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Cane Toads

D: Mark Lewis (1987)

I've watched a lot of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom in my time, but Cane Toads delivers what Marlon Perkins never could: a bucket of laughs. Indeed, Cane Toads is a contradiction in terms: a hilarious nature documentary. Imported into Australia in the 1930s to attack the cane grubs that were devastating local sugar crops, the cane toad proved as fruitless at pest control as it was fruitful in reproduction; now northern Queensland is literally overrun -- overhopped? -- by this magnificent toad. While the title toads -- with their eager sexual appetites, narcotic poison sacs, and a spawning pattern that can only be considered profligate -- are an entertaining bunch, director Mark Lewis understands that humans are the more infinitely amusing species. Lewis trots out several passionate commentators, eliciting heartfelt testimonials from toad lovers as well as seething indictments from those who hold the critters in somewhat lower esteem. Add to this curious cast a hilarious series of staged shots -- the nefarious toads preying on a backyard toddler, a Psycho-worthy scene with a showering naturalist and an advancing battalion of bloodthirsty Bufonidae -- and things get positively gleeful. To be sure, Cane Toads is a biological cautionary tale, a vivid case study of how a single, introduced species, without natural predators, can replace a startling number of native strains. But Cane Toads is short on sanctimony and long on laughs, and hands-down the funniest nature documentary I've ever seen.

-- Jay Hardwig


Ed's Next Move

D: John Walsh (1996) with Matt Ross, Callie Thorne, Kevin Carroll,
Cathy Curtin, Michael Huston

One of the funniest movies you never heard of, Ed's Next Move went from winning praises on the festival circuit to a blink-and-you-missed-it screening at the Dobie and other art houses last year. Now, this low-budget gem hits video, and it's truly worth discovering. A classic fish out of water story, the film traces a few weeks in the life of urban greenhorn Eddie (Ross), whose titular move is from the wide-open, cheesy state of Wisconsin to the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan. He lives in a cheap motel while he tries to find a non-psychotic roommate, can't get a simple hamburger at a restaurant, and finds his Midwestern sensibilities out of place in the big city. Toss in a love story with brassy hipster Lee (Thorne), and Walsh proves that you can make a romantic comedy without Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan. But what really makes Ed's Next Move a stand-out is Walsh's hilarious knack for writing comedy, plus a down-to-earth realism that makes you realize that his characters could be any of us.

-- Christopher Null


Fist of Legend

D: Gordon Chan Car-Seung (1994) with Jet Li Lian-Jie, Chin Siu-Ho,
Ada Choi Siu-Fun, Nakayama Shinobu, Yasuki Kurata, Billy Chow Bei-Lei,
Paul Chun Pui, Yuen Cheung-Yan

It took guts to remake a martial arts classic like Bruce Lee's Chinese Connection, but Fist of Legend is a more than worthy effort. Like Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II, it brings modern pacing and stunts to the classic formulas of Seventies kung fu flicks. The terrific fight sequences were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, whose work in recent hits (Iron Monkey, Tai Chi Master) measures up to his classics (Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow). Actor Jet Li is very likeable in the lead, and he brings an interesting elusiveness to the fights -- he never outright copies Bruce Lee, but an occasional technique or catchphrase or grimace of satisfaction effortlessly recalls the master. Gordon Chan's script and co-direction are also surprisingly good; in the original Chinese Connection, Bruce Lee fought back against foreign invaders who were portrayed in a rabble-rousing (and, frankly, racist) fashion. There are still bad guys in Fist of Legend, and, needless to say, they get their asses kicked. But the movie is more nuanced, and probably gives a better impression of how Hong Kongers must really feel about being trapped between a host of imperialist aggressors.

-- Chris Baker


Basquiat

D: Julian Schnabel (1996) with David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, Courtney Love, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, Christopher Walken, Michael Wincott, Jeffrey Wright



Jefffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper in Julain Schnabel's Basquiat. The wig Bowie is wearing as he portryas Andy Warhol is only slightly better that the one Warhol actually wore.

You can tell that Basquiat, the film, was put together by a fellow painter and friend. The narrative thread seems to assume quite a bit of intimate knowledge about Jean Michel Basquiat (played by Angels in America's Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle awards for the role), the man, in order to truly understand what actually happened in his life, information that only friends and art historians would have about the young Haitian artist who died in 1988 at 27. While this makes the film hard to follow in a traditional storyline sense and leaves unanswered some of the more troubling aspects of Basquiat's meteoric rise to the inner circle of the early Eighties New York City art scene, the strong impressions that Schnabel is able to achieve through visual structure and editing combine to create a film persona for Basquiat that is haunting and precise, which left this particular critic in tears by the film's end.

-- Adrienne Martini







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