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I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

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I wanted to give this movie a “Full Blouse Feature” but I am sorry to say that this was a totally substandard film and sequel in every way. Unless you are a heaving cleavage fan. Without baring all, Jennifer Love Hewitt has raised the bar on breast presentation. A friend told me that another reviewer had noted (accurately) that this movie was everything Scream 2 said was stupid and wrong about sequels. Tsk! Nothing really wrong with the acting, unlike many horror movies, but just nothing for them to act with.

I snuck in with a friend and was consoled by the lack of fiscal involvement. We weren’t scared and only a couple of times startled or horrified. The most mood-setting aspect of the experience was the fact that the lights were down already in the theatre even though they weren’t showing slides or anything yet. Motiveless behavior and utter disregard for a lot of what the first movie set up was the order of the day. EVERY sound had to be boobs, I mean, investigated by every one, regardless of how likely it was that the sound was of innocuous origin. The bulk of the movies takes place in the “off season” (early July) in the Bahamas, so there were grey cloudy days rivaled only by Penobscot and hurricanes rivaled only by firehoses.

Brandy was great, however, and I hope this movie doesn’t ruin her chest, I mean, chances of working more. Hewitt has already established her breasts, I mean, herself in other movies, but Brandy is still in the proving grounds. Mekhi Pfifer and new face what’s his name (as Will) round out our cozy quartet with weird side line boyfriend Ray from the first movie. Overall the movie was just not any fun, and that’s all I really ask of horror franchises, you know? I don’t need genuine deep dialogue, lessons to learn, or amazing production work, just a lot of fun. The first I Know What You Did Last Summer (and what an unfranchisable title! What’s the next one going to be, I’m Telling You, I Am Totally Aware What You Did 5 Years Ago?) was a hoot, nothing fancy, just a yeehaw ride. Check out my review! But ISKWYDLS is…well….blah.

It’s not irredeemable, it’s just forgettable. I recognized moments of tension (or attempts thereof) borrowed from other movies (even a bit that was one of the few great bits in Lost World), but they just didn’t happen for me. Or, apparently, the other 6 people in the audience.

A blah review for a blah movie. Do what you will with it.

MPAA Rating R -violence/gore, strong language ,drug use.
Release date 11/13/98
Time in minutes 96
Director Danny Cannon
Studio Sony Pictures

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The Siege

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Directed by Edward Zwick, the man who brought you Glory and Courage Under Fire, The Siege is an over the top terrorist drama about national reaction to terrorism and specifically, Arab terrorists. Using his favorite (and mine) director of photography Roger Deakins, Zwick makes this otherwise mildly silly movie pretty dang watchable. It was like eating celery – crunchy and loud and tasty – then zero caloric content after all that trouble chewing it.

Denzel Washington and Annette Bening and Tony Shalhoub should also take some credit for making this film the immediate gratification fest that it is. They are, all three of them, utterly committed to the story – and you are lost in the genuineness of their acting before you realize how nuts the whole thing is. Basically, some seemingly random terrorism escalates, targeting no groups and making no demands, and Washington is on an anti-terrorism task force with Shalhoub. Unfortunately, it looks more and more to be an Arab group of some kind, which starts a pretty big reactionary ripple, and ultimately, martial law, compliments of Bruce Willis. Willis is also following his formula of no hair = good acting, lots of hair = bad acting. I love Bruce when he’s bald and really eating up a part, but he can’t be solely blamed for how ridiculous he ends up being in this movie.

Not surprisingly, in real life, Arab anti-defamation leagues popped up protesting the depiction of Arab-Americans in the film. Now, I admit openly that, not being Arab-American, I am not culturally literate in their mores and sensibilities, and I mean no offense by any statements here. I felt that the film targeted the few people in those war-torn countries who *do* act out in a terrorist manner (globally) and also showed a great deal of honorable traits of those people. Plus, it is the first high-profile movie I can think of that even acknowledges them as a community. The start of the film shows the infusion of Islamic religious practice and solidarity among the Arab peoples. Prisoners showed dignity and commitment to their causes, and basically it was U.S. Army again as the real bad guy. One lunatic or a small group of 4 lunatics does not define a people. We see white American lunatics all the time in movies and know that they are not stating that all white Americans are lunatics. Anyway…in our end-of-the-millennium freakout stage, I would argue that the prayerful Islamic ones are going to be able to band together when the riots start and not us over at Starbuck’s.

The Anti-Defamation leagues have a story-related appearance in the film, as well – and they are pretty much blown off (respectfully, but still…). It seems as if there could have been more attention spent to working with those groups in the plot but whatever. Plot is secondary to tension in The Siege. Sitting in the theatre, occasionally spouting quips, (“That’ll do, pig.”), I was pretty involved in the movie and I felt a sense of trepidation and buildup and stuff. But the warmth of the theatre had not even fully been blown away by the outdoor wind before we were picking apart the silliness. It’s a shame, because the stuff that was good, was pretty good. Denzel is chewing up the scenery in this one, really digging in for this director who loves to use him.

Hopefully the upcoming Arlington Street (Tim Robbins, Jeff Daniels) will be better.

Last movie seen in 1998! See you in the new year!

MPAA Rating R for violence, language and brief nudity.
Release date 11/6/98
Time in minutes 116
Director Edward Zwick
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Elizabeth (1998)

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An excellent film, Elizabeth does not warrant a higher rating only because it assumes we in the audience are very familiar with Queen Elizabeth the 1st’s rise to the throne, and so takes a lot for granted. Perhaps we should know more of the details of the monarchy, but the first half of the movie is not forgiving at all to those who do not. Interestingly, I saw this film (which begins set in 1554, 9 years before Shakespeare in Love) two days after seeing Shakespeare in Love. With at least two principal actors, a character (Lizzie herself) and a soundstage and shoemaker in common, making comparisons is unavoidable. Perhaps I should write a separate article. The two films are vastly different in tone and scope and filmmaking technique, and I think Elizabeth as a movie lost some of my potential affection by just being less accessible and more show-offy with the camera than its “competitor.” Normally I am seduced easily by gorgeous camera work, but as I was watching, confused as to whom was whom, I was distracted and annoyed even as I was dazzled. Not much, OK, this isn’t Natural Born Killers by any stretch, but it was still discombobulating.

Having said this negative stuff, I feel it is very important to point out that this is a very good movie, with a strong lead in Cate Blanchett and simply stunning costume and scenic design. Oh my! Everything looks amazing, the castles and boats and courtiers and corridors…everyone’s teeth are pretty clean, too. The music is lovely and period sounding, the score unobtrusive. The boats! So dreamy.

Anyway – the story of how Elizabeth attained and more importantly kept the throne is fascinating – and the movie made me want to follow up for more detail. Women in power have frightened men terribly over the centuries despite their peaceful, successful legacies in England in particular, and it is always amazing to see how the men try to pull their queens down off the very pedestals on which they place these women. Blanchett lets us see the woman behind the throne, her fears and her distaste and her genuine concerns and all the meat and gristle behind the woman who defined her age, made her country the most powerful in the world in only 40 years, and who lived as the “Virgin Queen.” I would like to take note that she is taking “virgin” in the correct sense of the word, not as one who has not known sexual relations, but as a woman who does not marry. There’s plenty of sexual relations in this film.

I was not emotionally swept away by Elizabeth, but I was totally intellectually involved. A woman behind me in the theatre cried. I would consider the conclusion of the film’s narrative to be a generally upbeat one, even though the circumstances that brought Queen Elizabeth and us filmgoers there was not a happy journey. It’s very interesting – and even when I was confused I was not put off, just frustrated. I knew I was seeing important events but I could not follow who was who until deeper into the movie. It’s got other actors in it, including Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes, but despite their importance to the plot they are so secondary to Her Majesty that I will only say that they have very interesting characters and do quite a lot with them.

I recommend seeing it and you will be hearing quite a lot about Cate Blanchett in the future. I already had been, and when the movie was beginning she seemed all reaction and no self-determination, but later I appreciated the contrast. Also, the poster is off-putting, with her brightly lit face pale over a slatternly, defiant pose, but the poster does not reflect the tone of the film, don’t let that be a deterrent.

So, go see it.

MPAA Rating R for violence and sexuality
Release date 11/6/98
Time in minutes 124
Director Shekhar Kapur
Studio Gramercy Pictures

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Gods and Monsters

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Thank goodness this movie was nominated for some Oscars (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay) so that it was expanded from 11:50pm once a day to a full day’s run so I could see it finally! Gods & Monsters is not the kinds of movie everyone would think to pay full price for – but it’s also an extremely emotional, dense, fascinating movie. The film is based on a book about James Whale, most famous for directing Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, and the Invisible Man. It portrays the dwindling life of a truly fascinating person, and a potentially fictional friend.

For the record, Ian McKellen is a god.

The title of the film comes straight out of the month of Dr. Frankenstein, and as the story twists through Whales famous creation and he infamous creation it depicts, it peels away layers of the labels “gods” and “monsters.” It’s quite beautiful.

Now, as of this writing I have not seen Blast From The Past, so I hope I don’t eat my words when I say that Brendan Fraser is increasingly more and more impressive. Outwardly, he seems to have been cast only for his imposing, even hulking physique – but he’s outstanding as Whale’s friend and gardener. Lynn Redgrave has a showy role as Whale’s housekeeper – she’s very good but next to Ian she’s practically Juliette Lewis. Did I mention that Ian is amazing?

I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally pounded (as was my companion) by a film – oh, yes I can, it was Life is Beautiful. Before that it was….well, it’s been a while.

Some folks may bristle at the frank discussions of Whale’s life, loves, and lifestyle – but those who don’t have deserve a movie like this. I don’t know how anyone with a heart could condemn this tired, gentle, soulful director.

Kudos to the casting folks for reproducing the actors of Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein so eerily. The actress playing Elsa Lanchester is truly divine. Carter “Yummy” Burwell provides an unusually understated score – I’m not sure if I noticed it but he’s also king of his trade so…I would also like to mention that if the Academy continues to fail to recognize guys like Carter Burwell and Danny Elfman they will continue to devolve into writing bland and unmemorable music, thinking that since Randy Newman is getting all these undeserved Oscar nominations, that’s gotta be the way to go. Stop the devolvement of genius!

Gods and Monsters is a really lovely movie, eloquently written and deftly performed. Do go, won’t you?

MPAA Rating R for sexual material and language.
Release date 11/4/98
Time in minutes 106
Director Bill Condon
Studio Universal

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Living Out Loud

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I feel it is relevant to point out (contrary to tradition) that I saw this movie with a close male friend from college, his fiancee, and two ex boyfriends of my own. Keeping that in mind, please note that I am trying to be impartial in this review. It actually gave me writer’s block which I was unable to shake until I saw Very Bad Things (see review).

I left this movie feeling very depressed. This does not mean it’s a depressing movie. It’s a thoughtful, intimate movie, like As Good As It Gets but without being so Hollywood slick and pat. Holly Hunter, always great, always underappreciated, is so good, she is why I was bummed out. My more recent of the ex boyfriends was bummed out as well. The fiancées emerged all squishy and feel-good. The less recent ex was nonplussed. Danny DeVito (also a producer), always a little stuck in certain kinds of roles because of his unusual physical nature, really showed me a lot of what I have never seen in him as a performer before. The movie is very good, I want to make that clear. It’s not great great because it does get a little boggy in pace, but nothing terminal. It’s a movie that makes you think about life and your future and how you approach life and the choices you make now and how they will affect you later and…

Living Out Loud is about Hunter needing to do just that. She’s alone, she’s “well over” 34 (though she doesn’t look a day over 30), and she’s starting over in a way. I think (and I don’t want to sound all Gen X here) that people of her generation are seeing many friends or themselves go through what Hunter is going through, and that makes it a great movie for that age range. My parents’ generation, they see it as he time they were either not having those problems, or the time they successfully navigated and survived. The “kids today” (as I have started calling them, to my horror), the ones with the giant pants and scraggly hair, look at it as old people’s problems, sha, I’m never getting married – buh! My generation, about to embark upon marriage, wishing we could finally stop slumming it with these interim people and find someone Real, or just freshly married, see this movie as the next 10 years – the future we are so frantically avoiding as we continue our self-destructive patterns or the future we might unknowingly be bulleting into as we finger the shiny new ring on our finger. It was uncomfortable for me to watch because I think Hunter has problems I am already destined to have. Or problems I am trying so hard to avoid I will miss the good stuff too.

Queen Latifah is the Jiminy Cricket role for Hunter’s Pinocchio – she so wants to be a real woman. DeVito is a fellow Lost Boy on Pleasure Island. To mix movie metaphors, Holly can’t just click her heels three times and make everything right again. She has to be happy being made of wood. I go to the movies to see someone work really hard, and become a real woman, not settle for wood. The fiancee said, no, don’t you see? It’s about self-assurance and finding yourself and being comfortable with yourself, not needing a companion to feel whole. I can respect that, even clamor for it myself. But the truth of it is, watching this film with a perfectly matched couple and two remnants of my own inability to find a fit just gave me a wee different perception of the virtues of self-reliance. (Sorry SP!! I do love you, all the same!)

But don’t let my baggage interrupt your filmgoing pleasure. The aftermath is that I had a lot of really good, intimate conversations spurred by thoughts riled up by this movie, and a movie that makes you think is a good movie. And a nicely made movie on top of it, too. So do see it. But have ice cream after.

MPAA Rating R-language, some drug content and sexuality.
Release date 10/30/98
Time in minutes 93
Director Richard LaGravenese
Studio New Line Cinema

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John Carpenter's Vampires

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Avoid at all costs and sue the studio

I have not been this upset by a movie since Anaconda, Batman and Robin, and Sphere, or as bored since The Avengers , Lost in Space, or the X-Files. However, I have not wanted to make a film STOP (either by walking out or by pressing stop and which I regret not doing) since The Silence of the Hams (Dom DeLuise). Oh how awful. No, it’s not campy trashy fun. No, it’s not goofy tongue in cheek faux drama. No, it’s not genuinely exciting, interesting, or even pleasant. It’s awful. Terrible. I walked into that theatre (thank my lucky stars I only used a free pass 5 days from expiring) with the best attitude possible – we had just gotten done doing a vampire musical and me and the girls were going to watch James Woods kick some bloodsucker butt. Oh horrors upon horrors as terrible, not-even-slyly-silly dialogue assaulted us, stupid, motiveless behavior insulted us, and a fat Daniel Baldwin repulsted us. OK, repulsted isn’t a word, but it should be.

John Carpenter, the man who brought us The Thing remake and Halloween for heaven’s sake, now pulls a Dracula: Dead and Loving It and ruins the vampire genre with an abominable piece of crap. Driving home I yelled at my friend on the cel phone how lucky he was that he hadn’t joined us for the movie, and I dug through my mental thesaurus for words to describe the execrable, detestable, fetid, stinky, crappy, ghastly, monstrous, wretched, rancid mess I had just seen.

So, Woods and Baldwin are vampire killers in a town where cops party with prostitutes and vampire killers, and this ethereal very tall actor plays the head vamp, and he busts up the party in a stupidly gory way, only to incite the ire of the vampire killers. But first he bites a prostitute (Katrina, her name was, and I moaned in agony) and so naturally they take her with them, and shove her around, beat her, whatever, then Baldwin loves her inexplicably and Woods keeps walking in slo-mo towards the camera every chance he gets.

My first impression of the beginning of the movie was that the director of photography was kind of a rookie; or else he was playing a little self-reflexive game of “look see it’s a movie – aren’t filters cool?” and that he was purposefully making it look like an expensive, color-matched student film. This impression, after some stupid cuts and shots and horrific continuity, was strengthened by the fact that the movie was visually totally unstimulating, despite blood, sweat and tits. Hmm more adjectives. Heinous. Vile. A total turkey. Now I know some people liked the Avengers, Lost in Space, and the X Files movie, and you can read my reviews if you haven’t already, but by golly, those movies lulled me into a stupor I can’t get with my white noise machine, a gut full of liquor, and a grueling day at work and theatre. I *wish* I could sleep that soundly at home!

I’d almost be willing to see Bride of Chucky just to get the taste of this piece of dreck (drek if you want to be more true to Transylvania) out of my mouth! Jebati, John Carpenter!

MPAA Rating R-vampire violence&gore, language and sexuality.
Release date 10/30/98
Time in minutes 107
Director John Carpenter
Studio Columbia Tristar

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I know, I know, sometimes this movie gets a little heavy handed with some imagery and/or metaphor, but you know what, it just wasn’t insulting, because everything else was so cool. The Movie Facts slides before movies begin mention that there are 1700 visual effects shots in Pleasantville, about 3 times what was in Titanic. You know from the preview that it starts, Wizard of Oz-like, in black and white, and then color is added in bit by bit. You know Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire end up in black and white Pleasantville. I figured it would sort of be a The Truman Show sort of experience – and they would make a great double feature.

As an aside: I am fascinated by these two movies being so good and both being about real people being part of television, part of scary idealized TV Land and making chaos out to be a virtue rather than the negative influence chaos is generally viewed as. Perhaps it’s Hollywood writers and directors secretly rebelling against the embarrassing corporate homogeneity being pushed by Generica strip malls and test marketing and everyone lowering art to the lowest common denominator and dumbing down schools so kids don’t feel bad about themselves and all the things wrong with the creative heartbeat of America. Or maybe it’s a heathenistic view of sin is the spice of life, not the bane of godliness. Or maybe it’s a no status quo sentiment, or maybe it’s just the fantasy to be With our TV worlds that they want us to be involved in. If that’s the case, someone tell Chandler that I’m available, if he wants to go out sometime.

Back to the review. Reese and Tobey are our leads and our protagonists, but the film got me much more interested in the relationships between the fictional Mom and Dad (Joan Allen and William H. Macy, both bad asses) and soda shop guy(Jeff Daniels). These people had some seriously fascinating stuff going on for them, and they react to the vitality that the kids bring by accident to their world in truly well-thought out ways. Joan Allen is the mom, you know, cook, clean, “Oh, honey!” and all that in Pleasantville, and Allen has the perfect face (even sociologically – she would have been the archetypal housewife then) for the sweet 50’s mom/housewife/cookie baker. But Allen also has the chops to do the growing and changing that she does in this movie. Her humiliation at her own growth, her…dammit why can’t I give anything away! Agh! Anyway, she’s totally great and if anyone gets nominated from this one, it should be her. William H. Macy, ever the unappreciated genius, is so again. I actually wish we could have had more of his stuff but I understand why he wasn’t more the focus. The late J.T. Walsh, in his last role, is perfect, but his big moment was a little weak, I thought. Jeff Daniels is also excellent – we’ve seen him be dumber and we’ve seen him be funny and sweet and all kinds of things, and he gets to be this newborn human being – it’s great.

Pleasantville is kind of an inverted fish out of water tale – it’s like taking a lion raised by sheep since it was a cub and putting it in the middle of the savannah. No, it’s like raising lions in a savannah, but telling them they are sheep their whole life, then all of a sudden showing them a zebra. Hell I dunno – it’s interesting. People in Pleasantville have lived full two dimensional lives and don’t know anything’s missing because it’s like paradise – but then, they are like children as well. It’s interesting. Additionally, it’s gorgeous. Maybe a little heavy handed visually too but it’s totally lovely to look at and really nicely done, both the black and white and the color aspects of it. Some things were not handed to us in the audience, but some stuff was kind of hammered in. The guy behind me was very vocal about his predictions as to what would happen or be said next, and sure he was right, and maybe that made some of the movie feel more obvious, but I was still pleased with the whole of it. Don Knotts was a sight for sore eyes – too bad he was only really given one moment to actually be funny – the rest of the time he was an ambigously motivated character but very important. I remember lots of lingering pans over his truck into his window, and I kept expecting to see something in the painting on his van or have that image mean something and it didn’t.

Minor complaints, however. Overall it’s a very enjoyable movie.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 10/23/98
Time in minutes 124
Director Gary Ross
Studio New Line Cinema

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Apt Pupil

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Every review of a film adaptation of a written piece of fiction says that “it was not as good as the book.” Unfortunately, this holds true for this movie, but for none of the same reasons that Stephen King novels don’t make good movies. Or anyone else’s books, really. Apt Pupil is from the same novella collection that spawned the excellent films Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, from the same author that kept cinemas vacant with Thinner and Maximum Overdrive. It’s about a young student (Brad Renfro) who gets entangled in a strange cat and mouse Catch 22 relationship with a former Nazi criminal, each mentally brutalizing each other until…well, until something happens that I am not going to tell you about. It’s a story that has taken 10 years to get to the screen at least (River Phoenix was the first Todd Bowden considered), but what kept it from the screen for so long was lost when it was finally filmed.

Consider King’s also-excellent Misery, another mutual psychotic codependent relationship. It’s twisted, it’s disturbing, it’s fascinating – *but it doesn’t involve glorifying the Nazi atrocities.* So, friends and neighbors, to get this on screen, we have to cut out most of Renfro’s transformation as a human being, most of the sick pathology below the All-American Valedictorian, and we have to concentrate on Herr Dussander’s remorse and self-loathing. This is more palatable, sure, but it utterly robs the characters of their motivation, the drama of its bite, the horror of its essence. What’s left is a (thank goodness) above-average production of a castrated script. Ian McKellen (Sir Ian) is perfect, he’s seedy and old and wily and hiding from his past. Renfro is intense; he the actor wants to get into all the “gooshy stuff” (quote from the book) but he is held back. Neither actor is afraid of the subject matter, and perhaps the screenwriter is not afraid either – I suspect a lot of gooshy stuff is on the cutting room floor or typed on discarded multicolored script revision pages.

Just to watch Renfro hold his own with McKellan is worth the price of admission, and it is an interesting concept, but it forces you to go read the source material. So, here’s a shameless plug: Pick up a copy of Different Seasons, and you will get three movies in one book, and one more. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it is one of the best book to film adaptations (besides Sense and Sensibility) I can think of. Bryan Singer directs with more heart than he did on Usual Suspects, but ultimately I have to blame the fraidy cats in the studio system.

Oh, I have to warn you – David Schwimmer is also in this movie. I love him on Friends, but he is like a death knell to the movie. I was hoping he was cast to inject a little Jewish-Nazi style tension into the otherwise bland fascination that WWII atrocities hold for Renfro, but they skipped that as well. An actor at the end gives a nakedly painful performance, the only indication that the Reich targeted any actual people. Of course we all know what happened, and maybe the filmmakers were assuming we were filling in the lines there, but the crux of the story is how in love child and elder secretly are with the horrors they revisit together. Take away that love – no, lust – and you got bupkiss. Except for some seriously hotshot acting. Check it out.

MPAA Rating R for scenes of strong violence, language and brief sexuality.
Release date 10/23/98
Time in minutes 112
Director Bryan Singer
Studio TriStar Pictures

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Life Is Beautiful

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La Vita è bella

My plan for this afternoon was to wash the cars, see this movie, and then watch my taped episode of Melrose Place. I walked, tear-streaked, out of Life is Beautiful with my sobbing male companion and thought, I can’t handle Amanda’s problems after this! But don’t let this reaction dissuade you from seeing the movie – by all means, if it is playing where you can see it, go to! It’s in Italian, with subtitles, and perhaps I am blessed with swift reading skills because it was not a problem at all keeping up with star Roberto Begnini’s rapid fire wit. Don’t let the “ferrun film” attitude keep you away either – it’s really a wonderful movie. I saw it on the same screen on which I saw Godzilla, I think, which tells you that it is creeping out of the arthouses into the THX multiplexes, and rightfully so. I am grateful that more people will see this movie than if it were relegated to a dingy arthouse with sprung seats.

Roberto’s character Guido is a witty, amiable, positive man, and his attitude toward life and being tender with other people’s feelings is the base upon which this very charming story is built. It’s a buddy movie, it’s a love story, it’s a war movie…it’s none of those things either. The worst thing is being unable to tell you any details. I had heard that it was a “holocaust comedy” and I had also heard it was a “life-affirming drama” so, take those two labels and anagramatize them and you get…molto hilarious dramadic cadffefmng. There is no word. Perhaps cadffefmng should mean “magical taste of realism.” Life is Beautiful neither trivializes WWII nor belabors the point of its tragedies. The magic in the love story seems to be pure and simple magic, yet we can see the gears and workings behind it. Unbelievable moments happen in a perfectly logical happenstance.

Buongiorno, Principesca! My Italian is shoddy (that is to say, non-existent) and I have no access to a dictionary so bear with me. If you have seen Life is Beautiful already, you will smile at that line. Moments here and there in the film reminded me of similar moments (taken individually) in other movies that I adore (one from the Shawshank Redemption of all places but you’ll know it when you see it) and yet has no smack of derivativeness. Everything is so organic, so right, it just flows like tears at a wedding. The Italian countryside and the cities are lovely, the people in them so charming, even the antagonists. Roberto is such a charismatic lead, he can get away with anything on screen. I am told he’s the Jim Carrey of Europe but he is perhaps more the graver, softer Steve Martin of Europe – wacky and serious and most of all, heartfelt. To tell more would be to ruin it, but it is him that makes life beautiful for all those around him. As the Germans are turning prisoners into soap, his alchemy turns the prison camp into a resort.

Not knowing Italian, I am actually a little sad that I could not appreciate the true text of the movie – I am certain something is lost in translation, as is nearly always the case. But my heart might not be able to take more than the subtitles offered me. Go see it.

MPAA Rating PG-14
Release date 10/23/98
Time in minutes 155
Director Roberto Benigni
Studio Miramax

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Practical Magic

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As the movie was beginning, a quote popped in my head (not very well, and my source material for correcting it has vanished in the meantime) from Sense and Sensibility, where Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood says, “Bewitching an idea as it is to rest all one’s hopes for happiness on one person, it does not always..” work out that way or something. I can hear Emma’s voice and cannot hear the words. The point is, I felt a womanly kinship with Practical Magic when I thought of that quote, and had Ms. Thompson not limned such a lovely Miss Dashwood, I might have gotten less from Ms Bullock and Ms Kidman.

Practical Magic ambles a bit, meandering its way through its own love for the small town in which it is set and the lovely, interesting women who are outcasts there. The idea of this cursed family of witches, the potential for the living and enjoying life despite the crushing bitterness and loneliness and pain this curse brings to them, this sounded like a great idea. However, first time (?) director Griffin Dunne, while talented in a mechanical way indeed, puts on a little fantasy play, touching on the nature of womanly sisterhood and female connectiveness that we can only dream of having so easily. He defaults to simple, feel-good scenes of superficial female bonding as imagined by a man, and reduces the great loves of these women’s lives into a few pairs of pecs and sparkling eyes. At the same time, the loving closeness between sisters seems like it can only be expressed in a goofy wacky (therefore unique and special!) way or a vaguely sexual way, as if Dunne has no idea about women at all. It isn’t fair to trash such a great potential story idea with this shallow treatment, but then again, this is Hollywood. As Hollywood pap goes, Practical Magic is plenty watchable.

Some genuine positive message remains about closeness and self reliance and individuality and being true to oneself, but there’s not enough cool magic to pretend with, like there was on Bewitched. Distaff tour de forces Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest support as the wacky witch aunties of Bullock and Kidman, and the four of them have a wonderful tequila drinking scene (after a pure test screening dud scene of dancing and lip synching in the kitchen together) of pure gut bunching laughter. This scene adds the popcorn to the rental in the rating. Additionally, despite what I was saying about how superficially all the relationships are presented, a definite sense of fated romance lies over the whole movie, the bittersweet notion of being able to touch someone over great miles and even beyond the six degrees of separation, comes out just fine.

From a production standpoint, many chefs seem to have dumped in their particular flavor; it feels like pieces are thrown in that don’t normally go together, like nightshade and eye of newt. The little, presumably Atlantic seaboard town has a delicious sense of age and time overlay – an early scene walking in the streets gives one a sense of the turn of the century and before is still very present in the town. Just the odd cut of a garment, the presence of a tourist horse and carriage, the outdoor house accessories…it conveyed more tone than most of the script. So kudos to production designer Robin Standefer! I complain about the script, but it was better than I would have accepted from devil-dealmaking Akiva Goldsman who is evil. That, and the wildly varying hair lengths of the principals, to a degree as I have not noticed since The Wizard of Oz (it comes out again next week check out Dorothy’s braids yourself!). It’s not a bad film, and I am sure Dunne can really hammer out material he is more comfortable with, but don’t rush out and see it today.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/16/98
Time in minutes 103
Director Griffin Dunne
Studio Warner Brothers