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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

BELOVED

D: Jonathan Demme; with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberley Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall, Irma P. Hall. (R, 172 min.)

The funny thing about the present is how quickly and doggedly it becomes the past. The past is always nipping at our heels, chasing us into the future, and shadowing our present. And the present is little more than the total accumulation of the past merged with the unwritten potential of the future. The damned thing about the past, however, is how it can catch up to you in the present and bite you on the ass. For Sethe (Winfrey), the former slave in this film version of Toni Morrison's prize-winning novel Beloved, the past is "the tree on her back." It's a richly metaphoric image for the weight of her history and its tangled branches into her future; it's also the literal shape of the permanent scars lashed into her back by the wretched hand of slavery. Set mostly in 1873 in rural Ohio outside Cincinnati, Beloved is a story about how the cruelties of the past continue to impinge on the present, about how the ugly consequences of slavery do not vanish by presidential proclamation. It's storytelling at its most irresistible, a sinewy saga that seamlessly snakes the boundary lines separating ghost tale from family epic and historical drama from psychological subjectivism. At nearly three hours running time, the movie covers a lot of turf, though it infrequently ventures past the front gate of Sethe's home at 124 Bluestone Road. Flashbacks are essential to the way Beloved tells its story, explanatory snatches of the past are expertly insinuated into the narrative through deft editing maneuvers and subtly altered film stocks. Supernaturalistic flourishes reside side by side with naturalistic detail. Her house, says Sethe, "ain't evil, just sad." Bit by bit we learn proud, self-reliant Sethe's history: the details of the plantation-life horrors that drove her to commit a desperate act of violence and the joyous embrace of the future that her mother-in-law's sermons in the backwoods inspire. To tell too much here would pre-empt the pleasure of uncovering the story's mysteries on their own terms. Though rest assured that the mysteries are not all horrific explications of the twisted legacy of slavery but also include buoyant demonstrations of the transcendent powers of love. The performances of all the central and secondary characters match the passionate intensity of the film's behind-the-scenes collaborators: notably, director Jonathan Demme, DP Tak Fujimoto, production designer Kristi Zea, editors Carol Littleton and Andy Keir, composer Rachel Portman, vocalist Oumou Sangare, and writers Akousa Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. Winfrey enriches her well-documented lifetime of accomplishments with this strong, stripped-of-Oprahness performance that astutely dodges the traps of sentimentalism to create a character more hauntingly evocative. Glover, as far as I'm concerned, can do a dozen more Lethal Weapon movies if it means he'll pause every so often and do work as moving, intelligent, and ingratiating as Beloved's Paul D. As Sethe's daughter Dakota, Elise's assured, emotionally varied performance (she's the only character who undergoes any significant transformation in the story) promises that she is a newcomer from whom we'll be seeing much, much more over the coming years. And as the story's ghost girl Beloved, Newton seethes with a feral intensity that's an unsettling combination of frightening Exorcist child demon and endearing wild child mannerisms and naïveté. It's true that Beloved comes packaged with "Oscar" written all over it, and with such obvious pre-sells it's always wise to be cautious. Yet it's no understatement to call Beloved one of the best movies of the year.

4.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



WESTERN

D: Manuel Poirier; with Sergi Lopez, Sacha Bourdo, Elisabeth Vitali, Marie Matheron, Basile Sieouka. (Not Rated, 123 min.)

Poirier's film took home the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, which is as much an indication of the direction the festival is heading in as it is of the director's considerable talents. A tender, comic road movie that manages to cover only about seven miles of road, Western is set in and around Brittany on the French Atlantic coast. It's a starkly beautiful landscape, full of open fields and soaring azure skies, and it's here that we meet Poirier's two disparate protagonists, the Russian émigré Nino (Bourdo) and the Spanish traveling shoe salesman Paco. While on route to a delivery, Paco stops to pick up the hitchhiking Nino, and summarily has his Renault stolen by the diminutive, nappy-haired vagabond. Distraught, the handsome Spaniard flags down a passing car driven by Marinette (Vitali), a lovely Frenchwoman who offers to take him to the nearest police station to report the theft. Paco declines on the grounds that picking up hitchhikers could cost him his job, and ends up staying in Brittany and developing a romance with Marinette. Several days later, Paco spots Nino walking across the street from Marinette's flat, rushes over, and beats him within an inch of his life. Chagrined by his actions, Paco soon finds himself in Nino's hospital room offering apologies, and when Marinette shows him the door, the men take off on their own, intent on traveling the open road together. As in more traditional road movies, Paco and Nino pass the time trading philosophies, bickering, and generally developing a tenuous relationship, one that is continually tested by the fact that Paco is constantly surrounded by beautiful women wherever he goes, while his more hesitant companion can't seem to find a girl to save his life. Things come to head during a wedding party when a drunken Nino loudly berates the assembled women on the grounds that they're only interested in surface appearances. From here on in, the duo's mission is apparent: Get Nino laid, before he explodes. To that end they embark on several wild schemes, most of which go predictably and disastrously awry. Almost falling into the realm of the French sex farce as seen from a whole new angle, Western slides in and out of pathos, bouncing from pure comic moments to jarring, violent outbursts. As part of the new wave of French provincial filmmakers (Marius and Jeannette's Robert Guédiguian is another), Poirier takes the metropolitan concerns of modern-day France and transplants them to the countryside, an effort which focuses the comic elements while freeing characters to dawdle about without appearing to be in stasis. It helps, of course, that he's a wonderfully intuitive director, and also that both Lopez and Bourdo -- on whom the film hangs -- are equally excellent in their sad-sack neo-Laurel and Hardy roles. Many have already heralded Poirier as the cutting edge of the new French cinema, and while that may be overstating things a bit, it's worth noting that this is a road movie unlike any other you've yet seen.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



TOUCH OF EVIL

D: Orson Welles; with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Mercedes McCambridge, Zsa Zsa Gabor. (PG-13, 113 min.)

Forty years old and still as wonderfully vile as ever, this newly re-edited version (based on a recently unearthed 58-page memo from Welles himself) of the great director's masterpiece of bad juju is as close as we're ever going to get concerning what Welles actually had in mind. And what he had in mind was trouble, the dislocated, transient trouble-fear of nightmares and dreamscapes, in which the sane and rational are spun upside down and away while the outré and surreal take over and nothing makes much sense anymore. Loosely based on Whit Masterson's pulp novel Badge of Evil, the film follows honeymooning Mexican D.A. Mike Vargas (Heston) and his Anglo wife Susan (Leigh) as they run afoul of the hulking, amoral gringo cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) who is searching out the truth about a lurid double-homicide in a seedy, El Norte border town (certainly one of the strangest surprises for modern audiences is the fact that this run-down, barren helltown is actually Venice Beach, California, long before gentrification caught up and revitalized that beachfront community). After wrapping the film in 1957, Welles hightailed it down to Mexico to begin work on Don Quixote and left the editing of Touch of Evil to Universal. Bad idea. The studio ended up patching the film together as they saw fit, unable or unwilling to deal with the fact that what was supposed to be a solid little B-picture had, under Welles' firm hand, become a full-fledged art film, operating on so many different levels that the studio gang didn't know what to do with it. This new edit restores Welles' original vision -- beginning with the classic, three-minute opening tracking shot in which a bomb is surreptitiously placed in the trunk of a meandering sedan (gone is Henry Mancini's brassy, bongo-happy score, replaced as per Welles' instructions with ambient street sounds and chattering extras), and including the restoration of previously specified continuity edits that, while they may not make the film any easier to follow, definitely make it harder to forget. It's more or less universally agreed that Heston was miscast, and while his Latinified skin tone may be disagreeable -- even offensive -- to the modern eye, I'd argue that his staccato, vaguely Hispanic delivery adds yet another layer of the bizarre to an already freakish production. Likewise Welles, who donned a prosthetic nosepiece, padded out his already-blossoming girth (he was 43 at the time), and went through his lines as though with a mouthful of dead kittens -- his Hank Quinlan is an excruciating, sublime portrait of burning-from-the-inside decay, a hulking figure that smacks of the worst of the human id. It's not Welles' best film -- you know what that is -- but it may turn out to be his most important in the way it has influenced (and continues to influence) everything from the ongoing film noir resurgence to bad dreams everywhere. As fortune teller Tanya (Dietrich) tells Quinlan, "Your future's all used up" -- a line that would appear to fit Welles as succinctly as it does his character. That's a mistake, though: To judge from this re-edit, Welles' future is more vital than ever. (10/16/98)



FIRELIGHT

D: William Nicholson; with Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane, Kevin Anderson, Lia Williams, Dominique Belcourt, Joss Ackland. (R, 104 min.)

Despite the constant images of crackling fireplaces and guttering candelabra in this directorial debut from the screenwriter of Shadowlands, Firelight remains couched in darkness, not only of the literal sort, but also of the emotional. It's a grim, sweeping period romance, and though director of photography Nic Morris keeps things resolutely gorgeous (in a lachrymose sort of way), Nicholson's script is the sort of sub-Dickensian hokum that produces as many unintentional guffaws as it does watery eyes. As the film opens, it's 1838, and young Elisabeth (Marceau) enters into a secret agreement to bear an heir for wealthy British nobleman Sir Charles (Dillane), whose wife lies comatose in the wake of a tragic riding accident. Unaware of Sir Charles' identity, the penniless waif produces the child and is sent away, tuppence in hand. Seven years later, unable to bear the thought of the child she has given up, Elisabeth, looking none the worse for wear, finally manages to track down Sir Charles at his sheep-herding estate in East England. She re-enters Charles' life as the governess of his daughter Louisa (Belcourt), and though he is initially taken aback (his wife is still vegetating after all these years, and he has yet to take another lover), Elisabeth's calming influence on the incorrigible offspring gives him pause. At any rate, worse things are waiting, as they always seem to be in these sorts of retro-gothic affairs, and the care and feeding of one obstreperous brat eventually takes a back seat to more pressing affairs, like the various plot holes that yawn open from time to time and threaten to engulf and devour the whole sordid mess. Such points of interest as how Elisabeth managed to track down Louisa and Charles in the first place are entirely missing -- in one scene she's pining for her lost little girl and then literally in the next she's arriving at Charles' estate, valise in hand, like some pre-Victorian Mary Poppins. Other discrepancies abound, but to her credit Marceau's portrayal is so ravishingly tormented you may not notice the stumbles between the sobs. Likewise Dillane, who played a similarly tortured role in the recent Welcome to Sarajevo. The pair of them dredge up enough solid weepiness to make the Wuthering Heights lot look positively giddy, and taken with the aforementioned cinematography, the whole film comes off as one long Dead Can Dance video, minus the Middle Eastern trappings. In the end (and what a cheat of an ending it is!), it's all too far beyond the pinnacle of wretchedness to be taken seriously by anyone outside of Gothic Romance Novels 101.

2.0 stars

Marc Savlov



LOLITA

D: Adrian Lyne; with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella. (R, 137 min.)

It was probably inevitable that mainstream cinema's master titillator Adrian Lyne would eventually get around to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's corrosive comedy about a middle-aged man's obsessive passion for an adolescent nymphet. However, Lyne (whose sexually exploitative works include such popular box-office fare as Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal) has turned in a Lolita that is remarkably tame and tasteful. This is a Lolita for the English Lit crowd rather than the raincoat crowd. All of which only perpetuates the question of what all the fuss was about regarding this movie. Languishing for a year without any distribution offers, this expensive French-financed production was finally first shown a couple of months ago in the States on the Showtime television network. In an increasingly common strategy, this TV premiere is now being followed with a national theatrical release by Samuel Goldwyn Films. One doubts it was the movie's subject matter of pedophilia alone that scared distributors off. Call me jaded, but I think that if any of them smelled the possibility of return profits on this costly production, there would have been a line of distributors stretching across the Atlantic. Remarkably faithful to Nabokov's novel, Lyne's film (which was scripted by critic Stephen Schiff, a first-time screenwriter) stresses the all-consuming, self-destructive nature of the love Humbert Humbert (Irons) feels for the young Lolita (Swain, best known for her role as John Travolta's daughter in Face/Off), and even allows the audience to develop an uncomfortably sympathetic appreciation of his wretched predicament. The film starts wonderfully; the viewer is swept along by its sardonic, seductive tone. Yet the film bogs down after the first third as Humbert and Lolita travel the country locked in an ever more passive-aggressive emotional embrace. Lyne's direction at this point veers more toward his typical visual flamboyance with pumped-up angles and contrasts and editing. Irons, however, is a constant treat to watch as he here delineates yet another onscreen bad boy (he won on Oscar for his portrayal of Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune). Swain is good but presents no equal match for Irons' well-seasoned technique. Griffith is out of her league altogether as Lolita's love-hungry mom, and Langella bears the brunt of the film's misplaced Grand Guignol comedy as the story's pedophiliac Clare Quilty. Ennio Morricone's musical score lifts phrases outright from some of his previous work. And surely the scene of Lolita eating ice cream on the kitchen floor in front of the open refrigerator is an appropriation by Lyne of his own 9 1/2 Weeks. And that more than anything else may mark the problem with this Lolita: it adds little to the canon but recycles much.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



PRACTICAL MAGIC

D: Griffin Dunne; with Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn. (PG-13, 110 min.)

If you can swing it, the most appropriate way to see Practical Magic would be as part of an evening that also includes dinner at Olive Garden, a tour of Amado Peña's art gallery, and a few pages of the latest Clive Cussler before hitting the sack. The unifying theme, of course, is predictability -- a pervading sense of generic okayness that my Conspiracy Theory of Everything ascribes to the same benignly oppressive force behind the troubling identicality of Olive Garden breadsticks. Granted, bagging on a film as competently executed as Practical Magic may seem odd and mean-spirited given the flood tide of true crap that washes constantly through our local multiplexes. Still, it's just a little too ironic (to quote Okay Pop Singer Alanis Morrisette) that a movie with the word "magic" in its title should be such a perfect example of the difference between competence and inspiration. This adaptation of Alice Hoffman's bestselling novel deals with a modern-day witch family living in a tiny New England burg where their social lot has barely improved since the days of Cotton Mather. Due to a centuries-old curse, lasting love has never been in the tarot cards for the Owens women (their guys always die gruesome deaths). However, the latest nubile generation (Kidman and Bullock) is again bucking the curse, with horrific results for Kidman's Gillian but a faint ray of promise for Bullock's Sally. It's a story well told by pros who know what they're doing. Starting with the savvy casting of Bullock, Kidman, Wiest, and Channing as the wiccan family and continuing on through the sharply focused script by Hoffman and Robin Swicord to the soundtrack by an eclectic lineup of big-time estro-rockers, everything here clicks -- just not very loudly. Even as I was entertained minute to minute by Practical Magic's undeniable buoyancy, sexiness, and visual richness, I found it impossible not to resent the constant willingness to settle for serviceable, off-the-shelf MovieParts. Doing better wouldn't have required any Kubrickesque creative agonies. Maybe just a sharper eye out for lazy dialogue like "It's all about you, isn't it?". Or a less familiar signifier for family joie de vivre than conga-lining around the house to Seventies pop tunes. Or a little more effort by the normally resourceful Quinn to show why an all-world babe like Bullock would fall for his dim-bulb hick character. Granted, this film may be (okay, almost surely will be) a hit. It's too well-assembled in a Burger King Whopperish way for one to imagine otherwise. Yet it's equally hard to imagine that cinematic fast food like this was what the talented cast and crew had in mind as kids when their first bright, urgent movie dreams were born. My guess is that what they were really hoping for was something more like, I don't know . . . magic.

2.5 stars

Russell Smith



TASTE OF CHERRY

D: Abbas Kiarostami; with Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolhossein Bagheri, Afshin Bakhtiari, Ali Moradi, Hossein Noori, Ahmad Ansari. (Not Rated, 95 min.)

The prevailing critical sensibility is that the latest film, Taste of Cherry, by the master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is a "masterpiece." The film was the co-winner of the Palme d'Or top prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and has been lauded in countless reviews and has received placement on scores of influential critics' "best of the year" lists. That said, I have to report that I, personally, just don't get it. I intellectually understand what occurs in the movie; I just can't make the leap into calling it a humanistic treasure about life's big questions. Slow and monotonous, the film moves at a deliberate pace and culminates in a meta-fictional moment that is either infuriatingly trite or enigmatic. Austerely shot (rarely do each sequence's two characters appear in the same shot, reportedly because Kiarostami filmed each side of these conversations himself) and set in austere, bleak surroundings, Taste of Cherry's stark environment is appropriate to its existential pursuit of life-and-death questions. The film's central character, Mr. Badii (Ershadi), is a man who wants to die. He cruises the parched, desolate landscape in his Range Rover looking for an able-bodied man to shovel dirt on his grave after he's spent a night in the shallow hole with a bottle of pills. Most of the men he approaches with vague offers of an easy job opportunity are understandably wary of his motives. A young soldier from Kurdistan finally climbs in, but when Badii ultimately unfolds his suicide plan the serviceman literally runs for the hills. Next comes an Afghan seminarian who responds with a sermon about God's will. Finally, Badii picks up a Turkish taxidermist who agrees to the deed because he needs the money for his ill child. But first, he tells Badii a story about his own attempted suicide and instructs him to take a longer, more scenic route while sharing his insight about the redeeming power of nature and physical sensation. Exactly what we are to make of the men's successive increase in age or their different warring nationalities is obscure. Perhaps the same could be said for the unstated motives of Badii, who never explains or justifies what had led to his momentous decision (although 90 minutes in that bleak landscape might be enough to drive anyone to the final exit -- it's not insignificant that Badii's gravesite is next to the only tree on the horizon). No doubt this suicide contemplation is provocative stuff within the context of Iran's strict Islamic culture. Moreover, is Badii meant to be seen as a lucid existentialist or a self-absorbed obsessive? Why does he need to involve a second person in his solitary act of suicide, particularly to cover up his physical remains once they are no longer of earthly value? Multiple interpretations are possible and I guess that's part of what Taste of Cherry's supporters find so fascinating. The film's ambiguous ending has enough possible interpretations to fuel at least a dozen post-screening arguments. Others may just want to flee the scene and allow our enigmatic hero to go gentle into that good night. Life, as we all know, is not a bowl of cherries; it's a box of chocolates.

2.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten


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