The Movie Report
Volume 15

#72 - 78
December 23, 1996 - February 6, 1997

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

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#78 February 6, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

The Beautician and the Beast poster The Beautician and the Beast (PG) **
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For her first major film role, The Nanny star Fran Drescher has played it safe, playing a character not too different from her child-rearing sitcom role: she plays a sharp-tongued New York beautician who, through some knotty circumstances, is hired to teach the children of an uptight Eastern European dictator (Timothy Dalton). Unfortunately, Ken Kwapis's fairy tale romantic comedy is about as hokey and banal as a sitcom, with predictable culture-clash gags and fairly flat one-liners. Kwapis and screenwriter Todd Graff don't seem too interested in the inevitable romance between Drescher and Dalton, who do exude some charm together; more attention is focused on the political situation in Dalton's country, which is a big bore. Nanny fans will love it; others won't.

Star Wars Special Edition poster Star Wars (Episode IV--A New Hope) Special Edition (PG) ****
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Twenty years after its initial release, George Lucas's initial installment of his space opera about the battle between the evil Galactic Empire and the heroic Rebellion still packs a mighty punch--and puts most recent "epic" blockbuster mediocrities like ID4 to shame. This spruced-up special edition features a few heavily hyped alterations, but aside from a couple of new scenes--including an amusing encounter between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt--most of the changes are subtle, from enhancement to visual and sound effects to the crediting of previously uncredited James Earl Jones as the evil Darth Vader's voice. Most of these subtle changes, especially the redone space battle sequences, are effective while a handful of others are less so--witness, or, rather, listen to how Princess Leia's (Carrie Fisher) laser blaster sounds like a regular gun firing bullets as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) prepares their memorable swing across a chasm. However, for all the effort Lucas put into "correcting" the initial version, my original quibbles about the film still stand. It takes a good hour of exposition before the film kicks into gear (and does it ever), and, at this stage of the game, the acting of Hamill and Fisher is a bit uneven. Hamill tends to overdo Luke's whiny naivete (never more evident in his memorably shrill delivery of the immortal line "But I wanted to go to the Torsche station to pick up some power converters"), and Fisher uses some odd "aristocratic" accent in certain scenes to convey royalty; of the top trio, only Ford is the one who settles in right away with his great sense of irony in portraying Han's cockiness. All in all, though, this is undoubtedly a film event that cannot be missed. If you haven't seen A New Hope on the big screen, you truly haven't seen anything at all.

#77 January 30, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Shadow Conspiracy poster Shadow Conspiracy (R) no stars
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Movies released in January typically come in three types: (1) wide releases of year-end limited engagements (Evita); (2) unpretentious crowdpleasers (Metro); and (3) long-delayed movies that are finally cleared from the studio shelves. Falling under the latter category (along with The Relic) is Shadow Conspiracy, and after sitting through this Charlie Sheen thriller, it's no mystery why it has collected dust for nearly a year--it stinks.

Sheen stars as presidential assistant Bobby Bishop, whose stellar speechwriting skills won the nameless Chief Executive (Sam Waterston) a second term. After a prominent professor is mysteriously murdered, Bishop, with the help of reporter--and, natch, former flame--Amanda Givens (Linda Hamilton) uncovers a deadly conspiracy lurking within the shadows of the government (hence the film's title).

It would be easy to dismiss Shadow Conspiracy on the terms of its writing and directing, which is abysmal. Adi Hasak and Ric Gibbs's script is not only predictable and hackneyed, but cornball as well. It's quite telling when the film's most original moment is also its most ludicrous--the unintentionally hilarious climax where an armed, remote-controlled toy helicopter mows down a room full of people. For all the chases director George P. Cosmatos packs into the film (which is pretty much one long chase), there's no excitement, no energy.

Cosmatos's biggest mistake, however, comes in the film's most glaring flaw--the casting. No offense to Mr. Sheen, but it's quite hard to buy him as a brilliant presidential assistant whose skill with words is held solely responsible for the President's reelection. Not helping matters is the fact that we get virtually no scenes where he's doing his job; the casting wouldn't be so hard to swallow if we saw the guy at work. Hamilton is a talented actress, but after the indelible impression of her machisma in T2, she just can no longer be bought as "the girl" in an action film, regardless of how hard she tries. But it's not like she tries hard, or at all, here anyway. Aside from miscasting, there's typecasting. Donald Sutherland plays Sheen's enigmatic mentor at the White House. Do you think he could have something to with the conspiracy? Sutherland as a bad guy? You think?

After what is sure to be the poor box office performance of Shadow Conspiracy, folks at Hollywood Pictures will probably wish they had left this wretched excuse for a thriller collecting dust in the shadows of the Disney vault.

#76 January 23, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Gridlock'd poster Gridlock'd (R) *** 1/2
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Before his untimely death last year, rapper-actor Tupac Shakur left behind a number of completed films in the can. The first to see the light of day is Gridlock'd, the energetic and enjoyable screenwriting and directing debut of actor Vondie Curtis-Hall (Broken Arrow, TV's Chicago Hope and Cop Rock).

After his girlfriend Cookie (Thandie Newton) falls into a drug-induced coma, heroin junkie Spoon (Shakur) decides to lay off the dope, forcing his comrade-in-blow Stretch (Tim Roth) to join him in detox. This simple decision sets off an exhausting chain of events where Stretch and Spoon run around town dealing with bureaucrats of varying rigidity and flee from a drug kingpin (Curtis-Hall) and the police, who suspect the two when a fellow drug fiend and his girlfriend are murdered.

Sounds like pretty heavy stuff, and sometimes it is. But like the big heroin-themed film of last year, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, the film is often quite funny, deftly walking the thin line between the harrowing and the hilarious. And the humor does not come out of nowhere and feel out of place; like life itself, comedy sometimes spring forth naturally from tragedy, with some inherent dark humor being found in what can be seen as the most serious of moments. But this is not to say that Curtis-Hall glosses over heroin addiction. Spoon and especially Stretch are seen for what they are--loser junkies--living in a dirty, cluttered apartment and getting into messes they could easily have avoided, often getting out through sheer luck alone (which results in some overly contrived moments). Curtis-Hall does add some interesting visual flair to the proceedings, using flashy editing and whatnot, but nothing here is as flashy as Boyle's sometimes surreal work in Trainspotting, and the entire film's look is appropriately grimy and gritty.

But even with Curtis-Hall's able efforts behind the camera, Gridlock'd could not have possibly worked without a convincing, charismatic lead duo, and Shakur and Roth fit the bill perfectly. Roth has the showier role, playing pathetic, dirty, and just plain wacky Stretch, and he pulls it off as well as one expects (even though his natural British accent sometimes slips into his on-screen New York accent). Shakur's more sensible Spoon is the straight man, but he is far from upstaged, holding his own with his confident, commanding presence; he truly had a bright future in film. Roth and Shakur's rapport is so natural, so effortless that you have no problem believing that they are longtime friends. It's too bad that a reteaming of the two is out of the question.

The pileup of films currently released amounts to one big traffic jam at movie houses, but the entertaining Gridlock'd should have no problem clearing a path to box office success.

In Brief

Albino Alligator poster Albino Alligator (R) ***
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Kevin Spacey makes a promising directorial debut with this sleek, efficient thriller. After a heist goes awry, three thieves (Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise, and William Fichtner) hole up in a bar and take the patrons hostage while the police (headed by Joe Mantegna) wait outside. As a whole, Spacey's work behind the camera is accomplished; he has an interesting visual style, and, not so surprisingly, he coaxes on-target performances from his actors, especially Dillon and Faye Dunaway, who plays one of the hostages. However, the suspense tends to come and go in patches rather than being consistently sustained from start to finish, and screenwriter Christian Forte's dialogue is not as snappy as it thinks it is. Yet Spacey, Forte, and the film still manage to build some momentum and tension into the compelling final act.

Prefontaine poster Prefontaine (PG-13) **
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For their fiction feature debut, the Hoop Dreams duo of director Steve James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert maintain a lot of their documentary techniques. This biography of the 1970s track star Steve Prefontaine (Jared Leto of TV's My So-Called Life) is less a traditional biopic than a "mockumentary," featuring "interviews" with Prefontaine's "family" and "friends," incorporation of actual newsreel footage, and the use of different film stocks. But for all the techniques used to give the film the feel of a probing documentary, I did not feel as if I really learned anything about Prefontaine. As we see the rebellious runner move his way up in the college ranks, have a disappointing performance in the 1972 Olympics, and get on track for the 1976 games before his untimely car-crash death in 1975, only one character trait is ever established, and that same note is hit ad nauseum for the entire running time--his arrogance. Needless to say, it's quite difficult to work up much sympathy for someone whose defining characteristic is arrogance. Strip away all the documentary trimmings and you've got nothing more than a glorified, profanity-sprinkled made-for-TV movie, from the cast (Leto, Melrose Place alum Amy Locane, Married... with Children's Ed O'Neill) right down to the shallow treatment of its subject.

#75 January 16, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Breaking the Waves poster Breaking the Waves (R) *** 1/2
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There has never been a film quite as unique and challenging in recent memory as Lars von Trier's complex 160-minute tale of love, religious faith, sex, and sacrifice, and it's easy to why critical reaction has been so ecstatic. The film, set in 1970s Scotland and neatly divided in seven chapters and an epilogue, tells the tale of Bess (Emily Watson, in a tremendously gutsy performance), a deeply religious and not-too-sane woman who finds spiritual and sexual fulfillment in Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her oil-rig worker husband. When he has to go away to the rig shortly after their wedding, the needy, lonely Bess prays for a speedy return. And that's what she gets, though not under the circumstances she had hoped--Jan is shipped back home after an accident that leaves him paralyzed and just a step away from death. Despite the objections of her family and friends, Bess refuses to give up on Jan, convinced that the power of her faith in God and love for Jan--which he suggests can survive only if she takes on numerous lovers--can cure him. This synopsis doesn't begin to do justice to the psychological and emotional complexities of the tale, brought to painfully realistic life by the astonishing Watson and von Trier, who shot the grainy, virtually unscored film entirely on handheld camera. That said, Waves does take a good three chapters to really kick into gear, and the final image--which is key to all that precedes it--is much too tidily literal for my taste, placing an overly simple and pretty bow on a work that is otherwise so refreshingly dark and complex. In any case, for the most part a beautifully realized piece of work.

Jackie Chan's First Strike poster Jackie Chan's First Strike (PG-13) *** event pix
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A few things have been altered for this fourth outing of Chan's wildly successful Police Story series: his Hong Kong cop, known in English language versions of the previous films as "Kevin Chan," is now known as "Jackie" (not "Jackie Chan," but simply "Jackie," no more, no less); on-screen girlfriend Maggie Cheung is nowhere to be found; and he now does work for the CIA and, as the movie progresses, a Russian investigative outfit. But slight alterations aside, all the action and laughs that one would expect from a Police Story film--or, for that matter, a Jackie Chan film--are in full view here. The plot, as it is, has Jackie traveling to the Ukraine and Australia in pursuit of a stolen nuclear warhead. But as is the case with all of Chan's films, the plot is a mere skeleton upon which to hang action and comedy bits, and oh what bits they are--a chase on the snowy mountains of the Ukraine; a hilarious and unique underwater martial arts climax; some funny business involving koala bear underwear; and, most memorably, an all-out martial arts display including some nifty uses of a ladder. Crack action director Stanley Tong, who helmed Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and the third Police Story film, Supercop, wisely keeps the action coming constantly, only taking brief respites to service the plot, which is at once simple and convoluted. The finale falls a bit flat, and the film doesn't measure up to Supercop or the superlative original film, but First Strike is pure fun for action fans everywhere.

Metro poster Metro (R) ** 1/2
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Eddie Murphy's big comeback hits a little snag with this diverting but conventional thriller in which laughs take a back seat to action. As a San Francisco Police hostage negotiator, Murphy has a few--only a few--choice comedic moments and acquits himself well in the action sequences, most notably in an entertaining chase bit involving a runaway cable car. Too bad screenwriter Randy Feldman isn't as game as Murphy or director Thomas Carter (who does a competent, if unspectacular, job) are. The script is incredibly derivative, from the main plot involving Murphy going after a colleague's murderer (a freshly shorn Michael Wincott) to the murder scene itself, which is a carbon copy of the elevator killing in Basic Instinct. Also, a subplot in which Murphy's character is assigned to train a SWAT sharpshooter (Michael Rapaport in a completely unnecessary role) in the art of negotiation has no payoff whatsoever. Still, Murphy, charming newcomer Carmen Ejogo (as his love interest), and Carter keep the proceedings interesting.

#74 January 9, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Relic poster The Relic (R) no stars
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The year is barely a week old, and there is already a candidate for the worst of 1997--The Relic, a would-be chiller that's more successful at making the audience laugh than scream.

In this ridiculous film from überhack Peter Hyams (whose last two pictures were dreadful Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles), a creature that feeds on the hypothalamuses (hypothalamii?) of humans and animals goes on a killing spree in a Chicago museum. How did this creature come into existence, and why does it feed on hormones? The "scientific" explanation cooked up by the four--yes, four--credited screenwriters (Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver) takes "suspension of disbelief" to new heights, even by monster movie standards. But as cockamamie as the science is in the film, it isn't quite as hard to swallow as the casting of the clueless Penelope Ann Miller as a brilliant molecular biologist who specializes in evolutionary genetics. Miller acts as if she wants an Oscar nomination, turning every scene that requires the slightest display of emotion into an overblown Oscar clip, complete with piercing wails and glycerine tears. Give it up, Penelope--it's a monster movie. On the flip side, Tom Sizemore just phones in his performance as a police lieutenant, but his role is so thankless that it's hard to imagine it being played any more effectively.

It's quite funny to see a film indulge, with the straightest of faces, in all those cheesy horror movie clichés that Wes Craven lampooned so well (and so recently) in Scream. For example, in one early scene, a museum security guard goes into a bathroom stall late at night. OK, we all know what's coming, but as if we didn't need any more confirmation, he pulls out a joint and starts puffing away. Everyone knows what happens to people who do drugs in a scary movie. And later, Miller frantically runs out of a museum exhibit after she hears some suspicious heavy breathing. Does she make a beeline for the front door? Of course not--she runs into the ladies room and cowers in a stall. With all the clichés, it is only fitting the film's climax offers what is perhaps the most overused one in recent film: that of someone outrunning a fireball.

If The Relic is truly "the next evolution in terror" as the poster states, then the horror film--and humanity--is in even worse shape than we thought.

In Brief

Michael Collins poster Michael Collins (R) *** 1/2
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Neil Jordan's bio of the Irish revolutionary (Liam Neeson) who fought for his country's freedom from Great Britain is not exactly what it would appear to be. Instead of being a slow, dull historical drama, it is actually an exciting action drama that, yes, takes liberties with historical fact. Neeson is ideally cast as Collins, providing the right mix of brains and brawn; he truly commands the screen. But this is not to say that the smaller players are overshadowed; Alan Rickman is quite memorable as the Irish political leader, and Aidan Quinn makes a positive impression, despite some accent inconsistencies, as Collins's best friend. Julia Roberts, surprisingly enough, isn't bad as the woman in Collins's life; her Irish brogue is infinitely more convincing here than it was in Mary Reilly. However, her character has very little, if anything at all, to do with the main action, and her romantic triangle storyline with Collins and Quinn's character is hopelessly contrived. Still, writer-director Jordan has made a fast-paced and rousing epic that is sure to win Neeson another Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

#73 January 2, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

The People vs. Larry Flynt poster The People vs. Larry Flynt (R) ****
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Funny, fascinating, and maybe just a little unsettling, Milos Forman's bio of Hustler magazine publisher Flynt is a stunning success. The film traces Flynt's (Woody Harrelson, in a career-best performance) tumultuous rise to the top, beginning with his days selling moonshine in the rural South as a child; ending with the landmark 1980s Supreme Court decision that upheld his First Amendment right to publish a lewd ad parody attacking evangelist Jerry Falwell; and hitting all key points in between: his management stint at a strip club; his constant envelope-pushing at Hustler; his marriage to bisexual stripper Althea Leasure (rocker Courtney Love, surprisingly assured and effective); and the assassination attempt that left him wheelchair-bound. The film has garnered Golden Globe nods for Harrelson, Love, director Forman, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and the picture itself, and all the acclaim is justly deserved. Forman, Alexander, and Karaszewski (who also penned Tim Burton's bitingly hilarious Ed Wood) keep all of the key events in Flynt's life moving at a brisk pace, all the while seeing the twisted humor in just about every situation and character. Flynt's honest and, in its own way, touching romance with Althea serves as an interesting counterpoint to the raunch of his business and the brashness of his attitude. The filmmakers' bravest--and most successful--move is in their frank, warts-and-all-and-then-some depiction of Flynt; who he is and what he does is not romanticized at all (though the on-screen depiction of the porn is understandably softened), which just adds power to the overall message of the film--that everyone in America has the right to express themselves however they wish to, regardless of whether or not you personally approve of what they do.

Scream poster Scream (R) *** 1/2
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A psycho killer obsessed with horror movies terrorizes a high schooler (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally murdered exactly one year earlier. Sounds like a typical, predictable slasher film, and to a certain extent, horror maven Wes Craven's latest is. But, ironically, the predictability is actually one of the film's virtues. Scream, written with much self-mocking wit by Kevin Williamson, is also a satire of the "scary movie" genre, knowingly highlighting and celebrating its formula trappings while poking fun at them; even the slasher sequences are so bloody extreme that their excess is a joke in itself. All of the self-referential humor may go over the heads of people just looking for a good frightfest, and on that level Scream also succeeds, generating genuine suspense and scares.


Primal Fear poster Primal Fear (R) ***
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Hot newcomer Edward Norton, currently seen in theatres in Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt, kicked off a celebrated debut year in movies with his Golden Globe-nominated performance as an altar boy accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago in Gregory Hoblit's entertaining adaptation of William Diehl's novel of the same name. Richard Gere is ideally cast as the publicity-hungry hotshot attorney who takes Norton's case, and Gere has a strong female foil in prosecutor Laura Linney, whose strong work here erases her lifeless work in the equally dead Congo (well, almost). One major twist that occurs about midway through is clichéd, but as a whole the film works quite well as a mystery and as a courtroom drama, thanks to first-time feature helmer Hoblit's brisk direction and fine acting by Gere, Linney, and especially Norton. (Paramount Home Video)

Tin Cup poster Tin Cup (R) ***
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Kevin Costner is in top form in Ron Shelton's latest sports comedy in which the Waterworld survivor plays a washed-up golfer who decides to enter the U.S. Open to win the affection of the psychiatrist girlfriend (Rene Russo) of his one-time friend, a slick, successful golf pro (Don Johnson, perfectly oily). This funny and sweet film should win over even those with the strongest aversion to golf; you don't have to be a connoisseur of the game to enjoy the spirited romantic sparring between Costner and the radiant Russo or the golf sequences, which Shelton milks to maximum suspense. Shelton delivers all the golf action and happy, "feel-good" emotions that audiences expect (and want) but, impressively, does so without following the traditional sports movie conventions. (Warner Home Video)

#72 December 23, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Ghosts of Mississippi poster Ghosts of Mississippi (PG-13) **
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Ghosts of Mississippi had all the ingredients to make a great, powerful film: a good director (Rob Reiner), a solid cast (led by Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, and James Woods), and a powerful storyline based on actual events--the 1994 retrial of Byron de la Beckwith (Woods, who garnered a Golden Globe nod for his hammy work), who in 1963 assassinated NAACP activist Medgar Evers. However, while watching the film, I could not help but think that Reiner and especially screenwriter Lewis Colick had missed the real point. This often slow courtroom drama focuses heavily on Bobby DeLaughter (Baldwin), the assistant DA who prosecutes the case, and his various domestic problems. Lost in all of this? The deceased--we are never given a true idea of who Evers really was. There is some talk of the accomplishments he made for African-Americans, but we never get a clearly defined idea of his importance and, in turn, the importance of the retrial. As a result, the ensuing drama is strangely devoid of any emotional weight, despite a fine lead turn by Baldwin.

Michael poster Michael (PG) * 1/2
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Get past John Travolta's oddly charismatic performance as overweight, chain-smoking, womanizing archangel Michael, and there's not much in the way of laughs or anything else in Nora Ephron's latest work of cinematic fluff. William Hurt and Andie MacDowell are aboard as a tabloid reporter and "angel expert," respectively, assigned to study Michael, and their love-hate relationship fails to catch fire; Hurt appears so uncomfortable in the film, period, let alone paired with MacDowell. Travolta will have a hard time duplicating anything approaching the successes of Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, and Phenomenon with this one.

One Fine Day poster One Fine Day (PG) *** 1/2
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Look up the word "cute" in the dictionary and you're likely to find a reference to Michael Hoffman's contrived yet delightful romantic comedy. Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney play two divorced single parents whose affairs and children become continually entangled during one eventful day. Guess what? They fall in love, but they don't admit to it until the end of the film. There's nothing in One Fine Day that anyone hasn't seen before in a romantic comedy, and in terms of laughs it can't measure up to the benchmarks of '90s romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping. What is special in the film is the remarkable chemistry between the impossibly glamorous pair of Pfeiffer and Clooney; they are just as convincing hating each other as they are loving each other. Sweet and oh-so-cute, this Day truly is Fine.

The Portrait of a Lady poster The Portrait of a Lady (PG-13) * 1/2
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The latest film from Aussie Jane Campion (The Piano) is an adaptation of Henry James's novel about an independent-minded American woman (Nicole Kidman) in 19th-century Europe who is duped into a loveless marriage to John Malkovich by a conniving "friend" (Barbara Hershey, who won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance). Campion, production and costume designer Janet Patterson, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have created what is perhaps the most strikingly picturesque look of a film this year. Too bad I didn't really care about what was going on. Despite fine work by Kidman, Malkovich (who, as always, plays a good creep), and especially Hershey, the film is not only slow but uninvolving; I could not make an emotional connection to Kidman's character mostly due to Laura Jones's patchy script, which makes no real effort to establish a coherent plotline. Campion tries to enliven the affair with some intriguing avant garde sequences (including a bizarre black-and-white sequence mid-film), but it does not bridge any of the emotional distance between the film and the audience.


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