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Austin Chronicle Film reviews

MARCH 30, 1998: 

THE NEWTON BOYS

D: Richard Linklater; with Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Chloe Webb, Charles Gunning, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew. (PG-13, 122 min.)

As pictured here, the real-life clan of bank robbers who were active during the post WWI-period and known as the Newton Boys were down-home Texas farmboys just looking to grab themselves some of the Twenties roar before it left them in the dust. A lovingly recreated period piece, The Newton Boys covers a five-year span from 1919-1924 during which time the gang had the dubious distinction of being the country's most successful group of bank robbers, capping their careers with a mail-train robbery whose estimated $3 million haul was the largest theft of its kind to date. Part Western, part crime story, and part true family saga, The Newton Boys blurs the standard generic boundaries in its quest to tell a uniquely American story about the ambitions of society's have-nots and the quiet passage of eras. Indeed the film opens up with an old-timey iris-out shot that recalls the look of movies from the early decades of the century, and concludes in marked contrast with a mesmerizing coda of actual documentary footage that includes the last of the siblings chatting up Johnny Carson amid the glitz of a 1980 Tonight Show appearance. All in all, the gang was an honorable bunch who never killed anyone, and their story tells more about the rationalizations these bank robbers make for their chosen profession, the ways in which technology advances in counterpoint to new criminal methodologies, and the ominous portents of corrupt justice systems and celebrity trials of the future. The themes are undeniably rich and they seize our imagination to a much greater degree than the characters themselves. The actors are all excellent (McConaughey delivers his best work to date, Ulrich and Hawke both shine, Yoakam is a break-out revelation -- of the gang, only the usually remarkable D'Onofrio seems less vivid than we might ordinarily expect); they seem believable as brothers (except, of course, for Yoakam, who plays Brent Glasscock, the nitroglycerin expert and squirrely Fifth Beatle to the four Newton brothers). As characters however, these figures just don't seem to have enough meat on their bones to sustain our interest beyond the two hours it takes for the movie to run its course. Each character has a couple of traits to play but never emerges as a fully developed person. The women in the story (played by Margulies and Webb) fare worse, having little to do but play the "love interest." Nevertheless, The Newton Boys sparks to life in numerous other ways -- in its attention to period detail, in its elegant camerawork, in segments such as the breathtaking centerpiece montage that recounts a string of bank robberies, in the beguiling music score, and in the closing courtroom scenes that give a sense of the gang's interaction with regular folks and the institutions of state. What The Newton Boys lacks in dramatic definition, it more than compensates for with its underlying intelligence and visual luster.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND

D: Richard Kwietniowski; with John Hurt, Jason Priestley, Fiona Loewi, Sheila Hancock, Maury Chaykin, Gawn Grainger. (PG-13, 93 min.)

Every one of us is a fool for love, even stuffy English writer Giles De'Ath (pronounced as Day-ahth, the character hastens to remind us). Brilliantly portrayed by John Hurt, whose every gesture and facial expression speaks volumes, De'Ath is a British dinosaur who regards the 20th century as anathema. He's described in a newspaper blurb as "an erstwhile fogey, now cult." A widower whose life is regimented by stringent order, he's the last person one might expect to find tangled up head over heels. But not only is he goofy in love, the unlikely object of De'Ath's exultation is a teen movie idol whom he's never met: Ronnie Bostock (Priestley), the hunky star of Hotpants College II. De'Ath discovers Ronnie quite by accident: Locked out of his apartment in the rain, De'Ath wanders into a movie theatre because he's heard that E.M. Forster's works are now onscreen. Instead he finds this Porky's-like trifle and is about to leave when the face of Ronnie Bostock glues him to his seat. From that moment on he's hooked: He's buying teen magazines as though they were porn and memorizing every sacred word (Ronnie's favorite author is Stephen King, his favorite musician is Axl Rose); he cuts out photos of "snoggable" Ronnie and pastes them in an album he sweetly labels "Bostockiana"; he seeks out Ronnie's other films (films with titles like Tex-Mex and Skid Marks), even though Sight and Sound describes them as having no redeeming social value. His obsession leads to his purchase of a VCR even though he can't tell the difference between a VCR and a microwave and once he gets it home he rudely discovers that he also needs a television to make it operate. Finally, De'Ath travels to the States and takes up residence in a no-tell motel located in the little Long Island town where Ronnie is reported to own a home. His hilarious attempts at sleuthing eventually lead him to Ronnie's live-in girlfriend Audrey (Loewi) and finally to the object of his dreams, Ronnie. De'Ath insinuates himself into the couple's household, flattering Ronnie by comparing Hotpants College II with Shakespeare and telling him what a huge star he is in Europe. De'Ath's love is all-encompassing but curiously non-sexual. Unfortunately, the film can figure no satisfying way to bring this whole situation to conclusion. But until that point, Love and Death on Long Island is the height of drollery, a cheeky ode to the liberating power of popular culture, and a fascinating look at an old dog learning some new tricks. Writer-director Kwietniowski makes his feature film debut with this adaptation of British film critic Gilbert Adair's cult novel of the same title, which of course owes a debt to Thomas Mann's novella of a slightly different title. Hurt hasn't had a role this delicious in quite some time and his turn here is a welcome delight. It's almost enough to fill an unsuspecting viewer with l'amour fou.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

MEET THE DEEDLES

D: Steve Boyum; with Steve Van Wormer, Paul Walker, John Ashton, A.J. Langer, Robert Englund, Dennis Hopper. (PG, 94 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Surfer dudes adrift in Yellowstone Park vie to be this season's candidates for an "excellent adventure." Dennis Hopper plays a vengeful ex-Park Ranger villain obsessed with stealing Old Faithful by means of prairie dog malfeasance. Bart the bear also makes an appearance (just when you thought Yogi had the Yellowstone comedy bear gig in perpetuity). Deedles live "to surf and protect."

Marjorie Baumgarten



MR. NICE GUY

D: Sammo Hung; with Jackie Chan, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, Miki Lee, Richard Norton, Karen McLymont. (PG-13, 106 min.)

By Jove, the old boy's holding up pretty well. Sure, Jackie Chan at 44 has lost a bit of the startling arachnid agility he flashed 20 years ago in Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, but not all that much. For contrast, check out the lush corpulence of director Sammo Hung in his cameo role. A former kung fu badass of Chan's generation, Hung now seems to have defected to the George Foreman temple of martial arts discipline. But give Hung credit for this: He understands better than most of Chan's recent directors what audiences really want from the Hong Kong megastar's films. So to a much greater degree than Rumble in the Bronx, First Strike, and Once a Cop, the fight scenes in Mr. Nice Guy are all about Jackie and his innovative, ever-evolving kung fu style, not ensemble brawls in which he shares the glory and workload with hosts of younger protégés. I would assume that, by this point, everyone with violent objections to the encroachment of aggressive cuteness and whimsy into Chan's films -- a trend that's been underway for almost two decades now -- is already off the Jackie bandwagon. For everyone else whose interest in this genre didn't vanish after its brief eruption of mid-Nineties trendiness, there's as much good, frenetic fun to be had in Mr. Nice Guy as any action-comedy you're likely to see this year. Even after all the redundant praise Chan has drawn for infusing martial arts cinema with elements of slapstick, screwball comedy and Vincente Minnelli-style production design (check a late chase scene in which Chan and his pursuers pop in and out of a maze lined with bright blue doors), it's still a marvel to watch him do his thing. I won't waste space with a story summary. Let it suffice to say it's the kind of deal where bad guys commit scores of public assaults and murders in pursuit of a videotape that could finger them as criminals. (Tell a Jackie Chan fan his plots are a joke and the reply you'll get is, "Yes. And your point would be...?") Like countless Golden Harvest action movies before it, Mr. Nice Guy hews to a pat formula of amateurish first-take acting, cheapo special effects, Access TV-caliber film editing, and drop-dead brilliant fight sequences. This unevenness is always a bit grating. You wish Chan wasn't quite so content with fulfilling his audience's lowered expectations. Still, for all their technical shortcomings, his movies never fail to send me home with a big, sloppy idiot grin on my face and a fresh charge of endorphins lighting up my cerebral cortex. For me, that virtue alone will always be good for a quarter's worth of stars.

2.5 stars

Russell Smith



MRS. DALLOWAY

D: Marleen Gorris; with Vanessa Redgrave, Rupert Graves, Michael Kitchen, Natascha McElhone, John Standing, Alan Cox, Lena Headey, Sarah Badel. (PG-13, 97 min.)

Cinematic soporific for the cynically reclined. Unalliteratively, it's a snooze. Adapted with an eye toward ennui by Eileen Atkins (from Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel) and directed with all the radiant flair of a soggy scone by Academy Award winner Gorris (Antonia's Line), Mrs. Dalloway transforms one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature into a rambling series of misfires and who-gives-a-damn subplots that eviscerates the source material's breathless interior monologues and radiant prose. (On the plus side, it's a bold triumph for the forces of inertia.) Redgrave plays the aged Clarissa Dalloway, a woman who sacrificed her sense of adventure, self-worth, and all the other pertinent emotions when she married her politician husband Richard (Standing) and slipped quietly into the dull, safe tomb of the ruling class. She pines for the past but is helpless to recapture it; as the film opens, she's rushing about planning for that night's dinner party. In between gathering flowers, ordering mutton, and arranging the guest list, the film flashes back to the gaudy old days, and we're privy to Clarissa's downfall. It's here that we're introduced to young Peter (Cox), Clarissa's spontaneous, loving suitor before the fall, and her close friend and confidante Sally (Headey). This giddy, younger version of Clarissa is played by McElhone, who brings a vaporous charm to the role; you can tell she's falling for the suave, monied Richard (whom she meets a dinner party), and you (and Peter, and Sally) can also see it's clearly the wrong choice. Gorris intercuts these flashbacks with the parallel, though unrelated, story of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI vet whose spiraling descent into madness echoes Clarissa's past errings. Unfortunately, it detracts from the Dalloway storyline, and by the time the gibbering wreck plummets to his death atop a wrought-iron gate, you're relieved that at least that's over. Alas, Clarissa's plight continues, idly flip-flopping between then and now. The usually brilliant Redgrave plays her as a ghost in the material world, adrift and forlorn, but Gorris and co-conspirators Sue Gibson (cinematography) and writer Atkins have sucked the life out of Mrs. Dalloway's predicament more fully that any of Stoker's brood ever could. Shot through with burnished mahoganies and golden twilights, Mrs. Dalloway radiates the quiet hum of inescapable tedium; it's akin to sitting beneath a buzzy knot of high-tension power lines and playing solitaire with blank-faced cards. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ms. Gorris, I presume.

1.0 stars

Marc Savlov



PRIMARY COLORS

D: Mike Nichols; with John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, Paul Guilfoyle. (R, 143 min.)

It's uncanny: the pasty, puffy physique; the graying blow-dried hair; the throaty drawl; the direct eye contact; the instincts of a born politician. But for all the detail captured by Travolta in his role as the Clintonesque presidential candidate, Jack Stanton, in Primary Colors, it's really more an impersonation than a performance. It -- like the movie -- eludes the integral question: "What makes Jackie run?" Based on the infamous bestselling roman a clef by "Anonymous" (otherwise known as journalist Joe Klein), Primary Colors tells the story of the improbable candidacy of a Southern governor running for President whose out-of-nowhere campaign in the primaries must constantly deal with one obstacle or another, all having to do with the character (or lack thereof) of the man running for office. Of course, as you might guess, his main problem is his penchant for extracurricular bedroom activities with women other than his ambitious and supportive wife (valiantly played by Thompson), who compromises her pride in the quest of power. (She's part Lady Macbeth, part Tammy Wynette.) There's no novelty in the plot contrivances in Primary Colors because you've seen it already ad nauseam on television, in the newspapers, seemingly everywhere. Consequently, the movie seems enervated; it never really rollicks like a good political satire. (The marketing department for the film's distributor, Universal Pictures, must have viewed the latest accusations of sexual impropriety against Clinton as both a godsend and a curse.) The behind-the-scenes perspective of the campaign trail will probably interest novices to the process, particularly the parrying and feinting in which candidates engage. But such rules of the political game are often as ridiculous as they are interesting, coming off like nothing more than an amusement for grown-ups. As the film's Candide, the polite and overwhelmed Henry Burton, Lester attempts to convey a character with a wavering moral center, but his role is too sketchy to carry the film toward some true meaning. As it turns out, it's Bates' turn as a hard-nosed, profane "Dustbuster" who uncovers who's got what on Stanton, her lifelong friend, that's really the meat and potatoes of Primary Colors. But by the time that the import of her role is revealed, you don't care one way or another how it all comes out because the Elaine May script has distilled everything into a mush of oversimplified ethics. It's clear then that the true colors of Primary Colors are black and white.

2.5 stars

Steve Davis



RIDE

D: Millicent Shelton; with Malik Yoba, Melissa De Sousa, Kellie Williams, Fredro Starr, Idalis Leon, John Witherspoon, Julie Brown, Snoop Dog. (PG, 101 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Produced by Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, Ride continues in the tradition of their first House Party film. The story chronicles the adventures of a group of inner-city kids on a disastrous bus trip from Harlem to Miami as they forge unlikely friendships, find love, and discover new emotions.

Marjorie Baumgarten



WILD THINGS

D: John McNaughton; with Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Theresa Russell, Denise Richards, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Robert Wagner, Bill Murray, Carrie Snodgress. (R, 108 min.)

Dillon plays Sam Lombardo, the ladykiller-cum-boating instructor at a tony South Florida high school who finds himself accused of rape first by one leggy blonde student (Starship Troopers' Richards) and then another, darker one (Scream's Campbell) in this noirish sleazefest that plays like Basic Instinct meets Out of the Past and feels like Party of Five as directed by the Dark Brothers. McNaughton has come a long way since his personal high-water mark with 1990's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, though you wouldn't know it from this teasey, cheesy mess. Still, like Henry, Wild Things is shot in a filter-heavy, smeary-lens fashion that makes the blinding Florida sunshine look positively grimy (how anyone ever gets a tan in this film is one of the great mysteries of the universe). After the accusations, Sam takes on a shyster lawyer (played to the hilt by a goony, thoroughly believable Murray), while local detective Bacon tries to sort it all out. The fun of Wild Things -- and there's a lot of it -- is in its never-ending game of cross and double cross: Who's scamming who is the tune McNaughton's playing, along with who's screwing who, and of course that old standby: Is that really Kevin Bacon's penis? It's stupid, asinine stuff when you get right down to it, but fun nevertheless. Director of photography Jeffrey Kimball has a ball coming up with ingenious new ways to make Campbell (who needs help) and Richards (who doesn't) look slutty. Dillon, who apparently hasn't aged since The Flamingo Kid, has finally mastered the fine art of cinematic lechery. Even Russell's smallish part as Richard's rich floozy mom has zip to it, although she still sounds for all the world like she's reading her lines off the Goodyear Blimp. In keeping with the noir sensibility, there's no moral in this film -- except perhaps the old saw about good girls going to heaven and bad girls going everywhere. On second thought, scratch that: Wild Things has no good girls, just horny ones and dead ones (and maybe horny dead ones if someone can get George Romero to do a sequel). Brainless and trashy in the extreme, it's also the most canny fun to be had in a while, if you're partial to a swampside Cheez-Whiz nosh. One very important note: When "The End" comes onscreen, stay seated -- the film continues to unfold, with even more outlandish plot twists to follow. I have a gut feeling Wild Things is going to end up on a lot of otherwise respectable critics' "guilty pleasures" lists, not least of all mine.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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