Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

DECEMBER 15, 1997: 


D: Raja Gosnell; with Alex D. Linz, Haviland Morris, Kevin Kilner, Rya Kihlstedt, Marian Seldes. (PG, 103 min.)

John Hughes seems to have copped to a profound truth. Critical judgment aside, the durability of his Home Alone series will determine whether he spends his dotage sailing in Barbados or bagging groceries in a Tampa Minit Mart to pay the wastewater hookup fee for his RV. The modest artistic success of his early Eighties teen comedies is a remote memory now. And with even the once-hardy National Lampoon's Vacation series in an advanced necrotic state, the last healthy cash cow in his corral is this ongoing series featuring resourceful tykes left alone to repel the onslaught of slapstick villains. For the third installment, Hughes returns as sole screenwriter and has clearly invested a lot more creative effort in his work than in recent projects such as Baby's Day Out and Dennis the Menace. With original star Macaulay Culkin lost to puberty and megalomania, Hughes has stripped the vehicle down to its frame and started over. There's an all-new cast, headed by McDonald's commercial graduate Alex D. Linz as Culkin equivalent Alex Pruitt. The bad guys are no longer buffoonish street hoods but a sophisticated quartet of international high-tech thieves trying to recover a radar-blocking gadget hidden in a toy car that has fallen into Alex's possession. Relatively speaking, Hughes pulls out the stops here, even attempting (to what end I can't imagine) a bit of rudimentary character development in the crooks. He's rounded up an attractive, interesting group of faces, and first-time director Gosnell perfectly replicates the bright, cheerily antiseptic FAO Schwartz catalogue look that's the visual trademark of his employer's films. Gosnell displays a nice grasp of the camera's role in high-energy comedy of this type. A camera mounted on a radio-controlled car is used to especially good effect, creating numerous inventive shot angles. Hughes' use of music is, as always, clever and effective. And loath though I am to aid in stoking the Hollywood sequel mill, I've got to admit laughing pretty often -- albeit through clenched teeth -- at the inventively sadistic series of Rube Goldbergian traps young Alex sets for his assailants. Hughes, whose chief contribution to film history may not be his fervid adolescent-identity quests but the outrageous brutality of his physical comedy, keeps the laughs and groans coming by laying the lumber (not to mention barbells, flowerpots, bathroom fixtures, and crowbars) to his baddies in scene after mayhem-filled scene. Adults will probably start punching the Indiglo buttons on their watches well before the end, but based on the preview crowd's response, my guess is that Home Alone 3 will light up your preteen kids' nervous systems like a big, gluey double-fistful of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Which, one supposes, is basically the whole point here.

2.5 stars Russell Smith


D: Claire Denis; with Gregoire Colin, Alice Houri, Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi, Vincent Gallo, Jacques Nolot, Gerard Meylan, Alex Descas. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

Gorgeously shot and featuring two vastly appealing main characters, Denis' tale of sibling revelry nevertheless prompts the question, "Who cares?" It's not from lack of form: Denis (and cinematographer Agnes Godard) construct the film from countless haunting images, be they the legs of a sexy baker's wife (belonging to Bruni-Tedeschi, recently of Mon Homme) or the successive parade of streetwise youths that ambles throughout the film's background. Depite all these arresting images and the evocative soundtrack by the Tindersticks, Nenette and Boni is as thematically empty as an abandoned holiday wrapping, lovely to look at but cloaking nothing. Houri and Colin play Nenette and Boni, siblings who were separated sometime in the past and arrive back into each other's lives when the 15-year-old Nenette skips out of her boarding school after becoming pregnant. Her brother has taken over their dead mother's tiny, cramped flat, and is alternately using it as a crash pad for an endless stream of lowlife buddies and as a warehouse to store stolen coffee pots and the like. Every kid's dream, really, but the pair's much-despised father soon shows up in the wake of Nenette's lengthy absence from school, and it's not long before Boni is trying to pick him off from the rooftop with a .22, sniper-style. Obviously, there's no love lost there, but Denis fails to fully inform us why these otherwise ordinary kids so hate their father. Whether child abuse or sustained halitosis, we're left to guess. Into this unfortunately laconic situation, Denis drops several other characters of note, notably Bruni-Tedeschi as the ample-figured wife of the baker next door (whom Boni fantasized about to frequent comic effect) and the baker himself, a transplanted American who whips up the most mouth-watering pastries this side of Like Water for Chocolate but still hasn't mastered the fine French art of the croissant. Denis keeps her main story -- that of Nenette's unplanned pregnancy and where it's heading -- moving gamely along with all the gripping resonance of a dead snail. Honestly, if it weren't for Denis' striking visual sense, the producers could make a small fortune marketing Nenette and Boni as a sleep aid. Granted, Colin and Houri are both delightful actors. The bond they create between these onscreen siblings is terrifically realized and fully developed, but it's far too little to sustain a 90-minute film in which virtually nothing happens, despite the fact that it all looks so very good.

2.0 stars Marc Savlov


D: Kristine Peterson; with Molly Gross, Marisa Ryan, Jason Bortz, Natacha LaFerriere, Bob Neuwirth. (R, 94 min.)

Putting reverse English on a timeless platitude, young director Kristine Peterson shows us some of the endless ways in which the political is personal. The characters in her achingly earnest romantic comedy are mostly foot soldiers in Seattle's musico-political bohemia, cranking out power chords and photocopied 'zines aimed at raising the consciousness of a nation spiritually starved by bland pop culture and the digital Soma of Chairman Bill Gates. The principals are Shelly (Gross) and Suzy (Ryan), the leaders of an all-female punk band called the No Exits, and Jimmy (Bortz), a political newsletter publisher whose dwindling finances raise the awful specter of 9-5 employment. Suzy and Shelly are lovers, but things are getting a bit tense of late. Shelly's wavering on the brink of reconciliation with former boyfriend Jimmy and is sparring with Suzy over the ideological content of their music. (Gung ho Suzy views her bludgeoning songs solely as delivery vehicles for her doctrinal broadsides; Shelly figures a wee bit of Ani DiFranco-ish folkie leavening couldn't hurt anything.) What's interesting about this movie is its snapshot documentation of how absolutist, dogma-driven movements ultimately diffuse into the confusingly protean reality of human life. Nearly everybody here is involved in some movement or other, unselfconsciously speaking of revolutions and "the cause" and taking turns at solo, camera-facing tirades on subjects ranging from Dustin Hoffman's "stalker" behavior in The Graduate to Ted Koppel's hair. But, to adapt a bumper-sticker sentiment of yesteryear, a righteous slogan is as useful to a real woman or man as a bicycle is to a fish. There's no purity to be found in sexual orientation, ideology, or emotion. Shelly's lack of resolution in these areas causes no end of pain for Suzy (played with both vulnerability and sawtoothed ferocity by Ryan) or the well-meaning, exquisitely PC Jimmy. Realizing that she can't be what both of her lovers need, she starts assembling the rudiments of a unique, self-reinforcing identity. Respect is due to Peterson for permitting this level of frankness in a movie with such a clear political agenda. But Slaves to the Underground is so lackluster in such basic areas as editing, shot composition, acting (only Ryan and Bortz appear to have a future beyond the low-budget indie arena) and dialogue (for the most part, classic illustrations of speech that sound written rather than overheard) that the potential impact is diluted by half. Finally, if a film is going to criticize Cindy Crawford for representing a false ideal of beauty, wouldn't those words ring truer if so many of its female characters didn't look like artfully disheveled beer commercial babes? Chalk this up as one of those movies that you toast for good intentions in the reception hall of honorable also-rans.

2.5 stars Russell Smith

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