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1992. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Prosky, Barbara Babcock, Colm Meaney; dir. Ron Howard. 160 min. MCA/Universal.
Ron Howard's sweeping epic was meant as a tribute to the films of David Lean but comes off more as a homage to TV mini-series like Centennial. Filled with grand imagery and a thin story, Far and Away is as engagingly predictable as a yarn heard‘ at a Blarney Rock. Tom Cruise acquits himself admirably as a "Mick" named Michael, a headstrong Irish lad who can box better, run faster, and get himself into more scrapes than a fork-tongued presidential candidate. The lassie of his eye is (real-life wife) Nicole Kidman, and their romance is typically rocky – with hate masking love, and tragedy separating them just as they find each other. The story follows two Irish immigrants in their quest for a new life and new land in 19th Century America. Along the way there's humor, sadness, excitement, and an infinite variety of credible locales and incredible plot twists. Breadth does not equal depth, however, and ten minutes after it's over, Far and Away could just as easily be retitled Out of Sight, Out of Mind. 1992

1992 comp. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia; dir. Francis Ford Coppola. 9 hrs, 43 min (5 cassettes). Paramount. The Godfather Family: A Look Inside. Dir. Jeff Werner. 73 min. Paramount (part of The Godfather Trilogy).
Gangster movies come and go, but nothing approaches The Godfather and its progeny. Call it a soap opera with guns, or an ode to the family, or a parable about the corruption of American innocence, but don't call it dull. Director Francis Ford Coppola's mesmerizing tale introduced one telling catchphrase ("An offer he can't refuse") and many colorfully complex characters, topped by Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning comeback role as Vito Corleone, the Don who deals in death, yet loves his family above all else. Family was what drew Coppola to the story, and what made it a resounding hit (the first two pictures won multiple Oscars). But like Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the son with a conscience who tries in vain to flee his heritage, Coppola has never been able to escape the long shadow of his creation. Eighteen years after the first film, he returned with Part III, which added nothing that hadn't been said before but broadened the canvas of corruption to include the Church and Big Business.

Nonetheless, when taken together in this new 9 1/2 hour re-edit, the entire tale becomes a brooding meditation on the American Dream perverted, as Michael pursues wealth, power, and respectability, only to lose his soul in the process. The saga has a grand stylistic sweep: from the bravura, well-known montages of violence to the intimate moments of humor, love, and sadness that humanize the many nasty characters. There are perhaps few scenes in cinema as touching as Vito's agonized view of the bullet-ridden body of his eldest son, or his choked cry of "Look what they did to my boy!" All of which is a tribute to Coppola's vision, on display in this package's bonus documentary, The Godfather Family, which includes unusual screen tests (Martin Sheen trying out for Michael); behind-the-scenes footage; and interviews with many principals (Coppola reports that the studio initially wanted Ryan O'Neal for Pacino's part and also threatened to hire a "violence director" to punch up the first movie). The Godfather Trilogy is the most epic, yet personal crime story ever made, a multi-layered story that shows how murder can be hidden behind a cloak of respectability and how families can both love and hate each other at the same time. It is a striking cinematic success story, the darkest, bleakest series ever to be a major motion picture success. Don't miss it. 1992

1992. Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell; dir. Martin Bregman. 157 min. Digital sound. MCA/Universal.
Al Pacino's bravura performance as blind and bitter Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, the soldier with a death wish, foul mouth, and nose for integrity, brought the actor a 1992 Oscar and Scent of A Woman over $57 million in box office grosses. It's not hard to see why: the movie is an engaging odyssey of discovery, as Slade, the curmudgeon who has given up on everyone and everything, meets and spends a Thanksgiving weekend in New York City with Charlie (Chris O'Donnell), a 17-year-old who never gives up on anything or anyone, no matter how difficult. And Slade is difficult: barking insults and threats, he is a blind man with a punch (quite literally), who'd just as soon rip out your throat as let you help – or pity - him. Yet as the story unfolds, Charlie learns to admire and respect Slade, even as he helps the blind man see life in a new way. Scent of a Woman is an effective audience pleaser of the worst sort: shameless in its sentiment, but charming, amusing, and even genuinely moving, with crisp dialogue, engaging performances, and a message about standing up for your beliefs that is admirable and pure Hollywood. There are also two lovely, much talked about set pieces: Slade driving a car at 70 m.p.h. ("Don't blame me," he says about potential accidents, "I can't see"), and the seductive tango scene between Slade and a shy young woman (Gabrielle Anwar). It may be predictable, but it works wonderfully. 1993

1993. Richard Gere, Jodie Foster; dir. Jon Amiel. 114 min.Digital sound. Warner.
This ponderous remake of the French classic The Return of Martin Guerre trades in the intriguing subtleties of the Gallic original for heavy-handed moralizing and a climax that blends A Tale of Two Cities melodrama with Love Story sentimentality. Based on a true incident, both films deal with the return of a soldier years after he left. Everyone notices, yet ignores, changes in his manner: where he used to be cruel, for instance, he is now kind. In both movies, this idyllic situation is shattered by claims that Martin Guerre/Jack Sommersby is an imposter. The original concerned itself with only one question: was Martin Guerre who he said he was? On that was hung a fascinating tale of trust betrayed and love revealed, all stitched together by the winning performance of Gerard Depardieu as the charming man who might be Guerre. The script was so effective that one isn't sure until the very end whodunit – or even why. The makers of Sommersby apparently didn't trust this simple scenario, so in true Hollywood fashion overlayer their remake with plots and counterplots: it's not enough to have Sommersby's identity doubted – screenwriter Nicholas Meyer drags in the Ku Klux Klan, black sharecroppers, a rejected lover, a murder plot, and a noble self-renunciation right out of Dickens. The story isn't helped by a lackluster cast, headed by charmless Richard Gere and wan Jodie Foster as the lame lovers. Sommersby, long on speeches and aimless story, is a windy bore that proves once again that if the original movie ain't broke, you shouldn't try to fix it. Or redo it. 1993

1993. Robert Redford, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson; dir. Adrian Lyne. Hi©fi, cc; (R). 119 min. Paramount.
Everyone knows the proposal involved in Adrian Lyne's B&W romantic Faustian fantasy – a million bucks for a night with Demi Moore – but there's more to Indecent Proposal, both good‘ and bad, than that headline-grabbing gimmick. The story, about one couple's deal with the devil (Robert Redford), takes many predictable turns as it follows a variation on the old formula: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The big mystery is which boy? The script, cliche heaven, is full of melodramatic lines ("I was desperate. We stood to lose everything"), sugary imagery (grainy flashback footage of happier days), and mechanical situations. Director Lyne's style alternates between the mundane (talking heads debating plot points) and the arty (slickly edited montages of people, places, and things), while the movie itself is just as schizophrenic: clunky and ponderous, it leads up to a fascinating finale in which both Redford and Woody Harrelson (miscast as a brilliant architect!) make gestures of noble self-sacrifice worthy of Mildred Pierce. Ultimately, however, the problem is not the story but the focus. Although stick figures Moore and Harrelson are the nominal protagonists, Redford's character is so much more intriguing – a melancholy money man in search of his youthful vision of true love – that you soon start rooting for him, hoping to learn more about his story, his life, his dreams. In fact, that might have been a great picture. As it is, the movie is hardly indecent, just half-baked. 1993

1959. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins; dir. Stanley Kramer. Digital mono (NR) 134 min. CLV 2 sides, CAV side 3. MGM/UA Home Video.
Director Stanley Kramer made a name for himself with liberal "problem" pictures – The Defiant Ones explored prejudice but none faced a bigger problem than On the Beach , his heart-wrenching saga about the end of the world. The movie, based on Nevil Shute's novel, depicts the survivors of nuclear war, waiting in Australia for the radiation to drift south and kill them. Unlike most other disaster epics, Kramer's avoids glitzy special effects to focus on the mundane moments of life – feeding a baby, going on a date – that become powerfully poignant because they could be the last time the characters do them. Ever. The cast is effective if occasionally miscast (this being Hollywood, Americans Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, and Ava Gardner all turn up with phony Australian accents). Perfect, however, is Gregory Peck as a stolid American submarine commander who – in a moving monologue – can't quite acknowledge that his wife, two kids, and dreams for their future are gone. On the Beach is a bleak tear-jerker with an unrelenting anti-war message. Don't miss it – but bring plenty of hankies. (The movie is presented in an excellent letterboxed transfer, with only occasional film glitches.) 1993

1993. Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter; dir. Sydney Pollack. Digital stereo (R). 154 min. Paramount.
The Firm took in $154 million this past summer and it's not hard to see why: the movie is a slick entertainment which plays on the public's inherent distrust of government and lawyers and then has it both ways by letting thehero discover the redemptive power of the law. The subject is corrupt lawyers and an uncaring Big Brother government. But what should play out as a Kafkaesque thriller ends up as just another Mission: Impossible retread as Mitch McDeere, the ambitious young lawyer at the posh Memphis law firm, tries to escape corruption and/or death on the one hand and disgrace and/or disbarment on the other. The excellent supporting cast manages to hold the story together but the overlong thriller has an unsympathetic hole at its center: Cruise, all technique and surface effect. He should have taken lessons from co-star Gene Hackman, whose charming, self©loathing senior partner is a brilliantly drawn portrait in believable shades of gray. Unfortunately, Hackman's moral ambiguity is not reflected in the rest of the tale, which is as cynically manipulative as any partner in The Firm: trust no one, it says, but hey, don't worry, the good guys win out in the end. Ho-hum. 1993

1993. Mel Gibson, Nick Stahl, Margaret Whitton; dir. Gibson. Hi-fi surround, cc. (PG-13) 115 min. Warner.
Mel Gibson has made a career of playing misanthropes – the suicidal cop in Lethal Weapon, the burned out hero of The Road Warrior – but he's never played the kind of misanthrope he tackles in The Man Without A Face. Although it sounds like something that should star Vincent Price, the movie is actually a touching drama about two unhappy loners: young Charles Norstadt, a misunderstood teen with a dream of going to a top-flight military academy; and Justin McLeod, a facially scarred mystery man who lives in isolation following the mysterious death of a child. Based on a novel by Isabelle Holland and beautifully photographed in Maine, the movie is an expertly crafted exploration of trust, responsibility, and love, a kind of To Sir With Love meets The Phantom of the Opera. As McLeod, Gibson shows that he can play more than a hunk with a handgun and offers a genuinely moving performance as the scarred ex-teacher drawn out of himself by his young pupil (well played by Nick Stahl). Gibson also directed and delivers a satisfying tear-jerker with a worthwhile message: look beyond appearances at a person's soul. It's too bad theatergoers, who largely avoided the movie, didn't look beyond the off-putting title. Now's their chance. 1993

In Primal Fear, Richard Gere is at his arrogant best as slick defense attorney Martin Vale, a former prosecutor burned by the system who still believes in the innate goodness of people. Gere may be flashy, but the plot is as grim as an episode of Hill Street Blues (no wonder: director Gregory Hoblit got his start there). The convoluted story, about a young drifter accused of the brutal murder of a kindly archbishop, is a red herring-filled morality tale about the corruption of innocence. The sharp cast delivers the movie’s snappy one-liners with conviction (“How can your timing be so good in the courtroom and so bad in real life?”), even though the movie is essentially a darker, ‘90s version of Perry Mason, right down to an angry courtroom confession. It’s all engrossingly predictable. (The tape transfer is excellent; the colors are crisp and the cropping of the picture from widescreen virtually unnoticeable.) (Paramount; 130 min., Dolby Surround; VHS) August 1996

Homecoming is heartwarming. Beautifully photographed by Toyomichi Kurita (and excellently reproduced on a crisp, colorful video), this TV-movie features a nice character turn by The Graduate’s Anne Bancroft. She plays a crotchety old Maryland widow (where have you gone, Mrs. Robinson?!) who must cope with the unexpected arrival of four grandchildren, aged 6 to 16, whom she had never met – and never wanted to meet – before. The kids are wonderfully diverse and affecting, but it is Bancroft who steals the picture. She has her character down to a t: an enigma who becomes fulfilled through the charming efforts of the lost children. Although as predictable as a Hallmark card, Homecoming is engrossing, amusing, and finally touching, an odyssey of self-discovery that will leave even the hardest hearted balling. (Evergreen, 105 min., VHS) 1996

The Crow: City of Angels, the follow-up to The Crow, features different characters but the same comic book conceit: the dead can come back and exact a terrible vengeance on the living. The story is about a brutal specter who seeks punishment on the thugs who killed him and his child. It is set in the post-apocalyptic world that Blade Runner made a necessity for movies of this sort: dark, misty, and gloomy, with shadowy figures lurking among crumbling ruins. An art director’s dream and an audience’s nightmare, The Crow is humorless, incoherent, and dull, with cliches masquerading as characters and mystical mumbo jumbo posing as dialogue. And the premise – that “love is stronger than death” – is appallingly dishonest. It is not love that propels the hero but violence, vengeance, and viciousness. He is Charles Manson dressed up as a modern-day Messiah, a sadist who, in the end, is ultimately no better than those he kills. For what it’s worth, the transfer is sharp and the sound quality excellent. (Dimension, 86 min., VHS) 1996

“I’ve been so blessed,” says Bessie (Diane Keaton) in Marvin’s Room. Yet one might wonder how: for 20 years, her life has been spent caring for her bedridden, mentally deteriorating father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn) and her increasingly senile aunt (Gwen Verdon). And now, she has been diagnosed with leukemia, meaning she can only look forward to more suffering and an early death. But that’s the wonderful paradox central to Marvin’s Room: to some, giving love can be more fulfilling than receiving it. Funny, touching, and lovely, the movie is an ode to familial affection, and justifiably earned Keaton an Academy Award nomination. She is ably supported by Meryl Streep as her selfish, long-estranged sister, Leonard Di Caprio as a disturbed, angry nephew, and Robert De Niro as an eccentric doctor. Mixing humor with pathos, darkness with light, Marvin’s Room is a sweetly reaffirming, moving portrayal of people struggling to find what makes life meaningful in the shadow of ever-present death. (Miramax, 98 min., VHS) 1996

The novelist Ernest Hemingway’s true-life romance with a pretty American nurse (Sandra Bullock) during World War I is the subject of In Love and War, a vapid tale that makes truth duller than fiction. Supposedly based on a real incident, the movie has the phoniness of soap opera. The casting is one culprit. Hemingway was known for his pugnacious manner and he-man writing, but as played by cocksure Chris O’Donnell, he comes across as a self-involved ass, insensitive to the needs of anyone but himself. Bullock is no better, more catalyst than character, a prop designed to illustrate the movie’s thesis: the unhappy end to this affair left young Ernie disillusioned and cynical, destroying the idealistic youth but transforming him into a great writer. There’s nothing very tragic about In Love and War, however, except for the way it turns a tale of youthful love into a boring treatise that Hemingway himself would have rejected outright. He had skill. They have not. (New Line Home Video, 113 min., VHS) 1996

Last Dance is notable for two reasons: Sharon Stone’s affecting Oscar bid as death row inmate Cindy Liggett (it worked for Susan Hayward in I Want to Live) and its status as the second anti-death penalty film within a year (the first was the much-better Dead Man Walking). Unlike its immediate predecessor, Last Dance trades the moral complexities of capital punishment for earnest generalizations: Liggett was a misguided, drugged-out teen when she committed her crime; after 12 years on death row she has changed and is worthy of forgiveness; none of that matters to those in charge since death is about politics and revenge not principle. It’s an old song and by the time Cindy is sacrificed to an uncaring system, the movie has clearly made up our minds, changing the character from sinner to saint. Although ably directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), Last Dance is nothing more than a touching soap opera of big-screen proportions. (Touchstone; 103 min, VHS) September 1996

Homely Rose Morgan (Barbra Streisand) doesn’t have much luck with men. Living in the shadows of her glamorous mother (Lauren Bacall) and sister (Mimi Rogers), she takes refuge in teaching romantic literature at Columbia University. There she meets Greg Larkin (Jeff Bridges), a good-looking, nebbishy professor who is searching for a companion of the mind not the bed. After spending months as perfect intellectual friends, they marry – and trouble follows. The idea, based on a French comedy, isn’t half bad, and Streisand and Bridges, ably supported by Bacall and George Segal, could very easily be part of a fluffy romantic comedy of the ‘30s – except that director/star Streisand can’t leave well enough alone. The last third of the movie is absurd, as Rose becomes “glamorous,” wearing low-cut dresses, silk pajamas, and stiletto heels. There’s some point being made about male ideas of sexuality, but that quickly gets lost because Streisand actually seems to buy into it. In the end, this movie does have two faces: sweet romance and pure idiocy. (Tri-Star, 126 min., VHS) 1997

Robin Williams has made a speciality of playing child-like characters – the alien Mork on Mork and Mindy, Peter Pan in Hook – so it’s no surprise that Francis Ford Coppola cast him in Jack. As Jack Powell, Williams plays a 10-year-old child with a strange affliction, a kind of “Leap Year Disease” which causes his body to age at four times the normal rate. Consequently, Jack has the mind of a kid, but all the physical woes of a 40-year-old. With that premise, you might expect another Big, but Coppola is after headier stuff. Although the movie has its share of slapstick and age confusion gags, the story is essentially a bittersweet drama about making the most of your brief time on earth. Williams is fine, but Coppola really has no feel for the material, which is flat, often depressing, and at times downright bizarre. In small roles, Bill Cosby and Fran Drescher liven things up, but it’s not enough. Jack is a well-intentioned turn-off. (The transfer is crisp, and the cropping from wide-screen is well-handled.) (Hollywood Pictures; 113 min., VHS) 1997

Grace of My Heart is an affecting, sentimental, but ultimately hollow look at the music business world, circa 1958-1970. Writer-director Allison Anders uses the world of pop tunes as a backdrop for the story of Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) who searches for herself while pursuing a dream to write and sing her own songs. In the process, the movie paints a fan’s picture of the songwriting profession and the famous Brill Building music “factory,” where pop hits were turned out by the pound in the late ‘50s. The film is populated by engaging caricatures of managers, producers, and stars, with soundalikes for The Beach Boys (here called The Riptides), The Everly Brothers, and The Supremes. Douglas is charming as Waverly, who at first writes about life as an observer but finally makes a personal splash when she experiences tragedy herself. Unfortunately, for all its good intentions and slick production values, Grace of My Heart is just another formulaic biopic, moving at times but about as insightful as an average TV flick. The music is great. (MCA; 118 min., VHS) 1997