The Movie Report
Volume 32

#138 - 139
April 16, 1998 - April 23, 1998

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

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#139 April 23, 1998 by Michael Dequina


The Big Hit poster The Big Hit (R) ** 1/2
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Although his best-known work is a Jackie Chan vehicle, Hong Kong director Che-Kirk Wong appeared to be an odd choice to direct a quirky action comedy; after all, the Chan film in question, 1993's Crime Story, is known among the Jackie faithful as his "serious" action film, devoid of any humor. With The Big Hit, Wong shows he can do a capable action/humor juggling job. If only he had a funnier script to work with.

The Big Hit gets off to a very promising start, with a terrific extended action sequence set in a hotel. Much of the hyper-choreographed mayhem owes a large debt to John Woo (who, perhaps not so coincidentally, serves as an executive producer), but the stylishly staged shootouts work; how can one not get a rise when hitman Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg), hanging out of a high window by only his feet, somehow manages to lift himself up and blow away the baddies? Writer Ben Ramsey also promises something different from most action films, introducing a colorful menagerie of eccentric characters, such as the no-nonsense, if mild-mannered, Melvin's goofy contract-killing cohorts Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips), Crunch (Bokeem Woodbine), and Vince (Antonio Sabato Jr.).

But once the main scenario is set up, in which the foursome kidnap and hold for ransom one Keiko Nishi (China Chow), daughter of a rich Japanese businessman--a job not assigned to them by their tough boss, Paris (Avery Brooks)--things come a bit undone. Those potentially interesting characters never develop into more than single-trait cardboard cutouts. Crunch is a compulsive masturbator, constantly doing hand-strengthening exercises; Vince is a pretty boy lothario, or at least that's what the press notes say, for he never really exhibits such behavior aside from hitting on some women in the early-going. Disappearing as quickly and conspicuously as Crunch and Vince after making a flashy, brash splash is Melvin's sassy mistress Chantel, played by a completely wasted Lela Rochon.

It goes without saying that the success of an action comedy depends on its batting average in both action and comedy. While Wong shows he can combine the two elements fairly fluidly, The Big Hit is hampered too many weak comic attempts. Ramsey has fun tweaking conventions of kidnapping thrillers (the ransom message, call tracing), action films (a car that barely hangs on after being run off of a high road), and movies in general (sappy Oscar-bait scenes). But his more straightforward humor often falls flat. A running gag involving Melvin's delinquent account at the local video store grows old long before its admittedly interesting payoff. Least successful is the subplot involving the "German-Irish" Melvin's engagement to the Jewish Pam (Christina Applegate). The would-be humorous head-butting that occurs when her parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliott Gould) come to visit is tired; the mother, a strict Jew, objects to the pairing on religious grounds; the recovering-alkie father doesn't care, just as long as he gets a drink. In fact, all attempts at a romantic angle don't work. Wahlberg is paired with three different leading ladies, and he hasn't the slightest bit of chemistry with any of them, least of all Chow, with whom he became involved offscreen. They do have one transcendent moment together: a hilarious "erotic" chicken-stuffing scene, but the scene works because of the tongue-in-cheek, "sensual" underscore and suggestive sight gag, not because of any palpable onscreen sparks between Wahlberg and Chow.

The media audience with whom I saw The Big Hit gave the film a spirited reception, and its easy-going melding of slam-bang action and oddball humor could appeal to regular moviegoing audiences. But as far as I am concerned, the sporadically effective The Big Hit is not a big miss, but it doesn't exactly live up to its title, either.

Les Miserables poster Les Misérables (PG-13) ***
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The calendar year has not even reached its midway point, but that hasn't prevented Columbia Pictures from trotting out a lavish period drama more befitting of the winter Oscar-bait season. Bille August's high-profile adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic Les Misérables delivers everything one would expect from a classy Hollywood epic--handsome production values, strong performances by a top-notch cast, a literate screenplay--with one critically missing element: emotional sweep.

For those not familiar with Hugo's original novel or the hit stage musical it inspired, the hook of Les Misérables essentially boils down to something like a 19th-century French-set version of The Fugitive. After serving 19 years in a prison work camp for stealing a loaf of bread, the brutish Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) is paroled. Immediately upon release, he steals valuable silverware from a kindly bishop who takes him in for a night; he is caught by authorities, only to be forgiven by the bishop, who lets Valjean keep the silver to start a new life on the straight and narrow. That he does, and in doing so breaks his parole, which sets the obsessively determined Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), who was one of the guards in Valjean's prison camp, on his trail.

Thematically, however, Les Misérables is a story about redemption, which Valjean finds through his dealings with two women, the hard-luck factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Uma Thurman), and her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. Years after breaking parole, Valjean becomes mayor of the town of Vigau, where he forms a warm friendship with Fantine after saving her from an unjust arrest by Javert. Valjean promises the gravely ill Fantine he will rescue the young Cosette (Mimi Newman) from her cruel caretakers, the Thénardiers, and raise the child as his own. The "father" and "daughter" eventually land in Paris, where the teenage Cosette (Claire Danes) falls for dashing student revolutionary Marius (Hans Matheson).

The decades-spanning story is the stuff that cinematic epics are made of, and the Danish August turns in his most accomplished English-language work, following the underrated 1994 superstar soap The House of the Spirits and last year's stylish but highly preposterous mystery Smilla's Sense of Snow. He and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias bring the sprawling tale into clear focus and keep the events moving at a brisk pace. Production designer Anna Asp, costume designer Gabriella Pescucci, and cinematographer Jorgen Persson give Les Misérables a sumptuous period look whose accomplishment is mostly matched by the efforts of the cast. Neeson is commanding yet endearingly vulnerable; Rush's finely modulated menace is far more rewarding than his overrated, Oscar-winning theatrics in Shine; and Thurman disappears nicely into her highly unglamorous role. The younger members of the cast fare less well. Danes is convincing as Cosette, but her overdone lip quivering during her crying scenes becomes a distraction; and Matheson, while competent, is a less interesting Robert Sean Leonard.

As technically adept and cerebrally engaging the film is, by the time Les Misérables was over, my emotions had only been superficially involved. While I was touched by Valjean's relationships with Fantine and Cosette, I was not moved. Not even reaching the "touching" level is the Cosette-Marius pairing. My only previous experience with Les Misérables is with the musical (as I am sure many others' is), and I was dismayed to see Eponine, a friend of Marius's who selflessly dies in the name of her unspoken love for him, almost completely jettisoned from this adaptation (the daughter of the Thénardiers, here she is only briefly seen as a child). Her presence would have added some much-needed conflict and emotional heft to the youthful romance, but I suppose August and Yglesias felt one tragic heroine (Fantine) was enough.

Even so, as 1998 creeps into summer blockbuster season, Les Misérables is a thoughtful, well-made, entertaining film, one that will sate moviegoers hungry for a dose of drama before popcorn no-brainers invade the multiplex.

Major League: Back to the Minors poster Major League: Back to the Minors (PG-13) zero stars
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You know the guy: sometimes bearded, often burly, he always manages to sit in the seat directly behind you, ever so eager to greet a film's every slight attempt at humor with a hearty, guttural explosion of laughter. You know you're neck-deep into something awful when even that guy, who reveals his erpetually guffawing self during the trailers, remains as stonily silent throughout the film as everyone else in the auditorium. And Major League: Back to the Minors is truly something awful. Horribly written and directed by John Warren, this third installment of the baseball comedy series is unwatchable drivel.

Aging minor-league pitcher Gus Cantrell (Scott Bakula) is recruited by old friend and Minnesota Twins owner Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) to coach the Twins' struggling farm team, the Buzz, an inept squad that counts among its ranks a former ballet dancer (ha ha). As can be expected, Gus manages to make winners out of these goofballs, leading to the Buzz's big moment in the sun: an exhibition game against the major league Twins themselves, in their big-city home field. Much to the chagrin of the Twins' slick, self-absorbed manager (Ted McGinley), the Buzz put on a respectable showing.

End of story. But wait--only 45 minutes of screen time has passed. So what does Warren do now? Why, what any desperate, in-over-his-head hack would do--recycle his script. After the Buzz's star player (Walt Goggins) is wooed into the majors, the Buzz once again hits hard times, and Gus has to prod them back into shape. And he does, leading to the team's big moment in the sun. You guessed it--an exhibition game against the Twins, but this time taking place on the Buzz's backwater home turf.

Going through the same story twice would not have been as big of an annoyance if Warren's script had simply done its job: be funny. But nothing in the film comes close to eliciting the slightest smirk when the writer's painful idea of witty comic repartée is something like this:
"This team has a former ballerina?"
"I don't think they call men ballerinas."
"A balladeer?"
"Isn't that a singer?"
"I think that's a troubadour."
But to merely attack the screenplay on the humor level (though it deserves a most thorough beating on that basis) is to let Warren off too easily; he can't even integrate his product plugs with the slightest trace of subtlety. Says Bob Uecker, playing the Buzz's announcer, in reference to something that happened a long time ago: "That was before Diet Coke became my beverage of choice." Warren's direction is every bit as sloppy as his writing; even though the final game's outcome is never in doubt, there's no attempt--through the editing, music, anything--any at creating any illusion of suspense. Contributing to the mess are the actors, who plod along in haphazard directions as if no helmer were present at all, especially McGinley, whose over-the-wall-and-out-of-the-ballpark antics worked on Married... with Children but not here.

I have not seen either of the first two Major Leagues, and I'll give those films the benefit of the doubt; they could very well hold some merit. But after sitting through the excrutiating Back to the Minors, you won't find me rushing to the video stores any time soon.


The House of Yes poster The House of Yes (R) ***
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In Mark Waters's viciously funny adaptation of Wendy MacLeod's play, indie princess Parker Posey has a field day playing one of the more original characters in recent film memory, the aptly named Jackie-O Pascal, a self-centered, fresh-from-the-mental-hospital Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wannabe. Entirely set within the Pascal family home during one fateful Thanksgiving weekend, the film details the disaster that ensues when Jackie's beloved brother Marty (Josh Hamilton) returns home with a fiancee (Tori Spelling), who incites Jackie's jealousy and engages youngest brother Anthony's (Freddie Prinze Jr.) romantic interest. The dark family secret at the film's core is telegraphed (not to mention has been spoiled by numerous media outlets), and the chain of plot developments is mechanical and predictable, but The House of Yes offers more than its share of tartly biting zingers, dropped to maximum comic effect by the letter-perfect Posey, Geneviève Bujold (as Mrs. Pascal), and the rest of the ensemble--and, yes, that includes Spelling, who is in her limited element as a giggly bubblehead. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

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#138 April 16, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Sonatine poster Fireworks poster Sonatine (R) ***
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Fireworks (Hana-Bi) *** 1/2
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Takeshi Kitano is truly the "King of All Media" in Japan, where he has conquered the worlds of film, television, radio, newspapers, even stand-up comedy. However, if American audiences know him at all, it is likely for his villainous role in the putrid cyberthriller Johnny Mnemonic. That could all change with the near-simultaneous stateside launches of two of his writing-directing-editing-acting efforts, Sonatine and Fireworks (Hana-Bi).

Notice I wrote "could" instead of "will" or "should," because Kitano's poetic, meditative brand of filmmaking will probably be as difficult for most mainstream audiences to sit through as it is to describe (at the showing of Sonatine I attended, there were more than a handful of walkouts). These two films fit squarely within a genre (in both of these cases, crime thriller), yet they are made in a stylized, lyrical style more befitting of avant-garde arthouse fare. The resulting works are slow and somewhat difficult, but they prove to be rewarding sits for the more open-minded viewer.

In 1993's Sonatine, Kitano (billed under his acting moniker "'Beat' Takeshi") plays an aging small-time gangster dispatched by his boss to go to Okinawa to help resolve a turf conflict. After an ambush, a double-cross is clearly afoot, and he and his crew of rather immature young men retreat to a seaside cabin. It is during this section that most people departed the auditorium, but it's not for the reasons one may think. Although there are brief bursts of bloody violence interspersed throughout the film, what (for lack of a better word) "offended" was the attention to behavior that would normally be deemed too trivial to be shown onscreen. Kitano spends plenty of time focusing on what these men do to keep themselves from complete boredom, such as staging mock sumo wrestling matches. It sounds kind of boring on the page (and, apparently for some it's boring on screen as well), but the quirky humor of these scenes gives what could easily be a tired story an unusual air of freshness and humanity.

As expertly made as it is, what I found lacking in Sonatine was any emotional connection, which diminished the power of the finale. The same cannot be said of Kitano's most recent effort, Fireworks (Hana-Bi). In this film, Kitano, in a nearly silent role, plays a former cop who takes his terminally ill wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) on an extended road trip; at the same time, police tail him for a bank robbery he made in order to pay off a mob loan shark. Much like Sonatine, the film moves at a leisurely pace; there are brief, unsettling bursts of violence; and laughs are derived from quirky situations and behavior. But Fireworks is more richly satisfying to the emotions and the senses. Serving as a counterpoint to the main plot is the story is of a crippled former partner (Ren Osugi) who searches for meaning through painting. His paintings (which, not so surprisingly, are actually painted by Kitano himself) are extensively viewed in haunting wordless sequences, which provide the film with a stunning visual framework that grows increasingly ominous as the quietly poignant conclusion draws near.

It is unlikely that the films of Takeshi Kitano will be as widely embraced by American viewers as those of Hong Kong directors. But in Sonatine and Fireworks, Kitano proves to be a gifted cinematic visionary whose truly unique work deserves stateside recognition, even if that recognition comes from a fairly limited, though highly appreciative, audience.

Species II poster Species II (R) *
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Despite its exceedingly well-done visual effects, 1995's original Species was one big hunk of sci-fi cheese, from the writing to the feeble performances. So, coming from such B-grade roots, its sequel's stunning ineptitude is not terribly surprising, yet at the same time it is. It would not have been difficult at all for the people behind Species II to top the hokey original, yet they have somehow managed to fabricate something just as bad, if not even worse.

Something is clearly amiss when the back door left open for a sequel in Species--a sewer rat becomes not quite of this Earth after eating a body part from the exploded alien/human hybrid Sil--is never entered into (perhaps that was left for Species III--though I'm not giving away anything when I say that this installment has an open back door of its own). The alien fun and games begin this time when a three-person astronaut crew returning from Mars inadvertently carries within their soil samples deadly alien DNA that eventually infects the mission captain, Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard, late of CBS's short-lived soap of a few years back, Central Park West/CPW). This alien DNA is not identical to that which created the original film's Sil, but it's close enough, and upon arrival on Earth Patrick is mating like crazy, engaging in bloody sex with just about every woman he can find. Meanwhile, scientist Dr. Laura Baker (the returning Marg Helgenberger) has created a clone of Sil named Eve (Natasha Henstridge again) for research purposes. It doesn't take long for Eve to sense another alien presence, which send her libido into hyperdrive. It's up to Laura and her former partner, bounty hunter Press Lennox (Michael Madsen, another returnee); and Patrick's uninfected shipmate Dennis Gamble (Mykelti Williamson) to find Patrick before the in-heat Eve does.

"This isn't The X-Files, goddammit!" exclaims one character in the early going. In terms of quality, he's absolutely right, but he's also wrong. The new alien first appears as an otherworldly oozing sludge that causes Patrick's pupils to dilate once he's infected. Looks and sounds an awful lot like The X-Files's "black cancer" to me. But that's not the only source director Peter Medak and writer Chris Brancato steal from. Species was already a ripoff of Alien, but Medak makes the cribbing much more blatant than the original's director, Roger Donaldson, did. Human Patrick is given a tongue that also has a tongue within itself, and his alien form more closely resembles the Alien than Eve's alien body (which ironically was designed by Alien designer H.R. Giger). A large alien hive that our heros douse with a substance fired from large guns? Aliens sans flamethrowers.

The visual effects were by far the best thing about Species, and the sequel's effects crew at Steve Johnson's XFX Inc. keeps that high-quality tradition alive; no cheap-looking Lost in Space CGI here. After the effects, the original's best asset was the fresh presence of Henstridge. However, Medak and Brancato have no idea what exactly to do with her for this installment. At one point she's called on to play alien "empath" à la Forest Whitaker in the original, but for most of the duration she's holed up in a glass cell. By the time the big breakout so prominently featured in the trailer actually takes place, the film is well into its home stretch.

So the rest of the time we are treated to Patrick, played with little zest by Lazard. One problem with the first film was that the deadly, horny, but innocent-at-heart Sil was too sympathetic; no such problem with Patrick, who comes off as a cocky pretty boy before the alien takes control. The rest of the cast also fails to add much, but the writing can be faulted for that. Helgenberger and Madsen go through the motions, but they are already hampered by the clichéd development that somewhere between the two films, the once-linked Laura and Press stopped getting along. Williamson suffers the worst indignity. He tries his best to enliven the token African-American role, but how can anyone recite insulting, derivative lines such as "I'm gonna get African on someone's ass" and not appear ridiculous?

But Species II's worst crime is being a thoroughly uninteresting piece of work. At least the original featured plenty to laugh at--unaccountably awful performances by the otherwise fine actors Ben Kingsley and Whitaker, and the sight of Helgenberger's character performing fellatio on Madsen's, for a start. But the filmmakers do not display any discernable effort at all, let alone the misguided effort that is required for something to reach the camp level. For all the blood and gore, nudity, and sex thrown in, Species II is, quite simply, a vapid bore.

In Brief

Shooting Fish poster Shooting Fish (PG) ** 1/2
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Dylan (Dan Futterman) and Jez (Stuart Townsend) have made a career out of "shooting fish"--i.e. pulling off con jobs. Dylan is the cocky smooth-talking Yank who masterminds each elaborate schemes; the Burt Bacharach-loving Jez is the socially-impaired British technogeek whose electronic wizardry makes such swindles possible. A host of complications, romantic and otherwise, arise after sweet medical student Georgie (Kate Beckinsale) joins their fold, helping the boys out in the belief that the illegally-obtained proceeds go toward building an orphanage.

Director/co-writer (with Richard Holmes) Stefan Schwartz has crafted a light, easy-going fluff piece whose pleasance is elevated by the appeal of the top trio of actors, particularly the pixie-tressed Beckinsale. Unfortunately, her main subplot about a loveless engagement is so poorly developed it seems like an afterthought, even as it eventually takes center stage toward film's end. But the more curious miscalculation is that, for a comedy, Shooting Fish is rather light on real laughs. There's a sly dig at the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but a number of the big con scenes are more amusing than funny. However, there is a certain amount of charm about the film, which is as agreeable as it is refreshingly unpretentious.

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