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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

APRIL 6, 1998: 


D: D. A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus; with Carol Burnett, Philip Bosco, Ken Ludwig, Tom Moore, Elizabeth Wilson, Rocco Landesman. (Not Rated, 96 min.)

You thought making sausage wasn't pretty. Next to making comedy, grinding up meat and stuffing it into casing is positively picturesque. That's the unsightly truth exposed in this latest work from landmark filmmakers Pennebaker and Hegedus (Rockaby, The War Room). They document the life of the backstage farce Moon Over Buffalo, which had a nine-month run on Broadway two seasons ago, carrying us through rehearsals, a tryout run in Boston, the New York opening, and, finally, the closing -- 300 performances later. What they reveal won't shock anyone with much experience in the theatre: It's work. Hard work. Hour after hour, for weeks on end, the artists struggle to define what will get the big laugh -- or any laugh. As a euphemism for lovemaking, which is funnier: "whooping it up" or "boffing"? Scenes pivot on such questions, and between the elusive nature of humor and the big bucks at stake in getting the show on Broadway, they generate the kind of intensity more typically associated with legal wrangles in a capital murder case. Tensions escalate as the key players -- playwright Ludwig, director Moore, stars Burnett and Bosco, and backer Landesman -- grow progressively more frustrated over parts of the show that don't work. Everyone suggests fixes, but the sensibilities of the various players are at odds, and some input only succeeds in fostering more friction. The degree to which Hegedus and Pennebaker capture on film this anxiety and conflict is impressive, but so is the weight they give to the efforts to amend, the complex negotiations over turf and contributions, and the reassurances that keep the show moving forward. This is no All About Eve wallowing in the clash of egos behind the curtain but a true tale of theatrical collaboration focusing on the give-and-take critical to a production's success. That becomes most clear in the scene in which a mechanical failure threatens to capsize a dress rehearsal in New York. While the crew fights to unfreeze a winch, Moore goes to Burnett -- who has repeatedly taken shots from the playwright and director for being "too TV" -- and asks her if she will entertain the audience through the delay. She graciously assents and completely charms the crowd. It's the film's most show-bizzy scene -- put-upon star heroically saves the day -- but it doesn't play that way. Pennebaker and Hegedus keep it in the context of the job of making theatre: all in a day's work. This is show business, they remind us, and they make that even more apparent when the show gets to New York, turning the lens more on Landesman, the veteran producer, who is shown shrewdly gauging critical reaction for its impact on his show's box office. Moon Over Broadway isn't as sexy as the political machinations laid bare in The War Room, but the film shares its predecessor's regard for the grueling work behind the scenes that makes a show happen, and its depiction of that work makes the show less glamorous but even more fascinating.

3.5 stars

Robert Faires

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D: Steve Gomer; with Shirley Douglas, Trevor Morgan, Diana Rice, Kyla Pratt. (G, 75 min.)

Well, Barney and I didn't quite have an "I Love You, You Love Me" lovefest during his Great Adventure in feature filmmaking, but neither did I come away from the experience agreeing with the backlash perception of the character as something of a modern antichrist. The Purple One is just a big flannel dinosaur with a goofy laugh, who imparts wholesome messages about indulging your imagination and respecting others. Given the target audience of two-to-five-year-olds, the subtext seems more or less appropriate and the packaging is... well, who am I to question such a marketing juggernaut? Storywise, there ain't a whole lot here, but its 75-minute-long story -- in which Barney and his three human playmates chase after a magic egg -- moves steadily enough that grown-up chaperones won't find themselves clawing the walls in exasperated boredom. I'm not arguing that the scenes move fluidly or cogently from one development to the next; in fact, it's all rather clumsy and routine. And just because it's possible to pass off such wobbly material on unsophisticated children who don't know any better, does not mean that such cynical filmmaking practices should be condoned. Nevertheless, there's a huge amount of pleasure here to be derived from hearing the spontaneous swell of tiny three-year-old voices joining Barney for a chorus of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." Isn't this really a rudimentary demonstration of what each of us comes seeking in the darkened theatre: that shared sense of total involvement -- we come to laugh or weep, and maybe even sing (or clap for Tinkerbell, or whatever the circumstances require)? By and large, Barney's Great Adventure will most probably find its greatest audience through home video (this may explain the elaborate nomenclature of Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie). Released only in a limited number of theatres nationwide, the producers clearly seem poised to position the dinosaur to meet market demands. The greatest market demand may be for stuffed versions of the new character introduced in the movie: the adorable Twinken.

1.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Billy Hopkins; with Claire Danes, Jeanne Moreau, Jude Law. (Not Rated, 88 min.)

Claire Danes and Jeanne Moreau star in I Love You, I Love You Not

Staggering under the burden of noble intentions and a grant-funded charge to edify, this Anne Frank-inspired story of shattered innocence is artistically handicapped from the word go. The subject matter -- a tender-hearted Jewish teenager's first encounter with anti-Semitism -- packs an inherent emotional punch. Unfortunately, screenwriter Wendy Kesselman, on whose Ford Foundation-commissioned play this film is based, appears to have suffered from serious performance anxiety, troweling on enough leaden symbolism and gratuitous schmaltz to seriously undermine the tale's potential impact. Her protagonist is Daisy (Danes), a shy, bookish Manhattan prep school student whose emotional fragility makes her a literal and figurative equivalent of the flowers she picks with her widowed aunt Nana (Moreau), a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. Even among her oddly anachronistic classmates (Kesselman seems to utterly lack any feel for modern youth culture, giving her teenagers the speech and demeanor of characters from an old Dobie Gillis episode), Daisy is a hopeless naïf. So when the gentile Adonis (Law) with whom she's enamored cools the romance after discovering she's Jewish, the effect is as brutal as a jackboot trampling a tender wildflower. And Hopkins and Kesselman play it just that melodramatically, using Nana's Anne Frank-like recollections and stock footage of WWII death camps to draw a specious comparison between the blond shitheel's snub and the Nazis' genocidal atrocities. Leaving aside the implausibility of Judaism being viewed as an exotic, inscrutable phenomenon in the heart of New York City, there really isn't much verisimilitude in the bald prejudice Daisy encounters. The very essence of bigotry's enduring power is its virus-like ability to mutate into subtler, more specialized forms as changing social conditions demand. However, the filmmakers' failure to acknowledge this fact is less ruinous than their maudlin representation of their characters' emotional lives. The relationship of Nana and Daisy is so infantile in its nature (every scene of gut-spilling angst seems to be followed by a ridiculous, cringe inducing one of the pair pillow fighting, playing Crazy Eights, or picking flowers in long, flowing dresses) that any revelations emerging from it are unavoidably trivialized. The superabundance of talent here makes I Love You, I Love You Not's affectlessness all the more mystifying. Kesselman, remember, wrote the script for Nancy Meckler's provocative, deliciously kinky Sister, My Sister. Danes can be a deeply affecting screen presence -- see William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet for recent proof. And, of course, the ability of the great Moreau (Jules and Jim, The Lovers) to illuminate emotionally charged material is beyond question. So the blame for I Love You, I Love You Not's maudlin, simplistic feel has to fall upon Kesselman and Hopkins, who for whatever reasons were unable to tap the deep artery of human truth flowing beneath their story's skin. It wouldn't be the first time that efforts to starkly define good and evil failed because neither is really all that easy to define in all their multidimensional complexity.

1.5 stars

Russell Smith


D: Steve Boyum; with Steve Van Wormer, Paul Walker, John Ashton, A.J. Langer, Robert Englund, Dennis Hopper. (PG, 94 min.)

I have to admit to not really being able to remember all of the Teenese from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or even Clueless (which has played at least 300 times on my VCR). So I'm not certain if it is the same language used in Meet the Deedles or a new vernacular entirely. Sadly, it all sounds bitchin' to me. Which is to say that, though the words may have changed, the cadence, pitch, and intent of the lexicon remains the same, giving this movie a feel that is at once radically, jammin'ly energetic, and tediously, terminally tired, I mean totally. The Deedles (Phil and Stew) are twins, a pair of latter-day Moondoggies whose love for the surf and wahines has gotten them expelled from school on their 18th birthday. Daddy Deedle is disappointed, and sends the boys packing into the Wyoming wilderness to be straightened out by his ex-Army buddy, a Rambo-like wildman who runs Camp Broken Spirit, a boot camp for languishing rich kids. But like Mr. Magoo, Stew and Phil (who suffer from mental myopia) also have an endless supply of inadvertent good luck. They escape survival camp and are mistaken for two new forest-ranger rookies brought in to rid Yellowstone of pesky prairie dogs before Old Faithful's billionth birthday celebration. Seems a dastardly Dudley Do-wrong (Dennis Hopper -- doing god knows what here) has a plan to divert Old Faithful's geyser onto his property and is using the prairie dogs to dig the tunnels for him. And the plot thins. There's a bit of romance (with the still engaging A.J. Langer from My So-Called Life) and a lot of X-treme Games-style stunts (motorized skateboarding, road luging, and white-water river surfing, to name but a few). But, there's an awful lot of dead time in this picture, and while it's a bit too sweet and innocent to utterly despise, there's nothing there to really like. Unless, of course, you're 11 years old and the scenery is beautiful and the stunts are daring and the boys are cute. And because I can remember, a long, long time ago, how I thought that being Gidget would the bossest thing in the whole world, I will compromise and set the Deedles' rating smack in the middle of my "0" and Tessa's and Cady's "3." After all, I'm a "blistering" mom and doing anything else would be "heinous."

1.5 stars

Hollis Chacona


D: Bob Gosse; with Henry Thomas, Robin Tunney, Michael Parks, Stephen Lang. (R, 97 min.)

Robin Tunney in Niagra, Niagra

Call it "grunge cinema," "scuzz cinema," "Gun Crazy cinema," whatever you like: Two lonely, white-trash adolescents fall in love, shoot guns, commit crimes, and go on the lam, everything ultimately ending in tragedy. The territory charted in Niagara, Niagara is a familiar one, except that one of the characters has Tourette's syndrome. While the affliction makes the relationship between Seth and Marcie all the more doomed -- you know from the start that her violent, unpredictable outbursts will be their undoing -- it's more gimmicky than psychologically meaningful, although Tunney does well in conveying her character's matter-of-fact acceptance of her illness. (Indeed, Tunney's performance won the best actress award at last year's Venice Film Festival.) Meeting by chance while shoplifting, the couple hit the road in a beat-up station wagon, with frequent stops at liquor stores and pharmacies, as they attempt to pass off forged prescriptions for medicine that will control Marcie's increasingly erratic behavior. (A prolonged detour at a dilapidated shack owned by the grizzly, half-out-of-his-mind Parks upsets the movie's road-trip rhythm.) The love story in Niagara, Niagara is premised on a notion that Seth and Marcie belong together because they're both freaks in a way, unable to find anyone else. Whether that's a romantic sentiment or a cynical observation, of course, depends on your perspective. Regardless, you never feel the urgency of this union of lost souls; their meeting is more happenstance than fateful. With some irony, the film's title (one of the traits of Tourette's syndrome is the repetition of words) refers to the traditional American destination of young lovers, a spectacular place for honeymooners with their whole lives ahead of them. Of course, the Falls mark a coda for the pair here, rather than a beginning. In the end, the whole thing seems pointless because the excursion on which the movie seeks to take you is an unfulfilling one, a journey that hits a dead end even before it starts.

1.0 stars

Steve Davis


D: Boaz Yakin; with Renée Zellweger, Christopher Eccleston, Allen Payne, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianna Margulies, Kim Hunter, John Randolph, Kathleen Chalfant. (R, 115 min.)

Renée Zellweger and Christopher Eccleston in A Price Above Rubies

Not since Melanie Griffith strode among them in A Stranger Among Us a few years ago has Brooklyn's Hasidic community been so foregrounded in an American motion picture. Strangely, Griffith's untenable "goy in the hood" turn proved more respectful of that community's tightly knit gestalt than Boaz Yakin's new tale about a Hasidic woman's rebellion against the patriarchal confines of her circumscribed life. Not that there isn't a good story to be told here -- it's just that writer-director Yakin's A Price Above Rubies fails to develop an emotionally believable storyline and dramatic setting. As Sonia, the film's protagonist, Zellweger is forced to make the most of her engagingly pouty facial expressions. Though we are rarely made privy to the turmoil Sonia is experiencing, it's enough that we see Zellweger's puffy pout to therefore assume that her character's been somewhere offscreen crying or otherwise venting her pent-up emotions. Her face is just about the only thing that helps lends credence to this shallow drama. Is Sonia a feminist rebel, a meshuginah head case, a religious transgressor? Yakin never seems quite certain, hinting at all three but never making a case for any particular theory. As the film opens, we view Sonia as a child with her brother Yossi, who tells her a bedtime story about an eternally wandering woman and then offers her a false ruby, which she instantly nails as fake. Yossi runs off for a midnight swim, never to return alive, but always to remain an apparition that flits through her perplexed imagination (something like that dancing baby that keeps beckoning Ally McBeal). Next we see her as a grown woman hysterically reluctant to hand over her newborn son for circumcision at his bris. Sonia has married a promising young scholar named Mendel (Fitzgerald), a kind young man who is a shining light in the eyes of the community and the esteemed Rebbe. But Sonia is always asking Medel impious questions like whether he loves her more than God, and if they can make love with the lights on. Sonia's brother-in-law Sender (Eccleston) notices the impetuous nature of his brother's wife and offers her a job as a jewelry buyer for his shady, all-cash operation. Sender is the closest thing to a villain in this story, schooling Sonia in his self-serving business ethics and luring her with the pleasures of quick, vigorous, up-against-the wall and on-the-table schtuppings. It's hard to discern what pleasure is being derived by the schtupee in these encounters but before long, Sonia is all hot under her Hasidic wig and long sleeves and is off and running on her quest to find her true self. The quest involves a far-fetched fling with a Puerto Rican jewelry maker (Payne), with whom she casts her destiny. What the film is missing is any sense of Sonia's evolution or thinking process. One minute she's a meek, housebroken housefrau; overnight, she's a hard-bitten businesswoman busting some dealer's chops. One minute she's trying to steal a smooch on the lips from her comforting sister-in-law (Margulies); never again does that lesbian lunge come into play. These confusing character shifts are perhaps indicative of the ideas that provided the original impetus for the movie. But the end result is one farblondget mess.

1.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Millicent Shelton; with Malik Yoba, Melissa De Sousa, John Witherspoon, Fredro Starr, Cedric the Entertainer, Kellie Williams, Sticky Fingaz, Idalis De Leon, Downtown Julie Brown. (R, 90 min.)

The dumbing-down of African-American film comedies is part and parcel of the lowest-common-denominator factor in comedies of all stripes. But this debut effort from former video director Shelton and the Hudlin Brothers (House Party, Boomerang, Bebe's Kids) as producers is scraping the bottom of the barrel, both in terms of laughs and originality. The film's featherweight storyline -- budding Harlem rappers and assorted wannabes are packed off on a ramshackle bus to work on a Luther Campbell (2 Live Crew) video down in Miami -- is weak at best, and unwatchable at worst. Think Spike Lee's Get on the Bus made for the Puffy/Onyx set with wacky comic dialogue by a two-year-old weaned on Death Row Records, and you'll get the idea. De Sousa plays Leta Evans, an aspiring film director and recent graduate of the NYU film program who nails the thankless job as an intern to egotistical label head Bleau Kelly (D'town Brown). The next day, Evans finds herself in charge of a motley crew of gangsta thugs and horny teens going southbound to "hit the big time." Along for the ride are Yoba's Poppa, the group's parental figure and all-around swell guy in the 'hood; Brotha (Fingaz), a ladies man with too many ladies; Indigo (Guy Torry), who's just ripped off the cantankerous, Mouseketeer-coifed Peaches (The Lady of Rage); and longtime Hudlin Brothers' player Witherspoon and co-conspirator Cedric as the older-but-dumber bus drivers. From New York to Miami, the gags just keep flowing, but that's not comedy I'm talking about. Ride's sophomoric preoccupation with jokes revolving around the bus' broken down commode, flatulence, and the like is enough to put anyone off his dinner, but there's obviously a market for this sort of inanity -- some recent Eddie Murphy vehicles have proven to be goldmines for the scatologically inclined. The most fun Ride has to offer is a sporadic sort of "Spot that Rapper" game; the film has cameos by everyone from venerable MTV icons Dr. Dre and Ed Lover to VJ Idalis, and from Redman to none other than Snoop Doggy Dogg himself (who, as always, turns in a very credible performance as a mellower-than-thou Florida rapper with the languid, slow-burning stylings of a soggy spliff). Shelton keeps her camera moving about, but since most of the film takes place on a cramped bus, there's not much to do except sit back and let the woefully bad jokes flow over you like some sort of comic slurry. Saving grace? The soundtrack, which features killer tracks from Onyx, Nas, Black Caesar, Naughty by Nature, Al Green, and the Notorious B.I.G. But honestly, that's about it.

1.0 stars

Marc Savlov

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