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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews



D: Neil LaBute; with Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy. (R, 93 min.)

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  It's possible that we may see no better movie this year than Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. As disturbing as it is well-made, this low-budget indie is a thoroughly original piece of work. It's a dark, incisive, and funny drama about contemptible behavior, behavior that is so amoral, so despicable, so capricious, and so ordinary that we can't help but recognize its human dimension. It's an evil that's bred in the bone ­ this desire to control and to hurt others either for the sheer hell of doing it, or as some kind of displaced payback for perceived injustices ­ but it's also an evil that's bred in our culture and is embedded in the corporate work structure. In the Company of Men illustrates and dissects that behavior with the methodological precision of a criminal pathologist. Chad (Eckhart) and Howard (Malloy) are two mid-level corporate managers sent out of town on a six-week assignment. At the outset, Chad proposes a vicious plan, to which Howard readily consents, for the two men to target a susceptible woman for emotional abuse and then hightail it out of town, with the payoff being that they will be able to look back and laugh about it until they are very old men. Christine (Edwards), a deaf temp in the typing pool, becomes their unwitting target. Not 'til near the end of the movie do we discover that the scheme involves more victims than merely Christine. But it also makes clear that the venom fueling the plot is an evil that can't be reduced to simple misogyny or hatred of the handicapped. The film shows us a poison that's sprayed with indiscriminate abandon when some perversion of the survival instinct reacts to all human contact as a threat. What's truly rare about In the Company of Men is the way in which it encourages us to find the likable qualities of these loathsome characters and then refuses to settle the dramatic score by imposing some moral retribution. It requires viewers to make their own peace with the horrors just witnessed (something that may lead some viewers, at least at first glance, to confuse the messengers with the message, but it should soon become apparent even to these viewers that hateful characters in a work of fiction do not automatically serve as proselytizers or recruiting agents). The pared-down visual style of In the Company of Men also perfectly complements the movie's narrative and emotional economy. Shot on a shoestring budget in 11 days in the director's hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the film's locations all exude the anonymity of Anywhere, USA: airports, hotels, and the stripped-down shell of an office that's in a state of perpetual renovation. So too, Chad and Howard speak so much of the time in a kind of corporate blather, which has the effect of shuffling words around the officeplace in the same rote manner that one shuffles papers around a desk. In the Company of Men's language and its delivery are a very real pleasure to experience, an aspect that's made all the more pointed because of Christine's hearing impairment. Its deftness with language is also a testament to the skill of the actors and the good training of LaBute's background as a playwright. LaBute, however, also seemed to know exactly what he wanted to accomplish once he got a camera in his hands. The visual structure of In the Company of Men is an organic whole, with thoughtfully composed shots and tableaux functioning as the story's backbone. There is absolutely nothing extraneous in LaBute's movie ­ one of those lovely confluences of artistic vision and budgetary restrictions. For LaBute, the balancing act seems to have been just one more sprint down the Morality Mile. (9/5/97)

stars (M.B.) Village

New Review


D: Nikita Mikhalkov. (Not Rated, 99 min.)

A highly personal chronicle of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the maturation of filmmaker Mikhalkov's young daughter Anna, this extraordinary documentary from the Academy Award-winning director of Burnt by the Sun at first strikes one as a Russian version of Michael Apted's 7 Up series, but it plays out much more wistfully. Mikhalkov began documenting his daughter at the age of six in 1980. Although at that point he was unsure what form the final document might take, he continued to shoot one reel of the girl each year over the course of 13 years. Now, cleanly edited together with scenes from the U.S.S.R.'s tumultuous history during the Eighties and early Nineties, Anna revolves around the same five or so questions that the filmmaker asked of his daughter each year: What scares you the most? What do you love the most? What do you hate the most? What do you want, right now? What do you want from life? As the film opens, Leonid Brezhnev is in power, and young seven-year-old Anna grins at the camera, mugging for her father. She fears "the witch" and desires a pet crocodile. "More than anything?" "Yes." During the continuous upheaval of the early Eighties, Mikhalov interviews his daughter every time a new leader dies. First Bhreznev falls, then in quick succession Chernenko and Andropov, until finally Mikhail Gorbachev's spotted pate finally appears, and sets in motion the ideal of perestroika. Up to that point, Mikhalkov is obviously alarmed by Anna's growing indoctrination and awareness of party politics. The answers to simple questions, such as what she most fears, metamorphose from childish wishes to nuclear war. Always she wants "peace" and feels assured that her Soviet leaders are working on it. You can almost see the liberal Mikhalkov wrinkle his nose in distaste. Mikhalkov frequently makes reference to the dangers inherent in filming such a project, not just to himself but for those "collaborators" who developed his film and worked in the labs. At one point, one of his yearly interviews falls into the wrong hands and nearly ends with his arrest. This fear of discovery slowly ebbs under Gorbachev's teetering reforms, but Mikhalkov, ever fearful, even distrusts the newly emergent capitalism. Yet the Berlin Wall crumbles and Anna, now 17 and on her way to college, offers up a tentative hope for the future of Russia. It's a disarmingly bittersweet portrait of a young girl growing up in the shadow of the empire. Rarely as pedantic as it is simply melancholy, Mikhalkov brings his dreamer's eye to the fall of Communism and the rise of his daughter and provides a wholly unique glimpse behind former enemy lines. (9/5/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Texas Union


D: Marco Brambilla; with Alicia Silverstone, Benicio Del Toro, Christopher Walken, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Connick, Jr. (PG-13, 101 min.)

No end of outrage and fulmination has greeted Columbia Pictures' decision to grant vacuum-molded kewpie Alicia Silverstone this seemingly premature opportunity to star in, co-produce, and help cast her own film. Personally, though, I admit to some confusion over why Excess Baggage, as opposed to, say, Con Air, is being held up as an example of all that's wrong with Hollywood today. As with so many recent films, this innocuous little romantic comedy suffers far more from the effects of art-by-committee than the ruinous domination of any one person. For example, scuttlebutt has it that the screenplay, a 1994 Austin Heart of Film Festival award winner by Max Adams, has been doctored to the point of unrecognizability. These rumors seem credible, given the listless, slow-developing storyline, the gimme-a-break implausibility of numerous plot points, and the profusion of set-piece scenes that have little to do with anything else in the film. Surely you know the story by now: Petulant brat teenager Emily Hope (Silverstone) fakes her own kidnapping to get the attention of rich putz daddy Alexander (Thompson), but the whole plan is shot to hell when hunky car thief Vincent (Del Toro) steals her BMW moments after she locks herself in the trunk. This happens in the slam-bang opening 20 minutes which turn out to contain about 85 percent of the entire movie's kinetic energy. From there on, you can almost hear the low, groaning UNNNNGH! as the story's gears grind to a halt. Scene after static scene ensue, all devoted to hostage negotiations, threats and intrigues by crooks (Connick, Turturro and others) trying to find Vincent, and a slow-brewing romance between Silverstone and Del Toro. Perhaps the latter scenes would be more gratifying if the Emily and Vincent characters didn't conform so relentlessly to industry specs for the "tough chick" and "sensitive hood." Silverstone smokes like a Serbian tank gunner, chugs liquor straight from the bottle, and alternately assaults her reluctant captor with seductive smiles and flying kicks to the head. Del Toro ­ an endlessly intriguing movie face with tremendous latent star potential ­ slouches in a black leather jacket, mumbles incoherently, and generally seems bent on singlehandedly reviving the dormant 1950s controversy over The Method. Director Brambilla is a net plus, displaying a bold, aggressively stylish visual signature that's especially effective in conveying the romance and mystery of nighttime. But sandbagged by a dull, slouching story and the absence of tangible heat between the two leads, his individual artistry results in little more than a paycheck, some résumé fodder and a slightly less tedious experience for late-summer moviegoers. (9/5/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Felix Enriquez Alcalá; with Steven Seagal, Marg Helgenberger, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Lang, Kris Kristofferson. (R, 107 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Steven Seagal stars as an EPA agent who goes undercover to discover who's dumping lethal chemicals down abandoned mine shafts in Kentucky. Dallas-bred cinematographer Felix Enriquez Alcalá makes his debut as a feature film director.


Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Bill Duke; with Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Vanessa Williams, Andy Garcia, Queen Latifah, Cicely Tyson, Chi McBride, Clarence Williams III, Paul Benjamin. (R, 130 min.)

Bill Duke's take on the Harlem numbers racket in the early Thirties is so clichéd that you half expect Paul Muni to pop up every now and then. At the very least, Hoodlum might have been better off had it been filmed in monochromatic black-and-white instead of the garish color palette (and plenty of gore) that Duke opted for because they, unfortunately, only reinforce the hamminess of the picture. Fishburne plays the historical figure Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a low-level street thug just released after a stretch in Sing Sing, who finds himself running the numbers when Harlem's longtime "Queen," Stephanie St. Clair (Tyson), is jailed in a power play by rival mobster Dutch Schultz (Roth). Bumpy and his motley crew ­ childhood friend Illinois Gordon (McBride), the ominous, horribly scarred bagman Whispers (Benjamin, late of Repo Man), and the Queen's bodyguard Tee-Ninchy (Eddie "Bo" Smith, Jr.) ­ must take on not only the megalomaniacal Schultz, but also the suave, sleepy-eyed Lucky Luciano (Garcia) and their gangs of ice-pick wielding toughs who appear to have stepped whole-cloth out of the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing. On top of that, Bumpy finds himself falling for Francine Hughes (Williams) the gorgeous but highly opinionated head of the local NAACP chapter, and she in turn falls hard for him. Fishburne plays this "black Godfather" as a Harlem variation on the Robin Hood theme ­ after liberating Schultz's numbers winnings one day, he promptly drives downtown and begins heaving fistfuls of cash into a startled and starving crowd. Annoyed at the Dutchman's incursions into the Queen's territory, Bumpy and Illinois quickly scam their way into Schultz's Bronx beer warehouse and blow it up. It's Hell Up in Harlem all over again, with Bumpy and his crew showing up at the all-white Cotton Club and demanding that Schultz and, by default, Luciano back off and respect the boundaries of their power. No such luck. Duke keeps things moving fast and furious, peppering his film with the requisite Tommy gun shoot-outs and the occasional massacre. But this is really Bumpy's story, and Duke apparently feels he needs to play up the romance between Francine and Bumpy as much as possible. It doesn't work. The only thing that does work, really, is Roth's creepy turn as Schultz. He plays the Dutchman as a fancy-pants rube, all greasy hair and badly tailored suits, eager to crush everything in his path but never quite sure how to do it without offending the debonair Luciano. Roth plays it for all it's worth, but even his edgy performance can't save what is essentially another retelling of a generic gangster story that's been told too many times before. Despite Duke's best intentions here, I suspect Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson will remain a footnote in the pages of NYC gangster lore. (9/5/97)

2.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Ela Troyano; with Irwin Ossa, john Bryant Davila, Jenifer Lee Simard, Alexis Artiles, Mike Ruiz, Annie Lobst, Dashia. (Not Rated, 80 min.)




D: Nick Cassavetes; with Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Travolta, Harry Dean Stanton. (R, 112 min.)

Ever notice how many more barroom bards, philosopher punks, and bus-stop oracles there are in art than in real life? Nothing like a few colorful expletives and squalid urban tableaux to help artists ward off charges of pretension and foster the coveted perception of "raw honesty." The late John Cassavetes, on whose screenplay this film is based, was hailed by his devotees a master of the sort of faux vernacular which found (or imposed) poetic cadences and meaning in the profane, inarticulate speech of the urban working class. Director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars), directs this previously unproduced script with total reverence toward his father's words, confining the action to a handful of sets and allowing stars Penn and Wright Penn free reign in delivering their numerous emotion-charged soliloquies. This is basically a two-act play chronicling the intense, troubled romance of Eddie (Penn) and Mo (Wright-Penn), whose love somehow manages to survive their binges of hardcore boozing, violence, and mutual deception. The first half ends with Eddie ­ a wildly unstable character who vaults from sanity to raging psychosis and back as if he had a switch in his cranium ­ being packed off to a mental institution. The story resumes when he's let out 10 years later and finds that Mo has divorced him, re-wed a prosperous businessman named Joey (Travolta), and is raising three kids in a sitcom-perfect suburban household. Though I'll defend much of John Cassavetes work (A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) against charges of aimless incoherence, the rap is all too appropriate here. The disparity between the disturbing, crazy electricity of the first half and the farcical drawing room comedy of the second is impossible to resolve. Penn comes closest to locking onto Cassavetes' quavery frequency, using all his craft and unimpeachable emotional integrity to salvage bathetic situations and contrived, florid dialogue. Wright Penn, whose character as written is selfish and unsympathetic, was much less successful in making me care about her fate. (Admittedly, part of my problem may have been the unfortunate stylistic likeness between her character in certain extreme moments and Laura Dern's broadly satiric title role in Citizen Ruth.) In their defense, though, both actors are facing the same insurmountable handicap; their roles could more accurately be described as constructs ­ someone's idealized images of stormy proletarian passion ­ than as real flesh and blood humans. Stanton, as Eddie's sidekick, Shorty, and Travolta are both sly and ingratiating, but their functions are subsidiary to the garbled, unconvincing narrative. In essence, the artistic failure of She's So Lovely is traceable to a single, supremely ironic fact: For a story by a writer with so much professed faith in the power of truth to bubble up out of apparent chaos, there's hardly anything here that feels recognizably true. (9/5/97)

2.5 stars (R.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Westgate

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