The Brady Bunch Movie. Here's a story. Of a Hollywood gimmick: Giving old TV shows expensive big-screen whirls. The idea is to strike gold. Just like Wayne's World. Until the audience hurls. ...Still, The Brady Bunch Movie does pretty well for itself, especially during the giddily absurd opening scenes, with their perfect casting and meticulous recreation of the show's flaky style. The picture's lack of its own ideas--other than the single joke of Brady obliviousness to the '90s--causes the latter half to lose air like one of Bobby's flat bicycle tires, but fans of The Bunch should be tickled nonetheless.
BYE BYE, LOVE. As three divorced fathers, Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser and Randy Quaid stumble their way through this McMovie about custody exchanges and mid-life romantic grief. Quaid's pissed-off character is the only one with any appeal, but that doesn't amount to much, not even during the film's centerpiece: an uninventive blind-date scene with Janeane Garofalo. Serious themes are verbalized to the point of embarrassment, comic sequences are ridiculously constructed, and the movie vanquishes all dignity with its insistent return to McDonald's (which obviously funded the picture).
DOLORES CLAIBORNE. In what you might call a female version of Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption, Kathy Bates stars as a long-enduring widow who is suspected of having killed her husband many years ago. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her edgy daughter who returns home when Bates is implicated in another death. The mystery that follows is less a mystery than the unearthing of a pain-filled domestic past. Directed in a pungent Gothic style by Taylor Hackford, the movie rises high above the exploitative nature of its material thanks to stunning imagery, emotionally stark sequences and Bates' solid performance.
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.
THE HUNTED. Christopher Lambert, who has made a career out of playing a nerd with a sword, stars as a microchip dealer in Japan who unwittingly becomes involved in a personal feud between two modern-day samurais. The movie's potential appeal as a campy thriller is sliced away by Lambert's bland personality, and the director's, too. Joan Chen briefly stirs interest as a mysterious woman in a red dress; unfortunately she gets her head cut off.
JUST CAUSE. Sean Connery plays an anti-capital punishment Harvard law professor who begrudgingly agrees to "put his money where his mouth is" by investigating the case of a man on death row (Blair Underwood) who was coerced into a murder confession. Laurence Fishburne is the menacing small-town lawman who held the suspect at gunpoint during interrogation, and Ed Harris plays a snarlingly evil convicted serial killer who seems likely to have really committed the murder. Of course, nothing is as it seems. This premise looks like a good enough starting point for a thriller, but with the exception of Fishburne, none of the A-list team of actors brings anything more to his role than what is required by the contrivances of the script, which turns out to be a shameless hybridization of The Silence of the Lambs and Cape Fear anyway. The title sounds like the most likely reason Connery chose to appear in the movie.
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.
LOSING ISAIAH. Don't be dissuaded by the fact that this tale of a custody battle between a black birth mother and a white adoptive mother looks like a typical TV-movie-of-the-week. It's not. A wise, elliptical script and extraordinarily skilled, heartfelt acting allow this picture to achieve what for so many is impossible: pure, fully effective dramatization of a topical issue. You're there, and you feel the wrenching pain of separation between parents and children. Halle Berry deserves deep respect for her portrayal of a reformed crack addict fighting her way through her guilt and loss, while Jessica Lange's performance as a loving, struggling mother is nothing short of heroic.
THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE. Nigel Hawthorne has received great praise for his performance as King George III, who was believed insane when a nervous-system disorder briefly wreaked havoc on his temper. Hawthorne deserves the accolades: he travels from regal to rabid and back with believability as well as comic flair. But the movie itself is far from a fascinating piece of drama, and holds little interest unless you're British or find yourself enraptured by historical trivia about British royalty.
MURIEL'S WEDDING. This Australian comedy, like Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert before it, seems like its fashions came from another planet. The story of Muriel--an overweight ugly duckling who must overcome bitchy friends, a pompous father and her own misguided dreams of marriage in order to become a swan--would be perfunctory if it weren't for the style it was told in. How can you resist a film dominated by gaudy colors, ABBA songs, and an unnatural emphasis on Muriel's facial contortions while frowning and smiling.
OUTBREAK. Wolfgang Peterson, hot off of directing In the Line of Fire, that elaborate star vehicle featuring Clint Eastwood, directs this even more elaborate star vehicle featuring Dustin Hoffman. This time, the threat is that a fatal African virus, not John Malkovich's method acting, will grow out of control. Hoffman plays a feisty Center for Disease Control official whose determination to stop the virus from destroying a small town is further fueled by concern that his ex-wife, Rene Russo, might be the next victim. (A dead town is bad news, but the idea of Russo's beautiful face covered with zits is unthinkable.) The movie does build a strong level of suspense around its Andromeda Strain-esque story, but the ending, which has Hoffman zipping around the globe in a helicopter while searching for a cure, is straight out of cartoonville. Also out of cartoonville is Donald Sutherland, playing a military baddie who at one point can be seen displaying projections of how long it will take the virus to overrun America. Haven't we seen him do that before?
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. Sam Raimi, best known for the Evil Dead series, directs this surrealistically action-packed Western (based entirely on a gunfight contest) as if he'd taken the title to heart and slowing down would kill him. Every sequence spills over with visual punchlines, obnoxiously funny zoom-in shots and ferocious one-liners. It's almost too much movie for itself, and protagonist Sharon Stone can't anchor the picture the way it needs; her Clint Eastwood-style sullenness lacks substance. But the gallery of supporting actors, which includes Lance Henriksen, Leonard DiCaprio, Gene Hackman (doing a twisted take on his evil sheriff role from Unforgiven), fill the movie with so much wanton charisma that Stone's performance as the "straight man" actually starts working after a while. It's a weird picture where A-movie and B-movie qualities are blended at such a high velocity that you start to lose track of which is which.
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