Sunday, December 5, 2010


Music From Another Room (1998) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by flawlessfrogs for “Or as They Say in Hollywood” on July 26, 2011.

Movies are meant to be entertaining. However, sometimes a film is so bad, it's actually hard to watch it. Music From Another Room was one of these films. The film opens with a Thanksgiving dinner twenty-five years earlier. At the end of the night, the party's hostess, Grace (Brenda Blethyn, Pride & Prejudice) goes into labor. Five-year-old Danny helps deliver the baby girl. He announces that he will marry the baby and it is revealed that Danny and his widower father moved to England shortly thereafter. The film then skips ahead twenty-five years. Danny (Jude Law, Gattaca, Sherlock Holmes) returns to New York and happens to stumble upon Grace and her now grown daughter, Anna (Gretchen Mol, Manchester by the Sea)'s home. He falls in love with Anna (though she does not reciprocate his feelings) and soon becomes entwined in their dysfunctional family's problems. While this is an interesting premise, the film's plot then becomes confusing and broken; scenes are not well-explained and the different character plots jump around.

Not only was the plot confusing and under-developed but it was also poorly acted. While Anna is supposed to be beautiful, fun, and confident, she comes off as annoying and overly conventional. She leaves the audience wondering how Danny could ever fall for her. The different plot lines, involving Anna's blind sister, dying mother, and paranoid sister-in-law, do not fit together and sometimes fail to make sense. The humor is often lost at awkward moments or is just not funny. The actual comic relief came in the form of an unintentionally hilarious (at one point, he slaps his forehead and repeatedly says Stupid Jesus) salsa dancer/dishwasher named Jesus, who elopes with Anna's blind sister, Nina (Jennifer Tilly, Monster's Inc.).

Overall, Music From Another Room was tedious and oversentimental. If you are willing to overlook all of the film's issues, you might enjoy it. [Reviewer’s rating: * ½ out of 4 stars]

Blogger's comment: I have to agree with the film critic. Given the supporting cast, which included Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Piven, Jon Tenney, Jane Adams and Bruce Jarchow, this is yet another example of a writer/director (in this case Charlie Peters) having a good concept, but failing to translate it into a tight shooting script and professional direction. Apparently the film industry agrees. In the twenty years since 1998 Peters has had only two screenwriting credits, and has never directed again.

Labels:  comedy, drama, romance

Little City (1998) [R] ****

San Francisco's a great little city, as long as you don't mind running into the same six people over and over again. As Kevin (Jon Bon Jovi) describes it, it's a cheap place to live, and it tolerates lack of initiative. Kevin's a bartender at the San Remo Bar. He's gone through all the locally available women, so he's talked his boss into hiring Rebecca (Penelope Ann Miller) who's new in town and needs a job.

Kevin's friend Adam (Josh Charles) is a cabdriver and an artist, with a live-in girlfriend, Nina (Annabella Sciorra) who's a chef at the Little City Restaurant. Sadly, Adam has never gotten over his old girlfriend Kate (Joanna Going), and his lack of passion for Nina has driven her into Kevin's arms. They both hate the lying and sneaking around, but they can't stay away from each other

Adam's mistake with Kate was that he encouraged her to have a three-way with Anne (JoBeth Williams), who teaches painting at the Art Institute. Anne's a lesbian, and her hobby is corrupting pretty, bi-curious, straight girls, and then moving on. Adam and Kate both knew Anne was a lesbian; Adam just didn't think Kate would be so into the experience, or that she would fall in love with Anne. And Kate didn't know that Anne wasn't in it for the long haul, and would reject her once she got clingy.

With all the relationships in pieces, by coincidence, Adam picks up Rebecca as a cab fare, and recognizes her from the San Remo. And, then, Kevin realizes how much he loves Nina, and Kate decides she wants to have a baby with Adam. And so both Kevin and Adam have decisions to make. This is an excellent character-driven, conversation-rich, ensemble romantic comedy drama. The situations these people find themselves in are all too real, all too familiar. The casting is terrific, there's great romantic chemistry among the leads, and beautiful San Francisco landscapes. If you've enjoyed recent films like Definitely, Maybe; Feast of Love; He's Just Not That Into You or Purple Violets, you might enjoy Little City.

Labels: comedy, lesbian, romance     
Internet Movie Database
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=68)

Kiss the Sky (1998) [R] ****

Two West Coast businessmen, Jeff (William L. Petersen) and Marty (Gary Cole), have been friends since their college days. Now, twenty years later, they both feel depressed and trapped in their lives, burdened with wives, children, houses, mortgages and dead-end jobs. In the midst of their mid-life crises they decide to escape to the Philippines, ostensibly to manage a construction project in Manila. Upon their arrival, the exotic Far East begins to transform them. They immerse themselves in pleasures of the flesh, and soon they meet a lovely young woman named Andrea (Sheryl Lee) and a wise Zen Buddhist monk named Kozen (Terence Stamp). Ultimately they find an island paradise where they decide to build a retreat.

Unfortunately, human imperfection guarantees that any paradise on Earth will not long remain unspoiled. As the monk Kozen observes, inner peace cannot be found in the external world of fleeting experiences of the senses, but only by transcending the outer world... by turning within in meditation. For anyone who has ever gone, or yearned to go, on a spiritual quest in search of himself and the meaning of life, this film will reawaken poignant memories. The final message of the film is that it does not matter whether we choose the path of the householder - the family man, or the path of the monk - the recluse. We can transcend the world and experience inner spiritual growth through either path. We only need to take the first step on the journey.

Labels: drama, romance

Sliding Doors (1998) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Look back at all the times in your life when there was a fork in the path to the future. Some sort of decision had to be made, and, for better or worse, it irrevocably altered the course of your existence. From time-to-time, everyone thinks about the roads not taken, and how things might have turned out if the choice had been different. Perhaps even more dizzying to contemplate is how a seemingly minor action -- catching the 10 AM train, for example -- could have an equally profound, yet less obvious, impact. Maybe that's where you met your significant other, and, had you reached the platform just a few seconds later...

Film makers are no less fascinated by issues of destiny than anyone else, and that's why there's no shortage of movies about this subject. The best of the bunch were probably made by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who was obsessed with questions of fate and chance. These themes weave their way through many of his movies, including DecalogueThe Double Life of Veronique, and the triptych of BlueWhite, and Red. However, they are most explicitly examined in a 1981 film called Blind Chance, where Kieslowski presents the three different fates of one man after a minor action (missing or catching a train) changes the course of his life. In his autobiography, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, the director describes his attraction to the concept this way: [The idea is] rich and interesting... that every day we're faced with a choice which could end our entire life yet of which we're completely unaware.

While this approach has been the fodder for several notable dramatic films (including, in a way, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life), Sliding Doors is the first romantic comedy to plumb its depths. The road not taken approach isn't just a plot device, either. Writer/director Peter Howitt expands upon both possible fates of a character after she just misses/catches a train. The audience watches, with ever-growing fascination, how this one event impacts upon every aspect of her life: her future career, where she lives, whom she loves, and whether she has a family. As her separate destinies diverge and then re-converge, she becomes two completely different individuals.

That woman is Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow as a long, dark-haired Brit. One day, after losing her job as an advertising executive, she decides to return home in the middle of the day. The scene of the pivotal moment is a train platform. In scenario #1, she just slips through the sliding doors before the train pulls out of the station. On board, she meets the cheerful, talkative James (John Hannah), a Monty Python fan who is taken with her beauty. Minutes later, in her flat, she walks in on her lover, Gerry (John Lynch), in bed with another woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In scenario #2, she misses the train and, shortly thereafter, is the victim of an attempted mugging. She doesn't meet James and fails to make it home in time to discover Gerry's infidelity. Juxtaposed one against the other, while sharing many places, cues, and characters, the two stories proceed in parallel from there.

On one level, for viewers who enjoy pondering the workings of fate, Sliding Doors can be viewed as a deep and wonderful experience. But, for those who just appreciate a romantic comedy characterized by solid acting, a script with a few twists, and a great deal of genuinely funny material, Sliding Doors still fits the bill. One of its most obvious strengths is that it can satisfy many different types of audiences -- those who demand something substantial from their motion pictures, and those who could care less.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the acting, at least from three of the four leads, is solid. Paltrow, who does double duty as two Helens who are initially the same, yet gradually become much different, is the standout. She plays both of her roles effectively and believably -- the shy, insecure woman who stays with Gerry and the liberated, platinum-blond who severs the ties to her old life and embarks on a new career with a new man. John Hannah, known to most American viewers as the younger gay character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is instantly likable. John Lynch, taking a break from movies about Ireland's troubles, does a good job presenting Gerry as a inept, selfish philanderer. Only Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays an over-the-top vixen, seems out of place. Her attempts at broad comedy are occasionally jarring, and it's occasionally difficult to see her Lydia as anything more than a plot element.

One member of the supporting cast deserves special notice. Douglas McFerran, who plays Gerry's best friend, Russell, is an absolute delight, stealing every scene that he's in. Part of this is surely because he is given the best lines in the movie. On one occasion, he has a marvelous monologue bemoaning how advances in the telecommunications industry have trapped men into a life of monogamy. On another occasion, while laughing at Gerry's plight with the women in his life, he comments: being with you makes the wait for the next episode of Seinfeld more bearable. But it's not all in the dialogue. McFerran tears into this part with relish; his performance becomes one of the most memorable aspects of a top-notch comedy.

This is the first feature film for Peter Howitt, and he approaches the task with unimpeachable aplomb. The script is shrewd and inventive, combining wit, romance, and intelligent melodrama into a crowd-pleasing whole. Sliding Doors grants more than just a good time at the movies, however. For those who are so inclined, its central theme offers an opportunity to ponder some of the more philosophical questions about the workings of the universe -- all while having a good time.

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance, space-time

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 59/100
Tomatometer( critics=63, viewers=68)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pleasantville (1998) [PG-13] ****

David (Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are high school students, living with their divorced mother in suburban Southern California. Discouraged by the instability in his life, David has taken refuge in a TV sitcom called Pleasantville, set in the unchanging world of 1958 America... in the brief period of tranquility after the end of the Korean War and before the country erupted in the protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

With the aid of a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) and his TV remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves magically transported through their TV to black-and-white Pleasantville, where they are accepted as Bud and Mary Sue by their parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen). David recognizes the damage they could do by introducing any change from what has already been broadcast in Pleasantville TV episodes. Jennifer, however, was never a fan of the sitcom, and decides to amuse herself by introducing her naive, innocent boyfriend Skip (Paul Walker) to the joys of sex.

From this small beginning, like a bite of the apple from the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Pleasantville begins to shed its innocence and ignorance. Monochrome gives way to brilliant color; there's real rain; the townspeople discover love, sex, passion, hope, curiosity, free will, and the desire for artistic self-expression; however they also discover their fear of change, and with it intolerance, hatred and censorship. A creative masterpiece, written and directed by Gary Ross, with an incredibly talented cast, and a beautiful musical score by Randy Newman, this thought-provoking film is rich in symbolism, and is especially compelling for those with memories of America in the 1950s and 1960s. If you enjoyed Back to the FutureThe HelpPeggy Sue Got Married and A Summer Place, you will probably really enjoy Pleasantville. 

The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels as Mr. Johnson, owner of Pleasantville's diner, Jane Kaczmarek as David and Jennifer's real-life mom, Marley Shelton as Margaret, and J.T. Walsh as the Mayor.

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, Fifties, high school, satire, space-time, teenager
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 71/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=76, viewers=66)
Pleasantville - At Last

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Parent Trap (1998) [PG] ****

Hallie Parker and Annie James (both played by Lindsay Lohan) are eleven year old girls who arrive at Maine's Camp Walden for eight weeks of summer fun. Annie lives in London with her mom Elizabeth (the late Natasha Richardson) a wedding gown designer, her grandfather (Ronnie Stevens) and their butler Martin (Simon Kunz). Hallie lives in the Napa Valley, California with her dad Nick (Dennis Quaid) a vineyard and winery owner, and their housekeeper Chessy (Lisa Ann Walter).

Initially the two girls are camp rivals in everything from fencing to poker. But when their rivalry escalates to messy practical jokes, the camp staff banishes the pair to the Isolation Cabin to cool off. There, Hallie and Annie discover that they're actually identical twins. Thrilled and excited by their discovery, they decide to switch places at the end of summer camp, so each one can get to know the parent she's never met, because Nick and Elizabeth had divorced eleven years earlier when the two girls were only babies.

The girls get away with the switch, and things seem to be going well until Annie discovers that Nick has fallen for Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix) a scheming, manipulative PR rep he had hired to promote his winery, and whom Annie has nicknamed Cruella de Vil. With the wedding only two weeks away, Annie and Hallie have to come up with a plan to get Nick and Elizabeth back together before Meredith can trap Nick.

Written, directed and produced by the creative and formerly married team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer (parents of two girls – you guessed it – Annie and Hallie) the film features a scintillating screenplay, sensitive direction, tight editing, beautiful costumes and sets (a Nancy Meyers trademark), gorgeous cinematography and sparkling performances by the entire cast, especially the incomparable Lindsay Lohan, who is on-screen virtually the entire film. If you have a preteen daughter or granddaughter, and you've never watched this film together, do yourself a favor. It's a real treat. 

Labels: adventure, comedy, drama, family, romance     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 64/100     
Tomatometer (critics=86, viewers=69)


Godzilla (1998) [PG-13] **

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Godzilla is the ultimate culmination of the who cares about plot summer movie. A loose remake of the 1954 classic Japanese monster movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters (which is itself pretty thin in the story department), Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's big- budget lizard-stomps-Manhattan disaster flick has been written with the brain dead in mind. The script isn't just dumbed down, it's lobotomized. Godzilla lives and dies on special effects alone.

Presumably, the primary target group for this film is teenage boys, the demographic most likely to shell out $7 repeatedly to see the same images of monster-instigated carnage. That's not to say that females and other age groups are immune to the special effects seduction; they're just not as readily susceptible. This is the third straight movie in a row where Emmerich and Devlin have demonstrated that a mastery of computer-generated visuals is far more important for making money than the ability to write and direct for actors. Stargate was a financial success. Independence Day was a runaway hit. And, with Godzilla already drowning in hype and merchandising tie-ins before it even opens, it's virtually guaranteed at least $100 million. Nice numbers for a film that could have been penned by a not-too-precocious grade school kid.

Godzilla isn't completely without merit, although it is close. There's a certain visceral thrill inherent in watching the giant lizard rip his way through Manhattan, but it wears off quickly. Frankly, while the special effects are competent, they're not all that stunning. There's nothing new here; it's Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a little Independence Day thrown in for bad measure. Maybe it will require George Lucas and his new Star Wars movie to take computer-generated visuals to the next level. Godzilla never really pushes the envelope, preferring to remain within a comfort zone. The imagination of monster movies like King Kong has been replaced by a crass, formulaic approach which disallows creativity. (How disturbing is it to know that Godzilla has been chosen to close the 51st Cannes Film Festival?)

Worst of all, Godzilla isn't even exciting. With the possible exception of a mildly enjoyable car chase near the end, there isn't a sequence in this film that raises the pulse. Even the scenes with dozens of aircraft attacking the monster are so devoid of tension and suspense that they are yawn-provoking. Independence Day may have been dumb, but it was full of adrenaline moments capable of getting the audience involved in the action. In this aspect of its production, as in so many others, Godzilla is lacking. Actually, part of the problem is that we're never sure who we're supposed to be rooting for: the green monster with an attitude or the paper-thin humans trying to stop him.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up rather simply. After sinking a few ships and leaving some footprints on tropical islands, Godzilla shows up in the Big Apple. He does some of the usual tourist things: stops by Madison Square Garden, visits the Chrysler Building, goes on a walk through Central Park, and takes the subway. In the process, he knocks over a few buildings and steps on countless cabs, but he never has trouble with traffic jams. On hand to stop him is an elite U.S. army unit, led by a slightly less-arrogant-than-usual military man (Kevin Dunn) and a biologist named Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), who has a theory about Godzilla. In his opinion, the big guy is actually a lizard grown to enormous proportions as a result of the radiation given off by French atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. In Nick's words, Godzilla is a mutated aberration... An incipient creature? The first of its kind. As luck would have it, Nick's old girlfriend, Audrey (Maria Pitillo), is a reporter based at a New York TV station. Along with her cameraman friend, Animal (Hank Azaria), she decides to follow Nick around as he trails Godzilla. Then, just when the military has rejected Nick's theory about why Godzilla is in New York, a member of the French Secret Service (Jean Reno) recruits him for a special assignment.

Instead of stomping around Tokyo this time, Godzilla has chosen New York City. Unfortunately, Manhattan has been destroyed so many times in recent disaster movies (Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon) that it's becoming boring. The whole tradition of monsters roaming around the city started with King Kong, but the big ape was only about 30 feet tall. He could climb the Empire State Building. At ten times that height, Godzilla would be more likely to knock it over.

Godzilla contains a few lame attempts at humor. There's an ongoing feud between Animal and his wife that plays like sit-com material, an unfunny and repetitive gag about how no one can pronounce Nick's last name properly, and a rather tame attack on film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Both of the popular personalities have alter egos in the film: Ebert, the mayor of New York, is played by Michael Lerner, and Gene (Lorry Goldman) is his campaign manager. Ebert's re-election slogan is, not surprisingly, Thumbs Up for New York. The Siskel/Ebert stuff is amusing the first time it's used, but, after a while, it grows tiresome. And, although the characters don't serve any real purpose, they keep popping up.

Godzilla is saddled with an unimpressive cast. This is largely because Emmerich doesn't want to risk a human performance upstaging his lizard. That's not to say that Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno aren't capable of good performances (both have done their share of solid acting in the past), but they aren't A-list names. Then again, considering the quality of the writing, even Pacino and DeNiro would have been hard-pressed to shine. Maria Pitillo (Dear God) plays the love interest and Hank Azaria (Great Expectations) is on hand to present what is supposed to be comic relief.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what I (or any other critic, for that matter) have to say about the movie. TriStar has assumed that Godzilla, like all self-proclaimed summer event motion pictures, is pretty much critic-proof. It may also be word-of-mouth-proof. Those who want to see the movie will see it no matter what I write or their friends say. So, when I go on record to assert that Godzilla is one of the most idiotic blockbuster movies of all time, it's like spitting into the wind. Emmerich and Devlin are master illusionists, waving their wands and mesmerizing audiences with their smoke and mirrors. It's probably too much to hope that someday, movie- goers will wake up and realize that they've been had. [Berardinelli's rating: * 1/2 out of 4]

Labels: action, sci-fi, thriller

Shakespeare in Love (1998) [R] *****

Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has a bad case of writer's block, and it's only when he begins a secret affair with the lovely Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) that he finds inspiration again. Unfortunately, though, Lady Viola is betrothed to another man, and in addition, she's successfully impersonating a man in order to play the lead in Shakespeare's latest production.

Featuring a wildly creative screenplay and an incredible cast, including Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush and Ben AffleckShakespeare in Love received 7 Academy Awards in 1999, including Best Picture. 

Labels: comedy, drama, romance     
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 87/100     
Tomatometer (critics=92, viewers=80)     

The Horse Whisperer (1998) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Low, gray clouds scud across the sky while the grass of a seemingly-endless plain ripples in response to the prompting of a spring breeze. Thunder rumbles in the distance. On another day, a bright sun gazes down on those same fields while cattle roam from horizon to horizon. The silhouette of a lone cowboy on horseback stands out against an evening skyline. Above these vistas, the Rocky Mountains tower like implacable guardians, seeing all. These are only some of the images from The Horse Whisperer, a film as rich in its visual presentation as it is in its emotional resonance.

As directed by veteran actor/film maker Robert RedfordThe Horse Whisperer is a powerful and moving tale of love and loss that eschews melodramatic manipulation in its pursuit of a simple, honest tale. I have not read the best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans upon which the movie is based, but if it's as good as (or better than) the motion picture adaptation, it's easy to understand its appeal. As a director, Redford has made some impressive films; this is among his best.

The Horse Whisperer opens peacefully enough, with two teenage girls leaving their houses in the early morning hours for a horseback ride. The sunrise is brilliant, and, as snow begins to fall later in the day, the fields and forest are turned into a winter wonderland of blues and silvers. Everything is picture perfect until tragedy strikes, brutally and without warning. One of the girls' mounts loses his footing on the icy ground and, suddenly, the two friends are in the path of a skidding 18-wheeler. One girl (played by Kate Bosworth) and her horse die. The other pair, Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), and her beloved steed, Pilgrim, are badly injured. Grace loses the lower half of one leg. Pilgrim is driven mad, and everyone advises that he be put to sleep.

Grace's parents, Annie and Robert MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas and Sam Neill), are ill- prepared to help their daughter cope with her physical disability and the mental scars of having seen her best friend run down by an out-of-control truck. Annie decides that Grace's recovery will be aided if she can find a way to heal Pilgrim (the film's only dubious contrivance). So, with her daughter and the horse in tow, Annie heads out to Montana, where a legendary horse whisperer, Tom Booker (Robert Redford), lives and works on a ranch. After seeing Pilgrim, Tom agrees to try to help the horse, and so begins a long period of restoration for four souls: Pilgrim, Grace, Annie, and Tom.

Those of a romantic nature may focus on the understated relationship between Annie and Tom, but that's just one aspect of a story of great depth. The Horse Whisperer is about the healing power of love. Like Atom Egoyan's masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, this film eloquently illustrates how difficult it is to recover from a life- altering trauma, and how the ripples from such an event can affect those who were not directly involved.

Everyone in this film has their own demons to wrestle with. Grace, who retreats into a sullen cocoon after the accident, is raw on the inside, but won't let it out. She resents her mother's emotional distance and is frightened that the loss of her leg makes her useless and will doom her to a life alone. (Nobody will want me like this!) Annie, who is used to being in charge, doesn't know how to cope with the situation, and, when she takes the time to examine her life, she recognizes how the pressures of her career have leeched away her humanity. Meanwhile, Tom, who is basically at peace with himself, begins to re-discover what it means to love, something he had lost when his wife left him.

There is an Oscar-caliber performance in The Horse Whisperer, but it isn't given by Redford, Scott-Thomas, or Neill. Instead, it's the work of young Scarlett Johansson, who has already proven her talent with a remarkable debut in Manny & Lo. As Grace, Johansson makes a case to be placed alongside Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman as one of the best actresses of her generation. She does everything necessary to make Grace a living and vital character, and, like all good performers, much of her acting comes through subtle expression changes and body language. Johansson is so effective, in fact, that Grace's story becomes The Horse Whisperer's emotional core, not just a plot device whereby Tom and Annie find themselves and one another.

Redford's Tom is exactly the kind of character we expect from Redford: a solid, kind, rugged man who is long on patience and rarely displays much emotion. It could be argued that the former matinee idol is a little too old for this sort of role, but, even with his features growing wrinkled and weathered, the camera still flatters him. Kristin Scott Thomas makes a worthy opposite: she's attractive (but not so stunning that she steals the spotlight away from her older co-star), mature, and a good actress. Solid support is provided by the always-reliable Sam Neill, Chris Cooper (Lone Star), and Dianne Wiest.

Emotionally, The Horse Whisperer finds the perfect pitch. There's no overacting and no overt audience manipulation; we feel with and for the characters, but there's never a sense that we're being tricked into providing a particular, desired response. The film is neither relentlessly downbeat nor needlessly cheerful; it's about healing, but there is a strong, bittersweet current running through the love story subplot.

As a director, Redford has never shown greater mastery of his material. His presentation of Montana, with all of its glorious open spaces, is enough to make anyone in the theater think about heading west. He also manages to make the day-to-day activities of running a ranch, and working with horses, seem interesting. At the outset, I feared that I might be bored by The Horse Whisperer, but, despite the running length (which creeps close to Titanic territory with no shipwreck in sight), I found myself thoroughly absorbed. The presentation of the truck accident is memorable for the way in which it is staged -- it's loud, horrifying, and chaotic. The editing and cinematography are perfect, and fashion an unforgettable cinematic moment.

Speaking of cinematography, it's necessary to say a few words about Richard Richardson's work, which is effective throughout. As good as Richardson is in photographing the sky and land, and presenting instances in silhouette, he is no less accomplished in capturing the nuances of small moments -- a quick smile here, a studied glance there. Most capable cinematographers would be hard-pressed not to make a shot of the Rocky Mountains look impressive; Richardson does as much with his photography of the characters as he does with the setting.

Redford, along with screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Eric Roth, has made a significant change to the ending of the story as presented in the novel. But, while die-hard fans of Evans' book may be disappointed by the alteration, which significantly dampens the level of melodrama, it fits perfectly with the delicately-balanced tale and characters Redford has brought to the screen. Every summer, it seems that there is at least one literate, intelligent alternative to the mindless blaze of action films. For the early season of 1998, it's The Horse WhispererGodzilla may be bigger, but for those who care about plot and character, and who want to experience a genuine emotional response, this is the real giant.

Labels: drama, romance, western

Meet Joe Black (1998) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Meet Joe Black has the dubious distinction of being the longest film to date of 1998. It is also one of the most tedious and bombastic. At a hair under three hours, it's shorter than James Cameron's Titanic, yet, when it comes to pace, Meet Joe Black is glacial. Director Martin Brest, who directed the enjoyable-but-also-too-long Scent of a Woman, is at his absolute worst here. Brest transforms a seemingly foolproof idea into an overblown bore.

There are slow movies, slooooooooooow movies, and then there's Meet Joe Black. Somehow, Brest manages to take a script lacking the content to justify a two hour motion picture and drag it out to three. Several obvious techniques are applied to accomplish this. The first, and most obvious, is that the director forces his actors to insert frequent, lengthy pauses into all dialogue (I kept wondering if he believed he was directing William Shatner). It wouldn't be as bad if the conversations were well-written, but most of what the characters say is sophomoric and rarely of much interest. Then, to add insult to injury, Brest never lets a scene end naturally, but keeps things going long past the point where the audience has lost interest.

Meet Joe Black was loosely suggested by the 1934 movie, Death Takes a Holiday, which, in turn, was based on a '20s stage play of the same name. This is not a strict remake - in fact, a key subplot is eliminated entirely - but it uses the black-and-white film's central conceit: what would happen if Death decided to temporarily abandon his place in the cosmos and reside for a brief time on Earth? Meet Joe Black postulates that he might look like Brad Pitt, fall in love with a beautiful young woman, and help save a good man's company. One thing this movie ignores, however, is how the universe fares with Death on vacation. Death Takes a Holiday went to great pains to describe the horrors of a world in which there was still illness and injury, but no death. Disappointingly, that potentially-fascinating aspect of the situation is ignored [Blogger's comment: almost totally ignored] by Meet Joe Black, which wastes the bulk of its three hours on a passionless romance and an absurd corporate takeover scheme.

The film introduces Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a corporate tycoon on the verge of celebrating his 65th birthday. He's also about to die from a heart attack. One night, after dinner, Death (Brad Pitt) appears with an offer: he'll put off taking Bill if, in return, Bill will introduce him to the wonders of being alive. The longer Bill can keep him interested in remaining corporeal, the longer the reprieve. So Bill introduces Death, renamed Joe Black, to his family: daughters Susan (Claire Forlani) and Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), son-in-law Quince (Jeffrey Tambor), and future son-in-law Drew (Jake Weber). With his almost childlike innocence, Joe is an immediate hit with everyone except Drew, who sees him as a rival for Susan's affections. His fears are justified; soon Joe and Susan are falling for each other, and there's nothing that Bill can do to stop the doomed relationship.

The centerpiece of Meet Joe Black is the romance between Joe and Susan, but it's not the kind of motion picture love affair that causes the spirit to soar. Forlani and Pitt may both possess matinee-style good looks, but they generate no heat or chemistry, and, as a result, they end up being featured in some of the most painfully protracted and awkward romantic sequences of any movie this year. As bland as they are together, they're not much more compelling when apart. At least Susan shows hints of three-dimensionality. Joe is unreadable - sometimes ingenuous, sometimes ominous, but never interesting. (And, since Death has been watching humankind for eons, how is it that he doesn't understand what kissing and sex are?) When it comes to a spiritual being taking a physical form, Nicholas Cage's angel in City of Angels wins the 1998 sweepstakes.

In general, Brad Pitt is not a terrible actor, and I give him credit for trying to broaden his range, but his work here is execrable. Pitt's acting, in concert with Brest's heavy-handed direction, makes this character a complete waste of celluloid. Joe Black looks like death warmed over. Anthony Hopkins does his best to add a dose of class to the proceedings, but there's only so much he can do, and he isn't given an especially meaty part. Claire Forlani, the young beauty from Basquiat, shows great promise, although there are a few scenes when she looks like a deer caught in a car's headlights. Jake Weber is suitably despicable as the traitorous Drew, and Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor provide adequate support.

As is Brest's trademark, there's plenty of emotional button-pushing, only this time, the director doesn't have a good feel for how best to manipulate the audience. There's a big speech near the end and a lot of melodramatic music, but, instead of leading the viewer into a state of emotional rapture, it all rings hollow. Perhaps it's because there's no rapport between the audience and the characters, or perhaps it's because the movie has long since worn out its welcome. Either way, the grand finale, like almost everything else in the movie, is a dud. As far as epics go, this one is a failure. In fact, by comparison, Meet Joe Black makes last year's Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic tale, The Postman, seem like a model of restraint and solid storytelling. [Berardinelli’s rating: *½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, fantasy, mystery, romance

Wild Things (1998) [R] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Wild Things is a way to steam up an otherwise dreary early spring day… provided, of course, that you’re the victim of a frontal lobotomy. There is, in fact, no doubt about who this motion picture is aimed at: movie-goers in their late teens and early twenties -- the most lucrative target group. This is film noir for the MTV generation: fast-paced, slick, flashy, gleefully mindless, and hollow to the core. Wild Things is easily one of the five dumbest movies to arrive in theaters during the first eleven weeks of 1998. I’ve seen more convincing drama (with nearly as much bare flesh) on that pinnacle of narrative quality, Baywatch.

Wild Things wants to dupe viewers into thinking it’s a thriller with a real story. What it is, however, is a series of increasingly-improbable and shockingly predictable plot twists. Everything in between those serpentine moments is filler -- a flash of a breast, a spatter of blood, and some of the most idiotic dialogue this side of a Steven Seagal movie. The film tries so hard to surprise its audience that the twists end up being easy to guess -- just take a stab at the most unlikely thing to happen, and that will probably be it. Using this approach, I was right three times and wrong only once. That’s not a good average for a production that wants to keep viewers in the dark about what’s around the next corner.

The ad campaign uses two things to sell this movie: the hot, young cast and the old standby, sex. Both have an abundance of screen time, although I’ll admit that the film’s erotic content is somewhat less impressive than I expected. Nothing about Wild Things is exceptionally risqué. The soft-core sex sequences are generic, and don’t generate much heat. The lesbian kisses can’t hold a candle to those in Bound. Theresa Russell and Denise Richards have only token topless appearances (Neve Campbell, possessing an iron-clad no nudity clause in her contract, keeps her clothes more or less on). The film’s greatest curiosity is a full frontal shot of Kevin Bacon climbing out of the shower. Maybe a few girls will skip seeing a fully-clothed Leonardo DiCaprio for the thirteenth time in Titanic to catch a glimpse of what Kyra Sedgwick (Mrs. Kevin Bacon) is familiar with.

The director of Wild Things is John McNaughton, whose last effort was the finely-tuned psychological thriller, Normal Life. That movie featured copious sex, a pair of real characters, and a powerful script. It’s difficult to believe that something this shallow could come from the same film maker. But I suppose we all need to put food on the table. McNaughton appears to have completely lost his way here, in what is obviously a stab at mainstream success (his previous wide-release picture, Mad Dog and Glory, was a box-office disappointment). Quick cuts and pretty sunrises can’t even begin to cover up this movie’s flaws.

The main character (and I use that term lightly, since no one in Wild Things shows more than an occasional flash of personality) is Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon), a guidance counselor at Florida’s Blue Bay High School. A student, the deliciously curvaceous Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), has a crush on him. One afternoon, she comes to his house to wash his car, and, when she leaves, her clothing is torn. After confessing to her mother (Theresa Russell) that she was raped, she goes to the police station, where she tells her story to detectives Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega). They are skeptical about here claims until another girl, Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), comes forward with a similar tale. Meanwhile, Sam, convinced that he’s being set up, goes to a shyster lawyer (Bill Murray) for help.

The acting in Wild Things isn’t very good, but none of the principals have much to work with. This is definitely not a character-based motion picture. Not only does the ludicrous screenplay ignore the possibility that someone in the audience may have a triple-digit I.Q., but it doesn’t bother to give any of the on-screen individuals even a hint of depth. The men and women populating the picture are there to look nice, but nothing more. Matt Dillon is given plenty of opportunities to flex his biceps. Neve Campbell gets to model the slutty look. Denise Richards strikes a fetching pose in a see-through, one-piece bathing suit. And nothing in the film gets a rise out of Kevin Bacon. The only one who’s even remotely interesting is Bill Murray, and he seems to think he’s in comedy, not a thriller (maybe he’s got the right idea).

Columbia Pictures has specifically requested that critics not reveal the film’s ending, which prompts the question: which ending do they want kept secret? Wild Things has no less than three (one occurs during the end credits, so stay seated), all of which are jaw-droppingly absurd -- a feat that Joe Eszterhas (the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls) would be impressed by. Thanks to Jeffrey Kimball’s polished, kinetic cinematography, Wild Things always looks great, and George S. Clinton’s score keeps it pulsing and throbbing. But, no matter how shiny the superficial sheen is, this is still trash, and, like all garbage, it stinks.

Labels: crime, high school, mystery, teenager, thriller

Thursday, July 29, 2010

City of Angels (1998) [PG-13] ****

In this supernatural romantic drama, Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angelic messenger who guides the dying on to the after-life. When Maggie (Meg Ryan), a heart surgeon, loses her patient on the operating table, Seth is there to guide the dying man. He also helps Maggie cope with the despair she feels at losing her patient.

Through Seth, Maggie comes to a new understanding about life... that she isn't in charge, that there is a Higher Power. Angels possess many gifts, including the ability to calm and focus human minds, travel at the speed of thought, love unconditionally, and allow humans to see them when they choose. Like humans, angels possess free will. When Seth falls in love with Maggie, he decides to exercise that free will, give up eternal life, fall to Earth and take on human form so he can be with her.

Love stories are at their most powerful when both lovers are equally open, committed and vulnerable. In choosing to become human, Seth demonstrates the ultimate vulnerability. He lives an entire life of love in a single day, and experiences the ultimate joy and the ultimate heartache. He expresses the intensity of his love for Maggie when he says: I would rather have had... one breath of her hair... one kiss of her mouth... one touch of her hand... than an eternity without it. One. If you enjoyed Somewhere in Time or Phenomenon, I predict you will enjoy City of Angels. 

Labels: fantasy, romance, thriller, tragedy
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 54/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=62, viewers=68)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Love Letter (1998) [UR] ****

In this romantic fantasy, Scott Corrigan (Campbell Scott) and his fiancée Debra (Daphne Ashbrook) are preparing for their upcoming wedding. One weekend, while the two are browsing through antique shops, Scott finds an old 1860s period desk, and decides to buy it. After getting it home, while cleaning it he discovers a secret compartment, and inside it he finds writing stationery, as well as a letter written by a young woman named Elizabeth Whitcomb (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who owned the desk in the 1860s. In her letter, Elizabeth expresses her anxiety about her betrothal to a much older man whom she does not love, a sentiment that echoes Scott’s own anxieties about his upcoming wedding. Fascinated by Elizabeth’s letter, Scott decides to write a reply to her. On the suggestion of his aunt Beatrice (Estelle Parsons), he uses the stationery he found in the desk, and specially-formulated ink from the period. Then, he mails the letter with a stamp from the 1860s, at a post office that had been in continual use from that time to the present.

Incredibly, Scott’s letter is delivered to Elizabeth in the 1860s, and she is mystified when she reads it. Then she discovers that her letter is missing from the secret compartment, realizes that the two events are connected, and that the secret compartment is a portal to the future. She pens a reply to Scott, places it in the secret compartment, and, as the two begin to correspond across a century and a half of time, inevitably a romance blossoms between them.

Produced for the television anthology series The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Love Letter is a hauntingly beautiful and thought-provoking romance about the limitless power of love to transcend time. Scott and Elizabeth find themselves linked by destiny, while separated by a century and a half of time. They fall in love while corresponding, and help each other make decisions about life partners and careers. Poignant, life-affirming and uplifting, this wonderful film is reminiscent of The Lake House and Somewhere in Time. If you enjoy romantic fantasies, don’t miss The Love Letter (1998). 

Labels: fantasy, romance, space-time

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Deep Impact (1998) [PG-13] ***

Jenny Lerner is a TV news reporter in Washington, D.C. While investigating the resignation of the Treasury Secretary, ostensibly due to his wife's illness, Jenny stumbles across evidence that he has a mistress named Ellie, and that the President knows about her. Things quickly become more serious, however, when Jenny finds herself under FBI arrest, and in an unscheduled meeting with the President. She discovers that the resignation story is only a cover for something far more serious... an E.L.E., or Extinction Level Event, in this case a comet the size of Mt. Everest that is headed straight for a collision with Earth, and threatens to wipe out all life on the planet. Jenny agrees to suppress the story, and days later the President addresses the nation, revealing that a spacecraft has been constructed, and a team of astronauts assembled to rendezvous with the comet, and attempt to change its course so it misses Earth.

On the surface, this film is about a global threat from outer space, and how different people deal with it. But the deeper story is about the nobility of self-sacrifice... how loving, compassionate individuals make a conscious decision to sacrifice themselves so others may live. The screenplay is fast-paced and well-written, with attention given to both the impending global catastrophe and how individuals and families are affected. There are a few plot holes and some scientific inaccuracies, but these can be forgiven in the interest of great story-telling.

Direction, editing, special effects and the musical score are excellent, and the acting talent assembled for this film is terrific, including Téa Leoni, Morgan Freeman, Elijah Wood, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Mary McCormack and Maximilian SchellDeep Impact serves as a reminder that this beautiful blue planet is our only home and that we should treat it and all living creatures on it with loving care. If you enjoyed Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow, you won't want to miss Deep Impact. 

Labels: action, disaster, drama, family, sci-fi, thriller, tragedy, wedding       
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 40/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=58, viewers=58)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mercury Rising (1998) [R] **

A film review by James Berardinelli. 

The film may be called Mercury Rising, but that title doesn't describe the trajectory taken by this motion picture, a routine thriller that combines government cover-ups with a cloying and poorly-motivated buddy story. The hook that is supposed to make Mercury Rising unique is that the young protagonist is autistic. However, aside from giving actor Miko Hughes a chance to win raves for his performance, this particular aspect of the film comes across as nothing more than a convenient plot device. Those expecting to see even a semi-thorough exploration of the condition will be disappointed. Mercury Rising treats autism with the same degree of efficiency that many action thrillers accord to alcoholism.

The script for Mercury Rising is exceptionally tiresome and hard-to-swallow. I don't know whether the problem is in the original book, Simple Simon, or in the screenplay adaptation, but this movie easily exceeds the intangible threshold beyond which a suspension of disbelief is no longer possible. Once again, certain standby plot elements -- the high-level government conspiracy and the maverick law enforcement agent -- are recycled, and not to good effect. While Bruce Willis can play the action hero as well as anyone in Hollywood, this particular outing leaves him marooned in situations that are characterized by too little tension and too much nonsense.

The story begins with a formulaic sequence in which The Tough FBI Agent with a Heart of Gold, Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis), is confronted with his own failure. Unable to resolve a hostage crisis in time, he is forced to observe as two teenagers are shot to death. The event weighs heavily on his conscience and heavy-handedly establishes his motivation for protecting 9-year old Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) when he discovers the autistic child hiding in a closet after his parents have been gunned down by The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player. Soon, Art and Simon are on the run from seemingly everyone -- fleeing for their lives and bonding at the same time, with The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player always just a step behind them. Along the way, they are helped by The Best Friend Who Defies Orders to Help Out His Buddy (Chi McBride) and the Supporting Female Who May or May Not Become a Love Interest (Kim Dickens).

Why is Simon in danger and why were his parents turned into Swiss cheese by The Evil Hit Man Who Looks Like an Ex-Football Player? Apparently, the government has spent millions of dollars developing an ultra-secret code called Mercury. To make sure it can't be cracked, they do the most intuitive thing possible: place a sample of it in a nerds' puzzle magazine. Of course, no one can solve it -- no one except autistic Simon, that is. When he calls the phone number listed in the solution, he gets the NSA. As a result, The Cold-Hearted, Sneering Government Man (Alec Baldwin) decides that Simon has to be eliminated -- for the good of the country, of course. But he hasn't counted on The Tough FBI Agent with a Heart of Gold, even though everyone in the audience has.

It's hard to get worked up about a routine thriller that doesn't do anything exceptionally well, and does quite a few things rather poorly. For those who are desperate to find elements of this movie to like, Mercury Rising manages to manufacture tension from time-to-time, but even the most exciting scenes (such as the one where Art and Simon are crouched down, avoiding passing trains) aren't that pulse-pounding. The climactic struggle is a real ho-hum affair which leads to a finale that is painful in its obviousness. Overall, director Harold Becker is constantly struggling (and failing) to generate even a moment that isn't derivative or obligatory.

Bruce Willis' star seems to be fading. This is his fourth straight lackluster outing, following Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, and The Jackal. Willis isn't terrible, but this is the kind of role he can sleepwalk through, and often does. Alec Baldwin, combining elements of his characters from Glengarry Glenn Ross and Malice, does some scenery-chewing, but his performance is surprisingly lacking in menace. The film's real star is young Miko Hughes (Heather Langenkamp's son in Wes Craven's New Nightmare), who does as good a job as Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic individual, but is about 50 years younger.

Mercury Rising joins the likes of Hard Rain, The Replacement Killers, and U.S. Marshals on the heap of pallid 1998 thrillers. For those who like action and adventure in the theater, this has not been a good year. Hopefully, the advent of summer will change that. Until then, the best choices (for Bruce Willis or any other action hero) are on video. And, if you're determined to see Mercury rising, check out the morning sky in early May.

Labels: action, crime, drama, thriller