The Movie Report
Volume 27

#123 - 126
December 24, 1997 - January 16, 1998

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

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#126 January 16, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Fallen poster Fallen (R) *** Denzel Washington Day in Hollywood photos
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January is known as a cinematic wasteland, a dumping ground where studios to unload the dreck they've been hiding in the dark corners of their shelves. So it's quite refreshing to see premiering in the first month of the year a film with some degree of intelligence such as Gregory Hoblit's Fallen. While the basic ideas behind this supernatural thriller remain more intriguing than their development and execution, Fallen is nonetheless an effective chiller that entertains and leaves audiences plenty to think about.

The setup as shown in the film's previews is deceptively simple. The execution of serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas, picking up where he left off in Crash) does not spell the end of his conflict with idealistic homicide detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington). Apparently, the execution has only freed his evil spirit to inhabit other bodies to do his sadistic bidding, passing from vessel to vessel through mere touch.

As the film progresses, it is revealed that the force that Hobbes must now confront is much larger than expected, and this is where Fallen becomes deeper and more intriguing than most fright shows. Interesting points about theology and the nature of evil are brought up by screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and director Hoblit, who enable the audience to suspend their disbelief by giving it time to digest the supernatural occurrences and explanations after they are served up a little at a time (though Hoblit allows the viewers a bit too much time--the film's pacing should have been much tighter). However, this is also where Fallen runs into some trouble, for a few points are not resolved to satisfaction. For instance, it is never satisfactorily explained why the spirit can easily enter some people and not others; "purity of soul" is offered as a reason, but what exactly distinguishes that?

But these quibbles can be swept under the rug, due to Hoblit's stylish direction and, most of all, the presence of the ever-charismatic and convincing Washington. He has such a natural rapport with the audience that we instantly believe what he does, and when he is finally convinced of what exactly is going on, we have no problem accepting the situation, either. His supporting cast, which includes John Goodman (as Hobbes's partner, Jonesy) and Donald Sutherland (as their superior), isn't given a whole lot to do (Embeth Davidtz, as a theologan who helps Hobbes, plays merely a walking vessel of exposition).

Fallen is a flawed film, but it at least requires the viewer to think, especially after the jolting conclusion. That's a lot more than most January releases have to offer; then again, I'd venture to guess that that's a lot more than what most releases this entire year will have to offer.

Hard Rain poster Hard Rain (R) **
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In an apparent response to the lukewarm reaction to Hollywood's last two disaster epics, the dueling volcano movies Dante's Peak and Volcano, the makers of Hard Rain (formerly known as The Flood) have tweaked the usual disaster formula a bit, melding traditional disaster elements with more slam-bang action. While the resulting film is never boring and entertaining on a superficial level, in the end it remains an uneven mix of both worlds.

Writer Graham Yost, best known for his script for Speed, fashions Hard Rain with a similarly thin storyline. A group of thieves, led by a shady character known only as Jim (Morgan Freeman) attempt to rob an armored car carrying $3 million. Two things stand in their way--biggest of all, Mother Nature, which has flooded the town of Huntingsburg, Indiana with the mother of all downpours; and Tom (Christian Slater), the armored car's driver, who manages to hide the cash before anyone can take it. With the help of the town sheriff (Randy Quaid) and church artist Karen (Minnie Driver), Tom aims to protect the carefully hidden fortune while braving the elements.

Speed was able to overcome its simple plot--madman extorts money from the city with a bomb on a bus--with crack direction by Jan DeBont and the personalities created by stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, and, most notably, Sandra Bullock. Hard Rain's shortcomings do not lie with director Mikael Salomon, a former cinematographer. Salomon stages the gunfights and boat chases with some skill (though no one but John Woo should even attempt to pull off a church shootout), and uses the waterlogged setting to create some striking shots. He also has a sure hand with the water effects, which give the gushing torrents of water an appropriate air of menace. One of the main shortcomings, however, lie with the characters, who, as in too many disaster films, are poorly defined and/or uninteresting. Tom is a cardboard do-gooder, and despite the best efforts of the always-engaging Driver, Karen is little more than a token action film female. A couple of late-inning twists muddy the personalities of the sheriff and especially Jim; by film's end I was not exactly sure what the audience is supposed to make of him.

What causes the most damage to Hard Rain is the inclusion of cheesy disaster movie conventions. It would have been fine if the flood were used as a backdrop to the action storyline, the water serving as an ominous threat looming over the events. But in keeping with a typical disaster film's varied "pastiche" of characters, he shoehorns in a grating, unhappily married old couple (Richard Dysart and Betty White), who linger in the background and become briefly involved in the action before virtually (and mercifully) disappearing during the final act. We also get served up one of those interminable melodramatic, would-be heart-tugging death scenes, this one occurring after a character gets electrocuted.

After all is said and done, Hard Rain is a somewhat diverting popcorn flick that holds one's interest for its fairly brief running time. It's just that I cannot help but think that maybe the film would have been better off being either a disaster film or an action film instead of the uneven blend that plays out onscreen.

In Brief

Swept from the Sea poster Swept from the Sea (PG-13) * 1/2
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TriStar pulled director Beeban Kidron's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story "Amy Foster" at the last minute last October, and, ironically, the delay has caused perhaps more bad than good--after all, an "epic romance" that involves a sinking ship can only look bad in the wake of Titanic. But this is not to say that Swept's merit is being discounted since there is really is little of merit on display in this slow, uninvolving film. The film centers on the relationship between Amy Foster (Rachel Weisz), an unhappy woman in Cornwall, England; and the mysterious Yanko (Vincent Perez), the sole survivor of a sunken Ukranian ship en route from his homeland to America. Despite the ire of the community, the two form a friendship that leads to romance.

Predictably, a happy ending is not in the cards for Amy and Yanko, not that it much matters since it's hard to really care about these two shallowly written characters. Not helping matters is the stunning lack of chemistry between the two leads and the ineptitude of their performances, especially the adrift Perez, who truly does appear lost at sea. Escaping with their dignity intact are Sir Ian McKellen (as the local doctor), a wasted Kathy Bates (as a wealthy cripple), and cinematographer Dick Pope, who gives the film a lush, epic look that it doesn't deserve.

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#125 January 8, 1998 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

illtown poster illtown (R) ** 1/2
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The basic plot of writer-director Nick Gomez's gritty urban drama isn't terribly unique--it's the tale of the conflict between drug dealer Dante (Michael Rapaport) and former partner Gabriel (Adam Trese), who has a score to settle. But what distinguishes illtown is Gomez's intricate, layered storytelling technique, which jumps back and forth in time much like the films of Atom Egoyan. He even manages to one-up Egoyan in a certain respect, blurring not only the boundaries of time but that between reality and dreams. Unfortunately, though, this latter quality is what ultimately does in the film. Once all the plot pieces have fallen into place, Gomez rounds out the film with a frustratingly cryptic, self-indulgently surreal conclusion that will leave viewers grasping for a meaning. Still, illtown is an interesting piece of work, made watchable by the nicely subtle performances of Rapaport and indie queen Lili Taylor (who plays Dante's partner in crime and love).

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#124 January 5, 1998 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

As Good as It Gets poster As Good as It Gets (PG-13) ***
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Mean, prejudiced, selfish, and all-around unpleasant, Jack Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive novelist Melvin Udall is one of the most fascinating and entertaining characters to come to the screen in a while. Less fascinating is the film he is in, James L. Brooks's pleasant, if somewhat underwhelming and overlong, comedy, As Good as It Gets. The film focuses on Melvin's peculiar love-hate relationships with two characters: Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a waitress with an ill young son; and Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), Melvin's sensitive gay artist neighbor. Predictably, through these two, the naturally prickly Melvin slowly but surely warms up, but it is to screenwriter Brooks and Mark Andrus's credit that he merely warms, his abrasive nature never sweetening.

As Good as It Gets's greatest pleasures come from the acting. Nicholson, who won the National Board of Review's Best Actor honor for his work, is terrifically devilish, and he is ably matched by Hunt, who infuses Carol with convincing world-weariness. Those two's solid performances, as well as that of Cuba Gooding Jr. (in a small role as an art dealer friend of Simon's), aren't terribly surprising, but what is is Kinnear's quietly touching turn (which netted him NBR's Supporting Actor award), proving that he should give up his own starring vehicles and stick to character work, at which he excels.

Kundun poster Kundun (PG-13) *** 1/2
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The movie maestro of America's Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, may seem like a curious choice to direct a film about the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, but with his lyrical film Kundun, it proves to be a natural match. Spanning His Holiness's life from his birth in 1937 to his final journey out of his homeland to India in the 1950s, Scorsese's is a beautiful picture in the most literal sense. Roger Deakins's mesmerizing cinematography is easily the best I've seen from a 1997 release, and his gorgeous work paired with Philip Glass's hypnotic, haunting score makes for a most sumptuous sensory feast that captures the majesty and grandeur of the spiritual leader of Tibet.

The film's main problem, though, is that this stunning beauty exists in an emotional and dramatic vacuum for a lot of its running time. While the story is never less than engaging and the images never less than captivating, due in large part to the impressive performances delivered by the cast of non-professional Tibetan actors (a few of whom are related to the real Dalai Lama himself), Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison don't find an emotional hook. The young Kundun (as he is called)--played by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, and Gyume Tethong, at ages 2, 5, and 12, respectively--is appealingly sympathetic and his experiences are interesting, but there is nothing particularly emotionally engaging nor inherently dramatic.

That is, until the film's final act, which details the adult Kundun's (Tenzhin Thuthob Tsarong) conflict with the invading Communist Chinese, leading to his flight to India. By this section, Scorsese's rich tableau of image and music finally bears a potent emotional weight while serving the drama. This is best exemplified by an amazing, unforgettable shot of the Dalai Lama standing above what appears to be an endless sea of his dead countrymen lying on the ground; and an extended visual metaphor in which an elaborate artwork of colored sand is gradually swept away as the Chinese increase the pressure and His Holiness flees. It is the magic of moments like these that make the exquisite Kundun, despite its initial flaws, a worthy addition to Scorsese's legendary body of work.

Wag the Dog poster Wag the Dog (R) ****
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After the being accused of sexual misconduct by a young girl, the incumbent American President's chances for victory in the only days-away election appear bleak. But the keyword here is "appear," for spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), with the enthusiastic help of hotshot Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), come up with a surefire way to bolster support for the Prez--manufacture a war out of thin air.

Based on the plot summary, Barry Levinson's delicious satire may seem to be a comedy of errors, generating laughs from the ineptitude of scheme and the schemers. But that would be too easy, and apparently so did ever-crafty screenwriter David Mamet (working from a script by Hilary Henkin based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero), who, in a clever move, gets his laughs--and there are big ones--from how well the plan is executed. Mamet's screenplay is exceedingly intelligent and well-crafted, remaining one step ahead of the audience. In fact, the made-up war (against the harmless, arbitrarily chosen Albania) is the mere taking-off point for an increasingly twisty--and flat-out hilarious--stream of events. Making this wild, biting trip all the more enjoyable are the fabulous performances by Hoffman, DeNiro, and Anne Heche (playing a White House operative), whose superlative work here measure up to the finest work in each of their careers.

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#123 December 24, 1997 by Michael Dequina


Jackie Brown poster Jackie Brown (R) *** 1/2 set report during the film shoot Pam Grier event photos
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Three years and numerous talk show appearances, acting gigs, and media potshots after the release of his landmark Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino has finally directed a full-length follow-up, Jackie Brown. But those expecting the blood-drenched, trigger-happy Tarantino of old are in for a surprise--his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch is a more mature, only moderately violent, and a most unexpectedly romantic and moving caper comedy/drama.

OK, I know what you're thinking--a good review from me is just about guaranteed for Tarantino, right? No. I walked into the screening with my expectations dramatically diminished, partially based on some early positive-but-not-great notices and the virtual lack of buzz attached to the finished project. My expectations were neither boosted nor diminished further by the amusingly kitschy, retro-'70s opening credit roll, with Pam Grier's title character moving on one of those airport conveyor belt walkways, the hard-driving soul of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" blaring on the soundtrack, and the appearance of a copyright notice under the film's title card.

Jackie is a 44-year-old, down-on-her-luck flight attendant for Cabo Air who also works as a money courier for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When the Feds, led by ATF agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton), catch onto her extracurricular activities (without knowing exactly whom she works for), Jackie devises a complex scheme to rob Ordell of $500,000--and stay in the good graces of law enforcement, whom she pits against Ordell. Figuring into her plan is her bail bondsman, burnt-out 50-something Max Cherry (Robert Forster).

Leonard's basic storyline is pretty standard, but Tarantino tells it in a straightforward fashion, but not without a certain amount of his unique panache, albeit slightly altered in some respects. Predictably, his dialogue has great snap, but while there are the trademark pop culture references, they are noticeably in shorter supply--a wise move, so the speech never distracts from the twisting plot. His penchant for nonlinear storytelling shines in a brilliantly handled climactic money exchange sequence, told three times over, each from the perspective of a different character; however, that sequence is an exception, for the rest of the way he uncharacteristically follows the story linearly. Naturally, this being a Tarantino film, there is also violence, but, oddly enough, these incidents are depicted with a minimum amount of bloodshed. These instances still shock, though, mostly because the actual depiction of violence is surprisingly sporadic; there is always the mere threat of it hanging in the air, and Tarantino milks that threat for maximum tension.

But what makes Jackie Brown so surprising is its (gasp) heart. For all the caper antics and profanity, the film essentially boils down to an earnest love story between Jackie and Max. At first the romantic angle plays less like a genuine angle than a joke; when Max becomes enamored of her at first sight as Bloodstone's classic "Natural High" plays in the background, it is hard not to snicker. Also pretty comical is how Max goes to Sam Goody and buys himself a tape of the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" (which becomes the de facto recurrent "love theme") after first hearing it at Jackie's apartment; he then plays it in his car and lipsyncs along. But the underlying romantic nature of their relationship--which is played out as a mere business alliance--is so skillfully and subtly developed that I was taken aback by how much I felt for the pair by the film's close.

Jackie and Max's likability onscreen owes a great debt to the actors who play them. As proven by his resurrection of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has a great eye for forgotten talent, and he has once again hit the jackpot with Grier and Forster, who should be Oscar contenders next year. Former '70s blaxploitation queen Grier is an immensely appealing performer; not only is she blessed with a natural beauty and sexiness, she is able to project a sympathetic vulnerability even when violently showing everyone who's boss. Forster, who has long toiled in anonymity in films such as Original Gangstas (which, as it happens, also starred Grier), is more than up to the tough task of suggesting Max's love for Jackie without clearly spelling out his true intentions. As is the case with Tarantino's previous efforts, the rest of the ensemble is also solid. Jackson is his usual first-rate self, and Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda develop an irreverent comic chemistry as Ordell's dim loser sidekick, Louis Gara, and Ordell's beach bunny stoner girlfriend, Melanie Ralston, respectively.

Jackie Brown is not a complete return to Pulp Fiction form for Tarantino; though the film is consistently engrossing, at 155 minutes, it is overlong by at least 20 minutes, and the unspectacular climax is quite disappointing, especially when compared to the terrific money exchange sequence. Nonetheless, the very well done Jackie Brown marks the welcome return of the filmmaker who revolutionized independent cinema.

The Postman poster The Postman (R) no stars
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Even though the $180 million 1995 sci-fi adventure Waterworld was dismissed by critics and audiences alike, producer/star/11th-hour "director" Kevin Costner managed to emerge from the wreckage unscathed, with most of the blame and discredit going to the film's true helmer, Kevin Reynolds. Costner won't be getting away so easily this time--his new sci-fi epic, The Postman, is even more disastrous, and no one is to blame but Costner himself, who also directed.

Granted, a little slack must be cut for The Postman, which comes to the theatres with three strikes against it. First of all, it is Costner's first directorial effort since his Oscar-winning 1990 debut, Dances with Wolves. Second, the film's title is also associated with a dearly beloved recent film, the excellent 1995 Italian import Il Postino. Third, the film's postapocalyptic setting is more than a little similar to that of Waterworld--and that's not exactly a film audiences want to be reminded of, to say the least.

But Costner, is, after all, an Academy Award-winning director, and one would think he could come up with something decent--or, at the very least, coherent. But even the modest hopes of the latter are dashed almost immediately with the expository opening narration, which apparently explains the second American Civil War that led to the country's demise. I say "apparently" because I could not make sense of any of it--exactly what happened and how it led to America becoming a wasteland in the year 2013. It would help if Costner or screenwriters Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland (working from the novel by David Brin) threw in more expository dialogue along the way to clarify things. No such luck. Once the narration ends, pity the poor, lost viewer who could not digest it... such as myself.

Shortly after that, we are introduced to Costner's nameless drifter, who, about an hour into this ridiculously long (170 minutes) film, lends the film its name. After escaping a military training camp held by the evil General Bethlehem (Will Patton, who is actually quite good), who rules the anarchic American Northwest with an iron fist, the drifter finds an abandoned mail truck and enters a small Oregon town under the guise of a postman. All he wants is a couple nights worth of food and lodging, but in pretending to be an official of "the restored United States of America," he becomes the living embodiment of hope for the oppressed people. Soon he finds himself with numerous disciples who revive the former grand American tradition of... mail delivery, and, in turn, bringing to life the hopes of a restored nation--which, of course, does not sit well with General Bethlehem.

I do not know what is more laughable--the barebones plot synopsis or its actual execution. The story is ridiculous, but it would have appeared at the very least less so if Costner did not play everything with such a straight face. He is apparently trying to make a Profound Statement about war and American society, but it is impossible to take anything seriously. Consider the horrendous dialogue: for example, Roth and Helgeland's idea of witty romantic repartee is having the Postman often say "You're really weird!" to a young wife (Olivia Williams) who wants to bear his child. Consider this most heavyhanded, idiotically symbolic plot development: the woman bears the Postman's daughter, who is named--yes--Hope (get it???). Most of all, consider the most ludicrously preachy moment of the film, this most unintentionally hilarious scene that occurs near the end: The Postman stops a follower from killing a man, saying, "There will only be peace!" So far, not too bad, but then the masses of people surrounding him look at each other, nod, and say, "Yeah." The audience rolls in the aisles (that is, provided they are still awake); the last trace of dramatic credibility flies out the window.

The heart of The Postman's problems is the title character himself. We are supposed to be inspired by the Postman and the society he has inadvertently created, but he is such an unsympathetic, self-serving character that we never once believe that he could attract a single follower, let alone hordes. And the lies he concocts are so ludicrous, not to mention poorly delivered, that it's a wonder how anyone believes any of it. He only seems to grasp the importance of his actions and influence with about thirty minutes to go, but this "changed" Postman comes off as a satirical, reverse stereotype of the American postal worker--one who denounces all violence, urging everyone to live in peace.

Usually when I think a movie is bad, I at least concede that it may be worth the while of loyal fans of the star or director. Not so with The Postman. Die-hard Kevin Costner fans may find themselves changing their mind after seeing this overlong, lumbering mess, a miserable failure in just about every respect.

In Brief

Tomorrow Never Dies poster Tomorrow Never Dies (PG-13) *** event pix event pix
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The 18th installment of the James Bond series boasts a few improvements over the franchise-saving 17th installment, GoldenEye. The most notable improvements come in the musical department: Sheryl Crow's mellow title song is much easier on the ears than Tina Turner's screeching "GoldenEye" (though, admittedly, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is otherwise a fairly uninspired attempt at reduplicating the sound of the classic "For Your Eyes Only"), and Eric Serra's horrible techno/synth pop experiment has been succeeded by a more traditional score by David Arnold, who heavily incorporates the classic James Bond theme. Other key improvements are the villain (Jonathan Pryce's megalomaniacal media baron, Elliott Carver, is a much more colorful villain than GoldenEye's blah Agent 006) and Bond's female sidekick--this time around a kick-butt Chinese agent named Wai Lin (worldwide action phenom--except in the U.S., unfortunately--Michelle Yeoh). Also, director Roger Spottiswoode keeps the action moving at a much quicker pace than GoldenEye's Martin Campbell.

However, Tomorrow Never Dies's improvements over its predecessor do not outnumber its downward steps in quality. The plot, in which Agent 007 (Pierce Brosnan, still doing quite well in his second Bond go-round) must thwart Carver's scheme to manufacture a war to boost ratings of his new news network, is quite thin, and GoldenEye's delicious villainess, the giddily sadomasochistic Xenia Onatopp, is sorely missed (the villainous henchman this time around is a stock German guy). Bond's usually pithy oneliners fall surprisingly flat, as does the critical curtain-raising opening action scene (there had to have been a more skilled action director available than Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot's Spottiswoode). And, as appealing and awesome a performer she is, Yeoh, with the exception of one just-OK showcase fight scene, is mostly wasted. No matter, though--one watches a Bond film for two hours of spy intrigue, car chases, fights, explosions, and beautiful women (Yeoh and Teri Hatcher, who play's Carver's wife), and on that fairly undemanding level, the diverting and fun Bond 18 delivers the goods.

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