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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MARCH 2, 1998: 

LIVE FLESH

D: Pedro Almodovar; with Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Javier Bardem, Angela Molina, Jose Sancho. (R, 100 min.)

Let's squelch those troubling rumors right up front, shall we? Live Flesh (euphonious Spanish title: Carne Tremula) is a different kind of Pedro Almodovar movie, but the 46-year-old director has not followed the dismal path of other former enfants terribles who've embraced bloodless conservatism in the name of "maturity."He still shoots the hottest and most stylish sex scenes in the business, still works with a color palette drawn from 1960s Xavier Cugat album covers, still retains a fair measure of the bracing, "nothing is true, everything is permitted"satirical perversity of early hero Luis Buñuel. What's really different about Live Flesh is that, to a greater degree than ever, Almodovar seems fully engaged with the inner lives of his characters, regarding them as worthy of sustained exploration and even -- ¡en serio! -- compassion. The key players are Victor (Rabal), a handsome young misfit whose obsession with hard-eyed beauty Elena (Neri) has a lingering impact on the personal lives of two cops who, in an early scene, bust him for harassing Elena. During the arrest, one of the cops, David (Bardem), is accidentally shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Fate balances his misfortune by causing Elena to fall in love with him. Victor, meanwhile, takes the rap and goes to the slammer. After he's released, he sets up in a squalid tenement flat from which he patiently stalks (woos?) Elena to the violent chagrin of hubby David. Rabal, who for much of the film sports a crewcut rough-trade look similar to Antonio Banderas in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, isn't quite the magnetic presence that Banderas was. He's a bona fide talent though, and he nails the heartsickness of a character whose only durable possession is the ride-free-for-life pass he received for being born on a Madrid city bus. The other characters in Almodovar's ensemble are just as fascinating in their own ways. Bardem, in particular, stands out as an intelligent, passionate macho man who regards his younger rival with mingled fascination, loathing and the special terror of the prospective cuckold. Not least of Live Flesh's unexpected virtues is the insight with which Almodovar, long noted for his preoccupation with female culture and psychology, explores the dynamics of male-male relationships. Another pleasant surprise is the attention that Almodovar lavishes on pure storytelling. Possibly due to the story's origin as a Ruth Rendell novel, this is the most coherent, viewer-friendly narrative he's ever filmed. But again, maturity is a relative term when speaking of the man who, only a couple of movies ago, was playing rape scenes for laughs. The camp-obsessed, taboo-flouting punk of Law of Desire, Matador, and Kika may have toned down his act, but he still makes movies with a daring, distinctiveness, and exhilarating freshness that few can match. Whether Live Flesh proves to be a new road or just a brief detour, it's an impressive display of range from one of film's true maverick talents. (2/27/98)

3.5 stars Russell Smith



MA VIE EN ROSE

D: Alain Beliner; with Georges du Fresne, Michèle Laroque, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Hélène Vincent, Julien Riviere. (R, 90 min.)

There's nothing like a little childhood gender confusion to blow the lid off suburbia's Teflon tranquillity. Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink), a Belgian import by first-time filmmaker Alain Berliner (not to be confused with the American documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner) is a warm, startling, funny, and realistic study of what happens when a seven-year-old boy is convinced, beyond all reason and outward evidence to the contrary, that he is really a girl. His certitude is astonishing in one so little, and his gender conviction is so strong that his belief can't be laughed away as the result of a "phase"or an "active imagination."Yet the crux of Ma vie en Rose is not a study of transgendered children per se, despite the fact that such sensational subject matter would seem to be surefire material for attention-grabbing moviemaking. We're never even quite certain about the long-term psychological ramifications of young Ludovic's (du Fresne) obsession: Is he transgendered, a transvestite, gay, or straight? Such determinations are not the movie's concern. What Ma Vie en Rose is interested in is what it means to be a "difficult"child, a child who whose difference always sets him apart, and what it means to be the parents of such a child. Ludovic's parents, Hanna (Laroque) and Pierre (Ecoffey), are amazingly tolerant of their seven-year-old's irresistible desire to dress in skirts, even though they try to reason with him to behave otherwise. But when Ludovic starts spinning elaborate and fantastic stories about how he really is a girl and how he wants to marry his playmate Jerome when he grows up, his actions begin to generate more serious adult concern. It doesn't help matters that Jerome's father is also Pierre's boss, thus after the two boys are discovered in the midst of a mock wedding ceremony, all hell starts to break loose. Ludovic and his family become the neighborhood outcasts, Ludovic is drummed out of school, and Pierre loses his job. Despite these dire and downbeat consequences, Ma Vie en Rose manages to maintain a remarkably spunky and upbeat attitude, probably in large measure because it stays focused on the child's point of view throughout. And Ludovic, himself, is never in doubt even though he watches as everyone else around him becomes unhinged. The film also has candy-colored flights of sheer fancy as we witness Ludovic's fantasies about a Barbie-like doll named Pam, who floats over the community and serves as his guiding light. The naturalism of the performances also largely contributes to the success of the movie, particularly in the case of young Georges du Fresne (the best French-speaking child actor this side of Ponette's Victoire Thivisol). Part social realism, part human comedy, part family drama, and part storybook fantasy, Ma Vie en Rose is an original, thought-provoking, and entertaining piece of work. (2/27/98)

3.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

DARK CITY

D: Alex Proyas; with Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, William Hurt. (R, 100 min.)

You really have to feel for Alex Proyas. This guy wears bad luck like the grimy trenchcoats of his protagonists, only his zipper's stuck and he can't seem to shake the damn thing off. It's been four years since his stunning debut with The Crow, and by all accounts Proyas has spent much of the intervening time trying to come to grips with the tragic on-set death of that film's star, Brandon Lee. Proyas, who cut his teeth in the advertising and video world of MTV, has a remarkable visual aesthetic; it's no great leap to say he's right up there with Jacques Tourneur or Ridley Scott in terms of his eye for sordid detail (his only real contemporary rival is City of Lost Children's Jean-Pierre Jeunet). And Dark City, like its predecessor, is a stunningly visual smorgasbord of tenebrous eye-candy, all creeping shadows and urban malaise. Proyas' ability to make a twilight cityscape look menacing is like no one else's. But apart from the sensory input he throws at you, Dark City is a curiously unengaging experience. It's like the CD-ROM games Myst or Riven blown up to huge cinematic proportions while the critical ideas driving the play are left behind. For all its dark splendor, nothing much happens to make you squirm or gasp or weep, as in The Crow. It flatlines before it ever begins. The story seems ripped from one of Kafka's lesser nightmares: Everyman John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with blood seeping from his forehead. Suffering from amnesia, he doesn't know who or where he is, or what's going on (in this manner he functions as the viewer's surrogate throughout the film), but he soon runs into the mysterious Dr. Schreber (Sutherland), a paranoid, possibly dangerous physician newly graduated from the Peter Lorre School of Tics and Twitches. Schreber informs him that the city's inhabitants are the victims of some ongoing cosmic experiment being conducted by a race of black-clad, fedora-topped aliens called "The Strangers,"who hope to unlock the secrets of humanity by mixing and matching people's memories. The city, it seems, is entirely a construct of these film noir bad guys, who have the ability to alter reality at will (a power Murdoch himself has picked up as well). Proyas also throws in the only American actress to ever adequately survive a Dario Argento film -- Jennifer Connelly -- as Murdoch's estranged wife, and William Hurt (suitably vague) as a Forties-style gumshoe out to solve a series of citywide serial killings. Actually, the whole film has a post-WWII feel to it, thanks in part to George Liddle's spectacular production design and Dariusz Wolski's gorgeous cinematography, but the actual time period is anyone's guess. So is much of the plot, though Proyas, who also penned the script, does his best to make things adhere to some internal logic I never quite figured out. Dark City looks like a million bucks (or rather, a million bucks gone to compost), but at its dark heart it's a tedious, bewildering affair, lovely to look at but with all the substance of a dissipating dream. (2/27/98)

2.5 stars Marc Savlov



HABIT

D: Larry Fessenden; with Fessenden, Meredith Snaider, Aaron Beall, Patricia Coleman, Heather Woodbury, Jesse Hartman. (Not Rated, 112 min.)

Let's face it: In New York City, everyone is a vampire, in one way or another. So it should come as no surprise that in Fessenden's new film, one of the undead roams around the Village sucking the life out of yet another struggling, scraggly artist-type. My reaction? The world could use fewer of these boho casualties-to-be, but you can never have enough vampires. Still, Fessenden takes the obvious and twists it to his own needs, making Habit -- for better or worse -- one Nosferatu film that plays against the grain. (Habit has also been recognized with nominations in two categories at next month's Independent Spirit Awards -- best director for Fessenden and best cinematographer for Frank DeMarco.) Writer-director Fessenden plays Sam, a down-on-his-luck barkeep with a rapidly worsening drinking problem of his own and a pocketful of woe. His father has recently passed away, and his girlfriend Liza (Woodbury) has picketed for a trial separation. Things are crappy in the kind of way only the East Village can engender, and so when Sam attends a friend's Halloween party and meets a mysterious, feral beauty named Anna (Snaider), he takes the bait and they begin seeing each other romantically. The sex is terrific, but something about his new paramour bothers Sam. For one thing, she appears and disappears from his life with alarming ease. After a night on the town and some furious Battery Park lovemaking, he wakes up alone, in the harsh daylight, with a bloody lip that refuses to heal. A social disease or the mark of Countess Bathory-lite? That's the question. The real question is whether or not any of this is really happening at all. While Sam's friends cluck and fret about his degenerating physical appearance (he looks alternately like a junkie or a film student, take your pick), Sam is interested only in finding out what's up with his lover, who, for some reason, can't stand the smell of garlic and frolics with wolves in the park. Habit evokes both the Nicolas Cage vehicle Vampire's Kiss and any number of Warhol's pleasantly annoying Factory films. Like Sam, you're never quite sure what's going on, and when you are, you don't really care all that much. To his credit, Fessenden uses every available shithole in the Lower East Side as a set, evoking the ruined hell of pre-gentrified NYC neighborhoods with the help of lousy light and the thick patina of grime that is the city's hallmark. It's a dizzying, chilly viewpoint Fessenden uses, and it calls to mind the transgressive cinema of low-rent New York auteurs such as Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, but minus their sick-puppy theatrics. In the end, Fessenden's film is so accurate a portrait of The Bad Life, that you just want it to end already. It's cinema vérité stapled to a stake and run through your bleeding heart. (2/27/98)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov



KISSING A FOOL

D: Doug Ellin; with David Schwimmer, Jason Lee, Mili Avital, Bonnie Hunt, Vanessa Angel, Kari Wuhrer. (R, 93 min.)

Watching the tangled love triangle in Kissing a Fool, you may experience a vague sense of déjà vu. There's an element of the classic Hollywood romantic comedy here, albeit a little rough around the edges, that evokes a timeless quality grounded in the belief that true love always prevails. That said, Kissing a Fool is no The Philadelphia Story, but it's frequently engaging, a moviegoing diversion seemingly made for this throwaway time of year. The central conceit in James Frey and Doug Ellin's script involves another kind of indecent proposal: Self-centered but insecure sportscaster Max asks his best friend, the super-sensitive writer Jay, to make a pass at his fiancée Sam, so that Max will know whether his future wife will be faithful to him in marriage. Aside from the Freudian angle -- before meeting Sam, Max was a notorious womanizer -- there's something very twisted going on here from a moral perspective. But as it turns out, Kissing a Fool tells the age-old story of crisscrossed love finally righting itself in the last reel in a contemporary way that's this side of superficial, down to its last f-word. Not without its problems, however, the film often has trouble bridging plot point to plot point (either a script or editing shortcoming), and some of the characters' critical motivations seem out of left field. (Max's sudden lack of confidence as to whether he can sexually satisfy Sam in their nuptial bed stems from the fact that she went to an all-girls Catholic school. Obviously, the guy has listened to one too many bad Billy Joel songs.) Schwimmer, who is also the film's executive producer, has the showy role of Max, no doubt attempting to prove a comedic ability outside the rather limited range offered by the schmuck character he plays weekly on television's Friends. He's all right in the part, although the character's obnoxiousness escalates to such a degree as the film progresses that you're left to wonder why anyone would be his best friend, fiancée, mother, or even household pet. (The movie's martyrized transformation of Max in the end simply isn't believable.) The women in Kissing a Fool aren't fleshed out very well either -- the movie is really cruel to Angel, who plays Jay's horrible ex-girlfriend -- although Avital is winning, even if a little passive, as the woman caught in the middle. The real star turn comes in Lee's performance as Jay. Although his overemphatic delivery sometimes demands a little more subtlety, Lee projects something for the first time in this movie: a warm vulnerability, coupled with a guileless sexiness. When his boyish appeal breaks through in Kissing a Fool, there's no question who's going to get the girl. (2/27/98)

2.5 stars Steve Davis



KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE

D: Todd Holland; with Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, Natasha Lyonne, Gregory Smith, Lily Tomlin, Stephen Root, Doris Belack, Carl Michael Lindner, Elaine Stritch, Tom Poston, Zakes Mokae, David Ogden Stiers. (PG-13, 94 min.)

By the time James Krippendorf's overbearing mother-in-law calls him a "Neolithic twit" and orders him out of her house, our sympathies are with her 100%. The one-joke comedy of Krippendorf's Tribe wears out its welcome quickly and then coasts on the hammy talents of its esteemed acting crew to drive its one meager joke into the ground and halfway to China. Then add the dubious charms of white actors camping it up in blackface pretending to be primitive jungle tribesmen of New Guinea and you have a comedy that belongs more rightfully to cinema's Stone Age than the present. The premise is this: Anthropologist James Krippendorf (Dreyfuss) has been in a deep two-year-long funk following the unexplained death of his wife and anthropological colleague. He's supported his three kids and slumbered through the last two years on the fat of a research grant earmarked for the study of an "undiscovered"tribe he claims to have discovered with his wife. Now the time has come to present the findings of his bogus research and he opts to continue the charade. But his bluff is called by his nemesis Ruth Allen (Tomlin), the doyenne of the anthropology department, who wants him to produce film footage of his new-found tribe. Thus Krippendorf's one lie turns into a whopper as he enlists his children to dress up in native garb and fabricate primitive rituals on a crude jungle set erected in their backyard. Adding fuel to the fire is Veronica Micelli (Elfman), a young and ambitious member of the anthropology department who hooks him up with the lucrative television contract that turns Krippendorf and his tribe into cherished pop culture icons. He even manages to pry protégé Veronica with liquor one night and get her to go native in front of his camera and in his bed. Eventually, she too is in on the ruse. As scientists go, these two bring much the same credibility to the field of anthropology as Bob Newhart brought to the practice of psychology. And all their grabbing of the prominent penis sheaths make Krippendorf's Tribe a curiously awkward choice for PG-13 family entertainment. Given the silliness surrounding him, Dreyfuss is remarkably subdued; Elfman is fortunate to have a blossoming television career with Dharma and Greg to fall back on; and Lily Tomlin and the rest of the supporting actors provide little in the way of comic relief. Director Todd Holland, whose career in recent years has been associated with The Larry Sanders Show brings little of that program's ironic tone and wit to this predictable farce. Krippendorf's Tribe is one club you don't want to join. (2/27/98)

.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



PALMETTO

D: Volker Schlöndorff; with Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon, Rolf Hoppe, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Wright, Marc Macaulay. (R, 114 min.)

Like the palmetto bugs that the film and its chief location take their name from, reporter Harry Barber (Harrelson) spends his time skittering around the Florida backwaters, bumping into things and getting stepped on by The Man. As the film opens, Harry's just been sprung from the state pen, where he's spent the last two years on a trumped-up charge. He's a mensch, a schlemiel, a putz whose luck has pretty much run out, leaving him with little choice but to make one final grab for that brass ring (in Harry's case it isn't even that -- copper is probably all that he could manage). That ring arrives in the form of femme fatale Rhea Malroux (Shue), an eye-poppingly sultry sexkitty sporting a skin-tight wardrobe and a pout to match, who enlists Harry's reluctant aid in the faux kidnapping of her stepdaughter Odette (Sevigny). She needs a bagman and Harry needs the $50,000 she promises, and so, against his better judgment, he deal himself in. And of course, everything goes downhill from there. This is the last thing I expected to see from the director of The Tin Drum, and though it's not exactly what I would term a success, Palmetto follows the rules of film noir so slavishly that it's tough not to like it just on its own dopey, headstrong merit. The casting of Harrelson in the role of just-this-side-of-stupid Harry is inspired: It's hard, nay, impossible, to imagine anyone else who could so easily straddle the line between suck and sucker with such dumbass bravado. Harrelson is shaping up to be one of the great actors of our time, though you wouldn't have guessed it 10 years back when he was slinging beers for Sam Malone. He can do more with a throwaway nod and an enervated slouch than most actors can do with a lifetime at the Actor's Studio, and I'll be the first to admit I never saw it coming either. He plays this sad-sack loser with all the stillborn energy of the dead eye of a hurricane, and it's a hoot to watch him squint 'n' drawl as his world falls to pieces. Gershon, as Harry's wife, is once again defined by her lips (to excellent effect). And Sevigny, as the wayward, double-crossing, doomed Odette, adds four or five extra consonants to the word "legs." Shue, for her part, plays the conniving heiress with more than a touch of salacious ooze; she's that proverbial kitten with a whip, the bad, bad girl that every film noir claims as its own. There's another main player here, and that's the steamy Florida town of Palmetto. Taking a tip from Ridley Scott, Schlöndorff drowns everything in a humid, sticky haze; there hasn't been this much perspiration on screen since Kasdan's Body Heat, and the only things here that seem arid or extra dry are the martinis Shue steadily downs. It's not great filmmaking -- Palmetto never gels like it should and the ending feels far too rushed -- but it is great acting, predatory sex bombs and all. (2/27/98)

2.5 stars Marc Savlov



SWEPT FROM THE SEA

D: Beeban Kidron; with Rachel Weisz, Ian McKellen, Vincent Perez, Kathy Bates. (PG-13, 115 min.)

Conventional wisdom wouldn't seem to bless the idea of a romantic melodrama adapted from Joseph Conrad by the director of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And yet, among Conrad's generally cool and reflective works the largely forgotten tale, Amy Foster, on which Swept From the Sea is based, probably comes as close as any being suited for this purpose. Kidron, meanwhile, displays a knack for walking the razor-thin line between perfervid passion and schmaltz -- or at least knowing when to cross it for maximum effect. Assuming that you're prepared for a certain amount of emotional overkill and florid dialogue (and the filmmakers' intentions couldn't have been clearer if they'd printed their posters on the embossed card stock of Silhouette Romance covers), the images of impassioned lovers embracing atop windswept crags, etc. should go down as easy as a sinfully rich brandy truffle. Regrettably, for all of Kidron's skill manipulating the imagery of high romance, this really isn't a love story in the traditional sense. Conrad's heroine is Foster (Weisz), an ethereally beautiful English lass shunned by residents of her coastal fishing village because of her alleged simple-mindedness and the reputedly scandalous circumstances of her birth. Her response to this ostracism is to develop a flaky, Stevie Nicks-like pagan wraith persona (no minor transgression in my book) that further alienates her from the dour and god-fearing locals. One day, love enters her solitary world in the form of Yanko (Perez, from Queen Margot and The Crow), a buff Russian cutie who's the sole survivor of a wrecked immigrant ship. Though Yanko is scorned by most of the xenophobic villagers to an even greater degree than Amy, he quickly becomes the object of a tense rivalry between Amy and Dr. Kennedy (McKellen, whose poignantly suggestive acting is the single best thing about this film), a cultured widower whose affection for the studly foreigner contains more than a whiff of suppressed homoerotic bouquet. But as we soon discover, neither of these love relationships is the real point of Swept From the Sea. Though the romantic encounters between Amy and Yanko are plenty torrid, they're few and brief. The story's larger theme, true to Conrad's design, proves to be the human tendency to arbitrarily designate certain of our number as The Other and to grossly -- sometimes disastrously -- misunderstand them. Kidron's well-handled denouement drives this point home with legitimately tragic force. It's good stuff, but unfortunately it's inconsistent in tone with both the movie's lushly romantic opening scenes, and with the way it's being marketed. By trying to impose an ill-fitting stylistic grandeur on a story that ultimately trades at least as much on ideas as flamboyant emotion, Kidron probably will end up disappointing both the Conrad purists in her audience and the romance-movie aficionados. (2/27/98)

2.5 stars Russell Smith


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