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NOVEMBER 24, 1997: 

The Man Who Knew Too Little

For the secret agent, fearlessness is a vital faculty. In The Man Who Knew Too Little, we learn that cluelessness will do just as nicely.

Bill Murray is Wallace Ritchie, an American video-store clerk arrived in London to pay a surprise visit to his brother James (Peter Gallagher). James, however, has a dinner party planned, and to get rid of his dullard brother he treats him to a night of something called "The Theater of Life," a brand of interactive action-adventure street theater.

Implausible, yes -- but it gets better: The hapless Wallace stumbles into the middle of some real-life subterfuge, complete with murderous thugs, sinister pols, and a sexy siren (Joanne Whalley). While the bullets fly, Wallace remains blissfully ignorant, responding to mortal danger with such aplomb that he wins the respect of the intrigue community, the heart of the vamp, and the day. Like Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, Wallace finds that his naïveté is his greatest asset.

This is, of course, a stock, one-joke plot. But Murray's boundless comic versatility keeps things going. Indeed, half the fun is the eye-flickering sensation of watching him stretch the joke without letting it snap. After all, every good thriller needs tension.

-- Chris Wright


The Jackal

Director Michael Caton-Jones has souped up the taut 1973 political thriller The Day of the Jackal '90s-style. There's a laptop-powered bazooka, huge explosions, gore galore, and a bad guy with a gift for one-liners. And the price tag for assassinating an international big wig today? It's zoomed from a measly half a mil to a Swiss-bank-account-busting $70 million.

Adopting the sobriquet of the wily assassin-for-hire, Bruce Willis contracts with Russian terrorists to rub out the director of the FBI. The dashing Sidney Poitier is the FBI agent stalking him, with the help of an IRA operative (Richard Gere, sounding like the Lucky Charms leprechaun) and a cool-as-vodka Russian intelligence officer (Diane Venora). But the star power, high-tech gadgetry, and breathless pacing can't entirely compensate for the film's patchy plot and uneven suspense. Plus, Willis can't rival the worldly flair of the original Jackal, Edward Fox, who intrigued simply by looking great in an ascot and an Alfa Romeo.

-- Alicia Potter


My Mother's Courage

Based on the true experience of playwright George Tabori's mother, German director Michael Verhoeven's My Mother's Courage tells the story of a middle-aged woman's strange and haunting encounter with Nazis. The scene is a relatively cheery 1944 Budapest, where the Nazi deportation of Jews was just beginning. Returning home from errands, Elsa (played by Irish actress Pauline Collins) is seized by two old, bumbling Hungarian policemen. After she's turned over to the Nazis and placed on a crowded train for deportation, the absurdity is presented no longer as slapstick but as horror.

Verhoeven, who also directed the Oscar-nominated The Nasty Girl, has been hailed for his ability to incorporate elements of compassion and humor into a horrific Holocaust tale. But when you consider that Germany had already occupied Hungary, Jews were wearing stars on their chest, and Elsa's husband was locked away in prison, some of the initial lightheartedness seems historically misplaced. Nonetheless, My Mother's Courage does grow into a chilling story of an all-too trusting woman trying to understand human evil. Certainly, the random, almost flippant, manner in which an SS commandant eventually frees Elsa while sending others off to their deaths makes this task impossible for anyone -- including the 80-year-old Tabori, who appears throughout as an invisible observer -- to comprehend.

-- Mark Bazer


Kiss or Kill

Australian Bill Bennett came to America and flopped with Two If by Sea, the ill-conceived caper romp starring Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary. So it's surprising to find Kiss or Kill such a well-crafted, modestly successful noir, with two lovers again on the run from the law and other unsavory characters.

Frances O'Connor, as Nikki, is a sleek femme fatale who may or may not be a sleepwalking serial killer. She and her beau, Al (a James Dean-posing Matt Day), exist as petty crooks, relying on Nikki's charms to lure married businessmen into compromising trysts, where they are subsequently drugged and robbed. A botched set-up yielding a dead mark and an incriminating videotape sends the unsettled devotees on the lam, as they scuttle across the vastness of the Australian plain, leaving a string of corpses in their wake.

The suspicion/love chemistry between Day and O'Connor, which they have honed since Love and Other Catastrophes, and Malcolm McCulloch's breathtaking cinematography go a long way toward overcoming the script's contrived bumpiness. It's not a killer of a thriller, but Kiss or Kill is an enjoyable peck on the cheek.

-- Tom Meek


Anastasia

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the folks at Disney should feel royally complimented by Twentieth Century Fox's new animated feature about Tsar Nicholas II's youngest daughter. Anastasia has all the new-Disney trademarks: a romantic couple with attitude, cute animals, a villain who'll stop at nothing, the villain's wise-guy sidekick, opulent sets, big-name actors, and a full-scale musical score -- even big-name singers (Richard Marx and Donna Lewis, Aaliyah, Deana Carter) to provide those all-important alternative soundtrack versions of the hoped-for hits. Disney is looking to head off Anastasia's audience by keeping Hercules around and re-releasing The Little Mermaid -- but in a fall season that's already given us its share of turkeys, there should be room for any film as handsome and touching as this one.

The Disney resemblance is hardly accidental: long-time collaborators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were Disney veterans before leaving the studio in 1979. But whereas Hercules, say, indulges freely in caricature, Anastasia's characters look and move more like real people, and we more often view them from what could be real camera positions. (Compare a Disney production number like "Be Our Guest," from Beauty and the Beast, with this film's "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," which conjures an actual Broadway production number.) And the use of Cinemascope makes Anastasia a set- rather than people-centered film.

The story, too, isn't Disney neat, though it takes considerable liberties with its historical material. The real Grand Duchess Anastasia (whose name means "resurrection") was taken to the Urals with the rest of her family in 1917, when she was 16; she (probably) died there with them the following year. In this version she's just eight at the time of the Russian Revolution; she flees the Winter Palace with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, but they get separated at the train station. Ten years later, with no pre-Revolution memory, Anastasia leaves her orphanage to find out who she is, but she falls into the hands of a con man named Dimitri, who with his friend Vladimir is looking for an Anastasia candidate to take to the Dowager Empress in Paris so he can collect the king's ransom of rubles Marie has offered. Meanwhile, Rasputin, whose curse on the Romanovs precipitated the Revolution, has risen from a Dante-like Limbo to do away with the last surviving daughter.

The film's St. Petersburg is gorgeous (the tsar's Romanov-blue carriage resembles a huge Fabergé egg), but at times it looks strangely like onion-domed Moscow. And the plot -- never the strong point of Bluth films -- gets a little uncoordinated. Rasputin (an over-the-top Christopher Lloyd) is a one-dimensional villain lacking the sardonic wit of Scar or Hades; you could write him out of the story and it wouldn't lose much. Ditto Rasputin's sidekick, a Hispanic-accented albino bat named Bartok (Hank Azaria).

But when the film hits Paris, Bluth and Goldman hit their stride. The allusions whirl by like snowflakes: Josephine Baker, Freud, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Chevalier, Chanel, the Moulin Rouge, Flying Down to Rio, An American in Paris. Angela Lansbury brings class and a convincing Russian accent to the Dowager Empress. Kelsey Grammer as Vladimir and Bernadette Peters as the Dowager Empress's cousin Sophie provide affectionate if exaggerated support. And though Meg Ryan and John Cusack, as Anastasia and Dimitri, look and sound, well, Irish, they also look and sound like individuals. Besides, they make this Hollywood evergreen -- the pair who don't trust each other at first but eventually fall in love -- seem as fresh as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade. They're particularly affecting when, on the boat to Paris, he tries to teach her to waltz and she winds up teaching him (a moment that's reprised in the film's finale). Anastasia has a darker but no less moving moment when with her grandmother she looks at a drawing she did as a child and remembers how her now-dead sister Olga made fun of it.

As for the soundtrack, "Journey to the Past" is the same self-fulfillment anthem that turns up in every Disney animation. But "A Rumor in St. Petersburg" puts a myriad of muzhiks on the move, and "Once upon a December," built on a music-box tune, is fairy-tale lovely -- like this movie, which tells Anastasia's story as it never was but should have been.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


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