In Breaking the Waves (A-), director Lars von Trier crafts an elegant, heart-wrenching epic about a woman guided to the edge of sanity by a moral quest that leaves her physically, mentally and emotionally vulnerable. Emily Watson shines in the central role of this chilling film that deftly blends pathos and transcendence.
An exotic ode to love, art and revenge, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (A) stars Vivian Wu as a Japanese model in search of lovers who will paint on her body as part of their mating ritual with her. One of these men is a British translator played by Ewan McGregor, and a romantic entanglement that soon erupts due to betrayal and blackmail leads the plot down a variety of unexpected passageways. Greenaway’s innovative uses of popular music, multimedia effects, calligraphy and chapter settings, sensory illusions and uncensored erotic imagery makes this one of the most resonant and resplendent films to blossom on screen in years. This is one for the dreamers.
Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (B+) pairs Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as long-lost mother and daughter reuniting. Because Leigh uses an impromptu screenwriting technique with his actors, the focus is on the character revelations, especially since mom is white and daughter is black, but the story suffers a bit with not too much to do once we’ve established this central conceit. Still, the actresses are so charming that their story washes over you, and you feel like you’re visiting with folks you’ve known all your life.
Slicing into the heart of the American Gothic with razor-sharp perception, writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton carves out a startling yarn with the genre-slashing masterpiece Sling Blade (A). He crafts a singular portrait of the South and of a man faces with a moral dilemma that may cause him to resort to violence. Alternately sweet in sequences with child actor Lucas Black and menacing when facing an alcoholic character played by Dwight Yoakam, the film sustains a delicate tone and a spellbinding sense of time and place as it unspools to its finale.
Director David Cronenberg uses car crashes as a stand-in for unusual fetishes, but his focus on this type of auto-erotica seems like more a delirious dissertation than an actual real thing in Crash (C-). Nonetheless, James Spader, Holly Hunter and a game ensemble sell the heck out of the high-concept. But there’s only so long the hang-up on bang-ups can sustain.
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan proves to be the ultimate good sport in his film debut opposite Bugs Bunny in Joe Pytka’s family adventure Space Jam (B-). This blend of live action and animation surrounding an intergalactic hoops game to solve a rivalry is mostly throwaway, but the charms of favorite Looney Tunes characters will keep kids and adults entertained throughout the cheery, self-effacing glee.
Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! (B+) is a light, fizzy film about the meteoric rise of a one-hit wonder band to the height of fame and fortune. Hanks as manager and the bright young cast he has assembled are a delight to watch as their characters sort out relationships once the band gets big. Filled with great music and period detail, this is a rich sleeper comedy.
Great music, superior performances and an engaging true life story of a pianist who suffers a mental breakdown culminate in a touching experience in Scott Hicks’ Shine (B+). Most of the film’s moments are genuinely mobbing, and Geoffrey Rush is a revelation.
The auteur of anxiety Albert Brooks stars in and directs Mother (A-), a film about a twice-divorced writer who must move back in with his mom. She is magnificently played by the legendary Debbie Reynolds. This generation gap comedy presents an odd couple worth watching.
Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (A+) challenges viewers to re-think views on free speech as its antihero protagonist played by Woody Harrelson is a notorious peddler of pornography. His stripped bride played by Courtney Love helps him mount an unexpected defense in an unorthodox look at the limits of decency and how people in America can express themselves. Harrelson and Love are magnificent in their roles. Forman makes films very infrequently, but when he does, he generally contributes mightily to America’s film canon.
Pop goes the nation as Madonna assumes the role of Eva Peron in director Alan Parker’s faithful adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Evita (A-). This sung-through political biography tells the rags-to-riches tale of Argentina’s most celebrated first lady with lush period detail, smashing musical numbers and surprisingly good sing-acting. Madonna was born for the role and acquits herself nicely with a pop-rock take on the typically Broadway belter role. Antonio Banderas is charismatic as Che, the omnipresent narrator. A meditation on stardom and how close we get to our political leaders before we realize they too are human, it’s a powerful musical epic.
Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (D+) pairs George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in a poorly-conceived vampire slasher film. Although some suspense and stunts are funny and sustained, most of it is unsavory and unsatisfying.