Director Nora Ephron helms her first certified bomb with Mixed Nuts (D) which registers something south of North, east of Ishtar and beyond Heaven’s Gate. This holiday clunker starring Steve Martin is a hodgepodge of throwaway jokes and witless situations involving fruitcakes, touch-tone phone options for the suicide hotline and a Yuletide cross-dresser. This loose adaptation of the French Le Pere Noel Est Une Ordure may spark a ban on imports.
Terry Zwigoff’s profound documentary Crumb (A-) covers the life of an underground artist and his dysfunctional family with brazen and bizarre panache. Scored with nickelodeon-style three-penny opera music and riddled with the art that made its subject famous, the film chronicles Robert Crumb’s disturbing influences and counter-cultural outputs (he’s the guy who first shocked with the X-rated Fritz the Cat character). Playing out like a psychedelic horror-show, the film is like a sketchbook with Crumb’s stream of consciousness continually building the narrative, and you just can’t look away.
Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (A-) is a stirring animal version of Hamlet featuring some heavy themes about a “circle of life” with betrayal, death and ascension. The regal undertones and the Elton John tunes don’t always jive, but it’s hard to deny the power, poignancy and genuine beauty of this Disney animation milestone. This film marches with a triumphant beat and eschews the formula of the hits directly before it to fashion and even bigger juggernaut of global wonder.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (B+) confronts our society of spectacle through a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde named Mickey and Mallory Knox. Living in their own kaleidoscopic world of crime and bloodshed, this deranged duo feeds off a hunger for fame and fortune and embarks on a cross-country spree of decadence that is matched by a creative series of full-tilt vignettes and vivid cinematography. Like Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, Stone casts his antiheroes with spectacularly endearing actors (in this case, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis); all other characters are tiresome or unlikable. Just as Stone was becoming a bit pedantic, he reinvented himself with this film and truly asserted his power. Working from a Quentin Tarantino story, he strikes a dark balance in this thought-provoking and controversial stunner.
You know the sensation: the feeling you get after gulping a slush drink too fast. The rush to your frozen noggin is unbearable for one brief, piercing moment. Then it stops. It’s a revelation, relief or rejuvenation. Writer/director Kevin Smith’s Clerks (A) is like that instant of peace when you regain your equilibrium and once again feel ready to take on the world. It’s a delightful slacker comedy about a day in the life of two friends who work in an adjoining video shop and convenience store. Through a farcical display of raunchy, raucous dialogue, the film captures the wacky world of life on minimum wage. The wisdom of these foul mouthed philosophers should give solace to anyone who has ever contained fury at a customer or secretly desired to break the rules. Smith employs a non-linear approach with quick camera jerks and slow promenades over the absurdist landscape to fashion a monochrome masterpiece. Despite the snark, there’s a certain sweetness to the central duo’s friendship and a perverse charm to their assortment of strange friends and customers. This is strictly for folks who don’t mind a little residual cheese puff dust on their hands.
Anchored by solid performances by Brad Pitt and others and filled with gorgeous scenery, Edward Zwick’s Legends of the Fall (B+) is a romantic ode to family and friendship in the early 20th century. Set in the shadows of the Montana Rockies, the film tells the story of three brothers (Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Henry Thomas) a stern father (Anthony Hopkins), a love interest (Julia Ormond) and a world on the brink of love and war. Prodigal son themes and some less successful WWI sequences are all eclipsed by the force of nature that is the central smoldering romances and breathtaking photography told to the score of James Horner. It’s a poetic, intoxicating story about living and learning and taking the journey.
In the summer of 1994, acclaimed film director Robert Altman threw a huge bash in Paris during the peak of fashion paparazzi. Attracting hoards of celebrities and models to his ten-week gala, Altman unveiled a hyped-up hootenanny, establishing his reputation as the world’s premier party host. It’s unfortunate that Altman the auteur was making a film in the process. His clothes hangover posing as a fashion scene parody is Ready to Wear (C-), a deluded mis-mesh that could have benefited from a formal screenplay and perhaps a few short cuts. Stars galore from Kim Basinger to Julia Roberts to Cher to Sophia Loren in snippets of plot delight in moments but can’t stitch together the threadbare affair. Fashion aficionados may enjoy the glimpses of the pret-a-porter and some of the runway frivolity. Ultimately, though, Altman’s statement on this one is the lampshade still on his head.
Lestat and Louis, the vampires immortalized in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, are holding a blood drive, and you’re invited. You won’t need a crucifix. Or garlic. Or even a stake. Just bring your desire for thrills and excitement. You’re about to experience the ultimate revisionist vampire tale. Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (B+) is a stylish thriller combining a fascinating cast of characters with glamorous locales and a twisted brand of dark humor. It’s a cunning mixture of theatrical gusto and cinematic horror. Tom Cruise is coy and confident, Brad Pitt brooding and Kirsten Dunst disarming in their roles as surrogate bloodsucking family. Extend your wrist, tilt your neck and give in!
Sand. Lots of sand. That’s the big takeaway from StarGate (D), a pricey science fiction epic about an intergalactic doorway to an alternate world of phony pyramids, an androgynous pharaoh and jumbo jumbo amidst dusty dunes. Writer/director Roland Emmerich gives James Spader, Kurt Russell and Jaye Davidson little to do in a story that quickly sinks like quicksand amidst the bombast.
One moment you’re pulling back in horror. And the next instant you can’t control your laughter. That’s the thrilling sensation director Quentin Tarantino creates in his splashy piece of Pulp Fiction (A+), an audacious interweaving of three stories about a surprisingly vulgar and witty underclass on the scene of the modern American crimescape. It’s complete with blood-drenched violence, uncompromising revenge and accidental acts of fate. Wordplay is front and center as “take her out” may involve dating someone and “take care of him” may mean slow torture in a basement. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson play iconic hitmen gabbing about Big Macs and foot fetishes between jobs, and Travolta’s night out with Uma Thurman provides a dance floor sequence to rival Saturday Night Fever. This is a film for people who love movies, with mystery briefcases, prizefighters on the road to redemption, tales told out of order, shots held long and tight and homages that will be studied shot by shot.
The Shawshank Redemption (A), written and directed by Frank Darabont, is one of the best movie adaptations of a Stephen King work. Tim Robbins plays a banker imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover; in Shawshank prison, he befriends a fellow lifer played by Morgan Freeman, known for his ability to smuggle creature comforts into the pen. Together they hatch an unlikely friendship and break down a series of barriers both physical and emotional. Magnificent performances buoy this tribute to persistence.
Director Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (A-) explores the scandal behind a rigged televised game show, paralleling some of the promises and disenchantment of America in the ’60s. Ralph Fiennes, so chilling in Schindler’s List, brilliantly plays the contestant at the center of the controversy. The film is timely as a fabricated Dateline segment prompted similar outcry about what is fact and fiction in multimedia manipulation. John Turturro and Paul Scofield also give great lived-in performances.