A Perfect World (PG-13) - November 1993
The warm sun shines down on a man leisurely lying on a bed of green grass while hundreds of dollars blow over his face and body. But not everything is as it seems in what appears to be A Perfect World, a powerful new drama featuring the superstar team of Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood (who also directs).
In November 1963, convicted thief Butch Haynes (Costner) takes 8-year-old Philip Perry (T.J. Lowther) hostage soon after escaping from Huntsville (Texas) Prison. As Butch and Philip journey across the state in search of a way to get to Alaska, they are pursued by veteran Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood) and his spunky criminologist partner Sally (Laura Dern).
On the surface, A Perfect World appears to be yet another law-enforcement-officer-pursues-criminal-on-the-lam thriller in the tradition of this year's The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire (which also starred Eastwood). But that's only a small part of what is essentially an involving character study. John Lee Hancock's intelligent screenplay brings up some interesting questions about the nature of the criminal mind: is it the criminal's fault that he turned out this way, or is it the doing of an external force that acted upon him? Hancock doesn't attempt to give any answers, but he gives enough support for both sides to make it worthy of discussion.
The success of Hancock's screenplay is largely due to Costner's masterful performance. Gentle one moment and violent the next, he gives an unexpectedly chilling performance. Even though Butch is extremely volatile, the audience can't help but feel for him. The sympathetic focus on Butch could be seen as a mistake on Hancock and Eastwood's part since he is the villain, but A Perfect World, being a character study of the criminal, wouldn't work if Butch were a more repellent character; the audience can't get interested nor emotionally involved if the character were a clearly defined bad guy. Eastwood is as appealing as ever, but he and the underused Dern fall victim to the script's major weakness--minimal screen time and character development for Butch's pursuers. Getting more screen time is newcomer Lowther, who holds his own with Costner, convincingly portraying Philips's conflicting feelings of love and fear for Butch.
Moving and totally absorbing, A Perfect World also has to be one of the most depressing films I've ever seen. Set in the seemingly ideal early '60s, it reminds one how imperfect the world was--and still is--and how attempts to change it, even with the best of intentions, often makes things worse. "In a perfect world this wouldn't be happening," says Sally in the film's first hour. In a perfect world it still wouldn't be happening thirty years later.
Poetic Justice (R) - July 1993
After his powerful debut, Boyz N the Hood, I eagerly anticipated writer-director John Singleton's follow-up effort, Poetic Justice. Although it had been surrounded by bad advance word-of-mouth, most of which centered on Janet Jackson's lead performance, the dramatic trailer of the film displayed the emotional power and depth that had made Boyz so brilliant. In short, I was expecting Poetic Justice to be a moving drama with great emotional punch, which is not an outrageously high request, given the enormous talent of its writer-director.
Sadly, I left the theatre underwhelmed and only slightly moved. The film's first twenty minutes excellently set up the plight of Justice (Jackson), a hairdresser who turns to writing poetry to heal the pain left by the murder of her boyfriend. But all emotional weight disappears and the film becomes lighter than a feather when she goes on a journey from L.A. to Oakland with her best friend Iesha (Regina King); Iesha's mailman boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry); and his best friend, also a mailman, Lucky (Tupac Shakur), aboard their mail truck. After an initial hatred, Justice and Lucky begin to learn about each other, and Justice finds the strength in her soul to allow herself to love again.
The central romance in Justice is the best aspect of the film. Contrary to what other critics are saying, Jackson proves to be the best of the recent crop of singers-turned-actresses, more convincing and professional than Madonna and Whitney Houston combined. Her inexperience as an actress only shows in one emotional scene with Iesha where her tears look forced and phony. Jackson and the charismatic Shakur make an appealing couple you root for to get together.
The major flaw of the film is Singleton's screenplay. The characters of Chicago and Iesha are totally unnecessary; their incessant comic bickering is tiresome and serves only to take away valuable screen time from the far more interesting relationship between Justice and Lucky. The film would have been far more powerful if it focused solely on the two main characters.
From a visual standpoint, Singleton the director is in top form. Every scene is visually interesting, especially the striking opening twenty minutes. But his storyline is a bit confused. More attention seems to be paid to the relationship betwen Chicago and Iesha than the dramatic relationship between Justice and Lucky; a pivotal scene where Chicago hits Iesha is given more emotional weight than one where Justice must confront her conflicting feelings of love for Lucky and those of devotion to her dead boyfriend.
Poetic Justice isn't nearly the disaster other critics would leave you to believe, only a not-too-bad disappointment. It is a quiet, personal story that should have been louder, bolder, and even more personal, an interesting premise that isn't given its full justice.
Point of No Return (R) - March 1993
A dark-haired, dirty, rude, brutal drug-addicted murderer. A red-haired, clean, classy, and efficient assassin. Two completely different personalities--one woman's transformation. In this dazzling remake of the 1990 French hit La Femme Nikita, what was intended as a mere cosmetic transformation becomes a spiritual journey that sends one woman past the Point of No Return.
Bridget Fonda plays Maggie, an antisocial, murderous drug addict sentenced to die by lethal injection. But instead of dying, she gets a last-minute reprieve from a shady governmental agency who presents Maggie with a choice: life as a high-profile assassin or "a bullet in the brain." Transformed into Claudia Doran, computer programmer; codename Nina, hired killer, Maggie moves to Venice Beach and falls in love with photographer J.P. (Dermot Mulroney), tearing Maggie between the life she wants--a quiet existence with her love--and the life she wants to escape--the dirty occupation that keeps her alive.
Point is a virtual scene-by-scene translation of the highly popular and entertaining La Femme Nikita, but the two films are successes in their own distinct terms. While Nikita was more of a psychological study with a number of intense action sequences, Point, while telling the same story, is more of an intense action film with a number of psychological dimensions not normally found in such films. In addition to the well-staged action sequences is a moving, convincing story of a woman forever forced to pay for her past crimes, a person once turned on by killing but now repulsed by it. Although she starts the film as a punk, the audience learns to care for her as she gradually evolves from junkie to sophisticate onscreen. The main reason for the story's success is the vibrant performance by Fonda. Only an actress of great versatility can convincingly play both an incredibly unsympathetic character and a likable heroine, and depict the character's transition from the former to the latter just as convincingly; like her Nikita predecessor Anne Parillaud, Fonda proves to be up to the task. Her work in Point solidifies her standing as one of the best actresses of her generation.
While Luc Besson's original screenplay for Nikita and the adaptation by Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros are generally identical, the new version does take some new directions, and only a few of them are inferior to the original's turn of events. Writer-director Besson's film does a handful of things better than Point, in particular a harrowing scene involving hitman Victor the Cleaner (Harvey Keitel in Point), the inclusion of a powerful emotional scene between Nikita and her love not found in the new film, and the original does not have a somewhat corny "falling in love" montage found in Point. But most of the new version's swerves from the original course heighten suspense, boasting amore satisfying action climax and a more powerfully executed--but identical--conclusion. Director John Badham (Bird on a Wire), known for his action work, adds some interesting sytlistic twists not found in Besson's film, employing off-kilter camera angles and tension-building slow motion.
Point of No Return is a Hollywood rarity: a remake faithful to the film upon which it is based and an intelligent, thrilling action film with a real story and solid acting. See it while it's out.
Rising Sun (R) - July 1993
In a towering skyrise belonging to a large Japanese corporation, the sights and sounds of a party can be heard. People dancing; people drinking; drums booming; a woman screaming and writhing--and choking--during wild sadomasochistic sex. This crime in passion fuels the criminal investigation central to Rising Sun, a serviceable but incredibly predictable adaptation of Michael Crichton's bestseller of the same name.
Sean Connery plays John Connor (no relation to the boy of the same name in Terminator 2), a Los Angeles detective who, after many years in Japan, practices and preaches the customs of the Japanese. Connor and Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), a no-nonsense detective naïve to the ways of the Japanese, are tapped to investigate the homicide of a young woman who was killed during kinky sex on the boardroom table of a corporate skyrise. Suspicion immediately falls on Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the executive boyfriend of the murdered woman. But the further they investigate, the deeper they are plunged into an all-too predictable web of intrigue that suggests a coverup by the Nakamoto Corporation, the powerful Japanese conglomerate that owns the building.
As far as light entertainment goes, Rising Sun is a passable diversion mainly due to its two stars. Connery is as magnetic as ever, never taking himself too seriously as the seemingly all-knowing Connor. He has great comic chemistry with Snipes, who once again proves to be one of the best actors in film today, giving his thankless role intelligence and wit. The dynamic result of the teaming of these two exciting talents is reason enough to see it.
If only they were in a vehicle as thrilling as they are. Rising Sun is guilty of the worst crime a mystery can commit: predictability. You're always one step ahead of the investigators, noticing things that are painfully obvious to everyone except the people onscreen. The final twist is neither surprising nor thrilling, as is the climax, which could have used at the very least more action to make up for the lack of surprise. And despite what protesters have claimed, the racism present in the original Michael Crichton novel is virtually absent. While the decision to be more politically correct is admirable, it may not have been the best thing artistically for director-screenwriter Philip Kaufman to do. If he stayed more true to Crichton's original vision, the plot may have not been as flat and suspenseless as it is.
Rising Sun does succeed in holding one's attention; you still have a desire to see how everything turns out. But that may be mostly due to the vibrant performances of Connery and Snipes. I hope they reteam for a more worthwhile project, but until that happens, Rising Sun will have to do. The film disappoints, but they don't.
Sliver (R) - May 1993
Hoping to find an escape from her lonely reality, a woman indulges in a solitary moment of pleasure to be enjoyed in the privacy of her own bathtub. Or so she thinks. Little does she know that she and the rest of the tenants of her apartment building are performing for an audience in Sliver, the underachieving voyeuristic thriller that has all the right ingredients but ends up being only half-baked.
Sharon Stone is quite good as Carly Norris, a newly-divorced Manhattan book editor who moves into a "sliver" building that hides two dark secrets: a history of homicides and a voyeur with video cameras installed in each apartment. While two fellow tenants, wealthy Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin) and crime novelist Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger), vie for Carly's affections, the homicides continue and Carly finds herself drawn into the absorbing world of voyeurism.
Sliver has all the ingredients of a taut, suspenseful thriller: an intriguing whodunit, a provocative theme (voyeurism), a claustrophobic setting, and a skyrocketing talent (Stone). But Sliver has the feel of a work-in-progress; some things are strongly developed while others remain little more than a mystery. The character of Carly is wonderfully fleshed out; one understands her fears and motivations, but that is more due to Stone's complex performance than Joe Eszterhas's screenplay. As played by Stone, one can see why Carly would be attracted to voyeurism, for her life is such as mess and her emotions are so fragile and confused that she would seek escape in other people's lives. The real beauty of her work is her skillful capturing of Carly's conflicting feelings about voyeurism: she is at once fascinated and repulsed. Stone is also surprisingly convincing as a woman insecure about sex, proving that she can do more than uncross her legs.
Everything else in Sliver leaves a lot to be desired. The central mystery does not keep one guessing until the last moment, but it is uninpired; each new twist is a mystery in itself, bringing up new questions that are never completely resolved. The final twist is also strangely reminiscent of that of Eszterhas's Basic Instinct. Baldwin and Berenger are passable, but they aren't given anything to work with, as is Polly Walker, who plays Carly's neighbor Vida. Their characters are as thin as the sliver: flat, uninteresting, and underdeveloped. The killer's motives are also muddled and never fully explained. The biggest flaw is the film's failure to capture the terror of voyeurism; except for the previously described masturbation scene, Sliver never delves into the invasion aspect, the psychological horror of having every private moment stolen by a voyeur. The kinky thrill and allure of voyeurism is fully explored but not its darker, more serious side (maybe it wasn't kinky enough for Eszterhas and director Phillip Noyce).
"You like to watch don't you," blare the ads for Sliver. That may be true, but I would have liked watching even more if I were watching something better.
Striking Distance (R) - September 1993
Cop chases killer. Killer kills relative/loved one of cop. Cop attempts to avenge relative/loved one's death. Sound familiar? This overworked action formula is exhausted even further in Striking Distance, the new Bruce Willis action thriller that fails to deliver anything remotely original.
The film starts out interestingly enough, with cop Tom Hardy (Willis) and his father (John Mahoney), also a cop, chasing the elusive Polish Hill strangler through the streets of Pittsburgh. Once the chase is over, the father is dead, and the suspected strangler is in custody. Two years later, Hardy is demoted to river patrolman, and a mysterious killer is going after all the women in Hardy's life. While the cops think otherwise, Hardy believes that the new killer is the same Polish Hill strangler--even though a suspect has long been convicted.
Other than its well-staged opening car chase, Striking Distance offers little in terms of thrills or suspense. The film is flat and predictable; nothing here has not been done before. The central mystery is dull, predictable, and uninvolving; even the final plot twist isn't surprising nor interesting. As far as action goes, the final sequence--taking place in and on the rivers around Pittsburgh--is strangely devoid of excitement, as are the few action sequences that precede it (excluding the opening car chase). There are other ludicrous plot points, such as Hardy's having at least twenty relatives on the police force. Director/co-screenwriter Rowdy Herrington is clearly at a loss as to how to direct his own material.
Herrington doesn't get too much help from his cast. Willis manages to come off OK in this mess although he has tackled more interesting cop roles. He gives the film some emotional foundation; you may not care about what goes on, but you can't help but somewhat care about his character. Willis is the only reason to watch the movie. Sarah Jessica Parker just takes up space as Hardy's partner/love interest, doing little more than be Hardy's yes-woman. Brion James and Dennis Farina are one-dimensional as Hardy's domineering police chief and uncle/superior officer, respectively.
Striking Distance is a major strikeout for all involved, which isn't good career news for Herrington, whose previous film, Gladiator, didn't exactly ignite the box office; Parker, fresh from the flop Hocus Pocus, or Willis, who, despite the recent hits The Last Boy Scout and Death Becomes Her, hasn't completely recovered from Hudson Hawk.
Three of Hearts (R) - May 1993
"Just your average Girl meets Girl, Girl loses Girl, Girl hires Boy to get Girl back story. With a twist." That ad line best describes Three of Hearts, an engaging romantic comedy starring William Baldwin, Sherilyn Fenn, and Kelly Lynch.
Ellen (Fenn), a bisexual English teacher at NYU, decides to break up with her lesbian lover Connie (Lynch) because she needs "more space." Heartbroken, Connie hires male escort Joe (Baldwin) to meet Ellen, have her fall in love with him, and then "fuck her over" so she comes running back to Connie. But things take an unintended turn when Joe falls for Ellen.
Three of Hearts's greatest strength are the fabulous performances. Baldwin impresses, showing a real flair for comedy while subtly and convincingly depicting his romantic, emotional side. Lynch has superb comic chemistry with Baldwin and believably plays her obsessive character without sacrificing her heart and humanity. Although director Yurek Bogayvicz makes her wear leather and a bandanna, Lynch makes Connie an independent, likable, and--most importantly--a real person, not a stereotype. The casting of Fenn as a college English teacher is a stretch, but she plays the role successfully by not taking herself too seriously. She gives her underwritten character shades of emotions not found in the screenplay and generates romantic sparks with Baldwin.
The screenplay by Adam Greenman and Mitch Glazer (Lynch's real-life husband) is witty and smart, featuring an equal number of funny moments and touching ones. There is no Hollywood ending, the film instead offering a close that is more realistic and therefore more satisfying. The lesbian/bisexual aspect of the film is treated as a given, not being constantly shoved in the face of the audience; the characters are not weighed down by their sexualities, free to let the story progress. There are some minor structural problems: no romantic foundation for Ellen and Connie (they break up in the first scene in which they appear and are in only two other scenes together) and a useless, clichéd subplot about a heavy who has a beef with Joe.
The lesbian/bisexual angle in Three of Hearts will undoubtedly limit its box office returns. But those scared off by that twist will be missing out on one of the year's most entertaining films.
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG) - October 1993
Where darkness fills the air (and not only at night)
Goblins, ghouls, and other spooks devote their lives to fright
On Halloween they're released and free to go all out
To frighten the children, which they do, without a doubt
But once that day has ended they return to their true home
Waithing anxiously for the day next year when they all get to roam.
This scenario is the basis for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a wildly imaginative and inventive stop-motion animation musical.
"Pumpkin King" Jack Skellington (speaking voice of Chris Sarandon, singing voice of Danny Elfman, who wrote the songs and the score) is the skeleton ringleader of all the Halloween haunts in Halloweentown who one day stumbles upon the bright lights and fresh snow of Christmastown (while singing the film's infectious signature tune, "What's This?"). Bored with running the same holiday year after year, he schemes to kidnap "Sandy Claws" (Ed Ivory) and take over Christmas despite the warnings of Sally (Catherine O'Hara), the sensitive rag doll who secretly admires Jack.
Nightmare is a wonderfully original and darkly humorous vision from the mind of Tim Burton, director of Batman. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson, working from a Burton story adapted by Michael McDowell, manages to pack a lot into a 75-minute script, creating an interesting patchwork of action, emotion, humor, and macabre Burton characters.
But the film's quick pace isn't just Thompson's doing; longtime Burton collaborator Elfman throws in generous doses of plot and character development in the film's ten songs, particularly in the buoyant opening number, "This Is Halloween," which immediately familiarizes the audience with the world of Halloweentown; and "Jack's Lament," which, in two minutes, sets up the protagonist's plight and establishes his character. Elfman's lyrics and melodies are also consistent with Burton's dark vision, especially in two hilariously demented numbers, "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" and "Oogie Boogie's Song." In the former, the terrible trio of Lock, Shock, and Barrel (Paul Reubens, O'Hara, and Elfman) sing "Kidnap the Sandy Claws, beat him with a stick/Lock him up for 90 years, see what makes him tick" in the latter, the infamous Oogie Boogie Man (Ken Page) taunts and insults Santa with lines such as "He's ancient, he's ugly/I don't know which is worse."
As strong as the story and the music are, the real treat of Nightmare is the incredible look of the film. The first full-length film in stop-motion animation (a technique that uses three-dimensional puppets and sets instead of two-dimensional drawings), the film is truly unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Director Henry Selick, who had previously done those bizarre station identification spots for MTV, creates a visually stunning world that is at once nightmarish and inviting. Halloweentown not only shows the frights but also the fun thrill of the fright, the gloomy architecture and disturbing appearances calmed by witty creations like bottle of "frog's breath" and jovial personalities. The puppets move enough like humans to be realistic, convincing characters yet strangely enough to feel alien. The use of three-dimensional animation enables the audience to enter and experience life in this world, an effect impossible to create through conventional animation.
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the few films where a filmmaker's original vision comes through in the finished product. The story, characters, music, and the look of the film come together to form one complete, unified work with a consistent tone and feeling. It's a remarkable accomplishment.
True Romance (R) - September 1993
While the title True Romance suggests images of hugs, kisses, holding hands, and heartfelt human emotion, the film bearing that name features virtually none of those things. Instead, True Romance bombards the audience with images of blazing guns, brutal beatings, and lots of gushing blood while telling a twisted and entertaining tale of outlaw lovers on the run.
Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), a Detroit comic book store employee, and rookie call girl Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) meet and fall in love during a kung fu film festival, eventually marrying only days later. Prompted by his protective feelings for Alabama and advice from the ghost of Elvis (Val Kilmer), Clarence meets up with her pimp, Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman), intending to kill him. Once the dust--and blood--clears, Clarence and Alabama end up with a suitcase full of cocaine and travel cross-country to Hollywood while cops and mobsters tail them.
Many people will undoubtedly be turned off by the graphic and sometimes savage violence of True Romance (which, not surprisingly, had to be toned down to avoid an NC-17 rating). But that is only part of the script by Quentin Tarantino, whose ultraviolent screenwriting-directing-acting debut Reservoir Dogs was a critics' favorite last year. It's a paper-thin but enjoyably quirky romance carried by great dialogue, an unpredictable plot, and a cast of wildly original characters, which also includes Clarence's father Clifford (Dennis Hopper), mobster Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), Clarence's friend Dick Richie (Michael Rapaport), and Dick's roommate Floyd (Brad Pitt). Tarantino and director Tony Scott never pretend that the film is more than what it is--slickly entertaining trash. Don't expect any deep probes into the criminal mind; the film is merely a fun trip with two likable characters.
A great deal of the film's success can be credited to the actors. Slater and Arquette have great chemistry and are immensely appealing. Oldman and Pitt are a hoot as Drexl, the white pimp who thinks he's black, and the perpetually stoned Floyd, respectively; Walken is appropriately menacing as the mobster who terrorizes Hopper, who is much more interesting than he was in Boiling Point. Rapaport's work here erases memories of his embarrassing turn in Zebrahead, and Bronson Pinchot is amusingly wimpy as Elliott, Dick's friend. Kilmer, however, is stuck with the rather extraneous character of the spirit of Elvis.
True Romance is definitely not for everyone. A very offbeat and blood-soaked romance, I don't expect it to be a hit. Nonetheless, it's one of the most well-made and flat-out fun films of the year.