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Sphere

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A wise friend, who had joined our party for the previous film (The Big Lebowski, talk about your contrast), refused to sneak into Sphere after the other movie because, “We have nothing to sphere but Sphere itself.” Oh, if he only knew how right he was.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable for movie goers these days to expect competency from all levels of movie makers. With the enormous insurgence of the independent movie scene, the bar has been raised to where we expect kids from the ghetto to be able to churn out an interesting narrative on their dad’s black and white 8mm camera. A movie that someone saw fit to not only green light but throw $60,000,000 at should at least be amusing. That money could have fed the poor!

Sphere has a pedigree: we expect it to deliver. Barry Levinson, Academy Award-winning director of Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman, Oscar winning star of same, and current (and multiple) nominee. Samuel L. Jackson, not frequently nominated but widely recognized as awesome. Sharon Stone, underrated and one-time nominee. Liev Schrieber, the hardest-working indie boy in show business, giving his all even when he’s in a cesspit like Phantoms. Michael Crichton, former director (Coma, Westworld), producer of ER, and crowd-pleasing author (Jurassic Park, anyone?). With all these people, shouldn’t Sphere at least have been PALATABLE? To the movie’s credit, the opening titles were quite cool.

We snuck guiltily into the almost-empty theatre, already prepared to hate it. But we were ill prepared, all the same. The whole movie is telegraphed with every snit of silly, overtechnical dialogue: “You’ll be pressurized sufficiently so that you could even swim out in the water without a suit, in case you need to do that in the third reel when everything goes horribly wrong, but the water will be really cold, OK?” . . . – – – . . .! They were worshipping at the altar of Samuel Morse. It was nice to see one scene where Jackson totally walks all over Hoffman’s dialed in performance. Wham! Hugely overdramatic score and wildly uninteresting dialogue. Hideous editing – and I never notice editing.

Sphere was horrible, stupid, useless, illogical, overly bright and underly written. Ghastly. With the job market like it is, they expected me and my friends to fork out $6.75 (I know it’s $9 in NY) to be subjected to this embarrassing low tech piece of doo doo. I am so pissed, I haven’t been this pissed since Anaconda! I expected Anaconda to suck, between silly plot lines and B-list actors, I expected silly camp. Fortunately, I read Sphere, so I just expected some decent acting and maybe some cool special effects. Oh, no. Matte paintings of underwater scapes that make Star Trek: Next Generation look like Braveheart. Jerry, the angry UMAX box who only taps into the stupid parts of our subconscious. But it had no millennium bug – it’s a Starmax Mac!

I don’t tend to give away plot in reviews but 1. there is none and 2. who cares? The preview gives away the only interesting aspect of the movie which then *does nothing with it!* Basically the sphere kind of gets in people’s heads and like, digs out the worst part of them and then manifests it. So Samuel L Jackson is reading 20,000 Leagues under the sea, so they are attacked by a giant squid. Of course, no one is thinking of the Baywatch babes attacking the undersea habitat. It all goes downhill from here. The people behave stupidly (build a habitat for months then train a bunch of specialist yahoos in 8 hrs how to dive in the unforgiving deep ocean) and just the thought of Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone naked together should have been enough to implode the sphere. I don’t think I need to detail the incredibly Abyss-mal derivativeness of the thing as well, do I? Though after Jackson wakes up after being knocked out, and has a voracious appetite, my friends and I all manifested an alien bursting out of is chest. That would have helped. So would have drowning the increasingly abrasive Hoffman, like in the Abyss, only without reviving him. Oh and hello? Lifeboat too small? Which movie is that stolen from?

It’s corny, bad, disappointing, and annoying. Miss it! Miss it! It’s like Event Horizon without the cool parts. We walked in fearing the movie would be bad and sure enough, it manifested itself right there! Oh if only we, like the undeserving survivors at the end, had the power to forget. But it was vaguely better than Airport 75. Yuck.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/13/98
Time in minutes 144
Director Barry Levinson
Studio Warner Brothers

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The Wedding Singer

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Full Price if you like the 80’s, Matinee with Snacks no matter what

I can’t say enough early enough in this review to convince the dubious that this is a good movie. Number one, I really don’t like Adam Sandler (except the Hanukah song) and I really liked him, warmed to him, had sympathy for him, in this movie. Number two, if you thought the 80’s were fun, if you like retro 80’s night at your local dance club, if you own the albums Too Rye Aye (you know who you are!) or Friend or Foe, you will love this movie. If you enjoy jubilant pop music and senior citizens in love, if you have ever loved someone who was with the wrong person, if you have ever gotten dumped and had your faith in the entire human race obliterated, if you have ever had a best friend who was perfect for you and you had no idea at the time, then this movie will make you feel great. If you just broke up, you’ll feel better about the decision. If you just hooked up, you will feel better about the decision.

It’s a sweet little universal love story that just so happens to be set in 1985. As my friend said, “This must have been what the Big Chill was like for our parents.” And so it might have been. Except without Kevin Costner dead on the floor behind the couch, and with a less depressing soundtrack. Which, by the way, was totally sold out when we went there after the movie to buy it. So we rented Sixteen Candles as a basis of comparison, and we appreciated the reconstruction of the decade even more than while we were watching. For those who don’t know, Sixteen Candles came out in 1985 and was directed by the once-great John Hughes. He was, once, really in touch with stuff.

Six of us went to this movie on Valentine’s Day, six people in various stages of relationships, or not. Most of us tend to find Adam Sandler annoying as hell. (Name dropping note – my friend stage managed his concert and he’s a dick, too.) Sandler is as likable a schmo as ever graced the screen in quite a while. He’s actually the consummate 80’s teen romance flick nice guy who finally wins. The decade that birthed the sensitive guys OK to have crushes on, the years that brought us Ducky. The loser who wins the girl because he’s a better man than the hunky, wealthy, popular jock/businessman. He may not be John Cusack, Jon Cryer, or even Andrew McCarthy yet, but considering Sandler’s innate abrasiveness, pulling off this role convincingly puts his Robbie the Wedding Singer in the running to join the Brat Pack.

Drew Barrymore is another actor that some people love or hate, and this is her cute as a cherub phase, like in Boys on the Side, but not trashy. My only complaint is she is too 90’s earth child – her smooth, center parted flip do and semi-retro 60’s chiffon floral dresses look weird next to the layered shags and short on the sides, thin on the top mops. But she’s way too cute to really worry about it. Every other female is 80’s enough to make up for it. In the film, her Julia is engaged to Matthew Glaven, a perfectly 80’s smarmy villain type boyfriend – Miami Vice watchin’, Wall Street workin’, stubble-sportin’, dimply pastel insincere rat bastard – totally the Me Decade in a Delorean.

Julia’s best friend (Christine Taylor), a Madonna worshipping small town easy girl, is perfect MTV glam – she is as supremely 80’s s she was perfectly Marcia. Poor Christine will never get to play her decade! OK, sure, Rubik’s cube jokes are a tad outdated for 1985, but by and large the movie is dead on, period-wise. Unlike other recent period nostalgia comedies (Spirit of ’76, The Brady Bunch movies, Peggy Sue Got Married, Austin Powers), The Wedding Singer isn’t trying too hard to cram every reference the writers and art department could think of into each scene. No nudge-nudge wasn’t that funny? type shots of ridiculous artifacts – some of this stuff we still have in our closets (um, or on our knick knack shelves), and we have to squint to recognize the Charlie’s Angel lunchbox (properly aged – not everyone had ONLY brand new stuff in any year as movies want us to think) or the rosary bead necklaces.

The Wedding Singer is also very consistent with the music – they stick with pop radio New Wave, not bouncing between Night Ranger and Toto and Styx and Michael Jackson and Billy Ocean and Kajagoogoo just to make a point – it’s all the general feel of New Wave, in fashion and in music. Not all 1985, either, but I believe nothing that shouldn’t have been there. I don’t have to tell you it’s a wall to wall soundtrack, with the lyrics always matching the subtext of the scene. Not all of it is Sandler singing and not all of it is gratuitous hits like say Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (a not very 80’s movie I must say!). And it’s not as white bread generic hits like Forrest Gump either – we are talking some truly classic songs. Shut up, I know it’s only been 13 years, but these are the songs that get people on the dance floor even now. The combination of people talking about music, singing music, and soundtrack songs makes it feel more natural somehow, like sitting around with your friends singing along with life.

The plot is almost perfect 80’s formula (with more 90’s pacing) with the romantic mishaps and the geeks inheriting the earth. Sure – you think, oh man I *had* that hat! But you also dated THAT guy right there! That makes it great. Some people say if you didn’t like the 80’s, you won’t like this movie, but the story is totally universal – it’s the kind, funny homage atmosphere that makes it fun, and the sweet story that makes you care. Only time can say if it becomes a classic like Pretty in Pink or Say Anything, but regardless, it’s a winsome love comedy even a dude could, like, totally jam to. AB – I thought of you!!!!

Oh, and Steve Buscemi is in it too!

*****
Author’s 80’s nostalgia tips: For one of the best movies ever made in or about the 1980’s, rent Valley Girl (yes, with Nicholas Cage!) – it disappeared among truly vapid slop but even my dad likes it – it’s very sincere, with an extraordinary soundtrack, and a super duper star crossed lovers type of romance. It’s rad.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/13/98
Time in minutes 96
Director Frank Coraci
Studio Warner Brothers

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The Replacement Killers

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The best thing that I can say about the Replacement Killers is that it’s very stylish. Director Antoine Fuqua is no John Woo or Stanley Tong (with Jackie Chan, not Mr. Magoo) but he shows sense of style. From what I understand from Chow Yun Fat fans, Fat is not allowed to be the gun-artist badass that his fans are used to seeing. He’s quiet & brooding in this film (an interview I read with him quotes him as saying his favorite role would be a big dumb guy with no dialogue), which isn’t bad in and of itself, but screenwriter Ken Sanzel doesn’t give him enough plot or crazed action to offset the contemplative side.

The music, a kind of hopped up testosteroni dance club trance assassination remix (compliments of Harry Gregson-Williams) implies more ass kicking than is actually occurring on screen. The bad guys appear in a steady, unreal viral stream like in a video game, ignoring logic of dramatic convention. At no point do I ever really worry about Fat, even though he does not come off as supercop bad boy. I have not given up on Fat – I hear nothing but creamy things about him, but this is not the movie to start my fandom.
Mira Sorvino is smart, competent, and briefly in her underwear – but her character is an eerie paranoid sister to the one she played in Mimic. She’s a little bit cyberpunk, a little bit rock and roll, and a lot misplaced sexual tension.

Loyal readers may note I am often bored by straight out gunplay (so is my most constant movie-going companion) and Replacement Killers does nothing to improve my feelings on the subject. If more directors could be as fun and original as Robert Rodriguez in Desperado or John Woo in Face/Off or Sam Raimi in The Quick and the Dead, well, maybe I would feel differently. But I don’t. So I got kind of bored. I can be impressed by cool gunplay and neat camera work and visuals, but nothing really struck me.

In case you’re wondering what the title means, it is literal and the killers don’t show up until 55 minutes in, and they don’t seem all that important enough to warrant being the title characters, but what do I know? I was mildly bored but certainly not miserable. It’s worth seeing, but like eating Chinese food, it left me feeling unsatisfied. I’m glad the Hong Kong stars are getting work over in the States (besides Cannonball Run II) and I hope it continues, but not at the expense of their style.

MPAA Rating R for strong violence and for language.
Release date 2/6/98
Time in minutes 88
Director Antoine Fuqua
Studio Columbia Pictures

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Zero Effect

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OK, let me say right off the bat that I really liked this movie, and the only thing holding me back from granting it a full price feature rating is the fact that I don’t think a lot of people are going to appreciate it the way it should be appreciated. I also am not going to say much at all about the story, because it’s full of pleasing surprises. Zero Effect stars Bill Pullman (as the Zero of the title) and Ben Stiller, two odd choices for leading men, but effective ones here – both are perfect s the interesting characters writer/director Jake Kasdan has given them.

Side note: Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, is a 22 yr. old with literally zero experience, not even a short film. Nepotism? Who knows, maybe – but if so, Lawrence has raised his boy right. The film is very slick for a first time effort, and my companions and I had a great time. The pacing is moderate but consistent and the story is interesting, but I admit I can’t quantify it.

Pullman’s character is a bizarre wacko genius private eye, whose public advocate is salesmanish charmer Stiller. Zero is kind of over the top, but we can forgive it since he’s the very best at what he does. He’s like Ted Kaczinsky channeling Sherlock Holmes. His character is revealed through two contrasting Stiller monologues, one to a client and one to a friend in a bar.

The mystery plot is interesting too, but we are kind of stuck waiting for Zero to tell is the clues (not being super geniuses and all); but it’s still enjoyable! Ryan O’Neal is their client, and to tell the truth I didn’t even recognize him as someone I am supposed to recognize; but he is all full of tricks as well. Kim Dickens (witness? suspect? love interest?) is interesting too – she, like Pullman, is wacky and unknowable. The whole group is a tight little ensemble – I wonder if the script was written a long time ago by a guy who figured he would only have $7,000 to shoot the movie. Kasdan clearly had a decent budget for this one, and a good eye for intimate story telling.

I can’t say much more, because to give it away would be a crime. It’s very humorous, my companions and I had a great time, and it’s interesting. Sorry to be so brief, I’m trying to add a little mystery here! Check it out. I’d like to see what Jake’s next project will be.

MPAA Rating R for language.
Release date 1/30/98
Time in minutes 115
Director Jake Kasdan
Studio Castle Rock

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Great Expectations (1998)

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I have to say it – I did NOT have great expectations of this film. “I’m not going to review this movie the way I saw it – I’m going to review it the way I remembered it.” I purposefully waited 4 days before setting thumb to trackpad so that I would have some perspective. Memory versus direct translation from the senses is a principle of art that was considered a bad thing by my high school art teacher. In the case of this film, I would have to agree with her assessment. The thing I was most looking forward to in seeing Great Expectations was to NOT have to sit through the preview ever again. This movie more closely resembles its source material than say, Lawnmower Man, but not by a lot.

The kid they cast as young Finn (I missed his name!) is a total ringer for Ethan Hawke, but the young Estelle is far too lush a beauty to grow up into the alarmingly bony Gwynneth Paltrow, who seems dressed to emphasize the unhuggable points and angles of her body. Francesco Clemente provided the art credited to Finn in the story, and his interesting renderings of old and young Estelle merely emphasize the disparity between what Finn sees and how he remembers/feels it (and between the two ages of Estelle).

Screen adapter Mitch Glazer seems to have gotten rejected by a woman, gotten drunk, then gotten the Cliffs Notes to Dickens’ Great Expectations and been told to “sexy it up some.”
The central focus of the film is the non-romance between Hawke and Paltrow, losing all but a few shreds of the actual story, which focuses more heavily on the interesting and important characters of the convict and the crazy old maid aunt (Miss Havisham in the book). Anne Bancroft, in full Lon Chaney Jr. drag, is doing her best to wring the magic out of what is left of her scripted part – but she comes off as trying too hard, in the context of the film. I just know in my heart she read that novel again and again to get a grip on the old woman who was left at the altar so long ago, her bitterness and her rage, but poor Ms Bancroft is left singing Besame Mucho and impersonating a dried up ex-starlet. It is not her fault, I need to emphasize this, it is the script’s. The same fate falls on Robert DeNiro, whose character is castrated even further – and his is very important indeed. In the context of the movie, he might as well have Deus Ex Machina tattooed on his arm.

As it stands, the movie is the story of a fish-obsessed young artist who mysteriously adores this cold, bitchy girl all his life and gets rejected by her, with these older wackos thrown in for flavor. His uncle, Joe, played by Chris Cooper (Lone Star) is his moral center, and even though much of that story is also let untold, Cooper apparently is more used to small, crappily written roles than DeNiro and Bancroft, and he ends up being the only emotionally stirring person in the entire film. Go, Chris! His scene in the 3rd act actually made me care about something for a moment, and then he takes off. Go figure. I guess it’s not cool to like your central characters any more or care about them in any way.

Great Expectations is not as painfully stylish as the preview implied it would be, but the whole usage of green *everywhere* and on *everything* is distracting and annoying. According to some article, the actors didn’t even know what the deal was, it’s the director’s favorite color and that’s it. In this reporter’s humble and oh-so-biased opinion, if the green thing had been more effective if it had been restricted to the weird triad of pain formed by Hawke, Paltrow and Bancroft, but now it’s more like the pervasive blues of First Knight. And no one wants to be compared to First Knight.

The oh-so-hip nudie drawing session as symbol of intimacy and emotional breakthrough was better used in Titanic and As Good As It Gets – or maybe I just cared about the people. Despite Hawke’s urgency and strong reactions to Paltrow, I just could not care. If indeed Dickens had a grownup romance between Pip and whatsher name, it certainly wasn’t the centerpiece. It’s like trying to make a whole movie out of the section of Star Wars where Luke plays the hologram of Leia over and over again.

The loud, intrusive, and occasionally obnoxious score robbed scenes that could have worked of any hope of emotional connection. Romeo and Juliet was loud but the scenes were matching in intensity – not so here. The scene after the party (I’m talking about GE here), in its almost nonsexual hotness, was a million times more woof that their thrown-in, uninventive, unromantic, and unhorny actual sex scene. What the hell?

Hank Azaria is wonderful, so of course he sat around in his trailer kvetching with DeNiro and Bancroft about their characters’ lack of screen time.

This tepid distillation is best for Hawke fans who want to see paint splattered biceps or Paltrow fans with a skeletal fetish. The meat of the original work is sacrificed to the god of modern attention spans.

* this film was originally rated Dollar Movie, which fell between Catch the Network Premiere and Catch it on HBO.

MPAA Rating R for language and some sexuality.
Release date 1/30/98
Time in minutes 111
Director Alfonso Cuaron
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Spice World

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It’s not Arrakis!
OK. I went to see this movie to wash the taste of Phantoms out of my mouth. I figured I would have to see it, having a movie review habit and all, but we did get three people in on one ticket, if that makes you respect me any more.

If you don’t have an idea who the Spice Girls are, what you really want, what you really want is to skip this movie. If you have an idea and are vaguely bemused by the phenomenon (you should see London) then it is actually a frothy, silly, harmless way to spend a couple of hours. This is no Titanic, people. This is a movie about women called Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby, and Scary, who sing and dance and wear the most horrible shoes invented.
The frightening thing is, I was pretty entertained. Maybe it was the cleansing colonic effect after seeing Phantoms, but a little bubble pop combined with like, 4 concurrent plot lines, all culminating in a live show and a little metafictional giggle, well, it hit the spot.

Along with some regrettably catchy ditties, some clever pseudo-dream sequences, a truly worth-a-dollar-by-itself visual gag with the tower of London, and some uncomfortably respectable actors making appearances make Bob Spiers’ Spice Opus quite watchable.
The movie is actually set up well for people who know nothing of all things Spice – they let us know what we need to know and then amuse us for a while. Richard E Grant is their maniacal manager, and he’s funny. Roger Moore in a self-mocking small role, is a cryptic megalobossman. Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff and author of Rocky Horror), Bob Hoskins, Alan Cumming, Meat Loaf, Elton John…

George Wendt and Mark McKinney are Hollywood agents trying to pitch a Spice Girls movie to Grant while the girls are touring. Cumming is a press man who wants to destroy their career for big headlines…um, or else he’s a documentarian following them around their tour, trying to get the real story. O’Brien is a spy hunting down incriminating photos, a la the royals. Their best friend is about to have a baby and they want to be there for the birth. On top of it, there’s dissension in the band and flashbacks and all kinds of silly stuff. Sad to say, compared to some of the crap that has paraded across the big screen lately, it’s downright complex and introspective.

One flashback to before they were famous, they sing and dance to a jam box in their friend’s restaurant in the same style (and lighting and camerawork style) as an old Cyndi Lauper video, where it’s supposed to look like her parent’s house and she’s just there, but really it’s a huge obvious set?

These blue trash gals are likable and not offensive on camera. They are having a great time making this movie and they just want us to have fun watching it. It demands no more of you than that. The previews take some of the goofy metafictional sequences and try and pass it off as the actual movie, which I think hurts them – in context, the scenes are more cartoony but there is a purpose.

Three people in the audience danced at the finale, too, male and female, so it couldn’t have sucked. If you’re a Spice fan, go.
No nudity, sorry guys.
So pay a buck, take a load off, sip a soda, and enjoy it for what it is. Or just buy their album.

*Note: originally rated Dollar Movie, which was between Catch the Network Premiere and Catch it on HBO

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 1/23/98
Time in minutes 93
Director Bob Spiers
Studio Columbia TriStar

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Phantoms

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I went into the theatre actually thinking I was going to see the boat movie with the slimy tentacular things; instead I got a mysteriously dead town with a stupidnatural slimy thing.
Dean Koontz forces us to endure a not-so-gripping tale, peppered with his own screenplay touches as “The devil is here. I think he wants to dance with us.” Dean, the author of the book this was based on, also had final say in director. So he chooses Joe Chappelle, best known (if at all) for ending the Halloween franchise (#6, which I saw – but maybe Kevin Williamson will resurrect it) and the Hellraiser Bloodlines. So naturally, he was the logical choice to helm Koontz’s masterwork. The previews make this movie look awful. So much for my rants about previews ruining movies – if I had paid closer attention I would have skipped it. You guys probably all know by now how hard it is for me to be out and out cruel to a movie, and perhaps it is unfairly harsh to write my review before 7am. But I can’t stress the concept any more strongly: Do not financially contribute to the potential success of this film.

If it’s any consolation, (I know you were all worried) I got in with a re-admit pass so no money passed hands from any of my companions or I. Turns out the only other person I know who saw this movie also used a re-admit pass.

Joanna Going (you know, the woman who looks like Jami Gertz) and Rose McGowan are sisters who discover Going’s small town is all dead or vanished. Enter sheriff Ben Affleck (yes, Golden Globe winner Ben Affleck – FOR SCREENWRITING! You’d think he would have recognized the missing elements in the script) and his deputies, a guy who dies pretty early and Liev Schreiber (Screams, Walking & Talking). They bumble about in a macho fashion, Schreiber giving us far more character than he was written, and Affleck looking totally out of sorts in a big winter coat and cowboy hat. Our theory was that he did Chasing Amy, figured it would tour the indie circuit and disappear, and took the first “big screen” job handed to him, not imagining the hubbub over Good Will Hunting. Ah, youth.

The sad thing is (oh, dear readers, it gets sadder), the actors are giving us the best they can in a ludicrously boring movie. I can only fault them for accepting the job, and I know first hand how hard it is to turn down a job. Enter multi-Oscar nominee Peter O’Toole, in an eerie art-imitating life capacity as a respected scientist now writing for a tabloid to pay the bills. Oh Peter – whence Lawrence of Arabia?

The biggest laugh in the movie was generated by disgust with the Sphere preview and the ridiculous voice over for the upcoming Caught Up. Continuity was forgotten, never mind all the excessive silliness. I noticed a dead kid was named Tim Lindsay and the bullets were Lindsay and Lindsay brand – was that supposed to be important? I struggle to find meaning!!!

The movie was so disheartening that I wished I had seen Spice World instead. SO WE WENT. Kids, this is what this kind of filmmaking can do to you. Don’t make the same mistake we did.

*Note: originally rated Dollar movie, which fell between Catch the Network Premiere and Catch it on HBO.

MPAA Rating R for sci-fi violence/gore and language.
Release date 1/23/98
Time in minutes 91
Director Joe Chapelle
Studio Dimension/Miramax

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The Gingerbread Man

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Loyal readers know I hate to be critical – and I do, heaven love me, I do. Now, the friends I saw this movie with HATED it venomously, but could concede that Kenneth Branagh, as usual, could do no wrong. I saw so many offenses to the senses earlier this year that at worst I was only mildly bored by the film. Yes, I should have expected that from a Robert Altman film, but I always hope. Lots of Altmanesque weird subscenes that mean nothing but add “color” – additionally, tons of shoeleather. Walking, walking, enter room. Camera stays on corridor, another door opens, someone else comes out. Music shifts, they walk off camera. NOW cut. ZZZZZZZ. The mood is forced by Mark Isham’s incredibly portentous score, which was way cool but totally out of place in this film.

Da-dunh! He walks along the corridor. Daaaaa! He sets down his briefcase.
No big Grisham fan, I went to see this based on the strength of Branagh and Robert Downey Jr. alone. Naturally, I was very pleased by their performances, and Ken’s Georgia drawl is better than many native Atlantan’s. But by gum, was this one predictable little flick. Robert Duvall has a supporting role as a filthy-footed nutcase, ambiguously drawn as either sympathetic or evil, depending on the screenwriter’s whim. Grrr. Embeth Davidtz, formerly of Schindler’s List, stares out of glazed-eyes and does not seem particularly desirous of sympathy or full of cunning, even though you know perfectly well what her role is as soon as she has any semblance of real dialogue.

But no one has a motive for any of their behavior – finally Branagh claws one out of what I am sure a lot of rewrites.

A surprise casting choice – Daryl Hannah, as one of Branagh’s colleagues – she is unrecognizable and actually quite good. Downey’s character is that sleazy sort of charming so often lived out by actors who are only capable of sleeping with people and never with relating with people – oh, and his character is loaded all the time too. Poor Downey – having to act out being loaded while being straight – perhaps Embeth got into his stash to keep him clean on the shoot, hence her daze.

As a side note, I am deeply troubled by Downey’s trouble with his addiction, and I don’t mean to poke fun at him. I think he is incredible on screen and I just hope he doesn’t kill himself. Robert, if you’re listening – remember Indio needs you!

Anyway. I don’t know if Branagh signed on to this film before seeing the final script but it seems that the Bardic genius within him OR the control freak director within him was squelched along with his better judgement. This was a role better wasted on a lesser Baldwin than on Emma Thompson’s redoubtable ex. Actors love to work with Altman and I think it’s because his scenes are shot so naturalistically, people talking over people, a lot of hand held stuff, you know. Yet for all this cinema verité flavoring, the soup still comes out all stock.

A blessing in disguise – Al Hayes screenwrote from Grisham’s book, and he skips over a lot of the dry legal mumbo jumbo that his novels-turned-films rely so heavily on, and in doing so 1. avoids being even more boring but 2. turns into a simplistic legal manipulation “thriller.” I use quotes because I was watching scenes that should have been gripping but were more predictable than Mystic Pizza (sorry ABG) – I know if I were living them out the tension would be enormous, but it was only thanks to my hyper-cuddly empathic nature that I was able to squeeze more out of it than my trendily jaded ex-LA friends.

I say it’s worth a rental because Branagh is just always so great, you know, and that guy, in my opinion, kicks Meryl Streep’s dialectical butt. Plus the production design is great too. Go, Stephen Altman! Rent this, then cleanse your palate with the always perfect Dead Again. You’ll be glad you did.

MPAA Rating R for some sexuality, violence and language.
Release date 1/23/1998
Time in minutes 115
Director Robert Altman
Studio Polygram Filmed Entertainment

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Fallen

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Actually, this movie is pretty interesting; I just think I need to reserve the Full Price designation for something more…I don’t know, maybe less forgettable. Directed by Gregory Hoblit, he who bought you Primal Fear (Richard Gere, Edward Norton), Fallen has fallen victim to its own marketing campaign. Instead of being the silly, NYPD Blue meets X-Files demonfest it looks like it will turn out to be, it’s more of an interesting, unsolvable-by-normal-means crime drama with a supernatural twist. One moviegoing companion pointed out that we learn too much about the enemy, and perhaps that is the problem. I noticed that even the preview gives too much away (what is with that, anyway? Remember when they were accurately described as “teasers?”) and that detracted from the fun of discovery.

I won’t tell you anything about it save that cop Denzel Washington puts away a bad guy but it turns out the bad guy was much much more than that, and now the evil essence is roaming the streets. Sounds stupid, yes, but it’s carried off with remarkable aplomb.
For lack of a better word, the “demon-cam” is a very interesting part of the movie – my favorite scene is the one with all the camera work and extras and where Washington realizes what’s going on. Let’s hear it for the DP, Newton Thomas Sigel! The script throws you a few red herrings, but not many, and some mildly pat “this is the mystic part” moments, but it is still engaging; more in that you want to know how Denzel will resolve the issue, rather than due to the subject matter. It builds pretty slowly but it doesn’t drag, giving you information as it feels like it. Ultimately it answers more questions than an X-Files episode as well.

The best part of the movie for me, the freak, was trying to pick out which extras will get used in bigger parts – the whole movie is a casting director’s party – extras tend to be cast because they are unremarkable, yet here are people who have to be unremarkable until they suddenly become central to the plot . It’s kind of like Saturday morning cartoons, where the part of the rocks that will come tumbling down is more vividly colored or strongly outlined than the rest of the cliff, so you know that portion will be moving and the rest is just the background painting. Again, the preview ruins a large portion of this movie, and I would like to start some kind of uprising to prevent that kind of thing.

On a side note, they also need to start mixing multiple versions of previews, and of course, stop ruining pivotal plot points. Maybe this is just me and my friends, but if I saw the Mad City preview one more time I was gonna take a bank hostage – and if I see one more Great Expectations preview, I swear to all that is holy that I will burn down the director’s house*. Spielberg previews are the best – they show almost nothing but totally suck you in. Godzilla’s previews have also been nicely resistant to this ULTRA-ANNOYING trend. But I digress.

Fallen prompted some discussion when it was over, which is quite a recommendation in and of itself.

*Legal note – if that guy’s house burns down, I really didn’t do it. I don’t even know who directed it because I cover my ears when I hear that mod music.

MPAA Rating R for violence and language.
Release date 1/16/98
Time in minutes 124
Director Gregory Hoblit
Studio Warner Brothers

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Cinerina

Wag the Dog

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Matinee Price with your brain and some popcorn

Wag the Dog is an interesting, wry, Bob Robertsian commentary on the power of the media and politics. It is not a rollicking comedy, as the previews would lead you to believe, but a thoughtful one, and it is not a Robert De Niro ego party. It is a bit of a Dustin Hoffman ego party (what isn’t?) but it works for his Hollywood producer character. Anne Heche is not given much to do, sadly, but Denis Leary comes through with some really dead on bits as the Fad King. Also: Adriene Martin, Woody Harrelson, Kirsten Dunst, William H. Macy, and Craig T. Nelson. And Willie!

The camera work was weird, pseudodocumentarian quick cuts and zooms, kind of NYPD Blue meets NOVA, but it was not staged as a documentary. It’s a shame, because if it had been, we the audience would have felt in on the conspiracy and more involved in the story. As it was, these people are so good at their job that for a goodly portion of the movie, they encounter no real obstacles, and we just sit back and watch the superlinear story unfold. It is much colder than a comedy should be because of all this distance, but it is still very interesting and clever and quite a commentary on our society as a whole. Also a neat pastiche of pop culture/media infiltration imagery.

To sum up: The president is accused of a sexual indiscretion 2 weeks before the election and his crack team of spin doctors concoct a little skirmish to distract and inspire the people to vote for the incumbent instead of his blatantly mudslinging opponent.
References are made to how Desert Storm was presented to the public and how this strategy for this president compares. I would be very interested in speaking to any Desert Storm vets (the one I know won’t return my calls!) to see how they felt about this analogy being drawn. I admit freely that my 21 year old self perceived the 5 week conflict to be akin to a big football game – lots of lights and logos and not a lot of coverage or even actual motivation for the fighting, and suddenly over. I know that is not the whole story, but that is the media distillation as experienced by me. In Wag the Dog, the war they concoct is entirely fictional, but the whole US mobilized behind it.

Bonus touches: The pop song inspirational anthems, the hero’s rescue mission and the falsification of a 1930’s blues hit ( I have said too much but it’s so perfect!), the whole weird crazy people getting hopped up about an enemy they can’t even find on a map and never worried about. It’s a fascinating and amusing satire but don’t expect to chortle your guts out. Just feel proud that you Get It and that you are so metafictionally aware that you would never fall for such a cheap ruse.

MPAA Rating R for language
Release date 1/9/98
Time in minutes 97
Director Barry Levinson
Studio New Line

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