FLY AWAY HOME - THE FIRST WIVES' CLUB - LAST MAN STANDING
THE SPITFIRE GRILL - EXTREME MEASURES - AMERICAN BUFFALO

FLY AWAY HOME

Director Carroll Ballard, who, 17 years ago, created the visually astounding film, "The Black Stallion," has returned to the helm after a longtime absence with his latest family film, "Fly Away Home," based on the real-life experiences of Bill Lishman, the Canadian artist who really did teach geese to fly.

Jeff Daniels and Academy Award winner Anna Paquin are Thomas and Amy Alden, an estranged father and daughter thrown, suddenly, back together following the tragic death of Amy's mother in New Zealand.

Thomas is a sculptor and amateur hang-glider pilot living in rural Canada, a place Amy hasn't seen since childhood.

Amy, in her wanderings, finds a nest of orphaned goose eggs, which she hatches, raises, and, well, the rest is pretty obvious.

Robin ROBIN:
Although, story-wise, there are few surprises from beginning to end of "Fly Away Home," the execution of that story is, visually, one of the finest, if not THE finest, examples of cinematography so far this year. Caleb Deschanel is a master at his job and deserves best cinematography attention for this film.

As family fare, "Fly Away Home" is a terrific choice for all but the very youngest kids. The visuals are compelling and the story is quickly paced, so only those with the shortest of attention spans will have a problem.

As I said in the intro, there are virtually no plot surprises. The story progresses, by the numbers from Amy and Tom's estrangement, the discovery and hatching of the eggs, raising and teaching the geese to fly, dad and daughter bonding, and, finally, the big climatic trip to teach the birds to migrate.

You know the story going in and you don't care a bit, it's such a nice story.

Jeff Daniels is both charming and believable as an eccentric, intelligent artist who, while unable to click with his daughter at an emotional level at first, has the skills and abilities to fulfill her dream and save her geese. And, finally, of course, he bonds with his daughter. I like him as an actor, generally, since seeing him in "Gettysburg" and he's solid here.

Anna Paquin is at her best in the early scenes where she and her brood of goslings do their own bonding. After that, cinematography and scenery take over your attention for the remainder of the film.

Dana Delaney isn't annoying as her character, Susan, anchors Tom, helping him to cope with fatherhood, but, she's little more than a symbol.

It's really the scope of the story, not the acting, and the depth and breadth of the filmmakers' execution of that story that make "Fly Away Home" a special family film.

A beautifully crafted movie and I give "Fly Away Home" an A-.

Laura LAURA:
"Fly Away Home" sure looks like it could be treacly and even though the screenplay tries to stuff every cliche in the book into the story (the principles are trying to save not one preservation area, but two, from nasty developers!), it's so well acted, photographed and paced that it works.

Jeff Daniels, an actor I used to dislike, but have consistently liked since his performance in "Gettysburg," is fine here as the somewhat bizarre, hippyish dad who's had his daughter returned to him as a 13 year old after a ten year absence and the death of her mother. Tom's busy trying to complete a project for a museum deadline, but honestly tries to break through to his daughter Amy.

Amy, played by Oscar winner Anna Paquin, is in turmoil -- her mother newly deceased, she uprooted from her home in New Zealand and brought to northern Canada to live with a man who never visited her. Paquin manages to display hurt and rebelliousness without seeming bratty.

Terry Kinney as Tom's brother Dave is also good -- he's the 'fun uncle' who manages to break through to Amy a little more quickly than anybody else -- probably because he's got the least at stake. Dana Delaney, an actress who's never appealed to me, does not annoy as the third-wheel live-in girlfriend of Tom who has to deal with the classic 'mother substitute' issue.

The other real star of this film is the cinematography, for which director Caroll Ballard's ("Black Stallion") films are well known. Cinematographer Caleb Deshanel ("The Natural") captures humor with extreme close-ups of goslings waddling behind their surrogate mom. He also captures the grandiosity of flight with his magnificent footage of the flying machines accompanying the geese heading south. One early shot of Amy immediately called to mind Andrew Wyeth's "Christina."

The geese, certainly not the most endearing of creatures, come across better than one would expect, even if only the character of Amy can actually tell them apart. When one of the brood becomes endangered during a test flight, my reaction was as strong as the filmmakers' had intended.

B+


THE FIRST WIVES' CLUB

"The First Wives' Club" is adapted for the screen from the popular bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith. Diane Keaton plays the insecure matron and narrator, Annie. Bette Midler is the somewhat frumpy, but solid Jewish Mom Brenda. Goldie Hawn is the somewhat pickled and very nipped-and-tucked actress, Elise. All in all, pretty well cast. The three old college buddies are thrown together after two or three decades when their fourth college pal, Cynthia (an uncreditted Stockard Channing), throws herself off a Manhattan balcony after being left for a younger woman. Come to find out, the three remaining chums are also all in the same boat. Although the three have gone very separate ways in life, they decide to throw their chips in together and turn the tables on their ex-husbands, getting them where it really hurts.

Laura LAURA:
"The First Wives' Club" is a hit and miss affair all around. The book, a summer beach-read bestseller four years ago, was an enjoyable trifle. While the movie frequently gets things right, the big intricate revenge set-up in the second half is mishandled and muddled.

Goldie Hawn is a delight as Elise -- without her performance, my rating for the film would have slipped by at least a 1/2 a grade. It's fun to watch a 50ish Hollywood star who still could pass for 30 playing a 50ish Hollywood star who's still trying to pass for 30. Hawn's ability to make this fun while jabbing at her own persona is admirable. Keaton is too much in her insecure Annie Hall mode, but still manages to get off a few good lines and good scenes. It doesn't hurt that Eileen Heckart's on board to play her overbearing mother. Bette Midler's persona is a bit large to be convincing as a frumpy Mom taken advantage of by her skirt-chasing husband, but she downplays as best as she can.

The supporting cast includes Maggie Smith as Gunila Garson Goldberg, THE doorway to upper society who fortunately is on the side of the first wives; Dan Hedaya as Morty, Midler's appliance store owning husband; Bronson Pinchot as Duarto Feliz, the interior decorator Midler works for; Sarah Jessica Parker as Shelly, Morty's golddigging new girlfriend and Elizabeth 'Showgirls' Berkeley as the starlet who's taking Elise's place with her husband while admiring Elise at the same time. They all add to the mix, particularly Parker, Smith and Hedaya. Rob Reiner's funny in a cameo as Elise's plastic surgeon. You'll also glimpse the likes of Ivana Trump, Kathie Lee Gifford and Ed Koch, although only Ivana's presence makes any sense.

The build up of the story is fine -- time is given to flesh out the characters and get them together to create their club. Things are uneven from that point on. We must sit through an extended sequence where the agenda gets sidelined as Annie, Elise and Brenda attack each other. Once that's resolved and the master plan begins to roll, the major events of their plot are presented without an understanding of what they're trying to accomplish until the connectives details are pitched in from the sidelines after the fact. There's some good comedy here, but it's not presently as strongly as it should have been. The denouement is a bit sappy and an obvious setup for the closing song and dance routine.

C+

Robin ROBIN:
Overall, I guess I felt a little cheated with "The First Wives Club." I had expected a lightly dark comedy about women overcoming their dependence on and subservient position to men, a la "9 to 5." This, especially, after Laura praised the novel when she read it.

Instead, I found this to be a rather noisy affair, with the three principles either bickering over each other or just talking over each other.

Most of the scenes in the movie are of the three stars together -- usually without the benefit of the rest of the cast being involved. Which, mostly, is just as well, since, with the somewhat exception of Dan Hedaya and, surprise, Elizabeth Berkley, they are pretty well wasted.

Goldie Hawn gave what I think is the most fun performance of the film. She pokes fun at herself and the Hollywood system that forces middle aged actresses to compete with the younger set or die of attrition. Hers is the most satirical aspect of the movie.

Bette Middler is fine in her role as the hard-assed member of the club. She breaths what life there is in what is, essentially, the most two-dimensional of the three leads.

Diane Keaton does an older rendition of Annie Hall. Some may call it her patented character. I didn't take to her at all.

All three principles, though, look like they're having a good time.

The production values -- set, costume, photography, etc. -- are all of top caliber.

Some of the slapstick moments, particularly the window washer platform scene, are well executed and funny.

This is a more female, than male, oriented film, obviously, so I wouldn't say it's a good date film. Especially with the way men are depicted here. I knew all men were slime. This just proves it.

I give "The First Wives Club" a C+.


LAST MAN STANDING

Walter Hill's latest film, "Last Man Standing" is based on the superb 1961 samurai story by Akira Kurosawa, "Yojimbo," which happened to also be the basis for the 1964 Segio Leone classic spaghetti western, "A Fist Full of Dollars."

In this rendition, if you don't already know the story, Willis is John Smith, a Prohibition-era wanderer headed for Mexico via Jericho, Texas. Jericho, it seems, is the spot where two rival Chicago gangs -- one, Irish, the other, Italian -- are facing off to take over the lucrative business of transporting illegal booze from Mexico.

Smith, seeing an opportunity for fast cash, plays both gangs against each other in a ever escalating spiral of violence, hiring his twin 45s to both gangs -- at the same time!

Robin ROBIN:
Bruce Willis, while he can act when properly directed, is no Clint Eastwood and is certainly not another Toshiro Mifune.

This is the linchpin of the problem with "Last Man Standing," but it is not the only problem.

Willis' effort to replicate the character of Mifune's samurai or Eastwood's Man With No Name results in a guttural monotone in his delivery, which is not very effective, especially in the voice-overs. He doesn't evoke any curiousity in the viewer about his character's past and why he happens to be in Jericho at this particular point in time.

Supporting cast, which, in a film like this, one would expect to be made up of distinctive, real (or surreal) characters -- take "The Usual Suspects," for example. Here, are, with minor exception, indistinct, two-dimensional bad guys who's sole role is to act as targets for the set shoot-outs that take place periodically through the film.

Christopher Walken, one of my favorite character actors, especially as a bad guy, is totally wasted here. He is almost unintelligible with some undecipherable accent and lots of muttering.

Speaking of shoot-outs: I'm a fan of stylized violence in films, such as "The Crow" (the original), or Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." These films brought an almost balletic portrayal of the shoot-out -- The first in a fantastical way, the latter with an earthy, realistic feel. "Last Man Standing" simply uses the gunfights to rack up prodigious bad-guy-bodycounts.

Looks-wise, the film does an adequate job of set and period feel. Nothing outstanding or memorable.

If you're really interested in the story, watching "Yojimbo" or "A Fist Full of Dollars" is a much better use of your time. Don't waste it with "Last Man Standing." You deserve better.

I give it a C-


THE SPITFIRE GRILL

"The Spitfire Grill" is where all the residents of Gilead, ME seem to eat breakfast and gather to exchange gossip. It's run by the crusty Hannah, played by Ellen Burstyn, who's had the grill up for sale since the death of her husband many years prior. When Percy Talbot, played by Alison Elliott, is released from Windham Prison after serving a manslaughter sentence, she chooses Gilead as a place to head to. Hannah's persuaded to take her in to help at the grill, but Hannah's nephew is wary, especially after Hannah breaks her leg, and soon his wife Shelby shows up to help. Although the town of Gilead is largely hesitant to give the stranger a chance, Percy does become fast friends with Shelby and Hannah.

Laura LAURA:
I finally caught up with "The Spitfire Grill" and was expecting a "Fried Green Tomatoes" clone (not with anticipation!), and while presently surprised by many aspects of this film, I was still underwhelmed.

"The Spitfire Grill" offers fine acting from the three principals. Alison Elliott has a downtrodden radiance and surety of purpose that neatly expresses the character of Percy. Ellen Burstyn is completely believable as a wary old Mainer and Marcia Gay Harden shines as the shy wife and mother who blossoms via the friendship of another woman. The supporting cast is serviceable, if not particularly notable, and the townspeople are all believably portrayed. The acting is definitely one of the high points of the film.

There are also several moments of cinematic beauty in the film. When Shelby pitches in to help Percy cook at the Grill their teamwork in the golden lit kitchen is choreographed as a dance. As Percy is a nature lover, we're presented with several beautiful forest scenes as she explores the woods (with Vermont standing in for Maine). The mysterious forest hermit that Hannah leaves sacks of food for by the woodpile and Percy begins a strange communication with leaves a handmade bird at Percy's bedroom window -- when she reaches for it and the curtains blow into the room around her my breath was taken way by the sheer simplistic beauty of the scene. (I believe the filmmakers themselves were taken by this shot -- it's repeated without Percy later in the film to recall her presence.)

However, this film's story takes its time to unfold -- a bit too much time. In addition to the languid pace, there are some elements of the story that are almost embarrassingly hokey. When the townspeople get up in arms that Hannah is conducting an essay contest to sell her grill, Hannah involves the townspeople in appraising the essays -- a very good idea ruined by a shot of schoolchildren standing at their parked bicycles engrossed in essay reading! Percy's obviously almost symbolic in the rejuvenation she brings to Gilead, but did she really need to be the cause of a worthless tree grove becoming a chemical discovery for medicine? The mysterious forest dweller really isn't such a big mystery to anyone who can pick up on plot points.

So, a mixed reaction from me, weighted toward the positive side.

B-


EXTREME MEASURES

"Extreme Measures," the new medical thriller directed by Michael Apted, stars Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman and Sally Jessica Parker.

Grant plays Dr. Guy Luthan, attending physician in one of New York's busiest trauma centers, where a homeless man, wearing a mysterious hospital wristband, dies from bizarre symptoms.

Luthan's investigation uncovers the shocking details of a private medical research program headed by one of the country's most prestigious medicos, Dr. Lawrence Myrick, played by Gene Hackman.

Robin ROBIN:
"Extreme Measures" may not be a great film, but it certainly is a pleasant surprise!

I walked in, fully expecting a rehash of a film like "Coma," with no new twists (I was thinking "Coma 2"). Even though I figured out the big mystery early on in the film (some of the "clues" hit you over the head so hard, they hurt), that did not deter the effective thriller aspects of "Extreme Measures."

The story is almost entirely focused on Hugh Grant's Dr. Guy Lathun character, with little or no development of most of the supporting cast. This didn't hurt too much, since the character study of Dr. Lathun by Grant, the outstanding set/photography, and a nicely paced plot made the 117 minute run time a breeze. (surprise for me!)

Hugh Grant combines his normal wittiness with some good dramatic turns to flesh out Guy Latham into a real person whose predicament touches home with the viewer.

Main support in "Extreme Measures" is lacking. Gene Hackman, second billed, has little more than a cameo role.

Sally Jessica Parker is virtually generic.

David Morse acts almost like an robot with no character development whatsoever. And he's used for shock value near the end, pretty predictably -- the jump out at you kind of shock.

A couple of the lesser characters, like Lathun's boss, are pretty good in the small roles, but that's about it.

"Extreme Measures" is a solid medical thriller with some interesting plot lines dealing with morality, medical integrity and loyalty. It occupies a rather unique niche in that it is not a rehash, but an original effort.

I give "Extreme Measures" a solid B.

Laura LAURA:
Who would have thought -- Hugh Grant manages to carry a medical thriller in the style of a Hitchcockian everyman hero a la Cary Grant! Well, OK, maybe a bit of overpraise, but he's surprisingly effective as the English doctor trying to make a name for himself in a NYC hospital before taking a prestigious post at NYU. Hugh calmly handles medical emergencies. Hugh investigates dodgy hospital records. Hugh drolly lets fly with witty barbs. Hugh does action scenes!

"Extreme Measure" opens with a beautifully shot (by cinematographer John Bailey) chase scene. Two naked man -- one black, one white and neither too terribly in control of themselves, run through the slick black streets of NYC wrapped in sheets of clear plastic. One will become Dr. Guy Luthan's (Hugh Grant) patient who dies mysteriously then disappears. The other will be the object of an intense manhunt by the bad guys.

Hugh Grant's character is introduced managing the ER of a large NYC hospital. He's presented with a dual shooting -- a policeman and the crack-addled perp who began the gunplay. The cop's physical condition is more stable and Dr. Luthan can only get access to one operating room -- what to do? This is the first argument of moral choice vs. medical choice that "Extreme Measures" presents.

This is the first film to come from Hugh Grant and girlfriend and Estee Lauder model Elizabeth Hurley's production company. It was produced by Hurley and directed by Michael Apted ("Gorillas in the Mist"). Although the couple expected to develop romantic comedies, they've done a fine job on their first outing with this thriller.

"Extreme Measures" is bound to be compared with "Coma," but it really falls more into the "Frankenstein" genre -- the scientist who plays God in the name of medical research. That role is played by Gene Hackman as renowned neurologist Dr. Lawrence Myrick. This is really Grant's film, though, as none of the main supporting cast (Sarah Jessica Parker, David Morse, Bill Nunn, Debra Monk) make too strong of an impression, including Hackman.

This film has an almost 2 hour run time and keeps the viewer involved throughout. It's a well paced paranoia thriller that presents some very moral dilemmas to mull over.

B


AMERICAN BUFFALO

"American Buffalo," directed by sophomore Michael Corrente ("Federal Hill") is the long awaited film version of the 1975 David Mamet play which Corrente sets in his home town of Providence, RI.

There are only three characters in this movie. Dustin Hoffman is 'Teach' (played on the stage by Al Pacino), a fast talking loser who gets by, one presumes, by petty thievery. He hangs out at junk store owned by Donny, played by Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue"). Donny has a 15-year old 'gofer, Bobby, played by Sean Nelson ("Fresh").

When Donny finds out he's been had on the sale of an American buffalo nickel, he wants revenge. His surrogate son Bobby 'makes' the guy and the two plot to rob the nickel, and anything else of interest, back. Bobby perceives this as a rite of manhood and wants to do a good job for Donny. Enter Teach, who, upon learning of the scam, wants in himself and manages to give Donny serious doubts about Bobby's ability to pull off the heist.

Laura LAURA:
In this age of overbloated run times, it's refreshing to see just how much can be said in 88 minutes. This is both an in depth character study and a study on one of Mamet's themes -- the conflict of forging human relationships in today's competitive business-oriented world. Both Teach and Donny constantly inject musings on the difference between friendship and business.

Dustin Hoffman has the showy role as Teach -- he's all nervous energy, constant chatter and tics. He gets on one's nerves. Teach is a loner who believes everyone's out to get him (he's introduced on a major roll about the injustice done to him by Ruthie over a piece of toast!) and his paranoia's crippled his ability to make true attachments to another human being. Dustin Hoffman is fine in the role, but made me wonder what Pacino was like in it.

Dennis Franz has the more introspective role as Donny -- he does more acting with his eyes than his talk. Donny has a genuine affection for Bobby and Franz makes it clear how Donny's being pulled between his loyalty to Bobby and his rationalization that Teach may be right. Teach knows how to appeal to him and wear him down. Donny's never fully won over by Teach and his torment is clear at the end of the film when everything's gone wrong and all he can offer Bobby is a sincere apology that seems weak. Donny's a basically good man who's left with two dependents -- one physically hurt, the other emotionally.

Sean Nelson is good as Bobby, but the character is simpler than the two leads. It's clear that Bobby wants to be respected by Donny, but at mid point the plot twists enough so that we begin to wonder if Donny's loyalty is misplaced and Nelson is ambiguous enough to make this work.

Mamet adapted his own play for the screen and his dialogue crackles. Corrente has done a solid directing job here, keeping things economically paced and tight. The seedy world these three inhabit is brought to life on the screen.

B+


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