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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 12, 1998: 

NIGHTS OF CABIRIA

D: Federico Fellini; with Guilietta Masina, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari. (Not Rated, 119 min.)

This Academy Award-winner for best foreign film is always cited as one of Fellini's best. The 1957 film showcases the virtuoso performance of Guilietta Masina. With the indomitable demeanor of a Chaplinesque naïf, she plays a shabby streetwalker who dreams of happier times. The movie was later adapted as the play Sweet Charity. This newly released version is probably the closest thing to the real "director's cut" we'll ever see; this print restores one additional sequence that was cut from the original, reportedly due to pressure from the Catholic Church.

Marjorie Baumgarten



DEE SNIDER'S STRANGELAND

D: John Pieplow; with Dee Snider, Kevin Gage, Elizabeth Peña, Brett Harrelson, Robert Englund, Linda Cardellini. (R, 100 min.)

Strange is an understatement. Who knew the world's first modern-primitive slasher/detective/thriller would come from the thoroughly creepy pen of Twisted Sister frontman (and arch-foe of Tipper Gore and the PMRC) Dee Snider? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked -- not that Snider could write and produce and star in this repugnant freakfest, but that it's so very, very, bad. As Snider himself would say, you can't stop rock & roll, but I suspect his film career may be dead on arrival, and not a moment too soon. Mixing genre elements from The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and various cyber thrillers, StrangeLand is the tale of Captain Howdy (Snider), a deranged online predator who uses teen chat rooms to lure unsuspecting (and inanely naive) high-schoolers to their doom (said doom being set in what looks like a well-manicured suburban tract home). Once he gets them in his clutches, the mohawked-and-over-pierced maniac sews their mouths shuts, subjects them to some woefully unhygienic scarification and home-piercing, and then suspends them from the ceiling. It's nothing you couldn't catch in front of any industrial/gothic nightclub on any given night, but Captain Howdy pushes the boundaries of bad taste by forcing his captives to listen to his bizarre, existential rantings, as he quotes H.G. Wells, Goethe, and others in a stilted, sonorous tone. The horror, the horror. When Howdy absconds with Detective Mike Gage's (Gage) daughter (Cardellini), however, he goes one step too far and the law descends on him like a ton of autoclaves. And then the film really gets strange. It may be your one chance to see the strapping Snider decked in both full piercing accouterments and a hideously cheesoid Mrs. Bates hairpiece (if you're into that sort of thing). Director Pieplow conducts this vanity project with all the suspense of a Pop Tart, replete with shoddy editing and an annoying metallic score by Snider and industro-goon band BiLE. Hackers, and cybernauts in general, will doubtless thrill to the longwinded expositional scenes involving the ins and outs of teen chat rooms, and while the Net predator angle is a good one, Snider's script is a mess, oozing numbingly bad dialogue from every clogged pore. Kudos to Brett Harrelson, who, as Gage's bad-cop partner Steve Christian gets some of the most ridiculous lines in recent movie memory and manages to utter them with a straight face. Genre überstar Englund is on board as a disgruntled redneck, but even he seems to realize the proceedings are well on the road to dumbville. Painful to endure even by modern primitive standards, it's a freaky, funless wreck, intolerable in the extreme.

0 stars

Marc Savlov



HOLY MAN

D: Stephen Herek; with Eddie Murphy, Jeff Goldblum, Kelly Preston, Robert Loggia, Jon Cryer, Eric McCormack. (PG, 113 min.)

All the advance signs looked discouraging, but I still kept thinking: How bad could a comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Jeff Goldblum really be? Well, let's put it this way -- you won't ever hear me asking that particular question again. The more-often-brilliant-than-not Murphy and Goldblum have both hit new career nadirs in this tedious, unfunny comedy about a slumping shopping-network TV channel in Miami that hires a freelance guru to boost its sales. The set-up offers what seems to be potentially sharp-edged opportunities for satire of our modern mercenary media and national desire for belief -- whether it be the quest for a spiritual higher plane or faith in the power of material things to improve our lot in life -- yet the film manages to skirt all its keen potential and mire itself in prosaic boy-meets-girl-and-kooky-sidekick plot machinations. Ultimately, the ascetic approach may work best with Holy Man -- eliminate its consumption from your life plan and your burden will be lifted, my friends. Goldblum plays the part of Ricky Hayman, a top executive at the Good Buy Shopping Network (GBSN). He's a craven, soulless, and moderately powerful paragon of modern life who harbors contempt for the products he hawks as well as the lovely models he dates. But Ricky's job is hanging by a thread, and he must prove his mettle to the station's new owner (Loggia) and his pert new media analyst Kate Newell (Preston). Enter the mysterious "holy man" named G (Murphy), a pilgrim who first appears to him by the side of the highway. G attaches himself to Ricky like Marlowe's Ghost, here on a mission to guide Ricky toward the real meaning of life. Or maybe he's just a crazy scam artist who spouts vaguely spiritual feel-good aphorisms. The script by Tom Shulman (who found success early in his career with an Oscar win for his second screenplay, Dead Poets Society, but has recently hit the skids with such monumental clunkers as Medicine Man and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag) is woefully shopworn and predictable and brimming with implausibilities. The stars evidence no chemistry whatsoever, either with the characters they are playing or with each other. Murphy underplays his comic mannerisms, as if in deference to the belief that he is indeed playing a holy man. Goldblum, as is usual, conveys a thinking man's twitchiness but you suspect his eyes are just darting about madly in search of the exit signs. As a couple, Goldblum and Preston give off no real sparks; their leap from animosity to passion is barely noticeable. Amplifying the film's lackadaisical attitude is its poorly conceived compositions that awkwardly cut characters off at the forehead, as if the filmmakers didn't know how to accommodate Goldblum's tall stature. Holy Man needs to be sent on a retreat.

0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



MODULATIONS

D: Iara Lee. (Not Rated, 75 min.)

Lee could have called this Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Electronic Music But Were Afraid to Ask. From John Cage to Roni Size to Beastie Boy associate Mix Master Mike, Lee tosses in everything she can think of, shakes it up, and streamlines it into an amazingly brief 75 minutes. If anything, Modulations is too short, piling on soundbite after soundbite until it all becomes a bit of a blur. You walk away from the film feeling as though you've suddenly learned everything there is to know about electronica past, present, and future, but the information is parceled out in such small dribs and drabs that you end up knowing nothing. It's Electronica 101, the Cliffs Notes edition, which isn't to say the film is a failure -- it's not. Lee has perhaps bitten off more than she can handle. Culling 300 hours of interviews taken over a period of three years, the film moves from such pioneers of the genre as Cage (who is captured in some obscure black-and-white footage expounding on some even more obscure musical theorems) and landmarks such as Luigi Russolo's groundbreaking 1913 Art of Noises treatise. From there, Lee moves on to such underground luminaries as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Robert Moog, Georgio Moroder, and on and on -- snippets of interviews with what seem like a hundred different voices. The question -- if there is one, and with Lee's elliptical editing style it's hard to tell at times -- isn't so much "What is electronic music?" but "What isn't?" Toward that end, Lee's film offers up a veritable cornucopia of answers and non-answers, often in the same interview. Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot expounds on his anarchic musical worldview, flatly stating that at the end of the day, electronica is nothing but an excuse for kids to party all night and sleep all day. On the other front, Future Sounds of London, interviewed from England via a WebCam, discourse on the Merry Prankster aspects of their music and lifestyles. They're annoying, actually, and not a little befuddled. It's Psychic TV's Genesis P. Orridge, lounging in his kitchen, who offers perhaps the most telling insight in the film: Referring to electronic music, and presumably the world at large, he wryly opines that nothing makes any sense, and it's not supposed to. Trying to get to the root of electronic music (in 75 minutes, anyway) at times seems equally senseless, but it makes for a hell of a factoid-laden documentary. Lee's scattershot pacing -- images and voices and talking heads flying by at 140 beats per minute -- doesn't exactly facilitate the myriad opposing arguments presented here either, but you can't help but admire her chutzpah in tackling the whole natty subject in the first place. It's a whirlwind ride through the electronic underground that finally comes up empty, but it's still a wild ride, and wildly entertaining.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY

D: John Fortenberry and Will Ferrell; with Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Molly Shannon, Dan Hedaya, Richard Grieco. (PG-13, 83 min.)

Like all movie fans, I'm awed by Hollywood's relentless Napoleonic obsession with making movies of all known Saturday Night Live skits. And unlike many, I seldom even wonder how this bizarre passion began or why it persists in the face of such meager demand. Far be it from me to oppose manifest destiny. Still, movies as flagrantly vacant and pointless as A Night at the Roxbury do raise the question of how long the gods will keep letting us whiz away our precious moments of mortal existence before they simply get fed up and incinerate us all with plasma beams. Surely you're familiar with the premise. The Butabi Brothers (Ferrell and Kattan), SNL's mongoose-necked, rayon-suited disco commandos, are now the subject of a full-length feature that answers all our urgent questions about their backgrounds and aspirations. Both, it turns out, center upon their tireless efforts to breach the citadel of LA's glitzy Roxbury club and eventually become clubowners themselves. As with all of these SNL spinoffs (It's Pat, Coneheads, Wayne's World ,Stuart Saves His Family), the project's success hinges upon the writers' ability to dream up enough viable backstory to turn single-gag skits into watchable 90-minute films. Here, Ferrell, Steve Koren, and Amy Heckerling fall back on precedent (Wayne's World, Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd's Wild and Crazy Guys) and imagine the lads as developmentally stunted child-men with delusions of grandeur. With a persistence available only to the totally clueless, the Butabis chase their dream of Rubell-like disco godhood against all odds, aided by the likes of 21 Jump Street heartthrob Richard Grieco and the unbilled Chazz Palminteri. But for all the grim effort invested in covering the screenwriterly bases of three-act structure, motivation, crisis, redemption, etc., there's no getting around a single brutal fact: Nobody really gives a flip. Not the actors, whose mailed-in performances convey the unspoken message, "Hey! I'm just puttin' food on the table here; if you don't like it take it up with my agent." Not the filmmakers, who've scrimped at every turn from the mediocre cast to the hack writing team to the leadenly unimaginative directing. And, in all likelihood, not the viewers, whose chief reward for showing up will be the dismal sport of spotting has-beens like Dwayne Hickman (Dobie Gillis) and Loni Anderson in cameo roles. "What is love?" Haddaway asks in the omnipresent soundtrack song. Not this time-wasting bilge, that's for sure.

0.5 stars

Russell Smith



SCORE

D: Radley Metzger; with Claire Wilbur, Calvin Culver, Lynn Lowry, Gerald Grant, Carl Parker. (Not Rated, 89 min.)

Radley Metzger, film's softcore artiste of the late Sixties and early Seventies (The Lickerish Quartet, Therese and Isabel), may be the filmmaker whose career seemed most unlikely for resuscitation. But Score, his bisexual romp from 1972, may prove these presumptions faulty. Drenched in retro-vogue, this Seventies time capsule captures everything from the period's very Brady decor to the hedonistic drugs 'n' sex to the ever-ready poppers on the night table. Metzger's films were made and released in that brief indie window between the chaotic late-Sixties break-up of the studio system and the wide release in the early Seventies of explicitly hardcore sex films. Metzger's stuff always fell into the arty camp, with mirrored effects and an uncommon attention to storylines. His compositions and narrative tactics owed more than a little tribute to the best of the new European cinema. Metzger started off as a straight filmmaker who learned his craft in the military and while editing trailers for Janus Films, a big distributor of foreign films at the time. But the commercial failure of his more personal projects opened his eyes to the potential of the exploitation and softcore market, and he went on to distribute two classics, I Spit on Your Grave and I, A Woman before directing his own softcore titles. Score is one of the last of them. The story is like a comic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. A libertine married couple Jack (Grant) and Elvira (Wilbur) lures other swingers to their luxurious home located "in the village of leisure, in the land of play, deep within the erogenous zone." Jack and Elvira live for their sex games and one game in particular involves keeping "score" of which of them can consummate more same-sex seductions than the other. Their targets here are the clueless young marrieds, Betsy (Lowry) and Eddie (Culver). The game involves a trunk full of costumes (a sailor suit, cowboy duds, a sex-slave outfit, and a nun's habit), weed and the aforementioned poppers, and Polaroids. The dialogue is gently amusing and holds up surprisingly well, as does this storyline of same-sex seductions that climax in a cross-cutting frenzy of parallel bedroom scenes. By today's standards, what we actually see is relatively modest, though there's no mistaking what is getting sucked, penetrated, stroked, or gratified at any particular moment. The acting has more than a few rough edges, but it's not really the kind of distraction that gets in the way. At the time of its release, Score found it couldn't compete with "erections and cum shots" and quickly became a victim of its times. In retrospect, it's amazing to see how ahead of the times it was.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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