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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

NOVEMBER 16, 1998: 

AMERICAN HISTORY X

D: Tony Kaye; with Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Jennifer Lien, Elliott Gould, William Russ, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo. (R, 118 min.)

Why Tony Kaye was so eager to have his name taken off this film (and replaced with "Humpty Dumpty") is a question only Kaye can answer, and not very well if the recent spate of elliptical interviews with the eccentric British advertisement auteur can be relied upon. Certainly American History X isn't the travesty Kaye has taken to labeling it. Neither is it the revolutionary redemptive tale filled with Oscar-caliber performances certain members of the media have tagged it as. Instead, it's a violent, sober, cautionary tale, strictly middle-of-the-road when it comes to its much-ballyhooed politics and grimly obvious in its telling. And as for the dead-on portrayal of neo-Nazi skinheads, well, it's no Romper Stomper. Norton plays Derek Vinyard, a former skinhead in Venice Beach who, as the film opens, is released from prison after serving a three-year stretch for killing two gangbangers who tried to steal his car. On that same day, Derek's younger brother Danny (Furlong), a budding neo-Nazi himself, has turned in a Hitler-praising school report to his much-aggrieved teacher (Gould). When Danny's principal (Brooks) gets wind of the affront, he gives the boy another assignment: "Write about your brother," he says, and tell us what you think of him, and what you think of his circumstances. This leads to an ongoing series of black-and-white flashbacks that recount how the older Vinyard came into his own as a Nazi skinhead, and how he, along with local hate-monger Cameron (Keach), founded one of the largest white supremacist gangs in Southern California. The hitch is that Derek's incarceration has changed him utterly. He's no longer interested in the swastika or hanging out and beating up minorities; his time in the joint and the shaky friendships and enemies he made there have left him with a newfound distaste for his old ways. All he wants now is to get out and get his family -- and especially Danny -- away from the corrupting influence of the local skins. Kaye's device of alternating the present-day color footage with the black-and-white flashbacks awkwardly breaks up the forward motion of the narrative. And while the film's ending isn't exactly telegraphed, you know something terrible's going to happen: It's that kind of film. Still, Norton acts up a storm here, infusing his bile-filled speechifying with a zealot's harsh glare and later, seeming to hunker down within himself as he waits for the unavoidable backlash. Furlong is in full sullen-teen mode, as befits his character, and only Balk, as Derek's histrionically eager skinhead moll, is used to ill advantage. Kaye, for what it's worth, can frame a shot with the best of them, but American History X fails to incite much more than respect for the art of its cinematography and the occasional gasp (the film contains one of the most shocking incidents of character-driven violence in recent memory -- I lurched in my seat and suddenly had need to redefine my personal definition of "jaded"). It's rough stuff, but not revelatory, bitter yet unenlightening.
3.0 stars
Marc Savlov



I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

D: Arlene Sanford; with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jessica Biel, Adam La Vorgna, Gary Cole. (PG, 86 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Prep-school brat Thomas finds himself in the unenviable, if life-learning, position of being stuck out in the California desert a couple of days before the Yuletide, with a Santa beard glued to his face and a Christmas-Eve-be-in-New-York-at-6pm-or-you-forfeit-the-vintage-Porsche-dear-old-dad-has-promised-you deadline.
Marjorie Baumgarten



I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

D: Danny Cannon; with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Brandy, Mekhi Phifer, Muse Watson, Bill Cobbs, Jennifer Esposito, Matthew Settle., Jeffrey Combs, John Hawkes (R, 96 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Julie James (Hewitt) was apparently just having a bad dream at the end of the first movie because she's back for the sequel in which, less trusting and still guilt-ridden, she heads off to the Bahamas on an all-expense-paid trip won by her best friend Karla (Brandy). Of course, the moment Julie and her college chums hit the beach, the murders begin.
Marjorie Baumgarten



THE LAST BIG THING

D: Dan Zukovic; with Zukovic, Susan Heimbinder, Mark Ruffalo, Pamela Dickerson, Andrew Falk, Sibel Ergener, James Lorinz, Yul Vasquez, Thomas Prisco. (R, 98 min.)

Like its protagonist, this feature debut by Dan Zukovic is a painful, grating mass of pseudo-intellectual narcissism that makes you long for a way to scrub those neurons with some psychic steel wool. Alas, our consumer-oriented society has yet to come up with such a tool, and so, like Zukovic's pained anti-hero, your head throbs from all the rants. Taking a tremendously wide broadside at the pop zeitgeist and pre-fab culture, Zukovic plays Simon Geist, a whiny, pompous Los Angelean intent on defacing and exposing the shallowness of pre-millennial society. His chosen method for this war on mediocrity is The Next Big Thing, a fictional magazine he claims to write for in order to lure prospective interviewees into an escalating series of verbal and intellectual bitch-slaps. One by one, he skewers such unremarkably easy targets as bad bands, unemployed actors, and Seventies-referencing stand-up comics. While he appears to be enjoying his "agenda," it's actually not nearly as challenging as shooting whales in a barrel: There's no sport in hunting the previously maimed. Setting himself up in a suburban sprawl 30 miles outside of L.A., Geist moves in with trust-fund groupie Darla (Heimbinder), a neurotic mass of tics and spastic speech impediments that may or may not be the director's one desperate attempt at comic relief. It's hard to tell if Zukovic meant his film to be taken seriously or whether it's just some elaborate gag on the audience. If Zukovic is arguing against our society of botched entertainment and crass commercialism, he shoots himself in the foot by making a movie at all (I'm not even going to go into the ramifications of his placing himself in nearly every scene). Or perhaps The Last Big Thing's sting relies on the fact that it's not nearly as entertaining as you would like it to be. Who knows, and, more to the point, who cares? Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent covered this same ground and did it with flair, zeal, and no trace of the irritating mental scabies that Zukovic's film engenders. And while The Last Big Thing does actually succeed on technical levels -- it looks good, flows from scene to scene, and doesn't stoop to any hideous visual tricksterisms -- all of its marginally redeeming features are eclipsed by both Zukovic's and his on-screen persona's flip sermonizing. Whatever solid theses Geist promulgates (and there are a few) are mangled by his incessant nihilistic whining. For all its salient points on the downfall of art, life, et cetera, The Last Big Thing is one long extemporaneous hissy fit, a high-pitched squeal of a film that makes you long for the trenchantly indifferent relief of the Fox network.
0 stars
Marc Savlov



LIVING OUT LOUD

D: Richard LaGravenese; with Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas. (R, 102 min.)

Her pupils and irises indistinguishable orbs of liquid brown, Holly Hunter possibly has the most intent and focused gaze of any actor in films today: They're the eyes of a determined but often tortured soul. During her moments of confession in Living Out Loud, it's those eyes that speak volumes, even more than the subtle, piercing dialogue provided by director-screenwriter LaGravenese, here making his debut behind the camera. Unfortunately, there's not much of a story to go with Hunter's engaging performance and LaGravenese's words; when it comes to its narrative, there's something missing in Living Out Loud. The film begins with Hunter quizzing her husband, a successful doctor, in an elegant New York City restaurant about a woman with whom he had been seen. Suspecting something, she won't let him off the hook, as he tells her that the other woman is only a work colleague. Finally, when she asks the approximate age of this colleague, he answers with such specificity that she instantly knows the truth. It's a great moment that sets the stage for her character's fall and rise as she learns to make a new life after divorce. Along the way, she befriends a down-on-his-luck elevator operator, who's romantically interested in her, and a nightclub singer with a penchant for picking the wrong men. These are strange bedfellows for a woman living on the Upper West Side, but fitting for a movie whose theme celebrates tearing down the walls that keep us from fully experiencing life. (Woody Allen's Alice did the same thing, using the same type of character and milieu, and -- quite frankly -- did it better.) At first, Hunter's character constantly idealizes situations, imagining how they should be because she finds reality awkward and unsatisfying. But as she grows into her own skin and does things that she never had the opportunity to do before -- kiss a complete stranger in a darkened room she mistakes for a bathroom; imbibe mind-altering substances and dance the night away in a chic lesbian bar; hire a hunky masseuse to give her an erotic rubdown -- the need to fantasize becomes less so. If only the development of her character and the narrative were structured in a way that made the movie feel less episodic, you'd find yourself really drawn to this oddly appealing movie about personal liberation. If anything, it's good to see Hunter in a role befitting her after being lost in questionable acting choices in Crash and A Life Less Ordinary. And it's even better to see those fantastic eyes put to good use once more.
2.5 stars
Steve Davis



MEET JOE BLACK

D: Martin Brest; with Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Tambor, David S. Howard. (R, 174 min.)

A loose retelling of 1934's Death Takes a Holiday, this updated version adapts a fuller, firmer attitude toward other-worldly romance as well as a near-three-hour running time. With Hopkins onscreen for much of it, it's not as dreary as you'd expect, and even the angelic Pitt, as an anthropomorphized, blonde-banged Death, is surprisingly tolerable in an admittedly difficult role that could have just as easily descended into unwitting farce. Brest (Scent of a Woman) opens the film with a sequence in which Susan Parrish (Forlani) -- young, M.D. daughter of Hopkins' wealthy media magnate William Parrish -- runs into a nameless but utterly charming young man (Pitt) in a New York coffee shop. During the course of a five-minute flirtation the spark arcs, and the two near-strangers part, never to meet again. As it happens, the handsome stranger is struck by a car and killed moments later. As luck, or fate, or, more accurately Death should have it, the stranger is reborn, after a fashion, as Death itself appears at the Parrish family mansion wearing the stranger's flesh. He's here to take the senior Parrish off to the great beyond, but before he does, he'd like to find out a bit about the living. "You will be my tour guide," he tells an understandably stunned Hopkins, and before long Death, under the moniker of Joe Black, is attending Parrish Communications board meetings, wrapping his tongue around gob after gob of peanut butter (a delicacy, we are led to believe, absent from the netherworld), and falling in love with daughter Susan. At first it's difficult to understand why anyone would need three hours to tell this pleasant fable, but to his credit, Brest fleshes out the film with a subplot involving a corporate takeover (unnecessary but absorbing nonetheless) and assorted other tricks; Meet Joe Black flows nicely, and the whole of the film is bathed in some of the most sumptuous cinematography (courtesy of Like Water for Chocolate's Emmanuel Lubezki) of the year. The film, however, belongs to Hopkins, pure and simple. He commands your eye when he is onscreen, and when he's off you're subconsciously waiting for him to reappear. As the noble media baron and devoted family man, he's stuck with lines that would surely crumple in any other actor's mouth but here manages to make them sound good, even great, by sheer virtue of his being Sir Anthony Hopkins. Pitt is in a realm that approximates his lunatic role in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, but toned down considerably. His Death is an egocentric spirit engaged in learning a smidgen of humility (and humanity), and though the role frequently borders on the comic, it rarely sloshes over into the absurd. Only once (when Death, his facial muscles lost in the act of making love) did the males in the packed screening audience audibly squirm (which perhaps says more about the males than Pitt's acting). Too often derided as a vacuous pretty boy, Pitt brings a wan, insouciant charm to the Grim Reaper, while Hopkins, as ever, anchors everything around him. It's an elegiac love story from beyond the grave, as appealingly simple as it is emotionally complex.
3.0 stars
Marc Savlov



OLYMPIA

D: Robert Byington; with Carmen Nogales, Jason Andrews, Damian Young. (Not Rated, 82 min.)

It's not just George Bush pere who lacks a firm grip on the vision thing. Fact is, people who really know what they want out of life are so rare they're often objects of intense fascination, even obsession for the rest of us. So it is with Bill and Ed, a pair of thirtyish sad sacks whose loserly existences are knocked off kilter by the decision of Mexican soap opera queen Olympia to quit acting and train to be an Olympic javelin-thrower. Ed (Young, previously seen in Hal Hartley's Simple Men and Amateurs) is Olympia's manager, a surly prick who actually appears to care for his former meal ticket on some level but who is dumbfounded by her sudden jockish compulsions. Ed's loss is Bill's gain. A paunchy, unmotivated slob who seems to have been fired from every job in his drowsy Rio Grande Valley hometown, his world changes forever when he finds Olympia, exhausted from her illegal border-crossing, hiding in his car. Despite Olympia's meager English, Bill (Andrews) soon discovers her purpose. Enthralled by the mysterious siren's gung-ho attitude and total focus, he manages to insinuate himself into her life -- and bring some purpose to his own -- by serving as her coach. This is a film with a sneaky, ineffable charm that's tough to describe. Character-driven in the extreme and shot in a utilitarian, quasi-documentary style, its story sort of maunders serenely along like a milk cow blocking traffic on a country road. Funny scenes abound, ranging from Ed's sulfurous rants to zany situational humor arising from the guys' responses to the truculent, single-minded Olympia (played with considerable raw charisma by model-turned-actress Nogales). Byington's writing isn't always inspired, but he has a fine Albert Brooksian flair for multi-layered comic effect in which absurd settings undermine his characters' overtly serious words and actions. In the end, however, it's hard to say what all these bright scenes' cumulative effect was meant to be. Olympia is too ornery and manipulative to be any kind of feminist heroine, and the obscure origins of her javelin jones make it tough to fully identify with her. Bill's modest personal growth, affecting though it is, hardly feels like the point of all that's come before. Honestly, I'd be very surprised if any profound themes or messages were intended here. Instead, this low-budget charmer is a classic example of indie film claiming the freedom to simply clear out space for good writers and actors (Andrews and Young both seem good bets for mainstream stardom) to develop characters through their own organic sense of story rather than screenwriting-workshop dogma. Olympia isn't the kind of movie everyone will love. Some may be actively put off by its slightness and oddly abrupt ending. However, if you're patient with its shortcomings, it definitely has -- as one of its characters says of Olympia herself -- "a certain je ne sais whatchamacallit."
3.0 stars
Russell Smith



SLAM

D: Marc Levin; with Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone, Beau Sia. (R, 100 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. This year's Sundance Grand Jury prize winner and winner of the Camera d'Or and Audience Award at Cannes explores the world of "slamming" -- a combination of poetry and rap that has become a national phenomenon. In this documentary-styled fiction film, a young "slammer," finding himself in jail in Washington, D.C. on a petty drug charge, uses his gift of gab against the system.
Marjorie Baumgarten


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