The Movie Report
Volume 18

#88 - 92
April 17, 1997 - May 15, 1997

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

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#92 May 15, 1997 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Twin Town poster Twin Town *
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Director-co-screenwriter (with Paul Durden) Kevin Allen's black comedy has been described as both the Welsh Trainspotting (no surprise, considering the Trainspotting team of Danny Boyle and Andrew MacDonald executive produced) and the Welsh Fargo, but this tedious, uninvolving film is not nearly as inventive nor funny as those two films. Real life brothers Llyr Evans and Rhys Ifans play the Lewis brothers, two completely unsympathetic, obnoxious characters who spend their days in Swansea, Wales stealing cars, taking drugs, and bathing together. When their father (Huw Ceredig) has a crippling accident in the workplace, the Lewis "twins" (they are referred to as twins though they really are not), the two exact a revenge on his boss (William Thomas). What follows is a most unfunny and uninteresting game of vengeful one-upsmanship between the brothers and the boss.

All of this is potentially interesting in a subversive, blackly comic sort of way, but the story does not kick into high gear until a half hour or so in, and--most of all--it is extremely difficult to really care about what is going on because the two main characters are so unpleasant. I suppose the audience is supposed to find their aimlessness and sociopathic tendencies charming, but they are just plain irritating; their bad boy act becomes boring very quickly. There is nothing to the two besides their attitudes, and neither one comes across as an individual; in fact, I was unaware that each one had an individual name until the final credit roll unspooled. The most intriguing section of the film is also the most superfluous--a somewhat amusing yet inexplicable prologue set in Morocco, where we see the two brothers in a room with Twin Town's one-sheet poster hanging on a wall, arguing over whether there is more than one Swansea in the world; the scene ends after a man comes in to notify them that their film is being released in the United States. None of what follows in Twin Town is nearly as surprising or superficially interesting as that.

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#91 May 8, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Fathers' Day poster Fathers' Day (PG-13) ** 1/2 premiere photos
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Robin Williams and Billy Crystal are both funny men in their own right, and as such one would expect their first big-screen pairing, Fathers' Day, to be just as funny, if not funnier, than their solo film efforts. Alas, the whole is definitely not greater than the sum of its parts, for Ivan Reitman's family comedy, as amusing as it is, never reaches the expected heights of hilarity.

The underachievement of Fathers' Day does not have so much to do with the performers involved than the material. The film is based on the 1983 French comedy Les Compères, starring Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, a blah, often labored farce which I was not terribly impressed with when I saw it way back in 9th grade French class. Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel follow the original fairly closely, but their take on the story is a bit more successful. In adapting the first film, they have duplicated the original knotty premise--two men (Williams and Crystal) are duped into searching for a former lover's (Nastassja Kinski) runaway son (Charlie Hofheimer) after she falsely tells both that the child is their own--while adding some flourishes tailor-made for these two stars. Williams, stepping in for the bumbling Richard, is a complete nutjob, suicidal and prone to weeping at the drop of a hat; Crystal, assuming Depardieu's tough guy part, is more of a dry, sarcastic, no-nonsense type who just happens to do a mean headbutt. These modifications in place, the two settle into their roles quite nicely and put some bite into the sometimes cloying material.

While the two snugly fit into their individual roles, Williams and Crystal do not quite catch fire as a team. There are laughs to be had in Fathers' Day, but instead of generating from the duo's interaction with each other--the sign of a good comic team--the big laughs come courtesy from only one half of the pair: Williams. Granted, Williams's manic, go-for-broke comic energy steamrolls everyone and everything around him, and broader schtick always upstages the more subtle stabs at humor. But Crystal, so clearly in his element with this role, is surprisingly unable to hold his own. Ganz and Mandel give him a stinging remark to deliver here and there, but as a whole he is strangely passive. Just as passive is enormously gifted Seinfeld Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Crystal's wife. The small size of her role would not have been such an annoyance if she were given a chance to display her vast comic talents, but she is totally wasted in this thankless, completely straight role.

None of what I say will likely keep Fathers' Day from becoming an early summer hit. It has two popular stars; it does have its moments; and you can take the kiddies. Those three things may be enough to satisfy most mainstream moviegoers, but anyone expecting one and one to equal two will be disappointed--the end result is more like one times one than one plus one.

In Brief

Breakdown poster Breakdown (R) ***
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After their vehicle breaks down on an empty highway in the desert, everyman Kurt Russell's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) disappears, and he begins a desperate search to find her. A promising setup, and, for the most part, first-time director-co-writer Jonathan Mostow delivers on that promise--the first two acts, which trace Russell's frantic search for answers, are quite suspenseful, tapping into the viewers' anxieties and fears of the open road. It is when the answers come that Mostow the writer runs into some trouble; in the end, the kidnapper's scheme makes sense, but it still does not completely add up. But the story's holes are irrelevant to the big picture, an engrossing, exciting nailbiter that makes the most of every single one of its efficient 95 minutes.

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#90 May 1, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Fifth Element poster The Fifth Element (PG-13) ***
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The cryptic teaser trailer has been unspooling in moviehouses for quite sometime now: "IT MU5T BE FOUND." So what, exactly, is The Fifth Element? After seeing Luc Besson's ambitious, much-shrouded-in-secrecy science fiction fantasy, I could not help but be let down by the actual answer, which is not nearly as exciting nor clever as one would think. But what is far from a letdown is the film as a whole, a wildly imaginative feast for the senses that does what all the best science fiction films do--create a universe unlike any other presented on the silver screen.

The biggest irony of The Fifth Element is that the one thing that has been kept under such tight wraps--the actual storyline--is the most conventional, dismayingly so, element (pun intended) of the film. Speaking in the vaguest possible terms, the basics of the plot are as follows: in the year 2259, a great force of evil threatens to consume the earth, and only the four elements--earth, wind, fire, and water--united with a fifth element can stop it. Figuring into all of this are New York cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis); a shady, Southern-drawling entrepreneur by the name of Zorg (the hilariously hammy Gary Oldman, picking up where he left off in Besson's The Professional); a priest (Ian Holm); and a mysterious creature named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). All of the pieces come together in a tidy and somewhat underwhelming--and unsurprising--fashion, but there is no denying that this basic story holds some intrinsic interest.

What remains interesting and exciting, however, after brief glimpses is the fascinating world Besson has created with production designer Dan Weil, director of photography Thierry Arbogast, visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson, and the crew at Digital Domain. The look is absolutely mesmerizing right from the opening moments to the last. The frenzied cityscape of New York, with its vibrant day-glo colors, tall buildings penetrating high into the clouds, and the swarm of cars, cabs, and other vehicles flying through labyrinthian skyways, is absolutely breathtaking to behold, especially in a wild car chase sequence early on in the film. But it would not have been a completely captivating vision if the people inhabiting the settings weren't equally as interesting, and are they ever. In addition to the exotic menagerie of alien creatures that populate this world, from bulky robots to dog-like Mangalores, the humans are outfitted in costumes by eccentric designer Jean-Paul Gaulthier, best known for creating Madonna's pointy bustier get-up in her Blonde Ambition tour. Gaulthier's outlandish creations, such as a number worn by Leeloo made entirely out of white straps, feel more at home in Besson's futuristic vision than on any fashion runway in the world; they add to the sense of otherworldliness about the film.

While Besson's bold vision is the biggest virtue of the film, it also could be its biggest obstacle to reaching a mass audience. For all its imagination, certain things about the film may be a bit too quirky and bizarre. I really do not know what middle America will make of the most outrageous character of the film, Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a flamboyant disc jockey who makes Dennis Rodman look conservative--he makes a raucous entrance dressed in an animal print dress, sporting a blonde hairdo in the shape of a hair dryer, speaking in high pitches at rapid fire speed. At first this character's hyper energy is funny, but the act wears out its welcome very quickly. Not irritating, but just as strange, is a musical number by blue-skinned alien chanteuse Diva (Maiwenn LeBesco), who sings--and dances--an aria that is an unlikely blend of classical opera and techno. The tune, as with the entirety of longtime Besson collaborator Eric Serra's innovative score, is haunting, but it is also completely jarring. Then there are the campy touches of humor Besson and co-scripter Robert Mark Kamen sprinkle throughout, which too often are silly and forced; a comic sexual encounter between Ruby Rhod and a flight attendant is highly distracting and not very funny, to boot.

The story's weakness shines through in the climax and conclusion of The Fifth Element. While still visually and aurally spectacular, the events detailed are not as exciting nor powerful as they should be. The big, serious dramatic climax was met with more than a few snickers, and it ambitiously strives for a profundity which the film had not even begun to work toward. As such, at the end there is a sense that there was something bigger at work here, that there was still more left to be said about this story and these characters. This suspicion was confirmed by Besson himself, who told me in the lobby following the screening (imagine that, the filmmaker watching the film with the "enemy"--the critics) that what had made it to the screen was really just the first half of the lengthy original Fifth Element screenplay and that the second half is still waiting to be made.

Still, despite the story problems, The Fifth Element is an artistic triumph for Luc Besson; rarely does a filmmaker's original vision come to the screen in all its audacious, undiluted glory. It is a fascinating example of how of one artist's fervid imagination can transport an audience into an intoxicating fantasy world generally seen only in dreams.

In Brief

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery poster Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers returns to the big screen with this amusing but scattershot spy spoof. Myers, who also wrote, has a dual role as Austin Powers, swinging British intelligence agent of the late '60s; and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Evil. When Dr. Evil is revived from cryogenic freezing in the present day, the forces of good revive the also-frozen Austin Powers. Many culture clash gags ensue. There are some moments of intelligence and wit sprinkled throughout, such as some wonderfully bawdy sight gags and knowing jokes about spy movie conventions, James Bond films, and kitschy '60s culture, but there aren't as many in evidence as there were in Myers's more effective and biting Wayne's World films. A lot of it just comes off as plain silly, most notably a climactic striptease sequence that was obviously designed to be one of the biggest laughs--it only merits a chuckle. Elizabeth Hurley, as Austin's sidekick, is called on to do little more than look phenomenal through a variety of costume changes. It goes without saying that she fills the part quite well.

Commandments poster Commandments (R) no stars
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At the core of Commandments, there's a very promising premise: a man (Aidan Quinn), despondent over the death of his pregnant wife and other misfortunes, vows to take revenge on God by breaking all 10 Commandments. Unfortunately, though, there's a whole mess surrounding it. Writer-director Daniel Taplitz tries to go both ways with the material, mining the plot for laughs and profound existential drama, but nothing gels on either level--the jokes aren't all that funny, and the dramatic elements are more contrived and cornball than emotionally involving. The unevenness extends to the cast: Courteney Cox, as Quinn's sister-in-law, plays it completely straight; Anthony LaPaglia, as Cox's philandering husband, goes for the laughs; and Quinn seems just about clueless as to how and where to go. Just when you think it can't get any worse, the film ends on a saccharine, upbeat note of "rebirth" so literal that it is flabbergasting, not to mention intelligence-insulting. In short, Commandments is as big a misfire as the other religious-themed comedy released this year, Paul Schrader's lifeless Touch.

Truth or Consequences, N.M. poster Truth or Consequences, N.M. (R) ***
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From the opening moments of Kiefer Sutherland's feature directorial debut, everything indicates a cheap, uninspired Tarantino knockoff--three crooks (Vincent Gallo, Mykelti Williamson, and Sutherland) and Gallo's girlfriend (Kim Dickens) stand at a parking meter, musing about an old Twilight Zone episode, before attempting to steal a suitcase full of coke from a dealer. Things go awry, of course, and soon the foursome, with two yuppie hostages (Kevin Pollak and Grace Phillips) in tow, find themselves on the road fleeing the mob and the authorities. It's a derivative setup, and the entire film's turn of events is just as unoriginal, but taken at face value as a thriller, it works. Despite the occasional draggy bit--mostly when the characters sit around and spout scripter Brad Mirman's "snappy" and "witty" dialogue--there are more than a few tense moments. Sutherland handles the bloody action scenes well, perhaps a bit too much so. He's obviously more concerned with the grisly violence than with what is supposed to be the emotional core of the story--the relationship between Gallo and Dickens, whose "tender" moments play like an afterthought. As a result, there is no involvement with them or any of these characters, thus robbing the downbeat conclusion of any profound impact. Predictably, Sutherland the director cast Sutherland the actor in the flashiest role, the psycho, not always a wise choice since, as in this case, the "director" lets the "actor" go overboard. More effective is the rest of the ensemble, from the barely recognizable Williamson, who deceptively appears to be channeling Ice Cube; to, in smaller roles, NYPD Blue's James McDaniel as a DEA agent and Martin Sheen as a tough mob enforcer.

Volcano poster Volcano (PG-13) ** premiere photos
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A more spectacular Dante's Peak--no more, no less. In the second volcano disaster epic of the year, Los Angeles is threatened by an underground volcanic eruption. Much lava flows, many people get injured, cars and various architectural structures--including famous LA landmarks--are destroyed. It being set in a major metropolis and not a small town in the mountains, all the destructive effects in Volcano go a step further than Dante's. But while Mick Jackson's film certainly is a technical achievement, there's not much here in the writing department. Tommy Lee Jones is a workaholic emergency worker who loves his daughter (Gaby Hoffmann); Anne Heche is a geologist on hand to lend her scientific expertise; Don Cheadle answers emergency calls. Those descriptions completely sum up their roles--they aren't people; they're mere objects to stick in front of the flowing lava. Any attempts to elicit some emotion from the audience fall flat on their faces, not only because there are no fleshed out characters but because they are just plain cornball (most notably a sappy, gag-inducing moment where people of various ethnicities are covered with gray ash, thus "looking all the same"). I never thought I'd say this twice, let alone once, in my lifetime, but the lame writing here (by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray) makes one yearn for the comparatively rich characterizations and relationships in Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Johnson's script for Twister.

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#89 April 24, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Romy and Michele's High School Reunion poster Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (R) ***
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Take arguably the funniest dumb blonde on TV (Lisa Kudrow), pair her with the most memorable dumb blonde in recent film (Mira Sorvino), and you get the irreverent, loopy, and entertaining new comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.

As can be expected, Sorvino, who won an Oscar for her Mighty Aphrodite numskull hooker routine, and Kudrow, Emmy nominee for her work as dullard songstress Phoebe on NBC's hit Friends, perfectly embody Romy White and Michele Weinberger, respectively, a couple of aimless L.A. clubhopping losers attend to their ten-year high school reunion in Tucson, Arizona. These two can play this type of role in their sleep, but there's no question that they play the part well. How well? Having two incredibly idiotic people as the leads in a film has the potential to grow old really fast, but Sorvino and Kudrow keep their characters consistently interesting and likable throughout the film, never losing the audience's rooting interest; they're just a lot of fun to hang around with. The two have a natural rapport, and their best moments come early in the film, as the intelligence-impaired pair attempt to shape up their lives in time to brag to their old enemies at the reunion. Of course, their plan for self-improvement doesn't work, and they instead decide to just pretend to be successful, something much easier said than done. Then again, for these two, everything is much easier said than done.

Sorvino and Kudrow are on pitch-perfect target during the heart of the film, the reunion itself, but the second half of Romy and Michele belongs to neither Romy nor Michele. It is clearly owned by Janeane Garofalo, simply terrific as acid-tongued Heather Mooney, who was even more of a social outcast in high school than Romy and Michele. She has all the best lines in Robin Schiff's amusing script, and her dry, nasty, movie-stealing performance keeps the proceedings from becoming overly saccharine and sweet--which, at times, it threatens to do, especially when the high school snobs (led by a hissably bitchy Julia Campbell) get their expected comeuppance.

First-time helmer David Mirkin, an executive producer on The Simpsons, displays some of that series' witty, irreverent sense of humor in this film, especially in a wildly unexpected plot curve midway through. He brings some refreshing visual flair to the obligatory high school flashback scenes, which are presented as yearbook pictures come to life. The '80s soundtrack is also quite effectively used, not simply as nostalgia but also as background score; for instance, Romy is belittled by people from the "A crowd" as Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" plays in the background, and Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" provides a perfect bubblegum backdrop for our heroines' ultimate triumph. Also, I don't think I'll ever hear Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" in quite the same way after seeing the--for lack of a better term--"unique" dance number it underscores.

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion gets the job done as popcorn entertainment, but in the end I can't say that a whole lot really goes on in its 90something minutes--ditzy Romy and Michele go to their reunion and get their revenge--and the film is just about instantly forgettable. But what isn't forgettable are the characters: the main duo and, most of all, the hilariously prickly Heather. Sorvino and Kudrow have expressed a desire to do a whole Romy and Michele series, but here's hoping they can get Garofalo to join in on a series of Romy, Michele, and Heather flicks.

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#88 April 17, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Chasing Amy one-sheet Chasing Amy (R) ****
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If making a convincing love story between a heterosexual male and a lesbian sounds like an impossible task, then writer-director Kevin Smith has accomplished the impossible with the final installment of his New Jersey trilogy, Chasing Amy. A funny, raunchy comedy with both intelligence and heart to spare, Clerks wunderkind Smith has rebounded in a big way from the creative meltdown that was 1995's Mallrats.

The dark shadow of that unsatisfying sophomore effort hangs over the opening moments of Amy. We see the credits roll over comic book panels and covers of the comic publications Wizard, Comic Shop News, and Comic Buyer's Guide, which is more than a little reminiscent of the parade of comic book covers that opened Mallrats. One of the biggest miscalculations in Mallrats was not so much its large use of comic-related humor and references but its use of references that only comic fans (such as myself) would understand, and for a moment I thought Smith was repeating his previous mistake--I was familiar with these publications; I got the reference, but did everyone else? Immediately following the credit roll is a sequence taking place in a New York comic convention, and, ironically enough, here is where my fears were put to rest. While the comic-related references and humor are abound, the jokes are accessible to anyone who has never picked up a comic book in his or her life. It's as if Smith is righting the wrong he committed in Mallrats.

With the atonement for that sin behind him, Smith wastes no time in plunging deep into fresh new territory. It is at this convention that New Jersey comic creator Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) meets fellow writer/artist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), and there is an instant chemistry and, as Holden sees it, an attraction. As it turns out, however, Alyssa is a lesbian, and despite Holden's initial reservations--and his very strong sexual feelings for her--the two become very close (but platonic) friends, sparking the chaste (or is it?) jealousy of Holden's best friend and collaborator, Banky Edwards (Jason Lee).

The story already sounds pretty complicated, but Smith's terrific script has many more twists in store, not to mention laughs. Viewers like myself who loved the no-budget riot Clerks but were left cold by Mallrats will be happy to know that Smith has indeed recaptured his comedic touch. But, most importantly, the frank (and, for some, maybe too frank), often foul-mouthed dialogue is not only funny but sounds convincing. The laugh lines sound anything but scripted, capturing the spontaneity of actual conversation; the same can be said of the more serious passages, which are astoundingly full of truth and honest emotion.

There is also more to Smith's writing than the dialogue. The characters are fascinating in just how true-to-life they are. For example, Holden fancies himself a liberal thinker, but, of course, he's quite as liberal as he believes himself to be. Late in the picture, Holden is disturbed by details of Alyssa's past, which naturally puts a crimp in their relationship. Looking plainly from a moviegoer's standpoint, Holden's treatment of Alyssa seems off-base, but his actions are completely in line with how a real person would react in a similar situation. Like many other films, there's a big scene where our protagonist offers a solution to all that ails him and his friends, but Smith does not serve up the convention where a character gains greater maturity, understanding, and insight overnight as he or she only can in the movies. Smith doesn't forget who Holden is, and as such he respects the viewers' intelligence.

Of course, the actors deserve a lot of credit for making the people and situations in Chasing Amy so involving. The likable Affleck does a good job of capturing Holden's insecurities with himself and others. Adams, who can be described as what you get when you blend Cameron Diaz, Renée Zellweger, Ellen Barkin, and the voice of Jennifer Tilly, takes longer to warm up to, mainly because of her squeaky, Tilly-esque voice. In the end, though, she pulls off the difficult role of Alyssa--the heart of the film, if you will--without a hitch, displaying a comic flair as well as an emotional depth never hinted at in her heretofore most visible work: a guest spot on Fox's Married...with Children and regular gigs on the short-lived Married... spinoffs Top of the Heap and Vinnie and Bobby. Lee, who was the best thing about Mallrats, brings more of his hilarious smart-aleck charm to the brash Banky. Dwight Ewell has some choice moments as Hooper, a gay black comic creator who acts like a black militant for better publicity; and Jason Mewes and Smith himself contribute a memorable cameo as the Jersey trilogy's recurring characters, Jay and Silent Bob, respectively, the latter of whom isn't so silent this time around (in fact, he's the voice of reason).

Most people will see Chasing Amy as Kevin Smith's return to form, but in doing so they may ignore just what a huge leap this film is for him in his maturity as a filmmaker. It's everything Clerks was (and Mallrats wasn't) and more--funny, fearless... and profoundly moving. Never did I ever think I'd come away from a Smith film with a lump in my throat.

In Brief

Murder at 1600 poster Murder at 1600 (R) ** 1/2
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A young woman is found dead in a White House restroom, and a Washington D.C. police detective (Wesley Snipes), working with a Secret Service agent (Diane Lane), attempts to uncover the truth. If this sounds like a by-the-numbers, formulaic government conspiracy thriller, it is. But, truth be told, a lot of it works better than it has any right to, thanks to brisk direction by Dwight Little and fine-tuned performances by Snipes, Lane, and a creepy Daniel Benzali as a shady Secret Service agent. However, all that is enjoyable in the film is sandwiched by a lame beginning and end: the film opens with a baffling, irrelevant pre-credit scene which I believe is supposed to be funny (it isn't), and the unimpressive climax is too clichéd to be suspenseful or surprising. At the very least, though, the intelligence-insulting line "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--an address that changes all the rules," which was so prominently featured in the trailer, is nowhere to be found in the final film.

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