Multiculturalism as a concept is something to which most of us pay lip service, but rarely do we see it actualized - especially in the movies. Double Happiness, the wonderful first feature from the Chinese-Canadian writer-director Mina Shum, comes as close to the expression of multiculturalism as anything I've seen in a long time. This comically told story focuses on the life of Jade Li (Oh), a 22-year-old, Chinese-Canadian, aspiring actress. Jade lives at home with her sister Pearl (You) and her traditional parents (Ong and Chang), who immigrated to Canada when Jade was still a baby. Caught between her desire to be a dutiful daughter and her desire to cut an independent path for herself, Jade's irreverence and insistence on her pursuit of an acting career is in grave conflict with her parents' desire to match her up with a good Chinese husband. She appeases her parents by going out with the dates they fix up for her, though she also finds herself growing emotionally attached to Mark (Rennie) a white, university student. Were she to bring the affair into the open, Jade is painfully aware of the consequences since she has a rarely-spoken-of brother whom her parents have already disowned - and though they are obviously capable of severe actions in order to uphold their beliefs, they are hardly portrayed as villains or cold-hearted people; they're merely parents who want the best for their children. Meanwhile, her acting auditions get her no further than stereotypical Chinese roles (she's even turned down for a news anchor job because the station was looking for a Filipino) and practically nonexistent walk-ons. Eventually, she must decide whose life she's living and face the consequences. As Jade, actress Sandra Oh gives a rich performance that conveys a satisfying sense of the character's dilemmas, passions, cheekiness, and talent. You very much get an impression of an honest fluidity between the sensibilities and experiences of Oh and Shum, yet the depiction is not so insular that it lacks resonance for the universal audience. Shum also is in command of a variety of unusual visual techniques that ably create an expressionistic quality in her story. Such things as slow-motion shots, rapid camera pans, and striking compositions all help us understand the emotional factors at play here. Some moments approach bizarre surreality: for example, the family living-room karaoke get-down to the strains of "MacArthur Park" and Jade's rehearsal of a Blanche DuBois monologue in a sugary Southern accent that reveals her uncanny talent for mimicking speech patterns. Everywhere one turns in Double Happiness there is evidence of cultural differences and cognitive dissonance. The triumph of Double Happiness is in hearing laughter and sweetness in the sounds of dissonance.
4.0 stars (M.B.)Village
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's first modern-day film since 1992's The Master is also his loosest, most improvisational picture in years. It forsakes the tightly bound and symmetrical plot structures of his previous Green Snake and The Lovers for an easygoing style that makes for a charming movie. Chinese Ghost Story alumnus Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing stars as a reckless young chef-in-training who, with the help of master cook Cheu Man-check (Wong Fei-hung in the last two installments of the Once Upon a Time in China series), is granted a menial position at the prestigious Qing Han restaurant where he causes trouble to no end and also manages to start up a relationship with a quirky co-worker (He Is a Man, She Is a Woman superstar Anita Yuen Wing-yee). But when rival chef Xin Xin-xiong (better known as "Club Foot," yet another Once Upon a Time in China regular) challenges Qing Han to a test of cookery skills that culminates in a re-staging of the legendary "Qing and Han Imperial Feast," Cheung and Yuen must track a masterful chef-turned-scummy-recluse (Kenny Bee) in mainland China in order to win the contest. "Kung Food" might be a silly, if somewhat accurate, description of The Chinese Feast since all the challenges, duels, and training sequences on display here occasionally parallel those in Hark's martial arts films. The casting of his regular kung-fu actors only serves to reinforce this idea. However, this is a light, sporadically goofy comedy that may have a couple of moments that seem a little off-target, but are always redeemed by Hark's enthusiastic direction and the fine comic performances of the talented cast. There are many hilarious set-pieces, like Yuen's unforgettable karaoke performance or the shameless slapstick of Cheung wrestling with a giant fish, and the scenes of food preparation are nothing less than fascinating. Far less ambitious than Hark's last couple of films, The Chinese Feast is, nevertheless, driven by an infectious sense of manic silliness (e.g., the scene in which the crew wanders out from behind the cameras to join the cast in a drink) that helps make this a genuinely fun bit of zany nonsense.
3.0 stars (J.O.)Hogg
A co-produced Finnish/Estonian/American heist film, City Unplugged may owe a passing tip of the hat to previous caper films like Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Yet it finally succeeds on its own terms as the sort of bungled heist film that simultaneously radiates a dark, morbid wit as well as an impressive body count and exhilarating direction. Over the opening credits, we learn that Estonia's national treasury - $970 million in gold bullion - is being returned to its native soil after 50 years abroad in Paris, where it was sent for safeguarding from the Nazis during the Second World War. Across the tiny Baltic nation (and recently independent Soviet satellite country), the people are celebrating with much pomp and circumstance, singing patriotic songs and having parades. In the midst of this joyous melee is Toivo (Uukkivi), a young city utilities operator, who, at the behest of his loving and thoroughly pregnant wife (Gulbe), has opted for an elaborate scheme to steal the gold concocted by a group of Russian mobsters. Their plan: First, buy up all the candles and flashlights in town, then cut the city's electrical power (Toivo's end of the bargain) and make off with the loot under cover of darkness and later melt it down at the local cigarette plant and export it. All goes well until Toivo's wife goes into early labor and he is forced to attempt rewiring the town's electricity in order to keep the premature infant alive. As ludicrous as it sounds, City Unplugged has a fresh, dynamic feel to it, not the least of which is due to the rapid editing and bizarre camera angles of the director (who now lives in Los Angeles). The acting, as well, is uniformly superior - far better than much of the grade-B capers coming out of Hollywood these days. Particularly notable is Juri Jarvet as Stub, the nicotine-fiend leader of the Russian gangsters who conveniently tucks a giant roll of uncut cigarettes behind his ear at every opportunity. City Unplugged can, naturally, be viewed as a statement about the emerging democracy and the future of Estonia, but it also operates just fine on the more Western level of a gritty - and often hilarious - crime film. Either way, it's great to realize there's more coming out of that part of the globe than Bjork.
3.0 stars (M.S.)Hogg
In looking to expand their creative palette beyond the streetwise nihilism of their debut feature, the excellent Menace II Society, the directing team of Allen and Albert Hughes appear to have bitten off more than they can chew with Dead Presidents, an electrifying and occasionally powerful but unfocused work, that despite its many strengths, fails to equal the impact of their previous picture. Set in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, the film chronicles the evolution of 18-year-old Anthony Curtis (Tate) from a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky youngster to a scared 22-year-old Vietnam war veteran who turns to crime after his life has more or less fallen apart. There are several scenes in Dead Presidents that are well worth anyone's time, like Keith David's wickedly funny one-legged assault while attempting to collect a debt, or the adrenaline-charged ultra-violence of the climactic heist, but the film simply lacks emotional momentum and is seemingly content to merely move from event to event with little dramatic build-up. Granted, the epic scope of the story line is bound to leave a few of the more minor subplots less than fully developed, but the movie instead decides to touch all too briefly upon every plot point the tale brings up, in the process reducing even major events to the status of footnotes. Ambitious? You bet. Effective? Not really. Sure, we may see Curtis become a marine and a criminal, but we never truly understand or, more importantly, feel why this character does what he does. The information is simply thrown at us. In this light, the overall cohesion of Dead Presidents might have benefited from either a longer running time or a narrower focus, despite the commercial liability of the former and the creative compromise required by the latter. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in Dead Presidents: Lisa Rinzler's moody photography, the top-flight soundtrack (which, beyond its primo selection of R&B classics, also features composer Danny Elfman's best work in years), and all the fine performances - with Keith David's smoldering cool and Chris Tucker's hyperactive silliness both especially memorable. Ultimately, however, the Hughes Brothers' ambition is admirable, but, as with their main character, ambition gets the better of them. With this in mind, it seems wholly appropriate, not to mention somewhat symbolic, that Dead Presidents ends not with a bang (a la Menace), but a whimper.
2.5 stars (J.O.)Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate
Blending comedy and drama in a film about AIDS can be a difficult task, and Peter Litten's first foray into solo directing (previous co-directions include Slaughter High and Living Doll) makes a valiant but ultimately uneven effort to portray the effects that AIDS has on both an HIV-positive man and his HIV-negative lover, friends, and family. Heaven's a Drag is about Simon (Arklie) and Mark (Williams), two gay men coping with Mark's HIV status. Simon, perhaps in an effort to deny Mark's impending death, cruises clubs and sleeps with other men while maintaining a relatively loving relationship with Mark, a drag performer at one of the local gay clubs. In a narrative twist reminiscent of Truly, Madly, Deeply, the film shifts from drama to near-slapstick comedy as Mark comes back from beyond to "haunt" Simon, whom Mark believes is not accepting his death. There are a couple of problems with the film, however, that keep it from succeeding on all levels. For most of Heaven's a Drag, musical director Roger Bolton's soundtrack is simply too overbearing. Its presence is so intrusive that the music robs potentially powerful scenes of all subtlety. Another weak area concerns the scripting of the commitment levels between Simon and Mark. At one point in the film it seems as if Mark's feelings for Simon are not reciprocated and have never been, which suggests a more challenging (and rewarding) path for the film to take. Unfortunately, the last few scenes cancel out this more interesting development, leaving the film with an ending that, while plausible considering Simon's character, seems unsatisfying and false. The second half of Heaven's a Drag has many enjoyable comedic moments, but its handling of the heavier scenes such as Mark's death are either too dismissive or too melodramatic. To make a film that depicts AIDS as more than a hopelessly tragic and one-dimensional situation is a tall order, and Litten's desire to do so is well intentioned. Equally credit-worthy are the lead performances of Arklie and Williams, who flesh out the characters as two engaging and distinct personalities. While the film's weaknesses at times threaten to undermine the entire project, Heaven's a Drag does present a refreshing alternative to other films that focus solely on the horrors of the AIDS virus.
2.5 stars (A.M.)Dobie
In the movies, Italy is a place for lovers. No wonder, then, that in the enchanting A Month by the Lake, the romance of that country once again undoes Anglo-repressed desire, much like it did in A Room With a View and Summertime, to name a couple. Here, the setting is the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Como on the eve of Europe's descent into the second world war. Although the sight of fascists marching in the street forebodes devastating change for the Continent, the focus of A Month by the Lake is not upon the affairs of the state, but rather upon the affairs of the heart. It is the story about the folly of love, as portrayed in the seemingly unsure romance between a never-married Englishwoman, who is in the prime of her life, and a fellow Englishman her age, who is foolishly sidetracked by the flirtations of another woman much younger than himself. Thankfully, A Month by the Lake is more Merchant-Ivory than Masterpiece Theatre: It's a movie of manners that's not constrained by the conventions which inform it. Irvin, a director who is too often underrated, keeps the narrative at an engaging pace, particularly during those scenes in which the members of the film's love triangle jockey for position. (At times, this movie toys with farce.) There are also some interesting sexual politics here, both of a traditional and contemporary nature; women have their place, of course, but they nonetheless make things happen. Aside from the picturesque milieu of northern Italy - which is, some may argue, the film's leading attraction - the cast also makes estimable contributions towards making A Month by the Lake worthwhile. Although somewhat out of her league, Thurman captures the gawky allure of youth and - more importantly - its careless cruelty. Thurman occasionally seems a bit stilted and mannered, but it's a characterization that works, given the pretensions and frustrations of her American ingenue abroad. As the priggish and piggish major, Fox is marvelous; he's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing usually, but nevertheless capable of a passion long dormant. But - no surprise here - it is Redgrave who ultimately transfixes you in A Month by the Lake. Her face (those cheekbones!), as stunning as the film's landscape, is a veritable register of conflicting emotions, one that can convey the anguish of love one second and its joy the next, without any seeming effort. Her role in A Month by the Lake is not a showy one, by any means, but her greatness in it is further proof that she is, indeed, one of the cinema's greatest actors.
3.5 stars (S.D.)Village
An affectionate, if macabre, love letter to the works of the famous and controversial Japanese author Edogawa Rampo, The Mystery of Rampo is an extraordinary picture that also manages to celebrate the rich legacy of the Japanese cinema. It recalls everything from the lyrical surrealism of Masaki Kobayashi to the delirious eroticism of Koji Wakamatsu (who, by the way, appears in a cameo) - without ever seeming anything less than completely original. The plot finds the writer's most recently banned story incapable of suppression, as its events and characters come spilling out of Rampo's imagination and into his own reality. As his interaction with these characters increases, the more "reality" erodes, culminating with Rampo entering his own story in the form of one of his most famous creations - a handsome sleuth named Kogoro Akechi - in an attempt to save himself from his own creation. The highest-grossing film in the history of Japan, The Mystery of Rampo marks an impressive debut for director Kazuyoshi Okuyama, who, until now, has been best known as the producer of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's brilliant Violent Cop. Here, Okuyama creates a far more satisfying blend of fact and fantasy than Steven Soderbergh's similarly themed Kafka, managing to capture not only the spirit of its titular subject, but more than willing to delve deeply into the man's complex personality (to ensure the picture's authenticity, Rampo's eldest son served as a consultant). Rampo's obsessions, visions, and stories are expertly realized by Okuyama through a dazzling array of special effects and hand-drawn animation and, though they are always spectacular, they are never gratuitous. Indeed, while there seems to be no end to Okuyama's and cinematographer Yasushi Sasakibara's bag of visual tricks, rest assured there's plenty of substance to accompany the movie's overwhelming sense of style. The performances are spare, but telling, Naoto Takenaka is a standout as the haunted Rampo, while Michiko Hada as the femme fatale and Masahiro Motoki as the dashing young detective share a hypnotic chemistry. There's little doubt that some will find the film's romanticized melodrama and unapologetic surrealism off-putting, but while The Mystery of Rampo may occasionally fail to "make sense" in strictly narrative terms, it always makes perfect "dramatic" sense. Beautiful, mesmerizing, and imaginative, The Mystery of Rampo is one the best films of the year.
4.0 stars (J.O.)Village
Strange days, indeed. It's 1999, the new millennium is just around the corner, and humanity - more precisely, Los Angeles - seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Police brutalize the citizenry, criminals run rampant, anarchy rules the street, the center cannot hold... the world is ready for its day of reckoning. Strange Days is film noir with a post-punk edge, a piece of pseudo-science fiction that - despite its numerous flaws - will get you thinking about the curse of memory and the preciousness of human experience. Its narrative is propelled by the day's new drug of choice, an unlawful substance that you neither smoke nor snort; rather, you live it. It's virtual reality with a twist, a high in which you feel every sensation and emotion felt by the person who actually experienced and recorded it: as the clichŽ goes, you step into someone else's shoes. Sold as "clips" - CDs for the brain, if you will - these technological cheap thrills are a hot black market commodity, merchandise which keeps the film's protagonist Lenny Nero (Fiennes) in business. Pitching his product as if he'd inhaled 10 cups of coffee beforehand, Lenny is not your everyday drug dealer: He's a salesman who genuinely seems to care about customer satisfaction. But Lenny is a pathetic man, despite his heart of gold, because he can't shake the memory of a woman who's left him. While he trades in the vicarious experience of others, it's his own experiences that he plays over and over in his mind, in a futile attempt to recapture what he's lost. Ever since the promise of her modern-day vampire fable Near Dark, director Bigelow has struggled to find a voice, always making intriguing movies whose sticking points preclude any resounding endorsement. Strange Days is no exception. Although there are some exhilarating moments here, they're offset by frequent distractions: Lewis' standard (and now boring) weird performance, an occasional lack of logic in the story line, a tendency to go operatic, and the overall feeling that the movie is unsure of where it is going. (The script's Rodney King-inspired MacGuffin is a disappointing dead end.) While Fiennes is oddly endearing in a role that might otherwise elicit less empathy, Bassett is left little to do but protect (and mother) him. She's much too arch, a criticism that recognizes how little with which she has to work. By the time New Year's Eve is upon the revelers in Strange Days and judgment day appears imminent, the movie takes a strange but compelling turn, revealing itself to be a love story at heart. It may strike you as a little incongruous, but go with it: After all, as some guy once sang, "2000 zero zero party over oops out of time."
3.0 stars (S.D.)Arbor, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate
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, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, 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, Movies 12, Riverside
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. This particular group of actresses really does shine however, and it's a complete delight to watch them work. But their warm camaraderie cannot salvage this predictable script.
2.0 stars (M.B.)Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside
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.)Highland
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
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. 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 inhabits the lead character of Suzanne Stone (yes, Suzanne Stone) with such sly and delicious zest that we can only wonder why this comic aspect of her acting has been buried under dramatic ambitions. Suzanne Stone is a media creature who feels that she only exists if she's on television. 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: Is she 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?; or 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
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
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.)Great Hills, 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.)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.)Highland, Movies 12, Roundrock
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 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
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.
2.5 stars (M.S.)Movies 12, Roundrock
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. Plot potholes abound, character motivation is an alien concept, and illogical actions are rampant. The less said about Elizabeth Berkley's acting the better, and the kinder. Still, someone should have warned Berkley how ill-equipped she was to carry this film lead. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' 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 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. 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
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, Northcross, Westgate
Young Steven Lidz (Watt) is baffled by some of the things that lately have been going on between his parents (Turturro and MacDowell) in his early 1960s Jewish household. As a result, he turns to his even more eccentric uncles Arthur (Chaykin) and Danny (Richards) in his need for guiding influences. The heart of the movie is the funny and bittersweet story of Steven's coming of age. Diane Keaton remains behind the camera throughout and her eye for details is impeccable. And the script by Richard LaGravenese 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. Richards also needed a stronger directorial voice that stopped him before he got too far into his routine mannerisms and eccentricities. Eccentricities, though they are nevertheless portrayed as endearing quirks rather than the all-out madness they actually are. 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
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
We keep giving director Friedkin good odds with each new film (Rampage, Blue Chips), but, really, it's been a long time since he's turned out a corker likeThe French Connection orThe Exorcist. This new power-and-passion thriller boasts a superior cast for this type of thing, and the talents of cinematographer Andrzej Bartowiak (Speed, Twins, Prizzi's Honor) and production designer Alex Tavoularis (King of New York, The Godfather, Part III, and numerous other Coppola projects). But a bad portent is a script by the popularly dissed scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Sliver, Flashdance, F.I.S.T.).
stars (M.B.)Arbor, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate
Hey, kids. Don't say you weren't warned. Don't expect to go crib this movie instead of reading the Nathaniel Hawthorne perennial about the secret sins of the Puritans. Reports say that much of the story has been embellished to fit contemporary standards. Director JoffŽ, no stranger to "big," over-reaching movies (City of Hope, The Mission, The Killing Fields) has stated that his Scarlet Letter is not a strict adaptation but, rather, tries to capture "the spirit of Hawthorne but not necessarily the letter." All the advertising for the movie focuses on the torrid love affair and not the story's elucidation of all the various perverse forms sin can take. But, on the other hand, numerous prior movies have made us all familiar with Demi Moore's chest, and who amongst us wouldn't seize this permission to on that big scarlet "A" for a couple of hours?