David Fincher’s Seven (A-) is relentless in its sustained somber tone as two detectives – Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman – track down a serial killer inspired by the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Unlike typical buddy cop movies, there’s no room for levity or comic relief as the central duo plumbs the depths of depravity and faces their own demons in a grim, rainy, unnamed metropolis. It is handsomely crafted, extremely suspenseful and disturbing.
Look who’s oinking! Chris Noonan’s Babe is a delightful fable featuring a talking pig protagonist and his human companion (James Cromwell) who enters him into a sheepdog championship. It’s a vividly colorful, sunshiny look at finding your place in the world.
Director Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (A) is a sensitive portrait of middle-aged romance, brought to sumptuous life by a sensitive artist. Who would have guessed a sketchy story about a lonely housewife who has an affair with a drifter over a long weekend would be a catalyst for Eastwood as both director and actor to communicate volumes? His muse – Meryl Streep – in great accent and with blissful vulnerability as Francesca, must make tough choices to either be faithful to her family or to live out her every repressed fantasy and escape from all that she knows. The film’s leisurely pace, gorgeously photographed American heartland and mature themes of personal responsibility help both characters and viewers to cross literal and figurative cross-ways into new emotional depths. It’s fun to get caught up in the whirlwind of the Robert-Francesca romance and really tough to come back to reality. It’s a profound film of memories and choices made that will impact the rest of your life.
As the main characters mounting a theatrical spectacular in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (A) toast to a world without compromise, deep inside they know they will have to sell out for a sellout performance. Allen’s showstopping exploration of art, deals and the art of the deal is a comedic bonbon with John Cusask in the lead, Dianne Wiest as a grand diva, Chazz Palminteri as a gangster producer and Jennifer Tilly as a sublimely untalented gangster moll and wannabe singer. The mounting verbal, sight and character gags that emerge as opening night for a doomed show coalesce seal the deal for the film’s appeal. And Allen has rarely made a film this striking in its visuals, with vivid pop colors, art deco posters, glitzy marquees and gorgeous iconography of the Great White Way providing a rich palette.
Midway through Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (A+), a character asks, “Isn’t everything we’re doing in life a way to be loved a little more?” Leading to discussions, revelations, and lingering meditations, this question is but one thread in a tapestry of character study. Sunrise is a celebration of human language that reveals more about its loquacious characters than any film targeted to twentysomethings in recent memory. An American man (Ethan Hawke) and French woman (Julie Delpy) meet on a European train and spend a night walking and talking through Vienna. Through debate, Q&A sessions with imaginary friends, frisky flirting and more, the two reveal more in a night than many do in a lifetime. The film is a funny, romantic and thoughtful ode to discovering your soulmate and then learning to communicate with them.
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 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.
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.
Danny Boyle’s wickedly witty thriller Shallow Grave (B+) features Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor as insular flatmates in search of a fourth, who turns out to have mysterious money and crime connections. Boyle is observant and twisty as his trio of antiheroes confronts some shades of gray that are murkier than ever surrounding their new domicile denizen. It’s entertaining and suspenseful.
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (A) tells a true-life Holocaust-set story of a factory owner (Liam Neeson) who along with one of his trusted advisors (Ben Kingsley) is able to help save many Jews from certain death against incredible odds. Ralph Fiennes plays one of the most villainous characters put to screen as the film’s most prominent Nazi officer. Despite Spielberg’s action and sci-fi masterpieces that have come before, nothing prepared audiences for the pain and poignancy his affecting drama would have. This black and white film is full of individual stories and details that will break your heart but with an engaging narrative pulling the viewer all the way through. Spielberg’s you-are-there flourishes are distressing and vivid, and only the hope that comes from the people that were indeed saved gives viewers solace from this real-life fever dream.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (A+) is a finely tuned masterpiece of moviemaking, transporting the viewer to a rare place in the human heart where love is a classic medley passed down through generations. Filmed in muted, natural colors, this mid 19th century New Zealand set story centers around a mute but passionate main character played by Holly Hunter who communicates with her peculiar daughter (Anna Paquin) in her own special sign language and through the sounds of her beloved piano. When trouble arises in an arranged marriage to Sam Neill and a mysterious settler (Harvey Keitel) arrives near their coastal outpost, a deal involving musical lesssons becomes something far more exotic with shades of betrayal and brutality. This original story has flashes of classic literature and absolutely haunting imagery over the lush music of Michael Nyman.