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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JANUARY 20, 1998: 

SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST

D: Kirby Dick. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

The funniest, most genuinely life-affirming movie in town right now isn't the one with Robin Williams in it. It's the one with the dying, masochistic performance artist who lives with a dominatrix and amuses himself by hammering nails through his dick. The subject is Bob Flanagan who, before dying two years ago at the age of 42, was the longest-surviving victim of cystic fibrosis on record. This congenitally transmitted disease kills by filling the lungs with heavy fluid, basically drowning people in their own mucus. The pain of CF is excruciating, and each sufferer tends to develop personal strategies for dealing with it. For Flanagan, the solution was to defiantly raise nature's ante by subjecting himself to agonies greater than anything his illness could dish out. (Steel yourself beforehand for all manner of ghastly, though oddly matter-of-fact shots of Bob getting flogged, drinking urine, hanging weights from his scrotum and having tangerine-sized ball bearings shoved up his rectum.) As Flanagan's dad observes in an interview, "He must've been trying to tell God, 'I'll show you!'" Flanagan also, at the urging of his longtime dominatrix-lover Sheree Rose, turned his unfathomable desires into art highlighted by live multimedia enactions of his favorite S&M capers. Flanagan's impish, endearing wit is surely the greatest surprise this utterly unique documentary has to offer. With a giddily irreverent style that echoes not only Lenny Bruce but other Sixties humorists such as Tom Lehrer and Paul Krassner, he serves up a manic blend of song parodies (including "Forever Lung," sung in a pretty serviceable imitation of Bob Dylan's adenoidal croak), hilarious memoirs of his furtive boyhood experiments in kink and droll, japes at his conservative antagonists ("They want me to cease and desist, and rest assured, I will -- but not yet.") Kirby Dick, who was personally approved for this project by Rose, also focuses closely on the touching sweetness and intimacy of the pair's 15-year relationship. If you aren't utterly repelled by the perversity of what you're seeing, you may find yourself charmed by the almost motherly tenderness with which Rose takes a razor blade to her lover's chest or chokes him with the sash of her bathrobe. A more troubling issue for some may actually be the graphic manner in which Flanagan's eventual decline and death are portrayed. Even when a life is voluntarily laid so bare in the name of art, it's hard not to feel an affront to some principle higher or deeper than mere individual privacy. But let me emphasize that this isn't a case of some talentless would-be provocateur finding artistic validation in his audiences' heaving stomachs. The driving forces behind Dick's courageous, defiantly candid film are curiosity about all things human and a desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable. And, perhaps even more, a touching belief in the power of art to defy even death and to find transcendent meaning in any pain or loss.

4.0 stars Russell Smith


New Reviews:

FALLEN

D: Gregory Hoblit; with Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini, Elias Koteas. (R, 124 min.)

Demons, angels, and Denzel. What starts off as a typical police procedural is given a fresh spin by Primal Fear director Hoblit and an excellent cast. But Fallen's pretentious vision of a demonic force out to shatter the life of one lowly homicide detective is, ultimately, a pretty silly ride despite the film's obvious strengths and some genuinely eerie scenes. Washington plays Detective John Hobbes, a cop who's purely dedicated to putting away the worst of the worst and making sure they get what's coming to them, be it a lengthy stretch in the can or a solitary trip to the gas chamber. This latter option is the fate of Reese (Koteas), a mad dog killer who has a working knowledge of ancient Aramaic and a love of Sixties pop tunes. When apparent copycat killings begin cropping up after Reese's execution, Hobbes, along with partner Jonesy (Goodman), investigates and finds a lengthy skein of evil dating back decades. With the help of theologian Gretta Milano (Davidtz), Hobbes begins to believe that he is being stalked by the demon Azazel, a malicious woodland imp with the power to pass from person to person by touch (and a love of Sixties pop tunes). The demon, we are told, is here to dismantle civilization "one person at a time," and its current target is the god-fearing and righteous Hobbes. Demon/Angel films are the next big thing, due in part, I think, to the approaching millennial swing shift, and while Fallen bears the dark, melancholy look of David Fincher's Seven, it's deep in Exorcist/Omen territory. Nicholas Kazan's script makes much of the fact that Hobbes is such a stand-up guy. There are vague mutterings of a broken marriage, and the detective currently shares his house with his mentally handicapped brother and young nephew. The guy's a veritable saint, and we're led to believe that's essentially why this particular demon has chosen to wreck his life. Kazan piles on the ecumenical dialogue like it's going out of style (once again, the Book of Revelations makes an appearance), and the film falters beneath its need to pull out all the theological stops and give Hobbes at least a modicum of skepticism. Hoblit manages to pull off some clever, chilling scenes with Azazel's preferred mode of locomotion, however. One such bit -- set in broad daylight on a crowded city street -- has the demon passing from anonymous person to person to person as a bewildered and terrified Hobbes stands in their midst. One by one, they turn and give him the old evil eye, and you can tell it's all he can do not to crack right there. It's a terrific, creepy jolt in the midst of a film that, for the most part, seems to be grinding forward with all the inexorable tedium of the millennial change.

2.0 stars Marc Savlov


HARD RAIN

D: Mikael Saloman; with Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Betty White, Edward Asner, Richard Dysart. (R, 98 min.)

I think the big question on everybody's mind is: "Will they let Christian Slater out of the slammer to attend the premiere?" It's doubtful, and come to think of it, some of the scenes here -- Slater in a jail cell, Slater being pursued by angry cops -- probably strike a little too close to home anyway. To top it all off, the film is utterly forgettable, the kind of cheesy action-flick pabulum that sounds like a great idea during the pitch meeting, but plays like a soggy slice of Wonder Bread with a dead rat garnish once it hits the local multiplex. Slater plays Tom, an armored-car driver who, along with his crotchety uncle Charlie (Asner), is waylaid by a band of thieves (led by an out-of-place Freeman) eager to get their hands on the $3 million the pair are delivering. To add insult to injury, all this is occurring during a torrential flood. When Charlie is shot during the ensuing melee, Tom takes the money, hides it in a nearby cemetery, and promptly gets himself arrested by the local sheriff (Quaid), who thinks that Tom made off with the cash. There's also Minnie Driver as local girl (and Tom's love interest) Karen, and a handful of assorted other characters, but the basic crux here is Tom's battle between Freeman's gang and Quaid's money-hungry sheriff. And, of course, all that water. Director Saloman is no stranger to the wet stuff, having lensed James Cameron's The Abyss, but this misplaced summer blockbuster is so tired and formulaic that not even his considerable directing and cinematography skills can drag it above the shoreline. Slater, who lost it for me around the time of 1992's insipid Kuffs, is a cardboard cutout of an action star, reduced to simple action-reaction shots and far too much tearing about on a motorboat down the flooded small-town streets. Likewise Freeman, who appears to be taking some time off from his acting in order to get in shape by swimming a few laps, and Driver, well, I suspect she's just here for scenery. Hard Rain has been languishing on the shelf for some time, actually -- originally much more wittily titled The Flood, it's hopefully the final nail in the recent action-adventure-disaster tsunami that began (again -- these things are cyclical, like locusts) with last year's spate of volcano flicks and should end right after the entire planet is obliterated in either one of the upcoming comet films: Armageddon or Deep Impact. "Hopefully" is the key word here, since the grand master of human cinematic travail, Irwin Allen, is no longer with us, and things are getting a little seedy, disaster-wise.

1.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


KUNDUN

D: Martin Scorsese; with Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Tencho Gyalpo, Tenzin, Topjar, Robert Lin. (PG-13, 135 min.)

I mentioned to a friend of mine the other day that I had seen Kundun and after a brief silence to register the odd title, her response was, "Oh no, not another damn Tibet movie!" Well, yes, actually. Another damn Tibet movie. This being Martin Scorsese's take on the whole mess, however, should automatically put the whole affair head-and-shoulders above the recent Brad Pitt vehicle, Seven Years in Tibet, and any number of Richard Gere's anti-Chinese government campaigns. And it does, to a degree. Kundun is a magical film, bursting with unforgettable images and a color palette so heavily drenched in golds and reds that after it's over you feel as though you've just emerged from some riotously colored fever dream. Unfortunately, that's about all you feel. The film traces the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, beginning in 1937 when he was officially "discovered" as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion at the age of two, to his Chinese-imposed exile from his mountain home in 1959 by Chairman Mao. Much happens along the way, but you may be hard-pressed to recall exactly what: For a film focusing on such a rich emotional tapestry, Kundun is strangely lacking in its emotional core. This may have something to do with the non-traditional cast with whom Scorsese has chosen to work; the film includes no "name" actors, and instead uses an all-Tibetan cast, many of whom had no previous acting experience. There are few distinct connections between the players here, and whether or not that is an accurate representation of how the Dalai Lama's interpersonal relationships worked in reality is anyone's guess. The whole of the film seems dreamlike and unfettered by so many of the simple familial emotions you'd expect in a film that traces, essentially, a character's entire life. The film is a marvel of technique, however (what Scorsese film isn't?). Director of photography Roger Deakins is a longtime member of the Coen Brothers' crew (Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, Barton Fink) and he drapes the scenes in gobs of arresting visual splendor. It's truly the most golden-tinged film I've ever seen (even more so than The Last Emperor) and, as such, tends to look more than a little bit like some hallowed breakfast cereal advertisement from time to time. I doubt that was what cast and crew had in mind, however. It's difficult to imagine Scorsese's work seeming as emotionally stunted as this -- pretty images with no scaffolding behind them -- but perhaps the otherworldly aspects of shooting on location caught him off guard and blinded him with beatific beauty. Not unlike Kundun.

2.5 stars Marc Savlov


STAR KID

D: Manny Coto; with Joseph Mazzello, Richard Gilliland, Corrine Bohrer, Joey Simmrin, Ashlee Levitch, Lauren Eckstrom. (PG, 97 min.)

Joseph Mazzello, an uncommonly good young actor (Jurassic Park, The River Wild), stars in this pre-adolescent male sci-fi fantasy about a seventh-grader who hops inside a big robotic Cybersuit and saves the planet from intergalactic aggressors called the Broodwarriors. Better than it has to be, but not nearly good enough to have much broad appeal (and I mean that in every sense), Star Kid combines the basics of kid melodrama (bullied, shy, new kid in school and fifth wheel at home) and video-game aesthetics. Mazzello plays Spencer, a kid whose mom died not too long ago and whose dad (Gilliland) is wrapped up in his job, whose sister (Levitch) refers to him as "the fungus" and whose arch-enemy is a schoolyard bully named Turbo (Simmrin). While forlornly looking out his bedroom window one night, Spencer spies a meteor crashing into a nearby junkyard. When he goes to explore, he discovers a seven-foot-tall robot prototype named Cybersuit (nicknamed "Cy") who's looking for a human host. Spencer jumps in and has great fun vanquishing his own bullies until it comes time to take on Cy's mortal enemies, the Broodwarriors. Cy is an appealing invention: part heartwarming creature with expressive, Indiglo-blue saucer eyes and part comic-book cyborg. Star Kid is most engaging in its presentation of Spencer's point of view. While Spencer is locked inside the Cybersuit, we witness conversations from Spencer's perspective: In other words, he speaks to Cy's inner skull. Also, good fun is had as Spencer tries to explain to Cy such concepts as jokes and slang (When Spencer utters "cool," Cy responds by turning down the temperature in the Cybersuit). The requisite kids' film bathroom humor is satisfied by having Spencer figure out how to urinate from within the suit. Despite the film's dramatic satisfactions, Star Kid is a big bust on the action front. Fight scenes are tediously staged and excessively long. Producer Jennie Lew Tugend (who produced all three Free Willy epics) seems to be making a bid to establish a new family film franchise with Star Kid. Who knows? It could turn out to be Mazzello's college fund.

2.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


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