Film Reviews

Recommended

KIDS

D: Larry Clark; with Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny.
For once, the hype is right on the money. Kids is an emotional sucker punch, a raw, dirty, disturbing piece of cinema veritŽ filmmaking that simultaneously hooks and repulses you from its opening scenes of the teenaged Lothario Telly adrift in his favorite pastime: deflowering young girls. After the shockingly on-target coitus during which the practiced youth assuages his young lover's fears with hollow promises of respect and ongoing warmth (his by-rote words carry all the weight of a thrice-used condom, but the virgin in question is oblivious in the heat of the moment), Telly - the self-proclaimed "virgin surgeon" - cruises off to hook up with pal Casper, who plies him for details of the tryst, living vicariously through his friend. On the other side of the city (New York), Jenny, a past conquest of "the de-virginizer" goes for an HIV screening as moral support for a friend. The friend comes up negative, but Jenny, with Telly being her one and only lover (and that was last summer, with no phone calls or tender words since), is stricken to find out she's a carrier. Frantic, confused, and afraid, she numbly wanders the parks and boroughs of a sweaty, grimy New York trying to find Telly to alert him to the situation. Director Clark (previously best known for his gritty photos of urban street kids and hollow-eyed junkies) uses Jenny's dazed meanderings as a way to explore the seamy underbelly of America's urban youth. We see Telly and his friends hanging out, getting drunk, smoking dope, fighting, fucking (there's no sex here, no lovemaking, just simple unromantic rutting), and generally acting without any moral compass whatsoever. They're kids playing at being grown-ups playing at being time bombs. Clark's brilliant eye keeps the film running as an edgy, in-your-face observation on what many kids consider a normal day's events. The loud public outcry that accompanied the release of Kids - that it was little more than an exploitative attempt at teenage titillation - is as silly as Telly's come-ons. Anyone who's been out clubbing in an urban area after 2am will find few surprises in what Clark depicts. Shocking, yes, but hardly surprising; the film, perhaps not unintentionally, feels very much like a documentary. Disturbing, harrowing, visceral, and even sporadically humorous, Kids is one of those rare films that begs the description "a must-see." For once, it's the truth.

4.5 stars (M.S.)

Lincoln, Village



New Review

THE AMAZING PANDA ADVENTURE

D: Christopher Cain; with Stephen Lang, Yi Ding, Ryan Slater, Wang Fei, Zhou Jian Zhong.
How about The Boring Panda Adventure? Or maybe The Formulaic Disney Ripoff? Either one is a more apt title for this tired retread of Uncle Walt's past nature-in-jeopardy vehicles. When 10-year-old Ryan Tyler (Slater) is invited by his conservationist (and divorced) father to rural China for the summer, he finds himself caught up in a fight to save an orphaned panda cub from clumsy poachers while struggling to renew the bonds of love between himself and his semi-estranged dad. Ouch, that hurts. This numbingly predictable story is helped not one whit by the lackadaisical direction of Christopher Cain (The Next Karate Kid), the yawningly uninspired script by screenwriter Jeff Rothberg, and the tedious camerawork by Jack Green (one can only take so many magnificent shots of the Chinese countryside before they cease to be so magnificent). As Ryan's gruff, non-parental father Michael, Stephen Lang seems caught in a bad TV movie of the week, all stern looks and grizzled platitudes. As Ryan, Slater does his part well enough, but mediocrity seems to be the rule of thumb here, with only the real-life panda cub inspiring any audience sympathy (the animatronic pandas are much too gawky to be very oooh-inspiring). Compared to the recent sleeper hit Babe, the porcine star and story of which elicited far better emotional and dramatic responses from both adults and kids, this is one adventure that is anything but amazing. Oh, here's one: The Insufferably Tedious Panda Cinema-Scam. A bit lengthy, perhaps, but much more accurate.

1.0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Roundrock


DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE

D: David Price; with Tim Daly, Sean Young, Lysette Anthony, Harvey Fierstein.
Not to be confused with the similarly plotted 1971 Hammer horror picture Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde is instead a terminally lame special effects comedy with next to no laughs, smarts, or originality. Tim Daly stars as a young scientist who inherits the research notes of his old relative Dr. Jekyll, and, in his attempts to improve on his ancestor's formula, winds up unleashing what he refers to as "his dark side" - a manipulative man-eater named Helen Hyde, who proceeds to wreck his relationship, steal his job, and generally ruin his already unstable life. Whatever "battle of the sexes" wit might have been wrung out of this potentially provocative storyline has been all but lost on these unimaginative filmmakers, who, despite the efforts of four (count 'em) screenwriters, still couldn't avoid the time-worn music video sequence of our heroine trying on clothes. The actors are uninspired in the extreme, with Daly confusing a goofy smirk with a good performance, while the normally energetic Young walks through her (admittedly thankless) role, displaying absolutely as little interest as possible. That said, about the only thing that comes across as marginally successful in this mess is the effects work, which includes a couple of eye-popping transformation sequences, although the endlessly repeated gag of Daly's/Young's breasts either swelling or deflating becomes quickly tiresome. Director David Price, who is also credited with coming up with the story (never mind the aforementioned Hammer opus or, God forbid, Robert Louis Stevenson's orginal story... which this film claims to have been "suggested by"), stages the whole affair with the most pedestrian of hands, failing to grasp anything but the most rudimentary elements of individual scenes (which, thanks to the choppy editing, often last little more than a minute or two each). Overall, this PG-13 bore is neither crass enough nor intelligent enough to hold anyone's attention.

0.0 stars (J.O.)

Great Hills, Highland, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate


HOLY WEAPON

D: Wong Jing; with Michelle Yeoh Chi-king, Damian Lau, Simon Yam Tat-wah, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Melvin Wong, Sandra Ng Kwan-yu.
An all-star cast shamelessly romps through this outrageous period swordplay fantasy, full of ridiculous comic set-pieces, bloody sword slashing, and high-flying wire stunts. This is the type of movie that appears to have been made up largely during shooting, resulting in a freewheeling "anything goes" attitude that lends both giddy spontaneity and bizarre shifts in mood to an already thin narrative. However, one should not view a film like Holy Weapon looking for elements like a believable story, rational characters, or structural unity; to do so is missing the entire point, which is to sit back, relax, switch off your brain, and have some fun... and there is plenty of fun to be had here. The plot begins with a superior Japanese swordsman, known only as Super Sword, massacring the great Chinese swordsmen of the martial arts world. He proceeds to challenge Heaven's Sword, a legendary Chinese martial artist, who accepts, taking the infamous "Greatest Drugs" to ensure his victory. It works, but the magical potion also drives him mentally insane, much to the dismay of his bride-to-be, Ching Sze. While she becomes a mercenary specializing in the killing of "heartless men," Super Sword returns... vowing revenge. Now Ching must find a way to cure her husband and locate six other virgin women so they can learn the incredible "Virgin Sword Stance" in order to defeat the dastardly villain, who can literally transform his body into a giant flying sword. Whew! While there is little actual kung fu on display, the wirework and special effects are pretty dandy, and the action set-pieces are highly imaginative. This is one loony movie, and the cast acts appropriately goofy, with Black Panther Warriors star Melvin Wong giving a performance of such jaw-dropping stupidity that it equals his similarly crazed work in the aforementioned picture. Martial arts queen Michelle Yeoh Chi-king and her Heroic Trio co-star Damian Lau play it fairly straight, a tactic that serves only to heighten the comedy, due to all the insanity surrounding them. Jackie Chan cohort Maggie Cheung Man-yuk is delightfully perky as a spoiled princess, while Sandra Ng Kwan-yu grates on your nerves as her lusty bodyguard. Wong Jing directs with his usual unevenness, but it is thankfully less obvious here, owing mainly to the episodic nature of the story. It's bewildering how a project this outlandish could attract such big names and solid production values, but the results are very entertaining and make you glad that movie moguls like Wong Jing are around and successful... so we can continue to enjoy weird and goofy flicks like this one.

3.0 stars (J.O.)

Hogg


LIVING IN OBLIVION

D: Tom DeCillo; with Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros.
Hollywood's always had a bit of a love/hate affair with itself, but no more so than in the spirit of the independent filmmaker: Constrained by miniscule budgets, production delays, and occasionally inept crews (not to mention caterers from Hell), the independent sets itself up for failure, and somehow, seemingly against all odds, succeeds. Or maybe not. DeCillo's second feature (his first being the underrated Brad Pitt vehicle Johnny Suede) is a caustic, witty, nightmarish look at what goes into the making of an indie film, from the endless screw-ups that traspire as the crew battles with backbiting, egomaniacal stars run amuck, sexual politics on and off the set, and all the little horrors of day-to-day filmmaking on a shoestring budget. And it's pretty funny, to boot. Buscemi is Nick, the director of the titular film Living in Oblivion, a sensitive, Nineties drama, a "serious film" that just doesn't seem to be going right at all. Alternating between being maddeningly conciliatory toward his feuding leading man (LeGros, wonderfully ridiculous here as Chad Palomino, the Gen X heartthrob who's only come-on seems to be "So, do you like jazz?") and leading lady (the equally brilliant Keener) and exploding in a manic rage, Nick is a harried director pushed nearly to the point of collapse (even his downtime is spent wrapped up in nightmares of endless foul-ups) by cast and crew alike. DeCillo keeps the film moving with the kind of frantic energy you find on a real film set, alternating between judicious use of black-and-white and garish color, all the while keeping both frazzled director Nick and the audience just a little off balance. It's a hilarious, scathing look at one man's attempt to get a film made, "whatever it takes," and it may be the most relalistic depiction of that struggle so far.

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Dobie


THE STRANGER

D: Satyajit Ray; with Utpal Dutt, Mamata Shankar, Deepankar De, Bikram Bhattacharya, Dhritiman Chatterjee.
With Agantuk/The Stranger (made in 1992 and released a few months before the director's death), internationally-acclaimed Indian director Ray probes the domestic scene even further than in his previous films, examining the nature of identity and civilization in modern-day society. Agantuk/The Stranger is believed by some to be an appropriate swan song for a director whose career was spent cinematically relating the everyday realities of life in an urban society. A middle-class family living in Calcutta receives a letter from the wife Anila's (Shankar) long-lost great uncle Manmohan Mitra (Dutt), asking if he may come for a visit. Because this relative has not seen any of the family members in 35 years, Anila and her husband Sudhindra (De) are more than a little perplexed by this sudden correspondence. Sudhindra doubts the uncle's identity, and his constant suspicion influences Anila, even after she meets Manmohan and is convinced that he is in fact her uncle. Throughout the course of a weekend, the family slowly warms to Manmohan, and yet there is still doubt, particularly when Anila remembers that a large inheritance was left to him and has not been claimed. This doubt and suspicion culminate in a cleverly staged cross-examination that takes place in the family's house and is presided over by a family friend, the lawyer Sen Gupta (Chatterjee). This rather unassuming film slowly chips away at some of Ray's favorite themes, comparing civilization to savagery and questioning the tangibility of a person's identity. On a smaller level, Ray chronicles the importance of daily rituals as he returns again and again to the family home and the place it occupies in domestic situations. Subtle humor and warmth flow through Agantuk/The Stranger, making the film a sweet finale to this director's incredible forty-year career. Resembling a Kurosawa film in its loving portrayal of domestic drama and comedy, Agantuk/The Stranger moves at a modulated pace rarely matched in Western cinema. For some viewers, this pacing will be a problem, but for those who are fascinated with the exploration of abstract questions in everyday surroundings, Ray's final film will not disappoint.

3.0 stars (A.M.)

Hogg


THE USUAL SUSPECTS

D: Bryan Singer; with Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey, Suzy Amis, Benicio Del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya.
A movie shouldn't have to be seen twice in order to be understood. Second viewings can certainly deepen an appreciation and enrich our knowledge and experience of a movie. But a second look shouldn't be required in order to have a solid understanding of certain things as essential as who did what to whom... and why? That said, I can't think of a movie the second viewing of which I looked forward to more eagerly than that of The Usual Suspects. When revisited, the movie comes through like a champ and reveals a clarity and overall vision that seemed tentative at first encounter. The Usual Suspects is a movie with style to burn, and, initially, that is this crime drama's most mesmerizing aspect. The plot's convolutions and unexpected surprise ending all seem to be extensions of the film's stylistic flourish. Upon reflection, The Usual Suspects' story line is not all that eventful. The film begins with the elegantly filmed explosion of a boat. The only survivors are a charred Hungarian sailor who fearfully babbles about having seen the face of the devil, a man by the name of Keyser Sšze, and a con man with a distinctive limp who's known by the name of Verbal (Spacey). The rest of the film recounts the events that led up to the explosion. A seemingly random roundup of several top New York City thieves tosses five larcenous professionals into a jail cell and when they emerge, the web of heists that seals their doom is set in motion. Out of the group of five, Verbal is the last survivor. The web pulls the audience along, too, because we all become actively engaged in the process of figuring out which one of them is Keyser Sšze. The characters contribute so much to the movie's richness. These performances are full of fine nuances, dialogue, and slowly revealed traits. Very little really occurs in terms of the film's essential actions, but everything occurs in the way that these events go down. Everything is so fascinating to watch and piece together. Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie are high school pals whose first feature film, Public Access, won the Grand Jury Award at Sundance two years ago, though this widely hailed film languished from a lack of sincere distribution. Their second feature,The Usual Suspects, seems destined for greater things.

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills, Riverside



First Run

THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB

D: Melanie Mayron; with Schuyler Fisk, Bre Blair, Rachael Leigh Cook, Larisa Oleynik, Tricia Joe, Brooke Adams, Ellen Burstyn, Peter Horton, Bruce Davison.
Like so many pieces of colored glass, the multiple characters and scenarios of The Baby-Sitters Club constantly shift and reassemble in vivid and fanciful patterns. Turning this kaleidoscope of a movie with a deft hand, Melanie Mayron (thirtysomething) in her big-screen directing debut delivers a quirky little movie that captures a lighter side of the oft-explored, flip, desperate-to-be-hip, angst-ridden, roller coaster ride of adolescence. The Baby-Sitters Club is a conglomeration of story lines from the phenomenally successful series of books by Ann M. Martin about a group of friends whose adventures in baby-sitting are the core around which the travails and drama of their post-pubescent lives unfold. The centerpiece of the picture is a poignant and wonderfully disconcerting story about imperfect parental love. Kristy, the president of the club and an energetic and outspoken tomboy (played with natural exuberance by Sissy Spacek's daughter, Schuyler Fisk) has an unexpected reunion with her well-meaning but totally unreliable father (Mayron's thirtysomething cohort, Horton) that pits her fervent desire to be loved and wanted against her natural inclination for openness and honesty and loyalty - qualities her father knows little about. Concurrent stories include one club member's summer romance with an older boy, another's struggle to pass science, an emerging friendship with a crotchety neighbor, and the ongoing battle with the sworn enemies of the club, the devious, rainbow-sherbet-clad Cokie, Bebe, and Grace. The movie zips from one story to another, going through as many mood swings in its hour and 20 minutes as an average 13-year-old girl goes through in, well, an hour and 20 minutes. Bright and cluttered and engaging, The Baby-Sitters Club has a youthful buoyancy and whimsical rhythm that catches even the most jaundiced (i.e., 16-year-old) viewers up in its play of light and energy.

3.0 stars (H.C.)

Great Hills, Roundrock


BEYOND RANGOON

D: John Boorman; with Patricia Arquette, U Aung Ko, Frances McDormand, Spalding Gray, Adelle Lutz.
Choosing Patricia Arquette to play an American doctor grieving over the loss of her murdered husband and young son at first seems like a casting coup. Arquette is a hot property these days, and what a chance for her to range beyond the role she is most known for: the definitively white-trash, kooky hooker/wife of Christian Slater's character in True Romance. Unfortunately, Arquette isn't quite up to the challenge in Beyond Rangoon, Boorman's (Hope and Glory, Deliverance) take on the real-life saga of Laura Bowman in politically divided Burma in 1988. Bowman (Arquette) travels to Rangoon with her older sister Andy (McDormand), who hopes to distract Laura from her grief and nightmares. When Laura becomes separated from Andy and their tour group, she must make do on her own for a few days. She meets Aung Ko (Aung Ko), a professor out of favor with the dictatorship in power. He offers to take her on a tour while she waits for her plane, and through him she meets more liberals who support Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Lutz, a dead ringer for the real-life protester and heroine). When a crackdown threatens the lives of Kyi's supporters, Laura finds herself on the run with Aung Ko. Their desperate flight from the military police and their subsequent journey to the safety of Thailand across the river offer some compelling moments. Despite Arquette's inability to convince us that she is a doctor, the story itself, based on actual events, manages to keep our interest. And yet, the rather abrupt ending is a letdown. We spend much of the film witnessing Laura's descents into zombie-like trances complete with glazed over eyes, so her triumphant recovery at the end of the film (while normal for people experiencing the stages of grief) appears a bit too heavy-handed. Compounding the problem is a script the dialogue of which rarely stretches beyond Zen 101. With his impressive film credentials, Boorman is no slouch, and many of the film's weak areas seem to belong to Arquette. "Life is too strong in you," Aung Ko advises Laura when she reveals that she wants only to die. Unfortunately for Beyond Rangoon, the life force in this film is not strong enough to resuscitate a weak script and an even weaker lead performance.

2.0 stars (A.M.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Westgate


THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN

D: Edward Burns; with Burns, Maxine Bahns, Connie Britton, Mike McGlone, Jack Mulcahy.
Finally: A movie that lives up to its hype. The Brothers McMullen has been whispered about as a film to watch ever since receiving the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. First-time director Burns, an ex-Entertainment Tonight employee, has written a wry and touching script about a family of Irish Catholic brothers, all at different stages of denial toward commitment and Catholicism. The film opens at Mr. McMullen's burial, an event we later learn was a "celebration" for the McMullens, given their father's penchant for abuse of the mental, physical, and alcoholic kind. Mrs. McMullen tells her middle son Barry (Burns) not to waste his life married to someone he doesn't love. Then she departs for Ireland to return to her true sweetheart, who, even after 30-some years, is still waiting to marry her. Flash to five years later, and Barry and his younger brother Patrick (McGlone), the most devout of the trio, are moving back into the family home on Long Island, now owned by eldest brother Jack (Mulcahy) and his wife Molly (Britton). Over the course of the next few months, we follow the brothers as they fall in and out of love, make stupid mistakes, and generally bolster each other in times of need. Add to this their ongoing debate about the "rules and regulations" of Catholicism. While you don't have to be Catholic to appreciate this film, those viewers affiliated with the Pope (lapsed, practicing, and in-between) will appreciate the asides about Lent, the Ten Commandments, and the problem of pre-marital sex in the eyes of the Church. These religious overtones color the film, so much so that a heart-to-heart between Jack and Patrick in the bathroom looks a lot like an act of contrition in a confessional during Easter Week. Burns' scripted dialogue weaves smoothly through the film; it's easy to pretend that you're eavesdropping on a friend's family rather than watching a movie. Granted, Burns gives himself most of the best lines, but even this can be excused given the film's character development. Not only do we come to know and appreciate Jack, Barry, and Patrick even when they're at their most unevolved, but we also get to spend time with the women in their lives, especially Molly and Barry's new girlfriend Audry (Bahns). These women have their shit together, and they know it. So when they spin their wheels while the brothers McMullen sort out their conflicts, it isn't an act of self-flagellation. Rather, it is the process that women go through when they realize they have met someone who is worth the effort, flaws and all. The Brothers McMullen is certainly worth the effort. It is a rare treat of a film: a debut that exudes freshness and polish all at once. Welcome to the big screen, Mr. Burns.

4.0 stars (A.M.)

Village


CLIVE BARKER'S LORD OF ILLUSIONS

D: Clive Barker; with Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O'Connor, Famke Janssen, Vincent Schiavelli, Barry Del Sherman, Sheila Tousey.
Anyone who knows me even remotely knows how much I respect and admire the talents of artist, author, and filmmaker Clive Barker. So it is with a very genuine sense of disappointment that I say that Lord of Illusions is not a worthy horror movie by any means; it is simply a horrible movie. Plodding, fragmented, confusing beyond words, and finally, the ultimate sin, excruciatingly boring. When Barker broke on the cinematic scene back in 1987 with the chilling, fantastical, and thoroughly perverse Hellraiser, all eyes turned toward the young British terror maven in expectation. It seemed, for a time, that he could do no wrong. Then came Nightbreed, his second offering, bungled by the editors and a marketing campaign that left audiences scratching their collective heads. And now this... mess. Based on his short story The Last Illusion, the film follows hardboiled P.I. Harry D'Amour (Bakula, in an interesting choice of casting that's as hit and miss as a rusty blunderbuss) as he tackles the case of Swann (O'Connor, in a bit of maddeningly awful casting that makes you want to cringe), a master illusionist along the lines of David Copperfield meets Harry Houdini. Swann, who may or may not be dead, has apparently incurred the wrath of Nix (Schiavelli), an evil sorcerer out to garner Swann's soul and destroy D'Amour in the bargain. Barker's eye is still good - there are a few shots here that recall the phantasmagoric imagery of Nightbreed - but his pacing, his direction, and, more than anything, his dialogue, are all disastrously off-key. Rarely have I heard such gales of unintended laughter erupt from an adult audience during a supposedly "serious and literate" horror film. And, I regret to say, I was whooping it up alongside everyone else. There's not much else you can do when Bakula grabs Swann's widow (Janssen) in a rough embrace, practically hollering, "Kiss me, you fool!" Riddled with the worst of film noir and horror film clichŽs, Lord of Illusions leaves you with the distinct impression that a good 20-odd minutes of narratively-imperative scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Jumping wildly from scene to scene and shot to shot, the film just makes no real sense: The narrative flow has been gutshot somewhere along the way and even the most diehard of Barker's fans are left with a muddled quagmire of vaguely interesting set pieces and the kind of continuity errors usually reserved for early Jackie Chan opuses. Awful in every way, shape, and form (even the score by Dario Argento's right-hand composer Simon Boswell seems seriously flawed), Lord of Illusions fails at almost every conceivable level, from computer effects on down to the Passaic, New Jersey dinner-theatre dialogue. Fans will be heartsick. Anyone else, go check out Hellraiser and its immediate sequel to see what all the fuss was about.

1.0 stars (M.S.)

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


DANGEROUS MINDS

D: John N. Smith; with Michelle Pfeiffer, George Dzundza, Courtney B. Vance.
Michelle Pfeiffer stars as LouAnne Johnson, an ex-Marine with designs on becoming a schoolteacher, who serves as the Great White Hope to the "dangerous minds" of the title: a classroom of ill-mannered, cynical kids who have lost all interest in learning and have more or less resigned themselves to rather dismal futures. Of course, as anyone who's seen this kind of picture knows, the rest of the story should be pretty easy to guess; we all know that she's going to put these wayward tots on the right path through her caring, persistence, and cleverness. Never mind that the movie's plot is a tired one and that the script doesn't even try to re-work this particular genre's clichŽs... like Pfeiffer's B-Boy stance on the film's poster, something about Dangerous Minds just feels bogus. Perhaps it has something to do with the aseptic, TV-movie atmosphere that hangs over the entire production, or the way it asks us to buy the idea that old Bob Dylan tunes, karate, and candy bars are going to turn a bunch of hardened inner-city kids on to the joys of education. Although it's based on a true story, Dangerous Minds just doesn't seem to take place in the real world (the real LouAnne Johnson, who wrote the autobiographical book upon which this movie is based, has been fairly vocal in noting the film's numerous deviations from reality). Ultimately, the film seems more like an excuse to see how many times the filmmakers can manage to get Coolio's (admittedly catchy) "Gangster's Paradise" on the soundtrack than to educate or uplift potential viewers. As far as Pfeiffer's performance goes, she's got charm and pep to spare, but next to zero substance when it comes to exploring her character's particular hypocrisies and pretensions. About the only thing that keeps Dangerous Minds from being a total washout is the humor and energy of the young actors portraying Pfeiffer's students. They provide, almost without exception, nearly every single memorable moment in the film. But by the time the picture has entered its extremely weak third act, in which the whole enterprise glides toward a boring, predictable, and annoyingly cornball non-ending, even their collective appeal isn't enough to keep us interested. Needless to say, Dangerous Minds doesn't make the grade.

1.5 stars (J.O.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate


DESPERADO

D: Robert Rodriguez; with Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, Cheech Marin, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino.
During its opening moments, Desperado announces itself as an action picture that demands to be watched, if not for its hyperkinetic staging and riveting fusillade of superhuman physical feats, then for its stunning choreographic vortex that sweeps all action and drama into its ever-escalating cyclone of forward progression. With Desperado, a follow-up to his 1993 ultra-low-budget indie success El Mariachi, Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez proves that his earlier success was no one-hit wonder. Although El Mariachi trod an unprecedented path to the box office, a path that instantly became the stuff of classic movie lore, Rodriguez demonstrates that studio financing (modest in terms of Hollywood figures yet a veritable Fort Knox in terms of El Mariachi's much-quoted $7,000 budget) has not gone to his head. Rodriguez is a filmmaking dynamo whose talent derives from his kinetically composed images and vibrantly economic editing style. His lively image flow gathers no dross. Happily, the comforts afforded by Desperado's larger budget have not endangered Rodriguez's stylistic economy; instead, the additional funds mean that now Rodriguez can blow things up real good. By the time Desperado's opening action sequence concludes prior to the opening credits, the viewer has already lost count of all the film's fatalities. In this prologue, which begins with the bug-eyed narration by Steve Buscemi (in a role written for him - even the fictional character's name is Buscemi) of the legend of the gunfighting guitar-player El Mariachi, the film has already adopted a kind of comic-book logic, humor, and vitality. Buscemi's verbal preview and El Mariachi's subsequent demonstration of his skill and ingenuity in the face of wiping out a bar's entire patronage, reaffirm the figure's mythic status - a status that frees him from the bounds of mere human physical constraints. Furthermore, having heartthrob-of-the-month Antonio Banderas portray El Mariachi in this chapter of the film saga (Desperado cannot exactly be characterized as a sequel to El Mariachi, nor is it a remake; with its new cast and embellished story line, it seems more like a continuing adventure or further episode) certainly adds to the character's mystique. This maxed-out shoot-'em-up also intertwines a passionate love story within its plot. Popular Mexican TV star Salma Hayek plays a woman who can be every bit as lethal as El Mariachi. When first we see her, she is causing multiple car crashes by merely walking across the street. Visually, Banderas and Hayek make a stunning pair with their long dark hair framing them in a voluptuous cascade, and their sly humor and natural cunning finding in each other a natural fit. Moreover, one of the most unusual aspects of this Hollywood-financed production is its absence of American actors and settings. In Desperado, Mexican figures are portrayed as both the heroes and the bad guys. The soundtrack also features music by Los Lobos. Desperado is a bust-a-gut film experience that reveals Rodriguez as both a stylist versed in the mechanics of popular storytelling and a maverick whose ingenuity guides him along a singular path.

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Dobie, Great Hills, Highland, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock


A KID IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT

D: Michael Gottlieb; with Thomas Ian Nichols, Joss Ackland, Ron Moody, Paloma Baeza.
Considering the fact that there are well-documented cases of near-infants being called upon to rescue helpless adults from the clutches of unprogrammable VCRs and terrifying screen messages like "general program protection fault," it stands to reason that the latest re-telling of Mark Twain's classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court would be a Disney effort with a kid in the title role. Modern-day dweeb Calvin Fuller drops out of the dugout (literally) and back in time about 1,600 years. It seems that Arthur's Camelot has fallen on hard times, its elderly king duped by the conniving Lord Belasco. Merlin, now a ghostly, discombobulated head floating in a magic well, misfires in his attempt to stop the knight in tarnished armor, bringing the gawky no-hitter in to save the kingdom. Not that Calvin is totally unprepared. His backpack is full of wondrous 20th-century treasures - superglue, a CD player, rollerblades, and Mad Dog chewing gum. But, as it turns out, this kid is no MacGyver, his use of high-tech ingenuity to enlighten the Dark Agers surprisingly restrained. Instead, the movie equips its unlikely champion with age-old, singularly human attributes such as courage and honor and love. Nichols essentially reprises his Rookie of the Year role as a less-than-stellar baseball player whose life is changed by an extraordinary turn of events. Despite a goofy hairdo and a voice that cracks as often as my office mate's gum, he still shines as the charmingly ordinary hero. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his current vehicle. Even with Nichols, decent production values, a pair of plucky princesses, and a few pleasant surprises tucked in here and there, A Kid in King Arthur's Court is a pretty prosaic picture. There are simply not enough sparks here to fire the imagination. While its cool, cavernous castle scenes offer a pleasant afternoon respite from the August heat, this version of the fabled kingdom is not the stuff of which legends are made.

0.5 stars (H.C.)

Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate


MINA TANNENBAUM

D: Martine Dugowson; with Romane Bohringer, Elsa Zylberstein.
"One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible. Friendship needs a certain parallelism of life, a community of thought, a rivalry of aim." I can't say whether Martine Dugowson read those words of Henry Brooks Adams before beginning the script for this fanciful parable of friendship, but they certainly apply to the work she has produced. The film follows the entwined lives of Mina and Ethel, two souls both alike and different, who bond to each other as girls and remain steadfast until their lives diverge from parallel tracks. The friendship is born in the girls' kinship as outcasts: Mina is ostracized for wearing glasses, Ethel for being overweight. They come together as misfit 10-year-olds and provide support for each other through their teens as they try awkwardly to make the social grade. As long as they are beyond the social pale, they are fast friends. But as they reach adulthood and both at last begin to find acceptance - Mina as an unspectacled painter, Ethel as a slender journalist - their paths take different directions, and their friendship begins to suffer. Unfortunately, the same might be said for the film. Initially, Mina Tannenbaum skips with whimsy, in the girls' endearing insecurities and the playful images Dugowson tosses in, such as a hall full of waltzing nurses or ghost images of the girls as they see themselves: Mina as a rabbinical student, Ethel as a vamp. The further it takes us into Mina and Ethel's adulthood, however, the more brooding the film becomes. By the end, it has become almost another movie entirely, a needlessly sober, unfortunately obvious melodrama. The sugar of the first half turns to ashes, and it seems wrong, not because it's unlikable but because the film's heart seems to lie in whimsy; it feels truest when it's being playful. Still, even at its most labored, the film is kept watchable by the leads. Bohringer fills Mina with a striking intensity, bright water kept in check, forever turning in on itself, churning. Zylberstein, by contrast, is open sky and dizzying sun; her smile - which really just bursts upon her face - is as bright and appealing as any I've seen on film. They bring such light to these characters that their friendship continues to glow when everything around it has gone dim.

3.0 stars (R.F.)

Texas Union


MORTAL KOMBAT

D: Paul Anderson; with Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Robin Shou, Bridgette Wilson, Talisa Soto, Trevor Goddard, Christopher Lambert.
First things first: taken for what it is - a comic-book actioneer based on a popular, relentlessly violent video game - Mortal Kombat isn't half bad. Sure, there's wooden acting, wooden dialogue, and wooden sets, but on the whole it manages to reach the same level of late summer escapism as some of Tsui Hark's more accessible Hong Kong chop-socky extravaganzas. And, thankfully, it doesn't take itself very seriously at all. It is, in essence, the video game transferred part and parcel to the screen, and very well at that. Terrifically loud, bombastic, and over-the-top, Anderson's film recalls everything from those old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad adventures to more modern teen-oriented fare, throwing in everything and the proverbial kitchen sink. What there is of a plot revolves around three mortal contestants chosen to defeat the Outworld evildoer Shang Tsung (Tagawa, nicely sleazy) in a martial arts battle to save the world. Liu Kang (Shou), Johnny Cage (Ashby), and the voluptuous Sonya Blade (Wilson) are the trio of earthly heroes, and Christopher Lambert (late of Highlander 1-ad infinitum) is Rayden, the wise and wise-cracking silver-maned god on their side. Not much goes on here except for battle after battle and set piece after set piece, but both battles and set pieces are filmed with vigor and originality; there are very few of the too-tight close-ups of blurred hands and feet we so often see in martial arts films, and all three leads are affable, likable cartoon fodder. It's silly, of course, but more importantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun, with plenty of above-average gags (many from the usually Ÿber-stoic Lambert, believe it or not) and some nifty Saturday matinee monsters lumbering about and bellowing at the top of their fiery lungs (not to mention the gorgeous Thailand settings). It's the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy and Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, but you may recall, you loved that stuff as a kid. I know I did.

2.5 stars (M.S.)

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



Still Playing

APOLLO 13

D: Ron Howard; with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Mary Kate Schellhardt.
Ron Howard's take on the ill-fated 1970 moon shot is a big step forward from his previous two films - Backdraft and The Paper - which were generally muddled exercises in how an excellent filmmaker can get lost in his own story. Apollo 13 has no such problems, and as such, it's a riveting, nail-biting, two-buckets-of-popcorn return to form for Howard, filled with the almost unassailable heroics of the U.S. space program and the genuine urgency of history. The story, by Texans William Broyles, Jr., and Al Reinert, is equally compelling, playing up the interesting notion that by the time this third moon shot came around, not even the media was very interested in the space race anymore until something went awry. Howard pulls out all the stops on this one and the performances are uniformly wonderful: It's almost a valentine to NASA, but without the celestial mythologizing of films like The Right Stuff. Oddly, some of the integral special effects in the film - and they are integral - seem less than perfect but, overall, Apollo 13 succeeds and may be the only summer adventure blockbuster without bullets or warheads.

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills


BABE

D: Chris Noonan; with James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski.
Perhaps one of the cutest children's films ever made, this tale of the young piglet who decides his calling in life is to be a sheepdog is also a rousing comedy appropriately filled with a variety of subtle messages, from self-empowerment to the importance of treating others as equals, even though they may be, ah, sheep. When Babe the piglet is taken from the automated pig farm, he ends up at the farm of kindly, taciturn Farmer Hoggett (Cromwell, in a brilliant piece of casting) and his wife (Szubanski). Here, he falls in with Hoggett's sheepdogs, the bitter Rex and motherly Fly. Fly adopts the lonely innocent as her own, introducing him to the various members of the farm community, from old matron ewe Maaa to Ferdinand the duck. Eventually, Babe gets the notion to join Rex and Fly as sheep herders, and, when he proves adept at the job, Hoggett enrolls the piglet in the local sheepdog trials.Babe looks and flows wonderfully. It's a clever, witty, touching piece of work that, coincidentally, is a decidedly excellent date movie. Really.

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Westgate


CLUELESS

D: Amy Heckerling; with Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, Jeremy Sisto, Justin Walker, Wallace Shawn, Twink Calan, Dan Hedaya.
Rarely do you find a film so aptly titled as this one. Director Heckerling, who scored so well so long ago with the brilliant, seminal Fast Times at Ridgemont High, returns to cloyingly similar territory in what is essentially a mediocre Nineties updating of that previous film. Silverstone and the ensemble cast of generic high-schoolers (including a phenomenally ill-used Wallace Shawn replacing the Ray Walston character from Fast Times) tweak their way through a Fox sitcom-quality string of cheap gags and ham-handed teen angst that isn't so much humorous as it is boring. Perhaps it's unfair to keep returning to the comparison with Fast Times, but those characters - as portrayed by Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Sean Penn, et al. - seem, in retrospect, to have been achingly more realized. The kids here just mope, pout, and whine to varying degrees until you want to ship them all off to Rock 'n' Roll High School so the Ramones can take a crack at 'em ("Teenage Lobotomy" never sounded so accurate). Clueless indeed.

1.0 stars (M.S.)

Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate


THE NET

D: Irwin Winkler; with Sandra Bullock, Jeremy Northam, Dennis Miller, Diane Baker.
Conceived as a kind of Alfred Hitchcock meets John Grisham thriller, The Net merely proves what makes those guys such pros and makes producer-director Irwin Winkler (Night and the City) such a heavy-handed knockoff. The Net is sensationalism sans substance - a hip topic, a hot actress, and a hokey script. Professional hacker Angela Bennett (Bullock) is a meek young woman who works at home and communicates with her employer and colleagues by computer. She stumbles across a conspiracy, which in turn erases her identity more expeditiously than leftists are "disappeared" in Argentina. For the plot to work at all, it is essential that there not be a soul who can identify her: not a neighbor, not a co-worker, not a relative, not a friend. Is this really possible, even given the most hermetic computer nerd? Loss of identity is a central Hitchcock theme and the source for much of his movies' suspense. All the evil-doing is simply the MacGuffin that prompts the identity crisis. The Net reverses that formula; recovering her identity means returning Angela to her mousy self, and the suspense derives from figuring out how wide the evil net has been cast. But in terms of suspense, this Net is full of holes.

1.5 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Movies 12


PARTY GIRL

D: Daisy von Scherler Mayer; with Parker Posey, Omar Townsend, Sasha von Scherler, Guillermo Diaz, Anthony DeSando, Donna Mitchell, Liev Schreiber, Nicole Bobbitt.
Party Girl will do for library science what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. Well, maybe. At the least, this film - a favorite at the SXSW Film Festival this year - will allow audiences to see more of Parker Posey, whose supporting roles in Dazed and Confused and Sleep With Me only hinted at her sly comic timing and fun-at-all-costs attitude. Posey plays Mary, queen of a social whirl made up of Manhattan hipsters who live to club, throw outrageously fun parties, and wear incredibly memorable outfits. When Mary lands in jail after one of her "promotions," she throws herself on the mercy of her godmother Judy (von Scherler, the director's mother) and lands a clerking position at the library. Mary's story isn't that different from other coming-of-age stories, but zippy one-liners by co-scripters Mayer and Harry Birckmayer, delivered with razor-sharp precision by Posey, spice up the too-familiar tale. Add the latest in club music and a truly entertaining wardrobe, not to mention the ambiance of downtown Manhattan, and Party Girl is as fun and lighthearted as its namesake.

3.0 stars (A.M.)

Dobie


THE POSTMAN (IL POSTINO)

D: Michael Radford; with Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Linda Moretti, Renato Scarpa, Anna Bonaiuto.
The Postman is an Italian co-production whose history is as tragically romantic as the poetry of one of its main characters, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It is loosely based on a novel about an incident in Neruda's life when he was befriended by a young postman while living in Italy. Together with Radford, The Postman's lead actor Massimo Troisi had worked diligently since 1990 to bring the story to the screen; both he and Radford share screenwriting credit with three other writers. Sadly, Troisi passed away from a heart condition the day after principal photography was completed on the film. Set in 1952 during the time of Neruda's exile from Chile to a small island off the southern coast of Italy, the film recounts the friendship between the aging Communist poet and the shy, directionless son of a fisherman who knows only that he does not want to follow in his father's footsteps. The Postman also is a love story of the first order, a sweet Cyrano tale and, in fact, one of the sweetest stories on film this summer. Slow in parts but appealing overall, The Postman suggests how interwoven the bonds of friendship and love can be. With lyrical beauty and memorable performances, The Postman articulates many feelings that seem to defy explanation.

3.5 stars (A.M.)

Village


SMOKE

D: Wayne Wang and Paul Auster; with William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau, Jr., Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito, Ashley Judd, Victor Argo.
As beguiling and as ephemeral as its title, Smoke is a movie that draws you in and lingers a while in your bloodstream. It's certainly not harmful to your system but like those darned cigarettes, Smoke leaves you wanting another not long after the last one has been extinguished. Knockout ensemble performances like these don't come around all that often, and when they do they ought to be savored. The performances here are smokin'. On the other hand, the story that connects all these characters is a bit wan. The movie is structured as a series of converging vignettes; however, the story lines never converge as completely as one might like. Yet, obviously there were more stories to tell here since while Smoke was being shot, director Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and Auster spun off another film, Blue in the Face, that was shot in the three days following the completion of Smoke. Can't wait: Even if it never all comes together, the fumes are quite intoxicating.

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Village


SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

D: Lasse Hallstrom; with Julia Roberts, Robert Duvall, Gena Rowlands, Kyra Sedgwick, Dennis Quaid, Haley Aull.
In this film by Swedish director Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) , a family is laid bare, warts and all, and made to seem ideal, ugly, weak, and strong all at the same time. Screenwriter Callie (Thelma & Louise). Khouri's dialogue contains some sweet surprises. Just when you think you've got a handle on Grace (Roberts), a young Southern wife estranged from her philandering husband Eddie (Quaid), she utters some line that reveals a little more depth than is at first apparent. Grace spends the movie trying to address her emotions and needs. Battling not only her husband but her domineering, horse-breeding father (expertly played by Duvall), Grace struggles against expectations and years of tradition to pinpoint her own goals. Roberts and Quaid work well together onscreen. The luminous Gena Rowlands, Sedgwick, and Aull round out a well-chosen cast. And the inimitable cinematography of Sven Nykvist captures all of the natural beauty of South Carolina and Georgia. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this film is its lack of tidy closure. As in life, compromises are reached and battles continue. The characters react to one another with love, anger, subtle manipulation, and generosity. While the film does have its overwrought moments and Southern clichŽs, Something to Talk About is a pleasant surprise amidst a summer of big hype and little payoff.

3.0 stars (A.M.)

Arbor, Highland, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate


A WALK IN THE CLOUDS

D: Alfonso Arau; with Keanu Reeves, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Anthony Quinn, Giancarlo Giannini, Angelica Aragon, Evangelina Elizondo.
Describing his experiences in World War II to his new acquaintance Victoria Aragon (Sanchez-Gijon), Paul Sutton (Reeves) declares, "Once the shooting starts, you just go blank." Never have I heard a more fitting description of Reeves' acting. How this overrated and monotonal actor could have been cast in director Arau's Hollywood debut is beyond me. Arau's follow-up to Like Water for Chocolate contains a similar blend of elements; it is a story of fate, love, and family honor.The film tells of Paul's arrival home to a changed world and a wife who never read his letters. Disheartened, he leaves to gain some perspective about his future. A chance meeting on a train introduces him to Victoria, who's pregnant and abandoned and returning to her tightly-knit Mexican family. The two devise a plan in which Paul poses as her husband, but their welcome is marred by Victoria's father (Giannini). A Walk in the Clouds has sweet moments of humor and sensuality interspersed among rather flat scenes. Quinn is superb. Giannini is equally wonderful. Sanchez-Gijon gives an impressive performance. But alas, Reeves sticks out like a bad grape in an otherwise acceptable harvest.

2.5 stars (A.M.)

Arbor, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock


WATERWORLD

D: Kevin Reynolds; with Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Michael Jeter, Zakes Mokae.
If you can work your way past the monumental anti-hype and ill-will surrounding this most expensive of all films, you'll find Reynolds and Costner's enfant terrible of a movie isn't so terrible after all. Set in a future where a cataclysm has melted the ice caps, Waterworld is just that: an environment sans terra firma. Sailing across this expanse are the last footholds of humanity: the Atollers, who have created a vast, floating community; the Smokers, vile marauders led by the over-the-top Hopper; and the Mariner (Costner), a lone, web-footed scavenger. When the Mariner is pressed into aid by a stranded woman and her young charge (Tripplehorn and Majorino), he must choose between a solitary life or the more noble route of Savior of Humankind. Reynolds' film is essentiallyMad Max remade by Greenpeace, but it succeeds nicely on its own merits. Sure, there's the occasional plot hole that gapes wider than the maw of Spielberg's Jaws, but Costner's misanthropic characterization and all the terrific stunts allow you to forget logic and just have a good time watching things blow up. Waterworld is a near-model summer fantasy: two hours and 21 minutes of loud, expansive fun.

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate



Previews

BELLE DE JOUR

D: Luis Bu–uel; with Catherine Deneuve, Genevieve Page, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli.
One of master director Luis Bu–uel's most wry and elegant films, the tale of the beautiful young bride of a prosperous doctor who spends her days working in a Parisian brothel. After 28 years, the film's wit still stings and Catherine Deneuve's cool beauty still astonishes and mystifies.

stars (R.F.)

Village


MAGIC IN THE WATER

D: Rick Stevenson; with Mark Harmon, Joshua Jackson, Harley Jane Kozak, Sarah Wayne.
A late contender in the summer kid-pic sweepstakes that looks like more of the same old-same old: obligatory divorced dad, alienated kids, and a beast that brings them together. But wait! The beast here is a 50-foot lake monster with a jones for Oreos.Free Nessie?

stars (R.F.)

Great Hills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Westgate


THE PROPHECY

D: Gregory Widen; with Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Viggo Mortensen, Amanda Plummer, Elias Koteas.
Screenwriter Widen (Highlander, Backdraft) leaps into the director's chair with a chiller-diller about a priest-turned-homicide detective (a career change more common than you think!) who investigates a grisly murder and uncovers a war between two angels. Real angels. Wild stuff, saith the buzz.

stars (R.F.)

Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside




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