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The Movie Report
Volume 8

#48 - 50
June 27, 1996 - July 17, 1996

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

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#50 July 17, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Courage Under Fire poster Courage Under Fire (R) **** photos from the world premiere
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Denzel Washington should win his second Academy Award for his phenomenal performance in Edward Zwick's excellent Gulf War drama. Washington plays Army Lt. Col. Nat Serling, who is assigned to investigate the life and mysterious death of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the first woman to be considered for the Medal of Honor for combat. But there's more to Patrick Sheane Duncan's (Nick of Time, Mr. Holland's Opus) script than a mere investigation/mystery: it is also an engrossing character study of the investigator, a hard drinker tormented by his accidental destruction of a U.S. tank, which resulted in the death of men under his own command, including his best friend.

Director Zwick eschews the maudlin melodramatics of his previous effort, the Brad Pitt sudser Legends of the Fall, for a more matter-of-fact, almost documentary-like approach to the material, leaving the actors largely responsible for the emotional work; the decision pays off beautifully. Zwick elicits first-rate performances from his entire cast, notably Matt Damon as Walden's best friend; and Lou Diamond Phillips as a hard-ass gunner on Walden's crew with a grudge against the late captain. The casting of the usually perky Ryan as a tough soldier is a stretch, but she is more than up to the challenge, radiating strength, vulnerability, and innate likability in her small but pivotal role. But the lion's share of acting kudos must go to Washington, whose masterfully subtle work ranks among his best; when his long pent-up emotions finally break through the surface, the result is at once exhilarating and heartbreaking. Look for him to be among the five Best Actor Oscar nominees next spring, if not the winner of the gold statuette.

Kazaam poster Kazaam (PG) no stars
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All due respect to Shaquille O'Neal and his incredible basketball prowess, but he should seriously consider giving up his acting and rapping aspirations after this misbegotten vanity project/family comedy. Shaq plays the title character, a ghetto genie who comes to the aid of a troubled youth (Francis Capra, a long way from Robert DeNiro's A Bronx Tale) who gets mixed up in his club owner father's (James Acheson) dirty dealings with shady Middle Eastern types. Along the way, Kazaam becomes something of a rap sensation and begins to ignore his young master's needs. Director Paul M. Glaser has truly created a mess, a laughable melange of lame rap numbers (beware the central "We Genie" production number with Shaq and Capra), not-very-impressive special effects, inept writing (the overblown conclusion is real headscratcher), and worse acting (Shaq's serious Oscar clip at the end defies description). Even the youngest children in the preview audience were less than amused, laughing at, rather than with, the film. All in all, prime MST3K material, ripe for the ripping.

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#49 July 8, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Independence Day poster Independence Day (PG-13) ** 1/2 photos from the world premiere
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Everyone knows the story--"July 2... they arrive. July 3... they attack. July 4 is... Independence Day--the day we fight back." The question remains, does the hype monster ID4 live up to its massive buildup? In a word, no. Despite some awesome effects, the just OK Independence Day is done in by too many uninteresting subplots and not nearly enough action.

The major players in this '90s-era disaster tale of alien invasion (told in three labeled sections: "July 2," "July 3," and "July 4") are: Air Force fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith, cool as ever); his stripper girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox); scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum, doing another variation of his roles in Jurassic Park and Powder); his father (Judd Hirsch in an embarrassing Jewish stereotype); alcoholic cropduster pilot Russell Case (an excrutiatingly hammy Randy Quaid); United States President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman, back in boring mode); his wife (Mary McDonnell); and the White House communications director (Margaret Colin). As in the tradition of '70s disaster flicks, these and other characters lead their own dissimilar lives until a larger-than-life disaster (in this case, a hostile worldwide alien invasion) unites them.

And there lies ID4's ruinous problem--director/co-writer Roland Emmerich and producer/co-writer Dean Devlin (the people who perpetrated StarGate) spend too much time (and, in the process, bloat the running time to nearly two and a half hours) establishing these frankly, with the exception of Smith's engaging wisecracker, boring characters and even more boring problems. I like a good soap as much as the next person, but ID4's "human element" is not a good soap--uninvolving and devoid of any interest, not to mention credibility straining and, at times, unnecessary: was it really necessary to have Goldblum and Colin's characters be ex-spouses? If Devlin and Emmerich were smart, they would have just let Goldblum be just a scientist and Colin just a presidential adviser, in the process shaving off 15 minutes of interminable screen time devoted to their relationship problems. The same can be said of Quaid's drunk pilot and completely colorless trailer park family, all of whom appear to have wandered in from another film. Their "bittersweet" storyline, along with the "tearjerking" one of the President and the First Lady, are supposed to add some human "emotion" to the proceedings, but the melodramatic moments feel forced and are not the slightest bit involving.

Devlin said recently at a Los Angeles comic book/science fiction convention that special effects don't matter if you don't care about the characters. However, the spectacular visual effects and production design mattered much more to me than the cardboard space fillers passed off as characters. ID4 only comes to life during the elaborate effects sequences, which do deliver. The explosive annihilation of New York and Los Angeles truly must be seen on the big screen to be believed (I shudder to think how all the spectacular effects would look on the small screen, panned-and-scanned, no less), as do the gigantic, cavernous interior of the mothership, and the two aerial battle sequences, which brings me to another problem with the picture: lack of action. Those two battle scenes, one in the middle and one at the end, are pretty much all ID4 have to offer in terms of action. That would be acceptable if (1) the film weren't so aggressively hyped as a big action extravaganza and (2) there were something interesting going during the down time; alas, all we get are a few good lines from Smith, by far the breakout star of the film, and the excrutiating "human dimension." For the slam bang action connoisseur, ID4 is a bust.

The script also gives the aliens the short end of the stick. With the exception of one violent lab scene reminiscent of Alien, the audience and the earthlings never experience any up-close terror with the aliens; virtually all of their damage is done via their massive spacecrafts, and, as a result, they aren't nearly as terrifying and menacing as they should be. What is missing is more direct contact with the invaders. In the end, it is more a question of whether or not the humans can defeat the alien technology than defeat the aliens themselves.

My lukewarm reaction to the film appears to be in the minority, for ID4 has already grossed a truly astounding $95 million in its first 5 1/2 days, and general audience opinion has been ecstatic. But, as with all insanely popular films, some sort of backlash is bound to happen sooner or later. Here's hoping it's sooner, for the mega-hyped ID4, while not especially bad, is far from anything great.

In Brief

The Nutty Professor poster The Nutty Professor (PG-13) *** 1/2 photos from Eddie Murphy Day in Hollywood
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After a string of disappointing box office and equally disappointing films, the comic maelstrom known as Eddie Murphy is finally back with this hilarious update of the '60s Jerry Lewis classic. Murphy gives a bravura performance as seven different characters, the principal one being shy, overweight professor Sherman Klump, who, with a DNA-restructuring potion, becomes slim, obnoxious Buddy Love to woo teaching assistant Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett, ably playing the straight woman). While Buddy's antics are funny, they are nothing compared to the dinner scenes Sherman shares with his family, all save one played by Murphy. His comic genius comes shining through in these admittedly distasteful but uproarious scenes; the biggest laughs come from Sherman's tough grandma and proudly flatulent father. Nutty was directed and co-written by Tom Shadyac, who did the original Ace Ventura film; he brings that film's extensive use of toilet humor over to this project, where it is more, ahem, effective. It may often dabble in bad taste, but there's no denying that this truly fun, funny film is the comedy to beat this year.

Striptease poster Striptease (R) no stars
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Comedy, thriller, drama, T&A flick--you make the choice, because writer-director Andrew Bergman sure didn't. The resulting mess, based on Carl Hiaasen's reportedly very funny novel, fails on all its attempted levels. Demi Moore plays Erin Grant, a former FBI secretary who turns to stripping for quick cash after her wheelchair-stealing ex-husband (Robert Patrick of T2 fame) wins custody of their daughter (played adequately by Moore's eldest daughter, Rumer Willis). Add lecherous congressman David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds) into the mix and the fun and games begin... at least they're supposed to. For what is being sold as a comedy, Striptease is curiously light on laughs; the best moments come from the great Ving Rhames as the deadpan strip club bouncer. Reynolds, in an obvious comeback attempt, tries much too hard as the slimy Dilbeck, coming off as more pathetic than funny. Then there's Moore, who is undoubtedly in the best shape of her life; her beefy, defined thighs are an unbelievable sight to behold. It's one thing to be the straight woman in a comic piece, but it's quite another to do what Moore does here, appearing to come in from an entirely different dramatic film, earnestly longing to be with her daughter. As for the strip scenes, Moore obviously gives it her all and has fun bumping, grinding, and contorting her toned bod, but the few, almost coy, flashes of flesh won't satisfy voyeurs in the audience. Bottom line--Striptease is about as big a failure as a comedy as Showgirls was as a serious drama.


How to Make an American Quilt poster How to Make an American Quilt (PG-13) **
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Newly engaged Finn (Winona Ryder) turns to her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt's (Anne Bancroft) quilting bee for advice when she gets cold feet. What follows is a Joy Luck Club-esque string of anecdotes about each quilter's key relationships with men; however, unlike in that far superior Wayne Wang film, the stories are uninvolving, often too brief, and they quickly grow tiresome and repetitive--each tale ends with some sort of heartbreak. Noble efforts are put out by the entire cast, especially Ryder, Burstyn, Bancroft, and Maya Angelou, but it's all for naught. (MCA/Universal Home Video)

Waiting to Exhale poster Waiting to Exhale (R) ** 1/2
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There's a lot to like in Forest Whitaker's breezy adaptation of Terry McMillan's bestseller about four African-American women's romantic trials tribulations in Phoenix: a collection of strong performances by Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine, the "token" men (including Gregory Hines, Mykelti Williamson, and ER's Michael Beach), and, especially, Angela Bassett; a great soundtrack; and moments of raw emotional power (mostly courtesy of Bassett). So what's the problem? Biggest of all, Whitney Houston, who once and for all proves that she should just stick to music. Her alleged dramatic acting and dull, uninvolving storyline weighs down the virtues of the film. Another problem is McMillan and Ronald Bass's script, which feel more like a series of loosely linked vignettes than a whole film with real dramatic thrust. (20th Century Fox Home Video)

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#48 June 27, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Phenomenon poster Phenomenon (PG) ***
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In the summers of 1990 and 1994, two offbeat, quieter films managed to become major word-of-mouth sleeper hits amid the loud, frenetic action blockbusters--Ghost and Forrest Gump, respectively. This year, comparable sleeper status may possibly come to Phenomenon, a slight but agreeable blend of comedy, drama, and whimsy.

John Travolta plays George Malley, a simple-minded, goofball auto mechanic who, after seeing a bright light on his 37th birthday, develops not only vast intelligence but the ability to move objects with his mind. Naturally, George's new abilities cause a stir in the Northern California town he calls home, attracting the attention of Berkeley scientists. However, there is one person he can't seem to get to pay him enough attention--chair maker and single mom Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), the Jenny to his Forrest, if you will.

A lot of Phenomenon resembles another recent Buena Vista release that dealt with supernatural powers, Powder. But one of the big reasons why this new film is as enjoyable and fun as the other was unwatchable and ridiculous is its healthy sense of humor. A great move on screenwriter Gerald diPego's part was to keep George's change a mere physical one, not also a personality change. George may become a genius, but he is still a goofball, as shocked as anyone else at his power. Since he remains just an average guy in spirit, George becomes a much more convincing and likable character than the straightfaced albino "saint" that is Powder. Vignettes in which George uses his powers to help others, such as where he tries to find a lost boy and another moment where he tries to fix his lonely Diana Ross-loving best friend (Forest Whitaker) up, are funny and cutesy without being overly cloying.

But that is not to say that there are not moments when director Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping) lays on the sap a bit too heavily. By far the worst part of the film is an interminable "foreplay" scene in which Lace gives George a haircut and shave while the easy listening sound of Aaron Neville fills the soundtrack; the moment is so blatantly designed to be touching and sweet that it left me wanting to gag. In fact, Phenomenon's calculated manipulative tendencies are what keeps it from falling short of the level of a Gump. When the tale takes the obligatory melodramatic turn in the third act, virtually all of the offbeat humor vanishes, and I found myself not caring as much about the story as I did earlier.

Still, Travolta's effortless charm and charisma kept me emotionally involved in the picture. He is one of those stars who is instantly likable from frame one, and he is put to ideal use here--funny, sweet, with a good sense of self-aware humor. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Travolta (except, perhaps, Tom Hanks) in the role; he's such a perfect fit. The supporting cast, including Sedgwick, Whitaker, and Robert Duvall, make the most of their small but pivotal roles. Star Trek's Brent Spiner is particularly memorable in a hilarious bit where he (as an FBI researcher) attempts to test George's IQ.

Phenomenon is not as satisfying or enjoyable as a Ghost or a Gump, but it certainly has its charms, and that may very well be enough to insure its place among the top box office grossers of the summer.

In Brief

Eraser poster Eraser (R) *** photos from the world premiere
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Explosions, stunts, big guns, and Ah-nuld. What else could you ask for? A fresher script. While Schwarzenegger's latest action extravaganza, in which he plays a U.S. Marshal protecting a key witness (Vanessa Williams) from a shady corporation and an even shadier government type (James Caan), does boast some knockout action sequences (such as great bits in a zoo and in the sky), striking visual effects (mostly involving the high-tech "rail gun," which fires bullets "near the speed of light"), and delivers the requisite thrills, the whole enterprise has a "been there, done that" feel. The much-worked-over screenplay (credited to Tony Puryear and Walon Green) could have used even more work, particularly in the character department (Williams is nothing more than a token damsel in distress, and Caan is just a standard issue snarling bad guy); the dialogue could also have used some punching up: beware the embarrassing scene where Schwarzenegger reassures Williams that her true identity is "in here" (pointing to his heart) and that nothing can ever change that. Director Chuck Russell (The Mask) does a credible job with his first straight action vehicle, but it ranks nowhere near Schwarzenegger's best work--The Terminator, T2, and Total Recall.


Powder poster Powder (PG-13) no stars
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An albino teen (Sean Patrick Flanery) blessed with supernatural powers and heightened intellect seeks tolerance in a small town. If you think that premise is warped, wait until you see the movie--a pretentious, uninvolving headscratcher that aims to be tragic and uplifting and falls way short; the only thing it'll lift is your butt from your seat midway through the film. Director Victor Salva's script is a mess, with numerous points left never fully explained (just how and why exactly is Powder the embodiment of pure energy?) and plotlines that are never satisfactorily resolved (what happens with the girl he falls for?). His direction is also careless--the pink hue of Flanery's true skin is much too visible to varying degrees (depending on the scene) under his chalk white pancake makeup, and the many scenes designed to make you cry are so overdone that they'll either leave you laughing or shrugging. Even more startling is that Salva approaches all of this with the gravest of seriousness. When one brings to mind the fact that Salva was once convicted of child molestation, an unsettling, eerie subtext emerges, particularly in a scene where Jeff Goldblum, as Powder's science teacher, tells Powder how awful it is that he's never "been touched," and caresses his bald head (the fact that Powder looks like a walking phallic symbol doesn't help). A truly appalling--and just plain awful--piece of work. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)

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