Movie Reviews by Christopher Null

Dante's Peak (1997) -- Sling Blade (1996) -- The Empire Strikes Back (re-release)

Christopher Null is a long-established writer and media critic based in Austin, Texas. He was first published at the age of 11, completed his first novel at the age 19, and his first screenplay, Fringe, at 23. Chris has also written 2 other novels and just completed September Drift, his second full-length screenplay. In addition to writing, Null Set Productions (the film production company he began with his brother) produced its first offering, a live-action short film entitled Pressurecooker, this August. The company hopes to begin shooting Fringe in early 1997. Now 25, Chris has been covering the world of film and the cinema for almost 3 years. He is internationally syndicated as a writer (now in 5 countries and 4 different languages) and is also Contributing Editor for Film for Mike's Feedback magazine, an Austin, Texas monthly. Now, Chris's reviews and articles reach over 850,000 readers (that's four times the readership of Austin's daily newspaper).

Dante's Peak (1997)
1 1/2 stars - Almost, but not quite Awful

For those keeping score, here's the new Hollywood movie formula: Twister - tornado + other disaster = $$$!

$$$ may be right, but ***** is definitely not forthcoming, at least not in the case of Dante's Peak, a shameless and blatant rip-off of the mildly entertaining aforementioned film that is largely responsible for the return to prominence of the disaster movie. This time around, it's a volcano that threatens the peace of little Dante's Peak, and it's Pierce Brosnan who comes to the rescue.

Here's how frightening the similarities are. Both films open with a flashback explaining why this particular act of nature is so traumatic to the hero (Helen Hunt in Twister, Brosnan in Peak). Both feature a team of gosh-darn-nutty scientists investigating the disasters, plus an unlikely romance-on-the-run for the leads. Both sport far-too-crisp digital effects. Both are full of small-town kitsch (Twister is set in the midwest, Peak is a sleepy Northwestern village). Both are full of bad jokes and bad acting to go along with the bad weather. Both have a "grandma" character *and* a dog who are injured by the force of nature. Hell, both even feature a big red truck that gets destroyed by the disaster in question!

Dante's Peak, trying to outdo Twister with a volcano, ups the level of things that are destroyed, and it features lots of ash raining down, flowing lava, and lots and lots of buildings blowing up(!) And that's really about it. Really.

But what makes Peak so bad, where Twister was passably good? Is it the cheeseball dialogue and a really horrid performance from Linda Hamilton? Or is it the precocious children? Is it the fact that if everyone in the town of Dante's Peak wasn't dumber than a post, this whole disaster would have been avoided (that means you, grandma)?

I say, let 'em fry. Dante's Peak blows.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

Sling Blade (1996)
4 1/2 stars - Good, Near Perfection

Unlike most critics, I've been largely unimpressed with Billy Bob Thornton's work in the past. From One False Move to A Family Thing, I've always found his writing to lack depth and miss a true focus.

But then there's Sling Blade, and with Thornton in complete control as the writer, director, and star of the show, I do believe he's created a real gem.

Sling Blade has its origins in Thornton's little-seen (and kind of dull) short film, "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade." The short, a 10-minute black and white affair, is actually incorporated -- nearly verbatim -- into the feature. It presents to us the character of Karl, a mentally deliberate man who, as a boy, killed his mother and her lover some 25 years ago. After a long spell in the mental hospital, Karl is "well" and is being released into the world.

That's where the short film ends, and that's where my plot description ends as well, because from there on out, Sling Bladeis a true original. The film is an American Gothic tale, following Karl's reluctant return to modern rural Bible Belt society, complete with small-town closet homosexuals (John Ritter, surprisingly good here), bigoted rednecks (Dwight Yoakam), and the Frostee Cream. Unable to deal with the cacophony of new things, Karl just tunes them out, living in the garage of his new little friend (Lucas Black) and subsisting on french fries and mustard, working as a small engine repairman.

But while Karl is simple, he shows us the complexities of life through less experienced eyes, and yet the film never wanders into the campiness of Forrest Gump. Inside is to be found a tale of true friendship, the meaning of love, an amazing morality fable, and some beautiful imagery. All of it to be found in the simplest of places. It feels slow at times, but the pacing actually enhances the experience of being pulled in to the Deep South.

I loved your movie, but don't get cocky, Billy Bob; I want to see another great one. After all, I know Molly Ringwald was in your short film...

More info at the Internet Movie Database

Empire Strikes Back (re-release)
5 stars - PERFECTION

Twenty years will make you forget how good a movie was.

I was excited to see the rerelease of The Empire Strikes Back, but I had forgotten about how masterful the film is realized, and I had especially forgotten what it looked like on the big screen.

Empire, newly restored by George Lucas and his cronies, makes the remastered videotape look like a comic book. While not much new has been added (what has is pretty obvious, mainly an impressive sound clean-up and digital animations of the Millennium Falcon's descent into Cloud City), the story has held up monumentally against the Independence Days and Twisters of the world.

I've always found Empire to be the Hamlet of science fiction, basically because nothing good happens to the hero in the entire story. Luke Skywalker almost dies in the tundra of Hoth (watch for the still-cheesy claymation(?) Tauntauns), sees the rebels sent on the run through the galaxy, meets Yoda and fails to complete his Jedi training on Dagobah, sees his pal Han Solo encased in carbonite, and loses his hand in a fight with Darth Vader, whom he has learned is his father. All that, and C-3PO gets blasted, too!

It's enough to make you cry, or enough at least to make you really really want to see Return of the Jedi when it hits theaters again in March. I know I'm hooked!

Empire was always my favorite of the trilogy, and seeing it on the big screen is not to be missed.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

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