(Star Wars: Episode VI--)Return of the Jedi Special Edition (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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Many consider this installment, Episode VI, of George Lucas's Star
Wars Trilogy to be the weakest, and after seeing it again, it's easy to see
why. Unlike the previous installment, The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi recycles a number of elements from the original film, A New Hope, such as the settings of desert planet Tatooine and the deadly imperial space station Death Star (and its destruction--oops, did I spoil it for anyone?). Also, director Richard Marquand isn't quite as skilled in handling the effects
work as creator/exec producer/A New Hope director Lucas nor Empire helmer Irvin Kershner. The seams are a bit too visible in some of the blue screen
work, especially during Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) encounter with the
vicious rancor monster; and one backdrop during a scene featuring Lando
Calrissian and Han Solo (Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford, both of whom
aren't given a whole lot to do in this chapter) just screams out "matte
painting." And then there's the Ewoks, those cuddly l'il forest-dwelling
furballs whose cutesy, kid-friendly antics tend to grate (I must say,
though, that the baby Ewok in the basket is pretty darn cute).
No matter, though--Jedi is still first-class entertainment and a
satisfying conclusion to this part of the planned 9-part saga. Luke's final
confrontation with the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl
Jones's voice and, in the end, Sebastian Shaw's face and voice) and the even
more evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) still packs a potent dramatic punch after
14 years, and there's plenty of great set pieces: the entire opening act in
Tatooine, with the "vile gangster" Jabba the Hutt and the deadly Sarlacc
pit; the exhilarating speeder bike chase on the forest moon of Endor; the
climactic space battle leading up to the rebuilt Death Star's destruction;
even the Ewok-infested battle on Endor, as cheesy as some of it is, is not
without its pleasures. As with the other Special Edition releases, there is
some new footage here, all welcome to differing degrees. There is a more
elaborate musical number in Jabba's throne room (not bad if a bit
extraneous); a snapping beak added to the Sarlacc (impressive); and an
extended coda which shows the celebration on other rebel alliance planets,
including Coruscant, the setting of Lucas's forthcoming Episodes I-III of
the saga (very nice). If you've seen the reissues of the other two Star
Wars films, there's no point in missing the end.
Sling Blade (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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Don't be fooled by Miramax's new ad campaign for
actor-writer-director Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-nominated film, which touts
it as a thriller. First of all, this Southern drama is a very leisurely
paced affair. Second of all, the film's many rewards cannot be described in
conventional terms like those of a thriller. The film is an absorbing
character study of the truly original and fascinating lead character,
recently-released asylum inmate Karl (Best Actor nominee Thornton), who can
best be described as a grim, far less talkative Forrest Gump who killed his
mother and her lover when he was a boy. Thornton is absolutely phenomenal,
creating a not only a memorable character but an unforgettable person for
whom the audience grows to feel great fondness. Karl's close friendship
with a young boy (the very talented Lucas Black, who made such a lasting
impression on the short-lived TV series American Gothic) whose mother
(Natalie Canerday) is involved with a psychotic loser (country singer Dwight
Yoakam, notably nasty) is strangely moving and unsettling in the sense of
how pure it is. At times the film's origins as a short show through; there
really isn't too much plot spread across its two-hour-plus running time.
But this is not to discount the very impressive work of the cast and crew,
especially man-of-the-moment Thornton, who does a virtuoso job of juggling
the directing, screenwriting, and acting reins. He deserves to win the Best
Jungle 2 Jungle (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
I was sitting here for about fifteen minutes trying to figure out a
snappy lead for my review of the new Tim Allen "comedy" Jungle 2 Jungle
until I realized it wasn't worth the trouble. This remake of the French
blockbuster Little Indian, Big City (which was massacred by critics during
its brief stateside run last year) is pure crap, plain and simple.
Uptight New York commodities trader Michael Cromwell (Allen), during
a trip to visit his estranged-for-13-years doctor wife Patricia (JoBeth
Williams) in the Amazon village of Lipo Lipo), discovers he has a
13-year-old son named Mimi Siku (unpromising newcomer Sam Huntington) whom
Patricia raised in the wild with her. Michael takes Mimi back to New York
with him per a promise he made to the boy, and hilarity supposedly ensues.
Right now, three days after I've seen the film, I'm still waiting for the
hilarity to ensue.
Just about everything about this film is sloppy, awful, and
creatively bankrupt. In the Lipo Lipo-based first act, all director John
Pasquin and writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon do is sic exotic
animal after exotic animal on Michael. First piranhas. Then a spider.
Then alligators. Then piranhas again. How funny. Things don't get any
better once the action shifts to New York, with Mimi Siku running around in
a loincloth, brandishing a bow and arrow, urinating in potted plants,
killing birds with his bow and arrow, and cooking up Michael's co-worker
Richard's (Martin Short) expensive tropical fish. What fun. Mimi Siku even
climbs to the top of the Statue of Liberty in a moment a press mailing from
Disney (complete with a working flashlight fashioned after the Statue's
torch) says, "reaches new heights of hilarity." Whatever. Mimi Siku's
ignorance of the ways of the "civilized" world is supposed to be charming,
but it's just insulting. The character is an assemblage of every native
cliché and stereotype you can think of wrapped up in a young Anglo package, which I guess
is supposed to make it OK. I don't think so.
By the time Mimi Siku makes his climb up Lady Liberty, I thought the
(bad) idea had been mined for whatever it was worth (nothing) and that the
film was almost over. Not so. The film creaks along for about another
forty minutes, introducing a couple of new plot threads fashioned just to
prolong the agony. One thread involving a shady deal Richard makes with a
Russian mobster (David Ogden Stiers) is a complete waste of time, a
storyline whose only apparent purpose is to set up a truly painful Home
Alone-style slapstick climax. Just when you think it couldn't get any
worse, there's the second thread, the sappy, cloying, gag-inducing romance
between Mimi Siku and Richard's clean-cut daughter Karen (LeeLee Sobieski).
To call this development cornball is an understatement.
In fact, to call Jungle 2 Jungle bad is an understatement. It's
awful. Horrible. Garbage. A waste of time, money, and film stock. I'm
sorry to say that most of the children in the audience ate this crap up,
which is just another disturbing sign that America's youth is in trouble.
Donnie Brasco (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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In this fact-based gangster tale, Al Pacino plays Lefty Ruggiero, an
aging New York mob hitman who, after many years of dedicated service, has
not moved up the mafia ladder. Lefty becomes mentor to a young
jeweler/wannabe wiseguy named Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp)... or so he
thinks. "Donnie" is actually Joe Pistone, a deep-cover infiltrator for the
FBI. Mike Newell's adaptation of the real-life Pistone's nonfiction book is
not your typical gangster film--which is exactly what makes the film so
interesting. The focus is not on action, the inner workings of the mob, or
even on the undercover FBI operation; the emphasis of Paul Attanasio's
intelligent script is on relationships, between Lefty and "Donnie" and Joe
and his neglected wife (Anne Heche). The supporting cast, from Heche to
Michael Madsen (as--what else--a violent tough guy), delivers solid turns,
but this is clearly the two leads' show. Pacino gives his most understated
work in recent memory, giving Lefty a calm, assured dignity; and Depp
convincingly shows how Joe becomes overwhelmed by his charade, eventually
not knowing exactly where "Donnie" ends and his true self begins. Donnie
Brasco is a classy piece of work that may disappoint those looking for
something more conventional.
Private Parts (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Betty Thomas's long-awaited, enormously entertaining film of "shock
jock" Howard Stern's bestselling book Private Parts can be considered a
biography, since it traces Stern's humble, geeky childhood and adolescence,
his embarrassing early days in radio, to his pushing the limits of taste on
the airwaves, challenging the powers that be and the FCC, demolishing all
competition, and conquering New York. It can also be considered a comedy,
and a very good one at that. There are some huge laughs here spread
consistently through the picture, and screenwriters Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko put virtually no lulls between laughs. But to leave the film at that is to shortchange
what is obviously the film's point: to serve as a valentine to Stern's wife
Alison (played in the film by Mary McCormack). Despite all the rudeness and
raunch (including Stern's beloved lesbians), there's a genuine heart at the
center of the film, a true sweetness. Stern shows himself for what he is,
warts and all, which highlights how remarkable woman Mrs. Stern is, and how
much he truly loves her.
Stern is a natural, relaxed performer on camera, but, needless to
say, he is less convincing (and appears to be less comfortable) during the
more tender moments. Stern's partner-in-crime, sidekick Robin Quivers, also
makes a smooth transition to film, matching Stern zinger for zinger.
McCormack strikes convincing sparks with Stern and makes for a refreshing
presence of reason amid the mayhem. Stealing the final third of the film is
Paul Giamatti, who plays the harried program director/thorn in Stern's side
at New York's WNBC.
The immensely enjoyable entertainment that is Private Parts could go
a long way in earning Stern some mainstream acceptance--during the media
screening, I sat next to an older, conservative-looking couple who laughed
throughout the entire film. But it all depends on whether or not mass
audiences are willing to give him a chance; if they do, Stern could very
well on his way to truly becoming "the king of all media," having already
conquered radio, television, and books. Can the stage be far behind?
Smilla's Sense of Snow (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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In this adaptation of Peter Hoeg's international bestseller, the
ever-radiant Julia Ormond plays Smilla Jaspersen, a half-Inuit,
half-American woman living in Copenhagen who becomes obsessed with the
mystery of a young boy's fatal plunge from the roof of her apartment
building. Needless to say, her obsessive interest in the case gets her into
assorted types of danger. Bille August's film has a great number of things
going for it: a great plot hook, stylish direction, stunning cinematography
(by Jorgen Persson), and a fascinating lead character in Smilla, an icy
bitch on wheels who doesn't seem to care much about anyone or anything but
herself and the deceased child. In a striking change from her soft roles in
movies such as Legends of the Fall, Ormond plays Smilla to prickly
perfection. Her anger, determination, and all-around negative energy is
captivates throughout; anyone who doubted Ormond's ability to carry a
picture should be silenced by her commanding work here. However, despite
the film's virtues, in the end, Smilla fails to deliver as a thriller.
While the film held my interest, as more details surrounding the murder were
revealed (involving, of course, a conspiracy), the less I cared about the
plot, and the secret behind the whole turn of events is a truly outlandish
twist that would be more at home in a no-brainer Hollywood action film than
in what purports to be an intelligent adult thriller.
Lost Highway (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
David Lynch's reputation as master of the surreal is not in any
danger with the release of his first film in five years, Lost Highway. In
the new film, Lynch's bizarre, dream-like approach is as fascinating as
ever... and every bit as frustrating as well. Lynch's gift has always been
his curse, and his latest work is just more evidence supporting that fact.
The "plot" defies traditional explanation, but I'll try anyhow. The
excellent first act introduces us to married couple Fred and Renée Madison
(Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette). Immediately we get the sense that all
is not well here: Fred, a jazz saxophonist, suspects that his pretty
brunette wife could be up to no good whenever he is away performing at a
club. Things get creepy when the two start finding videotapes anonymously
dropped off on their doorstep each morning. These tapes begin innocently
enough--an exterior shot of their house--but each successive tape goes
further, entering the house, eventually showing things that should not be
seen by outsiders. Somehow figuring into this is a white-faced Mystery Man
(Robert Blake), who, in a genuinely spooky moment, confronts Fred at a
party. This segment of the film is Lynch at his best; with the aid of
cinematographer Peter Deming and master composer Angelo Badalamenti, he ably
creates a chilling atmosphere of dread that gets under the skin. We know
something bad is bound to happen; we just don't know what.
Needless to say, things do get bad; unfortunately, the bad extends
to the audience. Lynch's fervid imagination once again gets the better of
him, as the weirdness of plausible situations clears out to make way for the
just plain weird. Fred is sentenced to Death Row for a brutal crime
depicted on one of the videotapes, and after suffering a series of massive
head pains, he wakes up one morning a new man--literally: 19-year-old
mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is promptly released from
prison. Pete eventually gets sexually entangled with Alice, the sultry
blonde girlfriend of a local gangster/pornographer (Robert Loggia). The
"clever" twist? Alice is also played by Arquette.
To describe anything that goes on beyond this stage is pointless,
for at this point it becomes clear that the film, which began so
promisingly, is actually about nothing; all established characters and plots
are virtually irrelevant. What Lynch and co-scripter Barry Gifford (who
also had a hand in Lynch's horrid mess Wild at Heart) ultimately appear to
be after is an experimental exercise in elliptical dialogue and situations;
in non-linear, circular narrative. Granted, this is an interesting
experiment; I can't say I was ever bored. But I just wish there were some
kind of accessible story within this interesting framework, a real plot on
which to hang all the graphic sex and gruesome violence--in short, a point
to all of this. Say what you will about Lynch's last film, 1992's
much-maligned Twin Peaks--Fire Walk with Me, but at least that film, its
many baffling "Lynchian" touches aside, had a genuine story at its core;
distinct characters and plot can be delineated. Here, there's a lot to feed
the visceral senses, but nothing else.
Lost Highway, like other Lynch films, does stay with you long after
it's over. But for once I'd like to know exactly what exactly is it that stayed with me and why it does. In the end,
Lost Highway lives up to its title--a long, winding road that will leave all
Absolute Power (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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Clint Eastwood plays a master thief who witnesses a murder involving
the President of the United States (Gene Hackman). Sounds like the basis of
a suspenseful thriller, and, to a certain extent, Eastwood's latest spin in
the director's chair is. The problem, however, lies not in the film's
leisurely pace (appropriate) nor in the performances (good), but in the lack
of real involvement with any of the characters, from the thief to his fed-up
daughter (Laura Linney). Additionally, for all the suspense the film does
generate, William Goldman's fairly flat climax is a disappointing payoff.
(Star Wars: Episode V--)The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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The spectacular middle chapter of the Star Wars trilogy has returned
to the big screen with a few new frills but mostly unscathed--a relief,
since the original version, easily the best of the series, really needs no
fixing. This dark chapter of George Lucas's saga of Lord Darth Vader's
(David Prowse, with James Earl Jones's voice) evil Galactic Empire and the
heroic rebellion finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the rebels
overwhelmed by "the power of the dark side." The series really hit its
stride here, from the writing (richer emotions and characterizations--and no
turgid exposition), the look (Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, especially
in the carbon-freeze chamber, is absolutely breathtaking), and the acting
(no laughable line readings by Hamill). Unlike the alterations done to the
first chapter, A New Hope, the changes here are mostly subtle, from redone
footage involving the snow monster Luke encounters at the beginning, to
computer-generated skyscapes in the Cloud City of Bespin. All of the
additions--except perhaps a shrill scream Luke now emits when falling from a
great height--are welcome if a bit superfluous. Sci-fi cinema at its
best--don't miss it.
Touch (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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A disaster--and not the kind that's fun to watch, either. It's
shocking to see such an interesting array of talent--from writer-director
Paul Schrader to stars Bridget Fonda, Christopher Walken, Gina Gershon, and
Janeane Garofalo--add up to this painfully dull adaptation of Elmore
Leonard's novel about a young faith healer/stigmatist (Skeet Ulrich, bland)
and the people out to exploit him: a con man/evangelist (Walken), the leader
of a militant religious sect (Tom Arnold), a controversy-craving talk show
hostess (Gershon), and an acerbic newspaper reporter (Garofalo). Schrader
the scripter does keep some of Leonard's interesting throwaway lines in the
piece ("Do you think it's safe to put stigmata blood in the wash?"), but in
the hands of Schrader the director, all of the best lines fall flat. In
fact, everything and everyone here falls flat, except maybe Walken, Gershon,
and Garofalo, who make some attempt at enlivening the material given them.
Schrader aims for the cinematic cool of Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction (check
out David Grohl's surf rock-inspired score), but he forgets what made those
movies so effective--there was a certain amount of joy to the piece, an air
of fun. No such atmosphere here--only one of indifference.
Fools Rush In (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Must See TV's most likable Friend, Matthew Perry, makes his
big-screen leap in this, well, likable romantic comedy. Perry plays Alex
Whitman, a Manhattan nightclub builder in Las Vegas on business, who has a
memorable one-night stand with aspiring photographer Isabel Fuentes (the
ever-fetching Salma Hayek). After quickly disappearing, Isabel resurfaces
on Alex's doorstep months later with the news that she's pregnant and wants
to keep the baby. Alex's solution? A hasty marriage. Nothing
groundbreaking here, but the film is breezy and fun though not a laugh riot.
Rumor has it that Perry and Hayek made sparks of the negative kind in real
life, but no negative energy is in evidence on screen. The two have an
engaging, offbeat chemistry; Hayek's cool sexiness couldn't be more of a
contrast to Perry's recycled but effective goofball wisecracker act, but in
this case, opposites do believably attract. All in all, a fun no-brainer
that successfully casts a sweet romantic spell.
Rosewood (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
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In 1923, the predominantly black town of Rosewood, Florida was
burned to ground, its population almost entirely decimated, by white men
from the neighboring town of Sumner... all because of a lie. This subject
matter provides the basis of director John Singleton's latest film, the
absorbing and potent historical drama Rosewood.
The event that triggers the massacre does not come until about a
half hour or so in, when one Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), a white
housewife, claims that she was assaulted by a black stranger (in actuality,
she was assaulted by her lover, who was also white). The exposition that
precedes this incident, which establishes everyday life in Rosewood, is slow
going; while it can easily be dismissed as a failure on the part of
Singleton and screenwriter Gregory Poirer, but it's actually a smart move,
for it eventually serves to highlight the human toll of the ensuing massacre
and serves as a counterpoint to all the brutality that follows. Poirer's
script believably shows how this single claim sets off the whole horrific
chain of events, how a search for one man snowballs into an all-out hunt
against an entire race. There is also a great understanding of the mob
mentality, as we see the town's white sheriff (Michael Rooker) join take
part in all the killing even though he's never completely convinced by
Recently another Hollywood studio production, Ghosts
documented an actual historical event and attempted to address its impact on
race relations in this country--only to come off as glossy, self-important,
uninvolving, and, most of all, synthetic. Rosewood, on the other
hand, does feel authentic because it simply doesn't try too hard. Everything on the
film is done on a smaller scale--there are no superstars on board to
distract from the story, and Singleton, often criticized for being overly
preachy (a criticism that is not entirely undeserved), lets the film's
message be gleaned from the story itself instead of bludgeoning the audience
with it (which he did in his last film, Higher Learning). He also
doesn't smooth over the material's rough edges; the killings aren't graphic to the
point of being exploitative, but they are graphic enough to convey the sheer
brutality and animal nature of the massacre.
Similarly subdued to equal effect are the actors. It goes without
saying that Ving Rhames, who plays Mann, the noble stranger to town--who,
with white shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight), helps a number of women and
children flee to safety--is a physically commanding presence onscreen, and
his brawn is well-suited to the role. But there's real vulnerability and
soul behind the bulk, evident in his expressive eyes and in his warm scenes
with the charming Elise Neal, who plays Scrappie, a teen who falls for Mann.
Don Cheadle, as the vengeful Sylvester Carrier, smartly doesn't overplay his
character's rage--the controlled fury he brings to the role is much more
effective than any histrionics would have been. The only actor who does
resort to broad histrionics is Kellner; while the woman who causes all the
madness should be shrill, she's shrill to the point of inducing a headache.
Singleton, who made such a memorable debut with 1991's
Oscar-nominated Boyz N the Hood, followed that effort with the
Poetic Justice and the mostly effective but underachieving Higher
Learning, leading some people to doubt his ability. However, with his triumphant
return to form with Rosewood, his talent as a filmmaker should no
longer be called into question.
Dante's Peak (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| Soundtrack! Dante's Peak attempts to do for volcanoes what Twister did for
tornadoes, and, in terms of visual effects, it succeeds. The flowing lava,
the flying rock, the billowing smoke, the clouds of ash--all of it comes off
very convincing and menacing onscreen. The problem is, though, all of this
does not come until a whole hour into the film, and by then the audience
will have been subjected to Leslie Bohem's dreadfully written exposition,
which makes --I'd never thought I'd ever say this with a straight face--the
characters and relations of Michael Crichton
and Anne-Marie Martin's Twister screenplay look rich and complex by comparison. Pierce Brosnan plays a
vulcanologist with the United States Geological Survey who tries to convince
his superiors that the long-dormant volcano that gives the film its name
will erupt; Linda Hamilton plays the single mom mayor of the town, who
somehow manages to find some time outside of her mayoral duties to continue
running her neighborhood cappucino shop. Naturally, these two were made for
each other, and when they get together, it's even more cornball than one
would expect. Director Roger Donaldson makes good use of the impressive
effects, but the tension is undercut by Bohem's sloppy script, which soils
any suspenseful moment by regressing to maudlin sentimentality. Dante's
Peak delivers what one would expect from a volcano film, but it also
delivers a whole lot of dreck.