In a big week of releases, it’s sometimes difficult to tell one film from another. So it helps to look for what’s particularly special.
And each of the featured films on this week’s video shelves (see capsule reviews below) offers something worth watching.
In “Hamlet” and “Sling Blade,” for example, there are too many watchable moments to list. But pay special attention to Kenneth Branagh’s line readings; they embody the essence of his interpretation of Shakespeare’s text. Likewise, don’t overlook the opening 10 minutes of “Sling Blade”; Billy Bob Thornton employs an enduring sense of patience in inviting us into his worldview.
“Donnie Brasco” takes us inside the by-now familiar world of organized crime, but it is the performances of Johnny Depp and Al Pacino that keep us involved. Howard Stern tells us all about himself in his bio-pic “Private Parts,” and he manages to entertain us in the process (who would have thought it?).
And while director Bille August can’t maintain the energy aroused by the first half of his “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” at least Julia Ormond provides a luminous presence for us to follow.
The week’s major releases:
In his attempt to direct the definitive film version of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Kenneth Branagh makes a valiant effort. Whether you think he succeeds may largely rely on how traditional you like your Bard: While no MTV version of “Romeo and Juliet,” a la Baz Luhrman, this clearly is no Laurence Olivier production, either. In producing a fuller version of the text, Branagh gives greater meaning to the play as a whole. And the acting he gets from the principals is superb, especially from Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet and himself in the title role (he may be 20 years too old for the part, but he manages to act young - what a concept). The stage design and costumes deserve Oscars (though the sometimes-fake snow is an occasional distraction). Overall, this is a brilliant rendering of what, as Branagh proves, is the greatest play ever written in the English language. Rated PG-13.
Written, directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, this small-budget film tells the story of an emotionally stunted man who emerges from a mental hospital after 25 years. Once out, he begins to adapt to his new life with an adopted family and various friends - only to encounter the same kinds of pressures that put him away in the first place. Thornton, who was nominated for two Oscars (Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay) and who won the writing award, is hypnotic as the gravel-voiced Karl Childers, who must resolve the differences between the world as he sees it and the world as it is. Almost as good is country singer Dwight Yoakam as the man whose mean side sets Karl on a road to be the sort of father he himself never had - in an Old Testament sense, of course. Rated R.
Based on real events, this Mike Newell-directed film stars Johnny Depp as an undercover FBI agent and Al Pacino as the Mafia soldier he befriends as a way of infiltrating the mob. The strength of “Donnie Brasco,” which is the alias the agent adopts, is how it explores the way that pressures of long-time undercover service can weigh on the officer involved. What, for example, does a federal agent - posing as supposedly single mobster - do when his suburban family is celebrating Christmas? Depp turns in a solid performance, as does Pacino, in this fine study of an ongoing crime war where the differences between criminals and bad guys sometimes get blurred. Rated R.
In real life, Howard Stern is a sex-obsessed, post-adolescent, ratingsconscious excuse for a radio personality who boasts a fanatic following. In this film, against all expectations, director Betty Thomas manages to adapt Stern’s outlandish autobiography into a funny, entertaining and, yes, occasionally even sensitive study of an insecure kid who manages to overcome a gaggle of obstacles and become a media king. In addition to a not-half-bad talent for acting, Stern manages to come across as likeable. Go figure. Rated R.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Disturbed over the suspicious death of her young neighbor, a half-Dane, half-Greenlander Inuit lab worker (Julia Ormond) decides to investigate on her own. She quickly finds herself in conflict with powerful forces. Based on Danish writer Peter Hoeg’s international best-seller, Bille August’s film works better in the build-up than it does in the payoff. There are just too many convenient occurrences and unexplained plot twists. Throughout, however, the main attraction is Ormond, whose character - Smilla Jasperson - is as beautiful as she is flinty, selfprotective and tenacious in getting what she wants. Rated R.
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