This came out in between A Few Good Men and Interview with the Vampire, and that feels about right. And apparently there was a time when you could cast David Strathairn as Tom Cruise’s black sheep of a brother. The early nineties were weird.

Mitch McDeere (Cruise) works his way through Harvard Law by waiting tables. He is married to Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who is from a well-off family and gave up everything to be with him. This comes up a lot but never pays off. Every law firm wants to hire him, but despite Abby’s Stepford heebiejeebies, he takes a job at a small family outfit in Memphis. They assign him Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) as his mentor.

MV5BMTgxMjM5NDYwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODkzMzk5MDE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Abby’s reservations do not go away, and then people start dying in the Caymans, which, in the nineties, was probably the most suspicious place for inconvenient people to die. To stir the pot unnecessarily arrives an FBI agent in the person of a bald Ed Harris. He wants Mitch to help the FBI take down the eponymous Firm, which launders money for the Chicago mob. But this interferes with Mitch’s honest lawyering! Disclosing those documents would violate lawyer-client confidentiality, which sounds less bad than laundering money for a crime family, but I’m not a lawyer, so I could be wrong.

Meanwhile Mitch’s mom lives in a trailer park and his brother is in prison and he hires Eddie Lomax (Gary Busey) to investigate things. Tammy (Holly Hunter) works for Lomax, because of course she does. And everyone is being hunted by a near-albino man.

Obviously this will proceed in the manner which will allow Tom Cruise to set his jaw the most righteously. And apparently everyone just had Mickey Finns lying around all the time back then, and few qualms about using them. Basically, most of the people in this movie play painfully close to type, which works because most of the plot in this movie is a series of painful clichés. I’d cut it slack for being the Casablanca of overwrought legal dramas, thereby exonerating it from the charge of banality, but it’s not that good even if you correct for that.

Director: Sydney Pollack
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes
Score: 3/5

To be fair to this movie, I didn’t see all of it, couldn’t hear it at all, and I may have been napping while I got a mani-pedi for large swaths of it. That may be the reason it got a one rather than a nil out of five. I’m definitely sure I don’t want to know more about it.

A Chinese general raises a long-dead emperor for purposes I’m not aware of. This long-dead emperor is played by Jet Li because I guess Jet Li also must pay the bills. Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (not played by Rachel Weisz this time but instead Maria Bello) are trying to find Shangri-La, I think. They do, anyhow. They bring their son, named something other (Luke Ford), and, of course, John Hannah.

The son meets a girl, Lin (Isabella Leong), and eventually we find out that she is the immortal daughter of Michelle Yeoh, who guards the fountain of youth(?) in Shangri-La. Naturally Jet Li needs to find the fountain to be brought fully back to life and regain his ability to turn into a three-headed dragon. Which he does, and also raises the famous army of terra cotta soldiers to fight….something. It looks pretty cool, I won’t lie.

But Michelle Yeoh’s long-dead husband then also raises a zombie army to fight the terra cotta soldiers so we’re back at square one? But I think Rick’s kid finds out how to love or something, after a long series of mildly to moderately gross firearm/genital jokes.

Also, there are yetis, but they’re on our side.

Director: Rob Cohen
Rating: PG-13
Length: 112 minutes
Score: 1/5

MV5BNjM1M2Y3NWUtOWM1MS00YjUzLThiNmEtNjdiMTZmMzg3NTY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY268_CR1,0,182,268_AL_An ancestral curse gives Penelope (Christina Ricci) a pig face, and she therefore struggles to find love. Especially because, by the terms of the curse, it is assumed (particularly by her mother, played by the inimitable Catherine O’Hara) that she must marry a rich man. So she needs someone from old money, still rich, who doesn’t mind the pig face. Tricky.

People are bigger assholes than you’d expect, though. The deformity is pretty mild (especially on Christina Ricci, where it’s a bit…on the nose*), and she comes with a lot of money. You’d figure someone would be happy to cope, even if Penelope weren’t fairly interesting and nice, which, of course, she is. Also Richard E. Grant is her dad, which is a 10/10, dad-wise. But Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) is cartoonishly appalled by her face, and he runs off to a reporter (Peter Dinklage) who’s been trying to get a glimpse of Penelope for years.  The usual shenanigans lead to a mistaken identity gambit in which Edward and the reporter hire Max (James McAvoy) to pretend to court Penelope.

It’s cute. It’s not careful, or especially clever, or particularly original, but it’s cute.

Stray observations:

  • Nigel Havers is in this movie.
  • Reese Witherspoon is also there, to teach Penelope a little sass.
  • Ostensibly, Penelope takes place in the States. But it is very obviously filmed in England, and nearly everyone in it is British.

Director: Mark Palansky
Rating: PG or so
Length: 104 minutes
Score: 3/5

* I am so, so sorry.

This resembles the John Buchan short story in very few particulars and is, I’m sure, worse than the Alfred Hitchcock movie I haven’t seen. Moreover, it is chock full of battle-of-the-sexes clichés and heavy on modern-audiences-don’t-know-what-an-oubliette-is exposition. It is, nonetheless, completely charming.

Summer, 1914. Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is a mining engineer back in London from South Africa, and he is full of ennui. Just when he’s about to chuck it in and head back, a man (Eddie Marsan) is killed in his flat, having left Hannay with a notebook in code and a lot of stuff about a German spy ring. Naturally, Hannay is suspected of the murder. He goes on the run, concluding that his best bet at not being hanged is to expose the spy ring. Trains, planes, automobiles, suffragettes…

MV5BMTYyMjcxNDExNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzE2MTIwMw@@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard) falls in his way and is somehow not irritating. She tells him off, withholds information, climbs walls, and generally does everything that such a character usually does, and yet is charmingly spunky rather than hamfistedly shrill. Also they have very good chemistry, even when she calls him a “prehistoric boor” and he calls her an “unhinged hysteric.” We’ve seen it all a thousand times, but here it manages to be amusing instead of hackneyed and lame.

Oh, obviously there are spies, and Patrick Malahide is quietly sinister while David Haig flutters about the place. It’s not, you know, good, but it is deeply enjoyable.

Stray observations:

  • At the beginning Hannay is wearing a white necktie with a godawful white waistcoat and a ventless black jacket. No one has ever worn this combination on purpose, and certainly didn’t in 1914.
  • Patrick Kennedy as Victoria’s brother is so much less unbearable than he is as Carstone in Bleak House or McKechnie in Parade’s End.

Director: James Hawes
Rating: PG or so
Length: 90 minutes
Score: 3/5

This movie is both painfully earnest and technically bad. It’s like somebody tried to make The Young Victoria from the other side of empire but had never heard anyone have a conversation or seen a movie. The pacing is atrocious, the dialogue is heavy on exposition and light on verisimilitude, and the message clocks you in the face.

Now, lack of subtlety would be all right if it weren’t incoherent and a little insulting. Admittedly few people are particularly familiar with the circumstances around the annexation of Hawai’i. Clunky speeches and cartoonishly evil nutcases are not the answer. Historical movies exist, even movies about colonial shenanigans. Take cues from a good one; they don’t have to consist entirely of awkward monologues. And if you want to emphasize Ka’iulani’s political boldness, spend less time on her romantic life.

The storyline, such as it is, is fairly classic. Hawai’i is facing American domination, and the young princess (Q’Orianka Kilcher) finds herself being educated in England with MV5BMTY2NDcwNjM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTE4ODE0Mw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_a friend of her father’s, Theophilus Davies (Julian Glover, who presumably had poker debts). He has a son, Clive (Shaun Evans), and a daughter, Alice (Tamzin Merchant). Clive serves the excellent purpose of falling in love with Ka’iulani, standing up for her to comically stilted snobs, and then funking it when life gets tricky. Alice is there as a contrast to everyone else in England, who is horrible. Letters come at the most opportune of moments, people find their voices just when they’re about to be shouted down, Ka’iulani is so candid and kindly that people just don’t know how to deal with her… It’s like a storybook written by a moron. A sincere, well-meaning moron.

The cast does its best with the material, but that isn’t a lot. So much is left on the table–Ka’iulani died less than a year after the annexation, presumably of heartbreak. Why not include that, for real emotional weight, rather than the silly teenage soppiness? Why not spend more time with her splendid aunt, the Queen (Leo Anderson Akana)? Why not address how she’s spent most of the film away from Hawai’i, and how that might be complicated?

Director: Marc Forby
Rating: PG
Length: 97 minutes
Score: 1/5

MV5BMTUwNjUxMTM4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODExMDQzMTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_If you ever worried about how a ten-year-old orphan gets cruelly cursed forever for being an honestly rather mild type of brat, the new live-action adaptation of Beauty & the Beast somewhat mitigates the problem. Time stands still for him, so he is grown when the curse falls, and no more grown when it ends. But now he has an explicitly unhappy childhood, and is, one feels, more to be pitied than censured.

On the whole, the plot holes of the animated movie are filled–the alarmingly various weather, the mysteriously unknown castle some twenty minutes away from the village, Mrs. Potts’s age… Few are added, amazingly, though Belle (Emma Watson) becomes less practical in matters of dress for visual effect and spends a surprising amount of time in her underwear. Gaston (Luke Evans) has a backstory now, and slides gracefully from amusingly vacuous to really quite evil. Mr. Evans commits completely to the part; he’s great.

The casting generally is strong. Lefou (Josh Gad) is having the most fun, and has the most material, but everyone else–Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), the wardrobe (Audra McDonald) and her husband the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), and the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)–is also enjoyably jolly. Their houseware-persons are well-executed, although Lumière was slightly too mechanical for my tastes, particularly about the knees. Maurice (Kevin Kline) is easier to take seriously than in the cartoon, which may surprise you.

Visuals are stupendous, although they did the annoying Disney thing of having a building that is made entirely of staircases and bridges for no discernible reason. The yellow dress does not disappoint. The big finish of the Beast (Dan Stevens) will, I think, age badly. But for now the capture technology and the humanity of his admittedly striking eyes works excellently well, and they took care with the eye-lines, so he and Belle speak and interact plausibly.

I wanted not to enjoy this movie, just so I could be dismissively smug, but it was delightful. The new songs are nice, the slightly elevated jokes are a joy, and the people have somewhere between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half dimensions.

Stray observations:

  • The lyric “I can feel a change in me” while modulating begs to be heard “I can feel a change in key.”
  • The owner of the bookshop is turned into a priest, Père Robert (Ray Fearon), and he is handsome and humane and disappears pointlessly. I was certain he would be helpful in escaping, but he just…wasn’t there.
  • Some of them are in Greek!
  • Super glad everything is fixed just in time for, I assume, everyone to be beheaded in about a decade.
  • Dan Stevens should only ever wear blues between sky and Prussian.

Director: Bill Condon
Rating: PG
Length: 129 minutes
Score: 4/5

Ugh. I hate that I love this movie. Maybe even more than I hate that I sort of love the stage show. There are just so many layers of awfulness. Movies of stage musicals are often pretty bad; Andrew Lloyd Webber is always desperately terrible; the Gaston Léroux source material could be a whole lot better; Emmy Rossum can’t really sing…

And yet.

MV5BNDczNzg4OTM3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQzMTEzMw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Sure, Phantom is dumb. Sure, the plot requires everyone to be a really staggering moron. Sure, Gerard Butler is weird casting and what even are the logistics of that spectacular subterranean flat? How is his suit so well cut? How is the piano kept in tune in that humidity? Would you trust the sewers of Paris that much? Why does Raoul have that haircut, which no one has ever had? Why can’t Christine pronounce “Raoul”? Why does she insist on a secret engagement but make out in public? Since when are Hannibal and Imilce one of history’s great romances? How can Christine possibly think this guy is her dad?

On a more formal level, why not have actual musical actors instead of film actors who can sort of sing? Everyone’s fine, sure, but, again, kind of resoundingly…fine. Why not scrub up the inconsistencies that are acceptable on the stage but do not meet the movie threshold for suspension of disbelief?

But even with all that, with Raoul’s horrible hair and the unbelievably terrible lyrics and the insane Freudian nonsense, I watch it at least once a year. The romance should make me barf, but it doesn’t. The production should just annoy me, but it doesn’t. I should never watch it again, but I do.

Director: Joel Schumacher
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes

There are at least three movies called Sparkle, and this is almost certainly the least well known. And justifiably so. For one thing, there’s absolutely no reason to call it “Sparkle.” For another, it is tripe.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. It’s actually often rather sweet, and it’s quiet enough that you’re not too fussed about the improbabilities. But it is also essentially a light take on The Graduate, and that’s hard to do for a range of excellent reasons.

Sam (Shaun Evans) is a waiter somewhere in the north of England. He has a terrible haircut and prominent ribs. His mother, Jill (Lesley Manville), is a slightly delusional singer of the never-was variety. She’s close enough to real that it’s touchingly sad. Sam does not have a father. One night, Vince (Bob Hoskins) comes into the restaurant where Sam works, and MV5BMTQ5NDg2MDI2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzQ0NzkwMzE@._V1_UY268_CR9,0,182,268_AL_perhaps because Jill notices his father having a stroke before anyone else does, Jill and Sam end up moving to London and putting up in a flat Vince owns.

So Sam gets to be a waiter in London! And that’s the end.

Haha, no, obviously not. He’s passing out cocktails at some party run by Sheila (Stockard Channing), and sleeps his way into being her personal assistant. Her hair is glorious; her accent is execrable. She has no edibles in her flat besides Cheerios and Moët. Her parties are apparently good, though, and at the next one, Sam meets a politically active young woman whose name is Kate (Amanda Ryan, who slots into this part just as well as she did as Holly Dartie in The Forsyte Saga, which is impressive).

Now, because you’ve seen a movie, you know that Kate is Sheila’s daughter, but Sam doesn’t know he’s in a movie, so he doesn’t realize this. There will be bumps on this road, but on the way you meet Kate’s uncle Tony (Anthony Head) and his boyfriend, Jill finds love, and Sam steals a stuffed dolphin.

Could be worse, and you get to see Anthony Head do dolphin impressions, so.

Director: Tom Hunsinger, Neil Hunter
Rating: M? ish?
Length: 100 minutes
Score: 2/5

Somehow, this is a movie about not having an affair with Alexander Siddig. Which seems like the difficult and worse option.

mv5bmzewodmxnjiwnl5bml5banbnxkftztcwmjc0mji3mw-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is married to a man called Mark (played by somebody, I’m sure) who works for the United Nations in the Gaza Strip. They plan to meet in Cairo, but he is held up, so he deputizes his old bodyguard Tareq (Siddig) to look after her.

She is clueless, and it’s extremely irritating. Patricia Clarkson’s face is natively intelligent, so when Juliette is a big ol’ dummy, it doesn’t work. She appears to know nothing about anything, but enjoys lecturing Tareq about education and women’s rights and his own romantic life. She pulls a stupid and possibly dangerous stunt, and then gets resentful when Mark has the audacity to suppose, in consequence, that she has no concept of reality. She also wears a lot of sundresses, which, with her complexion, seems like a bad call.

Other than that, it’s slow and rather silent, and if Juliette weren’t a moron, I think it would be quite pleasing. The juxtaposition of pyramids with Cairo’s sprawling concrete is visually striking, and Juliette wears a very beautiful turquoise dress, which you see on the cover. Tareq owns a café, and exists in a stylish smoky haze of linen shirts and ironic eyes. Ironic but smoldering.

The best moment is his response to Juliette’s desire to see Alexandria: “You know the library burned down.”

Director: Ruba Nadda
Rating: PG
Length: 90 minutes
Score: 3/5

You know how New York in movies now is always clean and, even if people aren’t rich, everything is nice? This was not always the case. New York used to be gross, and housewives from Fort Lee might get amnesia and be mistaken for prostitutes.

Our titular Susan (Madonna) is the sort of person who keeps all her possessions in a hatbox and mooches shamelessly off her friends. They find this charming. In fairness, it is the early 80s and everyone has a completely fake job (magician’s assistant, cinema operator) but a giant apartment, so maybe that’s just how things were. Through a completely absurd sequence of events, another small blonde ends up with Susan’s distinctive jacket, and then gets hit in the head, so everyone thinks she’s Susan and she doesn’t know any better. This small blonde, Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), is married to a jacuzzi salesman, Gary Glass (Mark Blum), and he is the worst. His sister Leslie (Laurie Metcalf) is gloriously insane in the Joan Cusack mold. In a crisis, when everyone is stress-eating, she yells, “Take a Valium like a normal person!” They get involved in mix-ups but are largely off-stage.

mv5bmtizmza5njizof5bml5banbnxkftztywota2nti5-_v1_uy268_cr20182268_al_So: Roberta has no memories, Susan’s clothes, and only her own common sense. That is not much. She is like a polite woodland animal, caught in 80s New York and surrounded by people who think she’s a wild free spirit. Fortunately, both onstage and sympathetic is Dez (Aidan Quinn), who lives an enormous loft in Tribeca and works in the projection room at the Bleecker Street Cinema.

It is delightful nonsense. There is both antiquities theft and a murderer on the loose, but that doesn’t detract from how surprisingly appealing Roberta’s cluelessness is. The movie is well encapsulated when Dez asks Roberta if she wants a drink, and she says Diet Coke or Perrier would be fine.

“There’s Miller Lite, or Heineken,” he deadpans.

Director: Susan Seidelman
Rating: PG-13
Length: 104 minutes
Score: 4/5

PS OMG SO EIGHTIES