'The Jackal' (11/24/97)
Bruce Willis tries on a lot of wigs playing the chameleon-like assassin known as the Jackal. Richard Gere tries on an Irish accent as the imprisoned terrorist cajoled by the FBI into helping it track down this nefarious killer before the Jackal bumps off a government bigwig. (Gere, you see, is the only one who knows what makes the guy tick. Heard that one before?) Though both stars have had better days, it's not their fault that this loose remake of 1973's "The Day of the Jackal" is so unpardonably dull. Credit that to a script by Chuck Pfarrer that is at best generic and at worst nonsensical. The usually reliable director Michael Caton-Jones hasn't a clue how to freshen up such stale material. If you bite your fingernails, it will only be from boredom. (on video)
'Jack Frost' (12/11/98)
Tear-jerkers aren't for children. Even when masked by wacky, cartoonish snowball fights and bland jokes, films about death and loss are a tough sell. And that's mostly what's wrong with first-time director Troy Miller's misguided remake-for-children of "Ghost." "Jack Frost" is not really funny, but it is really sad. Michael Keaton (who should draw and quarter his agent before firing him) plays Jack Frost, the lead singer of a Commitments-like band. He loves his family, but chasing his dream of becoming a rock star keeps him away from home. Charlie, his son (an adequate Joseph Cross), is a brainy 11-year-old who wants to be hockey star but must contend with an older bully. Jack promises to teach him his patented "J shot" and come to see an important game, but he gets too wrapped up recording his music and forgets. To make up for it, he promises to take Charlie and Charlie's mom (Kelly Preston) to their cabin for Christmas. But he bags on them to play for a record exec. On the way to his show, he decides his family is more important. While driving to the cabin where his wistful son awaits, he's killed in a car crash. This film, though, is about second chances: A year later, Jack comes back as a snowman with better parenting skills. "Could the universe really be that unoriginal?" he asks. Sadly, yes. The film ends exactly as "Ghost" did, swirling lights, tears, and all. The special effects that enable the snowman to talk, throw snowballs, and cry are just okay. (There are moments when it's too obvious a blue screen has been used.) And Jack's flat joking about his predicament, which only Charlie knows about, is a consequence of both the army of B-list screenwriters and the misuse of Keaton's immense talents. He's a brilliant physical comedian, and animated, we only get his vocal comedy. What made "Beetlejuice" great was the combination of the two. Watching Keaton stuck in this sappy holiday schlock is almost as depressing as the story itself.
'Jackie Brown' (12/22/97)
"Jackie Brown" is Quentin Tarantino's loving homage to '70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier's sexy, poignant, middle-aged swagger. A 44-year-old flight attendant, Jackie (Grier) is busted by the Feds for carrying 50 grand in tainted money and some coke into the country. She gets her revenge on both the ruthless arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), who set her up, and on the cops, when she enlists a tough but decent bail bondsman (Robert Forster) to aid her in an elaborate scam. The tale faithfully taken from Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch" is filled with funny, gritty Tarantino lowlife gab and a respectable body count, but what is most striking is the film's gallantry and sweetness. Tarantino hits some new and touching notes with Grier and Forster a sense of what it means to grow old with grace that make you want to see what he could accomplish without guns and gangsters. (on video)
Joe Eszterhas is misunderstood. The guy who wrote "Showgirls" and "Basic Instinct" is always getting knocked for creating degraded women characters. This film puts the lie to this: he can't create credible humans of either sex. This tired "psychological thriller" has no psychology and few thrills. Linda Fiorentino plays a psychologist who, unknown to her San Francisco attorney husband (Chazz Palminteri), leads a double life as a call girl. Did she also murder a millionaire? That's what her lover, the ambitious D.A. (David Caruso), wants to know. What we want to know is why we should care about any of these stick figures. (on video)
'James and the Giant Peach' (4/15/96)
Taken from the 1961 children's book by Roald Dahl, director Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas") begins on an idyllic note: the young James (Paul Terry), with his parents, gazes at the English seacoast. The good times come to an end, as a narrator informs us: "An angry rhinoceros appeared and gobbled up his mother and father." As the ward of Aunts Spiker and Sponge, James is driven to befriend a spider (Susan Sarandon) until an old salt (Pete Postlethwaite) presents him with a magical bag of crocodile tongues. When he spills the bag at a barren peach tree, a giant fruit begins to grow: a peach that takes him to the city of his dreams, New York. (on video)
Elizabeth Purr is lucky enough to be killed off in the first scene of "Jawbreaker" so that she doesn't have to sit through this awful "Heathers" rip-off. It's her 18th birthday and her best friends have a big surprise in store. Fortunately for her, the big surprise accidentally kills her; unfortunately, like Miss Purr, "Jawbreaker" chokes to death on a giant sour ball. The balance of the film details her friends' hasty cover-up effort. Their brainstorm: make Liz's death look like rape and then some. But the plan sets off a power struggle between Reagan High's Supreme Bitch (Rose McGowan) and its Supreme Idiot (Rebecca Gayheart). Malevolence ensues, but not the snarky, naughty "Heathers" kind. "Heathers" mined comic gold with bizarre juxtapositions�jaded teens and naive parents, cool kids mingling with parking lot maniacs and study hall tokers. Even its violence was inspired. But "Jawbreaker" is a black comedy that's all black, never comic. Ugly violence drives the plot and the hot girls never, ever talk to anyone but each other. It's one long catfight between a couple of very dull kittens. McGowan is so unabashedly evil that she's just plain boring. And Gayheart, as her "decent" foil, has all the charm and depth of dishwater. With friends like these in a movie like this, poor Purr is better off dead.
'Jerry Maguire' (12/16/96)
A shark out of water, sports agent Jerry Maguire has to start anew when he's fired from Sports Management International. All his clients abandon him except Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a second-rank NFL wide receiver. His only other ally is the sweet, ditsy Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), an accountant and single mom, more than a little bedazzled by his killer smile. What sets "Jerry Maguire" above any other romantic comedy this year is Crowe's writing. He captures the venal, high-stakes world of pro sports with deadly wit and an ex-journalist's sense of detail. Everyone in this crowded comedy gets to shine. Newcomer Zellwegger is a wonderful discovery with her crinkly-eyed, pixilated charm. Cruise's appeal hasn't been this potent in years. Together, he and Zellwegger have a gentle, complex chemistry. But the scene-stealing honors go to the bespectacled, 5-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki, who's a goofy delight as Dorothy's son. A feel-good movie with sharp edges, "Jerry Maguire" is an unexpected gift. (on video)
'Johnny Mnemonic' (6/12/95)
Keanu Reeves is Johnny Mnemonic, a 21st-century courier who carries secret data via a brain-implanted memory chip. Will his overloaded noggin explode before he can download it, will the evil data swipers lop off his head? Cyberpunkmeister William Gibson's script is a hollow inflation of his hip, haute-pulp short story. And debut director Robert Longo, a hot painter of the art-boom '80s, has produced a derivative flick; call it "Bladeless Runner." Still, it has its engaging moments (Henry Rollins as a wacked-out doctor, stunner Dina Meyer as a cyborg samurai). (on video)
'Judy Berlin' (2/25/00)
The best way of looking at "Judy Berlin" is as a commentary on Woody Allen's "Manhattan." While Allen examined love and neuroses in New York City in his 1979 masterpiece, Eric Mendelsohn probes the same issues 20 years later and 50 miles east, in suburban Long Island. Allen's cinematographer shot New York in high-contrast black and white with such grace that it was impossible not to fall in love with the city. Mendelsohn, however, uses black and white film and chiaroscuro lighting to a very different effect: he makes you want to leave Long Island as quickly as possible. In his film, several confused and needy suburbanites try to connect with each other on the day of a total eclipse of the sun. Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie), an aging, know-it-all elementary school teacher, attempts a flirtation with the married principal of the school, Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy). Arthur's wife, Alice (Madeline Kahn), is a recovering alcoholic and desperate for attention; the only person who gives her any is the maid, and she's paid to do so. Arthur's and Alice's son, David (Aaron Harnick), is a depressed filmmaker who wanders the streets until he runs into, and falls for, a former high school classmate, the goofy Judy Berlin (Edie Falco). Judy is Sue's daughter; she's planning to leave for LA to become an actress. As the moon covers the sun and then refuses to budge, tensions run high in this slow, creepy commentary on suburbia. Despite the darkness, "Judy Berlin" is gorgeous, mesmerizing, and stunningly well acted. Barrie glides from bitchy to needy effortlessly. Kahn, in her last role (she died in December), tempered her usual loony style to give a heart-breaking performance. And Falco, who has rightly become a star since making this film (she won an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her work on "The Sopranos"), seems to bring color even to the gray screen. The film is named after her character possibly because she's the only one who smiles, the only one with true optimism, and the only one who leaves at the end--on a train to Manhattan.
With a roll of the dice, an ancient board game conjures up an element of the jungle. Director Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids") turns this fantasy into a mean-spirited exercise in terror. The game stirs up pure malice: man-eating plants, gun-toting monkeys, a hunter hellbent on bagging the players just for sport. The players have to keep going until somebody wins or the special-effects budget runs out, and the filmmakers seem interested in the jungle creatures only for their capacity to kill. As family Christmas movies go, "Jumanji" has all the cheer of a lump of coal. Starring Robin Williams. (on video)