UNHOOK THE STARS - HOTEL DE LOVE - THAT DARN CAT (1997)
ABSOLUTE POWER - ROSEWOOD - AN EYE FOR JUSTICE (RAISING HELL, DRANCY)

UNHOOK THE STARS

Nick Cassevetes, following in dad John Cassevetes' footsteps, directs his mother Gena Rowlands in "Unhook the Stars," which he cowrote with Helen Caldwell.

Rowlands is Mildred, a retired widow experiencing empty nest syndrome. Her successful son lives in San Francisco and her disgruntled daughter (Moira Kelly) has just left home. A new child is delivered to her doorstop and into her heart when the flighty abused and abandoned mom from across the street, Monica Warren played by Marisa Tomei, needs a babysitter.

J.J., played by Jake Lloyd of "Jingle All the Way," is a quiet boy, but Mildred manages to bring him out of his shell while influencing his nutsy mom to step a bit back into hers.

Laura LAURA:
"Unhook the Stars" is a wonderful showcase for the talents of Gena Rowlands who gives a wonderful, if quiet, performance as Mildred, a woman who choses to embrace life rather than retire from it. In any other year, Rowlands surely would have garnered an Oscar nomination for her work here. The real surprise comes from Marisa Tomei, however, whose performance in "Unhook the Stars" is far better than the role which won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in "My Cousin Vinnie."

Also noteworthy in the supporting cast is David Thorton as Frankie, Monica's abusive husband whose love for her and his son is strong enough for him to eventually turn over a new leaf; Gerard Depardieu as the romantic Canadian trucker whose crush on Mildred is sweet and totally believable and Jake Lloyd as the emotionally battered little boy who becomes grounded and whole in Mildred's care.

Cassevetes and Caldwell's script has many great moments, some funny such as Monica's tipsy attempt to pick up Mildred's straight-laced son in front of his wife all the while making a date to meet another man in a bar, some poignant such as Mildred's dignity when accepting Christmas gifts through her car window in the pouring rain from the socially-challenged Monica. Mildred also has some terrifically philosophical yet totally sensible lines like 'Love is like a weed. You don't even notice it's there, but if you really try, you can kill it. Your husband WILL stop loving you.'

Cassevetes love for his mom is evident in this solidly directed character study of a senior citizen who is taken for granted by those around her until she surprises them all with her independence. It's a terrific small film.

A-

ROBIN:
The real treat in "Unhooks the Stars" is watching the mature, assured and talented performance by Gena Rowlands. Rowlands has had a terrific career, with two Oscar nominations for "A Woman Under The Influence" and "Gloria", both directed by her late husband, John Cassavettes. Here, Rowlands give another Oscar-worthy, but unnoticed, performance, this time directed by her son Nick Cassavettes.

Mildred is at the end of her current life, following her husbands death. Only, she doesn't know it yet. What son Nick, and co-writer Helen Caldwell, tell is about that slice of life experienced by Mildred between two lives - the one shes known for 40 years or more, and the one yet to live. The story, in between, is a charming tale of a woman needing to be needed, at least for a little while, and the little extended family she adopts.

Marisa Tomei gives a solid performance as Monica, the young firebrand of a mother to little J.J., nicely played by Jake Lloyd. She's tough and loud, but shows real affection for the boy. She works well off of Rowlands and the friendship and trust that develops between the two rings true.

The relationship that develops between Mildred and J.J. is that of best friends, with the closeness between the two evident, but not overtly sentimental or schmarmy. "Unhook the Stars" compares favorably, on this level, to the Czech Oscar entry, this year, for best foreign film, "Kolya".

Gerard Depardieu give a warm, gentle, bear of a performance as a French Canadian trucker who becomes smitten with Mildred.

Nick Cassavettes deals with, much like his father, the subject of drastic life upheavals and change. Where John's work dealt with the darker, more angst ridden, side of life, Nick keeps "Unhook" on a positive, upbeat note, using humor throughout to keep the overall tone of the film light. Light, but with real substance of character.

I would call "Unhook the Stars" John Cassavattes-lite, but that would not pay it and its makers the respect that they deserve. A fine first effort by Nick Cassavettes.

B+


HOTEL DE LOVE

"Hotel de Love" is the feature film debut by Australian writer-director Craig Rosenberg, telling the story of fraternal twin brothers, Stephen and Rick Dunne, both of whom have had a ten year amorous crush on Rick's teenage sweetheart, Melissa (Saffron Brown, "Circle of Friends").

Now, it's ten years later. Stephen is a successful, but lonely, stockbroker who has pined over Melissa for a decade. Rick isn't much better off. He, too, has longed for Melissa and has cooled his heels as the manager of romantic hideaway, Hotel de Love.

As circumstance would have it, lonely Stephen, Rick and Melissa come together, once again, after their long separation, with things not much farther along, emotionally, than they were ten years earlier.

ROBIN:
My complaint about "Hotel de Love", besides it being a lifeless, flaccid comedy, is that there is virtually nothing original about it - except, maybe, some of the fantasy room sets at the hotel, but, those were mostly silly, and not well integrated into the story.

Most of the humor derived from the very lame screenplay by the director, Craig Rosenberg, is predictable from the start. One subplot, involves the brothers' parents staying at the Hotel to rekindle their marriage, but seem fated to split up, especially when the mother appears to have a secret admirer. But, NO! It's the father who was the secret admirer all the time! Unfortunately, you figured this out from the start. This is typical of the derivative, unoriginal nature of the screenplay.

Acting is sub par across all three principles. Saffron Brown, who played a shallow, vacuous, golddigger in "Circle of Friends" isn"t a gold-digger in "Hotel de Love". Shallow and vacuous, yes, but not a gold-digger. I thought it was her character in "Circle". Now, I think, she's just not a very good actor.

Aden Young, as sexy brother, Rick, and Simon Bossell, as Stephen, have little spark as brothers or characters. Bossell, amusing early on, is particularly notable in his lack of charm and believability as the film progresses.

Supporting cast is without note, being consistent with the rest of the film.

I am surprised that:

a) "Hotel de Love" is releasingoutside Australia; and,

2) some sucker financed it.

I dont look forward to the next Craig Rosenberg effort. Maybe there won't be one, if Im lucky.

D+

Laura LAURA:
"Hotel de Love" tries too hard to be quirky and ends up an episodic, TV quality, cliche-driven, manic, noisy mess. I'm amazed this one found theatrical distribution outside of Australia.

In typical romanic farce fashion, everyone gets someone other than whom the audience has been led to expect they'll get, accept for the twins' battling parents. If anyone has anyone doubts as to who's been sending Mom anonymous love letters signed 'Lord Byron,' they must not have ever seen another movie in their life.

The Hotel de Love is a theme hotel that only really comes up with three sets - the Garden of Eden room, a sports room and an underground cave-type room. A little more ingenuity could have brought the decor to the forefront a bit more and involve it in the comedy - here it's just a backdrop that quickly fails to amuse.

The film also features such inexplicable plot-drivers as a bride who spends more time advising the idiots who make up the cast than honeymooning and a really cheesy video montage.

While Simon Bossell makes for an appealing and sympathetic lead, he blows his appeal by letting his performance devolve into a string of muggings for the camera. No one else in the cast is noteworthy at all.

Director Craig Rosenberg should go back to the drawing board.

D


THAT DARN CAT (1997)

Disney updates its 1965 film "That Darn Cat" with Christina Ricci ("The Addams Family," "Casper") in the Haley Mills role and Doug E. Doug ("Operation Dumbo Drop," "Cool Runnings") as an inept FBI man.

Patti Randall is black-garbed 16 year old outsider in her quiet and quaint home town of Edgefield, Massachusetts. Her cat DC has a knack for running across all kinds of strange scenes in that same quiet town on his nocturnal ramblings, though, and returns from one with a watch around his neck. Patti, believing that this is a call for help from a kidnap victim who's been prominently in the news, goes as far as trying to file a report with the F.B.I. when no one else will listen to her. She's sent to file a report with Agent Kelso as a joke by his superiors, but he thinks she may be on to something.

Laura LAURA:
"That Darn Cat" is a disappointing, rather warmed over Disney offering that would have been far more suitable as an after-school special than a theatrical release. I was expecting more, especially given that this film features the screenwriting team of "Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt!"

Christina Ricci seems to have modelled her character on Winona Ryder's disenchanted, black-clad outsider in "Beetlejuice." Ryder had more cause for morbidity, however.

Elvis, the well-trained cat who costars as D.C. (as in 'Darn Cat'), can make the moves but lacks personality. His funniest scene is when we get a shot of him bound and gagged by the kidnappers.

Doug E. Doug mostly mugs, although he does have one cool turn at physical comedy when he decides to 'think like a cat.'

The oddball town is populated by Lu (Megan Cavanaugh of "A League of Their Own"), the butcher who vamps out and delivers love packets of meat cuts to her undeclared love; candy store owners Peter Boyle ("Young Frankenstein") and Rebecca Schull (Faye on TV's "Wings") who waltz by night; an eccentric shutin (Estelle Parsons) who makes prank phone calls and a pair of warring gas station owners who exist primarily to provide the explosions during the anticlimatic chase scene. In a nice casting touch, the original film's star, Dean Jones, has a cameo as a bankrupt business tycoon with a vain wife played by Dyan Cannon.

The film is saved by the parental Randells, played by Michael McKean ("Spinal Tap") and Bess Armstrong (TV's "My So Called Life"). Dad is understanding of his daughter, has a good sense of humor and is a great role model. Mom is relentlessly chirpy and wholesome, which really drives her daughter to distraction (a running joke involves Patti's attempts to get her Mom to 'swear' by saying the word 'hell').

Unfortunately, when these two aren't in the film, there's not too much to latch on to. I know I'm in trouble when I'm already checking my watch at the 45 minute mark. The ending of the film is an over-long, silly, nonsensical chase scene which is nothing but an excuse for some pyrotechnics and lots of cats to run around.

C


ABSOLUTE POWER

"Absolute Power" is the latest in the presidential conspiracy films, falling fast on the heals of the failed "Shadow Conspiracy". Clint Eastwood produced, directed and stars as Luther Whitney, a master thief at the end of his career, where one last heist will set him up for the rest of his life.

The job takes him into the home of Walter Sullivan, the patriarch of American politics and mentor to the current president. During the robbery, Luther secretly observes Sullivan's wife and her lover as they begin a romantic liaison which turns violent, then deadly, ending in the muder of the woman at the hands of the guards of her lover.

Luther's life is put in jeopardy when he realizes the lover is Alan Richmond, the President of the United States (Gene Hackman), and the murder is just the beginning of a major cover-up!

ROBIN:
At the end of "Absolute Power", I was surprised, nay, shocked to learn that Eastwood, himself, directed and produced this mildly amusing, but extremely stupid, little thriller.

Delivering little of the talent displayed in his Oscar-winner, "Unforgiven", and last years Oscar-nominated, "The Bridges of Madison County", Eastwood's "Absolute Power" tells a story of corruption and cover-up that is ludicrous in both its concept and its execution. Using the person of the President of the United States as the linchpin of a murder cover-up is titillating, at first. But, as the story progresses, the conspiracy grows, and other elements, such as a hit man hired by the vengeful husband (E.G. Marshall), and a loony White House Chief of Staff organizing the cover-up, hilariously played by Judy Davis, are thrown into the mix. The ensuing melange of a movie is riddled with plot problems that sock you in the eye.

At one point, the conspirators decide that Luthers daughter, Kate (Laura Linney), is the key to drawing the master thief out of hiding. They muff, royally, the first attempt using her as a decoy, so, they decide to kill her off because she's too smart. The bad guys, painfully and sadly played by Scott Glenn and his psycho Secret Service partner, Dennis Haysbert - I would think that the Secret Service would reject a candidate that checks off "Yes" to the employment application question, "Are you a homicidal, lunatic, socio-path?" - decide to kill her by pushing her car off a cliff, then, neglect to make sure she's dead. (She's not). THEN, the would be assassins drive right past their quarry, Luther, looking him square in the eye, and do nothing. Huh? Pushing his daughter off a cliff does give Luther reason for revenge against the president, but is incredibly inept story telling. This wasn't the only flaw. There are other equally blatant plot holes and problems, as well.

This is unfortunate because Eastwood, and many of his cast, succeed in giving decent performances. Eastwood pokes fun at the stigma of age in our society, touting himself as a fragile member of A.A.R.P. (American Association of Retired People), while portraying a dynamic master thief at the pinnacle of his talent. He is relaxed and fluid, displaying his trademark sense of humor in many of his scenes. He also handles the physical aspects well for such a delicate old gent.

Of the supporting cast, Ed Harris as Detective Seth Frank is the best of the lot. His scenes with Eastwood, as they play their cat and mouse game of cop and criminal, show a nice development of respect and liking between the two men.

Judy Davis, as Gloria Russell, gives an outrageously over-the-top performance as the ditzy, ambitious, conniving, deceitful, airhead presidential chief of staff. She's so loony tunes, though, its hard to imagine shed be hired to such a responsible position. I sincerely HOPE this is just fiction. She is a hoot, anyway.

E.G. Marshall lends his long experience and dignity to his role as the senior patriarch of American politics. Sadly, he is involved in the nonsensical ending that still has me scratching my head. I wont give the ending away, just in case you want the surprise, should you deign to spend your hard earned dollars.

I said that Scott Glenn looked sad and pained, and this is true. More sad and pained is Gene Hackman in the thankless role of the President. He chews scenery, gesturing, broadly, and swaggering with drink in hand, barking orders and threatening his underlings. Hackman looks the least comfortable I've ever seen. This discomfort is obvious in his performance.

"Absolute Power" is the surprise of the first biggies for 1997. Unfortunately, the surprise is on us, the viewer, who are subjected to a stupid, unbelievable story that is peppered with plot holes and inconsistencies.

Good actors elevate this disappointing and lame effort by a respected filmmaker. I guess we all, including one of America's pop cultural icons, can make a mistake.

C+

Laura LAURA:
"Absolute Power" is a mixed bag which ranges from outrageously stupid to delightfully clever to blissfully campy. It works as popcorn entertainment if you're willing to forgive a few real groaners.

The biggest disappointment is Eastwood's direction - this is his crassest work by far, with none of his style apparent. Frankly, I was surprised when his directing credit came up.

His character is interesting, though, as the master thief with a conscience as well as a talent for disappearing. His daughter knows when he's been around by the nutrional food that appears in her refrigerator! Their relationship is a nice touch and Laura Linney gives a confident performance.

Ed Harris is the best thing in the film as the detective on the case who's caught between the thief and the REAL criminals within the U.S. Government. His initial scene with Eastwood in an art museum is the best in the film. Eastwood has a field day goofing on pacemakers and the AARP and he ruminates on his own skill in the third person by remarking to Harris 'imagine the skill of breaking the security at a security firm.'

Judy Davis is a hoot and provides the film with its camp factor. Her twitchy and 'rhymes with twitchy' chief of staff will go to any lengths to protect her thoroughly despicable boss who she has a twisted desire for. Hackman walks through his role as the sleezy president, but enjoys the films other great scene - when he informs Davis during a very public dance at a White House reception that the diamond necklace she was duped into believing was a gift from him was actually worn by his lover on the night she was killed.

E.G. Marshall is effective as the rich, elderly presidential backer who has been betrayed horribly by his protegee and his young wife. Unfortunately he's saddled with delivering one of the more ludicrous plot 'twists.'

B-


ROSEWOOD

"Rosewood", by director John Singleton ("Boyz N The Hood"), tells the story of the incendiary events that lead to the destruction of the flourishing black township of Rosewood, Florida, during the first week of January 1923.

Fueled by the false claim by poor white trash, Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner), that she was assaulted and beaten by a black stranger, the redneck men of the neighboring town of Sumner declare all out war on the black community, killing, with impunity, many black citizens, including Rosewoods matriarch, Sarah Carrier, played by the estimable Esther Rolle.

During the horror of these events, two men - one black, one white - form an unlikely alliance and join to rescue dozens of terrified women and children from the swamps of Florida and death at the hands of the bloodthirsty mob.

ROBIN:
John Singleton, with "Rosewood", proves himself to be a capable and talented director, bringing to life a piece of violent American history that some would have preferred left unremembered. And, while Rosewood is an extremely well-crafted effort, showing strong control by Singleton on the technical side, the story that he adapts is so unrelentingly heavy handed in its black vs white conflict that I felt pummeled when I left the theater.

The screenplay, by Gregory Poirier, is based on a true incident, where, if the film is even vaguely accurate, represents one of the great American shames of the 20th century. Early on, the story sets the stage for the mindless violence that ensues, engulfing the black township of Rosewood. Once the stage is set, Poirier's screenplay then proceeds to make its point over and over and over and over - bad white people are the bane of good black folk. It doesn't go so far as to say all white people are bad. Some, children and those outside the poor white trash town of Sumner, are shown in a positive light, but only briefly.

Most of the acting in "Rosewood" is stalwart. The actors work hard and give, mostly, solid performances.

Ving Rhames, reprising the type of role, the lone stranger, popularly introduced by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" decades ago, is mainly window dressing for the bulk of the film. He establishes a presence early on, but that presence remains ambiguous until he gets to perform his true function in the story - to save the survivors of the mayhem in a spectacular train escape. The escape sequence looks really good, and is uplifting, but is out of place with the somber temperament of the rest of the movie.

Jon Voight plays John Wright, a kindly, but misguided storekeeper in Rosewood, whose loyalties are all mixed up. His racial loyalties are white, but his emotional loyalties are more eclectic. Voight succeeds in giving a sympathetic performance, displaying the humanity of his character, as well as his flaws and human weakness. His is the best, most layered, performance in the film.

The rest of the cast, no pun intended, are cast in hues of black and white, without being much more than representatives of a type - Don Cheadle is an earnest music teacher wanting only justice for his people; Michael Rooker, when you can understand his almost intelligible rantings, represents the white guy torn between loyalty to his race and dedication to the system of justice; others in the cast represent various aspects of good, bad, right, wrong, ignorance, intelligence, etc.

"Rosewood" is a hard story to tell. The subject matter dictates that it be a harsh, unforgiving look at a recent injustice in America's racial history. The harshness of the story, however, does not lend itself to active viewer sympathy. The relentless manner in which it preaches the horror of the event for the films 2+ hours is not going to draw the audience who should see Rosewood. It should, but it wont.

A solid effort by Singleton, but he has to understand that most of us don't like being hit over the head with a message film. Especially one that we agree with.

B-

Laura LAURA:
John Singleton makes an earnest effort to present a horrific episode in American history. The events which take place in "Rosewood" happened in 1923, but didn't come to light until 1982. A prosperous black community was completely eradicated except for the property of the town's single white resident, shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight).

"Rosewood" is part Holocaust, part 'the man with no name', with a dash of "Runaway Train" and a "Gone With the Wind" shot (for a bit of irony, perhaps?). The film features interesting set design - the town was recreated based on memories of a survivor. Color is muted. Singleton particularly wanted to avoid the use of red, except for some specific accents.

Ving Rhames ("Pulp Fiction," "Dave," "Striptease) is Mann, a WWI veteran who rides into town and the wrong time and falls for Scrappy, a 17 year old who brings him home for dinner. The character of Mann was made up for dramatic effect - he's a heroic cowboy. I've enjoyed Rhames more in some of his other performances more, but he's serviceable here.

Jon Voight creates an interesting character as the conflicted and cowardly white man who finally comes around and takes action after his religious wife shows some backbone.

Don Cheadle ("Devil in a Blue Dress") is Sylvester, a man who refuses to leave Rosewood at the Sheriff's urging only to sees his beloved mother killed and his home torched.

Michael Rooker ("Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer") as the town's sheriff manages to mumble and shout at the same time. This is a broad stroke of a weak Cracker who, while horrified at events, lets the mob rule.

Esther Rolle is Sylvester's mother and the town's Aunt Sarah, the woman who knows the truth behind the incident which sets off the terrible chain of events.

Singleton creates some truly horrifying scenes of lynchings, mass graves, a Cracker father trying to teach hate and racism to his sensitive son, Cracker voices travelling over phone lines callying outlying towns to join in the melee, and the KKK roiled up with blood fever.

However much of this is undercut by heavy handedness and some rather inexplicable turns at the film's end. (If the sheriff really knew the truth, why did he witness the deaths of all those he was paid to protect before coming out with it? Why is a fleeing black man pushed from the train that's bringing other blacks to safety? It's not like he'd slow the train down....)

"Rosewood" is a decent production that felt more like it was good for me than evoked admiration like a film such as "Schindler's List" did.

B-


AN EYE FOR JUSTICE - FILMS BY STEPHEN TROMBLEY

During the month of March, the MFA (Boston) is presenting a retrospective of 5 films by award-winning documentarian Stephen Trombley. All films deal with life and death issues of justice in the twentieth century. We've been able to preview two of them. 1994's "Drancy" is a 1 hour film about a half built apartment complex 7 km. outside of Paris which was turned into a concentration camp in 1941.

1995's "Raising Hell" is a 90 minute film about Missouri death row inmate A.J. Bannister who was convicted as a paid assassin. The film casts doubt on the case and argues that Bannister, who never denied shooting his victim, did so in the course of an argument.

"Drancy" will be shown along with "Nuremburg" (a 52 min. film on the Nuremburg trials) on 3/8 and 3/13.

"Raising Hell" will be shown on 3/13 and 3/29.

"The Execution Protocol," a 90 minute feature on capital punishment in Missouri, the first state to use the lethal injection method, will be screened on 3/6 and 3/29 with the director present on the 6th.

"The Lynchburg Story," a 60 minute film on the sterilization of over 8,000 institutionalized children in Virginia, will be shown on 3/20 and 3/22.

Laura LAURA:
"Raising Hell" is the more compelling film of the two I saw. It presents an intriguing story with an interesting central character. This man does not come across as a hired gun, let alone a death row inmate. It features interesting cinematography and is well editted. "Raising Hell" is good story telling and a solid piece of work.

"Drancy," however, is a more by-the-numbers talking heads intercut with archival footage documentary. Devices such as numerous shots of trains during narration describing the deportation of Jews have been used to better effect in better Holocaust documentaries such as "Shoah." There are many documentaries on this subject matter, and many more powerful in their impact than this entry. "Drancy" is of specialized interest, mostly because of its French locale.


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