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Austin Chronicle Current Cinema Reviews

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

THE APOSTLE

D: Robert Duvall; with Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash, Walton Goggins, Billy Joe Shaver, Billy Bob Thornton, Miranda Richardson. (PG-13, 133 min.)

The movies haven't portrayed the evangelical preacher in a very flattering light, suffice to say. Invariably, this man of the cloth is depicted as a hymn-singing, prayer-spouting charlatan who hypocritically breaks the commandments with a singular regularity. That's one reason that The Apostle is an astonishing work: It defies the stereotype. Its protagonist, Sonny Dewey, is not some gross exaggeration, but rather a flesh-and-blood human being with flaws, two critical ones being a wandering eye and a homicidal jealousy. After committing a very serious infraction against the laws of man and God, Sonny flees Texas for the wilderness of Louisiana, like some Biblical prophet. Changing his identity, in a quest to both lose and find himself, he christens himself "The Apostle" and seeks to start his own church, one that is based on a fundamental faith divorced from material trappings and other distractions. In the course of this journey, Sonny achieves a degree of redemption when he finally comes face-to-face with his past sins. The story scripted by Duvall in The Apostle is, in many ways, reminiscent of the work of Horton Foote, which is not surprising, given that Foote wrote Tender Mercies, the film for which Duvall deservedly won an Oscar. The themes are simple, the dialogue is sparse, the characters are everyday folk. And there is something so American about it all, from the roof-rattling tent revivals to the junked cars in front yards to the quiet desperation that people endure in their lives from day to day. In his capacity as screenwriter and director, Duvall is careful to avoid sentimentality and easy answers, which gives The Apostle a vibrant ring of truth. (This integrity may not become apparent until after the film is over; it's an observation that gradually sinks in, after replaying the movie in your head.) In the film's most moving scene, Sonny compassionately converts a man threatening to raze the church he's worked so hard to build, as the rest of the congregation looks on. It is a scene in sharp contrast to an earlier one in which Sonny resorts to physical violence in protecting his tabernacle against the same man, who's played by good ol' boy du jour Thornton. In many ways, The Apostle is the tale of Sonny's conversion as well, from a wrathful creature of the Old Testament to a man shaped by New Testament ideals. Of course, then there is Duvall, the consummate actor. Whether strutting like a bantam rooster for the Lord, fervently calling himself a "genuine Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preaching machine," or humbly acknowledging the folly of his actions, Duvall inhabits the character of Sonny, completely disappearing into the man's skin. In interacting with other members of the film's fine cast (including the immensely watchable Richardson as a fleeting love interest), he creates a rapport that only enhances their performances. Duvall is a true original, who -- along with Hackman, Newman, and others -- proves that older is sometimes better. His The Apostle is a genuine labor of love that both literally and figuratively graces the movie screen. Say amen to that. (2/6/98)

4.0 stars Steve Davis


A SELF-MADE HERO

D: Jacques Audiard; with Matthieu Kassovitz, Anouk Grinberg, Sandrine Kiberlain, Albert Dupontel, Jean-Louis Trintignant. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

If hard work and virtue are really all we need to live our dreams, why are so many of us busting our humps as cabbies, waitresses, and freelance writers? Truth be told, merit and opportunity are doled out haphazardly, leaving deceit as many people's best hope for a piece of the good life. In this distinctive, thought-provoking film, Jacques Audiard (Confessions of a Crap Artist) suggests that society not only tolerates but actually encourages the use of sham credentials as get-ahead tools. Audiard's case in point is Albert Dehousse (Kassovitz), a draft-evading country nebbish who, during World War II, fabricates a heroic background as a French Resistance fighter. Albert's weak, eager-to-please nature makes him unusually susceptible to the idea, pushed on him by his mother, friends, and employer, that truth is less a straight-edged razor than a versatile Swiss Army Knife. Shortly after the war ends, Albert leaves his wife and, on a whim, hops a train to Paris. There, he meets a nihilistic former army parachutist called The Captain (Dupontel), who encourages him to take full advantage of a chaotic post-war situation in which "losers can seem like winners, devils like angels, and cowards like heroes." Well schooled by the master, Albert is soon displaying an eerie genius for mimicking the outward signs of success, character, and competence, playing brilliantly off The Captain's insight that people are only too willing to see the "magic" in others, especially when they're treated as if they themselves are equally enthralling. Women, prestigious jobs, and other accouterments of success fly to Albert like metal filings to a magnet, leaving him at first thrilled at his audacity, then increasingly driven to confess his deception. Kassovitz, probably best known for directing the edgy, in-your-face Hate, shows here an ability to convey subtler emotional states: vulnerability, regret, and a sorrowful sense of emptiness at his own core. These qualities are essential to the film's success, because contrary to what its previews tend to suggest, A Self-Made Hero is not about the shenanigans of a callow, heartless scam artist. Zelig is in some ways a useful reference point, but Audiard's Cannes-winning screenplay explores the subject of provisional identity with much more depth and particularity than Woody Allen did without sacrificing the humor inherent in the situation. The framing story, told in mock-documentary style by the older Dehousse (played forcefully by the redoubtable Trintignant), is a nice touch. Letting these men give voice to our own sense of wonderment at Dehousse's incredible audacity helps us suspend our disbelief and give ourselves over to the story -- one of those necessary little self-deceptions that makes moviegoing the sublime experience it is. (2/6/98)

3.5 stars Russell Smith


BLUES BROTHERS 2000

D: John Landis; with Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, Joe Morton, J. Evan Bonifant, Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu, Kathleen Freeman, Paul Shaffer, Frank Oz. (PG-13, 124 min.)

Along with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, John Landis' The Blues Brothers remains one of my favorite screwball comedies. Both films take the notion of chaos theory and apply it to filmmaking in ways so absurd and ludicrous that they hit a sublime high note in the comic register. There's a direct and easily traceable line to be drawn from the seminal work of Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton to Landis' original film, and this rip-snorting, charmingly silly sequel gleefully upholds that tradition. It's an orgy of finely choreographed comic free-for-alls that, with its interlaced musical numbers, recalls nothing so much as some of the early Marx Brothers' work. Co-written by Landis and Aykroyd, the film opens (after its dedication to John Belushi, Cab Calloway, and John Candy) with Elwood Blues' (Aykroyd) release from prison 18 years after the riotous events of the first film. With his brother Jake dead, no money, and nowhere to go, Elwood decides to put the Blues Brothers band back together and enters them in a bayou battle of the bands overseen by voodoo queen Erykah Badu. As far as plot schematics go, that's about all there is to it, but then half the fun, as always, is getting there. Foul-tempered nun-from-hell Mother Mary Stigmata (Freeman) points out that Elwood may have a step-brother of sorts in the Illinois State Police, Cabel Chamberlain (Morton), who is soon on Elwood's tail after $500 vanishes from the man's wallet post-Elwood. Also along for the wild ride to Louisiana are Bonifant as 10-year-old orphan Buster Blues (not as bad as you might think) and Goodman as newly recruited lead singer Mighty Mack Blues. Driving around Chi-town in a used LTD Crown Victoria surplus cop car, Elwood patiently gathers up the remains of the band (including Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Matt "Guitar" Murphy) and sets out southbound. On the way, the group once again encounters various blues legends and manages to provoke the ire of everyone including the Illinois State Police, the Russian Mafia, and a white separatist militia group (sadly, Arte Johnson is nowhere to be seen). As befits a comedy monolith based around a loose series of old Saturday Night Live skits, Blues Brothers 2000 is essentially a series of flamboyant comedy and musical set-pieces, some of which soar and some of which merely twitch, but all of which are infused with a ceaseless beat-your-head-in comic sturm und drang; if one gag doesn't do it for you, surely the next one will. The pharmacological cornucopia that fueled the manic energy of the earlier film has long since given way to middle age, but though this sequel seems vaguely restrained at times ("You don't need that, kid," says Elwood, yanking a Marlboro out of Buster's mouth), its heart and soul and sense of unbridled fun is so on-target that it doesn't matter. (2/6/98)

3.5 stars Marc Savlov



THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS

D: Antoine Fuqua; with Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Kenneth Tsang. (R, 88 min.)

An amazing number of people at the packed-to-the-rafters preview screening of The Replacement Killers were under the impression they were about to see a new John Woo movie. Bet it didn't take 'em long to realize how gravely mistaken they were. Apart from the presence of pug-faced superstar Chow Yun-Fat, there's not much here that truly recalls Woo's late Eighties and early Nineties action landmarks such as A Better Tomorrow I and II, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled. The responsible party is in fact Antoine Fuqua, a music video director (Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise) by trade. To put it as kindly as possible, Fuqua is a well-intended tyro who wrongly assumes that his obvious love for action movies qualifies him to make them himself. The most serious problem here isn't that Fuqua fails to reach the gold standard of prime Woo; not even Woo is managing that lately. It's more the grievous lack of basic action staples like suspense, emotional intensity, and the all-important dramatic foreplay leading up to the orgasmic release of the shoot-'em-up, burn-'em-to-cinders melees. The story is straightforward. Hit man John Lee (Chow) is sent by Chinese-American Triad boss Wei (Tsang) to assassinate the seven-year-old son of a cop who killed his own son. Lee can't bring himself to pull the trigger and has to flee Wei's wrath, inadvertently dragging fake-ID specialist Meg Coburn (Sorvino) into the fray as he tries to hightail it back to China. The Replacement Killers flouts buddy-movie convention by pairing two basically cool personalities rather than the usual zany hothead/by-the-book milquetoast duo, and both Chow and Sorvino have the charm and sex appeal to make this approach viable. Unfortunately, true to the classical video director stereotype, Fuqua is so obsessed with frameline-to-frameline visual virtuosity that humans often seem as much design elements as characters. That wouldn't be completely ruinous if the style were in any way distinctive. Alas, The Replacement Killers generally feels more like a "movielike" computer shootout game than an actual movie. Doomy, thudding beats pulse monotonously in the background. Walls are mottled with grimy, mustard-colored varnish. Indigo and pink lights emanate from every nook and cranny, giving sets the bizarre ambiance of Las Vegas tiki lounges. Dead-faced villains in black shades tromp shoulder-to-shoulder down hallways, big guns at the ready. It all seems so numbingly ritualistic that even the well-choreographed gun battles, probably the most Woo-like aspects of the film, lose much of their potential impact. Most disappointing, though, is the failure to give Chow, a uniquely soulful, ingratiating presence and one of the better actors in action cinema today, a chance to strut his stuff for mainstream American audiences. Rather than a worthy successor to Chow's full-bodied Tequila character from Hard-Boiled, the oddly restrained John Lee has more of a watery near-beer taste. Better Tomorrow? Here's hoping. (2/6/98)

2.0 stars Russell Smith



THE TWILIGHT OF THE GOLDS

D: Ross Marks; with Garry Marshall, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Beals, Jon Tenney, Brendan Fraser, Sean O'Bryan, Jack Klugman, Rosie O'Donnell, John Schlesinger. (PG-13, 92 min.)

Originally filmed for Showtime, this adaptation of Jonathan Tolins' controversial stage play has the look and flavor of its made-for-television origins, though the subject matter remains as incendiary as ever. Specifically, if you knew in advance that your unborn male child would stand a strong chance of turning out homosexual, would you choose to have the child nevertheless? This inflammatory eugenics question is at the heart of the story here, though Marks (and writer Tolins, who adapted his play for the screen with Seth Bass) cloaks the issue in the swaddling clothes of a bitterly divided family unit. Suzanne Stein (Beals) is the mother in question; proud papa Rob is a geneticist who is pressured by his "science at all costs" boss (Schlesinger) to allow the fetus to undergo rigorous experimental testing and thus apply the geneticist's theories to a practical use. The results are perfect ("10 fingers, 10 toes") except for the discovery that the child carries a gene predisposed toward homosexuality. Naturally, this throws everyone for a loop, not least of all Suzanne's gay brother David (Fraser) and her concerned parents Walter and Phyllis (Marshall and Dunaway), who still haven't come to terms with David's sexual bent. Should Suzanne and Rob bring a child into the world knowing what they know about the difficulties of being gay in what is generally thought of as a straight world? And what effect will their decision have on David, who knows more than anyone the rigors of growing up different? Rob, for his part, is conflicted, wanting very much to have a "normal" child, as are Suzanne's class-conscious parents, who fear what the neighbors might say. It's David, though, on whom the film relies as the moral center, and eventually it's he who shapes and informs the final opinions and actions of his sister. As David, though, Fraser pulls out the stops too far; the character is far from the mincing prototypical Hollywood homosexual of yore, but you still come away with the feeling that Fraser's earnest speechifying and flip tantrums are a charade. The same happens with Marshall and Dunaway, who play the embittered parents with such an overload of whiny Jewish guilt that you end up wanting to slap them. Only Beals seems to have any sense of reality working for her: She plays Suzanne as a competent, caring, and quiet mother who is saddled with this impossible burden and muddling through as best she can. It's Beals scaled down a notch or two, and she pulls off a great, somber job of it. Still, Marks' film has a befuddled core, torn as it is between David's story and the eugenics argument that forms the crux of the film. It's heavy-handed, dogmatic stuff, intellectually gripping and simultaneously woefully dull. (2/6/98)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov



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