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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 6, 1997: 



D: Oliver Stone; with Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton. (R, 125 min.)

Seconds after the first few frames unspool, U-Turn declares itself as an Oliver Stone movie, no help needed from the flickery, peyote-dream credits. Yet for all its unmistakable visual trademarks (hypersaturated colors; mad-scientist tinkering with film stocks and editing technique; sudden presentation of enigmatic, troubling images), this is also the most radical departure Stone has ever made in terms of basic sensibilities. Using the already pitch-dark modern noir style of Red Rock West as a starting point, Stone pushes his story of murder, veiled motives, and sexual double-cross into realms of surreal excess that make John Dahl look like Ron Howard by comparison. The plot revolves around efforts by a hard-luck schmo (Penn) to get his car fixed in a podunk desert town and deliver some money he owes to hoods who are threatening to chop off one finger for every day he's late. But while his car is in the dubious "care" of a hideous redneck mechanic (Thornton, in a gloriously over-the-top performance), he falls into an absurdist hell in which random misfortunes and actively hostile local characters (portrayed in memorable cameos by stars ranging from Claire Danes to Jon Voight) conspire to thwart his every move. As the final stroke, he loses his cash. To earn it back, he accepts a murder-for-hire proposal from a jealous rich man (a grizzled, suitably creepy Nolte) who's plotting to kill his vixenish younger wife (Lopez) for her life insurance money. What makes this all so un-Stonelike is the flagrantly - even exuberantly - nihilistic tone of the story. Naysayers who've accused Oliver Stone of being oppressively earnest and moralistic will be astonished at U-Turn's energetic trashing of all major Western concepts of meaning, reason, and narrative convention. Some of this probably owes to the fact that this is the first major feature of Stone's career in which he takes no writing credit; the screenplay is by John Ridley from his novel Stray Dogs. But signs emerged in the reckless satiric tone of Natural Born Killers and ambivalent moral judgment of Nixon that Stone was growing dissatisfied with the righteous declamation of earlier films such as JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. The transition is complete with U-Turn. With a perverse, heedless glee, Stone recycles portentous images and themes (Native American sages, crows, stark desert landscapes) from his own back catalog in conjunction with troubling subject matter like incest and suicide to create expectations of profound moral issues being addressed. Then, with the subtlety of a vaudevillean pie-hurler, he trashes the whole setup, only to repeat the process again and again throughout the film. The ghastly humor of the final scene confirms Stone's intent: This is all an elaborate, cosmic farce, not an Olympian missive about the meaning of life, human nature or anything else. It's a cinematically stunning joke, and filled with remarkable performances (Lopez, in particular, taps her inner resources deeper than ever before) and a delightfully humorous and inventive score by Ennio Morricone, but a joke nonetheless. It seems that, midway through an ever-evolving, resolutely independent career, Oliver Stone has grown comfortable with that. Has his audience? We'll find out soon enough. (10/3/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Northcross, Riverside, Westgate

New Review


D: Alessandro de Gaetano; with Judy Tenuta, Paul Denniston, Jason Terisi, Jordan Roberts, Bill Ingraham. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

And here I thought everybody had forgotten about comedian Judy Tenuta. Boy, was I wrong. This alternately hilarious and annoying take on sexual stereotypes gives the brash, unrelentingly loud Tenuta ("Pigs!") top billing (the press kit even goes so far as to label her "The Star"), although the film actually belongs to male lead Paul Denniston, a wonderfully nuanced comic actor from the Chicago area. In portraying the character of Matt Grabowski, Denniston uses the audience's preconceived notions about sexual politics to his advantage, both humorously and otherwise. Butch Camp follows the somewhat meek Grabowski as he struggles to assert himself in a world of crass, boisterous breeders. Grabowski is hooked on the notion of true love yet disdainful of the one night stand that his friend Danny (Ingraham) tries to set him up with. Grabowski, instead, gravitates toward more sensitive prospects, only to find, time and again, his tender romantic hopes dashed and bed mockingly devoid of true companionship. It's a tale anyone can relate to, queer, straight, or otherwise, but de Gaetano pulls a comic U-turn when he has the beleaguered Grabowski enlist in Butch Camp, a sort of neo-fascist assertiveness-training seminar by way of boot camp overseen by the dominatrix Samantha Rottweiler (Tenuta). As mentioned above, Tenuta's role is secondary: she performs offshoots of her stage act and berates her whimpering charges to go out there and kick some breeder butt ("Bash or be bashed!"). As a message of gay empowerment, this may not be the right tack to take in the real world, but then Butch Camp bears little resemblance to the world as we know it; it's an extreme comic fantasy riff on a genuinely emotional subject, but above all, this is comedy of the most bizarre, laugh-out-loud order. While de Gaetano's script sometimes wanders into the realm of the puerile, Denniston and a talented supporting cast make the most of some of the most inspired comic set-pieces I've seen in a long time. Far surpassing mainstream gay comedies like The Birdcage and Kiss Me Guido in terms of outright, silly fun, Butch Camp tackles a tough subject with wacky aplomb. Surprisingly touching at times and consistently funny, de Gaetano's film is a hopelessly romantic comedy no matter what your sexual proclivities may be. (10/3/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)



D: Gary Fleder; with Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Cary Elwes, Tony Goldwyn. (R, 117 min.)

In the dank basements of our subconscious minds, most of us harbor a creature from a Roy Tompkins cartoon: a bug-eyed, projectile-sweating perv with a voyeuristic lust for "forbidden" images and thrills. It's this monster from the id that drives the newish film category - first codified in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) - which cross-pollinates the horror and noir crime-drama genres to offer viewers both the raw, reptile brain rush of the former and the artistic legitimacy conferred by the latter's high-style presentation. Kiss the Girls director Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) even ups the respectability quotient by featuring a strong, nobody's-victim female character (Judd), who escapes a deranged criminal's clutches and helps a police psychologist (Freeman) track him down. Judd's role certainly flouts the genre tradition of helpless women being terrorized and slaughtered for the audience's delectation, but at bottom this story is still pretty boilerplate stuff. A suave and courtly psychotic, who calls himself Casanova, kidnaps attractive young women and imprisons them in a dungeonlike lair where they must either participate in his Arabian Nights harem fantasies or suffer grisly consequences. Judd, placing herself at risk, aids the investigation by providing insight into Casanova's twisted mind. As with Seven, Jennifer 8, Manhunter, and (by far the best of the lot) The Silence of the Lambs, sensory overstimulation heightens our gut response to the horrific subject matter. The now familiar spasmodic hand-panning, indigo-drenched frames, and drastically under- and overlit interiors are all here. It's diverting enough, and intermittently suspenseful, but also strangely empty and decadent in a way that truly merits that overused term. Basically, the problem I have with these films is that they inspire an esthetic, rather than moral, intellectual, or even visceral response to evil. Without the warm, richly human presences of Freeman and Judd, Kiss the Girls would be a wholly repellent movie. By the way, while I'm holding forth here, it is too much to ask that stylistic concerns be set aside now and then when they clash too jarringly with reality? For example, when a woman knows she has a prowler in the house, wouldn't common sense dictate that she turn the light on, even at the expense of some of the production designer's exquisitely crafted mood? But then, in films so utterly defined by style, that would be like expecting to get through a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film without seeing any helicopters explode. (10/3/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

Arbor, Barton Creek, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Mark Joffe; with Janeane Garofalo, David O'Hara, Milo O'Shea, Jay O. Sanders, Denis Leary, Rosaleen Linehan, Paul Hickey, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Saffron Burrows. (R, 112 min.)

The wait for Janeane Garofalo to receive top billing in a film vehicle is now over. Is the perennial "secondary" player up to the task? Yes. Is the task up to her? Well, not really. As light romantic comedy, The Matchmaker is rife with implausibilities and missed opportunities, but the film's lackadaisical tone receives a steadying jolt from the caustic edge Garofalo's presence adds to the proceedings. Things begin improbably as Marcy (Garofalo), the beleaguered but loyal political aide of a Massachusetts senator (Sanders) who's embroiled in a failing election campaign, is sent to the senator's ancestral home in Ireland to dig up his family roots and, thereby, capture Boston's sizable Irish vote. She arrives in the small Irish town without a prior hotel reservation and finds herself smack dab in the middle of the town's annual Matchmaking Festival. The setting provides ample opportunity for a flood of clichéd Irish humor that is only allayed by the biting retorts to all the colorful blarney by unabashedly single gal Marcy, who sticks out in this town like a sore thumb. Humor-wise, the verbal jokes are pretty tired, yet occasions for well-choreographed physical humor are also inexplicably foregone by Aussie director Mark Joffe (Cosi). Marcy, of course, manages to catch the eye of part-time bartender and ex-journalist Sean (O'Hara) and their on-again/off-again interest in each other forms the heart of the story. There are pale shades of The Quiet Man here, but none of them recreate the rich emerald hue of the John Ford classic. By the film's climax, Marcy's boss and his scheming assistant (Leary) hop over to Ireland to find out what's stalling Marcy in her time-sensitive search for his photo-op roots (an out-of-pocket trip that no senator in the heat of a sinking campaign would ever rationally make). Despite such narrative flaws, The Matchmaker works as passable light entertainment. Stalwart fans of romantic comedy may find an "anti-star" like Garofalo too much of a stretch in a world dictated by Pretty Woman fairy tales and Sleepless in Seattle yearnings. Yet for some of us who find the standard romantic scenarios a bit too wispy and remote, Garofalo may be just the kind of bluster-bustin' leading lady we've been seeking. (10/3/97)

2.5 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Highland, Lakehills


D: Doug Wolens. (Not Rated, 64 min.)

"Everybody must get stoned!" That should be the tagline for this frequently engrossing 64-minute documentary on the Eighth Annual Cannibis Cup & Hemp Expo held in (where else?) Amsterdam. Never in your life have you seen so much well-shot footage (Wolens used Hi-8 video to do the deed) of marijuana buds, stems, seeds, pollen, hemp clothes, oils, salves, and just about anything you can think of that might possibly be related to California's biggest cash crop. Essentially, Wolens wandered around Amsterdam during the course of the Expo and shot everything he could (25-plus hours of raw footage edited down into what we have here). Watching Weed, you get the idea that the whole world's stoned, with Expo participants attending from almost every country in the world. And then there are the notorious Amsterdam coffeehouses, each of which sells its own special brands and flavors of ganja and hash of the purest quality, and each with its own unique aesthetic. Some of the coffeehouses fall back on the old Pink Floyd hippy-dippy motifs, while others vie for a more Nineties feel with techno music blaring and little alien faces painted on the walls. Yow. What Wolen's documentary doesn't do is judge. Nobody ends up looking too stupid here, but one scene in which the dope judges struggle to recall what was the primo stuff and what was the skankweed - to no avail - is classic "dumb stoner" humor. You almost feel sorry for the guys, but not really. Watching these stonemonkeys wander the narrow Amsterdam boulevards in a cannabis haze gets a tad repetitive - even if it is just over an hour, there are only so many ways to say "dude, excellent shit!" before you start to feel like giving these wandering rasta brigades a big shot of methamphetamine just to see if they become a bit more articulate. Does Weed drag? Reliable sources say "not if you're stoned, man," but marijuana teetotalers should be advised that no contact high is forthcoming, and the film begins to grind down a bit toward its latter half. Better as a cultural barometer than in almost any other capacity, Weed points out any number of interesting facts and facets of the high life, but its chief concern is as a document of one very, very trippy weekend. Kiss me, Weed-o! (10/3/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)


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