CRIMSON TIDE. Tony Scott, director of Top Gun, once again glorifies a division of the armed forces with commercial editing rhythms, overpowering sound effects and monotonously slick cinematography. This time the action takes place aboard a nuclear submarine, which may or may not have orders to launch the first strike of World War III. Though mutiny and torpedo battles are involved, the movie's only real meat comes from the verbal sparring between Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, two stereotypically diametrical officers who argue endlessly over a trumped-up ethical question about whether to follow orders or follow your heart. Even without a periscope, you can see the finish coming from miles away.
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.
DON JUAN DEMARCO. As best-lover-in-the-world performances go, Johnny Depp does surprisingly well in this frivolous ode to the pleasures of giving love. With his Spanish accent and confident, soothing manner, you almost believe he could make women melt at his touch. Marlon Brando, meanwhile, does not convey such charisma. Playing the psychiatrist who tries to understand Depp's fantasy, Brando appears to be walking through the movie to pick up a paycheck. Fat and lackluster, Brando does his best to make sure all his scenes (even with Faye Dunaway, who tries her best) fall embarrassingly flat.
THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. Though blessed with the acting charms of Hugh Grant, Colm Meaney and Tara Fitzgerald, this tale of Welsh villagers who contrive to add 20 feet to a nearby hill so that mappers will label it a mountain is simply too thin to warrant feature film status. It's an inoffensive, cute little story that has very little in the way of surprises, laughs or insight.
FORGET PARIS. Director-actor Billy Crystal has created a new, rather bland concoction: Woody Allen Lite. In this all-too-formulaic tale of the ups and downs of a relationship, Crystal tries, with occasional success, to turn the banal disappointments of marriage into comic fodder. Co-starring with Debra Winger (who comes across as attractive but oddly unsympathetic), Crystal's livelier gags soon give way to masturbation jokes and mediocre, forced melodrama. It's sort of like When Harry Almost Divorced Sally. And oooh, somebody turn down that saccharine lite-jazz score.
French Kiss. Meg Ryan's shtick as a naive, pouty, perky romantic lead has officially worn out its welcome. In what amounts to When Pierre Met Sally, Ryan and co-star Kevin Kline undergo a long friendship/courtship while Ryan sneaks around France plotting to win back her fiance (Timothy Hutton), who has fallen for a Parisian barbie-doll type. Kline rises to the occasion as an impotent, heavily accented jewel thief, but for once, Ryan's wide-eyed mannerisms fail her. Wet-duck-fuzz hair aside, Ryan is beginning to look like the Doris Day of the '90s. The slapstick script, which includes scenes of our heroine vomiting due to lactose intolerance and toppling backwards over a dessert cart, doesn't help.
KISS OF DEATH. Loosely translated, the title might as well read "sex and violence," which is about all this David Caruso vehicle has to offer. It certainly doesn't have anything worthwhile going on in its story, a feeble blend of the usual cops-and-mobsters elements. And Caruso's performance, with his television-trained tics and eyebrow raising, is sadly limited. The whole enterprise looks and feels an awful lot like a TV program, and you'll probably walk out miffed you paid cash for what is essentially an episode of NYPD Blue with a more lenient censor. Nicolas Cage and Samuel Jackson also star, in roles so unimaginative that each is given a colorful physical ailment (asthma and a broken tear duct, respectively) to make them more interesting. It doesn't work.
MY FAMILY. This epic-length tale of a Los Angeles Mexican family is divided into a triptych centering on three men: the '20s father whose endurance allowed the family to take roots in this new land; the '50s son whose rejection of his father's values leads to tragedy; and the other, younger son who in the '80s must reconcile his identification with both men. Jimmy Smits gives a strong performance in the latter role, and the film's storybook quality has appeal. But too many corny, watered-down or otherwise ill-conceived scenes rob the picture of any real impact outside of being a fond family memoir.
PANTHER. Nobody can say that Mario Van Peebles lacks energy. His docudrama about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party is aswirl with camera movement, Oliver Stone-esque editing, blustering rhetoric and non-stop gunplay. What Mario Van Peebles does lack is restraint, and that's a big problem. Not only does it become increasingly exhausting to try to keep up with who's who among the complicated network of key Panthers, but the facts are stretched to such extremes you leave the theater wondering if anything presented was true. The film ends by explaining that the FBI introduced cheap drugs into black neighborhoods in order to discourage black activism, and that's the reason drugs have so corroded our society.
THE PEREZ FAMILY. This rich, colorful film from director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) follows the attempt of a Cuban refugee (Alfred Molina) to reunite with his American wife (Anjelica Huston) after 20 years. Marisa Tomei heats up the screen as a saucy prostitute who accompanies him, and Chazz Palminteri provides low-key charm as a policeman with an eye for Huston. Though laced with themes about multiculturalism and the American Dream, the movie is primarily a tale of old love versus new. Nair's attention to detail and deft creative touches manage to give the picture both emotional weight and a buoyant, fanciful spirit.
PULP FICTION. Quentin Tarantino's second outing as director/screenwriter shifts from the tight plotting and characterization of Reservoir Dogs to a sprawling, meandering format that (barely) weaves three urban crime stories together. Tarantino, a talented writer, goes on several banal dialogue binges and then adds his customary unsettling explosions of violence. On a few occasions, the mixture is gritty fun; on more than a few others, it becomes tedious. With interesting performances by John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Rosanna Arquette, Eric Stoltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Maria de Medeiros.
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.
ROB ROY. Pass the Scot tissue--here's yet another highland film bent on glorifying men with heavy accents, long hair and big morals. Liam Neeson plays the honorable title character with his usual hard-to-resist charm; and Tim Roth, as the jaded, fearsome and strangely effeminate villain, is the perfect antithesis to the hero. But the movie lingers over its themes with dull reverence, never mustering up enough cinematic oomph to add meat to its message. Something is amiss when a movie about primal purity adopts the pacing of a tea party.
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Based on the British 1960 chiller of the same name, this John Carpenter picture follows what happens when several women in a quaint northern town mysteriously and simultaneously become pregnant. Their offspring: eight white-haired geniuses with telepathic powers and a collective mean streak. Though the material needed to be better updated to justify a remake (as it stands, it looks like a cheesy episode of X-Files), Carpenter directs with his usual immense skill, and the campy selection of players--Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Mark Hamill--give surprisingly engaging performances.
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. This romantic comedy provides Sandra Bullock, last seen as the bus driver in Speed, the chance to capitalize on all her best (and most obvious) qualities: her boisterous laugh, her uncertain smile, her shy sex appeal. Bullock plays a lonely subway-booth clerk whose dreams of finding Mr. Right are realized after she pretends to be a comatose man's fiancee (so if you want to get technical about it, the film should really be titled While You Were Comatose). Bill Pullman, as the eventual suitor, is Bullock's appealing mirror image: they're the model of coupled cuteness. Unfortunately, this cuteness is infectious, turning into a disease that spreads over the whole movie until even the loathsome and tacky characters start acting cuddly. It's a bit much.
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