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Capsule film reviews

****: Excellent

***: Good

**: Mediocre

*: Poor

**** Aladdin

Never less than enormously entertaining, Disney's latest animated delight is a hilarious musical adventure based loosely on the Arabian Nights tale of a peasant boy and a magical lamp. Thanks to the vocal talents of comedians Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried and clever animation by Disney artists, this is probably the funniest animated film ever, but it never loses sight of the exuberant sense of wonder that permeates all of Disney's best works. With a breakneck pace and an abundance of wonderful images, only a second viewing reveals most of the background gags and beautiful artistry that went into producing this absolute pleasure. --Chris Roberge. Loews Copley Place

*1/2 The Bodyguard

Whitney Houston essentially plays herself, a temperamental pop singer who lacks songwriting ability and good musical taste, and Kevin Costner is a Secret Service agent hired to protect her after she begins to receive death threats in this mediocre romantic thriller. The romance in particular is emotionless, thanks to Costner's dry character and Houston's undeveloped acting abilities. Most of The Bodyguard, including the casting of Houston merely to cash in on the sale of a soundtrack, is little more than an unpleasant reminder that Hollywood is an industry more interested in producing money than art. --John Jacobs. Loews Copley Place

**** The Crying Game

Neil Jordan's story of an IRA terrorist (Stephen Rea) is a remarkably well-written piece of work that at first seems to follow its protagonist in aimless yet intriguing directions, but eventually reveals itself to be a perfectly structured look at violence, race, love, and sexuality. Rea is ordered to guard a kidnapped British officer (Forest Whitaker), but he begins to care for the hostage and later flees to London, where he meets the officer's girlfriend (Jaye Davidson). The two halves of the film, which contain some completely unpredictable plot twists, become mirrors of one another, reflecting how understanding and compassion may be a means of salvation. --CR. Loews Harvard Square

***1/2 A Few Good Men

Nearly every element of director Rob Reiner's adaptation of the military murder/courtroom drama clicks into place with the efficiency of a finely tuned machine designed to churn out entertainment. Sure it's unoriginal, but it's also extremely effective. The performances by Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson are stirring, and the photography, with crystal clarity and frequent symmetry in its images, is polished until it shines. For the officers in the story, precision leads to tragedy, but for the film it leads to a triumph of sorts. --CR. Loews Cheri

**1/2 Hexed

Even with the funniest sex scene ever filmed, Hexed manages to be not much more than a limp farce with occasional attempts at parody and some interesting minor characters. It isn't afraid to offend its audience, but the wildly uneven tone of the film and the lack of comic focus undermine the scattered funny bits. The high points involve repeated failed attempts to throw a dead body off a building and some deadpan police officers. But unless you're really interested in seeing the first film to mark the passage of time with a Chia Pet rather than the traditional moving clock hands, Hexed will be more fun on video than in the theaters. --Bill Jackson. Loews Fresh Pond

**** Howards End

The filmmaking trio of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have translated E. M. Forster's novel of class struggles in 20th-century England into a brilliant film that is an astonishing achievement. The screen is filled with contrasting elements such as the rich and the poor, the romantic and the pragmatic, and the urban and the pastoral. The alternately funny and moving story considers which group will ultimately inherit the nation. Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West are excellent, and Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson are outstanding. --CR. Loews Copley Place

***1/2 Malcolm X

Spike Lee has translated the complex life of Malcolm X into a fascinating and involving epic which, like most of Lee's work, raises more questions than it does answers. Despite occasional lapses into excess and the omission of some of Malcolm's more incendiary remarks, the film is a well-balanced portrayal of a man who went through many different phases, each flawlessly acted out by Denzel Washington, in an attempt to right the injustices done to blacks. Although the film, like Malcolm, never comes to a truly workable solution, it expresses the racist problems at the roots of society more powerfully than any other recent movie. --CR. Loews Fresh Pond

**1/2 The Muppet Christmas Carol

The latest film featuring the late Jim Henson's Muppets provides a few solid laughs and is a fair version of Charles Dickens' perennial classic, but it is easily the weakest of the four Muppet movies. Michael Caine does a commendable job at playing a straight Scrooge while his more lively artificial co-stars contrast nicely with the dark London setting. And the movie makes the most it can out of amusing scenes involving singing vegetables, Dr. Bunsen Honneydew and Beaker as charity collectors, and Fozzie Bear as Scrooge's former employer, Fozziwig, but most of the humor comes from the audience's prior knowledge of the Muppets rather than any genuine wit. --CR. Arlington Capitol

*1/2 Peter's Friends

After going two for two with Henry V and Dead Again, actor/director Kenneth Branagh has made his first disappointing film. A comic drama about six college friends who reunite for the first time in years, the movie is fine when it sticks with its smart sense of humor. Unfortunately, it ventures all too often into smarmy and contrived melodramatic territory as every one of the characters faces some type of crisis. All the performers are good, particularly Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, but for every extremely funny one-liner there is a scene in which the host walks up to someone and spurts, "Well, congratulate me! I just did X to Y and ruined Z and..." --CR. Loews Harvard Square

*** Single White Female

Strong performances by both Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh and director Barbet Schroeder's interesting use of lighting and color to create a vividly sinister setting start the film off very strongly, but the early promise is never followed through. The interesting but glaringly sexist premise is that recently single Fonda has a deep need for companionship and Leigh happily fills the void with a similar but dangerous desire for attention. Eventually formula takes over, but despite a few ridiculous implausibilities, the film remains effective. --CR. LSC Friday