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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

JUNE 22, 1998: 

MULAN

D: Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft; with the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Gedde Watanabe, James Hong, Miguel Ferrer, Pat Morita, George Takei. (G, 90 min.)

Ink flows, graceful as a winding river, etching title credits onto a cinematic expanse of parchment. The credits fade, and out of the mist a great wall looms, perched severely, ominously on the mountain ridge, extending far, far into the horizon. So opens Mulan, as beautifully and austerely as a budding plum blossom framed against a forbidding sky. Disney's latest animated feature hearkens back to its heyday fare, a sweet and captivating tale that pits gentle, enduring goodness against dark, malevolent forces. Based on an ancient Chinese legend about a girl who masquerades as a soldier to replace her frail father in the war against invading Huns, the movie makes the most of its remarkable animation, an engrossing story, and a winning protagonist. Mulan is smart, brave, beautiful, and (it's about time!) not the least bit voluptuous. Her disguise as a boy is more natural to her than the whiteface, rouge, and restrictive costume she must don in her quest for a husband. When she fails to pass muster as a prospective bride, her disappointed father comforts her with the assurance that certain flowers merely bloom later than others. And bloom she does, not a fragile hothouse blossom in a cultivated garden, but a strong and hardy wildflower in a cold and dangerous wasteland. As lovely and evocative as the scenes of Mulan's girlhood are, the film's action sequences where she proves her mettle are a visual feast of truly great proportions. The wave of Mongol warriors cresting the snowy mountainside is a thrilling sight -- terrifying and mesmerizing and beautiful -- all perfectly reflecting the contrasts of darkness and light, of grace and power so intrinsic to Chinese art. Such loveliness makes the addition of the prerequisite anthropomorphic sidekick (in this case, a diminutive, jive-talking dragon named Mushu) a jarring, anachronistic addition to the mix. Mushu (Murphy) is of little help to Mulan, but he does have some funny lines and the kids will no doubt love him. Make no mistake though, this children's film is a work of art, replete with mood and history and images that convey a sense of place and time more deftly than any photo travelogue could. Once you've scaled the Great Wall in Mulan, you feel like you've breathed the chill air, felt the fog on your skin, shrunk a bit in the face of the sheer vastness of the land. You also have spent time with a wonderfully engaging heroine. This is 2,000-year-old Girl Power, and it packs a mighty but winsome wallop.

4.0 stars

Hollis Chacona



CLOCKWATCHERS

D: Jill Sprecher; with Parker Posey, Toni Collette, Alanna Ubach, Lisa Kudrow. (Not Rated, 96 min.)


Having worked alongside office temps for many years, I can truthfully say I'd rather squeegee windshields at stoplights than share these poor wretches' netherlife of thankless, anonymous conditional employment. Jill Sprecher's first film contains so much grimly accurate detail about the low-level contract worker's lot that I have to believe she's spent her share of time in that particular absurdist hell. The story, co-written by Sprecher and her sister, Karen, centers on four young women toiling in the cube farm of a large credit bureau. Sitting at absent co-workers' desks and regarded by "permanents" as ambulatory office equipment, their moments of greatest emotional intensity come from trying to wheedle extra staples from the stingy putz who guards the supply cabinet. Iris (Collette, who played the title role in Muriel's Wedding) is the new girl, a wimpy nonentity who's largely content to suffer in silence. Posey is the brash, subversive ruckus-raiser, Margaret. It's a truly surprising -- and impressive -- turn by Posey, who's found exactly the right role to break the pert ingénue mold that was starting to harden around her. Jane (Ubach, from Denise Calls Up) is engaged to be married and giddy about the prospect of escape. Paula (Kudrow) is still looking for a man -- so avidly that she'll resort to sabotaging copiers so she can flirt with the repair guys. The four bond right away and soon are hooking up for happy hour. It doesn't take long, though, for their bonhomie to suffocate inside the Orwellian paranoia of the modern workplace. Nickel-and-dime junk starts disappearing from desks all over the building and suspicion naturally focuses on the temps. Under the stress of abusive security measures, including cameras trained on their desks, they start to crack, openly wondering if one of their number is the thief or a management snitch. Clockwatchers is often disturbingly brilliant in evoking both the look and oppressive sociology of office life. The lingo, personality types, and coping behaviors are precisely observed, though exaggerated for satiric impact. In its quiet, unsensational way, this is one of the angriest and most politically charged movies I've seen in a while. For all its on-target humor, it seethes with moral fury at both the corporate beast and our acquiescence to its will. Sprecher dulls the potential impact of her work, however, by occasionally resorting to pat characterizations -- especially Collette's mousy Iris, who's decidedly similar to the role she played in Muriel's Wedding. And as effective as Kudrow is as Paula, Sprecher might have been better off casting someone who isn't so closely identified with bimboesque characters. I consider these fairly minor faults. Clockwatcher may not be a Grapes of Wrath for the Nineties, but its intelligence, slow-boil outrage over grunt workers' dehumanization, and subtle assertion of their power to resist make it a terrific piece of pro-labor propaganda. Somewhere in the great beyond, Sam Gompers and Eugene Debs are smiling and swapping high fives.

3.5 stars

Russell Smith



WILDE

D: Brian Gilbert; with Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennifer Ehle, Gemma Jones, Judy Parfitt, Michael Sheen, Zoë Wanamaker, Tom Wilkinson. (R, 115 min.)

This film portrait of Oscar Wilde, which is based on Richard Ellman's biography of the artist, is a solid, engaging presentation of the man and his times. The film focuses on Wilde's rise to fame as a great wit, writer, and dandy, as well as his subsequent slide into notoriety as England's most famously abhorred and persecuted homosexual. As written by Julian Mitchell (Another Country) and directed by Brian Gilbert (Tom and Viv), Wilde is a sensitively told but fairly straightforward account of the events. It's Stephen Fry's performance as Wilde that gives the film its flourish. It's a role Fry seems to have been destined to play: The physical resemblance is quite remarkable and the fullness Fry lends to the character seems to derive from some secret wellspring of knowledge. Wilde peeks behind the headlines to show us the man who was a devoted father and husband, a man whose gradual acceptance of his homosexuality was to enormously complicate his relationship with these loved ones. And though the movie does not shirk the physical aspects of Wilde's lovemaking, it makes it clear that Wilde's homosexuality was based more on a platonic ideal of beauty and mentoring relationships than on mortal gratifications of genitalia. Wilde certainly is part of the current flurry of renewed biographical interest in the artist's life, yet the film also provides glimpses of Wilde's life that probe beyond the familiar. Also on display here is the hypocrisy of Victorian England, whose subjects watched the whole shabby affair with attentively averted eyes. Wilde examines the nature of love, its obsessiveness, self-abnegation, generosity, blindness, and transcendence. Also detailed is how Wilde's trial for gross indecency was the result of his own brazen libel suit against his beloved's father, the Marquess of Queensbury. It was only after Wilde lost the libel case that the Marquess (who was known for his contributions to the sports of boxing and horse racing) was able to file the suit that caused Wilde to be sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime of sodomy, a physical and emotional assault from which he never quite fully recovered. As the selfish, immature Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed "Bosie," Law is believably arched and seductive. Also notable is the compassionate love Wilde's beautiful wife Constance (Ehle) subtly expresses for her husband. But what's most memorable about Wilde is Fry's near-perfect encapsulation of the artist. It's a performance equal to the legend it portrays.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



New Reviews:

DEJA VU

D: Henry Jaglom; with Victoria Foyt, Stephen Dillane, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Brandon, Glynis Barber, Noel Harrison, Anna Massey, Vernon Dobtcheff, Graydon Gould, Aviva Marks, Rachel Kempson. (PG-13, 116 min.)

At first glance, Henry Jaglom's 12th film, Déjà Vu, seems to have traded in the narcissistic introspections that have governed most of his films to date (Babyfever, Someone to Love, Always) for more conventionally fictional narrative progressions. But though Jaglom co-scripted Déjà Vu with Victoria Foyt, the film's star and Jaglom's wife in real life, this movie has merely swapped the director's resolutely improvisational style for a more structured, predetermined outlook and approach. It's wholly appropriate for this story about destiny and fate, a story about lovers who must decide whether or not to accept the fated-ness of their pairing or continue to operate as though they had free will and control over their own happiness. As far as things like this go, Déjà Vu is going to hold much greater charms for those who also find themselves swept up by the romantically mystical predeterminism of such films as City of Angels and Michael. Yet more of a problem is the illusion that Jaglom has advanced his highly personal soul-searching for broader and less idiosyncratically obsessive storylines. Though the director has absented himself as a character in Déjà Vu, he has populated the film with fictional characters who share his same narcissistic concerns. They never tire of hearing themselves fret aloud over the same questions and emotional dilemmas: to go or stay, to marry or not marry, to do what's expected or to jump into the unknown. I know we should be grateful to find such intelligent, articulate, mature characters in a movie, but so much of the time we find ourselves wishing that they would just shut up, jump into the unknown, and go away. Dana (Foyt) and Sean (Dillane) meet and feel instantly that they share a mysterious connection and sense of belonging. She's engaged and he's married, but forces keep bringing them together. In the movie's coda, these forces even go so far as to adopt the paranormal qualities of a good, old-fashioned spook story. Still, Déjà Vu is not without its charms. The performances are all good and the film's travelogue aspects (Jerusalem, the white cliffs of Dover, and the British country home where so much of the story takes place) are pleasantly engaging. Narratively, the characters are set up in contrasting fashions: the contented older couple (Harrison and Massey) who enjoy such small delights as sharing Mars bars in bed together and the peripatetic woman (Redgrave) who refuses to settle down for love or familial responsibilities (the scene Redgrave plays with her mother in real life, Rachel Kempson, is just the kind of unexpected pleasure that Déjà Vu on occasion bestows). But no matter how much of a narrative breakthrough Déjà Vu represents for its director, Jaglom's film still exudes an annoying "been there, done that" feel.

2.0 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



DIRTY WORK

D: Bob Saget; with Norm Macdonald, Jack Warden, Artie Lange, Traylor Howard, Don Rickles, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rebecca Romijn. (PG-13, 81 min.)

How on earth it happened that otherwise reputable bands such as KMFDM, Chumbawamba, Green Day, and the Reverend Horton Heat managed to end up on the soundtrack to this screamingly awful, achingly unfunny comedy is a testament to the confusing vagaries of big-label marketing. Obviously, the logic followed the bad-movie/good-soundtrack line of thought, but even with some decent-if-dated tunes, the leading turn of former Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor (and newfound NBC whipping boy) Norm Macdonald has a fun factor only slightly below that of maggoty roadkill steaming in the noonday sun. There are bad films, and then there are bad films, the kind that make you squeal like Ned Beatty on a spit, and unfortunately, Dirty Work falls into the latter category. It doesn't help matters much that the late Chris Farley appears as olfactorially-denuded gargantua, bereft of wit and any semblance of fat-guy charm, in this, his final celluloid screed. SNL buddy Sandler cameos as well -- as the devil, no less -- though with conscious forethought he wisely chooses to remain unbilled. The plot, hastily cobbled together by Macdonald and SNL cronies Frank Sebastiano and Fred Wolf, has Macdonald's Mitch Weaver opening a revenge-for-hire business with childhood pal Sam McKenna (Lange). Mitch is an inveterate sap, unable to hold a job or a girl, and also a master at the art of cringing. When Sam's perpetually apoplectic, whoremonger dad (Warden as the aptly named Pops) suffers a heart attack, the pair scheme to raise the cash for a coronary transplant via the vendetta biz. Operating under the motto "Revenge is sweetÖ and surprisingly affordable," they generate income hand over fist, though their pranks are annoyingly sophomoric. Popcorn on the engine block of one victim, dead fish in the drawers of another, Dirty Work is less dirty than it is tedious, an ongoing panoply of witlessness. Macdonald is unaccountably bland here, which is unexpected since his lo-level, monotone snottiness is usually at least good for a grin or two. With Dirty Work though, he's fashioned an 80-minute harangue out of 10 minutes of material, an SNL sketch gone horribly awry, and one that drags on long after its daily ration of humor has been exhausted. I won't even begin to get into the eerily disturbing production design (primary colors times 10). "Note to self: Next time, let someone else write the movie."

0 stars

Marc Savlov



HAV PLENTY

D: Christopher Scott Cherot; with Cherot, Chenoa Maxwell, Hill Harper, Tammi Katherine Jones, Robinne Lee, Reginald James, Kim Simmons. (R, 92 min.)

An ensemble comedy from first-time director Cherot, Hav Plenty is packed with good ideas that don't always come to fruition. At times it plays like an urbanized Woody Allen that then deftly swings in the direction of Spike Lee's sexier palettes (She's Gotta Have It comes to mind). At its heart though, Cherot's film is a skewed morality play gone haywire, beginning with the protagonist's febrile search for karmic love and ending with his disavowal of his beliefs in favor of success both in and out of the bedroom. Cherot plays Lee Plenty, an aspiring novelist who is doing the couch tour. He is alone but not really lonely on New Year's Eve when his friend Haviland Savage (Maxwell) rings him up and invites him to spend the holiday at her family's house in Washington, D.C. The family has gone for the weekend -- although her mother appears as a disembodied voice on the family's intricate network of intercoms. However, incoming guests include the sprightly, lovestruck Caroline (Jones), Hav's sister Leigh (Lee), Hav's friend Bobby (Simmons), and Leigh's new husband Felix (James). Over the course of a turbulent three days, the group romances one another, spars, spies, and generally gets into all sorts of vaguely engaging shenanigans, without the hassle of too many things really happening. One thing is obvious up front (and if it's not obvious, it's clearly pointed out, time and again), and that's Lee and Hav's budding mutual attraction. Though they may fight like amiable cats and dogs, it's clear that they're destined to be together. Or so the storyline would have one think. In reality, Cherot tosses more than a few wrenches in the gears of his love machine. Cherot's work exemplifies the pinnacles and pitfalls of the "indie director," keeping things light and breezy but also a bit staged. While none of the actors are outrightly wooden in their performances, you get the feeling that the improvisational spirit Cherot is clearly aiming for is often trampled underfoot. His clever script suffers a major misfire in the final reel as the film enters into the dreaded, treacherous "film within a film" zone, and Cherot's character Lee ups the ante with a continuing fusillade of fourth-wall-straining, offhand monologues. Despite all of this film's talk of honesty, emotions, and truth, there's more truth in The X-Files than there is in Cherot's middling story. Ultimately, a domino effect that has been set up in the first act quickly proceeds to ripple through to the end, and though Cherot clearly intends this semi-shock ending to come as a revelatory event, it instead feels forced and contrived. But then perhaps that's his message about love in the Nineties.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



NIGHTWATCH

D: Ole Bornedal; with Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Lauren Graham, Nick Nolte, Brad Dourif. (R, 105 min.)

This much-delayed Austin release of Danish director Bornedal's remake of his own Nattevagen oozes malfeasance like a sluggish aerial wound, but its too-frequent reliance on horror film clichés leaves it lacking the Seven-ish punch it's obviously aiming for. Co-scripted by Steven "Master of Oblique Career Moves" Soderbergh, Nightwatch posits the lank-haired McGregor (Trainspotting) as college student Martin Bells, who takes a job as the lone night watchman at the local morgue to help defray tuition costs. Bad idea. Not only is his new place of employment rife with vats of severed feet and creepy necrophiliac overtones, but the head duty doctor is Brad Dourif, a sure sign something godawful is about to happen. As if that weren't enough, a serial killer with a penchant for ocular exenteration is making the rounds and conveniently using the somewhat sheepish Martin as his patsy. That attracts the attention of Inspector Cray (Nolte), a grizzled, hard-boiled copper who studiously embarks on a mission to make the poor morgue attendant's life hell. Orbiting this semi-trio are Martin's girlfriend Katherine (Arquette), whose chief complaint seems to be about her man's rank, formaldehyde breath, and his best friend James (Brolin), a Peter Pan-complex adrenaline junkie who gets his kicks initiating barroom brawls. If you pay no heed to Bornedal's conflicted story and focus instead on the film's gorgeous visuals, it's a wild, nocturnal horror show. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen has a way with underlit sets (although, it ought to be said, post-Seven, everyone seems to have a way with underlit sets these days). Recurring motifs such as the eerie, plastic-shrouded pine trees that stand sentinel outside the morgue's front entrance and the moth-battered safety lamps that ring Martin's shadowed desk are chilling, and the whole film appears double-dipped in an unhealthy, jaundiced pallor. McGregor acquits himself admirably here (nice Yank accent), but Arquette and Brolin seem as though they're off in their own private universe. The same could be said for Nolte -- nice ham sandwich -- but like Dourif, Ol' Gravel Voice is a kick to watch when he's pulling out all the stops, if a bit ridiculous. None of this accounts for why the Dimension Films division of Miramax has been sitting on the film for over a year and a half. It's certainly no worse than half the stuff playing the multiplexes at the moment, nor is it an embarrassment to anyone's career. It's gritty, nasty, predictably meat-and-potatoes suspense, but genuinely gonzo fun nonetheless.

2.5 stars

Marc Savlov



SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS

D: Ivan Reitman; with Harrison Ford, Anne Heche, David Schwimmer, Jacqueline Obradors, Te muera Morrison, Allison Janney. (PG-13, 106 min.)

The premise of a girl, a guy, and a desert island is hardly high-concept, but Six Days, Seven Nights treats it as if it were. A barely passable romantic comedy with flimsy action-adventure thrown in for good measure, this entry in the summer sweepstakes is as Hollywood-manufactured as movies about giant lizards traipsing through Gotham or loud sequels starring Mel Gibson. In short, there's nothing remotely real or appealing about it. Rather than focus on the intimacy that develops between the film's oil-and-water protagonists -- a high-strung career girl (read: contemporary woman) and the grizzled airplane pilot (read: traditional male) -- who are stranded on a South Seas paradise together, director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Michael Browning include murderous pirates, big explosions, and a mammary fixation in Six Days, Seven Nights for fear that a simple love story wouldn't keep anyone's attention for very long. (Imagine if director John Huston and screenwriter James Agee had felt the same about The African Queen, a movie to which Six Days, Seven Nights bears a somewhat passing resemblance. Then again, don't.) As a result, the lurching relationship between the film's mismatched couple doesn't lend credence to the observation that opposites attract, but rather is a testament to some pitchman's ability to encapsulate the plotline of this movie in 25 words or less. It's a cynical view, but one that Six Days, Seven Nights doesn't do much to refute. What's more, the gender politics inherent in the movie's setup are only touched upon briefly, as if to explore them more fully might transmogrify the film into something unthinkable. With the loopy exceptions of his early Eighties outings with Bill Murray, Reitman has proven to be the quintessential director of lumbering, big-budget comedy bores -- remember Legal Eagles or Kindergarten Cop? Like those movies, no one will remember Six Days, Seven Nights in a couple or so years because there's nothing worth recalling. As someone once said, mediocrity makes for a very short memory.

1.5 stars (S.D)



THE X-FILES

D: Rob Bowman; with David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Blythe Danner, Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis, John Neville, Terry O'Quinn, Jeffrey De Munn. (PG-13, 122 min.)

An enigma wrapped in a conundrum sealed in a plain brown vapor-lock baggie that -- wonder of wonders! -- actually makes a fair amount of sense. In the five years since creator Chris Carter brought his conspiracy-laden, UFOlogist's dream-come-true television show to the upstart Fox network, the ongoing saga of FBI agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) -- he of the credulous wisecracks and she of the pragmatic, slightly chilly disdain -- has amassed a cult popularity to rival that of The Fugitive (or, perhaps more accurately, The Prisoner). Any way you slice it, though, Carter's paranormal, paranoid brainchild was predestined to make the leap to the big screen someday, and now that that yawning crevasse has been summarily bridged, the show seems poised for a revitalization of sorts. The series' early, basic plot lines -- Mulder and Scully investigate a mysterious circumstance, one or the other is put in jeopardy (usually in the dark), and the other arrives in the nick of time (always with a flashlight) -- have given way to the convoluted "mythology" stories, a twisted skein of conspiracy theorist ejaculate that has almost single-handedly devoured most of the Internet's remaining bandwidth. In pre-release hype, Carter and director Bowman (who has helmed multiple TV episodes) promise that "the truth," that precious commodity so often alluded to but so rarely outed, would, indeed, find its way onto the big screen. That's not really the case, but you can't blame Carter for fudging a bit -- it's as much a part of his nature as Mulder's closet porn fetish. What audiences will get is essentially a glitzy, expanded episode, albeit one with gobs of high style, gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Ward Russell, tremendous use of sound, and a few nifty revelations. For non-fans, the story manages to hold its own, being neither inexplicable nor too obvious. Briefly, it concerns the devastating terrorist bombing of a Dallas federal building, which may or may not be linked to a quartet of unexplained civilian deaths, and a mysterious virus, which may or may not be linked to global government duplicity and associated with an ancient, non-terrestrial race. You can be sure that all of this ties in to the Kennedy assassination and the ever-fluctuating price of Tamagotchis in Sheboygen, though Carter has yet to make that clear. Almost all of the series regulars turn up, notably Davis' Cigarette-Smoking Man, Pileggi's Chief Skinner, and the trio of techoids known as the Lone Gunmen, as well as a new "Deep Throat" in the form of Landau. The X-Files' saving grace has always been Carter's slyly subversive sense of humor, and that's in full effect here, leavening the earth-shaking (literally) proceedings with an occasional dose of wry, Duchovnian smarm. Neither the revelatory orgasm promised nor the stillborn confuse-o-thon feared, The X-Files cinematic debut is solid, workmanlike stuff, and enough to keep the legions of X-philes sated until next September. And since I realize some of you are dying to know, no, Mulder's butt remains, as always, fully clothed.

3.0 stars

Marc Savlov


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