Film Reviews

Recommended

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY

D: Steven M. Martin. (PG-13, 85 min.)
Some stories just write themselves. This fascinating documentary about the life of Leon Theremin is wilder than anything a storyteller might have imagined. The Russian-born Theremin was an electronics genius who invented the strange contraption that became the world's first electronic musical instrument. Named after him, the theremin is that eerie-sounding instrument that Hollywood has used to good effect for its ethereal ooooo-eeeee-ooooo sound. Brian Wilson used it, too, in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The instrument is a device containing an electromagnetic force field that is controlled by the movement of a musician's hands which never touch the instrument itself. In 1922, Theremin demonstrated it in the Kremlin for Lenin. In 1928, Theremin sold out Carnegie Hall and became a New York celebrity. In 1938, he was kidnapped, presumably by the KGB, from his New York apartment and reports of his death circulated thereafter. But just as some stories can write themselves, other stories require detective work and research. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey falls into the latter category as well. In recent years, Theremin was discovered by a reporter to be alive in Russia and director Martin tracked him down 1991 and sponsored the 95-year-old Theremin's return to the United States. It turns out that, after exiling Theremin to Siberian labor camps for "rehabilitation," the Soviets had the electronics genius masterminding their Cold War eavesdropping equipment. Theremin's return to the New York City that he no longer knows is quite touching. He is also unaware of the huge impact the theremin has had on popular American culture. The filmmaker interviews a variety of people in telling this story: amongst them are Clara Rockmore, Theremin's protege and early paramour who still performs as a theremin virtuoso; Dr. Robert Moog, the pioneer of synthesized music who began his career building theremins; and rock innovators Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren. Martin also makes wonderful use of performance footage, newspaper items, home movies, Hollywood movie clips, and posters to illustrate the tale. Theremin is a blend of great subject matter and a well-told story and, furthermore, proves that sometimes things are stranger than fiction. (10/27/95)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Dobie



New Review

BLUE IN THE FACE

D: Wayne Wang and Paul Auster; with Harvey Keitel, Lou Reed, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne, Mel Gorham, Jim Jarmusch, Lily Tomlin, Giancarlo Esposito. (R, 90 min.)
Shot in under a week and utilizing much of the cast from his previous film Smoke, this slapdash ensemble piece is a sort of quasi-sequel to that earlier film. It continues, after a fashion, some of the threads begun in Smoke and expands on them with a variety of skits that are loosely held together. Blue In the Face has more in common with an episode of Saturday Night Live than it does with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Wang and Auster have freely admitted that they went into Blue In the Face without a conventional shooting script, instead opting to create scenes and situations alongside their players, some of whom acted out simple dialogues, speaking until they were - that's right - "blue in the face." The results are a mixed bag. Jim Jarmusch's elegiac, hilarious performance as a man about to smoke his final cigarette is brilliant, as are the cutaways to longtime New Yorker Lou Reed, who discusses the city with the same type of deadpan certainty you find in his music. Keitel, as the smoke shop proprietor Augie Wren, is likewise excellent as he fends off the salacious advances of Roseanne. Other bits seem to drag: Lily Tomlin goes nowhere as a mangy street person, likewise Fox as a down-on-his-luck yuppie; token bits by Jose Zuniga and Mira Sorvino fall flat and drag the movie down with them. As a slice of Brooklyn summertime life, Blue in the Face never quite hits the highs of Spike Lee's best work. It seems cobbled together and ephemeral, and, of course, it is. (10/27/95)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

Village


COPYCAT

D: Jon Amiel; with Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, William McNamara, Will Patton, Harry Connick, Jr. (R, 110 min.)
Serial killers are in vogue in the movies - witness the popular and critical success of Seven, an exquisite piece of in-your-gut filmmaking if there ever was one. Copycat is also about a serial killer, but it's too gimmicky to knock you on your ass; you may marvel at some of the narrative turns, but you won't lose yourself in this movie. The plot wrinkles here are two-fold: a highly intelligent killer who mimics the murders of America's infamous from the Boston Strangler to Jeffrey Dahmer, and an agoraphobic forensic psychologist who's unwillingly drawn into helping solve the slayings. It's an occasionally entertaining ride, although one fraught with numerous logical holes. For instance, why must the stupidity of the police be inversely proportionate to the smarts of the killer? The film's screenplay offers a couple of genuine surprises - the murderer's planned piece de resistance is unexpected - but there's an overall pedestrian feeling about it, particularly in its killer-gets-his ending. In the ostentatious role of the celebrated criminologist who shuts herself off from the world, Weaver perfects the details of her character, down to the constant off-and-on grapplings with a pair of eyeglasses. Hunter is all no-nonsense as a detective investigating the seemingly unrelated murders, but if she isn't careful, those tics and mannerisms may soon become an acting clichŽ. Her symbiotic rhythm with fellow detective Mulroney, however, is pretty good; their characters are appealingly in sync with each other. Despite the freshness of their chemistry, most of Copycat feels way too familiar. As its title indicates, it's lacking in imagination, a movie with too few original thoughts in its head. (10/27/95)

2.5 stars (S.D.)

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


FEAST OF JULY

D: Christopher Menaul; with Embeth Davidtz, Tom Bell, Gemma Jones, James Purefoy, Greg Wise, Kenneth Anderson, Ben Chaplin. (R, 118 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. Based on the acclaimed novel by H.E. Bates, this Merchant-Ivory production is a British drama about a young woman (Davidtz from Schindler's List) who, in the late-19th century, embarks on an arduous journey to find the lover who has betrayed her. ()

stars (M.B.)

Village


GOD IS MY WITNESS

D: Mukul S. Anand; with Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, Nagarjuna, Shilpa Shirodkar, Kiran Kumar, Danny Denzongpa. (NR, 180 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. God Is My Witness was the #1 box-office grosser of 1991 in its native India, the country that is the largest producer of feature films in the world. Advance word seems to suggest that it is as spectacular and entertaining an example of the popular Indian cinema as you're likely to find. The combination of unapologetically syrupy romance, fast-paced action, corny melodrama, and bravura musical numbers (not to mention the three-hour running time) might be off-putting to those unfamiliar with the delightfully crazed world of mainstream Indian cinema, but for fans, as well as anyone willing to experiment, God Is My Witness should be a real treat. (10/27/95)

stars (J.O.)

Hogg


NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS

D: Peter Hall; with Rebecca De Mornay, Antonio Banderas, Dennis Miller, Len Cariou, Beau Starr, Tim Kelleher, Eugene Lipinski, Harry Dean Stanton. (R, 102 min.)
Never Talk to Strangers is a Brian DePalma film without the benefit of Brian DePalma. Coming from the ridiculously talented founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter Hall, this "psychological murder mystery" starts out awful and goes downhill from there, piling on the obvious like so many dead bodies and battering its audience about the face and neck with needless exposition and glaringly silly flashbacks. De Mornay plays psychologist Sarah Taylor, an impulsive criminologist with a shadowy past. When she takes up with a mysterious, leather-jacketed stranger by the name of Tony Ramirez (Banderas), strange things begin to happen. Dead roses fill her mailbox, her cat is killed and then sent back to her C.O.D., and strange figures dance on the periphery of her life. Is Tony some sort of homicidal nutcase? Or could it be her overly possessive neighbor Cliff (Miller)? Or even her estranged father (Cariou), who's just returned from a long absence. Or none of the above? With films like this, there's really not much to give away, but I'll keep my mouth shut, just in case. Suffice to say, both the who and the why of this sophomoric exercise in non-restraint are almost immediately obvious, making the rest of the film barely watchable. There are, of course, plenty of shots of Banderas and De Mornay getting naked, but even a little T&A fails to make this mess any more interesting than a broken toaster-oven. Hall, for his part, can't seem to keep the camera still and frequently descends into long, agonizing bouts of slow-motion drivel that culminates with a gooey snowball fight that left me feeling downright ill. Utterly forgettable, Never Talk to Strangers may be the first black mark on director Hall's permanent record. Let's hope it's the last. (10/27/95)

1.5 stars (M.S.)

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


NOW AND THEN

D: Lesli Linka Glatter; with Christina Ricci, Gaby Hoffman, Thora Birch, Ashleigh Aston Moore, Rosie O'Donnell, Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith, Rita Wilson. (PG-13, 96 min.)
We need more films about girls - big girls and little girls. But as much as Lesli Linka Glatter's debut feature promises to be a Stand By Me for girls, Now and Then fails in its attempt to portray both the present and the past with equal success. It's sweet and it's often funny, but ultimately its slice-of-life approach tries too hard to incorporate current events like the Vietnam War. Set predominantly in the summer of 1970, Now and Then describes a summer in which four 12-year-olds from Shelby, Indiana, save their money to buy a room of their own in the form of a treehouse from Sears. Roberta (Ricci), Samantha (Hoffman), Teeny (Birch), and Chrissy (Aston Moore) are four friends who spend the summer conducting seances, trading pranks with the local family of terrorizing boys, and saving their "treehouse dollars." The four young actresses effectively convey that on-the-verge feeling between puberty and teen-hood, and smaller roles played by Janeane Garofalo, Bonnie Hunt, and Cloris Leachman provide entertaining distractions. However, less effective are the present-day segments in which the girls are played by an interesting combination of bankable adult actresses: O'Donnell as Roberta, Demi Moore as Samantha, Griffith as Teeny, and Wilson as Chrissy. Trailers for the film shrewdly play both sides against the middle by marketing the film toward adults and young girls, but viewers expecting to see the adult actresses as much as their younger counterparts will be disappointed. Bracketing the film in two segments that bring Teeny and Samantha back to Shelby for the birth of Chrissy's first child (delivered by Roberta, now an obstetrician), the scenes and the actresses fall flat in an attempt to cram a reunion, a birth, and a reconciliation with the past into less than 20 minutes of screen time. Now and Then somewhat successfully pushes all the right emotional buttons by depicting themes common to most young girls, but I expected more, not less, from the now in Now and Then. (10/27/95)

2.5 stars (A.M.)

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


PERSUASION

D: Roger Michell; with Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Phoebe Nicholls, Sophie Thompson, Fiona Shaw. (PG, 104 min.)
Attend a screening of this adaptation of Jane Austen's last (and posthumously published) novel expecting the lavish likes of an Merchant-Ivory period extravaganza and you'll be sorely disappointed - or inordinately pleased depending on your bent. Entirely devoid of dewy-eyed, luscious-lipped, heaving-chested heroines, Michell's Persuasion makes us work a bit at Austen's story rather than serving it up to us on a big silver platter. Amanda Root's portrayal of Anne Elliott is so restrained and so unmovie-star-like that we are compelled to plumb her depths to see how a bird with such dull plumage flies. Anne has had eight-and-a-half long years to reflect on her dismissal of Frederick Wentworth (Hinds), the man she'd meant to marry. Anne's neighbor and surrogate mother, Lady Russell, persuaded her that Wentworth, "having nothing but himself to recommend him," was an unsuitable suitor. In a deliciously ironic twist of fate (the sort that fuels all really great romances), Anne's foppish father (Redgrave) and peevish dilettante of a sister (Nicholls) have squandered the family fortune, forcing them to "retrench." Thus, the family manse, Kellynch, is sublet to Admiral Croft and his wife, who just happens to be... Wentworth's sister. Now Captain Wentworth of the Royal British Navy (and if you don't think that's a glorious station in 19th-century life, just check out his hat), his star has risen just as precipitously as the Elliotts' has fallen. Michell's treatment of Anne's story is spare and muted, a movie of small moments. Whitened fingers gripping the back of a chair, a red velvet cape billowing in the sea air, a gloved hand on the small of a back. These are the images that set our pulses racing, and race they do even though we know perfectly well the outcome of the story. Even the comedy, which is quite subtle and likely to elude the inattentive listener, is capable of producing audible laughter. Persuasion is nearly a lesson in understatement, with fine, controlled performances, and a pace that quickens your interest in inverse proportion to its speed. I can't help but think that Austen would be pleased that this seeming Plain Jane of a picture could be a thing of such beauty and spirit. (10/27/95)

3.0 stars (H.C.)

Village


POWDER

D: Victor Salva; with Mary Steenburgen, Sean Patrick Flanery, Lance Henriksen, Jeff Goldblum, Susan Tyrrell. (PG-13, 111 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. We can't figure out what to make of this one. This story, about an albino genius who grew up secluded from society and then later integrated with fitful results, is a tough call. The presence of Steenburgen and Goldblum are generally good signs and the previews promise some strong visual content. But this hardly seems like the usual Buena Vista (a Disney releasing company) fare and, is it just me or does this Powder character bear some resemblance to Michael Jackson? ()

stars (M.B.)

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


THE RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

D: Kim Henkel; with Matthew McConaughey, Renee Zellweger, Robbie Jacks. (R, 95 min.)
This is a reprint of the Austin Chronicle review that ran in March when this film premiered in Austin at the SXSW Film Festival.¦Unlike the two previous sequels to the groundbreaking 1974 horror film, writer-director Kim Henkel really does return to the original movie, not just to one of the characters. Consider the familiar elements: a group of unsuspecting, middle-class young people driving out in the country; a ghostly house that becomes a prison of horror and which is populated by an exceedingly (and sometimes comically) eccentric array of characters; and of course, that guy in the leather mask. I guess I don't have to mention the chainsaw. To say that Henkel's film is infinitely superior to the other remakes is to damn with faint praise for sure. Henkel, who wrote the original Chainsaw as well as the brilliant and bittersweet Last Night at the Alamo, certainly knows the territory. He is especially adept in the film's earlier scenes where the characters are established and his wry humor flows freely. Once into horror territory, though, the energy dissipates, and I'm not so sure it's Henkel's fault as much as the legacy of the earlier Chainsaw. The first movie so raised the stakes for horror gore and suspense that a movie like this, less violent and terrifying than the first, hardly holds us in the way we expect. You can admire Henkel's restraint, but his noble thinking has kind of handicapped the movie. You'll like the performers, especially Renee Zellweger, in what is essentially the Marilyn Burns part. You wouldn't know Henkel is a first-time director here, and there are times when the dialogue reminds his fans that he is one of the best untapped screenwriting resources in the state. (10/27/95)

2.0 stars (P.T.)

Dobie


RICH AND FAMOUS

D: Taylor Wong Tai-loi; with Andy Lau Tak-wah, Alex Man Tze-leung, Chow Yun-fat, Alan Tam, Carina Lau Ka-ling, Pauline Wong. (NR, 102 min.)
This is an unremarkable addition to Hong Kong's "Heroic Bloodshed" genre, which was popularized by John Woo's seminal A Better Tomorrow. Rich and Famous is a pretty dull excuse for an action picture, made especially annoying by the talented performers who are being wasted on such uninspired material. Andy Lau Tak-wah and Alex Man Tze-leung star as two brothers whose relationship becomes strained beyond repair when they both go to work for a local gangster portrayed by Hard-Boiled icon Chow Yun-fat. As the estranged pair grow further and further apart, Man winds up falling out of favor with Chow and proceeds to hook up with a rival crime kingpin, thus setting him against both his former boss and his own brother. In addition to this melodrama, there are a host of other subplots and characters - such as a feisty nurse who has a fling with Chow and a likable goofball who wants to become a gangster but just doesn't have the edge for it - that really don't go anywhere particularly interesting and only manage to overcomplicate what should be a simple, efficient tale of honor and bloodshed. Taylor Wong Tai-loi, who also directed the passable Triads: The Inside Story with Chow Yun-fat, helms the proceedings with a disinterested ennui that perks up only when he's staging the film's occasional moments of excessive violence. The actors do what they can, but the generic script doesn't give them much to do. Chow, even while in automatic pilot as he is here, is as cool as ever, but normally reliable performers such as Andy Lau Tak-wah and Carina Lau Ka-ling seem as bored as their director and deliver vague, unmotivated work that can only be deemed disappointing. The same can also be said for Rich and Famous as a whole. (10/27/95)

1.0 stars (J.O.)

Hogg


THREE WISHES

D: Martha Coolidge; with Patrick Swayze, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Joseph Mazzello, Seth Mumy. (PG, 108 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. After bombing with her most recent films, Angie and Lost in Yonkers, the director of such popular favorites as Rambling Rose and Valley Girl could stand to score a hit. We wonder how likely that may be with this new romantic fantasy set in the summer of 1955 when a stranger brings a miracle into the lives of an American mother and her two sons. ()

stars (M.B.)

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


VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN

D: Wes Craven; with Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, Allen Payne, Kadeem Hardison, Zakes Mokae. (R, 103 min.)
Horror comedies are a schizophrenic lot: More often then not, they go overboard in one direction while falling flat in the other. John Landis' American Werewolf in London and the Nicolas Cage vehicle Vampire's Kiss are the exceptions that prove the rule, but unfortunately, the take on the genre adopted by Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) only reinforces the stereotype. Murphy is Maximillian, the last in a long lineage of Egyptian vampires searching for a half-breed female vampire (Bassett) with whom to mate. For some unknown reason, she's gravitated to Brooklyn, where, unaware of her heritage, she works as a police detective alongside her partner Justice (Payne). Once ensconced in a Brooklyn tenement, Maximillian creates a Renfield-esque henchman out of local clocker Julius (Hardison) and gets to work trying to woo Bassett's Rita with fine food and piercing looks. Murphy seems to have patterned his nosferatu after Gary Oldman's turn in Coppola's Dracula, down to the elaborately coifed hair and spectacles, but what worked for one wurdelak won't necessarily work for another. Murphy's vampire comes off as Dracula lite, full of pithy quips one moment and cheesy, oft-repeated special effects the next. Bassett, for her part, adds the only real flair to a film that suffers from everything-but-the-kitchen-sink syndrome. Torn between this mysterious stranger and her unresolved feeling towards her partner Justice, she's the emotional hub of a stunningly unemotional film. Craven does his best to imbue the proceedings with simple terror - the opening shots of Maximillian's ghost ship cruising unchecked into the Port of Brooklyn are nicely staged, but there's nothing at all to equal the dreadnaught chills of that one scene for the remainder of the film. Neither all that scary nor all that hilarious, Vampire in Brooklyn falls directly between the two, into the valley of mediocrity. (10/27/95)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

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



First Run


Still Playing

ASSASSINS

D: Richard Donner; with Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore. (R, 105 min.)
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. (10/6/95)

3.0 stars (J.O.)

Great Hills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


THE BIG GREEN

D: Holly Goldberg Sloan; with Steve Guttenberg, Olivia d'Abo, Jay O. Sanders, John Terry, Chauncey Leopardi, Bug Hall. (PG, 100 min.)
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. (10/6/95)

0 stars (J.O.)

Great Hills, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate


CLOCKERS

D: Spike Lee; Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Pee Wee Love, Regina Taylor. (R, 129 min.)
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. Clockers is the tale of two brothers, Victor (Washington) and Strike (Phifer) and what happens when Victor, the "good" brother, is arrested for the murder of a local "clocker," or low-level street dealer. While Victor spends his days working two jobs and saving every penny to try to get his family out of the projects and away to a better place, brother Strike makes time - and good money - selling crack to the marks in the local park with his gang of gangsta rap-loving thugs and taking lessons in crime from Rodney Little (Lindo), a local merchant who runs a drug ring out of his corner grocery. When Victor lands in jail and confesses to murder "in self defense," local detective Rocco Klein (Keitel) puts the heat on Strike in an effort to find out if the squeaky clean Victor is covering up for his wayward brother. 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. Co-produced by Martin Scorsese, Clockers shares much of the gritty, color-drenched feel of this New York auteur's earlier works, but it's still very much Spike's movie, from the harrowing opening credits that take us on a tour of brutal NY crime scenes to the excellent casting and performances from Keitel (who, granted, could probably do this role in his sleep by now) on down to Pee Wee Love's role as Tyrone, the neighborhood kid who is caught between the glamour of the clockers and the pull of a good family. 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. (9/15/95)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Highland


COLDBLOODED

D: M. Wallace Wolodarsky; with Jason Priestley, Kimberly Williams, Peter Riegert, Robert Loggia, Janeane Garofalo. (R, 91 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

3.5 stars (J.O.)

Dobie


DEAD PRESIDENTS

D: Allen and Albert Hughes; with Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, Freddy Rodreguez, Rose Jackson, N'Bushe Wright. (R, 120 min.)
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. (10/13/95)

2.5 stars (J.O.)

Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside


DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS

D: Carl Franklin; with Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Lisa Nicole Carson. (R, 100 min.)
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. (10/6/95)

3.5 stars (R.F.)

Great Hills, Highland


DOUBLE HAPPINESS

D: Mina Shum; with Sandra Oh, Alannah Ong, Stephen Chang, Frances You, Johnny Mah, Callum Rennie, Donald Fong. (PG-13, 87 min.)
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. (10/13/95)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Village


GET SHORTY

D: Barry Sonnenfeld; with John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, David Paymer. (R, 105 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

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


HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT

D: Jocelyn Moorhouse; with Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Dermot Mulroney, Maya Angelou, Kate Nelligan, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, Alfre Woodard, Samantha Mathis, Kate Capshaw, Melinda Dillon, Rip Torn. (PG-13, 109 min.)
How to Make an American Quilt blankets the audience with warm and fuzzy sentiments. In most ways, it's a nice enough movie. My problems with it stem from its clear desire to be something more than a "nice enough movie," to become a mouthpiece for timeless wisdom and transcendent truths. The movie equates the evolution of love and the art of quilt making: Both bring diverse, contrasting, and conflicting elements to the overall mix but beauty is found through balanced placement and patchwork. Ryder serves as the hub of the story, a graduate student named Finn who is working to complete her third stab at a master's thesis. She is spending the summer at the country home of her grandmother (Burstyn) and Aunt Gladys Joe (Bancroft) despite the fact that her live-in boyfriend (Mulroney) has just proposed marriage. In between working on her thesis and chatting with the women who gather at the house for their regular quilting bee, Finn wonders whether it's better to marry a best friend or a best lover. Pardon my lack of suspense here, but it's obvious that anyone who searches for the correct answer to such a question is someone incapable of abandoning security for sexual impulse. The primary problem with How to Make an American Quilt, which was adapted from the bestselling novel by Whitney Otto, is its narrative structure. Each of the characters represents a quilt panel and the story of each panel is told discreetly, one by one by one. Yes, we get a sense of how their lives interconnect but the movie's end result is more like a series of character outlines than a fleshed-out narrative fabric. In other words, it's too much "how-to" and not enough "quilt." Perhaps it's just that I expected so much more from Jocelyn Moorhouse, the Australian director whose debut film Proof, about a blind photographer, was so penetrating and perverse. Certainly, How to Make an American Quilt has numerous good points, as well, and is far from a chore to watch. Next to Showgirls, this movie has probably provided women with the largest number of onscreen roles in any Hollywood production this year. And this particular group of actresses really does shine however, and it's a complete delight to watch them work. Their warm camaraderie cannot salvage this predictable script. (10/6/95)

2.0 stars (M.B.)

Great Hills, Lakehills, Movies 12


JADE

D: William Friedkin; with David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Biehn, Richard Crenna. (R, 90 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Lincoln, Movies 12, Roundrock, Westgate


KIDS

D: Larry Clark; with Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny. (NR, 90 min.)
For once, the hype is right on the money. Kids is an emotional sucker punch, a raw, dirty, disturbing piece of cinŽma vŽritŽ filmmaking that simultaneously hooks and repulses you from its opening scenes of the teenaged Lothario Telly adrift in his favorite pastime: deflowering young girls. After the shockingly on-target coitus during which the practiced youth assuages his young lover's fears with hollow promises of respect and ongoing warmth (his by-rote words carry all the weight of a thrice-used condom, but the virgin in question is oblivious in the heat of the moment), Telly - the self-proclaimed "virgin surgeon" - cruises off to hook up with pal Casper, who plies him for details of the tryst, living vicariously through his friend. On the other side of the city (New York), Jenny, a past conquest of the "de-virginizer" goes for an HIV screening as moral support for a friend. The friend comes up negative, but Jenny, with Telly being her one and only lover (and that was last summer, with no phone calls or tender words since), is stricken to find out she's a carrier. Frantic, confused, and afraid, she numbly wanders the parks and boroughs of a sweaty, grimy New York trying to find Telly to alert him to the situation. Director Clark (previously best known for his gritty photos of urban street kids and hollow-eyed junkies) uses Jenny's dazed meanderings as a way to explore the seamy underbelly of America's urban youth. We see Telly and his friends hanging out, getting drunk, smoking dope, fighting, fucking (there's no sex here, no lovemaking, just simple unromantic rutting), and generally acting without any moral compass whatsoever. They're kids playing at being grown-ups playing at being time bombs. Clark's brilliant eye keeps the film running as an edgy, in-your-face observation of what many kids consider a normal day's events. The loud public outcry that accompanied the release of Kids - that it was little more than an exploitative attempt at teenage titillation - is as silly as Telly's come-ons. Anyone who's been out clubbing in an urban area after 2am will find few surprises in what Clark depicts. Shocking, yes, but hardly surprising; the film, perhaps not unintentionally, feels very much like a documentary. Disturbing, harrowing, visceral, and even sporadically humorous, Kids is one of those rare films that begs the description "a must-see." For once, it's the truth. (9/1/95)

4.5 stars (M.S.)

Dobie


MALLRATS

D: Kevin Smith; with Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London, Jason Lee, Claire Forlani, Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes, Smith. (R, 97 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

2.5 stars (A.M.)

Great Hills, Highland, Northcross, Roundrock, Westgate


A MONTH BY THE LAKE

D: John Irvin; with Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, Uma Thurman, Alida Valli, Carlo Cartier, Allessandro Gassman. (PG, 99 min.)
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. (10/13/95)

3.5 stars (S.D.)

Village


THE PLUTONIUM CIRCUS

D: George Ratliff. (NR, 73 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

4.0 stars (H.C.)

Dobie


THE SCARLET LETTER

D: Roland Joffe; with Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, Joan Plowright, Amy Wright, Robert Prosky. (R, 135 min.)
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. (10/20/95)

1.0 stars (H.C.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills, Movies 12


SEVEN

D: David Fincher; with Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley. (R, 107 min.)
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. (9/29/95)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

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


SHOWGIRLS

D: Paul Verhoeven; with Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, Gina Ravera. (NC-17, 97 min.)
Showgirls is the kind of movie that gives NC-17 a bad name. It's exactly the kind of exercise in salacious pandering that you already suspect it is. The story is so shabbily built that it can make no valid claim to motives other than the filmmakers' mercenary desires to cash in on the public's prurient interests. And even on this bottom-feeder level, Showgirls fails to deliver the goods. The movie reteams Basic Instinct creators, the once-promising director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. The plot is a cross between A Star Is Born and A Chorus Line and, even with all the nudity, virtually anyone from Vincente Minnelli to Russ Meyer could have turned in a more watchable end product. Any movie that gets you wondering where Jacqueline Susann is when you really need her is, undoubtedly, a movie with more than its fair share of problems. Plot potholes abound, character motivation is an alien concept, illogical actions are the order of the day, and dialogue as elegant as "I just have a problem with pussy... okay." The less said about Elizabeth Berkley's acting the better, and the kinder. She can't act. Or dance. But that's hardly her fault. No one can blame this former Saved by the Bell ingenue for taking her shot at the grown-up big time, even though the plum role meant walking around buck naked for most of the movie's over two-hour running time. In fact, it's the same career path chosen by Berkley's fictional character in the film. Spooky, hunh?, this life imitating art (or what passes for it) stuff. And why shouldn't Berkley grab this shot? Just look at what Joe Eszterhas scripts did for the careers of Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) and Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct). Still, someone should have warned Berkley how ill-equipped she was to carry a film lead or, at the very least, someone should have told her when her plentiful lipstick smudged on her teeth. Yet, thinking practically, what possible direction is left for Joe Eszterhas to explore? Only complete feature-length female nudity is the answer. And Eszterhas' public statements have made few bone(r)s about that fact. His story about Vegas showgirls is so flimsy and illogical that it becomes an all too transparent excuse for an excessive amount of T&A. And for those of you who contend that you can't get too much of a good thing, Showgirls is the movie to prove the fallacy in that particular argument. Besides, what Eszterhas specializes in is the slow tease, especially faux lesbian come-ons. The amount of lesbian teasers we witness are in inverse proportion to the amount of lesbian activity we see. Showgirls is a movie that makes you want to go home and shower afterwards. It's not a cold shower that you want, either. Rather, what you crave is a long, hot soak to scour away all the grime and participatory guilt. (9/22/95)

0 stars (M.B.)

Dobie


STRANGE DAYS

D: Kathryn Bigelow; with Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Richard Edson, Glenn Plummer. (R, 145 min.)
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." (10/13/95)

3.0 stars (S.D.)

Arbor, Riverside


TO DIE FOR

D: Gus Van Sant; with Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Kurtwood Smith, Wayne Knight, Maria Tucci, Holland Taylor. (R, 106 min.)
With great wit, humor, and style, this movie serves all America its just desserts and, while the concoction and its ingredients may not kill us, it is to die for. The movie's acerbic satire is directed toward our romance with fame and celebrity and toward the bearers of their power: mass media in the form of TV and the tabloids. Though its target is broad, the movie's barbs are aimed with great precision. With To Die For, director Gus Van Sant has turned in his finest work since his peerless Drugstore Cowboy. This movie, which could have been shaped in a manner as garish and ostentatious as its subject matter is, instead, imbued with Van Sant's subtle humor and guerrilla image-making. In some ways, I suspect that To Die For is the movie that Natural Born Killers really wanted to be, at least in terms of its blows against the insatiable maw of the mass media. As a satire of a milieu, To Die For also has a Robert Altmanesque quality, but one that is stripped of all Altman's venomous belittlement of his characters. Buck Henry's smart script, which was adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel, employs the same sort of incisive social commentary that established Henry's satiric reputation early on with his outstanding television writing (The Steve Allen and Gary Moore shows, That Was the Week That Was, Get Smart) and scripts for films such as The Graduate and Catch-22. Credit must also be given to Nicole Kidman, who makes a career breakthrough with this film in her unheralded debut as a comic actress. She exposes a natural talent for comedy and it's a side of her that we've never really seen before. Kidman inhabits the lead character of Suzanne Stone (yes, Suzanne Stone) with such sly and delicious zest that we can only wonder why this aspect of her acting has been buried under blonde dramatic ambitions. Suzanne Stone is a media creature who feels that she only exists if she's on television. As she often comments, "What's the point of doing anything good if nobody's watching?" She talks her way into a local TV job and works her way up to weather girl, a job that she views as her ticket out of Nowheresville, New England. Her husband (Matt Dillon) thinks Suzanne is the golden girl of his dreams and is blinded with love for her. The rest of his family sees more clearly. To Die For is constructed in a documentary format that uses a collection of interview sound bites and video footage to create a picture of Suzanne: a media whore who'll stop at nothing, even murdering her husband, to achieve the celebrity she desires?; a media victim who's sacrificed self-identity for personality?; a media invention who exists only because we recognize and respond to her presence? Kudos also should go to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor who has regularly worked with Van Sant (as had much of To Die For's crew). Suzanne's pastel print outfits fit the character as perfectly as the low-rent Seventies attire fit the characters in Drugstore Cowboy. Suzanne always looks perfect, whether her image is on the cover of the tabloids at her husband's funeral or on the TV as the perky weather gal flipping sunshine magnets onto the map. With To Die For, the cathode ray emerges as a modern energy source. It remains for us to determine its future use. (10/6/95)

4.5 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Lakehills, Riverside


THE USUAL SUSPECTS

D: Bryan Singer; with Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey, Suzy Amis, Benicio Del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya. (R, 108 min.)
A movie shouldn't have to be seen twice in order to be understood. Second viewings can certainly deepen an appreciation and enrich our knowledge and experience of a movie. But a second look shouldn't be required in order to have a solid understanding of certain things as essential as who did what to whom... and why? That said, I can't think of a movie the second viewing of which I looked forward to more eagerly than that of The Usual Suspects. When revisited, the movie comes through like a champ and reveals a clarity and overall vision that seemed tentative at first encounter. The Usual Suspects is a movie with style to burn, and, initially, that is this crime drama's most mesmerizing aspect. The plot's convolutions and unexpected surprise ending all seem to be extensions of the film's stylistic flourish. Upon reflection, The Usual Suspects' story line is not all that eventful. The film begins with the elegantly filmed explosion of a boat. The only survivors are a charred Hungarian sailor who fearfully babbles about having seen the face of the devil, a man by the name of Keyser Sšze, and a con man with a distinctive limp who's known by the name of Verbal (Spacey). The rest of the film recounts the events that led up to the explosion. A seemingly random roundup of several top New York City thieves tosses five larcenous professionals into a jail cell and when they emerge, the web of heists that seals their doom is set in motion. Out of the group of five, Verbal is the last survivor. The web pulls the audience along, too, because we all become actively engaged in the process of figuring out which one of them is Keyser Sšze. The characters contribute so much to the movie's richness. These performances are full of fine nuances, dialogue, and slowly revealed traits. Very little really occurs in terms of the film's essential actions, but everything occurs in the way that these events go down. Everything is so fascinating to watch and piece together. Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie are high school pals whose first feature film, Public Access, won the Grand Jury Award at Sundance two years ago, though this widely hailed film languished from a lack of sincere distribution. Their second feature,The Usual Suspects, seems destined for greater things. (9/01/95)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Highland



Previews

I AM CUBA

D: Mikhail Kalatozov; with Luz Maria Collazo, Jose Gallardo, Raul Garcia. (NR, 141 min.)
What may turn out to be the film find of the year, I Am Cuba was actually shot in 1964 as an elaborate pro-Castro piece of Soviet propaganda and has since been buried in the Kremlin's film archives awaiting rediscovery. Finally released under the aegis of both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the film is a stylistically brilliant quartet of vignettes set during the waning years of the Batista regime, before Castro actually came to power but during the birth pains of the Cuban revolution. It's not so much the interconnecting stories that propel the film along (written by, of all people, Russian poet laureate Yevgeny Yevtushenko), but the insanely inventive cinematography of Alexander Calzatti and the hitherto unrealized genius of director Kalatozov. Working with what was surely a modest budget, the two create a vision of pre-Castro Cuba that manages to make the whole decadent place look far more enticing than the Soviet satellite nation the film was supposed to glorify in the first place. Opening in a seedy, American-overrun nightclub, the camera whirls about, taking in the boozy, sexy ambiance of capitalist decadence and setting the tone for what is to come. Calzatti uses everything from huge, extended crane shots to various filters to bizarre and highly experimental camera angles you've never seen before; it's as if everyone in question forgot the propaganda they were supposed to be creating and just went gaga, drunk on the sheer beauty of Cuba and making up new film techniques as they went along. Audacious, thrilling, erotic (and in three languages, no less), I Am Cuba is a lost masterpiece of filmmaking finally seeing the light of day 30 years after its production. (7/28/95)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Texas Union





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