This is a reprint of the Austin Chronicle review that ran in March when this film premiered in Austin at the SXSW FIlm Festival. Texas mystique will receive a boost as big as anything since the Dallas heydays if The Plutonium Circus gets the audience it deserves. Ratliff opens his film conventionally enough, with black-and-white graphics giving solemn voice to the history of Pantex, a Department of Energy nuclear weapons plant located in the Texas Panhandle just outside of Amarillo. In fact, much of this 73-minute documentary has a pedestrian look to it: relatively static shots of each subject, with identifying icons filling out the frame. We see the weathered roughneck with an oil derrick pumping away behind him, the demure young couple sitting on a porch swing, the earnest priest haloed by the light of a rose window, the irascible artist in front of the Cadillacs he has embedded in the windswept Texas soil. Rarely have I had so much fun watching people talk. The conventional framing gives a serene, if somewhat surreal, balance to the wonderfully out-of-kilter monologues the interviewees deliver. The controversial decision to store "the deadliest substance known to man" on the outskirts of a city and on top of an environmentally sensitive aquifer (ostensibly the raison d'�tre for the documentary) takes a twelfth-Cadillac-back seat to the colorful Amarillians voicing their opinions about it. Pantex is merely the ringmaster at this circus, holding the star attractions together but commanding no real audience appeal. Who can concentrate on the issues when an eccentric millionaire is showing you a picture of the 350-pound transvestite he hired to escort him to his high school reunion or when the Pantex PR man/city commissioner/Amarillo booster winks at you during his country-western karaoke performance? Ratliff recognized the real high-flying acts when he saw them and wisely gave them center ring. A mesmerizing tightrope walk between the mundane and the bizarre, The Plutonium Circus deserves a place under the big top.
4.0 stars (H.C.)Dobie
A dry, black comedy whose style lies somewhere in between that of early Michael Lehmann and Japanese filmmaker "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Coldblooded is a wicked little surprise from first-time writer-director M. Wallace Wolodarsky - a hilarious gem with a slightly subversive edge. 90210 pretty-boy Jason Priestley stars as Cosmo, a stone-faced, directionless young man with minimal social skills who earns a meager living working as a bookie for the local mob boss. His pathetically dull life of eating potato chips and watching ESPN is livened up when he is promoted to hit man and finds, to his surprise, that he has a genuinely natural talent for killing. Despite this, he finds himself unable to shake a sense of overwhelming guilt and, in an attempt to relax himself, begins yoga classes, only to wind up falling in love with his instructor. As the pair grow closer and closer, Cosmo decides he must leave his murderous occupation behind and begins manufacturing a plot to do just that. Preistley, despite what you may think, is actually quite good, with his blank, desensitized gaze both hilarious and just a little disturbing. At times, his na•ve but vicious performance suggests that he's channeling the dark side of Tom Hanks. The supporting players are even better, especially Peter Riegert as Cosmo's less-than-comforting friend and mentor (one memorable scene has Riegert confiding to his new partner: "Every night I'm haunted by the faces of the people I've murdered, I have nightmares about them begging and crying... but that's the job!"). Other cast members may not have as much to do, but each serves an important role in realizing Wolodarsky's darkly comic world view, and all turn in solid work. Speaking of Wolodarsky, he helms Coldblooded in a refreshingly direct manner, allowing a scene's quiet tension to slowly dissipate into nervous, giddy laughter. It's a style well-suited to Coldblooded, a movie that sneaks up behind you and tickles you in unexpected ways.
3.5 stars (J.O.)Dobie
It's said that Hollywood can be a tough and ruthless town, a real killer. Therefore, who better to grab all that bull by the horns than an out-and-out, legitimate gangster? That's the premise of this very funny new comedy Get Shorty. When a small-time loan shark from Miami, Chili Palmer (Travolta), is sent to Los Angeles to find a dry cleaner who skipped on his debt, this movie-loving gangster seizes the opportunity to change careers. Chili's trail has led him to Harry Zimm (Hackman, in one of the best performances of his already outstanding career) of Zimm Filmz, a one-man production empire that churns out cheesy movies starring Harry's B-movie queen girlfriend Karen Flores (Russo). In his perpetual quest for funding, Harry has built up a hefty Vegas debt and, in turn, borrows from some L.A. gangsters (Lindo and Gandolfini) in order to keep his affairs afloat. But this is Hollywood, babe, where all the waiters are actors, the video store clerks are directors, and the gangsters are "investors." Thus, with a story pitch about the runaway dry cleaner and some assistance with funding acquisition, Chili is now a producer. Get Shorty was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel by screenwriter Scott Frank (Little Man Tate). The film is wickedly hilarious but more in a droll and knowing kind of sense than a har-de-har-har manner. Director Sonnenfeld (the Addams Family films) originally worked as a cinematographer and his eye for composition truly shows. The performances are all great. Travolta demonstrates that his Pulp Fiction return to stardom was no one-trick fluke; Hackman works against type and walks away with many of the film's best comic bits; Russo does a delightful turn as a scream queen who sees a brighter future in producing; Lindo creates a wonderful wiseguy who'd kill to get into the film business; and DeVito creates a one-of-a-kind portrait of the actor who's at the top of everyone's A-list. The only slip-up here is with the characterization of the mob guy played by Dennis Farina: It's an awkward and unbelievable mixture of violent menace and ridiculous buffoonery. Get Shorty creates its own distinct rhythm that, takes a few sequences to adjust to and, perhaps, is a bit too slow overall. One thing is certain: Danny DeVito's production company Jersey Films is turning into a major industry force. After a slow start with Hoffa, the company scored big with Reality Bites and John Travolta's comeback Pulp Fiction. Get Shorty is sure to continue that success.
3.5 stars (M.B.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside
Sometimes I dream of being screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, writing brilliantly mediocre, pointless, go-nowhere scripts that command $4 million-plus points and duping the movie-going public into glorifying tripe while I get all the starlets and the best seats at Sardi's. Sometimes I wake up screaming, too. Jade, Eszterhas' latest (hot on the spiky heels of Showgirls), is an eminently forgettable "psychological murder-mystery" from director Friedkin (Exorcist, The French Connection) that stays with you just long enough to ruminate on how ephemeral the whole thing is. Before you even realize it, it slips through the grate of your consciousness and fades away to a much-deserved nothing. I almost forgot to write this review. Caruso (NYPD Blue, Kiss of Death) plays San Francisco detective David Corelli. When an aging socialite is found hacked to death with one of his highly collectible African ceremonial axes amidst what appears to be the result of some peccadillo, Corelli uncovers ties to both the governor's office and the woman he loves - clinical psychologist Trina Gavin (Fiorentino), now married to Corelli's boyhood chum and San Francisco lawyer Matt Gavin (Palminteri). Somebody is killing all of Corelli's prominent witnesses, but the culprit's not too hard to figure out by the end of the second reel. Indeed, nothing about Jade is hard to figure out, except maybe why it was made in the first place. The idea may have sounded great at the pitch meeting, but onscreen, nothing quite jells. Friedkin's jittery whiplash editing and profoundly annoying camera set-ups are, well, profoundly annoying, while none of the actors appears to be very involved in what's going on. Even Fiorentino, so stunning in last year's The Last Seduction, is wasted here; she's all breathy beauty and nothing else. Friedkin, to his credit, gives us a nicely compelling car chase through the near-vertical hills of San Francisco, but it's only five minutes long, and this is a 105-minute film. What to do with the other 100 minutes? No one seems to know.
2.0 stars (M.S.)Arbor, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate
This is a reprint of the Austin Chronicle review that ran in March when this film premiered in Austin at the SXSW FIlm Festival. Looking for love in all the wrong places. This latest film by Denys Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal), adapted from the play by Brad Fraser, maps the geography of isolation among a group of friends in Nineties Montreal. Candy and Peter are roommates, both 30ish, both in jobs only barely fulfilling, both seeking some person with whom to bond, in order to fill the massive void in each of their lives. (They sought that bonding in each other once, but the romance didn't take, much to Candy's dismay. Now, Peter seeks male companionship exclusively.) The story follows Candy through a couple of awkward affairs with suitors of both sexes and Peter in a dalliance with a kid half his age (a busboy at the restaurant where he waits tables), while weaving in assorted references to urban horror stories and a grim subplot involving a serial killer. It's a study in missed connections and lost relationships, in feeling cold, distant, marginal, like a body already dead, a corpse. The bleak outlook and gruesome subtext might make the film tough going were it not for the frequent injections of Fraser's dry wit and the moving performances of Marshall and Gibson. Gibson's Peter affects the look of a man beyond needing to care, but he occasionally flashes emotions - pain, remorse, need - which reveal warm currents under the ice. Marshall's Candy is a sea of uncertainty, her face washed by wave after wave of doubt and self-reproach. Despite the breezy rationality they sometimes affect, they are still vulnerable human beings, and their vulnerability provides a light of hope in the dark, expansive landscape of modern love.
3.0 stars (R.F.)Village
Mallrats is the second film in relative newcomer Kevin Smith's proposed "New Jersey trilogy" that began last year with Clerks. Fans of Smith's first film will appreciate Mallrats for its combination of the same type of humor and many of the same actors from Smith's acclaimed debut. Mallrats tells the tale of heartsick companions T.S. (London, better-known as the eldest son on television's I'll Fly Away) and Brodie (newcomer Lee) who vow to win back their girlfriends in the course of one day, which for T.S. and Brodie is spent much like any other day at the Eden Prairie Mall. Despite the help of that most dynamic of duos, Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), T.S. and Brodie must battle great odds to convince their fed-up better halves that their own "retarded ways" are mere subterfuge for truly complex personalities. While Smith's testosterone-loaded humor is a taste I have yet to acquire, his choices of a comic book-inspired credit sequence, the guest appearance of Marvel Comics genius Stan Lee, and the film's overall superhero aesthetic perfectly capture the mall mise-en-scene. Other bits of inspired direction include casting Doherty as Brodie's girlfriend Rene, who's got as much chutzpah as her Sega Boy but perhaps more fashion sense and a finer-tuned libido. Look for self-conscious winks, such as Rene's transitional boyfriend named Shannon Hamilton (Doherty's name by marriage to her real-life but short-lived husband Ashley Hamilton). Another female with some smarts is T.S.'s refined girlfriend Brandi, played by British actress Forlani. Smith has commented that he made Mallrats in the spirit of comedies from the Seventies and early Eighties, such as Animal House and Caddyshack. While these earlier films certainly have their place in the pantheon of comedies, I wonder if this type of humor still "works" in the cinema of the 1990s? But that's probably a stupid question - one I should ponder on the way to the mall.
2.5 stars (A.M.)Great Hills, Highland, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate
If Roland Joffe's (The Killing Fields, The Mission) version of The Scarlet Letter had been updated as a pop musical, it would not have been more poorly conceived. This catastrophic conglomeration of Puritanical repression and modern sensibilities squanders terrific acting talent and sumptuous production values, not to mention a darn good story. One preposterous scene follows another, with absolutely mystifying results. We start off with the burial of Massasoit and the pyre-side condemnation of white men by his bitter son. Next we see a shining, expectant Hester Prynne (Moore) as she lands on the shore of the New World. She blows into the stultifying Puritanical town like a blast of Glade air freshener. In the first really silly scene, Hester abandons her plow work and follows a red canary (in Northeastern America??) into the woods. There she spies a young man cavorting in the crystal-clear water, his naked body twisting and glistening with each stroke, his long hair streaming behind him. Somehow, between field and stream, Hester has cast off her shoes and bonnet and donned in its place a wreath of bright flowers and her hair, too, streams behind her. After a minute, I get it - these two will be attracted to one another! And so it goes with all sorts of trite, in-your-face symbolism, though, not all of it is quite so edifying. Why, for example, is Reverend Dimmesdale's sermon preached in a series of triple-echo incantations? Even Gary Oldman's compelling screen presence couldn't keep it from sounding like a chaplain trying to dispense a little fire and brimstone over a bad speaker system during half-time at a high-school football game. And his love scene with Demi Moore (which has all sorts of weird things going on with it, including a mountain of amber grain, a slave girl, and that pesky red bird) has a rendition in the next Naked Gun sequel written all over it. But Joffe's movie (and to be fair, we should name screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart as his cohort in crime) needs no such help. It is so bad as to be a parody unto itself.
1.0 stars (H.C.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock
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, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate
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
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, Movies 12
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
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.)Movies 12
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 discretely, 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, 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
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
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
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
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
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.)Movies 12
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
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. 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 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.
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. 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. 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. Fincher keeps the film moving at a grimly frenetic pace 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. 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
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
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.)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
This deceptively titled, cheapskate martial arts picture that seems to promise a follow-up to Ho Meng-hua's fantastic The Flying Guillotine (1974) is, instead, a continuation of fight film icon Jimmy Wang Yu's classic The One Armed Boxer (1975) that even throws in a pinch of the Yu favorite for good measure. In this light, the original Chinese title, The One Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine, is less of a cheat. Unfortunately, the movie isn't very successful at presenting this legendary scrap since the two enemies don't even meet and duel until the last 10 minutes of the picture - not exactly making for the epic brawl that one might expect. To make matters worse, our one-armed hero doesn't do much of anything for the first hour of the movie: He just hangs out and watches people fight, walks around the edge of a wicker basket, and tries to teach his students how to stand upside down on a ceiling. This, of course, is not to say that the movie isn't action-packed, because it most assuredly is, thanks to the handy plot device of a local fight tournament, which provides a whole half-hour of non-stop fight footage to liven up the proceedings. And these battles are pretty lively: With martial arts choreography by the famed Lui Brothers (one of whom, Lui Chia-liang, went on to become, perhaps, the most masterful of all chopsocky directors), and a whole gallery of exotic combatants to root for, this section is probably the most entertaining part of Master of the Flying Guillotine. It's just too bad that it really doesn't have much of anything to do with the main plot. And just what is the plot? Simple. A powerful and blind monk (played by the incredibly named "King Kong") set on avenging his murdered friends, vows to use his "flying guillotine" to wipe Yu off the face of the earth, even if it means killing every one-armed person he meets into just to be sure. This movie, written and directed by star Jimmy Wang Yu, is, to put it mildly, a mess. The story is senseless, the direction is sloppy, the running time is padded out with lengthy flashbacks to the series' previous installment, and it doesn't come close to matching either of the films that inspired it. Still, I'd be lying if I said this movie wasn't a hoot. Sure it's silly, but it's also campy, brainless fun, and just how often to get to see stuff like this on the big screen anyway?
2.0 stars (J.O.)Hogg
Criminal psychologist Rebecca De Mornay has a big problem. She's being terrorized, but the perpetrator's identity is unknown. It could be her mysterious new boyfriend Antonio Banderas, her serial-killer patient Harrry Dean Stanton, her possessive next-door neighbor Dennis Miller, or her estranged father Len Cariou. What seems to me a bigger problem is this film's unlikely director Peterr Hall - the "undisputed elder statesman of the British theatre" who founded and directed the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed the Royal National Theatre, made six popular opera videos, and recently directed Orpheus Descending and Jacob for the TNT network.
stars (M.B.)Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate
Four grown women gather in the present to look back at the summer when they all were 12 years old in Shelby, Indiana. Somewhere in that Seventies summer lies the clues to the adults they would later become. The movie is billed as a Stand By Me for girls, and certainly this virtually all-women cast and cew should know.
stars (M.B.)Great Hills, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate
Talented fantasy director Jeff Lau and comedy superstar Stephen Chaiu Sing-chi, whose recent collaborative efforts include the ambitious Chinese Oydessy films, pool their talents once again to bring us this bizarre question mark of a movie. It is without a doubt, the weirdest movie of the year. Out of the Dark chronicles some tenants' exploits to rid their building of pesky spirits. Luckily for them, they have the help of an expert ghost fighter, played by Chaiu, who also happens, unfortunately, to be a crazed lunatic who believes himself to be "Leon," the character played by Jean Reno in The Professional. As if that weren't enough, after seeing Leon in action, a young, lovelorn girl falls for him, going so far as to dress up like Natalie Portman's character from the same Luc Besson film just to get his attention. The pair, along with Leon's beloved plant, soon team up with a handful of cowardly security guards to rid the building of ghosts once and for all. A box-office failure in Hong Kong and reviled by stateside fans, Out of the Dark is apparently Lau's attempt to return to his horror/comedy roots (he was responsible for the great Haunted Cop Shop series), as well as a chance to cut loose after helming the plot-heavy Chinese Odyessy films. For my money, it functions well enough as an entertaining waste of time; it's just too ridiculous not to be at least a little bit fun. Lau takes shameless pot-shots at everything from Poltergeist to Pulp Fiction, and Chaiu gives what must be his most deranged performance to date. The rest of the cast eagerly follows suit, all making asses of themselves with a similarly maniacal enthusiasm. Since this kind of lunacy is obviously an acquired taste, I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend Out of the Dark to casual moviegoers, or even to fans of Chaiu's other work; but if an evening of buck-toothed ghostbusters, exploding breasts, falling refrigerators, expanding penises, severed heads, and other assorted madness sounds like a good time (its midnight time slot is truly appropriate), then this ludicrous bit of nonsense just might be your cup of tea.