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Hurricane, The (1999)

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With the proliferation of boxing-related movies (including insidious ones like Diamonds) coming out these days, one has to pick and choose which one to attend or one could miss a treasure while getting burned out on the subject matter. So see this one, and stop. I chose this (after initial vague disinterest) due to the sheer charismatic force of Denzel Washington. I hesitate to say this, because it could be misinterpreted as a racist statement, but I am speaking pure Hollywoodese here: Denzel is the black Harrison Ford. He almost always chooses projects worth watching, and he is always the most watchable part of those movies he’s in that might otherwise not be worth watching (Bone Collector, anyone?). He’s what I could call a sure bet. And you can wager on this one. Sidney Poitier, look out.

I am always embarrassed to admit this – it really scrapes at my credibility – but I was blissfully unaware of the existence and plight of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter until watching this movie. I understand why these random Canadians stepped in to help with his case, I understand why the theatre was packed the day I saw the film, and I understand that Washington better get a nomination. Carter describes himself at one point in the movie as a warrior scholar, and who better to play a warrior scholar than Indiana Jones, I mean, Denzel Washington? He has smarts and heart and gravity and solidity and charisma and honor and a rebellious streak – even knowing nothing of the Hurricane, I can see this perfect casting a mile off. Oh and have you seen the photos? He’s quite the ringer too, a supa-buff one! And it is hard to see him fall, hard to see the heroic insanity of his pain and mistrust. It’s…mmm!

I was moved not to tears so much as just feeling my heart thump in my chest – I’m alive! My third movie of the day and I was leaning forward, eyes wide, tension and suspense running through me. It’s a true story, who knows how it will turn out! Perhaps that is the appeal of the true story these days in Hollywood – we don’t know it will end up with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset by hook or by crook, because it has to go the way it really happened! If it ends in glory, well, triumph of good over evil *does* happen, hooray! If it ends in tragedy, it’s not a gyp because that is what happened and it’s a sensitive biopic instead. I didn’t know how it would end, so I was at the edge of my seat, while unlikely possible hero David Paymer presented the case. And cuddly Dan Hedaya as the slick and wicked bad guy? But it’s great! Nice casting, Avy Kaufman. If you don’t believe how much impact a casting director can have on a movie, go to the IMDB and look up ol’ Avy and see what I am talking about. Wow!

I jotted down that the film was beautifully shot, but not in the way you would think of beauty – I thought privately of the same beauty present in Shawshank Redemption, finding warmth and humanity in cold prison walls – and then the IMDB told me my personal hero, Roger Deakins (lately of Shawshank, Fargo…) was the cinematographer. Am I good, or what? But it is beautiful to look at, and with Denzel being Denzel, well, good lord. It made me want to see Glory again, it did! (Not for Deakins but Washington) But praise for the film would not be complete without the Yin to Carter’s Yang, Lesra (played by Vicellous Reon Shannon. His artless hero worship of Carter blending with his first real steps into realizing himself is…mmm! Only Debbi Morgan as his wife Mae Thelma made me cry, however. Her small part let us feel what we couldn’t feel “out loud.”

MPAA Rating R for language and some violence.
Release date 1/22/1999
Time in minutes 145
Director Norman Jewison
Studio Universal Pictures

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Wildly overdue for my first review of the year, I finally was able to attend a press screening of Miramax’s new film, Diamonds. If you’re like me, you probably hadn’t heard of it – it’s about 3 generations of men (led by Kirk Douglas, acting noble and gutsy since his stroke) on the road with an unusual goal. It also teams Douglas and Lauren Bacall on screen for the first time in 50 years, but sadly, as strangers. Dan Aykroyd plays Douglas’ son and Corbin Allred plays his grandson. They do a passable job with familial chemistry but I think they were more hampered by the material with which they are working than grizzled veteran Douglas.

My main problem with the film was choppy dialogue – some of the issues could have been from editing but I think the basic script was flawed – lots of quick sentences and abrupt changes of tone and subject, like a high school pageant. However, what they were saying through that non-lyrical mess was quite nice. Douglas is in fine form, speaking through his partially paralyzed face – for real – as a man recovering from a stroke. Maybe it’s tabloid filmmaking, but it made his part more real for me in the audience. He’s a widower, a former big champion, and living his days more and more as someone who people talk about as if he isn’t there. His performance was very warm and moving, despite the structure around it. I think the editors must have been afraid of slowing the movie down by adding space between some of the lines – it’s all wham bam thank you ma’am and the movie is only 89 minutes so it’s not like it couldn’t accommodate an extra ten.

The film really picks up when the trio visits…well, when they visit Bacall and we get some female perspective on the guys’ lives. The dialogue is sillier but so is the situation. And Jenny McCarthy is restrained and very sweet. I have to admit I shed some sentimental tears during the movie, so it’s not really very bad at all, but it could have used a script polish.

The cinematography is lovely, the music (by Joel Goldsmith, I can hear the DNA tinkling in the string section) is pleasant, and the message is quick and dirty. I wish I could recommend it more because Kirk Douglas does such a marvelous job – my god, the man has had a stroke and he is fit enough to make light of his own condition. I don’t think I have seen Douglas recently except in small roles in comedies, but I will make more of an effort to take in the work he did before I was born. He must have been in a boxing movie – I don’t know how they could have found a lookalike as dead-on as the man in the footage of Douglas’ character as a young boxing champion. Unnerving! I skimmed the IMDB but found nothing – readers, let me know if you know better!
Diamonds is a nice movie to which you can take your father.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 1/21/99
Time in minutes 89
Director John Mallory Asher
Studio Miramax

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Man On The Moon

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I am afraid I cannot take credit for voicing this feeling about the movie so succinctly – Man on the Moon does little to tell me about Andy Kaufman outside of what public documents already told me, yet it does make me want to go back and watch the real thing with more attention. This is not a negative statement, but Kaufman’s proto-post-modern approach to entertainment simultaneously needs total scientific dissection *or* to be left utterly alone and enjoyed for what it is: crazy randomness. It is interesting to see eerie recreations of famous moments of Kaufman’s life – those I had not seen for myself were confirmed as creepily accurate – but at the same time, all this could have been edited together in a documentary. The backstage world of Kaufman, mostly conveyed through his long time partner Bob Zmuda, is what we yearn to see more of. As Kaufman himself puts it, it is “a shining moment for behavioral science.”

Spielberg has taught us one thing – show us less of the monster and more of how people are reacting to the monster, and we will have one cool monster. Forman takes this to heart, and fills the screen with really fantastic reaction shots of Kaufman’s audience, employers, family, strangers, all kinds of people – Kaufman did what he did to amuse himself and to get a reaction, any reaction, from his audience – and we get to see it. It is one of the more interesting aspects of the film which I suspect will be left out of many reviews – the extras casting and direction in this film is truly wonderful, and frankly, does more to show us the kind of splash Kaufman made, the type of responses he got. No laugh track on Taxi can tell us how his antics were regarded by the hoi polloi.

Director Milos Forman delights in playing Andy to us as well, sometimes not letting us in on the joke, as Andy would have done, and sometimes this works against his film in the viewing – later, we can discuss and decide for ourselves what happened, but Forman doesn’t give us much insight. Amadeus, Forman’s most notable previous semi-biopic of a famous genius/lunatic who died too early, is forgivable because of course, Mozart is long dead and we have less access to interviewees. Kaufman’s friends, coworkers, lover, and partners collaborated on this film – and it’s beautiful to see the names in the credits in both columns (“as himself” as well as production roles). Perhaps none of them knew what the hell Kaufman was doing most of the time, and so they agreed just to lay out the facts, as a sort of homage. Perhaps his will stipulated that any biopic of his life be just as bait and switch oddball as his life’s career. But everyone is there, and it’s clear that everyone misses him. I as an audience member wish I could have been given more personal reasons to miss him, as compared to feeling a loss in the entertainment firmament.

I do a disservice to Jim Carrey not mentioning him until now. Poor Jim has painted himself into a similar corner as author Stephen King – they are each top of his trade, master of what he does and loves, and just can’t get the proper respect for his skills. Carrey has made a wise career move, playing Kaufman, who is bizarre and funny, but it would be considered a dramatic role. And he is amazing. Sometimes you can’t help but see the actor behind the character (Robin Williams for all his dramatic punch falls into this occasionally) and Jim Carrey’s strong personality can’t help but shine through every role he has taken recently – but Kaufman is truly alive on screen, in all his incarnations. I can’t say enough good things about Jim Carrey in this film – he is all the difference between a confusing, unilluminating historical document and a beautiful homage to the bizarreness that is Andy Kaufman. Similar to Val Kilmer’s creepily real Jim Morrison, Carrey’s Kaufman will be the gold standard the real performer is measured by. Regardless of how satisfied you are by Forman’s treatment of his interesting subject matter, you have to see this movie for Jim.

And no, Danny DeVito does not play himself on Taxi. As real-life producer of the film, DeVito also plays the man who discovered and represented Andy in his tumultuous life, rather than a castmate on a hastily mentioned arc of his public career.

MPAA Rating R for language and brief sexuality/nudity.
Release date 1/16/99
Time in minutes 118
Director Milos Forman
Studio Universal Pictures

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In Dreams

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Watching this movie, I felt a constant state of fear/dread/nervousness/excitedness/trepidation/anxiety. I was gripping the edges of my chair and munching my detestable candies (whose idea was it to replace Raisinets with Sun Maid? I’m suing) and my eyes were wide open. Then, two days later, I had forgotten I had seen the movie. I was horrified. It was so viscerally stimulating, so interesting, so well-performed on the part of Annette Bening, and then it still fell right out of my head. “What did you do this weekend?” “Oh, I saw Life is Beautiful, and uh….something else.” “The General?” “Yeah, but something *else.*” It is this lapse that made me drop the rating – had I written it directly after the movie (this is exactly why I don’t do that), I would have said at least Matinee price.

Directed by Neil “The Crying Game” Jordan, the film has a definite sense of the mood it wishes to convey, and I felt it did so quite well. My companion dozed off a couple of times but I was totally absorbed by Bening’s plight. Basically, you know from the preview that she dreams about this man she does not know who kills, and it upsets her, naturally enough. Bening is really very amazing in this. My companion thought she was over the top, but then again he says he never remembers his dreams. I do, so maybe I could empathize with her more. If you’ve ever been so distracted by the remnants of a dream in your waking time that you find yourself unable to concentrate on what you are doing in waking life, you will probably appreciate this movie more than my companion did. One thing he had to concede was the gorgeous underwater camera work, of which there is a LOT. A whole town is underwater and we come back to it again and again and it’s a beautiful piece of work on the part of the production design team. Helpful hints to future viewers: Just because it’s a gothic window doesn’t mean it’s a church. This was confusing until I figured out it was just a pretty window. So I’ll give away that much so no one obsesses about the wrong thing.

Aidan Quinn is the bewildered unbeliever, not unlike his role in Practical Magic, which I also would have forgotten except for the fact that he replicated it so perfectly for In Dreams. Robert Downey Jr., who is one of my secret favorite actors, is actually wildly underutilized. One actor who plays a teenage version of Downey is deft at capturing his adult doppelganger’s aura/yin/flava. But Annette Bening is truly in mental anguish during much of this film and she really impressed me with her performance. I was worried that this movie would stink but since she tends to have good taste in scripts I wasn’t worried about enjoying her performance, and truly, it is a Bening showcase. Everyone else is window dressing (except the gorgeous underwater photography) but no one is offensive.

I think people should see it because while the idea is not hugely original, that of people psychically connected through their dreams, I think the execution is well done, and the reasons behind the link are not explained so neatly that it seems stupid. Plus did I mention Annette and the underwater crew?

MPAA Rating R for violence/ terror and language.
Release date 1/15/99
Time in minutes 100
Director Neil Jordan
Studio Dreamworks

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At First Sight

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Based on a true story as documented in Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, At First Sight is a pleasant, faintly emotionally stimulating reminder that Val “Mr. Method” Kilmer can act and Mira Sorvino is still very attractive in her underwear. I knew when I was supposed to be moved, to cry, to laugh, but it seemed like the movie knew I knew too, and then withheld the stimulus that would have taken me there. Some of it was a little preachy, some a little pat, but overall there was nothing really wrong with the movie. On the set of The Doors, Kilmer insisted that everyone call him Jim – I wonder if he ran around on this film demanding to be treated as if he were blind, wearing a blindfold or something. Kilmer presents a very believable performance, I thought, except for a shuffling handicapped gait that made him seem more infirm than blind – yet he also can do these extraordinary things Sorvino couldn’t do sighted. But his emotional landscape seemed pretty real. The directory employed some interesting camera tricks to give us the impression of Kilmer’s point of view.

Two early scenes involve Sorvino getting a massage, and they are very nicely done, if a little lingering – it reminded me of the superior scene in City of Angels where Nicholas Cage is feeling tactile sensation for the first time. I think At First Sight was trying to duplicate that sort of magical bird/fish style romance (you know, two different worlds, where do they live?) but instead assumed we knew it was doing so and then glossed over the bits that would have made us experience it. If you have seen Awakenings or Charly or Flowers for Algernon you may have seen this kind of dynamic before: person thought to be deficient in some way is made whole for a time and we get to see how they react to it. I would have liked to have seen more of Kilmer’s reaction to the changes in his world than any of the distracting side stories relating to his father or Sorvino’s ex-husband.

“You might try Dr. So ‘n’ So, his methods are a little unorthodox, but…” How many times has that lead-in line led to Robin Williams? Myself and another of my moviegoing companions both said “Oh, it’s Robin Williams” at the same time – so prefabbed was this segment of the film that it was almost upsetting. But then – it turns out to be Nathan Lane! Low rent’s answer to Robin Williams. It was worth a chuckle and a mention here. Lane is perfectly out of place here – he wants to have some showy scenes (which Williams would have demanded) where he’s the brilliant doctor with his great unorthodox methods, but instead he is relegated to some pithy comments and what appears to be a lot of the cutting room floor.

As for the basis of the story, one of my companions (an Oliver Sacks fan) insists that the Hollywood romance angle of the story was fabricated for the making of the movie, but a post-note of the film gives the “and then, in real life, these people did this afterward” wrap up citing the case. Much of the movie seemed to happen in a few weeks’ time – I didn’t understand why it was made to look so “all of a sudden.” Considering what an unusual story it was and the fact that it was based in reality, it seems like it wouldn’t have been so predictable. That is the magic of movies, I guess. Some of the scenes in the preview are not in the movie, either – it looks as though the director’s cut might be a more interesting story – or just pick up Sacks’ book.

It’s OK. It should not be fiscally encouraged, however. It’s the greatest sin of Hollywood – competent but forgettable filmmaking.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 1/15/99
Time in minutes 128
Director Irwin Winkler
Studio MGM

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A Civil Action

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Well, I know a movie is not worth seeing if I can’t work up the energy to write about it for two weeks. Two weeks! I saw it opening weekend and I seemed to like it better than some of my moviegoing companions but yet not a word since escaped my lips or fingers. I was the exact opposite of obsessed. John Travolta, the overexposed but understretched actor that he is, tackles a difficult role in A Civil Action – a sympathetic lawyer based on a real life one. Whoo-ee! I am told that the story is in book form (under what title I am not aware) and that the languid pace of the written narrative matches that of the book.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a pretty fast reader and it still takes me a couple of weeks to finish a book. This is sort of what the movie felt like. A bunch of seemingly important people cast with strong actors sitting around doing very little, with Travolta martyring himself amongst them and motivating a variety of changes. It’s bold that the movies uses the real names of real companies (“We’re Beatrice!” Remember those creepy Orwellian tag lines?) and it’s gutsy that it paints so many real people in such an unflattering light, but at the same time, the movie itself, the actual work of cinematic craft, is kind of blah. It’s a shame. While it seems to be trying to trumpet the plight of the families in the lawsuit, it ultimately does this more than anything: render us apathetic. Oops.

The preview is tightly edited, very exciting looking, and actually was a major factor in pulling me into the theatre, despite my utter disinterest in seeing this movie. My companions shifted in their seats or munched their snacks slowly, while I pondered my laundry load and what I was going to do that weekend. Oh, look, Tony Shaloub. I always like him. Hmm. He’s just….sitting there, grimacing. Yeah yeah tell me some more about it Travolta. That’s a nice chair. (time passes) Can I have one of your Reese’s? Thanks. Oh, look, it’s that nice lady…what’s her name? Oh, don’t tell me, she was in the cartoon segment of the Twilight Zone movie and she…oh…dammit! Dropped my keys. She’s doing an excellent – oh, yeah, Kathleen Quinlan. Good choice for this role. Is this gum on my keys? Did anyone do a study on other environmental factors besides the water? What time is it?

I think you get the idea. I can’t even whip out 450 words. What does that tell you?

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 1/8/99
Time in minutes 118
Director steven Zaillian
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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Virus (1999)

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One of the most tragic things about Virus (besides its trouble in customs due to the boxes being labeled VIRUS), is how cool the storm and the robots looked. I mean, some seriously nifty storm action has been shot here, and no one is going to see it. My companion and I were alone in a 5:30 showing on the only screen in town showing Virus (for the record, my city has 65 first run screens until next month when we get 14 more!) and, well, we were not surprised. Or, really, entertained. It is purely for the technical skills and the visual artistry which was wasted on this movie that I recommend just looking at it when it plays on cable (as it surely will, very very soon). The lighting is also very clever. The basis of the evil in this movie is electricity, sort of, and the flashing lights and dim silhouettes and glowing elements and moving flickering light sources are really impressive. My heart goes out to the valiant electrics and prop crews (and FX) who worked their butts off just to beautifully illustrate a story that will bore myself and my companion to yawns. At least we only paid matinee price(on a gift certificate no less!).

Another tragic thing about Virus is Donald Sutherland, playing an ostensibly Irish sea captain (arrr!) which would better have been played by The Sea Captain on the Simpsons. Nothing is more tragic than seeing a former heavyweight support a drug habit (or, in Donald’s more likely case, his son’s fiancee habit) by agreeing to be in a movie like this and dialing it in. Oh, it hurts.

Yet another tragedy – the fall of the Baroness Haden-Guest, also known as Jaime Lee Curtis. Born of Hollywood royalty, married into England’s House of Lords, Jamie has sunk so far from her brilliant Wanda that I can only avert my eyes in sympathetic shame. Both she and Christopher Guest are such artists at their craft, so smart and clever and likable and articulate, how do they manage to somehow come out only for poo? It truly renders me mournful.

Tragedy #4: The script. The “Virus” is people (my no-giving-things away rule gets bent quite a bit when the movie is barely worth watching) and the antagonist is uh…a space-originated electrical being that absorbs information to make us into cybernetic soma for its nutty cyborg stupidity. I don’t think that’s how the pitch went at the studio when this project got greenlighted, but if it had, maybe I wouldn’t feel so dirty now. For every script page that says “Make huge impressive storm happen here” there are a dozen super-predictable snoozers – and a character named Squeaky?!

The cast is populated with every action movie stereotype – but, to make things worse, it doesn’t matter. Squeaky, predictably, is the annoying one. Steve, played by a Baldwin (as if God himself ordered the cookie cutter), as hunky hero man. The babe, Curtis, who everyone thinks is hot but is not threatening or threatened. Crusty leader who becomes a turncoat after everyone else rebels. Smarter, curious ethnic type (in this movie, a black guy) who engineers the rescue. Noble, strong ethnic type (in this movie, a Maori guy) who dies in a way unrelated to the horror, and may or may back come back later to nobly save everyone. Then there’s another whiny guy who’s crusty too but mostly fodder. Enter earlier survivor to deliver exposition and show everyone how to survive. James Cameron was mentioned in the special thanks; my companion offered, “And a very special thanks to the Borg, without whom this movie would have sucked even more.”

Well, at least this movie theatre still sells Raisinets.

MPAA Rating R for sci-fi violence/gore, and for language.
Release date 1/5/99
Time in minutes
Director John Bruno
Studio Universal Pictures

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Angela's Ashes

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Frank McCourt’s book (and its followup, ‘Tis) has taken the world by storm, well, the non-Harry Potter world, anyway. I have purchased it but the movie came out before I thought it would and was unable to read it. I think my readers who loved his book should know this going into my review. I feel that I was lucky to have no expectations about how the movie should be from reading the book. I understand part of its popularity is the powerful poetry of McCourt’s story but also his language. For those who canceled their Entertainment Weekly subscriptions, Angela’s Ashes is the story of McCourt’s childhood in Ireland in the 1930’s and 1940’s, one that is full of squalor and hardship of which Americans have little occasion to even conceive. I expected to be wildly depressed by the story, pummeled by the injustice, or perhaps have some tears ground out of me by a maudlin score.

I am pleased to announce that this film is a fine, a beautiful presentation of a painful story. Delicate, sensitive camera work puts emotions in the faces of small children, emotions even in the landscape of the damp, squalid Limerick in which much of the story takes place. Alan Parker’s film literally drips with tone, mood, and misery. You may recognize the intimate yet epic feel of Parker’s Evita, or perhaps Mississippi Burning or Paradise Road. While discussing the idea of taking beautiful writing and making an audio-visual document such as this, I realized that Parker did exactly what he should – he combined the old rule of “show don’t tell” with straightforward, non-inflective narration to preserve McCourt’s language while not just reading a picture book aloud. The screenplay was written by Parker with Laura Jones, with apparently no McCourt assist anywhere, and as I have not read the book, I can only assume it is faithful. No matter how tight an adaptation, it is moving and it does stay with you after you leave.

It doesn’t hurt that he cast Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle as McCourt’s parents – two actors with the finesse to pull off the characters without falling into caricature. Naturally, the casting of Frank McCourt is vital – starting at about age 5 and continuing to 16 or 17 is quite a lot of changing for a boy to go through; and pity the teen actor who has to carry what the younger children set up for him before he was even called to the set. The youngest Frank (the serious lad on the poster and the tie-in book cover) is Joseph Breen, not the actor from 1955’s Wild Bill Hickok – a ponderous child taking in his life and sagely turning into a man right there on screen. The middle Frank is Ciaran Owens, a cheerier child (who looks the most like older Frank) who escapes McCourt’s existence more than his earlier incarnation. Last is Michael Legge, looking familiar and ready to do anything the world asks. The casting is terrific – I got a sense that this was indeed the same boy and that each knew exactly what he should at his respective age. Bravos!

The cinematography is slow and dismal and yet quite beautiful. I saw a painting from 1809 by Caspar David Friedrich called Abbey in the Oak Forest and it sums it up nicely – foggy and desolate but full of history and life and beauty despite its starkness. It never looks contrived or anything like that. Such a sad story could so easily have tipped over into drippy Hollywood sentimentalizing. John Williams (I was surprised too) fills the silence with a score that just feels like musical silence. That makes no sense, but its his most understated work since the parts of Schindler’s List that weren’t the main theme. Very nice.

The more I think about the movie, the more I liked it. I walked out going, well, eh, OK, that was interesting, Matinee, maybe some snacks, I dunno. But the more I thought about it, the more I really appreciate it. It’s no happy little date movie, although there are hand holding moments and laughs and love aplenty. It’s a very straightforward, “this is how it was” tale that will get under your skin and slowly worm its way deeper, like the Limerick damp. But, you know, without the typhoid.

MPAA Rating R for sexual content and some language.
Release date 1/22/99
Time in minutes 145
Director Alan Parker
Studio Paramount/Universal

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Shakespeare In Love

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Full Price Feature, buy any tie-ins that occur

If this does not win the Oscar for best screenplay at the very least then I don’t know what’s wrong with this country. Shakespeare in Love is a delight on every level of movie-going. I am not alone in ranking this as definitely one of the 5 best movies I saw all year, possibly top three. I’ll have to review my notes for movies I saw 10 months ago to be sure but what a joy!!!

SIL is a fictional account of a brief episode of writer’s block in William Shakespeare’s life, the result of which was a star-crossed romance, some cross-dressing escapades, and other events that eventually became part of his most popular works. Joseph Fiennes, the younger brother of Ralph, has that same eerie purity of male beauty but with close-set, highly smoldering eyes instead of his brother’s cooler, more distant charm. In other words, woof! There are times, however, where he resembles the Artist Formerly Known as Prince just a little too much, but it still worked for me. Gwyneth Paltrow, my loyal readers may recall, was on probation after being in Great Expectations, and mostly pardoned after the wonderful Sliding Doors – now she has earned enough credit that she could make one whole bad movie again and I will still love her. She is great in this movie. (And guys, you get to see her bubbies!)

You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar to enjoy SIL, but you should have some knowledge of his plays – for example, you should know that in Romeo and Juliet, the title characters are star-cross’d lovers who meet in secret and say “Anon!” to their nurses to make them wait. You should know he writes a play called Twelfth Night, you should know about the Elizabethan convention of men playing women, and his writing plays where women are disguised as men in the stories. Basically, an average working knowledge is all you need, but the more you know the better. I’m no expert, but there were a few jokes where I was the only one laughing…same with some other people I know. The screen play, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, is totally brilliant. I mean, absolutely wonderful. It parodies Shakespeare’s historical playwriting environment as well as his plays and interweaves “real life” situations together that we will later see presented in his plays – and pokes loving fun at them at the same time. Oh, it is an utter delight!!!

Stoppard, a revered playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), also pumped out a couple of other movies that you might have loved: Empire of the Sun and Brazil. Who knew? Director John Madden (Mrs. Brown) seems almost secondary to the crisp writing and wonderful ensemble contributed to by Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, and Ben Affleck – yes, Ben Affleck. Trust me, he’s great. More people as well, including that wonderful man from The Full Monty. My apologies for not knowing his name – but he’s awesome.

Walking to my car, I was energized, excited, just so glad that good films can still be made. It’s just like getting the perfect gift for Christmas that you didn’t even think to ask for but was what you wanted more than anything. I am so grateful that people still care to make good movies, and this is such a refreshing splash of water. They even slipped in a sly little reference to the recent (good) remake of Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiSomething…tee hee! Judi Dench (the Artist formerly known as Mrs. Brown/Queen Victoria) is Queen Elizabeth, and she is incredible. I ran to the bookstore to buy the screenplay – dash it all! Only a cheesy poetry compilation with our hot Elizabethan lovers on the cover. I will have to content myself with the score until some bit-head with impeccable taste uploads the script to the internet. If I had any webspace I’d do it myself, watching and writing a million times until I got it all.

On top of just being a white hot grease fire of pure entertainment, it’s also very historically accurate (insofar as the events that are real – but it is fiction). What an added bonus. And those shoes!
Go, just go, I can’t do it justice but it’s fabulous wonderful all that. If it’s not playing in your area start driving. This is why people go to the movies.

MPAA Rating R – sexuality
Release date 12/25/98
Time in minutes 122
Director John Madden
Studio Miramax

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The Prince of Egypt

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Clutching my newly purchased soundtrack, ticket stub still warm in my hands, I basked in the glow of one excellent movie. Animated or no, The Prince of Egypt is a must-see. I know there are a lot of adults out there who refuse to see anything animated no matter what – and as those of us who were kids or have kids or are arrested development kids know, they are missing out. Before P.O.E., they showed a preview for Warner Bro’s The King and I (based on the musical) and Disney’s next summer hit, Tarzan (looking cool!). If King and I was all that was out there, I could understand why these people would skip out, missing treasures like A Bug’s Life and Mulan – but listen to me now. GET OVER YOURSELF. Just because someone drew it doesn’t mean it’s inferior in any way. Besides, Godzilla and Sphere were live action stinkers not fit for anyone – how can these be any worse? I always rant in my animation-advocate lunacy when I see a good one, so reference my previous reviews for my feelings on the genre.

The Prince of Egypt opens with a disclaimer, fending off the purists who might picket, a la The Last Temptation of Christ. I don’t know enough to say what deviated from the Exodus tale, but this is a movie for Christians, Jews, for all those various warring religions now in the Holy Land…it’s just Great. I wouldn’t say it’s for the kids, necessarily – it’s not gory but it is a mature theme. It’s a drama, an animated musical drama. Go figure. I can’t think of an adult who would think it’s just a kid’s movie, besides those anti-animation fuddy-duddies out there. People, open your minds. Some of the very best movies this year have been animated. Think about that.

Val Kilmer, uncharacteristically humble and gentle, is Moses. Ralph Fiennes is his brother Rameses. Patrick “talk to me” Stewart is the Pharaoh. But there’s more than that! Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Helen Mirren. The first time anyone spoke I was surprised by recognizing the voice, but once I settled in (except for Patrick Stewart – oh, how can a Pharaoh who speaks in such dulcet tones have killed all those children?) I was right with them. OK, maybe Sandra threw me a little too. Good actors, good voices, and the animation team responds with beautifully evocative visual acting in return. Having just seen the awkward, Scooby Doo-esque preview for King and I, I could appreciate the nuances of good body language even more keenly.

The beauty of newly-built Egypt, its shining alabaster monuments, the lush architectural and design skill of the Egyptians (even if they are the bad guys in the story, they sure had grace and style!) is jaw-dropping. Oh man, it’s gorgeous! Moses has a dream, and it’s the coolest dream sequence I have seen in forever! Lovely. The people are all a little wan and long, but it’s a design thing, not a Calista Flockhart trend.

Not being all that well versed in the story of Moses, I was interested and emotionally involved and I felt neither preached to nor neglected for my ignorance. It is stirring and oh! I have no words. I was actually getting verklempt! My male roommate admitted to me in the parking lot that he got misty at the beginning and after the Red Sea, and I wasn’t even going to TELL him I had done so as well – oops, now I told all of you. I’m not ashamed! When was the last time I cared about a bunch of people I never met in a movie! Titanic, that’s when!

And the soundtrack! Oy vey my children let me sing unto you of the songs and the score. Stephen “Godspell” Schwartz, a theatrical Biblical scholar and all around nice Jewish boy, writes the songs that misted us up, and Hans “Muppet Treasure Island” Zimmer composed and produced the score. Unappreciated musicians both – MTI is an incredible score, regardless of what you think of the movie. Pfeiffer, Martin, Short, and Fiennes do their own singing in this one (oddly enough, not vocal talent and acclaimed narcissist Kilmer) and the rest are vaguely recognizable substitute voices. Ofra Haza (Moses’ mother and grown-up sister) sets the emotional tone for this lovely, epic music, and Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky eat up the big climactic “When You Believe” – oh man! Schwartz is a fairly lousy playwright but a scorcher for complicated lyrics and Biblical content (despite Pocahontas)…anyway I didn’t write this review until I had grooved on the score LOUD, just to get the feeling back. It worked! I got all misty again! I didn’t even cry in Saving Private Ryan!

Soundtrack album warning: There are two “companion albums” to avoid AND the actual motion picture score rudely interrupts itself with POP tracks. Thankfully, these only ruin the credits of the film, but they are stuck in so you can’t have that Disney convenience of them all being grouped at the end so you can just hit stop. So see the movie, buy the CD immediately (like I did) and skip tracks 1, 16, 18, and 19. Unusually, Amy Grant’s cover of the River Lullaby doesn’t make me want to burn down Dreamworks.

Dreamworks may have lost in the Antz vs Bug’s Life battle (well-fought) but the jury is still out on Mulan (ancient hero, gorgeous movie) vs. Moses (ancient hero, gorgeous movie) – and Disney’s monopoly on the animated/musical Oscars is finally over. Did I mention it’s GORGEOUS?

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/18/98
Time in minutes 99
Director Simon Wells, Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner
Studio DreamWorks