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.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (A+) is a finely tuned masterpiece of moviemaking, transporting the viewer to a rare place in the human heart where love is a classic medley passed down through generations. Filmed in muted, natural colors, this mid 19th century New Zealand set story centers around a mute but passionate main character played by Holly Hunter who communicates with her peculiar daughter (Anna Paquin) in her own special sign language and through the sounds of her beloved piano. When trouble arises in an arranged marriage to Sam Neill and a mysterious settler (Harvey Keitel) arrives near their coastal outpost, a deal involving musical lesssons becomes something far more exotic with shades of betrayal and brutality. This original story has flashes of classic literature and absolutely haunting imagery over the lush music of Michael Nyman.
Director Robert Altman’s 1970’s classic Nashville is often described as “24 characters searching for a movie.” His Short Cuts (B) adds about ten more to the mix as it tells a panoramic story of interlocking characters adrift in modern-day Los Angeles. Lily Tomlin, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon and Julianne Moore are among the standouts in the ensemble cast. With so many short stories – some comedic, some tragic, some formal, some jazzy – the plot defies a Player-esque 25-word-or-less pitch. But at a Short three and a half hour running time, it’s an intriguing, ironic and insightful look at modern relationships.
Tom Hanks brought his American Everyman charisma to the moving central performance of a gay lawyer wrongly fired from his firm when he contracts AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s stirring powerhouse of a film, Philadelphia (A). As good as Hanks is in the role, it’s Denzel Washington as a fellow homophobic attorney who defends him who emotionally transforms and helps change minds. Demme brings some great music choices to the piece, from the signature original tunes by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to an opera aria in one of the most moving sequences in the film. It’s a snapshot of the country at a specific time and place and a testament to real folks learning to find brotherly love in unexpected circumstances.
Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (A) brilliantly explores the relationships between Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters and tells universal truths about what parents and offspring can learn from one another. Four interlocking stories are deftly balanced, and overlapping flashbacks work surprisingly well to build to a crescendo of heartbreak and release. It’s a highly recommended ensemble drama with standout performances by Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita and Vivian Wu.
If Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence weren’t laughably bad on their own terms, Carl Reiner’s Fatal Instinct (F) attempts to spoof this mini-genre and finds itself going commando in the laughs department. The presence of Sean Young, one of my least favorite performers, helps further sink an enterprise that seems to have been conceived by a bunch of third-graders.
Director Henry Selick does the heavy lifting in a Claymation-inspired motion capture musical holiday extravaganza Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (B) based on the Beetlejuice/Edward Scissorhands wunderkind’s whimsical mash-up of a night when a cast of ghouls, goblins and Jack Skellington take over Christmas duties. Buoyed by Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman’s playfully sinister ditties and a bleak comedic vibe that shows the darker side of holiday glee, it’s a wickedly enchanting, splendidly demented fable for all seasons. Like much of Burton’s fare, a triumph of production design over storytelling – but, oh, what beautiful visuals!
Mel Gibson’s directorial debut, The Man Without a Face (C+) features the Aussie actor as a deformed teacher who befriends a young loner played by Nick Stahl. Plot lines are predictable as the community citizenry misunderstands the innocent relationship, and Gibson films his deformed self with a strange vanity that still doesn’t make hm look too bad. The director doesn’t really forge much of a standout style on this one except for his “fear of the other.”
Though too complex at first, Ron Underwood’s Heart and Souls (B) generates a compelling story about completing unresolved lives. Robert Downney Jr. and Alfre Woodard are standouts in this feel-good comedy sleeper.
Agnieszka Holland’s literary adaptation The Secret Garden (B) is an elegantly photographed film that captures the beauty and wonder of a timeless tale of a little girl who brings joy into the home of a lonely man and a garden previously haunted by love and loss. Though it’s a bit slow paced, it has fine performances and is worthwhile family entertainment.
Director Peter Weir has a talent for dreamy out-of-body moments of passion ranging from wartime friendship and tragedy (Galipoli), primieval joy for the arts (Dead Poets Society) and the purest of love forbidden by tradition (Witness). Weir’s compendium of human epiphanies has a new entry, Fearless (A-), a spiritual drama about the ways two different individuals, played by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez in career-high performances, react in the aftermath of a tragic plane crash. An incredible odyssey into self-discovery, uncompromising in its starkness as well as its message of redemption, it’s a powerful find of a movie with rejuvenating effect.
Keep your distance from Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance (D+), a bloated, boring, self-conscious action flick about a burned-out Pittsburgh cop (Bruce Willis) on the two-year trail of a serial killer. Willis seems to be sleepwalking through this one. Some of the stunts are original; but for the most part, you’ve seen it all before.
Philip Kaufman’s very boring Rising Sun (D) is a slow-paced mystery set in a high-tech world lacking humor and emotion. As detectives investigating the brutal murder of a woman found in the boardroom of a Japanese-owned company in Los Angeles, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes deliver tired lines with very little charisma.
Related link: One of my jobs in the 1990’s was developing the in-store magazine and Website for a video rental chain called MOOVIES. Here’s one of the few remaining sidebars: A run-down of Sean Connery’s movies: Link here.