Hollywood’s tendency is to take a director who shows some flair and place him or, in the case of Gillian Armstrong, her in an untenable situation.
Namely, forcing them to make a formulaic film that displays the exact opposite style, theme and tone that earned them the job in the first place. (See the differences, for example, between English director Antonia Bird’s film “Priest” and her first bigbudget effort “Mad Love.”)
Armstrong, the Australian who is perhaps best known for her tight study of budding feminism “My Brilliant Career” (1979), already flopped once in Hollywood with “Mrs. Soffel” (1984). But she rebounded with last year’s remake of “Little Women.”
Despite having been done thrice before (including a made-fortelevision version), Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel feels fresh in Armstrong’s hands. The March women, torn from their husbandfather by the Civil War, struggle to make do with very little. Love holds them together in the face of poverty, the chill of winter, serious illness and even romance.
Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon and Gabriel Byrne are the stars. But it is Claire Danes, from television’s “My So-Called Life,” who makes the most impact as soulful Beth.
Rated PG. *** 1/2
Dumb & Dumber
Stupid is as stupid does, so says “Forrest Gump,” the guru of 1994 American cinema. If this is true, though, then funny is as Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels do here. Despite a story that is idiotically minimal to the max, and which includes both poo and pee jokes, the efforts of the two stars - especially Carrey - may keep you entertained enough not to notice. Rated PG-13.
Murder in the First
Based on the proverbial true story, this saga of injustice righted turns out to be better than you might imagine. Christian Slater plays the newly hired public defender who, despite his Harvard credentials - or maybe because of them - is the focus of his boss’ anger. So much so that he is forced to defend a murderer whose crime was witnessed by 200 guards and inmates. But it is that murderer, ably portrayed by Kevin Bacon, who becomes the real story: a man, imprisoned for stealing $5 and then tortured and condemned to solitary confinement for trying to escape from the “escape-proof” isolation of infamous Alcatraz. His attorney’s defense is that Alcatraz, particularly in the person of a brutal assistant warden (played by Gary Oldman), changed him from a petty thief into a crazed killer. Above everything else, Bacon is the one to watch here. His face effectively registers the pain of knowing his life’s promise, no matter how the trial turns out, will never be fulfilled. Rated R.
Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale
Like Disney’s “Pocahontas,” this film evoked a question from the very beginning: Why try to transform such a story of pain and regret into an adventure tale for children? Yes, Squanto (Adam Beach) helped make peace between the first white settlers on America’s shores and the native tribes they encountered there. But then what? The Indians all ended up dying. That part is ignored here, giving way to the feel-good emotions of one man’s valiant struggle to be free - if only for the moment. Rated PG.
It’s too bad that the late Raul Julia had to finish his career with this dreck, which is based on a video game. But it’s clear that the film offers kick-flick star Jean-Claude Van Damme a role for which he is amply qualified - that of a cartoonlike hero spouting Arnold-like oneliners. There’s lots of jingoistic posturing as Van-Damme tries to defeat the evil general played by Julia, who is the perfect fascist aggressor. And the film provides lots of booms and bangs for the buck. If nothing else, Van-Damme was the perfect casting choice. Rated PG-13.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEW TO VIEW Available this weekend: “Little Women” (Columbia TriStar), “Street Fighter” (MCA/Universal), “Dumb & Dumber” (New Line), “Slam Dunk Ernest” (Touchstone), “Camilla” (Touchstone), “Murder in the First” (Warner), “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale” (Disney). Available on Tuesday: “Scarlet” (TBA), “Mixed Nuts” (Columbia Tristar), “Ready to Wear” (Touchstone), “Cobb” (Warner), “The Last Seduction” (TBA), “Oleanna” (Hemdale).