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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 20, 1997: 



D: Jeff Fraley and Harry Lynch. (Not Rated, 60 min.)

Rodeo, the national sport of Texas, has its roots in the cowboy's daily tasks of cutting, roping, and horse-breaking, but no one is sure how its most popular event, bullriding, came to be. As one interviewee in this short but engrossing documentary observes, "Ridin' bulls wasn't part of a cowboy's job. It musta been that one day, one of 'em just said to another: 'Bet ah can stay on that bull longer'n you can.'" (Pause for female readers to formulate behavioral theories based upon male grey matter residing in non-cranial locales.) But regardless why they do it, one has to concede that it takes guts for a man to climb aboard an enraged 2,000-pound animal whose tennis ball-sized brain is fixed upon the mission of bucking him off and trampling him into redneck tartar. And when the filmmakers turn their cameras on their subjects (including former world champs Don Gay, Harry Tompkins, and Tuf Hedeman, and young studs Brian Herman and Ronny Kitchens), it becomes abundantly clear how unique these guys are. If you've never been to a rodeo before, the hair-raising bullriding footage will leave you ashen and gasping for breath. Even longtime fans will gain fresh insight from the slow-mo sequences showing the uncanny motor skills these cowboys draw upon in their eight-second wars with the rampaging beasts. Interviews with veteran riders, all of whom clearly regard themselves as the reigning mack daddies of the sport, eventually yield the insight that bullriders are more than just the suicidal adrenaline junkies they first appear to be. Few people can be content in life without facing and overcoming their own fears, and every time out of the chute, a bullrider confronts the ultimate fear. Poignant interviews with the family of Austin champion bullrider Brent Thurman, who was killed by a bull in 1994, sensitively reinforce -- even if they don't fully explain -- the cowboy's no-regrets philosophy. But this film doesn't obsess on the sport's dangers or over-intellectualize its visceral thrills. Mostly, it's content to vividly frame the explosive energy of its subject matter with an efficient, no-frills presentation. In its final third, it reports on the cowboys' canny move to capitalize more upon their short, risky careers by creating a pro tour and megabucks tourneys replete with Vegas trappings and six-figure purses. In its unpretentious way, this is a splendid piece of sociological reporting by Austin filmmakers Fraley and Lynch, providing insights into not only human psychology but modern capitalism and pop culture as well. And, not least, it introduces viewers to the first bovine superstar of the Nineties: Bodacious, the baddest, most charismatic rodeo bull on the planet. At one point during Chasing the Dream, a publicist vows that Big Bo's glowering visage will soon greet every Web surfer and TV viewer in the land. Catch him now while he's hot. (10/17/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)


New Review


D: Robert Greenwald; with Russell Crowe, Salma Hayek. (R, 89 min.)

When you're in love, when you're really in love, head over heels deep into that slick red vein, there is nobody else around -- just you and her/him. Lovers exist in a protective bubble that renders them oblivious to the mundane goings-on that surround them. The same holds true for the dog end of relationships, those interpersonal implosions when all you want to do is go bang, but end up hitting your head against the same kitchen cabinets over and over and over. Greenwald's closed, two-character study of a relationship plummeting earthward is dead on target; you can hear the wind whistling between Steve (Crowe) and Monica (Hayek), and you know it's icy cold, though not from any absence of sparks. Michael Cristofer's screen adaptation of his stage play provides a darkly humorous glimpse into a place to which we've all -- however reluctantly -- been. The film is rich in both comic asides and scathing, emotional fisticuffs. Photographer Steve is a shallow semi-goon, pointedly unaware of how rewarding the two-year-long relationship with his schoolteacher better half is. He's looking at all the odd angles and seeing none of them, while Monica, for her part, is running smack dab into a brick wall every time she tries to sit down and talk about things with her beau. Cristofer has laced his script with so many scenes adapted from what must have been real-life breakups that watching the film gets to be, at times, a virtual tour of one's past. You may find yourself sitting there associating just a little too closely with various scenes and situations, and, depending on your current romantic compass, this can dramatically affect how you feel about Breaking Up as a whole. Crowe and Hayek are perfectly matched, though, there's no doubt about that. Her Latin fire and his flippant indifference to the obvious suggest a pairing that should have gone supernova some time ago. Crowe's performance here is much more subtle (and precarious) than his turn in L.A. Confidential; any more vacuously smarmy and he'd be teetering on the brink of John Cleese. In an effort to open up the inherent staginess of the material, director Greenwald employs any number of cinematic tricks to keep things from becoming too static -- freeze frames, Hi-8 videography, and bracketing asides to the audience all come into play. To what extent you can tolerate these unconventional tactics may depend on how traditional a filmgoer you are. Nevertheless, Breaking Up is powerful, catty stuff; it's as close to the real thing -- the humor and the horror -- as I'd like to get for some time. (10/17/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)



D: Taylor Hackford; with Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Craig T. Nelson. (R, 138 min.)

The Lawyer Joke, taken to its obvious conclusion... and at almost two-and-a-half hours it's a hell of a running gag. The Devil's Advocate is such a bloated, gargantuan, and ultimately tasteless juggernaut of a film that it manages to achieve a righteously cheesy splendor; rarely do we actually encounter such a brazen example of the "so bad it's good" genre of filmmaking. By the penultimate scene (extremely satisfying though it may be), director Hackford has pulled out all of the stops far past their legal limits, and it's all you can do not to cackle. Now that's entertainment. Reeves is once again saddled with an unwieldy accent (Southern) and a shocking inability to act (genetic) in his role as Kevin Lomax, a hotshot prosecuting attorney from Gainesville, Florida, who accepts an offer from a shady New York law firm whose chief is played by Al Pacino. Although this obvious step up fails to elicit any hallelujahs from his Bible-thumping, chicken-picking mother (Ivey), Kevin's perky, eager-to-breed wife Mary Ann (Theron) takes to New York like a mallard to Central Park, at least initially. As her husband's new caseload increasingly grows morally abstruse, and his hours at the firm lengthen until he's hardly home at all -- and what a gorgeous home it is -- she finds herself sinking into a pit of loneliness and despair, unable to connect with her new, firm-associated girlfriends and unwilling to return to Florida without her better half in tow. For his part, Kevin might as well be wearing blinders -- this new outfit positively drips evil and you can hear the patter of concentrated nastiness that accompanies every triumphal courtroom win or rises every time a lustful harlot-cum-secretary eyes Kevin's innocent Southern mug. It's Pacino's game all the way, though, and as firm head John Milton (!), he allows the ghastly, reptilian charm to flow like a river wild. Never has Pacino been so gleefully out-of-control. He holds absolutely nothing back here, relishing every wicked line and lustily sucking the marrow out of every scene. It may be the wittiest depiction of the Father of Lies I've ever seen. Hackford inexpertly allows the film to drag until midway through, and then it suddenly begins firing on all cylinders amidst a river of gore and frightful shenanigans. Until that point, he seems to be striving mightily to emulate the more sublime, sustained suspense of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, but he misses the mark again and again; Devil's Advocate is not a subtle beast by any stretch of the imagination. But when the film suddenly, unexpectedly kicks into high gear about midway through, it does so with crazed abandon, and Pacino's preening zest for his craft is a wonder to behold. It reaches up and out of the silly film it is confined within and grabs you and shakes you mercilessly, like a rag doll. Not since Scarface has the actor so clearly thrown himself, body and soul (or lack thereof), into a role. He's enjoying himself tremendously, and it shows. Devil's Advocate is a theological shipwreck of a film, ham-fisted and boorish at its best, but seeing Pacino leer and caper and set the holy water aboil in its fount is almost worth the price of Keanu. Almost. (10/17/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Richard Spence; with Steven Mackintosh, Rupert Graves, Miriam Margolyes, Saskia Reeves, Charlotte Coleman, Neil Dudgeon. (Not Rated, 101 min.)

Boys will be boys, unless sometimes they are girls. That's what Paul Prentice (Graves) discovers when a fender-bender reunites him with one of his old schoolmates, a woman named Kim Foyle who, 16 years ago, was a boy named Karl. A flashback to their school years shows the effeminate Karl naked in the shower room as he's being victimized by gay-bashing bullies and is subsequently rescued by tough kid Paul. Paul recognizes instantly who Kim is and becomes increasingly obsessed with getting to know this post-operative transsexual better, even though Kim is wary of his overtures. Kim, more than anything now, wants to quietly fit in. Her conservative attire exaggerates her still mannish appearance, causing casual passersby to assume that she's a transvestite rather than an "anatomically correct" female. From the title on down, we're led to believe that Different for Girls is a story in which Kim and her journey is the central focus. But it turns out that the movie's real focus of interest is Paul and his conflicted relationship with Kim, even though the film does not always seem quite aware that this is the case -- which, consequently, leads to a lot of unfocused storytelling and narrative cul-de-sacs. Paul is attracted to Kim but reluctant to admit it and the same clearly held true in regard to his feelings for Karl. He alternates between tentative courtship and rude rejection. He seems bothered by the idea that Kim might be gay; he seems equally bothered by the thought that she might be straight. Kim, for her part, also seems attracted to Paul, though there is nothing to explain why these two temperamental opposites attract. Then, midway through, the scattered focus of Different for Girls becomes sidetracked by two narrative tangents: a development in Kim's sister's marriage that's meant to parallel the main drama, and a court case that's the tangled result of Kim and Paul's emotional sparring. Outstanding performances help this provocative British drama seem to tally up to something that is greater than its individual parts. But parts alone do not a solid movie make. (10/17/97)

2.0 stars (M.B.)



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

It's true: First impressions are often misleading. Starting with its title, the first 15 minutes or so of Gang Related walks and talks like just another genre piece, with its attention to female flesh, frequent use of the f-word, and lowlife story angle. But then, it defies the lowered expectations it has purposely established and develops into a cleverly plotted morality tale of sorts. The initial scenes are inauspicious enough: Two off-duty police detectives, using evidence seized in one of their cases, sell drugs to an unsuspecting dealer in a motel room and then kill him minutes later with a gun confiscated in the line of duty. Their oft-repeated scam comes to a halt, however, when it turns out that the recently deceased was an undercover DEA agent. This unfortunate development puts pressure on the two cops (who are, ironically enough, investigating the murder they committed) to find the killer quickly, before the high-profile investigation is assigned to someone else. What transpires from this point is both comical and tragic -- the more these two guys try to extricate themselves from their messy situation, the deeper the hole in which they find themselves becomes. And as things unravel, so do they. Director-screenwriter Kouf does a serviceable job behind the camera, but it's his screenplay for Gang Related that makes this movie interesting. His use of coincidence as a narrative device, while arguably contrived, plays believably, particularly when coupled with the two principals' streak of bad luck, which some might view as karmic. Only in one scene, in which the vagrant who is framed by the detectives (Quaid, who is unrecognizable for most of the film) explains to his cellmate how he came to fall from grace, does Kouf noticeably deviate from the film's tone. Although Belushi's scruffy charm has its moments, it's the late Shakur's performance as the conscience-stricken half of the duo that draws the most attention. There's a gravity to his performance that is totally unexpected, a surprise that -- given the circumstances -- is as sad as it is welcome. (10/17/97)

3.0 stars (S.D.)

Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


D: Jim Gillespie; with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Johnny Galecki, Bridgette Wilson, Anne Heche, Muse Watson. (R, 100 min.)

So Scream wasn't a fluke. Who'da thunk it? That film's screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, returns with yet another gory teen-trauma tale that both looks and feels ripped (sticky eviscera and all) from that much-beloved splatter movie boom of the early and mid Eighties. Taking its cue from such stalk 'n' slash low-budgeters as Happy Birthday to Me and Prom Night, I Know What You Did Last Summer slickly resurrects so many of the hallowed trappings of those films that it might as well be a long-lost cousin. Adapted from the Lois Duncan novel, the story revolves around a quartet of teens who one night find themselves on the running end of a deadly hit and run. While Julie (Hewitt) wants to call the police and report the accident immediately, the boorish, drunken jock Barry (Phillippe) convinces her and the other two passengers Helen (Gellar) and Ray (Prinze, Jr.) to dump the body in the nearby Atlantic. Barry's reasoning -- foggy at best -- is that the cops will smell the liquor reek all over the car and assume he was the one driving, thus sending him to jail and nixing his All-Star-Team dreams. Right. Cut to "one year later." All four of the friends have gone their separate ways, and all of them are shadowed by the dark cloud of guilt, when Julie receives an anonymous note bearing the titular inscription. Before long, the four are being viciously stalked by a guy who looks like the Gorton's Fisherman From Hell, which prompts the question: Is that a fish stick in your hand or are you just happy to kill me? From here, I Know What You Did Last Summer proceeds along a fairly predictable track, with minor and major characters alike turning up dead, deader, and deadest at every available opportunity. Heche makes a goofy yet disturbing cameo of sorts as a white-trash swamp mama, but this is not nearly as comically self-referential a piece of work as Williamson's Scream. Which isn't to say it's not scary as a sack full of Jesse Helms' nipples. It is. More so, even. Gillespie knows how to tighten the screws until it's all you can do to keep from gagging on the adrenaline. Rarely have I seen an audience do the old "leap 'n' shriek" so many times during the course of a single film. In unison, no less. Most of the splatter movies I remember -- even the ones I liked -- ended up looking stupid and mildly degrading once I breached puberty. I Know What You Did Last Summer is neither, and despite an inordinately complicated third-act resolution, it's head-and-shoulders above most so-called suspense films out there today. (10/17/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: David Hogan; with Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jill Hennessy, Jon Voight, Robert Culp, Paul Sorvino. (R, 99 min.)

Most Wanted has the feel -- and I mean this as a compliment -- of having been written by a committee of 12-year-old boys. Writer and star Wayans is clearly a stone devotee of the school of action-espionage cinema characterized by rogue spy agencies, enigmatically code-named conspiracies, exotic weaponry, and jumpsuit-intensive haberdashery. Blessedly, though, his appreciation seems to focus on the superficial, relatively innocent pleasures of derring-do, cool stunts, and convoluted narrative, not the humorless macho-gothic sensibilities of most recent Seagal and Van Damme vehicles. Wayans plays James Dunn, a Marine sharpshooter who gets recruited for an officially unsanctioned rub-out of a chemical weapons dealer. The hit, staged at a ceremony attended by the President's wife, goes awry when the First Lady is accidentally (?) killed instead. Dunn quickly learns that he's been set up as the patsy as part of a plot to suppress a scandal involving medical experiments on American soldiers. While on the lam, Dunn teams up with a doctor (Hennessy) whose videotape of the crime scene could help exonerate him. Director Hogan, who also made last year's campily enjoyable Pamela Anderson Lee hoot, Barb Wire, demonstrates a surprising flair for the kinetic language of action moviemaking. Though this is by no stretch another A Bullet in the Head, fans of John Woo should at least salute Hogan's ability to create excitement with creative blocking and camera positioning, not gimmicky editing, as well as his flair for turning patently ridiculous concepts into moments of visual grandeur. But Wayans is the meal ticket here. With his buff physique, irreverent wit, and mechanical omnicompetence (in just over 90 minutes he displays mastery of electronics, riflery, martial arts, WestLaw database searches, and parachuting), he's every pubescent male's dream alter ego. Equally nifty is his script, basically a fan-designed action-movie theme park, in which enjoyably cartoonish characters are put through their paces for an audience that's let in on the joke from the get-go. Voight, who seems to have been liberated as an actor by the loss of his cherubic good looks, has a gleeful romp as the creepy Army general who's framing Dunn. Sorvino, as a morally ambiguous CIA official (as if there were any other kind) adds sly, understated counterpart to the testosterone-steeped madness churning around him. At the risk of clogging the Chronicle's server with hate e-mail from outraged actionoids, I'll argue that the modern action movie has lapsed into a persistent vegetative state and that its best hope for revival (barring the unlikely prospect of a massive transfusion of originality) is the approach taken by Most Wanted: playing it light, ironic, and basically for laughs. (10/17/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Andy Wilson; with David Duchovny, Timothy Hutton, Angelina Jolie, Michael Massee, Peter Stormare, Andrew Tiernan. (R, 93 min.)

In the preposterously scripted yet defiantly engaging Playing God, actor David Duchovny gives us the story of Dr. Eugene Sands, a man suffering from a desperately bad case of "physician, heal thyself." Eugene is a doctor who, as we first meet up with him, has already lost his license due to his pesky drug addictions. And this is the heart of his problem: He can't decide which he loves more -- being a doctor or being a junkie. It doesn't help that it seems as though every time he turns around another life crumbles at his feet waiting to be healed. He has this uncanny propensity for standing next to people who are about to be splayed open by gunshots. So what's an ethical doctor to do, even if it just so happens that the shooting victim is inconveniently bleeding to death in the shady bar where Eugene has just copped his drugs? It also doesn't help that this doctorly act brings Eugene to the attention of underworld kingpin Raymond Blossom (Hutton) and his seductive girlfriend Claire (Jolie). These two want Eugene to play doctor to their injury-prone accomplices who would rather avoid the troubling paperwork involved in a hospital's treatment of a gunshot wound. So, for a time at least, the junkie doctor is able to have his cake and eat it too. Silly and unbelievable, the pleasures of Playing God are all surface-level aspects. Timothy Hutton delves into the malevolent Blossom with delicious abandon, sustaining the character's off-kilter blend of being both an appealing master of destiny and trip-wire mad dog. Hutton's colorful flourish contrasts with Duchovny's laid-back self-mocking tone, and together their styles create an interesting interplay. Andy Wilson's feature directorial debut (following his award-winning work as director of the British TV series Cracker) is pock-marked with every visual toy on a studio control board. Jazzy wipes between scenes, druggy camera shots even for scenes in which no one is high, balletic gunplay, and much more erupt from the screen. Yet, what's in between is shot in a fairly routine and unimaginative manner that additionally squanders many rich opportunities while never missing an opportunity to focus provocatively on Angelina Jolie's full, lush lips. The script by Mark Haskell Smith offers little help -- it piles on such stock characters as clueless FBI dorks and single-minded Russian mobsters to an already tenuous storyline. Granted, it's hard to figure out at this point who's responsible for what since the film has been tinkered with since completion and its opening date pushed back several times. Eugene's voiceovers that dot the movie are probably one of the results of that process. Playing God demonstrates why it's a job best left to a pro. (10/17/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside


D: Kim Henkel; with Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Jacks, Tonie Perenski, Lisa Newmeyer, Joe Stevens, John Harrison, Tyler Cone. (R, 86 min.)

Once upon a time (back in 1995), this movie was titled The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it starred a couple of "unknown" actors named Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. The Austin-lensed film played a few festival dates (SXSW among them) and it was eventually picked up for distribution but then... well, it's a blurry story of delays and complications, which over the years have become so tangled that chainsaws themselves could not cut a clear swath through the overgrowth. Yet, somehow, after all this time, the film is finally playing in limited release (about 20 cities), albeit with a new title, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and some retooling that has trimmed some 15 minutes off the original running time. As it stands now, the film is a knowing horror picture that builds on our knowledge of the three Chainsaw predecessors but also keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek at all times. Writer-director Kim Henkel penned the original Chainsaw and this effort shows that he still has a felicitous grasp of the things that cause us to shudder in dread. There are also most of the familiar conventions of the horror film: prom night, meat hooks, and of course, chainsaws. But this time out we also discover that Leatherface (Jacks) is a sensitive cross-dresser, that his tightly wound brother Vilmer (McConaughey) is the real threat in the family, and that the backwoods clan is in some kind of dastardly cahoots with respectable-seeming businessmen. The performances here are uniformly fun, from the over-the-top Vilmer and his mechanical leg contraption that jerks his unwilling limb in uncontrollable Dr. Strangelove-like motions, to Vilmer's exhibitionist girlfriend Darla (Perenski) who lends a comedic air to all she does, to the determined pluck of prom-night heroine Jenny (Zellweger), to the plaintive demeanor of the beskirted Leatherface. Events are a bit choppy throughout the picture and it's hard to imagine that such continuity lapses are the sole fault of the low budget and pre-release trim. (One of the things excised was an entire sequence that depicted Jenny's home life and demonstrated that family dysfunction crosses many thresholds.) Bits and pieces of the story will, on occasion, leave you scratching your head but it, nevertheless, moves rapidly enough to keep you scurrying to keep pace with the new business at hand. The film is also fueled by an all-Austin music soundtrack. Even though The Next Generation moniker makes the film sound like it ought to be a Star Trek sequel, there's no mistaking this film's lineage. (10/17/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)


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