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The Movie Report
Volume 1

#11 -16
September 28, 1995 - November 2, 1995

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

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#16 November 2, 1995 by Michael Dequina


Batman Forever one-sheet Batman Forever (PG-13) ***
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Predictably the biggest moneymaker of this past summer. Pluses: Val Kilmer's charismatic portrayal of the Caped Crusader; Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey as Two-Face and the Riddler, respectively; and the stunning production design. Minuses: Nicole Kidman's awful portrayal of the nominal love interest; Elliot Goldenthal's weak score; and, most of all, the virtual absence of plot. (Warner Home Video)

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#15 October 26, 1995 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Get Shorty one-sheet Get Shorty (R) *** 1/2 event pix
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John Travolta should win yet another Oscar nomination for his cool, charismatic portrayal of loan-shark-turned-would-be-Hollywood producer Chili Palmer in this light, breezy Hollywood satire based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito lending hilarious support as idiotic B-movie producer Harry Zimm and superstar Martin Weir, respectively. Likely to slip by underappreciated is the performance of the generally underrated Rene Russo, who does a great job as the straight woman of the piece. Scott Frank's (Dead Again) script adeptly translates Leonard's wonderfully complex narrative and has more than a few nasty quips directed at Hollywood and the vacuous, egotistical people who populate it. A winner from director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family).

Mallrats one-sheet Mallrats (R) *
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The dreaded sophomore slump strickens gifted writer-director Kevin Smith, who brought us the hilarious low-budget gem Clerks. In this limp companion piece to that film, two slackers (Jeremy London and Jason Lee, who could pass for a younger, grungier Bruce Campbell) try to win back their respective girlfriends (Claire Forlani and Shannen Doherty) during one day at--guess?--the mall. Smith and Jason Mewes reprise their Clerks roles as Silent Bob and Jay, but the magic is gone; a few lines get laughs, but most of the jokes and pratfalls fall flat, and the toilet humor is more disgusting than funny. Doherty is mere window dressing. Hopefully Smith will rebound with his planned third installment of the exploits of Silent Bob and Jay, Chasing Amy.


The Santa Clause one-sheet The Santa Clause (PG) ** 1/2
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Hit comedy about a toy company exec (Tim Allen) who assumes the mantle of Santa Claus when the genuine article dies after falling off of a rooftop. Light, agreeable family fare that'll please the young 'uns but that adults will find only slightly diverting. (Walt Disney Home Video)

Tales from the Hood one-sheet Tales from the Hood (R) *
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Rusty Cundieff's anthology of horror tales both fails to be the witty satire that it was promoted as being and the serious scarefest it actually aspires to be. More tedious than fun, more innocuous than scary, Tales from the Hood doesn't amount to much. (HBO/Savoy Home Video)

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#14 October 20, 1995 by Michael Dequina


Strange Days one-sheet Strange Days (R) *** 1/2
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Long after the end credits of Strange Days had finished rolling, I still didn't know what to make of it, and, to a certain extent, I still am not sure what to make of it. Strange Days is, for want of a better term, a difficult film. But it is also an ambitious, unsettling, and effective work that deserves a look.

Set in Los Angeles during the last two days of 1999, Strange Days follows Lenny Nero (a grungy Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who now peddles "SQUID clips"--recordings of other people's experiences "direct from the cerebral cortex"--on the black market. These clips, which enable the viewer to feel all the sensations that come with the experience, are as addictive as any drug; even Lenny himself is hooked on "jacking in," constantly replaying clips of happier times with ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), an aspiring rock star who left him for a record producer (Michael Wincott).

Lenny soon stumbles upon a SQUID clip of the brutal rape-murder of a hooker friend (Brigitte Bako). In the film's most disturbing and controversial sequence, the killer hooks up the victim to his recorder, thus making her experience what he feels as he is raping and killing her at the same time she is being raped and killed. As Lenny continues to be sent more mysterious clips, he enlists the help of tough limo driver Mace (Angela Bassett, looking as pumped as ever) to solve the mystery.

Taken at face value, Strange Days is a fairly routine sci-fi mystery thriller, and in that respect, I can understand the widely varied critical reaction to this film. However, what gives Strange Days such power is the strong subtext of the script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. The real theme of the film is about letting go of the past and, scary as it might be, forge on into the future. Setting the film at the turn of the millenium gives it even greater resonance: can the flawed society survive to see another thousand years, let alone another day? Having lived in Southern California all my life, the vision of a nearly anarchic Los Angeles (where even street corner Santas aren't immune to violent crime) hits fairly close to home--it is an eerily plausible future. A major subplot involves the murder of African-American rap artist/political activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer, rebounding well after the embarrassment of Showgirls), which ultimately brings the ever-escalating racial tensions to the breaking point. In post-O.J.-verdict L.A., the rift between the races looms larger than ever, and the film's portrait of unrest is not at all far-fetched.

Director Kathryn Bigelow gives the proceedings a hefty dose of style, using a lot of dreamy slow motion and quick editing, and staging the action scenes with great energy; her most brilliant work here are the on-screen recreations of the SQUID clips, shot in long takes and with appropriately edgy and shaky handheld camera work. What is surprising about her direction is the emotional power she is able to pack into some scenes, especially the climax and the surprisingly moving final shot--in the hands of a less assured director, it could have been a simple, routine embrace, but in Bigelow's hands, it is so much more.

Early in the film, one character says, "How can we last another thousand years? Everything's been done already." The statement is both true and false: from a material, technological standpoint, maybe, but in terms of just dealing with other human beings, there is still a lot yet to be done. By the end of Strange Days, you wonder if anything will actually be done in Lenny's world, but one small optimistic sign shows that there is some hope.

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#13 October 12, 1995 by Michael Dequina


Jade one-sheet Jade (R) ***
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In Jagged Edge, it was a knife with a cerrated edge. In Basic Instinct, it was an ice pick. Now add an African hatchet to the array of murder weapons used in Joe Eszterhas's murder mysteries. Jade, the latest to come from the inexplicably high-paid screenwriter, is actually a fairly suspenseful and entertaining thriller, thanks to some good performances and solid direction.

David Caruso plays David Corelli, a San Francisco assistant DA investigating the murder of Kyle Bedford, a wealthy philanthropist. Corelli discovers that Bedford had a taste for kinky sex with various partners, one of whom is a mysterious woman known only as Jade. As his investigation progresses, the trail of clues lead to ex-flame Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino), a psychologist with a mysterious secret life, and who also happens to be the wife of Corelli's best friend Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri). Thus begins the typical Eszterhas game of "Did she or didn't she?"

By far the weakest link in Jade is Eszterhas's script. Eszterhas (whose name was loudly hissed by the audience during the opening credits) mysteries, from Jagged Edge to Basic Instinct, are known to follow a specific formula (anyone familiar with his work will know what it is). Without giving too much away, this time around, he actually takes some departures from that formula, packing in some surprises. However, the ending, like that of Basic Instinct, comes with a twist that actually raises more questions than it answers. Also, the film is peppered with Eszterhas's trademark lame dialogue, such as "I do the fucking; I don't get fucked," and "Why don't you try out some of those butt plugs over there... a perfect fit for an asshole." Eszterhas's rampant misogyny is once again evident in the screenplay, with almost every female character indulging in some deviant sexual behavior. Still, his work here is miles better than his Showgirls script (then again, what isn't?).

Yet Jade manages to be a pretty suspenseful and engrossing thriller, thanks to director William Friedkin (The French Connection). There is never a slow moment. The highlight of the film by far is an elaborate car chase sequence that begins on the hilly streets of Frisco, progresses at slow speed through a Chinatown parade, and ends at the harbor. An interesting technique Friedkin employs is the repeated use of shots that last for a fraction of a second. The use of these "subliminal" images (which has created some controversy), according to Friedkin, feeds the audience clues to the mystery without their being aware. I don't know if my brain picked up on any of these "clues," but they succeed in jarring the viewer, creating a greater sense of paranoia and suspense.

The acting is uniformly first rate, with Caruso following up his decent work in the otherwise dismal Kiss of Death with another good performance. Although we never really get to know much about the character of David Corelli, Caruso makes him instantly likeable, and he makes a convincing moral center in a film full of immoral characters. Fiorentino doesn't have quite the showcase here as she did in the marvelous The Last Seduction, but she still makes for a very dangerous yet alluring femme fatale. Palminteri's role could have used some beefing up, but he does well with what he's given.

Jade won't win any awards and won't be regarded as a high art film, but it is a well-made guilty pleasure thriller that will keep you guessing and asking questions... maybe even after the closing credits roll.

In Brief

Assassins one-sheet Assassins (R) ** 1/2
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Preposterous plot mechanics and warped logic aside, Richard Donner's latest action opus is, at times, tense, junky fun. Sylvester Stallone plays an angst-ridden hitman yearning to quit the business. Before you can say L'Homme Nikita, he is being hunted down by a younger upstart (Antonio Banderas). Donner keeps the action moving at a rapid pace until slowing down to an unnecessarily long, drawn out conclusion. Surprisingly, Stallone is quite decent here, remaining calm and never once going over the top, but Banderas steals the show, having a ball and not taking himself too seriously. Julianne Moore (last seen having Hugh Grant's baby in Nine Months), is once again wasted in the token female companion role.

Devil in a Blue Dress one-sheet Devil in a Blue Dress (R) *** 1/2
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Denzel Washington shines once again in Carl Franklin's classy adaptation of Walter Mosley's novel about amateur sleuth Easy Rawlins (Washington) who becomes entangled in political and racial scandal when he is hired to locate a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals) in the 1940s. The central plot twist is fairly obvious, and Beals makes for a rather innocuous femme fatale, but the film is a very complex and engrossing mystery, filled with wonderful period details. Don Cheadle is a scene stealer as Easy's trigger-happy friend, Mouse.

Kids one-sheet Kids ***
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Yes, I'm a little late getting to this one (OK, make that very late). Larry Clark's unflinching view of morally bankrupt adolescents having sex and doing drugs is a tough sit--the movie is unfailingly disturbing and shocking. For the most part, the film unfolds like a documentary, offering a day and night in the lives of these kids, with no real plot--that is, with the exception of a storyline involving a young girl, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), trying to find Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the virgin-deflowering boy who infected her with the HIV virus. The movie's ambiguous ending is consistent with the documentary tone but disappointing in terms of drama: the one plotline acts as a set-up for the utterly despicable Telly's comeuppance, but it never happens. That misstep aside, Kids is a powerful piece of work, one not easily forgotten.

The Scarlet Letter one-sheet The Scarlet Letter (R) *
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Love the book or hate it, but no novel deserves the shabby treatment that director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart have given the classic novel. "Freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne," as the opening credits laughably state, this film version takes some radical departures from the parent text: a subplot involving Indians is clumsily thrown in; there is a new, Hollywood happy ending that totally goes against the spirit of the story; and, most notably, the first hour details events that occur before the opening of the novel, showing the affair between Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman). In theory, fleshing out the romance may have been a good idea, but in execution, it comes off all wrong. The big scene where Hester and Dimmesdale profess their love was met by laughter from the audience, and the central love scene is quite bafflingly intercut with scenes of Hester's slave girl giving herself a bath. Moore, Oldman, and Robert Duvall (as Hester's vengeful husband, Roger) all turn in good performances, but Moore and Oldman don't generate much romantic chemistry; ironically, they have more chemistry apart than together, for they convey Hester and Dimmesdale's longing very well, but when they're together, no sparks fly. A major disappointment.

Not New

The Last Seduction one-sheet The Last Seduction (R) ****
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Before you see Jade, see John Dahl's excellent film noir with Linda Fiorentino playing perhaps the most vicious and heartless femme fatale in screen history. (PolyGram Video)

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#12 October 6, 1995 by Michael Dequina


To Die For one-sheet To Die For (R) ***
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"You're no one in this country unless you are on TV," declares Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), an overly ambitious weather girl who believes that a career in TV is To Die For in Gus Van Sant's vicious pitch black satire on the public's fascination with violent crime.

Suzanne is married to Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who works in his Italian-American family's restaurant. The problem is, Suzanne doesn't want to become the housewife and mother that Larry so desperately wants her to be--she'd rather become a Famous Television Personality. So to get out of the marriage without losing her house or her beloved dog, she seduces Jimmy Emmett (Joaquin Phoenix), a teen who has been helping her with a documentary she's been working on for her cable station, into offing her husband.

The most brilliant touch on the part of director Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry is that the film unfolds like a piece one would find on a newsmagazine show, with various characters, including Suzanne and Jimmy, addressing the camera directly as if being interviewed. These interview segments help understand what was going through the characters' minds as the events are recreated onscreen, as well as give insights into their personalities. The audience really gets to see just how shallow and utterly demented Suzanne is through her overdone inflections and mugging for the camera; it's as if acting "natural" for her is to put on the plastic veneer of a TV personality.

Larry's sister Janice (Illeana Douglas) describes Suzanne as "four letters, starting with 'C'... cold." This description fits the film itself. To Die For is unrelenting in its dark comic tone, from Suzanne's complete selfishness and lack of respect for others to its attack on the emptiness of television. The film ends with a hilariously cruel joke. But for all its effectiveness, To Die For does have one central problem--we never understand why someone as ambitious as Suzanne, even if she is an airhead, would marry someone as laid-back as Larry. If she were so career-minded, she would see that Larry would only hold her back.

I have never made a secret of my dislike for Nicole Kidman, but even I would be pretty hard-pressed to find a fault with her performance. She perfectly captures the overwrought mannerisms of someone so completely obsessed with television. Suzanne could have easily been played as a garden-variety dullard, but Kidman never makes one forget that as clueless as Suzanne really is, she sure thinks that she's smart. Also effective is Joaquin Phoenix, who convincingly conveys teen angst and puppy love; it's easy to believe that he would easily be caught in Suzanne's web.

To Die For may not be the cup of tea for those who love sunny and nice Hollywood fare, but for anyone who enjoys a good dose of mean-spirited comedy, you can't go wrong here.

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#11 September 28, 1995 by Michael Dequina


Showgirls one-sheet Showgirls (NC-17) no stars
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Fade in: A young woman stands at the dusty curb of a highway, trying to hitch a ride. The camera pans around to view her front, eventually zooming in to a closeup of her face, to which a number of people in the audience hiss, "She's UGLY!" Believe it or not, this is how the audience reacted to the introduction of "heroine" Nomi Malone when I saw the godawful sleazefest that is Showgirls. Tasteless, tawdry, and guaranteed to leave you rolling in the aisles, this reteaming of the Basic Instinct duo of director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is the best bad filmmaking Hollywood has to offer.

Eszterhas's threadbare scenario traces the meteoric rise of Nomi (the hard-on-the-eyes Elizabeth Berkley), a stripper/lap dancer who manages to not only claw her way into becoming a "legitimate" Las Vegas showgirl, but also becomes a headliner--all in a matter of months. The main obstacle comes in the form of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, playing a role written for Sharon Stone), the reigning diva of the Stardust showroom. That's it. But along the way, the audience is treated to a whirlwind tour of debauchery, indecency, and just plain bad taste: an S&M dance sequence, nude dancers furiously gyrating in the laps of fully-clothed males, hand-verified menstruation (don't ask), lipstick licked off of nipples (ditto), enough bare breasts to start a dairy--and, in the final reel, a violent gang rape and a quasi-martial arts beating scene thrown in for good (bad) measure.

Eszterhas's work here really makes you question why he's the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood history, earning about $3 million a script. And what does that money buy? A nonexistent plot, infinite lewdness, shallow characterizations, and--the Eszterhas trademark--laughably bad lines, such as "I liked it when you came [on me]," the destined-to-be-quoted "I have a problem with pussy, all right? I always have, and I'm always gonna," and the biting zinger "Who wants to see her snatch, anyway?"

The latter line could be asked in reference to Berkley, easily the least attractive and talented of the original three Saved by the Bell actresses (Lark Voorhies and 90210's Tiffani-Amber Thiessen being the other two). It's probably a cheap shot to criticize an actor's looks, but in a role that requires the person playing it to exude strong sexual charisma, Berkley comes off as sexy as a half-eaten donut. And her acting is just as convincing: her overwrought "emoting" during the "serious dramatic scenes" left the audience, including myself, howling. You haven't seen the height of unintentional comedy until you've seen her yell angrily, "YOU DON'T KNOW SHIT!"

Director Verhoeven usually coaxes great performances from his actors, but he was probably too distracted by all the nude women to notice that he was directing the acting equivalent of the Titanic. Gershon tries hard to come off as a cold bitch, but she overdoes the act, tossing her hair and trying to make every line a memorable moment in onscreen bitchiness. Kyle MacLachlan is just plain dull as the Stardust's entertainment director; it's hard to believe that this is the same guy whose memorably quirky acting made Twin Peaks a must-watch. The rest also fail to make an impression, but since everyone's in the buff, who needs a personality, right? (Wrong.)

With Showgirls, the usually reliable Verhoeven has hit rock bottom. The only noteworthy stylistic flourishes are his down-to-a-T recreations of Las Vegas stage shows; he successfully captures the gaudy glory of these spectacles of excess. But that's about it. He has gone on record to say that he hoped to make a serious adult entertainment that wouldn't disgust the audience, but he's failed in that respect (and others).

What Verhoeven and Eszterhas have succeeded in making is an instant camp classic destined to become one of Movieline magazine's "Bad Movies We Love." My advice to Mr. Verhoeven: Get away from Joe Eszterhas, now--before it's too late.

In Brief

Se7en one-sheet Se7en (R) ** 1/2
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This very gloomy thriller stars Morgan Freeman and a surprisingly adequate Brad Pitt as two homicide detectives who investigate a series of murders based on the seven deadly sins. A vast improvement over director David Fincher's last effort, the arty bore Alien3, but it suffers from the same basic problem the other film had: a very sluggish, slack pace, which robs this mystery of any urgency. The opening credit sequence, however, is a mini masterpiece of filmmaking.

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