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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK

D: Kevin Sullivan; with Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Pagan. (R, 125 min.)

Blessed is the romantic comedy that doesn't take the all-too-predictable cravings of the human heart as a license to kludge together a random handful of market-tested clichés and wait for the checks to start rolling in. So a big shout-out to producer Deborah Schindler (Waiting to Exhale) and rookie director Kevin Sullivan for making this movie so much better than it really needed to be. Even with Stella's success all but assured by its source material (a bestselling novel by Terry McMillan, who also wrote Waiting to Exhale), a truly gorgeous pair of lead actors, and a sumptuous tropical setting, the filmmakers go to obvious pains to add a bit of nutritive value to their sweet, frothy confection. Not so much in the area of originality; what we have here is a pretty conventional May-August love story in which an emotionally tapped-out 40ish businesswoman (Bassett) gets her vital juices flowing again via a deliciously inappropriate taste of young beefcake (Diggs) she meets during a Jamaican holiday. What really elevates this movie to the status of a future Lifetime Network classic is the care screenwriters McMillan and Ron Bass have taken to flesh out not only the lead characters but also supporting figures such as Bassett's lifelong sidekick (Goldberg, mugging and ad-libbing her way through one of the bawdy, wisecracking roles on which she owns a virtual patent) and her protective 11-year-old son (Pagan). Though most of the characters are genre archetypes, the addition of interesting backstory and a few charming throwaway scenes add satisfying depth to their relationships. Diggs, a stage actor playing his first major film role, demonstrates major heartthrob potential. As 20-year-old Winston, he's every straight woman's guilt-free fantasy fling: open-hearted, intelligent, well-bred, honorable and -- oh yeah -- built like a stack of glistening black granite. His repertoire of advanced love-man moves should be compiled into an instructional video for sexually frustrated high-school guys. And his appeal is likely to extend to male African-American viewers, who'll appreciate seeing one of their peers portrayed as something other than a promiscuous dog whose every waking move is dictated by General Johnson. But for all of Diggs' precocious charm, it's Bassett -- again demonstrating a knack for characterizations that are both glamorous and rich with Everywoman appeal -- who's the clear centerpiece here. With qualities of beauty and strength that seem to inspire rather than distance her female fans, she's by now obliterated any suspicion that her Oscar-nominated role in What's Love Got to Do With It was a flash in the pan. (And as an icon of middle-aged feminine mojo, she's also a gratifying answer to all these priapic old goats cavorting around in Bulworth, A Perfect Murder, Lolita, and Six Days Seven Nights, not to mention the inevitable Bill 'n' Monica pics that should be cropping up any day now.) The date movie of the summer has been a little late in coming this year, but it's here at last. And it is indeed a groove.

3.5 stars

Russell Smith



New Reviews

THE DRESS

D: Alex van Warmerdam; with van Warmerdam, Henri Garcin, Ariane Schluter, Ricky Koole and Rijk de Gooyer. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

Once, many years ago, I moved into a big old house. It seemed a fine house -- good location, decent roommates, cheap rent, and an airy room. I lasted a month. Oh, nothing ever went bump in the night there, but the house was imbued with a pervasive sense of despair that no amount of sunlight or cheery decor could dispel. Some time later, I learned that it had once been used as a private (no doubt unlicensed) nursing home. So, the world of The Dress, where inanimate objects act as receptacles, even conduits, of anima would, I thought, be a familiar if not entirely comfortable place for me. A bright and jaunty leaf-motif dress, designed in fury and fashioned from a swath of fabric conceived in anger, has a strange and tragic effect on everyone who comes into contact with it, especially the women who wear it. From an aging housewife whose unexpected fit of passion leads suddenly and inexplicably to her demise, to a young and romantically frustrated housemaid's bizarre dalliance with a perverted train conductor, to a bag lady for whom the dress becomes a shroud, the seemingly harmless frock unravels each life as quickly as it spins them all together in a mesmerizing, but disturbing, web of sex and violence and longing. Like a spider to a fly, Dutch director and writer Alex van Warmerdam (who also stars) invites us into his parlor with moments of intimacy and silliness, stuns us with tragedy and menace, then abruptly sets us free. Then, just as we are laughing nervously, wondering if we were ever really in any danger at all, we're seized again. In one particularly memorable scene, the lonely maid meets the lascivious conductor for a romantic tryst in a house that seems to be decorated with oversized Barbie furniture and objets d'art won on a midway. The absurd pink frilliness lends the scene an incongruously sinister quality which turns comically violent when the huge homeowner with even bigger hair turns up toting her equally oversized shotgun. But the comedy is a brief and deceptive reprieve. Van Warmerdam creates a bleak and disquieting landscape through which The Dress dances and floats, taunts and cajoles. Moments of whimsy crash up against angst, tenderness collides with degradation, levity slips into darkness. It's an unsettling world out of kilter, connected by a simple dress, hanging by a thread.

2.5 stars HC


RETURN TO PARADISE

D: Joseph Ruben; with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vera Farmiga, Nick Sandow, Ming Lee. (R, 109 min.)

A sort of Midnight Express retooled for Gen-X sensibilities. Ruben, who made his mark as a superior director of above-average thrillers with 1987's harrowing The Stepfather, has since stumbled a bit (The Good Son, with Macaulay Culkin, wasn't a good sign by anyone's standards). Still, he's managed to pull a few hat tricks in the interim, although Return to Paradise misses the mark almost entirely. Collegiate expats Sheriff (Vaughn), doe-eyed Lewis (Phoenix), and architect-to-be Tony (Conrad) are vacationing in Malaysia, sopping up wine, women, sun, and the requisite hash just days before they're scheduled to fly back to the States. Lewis, for his part, plans on staying behind to help return injured orangutans to the wild, and after a drunken, hash-happy bender, the trio parts ways with hollow promises to stay in touch. Two years pass. Sheriff, now a cynical, scheming New York limo driver, picks up a slight, blonde fare one evening who informs him that the day after he and Tony left Penang, Lewis was arrested by the Malaysian authorities and, due to the hashish the trio carelessly tossed in the trash on the way out of town, charged with drug dealing, a capital offense. Having remained incarcerated for the past two years, Lewis' execution date is eight days away, and the only way to save his life is to have Sheriff and Tony return to Penang and share culpability. The blonde is Beth Eastern (Heche), Lewis' lawyer, and this Manhattan battle of wills -- will they or won't they? -- makes up the first half of Ruben's film. When Tony, engaged and with a promising career at his feet, agrees to return to save Lewis, Sheriff is obliged to go along for the ride, and Return to Paradise spends the next hour visiting the Penang hellhole where Lewis has slowly deteriorated -- mentally and physically -- over the past two years. There is, of course, the requisite trial sequences, and some mildly horrific shocks along the way, but Ruben and company fail to make any of this very interesting. Granted, Vaughn's character arc is a wonder to behold, but I can't help but think that these characters just aren't the sort of guys anyone's really going to give a damn about. Heche does her best to be earnest and pained in the face of her client's doom, but she's so naturally spritely -- that blonde bob screams "cuddles!" -- that the role soars clean over her head. Phoenix is well-cast as the starry-eyed dreamer fallen from grace, but his role is essentially one of hollow-eyed rants and lunatic charm. Vaughn, for his part, pulls off the thuggish Sheriff well enough, but by the film's crucial final reel, the only emotional tug you feel is the one generated by cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos' breathtaking shots of the Malay peninsula. And then, of course, after this dark little misfire, you're never going to set foot over there anyway, so why bother?

2 stars

Marc Savlov


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