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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

BUFFALO '66

D: Vincent Gallo; with Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Corrigan, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent. (Not Rated, 120 min.)

"Indie! Indie! Indie!" is the unspoken mantra behind enfant terrible Gallo's directorial debut (he was previously seen in Palookaville as well as a series of Calvin Klein ads), and though independent cinema in America has, at this stage, been almost completely co-opted by the major studios (and anyone who thinks Miramax isn't a major these days is kidding themselves), Gallo's battle cry makes for a fiercely humorous slice of unreality that soars even when it's crawling in the gutter and puking on itself. Gallo has recruited a stellar cast and then played them down into the depths of his tale's depravity so much that you hardly recognize Huston or anyone else. In a film populated by the hapless dregs of society, there are no star turns, and yet every character is cleverly portrayed, fully fleshed out and functional, and frequently downright creepy. Gallo is Billy Brown, a scrawny, pale wingnut who, with his flared floodpants, red faux-leather disco boots, and too-tight tube tops, looks for all the world like God's loneliest toothpick. As Buffalo '66 opens, he's fresh out of jail (featuring an extended, painful, semi-comic sequence which involves a desperate search for a bathroom) and on his way to his parents' house. Before going in the joint for a five-year stretch necessitated by a botched $10,000 bet on the Buffalo Bills, Billy told his parents he was married to a beautiful woman and worked a secure, government job. Lies, all lies, and upon his release, he promptly kidnaps Layla (Ricci) and forces her (well, sort of forces her -- she seems liable to go along with anything) to pretend she's his better half. After a protracted and Lynchian nightmare meeting with his family, the pair split up briefly while Billy goes in search of the Bills place-kicker who lost that long-ago bet for him. But the real crux of Gallo's film is the reconciliation with one's childhood, and, sentimental thug that Gallo is, the search for Love. Gallo populates the film with the oddest of oddballs, least of which is naif Billy. Ricci, batting .400, pulls off yet another delicious, subversive turn, while Gazzara and Huston are everybody's Hell Parents: Billy's mom has never forgiven him for being born during the Buffalo Bill's only Superbowl win, and his old man (the title fits him like the sweaty white T-shirt he wears) couldn't care less about him. Comedy is birthed of tragedy, I know, but this is ... ouch. Gallo packs the film with odd, endearing flourishes that detract a bit from the storyline but add to the overall whole: his father, crooning an old love song to Ricci, Billy's mildly retarded buddy Goon (Corrigan, of all people) who only wants to be called Rocky, and the whole, hyper-seedy look of the picture that makes you want to scrub with bleach once you get home. In the end, it's a love story after all, but a peculiarly Gallocentric one -- cheap, nasty, but salvageable nonetheless.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov


SAFE MEN

D: John Hamburg; with Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Paul Giamatti, Michael Lerner, Harvey Fierstein, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Christina Kirk. (R, 115 min.)

If Sam (Rockwell) and Eddie (Zahn) are the most misguided and talentless singing duo in all of Providence, Rhode Island (and they are), they are even more talentless and inept in their new line of work -- safe cracking. In this wryly hilarious new comedy by first-timer John Hamburg, a case of mistaken identity turns these two hapless stage performers into hapless criminals, although their deadpan equilibrium sustains them through the net failures they experience in each of these occupations. Sam Rockwell (Box of Moonlight, Lawn Dogs) and Steve Zahn (Out of Sight, That Thing You Do, subUrbia), two of the funniest and hardest-working young actors around, are fabulously cast in this movie that is as much about delivery and pacing as it is about the details of what transpires. If there is any justice in the entertainment world, one day these two actors will both be huge household names and the title of this early movie in which they starred together will be a tie-breaking question on Jeopardy. Though the movie's deadpan heart beats with Rockwell and Zahn, they are supported by a wonderful ensemble of comic actors, including Michael Lerner (Barton Fink, Eight Men Out), Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, Bullets Over Broadway), and Paul Giamatti (Howard Stern's nemesis, Pigface, in Private Parts). To describe too much of the plot, however, is to give away too many of the jokes. Dejected though not broken following a lifeless performance at a Polish social club, Sam and Eddie stop in at a neighborhood tavern where they are mistaken by Veal Chop (Giamatti) for two of his ace safecrackers. They become sucked into a plot that leaves them caught between Providence's two Jewish mobsters, Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Lerner) and Good Stuff Leo (Fierstein). Big Fat Bernie has a son, Little Big Fat, who is about to make his Bar Mitzvah, and Good Stuff Leo has a comely daughter who has a penchant for bad boys. And Eddie has a long-buried family tradition of larceny to grapple with. All of it is embedded in a body of little moments that thrive on such things as phony ass padding, gangster gift baskets, Lucite Stars of David, and one dead-on Say Anything gag. All in all, this summer has been a good season for adult comedies, and Safe Men furthers the R-rated comedy path carved out by There's Something About Mary and Baseketball. Safe Men opens up comedy's combination lock on safecrackers, Jewish gangsters, and abysmally bad singer-songwriters.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


New Reviews:

O AMOR NATURAL

D: Heddy Honigmann (Not Rated, 76 min.)

In terms of our cultural attitudes about sex, we Americans often seem developmentally equivalent to 11-year-old boys panting over smudgy GIFs of nude crackheads on the CyberBordello Web site. Dutch director Heddy Hongmann's gently consciousness-raising documentary O Amor Natural illustrates how clueless most of us are in the face of a question Honigmann poses midway through her film: "What is the difference between indecency and eroticism?" Her device for exploring this question seems gimmicky at first blush: Carrying a book of newly discovered erotic poetry by the late Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, she randomly approaches elderly Brazilians and asks them to read and interpret his verse. Yet the intelligence, poise, and delight with which these startlingly sophisticated oldsters respond to Drummond's droll paeans to fellatio, penises (characterized as "leaping jaguars"), anal sex, etc. puts to shame any belief that there's something inherently absurd or discomfitting about senior sexuality. As the film unfolds, Honigmann gradually expands the interviews to let her readers hold forth about their own erotic exploits and sentiments. Footage of sexy young Brazilians unabashedly strutting their stuff on the streets and beaches of Rio embellishes Drummond's words with concrete images and place them in the context of a timeless erotic force that is the engine of not only his art but the entire natural world. Granted, there's some shock value in hearing a petite octagenarian talk about her fantasies of borderline S&M sex ("The images are violent because I'm violent none of that softy stuff"). But why should that be? So dispiriting is the prospect of desexualization through aging that Simone de Beauvoir once wrote the long, deeply depressing The Coming of Age on the subject. Why should it be so hard to imagine sexuality as an ever-unfolding adventure that continues beyond its purely functional (child-producing) years? And why does popular art have such a hard time dealing with this possibility in a mature, non-condescending way? O Amor Natural, to its credit, doesn't preach, whine or try to explain the unexplainable. Instead, with a minimum of stylistic gimmickery or intellectual pretense it reassures us that we don't need to sweat this aging thing too much: The fire will keep on burning as long as we keep it well-stoked. In the words of another salaciously versifying geezer, "Start me up/Once you start me up I'll never stop, never stop ..." (8/7/98 RIVER CITY YOUTH FOUNDATION Come experience a Hard Hat Tour of the River City Youth Foundation's new Success Center - guests include Austin Mayor Pro-Tem Gus Garcia and others. Sat, Aug 8, 8am, 5209 S. Pleasant Valley. 440-1111.)

3 stars

Russell Smith


HALLOWEEN: H20

D: Steve Miner; with Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Arkin, Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodi Lynn O'Keefe, Janet Leigh, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (R, 83 min.)

Has it really been 20 years already? It seems like only yesterday good-girl babysitter Laurie Strode battled it out with her inhuman, Captain Kirk-bemasked, butcher knife-wielding sibling Michael Myers and revolutionized the face of the American horror film. I remember driving through an overcast Albany one afternoon in '78 and pestering my dad to swing by the Loews and take in a matinee -- I was 12 and the suggestion carried little fatherly imperative that day, but I more than made up for it by spending much of the Eighties mooning over freshly minted scream queen Curtis in her post-Halloween roles (The Fog creeps me out to this day). And now, the final chapter, one hopes, on yet another sagging franchise. As if Halloweens 3-5 never existed (hardly a stretch), H20 catches up to a damaged version of its protagonist 20 years to the day after the events of the first film (we know this is so because a subtitle proclaims that it's "October 31st, 1998," quickly followed by "Halloween." Duh.) Strode (Curtis) is now Keri Tate, a "functioning alcoholic" and principal of a smallish private high school sequestered outside a small Southern California town. She's also mother to 17-year-old son Josh (Hartnett), who in the fine tradition of teenagers everywhere, resents mom's asphyxiative apron strings. Guys, like girls, just wanna have fun, and when the opportunity arises to ditch the school camping trip and hang out with a trio of equally horny friends, Josh takes the bait and stays behind while mom hallucinates her evil brother at every available juncture, this despite the marginally reassuring presence of her romance-inclined counselor (Arkin). Michael, of course, is back in town, and without Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis around to keep him on a leash, suburbia's favorite boogeyman makes a beeline to the school and begins slicing, dicing, and julienning assorted victims as he moves towards Laurie and her son. Film geeks will chuckle over Curtis' real-life mom Janet Leigh in a cameo as Laurie/Keri's busybody secretary (if you're a real geek, you'll recognize her car and that snatch of Bernard Herrman straight off), but H20, like the original, isn't a particularly humorous affair. For one thing, Laurie's character arc has bottomed out, resulting in a powerful heroine coming off as a paranoid lush. In the real world, I suppose, that's how things might have turned out, but the Laurie Strode of Halloween's 1 and 2 never struck me as a quitter. Miner strives to imbue the film with the requisite autumnal haze of the original but then gives up midway through and instead resorts to the standard stalk 'n' slash formulas. It's heartening to see a beloved character revived like this (at one point during the screening I attended, audience members actually stood up and cheered), but H20 -- for all its good, gory intentions -- is barely a shadow of the original. There's no frisson, no sense of the impossible here, though whether that's due to Miner and Company or simply the passage of time is up for debate. It's a fitting enough capstone for one of horror cinema's more memorable series, I suppose, but when it ended, I wanted to go peruse the original more than anything else. (8/7/98)

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov


MARIE BAIE DES ANGES

D: Manuel Pradal; with Vahina Giocante, Frederic Malgras, Amira Casar, David Kilner, Jamie Harris, Frederic Westerman, Nicolas Welbers, Swan Carpio. (R, 90 min.)

Tout le monde loves a good pout, and Marie Baie Des Anges does not disappoint. Neither the adolescent strutting of 15-year-old Lolita-in-training Marie (Giocante) nor the reptilian swagger of her young partner in crime Orso (Malgras) have much to say about anything other than the merest hint of teenage angst, but boy, do they look good doing nothing. Pradal's film plays like an homage to the nouvelle vague of Goddard and Truffaut (and, at times, Rohmer), with Malgras nailing the essence of a youthful Jean-Paul Belmondo and Giocante carrying off the role of every French starlet since Jean Seberg. Still, Breathless this isn't. Pradal's sun-drenched Riviera locations add more to the film than the actual plot, which centers around these young hoodlums in love as they wander around the Bay of Angels, swim, tease American sailors, and generally slouch about as if they were young, French, and had nothing whatsoever to worry about. Orso, convincingly bitter at an old enemy, is on a perpetual hunt for a gun to settle scores, and Marie spends much of the film drawing leers from the local boys and the aforementioned group of Americans. Both young actors are debuting in Marie Baie Des Anges, and the production notes mention that neither came to the project with any sort of acting experience at all, which, frankly, is hard to imagine. They're terrific in their roles, but you have to wonder if they're acting at all. Pradal, wildly genuflecting before the alter of French cinema, lays on the pretense like there's no tomorrow (and in Marie Baie Des Anges, you kind of get the feeling that there might not be), tossing off bizarre, nonsensical edits, weird, disjointed storylines, and all manner of cinematic loop-de-loops until you're hard-pressed not to toss a flaming croissant through the screen and go join up with Le Pen. Still, the film has a preternatural charm. Approached without irony and perhaps a bit of silliness, Marie Baie Des Anges is pure, goofball French cinema, visually namedropping the greats while simultaneously making light of their accomplishments. Whether this was Pradal's intention is unclear. I suspect he didn't set out to make the type of film that stirs up unruly giggles every 15 minutes, but the settings are so lush, the cast so inexplicably gorgeous, and the plot so very, very absent, that it works much better as a satire of the New Wave than it does as an homage. Senseless symbolism, guns, and gams do not a masterpiece make, but taken together they can still at least look pretty damn cool. (8/7/98)

2 stars

Marc Savlov


THE NEGOTIATOR

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

Another solid, cerebral actioner from Gray (Set It Off) that makes the most of black-male-rage icon Jackson and an equally impressive (if a bit chilly) Spacey alongside the late, great Walsh and 12 Monkeys' Morse. Jackson is Chicago P.D. hostage negotiator Danny Roman, who lands squarely in a world of hurt when he's framed both for the murder of his partner and embezzlement from the C.P.D.'s retirement coffers. Roman and the audience know that it's a setup from the get-go, because his partner clued him in to the embezzlement investigation just preceeding his untimely demise. When internal affairs, headed by Walsh's slimy Inspector Niebaum, takes an undue interest in the negotiator soon after the killing, Roman realizes he's being framed by the very men he's worked side by side with for years. He storms the offices of internal affairs, taking Niebaum, his secretary, Rifkin's Commander Frost, and a street-level thug hostage while a roomful of stunned cops look on. That Roman could traipse through a roomful of pistol-packing police while he's waiting for arraignment is one of several head-scratchers to be found here, but Jackson's performance raises what might otherwise have been just another cops 'n' robbers film to much greater heights. Ensconced in the 20th-floor I.A. offices, Roman begins to interrogate the bullish Niebaum (whom his partner implicated in the embezzling scam) and then calls in his own hostage negotiator to deal with the situation. Chris Sabian (Spacey) is the man, and though he works outside of Roman's territory, the two have a passing awareness of each other. Like Roman, Sabian is supposed to be the best negotiator on his team, and though he enters the fray unaware and essentially uncaring about the stakes Roman is playing for, the pair begin to gel as their negotiation styles collide. Roman, the hotshot daredevil liar, and Sabian, the earnest family man, are tacitly acting from two decidedly different styles, but both of them make their livings -- and implicitly are defined by -- their abilities in the fine art of bullshitting. So who's kidding who ends up being the real mystery here. Gray keeps things interesting between the tense volleys of negotiation with glimpses and snippets of the corrupt cops' ongoing war of attrition against Roman. You never quite know who are the good cops and who are the bad until the final reel, though glimmers of the truth bleed out around the edges of Gray's film. Like Jackon, Spacey is a commanding screen presence; it's hard to imagine a more perfectly cast foil for motor-mouthed Danny Roman. Spacey's cool, laconic delivery is a mirror image of Jackson's hyper-charged mouth -- paired together it's like watching two sides of the same coin. The Negotiator falls short of greatness by a country mile; it's too chatty for its own good sometimes. But it's still a solid shoot-'em-up. And it's always nice to see Samuel L. Jackson work that mad mouth mojo. (8/7/98)

3 stars

Marc Savlov


SNAKE EYES

D: Brian De Palma; with Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Michael Rispoli, David Anthony Higgins, Kevin Dunn. (R, 99 min.)


Snake Eyes is a gamble, a chancy proposition. Confined to a single setting -- a sprawling Atlantic City sports arena/casino -- and intricately plotted, it requires a good degree of concentration and a healthy suspension of disbelief to succeed. Question its logic too much, and the whole thing unravels. Snake Eyes comes up a winner, however, largely due to De Palma's bravura direction, which falls on a near-perfectly modulated point on the spectrum of his work: It's halfway between the dispassionate gleam of Mission Impossible and the empty flamboyance of Body Double. From the very beginning, David Koepp's cagey script runs at full throttle, reaching the film's pivotal scene in the first 15 minutes or so, in which a controversial Secretary of Defense is assassinated during a boxing match. De Palma provides the frenetic energy to propel the storyline to this point and the effect is dizzying, both literally and figuratively. His kinetic camera tracks, pans, and swoops with such an ominous purpose that your brain can't possibly make sense of it all, converging in a noisy, eye-filling climax: It's sensory overload that ends in a bang. A seemingly endless number of questions jump from synapse to synapse at high speed during this time: Why does the sexy woman with flaming red hair flee from her seat just minutes before the assassination? What's the scraggly-looking guy yelling at the pugilists during the fight? What's the bespectacled woman with the platinum blond wig saying to the Secretary mere seconds before he's hit by a bullet? From that point of impact, Snake Eyes becomes a reconstructive thriller in which the chaos is explained, clarified, and elaborated upon, much like another De Palma film, Blow Out, in which a movie sound technician pieces together the clues to (yet again) another high-ranking official's death that smells of conspiracy. Where Blow Out is informed by aural clues, however, the clues in Snake Eyes are visual in nature. Surveillance cameras, tracking sensors, and videotape devices play a significant role here in the quest for uncovering the truth. (In many De Palma films, technology's ability to reveal and elucidate is both a blessing and a curse.) As the corrupt, rogue policeman investigating the murder, Cage -- the guy was born to act in a De Palma movie -- acts as the audience's guide along the narrative's convoluted path and, to a less successful extent, as the movie's moral conscience. He's best when shaking down a drug dealer for cash in order to place a bet on the match or bellowing, "I am the King!" with the mock bluster of a man who's too sure of himself; he's not as watchable when confronting the conflict between being a good cop or a bad cop. But even though Cage and the movie begin to sag near the film's middle, Snake Eyes picks up the pace again in a disorienting finale that takes place during the onslaught of a hurricane that, despite its incongruities and confusion, is oddly satisfying. After it has ended, you may want to view it all over again, just to see if you can beat the odds and pick up on what you missed the first time around. (8/7/98)

3.5 stars

Steve Davis


WHATEVER

D: Susan Skoog; with Liza Weil, Chad Morgan, Frederic Forrest, Kathryn Rossiter, Marc Riffon, Dan Montano, John G. Connolly. (R, 112 min.)

Troubled suburban teenhood - it's rich narrative subject matter at least as old as the movies. It's hard to add much that's new to the film genre that has bred such timeless classics as Rebel Without a Cause, Over the Edge, and most recently, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Yet writer-director Susan Skoog has found a large measure of success in her first narrative feature outing, Whatever. Set in the early 1980s, Whatever captures a strong sense of realism as it focuses on two female best friends caught between the end of high school and the rest of their lives. With almost frightening clarity, Skoog's film spotlights that precipice of time in which teens become so acutely aware that the actions they take in the present will have consequences that affect the rest of their lives. Also, her film departs from the standard coming-of-age pack in its particular focus on 17-year-old girls and its vivid re-creation of their specific concerns. Anna (Weil) is a high-school senior in an anonymous Jersey town, who desperately wants to grow up and grow out of her situation. She shows promising artistic talent but her passive-aggressive attitude keeps getting her in trouble at school, be it for smoking or incomplete homework assignments. She also has to grapple with the how and when of losing her virginity (of course, with the wrong boy), and she has her hands full at home with a pesky little brother and a single mom who dates a horrid troll out of desperation. Her best friend Brenda (Morgan), on the other hand, would need a slide rule to rediscover her virginity, lost so long ago in a serial daze of uninspiring encounters. The movie is best when it sticks to the observational, as in the startling opening sequence which shows the unsatisfying and unromantic sex act as experienced by Brenda. (In this, the film echoes the jarring opening of Sarah Jacobson' s female-centric Mary Jane' s Not a Virgin Anymore.) Unfortunately, Whatever also wanders along episodically and piles on more dramatic baggage than it can withstand. Brenda, too, comes from a desperate home situation that adds a completely unnecessary subplot to the film. And Anna's attempt to win a scholarship to Copper Union -- New York City's prestigious art college -- is aided by an over-the-top Frederic Forrest as hip-daddio high-school art teacher. Although the central performances of Weil and Morgan are subtle and compelling, most everyone else around them comes across as strained and disruptively unconvincing. The no-nonsense visual style keeps things anchored and despite its dramatic lapses, Whatever comes across as a potent dose of reality. It's as good a look as we've ever seen onscreen of that bleak, reactionary "whatever" passivity that derails so many teens. (8/7/98)

3 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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