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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

NOVEMBER 24, 1997: 

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

D: Clint Eastwood; with John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jack Thompson, Alison Eastwood, The Lady Chablis, Irma P. Hall, Paul Hipp, Jude Law. (R, 154 min.)

Eastwood's film, adapted from John Berendt's phenomenally bestselling "non-fiction novel," is as entertaining and outrageous a confection as its source material, half Southern gothic and half Our Town on goofdust. Cusack plays John Kelso, a stringer for Town and Country magazine who arrives in the verdant squares of Savannah, Georgia to interview socialite Jim Williams (Spacey) and document the man's annual Christmas party at the resplendent and palatial Mercer House. However, when Williams' violent live-in lover Billy (Law) is mysteriously murdered in the small hours following the party, Kelso decides to forego his 500-word puff piece in favor of undertaking a novel about the case and, by association, the people of Savannah in general (he himself refers to the town as being "like Gone With the Wind on mescaline"). As Williams suavely languishes in the pokey (of all our modern leading men, only Spacey can rot in jail with such sexy/cool savoir-faire ­ a tossed-off scene in which he attempts to place an overseas phone call to Sotheby's while being harassed by a hulking, hollering inmate is howlingly funny), Kelso roams Savannah, gathering material not only for his book but also for Williams' defense attorney Sonny Seiler (Thompson). In short order he meets Williams' neighbor Joe Odom, a piano-playing, whiskey-drinking (everybody drinks in Savannah) bon vivant with a penchant for hosting his own wild nights at the home of whomever he happens to be house-sitting for at the time; Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood), a forthright and stunning young Southern belle who gladly assists him in puzzling out the Williams case; the voodoo priestess Minerva (Hall); and the Lady Chablis (herself), a boisterous transvestite-chanteuse who takes a shine to Kelso and serves as the fiery, outrageous soul of Eastwood's film. There are many amazing things in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, not the least of which is the fact that these are all real Savannah citizens being portrayed here ­ conclusive proof, as if any were needed, that truth is indeed stranger (and more perversely humorous) than fiction. Screenwriter John Lee Hancock has done an admirable job of condensing Berendt's novel, eliminating some of the novel's lesser characters and altering the ending in favor of imbuing a more final note to the proceedings. Eastwood Sr., for his part, manages the wonderful ensemble cast remarkably well, especially for someone more inclined toward action and Western films (Bird and Bridges of Madison County excepted), but the real star here is the scene-stealing Lady Chablis, who deserves special recognition for her brash, saucy, utterly effervescent portrayal of herself. Unlike anything else out there right now, Midnight is a wholly original creation, crossed with shadows and light and the everyday madness of Savannah and its remarkable citizens. (11/21/97)

4.0 stars Marc Savlov



New Reviews

ANASTASIA

D: Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; with the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst. (G, 94 min.)

Anastasia, the first feature-length offering from the new Fox animation studio, may not beat Disney at its own game, but it sure won't be for lack of trying. This sumptuous-looking film clearly spared no expense in its visual rendering; its optical flourishes and attention to detail aim for the Disney gold standard and, for the most part, come pretty darn close. The vocal talents are all solid and the songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are pleasant enough, although on first listen there doesn't appear to be any breakout hit in the bunch. (One unfortunate song early in the film during which comical Russian workers sing of the deprivations of the post-revolutionary period is needlessly tasteless, however.) Where this animated feature's two-dimensionality becomes most visible is in its storyline ­ a sanitized confabulation about the history of the Russian Revolution and a formulaic cartoon plot about a teen searching for a sense of belonging and unconditional love. Whether Anastasia's amnesiac would-be princess garners many enduring fans beyond its target demographic of young adolescent girls remains to be seen. The movie relies heavily on Wizard of Oz-ish "There's no place like home" sentiments and the Cinderella-like yearnings for more fitting destinies. In this tale, however, our princess earns her crown not through the kiss of a handsome prince or the fit of a glass slipper but through something more akin to the modern psychological process of "recovered memory." During a several-minute-long preamble, we're shown the origins of the Russian Revolution and the source of Anastasia's plight. The culprit is Rasputin (Lloyd), who, for the purposes of this story, is an evil sorcerer solely responsible for unleashing all the country's pre-revolutionary social unrest. Even once he's dead, Rasputin obsessively follows Anastasia's progress, not through a crystal ball like Oz's Wicked Witch but through the fortune-telling glass of a reliquary devotional. Of course, recent discoveries and the advent of DNA testing has proved the fraudulence of the whole historical Anastasia phenomenon in which a parade of young girls tried to convince the Dowager Empress that each was the rumored palace refugee Anastasia ­ the rightful heir to the felled Romanov dynasty and fortune. Back in 1956, the story won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman in a live-action drama and, indeed, the heart of this animated tale remains that of a young girl's search for her family roots. Such warm-and-fuzzy concepts better lend themselves to agreeable rhyme schemes and cute animal companions than tough words like "Communist," "Bolshevik," and "Romanov." Still, this Anastasia is a feisty little heroine, often delightfully un-regal and un-ladylike. She's almost enough to make you forget the words of "The Internationale." (11/21/97)

3.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE

D: Elia Suleiman; with Suleiman, Ula Tabari, Nazira Suleiman, Faud Suleiman, Jamal Daher. (Not Rated, 88 min.)

This experimental meditation on the psychological effect of political instability on the Palestinian people is the fascinating first feature film of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman. His movie presents a series of tableaux, seemingly unconnected images and incidents that give the impression that they are searching for a unifying narrative thread. Despite their idiopathic expressiveness, no conventional storyline emerges. But together they create a compelling portrait of marginalization and inaction. Some images: The proprietor of the Holyland souvenir shop uses water from the tap to fill little bottles of holy water. An aunt gossips on and on about family matters. Three men fishing on a motor boat praise Allah and trash-talk everyone they know back on land. A Palestinian actress futilely searches for an apartment to rent in Israeli West Jerusalem. Playing himself, Suleiman tries to address an audience about the content of his upcoming film but is stymied by the technological failure of the PA system. Suleiman's parents fall asleep to the TV station sign-off and the eerie television glow of the Israeli flag waving on the screen while the national anthem fills the darkened room. Men sit quietly outside the souvenir shop, watching intently as nothing occurs. In long shot, men leap from a car and nearly come to blows. In scene after scene, such as these described, the beginnings of stories almost occur. Yet the elements never seem to find their narrative next step. Instead, they accumulate and become the hues of the filmmaker's palette, hues that Suleiman uses to create a subjective summary of the unsettled quality of life in his homeland. The use of non-professional actors helps Suleiman sustain the documentary-like flavor of his tableaux; using himself and other family members as actors underscores the movie's personal relevance and motivation. In addition to playing at such prestige festivals as Sundance and the Museum of Modern Art's New Director/New Films series, Chronicle of a Disappearance received a prize for best first feature film at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. It's easy to see why. (11/21/97)

3.0 stars Marjorie Baumgarten


JOHN GRISHAM'S THE RAINMAKER

D: Francis Ford Coppola; with Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place, Danny Glover, Mickey Rourke, Virginia Madsen, Roy Scheider, Teresa Wright. (PG-13, 137 min.)

For all we know, John Grisham may have filing cabinets full of unoptioned screenplays in which wealthy corporate and legal interests effortlessly crush scrappy underdogs who naïvely believe their passion for justice can overcome the bad guys' money, power, and treachery. But as Grisham cultists already know, The Rainmaker does not in any way screw with the formula that has yielded some of the most popular books and movies of the Nineties. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who established his towering reputation with an adaptation of another pulpy pop novel, hasn't exactly uncorked another The Godfather here. He has, however, rediscovered his old flair for identifying and embellishing a good story ­ whatever its source ­ and parlayed it into his most satisfying film since 1988's Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The Rainmaker's basic outlines are similar to A Time to Kill. A wet-behind-the-ears young lawyer named Rudy Baylor (Damon) risks his budding career by helping a poor, jerked-over client (Place) fight evil interests represented by an arrogant and unprincipled superlawyer (Voight). It's not quite the Matthew McConaughey-Kevin Spacey confrontation all over again; The Rainmaker's criminals are slimeball insurance executives, not murderous rednecks, and Damon's character is even greener than McConaughey's was. The basic situations and ideas remain the same, though, including his lawyer protagonists' development of emotional as well as pecuniary relationships with his clients. Also typical of Grisham is a blunt concession of his former profession's dark side balanced by an argument that lawyers are, in balance, not quite the bipedal cockroaches of popular mythology. As in much of his best work, Coppola does a masterful job of cooking a large, detail-packed story down to its vital human essence. Where a Sidney Lumet would serve up bombastic speechifying, and broad, napalm-laced satire, Coppola focuses on small, revealing idiosyncrasies in his characters and their funky Memphis environs. The acting is solid, from big guns like Voight and DeVito (as Damon's raffish, ambulance-chaser mentor) to lesser lights like Damon, who turns in a surprisingly authoritative performance in a role that, one imagines, was offered to others before him. Scheider and Rourke are savory as, respectively, a Luciferian insurance mogul and a roguish lawyer/racketeer named "Bruiser" Stone. At almost two-and-a-half hours, The Rainmaker feels a bit flaccid at times, and a marginally interesting subplot about Rudy's entanglement with a young, abused wife (Danes) could vanish unmourned. But Coppola's patient, graceful storytelling artistry, the subtly evocative cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall), and the primal emotional punch of Grisham's basic ideas make The Rainmaker a determined cut or two better than we had any reason to expect. (11/21/97)

3.0 stars Russell Smith


MOUTH TO MOUTH

D: Manuel Gómez Pereira; with Javier Bardem, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Josep Maria Flotats, Maria Barranco, Myriam Mezieres, Jordi Bosch. (R, 96 min.)

Almodovar lite. Spanish filmmaker Pereira's throwaway romantic farce is set in modern-day Madrid where, as the film opens, struggling young actor Victor Ventura (Bardem) is packing his bags on his way down and out of town. Longing for recognition, he has instead endured 15 months of soul-crushing nada before his agent, Angela (Barranco) rushes in with news of a new American production in search of a Spanish male lead. Intrigued, Victor decides to stick around, taking a job as a phone-sex operator to make ends meet while waiting on fame. Here he converses with Bill (Flotats), a lonely, closeted plastic surgeon, and the mysterious Amanda (Sanchez-Gijon), a sex-starved beauty whom he agrees to meet in person. That meeting leads to a screwball double-cross and romantic triangle that nobody, but nobody, sees coming. It's high farce lowballed, and though Mouth to Mouth's winning script by Joaquin Oristrell makes the most of its madcap lovers' hi-jinks, it's still a pale imitation of the wildly perverse fields usually tilled by the more subversive (and funnier) Almodovar. All the elements seem to be in place: Bardem's Victor is a mediocre actor who blossoms behind a telephone receiver, drawing out his long-distance clients with purrbox soliloquies worthy of some AT&T Casanova. Once away from the phones, though, he has a difficult time keeping the fires stoked, relying instead on verbal psyche-ups featuring his less-than-perfect rendition of De Niro's Travis Bickle (and really, isn't it high time everybody got a new favorite character to mimic?). Bardem brings just the right amount of puling, puppy-dog shyness to his role, too: He looks like Nicolas Cage on a depresso-bender after going a few rounds with Stallone. Ouch. Sanchez-Gijon is likewise excellent. Her scheming, ultra-sexy Amanda is a multi-layered temptress, the madonna/whore complex brought to vivid life. Why then does Mouth to Mouth leave you feeling like you just caught a bad case of Hugh Grant's lessers? Pereira's direction is flaccid and underwhelming. Try as he might (and he does try, flooding the screen with various neons and primaries, which only ends up drawing attention to the Almodovar connection, or lack thereof), he can't seem to balance his storyline with his thematics, which as near as I can tell has something to do with the lengths to which people will go to achieve fame. It winds up a gorgeous, muddled mess, more memorable for its hideous electronic score than anything else. (11/21/97)

2.0 stars Marc Savlov


REPULSION

D: Roman Polanski; with Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux, Renee Houston. (Not Rated, 104 min.)

"There but for the grace of god...," I once wrote in these pages in an attempt to illustrate my reasons for including Repulsion in my list of the top 10 horror films of all time. Nine years have passed since then, and my fear and trepidation have not abated in the least. Repulsion's depiction of a young woman's dissolution into madness is one of the most harrowing mental descents ever depicted onscreen. Filmed in London in 1965, Repulsion was Polanski's second feature film. It was also the first film in English for both the director and his star Catherine Deneuve. Young, beautiful Deneuve plays the sexually repressed outsider in a foreign land whose precarious mental state is the film's subject. Her stunning beauty and cool insularity make her a compelling protagonist even as she's overtaken by a subjective surreality. New 35mm prints have been struck for this re-release of a film that seems as fresh as the day it was released. (11/21/97)

4.5 stars Marjorie Baumgarten

Dobie


SOUL IN THE HOLE

D: Danielle Gardener. (Not Rated, 90 min.)

Though it's often used in connection with teams like Tom Penders' Texas Runnin' Horns, the term "playground basketball" doesn't necessarily refer to chaotic, brick-heaving, clearout-and-chuck trashball. In fact, when a great passer like New York playground legend Ed "Booger" Smith enters the mix, top-flight pickup games can be a thrilling blend of precision and recklessness in which every possession holds the promise of some insanely great play you'll be telling the grandkids about in 30 years. With an approach similar to Hoop Dreams, Danielle Gardener's documentary Soul in the Hole portrays the street game as a battleground in which concrete-court warriors' passion to "get over" is opposed by not only the many players of similar ability but also, in some cases, their own self-destructive tendencies. Soul focuses on the summer of 1994, during which the 18-year-old Booger Smith and his legendary amateur team, the Kenny Kings of New York City, battled for the Brooklyn tournament championship under the leadership of coach Kenny Jones, a profane, truculent liquor store clerk who also functioned as Smith's surrogate father. The film serves up a generous amount of eye-popping basketball footage, in which the Kings' babyfaced point guard effortlessly flashes the kind of crazy, inspired moves you associate with names like Stoudamire, Kidd, and Marbury. But for all his sublime mastery as a passer and ballhandler, Smith is also something of a lost soul. With a quick mind that is well attuned to recognizing defenses but not his own best interests, he seems equally likely to wind up as the baddest baller in Madison Square Garden or Rikers Island. Jones is, if anything, an even more interesting character. For all his overweening ego and volcanic temper, he has a distinct sense of purpose in life. His dialogues with wife Ronnet ­ a tough, good-humored woman who is obviously one of the few people who commands macho Kenny's full respect ­ provide realistic, compassionate insight into the destructive culture that Booger is trying to escape. Granted, the troubled young superjock is an overly familiar American archetype, but very few films have mined the drama and pathos of his situation more effectively than Soul in the Hole. And none that I've seen have suggested quite as provocatively that artistry and achievement in this unheralded context can be as meaningful as what others do in offices, commodity markets, and courtrooms. (11/21/97)

3.5 stars Russell Smith


THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

D: Iain Softley; with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Charlotte Rampling, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Gambon. (R, 103 min.)

The Wings of the Dove is yet another in a long line of recent films that seem as though they should carry the Merchant/Ivory banner, but don't. Is this the inevitable backlash against Joel Schumacher and Batmans I-V? I like to think so, but I suppose it doesn't matter. Any film without a gun in the first act is a rarity along the lines of tasty government cheese; we should be thankful. Adapted from Henry James' 1902 novel, The Wings of the Dove is one of those stories that gets tagged with the annoying label of "timeless." Nonsense ­ the only reason James is being brought to the screen so frantically of late (Washington Square, et al.) is that the national supply of Jane Austen is running thin, and we have to have something without Bruce Willis up there. James' tale follows the apparently doomed love of Kate Croy (Bonham Carter), society matron-to-be, and ne'er-do-well journalist Merton Densher (Roache). It's turn-of-the-century London, and proper young ladies don't go about consorting with such lesser creatures as writers. Though Kate will have none of it, her stern and exceedingly wealthy Aunt Maude will have none of it either, and expressly forbids the nascent relationship to go a single step further. Never underestimate the wiliness of young girls in love. At a society ball hosted by her aunt, Kate meets American heiress Millie Theale (Elliott), who has encamped in London while waiting to die from some dreadful and unnamed illness. In Millie, Kate sees everything she desires to be: wealthy, yes, but also spontaneous, loving, and ribald. When the beautifully peaked Millie takes a shine to Merton, Kate and her beau hatch a plan that, essentially, allows the dying American to fall in love with Merton ­ and possibly vice versa ­ in the hopes of securing a place in her sizable will and therefore breaking free of the constraints of Aunt Maude. It seems a perfectly horrible plan at first glance, but Millie give intimations that she knows what's going on all along. She just wants one last true love before the grave, and to hell with how it comes about. Director Softley is a master stylist; from the popcorn techno-thrills of Hackers to his freshmen take on the Beatles in Backbeat, he's among the best when it comes to creating whole worlds out of thin celluloid, and The Wings of the Dove is no different. Achingly gorgeous in almost all respects, the film soars in its period depiction of turn-of-the-century London (and later in Venice, as well), from costuming to cinematography on down. Carter, Roache, and especially Elliott give their all, and though the feisty, feminist Kate may seem a purely modern creation, it's James' all the way. Condensing a 500-page novel into a two-hour span tends to result in some things being left out, and occasionally Softley's film feels rushed. There are questions left hanging that never quite get resolved to anyone's satisfaction, but the director ­ and cast ­ almost manage to override them with the sheer beauty on the screen (not to mention a particularly un-Jamesian nude scene toward the end. It's not quite Howards End, but then neither is it Clueless, and for that I'm thankful. (11/21/97)

3.0 stars Marc Savlov


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