More Movie Reviews by Christopher Null

First Wive's Club (1996), Extreme Measures (1996), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), That Thing You Do! (1996)

In this issue of Eclectica: Feeling Minnesota (1996), The Rich Man's Wife (1996), Fly Away Home (1996), Big Night (1996), Bound (1996), The Associate (1996), Brother of Sleep (1996)

First Wive's Club

3 1/2 stars, Average to Good

The biggest crowd-pleaser of the year is upon us -- the powerhouse trio of Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton foisting their womanness on us with a vengeance. Sure to revive the debate over whether films like this are "man hating," The First Wive's Club is, in reality, a harmless big screen sitcom that actually manages to appeal to a large audience.

Rambling through its first 30 minutes with no real direction, The First Wive's Clubeventually turns into a story about three old friends who want to exact vengeance on their wayward ex-husbands. Elise (Hawn) is an aging movie star, obsessed, as most aging movie stars are, about her looks. Brenda (Midler) is a bitter ex-housewife who loves her son and bemoans her lack of funds to support him -- and hasn't changed her hair since 1969. Annie (Keaton) is basically a middle-aged version of Annie Hall, only now she has a lesbian daughter and an intrusive mother, and Woody Allen is nowhere to be seen.

The most visible of the ex-husbands is Brenda's estranged hubby Morty (Dan Hedaya), an electronics kingpin who has moved on to the greener pastures of Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker). He becomes the centerpiece of an intricate scam the women put together to basically drive the three husbands to madness, ruin, and poverty.

Hey! It's a comedy!

I must admit, that for all its middle-aged woman-bent humor, The First Wive's Club still managed to be amusing to this 25 year-old man, mainly due to some really fine acting, good jokes, and a fresh story. Keaton is the best, as usual, and Hawn also does a fine job. Desperately trying to steal the show (and ending up as the only wife who I didn't really care about) is Midler. But when was the last time Midler played a character who *wasn't* an overbearing loudmouth?

It's also a manipulative little film -- pulling those heart strings about as hard as you can without jumping out of the comedy genre. There are loads of cameos -- the only person they forgot was Charles Nelson Reilly. Basically, everything works to give Wives a sitcom feel (I wouldn't be surprised if they adapted it next season...). Just to seal the issue, they even put Bronson Pinchot in a supporting role. (Ironic fact: almost everyone behind the scenes of the film (including the director, screenwriter, and producer) is male.)

Parting words of advice: Guys, prepare yourselves to be dragged to the movie theater by your wife or girlfriend. Ladies, please don't get any bright ideas.

Rating the film is almost impossible. Here's my best cut at it:

If you're a woman: ****
If you're a divorcee: ****1/2
If you're a bitter divorcee: *****
On its merits: ***1/2

Extreme Measures

It's an old question of what's right and what's wrong: if you could cure a disease by killing one person, would you do it? That's basically the premise which starts up Extreme Measures, an ultra-creepy little medical thriller by prolific filmmaker Michael Apted.

If you can deal with the notion of Hugh Grant as a doctor, you've probably suspended disbelief enough to buy the whole production. Dr. Guy Luthan (Grant) finds a mystery patient in his trauma room at Gramercy Hospital. When the patient dies from a bizarre collection of symptoms, no one seems to care except for the dashing British doc.

Guy's investigation leads him into a conspiratorial cover-up in the hospital system, an underground dwelling of human moles, and a cryptic research lab where groundbreaking medicine is practiced -- on human subjects. What's more is that the head of the research lab is none other than Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), one of the country's most respected physicians.

Blending the right amount of "medical" with just enough "thriller," Extreme Measures succeeds in giving the audience the willies from its opening scenes. Danny Elfman's creepiest score to date does a lot to help out, too, and Hackman is always good at getting you squirming in your seat. Lots of blood, surgical scars, and seizures are even more effective, giving cause to wonder, where was David Lynch when this movie was being made?

Performances are fair to good, with the exception of supporting player Sarah Jessica Parker, who really isn't at home playing an unglamorous nurse. The 2-hour film moves along quite well, too, never getting too caught up in boring exposition while keeping the viewer informed with just enough backstory. On the other hand, there's not a whole lot of "thrill" to the picture, just background discomfort that's scarier than any horror flick.

Overall an above average movie, but Extreme Measures gets bonus points for exposing the harsh truth about physicians and confirming my worst fears: they really are all evil.

RATING: ****

2 Days in the Valley

If you've seen the trailer, the #1 question on your mind about 2 Days in the Valley must be: Is it a Pulp Fiction rip-off, or is it a bad Pulp Fiction rip-off?

Well, the answer is this: Yes, it's a shameless Pulp Fiction rip-off (more like Pulp Fiction meets Short Cuts), but it's actually quite entertaining, in its own quirky little way.

In fact, 2 Days in the Valley is the best (and possibly the last [hint, hint]) of these knockoffs to come down the interstate. The only problem is that writer/director John Herzfeld forgot one critical part: a cool soundtrack! The main difficult with 2 Days is an uncommonly lousy score that kills the suspense and the comedy with equal ability.

But let's talk about the good parts, those mainly being the rich characters Herzfeld has created to act out his play. (Please pay attention.) It starts with Peter Horton (gets shot early on, a very big plus) as a deadbeat husband to downhill skier/aspiring scam artist Teri Hatcher. James Spader (by far the most fun of the film) and newcomer Charlize Theron as Hatcher's partners in crime. Danny Aiello as an aging hitman working with Spader. Naked's Greg Cruttwell as Aiello's whining hostage. Glenne Headly as Cruttwell's bookish assistant. Marsha Mason as Cruttwell's nurse/half-sister. Paul Mazursky as a suicidal Hollywood has-been who is picked up by Mason. And Jeff Daniels and Eric Stoltz (the only Pulp veteran in the show) as hapless cops on to all of these characters. (Plus there are at least three good cameos.)

Whew! D'you catch all that? It's easier than it sounds, trust me -- in fact, the fun of 2 Days is watching all the pieces come together via a mixture of slapstick comedy, generally witty dialogue, and blackly comedic gunfights, fistfights, dogfights, catfights, and any other kind of fight you can think of. All the while, Herzfeld manages to weave in unexpectedly powerful themes of bygone happiness, greed, and desperation... and The Valley. And Herzfeld manages to pack all of this into a very tight 105 minutes. There's very little wasted footage on the screen, which is hard to say about many directors today.

It winds up as a solid picture that is probably accessible to a wider audience than Pulp Fiction was -- there were plenty of squeamish girly types in the crowd, and no one walked out. And I was actually expecting a bad movie! Go figure.

[Food for thought: When was the last time you could get gas in Los Angeles for $1.07, as is seen in the film? Talk amongst yourselves.]

RATING: ****

That Thing You Do

2 1/2 stars, Between Subpar and Average

When you're a star as big as Tom Hanks, you can do whatever the hell your heart desires.

Such is the lesson to be taken away from That Thing You Do!, Hanks's screenwriting and directorial debut. And just what is That Thing You Do? Well, if you don't know, you must live in a cave, and a small one at that. The title refers to the one and only hit song of "The Wonders" (get it?). It is a song that is repeated throughout this film... over and over... in full or in part, a total of *11* times. I counted.

Hanks's ridiculously simplistic tale follows a couple of months in the lives of a small-time band from Erie, Pennsylvania, who almost by accident hit it big with their titular single. The cast is spearheaded by Tom Everett Scott, a young man who looks, sounds, and acts exactly like Hanks, and even has the same first name. Scott plays Guy, aka "Shades," the group's drummer who is somehow alternately nerdy when he isn't being supercool. Add on moody frontman Johnathon Schaech, who looks down-right frightening, plus wisecracking Steve Zahn, and you've pretty much got the band. (Hanks plays the group's manager in later scenes.)

That Thing You Do! takes The Wonders from playing talent shows to pizza parlors to getting a manager to a record deal to Billboard magazine to getting go-go dancers on stage with them, which is, I guess, as high as a music career ever gets. Then the band breaks up and the movie is over, and then you get to go home and go to sleep with the comfort that this is not a movie that's going to keep you up at night wondering about plot twists.

Without any bulky plot to get in the way of his perfectly linear story, Hanks is free to do what he does best -- crack jokes like he learned on "Bosom Buddies" with then-co-star and That Thing cameo-man Peter Scolari. It's funny in the same way that the aforementioned show was funny -- not witty, but good for an occasional laugh when someone falls down.

Yes, everything is funny in this Tom Hanks world of peaches, cream, and racial harmony (this is supposed to be 1964). I don't know if you can blame Hanks alone for this senseless and totally obvious film that is devoid of emotion, but I hope that Hollywood takes from this the lesson that a big movie star does not a talented writer/director make. But I doubt they will.

In all fairness, That Thing You Do! is a pleasant film perfect for a brain-dead matinee, and the theme song is a catchy tune that gets your foot tapping quickly. And while the movie, like the song, has a nice beat and you can dance to it, why settle for this single when you can get a double CD's worth of fun or intrigue in the theater next door?

RATING: **1/2


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