'The Negotiator' (8/3/98)
High inside a federal building in Chicago, Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is holding four hostages at gunpoint two of them cops. One of his demands is that the police get Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) to act as the negotiator the only man he's willing to deal with. What is Roman doing on the other side of the law? He has been framed for the murder of his partner. At first "The Negotiator" shows every sign of being just another slick, overwrought hot-weather action movie with a bombastic score. But I can pinpoint the exact moment when F. Gary Gray won me over. Roman is on the phone with the first, inexperienced negotiator. Knowing far more about the job than this novice, Roman proceeds to lecture him on how badly he is handling the situation, hilariously reducing his hapless foe to jelly. It's amazing how a sense of humor can turn a formula film into a frolic. (on video)
'Never Been Kissed' (4/9/99)
Drew Barrymore can do anything. OK, she might have trouble pulling off Elizabeth I. But put her in a mid-budget romantic comedy and she's adorable and enthralling. With her doe eyes, impossibly innocent smile, and sweet earnestness, it simply doesn't matter how good the movie is. In her latest confection, the rather silly "Never Been Kissed," which she also co-produced, Barrymore plays Josie Geller, a frumpy, clumsy copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who's desperate to become a writer. Almost by accident, she lands a choice undercover investigative feature assignment in which she has to return to high school and tell Sun-Times readers what being a teenager is all about. But Josie's first high school experience did not exactly culminate with her winning Miss Harvest Queen 1991. She was "Josie Grossy," the lamest geek in her class. So, when she returns to school, she has a little trouble fitting in. In Mona May's hilariously goofy, anachronistic costumes, Barrymore's klutzy and nonsensical attempts at acceptance are made to look even more absurd. At first, Josie has to hang out with the math-obsessed Denominators, led by proudly nerdy Aldys (the sublime Leelee Sobieski). But Josie's editor wants her to chill with the cool kids, which she's only able to do after intervention by her instantly popular brother, Rob (a typically clownish David Arquette), who has returned to high school so he can play baseball again. Josie's love interest is her English teacher, the vaguely hunky Mr. Coulson (Michael Vartan), who resists what he imagines is a forbidden desire for most of the film. The script is an odd take on the Cinderella formula, but Barrymore makes it shine with her relentless charm andwho knew?a gift for physical comedy.
'The Next Best Thing' (3/10/00)
Rupert Everett is making a habit of playing a straight woman's dream best friend. Playing more or less the same gay role in "The Next Best Thing" he did in "My Best Friend's Wedding," Everett once again waltzes away with the picture. But this time the perfect friendship runs into trouble. Everett is the L.A. landscape architect Robert. His best friend is single yoga teacher Abbie (Madonna). On a night of too many cocktails and '30s show tunes, Robert and Abbie become lovers for the first and last time. Lo and behold, she becomes pregnant, and the two soulmates agree to raise their child together. They will live together as mom and dad, but not as husband and wife. For the first six years, Abbie and Robert's design for living is a smashing success. (The messy early years of their son's life disappear in an abrupt cut from Sam's birth to his 5th birthday.) So where's the dramatic conflict? It arrives, with a vengeance, in the form of nice investment banker Ben (Benjamin Bratt), a very slick but none-too-interesting fellow who falls in love with Abbie and threatens to take her and the boy with him to New York. Devoted dad Robert freaks; suddenly (and implausibly) a thin but amiable comedy morphs into a courtroom custody-case tear-jerker. From this point on screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski piles one silly plot contrivance upon another, and the characters start behaving like nitwits. Why don't these old and true friends work out a compromise? Silly question. If they did, the movie wouldn't have a third act.
'Nights of Cabiria' (7/27/98)
Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria" may have been first released in 1957, but it seems fresher than just about every movie around. Reissued in a sparkling new print that includes seven minutes never seen before, and with more accurate subtitles, this is a sterling opportunity to see Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife) give the performance of a lifetime. Her Cabiria is a streetwalker from the outskirts of Rome, a waifish, wide-eyed spark plug with a childlike belief, in the face of all evidence, in the redemption of romance. Attired in bobby sox and a ratty fur, she cuts a figure of Chaplinesque poignancy as she bounces from betrayal to misadventure to the brink of tragedy, never losing her innate, wonderfully irrational optimism. The most heartbreaking work in Fellini's career, it was made before "La Dolce Vita" turned him into an international celebrity. It's not as flashy and fantastical as his later movies whose star was always Fellini himself but it may be the most emotionally direct.
'The Ninth Gate' (3/17/00)
Roman Polanski is a director of prodigious talent who has never known exactly where to draw the line. He has given us the tightly-wound thrills of "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Repulsion" (1965) as well as the excesses of "Bitter Moon" (1992). His latest venture, "The Ninth Gate," falls somewhere in the middle.
The tale of what one might call a "book detective" on the trail of a satanic text, "The Ninth Gate" was adapted from Arturo Perez Reverte's bestselling novel, "El Club Dumas," and Polanski is the right man for the job. Reverte's book takes us into the little-known underworld of serious book collectorspeople who will do just about anything to get their hands on a seventeenth century first edition. It is an old-world kind of place, where the Spanish Inquisition seems like a recent memory and Alexandre Dumas an intimate friend. Polanski has captured the claustrophobic obsession and fusty charm of the book collector and for that aloneand Johnny Deppthis otherwise uneven film is worth seeing. Depp plays Lucas Corso, a wolfish hired gun who tracks down books for money. When he is commissioned by Boris Balkan (a delightfully hammy Frank Langella) to verify the authenticity of a demonic text, "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," bad things start to happen. First, an angry widow (Lena Olin in her "Romeo Is Bleeding" mode) tries to get the book back from him, then the book collectors he visits start to die. Of course, he's being followed, and just about everytime he turns around someone bops him over the head with the nearest blunt object.
The opening scenes, are heavily atmospheric and, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Seven," "In Dreams") turn New York into a city wondrous strange. It becomes a place of pokey little bookstores, cluttered libraries and mysterious mansions. As Corso, Johnny Depp wanders its benighted streets, lean and hungry and cold as ice. Hiding behind a goatee and glasses, Depp makes Corso into a cooly detached observer who is always on the lookout for the jugular. The opening scene in which he calmly cheats a client out of a rare edition of "Don Quixote" is a masterpiece of restraint. Another actor might have allowed himself a moment of glee as he walked out the door, perhaps a jokey aside, but not Mr. Depp. His Corso is a true mercenarybloodless, joyless, and out to win at all costs.
As long as Polanski keeps his focus on character and ambiance, the film is an eerie pleasure. But he doesn't, and it degenerates into a second-rate chase movie which takes its supernatural overtones either too seriously or too lightly to be convincing. There are other problems too: We figure out the rather elementary mystery behind the devilish tome a good hour before Corso, so there is a good deal of thumb-twiddling time; there is no such thing as an orgy-cum-satanic worship scene that is not preposterous (though this one never reaches the dizzying level of silliness attained by Stanley Kubrick in "Eyes Wide Shut," perhaps because we never actually get to the orgy part); and Emmanuelle Seigner, not coincidentally, Mrs. Roman Polanski, has no business on screen at all. But, absurdities aside, "The Ninth Gate" is the work of the director of "Chinatown" (1974) and the star of "Donnie Brasco" (1997) and "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). Neither can easily be dismissed.
Prepare for a surprise. On the verge of 50, Oliver Stone has discovered complexity, ambiguity and even a measure of restraint. This is no whitewash, however. Richard Nixon is there, played by Anthony Hopkins, with all his malevolence, his paranoia and his ruthlessness intact. His loyalists won't like this portrait. But his bitterest enemies may not like it, either, for it forces the viewer to acknowledge the twisted humanity of the man. Stone's Nixon is appalling and strangely moving, a man whose private and public demons bring him down with an almost Shakespearean thud. (on video)
'Not One Less' (3/3/00)
"Not One Less," the latest film from Zhang Yimou, China's foremost director, has an almost spartan simplicity. He has returned to the harsh countryside of "The Story of Qiu Ju." As in that film, his heroine is a stubborn, obsessive woman who journeys to the city on a monomaniacal mission. Wei Minzhi is a 13-year-old schoolgirl who has to fill in as a substitute teacher in her village's one-room schoolhouse. Only a year or two older than her charges, she hasn't much knowledge to pass on, or interest in teaching. Before he leaves to tend to his sick mother, the regular teacher exhorts her to prevent any of the students from dropping out: In this impoverished area, kids are always leaving to find jobs to help their families. He promises her a bonus if she succeeds. Wei fixates on this task, so when 10-year-old Zhang Huike vanishes from her class to search for work in the city, she trains her mulish will on the job of finding him and bringing him back. There isn't a professional actor in the movie. In most cases, Zhang has cast people in the roles they play in life—a village mayor plays a village mayor—and the characters are given the actors' names. This gives his fable of perseverance a documentary texture. Underneath the film's surface charm, the portrait of China and its people that emerges is bleak: example after example of poverty, desperation and indifference. Wei's triumph does not come easy.
'Notting Hill' (5/24/99)
Roger Michell's adorable, if uneven, romantic comedy is essentially a fairy tale, as Julia Roberts's best movies tend to be. Our princess is an American movie star named Anna Scott (Roberts). Our commoner is William Thacker (Hugh Grant), who owns a foundering travel bookstore in London. Anna and William meet. They fall in love. They surmount well, not very big obstacles, come to think of it. Still, "Notting Hill" written and produced by the folks who gave us "Four Weddings and a Funeral" has a mountain of British charm. When Anna first walks into the bookshop, William nimbly chats her up even as he admonishes a shoplifter who's put a book down his pants. What follows is, for the first hour anyway, a hilarious, deadpan variation on the theme of worlds colliding. William introduces elegant Anna to his roommate, Spike (Rhys Ifans), a disgusting Welshman. Later William sneaks into a press junket for Anna's new sci-fi movie by pretending to be a journalist from, of all places, Horse and Hound magazine. William is entranced by Anna's world and mortified by his own. Soon we discover and this is where the movie stalls out that Anna's really the one with the problems. Grant gives a great, unaffected performance he piles on the charm and goes easy on the stuttering and eyelid fluttering. Roberts has some sparkling moments, but becomes increasingly less lovable as we get to know her character better. Frankly, Roberts is so convincingly uppity that you wouldn't wish her on anybody. This being a fairy tale, however, the movie lurches toward a happy ending you're only half rooting for.
'The Nutty Professor' (7/1/96)
That sound you hear is all the preview audiences laughing so hard they miss half the fart jokes. A loose remake of the Jerry Lewis classic, it's a Jekyll and Hyde story about obese Professor Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) fiddling with DNA and trying to woo a purty young colleague named Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett). Gulping down a formula he's tested on rats, he metamorphoses into the buff womanizer Buddy Love (Murphy). His testosterone skyrockets, he lives it up and shocks Papa, Mama, Grandma and brother Ernie (Murphy, Murphy, Murphy, Murphy). Directed by Tom Shadyac ("Ace Ventura"), it's nearly sociopathic in its quest for laughs, and busts a very big gut. (on video)