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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

APRIL 13, 1998: 

FALLEN ANGELS

D: Wong Kar-Wai; with Michelle Reis, Leon Lai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Karen Mok, Charlie Yeung. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

Utopian futurists and apocalyptic doomsayers agree that modern urban culture is radically changing the interior lives of the men and women who inhabit it. It's hard to say which camp, if either, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (Happy Together) belongs in, but one thing is for sure: No one is better than Wong at evoking the intoxicating, emotionally dissociative power of life in our sprawling First World metropolises. Like most of his films since 1988's As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels focuses on rootless young folks who are torn between their addiction to the city's exhilarating head rush of light, sound, and sexual stimulation and their vestigial desires for the emotional refuge of committed love. In this movie, which was shot three years ago as a companion piece to Chungking Express, an ensemble of twentyish urban pilgrims again do a spasmodic dance of nocturnal roaming, solitary pining, and gratification of their jaded pleasure receptors. It's familiar stuff for those who've seen any of Wong's recent work. So is the visual setting created by director of photography Christopher Doyle -- a fathomless opium reverie of pooling reds and umbers, streaming white motion trails, and haunting music that seems to ride on walls of cold night air. It's easy to lose yourself in this world. And that is Wong's point exactly. None of these characters -- a hit man (Lai) and his sexually frustrated "agent" (Reis, aka Michelle Lee); a mute, slightly addled ex-con (Kaneshiro); a pair of moody, lovelorn sexpots (Mok and Yeung) -- are really happy, but neither are they ready to make the sacrifices of freedom and emotional intensity that might be required to gratify their deeper longings. Because of his hard-to-track narratives and obsession with the sensual aspects of filmmaking, Wong is sometimes characterized along with directors like Michael Rymer (Angel Baby) and David Fincher (Seven) as a maker of feature-length music videos. But whereas videos are all about scattershot, fragmentary impressions, Wong explores his visions with the serene patience of a man searching for images in a shifting cloud bank. Rather than trying to impose meaning on seemingly disjointed images and events, he focuses his gaze so deeply that the meaning emerges unbidden. This unstructured approach poses obvious challenges to actors, but often (as is the case with Fallen Angels) it results in superior work by competent actors like Kaneshiro and outright brilliance by established stars such as Reis and Lai. To a large extent, you're either on the bus with Wong's defiantly unconventional approach or not. However, if you're fed up with the stultifying, formula-driven character of today's mainstream films, give Fallen Angels a try. At the very least you'll be engaged, and if you're lucky you may just recapture some of your original wonder at the seductive power of movies.

3.5 stars

Russell Smith



FORGOTTEN SILVER

D: Peter Jackson and Costa Botes; with Jackson, Sam Neill, Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Maltin, Jeffrey Thomas as narrator. (Not Rated, 53 min.)

Kiwi auteur Colin McKenzie is the most famous filmmaker you've never heard of in this wonderfully subtle "mockumentary" from the man behind Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures. It's so subtle, in fact, that you'd hardly know anything was amiss were it not for one brief scene featuring a Russian records czar with the improbable name of Alexandra Nevsky and Leonard Maltin's slightly over-exuberant pontificatings that run throughout. As the film opens (it's preceded by an equally excellent 15-minute-long short called "Signing Off" by Robert Sarkies), the rotund Jackson is tramping about his neighbor's garden shed in which, he reveals, he's recently uncovered an astonishing cinematic find -- an old steamer-trunk full of film canisters marked with the name C. McKenzie. Jackson goes on to tell the history of how Colin McKenzie was the first New Zealand filmmaker. Born in 1888, McKenzie was creating and showing films in his backyard at the age of 12 by using a bicycle-powered projection system and film emulsion made from egg whites. In his quest for more information on this neglected auteur, Jackson enlists the aid of everyone from the aforementioned Maltin (who calls the discovery of McKenzie's epic Salome the equivalent of discovering, say, Citizen Kane) to New Zealand actor Sam Neill and Miramax head Harvey Weinstein (who promises to lobby for the inclusion of Salome in the next Academy Awards ballot). All of this is done with such straight faces that the jokes seem less like jokes and more like a new episode of John Pierson's Split Screen, and that's the magic of this cunning web of trickery -- it's sublimely silly and perfectly believable all at once. Still, the film manages some wild flights of fancy. We're told that one recently unearthed McKenzie reel documents the first successful airplane flight by New Zealand's Richard Pearse -- a full six months before the Wright Brothers soared at Kitty Hawk -- and the fact that the filmmaker's first talkie, The Warrior Season (made over a decade before The Jazz Singer), bombed at the box office because the actors were all Chinese and the director neglected to include subtitles. Ludicrous though it may seem, Jackson and Botes work magic with an absolutely amazing collection of faux McKenzie films, stills, and archival footage that are beautifully aged, grainy, and 100% realistic. Realism, indeed, is not only the hallmark of the filmmakers but also their subject, who recruited thousands of extras and trucked them off to the most remote part of New Zealand's rainforest to build a full-scale recreation of biblical Jerusalem for Salome. It's all an elaborate hoax, of course, but one of the most entertaining ones to come down the pike in a good long while, and if offers yet more proof -- if any should be needed -- that Jackson is a gleefully, deliciously deranged filmmaker.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



KURT AND COURTNEY

D: Nick Broomfield; with Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love. (Not Rated, 99 min.)

Alas, despite the oceans of hype generated by Sundance's last-minute yanking of this film from its January lineup, Brit Broomfield's scathing documentary about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Seattle's golden child, Kurt Cobain, is adrift in a sea of wild speculation and paranoid rantings. That's not to say it isn't wildly entertaining -- it is -- but you just might want to take everything here with a grain of saltpeter. Broomfield, a master of in-your-face interviewing (he sometimes comes across as D.A. Pennebaker's evil twin), has charted similar courses before, notably in Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, but this time out the objects of his affliction are pop-culture icons on a much grander scale. Hours after Kurt Cobain's shotgun-disfigured corpse was discovered in April 1994, the conspiracy theories began to fly fast and furious, and they're still up there, messing with not only the heads of everyone in Seattle, but also Nirvana and Hole fans the world over. Broomfield, sound gear slung across his shoulders, gamely dives head-first into the muck and rakes for all he's worth. What he finds isn't of much substance, but it certainly makes for some interesting observations, not the least of which is that Courtney Love appears to be one of the world's most accomplished control freaks. No surprise there, but Broomfield uncovers harrowing, tape-recorded messages left on various journalists' answering machines by Ms. Love that play right into the fires of paranoia (there's one from Kurt, too, but he sounds so messed up that it's hard to take his threats seriously). Did Love have Cobain killed in an effort to secure his fortune before a possible divorce? That's the rumor making the rounds in Kurt and Courtney, and Broomfield interviews everyone from Love's estranged father ("I think she did it") to a Los Angeles private eye hired to sort through the wreckage of the couple's faltering marriage ("You bet she did it"). Also along for the ride are entertaining, anti-Courtney tirades from Rozz Rezebek, with whom Love shared a volatile relationship pre-Cobain, and assorted druggie hangers-on, who vouchsafe for Cobain's winsome, naïve innocence and Love's explosive temper. Of course, the bottom line is, "Did she or didn't she?" and Broomfield's film fails to offer much support either way. It's all backyard gossip with nary a shred of solid proof. The Seattle County Coroner's office long ago ruled Cobain's death a suicide, and that official pronouncement stands to this day. Kurt and Courtney is a goldmine for Cobain fanatics -- recordings of a two-year-old Cobain singing giddily, home-movie footage galore, and lots of dreary Seattle locations abound -- but as for clearing up the mystery (if there is any mystery), there's nothing new to be found.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov



THE LEADING MAN

D: John Duigan; with Jon Bon Jovi, Lambert Wilson, Anna Galiena, Tahandie Newton, Barry Humphries, David Warner, Patricia Hodge. (Not Rated, 96 min.)

A backstage drama brimming with hothouse menace, The Leading Man by John Duigan (Flirting, Sirens) is a piercing little movie that nevertheless fails to fully deliver on all its incipient intrigue. As the story's "leading man," rock star Jon Bon Jovi here continues his assured move into a middle-aged acting career (Moonlight and Valentino and the upcoming No Looking Back). He's well-cast as the American movie star, Robin Grange, who has come to England to work in the theatre (and, as implied by the circulating rumors, perhaps escape Hollywood's blackballing stain of having been discovered in bed with his producer's wife). Robin exudes the kind of smug sexual confidence that befits a man who (in a life-reflecting-art tribute to an action performed by one of his screen characters) is regularly asked to autograph his phone number on the taut inner thighs of his female fans. Robin now finds himself in the midst of a theatrical troupe beginning rehearsals on the new play by England's leading contemporary playwright Felix Webb (Wilson). Despite being a man whose livelihood and reputation is predicated on theatrical invention, Felix's personal life is the stuff of hackneyed melodrama. He's sexually involved with the troupe's ingenue Hilary (Newton -- Duigan's frequent leading lady), who has become exasperated with Felix's promises to eventually leave his wife and children. His wife, Elena (Galiena) is also fed up with his lies and his inattention to their home life. In no time at all, Robin manages to size up the situation (which Felix believed was a well-disguised secret) and makes the playwright a proposition: Robin will seduce Elena and thereby restore her confidence and keep her from dwelling on her husband's affair -- all for an unspecified favor to be repaid by Felix at some future date. The Leading Man is at its best when it's in its backbitingly funny All About Eve theatrical mode or during its more subtle domestic histrionics -- Elena snipping the coy forelock from her husband's head while he sleeps or the pained expression of the playwright while watching his ingenue kiss the leading man. However, the movie devotes so much attention to the details of the convoluted plot advancement, while steeping essential motivations in enough mystery that we never manage to believe that so many smart characters are capable of such dumb behavior. Nor do we come to understand why so many plot elements have been introduced only to be stripped of any ultimate significance. Still, the film's satisfactions are many: exquisitely observed little moments, a deliciously wry coda, and quietly etched performances of the entire cast, including the sturdy comic turns by the secondary players Barry Humphries (minus his Dame Edna drag), David Warner, Patricia Hodge, and Nicole Kidman in an unbilled cameo. The Leading Man is not quite the star attraction its name implies, but the film is nevertheless an engaging piece of entertainment.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



LOST IN SPACE

D: Stephen Hopkins; with Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson, Jared Harris. (PG-13, 122 min.)

Next time Dad suggests the family all pile into the space camper and head out for a 10-year jaunt to another galaxy, just look the old man in the eye and tell him to cool his jets: The family that flies together, dies together. Except maybe when your launch pad happens to be in Hollywood, since everyone who takes off from there gets to live happily ever after -- or at least live in a state of suspended resolution, bouncing directionlessly from planet to planet in an eventful yet fruitless search for a way back home. A metaphor for life? Nah, not really... just one more workmanlike recycling of an old Sixties television series, albeit with Nineties visual razzmatazz, dependable animatronics by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and tip-of-the-hat cameos by some of the TV show's original stars (including Angela Cartwright, June Lockhart, and others). "There's a lot of space out there to get lost in," warns Professor John Robinson (Hurt) early in the film, but his grave observation seems more a promise of sequels to come than sobering philosophical caveat. And now that Lost in Space has earned the envious distinction of being the first movie in 16 weeks to knock Titanic from its #1 box-office berth, this new franchise's future seems, well, unsinkable. The fact that both chart-toppers are sagas about ships that go disastrously off course may be less a portent of Hollywood trends to come than the fact that mega-budget effects spectacles are now sure to be interpreted as the safest means of appeasing consumer demand. Such a reading ignores the rudiments of good storytelling as a factor in film excellence. Lost in Space exhibits little in the way of narrative urgency; ironically, its undemanding storyline may just be part of its secret of success. As the spaceship with our Swiss Family Robinson family of galactic explorers, stowaway villain (Oldman), randy but steadfast pilot (LeBlanc), and Forbidden Planet-issue Robot careens through space, the question is not whether they will survive, but how. Episodically eventful but utterly unsuspenseful, the film is a diversion that requires little attention and satisfies the film-going needs of a wide variety of viewers. The film sets up character attributes and situations without ever developing the elements into a cohesive two-hour-long plot line. This leaves viewers free to latch on to whatever aspects or tangents that appeal to their individual fancies. For me, these included those form-fitting cryo fetish suits the characters wear during the first 40 minutes, seeing indie world plaything Heather Graham performing as a no-nonsense scientist, watching helium-voiced Party of Five gal Lacey Chabert lusting after Friend Matt LeBlanc, and conceding that the creepy space spider attackers had already been outdone this year by the more commanding insect antagonists of Starship Troopers. Hardly a space-age Swiss Family Robinson, Lost in Space plays more like Robinson's Crew... So?

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



MERCURY RISING

D: Harold Becker; with Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Miko Hughes, Chi McBride, Kim Dickens, Robert Stanton, Bodhi Pine Elfman, Carrie Preston, L.L. Ginter. (R, 111 min.)

A good Bruce Willis film is a lot like a big plate of meat and potatoes, and a bad Bruce Willis film is, well, a lot like a big plate of meat and potatoes. As the archetypal action hero Everyman, Willis has taken to expanding his palette in the past few years (notably with Pulp Fiction, which, granted, was more of a horizontal move than anything else), but Mercury Rising makes no such efforts -- it's vintage Willis, and as such, it's pretty much a bore. Willis plays Art Jeffries, an FBI agent at the end of his rope after a botched hostage situation goes kablooey right under his nose. Haunted by the deaths of two young militia members who were about to surrender, he's bumped to a desk-jockey position by his superiors, who feel he's far too much of a loose cannon in his current, dilapidated mindset. (You have to ask, though, when is a Bruce Willis character not a loose cannon? You could team this guy up with Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon character, Martin Riggs, and outgun Hussein's elite Palace Guards in 30 seconds flat.) When he's called in to investigate the apparent murder/suicide of a lower-income mom and dad, he immediately smells a rat and begins to unravel a skein of cover-ups and federal obfuscation that revolves around the couple's autistic child Simon (Hughes), who has since gone missing. As it turns out in the wildly improbable world of Mercury Rising, the boy is a savant who has inadvertently cracked the NSA's famed "Mercury Code," a cryptography program designed to provide cover for all of America's deep-cover agents the world over. Headed by a scheming but utterly logical bureaucrat (Baldwin), the Feds are out to kill the little boy before anyone else discovers he's broken their code wide open. No matter that the boy has no idea what he's done -- conventional government spook thinking rationalizes that the tyke is a threat to national security (and, at the risk of sounding like a heel, makes a very convincing argument in the process) and therefore must be destroyed. As you might expect, much mayhem ensues, with Willis shuttling the kid from one safe house to another as the "just doing our jobs" government agents close in. Becker (The Onion Field, Sea of Love) has a terrific eye for action scenes, but Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's script gives him little to work with, and Mercury Rising ends up being nearly as exciting as watching the thermometer outside your kitchen window, "nearly" being the key word there. Willis is essentially playing his Die Hard character one more time, and even Hughes as the odd little autistic kid seems paradoxically hellbent on hamming it up. Not quite loud enough to be a seasonal blockbuster, Mercury Rising is instead more of a dull thud on the action film map, fodder for Willis fanatics, and not much else.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



THE ODD COUPLE II

D: Howard Deutch; with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Christine Baranski, Barnard Hughes, Jonathan Silverman, Jean Smart, Lisa Waltz. (PG-13, 97 min.)



Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau star in The Odd Couple II

Thirty years later, Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison (Lemmon and Matthau) are back together. In Neil Simon's original script, they're still the same old cantankerous dichotomists (Felix the neatnik, Oscar the slob), feuding over the bedding, the car, and everything else, but as directed by John Hughes protégé Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink, Grumpier Old Men), they're beginning to slow down, and much of the melancholy of Gene Saks 1968 version is lost in a whirlwind of libido jokes and half-baked comic setups that go nowhere fast. Originally thrown together by the vagaries of divorce, Oscar and Felix are this time reunited when their children -- Hannah Ungar (Waltz) and Bruce Madison (Silverman) -- decide to get married. Felix is still living in New York, but Oscar has moved to Florida, poker buddies and all, and continues his existence as an AAA-league sports announcer in that more hospitable climate. Meeting up at LAX, the pair rent a car and head out to the wedding with predictable results. The main body of Deutch's film relies heavily on the lowbrow comic shenanigans he honed while working for Hughes -- it's the same sort of amicable feuding that worked so well in Grumpier Old Men, but this time it comes across as obligated instead of spontaneous. I suppose we should be thankful that Deutch doesn't play the sentimentality card as often as he could, but nonetheless something is lacking. Simon's original play -- and Saks' original adaptation -- were rife with dark undercurrents and melancholia. Here were two guys whose spouses had kicked them out into the heart of the big city to fend for themselves: not kindred spirits by a long shot, but warring camps brought together out of necessity, learning to fend for themselves and each other. Sure, it was a comedy, but there was much more to it than that. However, this new take on things reduces the pair to simple cookie-cutter constructs. There's precious little dynamic tension here, unless you consider the duo's geriatric antics tension-headache inducing. The cardboard, road-trip storyline is pure cliché, too, but somehow Lemmon and Matthau manage to pull out some great gags -- acid one-liners, mostly -- that keep you laughing. It's a film hardly worthy of their respective talents, but at the same time it is tremendously entertaining in spots: Oscar and Felix's almost-coupling with a pair of Thelma and Louise-types at a dingy roadhouse saloon, missing luggage, missed turnpikes, and so on make for light comic relief that works much better than it should. If you think of TV's Tony Randall and Jack Klugman when someone mentions The Odd Couple, Saks' film original with Lemmon and Matthau is by far the better work, and highly recommended. Deutch's sequel takes the gritty NYC bite out of these two, and replaces it with toothless comic pratfalls and little else.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov



THE PLAYERS CLUB

D: Ice Cube; with Cube, Lisa Raye, Monica Calhoun, Bernie Mac, Jamie Foxx, Chrystale Wilson, Adele Givens, A.J. Johnson, Tiny Lister. (R, 103 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Ice Cube makes his writing and directing debut with this humorous drama about the shady characters who populate a notorious gentlemen's club and one woman -- stripper by night/broadcast journalism student by day -- who's looking to get out. In his screen acting work, Cube has shown himself to be in possession of a great deal of natural talent. Here he buffets himself with a promising cast of newcomers and proven comic talents and the camerawork of Malik Sayeed, the cinematographer of Spike Lee's Girl 6, Clockers, and the soon-to-be-released He Got Game, and visual stickler Stanley Kubrick's second-unit DP on Eyes Wide Shut.

Marjorie Baumgarten Highland, Westgate



TOKYO FIST

D: Shinya Tsukamoto; with Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Koji Tsukamoto, Naoto Takenaka. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

Tsukamoto, who previously exploded modern Japanese cinema with the mind-bending Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its sequel Tetsuo: The Body Hammer is up to his old tricks once again, and all you can say is "Wow!" Like his previous work, Tokyo Fist is a tough nut to crack, plot-wise (it certainly doesn't help matters that the white subtitles often lie against white backgrounds, making them all but illegible), but even a single incomprehensible viewing is a powerful experience. It's like smashing your face into the whirling blades of some outlandish, multi-hued industrial razor-fan... and I mean that in a good way. With his rapid-fire editing, colorful blue and red lighting, and wonderfully bizarre camerawork, you get the feeling that Tokyo Fist wasn't processed in a film lab -- it was processed in a methamphetamine lab, possibly by a marmot on PCP. Tsukamoto himself plays Tsuda, a mild-mannered Tokyo salaryman who runs into old childhood chum Takuji (Tsukamoto's real-life brother Koji) and begins an expanded, ruinous love triangle -- the third corner of which is provided by Tsuda's girlfriend Hizuru (Fujii), with disastrous postmodern results. Since their youthful parting, Takuji has become a professional boxer, able to kick ass with a single digit and in possession of a temper and attitude to match. Inflamed over his rival's advances on his best girl, Tsuda himself takes up the sport at a gym, and tools himself into a deadly killing machine. Much of the rest of the plot is incomprehensible without repeated viewings, but then few Westerners go to Tsukamoto's films for their finely nuanced storylines. This is a film about sex and violence, and viewed as such it approaches the level of a masterpiece, albeit a distinctly surreal one. Tsukamoto's ongoing fascination with body mutation and the transgressive effects thereof closely mirrors the similar themes of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg; both twist the human body into horrific shapes and then sit back and let the psyche follow. Tsukamoto, however, is a master of low-level dread. Tokyo Fist isn't a quiet film by anyone's standards, but his use of skewed angles and gel-drenched pyrotechnics recalls Dario Argento more than anyone else. Still, originality is his hallmark. Rarely do you encounter this much crimson gore spattering the walls in what is essentially a boxing film gone over to the dark side. It's Raging Bull on acid, with a bit of tweaky F.W. Murnau thrown in for bad measure, all deafening chopsocky, oozing nostrils, giddy gallows humor, and stylized bad taste. Unlike anything else you've seen, Tokyo Fist is an impure pop marvel: sleazoid cinema for the thinking degenerate.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov


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