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The Movie Report
Volume 10

#55 - 58
August 23, 1996 - September 19, 1996

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

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#58 September 19, 1996 by Michael Dequina


The First Wives Club poster The First Wives Club (PG) **
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Walking out of the big press screening for The First Wives Club, I couldn't help but feel as if I missed something. While the bulk of the audience, which had been laughing heartily during the film, left the theatre all aglow with laughter and smiles, I left thinking it wasn't anything remotely special, a light comedy that at best had its moments and at worst was trite, labored, and much too nice.

Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton are ceaselessly energetic as three pushing-50 lifelong friends whose husbands who left them for younger women. Film producer Bill (Victor Garber) left aging, vain starlet Elise (Hawn) for an untalented ingenue (Elizabeth Berkley--'nuff said); electronics salesman Morty (Dan Hedaya) left the brash, zaftig Brenda (Midler) for sassy, svelte Shelly (a perfectly catty Sarah Jessica Parker); and ad exec Aaron (Stephen Collins) ditched the whiny, wimpy Annie (Keaton) for her psychotherapist, Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden). After an old friend (Stockard Channing) kills herself after her hubby (James Naughton) leaves her for a young trophy wife (Heather Locklear, wasted in a wordless cameo), the three form the First Wives Club, determined to exact painful revenge on their exes.

Problem is, the revenge isn't painful enough. For a feminist revenge fantasy, The First Wives Club is much too nice; the script by Robert Harling (based on Olivia Goldsmith's novel) doesn't have enough of a venomous edge: the trio's revenge antics aren't that nasty, and there aren't nearly enough acid one-liners--something is wrong if the best insults are those the three women direct toward each other, not the men. What makes this a greater shame is that the three stars are in peak form, obviously enjoying working with each other, having a ball. Hawn takes top acting honors, so very funny and convincing as a poster girl for plastic surgery; Keaton next, hilariously playing Annie's neuroses to the hilt; then Midler, who is no comic slouch but just has less of a character to work with than her co-stars.

There are some funny moments to be had, such as a couple of good one-liners and slapstick gags here and there, but for every one of those, there are a handful that don't quite work. An interlude at a lesbian bar is ripe with comic potential, but so little time is spent there that it does not pay off as well as it could have. One of the more crowd-pleasing sequences has the trio riding an out-of-control window-washing scaffold, but the rhythm of the scene is interrupted by a gratuitous, forced bit where a couple in bed recognizes Elise through the window and compliments her appearance. Director Hugh Wilson also attempts to add some seriousness to the proceedings, throwing in moments where the music grows more somber and the audience is cued to "feel" for the lead characters; these moments are at odds with the majority of the film, which often asks the viewer to not just laugh with, but at, the over-the-top heroines.

It would not surprise me if The First Wives Club became a word-of-mouth hit with women, especially older ones; the feminist message, the three stars, and the outrageous comedy will probably be enough. But for this (yes, male) viewer, it wasn't quite enough.

Maximum Risk poster Maximum Risk (R) **
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The latest vehicle for the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Maximum Risk, is as nondescript as the tacked-on title (the film was originally titled the more appropriate, though less slam-bang, The Exchange), fairly devoid of any distinct personality that would set it apart from other action flicks.

The film starts off promisingly enough, with Van Damme being bumped off within the first five minutes, after a well-staged and edited chase. Unfortunately for acting scholars everywhere, good ol' Jean-Claude resurfaces as the twin of the dead J-C, and he heads off to New York to investigate the murder and the life of the brother he never knew he had. Needless to say, said brother was involved with some shady characters--the Russian Mafia--and he soon finds himself running for his life with his brother's lover (Natasha Henstridge, reduced to playing a typical action movie "girl" after her maneating turn in Species) in tow.

Like 1993's Hard Target, Maximum Risk marks the American debut of a celebrated Hong Kong action director--in this case, Ringo Lam, famous for his On Fire trilogy. Unfortunately, Lam isn't able to energize the miniscule goods delivered by Larry Ferguson's tired, unexciting script. Lam's visual style is a lot grittier and less flashy than John Woo's (the flashiest bit is a shot that follows the path of a bullet), and thus the script's flaws aren't concealed too well. He does, however, competently stage what brief snatches of action there are, though none of it is especially exciting. Van Damme also comes off slightly worse than usual, appearing quite stiff, which is likely Lam's inadvertent doing. In his Hong Kong work, he usually coaxes understated performances from capable actors such as Chow Yun-Fat; Van Damme, on the other hand, isn't much of an actor, and as such his attempted "subtlety" comes off as just plain wooden.

As junky as Hard Target was, its flash was enough for Hollywood to take notice of John Woo. I'm not so sure how Hollywood will treat Ringo Lam. He's a talented filmmaker, but without Woo's stylistic flair and a Van Damme vehicle worse than Hard Target under his belt, his future Tinseltown prospects, unfortunately, don't look too bright.


Happy Gilmore poster Happy Gilmore (PG-13) no stars
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Adam Sandler's golf comedy is at least better than the abysmal Billy Madison (which isn't saying a whole lot by any means), but it's still pretty lame, unfunny stuff. Sandler mugs his way through another box office recouper as the titular wannabe hockey player who turns to golf to save his grandmother's (Frances Bay, a long way from Twin Peaks) house. With this role and his in Billy Madison, Sandler has cornered the market on asshole characters--Billy was a obnoxious smart-aleck type; Happy is an abrasive borderline psycho prone to violent eruptions. After the first couple of times Happy breaks into violence, the act grows old. With this, Madison, and the recent Bulletproof, Sandler continues to pack in decent-sized crowds in movie houses, but his appeal continues to elude me. (MCA/Universal Home Video)

Jumanji poster Jumanji (PG) ** 1/2
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Robin Williams and a bunch of impressive CGI effects--how could this one not go wrong? A simple irony--in adapting Chris Van Allsburg's award-winning children's picture book of the same name to the big screen, director Joe Johnston has all but completely made the material unsuitable for its target audience, young children. Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, and newcomer Bradley Pierce play a jungle board game that literally brings the jungle to them--in the form of exotic, deadly greenery; animal stampedes, monsoons, et al. The computer generated animal effects are impressive; the four central players manage to not be completely upstaged by the effects; and a couple of the suspense sequences do work, but as a whole the film is much too intense for the young 'uns, and all the effects in the world can't disguise the thin plot. Not bad, but take heed of the rating--parental guidance is suggested. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

Mighty Aphrodite poster Mighty Aphrodite (R) ** 1/2
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Mira Sorvino deservedly won this year's Supporting Actress Oscar for her campy, vampy portrayal of Linda Ash, a.k.a. Judy Cum, hooker, sometimes porn actress, and mother of the baby son whom a sports writer (Woody Allen) and a gallery worker (Helena Bonham Carter, out of period garb and sporting a New Yawk accent, no less) adopt. But when Sorvino's off the screen, your eyes may follow, for nothing else in Allen's latest comedy is nearly as fresh and funny as Sorvino's outrageous performance. The gimmick of having an anachronism-spouting, "Classical" Greek chorus frame the story is a hit and miss affair; Allen's neurotic nebbish schtick is growing somewhat tiresome; and a subplot involving Bonham Carter's dalliance with a slick colleague (Peter Weller) isn't fleshed out satisfactorily. All in all, the same ol' Woody, though not as effective as some of his past work. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

The Truth About Cats & Dogs poster The Truth About Cats & Dogs (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Director Michael Lehmann erases memories of his infamous Hudson Hawk (OK, almost) with this witty and delightful Cyrano de Bergerac variation about a shy, self-loathing radio veterinarian (Janeane Garofalo, not exactly an "ugly duckling" type) who has her model/aspiring newscaster neighbor (Uma Thurman) provide the body for her voice to an amorous listener (Ben Chaplin). Thurman is perfect as the stereotypical ditzy model (with a heart of gold, natch), and Chaplin impresses as the lovesick dupe. As effective as they are, the bulk of the credit goes to screenwriter Audrey Wells and director Lehmann, who keep the formulaic and preposterous premise fresh and fast-paced; and, especially, Garofalo, whose warm, magnetic, yet unconventional presence instantly pulls the audience into the story. She's funny and immensely likable, yet not exactly "cuddly"--think Sandra Bullock with an edge. A winner. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Not New

City on Fire poster Prison on Fire poster City on Fire ***
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Prison on Fire ***
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Instead of watching Maximum Risk, check out these two thirds of Ringo Lam's On Fire trilogy (the more obscure School on Fire being the third). 1987's City on Fire is best known as the film Quentin Tarantino "ripped off" in Reservoir Dogs. While the two films do share basic plot elements--an undercover cop (Chow Yun-Fat in City) infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, bonding with one of the gang (Danny Lee, Chow's co-star in John Woo's The Killer)--they share little else. Instead of being the ensemble piece Dogs is, City is very much the cop's story, showing glimpses of his outside life and how that life ultimately can't exist independently of the dangerous life undercover. It's a little slow going, but Chow, as always, is fantastic (he won the HK equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar for his performance), and the story pays off in the end; in fact, it is only the closing 20 minutes of City that strongly resemble Dogs.

Prison on Fire, also from 1987, is a prison drama focusing on the relationship between a new inmate (Tony Leung Kar-fai, of The Lover) in for manslaughter and a hardened con (Chow) in for murdering his wife. The two bond while running afoul of a convicted triad boss and the prison powers that be. Leung's character is too wimpy to completely engage the audience, and it is Chow who once again takes command, handling the drama and comedy (watch for the hilarious scene where he philosophizes during a bowel movement) with equal capability. Like City, this one also progresses rather slowly before building to a frenzied--and bloody--finale. These two HK imports are much safer entertainment bets than the uneventful Maximum Risk. (Tai Seng Video)

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#57 September 12, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Grace of My Heart poster Grace of My Heart (R) *** 1/2
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The light, fun atmosphere of the music scene of the '50s and '60s has been captured quite vividly in writer-director Allison Anders's Grace of My Heart, a moving seriocomic look at one songwriter's professional and spiritual journey.

Most of the film centers on the famed Brill Building in New York, a haven for songwriters in the '50s and '60s run by manic record producer Joel Millner (John Turturro). One songwriter employed at the building is one Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas), née Edna Buxton, a New England steel mill heiress who dreams of having her own recording career. In the interim, however, she cranks out hit pop tunes for Joel and a variety of musical acts, developing a successful songwriting career while getting involved in disastrous romances, including a marriage to "socially conscious" songwriter Howard Caszatt (a hilarious Eric Stoltz) and an affair with married disc jockey John Murray (Bruce Davison).

This portion of the film is fast-paced, funny, involving, and full of infectious tunes, which, despite their period sound, were all expressly written for the film. The film, I'm afraid, takes a misguided detour in its last third when the Brill Building is closed down, Denise marries hipster record producer Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) and moves to California, and wildly energetic Turturro disappears from the scene. This is not to say that Douglas (Cape Fear), in her first leading role, is unable to hold the screen on her own; she is an appealing, likable presence with a refreshing, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor balanced with the right amount of earnestness needed to pull off the heavier dramatic scenes. The problem is that the melodrama of Grace isn't nearly as interesting as the songwriting aspect, and the final third is mostly devoted to Denise's relationship with Jay. Denise's string of failed romances becomes so repetitive and predictable that the audience anticipates the moment when her marriage to Jay will go sour. Anders corrects her course at the end, though, when Turturro returns and the songwriting slant again takes over; however, this isn't enough to erase memory of the turgid pace of the Jay section.

For the most part, Anders has made a triumphant comeback after her horrendous opening segment for Four Rooms, crafting an intelligent, engaging comedy-drama that will have audiences tapping their toes and running off to buy the soundtrack. Grace will sing in your heart long after the end credits start rolling.

In Brief

The Crow: City of Angels poster The Crow: City of Angels (R) *
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Vincent Perez is game, but he--nor anyone involved in this sloppy production--can erase the fond memories of the late Brandon Lee and the far-superior 1994 original. Perez plays Ashe, who is revived from the dead by a crow to avenge his murder and that of his young son. Ashe shares a psychic bond with tattoo artist Sarah (Exotica's Mia Kirshner, wasted), which is where we run into the film's first big problem--Sarah is, in fact, the adult incarnation of Sarah, the skateboarding girl played in the original film by Rochelle Davis. There is no way to clearly glean this pivotal bit of info from David S. Goyer's script; it doesn't help that Kirshner does not resemble Davis at all. A couple of people behind me kept on asking "How does she know so much about the Crow?" I'm sure they weren't the only ones asking.

But that's just the beginning of this sequel's troubles. The main villain, Judah (Richard Brooks), is a huge bore; Perez's thick French accent makes a lot of his yelled dialogue incomprehensible; and there's always the feeling that we've seen this all before and done much better. Director Tim Pope, making his big screen debut, does little more than ape the quick-edit style Alex Proyas used in the original film; his idea of a fresh touch is lingering on S&M kinks which, quite frankly, are boring. Like the original, the film is never a bore to look at, boasting superb art direction; unlike the original, this film has nothing to offer but surface appearances. This Crow never takes flight.

The Rich Man's Wife poster The Rich Man's Wife (R) **
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"Who is Keyser Söze?" Hard to believe, but the signature line from The Usual Suspects has everything to do with Indecent Proposal screenwriter Amy Holden Jones's directorial debut, a limp "from-hell" thriller that is also a most unlikely knockoff of Bryan Singer's celebrated crime drama. The ever-lovely Halle Berry plays the title character, who becomes suspected of wrongdoing when her rich spouse (Christopher McDonald) is murdered. The real culprit, however, is a casual acquaintance (Peter Greene, best known as Pulp Fiction's Zed) who becomes dangerously obsessed with Berry, who tries to get rid of him for good. The presence of the talented Berry and the elements lifted from Suspects are about the only things that feel fresh in what is essentially the latest tired entry in the "from-hell" genre: the acquaintance-from-hell. Jones's idea of suspense sequences are repetitive scenes of Berry being chased and a ludicrous scene where Greene, with Berry along for the ride, drives his truck recklessly in the forest without his headlights (horrors). I say it's time the "from-hell" genre was put to rest.

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#56 August 29, 1996 by Michael Dequina


The Trigger Effect poster The Trigger Effect (R) * 1/2
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The title of screenwriter David Koepp's directorial debut, The Trigger Effect, is meant to reflect how one event--in this case, a blackout--can trigger a chain of (largely unfavorable) events. The title actually better describes the execution of the film than its basic plot--one bad idea sets off a series of more bad ideas until the film becomes unsalvageable.

Writer-director Koepp establishes the scene rather well, setting up a promising psychodrama: the young married couple of Matt (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue) find their life thrown off balance when a massive power outage paralyzes the city and Matt's best friend Joey (Dermot Mulroney) comes to stay in their home. Matt is a somewhat stuffy elitist who can reveal a more savage side when push comes to shove; Annie is a new mother with a checkered past as a "wild child" and Joey is the slightly boorish, macho type. Having these three mercurial personalities stuck in a claustrophobic setting and reverting to more primal instincts is fertile fodder for a psychological thriller.

But all the promise is wiped away when the three (four including Matt and Annie's daughter) decide to leave town and make a long, hard journey through the desert and country to Annie's parents' house. Interesting plot strands (such as Joey's slight awakening of Annie's wild side) established in the house are abandoned for the conventional trappings of a road picture. And the characters start to act like only those in a movie would act in order to further the plot--for example, they decide to make an unnecessary stop for fuel, which lands them right next to the car of a mysterious stranger (Michael Rooker) who, of course, causes trouble. One bad, credibility-straining plot turn lead to another until the weak, clichéd conclusion, one of those "things are back to normal but never will be the same again" endings.

It's ironic that the directorial debut of celebrated screenwriter Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible) would fall short in the writing department but show some life on the directorial end. While he cannot generate enough suspense and forward momentum to carry the movie through from beginning to end, he is able to create some suspenseful moments, such as scenes involving a prowler and a pharmacy break-in. Visually, Koepp tends to overdo blue (witness the fades to blue and more blue lighting than your average X-Files episode), but he at least makes the whole package visually interesting, and he coaxes decent performances from the stars, who have to overcome some rather shallow characterizations.

Ultimately, The Trigger Effect will become a victim of its own title--once word of mouth spreads on this unthrilling thriller, its minimal box office power will be shut off.

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#55 August 23, 1996 by Michael Dequina


The Fan poster The Fan (R) ***
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As shown in Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Cape Fear, Robert DeNiro has nailed down the psycho stalker bit cold. As if he needed to prove it again, DeNiro plays--rather well, I might add--the titular stalker in the new thriller The Fan. While not quite as inspired as the work of its lead, Tony Scott's film is an entertaining piece of work, if not the most original.

Gil Renard's (DeNiro) life is in ruins--he's about to be let go from the sporting knife company is father created, and his wife (Patti D'Arbanville Quinn) won't let him see his son. While everything crashes around him, Gil holds on even more tightly to the one thing that's kept him relatively sane--San Francisco Giants baseball. Ironically, it is also what drives him over the edge, for he becomes obsessed with helping his favorite Giant, highly-paid outfielder Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), come out of a slump.

Despite fine work from the always-great Snipes, Ellen Barkin (as a tough sports radio host), and, surprisingly, John Leguizamo (appropriately oily as Bobby's agent), this is DeNiro's movie all the way. The territory is quite familiar for him, and as such his work can't help but feel somewhat derivative--the geeky, deluded Gil is a variation of The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin. But to make him Pupkineque is a wise choice; Gil, while always somewhat on the edge, comes off as a regular guy--passionate about his likes and dislikes, somewhat overconfident at times, but not nearly as cool as he thinks he is. When Gil does finally lose it, DeNiro doesn't chew the scenery; he remains rather calm, an appropriate acting choice that conveys Gil's feeling of justification for his actions--and, in the process, appears more menacing and more human.

However, the human angle in the latter part of the film comes exclusively from DeNiro, for Phoef Sutton's script doesn't follow the same line. Sutton effectively humanizes Gil in the film's first half, showing how a borderline personality is finally driven to insanity by the turmoil of outside events. But when he crosses that line, all of that goes out the window. There's no more empathizing with Gil, only fear of what he's become--a murderous psycho. It is to DeNiro's credit, and director Scott's, that Gil manages to come off as more. Sutton does manage to work in a great bit near the end of the film where Bobby asks Gil what he wants from him, and, after a moment of pondering, Gil can't come up with an answer. In that brief moment, Sutton vividly shows the absurdity of the stalker mentality.

The biggest problem of The Fan isn't the writing--it's the theatrical trailer, which gives pretty much the whole film away. Director Scott must be commended for making a brisk, stylish film that still manages to create some suspense, even if a number of the plot points were divulged in the trailer. It's not especially scary, but it does entertain, and that's the bottom line.


The Abyss poster The Abyss Special Edition (PG-13)
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Finally making its debut on videocassette after a brief theatrical engagement in 1993 and a successful run on laserdisc is James Cameron's spectacular extended version of his underwater epic, which was hacked to pieces for its initial theatrical run in 1989. The involving tale of two former spouses (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who come together on the underwater oil rig she created (and which he runs) under the shadow of potential nuclear war is now fully fleshed out and, most importantly, makes complete sense. The true motives of the dazzling underwater aliens (the effects for which won an Oscar) are explained with an extended, effects-laden conclusion that is infinitely more rewarding--and powerful--than the baffling original finale. What was once a well-made, well-acted mess is now a very poignant and satisfying sci-fi adventure. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Aladdin and the King of Thieves poster Aladdin and the King of Thieves **
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This final, direct-to-video installment of Disney's lucrative Aladdin trilogy is miles better than the previous straight-to-tape sequel, the oh-so-dull The Return of Jafar, for one reason--the return of Robin Williams as voice of the Genie. But this tale of Aladdin's (spoken by Scott Weinger, sung by Brad Kane) reunion with his father, the King of Thieves (John Rhys-Davies), isn't involving enough to sustain interest when the Genie is offscreen. There are a couple of catchy tunes this time around, and Williams, picking up where he left off in the original, is hilarious (stay tuned after the end credits for a funny Aliens takeoff), but this sequel seems more of a marketing ploy than a thought-out film. The kids'll love it, and the adults will be amused, but the whole exercise feels unnecessary. (Walt Disney Home Video)

Mr. Holland's Opus poster Mr. Holland's Opus (PG) *** 1/2
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Who knew the director of Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead was capable of making a profoundly moving drama? Richard Dreyfuss earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his affecting work as Glenn Holland, a small-time composer who becomes a popular high school music teacher for thirty years, along the way fathering a child who loses his hearing at an early age, and writing his magnum opus, "An American Symphony." What sets this film apart from the other "teachers who make a difference" movies is that the audience sees his impact on different classes of different students over the years, not just one, making Mr. Holland a truly inspiring hero. Some of the more blatantly manipulative, "Oscar clip" moments didn't quite work for me, such as one scene where Mr. Holland sings and signs John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" to his deaf son at a concert, but as a whole, a triumph for Dreyfuss and director Stephen Herek, who will return to the land of the popcorn movie with this fall's live-action 101 Dalmatians. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)

Sense and Sensibility poster Sense and Sensibility (PG) *** 1/2
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A little funny, a bit sad, and all-around entertaining, it's quite easy to see why director Ang Lee and screenwriter/star Emma Thompson's adaptation of the Jane Austen novel earned such a loyal following, especially among critics and Academy members. Thompson and Kate Winslet play sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who are perpetually unlucky in love. Passionate, romantic Marianne, admired from afar by the older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) is hung up on the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise); and the quiet, reserved Elinor's heart belongs to one Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), the brother of her bitchy sister-in-law. Thompson does some nice subtle work, as does Rickman, but it is versatile SAG Award winner Winslet who steals the show; her spirited, spunky performance couldn't be more different from her dark, scary work in Peter Jackson's disturbing Heavenly Creatures. Faring the worst is Grant, who is just plain bad. Appearing uncomfortable in his period garb, he is laughably stiff, ruinously so; one wonders why Elinor would fall for someone so robotic. But even Grant's uninspired work can't ruin the agreeable, overwhelming atmosphere of fun and romance. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

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