‘Band’ scores poignant saga

Filmed in L.A. and San Francisco by HBO Pictures. Exec producers, Aaron Spelling, E. Duke Vincent; producers, Midge Sanford, Sarah Pillsbury; co-producers, Arnold Schulman, Edward Teets; director, Roger Spottiswoode; writer, Schulman; based on the book by Randy Shilts; camera, Paul Elliott; editor, Lois Freeman-Fox; production designer, Victoria Paul; art director, Lee Mayman; sound, Walt Martin; music, Carter Burwell. 141 MIN.

Cast: Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Patrick Bachau, Natalie Baye, Christian Clemenson, David Clennon, Phil Collins, Alex Courtney, David Dukes, Richard Gere , David Marshall Grant, Ronald Guttman, Glenne Headly, Anjelica Huston, Ken Jenkins, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Swoosie Kurtz, Jack Laufer, Donal Logue, Steve Martin, Richard Masur, Dakin Matthews, Ian McKellen, Peter McRobbie, Lawrence Monoson, Jeffrey Nordling, Saul Rubinek, Charles Martin Smith, Stephen Spinella, Lily Tomlin, B.D. Wong, Walter Addison, Jill Andre, Alan Barry, Neal Ben-Ari, David Bottrell, Rico Bueno, Bill Carmichael, Christopher Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, John Del Regno, John Durbin, Mogens Ecklert, Carey Eidel, Robert Briscoe Evans, Richard Fancy, Keythe Farley, Christopher John Fields, Dave Florek, Niki Gilbert, Yasmine Golchan, Patrick Gorman, James Greene, Jeffrey Hayenga, Daniel Henning, Ike Ikesiashi, Laura Innes, Laura James, Michael Kearns , Erasor Kemie, Jack Kenny, Thomas Kopache, Clyde Kusatsu, Frank Li’Bay, Rob LaBelle, Neal Lerner, Rene Levant, Geoffrey Lower, Anthony Lucero, James Mastrantonio, Jon Matthews, Rosemary Murphy, Edafe Okurume, Susanne Olsen, Angela Paton, Sierra Pecheur, Miguel Perez, Martin Raymond, Jeremy Regan, Robert Martin Robinson, Valeri Ross, Hildur Ruriks, Tom Schanley, Sean Whitesell, Michael Winters, William Wintersole, Lenny Wolpe.

Randy Shilts’ monumental book about AIDS has been impressively assembled by scripter Arnold Schulman, who’s based his dramatization on facts and “elements” from the book and from historical records, as well as creating fictionalized characters and situations. Unfolding like a sad detective story, the $ 8 million-plus production, directed to varying degrees of effect by Roger Spottiswoode, points up the politics as well as the horror of AIDS. As a TV movie about a highly sensitive subject, overall it’s a moving experience. Film premieres Sept. 2 at the Montreal Film Fest, then begins airing on HBO Sept. 11.

Skipping over intricate details of medical research, the telefilm takes measure of the battles against red tape, egos, lack of funding and countless self-interests. Spottiswoode’s “Band” mirrors the struggles recounted in Shilts’ book as researchers in France and the United States fought to isolate and identify the virus despite public resistance and governmental neglect.

As a narrative thread to tie up Shilts’ sprawling story, Schulman uses real-life researcher Don Francis (Matthew Modine), an impassioned hero who joins Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control team in 1980. The plot dramatizes the medical frustrations and small victories of Francis’ CDC associates, including Dr. Mary Guinan (a standout Glenne Headly).

Doctors and health officials in New York, Los Angeles and San Franciso encounter patients with the unknown disease and begin the long hunt to nail it down. Francis spots a clue on a Pac Man machine; other points add up, and the “gay cancer” finally gets a name.

The vidpic underscores the appalling lack of coin for research. Hospitals turn away the sick, blood banks won’t spend the money to screen blood.

Self-promoting individuals and interest groups are shown ruthlessly defending their positions; federal government indifference is noted with selective shots of President Reagan.

If Modine isn’t always persuasive as the scrappy doctor, he does have the idealist look and determined combativeness. Played with assurance, Ian McKellen’s Bill Kraus, liaison between San Francisco gays and their congressman, becomes a near-symbolic figure in the telepic as his health begins to fail.

Aspects of gay life depicted in “Band” range from Kraus’ low-key home life with his partner (B.D. Wong) to a dying, flamboyant transvestite (“Angels in America’s” Stephen Spinella who, like most of the patients, looks too robust under the AIDS makeup) to an unconvincingly staged rally against the closing of San Francisco bathhouses.

The vidpic catches various phases of gay life openly and objectively, yet one of the most telling and touching moments concerning homosexuality is expressed by a woman whose hemophiliac husband has incurred AIDS.

The use of celebs in cameos to draw audiences might have been a distracting gimmick, but most of the actors melt into the drama: Swoosie Kurtz, in one of the more poignant segs, plays a woman who learns she’s contracted AIDS from a transfusion; an expressive Richard Gere is a composite character who sees his grim future in two of the vidpic’s most eloquent moments; Lily Tomlin limns the courageous S.F. public health official Selma Dritz fighting indifference. Steve Martin is awkward as a grieving brother; Anjelica Huston’s appearance as a doctor is absurdly brief.

Alan Alda as ambitious Dr. Robert Gallo, laying claim to discovery of the AIDS virus, gives a solid study of a driven man. Revealing scenes between Francis and Gallo culminate in a confrontation that’s surefire drama.

Though a number of the intimate scenes are expertly directed, Spottiswoode surprisingly runs into difficulties with some straightforward, ordinary moments: the CDC’s first meeting with Francis, a choreographer (Gere) in a hotel-lobby encounter, Tomlin’s style of talking her way into a bathhouse inspection.

“Band” has been in the offing since 1989, being optioned and eventually dropped by both ABC and NBC. Spelling, linked to the ABC deal, conferred with Robert Cooper, HBO Pictures senior veepee, and the project was on the way.

But not without its problems. Director Spottiswoode succeeded Joel Schumacher and Richard Pearce, who left for various reasons.

Recently, HBO denied Spottiswoode’s claim he was fired from post-production, with Modine joining in the public fray over concern about the content and handling of the issues, but all sides have since expressed amicability and satisfaction with the finished project.

The vidpic’s shrewd use of film clips and of L.A. locales is excellent. (The City Council chamber stands in for the S.F. bathhouse confab; Canyon Country for Africa; L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel pool as a bathhouse.) Numbers flashed occasionally across the screen denoting increasing AIDS cases and deaths again define the telefilm’s theme.

Paul Elliott’s camerawork is well composed, and Carter Burwell’s low-key score is on target. Victoria Paul’s design is imaginative, Lois Freeman-Fox’s editing, culminating in a montage of the dead, is terrif.

If there are lapses, director Spottiswoode’s engrossing, powerful work still accomplishes its mission: Shilts’ book, with all its shock, sorrow and anger, has been transferred decisively to the screen.

FILM

**review:SON OF THE

PINK PANTHER

An MGM release of a United Artists presentation in association with Filmauro S.R.L. Produced by Tony Adams. Executive producer, Nigel Wooll. Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay, Edwards, Madeline and Steve Sunshine, based on Edwards’ story and characters created by Edwards and Maurice Richlin. Camera (Deluxe color), Dick Bush; editor, Robert Pergament; music, Henry Mancini; production design, Peter Mullins; art direction, David Minty, John Siddall, Leslie Tomkins; costume design, Emma Porteous; sound (Dolby), Ken Weston; assistant director, Terry Needham; casting, Nancy Klopper (U.S.), Davis & Zimmerman (U.K.). Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, L.A., Aug. 26, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time:93 MIN.

Jacques … Roberto Benigni

Dreyfus … Herbert Lom

Maria … Claudia Cardinale

Princess Yasmin … Debrah Farentino

Yussa … Jennifer Edwards

Hans … Robert Davi

Chief Lazar … Anton Rodgers

Cato … Burt Kwouk

Dr. Balls … Graham Stark

Blake Edwards, Hollywood’s one-time ingenious farceur, desperately tries to bounce back with “Son of the Pink Panther,” the eighth episode in the series that began in 1964. Starring Italian comedian Robert Benigni as the new bumbling inspector, it is a tired pastiche of recycled sketches and gags. Pic will generate some coin opening week as a curio item for nostalgic viewers, but will rapidly lose its draw after dismissive reviews and negative word of mouth.

It must have sounded like a valid concept to revive the series, a decade after the last installment, with a gifted comedian like Benigni as a new hero. But Edwards has nothing fresh or funny to add to the old ideas.

This time around, twitching Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is investigating the disappearance of Princess Yasmin (Debrah Farentino), kidnapped by a nasty terrorist (Robert Davi). Also assigned to the case is Jacques Gambrelli (Benigni), a second-class gendarme who doesn’t initially realize he’s the illegitimate son of the famed Inspector Clouseau. Nor, to his dismay, does Lom.

Too bad that Edwards’ specialty, the elaborate orchestration of sight gags with hilarious payoffs, is almost absent here, replaced by vulgar slapstick humor and a few effective gags.

Benigni is the major asset, but his vast talents are underutilized. It’s nice to see the series’ veterans again, although, under these circumstances, neither Lom, usually so pathetically laughable, nor Burt Kwouk as Cato — whose brawls with Sellers were always a high point — excel.

Except for the cute credit sequence, production values are mediocre, making pic feel as if it were quickly put together. Judging by the results, it may be a good idea to put the Pink Panther to rest.

A Paramount release of a John Davis production. Produced by Davis. Executive producer, George Folsey Jr. Co-producer, Darlene K. Chan. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Screenplay, Carol Heikkinen. Camera (Deluxe color), Peter James; editor, Terry Stokes; music supervisor, G. Marq Roswell; executive music consultant, J. Steven Soles; production design, Michael Seymour; art direction, Thomas D. Wilkins; set decoration, Cloudia; costume design, Rita Riggs; sound (Dolby), James Edward Webb Jr.; associate producer, Steve Foley; assistant director, Jerry L. Ballew; casting, Dianne Crittenden. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., Aug. 23, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

James Wright … River Phoenix

Miranda Presley … Samantha Mathis

Kyle Davidson … Dermot Mulroney

Linda Lue Linden … Sandra Bullock

Lucy … K.T. Oslin

Billy … Anthony Clark

Ned … Webb Wilder

Floyd … Earl Poole Ball

Trisha Yearwood … Trisha Yearwood

A fairly typical tale of young talent on the rise in Nashville is given nicely nuanced treatment in “The Thing Called Love.” Perhaps there’s not much new to say about the dues and disappointments involved in breaking into the country music scene, but the scenes are fresh and the emotions real in Peter Bogdanovich’s tune-laden, mixed-mood drama.

Paramount is showing less than total assurance in the picture by releasing it in 490 prints in the South, Southwest and parts of Canada, where distrib has determined country music appeal is strongest, and avoiding most major-city markets. To have any kind of B.O. chance against higher-profile entries, film would need a special push.

Debuting screenwriter Carol Heikkinen’s story seems familiar from the outset, as cute aspiring singer-songwriter Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis) Greyhounds from New York City to Nashville in search of her dream. Her first stop is the Bluebird Cafe, where “open mike” night attracts hundreds of hopefuls all looking for the same break.

Taking a waitress job when her first audition doesn’t land her a gig and shortly moving in with the buoyantly untalented Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock), Miranda attracts the attention of two good-looking dudes, the moody, gifted James Wright (River Phoenix) and soulful Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), who writes better than he sings.

Partial to writing alone in the diner across the road from her motel, Miranda can’t reciprocate Kyle’s earnest emotions, and is alternately tantalized and infuriated by James’ hot-and-cold routine. Characters hit the crossroads at a big country dance to which the romantically hopeful Kyle brings Miranda, but loses her after James, who is unexpectedly performing that night, invites her up onstage to join in one of his numbers.

While Kyle’s jealousy is partly mollified when Trisha Yearwood records one of his tunes, Miranda and Kyle head for Memphis to see Graceland but end up getting married in an oddball ceremony conducted at an all-night convenience store. This hasty union quickly comes to no good, and among the film’s most potent scenes are those detailing the quick unraveling of this immature relationship.

Refusing cloying sentimentality and reassurance, wrap-up pleasingly, and realistically, leaves all the main characters at different places on the road between success and failure, and only partly reconciled to their fates and each other. Even if it doesn’t present anything resembling a comprehensive view of the Nashville music scene, it credibly enters into the mind-sets of the struggling artists and imparts a good sense of their mixed camaraderie and competitiveness.

Brought on to replace another director on relatively short notice, Bogdanovich hasn’t been able to transcend such fundamental script problems as its predictability and the conventional, thinly conceived secondary characters. But, like good country songwriters and singers, he and his leading actors have been able to locate authentic emotion in a standard format, and the director displays a visual confidence that is all the more impressive for itsrefined subtlety. His staging, camera setups and cutting have a suppleness and fluidity that are quite rare, and would be well employed on more substantial material.

Alert and game, Mathis nicely carries the picture, drawing the viewer in without pleading for sympathy. Phoenix sharply etches a self-styled, hard-to-reach tough guy who’s really a scaredy-cat, and Mulroney registers well as a sensitive Eastern cowboy.

Unfortunately, Bullock can only hit familiar notes with her cheerful second banana role, and other supporting thesps are one-dimensional.

That all the performers do their own singing is a very agreeable plus, and the vast song score has been imaginatively and enjoyably worked into the proceedings. Tech contributions on the relatively low-budget production are all solid.

A Warner Bros. release of a Morgan Creek production in association with Davis Film. (Foreign sales: August Entertainment.) Produced by Bill Unger, Steve Perry , Samuel Hadida. Executive producers, James G. Robinson, Gary Barber, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Stanley Margolis. Directed by Tony Scott. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Camera (Technicolor), Jeffrey Kimball; editors, Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner; music, Hans Zimmer; production design, Benjamin Fernandez; art direction, James Murakami; set decoration, Thomas Roysden; costume design, Susan Becker; sound (Dolby), William Kaplan; casting, Risa Bramon Garcia, Billy Hopkins. Reviewed at the Mann Westwood, L.A., Aug. 13, 1993 . MPAA rating: R. Running time: 116 MIN.

Clarence Worley … Christian Slater

Alabama Whitman …Patricia Arquette

Clifford Worley … Dennis Hopper

Drexl Spivey …Gary Oldman

Floyd … Brad Pitt

Vincenzo Coccotti … Christopher Walken

Mentor … Val Kilmer

Elliot Blitzer … Bronson Pinchot

Dick Ritchie … Michael Rapaport

Lee Donowitz … Saul Rubinek

Nick Dimes … Chris Penn

Cody Nicholson … Tom Sizemore

Big Don … Samuel L. Jackson

The footprints of dozens of classic thrillers are imprinted on the slick, violent and energetic “True Romance.” One of the endless variations on the couple-on-the-run subgenre, yarn provides some amazing encounters, bravura acting turns and gruesome carnage. But it doesn’t add up to enough, as preposterous plotting and graphic violence ultimately prove an audience turnoff and will limit pic’s commercial prospects.

The odd couple here are Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a young man working in a comic-book store and a gal on the job on the streets of Detroit. Their not-so-chance encounter blossoms into true love and marriage.

Clarence, on the pretense of picking up Alabama’s suitcase, walks into the lair of her former pimp (Gary Oldman). Better judgment would have him steer clear of the haunt, but this is a movie. During a scuffle Clarence kills Drexl and grabs his wife’s suitcase — except it’s the wrong one. Opening the Pandora’s box reveals a fortune in uncut cocaine. The young man is smart enough to know he’s in a lot of trouble. He also foolishly believes he can skip town, sell the stash and escape to some remote paradise — in this case, Hollywood.

Building on a shaky premise, “True Romance” rides along largely on the power of its colorful rogues’ gallery. Besides Oldman’s gleeful incarnation of evil, there’s dopey fun in Brad Pitt’s space cadet and Saul Rubinek as a Hollywood producer whose ego transcends morality, law and common sense. Slater and Arquette lend the proceedings a charged sexuality, elevating the essentially inane material.

Sure to elicit the most notice is a scene between Mafioso Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s ex-cop dad. It is a testament to the two actors that their superlative work transcends racist dialogue and in-your-face brutality.

Movie mavens have a veritable field to plow in the Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Cinematic references are rife, but the story’s downfall can be credited in part to the writer’s wholehearted embrace of both the best and worst of the noir canon. Pic also suffers because its reality base is other films, with only glancing reference to the outside world.

Tony Scott’s slick style is visually arresting if too obvious. Entire film is an elegantly packaged affair on all levels. Still, it doesn’t blunt the inevitable disappointment when unwrapped.

A Gramercy Pictures release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation produced by Propaganda Films with Kouf Bigelow productions. Produced by Steve Golin, Aris McGarry and Joni Sighvatsson. Executive producers, Lynn Bigelow, Jim Kouf. Co-producers, Mitch Sacharoff, Kristine Schwarz. Directed by Dominic Sena. Screenplay, Tim Metcalfe. Story by Stephen Levy and Metcalfe. Camera (Deluxe), Bojan Bazelli; editor, Martin Hunter; music, Carter Burwell; production design, Michael White; art direction, Jeff Mann; set decoration, Kate Sullivan; costume design, Kelle Kutsugeras; sound (Dolby), Jose Antonio Garcia; casting, Pat Golden, Carol Lewis. Reviewed at the Northstar Screening Room, Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 1993. MPAA Rating: R. Running time:117 MIN.

Early Grayce … Brad Pitt

Adele Corners … Juliette Lewis

Brian Kessler … David Duchovny

Carrie Laughlin … Michelle Forbes

Mrs. Musgrave … Sierra Pecheur

Walter Livesy … Gregory Mars Martin

Parole Officer … Judson Vaughn

Eric … David Rose

The name Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) deceivingly suggests the patience and understanding of a sympathetic cleric. But the only preacher the laconic Grayce resembles is the vengeful and driven faux minister incarnated by Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter.” The vintage thriller and the intriguing “Kalifornia” are cut from the same cloth but ultimately steer different paths.

The fascination with the homicidal urge and the inability to recognize it in ourselves and others provides the chilling core of this road movie. Though somewhat overplayed and coy about its destination, the film, which is unspooling in competition at the Montreal Film Festival, packs a wallop and should do solid business on the specialized circuit.

Though Early commands much of our attention, it is magazine writer Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) who relates the harrowing saga. After completing an assignment on a serial killer, Kessler decides his research on similar psychos would make a nifty coffee-table book. He concocts a cross-country tour of nefarious murder sites to collect info that will be augmented by photos shot by girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes). Early, meanwhile, happens upon Brian’s ride-share ad on a bulletin board at the university where he works as a janitor. No doubt he’s intrigued by the invitation to visit ghoulish haunts.

The film cross-cuts between the relatively mundane lives of the yuppish Pittsburgh couple and scenes of Early with his significant other, the bedraggled , naive Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), portraying a white-trash trailer-park life in which fragile circumstances tend to erupt into unpleasant consequences. Early and Adele are familiar caricatures, but so are Brian and Carrie. It’s how each breaks from the mold that brings the juice to Tim Metcalfe’s script and director Dominic Sena’s interpretation.

When Brian cozies up to Early’s easy machismo, his susceptibility and our own identification with the lure of danger are palpable and disquieting.

The charismatic Pitt explores his character with quiet resolve, venting both horror and darkly comic implications. Duchovny is strong in a thankless part, and Forbes is a unique presence in her major-role screen debut. But Lewis steals the show with an affectless performance that registers pity, pathos and pluck.

“Kalifornia” is an extremely handsome production imbued with a chilling surrealistic sensibility. Bojan Bazelli’s camera work is more than aptly complemented by the Carter Burwell score. The film will certainly send Sena’s artistic stock up the charts.

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation. Produced by Nicholas Pileggi, Anant Singh, Gillian Gorfil. Executive producers, Jeffrey Chernov, Richard H. Prince. Directed by Darrell James Roodt. Screenplay, Scott Spencer. Camera (Technicolor), Mark Vicente; editor, David Heitner; music, Patrick O’Hearn; production design, David Barkham; art direction, Dins Danielsen; set decoration, Suzette Sheets; costume design, Donfeld; sound (Dolby), J. Bayard Carey; assistant director, George Parra; second-unit director/stunt coordinator, Charles Picerni; casting, Michael Fenton, Allison Cowitt. Reviewed at the GCC Beverly Connection, L.A., Aug. 25, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 94 MIN.

Jack Charles … Patrick Swayze

Kathleen Mercer … Halle Berry

Kelly Charles … Sabrina Lloyd

Eddie Charles … Brian Bonsall

Jerry … Michael Ironside

Rita … Diane Ladd

Lazzaro … Bob Gunton

A train wreck from start to finish, despite Patrick Swayze’s marquee value this title in search of a movie will have a hard time scaring up any business, even among the trailer-park set.

Hollywood Pictures calls this as “an action/adventure” in the press notes, indicating the publicity department didn’t know what to make of it any more than production execs did. “Father Hood” is a basic road movie — small-time criminal takes his kids across country and they bond — handled so ham-fistedly one can’t wait for the journey to end.

Swayze plays a hustler whose kids are in an evil foster-care home. On his way to New Orleans to rob a drug dealer, Jack, who’s taken no interest in the children despite their mother’s death, in a fit of pique snatches them from the home and reluctantly drags them along on his trek.

In transit, the teenage daughter (Sabrina Lloyd) and young son (Brian Bonsall) fret about their dad abandoning them while Jack carries on a phone correspondence with a reporter (Halle Berry) who’s intent on busting the foster-care operation.

“Father Hood” may be most notable for the unusual assemblage of talent — director Darrell James Roodt (“Sarafina!”), writer Scott Spencer (the novel “Endless Love”) and producer Nicholas Pileggi (“GoodFellas”) — and how horribly that mix misfires.

Swayze appears too young for his role, Lloyd is equally miscast as the teenage daughter and Bonsall (the baby brother on “Family Ties,” having outgrown his “cute” phase) proves a thoroughly obnoxious child. It’s difficult to imagine three more unpleasant characters, let alone being trapped in a car with them.

It also bears noting how casual the kids are about Dad’s vocation, which includes waving guns around, stealing three cars and a boat and leading them on multiple car chases, to which the nipper reacts with cries of “faster, Dad, faster.”

If Jack is supposed to be a lovable scoundrel, Swayze captures the swagger and none of the likability, and the kids prove at best grating. Part of that, admittedly, may have to do with Spencer’s mundane dialogue and Roodt’s unsteady direction.

Tech credits include choppy editing, blase chases, peculiar wardrobe and an inappropriate score heavy with Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye tunes. Gaye’s most applicable title, “What’s Goin’ On?,” didn’t make the list.

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Freestone Pictures & Davis Films. Produced by Samuel Hadida, Stuart S. Shapiro, Steven G. Menkin. Executive producer, Victor Hadida. Directed by Sheldon Lettich. Screenplay, Lettich, Luis Esteban. Camera (Eastmancolor), Edward Pei; editor, Stephen Semel; music, Harvey W. Mason; production design, J. Mark Harrington; art direction, Annabel Delgado; costume design, Patricia Field; sound (Dolby), Henri Lopez; associate producer, Robert D. Simon; supervising producer, Conrad L. Ricketts; assistant director, Simon; stunt coordinators, Artie Malesci, Frank Dux; fight coordinator, Dux; casting, James F. Tarzia. Reviewed at the UA Westwood Theatre, L.A., Aug. 20, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

Louis Stevens … Mark Dacascos

Dianna … Stacey Travis

Kerrigan … Geoffrey Lewis

Silverio … Paco Christian Prieto

Cochran … Todd Susman

Orlando … Richard Coca

Philippe … Jeffrey Anderson Gunter

Shay … Roman Cardwell

Donovan … Ryan Bollman

Only the simple-minded will find much to cheer in this martial arts actioner, which has the queasy feel of a movie slapped together by the marketing department — i.e., let’s double our pleasure by putting those nifty kicks and leaps to a Lambada beat. With a Jean-Claude Van Damme epic already in circulation, Fox will face a tough fight for B.O. turf.

Pic does provide a major-studio vehicle for Mark Dacascos, whose impressive look and athletic ability could position him for bigger things after paying his dues in the likes of “American Samurai” and “Ninja Academy.”

Here, working with co-writer/director Sheldon Lettich, a three-time Van Damme collaborator, Dacascos has to overcome a lot more than just a neighborhood full of hostile types — like the unintentional giggles evoked by some of the other performers and the script.

Dacascos plays Louis, a special forces officer who has mastered capoeira — a Brazilian form of kung fu that relies on a musical beat — while stationed overseas. Returning to Miami, he seeks out an old teacher (Geoffrey Lewis), who suggests he use that skill to take the 12 toughest kids in school and instill discipline in them — the thought being, if it’ll work with them, it’ll work on anybody.

Unfortunately, two of those kids are related to neighborhood drug lords — the most menacing being Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), a ponytailed lummox who, conveniently, is also a capoeira master, giving Louis someone to play with.

Lettich and co-writer Luis Esteban don’t waste much time on winning these allegedly lost-cause kids over, the better to get to Louis’ showdown with the bad guys.

Still, the lapses in logic are wide enough to drive a graffiti-tagged school bus through, and lead baddie Prieto, while physically imposing, consistently sounds like he’s doing a bad impersonation of Desi Arnaz.

Dacascos bears some physical resemblance to the late Brandon Lee and possesses some of the same easy charm, though there’s scant outlet for the latter except for a brief liaison with a former classmate (Stacey Travis) who wears rather amusingly short dresses for a young woman working in a tough inner-city school.

Technically, the actionscenes are athletic but relatively unimaginative when they’re not downright ridiculous, and the music proves so persistent, someone must have forgotten that those two Lambada movies didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

“Only the Strong” does push a “Just say no” theme, with an additional message that might be translated “kick butt, stay in school.” Staying in theaters should be an equally formidable challenge.

TELEVISION

**review:FALLEN ANGELS

Parts IV-VI

Showtime, Suns. Sept. 5, 19, 26

Filmed around L.A. by Mirage Prods., Propaganda Films and Showtime Network. Exec producer, Sydney Pollack; producers, William Horberg, Lindsay Doran, Steve Golin; co-producer, David Wisnievitz; creator, Horberg; production designer, Armin Ganz; art director, Lisette Thomas; sound, Michael Evje; costume design, Shay Cunliffe; music, Peter Bernstein; theme, Elmer Bernstein.

Hostess: Lynette Walden.

THE FRIGHTENING FRAMMIS

Sun. Sept. 5, 11 p.m.

Director, Tom Cruise; writers, Jon Robin Baitz, Howard A. Rodman; story, Jim Thompson; camera, Peter Suschitzky; editor, David Siegel; sound, Michael Evje. 30 MIN.

Cast: Peter Gallagher, Nancy Travis, Isabella Rossellini, John Reilly, Bill Erwin, Jean Speegle Howard, Joe Viterelli, Gene Price.

MURDER, OBLIQUELY

Sun. Sept. 19, 10:35 p.m.

Director, Alfonso Cuaron; writer, Amanda Silver; story, Cornell Woolrich; camera, Emmanuel Lubezki; editor, David Siegel. 30 MIN.

Cast: Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Diane Lane, Robin Bartlett, Patrick Massett, Michael Vartan, John A. Zee.

SINCE I DON’T HAVE YOU

Sun. Sept. 26, 11 p.m.

Director, Jonathan Kaplan; writer, Steven Katz; story, James Elroy; camera, Declan Quinn; editor, Stan Salfas.30 MIN.

Cast: Gary Busey, Tim Matheson, James Woods, Aimee Graham, Dick Miller, Ken Lerner, Robert L. Minor.

September brings the second and final batch of three half-hour hard-boiled dramas, based on short stories from the 1930s and ’40s, and the producers seem to be getting the knack. Production designer Armin Ganz again displays ingenuity in selecting L.A. settings. Directing and acting levels vary, but the spirit’s willing. The nets better be watching.

In “The Frightening Frammis,” Peter Gallagher may look too callow to be a grifter, but under actor Tom Cruise’s deft directorial hand he turns in a solid perf in an astute adaptation of Jim Thompson’s tale.

Story’s far-fetched but engrossing, with striking cameos. Peter Suschitzky’s imaginative lensing and David Siegel’s editing are pro, as is the whole production.

“Murder, Obliquely,” Cornell Woolrich’s enigmatic look at a Plain Jane falling for a heel on the rebound, turns into an eerie look at the suppressed longings of the two principals. Though director AlfonsoCuaron coaxes only a flat interp from Laura Dern as heroine-narrator, Alan Rickman’s study of the man in the middle and Diane Lane’s perf as his torchy ex are on-target.

In pursuit of period-piece purity, the sixth “Fallen Angels” entry, “Since I Don’t Have You,” happily goes to black and white — but blows authenticity by using crude lingo. Steven Katz’s adaptation about a fictional character (Gary Busey) trying to find the same doll for both Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen in post-World War II L.A. stings enough without the vulgarity; James Elroy’s intricate plotting goes like clockwork.

Busey’s fine as a procurer-bagman. Aimee Graham’s tart is a standout, while Tim Matheson’s Hughes is a good approximation. James Woods, handing in a manic Cohen, doesn’t faintly resemble him. Director Jonathan Kaplan keeps the pace brisk, the look accurate.

Intro segs, also in black and white, were filmed at L.A.’s art moderne Union Station with hostess Lynette Walden. Her unconvincing manner isn’t helped by her silly dialogue, suggestive duds or the smoky atmosphere. And her cigarette doesn’t bear lipstick traces.

NBC, Thurs. Sept. 2, 9:30 p.m.

Filmed in Hollywood by Witt-Thomas Prods. Exec producers, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Don Reo, John Larroquette; co-exec producers, Judith D. Allison, Mitch Hurwitz; director, John Whitesell; creator, Reo; production designer, Ed LaPorta. 30 MIN.

Cast: John Larroquette, Liz Torres, Gigi Rice, Daryl (Chill) Mitchell, Chi McBride, David Shawn Michaels, Glenn Shadix, Lenny Clarke, Elizabeth Berridge, John F. O’Donohue.

“Hi. My name is John Hemingway and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s doubtful any TV comedy has ever opened at an A.A. meeting, let alone unveiled an introductory line quite like that. Credit John Larroquette, who stars as a recovering boozer taking over the night management of a St. Louis bus station, for bringing humor, respectable drama and even a touch of grace to the dark and edgy corners of this refreshing sitcom.

If viewers are ready and hungry for comedy with social bite, this show should register numbers. The tone is established by ripe, politically incorrect humor in one scene after another.

The format — alternating two-three-minute confrontations between the protagonist and bizarre denizens in a self-contained world — is as old as radio and “Duffy’s Tavern.” But the exec producers (who include Larroquette) turn an urban underbelly into an adult, witty, street-smart, big-city mural. Contributing to the flavor is the bus station’s bygone art-deco decor (set design by Ed LaPorta).

The show’s major risk is the sheer amount of A.A.-inspired material. A running gag is how everyone is always inviting the tempted Hemingway into the bar for a drink.

The sharp writing is propped up by funny supporting characters — among them, a transvestite (David Shawn Michaels) with a bass voice; a janitor (Chi McBride) who finds the men’s room too vile to walk into; a friendly, svelte hooker (Gigi Rice); and an affable bartender (Glenn Shadix) with a wicked sense of humor.

Taped at Hollywood Center Studios by HBO Independent Prods., Van Zandt/Milemore Prods. and 3 Arts Entertainment. Exec producers, Billy Van Zandt, Jane Milmore, Howard Klein; co-exec producer, Richard Lewis; producer, Frank Pace; director, Linda Day; writers, Van Zandt, Milmore; art director, Jane Fletcher; music, Ed Alton.30 MIN.

Cast: Richard Lewis, Don Rickles, Sydney Walsh, Alice Carter, Carey Eidel, Jonathan Gibby, Renee Taylor.

Richard Lewis and Don Rickles as Steven Mitchell and father Al Mitchell might have looked OK in the blueprint, but the initial full-blown script’s broad and full of woe (and sometimes rich, thanks to Rickles’ caustic cracks). The desperate humor soon wears thin.

Premise sets Steven up as a divorced psychologist with young son Danny and a barbed-mouth dad who’s been thrown out of his own home by equally rasping wife Helen (Renee Taylor in a prize perf) because he lost their life savings. Their other son, bland Larry (Carey Eidel), gets lost amid Al’s bombast and Steven’s protest.

Larry inherits Helen while ex-car salesman Al stays with Steven, who waves his hands a great deal in distress. Rickles’ Al is smarter than Archie Bunker, and louder.

Boy Danny (Jonathan Gibby, to be played from now on by Jeffrey Bomberger) is an interesting child, and Taylor knows how to lash out a vicious line with the best of Rickles.

Director Linda Day keeps the action popping, but secondary characters have little chance. Program’s core is a frenzied Steven coping with a mean-spirited father and his spiteful gags; Steven’s lot is not amusing, and even Rickles’ trademark put-downs soon grate. A weekly half-hour with these folks could boost the sale of Mylanta.

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