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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

APRIL 27, 1998: 

THE BIG ONE

D: Michael Moore. (PG, 96 min.)

Michael Moore is fast becoming all things to all people. He is seriously in danger of becoming the new American Shmoo... you remember, that adorable, bottom-heavy, blobby thing in Li'l Abner that would shape-shift into anything that's sure to please its human host. Well, Moore is hardly quite that ego-less, but his routine as America's roving populist gadfly is a great act. In 1989's Roger & Me, we came to recognize him as that peskily dogged inquisitor of elusive corporate CEOs (namely GM's Roger Smith) and the quick-reflexed political satirist cum performance artist. In The Big One (which refers to Moore's idea for a new, more descriptive name for the United States), Moore more or less picks up where Roger & Me left off. Halfway through a 47-city book tour in 1996 to promote his bestseller Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed America, Moore enlisted a small, down-and-dirty film crew to join him in his travels across America. In every city, Moore finds some corporate injustice to expose, some company bigwig to humiliate (though the reality is that his encounters are primarily with lower-echelon company flacks and security guards). Still, he has a knack for these guerrilla-style raids. In one city he'll be on a mission to speak directly to the corporate head of the Payday candy bar factory or Johnson Controls, where workers had just received layoff notices. In another, he's bonding with Borders bookstore clerks who are trying to form a union. In perhaps his biggest coup, Nike CEO Phil Knight invited Moore to come by while in Seattle, and their meeting provides the film's climax. We also witness a kinder, more gentle Moore than we've seen in the past, talking with fans, hugging a distraught woman who's just been pink-slipped, and impishly suffering the tribulations of a jam-packed book tour and the schoolmarmish local handlers that the publisher sics on him in each new location. Moore here also seems more the comedian, a satirist who knows a good barb when he sees one and finds laughter as essential to life as political analysis. Of course, with all the big bucks and celebrityhood that has come Moore's way since the phenomenal success of Roger & Me, Moore can probably afford a little more generosity of spirit. Still, it's hard not to become annoyed with his peripatetic demagoguery, stirring the masses one day but then moving on down the road before the brass tacks begin to penetrate. Being a professional rabble-rouser may lack definition as occupational description, but it sure lays the groundwork for some spirited filmmaking. Certainly, much of The Big One is recycled material seen before in Roger & Me and TV Nation, but Moore now seems ready to accept his place as a popular entertainer. And though the film tends to ramble as the cameras follow Moore to and fro, we don't necessarily mind because The Big One knows how to put on a good roadshow.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



HURRICANE STREETS

D: Morgan J. Freeman; with Brendan Sexton III, Isidra Vega, Shawn Elliot, Lynn Cohen, Edie Falco, David Roland Frank, Heather Matarazzo, L.M. Kit Carson. (R, 89 min.)

If Truffaut had set The 400 Blows in the mean streets of New York's Lower East Side, it might have ended up looking something like this. Freeman's noirish tale of edgy inner-city youth and the problematic stepping stones a young man encounters in his effort to do the right thing is a genuinely affecting piece of NYC realism; it's a cinema vérité take on a Bowery childhood. Fifteen-year-old Marcus (Sexton) spends his days pulling minor scams - shoplifting and such - with his band of street-urchin thugs-in-training. They'll grab a CD here, a Walkman there, and then resell the misappropriated goods to the highest bidder outside the public school down the street, all the while zipping about on their cruisers and keeping one step ahead of the truancy cops. Parental guidance is in short supply here, as Marcus' mother (Falco) is serving out a jail sentence for allegedly smuggling illegal immigrants into the country and his grandmother Lucy (Cohen) is operating a shady neighborhood bar. It's all kicks and grins, it seems, but Marcus is a gentle soul who longs to escape the city's blight and return to New Mexico where he was born. Circumstances being what they are in Hurricane Streets, that doesn't look too likely, as emerging gang leader and quasi-pal Chip (Frank) dreams of grand theft auto and breaking and entering as a way up the criminal ladder. When Marcus meets up with Melena (Vega), a streetwise, roller-skating Latina who instantly recognizes the poet inside the budding criminal, a hesitant romance blossoms, and for a while it looks like Marcus and his new girl (who's also a victim at the hands of her abusive father) may actually make their dreams come true. No such luck, as fate conspires against the two á la Romeo and Juliet, a gun introduced in the first act goes bang in the third, and the police begin picking up the members of the Marcus' crew, one by protesting one. The remarkable thing about Freeman's film is just how well it manages to capture the intangible essence of youth without dipping overboard into pure pap sentimentality. If there's one thing Hurricane Streets isn't, it's sentimental. Rose-tinted glasses are traded in for grimy, half-shattered Ray-Bans in Freeman's world view, but the phenomenal Sexton III and Vega are instantly recognizable - and instantly believable - as the lovestruck, tragic pair. Morgan J. Freeman (not to be confused with the actor) has a great knack for evoking the city as well, with its boggy, weedy tenement lots and the crisp, summertime joy of tear-assing around town on your best bike. It's a bracingly affecting debut, not only for Freeman, but for newcomers Vega and Sexton as well.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



GONIN

D: Takashi Ishii; with Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, Naoto Takenaka, Jimpachi Nezu, Masahiro Motoki, Koichi Sato, Jinpachi Nezu, Kippei Shiina, Toshiyuki Nagashima. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

Now that everyone seems to have had their fill of the works of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and other Hong Kong action directors, it's time to move over to Japan, which is experiencing a sort of film renaissance of late, particularly in the genre of the old yakuza films, a gangster subset that first came of age in the mid-to-late Sixties. This new offering from Ishii, a longtime-manga (adult comic book) artist-turned-film director, is a case in point: It's not unlike classic Peckinpah in its dizzying, migraine-inducing depiction of operatic, slow-motion violence, but at the same time it operates as an unconditionally Japanese film, rife with Nipponese references even as it borrows its blood-soaked cues from everywhere else at once. Bandai (Sato) plays a Tokyo nightclub owner in deep with the Japanese mob, which is led by a decidedly psychotic Ogoshi (Nagashima). Unable to escape from under his massive debt, Bandai hooks up with a cross-dressing hustler by the name of Mitsuya (Motoki), and together they round up a wayward group of like-mined individuals to take on Ogoshi's thugs and assassins once and for all. What follows is a terrifically choreographed dance of death, with ammo rounds entering and exiting flesh with wild abandon, and aluminum Louisville Sluggers flailing away upon skull after skull after skull. Testosterone to the nth degree, Ishii's film might have been relegated to the dust heap of Eastern action films were it not for the blazing turns by his performers (most notably Takeshi "Beat" Kitano as one of Ogoshi's merciless assassins and Naoto Takenaka as Ogiwara, a disgruntled salaryman with a sickly, molten core) and its stunning cinematography (which plays like Scorsese's worst nightmare on bathtub crank). Desperate images of desperate men committing soul-searing acts of violence just to stay alive, director of photography Yasushi Sasakibara drowns the screen in repeated shots of wet, rainy mayhem undercut with deep blues and reds. It's as if the movie had been shot on some sort of Tokyo Neon film stock, so eye-popping and eerie are the primary colors that wash over the screen. Not just another Asian shoot-'em-up by any stretch of the imagination, Gonin comes across as a latter-day update of early Sergio Leone thematics (many of which were originally cribbed from Kurosawa, truth be told) and the swirling, garish pop-cinematography of Seventies-era Dario Argento. It's a wild, deliciously unnerving ride, full of excessive everything, from the shell casings on down.

4.0 stars

Marc Savlov



SLIDING DOORS

D: Peter Howitt; with Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Douglas McFerran, Zara Turner. (PG-13, 105 min.)

Don't let the title fool you. Sliding Doors has nothing in common with the obstreperous aluminum patio portals in soulless suburban houses. Quite the contrary. This lovely little British movie is filled with the mystery of those noiseless, invisible thresholds around us - the blind luck of love, the random strike of tragedy, the slippery digressions of deceit. In a finely realized and multi-layered first film, writer-director Peter Howitt treats us to a clever and urbane exploration of the monumental repercussions of tiny twists of fate. Helen (Paltrow) has just been fired from her PR job, and on her way home, dual scenarios are played out. In the first, Helen bumps into a little girl on the steps of the subway and misses her train, delaying her homecoming and affording her philandering lover a narrow escape. In the second scenario (after the footage literally rewinds and begins again), the little girl is whisked out of the way and Helen slips through the closing doors of the train, thereby encountering the charming, jocular commuter James (Hannah), and interrupting Jerry's mid-morning tryst. From that pivotal moment of missing or catching the train, the film follows two parallel, but very different, narratives. (Helen #2 cuts and bleaches her hair in a post-betrayal metamorphosis, and so that we'll know just which Helen we're seeing.) The brunette Helen labors on in her relationship, suspicious (Jerry is not the cleverest of Casanovas) and weary (she cannot find another PR position and must take two menial jobs to support them both). She grows paler and more remote in each scene while the blonde Helen, freed by her anger and courted by James, grows more vibrant and joyful (she is, after all, having more fun). But, we find out as the stories unfold, even parallels do not follow straight tracks. The wonderful script is matched by an engaging cast. Paltrow's chameleon beauty dazzles as the dual Helens, wanly aloof one moment and coltishly exuberant the next. Lynch manages to make dirty dog Jerry as endearing as he is exasperating - a contrite and sweet-faced basset hound who gets into the garbage again and again even though he really does know better. More winning still is Hannah's performance. In a movie literally filled with wonderful surprises, his James is an unexpected gift - the kind you stumble upon when the fates are smiling. Poorly wrapped and easy to overlook, he's Sliding Doors' reminder of all the hidden treasures out there. If you don't have one yet, you simply haven't happened upon the right door. Yet.

3.5 stars

Hollis Chacona



New Reviews:

THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION

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

The prevailing, cynical joke in some circles of single heterosexual women is that the only men worth marrying are already married or gay. The romantic comedy-lite The Object of My Affection comes close to perpetuating that myth in its depiction of the complicated relationship between a pregnant social worker, Nina (Aniston), and her gay roommate and best friend, George (Rudd). The problem is that Nina's feelings for George are more than platonic, a development in their domestic arrangement that George cannot confront directly. Of course, the notion of a thicker-than-blood affinity between two such people isn't out of the ordinary - think as recently as Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett in My Best Friend's Wedding - but when sex, commitment, and babies enter the picture, things get knotted. Wendy Wasserstein's screenplay for The Object of My Affection, which is based on Stephen McCauley's novel, is situationally contrived; from Nina and George's first meeting, to the way they come to live together, to the way they decide to raise Nina's child, the storyline lacks credibility. Why don't these two reasonably intelligent people realize what they're getting themselves into before it almost destroys their friendship? (Of course, it's always easy to be objective about others' relationships, isn't it?) Just when the film starts to demonstrate some wisdom about the age-old dichotomy of s/he who loves and s/he who is loved, it resorts to clichéd melodramatics as the brewing conflict between Nina and George finally comes to a head. As likable as Aniston and Rudd are, their respective movie presences have not yet developed to the degree that they can overcome the shortcomings of The Object of My Affection. So, for the most part, the movie just plods along, occasionally funny and usually so-so. To its credit, however, it doesn't perpetuate another prevailing, cynical joke in some circles of single heterosexual women: The love of a good woman is all a gay man needs to "straight"en him out.

2.0 stars

Steve Davis



PAUL MONETTE: THE BRINK OF SUMMER'S END

D: Monte Bramer. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

One imagines that even in the direst moments of his slow death from AIDS, the resolutely good-humored writer Paul Monette savored the irony of reviews pegging him as a "late bloomer." It was, after all, the ghastly blighting force of terminal illness that inspired his mid-life development from a marginal poet manqué into an award-winning literary lion. Still, the flowering metaphor wasn't entirely off the mark. As Monte Bramer's tough, lucid, big-souled documentary attests, there's an almost primal quality of triumph in the moment when a mind wired from birth for artistic expression finds its true subject. For Monette, that was the AIDS outbreak of the early 1980s. Like an icy night wind, the epidemic roused the gay pretty boy preppie from 20 years of personal and artistic slumber, inspiring a string of brilliant books capped by the coming-out memoir, "Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story" (which won the National Book Award) and "Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir." Using the serviceable if unoriginal format of talking-heads testimonials from friends blended with still photos and videos of the subject, Bramer paints Monette as a man whose inability to face a core element of his own identity - his homosexuality - barred him from any real self-knowledge until early middle age. AIDS not only forced Monette to deal with his sexuality but filled him with an obsessive urge to divine some kind of meaning from the enveloping horror and chaos around him. As one subject says, in times of sadness and loss, artists like Monette do us the invaluable service of turning raw sorrow into eloquent, healing "lamentation." In a way, this film works like a nonfiction version of Norman René's Longtime Companion (1990), another movie that manages the trick of universalizing the responses of gay men to tragedy in their midst while at the same time unleashing a defiant manifesto of queer identity that straights are compelled to take or leave on its own terms: Tender suburban domesticity and hard-muscled boys on the side; apron strings and cock rings. The best thing Paul Monette has to offer is Monette himself. With his calm, rational eyes peering out of a face that gradually collapses upon itself over a decade of taped interviews, he seems the very image of reason incarnate. Even his fits of hyperbole (declaring Pope John Paul II the most evil force in the world) seem forgivable because of the pure, unimpeachable moral fervor behind them. No matter how many times we hear it said that art redeems all our human failures and gives us the only immortality we can count on, it's a faith that fades without constant reinforcement. Paul Monette deserves our sincerest tribute for providing so much of that emotional nourishment during his 50-year life. And for delivering that tribute with such vigor and clarity, Monte Bramer deserves a good measure of the same.

3.5 stars

Russell Smith



SUICIDE KINGS

D: Peter O'Fallon; with Christopher Walken, Denis Leary, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flanery, Nathan Dana, Jay Mohr, Laura Harris, Jeremy Sisto, Johnny Galecki. (R, 106 min.)

A gangster-noir-comedy that fires blanks all the way through, O'Fallon's feature debut is a textbook example of the triumph of style of substance: 30 seconds after the end credits roll, you've already forgotten what you just saw, even though you may have a nagging suspicion that it sure looked good. Walken plays aging an mafia boss, Charlie Barrett, who finds himself kidnapped by a quintet of wealthy, Ivy League college boys intent on using his underworld contacts to secure the release of the sister of one of the boys, herself a mysterious kidnap victim. Avery Chasten (Thomas) appears to be the shaky ringleader of this motley band of wannabes, but it's Mohr's Brett - the hotheaded control freak - who holds all the cards. As Walken sits duct-taped to a leather chair in nervous Ira's (Galecki) palatial home, he plays, by rote, the same seething, quiet gangster role that has become his stock in trade over the years. Leary, as Barrett's right-hand-man Lono Vecchio, manages to inject some fiery rage into the proceedings as he scours the city in search of his missing boss, but even his garrulous protestations seem feigned and unimportant. In fact, the whole of Suicide Kings rests on the narrative crux that the audience is going to give a damn about the young kidnappers and what happens to them, but their eventual fates aren't nearly as interesting as trying to imagine how this tedious, unfunny comedy got the go-ahead in the first place. Granted, all the elements seem to be in place - Walken as the incapacitated arch-criminal, Leary as the toady, and the kidnapped girl whom you never really see - but O'Fallon's film is a hollow thing, a skeleton of a plot stripped of the musculature and synaptic musings that could have made it all worthwhile. Questions abound: How do these kids know about Walken's boss? In the grand scheme of things, why kidnap him in the first place? Honestly, what's it all about, Alfie? Not much, as far as you can tell from Josh McKinney, Gina Goldman, and Wayne Rice's convoluted and unaffecting scriptwork. Cookie-cutter characterizations and random acts of violence peppered with the occasional mangled digit and 9mm slug to the cranium do not a suspense film make. And Suicide Kings' morbid sense of humor does nothing but muddle the film's overall tone. Comedy? Caper flick? It's all too much, and simultaneously not enough by a long shot.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



TWO GIRLS AND A GUY

D: James Toback; with Robert Downey, Jr., Heather Graham, Natasha Gregson Wagner. (R, 84 min.)


Robert Downey, Jr. looks to double his pleasure in Two Girls and a Guy

Ah Spring, when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of... duplicitous, conniving, scheming, cheating, lying love. Toback once again directs Downey, Jr. (first time was in The Pick-up Artist in 1987) in this stagy paean to Nineties sexual mores, love, lust, and other crimes of the heart, but unfortunately, it's all a wash, and not nearly as interesting as the weekly heartbreaks of the Friends crew. As the film opens, two young women - Carla (Graham) and Lou (Wagner) are standing on the sidewalk outside a Soho loft. Engaging in polite chitchat to pass the time, each reveals that she is waiting for her boyfriend to show up in order to surprise him upon his homecoming. The catch? Carla and Lou's lovers are one and the same guy, the wolfish actor and bon vivant Blake (Downey), who's about to get the surprise of his life. After reaching their mutual discovery - and with Blake still nowhere in sight - they break into his second-story loft and begin swapping horror stories. Blake, obviously, has been stringing both of them along with the same foods, stories, and ultimate pronouncements of True Love. Alas, it's all a sham, as Blake finally arrives home to find his worst fears realized and his tongue cleaving to the roof of his woefully dishonest mouth. This sets in motion 60-plus minutes of intellectualizing the male (and female, at times) libido and the need (or lack thereof) for honesty in a relationship. At first, the two women want nothing more that to beat the living daylights out of this hideous cad, but after a bottle of liquor passes between the two, they begin to downplay the grousing and allow their combined sexuality take over. The real question is this: What is Toback saying here? That it's alright to cheat on your lovers? Or is his point more along the lines of the genetic impossibility of monogamy between two human beings? No real answers are forthcoming. The script - much of which was improvised over the course of the film's short, sharp shoot - touches on everything from bisexuality to wanton desires to forgiveness in the face of overwhelming infidelities to Mormonism. (Despite the film's now-infamous 15 trips to the ratings board in order to bring one particular scene down from an NC-17 to an R, the film hardly deserves its dangerous reputation.) Both Graham and Wagner (daughter of Natalie Wood) are terrific, but it's Downey who predictably steals the show. In light of his recent prison-stint and ongoing narcotics troubles, it's almost painful to watch his character agonize over his "secret life" and "ceaseless lies" onscreen. One shot of him flipping out as he rants at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and moans about "getting it together" is so literal it's shocking to watch. But that has more to do with the reality of the actor's life than Toback's film, which, it should be said, is, in the end, not much. Were this staged as a play, the drama might catch some live-audience frisson, but in theatres it's just too remote. The emotions are turbocharged and the topic is eternally relevant, but that's not enough to save Two Girls and a Guy from being a whiny, snoozy bore. Nice poster, though.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov


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