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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

D: Alfonso Cuaron; with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft, Chris Cooper, Robert De Niro. (R, 111 min.)

At the risk of getting drummed out of the brethren of former English Lit majors, I have to say this radical makeover of Dickens' "beloved classic" (beloved by whom, I've always wondered) is much to my liking. The hardy story easily survives the change of setting from 19th-century England to the modern-day USA, and the liposuctioning of marginal plotlines and characters, two characteristics that make Dickens' work seem like, well, work to many modern readers, creates a feel of refinement, not truncation. In Mitch Glazer's screenplay, Dickens' Pip becomes Finnegan "Finn" Bell, played by Ethan Hawke. As in Dickens, the small-town lad helps a runaway convict (De Niro), whose act of gratitude becomes a major plot device years later. The other key influences in Finn's life are the demented millionaire Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft, having a blast with the classic Miss Havisham role) and her young niece, Estella (Paltrow from the teen years on). Hired by Dinsmoor to keep Estella company, the artistically gifted Finn falls in love with the icy but strangely vulnerable girl who, as Dinsmoor repeatedly warns him, is destined to break his heart. One day, a big city lawyer shows up in Finn's Florida coast hometown to inform him that a New York art patron he's never met wants to bankroll a major gallery show for him. Though properly skeptical, Finn says yes to the offer and heads off to chase a dream he'd never previously known he had. Familiarity with the book may scotch a few surprises for you, but Glazer changes enough of the major events and character relationships to keep you guessing. What's truly intriguing about this film, though, is the stylishness with which Cuaron (A Little Princess) reinvents Dickens' hoary, often-remade tale. This Great Expectations has a seductive, enchanting feel that has nothing to do with sweet, gauzy sentiments or calculatedly "magical" Hollywood imagery. In fact, it's downright strange much of the time, combining odd, disjointed encounters between the main characters with imaginative cinematography, risky performances by the leads, and an adrenaline-stoked pace to keep you in a giddy, unbalanced state. A terrific rock score assembled by Patrick Doyle adds charm and energy to the exhilarating scenes in which Finn conquers the Big Apple but never - not quite - the ethereal Estella. Though Cuaron slips a time or two during his stylistic highwire act, his refreshingly original movie, aided by Hawke's career-best acting in the lead role, is a joy to watch. Of further interest is the long nude scene by Paltrow that had me, red-blooded male that I am, aching to place her upon a bed of hibiscus petals, tilt her head back gently... and feed her rashers of slab bacon until those anorexic collarbones started to soften up a bit. Gwyn, love: If you don't get help from Charter Lane, please get it from someone. You're starting to scare us. (1/30/98)

3.5 stars Russell Smith


DEEP RISING

D: Stephen Sommers; with Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Anthony Heald, Kevin J. O'Connor, Wes Studi, Derrick O'Connor, Jason Flemyng, Djimom Hounsou. (R, 106 min.)

"Cheese Rising" might have been a more apt title for this Giant Monster from the Depths throwback. Despite its obvious drawbacks, however, this patently silly horror show is good, stupid fun if you can just manage to leave your intellect at home for a while. Sommers (The Adventures of Huck Finn) is well and truly into the spirit of Roger Corman here, although with some blisteringly wicked special effects work from longtime genius Rob Bottin (The Thing, The Howling) and Dream Quest Images (The Abyss, Total Recall), the film manages the look and feel of something far more than the sum of its many-tentacled parts. Williams plays Finnegan, a seadog-for-hire who rents his boat to a gaggle of modern-day pirates planning on looting a giant cruise ship in the South China Sea. Things go predictably amiss when the intended target turns out to be devoid of (human) life, and has instead become the feeding ground for some kind of giant sea anemone from the deep. Luckily, the pirates (led by Studi and Amistad's Hounsou) have brought along a baker's dozen of cruise missiles (!) and a small arsenal left over from Schwarzenegger's last action film. Anyone who's ever seen such classics as It Came From Beneath the Sea! knows that tentacles + firepower = fun, and despite Deep Rising's off-the-scale cheese factor, it's still a rollicking good time, frequently poking fun at itself and assorted horror film conventions. There's a priceless scene during which ship designer Heald takes a preposterous stab at explaining the origin of the creature ("It appears to be a giant form of Astopithea Mastopopius [or something like that]," he states, and then leaves it at that, to the howls of the audience. Brilliantly goofy scenes like that keep the film from sliding into outright pretentiousness and make for an enjoyably ridiculous ride. Also on board are Goldeneye's Janssen as a leggy thief and the priceless Kevin J. O'Connor as Finnegan's wisecracking engineer, the kind of character you just know is going to die but ends up getting all the best lines. While the film is essentially Aliens aboard a luxury liner, Sommers keeps thing fast and loose, negotiating some splendid action set-pieces within the cramped confines of the mammoth ship (christened the "Argonautica," in tribute to pioneer effects master Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, I'll bet). It's brainless, bloody fun, but fun nonetheless. (1/30/98)

2.5 stars Marc Savlov


DESPERATE MEASURES

D: Barbet Schroeder; with Andy Garcia, Michael Keaton, Brian Cox, Marcia Gay Harden, Erik King, Joseph Cross. (R, 101 min.)

Desperate, indeed. While the crazed implausibilities in films such as Face/Off induce a fevered delirium that's like some sweet drug, the inane plottings in movies like Desperate Measures induce something akin to a numbing catatonia: It's cinema as anesthesia. David Klass' tortured screenplay requires a suspension of disbelief that would test even the most gullible. First, you have to set aside common sense to believe that state and prison officials would agree to release a sociopathic, convicted killer for a bone marrow transplant that may save the life of the young, leukemia-stricken son of a policeman. Then you must blindly accept that the convict can execute an elaborate escape from the operating table and wind up in control of the hospital as the son's immune system deteriorates while waiting for the donor graft. And then you must swallow whole the proposition that the cop would aid and abet the escapee, shielding him from his fellow police officers, because he can't allow his son's one chance to live to be exterminated, even if it means breaking the law, destroying property, causing mayhem, and endangering the lives of innocent people. (Andy Garcia's foolhardy father in Desperate Measures is the flip side of Mel Gibson's heedless papa in last year's Ransom; while madmen dictate whether their sons live or die, one man acts recklessly out of love, while the other acts recklessly out of principle.) The pairing of Garcia and Keaton as the pursuer and pursued doesn't click from the start. Their initial meeting should have played like that of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter - a test of wits, intellect, and emotion, sharpened by a palpable tension. Instead, it comes off as sterile as the washed-out walls of the prison room in which it occurs. Although the symbiotic relationship that develops between the determined two men, by virtue of their simultaneously conflicting and converging interests, is the only thing here that's remotely intriguing, it's an angle quickly enveloped by the movie's overall improbability. As the film's pandemonium increases and policemen are shot, propane canisters explode, and a major medical care facility is under siege, one is reminded of that immortal observation uttered by Bill Murray in response to another kind of pandemonium in Tootsie: That's one nutty hospital. (1/30/98)

0 stars Steve Davis


THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE

D: Richard Friedenberg; with James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal, Joseph Ashton, Graham Greene. (PG, 117 min.)

Boomer parents, whose selective memories belie their own youthful history of sneaking into movies like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! now cry out as one for benign, traditional children's films without all the violence, sexual innuendo, and profanity they now find so troubling. Well, crank the Windstar and drag the young 'uns away from Duke Nukem 3D: The Education of Little Tree is just what you've been looking for. Based on the bestselling novel by Forrest Carter, Little Tree's story occurs in the Tennessee mountains during the early years of the Depression. Little Tree (Ashton) is a half-Cherokee orphan who's been adopted by his grandparents (Cardinal and Cromwell). The elderly couple - he's a Scotch-Irish moonshiner and she's a full-blooded Cherokee - teach him how to make his way in a white-dominated society without sacrificing his Native American heritage. This bi-ethnic household represents something of an ideal for cultural integration, but the story unflinchingly portrays the suspicion, misunderstanding, and outright hatred the youngster must face in the outside world. Schools give him a "white" name. Townspeople are selective at best in their social acceptance. And stories of atrocities such as the Trail of Tears, told by a Cherokee neighbor (Greene) reveal the truth that his racial identity is as much a burden as a gift. Yet Little Tree is not just an obligatory shot of white collective guilt to be endured in the name of multicultural conciliation. The interaction between Little Tree and his grandparents is hearty, humorous and quite affecting. Both Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential) and Ashton seem blessed with about 20 percent more vital force than most of us, and the delight the boy shows in learning woodland lore and the family trade (even moonshining seems wholesome in this context) is "family values" in its purest form, sans Christian Right connotations. Wrapped in a package of lush, luminous beauty courtesy of Anastos Michos' masterful cinematography, and blessed with a fine yin-yang balance of sentiment and realism, this is a solid, engaging piece of filmmaking craft by director Friedenberg, who's best known for adapting Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It for the screen. One note of possible - and certainly ironic - interest: Forrest Carter was the pen name for Asa Carter, a prominent white supremacist who wrote speeches for George Wallace in the early Sixties. Some reports have it that Carter's racist views moderated over time. Others ascribe the more enlightened tone of his later work to financial expediency or the odd affection even the most intractable bigots sometimes reserve for Injuns. (Perhaps they make exceptions for minorities that run cheap casinos and refrain from making gangsta rap music.) In any event, it seems only fair to grant Carter the same courtesy we have other politically extreme artists (John Milius and Ezra Pound, to name two random examples) and judge his work by its laudable overt content, not his unsavory personal ideology. (1/30/98)

3.0 stars Russell Smith


ILLTOWN

D: Nick Gomez; with Michael Rapaport, Lili Taylor, Adam Trese, Kevin Corrigan, Angela Featherstone, Tony Danza, Isaac Hayes, Paul Schulze, Saul Stein. (R, 96 min.)

To Nick Gomez, heaven is 18 holes of green and a blue, blue sky. At least that's one of the striking, heavenly images we get during the course of what is essentially a metaphysical treatise on life, death, and drug-running in modern-day Florida backwaters. Perpetual Brooklyn wiseguy Rapaport tones down his flip style in favor of a cooler, more adult approach as Dante, the longtime head of a crew of heroin dealers working the well-trod streets of some nameless South Florida township. Dante and his girlfriend Micky (Taylor) bide their time managing a smallish clan of young street hoods and trying to have a baby. When their old partner Gabriel (Trese) returns after an extended stretch in the big house, the couple find their pleasant, almost placid routine disrupted by studied revenge and flip-flopping scams. Their stash is poisoned, their exceedingly polite crew is slaughtered one by one, and eventually Gabriel himself comes back to haunt them. And still no baby. Gomez's film plays like a narcoleptic fugue; it's the most melancholy, lassitudinal depiction of small-time hoods yet, filled with sleepy-time fades and ambient emotions that drift in and out of a hazy torpor that recalls nothing so much as the eloquent sparseness of Jim Jarmusch. Still, for a film in which every other scene seems calculated to send you nodding into your popcorn, there's plenty of story going on, unfolding with all the precision of a time-lapse rosebud. illtown is packed with brooding religious imagery. Antagonist Gabriel appears cloaked in white, ascending a staircase, and when asked where he's been, remarks, "I died and went to heaven... they kicked me out." Dante (and to a lesser extent Micky - Taylor's role is regrettably small) is on the cusp of wanting out of the drugs & guns game; he's refined his trade and his clientele to a select, upper-crust few. Very few bullets are fired until Gabriel's avenging anti-angel takes up residence on the streets once more, recruiting bloodthirsty teen wreckage to do his dirty work for him. As Dante's friend and longtime associate Cisco, Trese is a wild card - you're never really sure what he's up to until Gomez spells it out. He looks like a friend, acts like a friend, but in illtown very little is what it seems. That goes for Gomez's spacy, elliptical editing, too. The films drifts back and forth through time as well as various realities, leaving you vaguely groggy and unsure, which mirrors, to a degree, the actions and emotions unfolding before you. It's a post-noir crime story filtered through a gauze of druggy doom. (1/30/98)

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


IT'S IN THE WATER

D: Kelli Herd; with Keri Jo Chapman, Teresa Garrett, John Hallum, Barbara Lasater, Derrick Sanders. (Not Rated, 99 min.)

In this reprised favorite from last year's Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, young SMU graduate Kelli Herd tells a story that's sure to click with the droves of gay and lesbian Austinites who migrated here from conservative hinterland outposts. Herd's 1996 debut film is set in the fictitious Texas burg of Azalea, a semi-small town with a distinct Waco/Tyler feel to it. As a newly minted Junior Leaguer and born member of Azalea's upper-class beau monde, Alexandra "Alex" Stratton (Chapman) seems to have it made. Granted, her husband is a self-absorbed drudge, their sex life is the pits and her vapid, catty fellow League members keep her trembling on the brink of a blowup. All that aside, she's still rich, yummy looking and getting plenty of satisfaction from volunteering at the local AIDS hospice - despite having to fight through protesters from the local "Homo No Mo'" chapter to report for duty. One day at the hospice, she runs into Grace (Garrett), an old high school buddy who's back in town after a reportedly painful divorce. The reason for the split, Grace confides, was that her hubby discovered her fling with a fellow (female) nurse. While Alex ponders this news another friend, the brazenly inverted Spencer (Hallum) is pulling the chains of local homophobes by telling them there's something in the local water supply that releases latent homosexual potential. Paranoia spreads like ebola, and soon nonstandard sex is replacing the capital gains tax as the major local bugaboo. In the midst of this ferment, several on-the-fence heteros fall off, including Alex, who very publicly takes up with Grace. "Wake up and smell the poppers, honey!" Spencer chortles as the unhappy housewife grudgingly faces her true nature. As you've no doubt gleaned, farce is the game Herd is playing here. The water-supply business is simply a McGuffin which facilitates some broadly amusing reflection on the arbitrary nature of sexual behavior and gender roles. The social satire is a weak point. As in many gay-themed comedies, the straight opposition are virtually all hysterical, hateful buffoons with none of the conflicted feelings which make life with hets so problematic for real-world gays and lesbians. But again, subtlety was clearly not in Herd's game plan. What she attempted, with considerable success, was to create a good-natured tribute to people who've suffered the trauma of coming out in a less than supportive environment and lived to laugh about it. Enjoy that, and the attractive, appealing cast (including Austin favorite Terry Galloway in a memorable cameo), and you'll hardly notice the lack of brow-knitting depth. (1/30/98)

3.0 stars Russell Smith


PHANTOMS

D: Joe Chappelle; with Peter O'Toole, Rose McGowan, Joanna Going, Liev Schreiber, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Clifton Powell, Rick Otto, Rachel Shane, Adam Nelson. (R, 91 min.)

Ballyhoo abounds regarding the improbable fact that for once, author Dean Koontz is getting behind a film adaptation of one of his novels. I suppose after the hideous string of Watchers knockoffs a few years back, anything not featuring Corey Haim would come as a relief, and frankly, Phantoms holds up pretty well as a sci-fi monster movie. Up to a point, that is. With such a first-rate cast (refugees from both Scream and Scream 2 among them) you'd think Phantoms was a no-brainer, and it is, just not in the way you had hoped. When small-town physician Jennifer Pailey returns to her Colorado township with younger sister Lisa (McGowan) in tow, they find the place virtually abandoned with the gruesome exception of a few severed heads and bloated corpses. Everyone else (animals included) has mysteriously vanished, and as if that weren't enough, the pair's car suddenly won't start. Signs of life appear unexpectedly in the form of Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Affleck) and Deputy Stu (Schreiber) who have arrived in town to find out what happened to the local constabulary. It turns out everyone was devoured by an ancient life form from beneath the topsoil, the oddly-monikered "Ancient Enemy," a blobby, pseudopod-wrigglin' critter that gains the intellect of everything it eats, and as such, has convinced itself that it's a god among flatworms. And who better to slay wayward demigods than crusty old Peter O'Toole, who promptly jets in with the military and bandies about scientific and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo while lesser actors are dismembered. Director Chappelle (Thieves Quarter) lays on the spook factor heavy in the first 30 minutes or so, but the film quickly devolves into a simplistic slash 'n' bash shoot-'em-up which goes nowhere fast. It's immensely unsatisfying given the caliber of actors involved, and although KNB effects house coughs up some wonderfully disgusting work, the whole enterprise seems rushed and oddly incomplete. Affleck is miscast as the mountain-man sheriff, and McGowan seems inured to all the horror around her, barely raising a shriek whenever anything gooey happens (this may be due in part to her offscreen relationship with Marilyn Manson, which would probably render anyone's shriek mechanism a tad rusty). Koontz's source material (he also penned the screenplay) is by far and away one of his best thrillers, which makes it doubly disappointing that the film version is so unengaging. Still, it's a great leap forward from Chappelle's lousy entry into the Halloween series some years back. Not that that's much consolation. (1/30/98)

1.5 stars Marc Savlov


SPIKE & MIKE'S SICK AND TWISTED FESTIVAL OF ANIMATION '98

D: Various. (Not Rated, min.)

You don't need the U.S. Supreme Court to find Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation '98 "...utterly without redeeming social value by contemporary community standards." Not when the producers themselves are so proudly confident of their barnstorming animation show's emetic powers that they hand out free barf bags at the door. In a move apparently designed to bring this venerable and popular celebration of bad taste to its most natural clientele (i.e., people who are several beers to the good), this year's screenings have been moved from the longtime Dobie Theatre home base to the Alamo Drafthouse. The new feel is more vaudeville than film fest, right down to the Viking-helmeted emcee who's been added to stoke the crowd up with unison screaming contests and lewd party games. But rest easy, traditionalists, the film program itself has stuck to its tried-and-true formula of gorge- elevating raunch, carnage, and scatology. Some of the films, like Miles Thompson's crude paean to blonde bimbohood, Hut Sluts, and Don Hertzfeldt's scathing lover's lament Ah, L'Amour, are even reprised from previous shows. The biggest crowd draws this year may be The Spirit of Christmas and Frosty, two scabrously hilarious shorts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone that were the basis for Comedy Central's cult favorite cartoon series South Park. Japanese animation is lampooned not once but twice, in DNA Productions' brilliant The Booby Trap and Nick Gibbons' clever Speed Racer parody Fast Driver. There's even some solid educational content here. Adam Lane's Sea Slugs graphically illustrates why slugs have never made good sailors (all that salt water - watch it, little fellas!), and the aforementioned The Booby Trap explains why anime characters are always doing that "h'ohhh!" thing (evidently just because it feels good). One of the most technically impressive films was Mike Johnson's Devil Went Down to Georgia, which was so lacking in offensive content one almost wonders how it made the cut. No such questions with Greg Ecklund's amiably grisly Lloyd's Lunchbox, which stars a pus-eating, rat-squashing skinhead. And certainly not with Steve Margolis' Sloaches Fun House, a phantasmagorical spew of body-loathing imagery that fully earns its billing by Spike & Mike as "The Sickest Film Ever Made." In short, don't assume that the free barf bag is a joke. However, to again cite the highest court in the land, the concept of offensiveness relates directly to "prevailing community standards." And when the community in question is the kind that enjoys deep-throating bananas from each other's laps and being repeatedly addressed as "perverts," it's clear that the standard is plenty low to accommodate Sick and Twisted '98. Eat it up, you sickos. (1/30/98)

3.0 stars Russell Smith


THE TANGO LESSON

D: Sally Potter; with Potter, Pablo Veron, Carlos Copello, Olga Besio, Caroline Iotti, Gustavo Naveira. (PG, 101 min.)

It's time to tango in Paris once more. This new excursion comes courtesy of arthouse filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando), but her footwork has little of the grace and profundity that characterized Bertolucci's Last Tango. Potter stumbles fearlessly through this semi-fictional/autobiographical story about a filmmaker named Sally (played by Potter), who falls in love with the tango while experiencing frustration during the writing of a screenplay called Rage (a script that Potter, the filmmaker, put aside to shoot The Tango Lesson). Her tango tutor/love interest, Pablo, is played by the renowned Argentinean tango master Pablo Veron. Entranced by the implicit subtext of the dance form in which the sexual dynamic is formalized into a highly stylized choreography, both Sally the fictional character and Potter the actual filmmaker find the tango lessons a soothing respite from the cerebral desk & duff work of scriptwriting. As The Tango Lesson's plot develops, it turns out that Pablo is just as interested in breaking into the movies as Sally is in becoming a tango tootsie. So the two strike a bargain: Pablo will teach Sally to become a top-notch tango dancer and Sally will let him star in her next film. As the characters' emotional lives become entwined with their professional lives, the tango increasingly becomes a central metaphor for complications of life. How can a person simultaneously be a director on a film project and a follower in a dance number? Can the collaborative art of filmmaking accommodate the proscribed steps of the tango? Can a director who prides herself on her artistic freedom bend to the demands of an unyielding dance pattern? Can Potter find a way to make the audience share her obsessions? To the last question, the answer is no. The Tango Lesson is ponderously scripted and stiffly acted, and though the narrative causes the characters to skip continents and languages (the story bounces from Paris to Buenos Aires to London and back) little of the passion that drives this story is conveyed. You never really sense what these two individuals see in each other apart from their professional arrangement. The film's camerawork, however, is a joy to watch as Robbie Muller's black-and-white footage matches the dance choreography step for step. The whole movie has a rich, embossed sheen, a duotone contrast to the opulent full-color glimpses of the aborted movie Rage, in which swan-like female models in haute-couture evening gowns are chased by a legless designer with murder in his heart. I'm not sure that I'd prefer that Rage were made in place of The Tango Lesson. But with Rage I'm guessing that at least I'd know when the jig was up. (1/30/98)

2.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


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