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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

APRIL 20, 1998: 


D: John Sayles; with Federico Luppi, Damian Delgado, Dan Rivera Gonzalez, Tania Cruz, Damian Alcazar. (R, 126 min.)

One of the most original filmmakers working today, John Sayles never takes the easy way out when he can take a more interesting -- if convoluted -- one. From Matewan to City of Hope to the brilliant Lone Star, Sayles has proven himself time and again a master of story, structure, character, and conflict, and this new addition to Saylesiana is no different. Alright, I take that back -- Men With Guns is different, in its use of magical realism, repeated flashbacks, and the fact that it's almost entirely in Spanish, but it's still very much a John Sayles film, from its frequent use of deeply layered symbolism to its lush photography and deep, abiding emotional core. Luppi (perhaps best known as the old man in Cronos) plays Humberto Fuentes, an aging physician in a large, unnamed Latin American city who is approaching retirement. Some time before, he trained a group of young doctors as part of an international program to provide care to the poor and disenfranchised who reside deep within the heart of the jungles and the tiny, economically ravaged communities that dot the southern landscape. When he runs into one of his former students -- now supplying drugs to the city's youth -- he decides to embark on a cross-country quest to discover what happened to his former charges. Despite the protestations of friends and family, he sets out to Rio Seco to find his first contact, Cienfuegos. Once there, he is told by an old peasant woman that the doctor was killed by "men with guns." Who are these men, why are they carrying guns, and, more important, why do they seem to control the whole landscape into which Dr. Fuentes has ventured? No one he encounters seems to have an answer that fits the question, though these men with guns appear to be everywhere, and as his trip wears on, Dr. Fuentes realizes that his students may all be dead. Along the way, he hooks up with an engaging street urchin, Conejo (Gonzalez), a broken priest (Alcazar), a hot-tempered ex-soldier who at first steals his tires and then acts as a guide (Delgado), and finally a young mute girl who has been raped by the men with guns. Sayles fashions a journey of exploration through the impenetrable jungle in search of truth, but comes up with a symbolic indictment of Men With Guns everywhere: the soldiers, the usurpers, the madmen who rule not only this unnamed province of the mind but also the real world. Sayles is calling into question everything from politics to religion here, and though some of the symbolism is obscure (not to mention the magical realism), it's a deeply moving, deeply personal film. Luppi is gripping as the fading healer, and the brilliant cinematography by Slawomir Idziak (Blue and more recently Gattaca) is wrenching in its lush, fuming beauty. Marred at times by occasional stretches in which the forward momentum of the story wanders off course to inspect the jungle and such, Men With Guns is still a powerful, riveting film, packed with subtle discourse and brimming with passion.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov

New Reviews


D: Brad Silberling; with Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz, Andre Braugher. (PG-13, 116 min.)

For many cinephiles, the notion of an Americanized remake of Wim Wenders' haunting film about an angel that aspires to become human, Wings of Desire, is nothing short of blasphemous. Although some may debate whether Wenders' film is indeed great, few would disagree with the assessment that Wings of Desire is a work imbued with a sense of greatness. Its lush black-and-white images of angels watching over us everywhere, consoling a troubled humanity, is indelibly comforting, one of the closest things to poetry ever achieved on film. So, the question is: Is City of Angels a faithful reworking of Wings of Desire, or a misguided bastardization of it? Unfortunately, it's more of the latter. While the storyline is more or less the same -- witnessing the mysteries of the human race, a celestial spirit yearns for mortal experience -- the emphasis in City of Angels is more on simple romance than lofty questions of eternity. Set in Los Angeles rather than Berlin, the film's first half appropriates a few of the visual and aural concepts of Wenders' work, although the sight of angels resting on a freeway exit sign, as opposed to perched atop the Reichstag eagle, is a less arresting one. But eventually, rather than ponder philosophical issues to which there are no easy answers, it takes a familiar story of self-sacrifice and gives it a high concept spin: Angel gives up his ethereal existence to be with the woman he loves. While you can argue that Wenders' film is too talky and ponderous, there's the sense that City of Angels trivializes its predecessor's themes, particularly in the way that the love story traditionally plays. You know the drill; it's as old as the Greeks: Angel meets girl, angel loses girl, angel gets girl, tragedy ensues. Maybe it's the unshakable memory of his performances in movies such as Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Face/Off, but Cage's attempts to register a beatific saintliness here is often spooky. The first physical meeting between Cage's Seth and the object of his desire, the heart surgeon Maggie, occurs in a hospital hallway after visiting hours. Wearing a long black overcoat, speaking in a hoarse whisper of a voice, and making little to no sense in his conversation, this modern-day Gabriel looks and acts more like a deranged stalker than a heavenly being -- how is that she trusts him, finds herself so mysteriously drawn to him? Any sane person would have called Security immediately. But even if you accept this plot contrivance, the consummation of this union of souls isn't very emotionally involving -- it lacks that transcendence you associate with stories in which love knows no bounds. Watching this film disintegrate into something close to being hackneyed, you ultimately wish that Seth had never chosen to fall to earth to take human form. It's a tumble from which City of Angels never fully recovers.

2.0 stars

Steve Davis


D: Peter Chan Ho-San; with Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai, Shu Qi. (Not Rated, 98 min.)

Is there anything Maggie Cheung can't do? Her recent turn in Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep was a startling turnabout from the standard Golden Harvest and Hong Kong roles that fans have come to know her for. But even while trading body blows with Jackie Chan and the Heroic Trio, Cheung's formidable acting skills have consistently shone through. Comrades, Almost a Love Story is no exception, though viewers may want to bring their schmaltz meters and a spare hanky or two to this well-done and elegiacally engaging film. Cheung plays Qiao, a young mainlander who seeks her fortune in the immensely profitable world of Hong Kong circa 1986. Quite literally at the same time, the idealistic young Jun (Lai), decked out in his best Mao threads, pursues the same goal, albeit with the initial goal of one day sending for his girlfriend who has opted to remain behind in their village Tianjin. Soon after, the pair meet at the McDonald's where Qiao bides her time as a countergirl. Jun, eager to attain a decent job and work his way out of his Aunt Rosie's brothel, accepts Qiao's quietly offered help (he's stymied by the language difficulties between the mainland and the island), and before you can say "isosceles love triangle," the pair are spending all their time together, renting the occasional room in one of the city's many "love hotels" and heading toward what appears to be both economic and emotional bliss. As with seemingly all HK films of this stripe, however, it is not to be. Jun's girlfriend arrives, there is a marriage, the stock market collapses, and a pudgy, low-rent gangster vies for Qiao's attentions. Throughout it all (Chan's film spans a full decade), Jun and Qiao never officially fall for each other, though it's obvious from that first hesitant glance at McDonald's that their passion is the tragic heart of this epic tearjerker. Filled with achingly beautiful cinematography and some of the most godawfully sappy musical cues yet recorded, Comrades frequently veers from old-school Hollywood treacle to profoundly affecting modern romance in the space of a single scene. A moderately amusing subplot having to do with Aunt Rosie's long-ago love for William Holden at first seems little more than emotional window-dressing, but it turns out to pack a solid, eye-watering wallop in the third act. Also, Jun and Qiao's John Woo-esque habit of just missing each other by one, fateful moment is played straight time and again; it shouldn't work at all, but more often than not it does. Cheung proves once again that she is, far and away, the most gifted of all of the new breed of Asian actresses, revealing more in one achingly beautiful glance than most of her contemporaries -- Asian, Anglo, or otherwise -- can in a full two-hour film. This is some breathtaking work, and although Comrades 'plot may seem strained at times, it's more than worth a look, if only to reacquaint oneself with Cheung's profound style of acting.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


D: Jonas and Joshua Pate; with Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Michael Rooker, Renée Zellweger, Ellen Burstyn, Rosanna Arquette. (R, 102 min.)

Hooked up to a lie detector machine in a darkened police interrogation room is Wayland (Roth), the chief suspect in the grisly murder of a prostitute. (Her body was hacked in half and deposited in different parts of the city.) The two detectives, Braxton (Penn) and Kennesaw (Rooker), who are grilling Wayland admit they have "no evidence -- just a rich, weird spastic." That kind of describes Deceiver; it's a tricky, stylish mind game in which tables are constantly turning. The only problem is that the shifting tables are lacking legs or any other visible means of support. In other words, the film is a funhouse glut of style and ideas but a laughable exercise in detective storytelling and thrilling psychological manipulation. Cast in the mold of The Usual Suspects, the film is an intricate policier drenched with visual and narrative flourishes. However, in Deceiver they amount to little more than mind games with the viewer. The plot is pointlessly twisted, and hammers the suspect with questions that might be more fruitfully answered through other means of investigation. But what a suspect -- a brilliant, rich, unemployed, alcoholic, epileptic, absinthe drinker. Enough adjectives? Wayland enjoys playing with the detectives' heads, and his strange behavior can be chalked up to any number of possible causes. Deceiver is essentially a three-man drama and Roth, Penn, and Rooker all deliver some of their highly dependable tough-guy stylings. The film's notable crew of women fare less well: Zellweger has a nice turn as the hacked-up hooker but her role is nevertheless a tired cliché; Burstyn is thoroughly eccentric in appearance and mannerisms as the shadowy underworld boss named Mook; and Arquette is once more underused as the sexually fractious wife of Kennesaw. While the plot bounces about in needless convolutions that create the illusion of things being more complicated than they are, the visual handiwork is a luau of expressionistic extremism. Deceiver presents an escalating onslaught of violently skewed angles, dark shadows, wild 360-degree camera moves (the camerawork is by Bill Butler of Deliverance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), flashbacks/fantasies and split screen visions, and precious affections such as having every phone in the movie inexplicably be an old rotary-dial model. The Pate brothers made a small splash at Sundance a couple of years back with their debut film The Grave. With this sophomore effort, these writer-director twin brothers show that their bag of tricks is indeed impressively stocked. Now they need to learn how to operate the drawstring.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Michael Lehmann; with Billy Crystal, Kathleen Quinlan, Gheorghe Muresan, Joanna Pacula, Zane Carney, Steven Seagal. (PG, 104 min.)

In his film career, Billy Crystal has become a master of yuppie comedy: well-quipped tales about misguided schmos who must connect with their lost moral values in order to rediscover their mensch-hood. Intentionally or not, comedy has become less the point in Crystal's films (for examples see Fathers' Day, Forget Paris, Mr. Saturday Night, and City Slickers II) than the sentimental outflow; they can be read like those sentimental greeting cards with good punchlines. The advertising for My Giant that emphasizes the two-foot size difference between Crystal and the 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan leads us to expect a big man/little man type comedy along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins. Things start out promisingly enough as Sammy (Crystal), a second-tier Hollywood agent, travels to a movie set in Romania to visit his sole client. The client, a pompous teen actor, promptly fires him. To make matters worse, Sammy's wife, who is tired of his inattention, has just given him the heave-ho. Then, to top things off, he swerves his rental car off the road and crashes into the waters below. When Sammy sees two giant hands lifting him from the car, he assumes they are the hands of God. They turn out to belong to Max (Muresan), a Shakespeare-quoting giant who lives as a ward of the local monastery. As Sammy figures out ways to exploit his new find, the film turns from straight comedy into more of an investigation of What Makes Sammy Run. Sammy lands Max some movie work and uses some false pretenses to encourage Max to come to America. Along the way, Sammy, of course, develops new scruples as a result of his increasing fondness for Max and his desire to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and son. The sentiment begins to bog down the comedy. The jokes grow more scant and director Lehmann (Heathers, The Truth About Cats and Dogs) brings none of his comic touch to the proceedings. Both sequences that take place on movie sets -- the one in Romania and another on a Steven Seagal set in Las Vegas during which the action star good-naturedly spoofs his image -- are pretty funny and there's also one righteous vomit scene, which should keep the little ones pacified. And even though the way Sammy keeps referring to Max as "my giant" is meant to sound silly, egotistical, and yet cuddly, there's something about his constant use of the phrase (and its repetition in the title) that dredges up the patronizing flavor of telethon-mode Jerry Lewis talking about "his kids." NBA star Muresan is bound to get more acting work on the basis of his endearing performance here, but Crystal is best left keeping My Giant to himself.

1.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Christian Faber; with Rick Negron, Kristin Moreu, Denise Faye, Taylor Nichols, Gerry McIntyre, Aubrey Lynch, Michelle Pertier, Donald Byrd. (Not Rated, 100 min.)

At 35, Broadway gypsy Nick (Negron) refuses to believe he's near the end of his dancing career. Even though his aching muscles and the perpetual, unspoken challenge by younger, more lithe newcomers register annoying blips on his mental radar, Nick refuses to see the writing on the wall when the show he's been in for the last year suddenly closes down and he's forced to scramble for a new gig. The Next Step is at its best and most knowingly articulate as it explores the narcissistic backstage drama of the workaday dance world. It gives us a sense of what it's like for dancers to live so intimately with the terrible knowledge of time's encroachment, of the terror of not being able to do the thing that you love for the rest of your life, and the feeling that you've been betrayed by your own body -- the Judas that no amount of skill or practice can overcome. And, too, the movie shows us the dancer as not unlike a junkie, addicted to the high of the performance and willing to accept all sorts of self-humiliation in order to forestall the devastating crash of withdrawal. Yet Nick also suffers from another problem: an inability to keep his leotard zipped. This heterosexual hoofer has never met a dance partner he didn't want to bed and thus his sex life is a constant tangle of lies, impulses, and selfish behaviors. His compassionate live-in lover Amy (Moreu) hasn't a clue regarding his compulsive seductions. She wants Nick to move with her to Connecticut where she has a job promotion waiting, but we can see that such a move would spell death for Nick. His girlfriend Heidi (Faye) is fed up with Nick's promises and has given him the brush-off. And he's allowed his amorous interests to get disastrously in the way of his moonlighting job performance as a restaurant maître' d'. The unpleasantness of Nick's moral character is part of the problem that bedevils The Next Step. When you cut through the narcissism that defines the dancer's lot, rather than being left with the kind of sad poetry that has been captured on occasion by Degas in his paintings or Ingmar Bergman characters as they prepare autumn sonatas, what we're left with in The Next Step is little more than a vain, self-deluding prick -- the kind of guy you're not too sorry to see suffer a little comeuppance. Certainly some of this is reaction to the clunkiness of the film's dramatic plotting, inadequacies that are further amplified by uneven performances, overly literal visual cues, and a hyperbolic ending. The film's many dance sequences, which in addition to their entertainment value serve the narrative purpose of demonstrating the arduousness of the profession, were choreographed by the legendary Donald Byrd, who also plays a character in the story. Also choreographed to a marked degree are the film's numerous lovemaking scenes. The Next Step offers a provocative cri de couer from the hidden depths of the dance world; conquering the narrative filmmaking world would be an encouraging next step.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Nicholas Hytner; with Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Tim Daly, John Pankow, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Alda, Allison Janney, Amo Gulinello. (R, 112 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. The wild success of My Best Friend's Wedding ushered in through the front door the coming trend of movies about straight gals and their gay male best pals. Here we have Friend Jennifer Aniston and Clueless Paul Rudd cast as roommates whose emotional bond is so close that when the character played by Aniston becomes pregnant, she wants to raise the baby with her gay roommate rather than her devoted boyfriend (Pankow), a passionate civil liberties attorney. The story is based on a novel by Stephen Cauley and was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Nicholas Hytner is known as one of Britain's greatest theatre directors, though his most recent directing projects have been the films The Madness of King George and The Crucible.

Marjorie Baumgarten Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Riverside, Roundrock, Tinseltown


D: John Roberts; with Gena Rowlands, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, Bruce Davidson, Jay Mohr, Trini Alvarado, Buddy Hackett, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Matt Craven. (PG, 87 min.)

There's something vaguely disturbing about Paulie. Is it Jay Mohr's double-billing, as both con artist Benny and the voice of Paulie, the speechified parrot of the title? Well, yes. Perhaps it's utterly subjective on my part, but for the life of me I'll never be able to separate the comedically talented Mohr from his vocal coup de grace, which is to say his alarmingly spot-on impersonation of Christopher Walken. Seriously folks, Rich Little has nothing on the younger Mohr, who mimics Walken's turns in The King of New York and True Romance verbatim without a touch of schtick. Anyone who saw his pas de deux avec Walken on Saturday Night Live (or even Late Night With David Letterman) knows what I mean. The phrase "separated at birth" comes readily to mind when discussing the pair, though hopefully not for long. That personal quibble aside, it should be noted that -- first and foremost -- Paulie is a kids film, one of the first in what appears to be a burgeoning sub-genre within the fledgling DreamWorks SKG. A quick review: DSKG's first film, The Peacemaker, was an adolescent boy's fantasy of post-Cold War nuclear hi-jinks; their second -- the clever Mouse Hunt -- was a Grimm fairy tale by way of D-Con and Roald Dahl; and this newest -- Paulie -- is a heartworming tale of love, loss, and redemption, all seen from a parrot's point of view. Not a bad track record for what appears to be more or less a Nineties updating of Chaplin and Pickford's early-version United Artists Studios. Still, Paulie falls flat in its labored plotting and heavy-handed morality. It puts one in mind of Disney's mid-Sixties live-action farces, but minus Kurt Russell's nascent charm. When janitor Mischa (Shalhoub) takes a job at an unnamed university animal lab, he encounters a conversational parrot who proceeds to tell him his life story, involving, among other travails, his separation from young Marie (Eisenberg), whose speech impediment he hopes to help. When her family moves from New Jersey to California, Paulie must conquer his fear of flying (sans Erica Jong) and track down his one true friend -- often in the face of bitter enemies. Yes, it's a metaphor for growing up, taking responsibility for one's actions, and so on, but surprisingly, director Roberts gives it all an even keel. The youngish audience I saw the film with seemed to hold rapt attention on Paulie's plight despite the frequent wooden one-liners. Mohr, for his part, thankfully holds off in his Walkenesque abilities, and instead turns in a moderately moral-inducing vocal performance that touches on everything from self-reliance to the importance of being, ah, "earnest." Hardly perfect by anyone's standards, Paulie is instead a convenient, unprepossessing time-waster for Saturday afternoon kiddies. Adults may choose to take an extended popcorn break every now and then, but everyone under 13 seemed to be having a ball.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov


D: Ice Cube; with Lisa Raye, Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Crystale Wilson, Monica Calhoun. (R, 103 min.)

Grab those hankies and bottomless popcorn tubs, fellas; there's a new entry in the burgeoning field of pastie-whirling stripper flicks cum social commentaries. Pardon me if I sound a tad cynical about the motives behind this directing-writing debut from L.A. hardcore rapper Ice Cube. It's just that these movies (lump TPC in with the likes of Striptease and Showgirls) are so blatantly intended as virtual lap dances for guys who like their onanistic fantasies served with Skittles rather than buffalo wings that any other response would seem naïve. That said, Cube still earns a Breast of Show by -- as they say in the rap biz -- keepin' it real. His heroine, a bodacious yet initially innocent shoe clerk named Diamond (Raye), seems like a person we've met before. Her jump from ringing up Manolo Blahniks to grinding onstage in a funky downtown rut-room is a believable extrapolation of words many frustrated, underemployed women have spoken: "Screw this, man! If I'm gonna humiliate myself at work maybe I should at least do it at the strip joint and make myself some money!" More respect is due the director for portraying the "girls" as regular people with kids, boyfriends, parents, and college exams to study for. By contrast, the women of Showgirls seemed more like soulless fembots writhing in a gleaming celestial masturbatorium -- a definite hindrance to both credibility and lust appeal. I'm also partial to Mr. Cube's avoidance of moral judgment regarding the "anything for da long green" ethic alternately espoused and condemned by his characters. Honestly, serious intent aside, the truest reference points for this aimless and amiable story are raunchy guy-comedies such as Mo' Money and House Party, along with blaxploitation classics like The Mack. By far the most enjoyable scenes arise from a farcical side plot involving efforts by the club's rascally owner (Mac) to dodge his well-armed creditors. Violence, suffice to say, gets equal billing with sex. A ballistic arsenal of D-Day proportions gets squeezed off, often at close range, but miraculously nobody dies. Likewise, few of the gruesome, face-crunching fight scenes leave physical traces more lasting than Elmer Fudd's cartoon mishaps. The only truly disturbing moment is an incongruously vicious rape that is played out of view. This is probably all for the best. Any content that really aspired to greater gravity would surely have been nullified by the shocking dearth of acting talent on hand. For all her hella slammin' looks, Raye is a direly limited actress. And apart from Mac's uproariously gonzo raving and Wilson's campy gusto as the club's evil lesbian alpha stripper, this would be a lock for worst-acted film of the year. Still, within the realm of salacious funny-boner movies, the coming summer will surely deliver far worse than The Players Club. Unsettling thought, that.

2.0 stars

Russell Smith


D: Peter Medak; with Michael Madsen, Natasha Henstridge, Marg Helgenberger, Mykelti Williamson, George Dzundza, James Cromwell, Myriam Cyr, Justin Lazard. (R, 95 min.)

Mars needs women! (Or, at the very least, a better method of conception.) This bracingly inane sequel to 1995's surprise hit Species operates on the classic more-is-better conceit, this time featuring more stillborn dialogue, more preposterous plotting, and loads more gore (courtesy of Steve Johnson, who can still make a pregnant woman's distended belly explode like nobody's business). Henstridge's legions of salivating fans will unfortunately be nonplused to learn that the only thing this sequel offers less of is that actress's much-anticipated nude scenes, with only one climactic rutting in the final reel. Instead, the fleshy action film revolves around returning Mars Mission commander Patrick Ross (Lazard), who is just back from that angry red planet with a snootful of fizzy alien DNA cluttering up his already randy bloodstream. A boldly paranoid metaphor for AIDS, or a boldly silly metaphor for high school libidos run amok? Your guess is as good as mine, but in the end the point is moot: Species II is formulaic sex and violence devoid of even a smidgen of originality. When Ross and his two co-crew members touch down back on Big Blue, he receives a hero's welcome, and the promise from his Senator father (Cromwell, a long way off from Babe here) that, "Someday, son, you're going to be the president." Ross couldn't care less about his political future, though; he's too busy giving it up to the evil within and schtupping every woman in sight, popping tentacles like some wild Japanese anime demon and ushering in his ominously silent, newborn progeny in the barn out back. Henstridge's Sil, meanwhile, has been cloned from her dead self and renamed "Eve" -- half human, she's been part of an ongoing biological government experiment, cloistered away in a Biohazard 4 room and attended to by a group of all-female scientists headed by Helgenberger's Dr. Laura Baker, who understands intuitively that Eve -- like, um, Spock on a nasty Romulan Ale bender -- is half human and half green-blooded, pointy-eared sex machine. When Ross and Eve finally come into close proximity, Eve's alien mating instincts take over and the H.R. Giger-designed effects go into horrific overdrive, which, of course, can only lead to one thing: the arrival of Madsen's security expert Press Lennox (!), a comically burly ex-NSA thug with a penchant for laser-sighted hand cannons and some of the worst lines in recent film memory. Then it's on to a stilted clash of the titans as Eve and Ross duel it out and goo gets more screen time than anything else. Shoddily plotted and unimaginative, Species II is a slapdash effort at best, creepily unaffecting and minus the T&A this sort of film so desperately hinges on.

1.0 stars

Marc Savlov

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