Daily Variety Reviews

Tuff Turf

This modestly budgeted youth pic is a poor man's and partially musicalized Rebel without a Cause with a touch of The Warriors thrown in. Rebellious newcomer James Spader is the James Dean character and saucy gang moll Kim Richards is the Natalie Wood character.
They go through social and romantic hell for each other and, in the process, a large slice of suburban LA and uncomprehending parenthood embellish a story that is deceptively compelling despite, in this case, a distracting mix of comedy and music. Latter, which includes on-screen appearances by the LA band Jack Mack and Heart Attack and rocker Jim Carroll, gives the production a socking sound.
The on-screen music, however, lurches the film off balance, especially combined with unexpected and dramatically jarring numbers by the two stars (Spader materializing as a balladeer in a country club and Richards whirling into an aerodynamic disco dancer).
Robert Downey is a fresh surprise in a nice sidekick role, and Olivia Barash and Catya Sassoon (the daughter of Vidal Sassoon) lend able teen support.

-- Variety Staff

Pretty In Pink

Pretty in Pink is a rather intelligent (if not terribly original) look at adolescent insecurities.
Like scores of leading ladies before her, Molly Ringwald is the proverbial pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, called to a motherless life with down-on-his-luck dad (Harry Dean Stanton) and the misfortune to have to attend high school where the rich kids lord it over the poor.
That's enough to make any young lady insecure, even before the wealthy nice guy (Andrew McCarthy) asks her to the senior prom. Teased by his rich pals for slumming, McCarthy is also a bundle of uncertainties.
Moving predictably, none of this is unique drama. In the end, the wrong guy still gets the girl, which is a lesson youngsters might as well learn early.

--Variety Staff


Mannequin is as stiff and spiritless as its title suggests.
A mannequin (Kim Cattrall) is the latest reincarnation of an Egyptian princess who has known Christopher Columbus and Michelangelo in her journey through time. He's an aspiring artist working as a model maker (Andrew McCarthy) and creator of a mannequin which has the likeness of a woman he could easily love # if only she were real.
Night work makes strange bedfellows of McCarthy and Hollywood (Meshach Taylor), the flamboyant near-transvestite who dresses the store windows, and of McCarthy and Emmy (Cattrall), his mannequin. She comes alive when they're alone together, but reverts back to her cold self if anyone else appears.
McCarthy and Cattrall certainly are an attractive couple # when she's alive # but they don't get to do much more than kiss and dance around the store after hours. Comic development is given over to the secondary characters (Taylor, James Spader and the night watchman, G.W. Bailey).

1987: Nomination: Best Song ('Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now')

--Variety Staff
Les Than Zero

If it's possible, Less Than Zero is even more specious and shallow than the Bret Easton Ellis book it is based on. There's a story somewhere tracking the dissipated lifestyles of the super-rich, super-hip kids and their LA haunts.
Drugs take over Julian (Robert Downey Jr), Clay (Andrew McCarthy) avoids the scene by attending an eastern college, and his g.f. Blair (Jami Gertz) loses her identity, which was never much to begin with. This is where they are at the beginning of the film - and pretty much where they are at the end.
Perhaps this wasn't the best subject matter for British director Marek Kanievska (Another Country) to make his American debut. The feel for this distinctly Southern California story escapes him.
Only Downey elicits the kind of sympathy to distinguish this drama from a photojournalist essay of the kind that might run in Vanity Fair. Of the secondary roles, James Spader as Downey's pusher is terrifically smarmy. Unfortunately, this sick relationship doesn't become involving until the last third of the film, when Downey really begins to fall apart and is forced into male whoring to pay his drug debts. Visually the picture is a treat.

--Variety Staff

Baby Boom

A transparent and one-dimensional parable about a power-devouring female careerist and the unwanted bundle of joy that turns her obsessive fast-track life in Gotham upside down. Constructed almost entirely upon facile and familiar media cliches about 'parenting' and the super-yuppie set, Baby Boom has the superficiality of a project inspired by a lame New York magazine cover story and sketched out on a cocktail napkin at Spago's.
J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is a dressed-for-success management consultant whose steamroller ambition has earned this workaholic the proudly flaunted nickname, 'Tiger Lady'. She lives in trendy high-rise splendor with bland investment banker Steven Buchner (Harold Ramis), to whom she reluctantly allots a four-minute slot for lovemaking before returning to late-night paperwork.
Suddenly, J.C. learns that a cousin has died together with her husband in an accident in England. J.C. is intrigued to learn that she's inherited something from this misfortune but, to her considerable shock, this turns out to be a precious apple-cheeked 12-month old girl, Elizabeth (Kristina and Michelle Kennedy).
Baby Boom tries to be a lot funnier than it actually is, and handsome production design and cinematography do little to compensate for its annoying over-reliance on cornball action montages and a dreadfully saccharine soundtrack score.

--Variety Staff
Sex, Lies, and Videotape

This is a sexy, nuanced, beautifully controlled examination of how a quartet of people are defined by their erotic impulses and inhibitions.
Imaginatively presented opening intercuts the embarrassed therapy confessions of young wife Andie MacDowell with the impending arrival in town of James Spader, a mysterious stranger type who was a college chum of MacDowell's handsome husband (Peter Gallagher).
Given MacDowell's admissions that she and Gallagher are no longer having sex, it would seem that Spader is walking into a potentially provocative situation.
He drops a bombshell by revealing that he is impotent, seemingly scratching any developments on that end. Meanwhile Gallagher has been conducting a secret affair with his wife's sexy wild sister (Laura San Giacomo).
Pic is absorbing and titillating because nearly every conversation is about sex and aspects of these attractive people's relationships. Several steamy scenes between Gallagher and San Giacomo, and some extremely frank videotapes featuring women speaking about their sex lives, turn the temperature up even more.
Lensed on location in Baton Rouge, La, for $1.2 million, production looks splendid.

1989: Nomination: Best Original Screenplay

--Variety Staff

The Rachel Papers

Charles Highway is a 19-year-old with no money problems who maps out his sexual conquests via his desktop. He meets beautiful American Rachel Noyce, also 19. It's love at first sight, but she already has a boyfriend.
After a bit of frustration, he sends her a funny love message on videotape, and she comes around. They have a steamy, passionate affair, of which he tires all too soon. They part. End of story.
The basic material is as old as the hills, but Martin Amis, who wrote the original novel some 15 years earlier, explored it in fresh directions. Director Damian Harris isn't able to capture the book's special charms, and resorts to having his young hero address the camera to keep the viewer in the picture. Unfortunately, Dexter Fletcher is rather too self-conscious here, and makes Charles a less than endearing hero. On the other hand, lone Skye seizes her chances as Rachel and gives a glowingly sensual performance. Their lengthy loves scenes together, often in a bathtub, are certainly steamy.

--Variety Staff

White Palace

Outstanding performances by Susan Sarandon and James Spader, working from a relentlessly witty script, make White Palace one of the best films of its kind since The Graduate (1967).
Sarandon is Nora, a 43-year-old fast-food worker who gets involved with a 27-year-old advertising exec - the same sort of character Spader played in Pretty in Pink, now mellowed and matured. Both have experienced terrible loss - Max (Spader) is a widower; Nora's child has died - and they share a magnetic sexual attraction.
Their Odd Couple differences, however, include class, religion and hygiene (he's a buttoned-down neat freak; she's a gregarious slob) in addition to the Mrs Robinson-esque age discrepancy.
The ferocity that director Luis Mandoki brings to the pair's early love scenes helps establish how two people can fall into lust and worry about love later.
Raunchy yet vulnerable, Sarandon carefully avoids the cliches that might have been associated with Nora. Spader continues to establish himself as star material, especially when it comes to playing self-conscious yuppies.

--Variety Staff

Bad Influence

Bad Influence proves a reasonably taut, suspenseful thriller that provides its share of twists before straying into silliness. Rob Lowe doesn't really project enough menace or charisma to pull off his role as Alex, a baby-faced psycho who slowly leads Michael (James Spader) through a liberating fantasy that ultimately turns into a yuppie nightmare.
Director and writer seem to draw their inspiration most closely from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train - a chance meeting between a regular guy and an outwardly normal stranger whose hidden darkness ultimately leads to fatal complications.
Foremost, however, the film is about Michael's seduction by Alex's free wheeling attitude, only to find that the rewards don't come cheap.
Spader delivers a terrific performance, and some of the scenes have tremendous impact, especially when - via video - he discovers the depth of Alex's depravity, as fantasy turns into fatal distraction.
Director Curtis Hanson and writer David Koepp create a continued sense of tension and invest many scenes with much-needed humor.

--Variety Staff

True Colors

True Colors represents a cloyingly schematic attempt to portray the political and moral bankruptcy of the 1980s in a neat little package. Pic condemns but doesn't begin to analyze the corrupted values of the Reagan years, leaving one feeling soiled but unenlightened.
Paired off at law school at the U of Virginia in 1983, James Spader is a rich boy with the daughter of US senator Richard Widmark as a girlfriend, while John Cusack is pretender, a social climber whose lower-class roots are quickly exposed.
Cusack, a bluffer and something of a charmer, resolves to be elected to Congress within 10 years. He launches a political career based upon trickery, blackmail and betrayal, and receives backing from interests represented by oily developer Mandy Patinkin.
Personal relationships fall by the wayside like roadkill. Having scooped Spader's g.f. (Imogen Stubbs) out from under him, Cusack then loses her when he stupidly threatens her powerful father.
Cusack does what he can, but the character is simply weighed down with too much symbolic baggage. Yet again playing a privileged preppie type, Spader is likable but suffers from his character being pushed to the side mid-stream.

--Variety Staff


Storyville has a little trouble getting its story straight. A teeming cesspool of illicit sex, murder, suicide, family intrigue and political chicanery in exotic Louisiana, this would-be Chinatown is so overloaded with outrageous implausibilities that the temptation is very strong to consider it all a joke.
In his first big-screen direction, Mark Frost, a key force behind Hill Street Blues and David Lynch's partner on Twin Peaks for TV, has taken an Australian novel [Juryman by Frank Galbally and Robert Macklin] and relocated it in New Orleans, where just about anything goes.
James Spader plays Cray Fowler, a callow, good-looking kid trying to carry his rich, corrupt family's tradition of political service into a third generation. Encouraged by family patriarch Clifford Fowler (Jason Robards) in the old-boy-network school, Cray is divorcing his wife and seeking the support of black voters.
Cray is crazy enough to run off with the enticing Lee (Charlotte Lewis), a Vietnamese woman he's barely met. He is obliged to fight her maniacal father, who mysteriously winds up dead. When Lee is charged with the murder, Cray astoundingly offers his services as defense attorney. Opposing him will be a prosecutor (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) who's his old flame.
Cray does so many apparently stupid things, and the many jaw-dropping loopholes and long-shots in the first half make the film systematically unconvincing. Whalley-Kilmer and Lewis are attractive in functional parts, and Robards serves up an old-school blowhard to a fare-thee-well.

--Variety Staff

Bob Roberts

A sort of political "This Is Spinal Tap," "Bob Roberts" is both a stimulating social satire and, for thinking people, a depressing commentary on the devolution of the American political system. Caustic docudrama about a wealthy crypto-fascist folk singer who runs for the U.S. Senate displays the impressive multiple talents of Tim Robbins as director, writer, actor, singer and songwriter. Unusual distribution collaboration of Paramount and Miramax guarantees that plenty of muscle will be put behind the domestic release, and paralleling of the actual fall election campaign is another plus. But film's form and content both mitigate against more than moderate B.O. breakout.
Despite its fresh observations, pic has plenty of antecedents, from "A Face in the Crowd" and "Privilege" to "The Candidate" and "Tanner '88." Most of the points about the manipulation and idiocy of the media, the importance of superficial appearances and pious down-home values in elections, and government lies and conspiracies have been made before, but Robbins is relentless and uncompromising in pursuit of his ideas about the depths of cynicism, corruption and deceit involved in public life today.
Robbins plays a very plausible character, a self-assured, highly successful singer who attempts to ride his popularity into public office. Castigated as yuppie scum by his detractors, Roberts has secured his niche as an anti-1960s folk artist who blames the country's ills on liberals and the social programs of the Great Society.
Roberts' aim is to unseat longtime Pennsylvania Sen. Brickley Paiste. In a brilliant bit of casting, this man of refined sensibility and elegant reason is portrayed by Gore Vidal, and the fact that Vidal himself is known to stand for most of the values his opponent is attacking adds immeasurably to the angst of the situation.
Entire film is framed as a British TV documentary being prepared on Roberts' campaign. Docu team not only charts Roberts' progress in the weeks leading up to the 1990 election, being held against the backdrop of the Desert Shield buildup, but depicts the inane TV coverage of the race -- including sexual slander of Sen. Paiste and charges brought against Roberts' campaign adviser and former CIA operative Lukas Hart III (the always incisive Alan Rickman).
Dogging Roberts' heels on the campaign trail is one Bugs Raplin, a disheveled black journalist for an underground rag called "Troubled Times." Passionately yelling his allegations that Roberts' fortune is tied up in drug money, funds siphoned from public housing projects, the savings-and-loan scandal and the like , Bugs is the kind of unpresentable kook the establishment can easily dismiss, but he ultimately becomes involved in Roberts' political and personal fate in a surprising and tragic way.
Many of the absurd trappings of the campaign process are here -- the sound bites, appearances at beauty pageants, empty slogans, twisted ideological meanings, mad schedules, technological overload, officious managers -- as well as the unusual element of Roberts' singing gigs. Tunes penned by David Robbins and Tim Robbins effectively convey the candidate's reactionary attitudes, and latter performs them with easy authority.
At least for some viewers, one problem will be spending all this time with someone the filmmakers clearly intend to be loathsome and representative of an unsavory component in American politics. That the film so successfully states many truths about current conditions makes it a sorrowful spectacle indeed.
Another drawback is that the docu format--which is re-created somewhat erratically--exposes only public, rather than private, moments, resulting in a relatively one-dimensional experience, one that runs a bit long on that. While all the points are legitimate and sharply scored, most of them are relatively familiar, and there is an element of preaching to the converted that will make pic a favorite of liberals and a turn-off to others.
Still, political filmmaking in America is rare enough, so Robbins' work is a very welcome addition to the landscape of a crazy, unpredictable election year. Although Roberts seems based on no recognizable politician, there are eerie reverberations of H. Ross Perot in multimillionaire Roberts' self-financed campaign and self-characterization as a rebel outsider intent on shaking up Washington.
Robbins is spookily dead-on projecting the candidate's bland confidence and homogenized middle-American personality. Since they aren't playing full-blooded characters, performers down the line must quickly assert impressions, and most successfully do so.
Perhaps taking a cue form "The Player," Robbins has cast a healthy number of w.k. thesps to enact cameos, most numerously as cute, superficial and dumb TV newscasters. Largest of these roles goes to Rickman, who is ferociously good in a part that mostly has him issuing heated denials of major misdeeds.
Technical team has created a kind of elevated TV look that doesn't precisely match how TV docus look but creates a good enough impression.

--Todd McCarthy

The Music of Chance

An outstanding cast, a coolly confident style and quirky literary material turn The Music of Chance into an auspicious feature debut for documentary filmmaker Philip Haas. But it's ultimately more of an intellectual tease.
Based on a tome by w.k. New York writer Paul Auster, story will be called Kafkaesque because a hapless duo are caught in a mystifying, virtually inescapable web. Yet, the piece has a thoroughly American feel.
Mandy Patinkin, zipping along a rural highway in his new red BMW, offers a lift to a bloodied drifter (James Spader). Spader convinces him to put up $10,000 for a poker game with two rich pushovers.
The pair proceed to the splendid country estate of Charles Durning and Joel Gray. After initial success, Spader's luck turns and he and Patinkin are forced to agree to work off their debt by reconstructing a medieval stone wall, a job estimated to take 50 days. Intrigue involving delays, hidden agendas, escape attempts and possible murder envelop the drudgery and command involvement.
But the denouement is too pat and O. Henry-ish and the characters, too, are shallow constructs

--Variety Staff

Dream Lover

An overly abstract mystery about the difficulty of really knowing another person, "Dream Lover" is too rarefied for a popular thriller and too hokey for an art film. Directorial debut of notable screenwriter Nicholas Kazan displays more of an awareness of film's visual possibilities than a flair for them, and while there are any number of interesting ideas bouncing around here, pic falls between stools both artistically and commercially. Gramercy release, which bowed at the Cleveland Film Festival Saturday, will have a tough sled theatrically, although prospects on cable and vid are somewhat brighter.
Bearing no relation to Alan J. Pakula's 1986 Kristy McNichol starrer of the same name, this Propaganda production slowly generates a moderate amount of interest through the setup but never develops much of what can pass for a plot.
Despite a disastrous first encounter, young divorced L.A. architect Ray (James Spader) manages to quickly win the favor of fashion model-gorgeous Lena (Madchen Amick). Receptive as she is to his attentions, she warns him that "I'm just a regular screwed-up person," and recognizes that men tend to believe that they know her because they see their fantasies realized in her lovely face and stunning body.
They marry and have kids, but after awhile Ray begins to imagine that his wife might not be true to -- or truly with -- him. He catches Lena in some lies, and his suspicions that she may not be who she claims are confirmed when he tracks down her parents in rural Texas and brings them back to California for a confrontation.
Lena plausibly responds that she had to reinvent herself to escape her dismal past, but Ray's jealousy grows by leaps and bounds. The stakes mount quickly thereafter through accusations and admissions of indiscretions, betrayals and overt manipulations, all leading up to legal proceedings and a climactic murder in a loony bin.
On their first date, Lena suggests that getting to know someone is akin to peeling an onion, and it's true that one never knows how much of her personality has been revealed and how much more remains to be discovered. But without dramatic adornment or terrific surprises, the character striptease, along with Ray's ever-escalating frustration, isn't enough to compel unstinting viewer interest.
Lena decidedly falls into the femme fatale category, but Kazan is operating far from neo-noir territory. Rather, he adopts a bright, modern, highly stylized look that emphasizes designer settings, expensive threads, lateral tracking shots, unusual editing devices and a preponderance of close-ups that combine to create an abstract, distanced ambiance.
Idea was no doubt to fashion a kind of dream world for Ray to inhabit with his dream woman, which makes the film interesting to watch but also involves a considerable sacrifice of believability.
A related problem is that, even after being together for some years, Ray and Lena still seem like strangers to a great degree, so that their relationship hardly feels real. Unfortunately, the more the onion is peeled, the less of it there is, leaving the picture with little sense of conviction or substance by the end.
After his rewardingly offbeat outing in "The Music of Chance," Spader retreats here to handsome-but-bewildered yuppie territory, to somewhat diminishing returns. Rather like Christopher Walken, his smooth good looks work best when he's playing edgier or threatening characters.
Fully looking the part of most men's fantasies, "Twin Peaks" vet Amick does a creditable job with a role whose motivations are probably too convoluted to make sense of.
Kazan pulls off some effective scenes, notably one in Texas in which Ray meets his wife's low-life ex-boyfriend, nicely played by William Shockley. Visual appointments, including lensing by Jean-Yves Escoffier ("Les Amants du Pont Neuf") and Richard Hoover's production design, are both arty and artful.

--Todd McCarthy


"Wolf" is a decidedly upscale horror film, a tony werewolf movie in which a full roster of fancy talents tries to mate with unavoidably hoary, not to say hairy, material. Offspring of this union is less ungainly than might have been feared, but is also less than entirely convincing, an intriguing thriller more enjoyable for its humor and sophistication than for its scare quotient. Classy production's artistic schizophrenia mirrors the perplexing marketing challenge facing Columbia. The studio must convince the horror/special-effects crowd to attend a Jack Nicholson/Michelle Pfeiffer/Mike Nichols picture and persuade the filmmakers' fans to see a genre pic. Best guess is that film will attract a portion of the audience that went for the studio's previous lavish, prestige shocker, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," but far from all of it, making recoupment of its reportedly $ 70 million-plus production cost a dicey matter.
Clearly, no expense has been spared in outfitting this project, which bears comparison to such perennials as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,""Beauty and the Beast" and many mangier monster epics turned out over the decades.
But no matter how snazzy the trappings, when you get down to it, this is still, at heart, a werewolf picture, the story of a man who starts growing an abnormal amount of hair, developing acute senses of smell, sight and hearing, and roving out under the full mooningly learns courtesy of his acute new sniffing abilities, prompts him to seek solace with Laura, to whom he confesses what happened to him and with whom he eventually starts an affair. On a nocturnal outing, Will attacks a deer, and the ante is upped on each successive night as he is increasingly dominated by the aggressive animal growing inside him.
No doubt highly mindful of the audience's suspension-of-disbelief mechanism, the filmmakers have carefully charted Will's transformation, having chosen an intelligent, skeptical man as their subject and retaining rationality as far as possible. The strong humor injected into the proceedings, at least through the second act, also helps keep one on the film's side.
But as Will's attacks become increasingly savage, the story becomes channeled into a more conventional format, and fact that the Will-Laura relationship has no resonance delivers the picture a body blow that may not knock it out but puts it on the ropes.
Laura is presented as a bad little rich girl whose life is mostly devoted to defying Daddy while still enjoying his money. Despite their convergence at this time and place, she and Will inhabit different wavelengths, and nothing that happens between them develops any particular rooting interest for the viewer.
Ultimate revelation that "Wolf" is supposed to be a transcendent romance almost seems like an afterthought, and one that's hardly prepared for by the treatment of the story up until then.
Script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, which bears no relation to Harrison's novel "Wolf," tries hard to make this shaggy story play plausibly as a modern piece, but still can't avoid such tired devices as full-moon fever and the Middle European expert who explains lycanthropy to Will and even gives him an amulet to try to keep the wolf in him at bay.
A sensible intelligence has been applied to the characterizations. Unlike the case in his previous, over-the-top horror outing, "The Shining," Nicholson begins his performance in a low key and cranks it up only by degrees. Except for the nocturnal moments when the wolf takes over, the actor holds the line firmly in order to create a tension between his will to normalcy and his helpless transformation into savagery.
By contrast, Pfeiffer's Laura comes across as very hard and brittle. It's not a rewarding role and, given the grandly romantic goal the film fails to achieve, her character needs more shading and generosity of heart.
Spader is back playing the sort of loathsome yuppie he excelled at earlier in his career, and doing it just as well as before. Nelligan has little to do as the unfaithful wife, while some of the other supporting perfs, notably those of Eileen Atkins and David Hyde Pierce as Will's loyal publishing underlings, are dead perfect in the venerable Nichols shorthand mode.
New York locations and elaborate soundstage sets are accompanied by fine use of L.A.'s Bradbury Building as the home of the book firm. Rick Baker, who knows his werewolves (numerous credits include "An American Werewolf in London" and "Greystoke"), has once again done ace special makeup effects, and brief scenes in which people run and jump in wolflike fashion are highly effective. Other tech credits represent the best that money can buy.

--Todd McCarthy


"Stargate" has one of those plots that naturally causes people to roll their eyes. Commercial prospects for this curiously unabsorbing yarn border on the dire.
What this juvenile adventure has in spades is special effects and picturesque locations. What it lacks is an emotional link to make the Saturday afternoon he-man posturing palatable, or at least bearable. Its core appeal is to pre-teens, and considering its mammoth budget ($ 60 million-$ 70 million), half-price tickets won't be enough to part the enveloping sea of red ink.
The setup occurs in Giza, Egypt, circa 1928. An archaeological expedition unearths a giant ring inscribed with hieroglyphs of unknown origin and meaning. We're promptly propelled into the present, where Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is telling a learned, if disbelieving, crowd that the pyramids could not possibly have been built by man. Only one listener stays behind, offering him the job of translating an ancient stone lodged in a secret and remote military complex. It is, of course, the piece seen at the beginning. Never mind how it was transported across the ocean or its whereabouts for most of this century.
Suffice it to say that the symbols turn out to be a map rather than a language. The ring is a portal to another dimension -- an entrance to the land of the true builders of one of the seven wonders. Are your eyes spinning yet?
Breaking the impenetrable code leads to a military probe commanded by former basket case Col. Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell). Jackson tags along as interpreter and on the other side discovers something akin to "Lawrence of Arabia" outtakes with a pinch of "The Ten Commandments" and a dash of the "Star Wars" trilogy.
The inhabitants of this world are biblical-style slaves, the ruler a galactic hermaphrodite (Jaye Davidson). It's all downhill from there. The oppressed workers, with the help of the soldiers and scientist, rise up to quell the evil oppressor. It's pretty standard, predictable stuff.
Director Roland Emmerich pushes the obvious plot buttons, turns up the florid score and injects appropriate panoramas. It's a textbook scenario that creaks with age and whose lack of originality cannot be obscured with visual craft.
Pic should be more visceral. But every time the story gets perilously close to an emotional moment, the focus shifts abruptly to some corny bit of action. O'Neil never truly confronts the dark past of a dead son, and Jackson's budding relationship with a slave (Mili Avital) is chaste beyond belief.
The acting challenge is simply to keep a straight face and not look like a total imbecile. It's arguable that anyone succeeds at the task.
And despite the ever-present, state-of-the-art technology, there's hardly a single indelible image in the course of two hours. One walks away uncertain whether there is a film called "Stargate," or if it was merely a dream composed of badly remembered movie cliches.

--Leonard Klady


Although the ostensible subject of the picture is the erotic appeal of car crashes and how a surrender to their influence can effect "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology," pic is loaded, first and foremost, with sex that is initially rather compelling in its weirdness but which finally becomes borderline laughable. Cronenberg is a master of creating and sustaining a mood of insinuating cool and dark allure, but while the director remains firmly behind the wheel for the first hour or so, he cracks up toward the end with sequences that send the film and the audience into a ditch.
Cronenberg lays his cards on the table in the opening scene, which has gorgeous blonde Catherine Ballard (Deborah Unger) becoming turned on by flesh-to-metal contact before being approached from behind by a man. At the same time, her husband, James (James Spader), has sex with a woman at work, and the follow-up relating of their experiences to each other estab-
lishes a heady world of rarefied complicity and the urge to explore the unknown.
A bad auto accident puts a banged-up James in the hospital with a severely broken leg, and kills the man in the other car. The dead man's wife, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), suffers only moderate injuries, although their shared experience leads them, when they meet later, into a spontaneous and very hot sexual relationship.
A strange scientific researcher from the hospital, Vaughan (Elias Koteas), provides their entry into the nether world of the automotive turn-on.
One night, James and Helen attend a kinky event hosted by Vaughan -- a restaging of James Dean's death in a horrible car crash. Vaughan, impersonating Dean's German mechanic, rides in an open Porsche along with a stuntman portraying the actor, while another man drives the car that will hit the Dean car. All ride without seat belts or any other protection in a desire to duplicate the accident precisely.
After the re-enactment, James and Helen join the others at the stuntman's home, where they meet Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a foxy lady whose damaged leg in no way interferes with her sexual appetite.
A sort of group grope ensues, and it becomes clear that these folks are way, way out there when they discuss their next project, a re-creation of Jayne Mansfield's fatal car wreck.
Vaughan, who drives around in a black 1963 Lincoln convertible in homage to JFK, is the prime mover of the group, the pathfinder who believes in pushing the envelope of danger and sex to arrive at a new physical, psychological and sexual plateau.
A veritable sexaholic, James keeps things going with Catherine, Helen and Gabrielle, and his new link with Vaughan leads to their having their wounds tattooed, followed by a bout of nasty sex.
James ultimately draws his wife into the violent circle in an attempt to restore their marriage, but pic takes an abrupt detour into a nearly risible lesbian encounter unmotivated by anything other than a desire to complete the circle of sexual links, then concludes on a quasi-redemptive note that just doesn't cut it.
Still, the mood is gripping for a while, established by the highly specific sexual interests and the actors' hushed, deliberate way of speaking, which rarely rises above a whisper.
Although they are defined exclusively in terms of their erotic obsessions, the characters become more intriguing once they are initiated into the auto club , in that they become fearless about pursuing their interests. But any grander psychological or philosophical territory remains unexplored.
Characters also lack any meaning or connection with one another except in their pushing of sexual limits. Before long, it becomes clear that nearly every encounter is meant to lead to sexual coupling, whereupon it's on to the next meeting, in which a fresh assault on a physical frailty or damaged spot will build to an identical result.
Sex scenes are clear about what's going on, even if below-the-belt nudity is only fleeting. Virtually every linkup is a rear entry, which creates the unwanted impression of a running gag after the first few sessions.
This goes uncommented-upon, so it remains a mystery whether this sexual approach is intended as a parallel to the many scenes of cars ramming others from behind. Nothing here is remotely a turn-on from an audience p.o.v.
Set largely at night in Toronto, impeccably composed pic is dominated by blues, grays and purples, which accentuate the feeling of utter cool. Technically, film is superb, with the machine-tooled precision of Cronenberg's craftsmanship creating its own steely pleasure.
Gleaming lensing by Peter Suschitzky, ultra-tight editing by Ronald Sanders and Howard Shore's metallic score contribute mightily to sustaining the intensely muted tone.
Thesps work within narrow parameters, although they gamely go wherever their director wants them to. Spaderis fine as the young man exploring the outer limits, and Koteas projects a subtle sense of being rather further over the edge.
Hunter also gets in the proper mood, although her character mysteriously disappears from the action in the middle going, only to resurface strangely toward the end. Of all the thesps, Unger, as the eyes-wide-open wife, perhaps most perfectly personifies the film's prevailing sense of composure and daring.
It remains highly questionable whether Ballard's "Crash" was an appropriate or adaptable book for the screen, not for cinematic reasons, since the result is highly visual and frostily sensual, but because its concerns are so peculiar, remote and, to the great majority of people, off-putting.
The boundaries being pushed here just aren't of great relevance or interest.

--Todd McCarthy

2 Days in the Valley

"2 Days in the Valley" will rank high on any list of films containing the greatest number of scenes in which people are threatened at gunpoint. Marked by a wearying amount of hostile and antisocial behavior by its criminal and civilian characters alike, writer-director John Herzfeld's debut outing features a measure of unexpected humor and some good character work by the ensemble cast. Pic does offer some entertainment value for mainstream audiences, but B.O. fate of this sub-Altmanesque mosaic will depend upon how sated the public feels at the moment with incessant gun-waving and bloodletting, with modest returns the likely bet.
Using Hollywood's favorite poster boys for the '90s, hit men, as the central figures in this study of suburban malaise and hostility, pic lands some effective, unexpected shots here and there, but is not deeply eccentric or muscular enough to score any decisive blows. Nor does it pull back from its characters to offer anything resembling a critique of society or commentary on why nearly everyone the film encounters in the San Fernando Valley is so thoroughly unhappy or obnoxious.
The hired killers in question are Lee (James Spader) and Dosmo (Danny Aiello) , the former a slick sicko of the new school, the latter a lowlife Italian mensch whose profession doesn't preclude his having a heart. Lee has engaged the has-been to help kill Roy (Peter Horton), ex-hubby of Olympic skier Becky (Teri Hatcher), with the intention of then knocking off Dosmo, making it look as though he committed the murder, then taking off with blonde g.f. Helga (Charlize Theron) and a $ 30,000 stash.
But Dosmo gets away, only to invade the lives of arrogant British art dealer Allan (Greg Cruttwell) and his beleaguered assistant, Susan (Glenne Headly). The disheveled Dosmo and the mousy Susan quickly recognize one another as soul mates , and Dosmo is moved to cook a good pasta repast for his hostages, while brandishing a gun, of course.
Other important characters who are eventually brought into the violent swirl of events are Allan's sister, nurse Audrey (Marsha Mason), whose skills come in handy when the blood starts flowing; suicidal washed-up director Teddy (Paul Mazursky) and vice cops Alvin (Jeff Daniels) and Wes (Eric Stoltz), first seen at odds over the merits of busting an Asian massage parlor.
Herzfeld's dovetailing of story strands and heretofore unrelated characters is smooth and unforced, and their sudden combustion makes for a number of lively , surprising scenes. Dosmo's persistent revulsion over the whiny art dealer's self-centered complaining, and his growing affection for the sweet Susan, provide some delight, and Teddy's about-face triggered by adverse circumstances offers satisfaction as well. Connoisseurs of female brawls have a doozy in store here, as Hatcher and Theron, both gorgeous and in great shape, go at each other as if they really mean it in a wild sequence.
Unfortunately, the film's modest pleasures don't add up to anything more than that. At this stage in the violence-as-a-way-of-life cycle, it is reasonable to require something different in the way of point of view or comedic slant. Herzfeld, a vet TV writer-director, succeeds in establishing and sustaining an offbeat tone of loony amorality, but it's not terribly appealing.
To the director's credit, the actors all seem responsive to his touch, giving performances that are lively and flavorsome, if not deep or unlike anything each of them has done before. Aiello's wayward paisano and Headly's late-blooming flower hold particular appeal, while Mazursky and Austin Pendleton, the latter in a one-scene appearance, enact an exchange of comic career abasement that will particularly amuse tradesters.
Stylistically, film is proficient but unexceptional. There is plenty of blood for a semi-comedy, and a scene involving Stoltz's response to an Oriental massage is quite risque for a Hollywood pic.

-- Todd McCarthy

Keys To Tulsa

A wonderfully written and performed comic crime meller, "Keys to Tulsa" might seem on paper to be one more unneeded, late-in-the-cycle Tarantino retread. But this distinctively tasty dish adroitly mixes its genre ingredients with fresh takes on class grudges, Great Plains lifestyles, generational and family strains and life stasis in a way that makes it a satisfying meal unto itself. It may be difficult for Gramercy to distinguish this entry from the numerous other seriocomic thrillers of the past couple of years, and pic lacks the edge and style that would have made it a must-see for hip young viewers, so strong reviews and word of mouth are necessary to help it break out of the pack.
Based on a novel by Brian Fair Berkey, Harley Peyton's outstanding screenplay encompasses the social strata of the titular Oklahoma city from top to bottom, from the country club set and those whose roots go back generations, to the trailer trash, strippers and hustlers willing to do just about anything for a buck.
Front and center, however, are some ne'er-do-well offspring of prominent families, progeny from privileged backgrounds who have generally failed to uphold the good names and traditions of their ancestors. The most conspicuous slacker is Richter Boudreau (Eric Stoltz), the son of much-married socialite Cynthia (Mary Tyler Moore), a man of no backbone and less discipline who is reduced to working as --- of all things --- a film critic for the local paper.
Even there, however, he can't meet his deadlines, as he spends too much time in failed attempts at seduction (as in the opening scene with hot date Cameron Diaz) or easily being lured into time-wasting boozing and drug-snorting with the likes of his sexy former high school flame Vicky (Deborah Kara Unger), her criminal, perennially high husband, Ronnie (James Spader), and her brutish animal of a brother, Keith (Michael Rooker), Richter's longtime best friend who now seems to be on the brink of snapping in some violent way.
Although these kids mostly live in modest circumstances, they often have the use of vacant family mansions wherein a fair amount of the action takes place, and the early going is dominated by intriguing scenes that neatly pinpoint the sources of potential conflict among the supposed intimates: Richter could easily become interested again in Vicky, who now has a baby and is increasingly impatient with her dangerous husband; the paranoid Keith is suspicious that Vicky, with the help of others, might be trying to trip him up legally to grab their inheritance all for herself; and Ronnie is cornering Richter into helping set the trap for a blackmail scheme that will put him on easy street.
At a seedy club, Ronnie introduces Richter to Cherry (Joanna Going), a spaced-out stripper who has witnessed the recent murder of her friend and fellow exotic dancer. There is every reason to think that the culprit might be the unstable Keith, and when Richter is prevailed upon to give the scared young woman temporary sanctuary until the blackmail plot can be put into motion, he illogically does so at the suspect's family manse in Keith's absence, taking advantage of the situation to start an affair with the quicksilver Cherry.
Richter's overriding problem is that he's a pushover, a pliable lad agreeable to anything anyone proposes to him, which in this scenario can only be something bad. Richter's unprincipled, path-of-least-resistance approach to life produces setback after setback: His newly remarried mother decides to deprive him of the grand family home he expected to inherit, he's fired for missing too many deadlines, he's told by the lordly city patriarch (James Coburn) --- whose daughter Richter wronged --- to get out of town, and he's surprised and photographed in a very compromising position with Vicky by Keith, who is thus armed with blackmail ammo of his own if he needs it.
Richter's only ace in the hole is that nearly everyone around him is even more of a loser than he is, which gives him the chance to come out on top if, for once, he uses his brains and applies himself. Denouement is bracingly satisfying and amusing in the bargain.
A resume of the action doesn't begin to suggest the screwy humor that energizes the proceedings at nearly every turn, from the desperate way Richter tolerates his friend Keith's noxious rantings to the beyond-caring efforts of a drunken Cherry to pull up her sagging bodice at Richter's mother's formal wedding party. The mixed moods aren't as bold or entirely captivating as they were in "Pulp Fiction" or even "Get Shorty," but the blend is nonetheless fun and shrewdly judged.
Peyton's beautifully constructed script nails the shifting motivations and subtext of every scene and provides spiky dialogue to boot. The colorfully eclectic cast also delivers in spades, with Stoltz holding his own as "the black sheep son of a black sheep" while watching several of his co-stars run away with thesping honors in some dazzling turns.
Rooker creates a genuine sense of anything-goes danger as the gun-toting heir apparent, with Unger nicely complementing him as his sister, a lackadaisical good-time girl now confronting some of life's more serious challenges. Going delightfully pulls out all the stops in bouncing off the walls as the changeable stripper, while, best of all, the cast-against-type Spader, newly beefed-up and sporting black hair, gives a complex and vibrant reading of a smart tough guy stuck in the small time by his addictions.
Although debuting director Leslie Greif, a vet film and TV producer and former music biz personal manager, succeeds in delivering the blended tonalities of the pieces, pic does come up short in the visual department. Helmer applies only an average amount of stylistic dynamism to a story that could have used plenty, and atmospherics are anemic. Sharper lensing and soundtrack also could have nudged the film onto a higher level.

Pic was actually shot in Texas rather than in Oklahoma, although presumably only locals will be able to notice.

-- Todd McCarthy


An interesting, if unoriginal, idea that floats around in a largely undramatic sea, "Driftwood" is "Damage" without the star-power or production values. This low-key drama about a female wacko who holds a shipwrecked man prisoner in her remote dwelling sports a well-meaning perf from James Spader but lacks the shapeliness in script and direction needed to make it work theatrically. Pic sank with all hands on its single-screen London release.
Spader is first seen washed up on a rocky shore from some disaster that's never explained. French woodcarver Sarah (Anne Brochet), who lives alone in an isolated shack, hauls him indoors, strips him naked and tends his fractured leg. When he comes round, with a convenient case of amnesia, she tells him they're the only people on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, whither a supply boat comes only every two months.
The audience (but not Spader) soon learns that her elevator doesn't quite stop at the top floor. They're actually on the mainland; behind a mountain ridge is a town from which she gets supplies from a leering local (Barry McGovern); and in her workshop, she has regular arguments with the ghost of her dead mother (Anna Massey).
Spader's suspicions start to be aroused by Sarah's sudden mood shifts, plus a letter from a boyfriend she denies having. Gradually, however, he starts to reciprocate her sexual passion, and at the 50-minute mark, as winter looms, they finally get it on. But the idyll is short: As Spader makes ever more determined efforts to leave and rediscover his identity, Sarah goes to ever more extreme ends to prevent him from going.
Richard Waring's screenplay, originally set in Scotland, was acquired by Irish producer Mary Breen-Farrelly in 1991 and turned over to helmer Ronan O'Leary to adapt two years later. The bare bones of a potentially involving two-hander are there --- and the movie does occasionally have its moments --- but the dialogue between the two principals is not sufficiently involving to carry the pic, as it stands, over some of its melodramatic ingredients and unbelievable developments.
Spader (who took the assignment immediately after "Stargate") does his best with a role that's underwritten and makes him out to be extremely slow on the uptake. Brochet ("Tous les matins du monde") is OK in her sudden swings from loving to loony but isn't up to the demands of fleshing out a foggily written character. The supports play it more like some Grand Guignol horror flick, with McGovern over-the-top as a leering groceries supplier and Massey virtually encoring her mad ghost in last year's Canadian-set backwoods drama "Sweet Angel Mine."
Tech credits on the $5.5 million production (shot in spring 1995) are fine, with Billy Williams' lensing of the Ardmore Studios interiors and Irish exteriors bringing some flavor to the pic, though the much-talked-about progression toward winter is not always clear on the screen.

-- Derek Elley

Critical Care

The current situation in the overlapping worlds of health insurance and medical care could certainly warrant a little stinging satire, but the jabs in "Critical Care" don't even puncture the skin. A sadly anemic and uncharacteristically unenergetic addition to Sidney Lumet's career, this Live Entertainment release, which world-preemed Oct. 9 as the opener for the Chicago Film Festival, would flat-line commercially even with extensive artificial life support.
Unscintillating first screenplay by vet TV producer Steven S. Schwartz clearly aims for the vaunted realm of Paddy Chayevsky's trenchant and outrageous "The Hospital" and "Network," the latter of which was famously directed by Lumet. The old capitalistic hobgoblins of greed and selfishness are hauled out one more time as the factors that make doctors forget that their first responsibility should be their patients' well-being, rather than self-interest or an institutional bottom line.
Set in a gleaming, state-of-the-art intensive care unit, the low activity level and hushed tones of which contrast markedly with the frantic hubbub associated with most urban hospitals, frail tale centers upon the fate of wealthy old Mr. Potter. His manipulative, blond model daughter, Felicia (Kyra Sedgwick), sees no point in unnaturally prolonging her comatose father's life, but his other daughter, the Bible-thumping Connie (Margo Martindale), wants to keep the old man alive at all costs, which run to $ 112,800 per month.
Caught in the middle of this squabble is Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader), a second-year resident who works the ICU with head nurse Stella (Helen Mirren). An attractive ladies' man susceptible to Felicia's flirting, the doc lets his professional ethics drop along with his pants when, on the point of bedding Felicia, he admits that old man Potter is in a "persistent vegetative state" and backs up her position for pulling the plug on Dad. When it turns out that Felicia has taped all this on her secret bedroom video camera, Werner finds himself in a career-threatening compromising position.
As the case, which threatens to go to court with Werner as a subpoenaed witness, drags through the hospital bureaucracy, pic sidetracks with some odd scenes designed to amplify the themes comically but which mainly lay a large nest of eggs. Most embarrassing are the hallucinations of a grievously ill young man (Jeffrey Wright), in which Wallace Shawn turns up as the Devil's henchman spouting a stream of very poor dialogue.
More prominent are some sessions Werner puts in with the crankily opinionated Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks in old-age makeup that makes him look like a cross between Mark Twain and Claude Rains). A pioneer in the critical care field who has now been kicked upstairs (and, it would seem, into another hospital, based on the musty look of his office) due to his drinking and mental lapses, Butz serves as the comic mouthpiece for the medical field's most venal attitudes: Treat only those patients with gobs of insurance, he rails, and always maximize revenue. When Werner complains that attorneys are breathing down his neck over the Potter case, Butz retorts, "When the lawyers start crawling all over you, that's when you know you're a doctor."
But that's as good as it gets, and remainder of the film is devoted to Werner, upon discovering the sisters' ulterior motives for their attitudes about Dad's fate, setting things right on that score, and reawakening to the responsibilities of his calling. Scarcely an idea or an attitude in the film is surprising or bracingly insightful, as it reflexively underlines received notions about the evil corporate mind-set and the need for personal moral righteousness.
Beginning with the almost morgue-like silence of the opening scenes, a weird, depopulated quietude pervades most of the picture, a mood further enlarged by Philip Rosenberg's space-station-like production design of the ICU and David Watkin's icily precise lensing. This arid, airless environment is about the least conducive imaginable for satire, and it also seems to have sapped Lumet's customary vigor as a director.
Performances from the talented cast range from just OK (Spader, Mirren, Brooks) to the overdrawn (Sedgwick, Shawn). Pic was shot in Canada, almost entirely in studio. Production values are crisp.

-- Todd McCarthy


A standard-issue intergalactic actioner, "Supernova" appears headed for a deep-space rendezvous with audience indifference. Pic was directed by Walter Hill, who removed his name after the proverbial creative differences ("Thomas Lee" perhaps aims to avoid the blatancy of "Alan Smithee"); editing was reportedly completed by the likewise uncredited Francis Coppola. Whatever the appropriate divvying of credit or blame, pic is an embarrassment to no one, but neither is it a feather in any cap. Expertly mounted and bolstered by solid perfs from a strong cast, it nevertheless seems too lacking in any special edge of distinction to reach beyond the sci-fi faithful.
Very much in the post-"Alien" vein of dark, downbeat outer-space dramas in which earthlings with three-day beards battle a shape-shifting alien intruder, tale kicks off in the early 22nd century aboard a small, medical-rescue spaceship. Attention centers on co-pilot Nick Vanzant, who has recently emerged from rehab and is played by a newly bulked-up, deep-voiced and dark-haired James Spader.
The other crew members are Capt. A.J. Marley (Robert Forster), gruff medical officer Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett), engineer Benj (Wilson Cruz), medical tech Yerzy (Lou Diamond Phillips) and paramedic Danika (Robin Tunney).
One small novelty here is the understated paralleling of cosmic energies and sexual interplay. Yerzy and Danika are getting it on as tale opens, and Nick and Kaela soon taste the pleasures of zero-gravity whoopee. Crew members doff their clothes whenever the spaceship's "dimension-jumping," which adds to the slightly randy atmosphere.
After this thematic foreplay, crew and ship dimension-jump to what seems to be a standard rescue situation but soon grows strange and perilous. At the site, the only person they find alive is an odd young man named Karl (Peter Facinelli) , who has lost all his colleagues after what seems like the outer-space equivalent of a falling-out over shares in an Internet startup.
In reality, of course, Karl is more lethal than bereft. Endowed with powers from the ninth dimension, the interloper makes love to Danika, then starts picking off crew members, growing more youthful and muscular as he does.
The battle from there is energetic but thoroughly predictable in its shape and outcome, which leaves pic feeling competent but programmatic. Still, vivid perfs and polished tech credits deserve kudos. In particular, Lloyd Ahern's lensing compellingly renders outer-space environments that look painstakingly authentic.

--Godfrey Chesire

The Watcher

Despite game efforts by cast-against-type Keanu Reeves and aggressive visual vamping by freshman director Joe Charbanic, "The Watcher" emerges as a formulaic thriller that plays more like direct-to-video fare than a megaplex-worthy feature. Lack of similar product in current marketplace could work to pic's advantage, and fair-to-good opening weekend B.O. is a distinct possibility. More likely, however, "Watcher" won't attract many viewers until it reaches vidstore shelves.
Top-billed James Spader is competent but less than compelling in the hackneyed role of Joel Campbell, a burnt-out FBI agent suffering a mental meltdown while tracking serial killers in Los Angeles. During his last investigation, he was unable to catch psycho David Allen Griffin (Reeves) during a frantic foot chase. Worse, Campbell also failed to save the wacko's latest target -- Campbell's married lover -- from a fiery demise. Prematurely retired on a disability claim, Campbell moved to Chicago to wallow in grungy obscurity.
Trouble is, Griffin has developed a perverse fondness for his would-be captor. So the psycho traces Campbell to Chicago and announces his intention to resume their cat-and-mouse game. Not surprisingly, Campbell isn't eager to play. Even less surprisingly, Griffin isn't the kind of guy who takes rejection very well.
As the dual of wits commences, writers David Elliot and Clay Ayers introduce the one distinctive wrinkle of their by-the-numbers script. To give his pursuer a sporting chance, Griffin establishes a macabre game plan: Hours before each murder, he sends Campbell a photo of his next intended victim -- an attractive young woman, of course -- and challenges the newly reactivated FBI agent to find her before she meets an untimely demise. The trick is, Griffin carefully chooses women who are sufficiently nondescript to remain unnoticed among the millions in the Windy City. Despite multi-media exposure of the photos, Campbell fails twice to find a victim before deadline.
Charbanic, a veteran of musicvideos, employs a variety of show-offy visual stunts in a desperate attempt to generate suspense. He switches back and forth between grainy video and assorted film stocks, and relies heavily on jump cuts, slo-mo and p.o.v. shots. Vet lenser Michael Chapman ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") and editor Richard Nord work overtime to ensure "Watcher" is, if nothing else, slick and swift. (Ric Waite is ambiguously credited as "additional director of photography.")
Unfortunately, Charbanic often sacrifices narrative clarity and moment-to-moment continuity for the sake of achieving his flashy effects. Pic abounds in sudden actions and jolting images that aren't explained until long afterward. (Campbell's tragic back-story isn't entirely clear until the final reel of the pic.) But the pretentious obfuscation can't freshen the generic cops-and-killers plot. It doesn't help at all that "Watcher" borrows freely, and obviously, from pics as diverse as "Seven," "Manhunter," "The Mean Season," "In the Line of Fire" and "No Way to Treat a Lady."
Reeves deserves credit for tackling an offbeat role. But his performance seldom rises above the level of a good try, even when he's straining for darkly comical effects by bringing a mockingly gee-whiz quality to his line readings. (Truth to tell, the actor occasionally sounds like a recent immigrant with an unsteady grasp of English.) There's a potentially fascinating plot development -- Griffin becomes peevishly jealous of the bond Campbell develops with a compassionate shrink played by Marisa Tomei -- but Reeves does disappointingly little with this element of the killer's twisted psyche.
Spader is aptly haunted in appearance, and stares at photographs with convincing intensity, but he brings only technical proficiency to a character that needs more colors, more depth. Tomei is stuck with some of the pic's worst dialogue -- "How do you feel about his following you to Chicago? Is it a vendetta?" -- in a role that calls for only two expressions: sympathetic concern and mortal terror.
Character actor Chris Ellis makes a strong impression with his scene-stealing work as Hollis, a hard-boiled Chicago cop who develops a respectful working partnership with Campbell. Early on, Ellis has a terrific scene in which Hollis calmly converses via cell phone with the FBI agent while chasing, then rousting, a perp. Unfortunately, Ellis is progressively less prominent as the pic winds on, suggesting that his character was greatly diminished in the editing room. Even so, he fares better than Ernie Hudson, whose part as an FBI chief is little more than a fleeting cameo.
Fiery explosions during pic's melodramatic climax are spectacularly cheesy. Other tech credits are solid.

--Joe Leydon


A very tricky sort of love story is put across with some skillful high-wire walking in "Secretary." In this considerable expansion of Mary Gaitskill's short yarn about a boss-secretary relationship that evolves into a mutually satisfying S&M matchup, the filmmakers are deeply interested in getting to the psychological roots of the characters, and the picture's relative success in doing so makes the outre goings-on here not only dramatically palatable but emotionally plausible. Touchy theme and cloistered nature of the piece relegate this well-acted picture to a specialized realm even within the specialized market for domestic art films, but this winner of a Special Jury Prize for "originality" at Sundance deserves a shot at catching on with that sliver of the theatrical audience that would respond to it before heading off into cable- and home-viewing markets.
A significant advance from Steven Shainberg's first feature, the murky and inert 1996 Jim Thompson adaptation "Hit Me," new pic benefits from having been worked out with great care and insight from the point of view of the title character's highly particular psychological makeup. For this, one should presumably credit not only the director and Gaitskill but scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson, a playwright who, in adapting the story with Shainberg's guidance, displays the sort of attention to character detail that is much more common in writing for the stage than in most contempo screenwriting.
An opening glimpse of a young woman gracefully tending to office chores while handcuffed to a portable workout bar serves as the tantalizing teaser to a tale that properly begins six months earlier when Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is checked out of a mental institution. Surrounded by her undoubtedly abusive alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and infantalizing mother (Lesley Ann Warren), Lee retreats into old habits, which involve extremes repped by girlish accessories on the one hand and self-inflicted pain/pleasure (such as putting a hot tea kettle to her thigh) on the other.
But determined in her naive way to strike out on her own, the semi-gawky, semi-attractive Lee takes a secretarial job with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), an eccentric, grimly serious attorney who warns Lee that her work will be dull. She doesn't mind, nor does she protest when he gives her some demeaning chores, such as sifting through the Dumpster for some missing documents. No, this is the start of Lee's new life, and she's game.
While the behavioral and psychological underpinnings are being established by the script and actors, Shainberg works to set the action apart from absolute reality by stylizing the settings. With exteriors lensed on anonymous Southern California locations to avoid any specific sense of place, pic is dominated by Edward's weirdly painted and decorated rooms, which are unlike any legal offices heretofore seen either in the movies or in life. Amy Danger's provocative production design is initially helpful in setting the off-kilter feeling of unease, but with time it comes to seem calculatedly oppressive and finally over-art directed to a distracting degree.
To further foster the notion that she's putting her life on a track toward normalcy, Lee takes up with an old friend from high school, Peter (Jeremy Davies), a hippieish, ineffectual nice guy who would love to marry Lee. She doesn't discourage him but is clearly far more fascinated by the man at the office who is so demanding of her.
"Secretary" becomes a movie the late Kenneth Tynan would have loved 50 minutes in. After having become increasingly critical of Lee for her sloppy work habits, Edward pushes to a new level of punishment one day when he makes her bend over a desk and slowly spanks her -- but hard -- as she reads a letter aloud. Next time round, she willingly consents to getting down on all fours and being saddled.
But Lee is thrown for a loop when the ever-unpredictable Edward abruptly calls a halt to the games, throwing her professional life into doubt and her personal life into chaos; so profoundly moved by someone having discovered her secret source of satisfaction, and so utterly frustrated at her sudden lack of access to its sole provider, Lee tries spanking herself, to no avail, and even tries to instruct Peter in the fine art, although he's no better at this than he is in regular lovemaking.
Third-act build-up to Lee's all-out attempt to connect with the inscrutable Edward is unduly protracted (whole film could stand a bit of a trim), but it ultimately pays off in a way that is resonant, distinctively romantic and very gratifying from the point of view of the main characters. By the end, Lee has taken a long journey from a total lack of self-awareness to deep satisfaction, and on a road that is unusual to say the least.
Film's interest lies in this psycho/sexual awakening, and anyone seeking kinky bondage kicks will leave needing to find relief elsewhere. In a very demanding role demanding a vast emotional range from clueless innocent to confident role player and emotional adventurer, Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the way she reveals how Lee slowly accumulates the knowledge to realize what she wants and gathers the courage to get it.
Spader's Edward has elements of some of the thesp's other weirdo roles, and for most of the time the character is meant to be unreachable and unfathomable, but the precision and controlled intensity with which the actor puts over the key breakthrough scenes is crucial to maintaining the film's conviction. Supporting perfs are one-dimensionally serviceable, and behind-the-scenes contributions are solid.

-- Todd McCarthy