I've reviewed films for more than 20 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and direct-to-video or streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.
Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (A+), based on the classic TV series of the same name, completely delivers on its intriguing cat-and-mouse premise and is a chase from start to finish. Harrison Ford proves he still has the chops to be an absorbing action hero, and Tommy Lee Jones injects solid comic relief as his tenacious foil.
Whether the evil Monstro stalked an innocent puppet boy and his loving father or Orca, the Killer Whale devoured the career of Bo Derek, whales as a species have had a rough image to shake in the cinema. After Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home helped prove whales are the saviors of civilization, now “Save the Whales” enthusiasts can take even more comfort in Simon Wincer’s charming boy-meets-and-befriends-whale-tale Free Willy (B). Newcomer Jason James Richter plays an abandoned boy who connects with a sea park trainer (Lori Petty), and soon he bonds with sea creatures in a way that helps him re-establish a peace with the world. He encounters and finds a deep friendship with killer whale Willy of the film’s title, and what separates the film from being a complete facsimile of E.T. is its focus on finding responsibility. It’s a touching and tender family film and recommended.
Steve Barron’s Coneheads (D+), based on Saturday Night Live characters, is forgettable junk food for the mind, with a handful of funny gags. Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain don’t especially look especially engaged in their opportunity to reprise their roles as these aliens on suburban safari. Ironically, the humor isn’t pointed enough to carry the story.
Director Sydney Pollack’s film adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller The Firm (B-) is a rather tepid thriller that nearly misses its mark with lazy pacing, boring piano music (it sounds like the opposite of “page turner”) and empty-suit acting by Tom Cruise. Luckily the pacing picks up, and it can at least be characterized as a template for the “man joins firm and finds himself over his head in scandal” type movie. Coming off the mega-flop Havana, it is clear Pollack isn’t taking too many risks here, and fortunately he casts Gene Hackman as diabolical head of the law firm and the zany Gary Busey as a private investigator. There are few films Hackman doesn’t improve. Cruise is joined on the domestic front by the equally bland Jeanne Tripplehorn. When his character learns his law firm isn’t all he was promised, it’s a race to the finish to get to the closing credits.
Writer/director Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (B+) is a hopelessly romantic look at how destiny shapes the loves of our lives. It’s quite an experiment to have your leads spend most of the film’s running time considering a fateful cross-country meet-up; and after lots of charming conversations, cajoling by friends and nostalgic soundtrack tunes, the “moment” is put into motion. Even with limited screen time together, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are irresistible in this charming mix of poignancy and laughs.
Director John McTiernan serves up a straight-down-the-middle sentimental actioner and pleases no one in the summer flop Last Action Hero (C-) in which a young movie fan enters the screen, reverse Purple Rose of Cairo style, to pal around with Arnold Swarzenegger on some lame product placement laden adventures. A muddled tone, an uncertain target audience, flat action sequences, poor special effects and an absolute void of dramatic structure and human chemistry are but some of the hazards in the way between the movie and your entertainment. There are two pretty thrilling stunt sequences, but it’s hard to stay too thrilled when the cloying duo of protagonists is mugging and plugging.
Steven Spielberg has always been fascinated with the wonders of childhood, the perils of technology and the gulf between reality and fantasy. Once again, in the summer mega-movie Jurassic Park (B+), he opens up a mysterious childhood treasure chest to unleash the demons within it. In the film he proves most kids have a certain wide-eyed interest in dinosaurs, and adults will exploit such unknowns if given the chance. After Hook, Spielberg is thankfully back to formula form. The story is essentially an island theme park of dinosaurs re-created in modern day like a high-end zoo — and that turns out to be a terribly bad idea. The effects are great, many sequences highly suspenseful and the characters are almost all dull and underdeveloped (especially Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough). Jeff Goldblum thankfully provides a bit of comic relief. This is a theme park ride and a sequel franchise unspooling before your eyes.
Willem Dafoe, the incredibly modern actor from The Last Temptation of Christ, was tempted by unknown forces – perhaps the promise of co-star Madonna and candle wax – to headline the embarrassingly bad Basic Instinct knockoff Body of Evidence (D). Director Uli Edel orchestrates sex scenes and courtroom scenes with equal incompetence. Ann Archer’s poor performance is the only thing that makes Madonna’s acting appear competent. The plot about a woman accused of killing a wealthy lover during an especially naughty encounter is almost incidental; it was all S&M — shallow and meaningless.
In a world on the brink, movies often provide the ultimate escape. In Matinee (B-), director Joe Dante explores a weekend during the Cold War Crisis in which a movie mogul (John Goodman) debuts his latest exploitation flick and accompanying in-theater stunts in a way that plays out in real-life adventures with young lovers, paranoid citizens and fascinated fans. A bit of a riff on the War of the Worlds radio play controversy, Matinee spools with a bit of a devil-may-care attitude, relatively unsure of its own target audience (film buffs? nostalgia nuts?) It’s not quite universal enough to be a shared experience, not quite funny enough to draw in the comedy fans. Goodman is nonetheless fantastic as the impresario, hawking an Atomo-Vision gimmick with the sales bravado of Willy Wonka meets Willy Loman. And Dante, of Gremlins and Innerspace fame, is perfect for this material and brings out his usual cast of cameos and in-jokes.
Jon Amiel’s Sommersby (B) is a soapy, post-Civil War-era retelling of the French film Return of Martin Guerre about a war hero (Richard Gere) who returns to his southern home and to his wife (Jodie Foster) and son — but the returning hero may actually be an imposter. But could the guy who returned actually be an improvement over the hubby from before? The script is a bit overwrought and many twists far-fetched, but the actors give it their all, and the production values are strong. Danny Elfman provides a rare and effective romantic score. It’s pretty likely you’ll be hooked to the central couple’s story and on the edge of your seat about how it turns out.
Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between Norman Rockwell and David Lynch, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Brother’s Keeper (A-) plays out like a real-life murder mystery with penetrating character study, pastoral splendor and interpersonal interactions begging the question of what makes a community tick. Chronicling the lives of four elderly, nearly illiterate farmer brothers who have spent their entire lives in the same dilapidated shack, this cult documentary takes on the power of high-profile Hollywood films when one brother mysteriously dies in his sleep and a surprising yarn ensues. The film asks questions about small-town America and will hold interest as final verdicts unfold.
Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker have successfully bottled a great formula for comedy thanks to Robin Williams’ contribution as the voice of the Genie in the fabulous and briskly paced animated Aladdin (A). Disney has finally found a voice to match its colorful, vivid animation; Williams’ manic characterization and hilarious anachronisms fill in the lines of an absorbing work of pure fantasy about a rugrat who gets three wishes and woos a princess. Composers Howard Ashman, Alan Menken and Tim Rice get high points with “Friend Like Me,” a great moment of razzmatazz, and “A Whole New World,” which evokes a Superman style flight aboard a magic carpet. It’s everything you could wish for in a family-friendly adventure.