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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 27, 1997: 



D: Andrew Niccol; with Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Blair Underwood, Tony Shalhoub. (PG-13, 108 min.)

A striking debut from British director Niccol, Gattaca posits a not-too-distant future in which, thanks to the wonders of modern science, a person's genetic makeup is determined before birth. No diseases, no lazy eyes, no mediocrity, just faster, stronger, smarter all across the board -- except for the unlucky few whose parents choose to have them via natural births. These unfortunates are the "In-valids" and their lot in this brave new world is to act as the new underclass forced to roam from dead-end job to dead-end job, picking up the refuse left behind by their more perfect brethren. Vincent Freeman (Hawke) is one such person. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a space traveler and taking one of the daily Gattaca Corporation rockets to another world, but due to a congenital heart defect, it's a dream he will likely never achieve. Still, Vincent works, exercises, and studies day in and day out, and then one day he sees his opportunity in the form of Jerome Morrow (Law), an Olympic swimmer and almost-perfect specimen who's had to forego his career due to a broken back. Jerome and Vincent trade identities, causing Jerome to contribute the necessary daily samples of his self (hair, urine, dead skin particles, fingernail clippings) to help Vincent pass the rigorous testing. And it all goes swimmingly until Vincent's boss, the Gattaca flight director, is murdered and the police descend, searching for answers in literally every corner. Led by Detective Hugo (Arkin) and the mysterious Investigator (Dean), the team even searches the dust and discovers Vincent's eyelash, which places both him and Jerome in jeopardy. As if that weren't enough, Vincent finds himself falling in love with Irene (Thurman), another Gattaca employee, albeit one with a less-than-perfect constitution. Niccol's futuristic fable is a gorgeous construct, from its cast on down to the brilliant, clinical nature of the set design that reflects a future in which even a particle of saliva can be one's undoing. The world of the future is a sleek, quietly humming, extremely well-lubricated machine, full of electric cars and black suits with white shirts. Everything is painfully well-ordered. For once, Thurman's chilly visage serves her well: She's the female future perfect, all trim lines and pursed lips. Hawke is likewise well-cast, parlaying his all-American looks to good, "normal" advantage in a world where the term is an anachronism. It's Jude Law, as the handicapped, bitter Jerome, however, who represents the heart and (broken) backbone of Gattaca. He's the damaged proof that the system does not work, and as such he's Vincent's only hope, and only real friend. For all its genre-hopping (science fiction, mystery, love story, socio-political exploration), Gattaca never gets away from itself; it's firmly rooted in Hawke's masterful humanity, making this less a sci-fi epic than a simple (and simply wonderful) lesson in humanity and the direction in which one hopes it's not heading. (10/24/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

New Review


D: Wim Wenders; with Bill Pullman, Andie MacDowell, Gabriel Byrne, Loren Dean, Traci Lind, Daniel Benzali, K. Todd Freeman, John Diehl, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rosalind Chao, Frederic Forrest, Henry Silva, Udo Kier, Samuel Fuller. (R, 122 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. German film auteur Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas) creates a dramatic meditation on the intersecting effects of violence on various people's lives, one of whom is a successful Hollywood producer of action blockbusters. Set in contemporary L.A., the film also features director Sam Fuller in a small role and a music score by Ry Cooder. (10/24/97)



D: Charles Sturridge; with Peter O'Toole, Harvey Keitel, Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl, Paul McGann. (PG, 99 min.)

In 1917, two English girls named Elsie Wright (Hoath) and Frances Griffiths (Earl) disappeared into a garden with a Midg lightweight camera borrowed from Elsie's dad. They returned with pictures that brought the spiritualist craze of the early century, mostly dormant throughout World War I, back to a full, roaring boil. In these snapshots, the little girls posed with a capering, prancing group of tiny creatures they blithely identified as their fairy companions. Photo experts checked in vain for evidence of fakery. Soon, a hoard of Fleet Street journalists, gawkers with butterfly nets, and celebrities -- including Harry Houdini (Keitel) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (O'Toole) -- descended upon the country house to be close to the story that, as Doyle noted, bid fair to change our oldest assumptions about existence. Though hints of fakery later surfaced, the incident still poignantly illustrates humanity's yearning for transcendent mysteries and spiritual sustenance richer than the tepid corned beef hash of daily reality. Sturridge (Where Angels Fear to Tread, NBC's Gulliver's Travels) has to walk a fine line with this subject matter. To play up the hoax angle is to commit the cardinal kiddie-movie sin: failure to "believe in magic." Yet to ignore the element of doubt altogether is to deprive adults of the compelling dramatic conflict between Doyle's eloquent argument that reality doesn't stop at the boundaries of our five senses and the truth-shall-set-you-free philosophy espoused by Houdini. Although Ernie Contreras' intelligent script and the strong acting (especially by O'Toole, who pours all his vaunted passion and lucidity into the role of Doyle) saves Fairytale from the dreaded "interesting in a boring way" designation, I wouldn't call it essential viewing for anyone. Not for children, who'll love the enchantingly rendered fairies in their brief appearances but be bored by the endlessly ruminating adult characters. And probably not for grownups either; the history of spiritualism, theosophy, and the real-life encounters between Doyle and Houdini could be grist for several movies, but due to commercial and thematic constraints, Sturridge can only deal with them in passing. Still, there's a laudable blend of smartness, originality, and charm here. My hair-trigger schmaltz alarms lay mostly dormant. And the talented young Hoath's piercing, almost disturbingly wise gaze already shows more depth than that of ballyhooed actresses twice her age. If there's a precocious kid like her in your life, she might represent the ideal audience for Fairytale. Otherwise, go for the slam-dunk and rent Peter Pan, a timeless children's classic with enough adult resonance to have a major emotional disorder named in its honor. (10/24/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)


D: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; with Shaghayegh Djodat, Hossein Moharami, Roghieh Moharami. (R, 73 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. This Iranian film is a poetic fable about the remote and nomadic Ghashghai tribe whose members weave carpets called gabbeh, which have intricate patterns that serve as a record of their history and family stories. Makhmalbah is a political and often controversial filmmaker, but Gabbeh finds him in a more fanciful and contemplative mood. The film was originally intended to be an anthropologically inclined documentary but the subject matter began to take on a life and story of its own as the mystical power of art and the grandeur of nature worked their magic. (10/24/97)



D: Mark Pellington; with Jeremy Davies, Ben Affleck, Amy Locane, Rose McGowan, Rachel Weisz, Jill Clayburgh, Lesley Ann Warren. (R, 103 min.)

A period piece set in 1954, Going All the Way captures the growing pains and the unlikely friendship that's formed between two young men who have returned to their hometown of Indianapolis following their military service in the Korean War. Dan Wakefield adapted the screenplay from his popular 1970 novel, which Kurt Vonnegut once declared to be "the Midwestern Catcher in the Rye." Gunner (Affleck) is handsome, athletic, self-assured, and a magnet for the opposite sex, yet ever since his return home murky artistic longings interfere with his docile appreciation of his carefree good life. In the nerdy, anxiety-prone Sonny (Davies), Gunner sees a kindred soul, an artistic type (he's an aspiring photographer) who's also searching for answers to life's big questions. Short of finding the answers, sex (and lots of it) will do in the meantime. Curiously, in uptight Fifties Middle America, this appears to be no problem. Women in Going All the Way are all generally predatory and available, targeting marriage but settling for sex. Sonny has a regular thing going on with his neighbor Buddy (Locane), a girl who's always there and eager to accommodate (and wed) but remains terminally uninspiring to Sonny. Instead, Sonny's lustful fantasies are directed toward Gail (McGowan), the best friend of aspiring artist Marty (Weisz), whom Gunner picks up one day in a museum. Gunner's impediments along true love's path are the inappropriate libidinous/incestuous gestures by his mom (Warren) and her rabid anti-Semitism (Marty is Jewish). Sonny's mom, on the other hand, is a Bible-thumping nag (Clayburgh), who is systematically photographed in extremely unflattering, wide-angle shots that leave little question regarding the movie's opinion of her. It's typical of the pumped-up, expressionistic visual style of filmmaker Mark Pellington, an award-winning mainstay of MTV and the world of music video who here makes his feature film debut. The sensitive story about two questing young men is typically overridden by scenes of spinning drunken excess or the shrill pitch of marriage-mad women. A sense of inauthenticity permeates the entire project, even down to the carefully decorated period production design that never quite shakes free of that unmistakable pre-fab, movie-set look (although it must be noted that the jurors at Sundance had quite a different assessment and cited Going All the Way production designer Therese DePrez for special achievement). Davies (Spanking the Monkey) and Affleck (Chasing Amy, Dazed and Confused) are affecting and engaging as the callow young men on the verge of independent adulthood. One wishes that we had seen more of their personal drama instead of Going All the Way's myopic male gauntlet of shrews and Jews. (10/24/97)

1.5 stars (M.B.)


D: Mark Waters; with Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Tori Spelling, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Genevieve Bujold, Rachael Leigh Cook, David Love. (R, 93 min.)

Just say no. Staged and stagy, this adaptation of Wendy MacLeod's play about family dysfunction and the "anti-Camelot" is a muddled, middling mess, despite a witty, top-drawer performance from Posey and a surprisingly comic turn from Spelling. It's 1983, and Marty Pascal (Hamilton) is returning home to his family's D.C. estate with his fiancée Lesly (Spelling) in tow. Some time earlier, Marty managed to sever the ties that bind and broke free from a smothering home life that included madness, incest, and murder. The family that rots together, however, stays together, and Mrs. Pascal (Bujold), brother Anthony (Prinze, Jr.), and libidinous sister Jackie-O (Posey) have resisted the urge to grow up and get out; they're still as creepy as ever. The defining moment in the Pascal clan history, apparently, came on November 22, 1963, when both their literal father and their mythic father (JFK) were erased from the map, but not from their consciousness. Since then, Jackie-O (decked out in the flowing strands of pearls and pink pillbox hat of her namesake) has been in and out of institutions, Anthony has lost any and all conception of just what the hell he's doing, and Mrs. Pascal has let it all come crumbling down around her, preferring to allow the tidal eddies of incipient insanity to swirl over her and her brood in the hope that life will continue "as normal." Only Marty has emerged (marginally) unscathed, clinging to his bourgeois fiancée like a drowning man to a life preserver. Bringing Lesly into close contact with his possibly homicidal sister isn't the wisest of prenuptial career moves, granted, but really, who would expect violent acts from a maniacal First Lady impersonator with a gun on an ancestral estate on a storm-tossed evening? C'mon. Despite its having garnered a fair amount of praise and a quick purchase at Sundance this year, Waters' film is a disjointed, eerie mess (and not in a good way, either). Posey shines, as always; her Jackie-O is a quavering, terrified, lovestruck lunatic, unwilling and unable to play by the rules of the real world and armed with a gun. The rest of the cast, too, is excellent, it's just that there's really not all that much for them to do. It's as though the filmmakers had rounded up some of the best lights in independent cinema and then filmed them writing thank-you notes. Despite the film's faux aura of significant underlying themes and deeper meaning, it's all for naught, full of sound and fury and loose sexual mores signifying zip, and as such, it's difficult to feel much of anything for this fractured family tale. (10/24/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)


D: Arthur Dong. (Not Rated, 79 min.)

Higher on the moral hierarchy than a passion to see evil avenged, higher even than a mindless reflex to forgive, is the desire to understand evil's root causes. Case in point: Filmmaker Arthur Dong (Coming Out Under Fire), a onetime victim of gay-bashing whose rigorously unsentimental documentary gives seven murderers of homosexual men a chance to explain, as best they can, why they did it. The almost clinical restraint of Dong's Sundance and Berlin Film Festival award-winner only enhances its staggering emotional impact. These men are, in one sense, textbook archetypes. Their overt excuses range from panic over alleged advances by the victim to repressed homosexual feelings, childhood abuse, impersonal thuggery directed at effeminate "punks," and amorphous paranoia about "the homosexual movement." Dong doesn't pretend to find any profound significance in these familiar rationales, or in the hate-drenched cant of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, seen with like-minded televangelists in TV clips. The real revelations come via the naked simplicity of talking-head speeches by the killers, prompted by only minimal questioning from Dong. By giving his subjects total license to speak their minds, and by sustaining takes long beyond a rhythm that would accommodate glib sound bites, the director forces them toward real soul-searching. You can see the unease, pain, and confusion on these men's faces as they carry on what amounts to audible internal dialogues, trying to make sense of their own tortured reasoning as it feeds back to them in an extended loop. Though each interview is accompanied by victims' portraits and gruesome police photos of the murder scenes, there are no overt attempts to jerk at our heartstrings. No interviews with tearful lovers or families, no fist-shaking rhetoric by gay/lesbian spokespersons. Grasping the reality of "outrage fatigue," Dong instead forces us to painfully engage with the undeniable humanity of his vile subjects. The point is not to make banal, intellectually bogus assertions that evil is in all of us, we're unfit to judge these men, blah, blah, blah. Rather, I think Dong is proposing that most hate-motivated behavior (not just gay-bashing) is the result of deep-seated emotional anguish, often of a non-specific nature, finding an object in some external phenomenon made fearsome by our inability to understand it. "I was just takin' out aggression and hatred on whoever was there," one murderer confesses under Dong's low-key probing. With no ambivalence, I wish that the Christian conception of hell were literally true so each of these lowlifes could suffer an eternity of intolerable pain, consigned to their fates by the god several of them bizarrely cite as inspiration. But thanks to Arthur Dong, I also feel a deep sense of relief as I see transient but unmistakable flares of regret in at least some of their faces. They're human, after all, not inscrutable monsters from some morality-free parallel dimension. This insight, however depressing, is a gift of incalculable value. (10/24/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)


D: Bart Freundlich; with Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner, Julianne Moore, Noah Wylie, Hope Davis, Laurel Holloman, Michael Vartan, James LeGros, Arija Bareikis, Brian Kerwin. (R, 90 min.)

A family reunites for the Thanksgiving holiday: Instead of turkey, The Myth of Fingerprints serves up family dysfunction under glass. First-time feature film director Bart Freundlich presents a finely distilled portrait of dysfunction as a group organism, a symbiotic pathology that infects the whole structure. Freundlich's movie shows us aspects and consequences of this disease, but it never pries or picks at the scabs of damage long done. In many ways, these are Ordinary People, not unlike the ones brought to life years ago by Robert Redford and Judith Guest, families that become undone by everything that is left unsaid and unexamined. Here, too, the family has to contend with that chilly Northeastern reserve. The Myth of Fingerprints is set in Maine. Three grown children return to the family homestead for the holiday and join their kid sister (Holloman) who still lives at home. Two of them are also accompanied by significant others -- outsiders to the family dynamic. The family is presided over by aloof dad Hal (Scheider) and warm mom Lena (Danner). Although he loves his children, Hal is clearly pained by their invasion into his household. It seems more the result of a deep-seated misanthropic streak than any genuine dislike of his children. He is unable to express feelings and it appears that long ago he and Lena settled into a mutually satisfactory pattern of co-dependence. Son Jake (Vartain) arrives with his bubbly, outspoken companion Margaret (Davis), who provides a real contrast to this clan's reserve. Jake is perplexed because he is unable to admit his love for Margaret and worries that a child can never truly escape the family knot. Mia (Moore) is the more outspoken sibling, quick to anger and find fault, especially with pleasantly accommodating companion Elliot (Kerwin). Over the weekend (in a poorly developed storyline), Mia meets up with an admirer from childhood who has changed his name to Cezanne (LeGros). Most overtly troubled is Warren (Wylie) who hasn't been home for three years, ever since the breakup with his hometown girlfriend Daphne (Bareikis). As things turn out, Daphne is also home for the weekend and as the old lovers inevitably reunite, skeletons come pouring out and further pieces of the family pathology fall into place. But The Myth of Fingerprints is no jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes you can only surmise which pieces might interlock and moreover, not all the pieces are available to view. That's both the elegance and the frustration of this movie. There's a simple, well-honed understatement to the proceedings (which is played beautifully by the ensemble) but there's also a paucity of solid information on which to build any deep attachment to these characters and their predicaments. Less can sometimes be perceived as more, but in the case of The Myth of Fingerprints less is simply less. (10/24/97)

3.0 stars (M.B.)

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