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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 48

#186 - 188
April 16, 1999 - April 29, 1999


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

S U B S C R I B E

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#188 April 29, 1999

M O V I E S

Entrapment poster Entrapment (PG-13) ** 1/2 Sean Connery hand & footprint ceremony pix
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About a third into Entrapment, we have learned the following about Catherine Zeta-Jones: her character is an insurance investigator trying to nail a world famous thief by posing as a thief herself; she is very athletic and remarkably limber (watch her slither her way around a grid of security lasers); she struggles with an American accent (her natural Welsh lilt always creeps through); and she looks smashing in a skin-tight cat suit. In short, we have learned just about everything--except for one teensy detail: her character's name.

This is a problem, but one that it easily forgiven; after all, maybe director Jon Amiel was as distracted by Zeta-Jones's magnetism--and, for that matter, that of leading man Sean Connery--as the audience is. Their combined charisma keeps Entrapment watchable. What it doesn't, however, is make this action adventure terribly exciting. That's Amiel's job, and he does not appear to know quite how to approach it.

Amiel does stage a particularly tense heist scene where undercover investigator Virginia Baker (yes, that is Zeta-Jones's character name) and her quarry, master thief Robert MacDougal (Connery) team up to steal a precious mask. But that's about the only thrill scene that Amiel doesn't fumble in some way. An early car chase is too abbreviated to make any sort of impression, and a high-wire climax is too contrived and conventionally staged to be very suspenseful. Amiel handles the quieter moments better, but there he is largely helped by the the rapport between his megawatt stars. Even that, however, isn't always enough; the two can't hide the fact that the manipulative, overly drawn-out resolution could have used a lot more tightening in the editing room.

The many twists in the script by Ron Bass and William Broyles Jr. do not always make complete sense, but it delivers enough surprises to keep the audience on their toes and interested. But without some real zest and style on the directorial end--which ousted helmer Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) could have brought to the project--Entrapment is more of a diversion than a true thriller.


eXistenZ poster eXistenZ (R) ***
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For all its awe-inspiring gee-wizardry, the common perception of virtual reality remains as that of a rather cold, technical concept. As seen in reality and as depicted in the movies, VR enables one to do things one would never otherwise be able to, but it pretty much boils down to doing next to nothing: just lying still, with cumbersome gear strapped onto the eyes and different places on the body.

Leave it to writer-director David Cronenberg to turn conventional perception on its ear. His latest film, eXistenZ, is indeed part of the recent crop of VR-themed thrillers, but Cronenberg's take on the concept is truly unlike anything ever seen. eXistenZ takes its name from a virtual reality system created by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a world-famous game designer. The virtual world explored in eXistenZ--and, in turn, eXistenZ--is nothing particularly new or visually spectacular: more or less, it's a duplication of the actual world, except with seamless, if abrupt, shifts in time and place. Neither is Cronenberg's plot terribly ambitious. Fundamentally, the story simply has Allegra and her makeshift bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law, sporting a flawless Canadian accent) on the run from assassins who want to see "the demoness Allegra" dead. Eventually, the two retreat into eXistenZ, a world that may actually be more "real" than the one they live in.

Cronenberg's main concern, however, is not so much in the intentionally video-game-thin story, but in the finer details, most notably in the nature of the eXistenZ system itself. There is no heavy headgear, gloves, wires, or the like; in their place is a soft, kidney-shaped GamePod, connected to an UmbyCord, which is exactly as it sounds: long, thick, and fleshy. It would be tempting to call the eXistenZ system "biomechanical," but there's nothing "mechanical" or electronic about it; the GamePod appears to be a natural living organism in itself, undulating and gurgling as if it had a mind of its own. Further blurring the line between nature and technology is the GamePod's power source: the human nervous system. The UmbyCord is plugged into a BioPort, which is a hole drilled into a player's lower back, tapping directly into the spinal column.

Making the human body part of the equipment not only adds a certain creepiness, but also a dimension of perverse eroticism. Before being inserted, both the tip of the UmbyCord and the BioPort must be moistened, and when the BioPort is penetrated by the UmbyCord--or anything else, for that matter--it gets visibly stimulated. Mere connection does not mean entrance into eXistenZ; one must also stroke the moist, nipple-like knobs on the GamePod. This sensual caressing of the GamePod goes on as one is in the game.

The blatantly sexual overtones are just one bizarre detail of Cronenberg's fascinating, if unsettling, vision. There is a great deal of gore in eXistenZ, most of all in Allegra and Ted's game, where mutant amphibians figure prominently--or, rather, their remains. Their dead bodies are gruesomely mined for their innards, which are used to build GamePods in a slaughterhouse called a Trout Farm; they also turn up on the unappetizing menu of a Chinese restaurant. The slimy stickiness could easily be pegged as cheap sensationalism, but it plays an integral and sometimes surprising part in Cronenberg's larger picture.

Playing a weaker part in that larger picture is the story, which, while superficially engaging, never adds up to much. I won't give away its conclusion, which was met with some boos at my audience, but it essentially reveals eXistenZ as one big tease--which, I believe, is the point. What matters to Cronenberg is the imaginative trip on which his film takes its audience and the eerie feeling of unease it leaves with them at the end. In that sense, eXistenZ, like its namesake, is one big game, but it is definitely one worth playing--or, rather, one to be played by.


In Brief

Get Real poster Get Real (R) ***
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"Get real" is something audiences may say in the early stages of this British drama, the inaugural release of Paramount's Classics division. It begins as sort of a gay variation on the "frumpy girl wins popular boy" high school film archetype. Hunky track star John Dixon (Brad Gorton) catches the eye of many, including Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone), an outcast who is aware of his own homosexuality yet keeps his feelings locked in the closet. By chance, Steven learns occupying the same closet is John, but he has yet to accept who he is. The two forge a friendship that quickly--maybe a bit too much so to be entirely convincing--turns to something more.

But, just as quickly, reality creeps into Steven's romantic fantasy come true. John not only wishes to keep their affair secret, but their friendship as well; and Steven becomes increasingly frustrated with pretending to be something he's not. When the film takes this more serious turn and "gets real," Get Real reveals itself to be a highly involving film, anchored by a touching lead performance by Silverstone. Director Simon Shore and screenwriter Patrick Wilde (adapting his play What's Wrong with Angry?) sometimes resort to some forced comic relief, mostly involving Steven's confidante Linda (Charlotte Brittain), but it isn't enough to dilute the power of the entire picture, which wisely eschews a tidy resolution.


Idle Hands poster Idle Hands (R) **
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In an industry where truth in advertising doesn't rate high on the priority list, it comes as almost a relief that this horror comedy delivers exactly what its trailer promises--the key word being "almost." Devon Sawa plays a teen whose right hand becomes possessed by an evil force of legend; in its pursuit is a Druid priestess (Vivica A. Fox), the only person who can end its killing spree. There are a few laughs and various amusements to be had along the blood-soaked way, the laughs mostly coming from Seth Green as one of Sawa's undead buddies; and a lot of the amusement coming from the stunning Jessica Alba, braving an insulting role as Sawa's often underwear-clad love interest. But director Rodman Flender too precariously straddles the line between fun and cheese, often going a bit too far over the top. In the end, amusing camp is still just camp, best typified by this memorably ridiculous line delivered by Fox: "There's evil out there, and I'm going to KICK ITS ASS!"


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#187 April 22, 1999

M O V I E S

Election poster Election (R) *** 1/2
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Don't let outward appearances make you lump Election with such shoddy teen-targeted product as She's All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. Despite a cast largely comprised of young adults and an MTV Productions pedigree, adults will be the ones to truly appreciate the satirical sting of Alexander Payne's hilarious high school comedy.

The "election" in question is that of student body president at George Washington Carver High School in Omaha, Nebraska. Ambitious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) seems to be a shoo-in, and rightfully so; not only is she insanely dedicated to her civic duty at Carver, she is also unopposed in the race. That is, until well-liked student government advisor Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) taps injured football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to put some excitement into the race and throw his hat into the ring. Not too long after that, Paul's younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) follows suit, and Tracy becomes even more doggedly determined to secure what she feels is her destiny.

From that synopsis, Election sounds like typical teen fodder. However, I neglected to factor in some of the wonderfully warped wrinkles that Payne throws in. Tracy, it turns out, had a torrid affair with a now-fired teacher who was McAllister's best friend; Tammy decides to run after an ex-girlfriend (yes, she is a lesbian) redirects her affections toward Paul. It may seem as if I have divulged some plot surprises, but I haven't given away anything that isn't covered within the first half hour (at the most). That Payne can use outrageous twists such as those as a mere starting point is a testament to his diabolically witty imagination.

Payne's dark comic vision is given pitch-perfect life by his actors. Witherspoon commands the film as terrible Tracy; her incongruous blend of wholesome all-American looks and relentless, often maniacal ambition is not only funny, it's quite scary. The two unknowns playing her challengers, Klein and Campbell, similarly strike no false notes; their assigned territory is ditziness and ballsy attitude, respectively, and they are right on target. What does strike a false note, though, is a domestic subplot given to Broderick's character; while he does a convincing job as a whole, he can't redeem a thread involving McAllister's marriage. It fails too hook as strongly as the high school action simply because the writing isn't as inspired.

That misstep doesn't prevent Election from being the most biting youth comedy in recent memory. It is the film that 10 Things I Hate About You claimed, but failed, to be--a dark, wickedly entertaining romp that wears its cynicism on its sleeve and sees no reason wash any of it off.


In Brief

Friends & Lovers poster Friends & Lovers no stars
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Late in Friends & Lovers, one character says, "Well, this sucks. This really sucks." This realization will come much sooner for anyone with the misfortune of watching George Haas's smug, self-satisfied ensemble "comedy," about a circle of friends who in some way, shape, or form cross over into the latter territory during a holiday in the winter wonderland of Park City, Utah.

Among those in the cast, if you care (not that you should--or will): Claudia Schiffer, whose debut turn as an aspiring model is enough to make anyone forgive Cindy Crawford's Fair Game; Robert Downey Jr., so over-the-top as to be in his own earth orbit as a German ski instructor; Stephen Baldwin, cementing his reputation as the least discriminating Baldwin bro as a cocky (pun intended) womanizer; and Alison Eastwood, who obviously believes that doing energetic nude sex scenes will be ticket out from underneath her father's shadow (it isn't). There is no structure or dramatic tension to the film, which is just a bunch of aimless scenes of people exchanging witless, pseudo-hip dialogue--that is, until Haas tries to jolt the slumbering audience awake with a farcical fuckfest finale. Too much, too little, and much too late: by the time the end credits began to mercifully unspool, I was the only person remaining in the auditorium, the other five or so people in the audience having wisely bailed somewhere along the misbegotten way.


Hideous Kinky poster Hideous Kinky (R) ***
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There is nothing hideous nor particularly kinky in this visually sumptuous, if rather simple, story of a British woman (Kate Winslet) who, along with her two young daughters (Bella Riza and Carrie Mullan), goes on a personal pilgrimage to Marrakech, Morocco in 1972. There, she singlemindedly hopes to find the larger answers that eluded her in London, often neglecting her own childrens' needs in doing so. The story, adapted by Billy MacKinnon from Esther Freud's novel, is straightforward and unsurprising; and director Gillies MacKinnon allows it to follow a relaxed, meandering path. Yet Hideous Kinky's hypnotically engaging spell never falters; as the vibrant colors of John deBorman's photography keep the viewers visually entranced, Winslet, Saïd Taghmaoui (as the man in her life), and impressive newcomers Riza and Mullan keep them emotionally involved, making the film a picturesque travelogue of some substance.


Lost & Found poster Lost & Found (PG-13) * 1/2
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Born character actor David Spade is uneasily bumped up to romantic lead in this comedy, in which the former screen partner to the late Chris Farley plays a restaurant owner who woos the lovely French maiden next door (the luminous Sophie Marceau) by kidnapping her beloved dog. What ensues is all manner of crudely executed crudity with which director Jeff Pollack strains too hard to recall the genuinely inspired comic vulgarity of There's Something About Mary, from the numerous flying dog jokes to the end credits singalong to Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" (which, for the record, does not work nearly as well as a bouncy coda as Mary's "Build Me Up, Buttercup"). In the end, like Mary, Lost & Found is a love story, but Spade is way too smug to appear the slightest bit sincere in his scenes with Marceau (who, given the circumstances, does a fairly nice job) for it to work at all on that level. That said, Spade does what he can to inject some life into this weak film, but his typically snarky asides can only go so far--proving that he is one actor who should remain in the supporting category.


Pushing Tin poster Pushing Tin (R) ** 1/2
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Pushing Tin is not, as a friend of mine erroneously yet understandably concluded from its title, about aluminum siding salesmen. However, the occupation held by its main characters, Nick Falzone (John Cusack) and Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), is indeed one not typically given center stage treatment in the movies: air traffic control. Directing planes into a collision-free course onto the tarmac may not sound like the action-packed stuff movies are made for, but director Mike Newell makes the challenging yet seemingly tedious job appear incredibly exciting. The rivalry between cocky hotshot Nick and the serious, even more skilled newcomer Russell threatens to turn their very real and serious job into one big game, and their battlefield of computer blips certainly resembles a video game. However, they--and the filmmakers--never lose sight of the lives that hang in the balance with every move of the cursor, lending Nick and Russell's faceoff-at-the-console scenes a certain amount of suspense in addition to their driving intensity.

Nick and Russell's rivalry naturally leaks out into the world beyond the workplace, and that's where Newell and screenwriters Glen and Les Charles run into turbulence. In fact, Pushing Tin is less about Nick and Russell as air traffic controllers than it is their domestic lives. While this inherently is not a problem, its familiarity is, and it takes about a good hour of exposition before the film touches a crucial, and eventually central, point--that each appears to fancy the other's wife. Nick is drawn to Russell's vivacious 19-year-old wife Mary (Angelina Jolie), and Russell starts to pay some much-needed attention to Nick's largely neglected homemaker wife Connie (Cate Blanchett, acquitting herself nicely in a contemporary role). This side of the story is well-played by all involved and there are more than a few funny moments (a musical interlude in a restaurant is a highlight), but instead of enhancing the film, it only serves to make what was an original premise into something far too conventional.


SLC Punk! poster SLC Punk! (R) ***
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Structurally speaking, James Merendino's portrait of Stevo (Matthew Lillard) and Bob (Michael Goorjian), two young punk rockers in 1985 Salt Lake City, is a complete mess. Blue-haired Stevo is the narrator; he often directly addressing the camera and is prone to abandoning points and plots in midstream in favor of random tangents that almost always never return to their point of origin. The chaotic result is unquestionably hard to follow at times, but that seems to be the point; though this hyperactive storytelling style, Merendino captures the anarchic spirit that is, as Stevo eloquently explains at length at various points, the essence of the punk movement.

Still, with so much--or, depending on how one looks at it, so little--going on, SLC Punk! would be all sound and fury without a strong center, and the film does have one in Lillard. It would have been easy for him to coast by on pure attitude and ebullience, but Lillard invests the role of Stevo with genuine humanity, which is essential for the climactic moment where he inevitably comes of age. Lillard is supported well by the able troupe playing the many secondary characters that pass through the film. Particularly memorable is Til Schweiger as a quick-tempered drug dealer; on the other hand, notably underused as Stevo and Bob's ladies' man buddy Eddie is Adam Pascal, in whose footsteps I will someday follow as Roger Davis in the musical Rent.


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#186 April 16, 1999

M O V I E S

Life poster Life (R) ** 1/2
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"Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence are making the most out of Life." It's a fairly standard tagline, but it speaks more than perhaps its writer intended. Indeed, the well-matched pair make the most of what the makers of Life give them, but what the material they are given isn't nearly as inspired as they are.

The combination of two comic firecrackers such as Murphy and Lawrence should add up to something explosively funny, and they do have their choice moments as New Yorkers Ray Gibson and Claude Banks, respectively, who are given a lifetime sentence in a Mississippi prison work camp for a murder they did not commit. It sounds rife with comic potential, but for some reason writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, along with director Ted Demme aren't content with Life being a breezy comic lark. No, it also has to hold some dramatic weight as well.

Granted, life imprisonment, let alone wrongful life imprisonment, is no walk in the park. But serious touches such as one inmate's self-sacrifice fail to register because there's no real emotional connection to the audience--to the story or the characters. Ray and Claude are likable enough, but the audience has no emotional investment in them; viewers just want to see do more of their comic sparring. The attempts at drama do add some weight, all right--as in weighing down and slowing the proceedings, not adding psychological or emotional heft.

That said, when given the chance to strut their comedic stuff, Murphy and Lawrence do not disappoint. Murphy does his tried-and-true smart aleck routine, but Lawrence goes against type somewhat by playing a complete square, and he comes off a bit too whiny at times. Nonetheless, the two have a natural ease with each other (as shown in their last film together, 1992's Boomerang), and a number of scenes strike sparks.

But there aren't enough of these sparks to make the film ignite. The preview audience with whom I saw the film seemed rather content with the film, and their feelings could very well be mirrored in multiplex auditoriums across the country this weekend. But for me, Life, given the raw comedic talent and energy at its disposal, simply doesn't have enough life to it.


Twin Dragons poster Twin Dragons (PG-13) ** 1/2
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After Jackie Chan finally scored a U.S. blockbuster with last fall's American-produced Rush Hour, it comes as no surprise to see another of Chan's relics from his large vault of Hong Kong productions unearthed for a stateside release. What is somewhat surprising, however, is the film Dimension Films has chosen to release to capitalize on his stronger-than-ever popularity. While 1992's Twin Dragons delivers the blend of high-flying martial arts and broad slapstick that has become Chan's trademark, the film, while diverting, remains one of his more minor efforts.

My guess is that Dimension chose Twin Dragons because of its precious gimmick: as the title suggests, Chan plays twins. Separated at birth, the identical brothers have had different upbringings and thus live very different lives. Boomer was kidnapped by a crook in the hospital and was found by an alcoholic but loving woman; he grows up into a street-smart auto mechanic with exceptional fighting skills. On the other hand, John Ma remained with their parents, travelling with them to the States, where he studied music. Now a world-renowned conductor and classical pianist, he has returned to Hong Kong for the first time for a concert.

Of course, it is only a matter of time before each brother learns of the other's existence, and hijinks ensue. Predictably, these hijinks revolve around mistaken identity. Boomer and John's respective female friends--Barbara (Chan's favorite co-star, the amazing Maggie Cheung, largely wasted) and Tammy (Nina Li Chi)--can't tell them apart, and neither can Boomer's goofy (and very annoying) sidekick Tyson (Teddy Robin), nor a group of baddies with a score to settle with Boomer.

As with all domestic releases of Chan's Hong Kong films, alterations have been made to Twin Dragons. In addition to a new soundtrack, featuring English language dubbing (Chan and, it seems, Cheung redid their own dialogue) and a more polished score, certain edits have been made. However, most of the pruning is actually for the better. One idiotic, overly cartoonish (yes, even for a Chan film) sight gag involving a doctor is thankfully gone; and a heavyhanded fantasy scene with John and Barbara has understandably been excised. However, it must be said that with that cut and a brief moment between those two in a car, whatever substance there was to Barbara's already-thin character has been erased. In the original version, Barbara is a lifelong music afficionado with singing aspirations; in the new cut, she's basically just a woman who happened to be seen at a karaoke bar.

What did survive the editing process, of course, were the many fight scenes. From a wild karaoke bar scene (where Boomer uses everything from light fixtures to speakers to dispatch bad guys) to the terrific auto shop climax, the action scenes in Twin Dragons all display a creative abandon absent in the entirety of Rush Hour. Those seeing Twin Dragons for an action fix won't be disappointed; however, those looking for a bit more inspired comedy like myself knows that Chan can do--and has done--better.

Dimension Films also holds American distribution rights to Chan's Drunken Master II, and I'm a bit surprised that the studio didn't release that one now instead of Twin Dragons. Funny and full of fantastic fighting (which would definitely play well in the wake of The Matrix's HK-inspired derring-do), it is my favorite Chan film, and would likely maintain Chan's new stateside heat, if not increase it. With the release of the middling Twin Dragons, it appears that Chan's U.S. fortunes will once again take a downslide--much like they did after the successful 1996 release of his Rumble in the Bronx.


In Brief

The Dreamlife of Angels poster The Dreamlife of Angels (La Vie Rêvée des Anges) (R) *** 1/2
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Contrary to the title of this quietly poignant French drama, the lives led by the "angels" in question--who aren't quite so angelic--are far from a dream. Erick Zonca's debut features follows the lives of Isa (Elodie Bouchez) and Marie (Natacha Régnier), two young women struggling to find happiness in the urban wasteland of Lille. While Isa pursues work, Marie pursues a slick club owner (Grégoire Colin), with whom she falls into a turbulent relationship that proves damaging to her friendship with Isa and herself. There aren't so many "events" in Dreamlife as there are scenes of routine, often tedious behavior--which allows the viewer to not only see, but experience the pain of these characters. That the audience also grows to know and care for the two as well makes the film that much more powerful.


Foolish poster Foolish (R) no stars
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There's a story to Foolish, but it's so threadbare that its "writer"/co-star, Master P, obviously didn't put any effort into conceiving it (nor did director David Meyers make an effort to make it the slightest bit engaging or coherent), so there's no point in me using any time and brain power to describe it. What is worth taking time to note--aside from a cameo by gorgeous former Baywatch babe Traci Bingham--is the sizzling stand-up comedy of Eddie Griffin. His hilarious routines in the film makes one wish that he were given a concert film instead of the lead in this simpleminded melodrama about two brothers'--one a comic (Griffin), the other a hood (P)--conflicting struggles to better their lives. Oops, not only did I describe the story, I just gave the entire story away. Sorry.


Metroland poster Metroland **
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Why does Emily Watson alternate great roles with thankless "love interest" ones? After her astonishing Oscar-nominated debut in Breaking the Waves, she next turned up as Daniel Day-Lewis's former flame in The Boxer; and now she follows another Oscar-nominated tour-de-force in Hilary and Jackie with a turn as Christian Bale's wife in this bland melodrama set mostly in 1977 England. When a freespirited old friend (Lee Ross) stops by for a visit, Bale begins to yearn for his own adventurous past and comes to question the domestic life into which he has settled. Will he leave his wife, child, and all responsibility for another walk on the wild side? The answer is fairly obvious, but do we even care? Fine, if unchallenging, work by Watson and Bale--for the most part anyway (he too often uses a blank, mouth agape expression)--cannot hide the fact that for all the nudity and sexual content, Philip Saville's unoriginal and predictable film is, at its core, no different from one you'd find premiering on network television.


Mighty Peking Man poster Mighty Peking Man no stars; **** for camp value
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On many occasions, Quentin Tarantino has gone on record to say that he loves Showgirls (in a serious way), so it comes as no shock that the latest rescue effort by his Rolling Thunder revival label would be a landmark in grade-A cinematic cheese. This 1977 Hong Kong knockoff of King Kong stars Danny Lee (who would go on to co-star in John Woo's 1989 masterwork The Killer) and blonde Swiss bombshell Evelyne Kraft--or, rather, Kraft's left nipple, which plays peek-a-boo from behind her barely-there animal hide top. For all the ample physical gifts with which she was blessed (which are heavily displayed throughout the film for maximum ogling value), Kraft might as well just have been that single nipple, for she displays just about as much acting range as one. Take the scene where she thrashes about after getting bitten by a snake; it's hard to tell if she's in excruciating pain or in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy.

But, of course, acting ability is of little importance in a brainless no-brainer such as this, in which a gentle oversize gorilla (make that "guy in a gorilla suit") who raised an orphaned lass (Kraft's monosyllabic Samantha) in the Himalayan wild goes on a destructive rampage when brought to the urban jungle of Hong Kong. But before the big third act smash-o-rama, the audience is treated to some of the most unintentionally hilarious footage ever committed to film. The biggest whopper is a doozy of a love montage (involving jungle cats being spun around in amorous delight) that is made even more of a howler by its overwhelming earnestness. When the gears are shifted to the city and the demolition skills of the big ape, the laugh percentage takes a dive, but the cheese quotient skyrockets, in the form of some awfully unconvincing miniature and rear-projection effects. Though Tarantino may argue otherwise, Mighty Peking Man is one terrible movie, but rarely are bad movies quite this giddily laughable--making it ideal midnight movie fodder.


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