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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

THE SWEET HEREAFTER

D: Atom Egoyan; with Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Arsinée Khanjian, Alberta Watson, Maury Chaykin, Brooke Johnson, Earl Pastko. (R, 110 min.)

In the course of life, horrible, tragic events sometimes occur. We all know this to be a fact of life, yet this knowledge doesn't make our acceptance of the truth any easier to bear. Human beings seek reasons and culprits and causes in order to make sense of our tragedies and restore reason to those who have entered the land of the unthinkable. Few people understand this better than attorney Mitchell Stephens (impeccably played by Ian Holm), who arrives in a small rural community in British Columbia that has just experienced a gut-wrenching disaster in which 14 children perish and many others become injured when their schoolbus inexplicably crashes into a frozen lake. Promising compensation and retribution to the grief-stricken parents if they allow him to represent them in a class-action suit, one might easily mistake Stephens for little more than a well-oiled opportunist, yet he understands their agony all too well. He struggles to make his peace with another kind of bereavement, a living death, in which his daughter has been lost to drug addiction. The Sweet Hereafter fashions a rich, haunting tale from this anguish, a tale whose exquisite illumination transcends the mournful details of its storyline. Adapted by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan from the acclaimed novel by Russell Banks, the film represents a career breakthrough for the director. Up until now, Egoyan has enjoyed a reputation as a top-flight arthouse writer-director whose singularity of vision in such films as Exotica, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster has also fostered a sense of his works as being somewhat remote and hermetic. With The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan, for the first time, adapts someone else's source material and even though he brings much to the story that is clearly his own (which results in a decidedly "Egoyan film"), it's still a story that manages to touch a more universal nerve. As Mitchell Stephens goes from home to home, we, along with him, gradually piece together a patchwork of understanding from the details of ordinary lives. Egoyan layers the story of the Pied Piper into the film, a resonant analogy that was not in the book. He also discovers beautifully cinematic storytelling devices such as the way the story of the disaster is told by means of a fractured temporal structure and also the brilliantly unsettling carwash sequence that opens the movie. The performances are all subtle jewels as well; each actor carves out a fresh and unique character. I can think of no other movie that has dared to analyze grief and its aftermath with such naked honesty and precision, a film whose here and now so totally rebukes the notion of a sweet hereafter. With a clarity of purpose and vision, Egoyan casts his line as though he were an ice fisherman determined to plumb the unyielding surface fissures to find some life that bites back from the underside of the cold, impenetrable Canadian frost. (1/9/97)

4.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


WAG THE DOG

D: Barry Levinson,;Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Kirsten Dunst, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Craig T. Nelson, Pops Staples. (R, 105 min.)

Sharp scripting, note-perfect performances, and nimble direction and technical execution combine to make Wag the Dog one of the wittiest and most mordant political satires to come along in quite some time. This quickly shot, relatively small-budget (considering the fact that it features two of the world's top movie actors) film is a cynic's delight, a trenchant and timely social comedy that frequently recalls the best of Dr. Strangelove. It takes as its premise the modern-day bastardization of politics, show business, and the media, which have all merged into one indistinguishable generator of news events and photo ops. Wag the Dog's unholy alliance begins when the United States president, 11 days before he's up for re-election, is accused of making improper advances to a young Firefly girl during her tour the White House. In no time flat, his opponent hits the airwaves with political ads that trumpet the song, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." A fretful presidential assistant, Winifred Ames (Heche), calls professional political fixer Conrad Brean (De Niro) to a summit deep in the bowels of the Washington power center, whereupon Mr. Fixit decides that what the situation requires is the distraction of a good-old-fashioned war effort. Not a real war necessarily, just the appearance of one. Off to California go the odd couple of the prim and uptight Ames and the detached and rumpled Brean to enlist the help of top Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman), a vain Tinseltown caricature who's thrilled to have his talents appreciated at last. Things escalate from there as Motss calls in his arsenal of image wranglers who include a songwriter played by Willie Nelson to pen a "spontaneous" We Are the World"-type anthem, the advertising Fad King (Leary), and a whole studio full of computer-generated video effects that are capable of fabricating a war in Albania from the reality of a girl holding a Tostitos bag in Burbank. Everyone involved in this production is in peak form. Hoffman and De Niro both turn in some of their best work in ages, once again playing off Motss' vanity and need for recognition against Brean's shadow-skulking self-effacement, all the while each of them appreciating the other as consummate professionals. Heche holds her own in the presence of such notable company and Harrelson is utterly hilarious as an eleventh-hour loose cannon. A plotline that involves a suspicious government agent played by William H. Macy sputters without much focus but events move along at a rapid enough clip that the duff moments barely have time to register. The script was adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. As a cautionary tale, Wag the Dog may find itself somewhat in the position of preaching to the converted, but the pews will radiate with the sounds of laughter. (1/9/97)

4.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews

THE BOXER

D: Jim Sheridan; with Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Ken Stott, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Brian Cox, Gerald McSorley. (R, 120 min.)

After 14 years in a British prison for aiding the IRA, former teen boxing prodigy Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) returns to his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. His salad days of bus-bombing and pub-torching long past, Danny now wants only to resume his pugilistic career and open a training gym so boys in the old neighborhood will have alternatives to their dismal pastimes of shooting heroin and Protestants. He'd also like to sort a few things out with his former sweetheart, Maggie (Watson), though a full-blown reconciliation seems out of the question because she's married to a still-imprisoned IRA man. I suspect you can run with the plot summary from here. Danny's peacemaking efforts get him crosswise with the local hardliners. His and Maggie's futile efforts to hide their rekindled love from the neighbors further assure his pariahdom. Familiar stuff, this. If the Irish weren't so incredibly eloquent in bemoaning their own suicidal pathologies, sheer redundancy would doom movies like The Boxer to well-deserved extinction. Director Jim Sheridan, who has collaborated with writer Terry George on In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son clearly understands the weariness that inevitably consumes not only long, seemingly irresolvable conflicts but stories about them. That awareness is reflected in The Boxer's appearance, tone, and plotline. Chris Menges' cinematography is so unrelievedly gray that objects and shadows seem to blend together, along with the people who move among them. Nothing that the characters try to do -- pursuing a love affair, reviving a career, achieving some humble social good -- quite works out. All their efforts are suppressed or smothered stillborn by a climate of dull, grinding fear and hatred. Predictably, this creates a certain emotional flatness in much of the film. But thanks largely to the richly insinuative acting of Day-Lewis and Watson (the sensational actress who elevated Breaking the Waves from contrived melodrama to something sublime), we're profoundly moved by the power of Maggie and Danny's intentions and desires, if not their actions. Though the two leads share nothing more sexually overt than a brief, fully clothed kiss, their mutual passion is as "explicit" as anything that could be conveyed by hours of heaving, glycerine-spritzed buttocks. The Boxer's abrupt and surprising resolution represents a logical result of the weariness with violence which has steadily accumulated throughout Sheridan's Irish "trilogy." Sheridan and George sure can't be accused of putting too fine a point on their fight-game metaphor. Even the parrot-voiced lady who sat behind me presciently announcing each major plot turn ("My God! That car's gonna blow up!") probably grasped the dramatic equivalence of The Troubles and the tightly confined mayhem of the boxing ring. But the sense of release and renewed possibility created when tired, morally exhausted warriors -- as it were -- step out of the ring is as powerful as it is obvious. As a prominent Irish-sympathizing Brit once said, war is over if you want it. (1/9/97)

3.5 stars Russell Smith


FIRESTORM



Howie Long burns up the screen in Firestorm.

D: Dean Semler; with Howie Long, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe, Suzy Amis, Christianne Hirt, Garwin Sanford, Sebastian Spence, Michael Greyeyes. (R, 89 min.)

If nothing else, Firestorm is surely the best fire-fighting action flick of 1998. Okay, okay, it's the only fire-fighting action flick of 1998. So far. Former Los Angeles Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long plays Jesse Graves, a wilderness "smokejumper" who parachutes into raging forest fires with his crew of firefighters who set backfires and, generally, try to save as much acreage as possible. It's a tough job, made even tougher by the fact that mad-dog killer Earl Shaye (Forsythe) has started a huge wildfire to mask a prison break and is masquerading as a firefighter himself. That's pretty much all there is to Firestorm, and though I went in with low expectations, the experience isn't nearly as bad as you might think. Long, for his part, is a ruggedly handsome actor who can hit his marks and grin with the best of 'em. Maybe it's his NFL Hall of Fame standing, but Long (last seen in John Woo's Broken Arrow) exudes a kind of lightweight John Wayne charm; you get the feeling he'd be equally at home riding the range and shooting at the black hats if it wasn't for the fact that his mammoth footballer's frame might break the horse's back. As Graves' mentor and aide-de-camp, Glenn turns in a predictably (and predictable) leathery performance. Only Amis (currently batting eyes at Bill Paxton in Titanic) seems to have much range here, though even that consists mostly of playing the requisite spunky female hostage. She's easier on the eye than both Forsythe (who pulls out all the stops and sounds remarkably like Michael Wincott in The Crow) and Long, but there's really not much here for her to work with. What there is is a terrific amount of bullets, brawls, and flaming forestline. This is Semler's directorial debut; in the past, the Oscar-winning cinematographer has lensed such visually stunning films as Dances With Wolves and Waterworld as well as George Miller's The Road Warrior. Consequently, Firestorm is a visual stunner, bursting with gripping action scenes set amidst flaming houses, boats, woods, and helicopters. Despite the prosaic and all-too-familiar set-ups and payoffs, Semler gets by nicely on sheer will alone. Nobody's going to throw an Academy Award his way for this one, but Firestorm is a genial, good-natured throwback to simpler action films (i.e., no Will Smith). It's a sprawling, do-or-die, all-American yarn that owes more to John Ford than John Woo, and that's not such a bad thing at all. (1/9/97)

2.5 stars Marc Savlov


OFFICE KILLER

D: Cindy Sherman; with Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Barbara Sukowa, Michael Imperioli, David Thornton, Mike Hodge, Alice Drummond. (R, 80 min.)

In the modern business world, the office, subdivided into its depressing little cubicles with co-workers linked by ethernet and e-mail, has for many become a substitute for life itself. Job equals identity, and when that job is taken away, downsized, or relegated to freelance or part-time work, some folks tend to snap like frayed rubber bands. This bitterly black comedy by noted still photographer Cindy Sherman (Untitled Film Stills) takes its premise and runs with it -- a little too far -- to its grim and ghastly end. It's an uncomfortable viewing experience, from the thick, shadowy cinematography that makes it feel as though you're watching through a veil of muddy cotton to squeaky Carol Kane's histrionic, creepy performance. It's more disturbing than finding half a cockroach in a Fluffernutter sandwich. Kane plays Dorine Douglas, a copy editor at Constant Consumer magazine. She's the kind of longtime employee who so often ends up being relegated to the menial, bothersome office tasks by simple virtue of her being the only one able to do them properly. When the magazine is hit with a series of cutbacks, the excruciatingly mousy Dorine is forced to work out of the home she shares with her invalid mother. Meanwhile, a tsunami of office infighting is going on between Constant Consumer's haughty editor, Virginia, and the cocky Kim (Ringwald) and Norah (Tripplehorn). No one seems to like each other very much, and when Dorine accidentally kills a male co-worker while putting in overtime at the office one night, she stumbles headlong into that old standby of the terminally frustrated, murder as empowerment tool. Before long, Constant Consumer is desperately understaffed and Dorine, hungry for companionship and acceptance, has a basement full of flyblown temp workers, complete with duct tape to keep their rotting fingers on the keyboards. Sherman and screenwriters Elise MacAdam and Tom Kalin (Swoon) have a lot to say about office politics and the nature of the worker's place in a healthy (or unhealthy) workplace, but these wicked insights fall flat in the face of the film's ghoulish horror-show banalities. Looting past shock-fests, Office Killer feels vaguely reminiscent of everything from the superlative Michael Caine vehicle A Shock to the System to William Lustig's infamous Maniac (with Kane filling in for Joe Spinell) to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It's Kane's performance here that really sets things apart: Rarely do you get to see a talented actor in such a grating, gruesome role. Rarely do you want to. Despite its stern moral warning against the dangers inherent in the modern workplace, Sherman's film is more a gritty, gangly nightmare than a genuine cautionary tale. It's the archetypal Dilbert gag taken to its hellish extreme. (1/9/97)

1.5 stars Marc Savlov


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