Film Clips

AMISTAD. Sure, the story is important, but the movie's not. Though Steven Spielberg capably navigates the complex 19th-century politics that were preventing abolition, he fails to shape them into an effective drama. The tale's catalyst--a black mutiny aboard a slave ship on its way across the Atlantic--is powerfully, artfully rendered in scattered, flashback sequences. The rest of the movie, however, turns into a long, talky yawner full of courtroom scenes and endless exposition. And unlike Schindler's List, there's no central character to care about: Matthew McConaughy's quickly becomes irrelevant, Morgan Freeman's has little to do, and even Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the African who led the revolt, is reduced to a banal noble-savage role. (Anthony Hopkins, playing John Quincy Adams, shows up just long enough to give a terrific speech--which John Williams manages to ruin with his intrusive, uninspired score.) Amistad vividly re-imagines history, but there's no heart; it's just a big-budget history lesson. --Woodruff

Film Clips AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS. This goofy, exuberant cross between a horror movie and a comedy is an unexpectedly refreshing way to waste 99 minutes. Director Anthony Waller packs a whole lot of snarling beasts, romance, rotting corpses and dare-devil stunts into this energetic homage to John Landis' 1981 An American Werewolf in London. Tom Everett Scott plays an American tourist who just wants to make fun of foreigners, but ends up being pulled into some beastly doings; Julie Delpy plays a young Parisian werewolf trying to control her bitch of a monthly "lycanthropic cycle." Of course, the two fall in love. One scene shows a detective carefully fingerprinting someone's hand; the camera pulls back and we see it's attached to a severed arm. That's the kind of movie this is. --Richter

BEAUMARCHAIS. Fabrice Luchini is extremely compelling as playwright Beaumarchais, whose mild political satires were enough to get him repeatedly thrown into the Bastille in pre-Revolutionary France. However, in spite of his charming insouciance, Luchini's performance cannot completely carry this film through its lurching, uneven episodes. The opening segment deals with Beaumarchais the political artist, but then the movie switches gears to become a spy film, wherein secret plans must be recovered from a gender-bending French agent in England. It's hard to get involved in this tale as no information about the purpose of the mission is given until its resolution, when everything is explained too neatly and without art. Then it's on to another, vaguely related segment, and so on. The only thing providing continuity is a thin tale about a young man who idolizes Beaumarchais and wishes that he would just stick to writing. Still, the dialogue is intermittently hilarious, and Luchini is amusing enough to make this a viable alternative to most Hollywood attempts at entertainment. --DiGiovanna

CRITICAL CARE. Director Sidney Lumet has had a long, prestigious career making films like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network; but his latest, Critical Care, is pretty bad. James Spader does a so-so Jimmy Stewart impersonation, trying for an everyman appeal as Dr. Werner Ernst, an oversexed but well-meaning resident sucked into a right-to-die-case, with a twist. Albert Brooks plays an alcohol-damaged doctor who cracks jokes about, what else, HMOs. Kyra Sedgwick is the bratty daughter of a comatose millionaire. Each character seems to have sprung from a different movie, and the lack of unity is startling. Throw in a not-so-distant future setting (where critically ill patients recline on inflatable pool toys) and some corny lines about healing the sick, and you have one disappointing lump of a movie. --Richter

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. Woody Allen trundles out the old themes of love, relationships, blow jobs and creative work with lousy results. Allen's character Harry (whom he constructs, by the way, not deconstructs), is a philandering, irresponsible, whining, famous novelist. He's so emotionally empty and thoroughly unlikable that it's almost impossible to be amused by his antics--which include goofball stunts like kidnapping his son and cheating on his wife. Harry, the owner of a thoroughly opaque charm, somehow manages to seduce a bevy of fresh-faced beauties; when he's not doing it himself, his characters are acting out his fantasies for him in little vignettes meant to represent the stories Harry Block is writing. There are occasionally spikes of funniness--Billy Crystal is wonderfully smooth as the devil--but overall, Deconstructing Harry is flat and clunky, if not honestly creepy. --Richter

GABBEH. This is what happens to cultures that don't have enough TV. They start watching rugs for entertainment. Fortunately, the rug that's watched by the elderly couple in Gabbeh is better than most American sit-coms. It stars a beautiful young nomad girl who weaves a playful tale of love, courtship, family, and (implicitly) the importance of ritual and folklore. Written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Gabbeh gives experimental narrative a good name, using bright primary colors and creative editing to generate unique, magical-realist effects. Though it had a few too many scenes filled with extended sheep baaaaahs for my tastes, I'd still recommend Gabbeh to anyone curious about Iranian rural culture. --Woodruff

AS GOOD AS IT GETS. This is one of the first films in what promises to be a rich and varied genre--the Prozac movie. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a really mean novelist with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a razor-sharp wit. The first half of As Good As It Gets, before the guy gets medicated, is honestly funny. Udall is the prototypical nasty New Yorker. He's fair, too. He hates everyone equally. But a saucy waitress (Helen Hunt) makes him "want to be a better man," and, in the style of Awakenings, he begins to snap out of his dark, dank little world. The second half of the movie is less funny than the first; Helen Hunt does okay in short scenes but becomes insufferable when she's on screen too long. And of course, she's way too young for Nicholson. Still, he is in rare form in this movie, charming and repulsive both, and there are plenty of genuine comic moments. This is about as good as it gets for seven bucks at the multiplex these days. --Richter

JACKIE BROWN. Quentin Tarantino adapted his screenplay from the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, with unexpectedly lackluster results. Jackie Brown has the flat, literal look of a made-for-TV movie, and about as much style and charm. Tarantino does show his great knack for working with actors and making interesting casting decisions. Pam Grier--best known from her roles in '70s blaxploitation flicks Foxy Brown and Coffy--does a great job playing Jackie, a down-on-her-luck flight attendant who's a hell of a lot smarter than everyone else thinks. Bridget Fonda is funny as a stoned surfer chick who likes to hang out with criminals, and Robert Forster is wonderfully deadpan as the bail bondsman Max Cherry. But despite some good performances, Tarantino seems restrained, and concerned with keeping things slow, smooth, and real easy to understand. There's plenty of exposition, as well as intertitles to tell us where we are, just in case you go for popcorn during one of the long explanations. It's as though Tarantino doesn't trust himself to tell this story. Even the settings--mostly apartments, shopping malls and offices--seem tired and bland. --Richter

MOUSE HUNT. You know that Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon where Coyote is trying to kill Roadrunner but his trap backfires, and he falls off a cliff, and then in the next scene he's fine and tries to kill Roadrunner again, but his trap backfires, and he falls off a cliff, and then that same thing happens again and again and again until you just wish that someone at Acme would invent a device that once and for all finished off the two of them so you could just stare at the empty desert landscape? Well, if you edited out anything that was remotely funny in that cartoon, and then repeated the remaining scenes another four hundred times, you'd have made a film that was almost infinitely more entertaining than Mouse Hunt. For my part, I ran screaming from the theater after the fifth repetition of the hunters-fall-into-their-own-trap "gag," but I hear that many who stayed to the end were forever scarred, and can only walk the desolate back alleyways of life, dreaming of a better world where films have plots, characters, and even some vague sense of craft. --DiGiovanna

MR. MAGOO. Imagine humor-blind filmmakers playing "pin the comedy on the movie" and you've got Mr. Magoo. Watching Leslie Nielsen act like a jackass while squinting is almost as fun as a trip to that optometrist whose halitosis fills your nostrils every time he says "Better or worse?" A blind person who mistakenly walked into Amistad would find more laughs. Director Stanley Tong, a veteran of Jackie Chan action movies, whisks us from misused comedy setup to misused comedy setup as if desperately channel-surfing: Click. I wish Jackie Chan were here. Click. Where's Jackie?! Click. I have no idea what I'm doing. Click. Malcolm McDowell sure looks like Fife Symington. Click. Oh my god this isn't funny. Click. JACKIE!!! Click. Maybe if I go faster nobody will notice how bad this is. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. The film's only assets are Kelly Lynch, as a butt-kicking vixen/villain who changes disguises every other scene (at one point she looks like Mrs. Doubtfire); and Angus the bulldog, who's obviously too talented for this movie and should get his own feature alongside the pooch in As Good As It Gets. --Woodruff

FOR RICHER OR POORER. A complete lack of effort marks this "film." The plot, about an obnoxious land developer and his stereotypical rich-bitch shopaholic wife, each redeemed by spending a couple of weeks with an Amish family, is almost too embarrassing to recount. Every element of this entertainment alternative is so trite that I can only imagine it was written by some kind of scriptwriting computer program which analyzed all of the mediocre comedies of the last 10 years and reduced them to their most banal moments. The only thing that stands out is Kirstie Alley's incredibly grating performance, which almost makes Tim Allen look good by comparison. Almost. While I was watching this, two audience members actually fell asleep, and a third left to rent a Pauly Shore film. --DiGiovanna

TOMORROW NEVER DIES. Prior to this year, only one James Bond novel had been made into a film more than once: Thunderball. Oddly, for the latest Bond flick, the producers decided to remake Thunderball. That move sums up the lack of imagination in this film, which is mildly brightened by a fine performance by Judy Dench, who's inexplicably slumming here after her role as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. Also of note is hot Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh, who plays a Chinese secret agent who allies herself with Bond to capture the Rupert Murdoch-like supervillain. Pierce Brosnan gives a characterless performance as Bond, unenthusiastically killing his way through the international cast of bad guys. The story is, of course, mostly nonsensical, with Bond gaining and losing the superhuman ability to defeat any number of heavily armed foes, as the plot demands. Thus, he is repeatedly captured by two or three thugs, then escapes by fighting his way past entire armies. For my part, I kept hoping he'd get his snotty British ass blown off so that Michelle Yeoh could take over and kick some Occidental butt, because, unlike Bond, she didn't feel the need to make an insipid pun every time she offed someone. --DiGiovanna

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