With the release of In Dreams, an ambitious but botched mess of a supernatural horror film, Hollywood's dumping season has begun. Every January and February, after the Christmastime crush of Oscar contenders, the big studios dump the stinkers for which they hold few hopes. Maybe they figure that if the weather's icy enough, folks will sit through anything so long as it's playing in a warm theater. Bad bet.
In Dreams is directed and cowritten by Neil Jordan, who, when he's good (The Crying Game, Butcher Boy), is very, very good, but when he's dealing with the paranormal (High Spirits, Interview with the Vampire) he can lose his way. Add Dreams to the lost list. It has a baffling plot, characters who are barely there and repeatedly abuses apples, a perfectly decent fruit that deserves better. Bening plays an artist tormented by nasty dreams filled with images of apples and a murdering maniac. Soon, Bening's dreams start coming true as both her daughter and husband (Quinn) are threatened by the psychopath and her kitchen sink begins belching apple juice. When the sexually confused maniac (Downey, in a long, matted wig and waving painted fingernails) finally shows up in person crooning "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," Dreams goes from bad to rotten to the core. (R)
Bottom Line: Skip this dream date
Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Nathan Lane
At First Sight is a sluggish, obvious romantic drama, but it has an upside: Blind men are going to get a lot of dates thanks to this movie. That's because the blind masseur played by Kilmer is such a swell guy that he makes his disability seem, at least initially, as desirable a male attribute as picking up his own dirty socks.
Kilmer's character, blind since 3, works at a spa in rural New York. When Sorvino, a stressed-out Manhattan architect, discovers his magic fingers and sweet romantic ways (he takes her skating), love follows. She convinces him to have an operation to restore his sight (the film is loosely based on a true story written by Oliver Sacks, an author and physician), but Kilmer soon finds that the vision thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sight briefly comes to life as it examines the difficulties of a blind man adjusting to sight and introduces Lane as a wise-guy therapist, but soon lapses back into treacle.
Kilmer sounds inexplicably like a surfer dude exiled to chilly climes. Sorvino alternates between tremulous and chipper, neither one a particularly effective acting choice. (PG-13)
Bottom Line: Seeing isn't believing
James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight
Jon Voight must be in clover these days. When a movie needs a strong second lead and Gene Hackman is too busy, too expensive or not quite right, Voight is getting the call (see review of The General on page 36) or, in this case, the ball. Although Varsity Blues is a routine high school football drama about a second-string quarterback (Van Der Beek, heartthrob of TV's Dawson's Creek) who comes in as a replacement and gets the touchdowns, Voight has a fine old time chewing gum and scenery as a tyrannical coach. There's nothing subtle about his work here, but he keeps Blues' youthful cast on its toes. Van Der Beek ably exudes both smarts and sensitivity, and Scott Caan (son of James) proves peppy as a mischievous fellow player. (R)
Bottom Line: Junior varsity is more like it
Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight
Martin Cahill (Gleeson), a real-life Irish thief who was nicknamed "the General," snoozes on a bench at a Dublin police station while awaiting his longtime nemesis (Voight), an inspector. The cop arrives at work and, upon hearing that Cahill's gang has just pulled off a big robbery while Cahill napped, angrily orders Cahill to scram. Cahill, his alibi established, happily trots off to the home he contentedly shares with his wife, her sister and the offspring he has fathered with both women.
This trenchant scene is but one of many from The General, director-writer John Boorman's fine, boisterously funny film about Cahill and his criminal career. Gleefully anti-authoritarian, Cahill relished sticking it to the cops, the Catholic church and even the IRA (which fatally shot him in 1994). Gleeson, an Irish stage star, is mesmerizing as the wily but brutal thief while Voight, his Irish accent spot-on, is a study in determined concentration as the cop who knows time is on his side. (R)
Bottom Line: We enthusiastically salute The General
>SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Even those who slept through Romeo and Juliet in school will enjoy this romantic drama that cleverly reimagines just how Shakespeare (soft-eyed Joseph Fiennes) might have come to write the play. Gwyneth Paltrow
positively glows. (R)
A CIVIL ACTION John Travolta and Robert Duvall, as lawyers on opposite sides of a big case, give considered, effective performances in a thoughtful legal drama based on Jonathan Harr's fascinating non-fiction book of the same name. (PG-13)
YOU'VE GOT MAIL If you want a big-star romantic comedy that goes down nice and easy without being pablum, check out the latest Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks pairing from director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle). Love those Godfather jokes. (PG)
>Maya Angelou On the set of Down in the Delta, a new film about a Chicago woman who digs for her African-American roots in Mississippi, the likes of Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes were in awe of being touched by an Angelou. "The actors wanted to work with me, so they came to work for peanut shells," says Maya Angelou, 70, who was talked into the job by producers. "Wesley Snipes left an $80 million movie he was filming to come over and give me a week of his time." Although Angelou, a professor at Wake Forest University and a gourmet cook who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., has acted (Roots) and directed for TV (including documentaries for PBS), she's best known for her poetry and such memoirs as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Yet she didn't write Delta and can't imagine directing her own material. "I need another point of view," she explains. Not that filmmaking is so dissimilar from writing, she adds: "I came to see the camera as my pen. I just let the 'pen' tell the story."
Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr.