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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

DECEMBER 22, 1997: 

TITANIC

D: James Cameron; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Danny Nucci, David Warner, Bill Paxton. (PG-13, 197 min.)

Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic, if you haven't heard yet. The costliest film ever made is also one of the best, unlike the second costliest, Kevin Costner's ill-fated Waterworld (and just what is it with aquatic overexpenditures these days, anyway?). Reams have already been written on James Cameron's wild cost overruns, so I'll spare you that and say right off that every penny spent is up there on the screen. Like the doomed vessel from which it takes its tale, Cameron's film is a behemoth, svelte, streamlined, and not the least bit ponderous, even with its lengthy three-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time (the film is practically as long as the sinking of the Titanic itself). DiCaprio is charmingly rakish in the role of lower-class scoundrel-cum-artist Jack Dawson, who wins his way onboard the HMS Titanic during a card game moments before the ship sets sail on its maiden and funeral voyage from England to New York City. Once onboard, he meets Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet), a 17-year-old first-class passenger, who is engaged to the wealthy, utterly pompous Cal Hockley (Zane). In short order, Rose and Jack fall in love, he sketches her in the altogether, and Cal, predictably, grits his teeth and scowls meaningfully. Just over halfway into the film, the oceanliner grazes the fatal iceberg that will, 80 minutes later, send it plunging into the icy depths. It's a matter of historical record that 1,500 passengers perished that night due, in no small part, to the fact that there were less than half the necessary lifeboats on board. Cameron, who is inarguably the greatest living action director working today, milks this for all it's worth and does a splendid job, cutting between Rose and Jack's ill-timed romance and the fate of the ship in general. His crosscutting between those two stories and several other, minor subplots is the stuff film courses are made of. At his core though, Cameron, for all his Terminators and True Lies, is a savagely sentimental romantic, and it's this interplay between the lovestruck steerage lad and the first-class dream girl that fires everything else about the film, including the modern-day wraparound that features Cameron favorite Bill Paxton as a salvage engineer intent on plundering the Titanic's silted corpse. I've always had trouble getting past DiCaprio's spirited self -- he seems unable to fully vanish into any role other than that of himself, though he comes very, very close under Cameron's iron thumb. Winslet, on the other hand, is so perfectly cast that it's as though she's a brand new face, and not the Hollywood superstar she's currently becoming. The two of them play wonderfully off of each other, as do the host of lesser players (notably David Warner as Cal's conniving valet and Bernard Hill as the ship's captain), resulting in a monster of a film in which, for once, the astonishing special effects are overshadowed by the characters onscreen. Just barely, though. Cameron's dialogue has never been as good as his direction, which makes for a few stilted clunkers along the way, but the unstoppable flurry of Action! Romance! Etcetera! sweeps them away like so much driftwood. It's obvious this is Cameron's bid for historical relevance, and though it may fall short of the Lawrence of Arabia mark he was aiming for, it's still by far and away a grand, gorgeous, breathtaking spectacle.

3.5 stars Marc Savlov


AMISTAD

D: Steven Spielberg; with Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Pete Postlethwaite, Nigel Hawthorne, Stellan Skarsgard. (R, 155 min.)

Amistad is a disappointment if the standard for judging Steven Spielberg's new film is the state of mute, stumbling devastation that Schindler's List inspired in its viewers. The story it recounts, an 1839 slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship bound for New England, is a historical obscurity, not an epochal horror on par with the Holocaust. We never stand close enough to evil to stare into its dead eyes or feel its moist breath against our faces. Though we get a few glimpses of ghastly brutality aboard the packed, airless ship we're appalled less by the atrocities themselves than the practical -- even pious -- arguments by which they're later rationalized. This is by no means a passionless film, though. Cinque, the rebel leader, is played by former model Hounsou, a mountainous figure who speaks in a gutteral roar and seems to embody the rage and confusion of an entire exploited continent. He's an overwhelming presence, just barely skirting comic-book superhero imagery at times, who also excels in scenes that require him to express subtler emotions either wordlessly or in untranslated Mende dialect. Most of the widespread critical carping about this film seems to focus on the series of hearings which air out the politically charged issue of who owns the slaves. These courtroom scenes are undeniably repetitious, static, and, until the end, focused on technicalities of maritime and international law. (Weirdly, the killings aboard the Amistad aren't the issue. Since the rebels are functionally equivalent to livestock they can't be charged with committing murder; the only question is whether anyone has a valid claim on them.) McConaughey, as a real estate lawyer named Baldwin who argues on behalf of abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Skarsgard), has also drawn more than a few raps for his low-keyed performance. But in the overall framework of the story, both his restraint and the tedium of the judicial proceedings buttress a vital point: In the period being dramatized, the economic considerations of slavery overwhelmed the moral ones. Baldwin is fighting this battle on the agreed-upon turf of property law. Only after being repeatedly thwarted by a politically craven President Van Buren (Hawthorne) do the abolitionists turn to an advocate (Hopkins, as former President John Quincy Adams) who dares raise the ultimate issues of innate rights and human bondage. Hopkins, overcoming bad makeup, floridly scripted lines, and John Williams' bombastic Weep, you bastards! musical score turns in some of his most masterful acting ever as the worn-out old statesman stoking the inner fires one more time in support of that ìtroubling and annoyingî document known as the Declaration of Independence. The grandeur of these sentiments, and their expression by Hopkins, really turns the balance in favor of Spielberg's flawed but worthy film. However imperfectly, he has crafted another eloquent reminder that although goodness lives with a perpetual sense of weariness in its battle with the self-renewing power of evil, it can never retreat, never sleep.

3.0 stars Russell Smith


FOR RICHER OR POORER

D: Bryan Spicer; with Tim Allen, Kirstie Alley, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Lerner, Wayne Knight, Larry Miller, Marla Maples. (PG-13, 120 min.)

For Richer or Poorer juxtaposes the simple, pure life of the Amish with the glittering, indulgent excesses of wealthy Manhattanites. Watching it, you can't help but ponder great anthropological questions. For instance, why is it that rich, spoiled women walk around with their arms extended, wrists limp, and fingers splayed? Is it to illustrate helplessness in the face of any distasteful domestic chores or is it to display to the fullest their immaculate manicures and truly fine jewelry? And why should the Amish restrict themselves to wearing black or gray when a nature-inspired fashion palette of austere aubergines and rustic russets would so enrich their lives without making them any less plain? These and other telling observations of life are brought to the fore as rich New York socialites Brad and Caroline Sexton (Allen and Alley) are forced to flee the city when their empire and status are threatened by a gun-brandishing IRS investigator. An accident en route leaves them stranded in the Amish community of Intercourse, Pennsylvania where, faster than a Clydesdale-drawn buggy, the couple find themselves posing as Emma and Jake, the distant cousins of the Yoder family. The Yoders (every Amish person in this movie is named Yoder) have come to Intercourse to help with the harvest and receive, in return, some marital counseling -- a felicitous coincidence, as the Sextons' marriage is in precisely the same shape as their finances. What happens, of course, is that the Sextons discover the pleasures of an honest and simple life -- rising at 4am, scrubbing floors, and eating schnitz pie. And, without all that wealth and luxury to confuse them, they discover that they really love each other! Allen's silly putty face gets a real workout as he struggles with the confounding perplexities of Amish life. Alley transfers her current TV series bimbo to the big screen without even the slightest alteration. Filling out the rest of the type cast are the ubiquitous Wayne Knight (Seinfeld's Newman) as the larcenous accountant and Larry Miller, the stand-up comic who seems to have made a career out of playing idiotic officers of the law. This is a soundly unfunny, roundly implausible movie that purports to extol human values and expose the underbelly of materialistic life. Except for a nasty little turn by Marla Maples as the Queen of Victorious Divorces, and some lovely, bucolic scenery, For Richer or Poorer is not even remotely interesting. Instead of a sweet and funny look at the simple life, it is a long, boring look at the life of simpletons.

1.0 stars Hollis Chacona


MOUSE HUNT

D: Gore Verbinski; with Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Christopher Walken, Maury Chaykin, Eric Christmas, Annabelle Gurwitch, William Hickey, Michael Jeter, Vicki Lewis. (PG, 98 min.)

It's interesting that this dark and energetic auto-bahn of a comedy from DreamWorks SKG (the K is for Jeffrey ìI Used to Run Disneyî Katzenberg) has at its center an evil mouse -- evil mice never having been Disney's forte (in fact it only took writer Harlan Ellison one mis-timed crack about Mickey to get him permanently banned from the studio some years ago). Mouse Hunt's rodent isn't evil in a bad way, mind you, just with a touch of malice aforethought. When you get right down to it, this is actually Home Alone with a rodent in place of Macaulay Culkin, which does little for Culkin's already ratty rep since Mouse Hunt is head and tiny ears above anything John Hughes has ever churned out. Lane and Evans play Ernie and Lars Smuntz, siblings who inherit a dilapidated (and improbably valuable) mansion when their father (William Hickey in his last screen role) passes away. Dear old dad also leaves them in charge of his once-great string factory, which quickly becomes a financial burden. In hopes of selling off the house, they set about renovating it only to discover its lone occupant -- The Mouse -- enjoys things status quo. What follows is some of the most inventive, wanton, hilarious slapstick, pratfalls, and all-around mayhem I've seen in a long, long time. Land and Evans bounce off each other with visible comic glee. They're obviously strip-mining territory first plundered by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (at one point, a flustered Lane gives a pair of buxom beauties the old necktie waggle), but Mouse Hunt is so spastically inventive that it's more of a homage than outright theft. Walken makes a rare comedy appearance as the deranged exterminator Caesar, who quickly finds there is no such thing as a better mousetrap, while Lewis is nicely rapacious as Lars' gold-digging wife April. The real stars of Mouse Hunt, though, are the animatronic and computer-generated mouse effects by Stan Winston and Rhythm & Hues, respectively. There's a real rodent in there somewhere, but the effects are blended so seamlessly (along with a dangerous feline, the aptly named Catzilla) that the little furball takes on a life of his own. Kudos also to Linda DeScenna's (Blade Runner) wonderfully dreary, Forties-period production design, which makes everything here look as though it hadn't been dusted since the turn of the century. Kids and adults both will howl at Lane and Evans' Rube Goldberg-esque shenanigans, as they struggle to keep dignity in the face of encroaching mousy malfeasance (though some brief, bawdy humor may soar right over Junior's head). Absolutely one-hundred-percent ridiculous, this is comedy of a higher order, and more maniacally inspired than almost anything released in years.

3.5 stars Marc Savlov


SCREAM 2

D: Wes Craven; with Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jamie Kennedy, Laurie Metcalf, Elise Neal, Jerry O'Connell, Jada Pinkett, Liev Schreiber, Lewis Arquette. (R, 120 min.)

Has it only been one year since director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson reintroduced the joys of the slasher film to the American moviegoing public? It has, but it may feel like longer, thanks to this fall's tide-me-over Williamson-directed shocker I Know What You Did Last Summer. In Williamson's Scream 2 script, the concept of the sequel takes a beating -- as in the original his characters and their dialogue are witty and almost overly hip to the conventions of the slasher genre. Here's Pinkett speechifying on the role of minorities in horror films (there aren't any), here's Kennedy listing The Rules that sequels must abide by (more gore, more bodies), here'sÖ you get the picture. This gleeful willingness to play with the obvious conventions is what gave the original its wild pop-culture kick, and both Craven and Williamson wisely stick to the tried-and-true formula in the sequel, the only hitch being that since this is a sequel it's bound to fall prey to some of the snags the characters are so earnestly discussing, and it does. Despite Williamson's knowing turnabout on the whole sequel issue, Scream 2 lacks the visceral, punchy feeling of realization the first film engendered in its audience. No longer are these wisecracks as fresh as they once were; once again, there's more than enough material in here for several film-school theses on self-reflexive, cutting-edge filmmaking. The joke is the joke, only this time out it's a tad more obvious. Scream 2 reunites the surviving cast members of the first film, places them in a collegiate situation, and then lets a copycat serial killer loose in their midst. It's one of the film's strong points that once again, there's absolutely no telling who the killer might be until the final, bloody scene. Williamson is one of the best scenarists in the business, and he keeps his dialogue crisp and rolling (one of his favorite tricks here -- and one of the funniest -- is his penchant for having one character's comments blur over into ìourî reality; for example, Gellar's character is at one point overheard discussing the latest episode of Party of Five, which, of course, stars her Scream 2 co-star Campbell). Likewise, Craven's take-no-prisoners direction; it's tightly edited, riveting, and giddily showy. A scene during which two characters are depicted on opposite sides of a soundproofed, glassed-in engineer's booth is ecstatically disturbing, and Scream 2's film-within-a-film (the aptly-titled Stab, featuring Heather Graham and Tori Spelling) is sublimely ridiculous. It's one of the better sequels to come out in years, and although it doesn't pack the emotional wallop of the first film, it's still head and shoulders (and punctured eyeballs) above most of what's out there.

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


TOMORROW NEVER DIES

D: Roger Spottiswoode; with Pierce Brosnan, Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Pryce, Teri Hatcher, Judi Dench, Desmond Llewelyn. (PG-13, 119 min.)

Spottiswoode, current altar boy for the revered 007 movie franchise, has boldly gambled on saving the redundancy-mired series by reinventing one of its most sacred elements: the Bond Girl. Michelle Yeoh, familiar to Hong Kong movie fans as the diminutive, razor-wire action goddess from the Heroic Trio and Police Story series, is radically unlike any of the pillowy vinyl love dolls who've preceded her in this role. But goodgodalmighty is she a welcome change! As Chinese Col. Wai Lin, Bond's uneasy collaborator in his latest world-saving adventure, she becomes what none of his other female costars have been: a true sidekick and rival, not just a receptacle for his gin- and vermouth-infused bodily fluids. Bond (Brosnan) hooks up with Wai while pursuing a power-mad media baron named Elliot Carver (Pryce) who's trying to start a war between China and the Western alliance. Using his foreknowledge of the events, Carver (a chimerical blend of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates) plans to dominate the breaking story with his worldwide satellite news network. That's right; in our post-Cold War era, ìthe mediaî is now a global menace beside which the supervillains of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. are lowly bush leaguers. Before Yeoh's arrival on the scene, Tomorrow cruises on languid autopilot, breezing past the inevitable touchstones of exotic opening titles, socko action intro, Q's new gadgets, etc. It's far from unenjoyable, but the dank shroud of the overfamiliar lies heavy over all, kind of like watching an Elvis concert circa 1976. Brosnan, visually perfect as he is for the role, can't break through the gathering ennui alone. Though he's able to register a few emotions previous Bonds couldn't or wouldn't (boyish glee for one), he lacks a certain vital spark. He's just a bit too debonair, I guess I'm saying. Almost as troubling -- and this is said in total deference to the virility of spy cinema's ultimate mack daddy character -- he sometimes runs like a girl in those slick-soled Italian shoes of his. Yeoh changes the whole dynamic, though. With her electrifying physicality, no-bull persona, and athletic eroticism (a fully clothed shower scene after one long chase scene is one of the sexiest moments in any Bond movie), she adds a hot gush of estrogen energy to every frame she's in. Her presence opens new stylistic vistas for Spottiswoode, who stages some gonzo action dustups that Ringo Lam or Stanley Tong might appreciate. Best of all, even pretty boy Brosnan looks and behaves like a different man around her. By the end of the film, he's flailing around, caked in sweat and blood with his hairy pecs bristling from a ripped shirt. Spent shells are flying from his machine gun, blood squibs are erupting in crimson symphony and a sort of idiot action bliss suffuses everything. And when he and Yeoh (yes, it's pronounced yow) finally exchange the traditional end-credits kiss, you may even find yourself actively looking forward to the next installment in this revitalized series.

3.0 stars Russell Smith


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