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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JUNE 8, 1998: 

THE TRUMAN SHOW

D: Peter Weir; with Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor. (PG, 104 min.)

Is The Truman Show really the subversive film that all the advance hype would have us believe or is it merely this season's new way of spelling Gump? Well, it's a little of both, though more of the latter -- a movie which couples a captivating premise with a naïve rube protagonist to create the illusion of having witnessed a penetrating study of American values and culture as seen through the eyes of one of its innocents. In The Truman Show life isn't a box of chocolates, it's a 'round-the-clock "reality" TV program which beams its nonstop signal worldwide. And Truman Burbank (Carrey) is its unwitting subject/hero/leading man. Without his knowledge, Truman has been filmed since the day he was born, and the execution of this high-concept premise is The Truman Show's most audacious trick. Truman's hometown of Seahaven, a pristine and visually adorable, planned, island community, is actually the world's largest soundstage and all the town's citizens are mere players on its stage -- each inhabitant is a Truman Show actor fitted with a discreetly hidden body cam. Despite his fake environment, Truman has somehow evolved into a "real" human being with "real" human emotions and it's that sense of veracity in action that keeps the world hooked on the soap opera of his life. Of course, a man in a control booth is running the show. The godlike producer/director/mastermind/wizard of Seahaven is a character of intriguingly complex motives named Christof (Ed Harris, in one of the best performances of his career). At its best, The Truman Show is a compendium of trenchant and funny observations about modern consumer culture, the homogeneity of a world united by its satellite dishes, and the extent to which autocracy can serve artistic ends. Written by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show shares similar thematic concerns with Niccol's other notable project, Gattaca, the futuristic cautionary tale about the limits of individuation and totalitarianism, which he wrote and directed. The Truman Show is funnier however, and not just because of Jim Carrey's presence. The movie assumes a disconcerting stance that intentionally teeters between comedy and Twilight Zone-like nightmare. It's unusually provocative and challenging for a Hollywood movie and, surprisingly, allows the audience to piece things together without too much external direction. However (and this is something you don't hear me say too frequently), the movie could stand to be a little longer. It has too many loose ends and too many logically unexplained phenomena that can only be rationalized away with generalizations about the all-encompassing control that typifies the Seahaven production. Why is it that after 30 years in Seahaven, Truman is only now noticing Klieg lights that fall from the sky and weather patterns that follow his precise footsteps? Is Seahaven breaking down something like a Mir space shuttle that's been in orbit too long? Also, for all the talk of Carrey's toned-down dramatic performance here, it is, though serviceable, still awfully broad and hammy (as is Linney's, yet as Truman's wife it should be said that she's always aware that she's playing to a hidden camera). His behavior is that of an insanely cheerful overgrown kid -- too exaggerated to be believable as the world's most famous "real" person and too limited to convey the psychological turmoil he experiences as he begins to suspect that the whole world revolves around him. Always amazing to look at, conceptually compelling, and entertaining, The Truman Show still seems to promise a bit more than it delivers. (For an earlier take on this ominous plotline of a person who suspects that the whole world is privy to a film of her life, find a copy of Paul Bartel's 1965 knockout short film, "The Secret Cinema," which was later made into an Amazing Stories episode.) The question you have to ask yourself about The Truman Show is the same one you have to ask of most network television broadcasting: Would you ever want to see it again in reruns?

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



WILD MAN BLUES

D: Barbara Kopple. (PG, 104 min.)

Two-time documentary feature Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (American Dream, Harlan County, USA) has quite unexpectedly turned her camera from the recording of labor disputes to this film portrait of Woody Allen. Ostensibly commissioned as a document of Allen, the Dixieland jazz clarinetist on tour in Europe with his seven-man band, the film is so much more than that. Although it spotlights Allen's musicianship rather than his filmmaking, Wild Man Blues is not really a concert documentary. Yes, we see the band onstage in various European capitals, but rarely do we see and hear a tune performed all the way through. What Kopple and her longtime cameraman Tom Hurwitz are interested in capturing is the inside view of Woody Allen, the celebrity artist. And that they did. Apparently allowed total access to Allen and his traveling companion and soon-to-be wife Soon-Yi Previn, the film presents a remarkable compendium of the famed neurotic's quirks and foibles. We learn that he also books the suite next door to whatever hotel room he finds himself so that he can have his own shower; we see him fret over the mass gathering of fans outside his hotel room and we see him fret over the thought that the shows will be ill-attended and he will be hated by those who do come; we hear him quip about such things as his fear of Norman Bates-like concierges and how Bologna might be a lovely town with a couple of Valium; we listen to him look out over Rome and muse about Fellini or speculate about why his films are more popular among Europeans than Americans. Yet with a performer as camera-seasoned as Woody Allen, we might fairly expect that very little of what we are witnessing is truly unguarded and unintentional. However, Kopple's previously demonstrated capacity for assuming the proverbial fly-on-the-wall perspective serves her well in this documentary. The most revealing aspect of the movie is in the details it shows of the Woody/Soon-Yi relationship -- and, face it, that's what most of us are really coming to see. Far removed from the lurid scandal trappings that have colored their affair (and marriage), the couple appears to be a comfortably balanced duo. She, more often than not, assumes the role of adviser, organizer, and comforter. It is Soon-Yi who can counter his neuroses with practical retorts or bemused indifference, get him out for a gondola ride or a dip in the pool, and sway him to act more animated during his music performances despite his avowed disagreement -- although it is momentarily chilling to hear her declare Manhattan to be her favorite Woody Allen film and cite Annie Hall as a film she's never seen. Their relationship may be met with scorn on the world stage but, hey, it works for them and that's all that they've ever contended. Wild Man Blues seems to bear this out. A concluding segment at the home of Allen's parents is shot in a different style and feels totally tacked on, but once you have it on film (even if it was obtained with a little obvious goading) it's understandable that you'd want to use footage of Mrs. Allen wishing that her son would marry a nice Jewish girl and Mr. Allen bemoaning the fact that Woody chose not to pick pharmacy as a career. Wild Man Blues is thoroughly fascinating and is must-see viewing for any Woody Allen fan. Barbara Kopple, on the other hand, should get back to pointing her lens at more significant social phenomena.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

ALMOST HEROES

D: Christopher Guest; with Matthew Perry, Chris Farley, Eugene Levy. (PG-13, 92 min.)

Oh, bitter irony! Christopher Guest, the great satirist of crap artists (he wrote or co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and The Big Picture) has joined their ranks. And he can't even blame it all on the late Chris Farley -- though it's certainly hard to imagine many contexts in which the hyperthyroidal leviathan could've been expected to be a net plus. As with many duff comedies, the concept of Almost Heroes is actually pretty sound. It seems that early 19th-century explorers Lewis & Clark weren't the only bold spirits trying to blaze a trail to the virgin sands of the West Coast. Racing them all the way were Hunt & Edwards (Farley and Matthew Perry), a duo fully their equal in all respects save for intelligence, courage, navigational skills, and personal hygiene. Friends veteran Perry looks comfortable (resigned to his lot?) in his role as the starchy, foppish expedition leader. Not surprising since all he has to muster in the way of thespian skills is double takes and bumfuzzled gaping at the antics of Farley and his other half-witted charges. Still, he does the job with workmanlike competence, if no special flair. Farley, having taken Fat, Wild, and Sweaty about as far as humanly possibly in this movie, probably picked the right time to die. As with most scripts by inexperienced comedy writers (a no-name trio is credited here), the humor is relentlessly gag-oriented. Some of the jokes creep in under the threshold of pothead passability, but most are so jejune they wouldn't draw a titter in a junior high detention hall. Need a more specific characterization of Almost Heroes' humor? Well, imagine a triangulation among the witless scatology of recent Mel Brooks, the intermittently engaging whimsy of Chris Elliott, and the chin-stroking out-thereness of the Miller Lite "Dick" commercials. That's about the best I can do, unless it helps to tell you that the two funniest gags involve a guy who talks into a severed ear and a backwater bordello full of straw-stuffed love dolls. We can only speculate why Guest chose to whiz away his hard-won credibility by directing this irredeemable piece of crap. Some oath of perpetual fealty to all SNL brethren past and present? If that's the case, then surviving alums Guest, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, et al. must be silently, guiltily mouthing thanks to the drug dealer who sold big Chris that last, fateful 8-ball. Call me needlessly cruel if you like, but I believe the amount of time, money, and creative capital Hollywood is pouring into unapologetically wretched knockoffs like Almost Heroes justifies -- compels -- the full-nuclear critical response. To adapt the phraseology of yet another recently departed American Gonzo Original, "Extremism in the defense of good comedy is no vice."

0 stars

Russell Smith



I GOT THE HOOK-UP

D: Michael Martin; with Master P, A.J. Johnson, Gretchen Palmer, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, Jr., Helen Martin, John Witherspoon. (R, 93 min.)

New Orleans' answer to Suge Knight -- minus the felony conviction, of course -- is rapper Master P, whose No Limits production company has entered the feature film arena via this occasionally engaging, frequently profane, always streetwise caper comedy that isn't nearly as bad as you might have thought. It's not all that good, either, but as a first strike, it serves P's stated purpose of cross-marketing his ghetto skills onto the silver screen. Clearly, the man is a shrewd businessman. As the film's writer, co-producer, and star, P may be getting ahead of himself a bit, but I Got the Hook-Up is still more notable than other urban comedies of its ilk (the recent Woo comes to mind) due to its uncompromising street cred. It's a comedy for the homies, and if that means it won't play too well in Peoria, then so be it. P is Black, and Johnson is Blue, and together they're the Wal-Mart of South Central, fencing stolen TVs, stereos, clothes, and sundries out of the rear of their battered Ford Econoline that sits unmoving in a ravaged corner lot surrounded by hustlers, ho's, and hubris. When P "accidentally" signs for a shipment of misdirected Motorola cellular phones, he quickly dreams up a scheme to net him and his buddy Blue some fast cash, i.e. sell the phones to their friends and gangsta pals and set up their own little renegade Baby Bell. With some able assistance from a hacker cohort, they clone existing numbers onto the new merchandise and have a field day until their scam backfires when the overloaded frequency first begins double-dialing numbers and then draws the attention of the cell phone company's fraud department and the FBI. Apart from the original scam, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill caper comedy, but P gives a surprisingly nuanced turn as the wannabe player Black; his droll, sedate delivery sounds like De Niro on Thorazine and he has a genuinely real screen presence. As Blue, Johnson get the Lou Costello treatment, replete with befuddled glances and a turbo-charged libido. It's a one-note role, but the actor does what he can (which admittedly isn't much). What keeps the film from falling into the vanity project abyss is some snazzy cinematography from debuting director Martin. He manages to keep your attention focused on the screen with various swooping, jittering, odd-angle shots even when the dialogue and storyline begin to sink to the level of the UPN network. It's not exactly what I'd call brilliant filmmaking, but it is heads above anything any of the Wayans brood have done in a long time.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov



THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO

D: Whit Stillman; with Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Matt Keeslar, MacKenzie Astin, Matthew Ross, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals. (R, 120 min.)

Despite the title of Whit Stillman's latest film, the milieu is not the message: This ain't no party, this ain't no disco. Rather, The Last Days of Disco is yet another auteurish meditation on the young and the privileged -- some might call them yuppies -- in the same vein of Stillman's two other films, Metropolitan and Barcelona. While the film observes the waning zeitgeist of the disco era in early 1980s New York City, its setting has little thematic linkage to the many dramas that play out during its course. This isn't a movie about the tyranny of the velvet rope, the perils of casual hedonism, or the allure of greed, although those observations are made at one point or another. Instead, it is a story about loyalty, friendship, and honor. In other words, it's less titillating than you might expect. (What a more interesting film it might have been had it pondered the sociological theory that the yuppie infiltration of the big-city club scene contributed to the death of disco.) Yet, Stillman's direction and dialogue here seem looser, more hip than in his previous outings: Two suitors vying for the same woman engage in a pointed deconstruction of Lady and the Tramp; an impromptu, after-hours dance of flirtation slyly moves from the living room to the bedroom. The screenplay is also evenhanded in its portraiture of the twentysomething preppie in the first years of the Reagan decade, arguably to a fault. These are characters drawn with little judgmental sentiment; inevitably, the perspective is too objective. And for those with a predisposed bias against the prototype Stillman character -- white, straight, moneyed -- The Last Days of Disco may be an ordeal: Who in the world cares about these people? (It's the similar reaction the same viewer might have when reading the novels of Cheever or Updike.) Given his seeming mission to chronicle the lives of this particular American subculture in his films, prompted no doubt by his personal experience and lineage, Stillman is a unique voice in independent American cinema. Whether you consider him Proustian in his focus or a filmmaker stuck in the proverbial rut depends upon your perspective. Whatever that perspective might be, The Last Days of Disco will only give it more credence.

3.0 stars

Steve Davis



LEATHER JACKET LOVE STORY

D: David DeCoteau; with Sean Tataryn, Christopher Bradley, Geoffrey Moody, Hector Mercado, Madame Dish, Erin Krystle, Craig Olsen, Mink Stole, Nicholas Worth, Morris Kight. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Despite its rough-sounding title, Leather Jacket Love Story is a sweet-at-heart, romantic, gay comedy. Shot in black and white and doing little to disguise its low-budget limitations, the film still manages to winsomely capture certain aspects of first love and a funky L.A. coffeehouse scene without impeding the frequency of its raunchy sex scenes. Kyle (Tataryn) is an 18-year-old, sandy-haired, doe-eyed Valley boy who wants to escape his shallow West Hollywood friends and trendy lifestyle. An aspiring poet, he moves to Los Angeles' more bohemian Silver Lake district, away from the endless stream of "Chads and Brads" tanning themselves by those West Hollywood pools. "It's not about getting your rocks off. It's about having special experiences," he explains to his best pal from childhood. Kyle instantly gravitates toward the coffeehouse in his new neighborhood, a place that hosts regular poetry readings and is frequented by colorful locals and drag queens and is operated by John Waters regular Mink Stole. Then in walks the studly, 30-year-old, leather-jacketed construction worker Mike (Bradley), and Kyle's heart drops to his, well, you can guess the rest. But instead of devoting the rest of the film solely to their X-rated passion plays, the film touches on a number of other issues -- the inevitable conflict between the starry-eyed young lover and the rougher trade older man, whether handcuffs are appropriate on a second date, and the daily life that revolves around the coffeehouse regulars. Leather Jacket Love story features solid performances and is clearly made as a labor of love, a labor that wants to be more than just a momentary satisfaction. Like Kyle, the movie wants to be about more than getting your rocks off.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



A PERFECT MURDER

D: Andrew Davis; Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet, Constance Towers. (R, 107 min.)

For all of its brutality, and it has plenty, A Perfect Murder is a pretty good stab at a parlor murder movie. Tasteful, chilly, and polite, it is foul play at its traditional best: Anglo-Saxon, urban, and upper class. Director Davis (The Fugitive) knows the genre and nearly succeeds at creating a Nineties version of a vintage murder mystery. A Perfect Murder is based loosely on the successful stage play and subsequent Hitchcock movie, Dial M for Murder, but it is the trappings of its mystery, not the plot or the dialogue, that give this version its panache. Michael Douglas plays Steven Taylor, a suavely amoral bond baron whose lust for acquisition has carried over to his very young, very beautiful, very rich wife. But Emily (Paltrow) is in love with David (Mortensen), a talented and struggling artist whose bohemian life and unbridled passion offer an irresistible alternative to the aristocratic confines of her marriage. Steven's reaction is cold-bloodedly genteel. He carefully plots her perfect murder and pays David to do the dirty work while he calmly plays cards at the club with his business cronies. Alas, good help is still so hard to findÖ. In a transparently foreshadowed fashion, Emily instead turns her attacker into dead meat and the cat-and-cat-and-mouse game begins in earnest. Everything about this movie is stylish. From the burnished copper, tile, and leather of the posh penthouse to the leaden concrete, canvas, and metal of the artist's loft, the set design is a visual feast. And there is a rare and delicious quiet to the movie that makes every moment seem important and serious. Too important and too serious. What's missing is the sly wit, the banter, the suave superiority solidly trounced that are staples of the drawing room murder (and promised in the film's trailer). I kept expecting some clever little crumb to be tossed our way, especially when David Suchet (who plays Inspector Hercule Poirot on the British television series seen on PBS) turns up as NYPD Detective Mohamed Karaman. But aside from the ghoulishly silly murder weapon, there is no drollery in the proceedings and the warmth comes too late, leaving us no one to laugh at or root for throughout most of the film. We're given tidbits of human connection and Paltrow positively shines in a wonderful, wistful whisper of an ending, but as beautiful as the finished puzzle is, it's still missing a few vital pieces.

2.5 stars

Hollis Chacona



THE PROPOSITION

D: Lesli Linka Glatter; with Kenneth Branagh, Madeleine Stowe, William Hurt, Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Loggia, Blythe Danner, Josef Sommer. (R, 96 min.)

It must be rough being Kenneth Branagh. Eventually, the poor guy's going to run out of Shakespeare to work with, and assuming that, he must have signed on to this convoluted, neo-gothic, faux-feminist folderol hoping that those with limited literary acuity might mistake it for one of the Bard's more esoterically silly works. Nice try, Ken, but The Proposition's wild mix of Virginia Woolf politics and romance-novel "wouldn't it be wild ifÖ" plotting don't even ring Bacon's bell, much less big Bill's. Chock-full of those annoying coincidences that make for distracting PBS fare, this big-screen version of something that should never have even made it to the small screen is by turns charming in its consistent goofiness and ludicrous beyond belief. Set in the none-too-roaring Thirties, Hurt and Stowe play Arthur and Eleanor Barrett: He's a millionaire investor with a penchant for funding the nascent Nazi party, and she's a free-thinking feminist writer with a penchant for quoting the above-mentioned Woolf and making idle comments about the tedium of waiting around for women's suffrage to crop up in her social strata. They're desperately trying to sire an heir, but Arthur suffers from the dreaded lazy sperm, and so, in a misguided act of husbandly duty, he has his toady (Loggia) hire a young stud to act as a surrogate peashooter. The family servant Syril (Danner) wisely advises against this course of action, but Eleanor has already marked her calendar, made the bed, and lighted the candles before the chosen buck arrives. In a sublimely oddball bit of casting, who should it turn out to be but Doogie Howser himself -- Neal Patrick Harris. As the discombobulated replacement driller Roger, Harris is actually quite good, full of nervous energy and wilting pride. When young Roger falls madly in love with Eleanor and then turns up dead, well, you can imagine the hideously goth consequences of all this mucking about. And that's just the first 20 minutes. Branagh arrives soon after as the new priest on the beat who already has a disturbing familiarity with the Barrett clan and their shady servant Syril. It all becomes a crazed genealogical comedy of terrors after a certain point, with the various characters falling in and out of lust and love, and suddenly realizing that they might all be related in some awfully lower-class way. The Brontes couldn't have come up with a more convoluted plot if they'd written it themselves, but alas, that job fell to screenwriter Rick Ramage, who tosses in everything and then some in a misguided and ultimately vain attempt to make something, anything, matter. On the acting front, it's nice to see Hurt's restrained, internally seething performance as the tormented, seedless househusband, but Stowe, unfortunately, is less than interesting. Branagh huffs and invokes and looks fine in his miter but nonetheless is reaching for something that's just not there. It would have made a fine satire, I think, but The Proposition plays it straight, and in doing so topples into unintentional comedy far too often.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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