The Movie Report
Volume 13

#65 - 68
November 7, 1996 - November 27, 1996

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

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#68 November 27, 1996 by Michael Dequina


101 Dalmatians poster 101 Dalmatians (G) ** 1/2
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Part vamp, part tramp, and all camp, Glenn Close's wonderfully wicked turn as the ultimate Disney diva, Cruella DeVil, powers 101 Dalmatians, the studio's new live-action version of its beloved 1961 animated feature. Problem is, unless you are age 10 or under, there is little else to hold your attention for the entire 98 minutes.

Producer-screenwriter John Hughes and director Stephen Herek's take on the tale of the fur-loving DeVil, the spotted puppies from whose coats she wants to make herself a coat, and the married owners (Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson) of the dalmatian parents Pongo and Perdy is actually quite faithful to the original animated feature. Viewers familiar with that version will be pleased with how well some scenes survived the cartoon-to-live-action translation, such as Perdy's stressful delivery of her 15 puppies and the apparent stillbirth and ultimate revival of the pup Lucky. While the dogs and other animals do not talk this time around, the communication between the animals does come through and is easily understood. The "twilight bark," where Pongo barks into the night sky to summon other animals to search for his and Perdy's stolen puppies, still makes for a striking scene without the spoken exposition that frames it. And Close's Cruella matches her animated counterpart's nastiness and then some; her hilariously over-the-top turn is sure to influence drag queens everywhere.

Hughes and Herek's failure, however, lies in their incessant indulgence in broad slapstick, which comes off as labored and not especially funny. The scene where Daniels's Roger and Richardson's Anita first meet in the park is cheapened by too many pratfalls and dives into water. Also, the puppies' big escape from their barn prison has been needlessly punched up by Home Alone-type slapstick involving the two dognappers, Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams). Herek not only tries evoke that fluke Macaulay Culkin phenomenon through the cartoony violence, but also through the duo's appearance--Jasper sports a beard and curly hair la Daniel Stern's bumbling burglar, and Horace is a shorter, heavier fellow wearing a hat not unlike Joe Pesci. Worst of all, the slapstick gives Close the short end of the stick, for in the end Cruella's campy edge takes a back seat to the physical punishment she takes from the animals--having a boar fall on her, being dumped in mud and molasses, etc.

Nonetheless, the film entertained the kids at the big critics' screening, and I'm sure children around the world will have fun with 101 Dalmatians, which is exactly what the folks at Disney had in mind. But with the preordained success of this underachieving animation-to-live-action translation, this Disney animation fan cannot help but worry about what possibly ruinous adaptation ideas the studio has in mind for its other cartoon classics...

In Brief

The English Patient poster The English Patient (R) ****
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All across the country critics and sell-out crowds have been going ga-ga over Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's complex WWII-set novel, and it's easy to see why. This highly passionate and moving drama centers on a severely burned, amnesiac pilot (Ralph Fiennes), who, through, a series of flashbacks, puts together the pieces of his past, in particular his intense love affair with a married woman (Kristin Scott Thomas). This love story plays against one blossoming between the pilot's French Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche) and an Indian bomb and mine defuser (Naveen Andrews). The film last a little over 160 minutes and takes its time answering its own narrative questions, but one is completely captivated throughout the entire film, thanks in no small part to the excellent performances, the sizzling chemistry between Fiennes and Scott Thomas, and the all-consuming passion and conviction of its story. This very impressive achievement for all involved is sure to be an Oscar contender next March.

Jingle All the Way poster Jingle All the Way (PG) ** 1/2
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If it weren't for the credits "A Brian Levant Film" and "Directed by Brian Levant," one would be certain that the director behind this family comedy was Home Alone's Chris Columbus, for its wall-to-wall slapstick sure bears the Columbus stamp (he actually only produced). If you know what I'm talking about, then you know all you really need to know about this tale of two stressed-out fathers (Arnold Schwarzenegger and a scene-stealing Sinbad) trying to find the hottest action figure of the season, Turbo Man, on Christmas Eve to give to their respective sons. The first hour is what you would expect from a Columbus production, with cartoony fights, lots of stuff being knocked down and tripped over, and ceaseless mugging (which, needless to say, is not Schwarzenegger's strong suit). What keeps this kidpleaser from being completely tired is the surprising special effects-laden final act. No point in blowing the specifics, but this film's closing twenty minutes or so are more funny and entertaining than the hour which precedes it. Only a must-see for Arnold fanatics and fans of that broad, oh-so-Columbus-y brand of slapstick.

#67 November 21, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Star Trek: First Contact poster Star Trek: First Contact (PG-13) *** event pix
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Anyone familiar with the series of Star Trek movies knows of the "even-odd pattern"--the even-numbered installments of the series are good while the odd-numbered ones are, well, not-so-good. The pattern continues with the new Star Trek: First Contact, an energetic sci-fi adventure that (coincidentally?) is the eighth entry in the hugely popular series.

In this first Trek feature to feature only cast members from the late Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the rest of the 24th-century crew of the Starship Enterprise--Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who also directed), android Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner), Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis)--travel back to 21st-century earth while doing battle with the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that share a collective mind with the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). The Borg intend to alter history and assimilate all of humankind into their race--starting with the earth-orbiting crew of the Enterprise and a 21st century stowaway (Alfre Woodard).

This is an interesting plotline that is sure to mesmerize Trekkers everywhere and engage everyone else, but, unfortunately, it only makes up the Star Trek half of the script by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. The other half of the title--First Contact--refers to a subplot that takes place on 21st-century earth, where Riker, Troi, and LaForge meet legendary scientist Zephram Cochran (James Cromwell), who is about to embark on the first warp speed flight in human history, which directly leads to the first contact with extraterrestrials. While this story does tie into the main plot and pays off interestingly in the end, it is nowhere near as involving or exciting as the Borg battles on the Enterprise. Not helping matters is the tiresome Cochran character, an eccentric whose drunken schtick starts out funny but becomes too one-note after a while.

In the end, though, the First Contact subplot doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the film as a whole. The story is typical sci-fi fantasy, but the conviction of the cast--most notably the always-phenomenal Stewart--makes you believe and care. Frakes, making his feature directorial debut, keeps the action swiftly rolling along and delivers the action goods, even upping the violence a notch (this is the first Trek film to bear a PG-13 rating) to greater effect. ST:FC has a bigger budget than the last Trek outing, the middling Star Trek Generations, and it definitely shows on screen--the production design and especially visual and makeup effects are outstanding (in particular those involving the Borg Queen). Braga and Moore's mostly sharp script will please both Trek devotees and the rest; the references to the Borg storyline in the TV series, the continuity with the previous film (e.g. the ongoing saga of Data's emotion chip), and a fleeting Star Trek: Voyager crossover will make Trekkers squeal with delight, but such points are made easily accessible to those less familiar to the Trek mythos.

Paramount was reportedly worried about the staying power of its Trek franchise with the Next Generation cast now carrying the helm. Based on the entertaining success that is Star Trek: First Contact, I'd say the studio has nothing to worry about (at least not until this cast retires and the crew of the wan Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes over...).

In Brief

The War at Home poster The War at Home (R) * 1/2
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Director-star Emilio Estevez's Vietnam vet drama is a mess, pure and simple. In this adaptation of James Duff's play Homefront (Duff also wrote the screenplay), Estevez plays an embittered vet who comes home to his family in 1972 Texas; his tensions with the family form the center of the film. Kathy Bates is fabulous as Estevez's histrionic nag of a mother, and Martin Sheen and Kimberly Williams also shine as Estevez's father and sister, respectively. The root of the film's troubles? Estevez himself, both in front of and behind the camera. As an actor, Estevez doesn't have the range to pull off the emotional fluctuations of the character; the fact that he is also not the warmest presence onscreen makes it hard to care about his central character. The even greater problems lie in his direction. The tone of the piece is completely confused; most of the scenes of familial tension and arguing play as farce, and at the drop of a hat the music changes, people start yelling and crying, and everything is played in earnest. Sometimes the tones overlap--in one dramatic moment, an upset Bates yells at and slaps Estevez, and suddenly Sheen brings up the subject of stolen peanut brittle--and the audience isn't sure exactly how to feel, whether to cry or laugh. In the end, I don't know if anyone will know exactly what emotional reaction Estevez was going after; I sure didn't.

#66 November 14, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Big Night poster Big Night (R) ****
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As they always say, less is more. Actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott make a highly auspicious directorial debut with this simple and bittersweet tale of two struggling Italian-American restaurateur brothers (Tucci and Wings's Tony Shalhoub) who sink all their remaining money and energy into a "big night" that could either save their business or kill it once and for all. Tucci and Shalhoub share a very convincing and touching rapport as the brothers, heading an impressive ensemble that doesn't disappoint--Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, and, in a small role, Scott. As in all food movies, there's an elaborate feast scene, and the big night of Big Night delivers the goods and then some; I can't imagine anyone not yearning for some good Italian food after watching this movie. The final scene is a true marvel--a long, single take that most impressively speaks volumes with nary a word spoken. A great achievement for Tucci (who also co-wrote), Scott, co-writer Joseph Tropiano, and all else involved.

Lone Star poster Lone Star (R) ****
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OK, I'm very behind in seeing this one, but better late than never. John Sayles's complex Texas saga is a mystery, but not just in the typical sense. While the main plot revolves around a small town sheriff Sam Deeds's (Chris Cooper) investigation into the murder of a hated, feared sheriff (Kris Kristofferson, effectively slimy) some thirty years ago, the film is also about the mystery of people in general--the secrets that shape people into who they are, those past events that shape one's existence. Like Sayles's City of Hope, Lone Star follows a number of interlocking characters and storylines, from the aforementioned investigation, Sam's resentment of his deceased father (Matthew McConaughey in a small flashback role), and his romance with a schoolteacher (Elizabeth Pena) to her own strained relationship with her mother (Miriam Colon) and the troubled family relations of an army colonel (Joe Morton). Well over two hours with not a single minute wasted, Lone Star is a great film, always fascinating and surprising--and immensely satisfying.

Secrets & Lies poster Secrets & Lies (R) ****
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This year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival went to writer-director Mike Leigh's searing portrait of a family on the brink of collapse. After her adoptive mother dies, a young black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to seek out her birth mother (Brenda Blethyn), a white factory worker whose clinginess and incessant whining has put her on the outs with her perpetually scowling daughter (Claire Rushbrook) and her photographer brother (Timothy Spall). After a rocky start, the two women somehow form a mother-daughter bond, leading to the inevitable moment when the already-shaky family meets its new member. Leigh's script and direction pushes all the right emotional buttons without getting overly melodramatic, and the acting is uniformly excellent. Cannes Best Actress winner Blethyn is a true standout, bravely keeping her character the pathetic, whiny, emotionally desperate woman that she is. She deserves an Oscar nomination--which means she won't get one.

Swingers poster Swingers (R) *** 1/2 event pix
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This latest exercise in indie hipster cool is "money"--and that's no joke, baby. This highly entertaining comedy centers follows a group of struggling L.A. actors as they make their party rounds, trying to win those coveted phone numbers from the ladies. The main focus is on Mike (Jon Favreau, who also wrote), a stand-up comedian still hopelessly pining for the girlfriend he left behind in Queens; and Trent (Vince Vaughn, perfectly cool and slightly geeky), a cocky ladies' man who isn't nearly as slick as he thinks he is. Favreau proves to be a major find both in front of and behind the camera, delivering in a very funny and sympathetic performance and a fresh, witty script with great dialogue--I wouldn't be surprised if some of the unique vernacular used in the film ("Baby, you're money") catches on in some circles. The entire project does bear the strong scent of self-indulgence, and director Doug Liman's extended visual homages to Scorsese and Tarantino feel a bit forced and too blatantly "hip," but it doesn't really matter--it's a blast.

Trees Lounge poster Trees Lounge (R) ** 1/2
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The title of indie king Steve Buscemi's screenwriting/directing debut refers to the small town tavern where unemployed mechanic Tommy (Buscemi) and his fellow barflies drink, talk, and mostly just sit around, doing nothing. Billed in ads as a "bleak comedy," this slow film does offer a bleak view of suburban life, but it isn't much of a comedy though there are some choice lines and moments. There really is no plot, just a set of sporadically involving vignettes centering on Tommy and the people with whom he interacts, with little connective narrative tissue. The film is exceptionally acted, especially by Kids's Chloe Sevigny, who plays the wise-beyond-her-years 17-year-old niece of Tommy's ex-girlfriend; however, the parade of cameos (by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Mimi Rogers, Debi Mazar, Anthony LaPaglia, and Daniel Baldwin), don't add much to anything. It's a competent, though slight, filmmaking debut, though not nearly as interesting as Buscemi's body of work in front of the camera.

#65 November 7, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Ransom poster Ransom (R) *** 1/2
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Every once in a while there comes a "can't miss" project that, once it hits the screen, falls flat on its face. Ransom isn't one of them. The involvement of director Ron Howard and stars Mel Gibson and Rene Russo add up to a powerful, riveting thriller that engrosses from beginning to end.

Touchstone has advised the press to keep the lid on some plot points (one of which, I think, is fairly obvious), so I will be as succinct as possible. Gibson and Russo play Tom and Kate Mullen, he a successful airline magnate, she his glamorous wife. They have it all--a penthouse in New York, money up to their ears, and a young son, Sean (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick)... Alas, things fall apart when Sean is kidnapped and held for $2 million ransom, which Tom eventually refuses to pay and instead offers as a bounty on the head of the kidnapper, much to the dismay of Kate and an FBI agent (Delroy Lindo) dealing with the case.

It is always a disappointment when the filmmakers have a good thing going then botch things up through carelessness. While the makers of Ransom don't botch the film, carelessness does lead to the film's two major gaffes--the clear presence of boom microphones in two different scenes. This is especially a shame, since both boom cameos take place during some key dramatic moments; in one, the drama and passion of a Gibson monologue is severely undermined by the boom. Instead of listening intently to the speech and paying attention to the story, the audience at the press screening could not help but roar with laughter.

Unwanted booms aside, Ransom is first-rate entertainment. Richard Price and Alexander Ignon's smart script wisely does not make Tom into a hero of impossible goodness; in fact, Tom is more than a little unsympathetic and morally ambiguous. His virtue--and sanity--is naturally called into question when he offers the ransom as a bounty, but his values are even more questionable when we learn that he paid a bribe to save his airline... yet won't pay for the safe return of his son. Gibson, in a fine performance, does not sugarcoat anything and creates a complex, difficult character. We see and feel his genuine love and concern for his son and can understand his desperation, but one cannot help but think that he's going about the whole thing wrong, that maybe he's lost his mind. What's more, he's not exactly sure that he's sane, either.

Howard garnered many an accolade for his directing chores on Apollo 13, but I feel his work here is just as accomplished, if not more. He mostly shoots the film matter-of-factly, free of flashy edits, and this restraint helps build the tension more naturally and makes the emotions feel more real. Howard's most notable achievement is with his cast, who all turn in solid work. In addition to Gibson, Russo also impresses, having more than her share of standout moments. Her role could easily be branded as thankless, but here she's given an opportunity to show more of her acting chops than ever before, painfully conveying the grief and anguish over her child's disappearance and her husband's questionable actions. Lindo has perhaps the most thankless role as the stock fed, but he still makes a lasting impression, and Gary Sinise is ideally tough and smart as an NYPD detective who gets involved in the case.

"Someone is going to pay," reads the tagline for Ransom. After seeing this smart and, yes, thrilling thriller, it is no mystery who that "someone" is--the moviegoing audience, who is sure to pay some major bucks to see this surefire box-office winner.

In Brief

High School High poster High School High (PG-13) **
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Director Hart Bochner and co-writer/producer David Zucker's satire of crusading teacher movies does drive home a few laughs, but not nearly as many as the Zucker name would lead you to believe. Jon Lovitz plays the inner city high school teacher who dares to challenge and enlighten the young minds in his classroom; naturally, his ambitious plans run into a snag or two, first from his students and then from his principal (Louise Fletcher). Part of the reason why HSH doesn't work as well as it could have is the casting of Lovitz; a great deal of the effectiveness of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker movies comes from the irony of casting of a typically non-comic star in the lead--they don't appear to be in on the joke. With a comedian like Lovitz in the lead, he seems a bit too aware of the silliness. Also, Zucker, Robert LoCash, and Pat Proft's script strays wildly from its target in the end, veering away from the school and into a late-inning plot involving... drug cartels? Wait until video.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet poster William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (PG-13) **
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After watching the first hour of Baz Luhrmann's Shakespeare-meets-the-20th-century take on the Bard's most celebrated romance, I was tempted to dismiss it as a complete disaster, one of the worst of the year. The main problem can be illustrated by the opening five minutes. Following a reading of the opening narration ("In fair Verona...") by a newscaster, we are treated to a quick-cut montage setting up the scene (Shakespeare meets MTV). We then have the opening Montague-Capulet confrontation, set at a gas station, with each new character introduced with a freeze frame and an on-screen ID (Shakespeare meets Trainspotting). Then bullets start to fly, and we see John Leguizamo (just awful as Juliet's cousin Tybalt) flying through the air in slow-mo with guns blazing (Shakespeare meets John Woo). In short, Luhrmann tries much too hard to push the '90s angle, so hard that the story is crushed by all the stylistic weight. And without the story to guide it, this first half decomposes into flamboyant, campy excess, complete with a drag musical number (Shakespeare meets To Wong Foo) at the costume ball where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio, solid) and Juliet (an exceptional Claire Danes, the only one of the young Americans who makes the Elizabethan speech sound natural) meet, and a revamped, pool-drenched balcony scene between the two young lovers that is nothing short of a travesty--a shame since DiCaprio and Danes have such a charming rapport.

But about midway through the film, something odd happened. Luhrmann, it seems, decided to rein in a horse that was completely out of control, and lets Shakespeare's tale tell itself without shoving the contemporary setting down the audience's throat--the visual style isn't quite as chaotic, and gone is the painfully forced slapstick. Luhrmann and co-scripter Craig Pearce do take a few small yet pivotal deviations from the original text (most notably in the final scene), but they mostly work. The result is a '90s-accessible yet respectful adaptation of the final half, and it does manage to achieve a level of poignancy, though not as strong as Franco Zeffirelli's more traditional 1968 version. However, as well-done as the second half is, it can't erase that horrible opening hour. Moreover, it just shows how impressive and groundbreaking the film would have been if the entire picture had been like the second half--making William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet more disappointing.


Mrs. Winterbourne poster Mrs. Winterbourne (PG-13) **
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Isn't it fitting that for her first major film since becoming a daytime talk show sensation, Ricki Lake chose a project whose story could easily be a topic on her show? Unfortunately, though, this weak While You Were Sleeping variation--While You Were Dead--isn't nearly as funny or flat-out entertaining as one of Ricki's trademark "all that" episodes. Lake plays Connie Doyle, a down-on-her-luck pregnant woman who finds her fortunes change when she's mistaken for the wife of a dead man--and promptly welcomed into his wealthy family, led by matriarch Shirley MacLaine. The Sleeping parallel wouldn't be complete without a brother whom Connie eventually falls for, and that role is filled by a stiff Brendan Fraser as the dead man's stuffy twin brother. Lake has a natural charm and likability, and MacLaine has a couple of good moments. But hack director Richard Benjamin (who was also responsible for the execrable "romantic comedies" Made in America and Milk Money) and screenwriters Phoef Sutton and Lisa-Marie Radano not only fail to come up with an adequate amount of funny moments, but they also botch the romance--I do not know exactly how, why, or when the snooty Fraser character warms up to the lower class Connie, and when they do get together, the pair doesn't ignite. At the end of this one, you're likely to chant just like the rowdy audience of Lake's talk show does at the close of each episode, but you'll be saying "No, Ricki!" instead of "Go Ricki!" (Columbia TriStar Home Video)


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