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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews


D: Quentin Tarantino; with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Sid Haig, Denise Crosby. (R, 154 min.)

Apparently, it's Quentin Tarantino's mission in life to rescue long-forgotten actors -- good ones, that is -- from the dust heaps of cinema history. He single-handedly restored John Travolta's good name in Pulp Fiction, and now it looks as though he's doing the same for the queen of Seventies blaxploitation films, Pam Grier (Foxy Brown, Coffy) as well as Robert Forster (who, like it or not, I'll always remember from the Lewis Teague/John Sayles shocker Alligator). And Sid Haig (Spider Baby). And Denise Crosby (Star Trek The Next Generation/Playboy magazine). Nice work if you can get it. Based on Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, this is a far cry from the auteur's two previous films; it's practically sedate compared with the blazing mayhem of Pulp, and it has few of the lengthy, witty patches of mano a mano dialogue found in Reservoir Dogs. Instead, it's a straight-ahead caper flick, very cool, and very, very Seventies (although it takes place in 1995), from production and costume design on down to the soundtrack. Grier plays Jackie Brown, a flight attendant for one of the lower-echelon airlines who has a sideline laundering money for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When a zealous ATF agent (Keaton) pops her while she's carrying a bag of cocaine as well, she's sets herself up to play the players off one another. With the help of lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster), Jackie sets up not only Ordell, but also his buddy Louis (De Niro, hilariously stoned throughout) and Ordell's pet beach bunny Melanie (Fonda) in a letter-perfect scam that's as ingenious as it is risky. That's the plot in a nutshell, but Tarantino's having so much fun playing fast and loose with Seventies genre conventions that the film plays more like one of his beloved retro-board games than a standard QT film. For one thing, there's precious little gunfire here (though what there is of it is downright deafening -- my ears were ringing for almost an hour afterward). Instead of firefights, Tarantino relies on various aspects of the old bait-and-switch school of heist films, keeping the story rolling along at such a leisurely pace that at times it seems both his most assured film thus far and not a Tarantino movie at all. The casting, however, is vintage QT: Both Grier and especially Forster are spot-on in their roles, trading sexy stares and duplicitous grins every other frame, while Jackson proves once again just how commanding a screen presence he is and Keaton comes out of nowhere with his slyest, coolest turn since he donned Batman's dark cowl. Anyone expecting Pulp Fiction redux -- or even a new litter of Reservoir Dogs -- is in for a surprise. Totally different in style and tact from both of those films, Jackie Brown is nonetheless one cool ride. And De Niro makes an even better stoner than Brad Pitt did in True Romance, to boot.

3.5 stars Marc Savlov


D: Woody Allen; with Allen, Caroline Aaron, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Eric Lloyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams. (R, 95 min.)

The Nineties haven't been a particularly good decade for Woody Allen, either artistically or personally. Game genre efforts such as Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway begat the dreadful miscalculation of Everybody Says I Love You, while the straightforward comedies and dramas yielded such homage-laden misfirings as Scenes From a Mall, Shadows and Fog, and Mighty Aphrodite. Oh, there have been sparks all throughout, especially visible in his decade-starter Crimes and Misdemeanors, the enigmatic Alice, and the almost diaristic portent of things to come, Husbands and Wives. Of his private life, we know both too much and too little. Then along comes a movie like Deconstructing Harry, which marks the writer/director/actor's return to top form, once again using the stuff of his life to create the stuff of his fiction. It's his most personally revealing movie since Stardust Memories, riddled as it is with lacerating insights and penetrating self-analysis. Harry Block, the film's protagonist (played by Allen) is bound to infuriate some viewers, though. Harry is a successful New York novelist who transforms his life experiences into thinly veiled fictional recreations, and also appropriates and distorts (without consent) the lives and intimate details of the others who share in his real-life dramas. Harry is a selfish, misogynistic, pill-popping, vindictive, hooker-addicted, foul-mouthed cur of a human being, but he's also very funny and self-aware. When Harry confesses, ìI'm no good at life but at least I write well,î it's impossible not to be struck by the nakedness of the remark. Deconstructing Harry also shows Allen to be in peak writing form, once again proving that he's a master craftsman of brilliant one-liners. (It's tempting to simply devote this space to a mere recitation of the film's best lines -- everything from the observation that two most beautiful words in the English language are ìIt's benignî to these thoughts on aging: ìIt was a lot easier waiting for Lefty than waiting for Godot.î) When first we meet Harry, he has worked his way through three wives and six shrinks and, nevertheless, still wants to nail every woman he sees. He is about to be honored by the college that also once expelled him and, having no one with whom to share the occasion, he snatches his son from school (defying his custody agreement) as well as bringing along his hooker du jour. The structure of the movie dips back and forth between these current events in Harry's life and enactments of illustrative scenes from his novels played by the real characters' fictional counterparts. This creates a large and interesting cast of performers who, with a few odd exceptions, serve the story well. It also calls to mind such Allen films as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Stardust Memories but perhaps more directly such artist-in-turmoil films as Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries or Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It's probably inevitable that Deconstructing Harry will renew the public deconstruction of Woody. It takes a brave filmmaker to throw such highly refined fuel on the fire. (opens January 2)

3.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten

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D: Anthony Waller; with Tom Everett Scott, Julie Delpy, Phil Buckman, Vince Vieluf. (R, 98 min.)

In horror terms, 16 years is a dang nigh unprecedented span between an original movie and a sequel. There must have been--what? -- seven or eight Friday the 13th sequels in less than half that time. But John Landis' hip, gruesomely inventive American Werewolf in London made a pretty vivid impression on early-Eighties horror fans bored half-crazy by some of the tiredest hack & hurl garbage ever produced by the genre. British director Anthony Waller (Mute Witness), who was only 12 when the AWIL movie came out, obviously appreciated and internalized the unique elements that have kept Landis' semi-classic of lycanthropic lore alive in the hearts of its fans. Almost inevitably, his sequel falls a blood-flecked whisker or three short of the model in terms of originality, but this is still a fast-paced, entertaining homage that recaptures a fair amount of the old lunatic energy and subversive humor. Writers Tim Burns and Tom Stern, who were responsible for 1994's uneven but endearingly weird Freaked, have moved the action to Paris, using its gloomy medieval cathedrals, catacombs, and underground passageways to nifty atmospheric effect. Scott, in a role similar to that played by David Naughton in the original, is a young American adventurer who, while bungee-diving off the Eiffel Tower on a dare, rescues a suicidal French beauty (Delpy) who's trying the same leap sans rubber lifeline. Lovestruck but puzzled by her standoffishness, he soon finds out why she's so stubbornly resisting his wholesome charms: When she speaks of her ìcycle,î she's referring to biological processes far more exotic than the one that euphemism generally refers to. Sure, he'd heard about these French chicks' aversion to shaving body hair, but jeezÖ Soon enough, our man is learning just how profoundly love can change a guy and is helping his mercurial jeune fille battle a murderous pack of disco-crawling werewolves bent on exterminating the city's entire human population -- American tourists first. If you saw the original American Werewolf, you won't find any real surprises here. The jokes are a bit farther down the browline -- or maybe the smartness of the Scream movies has simply upped the ante in this department. And even by horror movie standards the characters seem incredibly clueless in the face of obvious danger. These failings aside, though, there's still plenty of gore-slinging, wisecracking fun to be had, and yes, the repulsively convincing werewolf transformations and attacks still pack a breath-stopping wallop. (Oddly, though, the addition of digital effects adds very little to Rick Baker's Oscar-winning makeup work in the original.) So, if you loved the first Werewolf film, enjoy the new movie-fan pastime of critiquing digital animation, want to see Julie Delpy's breasts -- or all of the above -- consider checking out An American Werewolf in Paris.

2.5 stars Russell Smith


D: James L. Brooks; with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight. (PG-13, 138 min.)

The title, As Good as It Gets, looms like an omen, telegraphing, correctly as it turns out, the impression that this movie would've, could've, should've been better. Make no mistake, As Good as It Gets' winning combo of big laughs and big emotions practically ensures that it will be crowned the feel-good hit of the holiday season. And not undeservedlyÖ there's a lot to like here, primarily the performance of Jack Nicholson, whose work in this film is the finest he's done in years. Yet in between all the laughs and tears, it becomes painfully obvious that there's not a whole lot of story here to prop up the constant emotional yanking. The movie plays best as a series of scenes -- some of them very good -- that fail to coalesce into a solid storyline. Character motivation is for the most part absent, and, occasionally, shot coherence is so sketchy as to become mildly confusing and engender the awareness of something missing. That a cute dog and a sick kid are the two biggest devices for advancing the plot also gives a fair indication of this movie's over-dependence on formula. Producer, director, and co-screenwriter James L. Brooks usually has a better grip on how to temper all these wild swings of emotion, having been involved in creating such innovative television shows as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Tracey Ullman Show, and The Simpsons, and directing Broadcast News and the multiple Oscar-winner Terms of Endearment. But As Good as It Gets lurches to and fro in a way that won't impede its quips and zingers but will confound anyone looking for the dramatic arc. The vicious one-liners that spew relentlessly from the mouth of Melvin Udall (Nicholson) may be the real glue that holds these scenes together. Melvin is a successful author completing his 62nd romance novel who also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He lives alone in a New York City apartment, and has a pathological fear of germs and stepping on sidewalk cracks. He also unloads venomous verbal shots at anyone who comes within his radar. He is an equal opportunity insulter -- his remarks can be homophobic, racist, misogynistic, xenophobicÖ whatever the occasion requires. Exactly how and why such abusiveness should be a symptom of OCD is extremely murky (as is the narrative consistency of his many other symptoms), but the movie's task is to lead Melvin into becoming a better man. Despite himself, he befriends the dog of a neighbor -- a gay artist (Kinnear) who is senselessly beaten by intruders -- and gradually befriends the neighbor. He also manages to develop a shaky rapport with the only waitress (Hunt) who will serve him at the restaurant where he eats daily. Kinnear is steadily proving that he may yet have the soul of a decent actor, but the fabulous Helen Hunt is woefully ordinary here. One wonders if Brooks went through his Rolodex, and when his Broadcast News gal Holly Hunter wasn't available, just moved on to the next name in queue. There's also the unmentionable Hollywood folderol about men successfully romancing women several decades their junior. Not only does this waitress bestow her gratuities on this man old enough to be her father, but he's a guy who also comes with a whole laundry list of pathologies and bile. In fact, it may be this bile that makes As Good as It Gets so darn irresistible. Melvin, because he's not well and also has an amusing way with a phrase, can utter the unspeakable. He's not speaking for us of course; it's his illness talking. And laughter, as we all know, is the best medicine.

2.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Edouard Molinaro; with Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Manuel Blanc, Michel Blanc, Michel Serrault. (Not Rated, 100 min.)

As portrayed in yet another costume drama from France, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais -- late 18th-century French playwright, wit, magistrate, spy, war merchant -- is less a scoundrel than he is a troublemaker, stirring up the masses with a revolutionary fervor avant le déluge. Whether Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel engages in a bit of revisionist history is something for the scholars to debate; the lofty pedestal upon which it places its populist title character is surely exaggerated. As a film, it's merely serviceable, relating the milestones in the seminal period of Beaumarchais' life prior to the French Revolution as if they were historical hoops through which to jump. (Of course, that's the paradoxical problem with most movies taken from the pages of history. They relate events as discrete chapters, with rarely a unifying thread, because to do otherwise might be intellectually compromising, although artistically satisfying.) That is not to say, however, that the film doesn't illuminate Beaumarchais as an interesting historical and cultural footnote; his greatest accomplishments were penning the social satires, The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, both of which found even greater resonance as operas, and -- according to the film, mind you -- he is almost single-handedly responsible for arming the American colonists in the early days of the Revolutionary War. In the title role, Luchini plays the part with a knowing, charismatic mischief that often comes across as Gallic smugness, as if to say: "It's a French thing, you wouldn't understand." (One wonders how an actor with more gravity, such as Depardieu, would have handled the character.) Still, Luchini's presence thankfully keeps the movie from becoming too self-reverential, even when he must utter dialogue bordering on the pretentious. In the end, the rather workmanlike Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel doesn't do justice to the spirit of its provocateur. Rather than provoke the status quo, it unwittingly preserves it, just one more historical drama seemingly dominated by clothes and sets, rather than three-dimensional people.

2.0 stars Steve Davis


D: Gus Van Sant; with Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver. (R, 126 min.)

Will Hunting (Damon) is a ìSouthieî -- a twentysomething kid from the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of South Boston. By day he works construction with his best friend Chuckie (Affleck) and by night he works as a janitor, mopping the hallowed halls of M.I.T. When he's not doing that he's out drinking down at the local pub or engaging in the sort of street-tough shenanigans that gave Alex in A Clockwork Orange such a bad name. And when he's not doing all that, he's anonymously solving some of the toughest mathematical equations that M.I.T. professor Lambeau (Skarsgard) can pitch to his students. Will is a misplaced genius, ìan Einstein,î the kind of mental gymnast who comes along maybe once in a generation, if that, and when he gets nailed by the cops and stands facing some hard time, Professor Lambeau tracks down this wunderkind and packs him off to his old psychologist pal Sean McGuire (Williams), himself an ex-Southie from those same mean streets. It's here that Will opens up about his battered childhood, his mental prowess, and his seeming lack of ambition, and also where a steady war of wills begins to simmer, Southie vs. Southie. Co-written by real-life pals Affleck and Damon, Good Will Hunting is the sort of coming-of-age story that all too often bogs down in cheap, sentimental claptrap and budding-wisdom brouhahas, but Van Sant and a very, very solid cast keep the film from breaking up, at least until the final reel or so. Will's romantic interest, the pre-med Skylar (Driver) at first seems to be such a stock deus ex machina that you grit your teeth, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Van Sant never lets it happen; she's not Will Hunting's clever, witty salvation, at least not in the classic, screen sense. That comes from William's McGuire, a crotchety, angry, seething psych professor who's trapped in the painful aftermath caused by his wife's death from cancer and his refusal to rejoin the living. He's Will's mirror image, and he knows it. It's the key to both their salvations. I've been wondering recently just who the hell Matt Damon is and why he adorns the covers of so many magazines when he's done so little film work thus far, but I have to admit, he shines in the role of Will. Will is 30% cocky bravado, 30% violent thug, and 40% bewildered mastermind, and Damon plays up a storm as he ricochets off Williams (in one of his best ìseriousî turns yet) and pals around with Affleck with the sort of ease you feel they share in real life. Things stumble a bit in the third act as emotional speeches flow like cheap red wine and Good Will Hunting threatens to spill over the dams of pathos, but it's never so much that Van Sant loses sight of the film's original intentions. Part character study, part redemptive drama, and all cheesy heart, it's Boston-baked melodrama, a little too gooey at times, but still pretty delicious.

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


D: Stanley Tong; with Leslie Nielsen, Kelly Lynch, Ernie Hudson, Stephen Tobolowsky, Nick Chinlund, Malcolm McDowell, Miguel Ferrer. (PG, 87 min.)

I know I'll go to heaven when I die because I've already been to Mr. Magoo. From the director of Jackie Chan's Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx comes this disastrously bad live-action version of the not-very-revered Sixties cartoon. Nielsen once again mugs it up -- badly -- as Quincy Magoo, the perpetually befuddled socialite-cum-myopic bumbler. The plot has Magoo being pursued by jewel thief Luann (Lynch) and FBI agent Gus (Hudson) after the millionaire (accompanied by his chunky bulldog Angus) accidentally walks off with a priceless gem from a botched museum heist. Really, all I could think about was how the stars of Wagon Train, Drugstore Cowboy, and A Clockwork Orange have fallen so far that they're stuck in Grade Z pabulum like this. Ostensibly a collection of vintage slapstick gags (Magoo narrowly avoiding falling off a boat, a building, a car, ad nauseam), the problem here is that Nielsen does little else to flesh out the cartoon character. His leaden impersonation of the late, great Jim Backus (who supplied Magoo's voice in those old cartoons) is resoundingly, gratingly awful, and his prosthetic, balding noggin makes him look more like a post-op Elephant Man than a wealthy charmer. What an actress as talented as Lynch is doing here is a mystery to rival the Sphinx. As the thieving Luanne, she looks harried, nervous, and more than a little concerned about the state of her acting career -- and rightfully so. Tong's ìeverything and the kitchen sinkî style of direction works well in the spastic, frantically paced world of Jackie Chan, but here it seems more panicked than anything else, leaving Nielsen to spin idly in the wind and totter on the edge of whatever precipice he runs into. It's a disastrous mix, and one that's only compounded by the dreadfully boring jewel-theft plotline. The script gives Nielsen and the others precious few verbal barbs (one has to think that this is because the original Magoo character did little except mistake parrots for telephones and the like), and after a while all the shameless mugging begins making you feel listless, tired, and more than a little annoyed that you were conned into Chez Magoo in the first place. It's a mess best left to the nitrate ashes of forgotten film and television history.

0 stars Marc Savlov


D: Kevin Costner; with Costner, Larenz Tate, Will Patton, Olivia Williams, James Russo, Tom Petty. (R, 180 min.)

Kevin Costner tends to arouse in me the same protective instincts as the sweet old geezer who audits a modern lit class and draws smirks from his Kathy Acker-loving classmates by rhapsodizing about Robert Penn Warren. Kev's humane openheartedness and unironic passions for peace, family, and moral clarity are so bravely unhip that one grants a certain measure of latitude for that alone. Regrettably, The Postman is just one more reminder of what a nonfactor sincerity often is in terms of artistic merit. As with his other directorial effort, Dances With Wolves, The Postman places Costner in the role of a loner whose flight from human society paradoxically leads him to heroic, altruistic deeds. In the post-apocalyptic U.S.A. of the year 2013, Costner's Gordon Krantz happens upon a wrecked Postal Service vehicle and pilfers the dead driver's uniform and mailbag. These become his tickets to food and warm receptions in towns where his disguise -- and the letters he's carrying -- are poignant reminders of the order and social cohesiveness that existed before the U.S. was nuked back to a hardscrabble frontier state. More important, Krantz's lies about a restored American government headed by President "Richard Starkey" (aka Ringo, the former Beatles drummer; you young folks may want to take a middle-aged person along to explain the countless Baby Boomer cultural references) gives the people courage to start rebuilding the nation for real. Opposing their efforts is a nomadic army of fascist leatherboys called the Clan of the Eight, headed by a demented former copier salesman (Patton). This second American revolution sprawls over more than three hours, packed with enough images of tattered American flags, postcard mountain vistas, and resolute heartland faces to create the feel of an endless Chevy truck commercial. A fine cast of young supporting actors, headed by Tate (love jones; Menace II Society) as Costner's main lieutenant and striking newcomer Williams as his love interest, create a host of scenes with genuine, unforced emotional resonance. Yet for every such moment there are three where Costner simply abdicates all artistic restraint and goes off on sentimental wilding sprees, clubbing viewers over the head with gratuitous slow-motion photography, overblown music, and wretched lines of contrived plainspoken profundity ("Stuff's gettin' better all the time, you can just feel it"). Costner blesses us with charming little surprises like Tom Petty's goofball cameo as a smalltown mayor, then blows most of his big payoff moments -- including, most disastrously, a climactic scene which resolves the long, grim war in a way that manages to feel dramatically unsatisfying, dishonest, and half-assed all at once. Let's be clear about this: Tender-heartedness and sincerity aren't what's wrong with The Postman or Costner's worldview. In fact, these are qualities I welcome in my movie diet. It's just that my enjoyment is considerably lessened when they're pounded through my levered-open jaws by a balding schlockmeister wielding a muffler mallet.

2.0 stars Russell Smith

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