Fast Talkers, Pugnacious Puppets, 007

The title of Smoke, which is set in a Brooklyn cigar store, refers to what the characters spend much of the movie blowing at each other. Its informal companion piece, set in the same store, is called Blue in the Face. This time, the title refers to the state that the characters talk themselves into.

Blue in the Face was made with the bit of extra money and time that the filmmakers had left over when Smoke was finished. Screenwriter Paul Auster and director Wayne Wang came up with some loose ideas for scenes; and several members of the Smoke cast, and some other actors, improvised on them.

In spite of a little fretting about whether the owner of the shop (Victor Argo) ought to sell out to make way for a health-food store, the result is more or less plotless--it's just a collage of riffing actors. Central among them is Harvey Keitel as Auggie, the friendly, goodhearted manager who presides over the store and figures in most of the scenes.

Besides Keitel and Argo, other Smoke alumni include Mel Gorham as Auggie's tempestuous girlfriend, Malik Yoba and Jared Harris. Some celebs also dropped in on the party, among them Lily Tomlin, Michael J. Fox, Madonna, Mira Sorvino, Jim Jarmusch, Roseanne and Lou Reed, whose deadpan monologue, straight to the camera, about the merits of Brooklyn, contains the film's funnier moments.

Bright spots like those provided by Reed are much needed. Blue in the Face is harmless, but it isn't much of a movie. As is often the case with freeform improvisational experiments, most of the scenes come to nothing, or far too little to really be worth the obviously strenuous effort.

Keitel is able to keep Auggie as warm and likable as he was in Smoke. Among the performers who have any lengthy time onscreen, the only one other than Keitel whose work consistently rings true is Giancarlo Esposito as a shop habitué and offtrack bettor--he's a real character, a bright and sensible guy who's flummoxed by the odd, irrational behavior he sees around him. His scene with Fox as a weirdo pollster is notably good. The other actors try, and from time to time they'll get something going for a few minutes, but before long they're floundering again.

The film's saving grace is the quick, sprightly editing of Christopher Tellefsen, which creates the atmosphere of a revue, and saves the film from the usual curse of improvised material--the excruciating moments when the actors are desperately treading water rather than moving a scene forward. Tellefsen has a good feel for when to cut away from a scene that's run out of steam, and how to give pace and momentum to the film as a whole, even when what's actually going on is pretty uninspired. Sadly, in Blue in the Face, that's most of the time.

Meet the Feebles is the second feature of New Zealand's remarkable young director Peter Jackson. Feebles came before his notorious horror spoof Dead Alive and his great true-crime tragedy Heavenly Creatures.

A scabrous satire of TV puppet shows of the Muppets/Sid & Marty Kroft ilk, Feebles features a cast of ostensibly cute puppet animals comprising the company of the Feebles Revue Show. The film is a gritty backstage musical in which we get to know the Feebles a bit more intimately than we might wish.

The star of the company is the Miss Piggyesque Heidi the Hippo, who is also the mistress of the show's producer, Bletch the Walrus, who's cheating on her with a slinky cat. Bletch is also a pornographer and drug dealer on the side. The show's host, a rabbit, is dying of a horrible sexually transmitted pox, and the knife-thrower, a snake, is a junkie.

Into this sordid world--leavened only by a kindly earthworm stage manager--comes a sweet, star-struck hedgehog, the newest member of the chorus. He promptly falls in love with a sexy poodle in the chorus, but Bletch's assistant, a scheming rat, has his eye on her as well.

You get the idea; it's like a kiddie show by John Waters. There's no denying that there are some sick laughs in seeing animal puppets--of different species--copulating or pleading for a fix or going violently insane. But it never transcends amusing-oddity status, and it's certainly the least of Jackson's works to have made it to these shores, so far. Still, that puts it in a company that many films might envy. If the rest of Jackson's career is as audacious and exciting as it's been so far, this interesting early experiment may one day be required viewing for film buffs.

Imagine the hoot you'd have gotten, even ten years ago, if you had prophesied that, a decade hence, a James Bond movie would actually be shot on location in Russia. The fact that the scenes in Goldeneye that are set in St. Petersburg truly were shot in the city that used to be Leningrad is an almost touching sign of how dated this material is. Even when he was fighting drug lords or serial-style megalomaniacs, Bond was always a creature of the Cold War--just about the only defensible reason to feel fondness for this quite unlikable character is that he embodies the sort of decadent Western individualism about which diehard Communists were always such prudes.

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