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New on video

'Woo,' 'Kundun,' 'Apostle' among new releases

Web posted on: Monday, September 07, 1998 12:46:57 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- A lot of people these days read movie reviews on a regular basis (you have to get mad about something while you're having your coffee), but never really manage to get themselves to a theater to see anything. Video makes it easier to catch up later, so -- though I frown on replacing the movie-going experience with watching films solely on the small screen -- CNN has decided that I should periodically supply some comments on films that are currently hitting the neighborhood rental racks.

If, in fact, you often see movies during their initial runs and don't care to relive the experience at home, I'll also be including a video pick ("From the vault") that you might have missed when the film was at the cineplex. These will be movies that I feel are unjustly ignored gems, or minor classics that have unfortunately receded from memory over the years. Recent new releases include:

'The Apostle' (1997)
Starring Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes.

Robert Duvall proved himself to be a formidable (if rather long-winded) screenwriter, as well as a first-rate actor/director, with this often very moving account of one modern day Apostle of Christ's battle with his dual nature. Duvall plays Sonny, a down-home charismatic preacher who usually manages to cover up the fact that he's also a first-class s.o.b. He accomplishes this by incessantly expounding on the love and fury of Lord Jesus, even when there's nobody around to hear it. After killing his ex-wife's new husband with a baseball bat -- at a church picnic, yet -- Sonny adopts a new identity and starts rebuilding his life as the pastor of a black church in a small, impoverished town.

This isn't as cloying as it could have been, and there are several scenes that really stick with you. Foremost among them is Sonny's roadside attempt to bring a severely injured young couple into the Light of the Lord while they sprawl in a still-steaming, wrecked automobile. The supporting actors (including Farrah Fawcett and Miranda Richardson, the latter in an oddly open-ended sub-plot) are just fine, but, for the most part, Duvall is the whole show. I really thought he deserved to win Best Actor at this past Academy Awards ceremony, but Jack Nicholson (who, tellingly, once played the Devil) got it instead.

Duvall is damned impressive, but by the time Sonny blurts out his 25,000th "praise Jesus," you may start wishing he was the one who got beaned with that Louisville Slugger.

'Kundun' (1997)
Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong; Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rated PG-13. 135 minutes.

If you're fascinated by movies in which (courtesy of the main character's approach to life) nothing ever actually happens, you should check out Martin Scorsese's ode to the Dalai Lama and all things Tibetan. There's no denying that this is an exquisitely photographed film, and the costumes are something else, too, but you might want to brew yourself a big pot of coffee before things get underway.

To say that "Kundun" moves at a snail's pace is to discredit the zippy snail. Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison -- both of whom are quite sincere about what they're doing -- deliver work that's reverent, controlled, and brutally boring. It seems that Scorsese's enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama himself obscured the fact that movies don't work if there isn't any friction between the characters.

Even "Gandhi," as ham-fisted as most of it is, keeps a threat hovering nearby, then releases it when things bog down. Here, the whole of China's detestable invasion of peaceful Tibet is represented by a big chunk being blown out of a rock wall. Better enjoy it -- it's the most action you'll be getting before you try to make it to your bed and collapse in the hallway.

'The Real Blonde' (1997)
Starring Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Daryl Hannah. Rated R. 107 minutes.

Though he's something of a cult director, I never got much out of writer/director Tom DiCillo's work until I saw his 1997 comedy, "Box of Moonlight." Maybe I was just in the right mood, but I felt that that film was the moment when DiCillo finally displayed a voice that was uniquely his own. The story contains whimsical touches of fantasy that are a welcome addition to his usual low-watt ruminations on life and creativity. Then came "The Real Blonde," and I was back to not exactly digging Tom DiCillo anymore.

This one is a more realistic but nevertheless sophomoric study of stupid men chasing stupid women, in an extremely watered-down Woody Allen vein. Matthew Modine plays an unemployed actor whose relationship with his wife, played by DiCillo regular Catherine Keener, isn't what it could be. Keener (who was great in the more recent "Out of Sight") doesn't have much of anything interesting to do, while Modine, as per usual, is just plain old bad. There's also Maxwell Caulfield as a stud actor who's looking for a real (non-bottle) blonde; Daryl Hannah as the blonde pay dirt; and Bridgette Wilson as a model who's 100 times more fetching than Hannah is, but gets rejected by Caulfield anyway because she dyes her hair. So much for reality.

'Woo' (1998)
Starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson. Rated R. 84 minutes.

I've reviewed a pile of lousy movies in 1998, and "Woo," starring Jada Pinkett Smith, is just about as abominable as any of them. It stinks bad. Smith is real good-looking, but she's hardly good-looking enough to get away with the kind of selfish, mean-spirited "comic highjinks" that her character, Woo, manages to pull off in this film. Cute or not, someone would eventually just strangle her.

This is one of those blind date movies where the woman is so free-spirited and hot-hot-hot, the horny man she's been fixed up with is capable of nothing more than silent apoplexy when she does little things like, oh, amusingly setting fire to the fancy restaurant where he's taken her to dinner. Smith shakes her chest and rump at everybody so many times during the movie, you'd think she was trying to get out of an invisible straitjacket. At any rate, there's nothing here that's even remotely funny, much less honestly sexy. It's a pretty gruesome thing to watch, all things considered. (Although it might play better on video, where you can rewind the tape and call people into the living room to gawk at something especially pathetic.)

From the Vault: 'Bottle Rocket' (1996)
Starring Luke Wilson, Owen C. Wilson, Robert Musgrave. Rated R. 92 minutes.

This is one of my favorite movies of recent years, which is only fitting because I don't think anybody on Earth has ever bothered to watch it without me forcing them to. Owen C. Wilson (who also collaborated on the loose-limbed script) costars as Dignan, a blindly optimistic total loser with a heart of pure gold. Dignan and his two Texas-based buddies (memorably played by Robert Musgrave and Wilson's real-life brother, Luke) hatch a couple of incredibly misguided heists during the film -- or at least they pretend to hatch them. The ever-enthusiastic Dignan practically cajoles the other guys into a life of crime. You quickly realize that he's looking to forge a brotherhood of sorts, but he's not averse to experiencing a bit of criminally generated excitement along the way.

The interaction between the characters is so natural, you immediately sense that the leads have close off-screen relationships. Thematically speaking, the movie is about the risks you sometimes take just to make your friends happy, but there's all kinds of mundanely off-kilter stuff hanging around on the periphery of the main story. Wilson has recently built a career out of supporting roles in commercial silliness like "Anaconda" and "Armageddon," but those movies are light years removed from this piece of overtly nutty humanism. It's completely endearing, a hilarious blast from beginning to end. (I've never shown it to anybody who didn't flip over it.)

Go get it.

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