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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MAY 11, 1998: 


D: Shane Meadows; with Bob Hoskins, Danny Nussbaum, James Hooton, Darren O. Campbell, Justin Brady, Jimmy Hynd, Karl Collins, Johann Myers, Anthony Clarke. (R, 96 min.)

Hoskins returns to form after toiling in the fields of poor career decisions with this grittily likable meditation on dispossessed British youth chafing against the yoke of Thatcherism. Hoskins plays Alan Darcy, a working-class stiff with dreams of renovating his unnamed town's decrepit boxing club and turning it into a youth hangout. Stuck with memories of his own past fisticuffs glories, the rotund, unceasingly affable Darcy sees this as his one big chance to make a difference in his community and maybe save a few lost souls in the bargain. Among the kids who grudgingly line up to learn the correct way to throw a left hook are Nussbaum's gangly Tim, a born leader with a hair-spring trigger and the drugged-out Daz (Campbell) who'd prefer to let it all slide away into a comfortable miasma of downers. While the story may at first glance seem woefully clichéd and excessively nostalgic (although no firm date is given, it's all firmly rooted in a mid-Eighties economically bankrupt haze), Meadows is a masterful director; many cast members were hand-picked, non-acting street kids, but Meadows has them working like old hands here, firing off dodgy barbs and getting on like old mates. Finest among them is Nussbaum -- even his quiet, contemplative moments onscreen seethe with the barely restrained explosive energy of a peeved football hooligan, though the entire group is refreshingly abrasive and half-cocked. Hoskins, for his part, turns in a brilliant, career-resuscitating performance here. Darcy drags his busted, rusty dreams around behind him like Marley's ghost, but his stubborn pride refuses to let him sink into the alcoholic stupor that has obviously claimed so many of his contemporaries. When he hits on the idea of the boxing club (with financial backing from a local loan shark), the twinkle in his cherubic eyes lights up his whole girth, making him look like some merry prankster on a mission from God. Of course, there's trouble ahead, there always is, but even when Darcy senses the wolf in the fold, he's still prepared to go the distance. Hoskins' edgy turn is backed by Meadows' stunning black-and-white camera work (by cinematographer Ashley Rowe), which at once softens the grotty, urban proceedings and highlights the resourceful, doomed events onscreen. Many films (and doubtless many more yet made) have tackled the impact of Thatcher's boisterous home policies on the disaffected British working class, though few have done it with as much heart and soul as Meadows. Love, hate, lager, and boxing: What more could you ask for?

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov

New Reviews:


D: Kevin Hooks; with Patrick Swayze, Meat Loaf, Randy Tavis, Gabriel Casseus, Brian Vincent, Brenda Strong, Charles Dutton, Stephen Tobolowsky. (PG-13, 89 min.)

Patrick Swayze does some "dirty driving" in this routine trucker tale. There hasn't been a good truck-driving movie on the horizon since the glory days of CB radios and convoys. Black Dog does nothing to alter that situation. It's the kind of movie that gives good trucker movies (i.e., Jonathan Kaplan's White Line Fever, Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, Steven Spielberg's Duel and Hal Needham's first Smokey and the Bandit) a bad name. A butched-up Swayze plays Jack Crews, an unlicensed trucker hauling an illegal shipment of AK-47s from Atlanta to Newark, New Jersey. Jack used to be one of the best truckers around but then he pushed too far and saw the Black Dog -- the apparition reportedly seen by sleepy truckers at the end of the line. Jack's run-in with the Black Dog caused the death of two individuals. Now, after serving two years in prison, Jack has been released, minus his license to operate a rig. All he wants at this point is to do right by his wife and young daughter. But the bank is trying to foreclose on his house and his boss wants him to drive just this one illegal shipment, so what's an earnest, well-intentioned guy to do? Director Kevin Hooks demonstrates his massive versatility as he switches from the airplane action of Passenger 57 to the truck theatrics of Black Dog. The script by William Mickelberry and Dan Vining woefully slides by on auto-pilot and sports some of the worst dialogue this side of Quest for Fire. Lots of trucks get blown up real good (especially when colliding with trains or hurtling off cliffs). Swayze maintains a stolid, low-key presence throughout but it seems, well, too stolid and low-key for someone caught in the eye of this death run. Randy Travis has a tongue-in-cheek good time with his role as a trucker who writes tuneless country songs in his abundant spare time. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, as the gospel-spouting bad guy and sputtering loon, plays a character more tired than yesterday's meatloaf. The usually reliable Charles Dutton and Stephen Tobolowsky are utterly wasted as the squabbling FBI and ATF chiefs in charge of the mission. Black Dog is best kept on a short leash.

0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Mimi Leder; with Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maimilian Schell, Morgan Freeman. (PG-13, 123 min.)

With Deep Impact, the first of the summer's Earth vs. Meteors movies arrives.

The first of this summer's dueling comet films, Leder's Deep Impact takes the high road and offers up more tearful reunions than actual fireballs and more egregious, sappy dialogue than you can shake a tsunami at. How does the world end? Not with a bang, but with a sniffle. Leder brackets the earth's demise around three sets of characters: Wood's 14-year-old Leo Beiderman, who first sights the offending celestial object while out star-spotting with his high school astronomy club; Leoni's Jenny Lerner, an ambitious MSNBC journalist with plenty of familial issues; and Duvall's Spurgeon Tanner, the old-guard astronaut picked to head up a U.S.-Russian team sent to intercept and possibly destroy the comet before it wipes out the summer blockbuster season as we know it. Leder (and co-screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin) move things along at a stately pace -- we're 30 minutes into the film before the world is alerted to the impending crisis, but even then, there are still 10 months left before impact. Deep Impact uses the time to set up a "what if?" scenario that includes everything from the building of massive, underground bunkers that will preserve 200,000 of the best and brightest Americans (alongside an 800,000-strong lottery drawing) to the media's reaction to the largest story of all time, and from young love blooming in the face of overwhelming catastrophe to estranged families returning to the nest as the Eastern seaboard is engulfed in a 2,000-mile-per-hour tidal wave that makes James Cameron's Abyss wave look positively tedious. Still, this is a film about people (James Horner's lush, painfully obvious score keeps reminding you of that), and as it moves from one crisis to the next (i.e., Will Leo's newfound girlfriend make the lottery? Will Jenny forgive her philandering father?), the sheer weight of all the Melrose-esque storylines threatens to crush the forward momentum of the action saga at the heart of the tale. By far and away the slowest-moving disaster film since Irwin Allen's passing, Leder here trains her lens perhaps too closely on her characters in lieu of the action. It doesn't help matters that despite the close, personal attention to characterization, there's virtually no character development, or none that you wouldn't find outside of a TV Movie of the Week. Somber and reflective, the film seems leaden and moribund. Even Freeman's stilted, Jesse Jackson-esque speechifying ("lifeÖ will go on") is comically trite, evoking more chuckles than tears. So weighty, so serious, so very deadly dull, Deep Impact is a panacea for all those who complained about too many damn explosions in their summer action diet. Now you know: Be careful what you wish for.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov


D: Stephen Purvis; with Kenneth Cranham, Amanda Root, Marco Perella, C.K. McFarland, Tim Mateer, Jo Carol Pierce, Karen Kuykendall, John Hawkes, Ameerah Tatum, Lou Perryman, Janelle Buchanan, Amparo Garcia, Rodney Garza, Lucy Nalle. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

Kenneth Cranham and Amanda Root by the Treaty Oak in Deep In the Heart (of Texas).

The title says just about everything you need to know: This movie is truly one from the heart. A valentine to the idea that everyone in Texas is a character with a tall tale to tell, the strength of Deep in the Heart (of Texas) is in its forceful characterizations and whimsical local color. Filled nearly to bursting with some of the best creative talent Austin has to offer, the film is sadly less than the sum of its parts. In fact, that very ability to distinguish the film's parts more clearly than its whole may be the source of the narrative's problems. Deep in the Heart is a film adaptation of a legendary Austin stage play, In the West. Developed during the mid- to late Eighties by the writers and actors of Big State Productions, the play was a series of monologues that evolved over time. Performed in a variety of combinations and an array of venues, the nationally recognized show began life as a creative reaction to a famous exhibit of Richard Avedon photographs, which the Big State players believed to be soulless portraits of Western stereotypes. The monologues brought to life a number of rich, colorful characters with stories, histories, and puzzles to tell. Thus, as an adaptation, Deep in the Heart had to overcome not only the standard pitfalls inherent in translating works from stage to screen, it also had to find ways to open up the self-contained monologues into a cohesive Our Town sort of flow. Unfortunately, the cellophane tape that patches the segments together never achieves the transparency and unobtrusiveness necessary for smooth continuity. Screenwriters Purvis, Jesse Sublett, and Tom Huckabee have introduced the linking characters of two British documentary filmmakers who have come to Austin to film the locals. The ironically named Robert Flaherty (Cranham) and Kate Markham (Root) are a married couple whose conjugal turmoil is played out against the dramas of the people they interview. Robert and Kate are replaying a crisis they've experienced before in which Robert goes "all native" on Kate and loses his objectivity and critical edge. Their personal drama, however, lacks passion and depth. We are told things about their relationship but never really see them experience them -- much like going to the trouble of naming a character Robert Flaherty and then never developing that resonant curiosity into anything of greater substance. Also, these British observers rarely seem organically integrated within the monologues, the scenes still seem discrete and awkwardly isolated. (Much of this is the practical result of grafting material filmed for a demo reel with footage that was shot several years later.) Additionally, the monologues, themselves, frequently come dangerously close to falling into the kinds of stereotypes they sought to avoid. Still, even having this altered semblance of a document of this historic production is a precious thing. As a showcase for Austin actors, the film brings to a wider audience the talents of Marco Parella, C.K. McFarland, Tim Mateer, Jo Carol Pierce, Karen Kuykendall, John Hawkes, Lou Perryman, Janelle Buchanan, and Amparo Garcia, among others. Some memorable stand-outs include McFarland's haunting "pie lady" Sayra, Perryman's guileless deer hunter, Mateer's skillful "wild child," and Pierce's original storytelling (in which she relates the experience of her first meeting with writer Michael Ventura). Also finely represented here is an expanse of Texas music, with carefully chosen selections by such artists as Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rosie Flores, Wayne Hancock, and Marcia Ball (who also has a cameo appearance). Other unspoken players in Deep in the Heart are the Austin landscape and the Treaty Oak; their presence is the equivalent of the film's pulse. All these things are certain to quicken the souls of Austin viewers, although elsewhere the film has less chance of burrowing quite so deeply into the viewer's heart. (5/8/98)

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten

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