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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

DECEMBER 1, 1997: 

Recommended:

KISS OR KILL

D: Bill Bennett; with Matt Day, Frances O'Connor, Chris Haywood, Barry Otto, Andrew S. Gilbert, Barry Langrishe, Max Cullen, Jennifer Bennett. (R, 96 min.)

A punchy, clever film noir from Australian director Bennett, Kiss or Kill spins a new twist on the age-old cliché of grifter lovers on the lam. Nikki (O'Connor) and Al (Day) run a convenient scam on lonely businessmen, with the curvaceous Nikki insinuating herself into their hotel rooms, knocking them out with the old sedative-in-the-champagne trick, and then taking them for all they're worth. One night something goes wrong, and the couple are left with a corpse and a briefcase in which they discover a videotape starring local football hero Zipper Doyle (Langrishe) and an underclothed adolescent boy. The couple flee with the tape in hand, though due to a few missteps (such as Nikki calling up Doyle to give him her opinion on his sordid hobbies) both Zipper and the local constabulary are on their tail, sending the pair deeper into the Australian bushlands. Frantically trying to elude the homicidal Zipper (who has absolutely no qualms about settling the score via his .38), they shack up at a series of progressively dingier motels and fly-by-nights, where Nikki's perilous mental facade begins to crumble, placing both of them in dire jeopardy. Day and O'Connor are enormously likable as the lovestruck psychos. O'Connor's ditzy Nikki is alternately frightening in her psychoses (flashbacks reveal her mother's violent death before her young eyes) and oddly charming; it's no wonder she's such an accomplished scam artist. Day plays Al relatively straight, acting as the conscience and moral center (what there is of it) of the pair. The remarkable thing about Kiss or Kill -- and the reason that such a cliché-ridden set-up seems so fresh -- is Bennett and cinematographer Malcolm McCulloch's breathlessly nontraditional pacing and editing techniques. Staccato jump-cuts abound, and Bennett uses flurries of hand-held camerawork to draw the viewer into the immediacy of Al and Nikki's rough-and-tumble world. Much of the film was improvised, and in that sense it calls to mind nothing so much as Jean-Luc Godard's early masterpiece Breathless, itself a nouvelle-noir touchstone. With an eclectic supporting cast of oddball characters and fewer stereotypes than you might expect (Possum Harry, an aboriginal tracker called in by the detectives late in the film, is a nice touch), Kiss or Kill manages to rise above the wash of noir clichés that surround it. Proof positive that even though Robert Mitchum may no longer be with us, film noir continues onward, upward, into the dark. (11/28/97)

3.5 stars Marc Savlov


New Reviews:

ALIEN RESURRECTION

D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet; with Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, Kim Flowers, Dan Hedaya, Brad Dourif. (R, 109 min.)

Vastly superior to David Fincher's studio-gutted Alien3, this fourth outing still falls short of both Ridley Scott's hair-raising original and James Cameron's balls-out, war-in-space Aliens. Much of the problem here lies with Jeunet's unpleasantly sterile direction; though the film looks terrific, there's little emotional core, and when the assorted victims begin bleeding, it's sometimes difficult to care one way or the other. Set 200 years after the conclusion of the previous film, Alien Resurrection begins with the cloning of Chief Warrant Officer Ripley, who, you may remember, we last saw stylishly pirouetting into a large vat of molten goo in an effort to destroy the alien within and thereby save the universe (again). The new, improved Ripley is a different animal entirely, though she still resembles the old model at first glance: She's the best of both species -- fearless, tireless, and with a dramatically improved basketball game. The military space station she has been born into is conducting experiments with the aliens, hoping to breed them in captivity for use in nefarious, covert operations. When a transport ship and its crew (played by Ryder, Wincott, and Jeunet regulars Pinon and Perlman) docks at the station with a batch of frozen "experiments" to unload, they find themselves caught in a wildly escalating situation involving -- unsurprisingly -- aliens run amok (as in his previous Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, Jeunet's vision of the future is bleak indeed -- nobody ever seems to learn anything from previous run-ins with the aliens). Gore and acidic alien blood flow in rivers as Ripley and Ryder try to stave off the encroaching critters and wipe them out (again) before the ship can autopilot its way back to earth. Joss Whedon's script gamely tries to muck about with the topical ethics of cloning, and delves deep into the wellspring of motherhood and Oedipal conflicts, but at its heart the film is essentially another shoot-'em-up aboard the grimy confines of a big, dark ship. Weaver essays the new hotmama Ripley with wry, good humor -- you can tell she's having a ball playing this unstoppable die-cast she-wolf, and both Perlman and Pinon are goofily fun as the boisterous, profane space smugglers, as is the perpetually apoplectic Hedaya (certainly he's more interesting here than in the recent A Life Less Ordinary). Still, with little or no backstory on these poor folks, there's not much to engage your interest when they start losing limbs. It's a minor triumph of style over substance, and although no one has as much style as Jeunet, the base horror of the aliens (they swim now, by the way) seems relegated to the past. It's not scary, but it sure does look good. (11/28/97)

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


THE DELTA

D: Ira Sachs; with Shayne Gray, Thang Chan, Rachel Van Huss. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Director Ira Sachs clearly has a lot to say, and he seems hell-bent on getting it all into his 85-minute debut feature. Sexual orientation crises, class and racial divisions, cultural aftershocks of the Vietnam war, dysfunctional families and teen sociology in the new South are all dealt with willy-nilly in a great-looking but rather unsatisfying movie that's more a display of raw filmmaking tools than a coherent artistic statement. In the center of Sachs' ambitious muddle is Lincoln Bloom (Gray), a well-off Memphis teen with major sexual identity issues. When, in an early scene, he leaves the family dinner table to masturbate, the object of his onanistic fixation could either be blond princess girlfriend Rachel (Van Huss) or the Vietnamese gay hustler (Chan) with whom he did the nasty the night before. Lincoln's remote manner toward Rachel is egregious even within a wasted social circle whose members spend most of their time getting stoned and making a circuit of parties and clubs, each more dismal than the one before. But when Lincoln re-encounters the young immigrant hustler, a half-black American serviceman's offspring named Minh, he's caught off guard by the older boy's vitality and flamboyantly romantic manner. Impulsively, the guys take off down the river on a boat owned by Lincoln's dad. Their brief Huck-and-Jim getaway is a tender interlude that, because of their disparate cultural perspectives and emotional makeups, has far deeper significance to Minh than Lincoln. For the callow, soulless Lincoln, it's just a temporary diversion from his irresolute drift back to a safer, more conventional lifestyle. But for Minh, the brush-off by Lincoln is a shattering experience, the harshest in a long series of rejections, which leads to a shocking conclusion that delivers the movie's one big emotional punch. Gray and Chan, like the other cast members, are raw neophytes recruited by Sachs for look and style, not acting polish. It's a nervy approach that, along with Sachs' veristic dialogue, creates a predictably ragged, acting-workshop feel with the inevitable mix of spontaneous combustion and wheel-spinning tedium. There's a marginally acceptable amount of the latter, but far more problematic is the groaning cargo of symbolic import that Sachs wants to impose upon Minh and Lincoln's fleeting encounter. And on a more basic level, I simply found it so hard to penetrate the two main characters' cauterized psyches that, in the end, I hardly gave a damn what happened to them. Unfortunately, for all his obvious latent talent, Sachs seems to have run afoul of a basic creative pitfall: the tendency of art that takes aimlessness and sterility as its dominant subjects to register as both. (11/28/97)

2.5 stars Russell Smith


FLUBBER

D: Les Mayfield; with Robin Williams, Marcia Gay Harden, Christopher McDonald, Raymond J. Barry, Ted Levine, Wil Wheaton. (PG, 93 min.)

The odds are that the uninspired remake Flubber won't appeal very much to either of its target audiences: Disney-weaned baby boomers with fond memories of Fred MacMurray in a flying jalopy in The Absent-Minded Professor, or fidgety eight-year-olds with short attention spans who want nothing more than to be entertained every minute. As in the original movie, Flubber is about the distracted Professor Phillip Brainard, who discovers a magical substance of green goo with hyperkinetic properties and christens the stuff "Flubber" (i.e., "flying rubber"). While the Professor sees his discovery as the means for generating cash to save his near-insolvent college, there are others who want to use it for their own selfish ends. Meanwhile, a romantic rivalry brews between the Professor and a fellow colleague over the Professor's ex-fiancée, whom he left standing at the altar one too many times (he is an extremely forgetful man). Also, a flying robot contraption named Weebo, who is the Professor's personal secretary and confidant, struggles with how to tell her boss of her unrequited crush on him. With the exception of the Weebo storyline, which has its tender moments, not much else in the film sticks to the ribs. Sure, there's a bizarre computer-generated sequence of numerous Flubberites dancing the mambo to a snazzy Danny Elfman score, and the basketball game in which a Flubber-assisted team triumphs is rousing. With the exception of the handful of scenes in which the Flubber does its stuff, however, the youngsters will no doubt be bored by it all. (Even the patented, Home Alone-styled physical abuse of the film's benign bad guys -- flying bowling balls slamming against foreheads, and the like -- probably won't impress this jaded generation.) As the Professor, the remarkably restrained Williams is more cuddly than mad, though on more than one occasion, you sense that this usually manic actor is just aching to let a string of stream-of-consciousness ripostes fly. That, in fact, sums up the overall impression that this amiable but lackluster movie leaves. If only it were a little crazier, a little more willing to let loose, Flubber might be a movie truly enjoyed by the kid in us all. (11/28/97)

2.0 stars Steve Davis


GUMMO

D: Harmony Korine; with Nick Sutton, Jacob Reynolds, Chloe Sevigny, Darby Dougherty, Jacob Sewell. (R, 95 min.)

Gummo holds a natural curiosity value for admirers of Larry Clark's 1995 film, Kids (and there are quite a few of us, though we tend not to advertise our enthusiasm). The writer of that abominably powerful ode to modern-day teenage wasteland was Harmony Korine, a street kid with a mournful Johnny Thunders face who, at 23, is parlaying his notoriety into a shot at directing his own feature film. Now I realize my confessed appreciation for Kids will thoroughly bugger my credibility in describing Gummo with phrases like "appalling," "gratuitously cruel," and "exploitative," but the unmitigated repulsiveness of this film pretty much rules out all subtler options. Gummo's secondary focus (the primary being Korine's sophomoric epatez-la-bourgeoisie impulses) is Xenia, Ohio, a rural, white-trash hellhole that has never fully recovered from being leveled by a tornado in the Seventies. Just a few of the bizarre local-color situations our lad marshals with empty-headed glee include: a husband pimping his retarded wife; an albino confessing her lust for Patrick Swayze; a bunny-eared kid playing an accordion on the toilet; and a dwarf being amorously pawed by a maudlin, sloppy-drunk Korine. Xenia is a real place, but the menagerie of freaks, mental defectives, slatternly rednecks, and idle teen punks that people this film is wholly a figment of Korine's febrile imagination. Evidently, these cretinous small-town morlocks -- including the main two characters, a couple of feral metalheads who make money by killing cats and selling them to a Chinese restaurant -- are meant as some kind of statement about Xenia's abandonment by the same god who capriciously destroyed the burg a quarter-century ago. Who knows? My guess is that Korine simply regards this benighted sump of gun-crazed, glue-sniffing, daughter-humping squalor as a nifty setting for his puerile gross-out humor and dimestore dadaism. Yo, Harmony, the battle to legitimize shocking themes, surrealistic whimsy, and unapologetically scabrous content in film has already been fought and won by generations of your artistic betters: Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog, Todd Haynes, even David Lynch. To honestly build upon that legacy calls for you, the director, to bring some fresh intellectual or conceptual goods to the table. But to settle for assembling two reels full of images designed solely to offend your viewers accomplishes only that and nothing more. What's the point? If you were standing in front of me, I'd be tempted to kick your bony ass and hold your head in the john until you apologized for wasting 88 minutes of my time. Better still, I believe I'd turn you over to my cat-loving mom and let her give you the what-for. Thus enlightened, maybe you'd then consider putting your undeniable but rapidly dissipating talent for provoking useful controversy to some good end. Gummo! Give me a fucking break, man. (11/28/97)

0 stars Russell Smith


MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION

D: John R. Leonetti; with Robin Shou, Talisa Soto, Brian Thompson, Sandra Hess, Lynn Red Williams, Irina Pantaeva, Reiner Schoene, Musetta Vander, Marjean Holden, Litefoot, Deron McBee, James Remar. (PG-13, 93 min.)

More "sensory bombardment" than "movie," Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is the franchise's follow-up film to its phenomenally, and unexpectedly, successful 1995 feature, which itself was based on an extraordinarily successful video game that has also spawned numerous television, theatrical, and animated spin-offs. Handily seizing the number-one position in national ticket sales during its first weekend in release, the critic-proof sequel is quickly proving that the box-office clout of Joystick Nation is no fluke. It also doesn't hurt matters that the PG-13 film, whose target audience consists of young boys of all ages, is nicely positioned between the month's two big R-rated action spectacles, Starship Troopers and Alien Resurrection. The movie is nothing more than a perpetual chain of elaborately choreographed (by returning star Robin Shou) fight sequences that mix live-action foregrounds with complexly layered digital effects and are linked together by the most flimsy and laughable of plot elements. Often all that's needed to get from one battle sequence to the next is for a character to dissolve into a poof of razzle-dazzle digital flash and transmogrify into some other shape, location, or situation. Other times characters morph more conventionally or are simply beset upon by hammer-headed, Visigoth-like entities and have no option but to fight back. But not to worry: There's no blood, broken bones (but for the occasional snapped neck), or bruises. One good example of the way the film rejects the burdens of storytelling and plot development lies in the film's basic premise. The sequel begins right where the first one left off: A band of fearless human fighters defeat the evil warlords from Outworld and close the portals that separate the two worlds, thus ensuring the safety of Earth for another generation. They begin to rejoice only to have the sequel begin with the portal being rudely ripped open by Outland emperor Shao-Kahn. The explanation? That which closes can also open again. But there's no time to even bat an eye at such lame rationales. The attack is on and the assault never lets up for the next 90 minutes. In this, the aural bombardment is equal to the visual. MK2 is, hands down, the noisiest movie of the year. Perpetual sound and music accompany every second of screen time, as in-your-face as the action and equally impossible to ignore. It's this bid for the viewers' primal stimulation centers -- and nothing more -- that makes MK2 function on terms more closely associated with vibrators than movies. Add to this the adolescent male focus on mud-wrestling females (I kid you not) and crotch shots of the various fighting beauties and you have something that makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is. You know that when an acting joke like Christopher Lambert won't even return for the sequel, some fragile line has been crossed. Sure, it's fun to witness the centaur, the four-armed Sheeva, and the other digitized thingees. The movie appeals to the same impulses that also compel us to revel in extreme sports and American Gladiators (whose Sabre, aka Lynn Red Williams, even has a role in this picture). And someone should study the certain connection between a film like this and attention deficit disorder. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is a fascinating phenomenon; it's just that I'm having a hard time thinking about it in terms of a movie. (11/28/97)

0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


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