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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MAY 26, 1998: 


D: Warren Beatty; with Beatty, Halle Barry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Christine Baranski, Paul Sorvino, Richard Sarafian, Don Cheadle, Isaiah Washington, Amiri Baraka, Sean Astin, Laurie Metcalf. (R, 108 min.)

Smart, funny, and even a little bit dangerous, Warren Beatty's new film Bulworth is an all-out attack on mediocrity, no matter its address -- Hollywood, Washington, or whatever street you perchance call home. Beatty's unwilling to accept mediocrity in the body politic and he's unwilling to accept it for himself as an artist. Thus he has created this political satire that's as fresh and exhilarating as anything we've seen come out of Hollywood in quite some time, and certainly more invigorating than anything he himself has produced as of late (see Dick Tracy and Love Affair for examples). Even more challenging, Bulworth treads a delicate line between political consciousness-tweaking and goofball slapstick so that you're never 100 percent certain whether you're seeing a farce with surprisingly sharp teeth or a drama featuring a clown protagonist. That uncertainty is just one of the ways Bulworth challenges the predictability of the status quo. As the film begins, we discover that incumbent Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) of California seems to have come unglued. Perhaps he's just plain sick of all the lying and manipulation and currying of favors that it takes to keep the wheels of government rolling. Maybe he's sick of the rubber-chicken circuit and the bland political platitudes he hears coming from his mouth and the family who's only present in his life for photo ops and other state occasions. Or maybe it's just that life-and-death decisions shouldn't be made when one is feeling suicidal. But whatever it is, it's got a hold of him bad. So on the eve of the 1996 primaries, Bulworth discreetly arranges to have himself assassinated. Ironically, the knowledge of his pending demise proves incredibly liberating and the new freedom spurs him to start speaking his mind. Then, after a night of low-down partying in Compton, Bulworth is not only speaking his mind, but he now speaks it in pithy rapper's rhymes. By the time pretty Nina (Barry) catches his eye, he's starting to have so much fun with his new unfettered way of thinking and speaking that he wants to call off the assassinationÖ if only he knew how. It could be said that Bulworth's targets are mostly safe and audience-friendly institutions: the insurance industry, health care, and the empty promises of the Democratic party. But as Bulworth, Beatty nevertheless manages to slip in a surprising number of pointed zingers. Beatty is also unafraid here to look his age (more apparent as the movie progresses and the character's lack of sleep and intake of drugs begin to exert their toll) and appear clumsily idiotic as an over-the-hill, white-boy rapper decked out in baggy shorts and woolen cap. None of this is status quo for a Hollywood movie. Neither is the May-December interracial subplot (which Bulworth himself also manages to comment on before we have a chance to roll our eyes at this movie contrivance). With a good deal of the film's action taking place in the Compton ghetto, the film might also be faulted for its seeming reliance on black urban stereotypes, but really, the whole movie uses the shorthand of stereotypes -- be they smarmy insurance agents, fawning press flacks, overweening Jews, and so on. Assisting Beatty in this project is a spectacular group of actors. Oliver Platt's wry turn as the senator's assistant is a true delight in itself, and the appearance of activist/playwright/poet Amiri Baraka as a roving street shaman is another unexpected pleasure. Only Halle Barry remains somewhat inscrutable as a character, which is just about the only misstep of the movie. Like its namesake, Bulworth the movie will not go away lightly.

4.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten

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D: Terry Gilliam; with Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Ellen Barkin, Tobey Maguire, Michael Jeter. (R, 119 min.)

You know the feeling you get when you're the only straight person in a room full of people who are all ripped out of their gourds? That painful realization that you're over-the-counter while everyone else is under-the-tableÖ way under? Watching the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is something like that experience. Not very much fun to observe, yet altogether fascinating. All the naysayers who, over the years, have pronounced Hunter S. Thompson's counterculture classic to be "unfilmable" have now been proved wrong. Co-conspirators Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, and Benicio Del Toro have executed the book's transition to the screen almost flawlessly. That flawlessness, in fact, may almost be the problem. There's something about that extra layer of distancing that a book can offer and the screen can't, which in this case might account for why film viewers feel vaguely discomforted by an icky fifth-wheel sensation. The film is amazingly faithful to Thompson's presciently gonzo tome in which a journalist's assignment to cover a motorbike racing event outside Las Vegas turns into a twisted, first-person descent into the demented psyche of the unraveling American Dream. It's a journey fueled, of course, by a legendarily prodigious amount of drugs, extracts, and epicurean black-market imbibeables -- enough to turn Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke (Depp) and his sidekick attorney (Del Toro) into drooling, manic madmen, visionaries of the apocalypse but imbeciles of the immediate reality. The film's most stunning achievement is the veracity of its portrait of the hallucinatory drug state. It's use of state-of-the-art visual technology to create such illusions as winged bats, carpet patterns enveloping their human cargo, and hotel-bar patrons morphing into frightening lounge lizards (courtesy of Rob Bottin) is no less true and dazzling than its ability to capture such moments as the drug-addled paranoia, the twisted perceptions, the mescaline-induced puking, and the more-is-better credo in action. The camerawork by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (making his feature filmmaking debut here) is a constantly amazing thing to watch, full of strange lenses and intoxicating movements that serve the material well. Also note-perfect are the performances of Depp and Del Toro, whose spooky renditions of their subjects are kinetically compelling wonders. And Gilliam, whose body of work as a director is a virtual testament to the belief that madness is indeed a salve for the soul, seems the perfect director for this "unfilmable" material. So why doesn't this movie work? I think it has something to do with the film's focus on the fictional character of Raoul Duke as the story's protagonist. As a "character" Duke assumes the proportions of a drug-addled buffoon. The movie obscures the key aspect of Duke as the "alter ego" for this wonderfully insightful observer known as Hunter S. Thompson. Even though the film faithfully quotes long portions of the book in continuous voiceovers, we get little sense of the writer and journalist who "shapes" this adventure into a thing of commentary. By focusing on the excess, the film loses Thompson's philosophical mooring in the belief in excess as a valid path to wisdom. And it's that wisdom which may be the untranslatable part of the book. It's what comes through when we read about all this stuff on the page, when we recognize that the experiences have all been sifted through the mental process that translates thought into expression. The immediacy of the movies may contradict the ideological conceit at the heart of gonzo journalism -- that being the idea of the observer creating a fiction that's more true than the movies. Ironically, the film may be a better tribute to the artwork of Ralph Steadman than the writing of Thompson. Steadman's garish illustrations have always been an undervalued element in most understandings of the book's success, and it's certainly this film's visual qualities that truly set it apart. At any rate, the movie is clearly intriguing in ways it may not have intended. Unfortunately, in ways that it probably did intend to engage, Fear and Loathing has much more bark than bite.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Roland Emmerich; with Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, Harry Shearer, Arabella Field, Vicki Lewis. (PG-13, 139 min.)

Another summer, another giant lizard. Whoops, what am I saying?! This is Godzilla's made-in-America debut, and nothing to sniff at lest I incur the wrath of those two diminutive maidens from Godzilla vs. the Thing. As a longtime fan of the 22-and-counting Godzilla films cranked out by Japan's Toho Studios since 1956's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I went into this newest addition with the same kind of jittery, wary enthusiasm usually reserved for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. Despite being shrouded in secrecy and having that annoyingly effective tagline "Size Does Matter" plastered across the country, the Green Giant was effectively kept out of the pages of Entertainment Weekly and off Harry Knowles' website (no mean feat) by his handlers, Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Sadly though, as it turns out, this Godzilla looks like George Foreman after an irradiated rumble in the jungle. With a huge, jutting, Jack Kirby-esque jaw and a spade-like head, he looks and moves far too much like an overgrown Spielbergian Velociraptor. Appearances aside, though, Emmerich and Devlin's film fails to live up to the hype as well, with plenty of miscast characters and groan-inducing humor and homages that leave you wishing you had rented Destroy All Monsters instead. Godzilla begins on a high note, as the title sequence gives us a glimpse into the origin of the big lizard -- just as you always suspected, it's those pesky French nuclear tests in the Polynesian islands. Once mutated, Godzilla (accidentally renamed from the correct Japanese Gojira) makes his way toward New York City to -- surprise -- lay eggs in the subway system. Broderick, as Greek "worm guy" Dr. Niko Tatopoulos is called in to lend his expertise regarding giant, asexual lizards while his old flame, journalist Audrey Timmonds (Pitillo), covers the breaking story from the front lines. Where's Raymond Burr when you really need him? Alas, this Godzilla is lacking both the awesome spirit of the original and the sublime silliness of the more recent Toho outings. A running gag concerning a Siskel and Ebert mayoral duo is downright ridiculous, and poor Matthew Broderick's Tatopolous is one of the decade's great misfires, nearly as goofy as Elisabeth Shue's cold-fusion expert in last year's The Saint. The real star of the film then is the fluidily imaginative effects work by visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and designer Patrick Tatopolous (that's right, they named the main character after their model-maker). The many, many shots of Godzilla racing through the labyrinthine corridors of downtown Manhattan are especially effective, with swarms of helicopters overhead and tons of rubble crashing down everywhere. Still, this isn't the knock-'em-dead update we'd been expecting. Falling somewhere between Godzilla '85 and Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster in terms of purist quality, it's a misfire on many different levels. Still, you're going to go see it, so do yourself a favor and rent King of the Monsters to watch later, compare, and see how effective the original still is.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov


D: Takeshi Kitano; with Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

Like some omnicompetent Buckaroo Banzai of Japanese pop culture, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano services his teeming domestic fan base with a constant output of self-written and -directed films, TV and radio shows, newspaper columns, novels, painting, poetry, and lord knows what else. But until now, the absurdly prolific 50-year-old auteur has hardly breached the perimeter of American cultural awareness, existing for the most part as a passing sub-reference in hipsteroid conversation and journalism. Fireworks, Kitano's multi-award-winning seventh film (but first to be widely released in the U.S.) should fix that. Tenuously related by theme to the Seventies Death Wish genre of films about decent but not-to-be-fucked-with everymen, it's so much more than that in so many ways that few of the standard reference points really apply. Like the wooden puzzle one of its characters constantly manipulates, the film's narrative structure is composed of basic, minimal forms that combine to create a startling variety of dramatic effects. The story deals with converging crises in the lives of a tough, stoic ex-cop named Nishi (Kitano, who looks sort of like an Asian half-brother to Robert Blake). His wife terminally sick, his old recent partner paralyzed in a shooting caused partly by Nishi's absence, and his indebtedness to yakuza mobsters a growing threat to life and limb, Nishi decides to pull a bank heist to solve his money problems and help his near-and-dears. Violence -- vivid, startling, and disturbingly realistic -- occurs at regular intervals. Nishi broods stoically behind ever-present sunshades, marinating in remorse and loathing as he simultaneously plots his crime and attends to his wife and crippled partner. But Fireworks isn't really a caper movie, or a payback movie, or an Eastwoodesque Portrait of the Hardass as a Middle-Aged Man. Critical cop-out though it may seem, you really need to see this film to appreciate the sheer creative vigor that crackles through it like static current inside one of those glass lightning-globe toys. Kitano's distinctiveness isn't expressed in tour de force set-pieces like those of John Woo, nor through stylistic quirks that can readily be imitated and commodified à la Tarantino. Much of the imagination in Fireworks seems lavished on the quiet intervals between the plot turns. An overhead shot of night fireworks fades into one of a massive painting of a flower. Blood drips from a white car onto new-fallen snow. In a serene pointillist painting, a man stares at peaceful cloud banks; by his side is a (recently used?) sword stuck in the dirt. Kitano's wholly original interplay of matter-of-fact savagery, whimsy, surrealism, and pure aesthetic reverie is the freshest thing I've seen in some time. It's the sort of revelatory experience you only need once in a hundred trips to the movies to keep you going back. Efforts to pin down its odd seductive power are as futile as, say, describing the specific sense of disorientation you feel at the instant when a darting cloud suddenly obscures the sun, throwing all your perceptions into a new light before you realize what's happened. Disquieting, but subtly consciousness-expanding. Just see the movie.

4.0 stars

Russell Smith


D: Brian Sloan; with Alexis Arquette, Christian Maelen, Maddiie Corman, Guillermo Diaz, Marianne Hagan, Jamie Harrold, Lauren Vélez, Tuc Watkins. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

According to the late Southern writer Carson McCullers, the world is essentially divided into two types of people: the lover and the beloved. The tragic irony of this polar situation is that, quite often, never the twain shall meet. In the good-natured romantic comedy I Think I Do, the course of true love is a bit rocky as Bob -- genially played by a bemused Arquette -- finds himself pursued by Brendan (Maelen), his old college roommate who spurned his advances years ago andÖ well, let's just say, things got ugly. The problem is that Bob is now in a relationship with Sterling (Watkins), who's pushing for a commitment because his figurative biological clock is ticking. (In the twentysomething perspective of the characters in I Think I Do, any age above 30 is considered no man's land.) The Big Chill weekend in which these and other school-days characters converge for a wedding provides a setting full of screwball possibilities as couples, both gay and straight, couple and uncouple, no one really knowing exactly what or who they want in the way of a romantic partnership. As its title indicates, there's no real certainty in the affairs of the heart depicted here. I Think I Do starts off slowly in establishing the confused relationship between Bob and Brendan, but once the film flashes forward to the nuptial events, the movie percolates nicely. It's farcical, but not broadly so, thought-provoking without being serious. If the narrative structure isn't as seamless as it should be, the movie is nevertheless a pleasant experience, particularly in the deft use of the clichéd tricks of the genre: keys are misplaced; conversations are misinterpreted; and, of course, there's only one bed. (The most inspired gag in the movie involves, of all things, a neck brace.) As the relationships in I Think I Do knot or unravel, a Partridge Family-inspired score gives the movie a fitting retro feel that underscores the uncertainty of romantic inclinations. It's a world in which people preface, "I love you" with the qualification, "I think."

3.0 stars

Steve Davis


D: Stefan Schwartz; with Dan Futterman, Stuart Townsend, Kate Beckinsale, Nickolas Grace, Claire Cox, Ralph Ineson, Dominic Mafham, Peter Capaldi. (R, 103 min.)

This frothy, pop confection from the U.K. could be construed as echoing the upbeat, changing moods abroad these days, what with the Tories out and Labor in and London the capital of all things cool and hip once more. Then again, you could take it as just another treacly sweet cinematic pastry from Cool Britannia. There's not much of substance going on here, but it sure looks good going down. Geeky Jez (Townsend) and ladykiller Dylan (Futterman) are two twentysomething con men working out of an abandoned oil tank outside London. Raised as wards of the state, the pair grew up dreaming of someday owning a home to call their own, and not just any home at that: The properties they dream of are huge, towering, baronial mansions, and to this end they've dedicated their lives to bilking the wealthy and putting aside their swindled fortunes with the hope of securing their much sought-after homestead. Once within the $50,000 mark of their goal, the pair take on a third party in the form of Beckinsale's Georgie, a medical school student in need of some quick cash to save her family's home for children with Down syndrome (seriously). Acting as the pair's unofficial secretary, Georgie soon realizes that she's in the employ of a pair of self-obsessed Robin Hoods and bails out; as quick as you can say "waif," though, Beckinsale's back, aiding, abetting, and hoping that the pair's ultimate scam can assist her own monetary and philanthropic endeavors. There is, of course, a good bit of flirting going on among the trio, and nobody flirts better than Beckinsale these days (with Gwyneth Paltrow running a close second). Before long, she's fallen for the computer-whiz kid Jez, and it's an ongoing battle of the Doe-Eyed to see who will experience a cuteness meltdown first. Director Schwartz has created a bit of a throwback to groovier times in Shooting Fish; from its jaunty pop-music score to cinematographer Henry Braham's breezy, madcap shooting style, it's all very retro, and very swinging Sixties, with bubbling, lava lamp titles and gobs of primary colors splashed every which way. Cotton candy for the senses, Shooting Fish is a predictable affair that nonetheless ingratiates itself into your good fortunes by sheer virtue of its amiable nuttiness. It's mindless fun while it lasts, but then poof! it's gone.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov

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