Courage Under Fire. Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington star in this Roshomon-style tale of a fighter pilot being investigated to see if she deserves the Medal of Honor for her performance in Operation Desert Storm. Not only is the pilot a girl, but the stories of her surviving squad-mates don't match very well and Washington must work overtime to try to sort the mess out. What's more, the investigator has some skeletons to clean out of his own closet before he can bask in the hard, clear light of The Truth. The structure of this movie is interesting, but the content is sort of revolting. Washington is consumed with remorse for killing some of his men with friendly fire, but feels nothing but lasting jingoistic triumph over blowing away scads of faceless Iraqis, whom he also refers to as "fuckers." If the thought of the strongest army in the world crushing a much weaker force in order to protect its economic interests strikes you as heroic, buy a ticket and have your patriotic chain yanked.
The Frighteners. Peter Jackson's follow-up after the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures is a surprisingly unambitious, B-style horror movie. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a "psychic investigator" who uses his genuine ability to commune with the dead to swindle the bereaved into using his services. Then a real, totally malevolent ghost shows up and begins knocking off townspeople left and right, and Bannister must finally use his powers for good. Part horror movie, part comedy, The Frighteners tries to play both ends against the middle and ends up not being consistently funny or consistently scary. The special effects are great though, and you can't beat that campy, seventies, B-movie feeling.
JACK. Francis Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now and Captain Eo, brings us a "heartwarming" comedy about a 10 year-old boy who has a disease that makes him look like Robin Williams. Jack's parents have kept him home because they're afraid the other kids will taunt him for being different; but Jack is lonely, and after considerable prodding they consent to send him to school. At first the other children do tease him, but eventually they come to love him. The intersection between the idealization of childhood as an unfallen, perfectly natural state and the sexuality of an adult male body in this movie is completely bizarre. Robin Williams is supposed to be ten, but he reads Penthouse, makes passes at his teacher and tongue kisses his best friend's mom, all while teaching his friends and family about the spontaneous beauty of childlike behavior. It's interesting, but kind of disturbing, too.
Lone Star. Director John Sayles delivers an offbeat, thoughtful examination of border life and love in this winding tale of one lawman searching for his roots. Chris Cooper plays a divorced Texas sheriff trying to sort out fact from legend, particularly in regard to his father, who may or may not have been a bad kind of a guy. His search leads him across the big, dusty state and into a half-dozen different recollections of a puzzling past. Though the characters have an annoying propensity for explaining their motivations in gruesome psychological detail, and though Sayles (as always) can't resist an opportunity to preach the liberal cause; and though the production values of this movie are so shoddy that nearly 20 annoying minutes of it are out of sync, Lone Star still somehow manages to be an engaging, surprising film.
Phenomenon. It's hard to spell and even harder to watch: Phenomenon, a corny, cloying, life-is-a-gift type of flick that tries its darnedest to recreate the optimism of Frank Capra movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. The marvel of Capra's movies though, is that they're actually incredibly bleak stories with a burst of light at the end, while Phenomenon keeps to a steady level of saccharine drivel throughout. John Travolta stars as a dimwitted mechanic who sees a light in the sky and then becomes breathtakingly intelligent, except that he can't figure out how to do practical things, like consult with the faculty at Stanford when the guys at Berkeley refuse to see him. Sentimental music and hazy, gold-filtered shots sabotage any chance at dignity this project may have ever had. This is one of those movies that might have been kind of good if it wasn't so idiotic.
A Time to Kill. An overblown but entertaining courtroom drama, based on a John Grisham novel, about racial strife in the deep South. Samuel L. Jackson plays a humble working man driven to take the law into his own hands when a pair of good ol' boys rape his young daughter; Matthew McConaughey plays the white-bread attorney who decides to defend him. (Chris Cooper is also in this movie, in a strange reprise of his role in Lone Star.) Somewhere in there is Sandra Bullock, playing an eager young law student who both helps and distracts the white guy from his lawyerin'. Yes, morality is laid out on a nice flat grid, but the fact that there even is a moral battle here gives this movie a heavy, heavy dose of tension and drama, despite the fact that its view of the South and the people in it are so stereotyped they're practically cartoons. If only director Joel Schumacher (of Batman Forever fame) would leave out the swelling music, this movie might have some real power.
Trainspotting. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, this hip, streetwise movie meanders through the underworld of Scottish drug culture with a cold, steely eye. A group of disillusioned blokes sneer, shoot-up and slug their way through the stupefying sludge of middle-class life, hoping drugs or crime or a combination of the two will help them transcend the boredom and humility of being young, without ambition and Scottish. The funny, fast-talking characters don't have enough direction in their lives to allow this movie to have a plot, but who needs a plot when you have such a great script?
GREAT MASTERS. The Screening Room concludes its Great Masters Series with the third in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's trilogy about post-war Germany. Veronika Voss (1982), set in the 1950s, is Fassbinder's homage to UFA studios and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard: a journalist becomes involved in the life of a faded screen idol of the '40s (possibly an intimate of Goebbels) who's descended into the desperate throes of morphine addiction. Screenings are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 9 and 10; and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 11. Call 622-2262 for show times.
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