Tom Hanks brought his American Everyman charisma to the moving central performance of a gay lawyer wrongly fired from his firm when he contracts AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s stirring powerhouse of a film, Philadelphia (A). As good as Hanks is in the role, it’s Denzel Washington as a fellow homophobic attorney who defends him who emotionally transforms and helps change minds. Demme brings some great music choices to the piece, from the signature original tunes by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to an opera aria in one of the most moving sequences in the film. It’s a snapshot of the country at a specific time and place and a testament to real folks learning to find brotherly love in unexpected circumstances.
Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (A) brilliantly explores the relationships between Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters and tells universal truths about what parents and offspring can learn from one another. Four interlocking stories are deftly balanced, and overlapping flashbacks work surprisingly well to build to a crescendo of heartbreak and release. It’s a highly recommended ensemble drama with standout performances by Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita and Vivian Wu.
Mel Gibson’s directorial debut, The Man Without a Face (C+) features the Aussie actor as a deformed teacher who befriends a young loner played by Nick Stahl. Plot lines are predictable as the community citizenry misunderstands the innocent relationship, and Gibson films his deformed self with a strange vanity that still doesn’t make hm look too bad. The director doesn’t really forge much of a standout style on this one except for his “fear of the other.”
Agnieszka Holland’s literary adaptation The Secret Garden (B) is an elegantly photographed film that captures the beauty and wonder of a timeless tale of a little girl who brings joy into the home of a lonely man and a garden previously haunted by love and loss. Though it’s a bit slow paced, it has fine performances and is worthwhile family entertainment.
Director Peter Weir has a talent for dreamy out-of-body moments of passion ranging from wartime friendship and tragedy (Galipoli), primieval joy for the arts (Dead Poets Society) and the purest of love forbidden by tradition (Witness). Weir’s compendium of human epiphanies has a new entry, Fearless (A-), a spiritual drama about the ways two different individuals, played by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez in career-high performances, react in the aftermath of a tragic plane crash. An incredible odyssey into self-discovery, uncompromising in its starkness as well as its message of redemption, it’s a powerful find of a movie with rejuvenating effect.
Director Sydney Pollack’s film adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller The Firm (B-) is a rather tepid thriller that nearly misses its mark with lazy pacing, boring piano music (it sounds like the opposite of “page turner”) and empty-suit acting by Tom Cruise. Luckily the pacing picks up, and it can at least be characterized as a template for the “man joins firm and finds himself over his head in scandal” type movie. Coming off the mega-flop Havana, it is clear Pollack isn’t taking too many risks here, and fortunately he casts Gene Hackman as diabolical head of the law firm and the zany Gary Busey as a private investigator. There are few films Hackman doesn’t improve. Cruise is joined on the domestic front by the equally bland Jeanne Tripplehorn. When his character learns his law firm isn’t all he was promised, it’s a race to the finish to get to the closing credits.
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.
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.”
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 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.