The Movie Report
Volume 49

#189 - 192
May 6, 1999 - May 20, 1999

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

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#192 May 20, 1999 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Besieged poster Besieged (R) ** 1/2
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Thandie Newton stars an African emigre studying for a medical degree in Rome while her husband remains imprisoned in her homeland. To make ends meet, she serves as live-in housekeeper to an eccentric British pianist (David Thewlis), who has fallen hopelessly in love with his married employee and makes noble, selfless sacrifices to make her happy.

Besieged is indeed a Bernardo Bertolucci film: it features enthralling location photography (done here by Fabio Cianchetti) and a fairly thin story (based on a short story by James Lasdun) set to a languid pace. That latter fact keeps this already-subdued love story at an arm's length emotionally. Despite a vividly expressive performance by Newton, the lack of urgency equates to a lack of intimacy.

The Love Letter poster The Love Letter (PG-13) * 1/2
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A few nights ago I rewatched one of my favorite films released domestically last year, the Hong Kong import Comrades: Almost a Love Story, directed by Peter Ho-sun Chan. This exquisite romantic drama virtually swept the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1997, and it's easy to see why--it had every element required for a successful love story: sympathetic lead characters; well-cast lead actors with a palpable romantic chemistry; an engaging, believable story; a swoony musical score; and, crucially, an indefinable sense of magic.

Chan's American debut, The Love Letter, has only one of these characteristics: an effective score (composed by Luis Bachalov, Oscar winner for Il Postino). Everything else leaves a lot to be desired. The premise is one that Roger Ebert would classify under "idiot plot": a bookstore owner (a likable Kate Capshaw) in a tiny New England town finds an anonymous love letter, and she assumes it's from a much-younger employee (Tom Everett Scott, also likable)--who, in turn, sees the letter and assumes it's addressed to him from her. "Comical" hijinks ensue, and they're every bit as strained as one would expect. However, this May-December affair is not the central romance; the key relationship is between Capshaw's character and a lovelorn fireman (Tom Selleck), who were high school flames. To say that Capshaw and the bland Selleck's chemistry is tepid is to imply a slight hint of warmth that isn't there. Similarly, to call The Love Letter "a romantic comedy-drama" is to imply an involving emotional core and a witty sense of humor that simply aren't there.

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#191 May 13, 1999 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Endurance poster Endurance (G) **
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Ethiopian track star Haile Gebrselassie has been called "the greatest long-distance runner of all time," and if that's the case, certainly his inspiring story deserves better than this truly peculiar film, which writer-director Leslie Woodhead calls "a nonfiction feature." Endurance traces Gebrselassie's life and drive to become a champion from his childhood in a small Ethiopian village to his triumphant 10,000m race in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics using both documentary footage and reenactment. In the latter, many of the principals play themselves (or, in the case of the scenes of the young Gebrselassie, people playing younger versions of relatives). It's a unique experiment, but the reenactments add an artificial, superficial sheen to the story; not helping is Woodhead's leaden dialogue ("Running is bad," warns Gebrselassie's father at one point). The movie begins with talking head interview segments with Gebrselassie, and one soon wishes Woodhead (a celebrated British documentarian) had kept with the standard documentary approach, for I've seen Olympic TV profile segments that probe deeper than Endurance.

Tea with Mussolini poster Tea with Mussolini (PG) ***
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For his latest film, Franco Zeffirelli has turned to a chapter of his life--literally. This wistful drama about an orphaned boy (newcomers Charlie Lucas as a child, Baird Wallace as a teen) who is raised by an eccentric group of British and American ladies in WWII-era Florence is based on a chapter of his own autobiography. And like any given section of a person's life, Tea with Mussolini mostly a collection of isolated, anecdotal events that are as warmly amusing as they are lacking in narrative drive. But what makes this film a joy to watch are seeing a number of veteran actresses at the top of their game, sinking their teeth into juicy characters. Cher makes her much-publicized movie comeback (to go with her musical one) in this film, and she's a perfect fit for her role as a wealthy American dancer-turned-art collector. Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Lily Tomlin all have their memorable scenes, but most memorable of all is Maggie Smith as the group's snooty ringleader, who believes she shares a special bond with Il Duce himself.

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl poster Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (R) ****
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Actress Joan Chen (best known for her work in The Last Emperor and the TV series Twin Peaks) filmed her directorial debut in mainland China without permission from the authorities, and she paid the price: she was charged a stiff fine, and she is now banned from working in China for an indefinite period of time. A heavy price to be certain, but well worth it: Xiu Xiu is one of the best films I've seen so far this year. This sad, subtle, and completely intoxicating film tells the story of the young title character (played with astonishing assurance by newcomer Lu Lu), who, like many of her city-bred peers in '60s and '70s China, is "sent down" to the remote country to receive specialized training. And like many of her sent down peers, Xiu Xiu is quickly forgotten about--thus resorting to desperate, degrading measures to return home.

Xiu Xiu, however, is not the dark, nihilistic story of a young girl's victimization; in fact, it's the story of a woman coming of age and taking control of her destiny regardless of the price--a point nicely reinforced by Lu Lu's steely and sometimes (bravely) unsympathetic performance. But above even that, Xiu Xiu is the hauntingly beautiful love story of Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin (Lopsang), the quiet, older--and, in more ways than one, emasculated--horse trainer under whom she studies. Out of loyalty, respect, and love, Lao Jin never meddles in Xiu Xiu's affairs, even if it wounds him inside. This love story plays well below the surface, but its power is a testament to the remarkably expressive Lopsang and the directorial abilities of Chen, who shows an impressive grasp of nuance--in addition to just about every facet of filmmaking.

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#190 May 11, 1999 by Michael Dequina


Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace poster Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace (PG) ***
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There are a couple of angles at which to approach Star Wars: Episode I --The Phantom Menace: in comparison to the three episodes that have been released; or, ideally, as an individual film, in and of itself. In the latter regard, The Phantom Menace is the type of exceptionally well-made, highly imaginative science fiction adventure that one would expect from the mind of series creator George Lucas, who makes an impressive return to the director's chair after a self-imposed 22-year hiatus. It is in the former respect, however, that the film cannot help but fall short.

The shadow of the first three films released in the series--1977's Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV), 1980's The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), and 1983's Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)--looms large over The Phantom Menace, and it's not just because those landmark films have such an enduring legacy. Rather, it's because Lucas's Phantom Menace script is a hodgepodge of different elements from those three films. To start, the Gungan, an amphibious race on the planet Naboo, are scrappy warriors along the lines of Jedi's Ewoks; a pod racing scene is pretty much Jedi's forest speeder bike chase transplanted onto the desert; dual light saber-wielding villain Darth Maul (Ray Park) is a badass scenestealer in the tradition of Boba Fett, who first appeared in Empire.

The installment that The Phantom Menace most closely resembles, however, is A New Hope. There's a wise elder Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), not unlike A New Hope's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan is also in this episode, in a younger, wilder incarnation (played by Ewan McGregor) that recalls Luke Skywalker. Other similarities include a lavish celebration scene, the destruction of a space vessel, and the intricate, Princess Leia-to-the-next-level hair design of her future mother, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of Naboo.

Unfortunately, The Phantom Menace also falls into the same narrative rut that A New Hope did in its first act, but to a much larger degree. After an interesting opening section, from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's rousing slice and dice through squads of battle droids aboard a Trade Federation spaceship to their rescue of Amidala from evil Federation forces on Naboo, the story gets bogged down in exposition once our heroes land on the desert planet of Tatooine. There, Qui-Gon discovers young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader and focal character of this trilogy of Star Wars films. As Qui-Gon and Amidala's handmaiden Padmé get to know "Ani" and his mother (Pernilla August), the film slows to a crawl. Making the proceedings no less tedious is the strained comic agony (as opposed to "relief") of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a chatty Gungan who becomes Qui-Gon's sidekick. Far from lovable, I wanted to strangle the critter by his second scene.

Things pick up with the aforementioned pod race sequence (which, I must say, is every bit the thrill ride the Jedi speeder bike chase is), only to fall into more talky exposition, which only serves to make The Phantom Menace's main story needlessly convoluted and, as such, largely uninvolving. Basically the plot boils down to Amidala being violently strongarmed into a treaty with the evil Trade Federation, which has been working with the mysterious Darth Sidious (the "Phantom Menace" of the title), whose main enforcer is the deadly Darth Maul.

However, this is not to say that the first two-thirds of The Phantom Menace is as dry as a Tatooine summer (or spring... or fall... or winter). Far from it--though the story may not keep one consistently engaged, there are other things that do. Always capturing one's attention--and imagination--are the state-of-the-art visual effects on display. One of the greatest delights of this and the other Star Wars films are the new worlds springing from Lucas's fervid imagination. Tatooine is the only familiar pit stop; also on the travel itinerary are the Coruscant (briefly seen at the end of the Jedi Special Edition), the city-covered planet that serves as the home of the Galactic Senate; Naboo; and the Gungan's hidden undersea home on Naboo. Then, of course, there are the various effects used to populate the streets of these worlds with exotic alien creatures, as well as those used to depict the spaceways and the crafts that travel them. Some CGI shots are more convincing than others, but they never fail to be the slightest bit believable or intriguing.

The new troupe of actors holds their own against the largely digital landscape. Neeson exudes the right air of authority and solemnity as Qui-Gon, as does Samuel L. Jackson in a much-publicized cameo as Jedi Council member Mace Windu. While Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher did not settle into their acting stride until Empire, Portman and McGregor have comfortably nailed down their roles in their first outing, though McGregor's fairly limited screen time is somewhat surprising. On the other hand, not so surprising is the fact that Lloyd is the weak link in the core four. In all fairness, he does an adequate job as a whole, but that does not mean that he's immune to the stiff and cloying moments that often befall child actors; prepare to cringe when Lloyd lets out a forced "Whoopee!"

The numerous slow patches ultimately just makes one more appreciative of the pure visceral excitement of the slam-bang third act. Lucas cuts loose, following no less than four concurrent battles in which many shots are fired from pistols and spacecraft, light sabers are crossed, energy balls are flung, and more than a little property is destroyed. The highlight by far is an exhilarating, series-best light saber duel pitting both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan against that dastardly Darth Maul, who more than lives up to his pre-release hype.

That mostly all of the action comes at the end will undoubtedly disappoint die-hard Star Wars fans and casual moviegoers alike. But with so much hype surrounding it (largely generated, in a nice change of pace, by the fans, not the studio), there was no way The Phantom Menace could live up to the overinflated expectations. What it could have possibly lived up to is the Star Wars legacy, and in time, it very well may--with Episode II and Episode III still yet to come (in 2002 and 2005, respectively), it's impossible to judge how well The Phantom Menace plays within the context of the entire saga. At this point in time, however, The Phantom Menace, as polished and entertaining as it is, has nothing in it that quite compares to A New Hope's euphoric sense of wonder and discovery; the exciting action highs and the despairing emotional lows of Empire; or the emotional catharsis of Jedi's highly resonant climax.

In Brief

Lovers of the Arctic Circle poster Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los Amantes del Círculo Polar) (R) ***
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Otto and Ana meet by chance as children, and those same forces of coincindence is what both unite and separate them over the years, through passages in which they are lovers, stepsiblings, or both. Julio Medem's dreamlike romance suffers from being a bit too dreamlike; at times, the film is almost sunk under the weight of too many surreal flights of fancy. Also, unlike the similarly themed (and far superior) Map of the Human Heart (one of my favorite films of the '90s), the relationship between the two central lovers is never satisfactorily built and developed; they just seem to love each other because they do. Nonetheless, the film is a triumphant exercise in style. Medem has a great eye for haunting imagery, and his Hilary and Jackie-esque technique of telling the story from both Otto (played as an adult by Fele Martínez) and Ana's (played as an adult by Najwa Nimri) distinct but overlapping perspectives adds a unique texture to the piece.

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#189 May 6, 1999 by Michael Dequina


The Mummy poster The Mummy (PG-13) * 1/2
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Well, it seemed like a good idea: a lavish, big-budget retelling of the 1932 horror classic The Mummy. But after seeing the finished product as written and directed by Stephen Sommers (who last perpetrated the undersea howler Deep Rising) one would be wise to heed one of its trailer's tag words: "Beware."

To his credit, Sommers makes his Mummy a different type of animal from its precursor. Instead of a traditional horror piece, this Mummy is more of an adventure film, with our central trio--American adventurer Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), British librarian Evelyn Carnarvon (Rachel Weisz), and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah)--trying to unlock the secrets of a legendary lost burial site in 1930s Egypt. Once there, they and a rival group of explorers--who are in the hunt for some buried treasure--end up uncovering something more than they bargained for: the awakened mummy of the ancient High-priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who is determined to bring himself and his lost love back to full life.

What Sommers is clearly after is the rollicking roller coaster vibe of the Indiana Jones films, but one little detail is lost on him. While the Indy flicks were in the light, jaunty vein of old serial films, Steven Spielberg knew that the tongue could and should not always be kept in cheek. The scary parts were indeed scary; the suspenseful moments were taken seriously. The same cannot be said of The Mummy, which wears a silly, jokey attitude throughout and suffers for it. How can one truly be frightened or intimidated by Imhotep and his murderous rage when each would-be shock is blunted by an idiotic wisecrack (which every character seems have ready) or slapsticky situation?

It would also help if the creature's appearance were scary or at least creepy; unless you lose sleep over the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt, likely the sight of the mummified Imhotep won't invade even a daydream. In fact, with the exception of some impressive visuals involving the movement of sand, the effects work in The Mummy is strangely unconvincing. The walking undead and deadly Scarab beetles look like they never left the computer screen, and the opening shot--showing a giant sphinx and pyramids as workers and others scurry by--is no more lifelike than the nearly identical opening shot of The Prince of Egypt.

Not that the flesh-and-blood actors are themselves give the film much life, either. Fraser has proven to be a terrific actor in small films as diverse as the romantic fantasy Still Breathing to last fall's Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, but when it comes to big time popcorn films, he always falls flat, to say the least. First it was his painfully broad turn in the unwatchable George of the Jungle; now it's this half-hearted attempt to channel Harrison Ford's roguish charm. More successful at evoking Indiana Jones is Weisz, but in the wrong way: her Evelyn is only a notch less shrill than Kate Capshaw's Willie Scott (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), easily the worst heroine in the Indy series.

The Mummy definitely does not bore; it holds one's attention for its entire running time, and the millions of its megabudget do show up on screen. But shouldn't an adventure film at least offer something resembling excitement?

A Midsummer Night's Dream poster William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (PG-13) ***
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The assembled talents of an all-star cast are exploited most delightfully in Michael Hoffman's adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. While as sunny and sweet as the Bard's original romantic comedy of errors, this update isn't always dreamy, but its classic romantic spell should leave moviegoers swooning.

The "dream" of the title is actually one very real night in the forest where lovers are star-crossed, criss-crossed, or just plain made cross, thanks to the magical machinations of Oberon (Rupert Everett), the King of Fairies; and his impish right-hand sprite, Puck (Stanley Tucci). Into the forest that night come the hopelessly besotted Lysander (Dominic West) and Hermia (Anna Friel), the latter of whom is lovelessly betrothed to Demetrius (Christian Bale), who, in turn, is pursued, however clumsily, by the unloved-by-anyone Helena (Calista Flockhart). A few drops of a flower's magical juice later, and a bewildered Helena finds herself the object of desire for both Demetrius and Lysander, leaving Hermia by the wayside. The juice is indeed loose, for also falling under its power is Oberon's wife Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), who becomes enamored of an ass--literally and figuratively. His apt name is Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline), a pompous ham of an actor who is transformed into a half-man/half-donkey monstrosity by a playful Puck.

This section, being the part that gives the play its title, is the focal point of the play and the film, but, strangely enough, it's also the part that works the least well in the film. Of course, it has nothing to do with the parent text; Shakespeare's timeless barbs (mostly delivered by a comically cruel Lysander to a disbelieving Hermia) would never lose their edge in any translation. Neither are the actors at fault; they are all up to the Shakespearean task. The biggest revelation is Flockhart, who displays exquisite comic timing as the very un-Ally Helena. What is at fault, is Hoffman's staging, or, rather, his stage. This entire second act was filmed on a soundstage, and it shows: the backdrops are flat; the same tree sets are recycled over and over again; and--most distracting of all--it's ridiculously overlit (it may be midsummer, but it still is night). A certain level of unreality should be brought to this section--we are dealing with fairies and man-asses here--but it's one thing to be unreal (as in a fantasy) and entirely another to appear artificial (as in synthetic).

Hoffman has better luck with other directorial choices. Most notable is his change of setting from ancient Greece to 19th Century Italy, and this adds a fresh new dimension to the material: fresh locations, fresh costumes (no tights!), and, most notably, the advent of the bicycle, which adds some needed movement to static scenes. Hoffman also doesn't force fake British accents upon his non-Brit stars (Pfeiffer, Flockhart, Kline, Tucci, David Strathairn, and Sophie Marceau), sparing them and the audience a Kevin Costner-as-Robin Hood-type embarrassment that would only distract from the poetry of Shakespeare's words.

It is the timeless appeal of those words, the impassioned performances, and a bring-down-the-house third act (in which Bottom and his inept troupe of actors put on a hilariously disastrous play) that make this high-spirited, if a bit overlong (115 minutes), production live up to its title: a dream indeed--not without its fuzzy areas, but on the whole "a most rare vision."

In Brief

The Castle poster The Castle (R) ***
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Although Roger Ebert has called it "this year's Full Monty," I'm not entirely certain that this Australian import will connect with American audiences like that flashy British sensation of two summers ago. In fact, the comparison is entirely unfair, for this lower-key, character-driven comedy is, for my money, better than that overrated fluke Best Picture nominee. The castle in question is the Kerrigan house, a modest abode situated next to the runway of an airport and underneath a bundle of power lines. When a proposed airport expansion threatens to claim his happy home and those of his neighbors, patriarch Darryl (Michael Caton) dares to take his case to court.

To be honest, this simple and straightforward "little guy versus the system" tale does not pack too many gutbusting laughs. In their place are smaller but ultimately more rewarding delights: a consistent stream of giggle-worthy lines and situations and, best of all, a wide variety of sharply defined personalities. Proud and loving Darryl is indeed the main character (played without a single false note by Caton), but the rest of the Kerrigan family and the other peripheral characters are allowed to carve out their own memorably quirky niches. Making the strongest impressions are Darryl's trading post-obsessed, "ideas man" middle son Steve (Anthony Simcoe) and Darryl's incompetent lawyer (Tiriel Mora). The Castle is as light and disposable as it appears to be, but there's no denying how efficient (the film runs a scant 89 minutes), crowdpleasing, and heartwarming an entertainment director Rob Sitch and writing collaborators Santo Cilauro, Tom Cleisner, and Jane Kennedy have created.

Three Seasons poster Three Seasons (PG-13) *** 1/2
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For the most part, Tony Bui's gorgeous Sundance favorite is a fascinating look at life in modern-day Vietnam, seen through the eyes of a number of characters leading different lives in and around Ho Chi Minh City: a young woman (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the old, ailing owner (Tran Manh Cuong) of the lotus farm at which she works; a cyclo driver (Don Duong) who falls for a prostitute (Zoe Bui); and a very young street vendor (Nguyen Huu Duoc) whose case of merchandise is stolen.

If only Bui and co-writer Timothy Linh Bui had left it at that: three storylines to match the three seasons of the title. But in a blatant concession to the film's Western production roots, also added to the mix is an unnecessary storyline about a GI (Harvey Keitel) who is searching for the daughter he left behind. Although this thread briefly intersects with the others (as they all do), it could not be more far removed in terms of style, mood, and execution; while the other stories feel true to life, this one feels like manufactured melodrama, and it is rather stiffly acted by Keitel (with the exception of one emotional wordless scene). Thankfully, though, his storyline is given the least amount of screen time, never becoming so obtrusive as to dilute the simple power of the other plots or the uniting poetry of Lisa Rinzler's breathtaking cinematography.

A Walk on the Moon poster A Walk on the Moon (R) ** 1/2
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In the Woodstock summer of '69, a bored young housewife and mother (Diane Lane) undergoes a sexual and emotional awakening at the hands of a mysterious travelling "blouse man" (Viggo Mortensen). If this sounds like romance novel material, that's because it is, albeit it gussied up in a handsome, well-made package. As is the case with many actors-turned-directors, first-time helmer Tony Goldwyn coaxes fine work from his cast, in particular Lane, Liev Schreiber (as the husband), and Anna Paquin, an actress who is slowly growing on me (as their rebellious daughter). Despite their efforts, though, the synthetic, formulaic nature of Pamela Gray's script keeps this drama decidedly earthbound.

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