The Movie Report
Volume 61

#218 - 219
December 10, 1999 - December 17, 1999

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

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#219 December 17, 1999 by Michael Dequina


Magnolia poster Magnolia (R) ****
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A faceless narrator ruminates on the nature of chance and fate by telling of three different inexplicable occurrences through time. The most interesting anecdote is one where a young man's attempt at a suicidal fall is botched mid-plunge--when he ends up the victim of a murder to which he was an accessory. The convoluted mechanics of this strange--make that freak--occurrence are analyzed in exhaustive detail, complete with a visual breakdown by telestrator. It's not exactly the most obvious way to open any film about the anguished lives of a cross-section of people in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, but in terms of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, it is the perfect curtain- and eyebrow-raiser for three hours of the director's astonishingly powerful and audacious vision.

Anderson follows that bold prologue with an introductory sequence that can only be described as being cinematically alive. As a TV blares the ridiculously macho propaganda of male self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), one by one we're introduced to the characters, storylines, and relationships that intertwine over one eventful 24-hour period detailed in the film. Cancer-stricken television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his deathbed, being tended to by his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his much younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) searches in vain for a way to cope. Elsewhere in the Valley is another terminal cancer victim, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hasn't yet let his estranged, drug-addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) know about his condition. In the meantime, he continues his long-running hosting duties on the popular kids-versus-adults quiz show What Do Kids Know?, whose current champion is child genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Serving as a counterpoint to Stanley's progression is the downward slide of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former champion of the same show back in the '60s. Patrolling the Valley streets while talking to an invisible partner is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly).

This highly kinetic sequence, fueled by energized editing and camera work, is ultimately held together by the song that plays in the background, a tune that succinctly sums up the main feeling of the characters and the film itself: Aimee Mann's cover of "One"--as in, "one is the loneliest number." Isolation is the primary theme of Magnolia, and the overwhelming pain that comes with the state its primary mood; as the characters each seek out connection and comfort, Anderson masterfully uses music to express that which is neither seen nor spoken. For a non-musical film, Magnolia is highly dependent on the music; there is nary a moment where either a song (usually by Mann, contributed seven to the film) or Jon Brion's instrumental score is playing in the background. Sometimes Anderson even has score and songs playing concurrently, and a number of times the music takes the foreground and the dialogue recedes into the background (most notably in the film's final scenes); both are bold moves, and they prove to be highly effective in showing the urgency of emotion that burns beneath the surface.

But no example of Anderson's use of music is as ingenius as in one bound-to-be-discussed scene that occurs about two-thirds into the film. As all the characters appear to be at their lowest, most uncertain point, the action completely stops and each person, regardless of where they are, sings along to Mann's somber "Wise Up." The tune is not playing on anyone's stereo as source music; it simply plays on the film's soundtrack, and everyone relates their pain through the song, whose chorus goes, "It's not going to stop 'til you wise up." The idea sounds ridiculous and almost overly cutesy on paper, but the scene sends chills while watching it unfold onscreen. When the signature line is sung for the final time, with the altered lyric "It's not going to stop, so just give up"--it packs a stunning wallop.

Of course, such an experimental, for lack of a better term, "stunt" would not work if the audience does not care for any of the characters. While Magnolia runs three hours, Anderson still has only so much screen time to divide between its large canvas of players, and it's a testimony to his writing and directing skill and the ability of the actors that everyone comes across as a fully-realized human being. The cast is absolutely flawless, with Cruise undoubtedly set to get the lion's share of attention for his showy, likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated work. The recognition would be well-deserved, but I found myself even more impressed with others in the ensemble. Moore is particularly strong, gradually revealing the tenderness that lies beneath her character's shrewish bitterness; the moment where Linda is finally able to be honest about her feelings to another and to herself is shattering. Walters and Reilly are called on to navigate the film's central romantic thread, and their oddball characters' pairing is at once comically eccentric and genuinely endearing. Then there's the bound-to-be-unsung hero by the name of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The role of loyal and nice nurse Phil is far from the film's flashiest (not surprisingly, that distinction goes to Cruise's), but it's one of those critical parts that, if done completely wrong, could short-circuit the entire film. That Hoffman's work is likely to go unrecognized says everything about the quality of his performance.

The idea of the inexplicable--and Anderson's courageously go-for-broke creative approach--comes to a head during the film's climax, when something indeed beyond reason takes place, serving as a unifying force between all the characters and plotlines. I will not give it away, but the development not quite as out-of-left-field as some people suggest; it is, in fact, very subtly foreshadowed throughout the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it is quite a jarring turn, but by that point I was willing to go anywhere the boundlessly imaginative Anderson was leading. That's the sign of a true film artist at work, and the proof is the moving, magnificent masterwork that is Magnolia.

Man on the Moon poster Man on the Moon (R) **
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Man on the Moon is one of those films where you walk out of the auditorium completely flummoxed as to why you feel so empty. All the pieces are in place in Milos Forman's biography of the late comedian Andy Kaufman; it's a polished, well-cast, well-performed, and technically well-made piece of work. Upon deeper reflection, however, the initially mysterious reason is actually quite simple: while those pieces fit together, the resulting picture is wrong, for Man on the Moon is less about Kaufman than it is his portrayer, Jim Carrey.

That statement would appear to be a half-step away from a quote one would find blaring from a newspaper ad or TV commercial: "Man on the Moon is all about Jim Carrey!" But when I say that Carrey dominates the picture, it is not necessarily in a good way. Yes, he does a bang-up impersonation of Kaufman's many different personae, from his career-making role as Latka on the late' '70s-early '80s sitcom Taxi to his most curious creation, sleazy and boorish lounge singer Tony Clifton (whom Kaufman insisted was a completely separate person). The problem is that director Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who memorably humanized Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, do little to make the film appear to be more than a showcase for Carrey's gift for reverent mimickry.

After a memorably absurd opening that perfectly captures the essence of Kaufman's distinctly eccentric brand of humor, the creative team quickly falls into the trap that becomes the film's ruin. Once Forman stages his first recreation of bits from Kaufman's standup act, the film sets into cruise control, offering reenactment after reenactment of keystone events and performances in Kaufman's career (including his infamous "feud" with wrestler Jerry Lawler), with few moments of downtime in between and even less dramatic momentum to string it all together. There's no denying that much attention was paid to make sure every note was played exactly as Kaufman did years ago. It's just that Forman and crew add nothing fresh of their own, and the film becomes little more than a series of rambling, indulgent performance pieces for Carrey. This becomes all the more redundant considering that Carrey proves he can capably do Kaufman schtick within the film's first two minutes; and in seeing him repeatedly hit the same beats and assume the same postures, one becomes more acutely aware of the impersonation, of an actor acting. Perhaps it would be better said that Man on the Moon is not about Jim Carrey, but Jim Carrey's Oscar bid.

To Carrey's credit, during the quieter moments, he projects a sense of vulnerability and humanity. But not much is done to flesh out Kaufman's life beyond the spotlight. While his friendships with creative collaborator Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti) and manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) are fairly well-established, more problematic is his relationship with girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love). The two meet on The Merv Griffin Show, where she angrily volunteers to fight Kaufman in a wrestling match during his infamous anti-woman phase. Backstage after the show, he manages to charm her; and in their next scene together, he's already proposing marriage. After one more scene involving a wrestling ring, their relationship is shoved into the background--as is Love, a vibrant actress who radiates a beguiling warmth here, but it's squandered. Similarly, DeVito and Giamatti also impress, but their efforts clearly lie on the second string as far as the filmmakers are concerned.

The quieter moments also offer little in the way of insight into who Kaufman was and why he was that way. The points covered are easy, surface ones: he marched to his own drummer; he took pleasure in subverting audiences' expectations and wishes and in generally pissing them off; he immersed himself so deeply into his characters that those closest to him often did not know where the act ended and the real Andy began--that is, if it ever did. The last point highlights the difficulty in making a biography about the notoriously enigmatic Kaufman; did anyone, let alone those involved in the making of this film, ever get a handle on who the real Andy was? Late in the film, when Lynne tells him with a smile, "There is no real you," one cannot help but agree--at least as far as this shallow screen treatment goes.

In Brief

Anna and the King poster Anna and the King (PG-13) ***
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Fox chose an ideal year to produce and release Andy Tennant's lavish non-musical treatment of the oft-told true story of the meeting of minds between King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) and English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) in 1862 Siam. After all, it can only look good compared to this year's other screen version of the tale, Warner Bros.' woefully misguided animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's venerable musical The King and I. That fact aside, however, Anna, while taking the occasional dramatic misstep, is a pretty solid drama on its own terms, boasting beautiful pageantry, smart political intrigue, and a convincing rapport between leads.

While they are a unit for most of the film, taken individually, Foster and Chow have differing degrees of success. Foster is good, but her performance is a big step down from her Oscar-caliber work of recent years (last in 1997's Contact), hampered by an accent that is only sporadically convincing. Chow, on the other hand, is terrific. Although he made a name for himself in Hong Kong as an action star, the King is the first American role where he really shows the key to his appeal--it's not necessarily the gun(s) in his hand(s), but his suave charm and charisma. He's also a solid dramatic actor; not for nothing do his legendary collaborations with John Woo have such a potent emotional impact. Anna may get top billing in this retelling, but it's the king who commands the show.

Bicentennial Man poster Bicentennial Man (PG) ***
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The trailer for Chris Columbus' adaptation of Isaac Asimov's short story and novel The Positronic Man makes this Robin Williams vehicle look like a futuristic sequel to Patch Adams--in short, a ghastly piece of shameless audience manipulation. The sentiment is laid on as thick as molasses as the trailer shows how a robot named Andrew (Williams) is adopted by a family and proves to be "special"--unlike any other android, he appears to actually bear the qualities of emotion and creativity. His human characteristics eventually feed into a desire to become human, a dream that gradually comes true over the course of 200 years (hence the title). The trailer comes to a climax as Williams, no longer made of metal and bearing a flesh-and-blood appearance, asks comely co-star Embeth Davidtz to kiss him.

Watching the film itself, I saw that the trailer was accurate in conveying one thing: Bicentennial Man is, without a doubt, a manipulative picture. But director Chris Columbus, schmaltzmeister that he is, makes no bones about it--he wants to move you. The surprise then came in how I was touched (though not quite moved) by this gentle, likable centuries-spanning fable. While Williams goes through his earnest warm-fuzzy motions as the lead (the only really distinctive thing about his work here is how he wears a head-to-toe metal suit for much of the picture), the standout work--and that which goes a long way for one's involvement in the picture--belongs to Embeth Davidtz, who has a dual role as Amanda, a.k.a. "Little Miss," the youngest daughter in the family that "adopts" Andrew; and Portia, her granddaughter. When Davidtz is recycled, so does screenwriter Nicholas Kazan recycle the contrived plot wrinkle of her character being betrothed to another. But with a proven buttons-pusher such as Columbus at the helm, it's easy to forgive uninspired plot mechanics, for the undeniable emotional pull compensates.

Diamonds poster Diamonds (PG-13) **
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A grandfather, his son, and grandson take a road trip from Canada to Reno, Nevada in search of some lost diamonds, along the way taking an extended side trip at a brothel. It sounds like a junky comedy ripe for release in the January/February dumping ground, and John Asher's film would have received that undistinguished--and, to a certain extent, deserved--treatment if not for one person: Kirk Douglas, who headlines as the cantankerous former championship boxer searching for riches and renewed happiness in his twilight years.

His touching, effortless performance--his first screen role since suffering a stroke--is the reason why Miramax is giving the film a one-week awards qualifying engagement, and indeed it is great to see the former Spartacus back where he belongs; his acting skills are in tip-top shape even if his body isn't. Yet I wouldn't call his performance particularly award-worthy other than for sentimental reasons, which is more than I can say for this rather silly and sappy film, which also stars Dan Aykroyd as Douglas' son, who only wants his daddy's love and approval; and Corbin Allred as Aykroyd's rebellious son, perhaps the whitest of white boys to ever utter such terms such as "yo" and "phat." The normally overwrought Jenny McCarthy, late of MTV's Singled Out and Playboy magazine, is nicely held in check as a prostitute (insert your own joke here); and as her madam, Lauren Bacall strikes luminous sparks with Douglas, with whom she had previously teamed nearly 50 years ago on Young Man with a Horn. However, not even the reunion of these two screen legends makes the film evaporate from the memory any less quickly.

Mr. Death poster Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (PG-13) ****
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Errol Morris cements his reputation as the premier contemporary documentary filmmaker with this fascinating look at Fred Leuchter, a Massachusetts engineer whose specialty is tending to execution equipment. What begins an oddly endearing account of an odd man and his odd occupation becomes gradually darker--and even more absorbing--as Leuchter, being an "expert" on gas chambers and the like, is recruited by Holocaust denier Ernst ZŘndel to travel to Auschwitz and conduct a forensic analysis the "presumed" gas chambers. His report--in which he effectively "proves" that the Holocaust never happened--becomes a cornerstone of Holocaust deniers' beliefs while most others, in particular Jewish activists, are repulsed by his actions.

Morris leaves no doubt in the audience's mind that Leuchter is wrong; as a counter to his claims, he interviews a number of experts on the Holocaust and science who completely debunk Leuchter's "findings" by covering every way his research went wrong. But instead of taking the easy approach of labeling Leuchter as being an evil person and exploring just how bad he is, Morris is more interested in showing how a normal person can fall into the trap of doing and believing in such morally questionable things. One does not necessarily like Leuchter by the end of Mr. Death, but one is able to at least somewhat understand him and why he thinks the way he does--a deeper step that makes the film as exceptional as it is.

Onegin poster Onegin ** 1/2
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Only a couple weeks after Neil Jordan's wrenchingly beautiful The End of the Affair comes another Ralph Fiennes-starring period romance adaptation, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. In 1820s Russia, the arrogant city-bred sophisticate Evgeny Onegin (Fiennes) moves to a country estate bequeathed to him by his late uncle. There, he becomes the object of admiration for Tatyana (Liv Tyler), sister to the fiancÚe (Lena Headey) of his neighbor Vladimir (Toby Stephens). Onegin rejects Tatyana, and a tragedy leads him to travel abroad for years; upon his return, he suddenly feels affection for her, but it may be too late.

Thus the stage is set for grand romantic tragedy, but there's a bigger difference between Affair and this film than the setting and the co-star. Where that film was fiery and passionate, director Martha Fiennes (yes, Ralph's sister; another Fiennes sibling, Magnus, provided the score) takes the approach of Onegin--cold and distant. That principle is applied to the pacing as well, making the film that much less involving, even though the two leads--in particular the radiant Tyler, very at home in period garb--do admirable acting jobs.

Simpatico poster Simpatico (R) * 1/2
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Three old friends--a wealthy horse breeder (Jeff Bridges), his wife (Sharon Stone), and a wannabe private eye (Nick Nolte)--are haunted by a years-ago horse racing scam. With the cast--which also includes Albert Finney and Catherine Keener--and the pulpy neo-noir storyline, one would never suspect that Matthew Warchus' adaptation of Sam Shepard's play is the crushing bore that it is. None of the characters command the slightest bit of sympathy, and the dark secrets that surface are not nearly as provocative as Warchus thinks they are. I cannot explain why Nolte and Bridges signed on to take part in this mess (perhaps there was something to the script that doesn't show up onscreen?), but it's obvious why Stone took this role--hysterically screaming and shaking throughout her limited screen time (she doesn't appear until an hour into the film), she obviously thought this was the ticket to another Oscar nomination, if not the gold statuette itself. Sorry, Ms. Stone, better luck next try--and I'm sure another isn't far behind.

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#218 December 10, 1999 by Michael Dequina


Cradle Will Rock poster Topsy-Turvy poster Cradle Will Rock (R) ***
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Topsy-Turvy (R) *** 1/2
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1999 appears to be the year where filmmakers pay tribute to the entertainment medium that paved the way for celluloid: theater. This summer saw the release of John Turturro's stage-set Illuminata, and opening this month are Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. All films bear their own unique qualities (on a basic level, Illuminata is a complete fiction, while Topsy-Turvy and Cradle both have some grounding in historical fact), but Robbins' film stands apart in that in addition to providing a portrait of the New York stage circa the 1930s, it also aims to capture the political climate at the time. It's a grand ambition, but Robbins is able to pull it off, if only in the end.

While politics loom large over the film, Robbins, as one well knows, is an actor himself, and thus the theatre plays no small part in Cradle. The film is titled for The Cradle Will Rock, a politically-themed musical composed by one Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). The production, directed by a tempestuous young Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen), is the focal storyline of the film, but it's also not the only one. Elsewhere, wealthy Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in the lobby of his new building. Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), a representative for Mussolini, gives valuable paintings to millionaires, one of whom is one Grey Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), in return for their support of the Italian war effort. The American government conducts hearings that will determine the future of the Federal Theatre Project, which is valiantly defended by its head, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones); but helped taken down by a low-ranking employee (Joan Cusack), who in turn is pursued romantically by a ventriloquist (Bill Murray).

With so many characters and so much going on, Cradle Will Rock meanders with no clear agenda for most of its running time. As messy as it gets, the proceedings are kept watchable by the work of the stellar cast, which also includes Emily Watson, John Turturro, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cary Elwes. Everyone does a fine job with their roles--though Jones impresses the most. The actors also have an infectious ball working together; pairing two live wires like Cusack and Murray proves to be an especially inspired move on the part of Robbins. Even so, as the film bounces between characters and plot threads, interest flags at times.

But all the disparate elements and ideas in Robbins' screenplay gradually weave together and then cement into a rousing climax that powerfully makes its points about the importance of artistic freedom. In the end, Cradle Will Rock proves to be a very apt title; it sways haphazardly for a while, but it does eventually find its steady rhythm.

At two hours and forty minutes, Topsy-Turvy runs about a half hour longer than Cradle Will Rock, but writer-director Leigh doesn't take quite as long as Robbins does to find his film's footing. A lot of that has to do with Topsy's more modest ambitions; Leigh only aims to make a light tribute to the genius of the musical team of lyricist/librettist William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). And Leigh has succeeded in a most delightful way, offering a witty and engrossing behind-the-curtain look at the rocky making of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most celebrated works, The Mikado. Broadbent and Corduner are the stars of this film show and both do a splendid job (in particular Corduner), but what makes the film an especially enjoyable romp are the supporting players who do a wonderful job of performing selected scenes from the actual musicals. The long but snappily-paced Topsy-Turvy isn't as deep or "important" a work as Leigh's best-known film, the Oscar-nominated Secrets & Lies, but it certainly a lot more fun--which is the point.

The End of the Affair poster The End of the Affair (R) ****
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"This is a diary of hate," is the first line uttered in Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair. However, that line could not be a more inaccurate description of this film, for it is a beautifully passionate and extremely romantic screen treatment of Graham Greene's novel.

Even though the words "the end" are in the title, The End of the Affair is about a love's survival, but--as the words "the affair" suggest--that love is forbidden. The film opens on one rainy night in London in 1946, where writer Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) runs into old friend Henry Miles (Stephen Rea) by chance. Henry tells Maurice that he suspects his wife Sarah (Julianne Moore) is having an affair--words that hit close to home for Maurice: two years ago, he and Sarah had an affair themselves, and his reacquaintance with the couple just reignites his obsessive love for her.

Jordan, who also scripted, follows a complex structure that weaves back and forth through past, present, and future. The film is held together by Maurice's aforementioned "diary of hate," which looks back on his investigation into Sarah's suspicious 1946 doings, not to mention the origins of his relationship with her. The two meet at a party to which Maurice is invited by Henry, and their attraction is fiery and immediate--as is the electricity between Fiennes and Moore. The pair absolutely sizzle together in addition to having a palpable romantic chemistry, and their steamy yet swoony scenes together show that eroticism and romance do not necessarily have to exist independently of one another.

While The End of the Affair is indeed about a love triangle, it's not between the parties it would appear to be. In fact, the film is as much of a mystery as it is a traditional love story. The central narrative mystery is that of the reasons why the affair between Maurice and Sarah ended in the first place, which gives way into an even larger and deeper mystery. Some critics have taken issue with the handling of the latter turn, but the fact that I was able to accept such a sharp twist so unconditionally is a tribute to the remarkable finesse of Jordan's direction; I was caught up in the story enough to accept wherever it was going.

That, of course, is as much the actors' doing as it is Jordan's. Fiennes and Moore are both wrenching in depicting their characters' soul-aching longing and bringing to life their characters' individual aspects. While one does feel his character's pain, he doesn't downplay the dark nature of his obsession. Moore has a perhaps more difficult task as her character undergoes the most radical shift in the film, but she pulls off the job without hitting a false note. Likely to go unnoticed alongside such rich star turns is Rea, but his poignantly subtle work is every bit as impressive as that of his co-stars.

The End of the Affair is indeed, when boiled down to the bare essentials, a melodrama that employs all the conventional tactics of emotional manipulation. What is hardly conventional, however, is how beautifully and genuinely moving the execution is.

The Green Mile poster The Cider House Rules poster The Green Mile (R) *** 1/2
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The Cider House Rules (PG-13) ***
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In my six years of attending press screenings, the film that has received by far the largest ovation at the film's end was The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont's 1994 adaptation of Stephen King's prison-set novella. Exquisitely written, directed, and acted, the film was one of the most soul-stirring and moving motion pictures to emerge from this decade, going on to earn seven Academy Award nominations. While the film ended up not winning a single statue (a heinous snub if there ever were one), the film's esteem has only grown through time, becoming on video the hit the film never was at the box office.

With such a tough act to follow, it perhaps is no surprise that only now has Darabont come out with his next film, which, as it happens, is also an adaptation of a Stephen King prison story. The Green Mile shares a number of other qualities with Shawshank, but one of them is not its astounding excellence; not many will label the new film as the instant classic its predecessor was. But freed from the inevitable comparison, on its own terms The Green Mile is a very poignant and well-told tale, albeit one not without its flaws.

As in Shawshank, the film is set in the past (here, 1935) and focuses on an unlikely friendship that develops behind prison walls. However, the relationship here is between one Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), the head guard of a stretch of Death Row called "the green mile"; and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a an inmate convicted for the grisly murder of two young girls. Bulky and seven feet tall, Coffey certainly looks like the type who could commit such a despicable crime, but his gentle demeanor is a complete contradiction--as are the miraculous powers he appears to possess.

This element of the fantastic is a fairly outlandish twist for a story set on Death Row, but the turn is completely believable because Darabont takes the time to strongly anchor his characters in reality. However, he takes a bit too much time; while getting to know and spending the time with such colorful folk as Paul's guard cohorts and Coffey's fellow inmates is rewarding, it could have been just as so in less the time.

The same can be said of the entirety of The Green Mile. Execs at Warner Bros. made a big deal about how they did not feel the need to cut down the film after it received remarkably high marks at its first test screening; even so, some trimming is clearly in order. Granted, the three-hour-plus film, bookended by scenes with an aged Paul (Dabbs Greer) in the present day, consistently holds the interest and has an unquestionably powerful emotional payoff. But none of the film's virtues would have been diminished with some careful pruning of the runtime. In fact, a shorter, less leisurely paced version would just bring its strengths into clearer view.

And what strengths they are, particularly in the acting department. Hanks has become such a reliable dramatic performer over the years that a good performance from him is hardly a surprise; needless to say, there are no shocks here, and his trademark everyman quality makes him an instantly likable and relatable lead. More impressive, however, is the much-buzzed-about work by Duncan, perhaps heretofore best known for his supporting role in Armageddon. Not much is learned, if anything at all, about Coffey's past, but that Coffey is made into a believable human being rather than a walking dramatic construct has a lot to do with Duncan's vivid performance. Just as good as the two leads are the supporting players, all of whom shine. Bonnie Hunt acquits herself well in an uncharacteristically serious role as Paul's devoted wife; newcomer Doug Hutchison is chilling as sadistic guard Percy Wetmore, as is Sam Rockwell as psychotic inmate Wild Bill; and Michael Jeter is touching as inmate Del, who takes in a pet mouse. Gary Sinise also has a nice cameo as Coffey's public defender.

With so much talent aboard, from the great cast to the solid storyteller that is Darabont, perhaps expectations were trumped up to an unrealistic level. It goes without saying that The Green Mile is no Shawshank; after all, what is? To give that easy criticism is to discount what Darabont and his crew have accomplished, which is craft a heartfelt fable that pushes all the right emotional buttons. Long before its release, The Green Mile has been touted as the movie to beat at the Oscars, and while I cannot honestly say that it's the best film I've seen this year, it would certainly be a worthy winner.

The studio that is usually the one to beat during awards season is the scrappy Disney subsidiary Miramax, and a lot of their awards hopes are pinned on The Cider House Rules. An adaptation of John Irving's highly-regarded novel (Irving also wrote the screenplay), Cider is the story of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), an orphan who is raised as protege to one Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) at St. Cloud's orphanage. Dr. Larch hopes Homer will follow his path one day and assume his position at St. Cloud's, but after the young couple of Cathy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) stop by to take care of a private matter, Homer decides to leave with them and experience the world. That he does, landing a job on Wally's mother's orchard while Dr. Larch tries to cope with life without his surrogate son.

Cider tackles a number of issues--abortion being the foremost--and does so in an efficient manner, never detracting from the main story of Homer's journey to self-discovery. The film as a whole is an admirable and enjoyable one, highlighted by superb performances, in particular those of Delroy Lindo (as Homer's superior at the orchard) and, in a surprisingly strong debut, R&B chanteuse Erykah Badu (as Lindo's daughter). But while a good film, Cider is far from the great one Miramax and director Lasse Hallstr÷m were hoping it would be, marred by an unconvincing romantic subplot between Homer and Candy. The relationship is a keystone in Homer's growth as a person, but Maguire and Theron have so little chemistry that it is never once believable. If Cider is this year's big Oscar gun for Miramax, Ó la Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, then I don't think that the house the Weinsteins built will be adding too many more, if any, gold statuettes to their collection.

In Brief

Agnes Browne poster Agnes Browne (R) *
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This year's award for Pipe Dream Oscar-Qualifying Run goes to this atrocious chick flick, directed by and starring Anjelica Huston. Admittedly, Huston does an adequate job in front of the camera as the title character, a suddenly widowed Irish woman in the '60s who suddenly has to provide for her seven children on her own; and like all directorial efforts of actors, she gets nice work from her cast, notably Marion O'Dwyer as her best friend. But Huston and everyone else working behind the camera gets no credit for telling such a sappy and insipid tale. What can one say about a film whose idea of comedy is having the two women sit around discussing whether or not they've had an "organism" or not (yes, the malapropism is the entire joke) and one trying to sneak a peek at the other's shaved pubic area (don't ask). Lest we forget this is a chick flick, there needs to be a weepy moment, and it comes when Agnes must deal with the death of another loved one. The mourning doesn't last long, but viewers may do a bit more mourning themselves when the film reaches its climax, where none other than Tom Jones--yes, Tom "It's Not Unusual" Jones himself--saves the day. Agnes Browne is an embarrassing effort, made even moreso by its ludicrous "awards consideration" run--which one can only chalk up to USA Films' desire to appease its director/star's ego.

Sweet and Lowdown poster Sweet and Lowdown (PG-13) ***
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"Lowdown" describes the main character in Woody Allen's annual project, an anecdotal look at the life of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a gifted jazz guitarist from the '30s whose skills and talent rank second only to his idol, gypsy Django Reinhardt. While he cries while listening to Django's recordings and had fainted the two times he had seen him in person, the true number one in Emmet's book is Emmet himself. Boozy, a jerk to everyone around him, and legendarily self-absorbed, it's amazing that Emmet's story has ever been told before.

The reason why it hasn't is simple: Emmet is a completely fictional character, and the documentary-style talking head introductions to the film's individual vignettes (by jazz historians and enthusiasts, including Allen himself) go a long way in convincing the audience of the film's truth. Adding to the authenticity are the performances. Penn is hilarious as the pompous Emmet, but even better is the "sweet" component of the film's title: Samantha Morton, who plays Emmet's long-suffering laundress girlfriend Hattie--who happens to be mute. Morton is an absolute delight, and her marvelously cute and expressive face speak volumes more than any lines of dialogue ever could. There's a reason why "sweet" comes before "lowdown" in the title, and Morton is it.


Broken Vessels poster Broken Vessels (R) ***
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While Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead had the bigger name cast and (of course) the more arresting visuals, I more greatly appreciated this small, little-seen independent with a similar theme. A new young paramedic (Jason London) is teamed with a veteran (Todd Field), who quickly shows him the ropes--not necessarily of the job, but of his sordid world of drug abuse and sex. Ruin inevitably follows, as does a shot at redemption. Scorsese's film bests writer-director Scott Ziehl's in terms of style, but I found the scaled-down execution here to be a bit more effective considering both films have a small, intimate story to tell. Where Scorsese's film had the flashy array of supporting players, Ziehl's film concentrates on the two characters, and as such the dramatic focus never meanders the way that Dead did, and while both films are fairly obvious in their story's intent, Vessels goes about it in a more subtle way. Also factor in a powerhouse performance (by Field) that Dead lacked, and Broken Vessels makes a quieter but deeper impression. (A-Pix Entertainment, DVD also available)


Halloween: H20 DVD Life Is Beautiful DVD Halloween: H20--20 Years Later (R) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: * 1/2
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Life Is Beautiful (La Vita ╚ Bella) (PG-13) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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The usual exception to Buena Vista's threadbare DVDs are the collectors' editions from its Miramax and Dimension labels. However, Dimension's so-called "collectors edition" for the seventh installment in the Halloween fright franchise, H20, is about as unspecial as a typical Buena Vista disc. What's supposed to set this one apart is a longer-than-usual behind-the-scenes documentary (titled "Unmasking the Horror"); a music video; and an interactive trivia game. The documentary is interesting, but the 10-question game is rather easy and has no repeat value whatsoever; even worse is the music video. I wish I could tell you what the song is called and who performs it, but I can't, for nowhere on the disc menus, packaging, or video itself is that pertinent information. If the company really wanted to put out a special edition of this film, it should have taken a bit more time to come up with more substantial extras.

While far from exceptional, Miramax's La Vita ╚ Bella disc is beautiful enough. The not-so-bad English dub of Roberto Benigni's much-beloved Oscar-winning fable is included alongside the original Italian language edition. The behind-the-scenes feature--originally a campaign informercial aired on cable during awards season--is a bit meatier than usual, and while the reel of every single TV spot made for the film is a bit much, it's a nice feature to go along with the theatrical trailer. One wishes that Benigni were available for a running commentary--that would have been lively, if perhaps somewhat incomprehensible--but this disc is able to stand on its on its own merits. (Miramax/Dimension Home Entertainment)

The Prince of Egypt (PG) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ****
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The Iron Giant (PG) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ***
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Anastasia (G) movie review
Movie: ***; Disc: ***
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Pinocchio (G)
Movie: ****; Disc: **
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The Little Mermaid (G)
Movie: ****; Disc: **
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Mulan (G) movie review
Movie: ****; Disc: ** 1/2
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Though the DVD format is still in its infancy, there has been one genre of film that has been especially slow to make the digital transition--that of the animated feature. With DVD players now becoming more commonplace--and a sought-after holiday gift--suddenly animation is undergoing a boom on disc. Too bad that most entries into the market are mostly busts.

The Prince of Egypt DVD The current standard-bearer for an animated DVD is DreamWorks' lavish treatment of their equally grandiose adaptation of the Book of Exodus, the tradition-smashing epic musical The Prince of Egypt. While the feature itself is the primary drawing card for the disc--and it is beautifully tranferred in its full widescreen splendor--what makes the DVD format so special is the capability of including extras, and the big SKG did not skimp at at all. Animated features have a much more complex behind-the-scenes creative process than most live action ones, and this disc takes an exhaustive look at it. Aside from the typical "making-of" featurette/fluff piece, there are more intriguing features: a step-by-step look at the progression of the film's chariot race sequence; a fascinating multilingual presentation of the film's centerpiece song, "When You Believe"; and a revealing running commentary by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells. The most interesting revelation is that while the film's spectacular visuals were crafted with great care by the directors and artists, perhaps the most attention was paid to the acting performances of their drawn characters. It's quite telling when the directors of a film that features the definitive parting of the Red Sea sequence and an unnerving hieroglyphic nightmare scene are most proud of a simple shot of a devastated Moses breaking down in tears. All the features, which include the usual inclusion of theatrical trailers, are tied together with imaginatively animated menus.

The Iron Giant DVD Warner Bros. (and its sister company, New Line) have long been the leader when it comes to DVD presentation that its nice but unexceptional treatment of their underseen masterpiece of this past summer, The Iron Giant, cannot help but disappoint. The groundbreaking film, a moving tale of the friendship between a boy and a giant alien robot, is featured in both widescreen and pan-and-scan formats, and looks great (of course, even better in the former format). The extras, on the other hand, are disappointingly run-of-the-mill. There is a music video, the theatrical trailer, and the sloppily put-together "making-of" special that aired on the WB, smugly hosted by the voice of the Giant, Vin Diesel. Even the menus are a letdown; the only animation comes when the disc is first put into the machine. A plus, however, are the DVD-ROM PC features, which includes screensavers and access to the film's official website.

Anastasia DVD A slightly more satisfying presentation for the DVD player, on the other hand, is on the disc of a more traditional animated feature, Fox's well-done 1997 Disney knockoff Anastasia. Both the widescreen and full-frame versions of this romance/fantasy about the legendary lost daughter of the Russian czar are included, as are language tracks in French and Spanish. In addition to the usual extras--a "making of" special; a featurette lifted from the electronic press kit; the trailer for the film and its horrid direct-to-video spinoff, Bartok the Magnificent--there are other of cute enhancements, namely an interactive puzzle game and two singalong clips that'll please the kiddies. That's the big shortcoming of this disc; it pleases the young 'uns, but adult animation afficionados will be hungry for something more substantial.

Mulan DVD The Little Mermaid DVD Pinocchio DVD However, the Anastasia DVD is a veritable feast compared to the pathetic initial digital entries of the granddaddy of the animated genre, Disney. All of Buena Vista's live action DVD entries are typically skimpy, but it's still shocking to see the same treatment given to their bread and butter--especially the classics. An original theatrical trailer from 1940 is an interesting extra to the Pinocchio disc, but that's about the only extra, aside from a French language track and--as so listed on the box as one--"full character artwork on disc." The Little Mermaid, the 1989 film that ushered in the Mouse's animation renaissance, has no trailer but has a Spanish language as well as French and English audio. The more recent films, such as 1998's Mulan, have a bit more in store--such as widescreen and full-frame versions, music videos, trailers, and the tri-language tracks--but those films are those that one doesn't necessarily want all the extras for. Disney appears to be in the process of straightening up their act--a two-disc collector's edition of Tarzan is on the schedule for the new year--but that doesn't make their unimpressive initial forays into animated DVD any better.

(The Prince of Egypt: DreamWorks Home Entertainment; The Iron Giant: Warner Home Video; Anastasia: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Mulan: Walt Disney Home Video)

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