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NOVEMBER 2, 1998: 

MONUMENT AVE.

D: Ted Demme; with Denis Leary, Jason Barry, Billy Crudup, John Diehl, Greg Dulli, Nah Emmerich, Ian Hart, Famke Janssen, Colm Meaney, Martin Sheen, Jeanne Tripplehorn. (R, 90 min.)

If you only know Denis Leary from comic roles such as The Ref (also directed by Demme) or his stand-up routines, this movie may come as a bit of a shock. Leary, Demme, and screenwriter Mike Armstrong have come up with a brilliant, harrowing portrait of misplaced loyalties and savage valor that may be one of the best character-driven ensemble pieces to come around in some time. Mining his old-school memories of the fightin' Irish Boston neighborhood where he was raised, Leary plays Bobby O'Grady, a thirty-something hoodlum who's never managed to leave behind his working-class Charlestown community. Although it's only a tiny, one-square-mile swath of land, the old neighborhood is a fiercely proud and self-supporting separate community. At night Bobby and his friends -- Red (Emmerich), Mouse (Hart), and Digger (Diehl) -- steal cars, get high on Harp Lager and cocaine, and exist in a perpetually hyper state of arrested adolescence. Lording it over the neighborhood like a two-bit Jimmy Cagney is Jackie O (Meaney), a paranoiad gangster wannabe whose petty criminal schemes are as stagnant as Bobby's toadyism. When Jackie has Bobby's cokehead cousin Teddy (Crudup) killed in cold blood on the off chance that the youngster was a snitch, Bobby's allegiance begins to swing from one end of the scale to the other, all while carrying on an affair with the boss' saturnine moll Katy (Janssen). Monument Ave. contains echoes of plenty of other urban wolfpack films, from De Niro's A Bronx Tale to everything Scorsese ever did, but it at least feels wildly dissimilar. Leary, for his part, plays Bobby straight, never giving in to the omnipresent opportunities that arise to make the character more sympathetic than he actually is. A closet nihilist with a black-leather-jacket affectation and a weakness for stimulants, Bobby is nonetheless the conscience of the film. When his cousin Seamus (Barry), just off the boat from Dublin, falls prey to Jackie's gangster-sized ego, Bobby snaps in just the right way. Unlike so many other portraits of urban life in America, Monument Ave. never feels like a sham; from Bobby's misbegotten cronies on down to his alcoholic, aged mother, the film rings true, and is all the more powerful for it. Demme, as well, is firing on all points. He's cut the film with a ragged-yet-seamless style, inserting childhood photos of better daze to underscore his thematics and even tossing a few freeze-framed Kodak moments that feel as natural as the .38 in Bobby's pocket. Don't be put off by a storyline that sounds all too familiar -- Monument Ave. is a punchy and ultimately sorrowful (not to mention soulful) meditation on fractious brotherhood and bad decisions, tough stuff all the way around.
3.5 stars
Marc Savlov



AUTUMN SUN

D: Eduardo Mignogna; with Norma Aleandro, Federico Luppi, Cecilia Rossetto, Jorge Luz. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

Like that tube of Monistat 3 in the medicine cabinet, the possibility of hot and sexy romance in one's dotage is reassuring, but how much do we really want to think about the circumstances in which it'll be needed? That, in a nutshell, is the potential problem facing this tender-hearted, sweetly humorous 1996 Argentine film about love between sophisticated sexagenarians in modern Buenos Aires. As a seemingly mismatched pair brought together by an unattached Jewish woman's newspaper ad (she wants him to pose as her Jewish boyfriend while her Orthodox brother is visiting), longtime Latin-American stars Aleandro and Luppi are a constant joy to watch. Eloquently portraying both the vulnerability of old age and a stubborn refusal to let these fears quell their appetite for life, they prove once more that erotic sizzle is more than just chemical call-and-response between Soloflex-buffed young hardbodies. And yet, judging from the mildly disappointing turnouts for recent November-December romantic fare such as That Old Feeling and Out to Sea, there's some doubt about how comfortable Americans really are with images of old folks as fully functional sexual entities. It'd be a shame, though, if a movie as involving, well-acted, and beautifully shot failed to achieve the strong arthouse response it deserves. Not only do Luppi (Men With Guns, Cronos) and Aleana present images of mature ardor that compare favorably with the late-career work of Mastroianni and Loren, they also impressively overcome certain Hollywood-like contrivances of plot and dialogue the latter two actors seldom had to contend with. It's a tribute to these stars that, even given the trite situation of the love-shy odd couple gradually facing the inevitable, every halting step they take toward each other feels like a mini-triumph of love's power over the schoolmarmish intellect. They portray with touching specificity what it's like to crave total surrender to love even after long years of experience have proven the foolhardiness of such blind leaps. Not even the blatantly market-tested ending (a malady that seems to be spreading worldwide like Hong Kong flu) detracts from the pleasure of this admirable, eminently watchable date flick. Well worth the price of admission, whether or not you qualify for the senior discount.
3.0 stars
Russell Smith



CUBE

D: Vincenzo Natali; with Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlitt, Wayne Robson, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings. (R, 90 min.)

In 1961 Rod Serling penned a Twilight Zone episode entitled Five Characters in Search of an Exit. Although it's never been one of that series' most popular outings, the tale of five strangers trapped inside a giant cylindrical object with no means of escape and no idea how or why they're even there must have stuck with director Natali because Cube is virtually identical in more ways than one. Like Serling's script, the Canadian-helmed Cube revolves around a quintet of strangers trapped inside an impenetrable mystery: a steel and Lucite cube that looks for all the world like the Cenobite's view off one of Hellraiser's evil puzzle-boxes. Bizarre, seemingly random patterns cover the walls and in the center of each wall sits a sliding portal through which egress can be made. The trick? Some rooms contain deadly booby traps such as whipping razor wire and wall-mounted jets of acid. It's up to the five -- a hair-trigger cop (Wint), a paranoid M.D. (Guadagni), a young mathematics whiz (de Boer), a nihilistic office worker (Hewlett), and a wily ex-con (Robson) -- to figure out which room is which, as well as other suitable topics such as what the hell's going on and why, specifically, they've been cast in alongside each other. Cube opens with some astonishingly gory footage of what not to do when entering an adjoining room, but quickly goes downhill from there. It's an existential, Kafka-esque nightmare with no real resolution, although if you've been biding your time waiting to see some high-strung, ham-handed bickering on-screen, this is your A-ticket. Stagy in the extreme (though not based on a play), the action moves through the variously colored cubes as the characters devolve into parodies of themselves. The cop's steely authority eventually turns to psychotic rage, while the nihilist turns out to have plenty of just cause. Conversations, of which there are many, touch on everything from eco-terrorism to government cover-ups to UFOs, all while providing virtually no backstory about the cube or its inhabitants. Eventually, all of this wears thin, enlivened only by a couple of moderately unassuming turns (de Boer, Miller) and the occasional freshet of gore. By the end of 90 minutes, it comes as no surprise that the "protagonist" turns out to be the most simple-minded of the lot (Miller's idiot savant, who wanders in about a third of the way through), making this a sort of angsty Forrest Gump for the Wired set. Startling at times, but just as equally distant at others, Cube seems to have it all backwards: It's a film in search of a one-act play.
2.0 stars
Marc Savlov



JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES

D: John Carpenter; with James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee, Gregory Sierra, Mark Boone Junior. (R, 107 min.)

James Woods as a fearless vampire slayer? Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer as an undead seductress? Daniel Baldwin unimpeded by stimulants? Is there anything John Carpenter can't do? Well, yes, actually: He can't get this film to rise above its comic-book level plotting and inane dialogue. Based on John Steakley's novel Vampire$, Carpenter's version jettisons much of the Vatican-as-Global-Overseer subplotting and instead pares the action down to its most basic level, that of a modern-day vampiric Western (which in itself sounds like a pretty nifty idea). Too bad everybody except Woods plays it so straight: Baldwin's earnest-though-lumpy features and delivery make for some of the goofiest lines around this Halloween season, and Griffith's dark prince of evil is essentially Frank Langella with a makeover and a bad attitude. Woods plays Jack Crow, the head of a Vatican-ordained group of professional vampire slayers who search the Southwest turning up "nests" of the creepy-crawlies and dragging them out into the daylight (via a winch attached to a Jeep Cherokee) to meet their richly deserved ends. When the group is slaughtered one night while busy making merry with some Vatican-ordained whores and liquor, survivors Crow and right-hand-man Tony Montoya (Baldwin) grab freshly bitten whore Katrina (Lee) and wait for her to flip over to the dark side so that they can use her to telepathically track down the master vampire Valek (Griffith). Carpenter makes good use of the New Mexican locales -- a posse of the pulse-impeded arising from the desert soil packs a resounding wallop -- and Woods, god bless him, is sterling as the hyper, wisecracking Crow, all black-leather-jacket and Ray-Ban panache and crossbow-packing sinew. Trouble is, the rest of the cast is as disposable as a Flintstones' Band-Aid on a severed jugular; try though they might, Baldwin and Lee are eminently forgettable here, despite Carpenter's deeply submerged subplot involving a living-dead love triangle and some obscure AIDS metaphors. For all its violent chutzpah, Vampires fails to affect the ice-cubes-in-the-blood reaction of even Interview With the Vampire, and the trouble lies in Carpenter's over-the-top dynamics. The film moves relentlessly, leaving you with less a sense of scenes and sequences passing than of pages turning: It really is a comic book, come to think of it. Severed heads and spurting arteries do not a quality horror film make. You'd think the director of Halloween would have been able to keep that in mind, but it just isn't so. It's interesting, though, to think of double-billing Woods' Crow with Pacino's Prince of Darkness from Devil's Advocate: Scenery-chewing never looked so good.
2.5 stars
Marc Savlov



PLEASANTVILLE

D: Gary Ross; with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts. (PG-13, 123 min.)

Pleasantville is indeed a technical marvel to behold, rich with sophisticated computer technology that deftly combines full-color and black-and-white images all in one shot. However, the movie's simplistic storyline does not match its stunning visual accomplishments: Pleasantville's story is drawn from a palette that's strictly limited to black-and-white. Terrific performances by all the key cast members also help mask the fact that the movie's central hook -- two Nineties teens who are trapped in the staid, colorless world of a Fifties family sitcom and infect the said town, Pleasantville, with all sorts of newfangled, daring notions about self-expression and self-fulfillment -- is never developed beyond its obvious symbolism and ramifications. In fact, the only obvious note that the film surprisingly failed to include would be that of Cyndi Lauper power-ballading about seeing "true colors shining through." And even then, something like the Stones' "She Comes in Colors" might have been more appropriate and certainly more literal-minded for Joan Allen's scene as the Mom who discovers the joy of masturbatory sex (and though discreet, it's the one surprising sequence in an otherwise solidly PG-13 film). Pleasantville is too content to settle for the same kind of easy escapism that its modern protagonists long for. David (Maguire) is hooked on reruns of his favorite Fifties TV show, Pleasantville, as an obvious refuge from the real-world pressures of his parents' unhappy divorce and the steady reminders of a future with low job expectations, safe sex precautions, and bleak projections of famine and ecological devastation. During a tug of war with his twin sister Jennifer (Witherspoon), the remote control breaks and an oddball TV repairman (the serendipitously cast Don Knotts) mysteriously appears on their doorstep to provide them with a new zapper that strangely transports them into the actual world of Pleasantville. This alternate universe is a Fifties time warp in living black-and-white: firemen only exist to rescue cats from trees and all basketballs shot by varsity ballplayers automatically swoosh through the hoop. When David and Jennifer introduce sex, emotion, and spontaneity to Pleasantville, the town comes apart at the seams. First someone's tongue turns red, then others start to notice flashes of color, words suddenly appear in previously blank books, and a tree bursts into flames (the "burning bush" coincides with the discovery of orgasm). Next thing you know, folks are listening to Dave Brubeck and admiring Picasso and D.H. Lawrence. A girl seduces her boyfriend with a red apple (really!) and Mom's not there with dinner on the table when Dad comes home from work. J.T. Walsh in his last screen role leads the town in a mob reaction to the "Coloreds" who have invaded town. The last third of the movie devolves into too much illogical detail about the town's reactionary response. (If hate is as strong an emotion as love, why aren't these rioters also shedding their placid black-and-white exteriors for unsuppressible color combos?) Yet it feels curmudgeonly to dwell on the film's dim plotting when the film's performances are all so strong and endearing and the sight of a smudge of color breaking through the gray pancake makeup is so breathtaking to behold. First-time director Ross is an old hand at this kind of magical adult parable, having scripted Big and Dave. To have selected such a technically difficult project for his first directing job must say a lot about his commitment. This time out his characters got to see the flowers bloom. Next film he does, I bet they'll stop to smell them too.
2.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



SOLDIER

D: Paul Anderson; with Kurt Russell, Jason Scott Lee, Connie Nielsen, Michael Chiklis, Gary Busey. (R, 120 min.)

"Shane! Come back, Shane!" Granted, Brandon de Wilde is nowhere in sight, but that doesn't make the obvious comparisons any less obvious. Anderson and screenwriter David Webb Peoples have mercilessly stolen from George Stevens' classic Western, as well as pillaging a whole slew of other sources from George Miller's Mad Max trilogy to all manner of Kurosawa knock-offs. "So what?" I hear you cry. "Film as a medium is reflexive by its very nature -- it's inherent in the art form!" Sure, kid, but there's a fine line between art and theft, and Anderson's high-wire act on Soldier is nothing if not shifty-eyed. That quibble aside, Soldier almost makes up for its ponderous lack of originality with some terrific set design -- courtesy of Blade Runner's David L. Snyder -- and one of the best bouts of futuristic fisticuffs since Rowdy Roddy Piper whupped alleged alien ass in They Live (which was in itself shades of The Quiet Man). Russell plays Todd, a post-millennial super soldier, bred from birth for intensive combat, who finds himself on the outs when a new breed of über-goons (led by Lee's steely, one-eyed Caine 607) comes up through the ranks. Told he is obsolete and left for dead on a supposedly uninhabited garbage planet, an injured Todd makes his way through the ravaged wasteland (which looks to all effects like the set of John Cameron's futuristic Terminator-overrun Earth) until he meets up with a rag-tag band of peace-loving scavengers who make their homes amongst the towering piles of debris and the deadly, F5-level sandstorms that periodically sweep across the planet's surface. While trying to get in touch with his nonexistent feminine side, Todd and his new friends are besieged by Caine and his squadron, who just happen to pick this planet for some field testing. Mindful of his priorities ("Weakness = Death" and so on) and aching for a chance to get even with his replacement model, Todd embarks on a bloodthirsty explode-o-thon while Gary Busey (as former boss Church) simmers in the background, as always. Kudos to Peoples' imagery-heavy script, which manages to give Russell even less lines than Schwarzenegger's Conan, and also for his glib backgrounding here. If nothing else, you can't accuse Soldier of taking its time getting to the action. Blood, bullets, and body parts arc across the screen in wild parabolas, though the same cannot be said for the characterizations. Still, it's a suitably ornery slice of he-man gruntstuff. Those looking for an escape from the wearing bonds of logic and sensibility could do worse, though any film featuring a professional killer named "Todd" is surely more fiction than science.
2.0 stars
Marc Savlov



SUMMER OF THE MONKEYS

D: Michael Anderson; with Wilford Brimley, Michael Ontkean, Leslie Hope, Corey Servier. (G, 101 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Based on the Newberry Award-winning 1961 book by Wilson Rawls, this family film tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who rescues four chimpanzees that escaped from the local circus and hopes to use the reward money to fulfill his lifelong dream of buying a pony. Just this week, the film won one of the top prizes at the Heartland Film Festival, which is dedicated to works that express positive values. Disney has the film scheduled for a straight-to-video release in December, but in an unusual move the company has decided to try the film out theatrically in five "family-friendly" markets, and Austin has been determined to be one of these five. Director Anderson has been doing a lot of television work in recent years, but some of his past film credits include such gems as Around the World in 80 Days, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Logan's Run, and Orca. Anderson's film is booked for a one-week exclusive run.
Marjorie Baumgarten


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