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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MAY 4, 1998: 

DANCER, TEXAS POP. 81

D: Tim McCanlies, with Breckin Meyer, Peter Facinelli, Ethan Embry, Eddie Mills, Patricia Wettig, Eddie Jones, Alexandra Holden, Wayne Tippit. (PG, 97 min.)

There are so many captivating characters, so many funny moments, and so much sweet affection in this movie, its ending comes as a sorrowful leave-taking. You're tempted to wave goodbye to it (if you have a hankie to wave, so much the better) and linger in your seat long after the lights have come up. John, Keller, Squirrel, and Terrell Lee are four fast friends who are fixin' to graduate and make good on their childhood pact to get the heck out of Dancer, Texas, thereby decreasing their hometown's population by five percent. Their plans are to head out to L.A., believing that their small-town woes will disappear once they're west of the Rockies. Most of the townspeople know better, of course -- some hold their counsel, some relate long and (hilariously) tragic tales about the fate of similar odysseys, and still others make book on how many, if any, of the four will actually leave. And, indeed, as the film progresses, it looks as if the skeptical bookie will prosper. Faced with imminent departure, each boy struggles with the childhood vow, and just who will take that westbound bus is uncertain. The hours that unfold between graduation and the estimated time of departure tell a loving and funny tale of small-town life distilled into the creak of a porch swing or the dust from a speeding car on a lonely highway, a tale of opportunities that beckon and ties that bind. Writer/director Tim McCanlies proves that rural wit is not an oxymoron. A wonderful script is matched by a terrific cast. Meyer (Keller) and Mills (John) are particular standouts. Keller is eager to leave and angry at his friends' defection, but he is Dancer's Everyman, a restless native son who is (and makes us) acutely aware of why they would choose to stay. Mills is simply big, big star material. Though John is the quietest of the four boys, Mills' slight frame and scrubbed face emit something powerful and pure, with a connection to that vast land that goes far beyond his years. His John is an anathema to L.A., a young man you'd like to meet. Patricia Wettig (thirtysomething) has a scene-stealing turn as Terrell Lee's mama. She captures a quality peculiar to rich Texas women: the ability to be icily brittle and sashay down the street at the same time. The film is filled with such performances -- fond and funny and never condescending. Shot entirely in the Fort Davis area, Dancer, Texas is a gorgeous picture that makes wonderful use of the West Texas landscape. We can breathe the air, squint at the sun, and feel dwarfed by the towering buttes and endless sky. And, sitting in traffic on I-35, I feel like getting the heck out of Austin and heading straight for Dancer, Texas, where the deer and the antelope and a bunch of warm and witty characters roam.

4.0 stars

Hollis Chacona



THE BUTCHER BOY

D: Neil Jordan; with Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Alan Boyle, Aisling O'Sullivan, Sinead O'Connor, Ian Hart, Milo O'Shea. (R, 105 min.)

Deeply tragic yet savagely funny, The Butcher Boy is an audacious account of a troubled and violent childhood. Set in a small rural town in Ireland in the early 1960s, the story was adapted for the screen by director Neil Jordan and author Patrick McCabe from McCabe's original novel. It tells the story of 12-year-old Francie Brady (Owens) as a kind of portrait of the madman as young boy. Blending aspects of Dickensian social perspective and magical realism, The Butcher Boy shows us the world as experienced by Francie (indeed, the film is carried along by the boy's disconcerting voiceover narration, which is by turns ironic, naïve, and vicious). The boy is both a sympathetic figure, a product of his environment, and a stone cold killer, who seems all the more frightening in light of the current American epidemic of childhood violence. Told from Francie's perspective, the film is an episodic chain of events, none of them carrying any more weight than the others. It's a boy's coming-of-age saga that owes as much to Huck Finn as it does to A Clockwork Orange. As the film opens, we get to know the young Francie: He lives with his alcoholic father and suicidal mother, and jokes and plays with his friend Joe (Boyle), with whom he play-acts a rich fantasy life based on bits and piece of (primarily American) popular culture. TV shows such as The Lone Ranger and The Fugitive, comic book superheroes, space alien movies, Atomic Age news reports, and iconographic wall hangings of the Madonna, JFK, and a happy honeymoon photograph portrait of his parents -- these are some of the unfiltered images slopping around in Francie's brain. The boy's still wearing short pants as his family begins to disintegrate and he becomes fixated on the town's pretentious Mrs. Nugent (Shaw) as the source of all his troubles. Some malicious mischief causes him to be sent away for the first time -- to a school where he is abused by one of the priests -- and when he returns home he begins working in a slaughterhouse. One by one, he's deserted by all those he's ever loved, while his irrational animosity toward the totemic Mrs. Nugent grows. Around this time he also begins having conversations with the Madonna (played by Sinead O'Connor). Far more events than can be related here occur along the way to The Butcher Boy's horrific climax. But through it all we witness it from Francie's perspective as he tries to earn what he facetiously calls the "Francie Brady's Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Award." After Jordan's last two big studio productions -- Interview With the Vampire and Michael Collins -- it's great to see the director back on more disquieting turf, the sort that has suited him so well in such films as Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves and The Crying Game. The Butcher Boy is bracing and disturbing material, alleviated only by a devilish gallows humor, but it cuts right to the heart of murderous mayhem.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



LES MISERABLES

D: Bille August; with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Hans Matheson, Reine Brynolfsson, Peter Vaughn. (PG-13, 129 min.)

I should confess up front that after a cursory high school reading of the classic novel and a late-Eighties viewing of the Broadway phenomenon, this is actually my first brush with a cinematic version of Victor Hugo's sprawling, melodramatic epic. That said, this version by director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) holds together extremely well; it's full of rich, dark hues and excellent overall casting that's highlighted by a bulky Neeson as the convict-turned-mayor-turned-redemptive archetype Jean Valjean and Rush as the grimly determined, obsessive-compulsive Inspector Javert. August is a master of distinctive shots and glowering close-ups (Thurman's woebegone Madonna/whore Fantine is almost always seen in grimy, gritty detail) and production manager Ales Komarek makes the most out of the film's Czech, Polish, and French location work. For those unfamiliar with Hugo's tale, Les Misérables begins outside of Paris in the early 19th century, when the recently paroled convict Valjean receives a new lease on life from an aging priest who parts with his silver in order to return his charge to the hands of God. Ten years later, Valjean has set himself up as the respected mayor of the community of Vigau, when his old nemesis Javert arrives in town as the new police chief. Javert recognizes and denounces Valjean, but not before the mayor falls in love with the lovely Fantine, a penniless streetwalker who soon dies of consumption. Having given his word to Fantine that he would seek out and protect her only child, the young Cosette, Valjean flees Vigau, locates Cosette, and raises her as his own daughter while hiding in a Parisian convent. Here, Cosette grows from a chipper street urchin into Claire Danes, and eventually falls for rabble-rouser Marius (Matheson), a handsome student intent on revolution. As Paris teeters on the brink of another internal disaster, Javert reappears just in time to finally arrest the saintly Valjean. That's not the final score, of course, but it's as much as I feel safe in revealing to all three of you who are new to the subject and period piece. August takes no prisoners: His Paris of 1812 and the July 1832 revolution is finely realized, crammed to bursting with scullery maids, wenches, and befouled extras. Likewise, his smooth tracking shots that snake through the subterranean sewers and the narrow, cobbled alleyways. And true to its source, August's version aroused not a few fusillades of sniffling from the audience around me. Condensing a massive tome like Les Misérables into a cohesive 129-minute film is a labor of love in any case, and August succeeds with remarkable, powerful results.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



New Reviews

THE BIG HIT

D: Che-Kirk Wong; with Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, Christina Applegate, Avery Brooks, Bokeem Woodbine, Lela Rochon, China Chow, Elliot Gould, Antonio Sabata, Jr. (R, 94 min.)

More aptly titled The Big Miss, this grade-Z action parody looks like a second-rate John Woo cast-off (Woo and longtime partner Terence Chang produced it, alongside a slumming Wesley Snipes) and feels like something out of Lloyd Kaufman's Big Bag o' Troma Rejects. Wahlberg makes a stunningly bad career move as Melvin Smiley, a Long Island hit man who just wants to be loved, so much so that he can't seem to break up with either his uncomically Jewish fiancée Pam (Applegate) or his mistress Chantel (Rochon). Things come to a head when, desperate for cash in order to keep Chantel happy, he takes a moonlighting gig with his buddies and ends up kidnapping Keiko (Chow), the goddaughter of head honcho Paris (Brooks, of Deep Space Nine). From here on out, it's one long, long, long chase to avoid slaughter by his old henchman Cisco (Phillips), who's turned tail and is out to save his own skin by flaying Melvin's. Confused yet? Ah, but this is just the first 20 minutes, grasshopper. Incidental comedy comes and goes in The Big Hit like artillery at a Triad block party, but very little of it connects. Thankfully, director Wong has a firm grasp on the action, and plenty of skillfully over-the-top shoot-outs litter the film like spent shell casings, but all action and an incomprehensible plot make for one strange hybrid. This almost feels like one of Sammo Hung's early comedy misfires, although it enjoys a bigger budget and the added bonus of Elliott Gould as a Passover lush. Mark Walhberg's adenoidal monotone works to good effect in The Big Hit's first 30 minutes or so, but a running gag involving a late video store rental and his character's wanton inanities quickly make one wish for surcease from this emerging master of unfunny comedy. Phillips, Woodbine, Brooks, and all the rest of Wahlberg's crew turn their acting up to "11" and then rip the knobs off. Never have I seen so much ham in a film with so many overtly Jewish characters, nor would I care to again. Christina Applegate, so good in Gregg Araki's Nowhere, reverts here to her Married With Children mode, while, in the background, Lela Rochon seems to screech every other line, drawing out her consonants in ways that'd make Urkel proud. A genuinely freakish melange of bad acting, godawful production design, and one of the most convoluted plots of the Nineties, The Big Hit is for masochists only, and hardcore ones at that.

0 stars

Marc Savlov Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Tinseltown North, Tinseltown South, Westgate



HE GOT GAME

D: Spike Lee; with Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty, Hill Harper, Bill Nunn, Jim Brown, Zelda Harris, Lonette McKee. (R, 136 min.)

With He Got Game, the director most capable of delivering Hollywood's first truly great hoop drama squares up at the three-point line and takes a big, no-conscience shot for all the marbles. The result? Well, neither a brick nor an extension of Malik Hassan Sayeed's gorgeously filmed visual symphony of nothing-but-net jumpers that opens the movie. Among several factors that keep this nervy, ambitious film from delivering the emotional slam dunk promised by those dazzling images, one of the most puzzling is Lee's failure to play to his strength. For all his superfan's intimacy with b-ball culture, he focuses less on the sport's fascinating mystique than on generic recapitulation of how celebrity culture seduces and devours young minority athletes. The two key players are ultrastud schoolboy hoopster Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks) and his dad, Jake (Denzel Washington), who's in prison for accidentally killing his wife. Jake catches a break early on when the jocksniffing New York governor offers to furlough him out and trim his sentence if he can wheedle Jesus (whose name is, regrettably, milked for every lame biblical play on words you can imagine) into playing for his alma mater. With the upstanding but harried youngster already ducking swarms of human parasites -- agents, coaches, journalists, and his conniving girlfriend -- who all claim to have his best interests at heart, the sudden reappearance of his less-than-beloved Pops is just one more cause for suspicion and bitterness. With brilliant recent documentaries like Hoop Dreams and Soul in the Hole having already covered similar situations with the force of great fictional drama, it behooves Lee to dig for still deeper revelations. Instead, due to an apparently conscious decision to reduce every character and situation to generic archetypes (even the colleges wooing Jesus have names like Big State and Tech U) in search of mythic universality, he ends up telling us nothing we don't already know about how money, hype, and celebrity mania trash the virginal purity of sports. Playing a role deliberately written not to strain his limited acting range, the neophyte Allen hangs in respectably, though there's only so much variety one can inject into four or five readings of the line, "You're not my father, man!" And Washington stretches impressively in a role that calls for rough, inarticulate workingman's torment rather than the debonair suavity for which he's known. But despite the affecting father-son storyline and Lee's ability to deliver scenes that sizzle with an indie-film freshness and vitality few mainstream directors even try to match, too many other scenes (including the finale) are bombastic groaners that rampage across the line separating big-heartedness and schlock. To rate such a wildly uneven film essentially forces an aggregate, rather than general evaluation. There's just too much to cover with one clean toss of the critical net. But then, that's Spike Lee as we've always known him. Sometimes brilliantly on target, sometimes way off, but never afraid to take the big shots that safer, more risk-averse filmmakers pass off when the artistic stakes are high.

3.0 stars

Russell Smith



MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS

D: John Warren; with Scott Bakula, Corbin Bernsen, Dennis Haysbert, Takaaki Ishibashi, Jensen Daggett, Eric Bruskotter, Bob Uecker, Ted McGinely. (PG-13, 97 min.)

Back to the MinorsÍ yeah, that sounds about right for this third installment in the Major League film franchise. This time out Tom Berenger has bailed, and so too Charlie Sheen. But perhaps most grievously, also on the missing list is Major League auteur David S. Ward (for it can now be said without a doubt that Ward was the one responsible for imbuing the series with any heart or team spirit. The Cleveland Indians have been traded in for the Minnesota Twins, but otherwise returning for duty are Corbin Bernsen, Dennis Haysbert (as the goofy voodoo ballplayer), Takaaki Ishibashi (as the goofy Japanese ballplayer) and Bob Uecker (as the goofy announcer). Scott Bakula, for his part, brings an easygoing charm to the proceedings, acting as though he's really comfortable with the project and not just marking time until another TV project comes along. Story-wise, it's the same old story. A minor-league pitcher whose arm is shot receives an offer to manage the Twins' Triple-A team. Of course, he doesn't snatch it right up because he has to think about the offer and whether or not he wants to stay in baseball (he has so many other opportunities). But of course he stays in the game and turns a band of inept misfits into a winning outfit (by making them believe in themselves). Then they have to test their mettle once again when the nutty major-league owner (McGinley) challenges them to a competition. Guess who wins. No surprises, no home runs, no outs, no one on base. Just another silly excuse to round the bases once more for a new crop of 10-year-old movie-going veterans.

1.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



NO LOOKING BACK

D: Edward Burns; with Burns, Lauren Holly, Jon Bon Jovi, Connie Britton, Blythe Danner. (R, 96 min.)

Surely there's more to life than choosing Mr. Right; that isÍ unless you happen to be a woman stuck in an Edward Burns movie. Actually, the men in No Looking Back have pretty limited interests and activities as well. Everyone in this film's wintry oceanside East coast town (an amalgam of the Rockaways on Long Island and the Jersey shore) is a hard-working, blue-collar laborer who works overtime shifts and relaxes by kicking back a few with friends and loved ones at the local tavern. It's as though they were all characters in a Bruce Springsteen song, and indeed several songs by New Jersey's poet laureate dot the soundtrack. Ever since the extraordinary success of his first film, The Brothers McMullen (an extremely low-budget production that reportedly became the most profitable film of 1995), triple-threat writer/director/actor Burns has been unjustly saddled with the attempt to best himself. He didn't achieve it with his sophomore romance She's the One; he's not likely to have much more box-office success with the muddled No Looking Back. Though the acting is solid and the physical milieu is evocative, the characters are thin and unbelievable. Holly plays Claudia, a woman in her early 30s who works as a waitress in a diner and has a longstanding relationship with her live-in boyfriend Michael (Bon Jovi). Michael's cute (he's Jon Bon Jovi, after all), he's very hard-working, he's dependable, responsible, and hot to marry Claudia, but she, for some reason, deflects his proposals. The film opens as Charlie (Burns) climbs off a bus and back into the town he left without a word three years ago. No one's too excited to see him this time around -- not his mother, not his old girlfriend Claudia, and not his old best friend Michael. Before long, this part-time gas station attendant is hitting on Claudia again and she's just bored enough with her life (and the fearful certainty of its dull future) that she pays attention. Exactly what she sees in this ne'er-do-well who abandoned her once and now has only vague promises of making a fresh start in Florida is unclear. Burns is wonderful as the seductive bad boy, but by casting himself in this role he leaves little doubt as to the story's ultimate narrative progression. Holly, however, imbues Claudia with too much intelligence to make this story about a woman with zero options believable. As supporting family characters, Danner as Claudia's mother and Britton as her sister provide some of the film's edgier moments. With this third film, Burns for the first time has scripted a romantic tale from the perspective of a woman but again the dramatic arc is reduced to nothing more complicated than He's the One.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



THE SPANISH PRISONER

D: David Mamet; with Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman. (PG, 112 min.)

Writer-director David Mamet is up to his old tricks again. In fact, if the title were not already taken, he might have named this film House of Games. As it is, he named this new film The Spanish Prisoner, a term described as the moniker for "the oldest con in the world." Mamet seems intent here on creating a labyrinthine Hitchcockian thriller, along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or North by Northwest. Campbell Scott makes an excellent Jimmy Stewart-style Everyman -- seemingly a patsy ripe for duping. But the key word here is "seeming," as the film takes great pains to point out on numerous occasions. Mamet sets up the situation in a way that encourages the viewers to consider all the angles. Good guy, bad guy; is she or isn't she? We're invited to mull every possibility, as though the mental game of trying to uncover the magician's sleight of hand is the real endgame and the fluffy rabbit is mere window dressing. And to a certain degree that's true. However, The Spanish Prisoner seems an almost purely theoretical exercise, with Mamet as the con man whose sole goal is to make us believe anything he wants. It feels rather manipulative and makes us feel a bit too conscious of the trickery at hand, especially given all the film's explicit warnings that things are rarely what they seem, and conversely, that things are usually exactly what they seem to be. And with Campbell Scott practically walking through this whole thing with a "kick me" sign on his back, he's the perfect foil for all this push me/pull me action. Add to this structural artifice the calculated clip of Mamet's unique dialogue blocking, and the result is a work that never lets us escape the knowledge that it is a work of pure fabrication. The Spanish Prisoner is populated with constructs rather than a sense of flesh-and-blood characters. We never fear for any of these characters or worry whether the crop duster is going to mow them down. Nevertheless, taken for what it is, The Spanish Prisoner is actually quite a lot of fun. The performances are all solid, and the cat-and-mouse storyline is always a diverting amusement. (And who ever suspected that David Mamet had a script in him that could pass PG muster?) But for such a lot of supposedly smart people, these characters do an awful lot of dumb things.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



STILL BREATHING

D: James F. Robinson with Brendan Fraser, Joanna Going, Celeste Holm, Ann Magnuson, Lou Rawls, Angus MacFadyen, Toby Huss, Paolo Seganti, Michael McKean, Junior Brown. (PG-13, 109 min.)

Fletcher McBracken (Fraser) is a sweet, dreamy young man who suffers the same curse that his father and his father's father suffered. Each has been fated to envision the woman of his dreams, and then set off to find and win her. Fletcher spends his spare time cutting up magazine pictures and gluing a collage of features into some semblance of his destined love. The wall in his house is covered with them. It's a desultory pastime, though, one in which Fletcher only halfheartedly believes, so the collages are never quite right. But his grandmother, Ida (Holm) who was herself a chosen one, helps him persevere until one night his destiny is revealed in a vision and he can assemble truer pictures. Armed with his surreal collages, Fletcher sets off in search of his beloved, a quest which takes him to Los Angeles (by way of China, sort of). That his true love is a jaded, cynical beauty of the walking-wounded variety puts the whole crusade into jeopardy. Roz Willoughby (Going) has turned the tables on life as she has experienced it. Her vocation of conning men out of their money is not stealing, but a form of divine retribution. A perfect career choice, she can use her art expertise, not to mention her considerable charms, and never risk the thing she fears most -- emotional entanglement. Going is perfect as the tightly reined Roz. Her whole being is closed and off-limits, her face a lovely, impenetrable mask. Unfortunately, it stays that way. Going never softens, her eyes stay hard and guarded. The mask changes expression and speaks the right words, but it is a mask all the same and there is no reflection of romance in it. On the other hand, Fraser is positively rubber-faced. He confuses dreaminess with bewilderment, substituting half-witted grins for beatific contentment. There is too little chemistry between Roz and Fletcher and without more, the alchemy is evanescent. Only Celeste Holm fits the picture. Her Ida is aglow with a warm, eccentric magic -- the kind that smells good and fills you with an abrupt ease. The notion of Still Breathing is sweet and lovely, and possesses moments of breathtaking beauty -- Fletcher turning a projector on Roz, using her skin as a sensuous, reflective screen; a miniature cairn constructed in the palm of a hand; Ida playing an easy, affectionate Chopin on her tuba. Adding to the charm is a marvelous and evocative soundtrack that completes rather than overwhelms the images. The picture has the power to enchant, it just can't sustain the spell. Still Breathing is not without wonder, but when you're trying to weave magic, the incantation has to be exactly right. (5/1/98)

3.0 stars

Hollis Chacona



TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY

D: Carl Schenkel; with Casper Van Dien, Jane March, Steven Waddington. (PG, 80 min.)

Van Dien, late of Starship Troopers, is back in what appears to be another unintentional satire in this umpteenth variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs' formidable series. Unfortunately, the late, lamented Johnny Weissmuller had more charismatic chutzpah in a single digit than Van Dien has in his whole abflexed frame. The film opens promisingly enough with a title crawl informing us that the story is picking up after John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke Manor (aka Tarzan) has returned to his ancestral manse to take his rightful place in the British upper crust. Engaged to his true love Jane (March), he's about to cross the threshold when his old jungle friends telepathically contact him from darkest Africa. It seems there is trouble afoot, and without as much as a by-your-leave, John catches the next steamer to the continent and is back in the veldt faster than you can say "contrivance." Upon arriving, he finds himself up against a legion of vicious, greedy white men, led by the wholly unscrupulous Nigel Ravens (Waddington), who is intent on discovering and ransacking the lost city of Opar -- all the while putting down as many natives and forest-dwellers as possible. Everyone in this film is either diabolically evil or annoyingly just, with precious little middle ground. It's black versus white, right against might all the way down the line, making this one of the most exasperatingly dull outings since John Derek decided to showcase wife Bo's aureola in white clay back in 1981. With Jane's arrival in the land of the Opar (and just how did she get there, anyway?), the film gives the Ape Man a sort of double-jeopardy situation, fighting to protect his gun-toting bride and the Oparians while shedding slacks in favor of that old standby, the rustic loincloth. March is lovely to look at, but her acting chops remain on a par with Van Dien's, and together they're as insufferable a pair as you'd ever want to endure. Thankfully the monosyllabic "Me Tarzan, you Jane" vocalisms have been cast aside in favor of the King's English, but then it doesn't help matters that the script seems to have been penned by Cheetah while in the midst of a banana daiquiri bender. Schenkel can only keep things interesting for so long with some nicely expansive shots of the African interior, but when it comes to choreographing action, he's all non-opposable thumbs, resulting in a slight Tarzan with wooden acting, petrified action, and all the fun of a elephant-leg end table.

0 stars

Marc Savlov


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