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DECEMBER 15, 1997: 

AMISTAD

Hey, as it turns out, slavery was bad! After blowing the lid off of the Holocaust (yes, as it turns out, that was bad, too), Steven Spielberg applies his Oscar-honed instincts to yet another epoch of history, and the results are painful. A group of Africans are abducted from their homeland and taken across the ocean in the eponymous slave ship. A mutiny and bloody takeover follows, and the Africans are jailed in America, where a young lawyer (Matthew McConaughey; bad hair, worse accent) takes up their cause. The case ends up before the Supreme Court, where cranky old John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins, in high honey-glazed form) pleads for the Africans. It's a compelling enough story, with the potential for a great film, but in Spielberg's oddly unemotional hands, it plays as a series of poorly constructed cliffhangers with pat solutions. A detached and cold film, even colder than "The Lost World," "Amistad" has none of the passion of "Schindler's List." The portrayal of the Africans ranges from cartoonish to wholly condescending. In one truly bizarre sequence, Spielberg has his African characters look over pictures in a Bible as though they were E.T. cooing over a Speak-and-Spell. As is the case with too many films of this ilk, the story is more about The White Guys than anything else. The young white lawyer's struggle is viewed with more passion than that of the struggle of the unjustly imprisoned, and the doddering ex-President's triumph is clearly more important than that of the Africans. Most of the cast seems in need of serious caffeine -- most disappointingly, Morgan Freeman -- and the only good performance in the film belongs to newcomer Djimon Hounsou, in a thankless role that doesn't deserve his energy. Spielberg's collaborators seem to have phoned in their work as well, with Janusz Kaminski's inconsistent and often flat cinematography, John Williams' forgettable score and an overall stultifying pace. With the exception of the terrifically gory mutiny sequence that opens "Amistad," this is resoundingly disappointing work. Expect multiple Oscars. (Nick Digilio)


HOME ALONE 3

It was less than half an hour before the yaws set in. Not the yawns -- loud, gaping, rude ones that rip through the air. Not the "aws" -- reserved for only the cutest and cuddliest of warm, loving puppies. The yaws. You can't look them up, but you'll sure feel them if you go to see John Hughes' barrel-bottom-scraping remake of "Home Alone." Mopy mophead Alex D. Linz is brought aboard to replace the nearing-majority, party-hearty Macauley Culkin. "Home Alone 3" opens with an Asian-set prologue worthy of straight-to-satellite action programmers. A quartet of North Korean-funded arms thieves ogle a microchip-encrusted motherboard that could "help us control the region!" according to their boss. They're full of good plans. "Here -- hide it in the toy car -- We'll sail right past airport security!" (Their low-jinks are accompanied by a score that nears the level of 1970s softcore Europorn Muzak.) While Raja Gosnell, longtime editor to both Hughes and Chris Columbus, seems to have a nice handle on the use of a mobile camera, Hughes' script stinks. When the family parrot joined in with a stream of repartee and Alex's piercing "Augghh!" at the sight of chicken pox was greeted with "Mom! Alex slammed the toilet seat on his thing again!" I knew it was time to go. The cold air was good. To paraphrase the long-gone Culkin, "Noooooooooooooooooo!" 104m. (Ray Pride)


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Directed by Frank Capra. By virtue of a bureaucratic foul-up, a little-seen commercial flop fell out of copyright over a decade ago and onto the schedules of every TV station in America that could snag a tape for a royalty-free showing. About the time its frightening omnipresence on the holiday scene reached the choking point, Republic Pictures, partially owned by Blockbuster, which is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount Pictures, bought the underlying literary and music rights. They announced the fable was theirs. The colorized versions have been cast aside, and now each season, there's only a single NBC primetime showing (December 20), larded with good cheer and plenty of commercials. The enshrinement of the greatest Twilight Zone episode never made as a yuppie icon and feel-good weepie overlooked the fact that it's one of the darkest, most self-abasing stories ever told in Hollywood. David Thomson's wonderful fiction, "Suspects," weaves major real and fictional figures of the 20th century into a warped, Borgesian fable, suggesting, among things, that Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey was in fact the father of Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver" and that his "weekend with the angels" was in fact spent with the title character of "Laura" in New York during her own disappearance. "Wonderful Life" is worthy of this kind of knotty imagining; a rich, dark, contradictory film noir, as tortured as any of the post-World War II movies more commonly tagged with that label. For those who are lucky enough to be near a movie theatre willing to screen "Wonderful Life" this season, Joseph Walker and Joe Biroc's cinematography is a revelation on the big screen. 129m. (Ray Pride)


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