Damon has his first major starring role, à la McConaughey, in a John
Grisham adaptation--in this case, Francis Ford Coppola's take on The
Rainmaker. Damon plays wet-behind-the-ears attorney Rudy Baylor, who,
immediately after passing the bar exam, finds himself representing the
mother (Mary Kay Place) of a terminally ill young man (John Whitworth) in a
big-league suit against a negligent insurance company. While Rudy's (and
the film's) main concern is this case, he also finds time to protect a
young wife (Claire Danes) from her abusive husband (Melrose Placer
Shue, in a mercifully brief role).
Written for the screen and directed by Coppola, The Rainmaker is the
Grisham film yet mostly because it does not take itself too seriously.
Coppola's most notable--and effective--contribution to the tried-and-true
Grisham formula is a sense of humor about itself, which largely comes in
the presence of Danny DeVito (as Rudy's unlicensed co-counsel) and Golden
Globe nominee Jon Voight (as the insurance company's hotshot attorney).
The inclusion of the battered wife subplot feels rather superfluous, but
Danes is as superb as always. Then, of course, there is Damon, who nicely
juggles the weighty (the insurance case, the spousal abuse) and the
humorous (Rudy's often comical naivete) requirements of his role without
missing a beat.
As good as he is in The Rainmaker, Damon showcases the depth of his
in Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant and written by actor Ben
Affleck and Damon himself. Damon plays the title character, Will Hunting,
a troubled young construction worker/janitor at MIT who also happens to be
a supergenius. In an attempt to steer this brilliant young mind in the
right direction, an MIT math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) taps his old
college friend, community college psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin
Williams), to counsel the abrasive, standoffish Will and try to help him
come to terms with his turbulent life.
Good Will Hunting is the touchy-feely enterprise its plot synopsis
suggests, but to simply dismiss it as that would be to discount the true
emotional chords Affleck and Damon's intelligent script touches. Even
though no one (and, if so, very few people) can directly relate to
burden of superhuman intelligence, the insecurities he suffers are
universal. The material is brought to life by the terrific ensemble of
actors. Williams delivers a nice dramatic turn; Affleck, a hot
up-and-coming actor himself (Chasing
Amy), turns up in a warm and charming
performance as Will's best friend; and the ever-appealing Minnie Driver
shines as Will's Harvard-schooled love interest. The clear standout in the
cast, though, is Damon, who bravely does not soften Will's prickly nature
but has such a natural ease with the audience that it is hard not to
care for him.
So many names come and go with the fluctuations of the Hollywood hype
machine, but based on his impressive work in John Grisham's The
and especially Good Will Hunting, it is a safe bet that Matt Damon
name we will be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.
Mouse Hunt (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
With its three inaugural releases, megabucks studio DreamWorks SKG has just about covered all the bases: middle-of-the-road action (The
Peacemaker); highminded "Oscar bait" (Amistad), and now lowbrow comedy with
Mouse Hunt, a slapstick comedy that will please the tykes but will
the rest of the family less than satisfied.
The basic plot setup (a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers inherit a
run-down--and, as it turns out, valuable--house from their string
manufacturer father) is rendered irrelevant once the "star" of the movie
enters the picture: a tiny little mouse (a charmer by the name of "Jenny
the Mouse"), who immediately ruins the house renovation plans of the two
siblings, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans) Smuntz. What ensues is
one long, frenzied pursuit in which the two bumbling brothers make attempt
after attempt to find and kill the mouse, who outsmarts them every time.
Mouse Hunt is little more than Home Alone with a mouse in the
should give you a clear idea about the bulk of the comedy in this film:
broad physical schtick. Granted, this type of humor goes a long way with
the film's target audience--children--and a handful of the gags did make me
smile, but after a while I (and, I suspect, most adults in the audience)
grew tired of the pratfalls. After all, a man getting hit in the head by a
blunt object can only be so "hilarious" after the first two or three times
it is done.
What keeps the incessant slapstick from becoming completely monotonous are
the engaging performances. Even though they are set up as the villains of
the piece, Lane and Evans, who develop a nice brotherly rapport, remain
likable and sympathetic; at certain points I found myself simultaneously
rooting for them and the mouse. And it is through the acting that the
film is able to maintain a slightly twisted edge. Lane delivers his acid
one-liners with malicious glee, and an effectively creepy Christopher
Walken comes close to walking away with the movie as overzealous and
slightly psycho exterminator Caesar.
Mouse Hunt, like its destructive but well-meaning protagonist, is
harmless, a fairly safe bet to keep the little ones entertained for 97
minutes. But anyone looking for a film that truly is fun for the whole
family is better off checking out the opulent Anastasia or, better yet,
Disney's modern classic The Little Mermaid, which is enjoying yet
rerelease this week.
The Sweet Hereafter (R) BUY THE:Poster!
A lawyer (an outstanding Ian Holm) comes to a small Canadian town to seek
financial compensation for the families who lost their children in a tragic
school bus crash. A simple summation of the plot of director Atom Egoyan's
latest, based on the Russell Banks novel of the same name, does not do
justice to this simple, elegant, haunting film, which is more about
learning to deal with loss than it is about a bus sinking into ice--not
simply the families' loss of their children, but also the lawyer's loss of
his daughter (Caerthan Banks, Russell's real-life daughter) to a wild life
of drugs; and one of the accident's young survivor's (newcomer Sarah
Polley, in a startling performance) loss of innocence.
Like he did in his breakthrough film of a few years back, Exotica,
fractures the timeline, jumping back and forth in time in a seemingly
random fashion to tell his story. This decision successfully plays up the
mystery elements of the tale (was there someone or something at fault in
the accident besides cruel fate?) as well as underscore his points about
death, transformation, and rebirth. An especially effective move is the
recurring reference to Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," which
comes to reflect the film's story in a most heartbreaking manner. The
Sweet Hereafter is not the most pleasant film to watch; its leisurely pace
and unremitting air of melancholy may be too heavy for many. But this
powerful film cuts to the bone and stays there long after its end credits
have finished rolling, which is no mean feat in this age of forgettable
Scream 2 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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Rushed into production mere months after the release of the blockbuster
original, Scream 2 appears, in theory, to be no different than the quickie
slasher sequels it lampoons. But Wes Craven's smart, self-referential
Scream was unlike any other splatterfest, and now that film has developed
into a most intriguing and unconventional horror franchise with the release
of this followup--an exciting and wonderfully witty romp that manages to
add some luster to the much-maligned concept of "sequel."
Scream 2 is an even more satiric film than its predecessor, and this tone
is established quickly with the opening scene. Windsor College students
Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett) and Phil Stevens (Omar Epps) attend a sneak
preview of the new horror movie Stab, which, as it turns out, is based on
the Windsboro, California murder spree depicted in the original film. So
we see a hilariously letter-perfect recreation of Scream's now-classic
prologue, with a short-wigged Heather Graham assuming Drew Barrymore's role
as a Jiffy Pop-making blonde being terrorized over the phone by a
movie-obsessed psycho. The restaging of the scene in and of itself would
be sufficiently satiric for most writers, but screenwriter Kevin Williamson
(who also penned the original) goes the extra mile, having Maureen vocally
mock its conventions ("Star-69 his ass!"). As smart and fun as Scream was,
it certainly had its share of cheesy aspects, and it is refreshing--not to
mention surprising and brave--to see Williamson and Craven poke fun at
their original film to such mercilessly hilarious effect. This
movie-based-on-the-first-movie-within-its-sequel conceit, which is
revisited sporadically throughout the film (a highlight is Luke Wilson's
dead-on impresonation of Skeet Ulrich's slacker "cool" in a later scene),
perfectly embodies Scream 2's overall attitude--self-aware and more than
willing to make fun of itself.
Two years have passed since the Woodsboro murders, and heroine Sidney
Prescott (Neve Campbell) is now a theatre major at Windsor, and film geek
Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) is--natch--a film student there (you would
think he would be rejected, given his extensive qualifications). Yet while
the scenery and atmosphere around her are different, her luck is not, and
before long she once again finds herself stalked by a killer in a screaming
ghoul costume. Soon reentering the picture are ever-vain tabloid TV
reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who is even more of an egomaniac
after writing a bestseller on the murders (upon which Stab is based); and
ever-dopey Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now-former Woodsboro deputy, who
comes to Windsor to offer Sidney some support. The rest of Scream 2's
story has been a closely guarded secret, and Dimension Films has gone so
far as to issue a letter urging press to not divulge too many plot
developments. After seeing the film, it is easy to understand why. While
the film does settle into a none-too-surprising slasher rhythm, Williamson
cooks up a few surprising plot twists, intelligently incorporating
references to the original to propel the sequel's storyline. Also, true to
"the rules" of a sequel, he and Craven cook up some elaborately inventive
suspense scenes that set the audience on edge.
As effective as the new scare scenes are, there is no shock sequence in
Scream 2 that matches the original film's chilling prologue, but that is of
little consequence when its humorous side--what makes the Scream movies so
special--is stronger than ever. Amid all the carnage and screaming,
Williamson and Craven's wit is as sharp as ever, giving dim Dewey overdone
"cool" theme music (directly lifted from Hans Zimmer's score for John Woo's
Broken Arrow) and throwing in barbs at everything from pop culture fixtures
like Sandra Bullock and TV's Friends to "issues" such as the influence of
violent movies and African-Americans' traditional non-presence in horror
movies. But, of course, the most recurring topic is that of movie sequels.
Simply bashing them (which the film does to ample degree) is easy, but
Williamson and Craven are a bit more ambitious--attacking their inherent
cheesiness while at the same time embracing it, steering events in some
quintessentially "only in a sequel" turns with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
An ongoing discussion in Scream 2 revolves around whether or not there
has been a movie sequel that is superior to the original. I would not be
surprised if in Scream 3 (which is all but a foregone conclusion at this
point), we hear the fresh, funny, and frightening Scream 2 mentioned as
proof in the positive.
Titanic (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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Over $200 million in production costs; a problem-plagued shoot; a missed
release date; a cast without a major star; and a three-hour-plus running
time. A recipe for disaster? Not in the hands of writer-director James
Cameron. His much-talked-about, much-anticipated Titanic has finally set
sail, and unlike the ill-fated oceanliner that lends the film its name,
this absorbing, moving cinematic spectacle not only floats, it soars.
It is ironic that so many modern dollars were spent in service of what is,
at its core, a very old-fashioned romantic epic. Set mostly aboard the
titular cruise ship during its singular voyage in 1912, Titanic documents,
in flashback, the forbidden romance between penniless artist Jack Dawson
(Leonardo DiCaprio) and the well-bred Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet),
who is quite unhappily betrothed to wealthy snob Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).
The nature of Jack and Rose's relationship is fairly
conventional--free-spirited Jack enables the constricted Rose to come
alive--but the simple purity adds to the couple's charm. Cameron wisely
takes his time to build this romance; by devoting the first couple of hours
(and a very fast-paced two hours at that) to its development, he allows
DiCaprio and Winslet (both terrific in what should be star-making turns) to
develop a natural, affecting rapport with each other and, more crucially,
One can use all the superlative adjectives--"extraordinary,"
"spectacular," et al.--to describe the centerpiece crash-and-sink (which
comprises the bulk of the film's final hour), yet no words can ever come
close to accurately capturing the truly awesome experience of watching the
Titanic take its final plunge. Unlike the previous high-budget record
holder, the inane would-be action "epic" Waterworld, every last dollar
spent on Titanic is visible on screen, from the 90-percent-to-scale model
of the ship and rushing torrents of water to the ever-so-subtle visual
effects that multiply a cast of hundreds into thousands. But for all its
technical achievement, what gives the disaster (and the entire film) its
powerful charge is the emotional investment the audience has with the
people--not just Jack and Rose but also the minor players, a number of whom
manage to carve out distinct, endearing identities during the course of the
film. A sinking ship is just that without characters the audience cares
about on board; by the time the ship makes its fateful collision, the film
is no longer so much about a ship that sinks than it is about living,
breathing human beings who, as one of the film's taglines goes, "collide
The enduring and healing power of love, the strength of the human will,
living for the moment--these are a few of the themes Cameron covers, but
instead of coming off as blatantly preachy (which, in some of his previous
films, he comes dangerously close to), he addresses these issues with
careful subtlety, expressing them mostly through the characters and their
actions rather than explicitly written dialogue (with the exception of a
few words of wisdom dispensed by Jack). One of the best examples of this
is the framing device for the main on-ship action: modern-day scenes in
which an aged Rose (Gloria Stuart) tells her story to an expedition crew
(led by Bill Paxton) searching for a legendary blue diamond called "The
Heart of the Ocean." A lesser filmmaker would use these scenes as little
more than decorative bookends, but in the end Cameron molds them into a
relevant subplot about man's selfish and greedy nature.
Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis earned long-overdue respect from the
Academy and critics alike with 1993's Schindler's List and 1994's Forrest
Gump, respectively; with Titanic, a sumptuous epic as emotionally powerful
as it is technically phenomenal, fellow hitmaker James Cameron is now set
to receive his just due.
Welcome to Sarajevo (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Random gunfire, arbitrary assassinations, dead bodies and rubble lining
the streets. Just business as usual for Michael Henderson (Stephen
Dillane), a British television news reporter covering the civil war in the
former Yugoslavia in 1992--that is, until he comes upon an orphanage for
young, homeless victims of the war and does, as the film's one-sheet reads,
"the unthinkable--get emotionally involved."
The unthinkable, as far as the viewer is concerned, is also to get
emotionally involved--with the main storyline, which involves Michael's
efforts to rescue a young girl (Emira Nusevic) from the orphanage and adopt
her as his own in England. This storyline, loosely based on a true story,
is not nearly as compelling as the more peripheral depictions of the
Sarajevo siege: innocents catching random gunfire, people young and old
running for dear life. The fact that many of these arresting images are
culled from actual file news footage just shows that a documentary would
have more powerfully captured the horror of the Bosnian conflict than this
synthetic, if well-acted (by Dillane, Nusevic, Woody Harrelson, and Marisa
Tomei) and -intentioned, drama from director Michael Winterbottom.
Amistad (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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The true story of the 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad
would appear to make strong material for a film, and the brilliant opening
scene of Steven Spielberg's Amistad proves that point. Depicting in
graphic, unflinching detail how the imprisoned Africans, led by one Cinque
(Djimon Hounsou), fought against their captors and took command the ship,
the scene gets the film off to a bold, arresting start, delivering the
promise of a highly charged and powerful two-and-a-half-hours.
Alas, the promise remains just that, a promise, and the ultimately
disappointing Amistad loses its momentum once the action shifts from the
sea to New England, where the 44 Amistad Africans end up. Held under lock
and key once more, the Africans, charged with murder and piracy, become the
objects in a heated property trial, and the film settles into the familiar
rhythm of a courtroom drama. The prepubescent Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin)
of Spain argues that the Africans are rightfully hers, claiming that the
passengers were Cuban-born slaves; the British Navy lay a counter claim
since, as they maintain, the passengers were not slaves but free people
illegally captured from West Africa. Looking out for the Africans'
interests are abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis
Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey),
a young attorney with a struggling practice.
If McConaughey's role sounds familiar, it should--he is playing no more
than a variation on his starmaking role in A Time to Kill, which just adds
to the routine quality of the courtroom scenes, which are the meat and
potatoes of the film. As well-acted as these scenes are, especially by
Pete Postlethwaite as the prosecutor, none of them really engaged me. The
proceedings are strangely devoid of any tension or suspense, except for one
moment where the overwhelming pressure Cinque feels is reflected by a
pulsating drumbeat. But that is squandered, for the scene climaxes with
Cinque making a dramatic outburst that can best be described as a perfect
example of the cloying sentimentality that often mars Spielberg films.
Spielberg managed to control his inclination toward emotional bombast in
Schindler's List, and the film was much more effective for it; a similar
understatement would have worked better for Amistad, whose most powerful
moments are the quieter ones, such as a modest yet moving scene where
Cinque and his friend Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) attempt to interpret the Bible.
Eventually the Amistad Africans' case makes it to the Supreme Court, with
none other than former President John Quincy Adams (Sir Anthony Hopkins)
arguing on their behalf. The usually great Hopkins delivers one of his
weakest performances; he lays on the cantankerous old codger schtick a bit
too thick, and he does something peculiar with his voice--not his American
accent (which I, for one, did not mind at all in Nixon), but he makes it
kind of high pitched and lispy, at times almost squeaky and chirpy.
Needless to say, this is highly distracting and, in the end, annoying,
especially since his character handles the climactic oratory.
But by this late juncture in the film, the problem with Hopkins's
elocution is the least of the film's troubles. I felt as if the real
story--that of the Africans--had been lost. Baldwin's case hinges on the
fact that the Amistad Africans are people, not property, yet, with the
exception of Cinque and maybe (to a much lesser extent) Yamba, screenwriter
David Franzoni never develops them as people. Granted, it would have been
impossible to delve into the identities of all 44. But if Franzoni had
applied to the Africans some of the effort he uses to make the Americans a
varied bunch, the film would have been given a deeper human dimension.
But even with the underdeveloped African perspective, the scenes that
squarely focus on them are more compelling than any of the legal action
with the Yanks. The closest Amistad comes to recapturing the opening
scene's power is an extended flashback where Cinque recounts the events
leading up to the revolt. This sequence, which opens with the violent
capture in Sierra Leone, progresses through the harrowing sail to and from
Cuba, and then concludes with a brief recap of the revolt, gets under the
skin and stays there, which is a lot more than can be said for all of the
courtroom scenes, which barely have a single memorable moment between them.
The same can be said about the cast of characters, despite the very worthy
efforts of the actors, which is by far Amistad's strongest asset. The
always-reliable Freeman's presence is always welcome, but his character is
a minor background player at best. McConaughey predictably plays his
familiar role with ease, but the character of Roger Baldwin never exhibits
much personality. Nigel Hawthorne's President Martin Van Buren does have
personality, but his screen time, much like Freeman's, is limited. The
only character, American or African, that comes to full-blooded, vivid life
is Cinque, played with mesmerizing ferocity by the charismatic Hounsou, a
remarkable find who has come a very long way indeed from his heretofore
most visible work, lipsynching in Janet Jackson's 1990 "Love Will Never Do
(Without You)" video.
As I have stated, the true story of the Amistad Africans would make a
great film. But not only do I not think Amistad is that film, I do not
think it really is a film about them. A true Amistad movie should be an
inspiring, highly emotional and moving tale about the courage and will of
the Africans themselves--not the mildly affecting, American-centered
courtroom drama that Spielberg has made.
Dangerous Beauty (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Initially, the vapidly lascivious title of Marshall Herskovitz's opulent
period piece (whose more appropriate original title was Courtesan) appears
to slight the film's true nature. While the film does tell the true story
of Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack, Mel Gibson's doomed wife in
Braveheart), a penniless young woman whose beauty, sexual prowess, and
intelligence propels her to the top of the 16th-century Venetian sex trade,
Herskovitz and screenwriter Jeannine Dominy (working from Margaret
Rosenthal's Franco biography The Honest Courtesan) do not exploit the tale
for cheap fixes of sex and nudity (though there are helpings of both). At
its heart, Dangerous Beauty is a female empowerment tale in which a woman
uses her wits in conjunction with her feminine wiles to rise above her
station in life--even if said woman is a variation of the standard "hooker
with a heart of gold" conceit.
By the time the end credits roll, though, Dangerous Beauty has become as
trite and by-the-book as its title. The main emotional thread running
through the film is Veronica's passionate affair with the dashing and
wealthy Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), who cannot marry her because of the
class difference. This tortured romance, which has its affecting moments,
is not a bad thing in itself; what is, however, is its--and the entire
film's--ultimate resolution, which comes in the form of a laughably
overwrought courtroom scene, including the requisite scandalous confessions
and shouted comments from the gallery. Any credibility or emotional truth
the film had is instantly wiped away by the melodrama. Managing to escape
with her credibility and dignity intact, though, is McCormack, who is not
only stunning (Bojan Bazelli's cinematography never makes her look any less
than ravishing) but more than capable of bearing the leading role's
The Education of Little Tree (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
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Making its way to screens amid all the pomp and bombast of the major
"Oscar bait" releases (such as Amistad) is this charming Canadian
production, based on the novel by Forrest Carter. Terrific 11-year-old
newcomer Joseph Ashton plays Little Tree, an 8-year-old Cherokee boy who
learns about his Native American heritage and the way of the world while
living in the Smoky Mountains with his grandparents (James Cromwell and
Tantoo Cardinal, both excellent) in 1935.
This does not sound like the most exciting of scenarios, and
writer-director Richard Friedenberg's pacing may be a bit too slow and
leisurely for most. But with its simple story and modest yet impassioned
execution, Little Tree builds an honest, natural poignance that would not
have been achieved through hollow melodramatics. Friedenberg cannot
completely escape some clichéd false notes (in particular one contrived
deathbed scene), but as a whole, this sleeper strikes its share of