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The Big Hit; Dancer, Texas; Deja Vu; He Got Game.

By Ray Pride, Ellen Fox

MAY 4, 1998: 

The Big Hit

I used to like Hong Kong movies, then I saw too many of them. There are directors from the territory who have remarkable signature styles, frantic, fractured, postmodern and dislocating, such as the kinetic blood ballets of John Woo or the manic mannerism of Wong Kar-Wai. Tsui Hark's producer-as-auteur style hits as often as it misses. Jackie Chan? Brilliant charm, death-deifying [SIC] stunts. Hong Kong movies are often marvels of non sequitur, volumes of narrative invention created by incoherence, sloppiness, no money for second takes. Where Indian movies might pause for a song, Hong Kong movies usually find the time for a few long draughts of sentimentality. In quantity, the work of even the best second-tier directors palls and appalls. Kirk Wong, now dubbed Che-Kirk Wong, was an energetic director who must be paid a dubious compliment: with "The Big Hit" he's made probably the first American studio film shot by an expatriate Hong Kong director that truly captures the tawdry strengths and alarming inadequacy of HK filmmaking. In other words, it's a bold, heartless, bizarre, xenophobic to the point of racism piece of shit. Four hit men-Mark Wahlberg, Bokeem Woodbine, Lou Diamond Phillips and Antonio Sabato Jr.-open the movie like gangbusters, shooting and grimacing and splintering a fancy hotel. So far, so gaudy. Then the plot kicks in, the complications, the sour jokes. If you care about the story, you've surely already seen the movie. Why did this movie make $11 million last weekend? Did the sarcastic trailer hit its mark? Is Mark Wahlberg a star now? Are boys of all ages now angry that Christina Applegate kept her clothes on? Questions for the ages. (Ray Pride)


Dancer, Texas Pop. 81

Four boys of varying degrees of cuteness constitute four-fifths of a high school graduating class. They spend the weekend after commencement deciding whether to stick around their tiny West Texas town or stick to a boyhood vow and move out to L.A. together. There's Tom Cruisey Terrel Lee, whose glitzy mother insists that he follow Daddy into the oil business; Squirrel, the goof, whose matted hair and concession to his friends' loving ridicule is explained by his tragic homelife; John, my favorite, the lean lone-rancher's son who sits by the fireside whittling wood in a cowboy hat without looking cartoonish; and Keller, who, by virtue of not having any particular quirk, makes him the thoughtful audience stand-in and the most anxious to leave town. As the townsmen place bets on who's got the balls to go, I start staking odds of my own, alarmed by the speed at which the soundtrack of slide guitar and sassy harmonica degenerate into the forced poignancy of the fiddle. I pegged Squirrel for the one to die young, but this isn't that kind of film. Nor is it a whinefest, though when we first meet the foursome, they look for all the world like slackers, sitting in rickety lawnchairs across a beauteous swath of Texas highway and sky. As simple and sentimental as any movie about leaving home is bound to be, you could actually figure it for one Texan's response to "Slacker," where everything was levelled to stupid-importance and worthy of comment. Here are young people trying hard to cut away the minutiae, to gauge just how strongly the important things-friends, families, jobs-can keep them tied to a specific place or urge them to go. When the boys feel suffocated by the the town's casseroles, they go like masters to the open country. When they feel awed, they come home and are touched by people's affection. Is there a happy medium between claustrophobia and agoraphobia? A good number between 81 and 13 million? With Patricia Wettig and Breckin Meyer (fondly recalled as the stoner from "Clueless"). (Ellen Fox)


Deja Vu

I'm a sucker for films that follow dark-haired women as they wander around a bit, then fall into adventures of their own devising: "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone with the Wind," or, more recently, "Vagabond" and "When the Cat's Away." (It helps if a few scenes are set in France.) "Deja Vu" is as good as none of these, but I endured much of its annoying chat and "Love Boat" supernaturalism because I was so taken with its lead actress, Victoria Foyt, who co-wrote the film with her husband, director Henry Jaglom. As Dana, Foyt is ripe and beautiful, with flesh softened by age but firmed by fancy Estee Lauder serums which I imagined lining her bathroom sink next to bottles of Obsession and Coco. She might even look better now than she did twenty years ago, walking the market stalls of Tel Aviv in a snug black jacket and pants, buying goods for her fiancÚ's store back in L.A. It's in a Tel Aviv cafe that she meets another beautiful, even older Frenchwoman who tells her the story of the love of her life and then vanishes, leaving behind a custom-made pin which spurs Dana to fly to Paris, and then through the Chunnel to Dover. As she wanders along the white cliffs, she passes a man standing in the grass, painting. She saw his face in Paris, she approaches him with self-conscious giggles, they feel a connection, this is incredible.... Wait! this is crazy, we can't. Dana scurries on to London to rendezvous with her fiancÚ at a friend's house, but other forces are clearly -and doggedly-at work. (By Dana and Sean's third "coincidental meeting" I had to wonder if it was truly shock or simply lack of imagination that drove each to gasp, "Oh my god, what are you doing here?") Vanessa Redgrave dons a cap and smokes a cigarette, and looks dapper enough as she advises Dana to follow her heart. But her own refusal to care for her elderly mother wisely raises the specter of shirked responsibility amid all willful conversion of fancy to Fate. (Ellen Fox)


He Got Game

Directed and written by Spike Lee. In the years since his epic "Malcolm X," the commercial nonperformance of several movies led Spike Lee in unexpected (and lower budget) directions, from the misfired melange of sex, guilt and Prince songs of "Girl 6" to the fresh, lively look at the Million Man March, "Get On The Bus" and his Oscar-nominated documentary, "4 Little Girls." Lee's wife encouraged him to pursue an original script this time out, instead of an adaptation, and the result was "He Got Game," a Coney Island roller-coaster ride of the pressures faced by highschool athletes with potential. While perhaps his most conventional movie, "He Got Game" may be Lee's most successful in merging a myriad of influences and styles, beginning with a score drawn largely from Aaron Copland (with a few songs by Public Enemy). Milwaukee Bucks star Ray Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, the savior to any college that can woo him. His father, Jake, played with gravitas by Denzel Washington, is serving time for the manslaughter of Jesus' mother, and the governor, who wants Jesus to play ball for his alma mater, lets Jake out to try to coerce his son to sign with "Big State." The premise is rife with implausibility, but the drama is strong. While the movie has been heavily advertised during televised basketball games, Lee is concerned with how his movie will be received. "Today's audience, they want to see the same shit again and again and again," the quiet-spoken Lee says. "It's making audiences stupid. It's making 'em numb. Y'know, doped up." The studios express their lack of confidence through endless research, he says. "They put so much into this research shit. They test everything. Test the titles, test the actors, test the one-sheets, test the commercials. People don't like the ending, better reshoot the ending, the numbers say to do that. I don't think that's any way to make art." There are sly jokes throughout, including Jesus' moment at the end of the story, alone on the floor of "Big State" university, the shot flanked by enormous university insignia: "BS." Lee grins at that, but he's even more amused by a recruitment scene where Jesus is introduced to two "assistant coaches," big-breasted white women who press him into service and coo, "Oh Jesus!" Lee laughs. "So you heard that 'Oh, Jesus!'?" He laughs and laughs and laughs some more. (Ray Pride)


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