The Movie Report
Volume 25

#117 - 119
November 14, 1997 - November 26, 1997

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

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#119 November 26, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Alien Resurrection poster Alien Resurrection (R) ***
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1992's Alien3 marked not only the death (by suicide) of its popular protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but, in many ways, the Alien franchise itself--box office receipts were anemic, thanks to poor audience word of mouth; and the critics who rallied around the first two installments, 1979's Alien and 1986's Aliens, savaged David Fincher's slog of a sendoff (myself included). Hence, Weaver, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the others behind Alien Resurrection faced a two-fold challenge--not only somehow resurrect Ripley, but also rescue this once-profitable series from the scrap heap. Despite the odds, they have succeeded, even if the entertaining new installment does not measure up to the excellent first two.

Writer Joss Whedon devises a quick, easy, and painless answer to the dead Ripley problem--clone her, which is what shady military scientists do using some blood left behind on Fiorina 161, the prison planet of the third film. That done, the real challenge presents itself--what do with her. Alien introduced Ripley as smart and resourceful; Aliens simultaneously toughened her up and made her more vulnerable, exploring her maternal side; Alien3 saw her undergoing the seven stages of death. What could be next? Whedon comes up with a clever spin: since the original Ripley died while impregnated with an Alien queen, the blood used for the clone is also "infected" with Alien DNA. So the new Ripley is, indeed, new--a human/Alien hybrid blessed with heightened instincts and strength, a psychic bond with the deadly species, and a more predatory attitude.

Unfortunately, that is where Alien Resurrection's clever streak in writing stops. The Alien series is known for having stronger stories than most creature features. But the story in Resurrection is more of an afterthought. The movie begins with a plot involving some military types attempting to train Aliens to do their bidding, but once the creatures break free, it is once again Ripley and a ragtag crew (this time a bunch of interstellar smugglers, including tough waif Call, played by a game Winona Ryder) trying to exterminate them. And the Alien Ripley scenario is ultimately not exploited to its full potential; I would have liked deeper exploration into the quandary of becoming one of the species she has spent her entire life trying to destroy.

While the settling into tried-and-true formula is a little disconcerting, the formula is tried-and-true for a reason, and Jeunet tackles the proceedings with giddy abandon. The Alien, after all these years, is still terrifying, and a new breed that is introduced is no less so. The violence is appropriately grisly and extreme, and the action set pieces are suspenseful and exciting, most notably an extended underwater sequence. The film is absolutely mesmerizing visually, thanks to the solid work done by production designer Nigel Phelps and cinematographer Darius Khondji. As technically adept as Jeunet's direction is, perhaps his (and, for that matter, Whedon's) greatest contribution is the infusion of humor into this notably downbeat and serious series. A sense of humor may seem to go against everything this horror show stands for, but the self-awareness of the excess just adds to the fun.

No, Alien Resurrection is not the great film that Ridley Scott's Alien or the even greater film that James Cameron's Aliens was. But after the dauntingly slow gloom and doom of Fincher's Alien3, Jeunet's Resurrection is a welcome return to its roots as a wild, reckless thrill ride. That is what made the Alien series so popular in the first place, and that is what will keep the series popular in any future installments.

Anastasia poster Anastasia (G) ***
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Months before its release, Fox's epic animated musical Anastasia had been touted as the first legitimate challenge to Disney's animation empire, which looked more vulnerable than ever after the disappointing box office (and, as it turns out, merchandising) performance of the fun-but-phoned-in Hercules. Now that the film has arrived in theatres, does the Mouse indeed have reason to worry? During its exquisite first twenty or so minutes, I found myself agreeing with the buzz, but the film soon collapses under the weight of convention, becoming a merely pleasant entertainment.

A harrowing prologue set in 1916 swiftly gives us the necessary backstory: during a revolution the entire Russian royal family is killed save for the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia (spoken by Kirsten Dunst, sung by Lacey Chabert), who is lost after escaping from the palace; and her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury), who left Russia for Paris just before the unrest. Then the film flashes forward in time, jumping into its buoyant opening number, "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," which introduces the main action: the presumed-dead princess is rumored to be alive, and with their eye on a possible financial reward from the Empress, con men Dimitri (spoken by John Cusack, sung by Jonathan Dokuchitz) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) seek out a young woman who can be a believable Anastasia stand-in. While a big opening production number is part of the Disney formula, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman approach it in a fresh way. In Disney films, the characters do little more than sing and slightly sway to the music; here, the style is more live-action Broadway and MGM, with background characters forming a full-on dance chorus, spontaneously breaking into heavily choreographed moves.

Dimitri and Vlad ultimately find their perfect impostor in orphan Anya (spoken by Meg Ryan, sung by Liz Callaway), and that's no accident--she truly is Anastasia, but with barely any recollection of her royal past. Freshly released from an unpleasant orphanage, Anya articulates her dream of having a family in the stirring "Journey to the Past." This number is equivalent to the Disney "I Want" song in function, but once again the stage-influenced execution sets it apart, with Anya literally prancing her way through the snow-covered forest and even capping her song by dramatically raising her arms into the air (you almost expect the movie to pause for audience applause).

Right before Anya meets up with the scheming duo comes a truly stunning, magical moment--as it turns out, the film's way-too-premature peak. She steps foot in the ballroom of the abandoned palace, crooning the hauntingly beautiful "Once Upon a December," a lullaby her grandmother used to sing with her when she was young. After a single verse, the ghosts of the past waltz in through the windows, enveloping her, creating a lavish ball out of thin air.

By this song's end, the glitter and glamour disappears, and so does much of the luster of the film. The songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (the latter of whom holds a special place in my and many others' hearts for her enduring work on ABC's Schoolhouse Rock!) become increasingly forgettable, and even worse, the story loses some steam. The strict adherence to the established Disney formula becomes a hindrance. There is really no dramatic need to include an out-and-out villain in the piece, but, true to convention, there is one: evil monk Rasputin (spoken by Christopher Lloyd, sung by Jim Cummings), whose supernatural curse on the royal family caused its near-destruction. While the dying Rasputin's plot does lead to some standout sequences (in particular a suspenseful and spectacular sea storm scene), and the running gag of his body parts constantly fall off is amusing, I never felt as if he and his sidekick, wisecracking albino bat Bartok (Hank Azaria), played a necessary role in this story; they seemed to be shoehorned in for formula's sake. More interesting and involving than the good-versus-evil plot is the romantic sparring between Anya and Dimitri; this may sound odd, but Ryan and Cusack generate a lot of chemistry with their voices. But the resolution to their romance is far from satisfying. Instead of being moved by the ending, I was merely pleased.

One thing, however, does remain consistently impressive throughout Anastasia, and that is the visuals. The animation is a little ragged and not nearly as fluid as Disney work, but the artwork is outstanding. From its beautiful handdrawn images to the three-dimensional computer-generated work, all shot in the 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio (the first animated feature to be shot so since 1959's Sleeping Beauty), Anastasia truly looks and feels like an epic even when the goings-on are less so.

In the end, the heavily hyped Anastasia does not announce Fox's animation division as a challenger to Disney's throne. What it does announce, however, is Fox as a potential challenger. Anastasia may not be great, but it is good, and if the film is a jumping-off point for the fledgling animation house, the Mouse should be prepared for a war.

In Brief

Four Days in September poster Four Days in September (R) ***
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On the surface, Bruno Barreto's bilingual drama Four Days in September tells the fact-based tale of a group of young Brazilian idealists who strike out against their country's military regime by kidnapping the American Ambassador (Alan Arkin) in September 1969, demanding the release of fifteen political prisoners in exchange for his release. The main concern of the film is not whether or not their demands are met (though a great deal of tension is created from that scenario). Barreto and screenwriter Leopoldo Serran (working loosely from the book O que é isso, companhiero? by Fernando Gaberia) are more concerned with the effect this act of terrorism has on the neophyte terrorists, and they paint an effective picture of the resulting crises of conscience, in particular that of Fernando (Pedro Cardoso), a brainy type who forms a bond with the ambassador. Four Days is not without its problems; a romantic subplot between Fernando and a fellow conspirator (Fernanda Torres) is contrived, and the actresses cannot extract a single tear between them. But as it stands, it is an intriguing, understated film that quietly brings up loud questions of honor, duty, ideals, and courage.


Snow White: A Tale of Terror poster Snow White: A Tale of Terror (R) *** 1/2
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"The fairy tale is over." That tagline perfectly describes this strange, creepy, and fascinating retelling of the Grimm Brothers' famous tale, unjustly blocked of a theatrical release last year (thanks a lot, Disney). Sigourney Weaver is absolutely phenomenal as Claudia, the wicked stepmother to our heroine, here named Lilliana (the enchanting Monica Keena, best known as Bill Pullman and Peter Gallagher's younger sister in While You Were Sleeping). Claudia resents Lilliana from the get-go because of her striking resemblance to her legendarily beautiful mother, who died during childbirth. Claudia becomes even more resentful--murderously so--when she loses the baby she was to have with her husband Frederick (Sam Neill), Lilliana's father.

Yes, there is a prince (David Conrad), a poison apple, a talking mirror, and seven outcasts who help Snow White in the forest. But director Michael Cohn and scripters Thomas E. Szollosi and Deborah Serra put some interesting spins on the material: for a start, the prince isn't so charming, and only one of Lilliana's seven friends is a dwarf. These alterations, plus the frenzied atmosphere of darkness may be a little off-putting for some, but it only helps to invigorate the well-worn tale with new energy, albeit violent and sexually charged. The result is an involving, enthralling piece of work that respects the tale's tradition while breaking fresh new ground. (PolyGram Video)

Turkey Day!

What better way to spend Thanksgiving by serving up a couple of turkeys... cinematic ones, that is. While you can't go wrong with the established bad movie greats--e.g. Showgirls, any Ed Wood film--here are a few lesser-known titles that are certain to satisfy anyone's craving for after-dinner camp. Some of these titles may be hard to find (and are not worth the trouble), but if you can see them, a feast of fun awaits... (star ratings are irrelevant and therefore not included)

Blood Beach poster Blood Beach (R)
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The horror genre has had its fair share of ludicrous killers (Chucky the doll, anyone?) but perhaps none more ridiculous than this 1980 schlockfest's, which is... a California beach. OK, maybe it really is a giant wormlike thing (with the low-rent effects and bad lighting, it's hard to really be sure) lurking under the sand, but this bit of info is revealed late in the game. Until that revelation, we are treated to some howlingly funny scenes where very bad unknown-and-never-heard-from-again actors are sucked into the sand, whole or by part. How funny? Let's just say that my favorite scene is where a rapist has his you-know-what eaten by the bloodthirsty beach...

Breakaway poster Breakaway (R)
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A mob courier (Teri Thompson) wants out and attempts to make off with $300,000 in cash. Doesn't sound too different from most straight-to-tape shoot-'em-ups, and most of this 1996 action thriller isn't: explosions, guns, fights, nudity, sex, a leggy lead. But what makes this film shine above the rest are two words, which are accompanied by an "introducing" label during the opening cast roll: Tonya Harding. Yep, the former knee-banging Gillooly makes her, uh, "performance" (can't exactly call it acting) debut (and, let's hope, finale) in the supporting role of Gina, a tough-as-nails waitress. In a scene that must be seen to believed, Gina proves her mettle (and Harding lets out some of her pent-up Kerrigan anger) by pummeling a mob type with some not-so-nifty "martial arts" moves that make Elizabeth Berkley look like Bruce Lee. Just thinking about the sight of the chunky, unagile, slow-moving Harding attempting to kick up her legs has me laughing already. (Prestige Home Video)

The Forbidden Dance poster The Forbidden Dance (PG-13)
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An amazon princess (former Miss USA Laura Herring, who has since changed her last name to Harring--wonder why?) attempts to save her rain forest home from greedy land developers by... entering a lambada contest in Los Angeles. Is it any wonder why I love this incredibly pretentious and deluded bad acting, bad dancing, bad writing, bad directing, bad everything fest from 1990? (Columbia TriStar Home Video)

Teen Witch poster Teen Witch (PG-13)
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Many movies claim to have it all, but very few can actually back it up. This gem from 1989 is one of those few. At face value, it's a fantasy/comedy about a dowdy teen (Robyn Lively) who uses witchcraft to become the most popular girl in school and win the heart of her hunky crush (Dan Gauthier). What the basic plot synopsis--and all other sources--fail to prepare you for is its choreographed production numbers and wonderfully cheesy bubblegum pop tunes written expressly for the film by Larry Weir (why hasn't Disney been calling him?). So the viewer gets a fantasy, comedy, romance, and musical all for the price of one, with such only-in-a-great-bad-movie treats as a "funky" white rapper (Noah Blake) busting into rhyme every now and then ("I'm hot/And you're not/If you want to be with me/I'll give it one shot") and a chorus of cheerleaders jumping around the locker room singing a song titled, yes, "I Like Boys." (Media Home Entertainment)

Vibrations DVD Vibrations (PG-13)
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Small-town would-be rocker T.J. (James Marshall) loses his hands in a car accident cooked up by some thugs (don't ask). Distraught that he has stumps where his hands used to be, and that their limp prosthetic replacements (don't ask) are of no use, he makes off to New York, where he meets up with a new-agey dance club worker named Anamika (Christina Applegate). With her love and a pair of robotic hands fashioned by some of Anamika's friends (don't ask), techno-playing T.J. becomes a rave club superstar as a robot (don't ask) named Cyberstorm. No, this plotline is no joke. The only joke is the one on writer-director Michael Paseornek, who obviously was going for some serious drama with this 1995 effort--and instead came up with one of the most unintentionally hilarious films ever made. I mean, how can you not laugh when T.J. stops a stove fire in a diner by laying his latex hands on top of it, or at T.J. and Anamika's love scene, which tries to be tender and romantic in spite of a most untender and unromantic distraction--T.J.'s bulky metal hands? (Dimension Home Video)

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#118 November 20, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil poster Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (R) ***
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After spending three years on the bestseller list, John Berendt's Midnight and the Garden of Good and Evil has been brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood in a film that is not likely to stay too long at the top of the box office charts--provided it even gets there at all. While Midnight is, in the end, an intriguing and handsome production, watching this very long, leisurely paced film is like reading a book--not necessarily a bad thing, but not exactly what one is in the mood for when watching a film.

At its core, the fact-based Midnight is a courtroom drama, documenting the 1982 trial of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a wealthy Savannah antiques dealer charged with the murder of Billy Hanson (Jude Law), one of the help at Jim's estate and his sometime lover. Writing a book on this sensational case--and investigating the truth behind the fateful night--is John Kelso (John Cusack, playing a fictional stand-in for Berendt), a New York writer originally sent down to Savannah to write a Town and Country magazine article on Jim's swanky annual Christmas party.

The plot, however, appears to be of little concern to Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who, in trying to capture the feel of Berendt's book, are more interested in the colorful array of characters John encounters through his research and investigation. Among those he gets involved with are Jim's smooth talking attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson); Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), an ex-lawyer who dreams of opening a piano bar; Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter), a free-spirited flower shop worker in whom John develops a romantic interest; Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess who aids Jim's case; and, most notably, The Lady Chablis (played by him/herself), a flamboyant transvestite who lived with one of Billy's lovers. Yet while these are all interesting people who together make up a varied cross section of the Savannah population, most have little more than a tangential connection to the main proceedings, serving to further bloat the running time, which, as it stands, clocks in at over two and a half hours. The presence of a large, novelesque canvas of characters is commendable, but Hancock cannot quite make it work because, interesting as they are, they are not given much to do that is of equal interest; the background players' main duty is to react to Jim's crime and subsequent trial. An exception to this would be Minerva, but even this voodoo angle, which comes to play a major role, is not incorporated into the story in the smoothest of manners, popping up out of nowhere midway (to lend the film its title) only to resurface at center stage in the final act.

Eastwood-directed films are known for their slow pace, and Midnight is no exception. Any slowly-paced film runs the risk of losing its audience's attention, but Midnight does not, thanks to an engrossing plot hook and the polished work by cinematographer Jack N. Green, production designer Henry Bumstead, and the acting ensemble, which is strong across the board. Spacey, not surprisingly, does a finely modulated job, managing to make Jim sympathetic without diluting any of his unsavory nature; he just may have nailed his second Oscar nod for the year (the first would be for his superb supporting work in L.A. Confidential). But as good as he and Cusack are, the movie is stolen from right under them and all else involved in the picture by The Lady Chablis. True, he/she is playing him/herself, but he/she does it with such brash, go-for-broke insouciance that everything take a backseat to him/her whenever he/she is onscreen. A Supporting Actor nod should be in his/her future, but given the notoriously conservative tastes of the notoriously conservative Academy, that can be safely ruled out.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did keep me engaged all through its lengthy running time but perhaps not in the way it should have. As a film, Midnight is a good read, paced slowly to accommodate thorough exploration and digestion of the little details that are interesting if not particularly important. However, a bit more tightening and focus would have made the thoughtful and literate Midnight a better watch.

In Brief

The Jackal poster The Jackal (R) **
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Bruce Willis! Richard Gere! The Jackal is loose! Just about everything about Michael Caton-Jones's reworking of the 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal seems exclamation-ready... everything, that is, except for the entirety of the film itself. Willis is effectively cast against type as the title character, an expert assassin/master of disguise who is hired by a Russian mobster to assassinate someone within the federal government. To aid in the effort to catch the Jackal, the FBI releases imprisoned IRA sharpshooter Declan Mulqueen (Gere), one of the few people alive who has seen the mystery man's face.

The simple chase set-up is promising, but the follow-through is curiously lethargic and suspenseless. In the place of genuine thrills and tension, we are treated to the sight of Willis modeling an array of bad hairpieces, Gere's painfully forced Irish brogue, and a number of talky scenes where a bunch of government types sit around a table and discuss the Jackal's actions. The action, when it does come, is somewhat diverting, particularly a scene where the Jackal tests a high-tech cannon, but perfunctorily staged. Generally speaking, the acting is fairly decent (Gere's accent excepted), with a couple of standout performances by Sidney Poitier (as an FBI agent) and Diane Venora (as a tough Russian intelligence officer with a bad burn scar). Nothing in The Jackal struck me as particularly bad; it is just that, for as high-profile and big-budget a production as it is, the film could not be less interesting.

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#117 November 14, 1997 by Michael Dequina


One Night Stand poster One Night Stand (R) **
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One Night Stand began life as another Joe Eszterhas sex romp, but after Leaving Las Vegas's Mike Figgis came on board to direct and extensively rewrite the script, Eszterhas amicably relinquished all writing credit. Figgis's resulting film is perhaps more serious-minded than Eszterhas originally intended, but after a promising start, this look at adultery loses its way--and, in the end, anything resembling a point.

The film begins rather oddly, with Max Carlyle (Wesley Snipes, who won the Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his fine performance) emerging from a New York hotel and introducing himself directly to the camera. He is a successful Los Angeles commercial director, with a large house, a beautiful wife named Mimi (Ming-Na Wen), and two young children. Max's family does not accompany him on this trip, which he makes partly for business but mostly to reconnect with his former best friend, gay, AIDS-stricken performance artist Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.).

Unexpected chaos and confusion (involving a hotel clerk played by Figgis himself, hiding his moptop under a bad Elvis-like wig) prompt Max to stay in New York for an extra night, and by chance he meets Karen (Nastassja Kinski), a mysterious blonde who is also married. The traumatic circumstances that lead to the titular adulterous encounter are mechanical, but, under the director's capable hand, they are quite believable, and when the two do fall into bed, it is depicted in a non-exploitative (and very non-Eszterhas) fashion: brief glimpses, sensuously scored by Figgis himself, punctuated by fadeouts (the latter a visual flourish Figgis comes to overuse as the film progresses).

The next day Max returns home to L.A. feeling removed from his life, and this is where the film starts running into some trouble. While the reasons behind his feelings of detachment are completely understandable, those behind the strain between Max and Mimi are not. Certainly the one night would cause some marital turbulence, but it is implied that their marriage already had some underlying problems, a point which is poorly established (the only detectable problem is Mimi's aggressiveness in the bedroom). More strain comes a year later, when Max, this time with Mimi in tow, returns to the Big Apple to visit the now-bedridden Charlie, and reencounters Karen, who, as it turns out, is married to Charlie's brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan).

With his discreet handling of the one night, Figgis successfully establishes that the Max and Karen's initial encounter is not about a cheap thrill. But it is also meant to show a passionate spiritual connection being made between Max and Karen, which I could not grasp; instead I simply saw two people clinging to each other in a moment of weakness--no more, no less. So when the reunited Max and Karen try hard to not give in to their feelings, one wonders exactly what those feelings are. Lust? No; their night together is shown as more than a cheap thrill. Love? That seems to be the intent, but one never gets a clear idea of it, especially since we get no real insight into what Karen feels the whole time, and Kinski adds no dimension to her flatly written role. In fact, the only characters that are not written with any depth are Max and Charlie (marvelously played by Downey), who, not surprisingly, serves as the voice of reason.

Figgis told Entertainment Weekly that he does not think that any of the original Eszterhas script remains in the film, but one would never guess based on the pair of twists that cap the film. Lacking in any concrete buildup, subtle or overt, these developments seem to come straight out of Eszerhas's manipulative bag of tricks. As problematic as I found One Night Stand to be for much of its running time, at the very least it appeared to be setting up a point. But by the time the conclusion rolls around, you wonder if Figgis ever really had one.

In Brief

Eve's Bayou poster Eve's Bayou (R) *** 1/2
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Actress Kasi Lemmons (best known as Jodie Foster's roommate in The Silence of the Lambs) makes an auspicious writing-directing debut with this lyrical tale of the Batistes, a Louisiana Creole family in the 1960s. Told through the eyes of 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), the middle child of three to town doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Roz (Lynn Whitfield), the story centers on the toll Louis's womanizing ways takes on the family, in particular Roz, Eve, and Eve's confused older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).

But there is more to Eve's Bayou than the involving family melodrama; the film's true strength is reflected in the film's poetic opening line: "Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain." More than anything, Eve's is about just that--the nature of memory, and how it rarely matches the truth of life. Lemmons brings this theme to life through the conflicting memories of characters; "the sight," a clairvoyance that serves as both a blessing and curse to Louis's sister thrice-widowed sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan); and inventive and entralling visual ways, such as a striking scene where a mirror serves as a literal reflection of the past.

The performances are not altogether perfect--Diahann Carroll is self-indulgently hammy as voodoo priestess Lazora, and Smollett's largely solid performance is not without its rough patches--but there is still a lot of superb work on display here. Jackson is commandingly charismatic, and Good outshines Smollett with her astonishing and powerful work as the troubled Cisely. As impressive as they are, though, the true knockout performance comes from Morgan, whom I have long admired from her ongoing work in daytime drama (she won an Emmy for All My Children, and she is currently on Port Charles, both shows on ABC). It is a pleasure to see this truly gifted actress prove to a wider audience that not all soap actors are no-talent hacks (though, admittedly, there are plenty of those). If she does not get a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination next spring, Academy voters are not doing their job.

The Full Monty poster The Full Monty (R) ***
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After much hesitation, this week I finally caved in to the popular buzz that has steadily built and saw this year's little indie that could... and I was quite entertained. Peter Cattaneo's simple, modest comedy about a group of unemployed steel workers (led by Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting's psychotic Begbie) who form a most unlikely striptease troupe to earn cash is a delightful entertainment, one that leaves the audience smiling and giggling, all the while painting a convincing and touching portrait of the downtrodden in England.

However, as much fun as I did have, I was still kind of let down. While the group's charmingly amateurish routines are funny, the film as a whole is not the gutbuster all the hype, box office grosses, and word-of-mouth led me to believe. The guys may go the full monty (that is, all the way) in their stage act, but the film does not in the way of laughs.

Happy Together poster Happy Together ** 1/2
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It is easy to see why idiosyncratic Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's (whose stateside claim to familiarity--you can't exactly call it fame--is the fresh and funny Chungking Express) latest film won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Moody, gorgeously photographed (by Christopher Doyle), and flat-out superb on a technical level, it bears the indelible watermark of a true auteur.

Too bad Wong's story is not as engaging his storytelling. Happy Together could not be a more ironic title for this look at the tortured relationship between two gay Hong Kong men (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung) in Buenos Aires. Despite fine turns by top HK stars Leung and Cheung, I found myself not caring very much, if at all, about these two characters and their destructive relationship. When they are together, they are miserable and constantly bicker; when they are apart, they mope around, wallowing in their lonely sadness (U2's "With or Without You" would have provided a more appropriate title than the Turtles' titular tune). Yet while the film makes no solid emotional connection through anyone or anything, Wong manages to create a rich atmosphere of romantic longing that hangs over the entire film--a testament his impressive command of the filmic art.

The Man Who Knew Too Little poster The Man Who Knew Too Little (PG) ***
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For his birthday, Des Moines Blockbuster Video clerk Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) travels to England to visit his uptight banker brother James (Peter Gallagher), who, as a present--and also to get him out of the house during an important business dinner--gets the wacky Wally tickets to the Theatre of Life, an experimental dramatic experience where the audience consists of one, and that one is an active participant in the scripted action. But after a mixup, Wally unwittingly becomes entangled with a femme fatale (nicely played by the freshly Kilmer-less Joanne Whalley) and a very real terrorist scheme--all of which he believes to be mere plot points in the script of a secret agent scenario.

In addition to being a spy spoof, The Man Who Knew Too Little plays somewhat like a comic twist on David Fincher's The Game. The basic setup is just about the same (man receives interactive "game" as birthday present from brother), but instead of creating an eerie atmosphere of paranoia through the uncertainty as to whether or not the protagonist's experiences are genuine, director Jon Amiel and scripters Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin mine laughs with the dramatic irony that our hero believes reality to be false. Admittedly, it is a fairly thin gag, but Farrar (who also wrote the novel Watch That Man, upon which the film is based), Franklin, and Amiel come up with clever ways to keep the wacky Wally oblivious. Much of the film's success, though, can be attributed to Murray, whose timing and goofball charm are as effective as ever.

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