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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

STARSHIP TROOPERS

D: Paul Verhoeven; with Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Dina Meyer. (R, 125 min.)

How would mankind respond to an invasion of giant extraterrestrial insects who can travel interstellar space and annihilate millions with blasts of nuclear plasma from their butts? Starship Troopers, a classic summer blockbuster inexplicably displaced to mid-autumn, answers this timeless question with goofy charm, high camp flamboyance, and unwavering faith that nothing succeeds like excess. And of course, when the game is excess, the first name that pops to mind is Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall). Using Robert Heinlein's more subtle novel as only a general reference point, Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier revisit the formula that worked so well for them in 1987's Robocop: wall to wall blood 'n' guts laced with surprisingly keen social satire, much of it targeting the fatuousness of media culture. Crass sexual exploitation? Natch, especially given the opportunities provided by a cast of sleek young actors and actresses playing the starship pilots and infantrymen who battle the alien creepy crawlies. Howard Sternesque single-entendre humor, coed military showers, and battlefield sex all remind us that this is, in fact, the work of Showgirls' mastur-mind, though in this adolescent context, Verhoeven's trademark salaciousness seems perfectly apropos. Leading the warriors into the fray is Johnny Rico (Van Dien), a fair-haired, brutally cheekboned young action hero sired by John Milius and Leni Riefenstahl. Savoring this cast's energetically mediocre acting is great fun in a Melrose Place sort of way, and the abundance of camp classic dialogue rivals even the aforementioned Showgirls ("The goddamn bugs whacked us, Johnny!"; "You're some kind of a fat, smart bug, aren't you?"). The lethal beasties, ranging from ottoman-sized thrips to gargantuan beetles and slugs to shrieking swarms of razor-jawed "arachnids" are masterfully rendered and animated by Amalgamated Dynamics. Insectophobes in the audience should count on spending the night fully clothed in bed with a can of Black Flag on the nightstand. And those bugs certainly blow up good, erupting in copious showers of carapace fragments and lava lamp-hued bug juice during the series of wildly entertaining battle scenes that bring the story to a breathless close. (Note: we're talking unprecedented levels of gore here; when it comes to biting off heads, sucking brains and ripping entrails, Verhoeven's rapacious critters obliterate all previous movie-monster benchmarks.) As noted, Starship Troopers is built to summer movie specs and it's by those standards it should be judged. This means the pertinent qualities we're looking for are a special effects budget that would shame the Pentagon, cataclysmic violence, high levels of ambient horniness, and total lack of pretense to any goal higher than pure, mindless fun. Starship Troopers delivers all of these goods in spades, making it my pick for the belated summer smash of the year. (11/7/97)

3.0 stars
Russell Smith


YEAR OF THE HORSE

D: Jim Jarmusch; with Neil Young, Billy Talbot, Poncho Sampedro, Ralph Molina. (R, 107 min.)

It's been nearly three decades since Neil Young and Crazy Horse's first album, Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, came out, and that quintessentially American, purebred rock & roll band is still deep in the trenches, slogging through tour after tour and producing some of the most enviably balls-out music anyone's ever heard. Jarmusch's documentary on the Horse's 1996 tour is more of a historical marker than an actual history of the band, and as such it's of most relevance to the group's fans. Jarmusch, for whatever reason, doesn't dig too deep into Neil Young's checkered past -- the deaths of past members are mentioned in passing, and Crazy Horse's various problems with substance abuse and the like are brought up only once -- but despite that, or perhaps because of it, Year of the Horse is a hell of a film; it cuts right to the savage heart of it all, thrusting the music center stage and leaving the rumors and anecdotes (most of them, anyway) to the biographers. That's as it should be. Neil Young and Crazy Horse have always been first and foremost about rock & roll, from Rust Never Sleeps to Cinnamon Girl, and Jarmusch gives us huge, unedited slices of the band's powerhouse rock; there are no short Crazy Horse songs. Shot in a combination of Super-8, 16mm, and Hi-8 video, the film deftly captures the chaotic, dangerous, ready-to-implode live vibe of the band on stage. Young, looking for all the world like the haggard godfather of grunge, his thinning hair waving in the breeze from stage fans, keeps himself center stage, punching out chords on "old black" and grinning at his bandmates. There's something magical about the combination of musicians that make up Crazy Horse (their sound, like some gargantuan, lumbering freight train rolling over sleepy, dreamswept hills, is utterly unlike anything else), and Jarmusch ably captures the essence of that magic in his live concert footage, although his attempts to draw the band out in backstage interviews are less that satisfactory. Still, trying to define what makes the band function the way it does may be a task on par with defining the universe. It's enough that it works at all, so perhaps its best not to push the issue. Fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse will doubtless revel in these lengthy concert scenes, and although occasionally the band's songs wander off into what appear to be impromptu jam sessions, Year of the Horse is never boring. Jarmusch himself prompts the most hilarious behind-the-scenes dialogue, as he explains the Old Testament to Neil Young, leading to a brief exchange concerning the vengeful nature of God, which Young then likens to being on the road. It's a funny, caustic, innocent moment sandwiched between some of the most crunchy, shattering rock & roll I've ever heard, and sitting there on the tour bus, Young's drooping lizard eyes tell us he's already been there, done that, and lived to rock another day. (11/7/97)

3.5 stars
Marc Savlov



New Reviews

BEAN

D: Mel Smith; with Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol, Andrew Leary, Pamela Reed, Harris Yulan, Burt Reynolds. (PG-13, 87 min.)

Mr. Bean, perhaps the most annoying British import yet, has arrived amidst much hullabaloo, though one hopes that Beanmania will be relegated rather quickly to passing fad status. As created by rubber-faced comic Atkinson (also of the British comedy shows The Black Adder and The Thin Blue Line), Mr. Bean is a bumbling child-man, forever placing himself and those around him in endless, hilarious jeopardy, and then somehow managing to survive until the next time. Atkinson, who looks a bit like a congested ferret, was restructuring his highly elastic facial muscles long before Jim Carrey came along and will more than likely be doing so well past Ace Ventura's final outing. Still, Mr. Bean is an acquired taste. There's something almost sinister in his indistinct baritone mumblings, and his eyes always appear to be straining to pop clear out of his head, like some postmortem Marty Feldman. This first big-screen Bean adventure (there's already talk of a sequel), however, takes the character out of his native Britain and places him squarely in the heart of Los Angeles, which may have seemed like a terrific idea at the time, but ends up forcing the filmmakers to ratchet up the Bean weirdness quotient far too high to compensate for L.A.'s standard level of the bizarre. It's too much, and the less-than-clever script -- essentially no more than a series of Bean television sketches strung together -- doesn't help matters any. The plot casts Mr. Bean as a hapless security guard who spends his time looking at paintings at the London National Art Gallery. His superiors, however, hate the fumbling goon so much that they send him to America to oversee the transfer of Whistler's Mother (yes, that Whistler's Mother) to the Grierson Gallery in Los Angeles, in the hopes of getting rid of the fellow permanently. The Grierson's curator, David Langley (MacNicol), assumes that Mr. Bean is an eccentric British genius, and invites him into his home and life. Naturally, both are reduced to shambles in record time, while Whistler's masterpiece is manhandled and eventually destroyed. Along the way, Bean somehow provides a series of life lessons for the overworked and underappreciated curator, and all's well that ends well, or something equally British like that. Atkinson's a pro at the character -- he mastered his Beanisms long ago, and all anyone else has to do is play straight man (or woman). It works, up to a point, but it's difficult not to grow restless after more than 30 minutes of Mr. Bean at a sitting. There are only so many pratfalls you can string together sans storyline and keep a ball like this rolling, and unfortunately, too many of Bean's schticks were old news by the time they first aired on PBS. (11/7/97)

2.0 stars
Marc Savlov


EVE'S BAYOU

D: Kasi Lemmons; with Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Jurnee Smollet. (R, 107 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Samuel L. Jackson produced and costars in this Louisiana family drama that's told through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. Actress Kasi Lemmons (best remembered as Jody Foster's roommate in The Silence of the Lambs) makes her directorial debut.

Marjorie Baumgarten


FIRE

D: Deepa Mehta; with Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Ranjit Chowdhry, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Jaaved Jaaferi, Kushal Rekhi. (Not Rated, 104 min.)

Fire is a hothouse family melodrama with radical social underpinnings. Set in a New Delhi middle-class home, this film by Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is spoken in English though filmed in India. Within a tradition-bound society, Fire depicts two women's discovery of lesbian desire and self-expression, freedoms that directly challenge the social order and the conventional family unit. Following an arranged marriage, Sita (Das) joins the extended family of her new husband Jatin (Jaaferi), a household that includes his brother Ashok (Kjarbanda) and his wife Radha (Azmi, a pre-eminent Bollywood film star), their aged mother (Rekhi), and their houseboy Mundu (Chowdhry). This tale of two marriages details the emotional and sexual neglect experienced by the two sisters-in-law. The lovelessness of Sita and Jatin's arranged marriage is established from the get-go, as Jatin clearly prefers the company of his vivacious, Westernized girlfriend from China who wants nothing to do with marrying into the repressive Hindu family unit. Radha and Ashok's longtime marriage suffers from their inability to conceive a child and Ashok's consequent devotion to a religious swami who teaches marital celibacy. It's within this confined world of ritual practices and social customs that the two neglected wives find companionship and sexual comfort in each other's arms. Sita is the bolder one, Radha proceeds more cautiously; but yet, the outcome is inevitable: Their defiance uproots the family structure and threatens the religious beliefs that govern their lives. Fire is an odd amalgam of Western subject matter about sexual role-playing and social stratification and the floridly elaborate traditions of the Indian cinema (the most productive national cinema in the world) that largely relegates women to sexual objects in a host of lurid yet oddly chaste films in a variety of styles. In fact, one of the issues raised by the film is that the Hindi language has no official word to describe what the two women are doing. Fire's flat-out depiction of average middle-class existence in New Delhi is eye-opening; the inherent implausibility of the story's incendiary melodrama can be traced to the country's highly stylized film traditions. Still, for a film with such volatile subject matter, the performances are subdued and naturalistic. Fire burns with a rare flame. (11/7/97)

3.0 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten


FLAMENCO

D: Carlos Saura; with Paco de Lucia, Manolo Sanlucar, Lole y Manuel, Joaquin Cortes, Farruco, Farruqito, Mario Maya. (R, 112 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura (Carmen, Blood Wedding) takes stock of the art of flamenco dance and song by showcasing hundreds of performers who all swirl past the lens of ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a three-time Oscar winner. (10/31/97)

Marjorie Baumgarten


MAD CITY

D: Costa-Gavras; with Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Alan Alda, Mia Kirshner, Ted Levine, Robert Prosky, Blythe Danner. (PG-13, 110 min.)

It's easy to imagine the pitch meeting for Mad City: Oh, it's a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Network. The only thing the pitchers forgot to mention was that Mad City lacked the passionate action of the former and the satiric edge of the latter, leaving their film a rote and non-too-penetrating morality tale about the crass underbelly of the TV news biz. As delivered by the politically inclined international filmmaker Costa-Gavras (Z, The Music Box), Mad City's oversimplification of the ethical issues is bound to annoy those with any first-hand knowledge of the news dissemination process and disappoint others who've come for the promise of a city whipped into a "mad as hell" frenzy. Travolta plays the confused, laid-off museum security guard Sam Baily, who wants nothing more than reinstatement in his old minimum-wage job. Much like his spiritual namesake George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, Sam is this story's Everyman, the centerpiece without whom all the other characters' lives would be different. He's a dim but likable working stiff with a gun, the most baffled schlub caught in a crisis that escalates beyond his control since John Cazale's ill-equipped bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon. Hoffman plays news shark Max Brackett, a network reporter banished to the sticks for a national on-air indiscretion, who chances onto Sam's drama while covering a fluff story about the museum's financial downturn. Max correctly recognizes the story's potential to launch him back up the career ladder, especially if sweetened and manipulated by his savvy storytelling and image-shaping techniques. He goes about molding the clueless Sam into a "poster boy for the disenfranchised," all the while serving his own best interests instead of Sam's. Mad City is populated with a supporting cast of stock characters: Alan Alda's vainly omnipotent network news anchor, Robert Prosky's crusty local news editor, Blythe Danner's patrician museum executive, Mia Kirshner's wide-eyed intern, and so on. The fact that the museum is host to a group of schoolchildren when Sam inadvertently takes the place hostage adds ready-made emotionality to the story and provides Travolta with the opportunity to cavort charmingly with kids for a couple of scenes. For their part, Travolta and Hoffman both turn in solid work and watching these actors go through this strange pas de deux is the only aspect of the film that remains engaging. Mad City is destined to remain a blip on the map. (11/7/97)

2.0 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten


LA PROMESSE

D: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; with Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo, Rasmané Ouedraogo. (R, 97 min.)

Which of our traits are socially ingrained and which are genetically imbued? And what about morality, that most personal of all characteristics? How is it acquired, adapted, shed, and reconfigured? The Belgian film La Promesse, by the brothers Dardenne, presents an opportunity to observe these issues up-close while presenting the story of 15-year-old Igor (Renier), a boy facing an unexpected moral quandary. He's caught between obedience to his single-parent father Roger (Gourmet) and a nagging inkling that what his father is asking him to do is morally suspect. His father's law is the only rule he knows, yet an unforeseeable accident sets in motion a whole series of events that causes Igor to question his father's absolute authority. Roger's livelihood comes from trafficking in illegal aliens, whom he provides with doctored papers, subsistence shelter, and off-the-books employment in exchange for hefty cash fees and other forms of human barter. Roger is training Igor to follow in his footsteps, an apprenticeship that involves forgery, deception, and petty thievery, and is predicated on the exploitation of foreigners and other strangers. At 15, Igor is stumbling through the vague twilight years between childhood and adulthood. He works daily for his father instead of attending school, but most of all wishes to spend time working on his go-kart and playing with other boys his age. And although Roger's tyranny of the boy borders on the abusive, it is also clear that feels sympathy and tenderness for his son. Then one day during a police raid, one of the illegal workers falls to his death and Igor finds himself torn between his instinct to report the accident to the police and his father's insistence on hiding the evidence. The dilemma is complicated by the growing compassion Igor discovers for the worker's wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and her young baby. Assita is a self-assured immigrant from Burkina Faso, someone whose otherness is starkly apparent to Igor. But as he comes to witness the emotional brutality of the situation in which she finds herself, Igor comes to realize that father may not always know best. The film's staging of the final father-son confrontation puts a successfully memorable spin on an age-old dramatic conflict. The film's tightly framed and often hand-held camerawork keeps the story's focus on Igor's point of view. La Promesse is a penetrating coming-of-age story, one that argues that adulthood begins with the emergence of moral convictions. (11/7/97)

3.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



SWITCHBACK

D: Jeb Stuart; with Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Jared Leto, F. Lee Ermey. (R, 120 min.)

Funny what a difference 17 years can make. In 1980, novice screenwriter Jeb Stuart drafted a script about a serial killer, entitled Going West in America, that got Hollywood all hot and bothered. Although unproduced at the time, the draft screenplay opened the door for Stuart, who went on to script Die Hard, The Fugitive, and other high-profile thrillers and action films. With these kinds of writing credits under his belt, you'd think that Stuart's first script effort -- and now his directorial debut -- might prove to be something mildly interesting, if not downright captivating. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case, largely because the serial killer angle in SwitchBack (the ill-conceived retitling of Going West in America) seems dated, almost passé in the wake of films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Seven. (The irony is that under contemporary standards, the script comes off as less-than-original, even derivative.) Granted, the intertwined storylines of the killer's murderous rampage and the kidnapping of a FBI agent's young son starts off as an intriguing narrative conceit, but even with its twists and turns, SwitchBack can't sustain what the genre requires, even up to its snowy climax on a train in the Colorado mountains. The acting is decent, with Glover and Ermey seemingly enjoying themselves as a former railroadman and an Amarillo lawman, respectively. (Quaid, on the other hand, is pretty grim throughout -- no alligator grin here.) Knowing the torturous history of SwitchBack, you feel somewhat badly for Stuart and the others involved in the film because it's such an earnest effort. It all comes down to being a case of the wrong place, the wrong time. (11/7/97)

2.0 stars
Steve Davis


TELLING LIES IN AMERICA

D: Guy Ferland; with Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Maximilian Schell, Calista Flockhart. (PG-13, 101 min.)

The arrival of this subtle, endearing, emotionally nuanced film is a blessing for movie fans but a loss for the American slang lexicon. No longer can we say, for example, "I can't stand to be in the same room with that guy; he's just so Joe Eszterhas" and be absolutely sure we've used an exact synonym for "loathsome, maggot-brained perv." A display of disciplined, humane talent from Mr. Jade himself? The pud-stroking hack responsible for Showgirls, Sliver, and Basic Instinct? Believe it. With help from talented young director Ferland and a sublime performance from Kevin Bacon, Eszterhas has created a gentle and affecting ode to universal growing-up conflicts within a beautifully rendered evocation of a specific time and place. Bacon stars as Billy Magic, a well-traveled disc jockey who in 1960 takes over the featured rock & roll show at a station located in the less than prestigious Cleveland market. Leering, chain-smoking Billy is effortlessly cool and his playlist is a roots rock aficionado's wet dream, but something about his manner suggests a man with as much guile and raw appetite as soul. Shortly after rolling into town in his red Caddy convertible, he hires a shy young immigrant kid named Karchy Jonas (Renfro) as his assistant. Karchy, an anonymous outsider at his rich-kid school, finds the job much to his liking with its lavish pay, short hours, and opportunities to bask in Magic's aura of mega-coolness. There's a hitch, though: It turns out Karchy's main function is to serve as a bagman for payola flowing between record promoters and his boss. It's wrong, of course, but Karchy can't help wondering whether the good results, including the ability to help his poor, rigorously honest father (Schell), don't outweigh the negatives of the pissant offense. And so he faces one of youth's central dilemmas: how seriously to take the truth-as-ultimate-good homilies laid down by one's elders, especially in the face of massive evidence suggesting that lies are the grease that keep civilization's gears turning? Bacon, with his oily hair, gaunt face, and crooked smile that identifies him as one of the lucky few who gets life's joke, is an overwhelming force calling Karchy to cross over to The Gray Side. Influences on the other side are his Old World, old-school dad and Diney (Flockhart, from the Ally McBeal TV show), a sympathetic older girl who recognizes the delicate cusp he's riding. And that's your story. No breasts, no blood, no Nazi beasts. Just consistently fine acting, adroit and assured directing and, yes, pitch-perfect writing by an artist with much to prove and the real (if underused) talent to do it. Rusty says check it out. (11/7/97)

3.0 stars
Russell Smith


WASHINGTON SQUARE

D: Agnieszka Holland; with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin. (PG, 115 min.)

One reason Henry James is such a hot movie property these days is the relevance of one of his dominant themes -- money's ability to mock and compromise our dearest ideals and illusions -- to our era of soulless rock & roll capitalism. Washington Square is one of the most "modern" works in the Jamesian oeuvre, owing to its dark comic shadings and the scabrous cynicism lurking beneath the author's elegant prose. Like many of his works (Daisy Miller, The Wings of the Dove) its protagonist is a young woman facing a conflict between the sophisticated, power-driven world around her and the simple truth and goodness her heart desires. Catherine Sloper (Leigh) is a rich but homely heiress being courted by a sweet, floridly earnest hunk named Morris Townsend (Chaplin). The gawky Catherine is practically floating in his pheromonal wake, but not her father (Finney), who regards the penniless smoothie as a no-account gigolo. Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (Smith) is the go-between among all three. Though nominally on her niece's side, wily Lavinia also seems to be pursuing her own personal agenda. As with so many of these revered 19th-century mahst'pieces, the story's particulars are straightforward soap opera. Their enduring power is supplied by the rich subtlety of the omniscient author's commentary. Director Holland (Olivier Olivier, The Secret Garden) is a fine writer herself, and she goes to great lengths to assure that James' worldly sensibility and brilliant dialogue are preserved. Chaplin and the redoubtable Smith are especially delicious in their face-to-face exchanges. A clever pair whose fortunes are contingent upon others, they recognize this quality in each other, yet acknowledge it only in the most slyly oblique manner. Finney is likewise terrific as Dr. Austin Sloper, a despicable man who nevertheless has a troubling charm and magnetism -- troubling because these qualities proceed from his ease with life's harsh, Darwinistic nature. But Catherine, the only innocent of the lot, is the key character here. For this movie to work, Leigh has to nail down each step in the naïf's progress toward full emotional autonomy. Unfortunately, as she's wont to do, Leigh uses a 30-pound sledge to drive those nails, especially in the early scenes when she turns Catherine into a blinking, twitching, pratfalling spaz, not the pained introvert James had in mind. The critical piling-on of Leigh (who's now getting hammered for the very same traits that once drew delirious praise) may seem unfair, yet Washington Square is a perfect example of the drawbacks inherent in her approach. When a key character's artlessness and lack of self-awareness are defining traits, it's hard to imagine a casting decision more disastrous than having her played by someone as helplessly and compulsively self-conscious as Jennifer Jason Leigh. (11/7/97)

2.5 stars
Russell Smith


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