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NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

BEAN

Brief, brisk, dumb without undue kiddie gross-out gags, "Bean" is a giddy, stop-and-start laugh machine, capturing Rowan Atkinson's television-bred Bean character, a man of few words, in the middle of more than a couple of well-made pranks and an even greater number of sloppily-shot and hastily-cobbled ones. (This time out, director Mel Smith eschews the "Un film de Mel Smith" credit he had taken on "The Tall Guy.") Atkinson's Bean is a cruel child, his expressions the gleeful garble of a nasty baby. He gets thrown off planes, lies, blows up Thanksgiving turkeys, draws graffiti on masterpieces. Some are funny, some are funnier, and it's all over very quickly. Working with writer Richard Curtis ("Blackadder," "4 Weddings & A Funeral"), one would hope that Bean will find himself in the center of a comedy of sustained brilliance, rather than an intermittently wonderful one that's grossed over $100 million worldwide before opening in the U.S. 85m. (Ray Pride)


THE DESIGNATED MOURNER

Mike Nichols astonishes in David Hare's filming of Wallace Shawn's most recent play. On the page, Shawn's apocalyptic harangue seems hermetic, awaiting the right voice to bring disturbing, despairing thoughts to life. All three performers in this extended, direct-address piece are wonderful -- David de Keyser as Howard, a poet and essayist whose early work brands him as subversive in the view of an unnamed, unseen, increasingly repressive regime, and Miranda Richardson, Howard's daughter, who marries the glib, charming, ultimately cowardly Jack (Nichols). Richardson breezes through her words with an enchanting theatricality, but Nichols, in his first leading film role is the show. Jack goes through a series of shifts as the monologues unfold, giving up a life of ideas and the intellectual elite and eventually embracing the jackboots, the jobs, the future. He is the last left to mourn high culture. Nichols performed the play under Hare's direction at the National Theatre in London, reportedly through the use of a Teleprompter. In the film, which Hare shot in three days, Nichols mesmerizes with his vocal tricks, tics, harrumphs, purrs and coughs. A sometimes masterful director proves himself a master performer. 95m. (Ray Pride)


EVE'S BAYOU

"Eve's Bayou," based on first-time director Kasi Lemmons' own script, is a dark and complicated family drama, set in the Louisiana bayou in the summer of 1962, and told from the perspective of 10-year-old Eve Batiste. The Batistes are one of Louisiana's most prosperous black families, and Eve's father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is known for "fixing things" all around the town, even while the family might use a little fixing of its own. While her mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield) is a keeper of the family heritage, little Eve feels more of an affinity toward her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who believes that intuition and things supernatural may hold the key to the family's secrets that she will discover over the course of a summer. The performances are all fine, and there's an accomplished swelter to Lemmon's humid world. (Ray Pride)


MAD CITY

Costa-Gavras' first movie in six years is a handsomely mounted anecdote, a worthy satire, a charm-filled star vehicle built for two, and an utterly dispensable movie. Kind of sad that people will think they've seen the story before -- and if they've seen Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's acidulous "Ace in the Hole" (aka "The Big Carnival"), they've really seen it. The writers are disingenuous enough to claim they've not remade the still-thriving Wilder's work, yet they name Dustin Hoffman's reporter character "Max Brackett." It's a little supercilious to bow in the direction of a living master you claim not to be ripping off. Hoffman's an oft-busted, slick-on-the-make small-town-California local television reporter always angling to get "back to network," and he lucks onto a dumb misunderstanding at a museum involving recently-fired security guard John Travolta, a shotgun and a rucksack of dynamite. Max blows it up to television size and draws it out for dramatic effect. The stakes escalate. Max's intern, played by Mia Kirschner with her usual supernal teenage glow, becomes a star on her own. Travolta glowers, plays dumb, shares his hopes. Hoffman, in a beautifully modulated, not-too-treacherous performance, is as good as he's been for years. Television news gets all the skewering it deserves. Every plot point is predictable, making the story seem sluggish even as the asides bristle with erudition and umbrage. I liked it. But lacking the sizzle of two other pictures it somewhat resembles -- "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" -- I'm not sure who'll want to pay pretty pennies to see "Mad City." (Ray Pride)


STARSHIP TROOPERS

Whoo hoo! In the future, life is like a gore-filled CD-ROM game: You can rocket to a planet full of bugs and blow them away in several delightfully goopy ways. If your leg gets blowed off, heck, just grow a new one. Plus, you get to share unisex showers with other hot soldiers fresh out of high school. Whoo hoo! Thanks to an oft-repeated preview featuring lots of man vs. alien slaughter and a Blur song snippet guaranteed to stick in your brain (Whoo hoo!), I'd been looking forward to "Starship Troopers" for weeks. As a fan of kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out games such as "Doom," I thought I would revel in the annihilation of giant bugs that's celebrated in this camp fest. Instead, I left the theatre questioning why I and the rest of the preview audience were so delighted by the dizzying heights of destruction the movie attained. I felt like I was 12 again, emerging into the harsh light of a summer afternoon after spending five dollars worth of tokens to blast bugs on Galaga. My eyes were burning and my trigger finger hurt. Another wasted day. But God help me, I wanted to go back in and start all over again. You should hate yourself for it, but you'll probably get a big kick out of "Starship Troopers." It's slick and fun and even a bit subversive around the edges. Which brings to mind a question: If a piece of social satire is so dry that audiences take it at face value, is it really satire -- or simply soulless pandering the filmmakers can feel good about? (Frank Sennett)







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