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DECEMBER 22, 1997: 

Tomorrow Never Dies

Tomorrow may die, but it doesn't seem James Bond ever will. The deadpan double-entendres and cartoonish energy of the good-hearted '60s have given way, perhaps inevitably, to the impersonal destruction and niggardly realism of the mean-spirited '90s. This time out, 007 has to stop media mogul Elliot Carver (Rupert Murdoch? Robert Maxwell?), who not only foments war between the Brits and the Chinese à la Blofeld in You Only Live Twice but manipulates government policy through his worldwide satellite network and his Tomorrow newspaper. (It's easy to print tomorrow's news today when you're creating tomorrow's news.) The road to action-adventure armageddon leads through Hamburg -- where this installment's "Kiss the Girl and Make Her Die" lady, Teri Hatcher playing Carver's wife, meets the inevitable untimely end -- and on to Saigon, where James teams up with Wai Lin (Hong Kong martial-arts star Michelle Yeoh) to stop the presses.

Pierce Brosnan has a modicum of Sean Connery's steely gaze and dry wit in a more-than-creditable performance, Jonathan Pryce as Carver is a memorably malevolent villain, Desmond Llewelyn is his usual irrepressible, irreplaceable self as Q, and Bond's new BMW 750 is a star vehicle. But Hatcher shoots blanks, and though Yeoh hardly makes a misstep, she's in the wrong movie -- Brosnan needs the softer touch that Isabella Scorupco provided in GoldenEye. There's some dreadful musical mush, too -- it's not a good sign when your series's most recent recallable theme is Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill." And the filmmakers blunder badly when James can't read Wai Lin's Chinese-character computer keyboard -- Bond took a First in Oriental languages at Cambridge. Still, 007 always rises to the occasion, and Tomorrow Never Dies will make you think twice about what you read in your, uh, newspaper. -- Jeffrey Gantz

The Mouse

Like its hangdog hero, Daniel Adams's The Mouse doesn't set up overly high expectations for itself. The true story of Bruce "Mouse" Strauss (John Savage), a "shamster" professional boxer whose specialty is holding up for three rounds against superior opponents in order to get paid, this is a genial, fitfully moving film that has no illusions about going the distance. Introducing himself in cartoonishly craggy voiceover, Savage's penny-ante pugilist may not win fights, but he does win hearts with his philosophy that even if losing well isn't the best revenge, it does pay the bills. It also keeps him on the road and out of the house, away from his crumbling marriage to Marylou (a game but colorless Angelica Torn) and his neglected teenage daughter, Jamie (Irina Cashen).

That's about all the dramatic conflict in a film that is mostly a vehicle for colorful character studies (including appearances by real-life contenders Vinny Pazienza and Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini as well as a cameo by Angelica's dad, Rip, as God) from the bottom-feeding boxing subculture. Sometimes Adams's film strains a little too hard for comic effect, and its slender ambitions become as obvious as Savage's slapstick playacting in the ring. The outcome is as little in suspense as the hero's bouts, but though The Mouse may not roar, its plucky squeaking charms and entertains. -- Peter Keough

Scream 2

Scream 2 adds something to the slash 'n' smirk trilogy's franchise that last year's megahit Scream lacked: dull brutality. The early murders of a pair of college students, amid a scenario calculated to turn the Scream flicks into a cult (read: marketing) phenomenon akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, lack the wit and the mystery that made the original instantly engrossing. And the opening film-within-a-film shtick is one of the moldier devices around.

But director Wes Craven's latest improves quickly. A copycat killer has picked up the scent of heroine Neve Campbell's Sydney and her pals, and the witty dialogue flies fast as the bloody circle tightens. Courtney Cox and David Arquette reprise their roles from the original. Liev Schreiber debuts as Cotton, the man wrongly imprisoned for the killing of Sydney's mother. (His character brooded over Scream's plot yet never appeared.) Sarah Michelle Gellar gets offed in a suitably Buffy-like manner. The tension grows.

It's offset by a few delightfully surreal turns: a film class that brands sequels as the turds in cinema's punch bowl; Jerry O'Connell's song-and-dance routine in the school cafeteria (with shameless product placement for Diet Pepsi); an over-the-top college theater production with Sydney as Cassandra. And the climax recalls the Grand Guignol glories of Vincent Price's American International movies. -- Ted Drozdowski

Out at Work

Co-directed and produced by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, Out at Work follows four years in the lives of three working-class gays: Cheryl, Ron, and Nat. Cheryl is fired from her job at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain, along with 17 other employees, because she did not "comply with normal heterosexual values." Although usually apolitical, she joins Queer Nation Atlanta. Ron, an electrician for Chrysler in Detroit, is physically and verbally abused for months by fellow employees after being outed by a local newspaper; eventually he's chosen as a delegate to the UAW national convention. And Nat, a flamboyant Bronx librarian loved by his co-workers, faces appalling medical expenses and insurmountable debt when his companion is stricken with AIDS.

Out at Work premiered at Sundance and was selected as a finalist for PBS's Point of View series -- until it was axed amid controversy over "problematical" underwriting concerns. By turns shocking, depressing, and (ultimately) uplifting, this powerful documentary tells its stories of homophobia in the workplace with unabashed candor, and only a trace of sentimentality. -- Peg Aloi

Office Killer

Being a copy editor sometimes seems a thankless job, but most of us don't actually harbor murderous sentiments toward our co-workers. Neither, at first, does Dorine, the dorky and rather mad anti-heroine of artist Cindy Sherman's film-directing debut. Dorine (Carol Kane) starts to crack, though, when the evil, chain-smoking editor of Constant Consumer downsizes the magazine's staff and forces her into the bracing new world of freelancing, telecommuting, and laptop computers. When Dorine, struggling to adapt, accidentally electrocutes the obnoxious office computer guy (David Thornton), it's like the moment in the old movies when the plain-jane schoolteacher takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. She starts dressing better, taking on new responsibilities at work, and discovering how much fun it can be to knock off her professional tormentors, prop them up in her basement rec room, and use her new e-mail skills to taunt the colleagues she hasn't got to yet.

Kane brings a merry dementedness to Dorine, chirping away in her baby-doll voice as she spruces up her victims' decomposing corpses with Windex and packing tape. But on the whole, this gruesome comedy is like one of those Saturday Night Live routines that are funnier to tell someone about than they are to watch. It's Psycho meets Working Girl, with an unfortunate incest-memory subplot thrown in to suggest a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. If that isn't high-concept, what is? -- Linda Lowenthal

Mouse Hunt

Anyone who's ever had a rodent problem is in for some deep moral pondering with Mouse Hunt. Who do you root for: two down-and-out klutzy brothers just trying to renovate a house to sell, or the ridiculously intelligent, unbelievably cute mouse they're trying to dispose of? That question -- aided by lively, likable performances from Nathan Lane, whose charm and vulnerability turn a would-be mean-spirited character into a sympathetic role, British comedian Lee Evans as his younger, naive brother, and of course the multi-talented mouse -- more than makes up for a plot with as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese. When first-time director Gore Verbinski keeps the game of man-and-mouse at a subdued Home Alone level (the brothers getting caught in their own mousetraps), the film is amusing and touching. Too bad that the slapstick eventually takes a turn for the gruesome (the brothers having their heads inflamed by gasoline). And Christopher Walken as a maniacal exterminator is surprisingly disappointing. Sarcastic, irreverent moments pop up, to the delight of adults, but a few darker moments misfire badly. There's nothing funny about watching a girl cry as her kitty is taken to the pound -- even if a cat is the arch enemy of our dear little pal. -- Mark Bazer

Hugo Pool

A giddy haze of '60s drug culture hovers over the strained high jinks of Robert Downey's Hugo Pool. Maker of the cutting-edge cult comedy Putney Swope (1969), and father of Robert Downey Jr. (who's featured in Pool mugging egregiously in the role of a cutting-edge cult-movie director with homicidal tendencies and a substance-abuse problem), Downey tries to re-create the loopy irreverence of Putney Swope in a '90s setting -- with little success.

Hugo (Alyssa Milano, whose comely proportions are ogled gratuitously, a '60s throwback we're better off without) is the owner of the title pool-cleaning service. Her busy schedule is complicated by her gambling-addicted mother (Cathy Moriarty), her multiply-addicted father (Malcolm McDowell), a man in blue shoes (Sean Penn), and a hunky wheelchair-bound customer suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Although this loose farce sometimes hits a sentimental or satiric nerve, it's more self-conscious than madcap, and the overenergetic exertions of its impressive cast go down the drain. -- Peter Keough

For Richer or Poorer

For those of us who find Tim Allen to be about as funny as a parking meter, For Richer or Poorer looks like a pretty poor bet. The movie's premise -- an Amish-urbanite culture clash -- is a frayed and grubby comic hand-me-down. Even Kirstie Alley, who can raise an ironic eyebrow with the best of them, couldn't possibly save this howler, could she? Well, strike me from the National Society of Film Critics, but I liked it.

Allen and Alley play a couple of New York socialites for whom the good life has turned spectacularly bad. Their marriage on the skids and a demented IRS agent on their tail, the pair run for the hills, winding up in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, where they insinuate themselves into an Amish community . . . and so on. For all its what-a-silly-beard sight gags, stock incongruities (hear the Amish child say, "You go, girl"), and spoon-served values, Allen and Alley bring enough easy charm and lightweight pathos to their roles to make For Richer or Poorer one of the year's better dumb comedies -- at least for those of us who expected the worse. -- Chris Wright

As Good As It Gets

It's Christmas, time once again to wheel the curmudgeonly assholes out onto the screen and try to redeem them. Setting the stage for Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry, Jack Nicholson takes the Scrooge role in James Brooks's caustic, sweet, pleasantly manipulative As Good As It Gets. He's Melvin Udall, a novelist whose purple prose about love belies a life of snide misanthropy, prejudice, annoyance, and wicked wit. Throw in some random obsessive/compulsive disorders -- a phobia about germs, avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk, etc. -- and Melvin becomes one of the more memorable showcases for Nicholson's sneer, leer, and eyebrows.

The director of Terms of Endearment, however, is nothing if not a sentimentalist, so in addition to the sublimely malign Melvin, Brooks includes such stock characters as Simon (a simpering Greg Kinnear), the gay neighbor; Carol (an engagingly threadbare Helen Hunt), the tough waitress with a heart of gold and a sickly son; and Verdell, one of the most beguiling dogs in filmdom. Nicholson's scenes with Verdell are hilarious and heartbreaking; those with Hunt are almost convincing; those with Kinnear are cloying in the extreme. He's most entertaining, though, in his scenes with himself, spouting bon mots of such malevolent wisdom that it's sad to ponder Melvin's inevitable conversion to kind-hearted vapidity. At its best, As Good As It Gets exults in how much fun it is to be bad. -- Peter Keough

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