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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JULY 27, 1998: 

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

D: Steven Spielberg; with Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina. (R, 168 min.)

Weeks before its release, Saving Private Ryan had already been tagged as "the best film about war ever made." This from critics and veterans alike, and though I fall (thankfully) into the former category, the film is inarguably one of the most realistic depictions of what it must be like to engage in modern warfare. For once, believe the hype. It certainly doesn't hurt matters that Saving Private Ryan is helmed by icon/director Spielberg and many of his longtime collaborators, including director of photography Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Amistad), and is populated by a brilliant ensemble cast headed by that other Hollywood icon, Tom Hanks. In Robert Rodat's script, Capt. John Miller (Hanks) is ordered to lead his squad of eight men through the madness of Omaha Beach and D-Day, then go behind German lines to rescue Pvt. James Ryan, the only surviving brother among four soldiers, and thereby scuttle a potential public-relations snafu on the home front. Miller and his men don't give a rat's ass for this unseen, unknown private they've been ordered to find, but they know -- or at least Miller knows -- that finishing the mission brings them all one step closer to home and hearth. Rounding out Miller's squad are some of the best character actors working today, including Sizemore's square-shooting Sgt. Horvarth, Burns' wisecracking Brooklyn dogface Pvt. Reiben, Diesel as the requisite Italian-American Pvt. Carpazo, Ribisi's medic Wade, newcomer Pepper as the squad's devoutly religious sharpshooter, Goldberg as the Nazi-baiting Jew, and Davies as the conscripted, unsure Cpl. Upham. Rodat and the actors steer clear of the most obvious clichés in squadron demographics, and instead, let their audience come to know them on their own terms. One by one, the men are introduced by mannerism and dialogue, very slowly emerging as fully developed characters who, by the end of the film, you feel as though you've known maybe your whole dreaming life, if not your waking. All these acting chops merge with Spielberg's brilliant recreation of the final countdown to V-E Day. Beginning with the Allied forces landing at Omaha Beach (which goes on for an unprecedented half-hour), Spielberg proves again and again just why he's one of the most respected filmmakers alive. Never has there been such unmitigated carnage outside of combat documentaries: Awash in blood and strewn with staggering, limbless men jetting arterial gore, the Omaha sequence is a prolonged, relentless nightmare of death, agony, and stark, naked terror. And yet it's a gorgeous, achingly affecting and artistically rendered sequence as well, a ballet of bodies, an adagio of organs. Spielberg paints everything in desaturated, khaki tones; dirt clods hang suspended, jittering in the frigid air while bullets impact and bodies sag and fall like sad, untethered marionettes. On top of this epic, disturbing realism, of course, is Saving Private Ryan's genuine sense of loss and humanity; it's perhaps the most humanistic war film since J'Accuse or All Quiet on the Western Front. A bitter, bloody masterpiece with adrenalized emotions and hyper-realized images, this is perhaps as close to battle as any sane human being should ever hope to tread.

4.0 stars

Marc Savlov



BROADWAY DAMAGE

D: Victor Mignatti; with Michael Shawn Lucas, Mara Hobel, Aaron Williams, Hugh Panaro, Gary Janetti. (Not Rated, 110 min.)

At its best, Broadway Damage evokes the sweet melancholy of those post-college, twentysomething years when you're ambivalently ready for the world. It's a time of financial and emotional struggle, of occasional heartbreak, and of making mistakes, all made bearable by youthful resiliency. The film begins with the painful spectacle of wannabe actors Marc and Robert auditioning for an unspecified stage production. If truth be said, they're not very good; in fact, they're just short of awful. To make ends meet, the boyishly cute Marc works as a telephone operator booking tickets for Broadway shows, living in a six-flights-up Greenwich Village flat with fellow alumna, Cynthia, who spends most of her time irresponsibly using Daddy's charge cards. Marc and Cynthia are a fine pair who perversely complement each other: he's fixated on meeting the perfect-10 man of his dreams (much to Robert's chagrin), while she's obsessed with harassing Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown for a job, despite a total lack of magazine experience. Before it's all over, lessons are learned -- well, some critical self-evaluation occurs -- and things end on something close to happily ever after. Although Broadway Damage goes on a little too long, it's an engaging movie that remains true to its modest ambitions. If it can be faulted for anything, it's that it's too agreeable, lacking an edge that might have made it a more weighty experience. The performance of Lucas, who plays the film's central character, Marc, leaves you with the same feeling: it's nice, it's inviting, it's a tad bland. Of special camp interest is Hobel in the role of Cynthia. Remember her? All grown up now, she played the girl-devil Christina to Faye Dunaway's monstrous Mommy in that infamous movie about Joan Crawford's maternal instincts. Whether Hobel is intentionally charting a career playing spoiled brats remains to be seen, but there's one thing for sure: Nary a wire hanger is visible in Broadway Damage.

3.0 stars

Steve Davis



DISTURBING BEHAVIOR

D: David Nutter; with James Marsden, Katie Holmes, Nick Stahl, Steve Railsback, Bruce Greenwood, William Sadler. (R, 84 min.)

John Hughes meets Ira Levin at Carrie's high school. Dopey, histrionic fun from The X-Files alum David Nutter and Scott Rosenberg, writer of a real horror film -- last year's Con Air. Doubtlessly green-lighted following the success of Kevin Williamson and his minions, this paranoiac slab of hormonal overload positively drips with snide asides, though it's not nearly as cohesive (or witty) as the Craven/Williamson Scream franchise. It's instead on a par with such mid-Eighties bantamweights as Dead and Buried and My Bloody Valentine (the film, not the band), poking fun at teenage angst by way of a very sharp stick in the eye, kidney, and groin. What it more accurately resembles, though, is 1974's male domination fantasy The Stepford Wives (penned by Levin), both in its attention to suburban cliquehood -- in this case high school -- and its vision of a utopian elite where all the fistfights, fracases, and fun have been replaced by good table manners and well-coifed dos. Steve Clark (Marsden) is a strapping young lad who has recently moved to the Oregonian coastal town of Cradle Bay after the suicide of his brother in Chicago. Along with his younger sister, mom, and dad, Steve struggles to adjust to his new environment, which includes Cradle Bay High School, where the choice of cliques is endearingly clichéd. As described by newfound stoner buddy Gavin Strick (Stahl), the school is made up of the usual shoprats, skaters, stoners, and computer geeks, but more distressing are the Blue Ribbons, a loose cabal of overachieving MENSAniacs who make up the school's jock and preppie populations. According to the slightly-out-of-it Gavin, however, these future Young Republicans, until recently, were toke-happy freakouts like himself. Until they joined the Blue Ribbons, that is. Leave it to an Atom Egoyan regular to be at the crux of small-town America's mental health problems: Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) is on board as school shrink Dr. Caldicott, whose radical experiments in teen-behavior modification have resulted in this cadre of hot-wired, kill-happy zombies who go in for such buoyant after-school specials as murder, rape, and grocery-store defenestrations. Only Sadler, as an equally weird school janitor with a fetish for Vonnegut, can save us now. The aptly named Nutter has a great time with all this bubble-headed trashiness, and though the script is wildly scattershot in its narrative, there's a certain charm to the film's outlandish sensibilities. This may be due in large part to the teen-dream perfection of Stahl and Holmes (Dawson's Creek), who plays white-trash bad girl Rachel, saviorette of Cradle Bay's artificially oppressed teen libidos. It's all goofily ridiculous, sure, but it's also more than a little fun, and for what it's worth, Disturbing Behavior garners an instant Drive-in Academy Award nomination for Best Use of a Pink Floyd lyric since The Wall. Take that, Molly Ringwald.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



FULL SPEED (A TOUTE VITESSE)

D: Gaël Morel; with Elodie Bouchez, Stephane Rideau, Pascal Cervo, Meziane Bardadi. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Although fast-paced and well-intentioned, this French youth film falls into the same trap as so many other youth-focused movies throughout the world: a callow and self-absorbed perspective. The story follows the shifting allegiances between a cluster of friends living in the French countryside. Quentin (Cervo), who is not yet 20, has written a book about disaffected youth that has brought him to the attention of the French literary world. In search of more true-life stories for his next book, Quentin pals around with Samir (Bardadi), who seems perpetually sad due to the violent death of his lover two years earlier. Quentin is looking for stories but Samir is looking for love and is hurt when Quentin rudely rebuffs his sexual overtures. Quentin is sleeping with Julie (Bouchez), who lives alone in her parents' country estate, where much of the story takes place. But Julie finds herself increasingly attracted to Quentin's best friend Jimmy (Rideau). Quentin moves to Paris to follow his muse, Julie and Jimmy become an item, and then, along with Samir, the threesome tries to figure out what went wrong with their old pal. Racism then rears its head and throws more real-world complications into their lives as the film strives for relevance beyond its lovelorn, post-adolescent yearnings. Full Speed bears some resemblance to Andre Techine's 1993 film Wild Reeds, a French coming-of-age story set during the years of the Algerian War. Coincidentally, that film starred Rideau, Bouchez and Full Speed's writer-director Gaël Morel. Here, even though Morel tells his story quite economically and briskly, the film never quite compensates for its lack of substance. You just want to shake it and tell it to grow up already... or whatever the French equivalent of that expression might be.

1.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



HENRY FOOL

D: Hal Hartley; with Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Maria Porter, Kevin Corrigan. (R, 137 min.)

"Get up off your knees," barks Henry Fool (Ryan) to Simon Grim (Urbaniak) as he swaggers into Simon's basement at the beginning of the film and takes up residence. It is a directive that comes to characterize their relationship. Henry plays the mysterious, commanding, bombastic life teacher to Simon's reticent, bullied, and unassuming garbage man. The film is about the ironic influence the two men have on each other. It is a tale composed on an epic canvas, which is quite a departure for filmmaker Hal Hartley, whose distinctive vision has practically made all his films (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, Flirt) into their own unique genre. Until now, he has been a master of the hyper-real, depicting characters whose sense of isolation is profound and fairly impenetrable. With Henry Fool, however, Hartley has made his most dynamic and accomplished film to date. In no small measure this is because his new film is about the relationships between people, rather than the gulfs that surround them. Henry is a pontificating intellectual who believes that his notebooks containing his Confessions will revolutionize the writing establishment upon publication. Only thing is, they're never finished and he won't let anyone read them -- and there's also the ugly matter of some vile deeds in his past. But he generously gives the taciturn Simon a blank notebook to record his unspoken thoughts and what comes out is a cramped, scribbled stream of iambic pentameter. The words are so beautiful that they stimulate the mute cashier at the corner store to suddenly sing, turn his once-tormentors into his new acolytes, and causes his sister's period to begin a week and a half early as she types his long poem into the Internet. From there, it's instant fame for Simon as the student surpasses his questionable teacher, although their relationship continues through several more unexpected bends in the moral river. Though Hartley's ironic stance toward the world is still firmly in place, Henry Fool has a more darkly comic tone as questions of art, commerce, and talent are deftly explored. Parker Posey has one of her choicest roles as Simon's loud, promiscuous sister, and Camille Paglia even pops up at one point to provide commentary. Hartley's wry distance makes it hard to say for certain what it ultimately all adds up to, but links together smoothly enough as it unfolds. It's perhaps a little overlong with too much effort devoted at times to secondary characters and subplots. And be prepared for a couple of scenes of a grossly scatological nature that surpass anything found in the current spate of bathroom-humor comedies. Henry Fool is likely to make true believers out of Hartley's existent fans; to the newcomers there may be no better portal of entry.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



JAMES ELLROY: DEMON DOG OF AMERICAN CRIME FICTION

D: Reinhard Jud. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

"I want to leave all of you with a weird, strange, utterly pervasive sense of the bad juju ramifications extending beyond the last page of my books," says Ellroy as he stands on a bluff overlooking the smoggy skyline of his beloved Los Angeles. Anyone who has read the author of White Jazz, The Big Nowhere, or L.A. Confidential knows he's not just talking shit. This 1994 documentary by Austrian filmmaker Jud does that, too, after a fashion. It's not so much your standard documentary as it is a travelogue of Ellroy's dark places, from the gritty El Monte alleyway where his mother's nude corpse was found when the author was 10 years old to the well-trimmed suburban lawn where the bisected carcass of Elizabeth Short -- The Black Dahlia -- was discovered, setting off the largest manhunt in LAPD history. In between, Ellroy dissects his earlier novels, explores his freaky childhood haunts (cruising through a posh section of L.A. in his powder-blue Caddy he gestures towards a house and comments that he "must have broke in there I don't know how many times, back when B&E was easy"), and ruminates on the nature of what he does and why he's become a Raymond Chandler for the new age. In between, Jud inserts long passages of HelL.A. life, shots of winos sprawled comatose in storefronts, hookers milling about Chevy station wagons, and everywhere, the omnipresent LAPD cruisers and the thick, burly officers rousting vagrants and bums. Not surprisingly, Ellroy appears and speaks as he writes. He resembles an aging insurance salesman with vanishing hair more than a bestselling writer, but no salesman in his right mind would ever shroud himself in that many flavors of bad Hawaiian print shirts. His voice is clipped, precise, gravelly, and he's given to speaking in the sentence-fragment stream of consciousness style that makes up his best work. His penchant for bizarre, gutter poetry is on display at a local booksigning, where he inscribes each novel with an original, nasty rhyme, and, later, this self-described "demon dog" sits on the beach, howling like a lunatic. Is he mad? My Dark Places, which chronicles his obsessive search for his mother's murderer 40 years after the fact leads one to believe that certainly Ellroy is not your average bear. He's been marked by a life growing up in the shadow of some of L.A.'s most seedy, spiritually strip-mined areas, and that arcane Forties and Fifties pop culture mélange that makes up the bulk of his novels -- "white male rage," he calls it -- dogs him in real life as well. Like a Fifties grifter propelled forward in time, he drops words and phrases like "dig it," "groovy," and "daddy-o" like other people say "you know." It's a portrait of the writer as a young hepcat, huffing Benzedrine, sniffing panties, and then finally settling down to either die or write. Thankfully for us, he learned to write.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov



MAFIA!

D: Jim Abrahams; with Jay Mohr, Lloyd Bridges, Olympia Dukakis, Christina Applegate, Billy Burke, Pamela Gidley, Jason Fuchs. (PG-13, 93 min.)

The cinematic equivalent of Cracked magazine, Mafia! never quite lives up to its MAD potential, instead shooting for the obvious, and releasing a steady stream of fart jokes and toilet humor that flows over the audience in a foul wave of lowest-common-denominator titters. Abrahams, who started out as part of the holy trinity of cinematic parody -- (David) Zucker, Abrahams, and (Jerry) Zucker -- with The Kentucky Fried Movie back in 1977, has since helmed the enormously successful and spot-on Airplane!, as well as the Naked Gun series and Hot Shots! Despite, or perhaps due to, his love of exclamatory titles, Abrahams and his writers have been able to keep their one-note comedy ball rolling for two decades now, but Mafia! signals the end. The story takes its structure and plot from Coppola's Godfather trilogy, Scorsese's Casino and GoodFellas, but curiously leaves out any of the gangster genre's more formative examples. I kept waiting for a White Heat gag to no avail. Mohr plays Anthony Cortino, the son of godfather Vincenzo (Bridges, looking remarkably spry -- this was his last film). Paralleling the Coppola films, Anthony is forced into taking over the family business after the death of Vincenzo (in an amusing homage to Brando's scene amongst the tomatoes), despite the protests of his wife Diane (Applegate). From there, it's on to Las Vegas and Casino territory, with plenty of flashbacks to catch up on evil brother Joey Cortino (Burke) and the host of lesser wiseguys who round out the film. Whereas the usual gag ratio in an Abrahams film is two or three per minute of screen time, Mafia! seems to cough up a genuine guffaw only once or twice every quarter-hour, which, as you can imagine, grows quickly wearying. On the face of it, the film seems uninspired, rushed, and cobbled together from leftover jokes that couldn't quite make it into the last Naked Gun episode. Watching grass grow is more humorous than this, and if you have a dead clown nearby, well, there's just no comparison. Mohr has a daft and clever comic wit about him, though. His quiet, not-quite-Christopher-Walken voice is ready-made for zippy one-liners, and Applegate already proved her ditzy comic abilities on Fox's Married ... With Children and in The Big Hit. This isn't nearly enough to sustain Mafia!'s 93-minute running time, and a long-overdue Jaws parody three-quarters into the film makes you wonder just how long Abrahams has been sitting on some of these gags. Best to go rent Police Squad! one more time.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



PASSION IN THE DESERT

D: Lavinia Currier; with Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli. (PG-13, 102 min.)

In Passion in the Desert the love that dare not speak its name is the love that passes between man and beast. Interspecies love is the dubious topic of this unusual and, indeed, tantalizing film. Between man and leopard, who's to say? Certainly not the makers of Passion in the Desert, which, of all things, is based on a novella by Honoré de Balzac. It takes place in Egypt in 1798 and depicts the story of a young captain in Bonaparte's army who becomes lost in the Sahara. Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels, who is also currently onscreen in Madeline) is a product of the Age of Enlightenment, a logical chap who seems a bit peeved by his assignment to escort an artist/scholar (Piccoli) whom Bonaparte has sent to paint and record the land's monuments and antiquities. The two become lost in a sandstorm, and face doom once the artist uses the last of their water to mix his paints. Augustin sets off alone. Taking flight after an aborted attempt at molesting a Bedouin woman, Augustin finds refuge in the cavernous ruins of an ancient city. He awakes to the sight of two amber cat's eyes gleaming at him in the dark, the eyes of a predatory leopard. But rather than eat him alive, the leopard leads Augustin to water, then shares with him her fresh kill. Time passes and the two bond and romp and purr in the desert sun. Augustin gives her the name Simoom, and they lie entwined, side by side. As the story pushes the envelope of plausibility, it's good to remember that this is no doubt some kind of fable about the abdication of reason and the domestication of violence. It's not the kind of tale one might customarily expect from the pen of the great social realist Balzac, and being unfamiliar with the novella I wonder whether the "passion" Balzac described was meant to be this earthy and sexual or more inclined toward the religious/spiritual sense of the word. And even though the movie encourages us to understand that the desert is a place of jinns and hallucinations, by the time Augustin, in a jealous fit, strips naked and covers himself with spots, the metaphor has become far too bestial for comfort. Augustin howls for Simoom with all the primordial passion of a sunstruck Stanley Kowalski. Still, for all its strained improbability, the mostly wordless Passion in the Desert must be lauded for carrying out its difficult vision. Beautiful to look at and deeply disturbing, it's almost enough to blind us to its willfully ludicrous inversion of nature.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



YELLOW

D: Chris Chan Lee; with Michael Daeho Chung, Burt Bulos, Mia Suh, Soon-Tek Oh, Mary Chen, John Cho, Jason J. Tobin, Emily Kuruda. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

Lee's debut feature is a seriocomic look at the pre-graduation jitters surrounding a group of Korean-American high schoolers over the course of two days as the plan for their futures and the world outside of the Los Angeles basin where the live. Taken as a cultural study, it's notable more for the similarities these kids have to their Anglo counterparts than to their obvious differences -- like graduating kids all over the country, they're champing at the bit, eager to break free of their restrictive home lives and get out into the world, already. The Korean-American clash of old world and new is plainly evident, however, in the dichotomy between their staid, conservative, first-generation immigrant parents' viewpoints on life in the U.S. as opposed to those of their children, who have already become as American as that proverbial slice of apple pie. Nowhere is this more evident than with Sin Lee (Chung). Stocky, conflicted, and ambivalent about the unyielding belief of his domineering father Woon Lee (Oh) that he should forfeit collegiate dreams and possible scholarships in favor of taking over the family's grocery. As he is working behind the counter one day, a pair of customers come in to purchase a six-pack, and then politely ask for paper bags to foil L.A.'s open-container law. Woon Lee demands that they pay five cents extra for each bag while Sin Lee tries to vanish into the floorboards. This micro-epic battle between the traditional and the new comes to a head when the grocery is robbed of $1,500 while Sin Lee is closing up alone. Terrified of his father's impending rage once he finds out, he warily enlists the aid of his peers to help him out of the scrape. In a bitingly dark comedy of escalating errors, Sin Lee and his wannabe-gangster pal Alex (Bulos) first try to borrow the cash, then move on to semi-legit car sales, and from there on to a boomerang robbery that mirrors Sin Lee's original travails. Along for the ride are Sin Lee's levelheaded girlfriend Teri (Suh) and a quartet of friends who realize long before Sin Lee that the situation has moved far beyond the bounds of logical consequence. Director Lee is billing his film as a comedy, but the laughs Yellow generates rise more from desperation and outright fear of failure than anything else. It's not slapstick. And although Lee's script (he produced as well) sometimes ranges off into fields of preachiness, relentlessly good performances from Chung, Bulos, and especially Oh keep things grounded in the essential teen reality. Dazed and Confused it's not, but Yellow still manages to elicit nervous laughter from the planet of tortured teens.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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