With great wit, humor, and style, this movie serves all America its just desserts and, while the concoction and its ingredients may not kill us, it is to die for. The movie's acerbic satire is directed toward our romance with fame and celebrity and toward the bearers of their power: mass media in the form of TV and the tabloids. Though its target is broad, the movie's barbs are aimed with great precision. With To Die For, director Gus Van Sant has turned in his finest work since his peerless Drugstore Cowboy. This movie, which could have been shaped in a manner as garish and ostentatious as its subject matter is, instead, imbued with Van Sant's subtle humor and guerrilla image-making. In some ways, I suspect that To Die For is the movie that Natural Born Killers really wanted to be, at least in terms of its blows against the insatiable maw of the mass media. As a satire of a milieu, To Die For also has a Robert Altmanesque quality, but one that is stripped of all Altman's venomous belittlement of his characters. Buck Henry's smart script, which was adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel, employs the same sort of incisive social commentary that established Henry's satiric reputation early on with his outstanding television writing (The Steve Allen and Gary Moore shows, That Was the Week That Was, Get Smart) and scripts for films such as The Graduate and Catch-22. Credit must also be given to Nicole Kidman, who makes a career breakthrough with this film in her unheralded debut as a comic actress. She exposes a natural talent for comedy and it's a side of her that we've never really seen before. Kidman inhabits the lead character of Suzanne Stone (yes, Suzanne Stone) with such sly and delicious zest that we can only wonder why this aspect of her acting has been buried under blonde dramatic ambitions. Suzanne Stone is a media creature who feels that she only exists if she's on television. As she often comments, "What's the point of doing anything good if nobody's watching?" She talks her way into a local TV job and works her way up to weather girl, a job that she views as her ticket out of Nowheresville, New England. Her husband (Matt Dillon) thinks Suzanne is the golden girl of his dreams and is blinded with love for her. The rest of his family sees more clearly. To Die For is constructed in a documentary format that uses a collection of interview sound bites and video footage to create a picture of Suzanne: a media whore who'll stop at nothing, even murdering her husband, to achieve the celebrity she desires?; a media victim who's sacrificed self-identity for personality?; a media invention who exists only because we recognize and respond to her presence? Kudos also should go to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor who has regularly worked with Van Sant (as had much of To Die For's crew). Suzanne's pastel print outfits fit the character as perfectly as the low-rent Seventies attire fit the characters in Drugstore Cowboy. Suzanne always looks perfect, whether her image is on the cover of the tabloids at her husband's funeral or on the TV as the perky weather gal flipping sunshine magnets onto the map. With To Die For, the cathode ray emerges as a modern energy source. It remains for us to determine its future use.
4.5 stars (M.B.)Arbor, Lakehills, Riverside
A surprisingly effective thriller, Assassins is much better than it needs to be, thanks mainly to a fast-paced script and two great supporting performances. Stallone, fresh from the not-as-bad-as-you've-heard, box-office flop Judge Dredd, takes on a much quieter role here than usual: that of world-weary professional killer "Robert Rath," an individual well known as the top hit man in the business. Unfortunately for our hero, a young, wild-card rival has decided that he wants that particular title for himself and plans to terminate Sly and usurp his vaulted position. Further complicating matters is "Electra," a feisty computer expert and information thief whom Stallone's mysterious employer wants dead. Of course, Stallone decides to rebel against his backstabbing boss, who is obviously setting him up to be killed, and before long the pair are on the run to the Caribbean, with Rath's young nemesis following close behind. Stallone is serviceable as the melancholy assassin with a past, and Julianne Moore (who gave an extraordinary performance in Todd Haynes' recent Safe) lends solid support as the woman who ultimately manages to give meaning to our hero's life, but it's Antonio Banderas who clearly gives the movie's stand-out performance: Effortlessly charismatic, graceful, and wickedly funny, Banderas is every bit as much fun here as he was in this summer's Desperado, with the screen just about exploding with energy whenever he appears. Other pluses include the handsome cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond and the mood-setting score from composer Mark Mancina, both of which clearly draw their inspiration from various noir influences. Director Donner helms Assassins well enough, I suppose, having thankfully (more or less) dispensed with the self-conscious humor that plagued his own Lethal Weapon III and Maverick in favor of an appropriately hard-boiled atmosphere. Occasionally, though, it feels like Donner simply doesn't have the edge necessary to pull off the picture's darker moments, making me, for one, wonder what a director like John Woo or Walter Hill might have been able to do with this same material. Nevertheless, Assassins is a fun, highly entertaining, action picture with several great moments of humor and suspense, dished out with a taste of genuine wit.
3.0 stars (J.O.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate
Rarely have I been as disgusted with a movie's ad campaign as I have been with the newest Walt Disney Pictures release, the kiddie sports comedy The Big Green (which, I feel obligated to mention, was filmed in and around Austin last fall). From the poster, which depicts a young lad being smacked in the crotch by a flying soccer ball, to the trailer, an almost non-stop barrage of fart and burp jokes - the film's advance publicity suggests the latest Porky's sequel rather than wholesome family entertainment. Is this really what the Disney legacy has come to? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. It seems somewhat redundant to complain about the severe lack of originality behind The Big Green's plot and characters when the filmmakers themselves refer to their film as "The Mighty Ducks (what about the Bad News Bears, guys?), but with soccer," so I'll refrain from doing so; but it should be said that this is a movie written and directed so haphazardly that you'll actually feel every second of its insulting derivativeness. The performances are pretty much what you'd expect from such vapid material (in other words, Steve Guttenberg's "comeback" is anything but), not really any better or worse than usual. The only exception is Olivia d'Abo, who actually manages a few moments of subtle charm despite the dull nature of both her character and dialogue. The soccer sequences are also flubbed, having been shot, edited, and choreographed with what seems like as little imagination as possible, leaving only incoherent montages of kicking and head-butting and the spectacular plays being very few and very far in-between (for some real unparalleled soccer action, track down an obscure, 1980, Hong Kong sports epic called The Champions, starring Yuen Biao). The Big Green is at its worst and most desperate when resorting to ridiculous hallucinations and silly sped-up photography to get laughs, and it's at its best when... well, it's over. Although some really young, easily entertained children may find some slight amusement in this inane mess, adults will most likely find themselves squirming through nearly every minute of this overlong (1 hour and 50 minutes!), predictable bore.
0 stars (J.O)Great Hills, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate
Mean streets. They are what you expect to see in a detective thriller, streets paved with corruption and washed in blood, streets on which a good man doesn't belong. What you don't expect to see - and what Devil in a Blue Dress shows us, with great results - are not-so-mean streets, streets with homes and shops, streets paved with hard work and washed in sweat, streets on which a good man may find a home. The story, adapted from Walter Mosley's novel, centers on Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a WWII vet whose pride and joy is his own home in 1948 L.A. Desperate to keep up the payments after he loses his job, Easy agrees to find the missing sweetheart of a mayoral candidate, which sends him down dark roads. Much of Devil in a Blue Dress follows the detective fiction formula: Its thugs are brutal, its events are driven by men of wealth and power, and the key to its secrets are held by an alluring woman. Where the story differs is its shading: Rawlins is black, and his world is black. This marginalizes our hero not only for his morality but for the color of his skin. It also offers us a milieu rarely seen, a world largely lost. Reviving that world may have been the most important thing about this film for screenwriter-director Franklin (One False Move). While he stages the genre material efficiently enough - the obligatory slugfests and gunfights are crisp and the scenes of confrontation are adequately tense - he doesn't give them the spark of other, less plot-oriented sequences: making small talk in a store below a speakeasy, sharing food and drink at a kitchen table with a grieving man, panning past crowds of African-Americans bustling along Central Avenue. These moments flash. In them, Tak Fujimoto's cinematography seems to catch the light especially vividly, the sounds of Franklin's exquisite soundtrack of period jazz seem particularly evocative of time and feeling, and the fine players (with Don Cheadle a standout as Easy's loyal but trigger-happy pal) seem to display an electric vitality. Even the supremely reliable Washington, whose fit into Rawlins is - what else? - easy, comes to life a touch more in these scenes. When he is at home, his pride in this place, in a good neighborhood of good people, is something to behold. On the mean streets, Devil is okay; but it's something special when it gets to Easy's street.
3.5 stars (R.F.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate
The less said about this sixth entry in the Halloween series, the better. I'll cheerfully admit to being an insatiable genre fan, but this is one October ritual I no longer look forward to. Tired, silly, and ridiculously overwrought, the Halloween franchise has limped long past its natural running time, overshadowed in years past by the Hellraisers and Friday the 13ths, and by a general decline in fear films of all stripes. What we're left with, and what we get this time out, is, far and away, one of the most tedious, uninspired offerings thus far (and, worst of all, the door is left open for yet another pointless sequel). Once again, the mysterious masked killer Myers is back in pleasant Haddonfield, Illinois, slicing, dicing, and making julienne fries of various teens and authority figures. This time, however, he's aided by a contingent of Central Illinois Druids (!) who protect him as one of their own, a walking Celtic Samhain myth. An obviously frail Pleasence returns as Dr. Loomis, though this time the role is hardly more than an extended cameo (Pleasence died shortly after filming wrapped, and the film is dedicated to his memory). To be fair, the film has a sense of uniformity to it: from the acting, to the lighting, to every other aspect of the production, mediocrity holds sway over all. Director Chappelle made a decent debut with last year's Thieves Quartet, but he brings none of the originality of that film to this one. Go rent the new Criterion laserdisc version of John Carpenter's original Halloween instead and ignore everything else.
0 stars (M.S.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate
How to Make an American Quilt blankets the audience with warm and fuzzy sentiments. In most ways, it's a nice enough movie. My problems with it stem from its clear desire to be something more than a "nice enough movie," to become a mouthpiece for timeless wisdom and transcendent truths. The movie equates the evolution of love and the art of quilt making: Both bring diverse, contrasting, and conflicting elements to the overall mix but beauty is found through balanced placement and patchwork. Ryder serves as the hub of the story, a graduate student named Finn who is working to complete her third stab at a master's thesis. She is spending the summer at the country home of her grandmother (Burstyn) and Aunt Gladys Joe (Bancroft) despite the fact that her live-in boyfriend (Mulroney) has just proposed marriage. In between working on her thesis and chatting with the women who gather at the house for their regular quilting bee, Finn wonders whether it's better to marry a best friend or a best lover. Pardon my lack of suspense here, but it's obvious that anyone who searches for the correct answer to such a question is someone incapable of abandoning security for sexual impulse. The primary problem with How to Make an American Quilt, which was adapted from the bestselling novel by Whitney Otto, is its narrative structure. Each of the characters represents a quilt panel and the story of each panel is told discreetly, one by one by one. Yes, we get a sense of how their lives interconnect but the movie's end result is more like a series of character outlines than a fleshed-out narrative fabric. In other words, it's too much "how-to" and not enough "quilt." Perhaps it's just that I expected so much more from Jocelyn Moorhouse, the Australian director whose debut film Proof, about a blind photographer, was so penetrating and perverse. Certainly, How to Make an American Quilt has numerous good points, as well, and is far from a chore to watch. Next to Showgirls, this movie has probably provided women with the largest number of onscreen roles in any Hollywood production this year. And this particular group of actresses really does shine however, and it's a complete delight to watch them work. Their warm camaraderie cannot salvage this predictable script.
2.0 stars (M.B.)
(This review is re-published from the March 24, 1995 Chronicle issue when Lotto Land debuted duing the SXSW Film Festival.)¦A missing $27 million lottery ticket is the linchpin for this warm, informed, and knowing look at two couples living in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. The drug use and bursts of violence that one expects of Brooklyn sagas is dispensed with early on so that writer-director John Rubino can get about the relevant business of his story. At the center are a young black man and a Hispanic woman, both high school seniors, both living with single parents. These are the kind of people we have become accustomed to seeing as heroes among independent films set in economically oppressed, minority communities: Surrounded by crime, apathy, and a kind of happy-go-lucky nihilism, they manage to retain their innate goodness and moral rectitude. They want to do the right thing. It would give too much away to discuss the other couple. Suffice to say they are middle-aged, have lost their spouses, and are working to keep hope alive as they realize that the pleasure curve in their lives is rapidly flattening. That lottery ticket is a nifty plot device, and it never takes on the importance you might expect. This is a film about ordinary lives, not people acquiring riches. Without dissolving into sentimentality, Lotto Land brims with implicit love, hope, and optimism. Don't be surprised if this assured but unshowy film totally captivates you.
3.5 stars (P.T.)Village
This is the type of movie where the title pretty much tells you all you need to know: If the very idea of going to see a movie called Shaolin Kung Fu Mystagogue doesn't automatically sound like a good time, then never mind - this movie is not for you. However, if you're a fan of old-school chopsocky flicks and figure that anything with such a ludicrous title can't be all bad, then read on, because you're likely to have some fun with this one. Hsu Feng, the leading lady in many of legendary Chinese director King Hu's best films (including Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen), teams up here with muscular Carter Huang Chia-ta, a minor kung fu star probably best known for his role in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, to portray a pair of Ming dynasty patriots determined to protect an imprisoned Ming Prince, in addition to beating the stuffing out of as many Ching supporters as possible along the way. Opposing our heroes is a dastardly Ching spy posing as a monk in a Shaolin temple and armed with a pair of nasty, flying, spinning blades that can chop down trees... among other things. Made in 1975, this film's frenzied editing (although it can get a little too crazy at times, especially when mere frames are removed just to "speed up" the action) and trick photography anticipate the outrageous goings-on of more recent popular efforts like 1993's wildly energetic Butterfly and Sword, even if it looks positively primitive in comparison. For sure, there were far superior martial arts pictures being made at the time - most of them by Lui Chia-liang or Chang Cheh - but Shaolin Kung Fu Mystagogue is a decent low-budget effort that boasts a passable story and plenty memorable moments of gravity-defying action and fantasy (the villain's flying weapons and the deadly traps in the Ching headquarters, for instance, make a delightfully campy spectacle). No, it's not exactly Bergman, but if you enjoy this sort of thing, be aware that it isn't everyday you get to see it in the theatre, so don't miss it on the big screen, in glorious "hwakuo-scope," while you've got the chance.
2.0 stars (J.O.)Hogg
The tightly structured narrative of Andrew Davis' last film The Fugitive is definitely absent from Steal Big, Steal Little, his latest effort starring Andy Garcia as identical twins. Elements of screwball comedy and even a hint of Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World crop up from time to time, but the film needs more of a focus for it to succeed. While the fairy-tale element of the story about feuding twin brothers Ruben Partida Martinez and Robert Martin (nee Martinez) has its charms, the film's chaotic nature undercuts any type of moral that Davis may have hoped to communicate. Ruben and Robert are Latino brothers found and raised by eccentric artist and dancer Mona Rowland-Downey (played by Taylor, a dead ringer for Vanessa Redgrave), a wealthy and compassionate woman with a grand plan to open La Fortuna, her 40,000 acre ranch and estate in Santa Barbara, to the families who work the land. Having grown up with different ideas of success, Ruben and Robert disagree about the managing of the estate: Ruben supports Mona's plan, but Robert is more interested in selling the land to developers. When Mona dies and leaves Ruben as sole heir after discovering Robert's shady management of La Fortuna, Robert embarks on a plan to steal the land away from Ruben and the immigrant families who currently cultivate and live on the estate. Other plot lines abound as well: Ruben's reuniting with his wife Laura (Ticotin), his partnership and friendship with Laura's boss Lou Perilli (Arkin), his damaged friendship with his corrupt lawyer Eddie Agopian (Pantoliano), and an alleged affair with his sister-in-law Bonnie (Walker). Davis and co-writers Lee Blessing, Jeanne Blake, and Terry Kahn work hard to weave together these stories, but the film becomes a case study of how too many cooks can spoil the broth, or in this case, nearly the entire meal. Steal Big, Steal Little does work on other levels, however small. The natural richness of Santa Barbara's landscape and the kaleidoscope of colors in the sets and costumes establish a generally engaging and exuberant tone for the film. More impressive is the film's acting, and Garcia deserves credit for a convincing (and probably exhausting) portrayal of the ideologically-opposed brothers Ruben and Robert. Ticotin exudes an appealing strength as Ruben's estranged wife Laura, and Taylor's brief appearance as Mona is appropriately warm and flamboyant. Arkin's role as the fast-talking, faster-thinking used car dealer Lou showcases the actor's dogged and slightly offbeat wit. Acting and setting aside, though, Steal Big, Steal Little just can't seem to pull off the multiple story lines amidst its tale of brotherly love.
2.0 stars (A.M.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Westgate
Perhaps it's only because both films are awkwardly titled and share in the presence of Whoopi Goldberg, but Moonlight and Valentino, more than once, brings to mind that other mainstream gal-pal picture of late, Boys on the Side. Certainly, it points out the rarity of commercial films that present male characters as figures existing in the stories' margins (or on the side), as mere plot devices in the narratives of heterosexual women. Moonlight and Valentino tracks the story of the suddenly widowed Rebecca (Perkins) and the three women who sustain her in her time of grief and adjustment. Her best friend and close neighbor Sylvie (Goldberg) is an eccentric artist and emotionally self-absorbed, but a comfort and a provider of laughter nonetheless; her sister Lucy (Paltrow) is a callow young woman still suffering from the death of their mother during the girls' childhood, yet also a fount of unconditional love and support for her older sister; her ex-stepmother Alberta (Turner) is an extremely successful businesswoman who foists her "take-charge" style on all her personal relationships, though it turns out that her actions are capable of yanking these women out of their morass. Each of these women has a fascinating story line and these actresses all do fine work adding depth to the characters. The problem with Moonlight and Valentino, however, is this multiplicity of story lines. Too many paths of emotional discovery are embarked upon without delivering any true sense of arrival or even destination. The movie was scripted by Ellen Simon, daughter of Neil, who originally wrote the material as a stage play which was based on her own life experience with widowhood. Too many story strands intertwine artificially. The script even underlines for us, in case we don't perceive it on our own, that these four women represent different stages of womanhood: the virgin, wife, widow, and divorcŽe. And in following the strict schematic of this story line, the movie loses some of the messiness that is so intrinsic to reality. However, any movie that matches these four powerful actresses with a sole male lead - no less than rock star and untried actor Jon Bon Jovi - is a movie that automatically captures my interest. Bon Jovi, it turns out, gets the role usually played by film bimbos: an incidental but physically arresting character who provides a diverting sexual encounter for the lead character. Nothing more, nothing less.
2.5 stars (M.B.)Arbor, Highland, Riverside, Westgate
From the director of the bizarre cult hit Twister comes this genuinely affecting comedy-horror film that updates the Dracula lineage to present-day New York City. The movie follows the meanderings of the Count's daughter, Nadja (Lowensohn), as she tries to cope with both the recent death of her father (at the hands of a nicely crazed Peter Fonda) and her place in the world of the living. Fonda, as a very distant quasi-relative of the Van Helsing clan, and his nephew Jim (Donovan) soon become involved in yet another vampire hunt, this time involving the beautiful, delicate Nadja, though the question of who is the hunter and who is the prey, seemingly, is without much resolution here. The story borrows heavily from what has come before, from the stakes through the heart to Renfield (Geary) to much of the vampiric mythos, and then knocks it all just a little off-kilter. Nadja has much of the spare, deadpan look and humor of early Jarmusch films; it's Stranger Than Paradise by way of Salem's Lot. Cinematographer Jim Denault's faultless black-and-white photography perfectly captures the edgy hopelessness that surrounds Nadja's (un)life like a tattered gray shroud (much use is made of a toy Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera, as well as more conventional techniques), but Almereyda's direction never lets this bloody gem become too bogged down in its own vampiric angst. Although the film sometimes dances dangerously close to camp, an oddly touching comic sense - like the scene in which Van Helsing describes his dispatching of Dracula by referring to the count as being "confused... he was like Elvis at the end" - pulls it right back up and into the realm of something we've never really seen before. Infinitely subdued, sexy, and melancholy, Nadja is one of the most stylish and quietly exhilarating genre movies to arrive in a long time. Recommended, and not just if you wear black all the time.
3.5 stars (M.S.)Dobie
Director Fincher, whose last outing was the butchered-by-the-studio Alien 3, seems more comfortable working on the terrestrial level in this vicious, solid, moody slice of Nineties noir. Pitt and Freeman play Mills and Sommerset, a mismatched pair of Gotham detectives (and is there any other kind?) who stumble across a serial killer whose motivation seems to be lifted directly from the classics: Each victim is slaughtered according to one of the seven deadly sins, and passages from Dante's Divine Comedy keep turning up as mocking clues. The catch is that Freeman's world-weary, methodical Sommerset only has seven more days until retirement, and the case-happy Mills, a recent transplant to the city with his lovely wife (Paltrow), is forcing him to stick around. Fincher, whose work in the music video field is readily apparent here, is a powerful director when he's given half a chance, and Seven is a perfect showcase for what he can do without benefit of MTV (although the unnerving main and end titles, set to music by Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, respectively, could have come, part and parcel, from that unholy network). Positively dripping with a soggy, oppressive atmosphere, the film is blanketed with a miasma of madness: The city itself is the enemy here, and the mysterious quarry only a symptom of a much more insatiable disease. Freeman is fine as the recalcitrant, literary Sommerset, and Pitt is, well, he's not as bad as you might think, although his eagerness to please sometimes gets the better of him. I can't help but think that if unknowns were cast in the principal roles we'd be seeing something almost as disturbing as John McNaughton's seminal Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but, I suppose, that's Hollywood. Fincher keeps the film moving at a grimly frenetic pace, using intertitles to keep track of time (it's always raining here) and knocking you out with a one-two conclusion that you may see coming but that rocks you anyhow. A very nasty piece of work, indeed.
3.5 stars (M.S.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate
Showgirls is the kind of movie that gives NC-17 a bad name. It's exactly the kind of exercise in salacious pandering that you already suspect it is. The story is so shabbily built that it can make no valid claim to motives other than the filmmakers' mercenary desires to cash in on the public's prurient interests. And even on this bottom-feeder level, Showgirls fails to deliver the goods. The movie reteams Basic Instinct creators, the once-promising director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. The plot is a cross between A Star Is Born and A Chorus Line and, even with all the nudity, virtually anyone from Vincente Minnelli to Russ Meyer could have turned in a more watchable end product. Plot potholes abound, character motivation is an alien concept, illogical actions are the order of the day, and dialogue rings with poetic lines like, "I just have a problem with pussy... okay?" The less said about Elizabeth Berkley's acting the better, and the kinder. She can't act. Or dance. But that's hardly her fault. No one can blame this former Saved by the Bell ingenue for taking her shot at the grown-up big time, even though the plum role meant she'd walk around buck naked for most of the movie's over two-hour running time. In fact, it's the same career path chosen by Berkley's fictional character in the film. Spooky, hunh? And why shouldn't Berkley grab this shot? Just look at what Joe Eszterhas scripts did for the careers of Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) and Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct). Still, someone should have warned Berkley how ill-equipped she was to carry this film lead. Yet, thinking practically, what possible direction is left for Joe Eszterhas to explore? Only complete feature-length female nudity is the answer. And Eszterhas' public statements have made few bone(r)s about that fact. His story about Vegas showgirls is so flimsy and illogical that it becomes an all-too transparent excuse for an excessive amount of T&A. And for those of you who contend that you can't get too much of a good thing, Showgirls is the movie to prove the fallacy in that particular argument. Besides, what Eszterhas specializes in is the slow tease, especially faux lesbian come-ons. The amount of lesbian teasers we witness are in inverse proportion to the amount of lesbian activity we see. Showgirls is a movie that makes you want to go home and shower afterwards. It's not a cold shower that you want, either. Rather, what you crave is a long, hot soak to scour away all the grime and participatory guilt.
0 stars (M.B.)Dobie, Lakehills
Here's a silly bit of business that nevertheless holds a very important place in the history of Hong Kong cinema: It was the 1978 directorial debut of Yuen Woo-ping, who would go on to become one of the most important and consistent filmmakers working in the Chinese action cinema. It also helped to popularize the burgeoning "kung fu comedy" genre, and, most importantly, it managed to bring a then-little-known actor by the name of Jackie Chan to the public at large - who has since, of course, gone on to become one of the world's biggest and most beloved superstars. This picture, Chan's first big hit, puts the engaging kung fu hero in his trademark role of the good-hearted loser who learns how to fight despite his overall lack of ability. And just as in Drunken Master, which is basically a better, streamlined re-make of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, Chan's master is portrayed by the one-and-only Simon Yuen Hsaio-tien (Yuen Woo-ping's father and martial arts instructor), and their delightful chemistry here is every bit as much fun (and influential) as it was in the re-make. Veteran bad-guy Wong Jang-lee (also from Drunken Master) is on hand as a cruel master of the "Eagle Claw" fighting style, determined to wipe out the remainder of the rival "Snake Style" clan, to which Chan and his teacher belong, but beyond that there's not a whole lot of plot to chew on. While it's more or less acknowledged that in Chinese martial arts movies the plot is usually secondary to the physical action, there are a couple of moments in The Snake in the Eagle's Shadow that are a little too goofy for even my tastes - like when the comic-relief preacher (Horan) turns out, in the film's final reel, to be a master fighter from Russia. However, despite its faults, Yuen Woo-ping and company do manage to pull off a number of thrilling fight scenes and memorable moments of physical comedy, and it is for these reasons that the picture is so fondly remembered by fans. For example, who could forget the tribute to Lui Chia-liang's seminal Dirty Ho, played out in the sequence when Simon Yuen Hsaio-tien manipulates Chan's limbs from behind, enabling him to beat up villains despite his lack of fighting skills; or the sublimely silly moment when our hero slides towels under the feet of a man trying to mess up the floor he's just cleaned? It's not every day that you get the opportunity to see a movie like this on the big screen, and for that reason alone, it's worth the effort for Jackie Chan fans to seek out this fun, near-legendary, chopsocky flick.
3.0 stars (J.O.)Hogg
Young Steven Lidz (Watt) is baffled by some of the things that lately have been going on between his parents in his early 1960s Jewish household. Home life with his parents Sid and Selma Lidz (Turturro and MacDowell) and younger sister (Krull) had always been "different." Sid is a scientist and an obsessive inventor whose elaborate creations and explanations sometimes overshadow the needs of his family. Then Selma becomes sick with what the children are told is a bad cold but is really cancer. Sid, whose life credo is that nothing has been made that can't be fixed, is unhinged by his sudden ineffectuality in the face of cancer. Steven, as a result, turns to his even more eccentric uncles Arthur (Chaykin) and Danny (Richards) in his need for guiding influences. These two are certifiable - Arthur a grown-up na•f who collects the lost detritus of the world and Danny a paranoid schizophrenic who everywhere sees anti-Semitic plotters and collaborators. The heart of the movie is the funny and bittersweet story of this boy's coming of age. There's so much that I like about Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes that I feel positively churlish about also having to point out some of its faults. Keaton remains behind the camera throughout. Her eye for the details is impeccable. All of the "stuff" that contributes to her images - what hangs on the walls, the look of the house, the kitchenware, the costumes, the furniture, and so on - is dead-on accurate. And the script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref, The Little Princess, and The Bridges of Madison County adaptation) holds many marvelous moments and treats. Yet, it is also curiously wanting. You can't help but want to know more about the background of these three eccentric brothers explaining how they came to be the way they are. Some might find the casting of an unfledged actress named MacDowell to play a Jewish housewife in a period piece to be an example of Keaton's bold chutzpah; others may say it's plain meshuginah. MacDowell acquits herself decently, but hers is, nevertheless, an ebbing presence in the story. For once, Turturro has been cast as a romantic lead and it's clear that he's in possession of enough acting skills to move beyond his ghettoization playing edgy, unbalanced, ethnic types. One might, typically, have thought of Turturro to play the character of Danny, who is, instead, played by Michael Richards. Richards needed a stronger directorial voice that stopped him before he got too far into his routine mannerisms and eccentricities. Eccentricities, though they are essential to the story, nevertheless come across as too pat and planned in Unstrung Heroes. Despite my inability to dismiss the film's uncomfortable flaws, these were not so distracting that I had anything other than an enjoyable experience while watching the movie and was awash in a small puddle of tears at the end.
3.0 stars (M.B.)Arbor, Highland, Westgate
Fashion photographer Douglas Keeve turns his camera on designer Isaac Mizrahi for an intriguing and often funny look into the making of a seasonal fashion collection. The documentary opens with Mizrahi receiving and reacting to the lukewarm reviews of his Spring 1994 collection. As he bounces back to design that year's fall collection, Mizrahi explains how his clothes are often inspired by a gesture, a bit of minutiae that somehow resonates for him. The Fall 1994 collection had its roots in a number of diverse gestures: images from Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Seventies sitcom single goddess Mary Richards, and an antique French corset made of metal and fabric. The documentary chronicles the collection from its beginnings in Mizrahi's sketches to its parade down the catwalk in New York City. While the film entertains with its peeks into Mizrahi's daily life, more visually interesting is the whirl of models and fashion personalities who pass before Keeve's lens. Despite its provocative title, Unzipped is no exposŽ of the fashion world: Some models are well-behaved (Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford); others are more than a little obnoxious (Linda Evangelista). Mizrahi himself is very likable and grounded, somewhat surprising considering the eccentrics with whom he must deal, like Allure magazine creative director Polly Mellen. Yet the film's compilation of interviews, black-and-white and color images, and home movies of the budding designer proves engaging throughout. The film's visuals stylishly capture Mizrahi's dramatic sense of color and playful combination of shapes and fabrics, such as synthetic fur with silk and satin. Additionally, Mizrahi's extensive repertoire of popular culture references sheds some light on his more daring ideas, such as the faux-fur jumpsuit fantasy creation he hoped to make (but compromised into a short "chubby" jacket) in honor of the Banana Splits, those fur-encased musical maniacs from Saturday morning television. Keeve's self-conscious stylistics (random pieces of film leader, for instance) grow a little tiresome, but the witty Mizrahi manages to keep the film moving. By the time the film concludes with his impressively staged fall collection, Mizrahi has become the unzipped hero. A must-see for addicts like myself with an embarrassing number of fashion magazine subscriptions, but worthwhile for everyone else, Unzipped overflows with style and just enough substance.
3.0 stars (A.M.)Village
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.)Highland
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. 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.)Highland, Movies 12
First-time director Burns has written a wry and touching script about a family of Irish Catholic brothers, all at different stages of denial toward commitment and Catholicism. We follow the brothers as they fall in and out of love, make stupid mistakes, and generally bolster each other's "rules and regulations" of Catholicism. 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. Not only do we come to know and appreciate these brothers even when they're at their most unevolved, but we also get to spend time with the women in their lives. The Brothers McMullen, the Grand Jury prize-winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, 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
From the novel by Richard Price (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Spike Lee) comes Lee's first real look at urban drug dealing and the effects it has on life in the 'hood. This is the first Spike Lee Joint that feels more like a mainstream Hollywood cops-in-the-'hood picture and less like one of Lee's recurrent soapboxes: There are fewer of his glissando "look ma!" camera flourishes (although they're not gone entirely), a decided drop in the speechifying, and, in general, not as much attention drawn to the filmmaker's style in deference to the story line. Lee's eighth film is missing the in-your-face punch of previous outings such as Do the Right Thing, but more than makes up for it with its nuanced characters and a 'hood script that for once doesn't seem like it was lifted part and parcel from a 2Pac rhyme. It's about time.
3.5 stars (M.S.)Arbor, Highland
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. About the only thing that keeps Dangerous Minds from being a total washout is the humor and energy of the young actors portraying the students.
1.5 stars (J.O.)Arbor, Highland, Movies 12, Roundrock, 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. 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 that is sustained until nearly the end. This maxed-out Hollywood shoot-'em-up is also notable for its complete absence of American actors and settings.
4.0 stars (M.B.)Highland, Movies 12, Riverside
If you've seen Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey, then for all practical purposes you've seen the movie version of the same. What's eye-opening about the film is how thin Rudnick's work really is - there's really not much there, when all is said and done. True, Jeffrey is without a doubt entertaining enough, particularly given its sobering subject matter: love in the age of AIDS. But there's a palpable, arm's-length distance in its story of a gay Everyguy who swears off sex and then meets Mr. Right, an HIV-positive man. Like its title character, the movie has a fear of commitment and, as a result, it doesn't grab you in quite the way that you expected it would. As Jeffrey, Weber is winning and likable but he can't overcome the obstacle that Rudnick has created, i.e., the characterization of Jeffrey as, well, a whiner. The film's highlight is Stewart's campy but grounded performance as Jeffrey's flamboyant and witty older friend, an interior designer who can carry off just about anything (including this movie).
2.5 stars (S.D.)Dobie
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. On the other side of New York City, Jenny, whose only sexual contact was with the "de-virginizer," learns she is HIV-positive. Photographer-turned-director Clark 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. 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.)Dobie
Beautiful scenery, a somewhat intriguing story, and weak dialogue characterize Last of the Dogmen, the directing debut of screenwriter Tab Murphy. While the majority of the film bogs down in uninspired dialogue and predictable plotting, there are a couple of notable scenes. Add to this 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.
2.5 stars (A.M.)Roundrock
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 achieve a late summer escapism and, thankfully, it doesn't take itself very seriously. It is, in essence, the video game transferred part and parcel to the screen, and very well at that. 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, 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 monsters lumbering about and bellowing at the top of their fiery lungs (not to mention the gorgeous Thailand settings).
2.5 stars (M.S.)Movies 12, Roundrock
In this latest by Swedish director Hallstrom, 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, whose dialogue contains some sweet surprises. 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, Roundrock
To Wong Foo is a fairy tale in every sense of the word. Kidron's 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. 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. 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, Highland, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Northcross
The Usual Suspects is a movie with style to burn, and, initially, that's 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. The film begins with the elegantly filmed explosion of a boat. 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. These characters are fascinating, complicated, and compelling, and the actors' portraying them create breathtaking performances. Very little really occurs in terms of the film's essential actions, but everything occurs in the way that these events go down. 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, Movies 12
How an overrated and monotonal actor like Keanu Reeves could have been cast in director Arau's Hollywood debut is beyond me. A Walk in the Clouds marks Arau's follow-up to the much-acclaimed Like Water for Chocolate and is a story of fate, love, and family honor. It has sweet moments of humor and sensuality interspersed among a few rather flat scenes. As the Aragon patriarch Don Pedro, Quinn is superb. Giannini is equally wonderful. Making her American debut, Sanchez-Gijon also gives an impressive performance. Despite Reeves' one-dimensional acting, there does exist a smoldering chemistry between the two actors. Luscious images by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki add to the sensuality of A Walk in the Clouds. But alas, Reeves sticks out like a bad grape in an otherwise acceptable harvest.
2.5 stars (A.M.)Roundrock
Last time out, the combination of director Mike Newell and actor Hugh Grant resulted in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Here, the story is set backstage in a Liverpool theatre company in the years following WWII. A starry-eyed teenage girl provides the focal point as her love for the theatre leads her into other grown-up situations.
The Austin Film Society calendar lists Otto Prreminger's Carmen Jones as sceening on Tuesday, October 10. They've called to let us know that the listing is incorrect. Carmen Jones will instead show on October 31. Inadvertantly, dates were reversed. What you will see at the free screening this Tuesday is something quite different, Boy (1969), by Japanese maverick Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) which explores the fantasy world of a boy who is morally corrupted by his parents.
The Hughes Brothers team, Allen and Albert, built up a lot of positive expectations with their amazing debut film Menace II Society. The trailers for their follow-up, Dead Presidents, look promising, so here's hoping that it's able to avoid the pitfalls of the proverbial sophomore slump. The story focuses on a young man's struggle to define his place in America amidst the social chaos of the Sixties and Seventies.
stars (M.B.)Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate