Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are birds of a feather in Mike Nichols’ lightweight comedy The Birdcage (B), based on the French classic La Cage Aux Folles. Their tale of an alternative American family is filled with larger-than-life gags. But for all the preening queens run amuck, there are actually some nice domestic moments between the central couple and the son they reared together that blaze some trails on acceptance. It’s super-funny and proof that it takes all types to make a family.
They say that God is in the details. If this is the case, filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen find a multitude of moviemaking miracles in the strange terrain of Fargo (A-), a curious murder mystery full of sardonic humor, offbeat characters and unconventional wisdom. This is a great case of bleak chic, from the super-serious pregnant protagonist superbly played by Frances McDormand to ransoms, outlaws, a triple homicide and a wood chipper. In both their verbal and film language, the Coen Brothers’ Dakota pop is sure to take you where you’ve never been before.
Ben Stiller headlines an all-star cast in the hilarious domestic comedy of errors, David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (A-). His adopted character’s cross-country search for his biological parents leads him hilariously into the arms of drug-dealers, FBI agents and a merry band of fellow travelers played by comic legends ranging from Lily Tomlin to George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore. Moore is outrageously tart playing against type. The story has a way of getting more and more perilous from what seemed like a pretty simple premise, and Russell’s dark searches within Pandora’s Box lead to some awfully funny findings about love and relationships in the modern age.
Jan de Bont’s Twister (C-) is perpetually stuck in the suck zone. Cardboard characters played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt seem stationed in their roles to be ready when the big tornado effects come in to do their magic. It’s all a downward spiral.
Brian de Palma’s cross-continental action film Mission: Impossible (B+) is a bit heavy on the high-tech mumbo jumbo and doesn’t really give its wooden lead (Tom Cruise) much character development. But as a sturdy summer blockbuster based on a classic TV show, it holds its own. There are some dazzling set pieces and stunts, the best including Cruise’s hero-turned-marionette moment when he hovers by wires into a sound-sensitive computer chamber to pull off a vital hack. The film counts on the art of the double cross to up the ante of its complex subplots. Much of this thriller is inventive and commercial.
Director Michael Bay’s Alcatraz redemption takes place as Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage achieve breakout success in the action-filled confines of a notorious prison in The Rock (B+). This is an action lover’s wild ride that doesn’t give up for a single frame of Bay’s chronicle of escape artists in full-throttle momentum. The film compensates for implausibility with sheer action sensation.
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.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (A-) is Disney’s dark quasi-opera about a 15th century French deformed bell-ringer who dreams of leaving the cathedral where he is secluded for a moment “out there” in the real world. This adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic features spectacular songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Swartz and grandiose, swirling animation that brings exquisite life to its time and place. A moving centerpiece is the song “God Help the Outcasts” in this cautionary tale about making the world a safe haven for those who are different.
Jim Carrey steals the show in director Ben Stiller’s lame comedic indictment of a world saturated by television, The Cable Guy (C). The comedian’s highjinks are funny in parts, but the film’s weighty messages often blunt the laughter in all the wrong places.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (B) is far-fetched craziness about an Alien assault on America, complete with an iconic explosion of The White House. But somehow when Will Smith and Bill Pullman board planes to kick some alien ass, there’s a strange swell of patriotism of something that makes this a fun and seminal film entertainment. Quirky performances by an eclectic cast including Harvey Fierstein, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Connick Jr. and others help make this modern-day disaster flick resonate even though most everything in it is pretty preposterous.
Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (B) is a veritable steam engine of a film showcasing the life of junkies from the other side of the tracks. Ewan McGregor charges onto the scene in a star-making performance, and Boyle’s grim, swirling visual odyssey gives viewers a one-way ticket to the human abyss. There’s a whole lot of surreal locomotion as the film alternates from comedy to surreal drama, all in an original, efficient tale.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (B+) features a Floridian gang war set to iambic pentameter and a soliloquy submerged in the deep end of a swimming pool. It’s a tropical-infused, altogether modern take, set in America with young stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes doing superb work as the central tragic lovers. The director has a strange way of distancing viewers from his concept for the first 30 minutes or so before the film settles into a beautiful rhythm. By the time a chorus is singing “When Doves Cry,” most are won over. The movie dazzles and moves and rarely misses a beat of what the Bard intended.
Barbra Streisand stars and takes the director’s chair for The Mirror Has Two Faces (A-), a superb romantic comedy about the modern myths of beauty and relationships. Paired with Jeff Bridges as dating professors, it’s an intellectual look at the modern rituals of romance. Lauren Bacall is a hoot as Streisand’s character’s sassy mom. The two Streisands – actress and director – score a triumph with comedy and drama in this story about a couple courting chaos and confusion.