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Mini Reviews (April, May 2003)

Big Deal on Madonna Street, All That Heaven Allows, Poolhall Junkies, Liberty Stands Still, Flinch, Crazy People, Half Past Dead, The Weight of Water

Big Deal on Madonna Street (April 1/03)

Big Deal on Madonna Street follows the exploits of a bumbling group of criminals as they attempt to pull off a complicated heist. Though the idiots-trying-to-steal-something genre isn't exactly a fresh one now, Big Deal on Madonna Street (released in 1958) is most likely the first film of its kind. And unlike a lot of contemporary films with similar themes, this one's actually funny and mostly entertaining. The film goes on for about 20 minutes longer than it should (actually, the Criterion DVD runs just over 106 minutes, when most movie guides indicate a running time of 91 minutes - perhaps the folks at Criterion got their hands on a longer cut?), but because the characters are so likable and their plan for breaking into the safe is genuinely interesting, it's easy enough to overlook the few dull spots.

out of

All That Heaven Allows (April 5/03)

All That Heaven Allows, for anyone that's never seen a film by Douglas Sirk, is just about the perfect jumping off point for Sirk neophytes. It's got a melodramatic storyline, bright and vivid cinematography, and characters that are suitably complex. Jane Wyman stars as Cary, a middle-aged woman whose husband died fairly recently and is now living in her humongous home by herself (her kids are away at school). After striking up a conversation with her much younger gardner, Ron (Rock Hudson), she finds herself intrigued and the two begin a friendship which will eventually blossom into love. Of course, Cary's family and friends disapprove of the relationship - while Ron refuses to become a replacement for her late husband. All That Heaven Allows' success is hampered by the fact that there's no real plot here; the film essentially follows these two characters through a few months of their lives, and that's about the extent of it. But the acting is good and there's no denying that Wyman and Hudson have chemistry together; we want to see their relationship succeed. And of course, there's the direction by Sirk. Though it occasionally borders on over-the-top (I mean, really; that deer just happened to be wandering around in Ron's backyard?), Sirk obviously knows how to effectively fill a frame and the lush look of All That Heaven Allows is clearly one of the strongest aspects of the film.

out of

Poolhall Junkies (April 6/03)

Though there's not much in Poolhall Junkies we haven't seen many times before, the film manages to remain mostly entertaining due mostly to some surprisingly effective performances and a brisk pace. Co-writer and director Mars Callahan stars as Johnny, a poolhall hustler looking to get out of the life in order to salvage his relationship with Tara (Alison Eastwood). But when his former manager (Chazz Palminteri) reappears requesting a game, Johnny has no choice but to stand up to the man and accept his challenge. Storywise, Poolhall Junkies doesn't have much to offer; the idea of a young man trying desperately to extricate himself from a certain kind of lifestyle is one of the oldest around. But Callahan has assembled an amazing cast, featuring folks like Michael Rosenbaum, Rick Schroder, and Christopher Walken. Walken, in particular, brings a tremendous amount of energy to the film - even though his screentime is extremely limited. But he has this one speech towards the end of the movie - he attempts to motivate Johnny by telling him a story about the behavior of lions - that makes virtually the entire thing worth sitting through. But aside from the familiarity of the story, Callahan (a relative newcomer) doesn't really have what it takes to be playing a leading character like Johnny. Imagine if someone like Vince Vaughn had been cast in the role; though Callahan isn't necessarily a bad actor, he simply does not have the presence to carry the movie.

out of

Liberty Stands Still (April 6/03)

Talk about bad timing. Though it was released first (and most likely went into production around the same time), Liberty Stands Still plays like a pale imitator of the far superior Phone Booth. Linda Fiorentino stars as the wife of a high-powered gun manufacturer, an affiliation that's angered the father (Wesley Snipes) of a shooting victim. As in Phone Booth, he's got a sniper rifle pointed directly at her and the two spend the majority of the film talking over the phone. The most obvious problem with Liberty Stands Still is that it's just not interesting. Writer/director Kari Skogland clearly has an agenda - the film is vehemently anti-gun - resulting in incredibly obvious and preachy instances of dialogue and a ham-fisted approach to the storyline. The direction isn't much better, with rapid-cuts and swirling camerawork - not to mention the incessant techno score. Fiorentino and Snipes try their darndest to turn these thinly written stereotypes into fleshed-out characters, but there's not much even the most experienced actor can do with this kind of material. To be fair, there are a few sequences that are admittedly tense - it's a situation that's inherently interesting - but Skogland never allows the audience to become too involved with her in-your-face sense of style and laughably one-sided screenplay. And that title is just obnoxious; Fiorentino's character is named Liberty. Get it?

out of

Flinch (April 11/03)

Ah, Judd Nelson. It really is astounding how far he's managed to go with such little talent. Nelson stars as a department store mannequin who just happens to witness a murder from his window, along with a co-worker (Gina Gershon). The rest of the film follows the two as they alternatively fall in love and try to escape the clutches of the killer (Nick Mancuso). Flinch is a really terrible thriller, and not just because of Nelson's performance. True, he's playing the exact same character he always seems to - the sleazy outsider - but here, his oddbeat personality makes no sense within the context of the film. Gershon's character initially hates him (and with good reason; his creepy come-ons would turn off even a Jerry Springer reject), but as the movie progresses, she finds herself falling in love with the man - culminating in a truly laughable love scene, complete with a sultry saxophone score. Buts hands down, the most absurd aspect of Flinch is Mancuso's insanely over-the-top performance. Mancuso seems to be under the impression that if he screams really loud and flails his arms around all crazy, he'll automatically come off as a crazed killer. Even if the film had been spared Mancuso's bizarre histrionics, there would still be absolutely nothing worth recommending about it.

no stars out of

Crazy People (April 11/03)

Though the movie's essentially entertaining all the way through, Crazy People never becomes anything more than an inoffensive time-waster mostly due to the pedestrian and sitcom-ish approach to the material (example: most punchlines are followed by a short pause, presumably to accommodate laughter). Dudley Moore stars as an ad exec who has a mental breakdown, and decides to start writing copy that's bitterly truthful (for Volvo, he comes up with the slogan "boxy, but good"). He's carted off to a sanitarium by his company, but after his mock advertisements are mistakenly printed and consumers start buying up all the products, his boss (played by J.T. Walsh) hires him back - as well as the various inmates who are now helping Moore with the work. Crazy People is consistently watchable, primarily because of Moore's ingratiating performance (not to mention the eclectic supporting cast, which includes legendary character actor Walsh and an early David Paymer appearance) and the sporadic fake ads (my favorite: a poster for a horror film that reads, "this movie won't just scare you, it will fuck you up for life"). But really, the silly romantic subplot featuring Daryl Hannah and the predictability of the storyline prevents the movie from ever being the biting satire it clearly wants to be.

out of

Half Past Dead (April 22/03)

Aside from the obvious (Steven Seagal's career is half past dead), there's really not much to say about this one. Seagal lumbers his way through another action movie that's been geared to appeal to a new generation of fans (how else can you explain the presence of rapper Ja Rule?), and has been filmed as though it were a product of MTV. Sasha (Seagal) and Nick (Rule; or is it just Ja?) are a pair of buddies that wind up in jail right around the time a criminal mastermind (played by Morris Chestnut) breaks in. His intent is to coerce a soon-to-be-executed prisoner into giving up the location of $200 million worth of gold. Half Past Dead's been directed by Don Michael Paul, and calling him a student of Michael Bay is an insult to Michael Bay. Paul shows absolutely no restraint whatsoever, and turns the film into an admittedly kinetic but ultimately obnoxious heist flick. Seagal is given a couple of decent fight scenes, but since the film's been saddled with a PG-13 rating, his trademark limb-breaking is absent. Chestnut is appropriately menacing, while Rule's performance makes one long for the subtle nuance of Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice. Some mention must be given, though, to former Party Machine host Nia Peeples - who shows up here as an ass-kicking minion. Could Arsenio Hall's comeback be far behind?

out of

The Weight of Water (May 11/03)

Based on the book by Anita Shreve, The Weight of Water is proof that some novels just aren't filmable. The film stars Catherine McCormack as Jean, a woman researching a double murder that occurred over 100 years ago. She's come to the very spot it happened, and along with her husband (Sean Penn), she begins to look into the various clues surrounding the mystery. As she delves deeper into the past, we actually see the events leading up to the homicide - involving an unhappy woman named Maren (Sarah Polley). Jean begins to associate with Maren, and that's the film's most prominent failing. Since we're unable to hear Jean's thoughts, it's impossible to understand what makes her eventually crack and follow the path of Maren. The same can be said of all the characters, who are similarly underdeveloped; the only exception to this is Polley's Maren. By the time the film's over and everything has been revealed, Maren is the sole figure whose actions we understand. But aside from the muddled character motivations, the film is just too slow to ever be enjoyable; director Kathryn Bigelow (who is famous for crafting fast-paced action flicks like Near Dark and Blue Steel) seems to be trying something new here, but it doesn't work. The film might appeal to those who've already read the book, but it's unlikely those who haven't will find much of anything to enjoy here.

out of

© David Nusair