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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JULY 20, 1998: 

SMOKE SIGNALS

D: Chris Eyre; with Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal, Cody Lightning, Simon Baker. (PG-13, 88 min.)

This feature debut from Eyre is also being billed as the first film written, directed, and co-produced by American Indians, but hanging it on the indigenous hook does Smoke Signals a disservice. At once poignant and slyly humorous, Eyre's film touches on the universal themes of loss, betrayal, redemption, and father/son relationships in ways that echo not only inside the reservation but outside as well. Beach plays Victor Joseph, a Couer d'Alene Indian in Idaho whose father Arnold (Farmer) quit reservation life and headed out in his prized yellow pickup truck 10 years back, when Victor was a young boy. Years before his departure, a tremendous fire swept through the house of Victor's friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire when an all-night Fourth of July party left most of the reservation -- including Arnold -- falling down drunk and unaware of the impending tragedy. Arnold saved young Thomas, but the boy's parents died, and since then Thomas has become the reservation outcast of sorts, grinning, bespectacled, socially inept, but with a mystical gift for telling wildly improbable stories to anyone who will listen. Flash forward to the present: News of Arnold's death arrives, and a stoic, handsome Victor decides to drive to his father's final home, in Arizona, to collect his truck and whatever else might await him there. The only problem? Not enough money for the journey. It's here that Thomas steps in, offering Victor his piggy bank in exchange for the chance to travel with him. Arnold did, after all, save the young Thomas, and Victor hesitantly agrees. What follows, then, is less road trip than voyage of discovery, that takes the unlikely partnership from the scrubby, hard-scrabble reservation to the final resting place of their only real male authority figure, and beyond. Eyre's film, which has a screenplay by Sherman Alexie and is based on stories from his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, isn't nearly as wearyingly downbeat as a capsule description might make it sound. Smoke Signals is alight with oddball nuances and wry observations: the reservation's radio station, KREZ, uses a broken-down van at the deserted crossroads to gauge the (nonexistent) traffic conditions, and Victor's mother Arlene (Cardinal) is a master in the fine art of flatbread-making. Subtle, lyrically haunting touches like these evoke a palpable sense of loss and the sub-poverty level of Native American life, but also unite the tribe -- broken by alcohol and abuse though they may be -- in long-held beliefs and rituals. It's Victor who teaches his inanely happy friend to "act like a real Indian," and Thomas who forces Victor to confront the ghosts of his past no matter how terrible they may seem. The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, and Eyre's persistent use of long, trailing shots reinforces the story's elegiac tone. Simple and elegant, Smoke Signals is a delicious, heady debut that lingers long after the tale is told.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



New Reviews:

LETHAL WEAPON 4

D: Richard Donner; with Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li. (R, 125 min.)

To hell with Riggs and Murtaugh -- I'm getting too old for this shit. Gibson and Glover are back as those lovable LAPD screw-ups in this, director Donner's homage to cinematic white noise. Not only is the franchise growing hoary, by now it's become downright laughable, leaving Lethal Weapon 4 feeling more like a bad Fox sitcom than anything else. By now you know the standard-issue story: Detective Martin Riggs (Gibson), the hair-trigger, practical-joke-loving wild man is paired with longtime partner Roger Murtaugh (Glover), the doting family man, as meanwhile the city collapses around them and the forces of evil raise their pointy little heads. What's new? Not much: Riggs' Internal Affairs girlfriend Lorna (Russo, somehow still managing to draw life from her vaguely one-note character) is pregnant, as is Murtaugh's daughter (by rookie detective Lee Butters (Rock, wildly firing off comic rounds like a blind sniper with his hair on fire). Much confusion and homophobic jokes on the home front ensue in that department, but the real crux of the alleged plot centers on a gang of Chinese baddies who are smuggling slave labor into the L.A. basin. Led by the steely-eyed Jet Li, they're cookie-cutter parodies of the Yellow Menace at best, and Tex Avery-esque buffoons at worst. Murtaugh, ever the big-hearted putz, offers his home to a Chinese family he rescues, while his partner scrambles about blowing things up (as usual) and miscounting to three every time the aging duo prepare to make their move. The film isn't as bad as it is incomprehensible, a staccato series of action-piece setups and knock-downs that skitters from scene to scene with all the twitchy hilarity of a fibrillating speed freak. Alright, it is that bad. In the 12 years since the first film's release, the series has become increasingly more annoying, and this is the point at which it finally reaches critical mass. Gibson's much-admired glutes can't save him now, and Glover looks perpetually wearied, not so much running after the bad guys as wheezing like a rusty locomotive. Of course, Joe Pesci is back as the Human Whine Leo Getz, but the less said about that particular crime against nature the better. Not since Joel Schumacher turned the once-promising Batman franchise into a personal masturbation fantasy has a once-proud series devolved so awfully. Donner, I think, needs to stop hanging around the ghost of Don Simpson. The whole mess plays like a surreal Brady Bunch or Family Affair episode on dodgy drugs. Interminable, annoying, and just plain boring, Lethal Weapon should've bowed out at sequel number two. No, three. No -- ah, to hell with Riggs and Murtaugh -- I'm getting too old for this shit.

0 stars

Marc Savlov


THE MASK OF ZORRO

D: Martin Campbell; with Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Matt Letscher, Maury Chaykin, Tony Amendola, Pedro Armendariz, L.Q. Jones. (PG, 138 min.)


He'zzzzzzzz Back: The Mask of Zorro stars Antonio Banderas

Theoretically, if you take into account some of Einstein's more esoteric theorems (parallel universes and all that), the tale of Zorro has already been filmed several thousand times over. Or maybe it just seems that way. First commited to pulp paper in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, the roguish character paved the way for Bruce Wayne and his ilk before dropping out of sight for a while in the mid-Seventies (1981's George Hamilton vehicle -- Zorro, the Gay Blade -- is notable only as a cultural comic anomaly, I believe). Regardless of what has come before, however, Campbell's new offering is a pleasantly vicarious slice of summertime falderol, innocuous in its presentation and often genuinely fun. It has the sexy, histrionic vibe of those old Republic serials updated for the Nineties, and would make a terrific double bill with Disney's vastly underrated The Rocketeer. Both films gaze back longingly to the daze of classic Hollywood heroics, and even Errol Flynn would have to admit that Banderas cuts a dashing figure as the revamped Zorro. Campbell, who directed the immensely entertaining Goldeneye, has an eye for outrageous action scenes and cliffhanger plotting; his directorial style has as much panache as the larger-than-life characters he works with, and his riotous sense of story serves him well. The Mask of Zorro begins with the fall of Zorro/Don Diego de la Vega (Hopkins, looking remarkably trim and fit and decidedly removed from Hannibal Lecter mode), as the evil Don Rafael Montero (Wilson) discovers his true identity, murders his beloved wife Esperanza (Julietta Rosen), takes the nobleman's infant daughter Elena (Zeta-Jones) as his own, and tosses the avenging swordsman in the dungeon. Twenty years later, de la Vega makes his escape, hooks up with vendetta-happy peasant Alejandro Murietta (Banderas), whose brother was murdered by one of Montero's henchmen, and embarks on the resurrection of Zorro, the people's hero, by patiently teaching the headstrong Murietta everything he knows about fighting, fencing, and, of course, females. Zorro, after all, is nothing if not romantic. As befits its serial pedigree, this new chapter in the Book of Zorro is rife with inspired, edge-of-your-seat plotting, betrayals, treachery, love, lust, materfully staged swordplay, and many, many shots of the masked avenger rearing up on his trusty mount, silhouhetted against the crimson Alta, California sky where the story is set. God knows it's hokum of the purest stripe, but Campbell, Hopkins, Banderas, and especially the alarmingly vivacious Zeta-Jones pull it off in spades. A popcorn movie of the highest order, it's full of garish, silly fun, extreme heat escapism, and nary a Bruce Willis in sight.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


SONATINE

D: Takeshi Kitano; with Kitano, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu Katsumura, Aya Kikumai. (R, 94 min.)


Takeshi Kitano writes, directs, and stars in Sonatine.
In a traditional gangster movie, the phrase, "This means all-out war" triggers a very specific set of expectations about what's to follow. But Japanese director Takeshi "Beat" Kitano doesn't truck with conventional wiseguy dramas. So, while a requisite number of Versace suits do get ventilated by 9mm slugs in the course of this story, and while various stock characters and situations do come into play, little else about Kitano's fourth film (shot in 1993 but just now seeing U.S. release) belongs in the same conceptual or attitudinal galaxy as The Public Enemy or The Godfather. Instead, as in his most recent film, Fireworks, Kitano seems far more interested in the arbitrary, ritualistic aspects of criminal society than the macho sturm und drang that generally animates the genre. The underworld portrayed in Sonatine is as rigidly patterned and deterministic as an ant colony. Protagonist Murakawa (Kitano), a mid-level Tokyo yakuza functionary, has lost his zest for the job but can't imagine a way out. When his boss packs him and a hastily recruited band of young punks off to Okinawa to help an allied gang in a local skirmish, he suspects a setup. Yet, bound by a code that supersedes every consideration of common sense (saving one's hide, etc.) he takes the assignment anyway. Once in Okinawa, Marakawa and company find the rumble at an impasse and wind up cooling their heels in a cozy beach house waiting for the other side to make its move. The energy intended for wasting their rivals is now redirected into a bizarrely whimsical series of games and rituals involving everything from firearms to Frisbees -- with little apparent recognition of their qualitative difference. During this long middle act, the gang war is all but forgotten. Time passes as if in a dream, albeit one with an absurdly structured feel. The dead-souled Murakawa, already staring into some kind of personal void, is pushed even closer to the brink by these experiences, which force him toward an inevitable day of reckoning. This is the existentialist spin Kitano seems to enjoy putting on his stories. And in many ways Sonatine feels like a rehearsal for the richer, more visually and thematically rewarding Fireworks. Kitano, a hydra-headed cultural phenomenon who also dabbles in standup comedy, literature, painting, and journalism, is a filmmaker with a clear, ever-evolving vision. Based on what I've seen of his work, he appears not to give a rat's ass about genre traditions, narrative convention, or the alleged necessity of providing big emotional payoffs for the audience. If you feel hostile toward art that not only confuses you but then also suggests that your confusion is precisely the point, you'll probably want to pass on Sonatine. But if disciplined, minimalist storytelling, formal innovation, and contemplation of mystery for its own sake appeals to you, a real feast awaits you in the films of Takeshi Kitano.

3.0 stars

Russell Smith


THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

D: Peter and Bobby Farrelly; with Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott, Lin Shaye, Lee Evans, Jeffrey Tambor, W. Earl Brown, Markie Post, Keith David, Jonathan Richman, Brett Favre. (R, 119 min.)


Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon in There's Something About Mary.

When Peter and Bobby Farrelly titled their first film Dumb & Dumber it's as if they issued themselves a comic challenge: Always aim for the next level -- downward. However, this shouldn't be misunderstood as meaning that their new film There's Something About Mary isn't funny, frequently side-splittingly so. These fraternal filmmakers are specialists in lowbrow bodily-functions humor as well as defiant assailants of any subject matter that's marked "Fragile: Politically Correct." Where they branch out in There's Something About Mary is in their creation of sustained comic sequences, an advance over the strung-together assemblage of gags that propel the momentum of both Dumb & Dumber and Kingpin. The film's much described early sequence in which nerdy Ted (Stiller) never makes it to the prom with dream girl Mary (Diaz) because of an excruciatingly catastrophic accident with his pants zipper, is destined to become a classic bit of film comedy. In its antic craziness as more and more characters barge into the scene, Mary is reminiscent of the crazed, hellzapoppin' style of the Marx Brothers. More and more characters pop into the scene, the jokes fly ("Is it the frank or the beans?" Mary's solicitous dad keeps asking), and the audience winces hysterically with laughter. And then, when you think it's all gone just as far as it's able, the sequence layers on a sight gag so audacious that you suddenly understand that you're completely at the film's mercy. Though this sequence is the instant classic, a few others nearly equal its antic mischief and sublime buildup. And, really, they're much better left undescribed. At about two hours in length, however, Mary consists of more jokes than sustained sequences. A surprisingly large number of the laughs work, although, understandably, a good number of them also fall flat. You can bet that whenever the story slows down to advance the plot concerning its paper-thin characters, the film takes a noticeable dip. As the Mary at the center of it all, Diaz certainly exudes that irresistible "something" expressed in the title. In films such as My Best Friend's Wedding and A Life Less Ordinary, Diaz has shown herself to be a good comic sport who is game for just about anything. Here, it's no stretch to understand why, at the end of the movie, some half-dozen suitors have converged in her living room to throw themselves at her feet. Stiller is a deadpan hoot, although Dillon's scuzzball private dick is a bit too extreme for the circumstances. Able support work is provided by numerous players, among them Chris Elliott (who, regrettably has little more to do than be the butt of a skin-ailment joke); Lin Shaye (a Farrelly regular in her assigned role of wizened sexpot), and Lee Evans (the physical comedian who was so good in Funny Bones and Mouse Hunt and here milks his character's crutches for every joke they're worth). Special note must be made of cult musician Jonathan Richman, the minimalist romantic troubadour who is used here with snare-drum sidekick Tommy Larkins as roving minstrels who pop up (á là Cat Ballou) in various scenes to provide running ironic commentaries -- in verse. And speaking of songs, stick around for the closing credits during which the entire cast vamps to "Build me Up, Buttercup." The Farrellys won't be winning any good taste awards in the near future (their next film, reportedly, centers around Siamese twins), but, my oh my, they are modern kingpins of comedy.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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