BIG NIGHT - THAT THING YOU DO - SURVIVING PICASSO
CURDLED - BOUND - THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS

BIG NIGHT

"The Big Night" showcases the art of cooking as an example of what happens when art must coexist with livelihood. In the 1950s, two brothers from Italy, Primo and Secondo Pilaggi ("Wings"' Tony Shalhoub and "Murder One"'s Stanley Tucci) aspire to the American dream on the New Jersey shore with their restaurant, the Paradise serving the likes of risotto, when the American idea of Italian food was spaghetti and meatballs. Primo, the eldest, is a master chef who refuses to compromise his art. Secondo manages the business and is convinced that they must give the public what it wants after watching hoards of people visit competitor Pascal's Italian Grotto while the Paradise remains empty.

Pascal, played by Ian Holm, tells Secondo he'll help him out by sending his friend, bandleader Louis Prima, to the Paradise in the hopes that word of mouth will keep them from folding. The two brothers invest all they have left for this big night.

Laura LAURA:
Childhood friends Stanley Tucci and Scott Campbell have put a bold foot forward into independent filmmaking by co-directing "Big Night," which Tucci also cowrote with his cousin (winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival). They bravely turned down a major distributor who wanted to make changes to the pace and ending of their film and went with a smaller distributor who left their vision intact!

"Big Night" is a film that's obviously been made with a lot of love. Tucci is wonderful and the younger brother who's torn between achieving the American dream with a profitable business and the genuine pride he takes in his brother's mastery of Italian cuisine. Shalhoub is so good as the more old-world Primo that it took me a while to recognize him (as Antonio on "Wings"). Shalhoub bristles when a customer orders a side of pasta with an exquisite risotto dish he's made - at first he wants to lecture her, then he declines talking to her - "She's a philistine!". Secondo has an active love life - an American girlfriend, Phyllis (played by the British Minnie Driver), who he can't commit to due to his financial circumstances and an Italian lover, Gabriella (played by Isabella Rossalini) who is the mistress of his competitor, Pascal. Primo is shy, although he has a crush on Ann (played by Allison Janney), the florist who prepares the flowers for The Paradise.

Ian Holm is a surprising casting choice for the Italian Pascal, but he turns out to be so perfect one can't imagine anyone else in the part! He speaks with a heavy accent and the odd phrasings of a foreigner and creates a large character with exaggerated body language. His restaurant is the perfect counterpart to The Paradise - loud, red and white checked tablecloths, and a singer belting out "O Sole Mio".

Marc Anthony, a salsa star, is also notable as Cristiano, the almost mute waiter at The Paradise. Campbell Scott is amusing as a loud Cadillac dealer who Secondo invites to the big night.

While the first half of "Big Night" sets up the situation and establishes the characters, the second is entirely given over to the feast itself. The preparation doesn't only take place in the kitchen. It's this part of the film that allows the filmmakers to not become setbound and open up the action a bit as Secondo feverishly runs his errands.

The dinner itself is many things. Suspense builds as everyone awaits the arrival of Louis Prima and the audience knowingly watches the interaction among Secondo, Phyllis and Gabriella. Comedy erupts as the large ensemble interacts. Then, there is the food itself - course upon course that will give anyone an instant craving for Italian food.

The final part of the evening when things begin to break down for various reasons is photographed on the beach at night and is positively Felliniesque. The single silent 5 minute take that is the film's coda is a mini masterpiece.

I do have some small quibbles with "Big Night" - the food isn't photographed to as great effect as it was in, say, "Babette's Feast" or "Eat Drink Man Woman" - the courses aren't consistently focussed upon. There's also some strange behavior from the character of Phyllis at the end of the film which, while adding to the Felliniesqueness of the scene, seems implausible coming from an American. One also doesn't get a clear understanding of how Secondo feels about his two romantic relationships. These are quibbles, but keep me from calling "Big Night" a completely great film. What is does give, though, is food for the soul.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
"Big Night" is a little film that grows on you while you're watching it, and afterwards, too.

It has a slow, languid start, giving the viewer the chance to get to know the principle characters, Primo and Secondo, their hopes, fears, ambitions and troubles. This buildup occupies the first half of the film and is its weakest part.

It's when the promise of a visit by the great Louie Prima is made by their competitor, Pascal, that things pick up. Suddenly, all those hopes, fears, etc., bubble to surface in a near explosion of preparation, anticipation, and, finally, consumption of the vast feast.

The ending consists of a gentle little coda, a sweet scene done in silence and speaking volumes.

One of the charms of "Big Night"'s story is that it ends with a quiet hope, even though nothing is really resolved.

Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott share directing tasks, with Scott in charge of the scenes where Tucci appears as Secondo. Surprisingly, their shared effort is seemless and tightly accomplished.

Tucci, as actor, is also first rate. But, Tony Shalhoub is the biggest pleasure of the film as the elder, uncompromising brother, Primo. Shalhoub, best known as the local taxi driver, Antonio, on the TV series, "Wingz," does a similar accent, but, boy, is he another person altogether here. A notable acting job that may be remembered at the end of the year.

Supporting cast, especially Ian Holm as Pascal, are well selected and give performances commensurate with the quality of the film.

Food-wise, it doesn't quite equal the efforts of "Babette's Feast" or "Like Water For Chocolate." In its own way, though, it carves a niche in the realm of food films because it doesn't use food as a metaphor.

In "Big Night," food is meant to be enjoyed simply because of the delight it brings to the heart and soul.

"Big Night" has both heart and soul.

I give it a B+


THAT THING YOU DO

Tom Hanks joins the ranks of actor-turned-director in his latest film "That Thing You Do!," the story of a fledgling rock and roll band in Erie PA, circa 1964.

The band, named "The Wonders," enters a college talent show with their new, original song, "That Thing You Do," with the assistance of a talented young drummer named Guy "Skitch" Patterson (Tom Everett Scott).

"The Wonders" win the contest and are catapulted, a month later, into a recording contract and tour with Play-Tone Records.

The film follows the short, but meteoric, rise of the band under the assured guidance of record company exec, Mr. White, played by Hanks.

Robin ROBIN:
Tom Hanks has done a solid, though not spectacular, job in his first go at being a jack-of-all-trades. In "That Thing You Do!," he's the director, writer, actor, song writer and, probably, producer, so he stood a very good chance at spreading himself too thin.

Fortunately, Hank avoids this and presents us with a simple, rather sweet and uncomplicated, rock and roll fable. Setting the time to 1964 marks a successful attempt, by Hanks, to present an image of the end of an era when dreams could still come true - an image that would be dashed by the Vietnam War.

To accomplish this, Hanks has put together an ensemble of young, attractive actors who give nicely developed performances. Their characters are three dimensional and very human. Tom Everett Scott, compared often to a young Tom Hanks, is handsome, likable, and a nice guy, as the lead character, Guy.

Liv Tyler gives an honestly infectious performance as the one person who, from the start, believes, with all her heart, in the band. Tyler is given the opportunity, more than in "Stealing Beauty," to perform as a character and she acquits herself well.

The rest of the band is fine, with Steve Zahn, as Lenny, providing the bulk of the film's comic relief.

Jonathan Shaeck, as the artiste of the band, is very ernest as the group's "leader." His Jimmy, though, is the least likable of the lead characters.

Hanks, playing the role of the record company exec responsible for guiding the band's career, lends his considerable acting talent to the character of Mr. White. He displays an honest liking for the band members, but his loyalty is, ultimately, to Play-Tone Records and he will not jeopardize that relationship.

The music, as in the film "Grace of My Heart," also at theatres (maybe), is original to the film. Here, since it's focused on the year 1964, the music is extremely accurate in sound and tempo to the period. Because of this focus, "That Thing You Do!," musically, is more on the money than "Grace...."

Technically, things are on par with Hanks' effort.

It may be a wistful piece of fluff in some minds, but I like "That Thing You Do!" and give it a solid B.

Laura LAURA:
"That Thing You Do" is the well written and directed tale of a hometown rock band that becomes one of the many one-hit wonders of the early 1960's. This isn't a very original, surprising or daring film. What it is is solid, likeable entertainment.

In addition to his writing and directing duties, Tom Hanks is terrific in the supporting role of Mr. White, the Playtone executive who steers The Wonders (formerly the too gimicky and unpronouncable Oneders) up the charts and into the public eye. Hanks wisely keeps his character from being neither the very emotionally involved Brian Epstein type nor the agent of evil big business - Mr. White is enigmatic, but wise in a kindly way.

This film has been astutely cast with fledgling young actors. Tom Everett Scott is very appealing as Guy, the jazz drummer who's pulled into the band at the last minute - comparisons to a young Tom Hanks are apt. Jonathon Schaech ("The Doom Generation", "How to Make an American Quilt") is believable as the ambitious and self-absorbed lead, Jimmy. Steve Zahn is the comic relief as the likeable Lenny and Ethan Embry is good as the naive and never named bass player who wants to join the Marines. Liv Tyler is Fay, girlfriend of Jimmy and the band's biggest supporter. She's sweet and innocent and very endearing in this role and her relationship to the band and Hanks is pivotal to the story. Tyler also enervates the best scene in the film - when she, and then the other members of the band, first hear their song on the radio.

Look for FOT (friends of Tom) in small roles - his old "Bosom Buddy", costar appears as an emcee and wife Rita Wilson is an amusingly sexy cocktail waitress with the hots for young Tom (Everett Scott). Solid support is also provided in the character of Lamar, the doorman of the Ambassador Hotel who's always on hand with advice.

Kudos to the art director - "That Thing You Do" feels totally like the early 60's as long as the worst thing that can happen to you is to leave the sign lit at your dad's appliance store after hours.

The music is original to the film and completely captures the sound of the times. "That Thing You Do" is more consistent, if less ambitious, in evoking an era than the recent "Grace of My Heart". It comes in at an even two hours with no lags or yawns.

B


SURVIVING PICASSO

"Surviving Picasso" is the latest Merchant/Ivory production which stars Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso and newcomer Natascha McElhone as Francoise, one of the last young lovers of his later years and the mother of two of his children.

Francoise was the most independent of Picasso's many women and the only one to walk away from him. "Surviving Picasso" paints a picture of the artist through her eyes during the 10 years immediately following WWII.

Laura LAURA:
While "Surviving Picasso" held my interest for over 2 hours, I found it to be curiously bloodless overall. Hopkins is good as Picasso, but he's been better. Hopkins excells at playing repressed characters ("Remains of the Day", "The Silence of the Lambs", "Nixon"), where I believe Picasso should have been portrayed as more earthily passionate. He does have many fine scenes, though, most notably when he interrupts tea between the mother of his first children and Francoise, playing the clown; parading with the locals and blowing his horn during Bastille Day; showing Francoise how wild cats survive on lizards only to be preyed upon by hawks; and toying with his distributors.

Newcomer Natascha McElhone has an interesting screen presence. She resembles a brunette Meryl Streep and holds her own with Hopkins. Joan Plowright is a comforting character as Francoise's grandmother. Julianne Moore depicts well the end result of not surviving Picasso, but her accent can only be described as hybrid-European.

The filmmakers were not allowed to represent Picasso's works on screen and yet they've done a credible job of suggesting his style with works created for this picture. A couple of whimsical touches are added to the film, but why are they here? We see Picasso and Francoise painting in space in one scene, and Picasso and his first wife, Olga, ride a carriage and join a dinner party within surrealistic Picasso style sets in another. These are nice in and of themselves, but they should have been woven into the overall texture of the film or not been indulged in.

B

Robin ROBIN:
I think that there is a part (size varies) of every man that would like to be able to live the life of a man like Pablo Picasso - the free spirited genius, caring only about his art, but sincerely loving the women around him.

While admiring this spirit, I was also repelled by the selfishness Picasso (as played by Anthony Hopkins) displayed toward his women once he tires of the relationship.

Hopkins gives a nuanced performance, laying out the character of Picasso without spinning the portrayal as good or bad. Picasso's "selfishness" is shown as his being more self-absorbed than uncaring. Even after he is done with his current mistress, he still loves her in his own way. Unfortunately for most of his women, it's not the way they want or expect.

Hopkins' Picasso may not be totally likable, but he is charming and makes one understand why women kept falling for him. The portrayed selfishness of the character may keep people from considering Hopkins at the end of the year, but he still gives a powerful performance.

Natascha McElhone, a newcomer to the big screen, plays the story narrator and provides its point-of-view. She strongly resembles a young Meryl Streep and displays solid acting skills. She's a beautiful young woman, with a terrific laugh, and gives a believable performance as the one intelligent mistress of Picasso who, in the end, does not self-destruct because the master dumped her for another.

Supporting cast is strong, with an effective cameo by Joss Ackland as Henri Matisse. Matisse's career paralleled Picasso's, but the style of the two artists differed dramatically. The differences are shown nicely through the art direction.

Julianne Moore as Dora Maar is symbolic of the destructiveness suffered by the women in Picasso's life. Her part is small in the film, but Moore does portray, well, the tortured existence she lived following the end of her romance with Picasso.

Jane LaPoitaire as Picasso's first wife, Olga, though only in the film a short time, makes a mark as the almost wraith-like being who, despite being dumped by Picasso decades earlier, feels she still has her rights as his first wife.

Regarding the film's art direction: Merchant/Ivory were not allowed to use any of Picasso's original work for the film, necessitating the creation of faux-Picasso's. The works used don't have the vibrancy of the originals, but they do capture the unique and distinctive style of Pablo Picasso's art.

I generally object to 2+ hour films. In this case, however, the runtime has little impact. Merchant/Ivory do a solid job of showing us the man, Picasso, but do so from a very different point of view.

I like "Surviving Picasso" (the title is perfect) and give it a B+.


CURDLED

"Curdled" stars Angela Jones as Gabriella, a Columbian immigrant recently arrived in Miami who happens to have a morbid fascination, since childhood, for serial killers.

Her latest interest is the "Blue Blood Killer," a lunatic who picks up wealthy socialites, tortures, then, beheads them.

To satisfy her macabre hobby, Gabriella takes a job with a maid service, called the Post-Forensic Cleaning Service, whose specialty is cleaning up the aftermath of crime scenes, allowing her to indulge her hobby, in general, and, in particular, to get closer to the "Blue Blood Killer," played by William Baldwin.

Robin ROBIN:
Despite Quentin Tarantino's involvement as producer of "Curdled" (Tarantino, by some, has been said to be singulary responsible for the demise of any originality in the independent film world - harsh, but not far off the mark), I didn't hate it.

Not to say I particularly liked it. A story about a person who is obsessed with serial killers somehow strikes a little too close to home for me. (Laura just happens to be one of these people.) *Ed - Hey, obsessed is a bit strong! L*

In the case of "Curdled," however, the original nature of the story - not one to be copied any time soon - helped to keep my interest up, just to find out how it ends. The ending, though, offered no surprises - Gabriella, ultimately, gets all her questions answered.

Angela Jones is a little vacuous as Gabriella. Maybe that's the point, but it hurts developing any empathy for her.

William Baldwin is probably more vacuous than Jones, giving, at best a two dimensional performance. To tell the truth, besides Alec, the Baldwin brothers do not impress me with their acting abilities.

Supporting cast is OK, though not great. Barry Corbin is fine as the owner of PFCS (Post Forensic Cleaning Service). The ladies of PFCS are pretty much background.

I'm going to bump up my grade on "Curdled" based mainly on the originality of the story, though not necessarily its execution.

I give "Curdled" a C+.

Laura LAURA:
You've already seen a variation of the character of Gabriella played by the same actress in "Pulp Fiction." Quentin Tarrantino had seen the original "Curdled", which had been a 28 minute short, and so liked the conceptualization of this character that he plopped the Columbian Esmeralda into a taxi cab driver's seat and had her question Bruce Willis on how it felt to kill a man.

Now Tarrantino is producing the feature length version of "Curdled" and I have to ask why? To toss out another in-joke Tarrantino movie reference? (the Gekko Brothers from "From Dusk Til Dawn" make an appearance on a tabloid TV show.)

The one good idea of a murder enthusiast taking a job for a post forensic cleanup company is not really expanded upon here. While I never saw the short version, it appears that the filmmakers have thrown in lots of padding that does nothing but distract from the central plot instead of developing the plot that they had. Gabriella's given a love interest, but so little is thought of him that the audience doesn't know if he's been knocked out or killed in a crucial scene. We're provided with no background or motivation for the Blue Blood killer. Much is made of Daisy Fuentes' film debut, but she barely speaks - she's just another woman working for the cleanup company.

Angela Jone's bubblegum-blowing naivety grows tiresome quickly. Co-star William Baldwin is vapid as the Blue Blood killer. It's a shame that with such a unique concept "Curdled" is boring and a total waste of time, even at under 90 minutes.

D+


BOUND

"Bound" is a film noir thriller starring Jennifer Tilly as Violet, a mob moll who wants out of the lifestyle and takes action when she sees what she wants in the form of Corky, played by "Showgirls"' Gina Gershon. Violet's boyfriend is Ceasar, played by Joe pantoliano, a money launderer for the mob with grievances against the son of the head of the Chicago family. After a successful campaign to seduce Corky, Violet and Corky come up with a plan to steal over 2 million from the mob and walk away with suspicions pointed at Caesar. Of course as with all plans relying on human nature, things begin to take some awkward twists pretty early on in the game.

Laura LAURA:
"Bound" had me caught up straight from the opening title credit sequence. An exagerrated overhead camera shot zooms down on a closet while we hear background dialog "I want out!" - a tongue in cheek reference to the lesbianism of the main character perhaps?

"Bound" is stylish as all get out - those overhead shots are used frequently, and the camera is constantly moving - sometimes creeping over walls. First time directors, The Warchowski Brothers, could be accused over overexhuberance, but somehow they make it all work. The style is also evident in the art direction, where an old LA building and neighborhood perfectly evoke the Chicago setting. The interiors are very 1940s film noir, but for the 90s. The costumes and makeup are just right as well, from the mobsters suits to Corky's low slung baggy pants to Violet's tight short dresses and vamp eyes, lips and nails.

"Bound" plays with times lines very effectively - we begin in that closet during a moment that's actually about 2/3 through the story. Then we go into flashback mode. As the crime is planned, we go into flashforward to see the plans being executed as they're described - very efficient storytelling. And that well chosen first glimpse casts all kinds of doubts on Violet's true motivations.

Jennifer Tilly is just right as the kewpie doll moll who's so much smarter than most men would take the time to figure out. Gina Gershon is credible as the dyke handywoman who's seduced by Violet. Joe Pantoliano fleshes out Caesar thoughtfully - yes he's a vile mobster who's not above torturing a fellow hood but he makes us actually feel somewhat for him when the tables are turned against him.

Stylish, suspenseful, well acted and somewhat twisted - I enjoyed "Bound" tremendously!

B+

Robin ROBIN:
Being a guy who's in touch with his feminine side, I loved the relationship between Jennifer Tilly's Violet and Gena Gershon's Corky. I'm a sucker for nicely done eroticism, particularly involving beautiful young women.

Besides the sex, this is a slick, stylish, good-looking little thriller. It doesn't cover any new ground, but it certainly twists the path of a road well travelled.

Jennifer Tilly, as Violet, is the main character and the pivot of the plot. See is sexy, seemingly helpless, but very savvy, with her little girl voice and mannerisms which bely her intelligence.

Gina Gershon as Corky does a stolid job of playing the handsome stranger role. She's competent and quick thinking. The perfect partner for Violet, especially when compared to Joe Pantoliano's brutish lout of a ganster name Caesar.

Pantoliano, as the brutish lout, is pretty good, too. He plays the slimy, ruthless guy with vigor.

Couple this triangle with its tale of double cross, add the slick and stylish art direction and camera work, and you get a pretty darn good erotic potboiler.

"Bound" verges on campy, but stays in the realm of the thriller.

I give it a B.


THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS

In 1896, during the building of the East Africa railway by the British, an incredible event took place when two man-eating lions went on a rampage and killed over 130 people, mostly railroad workers.

"The Ghost and the Darkness" tells the story of the hunt for these legendary lions by an acclaimed wild game hunter, named Remington, (played by Michael Douglas) and the engineer in charge of the railway, Lt. Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer).

The tables are turned by the lions, named "The Ghost" and "The Darkness," as they hunt their hunters, striking terror at the railway base camp, thus beginning the deadly contest between man and beast.

Robin ROBIN:
My gut reaction to "The Ghost and the Darkness" is that it could be called "Jaws on the Veldt," but that, I think, sells the movie short.

The film does a solid, interesting job of bringing a unique historical event to the big screen. It also brings the near-mystical nature of the lions' actions to the fore quite well. As they stalk their prey, they're shown as indistinct wraiths, all shadow, no substance. Conversely, when they strike, it is sudden, brutal and surreal.

Casting Val Kilmer as the British engineering officer, Lt. Col. John Patterson, on the surface seems off. He's too young for what should be a middle aged character. Once I got over that and the story starts to crank, details like this cease to matter.

Michael Douglas, who I run hot and cold on, is suitably earnest and professional as the great white hunter.

Main supporting cast actually performs two jobs - as characters integral to the story and victims of The Ghost and The Darkness. This makes the kills more than just perfunctory, since the deaths of principal characters has much more impact than if they were just faceless victims. This lends to the buildup of anxiety the story creates as it draws toward the climax.

Of the supporting characters, John Kani as the native factotum, Samuel, and Brian McCardie as Angus Starling, create fully fleshed-out, and likable, characters. Indian actor Tom Puri ("City of Joy," "Ghandi") is also believable as the leader of the Indian workers being terrified by the lions.

Direction by Stephan Hopkins is OK, but nothing special. I wonder how different the film would have been if a more experienced director healmed the effort.

Cinematography, in the hands of Vilmos Zsigmund, is, surprisingly, not great throughout. Much of the action is shot in extreme closeup. This lends to the confusion of the events taking place, but takes away from the effectiveness of these scenes, especially the night scenes. Other bits, particularly the panoramic scenes, are beautifully composed.

As the depiction of true-life incidents, "The Ghost and the Darkness" plays more accurately as a film than other adaptations, such as "Fly Away Home." As such, this is a psychologically frightening monster movie whose monsters genuinely walk the line between reality and the supernatural.

I enjoyed "The Ghost and the Darkness" and give it a B.

Laura LAURA:
After seeing "The Ghost and the Darkness" I'm surprised that this true story isn't more well known! It's a terrific tale for a film, but maybe it took too long to get to the screen. This could have maybe been served a little better had it been made in Cinemascope in the 1950's starring the likes of Burt Lancaster and directed by John Huston.

So, in 1996 we get the tale directed by Stephen Hopkins ("Predator 2") and starring Val Kilmer using one of those "it's supposed to be English but it just sounds unrealistic" accents. He looks good in the role of John Henry Patterson, but doesn't provide much more. Michael Douglas is more entertaining in the composite character of Charles Remington - he's the gruff, haunted man's man travelling the world on the hunt and maintaining a sense of humor as he does so. John Pani projects great charm as the native lion-fearing Samuel. Bruce McCardie is endearing as the Scotsman who acclimates Kilmer's Patterson to the job site.

It's hard not to have a great looking film when shooting in Africa as this production did (South Africa stands in for Northwestern Africa) and we do get the requisite wildlife shots as Patterson takes the train to his final destination - the only problem is that Patterson seems removed from this landscape. Once at the site, however, it's quite apparent that the film was shot on location.

The story of two lions (named the ghost and the darkness by the natives) who killed over 130 people has never been rivalled before or since and we do get some suspenseful moments here. Remington demands that the building site's hospital be moved and uses the old, blood drenched hospital building as a lure for the lions only to be outsmarted. Patterson and Remington venture into the lions' lair to find piles of human skeletal remains. Kilmer builds a platform he learned about in India to perch upon and await the lions in dense nightime fog. However, the kill count seems to grow by leaps and bounds (it's 30 at one point and suddenly over 100) without the connecting details. I found the story to be more clearly summed up in a couple of paragraphs in the press kit than was retold here. A cheap dream sequence provides cheap thrills, but who in the audience will really be fooled?

The sound in this film is used to good effect - try to see this in a well equipped theater and the sound separation will make you feel as if you're in deepest Africa yourself!

I didn't expect "The Ghost and the Darkness" to hold my interest as much as it did - it's a great story, fairly well told.

B-


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