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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 7

#45 - 47
June 6, 1996 - June 17, 1996


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

S U B S C R I B E

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#47 June 17, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

The Hunchback of Notre Dame poster The Hunchback of Notre Dame (G) ****
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Last summer, Disney made a bold move by tinkering with its tried-and-true formula for kid-friendly animated features and releasing the underrated, surprisingly serious and more adult-oriented Pocahontas. Believe it or not, Disney has made an even bolder move with its ambitious 34th full-length animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Startlingly adult and with an oppressive dark tone, Hunchback is also quite simply the most brilliant and poignant animated feature to come from Disney since 1991's Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast.

This adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel tells the tale of Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), the deformed bell-ringer of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Locked in the bell tower since his youth by the cruel Minister of Justice Frollo (Tony Jay), Quasimodo yearns to be "out there" among the people. He gets his chance during a town festival and instantly falls in love with sultry gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who befriends the lonely Quasimodo but becomes enamored with the gallant captain of the guard Phoebus (Kevin Kline).

Sounds like typical Disney fodder--an outcast hero, a beautiful heroine (who's also an outcast), a truly hissable villain, and much romantic longing and angst. But Hunchback is the most atypical of all Disney animated features. Bravely, wisely, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (who also did Beauty) and screenwriters Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, and Jonathan Roberts, while adding a dollop of humor in the form of three wisecracking gargoyle companions (voiced by Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes), have not extensively sugarcoated Hugo's dark tale. The result is shocking--and incredibly potent. Right in the prologue, we see Frollo murder Quasimodo's mother and attempt to drown the infant Quasimodo in a well; from then on, the audience becomes witness to the unspeakable abuse Quasimodo receives, from the townspeople, who crown him king of the festival only to mock him; to more from the embodiment of cruelty that is Frollo, who continuously belittles his appearance and his worth as a person--in song, no less. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that Quasimodo sings along with him. For all the lighthearted moments--and, unlike in the nearly totally straight Pocahontas, there are quite a few--there's no escaping the atmosphere of dread and sadness, from the intricately detailed, cold, imposing walls of Notre Dame and the shadows that engulf each corridor to the always sad, often crying face of Quasimodo and the ominous music.

Alan Menken's score is definitely his most daring for an animated feature, adopting an appropriate Gothic sound full minor chords and choirs chanting in Latin. Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz also push the envelope in terms of subject matter, too: in the eerie dirge "Hellfire," the pious Frollo expounds on his hypocritical, consuming lust for Esmeralda--"Hellfire/Dark fire/The fire in my skin/This burning/Desire/Is turning me to sin." Not exactly kids' stuff; in fact, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a song that children will find especially singable. The two lighthearted tunes, including a comic showcase for the gargoyles called "A Guy Like You," aren't nearly as catchy and infectious as an "Under the Sea" or "Be Our Guest." But there are a couple of gems here--namely, the two central ballads: the traditional protagonist "I Want" song, "Out There" and Esmeralda's haunting prayer "God Help the Outcasts," definitely the most spiritual and transendent tune to emerge from an animated feature. More than any other Disney animated feature, Hunchback lends itself to a second life as a Broadway show; the opening number, "The Bells of Notre Dame," isn't so much a song as it is a group of sung recitative lines, a writing technique commonly found on the stage.

Hunchback is also the most visually stunning animated feature to come from Disney or anywhere else. The exterior walls of the cathedral are rendered in such intricate detail, as are the legendary bells, and the faces are extraordinarly expressive. There are more than a few knockout sequences visually, the most memorable being the "God Help the Outcasts" number, in which Esmeralda walks through the cathedral, lit only by candles and, ultimately, light shining through a colorful, astonishingly detailed stained glass window; and Quasimodo's daring rescue of Esmeralda. Trousdale and Wise have said that they tried to take animation to visual lengths never attempted; they certainly succeeded in that respect.

Hunchback's all-around success also extends to the voice casting. Hulce brings great vulnerability and gentleness in speaking and singing Quasimodo, firmly establishing this "monster"'s humanity. Moore imbues Esmeralda with her characteristic sexual bravado and insouciance; it's amazing how much the character resembles Moore, both physically and spiritually. Kline makes Phoebus a charming, likable lug by giving him an appealing sense of self-effacing humor, and Kimbrough, Wickes, and especially Alexander hit the right comic notes as the gargoyles. The breakout star in the piece, however, is Jay, whose deep, Brit-inflected tones just ooze menace and evil, making Frollo perhaps the most despicable villain in Disney history.

Hunchback's darkness will, in all likelihood, prevent it from receiving Lion King-size grosses, but don't be surprised if it just happens to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture next year. It is much more than just a moving, emotionally resonant cartoon--it is a moving, emotionally resonant motion picture, period.


Switchblade Sisters poster Switchblade Sisters (R) ***
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In recent years, the exploitation film--cheap, sensationalist no-budget offerings filled with violence, sex, nudity, and horrific acting--have been relegated to direct-to-video status. The resurfacing of Jack Hill's 1975 Switchblade Sisters, reissued by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder division of Miramax, shows that this genre's true home is on the big screen, where its hilarious, immensely enjoyable camp charms can be shared with an audience.

The basic premise of Switchblade Sisters is a power struggle within the girl gang the Dagger Debs between leader Lace (Robbie Lee, whose squeaky Lori Petty voice and ferocious line delivery make an interesting contradiction) and newcomer Maggie (Joanne Nail). But to leave it at that would to discount the surprisingly inspired plotting by screenwriter F.X. Maier, who weaves a complex web of gang wars both between gangs and within them; in fact, one-eyed Dagger Deb Patch's (Monica Gayle) psychological manipulation of Lace more than recalls Iago's scheming in Shakespeare's Othello. This is not so say, however, that the exploitation staples aren't in abundance, and they are: there are the requisite violent action scenes, including a rousing street gunfight, a roller rink shootout, and a killer closing knife fight; there more than a share of hilarious, quotable lines (my fave being "If you go, it's gonna turn out bad!" and the acting is as uproariously over-the-top as can be imagined. The opening half hour, in which the Debs are arrested and spend time in jail with an abusive lesbian guard, is so hilarious, so trashy, and so utterly enjoyable that it truly must be seen to be believed.

Unlike recent howlfests such as Judge Dredd and, most notably, Showgirls, the filmmakers are very self-aware, knowing they are making fun trash. Director Hill keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, tossing in throwaway bits, such as a guy who suddenly drops his head onto a table, that show he's far from playing it with a straight face. The free rein he gives to his thespians is not a sloppy move, but a deliberate, defendable choice--the actors are, after all, playing histrionic teens (though the actresses look well into their 20s, the actors over 30). Camp sensibility aside, Hill is also an efficient filmmaker, keeping the action moving and telling the complicated story clearly and swiftly. Switchblade Sisters is rather short, but it certainly doesn't feel that way (but not necessarily slow) once it's over because so much was compacted into a mere 90 minutes. It is also important to note that while this is an "exploitation" film, Hill shows an unexpected restraint, leaving the most violent or "naughty" bits to the imagination. The fact that the film still satisfies as "exploitation" is another testament to Hill's skill.

A number of people won't understand the appeal of Switchblade Sisters, but those with a healthy appetite for fun, campy, exploitative trash are sure to get their money's worth.


In Brief

The Cable Guy poster The Cable Guy (PG-13) * 1/2 event pix
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It's about time someone applied Jim Carrey's deranged brand of physical comedy in a dark-humored vehicle, but it's too bad it has to be this film, which, while certainly dark, is not too funny. The wild-as-ever Carrey, sporting a lisp and making his jaw jut out, is the psychotic cable installer becomes infatuated with a customer (a suitably neurotic Matthew Broderick) to whom he gives free cable. It's a promising premise, but director Ben Stiller (who has a cameo role as a former child star suspected of murder in the film's lame subplot) plays up the darkness of the situation instead of exploiting its great comic potential. The result plays as a "-from-hell" thriller with a few funny moments (and there are some, such as a hilarious game of "Porno Password") instead of a funny comedy with dark overtones. Don't look for this one to continue Carrey's streak of $100 million grossers.


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#45 June 6, 1996 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

The Phantom poster The Phantom (PG) * 1/2
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After the colossal box office disappointments The Rocketeer and The Shadow, one would think that Hollywood would have given up on bringing fairly obscure comic book characters to the big screen. Alas, that isn't the case, but one wishes that were after seeing The Phantom, a silly, unexciting film treatment of Lee Falk's comic book hero of the same name.

Billy Zane plays Kit Walker, the latest in his family to assume the mantle of the Phantom--purple-clad defender of the jungle's riches against pirates, looters, and greed in general. The latter is personified in one Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a wealthy business tycoon of some sort who is determined to find three sacred skulls which, when joined, are a source of immense supernatural power. Needless to say, it's up to "the ghost who walks" to prevent Drax from gaining possession of the three skulls.

Simon Wincer's (Lonesome Dove, Free Willy) film does move very quickly and efficiently; the film opens with a concise introduction to the legend of the Phantom that lasts little more than a minute, and he keeps the action moving accordingly. However, the film, for all its effects and stunts, is strangely unexciting and devoid of fun. The action set pieces, especially the fights, look and feel scripted and staged, lacking any spontaneous energy that would make it the slightest bit convincing; it's hard to have fun with comic book antics that are so forced and calculated. Wincer also fails to create a distinct tone; at times he appears to be going for a tongue-in-cheek comic book that's in on the joke and aware of its ridiculous excesses (which would have been the best choice), but at other times he plays it too straight, which doesn't suit a film about a guy wearing purple tights who rides on horseback in the jungle in the 1930s. But it's not as if Wincer had a great script to work with. Jeffrey Boam's script is little more than Batman meets Indiana Jones, or, more appropriately, The Shadow meets Congo--by-the-numbers, predictable action scenes involving a mysterious costumed hero in the wilds interspersed with city scenes set against Art Deco architecture and vintage automobiles.

The performances also reflect this unevenness of tone. A dark-haired Kristy Swanson, as the love interest, Diana Palmer, goes the straight route and comes off stiff and out of place. On the other side of the coin is Williams, who camps it up as Drax in an apparent attempt to reach the entertaining, manic heights à la Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Problem is, though, while Rickman chewed the scenery, he still came off as a menacing, formidable villain; Williams just comes off as a laughable caricature. Early on, Catherine Zeta Jones's Sala has the makings of a fun femme fatale along the lines of GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp, but her character makes an inexplicable, abrupt change for the worse late in the game. The only one who achieves the appropriate balance is Zane, who never takes himself too seriously (how could he, given that ridiculous outfit?) while still investing a certain amount of serious conviction to the role. Zane has an appealing, self-effacing sense of humor; he is as credible firing guns as he is tossing off one-liners. If only screenwriter Boam gave him more opportunities to do the latter.

One thing that did strike me about The Phantom were its connections to--yes--Showgirls. Al Ruscio, who played the owner of the Stardust in that disastrous film, turns up as the corrupt New York police commissioner, and Showgirls costume designer Marlene Stewart came up with the duds for this picture; also, the end credits are printed in the same typeface as those of Showgirls. But that's where the connections end, for the blah The Phantom is not nearly as much fun as that awful, awfully entertaining howlfest.


The Rock poster The Rock (R) *** 1/2
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Put together two Oscar winners (Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage), an Oscar nominee (Ed Harris), the slick producing team of Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, a stylish action director (Michael Bay), Alcatraz, and a bunch of explosives and you get... a major action hit, which The Rock is sure to become this summer.

The somewhat preposterous plot has a group of renegade Marines, led by General Francis X. Hummel (Harris), seizing control of the legendary island prison, take its visitors hostage, and threatening to launch a deadly biological weapon at the San Francisco bay area if the United States Government does not give the families of dead Desert Storm vets millions in government aid. What does the government do? Call in a force of Navy SEALs (led by Michael Biehn), assisted by FBI biochemist Stanley Goodspeed (Cage) and John Patrick Mason (Connery), an old prisoner who was the only person ever to escape "the rock," to try to break into Alcatraz, thwart Hummel and free the hostages.

Contrary to outward appearances, this project shares a number of striking similarities with Bay's Bad Boys, and not just in terms of visual style. Both films open with a break-in; both feature an elaborate chase sequence which ends with a circling shot of the hero(es) getting up off of the street; both are essentially bickering buddy films; and in both one of the heroes has to overcome a shortcoming that the other ridicules: in Bad Boys, Martin Lawrence had to learn how to drive fast; in The Rock, Cage's scientist character has to learn how to handle a combat situation. Parts of the film are also strongly reminiscent of Crimson Tide, with a little Executive Decision and Outbreak thrown in. But these similarities to other films don't detract from the enjoyment of The Rock on its own terms, which is not to say it's not without its problems. While its opening 45 minutes are far from boring, it takes that long for the plot to really get going, i.e. for the "good guys" to begin their break into Alcatraz, when the film really starts cooking. Bay uses a lot of the flashy eye candy visuals he brought to Bad Boys--lots of blue light, slow motion, quick camera moves and editing. But unlike his debut film, here the style comes dangerously close to being at the expense of coherence. It's one thing to use the "shaky cam," but it's quite another to use it while it is fixed in a tight closeup of something or someone; the resulting chaotic shot is more confusing than visually arresting. In spite of this, though, Bay really knows how to stage exciting action scenes (the aforementioned chase scene, while using every chase cliché in the book including the infamous fruit cart, is a real standout) and large--very large--explosions and juggle them seamlessly with the comedy, which David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner's lively script surprisingly has a lot of.

In taking a dive into action, it would be easy to think that Cage has sold out, abandoning his trademark quirky characters for a more straightforward, mainstream action hero. Happily, that's not the case. Goodspeed is as much an oddball as Cage's usual roles, a neurotic, wimpy Beatlemaniac who only very gradually toughens up; needless to say, Cage is perfect in the role. Connery proves he still is a credible action hero after all these years though having his character being a former agent of the British Secret Service seems a bit too gratuitous. Harris adds layers of complexity to a not very dimensional role, and Vanessa Marcil (my favorite General Hospital star) manages to make a lasting impression as Goodspeed's pregnant girlfriend Carla. Those not so fortunate actingwise are Biehn, who is wasted once again as the SEAL leader (isn't it time that he be cast in a role deserving of his talent?), and William Forsythe's FBI director is just a rehash of his police chief character in Virtuosity.

The Rock's ads urge you to "get ready to rock." After seeing this energetic action-packed ride that truly does "rock," I can't think of better advice.


In Brief

Dragonheart poster Dragonheart (PG-13) **
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The most amusing sequence in this sword and sorcery fantasy comes when dragonslayer Bowen (Dennis Quaid) teams with the last surviving dragon, Draco (voice of Sean Connery), in an elaborate scheme where Draco will appear to threaten a village and Bowen pretends to kill him, duping villagers out of much money. However, this White Men Can't Jump-esque interlude has very little to do with the routine main story, involving tyrannical king Einon (David Thewlis) who has a unbreakable metaphysical link to Draco--Draco gave half of his heart to Einon when he was near death as a youth; now, whenever one experiences pain, the other does too. Rob Cohen's whimsical adventure goes down pretty easy, but there's really not a whole lot here to get excited about. The computer generated dragon is a sight to behold, but the filmmakers obviously were a little chintzy--there are very few instances where the dragon and a live actor appear in the same shot; a lot of times there is cutting between shots of one or the other. Having Connery's voice come out from Draco's mouth is a little jarring at first, but one gets used to it after a while; in fact, Connery is the only one who gives an interesting performance. Quaid is bland, as is Thewlis, and Dina Meyer (Johnny Mnemonic), as the obligatory damsel in the piece, seems out of place in the medieval time period, not to mention in England. Cohen also overshoots, striving for a bit of "profound" emotion in the end that just comes off as hokey. Harmless family entertainment, but not especially satisfying.


V I D E O

Clockers poster Clockers (R) *** 1/2
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Most mainstream moviegoers hated Spike Lee's acclaimed adaptation of Richard Price's bestselling novel, dismissing it as too slow and dull. Slow it is, but if you're willing to sit and pay attention for a couple of hours, it's anything but dull--it is a fascinating and engrossing character study of Brooklyn teen drug dealer Strike (played to perfection by newcomer Mekhi Phifer). Lee wisely (for the most part) tones down his usual visual pyrotechnics, allowing the audience to focus on the story and well-drawn characters, including Strike's scary boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo) and racist homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), who believes Strike is guilty of a murder his squeaky-clean brother (Isaiah Washington) confessed to. The only flat character in the piece is Rocco's partner, played by John Turturro; despite a decent performance, Turturro can't hide the fact that his role is completely superfluous. Fine acting, solid direction, striking cinematography by Malik Sayeed, and an intelligent script by Lee and Price make a for a surprising, satisfying entertainment worthy of all the critical kudos. (MCA/Universal Home Video)


Wing Chun poster Wing Chun ***
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Worldwide action phenomenon (except, unfortunately, in the States) Michelle Yeoh (a.k.a. Michelle Khan) plays tofu saleswoman Yim Wing Chun, who returns to her home village after a long absence during which she became a martial arts master. Problem is, she is so changed that her old sweetheart (Donnie Yen) doesn't recognize her and mistakes another, more gentle tofu saleswoman for his love. This period Hong Kong action flick stretches credibility to new lengths, but it is funny, entertaining stuff nonetheless, thanks to some great fight scenes and wire stunts and the force of nature that is Michelle Yeoh. This film isn't as enjoyable as Yeoh's big action splash, the exciting Jackie Chan vehicle Police Story III: Supercop (which will be widely theatrically released by Miramax this summer), but it is more fun than her Supercop spinoff vehicle, Once a Cop. (Tai Seng Home Video)


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