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Volume 43

#170 - 172
December 11, 1998 - December 24, 1998


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

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#172 December 24, 1998

M O V I E S

A Civil Action poster A Civil Action (PG-13) **
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Every December there emerges a film touted as a major award contender only to come up short. Last year, it was Steven Spielberg's overrated Amistad; this year, it's Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action, which, like the former film, is a technically proficient but ultimately soulless courtroom drama.

A Civil Action, based on Jonathan Harr's fact-based book, is directed by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Zaillian (who also wrote and executive produced), and he displays an effectively economical storytelling style. This is best exemplified in a sequence where Boston personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) meets up with Albert Eustis (Sydney Pollack), a pompous executive with the corporation of W.R. Grace & Co., and recounts the encounter to his legal partners. Instead of showing the encounter and then Jan's account of it, they unfold simultaneously through intercutting, with certain behaviors and statements underscored by Jan's after-the-fact commentary. Another example has Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall, a Golden Globe nominee for his work here), attorney to the large Beatrice Foods corporation, lecturing a class on trial procedure, and each of the bullet points he makes are followed by concrete illustration in the courtroom.

The technical proficiency extends to Travolta, who hits the right dramatic notes as Jan, a hotshot attorney who sees dollar signs in representing a group of Woburn, Massachusetts parents in a complaint against Grace and Beatrice. These eight families claim that the two corporations contaminated the town's drinking water, which led to their children's deaths from leukemia. But somewhere along the way, Jan becomes emotionally involved, making his own dollar signs disappear as the impossible case drains his firm's funds but not the energy of his crusade. The problem is that I never got a true sense of that change. The turning point is supposed to be a scene where Jan is driven to tears while thinking about one of the father's stories, but I did not sense any change following that scene; Jan still seemed like the slickster that he was, and his fierce determination to see the case through still seemed motivated by money and not sentiment.

That can be blamed less on Travolta and more on Zaillian, whose film, like the portrayal of Jan, is slick and collected but lacking an emotional hook. Zaillian seems more interested in getting factual details right than building any real dramatic tension or momentum, and the film never quite reaches takeoff speed, despite the solid work of the acting ensemble (especially William H. Macy as the accountant of Jan's firm). The film's conclusion would be anticlimactic with or without any dramatic urgency leading up to it, but without, it's not only flat, it's a big fizzle.

Perhaps if Zaillian had been less civil and took more action with his material, A Civil Action could have lived up to the award-craving hype. But, as it stands, this TV movie with a big screen cast looks to be an also-ran when the Oscar nominations are announced in February.


The Faculty poster The Faculty (R) *** 1/2
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Questions pondered during The Faculty: (all apologies to Roger Ebert, whose Halloween: H20 review inspired this piece)

*Why do all (or, at least, most) Kevin Williamson scripts begin the same way?
That is, with an extended set piece that ends with a murder, usually of a recognizable star. Here it's Cheers and Chicago star Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Miss Drake, principal of Herrington High School, located somewhere in Ohio.

*Why do high school movies always bunch together a diverse range of students who would never interact in real life?
The film's focal group: Chilly newspaper editor Delilah (Jordana Brewster), geeky Casey (Elijah Wood), jock-turned-wannabe-brain Stan (Shawn Hatosy), loner goth chick Stokely (Clea DuVall), perky country bumpkin Marybeth (Laura Harris), and brilliant but misguided Zeke (Josh Hartnett), a drug manufacturer.

*Speaking of Hartnett, why doesn't he ever use a comb?
The H20 co-star's case of "perpetual bedhead" (as dubbed by Entertainment Weekly) gets no better in this film. In fact, it gets worse.

*Why would a babe like Delilah be romantically linked with a dorky-looking guy like Stan?
Because she's also the head cheerleader and he the football team captain, of course.

*What is the appeal of Usher beyond his music?
The current prince of R&B is strangely robbed of all charisma not singing a note and keeping his shirt on in the small role of Gabe, Stan's eventual successor as football team captain.

*What the hell is Harry Knowles doing in this film? And in a scene with Salma Hayek, no less?
The webmaster of the notorious Ain't It Cool News site appears in a bit role as a teacher. Mercifully, we're only given one close shot of his face--a reaction take. Hard to believe, but Knowles is an even worse actor than he is a writer.

*Speaking of Hayek, why does director Robert Rodriguez always cast her in his films?
...not that I'm complaining, of course. Here, the divine Miss H. plays the school's Nurse Harper, whose nasty cough disappears when she's afflicted with a more, say, unusual ailment. As if being an impossibly gorgeous school nurse weren't unusual enough.

*Can anyone buy Amazonian former Bond Girl Famke Janssen as a mousy English teacher?
Apparently, neither can Williamson nor Rodriguez, as Janssen's Miss Burke and most of the characters undergo a 180-degree turn as a mysterious--perhaps alien--force corrupts the school faculty and, before long, the students themselves.

*Has Robert Patrick ever been more perfectly cast since Terminator 2: Judgment Day?
The actor effectively revives his famously ice-cold stare as football coach Willis, who, with drama teacher Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie), is the apparent figurehead in the bizarre goings-on at Herrington. Patrick is just one of the many amusing casting touches, along with Hayek, Janssen, Laurie (from Carrie and Twin Peaks), Neuwirth, Jon Stewart, Susan Willis (known to viewers of All My Children as malevolent maid Helga), and even--to a certain novelty value extent--Knowles.

*Is there a more talented genre film director currently working than Rodriguez? Or a more clever horror movie writer than Williamson?
Only these talented two can turn such a blatant Invasion of the Body Snatchers ripoff/homage (with touches of Alien and Species) into such an enjoyable--and wonderfully witty--romp. They have a clear awareness of the absurdity of the premise, but that doesn't prevent them from delivering the suspenseful goods. Williamson's script continually serves up surprising twists as it dishes out often hilarious doses of irony; and Rodriguez keeps the action moving at rapid-fire speed for maximum excitement. Whether it be lowbrow comedy (his segment in Four Rooms), go-for-broke action (El Mariachi and Desperado), teensploitation (this and Roadracers), or horror (this and From Dusk till Dawn), Rodriguez always displays boundless energy and creativity. Helping his cause as in Dusk is the superlative effects work by the KNB Group, all done within an economical budget.

*Will there a bigger, better blast of pure, unpretentious, popcorn entertainment this holiday season?
Not bloody likely.


Mighty Joe Young poster Mighty Joe Young (PG) **
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Before every movie shown in Greater Los Angeles movie theatres, a commercial for the Los Angeles Times plays. One such ad from a few years back featured well-known effects creator Rick Baker and, as the centerpiece of the spot, one of Baker's creations: a high-tech gorilla suit about as lifelike as any you'd find in a costume shop.

Watching the update of the 1949 RKO Picture Mighty Joe Young, I was often reminded of this spot, and it's not because the titular gorilla was (coincidentally) designed by Baker. Much like that ad of years ago, the intent of Joe is to make the audience marvel at the wonder of Hollywood special effects--and instead ends up failing miserably. Years may have passed, but Baker's gorilla effects are only slightly more convincing, which means that they are still laughably phony-looking (and, as such, compulsively watchable for the wrong reasons).

This should spell complete disaster for Joe, which is, after all, the tale of a gentle giant gorilla who yearns to roam free. But the film's nearly two-hour running time is given some substance by the flesh-and-blood actors (who, I must say, deserve better than this film). Charlize Theron plays Jill Young, the surrogate mother to the big ape, and she is able to make the audience feel and understand her affection for Joe, even if we don't have much for him ourselves. Bill Paxton gives a likable, low-key performance as zoologist Gregg O'Hara, who "rescues" Joe from his poacher-infested home in the African jungle and places him in a Southern California-based wildlife preserve, where Joe gets antsy.

But the cast nor Ron Underwood's brisk direction can mask the clunkiness of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner's script, which has a poacher (Rade Serbedzija) following Joe to the States to settle a personal score with the furry guy (Joe bit off the poacher's thumb and index finger years ago). As hard-to-swallow as that plot contrivance is, it's nothing compared to the insulting climax. I won't spoil it, but never have I seen such a large group of generous individuals gathered in one place.

Still, the many children in the audience with whom I saw the film oohed and aahed at all the right moments, completely enthralled by Joe's destructive--but never overly violent--antics. The same will probably be the case in theatres showing Mighty Joe Young; it is sure to please its target audience of kids. It's just that the filmmakers forgot about the adults who pay to bring that target audience to the multiplex. Chances are that they, too, will end up marvelling at how not-so-marvelous those gorilla effects are.


The Thin Red Line poster The Thin Red Line (R) **** event pix
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Love a film, hate a film, all points in between--I generally know what I want to say and how to say it. So why, then, do I feel so ill-equipped to thoroughly articulate my feelings about Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line? Perhaps it's just my own limitations as a writer, or maybe it's just the natural limitations of words themselves, which can only fail to accurately describe the challenging but wholly intoxicating experience of Malick's long-awaited return to the directorial chair. The Thin Red Line is something that completely transcends the medium--a film that is as close to pure poetry than anything I've ever seen onscreen.

To state that The Thin Red Line centers on a group of American soldiers fighting for survival in the Guadalcanal conflict of World War II is to say everything and nothing about the film. A number of violent combat scenes occupy most of the film's three-hour running time, but the war itself is perhaps Malick's most remote concern--and the soldiers'. The central fight in which the soldiers are engaged is not necessarily the one with Japanese troops: it is the unique personal struggle within each of them. And the one thing whose survival their fighting for is not their lives, but their eternal souls.

Malick uses his favorite device, the voiceover (used extensively in both of his previous films, 1973's Badlands and 1978's Days of Heaven), to intone each of the soldiers' inner ruminations. Yet while the sounds of the voices and their specific subjects differ, the "voice" remains constant: a stream of oblique thoughts attempting to rationalize--and find an escape from--the horror of war and the world that produces it. Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) searches for the light of beauty and order in all things, from life in a simple native village to a comrade meeting a tragic end. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) longs to find a numbness and truth that will spare himself the psychological toll of his reality. Pvt. Bell's (Ben Chaplin) retreat is memories of his wife and his certainty that they will be reunited--whether it be in this world or the next. Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) prays his salvation and that of the soldiers that have become surrogate family. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), a much-passed-over veteran in the twilight of his career, doggedly pursues the one victory under his command that would serve as a vindicating legacy.

The Thin Red Line plays less like a film than a piece of fine art, which accounts for the immeasurable difficulty of describing and analyzing it (and the rather dull-sounding synopsis). Malick's screenplay, based on James Jones's novel of the same name, is a remarkably textured piece of work, directly and (mostly) indirectly addressing themes of varying complexity. As such, like a painting, one needs to distance oneself to experience the full breadth of its thematic resonance; the film just grows richer with time.

But also like a painting, the film is not without its surface delights that can be immediately noticed and appreciated. Chief among these is John Toll's exquisite cinematography, which captures the beauty of both the stillness and chaos that comes with battle, from blades of grass blowing in the wind, to the mine and bomb blasts that seem to erupt to a steady rhythm. Not to be overlooked is the fine work of the large cast. Pvt. Witt is the character closest to a lead, and newcomer Caviezel has a quiet, calming presence that fits his character's--and the film's--low-key mood. That said, I much preferred the work of two actors in smaller roles: Chaplin, heartbreaking as the lovelorn Pvt. Bell; and Koteas, touching as the perhaps too-honorable Capt. Staros. Of the more marquee names in the ensemble, Penn, Nolte, and (to a lesser extent) John Cusack (as Capt. Gaff) have the beefiest roles, and they impress the most in this group. Cameos by John Travolta and especially George Clooney are more distracting than anything else, and Woody Harrelson tries a bit too hard to stand out among the crowd--and that he does, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The word that will undoubtedly be used most to describe The Thin Red Line is "meditation," and that description could not be more apt. A person in a state of meditation outward appears to be doing nothing, but he or she is engaging in an act of focus and clarity full of rich internal rewards. The similarly introspective nature of The Thin Red Line accounts for the wildly polarized reaction to the film; its detractors are obviously fixed on the blank exterior, while its admirers are able to tap into the dense interior. Chances are most audiences will belong to the former group. But much like another war-set film not really about war, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line will receive its just due over time.


In Brief

Hilary and Jackie poster Hilary and Jackie (R) ****
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Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jacqueline (Emily Watson) du Pré are a sisterly pair of child musical prodigies: Hilary on the flute and Jacqueline on the cello. As an adult, Hilary gives up music to live a normal life; Jackie, on the other hand, embarks on a wildly successful career as a concert cellist, winning over worldwide audiences with her flamboyant brand of skill and showmanship. The divergent trajectories of their lives (and not in the way one would expect) and the resulting emotional and physical fallout threatens the sisters' strong bond.

According to the press notes, the fact-based Hilary and Jackie was "written and produced as a tribute to Jackie," and, as such, the focus lies squarely on Jackie--and how could it not, with the extraordinary Watson in the role. For me, she is the woman to beat for best actress of the year delivering a stunning performance that captures the entire spectrum of her personality: from sweetness to bitterness, from madness to illness.

But the film is not called Hilary and Jackie for nothing, and not just because Griffiths does some terrific--and sure to be underrated--work as the more stable sister. In an ingenious storytelling tactic, director Anand Tucker and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce split the story in three sections, giving clear definition to both sisters. "Hilary and Jackie" details their youth together up until a crucial point where they are separated. "Hilary" focuses on Hilary's quiet life and her ever-shifting feelings about Jackie, who periodically reappears. Finally, there's "Jackie," which picks up at the first section's cutoff point and assumes Jackie's perspective. As we see her turbulent life unfold, her character is given greater dimension, providing vivid reasons for some of Jackie's more erratic behavior in the "Hilary" section (some events from which are retold from Jackie's perspective here). The result is an uncommonly well-rounded portrait of a tormented genius, and a supremely affecting story of real people, only slightly marred by a bit of arbitrary surrealism at the end (which, coincidentally, also marred--moreso--Watson's breakthrough film, 1996's Breaking the Waves).


Jawbreaker poster Jawbreaker (R) ***
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Glam gals Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan), Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie Fox (Julie Benz) and Liz Purr (Charlotte Roldan) make up the clique at Reagan High. That is, until a birthday prank goes fatally wrong, and Liz's slot is left open. Enter Fern Mayo (Judy Evans Greer), the geekiest girl in school. After Fern finds out the truth about what happened to Liz, ringleader Courtney offers the social outcast a makeover and popularity beyond her wildest dreams--in exchange for her silence. Hence the barely noticed disappearance of Fern and the much-noticed arrival of the one-named Vylette, a blonde, self-proclaimed bitch who threatens Courtney's crown as the school's "it" girl.

As Julie so eloquently tells Courtney regarding Liz's jawbreaker-induced death, "You can't hide the truth with a makeover!" The same can be said of writer-director Darren Stein's black comedy, which is a mishmash of elements from Heathers, Clueless, and Very Bad Things. But its derivative nature aside, Jawbreaker is a darkly fun romp, thanks to Stein's witty script and stylishly energetic direction (Fern's Frankenstein-like transformation into Vylette is a nicely surreal touch) and, especially, McGowan's deliciously wicked turn as the ruthless ice queen Courtney.


My Name Is Joe poster My Name Is Joe (R) ***
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"...and I am an alcoholic." British director Ken Loach has made a name for himself for gritty films of social realism, and his latest is no exception. Peter Mullan, who won the Best Actor award at this past year's Cannes Film Festival, indeed gives an award-worthy performance as the Joe of the title, a recovering alcoholic who falls for a nice and stable health care worker named Sarah (Louise Goodall). A romance between such polar opposites has a number of strikes against it as it is, but their relationship is further threatened, in a psychological sense, by demons from Joe's past; and, in a physical sense, by thugs after his ex-junkie friend Liam (David McKay) and his girlfriend Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy).

The latter threat takes over the film's final act, which is a wrongheaded turn by Loach and writer Paul Laverty; what had been a thoughtful, complex, yet subtle character study suddenly devolves into violent theatrics more befitting an action picture. Loach and Laverty are apparently at a loss as to how to recover from that misstep, and the film abruptly "stops" rather than "ends." But Loach's keen eye for unpolished reality (down to the gravy-thick Scottish accents; thankfully the film, while in English, is subtitled) and Mullan's passionate, well-modulated turn keep the film well worth watching.


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#171 December 16, 1998

M O V I E S

The Prince of Egypt poster The Prince of Egypt (PG) **** event pix
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"It's unlike anything you've seen before"--words that have been intoned many times by many a studio chief trying to wrap a veneer of freshness around another stale assembly-line product. But coming from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, in reference to the company's first traditional animated feature, The Prince of Egypt, the statement is, well, gospel. Prince is unlike any animated feature ever made, a musical drama that just happens to be completely drawn. It's epic in every sense of the word, from subject, spectacle, sentiment, and, most of all, seriousness--and, as such, I have no idea how it will be received by the public.

Prince's larger-than-animated-life intentions are clearly--and most memorably--spelled out by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells in the prologue. "Deliver us to the promised land," pray the Hebrews held in bondage by the Egyptian pharaoh Seti (voice of Patrick Stewart) as Yocheved (Ofra Haza) sets her infant son Moses adrift on a river in an attempt to spare him the life of a slave--and possibly free his people in the future. Moses is rescued from the sea by the Queen (spoken by Helen Mirren, sung by Linda Dee Shayne), who takes Moses in as her own. This sequence is truly astonishing, from the visuals to the haunting song that scores it, "Deliver Us," composed by Stephen Schwartz.

The opening is just one in a long line of spectacular sequences in this treatment of the Book of Exodus, in which Moses's (spoken as an adult by a full-voiced Val Kilmer, sung by Amick Byram) bond with adoptive brother and eventual pharaoh Rameses (Ralph Fiennes, well-cast) is broken after he discovers his true identity--and calling--and crusades for his people's freedom. The animators exploit all that the medium currently offers and then elevate it to the next level: a harrowing nightmare scene is made even more chilling by being told in pantomime through hieroglyhics; and computer-generated effects are effectively, and unobtrusively, used to enhance such crucial scenes as Moses's encounter with the burning bush, the deaths of the firstborns, and the dazzling parting of the Red Sea. Artistically speaking in the literal sense, Prince is easily the most impressive animated feature ever made.

But there's more to the film than awesome visuals, which would be empty without an absorbing story and characters. Prince has both, regardless of the viewer's religious beliefs; the themes of brotherhood, freedom, and faith (in oneself) are universal, and they resonate strongest in the film's quieter scenes. In fact, these quieter scenes hold the most lasting impact: simple moments like Moses feeling the desert sand blow over his entire body, or, my personal favorite, the song number "When You Believe," which is currently out as an overblown pop single performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The film version, sung to Moses by his sister Miriam (spoken by Sandra Bullock, sung by Sally Dworsky) and wife Tzipporah (spoken and sung by Michelle Pfeiffer, in fine vocal form) is beautiful and transcendent, building a muted yet no less powerful crescendo of complex emotion; in the pop version, any and all emotion is lost under all the diva bluster.

Schwartz, a veteran lyricist for Disney animated efforts (the two most underrated, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), also writes the melodies here, and his song score is not without a couple of missteps. "Playing with the Big Boys," sung by Rameses's court magicians Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) is a throwaway, and the just-OK "Through Heaven's Eyes," sung by Tzipporah's father Jethro (spoken by Danny Glover, sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell), is redeemed by the dramatic importance of the scene it accompanies. By and large, Schwartz does a more than adequate job, exemplified by his two standout compositions, the aforementioned "Deliver Us" and "When You Believe." However, Schwartz's work comes close to being overshadowed by Hans Zimmer's towering score, which is sure to win an Oscar nomination.

As superlative as The Prince of Egypt is, in all likelihood, it will not receive its just due from the moviegoing masses weaned on the tried-and-true Disney animated recipe of singing animals and easy comic relief; there is neither here, and the religious themes will undoubtedly keep many away. And that is a shame, for not only Prince is a landmark cinematic achievement, the entire fate of its medium is dependent on its financial success. Robust box office would not only pose a long-overdue animation threat to Disney, but it would also erase the medium's "kids' movie" stigma, allowing filmmakers to explore the medium's heretofore untapped potential through more complex, serious, and adult themes. But, as the film's signature song goes, "There can be miracles when you believe"--a statement that does hold some water in the fickle movie marketplace.


You've Got Mail poster You've Got Mail (PG) ****
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Of all the delights to be had while watching the enchanting romantic comedy You've Got Mail, none gave me more joy than the performance of co-lead Meg Ryan. The reigning queen of romantic comedy, Ryan, not so surprisingly, delivers another turn of irresistible charm as bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly. But what I paid conscious attention to this time around was the ease with which she tackles the deceptively simple-looking job of romantic comedienne. It's no easy task to project a natural blend of sweetness, strength, wit, and genuine, hard-earned heart, yet Ryan has effortlessly pulled it off year after year, in movie after movie--without ever receiving her rightful recognition from the critics.

Sadly, You've Got Mail will likely not change that, but that's mostly because so much of the film is so good. The film reunites Ryan with her Sleepless in Seattle partners Tom Hanks and director/co-writer (with sister Delia) Nora Ephron in a plot that, not so coincidentally, appears to be a variation of that 1993 blockbuster. Ryan's Kathleen owns the small children's bookstore The Shop Around the Corner, whose long life as a Manhattan neighborhood staple is threatened by the nearby opening of a Barnes and Noble-like superstore called Fox Books, owned by wealthy Joe Fox (Hanks). Naturally, it's hate at first sight for Joe and Kathleen, but little do they know that appears to be their first meeting really isn't--they have anonymously been conducting a romance over the Internet as "NY152" (Joe) and "Shopgirl" (Kathleen).

Now, it would have been easy--and completely understandable--for the Ephrons to completely mirror Sleepless's proven formula to the letter, but they manage to come up with some wrinkles that are often as unpredictable as they are funny. The biggest deviation from Sleepless is the increased interaction of Hanks and Ryan, who spent most of their last collaboration apart--which called into question if the two truly had any chemistry. Mail proves once and for all that Hanks and Ryan are a screen duo for the ages, equally convincing trading comic barbs or longing glances. Their sparring sessions have real bite, and their more mellow moments are so warmly tender that only the coldest hearts won't be at least slightly moved.

This isn't to say that the film doesn't make a concession to what has become the Ryan romantic comedy formula--namely, a man she is already attached to, here in the form of Greg Kinnear's politically-minded reporter Frank Navasky. The new rub here is that Frank, while a bit stuck on himself, is a nice guy and a much more appealing romantic choice than ruthless businessman Joe, who, in turn, already has a partner of his own: Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), who works at a publishing house. While the nice and perky Kathleen is clearly better than the ever-frantic Patricia, it is easy to see why Joe would be with her; her high social station makes for a "comfortable" choice, and it is in line with his hard-as-nails attitude--which, of course, hides the truly gentle soul that he bears only to "Shopgirl."

Similarly, Hanks does a bang-up job playing (to use Joe's term) a "pill," but he has a natural gentleness that he buries just deep enough and gradually brings to surface as the film progresses. Ephron has said that Mail's central question is "Can Mr. Wrong turn out to be Mr. Right?" and that evolution is made involving and convincing by Hanks, who instead of making Joe's progression from black to white, makes it a more realistic shift between opposite shades of grey.

Again, though, Mail is ultimately the glowing Ryan's show. Her Kathleen is fun and more than a little (hilariously) pathetic at times, but her flightiness is grounded in real, complex emotion. This is especially the case in one late shot of her face, which displays surprise, disgust, anger, and ecstatic, teary delight--all in a matter of seconds. If that's not a difficult acting task, I don't know what is--and it comes to Ryan as second nature.

Cynics will probably dismiss You've Got Mail as disposable fluff for suckers for shamelessly romantic hokum. If that truly is the case--and, admittedly, there's no evidence to suggest otherwise--then I wear the title of "sucker" with pride.


In Brief

The Celebration poster The Celebration (Festen) (R) ****
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The title of this Danish import couldn't be more ironic. First, there's the literal level, in the plot: the sixtieth birthday bash of a wealthy patriarch Helge (Hennig Moritzen) becomes something decidedly less festive when his successful eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) disrupts the event with some shocking allegations about him and Christian's dead twin sister. On a deeper level, there's the irony of tone: while the charges being made by Christian are as serious as they can get, the situation is played for some gleefully venomous laughs--making the overall mood sort of a "celebration" of everyone's misery.

It's a fine line to walk, that between comedy and misery, but director/co-writer (with Mogens Rukov) Thomas Vinterberg handle the balancing act magnificently. While one is often laughing at and with Christian's shamelessly disruptive antics, one can feel the pain that compels him to do so. The real balancing act, though, is how Vinterberg keeps the truth largely ambiguous through his characters; they are portrayed equal parts bad and good, so it's often up to question whether or not Christian is telling the truth or merely spiting his father. It's that heightened sense of reality--in accordance with the Danish film movement called "Dogme 95," which sets standards for realism and "purity"--that lends Festen an uncommon power, even if some "realist" techniques become somewhat irksome (i.e. shaky, cinema-verite hand-held camera work).


Central Station poster Central Station (R) *** 1/2
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By all outward appearances, this Brazilian drama is a standard road movie--and to a certain extent, it is. Central Station in Rio is what brings together the film's unlikely traveling duo: Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), former schoolteacher, now letter-writer; and Josue (Vinicius de Olveira), an orphaned 10-year-old boy, whose mother was one of the Dora's customers before her untimely death. The two set off on a rough journey across the country to find Josue's long-lost father.

Central Station's travellers follow the beaten cinematic path, but the film is made unusually compelling by the lead characters. This is because they are so recognizably human; neither Dora nor Josue are the most likable of characters. Dora is, at times, unbearably bitter; Josue is often unnecessarily cruel to his de facto guardian, often ridiculing her haggard appearance. What keeps the audience involved in the plight of this prickly pair are the actors. de Olveira, a shoeshine boy who was discovered by director Walter Salles after the boy asked him for change, is a remarkable find, exuding the right balance of toughness and vulnerability. The same can be said, but to a greater degree, about Montenegro (who has been named Best Actress of the year by both the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association); she rightfully sees Dora's bitter anger as less a weariness with the world than with herself, a desperate, self-destructive mechanism to keep the world even more distant than it already is. The nuances of Montenegro's work--and the film--are too subtle to notice along the way, but by the film's poignant yet understated conclusion, they are powerfully felt.


Gods and Monsters poster Gods and Monsters *** 1/2
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The first Best Picture winner of the year is Bill Condon's speculative account of Frankenstein director James Whale's final days, which won said honor from the National Board of Review. Ian McKellen plays Whale, and his performance is undoubtedly what made the film pull off the upset victory over Saving Private Ryan. His Whale is a fascinating figure, a man at the end of his rope literally and figuratively, whose body is slowly dying though his spirit has long left him. The film's focus is how Whale tries, in vain, to find a concrete reason to either continue living or die--either of which may come in the form of his young gardener Boone (Brendan Fraser), for whom he has a strong physical attraction. From this description, Whale may sound like a passive character, but as played by McKellen, he is very much a man in charge of his ultimate destiny--which is the only power he has left. In the film's other key roles, a surprisingly composed Fraser erases (make that mostly erases) memories of George of the Jungle, and Lynn Redgrave is a scene-stealing hoot as Whale's devoted maid. But the film clearly belongs to McKellen, whose presence is what makes the film as affecting at it is; he is truly the man to beat for Oscar gold in March.


Shakespeare in Love poster Shakespeare in Love (R) *** 1/2
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This Brit-set period romantic comedy had been in the development stages since 1990, with star pairings ranging from the promising (Kenneth Branagh and Winona Ryder, currently displaying a nice rapport in Woody Allen's Celebrity) to the potentially ghastly (Daniel Day-Lewis and... accent-challenged Julia Roberts?!) attached. Shakespeare has now finally arrived onscreen, and, I am glad to report, in the right hands--those of director John Madden and stars Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow.

If Fiennes and Paltrow's charming lead turns as, respectively, the Bard and Lady Viola, the woman who melts away his writer's block and inspires Romeo and Juliet, is the lifeblood of this film, then its vigorous body is the deliciously witty script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, full of great lines (most delivered by Judi Dench's Queen Elizabeth) and peppered with intelligent details (sly allusions to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night). Madden is the film's spirit, coaxing memorable work from his cast--or, rather, most of his cast (co-star Ben Affleck is too contemporary to convince as a pompous Elizabethan stage actor)--and striking a nice blend of light and heavy, achieving true emotion in its finale. However, the scale is definitely tipped toward the "light" side, for this fine film is frothy fun.


V I D E O

High Art poster High Art (R) **
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Ally Sheedy recently won (along with Central Station's Fernanda Montenegro) this year's Best Actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for this film, and her understated work as a self-destructive photographer is a standout performance. That said, it's not too hard to stand out in this warmed-over Red Shoe Diaries episode (one of which, perhaps not so coincidentally, guest starred Sheedy) wrapped in a blanket of pretension by first-time writer-director Lisa Cholodenko. Young photo magazine assistant editor Syd's (an unimpressive Radha Mitchell) rigid lifestyle becomes more free when she meets upstairs neighbor Lucy Berliner (Sheedy). A professional interest in Lucy and her work soon becomes a romantic one, which leads to some unforeseen emotional fallout. Along the way, I believe Cholodenko hoped to make some points about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness (suggested by Sheedy's subtly anguished turn), but anything resembling those points takes a back seat to some overheated lesbian sex scenes--which are all anyone is likely to remember about this dull film. (October Home Entertainment)


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#170 December 11, 1998

M O V I E S

Psycho poster Psycho (R) **
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Of all the talk leading up to the release of Gus Van Sant's update of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, none was quite so intriguing as a rumor that began circulating a few months ago. This bit of gossip stated that instead of being a complete shot-by-shot "recreation" as announced, the new film would only be a duplicate until an hour in, at which point it would veer into a completely original direction. At about the one-hour point, there arose a split-second moment where it looked like the rumor could be true: motel keeper Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) nearly opens a folded-up newspaper. (Anyone who has seen the original would know the significance.) Alas, he only nearly opens it, and this Psycho is exactly what Van Sant promised (threatened?), a virtually shot-by-shot, line-for-line copy of the seminal 1960 chiller. And, as everyone knows, copies never come out nearly as sharp as the original.

Ironically enough, the copy-then-diverge strategy probably would have been more in line with Hitchcock's original sensibility; after all, his film was a big bait-and-switch (or, rather, "Bates-and-switch"). What begins as a yarn about a larcenous lady on the lam (Marion Crane, here played by Anne Heche) suddenly switches gears midway through, shifting its focus to the mysterious Bates, a hermit whose entire life centers around his invalid mother. When Marion and the money she stole from her employer disappears without a trace, her lover Sam Loomis (here played by Viggo Mortensen) and sister Lila's (here played by Julianne Moore) search leads them to the nearly-deserted Bates Motel.

Everything in the new film plays exactly as it did in the film from nearly 40 years ago, with a few contemporary wrinkles thrown in by Van Sant and Joseph Stephano, scripter of the original. The $40,000 that Janet Leigh's Marion stole has been upped to $400,000. Vera Miles's prissy Lila has become Moore's Walkman-wearing, ball-busting tough chick. John Gavin's pompously stuffy Sam has become Mortensen's roughneck cowboy. Norman now masturbates while spying on Marion in the bathroom. And in a truly bizarre move, Van Sant delves into Oliver Stone's bag of tricks, arbitrarily slipping in subliminal shots of storm clouds and deer (among other things) during the murder scenes. (Also worth mentioning is a brief shot of a bus stop Marion drives by--featuring a poster for Six Days, Seven Nights, Heche's romantic comedy from this past summer. Given Van Sant's otherwise obsessive determination in re-creating the feel of the original, hopefully that distracting in-joke was unintentional.)

With the original updated yet completely intact, from the story to the music (Bernard Herrmann's famously chilling score has been adapted by Danny Elfman) to the opening titles (adapted by Pablo Ferro from the legendary Saul Bass's original design), it's easy to see how Universal and Van Sant thought this experiment could work. But a crucial fact about the original film is lost on them: while rightfully regarded as a classic, when seen in this day and age, Psycho works best only when its original historical context is in mind--that is, as a film emerging from the year 1960. There are more than a few things in the original that comes off as dated when seen through contemporary eyes: the deliberate pacing, the low body count, and, most infamously, the horrible "this is why it all happened" closing expository speech delivered by a psychiatrist (here played by Robert Forster). Having all of this distinctly '60s material played out by '90s performers in living color makes for a film that feels jarringly anachronistic; those modern wrinkles just accentuate the time era conflicts.

What isn't so confused, however, is the troupe of actors--for the most part, that is. Heche and William H. Macy (as private investigator Arbogast) are especially effective. (However, it must be noted that perhaps Heche's most memorable contribution to the role, as good as she is actingwise, is wearing a truly hideous straight-from-the-thrift-shop wardrobe that the original's Janet Leigh wouldn't be caught dead in.) The big shortcoming is the cast, though, is Vaughn. He is a terrific actor, and, technically speaking, he delivers a decent performance. But there is something inherently wrong about his casting as Norman; a lot of his appeal and effectiveness on-screen comes from the natural, almost subconscious self-confidence he exudes, which does not fit the awkward, socially inept Norman at all. Granted, this is Vaughn's most muted performance to date, but the creepy ambiguity of Anthony Perkins is nowhere in sight; consequently, there is no suspense leading to, nor any surprise coming with, the climactic twist, even if one has not seen the original.

All comparisons to any other films aside, the measure of a thriller is its suspense and scariness factor, and, on its own terms, Van Sant's Psycho is a suspiciously average undertaking--watchable, competent on technical terms, yet strangely safe. Psycho '98 doesn't ruin anyone's memory of the original; in fact, it only makes one appreciate that film more--which, ironically, appears to have been the point that Van Sant has been accused of not having.


Rushmore poster Rushmore (R) ****
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Of all the surprises to be had in the 93 wild minutes of Rushmore, the biggest comes right at the beginning: the appearance of the Touchstone Pictures logo. It's amazing that a Disney subsidiary would produce a film so decidedly off-center. It's also amazing that a major Hollywood studio could produce something so refreshingly original that it almost defies description.

The quirkiness of Rushmore should come as no shock to anyone who has seen director/co-writer (with Owen Wilson) Wes Anderson's first film, 1996's quirky and enjoyable trifle Bottle Rocket (which he also co-scripted with Wilson). Like that film, Rushmore has a loose narrative structure that feels like it finds its way as it goes along. The film traces five months in the life of one Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an eccentric 15-year-old attending posh Rushmore Academy courtesy an academic scholarship. However, ever since coming to Rushmore, academics have taken a backseat to extracurricular activities, and one hilarious montage gives the rundown of his numerous club affiliations, from the presidency of the fencing club to beekeeping club. Closest to his heart, though, is "the Max Fischer Players"--a theatrical troupe that regularly performs his own original plays. (In another memorable scene, the players put on a production of Serpico.)

If there is a central plot thread to Rushmore, it is Max's hopeless love for Rushmore first grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), which leads him to pull off elaborate schemes to win her favor, but instead he ends up getting expelled from his beloved school. While this story, which is complicated by Max's friend/romantic rival Herman Blume (Bill Murray), is involving and achieves unexpected moments of poignancy, it is almost moot--individual moments like the ones touched upon earlier are what matter here: Max giving a speech to his couldn't-care-less classmates at the public school; Max and Miss Cross talking for the first time on the bleachers; Mr. Blume drunkenly taking a dip in his pool during his twin sons' birthday party.

Of course, the key to the film's memorable moments are the engaging characters. Mr. Blume could have been either a stock villain or a pathetic loser, but Anderson and Wilson give him a nicely human balance, which is brought to multidimensional life by Murray, who delivers a performance at turns funny, sad, and strangely likable. Williams, freed from the junkpile that was The Postman displays immense charm and, crucially, strength as Miss Cross, who still has a torch burning for her dead husband; it's easy to see why Mr. Blume and Max would fight over her. But the film's most fascinating character is Max, flawlessly played by newcomer Schwartzman. Max may be a loser, but Schwartzman exudes the right mix of intelligence, youthful naivete, self-deprecating humor, and everyguy likability that prevents the character from ever coming off as pathetic. He's the perfectly unconventional lead for such an unconventional film.

As good as Schwartzman is, the clear star of Rushmore is Anderson, a young filmmaker with a uniquely warped vision--one that, not so surprisingly, plays well with film festival audiences, which embraced this film. I doubt general audiences will be so receptive to something so far off the mainstream radar, and it's more than likely that this film's one-week Oscar-qualifying run will not result in any nods from the staunchly conservative Academy. But Rushmore is certain to find its just rewards in passionate, if somewhat limited, fan base that can appreciate its singular brand of bizarre brilliance.


Stepmom poster Stepmom (PG-13) *** event pix
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The breezy trailers for Stepmom would lead one to believe that it is one of those light films one would expect from director Chris Columbus. The reality of the film, so cleverly hidden in the rushes, is much more sober and serious. Some would go so far as to call it sad. But it doesn't go quite that far, in my opinion. Stepmom is a well-made and undeniably involving film, but its artistic compromises are not completely effective.

The character being referred to by the title actually is not a stepmother, at least not yet. She's Isabel Kelly (Julia Roberts) the much younger live-in girlfriend of Luke Harrison (Ed Harris). Luke's two children, 7-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken) and especially 12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) are resentful of Isabel, and somewhat rightfully so--they have been blessed (spoiled?) with a perfect mother, Luke's ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon). Although busy professional photographer Isabel scarcely has the time or interest for parenting, the kids are occasionally left in her questionable care, creating even more points of conflict between the two women.

About the first hour of Stepmom has a nice hard edge, albeit somewhat overwritten by the five credited scripters, Gigi Levangie, Jessie Nelson, Steven Rogers, Karen Leigh Hopkins, and Ron Bass. (I'm not so sure a girl Anna's can come up with such pithy zingers so quickly; it's one thing to be a smartass, and quite another to be a smart ass.) Even during the seemingly happier moments, there's a palpable undercurrent of tension, especially between Isabel and Jackie. Their conflicts over parenting philosophies and authority is something not often seen in film, and it's solidly played by Roberts and Sarandon.

Columbus is not known for displaying a hard edge, if even one at all, and so the air of anger cannot last--or, at the very least, must tone down somewhat. And that it does, in a less than convincing fashion. The most contrived development has Anna, who has heretofore been Isabel's most vocal detractor, make a complete 180 after Isabel shows her a nifty painting technique; before long, the two are best friends singing along to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in the car. But the big complication--and the film's big secret--is also a big misstep. Jackie, it is revealed, has secretly been receiving treatment for cancer, and her condition is steadily worsening toward the inevitable.

Now, I have no problem with films featuring people suffering from a terminal disease. But throughout Stepmom I wondered if the illness wrinkle was really necessary. The Jackie/Isabel conflict was already involving, with each side showing its share of right and wrong; making Jackie sick unfairly stacks the sympathy deck in her favor. But I suppose the illness was a necessary compromising device for Columbus, enabling him to try something more edgy at first and then settle into familiar, safe, and blatantly calculated schmaltz, which hits full-throttle with the de rigueur mawkish mother-child "goodbye" scenes. And though this is an adult-aimed film, Columbus also couldn't completely shake his Home Alone kiddie tendencies by casting Aiken, a Macaulay-esque moppet who is as short on talent as he is long on cuteness.

Before her comeback with My Best Friend's Wedding, Roberts was in a bit of a career bind. She wanted to prove her serious acting chops, but audiences wanted to see her megawatt smile and hear her whooping laugh, and drab, smile-less efforts such as Mary Reilly flopped. Here, Roberts attempts to have the best of both worlds, flashing those pearly whites ever so often within a meaty dramatic context. Unlike Columbus's compromise, hers works, and she delivers one of her most impassioned performances, holding her own against the formidable Sarandon, who is true to strong form. Stealing some of their thunder is the impressive Malone, who plays such a convincing brat in the earlygoing you may find yourself wanting to slap her.

While I was not among the people who cried at various points during Stepmom, it did strike some emotional chords. But the film's effectiveness had less to do with the story than it did the strong work of the actors--an all too appropriate compromise in a film characterized by them.


In Brief

Jack Frost poster Jack Frost (PG) ** 1/2 event pix
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This family fantasy can best be described as a cross between Frosty the Snowman and Ghost, with a bit of Wide Awake thrown in. The young star of Wide Awake, Joseph Cross, appears to have the "family film about death" market cornered with this film, in which he plays Charlie, a young boy learning to cope with the year-ago death of his loving but neglectful blues musician father (Michael Keaton, who does his own singing) named Jack Frost. That name is a bit too apropos, for when Charlie wishes for his father to come back, he does--in the form of a snowman.

Thus sets the stage for kid-snowman bonding antics that will certainly delight the kids. Adults will be delighted by the snowman effects, which seamlessly mixes computer animation and puppetry. (Some clumsy compositing on certain matte shots are easy to forgive.) However, the novelty of the snowman effects wears thin after a while, and the older ones in the audience may find their attention wavering; mine was. Nonetheless, the able cast (which also includes Mark Addy and Kelly Preston) keeps the affair interesting, and the requisite emotional conclusion plucks the heartstrings with an admirable--and most welcome--dose of restraint.


Star Trek: Insurrection poster Star Trek: Insurrection (PG) **
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I am not a "Trekker," so I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the last big-screen installment of the long-running film and television franchise, 1996's Star Trek: First Contact. Delivering thrills and a terrific adversary (the menacing Borg race) for general audiences to chew on, and enough of the trademark techno-talk to appease the geekiest of Trekkers, director/co-star Jonathan Frakes had his cake and ate it too.

After First Contact's critical and popular success, it comes as no surprise that Paramount and Trek producer Rick Berman tapped Frakes to helm Trek movie#9, but not even he can break this series from its curious "even/odd" curse--that is, even-numbered installments = good, odd = bad (or at least not good). To be fair, Frakes's direction is not the problem with Insurrection--it's the weak script by Michael Piller, from a story Piller co-devised with Berman. This time out, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Will Riker (Frakes), android Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner), Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and Michael Dorn's Lt. Cmdr. Worf (again on loan from his current TV home on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) commit the titular act of insurrection against their higher-ups at the Federation when they set out to protect the population of a peaceful planet from a maniacal, Federation-allied alien (F. Murray Abraham) determined to harness the planet's power of granting perpetual youth.

Insurrection is a far cry from the violent, "Resistance is futile" Borg antics of First Contact in terms of action, excitement, and, unfortunately, interest--to non-Trekkers, that is. A lot of the time is spent on light character moments, such as Data bonding with a technology-fearing young boy, Riker and Troi rekindling their romance, and Worf re-experiencing Klingon puberty, thanks to the perpetual youth bug. Trekkers will eat that stuff up; others will be looking elsewhere for something engaging, which cannot be found in the by-the-numbers story or the incredibly boring villain. What they will ultimately fix their attention on is the always-commanding presence of Stewart and the typically polished effects and makeup work. Aside from that, this subpar outing has nothing to offer anyone outside of the Trek faithful.


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