JULY 13, 1998:
D: S.R. Bindler. (Not Rated, 97 min.)
As engrossing as documentaries about manifestly "big" subjects (Triumph of the Will, A Brief History of Time) can be, I've always found even more delight in the ones about picayune-seeming phenomena and pursuits that gain an improbable aura of significance from the passion people pour into them. A classic example is Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, with The Endless Summer, Pumping Iron, and Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey also popping quickly to mind. So, if surfing, bodybuilding, or mole rats can commandeer souls and spawn whole new schools of philosophy, why not a publicity stunt staged by a small-town car dealer? That's the premise of S.R. Bindler's marvelous little film, Hands on a Hard Body, winner of numerous festival awards including the audience award from the 1997 Austin Heart of Film Festival, that's just now seeing theatrical release. (The movie launches its world theatrical premiere in Austin this Friday.) Hands documents the 1995 edition of a yearly contest in which Jack Long Nissan of Longview, Texas gives a new hard body pickup to whomever can keep his or her hands on it the longest. Apart from short breaks at one- and six-hour intervals, contestants stand in place for up to four days at a time, often lapsing into hallucinations, laughing jags, and other erratic behavior around the 50-hour mark. Now, as a small-town native who's had his fill of specious, smirking "tributes" to down-home culture, I found this premise depressing as hell: a bunch of poor rubes suffering in 100-degree heat for a modest set of wheels that Michael Dell or Jim Bob Moffett could cover with glovebox change. Yet the wonder of Bindler's film is the way this random ensemble's foibles, quirks, and artless declamations work to ingratiate the contestants with the audience, not set them up as a geek show for urban hipsters' delectation. Interspersing live action at the contest with staged interviews held beforehand, Bindler and crew let the people who are the story tell the story. And a roomful of Hollywood screenwriters stoked on espresso and ginkgo biloba couldn't have dreamed up this cast. Former champ Benny, a self-styled Dalai Lama of hardbodyology, reels off malaprop-laden --though often surprisingly insightful --commentary. ("It's absurd, very absurd÷ it's a human drama thang." "I'm gonna just wait out the night and see what transgresses.") Ethereal Jesus freak Norma grooves blissfully to her stack of gospel tapes. Mellow J.D. sucks down unfiltered cigarettes and beams like a shitkicker Buddha. Gap-toothed Janice seethes with righteous fury at unpunished rule violations. Further obviating any doubt that we're meant to laugh with, not at, these people is the filmmakers' direct involvement in the drama. Speaking with obvious empathy to contestants, cracking up at their jokes, underscoring their powers of endurance with frequent shots of the sun and moon crossing the sky, Bindler's affection and respect for his subjects is unimpeachable. As with Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, the documentarian's receptive spirit makes us collaborators in -- not just observers of --the peculiar quest we're seeing. We've been blessed with an amazing run of great documentaries over the past couple of years, and Hands on a Hard Body ranks with the very best. The cost-cutting measures endemic to DIY filmmaking are clearly reflected in bare-basics production techniques and the rather dodgy look created by blowing up an original Hi-8 video print. Yet a nigh-miraculous blend of high spirits, poignancy, gentle satire, and unpretentious insight into the nature of human aspiration make this one of the most impressive films you're likely to see this year.
4.5 starsRussell Smith
A nasty, offensive, and thoroughly enjoyable romp through the dark, embittered land of Bad Girl, U.S.A., Don Roos" directorial debut (he wrote Boys on the Side and Single White Female, as well as the script for The Opposite of Sex) is the anti-indie, a post-PC broadside that manages to skewer everyone from gays to straights, the living to the dead, and never makes you laugh as hard as when it"s being downright creepy. Ricci -- as a sort of post-pubescent Wednesday Addams whirlwind -- is 16-year-old Dedee Truitt, who flees her Louisiana home after the death of her abusive stepfather and promptly arrives on the palatial doorstep of her half-brother Bill (Donovan), an Indiana schoolteacher who has recently lost his longtime companion to AIDS. While Dedee is the antithesis of Christian charity (her ongoing narration warns viewers from the get-go that she "doesn"t have a heart of gold" and she "isn"t going to grow one" either), Bill is positively saint-like in his quiet, stoic generosity. Alongside his new, none-too-bright lover Matt (Sergei), he welcomes this virtual relative into his beautiful home and then by degrees comes to regret his hospitality. In quick succession, Dedee seduces Matt, gets herself pregnant by him, and lightens Bill of 10 grand on the way out of town to Los Angeles. None of this comes as a surprise to Lucia (Kudrow), Bill"s ex-lover"s semi-frigid sister, who spots Dedee for the predator she is right off the bat. Torn between his love for Matt and his impotent anger towards his conniving step-sister, Bill mopes, pines, and finally throws up his hands in dismay until -- presto! -- things get worse. Matt"s queeny ex-flame Jason (Galecki, tackily pulling out all the stops), an ex-student of Bill"s, threatens to frame him for scholastic sodomy (and then does) if he doesn"t produce the missing Matt posthaste. Then it"s off to the City of Angels for more mayhem, a few car chases, and some improbable sex courtesy of Lyle Lovett"s Sheriff Tippett. As promised by the film"s tagline ("You"ll laugh, you"ll cry, you"ll be offended"), The Opposite of Sex has a little something to annoy everyone. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Roos" film is immensely entertaining. It"s not just the glib emotional attitudes that are bandied about so frequently, but some great acting chops from Ricci (who somehow manages to make the scurrilous Dedee at least vaguely sympathetic) and Kudrow, whose emotionally denuded Lucia not only gets the film"s best lines but also has the most complex character. It"s a far cry from her usual featherhead-blonde roles, and she brings it to alarming, bitter life. Still, The Opposite of Sex is above all else a comedy. Black -- no sugar, no cream -- to be sure, and refreshingly free of PC pabulum. Even some third-act deus ex machina scrambling can"t homogenize the film"s darkly cynical punch. Tough as nails and twice as hilarious, it"s a remedy for summer treacle.
3.5 starsMarc Savlov
D: Paddy Breathnach; with Brendan Gleeson, Peter McDonald, Peter Caffrey, Tony Doyle. (PG-13, 107 min.)
This refreshing little Irish comedy is an offbeat story about small-time hoods and the mess they"ve gotten themselves into. But really, the film"s petty-crime plot is mere window dressing for a disarmingly amusing road movie in which droll dialogue and engaging characters form the heart of what this movie is actually about. A pleasure to watch, though slow to ignite, it"s easy to see why I Went Down has earned the distinction of being the highest grossing independent Irish film in that country"s history. Not only is it redolent with sly, insidious charms but it"s a film that breaks out of the stereotypical Irish mold of films about dark, troubled families, sprightly leprechaun blarney, picturesque settings, and the unending religious and political strife that rends the country to the core. Written by the acclaimed playwright Conor McPherson (St. Nicholas, The Lime Tree Bower), the film follows the fortunes of Git Hynes (McDonald), who "went down" for a crime he didn"t commit and, as the story begins, has just emerged from an eight-month prison stint. Sticking by his best friend from childhood (even though this chum has moved in on Git"s girlfriend during his incarceration), Git gets into a scrape when he defends his friend from mob enforcers out to break his fingers. As a result of this impulsive act, Git is forced to perform a small service for Dublin crime boss Tom French (Doyle) -- pick up some cash from a one-time associate named Frank Grogan (Caffrey) and then deliver him to a henchman known only as "a friendly face." To do this task, French partners the young, innocent, good-looking, and slightly built Git with the seasoned, beefy, middle-aged Bunny Kelly (Gleeson). A pair of opposites, they get on each other"s nerves. Seemingly, they have nothing in common but their troubles with women and their unfulfilled debts to Tom French. Bunny, with his comically bushy sideburns and his insatiable sweet tooth, is a shabby excuse for a criminal -- the kind of guy who knows how to steal a car but can"t figure out how to pop open its locked gas cap. Their captive, Frank Grogan, is a chatty piece of cargo and through him, Git and Bunny learn a few more pieces of the puzzle. These four characters continue to intersect throughout the movie, but it"s how things occur rather than the what that makes things here so interesting. The dryly hilarious dialogue and these four charming performances are the film"s intrinsic delights. Intermittent chapter headings that set off various sequences, however, are more distracting than intrinsic -- except for the opening quote from Plato that suggests but one of the title"s multiple meanings. I Went Down is a small, unexpected treat that promises full satisfaction.
3.5 starsMarjorie Baumgarten
It"s big, it"s stupid, it"s pretty kick-ass. That"s about all you need to know about Summer "98"s loudest testosterone-fest, the second in a death-from-above double header that started off last month with the weak Deep Impact. As helmed by "bigger is better" wunderkind Bay, Armageddon ups the ante from that previous film by replacing Robert Duvall"s hero-named-Tanner with Willis" hero-named-Stamper, gigantifying the incoming asteroid and wiping out more cities, faster, louder, wilder (particularly nice is the End of Paris, and, presumably, Euro-Disney). Bay wastes no time in getting to the action, leaving the planet just 18 measly days between discovery and impact (Deep Impact had near as many months). Alerted to the problem after a few "Volkswagen-sized" particles redecorate Times Square (in a nice comic touch, one of the asteroid"s first victims turns out to be a street-corner Godzilla vendor), NASA director Dan Truman (a slimmed-down Thornton) hires the world"s best deep-core oil drillers -- headed by crusty Harry Stamper (Willis) -- to rendezvous with the asteroid just shy of the moon, sink a supernuke in it, and blow it off course. Willis, who one of these days is going to get an Academy Award for Best Squint, is ideal for the role, though I had the feeling he was borrowing heavily from the Ed Harris character in James Cameron"s The Abyss. (His whole team, in fact, seems recycled from that film, which in turn was recycled from World War II G.I. epics like The Fighting Seabees.) It should go without saying that supporting characters like Buscemi, Wilson, and Campbell are there for the ricocheting of one-liners, and that Liv Tyler"s lips are the most emotionally expressive thing in the film. This is of little consequence in the summer blockbuster wars, in which storylines are lost and forgotten amidst the charred rubble of whatever metropolis "gets it" next and the quality of the effects is more important than the quality of the acting. Bearing that in mind, Armageddon has very impressive effects (not the least of which is making Steve Buscemi into a believable ladykiller). Bay hammers the linear narrative home with the indefatigable strength of John Henry pounding steel, never stopping for breath, and never allowing the audience time to ponder the various incongruities that pop up. His golden-lighted, amber-waves-of-grain patriotism (and there is much of it, usually in slow motion, always accompanied by elegiac music) begins to grate about 10 minutes into the film, but if you look at it as a bizarre comic element it"s that much easier to stomach. No one in his or her right mind is going to take this juggernaut explode-o-thon seriously, of course, but as far as popcorn-grubbing eye candy with deafening sound and plenty of cheeseball Aerosmith tuneage (and progeny), it"s great fun. And what other film this summer opens with Charlton Heston as the Voice of God intoning global doom? Not a one.
3.0 starsMarc Savlov
Past, present, and future all share the stage --individually and collectively --in Thom Fitzgerald's florid family drama, The Hanging Garden. The Canadian film is a homecoming story in which a gay son's return to his dysfunctional family after a 10-year absence proves that you can indeed return home again. Or maybe that you can't. Who knows? Both explanations are possible. That's part of what makes this wildly popular festival-circuit movie at once so amazingly compelling and so maddeningly illogical. The film is built on an uneasy blend of stylistic elements: kitchen-sink realism and magic realism. The merger of styles allows the returning son to see not only the shape of things in the present but also the living traces of things that occurred in the past. The strategy works for the first half of the film, but then it depicts an event in the surreal realm that's so literal --so definite and unambiguous --that the image undermines the film's whole narrative technique and makes all meaning permanently elusive. To its credit, however, The Hanging Garden is an absorbing and wholly venturesome effort despite this serious narrative misstep. Writer-director Fitzgerald has created a rich study in the ways in which we are all inextricably tied to our family histories, no matter the extents we go to outrun, bury, or celebrate its ghosts. The Hanging Garden begins as Sweet William (Leavins) returns to his childhood home to attend his sister's wedding. (All the family members in this movie are named for flowers.) Now a svelte and handsome young gay man, William is haunted (figuratively and literally) by the obese, sexually confused teenager he was when he left the family fold. Each character we meet is drenched in melodramatic juju, although Fitzgerald manages, for the most part, to focus on the eccentric rather than the harsher aspects. Sister Rosemary (Fox) makes a less than romantic bride in her white gown as she curses, swigs beer, and wages constant battle with her ungainly bridal train. Tomboy sister Violet (Dunsworth) is even less starry-eyed about the whole affair. The groom Fletcher (Keller) is the teen who first seduced young William and then rejected him. Mom Iris (McKenna) is a cryptic figure, who mysteriously takes a powder following the ceremony. Dad Whiskey Mac (MacNeill) more than lives up to his name, a gardener and a drunk who fluctuates between moments of aggression and tenderness. Grandma's up in her room, a religious fanatic whose Alzheimer's-related senility causes many an inappropriate scene. Hell, even the family dog has gone blind and now falls down and walks into walls. An array of rich performances --notably those by Kerry Fox (who was so memorable in An Angel at My Table), Troy Veinotte as the sensitive, overweight teen version of Sweet William, Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) as the teenaged Rosemary, and Seana McKenna as the inscrutable mother --add credence to the goings-on. The Hanging Garden keeps one of its very big secrets 'til the very end and even once you learn what it is, nothing is clarified. But still, in terms of presenting a story about the how the present is fertilized in every sense by the past, The Hanging Garden brings home the harvest.
3.0 starsMarjorie Baumgarten
Psychologically one-dimensional and overburdened with heavy-handed yet random symbolism, Lawn Dogs is nevertheless redeemed by its earnest good intentions and the two lovely performances at the center of the movie. Both young Mischa Barton and the destined-for-big-things Sam Rockwell deliver memorable star turns here. They are so engaging that you almost forget the unlikeliness off these characters' friendship, given that she is a precocious 10-year-old girl and he is a 21-year-old ne'er-do-well who mows lawns for a living. Consciously modeled on a Baba Yaga fairy tale, Lawn Dogs begins as young Devon (Barton) is going door-to-door selling her Young Rangers cookies in her sterile suburban neighborhood of Camelot Gardens, a gated community of expensive houses, manicured lawns, and vacant streets. Trent (Rockwell) tends the yards, but he's warned by the community's rent-a-cop to be out of the 'hood by 5pm. Trent lives in a trailer in the nearby woods and Devon decides to walk past the gates and pay Trent a visit. He's smart enough to recognize that even though their budding friendship is platonic, outsiders will have a hard time accepting that truth. We know they are soulmates because early on we see him stopping traffic to dive naked from an inviting bridge and see her climbing out her bedroom window to toss her bedclothes into the night breeze. Lawn Dogs, as well as being a self-conscious fairy tale, is a story about phonies and bullies. Devon's parents (McDonald and Quinlan) are superficial social climbers who are too absorbed with appearances and extramarital affairs to pay full attention to their child. Trent's dad is a broken-down vet trying to give away his American flag collection. The two other Camelot Gardens' residents we meet are the obnoxious college boys (one is diddling Devon's mom and the other has latent feelings for Trent) whose purpose in life seems to be the harassment of Trent. Painfully obvious songs regularly pop up on the soundtrack to offer frequent thematic cues. Throughout his career the British-born director John Duigan has shown an affinity for films about nubile young women and the conflicted men who love them (Flirting, Sirens, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Journey of August King). Lawn Dogs is aiming for substance with its fairy tale scheme, surrealistically overblown finale, and portentous dialogue ("I don't like kids --they smell like TV.") But in the end, it only seems like a mess of ingredients in search of a recipe.
2.0 starsMarjorie Baumgarten
3.0 starsHollis Chacona
A comedy of obsessive insecurity, Mr. Jealousy dives deep into the foamy green waters of emotional malaise and surfaces with nary a clue, although some fine performances from the likes of Eigeman and Lehr manage to keep things interesting. Baumbach takes the green-eyed monster by the horns in this exploration of the effects of untrammeled jealousy on a budding relationship. Stoltz plays Lester Grimm, a weak-willed, New York writer who despairs of ever finding his one true love. When he meets the vivacious Ramona (Sciorra), it appears that he's at least on the right track. Love blooms, and with it, Lester's irrational paranoia toward Ramona's ex-lovers. Stricken, he realizes his fears are unfounded but his extreme control over his actions seems adolescent at best. In flashback, he reveals how he's made a habit over the years of spying on previous lovers' exes, hoping that any knowledge gleaned will reveal to him their mistakes and save him the humiliation of making the same errors. It's dotty behavior at best, but Baumbach and the preternaturally easygoing Stoltz milk it for the little comedy that's there. As Ramona and Lester's relationship heats up, he reverts to his old ways, eventually fixating on one particular ex, the Jay McInerney-esque Dashiell Frank (Eigeman), a pompous, goateed author of highbrow tales. As Lester subverts his newfound love via outright lies and inadvertent subterfuge, he enters into Dashiell's orbit and finds himself becoming fast friends with the author, a situation that can only lead to more trouble down the road. Baumbach, who directed Kicking and Screaming, has a deft hand with generational and relationship comedy here, but the bottom line is that there's not much to care about in this SlimFast of a film. Stoltz is as appealing as he always is, which is to say not very, and his character is such a confused and muddled mensch that when the inevitable outcome finally occurs, it's more likely greeted with yawns than any kind of revelatory surprise. Eigeman (who can also be seen currently in The Last Days of Disco) is terrific, though, all smarm and chilly East Village fatuousity. Likewise Jacott and Jean-Baptiste as a pair of soon-to-be-married friends, and Lehr as their vacuous buddy Lint. As an ensemble comedy that at best is only firing on four cylinders at any given moment, Mr. Jealousy is a slight contrivance, one that dawdles around in your head for a brief while before vacating the area to make room for more pressing issues. Even a subtle, canny score from Dean Wareham and Luna can't add heft to this featherweight comedy of errors.
2.0 starsMarc Savlov
It would be easy to reduce Small Soldiers to the story's lowest common denominators and call it Toy Story meets Gremlins, but this is a Joe Dante film, and nothing's ever that simple when it comes to Dante. One of the genre's leading fantasists, Dante's warped sense of humor --gleaned, I think, working under the tutelage of Roger Corman way back on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha way back when --is coupled with his ongoing fascination with the diminutive (see the aforementioned Piranha, Gremlins, or Innerspace) and his genuinely unique sense of aesthetics. Unfortunately, Small Soldiers never quite rises to the level of Dante's previous work and the result makes the film feel like a transparent, though enthusiastically directed, marketing ploy: Coming soon to a Toys 'R Us near you. Smith plays Alan Abernathy, a young teen with a troubled past who one day signs for a shipment of military action figures --the Commando Elite --while taking care of his father's toy store. Although liberal dad (Dunn) is averse to G.I. Joes and the like, Alan feels he can sell the product while his father is out of town and make some quick cash for the financially strapped toy outlet. What he doesn't know is that the toys have been accidentally fitted-out with state-of-the-art military computer chips that give them the ability to think and act for themselves. Along with the Commando Elite arrive the hideous Gorgonites, a Todd McFarlane-esque gaggle of plastic toy mutants who are the Commandos' sworn enemies. When the rival toys begin fighting in earnest (actually the Gorgonites are programmed to "hide and lose," so it's the Commandos who are doing most of the fighting), they wreck the toy store, the neighborhood, and proceed from there. Meanwhile, Alan falls for the lovely girl-next-door, Christy (Dunst), and has to work up the nerve to straighten out not only his life but the future of the flesh-and-blood world as well. With Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella providing the voices of the opposing toy leaders (Major Chip Hazard and Archer, respectively) and the relatively stellar casting, you'd think Small Soldiers would be a far more rollicking ride than it really is. Too much of what goes on here seems rushed and poorly planned; the backstory involving the creation of these out-of-control Lilliputians is glossed over in a matter of minutes and even Alan's budding romance is in the end a simplistic script device. As in almost all of Dante's films, regulars Miller and Jackie Joseph (Audrey in the original Little Shop of Horrors) make appearances, but even that feels tacked on. And like Gremlins, I think, the escalating levels of violence in Small Soldiers will distress some parents who may be expecting Toy Story 2. Stan Winston's miniature and CGI effects are wonderful, but they can't conceal an obviously weak script in what is unfortunately a footnote to Dante's better work.
2.5 starsMarc Savlov
Those titans of animation-festival programming are back again, this time with a well-rounded selection of contemporary animation from the four corners of the globe, including one Oscar winner and several other highlights. On the face of things, animation fests are a good way to keep tabs on what"s happening in the industry as computers take an increasingly firm hold over traditional cel animation techniques. These 12 short films do just that, and reveal -- surprise! -- that CGI isn"t dominating the world as much as you might expect. Tradition remains strong, with only the multi-award-winning Pixar studios (Toy Story) relying entirely on bytes to get the laffs. Still, several of the offerings here are mere shadows of triumphs past, notably the opening "Shock," a German entry which tries to take a new spin on the old tale of the artist versus his creation. It"s a nicely conceived mix of live-action, pixillation, and traditional cel work, but the story is as old as they come. Likewise Aardman Animation"s "Stage Fright," which looks spiffy at first glance but quickly falls short of the studio"s better, wiser, Nick Park-directed shorts. Excellent work, however, comes from the U.S.A."s Don Hertzfeldt, whose "Lily and Jim" chronicles a disastrous blind date using only the most rudimentary stick-figure animation. The sly vocal work by actors Robert May and Karen Anger is part improv, part scripted, and the whole of it works like a bitter charm. England"s "T.R.A.N.S.I.T." is jarringly original, the best in the bunch. Smooth, primary-colored art deco designs trace the movement of a sinister suitcase and an eerie man and woman as they travel to the world"s darkest corners. It"s less linear and more bizarre than a capsule description can impart here, but the film"s use of differing artists and styles for each of the narrative"s locales recalls the recent work of local animator Bob Sabiston. Pixar"s entry this time out ("Geri"s Game") is less affecting than much of their previous work -- early examples from that studio such as "Red"s Dream" and "Tin Toy" were marvels of content and stylistic equilibrium -- but still has that inescapable Pixar feel to it. As an old man plays a lonely game of chess by himself in the park, he resorts to manic cheating to win; original, yes, but hardly up to their usual emotive standard. Animation collections tend to be mixed bags, and this one is no exception. Certainly, there"s some brilliant work here, and as always, it"s a relief to see the animated form that has no ties to The Mouse.
2.5 starsMarc Savlov
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