Mushrooms and Munchkins

Jose Novoa's Sicario takes place in a much warmer climate, but Cold Fever's frostbitten hero wouldn't find it any more hospitable. The former film details the tragically short life of a motorbike-riding teenage assassin who briefly escapes the squalor and poverty of Colombian slum life by becoming a hit man (hit boy?). Novoa's lurid film wears its heart on its sleeve and offers more melodrama than insight into the sicarios' world. The movie does have topicality going for it, as well as a decent performance by its teen lead Laureano Olivarez. But writer-director Novoa substitutes Venezuelan locations for Colombia, and that lack of authenticity creeps into the pint-size Scarface tale as well.

Raoul Ruiz's Three Lives and Only One Death stars Marcello Mastroianni in a surrealistic fable about a man with multiple personality disorder; the stooped but otherwise gracefully aging Italian leading man still commands your interest whenever he's on-screen, and Ruiz's dark humor lends a wicked, anarchic edge to his nonlinear narrative.

The humorless British drama Hollow Reed examines the case of a boy whose mysterious injuries lead to a custody battle between his divorced parents. (The marriage ended when dad fessed up to his long-repressed homosexuality; now gay pop is convinced his son's bruises are the result of beatings administered by mommy's new boyfriend.) Can dad convince a court of law to overlook his "deviant" sexuality in time to save the kid? The slow-paced, well-acted film resolves the issue with a detached reserve that combines with its torn-from-the-headlines subject matter to make ideal TV movie-of-the-week fodder.

The same could be said of earnest Aussie production Brilliant Lies, which pits Anthony LaPaglia's boss against Gia Carides's seductive secretary in a sexual harassment lawsuit that dredges up buried memories of the woman's childhood sexual molestation at the hands of her father. The plot takes a few unexpected turns, but the film never transcends that topical made-for-the-small-screen feel. Australia proves more fertile ground for black comedy with Mushrooms, a twisted merger of Arsenic and Old Lace with Eating Raoul. Two eccentric widows -- sisters -- must find a way to dispose of a corpse without arousing the suspicions of their new boarder, a dashing cop whose arrival rekindles long-dormant stirrings in the senior siblings.

Crimetime, directed by The Vanishing's George Sluizer, combines Body Double with Network in a surprisingly good B-movie serial killer thriller. The film takes awhile to get rolling and to establish its peculiar rhythms and smarmy tone, but Pete (In the Name of the Father) Postlethwaite's knife-wielding sicko spectacularly transcends the norm for the genre and sustains your interest until the cleverer kinks in screenwriter Brendan Somers's sly plot exert themselves. Stephen Baldwin is well-cast as the moody hunk who fancies himself a serious actor and eventually becomes obsessed with his role as the killer's double on an exploitative tabloid TV show. The actor takes his method a tad too seriously; Baldwin engagingly plays him as a self-absorbed lunk obsessed with penetrating Postlethwaite's killer psyche. Crimetime knows better than Baldwin's character; the movie just wants to have fun. It does so with style. Besides, you have to like any slasher film self-aware and secure enough in the conventions of the genre to cast Seventies B-movie queen Karen Black in a lusty supporting role. Crimetime doesn't shoot for prime time, but it deserves decent ratings nonetheless.

In addition to the above films, UM's Cosford Cinema will host the regional premieres of four films that will probably enjoy return engagements at area cineplexes later in the year. The Italian sexual identity farce Belle Al Bar mixes The Crying Game with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in a romance between an unhappily married man and a seductive transvestite. Of course, comedies rooted in mistaken sexual identity are nothing new, as the latest adaption of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night proves. Trevor Nunn's celluloid version features Imogen Stubbs as Viola, the young woman who, following a shipwreck, impersonates a boy. Nunn's cast includes period queen Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, and Toby Stephens. While Nick Nolte's gender is never questioned (thank heavens -- can you imagine any actor who might look more frightening in drag?) in the screen treatment of Kurt Vonnegut's black comedy/thriller Mother Night, his character does have a secret identity. Nolte plays an American writer living in Germany who is pressed into service as a spy by the U.S. government. The secret agent succeeds so splendidly in establishing his cover that he accidentally becomes a high-profile spokesman for the Nazis' sinister agenda, earning him celebrity among the warmongers he despises and infamy back in the States. Tierra marks the Miami debut of the latest film from acclaimed Spanish auteur Julio Medem (Vacas). The densely atmospheric film drifts between fantasy and reality to portray the complex inner conflict of a man with a split personality. (Maybe he should look up Mastroianni's character from Three Lives.) The confused protagonist with the vivid imagination arrives at a rural region with a mission: to fumigate and eradicate a bizarre plague of lice responsible for a strange earthy taste in the local wine. But two radically different women appear in his life to complicate matters and pit one side of his personality against the other.

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