Feast of July. The cinematic equivalent of the alibi offered by the man on trial for necrophilia: "Your Honor, I didn't know she was dead; I just thought she was British." Well-acted but painfully sloooow, Feast of July tells the tale of a young woman (Embeth Davidtz) who is impregnated and abandoned by a smooth-talker at some unspecified time in the past in rural England. She travels by foot to another village in search of the man, suffering a miscarriage along the way. Once there, she's taken in by a kind family with three sons, all of whom fall for her in varying degrees. Pretty much through attrition, she settles on one before the smooth talker re-enters her life, leading to sudden tragedy. The Merchant Ivory-film isn't bad; there's just not much there. It's the absolute softest "R" rated movie of all time. No nudity, no bad language and just a very brief scene of violence.
Get Shorty. After a long, banal summer, Get Shorty hits like a bracing blast of cool fall air, reminding us why we love movies so much. Get Shorty (from Elmore Leonard's 1991 best-seller) follows the trail of Chili Palmer (John Travolta in a great performance), a collector for a Miami loan shark who heads for L.A. in search of a skip and lands smack dab in the middle of the movie biz. He falls in with movie producer/ schlockmeister Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) and Zimm's big star Karen Flores (Rene Russo), who is also the ex-love interest of Hollywood's biggest star, Martin Weir (Danny DeVito). Chili hits Zimm up with an idea for a movie. Zimm likes the idea, but first wants to buy a hot script so he can offer it up to Weir. Zimm is also dodging drug dealers, who have given him money as a ticket into the film business and who are, in turn, ducking their angry Colombian suppliers. Chili dances through this jungle, impressing the phonies and winning the girl as he goes. And when the impatient loan shark hits town to find out what's taking Chili so long, it all comes to a wild (and wildly satisfying) conclusion.
How to Make an American Quilt. Winona Ryder gets seven lessons in love when she spends a summer listening to the romantic histories of all the women in her grandmother's quilting bee. We're talking flashback-o-rama, with the majority of the stories taking bittersweet turns in which the women's husbands either leave them, cheat on them or die. This uninspiring "quilt" of mini-narratives is somehow supposed to help Ryder choose between a hunky Don Juan type (Jonathon Schaech) and a regular-guy carpenter (Dermot Mulroney). Though the appearance of so many fine actresses has its benefits, the movie's lessons about life are mere bromides, and they're made all the sappier by Ryder's talentless presence and weak narration. (Why does Ryder always choose scripts that require her to narrate?) American Quilt features Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Samantha Mathis and Alfre Woodard.
Jade. Joe Eszterhas ought to win a special award, because he's responsible for two of the worst films this year. At least Showgirls has campy laughs, extravagant choreography and soft-core nudity on its side. What does Jade have? Ornate set design, an extended (and very boring) car chase and an incomprehensible murder-mystery plot, for starters. Directed unpleasantly by William Friedkin, it's kind of like Basic Instinct without the sex. David Caruso does his NYPD Blue shtick--again--as an investigator trying to uncover the identity of Jade, a prostitute-turned-psychologist played by Linda Fiorentino. The role is supposed to showcase the cold, ruthless sexuality Fiorentino displayed so engagingly in The Last Seduction, but the actress is lost in this dispiriting mess. Let's hope she finds something better soon.
Now and Then. This coming-of-age comedy about a tight-knit circle of friends in small-town America is hardly a female-version of Stand By Me, but it does succeed on its own cinema-lite level, thanks to fresh performances by young guns Gaby Hoffman, Thora Birch (My Girl), Ashleigh Aston Moore and Christina Ricci (Casper). Now and Then follows the nostalgic flashback formula, with a chain-smoking Demi Moore narrating as she hurtles down the highway toward a dreaded reunion in the master-planned suburban setting of her childhood. Thankfully, most of the film winds through the delightful and melodramatic summer of '69, sparing us the agony of watching too many scenes with Demi Moore and Melanie Griffith side by side. While at times Now and Then promisingly touches upon the social upheaval that lurks behind all those perfect suburban lawns and single-family homes, these themes are never developed. Rest assured, this sentimental journey comes with the requisite happy ending, tying up all loose ends with a big, pink bow.
The Scarlet Letter. When the opening credits state the film is "freely adapted" from the novel, they aren't kidding. The filmmakers have taken an American literary classic and turned it into a plainly idiotic bodice-ripper that pits small-town intolerance against Hester Prynne's fiercely independent feminist sexuality. This is the second film of the year in which a woman's love is signaled by a little bird that leads the way (the other is How to Make an American Quilt). The bird leads Prynne (Demi Moore, as superficial as ever) into the arms of Gary Oldman, a minister who swims naked so as to expose his buttocks to God and anybody else who might be watching. You can bet that when the time comes for nooses to be tied around the lovers' necks, a bunch of Indians will pop out to save the day. Maybe this movie's creators should be forced to wear a big letter "A" around Hollywood--for the sin of asinine adaptation.
Showgirls. With this heavily hyped NC-17 travesty, Robocop-director Paul Verhoeven has created a new type of robo-erotica where robocharacters have robosex in the roboscummiest areas of that robocity they call Las Vegas. Roboscreenwriter Joe Eszterhas fills his inane, behind-the-scenes roboexposé with gobs of crude robosub-plots and robodialogue, creating plenty of excuses for roboactress Elizabeth Berkely and others to bare their robobreasts and robopelvises with increasing regularity. If you're a robot, you'll no doubt be turned on. (All others stay away.)
Strange Days. Given the scarcity of original screenplays coming out of the Big Studio establishment, Strange Days deserves due credit. Katherine Bigelow's first noteworthy attempt since Near Dark blows away all other attempts at cyber-cinema we've seen thus far. If you're expecting a lot of high-priced special effects, you'll be disappointed. But creative use of point-of-view camera work and a dark, documentary-style vision of the year 2000--with humvies rolling down Sunset Boulevard and soundbites from the evening news bringing us up to speed on the violence and mayhem in Los Angeles at the end of the millennium--draw us into a believable future in which cop-turned-cyberdrug dealer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) and straight-laced friend Mace (Angela Bassett) fight for survival in a world gone mad with paranoia, deception and murder. Despite some snags in the fabric of believability, Strange Days is entertaining up until the last minute--which is a good 60 seconds of unforgivable drivel.
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