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The Movie Report
Volume 23

#110 - 112
September 25, 1997 - October 10, 1997

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

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#112 October 10, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Boogie Nights poster Boogie Nights (R) ****
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Aside from a fleeting glimpse of a sign reading "2nd Annual Adult Film Awards," the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights does not offer a single clue of its porn-industry setting. This might seem misleading, but in skirting the provocative issue, the prudish preview ironically gives a more accurate sketch of what this fascinating, decade-spanning drama is truly about.

The adult film industry is front and center as the film opens in the San Fernando Valley in 1977. Anderson introduces the major players GoodFellas-style with a single shot winding through a crowded discotheque: producer/director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds); stars Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and Rollergirl (Heather Graham); production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy); and 17-year-old waiter Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), who catches the attention of Jack. Jack sees superstar potential in the fresh-faced Eddie, and he is right--propelled by his large natural endowment and its ability to perform on camera, Eddie becomes an overnight porn sensation under the name of Dirk Diggler, sweeping the Adult Film Awards every year and creating a popular franchise character in secret agent Brock Landers.

Tragic gunshots ring in the 1980s, and at this point Anderson uncovers Boogie Nights's true nature. As Dirk's fortunes take a slide and advent of video changes the adult entertainment industry forever, the film reveals itself as not a mere portrait of the porn business but above all else a study of the people involved, the hopes and dreams within this makeshift family. For some, porn is just a means to a greater end: Buck dreams of opening up his own stereo shop; Reed would rather be a full-time magician. But a lot of the time, involvement in the business proves to be an insurmountable and humbling obstacle, a large skeleton in the closets of all involved. While the porno setting hooks the viewer and remains as a backdrop thoroughout, but it is the characters that carry the audience through.

Ironically, though, the focal character is one of the least interesting. Eddie/Dirk starts off as an ambitious, naive kid and becomes an ambitious, naive, and egotistical man. Wahlberg, who gives a very competent performance, conveys the naivete and eventual arrogance well, but he needs to work on his vulnerability; above all else, Eddie/Dirk is portrayed as a dreamer, but I could not connect with the distant Wahlberg. More engaging emotionally and in every other way are Moore's Amber, the porn vet who yearns to be a mother to her absent son; Cheadle's Buck, who prides himself on being a real actor; and Graham's Rollergirl, a parentless high-school dropout whose freewheeling ways hide deep anger and pain. Reynolds should be on his way to a real comeback with his confident, relaxed work as Jack, the idealistic porn auteur who strives for some legitimacy.

Most of all, Boogie Nights is a showcase for 26-year-old writer-director-producer Anderson, who proves himself a major talent to watch with this, his second feature (following the acclaimed Reno underworld saga Hard Eight). Not only does he effortlessly juggle a wide canvas of characters and storylines, coax fine performances from his entire cast, and employ some bravura camera work, he shows an amazing eye for detail. The tacky '70s hairstyles, costumes, and dance moves are so dead-on as to be almost painful to watch. Also hilarious are the porn sequences; the wafer-thin premises, lame dialogue, flaccid line readings, cheap production values, suggestive character names--all of the most minute details are paid attention to. Adding even more authenticity is the great soundtrack filled with numerous '70s and '80s standards (though, curiously, the title tune is nowhere to be heard). Anderson's wry sense of humor shows through in the most subtle of ways; title cards stating dates are frequently posted onscreen, the last of which drolly reads "one last thing (long way down)".

Boogie Nights rounds out its swift 152-minute running time with a scene that is simple and quiet, yet deceptively so. With the mere sight and sound of one character talking to himself, Anderson sums up the joy and optimism of dreamers everywhere, as well as the sadness that come with the ultimate awareness of one's limits. "You're a star," goes the film's final line. Truer words cannot be spoken about Paul Thomas Anderson.

I Know What You Did Last Summer poster I Know What You Did Last Summer (R) ***
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After resurrecting and reinventing the teen slasher film for the '90s with the blockbuster Scream, screenwriter Kevin Williamson keeps the genre alive with I Know What You Did Last Summer, an effective "scary movie" directed by Jim Gillespie.

This adaptation of the novel by Lois Duncan begins with a violent accident that changes the lives of four teenage friends: sensible Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), beauty queen Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), bad boy jock Barry (Ryan Philippe), and nice guy Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) unwittingly run over and kill a man crossing a mountain road on the night of July 4. Instead of facing possible vehicular manslaughter charges--the car seats are doused with alcohol, thanks to hard-drinking Barry's clumsiness--the group decide to dump the body and keep that terrible night a secret for the rest of their lives. The foursome never see each other again until exactly one year later, after Julie receives an ominous note which gives the film its title.

I Know... is a more conventional thriller than Scream, which mined a mother lode of satire with its lampooning of horror clichés. Yet while it does follow a formulaic pattern, Williamson's script does not indulge in the typical "I'll be right back" norms. Certain characters are smarter than others, but most of the time everyone's frontal lobes are in working order. Thankfully, though, Williamson does not play everything completely straight; some arch bits of dialogue provide some good laughs, and Helen's beauty pageant scenes are hilarious in their dead-on cheesiness.

Williamson does fall short, however, in creating four memorable characters. Unlike Scream, which had a number of interesting, distinctive people on the canvas, here there are only two: blowhard Barry and especially the narcissistic, hair-obsessed Helen. Unfortunately, these two and the boring Ray take a backseat to the dull-as-dishwater Julie, played with little spark by Hewitt, a pallid stand-in for Neve Campbell. I suppose Gillespie wanted to play up the Scream connection by casting another Party of Five co-star in the lead, but he would have had a better leading lady in the gifted Gellar, whom I have admired since her pre-Buffy '93-'95 stint as hellion Kendall Hart on All My Children (which won her a Daytime Emmy). Granted, Helen is a flashier role than Julie, but the seamless manner in which Gellar slides from comical self-absorption to gut-wrenching fear hints at how much more life and conviction she would have brought to the lead.

But scares, not acting, is what draws audiences to horror films, and the Scottish Gillespie, making his American debut, offers heaps of shrieks. He delivers a few chilling sequences, in particular the creepy body-dumping scene and a tense chase-and-evasion set piece involving Helen. Mind you, he is no Wes Craven--the climax, set aboard a boat, leaves a lot to be desired in the suspensewise, but he recovers from that with a killer (yes, bad pun) ending. Many films claim to leave the audience screaming; once I Know What You Did Last Summer makes its final fade out, you may just find yourself doing so.

U-Turn poster U-Turn (R) ***
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The words "An Oliver Stone Film" have come to signify a big, bombastic political statement by the controversial director, so at the opening of U-Turn, his moderately-budgeted, statement-free thriller, in place of those words are "An Oliver Stone Movie." The altered credit is clearly intended to label the film as an unpretentious, conventional genre piece, but after seeing the film, I see it as more of a warning. U-Turn is not a conventional genre piece, but rather Stone's perception of a genre piece--which is bizarre, somewhat baffling, but nonetheless intriguing and warped entertainment for anyone brave enough to tackle it.

This adaptation of John Ridley's Stray Dogs does boil down to a thriller premise: Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) on the way to Vegas to settle a debt with some stolen money, has his radiator hose blow up on him in the backwater--make that backdesert--town of Superior, Arizona, where he becomes part of a murderous triangle with sultry, bored housewife Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez) and her wealthy husband Jake (Nick Nolte). The seeds of this conflict are planted early on, but for the space of an hour, nothing really happens with it; instead, that time is spent with Bobby as he encounters the various eccentrics about town: flirty hick Jenny (Claire Danes); her tough guy suitor Toby N. Tucker, a.k.a. TNT (Joaquin Phoenix); a nameless blind man (Jon Voight) with a dead pet dog; and mechanic Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), a grease monkey in the truest sense of the term. For this time, Stone appears more interested in the oddball characters than he is the normal thriller aspects, which would be a problem if the characters and the situations were not as funny as they are. Not everything works (a running gag where Bobby's beverage bottles keep on breaking before he can drink is especially lame), but for the most part this section of the film is a demented hoot, galvanized by some great character work by the supporting players.

With that sideshow going on, the thriller side of U-Turn seems more of an afterthought, both figuratively and literally; the Bobby-Grace-Jake triangle and its intertwining murder schemes takes finally centerstage with about 40 minutes to go. But Stone gives it his all, using his Natural Born Killers intercutting visual style to good use here to underscore points in Ridley's ever-twisting screenplay, and going full-throttle with the sex and, this being Stone, violence. Keeping things running smoothly are the actors, especially Lopez, who shows more depth and versatility with every film. In a way, U-Turn feels like two different films--the small-town satire and the thriller--but what unites them is Ridley and Stone's pitch-black sense of humor. The blood-drenched finale may be too gruesome for most audiences to get the joke, but if you do, it is quite funny in the most twisted sense.

Many critics have panned U-Turn as a creative cul-de-sac for Stone, but I think it signifies the opening of a new road for the director to take--the application of his considerable filmmaking talents to films other than personal "message" movies. If the loopy yet fun U-Turn is any indication, his planned Mission: Impossible sequel should be something to look forward to.

In Brief

The End of Violence poster The End of Violence (R) **
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Wim Wenders's beautifully photographed, fairly well-acted meditation on violence has an intriguing idea at its core--Mike Max (Bill Pullman), producer of such violent action spectacles as (how's this for blatant title symbolism) Violence, reaches a crisis of conscience after he himself becomes a victim of violence. Unfortunately, it's just one of many plots and ideas floating around Nicholas Klein's cluttered, confused, and overly ambitious screenplay. In addition to Mike's spiritual journey are those of a former stuntwoman (Traci Lind) who seeks a definition for violence and, to much lesser effect, a rap artist (K. Todd Freeman) who ultimately renounces his violent lyrics. Hanging over all of this is some left-field mumbo-jumbo about a secret, Big Brother-type government project which has all of Los Angeles watched under a secret network of cameras manned by former NASA scientist Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne), who himself has a crisis of conscience of sorts. All the disparate plot elements would not be a problem if they all congealed into some solid point about the nature of violence, the government, Hollywood, or pretentious art films, but they do not--except maybe in the minds of Wenders and Klein. For everyone else, what's on screen is a disjointed mess where a lot goes on but nothing happens.

Kiss the Girls poster Kiss the Girls (R) ** 1/2
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A psychotic madman, stylish direction, and Morgan Freeman. In these ways, Gary Fleder's adaptation of James Patterson's novel Kiss the Girls resembles David Fincher's Se7en, but that is also where the similarities end. Freeman plays Dr. Alex Cross, a Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist who travels to Durham, North Carolina, to investigate the kidnappings of young women, one of whom is his niece (Gina Ravera). Aiding his investigation is Dr. Kate Mctiernan (Ashley Judd), a victim who manages to escape from the kidnapper's clutches.

The performances in Kiss the Girls are uniformly good (it is especially nice to see Judd play a leading role in a major Hollywood production), and Fleder's direction is visually enthralling from the first frame to the last, but there is a critical void in the middle--the villain. We know what he does and we see him do it, but we never get a real sense as to why he does it all. As such, when his identity is revealed, there is really no way to correlate the behavior with the individual--it could have been anyone. The sound heard at the end of the film is not the click of the final puzzle piece falling into place but a thud.

The Locusts poster The Locusts (R) ** 1/2
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A drifter named Clay (Vince Vaughn) comes into a small Kansas town, circa the 1960s, and gets work and shelter from Mrs. Potts (Kate Capshaw), a widowed feed lot owner. A perfectly good set-up, but for what, exactly? First-time writer-director John Patrick Kelley takes his time to find the focus of the story--the touching, unlikely friendship that develops between Clay and Mrs. Potts's meek son, known as Flyboy (Jeremy Davies)--and even longer to let it build any dramatic momentum; by the time it does, the film's two-hour running time is nearly up. In the meantime, Vaughn sports a succession of tight white T-shirts and tank tops of varying dirtiness, and the cast lights up enough cigarettes to have the audience die of second-hand smoke.

However, The Locusts's slow stream of events is made quite bearable and somewhat worthwhile by the terrific performances. Vaughn, a long way from Swingers, displays impressive dramatic chops as the charismatic loner with the requisite shady past; complimenting him well is Davies, who is a pro at playing mumbly, soft-spoken young men. The revelation here, though, is Capshaw, who infuses her pit viper of a character with genuine emotion. Mrs. Potts is a bitch, but Capshaw enables the audience to feel and understand the pain that shaped her. Faring less well is Ashley Judd, who is as convincing as always but is saddled with the very thankless role of Clay's love interest.

Most Wanted poster Most Wanted (R) * 1/2 photos from the Los Angeles premiere
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Keenen Ivory Wayans does no favors for his film career with this derivative, unexciting actioner, which he also wrote and executive produced. The film starts as sort of a male variation of La Femme Nikita, with Wayans's James Anthony Dunn, a former Marine sniper awaiting execution for the murder of his commanding officer, being recruited into a secret group of government assassins by a shady military type (a hammy Jon Voight). James is assigned to assassinate a wealthy industrialist (Robert Culp) at a hospital dedication attended by the First Lady (Donna Cherry), but after perfectly locking his target and firing, the First Lady somehow ends up dead instead. From this point on the film shifts into The Fugitive territory, with James fleeing the authorities aided by a doctor (Law & Order alumna Jill Hennessy) who videotaped the assassination.

Wayans looks the action hero: buff, cool, and stoic, but in straying from his normal comedic persona he also strips himself of any charm and personality. But it is not as if he wrote himself a sturdy vehicle to begin with. Most Wanted is a pedestrian chase picture with cardboard villains, been-there, done-that explosions and car wrecks, and some painfully forced (and unfunny) comedy, such as a scene where a security guard mistakes James for talk show host Montel Williams. Wayans's script does not get much help from director David Glenn Hogan (whose most recent effort, the hoot- and hooter-filled Pamela Lee extravaganza Barb Wire, does not rate a single mention in the press notes), who keeps the pace fast but fails to build any excitement or suspense. Wayans would be wise to stick with his current late night talk show gig.

Seven Years in Tibet poster Seven Years in Tibet (PG-13) ** photos from the Los Angeles premiere
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Brad Pitt plays Heinrich Harrer, famous Austrian mountaineer and member of the Nazi party whose expedition to the Himalayas in the late 1930s and early 1940s eventually lands him in Tibet--more specifically, the holy city of Lhasa, home of the young Dalai Lama (newcomer Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk), the spiritual leader of the nation. As the years pass, Heinrich and the Dalai Lama forge a strong friendship. Initially Heinrich is the teacher, schooling the Dalai Lama in the ways of the world, but it is Heinrich who ends up learning more, eschewing his egotistical ways and becoming a more spiritual person.

The ingredients of an epic are in place: breathtaking photography, exotic locales, a grand physical and spiritual journey, and an Academy Award-nominated star. But something is critically missing in Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of the real-life Harrer's non-fiction novel of the same name--passion. Everything is nice to look at, but there is no feeling involved. I could not connect with Heinrich's angst over his estranged wife (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and the son he never met. Much of the blame can be attributed to Pitt. He does not embarrass himself, and he has a nice rapport with Wangchuk, but it seems he channelled all of his acting energy into affecting a just-OK Austrian accent. The rest of the time he is smiling, taking his shirt off, brushing his blond locks with his hands, striking poses against the picturesque scenery--in short, being Brad Pitt, which is fine for a "Brad Conquers the Himalayas" travelogue video, but not the high-minded drama as this attempts to be.

Soul Food poster Soul Food (R) *** 1/2
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For his first foray into film production, songwriter/superproducer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds serves up this tasty dish about the healing powers of food and family. Told through the eyes of young Ahmad (Brandon Hammond, the young Michael Jordan in Space Jam), Soul Food follows the lives of an African-American family bound by the traditional Sunday dinners whipped up by matriarch Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall). The focal lives are those of three sisters: Teri (Vanessa L. Williams), a successful--and bitchy--lawyer; Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), Teri's nemesis and the mother of Ahmad and two other children; and Bird (Nia Long), a newlywed hairdresser. When Mother Joe falls ill, so does the state of the entire family. Tension brews within Teri's marriage over her lawyer husband's (Michael Beach) second career as a musician; Bird's husband's (Mekhi Phifer) convict past keeps on getting him into trouble; and the arrival of trashy, aspiring dancer cousin Faith (Gina Ravera, proving she should have been one of the on-stage performers in Showgirls) strains the already-weakening family ties even further.

From the above description, Soul Food may sound like a drag, but director George Tillman Jr.'s script is as warm and funny as it is dramatic and emotionally involving, with fully-fleshed characters brought to life by the strong ensemble acting; to single any single actor out is to discount the equally commendable efforts by everyone else. And, as any good food-themed movie should, the film leaves the audience hungry for some nice home cooked soul food. In the end, Soul Food could be dismissed as being as overly sentimental and sweet as 'Face's R&B confections, but I think the is more like his music in the sense that it is agreeable, enjoyable, and goes down smooth as silk.

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#111 October 2, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Edge poster The Edge (R) **
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Following test screenings, the title of Lee Tamahori's survival-in-the-wilds thriller Bookworm was changed to the presumably more slam-bang The Edge. However, this is a case where the original title should have remained, for the staid-sounding Bookworm is a more apt moniker for this unexciting adventure yarn.

Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Charles Morse, the bookworm of the original title, a billionaire who has acquired a wealth of knowledge from the reading of numerous books. The film begins with Charles arriving in Alaska with his much younger model wife, Mickey (Elle Macpherson, displaying all the depth of a fashion plate)--yes, her name is Mickey Morse--and ace fashion photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin) for a shoot. Screenwriter David Mamet's creaky plot machinations can be heard early on with the very weak setup for the wilderness action: determined to locate a particularly photogenic local to join Mickey for the shoot, Robert, with trusty assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) and Charles along for the ride, leaves the cushy cabin lodgings on a plane, which promptly crashes in the middle of nowhere. Can these three survive on their own in the Alaskan wilderness, with a very hungry bear on their trail?

Actually, the question is really if these two can survive, since it's thunderingly obvious that Stephen won't be around for long because (1) the tension brewing between Charles and Robert over Mickey has to take center stage sooner or later, and (2) Stephen is African-American and thus falls victim to a most unfortunate cliché. And the answer, of course, is a big yes since Charles has learned volumes of survival know-how from books--we see him make a compass using a paper clip and a leaf in water as well as recite a particularly clever formula for making fire from ice. Before long, we get the point: it takes brains, not necessarily brawn, to survive in the wild. But Mamet and Tamahori keep on pounding that point into the audience's heads as if we were an opponent needing to be pummeled into submission.

Tamahori does bring The Edge to life during some spectacular bear attack sequences. This may sound a little silly, but Bart the Bear delivers the film's most memorable performance as Charles and Robert's (and, for a while, Stephen's) bloodthirsty stalker; big, brown, and very, very intimidating, he gives his scenes an electrifying jolt of energy. Unfortunately, the bear is not the focus of the film; the Charles-Robert conflict is, and once the bear situation has come to a head, all that follows cannot help but feel a bit a dull by comparison. This would not have been as big of a problem if the Charles-Robert conflict came to a moderately satisfying, halfway exciting conclusion, but, not so surprisingly, everything ends with a whimper.

Which leaves the audience wondering--what exactly does the title mean? The edge of sanity? The edge of the world? Perhaps one, perhaps the other, perhaps both, but all I know is that by the time The Edge was over, I was at the edge of my patience.

In Brief

Going All the Way poster Going All the Way (R) ***
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Author Dan Wakefield wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his celebrated 1970 novel, in which two young men--geeky Willard "Sonny" Burns (Jeremy Davies) and slick stud Gunner Casselman (Ben Affleck)--return home to Indianapolis after serving in the army during the Korean War only to deal with everyday troubles, first and foremost being those with women. For the most part, this scenario makes for an amusing and comical look at life in the Midwest, but certain moments involving Sonny's inner turmoil and frustration with suburban life are less so--in a most jarring manner. First-time director Mark Pellington puts his music video training to overuse during these spots, which are heavy with quick edits, distorted audio, and odd camera angles; the effect is disturbing, if not downright creepy, and it seems wildly at odds with everything else.

But that misstep does not negate the charms of this funny, oddly moving little film, which is distinguished by some fine acting. Davies is ideally awkward and insecure, at times unsettlingly so, as Sonny, snugly fitting into the character's hideous short-sleeved, checkered dress shirts; Affleck is a perfect foil, radiating effortless cool and confidence as Sonny's unlikely best friend. As scruffily charming as Affleck was in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, his ultracharismatic movie star turn here comes as a bit of a revelation. Going All the Way is essentially a male coming-of-age tale, but it would not quite have gone all the way (pardon the bad pun) without the standout work of the female cast: Jill Clayburgh (as Sonny's religious zealot of a mother), Lesley Ann Warren (as Gunner's free-spirited but anti-Semitic mother), Amy Locane (as Sonny's down-home girlfriend), Rachel Weisz (as Gunner's sophisticated Jewish girlfriend), and the briefly seen Rose McGowan (as a sultry femme fatale who catches the interest of Sonny).

The Matchmaker poster The Matchmaker (R) ** 1/2
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Janeane Garofalo returns to romantic comedy with less successful results in this pleasant, if flat, love story. "America's favorite Anti-Star" (as the press notes state) has her moments as Marcy Tizard, a cynical political worker who travels to a small town in Ireland to investigate the heritage of her boss, an up-for-reelection senator (Jay O. Sanders). As the luck of the Irish would have it, her trip coincides with the town's annual matchmaking festival, and soon she finds her self being set up with local layabout Sean (David O'Hara) by Dermot (Milo O'Shea), the leading matchmaker in town. Will the lush Irish scenery and romantic atmosphere thaw the glacial heart of this jaded big-city girl?

The answer to the question is, of course, rather obvious, but the by-the-numbers nature of The Matchmaker is the least of its problems. Screenwriters Karen Janszen, Louis Nowra, and Graham Linehan never come up with a convincing reason why Marcy and Sean would fall for each other besides the fact that Dermot thinks they would make a good match; the problem is merely compounded by the lack of true sparks between Garofalo and O'Hara. Denis Leary is also on hand as the senator's caustic chief of staff, but his prickly guy routine is rapidly wearing thin, not to mention feels a bit out of place in romantic fluff such as this (witness how poorly he fared in his own blah romantic vehicle, Two If by Sea). Gramercy Pictures is billing The Matchmaker as "a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies," but there's little here in this unremarkable film that's special enough to alter anyone's opinion, negatively or positively.

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#110 September 25, 1997 by Michael Dequina


The Peacemaker poster The Peacemaker (R) ***
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The Peacemaker arrives on screens under considerably more scrutiny than an average late-September action release. First of all, it's the inaugural motion picture release from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen's studio, DreamWorks SKG, launched with much fanfare three years ago. The second concern is one that was not foreseen at the time of the film's production: the questionable box office bankability of lead George Clooney, whose popularity on television's ER has not translated into blockbuster box office grosses for From Dusk till Dawn, the underrated One Fine Day, and the justly maligned stinkbomb Batman & Robin. So does this Tom Clancy-esque thriller deliver the goods under pressure? Yes--it's certainly exciting enough to leave audiences sufficiently entertained for a couple of hours, but that's all.

But what can you expect when the basic plot of Michael Schiffer's screenplay (based on, as the credits read, "an article by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn") is as thin as they come (OK, maybe not as thin as Twister's)? A cache of nuclear warheads is stolen from a train in Russia, and it's up to Special Forces intelligence officer Col. Thomas Devoe (Clooney) and the head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) to recover them, setting up one big globe-hopping chase after the weapons and the terrorists who stole them.

Schiffer and director Mimi Leder don't take this story in any new directions; familiar action staples such as car and helicopter chase sequences, running through crowded streets, big explosions, and (would a bomb thriller be complete without one?) a hurry-the-hell-up-and-disarm-the-bomb-before-we-all-blow-up-to-kingdom-come scene are present here. And some touches cannot help but remind one of some of the cast and crew's previous credits: Leder's extensive steadicam use recalls her ERwork; a prolonged piano-playing scene, complete with closeups of fingers on keys, reminds one of co-star Armin Mueller-Stahl's Shine; and Devoe and Kelly encounter a character named--gag--Schumacher. But Leder directs it all with a fairly quick pace and high energy level, most notably in the opening hijack scene and a rousing car chase/demolition derby in the streets of Vienna.

Similarly energized is Clooney, who fits this role much more snugly than his infamous last. His self-effacing manner feels more at home here than it did for the Caped Crusader, but this is not to say that he's smiley and jokey all of the time. When called on to do action hero derring-do, he's up to the task, making good on the largely forgotten "serious action" promise he displayed in Dusk. Thankfully, no contrived romantic angle is developed between Devoe and Kelly, but that's even more for the better here since little spark of any kind develops between Clooney and Kidman, who seems a little ill-at-ease here. Granted, she isn't given anything really strenuous to do here (unless you count swimming laps), but something is clearly, oddly amiss when her usually flawless American accent slips into her natural Aussie every now and again.

With little competition in the action arena right now, the solidly made The Peacemaker should keep Clooney's film career afloat (for now, at least) and get DreamWorks Pictures off on a successful start--but the film still can't help but feel like somewhat of a letdown. It is a sturdy, entertaining popcorn movie, and while that may be good enough for any other studio at any other time, as the maiden film voyage of S, K, and G's much-hyped zillion-dollar enterprise, it's a dismayingly nondescript piece of formula product.

In Brief

In & Out poster In & Out (PG-13) ***
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The terms "gay" and "mainstream" wouldn't seem to go hand in hand, but that they do in Frank Oz's very funny comedy, which addresses the issue of homosexuality in a bright package that will go down easy with more conservative audiences. But with the exception of some overly schmaltzy moments (the same problem that befell Liar Liar), Oz's lightly agreeable touch ironically does not dilute the acid wit of Paul Rudnick's intelligent script, which tells the tale of soon-to-be-married small-town English teacher Howard Brackett (a very well-cast Kevin Kline), whose life is turned inside out when he is outed by now-famous former student Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon, doing a mean Brad Pitt) during his Academy Awards acceptance speech.

The resulting situation, with the entire town, and even Howard himself, pondering the question of his sexuality (could he have been a closet case all along?) provides the groundwork of a lot of laughs (including a bevy of Barbra Streisand jokes and some wonderful slapstick moments for Kline), but even more are generated through some smart dialogue and sharp character comedy. It's a testament to Rudnick's economy as a screenwriter in how so much is revealed--and so many laughs are generated--through choice bits of dialogue. Nothing says more than a throwaway line uttered very nonchalantly by Cameron's model girlfriend Sonja (Shalom Harlow), after she says she has to prepare for a show: "I have to shower and vomit." But that is only one great, knowing line out of many delivered by the able-bodied supporting cast, which also includes Joan Cusack (as Howard's frustrated former fattie of a fiancée), Debbie Reynolds (as Howard's bitchy mom), and Tom Selleck (surprisingly convincing as an openly gay TV reporter).

As much fun as In & Out is, and as big of an opening weekend it enjoyed, just how widely the film is ultimately accepted by the mainstream remains to be seen; during the showing at which I saw the film, some audience members were audibly off-put by the in-you-face gay themes (which leads me to ask--do these people pay attention to what movie they pay to see?). But for those more liberal in thought and up for a plain ol' enjoyable time at the movies, In & Out is certain to please.

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