Aesthetically Speaking

Undisputed: stellar veterans give compelling performance

Walter Hill, one of Hollywood's most skilled directors (48 Hours, Last Man Standing), brandishes his accustomed hand with Undisputed, starring Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames in top form…… Walter Hill, one of Hollywood's most skilled directors (48 Hours, Last Man Standing), brandishes his accustomed hand with Undisputed, starring Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames in top form and featuring a Oscar-caliber appearance by Peter Falk. Imagine Mike Tyson, when he was imprisoned, running up on a boxer bad as himself. House-sized thug "Iceman" Chambers (Rhames) goes fist-to-fist against the leopard-like Monroe Hutchen (Snipes). Falk plays the catalyst, a mobster don who sets the stakes. Despite a threadbare script, this film fascinates as Hill expertly directs these stellar veterans to compelling performances.

Birthday Girl shows Nicole Kidman isn't just a pretty face, but a remarkably gifted actor. She creates a persona unlike any of previous performance, playing a mail-order bride who suckers her would-be husband into robbing a bank. The script goes from comical to bittersweet to downright dangerous before it arrives at an uplifting climax that deftly avoids maudlin sentiment. It's a telling statement of how far some folk will go to escape loneliness and a realistic argument that even the most callous opportunist can be redeemed.

You can tell from the onset that Sunshine State is another of Robert Altman's all-star, do-nothing-go-nowhere yawn fests that rely on its quantity of characters instead of a quality plot. Except it isn't an Altman flick, but top-flight director John Sayles doing the worst movie of his career. Not even Angela Basset, Timothy Hutton and Edie Falco, supported by Mary Alice (Down in the Delta), Bill Cobbs (Enough) and Tom Wright (The Pentagon Wars) are enough to keep you (halfway through this exercise in tedium) from wondering what else is on the box. You want to care about real estate developers appropriating land and ruining people lives. But, by the time Sayles stops beating around the bush, it simply doesn't matter as much as it should.

The Cat's Meow, adapted by Steven Peros from his play, takes a Roaring 20's look at back-biting, cutthroat elitism and how, through privilege, the filthy rich can literally get away with murder. Publishing mogul cum would-be film tycoon, William Randolph Hearst (Edward Hermann) throws a party on his yacht, setting the scene for deception, blackmail and betrayal that ends in hushed mystery. Power struggles rage behind closed doors (and enemies' backs), including machinations by Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) to enhance his already successful career by seizing the top position at Hearst's newly formed studio.

Stakes continually rise for all involved, including the married Hearst, who's jealously desperate to hold onto his mistress (Kirsten Dunst). Everything comes to a head when a gun goes off, leaving one of the pretty people dead — as we marvel at the ease by which money and power cover the killer's tracks. Between the layered plot and strong performances, including Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince and Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons, there truly is never a dull moment in this movie. Peter Bogdonavich directs.

January 27, 2003
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