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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 


FOUR DAYS IN SEPTEMBER

D: Bruno Barreto; with Alan Arkin, Fernanda Torres, Pedro Cardoso, Claudia Abreu, Eduardo Moscovis, Marco Ricca. (R, 113 min.)

The same moral absolutism that makes revolutionary action possible weakens many political movies by alienating viewers who distrust their propagandistic feel. Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) nimbly avoids this classic pitfall with a gripping, intelligent film based on the true story of Brazilian student revolutionaries who, in 1969, kidnapped American ambassador Charles Elbrick to secure the release of political prisoners. Actually, the term "revolutionaries" may seem a bit grandiose at first. Only weeks before taking arms against the ruling military junta, these kids are basically bumper-sticker Marxists whose major blows against the establishment have been to attend protest rallies and snap off sarcastic comments while watching Neil Armstrong moonwalk on TV. ("The heroic American cavalry rescues the moon," one wiseass remarks, drawing his pal's accurate rejoinder: "Yeah, but you'd be drooling all over yourself if he was a Russian.") Yet for all their satire-worthiness, the dewy-eyed members of the "October 8th Revolutionary Movement" have both a righteous cause and the guts to act on it. After brief training by a slightly more experienced rabble-rouser named Maria (Torres), they're liberating funds from government banks and urging the captive customers to rise up against the right-wing regime. Quickly recognizing the need for more extreme action, they solicit the leadership of a truly scary veteran revolutionary (Moscovis), who helps them plan and successfully execute the Elbrick kidnapping. Much of the story from this point focuses on the waiting game as a morally conflicted secret service agent (Ricca) tracks the kids down and Elbrick, portrayed affectingly by Arkin as a decent man whose job has pushed him into a Graham Greene- esque existential quandary, tries to make his captors understand the unpalatable choices superpowers face in dealing with foreign human rights issues. This approach may lack the emotional pyrotechnics of Costa-Gavras' Z, to which some have unfavorably compared Four Days in December. And granted, Barreto's characters do spend a lot of time sitting around in darkened rooms talking and peering out the blinds. There's a romance between Maria and a student named Fernando (Cardoso, playing the alter-ego of writer Fernando Gabeira, whose novel provided the source material), but it seems driven as much by shared revolutionary fervor as sexual passion. Z it isn't, that's for sure. Still, even refusing to produce the kind of simplistic, muscled-up political melodrama we've come to expect from such films, Barreto is able to show how this largely forgotten incident really mattered in the overall scheme of history. Not a watershed event, it was simply one of many acts of desperate, foolhardy courage that eventually eroded the base of an illegitimate regime. For all my admiration of Costa-Gavras, I find Barreto's approach equally persuasive - and far more amenable to my chronically skeptical turn of mind. Inspirational stuff, even for those who always rolled their eyes at "Something in the Air."

3.5 stars Russell Smith



New Reviews:

AFTERGLOW

D: Alan Rudolph; with Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller. (R, 113 min.)

Afterglow is an adult love story tinged with large measures of comedy and sadness. It's also illuminated with superb performances by Nick Nolte and sight-for-sore-eyes Julie Christie, whose work was recognized this week with an Oscar nomination. The film finds writer-director Alan Rudolph returning to the smart romantic stylings that characterized such earlier films as Choose Me in 1984 and his debut feature Welcome to L.A. in 1976. As with those films, Afterglow interlaces the romantic meanderings of a cluster of people, following them as coincidence and choice govern the paths of their lives. Lucky "Fix-It" Mann (Nolte) and Phyllis (Christie) have been married for 24 years and even though the embers of their love still provide a comforting emotional warmth, a hurt they inflicted on each other years ago still casts a pall on their relationship. Lucky, a mobile handyman, has his wife's tacit approval to work on the personal plumbing of his female employers as well as that of their clogged sinks. Phyllis, a former B movie star, is haunted by a long-ago infidelity that had dire consequences on her marriage. Running in a narrative parallel to this story is the marriage of yuppie couple Jeffrey (Miller) and Marianne (Boyle). Corporate achiever Jeffrey is a cold-hearted and self-absorbed jerk who refuses to sleep with his silly and desperate wife. She, in turn, hires Lucky Mann to build a nursery in their sterile, ultra-moderne apartment. It's no surprise that, before long, the drilling commences. But then a comic twist has both Jeffrey and Marianne following their spouses to a hotel bar where they then meet and go off together. The film continues to play off the pain of the elder couple and the vacuousness of the younger in a way that's intriguingly neither wholly drama nor comedy. Sumptuously shot by Toyomichi Kurita, Afterglow is endlessly fascinating. Nolte is well-cast as the randy yet deeply sensitive older man, while Christie has a field day measuring out her rueful and sarcastic dialogue. Detracting from the goings-on are the one-dimensional performances of Boyle and Miller. As a couple, these two seem more likely to drown in the fierce emotional currents of the Manns' marriage. Miller especially shows none of the spark that made his Trainspotting appearance so electrifying and Boyle is reduced to airhead comic responses. The film itself tends to wander as it pokes around uneasily for its tone. Yet this is also, undeniably, the source of much of the film's charm. Afterglow lights the screen in warm amber hues. (2/13/98)

3.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


THE BORROWERS

D: Peter Hewitt, with John Goodman, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie, Flora Newbigin, Tom Felton, Mark Williams, Bradley Pierce. (PG, 87 min.)

Beginning in 1952, and spanning three decades, author Mary Norton wrote a series of children's books based on a family of tiny people who reside beneath the floorboards of an old country house "borrowing" the odd needle or matchbox in order to fashion ingenious and useful miniature furnishings. Filled with that peculiarly British blend of silliness and stolidity, the books are engaging, hilarious tales of the Clock family - Pod, Homily, and Arietta - whose well-being depends upon the dreaded creatures who live and tower above them. It's a foolhardy pastime, comparing movies to books, and hardly fair when you're dealing with memories of beloved childhood favorites. Still, one can hardly look the other way when a classic book is given what I've come to think of as the dreaded Home Alone treatment. Which is to say, the film makes the assumption that it can't possibly be entertaining unless somebody is constantly slimed with disgusting goo or burnt to a hair-curling crisp or speared in the rear with a sharp object. Oh, the film doesn't totally forsake its namesake, but therein lies the rub. For the film captures just enough of the whimsical nuances of Norton's books to tantalize - and disappoint. It whispers at imagination, hints at charm, and flirts - briefly and carelessly - with character development. All for naught. Arietta remains the focus of the story, a restless teenage borrower whose dreams of the great world beyond the floorboards lure her out into the open, touching off a great escapade. But her brush with the enormous world of the human "beans" and first encounter with a teenage boy borrower, both intrinsically momentous and magical occasions, are lost in the tumult of slapstick villainy. John Goodman too often fills the screen, his Ocious P. Potter a big, slow-witted buffoon of a bad guy, his exaggerated eyebrow motion and multiple double-takes a paltry substitute for acting. And brilliant British comic Hugh Laurie is shamelessly wasted as an officious bobbie who quite undeservedly saves the day. (If the writers had stuck to the book, he could have done a hilarious bit responding to a hysterical housekeeper's description of "dressed up mice," but no such luck here.) Hewitt opts instead for style over story. The Borrowers is a sumptuous and incongruous jumble of varying time period elements but the effect is more distracting than intriguing. The stylish set design and brooding, sepia-toned lighting play at odds with the cartoon quality of the picture and the prevailing murkiness obscures (literally and figuratively) the action and the characters and dampens the spirits. No intoxicating ray of sunshine, no glimpse of a world full of adventure and enchantment beckons Arietta or the audience. The few scattered sparks of magic in The Borrowers simply cannot give light to all this dreariness. (2/13/98)

1.0 star Hollis Chacona


FETISHES

D: Nick Broomfield. (Not Rated, 86 min.)

Never known for taking the easy way out, British documentary filmmaker Broomfield (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) sets his sights on the Manhattan S&M parlor known as Pandora's Box and comes away with mixed results. Broomfield and his cameraman spent two full months at the tony, upper-crust establishment, and though there's hardly anything shocking or revelatory in the film, it does present a complete view of exactly what goes on there and who is affected in what way. True to form, most of the clientele are lawyers, bankers, and Wall Street brokers, powerful men eager to hand the reins over to someone else for a while. Although initially Broomfield was refused entry into the private, behind-closed-doors sessions (wiseass comments, such as asking a house submissive "So, you do the shopping as well?" probably didn't help matters much), before too long he ingratiated himself into the world of bondage and domination.The film presents a unique fly-on-the-wall perspective. Most of the women working as mistresses at Pandora's Box hold more conventional day jobs, and Broomfield grills them as to what goes on in the rest of their lives. "Do you hope to get married and have kids one day?" he asks pouty Mistress Natasha; the answer is yes, though you have to wonder what sort of disciplinarian she's going to make for the tots. The quote that most accurately sums up the age-old question of S&M though, comes from whip-loving Mistress Katherine, who says, "It's just kind of nice to be able to beat someone every once in a while." And when the beatee is the head of one of the most successful financial institutions in New York City... well, the mystique is obvious. Broomfield also targets the clientele, who surprisingly allow themselves to be filmed with few reservations. Granted, most of them are trussed up in black rubber and look like cut-rate Pulp Fiction geeks, but it's still odd that so many of the men consented to appear on-camera. Perhaps it's Broomfield's British charm; whatever it is, it eventually gains him access into the homes and apartments of the various mistresses, where, sadly, nothing much is revealed. Despite the seemingly fish-in-a-barrel aspect of Fetishes, there's not much new to be gleaned from the film. The most exciting, telling, and humorous bits come as the assorted dominatrixes attempt to get the director to undergo one of their sessions. "But I don't like pain!" he cries, backing away again and again, until, finally, they literally chase him up a wall, where he brandishes his boom microphone like a cornered ape. Now, that's entertainment. (2/13/98)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov


LEWIS & CLARK & GEORGE

D: Rod McCall; with Rose McGowan, Salvator Xuereb, Dan Gunther. (Not Rated, 86 min.)

This seems to be a movie that all directors feel compelled to make at some point in their careers. You know, the one with horny, treacherous young outlaws barreling through the desert Southwest in dusty vintage cars, waving pistols around like Yosemite Sam and raving about their dreams of "headin' down to Mexico and livin' like kings." Adman-turned-filmmaker Rod McCall gets it over with in his second feature, a darkly comic Treasure of the Sierra Madre homage that boasts the usual inventory of dimwitted psychos in jeans and white T-shirts, endearing redneck eccentrics, and - needless to say - a wily femme fatale who plays her male accomplices for fools. With the help of his gifted director of photography Michael Mayers (Spanking the Monkey) and Austin-based production designer John Huke, McCall at least gives his picture a fresh, vibrant appearance, full of rich primary hues that achieve his stated aim of evoking old Warner Bros. Roadrunner cartoons. The cartoonish feel carries through to the broad acting that strives consciously for laughs other movies of this general ilk (Kiefer Sutherland's wretched Truth or Consequences, N.M., for example) too often get by accident. Although the comic dialogue is of a generally low wattage, the most obvious problem being that few of the characters are smart enough to muster any real wit, there's plenty of energy and personality on display. You get the feeling these talented young actors, including Gunther (Denise Calls Up) and Xuereb (Doom Generation) as the male fugitives and the delectable McGowan (Scream) as the mute grifter who joins them in mid-flight, are laying it all on the line for us. Their zeal is infectious. Reaching even farther for praise, James Brolin and Paul Bartel turn in nifty cameos and the double-twist ending adds a direly needed element of surprise. But after the last bug-eyed Mexican standoff scene is done and the bullet-raked corpses are reddening the desert sand, you've seen precious little that you haven't already run across in some combination of Love and a .45, Cadillac Ranch, Truth or Consequences, N.M. or a gazillion other films within this broad genus. So why does anyone bother to keep making and seeing these brazenly plagiaristic movies? My theory is that, at some point during the sentimental education of every American hipster, the Cool Trash aesthetic is hardwired into the brain. By incorporating so many of this aesthetic's classical reference points (convertibles, white trash fashion, gun fetishism, desert-dwelling riffraff, flight to Mexico, etc., etc.) the desperate-kids-on-the-lam movie practically dares you not to like it, on penalty of uncoolness. Sorry Rod, I'm afraid I'll have to take you up on that one. (2/13/98)

2.0 stars Russell Smith


THE ONLY THRILL

D: Peter Masterson; with Diane Keaton, Sam Shepard, Diane Lane, Robert Patrick, Tate Donovan, Sharon Lawrence. (R, 120 min.)

For Reece McHenry (Shepard) and Carol Fitzsimmons (Keaton), the love they share has been the defining characteristic - the only thrill - of their lives over the last 30 years. Though defining, this love is unarticulated and undemonstrative and these inadequacies pave the way for its downfall. The story begins in the mid 1960s and continues through to the mid 1990s. Reece, whose wife lies unseen and offscreen in a coma throughout the entire picture, is the owner of a small used-clothing store on the dusty main street of a small rural town. (The Only Thrill was shot in Bastrop, Lockhart, Martindale, and Austin during the winter of 1996.) Into Reece's life comes the widowed contract seamstress Carol. Over the years, this pair's relationship comes to be organized around their Wednesday afternoon rendezvous, when the couple would ritualistically slip off to the afternoon matinee at the town's only movie theatre and then stop in for drinks at the local tavern before retiring home to press their own copy of carnal knowledge. Meanwhile, fate also plays a hand in the lives of Reece's and Carol's teenage children (Lane and Patrick) who, despite never having been introduced, manage to cross paths nevertheless and become the great loves of each other's lives, although they never stick around long enough to let their romance fully blossom. Years pass in the same pattern until the fatal illness of Carol's sister in Canada intervenes. Lacking any declaration of love from Reece, Carol moves to Toronto to nurse her ailing sis. Though Reece and Carol meet up again a few more times, Reece's inability to express his true feelings continues to keep the pair separated. The movie's only mystery is whether or not the next generation is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its elders. Shepard and Keaton (who have appeared together before in Baby Boom and Crimes of the Heart) are pleasing and believable as the stunted lovers, especially when enacting their early middle-aged bloom. The physical markers of time's passage are less believable, however, relying too heavily on greasepaint, hobbled steps, and Reece's overt comments that his memory is failing. These slips are typical of The Only Thrill's distracting inattention to detail throughout. The comatose wife to whom Reece is so dedicated is strangely never visited by him; the Canadian movie theatre glimpsed in one scene prominently sports the logos of the American theatre chain, ACT III; the specter of Vietnam is raised in the opening sequence (set in the year 1966) but is never mentioned again, which is something like the theatrical taboo against introducing a gun in the first act and then never using it; and, personally, I prefer that when two characters die of a fatal illness, the plot-twisting disease at least be accorded the respect of having a name. Recounted almost as a series of vignettes, The Only Thrill offers tantalizing glimpses of love unfulfilled, but most of the really interesting stuff remains out of sight. (2/13/98)

2.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


SPHERE

D: Barry Levinson; with Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber. (PG-13, 118 min.)

It's not Titanic, but at least Sphere offers up more oceanic special effects. Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, Sphere follows a team of scientific specialists whose mission it is to explore a massive spacecraft that has been submerged on the ocean floor for almost 300 years. Physical and psychological terror ensues. Sphere is the film Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman were scheduled to make when they detoured to film the quickie production Wag the Dog. These two have good instincts, if nothing else. ()

Marjorie Baumgarten


THE WEDDING SINGER

D: Frank Coraci; with Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Steve Buscemi, Allen Covert, Angela Featherstone, Matthew Glave, Billy Idol, Christine Taylor. (PG-13, 96 min.)

I can't help but think that retro-Eighties nostalgia trips like this one would be a lot more effective had we all not been rehashing the whole Eighties music thing since January 1, 1990. I was sick of the Eighties then, and by now I've gotten to the point where the very mention of the Thompson Twins or Kajagoogoo causes me to swerve my car into oncoming traffic. The Wedding Singer does little to alleviate this overkill situation, though it is a harmless and occasionally hilarious pop comedy good for a few bargain yuks. It's 1986, and Sandler plays Robby Hart, a failed rock & roller whose current career as a wedding singer isn't exactly what his fiancée (Featherstone) had in mind when she said yes. In a brilliant show of bad taste and even bigger, badder hair, she leaves him standing at the altar, which sends him into a vicious emotional tailspin that he then takes out on his bride and groom clients. Luckily, he quickly falls for Julia (Barrymore), a plucky, naïve wedding caterer who, unfortunately, is also about to marry the wrong person. As Glenn, her betrothed, Matthew Glave is a two-timing Wall Street slimeball, the kind of reptile that was an icon of Eighties materialism. Will Robby rescue Julia from her marital doom? Will the two of them finally act on their mutually lovestruck impulses before it's too late? If you have to ask, I'm demoting you to the remedial film class right now. Coraci and company pile on the Eighties touches as though this were some sort of Biblical epic and Boy George wrote the Ten Commandments. Everything from Dallas jokes to rubber bracelets, Michael Jackson gloves, and the Buggles make indiscriminate appearances. It's all a bit desperate, and by the time Billy Idol (he's alive?) appears in the film's final minutes, you're practically screaming for Nirvana to swoop down from the heavens and smite the whole mess with one big Sub-Poppy chord. Okay, it's not that painful, but really, there's only so much pastel pink and purple set design a guy can stand. Sandler is actually at the top of his game here; he plays Robby as a genuinely nice guy (with Fee Waybill's hair) who truly enjoys the fun-lite he brings to his wedded clients. He gets off on the whole idea of marriage and commitment, and he makes full use of that puppy-dog face and atonal snivel. He and Julia are a pair of naïfs lost in a world run by Gordon Gekko and his ilk. At times it borders on the abyss of perpetually cute, but a nicely contrived endgame á la The Graduate manages to cinch things up. Like the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, it might make you yak, but it tastes pretty good going down. (2/13/98)

2.5 stars Marc Savlov


WELCOME TO SARAJEVO

D: Michael Winterbottom; with Steven Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Emira Nusevic, Kerry Fox, Goran Visnjic, James Nesbitt, Emily Lloyd. (R, 101 min.)

Trying to make sense of a conflict that most Westerners would rather put out of their minds isn't really Welcome to Sarajevo's chief concern (although that may be the feeling you get going in). Instead, director Winterbottom takes an accusatory stance against not only the plight of the many victims of the Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian civil war in former Yugoslavia, but also against the politics of the West that allowed the bloodshed to continue across the better part of the first half of this decade. For all the U.N.'s blue helmets and John Major's endless speechifying, the war and its simultaneous "ethnic cleansing" was, for most of the world, second-page news at best. Loosely based on the memoir Natasha's Story by British journalist Michael Nicholson, Welcome to Sarajevo tells the story of the war correspondents sent to cover the siege of Sarajevo in 1993. There's Michael Henderson (Dillane), the gruff Brit who finds himself drawn to the plight of nine-year-old war orphan Emira (Nusevic); gonzo American Flynn (Harrelson), who courageously risks a sniper's bullet to aid a fallen victim, then makes damn sure the footage makes it into his newscast; Nina (Tomei), the American relief worker eager to cut any deal to airlift the orphans to safety in Italy; and Risto (Visnjic), the Yugoslav driver and aide de camp who fills in after his predecessor is killed. Tomei looks far too fresh-scrubbed to be anywhere near a bloody, messy hell like this, but the rest of the cast is grimly realistic, particularly Harrelson, who manages to bring some goofball credibility to what is essentially a very small role. Throughout the scenes of carnage (of which there are many - Winterbottom weaves real atrocity footage amongst his staged recreations, and the effect is chilling and very gory), the main story emerges, that of Henderson's attempts to smuggle the young Emira to safety in Britain. Welcome to Sarajevo also brings up some hard questions about the sheer impossibility of foreign corespondents remaining true to their journalistic neutrality in a war zone. If, like Harrelson's character, a journalist risks his life to save a sniper's victim, isn't he by that very act of compassion abandoning his credo of impartiality? It's a tough question, and one that is a source of endless debate amongst the correspondents who cover war zones. At times, Winterbottom veers into pedantic, visual screeds, editing in footage of ineffectual Western leaders against shots of dead children and mangled families. That aside, he's crafted a harrowing glimpse inside this conflict that, at the time, no one much seemed to care about, and that in itself is worth some attention. (2/13/98)

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


ZERO EFFECT

D: Jake Kasdan; with Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal, Kim Dickens, Angela Featherstone. (R, 116 min.)

Ben Stiller has one of those faces that seems to morph almost instantaneously: One minute he's a puppy dog, the next a slightly off-kilter goofball. Consequently, in a perverse respect, Stiller's thankless role in Zero Effect is an ideal one, given that it doesn't leave him much to do but alternate between those two facial expressions. A contemporary detective puzzler that's as clever as it is precious, Zero Effect is a postmodern riff on Sherlock Holmes, with Stiller playing a put-upon Watson to Pullman's brilliant but wacko sleuth, Daryl Zero. The film works if you buy its Holmesian character: a world-famous, but reclusive and socially awkward criminologist (think along the lines of Howard Hughes) whose powers of logic and deduction are unparalleled. Using a method of complete detachment and objectivity called the "Zero effect" ­ a trancelike state in which he twists his body into an angular fetal position ­ he can crack any case he's asked to solve. When he's not engaged as a private investigator, however, he's a complete mess ­ swallowing amphetamines, guzzling Tab, eating out of tuna fish cans, and generally acting like a nutcase. Try as he may, Pullman has trouble making this virtually unplayable eccentric believable; the role is too artificial for its own good. As freakish as Pullman's performance is the appearance of O'Neal as Zero's client ­ when was the last time he was in a movie? Director-screenwriter Kasdan's script is interesting in a way that other kinds of brain-teasers can be: stimulating, inventive, somewhat satisfying, but really never within reach of being solved yourself. Although the storyline puts a nice emotional spin on its central mystery of missing keys, blackmail, and revenge, it doesn't mesh very well, in large part due to Zero's incongruous character. Kasdan's directorial skills could use a little honing as well. (To be fair, this is his first effort.) There's very little atmosphere in the film, and the languid pacing nearly undermines the intermittent pleasure of the unraveling narrative. Zero Effect is by no means a disastrous debut, but it does make you wonder what the guy might accomplish in his sophomore try.(2/13/98)

2.0 stars Steve Davis


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