wwwMOVIE CAPSULES For 9/20/96

AMERICAN BUFFALO (R; 88 MIN.)During the course of a single day, tough but good-hearted junk dealer Don (Dennis Franz) plots out a retaliatory burglary. He sold a buffalo nickel -- hence the title of David Mamet's breakthrough 1975 play American Buffalo -- to a collector for too little, and it's driving him nuts. Armed with the collector's address, Don is planning to strike, using as his accomplice a local kid, Bobby (Sean Nelson of Fresh). Enter Teacher (Dustin Hoffman), who, with a torrent of words almost persuades Don to embrace Teacher's belief that there is no trust in the world -- that all that matters is sharp business sense. In 21 years, the hard language of American Buffalo has been freely borrowed by movies and theater. The shock effect is gone, and now the play seems almost like a poem, built on the drumming rhythm of people talking to hear themselves talk. The three-character play is set inside a secondhand shop, and there it stays for the film version, with the exception of a few exteriors shot in the interesting squalor of urban Rhode Island. Still, American Buffalo doesn't have power, probably because Hoffman doesn't connect with Franz and Leonard. As the nervous little criminal whose hands are always searching -- for a weapon or something to shoplift -- Hoffman is in constant hypnotic motion. Franz, of NYPD Blue, is one of the best actors on TV, but except for a few brief moments, he's rather indistinct on the big screen. That the two main performances don't seem to be taking place on the same stage may be due to director Michael Corrente's editing; we need to see both Don and Teacher, one reacting to the other, to understand when Teacher's drilling at long last hits a vein. It's as if the director set up obstacles to the performance. By the end of this terminally stage-bound film, the cathartic rage of Teacher as he trashes the joint looks more like a typically speedy way of striking the set.(Richard von Busack)BOGUS (PG; 115 MIN.)This cinematic fairy tale is punctuated by slight-of-hand magic tricks, a storybook plot and an over-abundance of high and low angles. Hayes Joel Osment plays Albert Franklin, a 7-year-old who has grown up around the circus, inspired by magic and illusion. When his mother dies, Albert is shipped off to unmagical urban Newark to live with his all-business godmother, Harriet (Whoopi Goldberg). Albert's new life with the cold, unmaternal Harriet is a stark contrast to his former days of circus fun. To cope with the changes, Albert creates Bogus (Gerard Depardieu), his French imaginary friend. Bogus' intentions and accent are so endearing that he charms even the too-realistic Harriet, who learns to see the importance of imagination. The film is quick to distinguish the difference between the real and imaginary, though it avoids reality itself, fast-forwarding past the gory car crash that kills Albert's mother and even Albert's reaction to the death. Like every good fairy tale, the film has a sappy, happy ending, though Bogus does manage to make us realize that sometimes, what we believe is more important than what we see with our own eyes. (Bernice Yeung)BULLETPROOF (R; 95 MIN.)"I'm falling in love with you all over again," says Adam Sandler's Archie Moses to Damon Wayans' Rock Keats, and this honest declaration is the one rare moment in which the romance between the two heroes is allowed to speak its name. When Wayans and Sandler go in for the obligatory titty-bar scene, they spend less time looking at the dancers than they do at each other. This romantic comedy is about two, uh, friends, one a criminal (Sandler), the other an undercover cop. When a misunderstanding leaves the former arrested and the latter shot, the, uh, friendship, between the two leads is strained. The cop must escort his prisoner back to LA, where corrupt police and burned drug dealers are waiting to shoot him. A long lover's quarrel it is, too, interrupted by one uninspired, boring action sequence after another, with the innuendo flying around like hot lead. Moses sings "I Honestly Love You" and tells Keats, "I'd hug you if I didn't have handcuffs on." Moses really suffers for his love, getting screwed with a gun barrel and chained to a toilet before he's forgiven and the two are reunited in Mexico under the gaze of Sandler's mom. Not even a clinch, after all of the teasing. (Richard von Busack)FEELING MINNESOTA (R; 95 MIN.)Is it that Keanu Reeves only signs on to subpar movies, or is it just that a movie seems all the worse for his being in it? Reeves plays Jjaks (the funny name due to a typo on his birth certificate) who, since youth, has been in bitter rivalry with his brother, Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio). Jjaks decides to attend his brother's wedding, not knowing that the ceremony is a sham, Sam having got the bride, Freddie (Cameron Diaz), as a present from his gangster boss, Red (Delroy Lindo). Jjaks, of course, falls for Freddie, and they try to run away together to Las Vegas. In hot pursuit are outraged husband Sam and the law, represented by Dan Aykroyd. Freddie and Jjaks don't get far -- the brothers fight it out, injuring each other, and Freddie gets shot. Director/writer Steven Baigelman's picture seems modeled on Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, but he has no compassion for the characters. The movie is mostly humorless slapstick. Even nonsense ought to have a focus, and this patronizing, contemptuous picture overextends its welcome on quirks, a gratuitous Courtney Love sequence (admittedly, Love looks fairly healthy for a change) and oh-so-ironic worship of faded stars like Ann-Margret. (Richard von Busack)FLY AWAY HOME (PG; 110 MIN.)After her mother dies, a 13-year-old New Zealand girl (Anna Paquin) is sent to live with her estranged father (Jeff Daniels) in rural Canada, passing from grief to petulance to sullenness until she discovers a nest of Canadian goose eggs, which she decides to hatch and raise. The drama is derived mostly from father and daughter coming to terms with each other while figuring out how to teach their gaggle of geese where to go in the winter and how to get back. Carroll Ballard and Caleb Deschanel, the same director and photographer who did The Black Stallion, keep the tone nearly as light as the ultralight aircraft father and daughter fly, with only a wisp of suspense -- the villains being too contemptible to take seriously. The movie, however, is lovely to look at, often astonishingly so (as when girl and geese fly through downtown Baltimore in the fog), and skillfully walks that fine line between sweetness and sappiness. And Canadian geese, of course, most noble of creatures, are always a great pleasure to watch.(Broos Campbell)KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (R; 92 MIN.)James Woods is outstanding as Depression-era psychopath and proto-serial killer Carl Panzram, a career criminal best known for his wish that humanity had one neck, so he could strangle it. Panzram's story was published in 1970, as explained in bracketing sequence narrated by the elderly version of Panzram's jailer and friend Henry Lesser (Henry Gould). In Leavenworth, Panzram gradually tells his tale to the young Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), a devout Jew. Woods' Panzram cuts through the most excessive parts of Lesser's youthful naivete while never portraying his character as a cartoon monster. Director/writer Tim Metcalfe handles period slang well and weaves historical figures unobtrusively through the story (such as crusading psychiatrist Karl Menniger). Unfortunately, Metcalfe has picked up a few bad habits from executive producer Oliver Stone: inept Natural Born Killers-style flashback montages, overly dramatic music and ineffective women characters. The movie makes the useful point that there are some people upon whom the moral lesson of the death penalty is lost, and Woods communicates something else that's important: how satisfying, how joyous, it must be to be a really first-rate actor. (Richard von Busack)MADAME BUTTERFLY (UNRATED; 129 MIN.)Opera is doomed to make a rough transition to the screen because its tension comes from the live performance, with the human voices straining to achieve the inhuman. The broad gestures and contorted face of an opera star, meant to carry the performance to the back rows, turn strange, even risible, in extreme close-up. The French import Madame Butterfly was made at pains not to look stage-bound. It boasts a huge set and some beautiful costumes. And yet the film is as free of passion as the music is full of it. Puccini's famous opera, set in Japan, tells the dolorous tale of 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, "Butterfly" (Ying Huang), who marries a Yankee Navy officer named Pinkerton (Richard Troxell). Pinkerton considers the marriage a mere formality that must take place before the concubinage begins. He leaves eventually, and for years Butterfly scans the coast waiting for his ship to return. It is a tale of complete self-abnegation, and Butterfly herself exists only as a symbol of fidelity, like a dog. The music and the film are almost separate experiences-how I wished that I'd been somewhere else listening to that music. Director Frederic Mitterrand's film is one long tableau vivant, shot with his camera sitting still and not fidgeting, like a good boy. Because of Mitterrand's over-fidelity and a cast of fine singers who happen to be poor pantomimists, Madame Butterfly is a failed experiment. Mitterrand has screwed the Puccini. (Richard von Busack)MAXIMUM RISK (R; 126 MIN.)Since modern action movies are as alike as knobs on a blackberry, the little differences mean a lot. Maximum Risk is much better than the average actioner because of its details rather than its plot. This is the first Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that can be watched without pain, much less with pleasure. Maximum Risk doesn't clobber you with its soundtrack; it doesn't make the heroine a complete bimbo; and it isn't shot in any of the usual places. The credit goes mostly to Van Damme's new director, Ringo Lam. You don't expect depth from someone named Ringo, but you do expect speed and rhythm, and Lam doesn't disappoint. This is the former Hong Kong director's first American film, and unlike his compatriot John Woo (Broken Arrow), Lam has managed to import the old Hong Kong velocity with him. The body of French policeman named Alain Moreau (Van Damme) is found in Nice. But Alain surprises his superiors by turning up alive; the dead man turns out to be his identical twin brother, whom he never knew existed. Alain manages to track his dead twin back to New York. There, in a Little Odessa nightclub, he meets a waitress (Natasha Henstridge) who helps him find the men who killed his brother. Maximum Risk's thrill sequences include a shoot-out in the middle of a crowded city square, a rolling chase through a subway yard and three breathtakingly rough martial-arts fights. Lam is perhaps the most frantic of the Hong Kong directors, but he imparts some moral outrage to his moviemaking. Ultimately, what makes the Hong Kong action pictures so much more exhilarating than the Hollywood answers to them, is that you feel that the filmmakers there haven't lost the sense that violence is horrible as well as fascinating. (Richard von Busack)THE RICH MAN'S WIFE (R; 96 MIN.)Straight from the mold of numerous other "psycho-men-and-the-women-who-deserve-them" movies, The Rich Man's Wife is pure soap opera to the end, except that you never really get to enjoy a moment of good "cliff-hanging" anxiety. Halle Berry plays the young wife of a wealthy businessman, who, while coping with the breakdown of her marriage, makes a passing comment that she later regrets, wishing her husband dead in front of a lustful and greedy stranger (Peter Greene) who is willing to grant her wish. The melodramatics of their affair undermine the suspense for the rest of the movie, especially since Greene's bad guy is ludicrously overplayed-he even sports black-ringed eyes to emphasize his villainy. At least Berry's character is refreshing -- a heroine who has some definite flaws and can more than adequately defend herself. But The Rich Man' s Wife goes for the cheap, easy-startle tactics that thrillers of a better caliber avoid, or at the very least, set up in a less obvious way. And although its sneaky ending is reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, seemingly tagged on at the last minute, it reinforces the feeling that this film is merely the usual. (Heather Zimmerman)SMALL FACES (R; 108 MIN.)Director Gillies MacKinnon's Small Faces is an artfully told, very well-acted, but occasionally gloomy, tale of three brothers in poverty-stricken Glasgow in 1968. Lex, nicknamed "Wee Man" (Iain Robertson), is a young artist overshadowed by the accomplishments of his oldest brother, Alan (Joe McFadden), who is on the fast track to art school. His other brother, Bobby (J.S. Duffy), is already swept into the gang fighting that's inundated most of the local young men. MacKinnon (The Playboys), who co-wrote the script with his brother, Billy, takes some of the sting out of the story with humor and nostalgia -- and a soundtrack by the Spencer Davis Group and Cream. Music as well as art softens the edges of this grim northern ghetto. MacKinnon's almost painterly edits of the action leaven the moroseness, as do the low-comic touches in the portrayal of monstrous gang leader Malky (Kevin McKidd of Trainspotting). Robertson makes an appealing lead, a boy distracted by his desire to grow up just like his older brothers, and not sure whether to take the path of the paintbrush or the switchblade. The MacKinnons -- and this is interesting in a kitchen-sink movie -- don't directly blame the system or the adult world. Although Small Faces veers into high tragedy followed by an irresolute ending, it features some moments as good as anything on screen this year, including a wild, frightening chase on stolen bicycles away from a pursuing gang called the Tongs and a night-time raid on the local art museum. (Richard von Busack)

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