'Ma Vie en Rose'
'Ma Vie en Rose' (12/29/97)
Ludovic is a little girl trapped in a boy's body who, with all of the innocence and trust of youth, sincerely believes that one day he will be biologically female. When he dresses up in his sister's clothes, he scandalizes his family's claustrophobically cheerful suburban neighborhood and ultimately alienates his own parents. As Ludovic, eleven-year-old Georges Du Fresne turns in an unusually mature, natural performance. Belgian director Alain Berliner, who co-wrote the screenplay, presents a novel and poetic vision of childhood where the distinctions between dreams and reality barely exist. But, despite his humorous approach, Berliner never loses sight of the underlying tragedy of Ludovic's story: the pain of being different and the cruel intolerance of the adult world into which he must eventually enter. (on video)
'Mad City' (11/17/97)
The Greek-born director Costa Gavras became a one-man school of the politically committed movie with the release of the fiercely exciting "Z" in 1969. But the end of the cold war has dampened his fires. "Mad City" strikes a spark, but the flame sputters. The subject is that bullet-riddled target, the media. Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a former hotshot national TV reporter, has been banished to a local California station but sees a way out when a schoolkids' outing at the local museum turns into a hostage situation. A laid-off guard, Sam Baily (John Travolta), turns up with a rifle and dynamite and the local media swarm to the scene. Slick Max takes control, coaching the dimwitted Baily and wangling exclusive access from the cops. The result is, of course, tragic. We've seen it all before and such familiarity kills impact. While Travolta's Sam focuses the residue of Costa Gavras's once raging social concern, "Mad City" is just not mad enough. (on video)
'Mad Love' (6/12/95)
Bad girl Casey (Drew Barrymore) inflames nice guy Matt (Chris O'Donnell) at their Seattle high school. She freaks out, he springs her from a psychiatric ward and off they vroom. This effort from British director Antonia Bird must be the lowest-octane road movie ever. O'Donnell is amazing: His face never registers one significant expression. Barrymore's does; but Paula Milne's script allows her little beyond an all-purpose teen angst. "Mad Love" contains not much madness or love, not one fresh insight into kids or parents. (on video)
Normal movies take time to rev up their engines. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" achieves instant liftoff, with a dazzling prologue chronicling three bizarre tales of chance. Next comes an exhilarating passage that introduces nine characters in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley whose oddly interlinked stories we'll follow. Even before the movie proper has begun you know several things. That you are in the hands of an extravagantly talented filmmaker. That you are about to see a wildly ambitious, boldly unconventional film. And that a three-hour movie that starts on such a high note could turn out to be a masterpiece or a folly.
"Magnolia" is about fathers and children, about the horrible deeds of the past that return to haunt us, about trying to do the right thing and finally about forgiveness. Anderson ("Boogie Nights") doesn't have any cinematic small talk in himhe pitches us straight into the writhing hearts of his lost, haunted characters. Two of the fathers are dying of cancer. One is a TV producer (a gaunt, brilliant Jason Robards) who's trying to locate his long-lost son. The other is the beloved host of a TV quiz show (Philip Baker Hall) who has dark skeletons in his closet and a daughter (Melora Walters) strung out on coke. The current star of his quiz show (Jeremy Blackman) is a child genius whose father treats him like a performing seal. There's also a former quiz kid (William H. Macy) whose life has fallen to pieces; a heavily medicated trophy wife (Julianne Moore); a sad-sack guardian angel of a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who hovers over Robards's deathbed, and a bumbling, good-hearted cop (John C. Reilly) who is the tale's surprising moral center. And in the boldest performance of his career, Tom Cruise plays Frank T.J. Mackey, the preening macho guru of "Seduce and Destroy," a self-help program for men who want to score with women.
One has to be in awe of how much the 29-year-old writer-director knows about the human heart. Unlike other movie-savvy young directors with flashy techniques, Anderson doesn't hide behind irony and coolhe's an old-fashioned humanist. He takes huge chances here, producing a startling apocalyptic finale that could be something out of a Garcia Marquez novelor the Book of Exodus.
"Magnolia's" flaws are sins of excess. It's all too muchtoo much emotion, too much intensity, too many climaxes. It's never boring, but it can be exhausting. Still, why complain in the face of so much bounty? At its best, "Magnolia" towers over most Hollywood films this year.
'Man on the Moon' (12/16/99)
Jim Carrey may be a better Andy Kaufman than Andy Kaufman. In director Milos Forman's quirky, very entertaining "Man on the Moon," Carrey pulls off a neat trickhe gets deeply inside a man who, by his own admission, had no inside to get into. What Carrey plays are the many characters Kaufman portrayed in lieu having a personality of his own. For most people, this meant the benignly out-of-it Latka on "Taxi." Others knew him as the belligerent guy who tossed women around in the wrestling ring. Most alarming of all was Kaufman's boorish alter ego Tony Clifton, a talentless Vegas lounge singer. Carrey resurrects them all and they seem, in his elastic hands, a little funnier than we'd remembered.
Carrey's totally committed performance captures both Kaufman's mania and his strange detachment. Kaufman was more interested in making people uncomfortable than in making them laugh. He took an often hostile delight in blurring the line between performance and reality. Was his coffee-throwing fight with wrestler Jerry Lawler on the "Letterman" show for real or a setup? Ambiguity was his weapon and his disguise. What's most striking about Forman's movie is that it makes no attempt to psychoanalyze or explain its subject. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood"), specialists in oddball biopics, are content to take Kaufman at face valueas a man of many masks, none more authentic than the next.
Forman hasn't made a movie this light on its feet in years. But what's missing is much of the danger that was a crucial part of Kaufman's act. Because he's dead, and because it's the movie star Jim Carrey playing him, the audience has a safety net. We can laugh at the concert where he read the entire "The Great Gatsby" in a phony British accent: we're spared that live audience's pain. But Forman's decision to stick to the surface is probably, in the end, a wise one. Kaufman always wanted to keep us guessing, and this movie respects his wishes.
'Man of the Century' (11/2/99)
If ever a film was built around a face, it is with this charming cinematic bauble. The face at the center of "Man of the Century" belongs to Gibson Frazier, the actor who plays gung-ho newspaper man, Johnny Twennies. Frazier looks like a cross between Fred Astaire and Frederic March, making him perfect for the role of a present day reporter who seems convinced he is living in the 1920s. Decked out in a three-piece suit, bandying phrases like "Gee, you look swell," the lanky, clean cut Frazier looks and sounds like he just stepped out of "The Front Page"--to the bafflement of all who cross his path. The film itself is as dizzy as any of the dames in it, careening through a wild plot of treachery, blackmail, heroism and true love. But its delights lie in the details, the snappy language, the smart allusions to B-movies of the twenties and thirties, and the engaging, utterly natural performance of its leading man.
'Manny & Lo' (8/5/96)
Eleven-year-old Manny (Scarlett Johansson) and her 16-year-old sister, Lo (Aleska Palladino), are foster-home runaways with a punk-rock edge: Lo's hair is badly bleached, and Manny wears blue nail polish and dime-store plastic rings. When Lo belatedly figures out she's pregnant, they hole up in an empty summer house and kidnap a children's-store clerk (Mary Kay Place) as a surrogate parent. In her starched nurse's uniform, shuffling around with a bicycle chain for leg irons, Place would steal the movie if the youngsters weren't so impossibly perfect. Both Johansson and Palladino have a haunting combination of kidness and premature adulthood: in one scene they're licking lollipops, in the next Lo's stomping out of an abortion clinic in her dressing gown. (on video)
'Mansfield Park' (11/23/99)
The Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema ("I've Heard The Mermaids Singing") has performed major surgery on Austen's third novel. Both film and book follow Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), an impoverished girl plucked from her Portsmouth family to be raised by her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park. It's a Cinderella-like fable built atop the solid foundation of Austen's cool, astute social satire. The movie's Fanny, however, is a far cry from the passive, repressed�and to many, unlikable�heroine on the page. Using Austen's own letters and notebooks as source material, Rozema makes Fanny a more forthright, witty, morally decisive figure. Now a budding writer, she's a composite of Fanny and Austen herself.
Fanny's status at Mansfield Park begins to change with the arrival of the glamorous brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz). While the two Bertram girls fall into a swoon over the eligible and charming Henry, his eye is caught by Fanny�the one woman wise enough to see through his narcissism and frivolity. Fanny's true love is for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), her soulmate since they were children together. But the sophisticated Mary Crawford has Edmund sized up for marriage, and Fanny is too afraid to reveal her feelings to him (a fear that doesn't entirely jibe with this proto-feminist Fanny). Rozema's handling of the entangled amours and social gamesmanship at Mansfield Park is delightful and the open-minded moviegoer will have a hard time resisting this stylish and stirring movie.
'Mansfield Park' (11/2/99)
The first question that any Jane Austen connoisseur is bound to ask upon hearing a film has been made of her most "difficult" novel, is how on earth could Fanny Price have been made acceptable to a modern day audience. Fanny Price, sickly, passive, priggish and judgemental, is the most notoriously unappealing of Austen's heroines. Patricia Rozema's solution to the problem of audience identification is to completely change the character. Her cinematic version of Fanny Price (Australian actress Frances O'Connor) is strong, intelligent, witty and assertive. She addresses the camera directly, spouting lines from Austen's own diaries; she writes fantastic stories while curled up in her attic room; she argues cleverly with her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) and takes her uncle (Harold Pinter) to task over the issue of slavery. This is a thoroughly modern Fanny.
Yet it is the very weakness of Fanny Price that makes the uncharacteristically solemn "Mansfield Park" one of the author's most profound and complex literary explorations. A poor relation, she is taken in by the wealthy Bertrams, but never treated as an equal. Growing up in the shadow of her privileged cousins, she falls in love with the younger brother of the family, Edmund. But he has been blinded by the charms of a flashy newcomer, Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), whose rich, philandering brother, Henry (Alessandro Nivola), falls for Fanny's modesty and moral fiber. Everyone is shocked when she turns him down and she is forced into a stand-off against her family. Austen's point in the novel is that the right decision is not always the easy or most appealing one, that morality is often unattractive. But Rozema turns this around in the film by making Fanny's dilemma less about morality than about being her own person. Perhaps this was the only way to connect with a modern audience, but somehow it seems too easy an out.
Fanny Price aside, this version of "Mansfield Park" is starkly beautiful to look at. Shot mostly in a vast, sparsely furnished Elizabethan manor, the empty rooms seem to be a reflection of the empty lives of the characters that populate them. Unfortunately, the story has also been pared down to such an extent that it has lost much of its vitality. One has to admire Rozema for tackling Austen's most challenging work, but the final outcome fails to satisfy.
'Marvin's Room' (1/13/97)
The comedy and the drama don't always mesh smoothly in Jerry Zaks's movie version of Scott McPherson's acclaimed play, "Marvin's Room," which McPherson himself adapted for the screen before he died of complications of AIDS. With Rachel Portman's music tugging too hard for tears, the movie sometimes comes dangerously close to being the soap opera McPherson worked so hard to disguise. The sick one is Bessie (Diane Keaton), a woman who has devoted 20 years of her life to caring for her ailing father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn). Now she's diagnosed with leukemia, and in need of a relative with matching bone marrow for a transplant. Enter her estranged sister, Lee (Meryl Streep), who has always fled her family responsibilities in horror. When these two come together, it doesn't take much foresight to predict whose heart must change. Zaks, a terrific theater director, hasn't yet got the hang of film. But he knows enough not to get in the way of his three superb stars, who put on a display of emotional fireworks that is lovely to behold. (on video)
'Mary Reilly' (2/26/96)
The last time director Stephen Frears collaborated with John Malkovich and author Christopher Hampton, the result was the "Dangerous Liaisons." This time it's a period piece set in the foggy streets of Edinburgh at the height of Victorian repression. Lightning has not struck twice. It's the Jekyll and Hyde story told from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's faithful housemaid (Julia Roberts). Solemn and curiously dull, there is simply no chemical charge between Roberts and Malkovich. It's impossible to feel any romantic urgency in the face of Malkovich's fussy performance you'd think the real love story was between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (on video)
'The Mask of Zorro' (7/20/98)
This spirited rerun, neatly mixing parody and panache, squeezes a surprising amount of fun out of the old war horse. This time we get two Zorros for the price of one. The legendary swordsman, played by Anthony Hopkins with fiery gravitas, must emerge from a 20-year imprisonment to carry out his revenge against the evil Don Montero (Stuart Wilson), who killed Zorro's wife and stole his infant daughter. Hopkins's character trains a new Zorro to assist him played with a delightful combination of dash and self-deprecating humor by Antonio Banderas. The young Zorro, naturally, falls in love with his teacher's now grown-up daughter (the stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones). Director Martin Campbell knows his way around a formula, never letting the tongue-in-cheek style altogether undermine the romanticism. But it's the playful father-son chemistry between Hopkins and Banderas that really charms. (on video)
'The Matrix,' (4/5/99)
What if everything we thought was real was merely a computer-generated program in our heads, a cyberdream of reality? That, in short, is the premise of "The Matrix," which appears to be set in the present that is where its hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), thinks he is but is actually set in 2199, when artificial-intelligence machines rule the world, and humans are merely the crops they grow to supply energy. In Larry and Andy Wachowski's flamboyantly energetic action movie, Neo gets clued into the real deal: humans are just slaves to the machine. He's chosen by the rebel hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to lead the Resistance against man's mechanical masters. "The Matrix" throws a lot at you�mythic quests, pop Pirandello, kung-fu fight scenes and an encyclopedia of quotations from "Alien" to "Blade Runner" to Cocteau's "Orpheus." With an arsenal of cool f/x at their disposal, the Wachowskis have come up with a dizzyingly enjoyable junk movie that has just enough on its mind to keep the pleasure from being a guilty one.
'Meet Joe Black' (11/16/98)
Every once in a while a film comes along that's so inexplicably ghastly
that there's just no point in making nice about it. Let's hate it and get
on with our life. Or what's left of our life after "Meet Joe Black" has
taken nearly three hours out of it. Director Martin Brest taken the 1934
kitsch classic "Death Takes a Holiday," with Fredric March, and attempted
to make an epic update of it. He's got Brad Pitt playing Death, and that's
the gimmick, making Death cute and sort of innocent. He takes over a young
guy's body and shows up at the baronial digs of tycoon William Parrish
(Anthony Hopkins), delaying Parrish's scheduled demise so he can observe
human life. He falls for the tycoon's daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) and
decides to take her with him when he sheds his cute body and goes back to
being just plain Death. Pitt's (and Brest's) idea of Deathly innocence is
to act like a zombie a cute zombie. Hopkins, master of the throwaway
style, seems more throwaway than ever. This film's one delight is the
exquisite 26-year-old Forlani in her first major role.
'Men of Honor' (11/9/98)
�Men of Honor� is the true story of U.S. Navy diver Carl Brashear (Gooding), who, from the 1940s through the 1960s, thwarted institutional racism and the hazards of his duty (undersea rescues) to attain the highest possible designation in his rank, navy master diver�the first African-American to do so. It�s a compelling subject with an intense and enthusiastic leading man, but �Men of Honor� is not first in its class, due to several tactical errors.
First, Tillman (the writer-director of 1997�s �Soul Food�) gives De Niro, unshackled after his dryly witty turn in �Meet the Parents,� way too much screen time as Brashear�s Southern-fried superior, a bad penny who keeps turning up in his life, right to the predictable change of heart that concludes the drama. (After this and �Cape Fear,� De Niro should be forbidden to cross the Mason-Dixon line for accents.) The screenplay, by Scott Marshall Smith, crams too many incidents and too little depth of character into 129 minutes. In one 15-minute stretch, Brashear loses one loved one, gains another, edges toward marriage and goes lung-to-lung with De Niro in a perilous breath-holding contest. Composer Mark Isham, a maestro of subtle scores for Alan Rudolph, needs to put away his drum kit after his clich�d performance here. And Charlize Theron, though amusing in a throwaway role as De Niro�s long-suffering wife, simply needs a rest after multiple movies this fall.
If these elements had been changed and the focus placed more intently on Brashear�s inner fortitude-rather than merely glide over the complex choices he had to make, on it�s way to simple uplift-�Men of Honor� might have achieved greater distinction. As is, this seaman�s tale languishes in shallow waters.
'Message in a Bottle' (2/22/99)
The success of "Titanic" must've gotten Kevin Costner's goat. The erstwhile idol has bounced back with Message in a Bottle, his version of a shipbound romance. Costner plays Garret Blake, a North Carolina boatbuilder so busted up over the death of his saintly wife that he writes her letters, corks them and tosses them into the sea. Robin Wright Penn is a lovelorn Chicago reporter who finds one of his unsigned missives washed up on a beach and gets obsessed. She tracks him down (ID the typewriter! send the cork to a lab!), shows up on his dock and falls hard. The film has its dumb points: too many shots of churning surf and lovers nestled in beach blankets, not to mention the premise that women find incommunicative, hulking shells like Blake the height of irresistibility. But it gets you. Wright Penn is luminous in a trench coat and sneakers. Paul Newman, as Costner's crotchety dad, gets the best lines.
In Phillip Saville's new film Metroland, Chris (Christian Bale) is a nice middle class young man living a nice middle class life with his wife and baby in the London suburb of the title. Everything is cozy and happy, until Toni (Lee Ross), a rakish adventurer and Chris's best friend from high school, shows up and starts trouble by luring Chris into his own, anti-bourgeois existence.
'Michael Collins' (10/14/96)
Neil Jordan's most haunting movies "Mona Lisa," "The Crying Game" arise out of a private dreamscape where obsessive men pursue their romantic follies to forbidden dead ends. His epic "Michael Collins" is a step onto the public stage, a historical film that never succeeds in making us share his private passion. Liam Neeson makes a strong, likable Michael Collins, the Irish patriot whose talent for "bloody mayhem" eventually led to creation of the Irish Republic (and partition of the island). The political and personal tangles that provoked a civil war following partition are also portrayed, but in a way that is curiously remote. The demands of the historical epic form seem to hobble Jordan's imagination. He's a director who's at his best when he can follow the dark logic of his own subconscious. (on video)
'Mickey Blue Eyes' (8/20/99)
What do you get when you cross a dashing young Brit with a hardened Mafia boss? The loopy comedy of errors that is "Mickey Blue Eyes." When terribly proper Michael (Hugh Grant) sets his mind to marry Gina (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the beloved daughter of an established crime family, the mix-ups are inevitable from the moment "Mickey" meets Mafiosi father-in-law Frank Vitale (an endearing James Caan). Though Mickey promises his betrothed to stay clear of the family business, within days he finds himself an unwitting participant in their money laundering schemes. Of course, membership has its benefits; suddenly the auction house Mickey manages is free of its perpetual delivery problems. But the price for this "favor" is high: well-connected Uncle Vito expects Mickey to sell his son's hilariously hideous artwork in return. Unable to stomach the arrangement, Mickey reneges, endangering his life and setting off all sorts of madcap schemes.
In the hands of director Kelly Makin ("Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy") "Mickey Blue Eyes" is a goofy comedy good for a chuckle or two. It starts out slow and humorous, but then races by, tossing out a series of indistinct jokes. Though the movie suffers from an underdeveloped plot, it does benefit from solid acting: Grant has perfected the role of the quirky, misplaced Brit and Caan is a wonderfully familiar face. Also delightful are the supporting actors familiar from many a mob movie who carry their goodfellas parodies to lively extremes. You'll watch, you'll laugh, and in the end, happily "fuhgeddaboutit."
'William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream' (5/24/99)
Michael Hoffman's uneven but spunkily energetic movie "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" transfers the setting to 1900 Tuscany. This allows him to use the newly invented bicycle as the mode of transportation for his quartet of loony lovers chasing each other through a magic forest. Oberon, the fairy king, dispatches his hit man, Puck, with a potion to scramble the desires of the four. He also causes his estranged queen, Titania, to fall for Bottom, the weaver, whom he has transformed with an ass's head. Result: total erotic chaos.
Hoffman ("One Fine Day") makes some dubious moves. He miscegenates chunks of Mendelssohn's celebrated music with gobbets of Italian opera. His forest, built on a sound stage, looks stagy and airless. But much of this magical, wise, sardonic, sexy play comes through. Michelle Pfeiffer's Titania is radioactively beautiful. Stanley Tucci's Puck is amusingly jaded after centuries of playing tricks on hapless mortals. Calista Flockhart de-McBeals herself and cuts loose as Helena, the girl nobody wants. Kevin Kline is a brilliant Bottom, ecstatically hammy in his amateur acting group, wallowing in Titania's bewitched embrace, poignant as he muses on his dream of asinine metamorphosis.
'The Mighty' (10/19/98)
The indomitability of the human spirit is nothing to laugh at in "The Mighty," with its story of two outsider kids, Max Kane (Elden Henson), an overgrown, seemingly underbrained perpetual seventh grader, and Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), a genius type crippled by a fatal degenerative disease. Tormented by their punky peers, the unlikely pair bond in a brawn-brains combo that reaches a sad but uplifting destiny. Directed by Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song") from a prize-winning young-adult novel by Rodman Philbrick, the film is sweet but soft. With a cast featuring deglamorized roles for Sharon Stone and Gillian Anderson, the movie is carried by the two young actors, the stolid Henson and the feisty Culkin, Macaulay's brother, who turns out to be the actor in the family.
"Mimic" is undoubtedly the best mutant-cockroach horror thriller ever made. Even granting that there hasn't been much competition, this is intended as a high compliment. Director Guillermo ("Cronos") Del Toro's giddy, elegant scare picture works on your emotions rather than your nerves. The script, from a short story by Donald Wolheim, tells a classic nature-takes-revenge-on-us-for-messing-with-her story. Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are scientists who have stopped a cockroach-borne epidemic in New York City by releasing genetically engineered roaches programmed to breed and then die. A few years later signs of a different problem appear: some of the designer bugs may have outwitted their DNA, mutating into scary new forms. The two scientists set out to solve the problem they have created. A virtuoso at tension and atmosphere, Del Toro orchestrates sounds, shadows and textures with expressionist malice. (on video)
'The Mirror Has Two Faces' (11/25/96)
Is Barbra Streisand beautiful? This question may not keep you up at night, but Streisand keeps posing it in movie after movie, on the assumption that her own self-doubt strikes a universal chord. This time, in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," she's a wallflower professor of romantic literature at Columbia University who lives at home with her beauty-obsessed mother (a wonderfully insufferable Lauren Bacall). Enter Jeff Bridges as a math professor so burned by torrid affairs that he wants only a purely intellectual union. Streisand falls for him and agrees to a platonic marriage, but then discovers her self-esteem and undergoes a rapid-fire makeover into bombshell Barbra. The loopy contrivance of this plot is exacerbated by Streisand's broad direction, in which slapstick manner collides with therapeutic tone. Even the message comes out upside down: she means to criticize fixation on appearances, and winds up reinforcing it. (on video)
'Mission: Impossible' (5/27/96)
The long-anticipated movie based on the classic TV spy series, with Tom Cruise as star and producer, direction by Brian De Palma and effects by George Lucas.Together they deliver cutting edge techno-thrills and a script rigging a counterplot in Prague to stop a Russian spy from swiping a computer disc listing all U.S. undercover agents. Things go horrifically wrong, and agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is left to track down the responsible swine. This whirligig of disguises and double-crosses is played out by an international cast, including France's Emmanuelle Beart, England's Vanessa Redgrave and Canadian Henry. Holes in the script cause the narrative to burp at times. (on video)
'Mission to Mars' (5/27/96)
It's a shame that Brian De Palma's "Mission to Mars" is, on so many levels, a risibly bad movie. The characters are hackneyed, the dialogue is dismal and the concept takes the most overused ideas from such New Agey science-fiction fables as "Contact" and "The Abyss" and old Arthur C. Clarke novels and turns them into a mushy extraterrestrial Hallmark greeting card.
In the year 2020, a NASA mission to Mars encounters a mysterious phenomenon that wipes out the crew. A rescue mission (Gary Sinise, wearing too much eyeliner, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O'Connell) is sent to search for the one possible survivor (Don Cheadle). Once there, they encounter strange messages emanating from a giant metallic face buried in Mars's craggy soil. I won't reveal more except to say that whoever designed the spindly, cartoonish great-great- granddaughter of the "Close Encounter" aliens should be sent to bed without dinner.
Still, this is no ordinary bomb. It's a gorgeous bad movie, the folly of a great visual stylist. De Palma, relishing the optical possibilities of a weightless spacecraft and a barren Red Planet, pulls off one dizzyingly elegant camera move after another. Great care has gone into the sets, the FX, the soundtrack, the lighting. At its best, this "mission" can cast a dreamy, hypnotic spell. Too bad movies have to have a story. And people talking. It would have made a swell silent.
'Miss Julie' (12/10/99)
Sometimes you see a film and think: was this really necessary? It might even be quite a good film, but with no particular reason for being. Mike Figgis's uncompromisingly theatrical take on August Strindberg's searing play, "Miss Julie," is one of those films. It is cleverly shot, in a series of claustrophobic close-ups. The performances are more than adequate. It does justice to its source materialand that may be the problem. While "Miss Julie" is a powerful play, it is dated and smacks of the classroom. It cries out for an update or re-evaluation, and Figgis tells it straight. The story of a footman who seduces the lady of the house has much to say about the balance of power between men and women. But it is harder to relate to the rigid 19th century class barriers, or listen to the heavy handed Victorian symbolism. Miss Julie relates a dream in which she is perched high on a pedestal and cannot get down; Jean the footman counters with a tale of having to walk through the feces of the gentry (yes, literally). As Miss Julie, Saffron Burrows is convincingly edgy and sullen, but she cannot quite carry off the character's descent into near madness. There are nice touches however: she is lavishly dressed, but her nails are dirty. As the manipulative Jean, Peter Mullen ("My Name is Joe") once again proves himself to be a surprising actor. Quiet, unassuming and utterly average, it is impossible to look away when he is on screen.
'The Mod Squad,' (3/29/99)
It could have been worse. The buzz about "The Mod Squad" was that it would be this year's "The Avengers" a big-budget, big-star hype machine of such abysmal quality that seeing how quickly movie-goers looked at their watches was more interesting than the nonsensical plot. "The Mod Squad" is bad, but not criminally so. Based on the high-rated 1970s Aaron Spelling cop drama of the same name, "The Mod Squad" is updated with hip stars (Claire Danes, Omar Epps, and Giovanni Rabisi) and a hip art direction that substitutes '70s mod with '90s mod, which is basically just an ironic update of '70s mod. Julie (Danes), Linc (Epps), and Pete (Rabisi) are young crooks forced by the LAPD to become narcs in order to avoid jail. The ensuing plot was pulled out of one of Spelling's cabinets: Some of the real cops aren't nice to the Mods, there's something going on with cocaine, there's some dead people, and then there's a big shoot-out. While some "Scream"-like attempts at joking about the film's clich�s work ("I feel like one of us should say 'I'm getting too old for this,'" Pete says at one point), most are failures. The director and one of the three screenwriters, Scott Silver, tries to be both ironic (think the Beastie Boyz "Sabotage" video) and artsy (think "Goodfellas"), but in his confusion the film is just dull. It's also embarrassing for its talented cast. Rabisi has a couple of funny lines and Danes cries quite nicely (as we all know by now), but Epps just stands around and looks annoyed. It's not hard to imagine why.
'Mouth to Mouth' (9/15/97)
The plot of Manuel Gomez Pereira's "Mouth to Mouth" revolves around sensitive, earnest, bumbling Victor Ventura (Javier Bardem). He is an out-of-work De Niro wannabe who stumbles into a job at a phone sex line run by a mother-and-son team. One night the tables are turned, and Victor is seduced by one of his callers, the alluring Amanda (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). One thing leads to another and he is suddenly involved in an excruciatingly complicated plot which ends with a moral: Victor starts off by wanting only fame and recognition but undergoes a fundamental transformation, finding his more human side by choosing friendship over fame. Need we add that he is rewarded with the fame he has rejected? Javier Bardem carries off the role of Victor Ventura with a comic aplomb impressive for an actor who is mainly known for surly macho roles. Pereira is clearly aiming for a Capra-esque screwball comedy with a heart of gold, but never quite makes it. (on video)
'Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.' (12/31/99)
Where does he find these people? From failed pet cemetery entrepreneurs to mole rat researchers, Errol Morris has repeatedly found wondrous meaning in the most bizarre places. This time, his subject is a dweeby-looking engineer who has made a career out of designing execution machines. No one could look more harmless than Mr. Leuchter. With his unassuming demeanor, thick glasses and nasal voice, he draws us in to believing he is just a quirky little man who happened to fall into the business of death and whose real aim is to make executions as painless and dignified as possible. This self-proclaimed Florence Nightingale of Death Row, however, was also the force behind the notorious "Leuchter Report" which claimed that the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz was a fabrication. Employed by Ernst Zuendel, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier on trial for hate crimes, to scientifically prove that there were no gas executions at Auschwitz, Leuchter diligently chips away at the crumbling walls of the camp, has the samples tested for cyanide residue, and, when none is found, leaps to the conclusion that none was ever used. It is a testament to Leuchter's powers of self delusion that Morris found himself forced, after an initial screening, to include contradictory evidence. Leuchter is so single-mindedly convinced by his conclusions that people actually believed him. And therein lies the fascination of "Mr. Death." Morris is not ultimately concerned with who is right or wrong; this is not a study of whether or not the Holocaust occurred, but a study of the dangers of hubris and the malleability of seemingly objective facts. At the heart of all Morris's filmsfrom "The Thin Blue Line" to "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control"is a fundamental belief in the unreliability of truth. He believes that we all form our own truths according to our needs; in the case of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., those needs lead him to a very dangerous place indeed.
'Mrs. Brown' (7/28/97)
That's the malicious nickname given Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) by the gossips who were scandalized by her close relationship with a brusque Scottish servant named John Brown (Billy Connolly). In 1864, Brown was summoned to the palace in hopes of drawing the queen out of her deep three-year depression after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Oblivious to protocol, the whisky-drinking highlander cuts through her grief with his rude (and shrewd) attentions, and the two forge an unlikely friendship so close it outrages the court. This true story, deftly embellished by writer Jeremy Brock and directed at a bracing English trot by John Madden, is a splendid showcase for its three superb leads. Dench, Connolly and Anthony Sher, each with a distinct charisma, offer a fascinating study of the varieties of political and personal power. "Mrs. Brown" doesn't soar, but it certainly seduces. (on video)
'Mrs. Dalloway' (3/2/98)
It's something of a miracle to succeed in adapting Virginia Woolf's landmark (and eternally popular) 1925 novel, written almost entirely in its characters' stream of consciousness. But it's been pulled off by a gifted and gutsy team headed by a noted writer-actor, Eileen Atkins; a supersensitive director, the Dutch-born Marleen Gorris (whose "Antonia's Line" won the 1995 Oscar for best foreign-language film), and a supreme actress, Vanessa Redgrave. They have made a million-faceted gem, flashing forth the world inside Clarissa Dalloway's head, and outside, with the sights and sounds of a teeming London on a fine June day in 1923. (on video)
"Mulan" is terrific. Based on a Chinese legend, the film tells of a girl who's a failure at all the maidenly arts, especially husband hunting. When the emperor drafts her father into the Army despite his poor health, she determines to go in his place. She cuts her hair, runs off with his armor and sword and ends up saving China. Mulan doesn't look like a Barbie doll, she doesn't dream about a prince and she certainly doesn't hang around waiting to be rescued. A fine cast of voices is headed by Ming-Na Wen ("The Joy Luck Club") as Mulan and Lea Salonga as her singing voice. B. D. Wong is Shang, the Army captain, with Donny Osmond singing the part; and Eddie Murphy slashes through any hint of piety in the film by playing Mulan's sidekick a crafty, pint-size dragon named Mushu with audacious jive and wit. But it's the characterization of Mulan, both in voice and visuals, that makes the film a keeper. Unique among Disney's animated heroines, she has a genuinely complex personality; in fact, she's got more substance than most of the female characters in live-action movies.
'The Mummy' (4/11/99)
Sophistication be damned. Sometimes, you've just gotta get yourself a bucket of popcorn, leave your refined tastes with the usher and ride a rollercoaster movie like "The Mummy." Whereas as the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff spooked moviegoers with shadows and subtlety, this remake is like a live-action cartoon: all brio and no brains. The plot is appropriately rail-thin: this train wreck just hurtles along. Brendan Fraser, who enunciates far too well to pass as the buffoons he often plays, nearly pulls it off here as Rick O'Connell, a treasure hunter who agrees to escort clutzy scholar Evelyn Carnarvon (Rachel Weisz ) into the Sahara to find a long-lost tomb. He's hunting for booty, she's looking for books. Together, they unleash a 3,000-year-old mummy (Arnold Vosloo) with apocalyptic powers and a nasty itch in his pants. Once he reanimates his murdered girlfriend, the pair will dominate the world. (Of course, it never really feels like the world is any danger, but why carp?) Armed only with cheesy one-liners and a knack for blundering, O'Connell and Evelyn must put the bad guy back to bed before he can, well, you know. Directed by Stephen Sommers, "The Mummy," like the "The Matrix" before it, proves that special effects, in the right hands, can really catapult a movie. The trailers for the film feature one particular mind-blowing effect involving sand; just wait till you see the whole thing. Save for the sand, "The Mummy" flays "Indiana Jones" mercilessly. (See: Gross-out, Bugs.) It may be campy homage, but in Sommers's hands it delivers just about every step of the way.
'The Muse' (8/31/99)
It's not that Steven Phillips, the cranky, wise-cracking screenwriter played by Albert Brooks, is uninspired. It's that he just can't seem to get anyone's attention. He wrote a script, but no one cares. He's more than willing to make revisions, but the nasty little studio executive can't be bothered. Even his wife (Andie McDowell) is too distracted by child care and housekeeping to notice him. So his best friend, the enviably successful screenwriter Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges) comes up with a solution: a professional muse. Believing all he needs is a little expert inspiration, Steven hires the lovely and demanding Sarah (Sharon Stone) to motivate him. Sarah has realized that all these whiny, self-satisfied shlubs (her clients) actually require is her undivided attention. The minute she focuses on them for a few minutes, they grin with self-satisfied glee and happily set about writing the next mindless blockbuster. Steven is no different.
Sharon Stone is the best thing about the movie. She flounces around in expensive silk pajamas and sparkly jewels, getting her way by demanding what she wants and pouting adorably. Like most of Brooks's films, "The Muse" is smart and moves along briskly. As usual, he sprinkles his film with the best one liners around. When Steven is awarded a humanitarian award for his work, his daughter asks him what a humanitarian is. "It's someone who's never won the Oscar," he replies. However, the insider Hollywood stuff is predictable fare. By now, the slick, know-it-all 25-year-old producer has become a stock character. And snagging a cameo by Lorenzo Lamas does not a Robert Altman make.
'Music of the Heart' (10/29/99)
It was probably too much to expect that the man who reinvented the horror film would do the same for the feel-good melodrama. Wes Craven may be out of his usual element here, but what happened to the quirky intelligence behind "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or the postmodern wit of the "Scream" series? Unfortunately, there's nothing offbeat or original about "Music of the Heart." In the end, it's just another novice-teacher- takes-on-inner-city-kids-and-nobody's-life-will-ever-be-the-same film. All the required elements are in place. First of all, it's based as all these films are on a true story: Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep) is a devoted Navy wife who must remake her life when her husband leaves her. She takes on a job teaching the violin at an alternative school in East Harlem. After battling her way through her initial doubts and fears, she becomes a much loved, tough-but-fair fixture in the school. Then one day, her special program gets cut by that ever-boorish enemy of dedicated teachers, the Board of Education. Everybody rises nobly to the occasion and surprise, surprise a few articles in the New York Times and a stirring benefit concert at Carnegie Hall raise enough money to re-establish the program.
Sure, it's great that the program was saved. There's no denying that Roberta Guaspari does admirable work. But it just doesn't make for very compelling moviemaking. Part of the problem is that Craven and his writer, Pamela Gray, stay on the surface of things. Despite Meryl Streep's fine performance she drops her g's and plays the violin most convincingly we never really get a sense of what motivates Guaspari or where her love of music comes from. The supporting actors have almost nothing to do, and the kids are fine fiddlers, but clich�d characters. Worst of all are the sloppy editing and errors in continuity. Craven is a talented director, and no one deserves more to break into the mainstream; but not with this bland, uninspired fare.
'My Best Friend's Wedding' (6/23/97)
A romantic comedy for an era of diminished expectations. Julianne (Julia Roberts), a food critic, and Michael (Dermot Mulroney), a sportswriter, are former lovers and current best friends. Now Michael has lost his heart to someone else and she is suddenly convinced she's been in love with Michael all along. Obsessed with derailing the nuptials, Julianne speeds to Chicago. But the rich and beautiful Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) is more than a creditable competitor, and Julianne's motives are riddled with neurotic and ambiguous undertones. "Wedding" is at its funniest when Rupert Everett arrives on the scene and the duplicitous Julianne pretends that her gay friend is her fiance, successfully arousing Michael's jealousy. Indeed, the chemistry between Roberts and Everett who's never been so charming or hilarious far surpasses any charge between her and Mulroney, whose function is more decorative than substantial. (on video)
'My Name is Joe'(10/1/98)
The title, of course, is an incomplete sentence, the end of which "and I'm an alcoholic" is left to the opening scene where Joe Kavanaugh (Peter Mullan) talks about getting sober with an AA group. It seems a perfect set-up for sentimental preachiness, but director Ken Loach ("Ladybird, Ladybird," "Land and Freedom") avoids most of the obvious pitfalls in telling Joe's story of recovery. We meet Joe after he has been sober for ten months and is struggling to meet the demands of a 'normal' life. Full of good intentions and an excess of nervous energy, he spends his time coaching a local soccer team, giving the young men personal guidance along with the athletic instruction. He meets his perfect counterpart in Sarah Downie (Louise Goodall), a community health worker, who, when asked if she has children, replies "Oh, hundreds and hundreds." Despite Joe's fear that he is not yet ready for the pressures of a relationship, they fall in love, only to be threatened by Joe's old connections in the world of drugs and crime. As always, Ken Loach is masterful at conveying the drab details of working-class life; in this case the setting is a grey, rundown Glasgow neighborhood. Te true success of the film, though, lies in Peter Mullan's Joe. Combining vulnerability with a hint of danger, he exemplifies a man who has clawed his way out of the abyss while remaining on its edge. The horror of watching him fall back in is a tribute to Mullan's complex performance.
'My Son the Fanatic' (6/25/99)
In "Hillary and Jackie," Rachel Griffiths's tortured performance as a woman who must (literally) play second fiddle to her brilliant, disturbed cellist sister was the film's emotional heart, and rightly earned her sudden notice and an Oscar nomination. In her latest film, Griffiths plays what would seem to be the polar opposite of Jackie, a prostitute in the North England town of Bradford. But Bettina is neither one of the cinematic hooker stereotypes. She has no heart of gold, nor is she a sloppy crack whore. She's a working woman who just wants to be loved, but is surrounded by madness. So, it doesn't seem totally surprising when she falls for Parvez (the eminent Om Puri), an unattractive, middle-aged Pakistani cab-driver. He is neither handsome nor rich, only kind. But he is cheating on his devoted, traditional wife (the perfect Gopi Desai) and infuriating his fundamentalist son (Akbar Kurtha), whose campaign against sin includes protesting the existence of Bettina's brothel. Parvez's dissatisfaction with his life economic depression, familial boredom is sending him into the proverbial downward spiral, and his emotional salvation seems to come only from Bettina. Puri captures the tragedy of Parvez, using every line in his leathery face to broadcast angst. There are a few moments of scenery chomping, but mostly it's kept under control. "My Son the Fanatic" was written by Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid") and is directed by Udayan Prasad. Their quiet, sad film is smart and well-acted, but it lacks urgency. Parvez's wife and especially his son are not worth sticking around for, so his agony, while palpable, doesn't evoke much sympathy. And the Pakistani accents throughout are at times indecipherablethink of the Scottish brogue in "Trainspotting." That might be why Griffiths is so affecting: You understand every word she says.
'Mystery Men' (8/10/99)
Take some cutlery, a bowling ball, and a shovel and what do you get? The weaponry of a bumbling set of super-hero wanna-bes as depicted in "Mystery Men," a lightly entertaining, though not hilarious, film parody of comic book heroes. Parody indeed: what villain would quake in their boots when they heard the names "The Blue Raja," "The Bowler," and "The Shoveler?" Certainly not Casanova Frankenstein (a ghoulish-looking Geoffrey Rush), who has captured Champion City's super-hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) and has plans to decimate the city. The only hope is a ragtag band of "super-heroes" composed of the ineffectual Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the fork-brandishing Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), the lethal Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), the high-minded Shoveler (William H. Macy), the deadly farter Spleen (Paul Reubens), and some similarly pathetic would-be super-powers. Their absurd "powers" draw out some laughs, but by the time they actually end up saving the day, the jokes have grown stale. For instance, it's at first amusing to watch people, including a tough old woman, easily overcome Mr. Furious's bluster; by the umpteenth time this happens, the humor is definitely forced. Still, the superb cast, the witty lines, and the absurdity of the characters make for at least a collective hour of chuckles.
'The Myth of Fingerprints' (9/29/97)
Long-hidden family secrets and resentments come unraveled when four grown children returning home over a holiday weekend. First-time writer/director Bart Freundlich's perceptive script takes on a cliched topic, but manages to avoid the most obvious traps. For example, angry Mia, played with remarkable tenacity by Julianne Moore, stays cranky. Aside from one fleeting moment, her brittle exterior never cracks as you'd expect in a more formula film. There are other stellar performances. Notably, Roy Scheider shines as the impenetrable dad and Noah Wyle gives a subtle, layered performance that proves the ER star has real potential for the big screen. "The Myth of Fingerprints" stands as a wonderful ensemble piece not unlike Woody Allen's dramas "Interiors" and "September." (on video)