Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

By compiled by Marjorie Baumgarten

July 21, 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.), 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

PONETTE



D: Jacques Doillon; with Victoire Thivisol, Matiaz Bureau, Delphine Schlitz, Marie Trintignant, Xavier Beauvois, Claire Nebout.
(Not Rated, 92 min.)

Ponette accomplishes something that's quite rare and extraordinary in the field of storytelling: This exceptional French film authentically gets inside the mind of a four-year-old child and shows us the world from her point of view. And young Ponette (Thivisol) has more than her fair share of trauma to deal with. A sudden car accident has caused her mother's death and left Ponette's arm broken (the limb remains in a cast throughout the entire movie). As the film opens, Ponette is lying in a hospital bed as her compassionate but bereft father (Beauvois) tries to explain that mommy simply may be too broken to fix. Needing to deal with his own grief, Ponette's father temporarily leaves his daughter in the care of her aunt who lives in the country with her two children: a boy approximately Ponette's age and a girl who appears to be a couple of years older. Ponette refuses to believe that her mother will never return. It's not insolent willfulness on Ponette's part but, rather, a profound incomprehension of how such a thing could be true. Her aunt's consoling story about the resurrection of Christ only increases the child's confusion and fuels her belief that the loss is not irrevocable. She explores a variety of strategies for bringing back her mother, amalgams of semi-truths and solemn rituals imparted to her by other well-meaning children. Her young cousins are also abundantly sensitive to her pain and try to console her, but they, too, are held sway by the magical and irrational cause-and-effect thinking of childhood. As with all human beings, whatever their age, Ponette must explore the full geography of her emotions before she can find solid moorings. The film's narrative method of resolving the child's crisis leans heavily on a miraculous solution and is the only false note Ponette strikes. Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, however, is a revelation to watch. The naturalism and expressiveness of this child as she moves through a host of difficult emotions is more like experiencing the unabashed realism of a fragile soul bared than the witnessing of a great performance. It's a performance so astonishing that Thivosol was recognized with the best actress award at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. Director Doillon is a filmmaker whose work has rarely shuttled over to this continent. The unique sensibility and gentle confidence he demonstrates in Ponette make it clear that this Frenchman is a storyteller in possession of distinctive insight. Childhood has no better friend than Jacques Doillon. And some kindergarten somewhere in France has a world-renowned actress in its midst. (7/18/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Village



New Review

GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE



D: Sam Weisman; with Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree, Greg Cruttwell, Abraham Benrubi, the voice of John Cleese. (PG, 92 min.)

Based on the late Sixties Jay Ward cartoon of the same name, this live-action Disney version is so silly, so garishly over-the-top, and so bracingly eager to please, that it's hard not to fall under its gleefully gooney spell. It's a kids film first, but adult chaperones will find themselves grinning along at Fraser's spirited characterization and director Weisman's inventive storytelling, which utilizes many of Ward's groundbreaking techniques, including the smartass narrator and much breaking down of the fourth wall. Not only does the "navigationally challenged" King of the Jungle frequently turn to speak to the audience, but so does almost everyone else in the picture. It's outlandish, of course, but that's the fun of it, and against all odds, it works. When a beautiful San Francisco-based adventurer by the name of Ursula (Mann) finds herself tracking the myth of the Great White Ape deep in the heart Africa, she encounters more than she bargained for in the form of George and his plethora of animal friends. There's a talking ape named Ape (voiced by Cleese and wonderfully crafted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop); the colorful Tookie Tookie bird; and Shep, the elephant who thinks he's a dog. Saved from a lion attack by the wily George, Ursula finds herself falling for the big lug, much to the dismay of her fiancé Lyle Van De Groot (Church), a scheming society boy intent on carrying out the proposed nuptials. Add to this a pair of poachers (Cruttwell and Benrubi) intent on capturing Ape and the money-mad parents of Ursula, and you've got a live-action cartoon that for all intents and purposes is funnier than its source material. Ward's original show lacked much of the high wit and sarcastic banter that made his name a household word in animation ("Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Fractured Fairy Tales"), but Weisman and Fraser's take makes up for that in spades. Relentlessly ridiculous, the gags are at times a spotty affair. (How many times can we watch poor George plow into stationary objects before the fun goes out of it? You might as well ask how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Charm's Blo-Pop.) A subdued sort of juvenilia is at the reins more often than not, but above it all, Fraser - a warm and generous physical comedian operating at full steam - is George, from his leopard-print "butt flap" to his scraggly mane and artfully honed abdominals. Say what you will about live-action knockoffs of classic kids' shows (and feel free to be especially negative about The Flintstones), but with this Disney adaptation Weisman and Fraser have managed to capture the riotous, chaotic spirit of Ward en toto. (7/18/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

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


GRAY'S ANATOMY

D: Steven Soderbergh; with Spalding Gray. (Not Rated, 80 min.)

Spalding Gray is like marzipan: You either love him or you hate him and rarely is there an in-between. This is the third in (I expect) an ongoing series of feature-length monologues from Gray - the first two comprising the OBIE award-winning Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box - and although all three have strikingly similar qualities, Soderbergh's skewed, unsettling, and often hilarious direction in Gray's Anatomy makes this time out the most entertaining by far. As with all things Gray, the monologist's sardonic, self-deprecating wit is in full throttle as he recounts his recent battle with a degenerative eye disease and the various processes he went through in search of a cure. Not being particularly fond of surgical procedures involving protracted scraping of his inner ocular regions, Gray instead goes off in search of alternative therapies before consenting to the inevitable. Along the way, he attends a Native-American sweat lodge gathering intended to spiritually heal his damaged optics (to no avail), recounts his upbringing among a family of devout Christian Scientists, and regales the audience with his misadventures while visiting a Filipino psychic surgeon by the name of Pini Boca (again, to no avail). I have a number of friends who find Gray's breathless monologizing steadfastly boring; they'd get more kicks watching Brie melt than sitting through one of the artist's verbal performances. These are usually the same people who despise Eric Bogosian for similar reasons (though the two have little in common besides their penchants for verbal gymnastics). The bottom line, I've always felt, is "Is he a good storyteller?" and the answer invariably leans toward the affirmative. Gray - love him or hate him - is frequently spellbinding, whether he's speaking about his experiences during his acting stint in The Killing Fields, or about more mundane, personal situations such as this. Peppering his speech with the odd one-liner and the occasional risqué anecdote, Gray comes across like a large, demented elf, manifestly eager to bring home these personal experiences that have shaped his life. For his part, Soderbergh keeps the camera moving, never allowing it to rest too long on Gray's haggard face. This flurry of motion in what is essentially a one-man, one-character, static stage play - along with the director's clever use of offbeat lenses and challenging lighting arrays - keeps Gray's Anatomy from bogging down in itself and becoming the ennui-inducing juggernaut the performer's detractors have so often hinted at. Not only is it interesting to follow the course of Gray's storyline, the movie is also equally interesting to view, even if the storyteller is just sitting in front of a desk most of the time. (7/18/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Dobie


NOTHING TO LOSE

D: Steve Oedekerk; with Martin Lawrence, Tim Robbins, John C. McGinley, Giancarlo Esposito, Kelly Preston, Michael McKean, Irma P. Hall. (R, 97 min.)

There's something about the pairing of psychotic Fox comedian Lawrence with revered actors' gang alumnus and all-around swell guy Robbins that's so oddball it's almost sure-fire. At least, I suspect that's what writer-director Oedekerk and the producers felt going in to this project. And they're half right: The pairing of the short, black, violently effusive comic and the impossibly tall, good-natured white guy seems, at first thought, to be a smashingly good idea, or one that, at least, will break even. For some reason, though, things never quite jell between the two mismatched leads. The spark which pops up every so often never quite flares into a comic flame, and what we're left with is the inescapable need for more. More what is anyone's guess, but more something, for the love of God. Robbins plays Nick Beam, a well-to-do advertising executive whose world collapses one afternoon when he returns home early to surprise his wife (Preston) only to spy her in bed with his boss (McKean). Devastated, he hops back in his car (actually he sort of slouches, like a man overcome by gravity) and drives aimlessly through Los Angeles, eventually, blindly driving into South Central, where he is almost immediately car-jacked by novice thief T. Paul (Lawrence). Instead of giving up his car and wallet to T., Nick instead turns the tables on his attacker and kidnaps him, driving hell-bent for leather clear to Arizona before stopping for a bite to eat. It should go without saying that the two opposites attract, and, eventually, become friends under the United Front of Felonious Assault. Together they conspire to salvage Nick's bruised machismo by plundering his boss' office safe, and, well, you get the idea. The jokes - especially those from Robbins' slack-jawed physical comedy - are fast and sleek, and they work well enough up to a point, but Oedekerk, for some reason, feels the necessity to gob up the whole shebang with frequent doses of unbridled tenderness. T. Paul, it seems, has a loving wife and kids, who depend on him to bring home the proverbial bacon. He's not bad, he's just drawn that way, and the artist in question is Oedekerk. Nothing in the world can deflate a deft, fast-moving comedy like excessive preachiness; Capra could make it work, but few others, and Oedekerk, a former writer for In Living Color, is no Capra. Not by a long shot. (7/18/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

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


OPERATION CONDOR


D: Jackie Chan; with Chan, Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia, Ikeda Shoko. (PG-13, 96 min.)


Not reviewed at press time. Jackie Chan co-wrote, directed, and stars in this Indiana Jones-ish action-adventure in which he uses his legendary stuntwork in the African wilds to search for a cache of gold hidden by German soldiers during WWII. The movie, which was originally released in Hong Kong in 1991 as Armour of God II: Operation Condor, has presumably been redubbed and perhaps otherwise gussied up for its American release. Jackie Chan fans have always hailed this movie as one of his best, so it will be interesting to see how American audiences respond to one of his quintessential Hong Kong works. ()

(M.B.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


A SIMPLE WISH

D: Michael Ritchie; with Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, Mara Wilson, Robert Pastorelli, Amanda Plummer, Francis Capra, Ruby Dee, Teri Garr, Alan Campbell, Jonathan Hadary. (PG, 90 min.)

The concept's good. So's the cast. But this family film about an incompetent fairy godmother named Murray (Short), is short several handfuls of fairy dust. Instead of magic and make-believe, A Simple Wish follows a more earthbound course, which is a shame because the movie appears to have all the right elements in place, it just neglects to do much of anything with them. Murray is the world's first male fairy godmother, but it seems he's never heard that conventional wisdom about how minority candidates need to be twice as competent as the competition in order to be regarded as equals. As played by Short, Murray is a foppish clod with a broken wand (and, I must say, more than a touch of the old Ed Grimley). He aims to please but perpetually encounters technical foul-ups, like when he summons a giant rabbi instead of a rabbit. That's how he accidentally managed to turn young Anabel's father into a statue while granting her wish to have him become a successful stage actor. Although Short tirelessly, yet aimlessly, hams for the camera, his mugging may be for the lack of having anything more focused to do. Mara Wilson (Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire) is a talented young actress, pleasantly up to the task of appearing in virtually every scene. In a disjointed plot development, Kathleen Turner plays an excommunicated fairy godmother who steals all the magic wands from the ladies at the Manhattan NAFGA soiree (North American Fairy Godmother Association - an intriguing assembly full of humorous potential which, in typical fashion, the film provides a mere glimpse of and then thoroughly abandons). Turner and her sidekick (Amanda Plummer, brilliantly playing a human being who is only one hair removed from the canine she used to be) are great fun, but here too, these characters have way too little to do. Pastorelli is charmingly un-Eldon-like, as he auditions for a role in a new Broadway play A Tale of Two Cities. (Yet the film's satire of this Lloyd-Weber-ish play is probably too accurate to be widely recognized as a spoof, and the belting out of "A Far, Far Better Thing" as he plants his head in the guillotine is certain to extend beyond the humor references of the younger audience members.) Director Michael Ritchie (Bad New Bears, Fletch) does little to perk up this high-concept/low-delivery script by Jeff Rothberg, and he lets way too many rich opportunities go to waste. By the time this tepid comedy is through, you'll want an alchemist instead of a fairy godmother of any gender. (7/18/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills, Lakeline, Movies 12


THE VAN

D: Stephen Frears; with Colm Meaney, Donal O'Kelly, Ger Ryan, Caroline Rothwell, Neili Conroy, Ruaidhri Conroy, Brendan O'Carroll, Stuart Dunne. (R, 99 min.)

The Van, which is the final film adaptation of Dublin author Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" (Alan Parker's The Commitments and Frears' The Snapper preceded), is a humorous, thoughtful look at a pair of adult male friends. Larry (Meaney) and Bimbo (O'Kelly) ride the waves (and dole queues) of unemployment and, eventually, partnership when they go into business together after Bimbo purchases a broken-down fast-food van. Before the entrance of the titular automobile, the pair pass the time at the pubs and at each other's houses, chewing the fat, philosophizing, and generally carrying on like a pair of best friends making the best of a not-so-grand situation. When Bimbo's friend Weslie (O'Carroll) offers him a chance to purchase what surely must be the most decrepit Take-Away van in all of Ireland, he jumps at the chance, seeing it as a way out of his increasingly desperate financial straits. After a lengthy interlude in which Bimbo, Larry, and friends clean and paint the van, the two formally agree to go into business together, banking on the promise of a steady stream of customers provided by the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches between England and Ireland. And it all works, up to a point, despite the fact that the van at first has no engine and must be towed around from parking lot to alleyway by Bimbo's equally shoddy car. Predictably, as the business relationship between the two men grows, their personal friendship begins to falter and, eventually, almost collapses beneath the weight of their joint venture. As owner of the van (gleefully christened Bimbo's Burgers), Bimbo is naturally Larry's superior, a fact that soon causes the more loutish Larry to buckle. Frears' Barrytown is a remarkable place, more shadowy and economically deprived than in previous outings, but still with an inherent sense of Irish charm. Add to that the backdrop of the World Cup - itself full of exciting possibilities - and you've got a clever, knowing take on male camaraderie that makes Robert Bly look like the trend-hopper he is. To be sure, there are long patches of thick, Irish-brogue-laden exposition that slow the film down from time to time, and the characters of Larry and Bimbo seem occasionally broad, particularly Larry. That aside, this remains a fine way to close the book on Barrytown and its colorful residents, as always, with friendship and tears, comedy and tragedy. (7/18/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Village


THE WATERMELON WOMAN

D: Cheryl Dunye; with Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson. (Not Rated, 80 min.)

In this day and age, it's quite conceivable that those who do not reinvent history may be doomed to repeat it. If, like Cheryl Dunye, you're an African-American lesbian filmmaker struggling to find antecedents or self-reflections in the history and artifacts of cinema's first century, you'll come up rather empty-handed. Yet, should we be willing to accept the lack of evidence as incontrovertible proof that no African-American lesbian ever set foot on a movie soundstage? In her first feature film, Dunye blends narrative, documentary, and faux documentary techniques to create a fictional story about a would-be filmmaker named Cheryl (Dunye) who is researching the life of a minor actress from Hollywood's golden age credited only as the Watermelon Woman. Cheryl, who conveniently works in a video store, feels a connection with the Watermelon Woman from the first instant she lays eyes on the actress in a videotape of some obscure film from the Thirties. Her co-worker and housemate Tamara (Walker) can't fathom Cheryl's interest in this black mammy from the past and tries to focus her friend toward more popular pastimes like dating and socializing, but Cheryl grows increasingly consumed with making a documentary film about the Watermelon Woman. With great difficulty, she begins piecing together fragments of the actress' life and comes to realize that the sister was, most certainly, a real sister who was romantically involved with her white female director Martha Page and sang in the old lesbian clubs in Philadelphia (which is where Cheryl lives). Along the way, Cheryl begins a relationship with Diana (Guin Turner of Go Fish fame), a white female patron of the video store. The relationship confuses Cheryl and appalls Tamara and we begin to see the multiplicity of subjects that Dunye wishes to tackle in this film, all of which find resonances in the life of Fae Richards (aka the Watermelon Woman). An interview with Camille Paglia adds heft to Cheryl's documentary as the feminist theoretician expounds on the image of the mammy and the significance of watermelons, and photographer Zoe Leonard even created a fictional photo archive of the life of Fae Richards. Dunye's film is smart, sexy (the interracial lesbian lovemaking scene prompted an infamous little ruckus over at the NEA a while back), funny, historically aware, and stunningly contemporary. Much like the Roger in Michael Moore's Roger & Me, it ultimately matters little if we actually locate the movie's titular subject. The figure of Dunye's Watermelon Woman tells us more by her absence than she ever could in flesh and blood. With this film, the director has created something she calls the "Dunyementary." I think the term frames it perfectly. (7/18/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Dobie



Still Playing

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, 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.)

Dobie


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.)

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, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12


CONTACT

D: Robert Zemeckis; with Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, John Hurt. (PG, 151 min.)

Just guessing, but this probably isn't what our city's sunburned, fajita-fed throngs of summer movie viewers have been amped up for by Contact's rousing previews. Not unless they're hotter than I imagine to see two superstar actors represent Science and Religious Faith in a vaguely New Agey allegory about humanity's ancient struggle to resolve their conflicting views of existence. Yet the same measured, cerebral approach that makes this adaptation of the late Carl Sagan's novel a poor fit with the seasonal raft of overblown fantasy spectacle (Batman, The Fifth Element) and kill-everybody, burn-everything action blamarama is also a very real asset - even if some of the concepts it bandies about are a mite scattershot and sloganistic. In keeping with his role as science's ambassador to the masses, Sagan and wife/co-writer Ann Druyan have given us an astronomer-heroine, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster), whose zeal for solving the universe's mysteries matches that of her counterpart on the spiritual side of the fence, charismatic pop theologian Palmer Joss (McConaughey). Arroway meets Joss early on, during a break from her efforts to detect radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, and the pair enjoy a single frolic in the hay. However, little effort is made to churn up romantic chemistry between Foster and McConaughey. For better or worse, director Robert Zemeckis sticks to Sagan's original vision for these characters, in which they're basically totems embodying both sides of a philosophical dialectic. After setbacks, Arroway's efforts pay off when her massed array of radio telescopes picks up signals coming from the remote star, Vega. Though the process of decoding the messages and responding to their invitation (they tell how to build a machine for transporting one human to the senders' home planet) is both fascinating and scientifically plausible, it's obvious Sagan's main interest is the havoc that proof of alien life might wreak on the belief systems of the great unwashed. Thus, we have interminable, edit-me-please stretches devoted to cartoonish Christian Righters speculating about the aliens' "values"; millennialist loons holding Winnebago rallies in the desert; and panels of inquisitors grilling Arroway about her spiritual beliefs. (Strangely, considering the panelists' diverse nationalities, they all seem to regard Christian monotheism as the religion of choice). Meanwhile, an already gnarly plotline is complicated further by Arroway's ongoing cosmic debate with Joss and her sporadic encounters with a bizarre, reclusive billionaire (Hurt) who's bankrolling her research. But despite its chug-holed narrative and occasionally synthetic feel, Contact artfully strings you along with coy hints of mighty revelations to come. Zemeckis helps by showing atypical restraint with scenes intended to convey magic and awe. The wonder of the unfolding events is revealed through grand images and bold ideas, not imposed by gimmicky style. And with both Foster and McConaughey earnestly plumbing their deepest emotional resources to flesh out their skeletally written characters, the point is well made that science opens doors to truths hidden from religion's view, and vice-versa. But after almost two-and-a-half hours of tantalizing buildup, the closing scenes' meager payoff of banal, Jack Handeyish hoo-haw creates a frustrating sense of intellectual coitus interruptus. Granted, the same might be said of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick craftily finessed his ending with enigmatic images which left final interpretation to the viewer's imagination. All of which suggests that, when art addresses life's unanswerable questions, the wisest strategy may be simply to respect the mystery. It's a distinction that can make the difference between a hit - which Contact will be - and a classic. (7/11/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

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


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


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.)

Alamo Drafthouse, Barton Creek, 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


HOLLOW REED

D: Angela Pope; with Martin Donovan, Joely Richardson, Ian Hart, Jason Flemyng, Sam Bould. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

Late one night, injured nine-year-old Ollie (Bould) comes running to the home of his estranged father Martyn (Donovan) and concocts some tenuous story about the source of his bloodied brow. Martyn immediately becomes suspicious about what really transpired and when shortly thereafter his only child is discovered to have three broken bones in his hand, Martyn becomes determined to uncover the truth. Throughout, Ollie holds his tongue and reveals little to his father, although the audience is allowed to see that the probable culprit is the new live-in boyfriend (Flemyng) of Ollie's mother Hannah (Richardson). Complicating matters is that Hannah and Martyn are divorced and Hannah's custody decree stipulates that Ollie may spend no overnight visits with Martyn, a physician who has set up residence with his gay lover Tom (Hart). Early on, we think we can see where this British drama disguised as a suspense story is heading. But that would be presumptuous. The movie's wonderfully drawn characters create a web of emotions that is deep and intricate. Hardly a simple story about child abuse and the legal custody problems faced by gay parents, Hollow Reed treats each of its characters with sympathy and compassion. Hannah is still smarting from the failure of her marriage to Martyn, a marriage which appears to have been Martyn's last desperate attempt to prove to himself that he was straight. The presence of her new lover, Frank, restores some of her lost self-esteem, and even once she becomes aware of Frank's violence toward her son, she wants ever so much to believe that it will never happen again. Amazingly, she manages to remain a sympathetic character. And even Frank's abusive tendencies can be traced to his own childhood experiences. The custody fight prompts turmoil in Martyn and Tom's relationship, as Tom moves out in an effort to present a more wholesome front for the social welfare inspectors. And at the heart of it all is the taciturn Ollie, so afraid that his own critical needs will destroy the precarious happiness of all the adults that dominate his world. He's the underwater decoy, surreptitiously drawing breath through the metaphorical hollow reed that protrudes gingerly through the smooth surface sheen. Although the direction occasionally seems too schematic, the movie's outstanding performances - Donovan (best known for his work with Hal Hartley), Richardson (rapidly becoming the crown jewel in the talented Richardson acting dynasty), Hart (so memorable for his note-perfect portrayal of John Lennon in Backbeat), and young, inscrutable Bould - make Hollow Reed an acutely nuanced study. (7/11/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Village


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, Highland


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


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


OUT TO SEA

D: Martha Coolidge; with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Dyan Cannon, Gloria De Haven, 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 De Haven 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 De Haven 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, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Roundrock


RUDYARD KIPLING'S THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI AND BALOO

D: Duncan McLachlan; with James Williams, Bill Campbell, Roddy McDowall, David Paul Francis, Gulshan Grover. (PG, 88 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. A few years back Disney made a live-action Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee. This new version is also a live-action movie but it is not a Disney venture. With a title that's something of a mouthful, storywise this TriStar release sounds more akin to a prequel than a follow-up. Marginally released in a few cities several months ago, The Second Jungle Book is suddenly making its Austin debut at a second-run theatre. This is not a good sign. Clearly, this is a last-ditch attempt to wring a few extra theatrical bucks from this poorly reviewed movie before its video release. And considering the dearth of fitting PG fare out there at present, this kiddie Kipling caper (that features an always-welcome appearance by Roddy McDowall) may be just the safari you're looking for. (7/11/97)

(M.B.)

Showplace


LE SAMOURAI

D: Jean-Pierre Melville; with Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier. (Not Rated, 104 min.)

Fedoras and trench coats. Film noir in cool blues and greens. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samourai is the real deal. Movie icon Alain Delon, enigmatic as ever, stars as the story's central character, Jef Costello, a lone-wolf hit man. A solitary operator, Melville likens Costello to a Japanese samurai, a professional killer self-governed by a strict code of conduct. Costello is fearless; he performs hits without regard for who sees them. His flimsy alibi is backed only by a girlfriend's lies, but it can withstand the grilling of a police lineup. His steely exterior cloaks a pattern of transparencies. Before cinema's recent advent of "hit man chic," there existed Jef Costello. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have always been quick to credit the influence of Le Samourai on their work. You can see it in the narrative details and in the existentialist dilemmas their heroes face. (The elaborate final shoot-out sequence will be familiar to any fan of Woo's films, Costello's caged pet bird bears a narrative resemblance to hit man Jean Reno's potted plant in The Professional, and the impudent police line-up seems to foreshadow The Usual Suspects.) Yet Melville's indomitable indie spirit is also reflected in these later films. One of the most influential post-war directors in France, Melville (who adopted the name of one of his favorite American authors) created his own production company when denied access to France's tightly controlled studio system after the war. With their specialty in gangster pictures, Melville's entire body of work can be seen as a tribute to the American films of the 1930s. Le Samourai is often regarded as Melville's masterpiece (although Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos) are strong contenders) and this release is the first time the original uncut 35mm version has been shown in the United States. From its silent opening moments to its breathtaking double-cross conclusion, Le Samourai is the work of one of the film world's great directors working at his expressive peak. (5/30/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Texas Union


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.)

Highland, Lakeline


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


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.)

Lakehills, Village


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.)

Highland, Lake Creek, Westgate


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