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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MARCH 9, 1998: 

THE BIG LEBOWSKI

D: Joel Coen; with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Thewlis, Flea, Torsten Voges. (R, 117 min.)

The Coen Brothers-- Joel and Ethan-- go for broke in The Big Lebowski, and we the viewers are the winners. With The Big Lebowski they take their now-familiar brand of absurdist mystery/crime/thriller-- writ visually large-- and turn the whole melange into a fresh new affair. It's paved with delightfully irregular and unanticipated bits of business that stimulate the viewer to stay fully alert, while renewing our faith in the sheer joy of watching movies. In its wonderful title sequence, The Big Lebowski quite literally announces itself as a tumbling tumbleweed of a movie, a go-with-the-flow yarn that intends to drift toward cohesion. And who better to star in a tall tale such as this than a go-with-the-flow character like the Dude (Bridges)? The Dude is a lazy, crumpled leftover from the Sixties whose laid-back daily routine has been pared down to the essentials: weed, White Russians, and bowling with his pals Walter (Goodman), a hotheaded and hazily militaristic vet full of half-baked ideas and an ability to bring any discussion back to 'Nam, and Donny (Buscemi), a dim but good-hearted schlub who always lags a beat or two behind any conversation. A case of mistaken identity causes some nasty goons to break into the Dude's ramshackle apartment, rough him up, and soil his rug. All the Dude wants now is his rug ("because it really tied the room together"), so at Walter's urging he follows the trail of the rug-pissers and thereby becomes embroiled in an intersecting mix of kidnapping, pornography, German nihilists, sultry women, gumshoes, missing money, and missing toes. It's almost enough to interfere with league bowling. But, oh, the characters the Dude meets along the way.... The film is populated with rich, colorful figures: David Huddleston as the Big Lebowski, a wealthy, pompous, wheelchair-bound corporate achiever; Philip Seymour Hoffman as his toady assistant; Julianne Moore as the idiosyncratically mannered artist Maude; Ben Gazzara as the porn entrepreneur Jackie Treehorn; and Sam Elliott as the Stranger, the cowpoke whose inexplicably omniscient voiceover narrates the Dude's story. Then there are all the secondary characters, any of whom could be excised from the story and never hurt the narrative flow. We are the ones who would be deprived of never having known them-- characters like Jesus, John Turturro's heart-arresting turn as the flamboyant Latin pederast bowler; David Thewlis'perversely twittering art-world friend of Maude's; and Smokey, the pacifist bowler played by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Also punctuating The Big Lebowski are a couple of visually wild and elaborate fantasy/dream sequences, one of them a Busby Berkeley bowling/porn phantasmagoria more outsized and ambitious than anything the Coen Brothers have tried in the past. More like Raising Arizona with its crazy kidnapping plot than straight-ahead narratives like Fargo, The Big Lebowski is also very site specific. It is an L.A. movie, calling to mind the worlds of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep. All the film's details-- cinematography, costumes, music-- are note perfect. Some viewers have criticized the movie for being too much of a shaggy dog story, lacking a cohesive point or purpose. Yet to look for the point is to miss it entirely. Coen-heads hop aboard for the ride. (3/6/98)

4.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



AMERICAN JOB

D: Chris Smith; with Randy Russell, Tom Wheeler, Charlie Smith, Eric Lezotte, Dave O'Meara, Dan Layne, Ed English. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

Everyone knows this is nowhere, this world of minimum-wage jobs, stultifying labor, and dead ends. Another day, another meal, and we keep coming back for more of the same... not by choice, not by habit, but of necessity. We work to eat, we eat to work; given these circumstances, playing the lottery is a sound business investment. American Job follows a young worker, Randy Scott (Russell), as he bounces from job to job in the American Midwest. Randy's not on a career path, not seeking his life's work, not out to climb the corporate ladder. He just wants a bearable, entry-level, minimum-wage job. What Randy discovers is that no such animal exists. American Job is a fiction film that in many ways resembles a documentary. Its use of real time and real workplaces makes plain the tedium and monotony of Randy's various jobs. In Randy's first job at a plastics factory, his task is to oversee a piece of machinery which needs a button to be pushed every 45 seconds. We watch as Randy futilely tries to find something to occupy his mind during the intervening seconds; he inevitably fails and lets the hopper to run dry, causing the machine to seize up. Randy's solution? He walks out of work, only to return the next day and be sent to the boss, who fires him according to some scenario that could only be learned from some corporate management manual. Randy goes from the plastics factory to a fast-food chicken restaurant (where he lasts three days), then on to a third-shift job as an inventory worker in a basement full of boxes and asbestos. Next he tries cleaning motel rooms, then on to telemarketing. We watch as Randy goes through the ropes of each job and interacts with his co-workers. One morning at the fast-food joint, he drives up to the place, sits sipping his coffee before the shift starts, then suddenly puts his key in the ignition and drives off. In its modest way, it's a worker's revolution, self-defeating and self-perpetuating though it is. Shot in the Midwest in 1995 for $14,000, the film uses non-professional actors. (The film screened to enthusiastic audiences at the 1996 SXSW Film Festival and just completed a roving national exhibition as part of the Fuel Tour.) In appearance, Randy Russell looks something like a cross-between R.Crumb and a Harvey Pekar character in an American Splendor comic, which only augments the film's wry humor. Director Chris Smith manages to situate the film within a mixture of tones-- it is simultaneously deadpan, stark, weird, realistic, provocative, and funny. And watching American Job sure beats the hell out of working. (3/6/98)

3.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

D: Terry Jones; with Jones, Steve Coogan, Eric Idle, Anthony Sher, Nicol Williamson, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Bernard Hill, Michael Palin, Nigel Planer, Richard James. (PG, 87 min.)

Where did this come from and why haven't we heard about it? More to the point, why haven't all the children of the land been put on full alert? Far and away the best cinematic telling of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 classic, this is that rara avis, the kids film that will be loved equally by adults. I'm not suggesting that anyone over the age of 13 is going to bust a nut on this, but for kids under and adults over, this is the crème de la crème of fanciful, enchantingly surreal filmmaking. And of course, it's also the most complete reunion of the Monty Python troupe in some time, featuring four of the original six cast members (Graham Chapman is, sadly, dead, and Terry Gilliam has gone wonderfully, brilliantly mad and was, one assumes, far too busy to participate). The story of Mole (Coogan), Rat (Idle), Toad (Jones), and Badger (Williamson) and their tussles with the greedy, Thatcheresque Weasels (led by an engagingly nasty Sher) should be familiar to most of us. For those of the Richard Scarey persuasion, the tale involves the attempts of meek Mole and idealistic Rat to convince their friend (and landlord) Mr. Toad to stop wasting all his money on automobiles and other frivolities and pay more attention to the larcenous Weasels, who seek to usurp his manor-- Toad Hall-- steal his land, and bring the countryside to ruin. These days, the story plays as an anti-Tory refrain, although when Grahame first penned it (as in so much 20th-century British literature) Communism was the implied metaphorical menace. But, really, that's all beside the point of this film which seeks, first and foremost, to revel in the wild, wacky, and veddy British tradition of the absurd. To that effect, it succeeds wonderfully. Jones, as Toad, sports a greenish pallor and a garishly rotund waistline; he looks like one of those old turn-of-the-century political cartoons espousing the dangers of gluttony. Indeed, the story hinges on his voracious appetite for the newfangled motorcars (Disney's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride has nothing on this version). Epicurean Idle, the sweet Coogan, and even Williamson as Badger (I'll always think of him as Excalibur's Merlin, though) all give it their best, and the film is chock-a-block with inspired, silly tunes and antic running-about. It's also full of subtle moral lessons, but why tell the kids when they'll probably pick it up subconsciously anyway? Absolutely charming all the way through, its cheeky sense of inspired lunacy is downright contagious: I received a traffic ticket on my drive home and I blame it entirely on Mr. Toad. (3/6/98)

3.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

CAUGHT UP

D: Darin Scott; with Bokeem Woodbine, Cynda Williams, Clifton Powell, Tony Todd, Basil Wallace, Joseph Lindsey, Snoop Doggy Dogg, LL Cool J, Jeffrey Combs. (R, 99 min.)

This boy 'n'the hood drama about an ex-con caught up in a maelstrom of deceit, double-crosses, and murder as he attempts to go straight can't negotiate the many twists and turns in its near-byzantine plot: It ends up crashing, a rumpled mess that can't be identified. The protagonist narrator of Caught Up promises a wild, funny story that's nevertheless the truth, but what you ultimately get is a tale that is simply half-baked, to be polite. After serving most of his adult life behind bars for dealing crack and being the unwitting accomplice in a bank robbery, Daryl Allen (Woodbine) is determined not to become a repeat offender. But, as his penchant for bad luck would have it, he keeps running into people working overtime to lead him astray. This is particularly true when it comes to his Tarot-reading girlfriend (Williams), whose psychic ability no doubt led her to find her a patsy when she needed one. Of course, their chance meeting in a diner smells like a set-up (although it's never really made clear if it is or not) and before you know it, there's stuff about stolen diamonds, unlawful activities in rented limousines, a lisping L.A. freak, Uzi-toting Rastafarian avengers, and-- in what has got to be the most bizarre cameo turn in recent movie memory-- a psychotic masked man spouting Shakespeare (or is it the Bible?) who drops his pants to reveal a missing manhood. (It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the Re-Animator series or The Frighteners that the certainly certifiable Jeffrey Combs plays this latter role.) None of these seemingly random events gels at all; it's as if director-screenwriter Scott has Scotch-taped the whole thing together. The film is stilted in the way many of the scenes are staged, and the acting is for the most part awful, especially Williams-- so very promising in One False Move-- who is very, very awful as the movie's poor excuse for a femme fatale. Only Woodbine comes close to portraying a flesh-and-blood character; at least you feel a little sympathy for his down-on-his-luck parolee. He's about the only thing in which to get caught up in Caught Up, and that's saying very little. (3/6/98)

1.0 stars Steve Davis



DANGEROUS BEAUTY

D: Marshall Herskovitz; Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt, Moira Kelly, Fred Ward, Jacqueline Bisset. (R, 115 min.)

When Dangerous Beauty grows up, it wants to be a Merchant/Ivory film. Too bad puberty is still such a long way off. Based on Margaret Rosenthal's biography of 16th-century Venetian courtesan and poetess Veronica Franco, director Herskovitz (thirtysomething) dives deep into Venice's fabled, watery past and comes up with a gilded trunkload of hoary romance novel clichés, disastrous casting choices, a coolly calculating score (by George Fenton), and a sullied thematic logic that's more than simply annoying, it's insulting to boot. McCormack plays Franco, who is tutored by her mother (Bisset) in the ways of the courtesan as a means of providing family support. Due to the questionable nature of the family's means and her lower station in life, she's unable to marry the man she loves-- the handsome senator Marco Venier (Sewell, of Dark City)-- and instead spends her time as a sort of kept woman of the Venetian elite. Certainly, at that time, the only way for a woman to learn of the world, to read books, and to grow intellectually and artistically according to her inclination was as a courtesan. (Your average scullery maid was forbidden to even learn how to write her name.) Once installed in the palaces of the wealthy, Franco quickly becomes everyone's favorite party girl. More than that, though-- she's learning the secrets of kings, generals, and bishops, becoming fluent in various languages and the secret machinations of the 16th-century power structure. Mankind's innate fear of strong, intelligent women and their sexuality becomes her undoing as first her one true love-- for whom she would abandon her financially rewarding lifestyle-- goes off to war. Following that, the Plague descends; then the Inquisition arrives in town to burn assorted witches and heretics, of which she is considered one. McCormack is lovely to look at; her face has a ruddy carnality that plays well to the camera, but her Franco is far too broadly drawn. Her passion for lovemaking is frequently, crudely demonstrated, as when she deep-throats a banana or leers suggestively; she's a caricature, a cartoon, Disney gone blue. Sewell is much better suited to the role of impetuous, lovable rogue (scamp, maverick, scalawag, all of the above) Venier, but Jeannine Dominy's woefully scatty script plays him the fool (and in quick succession Franco, and then us). And what in the world is Fred Ward doing here as Marco's wealthy, handicapped father? Rarely do you come across a more ludicrous casting choice. Worse, Herskovitz constantly badgers us with emotional signposts and overwhelming, obvious pathos. Cry here, laugh here, sob here, and so on. Visually, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli keeps everything in a golden haze; Dangerous Beauty resembles nothing so much as a Penthouse photo spread. Perhaps not coincidentally, I kept expecting romance novel posterboy Fabio to appear, but no such luck. "I can't believe it's not butter!" Believe it pal-- it's cheese. 100% Grade-A American. (3/6/98)

1.0 stars Marc Savlov



HUSH

D: Jonathan Darby; with Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnathon Schaech, Nina Foch, Hal Holbrook, Debi Mazar, David Thornton. (PG-13, 95 min.)

Another in the growing genre of dysfunctional-family-member films, this new entry gives us Lange as Bad Mom Martha Baring, Paltrow as her new daughter-in-law Helen, and That Thing You Do's Schaech as Jackson Baring, the man in the muddle. Actually, they're all in a bit of a muddle, as Darby splashes bad vibes and evil deeds across his palette like so much turpentine, smearing what might have been an otherwise quick-witted thriller. Alas, the only wit even remotely quick comes from Nina Foch, as Jackson's aged mother-in-law, whose role as keeper of the closeted skeletons is kept to the bare minimum. The film opens with Jackson returning to his ancestral Kentucky manse - the cheerily-named Kilronan-- with girlfriend Helen in tow for the traditional meeting of the mom. All goes well at first, and Martha is the soul of Southern gentility, forever dangling a scotch in one hand and a Virginia Slims in the other. When the couple return to New York only to find some months later that Helen has become pregnant thanks to a faulty diaphragm, it's back to Kilronan to fix up the old homestead (it's a former horse farm, and there's talk of selling it), get married, and have the baby (presumably under the watchful eye of Holbrook's grizzled doctor). Back on Martha's home turf, it soon becomes apparent to Helen that her mother-in-law has not taken much of a shine to her. Martha has developed an annoying habit of putting her daughter-in-law in dangerous situations, "forbidding" her to do certain things, and outright lying. Jackson, apparently, is oblivious, and by the time he exits the picture to watch one of his trotters race in a neighboring village, the stage is set for nasty shenanigans of all types. From start to finish, there is absolutely nothing in this film that comes as a surprise-- Darby and co-screenwriter Michael Cristofer (Breaking Up) telegraph every available bit of plot seemingly hours before it's necessary, resulting in a tawdry, boring mish-mash of genre clichés and arched eyebrows. Though Lange may have seemed the perfect choice in the pitch meeting, onscreen she's far too hammy. Her portrait of this sociopathic, narcissistic mommy is so broad it feels like a Hirschfield caricature done in Krylon; it's too much, from her overbearing, bordering-on-comical Southern accent to her sly glances askance. Paltrow, for her part, doesn't bring much to the table either, basing her entire character on a series of pouts and grimaces. And Schaech? Regardless of his ability as an actor, his character is so dense, so blind to what's going on around him, that it's all you can do not to run up to the screen and slap him silly. His performance is an exercise in the fine art of ignoring the obvious. I won't even go into the film's leaden ending here; suffice to say it's not nearly as interesting as what has come before, which wasn't very interesting to begin with. (3/6/98)

1.0 stars Marc Savlov



TWILIGHT

D: Robert Benton; with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale, John Spencer, M. Emmet Walsh. (R, 96 min.)

Twilight is a good title for this murder-mystery whose best attributes are not the caliber of its detective story but rather its forthright acknowledgment of mortality and aging. Writer-director Robert Benton, co-writer Richard Russo, and actor Paul Newman re-team for this private eye drama after their success in 1994 with Nobody's Fool. But unlike the unpredictability of that earlier film, Twilight's plotting is drably conventional and obvious. Still, put consummate pros like Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner up on the screen-- together-- and you're pretty much guaranteed to have something that's eminently watchable and enjoyable. Still, it's a shame that they're stuck in a none-too-credible story about blackmail, murder, and dangerous women in modern-day Los Angeles. Newman plays Harry Ross, a former cop turned private investigator turned alcoholic, who becomes embroiled in a long-simmering murder mystery when he agrees to help out his friends and benefactors (he lives in their garage apartment) Jack Ames (Hackman), a former screen legend, and his beautiful wife Catherine (Sarandon). Many dubious steps later, Harry is still uncovering information that should have been obvious to most anyone in the audience from the get-go. Nevertheless, watching Newman, Hackman, and Garner play men who are aware their time is growing short and who discuss their frailties and diminished capacities is refreshing film fare indeed. In many ways Twilight echoes some of the sentiments of Robert Benton's 1977 detective film The Late Show, starring Art Carney. Unfortunately, the film's younger characters are not written with anywhere near the degree of insight afforded the older characters. Twilight features some of the best young actors around-- Reese Witherspoon, Giancarlo Esposito, and Liev Schreiber-- but their actions and motivations are even more inscrutable and unbelievable than those of their elders. Though the plot elements fail to deliver in terms of suspense, the script contains many good one-liners and repartee. And with actors such as these to deliver the goods, we're inclined to overlook a lot. (3/6/98)

2.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



U.S. MARSHALS

D: Stuart Baird; with Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Snipes, Robert Downey, Jr., Irene Jacob, Kate Nelligan. (PG-13, 136 min.)

Even hardcore sequelphobes have to admit it's a pretty cool idea: a The Fugitive-redux manhunt movie focusing on U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, Jones' stoically relentless flatfoot character from the original 1993 megahit. But somewhere between concept and execution, director Baird (a career bench-warmer whose previous résumé is heavy on film and sound editing) has managed to lose much of the gusto, nerve-shredding tension, and robust character development that set The Fugitive apart from the rest of the action/suspense pack. Ironically, the problem may lie in Baird and screenwriter John Pogue's over-eagerness to give us what they think we want. Whereas The Fugitive was in essence a two-man play in which Gerard and Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) often appeared to share an almost psychic link, U.S. Marshals is all Jones'show. His quarry this time is Mark Sheridan (Snipes), an accused murderer of mysterious background and character whose internal life is as obscure as the contents of the sealed briefcases and boxes he's always lugging around. Unlike Kimble, whose innocence and decency are known from the beginning in The Fugitive, Sheridan is a total cipher to both Gerard and the audience until deep into this two-hours-plus film. Ergo, we can't be expected to give a rat's ass what happens to him-- and don't. More wasted acting talent (so to speak) is represented by 12-Step poster boy Downey, who plays an intelligence agent assigned to Gerard's team because Sheridan's victims were fellow DSS operatives. To an even greater extent than Snipes, he's basically furniture until the last 20 minutes or so. A further millstone that Jones and company must carry is Pogue's script which, like The Jackal and Mission Impossible, seems to drastically overestimate the mass action-movie audience's level of interest in computers, electronic surveillance devices, and other high-tech gewgaws. (Translation: Too much gazing into screens and not enough running, shooting, and leaping from high places.) What's truly amazing is that, even when forced to carry the entire movie on his back, Jones almost pulls it off. Like Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, the Eighties-era Rutger Hauer, Sean Connery, and a disparate handful of other thinking man's tough-guy stars throughout history, you almost don't need to provide him with a script. His ability to effortlessly convey masculine strength, humor, complexity, and a just-palpable dark side makes his mere presence in a movie sufficient reason to watch it. Stuart, say "Thank you, Mr. Jones. Thank you very, very much." Now climb down off that director's dolly and get your dilettante butt back into the cutting room. For my part, I'll leave you readers with a steeply hedged check-it-out recommendation for U.S. Marshals and two crucial words: Blockbuster Video. (3/6/98)

2.5 stars Russell Smith


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