Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

July 8, 1997:  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.).

    Sections below:
  • Recommended
  • New Releases
  • First Runs
  • Still Playing
  • Revivals
Ratings:
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



Recommended

FACE/OFF

D: John Woo; with John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell. (R, 140 min.)

A grand return to form for modern cinema's most exciting action director, Face/Off is the film Woo fans have been waiting for since the director arrived on our shores after leaving his native Hong Kong four years ago. Although the original script was conceived as a futuristic science fiction thriller, when Woo came onboard he jettisoned about 95% of the script's more outré trappings in favor of a modern-day setting with just a few improbabilities left over. No matter. Face/Off works like a charm right on down the line thanks to brilliant, exhilarating performances from Cage and Travolta, and the many tremendously enjoyable action set-pieces that are Woo's hallmark. Travolta plays FBI agent Sean Archer, a man haunted by the death several years ago of his young son, who was accidentally shot by terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Cage). Since then, Archer has been tracking Troy relentlessly, and when he finally gets his man (putting him in a coma in the process), the nightmare seems to be at an end. The only problem that remains is the biological weapon that Troy and his deranged, genius brother Pollux (Nivola) planted somewhere in downtown San Francisco before their capture. To uncover the location of the doomsday device, Archer undergoes a radical new surgery technique to graft Castor Troy's face onto his own, thereby allowing him to get close to brother Pollux in prison and trick him into giving up the necessary information. The procedure works masterfully, and now Archer, for all intents and purposes, is his most hated enemy. Unfortunately, while he's in lock-up picking Pollux's brain, the real Castor Troy wakes up from his coma, steals Archer's face, and murders everyone who knows the truth about the FBI's high-tech switcheroo, leaving Archer stuck in prison while Troy is free to grant his brother a pardon, infiltrate the FBI, and get it on with Archer's wife Eve (Allen). All this may sound a bit confusing, but with Woo at the helm, it's a wild roller coaster of mixed identities and passionate violence. And it's a joy to watch Cage play Travolta and vice versa. Far and away the best of summer action films thus far, Face/Off whips along like liquid mercury, filled with sly, dark wit and some of the most exciting action set-pieces to have come out of Hollywood in years. No one alive on the face of the planet can direct gunplay like John Woo, and Face/Off is a veritable showcase for the man's talents, combining rapid-fire editing with 10,000 rounds of pure cordite-scented adrenaline. Add to that the stunningly over-the-top performances of both Cage and Travolta, and you have not only classic John Woo but also the most entertaining film of the summer, a brilliantly conceived actioner that takes everything and everyone involved with it to the next awesome level. (7/4/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

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


New Reviews

ALL OVER ME

D: Alex Sichel; with Alison Folland, Tara Subkoff, Cole Hauser, Wilson Cruz, Ann Dowd, Leisha Hailey, Pat Briggs. (R, 90 min.)

Claude (Folland) is the sort of teenage girl who goes by Claude instead of Claudia: a big, sturdy girl with beautiful red hair, a wardrobe full of loose-fitting clothes, and the desire to start a rock & roll band. Claude's best friend is Ellen (Subkoff), her physical opposite: a skinny, blonde heart-stopper with a slightly Rosanna Arquette-ish air. Despite the differences in their appearances, it's easy to see that the two are best friends. Their emotional bonds are long and rich and they spend most of their after-school time up in Claude's bedroom practicing and just hanging out. Ellen often spends the night and stays for days on end in the Hell's Kitchen apartment Claude shares with her desperately man-hungry single mom. Hanging on Claude's bedroom wall overlooking it all is a vintage poster of Patti Smith, patron saint of girls with guitars and attitude. But everything Claude and Ellen take for granted about their relationship is about to change. Over the course of a few days, the girls discover the boundaries that separate them and it forever changes the course of their friendship. Claude is a burgeoning young lezpup who first becomes aware of her erotic feelings when they become directed toward her best friend. Ellen, on the other hand, is something of a coke whore in the making, falling hard and stupid for neighborhood tough Mark (Cole Hauser, of Dazed and Confused). A subplot about the gay-bashing of Claude's new neighbor Luke (wonderfully played by Pat Briggs, the lead singer of Psychotica) brings the girls' divisions into sharp focus. Billed as a "Sichel Sisters Film" (sister Alex directed and playwright Sylvia wrote the script), All Over Me is a first-time feature project for the pair. Filmed with an edgy New York flavor, All Over Me is nevertheless a sophisticated visual and narrative piece that has obvious connections to other gritty NYC teen pictures such as Kids and Hurricane as well as other teen lesbian coming-out tales like The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (which was also produced by All Over Me's Dolly Hall). Yet, All Over Me is also quite unlike these other pictures in that it also pinpoints some of the universal emotional ephemera of youthful friendships -- gay, straight, bi, or otherwise. As young Claude, Alison Folland (who made such a strong impression as Nicole Kidman's gullible pawn in To Die For) makes us sensitive to every ripple that rocks her stolid exterior. The well-planned production design and music, as well as the jagged but tightly framed camerawork of Joe DeSalvo, are all essential players in the story. (There's a 360-degree pan of Claude's bedroom during the movie's climax that's so dead-on expressive that it should be beamed in the round from every lighthouse in the land.) All of Me looks at what happens when just kissing your Patti Smith poster no longer provides ample satisfaction. It's a movie for riot grrrls of all ages. (7/4/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Village


MEN IN BLACK

D: Barry Sonnenfeld; with Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub. (PG-13, 98 min.)

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the alleged Roswell alien crash comes this witty-but-slight comedy from Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld. In fact, Men in Black opens with titles that are strikingly similar to Sonnenfeld's earlier film, as well as a jaunty soundtrack by Danny Elfman and an appearance by Carel Struycken (Addams' Lurch) as an alien, making it briefly feel like some sort of weird Addams offshoot. It's not, though. Having survived a rumored 22 rewrites, Men in Black is its own critter, and as far as breezy, effects-laden summer fare, it's not half bad. Jones plays K, a longtime member of a super-secret, non-government-affiliated agency created to monitor here on earth the comings and goings of extraterrestrials -- some friendly, some not. As part of this underground INS, Jones and his cohorts get to wear standard-issue black Armani suits and blacker Ray-Ban shades, making them look as though they wandered in off the set of Reservoir Dogs 2. After K recruits as his new partner young NYPD hotshot Will Smith (henceforth known simply as J), erasing his fingerprints along with his identity, the pair embarks on a mission to seek out and destroy an evil alien "bug" (sort of a giant, intergalactic cockroach) that's taken over the body of Edgar, an upstate bumpkin farmer. The bug is bent on destroying the members of another, slightly more diminutive alien race, and it's up to the Men in Black to stop him before intergalactic war -- and the requisite destruction of the earth -- occurs. That's all we have going on in Men in Black's mighty slim storyline, but it works, up to a point. Sonnenfeld has created a series of alien gags that work 90% of the time; strung together like washing on a backyard clothesline, the film hops from joke to joke, enormously fueled by the obvious comedic synergy between its two leads. The pairing of Jones and Smith is one of the better duos to come out of Hollywood in some time, with Smith's wide-eyed amazement at the new and strange sights he encounters as an MIB deftly ricocheting off of Jones' craggy-faced, been-there-done-that stoicism. D'Onofrio's Edgar is terrific as well; with a little help from Rick Baker's effects team, he plays the farmer-cum-insectoid alien as a lumbering, twitchy, one-man freak show, full of alien faux pas and an ill-fitting human skin. He's so disgusting you can't help but laugh, and then laugh again. As the sum total of its gags, Men in Black succeeds nicely, though if you take away the jokes, you're left with little more than a handful of none-too-startling creatures and some missing backstory. Comparisons with Ghostbusters have been making the rounds, but Sonnenfeld's film lacks the sheer joyful enthusiasm of that Ivan Reitman production. Like the inky void of space, there's really not much here, but what there is, is certainly entertaining. (7/4/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

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


OUT TO SEA

D: Martha Coolidge; with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Dyan Cannon, Gloria DeHaven, Brent Spiner, Elaine Stritch, Hal Linden, Donald O'Connor, Edward Mulhare, Rue McClanahan. (PG-13, 107 min.)

Out to Sea: Boy, howdy... that's the truth. This one misses the boat by several nautical miles. Out to Sea is the 10th pairing of that "grumpy old men odd couple," Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and believe me, I will happily defend the duo's first eight pictures and even hold fond hope for the 11th: an Odd Couple sequel that's already in the works. But with their last two pairings, Grumpier Old Men and Out to Sea, Matthau and Lemmon appear to be churning these comedies out like aged cheese. Comfortable familiarity and low-impact nudges to geriatric funny bones do not begin to compensate for the absence of solid scripting, unified narrative direction, and focused comic drive. The film is organized around tepid gags which, on the whole, are neither terribly funny nor original. We've seen these guys do all this material before -- and better. It's as though now that George Burns is not around to do any more Oh God pictures, Lemmon and Matthau have figured they've got a lock on a certain niche market and have decided to milk it for all it's worth -- script or no script. (The screenplay is by newcomer Robert Nelson Jacobs.) Out to Sea is clearly designed to be a summer alternative and is unapologetically targeted toward an older audience that might still associate such names as Gloria DeHaven and Donald O'Connor with marquee value. For distributor Twentieth Century Fox, this hasn't been the best of summers when it comes to water flicks: first Titanic steered off course, then their surefire Speed 2 started coming up with rather soggy box-office figures, and now this hip-replacement rhumba into the Caribbean. Out to Sea's plot has brothers-in-law Matthau and Lemmon posing as dance hosts aboard a cruise ship; however, the set-up yields very little in the way of comic escapades. Out to find rich widows, Lemmon finds himself falling in love with the ageless Gloria DeHaven while Matthau zeroes in on the comely blonde occupying the ship's stateroom (Dyan Cannon). Fellow dance hosts played by Hal Linden and Donald O'Connor are painfully underused, although their personality-free characters are much less frightening than Elaine Stritch's wiseacre battle-ax or Rue McClanahan's vain, sex-starved cruise-ship owner. Matthau (who may be the only person in the movie who looks his age) and Cannon (who looks way too disturbingly young for her age) make for an odd and unsettling romantic coupling. Stealing the show is Star Trek's Brent Spiner at the ship's supercilious twit of an entertainment director. "I'm your worst nightmare," he warns early on, "a song-and-dance-man raised in the military." His stage routines are truly sights to behold. Director Martha Coolidge, whose wonderful early films such as Valley Girl, Real Genius, and Rambling Rose starred such strong teen characters, is stumbling badly in her more recent work (Geena Davis' star turn as Angie, the film version of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and the fantasy romance Three Wishes). Out to Sea is not likely to land her back on terra firma. (7/4/97)

1.0 stars (M.B.)

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


TEMPTRESS MOON

D: Chen Kaige; with Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin, He Saifei, Zhang Shi, Lin Lianqun, Ge Xiangting, Xie Tian, David Wu, Zhou Jie, Zhou Yemang, Ren Lei. (R, 119 min.)

Set against the blustering, turn-of-the-century opium trade in China, Chen's newest film resonates on enough levels to satisfy everyone from the hardcore China enthusiast to fans of Melrose Place. Especially fans of Melrose Place. While not nearly as sinuously fluid as Chen's 1993 breakthrough, Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon is nonetheless one of the most gorgeously lavish Chinese productions in some time, much of which is due to cinematographer Christopher Doyle's opulent handiwork and a pair of brilliant performances from Gong and Cheung, the Asian Streep and De Niro. As the film opens, it's 1911, and the ancient dynasties that have controlled China for centuries are coming to a close under the thumb of British gunboat diplomacy. Near Shanghai, at the estate of the Pang family, a young orphan, Zhongliang (Ren), comes to live with his sister Xuiyi (He) and brother-in-law Zhengda (Zhou). There, he carefully fills and refills their opium pipes while trying to maintain an air of scholarship. Studies are impossible, though, amidst the dank clouds of narcotics, and before long, Zhongliang is forced into a bitter, incestuous relationship. Despite the friendship of young Ruyi (Gong) and Duanwu (Lin), Zhongliang flees to Shanghai one night and throws himself into an underworld of petty crime, prostitution, and easy money. Taken in by a benevolent gangster boss, Zhongliang is ordered one day to return to the Pang estate -- now but a shadow of its former glory -- to seduce the now grown Ruyi (Gong), the family's sole remaining heir. Against his better judgment, the now-adult Zhongliang (Cheung) finds himself falling in love with Ruyi while all about them crumbles. Essentially a Shakespearean tragedy masquerading as a Chinese period piece, Temptress Moon is a marvel to behold. All three leads, Gong, Cheung, and Lin turn in blazing performances, packed with bitter, endless defeats both in and out of the bedroom. Chen's film moves at the stately, leisurely pace you'd expect from a story dealing with a crumbling dynasty, but once the seeds of destruction are set in motion, the film fairly hurtles inexorably towards its dark, soulless conclusion, grabbing the audience with Doyle's breathtaking camerawork (he also did Chungking Express) and, especially, Cheung's tortuous performance as the doomed Zhongliang. The analogies to modern-day China fly thick and fast in Temptress Moon but never detract from the universality of the story. The cruel destruction of bitter hearts and innocent lives, plus opium wars to boot... what more could you ask for? (7/4/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Dobie


WILD AMERICA

D: William Dear; with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jamey Sheridan, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Frances Fisher. (PG, 107 min.)

Suggested alternate title: The Women Don't Know, But the Little Boys Understand. This second feature by William Dear (Angels in the Outfield) has its flaws, but as an example of adolescent male fantasies writ large it approaches brilliance. Broadly based on true boyhood experiences of award-winning nature documentarian Mark Stouffer (played here by Devon Sawa), Wild America chronicles a summer in the late Sixties when he and brothers Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas of the Home Improvement TV series) and Marty (Scott Bairstow) spent several weeks touring the country and filming threatened animal species in their natural habitats. Their adventures include life-threatening encounters with grizzly bears, gators, moose, whitewater rapids, army missiles, and stampeding wild horses. Down-time is spent frolicking with nubile hippie girls and reading ghastly animal-attack stories around the campfire. For young guy viewers who revere the holy trinity of speed, chaos, and danger, these doughty lads will register as instant soulmates. Because of the calculatedly gender-targeted nature of these mythic exploits, girls may find less of interest here, though the brothers' good looks and roguish charm might compensate to some degree. Safety-obsessed parents are best advised to skip this movie altogether. The scene in which preteen Marshall flies a vintage airplane after only verbal instruction would suffice in itself to fill the theatre with the popcorn crackle of rupturing cerebral arteries. Though rowdy adventure is Wild America's selling point it also -- regrettably -- includes gratuitous sops to family-values concerns. The boys' outing thus becomes their symbolic coming of age, observed with mingled respect and incomprehension by their rock-jawed, truck-driving father (Jamey Sheridan, in a disappointingly one-dimensional performance). Their mother, a domestic diplomat who creatively resolves head-butting clashes among the home's young and old bulls, is a rather more interesting character thanks to the ability of Frances Fisher (Unforgiven, Female Perversions) to manufacture nuances in her traditional June Allyson hausfrau role. In the end, I believe, it's a mistake to devote a large portion of the film to insipid, conventional family drama and contrived suspense over the community's response to the boys' film. These elements feel superfluous and half-baked. Worse, they detract from the heady forward rush of the story and the filmmakers' sure feel for the intense significance of that moment when young men take their first leaps from the nest. Objections aside, though, Wild America is a high-spirited, wholesome, raucously humorous journey to young dude heaven. Highly recommended for the SegaGenesis jocks in your household. (7/4/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

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


Still Playing

ADDICTED TO LOVE

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


BATMAN & ROBIN

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


BRASSED OFF!

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


BREAKDOWN

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.)

Westgate


BUDDY

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.)

Lakeline


CHASING AMY

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, Lakeline, Village


CON AIR

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, Riverside


FEMALE PERVERSIONS

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.)

Dobie


THE FIFTH ELEMENT

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, Lakeline


GONE FISHIN'

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


GROSSE POINTE BLANK

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


HEAD ABOVE WATER

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.)

Dobie


HERCULES

D: John Musker and Ron Clements; with the voices of Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, 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


LATE BLOOMERS

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.)

Dobie


LOST HIGHWAY

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.)

Dobie


THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK

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, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Roundrock


MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING

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


SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL

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, Westgate


TWIN TOWN

D: Kevin Allen; with Dougray Scott, Dorien Thomas, Rhys Ifans, Llyr Evans, Sue Roderick, Rachel Scorgie, Brian Hibbard, William Thomas, Jenny Evans. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

Produced by Andrew MacDonald and Danny Boyle -- the pair who brought us Trainspotting and Shallow Grave -- this feature debut by former documentarian Allen is a drug-fueled, nihilistic, free-for-all ride through the streets and alleys of modern-day Swansea, South Wales. While at first glance, Twin Town appears to be a direct continuation of Trainspotting -- right down to its mordant black humor and over-the-top drug use -- it's a far more scattershot affair. Dylan Thomas called Swansea an "ugly, lovely town," but according to crooked cop-cum-cokehound Terry (Scott), it's just a "pretty, shitty city." Terry, along with his older (and only slightly less corrupt) partner Greyo (Dorien Thomas), are two of the bizarre ensemble characters in Allen's film. The others are Julian (Evans) and Jeremy (Ifans), a pair of glue-sniffing, bong-sucking, blonde twins with the combined mental prowess of a tractor, who, despite their overriding interest in car theft, plan an elaborate revenge scheme against Swansea top dog (and star roofing contractor) Bryn Cartwright (William Thomas). Also on hand are the twins' slag sister Adie (Scorgie), who works as a receptionist in a massage parlor by day and provides discounts to Greyo on the side by night; Bryn's daughter Bonny (Evans), an aspiring karaoke singer and the secret lover of Dai Rees (Hibbard); and a host of other notables, including a pair of not-long-for-this-world family dogs. Allen's film boasts the same methamphetamine, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink flavor of MacDonald and Boyle's past hits, but, unaccountably, Twin Town lacks the narrative drive to keep up with Trainspotting's Mark Renton and company. If anything, Allen's film tries to pack too much black humor into too small a package. As a gritty, humorous portrait of modern-day Swansea, it's not half bad, but when the film begins resorting to scads of piss jokes and outright death and destruction, it falls flat on its face, and lays there in the filthy Swansea gutter, a victim of its own lowbrow hooliganism. There are some awesomely interesting moments, to be sure: The twins themselves are hilariously overblown caricatures of disaffected youth, from their clumsy rave gear on down to their penetratingly dopey and permanently affixed grins. Real-life siblings Evans and Ifans are perfectly cast; it's almost impossible to imagine them out of character and carrying on a rational conversation. Likewise with Scott and Dorien Thomas, the bottom-feeding coppers who are nearly as dim as their quarry, but only half as stoned. Twin Town is worth a peek for these and other reasons, just don't go expecting Trainspotting 2. As that film's loopy, denser younger brother, it's not half bad, though. Renton would've approved. (6/20/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

Dobie


ULEE'S GOLD

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.)

Village







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