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March Madness from the Aisle Seat

by Andy Dursin

If you believe that January and February are the worst weather months, then congratulations, because March is already here and with it come the prospects of spring and higher-profile films. Perhaps it was El Nino, the on-going Clinton scandal, or the fact that the Olympics--as relatively unexciting and poorly broadcasted as they were--were being held, but this year's opening months were nowhere near as sluggish as we often find them. Several films that were delayed opened to predictably poor responses, though there were some mild surprises to be found in the bunch. Here's a roundup, as well as a preview of upcoming releases in this merry month of March, along with a look at several New Release Videos that have just hit the shelves.

IN THEATERS

DARK CITY (****): Director Alex Proyas showed with THE CROW that flashy directorial technique and a sense of style can overcome any deficient plot. In DARK CITY, the filmmaker's sophomore effort, Proyas has concocted a fascinating science-fiction thriller whose plot lives up to the immaculate surroundings and dense noir atmosphere that it takes place in. Rufus Sewell stars as a man who can't remember his name and is plagued by apparent memories of a life that might have included the murder of several prostitutes; the world in which he lives is a setting that vaguely incorporates elements from disparate times and places, from the '40s through a bleak future world that recalls, yes, BLADE RUNNER and METROPOLIS. After Sewell are a group of otherworldly "strangers," led by Richard O'Brien, bald and clad in HELLRAISER-style black costumes, and detective William Hurt, who follows Sewell's (former?) wife Jennifer Connelly around, trying to find out the truth about what's going on. Keifer Sutherland also appears as a scientist who may just hold the key to the puzzling city surrounding the characters, while the production design of DARK CITY's cityscapes and amazing cinematography by Darius Wolski become perhaps the most important player in the plot itself. DARK CITY is a mood piece, an intricate puzzle along the lines of classic film-noir thrillers, but it's also a sci-fi yarn whose imagination is singularly unique, not merely a second-rate pastiche of so many other genre films. As he did with THE CROW, Proyas fills each scene of his movie with stunning visual effects, setting his film in a compelling, strange yet enthralling world that is so rarely realized in the cinema now. The lighting, photography, effects, production design, and comic-book styled editing all combine to produce a movie where you often feel as if you're watching something truly special. Trevor Jones's excellent musical score adds to the drama, while the cast provides uniformly excellent performances across the board. Particular standouts include Sewell, Hurt, and particularly Sutherland, who continues to show why he is becoming one of the top character actors of his generation. The film's denouement is fully satisfying and breathtaking, and while it doesn't give you all the answers, it provides enough of an explanation so that you don't need to know any more. Indeed, DARK CITY is a sci-fi film that undoubtedly will be discussed years from now, long after many of today's pre-fab "blockbusters" are but a distant memory on video store shelves. With it, Proyas confirms his promise as one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today, a director with the most knowing sense of visual style to appear on the scene since Ridley Scott over twenty years ago. (R, 103 mins.)

SPHERE (**1/2): Dustin Hoffman mumbles, Sharon Stone has a really bad haircut, and the final act comes across as a confused, jumbled mess. For those reasons, Barry Levinson's second adaptation of a Michael Chriction novel doesn't deserve to fully succeed, but the big surprise here is how enjoyable SPHERE turns out to be for much of its running time. Levinson's first stab at a sci-fi thriller is a talky but still compelling affair, as Chriction's intriguing premise of time travel and a crashed spacecraft at the bottom of the Pacific ocean floor provides enough intellectual meat to carry the first half. Once the three scientists (Hoffman, Stone, Samuel L.Jackson) sent to study the ship begin hallucinating and manifesting their own demons, SPHERE starts to take a turn towards the routine, as the director's unfamiliarity with action-filmmaking and this genre become all too evident; the editing in particular is not as crisp and effective as we usually find in a film like this, making the film's supposedly-suspenseful climax a rather prolonged, waterlogged ordeal before the picture straightens itself out for a satisfying finish. Still, SPHERE works for the most part, and its reliance on questioning things not seen but rather imagined is an intriguing notion that is to be commended. A better movie could have been made from this material, but it's far from the wash-out many said it would be. (130 mins., PG-13).

THE WEDDING SINGER (**1/2): Adam Sandler's latest excursion into feature films is easily his most entertaining effort to date, mainly because the former Saturday Night Live star rarely lurches into his typically obnoxious persona and plays a genuinely nice guy. Drew Barrymore provides the much-needed female response to Sandler's title protagonist, who falls for the engaged beauty after his fiance dumps him at the altar. Several amusing set-pieces later, the two get together and....yes, there is not a surprise or twist to be found in this piece of comedic fluff, which does provide a generous sum of off-the-wall laughs (courtesy of Tim Herilhy's script and several amusing cameos) to enhance its strictly pedestrian plot. One of those inoffensive, pleasant movies that's fun to watch but fades from memory just minutes after it's over. (90 mins., PG-13)

UPCOMING THIS MONTH

U.S.MARSHALLS (PG-13): Tommy Lee Jones is back as Sam Gerard in this spin-off of THE FUGITIVE, though apparently it's more of a remake as Wesley Snipes fills in for Harrison Ford and Robert Downey, Jr. is let out of the real-life Big House just long enough to get third-billing in this effort from sophomore director Stuart Baird. It remains to be seen if this one was just for the money, or if it's a superior formula piece of action movie-making. March 6th.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (R): The Coen Bros. follow-up their FARGO triumph with another manic mix of comedy, thriller, and everything else. Stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, and a bevy of familiar faces from past Coen brothers films (John Goodman, John Tuturro, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stomare). March 6th.

TWILIGHT (R): Paul Newman reunites with NOBODY'S FOOL director Robert Benton and novelist Richard Russo for an autumnal murder-mystery. Let's hope it isn't MATLOCK with an R rating! Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman (who else?), James Garner, Liev Schrieber (the Michael Caine of movies over the last six months) and Reese Witherspoon co-star. Music by Elmer Bernstein. March 6th (again!).

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (PG-13): If this is anywhere near as good as the trailers or the promise that its cast and crew offer, it should be the second big hit for Leonardo DiCaprio. And how's this for a supporting cast of Musketeers--Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, and Gabriel Bryne. BRAVEHEART screenwriter Randall Wallace makes his directorial debut with this highly-anticipated effort. March 13th.

DANGEROUS THINGS (R): Neve Campbell and STARSHIP TROOPERS' Denise Richards attempt to pull the old femme-fatale thing on top-billed leading men Kevin Bacon and Matt Dillon in this intriguing-looking thriller. Co-stars Bill Murray! March 20th.

HUSH (PG-13): It's been a while since we've seen the o'l "mad ____ from hell" formula dragged out of mothballs---be it the affair from hell (FATAL ATTRACTION), nanny from hell (THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE), cop from hell (UNLAWFUL ENTRY), teen neighbor from hell (THE CRUSH), secretary (THE TEMP), paternal parents (THE TIES THAT BIND), roommate (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE), etc. etc. Here, we have the mother from hell. She's Jessica Lange, and the big victim is Gwyenth Paltrow, who dates her son. It remains to be seen if the two actresses can overcome a time-tested, seemingly exhausted formula. March 20th.

ON VIDEO

G.I. JANE (***1/2): Ridley Scott's best movie in years is also Demi Moore's best performance period. A pumped-up, heavy-handed-message-free entertainment, G.I.JANE offers a fast-paced boot-camp tale with Demi vying to become the first female Navy SEAL. Viggo Mortensen is tremendous as the predictably strict drill sergeant, while Anne Bancroft is likewise superb as a senator with ulterior motives and Jason Beghe is Demi's understanding boyfriend. Plenty of action, good performances, and smart dialogue prevail in this one, though like all Scott movies, this is best appreciated letterboxed in its laserdisc release, which also features a discarded opening title sequence and commentary from the director. (R, 125 mins.)

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE (**1/2): A misfired spy-spoof from director Jon Amiel, this Bill Murray movie offers enough sporadic laughs to warrant a rental if you're a fan. Sure, Joanne Whalley (former Mrs.Val Kilmer) is underwhelming as the female lead and Peter Gallagher is wasted in a worthless role as Murray's brother, but there are still some disarming gags to be found as Murray is mistaken for a hit man while visiting Gallagher in London. Alfred Molina is amusing as a hitman who butchers meat (not the human kind) in his spare time, and Chris Young's music score deftly interpolates the old Peggy Lee classic "Fever" into its electric-organ groove. Pair this on a double-bill with David Fincher's THE GAME and you'd think this movie was a comic response to the Michael Douglas starrer. (PG, 94 mins.)

THE MATCHMAKER (**): Janeane Garofolo is wasted again in another movie that fails to provide a script that matches the inherent sarcasm and intelligence of its protagonist. Garofolo is the whole show here--along with pretty Irish scenery--as a political consultant who travels to Ireland to look up the genealogy of a Boston senator running for re-election. The movie tries oh so hard to be the next FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or HEAR MY SONG, but it fails almost completely in both the laugh quotient and romantic aspect. The first half, with its erratic pacing and post-looped dialogue, feels as if it was assembled in the editing room; the second flows more smoothly but is more routine, almost pathetic, in its plot developments. Given the circumstances, this could have been a winner, so several demerits for the screenwriters, producers and director for thoroughly botching a potentially satisfying St.Patrick's Day rental. (R, 103 mins.)

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (***): Not a rousing, fun, old-fashioned kind of entertainment, but rather a stylish albeit uneven blend of Grisham-styled courtroom dramatics and ghastly, OMEN-esque horror. Keanu Reeves gives his best performance yet as a driven southern attorney recruited by a mysterious New York law firm headed by Al Pacino as Old Scratch himself. The movie begins and ends strong, but the middle is a muddle, filled with unexplained plot developments and characters that disappear at the drop of a hat (most likely because this lengthy 144-minute movie was far longer than it is now). Thankfully, director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who brought us the superior Stephen King yarn DOLORES CLAIBORNE, right the ship at the end, allowing Pacino free license to engage in some of the most outrageously entertaining over-the-top acting of his entire career. The final twist is a "what the hell?" kind of shaggy-dog ending, but it's more than acceptable given the movie itself, which throws in everything but the kitchen sink in an effort to entertain. That it does, along with disgust, repel, and enthrall (at least with the sites of shapely nude women, including Keanu's on-screen squeeze, the alluring Charlize Theron). Superb sets, production design, and music by James Newton Howard add to the gloss, though your tolerance for gore and Pacino's hysterical performance will determine how much you enjoy this under-cooked but frequently stimulating stew of genres. (R, 144 mins)

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