Below are dozens of film reviews that I wrote for Boxoffice Magazine, then, the leading national publication for exhibitors.
Trees Lounge **
Starring Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane and Mark Boone Junior. Directed and written by Steve Buscemi. Produced by Brad Wyman and Chris Hanley. An Orion release. Drama. Rated R for plentiful strong language and some drug content. Running time: 89 min. Opens 10/11 in New York.
Steve Buscemi has made a name for himself playing weird, quirky characters who emerge from the underside of life and somehow glorify it. But “Trees Lounge,” his directing and writing debut (in which he also stars), falls short of that mark set by the likes of “In the Soup” and “Mystery Train,” providing a listless drama that never builds to any conclusion. Buscemi plays barfly Tommy Basilio, a motivation-less but intelligent alcoholic who spends most of his time in a Long Island dive called the Trees Lounge, which is peopled by an assortment of other has-beens and going-nowhere. By virtue of his own self-destructive tendencies, Tommy has alienated his family and pregnant ex-girlfriend, Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco), who now lives with his ex-boss, Rob (“The Client’s” Anthony LaPaglia). Obsessed with his loss, Tommy drinks himself into oblivion. Meanwhile, he survives by taking advantage of whomever he can and picking up women who give him half a chance. Sharing a corner in this depressing scenario is Mike (Mark Boone Junior), who like Tommy has screwed up his relationship with his wife and young daughter. The two men bond, briefly, for the purpose of snorting drugs and trying to score with two underage women. But even Mike rejects Tommy when he discovers Tommy’s true nature. Carol Kane plays Connie, the sympathetic bartender who is perhaps Tommy’s only true friend. In this Live Entertainment production, Buscemi chooses to focus on images of despair, decay and alienation. But he provides little reason to empathize with his characters. With an ending that is as incomplete as Tommy’s life, “Trees Lounge” remains as fuzzy as a memory as the bottom of a whiskey bottle after a long day at the bar. -Pat Kramer
|LAST MAN STANDING|
Starring Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken. Directed and written by Walter Hill. Produced by Arthur Sarkissian. A New Line release. Action/thriller. Rated R for pervasive strong violence and some sexuality. Running time: 102 min. Opens wide 9/20.
Based on famed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” “Last Man Standing” is the American western version of the samurai classic. Bruce Willis plays John Smith, a lone gunman who, equipped with a keen wit and a quick trigger finger, manages to survive repeated attacks by two rival gangs of bootleggers by playing one side against the other. Willis is lean and mean, a convincing gunslinger whose love for the ladies is his only sensitive attribute. After driving into a “jerk-water town” on the Tex-Mex border, Smith receives a stern warning from the Doyle Gang to leave town after he stares a little too long at the Bossman’s girl (Karina Lombard). But Smith is not easily intimidated and decides to further the feud by killing two henchmen. When rival bootlegger Strozzi makes him an offer, he becomes fully vested in their war, alternating between both, depending on who offers the better money. In the process, the two sides decimate each other until, finally, Smith falls victim to his own game. Although Willis provides a commanding performance, it’s Bruce Dern as a corrupt sheriff who has the best lines, providing some well-needed comic relief in this heavy, gritty modern-day western. Lombard gives a haunting turn as Felina, the Native American beauty imprisoned by Doyle. Christopher Walken adds a scary presence in a small role as a hit man. Ry Cooder’s edgy soundtrack provides just the right amount of atmosphere to the plethora of action scenes; you can almost smell the gunpowder smoking. In the translation from samurai to western, however, something is lost, resulting in a film that is top-heavy with “overkill” and eventually tedious to sit through. Someone should have told writer/director Walter Hill that he’d made his point, and passed it, a few thousand frames back. -Pat Kramer
Starring Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Brian Gibson. Written by Ted Tally. Produced by Irwin Winkler and Rob Cowan. A Columbia release. Thriller. Rated R for violence, language and sexuality. Running time: 120 min.
In this intense, fast-paced suspense/ thriller, Demi Moore plays the unlikely role of juror Annie Laird, a New York artist who decides to become a juror in a mobster’s murder trial for some “excitement.” Instead, she becomes the target of a shadowy assassin who’s known as the “Teacher” (Alec Baldwin), whose campaign of terror invades every aspect of her life. In doing so, she is forced to choose between her moral values and her teenage son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who the Teacher promises to kill if she fails to vote “not guilty” for mobster boss Louie Boffano (Tony Lo Bianco). With director Brian Gibson (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”) and scripter Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs”) onboard, one would expect more of this film, which is high on entertainment quality but low on believability. But Both Baldwin and Moore offer emotionally driven performances–Baldwin is transfixing as the stalker alternating between perpetrator and savior–and “The Juror” aptly captures the dark and fearful sides of human nature. -Pat Kramer
|THE HEMP REVOLUTION|
Directed, written and produced by Anthony Clarke. A Tara release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 72 min.
Hemp, the controversial plant with an abundance of uses, is the focal point of this data-packed documentary. Directed and produced by Australian Anthony Clarke (who helped make “The Panama Deception,” also a Tara release), “The Hemp Revolution” aims more to inform than to entertain; top-heavy with facts and figures, it tends to lag. The intent here might be legitimizing the subject, but the film lacks focus and its interviews drag on long past most people’s attention span; concision should’ve been the key. Clarke addresses virtually every angle imaginable in his study of the hemp plant, including its historical significance for clipper ship sails and its versatility of use in the manufacture of paper, clothing, food and even fuel. But the film doesn’t gather steam until the subject of hemp’s most notorious byproduct–marijuana–arrives about 20 minutes in. This is likely the reason most people are watching, but Clarke buries his lead. To aid anti-drug laws, efforts have been made through the years to restrict hemp’s access to the public. In documenting this point, the movie examines the politics of the issue, with Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush among the opposition voices. Juxtaposing the paranoia and restrictive policies inhibiting hemp’s use with descriptions of the plant’s usefulness make this segment the film’s most interesting. Still, “The Hemp Revolution” seems more suitable for a PBS audience than for mainstream moviegoers looking for entertainment on a Saturday night. -Pat Kramer
|MOONLIGHT AND VALENTINO|
Starring Elizabeth Perkins, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner and Gwyneth Paltrow. Directed by David Anspaugh. Written by Ellen Simon. Produced by Tim Bevin, Eric Fellner and Allison Owen. A Gramercy release. Drama. Not yet rated.
A film that pulls at your heartstrings numerous times throughout its quirky, touching and emotional story, “Moonlight & Valentino” portrays the close and sometimes bittersweet relationships of four women. The death of the husband of a college poetry instructor (Elizabeth Perkins) brings her together with her younger sister (Gwyneth Paltrow), ex-stepmother (Kathleen Turner) and best friend and neighbor (Whoopi Goldberg). Singer Jon Bon Jovi has a small but significant role as a sexy housepainter, and his presence relieves the intensity of their emotions for a short while and adds a little “beefcake” to the story. Unfortunately, the film bites off more than it can chew with its four leads, all of whom are complex women caught up in their self-obsessions. Despite the volume of great talent, “Moonlight & Valentino” leaves too many loose ends and unexplained scenarios with its characters, forcing viewers to sort out the remains of their days for themselves. -Pat Kramer
Starring Radek Holub and Alena Mihulova. Directed by Karel Kachyna. Written by Karel Cabradek and Karel Kachyna. Produced by Karel Skop. A Cinema Parallel release. Drama. Czech-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 86 min.
At first glance, one may wonder why Czech director Karel Kachyna chose to make this 1993 film. What was so important about the life of a man, referred to as “the lowest of the low,” living in a remote mountain village of Czechoslovakia? The main character, Adam, is a prostitute’s simple-minded son (Radek Holub) who sells his precious cow to pay for his dying mother’s morphine. After her death, further despair and abject poverty take hold as Adam struggles to survive in his terribly cruel existence. However, what starts out as something akin to film noir gradually takes on a different life with the arrival of Rosa (Alena Mihulova), a young prostitute who takes pity on Adam. Her introduction into his world and their ensuing struggles awaken the young man’s spirit. Although audiences might find the film’s bleakness to be often overpowering, Kachyna always manages to allow a fragile thread of hope to survive. -Pat Kramer
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Starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore. Directed and produced by Richard Donner. Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski. A Warner Bros. release. Action. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 137 min.
In this Silver Pictures production, veteran assassin Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) has earned his reputation as the best in the business and is all but ready to retire his weapon when he discovers Miguel Bain (“Desperado’s” Antonio Banderas) waiting in the wings, ready to steal his thunder. It becomes a personal challenge to Rath to remain in the game long enough to terminate his opponent. In this colorful battle of wills, hit men Rath and Bain duke it out to see who’s the quickest and the most cunning in eliminating their carefully chosen targets. Director/producer Richard Donner (the “Lethal Weapon” franchise) keeps this film moving with plenty of intense action scenes, explosions, chase scenes and white-hot firepower, all well balanced by Banderas’ light-hearted “chit-chat” and Stallone’s classically stoical performance. Julianne Moore is refreshingly witty and vulnerable as the eccentric Electra, a woman Rath was to kill but ends up befriending. Stallone, Banderas and Moore not only work well together, they bring out the best in each other due to their different acting styles. Overall, “Assassins” is a film that shines for its thrills, color, humor and suspense that lasts right to the very end. And, although the film’s premise revolves around the art of murder, its audience-pleasing conclusion revolves around redemption. -Pat Kramer
Starring Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, N’bushe Wright, Freddy Rodriguez and Bokeen Woodbine. Directed and produced by the Hughes Brothers. Written by Michael Henry Brown. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated R for strong graphic violence, language, a sex scene and some drug use. Running time: 118 min.
Welcome to “Platoon”/”Born on the Fourth of July” meets “Superfly.” This visually graphic film traces the journey of a young black man, Anthony Curtis (“Menace II Society’s” Larenz Tate), and his two friends Skip (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) from high school to Vietnam and back to the ghettos of the South Bronx. It’s a coming-of-age movie showing how racism, war and poverty turns ambitious young men into criminals prepared to kill to survive. Brutal and rife with violence, this Caravan production follows in the footsteps of Allen and Albert Hughes’ filmmaking debut, “Menace II Society.” The title, “Dead Presidents,” is street slang for money, which becomes the central theme for each of the characters in their struggles. As Anthony, Tate creates a sympathetic character driven to the edge of desperation; Keith David (“Clockers”) gives Anthony’s mentor, Kirby, a cruel edge and illustrates how corruption can transform a man. Composer Danny Elfman creates a masterful soundtrack that underscores the movie’s dark theme. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were overzealous in trying to cover a variety of issues, leaving the story choppy and without resolution in places. Instead, too much attention was given to the scenes eliciting shock value, as if that would somehow compensate for the weak plot. In “Dead Presidents,” moviegoers will be shell-shocked rather than moved by a good storyline that got carried away in the telling. -Pat Kramer
Starring Anna Thomson, John Ventimiglia, Miranda Stuart Rhyne and Charlotte Blythe. Directed and written by Rebecca Miller. Produced by Ron Kastner. A Tree Farm release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 103 min.
| As interesting as it is bizarre, “Angela” reveals the spiritual struggles two children face as they strive to make sense of the violent mood swings of their manic-depressive mother and the beliefs they create about their roles in causing her troubles and curing her. Vividly portraying the roles of 10-year-old Angela and her six-year-old sister are newcomers Miranda Stuart Rhyne and Charlotte Blythe. Anna Thomson (“Unforgiven”) plays the mother, once a singer but now often locked inside her mental illness. John Ventimiglia (“The Funeral”) is their father, who brings the girls to church in an effort to give the girls normalcy; there, Angela learns about evil and redemption, and she decides to create perilous purification rituals to make her mother well. “Angela” marks the directing debut of actress Rebecca Miller (“Wind”), daughter of playwright Arthur Miller. A double award winner at Sundance, this message movie is hauntingly beautiful, but at times it is fraught with so much symbolism that it can be difficult to follow. -Pat Kramer
Directed and written by Susanne Ofteringer. Produced by Annette Pisa-cane and Thomas Mertens. A Roxie release. Documentary. Some French- and German-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 75 min.
A documentary about the rough-voiced siren from the ’60s avant-garde rock group “The Velvet Underground,” “Nico Icon” is a powerful, often disturbing portrayal of a woman haunted by her elevation to icon status for little more than her physical attributes. Nico rose to fame after appearing in Fellini’s 1960 film, “La Dolce Vita,” and Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” in 1966, but she died a drug addict at age 42. Through interviews (some in foreign languages, with subtitling onscreen too short a time to read in full) conducted with Nico’s family, friends, band mates and lovers, filmmaker Susanne Ofteringer creates a larger-than-life image of this eccentric. Uncomfortable with the fame her beauty brought her, Nico shunned the public and sought refuge in a heroin habit. The film details her progression from lovely blonde teenage model to gaunt, black hair-dyed solo artist who seemed drawn more to death than to life. The film also benefits from having plenty of photos and film footage of Nico reflecting on a variety of subjects. -Pat Kramer
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer. Directed and written by Michael Mann. Produced by Michael Mann and Art Linson. A Warner Bros. release. Action/drama. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 172 min.
In this riveting, suspenseful action/ drama, two of today’s best actors, Oscar winners Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, face off in a plot that’s fast-paced and exciting despite a nearly three-hour length. DeNiro plays the ringleader of a supergroup of thieves who pull strategically planned, high-stakes robberies in L.A. His right-hand man (Val Kilmer) is an explosives expert, anxious to make the score in the hope of saving his marriage to a disgruntled wife (“Smoke’s” Ashley Judd). When the thieves kill armored-car guards during a robbery, detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) arrives in search of the culprits. An intense man whose personal life is falling apart around him, Hanna lives and breathes for his work. “Heat” is DeNiro and Pacino’s first film together since 1974’s “The Godfather, Part II.” Both men are in top form as “men of the night.”-Pat Kramer
Starring Jeff Bridges. Directed and written by Walter Hill. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck. A UA release. Western. Rated R for Wild West violence and a sex scene. Running time: 97 min.
Most westerns celebrate the romance of the wild west; carving away all nostalgia, with “Wild Bill” writer/director Walter Hill (“Geronimo: An American Legend”) shows the hardened nature of one of the era’s most famous gunmen. Adapting Thomas Babe’s play “Fathers and Sons” and Pete Dexter’s novel “Deadwood,” Hill delineates a man immortalized for his ruthlessness as much as for his sharpshooting. As Hickok cohort Calamity Jane, Ellen Barkin gives a fair performance as a men-slugging, whiskey-downing, love-starved woman. Despite Barkin’s earnest performance, her good looks don’t make a convincing match for her character. As Wild Bill, however, Bridges has uncanny zest. With bare but essential ingredients, he’s able to convey a great depth of character, giving us just a glimpse beneath his outer pugnacity to disclose a truer spirit that, in Hickok’s quest for survival, never got to see the light of day. -Pat Kramer
Starring Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Jon Amiel. Written by Ann Biderman and Jay Presson Allen. Produced by Arnon Milchan and Mark Tarlov. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 123 min.
In this grippingly suspenseful thriller, Oscar winner Holly Hunter stars opposite Sigourney Weaver as the two unite against a “Seven”-like serial killer who’s been copycatting infamous murders. Not a movie for the weak-willed, “Copycat” overflows with footage of bloodied women’s bodies (perhaps more than is necessary) to create the repulsion and fear that comes with a mass murderer on the loose. But, as a thriller, the story lives up to its name, taking the viewer on an intense ride with many fast turns. -Pat Kramer
|TWO IF BY SEA|
Starring Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary. Directed by Bill Bennett. Written by Denis Leary, Mike Armstrong and Ann Lembeck. Produced by James G. Robinson. A Warner Bros. release. Romantic comedy. Rated R for language. Running time: 95 min.
A better title for this movie would be “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” in reference to the films failed attempts at romance, comedy and adventure. Denis Leary (“Operation Dumbo Drop”) plays petty, blue-collar criminal Frank O’Brien, who flees the scene of a Newport Beach robbery after stealing a $4 million Matisse, which he thinks is worth only $100,000. Along for the ride is his adventure-hungry girlfriend, Roz (Sandra Bullock), who despite being uneducated is the more street-smart of the two. While waiting to unload the stolen portrait, they try to pass themselves off as “the idle rich,” failing miserably in some humorous, and on other occasions very weak, scenes. At the same time, they are pursued by teams of incompetent police, an FBI agent who takes himself too seriously and a bunch of dumb-luck thieves who provide a Laurel and Hardy type of comic relief. As an actor and comedian, Leary has always done well with his caustic wit, but that persona works against this romantic comedy’s grain. The main problem with the film is the weak, not-so-clever dialogue; were it not for the constant profanity that doubles for dialogue, this film might succeed as adolescent humor. In addition, there are several awkward scenes where the actors appear to give up altogether on their lines and are ad-libbing, perhaps hoping to come up with something better on the fly. Their efforts to pull the plot together come off as embarrassingly amateur, which is a real shame based on both actors’ winning track records in other films. With little charisma between the two stars, “Two If By Sea” fails as a romance or as a comedy and barely skates by as a good caper movie, due mostly to the efforts of the supporting players, who make this film a little less painful to watch.-Pat Kramer
|DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOUTH CENTRAL WHILE DRINKING YOUR JUICE IN THE HOOD|
Starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans. Directed by Paris Barclay. Written by Shawn and Marlon Wayans & Phil Beauman. Produced by Keenen Ivory Wayans. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated R for strong language, sexuality, some drug content and violence. Running time: 84 min.
If you liked “In Living Color,” the Fox TV comedy in which the Wayans clan came to fame, you’ll love “Don’t Be A Menace…,” an uproarious film that successfully crosses the racial barrier by finding humor in the most unlikely places. From the O.J. trial to drive-by shootings to rappin’, armed grandmas, the film quickly moves from subject to subject, at a pace that keeps the humor fresh. Shawn Wayans plays the well-intentioned Ashtray, who returns to his old neighborhood in South Central and reunites with his homies: Loc Doc (Marlon Wayans), the wheelchair-bound Crazy Legs (Suli McCullough) and Malcolm X wannabe Preach (Chris Spencer), as well as the seductive Dashiki (Tracey Cherelle Jones). Along the way, Ashtray encounters all sorts of trials and tribulations in scenes that spoof every major black film to come down the pike. In doing so, they breathe new life into typical scenes from the ghetto, making a mockery of the violence and hatred that is the target of their unlicensed humor. “Don’t Be A Menace…” reunites the team of Keenen Ivory Wayans and Eric L. Gold, who produced “A Low-Down Dirty Shame.” Keenen also is featured as the hood’s postman, ducking bullets as part of his routine. Marlon Wayans is hysterical as the deranged, beer-swilling, arsenal-bearing Loc Doc. Similarly, Shawn Wayans is smokin’ as boy-next-door Ashtray. But the most memorable performance comes from Loc Doc’s Grandma (Helen Martin), a tough-talking, fist-fighting, break-dancing senior citizen who drives the meanest-looking set of wheels in the hood. Believable, enjoyable and totally entertaining, “Don’t Be A Menace…” provides the humor where it’s most needed and then some. -Pat Kramer
|EYE FOR AN EYE|
Starring Sally Fields, Kiefer Sutherland and Ed Harris. Directed by John Schlesinger. Written by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa. Produced by Michael I. Levy. A Paramount release. Suspense/ drama. Rated R for language and disturbing violence that includes rape. Running time: 100 min.
Despite a great storyline (being based on the novel of the same name by Erika Holzer), this contemporary suspense/ drama about a mother-turned-vigilante is just too predictable. Two-time Oscar winner Sally Fields stars as Karen McCann, an L.A. businesswoman and the mother of two who loses her teenage daughter to a rape and murder. Ed Harris (“Apollo 13”) plays her rock-steady husband Mack; Joe Mantegna (“The Usual Suspects”) portrays Detective Denillo. When police arrest transient deliveryman Robert Doob (“A Few Good Men’s” Kiefer Sutherland) but he escapes prosecution due to a loophole in the legal system, Karen vows she will get justice. So begins the true story that pits a city housewife overcome with rage against a violent career criminal. With such riveting material, this film should have succeeded on its own merit. Directed by the award-winning John Schlesinger (“The Innocent”), the film grimly portrays the effects that violence has on its victims when justice is not served. However, in dramatizing the plot, the filmmakers so obviously stack the deck against McCann (via a combination of botched legal representation, ineffectual police and the sheer loathsomeness of the attacker) that her character never builds character strength. In addition, Field’s portrayal of victim McCann is a bit too superficial and simply too perky to establish any real emotion. Mercifully, the scenes of violence are also kept to a minimum, sparing the viewer additional emotional turmoil. In the end, the filmmakers go too far overboard in trying to vindicate Field’s character. In doing so, they remove the true grit of the film and replace this life-blood with a Hollywood version of what happens when the criminal justice system does not prevail. –Pat Kramer
|LIVE NUDE GIRLS|
Starring Dana Delaney, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Stevenson, Laila Robins, Lora Zana and Olivia d’Abo. Directed and written by Julianna Lavin. Produced by Cara Tapper, Steve White and Barry Bernardi. An I.R.S. release. Drama. Rated R for graphic sexual dialogue and scenes of sexuality. Running time: 100 min.
Not a sexy cabaret show, Julianna Lavin’s directorial debut is a realistic look at life, love and sex in the ’90s for five friends who gather for a bachelorette party. In the course of their catching up with each other, the characters unfold for the audience: Jamie (Kim Cattrall), a B-movie actress about to wed for the third time; Jill (Dana Delany), a housewife obsessed with sex; Rachel (Laila Robins), Jill’s single sister, who has none; Marcy (Cynthia Stevenson), an accountant whose lover is stalking her; and Georgina (Lora Zane), the evening’s hostess who is growing impatient with her live-in lesbian lover (Olivia d’Abo) and having fantasies about a man. “Live Nude Girls” feels like an intimate get-together during which each character’s fears and fantasies are revealed, but at times it verges on a group therapy session, complete with sniveling and bickering. Delany is particularly annoying, because her over-the-top acting leaves little room for more interesting turns by Stevenson and d’Abo. Cattrall is truly enjoyable as Jamie, and Robins and Zane hold their own in limited parts. The film meanders, never reaching conclusions or solutions. The characters are introduced as children in the first scene but, because their growth into adults is inadequately developed, there is little resulting depth to their adult selves; flashback sequences are unconvincing because none of the characters ever look any younger. The final result is a film that begins with interesting subject matter but never brings it to interesting life on the silver screen
|LITTLE INDIAN, BIG CITY|
Starring Thierry Lhermitte, Patrick Timsit and Ludwig Briand. Directed by Herve Palud. Written by Herve Palud and Igor Aptekman. Produced by Louis Becker and Thierry Lhermitte. A Buena Vista release. Comedy. French-language; English-dubbed. Rated PG for crude language, adolescent sensuality and scenes of mild violence. Running time: 90 min.
Originally titled “An Indian in Paris,” this 1994 French-language film might be called a Gallic “Crocodile Dundee” for children, with its principal character being a 13-year-old boy (Ludwig Briand) named Mimi-Siku which means “Cat-pee” born of French parents but raised in the wilds of South America, where he lives with his mother (“Germinal’s” Miou Miou). His father, designer clothing-clad Parisian commodities broker Stephan Marchado (Thierry Lhermitte of “La Totale!”), travels to the Amazonian setting to serve divorce papers. He grows fond of the rascally Mimi-Siku and is persuaded to take him back to France so the boy can visit the Eiffel Tower. As one might expect, the aborigine wreaks havoc on Stephan’s personal and business life, alienating his fiancée, Charlotte (Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike Arielle Dombasle, in a change of pace from her art-house turns for the likes of Eric Rohmer and Roman Polanski), and making a pass at the angst-ridden 12-year-old daughter (Pauline Pinsolle) of Stephan’s apoplectic business partner, Richard (“Vanilla Straw-berry’s” Patrick Timsit). When the two youngsters run away with a briefcase full of Russian mob money, all hell breaks loose. Though the Touchstone release is enormously entertaining, both for its acting and its values, the extremely poor dubbing into English is reminiscent of that for a bad Japanese horror flick. If audiences can get by that audio track, however, they have a good chance of enjoying the role reversal projected by the teenage hero. Combining childlike innocence with a manly, take-charge charisma, Briand creates a role model that causes the adults around him to question their values, leaving the world a little better than before. -Pat Kramer
|A MONTH BY THE LAKE||
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Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox and Uma Thurman. Directed by John Irvin. Written by Trevor Bentham. Produced by Robert Fox. A Miramax release. Romance. Rated PG for moments of sensuality. Running time: 94 min.
Screened at Toronto. Set in a romantic resort in 1937 Italy, this film depicts a middle-aged woman’s celebration of life while alone on vacation for the first time. Vanessa Redgrave refreshingly portrays a high-spirited Englishwoman who has thoughts of a liaison with a stuffy fellow countryman, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox). When the Major turns his attentions to a younger American woman (Uma Thurman), the Englishwoman decides to wage war, using as bait an attractive young man. Redgrave’s character is full of life, but there’s no chemistry between her and the straight-laced Major, so it seems unlikely she would choose him for her mate to live with happily ever after. And, although war threatens around every corner during this love story, we catch only a glimpse of its effects on the vacationers, as if they were somehow immune to the goings-on in this paradise by water. Intended as a love story, “A Month by the Lake” misses its mark; what could have been an interesting storyline is traded in for a more predictable, less compelling conclusion.
Starring Amanda Root, Corin Redgrave and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Roger Michell. Written by Nick Dear. Produced by Fiona Finlay. A Sony Classics release. Romantic drama. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 103 min.
“Persuasion” is a multi-textured, romantic drama set in 1814 England. Based on the Jane Austen novel, the stirring tale follows the daughter of English nobleman Sir Walter Elliot, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), who is maligned by her family for an affair she had seven years earlier with a young naval officer. When the handsome Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) unexpectedly returns from sea, now a rich and desirable bachelor, Anne is forced to reevaluate the life she has chosen within the inherent obligations foisted on her by her family and class. Royal Shakespearean actress Root gives a commanding performance in her debut film role as the timid Anne. Likewise, Corin Redgrave is scorching snide as her widowed father, and Kevin Costner lookalike Hinds soulfully portrays a man spurned by love. This is a movie that should be seen more than once, due to the richness of the film and colorful historical period. The use of operatic and classical scoring, gorgeous visuals of the English countryside, elaborate costumes and vivid portrayal of the English aristocracy, with all its pretensions and biases, lend authenticity to the film. Apart from some minor audio problems, “Persuasion” is a truly enjoyable film that captures the time period in an amusing, revealing manner and is educational for all ages. –Pat Kramer
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Isabella Rossellini and Campbell Scott. Directed by John Schlesinger. Written by Ian McEwan. Produced by Norma Heyman, Chris Sievernich and Welland Schulz-Keil. A Miramax release. Thriller. Rated R for sexuality, brief language and a sequence of violence. Running time: 112 min.
It’s not often a movie is this darkly disturbing with interminable events endlessly documenting a Cold War spy story. Based on the best-selling novel, “The Innocent” never quite achieves thriller status, instead focusing on the harrowing experiences of a young man (Campbell Scott) coming of age in a dangerous world. Anthony Hopkins plays an arrogant, stogie-smoking American intelligence officer named Glass; Scott is Leonard, a geeky British telephone engineer hired to infiltrate Russian communications; Isabella Rossellini is a German seductress, Maria, who lures the naive Leonard into her strange world. Its cast is strong, but this film noir never reaches a point of resolution, leaving one groping with black images of despair and violence that linger. –Pat Kramer
|A MODERN AFFAIR||
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What do you do when you’re a cynical, over-40, New York-based, female executive and you want a baby but have no romantic irons in the fire? You go to the sperm bank, of course — and then you think about having a relationship. “A Modern Affair” follows savvy corporate executive Grace Rhodes (“The Vanishing’s” Lisa Eichhorn) in her search for meaning in life after she and her single best friend Elaine (“This Is My Life’s” Caroline Aaron) come to the conclusion that Mr. Right is nothing but a cruel joke. After deciding she wants a baby, Grace journeys to the sperm bank and becomes pregnant. Increasingly curious about the donor’s identity, she tracks down the man in question: commitment-phobic photographer Peter Kessler (“Undercover Blues'” Stanley Tucci). Hoping just to grab a quick glimpse of him, she instead falls prey to her own emotional expectations about a relationship. This is an amusing love story that seems plausible in today’s me-first era. Eichhorn and Tucci convincingly convey the dual qualities of shallowness and fear but also the hidden vulnerability each character has about interacting with others. There are several comic moments when the two act like awkward teenagers, unable to decide what moves to make. The film’s premise — that a highly successful woman can find meaning in motherhood without the strings of a relationship — is not a new one, but the approach makes it seem believable. Although the film depicts some of the dismal realities that relationships bring, it also celebrates the willingness of two fragile souls to go beyond their fears and take the risks necessary to grow. –Pat Kramer
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Starring James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski. Directed by Chris Noonan. Written by George Miller and Chris Noonan. Produced by George Miller, Doug Mitchell and Bill Miller. A Universal release. Fantasy. Rated G. Running time: 91 min.
|A delightful film based on Dick King-Smith’s story “The Sheep-Pig,” this fairytale follows a pig that struggles to find a purpose in life beyond that of becoming a holiday meal. In this live-action movie, dogs, sheep, a duck, a cat and the pig, Babe, all talk. Narrated chapter by chapter, with singing mice doing the titles, “Babe” tells the story of an orphaned piglet who’s won by a farmer at a county fair. As Babe meets the other farm animals, none of which are pigs, he struggles with an identity crisis. Although likable folks, Babe’s owners, the Hoggetts (James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski) are oblivious to their animals’ intelligence and secret lives, leading to many comical scenes in which the animals take charge. Australian director (“Mad Max”) turned producer (“Flirting”) George Miller collaborates with director Chris Noonan in adapting the tale by British author King-Smith, who is one of the world’s leading children’s novelists with 70 titles in print, all involving animals. Geared to parents with young children (the very youngest might be upset by a few scenes involving animal death), the film boasts technical effects that are realistic for audiences of all ages; the dubbed voices of the speaking animals synchronize perfectly with their lip movements. The heartwarming “Babe” does for pigs what “Lassie” did for dogs: It leaves you cheering for more. –Pat Kramer|
JOHNNY 100 PESOS ****
Starring Armando Araiza, Patricia Rivera and Willy Semler. Directed and produced by Gustavo Graef-Marino. Written by Gustavo Graef-Marino and Gerardo Caceres. An IRS release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 90 min.
Like “Dog Day Afternoon,” in which a bungled bank robbery turns into a media event, “Johnny 100 Pesos” is based on a 1990 incident in Santiago, Chile, in which five would-be robbers took hostages in a video store after their heist went sour. Director Gustavo Graef-Marino has made vibrating and interesting characters of the five criminals, with his focus primarily on Johnny Garcia (Armando Araiza), a wayward teen who commits the crime while wearing his school uniform. After police surround the video store, which is a front for an illegal money-changing operation, tensions between the criminals and their hostages lead to violence. Tension of another type, sexual, is stirred between Johnny and the seductive Gloria, one of his hostages, a sexual liaison results. Because the Chilean government is newly democratic, officials ask the police to resolve the incident without bloodshed. While the police attempt to talk the robbers into giving up peacefully, TV reporters produce a blitzkrieg of live coverage. Identifying Johnny as a good-boy-turned-bad, the media descend on his home and school, broadcasting messages to him from his family and friends. Inside the store, infighting develops among the criminals on how to proceed. The film nicely uses irony and absurdity as it documents the ensuing power struggle among the robbers, their hostages, the government and the police. Director Graef-Marino has taken some storyline liberties to create a film of international appeal (“Johnny 100 Pesos” was the Chilean entry for the 1994 foreign-film Oscar), but the focus remains strong. While framing the passage of an important change in leadership in Chilean history–from 17 years of military rule to a democracy–Graef-Marino paints a realistic portrait of the struggles between those in power and those out of control. At a time when many eyes are turned to the TV for the latest O.J. trial coverage, “Johnny 100 Pesos” illustrates just how powerful the media can be in influencing public opinion and how irresponsible in their race to capitalize on breaking news. –Pat Kramer
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Roger Moore, James Remar. Directed by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Screenplay by Steven Klein and Paul Mones. Story by Frank Dux and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Produced by Moshe Diamant. A Universal release. Action. Rated PG-13. Running time: 95 min.
In his directorial debut, Jean-Claude Van Damme shows versatility behind the camera using this martial arts vehicle for one of the most interesting and exciting exhibitions of world-class fighting, despite a rather lackluster storyline. As the film’s central character, petty thief Chris Dubois, Van Damme struggles to show a softer, more vulnerable character. However, his trademark deadpan delivery is stiff, forcing viewers to guess about his emotional state. Filmed almost entirely in Thailand, The Quest opens in the slums of New York City in the 1920’s where Dubois and his band of orphans flee marauding gangsters and vengeful police who are eager to jail their leader. Almost from the start, Van Damme’s keen self-defense moves are called into action as he, twice, narrowly escapes to a departing ship only to become enslaved by gun smugglers. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of Dubois’ sad orphan past which, presumably, accounts for his desire to “do right” as he faces challenge after challenge, hoping to someday return to save the children. Along the way he is rescued by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore), a charmingly slick captain of a pirate ship, who sells him back into slavery to Khao (Aki Aleong), the master of the kick boxers of Muay Thai Island. However, when Dobbs sees an opportunity to make further profit off of him as a fighter, he and Harry (Jack McGee), his right-hand man, take Dubois on the quest to the Lost City in Tibet where the Golden Dragon awaits the winner of this international gladiator competition. James Remar is Maxie, the American Heavyweight champ while Janet Gunn is newspaper reporter “Carrie” whose role does little to glamorize the film’s hardness. While the plot wears thin in many spots with little character development, it is the final fighting scenes which merit this film worthwhile. Displaying a myriad of fighting styles from around the world, The Quest’s shots of the Ghan-gheng competition provide the drama, intensity, and color that this film lacks in other areas. Each fight scene shows the stealth, finesse and cultural influence of the individual fighters as they face off against one another. While the Spanish fighter uses Flamenco-style twists and turns, the Chinese fighters recreates the movements of jungle animals, but it is the Mongolian fighter Khan (Abdel Qissi), Dubois’ chief opponent, who is the most convincing and frightening. Unfortunately, as powerful as these scenes are they do not make up for a less than compelling storyline. Lacking in cohesion, The Quest is more a study in worldwide combat than a tribute to Van Damme’s ascension as a director.-Pat Kramer
|WAR STORIES OUR MOTHERS NEVER TOLD US|
Featuring Pamela Quill, Flo Small, Tui Preston, Jean Andrews, Rita Graham, Neva Clarke McKenna and Mabel Waititi. Directed and produced by Gaylene Preston. A First Run release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 88 min.
In this retrospective documentary, produced in association with The New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand On Air, seven aging women recount in intimate detail their heartfelt stories of love, romance, marriage and–too often–loss, as the men were called away to World War II. Juxtaposing images of then and now, thanks to vintage war film footage and treasured sepia photographs of the interviewees, each woman relates in remarkably candid detail the way things were back then recalling their often-frantic efforts to marry before the war wrenched away the men they loved. Using a single camera, the women, now in their late ’70s and ’80s, respond to questions posed by an off-screen interviewer. As these memories bubble to the surface, so do the bottled-up emotions associated with their youth as they relive the times and memories of 50-years ago. In presenting these interviews in a simple, unencumbered format, the focus remains on the significance of the stories each chooses to tell, shedding a whole new light on world history–that of a women’s point of view. While the dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand (due to dialect differences), the film is extremely interesting and informative, presenting a range of human experiences. From the POW widow to the female army soldier captured by the enemy, to the wife of the conscientious objector who suffered for her husband’s political views, each story is unique. For those who are too young to remember a World War or even those who do, War Stories pays homage to those times. Rather than dwelling on sadness, it celebrates life–that of the survivors and the men who never came back from the war. -Pat Kramer
|THE GRASS HARP|
Starring Piper Laurie, Edward Furlong, Sissy Spacek and Walter Matthau. Directed and produced by Charles Matthau. Written by Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements. Running time: 107 min. Screened at the Toronto fest.
A delightful and poignant tale that explores the frailties of human nature, showing it’s never too late for hardened people to realize the joy of living and love, “The Grass Harp” is directed by Charles Matthau (son of Walter) and boasts an all-star cast that includes supporting appearances by Mary Steenburgen, Roddy McDowall, Charles Durning and Jack Lemmon. Based on a novella by Truman Capote and set in a small southern town in the 1940s, the story begins when a young boy is sent by his father, a new widower, to live with two maiden aunts. The sisters, Verena (Sissy Spacek) and Dolly (Piper Laurie), are as different as night and day. The stern Verena’s all-consuming passions are financial gain and social standing; the sweet and simple Dolly loves gathering herbs and roots from a nearby field with Catherine (Nell Carter), her best friend and the sisters’ housekeeper. As Collin matures (now played by “Little Odessa’s “Edward Furlong”), it is Dolly who influences him more. When household conflict prompts Dolly to make life-changing choices, Collin makes the leap of faith with her. “The Grass Harp” (the title alludes to the sound of the wind through the field’s flowing grass, which Dolly interprets as our ancestors speaking to us) provides a magnificent vehicle for Laurie, whose meek Dolly is a striking change of pace for the actress. Walter Matthau is delightful as the aging Judge Charlie Cool, who is willing to shun respectability to be with the woman he loves. In a time when few films are based on simple and good values, this noble little film stands out for providing a perspective that’s unusually tender and honest.
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Starring Laurence Fishburne, Stephen Baldwin and Salma Hayek. Directed by Kevin Hooks. Written by Preston A. Whitmore II. Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. An MGM release. Action. Rated R for strong violence and language, and for some nudity. Running time: 98 min.
“Fled” is a film suffering from an identity problem. Although director Kevin Hooks tries his best to create a fast-paced action film similar to his previous action thriller “Passenger 57,” the dialogue written for leads Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin keeps trying to pass itself off as offbeat comedy, a la “Bad Boys,” which was far more successful in its attempt. Fishburne plays Piper, a cop turned convict, who helps white-collar prisoner Dodge (Baldwin) escape from a Georgia prison road crew during an accidental melee. The scenario provides an endless source of conflicts between the two men, whose escape is hampered by the fact that they are chained together by handcuffs. The escape is but a small part of a larger plot involving a Cuban hit man (Victor Rivers) and a crooked federal marshal (Robert John Burke) who are on Dodge’s trail to recover a computer disk that threatens to implicate a mafia kingpin named Mantajano (soap star Michael Nader). Will Patton plays the only likable character in the cast, Atlanta police detective Gibson, a good-ole-boy whose instincts prove vital to the main character. Through all the predictable twists and turns, there is enough fighting and shooting to eradicate an army. Fishburne is polished, in control and in his best form as Piper, while Baldwin’s superficial performance as the bungling partner provides comic relief. Salma Hayek’s (“From Dusk Till Dawn”) diminished role as Cora, a motorist who the convicts hijack, provides a romantic link to the plot as Piper’s love interest. Despite all efforts by its notable cast, the film suffers from an incohesive plot that tries to provide drama, action and comedy only to lose focus and fail to accomplish any of its aims. Constant, witty references by the characters to scenes from other films is the one memorable part of “Fled,” which otherwise will be what this movie does from moviegoers’ minds soon after leaving the theatre.-Pat Kramer
Starring Hedy Burress, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Lewis, Jenny Shimizu and Sarah Rosenberg. Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter. Written by Elizabeth White. Produced by Jeffrey Lurie, John Bard Manulis and John P. Marsh. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Rated R for teen nudity, drug use, strong language and some violent situations. Running time: 101 min.
Not since “Thelma and Louise” has a film as skillfully captured the true essence of female struggle, rebellion, pain, and subsequent bonding so effectively. “Foxfire,” the directorial debut of Annette Haywood-Carter, is a powerfully intoxicating story about four frightened teenagers and a darkly mysterious female drifter who influences and forever changes their lives, as they join forces in an all-out rebellion that quickly escalates into a sometimes violent, deeply moving journey into the unknown. Angelina Jolie (“Hackers”) is the seductive and alluring James Dean-like Legs Sadovsky. Her mother dead, and her father having abandoned her, Legs shows up in a high school biology classroom where a male teacher is preying on young women, and she unabashedly inspires a violent attack upon him. Student Maddy Wirtz (Hedy Burress of NBC’s “Boston Common”) finds herself uncontrollably drawn to the unknown stranger. Supporting the two is the emotionally troubled Rita Faldes (Jenny Lewis of “Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even”), drug addict Goldie Goldman (supermodel Jenny Shimizu), and the promiscuous Violet Kahn (Sarah Rosenberg of TV’s “Under Suspicion”). Powerful in his presentation, “Foxfire” cinematographer Tom Sigel (“Money for Nothing”) uses an array of unusual camera angles that, along with the film’s edgy, alternative rock soundtrack successfully evokes teenage angst as well as fear, suspense, seduction and love. In addition, the setting of a decrepit house as the young women’s official clubhouse along with the natural backdrop of Seattle’s chilling rains create the elements of despair and bleakness. Despite the inexperience of its director and two of its stars, “Foxfire” succeeds in creating riveting characters in a fast-paced story that brings to life the essence of the Joyce Carol Oates’ best-selling novel. Portraying the vulnerabilities of its characters with great sensitivity, the film avoids the pitfalls of other films which (using a supposed formula for a “vigilante women’s movie”) end up commercializing or exploiting delicate subject matter. Beautiful in its portrayal, powerful in its content, “Foxfire” sets a new standard for dramatic films–not just the “female-oriented” genre but as a piece of work which effectively addresses the yearnings, struggles and attempts to overcome the limits of society in the ’90s. This movie is a must-see.-Pat Kramer
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Starring Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. Written by Joe Gayton and Lewis Colick. Produced by Robert Simonds. A Universal release. Action/comedy. Rated R for strong violence and language, some sexuality and drug use. Running time: 85 min.
Get ready for another one of those action-heavy, gun-shooting, bodies-flying-through-the-air death-a-manias as undercover cop Rock Keats (Damon Wayans) faces off against his former best friend, drug dealer Archie Moses (Adam Sandler), in a struggle that produces some great comic moments in this slaphappy film. After posing as an uneducated car thief for the past year, Keats is instructed to bust his sidekick, who it turns out is on the payroll of a major drug kingpin (James Caan), high-profile car salesman Frank Colton. The bust puts a serious strain on the friendship the two share, but what really annoys Keats is when Moses shoots him in his head, causing him to sport a metal plate for the remainder of is life. Vowing to even the score, Keats recuperates and goes after the fugitive Moses. In the process of bringing him to justice, the two become targets for Colton’s hit men and form a new bond based on a whole new set of circumstances, which causes endless challenges for the mismatched duo. Wayans and Sandler play well against each other, with Wayans in a more starkly serious role than he’s played before. But the filmmakers use an over-abundant body count and gratuitous sex to liven up this film and, in doing so, sensationalize the very morals this script aims to counter, creating just one more film that may give Hollywood a bad reputation.-Pat Kramer
Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Geraldine Pailhas and Antonie Kamerling. Directed by Dominique Deruddere. Written by Charles Higson and Lise Mayer. Produced by Paul Breuls and Frank Bak. A Filmopolis release. Thriller. Unrated. Running time: 98 min.
This sexually provocative film by director Dominique Deruddere (“Crazy Love,” “Wait Until Spring Bandini”) provides an interesting twist on passion, domination and control and the extent that people will go to attain them. Starring Antonie Kamerling (“The Small Blonde Death”) as a street hustler named Chris and Pete Postlethwaite (“Dragonheart”) as an impotent invalid, Glover, the film pits youth and virility against wealth and intelligence. While fleeing a crime, Chris stumbles into Glover’s exclusive suite (number 16); there, he is offered refuge and money in exchange for fulfilling Glover’s erotic fantasies with women. When the requests escalate to murder, the intended victim (“Le Garcu’s” Geraldine Pailhas) foils the duo’s plot in an unexpected way; a violent confrontation ensues. “Suite 16” is drenched in passion, sometimes erotic, sometimes shocking. Riveting throughout its fast-moving storyline, and emblazoned with a bold, emotionally charged musical score by nouvelle composer Walter Hus, “Suite 16” is fresh, interesting and dangerously bad.-Pat Kramer
|THRILL RIDE–THE SCIENCE OF FUN|
Narrated by Harry Shearer. Directed by Ben Stassen. Produced by Charlotte Huggins. A Sony Classics release. Documentary. Rated G. Running time: 38 min. Format: IMAX.
Opening with a big bang, “Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun” takes viewers on an animated, hair-raising ride through a darkened, falling-down mineshaft using computer-generated imagery to bring to life the hairpin turns and tummy-pitching sensations of a real roller coaster. Despite this colorful and highly imaginative intro, the rest of this New Wave International production fails to provide the same momentum. The film opens by documenting the history of roller coasters from their origin in Paris in 1804 to the peak of the rides’ fame at the turn of the century to today’s daredevil amusement park diversions. By mounting cameras on both the front and back of a coaster, director Ben Stassen allows viewers to vicariously experience the same sensations as those aboard, queasy stomachs and all. But the real focuses of Stassen, a CGI expert, are the history of ride simulators, starting with their development by NASA and the military, and the ways computer-generated imagery is used to create special effects in film. To demonstrate, “Thrill Ride” uses footage from popular ride films “Secrets of the Lost Temple,” The Devil’s Mine Ride” and “Asteroid Adventure.” Although the overall affect of these simulated rides is pretty close to the experience of the “real thing,” the thrill of a CGI rides still can’t compare to plunging down a roller coaster’s steep wooden track, wind in your face, and hearing the clacking of the rails and the sighs of straining wood beneath you. Given its attentions to the technical aspects of today’s “virtual reality” rides and ride films, “Thrill Ride” doesn’t quite earn the E-ticket status it promises.-Pat Kramer
|LEAVE IT TO BEAVER|
Starring Christopher McDonald, Janine Turner and Cameron Finley. Directed by Andy Cadiff. Written by Brian Levant and Lon Diamond. Produced by Robert Simonds. A Universal release. Rated G. Comedy. Running time: 87 min.
For those baby boomers who grew up with TV’s most beloved family, the Cleavers, you might be a little disappointed by this modern-day film, which models itself after the popular 1950s TV series “Leave It to Beaver.” Today’s children, however, will probably enjoy it for comedy’s sake. The premise for the film is that many of the vignettes created in the ’50s TV series will still be funny today–with an updated cast of characters and cool contemporary lingo. Although the storyline by screenwriter Briant Levant (who directed episodes of TV’s 1983-88 “The New Leave It to Beaver”) and Lon Diamond seeks to preserve the integrity of the original, copies of an original never quite measure up to the real thing. As Ward Cleaver, Christopher McDonald (“A Smile Like Yours”) gives the strongest performance, closely resembling the role popularized by the late Hugh Beaumont. Likewise, Erik von Detten as the Beaver’s brother is the perfect Wally that many remember. As mom June Cleaver, however, Janine Turner (“Cliffhanger”) takes certain liberties with her role, adding character mannerisms familiar from her turn as Maggie on TV’s “Northern Exposure,” while Cameron Finley (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) as the Beaver fails to emote much personality or screen appeal. Cameos of original cast members Barbara Billingsley as Aunt Martha and Ken Osmond as Eddie Haskell Sr. lend a certain authenticity to the film. But the result seems watered-down and unsure of its identity. The filmmakers might have had better luck had they focused on creating a kids’ movie without trying to duplicate the master.-Pat Kramer
Voices by Melissa Altro, Catherine O’Hara and Gordon Pinsent. Directed by Clive Smith. Written by Catharina Stackelberg. Produced by Hasmi Giakoumis, Merle-Anne Ridley, Waldemar Bergendahl and Michael Schaack. A Legacy release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 78 min.
This animated version of the favorite children’s series of books by Astrid Lindgren is an indeed cartoony yet funny story with plenty of upbeat original songs by Anders Beglund. “Pippi Longstocking” is a film that small children can easily enjoy and that will cause parents no worry. As directed by Clive Smith, co-founder of Toronto animation house Nelvana (which partners on this production with Sweden’s AB Svensk Filmindustri and the German outfits Iduna and TFC Trickompany), the Legacy release–preceding a Thanksgiving video debut via Warner Bros.–tells the tale of the all-time indefatigable and rambunctious redhead, Pippi Longstocking (voiced by Melissa Altro). Undaunted by the fact that her father (Gordon Pinsent), a sea captain, has been blown overboard during a storm, the nine-year-old returns home to Villa Villa Kulla to set up house with her trusty steed and her loyal monkey. Along the way, she must do battle with a frightfully nosy neighbor, Mrs. Prysselius (“Home Alone’s” Catherine O’Hara), who demands that the police take her to a children’s home; Pippi also must outwit would-be criminals eager to get their hands on a chest of gold she possesses. With the innocence of a child but the stamina and strength of an Olympic champion, Pippi is able to turn the tables on every one who would do her harm. Evoking the qualities of strong-mindedness, independence and loyalty to her friends, “Pippi Longstocking” presents an uplifting image to children. The book–the original Swedish version of which is now more than a half-century old–is in itself a cute story; the problem with this adaptation is that its characters look like they were created about that long ago. They are clunky and more like comic-book figures. For young children, though, the lack of cutting-edge animation is probably not a big issue; for them and their parents, “Pippi Longstocking” is story with good values that provides enough entertainment value for most youngsters to love.-Pat Kramer
Narrated by Linda Hunt. Directed by Kieth Merrill. An Ogden Entertainment Presentation; distributed by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Unrated. Documentary. Running time: 40 min. Opens 9/12 L.A. Format: IMAX.
Filmed in the broad span of IMAX over more than a year in the Amazon, “Amazon” literally springs to life in a colorful explosion of sound and movement, taking a travelogue approach to this mysterious region of the world. Academy Award-winning director Kieth Merrill (“Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets”) provides a balanced mix of information and intrigue in this fast-moving film, including an up-close look, for the first time, at the Zoe, an isolated indigenous tribe never before shown on film. But what makes this movie so engrossing is the way this film unfolds as the cameras follow two men of opposite cultures in their search for plants with curative powers. Mamani is a Bolivian Callawaya shaman whose journey takes him on foot from his home high up in the Andes to the dense rainforest. Just as determined but equipped with modern means is Harvard-educated ethno botanist Dr. Mark Plotkin, who for the past 20 years has been studying Indian shamans to learn the medicinal qualities of their native plants. As their stories unfold, so too does the Amazon: Covering 2.2 million square miles, it is home to more than 5,000 species of fish, hundreds of thousands of plants, scores of insects, and many Native tribes who still use poisoned arrows and blowguns to hunt their prey. Describing each man’s journey is Oscar-nominated actress Linda Hunt (“The Year of Living Dangerously”), whose gift for narration really shines through on this film. That, combined with an evocative score that highlights the different native rhythms from festive flutes to intense beating drums, creates the aura of this magnificent but dangerous terrain, one of the last wild places on earth. Awe-inspiring in its depth and coverage, “Amazon’s” 40 minutes fly by far too fast. From raging rapids to electric eels and piranhas to the strange customs of the tribal peoples, “Amazon” thrills and excites without losing sight of its mission: to inform and educate its audience about this rapidly disappearing region that still has much to teach us.-Pat Kramer
|SLAPPY AND THE STINKERS|
Starring B. D. Wong, Bronson Pinchot and Jennifer Coolidge. Directed by Barnet Kellman. Produced by Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg. Written by Bob Wolterstorff and Jon Sheinberg. A TriStar release. Comedy. Rated PG for some crude humor, mild language and slapstick violence. Running time: 78 min.
Students at the elite Dartmoor Academy, the “Stinkers” (four boys and a girl), as they’re called by prim headmaster Morgan Brinway (B.D. Wong of “Seven Years in Tibet”), just can’t resist a good joke. Unfortunately for Brinway, he is frequently their target and is continually getting hit in the crotch or on the head, or is falling down and hurting himself. The film’s dependence on toilet humor becomes offensive after a short while, and in the process, the more redeeming aspects of this story are lost. Slappy the sea lion, whom the children liberate while on a field trip to the aquarium, is by far the most impressive character in the story.-Pat Kramer
|AYN RAND: A SENSE OF LIFE|
Narrated by Sharon Gless. Directed, written and produced by Michael Paxton. A Strand release. Documentary. Running time: 121 min. Screened at Telluride.
“Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life” provides viewers with an enriching historical perspective of the life and times of best-selling author Ayn (pronounced EYE-in) Rand of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” In this vivid film, writer/director/producer Michael Paxton has studiously assembled a montage of Rand’s life, loves and work via stock footage, rare photos, taped interviews, film clips, and even rare footage of her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite the fact that Paxton never met the author, his film breathes life into the woman, who is commonly regarded as one of the most controversial and provocative writers of this century. The film begins with Rand’s birth in Russia as Alyssa Rosenbaum, who even as a child demonstrated a profound sensitivity to the world around her. By the time she was a young adult, Rosenbaum was already struggling with her need for self-expression, despite the heavily restrictive politics before and after the Russian Revolution. When the opportunity arose for her to take a six-month hiatus in America, she developed a new love for the freedom her host country offered. Rand’s pluck and fortitude yielded a meeting with director Cecil B. DeMille; before her six months were up, she married silent film actor Frank O’Connor, beginning what was to become a celebrated career as a screenwriter and novelist. “Ayn Rand” is a joyous movie, although its subject matter at times is dark. Through the use of music, live and still shots with Rand and interviews with some of her closest friends, Paxton successfully brings to life a complex woman whose philosophy of objectivism (an atheistic worldview in which human beings are responsible for their own happiness and fate) was both her greatest asset and worst curse. In Rand’s novels, it is the human spirit that is always fighting to prevail against a backdrop of repression. Likewise, in Rand’s life, that theme often repeats itself, as Paxton portrays Rand’s undying strength of character as the film’s dominant theme. Her eyes blazing with self-assurance, the diminutive Rand fearlessly espouses her views on politics and life, despite knowing that it would cause great difficulty for her in both her personal and professional lives. “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life” is a testament to her. In explaining the person behind the great novels, the film conveys her sense of life and establishes her as one of the greatest visionaries of her time.-Pat Kramer
|MISSION TO MIR|
Narrated by August Schellenberg. Directed by Ivan Galin and James Neihouse. Narration written by Mathew Hart and Toni Myers. Produced by Toni Myers and Graeme Ferguson. An Imax release. Documentary. Running time: 40 minutes.
Picture yourself gazing at the Earth from an orbiting vantage point in space where you can vividly see the blue oceans, green land masses, and brown mountain tops. Now picture that sight seen while floating in a claustrophobically small space capsule stuffed with gear, where you enter rooms upside-down, where sleeping takes place in a zipped suit standing up, and where all movements require extra coordination. This is life aboard the Russian Space Station Mir (Russian for “peace”) as seen in the new IMAX film “Mission to Mir.” This 40-minute documentary combines dramatic historical footage of former space missions, both in the U.S. and Russia, with a close-up look at the latest technology, filmed by astronauts aboard Mir. If nothing else, the film is unique in offering first time footage of the Russian space mission. The film took 2 1/2 years to make, comprising four separate space missions, three trips to Russia and the dedication of a skilled production crew to see it through. Highlights include interviews with Shannon Lucid and Norm Thagard, the first American astronauts to live on board Mir, and the amazing conjoining of the Space Shuttle Atlantis with Mir, an event which went off perfectly despite its combined 200 tons of technology. As serious as this subject matter is, given its top secret status of the past by both superpowers, the filmmakers have chosen a decidedly modern approach to the scoring, creating an off-beat, tongue-in-cheek tone that doesn’t quite fit with the mysterious beauty of its subject matter. The result is that one can’t quite decide if this is a light comedy or a documentary of historic impact, leaving viewers to make that choice for themselves.-Pat Kramer
|AFRICA’S ELEPHANT KINGDOM|
Directed, written and produced by Michael Caulfield. Narrated by Avery Brooks. A Discovery Channel Pictures release. Unrated. Documentary. Running time: 40 minutes.
Heartwarming, beautifully-filmed and thoroughly researched, “Africa’s Elephant Kingdom,” Discovery Channel Pictures’ first large-format film, is one that stimulates the senses: Full of action, romance and touching expressions of emotion by its animal subjects, this IMAX film follows a herd of elephants through Kenya’s national parks during a six month migration marked by lush feeding grounds, mating rituals, birth, death and day-to-day survival. Filming the herd from a helicopter, hot air balloon, all-terrain vehicle, flatbed trucks, inflatable rafts and a 30-foot hydraulic crane, the director was able to capture truly sensational shots of the world’s largest land mammal feeding, playing, fighting, nurturing its young, and charging the camera in a full-on assault. The film’s most touching moments, however, are in majestically capturing the vivid expressions of emotion of these powerful beasts. The filmmakers bring us close to understanding the hearts of these animals, shown in gentle embraces in many of the film’s sequences–something you would not normally associate with wild animals. While filming the herd searching for food during a severe drought, one of its members collapses to the ground. Quickly, it is surrounded by the others as they cooperatively push and lift the animal back on its feet. Later, when the herd comes across a mother whose baby has died, they tenderly stroke her with their trunks as she struggles to revive her infant. But most unusual is their response when they come upon the bleached bones of another elephant: Carefully, they form a circle around the bones as each examines them, touching and smelling them ritualistically. Narrating the tale of the elephants is Avery Brooks (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) who tells the story from the perspective of a bull elephant. However, rather than personalizing the story, it creates confusion as to who is speaking. With veteran zoologist Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a specialist in elephant behavior, on location to interpret the animals’ behavior, this film would have benefitted more with a scientific approach rather than a Disneyesque storyline told by a bull elephant. Entertaining and vastly informative, this film will be donating a portion of its proceeds to the conservation, educational charity “Save The Elephants” which is trying to protect these endangered animals.-Pat Kramer
|MARK TWAIN’S AMERICA IN 3-D|
Narrated by Anne Bancroft. Written and directed by Stephen Low. Produced by James Lahti. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 51 min.
This documentary on the life and times of one of America’s foremost authors, Mark Twain, uses an entirely different approach than most large format films. To immerse viewers in the world of yesteryear, writer/director Stephen Low (“Titanica”) uses original black-and-white photographs of Twain and his family, enlarging them and digitally converting them into the 3-D format. The outcome of this effect is the creation of a surrealistic view of the past, taking viewers into the photographs of still, frozen life. Alternating between his portrayal of ghostly photographic images taken before and after the Civil War, the director cuts in modern-day color footage of parades and other tributes to the American icon. Unfortunately, this blending of past and present creates a schizophrenic film that doesn’t flow well. Footage of a small-town parade proceeding through Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., is a world away from the pace set by his romantic snapshots of the past. And while historians of Samuel L. Clemens (Twain’s real name) may rejoice in seeing such an intricate presentation of his life, others will find the presentation of the subject matter tedious and boring, despite the dramatic large-screen format.-Pat Kramer
Digging to China
Starring Kevin Bacon, Evan Rachel Wood, Cathy Moriarty and Mary Stuart Masterson. Written by Karen Janszen. Directed by Timothy Hutton. Produced by John Davis, Marilyn Vance, Alan Mruvka and J. Scott Harris. A Legacy release. Rated PG for thematic elements and some emotional moments. Running time: 98 min.
This bittersweet drama, the directorial debut of Timothy Hutton, stars Kevin Bacon as Ricky, a man afflicted by Down’s Syndrome and thrown by fate into the lonely life of 10-year old named Harriet (Evan Rachel Wood). Ignored by her alcoholic mother (Cathy Moriarty) and resentful older sister (Mary Stuart Masterson), Harriet wastes no time in befriending the reticent Ricky. The two soon form a deep bond as they run away from a world that doesn’t value their contributions. Wood engages the camera in whatever she does, seemingly without effort. But while Bacon convincingly portrays the child-like Ricky, his efforts sometimes seem limited and monotonous; furthermore, Moriarty’s performance is largely uninspired, and Masterson’s character is too limited in scope. Nevertheless, “Digging to China” (which refers to one of Harriet’s many misguided adventures) is a fresh and honest look at the beauty of innocence, the pain of loneliness in childhood and the remarkable way in which children create ways to cope with their struggles by reaching out to others.-Pat Kramer
|LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX|
Starring Troy Beyer, Paget Brewster and Randi Ingerman. Written and directed by Troy Beyer. Produced by Deborah Ridpath. A Fine Line release. Comedy/drama. Rated R for explicit sex-related dialogue throughout, some sex scenes, nudity, language and drug content. Running time: 85 min.
Presented as a pseudo-documentary, “Let’s Talk About Sex” offers a revealing look at the secret sexual desires and dislikes of Miami’s “woman on the street,” as dozens of females voice their most intensely personal feelings. These interviews are actually the subplot of “Let’s Talk About Sex,” in which director/writer/star Troy Beyer plays Jazz, a newspaper advice columnist who must make an attention-getting demo tape about sex to land her own TV show. In the process of interviewing her subjects, a secondary plot begins to unfold in which we learn of the romantic tribulations our protagonist and her friends have endured: The lighthearted Jazz has just recently broken off plans for marriage; Lena (Randi Ingerman), an exotic beauty, tires of sex without meaning; and the headstrong Michelle (Paget Brewster) discovers that her “love ’em and leave ’em” strategy now feels hopelessly empty and superficial. When disaster strikes later in the film, the three find strength in each other. Filmed in just 18 days, this low-budget film makes no apologies for its rough quality, which utilizes shaky video shots for a large portion of the film. The presentation is sometimes choppy, and its attempts at using flashbacks don’t succeed well in enhancing the storytelling. But overall, the story is well-written and expressive, often funny and sometimes emotionally stirring. Like a good cup of coffee, this docu/feature leaves a strong impression which lasts long after the film ends.-Pat Kramer
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Produced and directed by Greg MacGillivray, David Breashears and Stephen Judson. Written by Stephen Judson. A MacGillivray Freeman production in association with Arcturus Motion Pictures. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 40 minutes.
Intrigued by the challenge of filming in large-scale IMAX format a team of climbers’ ascent up the tallest peak in the world, Emmy award-winning filmmaker David Breashears (“Red Flag Over Tibet”) got more than he bargained for. In the process of filming this historic event in May 1996, his crew unexpectedly witnessed the worst tragedy ever to take place on Mt. Everest: On May 10, 1996, while the climbers and crew patiently waited at Camp II for storm conditions to clear, 23 other climbers were caught in a terrifying white-out that took eight lives, including those of two experienced leaders, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. In its exclusive footage, “Everest” depicts the events that followed, including their own dramatic rescue of survivor Beck Weathers, who stumbled into their camp suffering from severe frostbite on his hands and face. “Everest” shows in its dramatically-scored, beautifully-filmed footage the extreme conditions that prevail on the peak known as the highest point in the world. Likewise, it shows just how strong the human spirit can be in the face of adversity. Its stars are expedition members Ed and Paula Viesturs, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Sumiyo Tsuzuki, and Araceli Segarra, who wagered their lives to make this film. Shown struggling up icy precipices and above yawning chasms hundreds of feet deep, they reveal their thoughts and feelings about life, death and the task they have before them. In the end, three of the climbers made it to the 29,028′ summit (as well as director Breashears, who previously set a world record as the first American to scale the peak twice). As each climber is shown standing on the very top of the mountain, gazing out over the horizon above the clouds, we, the spectators, are also privileged to share the victory and exhilaration of their climb.-Pat Kramer
|ISLAND OF THE SHARKS|
Narrated by Linda Hunt. Directed by Howard Hall. Produced by Michele Binder Hall. An IMAX release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 40 min.
This visually arresting large-format film takes viewers to Cocos Island, a small, uninhabited Pacific paradise known for its abundant sea life–including several varieties of man-eating shark. Located 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, this rugged volcanic island was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate story “Treasure Island” and, more recently, Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park.” However, it’s most well-known for having the world’s highest concentration of large marine predators, including vast schools of hammerhead, white-tip, black-tip and silky sharks. Armed with little more than an underwater camera and a sincere interest in and appreciation for oceanic life, the veteran underwater directing/producing team of Howard Hall and Michele Binder Hall (whose previous filmic forays include IMAX’s Academy Award -nominated “The Living Sea” and IMAX 3-D’s “Into the Deep”) donned scuba gear and literally swam with the sharks to obtain authentic footage for the film. The pair captured their subjects’ beauty, elegance, coordination and lightning speed as if filming an underwater ballet, complete with an orchestral score by composer Alan Williams. In one of the film’s many highlights, hundreds of vicious-looking hammerheads are filmed from perhaps 20 feet away, gracefully swimming against the sunlit surface. Giant stingray glide by in a majestic procession while a quizzical-looking moray eel pokes his head out of a cave, looking more comical than dangerous. This documentary is rich with insight that should counteract years of negative publicity generated by films like the “Jaws” franchise and Warner’s current thriller “Deep Blue Sea.” This is one shark film that won’t give children nightmares; after getting to know these denizens of the deep, one will instead feel an appreciation for the species’ ability to survive the rigors of overfishing, pollution, and the human impulse to kill that which we fear. -Pat Kramer