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.
Batman Forever. This summer's Batman has a new face (Val Kilmer), a new girlfriend (Nicole Kidman), a new sidekick (Chris O'Donnell, playing Robin), and two new villains (Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones) to battle. He's also got a new director, Joel Schumacher, who directs the spectacle with a glossy light touch that seems altogether more appropriate than the self-consciously moody approach Tim Burton took during the first two outings. Though the series has never been worthy of the hype it has generated, this one's pretentious aspects are transparent enough that you can enjoy the movie for the slick, stupid, self-referential commercial that it is. For once, nobody will believe the lie that a film about a comic book character adds up to a grand artistic vision; that's a blessing that makes this picture the lesser of the three evils.
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.
The Bridges Of Madison County. Based on the popular Robert James Waller book, this Clint Eastwood tearjerker glorifies an affair between a neglected housewife (Meryl Streep) and a worldly photographer (Eastwood, who at age 64, is starting to look like a turtle). And oh, what a lovely fantasy for lonely middle-aged housewives it is: The sex is great, the encounter is brief, and there are no consequences afterwards. It's about as passionate and tough-minded as a Hallmark card, but Streep's expert performance renders many of the scenes touching enough to draw out a tear or two.
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.
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.
Mad Love. Two Seattle teens, played by Chris O'Donnell (ever the perfect boyfriend) and Drew Barrymore (ever the flirty thrill-seeker), decide to run away and live a wild life on the road. But after a series of booming alternative music-filled travel montages, the love story becomes pointlessly morose: O'Donnell realizes that Barrymore is a manic-depressive, needs medication and must be taken home. What a dirty trick on the audience. O'Donnell is effective in this useless role, but Barrymore, who is asked to stretch herself, dismally reveals her lack of acting ability.
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.
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.
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.
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