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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

AUGUST 3, 1998: 

Recommended

PI

D: Darren Aronofsky; with Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib, Ajay Naidu. (R, 85 min.)

Brilliant, surreal, and emotionally draining, this first feature from American Film Institute grad Aronofsky recalls such low-budget sci-fi epics as Tetsuo: The Iron Man and more traditional paranoiac suspense films (Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder in particular, but also Polanski's Rosemary's Baby) and yet manages to be a wholly original animal. Gullette plays Max Cohen, a twentysomething theoretical mathematics genius, who spends his days cloistered away in his New York City Chinatown apartment searching for a connection between the numerical construct p (the division of a circle's circumference by its diameter, i.e. 3.14 ad infinitum) and the stock market. Convinced that there is a deliberate correlation between the patterns inherent in mathematics and the patterns found in all other aspects of life, Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, barricading himself inside his tiny apartment amidst a humming warren of computer equipment and intelligence (nicknamed Euclid). A chance meeting with a Hasidic math whiz named Lenny Meyer (Shenkman) puts him in touch with a bizarre Jewish religious underground cult that seeks to reveal the true name of God via mathematical computations, while on the other end of Max's dwindling social circle, shady representatives of a monomaniacal Wall Street consortium persistently hound Max to share his discoveries or face unspoken consequences. All of this is played out against Max's frequent bouts of hallucinatory, crippling migraines, and against the better judgment of his former mentor, the aged Sol (Margolis), who realizes that caution is the better part of wisdom. The mathematics background in Pi (p) is essentially a construct for Aronofsky to explore the limits of creativity and, finally, break down. Pi (p) asks big questions of its audience, but can also be viewed as a simple (if non-simplistic) suspense film, replete with dizzying chases, heated battles, and shady underworld figures. Director of photography Matthew Libatique invests the film with a heady, disorienting black-and-white palette; as in Max's figures, there is precious little gray to be found here, and the cinematography reflects the stark ideas and shaky desperation behind Max's quest. Gullette plays Max as a closeted cipher; he's the physical manifestation of too much time spent breaking reality down into algorithmic patterns. Gangly, pale, and with a high, receding forehead, he'd be creepy enough without all the mystical, revelatory goings-on, but amid the steadily mounting chaos around him, he imparts a kind of feverish, terrifying intensity -- he practically sweats barely contained anxiety. That's a good description of Aronofsky's film as well: the cinematic equivalent of a full-bore panic attack, sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, and all.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



FULL TILT BOOGIE

D: Sarah Kelly; with George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Juliette Lewis, Michael Parks, Victoria Lucai. (R, 97 min.)

Sarah Kelly's absorbing documentary on the making of Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn breaks down the fourth wall between audience and performers and then proceeds to devour it whole with infectious glee and sublime panache. Chronicling the production of Rodriguez's drive-in vampire/gangster epic from conception to martini shot, Full Tilt Boogie is as much a sociology lesson on the politics of a major film shoot as it is a dry, sardonic comedy of errors and frayed nerves. Above all, though, it's manna from film geek heaven as a roster of semi-indie luminaries (in spirit if not in budget) such as Tarantino, Keitel, and the great Michael Parks (remember Then Came Bronson?) parade before Kelly's camera and offer their insights on the filmmaking process. Beginning with an outrightly hilarious bit of staged comedy from Dusk stars Tarantino and then-ER heartthrob Clooney as they wend their way through the backstage corridors on their way to the set, Full Tilt Boogie cuts from conversations with Rodriguez to Clooney's barrage of wisecracks and practical jokes, and from on-set crew interviews to the mounting threat of a I.A.T.S.E. strike against the film's non-union status. Politics threaten to bring a halt to the production: One memorable (if overly long) sequence has director Kelly and producer Rana Joy Glickman flying off to Miami to seek out their union nemesis in a scene reminiscent of Michael Moore's Roger & Me hijinks. Meanwhile, back at the Barstow, California shoot, the infamous Titty Twister biker bar catches fire in the wake of a particularly fiery pyrotechnic shot and nearly burns to the ground. And, of course, what would a desert shoot be without a dust storm? The travails of the filmmaking process -- both ordinary and extraordinary -- are captured by Kelly with witty aplomb. Where else could you see Tarantino point out that he "could sleep with any woman on this set" and get away with it? Well, okay, probably on any QT set, but you know what I mean. It's cinema vérité in the midst of one of the most chaotic shoots imaginable; the looks of relief on the faces of both cast and crew are palpable at film's end. Not that it's all work, mind you. Much of Full Tilt Boogie is given over to the more mundane aspects of filmmaking, such as on-set romances, the inner-workings of craft services, and the Great Grip Debate: drunken slobs or hardworking, indispensable technicians? Like Rodriguez's finished film, Full Tilt Boogie is a wild ride, full of the requisite peaks and valleys and precious few plateaus. And beer. Lots of beer.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



New Reviews:

BASEKETBALL

D: David Zucker; with Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Yasmine Bleeth, Jenny McCarthy, Robert Vaughn, Ernest Borgnine, Dian Bachar, Trevor Einhorn, Bob Costas. (R, 103 min.)

Subtlety has never been David Zucker's (Airplane!) forte, and now teamed with the creators of South Park in this professional sports parody, the notion is completely killed off once and for all. Not that that's a bad thing. Fans of Parker and Stone's screechingly warped sensibilities will doubtless find Baseketball right up their alley, as will lovers of the gag-filled ZAZ films (Naked Gun, Hot Shots!). This, then, is a sort of meeting of minds for the bathroom-humor set, albeit with some new twists, most of which result from Parker and Stone's deliciously renegade onscreen presence. It's nice to know these guys are just as inventive in front of the camera as they are behind it. Parker plays Joseph "Coop" Cooper who, along with his childhood friend Doug Remer (Stone), has grown up watching the fall of professional athletic competitions via inflated salaries, free agencies, greedy managers, and the sort of generally unsportsmanlike misconduct that chokes the stadiums these days. He's always dreamed of being like his hero Reggie Jackson, but as Baseketball opens, the pair are just another sloppy twentysomething duo hard-pressed to make their rent. That all changes when they inadvertantly create a new sports sensation in the form of baseketball, a driveway game for "guys that can't run and have bad backs" that combines the free-throw aspects of basketball with the innings of baseball. Before long, the game takes off nationally, a league -- with rules firmly in place that disallow the trading of players, overripe salaries, and so on -- is formed, and the fledgling sport goes national with Coop and Remer playing for the Milwaukee Beers. Enter Baxter Cain (Vaughn), a scheming club owner seeking to twist the game to his own nefarious ends, and Bleeth as Jenna Reed, the owner of a "Make a Wish Foundation"-type charity for ailing children and Coop's soon-to-be love interest. Along with teammate Kenny "Squeak" Scolari (Bachar), Coop and Remer must fight off the evil Cain, woo Reed, and, of course, save "Little Joey" (Einhorn). Unlike Zucker's previous one-note laff riots, Baseketball flows more from the amiable characterizations of its two leads, who are obviously as comfortable in front of the camera as they are making fart jokes behind it. In fact, what's so interesting about Baseketball is how much of a step above South Park this all is. I'm not saying it's better, just that it seems less crude, more slaphappy, than gag-happy. There are, to be sure, plenty of gross-outs; part of the baseketball rules involve "psyching out" the other team, and Parker (the cute one) and Stone (the horny one) do their best bathroom revelry here. It's not, say, Monty Python we're dealing with here, but the next rung on a very warped comedic ladder that began when the Marx Brothers were still in diapers. Sick, twisted, and very funny, Parker and Stone have arrived. Again.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov



DEAR JESSE

D: Tim Kirkman. (Not Rated, 82 min.)

Tim Kirkman's open letter to Senator Jesse Helms is a sincerely heartfelt meditation on the longtime lawmaker's homophobic and generally mean-spirited political stance. Former North Carolina native son and current New York City resident Kirkman returns to the state and begins examining the senator's ideology as a means of furthering his own self-exploration. Kirkman cites at the start of the film numerous similarities: Both men were born in the same small North Carolina town, both attended Wingate College for one year before transferring, both worked in journalism and radio broadcasting, both were raised Southern Baptists, etc. But here's the real hoot: For most of their adult lives, both have been obsessed with homosexual men. Kirkman, a first-time filmmaker, picks up a camera and begins talking with Helms' constituents in order to better understand what makes each of them tick. It is an election year and Kirkman's queries take him far and wide. Among those he visits with are his actress cousin in Charlotte, the state's first openly gay mayor, a married lesbian couple, a National Guard supporter of Helms' forthrightness, a black activist, student protesters, noted North Carolina writers Lee Smith and Allan Gurganus, a conservative newspaper editor, a single mother of a biracial HIV-positive baby, his own father, and the founders of MAJIC (Mothers Against Jesse in Congress) -- two women who lost their sons to AIDS. What do we learn? Well, not much that we didn't already know about the gay-baiting Helms, although the portrait makes him much more understandable as the product of this specific place. And what more do we learn about Kirkman? Not much and, well, that's the heart of the problem with this piece. Although a completely out gay man living in New York City, Kirkman is less than forthcoming as to why he fled the state two weeks after his college graduation and why he now returns. He tells us he headed back south after the breakup of a love affair; he heads back north after the lover commits suicide. It feels as though there are more than a few details missing from Kirkman's meditation and that his own self-exile has been exempted from the same scrutiny he holds to the exclusionary politics of Jesse Helms. In addition to this, Dear Jesse is pocked with the kind of shaky camerawork that's indicative of novice filmmaking. The amateurish technical aspects augment the film's grazingly cursory philosophical probe, thereby creating the cumulative effect of a well-intentioned but bush-league investigation. Or maybe North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe was right about that not-being-able-to-go-home-again stuff.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



EVER AFTER

D: Andy Tennant; with Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Jeanne Moreau, Jeroen Krabbé, Patrick Godfrey, Megan Dodds, Melanie Lynskey, Timothy West, Judy Parfitt, Richard O'Brien. (PG-13, 121 min.)

Legends of the screen, Barrymore and Huston, together for the first timeÖ no, not the great Johns -- Barrymore and Huston -- not even Lionel Barrymore or Walter Huston. We're talking Drew and Anjelica, descendants of Hollywood legends, majesty in their own right. How appropriate it is that these two tackle another legend: the story of Cinderella. And not only do they revisit the centuries-old tale, their approach is nothing less than a re-animation of the story which turns the passive servant girl into a proactive heroine: She becomes a lowly charwoman who takes care of business instead of waiting for Prince Charming to supply the happy ending. And wonder of all wonders, the shoe fits -- not perfectly, mind you, there are some ungainly bunions and calluses that chafe against the glass slipper, but the fit is sufficiently graceful and reinvigorating to attract a new audience to keep company with it during this fresh stroll around the old stomping grounds. The tale is set in the 16th century and if there were any doubt as to the film's targeting of the same adolescent crowd that made William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet such a galloping success, just check out the diaphanous wings attached to the gown our Cinderella wears to the big ball and see if they don't remind you at all of the costume worn by Juliet to her big ball. In Ever After, Cinderella is cast as a French maiden by the name of Danielle (Barrymore), and we're introduced to her through a lagniappe of a wraparound story that stars Jeanne Moreau as the several-generations-removed descendant of Danielle, who has called the Grimm Brothers to her castle to set their storymaking straight. Realism supplants magic in this new version; gone are the pumpkins that turn into coaches and the mice that bippety-boppety-boo into coachmen. Indeed, the role of the fairy godmother is played here by Leonardo da Vinci (Godfrey) who, in a bit of a stretch, plays an enlightened third-party protagonist who uses logic instead of magic to help bring these two star-crossed kids together. Danielle, though circumstances have made her a servant in her own home, is a self-possessed lass -- articulate, well-read, and independent in thought and action. Her stepmother (played with delicious hauteur by Huston) is depicted less as an evil archetype than a venal woman of her times. The two stepsisters as well are played with delightful verve by Dodds and Lynskey (best known as Kate Winslet's sister in crime in Heavenly Creatures), and other charming characterizations are rendered by West and Parfitt as the king and queen and O'Brien as Danielle's scoundrelly suitor. Barrymore seems at heart too much of a "modern gal" to pull off the role of a 16th-century maiden with genuine believability, yet the whole of the piece also suffers frequent historical lapses. Still, the playful and well-meaning spirit of the film carries it through its shakier moments of awkward narration and inscrutably busy camerawork. Despite the unfortunately enfeebling, desaturated, excessively romantic, and downright cheesy look of its trailers, Ever After turns out to be a potent and imaginative retelling that proves Cinderella's timelessness defies carbon-dating.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



THE NEGOTIATOR

D: F. Gary Gray; with Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, Regina Taylor, J.T. Walsh. (R, 141 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. When a police department hostage negotiator is falsely accused, he uses his specialized skills to buy himself some time and attention by holding the whole I.A.B. office at gunpoint. Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey head this guy-heavy crew that's helmed by Set It Off director F. Gary Gray.

Marjorie Baumgarten



THE PARENT TRAP

D: Nancy Meyers; with Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson, Lindsay Lohan, Lisa Ann Walter, Simon Kunz, Elaine Hendrix, Ronnie Stevens. (PG, 128 min.)

In the sunny, innocent years that preceded the scourge of adolescence, my good humor could be bought with an ice cream cone or a round of miniature golf, or, especially, a Saturday matinee. I think of them, fondly, as the Hayley Mills years. When I saw the first The Parent Trap, starring my idol, it never seemed even the tiniest bit odd that two thinking, caring parents would separate their twins at birth, each lovingly raising one without giving the slightest hint (or seeming thought) about the other's existence. At 8, I found the movie hilariously funny and heart-wrenchingly romantic and not at all dastardly or preposterous. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I (now a middle-aged mother and devoid of nearly all innocence) looked forward to this remake. Could it possibly measure up to the original? Lohan (Hallie/Annie) is spunky and cute as a button and her British accent puts Mills' attempt at hip California lingo to shame, but could she possibly replace those wide blue eyes, those Vaselined lips, that silly blonde bob? Unfortunately, my 11-year-old daughter and would-have-been movie companion was (ironically) off at summer camp and unable to attend the screening with me. My dependable, immediate litmus test would not be available. And, truth be told, though missed, she was not needed. The audience was filled with vocal, delighted children. Apparently, the story of two look-alikes who meet at summer camp, develop an immediate mutual animosity only to discover they are twin sisters, then scheme to switch identities in order to play Cupid for their divorced parents, stands the test of time. Though updated to include a successful working mother, a not-for-the-squeamish ear-piercing scene, and some pretty obvious product placement, The Parent Trap manages to work in a fair amount of classic material from the original. (The stick-clacking mountain-lion-prevention trick is every bit as funny today as it was 37 years ago.) Director Meyers and co-writer husband Charles Shyer (Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride) show the 1961 classic (and its baby-boomer audience) its due respect through a number of sly references to the original, and silly, sly, and fun Sixties references pop up throughout the movie, but it is plenty Nineties enough for the 12 and under crowd. Quaid and Richardson glow as the likable, lovely to look at parents, Hendrix glints as the hard-as-her-long-red-nails gold digger who threatens the girls' family reunification plan, and Walter and Kunz shine as the grounded housekeeper and goofy butler. Lohan, well, she's no Hayley Mills, but The Parent Trap is still a big triple dipper of a cone. Vanilla and sweet, it's an overly generous helping that, if it doesn't make you sick, will put you in a good humor all day long.

2.5 stars

Hollis Chacona



POLISH WEDDING

D: Theresa Connelly; with Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne, Claire Danes, Adam Trese, Mili Avital, Daniel LaPaine, Rade Serbedzija. (PG-13, 101 min.)

First-time writer-director Theresa Connelly's Polish Wedding is a shotgun affair. This scattershot movie mixes drama and comedy into an uneasy blend that muddles the honesty of each perspective and leaves behind a messy taste. The film wants to showcase the transcendent supremacy of the blood ties that unite a tempestuous Polish family in working-class Detroit. Instead, what it depicts is a slavish commitment to the repetition of old patterns and mistakes. And whenever the film does have the opportunity to get inside the heads of its characters and decipher their thoughts and opportunities for the future, the story line devolves into comic silliness that ruins any chance to interrupt either the old destructive cycles or shed an appreciative light on the resilience of the past. All the marriages in the film's Pzoniak clan are the result of what could be interpreted as a bad Polish joke about family planning. Generation upon generation of knocked-up girls and reluctant boyfriends continue to tie the knot. The situation is no less common for young Hala (Danes), who nevertheless wants to retain her position as the virgin chosen to lead the procession in her church pageant. Like mother, like daughter. Mom Jadzia (Olin), who has four sons in addition to her daughter Hala, calls herself a queen and says that there is nothing more sacred than making life and making love. She is a sultry homemaker yet aloof to her hard-working husband Bolek (Byrne), though she also works as a cleaning woman and is having a rather indiscreet affair with one of her bosses. She is the linchpin of the story, yet as a character she makes very little sense. She talks of how childbirth has ravaged her body yet she has the body of the stunningly gorgeous Lena Olin. Her husband appears to love her and to keep his silence for fear of rocking the boat, yet she treats him like dirt despite hanging on to him with every fiber of her being. Her lover wants to whisk her away to Paris but she sees no reason why anyone would want to leave Detroit. The tension with her daughter comes from her understanding of their similarities, yet she moves hell and high water to make sure that Hala enters into a marriage much like her own. Then there is the matter of her closet full of homemade pickles which she sucks on with all the addiction of a nicotine fiendÖ that is, when her hands aren't busy "fluting her dumplings." Meant as a tribute to the filmmaker's ethnic heritage, Polish Wedding instead comes across as a confused blur that is often saying one thing but meaning another. Such confusion is a common part of growing up and growing apart. It takes clarity to turn it into art.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



RATCHET

D: John S. Johnson; with Tom Gilroy, Matthew Dixon, Margaret Welsh, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Murit Koppel, John MacKay. (Not Rated, 114 min.)

This latter-day film noir set on the sandy beach fronts of Nantucket is as convoluted as the kelp beds that bob listlessly in its high-tide pools, though not nearly as enticing. Tangled plot lines and enervated direction by Johnson make this 1996 seaside tale of plagiarism and revenge a "who cares?" exercise in pointless filmmaking, despite a few crisp, edgy characterizations and some nifty driftwood scenery. Gilroy, in full Cassavetes mode, plays screenwriter and director Elliot Callahan. As Ratchet opens, Callahan is sent from New York City to Nantucket by his panicky agent; Callahan has been suffering through a dry spell of late, and the studio for which he helmed his last big sex and violence aria is champing at the bit for new material. Aboard the commuter plane out to the island, Callahan engages in idle chit-chat with a fellow passenger who sardonically notes that the director's last big hit bears a suspicious resemblance to an old Hong Kong shoot-'em-up, which sets the tone for Callahan's next few days. It's a thinly cloaked reference to Tarantino's City on Fire/Reservoir Dogs debacle a few years back, and a clever in-joke. Once on the island, Callahan runs afoul of local screenwriter wannabe (Dixon), who begs the auteur to check out his new script. Callahan grudgingly agrees, finds a diamond in the rough, and hastily appropriates the story for his own use. This in turn leads to a spear-gun murder, a vanished corpse, a liaison with an old competitor's wife (Welsh), a liaison with a flaky New England sculptor (Koppel), and much ado about god knows what. It's almost as if Johnson penned the script using some arcane Wheel o' Noir, cutting and pasting in the requisite elements in a spasm of unoriginality. Really, it's all too much. This cobbled-together feel isn't helped any by the film's choppy editing, which bounces around from scene to scene with little rhyme and even less reason. What, you ask yourself, is going on here? Only Johnson knows, and he's not telling. To be fair, Gilroy is an engaging enough protagonist. He manages to give Callahan a beleaguered, bewildered air, while at the same time making him an easy mark for the lunatic machinations that swirl around him. Welsh, as the sultry blond real estate agent with a past, also scores high marks for her part, but the maddeningly enigmatic storyline and Johnson's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink plotting sinks even the best performance in a murky, unknowable fog. It's less suspense than pretense, ratcheting up the tedium to a level of exquisite ennui, and ought to avoided by all but the most insensate noir fanatics.

1.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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