Richard Dreyfuss soars as a music teacher inspired by the people who love him in Stephen Herek’s Mr. Holland’s Opus (A-). This finely tuned film is filled with clichés and somehow still works, possibly because it deals with dreams deferred and the notion that even life’s smallest notes are part of a collective symphony. The quality of the acting, the music and the overall groundswell has quite a power to move.
Visionary director Terry Gilliam comes back from the future in Twelve Monkeys (B+), an imaginative time travel fantasy with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Inventive and moody, the film tames the eccentric filmmaker’s most savage instincts and sustains a very suspenseful and engaging thriller throughout.
Michael Radford’s Italian import Il Postino: The Postman (B+) is a celebration of love and the human language, buoyed by poetry and romantic awakening. Chronicling a friendship between a simpleton delivery man and his mentor, the exiled poet Pablo Neruda, the film is a touching display of self-discovery as the postman learns to express the words in his head to the woman in his dreams.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon (B) is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of one of America’s most controversial presidents. Stone uses some of his trademark visual bombast, but it’s his rare moments of tenderness that humanize the president and Anthony Hopkins’ touching performance that lift the film above revisionist history.
Emma Thompson aptly adapts Jane Austin in her screenwriting debut for Ang Lee’s splendid comedy of manners Sense and Sensibility (A). Co-starring the luminous Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, Thompson the actress and writer unleashes tart exchanges as gossipy socialites, sycophants, snobs and civil servants find their way in a period piece about discovering love and happiness.
Director Tim Robbins makes the definitive film about the death penalty and shows all angles of a controversial topic through an intimate story about a nun (Susan Sarandon) and a death-row murderer (Sean Penn) in Dead Man Walking (A). Both actors give one of the best performances of their careers, and Robbins deftly directs their story without giving anyone easy answers. This is a thought-provoking drama and a reality injection for anyone who sees it.
Meet Ben and his tonic as director Mike Figgis addresses an addicted man and the woman who helps redeem him in the outstanding drama Leaving Las Vegas (A+). Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue give career-best performances as the alcoholic and prostitute who enter each other’s lives when they both most need the reflection and support of a fellow human being in their darkest time. Handheld camerawork, vivid colors and the absolute conviction of dialogue and fine acting make this alternately sad and romantic piece work beautifully.
The classic toys that come to life in John Lasseter’s Toy Story (A-) are among the most endearing new creations developed for the screen. Pull-string cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and rival-turned-pal astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) preside over a pixel playroom of great characters including Mr. Potatohead, Slinky Dog and other favorites come to life. When there’s trouble in toyland, it’s time for teamwork, and the saccharine sweetness never gets too much to turn off adult audiences who are watching with kids. The Randy Newman ballads are a little treachly, but everything else is super-fresh, and Pixar Studios shows why it’s the high-tech hotshot on the scene with 110,064 frames of computer animation that translate into absolute enjoyment.
Michael Mann’s Heat (A-) is a high-gloss L.A. crime caper with suspense and thrills to spare, but the main attraction is getting to watch Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino turn in outstanding performances. They don’t share much screen time; but when they do, it’s explosive.
Take a deep breath. Director Forest Whitaker is about to showcase the struggles and triumphs of a year in the life of four extraordinary women in Waiting to Exhale (B). Angela Bassett is the standout in the circle of friends as a woman who puts her dreams on hold for a man who disappoints her. Loretta Devine also gets a plucky role as one of her friends searching for love. With music by Babyface and a script adapted from Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel, it’s a fresh tale of empowerment.
Renny Harlin’s cut-rate pirate adventure Cutthroat Island (C-) stars Geena Davis as a lackluster swashbuckler amidst fake-looking set-pieces. Co-starring Matthew Modine, this bawdy, gaudy film jumps head-first into epic stunts without warming up the viewers to its austere heroes.
A movie about the motives of mob men with simply a change of venue from his usual NYC neighborhoods isn’t too much of a gamble for Martin Scorsese; but few do this genre better, and the director gives Las Vegas its dressing-down in Casino (B-), by novelist Nicholas Pileggi. In style and structure, it’s often a facsimile of the much better GoodFellas, but Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone get some great moments, and there’s a nice subtext to the game that’s being played in the floor versus the game being played behind the scenes. Still, it’s hard not to believe that Scorsese left some cards on the table and that he could have taken this story in some more creative directions.