A Kid in King Arthur's Court. This low-quality fare from Disney features a lame script, bland direction and contemptible acting. If you take your kids to see it, they might lead a violent revolt against you using whiffle bats and plastic swords, so be careful. Even Runaway Brain, the 5-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon that precedes the movie, is second-rate all the way. With the hundreds of Arthurian, time-travel and old Disney videos that infinitely outclass this tripe, consider setting up your own round table at home instead. Christen it with a VCR and let Merlin's magical remote control be your guide.
Apollo 13. Ron Howard is a child of TV, so it's to be expected that his latest film, like all the others, always tells you how to react. That worked fine in Splash, Parenthood and The Paper, enjoyable films with regular outbursts of comedy. But Howard is at his worst when he takes things too seriously, and he treats the near-fatal Apollo 13 mission with unquestioning reverence: a historical symbol of American heroism. Rarely does he touch upon the terror of dying in space or the weird spectacle the mission became after the public learned of the impending doom. It's a detailed, technically superb movie with a monotonous point of view: that the astronauts suffered nobly. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon star.
Babe. Animal training and animatronics blend seamlessly in this terrific children's story about a polite piglet who breaks through the rules of barnyard conformity to do her own thing--herd sheep. Made in Australia, with perfectly-cast voices and an impressive assemblage of good-looking animals, the movie has storytelling chutzpah on its side: The scenes are playfully divided into episodic chapters, and the atmosphere feels like it was painted onto the screen directly from the most imaginative kids' books. Thankfully, dark, Orwellian moments keep the cute bits in balance--something more children's movies ought to do.
Braveheart. Writer-director Mel Gibson clobbers the audience with three hours of blunt storytelling about a rebellious Scottish clansman who led soldiers into effective battle against British tyranny. Much of the movie's violence is grippingly effective, especially a couple of well-orchestrated fight sequences that, though aesthetically closer to the limbless knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than the poetic violence of Sam Peckinpah, are still quite powerful. But Gibson's relentless chant of "Freedom!" and the film's overtones of romantic martyrdom don't really stick; mostly, the movie leaves you with a dispiriting sense of human brutality.
Clueless. This is the movie you'll hate to love, full of innocent, likable characters with completely unbelievable lives. Far from an offshoot of one of those Fox TV programs, this latest effort by Amy Heckerling (who also delivered Fast Times at Ridgemont High) is an original, engaging portrait of Beverly Hills high school life in the '90s, which remains sincere however fantastic the lives of her characters become. Clueless is top of the line, "kids rule" cinema.
First Knight. A round table, a love triangle, a square movie. Sean Connery plays King Arthur with his usual regal gravity, Richard Gere reinvents Sir Lancelot as a manic-depressive (but mostly manic) derring-doer, and Julia Ormond is Guinevere, the doe-eyed, perpetually confused object of their love. The film vacillates between blustery action sequences and moments of cheesy romantic tension, including a rather pornographic scene in which Gere channels rainwater into Guinevere's mouth via a big leaf.
The Net. Once again, Sandra Bullock gives a top-notch performance as the accidental victim in a fast action thriller. This time she's on her own, as the introverted, computer program analyst who stumbles into the twisted world of cyberterrorism. Sci-fi fans and computer phobics alike will appreciate the implications of an Orwellian future in which our entire identities are stored on the Internet, where the war of the Information Age is waiting to break out. If you can willingly suspend your disbelief, this one will keep you frozen over your popcorn throughout.
Operation Dumbo Drop. In this high-concept Disney movie, kids will be sure to love the scenes in which elephant barf, human barf and elephant poop play key roles. They may also love the funky spectacle of an elephant being parachuted from a plane, which as funky spectacles go ranks right up there. But neither kids nor adults are likely to get too wrapped in the picture's strained Vietnam-era story, the shrill friction between Danny Glover and Ray Liotta, Denis Leary's one-note sardonic performance or anything else that fills in the gaps between elephant excretions.
Pocahontas. In their depiction of the Native American woman who helped forge peace between indians and colonists, Disney delivers everything you'd expect: a tasteful message of anti-bigotry and environmental harmony, cute animals, competent songwriting and a heroine who looks like an animated supermodel. A few of the key sequences are charming, but most of the film is so calculated as to lack any viewing joy whatsoever.
A PURE FORMALITY. Two butt-nosed actors for the price of one! Gerard Depardieu plays a murder suspect with a severe memory problem and Roman Polanski plays the inspector who chips away at Depardieu's story over the course of a night. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), this dark, sumptuously detailed film evolves from noirish cat-and-mouse game to metaphysical character study with more than enough skill to keep the film's dreamlike elusiveness endurable. Watching Depardieu and Polanski click is a treat; their performances hold the film together long after the mystery's grip has loosened.
Something To Talk About. From the screenwriter who gave us Thelma & Louise comes this insightful yet directionless tale of a Southern wife (Julia Roberts) who has to re-think her life when she learns her husband (Dennis Quaid) has been having several affairs. Crisp direction by Lasse Hallestrom, warmly vibrant cinematography and a handful of fun performances (by Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Duvall and Gene Rowlands) keep the film enjoyable long after the story has lost sight of a point. And Roberts is surprisingly good--after years of limited performances in dumb roles, she really seems to be blossoming.
Species. Get ready for Jurassic Park meets Alien. When an experiment with a human-extraterrestrial hybrid goes awry, the government assembles a four-man team consisting of a biologist, social scientist, empath and assassin to find the escaped E.T. Species starts off in the right vein, creating a character both humanistic enough for the audience to relate to and inhuman enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. Despite an anti-climactic, typical Hollywood ending, a half-way decent story and chilling special effects mask most of Species' flaws.
UNDER SIEGE 2. There's no denying that Steven Seagal is the dorkiest action star around. He only has a few expressions he can handle, so his movie's scripts always do all the work for him, writing in his sensitive side and crafting dozens of characters to admire his all-American killing prowess. That's fine. Once you have accepted Seagal for the buffoon he is, his latest film, Under Siege 2, becomes altogether watchable. Here is an action movie that works hard--really hard--to keep the audience happy, piling on cat-and-mouse chases, impossible stunts and bizarre fighting moves with uncontrolled gusto. Eric Bogosian is brilliantly cast as the baddie, who takes over a train on his way to taking over the world. And in banal Die Hard fashion, Seagal just happens to be on board to pick off the henchman--each of whose deaths are rendered in loving detail by the filmmakers. Seagal may not be the ideal American patriot, but his latest movie has a very American appeal: more bang for your buck.
Virtuosity. Brett Leonard, creator of The Lawnmower Man, once again proves his skill at making slick, futuristic movies with loads of glittery computer animation and not much else. The movie spends its first half-hour setting up an impressively elaborate explanation for how an artificially intelligent virtual-reality program might find its way into the real world, then proceeds to squander the premise's possibilities on an all-too-familiar cop-versus-killer story. Denzel Washington gives a generic good guy performance, but Russell Crowe plays the narcissistic, baby faced villain with cackling glee--he looks like Bob's Big Boy with a new suit and a mean streak. Overviolent and unimaginative, add this to the long list of films that fail to find good cinematic uses for cyber-technology.
A Walk in the Clouds. From Alfonso Arau, director of Like Water For Chocolate, comes this pleasantly magical-realist W.W.II-era romance about a GI (Keanu Reeves) who pretends to be the husband of a lovely, troubled woman (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) to save her from the tradition-obsessed wrath of her father (Giancarlo Giannini), head of a family-run vineyard in Napa Valley. Arau's direction is smile-inducing and swift, and the actors are all charming, especially Anthony Quinn as an unflaggingly earnest, chocolate-chomping grandfather. But the movie's combination of love, family and good cheer is almost too perfect, too postcardy. Remarkably, what saves it is Reeves' laughably monotonous performance--just the weird element the picture needs to keep its innocence interesting.
Waterworld. "Was this your big vision?" the tattooed child asks at the end, and you might be thinking the same thing after watching $200 million in sets and special effects wash away in this ill-conceived spectacle. Good enough to sit through but not nearly good enough to justify its magnitude, the film stars Kevin Costner as a seafaring Mad Max type who eventually saves a scruffy girl (Tina Majorino) and a bland love interest (Jeanne Tripplehorn) from a gang of cigar-chomping baddies led, all-too-familiarly, by Dennis Hopper. The sci-fi premise and watery atmosphere have potential, but the picture evaporates into a series of bloated, ineffective action set-pieces.
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