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.
Director Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (A-) explores the scandal behind a rigged televised game show, paralleling some of the promises and disenchantment of America in the ’60s. Ralph Fiennes, so chilling in Schindler’s List, brilliantly plays the contestant at the center of the controversy. The film is timely as a fabricated Dateline segment prompted similar outcry about what is fact and fiction in multimedia manipulation. John Turturro and Paul Scofield also give great lived-in performances.
Alan Parker examines the foibles of the human body in the comic farce The Road to Wellville (C+), pitting Anthony Hopkins as a Willy Wonka of a 1907 health sanitarium against naifs Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda. This episodic film often provides a tonic to the funny-bone but fails to find a remedy and resonance against any enduring central theme.
Glenn Gordon Caron’s Love Affair (D-) is a remake of An Affair to Remember which inspired the much more interesting homage Sleepless in Seattle. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening are smarmy in the soft-lit central roles, and Katharine Hepburn makes a cameo to mumble something unnecessarily vulgar. By the time the lovers meet up at the Empire State Building, you’re just glad it’s almost time for the credits to roll.
Moviemaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. could have been the next Orson Welles. Both men hit their stride at an early age and possessed unswerving obsession for the films they created. There’s just one thing Ed Wood lacked: talent. Wood, infamous for dreck such as Plan 9 From Outer Space is biographically redeemed in director Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (B+). As portrayed by Johnny Depp, the title character plays out his passions and peccadilloes against a quaint black and white stock ensemble dramedy. Martin Landau is genius as legendary film star Bela Lugosi, who adds heft to the proceedings. The movie magic of rubber squids, aluminum foil robots and zombie body doubles creates a pleasant phantasmagoria that’s right at home in Burton’s oeuvre.
Mike Binder’s Blankman (F) is a superhero spoof that just sits there like a bad chunk of Kryptonite. Damon Wayans, whose transition to the big screen from In Living Color has not quite soared, plays an inner-city superhero, and that conceit is intended to be funny in and of itself. This film has the power to move viewers to not a single laugh in a single bound.
In Chuck Russell’s The Mask (B), comic actor Jim Carrey literally saves face from a few tepid film vehicles in a manic series of misadventures when a man puts on a mysterious green visage that has a life of its own. Cameron Diaz is great as the blond bombshell, and Max the puppy nearly steals the show in this mischievous good time. There’s actually a bit of subtext about man’s duality and very nice production design in this clever comedy.
Approaching new opportunities with eternal optimism, The American Character has triumphed over incredible odds through a pastiche of history; and as presented by director Robert Zemeckis in his latest film, he is indeed Forrest Gump (A-), a simple bystander to history played by Tom Hanks who becomes a symbol for the struggle and sentiment of the past several decades of U.S. life. Spliced Zelig-like into archival footage of history and in fictional interactions with Gary Sinese, Robin Wright, Sally Field and others, our protagonist is alternately moving and misunderstood. It’s an epic, and you just have to give in to the stuff that’s poured on sweet. Folks are bound to find something to relate to in this fable of how a dude no one thought might amount to much went on to be a part of such a rich fabric.
Director Mike Nichols can’t find the silver bullet for Wolf (F). Its attempt to be a comedy, a drama and an adventure makes the film a complete failure in at least three genres at once. After Man Trouble, this is a rough spell for Jack Nicholson, who phones it in as a modern-day werewolf opposite Michelle Pfeiffer with little chemistry or menace. The screenplay was supposed to provide some sly subtext but doesn’t ever deliver. Rick Baker, who invented the modern-day monster in An American Werewolf in London misses his mark here. The effects in Teen Wolf Too were better.
First-time director Jan de Bont scores with the summer action hit Speed (A). An elevator freefalling thirty floors is but a prelude to a speeding bus that can’t slow down through Los Angeles’ morning rush hour or else a bomb will detonate. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are appealing as the young leads, and Dennis Hopper is subversive as the scheming villain. It’s an adrenaline junkie’s delight as smart characters prepare for each unbelievable hazard of a particularly hard drive.
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.