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The Bone Collector (1999)
Material unworthy of actors in run-of-the-mill serial killer flick
The most surprising thing about The Bone Collector is not the identity of the titular serial killer (the answer to that question is as ridiculous as they come) but rather the appearance of Denzel Washington as the paralyzed hero. That an actor as good as he would take on dime-store pulp that barely registers as third-rate Silence of the Lambs leads one to believe that despite the "challenge" of playing a quadriplegic, a substantial paycheck might have had a hand in the decision-making process. It couldn't have been the material, which is littered with every illogical, implausible, impossible and unforgivable suspense-thriller cliche that has ever offended at the multiplex. Angelina Jolie, who looks like anything but a beat cop (as if anticipating our skepticism, the movie breathlessly explains that she was a "child model" before she answered the call of law enforcement), acts well enough to assuage our substantial doubts. But her verisimilitude is too little, too late as the ordinary plot chugs along its predictable path until depositing the wearied audience at the foot of a howlingly awful conclusion.
PTA's follow-up to Boogie solid but sprawling
A stylish, virtually epic, and synchronistically informed ensemble piece, Magnolia is surely one of the most challenging films of 1999. Unfortunately, the picture's extreme length and handful of unnecessary side-trips prevent it from attaining the levels of transcendence reached by other recent works (American Beauty and The Straight Story, for example) tackling similar thematic terrain -- morals and responsibilities, life disappointments, family relationships, and the need for love. Employing (it would seem) a dozen or so of the cast members from the superior Boogie Nights, Anderson adds Tom Cruise to the mix in a turn that unquestionably represents the actor's finest work to date. Regardless of its shortcomings (the entire section with kid genius Stanley, played by Jeremy Blackman, felt entirely too much like Little Man Tate), a number of the film's risks -- including a most unexpected kind of rain and the tour-de-force montage employing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" -- pay off with dazzling results.
The Green Mile (1999)
Second King period prison flick from Darabont no Shawshank
Despite some terrific performances (particularly from supporters David Morse and Michael Jeter), Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's serialized novel The Green Mile falls far short of the director's previous effort, The Shawshank Redemption. Revolving around a series of unusual events taking place on death row of Louisiana's Cold Mountain prison in the mid 1930s, the film focuses on head guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), easily cinema's most humane and forgiving penitentiary employee -- who also happens to have a vicious urinary tract infection. Unfortunately, the rest of the formidable cast lines up along one of two polar opposites: either big-hearted and destined for sainthood or malevolent and hateful. This approach robs the characters of much-needed complexity, and infuses the proceedings with a rote predictability just an inch from the borderline of formula. The Green Mile's significant running time (at least a half hour to an hour longer than needed) isn't justified by the subject matter, and the bizarre and unnecessary framing device undoubtedly works better on the page than on the screen.
Smith's 4th pic disappointing and scattershot
Despite the welcome presence of a handful of appealing top-liners (Damon, Affleck, Rock), Kevin Smith's religious comedy is more reminiscent of the awful Mallrats than the excellent Chasing Amy. Laborious and heavy-handed as both writer and director, Smith introduces far too many characters for the film's own good, squandering any opportunity for coherence and clarity. Linda Fiorentino, ostensibly the central protagonist of the muddy narrative, comes off as bored and uninvolved in the action -- perhaps the greatest single blow to the picture. Also a disappointment is the usually tremendous Chris Rock, who seems lost amid the inflated number of cast members vying for screen time. Surprisingly, his disgruntled apostle Rufus takes a backseat to Jason Mewes' foul-mouthed Jay in the laugh-line department. Dogma's middle section fairly screams out to be trimmed to a reasonable length, but even that would not be enough to sort out the disorder and inconsistency that mark the film as one of Smith's lesser outings.
Lubitsch's first American film a real treat
Legends abound concerning the contentious on-set relationship between superstar Mary Pickford and director Ernst Lubitsch during the filming of Rosita. Despite Pickford's later efforts to keep the film out of circulation, screenings of the picture revealed a delightful surprise: the great German filmmaker had provided Pickford with her wish -- the showcase for a juicy role miles away from her "little girl with the curls" persona. Only the tiniest indications of what would later evolve into the "Lubitsch touch" exist in the tale of a street singer who rises to prominence in the court of a philandering king (skillfully portrayed by Holbrook Blinn), but Rosita is a handsomely mounted production with charm, wit, and plenty of romance to spare.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Opulent costume drama from the great filmmaker
Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon sharply divides fans of the great director's work, as the languid pace and seemingly interminable running time -- not to mention Ryan O'Neal's questionable performance in the title role -- are cherished by some and deplored by others. Little argument will be made against John Alcott's Academy Award-winning cinematography or Ken Adam's production design, however, and Kubrickian motifs are manifest in the gallery of characters' wide-ranging displays of cowardice, guile, duplicity, avarice, jealousy, greed, and cruelty. Marisa Berenson is terribly short-changed in her role as the Lady Lyndon, but a number of other performers are given the opportunity to create a handful of memorable moments -- especially Arthur O'Sullivan (albeit briefly) as the charming, intelligent highwayman and Patrick Magee as the Chevalier. Love it or hate it, Barry Lyndon will remain essential viewing for aficionados of the director, who enjoys taking his usual shots at the more discouraging aspects of human behavior.
Beautifully realized, involving film is pure Sayles
With its leisurely pace, unusual structure, and highly ambiguous ending (not to mention a nonexistent marketing campaign), Limbo will quite likely divide the small audience that sees it. This is a terrible shame, as John Sayles is at the top of his game. Set in Alaska, Limbo comments incisively on a variety of complex issues concerning the vast state -- the relentless tourism, the scarcity of meaningful employment for the working class, and the careless abuses of irreplaceable natural resources by the wealthy, to name a few. All of these interesting themes, however, are discarded half-way through in favor of a thought-provoking story of human survival that will undoubtedly light a fire for some while irritating and alienating others. Sayles has not always connected with me, but I was deeply moved by Limbo (especially the rich characterizations provided by Martinez, Mastrantonio, and Sayles regular Strathairn) -- and I absolutely loved the gutsy ending, which continues to occupy my thoughts.
The Incredible Torture Show (1976)
Worthless pretender to Herschell Gordon Lewis throne
Blood Sucking Freaks is the most base of films: a no-budget shocker stuffed with wall-to-wall scenes of extreme sadism and torture. Copping a Herschell Gordon Lewis-style exploitation set-up, Blood Sucking Freaks chronicles all of the behind-the-scenes horrors at a New York City "Theatre of the Macabre" run by evil Sardu and his loathsome assistant, dwarf Ralphus. The glacially paced groaner spends the majority of its running time showing a variety of grisly dismemberment and all manner of accompanying perversion (the nadir of which might just be the human dartboard, but it would be a really tough call given the other cruelties on display). Despite its claim to legendary cult movie status ("second only to Rocky Horror!" trumpets the hyperbolic jacket note) the dull, nearly unwatchable stinker lacks all the flair, charm, and elan of a true midnight gem, Blood Feast.
Superbly crafted drama delves into darkest corners of the psyche
David Fincher's bleak, relentless, and ultimately terrifying crime thriller Seven transcends other films of the genre with incredible plotting (the sort Hitchcock might employ were he alive and making films in the 1990s) and scalding intelligence. With only a small handful of minor flaws -- the overly familiar retiring cop/young cop pairing; the awful "I'm taking you off the case!" cliche seemingly required by the genre; one giant lapse in logic in the downward spiral toward the conclusion that cannot be revealed without ruining the script's gruesome surprise -- Seven typically keeps its viewers imprisoned in their seats with a combination of morbid fascination and abject fear. Despite attempts by studio executives to alter Andrew Kevin Walker's ending, the filmmaking team prevailed and audiences experienced that rare treat of mainstream cinema: an uncompromising vision.
The General (1998)
Superbly drawn character study of infamous Irish criminal
Brendan Gleeson's performance as notorious Irish master criminal Martin "The General" Cahill is a small miracle. Alternating between a brash swagger and a sullen fatalism, Gleeson utterly transforms himself (I love how he hides his face simply by cocking his head down and shielding it with his hand, peeking out between splayed fingers) into the charismatic thief. Director and screenwriter John Boorman, who delighted in revealing that he had once been robbed of a gold record by the real-life Cahill (he references it anecdotally in the film) has done some of his best work here, creating a totally engrossing character study that includes tense robberies, playful confrontations with the police, and eyebrow-raising relationships, but he never forgets to maintain the delicate balance between the light-hearted (and light-fingered) humor and the danger and desperation inherent in a high-profile life of crime.