Since her breakthrough performance in 1992's Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone has been intent on proving that she is a "serious actress." Yet while she earned her critical and industry vindication with her Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated turn in 1995's Casino, Stone still feels she has something to prove.
Stone's latest bid for her already-won respectability (further cemented by her generally well-received turn in 1996's Last Dance and her recent Globe nod for last year's The Mighty) is Gloria, director Sidney Lumet's update of John Cassavetes's 1980 drama of the same name, which earned star Gena Rowlands matching Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. I have not seen the original film, but on her own merits (despite a distracting accent, which also marred her otherwise strong Last Dance work), Stone delivers an appropriately steely but warmly comedic turn as the title character, a gangster's (Jeremy Northam) ex-girlfriend who takes under her wing a young boy (newcomer Jean-Luke Figueroa) whose family was killed by the gangster's crew.
It is highly doubtful, though, that Stone will duplicate Rowland's double nomination, for the film overall is much less effective than she is. Although the film had been sitting on Sony's shelf for a year, and the studio opted not to screen it for critics, Gloria is not the disaster those facts would suggest; the film is simply more dull than anything else. Lumet is no stranger to the streets of New York, having walked the territory in films sush as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, and the look and atmosphere of Gloria bears a gritty authenticity. But there's little Lumet can do to juice up Steven Antin's suspenseless update of Cassavetes's original script--not even an extended car chase. Not long after the setup, where Gloria is released from a Florida prison; a mob thug murders the family of the kid, Nicky; and the two meet, the film settles into a predictable rhythm. Scenes of Gloria being simultaneously annoyed and charmed by Nicky alternate with those of her ex, Kevin, ordering his men to find and kill the pair and retrieve the precious floppy disk in the Nicky's possession. The repetitive nature of the script could have been made somewhat bearable if it built to an exciting climax and resolution, but there is neither. The conflict with Kevin is resolved in a most anticlimactic fashion, and the outcome of the Gloria/Nicky relationship is pretty much what one can predict from the get-go.
So, yes, Miss Stone, you can act, as we can see yet again in Gloria. We get it already. Now it's time to start entertaining your audience, something you haven't done in much too long.
She's All That (PG-13)
While watching the teen comedy She's All That, I fondly recalled the heyday of the Ricki Lake show a couple of years back, when just about every episode of the gabfest dealt with self-absorbed people who thought they were, well, all that. What a field day Ricki's then-notoriously rowdy audience would have with the makeover of the film's Laney Boggs, a frumpy, long-haired high school geek who turns chic after a touch of makeup, wardrobe overhaul, and, most importantly, a haircut. To paraphrase the title of one of my favorite Ricki episodes, "You may have lost all that hair, but you are not all that."
The failure of the makeover in question is quite surprising, considering the fact that the actress playing Laney, Rachael Leigh Cook, is actually quite attractive, as briefly seen in last fall's Living Out Loud and in She's All That's poster. Be it makeup, styling, or whatever, Laney doesn't look quite so "all that" in her first post-makeover appearance, gussied up in a flaming red dress, matching high heels, and a shorter 'do. This sounds like a minor quibble, but the entire film hinges upon it, for the next day at school social outcast Laney not only finds herself to suddenly popular, but also a nominee for prom queen.
While this comes as a surprise to Laney, it's actually a calculated move by soccer team stud Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.), who, recently jilted by his diva girlfriend Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), makes a bet with his friends that he can turn the seemingly hopeless Laney into the prom queen. As one can expect, as he brings the swan out of his ugly duckling, Zack begins to feel something genuine for Laney, and her for him.
A rather far-fetched plot that has been done in one, way, shape, or form many a time, but what makes it especially difficult to believe in She's All That is that Zack never really does anything for Laney. His sister Mackenzie (a heavily made-up Anna Paquin) is the one who gives her the life-altering makeover, and Zack's most dramatic "show of support" is actually a defense of Laney's brother Simon (Kieran Culkin). Factor in a lack of sparks between Prinze and Cook, and one is left with a romantic comedy with little in the way of romance.
On the other hand, neither is there much comedy on display, either, with the only successful bits coming from the wild overacting of Matthew Lillard as Taylor's new beau Brock Hudson, and some savvy satire of MTV's The Real World, of which Brock is a former cast member; one big gross-out gag is just that, and not particularly funny. Other laughs are to be had, but they are of the unintentional variety, stemming from the sloppiness of director Robert Iscove and writer R. Lee Fleming Jr. The hairpiece that Cook wears during Lacey's long hair stage is hilariously obvious; a choreographed set piece at the prom is apparently designed to be "good," but it's more bizarre than anything else, especially the moves. Sloppiest of all is the inclusion of R&B sensation Usher Raymond in the completely superfluous role of the school DJ. Watching his scenes, I suspect that he was spliced in after principal photography had already been completed: most of his scenes are by himself, and the one scene that shows his character with others--the prom--intercuts solo closeup shots of him with distant ones of the crowd.
Perhaps the saddest thing about She's All That is that it's designed as a breakout showcase for Cook, who is a natural and likable young actress. I hope that this weak effort won't put a damper on her career, and she will be given a more worthy vehicle where she can show that she could very well be all that.
You got to love January--where else can you find such cinematic schlock that studios not only spent millions of dollars on, but also believed would make millions for them in return? It seems that every January at least one studio dumps a pathetic excuse for a sci-fi thriller upon the moviegoing audience. In 1997, it was The Relic, which should have remained undiscovered; last year, it was Phantoms, which will surely continue to haunt the careers of all involved, especially Hollywood "it" boy Ben Affleck. This year's selection (sacrifice?) is Virus, a thoroughly ridiculous sci-fi yarn whose abundance of unintentional laughs fail to compensate for the lack of thrills.
Virus had been bounced around Universal's release schedule like a hot potato, most recently scheduled for a July opening. Universal's official reason for this latest shelving was the conflict with another Jamie Lee Curtis starrer, Halloween: H20; but watching the film, it's obvious that the true reason was something much simpler: the film just plain stinks. Virus does get off to an interesting enough start, though, when a mysterious electrical force of alien origin makes its way onto a Russian ship through a transmission with the Mir space station. Days later, the high-tech is found abandoned by an American shipping crew, who decides to poke around. Of course, this proves to be a deadly mistake, for the alien life form has taken over the ship.
As with any action flick, the film is only as good as its villain, and once Virus offers a glimpse of our alien, all hopes of a decent thrill ride are instantly dashed. The alien lacks a body, so it constructs its own out of parts found on the ship. It sounds somewhat interesting, but in execution is laughable, especially some fearsome creatures which are little more than video cameras atop metal spider legs. Oooh, scary. The more elaborate creations, featuring human body parts mixed with electronics aren't especially frightening because the audience has seen it before--it's just another gloss on The Terminator. The "main" creature is especially disappointing, a large mass of scrap metal that bears a striking resemblance to the unmenacing title robot adversary in the dreary sequel RoboCop 2.
I haven't yet mentioned the actors because, frankly, they don't really matter in a film such as this. Even so, it must be noted that there is some dreadful performances on display here. Vying neck-and-neck for worst acting honors (no small feat here) are Donald Sutherland and Joanna Pacula, both varying grades of ham as the Yank crew captain and the only survivor of the Russian crew, respectively. Billy "refer to me as William" Baldwin fares better here than in his previous action role in the famous folly Fair Game, but that's not saying much. By default, Curtis comes off best, but her earnest performance would be better suited for a more intelligent, exciting script, one where "What the hell was that?" and "What the hell is going on?" don't make up 95% of the dialogue.
The latter quote is likely one that will be asked by audiences as they are watching Virus, and the former once they walk out of the theatre. Virus is one of those cinematic disasters that leaves one wondering what the hell everyone involved--from the cast and crew to the studio production heads who greenlighted the project--were thinking.
At First Sight (PG-13)
Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino share a natural romantic rapport in Irwin Winkler's fact-based drama about a blind man (Kilmer) who undergoes an operation to regain his site at the urging of his well-meaning girlfriend (Sorvino). The emotional and physical struggle of a once-blind man adapting to the sighted world would be enough to sustain an entire film, but Winkler and co-screenwriters Steve Leavitt and Rob Cowan felt the need to bloat the running time past the two-hour mark with pointless and contrived subplots: Kilmer's reunion with his estranged father (Ken Howard), and Sorvino's lingering feelings for her ex-husband and business partner (Steven Weber). But even if Winkler and company had kept their focus on the main plot, there is still the little matter of Kilmer's strange performance. He registers little emotion aside from a silly grin he perpetually wears throughout the film, especially during the "blind" scenes. One would think that once he sees himself in the mirror, he would realize how ridiculous he looks. Alas, no.
V I D E O
It may not be the masterpiece that its narcissistic writer-director-star Vincent Gallo has claimed to be, but his filmmaking debut is a ceaselessly fascinating piece of work. The story, about an ex-con (Gallo) who kidnaps a teen (Christina Ricci, sublime as always) and passes her off as his wife to his parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara), is thin, and the romance a bit wobbly in terms of believability, but what makes the film so watchable are Gallo's strange flights of fancy: a spotlight dance number by Ricci, an extended lip-synching set piece for Gazzara, and the imaginative visual cues, most memorable being a literally frozen look at the aftermath of a shooting. Call it pretension; call it self-indulgence (which is what I see it as being)--but I dare you keep your eyes off of the screen. (Universal Studios Home Video)
Playing by Heart (R)
Thanks to a strange MPAA ruling--and much to the delight, I'm sure, of Miramax's marketing department--writer-director Willard Carroll was forced to change the title of his Dancing About Architecture to Playing by Heart. Never in recent memory has a forced title change thrown a film more off-kilter. A pre-title prologue has the character of Joan (Angelina Jolie) explain what the original title means: "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture"--meaning that it can't be done. After the explanation, the title comes up... reading Playing by Heart. If this bit of incongruity weren't enough, Joan's explanation is directly culled from a scene that takes place later in the movie--making its inclusion at the beginning completely unnecessary.
After that confused opening, Carroll's film (which I will henceforth refer to by its original, better, title), quickly finds its footing, following a series of engaging if slight storylines that detail the romantic travails of a cross-section of Los Angeles residents. There's the aforementioned Joan, a young clubhopper who develops an interest in another, Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), who constantly rejects her. No-nonsense divorcée Meredith (Gillian Anderson) doesn't have the time, energy, nor interest for romance, but that doesn't stop the too-good-to-be-true Trent (Jon Stewart) from aggressively wooing her. Longtime marrieds Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) argue over an extramarital tryst he may or may not have have had many years ago. Lovers Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) are also married--but not to each other. Lying sad sack Hugh (Dennis Quaid) cruises bars and restaurants telling wild stories to anyone who will give a listen.
As with any multi-character/multi-storyline piece, some threads work better than others. The weakest of these is the Gracie/Roger story, which consists of little more than the two trysting in different hotel rooms, squandering the considerable acting talents of Stowe and Edwards. The most effective storylines are buoyed by terrific performances and/or chemistry: the appealing Anderson and Stewart work surprisingly well together in the Meredith/Trent strand, and the luminous Jolie compensates for Phillippe's adequate but fairly colorless work in the Joan/Keenan story. Jolie's spunky, heartfelt, Oscar-nod-worthy performance is easily the film's best--which is no small feat, considering the caliber of the actors surrounding her.
While Carroll's focus is largely on romantic love, he doesn't isolate it there; he sets his sights a bit wider, shoehorning in a storyline about the reconnection of a mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her son (Jay Mohr, in his dramatic debut), who is dying of AIDS. The attempt to also cover maternal love is admirable, and the story is beautifully acted and quietly affecting. But it never fits in with the rest of the other, bouncier stories; the fact that the story takes place in Chicago and not L.A. like others makes it feel more out of place.
An attempt to tie together this and all the other storylines comes at the film's conclusion, yet while they're designed to be a surprise, the ways in which everything is linked is rather predictable and a bit too tidy. The same can be said about the totality of Dancing About Architecture, which isn't as distinctive as that title (in essence, it's Short Cuts lite), but it's an agreeable, low-key entertainment that gets the crowdpleasing job done.
Paul Schrader's adaptation of the Russell Banks novel is just as bleak as 1997's justly celebrated Banks adaptation, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, but, unlike with that haunting masterpiece, something's amiss. It's not in the acting: Nick Nolte delivers a terrifically nuanced performance as Wade Whitehouse, the reigning police officer in a small New England town; even more memorable is a frightening James Coburn as Wade's alcoholic father, whose physical abuse of his son as a child--or, rather, its psychological after-effects--is the "affliction" that Wade continues to suffer from. Neither is there anything at fault on a technical level, boasting superior cinematography by Paul Sarossy, who also shot The Sweet Hereafter.
What's crucially missing is a strong emotional connection, the development of which is hampered by Schrader's glacial pacing, which picks up by the third act, only to end rather abruptly. The film lacks a knockout punch because of the familiarity of the whole"violence begets violence" premise, and Schrader doesn't go in any particularly new direction with it. Even so, the powerful performances by Nolte and Coburn make the film well worth a look, even if they are part of a less-than-developed whole.
Another Day in Paradise (R)
Director Larry Clark has served up another gritty look at lowlife scum, but the results this time aren't nearly as fascinating as his controversial 1995 debut, Kids. The basic story, based on a book by Eddie Little, is interesting, if simple, enough: a couple of aging crooks (the perfectly cast James Woods and Melanie Griffith, respectively playing their tried-and-true asshole and screeching bimbo roles) take a pair of young proteges (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) on the road. The film's midsection, in which the gang get themselves in all sorts of violent misadventures, is quite entertaining, due in large part to the sneering energy of Woods. But when calamity strikes the characters at the end of act two, it extends to the people behind the camera. The turns of the story push Kartheiser (last seen in Masterminds, 1997's worst film) into center stage, where he clearly does not belong. Once Clark shines the spotlight on him, the film loses its way for good, leading to a terrible (and indulgently drawn-out) conclusion that neither Woods nor Griffith can redeem.
Down in the Delta (PG-13)
Poet Maya Angelou's directorial debut is this warm, moving drama, which tells the story of Loretta (Alfre Woodard) an alcoholic single mother in Chicago who is sent back to the family home in Mississippi by her concerned mother (Mary Alice). There, Loretta learns the value of family and a stable life for her two children. The arc of the story is not particularly groundbreaking, and neither is its message, but it's all done with sensitivity and intelligence by Angelou, writer Myron Goble, and the actors. Woodard is up to form, as is Wesley Snipes as her successful cousin, but the real standout work is given by Al Freeman Jr. as Loretta's uncle.
The General (R)
John Boorman's take on the life and career of Irish thief Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) is enjoyable for what it is. Problem is, what it is doesn't amount to much in the end. The film is at its best in the early going, concentrating on Cahill and his gang's elaborate and almost effortless heists, which just barely slip under the radar of an investigator (Jon Voight) determined to take him down. As Cahill's world gradually crumbles, and his crew deserts him one by one, so does the energy level in the film, which listlessly sputters to its conclusion. The energy level of Gleeson, however, is consistently high throughout; his Cahill is never less than a captivating figure.
The Hi-Lo Country (R)
In post-WWII New Mexico, two best friend ranchers (Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup) share a passion for a married woman (Patricia Arquette). This premise could have set up a grand, operatic tragedy or an opera of a different sort--that of salacious soap-- but Stephen Frears's adaptation of Max Evans's novel, unfortunately, falls under neither enticing category. For a film about grand passions, there is no fire to this film; it moves at a snail's pace, and Frears seems more interested in the picturesque New Mexico scenery than his characters. The actors do little to help the matter; Crudup displays little, if any, of the charisma and conviction he displayed in Without Limits; and Arquette is so blank, one wonders what exactly her character's special allure is. Only Harrelson shows any signs of life, but his brand of down-home histrionics has become too old hat to give the film a major jolt.
The ensemble cast of Anthony Drazan's screen take on David Rabe's celebrated play is uniformly excellent, led by Sean Penn, who reprises his stage role as Eddie, a drugged-out Hollywood casting director headed quickly down the road of self-destruction. Filling out the very capable ensemble are Kevin Spacey, Meg Ryan, Chazz Palminteri, Robin Wright Penn, and the usually irksome Garry Shandling and Anna Paquin.
So what is the film about? Not much at all, by my evaluation. The trailer for Hurlyburly defines the term as "tumultuous commotion, uproar," and it could not more aptly describe this high-strung but virtually plotless film. The movie is merely a collection of scenes where a bunch of frantic Tinseltown losers such as Eddie talk, talk, and talk some more, sometimes in English so overly complex that it's hard to tell if any of these people, let alone the audience, know what they're talking about. Keeping the audience at an even further distance is Drazan's stagy direction, which fails to sufficiently open the play up for the screen. But the film is not without its rewards, in particular the work of Penn, who makes Eddie's meltdown compelling, even though it is not particularly involving.
In Dreams (R)
A gifted director (Neil Jordan), a talented lead (Annette Bening), and an intriguing premise (in her dreams, woman witnesses a killer's crimes before they happen). It's a promising combination, but the January dumping ground release date should be a tipoff. In dreams, this film would be a chilling exercise in psychological horror; in reality, it's a fascinating folly: a visually handsome, stylish, but muddled mix of surreal images, metaphysical hooey, and strained performances. The usually reliable Bening wildly overacts as her character is driven mad by her visions; Robert Downey Jr. camps it up as the killer; Stephen Rea speaks in an utterly baffling American (?) accent as Bening's psychiatrist; and Aidan Quinn seems like he would rather do anything but play his role as Bening's husband. Jordan comes up with a couple of creepy sequences, but there aren't enough to establish the daunting, disturbing atmosphere that he brought to last year's The Butcher Boy.
Patch Adams (PG-13) Patch Adams tells the true story of an American original: Hunter "Patch" Adams (here played by Robin Williams), a former mental patient turned doctor who pioneered a philosophy of treating patients with a strong prescription of humor.
However, the film itself is far from original, following an all-too familiar checklist for assembly-line "heartwarming human comedy-drama." Williams breaks absolutely no new ground playing a goofy guy who is really brilliant but misunderstood. Check. He bucks convention and draws the ire of a sternly traditional authority figure (Bob Gunton's med school dean). Check. The hero takes a liking to an icy young lady (Monica Potter) initially turned off by our lovable eccentric but eventually comes around. Check. An arbitrary and completely predictable tragedy causes the confident hero to question his beliefs and abilities. Check. Friends tell him how special he is, but our hero only finds new inspiration after receiving an apparent sign from a divine source. Check. The hero then faces the authority figure and wins. Check.
As if the by-the-letter formula of Patch Adams weren't bad enough, writer Steve Oedekerk and director Tom Shadyac (yes, they of Ace Ventura infamy) drown the proceedings in a sea of schmaltz that is even more insulting than it is nauseating. Patch's tear-wringing monologue at a climactic hearing is sappy enough, but was it really necessary to follow that with a group of cancer-stricken youths donning red noses in support? It's enough to make anyone gag--that is, if they don't go into insulin shock first.
The Theory of Flight (R)
As part of a community service sentence, Richard (Kenneth Branagh) becomes the caretaker of Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), a headstrong young woman stricken with ALS, the degenerative neurological disease better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It sounds like a garden variety disease-of-the-week TV movie, but director Paul Greengrass and writer Richard Hawkins have managed to come up with something fresh and offbeat, focusing not on Jane's illness, but her desire to lose her virginity before she dies. This is not, however, to suggest that the film is a downer; in fact, the tone of the film is quite light and never sappy, thanks to the eccentric characters and often comical situations they get themselves into.
But it's one thing to be offbeat and unconventional and quite another to be unbelievable, and what keeps the film from truly taking flight is that too much of Richard's behavior falls under the latter category--namely, his scheme to rob a bank to buy a gigolo's services for Jane. In fact, his main character quirk--to achieve flight with a homemade plane pieced together from unwanted articles from his past--is also a bit hard to swallow. Nonetheless, the film does achieve some emotional resonance, due to solid performances by the leads (Bonham Carter is especially good, barely recognizable and completely convincing) and their effortless chemistry.
Varsity Blues (R)
Anyone who misses the heyday of the afterschool special will certainly enjoy this banal tale of self-fulfillment, juiced up with enough alcohol and sleaze to earn an R rating. James Van Der Beek, he of Dawson's Creek fame, plays John "Mox" Moxon, a benchwarming high school football player in West Canaan, Texas who becomes a reluctant star after the star quarterback (Paul Walker) is sidelined with an injury. But Mox doesn't want to be a star; in fact, he doesn't really want to be a football player, either, reading novels instead of playbooks, which draws the evil eye of the maniacal coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), who will stop at nothing to secure another division championship.
Watching Varsity Blues, I was reminded of the Mariah Carey song "Hero," one of whose passages goes, "When you feel like hope is gone/Look inside you and be strong/Then you'll finally see the truth/That a hero lies in you." That's exactly the arc Mox goes through, as he overcomes a threat to his dream of attending Brown University by looking inside himself and finding his heroic nature. If that weren't cornball enough, there's everything else that surrounds the main story. Most ridiculously, there's the town's obsession with high school football; it seems that everyone's life--male, female, young, old, all points in between--revolves around the doings of the team. The one possible exception is Mox's younger brother, who, in the film's lamest subplot, is constantly trying on new religions. The film's most insulting subplot revolves Mox's fellow player Wendell (Eliel Swinton). Apparently, he's the only African-American in the entire lily-white town, which can only mean one thing--yep, a token racism thread, used to make the already blatantly bad Coach Kilmer appear even worse.
This is Van Der Beek's first film role after achieving stardom as Dawson, and the most I can say for him in this film is that his shorter, darker hairdo makes his head appear less box-shaped. Still, that's more than I can say for everyone else in the accent-challenged cast or the crew.