SPACE JAM - WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET
RANSOM (1996) - THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES - 101 DALMATIANS (1996)

SPACE JAM

Producer Ivan Reitman and television commercial director Joe Pytka bring the entire Looney Tunes animated crew to the big screen in their first, full-length feature film, "Space Jam."

Alien Nerdlucks are sent to Earth by their evil boss, Swackhammer, to kidnap all the Looney Tunes characters and force them to become the latest entertainment attraction on the Nerdluck planet's failing theme park, Moron Mountain.

Bugs Bunny, leading the Tunes, challenges the diminutive aliens to a basketball game - a sure win for the Tunes, until the aliens steal the talent of the NBA's best players and become the powerful, ruthless opposition, the Monstars.

Bugs, in an effort to salvage what looks like certain defeat, enlists the reluctant aid of retired basketball star, Michael Jordan, to save the Tunes from permanent slavery on the alien world.

Robin ROBIN:
I don't think I can fully express my disappointment in "Space Jam." The hype by the studio for the past few months had me primed like a pump. I walked into the theatre with high expectations and walked out with them dashed. This is a gross example of lost opportunity.

Imagine the possibilities: the entire cast of Looney Tunes characters, with Bill Murray on board AND one of basketball's greatest players, too. This seemed to be a guaranteed formula for success.

I'm sorry to report that this is one of the biggest duds of high tech animation that I've ever seen. It lacked the pow of "Who Shot Roger Rabbit," technically, or the charm of nearly any Disney animation. Maybe it was too slick for me, but I don't think so.

The biggest mistake made is the inept use of Bill Murray, or, should I say, the lack of use. The rich comic possibilities of Murray interacting with the Tunes seem obvious, so, when he doesn't show, after his initial introduction early on, until near the end, my jaw dropped.

What could have, should have, been a fast and funny film is leaden, without much humor at all.

The vast majority of the Tunes are simple background, with the only interaction being audience recognition of who they are, from what cartoon. The premier Tunes characters - Bugs, Daffy, Tweety and Silvester, Roadrunner and Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd, Porky and Marvin Martian get the dialogue. As I watched the background Tunes, I realized that there are dozens and dozen of personalities that were virtually ignored - personalities that many of us grew up with.

Sadly, Michael Jordon has no spark or charisma. Granted, he is not an actor and is always interacting with characters who aren't there, but, he needed to carry a big part of the film and doesn't/can't.

The Monstars are without personality - except maybe the Patrick Ewing Monstar - though kind of cute as the little Nerdlucks, before their metamorphosis.

Finally, what I miss most of all is the absence of the late, great Mel Blanc. Single handedly (or, is that voicedly), this talented little man created hundreds of distinctive characters with his voice for 50 years of Warner Bros. films. The loss, a few years ago, of this wonderful man is sorely felt in "Space Jam."

I can't imagine its appeal to kids to be anything more than most base. Younger kids may be amused by all the activity on-screen. Older kids will be bored by the lack of intelligence.

I guess I CAN say how disappointed I am. I give "Space Jam" a D+, I'm very sad to say.

Laura LAURA:
The four creditted screenwriters of "Space Jam" should be rounded up and shot - how could anyone take the rich characters of the Looney Tunes and make them seem boring? Guess what - they managed.

Michael Jordan doesn't help matters. He displays no charisma in this film. In fact, all the live action sequences (of which there are many) make this picture grind to a halt. Even the usually hilarious Bill Murray only gets off one or two amusing lines in this and his interaction with the animated stars is inexplicably kept to about 2 minutes of screen time. Larry Byrd actually almost seems natural, but he's paired with Murray in a golf game. Charles Barkley is the only basketball pro who actually creates some sense of character.

There are a few redeeming graces. Bugs' ingenuity saves the day a couple of times, just like in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tweety gets all the best lines. There's a real cute scene (albeit fleeting) of a bunch of Looney Tunes doing aerobics to Richard Simmons on TV.

"Space Jam" is a real chore to sit through, though. Even the kids in the audience were restless. The film even has a particularly annoying title sequence. Too bad - I was hoping Warner Bros. would have a go at Disney for the feature length animation market.

D+


WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO AND JULIET

Aussie director Baz Luhrmann, who brought us "Strictly Ballroom," gives the MTV treatment to William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" set in the fictional Verona Beach and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers.

We get gun fire instead of sword play, a new age herbalist Father Laurence, an acid-dropping Romeo, Mercutio in drag and lots of water imagery.

Laura LAURA:
Eeek - this movie is just too noisy - the dialogue's the thing and it's not made more accessible by being unintelligible. "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" tries so hard to be hip that it loses the soul of the story. It does succeed in a few ways though, and maintained my interest.

The Capulet party where the lovers meet is a ridiculous specatacle. Diane Verona as Juliet's mother screeches during the preparations. We get a song and dance number lead off by the gate-crashing Mercutio in drag (OK, it's a costume party, but still..). Nice touches in this extended scene - Romeo pops a hallucinogen before joining the festivities and Romeo and Juliet make eye contact through a fish tank. This is also followed by the balcony scene, which is the best scene in the film. Luhrmann utilizes a swimming pool to nice effect, carrying on the water imagery employed earlier.

I'm beginning to worry that Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar nominated performance in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" may have been a fluke. As Romeo, he looks pretty, but does little to make Romeo a fully fleshed out character. Claire Danes on the other hand is simply luminous and is the best thing about this film. Shakespeare's iambic pentameter falls out of her mouth like the most natural dialogue. Danes' is a fresh and winning performance.

I also enjoyed British actress Miriam Margoyles as Juliet's Hispanic nurse. This character has always provided the comic relief of the play and she does an amusing turn. John Leguizamo is completely over the top as Tybalt. His performance is anything but subtle but it was entertaining. He's also got the most outlandish wardrobe - silver healed boots and all.

Paul Sorvino and Diane Verona are just awful as the parental Capulets. Brian Dennehy is stiff as Papa Montague and Christina Pickles makes little impression as his wife. Pete Postlethwaite is just plain weird as Father Laurence.

There is pleasure to be found in some of the smaller touches in the film. When Father Laurence needs to get a message to the banished Romeo, he sends it Federal Express style using the Post Haste Delivery Service. A choir singing in a church isn't delivering some usual religious hymn, but Prince's "When Doves Cry."

"William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" is an admirable failure. What it needed was more concentration on developing the story and characters and less concentration on the style and razzle dazzle.

C+

Robin ROBIN:
This rendition of "Romeo and Juliet" is a real hepcat telling of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. It starts out fast and flashy, with near comic book action in the opening scenes. Kind of what you'd expect if Sam Rami met the Bard.

Right off the bat, director Baz Luhrmann ("Strictly Ballroom") updates the play to a mythical, modern Miami, where two gangs, the Montagues and the Capulets, of course, rule the city. Traditional swords are replaced with some really cool hand guns with names like Rapier and Saber, with the gunfights replacing the sword fights. Imaginative ways of identifying the players to their respective families helps to keep who's who in order.

Unfortunately, slick, stylish sets and fast, cutting camera work do not lend themselves to this story, especially with the awkward effort of preserving the Bard's dialogue. The dialogue does work fine in the romantic scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Dane, as the star-crossed lovers, but often falls flat in other scenes. Mercutio's "curse on both your houses" death scene also works well. Not so the rest.

With the exception of John Leguizamo as Tibalt, most of the young cast seemed more suited for community playhouse work.

Terribly wasted are Brian Denahey and Paul Sorvino as the family patriarchs.

Miriam Margoyles and Pete Postlethwaithe are solid as the Nurse and Father Laurence, but, are fairly minor supporting characters.

The death scene (I'm not giving anything away, am I?) is grandly done using hundreds of candles for lighting, to good effect. As a matter of fact, there are several scenes where use of set is quite effective.

The pieces of the film that are interesting are, unfortunately, not enough to salvage the execution of the entire story.

I also discovered that I really don't care for the story about two snotty-nosed teenagers named "Romeo and Juliet." Sorry, Bill.

I give "Romeo and Juliet" a C.


RANSOM (1996)

Director Ron Howard's newest film, "Ransom," stars Mel Gibson as airline tycoon Tom Mullen, a man who has it all - a beautiful wife, a son he adores, and a successful business.

He has it all. Until, one day, his world is shattered when his son, Sean, is kidnapped by desperate criminals and held for a ransom of $2 million!

After an badly aborted attempt by the FBI to free the boy, Mullen takes matters into his own hands, placing a $4 million bounty on the kidnappers' heads, instead of paying their ransom demand.

The script is based on the 1956 film of the same title, starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed.

This version of "Ransom" also stars Rene Russo as Mullen's wife, Kate, Gary Sinise, Delroy Lindo and Lili Taylor.

Robin ROBIN:
Ron Howard has proven himself, over the years, to be a true craftsman in the art of filmmaking. Take note of last year's "Apollo 13" as an example of how he has finely honed his directing skills. So, my expectations were high going into "Ransom" and I'm glad to report that Howard has delivered another quality effort.

"Ransom," while not a great film, is a finely crafted work with a solid combination of directing, acting and writing. All the film's elements are solid, rather than exceptional, with the notable exception of a terrific, almost explosive, performance by Gary Sinise. This solidity keeps it a first rate thriller, but a step away from greatness.

The cast, headed by Gibson in a strong, pretty convincing performance, are fully developed characters, not two dimensional.

Rene Russo has the tough job as Tom Mullen's suffering wife, Kate. She acquits herself in the last third as she reaches the limits of her patience and support of her husband. Suffering wife roles have to be the least enviable for a supporting actress. Russo does her best.

Delroy Lindo is one of those actors who came out of nowhere and gives one good performance after another. He was probably the only interesting character in the horrible "Congo," playing a corrupt army officer. He's good in "Ransom" as the head FBI agent on the case.

Gary Sinise, as I said, is outstanding in the role of a cop-turned-bad. He definitely deserves Oscar attention. Like Lindo, he's another actor hard pressed to give a bad performance.

The kidnappers and the portrayal of their tense interaction as things go awry in their ransom plans plays well. Donnie Wahlberg, as the most sensitive of the kidnappers, gives a good performance as a man torn between his heart and the criminal deed he helps commit. Lili Taylor may be making her first inroad into mainstream film.

Production values are uniformly first rate all around.

I may not consider, yet, Ron Howard as a great director. He certainly has proven himself to be a bankable and talented one.

I give "Ransom" a strong B+ and recommend it as a top notch thriller.

Laura LAURA:
"Ransom" is a real crowd pleaser - solid mainstream entertainment, well acted by big name stars like Mel Gibson as well as Indie up-and-comers like Lili Taylor and well directed by Ron Howard. I'll go on the books as saying this is my favorite Ron Howard film so far.

The casting is an interesting mix of the mainstream and indie film worlds. Gibson and Rene Russo have been partnered before ("Lethal Weapon III") and they work again here in a different kind of relationship. Together for years and very wealthy, the stress of having their only child kidnapped combined by Gibson's unorthodox way of dealing with the kidnappers puts a real strain on their marriage. Gary Sinise as the kidnapping mastermind and cop gone bad is evil to the core. He and Delroy Lindo, as the FBI agent advising the parents, are the bridges between mainstream and indie film actors, as they play in both fields. Lili Taylor is the indie film queen of the year and gives an interesting performance here, in her first big commercial film, as Sinise's lover. It's an interesting parallel to see the two main kidnappers' relationship undergo stress just as their intended victims do. Liev Schreiber ("Party Girl," "Denise Calls Up"), Evan Handler ("Natural Born Killers") and Donnie Wahlberg (of New Kids on the Block fame, in his film debut) round out the kidnappers.

The film is taut and very well editted. It's top notch all around technically, except for one barely excusable boom mike shot.

My one minor complaint is that once the kidnappers are felled and the child (Nick Nolte's son Brawley, also in his film debut) is returned, Mel must go through one more perilous round with Sinise. This device may have worked in the original "Halloween," but it's been done to death since then. To his credit, Ron Howard managed to keep this coda interesting, but I still had to roll my eyes at the rather weak way the segue into it was handled.

B+


THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES

La Streisand brings us a romanticized version of a 1950's French film, "The Mirror Has Two Faces." She's Rose Morgan, the supposedly schlumpy Columbia professor, who's a master of her classroom but not of her love life. Her glamorous sister Claire (Mimi Rogers) marries Alex (Pierce Brosnan), the love of Rose's life and Rose's mother (Lauren Bacall) does little to boost her self image. Then she meets Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges), another Columbia professor who's developed a strange theory about relationships (sex ruins them), but is the first man to really offer her one.

Laura LAURA:
I was afraid going into this that Barbra was going to do another narcissistic turn like "The Prince of Tides" especially given the ugly duckling-swan theme, but she surprised me and kept it toned down! "The Mirror Has Two Faces" is a good old fashioned woman's picture right down to the soft focus lighting and Marvin Hamlisch score. Suspend disbelief and wait for two people to wake up and realize they're perfect for each other!

Lauren Bacall's a standout as the flinger of acerbic one-liners. She also gets her dramatic scene in a watershed exchange with Streisand where she finally tells her daughter that she thinks she's pretty.

Jeff Bridges is charmingly befuddled and Barbra doesn't take herself quite so seriously. George Segal is also fun as Bridge's pal and confidant. Mimi Rogers is tart as the beautiful woman who takes her luck for granted, clicking off husbands as she diets through life. Brenda Vaccaro is solid as Rose's pal and counterpoint to Rogers.

There are some terrific scenes in this film. On their second date, Bridges takes Streisand to a Christmas concert, also attended by the womanizing Segal and a few of Streisand's students. Volumes are spoken by the eye contact made and not made among the different characters. When Bridges ticks off the components of the ritual Streisand goes through upon ordering a salad, both Rose and the audience realize that he cares for her more than he's let on, even though he doesn't.

One weird problem with the film is that Streisand's Rose is more appealing as the ugly duckling than she is after the makeover.

"The Mirror Has Two Faces" is definitely a 'chick flick', but it's one I'd wholeheartedly recommend (unlike the earlier "The First Wives' Club").

B

Robin ROBIN:
As Laura can attest, I did not walk in to see "The Mirror Has Two Faces" with anything vaguely approaching enthusiasm. The idea of a 2+ hour film made by and starring Barbra Streisand is not something I, personally, look forward to.

To my mildly pleasant surprise, I found "Mirror" to be a nicely crafted little romantic comedy - I say little because, if Streisand were not in charge of this project, I doubt that this would be considered an "A-level" film.

Streisand, as the ugly duckling Rose, is more appealing a person than she is when she changes into the beautiful swan. My first reaction when she comes out all sexed-up was "what in hell has she done to her hair?." Also, following the metamorphosis, we get subjected to several Babs legs shots, which I objected to vehemently in "Prince of Tides." I think it's in her contract for a minimum of three leg close-ups per film.

The writing is cliched and, often times, silly. Jeff Bridges' character, Gregory, fares worse from this, especially early on in the film, when he does stupid things like call a sex-line to get advise for the lovelorn. This is supposed to be from a highly educated man. Stuff like this bothers me in a film.

Supporting cast, particularly Lauren Bacal and George Segal, photography and music are first rate. There is the particularly nice use of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," sung by Luciano Pavarotti, as a coda to the end of the film, reinforcing the story's romance.

Make no mistake about it: This is a consummate chick flick with lots of romantic appeal, beautifully soft lighting (esp. for Babs), humor and a suitably upbeat, romantic ending. There is also a adolescent silliness in the actions of the leads that would be more realistic if these characters were much younger and not the highly educated, supposedly mature, professionals presented.

At the one hour mark, during a rather talky interlude, I got bored. But all in all, I recovered quickly. High praise from me for a Barbra Streisand film.

Guys might make points using this as a date flick.

I give it a B-


101 DALMATIANS (1996)

Nearly 40 years ago, Walt Disney Pictures brought us the terrific animation classic, "101 Dalmatians," which has since entertained generations of kids, both big and small, around the world.

Now, Disney presents a live action remake of the venerable story, produced and written by John Hughes, and directed by Stephen Herek who made last year's hit, "Mr. Holland's Opus."

This modern telling of the adventures of Pongo and Perdy and their human "pets," played by Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, is based on the novel by Dodie Smith and brings back that quintessential bad guy, Cruella DeVil, this time played live by Glenn Close.

Robin ROBIN:
Let's keep this brief.

The live remake of "101 Dalmatian" is a terrific film with outstanding costume and set design that, faithfully, captures the original story. It also has Glenn Close giving an absolutely terrific performance as the wickedly evil Cruella DeVil.

It rivals the animated original - I never thought I'd say that, ever - and is a great film to take the kids to this holiday season, with loads of laughs. The makers used animal expressions, body language and sound in place of dialogue, a la "Babe" and the original "Dalmatians," to communicate. It works beautifully.

Don't waste your time, or your kids' time, with the likes of "Space Jam" and "Jingle All The Way." I give "101 Dalmatian" an enthusiastic A.

Laura LAURA:
I always get worried when I hear about a remake of a classic - why mess with perfection, which the animated version of "101 Dalmatians" clearly is. Well, I'm ecstatic to report that Disney's pulled it off! Glenn Close is Cruella DeVil personified and even gets a better comeupance than the original 'greatest Disney villain ever' did!

Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson are also perfectly cast as Roger and Anita. Joan Plowright is dead on as Nanny. Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams are an amusing Jasper and Horace. John Shrapnel is creepy as Skinner, a character that did not appear in the animated version.

Mostly the story sticks very closely to the original. Roger's a video game programmer instead of a songwriter. Skinner is an animal-hater (he was grossly misfigured by a dog) who's employed by Cruella to procure rare animal pelts. Anita works for DeVil as a designer for DeVil's couture house. That's about it for the changes.

'101 Dalmatians' gives "Babe" a real run for its money in getting real animals to perform - not only do we have the Dalmatians, but also other dog breeds, birds, cows, horses, cats, mice and racoons. Unfortunately, the racoons are a bit of a distraction, as they're the only species which are obviously animatronic.

The art direction, costume and makeup are weird and wonderful. Cruella's gloves feature talonned fingertips! Her white, black and red wardrobe will surely nab an Oscar nomination (as, I hope, will Glenn Close!).

Watch for some amusing Disney self references (the puppies are watching "The Aristocats," Close gives the 'mirror, mirror' speech from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves").

The 1996 "101 Dalmatians" is a delight!


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