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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 13, 1997: 

Recommended

SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET

D: Jean-Jacques Annaud; with Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong, Mako, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk. (PG-13, 136 min.)

Forget the trailers: Seven Years in Tibet is emphatically not another of those sprawling, inert, beached-whale travelogue movies a la Out of Africa. Nor is it a jerry-rigged contrivance serving no other purpose than to showcase Brad Pitt's otherworldly pulchritude. In fact, this adaptation of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's autobiographical book may find even the straightest women and gayest men repelled by Pitt's willingness to play Harrer as every inch the arrogant, preening shitheel he seems to have been. The story begins in 1939 when Harrer leaves his pregnant wife to fend for herself while he indulges himself in a long Himalayan climbing expedition. But shortly after he reaches the mountains, war breaks out and Harrer, a National Socialist Party member, is shunted into a British POW camp. After several escape tries, he and expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter (Thewlis) succeed and find sanctuary in Llasa, the holiest city of Tibetan Buddhism and the home of the Dalai Lama. Here, long exposure to the pacifistic, ego-effacing Tibetan people helps him effect a halting but complete refurbishment of his blinkered, Nazi-brat soul. Annaud (The Lover, The Name of the Rose, Quest for Fire) may be, with all due respect to Stanley Kubrick, the most talented adapter of literary source material in recent film history. Seven Years confirms his mastery by doling out a perfect ratio of moving interpersonal drama and visual enchantment. (The images are almost physically overwhelming, and you'll swear you can feel the icy winds knifing through Llasa's narrow streets.) In the film's classical structure, a trio of antagonists push Harrer toward his spiritual rebirth. Peter, played with typical grit and finesse by Thewlis, helps him build from scratch a working concept of friendship. Debate with a morally pliable young court minister (Wong) crystallizes his sense of principle. And, most important, the teenaged Dalai Lama (Jamyang, a remarkable young actor) helps Harrer grasp the sad absurdity of human vanity. In the past, I've been an irrationally hard sell on Pitt, but his performance here ­ unmannered, wide-ranging, and effortlessly controlled ­ buries any remaining doubt that he's one of his generation's best actors. Working with Thewlis, who also belongs on that short list, only enhances the effect of his terrific work. Words (mine anyway) don't do justice to the rich, knowing, subtly humorous quality of this film. Though most of its key dramatic turns occur in its characters' minds, the unfolding story seems to radiate from the screen like sunlight, filling the viewer with a deep, almost sensual pleasure. This experience is the bedrock foundation of Annaud's film, and it completely obviates any taint of cheap sentimentality in a conclusion that yanks unapologetically on the heartstrings. Ready-made blurbage: If you see only one big, sumptuous, Arthouse Lite movie this year, make it Seven Years in Tibet. (10/10/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)


New Review

BANDWAGON

D: John Schultz; with Kevin Corrigan, Steve Parlavecchio, Lee Holmes, Matthew Hennessey, Doug MacMillan. (Not Rated, 99 min.)

"Finally... a movie about a band," the tagline promises, and they're right, this certainly isn't a film about, say, a carwash or anything. It's band, band, band all the way down the line, from struggling musicians dealing with stage fright to the dreaded Hell-on-the-Road to scurrilous major label vampires. Band stuff, all forms of it, infuses Bandwagon with a wry, comic sensibility that makes Citizen Dick from Cameron Crowe's Singles seem downright silly. (Which it was, I know, but this is just so much better, right?) The band in question here is Circus Monkey, a newly formed Raleigh/Durham quartet of pop-rockers entering the insular world of life inside a cramped, foul-scented van. There's Tony (Holmes), the sensitive singer-songwriter whose every song seems to be about an unseen girl named Ann; Eric (Parlavecchio), the pugilistic bassist; Wynn (Corrigan), the dope-addled guitarist; and Charlie (Hennessey), the talkative drummer looking for love. All four of the guys are overseen by manager Linus Tate (MacMillan, longtime leader of indie band, the Cones), a shadowy figure who acts as a sort of street-cred barometer for the group's lofty, label-aspiring ambitions. As a comic look at a new band on the road and on the run, Schultz's debut film is a bittersweet tale. There really is an Ann, the rest of the band discovers after all, although she's not what singer Tony expected. And the upcoming Rival Records' Battle of the Bands is less a talent showcase, it turns out, than a major label whirring operation by which the vultures can pick the fat off newborn bands. Schultz and his spot-on cast pack the film with goofy band truisms: the rivalries, tantrums, and outright fisticuffs. But Bandwagon has a remarkably sweet center despite the occasional bad attitude wafting through it. Holmes is immensely likable as the frontman, so shy that he has to stand in the corner of the stage and face away from the audience to get the notes out right, and Corona (Trees Lounge,, Kicked in the Head) is every dopey, philosophical groove rider you've ever seen. Any film about a band had better have music in it, and Bandwagon scores high points for Greg Kendall's Circus Monkey tunes, especially the heartfelt "It Couldn't Be Ann." Kendall has been well-known for years throughout the Beantown area as a hot producer and session guy, and his work here adds a dimension to the Circus Monkey story that wouldn't otherwise be there. All things considered, it's a gristly humorous debut, and one of the most on-target depictions of band life thus far. (10/10/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)


FOR EVER MOZART

D: Jean-Luc Godard; with Madeleine Assas, Frederic Pierrot, Ghalia Lacroix, Berangere Allaux, Vicky Messica. (Not Rated, 84 min.)

Most days, if asked to name the most important filmmaker in the history of cinema, my answer would be Jean-Luc Godard... of course. Now that I have had the chance to (twice) see this French contrarian's elliptical and fairly impenetrable 1996 film For Ever Mozart, my overall assessment of Godard has not changed one bit. Yet For Ever Mozart is not the kind of work that's going to ignite many chants of "Forever Godard" ­ either by longtime enthusiasts or nouveau fans. If you want to see great recent Godard films, check out Germany Year 90 Nine Zero or JLG by JLG. (If you want to see some great early work, his 1963 film Contempt, starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and Fritz Lang, is scheduled for a local theatrical run in just a few weeks.) For Ever Mozart finds Godard revisiting his familiar themes of art, death, politics, and war, and continuing his ongoing dialogue with the medium of filmmaking itself. At the outset, Godard subtitles For Ever Mozart as "characters in search of history." The film follows a few different groups of characters, though their storylines have no clear demarcations. A film director (Messica) wants to make a movie about war based on the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo's claim that "the history of the 1990s in Europe is a rehearsal, with slight symphonic variations, of the cowardice and chaos of the 1930s." The film director's daughter, her cousin, and the family's Arab maid are preparing to go to Sarajevo to put on a production of Alfred de Musset's One Must Not Play at Love. The trip proves disastrous as the touring literati are captured, tortured, and forced to dig their own graves. Later on, the film director decides to make a political movie called Fatal Bolero, a work satirized in For Ever Mozart's closing moments as audience members waiting in line to see it decide to go off and see Terminator 4 instead. Godard's film is an elegiac meditation about the inability of art to alter the course of world events. The piece is full of Godard's characteristically aphoristic pronouncements and declarations, as well as a series of striking images and compositions. Yet, the film is also enormously difficult to follow and offers little guidance from its maker. T4 this is not. Nor will For Ever Mozart leave you Breathless. (10/10/97)

2.0 stars (M.B.)


GANG RELATED

D: Jim Kouf; with James Belushi, Tupac Shakur, Lela Rochon, Dennis Quaid, James Earl Jones, David Paymer, Gary Cole, Wendy Crewson, Kool Moe Dee. (R, 111 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Tupac Shakur's final film role ­ really. Shakur and James Belushi play a pair of dirty undercover cops whose scheme of selling the drugs they seize and framing the street gangs begins to unravel. ()

(M.B.)


GUANTANAMERA

D: Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio; with Mirta Ibarra, Carlos Cruz, Raul Eguron, Jorge Perugorria, Luis Garcia, Conchita Brando. (R, 102 min.)

This surprisingly graceful blend of romance, cynical political satire, magical realism, and Forties road-pic shenanigans is the last major work by Cuban director Alea, who recently died of cancer. First released in 1994, it has screened at the Sundance and Venice film festivals, winning awards at both. Tobio, who collaborated with the ailing Alea on his previous, and best-known, movie, Strawberry and Chocolate, is also listed as a co-director here. However, it's generally acknowledged that Guantanamera's dominant sensibilities are those of Alea, a onetime fire-breathing Marxist zealot whose work later developed a more jaundiced view of life under socialism. Guantanamera's plot starts (but quickly roams far astray from) the traditional ballad of the same name. Yoyita (Brando), a world-famous Cuban opera singer, returns to Havana, the city she left 50 years previously. At the first opportunity, she looks up old lover Candido (Eguron), but moments into their reunion, she drops dead in his arms. Now, she's out of Candido's hands and in those of a government funeral industry regulator named Adolfo (Cruz, who also starred in Strawberry and Chocolate). Adolfo uses Yoyita's cross-country trip back to her hometown cemetery as a test of his pea-brained scheme to distribute funeral transportation costs by requiring long processions to be handled by a relay team of hearses along the way, each handing off the coffin like a baton. Tagging along with Adolfo ­ a humorless, nattering twerp who bears a distinct resemblance to Daniel Ortega ­ are his wife, Georgina (Ibarra), Candido, and Tony (Garcia), a resourceful driver who makes side money in the country's robust black market. The disaster-fraught journey is Alea's platform for some telling satire about modern Cuban society, where gasoline for one's crappy Russian-made sedan is a coveted luxury and the national currency ranks third in desirability behind American greenbacks and bartered fruit. The most interesting of several plotlines is the one in which Georgina gradually recognizes her marriage for the losing proposition it is and drifts into a soul-revitalizing flirtation with Mariano (played with a naturalistically sexy flair by Perugorria), a suitor from her bygone days as a college professor. Singers and narrative voice-over fill in story details and keep the narrative clipping along briskly, and Alea adds some tantalizing mystery with spectral images of a young girl who turns out to have special meaning for Candido. The whimsical, Hollywood-perfect ending brings memorable closure to a (for the most part) sweet-natured film with agreeably tart undertones. (10/10/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)


THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR.

D: Brett Thompson; with Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Dolores Fuller, Conrad Brooks, Loretta King, Bela Lugosi, Bela Lugosi, Jr., Paul Marco, Lyle Talbot, Mona McKinnon. (Not Rated, 110 min.)

Here's more than you'd ever want to know about the late, not-all-that-great Ed Wood. Tim Burton's biopic a few years ago brought Wood's tragic Hollywood dreams before the masses in a major way, but few films have ever delved so deeply into the tortured psyche of Wood as this comprehensive look, which includes the full (though uncompleted) version of Wood's mythical first film Crossroads of Laredo. On top of that, you get dozens of interviews with the stars (and I use the term loosely) of Wood's five films (Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls), the good-hearted rubes who foolishly offered to finance his movies, and the people who surrounded him in his lifetime. For those out of the loop, Wood was a closet transvestite who fought out WWII in the horrifically bloody battle of Tawara Island in the Pacific theatre. After the war, Wood gravitated to Hollywood, where he commenced his career by making occasional advertisements for the relatively new medium of television (one of which is featured here ­ as you might suspect, it's hideous). Eventually Wood began writing and directing grade-Z horror films so devoid of cinematic style and talent that he's of late become revered as something of an auteur. As any connoisseur of bad filmmaking knows, there have been plenty of directors out there worse than Wood (Al Adamson comes to mind). But Wood, however meek his actual talents, had the lofty aspirations of an Orson Welles, and, indeed, frequently compared himself to that more promising director. In the end, Wood died a broken, alcoholic wreck of a man, and watching this documentary you have to wonder what he would have thought about all the hoopla that surrounds him these days. Thompson's movie includes various re-enactments of classic scenes in Wood's life, but the real coups here are the incredibly revealing interviews with Wood's stock players. Finnish-born Maila "Vampira" Nurmi comes off as the most lucid of the lot, offering choice bon mots and a witty, stylish take on Wood and 1950s Hollywood in general. Although a self-described recluse in her twilight years, Nurmi still sizzles onscreen, and it's easy to see why everyone from James Dean to Orson Welles himself shared their beds and their lives with her. Also of note is an interview with Reverend Doctor Lynn Lemon, a fundamentalist preacher who fondly recalls how Wood and his cast and crew (what there was of it) allowed themselves to be baptized by his ministry in an effort to secure funding for the Tor Johnson/Bela Lugosi vehicle Bride of the Monster. Only Lugosi, Jr. has unkind words for Wood, saying, in effect, that the director dragged his father's good name into the muck for the benefit of marketing. That's probably quite true, but as The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. clearly points out, Wood was obviously enamored of the aging horror star and gave the man a few more chances to keep working in a Hollywood that had virtually forgotten him. Clearly, that fate is beyond Wood himself, though; as awful as his output was, he's still packing them in decades after his death. (10/10/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)


INTIMATE RELATIONS

D: Philip Goodhew; with Julie Walters, Rupert Graves, Matthew Walker, Laura Sadler, Holly Aird, Les Dennis. (R, 100 min.)

Intimate Relations is a dark, depressingly off-kilter black comedy based on "a true story." In a small village outside of London in 1954, lodger Harold Guppy (Graves) has come to live in the Beasley household, a strict, prim, and altogether proper family unit lorded over by the dour and utterly practical Marjorie Beasley (Walters). While she attends to the daily chores of cleaning the dust from the banister, doing the laundry, and so on, her handicapped veteran husband Stanley putters down to the local pub and crawls inside a lager keg. The couple's young daughter Joyce (Sadler), a not-quite-yet sexually active nymphet, soon takes a liking to Guppy, a sad young man who is apparently the victim of a bizarre and unhappy childhood. Joyce isn't the only one, however, who finds the bewildered Guppy attractive. Mrs. Beasley also lets it be known that her home life lacks certain epicurian facets that she hungers for, and before you can say obsessive/compulsive, the good Mum has flung herself into the sack with the dodgy lodger. From here it grows, overtaking Joyce, Harold, and Marjorie until the lines between romance, lust, and madness blur in a violent, violet haze, and old Stanley totters drunkenly on the landing, oblivious to it all. Good old-fashioned English propriety gone off the deep end is what Goodhew is skewering here and he does it all with an accomplished, rapier wit. Vaguely reminiscent of some of David Lynch's more surreal works, Intimate Relations never quite steps full into the twilight zone of rampant imagination, though with its hyperreal colorings and retro-camp sets, the film stumbles perilously close. It works because it never quite oversteps these self-imposed boundaries. Do you laugh at this disintegrating family unit, cry, shriek, or what? It's a rhetorical question, really; you get out of it what you take in, and while some audience members may be fully shocked at what ultimately transpires, others may find it all uproarious. As one exiting audience member mentioned, "It's funny like Spanking the Monkey was" ­ jokes in the most skillful of hands. Goodhew's taboo-juggling is a minor miracle, as are the performances by Walters, Graves, and Sadler (who evokes the coquettish pout and leer of an earlier, less debauched Lolita). Taken as a comedy or nightmare (and in the end it's a nightmare, surely), it's still a powerful piece of work. Grim work, indeed, but powerful nonetheless. (10/10/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)


MOST WANTED

D: David Hogan; with Keenan Ivory Wayans, Jon Voight, Paul Sorvino, Jill Hennessey, Eric Roberts. (R, 99 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. It seems that Keenan Ivory Wayans wants to become more than just a talk-show host, he wants to add the words "action-adventure star" to his resumé and thus follows up his turn in Glimmer Man with this new thriller about a wronged covert soldier on the lam. ()

(M.B.)


ROCKETMAN

D: Stuart Gillard; with Harland Williams, Jessica Lundy, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Beau Bridges. (PG, 94 min.)

Oh Houston, we have a bit of a problem here. As far as kid-friendly, live-action Disney comedies go, RocketMan is "all systems go." In the first starring role of his career, "RocketMan" Harland Williams (Dumb and Dumber, Down Periscope) receives a spectacular launch. Not since the heyday of comics like Don Knotts and the Three Stooges has such a goofy bumbler been hurled into outer space. It's all solid mayhem-in-a space-capsule fun, but I'm betting that this type of humor plays better with the young kids than with their adult chaperones who harbor vivid memories of the actual mayhem that can be caused by a single faulty O-ring or the voluminous close calls that can be sustained by one mere Mir. It's hard to believe that NASA actually cooperated with the makers of RocketMan, given the film's unflattering portrait of the self-serving decision-making process at the space agency and the flawed chain of command. Granted, the film's events appear none too realistic, from its hasty decision to send the genius goofball Fred Randall (Williams) on the first human mission to Mars to the numerous laws of space and physics that are broken in the name of comedic license. Let's just say that there are no rocket scientists aboard this space shuttle. There is a live monkey, however, which is used to little comic or narrative advantage. There are also good supporting players: Jessica Lundy as the love interest and what passes for the mission's scientist (she trains the monkey to collect space rocks); the solid and versatile William Sadler, who plays the ship's commander; dependable character actor William DeMunn as the rotten apple of the ground command; and one of the hardest working men in show business, Beau Bridges, as the rock-steady brains and heart of the ground operation. But it's Harland Williams who stands to gain the most from this comic caper. The film provides a grand showcase for this comedian's rubber-faced contortions, talented mimicry, and doofus dalliances. Williams' goofy face is one we're certain to see much more of in the future. In regard to one of the newest measuring sticks for judging kids' comedies ­ the quality of the always-essential fart gags ­ RocketMan pushes the scale another few notches. Airtight and umbilically attached space suits provide an original set-up for RocketMan's flatulence humor. For those whose brain circuitry doesn't fire off immediate red flags against a mirth-on-a-space-mission comedy, RocketMan may offer up an hour and a half of fun. Fact-bound party poopers may want to abort. (10/10/97)

2.0 stars (M.B.)


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