Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (B) transports two 1990’s teens (Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon) into an alternate 1950’s sitcom reality, and the mores of the four passing decades get a dose of parody and pathos in a story that blends drama and comedy. Although quite entertaining, it pales a bit in comparison to the similarly themed Back to the Future. It is lifted by a supporting performance by Joan Allen as a mom who finds unexpected liberation and by quite lovely effects morphing a color and black and white world into vivid existence.
Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook’s animated film Mulan (B+) takes place in China during the Han dynasty where Fa Mulan (a marvelous Ming-Na Wen), daughter of aged warrior Fa Zhou, impersonates a man and takes her dad’s conscription slot to fend off a Hun invasion. Filled with rich animation, exciting set pieces, lively songs, tense drama and witty comic interludes, it’s an epic part of Disney’s animation Renaissance. Although the plot is lifted from Asian legend, the story of cross dressing to fit into a man’s world is a bit Ori-Yentl; but the creativity, scale and scope work magnificently. Eddie Murphy’s travel-size dragon sidekick and a lucky cricket are an added bonus of delight. The sumptuous drawing detail is a mark of distinction for the film, and while it’s not quite as engaging as some other Disney films of its era, it’s in a prestigious pantheon.
John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (A) is a splendid celebration of love and language as a female stage player (Gwyneth Paltrow) sneaks her way into 1593 London’s Rose Theatre troupe and into the heart of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) himself. The central couple is quite charming as they find themselves falling into many best-of-the-Bard situations. Mark Norman and Tom Stoppard’s witty screenplay is a ripe match for a cast of game actors including Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, Colin Firth and Judi Dench. This one is for lovers of refined romantic comedies and is sure to provide much ado for those who watch it on date night.
Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (A-) is a drama about the final days of Frankenstein film director James Whale, regally played by Ian McKellan, haunted by his WWI service and transfixed by his own homosexuality and his new gardener played by Brendan Fraser. Lynn Redgrave is outstanding as Whale’s disapproving housemaid. Superbly filmed and acted, the movie makes deft metaphor for the exploring and remembering of one’s demons.
Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors (B+) assembles a perfectly nasty ensemble of characters to showcase the darkness of modern-day suburbia. Although big stars such as Ben Stiller give the film marquee value, it’s LaBute’s tart dialogue on central display. Catherine Keener and Jason Patric are among the most deliciously hateful, with the latter’ third-act soliloquy one of the film’s most memorable. Fans of dark comedy will be tickled crimson with this bloodbath of the bourgeoisie.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (B) has one of the most amazing, bloody and grueling first twenty minutes of war re-enactments ever committed to film with its beach invasion of Normandy. Unfortunately, the remaining film featuring a search for the title character is rather pedestrian. Tom Hanks and an ensemble of Hollywood A-listers lead the charge to find Ryan (Matt Damon). The remaining film includes a series of exciting and nostalgic episodes but not a one that again matches the opening sequence.