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The Movie Report
Volume 5

#35 - 40
March 26, 1996 - May 2, 1996

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

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#40 May 2, 1996 by Michael Dequina


Last Dance poster Last Dance (R) **
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Those unclear about the differences between independent and major Hollywood studio productions need do no more than simply compare Gramercy's acclaimed Death Row drama Dead Man Walking and the new Buena Vista release, Last Dance. Whereas Tim Robbins's unromanticized capital punishment drama felt realistic and genuine, this glossy Sharon Stone vehicle feels too manufactured and "Hollywood" to elicit any real emotion.

A shaggy-haired Rob Morrow plays what is essentially a Tom Cruise role: cocky, ne'er-do-well neophyte lawyer Rick Hayes, who is trying to prove his ability in the shadow of a family member--only in this case the family member is not his father, but his brother, state Chief of Staff John Hayes (Peter Gallagher). Rick is assigned to plead clemency for Death Row inmate Cindy Liggett (Stone), who is resigned to the fact she will be executed. Of course, the brash Cindy and the laid-back Rick don't hit it off too well at first, but slowly and surely, they develop a platonic love, and Rick tries to do all that he can to get the staunchly pro-death-penalty governor (Jack Thompson) to commute her death sentence as her execution date nears.

The first problem I have with Last Dance are the accents. The film takes place in an unspecified southern state, and almost everyone attempts some type of generic drawl. However, the resulting accents sound like they came straight from the terrifically trashy TV soap Savannah, either overdoing it almost to the level of caricature (Stone), or not appearing to make an effort at all (Morrow and Gallagher, who appear to give up halfway through the film). Instead of adding geographical flavor, the drawls just become a distraction.

Stone's work here, overwrought accent aside, is the best thing about Last Dance--solid, impassioned, though unspectacular. Frankly, she really isn't given a whole lot to do, for, as written, Cindy never really comes to life as a character. She is more a generic film ideal of prison rehabilitation--a cold killer who's "changed," riddled with guilt and remorse--than a believable, multidimensional person. The only insight we're given into her character are through her routine nightmares about the crime and the fact that she takes drawing classes through the mail. Rick is even more problematic. Somewhere along the line Cindy's case is supposed to become, to him, more than just a chance to prove his worth but also a fight for something he believes in, someone he cares for. But exactly where--or even if--that change comes is never clear; just when one thinks that he genuinely cares for Cindy, director Bruce Beresford and screenwriter Ron Koslow throw in a scene where he is belittled by John, giving his desire for credibility greater precedence. Morrow's fairly colorless work and lack of palpable chemistry with Stone do not help, either. The final scene is obviously designed to show Rick's love for Cindy, but even by that point, I still was not sure what motivated him.

Like Dead Man Walking, Last Dance tries to present a balanced picture, showing the perspectives of both the inmate and her victims' families. But unlike Dead Man, there is a clear slant in favor of the inmate. The victims' families only get their say in two brief scenes, and the film keeps trying to make excuses for Cindy--she was young; she was on drugs. However, this effort to make her likable robs the story of some power. A great deal of the power of Dead Man was in the irony that while the Sean Penn character was utterly despicable, one still felt something for him in the end, for he came off as a real person, complete with (many) flaws. Cindy may be more likable, but she also comes across as less human and more of a film convention.

Last Dance does manage to build some emotional momentum as it approaches its climax, but the climax is so manipulative and "Hollywood" contrived that it cheapens the effective buildup. More of that Hollywood sheen is in evidence throughout, from the spacious cells on Death Row and the generally well-behaved inmates. Beresford and Koslow also throw in some ill-advised dollops of humor along the way in an apparent effort to make the dramatic proceedings more palatable; instead, they just distract. How can anyone take the story seriously if the filmmakers don't?

Following her heralded turns in Casino and Diabolique, Sharon Stone doesn't look to lose any of her newfound critical support with Last Dance. What she does stand to lose is her bankability, for this well-intentioned but overly slick drama doesn't appear to be the big box office hit she needs.

In Brief

Mulholland Falls poster Mulholland Falls (R) * 1/2
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After watching Lee Tamahori's failed, cameo-studded attempt at neo-noir, one can only wonder how it attracted such an interesting array of talent. This slow, unsuspenseful mystery follows the 1950s renegade L.A. cop foursome known as the Hat Squad (Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, and Chris Penn) as they investigate the mysterious murder of a buxom party girl (an ethereal Jennifer Connelly, in, once again, a too-brief turn). Actually, the film only really follows one of the four: the Nolte character, who had an affair with Connelly; while Palminteri makes a mark by supplying some labored comic relief, Madsen and Penn are completely interchangeable placeholders (in fact, I didn't even know Penn's character name until the end credit roll). The acting ranges from either the abysmal (such as the overwrought Nolte and Andrew McCarthy, playing the stereotyped role of Connelly's "fruitcake" best friend) to the barely passable (Madsen, Penn, and Melanie Griffith, playing Nolte's wife), with a couple minor exceptions (Connelly and, as an Army general, John Malkovich--though he's saddled with a dreary monologue about the atom). The script by Pete Dexter is devoid of any surprises, and his "witty" banter is excrutiating (Palminteri: "I can't thread this projector! My finger won't fit!" Louise Fletcher (as a secretary): "Why don't you stick your dick in instead."). And for a film noir, the atmosphere is oddly light, not helped at all by Haskell Wexler's inexplicably sunny cinematography. A colossal disappointment.

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#39 April 25, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Fargo poster Fargo (R) *** 1/2
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This latest quirkfest from those eccentric writing-directing-producing brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, follows a very pregnant Minnesota police chief's (Frances McDormand) pursuit of two murderous kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) who were hired by a car salesman (William H. Macy) to kidnap his wife in an effort to get the ransom money from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell). But to leave the film at that is to barely scratch its surface, for the basic plot has about as much to do with the whole film as the title (only the opening scene takes place in the titular North Dakota town). What makes this film so different (and thus more consistently interesting) is the Coens' script's exploration of the idiosyncracies of the Midwest, from the singsong speech inflections and overwhelming politeness to the banal expressions such as "Aw, jeez," and "Ya?" That, along with the truly marvelous work of the players (especially Macy, Buscemi, and the letter-perfect McDormand), a wildly unpredictable narrative, and a very effective and consistent deadpan tone, make for an odd, intriguing, and entertaining film. Mind you, after hearing all the numerous critical raves, this violent black comedy didn't quite live up to my trumped-up expectations, but it's easy to see why this very original work has received such acclaim. Like the Coens' other pictures (which are an acquired taste for many), this is not for everyone, but anyone willing to take a chance on something different will find little to complain about here.


Cutthroat Island poster Cutthroat Island (PG-13) **
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Geena Davis is pirate queen Morgan Adams; Matthew Modine is her slave. Together, they try to locate the legendary treasure found on the titular isle. Standing in their way? Her evil uncle (Frank Langella), whose name is Dawg, so you know it's just a matter of time before someone makes a pseudo-witty pun with his name (and it sure is a doozy). Renny Harlin's misbegotten pirate epic was reportedly the biggest turkey in Hollywood history, and it's easy to see why--while never boring and boasting well-crafted action scenes, explosions, and cinematography this film is strangely devoid of any genuine fun or excitement. Not helping matters is the awful dialogue, which tries hard to be funny but ends up just plain lame. Davis makes a borderline passable action heroine, but her work here doesn't exactly create major anticipation for her next foray into action, this fall's The Long Kiss Goodnight, boasting the most expensive script of all time (by Lethal Weapon's Shane Black) and directed by (who else?) her husband, Harlin. (LIVE Home Video)

True Crime poster True Crime (R)  1/2*
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Despite the title, little, if anything, in this film rings true. Alicia Silverstone stretches to little effect as a good Catholic school girl (honest) who teams with a police cadet (Kevin Dillon) to catch a serial killer in this limp, predictable whodunit. Remove the obligatory Silverstone-Dillon sex scene, the profanity, and a brief glimpse of Silverstone masturbating and you've got a glorified TV-movie in terms of production values, writing, directing, and acting. Silverstone should thank her lucky stars that this one didn't receive the theatrical release it was originally slated to have. (Vidmark Home Video)

Vampire in Brooklyn poster Vampire in Brooklyn (R) **
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Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, and director Wes Craven did no favors for their careers when they made this uneventful horror-comedy that fails on both levels--the film is never funny enough to pass muster as a comedy and never scary enough (if at all) to make it as a horror movie. Murphy plays it completely straight as the bloodsucker with an eye for Bassett's half-vampire cop, but he tries too hard to appear menacing and "dangerously alluring," instead coming off in exactly the opposite way--ridiculous and repellent. Bassett, as always, plays her role with a fierce passion that this film simply doesn't deserve. There are a few laughs along the way, courtesy of Kadeem Hardison (as Murphy's servant) and John Witherspoon (as Hardison's landlord), and the effects and whatnot keep it interesting, but it's all for naught. (Paramount Home Video)

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#37 April 11, 1996 by Michael Dequina


James and the Giant Peach poster James and the Giant Peach (PG) ***
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Following the robust grosses of its first foray into stop-motion animation features, 1993's brilliant Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was only a matter of time before Disney came out with another. That time has come with James and the Giant Peach, an even more ambitious undertaking that mixes live action and stop-motion animation. While technically dazzling and entertaining, James doesn't quite live up to its predecessor.

Based on Roald Dahl's children's classic, the film follows James (newcomer Paul Terry), a young British boy who is forced to lived with his cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes, overacting to great effect), after his parents are killed by a rhino. One day, a mysterious old man (Pete Postlethwaite, best known as "Kobayashi" in The Usual Suspects) gives James a bag full of green glowing magic things (consisting of such goodies as crocodile tongues) to use to escape. James accidentally spills the bag's contents, which make a long-barren tree grow a peach--and a giant one at that. One night, James eats some of the peach (and, inadvertently, one of the green things), and the heretofore live action film turns into stop-motion. James meets up with a number of creatures living in the peach--a spider (voice of Susan Sarandon), a centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a glowworm (Margolyes), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and an earthworm (David Thewlis). Together, they make their escape from Spiker and Sponge in the peach, making a wild journey across the Atlantic to New York, where the film becomes live action once again.

The look of James and the Giant Peach is very striking from the get-go. The initial live action scenes take place on dark, gloomy sets that could pass for full-size models of those in The Nightmare Before Christmas. When the film becomes animated, it really comes to life. Nightmare director Henry Selick doesn't disappoint with the absolutely stunning visuals and well-realized characters--a mechanical shark in one scene is particularly memorable. There's even a brief dream sequence in which the film forays into line animation. The film is a true feast for the eyes.

But, unfortunately, not one for the ears. Like Nightmare and recent Disney animated fare, James is a musical, but the songs by Randy Newman won't exactly make you rush out of the theatre to buy the soundtrack. Following the traditional Disney musical formula, the first number is the traditional Disney "I Want" song, "My Name Is James," which is perhaps the most successful song of the lot, concisely communicating James's dreams. The rest fail to make a real impression. The opening bars of one song late in the film, "Family," (which, by the way, puts the story to a screeching halt) sound curiously close to those of Newman's tuneless Toy Story theme, "You've Got a Friend in Me," and the one musical number that leaves a lasting impression, "Eating the Peach" (which features lyrics by Dahl), does so because of the funny onscreen goings-on, not the song.

There are a few more funny moments like that number in the script by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom, but as a whole the script lacks the sophisticated yet all-ages humor that characterized the wittily macabre Nightmare or, for that matter, Toy Story. There are shades of that wit here or there, such as where the centipede, seeing a skeleton that happens to look just like Nightmare's Jack Skellington, says "Look! A Skellington!" But throughout most of the movie, the laughs in the audience mostly came from the younger set, with only slight chuckles from the adults. Also, James, while a good, likable kid, is the least interesting character in the lot in comparison to his colorful supporting cast--the brash New Yorker centipede, the sultry spider, the neurotic earthworm, the straight-arrow grasshopper. James isn't engaging enough a character to provide a strong center.

Despite its faults, James and the Giant Peach is first-class family entertainment that will please everyone, particularly the young 'uns. One final note: stay all the way through the end credit roll, for there is one final joke following it.


Smoke poster Smoke (R) *** 1/2
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One of the most odd and refreshing films out last year was this episodic comedy-drama about a Brooklyn cigar shop and the people connected to it--a widowed writer (William Hurt), a teen runaway (Harold Perrineau, Jr.), his estranged father (Forest Whitaker), the shop's owner (Harvey Keitel), his ex-lover (Stockard Channing), and her (and possibly Keitel's) drug-addicted daughter (Ashley Judd). A movie that more or less has no real central plot, Smoke's episodic form results in a slightly uneven tone, with some vignettes working better than others (one involving Perrineau's stay with Hurt is perhaps the weakest spot). However, the film is carried through by fantastic performances, especially by Keitel and Judd (who is flat-out marvelous in her one scene), and the rich characters and atmosphere created by the director, Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club); and the screenwriter, novelist Paul Auster, who ends the film on a very high note--a poignant, brilliant monologue by Keitel. So puff away, and breathe in the Smoke while it lasts. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

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#36 April 4, 1996 by Michael Dequina


A Thin Line Between Love and Hate one-sheet A Thin Line Between Love & Hate (R) * 1/2
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If there's any contemporary film genre that's ripe for a parody, it's the "-from-hell" thriller, and the very funny and talented Martin Lawrence appeared to have something with his directorial debut, A Thin Line Between Love & Hate. However, the end result is a ponderous vanity project that is unfunny and, worst of all, just plain boring.

Lawrence himself stars as playboy Darnell Wright, whose latest conquest is the wealthy career woman Brandi Web (Lynn Whitfield of The Josephine Baker Story). Soon after he tells her those three little words and beds her, he dumps her and begins to pursue a "real" relationship with Air Force cadet and childhood friend Mia (John Singleton regular Regina King). Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and, needless to say, this doesn't sit well with Brandi, who has homicidal secret past.

This is a promising setup for a wickedly funny comedy; if only director Lawrence didn't spend so much time on this setup. Over an hour is devoted to Darnell's attempts to woo Brandi and him hanging out with his best friend Tee (Bobby Brown) at the club at which they work. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the initial goings-on were interesting or funny, but too much of it goes nowhere or serve no discernible purpose, such as a sequence where Tee auditions dancers for the club. But even when Brandi starts exhibiting her dark side in the final half hour, there is minimal payoff, comic or otherwise, if any at all. The film ends not with a big bang of a laugh but with an overly earnest whimper, one that I don't think anyone will find satisfying.

The few (and I mean very few) laughs come from Lawrence, who is unapologetically slimy as the egotistical Darnell. Although the material is weak, he does manage to milk some laughs out of it in his scenes. Too bad his direction wasn't as accomplished. Not only is the pacing slack, but so is his work with the actors, who, with the exception of himself or the game Whitfield, barely make an impression. Brown is at least a better actor than his wife, Whitney Houston, but that's really not saying anything at all, and King doesn't strike any sparks with Lawrence. Another curious decision on the part of Lawrence was to shoot in 2.35:1, the widest screen format, for he never makes use of the space, staging a lot of action in the middle of the picture and leaving wide margins on the sides.

Martin Lawrence is a talented comedian, but anyone seeing him for the first time in Thin Line would never guess that. One would be better off watching his TV show, Martin, reruns of his episodes of HBO's Def Comedy Jam, or renting Bad Boys or his moderately amusing concert film, You So Crazy. Once word of mouth spreads, there should be very thin lines at the box office for Thin Line.

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#35 March 26, 1996 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Diabolique poster Diabolique (R) **
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The cast, headed by four one-time Oscar nominees (including one winner), is perfect, as is the formula, lifted from a classic '50s French thriller. So what spoils this chiller in which a mistress (a wonderfully wicked Sharon Stone) and a wife (Isabelle Adjani, holding her own with her ethereal presence) plot to kill the man in their lives (an effective Chazz Palminteri)? Seriously "miscast" director Jeremiah Chechik, best known for lighthearted whimsy such as National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and the awful Benny & Joon, who fails to create any real suspense or thrills and does not seamlessly juggle the serious thriller aspects with the black comedy, which he obviously is more interested in. Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction), Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), or Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) would have been better choices to helm a mean-sprited psychosexual thriller.

Screenwriter Don Roos (who also penned the terrific SWF) works up a serviceable '90s take on the 1955 tale, peppering the script with some funny one-liners (most of which are delivered by Stone) and kinky lesbian overtones, but his formulaic horror ending all but kills what went on before, and Kathy Bates's detective character should have been more hard-nosed and less glib. Worth seeing for the solid work by the cast, but anyone looking for real thrills and chills better look elsewhere.


Red poster White poster Blue poster Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu) (R) *** 1/2
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White (Trois Couleurs: Blanc) (R) ***
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Red (Trois Couleurs: Rouge) (R) ****
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With the recent passing of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, a good way to celebrate the career of this very gifted filmmaker is by taking a look at his final work, the great Three Colors trilogy, in which he explores the themes represented by the colors of the French flag. 1993's Blue, which explores liberty, tells the story of a French woman (an excellent Juliette Binoche) who loses her husband and child in a car accident. Slow and incredibly dense, this film is definitely not for everyone, but a treat for anyone willing to take a chance on a fascinating mood piece. Next is 1994's White, a darkly comic take on equality in which a Polish man (Zbigniew Zamakowski) plots revenge against his cold French wife (Julie Delpy). Funny with a great tinge of irony, this is the most accessible of the three. Rounding out the triptych is the masterpiece Red, also from 1994, which won Kieslowski Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations, as well as one for Piotr Sobocinski's lush cinematography. In this tale of brotherhood, Irčne Jacob plays a Swiss model who strikes a friendship with a bitter retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) purely by chance. An engrossing meditation on fate, chance, and parallel lives, Red is a true work of art, a series of puzzle pieces that, when finally assembled, is an exhilarating movie experience. I recommend the entire trilogy, but if you can only see one, make it Red. (Miramax Home Entertainment)

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