A movie about the motives of mob men with simply a change of venue from his usual NYC neighborhoods isn’t too much of a gamble for Martin Scorsese; but few do this genre better, and the director gives Las Vegas its dressing-down in Casino (B-), by novelist Nicholas Pileggi. In style and structure, it’s often a facsimile of the much better GoodFellas, but Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone get some great moments, and there’s a nice subtext to the game that’s being played in the floor versus the game being played behind the scenes. Still, it’s hard not to believe that Scorsese left some cards on the table and that he could have taken this story in some more creative directions.
Politics make strange bedfellows in Rob Reiner’s The American President (A) which tells a charming tale of a widowed president (Michael Douglas) who falls in love with a political operative (Annette Bening). The leads are remarkable and sink their teeth into Aaron Sorkin’s snappy screenplay. This in a rare romantic comedy that gets a very high approval rating.
Clerks writer/director Kevin Smith makes a change of venue to cover the food court jesters inhabiting the world of Mallrats (C), a slightly more mainstream and less funny offering from the indie auteur. Upgrading to Hollywood talent such as Jason Lee and Shannen Doherty and reverting to sight gags that sometimes seem more in-your-face than flat-out inspired, the film works best when the characters get to flex their comic muscles with wry observational references and hilarious pop culture pronouncements. The dazed dialogue goes a long way to cover up the convoluted storyline in a bit of a sophomore slump from a promising player on the scene.
Even weather girls get the blues as Nicole Kidman proves in Gus Van Sant’s dark comedy To Die For (B-). Kidman’s gleeful portrayal of a small-town seductress is a central reason to see this satire of the heights to which the ambitious will scale to achieve their visions of fame. Joaquin Phoenix and Matt Dillon are effective in supporting performances.
A mixed bag of character actors including Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey headline Bryan Singer’s clever mystery The Usual Suspects (B). Good writing and assured pacing keep the interest level high until the final twisty payoff.
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.
Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (B+) is a hybrid of Ferris Bueller and Jane Austin’s Emma and is one of the most perceptive and entertaining comedies about teens in the 90’s. Alicia Silverstone commands the screen as the high school matchmaker who finally finds a little love for herself. The film’s ribald vocabulary and elaborate fashions make it fun and flashy, and it’s a surprising treat from beginning to end.
Director Ron Howard chronicles the night the lights went out in orbit in Apollo 13 (B+), a powerful drama about a NASA disaster with a strong cast including Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as astronauts in trouble and Gary Sinese and Ed Harris back in command center. The James Horner music is strong, with haunting vocals by Annie Lennox. Although character development could have been tighter, it is exciting and authentic and proves Howard has the right stuff.
Mel Gibson’s sophomore directorial effort is a giant leap forward, a rousing 13th century Scottish epic about the life of real-life martyr and hero William Wallace, Braveheart (B). Gibson the actor does a credible job embodying the hero and rallying men to battle for sprawling battle sequences. The screenplay lets him down a bit, as it’s not great. But oh, the final reel, it’s enough to break your Mel-tale heart!
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.
Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (B+) is a fascinating look at the shades of gray that sometimes collide with a tightly regimented world. The movie’s conflict revolves around the mixed interpretation of an emergency signal and how two officers on a U.S. military submarine – Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman – clash in how to lead their men to handle their pressure-cooker situation. It’s a taut, well-written and action-packed thriller, all the more impressive in its tight space.