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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997: 



D: Nancy Meckler; with Jason Flemyng, Antony Sher, Anthony Higgins, Dorothy Tutin, Diane Parish. (R, 100 min.)

Medical science seems well on its way to turning the AIDS-haunted gay romance genre into a dated curiosity. But even if, as we all pray, the white smocks succeed in their mission, a handful of these movies will continue to have power and relevance due to strengths that transcend their overt, epidemiological themes. Alive and Kicking is one of them. Directed by Nancy Meckler (whose only other film was the kinky incest drama, Sister My Sister) from a screenplay by playwright Martin Sherman (Bent), Alive was shot in 1995, before protease inhibitor cocktails made the 10-year annuity a valid investment concept for people with AIDS. As a result, the story burns with an urgency that only the shadow of death can inspire. The protagonist is Tonio (Flemyng), a brilliant and driven English ballet dancer in the early stages of AIDS. The most talented survivor of a once world-class company ravaged by the disease, he's pushing hard to make his artistic mark before the troupe disbands or his illness drags him down. As both a performer and a friend, Tonio is a high-maintenance type who fully merits his "Psycho Bitch" T-shirt. His narcissistic quest for perfection leaves little room for love, or even warmth, for any but his lesbian pal Millie (Parish) and his dying mentor Ramon (Higgins, who delivers a performance of quietly affecting pathos). But on a rare night out in the clubs, he meets a cocky, barrel- chested older man (the brilliant and versatile Sher) who sets his cap for the gorgeous young dancer and, after a long pursuit, manages to bed him. What follows is a story, both sentimental and tough-minded, of romance between two wildly dissimilar people whose doubts about the bases of their love are overruled by their desperate need for it. Flemyng, one of those exquisitely sculpted English faces you associate with degenerate young nobles who inspired Romantic poets to churn out endless, purple odes, is a commanding presence as Tonio. Though essentially unlikable, he compels you to care about him because you're so inspired by his fearless, almost heroic passion for life. Sher equals his intensity with his portrayal of a world-weary character who, lacking art to conquer his pain, numbs it with alcohol and cynicism. Parish makes her scenes count as Tonio's long-suffering, understatedly wise friend, and Tutin creates subtle undertones of sadness in a basically cartoonish role as an Alzheimer's-afflicted choreographer. Because of its whimsical interludes and mostly superficial attention to the political implications of AIDS, Alive & Kicking almost begs to be sold short. But with its brave, straightforward emotional honesty, it sneaks up on you and delivers a wallop that may draw a tear or two from even those generally unmoved by "that kind of movie." (9/26/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)


New Reviews


D: Lee Tamahori; with Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle Macpherson, Harold Perrineau, L.Q. Jones. (R, 117 min.)

Here's yet another film that, dealt a seemingly unbeatable hand, somehow fails to take the pot. The Edge's four aces are director Tamahori (whose 1994 film Once Were Warriors was one of the most powerful and original films of the Nineties), magnetic co-leads Hopkins and Baldwin, and screenwriter David Mamet (whose tale of wilderness survival and sexual rivalry explores issues of primal, even mythical resonance). These men's artistic histories raise tantalizing expectations of deep-probing light being cast on dark, uncharted areas of the male psyche. It never really happens, though the setup is at least interesting enough to string you along for an hour or so. Hopkins plays Charles Morse, a billionaire whose business success is largely due to his freakish ability to retain facts gleaned from his nonstop reading. His fortune made, he's now free to join supermodel trophy wife Mickey (Macpherson) on a trip to Alaska, where she's shooting a fashion spread under the supervision of pretty-boy photographer Robert (Baldwin). Morose, insecure Charles suspects that Robert has already cuckolded him and is now plotting to murder him so the adulterous pair can live off the fat of his stock dividends. When a plane bearing the two men and Robert's photographic assistant Stephen (Perrineau) crashes in a remote Alaskan forest, the only question Charles has for the younger man is, "How do you plan to do it?" But as it happens, Charles' mental knick-knack collection includes a lot of very useful stuff about roughing it in the wild. The citified billionaire, energized by the first real trial-by-fire life has ever presented him, becomes the men's best hope for escape. So now, a new question enters this psychosexually charged relationship: Will Robert's desire to kill Charles prevail over his urge for self-preservation? Mysteriously, this dramatic powder keg fails to ignite. For all of Tamahori's skill in visually implying an imminent eruption of primeval rage, Mamet seems oddly tentative as the climax approaches. Hopkins and Baldwin argue and posture like junior high boys, a grizzly bear devours Stephen, Hopkins does some slick, McGyverish tricks with safety pins and belt buckles, yet the story's central conflict languishes too long in the background. Is Mamet is trying to inject a bit of restraint into what threatens to be a heavyhanded Papa Hemingway yarn of macho validation? Could be. But a more likely theory is that Mamet's just a city guy with a much better feel for the dramatic potential of real estate offices and cop shops than The Edge's deep-woods, Mark Trail milieu. Neither Hopkins nor Baldwin can be faulted. Both explore and illuminate their half-realized characters as best they can, but creating any real power or suspense is just too big a bear to kill. Watch that mailbox, Dave, your subscription to American Outdoorsman is on its way. (9/26/97)

2.5 stars (R.S.)

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


D: Perry Henzell; with Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Bobby Charlton, Basil Keane, Winston Stona. (Not Rated, 98 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Jimmy Cliff blazed his way into cinematic legend in The Harder They Come. It's a show-biz story, Jamaica shantytown-style; it's a rebel-boy story, reggae style; it's an eternal story about a country boy on his way to doom in Babylon. The Harder They Come is the movie that popularized reggae music in America, and the film's score ­ with classics such as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want" ­ is still one of the great movie soundtracks of all time. And the movie's critiques of the music industry, the ganga trade, and organized religion still ring true. Director and co-writer Perry Henzell is currently working on a The Harder They Come sequel and has also recently authored a novel titled Power Game, which is described as a Caribbean political thriller. Henzell will be in Austin for the film's entire one-week engagement. He will introduce the film at each evening's 7:15pm screening and will be signing copies of his book at the theatre all week. (9/26/97)




D: Matthew Harrison; with Kevin Corrigan, Linda Fiorentino, Michael Rapaport, James Woods, Burt Young, Lili Taylor, Olek Krupa, John Ventimiglia. (R, 89 min.)

Kicked in the Head is a pleasant, non-threatening diversion that's neither commanding enough to be memorable nor muddled enough to be disposable. It's a frenetic yet slight New York City story about love, truth, and petty gangsters. The characters are all mighty colorful and the pace is appealingly brisk, but these aspects are only window dressing for a woefully nondescript and erratically developed storyline. A few years back, director Matthew Harrison burst into indie world prominence with his moody, super-low-budget Lower East Side drama Rhythm Thief. The film won the director's trophy at Sundance in 1995, as well as the award for best narrative feature at SXSW and other festivals. Apparently, Rhythm Thief also caught the discerning eye of Martin Scorsese who, along with his associate Barbara De Fina, produced and financed this new Harrison effort. Like Rhythm Thief, Kicked in the Head has ample style to burn, but that and some great performances are all the movie has going for it. Rhythm Thief actor Kevin Corrigan, who stars in Kicked in the Head (as well as having co-scripted with Harrison), plays a twentysomething named Redmond, who's too involved with his voyage of self-discovery to be encumbered by anything as pesky as a job or apartment. As the movie opens, Redmond's scam artist uncle (Woods) prevails on his nephew to deliver an unmarked bag to some men at an uptown subway station. Of course, this leads to no good. Evicted from his apartment, Redmond prevails on his buddy Stretch (Rapaport), a crazed beer distributor, to take him in. Then Redmond falls in love with a flight attendant (Fiorentino) he sees on the subway. While pursuing her, Redmond in turn is pursed by another old flame (Taylor). Woods is thoroughly delightful as the film's fast-talking hustler; it's a performance that practically steals the movie, although Rapaport and Fiorentino also bring an edgy energy to their roles. Taylor is underused as the pining ex-girlfriend (although the character is not one you'd really want to spend more time with). Corrigan, who has delivered such likable and winning performances in films such as Walking and Talking, Living in Oblivion, and the forthcoming Bandwagon, goes a bit overboard here with exaggerated mannerisms and facial expressions. Kicked in the Head also maintains an awkward level of comic violence, with street shoot-outs in which no one ever gets hurt and the gunmen are all colorful characters. There are kicks to be found in Harrison's film; it's just that they're too few and fleeting. (9/26/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Mimi Leder; with George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures, Alexander Baluev, Rene Medvesek, Gary Werntz, Randal Batinkoff. (R, 118 min.)

This maiden theatrical effort from DreamWorks Pictures ­ the film company formed some while back by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen ­ is almost completely what you might expect from such a union. Big stars, big story, and big effects make for big box office, and that's just what we're getting. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, although I'd like to think the film was originally slated for a summer release as it has "blockbuster" scrawled all over it in bold, intimidating strokes. In a nutshell, Clooney, as iron-jawed Lt. Colonel Devoe, and Kidman, as Dr. Julia Kelly, the acting head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group (!), are called in to make heads and/or tails of an accidental nuclear explosion in the remote wilds of the Russian back country. As countries on both sides of the former Iron Curtain raise their DefCon stakes, tough-guy Devoe calls it as he sees it and declares the incident a ruse to cover the theft of a fistful of tactical nukes by an unknown terrorist party. He's right, of course, and off the two speed to find out who nicked the nukes... and where, how, and why. Unsurprisingly, it's a pesky Russian satellite zealot from Bosnia, who seeks retribution against the United States and the whole United Nations for both their splotchy peacekeeping records in Sarajevo as well as the death of his child by a sniper's bullet. The reasoning is faulty, I know, and the film provides precious little backstory on its many semi-sympathetic bad guys (and even less on the good guys), but somehow The Peacemaker slides right through those ever-present plot holes and isoscelean character arcs. This is due in large part to first-time feature director Mimi Leder's skills behind the camera, which have been honed to near-perfection (along with Clooney's) on television's ER. She stages her action sequences (of which there are many) with a clever swagger; even when you've seen it before, Leder manages to make it all seem fresh. By no means an embarrassment to the fledgling DreamWorks, The Peacemaker is instead a grand, noisy step in the right direction. What next, indeed? (9/26/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

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


D: George Tillman, Jr.; with Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Brandon Hammond, Jeffrey D. Sams, Gina Ravera, Irma P. Hall. (R, 115 min.)

Soul Food is another way of saying: Family values, African-American style. The film is a warm and comic melodrama about family ties and the tribulations of sticking together. When family matriarch and fount of perpetual wisdom Big Mama (Hall) falls ill, her loving family begins to unravel. The story is told from the point of view of Big Mama's grandson Ahmad (Hammond), who shares a particularly close relationship with his grandmother. Sunday dinner at Big Mama's is the ritual that holds this clan together, but the dinners come to an end with Big Mama's illness. Her three daughters, despite their love for each other, bicker as always. In episodic fashion, Soul Food follows the melodrama of each sister's marriage, cutting back and forth among the stories in a way that allows us to feel warmly toward them all yet never too intimate. The dramas and crises are fairly rote and familiar stuff. And even if there might be surprises in store, Ahmad's voiceover narration repeatedly jumps in to remind us that no, no, no, there's still a heap of trouble ahead. What Soul Food lacks in narrative originality and flourish it nicely makes up for with wonderful performances by a large ensemble cast. What these actors bring to the characters makes us regret all the more that the various storylines are so rudimentary and unsatisfactorily developed. Amazingly, despite the presence of characters that we'd like to know better, the movie still feels overlong at just under two hours and terribly repetitive. Soul Food is certainly digestible fare but somewhat lacking in nutritional value. (9/26/97)

2.0 stars (M.B.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


D: Robert Kurtzman; with Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Ted Raimi. (R, 90 min.)

A horror film in the most literal sense of the word, Wishmaster sends viewers screaming into the lobby demanding refunds, terrified that director Kurtzman might be allowed a sequel. Not bloody likely, given the sparce attendance at the screening I took in. Why Wes Craven allowed his name to be used in conjunction with this production is anyone's guess, and fans of that director's brilliant Scream will be sorely disappointed at this disjointed, laughable mess. Kurtzman, who in the past has served as point man for the noted KNB EFX team, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his directorial skills are no match for his mastery over red dye and Caro Syrup. Based on the Persian myth of the Djinn (that's "genie" to you and me and Walt Disney), Wishmaster tells the jumbled tale of an evil demon from "the spaces between the worlds" who is released into our own dimension when a magical crystal turns up in modern-day New York. This "bloodstone" makes its way into the hands of spunky archeologist Alexandra Amberson (Lauren, looking and acting way too much like Linda Hamilton-lite), who soon finds the vicious Djinn sucking the souls of those around her in an attempt to rule the world, or something like that. Wishmaster's cast includes such notable horror players as Tony Todd (Candyman, Night of the Living Dead), Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th's Jason), Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street ad nauseam), and Sam Raimi's little brother Ted, which results in a kind of Where's Waldo? of gore-stars. That's amusing for a good four minutes, but the film goes downhill from there when the splatter effects overtake the script (by Peter Atkins, who also penned the godawful ­ and I mean that in a bad way ­ Hellraiser: Bloodlines). Come to think of it, Wishmaster is nothing but a supremely uninteresting way for Kurtzman to string together a bunch of his nastiest effects sequences, a sort of extended demo reel for the sick set. Even with all that jetting crimson and exploding innards, however, the film is a stunningly boring and forgettable piece of work, entirely worthy of nothing at all. Here goes: I wish I may, I wish I might... have never seen this piece of shite. Can I open my eyes yet? (9/26/97)

0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate

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