Mr. Stitch (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Unlike his fellow Video Archives graduate Quentin Tarantino, one cannot accuse writer-director Roger Avary of repeating himself. Instead of following his violent 1994 debut Killing Zoe with another crime picture, his sophomore effort comes in the form of Mr. Stitch, a bizarre, ambitious, but uneven science fiction fantasy that was originally intended as a TV pilot.
An appropriately subdued Wil Wheaton plays Lazarus, the "Mr. Stitch" of the title--an androgynous Frankenstein-esque creature composed from the remains of 44 men and 44 women. Lazarus is the pet project of one Dr. Rue Wakeman (Rutger Hauer), a shady scientist working for a mysterious agency. Problems arise when the violent, superhumanly strong Lazarus begins to have memories of his past lives, including that of Wakeman's former scientific associate, Dr. Frederick Texarian (Ron Perlman), who was romantically involved with Lazarus's psychoanalyst, Dr. Elizabeth English (Nia Peeples).
The real standout in Mr. Stitch is striking minimalist look of the picture. Most of the action takes place in a purely white room that appears to have no walls; sparse black furnishings break up the endless sea of white. This dichromatic scheme created by production designer Damian LaFranche and cinematographer Tom Richmond is fascinating and more than a little unsettling: the white-clad scientists and orderlies blend in with background, with only their heads clearly visible, and the somewhat grotesque makeup of multicolored, poorly stitched together Lazarus (created by effects whiz Tom Savini, who also has a bit part) just stands out even more against the plain backdrop. Other little touches add to the otherworldly and disturbing atmosphere--a floating, computer-generated eye that watches Lazarus's every move; the sleek, futuristic furniture; and the yellow slime that oozes from broken machinery. If anything, Avary has succeeded in creating a convincing alien world that at once intrigues and repels.
However, the story doesn't quite come together as well as the atmosphere. The major problem is the erratic pacing, which can probably be attributed to its origins as a failed TV pilot. For the first hour or so, events move at a relaxed pace, slowly building up characters and plot points not unlike a pilot would set up subsequent episodes of a series. However, when the final thirty minutes kick in, events progress fast and furiously, and the result is jarring and feels more than a bit forced, as if there was a sudden rush to sum it all up once the series prospects went kaput. The setup, with its subtle plot hints and slowly developing characters, is so effectively done that it appears to buildup to a great payoff; when the race to the end begins, it cannot help but feel rather premature, for it feels as if the story was just beginning.
As a result, some characters aren't fully developed. The biggest victim of this is the character of Elizabeth, who doesn't evolve beyond being the token "good scientist" in the piece (Peeples's colorless performance does not help). Hauer's Dr. Wakeman is an interesting, eccentric villain with a lot of potential, but he gradually fades into the background before inexplicably disappearing altogether (though that disappearance likely has to do with the falling out between Hauer and Avary during filming). The most fleshed out of the bunch, of course, is Lazarus, the tortured soul struggling to create a unique identity for itself as the old personalities try to break free. But even its character progression comes off hurried, for a crucial turning point, while having been set up through the course of the film, comes rather abruptly.
All in all, though, Mr. Stitch is a reasonably diverting rental option, thanks to Avary's intriguing vision; however, one cannot help but feel that the story could only have been given its full justice in its intended form--as a television series. One final note: People in the know will spot the obligatory Video Archives references, from former clerk Stevo Polyi's part as one of Dr. Wakeman's assistants to references to "J. [Jerry] Martinez" and "R. [Russell] Vossler," former Archivists themselves. (WarnerVision/Rysher Entertainment)
Spy Hard (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Leslie Nielsen is back in another joke-a-second parody à la The Naked Gun. Good news? Not necessarily. Spy Hard, the tepid new spoof of spy films and a number of recent hits such as Pulp Fiction and True Lies, is a classic example of why David Zucker/Jim Abrahams/Jerry Zucker-style comedies should be left to ZAZ themselves.
The basic plot has retired spy Dick Steele (Nielsen) being forced back into action after the nefarious General Rancor (Andy Griffith, in an inspired bit of casting against type) threatens to launch an explosive rocket into outer space with the daughter (Stephanie Romanov) of Dick's long-deceased love of his life (also played by Romanov, which brings to mind her dual role in the late, lamented soap Models Inc.) strapped onto it. With the help of sexy Russian spy Veronique Ukrinsky (Nicollette Sheridan), whose father has been kidnapped, Dick tries to thward Rancor's evil plan. But, of course, this is all just a flimsy foundation upon which director/co-writer Rick Friedberg and fellow scripters Dick Chudnow, Jason Friedberg, and Aaron Seltzer hang set pieces parodying specific films such as Pulp Fiction, True Lies, Speed, and In the Line of Fire, to name a few.
Spy Hard does have a few laughs here and there, most memorably during the main title sequence, which is modeled after James Bond's trademark openings featuring silhouetted dancing girls and swoony tunes (Weird Al Yankovic warbles the theme song). And Nielsen, gifted comic performer that he is, manages to milk more than a handful of laughs from the lackluster material. Friedberg and company, like the makers of such limp ZAZ wannabes such as National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 and Fatal Instinct, don't quite understand the formula that made ZAZ pictures such as Airplane! and Top Secret! so much fun--in the end, it's the jokes that count, not the number of films you parody, nor the fact that you parody a popular film. The makers of Spy Hard just don't get it, and they go out of their way to send up as many hit films as possible even if it just means copying scenes without adding anything new to them. As a result, almost all of the direct takeoffs (with the glowing exception of a wonderfully mean-spirited Home Alone parody) are forced and unfunny. For example, in a Pulp Fiction-inspired scene, Dick and Veronique merely dress up like John Travolta and Uma Thurman and do the twist to Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" (hilarious), and a Sister Act knockoff just has Dick don a habit and sing "Shout" with a bunch of nuns (hysterical). Not exactly my idea of inspired comic writing. Making this lack of comic inspiration or creativity even more of a shame is the great score by Bill Conti, who does a deft job of aping the original films' scores during their respective parody scenes.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; however, that's only the case if one does the imitation right, and the makers of Spy Hard, in getting it all wrong, just end up giving the unique brand of movie comedy created by Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker a bad name.
Heaven's Prisoners (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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When we first meet recovering alcoholic, retired New Orleans policedetective Dave Robicheaux (Alec Baldwin), he's in confession, telling of how he yearns for a drink but is afraid of losing it all--"it" being his happy Bayou home life with wife Annie (Kelly Lynch). Any veteran filmgoer should instantly be tipped off that it's just a matter of time before Dave has another drink and loses it all, but not necessarily in that order. And what a slow, boring sit it is getting to that point, which comes roughly an hour into Phil Joanou's (Final Analysis) pathetic two-hour, eleven-minute excuse for a thriller. Dave is pulled back into sleuthing after a plane mysteriously crashes into the bayou; ultimately he becomes entangled in the affairs of the DEA; Dave's drug kingpin high school chum, Bubba Rocque (Eric Roberts, going through the motions as yet another sleaze); and his seductive trollop of a wife, Claudette (Teri Hatcher). It's all much more boring than it sounds, not to mention predictable.
Baldwin is shockingly uninteresting, walking through this role... or should I say sweating, for Dave is covered in perspiration in practically every scene; when he's not sweating, he's getting drenched in a rainstorm. Late in the film, Dave tells an inmate, "You look like you could use a shower." Look who's talking. A heavily made-up Mary Stuart Masterson turns up to little effect as the completely unnecessary character of Dave's stripper friend Robin, who has--yep--a heart of gold. Hatcher makes a fetching femme fatale, giving the proceedings a badly needed jolt of energy whenever she's onscreen (yes, she does appear completely nude in her first scene, but that's beside the point), and Lynch's heartfelt work gives the film a human dimension. But it's all for naught.
Why the name Heaven's Prisoners? There's only one mention of heaven, and there are no prisoners to speak of... unless you count the audience; in that case, a more appropriate title would have been Hell's Prisoners.
Mission: Impossible (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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For all his box-office clout and immeasurable worldwide popularity, Tom Cruise has never had a lucrative film franchise along the lines of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan series, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky or Rambo series, or Bruce Willis's ongoing Die Hard adventures. That should all change with the May 22 arrival of Mission: Impossible, Brian DePalma's suspenseful and highly entertaining big-screen version of the popular 1960s television series of the same name.
After a slick, flashily edited title sequence that incorporates footage of scenes shown later in film (not unlike a TV show), the audience is immediately plunged into the heretofore closely-guarded plot: After a mission goes disastrously awry, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), is "disavowed" from his duties by the powers that be and suspected of being a mole trying to sell a top-secret list that matches covert agents' aliases with their true identities (called the "NOC--Non-Official Coverts--List"). In an effort to clear his name and find the true mole, Hunt assembles his own unauthorized crew of fellow disavowed IMF agents, getting involved in all the high adventure, globetrotting, and precarious situations that one would associate with the Mission: Impossible name.
The plot sounds simple enough, but for the first half hour or so it's pretty hard to follow. Screenwriters David Koepp, Robert Towne, and Steven Zaillian not only swamp the audience with a lot of information in the early stages, they also pile on the technical covert agent jargon, making things seem more convoluted than they really are. Not helping understanding early on is director DePalma's incredibly rapid pacing. While the film's relentless forward momentum is one of the film's great assets, one cannot help but wish that he eased up somewhat, if only during the first reel, to give the audience time to digest and make sense of it all.
But that lack of early clarity is the only real problem with the picture. Koepp, Towne, and Zaillian's script is smart and consistently surprising, full of interesting plot twists, reversals, and double crosses. DePalma, after a string of commercial and aesthetic disappointments (although I did admire his last effort, Carlito's Way), announces him comeback with a bang here. Oddly enough, the DePalma trademark, violence, is hardly in evidence, and the film is the better for it; the main concern here is the suspense, which DePalma ratchets up to effectively high levels, most memorably in a tense sequence set in an enclosed computer room. The elaborate action sequences are also very capably handled, particularly the exciting climax involving a bullet train and a helicopter in a tunnel. Danny Elfman's score is perhaps his most conventional-sounding work--it's almost completely devoid of his usual dark overtones--but its rhythmic bounce fits the atmosphere perfectly. Naturally, he uses the infectious signature Impossible theme at various points, but he wisely doesn't overuse it, incorporating it only at key moments.
The buffed-up Cruise makes a believable and likable action hero, and he gets strong help from the eclectic supporting cast. Jon Voight plays Jim Phelps, the only character to be lifted from the TV series, with the right air of authority. Henry Czerny, a proven success at playing shady government types (see Clear and Present Danger), is in his element as (surprise) slightly shady IMF higher-up Kittredge. Vanessa Redgrave appears to have fun playing it somewhat campily as a flirtatious potential buyer of the NOC List. Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, and the lumious Emmanuelle Béart also shine as members of Cruise's crew; it's interesting to see Rhames play against type as a brilliant computer expert instead of just serving as an imposing physical presence.
Mission: Impossible is a solid piece of summer escapist entertainment. A high-energy action extravaganza that should have no difficulty in pleasing audiences, its mission to make a killing at the box office is anything but impossible.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) BUY THE:Poster!
Many would call it cornball, and even more would dismiss it as sappy. But for suckers of grand film musicals and romances like myself, Jacques Demy's 1964 masterful "film opera" is as great as movies get. The film, which is entirely sung from start to finish, tells in three sections the heartbreaking, bittersweet tale of Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), two young, star-crossed lovers who must separate when Guy is called off to war. Months pass, and Geneviève, pregnant with Guy's baby and worried over his ever more infrequent letters, ends up marrying a wealthy suitor (Marc Michel). Michel Legrand's score is beautiful and haunting; particularly memorable is the powerful "I Will Wait for You," which Guy and Geneviève sing as he departs. Demy balances the heavy pathos with an agreeably light touch, never taking this almost absurdly surreal film (in addition to the sung lines, the colors are unbelievably vibrant, and sometimes outfits match wallpaper) too seriously. Yet in spite of the otherworldly atmosphere, the emotions are honest and sometimes painfully real, due in large part to the palpable romantic rapport between Deneuve, who doesn't appear to have aged in thirty-plus years, and the dashing Castelnuovo. A film that will leave you humming along to the music when you're not laughing or crying, Umbrellas is a gem worth seeking out.
This adaptation of the Dark Horse comic, set in 2017 during the "Second American Civil War," opens promisingly, with the titular club owner/bounty hunter (Baywatch phenom Pamela Anderson Lee) literally spilling out of her tight rubber outfit as she does a sexy dance while being sprayed with water and champagne. When one horny gawker has the nerve to call her "babe," she throws one of her shoes at him, the spike heel landing right between his eyes. That scene promises to set the stage for a fun, escapist jolt of feminist action. However, it's all downhill--way downhill--from there as the film follows an overly convoluted plot involving a rebel leader (Victoria Rowell); her husband (Temuera Morrison), who happens to be Barb's former flame; the threat of an AIDS-derived virus that could wipe out the country (the antidote to which supposedly lies in Barb's DNA--don't ask); and a pair of special identity-obscuring contact lenses. There's really no point in going into details about the story, for none of plot specifics really add up.
Baywatch fans like myself know very well that Lee cannot act worth a damn. We also know that it also doesn't matter one bit, at least for that show. The same assessment could be applied to this film, for Lee is called on to do nothing more than strut and posture like a cartoon superheroine. Yet while the big-screen treatment appropriately puts her, ahem, best assets at center stage, it also makes all too clear her complete lack of acting skill. Her "tough" line delivery is hardly ever convincing, and her one facial expression--a pout with matching eye bulge--is laughable. The rest of the cast--including Steve Railsback as the main bad guy--are either over-the-top or embarrassingly amateurish. Not that they're given any substantial material to work with--Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken's script is just a series of routine action set pieces linked together by hilariously bad dialogue and overly earnest voiceover narration read with a unintentionally comic stoicism by Lee.
Director David Hogan knows darn well what's selling the picture, and he never misses an opportunity to use a camera angle that would peer down Lee's ample cleavage or get her out of her tight and revealing assortment of leather duds. He keeps the action moving quickly, stages a number of explosions, and, being a music video vet, piles on the flashy editing and lighting. But none of it is especially exciting, only mildly diverting eye candy.
The makers of Barb Wire obviously knew they were making junk, but I'm not so sure they realized just how junky their final product was. Yes, the film never bores, and it is somewhat entertaining--but for all the wrong reasons. Barb is sure to turn up on my--and, I imagine, many other critics'--worst list of 1996.
Twister does not offer much in terms of plot. Set during a severe tornado season in Oklahoma, the main narrative thread has meteorologist Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) somewhat reluctantly reteaming with estranged wife Jo (Helen Hunt) and her tornado-chasing crew to try to place a state-of-the-art tornado-measuring device (called a "Dorothy") in the middle of an active twister before hotshot rival scientist Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes, speaking in a baffling pseudo-Southern accent) does the same with a copycat device. Then there are the subplots: Jo has a fear of powerful F-5 tornadoes after a traumatic childhood experience; Bill, engaged to uppity therapist Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz), wants to quickly finalize his divorce with Jo; and Bill wants to leave the tornado biz for a career as a TV weatherman.
Will the crew ever successfully deploy a Dorothy? Will they do so before Jonas? Will Jo ever get over her F-5 angst? Will Bill stay with the tornado biz? Will Jo and Bill get back together? There should be no doubt as to what the answers are to these questions, for the script, by Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin, is incredibly formulaic and predictable. While the characters of Jo and Bill are nicely fleshed out (thanks in no small part to the strong performances of Hunt and Paxton), the supporting players are colorless stock characters. Melissa is a weak-willed ninny; Jonas is an egotist whose scientific know-how is called into question. And Jo and Bill's crew members, with the exception of a token wild boy, are completely interchangeable space fillers, exhibiting no distinguishable personalities. Crichton also steals a few tricks from himself: the extensive use of scientific jargon more than recalls his hit TV show ER, and the arrival of a twister halfway through the film is very reminiscent of the T-Rex's entrance in Jurassic Park--instead of ripples in water cups, reception on TV sets becomes snowy.
It is only during the absolutely phenomenal tornado sequences that Twister comes to life. DeBont pulls out all the stops, sending various farm equipment and animals flying, jolting the audience with deafening peals of thunder and wind (the film is definitely the one to beat for next year's Best Sound Oscar), throwing shards of debris toward the audience at all angles (one almost wishes this were a 3-D movie). The tornado effects by Industrial Light and Magic are incredibly effective; not only is the melding of the actual locations and actors and the computer-generated funnel clouds is so seamless and lifelike, but no two tornadoes look alike or act in the same way, thus giving each sequence a fresh spin and each twister its own distinct personality.
However, the adrenaline rush of the tornado sequences clash with the staid and often dull filler scenes, including a contrived comical breakfast stopover at Jo's aunt's (Lois Smith) house. DeBont does not appear to be interested in the filler scenes, for these scenes display none of the frantic energy of the action scenes; when the film gets going, it gets going. The result is a jarring start-and-stop flow of events. If DeBont's last effort, Speed, could be seen as like a racecar zooming around a racetrack, then Twister is more like stop-and-go rush hour freeway traffic where the "going" is really fast.
While not offering much in the way of engrossing and emotionally involving human drama, Twister does deliver all the exciting, exhilarating popcorn thrills one would expect from an action blockbuster, making it ideal summer escapist entertainment that should cause a storm of business at the box office.
Captives (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Coming off of a failed marriage, a part-time prison dentist (a pre-Sabrina Julia Ormond) embarks on a dangerous and forbidden affair with one of her convict patients (Tim Roth). Ormond and Roth, turning in nicely understated performances, generate the requisite heat, but the film never does. Director Angela Pope's pacing lags too much to sustain interest, and while the Ormond-Roth relationship is oddly intriguing, it is not very involving. To make matters worse, the film takes a fatal turn when it veers into thriller territory as Ormond's character is stalked by a prison drug dealer and his thugs; scripter Frank Deasy should have kept the focus on the central relationship.
The Great White Hype (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Reginald Hudlin's boxing satire is breezy, biting fun, thanks in no small part to some clever writing and on-target performances. Samuel L. Jackson obviously has a ball as flamboyant boxing promoter Fred Sultan, who attempts to boost the flagging interest in the sport by staging a title match between the arrogant current champion (Damon Wayans) and a retired white amateur fighter (Peter Berg). The film has some rough spots: a promising subplot about an investigative reporter (Jeff Goldblum) out to expose Sultan goes absolutely nowhere, and Wayans sports an obviously fake prosthetic gut in the film's second half. Yet Hype manages to win the bout thanks to Hudlin's quick pacing and energetic fight staging, a bevy of winning performances (especially from Jackson, Wayans, and Berg), and more than a few good laughs along the way.
The Quest (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Another shoo-in for my worst list of the year is Jean-Claude Van Damme's disastrous directorial debut. The Muscles from Brussels stars as Chris duBois, a 1920s New York street mime (no joke) who, after a completely unnecessary hour of exposition, takes part in a deadly martial arts tournament. The script is horrendous, filled with a number of superfluous, go-nowhere characters (including Roger Moore as a pirate who sells Chris into slavery), and the acting abysmal. But worst of all, the fight scenes (which, with the exception of one, last no more than 30 seconds each) aren't very interesting nor exciting (Randy Edelman's score is more rousing), and they grow repetitive. As a director, Van Damme is right down there with
another failed action-star-turned-would-be-auteur, Steven Seagal, but with three times the pretentiousness. Van Damme's attempts at drama are real howlers (try not to laugh when he sadly prays to a statue of Buddha), and the old age makeup he wears during the film's bookend segments is utterly ridiculous. Van Damme calls his film "the Ben-Hur of martial arts"; boy, is he deluded.