It would be easy to dismiss Disney's 33rd animated feature as a disappointment. And it is--not as playful and crowd-pleasing as Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, not as thematically resonant as The Lion King, nor as all-around brilliant as Beauty and the Beast. However, it is only disappointing if one expects the traditional Disney fare, for the studio has rewritten all the rules with Pocahontas, a surprisingly understated and mature romantic drama that just happens to be animated.
For those who have managed to miss the hype, Pocahontas centers around the eponymous Native American heroine (spoken by Irene Bedard, sung by Judy Kuhn) who helped bring peace between her people and the British settlers in 17th century America. The emotional core of the film is her romance with settler John Smith (Mel Gibson).
The quasi-historical basis of the film sets it apart from the fantasy and whimsy that usually dominates Disney animated features, and the animators further set it apart through their drawing style. The colors are not as vibrant, yet bright enough to keep it somewhat detached from reality. Pocahontas is unlike any other Disney heroine in many ways, the most striking distinction being an unabashed sensuousness.
The story unfolds at a relaxed pace, which may turn off the wee ones (the smaller children were obviously antsy during the screening I attended). But the pace allows the story to breathe and the romance to grow at a more natural, less hurried pace. One of the more surprising techniques used by the usually overstated Disney is the reliance on expression and silence. Pocahontas and John Smith first meet in silence, their eyes and faces telling the whole story. Also surprising is the duration of their big kiss; their lips are allowed to linger together longer than probably most children would like. The requisite comic relief comes in the form of Meeko, a raccoon; Flit, a hummingbird; and Percy, a dog. While their silent antics are funny, not to mention pleasing to the kiddies, they can't help but feel randomly thrown in to soften the serious dramatic proceedings.
The music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz is less pop-driven than previous Disney films and more Broadway, and is more effective as a result. "Just Around the Riverbend," the traditional hero "I Want" song, gets into Pocahontas's personality about as well as "Belle" in Beauty and "Part of Your World" in Mermaid. The sequence in the film is truly striking, with Pocahontas rowing through an increasingly turbulent river (a wonderfully subtle metaphor for the journey she takes in the film). The big showstopper in the film is not a big production number à la "Under the Sea," "Be Our Guest," or "Friend Like Me"; in accordance with this film's totally different tone, showstopper honors go to Pocahontas's sweeping anthem "Colors of the Wind," which will go down in history as one of the best Disney tunes ever and is a virtual lock to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song next year. Judy Kuhn does a fabulous job as Pocahontas's singing voice, and Mel Gibson actually isn't half bad with what little singing is required of him. The only flaw in the score is what isn't there--namely, a love duet between Pocahontas and John Smith. Incidentally, "If I Never Knew You," the couple's love theme sung by Kuhn and Gibson, was cut from the film after children in test audiences were getting antsy, for it came late in the film. I think that since Disney is obviously taking a more mature approach with this film, they should have kept it in; while the love story doesn't lose anything in its absence, I believe the two earned the chance to pledge their love in song after all is said and done (a pop version of the cut song sung by Jon Secada and Shanice plays during the end credits).
Pocahontas marks a major turning point in the history of Disney animated features--it tells a story that does not necessarily lend itself to the medium. Its mature appeal makes it less kid-friendly--and, to a certain extent, less "fun"--than the previous features, but it is still a moving piece of work. From the opening shot of a painting of a ship to the closing shot of one of our heroine looking at a ship setting sail, Pocahontas, while probably not a box office blockbuster, is another artistic triumph for the Disney animation division.
Drop Zone (R)
Wesley Snipes stars in this reasonably exciting action thriller about a U.S. Marshal (Snipes) who infiltrates a group of drug-dealing skydivers. Added irony: Gary Busey as an ex-DEA agent. Director John Badham keeps everything moving at a quick pace although he ventures into outright John Woo ripoff in the final act. Snipes is as great as usual. (Paramount Home Video)
Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear) (R)
The "official" title of Robert Altman's largely unfunny satire of the fashion world is Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), but the five people (including myself) who actually saw this mess in theaters knows the actual title is the French one (seen in very large letters), not the English translation (seen in tiny type). This is one of Altman's trademark ensemble pieces with interlocking characters and stories; the problem is only one story is amusing (Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins as reporters forced to share a hotel room) and only one character is truly memorable (a ditzy fashion reporter played by Kim Basinger, who should have received an Oscar nomination for her hilarious performance). Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni (whose storyline goes absolutely nowhere), Lyle Lovett, Lauren Bacall, and Forest Whitaker are also among the stars trapped in this sporadically amusing camp mess. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (R)
A box office and artistic disappointment in which Tom Cruise stars as the vampire Lestat, Brad Pitt as tortured vampire Louis, and Kirsten Dunst as their young charge, Claudia. Anne Rice loved this adaptation of her popular novel, but many moviegoers and Rice purists were left cold. The acting is a mixed bag: Cruise makes an admirable stretch as the androgynous, seductive Lestat, and Dunst blows her co-stars away with an Oscar-worthy performance; however, Pitt is truly awful, sleepwalking through his role. The only one who comes off even worse is Stephen Rea, totally lost as the vampire Santiago. Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater are fairly adequate as vampire Armand and the interviewer, respectively. A borderline effort from director Neil Jordan. (Warner Home Video)
Cute, amusing, but never hilarious farce about a pregnant man (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Schwarzenegger reunites with Twins director Ivan Reitman and co-star Danny DeVito for only mild results. Emma Thompson steals the show as a clumsy scientist. (MCA/Universal Home Video)
Mel Gibson gives a passionate performance both in front of and behind the camera with this sweeping historical epic about legendary Scottish hero William Wallace (Gibson), who rallied Scotsmen against English rule. The film is full of electrifying battle sequences that literally involve a cast of thousands. To director Gibson's credit, nothing is romanticized--the violence is unflinchingly brutal and bloody. But while the violence is raw, so are the emotions, and the film packs quite a punch, especially in heart-rending climax--a scene of such astonishing emotional resonance that it blew me away. Braveheart clocks in at nearly three hours, and Randall Wallace's screenplay doesn't have enough compelling momentum to keep the audience from feeling the length. Still, the running time is justified--I cannot see where it could have been cut. A triumph for Mel Gibson, who has a bright future in the directing arena.
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Legends of the Fall (R)
Brad Pitt inexplicably became a major star after his unimpressive performance in this glorified soap opera about three brothers (Pitt, Aidan Quinn, and E.T.'s Henry Thomas) fighting over one woman (Julia Ormond). Ormond is the only one who turns in a decent performance; not even Anthony Hopkins, as the family's patriarch, is immune to the bad acting bug that strickens Pitt, Quinn, Thomas, and almost all of the cast. I like a good soap opera as much as the next person, but this one, filled with pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo about "the bear," is much too hokey to be enjoyed, even by soap standards. (Columbia TriStar Home Video).
A Low Down Dirty Shame (R)
A mildly amusing action comedy with Keenen Ivory Wayans (who also wrote and directed) as a down-and-out private eye. Jada Pinkett steals the show as his spunky sidekick. The comedy is hit-or-miss, while Wayans proves to be a huge fan of Hong Kong action flicks, ripping off a number of action sequences from them--some sequences and stylistic flourishes (like freeze frames) are directly lifted from John Woo; a character is named Chow Yung-Fat (as opposed to Chow Yun-Fat), and the shopping mall finale more than recalls the ending of Jackie Chan's Police Story. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)
Die Hard with a Vengeance (R)
Bruce Willis is back and better than ever as John McClane in this third installment of the immensely popular action series. This time, McClane goes after a mad bomber (a very effective Jeremy Irons) in New York with the help of a reluctant partner (Samuel L. Jackson, whose spirited line delivery more than recalls his portrayal of Jules in Pulp Fiction). Jonathan Hensleigh's script is disjointed and is the weak glue that holds together the stunts and explosions, but director John McTiernan (rebounding after the odious Last Action Hero) pulls the stunts off with such finesse that the script problems are almost irrelevant (except for one final plot point that takes a huge leap in logic and the underwhelming finale). The stars and McTiernan make a very entertaining piece of action entertainment, although one not nearly as effective as the cat-and-mouse claustrophobia of McTiernan's original or the exhilarating excesses of Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Note to PF fans: stay alert for the obligatory PF reference, one only the biggest PF fans, like myself, will catch.
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First-time writer-director Kevin Smith took the national critics by storm last year with this hilarious black-and-white comedy about two slacker clerks (Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson), one who works at a convenience store, the other at a video store. Fresh, funny, and made for only $28,000. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Heavenly Creatures (R)
One of the most genuinely disturbing films I have ever seen. This drama from New Zealand tells shocking true story of two teens (played to chilling perfection by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) whose obsessive friendship leads them to brutally murder one of their mothers. Director Peter Jackson (best known for the tongue-in-cheek horror flick Dead-Alive) creates a rich, haunting atmosphere, deftly juggling the eerily giddy fantasy world of the girls (complete with lifesize, animated clay figures) and their harsh, violent reality. Jackson and co-scripter Frances Walsh were Academy Award nominees for Best Original Screenplay. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Crimson Tide (R)
The first big blockbuster of the summer. Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman give incredible performances in this tense submarine thriller. What the film lacks in slam-bang action it more than makes up for in sheer suspense. Great work from everyone involved, from Washington and Hackman to director Tony Scott, credited screenwriter Michael Schiffer, and uncredited script doctors Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), and, yes, Quentin Tarantino, who contributes some great lines and character quirks.
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The Professional (R)
French writer-director Luc Besson is a major talent (see La Femme Nikita), but you would never know from this stylish, promising, but ultimately boring and unsettling thriller about a hitman (uncharismatic Jean Reno, also from Nikita) who takes an orphaned girl (newcomer Natalie Portman, in a very impressive debut performance) under his wing. After a dazzling opening sequence, this one goes downhill fast, thanks to very little action and unsettling pedophilic overtones. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)
French Kiss (PG-13)
Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline have chemistry to burn, but it goes to waste in Lawrence Kasdan's surprisingly slow romantic comedy. Ryan is as charming as ever as an American woman searching for her fiance (an adequate Timothy Hutton) in France with the help of a shady French thief (Kline, who is great as usual). After a promising start, the film slows to a crawl during its lagging midsection, only to pick up during the last half hour, but it all comes too late. The frothy confection is all very easy to swallow, but this stew can't help but feel somewhat tepid coming so soon after the far superior While You Were Sleeping.
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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (R)
The most underrated movie of last year. Granted, Kenneth Branagh's take on the horror classic is a little slow and never scary, but it is an oddly moving father-son love story between the obsessed doctor (Branagh) and his creation (well-played by Robert DeNiro). A huge flop last fall, this one should find an audience on video. Merchant Ivory regular Helena Bonham Carter also stars as Dr. Frankenstein's adoptive sister/fiancée. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)
Destiny Turns on the Radio (R)
Quentin Tarantino is one "bad motherfucker." But not even he can save this pointless and utterly baffling "romantic adventure of mystical proportion" about an escaped convict (Dylan McDermott) trying to get back with his lounge singer girlfriend (a lip-synching Nancy Travis). Tarantino, by far the film's best asset, is wasted in the role of magical gambler Johnny Destiny, whose only apparent purpose is to give the film its title and serve as an excuse for some less-than-impressive visual effects. But at least he and Jim Belushi, as a crotch-grabbing gangster casino owner, appear to be having any fun throughout the campy proceedings. If the thin script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (which was developed at Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Institute, no less) was able to attract Tarantino's attention, then there's hope yet for my screenplay. I just hope that ol' Quentino was paid well for his trouble in what is really a glorified cameo role.
Kiss of Death (R)
Events happen so quickly at the beginning of this crime thriller that you wish things would slow down a bit so you could get all the characters and events straight. But sure enough, thirty minutes and a "three years later" disclaimer later, things sloooooow down, crawling to an incredibly unsatisfying finish. Be careful what you wish for. Despite strong performances by NYPD Blue refugee David Caruso (as an ex-crook attempting to go straight), a woefully underused Helen Hunt (as Caruso's wife), Samuel L. Jackson (as a tough cop that helps Caruso), and especially a pumped-up Nicolas Cage (as the local crime boss), this atmospheric yet ultimately hollow exercise in tedium is a major letdown from director Barbet Schroeder, who last directed the terrific Single White Female.
While You Were Sleeping (PG) Demolition Man made her noticed. Speed put her on the map. Now, lovely and talented Sandra Bullock should become a superstar with this charming and funny romantic comedy. Bullock plays a lonely transit worker who falls in love with a man in a coma (engagingly played by Peter Gallagher), only to eventually fall for his brother (Bill Pullman). Never before has the normally sleepwalking Pullman been used so adequately, actually displaying great chemistry with Bullock. It may not be an "important" movie, but Sleeping is a welcome ray of sunshine in this current dreary movie season.
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Forrest Gump (PG-13)
The worthy winner of six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Robert Zemeckis's tale of a simpleton's (Tom Hanks) incredible journey through thirty years of American history was the most beloved film of last year. Tom Hanks rightfully won his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar for what can simply be called one of the best performances in film history. He receives outstanding support from Best Supporting Actor nominee Gary Sinise, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson, and especially Robin Wright, who not only should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but should have won. A great film. (Paramount Home Video)
Terminal Velocity (R)
Incredibly campy action thriller with Charlie Sheen as a former Olympic gymnast (I kid you not) turned daredevil skydiver who gets tangled with a "K-G-used-to-be" agent (Nastassja Kinski, who's actually the real action hero of the film). Not exciting enough to be a Die Hard, not funny enough to be a Hot Shots! film either. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)
Ed Wood (R)
A hilarious and enormously entertaining biopic of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp), widely considered the worst film director of all time. The cast is uniformly outstanding, including Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, and Martin Landau, who deservedly won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his uncanny portrayal of Bela Lugosi. (Touchstone Home Video)
Quiz Show (PG-13)
Robert Redford's Oscar-nominated document of the 1950s quiz show scandal does boast a marvelous performance by Ralph Fiennes (who plays contestant Charles Van Doren) and a provocative storyline, but it is by far last year's single most overrated film. The film drags on many occasions, and Rob Morrow gives a truly embarrassing performance as the investigator who looks into the rigged quiz shows. This film is widely held as Redford's best film as director; if that's the case, then he maybe isn't that great of a director after all. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)
Bad Boys (R)
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith star in this crowd-pleasing, energetic action comedy. The flimsy plot involving thieves (led by overacting French actor Tcheky Karyo of La Femme Nikita) who steal confiscated heroin and a witness (Téa Leoni) to a murder is fairly pedestrian, but the exuberance and chemistry between the stars keep the vehicle afloat. Director Michael Bay gives the visuals an appealing gloss and stages all of the requisite car chases and explosions pretty well, but visual razzle-dazzle can't disguise the fact that the story is so familiar. Lawrence gets the most laughs while Smith is a credible straight man. An entertaining package that should be a huge hit.
Entertaining medical thriller that suffers from lapses in credibility as it approaches its conclusion. The top-flight cast including Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman turn in solid performances, and director Wolfgang Petersen keeps things at a brisk pace and packs the film full of exciting, if not implausible, action scenes.
The Shawshank Redemption (R)
Nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Shawshank tells the tale of the friendship between two convicts serving life sentences (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman). Flawlessly acted and directed, this film packed the strongest emotional wallop out of any film last year. Kind of formulaic, but no less rewarding. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)