Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

Film reviews are updated on Fridays. This section compiled by Marjorie Baumgarten (M.B.); with reviews by Hollis Chacona (H.C.), Steve Davis (S.D.), Robert Faires (R.F.), Alison Macor (A.M.), Marc Savlov (M.S.), Russell Smith (R.S.).

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5 stars As perfect as a movie can be
4 stars Slightly flawed, but excellent nonetheless
3 stars Has its good points, and its bad points
2 stars Mediocre, but with one or two bright spots
1 stars Poor, without any saving graces
0 stars La Bomba



D: Victor Nunez; with Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Christine Dunford, Tom Wood, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel. (R, 113 min.)

For rural Florida beekeeper Ulysses Jackson (Peter Fonda), work is life's purest essence. Even when all-night toil in the tupelo swamps leaves his back so wrecked he has to sleep on the dining-room floor, it still beats dealing with a dysfunctional family that includes a jailbird son, a junkie daughter-in-law, and two young dependent granddaughters. Though decent to the core, Ulee (short for Ulysses) is clueless about human interactions more complex than peddling his fine tupelo honey. But when the son's old bank-robbing cronies menace his family, Ulee is forced to not only handle the situation personally but face how his own emotional desertion may have laid the groundwork for this crisis. Stoic, insular Ulee is a guy we've all met, and Fonda knows him better than most, having been raised by a classic of the type - his acting legend dad, Henry. The younger Fonda, now 58, brings all of his childhood frustration and angst to the screen in one of the year's most unexpectedly brilliant acting performances. Working from a wise and insightful script by seminal indie director Nunez (Gal Young 'Un, Ruby in Paradise), he sucks every bit of dramatic marrow from the words on the page. Yet there's also an arrestingly singular and specific character to Ulee's beleaguered remoteness. It has a power that utterly consumes Fonda, transforming him in a way that's unprecedented in his work and granting him momentary access to the greatness his father channeled so intuitively. Peter Fonda's Ulee is both late-period Silent Henry and an earnest, compassionate effort to deconstruct that obscure figure. But Ulee's Gold is a terrific movie for reasons that go well beyond Fonda's career breakthrough. Nunez, who hails from Florida himself, understands the lives and sensibilities of the people who inhabit the state's humid hinterlands. Far from the images of white-trash squalor promulgated by most Hollywood product, there's a complex micro-universe here that Nunez takes the time to fully understand and interpret. Fine performances by Richardson (as Ulee's helpful doctor neighbor and potential love interest), Dunford (the daughter-in-law), and Zima (a veritable Ashley Judd in miniature who plays Ulee's youngest granddaughter) add richness and impact to the deliberately paced story. About that pace: Some are less than enthralled by Nunez's penchant for taking his sweet time telling his stories. It's a trait that induces lucid-dreaming serenity in his proponents, boredom in others. He's certainly no rock & roll filmmaker; lullabies are more his thing. But by the time the closing credits rolled to the tune of "Tupelo Honey" by Van Morrison (as close a Nunez equivalent as there is in music), I was experiencing a flood of warm exhilaration that matched anything speed, volume, or bombast could hope to deliver. (6/27/97)

4.0 stars (R.S.)


New Review


D: John Woo; with John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola. (R, 140 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Hong Kong action maestro John Woo returns to his roots with this complicated and eagerly awaited, hothouse psychological thriller and non-stop bullet ballet in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage exchange faces and identities - made all the more twisted by the fact that Cage is the man who murdered Travolta's son.


Arbor, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Jim Wilson; with Harvey Keitel, Cameron Diaz, Craig Sheffer, Billy Zane, Shay Duffin. (PG-13, 92 min.)

It's a strange feeling to see Harvey Keitel in a comedy, even if it is a ghoulishly morbid one like this. American cinema's premier tough-guy screen icon as comical Cameron Diaz's husband? Well, okay, he did do the execreble Monkey Trouble three years ago, but that was more an exercise in self-restraint on the viewer's part ("I will not throw the VCR through the window, I will not throw the VCR...") than an honest comedy. Head Above Water, however, takes Keitel's improbable comedy instincts and pushes them up past Spinal Tap's proverbial "11," and makes first-time director Wilson's film a nicely nervy horror show-cum-extended-vaudeville routine. Keitel plays George, a well-respected circuit court judge, who, along with his much younger wife Nathalie (Diaz), takes a vacation at her family's summer home on a remote island off the coast of Maine. The only other inhabitant is Lance (Sheffer), Nathalie's childhood sweetheart and adult friend. Trouble enters the idyllic setting when Nathalie's druggy, alcoholic ex-boyfriend Kent (Zane) shows up uninvited while Lance and George are out deep-sea fishing. Kent is part of Nathalie's dark past, and a bitter rival of the more staid George. After a night of resisting Kent's drunken, amorous advances, Nathalie wakes to find her ex naked and dead in her bedroom, just as George and Lance pull their boat up to the dock. Panicked by the sudden corpse and terrified of what George might do if he finds out Kent spent the night, she dumps the body in the basement and sets off a series of unexpected misadventures that remind one of the corpse problem in Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. What to do with an unwanted cadaver is the question here, along with: How the hell did he die in the first place? It's not too long before George finds out what has happened, but instead of going to the police, he opts for a less publicity-prone avenue out of the situation and, naturally, fails utterly. Wilson's film is a light bit of necro-fluff; there's never really much more going on than three people trying to stash a corpse, but the director keeps things zipping along with a marvelously sardonic wit. Whatever you may think about Diaz's thespian talents, she's a terrific comedienne, all fluttery gestures and cockeyed charm. Keitel likewise sustains a single comic note throughout without wearing it too thin. As George starts to drink heavily and fall apart at the seams, Keitel tosses some of his trademark nastiness into the mix and the film really takes off. It's not a classic by any stretch of the imagination - Head Above Water is simply too thin for that - but it is an endearingly black comedy, with more than enough grisly chuckles to keep it afloat over its ricocheting 92-minute course. (6/27/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)



D: John Musker and Ron Clements; with the voices of Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Samantha Egger, Bob Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Paul Shaffer, Charlton Heston. (G, 93 min.)

I once had a friend - the father of two teenaged daughters - who predicted the end of civilization as we know it and blamed the impending doom and economic collapse on the advent of designer jeans. At the time, being a Lee-jeans-wearing non-parent, I could afford to laugh, but I didn't laugh long - for Calvin Klein and his $50 blue jeans looks like a piker next to Nike and their $180 sneakers, and my daughter teeters on the edge of adolescence. Now, I have reason to laugh again. That Disney, the mother of all merchandisers, should spoof the Swoosh, not to mention the Magic Kingdom itself, is just one more thing to like in a movie chock full of likeable things. As much as I appreciate my 10-year-old getting a message about the difference between real heroes and those only good for spawning action figures, I really love getting plied with swifter-than-Hermes, sophisticated sight-gags (mosaic billboards and "Buns of Bronze" workout scrolls), and witty, silly, self-parodying dialogue (Hades, proclaiming his realm is "a small underworld, after all"). Playing fast and loose with the classic myth, Musker & Clements' Hercules is a true Olympian, fathered by Zeus (Torn) and mothered by Hera (Egger). But Hades (Woods), the god who hates his job, envisions a loftier domain, and since the Fates have warned him that Hercules will thwart his ascension, he has his minions - Pain (Goldthwait) and Panic (Frewer) - kidnap the infant. Despite his adoption by a kindly couple, Hercules is quite the misfit among regular mortals, and therefore beseeches a statue of Zeus for answers regarding his identity. The statue comes to life and Zeus advises his son to enlist a world-weary satyr named Philoctetes (DeVito) as his mentor so that he can become a true hero and return to Olympus. Faster than you can say "Yoda," Phil whips Herc into shape and deems him ready for action. They set out for Thebes ("The Big Olive," it seems, is badly in need of a hero). En route, they encounter Megara, a cynical, tough-talking dame (with a marshmallow center) doing a little side job for Hades in hopes of renegotiating her contract. Herc does his strong man thing and is well on his way to hunkdom, with all the accompanying endorsement opportunities. Hercules is filled with rich, classical visual imagery and zips along with thoroughly modern mischief. Can we ever look at a pair of Nikes again without mentally imaging Air Herc sandals? The cast is nothing short of sensational (especially Woods, who gives us the most memorable and oddly likeable villain since Cruella DeVil) and the animators wisely imbue their drawings with the actors' attributes - right down to Hermes' (Shaffer's) shades. All the cast members seems to relish their roles and their zest is infectious. How can we resist joining in? For nothing is sacred when, in the very opening scene, the august voice of Charlton Heston's narrator tells one of the gospel chorus Muses, "You go, girl!" I did. I would again. (6/27/97)

3.5 stars (H.C.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Bille August; with Maria Bonnevie, Ulf Friberg, Lena Endre, Pernilla August, Olympia Dukakis, Max Von Sydow. (PG-13, 166 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. This sweeping Swedish tale of love and sacrifice is set against a backdrop of religious fundamentalism as a young man must choose between maintaining the comforts and fortunes of his pastoral life or abandoning it all to follow his one true love to the Holy Land; it's directed by Pelle the Conqueror's Bille August. (6/27/97)




D: Julia Dyer; with Connie Nelson, Dee Hennigan. (Not Rated, 104 min.)

I've known so many gay people who are reduced to honking, snuffling emotional wreckage by the most saccharine hetero romance films that one has to wonder: Why are same-sex love stories viewed as exotic or inaccessible by most straight viewers? Julia Dyer's slyly engaging low-budget film about love between two unglamorous, fortyish women strains mightily against this arbitrary niche-market stigma with an appealing blend of charm, humor, and subversive appropriation of classic romance-movie imagery. Its story takes place in a generic suburban school called Eleanor B. Roosevelt High (an example of the droll throwaway humor with which the script is laced) where basketball coach/math teacher Dinah Groshardt and secretary Carly Lumkin both labor. Dinah (Nelson) is a no-nonsense, rather butch woman whose only obvious passion is for hoops. Not really a closeted lesbian, she'd be more accurately described as asexual by choice. That changes when she falls hard for Carly - an event that's not only unexpected but ironic in that their first real talk arises out of Carly's mistaken belief that Dinah is sleeping with her husband. Their connection and its effects are like one of those chaos-theory scenarios in which the movement of butterfly wings triggers a typhoon. School administrators, students, and Carly's family writhe in convulsions of shock, scorn, and moral outrage as the affair comes to light. Yet at the quiet center of it all are two women who know only that, however this thing came to be, it is good and real. Their love is frankly sensual, with no wussing out on nudity, hungry kisses, etc. However, the Texas-born Dyer siblings (Julia's sister Gretchen wrote the script and brother Stephen produced) have taken great pains to make Late Bloomers user-friendly to the widest possible audience. To that end, the Dallas-made film also has a bright, sunny, eager-to-please quality that sometimes crosses the line between ingratiating and grating. But thanks to the unexpectedly strong acting of nearly all the major characters - especially Nelson, whose bearing and air of restrained passion sometimes recall Helen Mirren - the inherent power of the story's moral message is never trivialized. Late Bloomers does stray from course a bit when it rehashes the stale, inane point-counterpoint of homosexuality as a social "issue" (though maybe the unenlightening nature of these dogma-slinging exercises is the Dyers' point). However, as a warm, fuzzy torpedo targeting straight viewers' irrational fears and misconceptions, it's a direct hit. (6/27/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)



D: Hans Petter Molland; with Gard Eidsvold, Camilla Martens, Stellan Skarsgard, Bjorn Sundquist. (Not Rated, 113 min.)

Set in the frozen, pristine wasteland of the Greenland coast during the 1920s, Zero Kelvin posits the destruction of several individuals' humanity over the course of one icy summer. Ostensibly a "thinking person's adventure film" (or so go the press notes), Molland's film is more a psychological suspense thriller, albeit one with a sometimes wearyingly languid pace. Eidsvold plays Henrik Larsen, a young poet and hopeless romantic from Norway, who leaves his fiancée Gertrude (Martens) to spend a year documenting the efforts of a pair of "outdoorsmen" trappers on the Greenland coast. Carrying a love note from his betrothed in his breast pocket and with his precious violin by his side, Henrik embarks on his mission with his naïveté in full bloom. He's not so much an innocent soul as he is a fool, but the bitter reality of his situation soon becomes all too apparent: Randbaek (Skarsgard, of last year's Breaking the Waves), the animalistic outpost foreman, views him as a weakling and a joke, while the studiously silent Holm (Sundquist) ignores him altogether. As the days pass and the three men struggle to meet their quota of furs and pelts, simmering tensions erupt between the violent, alcoholic Randbaek and the transposed poet Henrik. Before long, the foreman is regaling Henrik with tales of Gertrude's imagined improprieties during his absence, which culminate in a series of incidents that tear the three men apart, destroy the company's trapping operation, and ultimately end in bloodshed. Molland's film builds with a sly, steady power, and while the first third is a bit slow in places, the nerve-wracking tension steadily continues its terrible ascent. Although Zero Kelvin was not actually shot in Greenland, but instead in the more accessible Norwegian area of Svalgard, Molland's sweeping depictions of the trapper's snowbound home (what little there is: a wood and scrap-metal shack is pretty much the sum of it), the surrounding glaciers, and craggy mounts act as a sort of fourth character. Although the men are dependent on their surroundings for both food and shelter, it's also their greatest enemy. The nearest town is at least 60 miles away, and the company's supply ship won't be back for a year's time. As such, Molland fills his palette with grandiose long shots, dozens of them, which serve to imprint on the audience just how desperate the trappers' situation is. It's an awe-inspiring, terrible sense of isolation and spiritual malaise that Zero Kelvin manages to inspire, which, granted, doesn't make this the most upbeat of summer film choices. Still, tension like this should be savored, racheting up the frissons to the freezing point. (6/27/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Texas Union

Still Playing


D: Griffin Dunne; with Matthew Broderick, Meg Ryan, Kelly Preston, Tcheky Karyo, Maureen Stapleton. (R, 101 min.)

When lovesick small-town astronomer Sam (Broderick) loses his one true love Linda (Preston) to the thrall of the big city, he packs up his things and goes in search of her, sure in his heart that she'll be back in his loving arms soon. His plans are soon stymied when he discovers that Linda has moved in with Anton (Karyo of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita), a French émigré and owner of a swank Greenwich Village bistro. Unthwarted by this unexpected turn of events, Sam takes up residence in the abandoned tenement across the street from Anton's toney brownstone, where he embarks on a rigorous and wholly scientific study of the blissfully unaware young lovers, still certain that his lady love will yet return to him. Into this odd tableaux comes Maggie (Ryan), Anton's ex-girlfriend, the proverbial woman scorned. While heartsick Sam is only interested in returning his romance to the way it was before, Maggie (a bleached-blonde vision of East Village bohemia) would prefer that the callous Anton be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Uniting under initially separate flags, Sam and Maggie embark on a systematic dismantling of their ex-lover's newfound love, planting grandly contrived evidence of illicit affairs on Anton's person and increasing their espionage capabilities times 10. Director Dunne (who some may remember as Jack the Dead Best Friend in An American Werewolf in London, or as the harried businessman in Scorsese's After Hours) has a sly wit here, and Addicted to Love is more than the simple romantic comedy its uninspired title suggests. It certainly falls easily enough within the parameters of the genre, but Dunne wisely and quite ably avoids the many pitfalls and clichés (or a good number of them, anyway) that appear so ingrained in the storyline. For one thing, Addicted to Love starts off on a wholly unpromising note for young Sam. His nascent adventures in the spy trade catch him offguard initially: With Anton, Linda is a ferocious, passionately vocal lover, leaving Sam to ponder "but she was always so quiet with me." Ryan's feisty, bitter Maggie (our first contact with her is as she zooms around the area on a large black motorcycle, clad head to toe in a tight, black leather racer's suit, and if that doesn't indicate feisty and bitter, then I don't know what does) is the perfect foil for Sam's broken heart; all she cares about is revenge, and when the two finally agree to work together, Addicted to Love soars to bittersweet comedic heights. Dunne's eye is sharp: There's a scene early in the film in which Sam constructs a camera obscura in the shadows of his tenement warren. Bathed in dull, grainy light stolen from Anton's apartment across the way, Sam whitewashes a wall and brings an image of Linda into view. It's a wonderfully inventive, surreal, and wholly original image, and Dunne's film has many such revelatory moments. The final reel's temporary lapse into maudlin sentimentality is perhaps unavoidable in light of all the terrific bits that have preceded it, but still, this is one of the most inventive romantic comedies to come around in some while. (5/23/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lincoln


D: Jay Roach; with Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York, Mimi Rogers, Robert Wagner. (PG-13, 87 min.)

The swingin' Sixties - those were the glory days for international intrigue, eh? When 007 could spook SPECTRE, UNCLE would thrash THRUSH, and superspies dressed for the job. With Bond in his sleek black tux or John Steed with that dapper bowler or Ilya Kuryakin in his oh-so-moody turtlenecks, our spies were sure to save the world from whatever megalomaniac was out to enslave it this week. They had to; they had better clothes! I mean, the whole spy game was all about style, wasn't it? Sure, and Mike Myers knows that. That's why the hero of his comic tribute to Sixties superspies is decked out in crushed velvet and lace, why his speech is spiced with "groovy" and "baby," why his jet is equipped with a round, rotating bed. Grrrrowr! This secret agent man has style to burn, baby! Which is a lot of what makes this send-up such a fab gas. It nails with fond hilarity every garish, trippy detail of that era's mutant mix of high adventure and high fashion: plastic dresses and velvet suits in neon oranges and blues, bosomy temptresses, Space Age gadgetry, and preposterously convoluted death traps. The look is spot on, down to the painfully phony rock walls in the villain's mountain lair and cinematographer Peter Deming's overlit Sixties style that washes out the color but keeps it lurid. The sound swings with Burt Bacharach, Brasil '66, and George S. Clinton's brass-blaring homage to John Barry's 007 scores. But this is Myers' baby, baby, and his script and twin turn as both Powers and his nemesis, Dr. Evil, supply most of the laughs, zeroing in on spy-film style like Gert Frobe's laser on Sean Connery's crotch. His Powers is a cheeky hipster, all go-go lingo and love machine moves, despite an upper plate like the Yellowed Cliffs of Dover and a thatch of chest hair off a nutria. And his Dr. Evil is the ultimate in out-of-it oppression. Bald, scarred, and trapped in one of those truly bad, shapeless gray jackets with no lapels and a high collar, this guy can't get a good look to save his life. And he shows he knows it in a pathetically pouty lower lip. Perhaps only people reared on this stuff will love Austin Powers, but there's more here than the perfect recreation of Sixties absurdities and genre spoofery; there's comedy that would be hilarious in any context. Austin Powers is the kind of movie Mel Brooks used to make - extravagantly funny, with plenty of juvenile humor, but as much or more of it smart, delivered with a dead aim at a cultural milestone, affection for its victim, and style. Lots of style. That's what makes it shagedelic, baby. (5/9/97)

3.5 stars (R.F.)

Alamo Drafthouse, Highland, Lakeline, Westgate


D: Joel Schumacher; with George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Elle Macpherson. (PG-13, 126 min.)

You know a franchise is in trouble when Joel Schumacher is sniping at Batman fans on the Internet. The director's ongoing brouhaha with local webrunner Harry Knowles is vastly more entertaining than the film itself, though. By its own merits, Batman & Robin fails to engage the spirit of Batman, Robin, or decent marketing in general, and instead ends up as a limp, excruciatingly shallow knockoff that leaves viewers cringing at the unavoidable one-liners that make up the better part of the script. Really, how many times can one stand to hear Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze telling the Cloaked One to "Chill"? Storywise, Akiva Goldsman's script seeks to expand on the dynamics of the duo by incorporating a rift in the form of Thurman's slinky Poison Ivy, a chemically altered botanist with a lethal kiss. When she pits the two crusaders against each other, sparks and libidos fly, but only briefly. The conceit - one of the few interesting things in the film - is never fully explored, and dies a lonely death halfway through what seems to be a very long movie. Silverstone, as Alfred the butler's renegade niece (aka Batgirl), is another new addition to the ongoing storyline, but Schumacher, oddly, makes little use of her, preferring instead to pit her against costumed motorcycle gangs in set-ups straight out of Walter Hill's The Warriors. Schwarzenegger is entertaining as Mr. Freeze, a semi-mad scientist clad in some seriously bulky thermal underwear; Freeze's overriding motivation - to cure his sick wife at any cost - gives him a more noble air than most of the Caped Crusader's villains, but Goldsman's script gives the villain little to do but cough up endless one-liners that become laughably bad laughably fast. You can feel Schwarzenegger the comic actor struggling to get around the decrepit lines, but it's no use; there's nothing for him to do here but kill and quip, and even the killing gets tiresome quickly. As the series' third incarnation of Bob Kane's Dark Knight, Clooney is passable, but only just. He's got the jaw for it, certainly, but when Goldsman's script forces Bruce Wayne to speak of the necessity of a loving family and the joys of the ties that bind, you can almost hear the actor giggle. That's too bad, because Wayne/Batman's grisly, poignant familial issues are at the heart of the Batman story, and could do with a bit of examining (just not by Clooney). It's only as an exercise in set design that Batman & Robin succeeds, though it's all so over the top that it's more of an exercise in what not to do than anything else. Schumacher has chosen to light his film with outlandishly garish neons and brilliant blues and pinks, which unfortunately make this look more like some ridiculous Batman on Ice escapade than anything else. It's all too much too often, a smorgasbord of boredom, a cavalcade of crap. (And, hey, enough with the nipples on the Batsuits already, okay? Geez...) (6/20/97)

1.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Mark Herman; with Pete Postlethwaite, Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, Stephen Tompkinson. (R, 107 min.)

Robust, combative, big-souled, and unapologetically maudlin, Mark Herman's Brassed Off! draws its blood from the same universal workingman's heart as the English coal-mining culture it portrays. The semi-fictional story is set in the aptly named town of Grimley where, in 1992, the government austerity is threatening to close the local "pit" as part of a national trend toward nuclear power. With the whole town in an uproar, only one person seems oblivious to it all: Danny (Postlethwaite), a sixtyish musician who leads an all-brass band composed entirely of miners. Danny's a hard, inflexible old buzzard with little empathy for the outside problems his players may bring to practice. These troubles are epidemic, though, with families and marriages cracking up over money problems and his own son being menaced by loan sharks. Not even a worsening case of black lung can distract Danny from his dream of leading Grimley to the All-England championship. Postlethwaite, with his terrifying cheekbone structure and penetrating gaze, seems divinely ordained to play this character. Though Danny is from the same stock as his bandsmen, he's consumed by a mission he sees as transcendent. "Music is all that matters!" is his creed, and even the glazed expressions on his musicians' faces when he says it are tempered with traces of awe and respect. His slowly dawning awareness of the larger human issues at stake in Grimley - and Great Britain as a whole - set up a great moment when he delivers a fiery working bloke's manifesto to a stunned audience at the Royal Albert Hall. Helping Danny make his breakthrough is Gloria (Fitzgerald), a lovely young newcomer to the band who turns out to be the lead consultant responsible for advising management on the pit closure. Gloria embodies all the agonizing sides of the issue, ranging from homegirl loyalty (she's originally from Grimley) to stark reality (coal, though profitable, is nearly as lousy an energy option as nuclear fission). She's also falling in love with bandmate Andy, played by Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) in a low-keyed, ingratiating performance that further illustrates his range and charisma. Ultimately, it's tough to render a go/no-go judgment on Brassed Off! Its virtues of passion and authenticity are somewhat undermined by predictable plotting, rampant sentimentality (including a lachrymose version of the schmaltz anthem, "Danny Boy"), and a certain chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that dares you to question how hard we should sympathize with saving the coal industry. In the end, though, the undeniable power and emotional richness of this film swing the balance toward the good. (6/13/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Village, Westgate


D: Jonathan Mostow; with Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan. (R, 97 min.)

Breakdown further illustrates the axiom that every truly original movie must be remade again and again until it achieves a state of sublime, all-encompassing idiocy. Actually, since it's still possible to imagine a dimmer stepchild of George Sluizer's coldly mesmerizing 1988 thriller, Spoorloos (which Sluizer remade five years later as the compromised but still effective The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges), what we have here is probably just the midpoint of the devolution process. The '93 film - along with Steven Spielberg's Duel - provides most of the early inspiration, in terms of both theme and atmosphere. Things get underway when travelers Jeff and Amy Taylor (Russell and Quinlan) have car trouble on a godforsaken Southwestern desert highway. A genial-seeming trucker (Walsh) happens along, and Jeff decides to stand guard over his beloved red Cherokee while his wife hitches a ride to the nearest pay phone. But when Jeff manages to fix the car and drive to the remote cafe where Amy was to call a wrecker, none of the patrons remember anyone fitting her description. The psychological screws tighten further when the trucker, whom the now half-crazed Jeff flags down on the road, professes never to have met him before. After the local cops all but brush him off, it's left to Taylor to track down the woman who now seems to exist only in his mind. Mostow handles this rising action adroitly, placing us smack in the middle of the beleaguered hubby's accumulating nightmare. Even without the eerie atmospherics and tantalizing hints of supernatural evil in Sluizer's two films, Mostow effectively uses the stark desert landscape as a symbol of pitiless, hostile nature. Mostow also deserves respect for not instantly morphing Russell from a mild, Oshkosh-clad yupcake into a bazooka-wielding badass. Unfortunately, as the buildup unfolds, we realize that Breakdown's initial mysteries are quickly evaporating and the story is boiling down to a conventional cat-and-mouse action adventure. Sure enough, before very long, grimy rednecks are pummeling the hero with sticks, semis are hurtling through walls and off bridges, and people are hissing, "Don't move or I swear I'll blow your fuckin' head off" at every turn. This decision to trade pro forma, unimaginatively staged action schtick for the subtler pleasures of true suspense is disappointing, and none the less so for being expected. Realistically, of course, there's no use grousing about this ruthless dumbing down of once-intriguing material. But at least we can walk away now before Spoorloos IV: The Final Reckoning becomes a grim reality. (5/2/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills


D: Caroline Thompson; with Rene Russo, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Cumming, Irma P. Hall, Paul Reubens, John Aylward. (PG, 84 min.)

Just because an 800-pound gorilla can sit anywhere he wants to doesn't mean it's going to be an interesting affair. This directorial debut from screenwriter Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas) drops the macabre good cheer (and witty expertise) of her previous work in favor of a family-aimed tale of animal love, and the result is a brief 84 minutes of painfully unsurprising primates-in-tuxedoes period comedy. Everyone may be crazy about a sharp-dressed gorilla, but Buddy is a sorry, tedious jaunt through the eccentric 1920s upper-crust world of menagerie-owning Trudy Lintz (Russo) and her efforts to raise a Congolese gorilla in her household - with predictably disastrous results. Based on the novel/memoir Animals Are My Hobby by the real-life Mrs. Lintz, Buddy's growth from sickly, waifish infant to gargantuan wild thang is as notable as a squirrel crossing the road, minus the breathless excitement derived from the eternal question of whether a midday repast of roadkill stew is forthcoming. It's not that this first feature released under the newly minted Jim Henson Pictures banner is terribly shoddy - there are plenty of humorous scenes of Buddy and his chimpanzee housemates clowning about in their exquisitely tailored Bergdorf Goodman suits and spats - it's just that nothing out of the ordinary ever seems to take place, no surprises, no explosive climaxes, and no heartbreaking resolution, or at least not one we hadn't seen coming from a good distance ahead. Russo, for her part, acquits herself admirably as the oddball Mrs. Lintz, as does Robbie Coltrane as her physician husband. And only on rare occasions does Buddy - the work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop - look like a man in a monkey suit. Children will doubtless enjoy the chimps' animated monkeyshines, and the scenes of an upright Buddy serving hors d'oeuvres to the Lintzes' startled guests is surreal in its setup and pleasantly bizarre. Brief homages and references to King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Bringing Up Baby, and even Planet of the Apes pop up at odd moments, but this is, above all, a family affair, and quite a humdrum one at that, even for kids. Such being the case, it's now my fervent hope that director Thompson reunites with Tim Burton to create something of at least passable interest to those of us with a taste for the sublime, if not the simian. (6/6/97)

1.5 stars (M.S.)



D: Kevin Smith; with Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes. (R, 105 min.)

This third film in Smith's "New Jersey trilogy" is a departure: Not only is it hip, clever, and outrageous (Smith hallmarks), it's also a decidedly adult take on dating and love in the Nineties. Who would have thought the director of the often juvenile, twentysomething comedy Clerks and the bloated Mallrats would have it in him? Obviously, he does. Affleck plays Holden McNeil, a young comic book artist who produces the award-winning Bluntman & Chronic book with his partner and best friend Banky (Lee). While attending a comic book convention, Holden meets fellow cartoonist Alyssa Jones, a stunning blonde beauty with sly wit and legs to match. Holden, his testosterone in an uproar, falls big-time and begins courting Alyssa, only to discover she's not interested: She's a lesbian. The unexpected news hits hard, but the two find they have more in common than they originally thought, and the beginnings of a powerful friendship commence. On top of that, Alyssa finds herself reciprocating her admirer's advances, until one night, quite unexpectedly, the pair consummate their wobbly love affair, and all hell proceeds to break loose. Alyssa's friends are shocked and dismayed to find one of their own "going over to the other side," while Banky - Holden's best friend since time immemorial - is frustrated by the possibility of losing Holden to someone else, especially a "scheming dyke." It's not all hearts and flowers, though; Chasing Amy sizzles with Smith's hilarious dialogue, much of which comes in the form of rants from Hooper (Ewell), a gay African-American comic book artist and pal of Holden's who pretends to be a militant straight man for the benefit of the public. And then there's the Smith's old standbys, the trench-coated Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith, not so silent here), a sort of Greek chorus on weed. This is Smith at his best, with a brilliant cast, script, and crew. Some have already taken offense at his decidedly non-PC take on relationships, but so much of what he has to say here - and he says a lot - rings true that those arguments are utterly beside the point. More emotionally complex than even I had thought possible, Chasing Amy is the sound of burgeoning genius on the fast track to maturity. "Snootchie-bootchies," indeed. (4/18/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Highland, Lakeline, Village


D: Simon West; with Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin. (R, 125 min.)

Based on Con Air, you would never guess that Don Simpson no longer strides this mortal coil. Alongside longtime co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson stamped his extra-large testosterone imprint on everything from Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun to Flashdance and The Rock. This audience-gratifying tradition continues unabated since Simpson's untimely death last year, with Con Air containing more slo-mo fireballs and snappy one-liners than most all the other summer action movies so far. Big deal. Simpson and Bruckheimer always aimed for the lowest common denominator when it came to mass-market entertainment, and likely as not, they hit that sucker right smack dab in its slope-browed noggin. Con Air - directed by relative unknown Simon West - is no different, featuring scores of shots in which a) someone gets killed, b) someone else gets killed, or c) someone narrowly avoids getting killed, then pops off a pithy one-liner before killing someone else entirely. Also on board is Mark Macina, whose din-in-a-steel-drum score rivals his creatively bombastic work on Bad Boys, Speed, and, uh, Monkey Trouble. Just so you know who you're dealing with here. Storywise, it's Nicolas Cage versus everyone, as Cage's unjustly imprisoned-and-freshly-paroled Cameron Poe must fight his way home to his wife and baby daughter's lovin' arms when the prison transport plane he's riding in is hijacked by The Worst Cons in the Whole Wide World. Among them are Malkovich as criminal genius Cyrus the Virus; Rhames as an underground black-power movement leader-killer; and Buscemi as serial killer Garland Greene who, along with Cage, gets all the best lines. This is as it should be. There's nary a hint of suspense in West's film, though, mainly because he loudly trumpets the upcoming disasters so early in the film. You know you're in trouble when poor Mr. Poe nearly gets weepy over the stuffed bunny he's brought on board as a gift to the daughter he's yet to see. Cusack provides a nice turn as a U.S. Marshal who's the only guy in Poe's corner, but you can't help but get the feeling he's wondering what the hell he's doing in this film. Say Anything it ain't, nor is it The Rock, which, oddly, worked much better as a Simpson-Bruckheimer creation, giving Nicolas Cage's character at least a smidgen of reality to play with. Con Air gives him little else but the chance to strut his buffstuff and growl Stallonian non sequiturs with all the believability of Siegfried & Roy. To be fair, if you're looking to kill a couple of hours, there are worse fates awaiting you out there. Just don't ride Con Air expecting to go first class; it's cargo-hold all the way. (6/13/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: David Cronenberg; with James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette. (NC-17, 100 min.)

A sublimely horrific descent into our love of cars, sex, and self, filtered through the transgressive subconscious of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, Crash is also the first date movie for the auto-asphyxia set. Based on J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel, Cronenberg's futuristic yet timeless vision of Ballard's premise is wonderfully realized. As in all his previous films, Cronenberg is dealing here with men and machines, or, more specifically, the consequences of man's day-to-day interaction with a common technology - in this case, the automobile. Ballard's notion of how cars and, inevitably, car crashes have become part of the cultural iconography is perfect fodder for Cronenberg's acutely clinical sensibilities. Spader plays James Ballard (according to the author, the character is largely autobiographical), a television producer who spends his free time having sexual encounters with women other than his wife, Catherine (Unger). That's fine with her; she does the same and, later on, they get together to replay the extramarital coitus for each other. When Ballard is involved in a head-on automobile accident with Dr. Helen Remington (Hunter) and her husband - who is killed - he discovers a powerful new form of erotic release in the tortured shriek of metal on metal on flesh. Dr. Remington is likewise sexually affected by the resulting auto-trauma, and the two begin to seek out others with similarly aggravated tastes. They find a kindred spirit in Vaughan (Koteas), a scientist, of sorts, who is obsessed with the sensuality of car crashes and their survivors. A walking road map of scar tissue, Vaughan hosts spectacular reenactments of notable auto smash-ups and introduces the pair to a fringe subculture of deep-down trauma hounds, the walking wounded, and Volvo's worst nightmare. Much has been made of the film's jarring and disturbing tone; Crash has been banned in Britain, and television magnate Ted Turner has repeatedly attacked the film in public (oddly, Turner's production company help to fund Crash in its early stages). Certainly, Cronenberg holds nothing back - Crash is rife with images of automotive destruction, death, and all manner of sexual coupling. But at its heart, Crash is essentially a love story: Man plus machine plus woman equals fulfillment, and hearts broken by steering columns are no less romantically engaging than those broken by more traditional means. While it's clearly not for everyone (and note that the movie is rated NC-17 here in the U.S.), Crash remains an amazing piece of work, from its spare, gritty set design to Howard Shore's powerfully evocative score, not to mention some unforgettable performances - particularly Spader's. My only regret? We no longer have any local drive-in theatres and their invariably steamy back seats from which to view this amazing spectacle. (3/21/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)



D: Ivan Reitman; with Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nastassja Kinski, Charlie Hofheimer. (PG-13, 101 min.)

Fathers' Day is a mildly diverting summer family comedy. In general, that's not a bad rap, but when you've got an expectant blockbuster that stars Robin Williams and Billy Crystal and has been directed by Ivan Reitman - all of them true kings of comedy - them words "mildly diverting" are clearly less than the desired result. So what went wrong? American adaptations of French comedies are, in general, questionable propositions. Fathers' Day is a remake of Les Comperes, minus some of the 1984 French film's plot convolutions and scenery. That leaves the Fathers' Day set-up extremely weak and unbelievable as the ever-beautiful mom played by Nastassja Kinski convinces two men with whom she slept 17 years ago that each is the father of her 16-year-old son. It's a far-fetched ploy that banks on the men's misplaced sense of fatherhood to get them to go off in search of her runaway son. Never addressed is why this errand is something she can't accomplish herself (especially since the teen's not at all difficult to find), or why her husband makes a belated and comedically dead-ended (he thrashes about in an overturned latrine for a good part of the film) attempt at retrieval. In a roundabout way, I think some of the problem derives from Space Jam, a movie that probably would not have been a fraction of the success it was without the supervising sensibilities of producer Ivan Reitman. Space Jam is the kind of film that made it safe to team up megastars in such unlikely combinations as Michael Jordan and the inanimate Looney Tunes stable. I have visions of producers (Fathers' Day has five of them, not least among them Joel Silver) clucking to themselves about how Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were the stars of their movie and what more could anyone want? Well, something hilarious for them to do would be nice. The pair (who are in virtually every scene of the film) create few uproarious comedic sparks. If Reitman succumbed to the "What, me worry?" school of filmmaking, Williams seems to forging the "I'll be in anything as long as you shoot it close to my home in San Francisco" school (I offer Mrs. Doubtfire, Jack, and now, Fathers' Day as evidence). As for Crystal, he'll probably have to make a few more films before he acquiesces to his fate as perpetual host/never the star. In the end, Fathers' Day offers little in the way of comic relief. (5/9/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)

Discount, Great Hills, Showplace, Westgate 3


D: Susan Streitfield; with Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Karen Sillas, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, Clancy Brown, Dale Shuger. (R, 119 min.)

Strange bedfellows, indeed. Female Perversions is a movie which, by all conventional wisdom, should not work. Yet it not only works, it accomplishes something thoroughly original. Female Perversions is the most intelligent, entertaining, provocative, absorbing, and, yes, feminist movie to grace our theatres in quite some time. Hardly the salacious kinkathon that the title suggests, the movie definitely has its erotic aspects but they're all there to service the movie's line of inquiry into how social conditioning shapes the female psyche. The movie's title is the same as that of the non-fiction book which inspired the first-time director Susan Streitfield. The book is a theoretical study by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan that examines the ways in which the very act of being female in society is in itself a perversion. Since women are conditioned by stereotyping and gender expectations against deviating from the "norms," Kaplan argues that a woman's life is a constant strategic negotiation. It's this that she regards as the perversion. All women engage in perverse behaviors or strategies; the only differences are where they fall on the scale of perversion. The movie, however, is a fictional narrative, not a documentary or essay. Anchored as it is in such weighty premises and provocations, it is no small accomplishment that the film succeeds in creating such an engaging narrative and compelling characters, and does it with considerable visual flourish to boot. The amazing Scottish actress Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II) makes her American debut here. Swinton and Amy Madigan play sisters and it's wonderful to see two such thoughtful actresses applying their talents to such difficult material. Swinton's Eve Stephens is a woman who appears to have it all: looks, a high-powered job as an attorney, a handsome and thrilling male lover (Brown), and a beautiful and desirous female lover (Sillas). Her entire demeanor exudes competence and loveliness. Yet in her mind she hears offscreen voices whispering about her fat hips, and we witness her moments of panic as she discreetly obsesses about a loose thread on her hem during an important interview with the governor or stresses over her shade of lipstick. Then, on the eve of her appointment to a court judgeship, the balance of her life begins to crumble. She's called to rescue her sister Maddy, a kleptomaniac and Ph.D. candidate who's defending her dissertation about a matriarchal society in Mexico where all the women grow fat. This introduces Eve into the household where Maddy resides with a broken-hearted woman who runs a bridal shop, the woman's adolescent daughter who has taken to self-injury and cutting herself with razor blades, and the girl's Aunt Annunciata, a stripper. The array of subordinate characters is fascinating, and offers a range of representations of the scale of perversity. But they're also a bit of the problem as well. There's either too much of them or not enough, and the subordinate dramas sometimes take away from the time we want to spend with the central story. The same could be said for Eve's recurrent flashbacks to a childhood incident at her family's swimming pool and her vague yet provocative erotic fantasies. A close-to-all-woman crew crafted this movie at every step of production. (Serving as line producer was Rana Joy Glickman, who was recently in town for the SXSW Film Festival screenings of Real Stories of the Donut Men and Full Tilt Boogie, both of which she produced). Yet, interestingly, Zalman King, who produced and scripted 9 1/2 Weeks and directed Wild Orchid, is credited as Female Perversions' executive producer. Strange bedfellows, I repeat. But, in the case of Female Perversions, strange has proven to be the very best kind. The making of an original piece of theoretical feminist drama such as this surpasses the restrictions of common sense. (5/23/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)



D: Luc Besson; with Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovavich, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Tricky, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, Lee Evans, Brion James. (PG-13, 126 min.)

Now, officially, summer is here. The first real blockbuster of Summer '97 has arrived and it's a French science fiction epic, no less. Granted, the French are far better known for their unfunny bedroom comedies than they are for their gripping speculative fictions, but of all the current French directors working today Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional) is perhaps best suited to the job. Based on a story Besson wrote as a 16-year-old schoolboy, The Fifth Element chronicles the adventures of Korben Dallas (Willis), a 23rd-century New York City cabdriver who finds himself caught up in a grandiose mystery involving a 5,000-year-old evil that seeks to destroy all life in the universe, and specifically life on earth. The only line of defense rests with Leeloo (Jovavich), a genetically superior perfect being who literally falls in Dallas' lap one busy afternoon. Many others, however, are hot on Leeloo's tracks: the relentlessly nasty Zorg (Oldman); his backstabbing alien minions, the Mangalores; and government agents headed by General Munro (James). Working at cross-purposes, the various factions must attempt to secure or destroy (depending on which side they're on) a quartet of extraterrestrial stones that can help destroy the onrushing evil. Besson's film is a pretty straightforward affair, and once you cut through the glitz there's barely a skeleton of a plot, but that rarely detracts from what is essentially a gorgeous, electrifying visual smorgasbord. The Fifth Element actually feels like it was scripted by a daydreaming teenager, but in a good way; that is to say, there's a certain "gosh, wow" sense of wonder to the whole thing that echoes the completely unique universes of George Lucas and company. Besson completely immerses the audience in a crowded, murky future in which mankind has mastered the art of instant cloning and spread itself outward into the galaxy. Granted, much of this is a tip of the hat to Blade Runner, I think, especially in the New York City scenes where thousands of flying cars jam the colossal skyline and a thick patina of grime hangs over every shot and creates a funereal pallor. Even those who detest science fiction will have to applaud Jean-Paul Gaultier's striking costume design and Dan Weil's brilliant production design. However, it's Besson's brilliant editing and sly sense of humor that keep the two hour-plus film from bogging down; despite its grim storyline, The Fifth Element never takes itself too seriously. Oldman is hilarious as the effete, over-the-top Zorg; Willis plays essentially the same character he's played in his last five films - ever the scruffy rebel; and Jovavich is gorgeous, charming, and thoroughly believable as Leeloo (thanks to some terrific post-English language skills). Even U.K. trip-hop sensation Tricky scores points as Zorg's right-hand toadie. Although the film tends to suffer from a severe case of overt preachiness in the third reel (shades of James Cameron's The Abyss), it's still a wonderfully visual, exciting ride. Besson remains one of France's great national treasures, and The Fifth Element is a surprising, delightful melange of old-school dare-deviltry and new-age sci-fi. (5/9/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Lake Creek, Lincoln


D: Christopher Cain; with Joe Pesci, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Willie Nelson, Lynn Whitfield, Nick Brimble. (PG, 94 min.)

Once you rule out the notion of ancestral destiny for an actor named Pesci, it's hard to figure how Gone Fishin' got made in this day and age. Ingratiating and sweet-natured to an almost surreal degree, this winsome buddy pic seems to have no place in a comedy marketplace where raunch, scorched-earth satire and heavy irony are the orders of the day. Niceness, I say, is a heinously underrated virtue, and the fact that so many talented actors found time and motivation to create this warm, frolicsome cocker spaniel puppy of a film raises them even higher in my esteem. But as much as I wanted to like Gone Fishin', an insuperable barrier stands in the way: It's just not all that funny. From the moment when lifelong fishing buds Joe and Gus (Pesci and Glover) hitch their boat to their vintage Barracuda and head for a dream fishing vacation in the Florida Everglades, the bubbly dialogue, Kodachrome-hued images and peppy score all signify Big Fun. It's a promise the script fails to deliver, though. The lads' adventures, which develop from their efforts to collect a $100,000 reward for helping bust a murderous gigolo (Brimble), play out as a never-ending setup with little comic payoff to speak of. There are some semi-amusing gags involving alligators, a runaway luxury boat, and Gus' sleepwalking tendencies, but nothing that had the child-dominated audience choking on their Sour Patch Kids from unbridled mirth. Arquette and Whitfield, as two women who've been jilted by Brimble's gigolo, pop in and out of the story but they have little to contribute comedically. Apparently, they're just around to give daddies a little visual reward for squiring a minivan full of kids out to the multiplex. Nelson adds a couple of funny moments, however, as a sort of mystical Dalai Lama of the rec fishing world. Okay, bottom line: I'm giving this thing two stars, resisting the urge to juice it up a half-star or more for its radical, in-your-face pleasantness. It made me smile, and that's something. Maybe the sequel will even make me laugh. (6/6/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

Lakeline, Movies 12, Roundrock


D: George Armitage; with John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven. (R, 107 min.)

"You can never go home again, but you can shop there," is how Martin Blank (Cusack) responds when he discovers that his childhood home has been razed and turned into a convenience store. This is just one of the surprises that awaits Martin when he returns to Grosse Pointe, Michigan for his 10-year high school reunion. George Armitage (who, over the years, has directed Private Duty Nurses and Miami Blues, scripted HBO's The Late Shift and produced Roger Corman's Gas-s-s-s) solidly directs John Cusack (also credited as the film's co-screenwriter and co-executive producer) in a wacky joyride through Martin's whirlwind weekend in Grosse Pointe, one that includes a reunion with the girlfriend (Driver) whom he dumped on the night of their high school prom. To say that Debi is bitter is an understatement. Her surprise at seeing Martin again is outdone only by her reaction to his revelation that he is a freelance hit man. When Martin's kooky assistant (Joan Cusack) discovers that his next hit happens to be scheduled for his hometown during his reunion, she convinces Martin that he should take advantage of such an opportunity. Of course, the hit and Debi's life overlap in unexpected ways, and Martin must put his money where his mouth is and decide whether or not he is ready for early retirement. Hugely appealing on most levels, Grosse Pointe Blank does have a few graphically violent moments that seem out of step with the rest of the film. However, Cusack never fails to make me laugh and although this character doesn't offer much beyond the actor's previous roles, it's still a stand-up performance. Fans of Circle of Friends will see Driver in a different light as she tackles screwball comedy and Cusack's impeccable timing - both of which she does admirably. Cusack's sister Joan (Toys, Working Girl) proves once again that comedic talent does run in the family, and Alan Arkin does a nice turn as Martin's rosary-toting shrink, a man unwilling to treat a client who never gets mad but always gets even. Grosse Pointe Blank dares to ask the question, "Can a nice hit man find true love at his high school reunion?" In finding the answer, the film proves that the course of true love seldom runs smoothly. The trick is to proceed with caution and carry a big gun. (4/11/97)

3.5 stars (A.M.)

Discount, Dobie, Showplace, Westgate 3


D: David Lynch; with Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Henry Rollins, Balthazar Getty, Gary Busey, Robert Loggia, Richard Pryor. (R, 135 min.)

Enigmatic even by Lynchian standards, the storyline of Lost Highway was perhaps best summed up by Lynch himself on a recent segment of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After effusing briefly about Robert Blake's clip, Leno queried the director about the film's plot, to which Lynch replied: "It's about [long pause]... a man in trouble." Very succinct, maddeningly vague, but also quite accurate. What better way to describe this complex, wildly frustrating journey into the Lynch's tortured, oddly prosaic film psyche? Like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway deals with the everyday turned upside-down, or rather, gutted and then pulled inside-out. Normalcy is a fraud, and nothing is quite what it seems, although fans of Lynch's Lumberton and Twin Peaks sagas will find themselves stymied in the nameless, Los Angelesean desert suburbia of Lost Highway. Now more than ever, nothing makes much sense. Fred Madison (Pullman) is a tenor saxman. By night, he blows his horn at the local club; by day, he hangs out with his wife Renee (Arquette), a Betty Page doppelganger. When the couple begins receiving mysterious videotapes on their front porch - tapes apparently made inside their home, while they were sleeping - the police are called. They offer little comfort, though, and Fred begins to suspect his wife is having an affair. Things take a sidestep into the awful when Renee is viciously murdered, and her husband is found guilty of the crime. Incarcerated for a crime he may or may not have committed, Fred waits out his days in lockup until, without explanation, he literally vanishes, and in his place is found Pete Dayton (Getty), a young auto mechanic who inexplicably appears in Fred's cell. Things get stranger from here on out, and considering the elliptical, highly subjective nature of Lynch's film, there's no point in giving anything else away. Suffice to say Fred and Pete's lives are commingled, with Renee at the center. Lynch, who penned the screenplay with novelist Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), seems to be attempting to capture not just a sense of place and time (it never works - Lost Highway is wholly, irrevocably, out of place and without any linear time or time line to speak of), but also a sense of madness. Is Fred insane? Is Pete insane? Who killed Renee (and is she even dead to begin with)? Cocky auteur that he is, Lynch provides the audience with an abundance of clues, but no solid answers. What he does provide is a deliciously delirious descent into his own mental mise-en-scene: It may not appear to make any sense, but, my god, it looks good. Lost Highway pushes the envelope of sight and sound, and merges these two most important elements of film into a hallucinatory orgy. Angelo Badalamenti's score is wondrously arcane, and Lynch's choice of soundtrack recordings perfectly echoes the spiraling sense of onscreen disorientation, from Trent Reznor's eerie soundscapes to Lou Reed's ominously carefree "This Magic Moment." Couple that with Peter Deming's dark, spare lighting and camerawork, and you've got Lynch/Kafka overkill. With a running time of 135 minutes, Lost Highway could have stood some final trimming - some passages seem to go on endlessly, pointlessly - but you get the feeling the director just likes to make you squirm. Confounding and disconcerting, Lost Highway is David Lynch consciously attempting to outdo himself. He does, gloriously, and in doing so loses the rest of us in the process. (2/28/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)



D: Steven Spielberg; with Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Richard Attenborough, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare. (PG-13, 129 min.)

The phrase "long-awaited" kind of falls short of the mark when discussing Spielberg's $70 million-plus follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time. Suffice to say, fans of the first film won't be disappointed by the sequel, with the possible exception of Professor Stephen Hawking, who will doubtless miss all the earlier film's discussions about chaos theory. Loosely based on Michael Crichton's bestselling novel, The Lost World reunites the inimitably goofy mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Goldblum, nicely twitchy, as always) with a whole new passel of big, scary monsters, this time on a remote island some 80 miles from the original dino-site. According to billionaire venture capitalist John Hammond (Attenborough), this second island was used to breed the original dinosaurs for Jurassic Park and has since fallen into disrepair. Hammond, sick and bedridden at this point, no longer seeks financial gain from his cloned critters, but instead wants them studied and preserved for the benefit of the scientific community and the world at large. To this end he sends Malcolm and a team of three others - including Malcolm's girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Moore) - to study and photograph the creatures. Unbeknownst to the group, Hammond's nephew Peter Ludlow (Howard) is leading a group of InGen scientists into the field to salvage what they can for the ailing corporation. That includes capturing a live Tyrannosaur and returning it to a new theme park in San Diego. Bad idea. The Lost World (unlike Spielberg's original film) leaps head first into the action, rushing, it seems, to get the film's real stars - the dinosaurs - to the screen as quickly as possible, and it does so with considerable verve. Stegosauri, Tyrannosaurs, and all manner of new creatures make their chaotic debuts within the film's first 30 minutes, and from that point on, The Lost World feels like less of a movie than it does a carnival ride - all precipitous highs and nerve-jangling lows. In fact, there's so much rushing about that you're tempted to think it's all much ado about nothing, but just then a T-rex eats someone whole and your gut drops out from under you and the ride continues, unabated and wild. Much of the fun (and there's a lot of it) relies on gory black humor: an InGen stooge gets tromped by a T-rex and remains stuck on the carnosaur's foot for a while, a neighborhood pet brings new meaning to the term "dog food," etc. Considering this, parents might want to think twice before allowing younger children to catch that matinee. Film buffs will get a kick out of the many in-jokes Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp have tossed in (Koepp himself plays a Tyrannosaur victim), including homages to the original King Kong, among others. Schindler's List it's not, nor is it even Jaws, but it is pure Spielbergian fantasy, and as such, The Lost World may just be the perfect Saturday afternoon summer movie. (5/30/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Joe Mantello; with Jason Alexander, Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk, Stephen Spinella. (R, 115 min.)

The Big Chill. The Boys in the Band. Anything by Chekhov. (I'll spare you the exclamation points.) These are some of the more discernible ingredients of Love! Valour! Compassion! All great models actually, and I don't really mean to give the impression that LVC is derivative or a copycat. It's just that... I don't know, there's always the distracting sense that the story's undergarments are poking through its seams. Mind you, it's good clean underwear, the kind you want to make sure you're wearing when wheeled into the emergency room, but it's not the kind of stuff that can pass for outer garments. Some of the awkwardness can surely be chalked up to the difficulties of transferring Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play to the screen and the inexperience of director Joe Mantello (also LVC's stage director), who here tackles his first film project. Yet, the problem goes beyond the film's staginess (although there's plenty of that to go around). It could even have something to do with the delicate difficulties involved in the successful transfer of stage camp to the more intimate level of film. But, all in all, those miscalculations are largely forgivable, given the genuinely likeable nature of the material and the natural impulse to embrace it to your heart. This is especially true with this particular cast of actors who, except for Jason Alexander, all created these roles on the stage and whose characterizations in the film exude an extremely lived-in and intimate knowledge of who these people are and what their relationships are about. It's in this sense that the movie shines: in its presentation of the many facets of relationships between loving gay men. It's here that the movie goes beyond The Boys in the Band and most of the contemporary gay cinema and becomes something that has more in common with The Big Chill's depiction of the continuity and sustenance of forged family relationships. But the way in which these relationships are played out over the course of three holiday weekends virtually screams out the words "three-act play." These are typical of the story's painfully obvious narrative constructions. It's not simply enough for there to be one actor (Glover) who plays the dual roles of twin brothers - one stereotypically good and the other, of course, evil - the brothers' surname must also be Jeckyll. A meaningful obviousness hangs in the air, whether it's the lusted-after Latino hunk who, in turn, desires the blind member of the group, or the aging choreographer and dancer who struts over his ménage from his practice room in the attic. By the time things conclude with a Chekhovian group swim in the moonlight (one of several scenes during which I can promise you there is, literally, no underwear showing) you may wish that some obliterating water was splashed over pages of the shooting script, but soon enough a feeling of love, valour, and compassion will wash over you. Just without the exclamation points. (6/13/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Murray Lerner. (Not Rated, 128 min.)

We want the world and we want it now. When did the Woodstock generation start believing its own hype and, what's more, when did it quit? Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival documents a bit of that phenomenon, the point at which idealism was overtaken by cynicism. The Isle of Wight Festival was one of the infamous last gasps of the Sixties: a music festival that took place over a five-day period at the end of August, 1970 on an island off the southern coast of England which could only be reached by boat. We've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Over 600,000 people attended. About one-tenth of those people paid admission. Throughout it all, filmmaker Murray Lerner was there recording the events, although it took him another 25 years to find the funds to edit and complete the movie. (One project, From Mao to Mozart, completed by Lerner during the interim, earned the director a best-documentary Oscar.) Part concert movie and part social essay, Message to Love is a unique entry in the field of rock festival documentaries. The movie's dual agenda may be both its strength and its downfall. It's simply too much material for a two-hour time frame. Among the festival performers are Jimi Hendrix (a couple weeks before his death), the Doors (one year before the death of Jim Morrison), the Who, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull, Free, the Moody Blues, Tiny Tim, John Sebastian, Donovan, Ten Years After, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Everyone's entitled to their personal opinions here. Me, I'd trade a whole lot of that "Nights in White Satin" hoo-hah from the Moody Blues for a few more snatches of Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen. But the remarkable aspect of this documentary is the footage wrapped around the concert performances. It's a haunting portrait of bankruptcy in both the spiritual and financial senses. The promoters spent a year planning the event and building a fence around the site, a barrier that was quickly demolished by the gate-crashers, who erected their own hillside community of outsiders dubbed "Desolation Row." What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and tied her with fences. Festival-goers spouted fuzzy-minded logic about how the pigs can't stop the music. All we are saying is give peace a chance. Promoters, seeing their artist payouts and profits disappearing in a thick cloud of hippie hogwash, bemoaned their fate. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. The artists all dealt with the art vs. commerce dilemma as best as they could. The different tacks they choose may contain some of the film's most revealing moments of all. More than a document of a music festival, Message to Love captures a pivotal moment in time, the seeds of the post-Woodstock, post-Altamont Seventies depression. Ah, but you may as well try and catch the wind. All that's left at the end of Message to Love is the metaphorical image: Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row. (See related interview in this week's "Screens" section.) (6/20/97)

3.0 stars (M.B.)



D: P.J. Hogan; with Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz, Rupert Everett. (PG-13, 104 min.)

The Philadelphia Story is 57 years old, George Cukor lies a-moulderin' in the grave, and the theory prevails in some quarters that Hollywood has forgotten how to make good romantic comedies. My Best Friend's Wedding doesn't figure to eclipse the aforementioned classic in the movie firmament. However, it does effectively recall those bygone days when impossibly attractive, charming, and endearingly flawed characters dressed to kill, smoked like creosote plants, and behaved atrociously on the way to rapturous romantic consummation. Our heroine is a suitably Cukoresque figure: cynical, love-averse writer Julianne Potter (Roberts), who finds herself unexpectedly shaken by the engagement of her old flame and lifelong best buddy Michael O'Neal (perpetual superstar hunk-in-waiting Mulroney). Is she still torching for Mike or is it just that his fiancée (Diaz) is too damned perfect: gorgeous, bright, rich, cool, and adventurous? Regardless, Julianne sets out to torpedo the wedding through a combination of outrageous dirty tricks, disinformation, and ever-bolder overtures toward the groom. Her reluctant accomplice and moral sounding board is loyal gay sidekick George (Everett, flawlessly executing a role which in earlier days might have gone to Tony Randall). Despite an irresolute tone that suggests a team-writing effort by Billy Wilder, Tracey Ullman, and Nora Ephron - the responsible party is actually the talented Ron Bass, whose credits include Rain Man and The Joy Luck Club - there's an energizing quirkiness and unpredictability about this film. One moment, a bizarre, impromptu Dionne Warwick sing-along erupts at a formal dinner; minutes later, an intimate soul-searching session is given a full measure of time to resolve itself. A few more moments pass and a wedding guest is getting her tongue stuck on the genitalia of a male ice sculpture. This all-over-the-yard feel recalls director Hogan's similarly uneven Muriel's Wedding. But My Best Friend's Wedding is a step forward on several fronts, particularly the smart, consistently funny writing and the topnotch cast, among whom Roberts is first of equals. More a cartoonist's impression of a classical beauty than the genuine article, the toothy, wild-haired Roberts turns out to be perfectly suited in both looks and temperament for the screwball heroine's role. Any actress who can, in the same film, carry off slapstick, femme fatale-ism, nail-spitting cynicism, and sweet vulnerability has something special going for her. Thanks largely to her presence, so does this film. (6/20/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Billy Bob Thornton; with Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall. (R, 135 min.)

So you thought you were talking funny after seeing Fargo, yah? Well, Billy Bob, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wait until you experience Sling Blade. Not only will it take some time to get your speech right again, it'll be a good while before you get your mind right again. That's how deeply Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade gets under your skin and soaks right through to the tributaries in your skull. Thornton, who wrote, directed, and stars in Sling Blade, has created an unforgettable character and situation, a film that's sure to become an American classic. It's something of a Southern gothic tale populated with characters who might have stepped over from a Carson McCullers story. Thornton plays Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man with a distinctive speech pattern who, at the start of the film, is involuntarily released from an asylum for the criminally insane where he has spent the last 25 years for the crime of killing two people. He returns to the small Southern town of his birth where he is befriended by a young boy named Frank (Black), who is probably about the same age as Karl was went he was sent away and is also the first person to accept this strange child/man without judgment. Frank and his mother Linda (Canerday) take Karl into their home, a shelter that is darkened by the abusive, alcoholic violence that pours forth from Linda's ever-encroaching boyfriend Doyle (Yoakam). The situation forces Karl into a moral dilemma, which he confronts with all the understanding of good and evil that his simple mental capacity and warped religious background can bear. A virtuosic showcase for the talents of Billy Bob Thornton (a fact that has not escaped Academy voters who nominated Thornton in dual Oscar categories), the success of Sling Blade nevertheless stems from so much more than Thornton's efforts alone. Sling Blade is a character-driven story, dependent on so many vivid performances and original characters. John Ritter (Thornton's co-star in the short-lived TV series Hearts Afire) delivers a career-great performance as Linda's best friend and ineffectual protector, a closeted gay man trying to live unobtrusively in this small Southern town; Dwight Yoakam is, at first, virtually unrecognizable as Linda's despicable cur of a boyfriend; and not until I saw the end credits was I able to see that it was Robert Duvall (the original Boo Radley figure) who portrayed Karl's disheveled, besotted hull of a father. In addition to figures such as Jim Jarmusch showing up in a cameo as a Tastee Cream counter clerk and J.T. Walsh lending his distinctive brand of eccentricity to the proceedings, musicians such as Vic Chesnutt and local luminary Ian Moore make priceless appearances as members of Doyle's godawful backyard band. Although it might be argued that Sling Blade could withstand a touch of judicious trimming and that the plot occasionally strains the boundaries of realism, these things do not mar the awesome achievements of the movie in the least. With an aim that's true, Sling Blade plants one right between the eyes. (2/21/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Barton Creek


D: Jan De Bont; with Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric, Willem Dafoe, Temuera Morrison, Brian McCardie, Christine Firkins. (PG-13, 125 min.)

Not as bad as you might have thought it would be, De Bont's Speed 2 hums along nicely as a summer actioner, rarely resting on its laurels, but still somehow managing to capsize midway through, I think somewhere right around the point at which villain Dafoe begins attaching squirming little leeches to his naked torso and bugging his eyes out in a fair-to-middling impression of the late Marty Feldman. There are, of course, the overwhelming public and professional expectations placed on De Bont that have caused him to go so far off course from the streamlined, masterful nerve-wracker that was Speed, and taking that into consideration, this sequel is hardly as awful as pre-release naysayers touted it as being. Bullock, reprising her role as the disaster-prone Annie, once again manages to be simultaneously breathtaking as well as a proper movie heroine. Patric, however, as new love interest Alex - yet another LAPD yahoo, much to Annie's chagrin - turns stoicism into an art form here. Whereas Keanu Reeves was required to do little more than act tough and look buff in the prequel, Patric's emotional role is much larger here: He's got to do more than play Top Cop on Big Boat, and he falls considerably short of the mark. To put it lightly, for two characters so hopelessly in love with each other, Patric and Bullock are working without any visible chemistry. The plot, slim though it may be, follows the couple on a Caribbean cruise aboard the truly mammoth ocean liner, the Seabourn Legend, which, wouldn't you know it, is about to be hijacked by madman Dafoe. One of the spiffy things about Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson's screenplay is Dafoe's modus operandi: As his backstory goes, he's the designer of the Seabourn Legend's state-of-the-art navigational system, but after he contracted a rare blood disease (courtesy of all those electromagnetic doodads he's been working with over the years) he was summarily dumped by his employers and left to employ medieval medicinal methods, swill Cutty Sark, and terrorize Sandra Bullock. And you thought disgruntled postal employees were bad news. De Bont's action set-pieces can be things of rare beauty if you let yourself go willingly into their histrionic embrace; he thankfully eschews the high-gloss, Neanderthal touch of Jerry Bruckheimer and Company in favor of some truly awesome devastation. Speed 2's seemingly endless climax is a good example of this, despite the fact that it's, well, seemingly endless. Not nearly as clever at taxing the audience's knuckles as its forerunner, Speed 2 still manages to stay above board long enough to merit a look-see, if only to relish the once-in-a-lifetime pleasure of Mr. Dafoe and his pet leeches. (6/13/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Jonathan Lynn; with Michael Richards, Jeff Daniels, Charlize Theron, Rip Torn, Austin Pendleton. (PG-13, 98 min.)

There's a very fine line between formulaic comedies and bizarre torture devices that render viewers insensate with ennui while precious brain cells die yawning by the thousands. Jonathan Lynn's (Sgt. Bilko) new offering manages to fall into both camps simultaneously, artlessly elevating the former into the realm of the latter, while raising the question: "Why even bother?" Obviously, someone, somewhere along the line, decided Seinfeld regular Richards would be just swell in a low-brow buddy comedy of this ilk, and all things considered, he's not so terrible. Fans of Richards' Kramer character will recognize many of the actor's well-worn schticks, as most of his work in Trial and Error is copped part and parcel from his sitcom salad days. Still, "a Kramer by any other name...." Daniels plays Charlie Tuttle, a high-powered defense lawyer who, on the eve of his impending marriage to the boss' daughter, is sent to the backwoods of Nevada to handle the case of a family friend accused of 64 counts of fraud. Coincidentally, it's the same day Charlie's buddy Richard Riette (Richards) - an aspiring actor - has planned a lavish bachelor party for his soon-to-be-wedded pal. Against his better instincts, Charlie gives in to Richard's pressuring and has "just one drink," which turns into 10 drinks, which, of course, turns into catastrophe for his court date the next morning. Far too hung over to even crawl out of bed, much less handle a simple continuance, Richard attends in Charlie's place, and when the continuance is denied, he must continue the felonious charade to the bitter end. From this premise, occasional laughs ensue, but they're few and far between. Meanwhile, Charlie begins to doubt the validity of his feelings for his fiancée when he meets a leggy, blonde waitress named Billie (Theron), whose simple, homespun ways and wisdom send his already skewed reality into further gridlock. To be fair, Trial and Error isn't really any worse than any of the other buddy-type yuck-fests to come down the pike in recent years, but it's certainly no better, either. Tired clichés, cheap gags (one with Daniels falling through the courtroom ceiling while trying to eavesdrop should have been retired circa Hope and Crosby's final Road jaunt), and uninspired performances abound, although Austin Pendleton's wry take as the bemused Judge Graff is vaguely entertaining - in the way a bug crawling on your forearm is briefly of passing interest. Lynn's direction is thoroughly unremarkable and workmanlike, and even Richards' spastic Kramer-esque hijinks fall short of outright hilarity. About the only thing Lynn's film has going for it is the title: Paying good money to view this mess would be both a trial and an error. (5/30/97)

.5 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek

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