goings-on are interesting, they aren't necessarily suspenseful or exciting.

Despite all outward appearances, the real action hero here is the incredibly annoying John Leguizamo, and, frankly, he isn't convincing at all as a gung-ho tough guy, ordering people around, taking charge. Halle Berry is called on to do little more than look stunning as a flight attendant, which, of course, she does quite well. Marla Maples Trump makes an inauspicious debut in a virtually silent role as one of Berry's stewardess cohorts; her woefully inept facial contortions of fear are hilarious. The film picks up some steam in the final act, when the heroes finally make their move, but it's too little, too late. Even a finale lifted from, of all places, that masterpiece of insanity Airplane!, can't make up for the less-than-thrilling 90-minute section that preceded it. For what it is, Executive Decision is OK, but it will be a major disappointment for die hard action buffs.


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#33 March 14, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Chungking Express poster Chungking Express (PG-13) ****
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Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express is something of a paradox: quite funny yet incredibly sad; a pair of virtually unrelated stories that actually have everything to do with one another; two stories that are actually one. But there's nothing paradoxical about its quality--it is one of the most inventive, original works to come from Hong Kong or anywhere else in a long time.

Chungking Express follows two very loosely linked stories, each about a cop freshly dumped by his girlfriend and the interesting relationships they forge with other women. The first tale follows two characters as their unrelated lives head on a collision course--Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who obsesses over his lost love May and his forthcoming 25th birthday; and an unnamed smuggler (Brigitte Lin) in a blonde wig who loses a fortune in heroin during a botched deal. When the two finally meet, the bond they form is not so much romantic as it is fascinatingly ambiguous. Through an unexpected and incredibly seamless transition, the audience is plunged into the second (and better) tale, this one about Cop 663 (Tony Leung of John Woo's Hard-Boiled, not The Lover), still lamenting the loss of his flight attendant love, and Faye (Hong Kong pop star Faye Wang), the quiet clerk of a fast food stop he frequents. Secretly in love with him, Faye manages to sneak into 663's apartment on a regular basis when he's gone, trying to cheer him up with some not-so-subtle redecoration, all of which manages to slip by unnoticed by 663.

This plot synopsis of Wong's unique script doesn't begin to do the film justice. The film is not so much concerned with plot as it is mood and character, which Wong deftly fleshes out through the characters' bizarre and quirks: 223 eats cans of pineapple only with the expiration date of May 1 (his birthday and the "expiration date" of his love for May) and jogs so "there will be no water left for tears"; 663 holds conversations with objects in his apartment, trying to "cheer" them up; and Faye does practically everything to the strains of "California Dreamin'." His fresh visual style reinforces many of the themes of sadness and isolation. On many occasions, characters are shown in slow motion as everyone around them moves at hyperspeed, as if they are trapped in time, lost and isolated from the world around them; and the constant blue hues reflect the moods of the protagonists. But this is not to say that Chungking Express is a downer--it is quite funny in a touching way, from the eccentric characters and the light yet deep touch provided by the actors, especially Wang, who perfectly captures the awkwardness and insecurity of someone in love. Chungking Express certainly doesn't look like anything to come from Hollywood, and its haunting atmosphere doesn't have an equivalent in any mainstream Hollywood fare.

Quentin Tarantino, whose Rolling Thunder division of Miramax is distributing the film, said in introducing the film at UCLA last June, "No film spoke to me... in the past year like Chungking Express." Hopefully it'll get a well-deserved chance to speak to a large American audience.


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#32 March 8, 1996 by Michael Dequina

V I D E O

A Walk in the Clouds poster A Walk in the Clouds (PG-13) *** 1/2
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I never thought that Keanu Reeves was capable of delivering a decent dramatic performance, but, sure enough, he of the blank face and even blanker voice does just that in this sumptuous love story directed by Alfonso Arau. Reeves plays a married chocolate salesman who falls for the pregnant, unmarried daughter (radiant Spanish newcomer Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) of a California vineyard owner (Giancarlo Giannini). The competent (not great, mind you) Reeves and Sanchez-Gijon generate a palpaple romantic chemistry that makes this shamelessly sappy, often unabashedly cornball story work. Not in the league of Arau's 1993 Mexican masterpiece Like Water for Chocolate, but a beautiful romance all the same, highlighted by exquisite photography by Emmanuel Lubezki. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)


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#31 February 29, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Up Close & Personal poster Up Close & Personal (PG-13) **
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It appears that nothing is sacred at the house Uncle Walt built: fresh off the heels of the Hollywood Pictures' The Scarlet Letter, which was "freely adapted" from Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, comes Touchstone's Up Close & Personal, a disappointing would-be romance "suggested" (yes, merely suggested) by the life of ill-fated NBC News anchor Jessica Savitch.

The story follows the skyrocketing career of one Tally (ne Sally) Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer), who rises from weather girl to hard news reporter under the tutelage of veteran news director Warren Justice (Robert Redford) in Miami. Naturally, as the two grow closer professionally, they do so in their personal lives, and it's only a matter of time before their relationship takes a romantic turn. And it does, right when their careers start heading in opposite directions, geographically and figuratively.

Up Close & Personal's problems begin right here. Redford and Pfeiffer do not generate any palpable romantic chemistry. There is no real sexual tension between them from the get-go, so when they finally do get together, it feels forced, ungenuine, and, worst of all, is uninvolving. This is best illustrated by the end of the central "love montage" (yes, there's one of those), set to the Celine Dion ballad "Because You Loved Me" (which has figured prominently in the film's television ads). The montage closes with Tally going up an escalator, about to board a plane for Philadelphia, as Warren looks on below. The timing couldn't be more perfect (she is about to take on a new challenge--a higher profile job in another city--while her mentor/lover stays behind), and the song fits just as well (especially the repeated line "I'm everything I am because you loved me"). However, instead of feeling their bittersweet longing, the audience feels absolutely nothing. The same can be said for the cliched would-be tearjerker conclusion (don't worry; I won't spoil it here); it also does not help that the big "surprise" twist of the ending is so blatantly telegraphed in advance by writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (working from the "suggestion" of Alanna Nash's Jessica Savitch bio Golden Girl).

Maybe the stars were paying too much attention to their own performances to pay much attention to each other. Redford is well-cast as a generic paragon of intelligence and virtue while Pfeiffer gives an especially strong performance. If only her character was as strong as she is. Another reason why it is so hard to care much about what goes on is the fact that Tally is such a weak-willed, generally incompetent character. Even as her career takes off and she earns credibility as a journalist, she can only apply herself while being hand held by Warren. All her great accomplishments are mostly due to his guidance, and there's no real feeling that she truly earns all the good fortune she receives.

The parts that work best are the behind-the-scenes views of the newsrooms, complete with typically egotistical anchors (played amusingly by Stockard Channing and Scott Bryce), and the insights into news-gathering techniques. We "learn" right along with Tally general dos and don'ts of the news biz. But for a film that is supposed to be a romance set against the backdrop of TV news, director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, The War) should have paid more attention to the foreground--and the pacing. Although it clocks in at about two hours, the second half really drags, especially in contrast to the brisk first hour, in which Tally's early steps to news stardom are covered quite efficiently.

The filmmakers undoubtedly made the drastic changes to the story of Jessica Savitch in the name of entertainment value. However, I doubt anyone will be truly entertained or moved by this hollow, uninvolving, and ultimately uninteresting romantic drama.


In Brief

Mary Reilly poster Mary Reilly (R) * 1/2
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Stephen Frears's take on the Jekyll & Hyde tale certainly succeeds as a mood piece (lots of shadows and fog; very little lighting), but as drama, Mary Reilly has more than a few obstacles to surmount, and this overblown story of the doctor and his alter ego (John Malkovich) told through the eyes of the title maid (Julia Roberts) ends up falling flat on its face.

There are four central obstacles. Obstacle number 1: accents. Roberts sounds Irish by way of Georgia (her pronunciation of the word "blood" is a doozy), and Malkovich for some reason doesn't even attempt one, even though the story is set in England and everyone (except Roberts) has a distinctly British accent. Obstacle number 2: Malkovich's makeup. The difference of appearance between Jekyll and Hyde is strictly of the Clark Kent/Superman variety, with Jekyll sporting a goatee and curly, greying hair and clean-shaven Hyde wearing long dark locks. Not helping matters is that Malkovich also does not attempt to alter his voice in any way when playing Hyde. So when everyone believes that Jekyll and Hyde are two different people, it is completely unbelievable. When Hyde asked Mary, "Don't you know who I am?" I thought it was a rhetorical question. Turns out she really didn't know. Obstacle number 3: Roberts. She obviously took on this role seeing it as something of the Oscar-winning Meryl Streep variety (accent, subtle expressions), but she's not up to the challenge. Instead, her acting is of the Melrose Place/Andrew Shue variety, her eyes blank and mouth often agape (not unlike the photo of her used in the print ads). Obstacle number 4: the transformation scene. Instead of coming off as scary, this important set piece (which occurs very late in the film) is rather ridiculous. In fact, it is strangely reminiscent of the similarly ludicrous transformation into Mars rebel leader Kuato in Total Recall.

What I found most interesting about Mary Reilly was the ending, not so much because I cared about what happened than what it was. Based on what I've read about the many endings (reportedly more than twenty) written for the film, it appears that, in the end, Frears decided on the original ending in the original novel (by Valerie Martin). Go figure.


Rumble in the Bronx poster Rumble in the Bronx (R) ***
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This is a good, not great, Jackie Chan film, with all the incredible stunts and fight sequences one would expect from the great martial artist/physical comedian. It is also as wildly uneven as most of his films--great action strung together by the weakest of plots, in this case one involving nasty bikers and, in a late-inning plot change, stolen diamonds and the mob. Fun, pure and simple, made even more enjoyable by the truly horrendous dubbing. While Chan thankfully redubbed his own lines, everyone else's were obviously redone by others, especially that of a young boy, whose new American voice sounds like Chip from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. One complaint--this new American cut of the film is missing a staple of almost all Chan films: an end credit song sung by the star, which was reportedly included in the original Cantonese version. I guess New Line felt the US wasn't quite ready for the total Jackie Chan experience. Not that it matters too much: the question as to whether Chan has finally broken into the US market can be answered by a simple comparison. When Chan's name appeared during the opening credit roll, only I and a guy sitting in front of me clapped. When Chan's name appeared again at the beginning of the closing credit roll, practically the whole audience applauded.


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#30 February 22, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

City Hall poster City Hall (R) ** event pix
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With a solid cast and strong behind-the-scenes talent, Harold Becker's City Hall has all the ingredients for a solid drama but instead comes out a half-baked disappointment.

The plot is set into motion when three people are killed in a New York shootout--a drug dealer, a cop, and a young boy on his way to school. There is more to the shooting than there appears, at least in the eyes of the deputy mayor (John Cusack, sporting a moderately convincing Cajun accent), who decides to look into the details leading directly and indirectly to the shooting, uncovering a web of suspicious deals that link a Brooklyn political leader (Danny Aiello), the mob boss uncle (Tony Franciosa) of the slain drug dealer; a high-ranking judge (a wasted Martin Landau); and possibly the mayor of New York himself (Al Pacino).

If anything, the acting in City Hall is first-rate. Cusack manages to hold his own against Pacino, who is excellent as the charismatic mayor; his rousing oratory at the funeral of the dead boy is by far the film's highlight. However, I did not for one moment care about any of the characters or any of the onscreen action. The script was handled by four different scribes (Ken Lipper and top screenwriters Nicholas Pileggi, Paul Schrader, and Bo Goldman), and the strain shows. The script feels cobbled together, with a number of episodes (such as one taking place in a theater) giving "insight" into political power plays at the expense of propelling the plot forward. Harder to forgive is incredibly forced, tacked-on conclusion. And pity poor Bridget Fonda. While she turns in a characteristically competent performance as a lawyer assigned to protect the memory of the dead cop, no amount of good acting can hide the fact that her character is completely superfluous.

City Hall is at least better than Becker's last film, the awful "twist-and-turn-and-twist" thriller Malice, but with all the talent assembled here, their efforts should have amounted to more.


V I D E O

Copycat poster Copycat (R) ** 1/2
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Detective Holly Hunter teams with agoraphobic criminologist Sigourney Weaver to capture a serial killer (William McNamara) who apes the most notorious murderers in history. Jon Amiel's (Sommersby) thriller does have its moments and boasts fine performances by Hunter and Weaver, but it's the inept work of the villains that keeps it from really coming alive--the overwrought McNamara and especially the horribly miscast Harry Connick, Jr. (as a Hannibal Lecter-type) are not the least bit frightening or convincing. I saw this film at a screening for Academy members, and the audience laughed at Connick's scenery-inhaling theatrics; if a room full of Academy voters laughs at one of your actors, something must be wrong. (Warner Home Video)


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#29 February 16, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Broken Arrow poster Broken Arrow (R) ***
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Walking out of the first show, opening day of Broken Arrow, I could not help but have very mixed feelings. While it is a perfectly entertaining, exciting, and competently made action thriller, within the context of the body work of Hong Kong action maestro John Woo, it can't help but be somewhat of a letdown.

John Travolta and Christian Slater play partner stealth bomber pilots Vic Deakins and Riley Hale, respectively. After the sinister Deakins steals two nuclear warheads to extort money from the government, it's up to Hale, with the help of a plucky park ranger (Samantha Mathis) to stop his former friend.

Once screenwriter Graham Yost's basic situation is set up, it is pretty much non-stop action, not unlike Yost's script for Speed. And Woo is up to the task, staging some impressive explosions, especially an underground one that creates a crater on the surface, and stunt work. The action moves in two speeds--fast and faster, right up to the literally explosive finish. The actors, with the exception of the obviously distracted Mathis, also appear to have a ball, especially Travolta, whose gleefully psychotic Deakins can best be described as a twisted, demented variation of Chili Palmer, his charismatic Get Shorty character. Slater makes an effective action hero, and Howie Long, in his screen debut, is a predictably imposing presence as a heavy. But this is Travolta's show all the way. When Long tells him, "You da man!", you just want to say it along with him.

However, for all its visceral thrills, Broken Arrow is strangely devoid of personality. Woo's trademark balletic gunfight choreography and extravagant staging, which was present in Woo's initial American effort, the mediocre Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target. Gone is what gave Woo's masterful Hong Kong efforts such a distinct energy not found in most American actioners--rapid-fire editing, slick slow-motion, freeze frames, and multiple dissolves during the action sequences. There are traces of his style here and there--Travolta walking in slow-motion; the opening boxing sequence; a standoff lifted from Woo's crowning achievement, The Killer--but as a whole the film, in terms of look and feel, could easily be mistaken for the work of Richard Donner or Jan DeBont. Robert Rodriguez's dazzlingly kinetic Desperado looked more of a Woo film than this one.

If the reaction of the audience with whom I saw it with and its opening grosses are any indication, Woo appears to have his first stateside hit with Broken Arrow. However, is commercial success worth the cost of compromising one's artistic style?


V I D E O

Virtuosity poster Virtuosity (R) ***
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This flop cyberthriller doesn't offer much in terms of plot, but it is a pretty entertaining ride. The always-charismatic Denzel Washington plays a convicted ex-cop who is released to pursue Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe in a wonderfully hammy performance), a computer-generated criminal created from the personalities of the most notorious serial killers in history. Shallow stuff, but the solid visual effects, decent stunts, and the work of Washington and Crowe make it watchable. (Paramount Home Video)


Not New

Hard-Boiled poster The Killer poster Hard-Boiled ****
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The Killer (R/unrated) ****
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After checking out Broken Arrow, get a dose of what John Woo can really do with these two great action thrillers. Hard-Boiled describes the hero of that film, maverick cop Tequila (charismatic Woo regular Chow Yun-Fat), who teams with another cop (Tony Leung, not of The Lover), a deep-cover infiltrator of the mob. The incredible final gunfight, set in a hospital, takes up roughly the film's final hour (!). An incredibly wild--and bloody--ride. The Killer is widely regarded as Woo's masterpiece, as it should. Ultraviolent and surprisingly moving, this film is at its core the sad love story between a hitman (Chow Yun-Fat, looking very dapper) who wants out and the lounge singer (Sally Yeh) he accidentally blinded in a shootout. The Killer is not only my favorite Woo film, but probably the best marriage of intense, exciting, bloody action with a strong, affecting story I have ever seen. Make sure to check out the uncut, unrated version, not the extremely watered-down R-rated version. (Fox Lorber Home Video)


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#28 February 8, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

The Juror poster The Juror (R) **
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The Juror can be best summed up by one scene that occurs about midway in the film. Mob hitman the Teacher (Alec Baldwin) takes juror Annie Laird (Demi Moore) for a wild, high-speed drive. As a display of his power over her, he comes thisclose to plowing over her son, who just happens to be riding his bicycle not too far ahead of them. The scene is chilling... and completely bogus, which describes the entirety of this thriller--slick and watchable, but not convincing for a second.

Sculptor Laird is placed on the jury for the murder trial of mob boss Louie Boffano (Tony LoBianco). The Teacher chooses her to be the one to sway the jury into a not guilty verdict, threatening her life and that of her son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Once this not-unpromising situation is set up, director Brian Gibson (What's Love Got to Do with It) and screenwriter Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), working from a novel by George Dawes Green, are at a loss as to where to go. There are numerous scenes of the Teacher musing about power; bonding between Annie, her son, and her obviously doomed best friend (Anne Heche); requisite scenes of the jury arguing; and, most misguided of all, a trip to Guatemala, where the final action takes place. In fact, the final half hour of the film's bloated two-hour running time takes place after the trial. I guess the filmmakers thought that the production's slick visuals and the presence of attractive A-list stars wouldn't leave any viewer the wiser; while it is diverting and watchable on the most superficial of levels, it doesn't convince.

The actors don't come off too well, either, despite their decent efforts. Moore gives a competent performance on a technical level, but she does not make you care about Annie, who just isn't a very engaging character. Baldwin fares worse. His Teacher is appropriately menacing and, at times, scary, but maybe a bit too much so. When his character (inevitably) falls for Annie (exactly why is beyond me), it is completely unbelievable. That is no doubt due in part to the writing, but Baldwin's one-note portrayal doesn't even hint at any depth or complexity.

The Juror's plot closely resembles that of the flop Joanne Whalley (then-Kilmer) thriller of a couple of years back, Trial by Jury. The Juror is supposed to be far superior. If that's the case, the other film must really be awful, for The Juror, despite its big names and slick sheen, fails to make a convincing case.


In Brief

Il Postino poster Il Postino (The Postman) (PG) ****
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The late Massimo Troisi's quietly moving performance powers this poignant and bittersweet Italian comedy about the friendship between exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and his shy postman (Troisi). British director Michael Radford's film works on so many different levels--as a tribute to the power and beauty of poetry; as a tale of brotherhood; and as a charmingly quirky romance (between Troisi and barmaid Maria Grazia Cucinotta). The highest grossing foreign language film of 1995 and reportedly a fave among Academy voters, Il Postino could very well be the first foreign language film to be up for Best Picture in recent memory. If so, it very well deserves it.


V I D E O

Under Siege 2 poster Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (R) **
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Steven Seagal's follow-up to his most successful--commercially and, ahem, artistically--film has all the elements in place: explosions, fights, stunts galore. This time around, however, it just isn't any fun. Eric Bogosian, given the herculean task of following the original's fabulous Tommy Lee Jones, is a big zero as the villain, a terrorist who takes over a train that Seagal and his niece (Katherine Heigl, one of the film's saving graces) just happen to be aboard. Director Geoff Murphy does a decent enough job with the action sequences, and Seagal is, well, Seagal, but I didn't find it all too exciting. Pardon me while I yawn. (Warner Home Video)


The Usual Suspects poster The Usual Suspects (R) ** 1/2
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One of the most ingenious, unpredictable films in recent memory... and one of the biggest cheats. Five criminals (Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio delToro, Kevin Pollak, and the outstanding Kevin Spacey) team up for a big job only to eventually find themselves the pawns of mysterious crimelord Keyser Sze. While I admire the cleverness of director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's labyrinthian scenario, the much-talked-about final twist, while a big shock, negates everything. (PolyGram Video)


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