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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

HAPPINESS

D: Todd Solondz; with Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lousie Lasser, Camryn Manheim, Rufus Read, Cynthia Stevenson, Elizabeth Ashley, Jon Lovitz, Marla Maples. (Not Rated, 137 min.)

Let it be said that there is no mistaking Todd Solondzís movies for anyone elseís. This follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse, his 1996 Sundance grand prize winner that used a geeky junior high-schoolerís painful adolescence to push the audienceís personal boundaries of what is considered humorous and comfortably empathetic into new uncharted realms, has done it again. Happiness, a corrosively funny yet emotionally devastating look at that elusive thing that all Americans presume to be their right (as in ìlife, liberty, and the pursuit of Ö î), is another journey into the ironic heart of darkness, the dark center of being that canít roll over and internalize societyís ìDonít worry, be happyî blandishments. Donít worry if you havenít found happiness; it will eventually find you, itís right around the corner, all you need is the right map. Happiness finds us all at the crossroads, compass in one hand and thumb stuck out with the other, desperate to hitch a ride with anything that moves through the gridlock. Often that means we settle for the veneer of happiness, and for Solondz these surface trappings take the form of sex, romance, and the inauthenticity of the suburban dream. Happiness is structured episodically as it loosely follows key events in the lives of three New Jersey sisters, their parents in Florida, and their neighbors, acquaintances, and loved ones. The key events all involve sex and the agonies it brings. Helen (Boyle) is the sister whose success as an author brings her social and professional popularity but exacerbates her self-loathing and sense of phoniness; the misnamed Joy (Adams) is the sister whose 30-year string of disappointments in love and career do not extinguish her abiding hope for romantic and professional fulfillment. Trish (Stevenson) is the happily married homemaker who ìhas it allî and whose self-delusions are painfully unmasked when her mild-mannered and sensitive husband Bill (Baker) is exposed as a gay pedophile who has raped two of his 11-year-old sonís classmates. This, of course, is the storyline that has aroused the most controversy, particularly in light of the publicity surrounding the filmís abandonment by its original distributor October Films, which was forced to renege on its distribution deal by its wary parent company Universal. In true Solondz fashion, we have come to feel sympathy for this character who commits the most heinous of actions. The movieís cornerstone sequences are the frank, comforting, and strangely icky conversations Bill has with his son (Read) who is worried about such pubescent issues as penis size and ejaculation. These conversations provide the fodder for the movieís glorious penultimate joke as well as perhaps its most upsetting moment as the son sheds tears of rejection when he learns that his father would not molest him. At two hours and 20 minutes, Happiness rambles a bit too much, particularly in its last third, but the strength of these characters is undeniable. There are the parents (Gazzara and Lasser) in Boca Raton whose marriage is sputtering to a bored demise, the chubby obscene phone caller Allen (Hoffman) who is fixated on the unattainable Helen, the fat girl (Manheim) down the hall who is fixated on Allen and maybe also the male body parts she has squirreled away in her freezer as evidence of a crime, and Joyís ex-boyfriend (Lovitz) and her new hope -- a Russian émigré thief (Harris). Happiness is creepy, funny, mordant, and disturbing, an edgy work which embraces discomfort as the flip of movie escapism. With Thereís Something About Mary, Happiness helps mark 1998 as the breakthrough year of the cum shot in mainstream films. Happiness also fits nicely with our contemporary political landscape that suggests that everyone has dirty secrets lurking behind their placid public exteriors. Happiness, in all irony, may be the best within.
4.0 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



APT PUPIL

D: Bryan Singer; with Ian McKellan, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davidson, Elias Koteas, Joe Morton, Jan Triska, Michael Byrne, Heather McComb, Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer. (R, 100 min.)

Based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, Apt Pupil is one of those rarest of films, a King adaptation that doesnít fall flat. Itís not perfect, certainly, but as directed by Singer (The Usual Suspects) itís a punchy, hair-raising descent into the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of one manís power over another. Kingís pulpy, straightforward meditation on the same themes runs through the original work, and though Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce have toned down many of the authorís more disquieting passages (including an entirely new and entirely unnecessary ending), the tale, more or less, remains the same. Renfro plays Todd Bowden, a talented, seemingly normal Midwestern American teenager, with one exception: He harbors a bizarre obsession with Nazis and the Holocaust. When he discovers, quite by accident, that the wizened old man down the block is in reality Kurt Dussander (McKellan), former death camp commander, he uses it to blackmail Dussander into telling him ìall the things theyíre afraid to teach us in school.î Specifically, Todd is interested in the mechanics of genocide: How did the ovens work? How many Jews could be packed into a shower? How long did it take the Zyklon-B to work? And so on. As King put it, Todd is after ìall the gooshey stuff.î As their relationship progresses, the boy and Dussander form an unlikely partnership, one that awakens the latent evil in both of them. Eventually, Toddís grades begin to slip and the old man reasserts a control he hasnít had since the fall of Berlin. Singer stays remarkably true to the spirit of Kingís electrifying novella, but toes the line when it comes to the true horrors: Gone are the storyís homoerotic overtones, the boyís perversely sexual camp fantasies, and the entire Stephen King ending (King has gone on record as saying he believes the reworked finale is -- in a word -- ìweak,î and Iíd have to agree with him). In their absence, Singer piles on the stylistic flourishes, such as a scene in which Dussander makes sauerkraut of a wandering homeless man while strains of Wagnerís Tristan und Isolde blare, and a horrific, hallucinatory sequence wherein Todd imagines his school locker-room shower to be something else entirely. The storyís main themes, however, remain intact, and both McKellan and Renfro are spot-on in their portrayals. At times, Renfro seems a bit too All-American, until you flash back to the opening scene and its subtitle of ì1984.î Leaving the film in Kingís original time frame wipes out any sociological clutter such as gangsta rap, high school bloodbaths, and the like, that might otherwise get in the way of the filmís straightforward and wrenching emotional impact. Itís not perfect King, but it is jarringly close, which these days remains pretty much all one could hope for.
3.0 stars
Marc Savlov



BRIDE OF CHUCKY

D: Ronny Yu; with Jennifer Tilly, Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile, John Ritter, Alexis Arquetted, Gordon Michael Woolvett, Brad Dourif. (R, 89 min.)

No matter that Brad Dourif snagged an Academy Award for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest -- for legions of moviegoers, heíll always be best remembered as the voice of Chucky, poor guy. If itís any consolation, this fourth entry in the killer doll franchise is by far and away the best, a surprisingly affecting tale of pint-sized love and dismemberment thatís remarkably well-done. Hong Kong transplant Yu (The Bride With White Hair) reworks the Chucky mythos while cinematographer and frequent collaborator Peter Pau punches up the visuals -- together they make one of the most original-yet-self-referential comic horror shows since Bride of Re-Animator. This movie begins 10 years after the original Childís Play took place, at which time the soul of serial killer Charles ìChuckyî Lee Ray was transplanted -- via voodoo -- into the body of a plastic Good Guys doll. Now, Rayís ex-girlfriend Tiffany (Tilly, all oozy sexuality and breathy, helium squeaks) has stolen the remains of Chucky from a police evidence locker and raised him from the dead. A black vinyl Martha Stewart fanatic with a latent taste for homicide, Tiffany and beau Chucky immediately hit a brick wall when the topic of matrimony comes up, which results in Tiffanyís soul being unceremoniously transferred into a bridal dollís plastic shell and the sudden death of Alexis Arquette (donít ask). From here, Bride of Chucky morphs into a Barbie and Clyde road movie as the pair hijack a couple of young newlyweds (Heigl and Stabile) and make their way to Hackensack, NJ to retrieve Chuckyís decade-old corpse. It may not be the most original horror film of the last five years, but itís certainly close, thanks in equal parts to Yuís dazzling imagery and series overlord Don Manciniís witty, pithy script. If you thought Kevin Williamsonís Scream was the height of genre-specific comic horror, Mancini goes it one better, tossing in wry, underplayed gags aimed at everything from Bride of Frankenstein to the Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus stable of relationship theory, and then giving the whole shebang a raucous, nasty twist. Make no mistake, this is a horror film, and effects artisan Kevin Yagher gets impressive mileage out of some hoary genre clichés. Gore flows in copious amounts here, so much so that I wondered how this crept past the MPAA with only an R rating. In addition to the gallons of red stuff, Bride of Chucky also works the nerves in other ways as well. Despite (or perhaps because of) the filmís comic undertone, the more serious aspects of Yuís film -- serial killers, relationships, plastic dolls making the beast with two backs -- are all the more disturbing. Itís not quite as relentless as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but Bride of Chucky is still sick and wrong in all the right ways.
3.5 stars
Marc Savlov



A MERRY WAR

D: Robert Bierman; with Richard E. Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Wadham, Harriet Walter. (Not Rated, 101 min.)

Artistic vanities, especially the cult of the romantic starving artiste, have always been sitting ducks for satiric terrorism. Among the writers whoíve taken their shots in this century, the most diabolically merciless -- the veritable Carlos the Jackals of their realm -- have been such renowned British curmudgeons as Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell. Orwellís early novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is the basis for this acerbic little social comedy which, for all its broadness and uncharitability, goes down as clean and bracing as a neat glass of gin. Unsung character-acting genius Richard E. Grant, savored by a small but evangelically devoted cadre of fans for savory roles in Withnail and I, Franz Kafkaís Itís a Wonderful Life, and other semi-obscure movies, is the hero, a frustrated adman named Gordon Comstock who dreams of being a poet. One day Gordon decides to bloody well do it. Heíll chuck his job, hole up in a garret somewhere, and pursue his true destiny as an ecstatic plumber of deep truths ignored by the smug bourgeois masses. Needless to say, Comstock is quickly revealed as a pompous, self-deluding twit. His pathological hatred of all things middle class is so extreme it causes him to fixate on inanimate objects like potted plants as symbols of conformity and philistinism. Surprisingly -- perhaps because heís so bizarrely sincere in his beliefs -- a handful of enablers actually stick by Gordon despite his fatuous posturing, drunken benders, and aversion to bathing. In particular, his practical-minded fiancée (Bonham Carter) seems willing to suffer the insufferable. She doesnít really understand what Gordon is after, but she recognizes an admirable bravery and focus in his quest. This is a movie that rewards patience. For roughly the first two-thirds, it seems that all Bierman (who sticks rigorously to Orwellís original tone and intent) accomplishes is setting up and mowing down clownish effigies: artistic poseurs; blueblood socialists; vulgarian ad execs. But then Orwellís true intent begins to reveal itself. With Grant and Bonham Carter delivering some of the more affecting, detail-perfect, and subtly humorous acting of their careers, a far more substantial theme develops about how concepts like ìhigher callingsî should really be interpreted in human life. Never burdened with the bellicose Tory agenda of some of his curmudgeonly peers, Orwellís satire always was blessed with a bit more human empathy than theirs. That difference -- along with another priceless comic performance by oughta-be star Grant -- makes A Merry War worth two hours of your time despite its talkiness, cinematic monotony, and less than graceful narrative. Itís a pretty dry brew all right, and you may wince at the first couple of sips. But once it gets in your blood Iím guessing youíll want to polish it off, right down to the last drop.
3.0 stars
Russell Smith



THE MIGHTY

D: Peter Chelsom; with Sharon Stone, Kieran Culkin, Elden Henson, Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton, Gillian Anderson, James Gandolfini, Meat Loaf. (PG-13, 100 min.)

British writer-director Peter Chelsom made magic with his first two movies, Hear My Song and Funny Bones, two of the best and most offbeat films of the Nineties. With his first American film, The Mighty, Chelsom has instead made an After-school Special. Granted, this time out Chelsom only directed, the screenplay is by Charles Leavitt, who adapted it from Rodman Philbrickís award-winning young-teen novel Freak the Mighty. Sentimental and quixotic, The Mighty is good family fare; itís especially tuned in to the narrative needs of those suffering (in the past or the present) those distinctively adolescent agonies of feeling like a social misfit. The story centers on the unlikely friendship between two miserable 14-year-olds: the big, sad lug named Max Kane (Henson) who lives with his grandparents (Rowlands and Stanton) in their basement ever since his dad, ìKiller Kane,î went to prison; and the smart, little kid with large leg braces and crutches named Kevin Dillon (Culkin) who suffers from a degenerative disease called Morquioís Syndrome (the same disease that hobbles the kid in Simon Birch). Both boys are bullied by the neighborhood toughs, but together they find the skill and imagination to vanquish all enemies. Inspired by the spirit of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Kevin climbs aboard Maxís shoulders and they commit acts of derring-do (some more believable than others). Itís during these moments that Chelsomís whimsical touch reveals its hand as images of a medieval kingdom are transplanted to modern Cincinnati. Henson is warmly believable as the oversized kid (though not nearly as freakishly huge as the voiceover descriptions make him sound), but Culkin is hamstrung with too many precocious sick-kid cutenesses. As Kevinís mom, Stone turns in some nice, deglamorized work, though the script never calls for her to do anything thatís not standard issue. As the grandparents, Gram and Grim, Rowlands and Stanton make an enjoyably American Gothic-type pair. Anderson, however, is saddled with an accent that sounds fresh out of an acting class workshop and a role that practically screams, ìSee, I can play characters other than Agent Dana Scully!î That point remains to be demonstrated. A subplot about Maxís father has the feel of a trumped-up and extraneous climax. The Mighty is sure to play into some kind of childhood existentialism in which outcast-feeling kids are buoyed by such ideas as ìa knight proves his worthiness through his deeds.î So too with movies. The Mighty is better-than-average family entertainment, but it falls short of inspiration and enchantment.
2.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



ORGAZMO

D: Trey Parker; with Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Robyn Lynne Raab, Michael Dean Jacobs, Ron Jeremy, David Dunn, Chasey Lain, Juli Ashton, Stanley L. Kaufman. (NC-17, 90 min.)

From the evil geniuses behind South Park comes the Citizen Kane of pornographic/Mormon/martial arts/superhero/buddy films. Perhaps thatís a bit over the top in the praise department, but Orgazmo -- like everything else Parker puts his mind to -- is equally outlandish, part skewed morality play, part sophomoric slapstick, and wholly ridiculous. Rarely will anyone get the chance to see so many professional adult film stars so frequently clothed, and itís equally uncommon to find porn legend Ron ìPorcupineî Jeremy actually acting. The mind reels. A rosy-cheeked Parker plays Elder Joe Young, a young Mormon serving his required time in Los Angeles amongst the heathens while waiting anxiously to return to Utah to marry his beloved -- and impossibly cheery -- fiancée Lisa (Raab). Through a complex turn of events, Joe catches the eye of adult film producer Maxxx Orbison (Jacobs). Orbison takes a liking to Joeís martial arts abilities and recruits him to star in his next production as the titular Orgazmo, a triple-X superhero who battles evildoers alongside his diminutive sidekick Choda-boy (Bachar). When the film proves to be an unlikely box-office sensation, Joe must hide the embarrassing truth from Lisa (he tells her heís starring in Death of a Salesman and its sequels) as well as perform as the fictional Orgazmo in real life, using a fully functioning Orgazmorator (a weapon that stuns and incapacitates criminals by inducing intense orgasms). As his already narrow bridge between fantasy and reality dwindles, Joe finds himself becoming more and more enmeshed in the world of Orgazmo (all this despite the fact that heís contractually obligated to have a stunt penis). If that sounds silly, it is. Parkerís hallmark wackiness is in full swing here, from the opening credits, in which a cheesoid metal band sings the praises of being a man, to his romantic interlude with one of the most hideously overweight strippers yet committed to film. Fans of South Park (and Parkerís previous film, Cannibal: The Musical!) will have a riotous time, but it should be noted that the native Coloradoan is fast becoming an accomplished filmmaker. Orgazmo, for all its triple-entendres and bare-breasted shenanigans, is a sly little work of subversive comedy, at once poking some much-needed fun at the porn industry while simultaneously using real-life porno actors in key roles. Parkerís white-bread take on the apple-pie, Mormon Joe Young is a thing of sublime silliness (blasting the evil Orbison with his Orgazmorator, he fires off a clip and adds, ìOne more. For Jesus.î) Whether or not the success of South Park and Parkerís other work is indicative of the downfall of cerebral comedy is an argument for another time. Bottom line? Super-porno-Mormons are pretty damn funny. Nearly as much as watching Ron Jeremy try to act.
3.0 stars
Marc Savlov



PLEASANTVILLE

D: Gary Ross; with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts. (PG-13, 123 min.)

Siblings Maguire and Witherspoon find themselves mysteriously remote-controlled out of the present day and into the black-and-white world of their favorite Fifties family sitcom. In this high-concept movie, an entire fictional town gets to experience life as real-live people -- and in color. Itís a television-age parable, with Don Knotts as the magic TV repairman who gives the kids the remote control key to fairyland. It marks the directing debut of Gary Ross, who also wrote the script. Ross is an old hand at this kind of fantastical material; he also penned the scripts for Big and Dave.
Marjorie Baumgarten



SOLDIER

D: Paul Anderson; with Kurt Russell, Jason Scott Lee, Gary Busey, Connie Nielsen, Michael Chiklis. (R, 120 min.)

In a futuristic Darwinian galaxy, men are raised as animalistic warriors whose only dictum in life is to kill or be killed. Then one of them finds himself on a planet of peace-loving pioneers. This routine-sounding adventure is sure to have some sharp angles provided by talented scriptwriter David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven). British filmmaker Anderson has made a splash in America (with the original Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon) as a director of kinetic action spectacles. Expect Soldier to be a full assault.
Marjorie Baumgarten


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