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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 5, 1998: 

RONIN

D: John Frankenheimer; with Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Jonathan Pryce, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Skipp Sudduth, Sean Bean, Michel Lonsdale. (R, 121 min.)

Trying to find a first-rate Euro-caper these days is akin to trying to find romantic comedies by Abel Ferrara: They're just not there. Kudos, then, to Frankenheimer, the grand old man of cerebral action films, for giving it his best shot one more time. And although Ronin fails to live up to its admittedly high expectations, it remains head and shoulders above what little competition there is by virtue of its stellar casting, editing, and above all, Frankenheimer's fluid, explosive direction. An old hand at ratcheting up the suspense until your veins begin to pop, Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, French Connection II) pulls out all the stops here, but ultimately Ronin is snafued by a few too many plot twists and some creative scripting that even a late-addition (and pseudonymous) David Mamet couldn't solve. The film revolves around a shadowy group of Cold War relics, four men and a woman, recruited in Paris to acquire by any means necessary a large, silver briefcase from an unknown target. The details are sketchy at best: Tall, blonde Dierdre (McElhone), possibly an I.R.A. member, has gathered the best of the best; De Niro's Sam, who may or may not be ex-CIA; the impossibly ravaged Reno as Vincent, a French acquisitions specialist; Skarsgård as Gregor, the duplicitous über-hacker; and Bean's Spence, the puke-at-the-first-sign-of-trouble Brit. Frankenheimer does wonderful things with his set-up (watching the quintet interact as they meet for the first time is a revelation -- De Niro and Reno, particularly, are at the top of their form), but the rest of the film is spent waiting for a payoff that never arrives. Ronin is a case of too much too soon, and by the time "Directed by John Frankenheimer" flashes on the screen some two hours later, you're still wondering "Is that it?" Unfortunately, it is. Still, it's a hell of a ride. No one directs car chases like Frankenheimer, and the lengthy, turbo-charged rides here are akin to living things, snaking their reptilian paths through the claustrophobic byways of a decrepit Paris and a sprawling, too-small Nice. Much of this out-of-control beauty is due to editor Tony Gibbs, who knows just when to cut and when to let the sequence play itself out. Ronin also succeeds wonderfully in terms of sound: It's a loud film, but unlike last summer's Armageddon -- which turned it all up to 11 and then went out for a six-pack -- this film knows exactly when to be loud, and exactly when to let the quiet, hissing sound of a dying Fiat engine taper into a cacophonous silence. It looks good, it sounds good, but Ronin falls just shy of the mark; it's the kind of near-miss you don't mind so much.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov



GADJO DILO

D: Tony Gatlif; with Romain Duris, Rona Hartner, Izidor Serban, Ovidiu Balan. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

Tony Gatlif makes movies for people who recognize that the essence of storytelling is enchantment. It's an easy point to forget, what with all these social anthropologists and French literary critics around trying to put a utilitarian or theoretical spin on a primordial human impulse. But Gatlif, a son of Spanish gypsies, is one of those rare, instinctive artists who seems wholly motivated by the desire to envelope viewers in his sense of intoxication with the world's beauty and mystery. Like his two previous American releases, Latcho Drom (1993) and Mondo (1996), Gadjo Dilo illuminates the little-understood culture of European gypsies. The main storyline concerns a scruffy-handsome young Frenchman named Stéphane (Duris) who's trekking the Balkans in search of a singer he only knows as a haunting voice on an old homemade cassette. Somewhere in Romania, the winter cold forces Stéphane to take shelter in a ramshackle gypsy village. There, he's warily regarded as a "gadjo dilo" (crazy outsider) who needs to be watched like a hawk lest he skip town with a sackful of stolen chickens. Plot happens, in a fitful, harum-scarum way, but it really doesn't seem to be the point. Instead, what Gatlif is asking us to consider (or, rather, feel) is Stéphane's reaction to the exotic, marginalized society he's been thrust into. As it turns out, Stéphane's questing heart has room enough for the ritualized craziness of gypsy life. Within weeks, he's perfectly integrated into a social milieu in which ordinary conversations include shouts of "eat the hairs of my cock!" and where plate-smashing and dry-humping are traditional dance-floor moves. Gadjo Dilo is a full immersion into a wild, flamboyant, and electrifyingly sexy culture that should revitalize the libidos of most American viewers -- at least those who aren't put off by all the emotional overkill which, admittedly, verges often on Monty Python territory. Other noteworthy features are Gatlif's distinctive visual style, which combines documentary realism with dreamlike images that add emotional punch to key scenes, and the deeply affecting performances of both Duris and Hartner, who plays Stéphane's volcanic gypsy lover. (The image of Hartner rubbing her hair and body with wildflowers as she stands in steaming bath water earns instant induction into my annual compendium of yowza! cinema moments.) Gadjo Dilo's concluding scenes unexpectedly transform the lighthearted story into a grim fable illustrating how the very same passions that enrich Balkan cultures also account for their ghastly history of senseless war and "ethnic cleansing." For Gatlif, the loving chronicler of his native culture, this is an admirably candid act of introspection that only deepens my appreciation of his powerful body of work.

3.5 stars

Russell Smith



ANTZ

D: Eric Darnell and Lawrence Guterman; with the voices of Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Christopher Walken, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Lopez, Paul Mazursky. (PG, 77 min.)

It's about to get a little crowded in the world of computer-generated animation (CGI). This fall sees the release of both this offering from DreamWorks SKG, as well as the Disney/Pixar collaboration A Bug's Life, two films treading remarkably similar ground. Antz arrives first, and while it's a visually arresting piece of filmmaking, it lacks the core resonance of that previous high-water mark, Pixar's Toy Story. With an all-star, dream cast of voice actors and a storyline geared more toward adults than kids, Antz remains curiously lacking in emotional involvement. It's great to look at, sure, but it also just sits there -- and it's the most expensive Woody Allen film ever made by someone other than that king of the meshuganahs. Here Allen gives voice to Z, a neurotic worker ant in a colony of millions, longing for individuality in a society that quashes even the merest hint of singularity. The filmmakers use this rigid caste system -- workers, soldiers, queen (and princess) -- as a metaphor for life in general, though the traditional lessons imparted here are done so with a heavy hand most of the time. When Z runs into a slumming Princess Bala (Stone) while cutting a metronomic rug at the local watering hole, he falls madly in love. Thinking that the princess reciprocates his feelings, he hurriedly trades places with soldier pal Weaver (Stallone) and seeks her out, only to be rebuffed and shipped off to battle against the fearsome aphids. Hackman's power-mad General Mandible and his right-hand ant Cutter (Walken) seek to overthrow the Queen and create a "more perfect colony" via some behind-the-scenes scheming. However, when only Z returns from the melee unscathed, his hero's welcome is parlayed into a muddled kidnapping of the princess, and together they find themselves outside the colony, searching for the mythical "Insectopia." It's frankly bizarre to hear the voice of Broadway Danny Rose emanating from this pint-sized insect, though the idea of pairing Stallone and Allen as insect buddies is admittedly too rich for words. Antz plays up its Allen connection, with many of Z's lines sounding as though they've been taken part and parcel from previous Allen films (as the film opens, Z is on the couch at his psychiatrist's, opining about his inferiority complex). What Antz is lacking is that wacky spark that sent Toy Story over the edge and into the realm of the spectacular. Large segments of time meander during which nothing much happens, and even occasional cameos such as Aykroyd and Curtin's yuppified wasps (get it?) do little to relieve the ennui. Without a doubt, the animation is vibrant and electrifying; it's only the story that lacks.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



CLAY PIGEONS

D: David Dobkin; with Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Georgina Cates. (R, 104 min.)

In a perfect world, Janeane Garofalo would be in every movie. That way, when the rest of the show bogged down, we'd still have her morbid wit and wry spin to hold onto. The world isn't perfect, though, and neither is Clay Pigeons, a deceptively simple Nineties noir with its heart in the right place but not much else. Phoenix plays Clay Bidwell, a none-too-bright Montanan stuck in the vicious circle of small-town life. To keep things interesting, he's been having an affair with Amanda, his best friend's ill-tempered wife (Cates). When husband Earl finds out, he lures Clay out to a pasture on the pretext of knocking off a few beer bottles with the .38, only to kill himself and leave all the evidence pointing toward his wayward friend. Panicked, Clay manages to cover up the situation, but not before starting a chain of bloody events that eventually threatens half the town. Much more threatening, actually, is Vaughn as Lester Long, a trucker-cum-drifter who breezes into town and bonds with the frazzled Clay. Lester has evil written all over him in day-glo existential marker, but Clay can't see the boneyard for the corpses and quickly befriends this too-slick charmer, setting himself up for some serious trouble down the road. Dobkin, in his directorial debut, seems ready and willing to ply the conventions of film noir in the harsh Montana daylight, but Clay Pigeons never manages to reach the crucial suspense plateaus that noir demands. Instead, it feels more like a portrait of small-town life run amok, with the miscast Phoenix playing Good to Vaughn's Evil. Garofalo makes a blessed appearance in the second act as F.B.I. Agent Dale Shelby, in town to check on the progress of an unknown serial killer who's been carving up young ladies for some time. She's Clarise Starling's punky little sister, replete with barroom drinking binges and hotel room pot parties, more concerned with catching the killer than what anyone might think of her methods. When she's onscreen the film kicks into high gear; when she's off it, however, it's up to Vaughn and Phoenix to carry the picture and it just doesn't work. Vaughn's affectation of a whinnying, nervous giggle is more annoying than anything else, and only Cates, as the town bad girl, gets any mileage out of the one-note script. Dobkin has recruited John Lurie to fill in the gaps with an admittedly creepified score, but even that falls by the wayside as the third act ushers in some of the most ridiculous plot contrivances yet seen. There's more to noir filmmaking than sleazy men and wicked women, but Dobkin hasn't figured out what.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov



THE IMPOSTORS

D: Stanley Tucci; with Tucci, Oliver Platt, Alfred Molina, Campbell Scott, Lili Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub, Dana Ivey, Allison Janney, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Billy Connolly, Matt McGrath, Elizabeth Bracco. (R, 102 min.)

The opening scene, silently played and whimsically scored, starts with two men sitting at adjacent tables in an outdoor cafe. The place is Central Park; the time is the 1930s. The two men initially exchange pleasantries. Then, one man borrows the sugar bowl on the other's table and proceeds to spoon heaps of the stuff into his coffee cup; the other reciprocates by blowing cigarette smoke in the direction of the sweet-toothed fiend. Soon, a woman looking for a table in the crowded cafe happens by, and each of the men offers her his chair. The chivalrous rivalry between the two escalates into a scuffle, which culminates into a showdown between a drawn gun and a brandished knife. The man with the gun is stabbed, rather dramatically, but the odd thing is that the assailant is the one who dies, again rather dramatically, while the other looks on in puzzlement. The incident, as it turns out, is a piece of street theatre acted out by two unemployed, down-on-their-luck actors, Arthur and Maurice, who both believe that the most fulfilling job of any actor is a really good death scene. Eventually, the two find themselves on the lam from the law after an unfortunate contretemps with a hammy but successful member of their profession and end up as stowaways posing as stewards on an ocean liner bound for France. Once on the ship, what begins as something wry and fanciful becomes something farcical and slapstick, as Arthur and Maurice scurry down hallways and hide in various staterooms to elude discovery. And then the tone is wry and fanciful again. And then it's farcical and slapstick once more. And so on. The Impostors is an entertaining diversion featuring a host of actors having a grand old time overacting in roles that allow them that luxury. (Molina, as the histrionic Shakespearean actor modeled on John Barrymore, and Scott, as the imperious German head steward with the clichéd scar on his cheek, are the most enjoyable of the lot.) But the seesawing tone is a distraction that calls into question director-screenwriter Tucci's motives in crafting this movie. Is it an attempt to fashion a gentle screwball comedy using the tried-and-true shipboard milieu, something that's part Marx Brothers, part Ernst Lubitsch, part Laurel and Hardy? Or is it an just an indulgence in which Tucci has gathered a group of accomplished players, many of whom appeared in his superb Big Night, for a lark of sorts? Whatever the answer, The Impostors could use a bit more polish, although again, it's fun while it lasts. If anything, it's worth the brief but priceless sight gag in which Arthur and Maurice are disguised as a heterosexual couple at a party on the ship. It's a deadpan spectacle that nearly compensates for everything lacking in the movie.

3.0 stars

Steve Davis



REGENERATION

D: Gilles MacKinnon; with Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby, Jonny Lee Miller, Stuart Bunce, Tanya Allen, John Neville. (Not Rated, 98 min.)

Set in Scotland in 1917 at the end of World War I, Regeneration is a thoughtful war drama that focuses on the moral consequences of war and its psychological toll. Based on the Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker's 1991 novel, the film tells the story of three soldiers and the psychiatrist who treats them at Craiglockhart Hospital, which specializes in restoring shell-shocked soldiers to good mental health and returning them to the battlefield, if at all possible. With great sensitivity, Jonathan Pryce (Evita, Carrington) plays Dr. William Rivers, a pioneering psychiatrist feeling his way through the profession's infancy and treating his patients with whatever common sense he can apply. He is clearly feeling the impact of his close involvement with his patients' terrors as he practices his talking cures and is dismayed by his colleagues' more invasive shock treatment methods. He questions the validity of taking already fragile minds and making them insane enough to want to go back to the front. The eminent poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon (Wilby, most recognizable from his star turn in Maurice) is sent to the hospital because he has had a change of heart about the war and has written a pamphlet that denounces its shift from a war of liberation to one of aggression. He is given the choice of being court-martialled or being sent to the madhouse. While there he meets another budding poet, Wilfred Owen, whose work Sassoon encourages and steers toward realistic coverage of the war. Another patient at the hospital is Billy Prior (Miller -- Sick Boy in Trainspotting), a soldier who has gone mute from the horrors he's seen on the battlefield. The depiction of the turmoil of these true historical figures is challenging to witness. Regeneration is a film of ideas and ideologies and, interestingly, it has been given an American release in this season of our renewed interest in the war film genre. The script by Allan Scott is intelligent and provocative, however, the film's dramatic pull fails to involve the viewer at any deep level. The storyline skips evenly among these four interesting characters but never lights on any one dramatic conflict or character as its central focus. It may be a futile search for heroes in a movie that questions the very validity of heroes. Yet it remains that Regeneration is a war film that engages us at a mostly conceptual level rather than a visceral one. This anomaly is also what makes it a particularly distinctive work.

3.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES

D: James Ivory; with Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Leelee Sobieski, Jane Birkin, Dominique Blanc, Jesse Bradford, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Harley Cross, Isaac de Bankolé, Virginie Ledoyen, Luisa Conlon, Samuel Gruen. (R, 124 min.)

Such an austere and militaristic-sounding title as this one belies the affectionate, warm glow that blankets the family memoir of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. This latest Ismael Merchant-James Ivory production was adapted (by Ivory and the team's longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) from Kaylie Jones' autobiographical novel, which is based on her childhood memories of life with her expatriate writer father James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line). Told from the point of view of daughter Channe Willis (played as a child by Conlon and as a teen by Deep Impact's Sobieski), A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries tells the story of her early life in Paris with her bohemian, expatriate parents Bill and Marcella (Kristofferson and Hershey) and her adopted brother Billy (played as a child by Gruen and as a teen by King of the Hill's wonderful-child-actor-now-grown-up Bradford). As is customary in Merchant-Ivory films, the pleasure is in the details. Although most of their best work is associated with genteel period costumers, A Soldier's Daughter is set in the Sixties and Seventies and the story's temporal proximity finds these filmmakers no less deft in their attention to the visual trappings of the period. Also a pleasure to watch are the performances, each of them lovingly etched evocations that make you long to know these characters more fully. Yet the story's accumulation of scattered impressions is exactly what bedevils the film's overall impact. The story lacks focus, sustained development, and direction. Divided into three sections, the film is structured around Channe's impressions of the three most important men in her early life. The first centers on the arrival of Billy, né Benoit, to the welcoming Willis household. The second features Channe's schoolmate and best friend Francis Fortescue (Costanzo, in a scene-stealing performance), an opera-mad adolescent boy who's probably just a few months shy of recognizing his own latent homosexuality. The third section focuses on Channe's father Bill, as he decides to move his family back to the States so that he can be closer to the American doctors who will treat his worsening congenital heart condition and also to prevent his kids from maturing into worthless "Eurotrash." Channe and Billy, ever the problematic students in the rigid Parisian international schools, continue their outsider status when placed in an American high school. Channe quickly ingratiates herself as a backseat tramp and then discovers the diminishing profit margin in that gambit. Throughout, there are numerous flickerings of numerous coming-of-age storylines, and though most of them are interesting, most are abandoned shortly after igniting. There are also fascinating glimpses into the unconventional and boozy yet nurturing and unpretentious family life presided over by the loving and refreshingly candid war veteran/famous writer father and chic firebrand mother. If all that weren't enough, we're also provided with details of the lives of Channe's perhaps-too-devoted housemaid Candida (Blanc) and her suitor (de Bankolé). But wait, there's also the story of Billy's biological mother and her diary. One way of looking at this, I suppose, is with gratefulness for the film's wealth of detail. But, to my mind, it is a maddening melange of autobiographical threads that lead in dozens of directions, like a maze with no exit. This soldier's daughter may just be too exasperated to cry.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



URBAN LEGEND

D: Jamie Blanks; with Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid, John Neville, Robert Englund, Brad Dourif. (R, 100 min.)

What hath Kevin Williamson wrought? Not this sad excuse for a horror film, thankfully, but the lineage of the recently reanimated slasher genre can indeed be traced right on back to Scream. Still, like Victor Frankenstein, his intentions were good, though the marketing juggernaut he's created is beginning to bear bitter fruit. Like chainsaws and Karo syrup, it comes, I suspect, with the terror-itory (as does Brad Dourif, whose brief cameo here is far more interesting than it should be). Urban Legend's story is a simple one: An unseen psychopath is carving up students at a prestigious Maine university and using those hoary old urban legends as a template. Thus we get the guy with the ax in the back seat of the co-ed's car, the boyfriend dangling from the tree, the Dran-o down the gullet, and so on, until only leads Witt (as good girl Natalie) and Gayheart (as might-be-a-good-girl Brenda) remain running about screaming while Leto's eager-beaver cub reporter seeks the truth. Believe me, though, this is one time it's not out there. Instead, first-time director Blanks fires nothing but, O.D.'ing on cheap frights and cheeseball scare tactics (i.e., "Is that a killer behind me, or just a friend?") while running his very talented leads (Witt's turn in the indie Fun remains a genre high-water mark) through the same paces Jamie Lee Curtis established two decades before. The only thing new about Blanks' film is the actors/victims: Stereotyped cardboard cutouts such as these are hardly the basis for a riveting thriller, though, and when one dies, another takes his or her place. Even Bill Clinton couldn't give a rat's patootie about these folks' pain. Horror show stalwart Englund is on hand as the grizzled professor of needless exposition, explaining in a vaguely menacing way how these myths and folk tales came about. He looks eerie enough without that Freddy Krueger makeup that he could have been the perfect MacGuffin, but Blanks unwisely does away with him early on in the film, making way for more confusing "whodunit" gambits and poorly lensed carnage. Unlike Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer!, Urban Legend even falls short when it comes to the grue. Nary a disemboweling is lingered over for more than six or seven frames, leaving the viewer to puzzle over just how all these people died. And that deadly teen sexual activity that always seems to result in too much blood? Nowhere to be found. Spottily directed and lacking the dubious merits of even the Friday the 13th franchise, this is one slasher film that should die a quick and lonely box-office death.

1.5 stars

Marc Savlov



WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

D: Vincent Ward; with Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra, Max von Sydow, Jessica Brooks Grant, Josh Paddock, Rosalind Chao. (PG-13, 113 min.)

Beautiful dreams these be indeed. What Dreams May Come is a stunningly original visual journey to heaven, hell, and beyond. But like most dreams revisited with eyes wide open, this one's content dissolves into a transparent puddle of inchoate thoughts and predictable iconography. The film's maddening dime-store metaphysics are part and parcel of the story's epic romantic sentiment and classically familiar visual cues. What Dreams May Come straddles an intriguingly awkward gap between its "art film" ambitions and its "mass market" inclinations. And though the film is mired in a granola slick of touchy-feely hokum about eternal love, the afterlife, and the beyond, the film's absolute gravity about its subjects of life and death make it an original exception to our standard romantic sagas. Of course there's also the fact that What Dreams May Come looks like nothing else you've seen before (which is partly due to the recent advances in electronic compositing technology that permit the creation of amazing new visions never before seen on the screen). The script, which was written by Ron Bass (Rain Man, My Best Friend's Wedding, Waiting to Exhale) and adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson, casts Robin Williams as a modern-day Orpheus who descends to the depths of hell to reclaim his beloved Eurydice. In this version, Williams is a kindly doctor named Chris Nielsen who is married to his soulmate, Annie (Sciorra), a painter and 19th-century art restorer. Before the movie's preamble is over, we learn that the couple's two children have died in a car accident, which is followed four years later by Chris also meeting death in the headlights after he stops to render Good Samaritan aid to another motorist hurt in a car crash. Annie is understandably distraught. Chris finds (with the help of a guide played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) that heaven is whatever you make it out to be, and for him it resembles the romantic visual world he shared with Annie. He is able to enter into her brooding paintings, and his heaven becomes an oozing canvas as he sumptuously slides through paint blobs and stunning two-dimensional scenes suddenly rendered three-dimensional. The film's visions of heaven and hell are fairly conventional: Heaven is full of cherubic sprites and Victorian archetypes, hell is a painting by Hieronymous Bosch (with contributions from Dante). By the time Ingmar Bergman icon Max von Sydow shows up as the Tracker who will lead Chris into hell, well, we're just about ready to sit down and play a chess game with Death. Despite the script's fuzzy logic and tear-jerking ploys, New Zealand director Vincent Ward's American debut makes complete sense in terms of his career progression. Two previous films, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey and Map of the Human Heart are boldly original dramas predicated on elliptical time and space strategies. Both succeed to much greater degrees than What Dreams May Come, perhaps because of their more modest budgets and scale. Ward is one of the contemporary cinema's true visionaries and it's always worthwhile to anticipate what new dreams may come from his imagination. This latest one vacillates between the wondrous and the trite, yet I'm certain we're the better for its presence in the world.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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