Dir. Wych "Kaos" Kaosayananda; writ. Alan McElroy, Peter M. Lenkov; feat. Antonio Banderas, Lucy Liu, Ray Park, Terry Chen, Aidan Drummond (R)
I have always enjoyed Lucy Liu's typecast role as an independent, arrogant bitch - she knows the cold condescension of her stoic stare, and speaks sarcasm fluently. Liu wears her ethnicity like she wears a second skin of tight leather, coming off exotic without conforming to the submissive China doll cliché. She is sexy, assured, and the epitome of the modern-day Asian American actor, able to act beyond the slanted eyes and stifled giggles of the stereotypical onscreen "Oriental" girl.

Why she co-starred in this sub-standard, stupidly titled, uninspired waste of celluloid is beyond my own precise Asian reasoning - the characterization is so hackneyed, it even has her engaging in the delicate art of origami. I've seen pre-school programming with more substantial plots than the one driving Ballistic. Even the single salvaging grace of the formulaic action film - the fast-paced, furious chases and dramatized deliveries of the otherwise standard punch - sucks. Thai-born director Wych "Kaos" Kaosayananda is no John Woo, that's for sure. (Although chaos with a "k" is really kool.)

Antonio Banderas is appropriately bland as the downtrodden, unshaved underdog and former FBI agent, Jeremiah Ecks. Banderas doesn't bother to coordinate his ambiguously white-bread surname with his half of the dialogue, stubbornly retaining his halting English. Nor is he a formidable opponent for the sleek, savvy Sever, whose code of a surname is stripped of its foreign flavor because she is actually an orphan-turned-highly-trained-assassin-gone-good. The two are not the "most dangerous enemies" the trailers touted, although Sever does kick Ecks' out-of-shape ass a time or two; mostly the unlikely duo just spray bullets and blow up stuff. These scenes are noisy, nonsensical, and unnecessary, but flesh out Liu's five full lines in the entire film - when she isn't folding crisp paper cranes as all meditative Asian assassins do before a massive shooting spree. If Sever is the strong, silent type, then Ecks is her fumbling, bumbling, incompetent sidekick.

Note to self: Yellow and brown are the new black. Ballistic beefs up on Asians (Liu, plus the unprecedented addition of a Chinese officer in the local police unit, played by Chinese-Canadian Terry Chen) and Latinos (Banderas, Talisa Soto, Miguel Sandoval), but there is nary a black character - or even extra - in the foreground, although the villains are appropriately a white man of political power and his right-hand, martial-arts-trained, European bitch.

Kieran Culkin and Jeff Goldblum in Igby Goes Down..

Igby Goes Down
"Smart and satisfying "

Dir. & writ. Burr Steers; feat. Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, Amanda Peet (R)
Let's start by saying that few Texans have the set of cultural reference points needed to "get" Igby Goes Down. It's apparent early on, when Igby's sterile, rigid mother (Sarandon) retrieves him from yet another prep school where he has embarrassed her with his performance: "Do you know where you get to go now, mister?" she seethes. Innocent Igby queries, "Choate?"

If you get the joke, (and most of the moviegoers at the preview didn't) you are going to love Igby Goes Down. Fortunately, the film doesn't have so many of these preppie in-jokes that it will alienate the rest of the audience.

Young Igby is the child of successful Connecticut parents. A frigid, pill-popping mother and a dad who achieved all society told him to desire, then promptly opted out for schizophrenia, have left him lonely, unloved, and desperate for a way out. The film confronts the artificial people and expectations of the comfortable class with Igby's youthful, yearning need for meaning. Igby's older brother, Oliver, has conformed with the desires of adult society, and is comfortably studious at Columbia University: Oliver's major is "neo-fascism," Igby's is "attitude."

Igby Goes Down is a Harold and Maude for the post-Reagan era, a film that treads down road made common ground by coming-of-age literature, but freshens the genre with self-awareness and jokes that are smartly contemporary. Its reference points are cleverly selected: Igby takes a rehab break at "Clipped Wings Teenage Rehabilitation Center," and his mom tries to resolve her health issues -including breast cancer - at the "Ronald Reagan Institute of Technological Medicine," while his Jewish girlfriend takes a semester away from school to get over "Entenmann's cookies." Igby revels in the peculiar angst of the upper class, and the film's WASP-y East Coast landscape is flawlessly depicted, but the themes are universal.

Though the inclusion of a Culkin may make it sound like a kids' flick, solid acting and unexpected intelligence make Igby a great pick for an older crowd, and for just about anyone who has ever wanted to drop out of mainstream culture. This film is likely to create a new generation of cult followers, but don't look for it to linger long in San Antonio.

Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi)
"Enigmatic parable about participatory democracy"

Writ. & dir. Babak Payami; feat. Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi, Youssef Habashi, Farrokh Shojaii (G)
Secret Ballot is set on a desert island in what looks to be the Caspian Sea. At daybreak on election day, a ballot box descends by parachute, and shortly after 8 a.m. a boat drops off a polling agent. "They should have sent a man," complains one of two soldiers stationed at a coastal outpost. Clad in chador, the bulky robe that is a reminder that a woman's place is not out in the world, the unnamed woman (Abdi) orders the unnamed soldier (Abidi) to drive her on her rounds, collecting ballots from the island's sparse inhabitants. Some are eager to vote, and some refuse. Some have problems that even suffrage cannot solve. Some reject the list of candidates, voting instead for God or even the agent. She and the film have a deadline; by 5 a.m. she must depart the island with the ballots.

Despite and because of severe censorship, Iranian cinema might be, frame for frame, the most expressive in the world. Like sonneteers who thrive confined to fourteen lines, Farsi filmmakers learn to make the most of meager means. A popularly elected reformist president has attempted to relax rigid controls imposed by the Iranian Revolution, but he has been thwarted by powerful imams. In depicting the relationship between a dedicated election agent who insists that: "Every citizen has rights," and a skeptical soldier, Secret Ballot is more pointedly political than other Iranian films dare to be. But its point is kept oblique. When the soldier, explaining: "I can't break the rules," stops at a traffic light planted in the vacant desert, the allegory seems forced. Yet, filled with long shots and takes, this sly parable teases the audience into drawing its own conclusions about civil society and participatory democracy.

Austin Powers in Goldmember
"On its own terms, it's poo-poo"

There are a few jokes in the film's last hour that don't involve excretion. You could chop 'em all out, add them to the opening scene, and have a five-minute movie that is every bit as entertaining as the seemingly endless river of excrement that is Goldmember.

Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn are groupies gone gray in The Banger Sisters.

The Banger Sisters
"The Turning Point for groupies"

While skirting the boundaries of good taste, this tale of one-time groupies never lifts its skirts into genuinely hairy regions. What salvages The Banger Sisters from tired piety disguised as ribaldry is the pleasure of watching Hawn and Sarandon do battle against both each other and the script.

"Raises expectations for black urban comedies"

Unlike most black comedies, such as the recent blaxploitation homage Undercover Brother, this tale presents nuanced characters instead of stereotypes to be dissected, making the film - which depicts a day in the life of an inner-city Chicago barbershop - more like black dramas such as Soul Food or The Wood than the pot farce Friday or the slew of direct-to-video gangsta flicks.

Blue Crush
"Bad teen angst on surfboards"

Blood Work

City by the Sea
"The cop who cried"

The most compelling choice director Caton-Jones makes is playing up his film's location. He repeatedly describes the idyllic family resort Long Beach used to be, and frames the pit it has become today. The contrast weights the film with a persistent loneliness. It is actually a relief to break to scenes set in New York City, while we wait for an uncertain resolution to a story centering on the choices and regrets of a few intriguingly drawn characters.

"Log in and suffer - for an hour and a half"

The Four Feathers
"Spectacular imperial epic"

By glorifying the exploits of a man who repudiates his own refusal to take up arms in patriotic service, The Four Feathers is an anti-anti-war film. "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country," wrote E.M. Forster, but the script to this film denies the distinction; when Harry deserts his duty to the Crown, he also lets his buddies down. But the screenplay celebrates as well the triumph of a sensitive new breed of man - one who admits his fears and failings and then confronts and overcomes them. Yet fears are not always failings, particularly when they put a brake on hasty acts of violence. Though the film suggests otherwise, aversion to war is not always a pathology.

The Good Girl
"Emma Bovary in West Texas"

Lilo & Stitch
"Iron Giant with training wheels"

Men in Black II
"By the numbers and uninspired"

Minority Report
"Tantalizing, timely futuristic thriller"

Mostly Martha (Bella Martha)
"Cinematic comfort food"

Beyond the repetitious shots of chopping, slicing, and dicing, this is the story of a woman who learns to step out of the kitchen, loosen up, and love. Mostly Martha adds nothing to our knowledge of the culinary life not already examined in the larder of current foodie books and in such other cuisine art films as Big Night, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate. It offers comfort food, with little left to chew on.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
"Sweet Greek comedy, not Aristophanes"

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of how a 30-year-old spinster (Toula) both defied and confirmed her tribal expectations. But it is not this ordinary story as much as the details that keep a viewer chuckling.

Smile spooky: Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.

One Hour Photo
"Snapshot of obsession"

Writer and director Mark Romanek's first feature film, with its controlled sets, sights, and sounds, calls to mind Francis Ford Copolla's The Conversation: Romanek tried as much, updating the "Lonely Man" films he grew up with in the '70s for One Hour Photo. The world Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) inhabits is made up of sharp-edged, humanless interiors (like his apartment), the cold aisles of Sav-Mart, and the tasteful-void of another family's modern ranch home. It is precisely when these edges blur that the film draws the audience to the edge of their seats, squirming in anticipation of what will develop.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Echhardt in One Hour Photo.

"Translated to film, novel loses poetry"

Road to Perdition
"Starts out a Beauty, settles for rote"

Serving Sara
"A humorless frolic through cattle country"

"Billy Graham meets E.T."

Signs is an American story, of unprovoked, unwarranted assault against the homeland and family by dark, unintelligible aliens. In its unremitting focus on Graham Hess, his children, and his brother, the film makes drama out of xenophobia; it is a cinematic equivalent of the national trauma induced by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All signs induce mistrust of anyone outside the tribe, and we are expected to cheer when Hess' son Merrill, once a minor league slugger, takes on the enemy with the most American of weapons: a baseball bat. The film signs on th Bush's foreign policy - that unilateralism is the most appropriate response to any external challenge.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
"A likeable, if not enitrely satisfactory, reunion with the super spy Cortez family"

Stealing Harvard
"All heart, no brains"

"As gripping as underwear with shot elastic"

"Not as racy as the title, but action-packed"

It's a take-no-prisoners action yarn, with a plot that offers just enough turns to keep the viewer on his toes, and employs all the classic 007 story characteristics, including the solo agent undercover and the wizard with a bag of technological tricks.

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
JM: Jonathan Marcus
RO: Retha Oliver
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
SM: Shaka McGlotten
WK: Wendi Kimura

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