Director Tony Scott’s film of an early Quentin Tarantino script, True Romance (D+) is unfortunately a misguided, mean-spirited action film that raises issues about a violent world without any rational backing or compelling message. It’s as if there’s an irony on the screenplay page that just didn’t translate to how Scott chose to direct it. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette don’t register in the leading roles in an aimless story about drug runs and double-crosses. The great supporting cast has its moments though including the ever-intriguing Christopher Walken as one of the villains and Brad Pitt as a stoner roommate who hilariously rarely leaves his sofa.
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (A) tells a true-life Holocaust-set story of a factory owner (Liam Neeson) who along with one of his trusted advisors (Ben Kingsley) is able to help save many Jews from certain death against incredible odds. Ralph Fiennes plays one of the most villainous characters put to screen as the film’s most prominent Nazi officer. Despite Spielberg’s action and sci-fi masterpieces that have come before, nothing prepared audiences for the pain and poignancy his affecting drama would have. This black and white film is full of individual stories and details that will break your heart but with an engaging narrative pulling the viewer all the way through. Spielberg’s you-are-there flourishes are distressing and vivid, and only the hope that comes from the people that were indeed saved gives viewers solace from this real-life fever dream.
Martin Scorsese turns his lens to the psychological turmoil behind the cultured, mannered society of Edith Wharton’s bygone late 19th-century New York in The Age of Innocence (B+). Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer are standouts in this parlor game of longing, brilliantly edited and judiciously paced. It’s as gorgeous as Marty’s films are usually gritty.
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.