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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: 



D: Curtis Hanson; with Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito. (R, 138 min.)

Kudos to director Curtis Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland for whipping James Ellroy's seminal novel of 1950s Los Angeles police corruption and noir sexuality into recognizable shape for this distinguished film adaptation. Ellroy's original manuscript fell under the heading of "epic." With over 100 distinct characters and nearly that many plot twists, it was long considered unfilmable and it languished in development hell for years, nevertheless remaining one of the hottest unproduced properties around. Now it's here, finally, and well worth the wait. Spacey plays a smooth-talking LAPD detective named Vincennes, who moonlights as technical adviser on a high-rated TV cop show; as such, he's looked up to by the regular Joes on the beat, although some police officers resent his penchant for working celebrity busts alongside Sid Hudgens (DeVito), the smarmy editor of Hush-Hush magazine, a seamy Hollywood scandal sheet. Together with the straitlaced, rising LAPD star Ed Exley (Pearce) and the violent, emotionally confused detective Bud White (Crowe), Vincennes falls prey to a series of internal police scandals revolving around a recent massacre at the aptly named Night Owl Cafe on Hollywood Boulevard. As the body count mounts and the internal affairs intrigue spirals out of control, this trio of good cops/bad cops furiously works to cover its collective ass before the perilous house of cards that is the 1950s LAPD collapses atop them. You come away from the film with the distinct feeling that it should have been shot in high-contrast black-and-white; echoes of classic film noir crop up in almost every scene, but cinematographer Dante Spinotti's (Heat, Last of the Mohicans) lush colors and steamy atmosphere more than make up for that. Like the best dirty cop procedurals of the past, L.A. Confidential chugs along like an approaching thunderstorm, racheting up the dirty dealings and hazy suspense at an alarming rate until the final, hideous confrontation. Just when it seems things can't possibly get any worse for the fallen angels in blue, things do, and the film jacks itself up to another brutal level. Full of period locations, costumes, and one very clever Lana Turner gag, it's easy to see why Ellroy is so pleased with the film. It's tough enough adapting run-of-the-mill Michael Crichton books to the screen ­ with a sprawling tome like Ellroy's, results such as Hanson's are downright miracles. (9/19/97)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Barton Creek, Highland

New Review


D: Tom DiCillo; with John Turturro, Sam Rockwell, Catherine Keener, Lisa Blount, Annie Corely. (R, 107 min.)

Al Fountain (Turturro) is a humorless, uptight prig. He's a man who's not happy being who he is but he's also incapable of changing his behavior, and this, too, makes him unhappy. In his relationship with his wife and son he's an aloof and petty taskmaster, a pattern of behavior that also extends into his work relationships. Yet in Turturro's hands, Al also becomes a sympathetic figure. Recently, things in Al's life have been turning a little strange: He's discovered his first gray hair, water is running upward into the tap, and children pedal their bicycles backwards. When Al's out-of-town job assignment is temporarily shut down, instead of going back home to his family Al impulsively rents a car and goes off in search of a lake in the area that he remembers having visited as a child (and also presumably remembers once having experienced what it was like to have fun). It's during this journey that he meets up with the Kid (Rockwell) ­ a carefree, modern-day, wood sprite manboy in a coonskin cap, who lives on the land in a gutted-out trailer among a phantasmagoria of detritus, pilfered lawn ornaments and boxes of moonlight. The Kid lures Al into a series of silly, nonsensical escapades and the two of them also entertain a pair of sisters (Keener and Blount) under the starry sky. There's not much more "story" to DiCillo's movie than this simple trajectory of a middle-aged man learning from this free spirit the fine art and practice of letting go. For anyone familiar with DiCillo's previous movies ­ Brad Pitt's breakthrough film Johnny Suede and the low-budget filmmaking comedy Living in Oblivion ­ the offbeat humor and magic realism of Box of Moonlight will seem entirely familiar, as will the occasionally hackneyed metaphors and symbols. The whimsical nature of the material seems especially exaggerated in this work, however, and it's a quality that is bound to charm some audience members and irritate others. But what nudges Box of Moonlight into the category of something very special are the full-hearted performances by all the central characters. Al Fountain is one of Turturro's finest creations, a character who's all sharp edges and marshmallow intestines. Rockwell makes a memorable impression as the Kid, inhabiting the spirit of a natural-born rule-breaker and rough-hewn muse as though he had invented the model himself. Keener (Living in Oblivion, Walking and Talking) is one of our greatest underused actors and her presence in any movie, no matter the role, is always a welcome sight. Box of Moonlight may ultimately cause reactions similar to those elicited by the proverbial glass of water: The container is either half empty or half full; it's all in the eyes of the beholder. In this case, it may help to be wearing bifocals. (9/19/97)

3.5 stars (M.B.)



D: Emile Ardolino; with Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston. (PG-13, 100 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. This is one of those re-releases that probably belongs in the "Who Asked for a Rerun Anyway?" file. But, still, I have to admit to feeling some dangerously warm fuzzies for this 1987 movie that's set in a Catskill resort during the summer of 1963 (the summer before all Americans lost their collective innocence). Dirty Dancing is the story of a 17-year-old Jewish girl named Baby (Grey), who loses her figurative innocence during this fateful Borscht Belt vacation with her family. She comes to the aid of one of the female dancers at the resort who's in need of an illegal abortion, and she learns intriguing new dance positions from hunky instructor Johnny (Swayze). It's a corny fairy tale about a princess who emerges from her protective isolation and, naturally, falls for a boy who spells "big trouble." But 'neath its candy-coated shell lies several solid grains of truth ­ not to mention some fab choreography, a solid-gold title, and a couple of pristine examples (in Swayze and Grey) of what is meant by the term "career-making performance." (100)


Lake Creek


D: Frank Oz; with Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon, Debbie Reynolds. (PG-13, 92 min.)

Anyone who claims to know the formula for movie comedy success is, almost by definition, a liar. But I'd venture that one element common to most great comic filmmaking is the exhilaration of watching order slowly and inexorably unravel. Grasping that principle is only half the battle, though. The other is making that descent into madness seem spontaneous, and this is where In & Out succeeds with a seat-of-the-pants audacity that makes it one of the year's funniest films to date. A dynamite cast certainly gives director Oz (Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?) a leg up on his competition but then, as Ready to Wear and Fierce Creatures remind us, great personnel guarantees nothing. The real electricity here emanates from a fresh, recklessly inventive script by Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, Addams Family Values) and a performance by Kline which confirms his status as one of the more remarkable comic acting talents of his generation. Kline plays Howard Brackett, a small-town English teacher whose Oscar-winning former student (Dillon) lauds him on national TV as a brilliant teacher who happens to be homosexual. The only cloud hanging over this glorious moment in gay history is that Brackett not only professes to be 100% straight but is mere days away from wedding his longtime girlfriend, Emily (Cusack). No matter; the town is soon teeming with TV camera crews and journalists, the most obnoxious of whom is down-in-the-Nielsons gossip hound Pete Malloy (Selleck). Suddenly, everyone from Emily to Howard's students to his beer-drinking buddies starts finding deeper significance in the star teacher's "prissy" mannerisms, immaculate grooming, and Barbra Streisand fetish. Aghast, he responds with a rigorous program of masculine reprogramming, a wagon from which he repeatedly tumbles in a series of uproarious scenes that demonstrate Kline's stone genius for physical comedy. Cusack matches Kline's manic brilliance with an all-stops-out performance as the emotionally discombobulated fiancée. Watching her, pigface drunk and decked out in her wedding dress, roll around like a white organza dust kitten in a beer joint parking lot is, to invoke the timeless critical cliché, worth the price of admission. As in Jeffrey, Rudnick's approach to screenwriting is a bit gimmicky and built around hit-or-miss payoff moments. But with Kline, Cusack, Dillon, and Reynolds (as Howard's mom) all buying completely into his vision and embellishing it with their own instinctive flair, the duff scenes were far outnumbered by ones that had me on the verge of hyperventilation from laughter. True, many of the gags build upon classical gay stereotypes, but in context, they actually support a message of good-natured tolerance. Aspiring Republican politico Selleck even trashes his family-values capital by initiating one of the lustiest (and funniest) male-male kissing scenes in mainstream film history. My advice: Go; see; laugh yourself silly. Repeat. (9/19/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)

Arbor, Lakehills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Shirley Barrett; with Miranda Otto, Rebecca Firth, George Shevtsov, John Alansu, Jessica Napier. (R, 92 min.)

Love and loss and floundering about in search of happiness in the tiny town of Sunray, Australia. Barrett's feature debut is an oddball melange of off-kilter comedy and genuine charm, with a hint of magical realism. Somehow it all works and holds together, but viewers may find themselves scratching their heads in muted wonderment from time to time. Otto and Firth play Dimity and Vicki-Ann Hurley, a pair of twentysomething sisters living out a stifling, bleak existence in the dry, dusty hamlet of Sunray, near Brisbane. Dimity is a fidgety, flat-chested tomboy, given to long rides on her battered bicycle when not taking orders at the local Chinese restaurant. Vicki-Ann, on the other hand, is perpetually on the hunt for a reputable boyfriend; alas, the pickings, in Sunray, are lamentably slim. Into these two lives comes the reptilian Ken Sherry (Shevtsov), a down-on-his-luck radio jock who takes up residence next door to the Hurleys and proceeds to woo them both, setting the stage for Barrett's humorous take on life, love (and the insurmountable need for same), and fish. Barrett (who also wrote the script) does a marvelous job of it all. Both the terribly shy and geeky Dimity and her more boisterous sister are cut from the cloth of modern women, content to pass the days with each other until the mysterious stranger in his faded denim and cowboy boots arrives. They simultaneously bolt hellbent-for-romance once a possible option rears its head. It's Dimity who discovers that Sherry may not be all he seems, though by that time she's already handed over her virginity to the man (in the wake of a maddeningly slow striptease that's at once painful and downright hysterical). Her warnings to her lovestruck (and admittedly jealous) sister go unheeded, though. Before you know it, someone has climbed the side of one of Sunray's mammoth silos, and tragedy looms. "Peculiar" may be the only apt description of Love Serenade as a whole. Like many other films from Down Under these days (Sweetie leaps to mind), the cloistered world of the Hurley sibs is a surreal twilight zone of mixed emotions, filled with garish, Kmart clothes in Vicki-Ann's half and sack-like sweatshirts (with matching sensibilities) in Dimity's. It's never a smooth ride to true love, but Barrett and her remarkable cast certainly make it an interesting one. (9/19/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)



D: Jocelyn Moorhouse; with Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth. (R, 105 min.)

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Lear-on-a-John Deere novel has reached the screen with its bleak and anguished spirit intact. That's a bit of a surprise considering that the last outing for Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse was the maudlin How to Make an American Quilt. But go back to her debut film, the minor masterpieceProof, and the artistic marriage makes a lot more sense. As that dark little jewel proved, Moorhouse knows plenty about pain, betrayal, and damaged souls ­ all of which figure prominently in Smiley's transplantation of Shakespeare's tragedy to the Iowa cornfields. Lear is reincarnated here as Larry Cook (Robards), a flinty old farmer who connives to avoid inheritance taxes by incorporating his business and dividing it among daughters Rose (Pfeiffer), Ginny (Lange) and Caroline (Leigh). Youngest daughter Caroline, our Cordelia figure, gets stripped of her inheritance, however, when she confesses doubts about the scheme. Soon thereafter, the old man starts sinking into a mire of boozing, depression, and senility. Ginny has an adulterous affair with a neighbor (Firth), and terrible family secrets start emerging in conversations between the two elder daughters, played with exquisitely controlled intensity by Lange and Pfeiffer. Caroline, a big-city lawyer, avails herself of the chaos to re-ingratiate herself with Larry by supporting his effort to nullify the land transfer. Smiley's story, adapted by Laura Jones, doesn't hew slavishly to Shakespeare. The key difference is that Larry, unlike Lear, isn't a victim of literal or figurative blindness, or the evil of others. Instead, he is evil incarnate, lacking only cloven hoofs and leathery wings. Caroline is an unwitting accomplice, not a wronged innocent like Cordelia, and Larry's raging-in-the-storm scene is ugly, harrowing, and utterly lacking any of Lear's mad eloquence. The best way to appreciate this film is to ignore the contrived Shakespearean parallels and savor the skill with which Moorhouse undermines the conventions of the heartland family drama. Dreamy early images of ripening grain and Robards' noble, marble-bust visage combine with a lullaby score to place the viewer in one of Hollywood's all-too-familiar Places in the Heart. Then, a trap door drops and you plummet into icy, stygian darkness where the dominant smell is sulfur, not simmering rhubarb pie. This is a hard, angry, morally unforgiving movie with dominant sensibilities more similar to the current wave of "therapy fiction" than to the classical tragedy genre. Superimposing these raw, primal emotions onto amber-hued scenes of bucolic splendor creates a satisfying tension that sustains interest even when the story veers uncomfortably close to primetime soap territory. Though not a completely successful film, A Thousand Acres is hard-hitting, original, and brimming with unwavering moral convictions and the courage to follow them to their troubling conclusions. (9/19/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)

Arbor, Barton Creek, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Riverside


D: Robert Kurtzman; with Robert Englund, Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder. (R, 90 min.)

Not reviewed at press time. Wes Craven executive produces this horror pile-up. It takes this all-star horror cast which includes Robert Englund ("Freddy Krueger"), Tony Todd ("Candyman"), and Kane Hodder ("Jason") to fight off the new horror star known as the "Djinn." Director Kurtzman is a maverick effects artist, who has created effects and creatures for Men in Black and Spawn and co-produced From Dusk Till Dawn. ()


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

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