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Nashville Scene Outside Chances

On the wall--noteworthy new releases

By Noel Murray, Rob Nelson, and Jim Ridley

July 14, 1997: 

Fire on the Mountain The box describes the subject of this documentary as "fighting the Nazis on skis," but the adventures of the 10th Mountain Division extend beyond World War II. As filmmakers Beth and George Gage explain, the 10th developed from a handful of rugged Americans with an interest in the outdoors. The film details how these men came together through their mutual interests, how they volunteered their talents to the army, and how their gung-ho spirit was tested in the hills of Italy during one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The most fascinating part of the film, though, is the last segment, as the troops come home and begin promoting the concepts of conservation and outdoor recreation, in the process founding Nike, the Sierra Club, and Vail, Colo. The film is abruptly edited at times, and I wish the Gages had been willing to explore the conflict between the men who wanted preserve the outdoors and the men who wanted to develop tourist attractions. Still, this is a valuable portrait of the impulse that led to the recreation industry, and the strange path that impulse took. (NM)

Mother Night Kurt Vonnegut's best novel caught the author in a kind of delirium as he cranked out page after page of wicked satire. Keith Gordon's film version of Mother Night, like its source, traces the life and cruel fate of Howard Campbell, an American playwright living in Germany in the Nazi era. He's enlisted by American intelligence to deliver secret information through a weekly broadcast of virulent anti-Semitic radio commentary. After the war, Campbell is hunted by the Jews and lauded by racist militias, neither of whom know the truth about his life. Nick Nolte plays Campbell, and he gives the conflicted spy just the right note of blank rage. If only Gordon had supported Nolte with a more lively presentation of Vonnegut's deadpan craziness; instead, the film is usually too grim and quiet to touch the novel's fervid spirit. Even so, Vonnegut's story is too powerful, and haunting, to be completely betrayed. (NM)

Palookaville At long last, Reservoir Dogs delivers the runt of its mangy litter: an indie mongrel that isn't timid about biting the hand that feeds. Set on the scuzzy-looking mean streets of Jersey City, this charming satire follows the efforts of three dimwitted crooks to make one big score after their botched jewel heist yields nothing but a handful of sugar donuts. These beautiful losers wrap stolen meatballs in tissue paper, expound on the virtues of using cap guns, and prepare for their ultimate stickup job by screening the 1950 thriller Armored Car Robbery. As directed by newcomer Alan Taylor, Palookaville's blend of deadpan humor and unexpected sympathy is perfectly measured; and the standout in a strong cast is Vincent Gallo, a highly talented, gorgeously ugly actor who resembles a vampiric cross between Nicolas Cage and, natch, Quentin Tarantino. (RN)

Seconds So is this the weirdest studio film ever made? Released by Paramount in 1966, booed at Cannes, ignored by ticket buyers, and relegated to cult-curio status ever since, Seconds grafts together a handful of genres, practically at random: Call it a horror/sci-fi/soap opera crossed with an anti-Capra-esque take on It's a Wonderful Life. The protagonist is a middle-aged, white-haired suburban banker (John Randolph) who, feeling insignificant amid the youth-culture '60s, pays a faceless "Company" to transform him surgically into a virile-looking young swinger (Rock Hudson). But free love proves pretty deadening too, as evidenced by a bizarre "wine festival" that resembles nothing so much as a depraved Roman orgy. (Seconds seems equally fearful of the mainstream and the counterculture.) Ultimately, this hipster's life leaves our hero asking for thirds--but the offer has expired. The film is often corny and incoherent, but never less than fascinating. (RN)

Off the wall--alternatives to new releases

Dead-Alive If it's over-the-top comic horror you're wanting, forget the stupid, sadistic Scream; Peter Jackson's slapstick holocaust remains the all-time champion splatter flick. The bite of a "Sumatran rat monkey" triggers a contagion of walking death in a New Zealand town; it's up to the hero (Timothy Balme) to confront hundreds of bloodthirsty ghouls with the only weapon at hand--the whirring blades of a lawn mower. Avoid the R-rated version, which, oddly, is more distasteful for being less gruesome; the NC-17 edition is a Tex Avery cartoon of hyperbolic gore, which gets funnier with each disgusting new sight gag. Best of all, you won't feel, as in Scream, that the director made the movie in order to see women tortured. Wes Craven hates his characters; Peter Jackson just liquefies his. (JR)

Laws of Gravity Inexplicably, the watery inner-city drama Sleepers has been dwelling in the Top 10 video rentals for months now. If you find yourself among a group of people who insist on renting it, demand that they follow up that flick with Nick Gomez's shattering debut film. It's a much rawer, more compelling gutter drama, starring Peter Greene as a petty crook who goes to irrational lengths to bail out his loser friends. Shot by Jean de Segonzac, Laws of Gravity moves at the pace of an argument, building carefully to abrupt violence. The constant, improvisatory shouting can get tiresome, but when the film is in a groove (which is often), it has an understanding of street life that trumps every figment of Lorenzo Carcaterra's imagination. (NR)


The Long Good Friday (Criterion, $49.95) Laserdiscs aren't just a movie-geek's indulgence; they're often the only way to watch movies that were ruined by careless presentation on home video. Years ago, if you rented this smashing 1981 gangster thriller on VHS, the muddy picture and murky sound probably made you hurl your remote at the screen. On laserdisc, the clear, letterboxed image and digital sound make all the difference. You can now make out the gritty look of London's underworld and the crackling lowlife rancor in Barrie Keeffe's script. In the role that made him a star, Bob Hoskins plays a London crime boss whose efforts to go respectable are upset by a sudden assault on his organization. Teamed with the elegant Helen Mirren as a sharp, sexy moll, Hoskins barks out threats with more bravado than any screen hood since the days of White Heat. And director John Mackenzie gives him a sendoff befitting a world-class tough-guy-- the look on Hoskins' face during his great final close-up is unforgettable. Stay with the confusing early scenes and the tangle of accents; this crime-drama is ultimately as blunt, unforgiving, and riveting as its bulldog hero. (JR)

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