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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

SIMON BIRCH

D: Mark Steven Johnson; with Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn, Jan Hooks, Jim Carrey. (PG, 110 min.)

In everyone's life, there is a memorable mother, a luminous beauty who smells good and smiles brilliantly and knows exactly when to tease and when to be sympathetically grave. She is almost always somebody else's mother, but she is so full of warmth and kindness and of such a generous nature she has plenty of mothering to share. So it is with Joe's mother, Rebecca, whose shining eyes and fragrant glow fill in all the empty spaces in Simon Birch's cold and rocky life. Born no bigger than a baby bird, Simon (Smith) wasn't supposed to make it through the night. The fact that he survived against all odds can't overcome his parents' aversion to having such an oddity for a child. To his big, gruff, rock-quarrying father and his reclusive, nervous mother, Simon is too strange and insignificant to warrant much parenting. Instead, he receives attention because of his diminutive size, which the hardier inhabitants of his New England town find freakish and unsettling. His best friend Joe (Mazzello) is himself an oddity because of his mother's scandalous combination of indiscretion (a dalliance resulting in pregnancy) and discretion (her resolute refusal to name the father). The circumstances of their births forge a tensile bond between the two boys and give them both a sense of undiscovered destiny. Simon fervently believes that God shaped him for a specific, heroic purpose. Joe is convinced that the secret to his future lies in learning his father's identity. Their bond and their beliefs are tested after a Little League game, during which Simon, in a totally uncharacteristic display of power, hits a foul ball that strikes and kills Rebecca. Lessons in love, death, acceptance, understanding, faith, friendship, and fate abound in this little movie -- a tall order for any undertaking. Only masterful performances keep this frankly sentimental film from foundering in a sea of syrup. Judd brings Rebecca vividly and memorably to life during her short time onscreen, imbuing her presence with a purity and joy and freedom that permeate the picture and define the relationships between its characters. Mere casual acquaintances, we feel her loss keenly. Mazzello and Smith have incredibly fragile scenes together and they play them earnestly and unerringly, with the off-handed intimacy peculiar to childhood friendship. As Rebecca's suitor, Ben, Platt possesses a rare, unmannered charm most visible in the tiniest, quietest moments of the film. The tragedy in Simon Birch is coupled with insouciant silliness and rosy nostalgia and it unabashedly grasps at our heartstrings. But the sincerity of its players, the level gaze of its camera, and a genuine affection for its story (suggested by John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany) keep this film afloat. Warm and sweet and wholesome, Simon Birch is as sustaining as mother's milk.
3.5 stars
Hollis Chacona



THE BEST MAN

D: Pupi Avati; with Diego Abatantuono, Ines Sastre, Dario Cantarelli, Cinia Mascoli, Valeria D'Obici, Mario Erpichini. (PG, 100 min.)

I suspect that if, like the characters in The Best Man, you plan your wedding to take place on the last day of the century, you deserve everything you get. The timing is bound to layer the marriage with extra significance and external baggage. In this Italian import, the bride Francesca (Sastre) is scheduled to be married on the last day of the 19th century. But as the film opens, we find her on her wedding day simmering with doubt. Her betrothed Edgardo (Cantarelli) is an older man, a wealthy and desirable bachelor. Yet, this particular morning Edgardo no longer seems quite so desirable and Francesca is itching to get out. Her horrified parents will hear none of it: Marriages are business arrangements and it's too late to back out of this deal. But then, on the way to the altar, Francesca falls in love -- with the groom's best man. In a time of arranged marriages, is it possible that the concept of marriage-for-love will be ushered in with the 20th century? Although she's been raised not to believe in love, she ironically discovers its reality on the day of her wedding. Part of this film's charm derives from our uncertainty about Francesca. Is she an independent thinker liable to be branded a madwoman like her eccentric Aunt Pepina (Mascoli) or is she a starry-eyed romantic with a tenuous grasp on reality -- a character in the mold of the lovesick Adele H? The Best Man allows us to entertain both opinions. It's in keeping with the way the movie works as a whole. It provides some pointed social commentary, homing in on a variety of petit-bourgeois wedding guests and their petty fin-de-siècle concerns. It's a wonderful panoply of characters who provide the chorus to the story's main event. Their constant dialogue and comments, I'm confident, would be even more pointed and provocative were one able to understand them in their native Italian. The wedding guests form a lively and entertaining background as they flit about the festivities as all wedding guests do -- gossiping and flirting and backstabbing and tippling. At its best, the film reminds us of other estate gatherings that have been presented as bourgeois microcosms in such films as Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, and virtually anything by Luis Buñuel. Beautifully photographed by Pasquale Rachini, The Best Man has a sustained amber glow about it, as if to signify a time caught between the Gilded Age and the Incandescent Era. Some of the finer points of The Best Man seem lost in translation and nuance, but more than enough seeps though. It's worth your while to RSVP to this affair.
3.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



BILLY'S HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS

D: Tommy O'Haver; with Sean P. Hayes, Brad Rowe, Richard Ganoung, Meredith Scott Lynn, Paul Bartel. (R, 92 min.)

The central question in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is a familiar one in these confusing, ambisexual times: Is he or isn't he? The premise here is simple: Billy (Hayes), a lonely, unemployed photographer with a history of finding Mr. Wrong, falls hard for Gabriel (Rowe), an enigmatic waiter with strikingly good looks, and then agonizes because he's unsure of whether the object of his affection can reciprocate the feeling. It's a premise that makes for some keen romantic, sexual, and comic tension that's achingly funny for anyone -- gay or straight -- who has had to endure the possibility of unrequited love. (Or lust, for that matter.) While the issue of Gabriel's sexual identity in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss provides the film's narrative hook, there's more than meets the eye here literally. It's The Mirror Has Two Faces thing -- you know, that stuff about beauty being more than skin deep. Billy is a great guy, immensely likable and relatively good-looking, but in the face department, he's no match for the impossibly handsome Gabriel, whose features lie somewhere between Brad Pitt and Rob Lowe. And so Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, in its own subtle and unassuming way, takes on the culture of desire, in which surface is paramount to depth. But as in Streisand's film, the message is ultimately a mixed one. In view of the last scene, it's hard to decide whether Billy is falling into the same old trap again, or whether he's being rewarded for having survived an extreme case of lovesickness. That aside, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is a fairly entertaining movie, smartly directed by O'Haver, who uses drag-queen numbers and black-and-white dream sequences to comment intermittently on Billy's emotional turmoil, and energetically acted by a cast that strikes the proper balance between funny and serious. All in all, it's a pretty good smooch.
3.5 stars
Steve Davis



FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES

D: Jesse Peretz; with Natasha Gregson Wagner, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert John Burke, Jeannetta Arnette, Donal Logue, Eli Marienthal. (Not Rated, 93 min.)

Long on mood and short on narrative, First Love, Last Rites does a good job of capturing the sense of young love's first flush and its inevitable erosion. A resolutely independent work, Jesse Peretz's debut feature makes few concessions to the demands of popular entertainment in terms of involving his extremely likable characters in larger narrative actions or external storyline. Based on a short story by Ian McEwan, the film is set in the Louisiana bayou country over the course of one contemporary summer. Joey (Ribisi) and Sissel (Wagner) are hot in the throes of first love. They exult in each other's bodies and make love till their bodies are slack with satiation. They have all the time in the world and no responsibilities. The Brooklyn-bred Joey is down in Louisiana for inexplicable reasons. He has no work or school obligations and neither does Sissel. By day, Joey builds eel traps to help Sissel's father in a half-baked scheme of selling eel to sushi joints. Sissel, who seems to realize before Joey that their love will not last forever, takes a job at the local sugar factory -- mostly out of boredom. There's also Sissel's cantankerous little brother who requires extra attention because of the breakup of his parents' marriage. Oh, and there's a rat in the wall. I mention this only because the killing of the rat is the movie's high drama. It becomes symbolic of the anxieties lurking beneath the surface, much like the undertow that the local fishermen keep warning Joey about. (And let's not even touch the eel symbolism.) Wagner (Two Girls and a Guy) and Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, subUrbia) are both very engaging. But though their absorption in each other is 100% believable, there are too many other things about their characters that are not: the 45s they listen to, Sissel's stylish bob, Joey's imperceptible source of income. Also adding lots of atmosphere is the swampy bayou location work and the soundtrack by Shudder to Think (High Art and the upcoming Velvet Goldmine). Director Peretz is the former bass player for the Lemonheads and the director of dozens of music videos and commercial spots as well as the "Jimmy McBride, Cab Driver" spots for MTV. More than anything else, First Love, Last Rites succeeds at making inertia palpable. This is dubious distinction for a motion picture.
1.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



KNOCK OFF

D: Tsui Hark; with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon, Paul Sorvino, Michael Wong. (R, 90 min.)

Maybe those of us who are always whining about the need for more originality in the action movie genre should pay a little more heed to the old be-careful-what-you-wish-for principle. Director Tsui Hark, who still hasn't quite come down off the stylistic bender of his '96 avant garde swordsman opus, The Blade, certainly can't be accused of cranking out another boilerplate Hong Kong actioner here. But although Knock Off's outrageous bounty of visual creativity sets it well apart from most movies dominated by dialogue like "WOOMPH!," "HWUULP!," and "AAAAGH!," that fact doesn't constitute a must-see endorsement. Put another way, I'm not sure that viewers looking for another Double Team-style adrenaline O.D. will respond favorably to an action mise-en-scene in which ultra-closeups of walls, ceilings, and concrete pilings often seem to receive equal billing with Van Damme's smashmouth kickboxing moves. Sure, it's dazzling to watch the UT-schooled Hark pull out all the stops with stop-motion photography, manic pans and zooms, dim ambient lighting, and calculatedly jumpy edits. Inevitably, though, frustration sets in as it becomes all but impossible to tell who's kicking whose asses -- or indeed what specific blurrily photographed body parts are being kicked. It's kind of like watching an enthusiastic eight-year-old play with the zoom and focus buttons on the family videocam. Plot? Well, it's another of those insanely labyrinthine deals in which scruffy Russian mafiosi (God, I miss the KGB and the whole darned world communist conspiracy!) battle the CIA and various moles, local hoods, and counter-counterspies for control of deadly weapons technology. Andro 6 poster boy Jean-Claude, now seemingly resigned to his fate as a well-compensated also-ran in the hybrid martial arts/shoot-'em-up genre, brings his usual mush-mouthed charm and array of mannequin-like expressions to his role as a humble leisure-wear merchant caught up in the fray. As-yet-undeceased Saturday Night Live alum Schneider is borderline amusing in the obligatory raffish sidekick role. In essence, the whole Knock Off experience can be summed up neatly in four words: loud, stupid, blurry, frenetic. (And, maybe, fun as well, if the preceding adjectives pique your interest.) As I've noted, Hark pulls off the whole operation with an admirable degree of energy, invention, and technical envelope-pushing, all of which surpass the meager standards of Double Team. He also earns additional groundbreaker points for making what I believe to be the first action movie based in the seamy netherworld of fake designer fashion. Still, regrettably, the simple equation holds true that Dumb Van Damme Flick -- Dennis Rodman + Artsy Camera Tricks = Dumb, Artsy Van Damme Flick. Compelling appeal to your entertainment budget? You make the call, folks.
2.0 stars
Russell Smith



LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX

D: Troy Beyer; with Beyer, Paget Brewster, Randi Ingerman, Joseph C. Phillips. (R, 82 min.)

The next time someone suggests, "Let's talk about sex," politely decline. It was someone's bright marketing idea to put the word "sex" in this movie's title, but honestly, if that's what draws you in to this insipid, amateurish thing, then you deserve everything you get. Beyer, who wrote the script for B.A.P.S., graduates to writing, directing, and starring in Let's Talk About Sex. It's amazing that Beyer ever managed to get her script made, so clichéd, clunky, and underdeveloped is it that one would think that some process of natural selection would curb this misconceived baby before it crawled forth from the crib. Beyer plays the movie's central character, Jazz, an advice columnist who is trying to land a job as the hostess of a new TV show called Girltalk, a program that will speak the truth about women's sex lives. To make her audition tape, she enlists the help of her two roommates, Michelle (Brewster) and Lena (Ingerman). All three of the women are familiar stereotypes: Jazz, the unfulfilled professional who has trouble committing herself to the good man who loves her; Michelle, who has intimacy problems and dates men half her age; and Lena, whose stunning good looks are no protection against self-esteem issues that manifest themselves by repeatedly getting involved with the wrong men. The audition tape is a documentary-style, gal-in-the-street montage of women delivering one-liners and quips about sex and dating in the Nineties, discussing their likes and dislikes, their fantasies and their fetishes. The comments on the tape hardly veer from the familiar and, for the first time in my life, made me wish that Henry Jaglom (who, in films like Babyfever, did this kind of interview thing with so much more grace) was in charge of the show. When the film isn't doing this documentary thing (with a frenetic patchwork hand-held, scattered camerawork), it's mucking around in some of the worst-scripted melodrama witnessed in some time. It's bad enough when one character contrivedly asks, "What's going on in that head of yours?" But the reply is a pure howler: "I'm tired and I'm angry and I'm so tired of being angry. When does the pain go away?" Perhaps actresses with more experience and range could have brought some reality to these characters but really, what can be done about a sequence that requires all three leads to wordlessly roam their apartment cleaning and crying? Let's Talk About Sex is one conversation that we can do without.
0 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



ROUNDERS

D: John Dahl; with Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, Michael Rispoli. (R, 120 min.)

Though it deals us a pleasantly engaging look at New York's underground world of high-stakes poker games, Rounders is hardly the straight flush we've been anticipating ever since director John Dahl electrified the screen with his neo-noir thrillers Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Rounders provides a total immersion into the world of professional poker hustlers -- or rounders -- and the experience is fascinating and drenched in atmospheric allure. And through some combination of the screenplay (by David Levien and Brian Koppelman) and the actors, wonderful characters manage to emerge on the screen. But the narrative, ultimately, does little to develop these characters beyond the traits that are singled out upon their introduction and the storyline follows through in a fairly predictable fashion, offering little in the way of surprise or discovery. Mike (Damon) is a master card player who has traded his chips for some law books and a shot at the straight life, complete with law-student girlfriend Jo (Mol) and a chance at a clerkship. But then his old friend Worm (Norton) gets released from Riker's and draws Mike back into the game. Irresponsible and carrying a few debts from back before he went to prison, Worm is everything Jo fears. Mike gets sucked back in and Jo walks and the rest of the film deals with Mike and Worm's cagey two-step of old loyalties and new tests of friendship. Throughout, Mike's voiceover narrates the story, providing a wealth of information about the milieu but astonishingly little about himself or his thinking. For someone who is so drawn to the game and claims to come to life while at the table, the film gives us little sense of the thrill or the rush he experiences. That is the heart of what's missing here: the buzz that unites these games and players, the seductive lure that excites as it also placates. The dramatic throughline is murky as well. Is this a story about friendship? A young man's maturation? A love story? A subculture study? A tribute to professionalism? Rounders touches on all these themes but fails to follow any of them through to their logical conclusions. Undeniably good are the performances, however. Damon continues his ascent into durable leading-man status; Norton is scuzzily colorful in what can only be described as the Sean Penn bad-boy role; Turturro is rock-solid as Mike's steadying influence Joey Knish; Martin Landau delivers a crisp turn as Mike's law-school mentor; and John Malkovich lets his colors fly as the seedy, heavily-accented, Russian-mafia card sharp, Teddy KGB. Rounders has little trouble maintaining our interest, it's just that the stakes are disappointingly meager.
3.0 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten


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