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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MAY 18, 1998: 

THE HORSE WHISPERER

D: Robert Redford; with Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, Dianne Wiest, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Catherine Bosworth. (PG-13, 164 min.)

I detect the scent of a golden statuette wafting in the breeze. Redford's adaptation of Nicholas Evans' bestselling novel is a countrified, monolithic thing of beauty -- gorgeous to behold despite the fact that its overlong two-hour-and-45-minute running time plays off Redford's weather-beaten golden boy good looks far too often for its own good. It's an homage to all things Redfordian -- the Big Sky country of Montana; the mercurial, saturnine beauty of the horses; and the redemptive power of love, patience, and the great outdoors. The film opens with a masterful sequence that sets the tone for the whole piece. On a snowy winter's morning in upstate New York, 14-year-old Grace MacLean (Johansson) leaves her parents' house to ride horses with her young friend Judith (Bosworth). The two girls discuss boys and ride through the back country until they encounter gravity while climbing a slope overlooking a rural route road. Judith's horse slips, throws her, and topples backwards down the slope into the path of an oncoming tractor trailer while Grace, astride her beloved horse Pilgrim, struggles to save Judith. Amidst the swirling snow, Judith is killed, Grace loses her right leg below the knee, and Pilgrim is terribly injured, his face a gory mess and his right front leg hideously torn. When Grace recovers, she's the shell of the girl she once was: bitter, angry, and terrified of the future. Her mother Annie (Thomas), a high-powered New York magazine editor (think Tina Brown of The New Yorker), refuses to have Pilgrim put down, and instead takes her wounded daughter and the damaged horse 2,000 miles cross country to visit Tom Booker (Redford), a "horse whisperer" who may or may not be able so save the spirits and bodies of both Grace and Pilgrim, while also teaching the city-bred Annie a thing or two about the meaning of life, love, and other single syllable heavy-hitters. Left behind in the city are Grace's father (Neill) and all pretenses of a normal life. Once the story moves to Montana, Redford opens things up, literally, as the screen image widens to take in all those shots of azure skies and sweeping vistas, and all the quiet, emotional avalanches to come. Apart from being a subtle treatise on the redemptive power of the human spirit, the film might as well also be a travelogue for God's country, so enamored of the snow-capped peaks and scudding clouds is the director. Redford, a screen icon if ever there was one, doesn't do too much here except squint and squat, though he does both with panache. And Thomas, as the brittle Brit who finds the meaning of true love beside the New Age horse doctor, is all pained expressions and tousled hair. However, it's the remarkable, affecting performance of Johansson (Manny & Lo) that propels The Horse Whisperer. She's a broken ray of sunlight cutting through the icy pines, and when the film lags with endless shots of the wise Tom Booker birthing a calf or some such, it's she who keeps things focused and alive in the midst of the film's pageant of unspoken truths.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



THE GINGERBREAD MAN

D: Robert Altman; with Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, Robert Duvall. (R, 114 min.)

The Gingerbread Man is Robert Altman's best film in many a season, and certainly his best genre piece since The Long Goodbye. The Gingerbread Man is also probably the most stylish and original John Grisham story on film. Thus, it's odd that the movie has experienced so much trouble along the way. After Altman's original cut of the suspense film scored low with test audiences, PolyGram took the film from the director and re-cut it, while Altman threatened to rescind his name from the credits. But then PolyGram's edit scored just as poorly, so the company restored Altman's original cut. Yet, following the film's bicoastal bows back in January, PolyGram has been slow to roll it out to the rest of the country. Additionally, there's the issue of Grisham's authorship, The Gingerbread Man being the first story the novelist wrote directly for the screen. Reportedly unhappy with Altman's final take on the dialogue, Grisham had his name removed; the screenplay is now credited to the pseudonymous Al Hayes. Be that as it may, The Gingerbread Man probably presents Grisham's most morally ambiguous legal-eagle hero to date. Branagh plays Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder, a high-powered attorney with a perfect conviction record and a weakness for anything in a skirt. As the film opens, Magruder's offer to drive Mallory Doss (Davidtz) home after her car has been stolen is just the thing that nudges open the whole Pandora's box of mayhem that is to follow. Nicely counterbalancing the story's brewing emotional, legal, and moral tempest is the ongoing backdrop of Hurricane Geraldo which is bearing down on Savannah. Altman makes good use of the impending storm and milks it for all its thematic, ironic, and atmospheric possibilities. Altman's Savannah differs from the quaint portrait of the city seen recently in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Altman's Savannah is a town of insidiously creeping Spanish moss, a city of sharp class divisions, and a savvy center of the New South. With the stunning assistance of cinematographer Changwei Gu (Ju Dou, Farewell, My Concubine), Altman creates a moody sense of incipient menace. Small, seemingly inconsequential things generate nagging feelings of concern and dread. It's a beautifully carved tale of suspense. And as usual in an Altman film, the performances are outstanding marvels. Branagh's command of Magruder's well-oiled Southern charms are enough to make you forget he ever had a Shakespearean bone in his body. Embeth Davidtz has never had an opportunity to reveal as many facets of her skills as she does in this role, and Daryl Hannah is practically unrecognizable as Magruder's sharp, buttoned-down and buttoned-up brunette assistant. Robert Downey Jr., as a seedy private investigator, is utterly captivating as the film's second-banana, but Robert Duvall is the show's resident eccentric as the crazy backwoods coot who is Mallory's father. A less-than-tidy (and all-too-tidy)third act mars some of the jagged momentum that has built to that point, but The Gingerbread Man is a tasty treat nonetheless.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



UNDERGROUND

D: Emir Kusturica; with Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Slavko Stimac, Ernst Stotzner, Srdan Todorovic, Mirjana Karanovic, Milena Pavlovic. (Not Rated, 163 min.)

Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, this sprawling, epic tale of life during wartime is just now making it to our shores. Be thankful -- it's one of the 10 best war films I've ever seen, and it's not even about war per se. It's much more about Yugoslavia and its tortured history since WWII, as Kusturica follows the lives of three star-crossed lovers across the last five decades. At almost three hours, it's a masterwork of brilliant editing and design; not a frame is unwarranted, not a scene excessive, and it holds together over its lengthy running time in a way few films half its length can manage. The film's opening scenes, during which the Germans commence their extended bombing of Belgrade and, more specifically, the city's zoo, are some of its most shocking. Lions and tigers and bears flee the carnage and head out unfettered into the city as zookeeper Ivan (Stimac) weeps amongst the ruins. He's the younger brother of Marko (Manojlovic), a budding war racketeer and bon vivant who soon takes the proverbial bull by the horns and, with the aid of his boisterous friend Blacky (Ristovski), embarks on a prosperous string of jobs within the black market underground, supplying guns where needed and generally working with the support of the partisan masses to strike back at the fascists. Into this heady mix comes Natalija (Jokovic), a beautiful Serbian actress loved by both men. When Blacky is arrested by the SS, Marko wastes no time in making Natalija the object of his affections, mirroring the traitorous nature of the battleground outside their door. Still, he eventually rescues Blacky and hides him in his cellar along with his brother Ivan and a host of others whom he puts to work making munitions. It's all in the family until the war ends and Marko neglects to tell anyone down below, continuing his profitable ruse for the next 15 years, aided and abetted by recordings of air-raid sirens, bombs, and Natalija. And then, one day, everything falls apart, and from there, it gets worse, climaxing some 45 minutes later with one of the most wrenching final scenes you're likely to see in a good while (followed, perhaps unnecessarily, by a heavenly coda, which against all odds actually works). Not by a long shot is this similar to anything else you've seen lately, unless you've been to a few Buñuel, Peckinpah, and Raimi films simultaneously. Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business, Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream) crowds his images with hyperactive details, be it the ever-present brass bands or the lurking shadows of Tito and fascism. High drama and low slapstick collide on an almost existential level; Underground is surreal chaos tamed into subservience. And Kursturica's cast is superb, emotional, rowdy, terrified, all at once and once for all. It's a heady mix, charmingly idealistic and bracingly clear-eyed, powerful and sad, and it sticks with you, and in you.

4.0 stars

Marc Savlov



New Reviews:

CHARACTER

D: Mike van Diem; with Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor Low, Tamar van den Dop, Hans Kesting. (R, 125 min.)

Character, this year's Oscar winner for best foreign picture, is a Dutch epic about a son's struggle with his tyrannical father. It's a good-looking, well-acted, and well-constructed saga that, nevertheless, feels curiously remote and uninvolving. Adapted from a popular 1938 novel of the same title by Ferdinand Bordewijk, the film is assuredly written and directed by first-timer Mike van Diem. Set in 1920s Rotterdam, Character is shaped like a thriller, albeit one with a Dickensian dramatic sprawl and a nostalgically romantic touch. It tells the difficult life story of the aspiring young lawyer Jacob Willem Katadreuffe (van Huet) and begins right at the story's climax -- an apparent murder committed by the young man -- and then relates the story of Katadreuffe's life in flashback as he tells his saga while under cross-examination by the police for the crime. "You have worked against me all my life," shouts Katadreuffe during that opening confrontation with the man whom we learn is his father. "Or for you," the father counters. Katadreuffe is the illegitimate child of Dreverhaven (Decleir), the city's most feared bailiff, a man who specializes in mercilessly evicting the poor from their domiciles. It seems the one moment of tenderness Dreverhaven ever had was his one-time dalliance with his housekeeper Joba Katadreuffe (Schuurman), which resulted in the conception of his offspring Jacob. Joba moves from her employer's quarters and wordlessly rebuffs his numerous proposals of marriage. She is no less austere with her son, remaining coldly silent and inscrutable. Taunted as a bastard by the other children and suffering from impoverishment, Jacob develops an uneasy kinship with his aloof mother while what he sees in the streets constantly reminds him of the harsh shadow cast by his father. When one day Joba rents out her son's bedroom to a paying boarder, Jacob takes it as his sign to leave home. Thus he embarks on the first of many economic self-help schemes that inevitably leave him in debt to his father, whose financial tentacles within the community are myriad. But Jacob uses his pluck, self-initiative, and mental agility to nevertheless advance in the world; ultimately, he becomes a successful lawyer. But always he's a driven little thing, humorless and cut off from the possibilities of love -- one of those walking billboards for the failure of success. And it's the inextricable yet unacknowledged knot between father and son that may be for both of them their curse and redemption. Who really knows? So much of Character (like its ominous yet ill-defined title), remains unspoken and unclear. Furthermore, the three essentially dislikable protagonists at the heart of the story do little to suck in the viewer's sympathies. But who's to say if such murky motivational parries are not the truest portrait of family life today?

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



CHINESE BOX

D: Wayne Wang; with Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades, Michael Hui. (R, 110 min.)

In the new movie by Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, The Joy Luck Club, Smoke), you can't scratch yourself without knocking elbows against the enigmatic metaphors crowding in on all sides. Starting with the portentous title, the complex political issues of Hong Kong's transfer from British to Chinese rule are variously symbolized by hacked-open fish with hearts still beating, a jilted and disfigured young woman, and a pathetic dog who amuses his master by running to exhaustion on a treadmill. Unfortunately, even for a fan of Wang's earnestly humane cinema, Chinese Box is likely to invoke yet another image: a slightly confused-looking Chinese-American man flinging random buckets full of shit at a movie screen and hoping something sticks. But even acknowledging this movie's high school lit journal pretensions and failure to deliver the insights for which it strains so mightily, there's a touching fervor and authenticity here that makes it compelling to watch, especially if you're already tuned into Wang's sensibilities. Per the hallowed Hollywood tradition of A Dry White Season, Havana, and The Year of Living Dangerously, Chinese Box assumes our basic cluelessness about or disinterest in "furrin political doin's." To keep our attention from wandering, the story is filtered through the eyes of a jaded Western observer who's both alienated from and circumstantially bound to the culture at hand. An intense, ill-fated romance is thrown in for added flavor enhancement. Jeremy Irons steps into the classic insider/outsider role as "John," a terminally ill photojournalist trying to decipher Hong Kong's inscrutable soul before he kicks the bucket. Adding to the pathos of it all are his emotionally charged relationships with two women. One is an ex-flame named Vivian (Li) who's trying to nullify her history as a prostitute by wheedling a rich old suit (Hui) into marrying her. The other is Jean (Cheung), a mysterious, scarfaced young beauty whom John seems to regard as the key to the Big Mysteries he's chasing. If all of Wang's dreamily intoxicating images and portents of millennial revelation in this quintessential modern city seem, in the end, to offer nothing more revealing than an extra-lavish American Express commercial, it's no fault of the actors. The stunning Cheung, in particular, comes close to conveying through sheer emotional force all the elusive truth that Wang and co-screenwriters Jean-Claude Carriere (Buñuel's longtime collaborator) and Larry Gross are straining for. The craggy, sad-eyed Irons is almost as impressive, squeezing hard for the few drops of fresh juice that remain in his derivative role. Overall, Chinese Box has to be considered a failure, simply because it achieves so few of its own clearly implied goals. Yet it's a failure that bodes well for Wang's future work. With its passion, unexpected outbursts of emotional rawness, and shameless reach for spiritual grandeur, it's a sharp break from the wan, aimless whimsicality that were becoming the director's trademarks. As artistic personae go, existential turmoil is more appealing than middle-aged slackerdom any time.

2.5 stars

Russell Smith



CHOCOLATE BABIES

D: Stephen Winter; with Suzanne Gregg Ferguson, Dudley Findlay Jr., Jon Lee, Michael Lynch, claude e. sloan, Bryan Webster. (Not Rated, 83 min.)

(This is a reprint of The Austin Chronicle review that ran in the March 21, 1997 issue after this film premiered in Austin at the SXSW '97 Film Festival. Chocolate Babies received an honorable mention award at SXSW in the best narrative feature category.) Welcome to the front lines of AIDS activism, where the latest enemy raids are being run by a band of unlikely warriors: two drag queens, an HIV-positive man with tiny gemstones dotting his bald head, and his HIV-positive sister. These self-proclaimed "black faggots with a political agenda" launch street assaults on conservative politicians who won't support a hospice in their New York City neighborhood, but when they also manage to infiltrate the office of one such official, a city councilman who, it turns out, is deep in the closet, the action sets in motion unexpected events that begin to pull the group apart. In addition to introducing a memorable gallery of characters -- most of whom are vividly realized by a fiery cast -- screenwriter-director Stephen Winter's film plays with issues of identity: who we are and who we pretend to be. Its characters get so absorbed in their roles -- drag queen, undercover activist, closeted councilman -- that they lose sight of their more basic identities: brother, friend, lover. Winter offers no easy answers to political dilemmas, only a warning that much of what is important in life may be lost when the political consumes the personal. His Chocolate Babies amuses, provokes, touches, haunts.

3.0 stars

Robert Faires



QUEST FOR CAMELOT

D: Frederik Du Chau; with the voices of Jessalyn Gilsig/Andrea Corr, Cary Elwes/Bryan White, Gabriel Byrne, Gary Oldman, Bronson Pinchot, Pierce Brosnan/Steve Perry, Eric Idle, Don Rickles, John Gielgud, Jane Seymour/Celine Dion, Jaleel White. (G, 88 min.)

This may be misconstrued as a comment best belonging to the Department of Damning With Faint Praise, but it must be said nevertheless: Quest for Camelot is so much better than its trailers make it appear. That is to say, Quest for Camelot is not awful -- not by a long shot. Come expecting the lackluster animation and wimpy storyline that are trumpeted by the trailers and you will leave most pleasantly surprised. You will hardly be bowled over, mind you, but parents who've been dreading tagging along with their youngsters to see this new animated feature need not fear the experience. The new Warner Bros. animation unit touts Quest for Camelot as its first fully animated feature, following up 1996's half-jock/half-cartoon smash Space Jam. Wisely, Warner's has released Quest a full month before the highly anticipated debut of Disney's new animated feature Mulan. And for its part, Disney has decided to do the decent thing and not bogart the market like it did last Thanksgiving when it re-released The Little Mermaid in time to directly compete with the debut of Anastasia, the first animated feature from the new Fox unit. Like Anastasia, The Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas, Quest for Camelot seems designed to reel in the distaff market with its central female protagonist and contemporary feminist overtones. Of course, it's only the contemporary layering of a feminist perspective that will permit the storyline of a medieval girl who dreams of joining King Arthur's Round Table and becoming a knight who recovers Excalibur, the King's stolen sword, and thereby restoring peace to the land. On top of that, this ahistorical girl who actualizes her dreams of derring-do is assisted by a blind boy who has also hoped to become a knight until injury quashed his grand dreams. Although the film starts off a bit slowly, things pick up as the two heroes venture into the mysterious forest in search of Excalibur. There the images start twisting themselves into wacky animated fun. But still, events are interrupted by way too much singing, a prospect not helped much by the caliber of the instantly forgettable tunes composed by David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager. The vocal characterizations are all top-notch however, and the comical two-headed dragon voiced by Eric Idle and Don Rickles seems to be the character destined for breakout success. The film is also packed with the kind of knowing cultural references that only adults will understand (i.e., signature lines from such films as Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, and Apollo 13), but they seem oddly out of place in this medieval setting. Nevertheless, there's something for everyone in this new Arthurian legend.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



WOO

D: Daisy v.S. Mayer; with Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Duane Martin, Michael Ralph, Darrel Heath, David Chappelle, LL Cool J, Girlina. (R, 80 min.)

Try as I might, I just can't seem to figure out what the original story pitch for Woo could have been: "A Nineties-style 'It' girl finds romance in the big city despite herself?" "An obnoxious fashion plate falls for the buppie of her dreams and learns she isn't 'all that' after all?" "The WB and Fox Network life lessons of 'let them eat crap' taken to new cinematic extremes?" It's all too much, or, in the case of Woo, perhaps not enough. Pinkett Smith plays Darlene "Woo" Bates, who, as the film opens, is having her fortune read by her drag queen pal Celestrial (Girlina). Despite Woo's penchant for nailing herself to the wrong fella, her psychic love connection appears to be in alignment this time as Celestrial assures her that her one and only is about to enter her life any second now. Woo is doubtful at first, but when a chance meeting with a handsome, sensitive paralegal named Tim (Davidson) materializes out of thin plot, she's ready to take her chances over the course of a (lengthy) evening of miscommunication, gender land mines, and eventual (what else?) love. Mayer, who (under her full name von Scherler Mayer) directed Parker Posey in the underrated Party Girl, tosses everything against the wall (including the kitchen sink) and prays for something to stick. Something does, but unfortunately it's an amorphous blob of comedy goo, and it slithers right down to the baseboard and lies there like a recently deceased Shmoo. Woo's tone is all over the place, veering from the gratuitous, dogg-pound comedy of Tim's three buddies -- Martin, Ralph, and Heath -- who stereotypically prejudge their potential mates on the size of their posteriors, to Chappelle's downright creepy turn as a fowl-obsessed sex-addict with a penchant for cheap wine and cheaper women. Tim, by comparison, is all manners, though the script takes pains to point out that even this self-effacing bupster is as full of hot air as anyone else. It's up to Pinkett Smith, then, to carry the film, which she manages to do up to a point. Early scenes of her stopping traffic in Times Square (Toronto, actually) with her billowy, pink, spaghetti-strapped dress and teasing bob, are a hoot. She has the same sexy electricity Mae West had, only in a more compact package, but the character of Woo is so cloyingly over-the-top that the jokes wear thin faster than a third-string condom. Taken as the glimpse into the hectic, unforgiving world of date 'n' mate, Woo is a comparative lightweight, an easy, breezy cover girl on the make who fails to make you laugh much at all.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov


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