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NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

VELVET GOLDMINE

D: Todd Haynes; with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette. (R, 127 min.)

Early-Seventies glam rock culture, that brief but spectacular global explosion of polymorphous sexuality, nelly fashions, and Byronic libertinism writ large, is the setting for Todd Haynes' wildly original new film, Velvet Goldmine. For rock fans who were either too young to experience glam the first time around or who found its posh, crushed velvet surfaces too incompatible with the prevailing hippie culture's denim-and-chambray aesthetics, this film portrays with eerie precision what it was like to be there. But in keeping with the stylistic brinksmanship of his subject, Haynes (Safe; Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) has a larger, more audacious agenda than mere documentary excellence. Glam, he implies, was not a special case but simply the latest of many romantic, style-intensive cultural movements throughout history. Starting with a fanciful opening scene in which aliens deposit the infant Oscar Wilde on a grimy London door stoop, there's an explicit assertion that the Wildes, Baudelaires, and Marc Bolans in our midst are made of finer, more ethereal stuff than the gray mass of men. They shine like stars because that's what they were born to be. In a characteristically whimsical gesture, Haynes nicks the Citizen Kane plot device of a reporter investigating the details of a mysterious celebrity's passing. Here, the reporter (Bale) is doing a where-is-he-now piece about a Bowie-like English glitter idol named Brian Slade (Rhys-Meyers) who ended his career 10 years earlier by faking his own murder onstage. The quest not only puts him in touch with several worse-for-wear glam era survivors but also reimmerses him in poignant memories of his own days as a sexually confused glitter kid. Though Haynes' nominal focus is the mesmerizing figure of Slade, Slade is -- aptly enough for a man who believes surfaces are all-important -- little more than a vivid, epigram-spouting holographic image. To some extent, the same is true of American underground rocker Curt Wild (McGregor, doing an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed amalgam to scary perfection), a dionysian madman who becomes an obsession for Slade, first inspiring his career, then threatening to destroy it. But then, neither is really the central character. Instead, the film's true anchor is Bale's touching performance as one of those fans who's not just transported by the theatrical conjury of rock shamans like Slade and Wild, but transformed into an honorary alien himself. In terms of sheer, unrelenting visual invention, Velvet Goldmine is a wonder. Like the glam stars it celebrates, it leaves no visual detail untouched by the hand of inspired high artifice. And have I mentioned that this movie really rocks, bursting from the screen like a magenta hurricane with great, half-forgotten tunes (and covers) by glam and glam-fellow-traveler acts like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the New York Dolls, and Lou Reed? Yet for all these virtues the most exciting thing about this film is its sheer nerviness. Velvet Goldmine dares to be campy and fey without ever sacrificing its heart or emotional intensity. With irreverent glee it cheekily quotes from iconic film masterpieces (in several scenes, twinkly showers of glitter from the stars echo the snow imagery from the aforementioned Citizen Kane) yet never descends to empty wiseass. This is, in short, a film that manages to feel wildly spontaneous while developing a grand historical vision in which absinthe-sipping poets maudit stand cape-to-feather-boa with mascaraed glitter rockers and gaze at the night sky, seeing stars that are hidden from the rest of us.
4.0 stars
Russell Smith



WITHOUT LIMITS

D: Robert Towne; with Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, Monica Potter, Jeremy Sisto. (PG-13, 118 min.)

Winning a race was not a matter of strategy to Steve Prefontaine: It was a matter of sheer willpower. Always the front-runner, he believed that he had to constantly push himself full throttle; to do less would betray the spirit of the competition. Without Limits traces the short-lived but amazing career of track star Prefontaine -- known by his zealous fans as "Pre" -- from his days as a college sports phenomenon at the University of Oregon to his disappointing showing at the 1972 Olympics to his tragic death in a car accident at age 24. A complicated personality, to say the least, Prefontaine is depicted in Without Limits as an enigma of sorts, a confounding character you can't figure out. He's at once noble and self-serving, principled and sly, perceptive and clueless. For Bill Bowerman, the legendary track and field coach who attempted (and not always successfully) to shape Prefontaine into a more traditional runner, it was the dichotomous nature of his protégé that both fascinated and frustrated him. It is the relationship between Prefontaine and Bowerman that serves as the narrative framework for Without Limits, which depicts the friendship that develops between these two very different men without resorting to creaky sentimentality. (That is, until the film's eulogistic end, when Prefontaine goes from man to myth in a way that seems contrary to his character.) As Prefontaine and Bowerman, respectively, Crudup and Sutherland nicely handle their roles, in which the student/teacher relationship is often blurred. Crudup's relative anonymity as an actor serves him well here, and Sutherland hasn't had the chance to create as memorable a character as this in a long time. Director-coscreenwriter Towne is no stranger to this genre -- he also directed Personal Best, another film set in the world of track and field -- and his execution of the film's race sequences is exhilarating. The intercutting of slow-motion and real-time during these contests of physical endurance gives these scenes an almost fantastic feel, which is all the more enhanced by Randy Miller's rock-inspired score and the period songs. It's too bad that Without Limits has been released with so little fanfare and buried in the season's lineup of fall films. It's a good, solid little film about a man whose story deserves better.
3.5 stars
Steve Davis



LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

D: Roberto Begnini; with Begnini, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Marisa Paredes, Horst Buchholz. (PG-13, 114 min.)

Life Is Beautiful is the drama every comic probably wishes he had made. This Italian "concentration-camp comedy" believes that the powers of humor and joy are strong enough to overcome any adversity, even that of the Nazi Holocaust. Now, we all know this not to be true, the numbers certainly bear us out on this point. But the fact of the matter is that humor and joy sure can't hurt in the face of overwhelming odds. Proclaiming that "life is beautiful" is kind of like saying that the glass is half full; it's an attitudinal choice to side with the positive because the only other option is the inevitability of negativism and defeat. It is within this life-affirming context that the controversy surrounding co-writer, director, and star Roberto Begnini's movie needs to be examined. A high-profile award winner, Life Is Beautiful won the grand jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, eight Donatellos (Italian Oscars), and many other prestigious awards. It has also come under attack for its soft-focus, unrealistic presentation of life in the death camps. Both the popular acclaim and the alarmist criticism are deserved. Roberto Begnini is a clown, and an irrepressible one at that. In this defining work of his career he uses those unique clowning skills and comic imagination to create not a documentary portrait of the consequences of the Nazi Final Solution but a testament to the magnitude of the human spirit. In so doing, Begnini obscures most of the harsh realities and logical consequences of the situation, and though there is a degree to which such narrative license is unforgivable, we must also appreciate that by privileging history's impermeability we are also limiting its possibilities for inciting the poetic imagination. What Begnini does in Life Is Beautiful is use the Holocaust as a backdrop for telling a heartfelt story about a father who protects his son from the gas chambers by the use of the only weapons at his command: his quick imagination, outlandish buffoonery, and scrappy determination. In the real camps such tactics would not have had a chance in hell. Within the fiction of the movie, we are witnesses to the plight of a lone man whistling bravely in the dark. In addition to its questionable subject matter, another difficulty the film has to surmount is the way its mood abruptly turns on a dime after the first hour. Opening in 1939, we see signs everywhere of fascist rule, but the story focuses on the young man Guido (Begnini) and his arrival in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to seek his fortune as a waiter who wants to open a bookshop and the meeting and wooing of his future bride Dora (Begnini's wife, Braschi, who has starred in most of his films). The first hour is a slapstick paradise. Begnini is an inheritor of the Chaplinesque tradition and Life Is Beautiful owes obvious debts to The Great Dictator. Though in such films as Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth and Begnini's own Johnny Stecchino and The Monster, I never was terribly moved by the effusively inexhaustive talents of Italy's favorite comedic son. However, I must say that I was unexpectedly beguiled by Begnini's clownish powers to amuse during Life Is Beautiful's thoroughly anti-authoritarian first hour. Then, within just a few moments, he wins the girl, they glide through a doorway and it's suddenly five years later on the eve of their son's fifth birthday, and we discover that Guido is Jewish and he and his son are being herded off to the camps, in which location the movie spends its second hour. And though Guido's tactics for promoting his son's survival are most unlikely to have been successful in the real world (if we dare call concentration camps the real world), and the film's harshest truths are depicted offscreen or in implied tropes, and some of the worst Nazi commandant behavior is only a few clapboards removed from Hogan's Heroes, still the movie manages to incorporate all these things into a moving yet unsentimental story about the beauty of maintaining one's wits while stumbling blindly in the insane no-man's-land that lies beyond wit's end.
3.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



ARTEMISIA

D: Agnès Merlot; with Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki Manojlovic. (R, 96 min.)

Artemisia is an interesting meditation on the life of 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women in the Western world to forge a successful career as a professional artist in a male-dominated field. Her story, though individual, is also a universal story about a woman who defies society's strictures and follows her own instincts. This French film also has a lot to tell us about the world in which Artemisia lived: the roles of sexes, the power of the Church, the Baroque period's breakthroughs in art, and so on. This feminist reclamation of a historically important female art figure, however, is overshadowed by the film's bodice-ripper tendencies that conflate the realms of art and passion into the same indistinguishable blur that has hindered the understanding of women's creativity over the centuries. Although the film is eminently watchable and informative, it would be wrong to mistake Artemisia for a study in art history. Too many aspects of the film diverge with the known historical record. Played by Valentina Cervi (best known for her performance as John Malkovich's daughter in Portrait of a Lady), Artemisia is a single-minded young woman whose desire to paint knows no bounds. Moreover, she's driven to paint anatomically correct male nudes, subject matter which is totally forbidden to women of the time. (That most of the subjects in her surviving paintings are women and not men, however, is the kind of art-historical fudging that pops up all over the place in Artemisia). The movie seems to make the case that Artemisia's desire to view naked men is as much a sexual impulse as an artistic one. As the daughter of the famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was already in a privileged position by having a father who understood and encouraged his daughter's proclivities. Trouble arose when Orazio allowed Artemisia to study with the painter Agostino Tassi, an acclaimed painter from Florence who was Orazio's colleague, rival, and emotional opposite. Because of the physicality of her portraiture, Tassi (whom we see carousing in orgies with prostitute/models) assumes that Artemisia has more sexual knowledge than she does. The two begin a sexual relationship that is portrayed in the film as a loving affair. Artemisia's sexual appetite fuels her artistic appetite and Tassi's ardor seems spurred in part by the recognition that Artemisia is unlike any woman he has known before. Orazio learns of the affair and brings the matter to an ecclesiastical court, accusing Tassi of rape. The transcripts of the trial have been published in recent years, and according to those who've viewed them, the film strays from the transcripts in numerous ways. Yet it's probably misleading to interpret these transcripts from the vantage point of the modern day and age in doggedly literal terms. Modern viewpoints seem to shape a lot of what is portrayed in Artemisia. While that opens up possibilities for understanding, it also presents a skewed perspective for biography. Still, Artemisia poses the age-old question for women artists: Is anatomy destiny or is destiny anatomy?
2.5 stars
Marjorie Baumgarten



AYN RAND: A SENSE OF LIFE

D: Michael Paxton. (Not Rated, 147 min.)

While not exactly Ken Burns territory, this expansive documentary on the multi-tiered life of Russian émigré-cum-novelist-cum-philosopher Rand is nothing if not ambitious. At 147minutes, it may in fact be too ambitious for its own good, slavishly marking everything about Rand from her humble origins in St. Petersburg to her waning years post-Atlas Shrugged when she was making the rounds of such television interview programs as Donahue. Frankly, I haven't seen anything more bizarre in years than the sight of the pudgy-cheeked Rand giving Phil Donohue's silver mane a good what-for -- the pairing of these two (in 1980) was, and remains, one of the oddest philosophical sparring matches in known history. That aside, Paxton has recruited Rand scholars from all over to echo her always controversial opinions and add insight where possible. Colleagues Dr. Harry Binswanger and Dr. Leonard Peikoff recount Rand's transition from a bright if introspective Russian child who, after suffering through the October Revolution, enrolled herself in film school (while still in the Soviet Union) and then managed against all odds to secure a passport to visit relatives in Chicago. Rand never returned to her homeland, nor, it is assumed, did she plan to. Once in the U.S., she hurriedly set about learning her adopted language so that she could pursue her real goal, that of becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood. Although she was originally taken under the wing of Cecil B. DeMille while the director was in the course of shooting King of Kings, Rand kept busy during the Depression honing her fledgling skills writing plays and preparing to begin work on her first great novel, We the Living. Always an outspoken critic of the Soviet system (and fascism and collectivism in general), Rand at first found it difficult to have her anti-Soviet work published in the Bolshevik-happy heyday of 1930s Hollywood. As Stalin's oppressive regime was eventually dragged into the light, Rand found more acceptance, but like modern Rand progeny such as Camille Paglia, acceptance was hard-won. Paxton is thorough to the point of punctiliousness -- there's not an event that remains unrecounted here, and no aspect of Rand's philosophy goes unexamined. Her deep hatred of altruism ("I regard that as evil," she remarks. "It means placing the interests of others above your own.") and the antipathy that engendered makes for some dishy, objectivist commentary, but most of all Paxton reveals a woman before her time, neither feminist nor shrinking violet, and above all stridently passionate. The same applies to Paxton's film; by the end of its 147 minutes, you'll only have to read the books and plays to seemingly know all there is to know about Unpronounceable Rand.
3.0 stars Marc Savlov



BELLY

D: Hype Williams; with Earl Simmons, Nasir Jones, Oli Grant, Clifford Smith, Taral Hicks, Tionne Watkins, Louie Rankin. (R, 110 min.)

Video director Hype Williams' directorial debut shows that he knows a lot about flash and much less about narrative. Belly teems with glamorized shots of sex and violence, while paradoxically advocating for a more decent way of life. At first, the film seems a standard-issue action story about drug dealers from Queens, replete with balletic shoot-outs, neon-drenched city streets, rapid editing, eye-grabbing images, booty shots galore, and street-language overkill. Two life-long friends, Tommy (Simmons, aka DMX) and Sincere (Jones, aka Nas), live the carefree lives of unrepentant drug dealers who believe that since death is their fate, scoring big money is their only means of making their mark. Tommy has managed to move into a flashy pad on Long Island while Sincere lives in a more modest home in Queens with his wife Tionne (Watkins, aka T-Boz) and baby daughter. The plot has them shooting up discos in New York, and expanding their drug routes to Omaha and Jamaica. In Omaha, Tommy crosses some of the hometown gang and winds up in a bloody shoot-out and on the run. A federal agent offers Tommy the choice of life in prison or the task of assassinating the leader of a Nation of Islam-like organization led by Benjamin F. Muhammed (aka Benjamin Chavis). Meanwhile, Sincere has been reading Elijah Mohammed's Message to the Black Man and is ready to pack up the family and move to Africa, while at the same time helping his on-the-run best pal. The film concludes with a passionate plea for a new millennial outlook, but the words are at odds with the compelling images of the gangsta life. The cinematography of Malik Hassan Sayeed, who has shot most of Spike Lee's recent films, is stunning. The rap stars-turned-actors who populate this film exude a real presence, if not a wealth of acting chops. Williams' script is a real muddle, however, reinforcing the worst clichés about video directors who make the leap to feature filmmaking.
1.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten



REDBOY 13

D: Marcus van Bavel; with Robert Logan, Devon Roy-Brown, David Boone, Charlie Schmidt, Tito Villalobos Moreno, Wendy Blech, Harper Washburn, Cheri Gelber, Diane Perella, van Bavel. (Not Rated, 96 min.)

Unlike anything you've seen and yet eerily familiar, Austinite van Bavel's paean to childhood dreamtime and Ian Flemming-style Cold War theatrics is a minor masterpiece of the surreal, taking viewers to places they may not have visited since the last time they lodged an M-80 in Eagle-Eye G.I. Joe's rucksack while mucking about in their parents' backyard. Roy-Brown (looking and acting like a very young Gary Cooper) plays Redboy 13, an adolescent covert-ops agent for the CYA. Despite being retired from the field, Redboy is called back into the fray against his better judgment when rugged Colonel Calcan (Logan, late of 77 Sunset Strip and assorted Wilderness Family adventures) arrives at his school one day bearing the grim news that evil is up to its old tricks. Saying good-bye to his mother ("And pick up those guns off your floor!" she reminds him, to which he sheepishly replies, "Oh, the toy ones"), this diminutive savior of life, liberty, and all that sort of thing is airlifted off to the jungles of South America where he goes head to head with the diabolical Dr. Heimlich Manure (van Bavel), a twisted neo-Nazi reduced to living as a wheelchair-bound brain attached to a jerky video monitor. Also on board for the adventure are Blech's Jungle Girl, a Jane-esque sidekick with a penchant for romance and the foul Commander Paisano, a Latin dictator wannabe with a coffee fetish. Explosions, dirty tricks, and bad puns abound, but van Bavel's film is nothing if not a loving tribute to all those Hollywood Cold War relics such as James Coburn's Flint series and others. Playing it straight all the way through, Roy-Brown and Logan craft a Nineties pop sensibility from the wreckage of past adventure films; Redboy 13 is so determinedly semi-serious that it's consistently bizarre, even when the occasional line-reading goes flat or the sporadic outburst of overly broad humor threatens to sack the action. Shot in CinemaScope, van Bavel piles on the epic shots, getting more use out of one crane than John Milius could out of a hundred, and setting the whole film against the testosterone overload of Gustav Holst's Planets Suite. From the opening James Bondian credit sequence (itself a triumph of the absurd), Redboy 13 is a low-budget gem, craftily using computer graphics in lieu of real devastation and managing to keep a straight face in the line of some of the most sublimely silly outbursts to grace the screen in some time. It may not be a cult movie yet, but that's just a matter of time.
3.5 stars
Marc Savlov



THE SIEGE

D: Edward Zwick; with Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, Tony Shaloub, Sami Bouajila, Ahmed Ben Larby, Mosleh Mohamed. (R, 125 min.)

Could someone please turn down Denzel Washington's Righteousness Meter? It's set too high. The king of earnest masculinity is about due for a comedy (The Pelican Brief doesn't count), but this isn't it. Zwick, who worked with Washington on Glory all those years ago, keeps on keeping on as well, and together the two of them have managed to not only make a painfully serious, weighty film, they've also pissed off a large segment of the Arab-American community in the process. The good news, then, is that The Siege is hardly the ticking time bomb of racial slurs some would have you imagine, and the bad news is that it doesn't matter because it's all too damn pedantically serious to take seriously. (Except for Bruce Willis, of course; he's one actor who should always be taken with a grain of salt the size of Lot's wife.) Washington plays FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, who along with CIA spook Elise Kraft (Bening) and General William Devereaux (Willis), is called in to handle an escalating series of domestic terrorist acts that are reducing New York City to so much rubble and body parts. After an unnamed terrorist cell demolishes a city bus, then a city bus with actual people on it, and then the NYC Federal Building, the chain of operations moves from Hubbard's sage FBI agent to Devereaux's camp-happy general. As panic grips the city, the president gives the order to shut down Brooklyn (strangely the Beastie Boys are nowhere to be found), declare martial law, and round up any suspicious-looking Middle-Eastern nationals, placing them in a concertina-wire-enclosed facility deep within the bowels of Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, while everybody's rights are being trampled, Hubbard and Kraft seek out the real agents of terror behind the charade. Zwick and co-scenarists Lawrence Wright and Menno Myers go to great lengths to make sure that everybody knows that what is happening -- martial law, indiscriminate persecution of Arab-Americans -- is utterly in the wrong. The Siege is so blatant in its condemnation of the events in its storyline that you get the feeling there are subliminal "Bad! Wrong!" messages flashing just out of sight on the screen. For all its obviousness, however, and Willis aside, Zwick has crafted a fairly tight actioner here. Remove the dogma and the occasional screed, and what you have is Die Hard all over the place, which, come to think of it, is probably on its way to us in time for Christmas '99. An action film on a soapbox is still an action film, and an action film with Bruce Willis on a soapbox runs the risk of becoming a comedy. So maybe this is the comic vehicle Denzel Washington's been so sorely missing after all.
2.5 stars
Marc Savlov



THE WATERBOY

D: Frank Coraci; with Adam Sandler, Kathy Bates, Fairuza Balk, Jerry Reed, Henry Winkler, Clint Howard, Rob Schneider, Larry Gilliard Jr. (PG-13, 100 min.)

Another half a year, another Adam Sandler film. Director Coraci, who reined in the manic comic in their last outing, The Wedding Singer, takes the opposite tack this time and allows Sandler the freedom to go way over the top with mixed results. Fans of The Mumble that Walks Like a Man will almost certainly rejoice that Sandler is back to his old SNL tricks; others might note that the whole thing feels like yet another extended sketch that drags on about an hour too long. Either way, the game is played by Sandler's rules. Here he's Bobby Boucher, a Louisiana football waterboy who, when fired by evil coach Reed, moves on to serve for the losingest college team in Louisiana history, which, unsurprisingly, is coached by Henry Winkler. Thoroughly wrapped in his mother's apron strings (Kathy Bates, even more over the top than her co-star, if such a thing is conceivable), he's the saddest sack around, taking his team's abuse as if it came with the job. When Winkler urges him to take a stand, Bobby unleashes the beast within and turns out to be a pretty good tackler. So good, in fact, that he wins the respect of his teammates, leads them to the first annual Louisiana Bourbon Bowl, and starts attracting groupies like Peter Frampton on remoulade. Against the better wishes of his mother, he begins dating ex-con Vicki Valencourt (Balk) and, well, you can probably figure it out from here. The Waterboy is about as inoffensive a comedy as you're likely to find these days, although citizens of the Sportsman's Paradise might rankle at the heavy-handed depiction of their Cajun cousins. Still, it's a mildly amusing bayou farce with plenty of "foosball" action to liven the sometimes plodding proceedings. As in The Wedding Singer, Coraci displays an inspired sense of mediocrity in his direction. Scenes proceed from one another with casual ease as Sandler loafs through the role, smacking his lips and generally playing up the Cajun hick routine. Salvation, if that's what you want to call it, comes in the form of the impossibly sexualized Balk, who devours scenery with gooey abandon. Who knew this evil witch from The Craft was such an accomplished comedienne, and why isn't she doing more of it? All raven locks and gobby mascara (and that aquamarine tattoo -- nice permanent touch), she's all the cornfield girls of Hee-Haw rolled into one smoky package. Kudos also to Clint Howard, who has a smallish part, but makes the most of it, and to SNL alumnus Schneider as well, whose predictably toady turn is one of the small, throwaway highlights of the film. It's not Billy Madison, quite, but The Waterboy is still pure Sandler. If you like that sort of thing.
2.5 stars
Marc Savlov


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