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APRIL 26, 1999: 

Spike & Mike's 1999 Classic Festival of Animation

This is Spike and Mike's other animation festival, the squiggly, neurotic Dr. Katz to Sick and Twisted's Cartman. Of the 14 animated shorts in the 90-minute program, a whopping 12 are holdovers from last year's festival -- not a good sign for the cartoon crowd's cutting edge. But there's one real star here: 23-year-old Don Hertzfeldt, who says more about the trials of modern romance with a few minutes of his maladjusted stick figures in "Lily and Jim" and the gruesome, gleefully puerile "Ah L'Amour" than, say, Kevin Smith did in all of Chasing Amy. Beyond Hertzfeldt's lo-fi, distinctly American aesthetic, Spike and Mike bring us a myriad of other styles, including kitschy European noir and more wacky clay capers from the British creators of Wallace and Gromit. Classic Festival mainstay Bill Plympton is absent this time, so the show takes on more of a Disney look with the showcase "Geri's Game," a bright and colorful Oscar winner about an old man who plays chess against himself. Sure, "Geri's Game" is little more than eye candy, but with its stunning Toy Story graphics and understated drama, it beats out MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch any day.

-- Sean Richardson


Relax . . .  It's Just Sex

If only it were that much. Following the baleful examples of such coyly transgressive films as The Opposite of Sex and 200 Cigarettes, P.J. Castellaneta's smug and smarmy modern-relationship comedy tries to be oh so hip about alternative lifestyles but barely reaches the Hallmark Card level of emotional maturity. Set in LA and loosely told from the point of view of lovelorn, wanna-be playwright Vincey (Mitchell Anderson, who resembles Zonker in Doonesbury), it relates the touchy-feely misadventures of his extended family of friends and fellow misfits. Included are Jennifer Tilly's shrill and matronly Tara ("I'll stop being a fag hag when you stop being a fag!"), Lori Petty's Woody Harrelson clone Robin ("I'm gonna get my truck!"), and the requisite crew of multicultural gay and straight whiners. Relax gets tense halfway through in a real shocker of a sequence that cuts away the psychobabble to reveal a core of rage and pain from which it never quite recovers, the hugs-all-around attitude notwithstanding. Despite some nifty one-liners ("It's sex if I'm coming and there are other people in the room"), Sex is just too feel-good to be true.

-- Peter Keough


Nitsch 98

Cecilia Miniucchi's new documentary explores the rarely seen work of an artist who claims his work cannot be effectively documented: Hermann Nitsch, whose "Orgies Mysteries Theatre" has outraged the media in his native Austria and widely influenced performance artists around the world. "My work affects all of the senses," he insists, "language is not strong enough." The film chronicles Nitsch's exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, as well as the rehearsal of his "Six Day Play" on the grounds of Prinzendorf Castle, his private estate near Vienna.

Similar in tone to the "happenings" of the 1970s, Nitsch's examples of Abstract Expressionism and action painting make Pollock and Warhol look like Grandma Moses. His performances, always for small audiences, involve dozens of actors, musicians, and assistants -- and plenty of offal. The controversy stems from his effusive use of blood and animal carcasses, including lots of disemboweling. Pale, naked models are splashed with red paint, blood, and organs, with some live crucifixion and copulation thrown in for good measure. Oh and it's all accompanied by discordant music played on strings, brass, and kettledrums. Don't miss this viscera-throttling film experience -- but do skip dinner beforehand.

-- Peg Aloi


Mighty Peking Man

The combination of back projection, bad matte work, miniatures, and a man in a monster suit in this 1977 Hong Kong cult film (now being re-released by Quentin Tarantino) about a giant humanoid ape who lives in the Himalayan jungle recalls Japan's monster epics. But Mighty Peking Man has qualities that put it way to the left of even the most insane Japanese films. Above all, it has Samantha (Evelyne Kraft), a blonde jungle goddess who never wears more than a pasted-on animal-skin bikini and whom Peking Man has mentored since her childhood (when the hero asks about her parents, she shows him a wrecked plane in which two rotting corpses are still seated).

Samantha tames not only Peking Man but all wild creatures; at one point, director Ho Meng-Hwa conveys the idea that an elephant and a leopard are sad she's going away. During the action scenes, frenzied cutting induces that higher state of panic and vertigo that eludes more respectable fantasy films. The last third of the film is an all-out assault on modernity. No more cogent image of the idiocy of mass entertainment has been put on film than the scene in which a huge crowd gathers in a stadium to pelt Peking Man with candy and watch his tug of war with toy trucks.

-- Chris Fujiwara


Metroland

Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, Metroland is a kinder, gentler British rendition of The Ice Storm. In this quaint tale of angst in the middle class, Christian Bale and Lee Roos play Chris and Toni, childhood friends reared in a bourgeois commuter town they distastefully refer to as "Metroland." As petulant young men in the '60s, they thumbed their noses at the lifestyles of their parents, but in the narrative's present -- 1977 -- Chris has fallen into line with the status quo. He's content with his nine-to-five, a family, and a house in the fabled community of his origin. All that gets stirred up when Toni, now a smug, world-hopping poet, returns for a visit, didactically preaching about sexual carpe diem and the evils of "selling out." This prompts Chris to question his cozy being and wallow in the nostalgia of his days in Paris, where he lived as an artist, strolled the city's boulevards, and engaged in steamy erotic encounters with an ample Parisian by the name of Annick (a bubbly, sensual Elsa Zylberstein).

The sexually charged undercurrent of Metroland promises something dark, disturbing, and at least provocative, but as the characters reach their defining moments, it's the plot that yields to the ordinary. The players make a convincing go of it, forging a tight, edgy triangle. Roos is a mesmerizing force, though it's uncomfortable to take pleasure in his manipulative, self-centered serpent. Bale cruises through the film with the same naive expression that he adopted in Velvet Goldmine. And as Chris's wife, Emily Watson, in yet another sexually off-kilter role, delivers her lines with blunt, disarming cynicism, reconfirming that she's one of the best actresses on screen today.

-- Tom Meek


Lost and Found

David Spade tries to spread his wings in a romantic comedy that screams for fellow Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler. Lost and Found is cut from the same goofball-loser-meets-beautiful-girl formula that brought Sandler a huge hit with The Wedding Singer. The film has its barbed moments, but Spade is uncomfortably awkward as the leading man -- he's better employed in supporting comic roles, as in his TV series Just Shoot Me.

The plot revolves around Spade's financial problems as a restaurant owner, a lost engagement ring, a mountainous pile of dog shit, and a beautiful French cellist (Sophie Marceau), and it has a hard time finding its rhythm, bouncing from manipulative maudlin lulls to gut-wrenching scatological humor. There's even a Something About Mary spin involving an obnoxious, yapping canine who receives as much (physical-comedy) abuse as it doles out. Spade finds an ample Chris Farley replacement in the robust form of Artie Lange as his obsequious sidekick, and Martin Sheen and Jon Lovitz (as a dog whisperer) make devilish cameos, but the film belongs to Marceau. Her effervescence and graceful stature fill the screen, even if it's a stretch to see her go lip-to-lip with Spade.

-- Tom Meek


Foolish

Directed by Dave Meyers and out of rapper/entrepreneur Master P's No Limit empire, Foolish proffers its title character, stand-up comic Foolish Waise (played by stand-up comic Eddie Griffin), as a troubled, hilarious genius. So when Foolish tries to exorcise his demons (including alcohol and a failed Army stint) on stage, we're asked to believe we're watching the next Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx. Foolish is even told by Foxx's ghost that he has "that blue glow" that surrounds all the greats. But though much of the film is dedicated to Waise's (Griffin's?) stand-up routines, this alleged genius is nowhere in evidence. Instead, we're treated to a mess of homophobic, misogynistic, pussy-obsessed, cliché-ridden, cheap Pryor imitations. Foolish's suffering is further undermined by a dumb gangster subplot involving his brother Fifty (played by Master P -- not a good actor, but if you tell him I said that, I'll deny it) and Andrew Dice Clay. Marla Gibbs, perhaps needing to pay the bills at 227, turns up as Foolish's grandmother.

-- Mark Bazer


Life

Is life a game, as David Cronenberg's eXistenZ postulates, or is it a bad prison rap, as this new Eddie Murphy movie maintains? Either way, it's a rare occasion when Hollywood releases two such metaphysically monikered movies on the same day. Directed by Ted Demme, Life pairs Murphy with Martin Lawrence as Ray and Claude, two mismatched buddies serving the title term in a Mississippi State Prison after being falsely convicted of murder in 1932.

In a belabored set-up the pair -- Ray a sleazy con man, Claude a finicky bank teller -- are thrown together by mischance into driving a truck full of moonshine from down South back to Harlem, only to get framed by a redneck sheriff for killing a gambler. What follows is the lighter side of hard labor, Cool Hand Luke by way of Beverly Hills Cop, and the film doesn't really gel until the troublesome decades of the '60s and '70s are montaged over and the actors can layer on the old-man make-up and mannerisms. Murphy and Lawrence have a kind of Odd Couple chemistry that is more touching than raucous, and even the less politically correct humor has a chastened edge -- the cons prove heroic, if tragic. Neither does the film shy from the poignant and philosophical -- opening and closing in the prison graveyard, it evokes the somber recent documentary about Louisiana's Angola State Prison, The Farm. Although Life is hardly beautiful, it does pass the time.

-- Peter Keough



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