Jon Amiel’s Sommersby (B) is a soapy, post-Civil War-era retelling of the French film Return of Martin Guerre about a war hero (Richard Gere) who returns to his southern home and to his wife (Jodie Foster) and son — but the returning hero may actually be an imposter. But could the guy who returned actually be an improvement over the hubby from before? The script is a bit overwrought and many twists far-fetched, but the actors give it their all, and the production values are strong. Danny Elfman provides a rare and effective romantic score. It’s pretty likely you’ll be hooked to the central couple’s story and on the edge of your seat about how it turns out.
Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between Norman Rockwell and David Lynch, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Brother’s Keeper (A-) plays out like a real-life murder mystery with penetrating character study, pastoral splendor and interpersonal interactions begging the question of what makes a community tick. Chronicling the lives of four elderly, nearly illiterate farmer brothers who have spent their entire lives in the same dilapidated shack, this cult documentary takes on the power of high-profile Hollywood films when one brother mysteriously dies in his sleep and a surprising yarn ensues. The film asks questions about small-town America and will hold interest as final verdicts unfold.
Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker have successfully bottled a great formula for comedy thanks to Robin Williams’ contribution as the voice of the Genie in the fabulous and briskly paced animated Aladdin (A). Disney has finally found a voice to match its colorful, vivid animation; Williams’ manic characterization and hilarious anachronisms fill in the lines of an absorbing work of pure fantasy about a rugrat who gets three wishes and woos a princess. Composers Howard Ashman, Alan Menken and Tim Rice get high points with “Friend Like Me,” a great moment of razzmatazz, and “A Whole New World,” which evokes a Superman style flight aboard a magic carpet. It’s everything you could wish for in a family-friendly adventure.
Elvis in Blue Hawaii. Madonna in Shanghai Surprise. History has not been kind for pop superstar cross-overs into film, but Whitney Houston actually lifts director Mick Jackson’s The Bodyguard (B-) into an often stylish and engaging romantic adventure with music. Paired with a stoic Kevin Costner as her protector, Houston capably plays a souped-up version of herself in a dusted-off Lawrence Kasdan script that is mainly a big excuse to get to the love sequences and the songs. See it for the iconic songs such as “Queen of the Night,” “Run to You,” “I Am Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You.”
Murphy Brown only scratched the surface. The cultural elite of the Hollywood left-wing has achieved its most fulfilling revenge through actor Tim Robbins’ auspicious directorial debut, Bob Roberts (B+), a scathing parody of ultra-conservatism. This is a gloriously partisan film of deep-rooted anger at the likes of Rush Limbaugh using a quasi-documentary format to chronicle a fictional Pennsylvania senatorial campaign’s meteoric ascension co-opting folk music and other traditionally progressive techniques for GOP ascension. Robbins is excellent in the showy (and musical) title role with strong support from Gore Vidal as the liberal candidate he is determined to unseat. This is much better work than the thematically similar Warren Beatty film Bulworth.
A prequel of sorts to his eponymous cult television series detailing the final days of the slain Laura Palmer’s life, director David Lynch fashions a tonally off-kilter slow-burn drama in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Replacing the sometimes giddy, carefree world of log ladies and damn fine cups of coffee with a generally oppressive sense of dread and sorrow, Twin Peaks The Movie never finds its distinctive voice. Viewers are left at a distance, voyeurs to a world where a dwarf speaks backwards and in subtitles and where additions to the seedy pop-mythology don’t serve to enrich as much as disturb. Lynch has built more artfully on his vision of the underbelly of small-town Americana in Blue Velvet and his Twin may have peaked in serialized form rather than this celluloid format. Kyle MachLachlan is pretty vacant as the central detective, and Sheryl Lee brings very little to the mysterious Laura Palmer whose mystery doesn’t seem much solved by this puzzling film.
Director Barbet Schoeder followed his acclaimed Reversal of Fortune with the Fatal Attraction for urban roommates thriller Single White Female (B), but his skill plus the believably of protagonist Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the unhinged roomie somehow make it work. Fully fleshed out characters make some of the cliches in the climax a bit more forgivable.
Director John Glen, who has made a career out of taking the final gasps of life out of creaky James Bond film entries in the late ’80’s, originally cast Timothy Dalton but found an even more bland leading man named George Correface to play the title character of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (D+). Like the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, this vessel is undeniably wooden. Even Marlon Brando can’t muster a glimmer of interest as a high inquisitor. This “Columbus for Beginners” wouldn’t even make a good mini-series if you split it up into episodes. This won’t be playing soon in a classroom near you.
Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes (A) offers a whistlestop whirlwind into the universal truths of friendship, sisterhood and possibly a whole lot more under the surface of women in the South. Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy are appealing in the framing modern-day empowerment story, but it’s the flashbacks centering on rascally restaurateurs played by Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson that really take hold of the imagination. Several subplots that aren’t fully sketched are eclipsed by the overall emotional impact of a journey that showcases the power of secrets and sacrifice.
The eager but naïve FBI agent played by Jodie Foster and the imprisoned cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins are the serial killer tracking duo for the ages in Jonathan Demme’s riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs (A+). Exploring the deepest reaches of the human psyche with crackling dialogue, impeccable acting and edge-of-your-seat thrills, this is a master class of trying to figure out motivations before a killer or even a fellow hunter makes the next move. Demme intentionally shoots Foster’s character in a way that juxtaposes her as different in world of male-dominated law enforcement officials and female victims, allowing her to hold steady as an amazing protagonist even as vicious villains try to get in her head. Hopkins’ role as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is one of the great onscreen roles and fascinating in his every sequence.
Basic Instinct (C-) is a self-consciously shocking thriller from Robocop director Paul Verhoeven. Its highlight is a fresh, fierce performance from Sharon Stone as a cunning ice pick wielding femme fatale with a penchant for being panty-less and being oddly nonchalant about homicide. Both her creaky co-star Michael Douglas and Joe Eszterhas’s lumpy screenplay (“She’s evil…and brilliant!”) are no match for Stone’s one-woman show. Underdeveloped plot and characters leave the high-gloss affair oddly un-erotic and un-involving despite some undeniably guilty pleasure moments.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s animated musical Beauty and the Beast (A) is an assured and timeless confection with a delightful heroine, a forbidden romance and more showstoppers than most modern Broadway musicals. The title song plus “Be Our Guest,” “Belle” and others all written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman have become iconic. The talking sidekicks – from candelabra Lumiere to clock Cogsworth – are charming as can be, and the French countryside is a splendid setting for a fairy tale. Your heart will melt like the beast’s does for this high point in the Disney canon.