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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

MARCH 16, 1998: 

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

D: Randall Wallace; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne, Gerard Depardieu, Anne Parillaud, Judith Godreche, Hugh Laurie, Peter Skarsgaard. (PG-13, 132 min.)

This new chronicle of the adventures of the king's musketeers, as directed by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, suffers from a severe case of over-earnestness and star-power overkill. It's agleam with sumptuous scenes of Versailles revelry but with hardly any of Dumas' dank wit and ear for epic tragedy. Wallace, instead, places things somewhere between the bravura silliness of Richard Lester's 1974 The Three Musketeers and an Actors Studio self-help group: There's so much unintentional mugging in this film I feared for my wallet. DiCaprio, as the tyrannical boy-king Louis XIV, is at the heart of the problem. Certainly he has the boy part down pat, and his haughtiness is unquestionable, but there's something about his flat, American tones which leave his portrayal of King Fop lying in the dust. Likewise his Phillipe, the king's twin and the titular man in the mask, whom he plays with a wide-eyed bluster more appropriate to a pre-Titanic Jack Dawson. Clearly he's not the man for the job here (and who is? my vote goes to Crispin Glover, if only to add the much needed --and intentional --oddball quotient the film sorely deserves). As for the musketeers themselves, what must have seemed a casting coup of mammoth proportions doesn't play nearly as well onscreen as it does in the mind's eye. Irons is suitably pious as Aramis, who spends his days praying in his room and advising the King in matters of state while simultaneously plotting against him. The same goes for Byrne as the conflicted D'Artagnan, now Captain of the King's musketeer regiments and thus sworn in allegiance to DiCaprio's power-mad teddy boy. Malkovich, however, is coming out of left field as Athos, who is spurred to treason when Louis sends off his son Raoul (Skarsgaard, doing an impeccable Malkovich, Jr. impersonation) to die in order to make time with the boy's lady love, Christine (Godreche). Of course, Malkovich always seems to be playing left of center, but here his clipped, monotone Midwestern accents trip him up, and his paternal stoicism is cartoonish. Depardieu, as the lusty, aging Porthos seems to be the only one having any fun with his role; when not bedding the scullery maids or finishing off yet another flagon of ale, he's grousing about the unfairness of growing old and dreaming of past glories, a grizzled lech with a faltering rapier. The film itself is a jumble of period images that swirl by with little meaning or resonance, a series of ornate parties, treacheries, and rescues. It lacks the inherent impact of Dumas' tale, and its emotional core seems tacked on and unfinished. It's all swash and no buckle. (3/13/98)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov



NIL BY MOUTH

D: Gary Oldman; with Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Laila Morse, Charlie Creed-Miles. (R, 128 min.)

As our culture spirals ever-inward toward full convergence with the realm of daytime talk shows and Abuse Movies-of-the-Week, our capacity for shock diminishes in kind. So it's noteworthy when a movie like Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth has the power to pierce the hard rind that's formed over our collective senses of revulsion, outrage, and empathy. Dedicated to the memory of his father, this brutal cinema vérité depiction of a prodigiously screwed-up English family emphasizes the semantic inadequacy of such words as "dysfunctional" and "codependency." Autobiographical or not, the violent pathologies consuming this South London working-class clan will seem all too believable to anyone who's ever known such people, or who simply reads the morning paper. Father Ray (Winstone) is a binge-drinking, coke-snorting, topless bar-crawling hulk who rules his brood by fist and decree. The most frequent targets of his rage are his pregnant wife Val (Burke) and her teenaged dope-fiend brother, Billy (Creed-Miles). However, as in almost all such cases, a whole social network is required to facilitate, justify, or pointedly ignore this behavior, thus ensuring its continuation. Buddies of a similar stripe commiserate with the abuser. In-laws ineffectually complain. Neighbors just try to stay the hell out of the way. Even the abused parties have their own tortured rationales for staying in harm's way. Where Oldman really excels is in placing his harrowing material in contexts that illuminate and, to some degree, explain it. Ambient lighting, hand-held cameras, and omnidirectional mikes mirror the crude immediacy associated with John Cassavetes' films (Husbands is an especially clear reference point). Lo-fi music booms constantly in the background and characters talk over each other in barely comprehensible slurring riffs that feature the f-word as noun, verb, and adjective --often in the same sentences. (Fair warning: American audiences are likely to find a good half of the heavily accented dialogue so indecipherable that subtitles would be well in order.) The characters' immersion in this world of mindless, ultimately numbing sensory stimulation goes a long way toward helping us understand their emotional debilitation. The simplest, highest tribute is due to the performances of Burke, Winstone, and Morse (who plays Val's mother): We know these people and can vouch for the authenticity of every miserable, muddleheaded word and deed. The only reservation I have in recommending this film is the ultimate question of what value there is in this kind of naked, unmediated portrayal of such wretched situations. What Oldman has done is to open a window onto scenes we know are taking place everywhere, all the time. Why --and if --we choose to look is a personal call for every viewer. (3/13/98)

3.0 stars Russell Smith


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