Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JUNE 29, 1998: 

OUT OF SIGHT

D: Steven Soderbergh; with George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Isaiah Washington. (R, 124 min.)

Finally, a film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that really captures that author's seedy, South Floridian love of small-time hoods and big-time losers. Granted, Jackie Brown mined similar territory some months back, but Soderbergh pares Leonard down to his essentials, playing around with the timeline à la Leonard, and just generally having a lighter, wackier time of it all 'round. It's gritty enough to stay true to the source material's comedy-of-despair ethos, yet solid enough to pack a punch, and in doing so it makes for one of the better heist movies in some time. Clooney, looking and acting way above par here, plays career thief Jack Foley, who in a lovingly realized opening scene finds himself in the Glades Correctional Institution after botching an endearingly simplistic bank robbery. Dismayed by the fact that he's not scheduled to see parole for three decades, Foley breaks out of prison and more trouble in the form of Deputy Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez), who just happened to be in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. With the help of partner Buddy Bragg (Rhames), Foley ditches Karen (but not before some serious brake-light rapport is established between the pair) and moves forward with his big plan to rob another ex-con -- inside trader Richard Ripley (Brooks) -- of a reported $5 million in uncut diamonds. Plans go awry (don't they always?) when hair-trigger Snoopy Miller (Cheadle) and stoner car thief Glenn Michaels (Zahn, doing his best Jim Breuer impression) cut themselves in on the action. A host of terrific bit players round out Soderbergh's film: Catherine Keener turns up as Foley's ex-squeeze Adele, Isaiah Washington appears as Snoopy's psychotic brother Kenneth, an uncredited Michael Keaton reprises his Jackie Brown role as FBI agent Ray Nicolette, and an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson plays a fellow con in the film's closing scene. Although Out of Sight's whipsawing storyline feels off-putting at first, as the flashbacks-within-flashbacks begin drawing to a head, Soderbergh's obvious glee at playing with linear conventions shines through. It's also readily apparent that the actors are enjoying themselves immensely; more than anything else, Out of Sight captures Leonard's sense of the indefatigable appeal of the downtrodden grifter. Clooney, with his cockeyed half-grin, sparks some real chemistry alongside the tempestuous Lopez, and Albert Brooks -- with his flagrantly shoddy hairpiece and all -- is a sublime hoot. Soderbergh's film has a Sixties pop art feel to it, from the European-styled one-sheet poster on down to his frequent use of freeze-frames and snazzy edits. Hardly a serious caper film, Out of Sight instead takes a lighter approach, effortlessly offering up as many unexpected chuckles as it does bullets.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



COUSIN BETTE

D: Des McAnuff; with Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, Kelly Macdonald, Aden Young, Geraldine Chaplin. (R, 108 min.)

Cousin Bette is so cold, so grimly repressed, it's a wonder she doesn't explode, littering the Parisian landscape with bits of starched black silk and coiled raven hair. A physical study in black and white, Bette (Lange) is an emotional riot of color. You sense it in the sudden, anticipatory movements she makes, like a dull black bird whose wings conceal a flash of cochineal. If only she could fly, we would be struck by her grace and brilliance. But her outward plainness, her reduced circumstances, have relegated her to a social cage for poor relations. When her beautiful cousin Adeline Hulot (Laurie) dies, Bette senses her chance for escape. She soars toward the open door only to have it slammed, humiliatingly, in her face. The widower Hulot, it seems, wants Bette to stay on, not as a replacement wife, but in servitude, tending to his spoiled, grown children and the bothersome affairs of his crumbling household. Bette instead retreats to her life as a costumer for a burlesque show starring the lusciously lewd songbird of Paris (and mistress of Hulot), Jenny Cadine (Shue). When Bette falls in love with the young, starving sculptor in her tenement and saves him from self-destruction, she can't help boasting about him to young cousin Hortense (Macdonald), who promptly sets her sights on the dashing and romantic figure. Once again, Bette is dismissed by the Hulot family, whose beauty, aristocracy, and pretensions to wealth give them everything she cannot have. And in Paris, in 1846, a plain woman of no means has only one recourse: Machiavellian revenge. Bette spares no one in her quest for vengeance. Based on one of the novels comprising Balzac's The Human Comedy, Cousin Bette is wickedly funny, passionately sensuous, and so bitterly cold it makes you gasp for breath. Lange is remarkable as Bette. You long to loosen her hair, to smooth her frown, to soften that grimly austere composure. Her severity is so compelling that you watch every small motion, every slight expression seeking some sign of human warmth or even frailty. By contrast, all the other characters are soft, and silly, and selfish, and totally unaware that their brilliant plumage makes them conspicuous targets. Bette, by her very plainness, is free to manipulate and deceive. She simply does not command enough respect for anyone to notice or suspect her duplicity. She, and we, get a delicious and somewhat sadistic private amusement from watching the upper crust get their just desserts. Aided by a clever script, sumptuous set design, gorgeous cinematography, and a wonderful cast, the Tony Award-winning director McAnuff has fashioned a grippingly entertaining film. Not a movie for the soft of heart, Cousin Bette takes you by the Balzac from the opening scene and never lets go.

3.5 stars

Hollis Chacona



HIGH ART

D: Lisa Cholodenko; with Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, Anh Duong, Gabriel Mann, Tammy Grimes. (R, 102 min.)

Art, ambition, lesbians, heroin, and ennui all combine into a seductive mix in this compelling feature by first-timer Lisa Cholodenko that won the screenwriting award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Set among the New York City art world denizens whose casual conversations comfortably encompass such rarefied reference points as Derrida, Fassbinder, and MacArthur grants, High Art is at once a naturalistic study and a style-conscious riff on a specific milieu. Its story follows the reciprocal growth of a somewhat ambiguous relationship between a jaded ex-artist and a career-challenged young ingénue. The beguiling young Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a lower-echelon editor at a sleek photography magazine whose functions are really no more than that of a glorified coffee fetcher. Young and conflicted because she knows that even though she has snagged her dream job, she sees little more than a continued future of dead-end subservience and creative lockout. Her live-in boyfriend James (Mann) is sympathetic and encouraging. The transparently thin plot device of a leaky bathtub causes Syd one evening to knock on her upstairs neighbor's door to check on the plumbing. Once inside, Syd becomes intrigued by the world she finds. The apartment above her is a demimonde roost, a hazy, druggy magnet for heroin chic lesbians and their brood. Fascinated by the unique photographs that cover the walls, Syd gradually comes to learn that her upstairs neighbor is actually the formerly renowned photographer Lucy Berliner (Sheedy), who defiantly pulled the plug on her own career 10 years earlier and moved to Germany. Back in New York now with her lover Greta (Clarkson), a drug-addicted former Fassbinder actress whose wearisome references to the dead director are as humorously pretentious and ineffective as if she were still playing a role in one of his ripe melodramas, Lucy is drawn out of her retirement by Syd's interest first in her photographs and gradually in Lucy herself. What the movie explores is the extent to which Syd's attraction to Lucy stems more from the new drug experiences, the undeniable lesbian attraction, or the opportunities for work promotions that her presentation of Lucy's work entails. The lines between all these things are opaque and equivocal. High Art treats these questions with a strikingly naturalistic ease, a quality that's also evident in the lovemaking scenes. But just as it imbues these abstract career and lifestyle questions with a refreshing matter-of-factness, the film also perfectly captures the molten one-beat-behind sensuousness of the drug haze. Sheedy's penetrating depiction of Lucy, the bone-thin seductress despite herself is a career high point for the actress, and Mitchell's Syd is a constant pleasure to watch. Well-drawn also are all the secondary characters -- both the magazine hierarchy and Lucy's layabout pals. Additionally, original music by Shudder to Think lends the film another unique tone. A contrived conclusion mars the veracity of the story's escalating drama and provides an unsatisfying solution to the myriad questions the film raises. But High Art is nevertheless a work that shellacs itself into your consciousness.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



DAY AT THE BEACH

D: Nick Veronis; with Veronis, Patrick Fitzgerald, Neal Jones, Catherine Kellner, Jane Adams, Joe Ragno, Martin Shakar. (R, 92 min.)

There's no escape quite like a weekend getaway in the Hamptons. Especially when you're on the run from an accidental murder and a leery mafioso. Veronis' first feature is a strange amalgam of New York City deadpan schtick and edgy drama that never quite gels but isn't nearly as grating as the dark and dingy camerawork might make you think. It's part The Daytrippers and part Weekend at Bernie's, with more than a little indie chutzpah thrown in for good measure. Aspiring filmmaker Jimmy (Veronis) and his friends John (Fitzgerald) and Chuck (Jones) find their lives turned upside down when over-zealous actor John tosses a loaded briefcase over a bridge and kills a passing fisherman. Wracked with guilt, he's ready to turn himself over to the cops but instead embarks on a semi-wild night of drinking with the boys. At sunrise, on a whim, the three pack into a car -- taking John's wife Marie (Adams) and their young son, as well as Jimmy's new crush Amy (Kellner), who just happens to be the boss' daughter (the trio work at a rundown Little Italy ravioli factory, which just happens to be a front for the mob) -- and head out to the Hamptons to do some serious soul-searching. Once there, Jimmy stumbles on the summer home of the ravioli kingpin, and, well, trouble naturally ensues. Shot in the traditional NYC grit-o-vision, Veronis manages to keep things light and breezy until about a third of the way through, when the film takes a turn into the netherworld of deer-laden dream imagery and mano-a-mano emotional meltdown. Never quite sure whether it's a comedy, drama, or some post-NYU hybrid, Day at the Beach's reach frequently exceeds its grasp. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the film is made up of a dozen or so smaller pieces, each of which work well on their own but never quite gel together. Whether it's Fitzgerald's deft touch as family man John, or the ever-on-the-make Chuck finally getting some play, Day at the Beach (which previously screened in Austin during the 1997 SXSW Film Festival) is full of good stuff that goes nowhere. The final confrontation (of sorts) with mob boss Antonio Gintolini (Ragno) at his dune-shrouded estate is a deus ex machina of the worst sort, but somehow Veronis manages to pull it off. Like its befuddled characters, Veronis' film is really neither here nor there, a mildly engaging look into the lives of a trio of schlemiels that frankly wouldn't elicit much interest even on their best days.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



DR. DOLITTLE

D: Betty Thomas; with Eddie Murphy, Ossie Davis, Oliver Platt, Kristen Wilson, Raven-Symoné, Kyla Pratt, Richard Schiff, Peter Boyle, Jeffrey Tambor. (PG-13, 85 min.)

Charm offensive or offensive charm? It's getting harder to make the call as Hollywood continues its strategy -- exemplified by movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, Billy Madison, Half-Baked, and the recent output of the Farrelly Brothers (Kingpin, Dumb & Dumber) -- of compensating for the dearth of good comedy writing with sheer dorky affability. Bristling with enough fart jokes, crass sexual innuendo, and low-grade profanity to make Rex Harrison (star of the original 1967 Dolittle) blanch, this PG-13 remake epitomizes the trend perfectly. With a middle-school class clown's lowbrow cunning, Dr. Dolittle's creators have zeroed right in on the key element of successful audience ingratiation, the benign and endearing lead character. Murphy, who owes his durable appeal to his flair for playing it both naughty and nice, fits the bill perfectly. His Dr. John Dolittle is a classical comic straight-man, a genial, unflappable traditional family guy à la Hugh Beaumont, who suppressed in childhood the only exceptional trait he ever had: the ability to talk with animals. When a knock on the head suddenly restores this long-lost ability, Dolittle's veneer of Cleaverish sangfroid shatters wide open. Suddenly, the air rings with the din of kvetching pigeons, drawling hound dogs, street-punk rats, and wisecracking guinea pigs (voiced hilariously by the likes of Chris Rock, Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, John Leguizamo, and Gary Shandling). To Dolittle's horror, the ability to walk with, talk with, grunt and squeak and squawk with these lower life forms draws him inexorably into their world and away from his carefully cultivated life as an upwardly mobile surgeon. Dolittle's humor, as I've noted, is hardly Wildean, even by comparison with the fairly lackluster '67 original, and will probably have no appeal at all to fans of the sweetly whimsical children's stories by Hugh Lofting. And yet, given that plentiful witnesses saw me sniggering my way through the preview screening, the critical high-horse stance is not an option. With an irresistible blend of disarming silliness, adorable critters, inspired gags (including allusions to movies like The Exorcist and Sling Blade), and the sheer personal appeal of Murphy and Symoné (as Dolittle's maladjusted younger daughter), there's no denying Dr. Dolittle's bullseye connection with the lowest common denominator. Hedged praise? Absolutely. One wishes -- fervently -- for a dose of the intelligent, genuinely witty kid-targeted comedy writing delivered by Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or Ron Clements and Ted Elliott in Aladdin. But at the risk of serving as an enabler for Hollywood's dysfunctional tendencies, I have to say that, given a choice between the puerile but essentially innocent whimsy of Dr. Dolittle and the dimwitted nastiness of, say, Dirty Work, parents should be grateful for the Eddie Murphys and Jim Carreys of the world for at least providing a kinder, gentler option.

2.5 stars

Russell Smith



LITTLE BOY BLUE

D: Antonio Tibaldi; with Ryan Phillipe, John Savage, Nastassja Kinski, Jenny Lewis, Shirley Knight, Adam Burke, Devon Michael, Tyrin Turner, John Doman. (Not Rated, 107 min.)

Messy, confusing, and chock-full of improbable plotting, this locally shot slice of white-trash pie still manages to be affecting at times, in part due to John Frick's eerily barren production design and a freakish, thoroughly unnerving turn from Savage (best remembered as the doomed combat photographer in Oliver Stone's Salvador). Savage, in fact, is so creepy here that he puts you in mind of Michael Rooker's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Both characters plumb unholy familial depths, though in Little Boy Blue, Savage plays an emasculated Vietnam vet as opposed to Rooker's amoral road killer. As Ray West, Savage is a paranoid wreck of a man who keeps his waitress wife Kate (Kinski), their teenage son Jimmy (Phillipe), and their two young boys Mikey and Mark (Burke and Michael) firmly in his sweaty iron grip. By night, Ray and Kate run the local roadhouse, and during the day, when he's not sleeping off a hangover, Ray terrorizes the household, keeping watch for interlopers and occasionally forcing his wife and elder son to have sex at gunpoint while he grunts like a stuck pig in the background. Into the miasma of self-loathing comes a nosy hired detective (exactly who hired him and why he's poking around isn't made clear until the final reel of the film), who soon has a tragic "accident" in the men's room of Ray's bar. This triggers a slipshod investigation by the local police (headed up by Sheriff Lobo, one presumes, since nothing ever quite seems to get done and the obvious is too often overlooked) that reveals, by increments, an ever-more-twisted backstory to the West clan. Tibaldi's film scores points for its Southern gothic, bottom-of-the-barrel atmospherics and crushingly bleak tone, but the script by Michael Boston is so full of contrived coincidences and outright impossibilities that it's downright ridiculous more often than not. Why Kinski's Kate hasn't packed up and left 10 years previous is anyone's guess, and although Jimmy obviously sticks around this Family Circus From Hell to protect his cute-as-a-bug younger siblings, the credulity of the whole affair is strained from the start. As for Savage, his tic- and vein-laden performance as the unhinged, catheterized vet loops back and forth from harrowing to outlandish. Why hasn't anyone locked this maniac up and thrown the key away long before? The answer never comes, and by the end of Little Boy Blue you're so relieved to get home and shower the emotional backwash off that you really couldn't care less.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



POST COITUM

D: Brigitte Roüan; with Roüan, Patrick Chesnais, Boris Terral, Nils Tavernier, Jean-Louis-Richard. (Not Rated, 108 min.)

The first image in the French film Post Coitum is of a female cat in heat, writhing on the floor with animalistic abandon. Cut to a fortyish woman writhing in bed, rubbing her hands all over her body and beseeching an invisible lover to return to her. It's not exactly a flattering study in contrasts, but it's not meant to be: Post Coitum is unflinching in its depiction of the exultant highs and the degrading lows of amour fou. On the surface, it appears that Diane (Roüan), a successful book editor with a loving husband and children, is in control of her life. But an impetuous affair with a beguiling twentysomething engineer with the looks of a dark, pre-Raphaelite angel turns her life upside down to the extent that she's willing to sacrifice everything to sustain it, even after it's over. Why this recklessness that, to the objective mind, defies logic? Is it because she's experiencing something akin to a mid-life crisis? Is she unhappy? Or is she just hot for this guy? As frustrating as it might be, Post Coitum doesn't provide any answer to the central question of "Why?" simply because the inexplicable can't be explained. After all, passion is no ordinary word. Two subplots -- one involving a blocked writer's efforts to create a passionate female character, the other involving the sensational murder of a man by his wife of 43 years in retribution for his infidelities -- serve as interesting counterpoints to Diane's emotional descent, but they don't illuminate it. As Diane crumbles in the wake of the affair's end, her increasingly irrational behavior becomes more and more difficult to watch -- this is Fatal Attraction territory. (If you've been there yourself, it's probably all the more discomforting.) For Roüan, the director, co-screenwriter, and lead actor in this ride on love's roller coaster, Post Coitum must be something of a labor of love -- she really throws herself into it, both figuratively and literally. It's to her credit that she's not made this into a vanity production. Think of what one of her American counterparts -- say Barbra Streisand -- might have done with the same subject matter.

3.0 stars

Steve Davis


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