Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JULY 28, 1997: 

Film Reviews

Film reviews are updated on Fridays. This section compiled by Marjorie Baumgarten (M.B.); with reviews by Hollis Chacona (H.C.), Steve Davis (S.D.), Robert Faires (R.F.), Marc Savlov (M.S.), Russell Smith (R.S.).

    Sections below:
  • Recommended
  • New Releases
  • First Runs
  • Still Playing
  • Revivals
5 stars As perfect as a movie can be
4 stars Slightly flawed, but excellent nonetheless
3 stars Has its good points, and its bad points
2 stars Mediocre, but with one or two bright spots
1 stars Poor, without any saving graces
0 stars La Bomba



D: Peter Greenaway; with Vivian Wu, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Ewan McGregor, Hideko Yoshida, Judy Ongg. (Not Rated, 124 min.)

British director Greenaway (Prospero's Books, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover) has a cinematic style that's all his own, and this meditation on the vagaries of love, betrayal, and vengeance is rife with the man's peculiar take on life and filmmaking. Ostensibly the story of a young Japanese woman infatuated with the erotic possibilities of traditional Sino-Japanese calligraphy, Greenaway and his picture-perfect cast weave so many interlacing threads into the story, and so many curious subtexts -- stylistic and otherwise -- that it sometimes leaves us scratching our heads in wonderment. It's beautiful, but what does it mean? Wu plays Nagiko, who, upon first encounter, is a little girl in Kyoto. Every birthday, her father, an author, inscribes her face with intricate, gorgeous calligraphy while telling her the (Japanese) story of creation. During these early years, she becomes aware that an unscrupulous publisher has blackmailed her father: In exchange for the publication of his books, the publishers will withdraw certain sexual favors. This knowledge haunts the young girl as she grows up and eventually enters into a sort of high-brow, low-rent aristocracy amongst the bohemians in nearby Hong Kong. There, she seeks out a suitable lover who might be able to rekindle her passions through what might be called "full-body erotic calligraphy." It's Sex and Zen minus the guffaws. When Nagiko finally runs into the expatriate British translator Jerome (McGregor), she's in heaven. Not only can he, after a bit of practice, do calligraphy with and upon her, he's also a brilliant lover. That's as much as I feel comfortable saying about Greenaway's plot for now -- his films are best entered into unawares (the title, however, comes from the Japanese slang for a diary). As one of the leading visual stylists in the world today, Greenaway infuses his work with maddeningly rich designs and set-pieces. Everything is related to everything else on screen, and this time out, more so than ever before, and more thrillingly to boot. In fact, as ambitious as The Pillow Book is, Greenaway has redefined the configuration of the screen entirely. Frequently, the director will have up to five different images running at once, although never in a format as banal as DePalma-style split-screen. Instead, he records several camera angles of the same shot and relegates them to the four corners of the movie screen, leaving the middle wide open for the master shot. On top of that (or below that, actually), run an unending series of subtitles, song lyrics, and other texts. I'm tempted to say it's le nouvelle vague all over again, but I'm afraid Claude Chabrol might kick my teeth in, so I won't. What it is is breathtaking moviemaking. Against all odds, it works, magically, transcendentally, perfectly. It's the shock of the new, once more, with feeling. (7/25/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)


New Review


D: Wolfgang Peterson; with Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Wendy Crewson, Paul Guilfoyle, William H. Macy, Liesel Matthews, Dean Stockwell, Xander Berkeley, Glenn Close. (R, 125 min.)

Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford make contact in
Air Force One

Another day, another summer blockbuster. Really, my ears are ringing and my head hurts and isn't it about time for a musical? Perhaps not. Perhaps just one more big shoot-'em-up, and then we can all go take a nap. Honestly though, Air Force One may be the best of the lot thus far, when it comes right down to it. Chock full of witty, honest dialogue, human beings as actors (as opposed to adenoidal cartoons), and a clever script that takes itself just seriously enough to warrant our attention, Peterson's film is an America-a-Go-Go version of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Tightly constructed and with precious little humor (thankfully, there are no winking asides to the audience, nor an overabundance of cocksure one-liners, à la Batman & Robin), Air Force One tells the story of American President James Marshall, a no-nonsense family man and ex-marine. While returning from Moscow one night, the legendary presidential bird is hijacked by Russian ultra-nationalists (led by Oldman) intent on securing the release of their leader, a captive of the current Russian regime. Problems galore for this president (you get the distinct feeling he's the sort of guy who could make Bill Clinton cry just by looking at him), including the fact that both his wife and young daughter are also on board, along with his chief of staff and various other cabinet members. The film quickly becomes a seek-and-destroy mission set on high, as President Marshall -- believed by the hijackers to have escaped -- stalks his captors and slowly turns the tide against all odds. This is the sort of film Howard Hawks would have had a ball with, but that said, Peterson (who directed one of the greatest anti-war war movies of all time -- Das Boot ) is no slouch. He knows damn well the audience isn't going to fall for that President Superguy crap anymore, and so he's taken great pains to ground the film in some sort of reality. He includes frequent cuts to the White House, where Vice President Bennett (Close) holds out against what appears to be a coup of sorts by over-zealous Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Stockwell) while also negotiating to save the lives of everyone aboard Air Force One. That's a tough job, made even more so by the fact the she's dealing with Gary Oldman who, I think we all realize by now, is probably a handful on his best days. Like the aircraft of its title, Peterson's film is a huge, loud beast of a film, filled with gunfire, explosions, and not a few tears. It's all grounded, however, in Ford's gritted-teeth performance as President Marshall. Ford is the closest thing to Gary Cooper we have these days, and he pulls it all off without making it (or us, by association) look ridiculous. Yes, Air Force One is another loud, chaotic summer blockbuster, but this time out, it's a loud, chaotic summer blockbuster for adults. And that's something Jerry Bruckheimer and his crew just don't seem to be able to do. (7/25/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: David Hare; with Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, David de Keyser. (R, 96 min.)

The Designated Mourner is one man's elegiac yet disdainful recollection of a group of people and a way of life that have vanished under the thumb of an unnamed oppressive regime. As the so-called "Designated Mourner," film director and stage actor Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood, and The Birdcage) is spectacular in his first-ever acting performance onscreen. The movie is the film version of a play written by the multi-talented Wallace Shawn (My Dinner With André, Radio Days, Toy Story, Clueless) and mounted with great success last year in London with this same group of principals. Acclaimed actress Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Damage) and British theatre veteran David de Keyser join Nichols onscreen for this three-person drama; the renowned playwright and director David Hare (theatre: Plenty, A Map of the World; film: Wetherby, Strapless, and Damage) directs. It sounds so good in theory, but watching The Designated Mourner turns out to be a trying experience. It's no walk in the park, it's no Dinner With André. Told entirely in direct address, the three characters sit behind a table and speak to the camera and rarely interact. Jack (Nichols) is the central narrator who shares his memories of the years he spent in the company of this unnamed country's intellectual elite. He married the brilliant, no-frills Judy (Richardson), whose father Howard (de Keyser) is a revered poet and enemy of the repressive government. As the years pass, Jack grows increasingly aware of the degree to which he resents this pure and high-brow circle and he abandons them to pursue more "low-brow" interests. Meanwhile, the government steps up its repression of political dissidents, throwing them in jail and systematically destroying whatever cultural influence they ever possessed. Jack somehow survives, and thus becomes the designated mourner, and is now in the ironic position of being the only one left to remember their legacy. The three performers are so engaging and the writing delivers such regular sparks of poetic brilliance that these things, in themselves, keep the film from plunging into a fatal abyss. Yet, apart from the close-ups, there's nothing about The Designated Mourner that couldn't be done just as well (and probably more efficiently) with a taped audio book. The movie provides a permanent record of the play, and, hopefully, will lead to more acting work for Mike Nichols. But, otherwise, The Designated Mourner is wrapped in shroud. (7/25/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Brian Robbins; with Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, Abe Vigoda, Sinbad, Shar Jackson. (PG, 103 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Nickelodeon's all-kids sketch comedy show All That is the original source of this feature-length breakout film about teens on the front lines of raging burger-joint wars. Stars Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell had so much success on All That that their own show Kenan & Kel became a spinoff; director Robbins executive-produces All That and debuted as a filmmaker with The Show, a hip-hop drama and concert film. ()


Arbor, Barton Creek, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Kevin Reynolds; with Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan. (R, 121 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Waterworld evacuee Kevin Reynolds brings things back down to scale in this drama about high-school teacher Samuel L. Jackson who is the victim of a brutal assault by a flunking gangbanger student and returns to the classroom as a drastically changed man and educator. The title 187 refers to the California state penal code for murder; the movie is written by Scott Yagemann, a seven-year veteran of the Los Angeles public school system. (Opens Wednesday, July 30) ()


Great Hills, Lakeline, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


D: Rusty Martin; with Kirsten Macy, Helen Fratena, Larry Flynn, Don Shook, Alex Hunter, Jill Bowden, Jenni Tooley. (Not Rated, 100 min.)

Only in America fashions a sprawling sense of a tempest-in-a-teacup madness, a madness that might also be described as Only in Dallas. The film employs a mountainfull of touchstones of modern Texas lore and suburban society life as it goes about the business of peeling back its piled-high narrative layers. Director Rusty Martin and producer Susan Kirr (recently transplanted to Austin) set high sights for themselves in their first feature-length film, which they shot two years ago in Dallas. An onion-skin storyline that keeps revealing set-ups lurking behind the scenes we're currently observing and a huge cast of actors would bode trouble for even the most accomplished and finely focused of filmmakers. Unfortunately, Only in America's ambitions far outreach its grasp. The majority of screen time is devoted to Only in America's film within a film: Just Say No to Satan. Set in the Plano suburbs, this plotline is rife with fatuous society matrons, vigilant anti-drug enforcers, dope-smoking teens, Robert Tilton-esque televangelists, a reputed psycho/hit man named John Wayne, and a Murdering Cheerleader Mom-ish intrigue about a woman who plans to kill the daughter of her next-door neighbor because it will increase her own property value (it almost, sort of, makes sense within the context of the movie). Another Only in America storyline involves the people who are filming Just Say No to Satan (and a guy who's filming a documentary about the filming of Just Say No to Satan). This second group of characters are seen in their offices, occupied with the latter stages of editing and unpleasant negotiations over acquiring insurance against lawsuits. Only in America's third narrative thread focuses on the nameless anti-drug agents who are gathering covert information about the filmmakers. With all these balls up in the air, much of what goes on in this movie remains fuzzy and perplexing. Some of what seems to have been meant as satire falls far short of the mark and, at best, is broad characterization. And the spottiness of these multiple storylines is more likely to confuse rather than enrich the proceedings. Instead of intertwining throughout, the storylines jam into each other with all the timing and elegance of a multi-car collision. Solid performances, good camerawork, and an effective score by Phish's Page McConnell help offset some of the film's more awkward moments. But, in the final analysis, Only in America is more crazy quilt than tapestry. (7/25/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)

Texas Union


D: Jackie Chan; with Chan, Eva Cobo, Carol Cheng, Ikeda Shoka. (PG-13, 96 min.)

Jackie Chan as Indiana Jones, sans bullwhip. This 1991 Chan opus (Armour of God II: Operation Condor), repackaged with a new score, better dubbing (Chan does Chan, natch), and some minor trims here and there, is a rousing introduction to the one-man army that is Jackie Chan. Not nearly as serious an outing as 1985's Police Story nor as ridiculous as the unwisely titled Meals on Wheels -- Chan's 1984 pairing with comic director (and fellow Peking Opera prodigy) Samo Hung -- Operation Condor falls somewhere in the middle. Chan's directing assures us a goodly number of pratfalls among the action set-pieces, and although new recruits to the Cult of Chan may be put off by the man's constant mugging for the camera, Operation Condor nevertheless contains some of the superstar's most notable sequences, including a third-act melee in a wind tunnel (you can almost hear the cast's muscles being pulled out of alignment) and a crazed motorcycle brawl straight out of John Woo's Hard-Boiled. The difference between Woo (this summer's Face/Off) and Chan, of course, resides in the body count -- Woo: 500 to Chan: 5, usually. Operation Condor's plot has something to do with superagent "Jackie Condor" (Chan) being sent to the Sahara to recover a fortune in stolen Nazi gold. To keep him out of trouble, his superiors team him with a Cheng, a desert fox with a penchant for inopportune bath times. Along the way, the pair encounter Cobo as the daughter of one of the original German swindlers, and later, Shoka as a wily thief. Together, they manage to find the gold while battling assorted ethnically stereotyped villains and their own occasional clumsiness. Chan's female counterparts, as is often the case in his films (and HK films in general), are little more than cardboard cut-outs, there to look good and scream on cue, and occasionally offer the barest (wink, wink) of support. No one will ever accuse vintage Chan of being overly feminist, nor are you likely to see Andrea Dworkin receiving a producer's credit any time soon, but Chan's good humor and PG-13 antics are so infectiously over the top that it's hard to hold the man accountable. Chan's style of filmmaking has more to do with the old Mack Sennett two-reelers than it does with modern feature filmmaking, although in this particular case it owes just as much to the Spielberg/Lucas camp, and, in particular, the Indiana Jones series. Silly, action-filled fun, with breathless pacing and the occasional bare bottom. Chan as Chan, again. (7/25/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


D: Ari Folman and Ori Sivan; with Lucy Dubinchik, Halil Elohev, Johnny Peterson, Maya Mayron, Israel Damidov, Ygal Naor, Joseph El Dror. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Dateline: 1999, Haifa, Israel. At Golda Meir Junior High School, recent Russian émigré Clara Chabov (Dubinchik) has been accused by the school's perpetually crimson-suited Headmaster Tissona (Naor) of organizing an insidious cheating ring. It's not her fault, though: Clara's a 13-year-old psychic, and in pursuit of love and other worthy endeavors, she sees no reason not to give out upcoming test answers to her classmates. Although her mother assures her that she'll lose her powers once she falls in love, Clara isn't quite as certain. Yet she idly fends off the advances of class hooligan Eddie Tikel (Elohev) and bides her time, content to play havoc with the town's lottery now and again and studiously avoid the neo-political skirmishes of her post-pubescent contemporaries. Hardly your usual set-up, but then Saint Clara is anything but your usual summer fare. This debut feature from first-time Israeli directors Folman and Sivan is a surreal, riotous affair, bursting with a thousand shades of red (the opening shot of a Golda Meir statue silhouetted against a garishly lit window as a throbbing guitar chord screams on the soundtrack is as revelatory as Leftfield's propulsive techno in the first few moments of Shallow Grave -- it's a sudden, aural harbinger of the visual roller coaster to come) and a story unlike anything audiences have seen before. Not content to merely appropriate Hollywood-style schlock, Folman and Sivan have adapted their tale from the work of Czech novelist Pavel Kohout (who adapted the story from a screenplay written by his wife Jelena Machinova), and the result is a wisely bittersweet take on young love -- and the nature of love in general -- that hearkens back to the best of Truffaut as much as anything. Perhaps because of the film's unusually prescient casting (Dubinchik is a wonder as Clara, and her friends -- the hooligan played by Tikel, Peterson's skinhead revolutionary Rosy, and Mayron's Libby with her fighter pilot's goggles firmly in place -- are likewise audaciously inspired), Saint Clara is less of a film about children (though they make up a large percentage of the cast) than it is about human beings. The search for love, after all, has never been what you might call age-specific. Folman and Sivan then go on to add various surreal highlights to Saint Clara's atmospheric locales, such as the young lover's oddball nuclear families and some very outlandish bearers of Israeli teaching certificates (one hopes), to create an overall illusion of systematic scholastic anarchy. Nothing could be further from the truth -- these kids know exactly what time it is, even if the baffled adults do not. It may be occasionally disjointed in spots, but it's still an exhilarating and wildly passionate film debut. Saint Clara swept the Israeli version of the Academy Awards upon its release, and with good reason: As Tikel would say, "It's the shit." (7/25/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Texas Union


D: Benoit Jacquot; with Virginie Ledoyen, Benoit Magimel, Dominique Valadie, Vera Briole. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

Young lovers in a Parisian cafe sip coffee, smoke, and debate their future: The opening shots of A Single Girl (La Fille Seule) strike an eternally familiar note. This pair could be the descendants of characters in a French New Wave movie by Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. The trappings of youth culture may change with the decades but it seems the song basically remains the same. Valarie (Ledoyen) reveals to her boyfriend Rémi (Magimel) that she is pregnant and tells him that she intends to have the child. His response is diffident and she also informs him that she is trying to decide whether or not to break up with him. Then, leaving this morning rendezvous, she dashes off to begin her new job as a room-service waiter in a four-star hotel, promising Rémi that she will meet him back at the cafe in an hour to give him her decision. For the next hour or so, Benoit's camera follows Valarie in a facsimile of real time as she goes about her duties at the hotel and, presumably, ponders her future with Rémi. We watch her rush through the streets of Paris, change into her tuxedo uniform, learn the new job routines, meet co-workers and superiors, encounter a few hotel guests, make some phone calls to her mother, and, repeatedly, journey up and down the elevators and back and forth through the long corridors as she goes about her task of delivering breakfast trays to the hungry guests. This hour would seem like little more than a sterile directorly exercise were it not for the captivating allure of actress Virginie Ledoyen (La Ceremonie). Her face could be said to be one of those that the camera loves to photograph; it is understandable that Benoit keeps her constantly in his viewfinder's gaze. Filmed largely in close-ups and tight shots, the camera (frequently hand-held) maintains its rigorous focus on this single girl. I suspect the hour would seem much more tedious and enigmatic with anyone other than Ledoyen filling up the screen. Likewise, we are led to believe that Valarie's experiences during this hour and all that quality meditative time she spends waiting for the elevator help her to reach her important decision. But it would be presumptuous to think we have learned anything about her. We are given very few indicators of her thinking process or reactions to the given situation. We're free to fathom whatever we want. A coda that picks up Valarie's story following the birth of her child has an abrupt, tacked-on feel that contrasts with the fluidity of all that preceded it. Virginie Ledoyen is the single reason to see A Single Girl. (7/25/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Keith Froelich; with Matt Kemp, Ralf Schirg, Andrew Woodhouse. (Not Rated, 80 min.)


2.0 stars (S.D.)


Still Playing


D: Joel Schumacher; with George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Elle Macpherson. (PG-13, 126 min.)

You know a franchise is in trouble when Joel Schumacher is sniping at Batman fans on the Internet. The director's ongoing brouhaha with local webrunner Harry Knowles is vastly more entertaining than the film itself, though. By its own merits, Batman & Robin fails to engage the spirit of Batman, Robin, or decent marketing in general, and instead ends up as a limp, excruciatingly shallow knockoff that leaves viewers cringing at the unavoidable one-liners that make up the better part of the script. Really, how many times can one stand to hear Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze telling the Cloaked One to "Chill"? Storywise, Akiva Goldsman's script seeks to expand on the dynamics of the duo by incorporating a rift in the form of Thurman's slinky Poison Ivy, a chemically altered botanist with a lethal kiss. When she pits the two crusaders against each other, sparks and libidos fly, but only briefly. The conceit -- one of the few interesting things in the film -- is never fully explored, and dies a lonely death halfway through what seems to be a very long movie. Silverstone, as Alfred the butler's renegade niece (aka Batgirl), is another new addition to the ongoing storyline, but Schumacher, oddly, makes little use of her, preferring instead to pit her against costumed motorcycle gangs in set-ups straight out of Walter Hill's The Warriors. Schwarzenegger is entertaining as Mr. Freeze, a semi-mad scientist clad in some seriously bulky thermal underwear; Freeze's overriding motivation -- to cure his sick wife at any cost -- gives him a more noble air than most of the Caped Crusader's villains, but Goldsman's script gives the villain little to do but cough up endless one-liners that become laughably bad laughably fast. You can feel Schwarzenegger the comic actor struggling to get around the decrepit lines, but it's no use; there's nothing for him to do here but kill and quip, and even the killing gets tiresome quickly. As the series' third incarnation of Bob Kane's Dark Knight, Clooney is passable, but only just. He's got the jaw for it, certainly, but when Goldsman's script forces Bruce Wayne to speak of the necessity of a loving family and the joys of the ties that bind, you can almost hear the actor giggle. That's too bad, because Wayne/Batman's grisly, poignant familial issues are at the heart of the Batman story, and could do with a bit of examining (just not by Clooney). It's only as an exercise in set design that Batman & Robin succeeds, though it's all so over the top that it's more of an exercise in what not to do than anything else. Schumacher has chosen to light his film with outlandishly garish neons and brilliant blues and pinks, which unfortunately make this look more like some ridiculous Batman on Ice escapade than anything else. It's all too much too often, a smorgasbord of boredom, a cavalcade of crap. (And, hey, enough with the nipples on the Batsuits already, okay? Geez...) (6/20/97)

1.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Westgate


D: Simon West; with Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin. (R, 125 min.)

Based on Con Air, you would never guess that Don Simpson no longer strides this mortal coil. Alongside longtime co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson stamped his extra-large testosterone imprint on everything from Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun to Flashdance and The Rock. This audience-gratifying tradition continues unabated since Simpson's untimely death last year, with Con Air containing more slo-mo fireballs and snappy one-liners than most all the other summer action movies so far. Big deal. Simpson and Bruckheimer always aimed for the lowest common denominator when it came to mass-market entertainment, and likely as not, they hit that sucker right smack dab in its slope-browed noggin. Con Air -- directed by relative unknown Simon West -- is no different, featuring scores of shots in which a) someone gets killed, b) someone else gets killed, or c) someone narrowly avoids getting killed, then pops off a pithy one-liner before killing someone else entirely. Also on board is Mark Macina, whose din-in-a-steel-drum score rivals his creatively bombastic work on Bad Boys, Speed, and, uh, Monkey Trouble. Just so you know who you're dealing with here. Storywise, it's Nicolas Cage versus everyone, as Cage's unjustly imprisoned-and-freshly-paroled Cameron Poe must fight his way home to his wife and baby daughter's lovin' arms when the prison transport plane he's riding in is hijacked by The Worst Cons in the Whole Wide World. Among them are Malkovich as criminal genius Cyrus the Virus; Rhames as an underground black-power movement leader-killer; and Buscemi as serial killer Garland Greene who, along with Cage, gets all the best lines. This is as it should be. There's nary a hint of suspense in West's film, though, mainly because he loudly trumpets the upcoming disasters so early in the film. You know you're in trouble when poor Mr. Poe nearly gets weepy over the stuffed bunny he's brought on board as a gift to the daughter he's yet to see. Cusack provides a nice turn as a U.S. Marshal who's the only guy in Poe's corner, but you can't help but get the feeling he's wondering what the hell he's doing in this film. Say Anything it ain't, nor is it The Rock, which, oddly, worked much better as a Simpson-Bruckheimer creation, giving Nicolas Cage's character at least a smidgen of reality to play with. Con Air gives him little else but the chance to strut his buffstuff and growl Stallonian non sequiturs with all the believability of Siegfried & Roy. To be fair, if you're looking to kill a couple of hours, there are worse fates awaiting you out there. Just don't ride Con Air expecting to go first class; it's cargo hold all the way. (6/13/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Lakeline, Movies 12


D: Robert Zemeckis; with Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, John Hurt. (PG, 151 min.)

Just guessing, but this probably isn't what our city's sunburned, fajita-fed throngs of summer movie viewers have been amped up for by Contact's rousing previews. Not unless they're hotter than I imagine to see two superstar actors represent Science and Religious Faith in a vaguely New Agey allegory about humanity's ancient struggle to resolve their conflicting views of existence. Yet the same measured, cerebral approach that makes this adaptation of the late Carl Sagan's novel a poor fit with the seasonal raft of overblown fantasy spectacle (Batman, The Fifth Element) and kill-everybody, burn-everything action blamarama is also a very real asset -- even if some of the concepts it bandies about are a mite scattershot and sloganistic. In keeping with his role as science's ambassador to the masses, Sagan and wife/co-writer Ann Druyan have given us an astronomer-heroine, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster), whose zeal for solving the universe's mysteries matches that of her counterpart on the spiritual side of the fence, charismatic pop theologian Palmer Joss (McConaughey). Arroway meets Joss early on, during a break from her efforts to detect radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, and the pair enjoy a single frolic in the hay. However, little effort is made to churn up romantic chemistry between Foster and McConaughey. For better or worse, director Robert Zemeckis sticks to Sagan's original vision for these characters, in which they're basically totems embodying both sides of a philosophical dialectic. After setbacks, Arroway's efforts pay off when her massed array of radio telescopes picks up signals coming from the remote star, Vega. Though the process of decoding the messages and responding to their invitation (they tell how to build a machine for transporting one human to the senders' home planet) is both fascinating and scientifically plausible, it's obvious Sagan's main interest is the havoc that proof of alien life might wreak on the belief systems of the great unwashed. Thus, we have interminable, edit-me-please stretches devoted to cartoonish Christian Righters speculating about the aliens' "values"; millennialist loons holding Winnebago rallies in the desert; and panels of inquisitors grilling Arroway about her spiritual beliefs. (Strangely, considering the panelists' diverse nationalities, they all seem to regard Christian monotheism as the religion of choice). Meanwhile, an already gnarly plotline is complicated further by Arroway's ongoing cosmic debate with Joss and her sporadic encounters with a bizarre, reclusive billionaire (Hurt) who's bankrolling her research. But despite its chug-holed narrative and occasionally synthetic feel, Contact artfully strings you along with coy hints of mighty revelations to come. Zemeckis helps by showing atypical restraint with scenes intended to convey magic and awe. The wonder of the unfolding events is revealed through grand images and bold ideas, not imposed by gimmicky style. And with both Foster and McConaughey earnestly plumbing their deepest emotional resources to flesh out their skeletally written characters, the point is well made that science opens doors to truths hidden from religion's view, and vice-versa. But after almost two-and-a-half hours of tantalizing buildup, the closing scenes' meager payoff of banal, Jack Handeyish hoo-haw creates a frustrating sense of intellectual coitus interruptus. Granted, the same might be said of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick craftily finessed his ending with enigmatic images which left final interpretation to the viewer's imagination. All of which suggests that, when art addresses life's unanswerable questions, the wisest strategy may be simply to respect the mystery. It's a distinction that can make the difference between a hit -- which Contact will be -- and a classic. (7/11/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: John Woo; with John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell. (R, 140 min.)

A grand return to form for modern cinema's most exciting action director, Face/Off is the film Woo fans have been waiting for since the director arrived on our shores after leaving his native Hong Kong four years ago. Although the original script was conceived as a futuristic science fiction thriller, when Woo came onboard he jettisoned about 95% of the script's more outré trappings in favor of a modern-day setting with just a few improbabilities left over. No matter. Face/Off works like a charm right on down the line thanks to brilliant, exhilarating performances from Cage and Travolta, and the many tremendously enjoyable action set-pieces that are Woo's hallmark. Travolta plays FBI agent Sean Archer, a man haunted by the death several years ago of his young son, who was accidentally shot by terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Cage). Since then, Archer has been tracking Troy relentlessly, and when he finally gets his man (putting him in a coma in the process), the nightmare seems to be at an end. The only problem that remains is the biological weapon that Troy and his deranged, genius brother Pollux (Nivola) planted somewhere in downtown San Francisco before their capture. To uncover the location of the doomsday device, Archer undergoes a radical new surgery technique to graft Castor Troy's face onto his own, thereby allowing him to get close to brother Pollux in prison and trick him into giving up the necessary information. The procedure works masterfully, and now Archer, for all intents and purposes, is his most hated enemy. Unfortunately, while he's in lock-up picking Pollux's brain, the real Castor Troy wakes up from his coma, steals Archer's face, and murders everyone who knows the truth about the FBI's high-tech switcheroo, leaving Archer stuck in prison while Troy is free to grant his brother a pardon, infiltrate the FBI, and get it on with Archer's wife Eve (Allen). All this may sound a bit confusing, but with Woo at the helm, it's a wild roller coaster of mixed identities and passionate violence. And it's a joy to watch Cage play Travolta and vice versa. Far and away the best of summer action films thus far, Face/Off whips along like liquid mercury, filled with sly, dark wit and some of the most exciting action set-pieces to have come out of Hollywood in years. No one alive on the face of the planet can direct gunplay like John Woo, and Face/Off is a veritable showcase for the man's talents, combining rapid-fire editing with 10,000 rounds of pure cordite-scented adrenaline. Add to that the stunningly over-the-top performances of both Cage and Travolta, and you have not only classic John Woo but also the most entertaining film of the summer, a brilliantly conceived actioner that takes everything and everyone involved with it to the next awesome level. (7/4/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Susan Streitfield; with Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Karen Sillas, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, Clancy Brown, Dale Shuger. (R, 119 min.)

Strange bedfellows, indeed. Female Perversions is a movie which, by all conventional wisdom, should not work. Yet it not only works, it accomplishes something thoroughly original. Female Perversions is the most intelligent, entertaining, provocative, absorbing, and, yes, feminist movie to grace our theatres in quite some time. Hardly the salacious kinkathon that the title suggests, the movie definitely has its erotic aspects but they're all there to service the movie's line of inquiry into how social conditioning shapes the female psyche. The movie's title is the same as that of the non-fiction book which inspired the first-time director Susan Streitfield. The book is a theoretical study by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan that examines the ways in which the very act of being female in society is in itself a perversion. Since women are conditioned by stereotyping and gender expectations against deviating from the "norms," Kaplan argues that a woman's life is a constant strategic negotiation. It's this that she regards as the perversion. All women engage in perverse behaviors or strategies; the only differences are where they fall on the scale of perversion. The movie, however, is a fictional narrative, not a documentary or essay. Anchored as it is in such weighty premises and provocations, it is no small accomplishment that the film succeeds in creating such an engaging narrative and compelling characters, and does it with considerable visual flourish to boot. The amazing Scottish actress Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II) makes her American debut here. Swinton and Amy Madigan play sisters and it's wonderful to see two such thoughtful actresses applying their talents to such difficult material. Swinton's Eve Stephens is a woman who appears to have it all: looks, a high-powered job as an attorney, a handsome and thrilling male lover (Brown), and a beautiful and desirous female lover (Sillas). Her entire demeanor exudes competence and loveliness. Yet in her mind she hears offscreen voices whispering about her fat hips, and we witness her moments of panic as she discreetly obsesses about a loose thread on her hem during an important interview with the governor or stresses over her shade of lipstick. Then, on the eve of her appointment to a court judgeship, the balance of her life begins to crumble. She's called to rescue her sister Maddy, a kleptomaniac and Ph.D. candidate who's defending her dissertation about a matriarchal society in Mexico where all the women grow fat. This introduces Eve into the household where Maddy resides with a broken-hearted woman who runs a bridal shop, the woman's adolescent daughter who has taken to self-injury and cutting herself with razor blades, and the girl's Aunt Annunciata, a stripper. The array of subordinate characters is fascinating, and offers a range of representations of the scale of perversity. But they're also a bit of the problem as well. There's either too much of them or not enough, and the subordinate dramas sometimes take away from the time we want to spend with the central story. The same could be said for Eve's recurrent flashbacks to a childhood incident at her family's swimming pool and her vague yet provocative erotic fantasies. A close-to-all-woman crew crafted this movie at every step of production. (Serving as line producer was Rana Joy Glickman, who was recently in town for the SXSW Film Festival screenings of Real Stories of the Donut Men and Full Tilt Boogie, both of which she produced). Yet, interestingly, Zalman King, who produced and scripted 9 1/2 Weeks and directed Wild Orchid, is credited as Female Perversions' executive producer. Strange bedfellows, I repeat. But, in the case of Female Perversions, strange has proven to be the very best kind. The making of an original piece of theoretical feminist drama such as this surpasses the restrictions of common sense. (5/23/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)



D: Sam Weisman; with Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree, Greg Cruttwell, Abraham Benrubi, the voice of John Cleese. (PG, 92 min.)

Based on the late Sixties Jay Ward cartoon of the same name, this live-action Disney version is so silly, so garishly over-the-top, and so bracingly eager to please, that it's hard not to fall under its gleefully gooney spell. It's a kids film first, but adult chaperones will find themselves grinning along at Fraser's spirited characterization and director Weisman's inventive storytelling, which utilizes many of Ward's groundbreaking techniques, including the smartass narrator and much breaking down of the fourth wall. Not only does the "navigationally challenged" King of the Jungle frequently turn to speak to the audience, but so does almost everyone else in the picture. It's outlandish, of course, but that's the fun of it, and against all odds, it works. When a beautiful San Francisco-based adventurer by the name of Ursula (Mann) finds herself tracking the myth of the Great White Ape deep in the heart Africa, she encounters more than she bargained for in the form of George and his plethora of animal friends. There's a talking ape named Ape (voiced by Cleese and wonderfully crafted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop); the colorful Tookie Tookie bird; and Shep, the elephant who thinks he's a dog. Saved from a lion attack by the wily George, Ursula finds herself falling for the big lug, much to the dismay of her fiancé Lyle Van De Groot (Church), a scheming society boy intent on carrying out the proposed nuptials. Add to this a pair of poachers (Cruttwell and Benrubi) intent on capturing Ape and the money-mad parents of Ursula, and you've got a live-action cartoon that for all intents and purposes is funnier than its source material. Ward's original show lacked much of the high wit and sarcastic banter that made his name a household word in animation ("Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Fractured Fairy Tales"), but Weisman and Fraser's take makes up for that in spades. Relentlessly ridiculous, the gags are at times a spotty affair. (How many times can we watch poor George plow into stationary objects before the fun goes out of it? You might as well ask how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Charm's Blo-Pop.) A subdued sort of juvenilia is at the reins more often than not, but above it all, Fraser -- a warm and generous physical comedian operating at full steam -- is George, from his leopard-print "butt flap" to his scraggly mane and artfully honed abdominals. Say what you will about live-action knockoffs of classic kids' shows (and feel free to be especially negative about The Flintstones), but with this Disney adaptation Weisman and Fraser have managed to capture the riotous, chaotic spirit of Ward en toto. (7/18/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

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D: Steven Soderbergh; with Spalding Gray. (Not Rated, 80 min.)

Spalding Gray is like marzipan: You either love him or you hate him and rarely is there an in-between. This is the third in (I expect) an ongoing series of feature-length monologues from Gray -- the first two comprising the OBIE award-winning Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box -- and although all three have strikingly similar qualities, Soderbergh's skewed, unsettling, and often hilarious direction in Gray's Anatomy makes this time out the most entertaining by far. As with all things Gray, the monologist's sardonic, self-deprecating wit is in full throttle as he recounts his recent battle with a degenerative eye disease and the various processes he went through in search of a cure. Not being particularly fond of surgical procedures involving protracted scraping of his inner ocular regions, Gray instead goes off in search of alternative therapies before consenting to the inevitable. Along the way, he attends a Native-American sweat lodge gathering intended to spiritually heal his damaged optics (to no avail), recounts his upbringing among a family of devout Christian Scientists, and regales the audience with his misadventures while visiting a Filipino psychic surgeon by the name of Pini Boca (again, to no avail). I have a number of friends who find Gray's breathless monologizing steadfastly boring; they'd get more kicks watching Brie melt than sitting through one of the artist's verbal performances. These are usually the same people who despise Eric Bogosian for similar reasons (though the two have little in common besides their penchants for verbal gymnastics). The bottom line, I've always felt, is "Is he a good storyteller?" and the answer invariably leans toward the affirmative. Gray -- love him or hate him -- is frequently spellbinding, whether he's speaking about his experiences during his acting stint in The Killing Fields, or about more mundane, personal situations such as this. Peppering his speech with the odd one-liner and the occasional risqué anecdote, Gray comes across like a large, demented elf, manifestly eager to bring home these personal experiences that have shaped his life. For his part, Soderbergh keeps the camera moving, never allowing it to rest too long on Gray's haggard face. This flurry of motion in what is essentially a one-man, one-character, static stage play -- along with the director's clever use of offbeat lenses and challenging lighting arrays -- keeps Gray's Anatomy from bogging down in itself and becoming the ennui-inducing juggernaut the performer's detractors have so often hinted at. Not only is it interesting to follow the course of Gray's storyline, the movie is also equally interesting to view, even if the storyteller is just sitting in front of a desk most of the time. (7/18/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)



D: John Musker and Ron Clements; with the voices of Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Bob Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Paul Shaffer, Charlton Heston. (G, 93 min.)

I once had a friend -- the father of two teenaged daughters -- who predicted the end of civilization as we know it and blamed the impending doom and economic collapse on the advent of designer jeans. At the time, being a Lee-jeans-wearing non-parent, I could afford to laugh, but I didn't laugh long -- for Calvin Klein and his $50 blue jeans looks like a piker next to Nike and their $180 sneakers, and my daughter teeters on the edge of adolescence. Now, I have reason to laugh again. That Disney, the mother of all merchandisers, should spoof the Swoosh, not to mention the Magic Kingdom itself, is just one more thing to like in a movie chock full of likeable things. As much as I appreciate my 10-year-old getting a message about the difference between real heroes and those only good for spawning action figures, I really love getting plied with swifter-than-Hermes, sophisticated sight-gags (mosaic billboards and "Buns of Bronze" workout scrolls), and witty, silly, self-parodying dialogue (Hades, proclaiming his realm is "a small underworld, after all"). Playing fast and loose with the classic myth, Musker & Clements' Hercules is a true Olympian, fathered by Zeus (Torn) and mothered by Hera (Egger). But Hades (Woods), the god who hates his job, envisions a loftier domain, and since the Fates have warned him that Hercules will thwart his ascension, he has his minions -- Pain (Goldthwait) and Panic (Frewer) -- kidnap the infant. Despite his adoption by a kindly couple, Hercules is quite the misfit among regular mortals, and therefore beseeches a statue of Zeus for answers regarding his identity. The statue comes to life and Zeus advises his son to enlist a world-weary satyr named Philoctetes (DeVito) as his mentor so that he can become a true hero and return to Olympus. Faster than you can say "Yoda," Phil whips Herc into shape and deems him ready for action. They set out for Thebes ("The Big Olive," it seems, is badly in need of a hero). En route, they encounter Megara, a cynical, tough-talking dame (with a marshmallow center) doing a little side job for Hades in hopes of renegotiating her contract. Herc does his strong man thing and is well on his way to hunkdom, with all the accompanying endorsement opportunities. Hercules is filled with rich, classical visual imagery and zips along with thoroughly modern mischief. Can we ever look at a pair of Nikes again without mentally imaging Air Herc sandals? The cast is nothing short of sensational (especially Woods, who gives us the most memorable and oddly likeable villain since Cruella DeVil) and the animators wisely imbue their drawings with the actors' attributes -- right down to Hermes' (Shaffer's) shades. All the cast members seems to relish their roles and their zest is infectious. How can we resist joining in? For nothing is sacred when, in the very opening scene, the august voice of Charlton Heston's narrator tells one of the gospel chorus Muses, "You go, girl!" I did. I would again. (6/27/97)

3.5 stars (H.C.)

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D: David Lynch; with Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Henry Rollins, Balthazar Getty, Gary Busey, Robert Loggia, Richard Pryor. (R, 135 min.)

Enigmatic even by Lynchian standards, the storyline of Lost Highway was perhaps best summed up by Lynch himself on a recent segment of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After effusing briefly about Robert Blake's clip, Leno queried the director about the film's plot, to which Lynch replied: "It's about [long pause]... a man in trouble." Very succinct, maddeningly vague, but also quite accurate. What better way to describe this complex, wildly frustrating journey into the Lynch's tortured, oddly prosaic film psyche? Like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway deals with the everyday turned upside-down, or rather, gutted and then pulled inside-out. Normalcy is a fraud, and nothing is quite what it seems, although fans of Lynch's Lumberton and Twin Peaks sagas will find themselves stymied in the nameless, Los Angelesean desert suburbia of Lost Highway. Now more than ever, nothing makes much sense. Fred Madison (Pullman) is a tenor saxman. By night, he blows his horn at the local club; by day, he hangs out with his wife Renee (Arquette), a Betty Page doppelganger. When the couple begins receiving mysterious videotapes on their front porch -- tapes apparently made inside their home, while they were sleeping -- the police are called. They offer little comfort, though, and Fred begins to suspect his wife is having an affair. Things take a sidestep into the awful when Renee is viciously murdered, and her husband is found guilty of the crime. Incarcerated for a crime he may or may not have committed, Fred waits out his days in lockup until, without explanation, he literally vanishes, and in his place is found Pete Dayton (Getty), a young auto mechanic who inexplicably appears in Fred's cell. Things get stranger from here on out, and considering the elliptical, highly subjective nature of Lynch's film, there's no point in giving anything else away. Suffice to say Fred and Pete's lives are commingled, with Renee at the center. Lynch, who penned the screenplay with novelist Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), seems to be attempting to capture not just a sense of place and time (it never works -- Lost Highway is wholly, irrevocably, out of place and without any linear time or time line to speak of), but also a sense of madness. Is Fred insane? Is Pete insane? Who killed Renee (and is she even dead to begin with)? Cocky auteur that he is, Lynch provides the audience with an abundance of clues, but no solid answers. What he does provide is a deliciously delirious descent into his own mental mise-en-scene: It may not appear to make any sense, but, my god, it looks good. Lost Highway pushes the envelope of sight and sound, and merges these two most important elements of film into a hallucinatory orgy. Angelo Badalamenti's score is wondrously arcane, and Lynch's choice of soundtrack recordings perfectly echoes the spiraling sense of onscreen disorientation, from Trent Reznor's eerie soundscapes to Lou Reed's ominously carefree "This Magic Moment." Couple that with Peter Deming's dark, spare lighting and camerawork, and you've got Lynch/Kafka overkill. With a running time of 135 minutes, Lost Highway could have stood some final trimming -- some passages seem to go on endlessly, pointlessly -- but you get the feeling the director just likes to make you squirm. Confounding and disconcerting, Lost Highway is David Lynch consciously attempting to outdo himself. He does, gloriously, and in doing so loses the rest of us in the process. (2/28/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)



D: Steven Spielberg; with Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Richard Attenborough, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare. (PG-13, 129 min.)

The phrase "long-awaited" kind of falls short of the mark when discussing Spielberg's $70 million-plus follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time. Suffice to say, fans of the first film won't be disappointed by the sequel, with the possible exception of Professor Stephen Hawking, who will doubtless miss all the earlier film's discussions about chaos theory. Loosely based on Michael Crichton's bestselling novel, The Lost World reunites the inimitably goofy mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Goldblum, nicely twitchy, as always) with a whole new passel of big, scary monsters, this time on a remote island some 80 miles from the original dino-site. According to billionaire venture capitalist John Hammond (Attenborough), this second island was used to breed the original dinosaurs for Jurassic Park and has since fallen into disrepair. Hammond, sick and bedridden at this point, no longer seeks financial gain from his cloned critters, but instead wants them studied and preserved for the benefit of the scientific community and the world at large. To this end he sends Malcolm and a team of three others -- including Malcolm's girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Moore) -- to study and photograph the creatures. Unbeknownst to the group, Hammond's nephew Peter Ludlow (Howard) is leading a group of InGen scientists into the field to salvage what they can for the ailing corporation. That includes capturing a live Tyrannosaur and returning it to a new theme park in San Diego. Bad idea. The Lost World (unlike Spielberg's original film) leaps head first into the action, rushing, it seems, to get the film's real stars -- the dinosaurs -- to the screen as quickly as possible, and it does so with considerable verve. Stegosauri, Tyrannosaurs, and all manner of new creatures make their chaotic debuts within the film's first 30 minutes, and from that point on, The Lost World feels like less of a movie than it does a carnival ride -- all precipitous highs and nerve-jangling lows. In fact, there's so much rushing about that you're tempted to think it's all much ado about nothing, but just then a T-rex eats someone whole and your gut drops out from under you and the ride continues, unabated and wild. Much of the fun (and there's a lot of it) relies on gory black humor: an InGen stooge gets tromped by a T-rex and remains stuck on the carnosaur's foot for a while, a neighborhood pet brings new meaning to the term "dog food," etc. Considering this, parents might want to think twice before allowing younger children to catch that matinee. Film buffs will get a kick out of the many in-jokes Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp have tossed in (Koepp himself plays a Tyrannosaur victim), including homages to the original King Kong, among others. Schindler's List it's not, nor is it even Jaws, but it is pure Spielbergian fantasy, and as such, The Lost World may just be the perfect Saturday afternoon summer movie. (5/30/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Highland


D: Barry Sonnenfeld; with Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub. (PG-13, 98 min.)

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the alleged Roswell alien crash comes this witty-but-slight comedy from Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld. In fact, Men in Black opens with titles that are strikingly similar to Sonnenfeld's earlier film, as well as a jaunty soundtrack by Danny Elfman and an appearance by Carel Struycken (Addams' Lurch) as an alien, making it briefly feel like some sort of weird Addams offshoot. It's not, though. Having survived a rumored 22 rewrites, Men in Black is its own critter, and as far as breezy, effects-laden summer fare, it's not half bad. Jones plays K, a longtime member of a super-secret, non-government-affiliated agency created to monitor here on earth the comings and goings of extraterrestrials -- some friendly, some not. As part of this underground INS, Jones and his cohorts get to wear standard-issue black Armani suits and blacker Ray-Ban shades, making them look as though they wandered in off the set of Reservoir Dogs 2. After K recruits as his new partner young NYPD hotshot Will Smith (henceforth known simply as J), erasing his fingerprints along with his identity, the pair embarks on a mission to seek out and destroy an evil alien "bug" (sort of a giant, intergalactic cockroach) that's taken over the body of Edgar, an upstate bumpkin farmer. The bug is bent on destroying the members of another, slightly more diminutive alien race, and it's up to the Men in Black to stop him before intergalactic war -- and the requisite destruction of the earth -- occurs. That's all we have going on in Men in Black's mighty slim storyline, but it works, up to a point. Sonnenfeld has created a series of alien gags that work 90% of the time; strung together like washing on a backyard clothesline, the film hops from joke to joke, enormously fueled by the obvious comedic synergy between its two leads. The pairing of Jones and Smith is one of the better duos to come out of Hollywood in some time, with Smith's wide-eyed amazement at the new and strange sights he encounters as an MIB deftly ricocheting off of Jones' craggy-faced, been-there-done-that stoicism. D'Onofrio's Edgar is terrific as well; with a little help from Rick Baker's effects team, he plays the farmer-cum-insectoid alien as a lumbering, twitchy, one-man freak show, full of alien faux pas and an ill-fitting human skin. He's so disgusting you can't help but laugh, and then laugh again. As the sum total of its gags, Men in Black succeeds nicely, though if you take away the jokes, you're left with little more than a handful of none-too-startling creatures and some missing backstory. Comparisons with Ghostbusters have been making the rounds, but Sonnenfeld's film lacks the sheer joyful enthusiasm of that Ivan Reitman production. Like the inky void of space, there's really not much here, but what there is, is certainly entertaining. (7/4/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

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D: P.J. Hogan; with Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz, Rupert Everett. (PG-13, 104 min.)

The Philadelphia Story is 57 years old, George Cukor lies a-moulderin' in the grave, and the theory prevails in some quarters that Hollywood has forgotten how to make good romantic comedies. My Best Friend's Wedding doesn't figure to eclipse the aforementioned classic in the movie firmament. However, it does effectively recall those bygone days when impossibly attractive, charming, and endearingly flawed characters dressed to kill, smoked like creosote plants, and behaved atrociously on the way to rapturous romantic consummation. Our heroine is a suitably Cukoresque figure: cynical, love-averse writer Julianne Potter (Roberts), who finds herself unexpectedly shaken by the engagement of her old flame and lifelong best buddy Michael O'Neal (perpetual superstar hunk-in-waiting Mulroney). Is she still torching for Mike or is it just that his fiancée (Diaz) is too damned perfect: gorgeous, bright, rich, cool, and adventurous? Regardless, Julianne sets out to torpedo the wedding through a combination of outrageous dirty tricks, disinformation, and ever-bolder overtures toward the groom. Her reluctant accomplice and moral sounding board is loyal gay sidekick George (Everett, flawlessly executing a role which in earlier days might have gone to Tony Randall). Despite an irresolute tone that suggests a team-writing effort by Billy Wilder, Tracey Ullman, and Nora Ephron -- the responsible party is actually the talented Ron Bass, whose credits include Rain Man and The Joy Luck Club -- there's an energizing quirkiness and unpredictability about this film. One moment, a bizarre, impromptu Dionne Warwick sing-along erupts at a formal dinner; minutes later, an intimate soul-searching session is given a full measure of time to resolve itself. A few more moments pass and a wedding guest is getting her tongue stuck on the genitalia of a male ice sculpture. This all-over-the-yard feel recalls director Hogan's similarly uneven Muriel's Wedding. But My Best Friend's Wedding is a step forward on several fronts, particularly the smart, consistently funny writing and the topnotch cast, among whom Roberts is first of equals. More a cartoonist's impression of a classical beauty than the genuine article, the toothy, wild-haired Roberts turns out to be perfectly suited in both looks and temperament for the screwball heroine's role. Any actress who can, in the same film, carry off slapstick, femme fatale-ism, nail-spitting cynicism, and sweet vulnerability has something special going for her. Thanks largely to her presence, so does this film. (6/20/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

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D: Steve Oedekerk; with Martin Lawrence, Tim Robbins, John C. McGinley, Giancarlo Esposito, Kelly Preston, Michael McKean, Irma P. Hall. (R, 97 min.)

There's something about the pairing of psychotic Fox comedian Lawrence with revered actors' gang alumnus and all-around swell guy Robbins that's so oddball it's almost sure-fire. At least, I suspect that's what writer-director Oedekerk and the producers felt going in to this project. And they're half right: The pairing of the short, black, violently effusive comic and the impossibly tall, good-natured white guy seems, at first thought, to be a smashingly good idea, or one that, at least, will break even. For some reason, though, things never quite jell between the two mismatched leads. The spark which pops up every so often never quite flares into a comic flame, and what we're left with is the inescapable need for more. More what is anyone's guess, but more something, for the love of God. Robbins plays Nick Beam, a well-to-do advertising executive whose world collapses one afternoon when he returns home early to surprise his wife (Preston) only to spy her in bed with his boss (McKean). Devastated, he hops back in his car (actually he sort of slouches, like a man overcome by gravity) and drives aimlessly through Los Angeles, eventually, blindly driving into South Central, where he is almost immediately car-jacked by novice thief T. Paul (Lawrence). Instead of giving up his car and wallet to T., Nick instead turns the tables on his attacker and kidnaps him, driving hell-bent for leather clear to Arizona before stopping for a bite to eat. It should go without saying that the two opposites attract, and, eventually, become friends under the United Front of Felonious Assault. Together they conspire to salvage Nick's bruised machismo by plundering his boss' office safe, and, well, you get the idea. The jokes -- especially those from Robbins' slack-jawed physical comedy -- are fast and sleek, and they work well enough up to a point, but Oedekerk, for some reason, feels the necessity to gob up the whole shebang with frequent doses of unbridled tenderness. T. Paul, it seems, has a loving wife and kids, who depend on him to bring home the proverbial bacon. He's not bad, he's just drawn that way, and the artist in question is Oedekerk. Nothing in the world can deflate a deft, fast-moving comedy like excessive preachiness; Capra could make it work, but few others, and Oedekerk, a former writer for In Living Color, is no Capra. Not by a long shot. (7/18/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Martha Coolidge; with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Dyan Cannon, Gloria De Haven, Brent Spiner, Elaine Stritch, Hal Linden, Donald O'Connor, Edward Mulhare, Rue McClanahan. (PG-13, 107 min.)

Out to Sea: Boy, howdy... that's the truth. This one misses the boat by several nautical miles. Out to Sea is the 10th pairing of that "grumpy old men odd couple," Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and believe me, I will happily defend the duo's first eight pictures and even hold fond hope for the 11th: an Odd Couple sequel that's already in the works. But with their last two pairings, Grumpier Old Men and Out to Sea, Matthau and Lemmon appear to be churning these comedies out like aged cheese. Comfortable familiarity and low-impact nudges to geriatric funny bones do not begin to compensate for the absence of solid scripting, unified narrative direction, and focused comic drive. The film is organized around tepid gags which, on the whole, are neither terribly funny nor original. We've seen these guys do all this material before -- and better. It's as though now that George Burns is not around to do any more Oh God pictures, Lemmon and Matthau have figured they've got a lock on a certain niche market and have decided to milk it for all it's worth -- script or no script. (The screenplay is by newcomer Robert Nelson Jacobs.) Out to Sea is clearly designed to be a summer alternative and is unapologetically targeted toward an older audience that might still associate such names as Gloria De Haven and Donald O'Connor with marquee value. For distributor Twentieth Century Fox, this hasn't been the best of summers when it comes to water flicks: first Titanic steered off course, then their surefire Speed 2 started coming up with rather soggy box-office figures, and now this hip-replacement rhumba into the Caribbean. Out to Sea's plot has brothers-in-law Matthau and Lemmon posing as dance hosts aboard a cruise ship; however, the set-up yields very little in the way of comic escapades. Out to find rich widows, Lemmon finds himself falling in love with the ageless Gloria De Haven while Matthau zeroes in on the comely blonde occupying the ship's stateroom (Dyan Cannon). Fellow dance hosts played by Hal Linden and Donald O'Connor are painfully underused, although their personality-free characters are much less frightening than Elaine Stritch's wiseacre battle-ax or Rue McClanahan's vain, sex-starved cruise-ship owner. Matthau (who may be the only person in the movie who looks his age) and Cannon (who looks way too disturbingly young for her age) make for an odd and unsettling romantic coupling. Stealing the show is Star Trek's Brent Spiner at the ship's supercilious twit of an entertainment director. "I'm your worst nightmare," he warns early on, "a song-and-dance-man raised in the military." His stage routines are truly sights to behold. Director Martha Coolidge, whose wonderful early films such as Valley Girl, Real Genius, and Rambling Rose starred such strong teen characters, is stumbling badly in her more recent work (Geena Davis' star turn as Angie, the film version of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and the fantasy romance Three Wishes). Out to Sea is not likely to land her back on terra firma. (7/4/97)

1.0 stars (M.B.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12


D: Jacques Doillon; with Victoire Thivisol, Matiaz Bureau, Delphine Schlitz, Marie Trintignant, Xavier Beauvois, Claire Nebout. (Not Rated, 92 min.)

Ponette accomplishes something that's quite rare and extraordinary in the field of storytelling: This exceptional French film authentically gets inside the mind of a four-year-old child and shows us the world from her point of view. And young Ponette (Thivisol) has more than her fair share of trauma to deal with. A sudden car accident has caused her mother's death and left Ponette's arm broken (the limb remains in a cast throughout the entire movie). As the film opens, Ponette is lying in a hospital bed as her compassionate but bereft father (Beauvois) tries to explain that mommy simply may be too broken to fix. Needing to deal with his own grief, Ponette's father temporarily leaves his daughter in the care of her aunt who lives in the country with her two children: a boy approximately Ponette's age and a girl who appears to be a couple of years older. Ponette refuses to believe that her mother will never return. It's not insolent willfulness on Ponette's part but, rather, a profound incomprehension of how such a thing could be true. Her aunt's consoling story about the resurrection of Jesus only increases the child's confusion and fuels the belief that her loss is not irrevocable. She explores a variety of strategies for bringing back her mother, amalgams of semi-truths and solemn rituals imparted to her by other well-meaning children. Her young cousins are also abundantly sensitive to her pain and try to console her, but they, too, are held sway by the magical and irrational cause-and-effect thinking of childhood. As with all human beings, whatever their age, Ponette must explore the full geography of her emotions before she can find solid moorings. The film's narrative method of resolving the child's crisis leans heavily on a miraculous solution and is the only false note Ponette strikes. Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, however, is a revelation to watch. The naturalism and expressiveness of this child as she moves through a host of difficult emotions is more like experiencing the unabashed realism of a fragile soul bared than the witnessing of a great performance. It's a performance so astonishing that Thivisol was recognized with the best actress award at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. Director Doillon is a filmmaker whose work has rarely shuttled over to this continent. The unique sensibility and gentle confidence he demonstrates in Ponette make it clear that this Frenchman is a storyteller in possession of distinctive insight. Childhood has no better friend than Jacques Doillon. And some kindergarten somewhere in France has a world-renowned actress in its midst. (7/18/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Michael Ritchie; with Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, Mara Wilson, Robert Pastorelli, Amanda Plummer, Francis Capra, Ruby Dee, Teri Garr, Alan Campbell, Jonathan Hadary. (PG, 90 min.)

The concept's good. So's the cast. But this family film about an incompetent fairy godmother named Murray (Short), is shy several handfuls of fairy dust. Instead of magic and make-believe, A Simple Wish follows a more earthbound course, which is a shame because the movie appears to have all the right elements in place, it just neglects to do much of anything with them. Murray is the world's first male fairy godmother, but it seems he's never heard that conventional wisdom about how minority candidates need to be twice as competent as the competition in order to be regarded as equals. As played by Short, Murray is a foppish clod with a broken wand (and, I must say, more than a touch of the old Ed Grimley). He aims to please but perpetually encounters technical foul-ups, like when he summons a giant rabbi instead of a rabbit. That's how he accidentally managed to turn young Anabel's father into a statue while granting her wish to have him become a successful stage actor. Although Short tirelessly, yet aimlessly, hams for the camera, his mugging may be for the lack of having anything more focused to do. Mara Wilson (Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire) is a talented young actress, pleasantly up to the task of appearing in virtually every scene. In a disjointed plot development, Kathleen Turner plays an excommunicated fairy godmother who steals all the magic wands from the ladies at the Manhattan NAFGA soiree (North American Fairy Godmother Association -- an intriguing assembly full of humorous potential which, in typical fashion, the film provides a mere glimpse of and then thoroughly abandons). Turner and her sidekick (Amanda Plummer, brilliantly playing a human being who is only one hair removed from the canine she used to be) are great fun, but here too, these characters have way too little to do. Pastorelli is charmingly un-Eldon-like, as he auditions for a role in a new Broadway play A Tale of Two Cities. (Yet the film's satire of this Lloyd-Weber-ish play is probably too accurate to be widely recognized as a spoof, and the belting out of "A Far, Far Better Thing" as he plants his head in the guillotine is certain to extend beyond the humor references of the younger audience members.) Director Michael Ritchie (Bad News Bears, Fletch) does little to perk up this high-concept/low-delivery script by Jeff Rothberg, and he lets way too many rich opportunities go to waste. By the time this tepid comedy is through, you'll want an alchemist instead of a fairy godmother of any gender. (7/18/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)

Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Westgate


D: Chen Kaige; with Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin, He Saifei, Zhang Shi, Lin Lianqun, Ge Xiangting, Xie Tian, David Wu, Zhou Jie, Zhou Yemang, Ren Lei. (R, 119 min.)

Set against the blustering, turn-of-the-century opium trade in China, Chen's newest film resonates on enough levels to satisfy everyone from the hardcore China enthusiast to fans of Melrose Place. Especially fans of Melrose Place. While not nearly as sinuously fluid as Chen's 1993 breakthrough, Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon is nonetheless one of the most gorgeously lavish Chinese productions in some time, much of which is due to cinematographer Christopher Doyle's opulent handiwork and a pair of brilliant performances from Gong and Cheung, the Asian Streep and De Niro. As the film opens, it's 1911, and the ancient dynasties that have controlled China for centuries are coming to a close under the thumb of British gunboat diplomacy. Near Shanghai, at the estate of the Pang family, a young orphan, Zhongliang (Ren), comes to live with his sister Xuiyi (He) and brother-in-law Zhengda (Zhou). There, he carefully fills and refills their opium pipes while trying to maintain an air of scholarship. Studies are impossible, though, amidst the dank clouds of narcotics, and before long, Zhongliang is forced into a bitter, incestuous relationship. Despite the friendship of young Ruyi (Gong) and Duanwu (Lin), Zhongliang flees to Shanghai one night and throws himself into an underworld of petty crime, prostitution, and easy money. Taken in by a benevolent gangster boss, Zhongliang is ordered one day to return to the Pang estate -- now but a shadow of its former glory -- to seduce the now grown Ruyi (Gong), the family's sole remaining heir. Against his better judgment, the now-adult Zhongliang (Cheung) finds himself falling in love with Ruyi while all about them crumbles. Essentially a Shakespearean tragedy masquerading as a Chinese period piece, Temptress Moon is a marvel to behold. All three leads, Gong, Cheung, and Lin turn in blazing performances, packed with bitter, endless defeats both in and out of the bedroom. Chen's film moves at the stately, leisurely pace you'd expect from a story dealing with a crumbling dynasty, but once the seeds of destruction are set in motion, the film fairly hurtles inexorably towards its dark, soulless conclusion, grabbing the audience with Doyle's breathtaking camerawork (he also did Chungking Express) and, especially, Cheung's tortuous performance as the doomed Zhongliang. The analogies to modern-day China fly thick and fast in Temptress Moon but never detract from the universality of the story. The cruel destruction of bitter hearts and innocent lives, plus opium wars to boot... what more could you ask for? (7/4/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)



D: Victor Nunez; with Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Christine Dunford, Tom Wood, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel. (R, 113 min.)

For rural Florida beekeeper Ulysses Jackson (Peter Fonda), work is life's purest essence. Even when all-night toil in the tupelo swamps leaves his back so wrecked he has to sleep on the dining-room floor, it still beats dealing with a dysfunctional family that includes a jailbird son, a junkie daughter-in-law, and two young dependent granddaughters. Though decent to the core, Ulee (short for Ulysses) is clueless about human interactions more complex than peddling his fine tupelo honey. But when the son's old bank-robbing cronies menace his family, Ulee is forced to not only handle the situation personally but face how his own emotional desertion may have laid the groundwork for this crisis. Stoic, insular Ulee is a guy we've all met, and Fonda knows him better than most, having been raised by a classic of the type -- his acting legend dad, Henry. The younger Fonda, now 58, brings all of his childhood frustration and angst to the screen in one of the year's most unexpectedly brilliant acting performances. Working from a wise and insightful script by seminal indie director Nunez (Gal Young 'Un, Ruby in Paradise), he sucks every bit of dramatic marrow from the words on the page. Yet there's also an arrestingly singular and specific character to Ulee's beleaguered remoteness. It has a power that utterly consumes Fonda, transforming him in a way that's unprecedented in his work and granting him momentary access to the greatness his father channeled so intuitively. Peter Fonda's Ulee is both late-period Silent Henry and an earnest, compassionate effort to deconstruct that obscure figure. But Ulee's Gold is a terrific movie for reasons that go well beyond Fonda's career breakthrough. Nunez, who hails from Florida himself, understands the lives and sensibilities of the people who inhabit the state's humid hinterlands. Far from the images of white-trash squalor promulgated by most Hollywood product, there's a complex micro-universe here that Nunez takes the time to fully understand and interpret. Fine performances by Richardson (as Ulee's helpful doctor neighbor and potential love interest), Dunford (the daughter-in-law), and Zima (a veritable Ashley Judd in miniature who plays Ulee's youngest granddaughter) add richness and impact to the deliberately paced story. About that pace: Some are less than enthralled by Nunez's penchant for taking his sweet time telling his stories. It's a trait that induces lucid-dreaming serenity in his proponents, boredom in others. He's certainly no rock & roll filmmaker; lullabies are more his thing. But by the time the closing credits roll to the tune of "Tupelo Honey" by Van Morrison (as close a Nunez equivalent as there is in music), I was experiencing a flood of warm exhilaration that matched anything speed, volume, or bombast could hope to deliver. (6/27/97)

4.0 stars (R.S.)

Village, Westgate


D: William Dear; with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jamey Sheridan, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Frances Fisher. (PG, 107 min.)

Suggested alternate title: The Women Don't Know, But the Little Boys Understand. This second feature by William Dear (Angels in the Outfield) has its flaws, but as an example of adolescent male fantasies writ large it approaches brilliance. Broadly based on true boyhood experiences of award-winning nature documentarian Mark Stouffer (played here by Devon Sawa), Wild America chronicles a summer in the late Sixties when he and brothers Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas of the Home Improvement TV series) and Marty (Scott Bairstow) spent several weeks touring the country and filming threatened animal species in their natural habitats. Their adventures include life-threatening encounters with grizzly bears, gators, moose, whitewater rapids, army missiles, and stampeding wild horses. Down-time is spent frolicking with nubile hippie girls and reading ghastly animal-attack stories around the campfire. For young guy viewers who revere the holy trinity of speed, chaos, and danger, these doughty lads will register as instant soulmates. Because of the calculatedly gender-targeted nature of these mythic exploits, girls may find less of interest here, though the brothers' good looks and roguish charm might compensate to some degree. Safety-obsessed parents are best advised to skip this movie altogether. The scene in which preteen Marshall flies a vintage airplane after only verbal instruction would suffice in itself to fill the theatre with the popcorn crackle of rupturing cerebral arteries. Though rowdy adventure is Wild America's selling point it also -- regrettably -- includes gratuitous sops to family-values concerns. The boys' outing thus becomes their symbolic coming of age, observed with mingled respect and incomprehension by their rock-jawed, truck-driving father (Jamey Sheridan, in a disappointingly one-dimensional performance). Their mother, a domestic diplomat who creatively resolves head-butting clashes among the home's young and old bulls, is a rather more interesting character thanks to the ability of Frances Fisher (Unforgiven, Female Perversions) to manufacture nuances in her traditional June Allyson hausfrau role. In the end, I believe, it's a mistake to devote a large portion of the film to insipid, conventional family drama and contrived suspense over the community's response to the boys' film. These elements feel superfluous and half-baked. Worse, they detract from the heady forward rush of the story and the filmmakers' sure feel for the intense significance of that moment when young men take their first leaps from the nest. Objections aside, though, Wild America is a high-spirited, wholesome, raucously humorous journey to young dude heaven. Highly recommended for the SegaGenesis jocks in your household. (7/4/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Lake Creek

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