Before Sunrise. Richard Linklater's latest picture follows a one-night romance between an American slacker and a Parisian beauty as they stroll about the streets of Vienna. The film is talky as can be, but all the talk is directed toward emphasizing the gradual connection of two souls, and the result is touching, almost haunting. Despite minor annoyances, Ethan Hawke does a good job in his boyish role, while Julie Delpy is perfect as a French fantasy girl too smart to enjoy being a French fantasy girl.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN. Adapted from Ariel Dorfman's play about the tension in a Latin American country that has just overcome a fascist government, this political thriller places a torture victim (Sigourney Weaver), her diplomat husband (Stuart Wilson) and a man whom she believes to be her torturer (Ben Kingsley) together in a secluded beach house. Weaver ties up Kingsley and attempts to coerce a confession out of him, but Wilson (and the audience) remains uncertain of his guilt. Roman Polanski directs this power-play with his trademark perverted eye, and the actors do their best with the material, but the casting is weak. Weaver's angry descriptions of victimhood sound off-key, and all speak with American, not Latino, accents.
Demon Knight. Will somebody please kill that Crypt Keeper thing? It's dorky and its jokes aren't funny. Fortunately, the latest Tales from the Crypt movie relegates the cackling corpse to a brief introduction, then gets on with the real business of trash. With multiple jokey dismemberments, exposed boobs galore and a hokey plot about an eternal demonic quest for God's Seventh Key (which is filled with Jesus Christ's magical morphin' blood), the movie easily rates six dumpster loads on the trashometer. You'd think it was personally designed for Joe Bob Briggs.
Higher Learning. John Singleton's third feature is a well-intentioned look at a diverse handful of young people during their formative political years at a large university. Singleton's choice of subjects--a black athlete overcoming his resentment of the system, a rape victim considering lesbianism, and an insecure white boy's descent into racism--hardly adds up to a full-bodied representation of campus experience; but he gets the little details right, and the power of his wholeheartedness often wins out. The unfortunate exception is the movie's climax, a needlessly violent burst of trauma that looks and feels recycled from Boyz N the Hood.
Hoop Dreams. This thorough documentary spends five years following the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two ghetto-raised basketball hopefuls who struggle to get through the grueling processes of high-school competition and college recruitment. Their dream, to make it to the NBA, is constantly at odds with knee injuries, low grades, financial problems and family disharmony. The filmmakers' dogged commitment to observing these complications makes the picture a fascinating document of the ways real lives can be consumed by sports, with results both positive and negative.
IMMORTAL BELOVED. While Beethoven (Gary Oldman) decomposes, his faithful assistant attempts to discover the mysteries behind his late master's will, which left his entire estate to "my immortal beloved." A series of Gothic, overblown flashbacks ensue, each tabloidizing the life of the deaf composer while rarely touching on the powers of his music. The only saving grace is a prolonged childhood scene set to the Ninth Symphony--but then again anything looks good when set to the Ninth Symphony. Starring Isabella Rossellini and Valeria Golino.
In The Mouth Of Madness. John Carpenter's latest creepfest is a wonderfully playful mind-bender chock full of paranoid fears about mass hysteria and the death of reality. Working from a screenplay by Michael De Luca, the movie gives horror a good name, holding back on blood-'n'-guts in favor of weird, imaginative imagery where white haired beings on bicycles flash through the night, shadows creep up in the cells of insane asylums and figures in paintings turn their heads. Every scene gooses you with a surprise, every dream contains a twist, and Sam Neill, as the skeptical protagonist, makes the journey fun.
The Jerky Boys. Crank-call kings The Jerky Boys play themselves in this weak attempt to capitalize on the success of their recordings. The plot is a series of transparent set-ups that allow Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed to fall into their familiar subversive voices and characterizations, fooling slimy New Yawkers every step of the way. The picture is harmless and watchable, with a few good laughs, but the filmmakers can't get past the fact that crank calls aren't as funny when the victims are actors pretending to be duped.
The Jungle Book. Disney delivers the goods for this live-action take on the Rudyard Kipling book, which means that the Tarzan-ish tale is filled with lovely animals, impressive sets, a heroic heroine and loathsome villains. Kids may get a charge out of the story, especially with the likable, alert Jason Scott Lee in the good-hearted wildman role. But adults wary of predictability may leave the theaters with the same bland reaction provoked by the recent remake of The Three Musketeers. Disney has a way of making movies that are at once perfect and devoid of any cinematic personality.
Junior. Arnold Schwarzenegger reteams with Danny DeVito for yet another high-concept comedy involving genetics. The film's one joke--Arnold going through pregnancy--goes a long way thanks to director Ivan Reitman's careful story construction and Emma Thompson's credibility-giving performance as a clumsy cryogenist. Arnold's not too bad, either; he always does much better with comedic tone in films where he is not required to act funny and kill people in the same breath. The movie has "plastic Hollywood product" stamped all over it, but at least it's baby-safe plastic.
LEGENDS OF THE FALL. It looks, sounds, and feels like an epic drama of the highest order, but as the credits roll you sit there and wonder: What does it add up to? And that's when you realize that this long-winded tale of brothers who survive Montana ranch life, World War I and prohibition-era corruption together doesn't have much in the way of a point. Most of the plot happens as a consequence of all three men (Henry Thomas, Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn) falling in love with the same woman (Julia Ormond), who is apparently the only woman in all of Montana. Is the point, then, that men in remote locales should try to get out more? If so, Pitt takes this advice a little too seriously during the film's middle section, in which the stringy-haired wildman travels to Papua New Guinea to hunt and run around without a shirt on. Wait a minute--that's the point. Case solved.
Little Women. Louisa May Alcott's story of sisterhood, liberation and love gets a competent, reverent Hollywood treatment from Australian director Gillian Armstrong, but the casting is all wrong. Since when is Winona Ryder capable of carrying a movie? Starring as the multidimensional Jo March, Ryder robs the movie of its professionalism and renders trivial skilled performances by the other Little Women in the cast: Trini Alvarado (playing the sweet, marriage-bound sister), Claire Danes (who makes sickliness look like a virtue), Kirsten Dunst (as the fiery young'un) and Susan Sarandon (as the ever-consoling mom). Ryder has been OK in other films, but in pictures like this you can tell she's trying to act. You shouldn't be able to tell.
MURDER IN THE FIRST. Kevin Bacon plays a small-time criminal who was cruelly sentenced to three years of solitary confinement in Alcatraz, and Christian Slater plays the idealistic young attorney who fights on the prisoner's behalf after he is charged with killing a fellow inmate. In this showy attempt at courtroom drama, everything comes down to a question of whether it's wrong to torture people and throw them in dark little rooms. Bacon's performance as a man permanently stunted by his victimization is amazing, but Slater doesn't make a very convincing idealist (despite the fact that he appears to be wearing Kevin Costner's clothes), and the focus on the two men's friendship almost seems imposed on the material to make up for the movie's lack of a strong villain.
Nell. Jodie Foster transforms into Foster Gump for this ridiculous tale of a backwoods "wild child" who must face the inevitability of dealing with civilization. The movie is a showcase of Everything You Ever Wanted to See Foster Do But Couldn't Imagine She'd Ever Lower Herself To Do: run giggling through the forest, screech in spasmodic fear, cuddle up and coo next to Liam Neeson, dance jubilantly in circles with her shirt pulled up, and look in the mirror while voguing and talking like E.T. Luckily, when Foster isn't stretching credulity, she and costar Neeson actually manage to draw a few moving moments out of the self-important script.
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