To Wong Foo is a fairy tale in every sense of the word. Kidron's (Used People) latest film outdrags, outdresses, and generally outdoes last year's Australian hit about traveling drag queens, Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. To Wong Foo screams old-style Hollywood, from its casting of Snipes and Swayze in the lead roles to its over-the-top costuming and music to its brightly colored sets. Kidron cleverly entices even the most reluctant viewer by opening the film with a narcissistic credit sequence that allows us to watch Snipes and Swayze transform themselves into their characters Noxeema Jackson and Vida Boheme, contestants in the annual New York City Drag Queen Pageant. Watching Swayze apply his makeup is akin to a religious experience: He is truly handsome dressed as a woman, and we share in his character's obvious pleasure in the transformation. The same goes for Snipes, who is less reserved as Noxeema but no less proud of her appearance. It is almost impossible not to be swept away by the sheer fun of this movie. When Noxeema and Vida tie for first place as winners of an all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood for the national level of pageant competition, they are promptly sidetracked by "drag princess" Chi Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo), despondent over her own loss in the pageant. Taken in by Chi Chi's dejection and obvious need of a fashion mentor, Vida convinces Noxeema to trade in their airplane tickets for cash, which immediately is invested in a convertible that will take all three of them to the Hollywood pageant competition. Just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, these ladies meet many interesting characters on their trip, and a breakdown in Snydersville (closer to Kansas than Oz, really) proves to be fortuitous on many levels. Their deeds and experiences in Snydersville are truly the stuff of Hollywood moviemaking with transformations, revelations, and happy endings all around. For some, the film's unabashed sentimentality and fairy-tale quality may go too far, but To Wong Foo is such a delight that it's easy to overlook the few awkward moments. Calling To Wong Foo campy doesn't do the film justice: The film camps it up but still allows us to believe in the characters. Snipes and Swayze are so successful in exploring their feminine sides that all of their future roles should be played in drag. Also, watch for Robin Williams' cameo and Chris Penn's hilariously offensive Sheriff Dollard, whose list of "Places to Find Homos" nails every stereotypical employment opportunity for those with same-sex preferences. So what does the film's title refer to, you ask? Well, you'll just have To Wong Foo to find out.
4.0 stars (A.M.)Great Hills, Lakehills, Lincoln, Riverside
Based upon a true story, the exquisitely titled The Day the Sun Turned Cold is a wonderfully suspenseful drama that also pulses with emotional resonance thanks to the carefully measured performances of the cast and the thoughtful direction of celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Yim Ho (Red Dust, King of Chess). The film tells the bizarre tale of Guan Jing, a young man who one day walks into his local police station and demands an investigation into the death of his father, who he believes was murdered by his mother 10 years earlier. Did she do it? Didn't she do it? To give away any more could quite possibly hamper the entertainment factor of the movie, even though Yim Ho is obviously far more interested in the emotional shock waves that are introduced into the lives of the characters following Guan's accusation. Thankfully, the talented cast is well worth this focus as each gives a performance of uncommon detail and precision. And although special mention must be made of Li Hu's turn as the cautious police captain drawn into the intrigue, the real triumph of The Day the Sun Turned Cold must go to Siqin Gowa (last seen in Xie Fei's Women From the Lake of Scented Souls) and Tuo Zhong Hua (Zodiac Killers), for their turns as the mother and son, respectively. Their complex, strained relationship not only serves as the heart of the movie, it allows for some of the most gripping dramatic moments I've seen all year, especially during the pair's final confrontation. With performances like these, coupled with Yim's flawless sense of atmosphere, The Day the Sun Turned Cold makes for great drama - intriguing, involving, and unafraid to take its time (in fact, some tastes may find the movie too slow... so be warned). Due to its subject matter and themes, it will no doubt invite unfair comparisons with this year's Delores Claiborne, but such analogies don't hold up quite so well when both films are placed side-by-side. Yim's movie offers up a much richer world view populated by a far more compromised cast of characters than Taylor Hackford's effective but simplistic, one-note feminism. Fans of gifted director Ann Hui (Song of the Exile, Love in a Fallen City) will be interested to hear that she is credited here as both executive producer and costume designer.
3.5 stars (J.O.)Texas Union
Beautiful scenery, a somewhat intriguing story, and weak dialogue characterize Last of the Dogmen, the directing debut of screenwriter Tab Murphy (previous credits include his Oscar nomination for co-scripting Gorillas in the Mist). When a bus full of prison inmates crashes in the Montana town of Big Sky and three prisoners make a run for the wilderness, bounty hunter Lewis Gates (Berenger) is enlisted by his father-in-law, Sheriff Deegan (Smith) to bring the men back to justice. Gates deduces that the men are most likely dead after he hears an explosion of gunfire and finds blood-soaked clothing but no bodies. When he also discovers a blood-streaked arrow and glimpses what he thinks are American Indians riding off through the trees, Gates decides to investigate further. He enlists the aid of professor Lillian Sloan (Hershey), a noted anthropologist and specialist in the field of Native American history. Their pairing sets off sparks in true Hollywood fashion, and the tension between the two characters shapes one of the film's subplots. Gates and Sloan journey into the Oxbow Quadrangle, a section of the Montana mountains well known for its sheer cliffs and dense wilderness and rumored to be the base of a secret military-type society within the Cheyenne Indian tribe known as the Dogmen. Fierce warriors who protect their land and their tribe at any cost, the Dogmen prove intimidating and shrewd objects of Gates' and Sloan's search. While the majority of the film bogs down in uninspired dialogue and predictable plotting, there are a couple of scenes worth noting. The Dogmen's first appearance in the film is truly powerful, and Karl Walter Lindenlaub's cinematography conveys the majesty and raw power of these "Dog Soldiers." Equally haunting is a dream sequence in which Gates imagines the confrontation between the Cheyenne Dogmen and the lawmen looking for him and Sloan. Add to these scenes the overall beauty of the Canadian wilderness that subs for Montana in the film and Last of the Dogmen manages to appeal visually if not always cerebrally. Berenger and Hershey are adequate as the leads and Reevis is impressive as Yellow Wolf, but the film itself cannot sustain the compelling level of drama that occurs only sporadically. Last of the Dogmen reminds us of the legacy that was lost when the American Indians were forced from their land onto government-sanctioned reservations, but this reminder is not reason enough to recommend the film.
2.5 stars (A.M.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate
I once paid five pounds to work my way up numerous lochs to get to the most famous loch of them all. Squinting through the cold, misty Highland air, I scanned the flinty waters, searching for a sign of the murky monster. It was a magical, mysterious trip. Of course, I had worked my way through several hot toddies as well, so the most remarkable thing about the outing was that I didn't spot Nessie emerging from the shadow of Urquehart Castle. Unfortunately, I had no such fortification when I went to see Magic in the Water. This tale of two city kids taken on vacation to Glenork, in rural British Columbia, by their cellular phone-addicted, divorced dad is about as old as the Loch Ness legend. Young, lonely Ashley (Wayne) is befriended by Orky, the monster living in the hamlet's glacier-carved lake, after she feeds him Oreos. Orky is also fond of whooshing men off to his cave, from which they emerge reborn, with a sense of youthful joy and wonder that lands them in therapy groups. When Ashley's dad Jack (Harmon), a hyper-rational, speak by the numbers ("Three words: Get over it."), talk-show psychiatrist is whooshed and returns with a penchant for orchestrating clouds and digging holes to China, the lonely, boring vacation starts to perk up. But Jack has been chosen (along with a mixed-nuts assortment of local townsmen) as a messenger from Orky, warning against the bad guys (two one-armed brothers representing the darker side of Doug and Bob Mackenzie) who are dumping toxic wastes into beautiful Glenork Lake. Deliberately (one hopes) derivative and not especially well told, the picture is not totally without charm: Two young anglers, their lines idle in the water, look on in bewilderment as bright, silvery fish leap into their canoe. A group of earnest Japanese scientists solemnly fiddle with the controls on their bright yellow submarine. And gorgeous Glenork scenery captured in a 1950s "Greetings from..." postcard look packs a nostalgic punch. But while it's amusing for the younger set, an adult outing to Magic in the Water, like my search for Nessie, might benefit from a few shots of magic water en route.
1.5 stars (H.C.)Great Hills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Westgate
A theological film noir with Walken in a shaggy black Beatles mop-top is the best way to describe The Prophecy. When an NYPD detective with the doubtful name of Thomas and a previous life as a failed priest starts turning up clues that point toward otherworldly murders, he becomes involved in a literal war between the angels. As director Widen (who also had more than a passing interest in the priesthood) posits it, there has been a full-fledged war raging in heaven for the past 2,000 years, with the archangel Gabriel (Walken) at the head of a group of heavenly minions seeking to break away from God and destroy humankind. Gabriel and gang have become jealous of man's elevated status on God's Things to Do Today list, and, in a less than fully explained plot twist, end up on terra firma in hopes of stealing the soul from the corpse of the "most diabolical military mind the world has ever seen." Colonel Kurtz, is, of course, nowhere in sight, so Gabriel must make do with the recently deceased essence of a cannibalistic Vietnam vet. On God's side is Stoltz as Simon, one of God's more trustworthy lieutenants, who engages the morally confused cop in the action and manages to hide the soul in question in the body of a young Navaho girl. As confused as it is ambitious, The Prophesy is one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink horror films that leaves you scratching your head and wondering "Why?" Crammed with interesting and genuinely weighty theological issues (the fact that Satan himself appears in the final reel, and on God's side no less, is one of the film's more startling revelations), The Prophecy, nonetheless, feels like a rush job, full of gaping plot holes and unanswered questions. And despite the excellent cast, not counting Walken's decidedly un-angelic looking locks, the film caroms about, from silly to eerie and back again. Occasionally knockout special effects (a vision of the shores of Heaven upon which are skewered the rotting corpses of thousands of slaughtered angels puts you in mind of Vlad the Impaler) also fail to make up for the story's convoluted twists and turns. Widen gets an "A" for ambition here, but by the end of the whole shebang, you really couldn't care less.
2.0 stars (M.S.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside
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, Movies 12, Roundrock
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
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 "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 10 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
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, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Westgate
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 fatalities and the film has adopted a kind of comic-book logic, humor, and vitality. El Mariachi's mythic status has been reaffirmed and it 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
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 story line 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.)Westgate
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
For once, the hype is right on the money. Kids is an emotional sucker punch, a raw, dirty, disturbing piece of cinŽma vŽritŽ 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 of 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
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 transpire as the crew battles with backbiting, egomaniacal stars run amok, 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 whose 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
First things first: taken for what it is - a comic-book actioner 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 chopsocky 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 wisecracking 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
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
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. 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
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
Melanie Mayron 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 has an unexpected reunion with her well-meaning but totally unreliable father. 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.
3.0 stars (H.C.)Great Hills, Roundrock
Michelle Pfeiffer stars as an ex-Marine 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. 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. Pfeiffer'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.
1.5 stars (J.O.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate
It figures 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 to Arthur's Camelot, which has fallen on hard times. 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.
0.5 stars (H.C.)Movies 12
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? In terms of suspense, this Net is full of holes.
1.5 stars (M.B.)Arbor
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. 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
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, though their fumes are quite intoxicating.
3.5 stars (M.B.)Village
In this latest 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. Grace (Roberts), a young Southern wife estranged from her philandering husband Eddie (Quaid) and battling her domineering father (expertly played by Duvall), struggles against expectations and years of tradition to pinpoint her own goals. Credit should be shared between Hallstrom and screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise). Khouri's dialogue contains some sweet surprises. Just when you think you've got a handle on Grace, she utters some line that reveals a little more depth than is apparent. The film offers Roberts a rare opportunity to play an adult role that allows her some range. While the film does have its overwrought moments, Something to Talk About is a pleasant surprise amidst a summer of big cinema hype and little entertainment payoff.
3.0 stars (A.M.)Arbor, Highland, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate
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. 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, Roundrock
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. 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, Roundrock, Westgate
This intriguing new film from prolific producer/director Wong Jing is a return for Wong and his regular leading lady (on and off screen), Chingmay Yau Suk-ching, to the realm of "Level III" filmmaking (Hong Kong's equivalent to NC-17). The shamelessly parasitic Wong, leaving behind his recent John Woo imitations, here opts to cop the style of Tsui Hark's period melodramas. The plot casts Yau as a shy young woman who, with the help of a couple of sex experts, becomes something of a sex bomb. Proceeding to use her irresistible charms to sleep her way to power, Yau transforms herself into a cruel and merciless bitch. Her ambition destroys everyone around her and leads to a predictably tragic finale. On the surface, Wong utilizes a style that seems, at least from a purely visual standpoint, to be ridiculously close to that of Tsui. The incorporation of (supposedly) telling historical references, fluid photography, lush costumes, and the occasional gravity-defying action sequence manages to give the picture an admittedly Harkian feel, but director Wong just doesn't have the skill to reach beyond the surface details of these elements and, therefore, fails to make them resonate as anything more than eye candy. Wong Jing isn't Tsui Hark, and never will be no matter how hard he tries. While Tsui has shown himself to be a consistent innovator on the Hong Kong film scene, Wong has always shown himself to be the follower of the latest trends, and though some of his work is undeniably entertaining, it can rarely be called original. This erotic melodrama does have its moments due primarily to the cast. While these performers have all done much better work in the past, they almost manage to keep Wong's loony sensibilities in check, allowing for a few moments of effective drama. The moments of eroticism, while certainly more graphic than the typical Hong Kong flick, don't come close to the sexual antics of the Wong Jing-written and -produced Naked Killer, and occasionally they even seem inhibited by comparison. There are worse movies than Lover of the Last Empress, but this thing really is severely lacking in individual personality. However, Tsui Hark's fans may find this one interesting for obvious reasons.
1.5 stars (J.O.)Riverside
Personally, I thought these National Lampoon folks flunked out long ago. The producers describe this film as "Animal House on wheels." The story is described as the "politically incorrect misadventures of a pack of high school slackers" while on a road trip to Washington, D.C. None of these leads could pass for a high-schooler, however. First-time feature director Makin earned his stripes directing numerous episodes of Kids in the Hall.
stars (M.B.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate
This movie has to have the creepiest trailer in recent memory. Truly, it looks like it not only materializes our most disturbing human nightmares, but also relishes in its creation of that dementia. The story catches a 6-year-old girl between her loving, adoptive parents (Kelly and Spano) and her deranged, criminal birth parents (Hannah and Carradine). Sounds like a cross between The Sugarland Express and Flesh and Blood.
stars (M.B.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate