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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

AUGUST 24, 1998: 

YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS

D: Neil LaBute; with Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, Jason Patric, Ben Stiller. (R, 100 min.)

Although Neil LaBute's audacious debut film, In the Company of Men, is a tough act to follow, the writer-director's sophomore effort, Your Friends & Neighbors, finds LaBute's audacity hardy and intact, even if it now seems a little more predictable and mannered. LaBute's subject matter still finds its punch from the banal cruelty of which human relationships are capable. Only now, in this follow-up film, LaBute has focused his lens on the bedroom instead of the boardroom. His constellation of characters here has doubled, from three to six, and now includes women among society's perpetrators of contemptuous immorality. LaBute's narrative structure and visual strategies are rigorously crafted, bespeaking an almost mathematical calculation that, in compellingly contradictory ways, both enhances the dramatic experience while undermining its very authenticity. What's never in doubt, however, is the authenticity of the dialogue: LaBute writes conversations as though eavesdropping were his full-time occupation. The language is cutting, foul-mouthed, and raw; words are the ammunition of articulate savages. In this, his language is given an able assist from a uniformly brilliant crop of actors. Yet the people he depicts are our "friends and neighbors," our recognizable and ordinary selves rather than the distanced corporate villains of In the Company of Men who make a conscious pact to "go out and hurt someone." This time out, LaBute's characters really hurt the ones they love, or the ones they bed -- occasionally one and the same. The story is set in some unnamed urban center and, likewise, all six characters remain nameless throughout the course of the film, although the credits list their names as a curious sing-song mix-and-match of sameness: Mary, Terri, Cheri, Barry, Cary, and Jerry. Jerry (Stiller) is an over-analytical drama professor with a penchant for Restoration comedy and a physical appearance that I think more than a little resembles that of LaBute. Jerry's domestic partner Terri (Keener, the indie film actress par excellence) is a cold, practical sort who just wishes Jerry would shut up while they are making love. Jerry prompts the movie's roundelay when he propositions the wife of his best friend Barry (Eckhart, who poured on the flab for this role as the cuckolded husband following his role as In the Company of Men's well-toned predator). Sex between Jerry and his wife Mary (Brenneman) has become unsatisfying; Jerry readily admits to the guys that the best sex he ever had was with himself. To even the score with Jerry, Terri takes Cheri (Kinski) as a lover, but the film's showiest role belongs to Patric's Cary, a cynically amoral cad who admits to the vilest of behaviors and indeed, is seen prior to the film's opening credits practicing sexual sincerity into a tape recorder while masturbating. Your Friends & Neighbors is nothing if not neatly structured: the compositions, the repetitive set-pieces, the camera movements, and character balance. And though it's a pleasure to watch, the payoff is mostly cosmetic. Perhaps because In the Company of Men was such a total triumph of form, means, and content, everything else LaBute does will seem diminished by comparison. He has certainly carved out an identity for himself as our smartest scenarist of the dark side of human nature. Whether many of us will want to look is another question entirely.

4.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



THE SILVER SCREEN: COLOR ME LAVENDER

D: Mark Rappaport; with Dan Butler. (Not Rated, 100 min.)

Who would have thought that deconstructionism could be so much fun? Although on the surface similar to the more conventional documentary The Celluloid Closet, The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender doesn't merely look at gay and lesbian imagery in film as seen in some kind of sociological mirror. Rather, it takes you through the looking glass to reveal a seemingly queer subtext in the movies produced by the Golden Age of Hollywood that will have you scratching your head in bewildered wonder. Using a sampling of film clips that span from the Thirties to the Sixties to explore his hypothesis of latent meaning, director and screenwriter Rappaport (Rock Hudson's Home Movies, From the Journals of Jean Seberg) slyly engages in acts of deconstruction for the purpose of showing that while homosexual love may not have dared speak its name directly, it might have done so in code. Usually, the context was a comic one, as in the perennial pairing of Hope and Crosby in the road movies (in which they kissed each other -- mistakenly, of course -- quite a few times), or in the grizzled old prospector syndrome, best typified by the crotchety and crusty Walter Brennan in films in which he "played" to the leading man. Was it a parody of heterosexuality or a bold depiction of gay flirtation? Did it push the proverbial envelope or merely aim for a laugh? Rappaport also dissects the careers of Danny Kaye, Cary Grant, Clifton Webb, and Randolph Scott -- all of whom were either full-time or part-time gay -- and demonstrates how otherwise innocent lines of dialogue take on a different meaning when placed in the context of the actor's private life. About the only fault you can find in The Silver Screen is that it goes on a little too long. And although some may fault Rappaport's hesitancy to draw any firm conclusions about what exactly was going on in these movies, he is rightly content in just making pointed observations about what might have been afoot. As narrated by Frasier regular Dan Butler, the tone here is neither smug nor accusing, but rather something this side of utter bemusement. No matter whether you think that a cigar is always a cigar or whether there are times when it means something else, there's a lot to be said for the entertainment and intellectual value of The Silver Screen.

3.5 stars

Steve Davis



AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER

D: Richard Martin; with Kevin Zegers, Gregory Harrison, Cynthia Stevenson, Nora Dunn, Perry Anzilotti, Robert Constanzo, Shayn Solberg. (G, 92 min.)

This second installment in what looks to be an ongoing series is about as "family entertainment" as you can get. Granted, sometimes that's a good thing, but when the directors and producers start equating "family" with "mediocrity," that's where things tend to go wrong. And despite its good intentions and noble aspirations, Air Bud: Golden Receiver falls somewhere between the After-School Special zone and that hellish gray area specially reserved for overzealous kid'n'pooch buddy films. Still, things could have been much worse. Zegers reprises his role as Josh Framm, who as the film opens is just entering the eighth grade alongside his buddy Tom (Solberg). His mother has begun dating once more after the death of his test-pilot father, and in an interesting bit that puts you in mind of Shallow Grave as performed by the cast of A Family Affair, a bumbling trio of prospective dates/boyfriends parades in front of the aghast youngster. Life is rough, until one day mom's new beau -- Dr. Sullivan, the new town vet (Harrison) -- offers Josh a football as a sort of peace offering. Anyone who's even vaguely familiar with the original Air Bud knows that this is the wrong piece of athletic equipment for Josh, but Buddy, that ambidextrous golden retriever (played this time out by four identical dogs; the original Buddy has since passed on) takes to the game in much the same way as he did to basketball earlier in Josh's life. That is to say, he's a born footballer, though whether this is a subtle dig at Babe's pigskin is left entirely up to the viewer. In short order, Josh joins the junior high football team, a sort of Bad News Bears for the gridiron, and along with Buddy, takes the team from last place forward. Josh also learns the value of trusting the new man in his mother's life and so on, but director Martin (helmer of many Highlander episodes) is working from a bit of a pulpit, allowing for none of the subtlety that should flow seamlessly from the work. Instead, he plays the comedic elements broadly, with the likes of SNL alum Dunn and Anzilotti as a pair of Boris and Natasha-esque Russkie no-goodniks out to capture Buddy and force him to perform in their traveling circus. Hi-jinks and madcap capers abound, but lest we ever forget there's a lesson to be learned here (or two, or three), Martin frequently cuts back to the bewildered Josh trying to keep things aboveboard. It's certainly not the worst of the family-oriented filmmaking out there these days -- Zegers is a terrific young newcomer when given the right material -- but it's also nowhere near the best. A decent way to settle the little ones down on a Saturday afternoon, sure, but so is Ritalin.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



THE AVENGERS

D: Jeremiah Chechik; with Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, Eileen Atkins, Shaun Ryder. (PG, 91 min.)

It's been some time since I had a chance to catch the old BBC television show upon which this updating is based. Last weekend, then, found me sprawled in my living room, caught up in waves of nostalgia for the impeccably surreal vision of British agents John Steed and Emma Peel as portrayed by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on the recently released VHS compilations. To a one, the old programs were as I remembered them, breathlessly chilling in a backhanded sort of way, full of dry British wit and spare Sixties pop art set design. Macnee's trusty bowler and bumbershoot and Rigg's arch good humor and sexy karate expertise hold up surprisingly well 30 years later. At least, that is, on tape. This new film version, sad to say, is a hollow shell of the original series that so charmed U.S. television audiences in the mid Sixties, lacking nearly all of the cultural resonance and utterly devoid of the sense of kicky thrills. And it's not director Chechik's fault, either. Both he and screenwriter Don MacPherson have tendered not a lovingly bastardized update as expected, but an almost note-perfect resurrection, and that, I think, is why this film version fails so desperately. It's not The Avengers that has changed, it's everything else. True to the series, Fiennes' Steed is a gentleman out of place and time, a stiff-upper-lip Brit working for the mysterious British agency known only as The Ministry, headed by Broadbent's eccentric Mother and Shaw's equally oddball Father. When the weather over the Isles goes haywire thanks to Connery's bombastic and thoroughly deranged meteorologist character, August de Wynter, Steed is paired with the leggy Thurman as Dr. Emma Peel, a weather/jujitsu/fashion expert with a penchant for clingy fabrics and leather catsuits. Together, the two are sent out to save the world, such as it is. Everything is in place here, right down to the duo's highly stylized Brit-quip dialogue and frequent spots of tea, but outside the theatre it's 1998 and Steed and Emma no longer nurture the fatal attraction they once engendered in us. This may be different in London, which is altogether as swinging these days as it was then, if not more so. Chechik offers the occasional nod to the present via some colorful casting, but it's a case of far too little too late. Still, it's a gas to see the former human pharmacopoeia and Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder playing a toadying henchman to Brit cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard's icy killer. (Ryder, by the way, gets all the best lines, which is to say none, while Izzard finishes a close second with his single utterance, a vapid "Oh, fuck.") Fiennes and Thurman, sadly, have all the chemistry of a damp croissant, and even Chechik's noble aspirations toward the bizarre (and there are many) fall resoundingly flat. And it certainly isn't helping matters that warhorse Connery appears to have been taking lessons from the specter of Vincent Price. The Avengers is out of place in our current cinema of excess; even Mrs. Peel's laudably skintight catsuit is played far too seriously. As for me, it's back to the old tapes, which unlike this new version, still seem to fit and feel just right.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



BLADE

D: Stephen Norrington; with Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N'Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Arly Jover, Traci Lords. (R, 120 min.)

It's so nice to see Udo Kier back in fangs. Trash cinema aficionados will remember Kier as the star of Paul Morrissey's Andy Warhol's Dracula way back when, and although the actor isn't on the prowl for "wirgins" this time out, it's still a vast relief to know that someone knows how to hiss properly these days. Based on Marv Wolfman's Marvel comic of the same name, Snipes plays Blade, a half-human, half-vampire "daywalker" with a Corleone-esque vendetta against the hidden vampiric forces of the world who caused his genetically bifurcated lot when they savaged his pregnant mother as he was dozing in utero. Consequently, Blade is able to move about in direct sunlight, and has paired himself with silversmith/weapons manufacturer Abraham Whistler (Kristofferson, as a ham on wry) in his battle against the undead. Specifically, Blade is out to get the renegade bloodsucker Deacon Frost, a young upstart originally "turned" by Kier's Dragonetti who now feels it's time for fresh blood to take over the vampiric. In Blade's world, the cities are practically owned by the children of the night, who maintain fierce, proprietary ties within the business and political arenas of the living. "They're our food!" cries Frost at one point, and he has a point. Why the undead would prefer to remain in the shadows when they could just as easily, it seems, rule the world is one of the film's more mysterious aspects, but such minor quibbles are quashed in a hail of silver bullets, lavishly staged set-pieces of gore, and Blade's much-admired Bushido pig-sticker. In the midst of this little war, Blade rescues bitten hematologist Karen (Wright) and a grudging respect blossoms between the two: she tries to cure him, while he tries to keep her alive. That takes a firm back seat to the ultra-mayhem onscreen, some of which is mightily impressive for a film adapted from something Stan Lee once had his hands on. (As publisher of Marvel Comics, Lee's cinematic track record has remained cursed up 'til now.) Cinematically, Blade falls somewhere between Judge Dredd and The Crow, though it's really closer to Tank Girl in terms of devotion to its source material. Not quite the blaxploitation of Blacula (though early scenes of Wright's tussle with a charred, animated corpse do recall that earlier film, especially in the blue-gray palette and dull lighting), Blade instead opts for what might be called a more millennial approach to vampirism. Blade's city seems awfully quiet, pale, washed-out. Speeded-up footage tracks the sunup/sundown progress of the dead amongst the living, while roiling cloud banks flare overhead. In its own small way, Blade is a quite a success: Snipes is well-cast, and the script is thankfully free of tough-guy quippery. Interview With a Vampire it's not, but marginally thrilling nonetheless, and besides, any film that features a house party in which the ceiling-mounted fire extinguishers expel freshets of crimson goo in place of H2O gets my vote.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov



DANCE WITH ME

D: Randa Haines; with Vanessa L. Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Plowright. (PG, 127 min.)

Original working title: Shut Up and Dance. Given the already minimal nature of the plot and dialogue in this low-budget dance-and-romance trifle, the filmmakers might have done well to heed that titular advice and just scrap everything but the high-voltage dance sequences that are its sole rationale. Now granted, perfunctory storytelling is an accepted feature of the dance-movie tradition. Anybody remember any of the subplots or characters' names from An American in Paris? But even by the humbler standards of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, the plotting and character development of Dance With Me are egregiously thin. In essence, all that really goes on here is that a good-looking young Cuban guy (Puerto Rican singing star Chayanne) comes to Houston to work for a man who may or may not be his father (Kristofferson) and ends up falling hard for a love-shy American dancer (Williams) who's training for a big international competition in Vegas. Haines, a talented director (Children of a Lesser God, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) struggles valiantly to flesh out the wireframe-thin script by dancer-turned-screenwriter Daryl Williams. The major settings of Kristofferson's down-in-the-heels dance academy and the urban Cuban émigré neighborhoods are accurately observed and quite real-seeming. Contrary to what the misleadingly bombastic trailers suggest, Dance With Me's primary asset is not glitzy settings and pumped-up sexuality but rather its funky, down-to-earth locales, quirky innocence, and unpretentious, low-key acting. Chayanne, one of those nouveau hunks who uses sweet, dorky charm to add ingratiating counterpoint to his mannequin-like good looks, is a surprisingly adroit actor with obvious American crossover potential. Williams, never more than a utility- grade performer, is passable in a role that doesn't ask her to do much more than work up a sweat on the dance floor and smolder into the camera with eyes as big and unnervingly bright as those Keaner Kids posters from the Sixties. But again, let's acknowledge the importance of genre context. There's hardly a speck of real story here, yet for true aficionados of Latin-Caribbean dance, Haines makes this overlong film well worth seeing with a series of explosive, brilliantly shot dance sequences that take place in varied settings ranging from residential backyards to palatial ballrooms in Las Vegas. More a savory dessert than a nourishing meal, Dance With Me still offers an energizing burst of sweetness that delights the palate before fading quickly away.

2.5 stars

Russell Smith



DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS

D: Alan Cohn; with Tom Everett Scott, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Poppy Montgomery, Lochlyn Munro, Randy Pearlstein, Corey Page. (R, 96 min.)

Well, ah, it's got a good soundtrack. But then, with both ex-Devo madman Mark Mothersbaugh and the Dust Brothers on board, how could it not? That's about all there is to say about this black-cotton-candy mouthful of a film; it vanishes after one bite and leaves an unpalatable goo coating your psyche, which, thankfully, evaporates about three steps out of the theatre. Nominally based on the old collegiate myth that a roommate who suffers the suicide of another roomie scores a free 4.0 ride that semester, Dead Man on Campus has as great a schizophrenic personality disorder as that of its muddled characters. Dark comedy or dork comedy? No one can tell and MTV helmer Cohn seems unable to cough up any single line of direction. In the end, it's just bad comedy, really. Scott and Gosselaar play Josh and Cooper, new frosh roommates at the prestigious Daleman College. Scholarship student Josh arrives prepared to work his fingers to the bone in pursuit of a medical degree, but quickly finds his plans -- and grades -- scuttled by party animal Cooper, who introduces the newbie to the joys of all-night partying and general malfeasance, dude. Woe comes to they who enter the fuckup zone so early in the term, and by mid-semester it appears as though both boys will boomerang back out the way they came in. Unless they can find a roommate so depressed that he'll kill himself and thus guarantee the pair that coveted 4.0. From here, Dead Man on Campus ushers in a series of mentally unbalanced roomies-to-be; the hyperkinetic party-demon Cliff (Munro), paranoid android Buckley (Pearlstein), and the Goth pretender Matt (Page), none of whom seem able or willing to make that final leap. Try as it might, Cohn's film just isn't all that funny. Dozens of throwaway gags elicit laughter that collapses in your throat mere inches away from exiting as a full-born guffaw. There are a few -- precious few, really -- chuckles here, and most of those come from Scott, who despite his inability to nail a decent script to save his life (near-misses like American Werewolf in Paris and That Thing You Do! don't quite count) plays a mean straight man to Gosselaar's heinous party animus. Scott is such a likable actor -- tall, lean, vaguely perplexed -- that it's hard not to grin at his zany, madcap predicaments but not that hard. Playing like one of those old National Lampoon parodies (the magazine, not the Chevy Chase merchandising arm), Dead Man on Campus lacks the crucial spitefulness of its convictions. A dark comedy caught in a white-light washout, it's neither mean enough to be funny, nor funny enough to mean much.

1.0 stars

Marc Savlov



KILLER CONDOM

D: Martin Walz; with Udo Samel, Peter Lohmeyer, Iris Berben, Marc Richter, Leonard Lansink. (Not Rated, 107 min.)

My friends look at me as though I've been off on vacation too long when I tell them of my delight in watching a movie called Killer Condom. But this silly yet fascinating comic horror/detective story has a lot more on the ball than sheer latex. All in all, this summer has not been a terribly carefree time for male private parts, what with There's Something About Mary and now this. If the words, "Troma Entertainment" mean anything to you, then you already have a good idea of Killer Condom's pedigree. If not, then just picture Troma as the company whose roster of releases is typified by such titles as Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, Tromeo and Juliet, and Teenage Catgirls in Heat (an Austin-made film, by the way). Killer Condom is a goofy blend of detective noir by way of German Expressionism, gay identity drama by way of soft-core titillation, and horror genre by way of low-budget comedy effects. It seems the film's carnivorous condoms are striking hapless victims in the Hotel Quickie when gay detective Luigi Mackeroni (Samel) happens onto the case. Other players include the comely young rent boy Mackeroni is hot for, the transvestite ex-cop Bob/Babette with whom Mackeroni once had a fling, and Mackeroni's straight partner Sam, to whom he delivers an impassioned, no-compromises defense of his gay lifestyle in a dramatically staged crosswalk setting. The killer condoms look more like diaphragms with teeth. A pathologist categorizes them as being a combination of worm, jellyfish, and piranha. At first, they scurry along squeakily cute but suddenly they turn into penis-chomping predators. The film is based on Ralf König's popular German comic book, and the set design is by the famed artist of the fantastic H.R. Giger (Alien, Aliens). Added to this weirdness is that the entire story is set in New York City but everyone speaks German. It's N.Y.P.D. Kraut with subtitles, or Police Squad! with stunning set design. Humor is everywhere -- from the droll one-liners ("If we don't do something, we'll have more pricks on our hands") -- to the hospital ward full of dozens of dickless men and one female tourist whose nose was bitten off by a rub-out rubber. The story's deus ex machina, unfortunately, relies on uncomfortably misogynistic clichés. But there is great contemporary resonance in the plot turn of a presidential candidate, Dick McGovern, whose manhood becomes another victim of this penile predator. Smart, funny, and stylish, Killer Condom pulls back whenever it finds itself teetering on the brink of artfulness and shows us one of those fanged rubbers skittering across the floor. Hell, if you can't join 'em, shoot 'em.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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