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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

DECEMBER 8, 1997: 

M

D: Fritz Lang; with Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Franz Stein, Theodor Loos, Fritz Gnass. (Not Rated, 105 min.)

Arguably Fritz Lang's greatest cinematic achievement, this unnerving tale of deranged child-killer Hans Beckert (Lorre) stalking the dingy alleys and shadowy playscapes of Dusseldorf is as riveting a piece of filmmaking as you're ever likely to see. Shot in 1931, it was Lang's first foray into sound and he makes tremendous use not only of persistent aural motifs (such as Beckert's constant whistling of the "Hall of the Mountain King" theme from Peer Gynt) but also of lengthy, forbidding stretches of utter silence. One of the greatest of all German Expressionistic films, M's striking, remarkable cinematography was the creation of Fritz Arno Wagner, who also left his dank, tenebrous imprint on F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Thematically, the two films couldn't be more different, but Wagner's masterful use of light and shadow commands the eye like few films since. This was Lang's final German film before fleeing the encroaching Nazi censors, and the whole affair positively oozes the quiet menace of a time frame in which the well-oiled doors of human misery have begun to swing wide. Shots of the exposed pedophile/murderer fleeing down winding Dusseldorf streets while being pursued by both an ineffectual police force and the city's cruelly efficient criminal element (his crimes are so atrocious that even the underworld is desperate to stop him) are breathtaking in their spare, eloquent terror. Lorre, for his part, found a career-making part in this less-than-palatable role. Frantic and bug-eyed, Hans Beckert is the great-granddaddy of the Norman Bates/Hannibal Lecter crowd, and his final, tortured confession amidst the scruffy denizens of the Dusseldorf underworld ("I can't help it! I can't control this evil thing inside me!") is simultaneously ghastly and pathetic. This restored print was overseen directly by the Munich Film Archive, and contains roughly seven minutes of previously excised footage, as well as remastered, digitized sound and updated subtitles. Highly recommended. (12/5/97)

5.0 stars Marc Savlov


New Reviews:

EYE OF GOD

D: Tim Blake Nelson; with Martha Plimpton, Kevin Anderson, Hal Holbrook, Nick Stahl, Richard Jenkins, Maggie Moore, Mary Kay Place. (R, 85 min.)

Does God keep watch over Kingfisher, Oklahoma or is this desolate little oil-busted town as godforsaken as it appears? First-time filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson makes no bones about his concerns in this bleak Bible Belt portrait, a story he adapted from his own stage play. Strong and haunting performances sustain this structurally unconventional narrative that dovetails two distinct storylines and several time frames. The film's fragmented narrative structure helps create a spare, stripped-down feel and fosters unmet expectations that Nelson's mysterious storytelling tricks will yield to ultimate cohesion once the elements finally converge. Despite the fact that the film's whole never quite equals its parts, Eye of God provides a fascinating ride and evocative glimpses of ordinary people in the throes of crisis. One storyline has to do with troubled youth Tom Spencer (Stahl, the kid from Mel Gibson's Man Without a Face) who is found one night covered in blood and wandering aimlessly down a country road. He has witnessed a crime of such brutality that he cannot speak, not even to the kindly sheriff played by Hal Holbrook (whose voiceover about the meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac opens the film). The film's other story focuses on Ainsley (Plimpton), a young woman who marries her prison pen pal Jack (Anderson) following a quick courtship upon his release. Sweet and trusting, the solitary Ainsley is swayed by the tenderness and devout sincerity of reborn Christian Jack. Overlooking his unwillingness to name the crime for which he was committed, Ainsley is taken with his Promise Keeper-like avowal of marriage, faith, and family. With an almost foregone inevitability, Ainsley and Jack's dreamland disintegrates. Plimpton, however, is at her finest here, forgoing her usual street savvy persona for this characterization of a sweet, dim daughter of the heartland. And Anderson (TV's Nothing Sacred) is equally effective as the story's unpredictable narrative factor. The film's supporting characters are all memorable too, flush with small details and regional specificity. Yet the film's forced structural mysteries and the overly literal dependence on its spiritual theme burden Eye of God with weights it cannot comfortably bear. Such narrative conceits are the type of mortal flaws that keep this otherwise powerful drama all too earthbound. (12/5/97)

3.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


HAPPY TOGETHER

D: Wong Kar-Wai; with Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Chang Chen. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

As well as anyone making movies today, Wong Kar-Wai appreciates the ironic curse of youth: At the age when we look our best, have the most freedom, and bear no burden heavier than tweaking the vocabulary and imagery of pop culture, we often seem paralyzed by all that glorious, unlimited opportunity. Happy Together is the latest and best in the 39-year-old Hong Kong director's occasional series of films about love-obsessed young folks adrift in haunting urban dreamscapes that reflect both the alienation in their hearts and the overheated yearning of their imaginations. This time around, Wong's story focuses on a pair of gay lovers named Lai Yiu-Fai (Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Cheung), who've moved from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to make a fresh start on their hot but fractious relationship. Lai, the narrator, is superficially the more stable of the two, agonizing constantly over Ho's chronic cheating and irresponsibility. But as we soon see, Lai is merely playing an arbitrary role in an ongoing two-man melodrama. Smacking his steel against Ho's flint creates the hot, transitory sparks that both men -- despite all their saccharine protestations of love -- obviously see as the major rationale for their relationship. The deeper and darker the lows, the more intense the highs seem by contrast. Wong has explored this kind of perverse, ritualistic behavior before in Days of Being Wild (1991), Chungking Express (1996) and to some extent, Fallen Angels (1995). In Days, Leslie Cheung pined endlessly for his long-lost mom. In Chungking, Takeshi Kaneshiro based his timetable for finding love on the expiration dates stamped on pineapple cans. For Lai and Ho, the image of deliverance is an Argentine waterfall with the legendary power to wash away cares and pain. This stupendous waterfall is a recurring image, one that blends with intoxicatingly gorgeous scenes of night streets, color-flooded interiors, and near-abstract compositions of light and motion to inundate the viewer with dazzling visual stimuli. Predictably, Wong and longtime director of photography Christopher Doyle are often accused of stressing style over substance, a charge supported by Wong's typically skeletal plots. As a wholehearted convert to Wong's art, though, I'd argue that creation of a style this revolutionary is both substantial and meaningful. Furthermore, thanks largely to the raw bravery and intensity of the two leads' performances, Happy Together takes a quantum leap forward in terms of visceral power. Despite the unearthly beauty of this film's world, I suspect you'll feel it merging with your own reality, investing your emotions with richer significance and, perhaps, making old memories and yearnings burn with fresh intensity. Even if you don't ultimately agree with my belief that Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most important directors of the Nineties, you'll see things that will haunt your thoughts and dreams for a long time to come. (12/5/97)

4.0 stars Russell Smith


LILIES

D: John Greyson; with Brent Carver, Marcel Sabourin, Aubert Pallascio, Jason Cadieux, Matthew Ferguson, Alexander Chapman. (Not Rated, 95 min.)

As the title suggests, Lilies is a refined creation, delicate to the touch. Its carefully constructed script by Michel Marc Bouchard, based on his play, employs the Catholic rite of confession as the means by which an embittered prisoner exacts his revenge for a murderous trespass committed over 40 years ago. The twist: The penitent, as it turns out, is not the man confessing, but rather the man hearing the confession. Theatrical but never stagy, Lilies is for the most part a play within a play, one in which the inmates of a Quebec prison enact the story of an impassioned love between two youths at a Catholic boys' school in rural Canada in 1912 and the tragic consequences which result. The play's unwilling audience is the incarcerated man's confessor, a visiting bishop who played a key role in the drama that unfolds before him. Of course, the conceit is ludicrous when you think about it -- how is it that this rather sophisticated playacting ever came about, with male prisoners portraying a multitude of roles (including several key female parts) and penitentiary personnel allowing the production to be performed at all? A certain amount of literary license is allowed, however, to Lilies, particularly in view of the near-exquisite way in which it tells its complicated tale. Even given such narrative complexity, director Greyson finds a structural balance between the past and the present, shooting certain scenes of the enacted drama in the settings in which they actually occurred, while others are played against the sparse, bare milieu of the prison. The cast is largely one of unknowns, with the exception of Brent Carver, who starred as the gay hairdresser in the Broadway musical The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Carver plays the pivotal role of the ethereal, somewhat mentally unhinged mother of one of the two youths, who prods the young lovers to fulfill their destiny. (Her demise in the film is the only inexplicable event in Bouchard's story.) Although intellectually stimulating, in both its construction and its themes, Lilies doesn't evoke, however, much of an emotional response in its audience. It's often cerebral when it should be passionate. In the end, while there's a lot to admire about the film, you don't particularly feel moved by it. Granted, it's a forgivable sin for which absolution can be granted, but one that nevertheless keeps a good film from being a great one. (12/5/97)

3.0 stars Steve Davis


MON HOMME

D: Bertrand Blier; with Anouk Grinberg, Gérard Lanvin, Valéria Bruni Tedeschi, Olivier Martinez, Mathieu Kassovitz, Sabine Azéma. (Not Rated, 96 min.)

Love and prostitution make for a heady, disastrous mix in this new film by Blier (Going Places, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs), but it's the ribald characters essayed by Grinberg and Lanvin that keep Mon Homme from descending into pathos and pedantry. Grinberg plays Marie, a thirtysomething hooker in Lyons, France, who claims time and again that she loves her chosen profession above all else, despite the fact that there's an emotional hole in her core the size of an overripe persimmon. Day and night, she bides her time in the lobby of the local hotel, waiting for lonely men to seek out her services. Things take an unanticipated upswing one day when Marie encounters a bedraggled, unkempt homeless bear of a man (Lanvin) nestling in the trash bins beside her apartment door. Concerned that the rats might get him, she asks him up, washes him off, and asks him if he'd like to be her pimp ("a nice pimp," she specifies). His name is Jeannot and after a moment of reflection he accepts the offer in light of his present, unremarkable situation (you can almost hear him weighing the pros and cons: "Rats versus crabs. Hmmm..."). As in all good cinematic prostitute/pimp relations, love blooms quickly, and begins to rot soon after. High on the good life, Jeannot quickly forsakes the high-strung Marie in favor of the more amply-breasted Sanguine (Tedeschi), whom he attempts to pimp on the sly, much to everyone's dismay. Suffice to say that by the time Marie comes to her senses -- three quarters of the way through the film -- and bounces the lout in favor of the sensitive, unemployed poet-naïf Jean-Francois (Martinez), Blier has explored everything from need to greed with various sidetracks into such fanciful topics as why older johns make better lovers and whether the suit makes the pimp or vice versa? Blier's film fits into the "glorious mess" category perhaps a bit too snugly. His penchant (here at least) for having his actors drone on directly to the camera is amusing at first but grows wearying by the final reel, and his theme -- love and money and the absence of both -- is all over the map. Grinberg saves the film, though, with her effervescent, giddily charming whorishness. She reminds you of Giulietta Masina in La Strada more than anything else, all cockeyed, childlike optimism in the face of disaster. She's so bubbly at times that it becomes intoxicating. Lanvin gives the appearance of a younger Depardieu, which is unsurprising given Blier's previous work with that actor in the seminal Going Places. Big men wield big emotions seems to be Blier's point here, but those terrific characterizations aside, Mon Homme is still more of a sexy muddle than anything else, a case of too many dark emotions colliding in the Lyons twilight. (12/5/97)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov


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