BELOVED - PLEASANTVILLE - PRACTICAL MAGIC
HOLY MAN - THE MIGHTY - ONE TOUGH COP

BELOVED

Adapted from Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs"), "Beloved" stars Oprah Winfrey as Sethe, a former slave now keeping her own home outside of Cincinnatti with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise, "Set It Off").  One day, Paul D (Danny Glover), a friend from those long ago plantation days, arrives unexpectedly and quickly becomes a member of this strange household.  Sethe was abandoned by her husband when she escaped from slavery with her children, her two sons have since run away and her home is violently haunted by the ghost of her first daughter who died as an infant.  Even this strange existence will be further shattered by the arrival of Beloved (Thandie Newton), a strange wild child who Denver takes under her wing.

Laura LAURA:
"Beloved" is a richly complex, spiritual and supernatural story of the horrors of slavery and its aftermath.  Technically and artistically rendered on screen by Hollywood's creme de la creme, the film is a near masterpiece.

Jonathan Demme and his art director Kristi Zea and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who both also helped create "The Silence of the Lambs," have again created a visually stunning look which provokes as much emotion in the audience as the film's actors.  The opening scene is harrowing - in the kitchen of an old farmhouse children scream as their dog is flung about the room while furniture pitches and the camera swirls.  This farmhouse, with the exception of flashbacks and a few current day forays into the nearby town, is the film's world for 172 minutes.  The filmmakers make the home seem isolated even on a well travelled country road.

Our first introduction to Sethe is as the calming force who tends to the dog's hideous wounds.  Sethe's background will be slowly revealed and as each layer drops a new facet of her character is illuminated as well.  Oprah Winfrey is so sure in this role, she simply is Sethe.  Danny Glover gives a quiet performance as Paul D, the charmingly randy man who loves Sethe, but must come to terms with their past lives before he can truly know her.

Kimberly Elise stands toe to toe with Winfrey as the emotionally scarred Denver, a budding young woman who's grown up free but is imprisoned in her mother's house because of local gossip and her resulting fear of the outside world.  Elise tackles the largest character arc, from timid rebel, to mother figure, to independent savior.  Hers is the emotional performance that will be overshadowed by the flashier, physical performance of Thandie Newton's Beloved.  Newton gives a brave performance as the beautiful blank slate Beloved, a newborn (or reborn) in an adult body.  She crams food into her mouth like an animal, staggers on unfamiliar legs, drools, growls, snores and sputters gutteral utterings with her jaw all askew.  I'm already laying bets that Newton will win 1988's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role.

Also of note is Beah Richards (Best Supporting Actress nominee for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?") as Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law who became a reknowned holy woman for a new community formed of ex-slaves. The cast also features Lisa Gay Hamilton as the young Sethe, Irma P. Hall, Carol Jean Lewis, Dorothy Love Coates, Kessia Kordelle, Jason Robards and many others, all well and fully portrayed no matter how small the role.

Water towards an understanding of her death.

The redemptive story may seem confusing initially, but it eventually all becomes clear.  In a year of too many films that have overstayed their welcome, "Beloved" deserves every bit of its running time.

A

Robin ROBIN:
In his first film since the 1993 Oscar-winning, "Philadelphia," director Jonathan Demme joins forces with co-producer Oprah Winfrey to bring the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved," by Nobel Prize laureate, Toni Morrison, to the big screen after many years in development. This effort, nurtured by Winfrey since the publication of the novel in 1987, is first class in every way, from the superb acting to the terrific technical credits to the no-punches-pulled screenplay adaptation of the source material.

"Beloved" is bound to garner Oscar consideration, at least, come the end of the year, if not locking up one or two awards right now. Oprah Winfrey gives a stunning performance as ex-slave Sethe, a woman who has a brutal past that shaped life for her and those around her, especially her surviving daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise, "Set It Off"). The tragedies inflicted upon Sethe as a slave are shown in flashback (with Lisa Gay Hamilton, "Jackie Brown," as the young Sethe) and are startling in their violence and inhumanity. I won't go into the gory details of the atrocities suffered under slavery. Suffice it to say, the depictions of violence are gut-wrenching. Winfrey uses these scenes to build the character of Sethe into a true person. Never an Oprah fan, I was surprised to see how deftly the talkshow magnate made me forget the actor and immerse myself in her character.

The entrance of Paul D (Danny Glover) back into Sethe's life after an 18 year absence is a catalyst for the woman as he helps her renew an inner passion she thought was long-dead. Paul D is the last survivor of their hometown, Sweethome, where the two were slaves. The unspoken mystery of their painful pasts, made evident only by the sight of the healed, numerous whip marks as a reminder of the slave days, is soothed by the show of affection between the two. Glover plays nicely off of Winfrey and is a strong enough actor to hold his own with the outstanding femme perfs.

Two dazzling performances by the young co-stars, Thandie Newton and Kimberly Elise, as the title character, Beloved, and Denver, are examples of some of the best young acting available in the industry. Elise is solid through the entire film as the distressed Denver, a young woman who has lived in the shadows of her mother's life-long anguish and whose own life may be ruined because of it. This is a break through performance for Elise. It is a little unfortunate that she is opposite of Newton.

Thandie Newton ("Gridlock'd") takes on a role that would be tough for a seasoned veteran as the mysterious, beautiful, infant-like Beloved. Beloved is a child born, fully grown, out of the past suffering and guilt of Sethe. Newton is simply incredible as the supernatural, haunting creature who invades Sethe's house, but, somehow, belongs there. The eerie nature of Beloved keeps an edge on the story until its conclusion. Keep Newton in mind at year's end as one of the best supporting actor achievements.

The supporting cast, especially Beah Richards ("Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?") as Sethe's mother-in-law and the spiritual center of the black community, are a rich assortment of character actors who, while not intruding into the story, help to give the narration a good backdrop to hang the story upon.

The adapted screenplay by Ghana-born Akosua Busia, Richard La Gravenese ("A Little Princess") and Adam Brooks (the upcoming "Practical Magic") uses elements of "The Color Purple" for the period feel and "The Shining" for its supernatural edginess. The story sustains the film's quite long run time of 171 minutes, having little excess. Even I, who think a film should be 100 minutes, tops, could see little to edit from the excellent story.

The production team, led by Demme, has a number of long term associates of the director lending their expertise to the work. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto ("Silence of the Lambs") captures the dark and underlying sinister nature of the ghostly story, using grainy textured film for the sepia-toned flashbacks and color-saturated, though digitally muted, film stock for the "present" time of 1873. Production design by second unit director Krista Zea and costume by Colleen Atwood (both of "Silence of the Lambs" and Philadelphia) are dead on and totally in sync with the rest of this excellent production.

The story matter will have a big appeal  to a focused cross section o filmgoer, especially for those looking for a quality outing at the theater. "Beloved" is the first legitimate masterpiece to come around since the likes of "Silence of the Lambs" or Krysztof Kieslowski's "Red."

I give "Beloved" an A.


PLEASANTVILLE

Screenwriter Gary Ross ("Dave," "Big") makes his directing debut from his own script in "Pleasantville." David (Toby McGuire "The Ice Storm") is a repressed teen of the hyperactive 90's whose passion is 50's TV, especially his favorite sitcom (of the film's title). The local nostalgia channel is about to run a 24 hour "Pleasantville" marathon. The only problem is, his sister Jennifer has other plans involving MTV and her new boyfriend. The conflict leads to a broken remote control and the arrival of a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) who replaces the remote with one, he claims, has more "features." The ensuing struggle for control of the remote result in David and Jennifer getting thrust into the heart of Pleasantville.

Robin ROBIN:
Helmer/writer Gary Ross does an exceptional job of capturing the contrast between the 50's and the 90's without everything drawn in terms of, pardon the pun, black and white. David becomes the character Bud  in the TV show and initially believes the morals and wholesome certainties of the time are what he really wants. As he lives, day to day, in the little town, he realizes that no time is perfect and the important things in life are experiencing ideas, emotion and passion. His sister Jennifer, come Mary Sue, is a 90's brat who sees her dilemma as an opportunity to shake things up in the community and have some fun. She also undergoes a change that eventually cause her to embrace her new little world.

Coupled with the perplexity of David and Jennifer's plight is the story of a town coping with drastic change and the rift this causes in the isolated community. Jennifer/Mary Sue gets the ball rolling when she seduces Skip, the captain of the high school basketball team. Suddenly, with his passion released for the first time, he sees color. Skips discovery (of both color and sex) runs like wildfire through the town and colors starts to bloom everywhere. This upsets and scares the conservative members of the town as, not only is sex rearing its head, the thirst for knowledge is also introduced as Bud and Mary Sue bring new ideas to all. At once, the previously blank books in the town start to fill with words and people are reading and thinking.

As knowledge flows, the town fathers, afraid of the changes, introduce a manifesto of rules that must be followed. The result is book burning, segregation, banned music and hate as the B&W's try to force things back to the way they were before color came to Pleasantville. Bud suddenly understands the value of the knowledge gained since the 50's and leads the colors to their rightful place in the community. This aspect of "Pleasantvile" is heavy-handed as writer Ross introduces Nazism, racism and bigotry into the social fabric of the town. This heavy-handed depiction is my only criticism of Ross's story.

The cast of actors presented here is simply terrific. Besides McGuire and Witherspoon, who hold their own with their more mature co-stars, there is Jeff Daniels as soda shop owner and budding impressionist artist Bill. Academy Award winner Joan Allen plays Betty, Bud and Mary Sue's TV mom, a restrained 50's June Cleaver clone who really wants Bill. William H. Macey is dead on as the kids' father, George, who is given the task to say such lines as, "Honey, I'm home!" and "What's for supper?" but is out of touch with the new reality. The late J.T. Walsh is the mayor of Pleasantville, Big Bob, and leads the B&W's in their misbegotten hate for the colors. Don Knotts ("The Ghost and Mr. Chicken") is amusing as the TV repairman who gets the kids into the TV show under the mistaken belief that David's vast knowledge about Pleasantville will help maintain the status quo, not end it.

Technically, the behind the camera talent is great. Set design, by Jannine Oppewall, carries the perfect period feel throughout the film and is complemented by Judianna Makovsky's wonderful costuming. Camera work by John Lindley has the exact look and feel of 50's black and white TV. The introduction of color starts quietly and slowly pervades the town. The real star (among stars) of "Pleasantville" are the phenomenally well-crafted special F/X, combining black and white and color together in the same image with a fascinating subtlety.

"Pleasantville" is a solid premier for director Ross, providing a thought-provoking story, solid acting and wonderful special F/X. This film works on many levels and I give it a B+.

Laura LAURA:
"Pleasantville" is a 1950's family show where mom cooks in heels, pearls and cocktail dresses while dad dispenses cliched one liners disguised as wise advice.  Everything's perfect in Pleasantville until a nerdy 1990s teen and his slutty sister are zapped into its world via the strange remote control provided by a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts).

David and Jennifer (Tobey McGurie, "The Ice Storm," Reese Witherspoon, "Fear") react very differently to their new black and white lives.  David, who's become Bud to parents Betty and George (Joan Allen, "The Ice Storm," William H. Macy, "Fargo"), decides to go along with things until he can figure out how to get back home.  The fact that he can throw a basketball without ever missing is one of the new perfections that enable him to enjoy his stay.  Sister Jennifer, now Mary Sue, was no fan of the show and is the one who's appalled that Pleasantville's firefighters only save cats stuck in trees - they don't fight fires because nothing can burn in this ideal world.  School geography classes consist of discussing where Elm St. intersects Main, restrooms contain no toilets and worst of all, no one's heard of sex.  Jennifer opens the floodgates by 'pinning' an admirerer at lovers' lane and coaching Betty in the art of self love. Soon color begins to appear as people lose their innocence and begin to find their true selves.  There is a dark side to this new age of experimentation, however, as racism, violence, segregation, vandalism and book burning are also introduced to the town.

First time director and experienced screenwriter Gary Ross ("Big," "Dave") has scored another winner with his cleverly written, gorgeously photographed, technically awe inspiring, well acted film.  Tobey McGuire projects just the right amount of nice guy openness as David/Bud who becomes a well-loved hero.  Reese Witherspoon provides a cynical audience point of view, but also gradually blossoms into a serious student in a new world which values more than surface appeal.  Truly terrific are the three adult leads, however.  Joan Allen, one of our best actresses, perfectly captures the essence of one those perky sitcom moms with an underlying note of melancholy.  Jeff Daniels is Bill, the town's soda shop owner who unleashes a passion for art and Betty.  Daniels' initial confusion over any change in his scripted routine turns to empowering delight.  William H. Macy is inspired as the clueless, dorky dad whose shock at returning home to find no wife and no dinner is palpable.

The film simply looks stunning with its intermixing of black and white people interacting with those in full color and a black and white background oddly spruced up by the color crullers inside a pie dome.  (The film was shot in color and then alterred via computer in post production.) Cinematographer John Lindley also uses many varied camera angles to further accentuate the strangeness of Pleasantville.  Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Watts should be noted at year's end for his seamless work here.  Randy Newman's score and a soundtrack that features such numbers as 'Take Five' compliment the visuals.

The very last scene is apparently meant to embrace uncertainty, but I found it to be unsatisfyingly ambiguous.  Otherwise, "Pleasantville" is a modern day fable told with artistic flair.

B+


PRACTICAL MAGIC

Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman) Owens are witches raised by their Aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing). They've always been different, as much from other folks as each other. Sally's the quiet, reflective one who wants to lead a normal life, while Gillian is a partying bombshell.  They both suffer from the same curse, however.  Any man either falls in love with is doomed to an early death.

When Gillian rather unorthodoxly rids herself of her latest conquest, she draws the attention of local police officer Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) to the Owens household.  Despite herself, Sally is immediately drawn to the suspicious cop, who also feels the magnetism.

Laura LAURA:
Alice Hoffman's book "Practical Magic" was a terrific story about the strength of blood ties and the nature of love, flavored with the supernatural. The film adaptation (written by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldman and Adam Brooks) seemed to be ideally cast, yet falls resoundingly flat with a few exceptions.  The alterred ending is also a bad move which throws logic out the window and makes the film seem like a second rate "Hocus Pocus" (which wasn't very first rate to begin with).

Director Griffin Dunne and his editor Elizabeth Kling (both of "Addicted to Love") have fashioned a film that appears to have scenes tacked on in places and editted out in others.  (Chloe Webb, "Sid and Nancy," is sixth billed, yet hardly appears and barely has any lines?)  The result is a lurching affair that rarely gets any momentum going for it.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman both look stunning in the film.  Bullock is mostly melancholy and reflective.  Kidman is sexy and mischievous.  That's about it for character development.  Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest at least get to add humor to the film as the two eccentric aunts who believe children should have chocolate cake for breakfast.  (During a walk through the town with the teenaged Sally, who's bemoaning all the happy couples about, Aunt Jet blithely informs her 'See that couple?  He's having an affair with the babysitter and she can down a pound cake in under a minute.')  Every scene these two are in is worth watching, but unfortunately they're removed from the action for the bulk of the run time.

Aidan Quinn and Bullock manage to stir up a bit of muted chemistry.  Goran Visnjic ("Welcome to Sarajevo") is cookie cutter evil as Gillian's 'transylvanian cowboy.'

The film's only other notable aspect besides Channing and Wiest is its production design by Robin Standefer.  Tunes from Joni Mitchell and witchy woman herself, Stevie Nicks, are included with soundtrack sales in mind.

"Practical Magic" has little chemistry and less movie magic.

C-

Robin ROBIN:
I'd read Alice Hoffman's wonderful novel, "Practical Magic" a short while ago and thought about how easy the story would translate to the screen. The story's scope and pace lends itself well to film - just follow the story. When the adverts for the film, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, started showing at the theaters, I was really excited. Then, I saw "Practical Magic" the movie.

The screen adaptation of the original work, by  film co-producer Robin Swicord ("Matilda") and writers Akiva Goldsman ("Lost in Space") and Adam Brooks ("Beloved"), is a lifeless shell of the novel. Instead of the taut, funny, magical story of the Owens sister, whose heritage of witchery stems back to old Salem witch-hunt days, we get a flat paced, uninteresting story that has Bullock's Sally moping around a lot and sister Gillian (Kidman) snapping wise all the time. The magical aspect of the book gives it a pervasive feeling that immerses the reader into the heart and soul of the story, making you want it to keep on going. For the film, I couldn't wait for it to end.

The build to the main storyline - the accidental killing of the brutal, malevolent boyfriend of Gilly, Jimmy (Goran Visnjic "Welcome to Sarajevo"), and the hapless cover-up by the sisters - doesn't start until well into the film. Once we get to the point, things pick up a bit, as Jimmy's evil pervades the home of the two women, their aunts Frances and Jet (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) and Sally's two daughters. This bit falls short, especially when the aunts depart. (Far too much film time is spent on a night long Margarita binge where the woman bare their souls, supposedly, to each other. It is just a lame bit of staginess that looks and sounds nice, but that's all.)

Channing and Wiest provide the best entertainment of the cast. Aunts Frances and Jet are kooky ladies who have made their magic a part of their life, not suppressing their gift as Sally does. They are the comic relief and save the day in the end. When director Griffin Dunne and his writers remove the aunts from the picture for an extended time, the presence of the two talented actresses is missed. In the book, the two aunts save the day. In the film, their return is muddled by an contrive, feel good ending that draws the townswoman in to aid the previously spurned family. This part was really stupid, considering how ostracized the family is.

For a film about magic and witchcraft, there were not a lot of special F/X, although Jimmy's resurrection is eerily portrayed and the best effect in the film. For that matter, there was more magic in an episode of "Bewitched."

"Practical Magic," on its own. is a less than interesting and not worth the effort. The story is lame and the stars are not stellar. Never mind comparing it to the book. There is no comparison. I give it a disappointed D+.


HOLY MAN

Ricky Hayman (Jeff Goldblum) is a top sales executive at the Good Buy Shopping Network (GBSN) - he lives in a luxurious Miami apartment, drives a flashy sports car, wears expensive clothes and dates a different beautiful woman every night. So what's the problem? The sales on all his televised shopping channels have been flat and falling  for far too long and the new owner of the network, McBainbridge (Robert Loggia), wants things to change - fast. With the help of newly-hired media analyst Kate Newell (Kelly Preston), Ricky struggles to bring up his numbers, but loses ground with every strategy. Until, one day, they meet a man named G (Eddie Murphy), who is on a pilgrimage of personal discovery. Rick realizes that G's honesty and niceness is just the gimmick needed to turn things around in "Holy Man."

Robin ROBIN:
Helmer Stephen Herek ("Mr. Holland's Opus") directs from the script by Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society") and has a solid cast of good actors. But, the shallowness and lack of perspective of the story keeps everyone from delivering anything more than a mundane, mildly amusing comedy.

Eddie Murphy as G is mild mannered and philosophical as a modern Gandhi-like character, but you keep wondering if he is for real or a fake. Is he truly good or is he, in fact, evil incarnate? The ambiguity of the character and his intentions intrudes on the message the film really seems to be trying to make -  "Let go, give in and take the journey." Of course, we don't get a handle on what he means and what he is until near the end. Murphy is serviceable and has an easy, relaxed time portraying the new age shopping club guru. His line delivery is perfunctory, but, then, so are the lines. G's other mission is to be the yenta for Ricky and Kate, keeping the cutesy romance alive.

Jeff Goldblum gives a better performance than in "Independence Day" as the panicky TV exec who is burdened with selling products akin to snake oil - four season door mats, sex-stimulating Clam perfume, and the Insta-tuck home face lift system are only some of the junk Ricky has to sell. He reluctantly brings G into the scheme after the unexpected success of the mystical wanderer on the buying audience. Goldblum, with his rapid fire attempts to talk his way out of his dilemma, evokes his fast talking Ph.D, Ian Malcolm, in "Jurassic Park."

Kelly Preston as love interest Kate is more dimensioned than she has been in the past and comes across in a nice, likable way. Loggia is OK as the gruff and mean-spirited mega-merchant.

The cameo cast, with the likes of James Brown (selling the Soul Survival System), Betty White, Soupy Sales and Morgan Fairchild, are amusing in their good-natured shilling. The best cameo in the film is unexpectedly provided by fashion designer Nino Cerruti (as himself) who allows G to hypnotize him at a cocktail party to cure him of a fear of flying. It is a taut and intense scene and is, actually, the best bit in the entire film.

The Miami locales give a colorful, pastel look to the exteriors. The recreation of the cavernous GBSN studio gives a look into the industry, albeit a very brief one. Costume is without note, except for the look given to Murphy, with his embroidered linen galabaya outwardly adding to his inner serenity.

The cross purposes of the script, with G espousing the rejection of the material world while acting as the spokesperson for rampant shopping network making for a confused story focus. Is consumerism good or bad? It isn't clear which way the filmmakers are leaning - probably because they are just their own mediocre product.

"Network"-nice is the best comparison I can make for "Holy Man." Eddie Murphy is mentioned little in the press material and not quoted at all. I think he is trying to divorce this film from his earlier successes this year with "Dr. Dolittle" and "Mulan." If he's lucky, no one will notice "Holy Man" and I give it a C.

Laura LAURA:
"Holy Man" plays like an inverted "Network" without the wit.  Eddie Murphy's G is a calm, sane television evangelist as opposed to the raving madness of Peter Finch's Howard Beale, yet we're given no real insight as to why his denunciations of commercialism in favor of spiritual enlightment would cause his audience to purchase the Good Buy Shopping Network's ludicrous merchandise (James Brown's Soul Survival System, 'Clam' perfume pitched by Betty White, 2 carat gold starfish necklaces).  Aping the "I'm mad as hell" scene from "Network," where viewers threw open their windows and screamed out into the streets, G convinces his audience to go out and smell their lawns.   This is pretty lame.

Jeff Goldblum is Ricky, a network exec in dire financial straits in danger of losing his job if sales don't pick up.  His redemption, which is the film's supposed point, is unfulfilling because we never really feel Ricky's that bad of a guy, just desperate to retain his income.  Kelly Preston is Kate, a woman who's brought in to revamp the network's image, but she turns out to be just too nice for the job which requires more of the killer instincts displayed by bad guy Scott (Eric McCormack), who's dispatched way too easily.

Tom Schulman's ("Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag") script never gives us a back story for G - is he a former con man, true modern day prophet, God?  We are shown that he can perform party tricks, as when he hyptonizes fashion designer Nino Cerruti (in the film's best cameo performance) to cure his fear of flying and then makes Scott's Rolex disappear.  Schulman's only successful running gag is the series of hugs Ricky receives from complete strangers after G's shown his picture on the air and encourages people to give him one should they encounter him.

The romance between Ricky and Kate, both appealingly played by Goldblum and Preston in underwritten characters, ends up being resolved during a live broadcast which is a direct ripoff of "The Truman Show."  While this has gathered a hugely supportive audience which hints that Ricky will retain his job, there's nothing to suggest why this will ensure continued sales.

"Holy Man" is half baked.

C-


THE MIGHTY

"The Mighty," based on the children's book "Freak the Mighty," is like "Simon Birch" by way of "The Fisher King."  Elden Henson is Max Kane, a seemingly slow, non-communicative giant of a kid who's constantly harrassed by tough punks at school.  When Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), a brainy kid suffering from Morquio's syndrome, moves in next door with his mom (Sharon Stone) the two come to realize that with one's brain and the other's body, they make up a formidible whole.  Kevin, whose fascination with the King Arthur legend lends a fantastical element to the film, dubs the two 'Freak the Mighty.'  With his crutches attached to his back, Kevin sits on Max's shoulders like a knight upon his steed and the two make their way through school and the run down neighborhoods of Cincinnatti that comprise their world.

Laura LAURA:
Director Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song," "Funny Bones") has created a fine, if a bit heavy handed, film, particularly for children.  Elden Henson is especially good as Max as he projects confusion, hurt and hope with few words.  Kieran Culkin has the snappier dialogue, but his Kevin seems almost too well adjusted.  His brightness despite his physical disability is so high wattage he almost seems to be in a different film from the rest of the cast.  The kid's got talent, though - he does a spot on Brando impersonation being the class clown in the school cafeteria.

Sharon Stone is solid as Kevin's mom, although this supposedly de-glamorizing role won't garner her any acting awards.  Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton are Max's Gram and Grim but don't get any real chances to stretch their acting muscles.  A real surprise is Gillian Anderson as Loretta, a boozy, cheap woman who hangs with the criminal element and knows Max's dad.  Her funny and touching performance is as far afield from her icy Scully in "The X-Files" as one could imagine.  The kids first meet her by chance, when returning a snatched pocketbook, but she later proves to become a turning point in Max's life.

Miramax is shilling this small film as this year's "Good Will Hunting." I'll be awfully surprised if "The Mighty" racks up that level of box office dollars, but is a worthy addition to the 'coming of age outsider' genre.

B

Robin ROBIN:
Based on the teen novel, Freak the Mighty, by mystery writer Rodman Philbrick, helmer Peter Chelsom ("Funny Bones") adapts the work for the big screen with "The Mighty." Kieran Culkin and Elden Henson play Kevin Dillon and Maxwell Kane, a pair of misfits just trying to get by in the cold, cruel world. Kevin is an exceptionally bright, but handicapped, teenager suffering from Morquio's  Syndrome, a degenerative disease that causes his bones to stop growing. Max is a misfit of a 13 year old - a giant of a boy who wears size 14 shoes, does poorly in school, thinks he's a coward and just does not fit in with his peers. The boys are fated to a pretty bleak life, unless, of course, something changes for the better.

Things do change for both boys when Kevin and his mother, Gwen (Sharon Stone), move next door to Max and his grandparents, Gram and Grim (Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton). Kevin, who tutors Max, comes up with an idea that just might benefit both boys - Kevin will provide the brains if Max will provide the brawn. This fortuitous joining of abilities results in Freak the Mighty, with Max carrying Kevin wherever their knightly deeds bring them. (Kevin is a scholar and big fan of King Arthur and the knights of the round table and forms his ideas and opinions based on the Arthurian code of honor and duty.)

While the veteran adult actors are given credit over the title, "The Mighty" is really dominated by the performances given by Culkin and Henson ("Mighty Ducks I, II, and III"). The pair do an excellent job of pairing up to form a being who is greater than the sum of his parts. Henson has the emotionally tougher role considering his character's violence-ridden past. Culkin, thankfully, does not bring his older brother to mind, and does a good job of portraying the physically challenged Kevin with good wit and ability.

The veteran cast, Stone, Rowlands and Stanton, provide fleshed out portrayals of what could have been two-dimensional characterizations. They are not given extensive screen time, but are given several set scenes where they are allowed to dominate the screen, albeit briefly. The real surprise is an unexpected perf by "The X-Files" Gillian Anderson as white trash Loretta Lee. She is so animated and funny, I didn't realize, at first, that it was Anderson.

The look and feel of the film is derivative of several other movies - the mismatched partnering of George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" (pick the version) or the kids in the 1980 "My Bodyguard." The Arthurian feel  of "The Fisher King" is also strongly imaged. Finally, comparison to the recent "Simon Birch" is more than just passing.

The only complaint I have is that Chelsom and company try too hard to translate the entire novel to the screen. Besides Max's normal problems, he also suffers the guilt from his childhood when he watched his father (James Gandolfini "True Romance") brutally beat the boy's mother to death. The trauma of the event had marked the boy, making him believe that he will be just like his father. This doesn't work too well because Max is a gentle giant and can't be like his father. Because of this, "The Mighty" tries a little too hard and does not quite fully succeed. The routine, sad, though uplifting, ending has been done before.

"The Mighty" is an first class teen film with two likable leads, a top notch supporting cast and a good, heartfelt story. It is intelligently crafted and has solid appeal, for adults as well as older kids. I give it a B.


ONE TOUGH COP

Inspired by the autobiography of former NYPD officer Bo Dietl, "One Tough Cop" unfolds around an investigation that then-Mayor Ed Koch called the "most heinous crime in the history of New York City" - the brutal rape/beating/mutilation of a young nun in an East Harlem convent. This infamous crime attracts a high profile, politically-motivated investigation by a task force seeking headlines and promotions. At the same time, street-wise Bo (Stephen Baldwin) and partner Duke Finnerty (Chris Penn) begin their own unauthorized investigation, using Bo's underworld connections to get to the heart of the awful crime.

Robin ROBIN:
"One Tough Cop" is a "Serpico" wannabe but lacks one thing - a lead actor on a par with Al Pacino. While the supporting characters are solidly cast, Stephen Baldwin lacks the charisma and talent to pull off a starring role. Baldwin's Bo Dietl comes across as two-dimensional without any real nuance or feeling. He simply does not have the presence to compete with the likes of Pacino, Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood as a credible action lead. I wonder, if a better actor were cast as Bo, would "One Tough Cop" be a better movie?

Supporting roles are surprisingly well cast with the likes of Penn, Mike McGlone ("She's the One"), Gina Gershon ("Bound") and Amy Irving ("Crossing Delancey"). Penn's Duke is an obsessive gambler and alcoholic who is into the mob for $10,000 AND he owes the city an additional $11K in parking tickets. Duke is a tragic figure and well played by Penn, even if the character is sparsely written. McGlone, who I like more and more each time I see him, comes across forcefully as Bo's boyhood friend and highly placed mob boss, Rickie La Cassa. Rickie and Bo have always kept their professional lives separate from their friendship and McGlone makes it believable. Gershon, as the sexy manager of Rickie's nightclub, is the mobster's ex and has a strong, but secret, attraction to honest, good cop Bo. She, like Amy Irving as a foul mouthed FBI agent who wants to blackmail Bo into fingering Rickie, is wasted in a background role.

Brazilian director Bruno Barreto ("Carried Away") does a working class job of putting his actors through the motions while struggling to breathe life into the weak script by writer Jeremy Iacone ("Blood In, Blood Out"). There is little in the way of original dialogue, which is not helped by the sullen, cardboard performance by Baldwin.

"One Tough Cop" is a shallow rendition of a the kind of gritty crime thriller of years past, bringing to mind the aforementioned "Serpico," "Bullitt" and "Dirty Harry" without providing any of the edge, story or characters provided in those great films.

I give "One Tough Cop" a disappointed C.

Laura LAURA:
"One Tough Cop" is an oddity of a film.  Brazilian director Bruno Barreto ("Four Days in September," "Carried Away") brings a gritty reality to Jeremy Iacone's script, adapted from Bo Dietl's autobiography, which changes most of the character names and events.  The film is a mixture of cliches and truisms.

Stephen Baldwin stars as Bo Dietl, a tough yet sensitive NYC cop whose effectiveness and courage are overlooked by his superiors because of his inability to play their games.  The beefed up Baldwin, while sympathetic in the role, seems to be channeling his character via a sore throat - he barely speaks above a whisper.  Mike McGlone ("The Brothers McMullen," "She's the One") is more interesting as Bo's childhood friend turned mob capo whose continued friendship with Bo attracts an FBI investigation.  Gina Gershon is Joey, Rickie's mistress and partner in a downtown restaurant.  Chris Penn is Duke, Bo's partner who once saved his life by literally taking a bullet for him. Duke also brings troubles raining down upon Bo with his booze and gambling problems.  Paul Guilfoyle is Frankie, a hot-headed colleague of Rickie's.

In an overused Act I scenario, Bo rescues a young girl from a hostage situation just as her distraught father (Luis Guzman), who's killed her mother in a jealous rage, takes his own life.  The scene does establish Bo's compassion for crime victims, however.  The film mainly revolves around the solving of the notorious rape and mutilation of a young nun in East Harlem.  Bo and Duke are taken off the case in favor of an ineffective commission.  They continue to work (and solve) it using their street wise connections, which includes the outraged Rickie.  They're rewarded for their efforts by being put on probation. Duke descends into an alcoholic stupor and Bo turns to Joey, who's called it quits with Rickie.  Each character then follows his predetermined path towards an inevitable conclusion.

While the film does manage to make strong points about the difficulty of maintaining honesty and loyalties in a corrupt and political world, it plays more like a good made for television movie than a feature for the big screen.  "One Good Cop" is "Serpico" lite.


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