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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MARCH 23, 1998: 

MARY JANE'S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE

D: Sarah Jacobson; with Linda Gerstein, Greg Cruikshank, Beth Ramona Allen, Andrew David DeAngelo, Chris Enright, Marny Snyder, Brandon Stepp, Jello Biafra. (Not Rated, 98 min.)

Rough-hewn and drenched in DIY aesthetics, Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore is a girl's coming-of-age story that's fresh and unlike most other coming-of-age stories we've seen on the screen so far. Which is not to say that Mary Jane's fictional situation is in itself unique -- merely the film's honest, onscreen portrayal of a girl's first experience with sex. Expectations and reality egregiously collide in the film's opening sequence during which Mary Jane (Gerstein) unceremoniously loses her virginity to an insensitive and callow young stud. Framed in a high overhead shot, we witness Mary Jane's discomfort and dismay as she lies pinned under the thrusting stallion, who has so thoughtfully spread out a blanket in the local cemetery to serve as the bed for his date's deflowering. But in an instant, we see that Mary Jane's not a "lie-back-and-take-it" kind of gal. She calls a halt to the proceedings and has her date drive her back to the party, where she ruminates about the mysteries of sex and why she seems to be the only person not privy to its celebrated delights. The party is an after-hours thing at the place where she works -- a seedy, alternative movie theatre which provides the setting for a large portion of the film. Mary Jane is a smart, suburban high-schooler who commutes into the city to work amid the coolness of this theatre and its distinctive, post-punk personnel. One by one, her friends and fellow employees share with her their own shabby "first time" stories. Male or female, their sexual initiations all seem marked by disappointments in which the actuality hardly ever lives up to all its advance billing. Amusing, evocative, sweet, and engaging, these stories strip the glossy veneer off the silver screen's saccharinization of sex. Jacobson's film presents kids talking just as you suspect they do in real life, while it uncovers forthright, new ways to portray a girl's first-time sexual experiences that do not involve soft-focus, bittersweet memories or fond recollections of youth spent. Armed with these tips from her friends -- particularly a funny and instructive rap by punk gal Ericka (Allen) about the hip pleasures of masturbation -- Mary Jane is on the road to sexual delight, only this time she is in the driver's seat. Gerstein's natural and unruffled performance as Mary Jane is an essential part of the film's charm. There's a degree to which it feels as though we're always witnessing real conversations here. This is especially good since there is very little plot to the film and what there is, is awfully contrived; Mary Jane consists mostly of conversations and static camerawork. But the unabashed nature of the dialogue and the novelty of the no-frills, all-grrrls perspective busts more than a few cinematic cherries.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



MR. NICE GUY

D: Samo Hung; with Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, Miki Lee. (PG-13, 106 min.)


Jackie Chan in Mr. Nice Guy

Not reviewed at press time. Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan continues his drive to find a Hollywood home base for his distinctive style of action-packed physical comedy. Here he plays a TV chef and helps out a news reporter who has videotaped a gangster doing off-the-record deeds. Director Sammo Hung is another accomplished Hong Kong expatriate (Meals on Wheels, Dragons Forever), who's poking around Hollywood to see what it might have to offer.

Marjorie Baumgarten



PRIMARY COLORS

D: Mike Nichols; with John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Adrian Lester, Maura Tierney, Kathy Bates. (R, 143 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. All eyes are riveted on this new Mike Nichols film, which was adapted by Elaine May from the bestselling novel about Clinton's first presidential campaign. It's sure to earn a prominent chapter in the eternal "life imitates art" saga, a saga that certainly has done no harm by Wag the Dog. Is it politics? Is it entertainment? Odds are, the spin on this movie will be in constant motion, moving in response to the whims of the movie-going electorate and op-ed pundits. From the trailers, it appears as though Travolta's Clinton is spot-on, as are the characterizations of some of the other key "fictional" figures. This one should be a real cultural phenomenon.

Marjorie Baumgarten



WILD THINGS

D: John McNaughton; with Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Theresa Russell, Denise Richards, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Carrie Snodgress, Robert Wagner, Bill Murray. (R, 108 min.)


Kevin Bacon and Denise Richards inWild Things

Not reviewed at press time. This twisted Florida tale of sex, murder, and revenge promises lots of steamy thrills among the rich and powerful. Matt Dillon plays a guidance counselor in a tony yachting community who is accused of engaging in X-rated after-school activities with his students, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. Kevin Bacon plays the cop who becomes wickedly tangled up in the mess and Bill Murray plays the low-rent lawyer who's the only one hungry enough to take on the guidance counselor's case. Also along for the ride are Theresa Russell, Carrie Snodgress, and Robert Wagner.

Marjorie Baumgarten



THE WINTER GUEST

D: Alan Rickman; with Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson, Gary Hollywood, Arlene Cockburn, Sheila Reid, Sandra Voe, Douglas Murphy, Sean Biggerstaff. (R, 110 min.)



Emma Thompson in The Winter Guest

Sometimes the coldest season exhibits an austere beauty -- trees stretching bony limbs toward a somber sky the shade of lead, landscapes leeched of color, revealing sharp edges everywhere -- but it can be awfully tough to focus on winter's graces with an icy wind blowing on your neck and a cold ache deep in your bones. The chill is overwhelming; it obliterates all thoughts save those of getting warm. This intimate drama of eight Scots groping for warmth -- emotionally as much as physically -- in the midst of a bleak midwinter strives to project the majesty in the season, but much of the time it just blows cold, prompting you to think of little more than getting through this movie and baking under a heat lamp. Granted, a story set on a day so cold that the sea has frozen needs to exude a certain icy atmosphere -- and certain elements of the film succeed admirably in that: Seamus McGarvey's black-and-white cinematography captures winter's stark look, the pallor and deep shadows and crispness of outline, and Michael Kamen's score resounds with isolated, echoing notes from a piano, evocative of icicles dropping into an icy pond -- but in its story, The Winter Guest's chill overwhelms everything else. Playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Alan Rickman, adapting Macdonald's stage play, weave a tale among four disparate pairs of villagers: Elspeth (Law) and her widowed daughter Frances (Thompson), who's still paralyzed by grief; Frances' teenage son Alex (Hollywood) and a young woman, Nita (Cockburn), who's attracted to him; two pre-pubescent schoolboys (Murphy and Biggerstaff) playing hooky; and two aged friends (Reid and Voe) going to the funeral of a stranger. The characters are sympathetic, and the actors do their bit to make them appealing as well -- Law is especially memorable as Elspeth, fussy and funny and stubborn and shrewd -- yet they seem frozen by a story, the outcomes of which are inevitable and transparent. Chekhov is reputed to have said that if a gun is introduced in a play's first act, it must go off before the final curtain. The Winter Guest extends that to the pistol below a young man's waist, and to cameras, too. Early on, it becomes all too clear that Thompson's Frances, a photographer who has not lifted her lens since her husband's death, will click the shutter before the credits roll, just as it's clear that Alex will snap Nita's picture, so to speak. These telegraphed climaxes rob the story of its drama as surely as winter steals the leaves from the trees, leaving us a film that's little more than a few chilly scenes of winter. Rickman's directorial debut isn't devoid of warmth, or austere beauty, for that matter, but it doesn't generate enough of either to compensate for the time it leaves us out in the cold.

2.5 stars

Robert Faires


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