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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

OSCAR AND LUCINDA

D: Gillian Armstrong; with Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell. (R, 131 min.)

People in glass churches shouldn't amount to great movie subjects, but all bets are off when it comes to Oscar and Lucinda. An eccentric, idiosyncratic story about glass, love, gambling, and Christian faith, Oscar and Lucinda is a high-wire kind of a movie ­ you wait for its fragile glass structure to shatter or inevitably cloud up, but the film's roof beams keep poking upward toward loftier heights and fill the theatre with the intoxicating rush of ethereal air. Based on Peter Carey's 1988 Booker prize-winning novel (England's top literary award), Oscar and Lucinda was adapted for the screen by Laura Jones (Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady). In many ways, this period film about a couple of society's square pegs is familiar turf for director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Little Women), whose works are always populated with strong, self-confident female characters and the men who love them. Yet the visual and emotional delicacy of Oscar and Lucinda is also tempered by a strong comic and earthy streak. Set in Australia during the Victorian era, the film recounts the romance of Oscar and Lucinda, a pair of odd birds whose fate becomes forever entwined by a deck of cards and a transparent glass church. Their story begins with their childhood, introduced by an offscreen narrator (Oscar and Lucinda's future great-grandson) whose recitation has the richness of oral lore that has been passed down through the generations. Oscar (Fiennes) is the shy, awkward son of a severe preacher father. At a young age he asks God for a sign and leaves his father's stern influence, though his gangly body and deep-seated guilt make him a strange character well into his adulthood. While studying at Oxford for the ministry, Oscar discovers his knack for betting on horses. He's a steady winner who gives his earnings to the poor but when he recognizes that he has become obsessed by gambling, he flips a coin and decides to escape his temptation in the Australian outback. While traveling there, he meets Lucinda (Blanchett), an heiress of a Sydney glass works whose feminist mother raised her to become a "proud square peg." Lucinda also harbors a weakness for wagering on cards, and thus a love begins. Yet as they grow closer, Oscar becomes convinced that Lucinda is really in love with the Reverend Dennis Hasset (Hinds), a glass connoisseur who has been exiled to a remote settlement in order to squelch festering rumors of improprieties with Lucinda. Then, faster than you can say Fitzcarraldo, Oscar hatches a bet as to whether or not he can deliver a glass cathedral to Reverend Hasset in the outback. It's all a mad gamble, full of folly, fervor, and inspiration. It is a tale like none other, a romance all their own, a saga for their progeny. Fiennes has not been this mesmerizing in a role since Schindler's List and newcomer Blanchett's luminescence recalls nothing so much as Judy Davis' stunning international debut in My Brilliant Career. Keeping with the spirit of its lead characters, Oscar and Lucinda is a movie best met with a gambler's faith: You may not be certain what it means in the end, but its magnificent payoff is neverthess a sure thing. (2/20/98)

4.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


BENT

D: Sean Mathias; with Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Ian McKellan, Mick Jagger, Brian Webber, Clive Owen. (NC-17, 104 min.)

The most amazing thing about Bent is that it has been tagged with those scarlet letters of the film industry: the NC-17 rating. It's a grim film from start to finish, yes, but the violence is contextual and inherent to the story, and the brief orgy scene that opens the film is hardly as disturbing as all that. Based on the play by Martin Sherman, Bent is the story of Max (Owen), a gay man and bon vivant amid the erotic decadence of pre-WWII Berlin, who finds himself ensnared in the Nazis' systematic extermination of homosexuals. Arrested with his boyfriend Rudy (Webber) before he can finalize plans to leave Germany, the pair are shipped via cattle-car to Dachau. Rudy doesn't survive the rail ride, and Max's spirit is nearly extinguished as well, though a brief exchange with Horst (Bluteau) helps him cement a plan. Horst tells him that the pink triangle ­ the Nazi emblem indicating homosexuality ­ is the very worst marking to have, even worse than the yellow star that denotes the Jewish prisoners. Taking this to heart, Max labels himself a Jew, receives his yellow star, and is put to work in the endless, frustrating, and utterly pointless task of moving stones from one pile to another and back again. With the aid of some money he has managed to smuggle into the camp, Max arranges to have Horst work alongside him, though his new partner is at first resentful: Like the legendary Chinese Water Torture, the meaningless movement of the rocks from place to place is an exquisite horror and certain path to madness. Working in tandem day-in and day-out, the two men gradually forge a slim bond of both respect and romance. In the film's most controversial scene, they stand side by side and vocalize the various aspects of making love, eventually climaxing without ever having touched. It's one of the most erotically charged scenes ­ gay or straight ­ in recent memory, and it drives home the loveless reality of the camps and the indomitability of which the human spirit is capable when placed in the spitting cauldron of a hell on earth such as Dachau. Although the vast majority of Bent focuses on Horst and Max in the camp, Matthias wisely sets things up in an extended sequence set in a Berlin nightclub (run by Jagger's transvestite Greta, who dangles perilously above the crowd while sitting in an ornate swing and singing crack-voiced odes to the decadent city). McKellan is also here as one of Max's dandified family friends; it's he who promises to help spirit Max and Rudy out of town before their time runs out, which, eventually, it does. There's no question that Bent is a viscerally affecting film, ripe with sadness and pungent with the scent of misery and suffering. There are times here, though, when Max and Horst dig deep in their psyches and come up with huge gobs of over-earnest pedantry. More Sartre, less filling? No, it's just leftover dialogue from the stage that could just have easily been excised; the film is a punch in the gut and a kiss on the lips, and it works despite these flaws. (2/20/98)

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


SENSELESS

D: Penelope Spheeris; with Marlon Wayans, Rip Torn, Tamara Taylor, David Spade, Matthew Lillard, Brad Dourif. (R, 88 min.)

I suppose it's good to know that as long as Penelope Spheeris is around, David Spade will probably have a steady stream of pay-the-bills roles offered to him. Her comedies are always in need of someone who can essay a classic toadie character, and Spade, more than anyone else these days, can fit that bill. And with Chris Farley permanently out of the picture, it's unlikely that Spade will be moving on and up to, oh, Branagh-sized Shakespearean efforts anytime soon (although I still think he'd make a nifty Iago). That said, this newest laff-riot from the once and future director of The Decline of Western Civilization documentaries is a lamentable mess, chiefly made up of stale gags that went bad sometime during the Kennedy administration and a stunningly unengaging romance that has all the snap of a moist cotton swab. Wayans plays college student Darryl Witherspoon, a bright, clever guy whose one big dream is to secure a junior analyst position in Rip Torn's brokerage firm so he can support his poor mother. In an attempt to generate some quick cash and free up some study time, Darryl becomes a lab rat for mad professor Dr. Wheedon (Dourif, utterly insane, as always). Injected with a glowing green serum that looks suspiciously like the resurrecting agent from Re-Animator, Darryl's five senses are instantly heightened tenfold, giving him the ability to check out women's butts from a quarter-mile away, the power to eavesdrop on anyone, and a super-sensitive johnson. Now that's comedy! There are, of course, horrific side effects (though not nearly as horrific as you might have hoped) that pop up later, complicating Darryl's brokerage quest immeasurably; but for a while, these newfound abilities give him the edge over Spade's sniveling competition. In the meantime, Darryl strikes up a love jones with fellow student Taylor and convinces his roommate (Lillard) that he's a drug addict. Actually, it's Lillard who makes the only sense in Senseless; here he's a pierced and punctured punk rock hockey star, as spastic as ever, but always commanding attention. Lillard is in the process of becoming a sort of Steve Buscemi for the 13-25 set, appearing in everything from cult faves Hackers and Scream to Chris Roberts' upcoming Wing Commander film. Still, Senseless is essentially a weak mishmash of scatological humor and rubber-faced pratfalls (not surprisingly, it was penned by the same folks who brought us last fall's equally insipid Rocketman). Yet another case of an excessively accurate film titling. (2/20/98)

1.0 stars Marc Savlov


SPHERE

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

Speaking as a movie-consumer's advocate ­ though not necessarily as a book critic ­ I suggest at least a cursory skim through Michael Crichton's source novel before going to see Sphere. This will inoculate you against an otherwise likely sense of annoyance at getting roped into a classic bait-and-switch con. In other words, don't trust the impression created by Sphere's intriguing trailers that it has much to do with the awe and terror of direct contact with an advanced alien intelligence. Without totally blowing the surprise element of this movie (which in any event I'm urging all but the staunchest Crichtonheads to skip), I have to tell you that what Levinson and company have cooked up here bears as much resemblance to, say, Roger Corman's schlocky Galaxy of Terror as the blend of The Abyss and Contact you've been led to expect. The characters are a mixed bag of scientists sent to probe what is apparently the 300-year-old wreckage of an alien spacecraft resting a quarter-mile deep on the Pacific Ocean floor. At every step in their early quest we're plied with images and music that promise an encounter with physical and psychological immensity; big stuff to wrap our eyes and minds around. But all is not as it seems. For one thing, the investigation quickly strikes a brick wall ­ or, rather, a big slithery-surfaced gold orb the explorers find in the ship's cargo hold. Right about here, Levinson's skillfully accumulated head of dramatic tension begins to leak away with an almost audible hiss. The scientists start bickering (Hoffman and Stone's characters have had an ugly romantic crash-and-burn in their past, and Jackson and Schreiber are lifelong rivals). Inexplicable disasters soon begin to occur, possibly connected in some mysterious way to all the bad emotional karma in the air. And that, costly trappings aside, is your movie. Basically, what Sphere delivers is a mediocre Outer Limits TV script resting atop a massive, needlessly complex superstructure of overplotting, high-dollar f/x and banal head games. With screenplays this poor (and the fault lies not only with Crichton but the three other writers who adapted his novel), I'm inclined to cut slack for actors who are left with an unreasonable share of heavy lifting to do. So it'll be here, although both Jackson and Hoffman ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting Stone pour this much passion and energy into her inanely written role while they basically skulk in the scenery's dark corners hoping nobody will notice them. Sorry, guys, you're busted. As for you, Barry ­ and anyone else in Hollywood who persists in believing Michael Crichton's literary oeuvre is suitable fodder for classy sci-fi adventure films: Wake up and smell the cheese. For every Jurassic Park blockbuster there'll be three ponderous duds like Sphere or Congo, and you can take that to the bank. (2/20/98)

2.0 stars Russell Smith


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