The Age of Innocence (PG) - September 1993
Violently expressed emotions, senseless brutality, the Mean Streets of modern-day New York, and other staples of director Martin Scorsese's films are traded in for muted passions, rigid etiquette, and the Innocence of 1870s New York in his latest film, The Age of Innocence, a spellbinding, Oscar-worthy tale of forbidden love in the nineteenth century.
In this adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel of the same name, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lawyer engaged to the beautiful but naive May Welland (Winona Ryder). May's cousin, the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns to New York from Europe to flee from her troubled marriage. When Ellen ponders divorce, May and Ellen's grandmother (Miriam Margolyes, providing refreshing comic relief) enlists Newland to counsel her against divorce and therefore prevent a scandal within the family. But he instead gives her reason for divorce, for the two fall in a passionate romance that dare not speak its name.
Many mainstream moviegoers will not warm up to The Age of Innocence the plot moves slowly, it's a romance with (horrors) no sex, and period pieces are a hard sell to the general public. But the film is never boring; one can't help but get emotionally involved in the true-to-life characters and heart-tugging storyline. What could be perceived as the film's flaws are actually strengths that add to its emotional power. The slow pace takes one into the heart and mind of Newland, acting as a metaphor for the slow buildup of his love for Ellen. The passionate but sexless moments between Newland and Ellen are much more potent than any sex scene could ever be. Sex would have trivialized the relationship; the absence of any extensive physical contact between the two infuses the romance with greater poignance and significance.
The cast effectively captures the subtly expressed emotions of the characters. Ryder is appropriately low-key, displaying May's naïveté while always hinting that there's more to her than meets the eye. Day-Lewis gives an impassioned performance, realistically fleshing out the inner torment of a man torn between the false life society forces upon him and the one he truly wants. As wonderful as those two are, it is Pfeiffer who impresses the most. The character of Ellen is very complex, a woman whose barash, defiant exterior is a front for her emotional pain and neediness. As portrayed by Pfeiffer, Ellen comes to life as a contradiction, fighting the stiffness of tradition while secretly craving the stability that comes with it. She is undoubtedly the one to beat for the Best Actress Oscar next year.
But The Age of Innocence would be nothing more than a collection of standout performances if not put together with precise skill and detail by Scorsese. He really outdoes himself with tis film, proving that he can do more than stage his trademark urban dramas such as GoodFellas and Taxi Driver. He uses incredible detail in bringing the nineteenth century to life, from the costumes and architecture right down to the number of courses served at a meal (someone is even credited as "Chef--19th Century Meals"). He doesn't sacrifice any of his interesting stylistic tricks, such as fades to colors other than black. A wise decision on his and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks's part is to incorporate voiceover narration read by Joanne Woodward; in a film where almost all that is felt and thought is kept inside, it helps to have someone fill in the blanks.
As I have stated before, movies like The Age of Innocence usually aren't embraced by the general public, which is a shame. People should put away all premature judgments and check out a moving and impassioned work from one of the foremost filmmakers today.
Body of Evidence (R) - January 1993
Nipple clamps. A belt. Hot candle wax. Cold champagne. A shattered light bulb. The hood of a car. What do these things have in common? They are all involved in the risqué sex scenes in Body of Evidence, an erotic thriller that tries hard to be hot and steamy but ends up being lifeless and laughable.
Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, an art gallery owner accused of murdering her older lover with a lethal dose of sex. Rebecca's lover had heart trouble and named her the chief beneficiary in this will, giving her a motive. Enter Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe), the married lawyer hired to defend Rebecca. Right from the start she teases him with her sexual tastes, and soon the two have an affair and engage in the kinky sadomasochistic activities Rebecca--and, as it turns out, Frank--loves, while at her trial, the Body of Evidence against her grows.
Body of Evidence has been compared to Basic Instinct because of their plot similarities. In fact, the film is so much like Instinct that it could be called a remake, and a very bad one at that. Every "surprise" plot twist and many situations in Brad Mirman's script mirror those in Joe Eszterhas's far-superior Instinct script, but none of the events are very surprising or interesting and are executed with very little energy by director Uli Edel. The screenplay has many would-be Instinct-esque one-liners, like the priceless "I fucked you; I fucked Andrew; I fucked Alan. That's what I do. I fuck." Instead of being witty, however, the line comes off as just plain idiotic.
As for the much-talked-about sex scenes, they're kinky all right, but not necessarily erotic; even Instinct's showy, super-charged, yet non-titillating sex generated more heat. Madonna and Dafoe have no chemistry; they seem like they're in separate rooms during the scenes, which seem overly rehearsed and not spontaneous at all. The "kinky" aspect of the sex is more laughable than hot; the audience I was with laughed throughout every "erotic" scene.
Madonna proves once and for all that she cannot act. Her performance as Rebecca is nothing more than a bad Sharon Stone impersonation, trying desperately to exude intimidating sexual confidence--and failing miserably. Dafoe is one-dimensional, looking bored the entire film, even during the sex scenes. The normally solid Anne Archer, as the dead lover's secretary, is embarrassing playing a weak variation on her normal "tormented woman" role. And Edel directs it all with a seriousness and pretentiousness that makes the ludicrous goings-on even more hilarious.
The good thing about Body of Evidence is that it is one of the funniest movies ever released. The problem is it's not a comedy but a "serious" romantic thriller, making the film even more of a waste of time for "serious" moviegoers.
Boiling Point (R) - April 1993
When Madonna's hilarious erotic thriller Body of Evidence came out in January, I thought that no film this year could possibly be worse. I was wrong. While Evidence was so unintentionally funny it was never boring, Boiling Point, Wesley Snipes's new "action" film, is so slow-moving and lacking in excitement that it's torture to sit through.
The film starts off interestingly, with the credits appearing while the camera flies over Downtown Los Angeles and '40s music fills the soundtrack. The partner of Jimmy Mercer (Snipes), a U.S. Treasury agent, is killed by someone linked to a counterfeiting ring headed by Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper).
After that, the film goes nowhere fast. Mercer, naturally, wants to avenge his partner's death, but he also has to contend with problems with his ex-wife. Red has personal problems of his own: an unsteady relationship with his girlfriend (Valerie Perrine), and a debt he owes to a mobster (Tony LoBianco). An interesting idea arrives when Red starts seeing Vicki (Lolita Davidovich), the call girl Jimmy frequents, but nothing ever comes out of it.
If all of this sounds confusing, it is; I'm still trying to put it together myself (explaining my jumbled plot summary). Although the plot is complex, I wouldn't have minded it so much if it was executed with fresh, exciting energy; putting it all together would be like assembling an interesting jigsaw puzzle. But as written and directed by James B. Harris, Boiling Point is a baffling bore. The slam-bang title has absolutely nothing to do with the content. For what is being sold as an action film, the characters mostly sit around and talk about their problematic lives, not moving a muscle. All of the action sequences are featured in the film's commercials. It is all setup, no payoff, unless you count the end credits, which are a welcome sight after being subjected to 90+ minutes of frustrating confusion.
The actors fail to bring anything interesting to the bland characters. Usually an actor of great power and presence, Snipes gives a sluggish performance, looking as if he knows he's starring in a turkey. He doesn't generate any heat with Davidovich, who, in turn, doesn't generate any heat with him nor Hopper. Hopper doesn't make Red much of a threat, waddling around like a redheaded penguin.
Boiling Point is a disaster, a boring, go-nowhere melodrama disguising as a slam-bang action thriller. For an exciting, complex, and all-around well-made action film with the word "point" in its title, watch Point of No Return, the terrific thriller with Bridget Fonda. Boiling Point will only send your anger and frustration to the boiling point.
Boxing Helena (R) - September 1993
Ever watched a movie, thought that it was decent as it approached the end, only to see it self-destruct during the final frames? That was the case with the disastrous final minutes of James Cameron's original version of The Abyss, the ludicrous second half of Candyman, and the letdown of a finale for the controversial Boxing Helena, whose cop-out ending ruins what would would otherwise be a fairly intriguing and engrossing account of erotic obsession.
For those who didn't follow the much-publicized legal suit involving the producers of the film and Kim Basinger (who was ordered to pay $7.4 million for backing out of the film), the now-(in)famous plot goes as follows: Surgeon Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) becomes obsessed with the beautiful seductress Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), with whom he once had a one-night stand. Determined to win his object of desire, who doesn't want anything to do with him, Nick amputates Helena's arms and legs and holds her captive in a box after she suffers a crippling auto accident.
Surprisingly, the twisted story of Boxing Helena is told with taste and professionalism by writer-director Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of eccentric Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch (who isn't exactly known for exhibiting taste in his films). She shows strong narrative skills and visual artistry, alternating straightforward storytelling with hypnotic slow-motion dreamlike imagery. Her down-to-earth yet otherworldly style is clearly influenced by her father's work yet, at the same time, radically different.
And, for a while, her screenwriting shows more of that skill. Author of the highly acclaimed Twin Peaks novel The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Lynch knows how to create a shocking and potentially repellent narrative that's ultimately involving. For about 100 minutes of its 105-minute running time, Lynch succeeds, making a taboo subject palatable, bringing convincing emotion to the characters and storyline. The screenplay, from opening to climax, is at once ludicrous and powerful; you can't believe the preposterous of the exercise but can't deny its odd poignance. But the conclusion singlehandedly ruins all that precedes it. While fittingly outlandish and making some perverse type of sense, it's an unnecessary and careless cop-out that feels tacked-on. Lynch should have quit while she was ahead, jettisoning the final sequence.
Lynch's failures in the screenplay are somewhat made up for by her actors. Sands' (Warlock) performance is laughably overdone, but it's perfect for the character--his obsession is that extreme. The breakout star of the piece is the leading lady, Twin Peaks alumnus Fenn. Spending most of the film limbless, Fenn manages to be more expressive and composed than most actresses with limbs. Like Sheryl Lee in the elder Lynch's Twin Peaks--Fire Walk with Me, Fenn also covers pleasure, pain, desperation, loneliness, fear, lust, and love so accurately that she transcends her material. It's hard to imagine original star Madonna (who I'm sure many people would like to see dismembered) or Basinger in the role after seeing Fenn. I don't know if they could have pulled it off.
It's sad and frustrating to watch Boxing Helena. Although not perfect to begin with, the film is engagingly morbid with moments of power--that is, until it falls apart beyond repair during its final moments. That's sloppy, and for that, I cannot recommend the film.
CB4 (R) - March 1993
They wear gold chains, black clothes, dark shades, and Jheri-curled hairdos dripping with curl activator. Gold teeth glisten in their mouths, from which spring lyrics boasting their sexual exploits, condoning the use of firearms, and detailing experiences in prison while they fondle their genitalia. This tough, seemingly authentic gangsta rap group is anything but in CB4, a muddled but often funny rap satire.
CB4 is named for the fictional gangsta rap group Cell Block 4 whose rise to fame is detailed in the film. Although they have a tough, street-hardened image, MC Gusto (Chris Rock), Dead Mike (Allen Payne), and Stab Master Arson (Deezer D) are really Albert, Euripides, and Otis, well-mannered kids from secure middle class households in Locash, California. Albert stole the gangsta image and Gusto name from the real Gusto (Charlie Murphy), a drug pusher serving time in prison and determined to get back at the kid who stole his image and name--and becoming wildly successful with them.
In terms of filmmaking, CB4 is a mess. A plotline about a white filmmaker (Chris Elliott) making a documentary on CB4 opens the film but is dropped without explanation halfway through, as is a story about a conservative politician (Phil Hartman)--whose son is a CB4 fan--waging a war against the group and its raunchy lyrics and onstage activities. The film's dull, inconclusive ending is anything but satisfying. Director Tamra Davis has been hailed as a name to watch; after the technical disaster of this film, I'm not so sure if her work is worth looking out for.
But on an entertainment level, CB4 is light, guilt-free fun. Many sequences are incredibly funny, especially a bring-down-the-house love scene montage. Rock displays the comedic talent that is too-often underused on Saturday Night Live, and Payne shows natural charisma and onscreen presence. Rock's equally talented SNL counterpart Hartman makes the most of his few scenes, as does Elliott, who was amusing in Groundhog Day.
CB4 is a hard film to review; its blurred focus leaves one frustrated while its funny moments--and there are more than a few--are uproarious. For me, general entertainment value comes before that elusive "artistic merit," and for that reason, CB4 rates a recommendation.
The Crush (R) - April 1993
Hollywood's obsession with a new type of thriller began with the one-night-stand-from-hell in 1987's Fatal Attraction. Three years later came the tenant from hell in Pacific Heights. Last year alone, the nanny- (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), best-friend- (Poison Ivy), cop- (Unlawful Entry), roommate- (Single White Female), and neighbor-from-hell (Consenting Adults) visited the big screen. In February, the temp-from-hell terrorized the office in The Temp. Now comes the latest in the "-from-hell" genre, The Crush (-from-hell), a highly implausible but somewhat above-average and entertaining "yuppie in peril" thriller.
Nick Elliot (Cary Elwes) is a young magazine writer who rents a guest home from the wealthy Forrester family. The Forresters have a 14-year-old daughter, Darian (newcomer Alicia Silverstone), who develops a crush on Nick. But when Nick becomes romantically involved with his coworker, Amy (Jennifer Rubin), Darian becomes determined to win his love, willing to eliminate any obstacles in her way.
"-From-hell" thrillers come in different varieties: excellent (Fatal, SWF), good (Cradle, Unlawful), and bad (Temp, Pacific, Ivy, Adults). More interesting than an average thriller but still following the basic thriller formula, The Crush falls on a middling level. Silverstone makes Darian a truly menacing villain that the audience loves to hate, but her psychosis doesn't come out of the blue, like in some films. While writer-director Alan Shapiro's screenplay does not give any hard explanations, Silverstone adds a new dimension to the character; the way she plays her, Nick's cold spurning of her is the most inexcusable crime one can commit against her, and he must pay for it. Silverstone's work stands out from the merely passable performances given by Elwes, who's done better work in The Princess Bride, Glory, Hot Shots!, and Bram Stoker's Dracula and Rubin.
Shapiro's screenplay introduces some interesting ideas, but they are not exploited to their fullest potential. During the first half of the film, Nick is constantly at odds with himself; he feels a sexual attraction to Darian, but his common sense eventually makes him kill those feelings. This inner struggle should have been there throughout the entire film; his easy suppresison of those feelings make Nick unrealistically good. A greater hunger for a taste of forbidden fruit would have made theÊcharacter more believable. Darian's dark past is alluded to but never fully explained. Had this been more fleshed out, the film would have given the audience more insight into how her mind works.
But the screenplay occasionally does more than those for other thrillers. Darian's acts of vengeance are, for the most part, realistic for a girl her age, merely inflicting pain rather than killing. And the film takes one final turn during the film's conclusion, a twist that is somewhat predictable but nonetheless original for a formula film like this.
The Crush isn't great enough to fall in love with, but the film's existing charms may be enough for a viewer to develop a crush on it.
Demolition Man (R) - October 1993
Sleek cars swiftly drive themselves on clean, unblemished streets. Graffiti is obliterated the second it is sprayed onto a building. Citizens wish each other "mellow greetings" and are fined for "violating the verbal morality code" (a.k.a. swearing). Violent crime is but a distant memory. Welcome to Los Angeles (now San Angeles), 2036 in Demolition Man, an action-packed and surprisingly self-parodying futuristic thriller.
After accidentally causing thirty deaths in a building explosion, L.A. cop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is sentenced to a cryogenic prison, as is Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), the criminal he was pursuing when the accident occurred, in 1996. Forty years later, Phoenix escapes from the prison, going on a violent murder spree in 2036 San Angeles. Unaware as to how to deal with Phoenix--all crime had been eliminated after "The Big One of 2010"--the SAPD defrosts "Demolition Man" Spartan in order to pursue him, their presence threatening to demolish the chaste, idealized society created by Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne).
Fans of Stallone and Snipes won't be disappointed by Demolition Man. The film uses their talents in the best way, casting Stallone as the strong action hero and Snipes as the formidable villain (a role he played excellently in New Jack City). However, as good of a hero Stallone makes, he can never be more than an adequate actor, falling short when the script calls for some emotional display. The supporting cast offers a mixed bag of performances. Hawthorne is appropriately haughty as Cocteau, and Denis Leary is perfectly cast as the bitter leader of an underground rebel society. But Sandra Bullock, while likable as Spartan's perky partner Lenina Huxley, often overexaggerates the "joy joy feelings" of her character.
While Demolition Man boasts two marquee names, the real star is director Marco Brambilla, making an impressive feature film debut after a career in commercials. He shows great skill in crafting action sequences, piling on the normal action staples without excessive bloodshed. Brambilla, production designer David L. Snyder, and the visual effects team have created a striking vision of the future, full of streamlined cars; tall, shiny buildings; and assorted futuristic inventions, such as an electronic graffiti removal system.
The basic plot of Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, and Peter M. Lenkov's screenplay is hardly more than a basic cop-chases-crook scenario. What makes the writing so refreshing is its sense of humor. There are as many laughs as there are thrills, most of which derive from the fanatically "good" way of life in the future. The gags are also carried out consistently through the film; for example, whenever a person swears, a buzzer and a recording always sound, right until the film ends. The screenplay always knows that it is just a pure entertainment vehicle, never taking itself too seriously, at times appearing to laugh at its own excesses.
Demolition Man is one of the more enjoyable moviegoing experiences of the year. Featuring intense action, exceptional special effects, and a healthy sense of humor, it is the film Last Action Hero wanted--and failed--to be.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (PG-13) - May 1993
"The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering." This St. Augustine quote that appears on the last frame of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story best sums up the new film biography of the legendary martial arts star. Despite a number of corny moments, the film is an enjoyable and exciting celebration of a memorable life and career.
Dragon opens with a brief sequence depicting Lee's martial arts training as a child in Hong Kong. Soon, we meet adult Bruce (Jason Scott Lee), who gets into a fight that forces him to move to San Francisco, the city of his birth. The film then proceeds to depict Lee's marriage to American Linda Emery (Lauren Holly), the opening of his martial arts studios, his American television stint on The Green Hornet, and his ultimate break from Hollywood and successful film career in Hong Kong. Surprisingly, the film does not touch on Lee's mysterious death, but not so surprising is the inclusion of eight (fictional) fight sequences.
Dragon's failure to deal with Lee's death is one of the film's failures; although the film is meant to be a celebration of how Lee lived, not died, it is disappointing not to see a rational death theory in a film meant to be "The Bruce Lee Story." To help depict some of the mystery behind his non-seen death, Dragon features an onscreen physical manifestation of the inner "demon" Lee inherited from his father. The fights involving Lee and the demon are at once exciting and cornball; the great fight choreography by John Cheung keeps you interested, but the sight of an onscreen demon is ridiculous. Screenwriters Edward Khmara, John Raffo, and Rob Cohen (who also directed) should have instead taken a more believable approach, such as including scenes where Bruce tells his wife of his recurring nightmares about the demon. But to the device's credit, a final scene where Bruce battles the demon while it pursues his son Brandon is frightening, sad, and eerie, given the film was made prior to Brandon Lee's untimely death.
What gives Dragon a winning kick is its exciting energy and an exuberant central performance by Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce). Lee provides an eerily accurate portrayal of Bruce, capturing his sense of humor and explosive onscreen magnetism. Although he had no prior martial arts training, Lee is at his most appealing during the martial arts sequences, revealing a repertoire of moves that is more impressive than that of the late Brandon Lee. He is truly a rising star to watch.
The screenwriters have taken a number of liberties with Bruce Lee's life story (for example, a back injury resulting from a fight in the movie was in reality caused by lifting weights), but it does not hurt the movie. It makes the film more entertaining and exciting; Dragon plays like the Bruce Lee story as a Bruce Lee film, adding more substance and flavor to the tribute. Dragon succeeds in blending action, romance, and drama into a satisfying whole, without keeping its subject a mystery nor making him a caricature.
Dragon is a touching and entertaining glimpse at the past and future of cinema. As it commemorates one of the most exciting presences ever to grace the silver screen, it chronicles the rise of a new one by the name of Jason Scott Lee.