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 ANASTASIA. Against all odds, Anastasia eventually won me over. The movie gets off to a typically lame-brained start by attributing the fall of the Czar to a magical spell by Rasputin, conveniently ignoring the rest of the Russian Revolution. Glossing over Anastasia's amnesia and the murder of her parents doesn't help. But once the "could-she-be-the-princess?" fantasy kicks in and leaves history behind, Anastasia becomes a pleasant little movie full of first-rate animation and mercifully brief musical sequences. The love story between the title character and Dmitri (a con-man who unknowingly trains Anastasia to pretend to be Anastasia) is so effective, in fact, that the evil schemes of Rasputin (now half-dead) and his droll bat sidekick Bartok (hilariously voiced by Hank Azaria) almost seem tacked on. I'm not so sure Anastasia will be a hit with kids--it scores low on the easily hummable tunes and cute animals meter--but I enjoyed it. Moreover, it's great to see 20th Century Fox steal some of Disney's fire (definitely see this before sitting through The Little Mermaid again). Besides, even when it was slow I had a swell old time closing my eyes and picturing Meg Ryan and John Cusack as the voices. --Woodruff

FLUBBER. In this remake of The Absent Minded Professor, Robin Williams plays the Fred MacMurray role not just absent-humoredly, but with that saccharine vocal lilt he always uses in kids' movies--the one that makes him sound like he's trying to reassure a baby. The flubber itself is anthropomorphized to the point where it becomes a Gummi human, thus saving us the tedious task of imagining its personality ourselves. Then there's Weebo, an intelligent flying robot/secretary whose crush on Williams is, to be honest, rather sick. Basically, everything in Flubber is blibber-blubber. Screenwriter John Hughes and his team of corporate filmmakers have turned the once-charming Disney story into an effects-dominated rehash that's lost nearly all of its bounce. --Woodruff

HOME ALONE 3. Sometimes, when awakened in the middle of the night, as if by an unpleasant dream, even though no dream is remembered, we will stare upwards, unable to move or to reach for the light or to make a sound, in spite of the darkness and the sense that something which is not frightening has in some way scared us. If the bed is otherwise empty, the house devoid of company, then there's no one to turn to for solace, no one to whom we can say, "I don't know what it is; nor could I explain it if I did know. I only know that what I am was felt to be in jeopardy, or perhaps beyond that, unredeemable, irretrievable, even undone and never made." On nights such as these, when even our souls threaten to abandon us, we can truly, and with deepest sensibility, say that we are Home Alone. So take the kids because this is a slam-bang adventure where a single, scrappy lad with Rube Goldberg's inventiveness and Errol Flynn's panache manages to repeatedly thwart, humiliate, and thrash the kookiest gang of international criminals this side of the IRA!!! --DiGiovanna

THE JACKAL. An assassination plot is about to be carried out by a ruthless hit-man who's a master of disguise, and the only man who can stop him must be released from prison in order to do so. Now that's originality! For all who haven't seen The Rock, In the Line of Fire, The Professional, The Day of the Jackal, or about 17 dozen other films about über-assassins and experts let out of jail so they can stop them, this is the most daring, innovative movie since Godard's Breathless. Director Michael Caton-Jones approaches Bruce Willis' smirking sadism in much the same way he did Tim Roth's character in Rob Roy--that is, he lets mind-numbing evil permeate the entire picture, hoping we'll be relieved when the accent-voiced hero (Richard Gere) finally saves the day. Aye, isn't it time for a new approach, laddie? --Woodruff

KISS OR KILL. Just in case you haven't seen enough variations on the young-lovers-on-the-run movie, here's one set in the desolate Australian outback. The twist is that the lovers, played by Matt Day and Frances O'Conner (both last seen in Love and Other Catastrophes), have good reason to suspect each other of the throat-slitting murders that mysteriously occur wherever they go. Though the film feels cool, with its grainy cinematography, enigmatic minor characters and listless narration, it's loosely executed to a fault. Key narrative elements are left so sketchy, so "whatever," that suspense drains through the cracks. Somebody please tell director Bill Bennett that excessive jump cuts and other forms of purposeful sloppiness no longer qualify as style. --Woodruff

THE RAINMAKER. John Grisham's story of a courtroom battle between a fledgling lawyer and a corrupt insurance company may be too slight for the big screen, but (shhh!) don't tell Francis Ford Coppola--he thinks he's directing an epic. He's turned this TV-movie-of-the-week into a two-and-a-half-hour, star-studded opus complete with an irrelevant and equally TV-like sub-plot involving Claire Danes as an abused wife. In spite of its generic underpinnings, however, The Rainmaker is a fine film: The pacing's smooth, the cinematography and Memphis locations lovely, and the performances kick butt. Jon Voight is snaky as ever as a conniving corporate lawyer; and newcomer Johnny Whitworth is well-restrained as a leukemia victim who dies because the insurance company won't honor his claim to get a bone-marrow transplant. Best of all are Mickey Rourke, chewing up the scenery as a shifty lawyer named "Bruiser," and Danny DeVito as Matt Damon's unscrupulous but practical-minded assistant. I usually find DeVito annoying, but he almost steals the show here. Mary Kay Place, Dean Stockwell, Roy Scheider, Danny Glover and the great Teresa Wright also star. --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

SHALL WE DANCE? This elegant, sweet-spirited comedy focuses on Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo), a quiet-tempered 42-year-old businessman who starts secretly taking dance lessons to ward off his mid-life crisis. As his dancing gradually improves, he begins feeling less empty, and that's great for him but not for his wife, who worries he's having an affair. Which, in a way, he is--though you can bet they'll be two-stepping by the end of the movie. Writer/director Masayuki Suo's use of dancing as a metaphor for marriage and life certainly qualifies as corny, but the story addresses its characters' need to rise above their regimented existence with touching amiability; and the supporting cast, a combination of frustrated dance instructors and bumbling would-be waltzers, is terrific. The film's real strength, though, lies in its pleasantly flowing dance scenes, which eschew editing in favor of wide shots so that the screen becomes the dance floor. Shall We Dance? won all of Japan's 13 Academy Awards, and it's the only movie I've ever seen that inspired a couple to dance in the parking lot afterwards. --Woodruff

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